Saturday, September 18, 2010

Epicurean Aesthetics

Epicurus Greek Philosopher 341-270 BCE
I have been reading Epicurus and the Epicureans recently and have wondered whether there is such a thing as Epicurean aesthetics, and what such an aesthetics could contribute to everyday life. This seems a strange question at first since "Epicurean" is practically synonymous in our culture with a love of the good things in life, i.e. epicureans in food. However Epicurus himself was critical of the very things the contemporary epicureans seem to love. The goal of a good Epicurean is to achieve a life free of pain and worry. The main pleasures one should pursue are ones that are both natural and necessary. One should avoid the ones that are natural but not necessary, especially if pursuing them will cause pain or worry. And shun the ones that are neither natural nor necessary, as they are most likely to bring trouble. So the pleasures of eating and drinking are important, sexual pleasures somewhat less so, and the pleasures of fame, fortune, and gourmet food usually not worth the trouble. In short, one should avoid luxuries if what it takes to pay for them causes some pain. Epicurus recommends a simple life and enjoyment of simple pleasures, although if luxurious pleasures come along without trouble they can be enjoyed without guilt. It seems strange to say that the goal of life is absence of pain and worry. I think that it was a mistake of Epicurus to put the point so negatively. The goal of life, as he elsewhere says, is pleasure, and the most pleasant life is one that is without pain and worry. I suspect that the Epicurean ideal of absence of pain is really one of a kind of pervasive comfort, both physical and mental. So in general one could say that Epicurus is a hero of everyday aesthetics insofar as it promotes a certain aesthetic quality in life. He is certainly not a hero of the aesthetics of art. He does not seem to think much of the arts, encouraging a student in one letter not to study culture. He was even said to have referred to poetry and music as "noise" and to have joined Plato in rejecting them from the ideal society.  I suppose he saw the arts as just more luxuries. But I don't think such an attack on the arts is necessary or even useful for everyday aesthetics. Also, later followers, like Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, hardly agreed with him on this point. He is also not a lover of the word in Greek that is usually translated as "beauty," i.e. kalon, which also means "good." This would seem to make him anti-aesthetic, but he is really just against any notion of beauty not connected with pleasure.

One of the things I like about Epicurus is his idea he promotes that "death is nothing to us." Beyond the fact that there is no reason to believe in an afterlife the Epicurean just recognizes that when you are dead you no longer experience. And so fear of death seems particularly absurd. This cuts pretty deeply against existentialism which seems to revel in our dread of death, something that attends us every day of our lives. Of course fear of death is probably genetically ingrained into us, but if we can achieve a certain freedom from it then there are some real benefits. This approach focuses one on one's own life as an embodied being interacting with the world through the senses and via our responses of pleasure and pain. Some followers of Epicurus thought that this meant focusing on the now. Although true in a way, this idea needs modification. For Epicurus mental pleasure is the best, and this pleasure is directed to the future and past as well as the present. So it is rich and complex. A key pleasure is enjoying past pleasures in memory. Another is anticipation of future pleasures. These can easily however be combined with pleasures of the moment as when one enjoys a smell not only for now but for the pleasant memories it evokes. (This seems to contradict the idea that only simple pleasures are wanted. In fact, there is a kind of complexity wanted.)

So an Epicurean, in the traditional sense of the word is someone who seeks a pervasive experience of comfort and safety connected with the basic pleasure of life and richly textured by memory and anticipation (this is much like Dewey).

Another aspect of the pleasures of the Epicurean life is the importance of friendship. There is much discussion in the scholarly literature over whether Epicurus saw friends as merely useful for gaining pleasure and safety or whether he valued friends in themselves. Whereas Aristotle saw man as a political animal Epicurus sees him as an animal for whom the appropriate richness of experience is impossible without friendship. The pleasures of friendship, basically of shared pleasure, add another dimension to the complexity of pleasure. So what I am saying is that an aesthetics of everyday life should probably follow Epicurus in emphasizing the rich complexity of aesthetic experience in the ways just discussed.

1 comment:

Joel Lamkins said...

Thank you very much for what you wrote on "Epicurean Aesthetics". For my philosophy class I chose Epicurus to write my term paper on, and to be the philosopher I would focus on and represent in class.On my upcoming exam, one of the questions is," Write a thorough essay on your philosopher's view of art/beauty/truth. So this reinforced my opinion that Epicurus didn't think much of luxuries or art.