Friday, June 13, 2014

Epicureanism: Political non-participation.


A single issue can sometimes summarize the gulf between two opposing schools of thought better than any philosophical tract. The differing Stoic and Epicurean attitude toward politics is one such issue.

Both schools broke with the older Greek political ideal of all citizens having duties towards their fellow citizens for the common good of the city-state. Stoics rejected this ideal as too parochial as mankind are united together by virtue of our common humanity and therefore with duties towards each other regardless of citizenship. For a Stoic, virtue alone is the highest good and personal salvation is available to everyone through the pursuit of virtue irrespective of external circumstances.

For Epicureans however the highest good is not virtue but pleasure, and the most pleasant life is a tranquil self-sufficient life spent perusing simple pleasures while surrounded by friends. Epicureanism broke more radically with the older Greek ideal of duty towards fellow citizens by advocating a near withdrawal from society to communitarian living based around mutually agreed contractual laws. Epicurus himself explicitly warned against engaging in politics because the 'natural good' of political life - fame, riches, security, power -  could be achieved far more easily by living a simple life free from political worries.

This presents a strange contrast between Stoicism and Epicureanism. Stoicism, with it's emphasis on introversion and detachment, is strongly individualistic;  yet it also teaches our duty is to serve fellow humans. Epicureanism recommends friendship and communal living; but also recommends withdrawing from society and avoiding politics. So it does appear, perhaps surprisingly, the communitarian Epicureanism is more egoistical and self-involved.

But this is not the complete picture. Epicurus believed the purpose of philosophy is to heal sick souls and some scholars suggest he viewed the wider Greek society as hopelessly sick and corrupt. His solution was not political reform but a version of evangelistic witnessing with Epicurean communities serving as examples of a life lived well. People would become Epicurean through their own desire to flourish.

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