Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Purify pt. 3: Epicurus and Satan

This is part 3 in a series of posts about addiction. Read part 1 - Read part 2

If you happened to live in Athens in 307 B.C. and were taking an evening stroll, it was possible to stumble upon a particular garden entrance that bore the following inscription:
"Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure."
If you were the adventurous type and did indeed tarry, you would meet here the epicureans: a motley crew of men and women, slaves and freemen who had dedicated their lives to being epic1 the pursuit of pleasure.

Being one of the world's first hippie communes to include women as a rule, rather than an exception, it is easy to imagine the scandal this presented for regular Athenians who were, like virtually every other spiritual denomination to this day, convinced that to be moral, man had to pursue asceticism. Even easier to imagine would be the regular Athenians' opinions of what sort of thing went on inside those garden walls.

Well, doesn't that look like a fun time?

It's funny how little our moral inclinations towards this sort of stuff have changed. Communes of this sort may no longer raise much of an eyebrow, but deep down we can't seem to shake the feeling that indulgence = bad, and what was once called pleasure houses can still be found at the seedy end of town. On the other hand, we have perfected the pursuit of pleasure to such an art form as to have at our disposal such things as Netflix marathons and the deep fried mars bar. While Epicurus once wrote a letter asking his friend for some good cheese, so he could have "a feast" whenever he wanted, it's hard to imagine what his thoughts would have been on the Taco Bell Waffle Taco or the Ultimate Red Velvet Cake Cheesecake.

The thing that's changed the most for us humans living in the 21st century where pleasure is concerned, is the free availability of substances that directly impact the reward center of our brain. Loads of things in our environment today have been specifically designed to be addictive. Designed by Breaking Bad-style chemists who probably would have cured cancer ages ago if they weren't all deployed by Unilever to invent the definitive mind blowing potato chip. The science that has been invested in silly things like instant pudding and crackers is absolutely mind-boggling.2 It's no wonder this stuff is so hard to resist; close to a century of food science has perfected it to be just that.

As we're being bombarded with so many stimuli that were scientifically designed to far exceed anything that can be found in nature, it's no surprise people everywhere are battling addictions of various kinds. Our brains are simply not equipped to handle anything this powerful.
I think Satan explains it pretty well here:

And yet, the pull of purification and self-denial is as present as it ever was, judging from the popularity of various "detoxing" practices. This pull may not always be spiritual, but it's still rare for a human to live past 20 and not learn the hard lesson that excessive hedonism can only lead to bad times. This leaves us with a pretty schizophrenic attitude towards pleasure in general. We long to indulge, but at the same time feel we're "being naughty" when we do, and then go on to punish ourselves by abstaining. The constant back and forth between the allure of our environment and the ideal of purification has done nothing but create a sort of collective bulimia, where anyone unable to withstand temptation (drunks, fat people, smokers, etc.) has to face not only their own addiction but also the contempt of general society who somehow still turns this into a moral failing, supplementing their addiction with shame. Even Satan, the prince of temptation, has to admit defeat when he concedes that the only way to avoid addiction is to never enjoy anything anymore.

Yet it shouldn't have to be that way. To see where we, and Satan, are wrong, we have only to return to that Athenian garden and talk to its owner, that vigorous defender of pleasure as the only true purpose in life. We'd find that instead of wine, he drank only water, and instead of a Fried Chicken Donut Sandwich3, he didn't even eat meat. In fact, we'd find this self-declared garden of pleasure quite devoid of decadence after all!
But Epicurus was no cheat. He really did think that pleasure was the highest virtue, even declaring that moral principles were meaningless if they did not have pleasure as their goal. The thing he had found, though, was that after rational consideration, the best way to make life pleasurable was to avoid excessive consumption, and lead a life of moderation in the company of others. This might not seem instinctively true, but where something as important as pleasure was concerned, we ought not trust our base instincts with our decisions. Only the most rigorous rational analysis would do. If we applied that, we would find that the way of moderation would undeniably be the most pleasurable in the long run. There were three things, in Epicurus' opinion, one could never have enough of, and in which he indulged freely. Those things were friendship, freedom (understood as self-sufficiency), and philosophical thought.

I often imagine how easy it must have been for the epicureans to adhere to these findings, living in their little garden without PlayStation or WiFi. But if I apply my own rational thought, there is no doubt in my mind that he had the right idea. It's just a lot harder for us. But I've found that if I tell myself that instead of denying myself pleasure, I'm actually pursuing pleasure in the epicurean sense, it becomes a whole lot easier to forego that extra slice of cake.


Well, sometimes it does.

1 I apologize.
2 For anyone interested in going down this rabbit hole, I cannot recommend enough the (Pulitzer-prize winning) book 'Salt Sugar Fat' by Michael Moss. If you only want to dip in your toes, you can read a pretty amazing excerpt over at The New York Times Magazine.
3 I couldn't resist sneaking another one in there :p


  1. This reminds me of Ambrose Bierce's line, "Self-denial is indulgence of a propensity to forego." The example set by Epicurus, though, is more inspiring, at least in terms of my own philosophy that everything taken to excess is bad--and that includes moderation.

    It's a nice thought that abstinence can be balanced with the occasional excess, but here you've got me thinking that perhaps we need to rethink the ideas of excess and abstinence. We shouldn't have to aspire to moderation; it should be what comes naturally. And maybe it would be that easy if we hadn't altered our environment to feed the need for dopamine. Maybe that's why moderation is the one thing that isn't addictive.

  2. Thank you for your thoughts :)
    I indeed think the way we think about indulgence, reward etc. is inherently warped, and tied into our idea that happiness = endless accumulation. But it's hard not to get hung up on stuff that's so overstimulating, and I'm definitely not saying it's possible to battle addiction with rational thought. But it can be one of the things that help.

  3. I totally agree with the epicureans idea of pleasure, but you're right. It is a lot harder for us. There is an army of scientists developing the perfect, mind blowing, potato chip trying to get more "stomach share" for their companies, and what do we got?... I'd better start mastering that urge-surfing skill.


  4. Fascinating. Thank you so much for sharing. I learned something during my lunch hour. :)