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Epicurus, c.300 BC

Epicurus, c.300 BC

A warning right up front, this post is going to be pretty loose and off the cuff, so please forgive any glaring generalities. I’ll try to keep them at a minimum.

Last night, I caught part of the PBS program American Experience. It’s an interesting show and while I don’t often watch it, it always contains some food for thought. This episode, The Amish: Shunned, was no exception.

To be frank, there are many points on which I disagree with the Amish religion. I’m afraid that I just can’t view a community that so deliberately rejects progress, education and individual thought as terribly sympathetic. That said, it’s a valid culture based on a valid, if shockingly medieval, set of beliefs and I’m not going to waste time nit-picking it to pieces simply because I disagree. What I am going to do is examine one tiny corner of those beliefs – the avoidance of pleasure – because this principle has ramifications beyond the Amish community.

One of the Amish church members interviewed for the program brought up the issue in terms that implied the inherent logic of pleasure avoidance. He said, (and I’m paraphrasing now), “it’s human nature to avoid pain and pursue pleasure, as if that’s going to lead to happiness. Well, news flash, it’s not.”

Now, on the surface, I can see how this would be an easy notion to buy into, particularly from a conservatively religious points of view. If our nature is telling us to pursue pleasure, and our nature is essentially animal (i.e.: sinful), the only way to heaven must be to transcend our animal nature and pursue spiritual purity (per whatever terms your religion defines). Now, disregarding the ironic hypocrisy that this has historically led to (witch trials and murder aside, the attitude very often leads the abstainer to become addicted to the very pleasurable emotion of social righteousness), there is another, different angle from which to view the issue.

I’d like to propose an more Epicurean take on the question of earthly pleasure. The Greek philosopher, Epicurus, believed that what he called “pleasure” is the greatest good. Now, this is where it gets interesting. He also believed that the way to attain such pleasure is to “live modestly and to gain knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of one’s desires”. In other words, moderation leads to pleasure, which in and of itself, is a form of transcendence.

I’m not going to say that this point of view is more valid than the strict path proposed by the Amish or any other conservative religious group. I would say, however, that the Epicurean approach is equally valid and potentially more healthy. Know what you like, know what you don’t and find your limits – know where you overindulge and gently lead yourself back. No judgment. No drama. The maintenance of moderation requires awareness, which leads to presence in the moment, which can lead quite directly to lovely moments of clarity – every day transcendence. And yes, even spiritual and earthly happiness.

Pleasures aren’t inherently dangerous. Pleasure are simply pleasures. It is up to the individual to moderate the degree to which he or she partakes. To ignore pleasure is to reject one of our species’ greatest gifts – joy. Joy in food, joy in sex, joy in clean fresh air and warm fires at night. These are all valid pleasure and part of the equally valid human experience. Surely, if there is a god (as an atheist I don’t believe there is, but I respect those who do), that force would want us to enjoy the full spectrum of our lives, rather than reject half of the gifts we were given.

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