Okay, time to come clean: despite my usually smiling face, I’m not happy all the time. Merely satisfied with my lot, I’m content that, among other things, I am not going bald, or plagued with excessive weight. And, on a day-to-day basis, I have to confess that I am rather at peace with the universe. But maybe most of us are like that, eh? Without a contrast, too frequent happiness would just be background -like white noise: hardly noticeable. Nothing special.
Now that I have earned my years, I think that I am entitled to wear the full regalia of emotions that I have been awarded. And yet, it seems obvious that the worth of some things can be measured in the difficulty of their pursuit, in their resistance to capture, and ultimately in the impossibility of their imprisonment. Happiness is one of those fleeting things; I think that is why it is so valuable. It is not a state of mind, but rather a condition of the moment: the twinkle in an old man’s eye, the giggle of a child with a puppy, or that initial rapture on first seeing your baby, newly born.
So, through the years, I have been content, as well, with the evanescence of happiness, treasuring its arrival, and sighing, not with displeasure but resignation, at its disappearance.
And yet, an essay I came across in Aeon made me wonder if, after all these years, I had misjudged the value of its ephemerality.
There are times when I wonder if the true value of philosophy is not so much in finding truth, but more in the pleasures of pursuit -much like, as with so many journeys, it’s not as much the destination as the adventures that happen en route. Of course, to admit this outright might encourage a lax methodology and toleration of blurring the objective -of glancing outside the window as you reason your way along the road.
And, as I discovered in a rather lengthy essay by the philosopher Catherine Wilson in Aeon, there is a school of philosophy that actually tolerates stopping and smelling the flowers on the way home: Epicureanism. https://aeon.co/essays/forget-plato-aristotle-and-the-stoics-try-being-epicurean
The Epicureans have acquired a bad rap over the years, it seems: profligate pleasure-seeking. But as Wilson points out, ‘Rather than aiming specifically to maximise pleasure, the Epicureans concentrated on minimising pains, the pains that arise from failures of choice and avoidance… One must sometimes sacrifice appealing food and drink in the short term to avoid the long-term pains of addiction and poor health; and sacrifice sexual opportunity to avoid humiliation, anger or social or economic fallout.’
The morality of Epicureanism has also been a sticking point for some – ‘if life is limited to this life, and if virtues such as wisdom, moderation and justice are only abstract ideas… why be moral?’ Wilson thinks that the Epicureans had two answers to that dilemma: ‘One was that the people around you resent stupidity, cowardice, self-indulgence and injustice – the opposites of the traditional virtues. So, if you habitually engage in them, you will find yourself socially excluded and perhaps even punished by the law. Nonconformity to morality brings pain… The other answer was that it is possible to have an entirely pleasant life without causing injury to others through dishonesty, immoderation or other vices. The sources of innocent pleasure are all around us: in the sensory enjoyment of music, food, landscapes and artworks, and especially, Epicurus thought, in the study of nature and society, and in conversing with friends.’
Wilson also thought that in a society that is success-driven, power-hungry and consumerist, being an Epicurean had a distinct advantage because, ‘Fame and wealth are zero-sum. For some to be wealthy, powerful and famous, others must be poor, obedient and disregarded… the pleasure of being recognised, appreciated and rewarded… is different from the truly intoxicating moments of happiness in which we feel in tune with another individual or become totally absorbed in something outside the self… Real enjoyment arises from activities that activate concentration, that require practice and skill, and that deliver sensory enjoyment… Making things such as pottery, jewellery, knitted, embroidered and stitched items, and fixing things around the house is a profound source of human satisfaction.’
The Epicureans have a cure for excessive consumerism, too: ‘[the] strategy for avoiding being lured into pointless consumption, despite the curiosity most of us have about the material world and its incentives to buy, buy, buy, is to regard shopping trips as a museum experience. You can examine all these objects in their often-decorative packing and muse on the hopes and fears to which they are symbolically and magically attached.’
Sometimes children are surprising philosophers who have some things to teach those of us who managed to make it out of our teens unscathed.
“What do you think about Santa Clause, Grampa?” my little grandson once asked me as we plodded along a trail in the woods through the first substantial snowfall of the year.
I assumed he was already thinking about what he wanted for a gift, although Christmas was still over a month away. “You mean, how does he know what presents to bring?” I answered carefully, hoping he didn’t want an explanation of how Santa managed to squiggle down a non-existent chimney.
He glanced up at me for a moment as we walked, and shook his head. “No, I figure he talks to you about that…”
I chuckled, uncertain about whether to set him straight about Santa, or wait for a few more Christmases -he was only six years old, after all. “I…”
But he interrupted before I could organize any words. “I mean, how’s he going to manage with all the climate change that’s coming…?”
“You mean if there’s no snow for his sleigh?”
He actually rolled his eyes -I didn’t think little kids could do that.’ “No, silly -he’ll go electric or something. I mean with all the plastic most of his presents are wrapped in.”
Wow! Grade 1 had really moved on from my day. I was momentarily speechless.
He looked up at me with a twinkle in his eyes, and a face that was mature beyond his years. ‘Will you let him know just to use recycled paper for wrapping and not to give any more plastic to the elves?” Then he smiled and kicked at the snow in a tiny snowdrift on the trail. “Miss Morrow said we should bring the gift paper to school in the New Year so we can make up stories about what it might have been used for the first time.” He looked up at me, his cheeks rosy in the cool wind that was starting to make its way through the trees. “Don’t you think that’d be fun, Grampa?”
Actually, I wondered if his teacher subscribed to Aeon, too…