To be, or not be, Epicurean: Humanity at the Crossroads

COVID-19 has made humanity pause. This has been the one silver lining that this pandemic has produced. We, as a whole, have realised that we are in strange times. Times that modern humans have never found themselves in. From climate change, to deforestation, to plastics in the ocean, to a waste crisis, to the acceleration of lifestyle diseases, to bushfires, floods and extreme disasters the planet is facing several existential threats. 

Similarly, humans are facing a similar existential threat, as a species. From polarised politics, to obesity crisis, to dysfunctional societies created by the social media world we live in, to the rise of artificial intelligence and to the re-organisation of geo-politics, to increased stress in communities, to being overrun by consumerism and a growing wedge between the haves and the have-nots, the average human being is the furthest they have been from their natural state.

These worlds are colliding. While the next generation is trying to work out what all this means to them, most are simply stepping on the accelerator towards the cliff. Humanity is at crossroads. 

Have we got the formulae, right? Do we wake up each day with purpose? Do we go to sleep with a sense of fulfilment? Do we have a sense of gratitude? Is our pursuit of happiness on the right track, for the right things? Are we teaching the next generation what is right, and what is wrong, and what to expect? Are we on an un-eventuating happiness treadmill, or are we walking a garden path? Are we leaving behind a wreck of a planet and a future, or do we plan to do anything about it? Covid-19 is asking us to be revisionist – that is, to advocate for a policy revision or modification; that is to intelligently seek out what is good for our family unit and our communities. There is only one path forward. We must change course, and take the right path, for the sake of the planet, for us, our future generations and for those beings that share the planet with us.

It is time to revisit the ideas of a wonderful philosopher from 2,300 years ago. Archaic constructs of the distant past are oft reawakened as contemporary thought experiments of tomorrow.

“Pleasure is the first good. It is the beginning of every choice and every aversion. It is the absence of pain in the body and of troubles in the soul” – Epicurus

In the 3rd century BC on the Greek island of Samos a man was born who would become the founder of one of the four main schools of philosophy. His name was Epicurus, and he spent his life studying what makes people happy and how to pursue and attain happiness. According to Epicurus, happiness is the main goal in life. We can attain this by pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain, but also by taming our desires and enjoying the simple things in life. Unfortunately, apart from a small number of scrolls and fragments, the majority of Epicurus’ works have been lost. The reason why Epicurus focused on happiness and pleasure rather than virtue as the other philosophers of his time, is because he saw human beings as pleasure-seeking from the time of birth-to-death. Epicurus is often misunderstood. While some people think that Epicurus was pointing to indulging the senses like eating luxurious foods and being drunk and high all day, this is not what he meant. He recognised that overindulgence may be pleasurable for a short time, but in the long run it only causes pain and in such amounts that it overshadows the pleasure derived from the activity in the first place. 

There were two halves to Epicurus’ philosophy. One was around materials and science. It was atomic theory, an early attempt at reasoning via science. This was mostly incorrect, but logical. The second half of his philosophy was about happiness. They have both lost their way in today’s society.

To be Epicurean is to our contemporary understanding of Epicureanism, is to be a foodie or a wine bar connoisseur or a gourmet lover, but the word has an ancient philosophical prominence and a radical edge. Recovering something of its lost meaning involves looking afresh concerning the burning issues of the 21st century through the lenses of the perennial search for happiness and the urgent challenge of sustainability. 

According New Yorker Magazine’s Tom Friedman, the three largest forces on the planet today shaping everything are the Market, Mother Nature and Moore’s law. On Mother Nature, the big shifts are in climate change, biodiversity loss and population growth. On the Market, digital globalisation, whether its measuring data consumed per month or growth in cell phones, it is growing exponentially, and shaping the world is re-shaping markets. Moore’s law, coined by Gordon Moore in 1965, the Co-founder of Intel, enunciates that speed and power of microchips will double every 24 months, which has held true. We are also therefore in the middle of three climate changes at once. The first is the actual change of the climate, where the paradigm now is to move now, not later. The second is the changing climate of globalisation, going from an interconnected world to an interdependent world. And, thirdly, the climate of technology change where artificial intelligence and social media are driving us to a different future, one that Yuval Noah Harari suggests will see the formation of a 'Useless Class’ as industrialisation produced a ‘Working Class’, and Yanis Varoufakis suggests Techno Feudalism leading to a ‘Technopeasant Class’.

Epicurus believed that keeping things simple creates pleasure in simple things than to be forever chasing pleasure. Epicurus was no Epicurean in the sense that we understand the term. He was certainly not a foodie; plain dishes he believed offer the same pleasure as a luxurious table.

Our contemporary debates about climate change and environmental degradation bring this thinking into sharp and fresh focus. Epicurus taught his followers how to be happy without God and how to be happy with less. Diagnosing the human frailty that feeds the fires of rampant consumerism portraying things we want and possibly are out of our reach, he wrote, but once we have it, we must have something else. Epicurus was the first philosopher in the western tradition to diagnose the disease of insatiability, or affluenza. Nothing is enough, he wrote for the man to whom enough is too little. And he was the first to propose a cure with the epicurean message that teaches us to be content with what satisfies our fundamental needs while renouncing what is superfluous. This translated into contemporary terms it would compel us to temper our appetite for consumption of more cars, electrical goods, clothes and simply stuff. A revitalised contemporary epicureanism is the kind of personal ethic that would accompany a low growth economy. The idea of prosperity without growth was first articulated in the 19th century by John Stuart Mill who conceived of an enlightened stationary state towards which advanced capitalism would inevitably move.

Epicurus noted three types of wants and needs that humans pursue. The first are needs that are both natural and necessary. This included basic food, shelter and clothing. They are necessary for one of three reasons: necessary for happiness, necessary for freedom from bodily discomfort, and necessary for life. The second are needs that are natural, but not necessary. These desires are innate to humans, but they do not need to be fulfilled for their happiness or their survival. Wanting to eat delicious food when one is hungry is an example of a natural but not necessary desire. The main problem with these desires is that they fail to substantially increase a person's happiness, and at the same time require effort to obtain and are desired by people due to false beliefs that they are actually necessary. According to Epicurus, this is why such desires should be avoided. The third perceived needs are both neither necessary nor natural. These desires are neither innate to humans nor required for happiness or health; indeed, they are also limitless and can never be fulfilled. Desires of wealth or fame would fall in this class, and such desires are to be avoided because they will ultimately only bring about discomfort. If you are not living pleasantly, you are not living justly and not living wisely. You may not be living intelligently.

Some of our modern challenges were dealt with by Epicurus eloquently.

Foundational tranquility

Epicurus was the only philosopher of his time not to establish his teaching venue at a town hall or a place of significance. He bought some land and established a garden school. This goes to show his thinking that an open garden without hierarchy was much more welcoming, and conducing to thinking and learning. It was also a place where your produce could be grown.

Inclusiveness

Epicurus was the first philosopher to allow women and slaves into his school. He welcomed them, saying that they too were able to understand his points of view and pursue happiness the way he described it. He was a role model in diversity and inclusiveness (D&I in corporate culture today).

Diet and health

Epicurus believed that in order to pursue ultimate happiness one needed to eat modest quantities, and not over-indulge. He believed that physical tranquillity came from a long and happy health-span. He was vegetarian, and so were most in his commune. He survived on some bread, some olives, and once in a while, some cheese. He did not drink wine, but rather water. He believed you needed to exhibit prudence when it came to diet, in order to attain long-term health, and therefore happiness. The urge to continue eating is natural, however, Epicurus would say, over-eating is unnecessary, and most likely will lead to making one unhappy in the longer-term, for the short-term pleasure one may get. The desire to eat luxurious food comes from society, rather than naturally. This is an important point. We will come back to this point later. A point for our society to heed is to ask the question of whether some bland, but nutritious food would satiate you, versus calorie-rich, less natural, less nutritious food. They will both serve to satiate you, but one may cost more, will take more effort, and will cause more trouble in the long term. Epicurus also believed one should not eat alone, for only wolves ate alone. He believed that you should break bread with friends. Quality friends, not large numbers of acquaintances.

I would like to draw from Mark Mason’s The Subtle Art of not Giving a F*ck here with an analogy that draws parallels between food consumption behaviour and emotional wellness. “The ticket to emotional health” he says “like that to physical health, comes from eating your vegies – that is, accepting the bland and mundane truths of life: truths such as your actions actually don’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things and that the vast majority of your life will be boring and not noteworthy, and that’s okay. This vegetable course will taste bad at first. Very bad. But, once ingested, your body will wake up feeling more potent, more alive”.

Politics

Epicurus believed that one should stay away from politics, for it led to disagreements and power struggles that could only lead to unhappiness.

Social media

Epicurus suggested that one should stay out of the radar. In today’s world, this would mean not visible on social media.  

Greed

Epicurus believed that one should only pursue needs that were ‘natural and necessary’. He advocated that greed led to hurting people, creating and asking for trouble, taking risks that impacted your tranquility and may cause unhappiness in the long-term. That more money than you need would lead to problems impacting tranquility, or may not allow one the space to find happiness. One must exhibit prudence in this regard. The same philosophy extended to material possessions. 

A story about greed

Let me digress for a while and tell you a little story on greed, and why Epicurus was absolutely right about unnatural and unnecessary needs being problematic, and leading to distress and unhappiness. It is a story covered by Robert Greene in his seminal book the Laws of Human Nature. It is about a man named John blunt, a prominent English businessman in the early 18th century. Mr blunt was a Director of an enterprise called the South Sea Company. At this time the English Government had accumulated significant debts, more than any other country as a result of financing the range of wars the English had been involved in, which was around £31 million, a significant sum of money at the time. The South Sea Company managed this debt in exchange for having a monopoly on all trade in South America.

John Blunt, who had made his way from a lower class was an extremely ambitious man. His motto in life was think big, and so in 1719 he came up with an idea for a business that was worthy of this motto and that would earn him everlasting fame. The idea was that the South Sea Company would completely take over this £31 million and it would pay the government for that right and they would privatise it and they would turn it into a commodity and would then sell shares of this debt to the public at £100 each and then be able to pay down the English debt and make a nice profit for themselves. In May 1719 this scheme was initiated and while people didn’t really understand it, they thought it was an amazing idea and that it was their patriotic duty to invest in this scheme. 

Quickly the share prices rose and within a month it doubled to £200 a share and within another two months to £300 a share. King of England King George I invested £100,000 of his own money into the scheme. The people of England from all walks of life were drawn to this investment scheme with servants and maids taking their life savings and investing it in cash. There was one example where a lady saw her former maid occupying a seat on a balcony box in the theatre that was much more lavish and expensive than her own.

However, about six months into the scheme Mr blunt started getting an uneasy feeling that he was running was a glorified Ponzi scheme where the money that people were investing in the South Sea Company was actually being provided back to them in the form of dividends to entice more and more investors to come on board. But that if at some point people panicked and stop buying shares the whole scheme would collapse. As such he kept offering better dividends until his concerns became a reality in September of 1720 when the scheme collapsed spectacularly, and thousands of English people lost their life’s savings hundreds of people committed suicide. It took the English government over a century to recover from this collapse.

Many famous Englishmen had invested in this scheme including writers, architects and politicians but none more famous than the great Sir Isaac Newton, the greatest scientist of his age and one of the most brilliant men that ever lived. When the scheme started, he took his own complete saving of £7000 and invested in the South Sea Company and he watched it as it quickly doubled and then tripled to nearly £20,000.  Mr Newton realised that what goes up could easily come down and therefore He cashed out and he collected his £20,000, but in August of 1720 noticed that Mr. Blunt was giving out incredibly favourable terms and also saw that other people making much more money than his £20,000. So, he decided to reinvest the £20,000 in the South Sea Company and as a consequence he lost his entire savings months later in the crash. Sir Isaac Newton was then in his 70s and was reduced to near poverty as a result of this investment. A story that is not that well known.

So, whether it comes to greed, politics, consumerism, social media, inclusion, diet and health – the range of macro trends that are shaping the world both as a planet and as a human species, Epicurus’ philosophy has significant answers embedded within. The change that we need to see will come from three facets. The change in individuals, changes in family unit and changes as a community. This is why I am re-visiting the ideas and thoughts of Epicurus, because whether we talk about diet at an individual level, family time and family values as a family unit, or positive climate action at a community level, the way of thinking is crystallised in the writings of Epicurus.

Sustainability in Numbers

Here are some of the significant issues that the world is grappling with today, in numbers:

COP26 - Where we started at 3.4 deg post Paris, 2.7 degrees pre-COP26 has resulted in 2.4 degrees being agreed to with the potential for 1.8 degrees if all 2030 targets are maintained, and 1.5 degrees still within sight, but as Alok Sharma, the President of COP26 described, 1.5 degrees is alive, but with a weak pulse, and by Ed Miliband as ‘in intensive care’.

125,000 Years – That’s how long the planet has not been 1.1 deg warmer than the Holocene levels. We will hit 1.5 degrees at least once this decade as a planet.

4.4% Healthcare's climate footprint; meaning if it were a country, it would be the fifth largest emitter on the planet.

4% – Is the weight in biomass of wild animals compared to humans and domesticated animal weight on land. Humans comprise 36% and domesticated animals 60% of land-based body mass.

Quarter - The food we eat is responsible for over one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. Of those, 80 percent are linked to livestock production. On water, it takes 100 to 200 times more water to raise a pound of beef than it does to raise a pound of plant foods. Globally, 83% of farmland is set aside to raise animals. Animal agriculture is responsible for 91% of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, and it is the greatest driver of deforestation and land use, worldwide.

4 metres - Climate change has contributed to the shifting of Earth's axis of rotation, according to a peer-reviewed study published in the American Geophysical Union's journal. Melting glaciers caused a significant amount of water to shift, which scientists have now suggested helped the locations of the poles accelerate eastward. It is estimated that since 1980, the poles' positions have moved about four meters.

24.3% - deaths are due to environmental risks such as air pollution and chemical exposure leading the UN to declare clean environment as a human right this year.

2020 – Warmest Year on Record and global ice lost at worst case scenarios.

1 Truck per minute – waste plastics into ocean. 2 per min by 2030 and 4 per min by 2040.

9% - of all plastic produced that’s been recycled.

1 day – solar power falling on earth enough to power the whole world.

21% - loss of agri productivity since 1961.

50% of all ASX 200 companies have GHG targets.

25% of all ASX 200 companies have net zero targets.

93% of the world’s largest 250 companies now report on sustainability.

0.5% is the world’s water humanity can rely on.

1 billion – people do not have access to fresh water.

69% - Agriculture (including irrigation, livestock and aquaculture) is by far the largest water consumer, accounting for 69% of annual water withdrawals globally.

$USD 120B - is what we will save annually if people worldwide switched to energy efficient lightbulbs.

30% Each year, and estimated one third of all food produced – equivalent to 1.3 billion tons worth around.

$1 trillion – ends up rotting in the bins of consumers and retailers, or spoiling due to poor transportation and harvesting practices.

38 million - children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2019.

30% - Household and food sector each account for 30% of energy use globally.

We are at the cross-roads as a species

These catastrophic megatrends mean that our future as a species and a planet are under threat driven by consumerism, which in turn is driven by capitalism. This drive to continue growing, to continue to have people be all consuming all the time, and for this drive to epitomise our identity is all around us. An example is recycling been seen as a positive community impact. Recycling is not the answer to this crisis – it is to stop buying and to say no to packaging other than packaging that serves a real purpose. What I am noticing is that these individual traits becoming human traits and traits of populations as well as traits across the whole world. 

COP26 presented some interesting insights for us. China and India, together representing more than a quarter of the world’s population as nations, argued for coal use to be extended for longer and did not sign on to the Methane Pledge. They also plan to reach net zero by 2060 and 2070, respectively. This is an Epicurean challenge. The countries are choosing not to spend more and make more sacrifices in the short term as a trade-off for significantly more future physical climate impacts on the fundamental building blocks of their two billion plus citizens, from food availability to extreme weather impacts on their cities. In fact, they are giving licence for countries such as Australia to prosper in the short term for longer term negative impacts on their soils. This trade-off would have seemed utterly illogical for Epicurus. Indeed, China and India should extract aid from the richer countries that have caused the impact in the first place through litigation, while moving much more quickly to net zero, taking full advantage of the economic transition opportunities while protecting its citizens. This would have been the path Epicurus would have envisaged, although he may have argued for climate diplomacy rather than litigation.

I would like to finish on some wise words from Yuval Noah Harari, from Sapiens. According to Harari in his seminal book Sapiens he says, 70,000 years ago homo sapiens was still an insignificant animal minding its own business in a corner of Africa. In the following millenia, it transformed itself into the master of the entire planet and the terror of the ecosystem. Today, it stands on the verge of becoming a God poised to acquire not only eternal youth, but also the divine abilities of creation and destruction. Unfortunately, the sapiens’ regime on earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of. We have mastered our surroundings, increased food production, built cities, established empires and created far flung trade networks. But did we decrease the amount of suffering in the world? Time and again, massive increases in human power did not necessarily improve the wellbeing of individual sapiens, and usually caused immense misery to other animals. In the last few decades, we have at last made some real progress as far as human condition is concerned, with the reduction of famine, plague and war. Yet, the situation of other animals is deteriorating more rapidly than ever before, and the improvement in the lot of humanity is too recent and fragile to be certain of. Moreover, despite the astonishing things that humans are capable of doing, we remain unsure of our goals and we seem to be as discontented as ever. We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles but nobody knows where we’re going. We are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea what to do with all that power. Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever. Self-made gods with only laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. We are consequently wrecking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?

I feel Epicurus foresaw this epic failure led by the pursuit for decadence, a failure that each of us will experience through the one life we are gifted, a failure that nations have and will succumb to and a failure that the planet will be left holding. It is time to re-think this model and enjoy the virtues of modest fulfilling lives surrounded by experiences, friends, time to think and time to smell the roses in the garden. It is time to unlearn and re-learn happiness and kindness the Epicurean way.

 

As delivered at the Newkind 2021 conference on 26th November 2021 www.newkindconference.com


Terence is a Partner in Climate Change & Sustainability as well as Reconciliation Leader at Ernst & Young