The Wisdom of Hypatia

Ancient Spiritual Practices
for a More Meaningful Life
Epicureanism and Natural Desires

I mentioned in my previous blog entry that Epicurean philosophia (love of wisdom) is an example of what I called the first degree of wisdom, implying, of course, that there are higher degrees — as there are. It might seem inefficient to waste time on lower degrees of wisdom; why not focus on the highest wisdom? The reason is that ancient philosophia understood that the pursuit of wisdom is a process, which should go through stages, so that each stage can build on the solid foundation of the preceding stages. 

The first degree of wisdom can be characterized as egoistic materialism, which perhaps doesn't sound very enlightened, but the fact is that most people do not enjoy even this degree of wisdom. For if we take the goal of philosophia to be to live with joy and equanimity in accord with nature, then we cannot fail to see that many people are not doing so; therefore this first step is worthwhile. The first degree of wisdom depends on a first approximation to human nature: that we are biological beings with biological needs and desires. We look to them to understand how we, as individual humans, can live well. 

The Epicurean answer is that we should seek pleasure and avoid pain (mental as well as physical), but do so wisely (i.e., according to the Epicurean calculation). This is, in fact, living in accord with nature, for pleasures and pains are biology's fundamental signals that an organism is doing something right or wrong; that is, pain is a signal we should stop doing something or not do it again, and pleasure is a signal we should continue doing something or do it again. This is what nature tells us, but by virtue of our human nature we can perform the Epicurean calculation and, for example, forego a current pleasure in favor of greater future pleasure or to avoid future pain. If we do this calculation correctly, according to Epicurus, we often find that the maximum pleasure is achieved from the elimination of pain, resulting in a state of tranquility that is relatively easy to maintain (thus avoiding the pain of effort). Positive pleasures must be actively pursued and often have no natural limit, which can lead to pain-inducing excess. 

The ancient Epicureans used a common-sense understanding of human nature supplemented by a materialistic atomic theory of physical reality, qualitatively very similar to the dominant modern scientific worldview. This is still quite relevant to us today, as contemporary Epicureans have discovered. Nevertheless, biology has made enormous progress since Epicurus' time, 2300 years ago, and in particular evolutionary psychology is expanding our understanding of the biological bases of human psychology. This field is new, and research is ongoing, so we must be careful not to draw conclusions prematurely, but current research does suggest some revision of Epicureanism into a contemporary first degree of wisdom.

For example, Epicurus argues that the desires for fame and power are non-natural (and hence "vain"), and therefore that the wise Epicurean will not pursue them, for they are overall more likely to produce pain than pleasure. "Live hidden," Epicurus recommends. 

However, if we look at our close primate relatives, we find innate behaviors that establish status and dominance hierarchies, as we also find in many other social animals. "What's the point?" we may ask, in agreement with Epicurus, but they have an adaptive function, for they establish social structures that help groups to function more effectively. In effect, if individuals "know their place," so to speak, at least for the time being, then energy can be spent on cooperative action rather than on negotiating social relations. Furthermore, stable social relations eliminate energy-wasting anxiety and uncertainty (you may be low rank, but at least you know you are low rank). Of course, individuals' status and dominance can be challenged and are not inviolable, but there is overall stability. 

"Know your place" may seem to be a highly reactionary prescription, especially from a perspective of egalitarianism, freedom, and social mobility, but we should not forget to apply the Epicurean calculation. Based on evolutionary psychology, we may conjecture that the desire for status and dominance is natural, but is it (in Epicurus' terms) necessary or unnecessary? It certainly seems that feelings of self-worth and self-esteem are necessary for mental health. However, what engenders these feelings is rooted in personal and societal norms. Here, philosophia provides practices for adjusting our personal norms and for modifying our responses to societal norms so that these desires are more easily satisfied. Thus we can tease apart the necessary and unnecessary components of the natural desire for self-worth and respect.

More generally, I suspect that a desire for some degree of security in social position is necessary and natural, but that a desire for increased status and dominance is unnecessary, though probably natural. Perhaps this was Epicurus' point when he stressed the importance of friendship and the unimportance of the pursuit of fame and power.

Epicurus doesn't seem to think that the rewards of marriage and child rearing are worth the inconvenience; he would rather hang out with his friends. His attitude is probably conditioned in part by the structure of the family and the institution of marriage in ancient Athens. From an evolutionary perspective, there are few desires more natural than the desire to procreate. However, although it is certainly necessary for the species, it is not necessary for the individual in the same sense that food, drink, and shelter are necessary. These desires reflect a lack of some natural necessity, and the maximum pleasure is achieved when the lack is eliminated (as explained in my previous blog entry). The desire to procreate has more the character of unnecessary natural desires, which have no inherent limits (perhaps due to high infant mortality in our environment of evolutionary adaptedness). For unnecessary natural desires, such as these, we must apply the Epicurean calculation and balance the pains against the pleasures. (It's certainly easy to find examples of unrestrained procreation leading to unpleasant consequences.)

Nevertheless, procreation is surrounded by a constellation of natural desires. There is sex (of course), but also the many joys of child rearing, familial affection, mutual support, etc. These desires are well grounded in our evolutionary history and are found in many of our primate relatives. As evolutionary psychology continues to progress, we can anticipate a better understanding of this constellation of desires, which we can use in our Epicurean calculations, but the overall parameters are pretty obvious. 

Other natural desires and aversions fall in the domain of biophilia, a term introduced by E. O. Wilson in a book by that name. It refers to our innate responses to the natural world (or, more accurately, to our genetic predispositions, which lead to learned responses). The familiar example is an aversion to snakes and spiders, which is innate but must be activated by an individual's environment. On the other side we seem to have a natural attraction to flourishing plants and healthy animals. It is easy to see the adaptive advantage of these predispositions back on the savanna, but this is not the place to summarize the arguments of evolutionary psychology. 

In any case, there is significant evidence that we have an innate psychological need for a healthy, thriving natural environment, which goes beyond our material needs for clean water, clean air, and nourishing, toxin-free food; thus, the psychological benefits of a healthy environment must be part of the calculation. Nature is an innate source of pleasure (although some aspects of it can be threatening too). The desire is natural, but unnecessary; therefore, it can be pursued to excess, and its satisfaction may be difficult to achieve (as is apparent to industrialized, urbanized people). 

The Epicurean Garden is proverbial, for that is where Epicurus and his successors taught and discussed philosophy. We may imagine them enjoying their friendly conversations and simple meals surrounded by fruit trees, fragrant herbs, and beautiful flowers. Although they might not have been doing it consciously, they were satisfying their natural biophilic desires, and they show that it is often relatively easy to do.

Epicurean friendship was also proverbial, and Epicurus held friendship above all other goods. Evolutionary psychology agrees that humans are innately social and adapted to live and cooperate in groups of moderate size (a few dozen). This desire is natural and arguably necessary for human well-being; "To live alone one must be a beast or a god," as Nietzsche quotes Aristotle (and I think that Epicurus would deny the third possibility added by Nietzsche: that one may be both, i.e., a philosopher).

Considering both friendship and biophilia, I suspect that animal companionship is another natural desire (not mentioned by Epicureans, so far as I'm aware). Companion animals have been a part of human life for a very long time (tens of thousands of years in the case of dogs). Therefore, I think that animal companionship can be classified as an unnecessary natural desire (it seems to have no natural limit, as evidenced by animal hoarding). Here again the Epicurean calculation must be applied. 

In summary, in the first degree of wisdom, we apply common sense and contemporary scientific investigations of human biology so that we can live with joy and equanimity. The perspective is materialistic and egoistic, which is certainly a limited perspective, but it's a first step on the path.

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