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Coronavirus, Flynn, and Epicureanism

The prospect of death, Epicurus knew, upset many people. Hence he and his followers expended a great deal of effort trying to remove the sting, the fear, from the prospect of death.

I am weary, I confess, both of the CCP Virus—COVID-19 for all you budding epidemiologists out there—and the shameful case of General Michael Flynn (the shameful thing in his case being the Obama Administration’s effort to destroy him).

I am not sure how many pieces I have written about the former—probably a score—but by now it is clear that going forward there will be two main questions about the Chinese coronavirus crisis. The first is this: why did we commit social suicide for a virus whose hospitalization rates for those 65 years and older (as the CDC just admitted) are comparable to recent bad flu seasons, while the hospitalization for children for the Wuhan flu “are much lower than influenza hospitalization rates during recent influenza seasons”?

The second question is, what will our response be to the busybodies and bureaucrats whose policies destroyed trillions of dollars of wealth and put 30 million people out of work?

A friend of mine with a dark sense of humor speculates that the millions of face masks we’ve been saddled with might wind up repurposed as blindfolds. In any case, I suspect once the dust clears and people take note of the thousands of ventilators lining the doorways of businesses that have had to close their doors because of our insane overreaction, there will be a lot of anger abroad. Right now, Dr. Anthony Fauci seems to be riding high on a crest of public adulation. Look for that to come crashing down soon.

On Flynn, it is clear to me that his case represents a major node in the biggest political scandal this country has ever faced: the coordinated government effort to prevent Donald Trump from becoming president and, when that failed, to delegitimize his administration and remove him from office. Whether Emmet Sullivan, the judge presiding in the Flynn case, sees it that way may be open to doubt.

As Scott Johnson put it at PowerLine, Flynn and his lawyer, the redoubtable Sidney Powell, have “a steep hill to climb with Judge Sullivan.” Still, the public seems mesmerized by the case and several writers, preeminently Andy McCarthy, have been doing yeoman’s work laying out the shocking particulars of the Obama administration’s vendetta against Flynn.

But at the moment, I feel I’ve been there, done that. I will probably return to both subjects, but for now I am tempted amidst the “darling buds of May” to ponder with affection the proverbial injunction “Eat drink and be merry!”

Many people consider that a fair summary of the Epicurean philosophy, named for its founder, the Athenian philosopher Epicurus who lived from 341-270 B.C., a few generations after Plato. It is a natural mistake. After all Epicurus did say that “Pleasure is the starting-point and goal of living blessedly.”

A common Greek word for pleasure is “hedone,” whence our word “hedonism.” A hedonist, we know, is someone who devotes himself to sensual pleasure. Add that to the fact that Epicureanism is a deeply materialistic philosophy—“all good and bad,” Epicurus says, “consists in sense experience”—and it is easy to see why people often conclude that Epicureanism advocates sensual abandon.

Easy, but mistaken.

For in fact, Epicureanism is a deeply ascetic philosophy. It preaches the gospel of pleasure. But it defines pleasure in such a way that no hedonist worth his salt would embrace it.

A hedonist is someone devoted to pleasure in the positive sense: he seeks to gratify his senses.

An Epicurean is devoted to pleasure in the negative sense: he seeks to avoid pain. “We do everything we can,” Epicurus wrote, “for the sake of being neither in pain nor terror.”

It is a melancholy fact that the human frame, while capable of great joy and pleasure, is susceptible to even greater pain and misery. The pleasures afforded us are delicate blossoms; the pains we are susceptible to are like a raging wildfire in comparison. Epicurus and his followers took note of this fact. Indeed, it was a fact that mesmerized their imaginations.

Epicurus says that pleasure is the goal of life. But what he taught was immunity to pain. “The removal of all feeling of pain,” he wrote, “is the limit of the magnitude of pleasures.” There was a core of common sense about the Epicurean approach to life. He advised his followers to live simple, healthy lives, to shun extravagances of all sorts. Of course, that is something many philosophers, indeed many friends and parents, would also advise. There is nothing distinctively Epicurean about the injunction to live simply and soberly.

There are three things distinctive about Epicureanism. One is its identification of pleasure with the absence of pain. Another is its emphasis on sense experience as the ultimate reality. The third is its identification of tranquillity as the aim or goal of life. (The Greek word is “ataraxia,” i.e., not troubled, not disturbed: note the privative character of the Epicurean ideal.)

If it is to succeed, Epicureanism must deliver us not only from physical pain but also from anxiety and mental anguish. The prospect of death, Epicurus knew, upset many people. Hence he and his followers expended a great deal of effort trying to remove the sting, the fear, from the prospect of death.

Epicurus offered two things to battle the fear of death: an attitude and an argument. The attitude was one of mild contempt: the right sort of people, he implies, do not get in a tizzy about things, not even about death. The argument is equally compelling. “Get used to believing,” he says, “that death is nothing to us.”

Why?

Because all good and bad consist in sense experience. Death is the absence of sense experience. Therefore, “when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist. Therefore it is relevant neither to the living nor to the dead, since it does not affect the former, and the latter do not exist.”

How convincing is this?

Not very. Even if one were to grant the materialism that Epicureanism assumes, one might object that what one resents about death is not the simple absence of sense experience but the loss of the world: one’s friends, engagements, duties, involvements, as well as the panoply of sense experience that attends living.

Death also brings with it the prospect of pain and suffering: few of us can count on a pain-free exit, and that fact also helps to account for the bad reputation death has among non-Epicureans.

Finally, Epicurus and his followers say “death is nothing to us,” but they leave out of account the fact that human beings exist not simply as individuals but as part of a network of family, friends, and a larger community.

Epicurus taught that “self-sufficiency is a great good.” But who, really, is self-sufficient? Let’s say you are married with young children. Your death, quite apart from the inconvenience it might be thought to cause you, would also gravely affect your spouse and children.

There is not much room from children or spouses in the Epicurean philosophy. Why? Because they threaten to compromise the ideal of self-sufficiency. At bottom, Epicureanism is a workable philosophy only for a small subset of people. You must be unafflicted by life’s tragedies: grave poverty or illness or oppression makes being an Epicurean difficult. You must also be largely unafflicted by deep passions. A profound love of life is incompatible with Epicureanism, as is a profound love of one’s children.

The true Epicurean is more of a spectator of than a participant in life. The Roman poet Lucretius (c. 99-c. 55 BC) was one of Epicurus’ greatest disciples. In his long paean to Epicureanism “De Rerum Natura” (“On The Nature of Things”), Lucretius extolled the great sweetness of disengagement, of becoming a spectator rather than a participant in life. In a famous passage, Lucretius warns that “medio de fonte leporum surgit aliquid amari quod in ipsis floribus angat”—“even in the midst of the fountain of pleasure there is something bitter that torments us in the midst of our flowering.” Hence it is better to step back, to watch “the clash of battle / Across the plains, yourself immune to danger.”

One is left with two questions. The first is whether the immunity that Lucretius (like Epicurus) promises is real or illusory. Can we really remain mere spectators of our lives? The second question is whether, even if possible, such disengagement is finally desirable. Perhaps some battles can only be won by engaging with the enemy.