Tending the Epicurean Garden
© 2014 Hiram Crespo
Stoicism is not the only Greco-Roman school of practical philosophy experiencing a revival these days. Epicureanism, long reduced to a synonym for food-and-wine-snobs, has found an audience within the increasingly secularized west, among people who cannot countenance traditional religious claims, but do not wish to dismiss all of their accumulated wisdom. In Tending the Epicurean Garden, Hiram Crespo explains that wisdom tradition that was Epicureanism, and offers ways it might be practiced today.
Epicureanism is a novelty among classical schools of philosophy in being largely materialistic; its four-sentence credo begins with the assertion that there is nothing to fear from the gods. They may exist, but they have nothing to do with us. They certainly do not watch over us and create punishments and pleasures for us after life. After life there is nothing, for in death we no longer exist; there is no ‘us’ to experience anything. What good there is must be obtained in life — and it can be found, and what evil exists can be endured. The Epicureans believed that atarexia, a kind of imperturbable happiness, was the only good in life, and that it could be achieved through mindfulness, the cultivation of genuine friendships, and self-reliance.
Tending the Garden mixes Greek philosophy, Zen Buddhism, and some generic self-help advice together in a mix that might spark some interest in its subject. Key to understanding and practicing Epicureanism is the practice of mindfulness; while Epicureans might be regarded today as hedonistic libertines, prudence was their mainstay. Epicureanism bears a closer resemblance to simple living than it does to living it up. Crespo doesn’t delve into the aspect of moderating pleasure a great deal, but the idea is to be content with little. It is the longing after things that makes us truly unhappy, and here Crespo makes frequent connections to Buddhism and its contention that desire is the root of suffering. Mindfulness is a superb practice, but what makes Tending interesting is the attention given to community life and autarky. Driven into unemployment by the 2008 blowup, Crespo advocates an ownership society in which capital is widely dispersed among private owners and cooperatives. Although the Epicurean and Stoic approaches to mindfulness are quite similar, especially in the habit of mentally girding oneself for bad news, the only reference Crespo makes to Stoicism is to dismiss it as a false philosophy, being too theistically based.
Tending the Garden is a enthusiastic introduction to Epicureanism, but problematic; Crespo doesn’t seem grounded in the world of the Greeks; because he is chiefly concerned with reviving Epicureanism, he doesn’t examine its historical context. There is no survey of the lives of professed Epicureanisms, for example, except to mention distant personalities like Thomas Jefferson who admired it. This is certainly not the Epicurean answer to Stoicism’s A Guide to the Good Life, but it may inspire moderns to look into it. There are an awful lot of eclectic ideas under the Greek tunic, though.