Friday, January 23, 2009

Two Old Characters Address Happiness

I love public radio. If you didn't already know this about me that makes me kinda sad because it means we probably don't talk to each other enough. Its like there is an army of curious people out there who have made it their full-time job to bring the most incredible, inspiring, bizarre and newsworthy stories from around the world into your life.

I love retelling my favorite stories from the radio to those unfortunate enough to spend time with me right after I get out of the car (the only place actual radios are used anymore.*) Sadly, I have heard too many good stories on the radio to retell them all right now, but one good one is standing out in my mind. It was on the program called Speaking of Faith, and it was all about the concept of 'Doubt'. Doubt is a long conversation waiting to happen, so to keep it (a bit) shorter I will just tell you about two doubting characters that I found fascinating: Diogenes of Sinope and Epicurus.

Diogenes was one of the original cynics. In my own words, a philosophical cynic is someone who doubts that society is constructed in the way it was meant to be. You have probably heard of a few people influenced by cynicism even today. They reject wealth, power, fame, possessions, and even devalue their own health and hygiene. They teach equality of all humans and a return to the rhythms of nature. They do not criticize absolutely everything, as the modern use of the word 'cynic' connotes today, they are only critical of those things which are not an essential part of a truly happy life. A beautiful way to encapsulate all these views is to boil them down to the idea that all suffering is caused by false judgments of what is valuable. An excessively general idea, but one you would have quite a bit of trouble refuting.

My favorite story about Diogenes is a legend passed on about an encounter he had with Alexander the Great. Alexander admired Diogenes, as they both shared incredible ambition, though one man applied his externally, and the other internally. During one meeting of the two...

Diogenes asked Alexander what his plans were.
Alexander: To conquer and subjugate Greece.
Diogenes: Then what?
Alexander: To conquer and subjugate Asia Minor.
Diogenes: And then?
Alexander: To conquer and subjugate the entire world.
Diogenes: And what next?
Alexander: Then I will relax, and enjoy myself.
Diogenes: Why not save yourself a lot of trouble, by relaxing and enjoying yourself now?

Now, Epicurus was not a cynic, but a materialist. Sounds like the opposite of a cynic at first, but materialism as an ideology does not value shopping and money, but rather suggests that physical matter is the only thing that can be proven to exist, and therefore calls into doubt all things non-physical. What Epicurus derived from this philosophy was the belief that the goal of life was to achieve tranquility and freedom from fear or pain through a life filled with modest physical pleasures. A key to finding happiness through physical pleasure was developing control of your physical desires so they would not run rampant and possibly lead to physical harm.

I personally find materialism to be a bad explanation of the way all thing work, but I do enjoy some of the smaller ideas that were born out of it. Namely, that of learning to control your appetites. Whether we hold physical pleasure as the ultimate good in life or not, we all understand the role hunger plays in the human experience. Food, sex and habit-forming drugs like caffeine, nicotine and alcohol are the easiest to identify. But there are some obsessions that are less physiological, though I would argue no less physical, that can be equally consuming. Pride, or ego, power, leisure, possessions...vague ideas that we never feel like we have enough of and are therefore always hungry for more of. Epicurus basically said we must realize that the cycle of desire and fulfillment is endless. Cycling through it faster and faster will not get you anywhere new, but more likely destroy a person. The trick to slowing down the cycle is to learn to enjoy the craving within you as much as the fulfillment of it. Both are equally important to the delivery of satisfaction, but the average person obsesses over only one of them.

After all, when you are truly thirsty, nothing is as pleasurable as a simple glass of water.

You have probably heard the term 'epicure' used in modern language to describe someone who is picky about food or art because of their expensive tastes. This word does come from Epicurus, but ironically has a meaning almost entirely opposed to his views. Epicurus wanted to put so much emphasis on the control of human desire that he recommended abstaining from rich food and drink, sex and lavish possessions. Not exactly what you picture when you think of an epicure, but now you can see why he came up in the same radio program as Diogenes.

I enjoy seeing how ancient ideas about happiness and "the way things are supposed to be" have not changed much over time. Unfortunately, neither have they been implemented very effectively. There is much more to all of this than I have laid out here, so please research these characters and their ideas more on your own. In fact, in my efforts to only relay my favorite tidbits I have misrepresented them a bit here and there, so please don't consider this a philosophy lesson.

Also, check out Public Radio. Some of my favorite programs include:

To the Best of Our Knowledge
The Story
Speaking of Faith
This American Life

*Please note that live online broadcasts and archived podcasts now allow you to listen to radio programming almost anywhere, anytime. This means you can be listening even if you don't spend much time in your car.

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