Fiala on ethics: What is the recipe for living well?

September 20, 2013 

The recipe for a long healthy life is deceptively simple: eat well, exercise and learn to relax. The scientific consensus about this is clear. A recent study from University of California, San Francisco showed that diet, exercise and stress management can "extend life," as one recent headline put it.

While the data are encouraging, this is really old news. Similar ideas can be found in many of the world's ancient traditions, which emphasize moderation, exercise and self-control. One important source is Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher who taught the wisdom of a quiet life of moderate pleasure.

Our concern with healthy living and longevity is deeply Epicurean. The term "epicurean" is often connected to the idea of gourmet taste. But Epicurus does not advocate fancy dining. Over-indulgence is a problem. The solution is moderation and simple living.

But are we prepared to embrace the rest of the Epicurean philosophy? His ideas are summarized in four basic ideas that provide a formula for tranquility and happiness. Don't fear the gods. Don't worry about death. Remember that good is easy to obtain. And believe that suffering can be endured.

Epicurus downplays religion. He maintains that the gods have better things to do than to afflict or reward us. He also thinks that death is the end of consciousness. When you're dead, you won't know it. So there is no reason to fear death.

Instead, we should focus on healthy living. The key is to understand the nature of pleasure and our own desires. We should also remember that terrible things usually don't last forever. That bit of insight can help us avoid anguish and despair.

The Epicureans thought that proper understanding of the world helped to alleviate anxiety. They were among the first to argue that the world is made up of atoms and that the universe was governed by natural causes. They wanted to remedy the pernicious idea that mysterious powers were at work in earthquakes, storms, and disease.

Epicureans reject idealism. They are not interested in radical schemes for changing the world. They don't speculate about the afterlife or the end of time. Instead they focus on practical experience, which teaches that moderation and self-control create mental and physical health.

For the Epicurean, the best life is a private life, spent philosophizing in the company of good friends. Ethics, for the Epicureans, is focused on intimate relationships of reciprocal obligation and mutual care.

The Epicureans do not see the need to worry about distant horrors — wars and plagues and disasters — that do not affect us directly. And they warn against getting involved in politics. Ambition and struggles for power cause heartbreak and suffering.

Critics argue that Epicureanism is immoral and irreligious. The Epicureans give up eternal goods in exchange for mortal happiness that will vanish with death. Some claim that Epicureans are small-minded egoists who ignore the need to save the world.

For many centuries, the Christians opposed the Epicureans. The Apostle Paul encountered Epicurean philosophers in Athens in the first century. They seem to have mocked his idea of the resurrection of the dead. This set the stage for further Christian antagonism. Augustine — the fourth century theologian — explains that he was almost convinced that Epicurus was right. But Augustine rejected Epicureanism because he believed what Epicurus did not: that after death, the soul continues to live.

This dispute reminds us that our ideas about living well depend upon what we think about the deepest questions. Religious people might argue that while health and longevity are good, they are not the highest good. Some will even argue that our obsession with health, exercise and longevity are a kind of idolatrous worship of the body.

If there is another life, then physical health and longevity are not the most important thing. But if this is the only life we've got, then Epicurus is right: live modestly, eat well and enjoy your friends.

The doctors know what we should do to live a long healthy life. But they can't tell us what counts as living well. It's the philosophers and theologians who provide food for thought and mental exercises that help us think about the meaning of life.

 

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State. He invites your suggestions at fiala.andrew@gmail.com.

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