Retreat: The Epicurean Response to PoliticsSubmitted by Sophron on Mon, 02/03/2014 - 03:31
"Ron Paul cured my apathy" is familiar to most of us here. More than just a slogan, it is a personal story for many of us. As formerly jaded observers on the fringes of public life (or worse, trapped in the false dichotomies presented by the newspapers), we were drawn into activism on behalf of our republic by the great dramas of 2008 and 2012. A substantial number of us served as delegates, coordinated meet-ups, or simply donated to candidacies and PACs (something few of us would have considered before), and even now many of us are working hard to exert influence within county and state party organizations. But regardless of our particular circumstance and the nature of our contributions, we have chosen to care, to take on the burden of possible frustration and disappointment, to devote energies and attention to steering the ship of state.
But is it worth it? Certainly, we can come up with reasons for engagement: love of our people, our children, our God-given freedoms, the pain of witnessing our formerly-great republic fade before our eyes. There is, though, a tension at the heart of our movement, since the same love for freedom that brings some here also pushes some away. They become, in their own words, "post-political," and focus instead on such projects as living off the grid, achieving sufficiency and autonomy, generally trying to preserve themselves from the aggression of others as much as possible. Philosophically, they develop and drift in a somewhat different direction and are less caught-up in the drama of the electoral cycle. Some may not even bother voting at all, and take that as a point of pride, arguing that voting constitutes consent for tyranny. Granted, these two ideals are not exclusive; some of the most vocal activists are also those involved in these other affairs.
This split precedes the liberty movement itself, but it is particularly visible here because of competing visions of a free life and whether one can truly achieve freedom while mired in the dirtiness of politics. We see an antecedent to this divide in the different directions taken by two great friends from Roman antiquity, the Stoic statesman Cicero and the wealthy banker Atticus, who adopted the Epicurean philosophy and chose to distance himself from the political life.
The Epicureans were hedonists and materialists, esteeming pleasure the only good and rejecting the role of the supernatural in the universe, but the Epicurean ideal of pleasure was not debauchery, which would only result in future pain, but moderation and temperance. Just outside Athens, Epicurus and his followers established a philosophical commune in a garden, symbolizing retreat from the troubles of city life and politics, although Epicurus taught that if his philosophy were followed, even a slave could achieve happiness.
An Epicurean portrayal of the upheaval inherent in the political life, contrasted with the peace and quiet of a well-ordered life of retreat, can be found in Lucretius' De Rerum Natura 5.1105-1135. (Translation here by Anthony M. Esolen, emphasis mine)
Kings founded cities then, and citadels
As garrisons for themselves or hideaways,
And parceled out the cattle and land according
To beauty or intelligence or strength.
(For strength and a lovely face were highly prized.)
Then property was established and gold found,
Stealing the honor from the strong and handsome.
For the mob all flocks to the rich man's following,
Even those blessed with strength and lovely bodies.
But if true reason governs how one lives,
To have great wealth means to live sparingly,
With a clear heart: small wants are always met.
But men were avid for high rank and rule
To set their fortunes on a steadfast basis,
To prosper and to lead their lives in peace--
In vain, for while men battled to the top
They left a road of treachery behind,
Then off that summit as if thunderstruck
They'd be flung by Envy down to hell in scorn--
For as lightning strikes the summit in most cases,
So envy scorches the most prominent.
Thus it's far more satisfying to serve in quiet
Than to want to rule the world and hold a throne.
Let them weary themselves and sweat their blood for nothing,
Choking their way through the narrows of ambition,
For all they know comes from what others tell them,
They trust in rumor and not in their own senses,
And that's the way it is, and was, and will be.
When the kings were slain, the ancient majesty
Of the proud scepter and throne lay toppled over
And that bright bloody crown of the Lord's head
Mourned its lost honor under the tread of mobs
Who gleefully trampled what they once had feared.
The crisis of the liberty movement is that, while it liberty might begin as a political question, concerned with the distribution of coercion in society, it suggests answers that often run in an entirely anti-political direction. In history, the answer to "What can I do to become free?" is often "Run away!" It is true with refugees in war-zones today, and it was true in the slave societies of the Atlantic world. Running into the jungle might be the obvious course when trapped on a sugar plantation by a menacing overseer, but what is preventing you now from making a similar retreat, along Epicurean lines?
Addendum: Petrarch on Cicero
The Italian poet Petrarch, one of the founders of Renaissance humanism, wrote two letters to Cicero, who by that time had been dead well over a thousand years. This might seem to be an odd choice, but it was part of the project of engaging with antiquity in a novel and comprehensive way. Petrarch was consciously a Ciceronian, imitating Cicero's Latin style, and admired Cicero's talents of oratory and as a philosopher (or interpreter of philosophy), but he took great umbrage at Cicero's engagement with politics. After all, it was political life that consumed so much of that talented man's time and energy and ultimately led to his downfall and violent end.
Petrarch's character was that of a melancholic introvert, so perhaps his critique is informed by his own disposition, but it seems that he had little esteem for statecraft as such, and especially not for people with other talents. Here is a link to two letters he wrote to Cicero, translated into English, from the Internet History Sourcebook at Fordham University.
I extract two passages from his first letter to Cicero from 1345; the emphasis is mine.
Now it is your turn to be the listener. Hearken, wherever you are, to the words of advice, or rather of sorrow and regret, that fall, not unaccompanied by tears, from the lips of one of your successors, who loves you faithfully and cherishes your name. O spirit ever restless and perturbed in old age-I am but using your own words-self involved in calamities and ruin! what good could you think would come from your incessant wrangling, from all this wasteful strife and enmity? Where were the peace and quiet that befitted your years, your profession, your station in life? What Will-o'-the-wisp tempted you away, with a delusive hope of glory; involved you, in your declining years, in the wars of younger men; and, after exposing you to every form of misfortune, hurled you down to a death that was unseemly for a philosopher to die? Alas! the wise counsel that you gave your brother and the salutary advice of your great masters, you forgot. You were like a traveller in the night, whose torch lights up for others the path where he himself has miserably fallen.
Ah! How much better it would have been, how much more fitting for a philosopher, to have grown old peacefully in the country, meditating, as you yourself have somewhere said, upon the life that endures for ever, and not upon this poor fragment of life; to have known no fasces, yearned for no triumphs, found no Catilines to fill the soul with ambitious longings ! All this, however, is vain. Farewell, forever, my Cicero.
Not all of those involved in the humanist movement shared this outlook on the futility of political life. Leonardo Bruni, coming a few generations later, was a statesman as well as a scholar and is regarded as the father of civic humanism. He believed in a notion of engaged citizenship, and followed Cicero in his commitment to both scholarship and political service.