Epicurus-Browne-onblack


The secret to peace is to associate with others in activities you like, but avoid others’ activities that you don’t.

I generally shun pop music, sports, dancing, and religious events. Others avoid what I like — classical music, motorcycles, literature, and philosophy — but love their churches or clubs or poker games or what-have-you. So I don’t go to your mosque; you don’t go to the movies I do. I’ve never been in to a titty bar; you’ve never attended a performance of a string quartet. Whoopee.

This diversity of values and interests only becomes a problem when people insist that others conform to their values and share their obsessions. Really. This is about it.

From this follows my politics: we are best served when we keep obligations to a minimum; the basic duties should be few. Free people work around each other and cooperate as they see fit.

Everything above that is oppression and a recipe for strife.

People have different tastes and opinions. The only real trouble is how to navigate the differences, and the key is to bring force into as few of these debates and potential conflicts as possible.

I readily admit: we will often hurt each others’ feelings with our differing values. Of course. But the key to an open society is simple: adults have just got to buck up, get over the taking and giving of offense, and carry on. No one has to be liked by everybody. Love and inclusion are only achievable for small subsets of people. Avoid those whom you dislike. Try not to hate. Just don’t kill or steal, and, please, trade with honor.

The easiest way for “all to get along” is to refrain from doing too much together. The politicians’ eternal promise of “bringing us together” is the exact opposite of what is necessary. These yobs are snake-oil moralists. Avoid them, too, if you can.

Unanimity would be nice on the basic ground rules, the ones that establish our freedoms — justice — but even that may be a luxury.

I suspect Harry Browne said all this in his classic Seventies’ era self-help book, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World. Alas, I have never read the book. But I did read John Hospers’s review of it! He linked Browne’s approach to Epicureanism. And that was savvy.

Epicureanism was one of the three distinctly Hellenistic philosophies that aimed to help their practitioners find spiritual peace in a world of conflict, in distinctly philosophical, rather than religious or medical, ways. The general tenor of Epicureanism, like of Stoicism and Pyrrhonian skepticism, was to caution folks not to embroil themselves in matters outside their control. The locus of our control is individual. And that is why individuals should take responsibility for their lives by increasing their own agency and not dissipating their limited talents and strengths in causes and conflicts that cannot easily maintain personal direction. If one gets caught up in social movements, one becomes too dependent upon others. One’s investment in others is almost doomed to be liquidated to your own hurt.

But that does not mean that others should be shunned, that one had best live as a hermit. That is idiotic. Epicurus praised friendship, but did advise basic withdrawal from politics and religion and the Big Endeavors of life. (Very un-Randian of him.) Why? Because on the personal level you can navigate the social world, increase its benefit to you by reciprocal advantage, and, in the course of doing this, mimic the ideal polity (which in Epicurus’s own day was not possible to erect beyond small enclaves) of friendly people mutually combining for the limited purpose of security. (Epicurean political philosophy was utilitarian in a rather practical-contractarian sense.)

Times have changed since Epicurus’s day, of course. Our societies are democratic in several important ways, not just widespread franchise for majority votes on executives and legislators. Trial by jury; a basic set of rights that do find some legal purchase even against the police power; and common cultural habits that make freedom a part of vast domains of life (even if the State circumscribes us in increasingly restrictive and arbitrary ways). This democracy-as-social openness (what Tocqueville called “equality of conditions”) allows for a lot more citizen input, and a more hopeful view of social foundations. The State isn’t always out to get you. It is not always and everywhere a drain. (Though it still too often is. Hence our interest in reforms or stratagems to restrain political power further. The actual situation is that the voluntary sector of society is so productive that the political drag, or suck, still does not drain us utterly — at least we who are not under its direct tutelage as wards of the state — to offer more freedom than was available even under less intrusive governments of the American past.)

Despite the growth of the size and scope of the State, the basic complexion of modern life remains that of the open society. And that was not something Epicurus could do much more than imagine. Nevertheless, many of the biggest cultural “wars” of the present time all pick at the open society, as if it were a problem to be solved rather than what it is, a solution to our most basic problems.

I tell you a mystery: The great blessing of our open civilization is . . . indifference! We are indifferent to most people. We love a few, get along with many. But we drop contact when appropriate, which is most of the time.

This is OK. It is more than OK. It is of paramount importance.

Unfortunately, folks who are heavily acclimated to ideologies of love, inclusion, or even kindness (as are very different folks who view free people with suspicion, fear, and loathing) find this civilizational openness challenging. To say the least. But this civilizational and omnipresent indifference doesn’t invalidate communal values of love and inclusion, it just limits them. And it refocuses the idea of respect away from hierarchy and equality (two in-group possibilities) and other obsessions of the in-group to a deference to others’ differences, to their rights.

Nowadays, folks are confused by rights talk, and with reason. The idioms of rights are often made too much of, held to possess a metaphysical importance. Suffice it here to say that basic rights can only be of a limited scope, to be “right” at all.

All rights entail obligations, and all obligations are burdens at least technically.

Rights to freedom differ critically from rights of an allegedly “higher” nature, such as a right to sustenance or right to health care. Freedom rights merely oblige others not to interfere, forbidding aggression against persons (bodies) and justly acquired property. These do not require special services and vast wealth tributes. They do not even require, some say, submission to anything like a Leviathan state. They just require us to mind our own business.

By undergirding free association, which includes the ability not to associate, these rights set up the possibility for voluntary cooperation, particularly cooperation through trade. And here, with exchange cooperation, human beings encounter the full flowering of human potential. And this arises, without overarching plan or specific regulation, from folks determining, each to his own, what is in self that serves other(s) enough that some other(s) reciprocate.

This sets up a division of responsibility. And provides the groundwork for learning, improvement, progress.

Epicurus could not see the great advantages to be gained by an extensive market, in no small part because, in his day, the widespread use of slaves masked the potential of freedom. Mutual advantage, in the ancient world, seemed restricted to kinship, friendship, communal and political realms. The world of trade, so often dotted with fraud and plunder, seemed more a contest, more a combative endeavor.

Like all the Hellenistic philosophers, Epicurus turned inward. The sort of happiness he offered was peace through the removal of pains and unnecessary burdens: “ataraxia,” or ataraxy.

By dissolving the power of the ancient states — those limited-access orders of exploitation and elaborate hierarchies and status — early moderns opened up a distinct approach to social peace, a sort of ataraxy on the level of interaction: peace through the elimination of bothersome harms and force-fed service to The Good, however conceived. By cutting through the Gordian knot of politics by forswearing subservience to some particular set of values — Nation, Duty to God, the Religion of Humanity — humanity has opened up the possibility of happiness through the more spontaneous actions of freer interaction.

This is why I sometimes see this politics as a late flowering of Epicurean philosophy, a neo-Epicureanism. By taking care of the means, preventing the greatest evils and wrongs, and avoiding the traps that nature and the state “set” for us, the putative higher ends flourish not from united and compulsory endeavor, but from the emprise of people voluntarily working together.

Cross-posted at LocoFoco.Liberty.me.

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