Day Five: Politics

Epicurus prudently advised his followers to abjure politics, on the eminently sensible grounds that it would only cause needless distress. The excrement-slinging chimps’ tea party antics that pass for political discourse these days – the one area of public life where hate speech is still OK apparently – only strengthens the force of Epicurus’ argument. For those of us disengaged from such rancorous partisanship and dissatisfied with the supposed alternatives on offer (“meet the new boss, same as the old boss”) there doesn’t seem to be much we can do. Should we go along with Epicurus, then, and turn our backs on the whole damned circus? A life of calm philosophical contemplation in the Epicurean garden certainly seems an attractive alternative to me, albeit somewhat impractical. Perhaps instead this neo-Epicurean idea of a Life Lived According to the Evidence, the one I’ve been tentatively sketching in the previous days, might offer some helpful hints. Let’s give it a try and see what happens.

I’ve stressed already that evidence is almost always uncertain, subject to revision based on new findings, and wholly dependent upon the most rigorous standards of research. That’s all very well in a laboratory, but how can it help us with the untidy, chaotic and disputatious arena of politics? What might an evidence-based party manifesto look like?

Politics from an evidence-based perspective isn’t really such a weird idea though. Political beliefs, like all our other beliefs, are presumably founded on some sort of evidence (see Day Two for more about that), or so we would like to believe if we wish to count ourselves as rational beings. I’m suggesting that what party politics does is add a distorting filter. Evidence in and of itself is not partisan; the use we choose to make of it certainly is. That’s how traditional politics divides us: as soon as we’ve put the blue or red or green (or what have you) filter over our eyes, the neutral evidence magically takes on our chosen hue. Confirmation bias wipes out any last vestiges of impartiality as evidence is egregiously cherry-picked: it now either supports our chosen allegiance – hurrah! let’s tell everyone – or it doesn’t – boo! it must be flawed, let’s ignore it.

A Life Lived According to the Evidence, then, is a refusal to put on the coloured filters in the first place. But if evidence is avowedly neutral, how does it help us with matters of public policy? Politics-as-Usual argues that we need something more than just the vanilla ingredient that is scientific, empirical, impartial evidence; specifically we need to embed such evidence within a framework of views and opinions that guide us on the correct way to use it. We must first adopt a party political position on what is best for society. Only then can we decide which evidence is relevant.

That’s where I part company with the political mindset. I don’t deny that my politically active friends have sincere views on what is right for our government, right for our country, and right for ourselves. What I do doubt is that those views are based on an entirely disinterested scrutiny of all the available evidence. Take, for example, the issue of GM foods. On both sides there are bitter disputes. What does the evidence say? Again, bitter disputes arise, as there seems to be good evidence for and against. But is there really? Are we in fact viewing the evidence through one of those political filters (however subtly, however covertly)? The right question to ask in such cases is: what does the vast majority of the best and most scrupulous scientific research conclude? I suspect a clear-eyed, filter-less survey of all the evidence would allow a reasonable consensus to emerge. That’s probably not a task an individual could carry out unaided, but a government certainly could – at least a fantasy government motivated to investigate the facts with no prior brief or position to uphold (needless to add, no such government exists!) If, for example, after such an exhaustive and careful government-level survey, GM turns out to be more efficient and more productive than organic farming, then there seems no rational reason not to accept GM food.

But what if there is no easy right/wrong answer: is nuclear power safe? will Brexit be beneficial or harmful? should we support military intervention in another country? Surely this is where politics comes into its own? Taking a neutral, non-partisan view scarcely seems possible, and certainly seems impractical. When evidence is equivocal, when evidence is insufficient, can we just suspend our judgement? Can we really admit that we just don’t know what to do? Isn’t politics in the end all about acting confidently in the face of uncertainty?

Here’s where Epicurus comes back in to the mix. Remember, he advised us to steer well clear of such vexatious debates in the first place. He asked us instead always to consider what best promotes our mental and physical well-being. Beyond achieving those basic requirements (easy to do, according to Epicurus) most things are unnecessary if not actively undesirable. Many of the apparently big political questions of our time contribute nothing to the tranquillity of our minds or the health of our bodies. So Epicurus would tell us to ignore them. In other words, the reason why we get so worked up about politics is that we’ve got our priorities all wrong. The evidence tells us, he argued, to focus attention on the well-being of mind and body. By extension, any wider political activity ought to be concentrated solely on creating a society in which such well-being can flourish.

And that’s it. If only we could redirect our energies from party-political factions to promoting our own well-being, and that of everyone around us, all else would follow. If a course of action increases well-being, we should probably do it, if not, not. That’s probably the shortest political manifesto in history. But Epicurus challenges us to ask, what else do you really need?

*              *             *

 Epicurus: Vatican Sayings

  1. “We must free ourselves from the prison of everyday affairs and politics.”

Epicurus: Fragments

  1. “Happiness and blessedness do not belong to abundance of riches or exalted position or offices or power, but to freedom from pain and gentleness of feeling and a state of mind that sets limits that are in accordance with nature.”

Epicurus: Principal Doctrines

  1. “It is impossible to live pleasantly without living prudently, well, and justly, nor is it possible to live prudently, well, and justly without living pleasantly.”
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4 thoughts on “Day Five: Politics

  1. Right on the mark again, Mark. And while it is there, though more in passing, I would stress levels of political activity which turns in part on our individual situations. Were we born into the Kennedy clan, for example, where our advantages give us greater capacity to participate in this activity and make a difference adding to the pleasure of accomplishment. Or were we Epicurean Thos. Jefferson who lived long enough to enjoy many years of a peaceful retirement as well as managing to incorporate the joys of friendship in his political skirmishes. His is another example of how fate plays a large role in our choices.

    If we are born with average skills, determination and limited connections then it is advisable as you write, to withdraw from the political fray, with a notable exception: devoting time to improving one’s local circumstances since we have more control over the outcomes. This is what I would enlarge on in Day Five. I would also expand on different kinds of involvement that augment community political action such as say Rotary and other nonprofit efforts.

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    1. Thanks for your comments Tom, much appreciated. Someone on Facebook complained that I didn’t mention “pleasure” so can’t be properly Epicurean apparently. Well I guess I never said I was. But I do nevertheless think “Well-Being” is a good modern equivalent for the Epicurean notion (Vatican Saying #33) captured by Juvenal’s “mens sana in corpore sano”. I’m not trying to say retreat from all public life or issues, rather suggesting that Epicurean politics would eschew our current and poisonous party political divides in favour of an emphasis on what the modern phrase “Well-Being” seems to capture.

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  2. However, it is a much repeated fallacy that Epicureans were not and should not be involved in politics. It is usually forgotten that Epicurus also said that he would not dissuade someone from pursing a career in politics if it would bring them happiness and security. There were many Roman Epicureans involved in politics, including Caesar’s father in law, Fronto who was a consul, the highest office of the Republic. Caesar’s legal advisers were also adherents of the Epicurean school, possibly Caesar himself was also a follower of Epicurus. This in part may explain some of the antipathy Cato the Younger, a Stoic, felt for Caesar. There were Epicurean officers in the Roman army and Atticus, a well known Epicurean, maintained good relations with both sides during the Civil War, often at peril to himself and it was only his reputation for even handedness which saved him. Diogenes of Oinoanda erected a huge public monument at his own expense and there were many Epicureans involved in public life. Indeed there is no recorded instance of the stereotypical ‘hippy commune’ of Epicureans isolating themselves from the world and living a hedonistic lifestyle. The reality of the classical Epicureans was so much more complex and nuances than we give them credit for.

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    1. Thanks so much for your contribution Christopher. I think I’m just trying to make a point about MODERN party political factionalism. Atticus is probably a great role model for how to avoid that sort of thing while remaining active in public life.

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