While thinking about the modern religion – or cult – of environmentalism, which seems to be a throwback to an irrational era, I found myself reading Peter Jones’ Guide To The Classics. I say ‘found myself reading’ because, looking in a darkened room for something to read, I decided to read the first book my groping hands encountered. And this was it.
It’s been a delight to read, and particularly to read about Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who lived outside Athens in 340 BC, and who taught philosophy in his garden. Epicurus, it seems, did not like religion.
For Epicurus, humanity is plagued by one central obsession – the fear of death. To escape this domination, we engage in all sorts of distractions: we seek for power, fame, honour, fortune, glory, reputation. The result is that life is hell. Epicurus therefore studies the nature of the world in order to find grounds for removing this debilitating fear. He is looking to do two things: first, to show that the gods have no interest in us; second that we do not survive death and therefore have nothing to fear in the afterlife.
Epicurus looked to the atomic theory of matter to prove his thesis… Epicurus argues that the world consists not of pneuma but of indivisible atoms and void. Epicurus argues that everything is made up of these atoms – man, his soul, even the gods . This leaves the way open for Epicurus to argue that since we and our souls are nothing but atoms, then at death we and our souls dissolve and return to the great atom pool in the sky. So there is no afterlife, and nothing to fear in death. As for the soul, Epicurus agrees there is such a thing but believes it has nothing to do with the gods or reason: it simply transmits sensations from the body to the mind, and impulses from the mind to the body.
The question Epicurus now has to tackle is whether the gods take any interest in us… If gods really are gods, they must be perfectly happy. Why on earth in that case should they wish to create the world in the first place, let alone interest themselves in us? The conclusion must be that the world was not even created by the gods: it was born and will die, as a necessary consequence of being created by chance out of atoms…
This seemed a strikingly modern view of life. The modern scientific view of the world is more or less exactly as Epicurus describes it. Everything and everyone is made of atoms, which come together at birth, and fly apart at death. If Epicurus believed we have souls (and his idea of soul seems more like a central nervous system than anything) it’s probably because it was widely believed back then that living things were animated by a soul, and death came when the animating soul left the body. We moderns – or at least the atomists among us – would probably say that death comes when a living body runs out of energy, like a car running out of gas. Interestingly, this ‘energy’ stuff has no mass or volume, much like ‘soul’.
Epicurus pretty much described how I look at life, coming up on 2,500 years later. I think that when I die, I will disintegrate into my component atoms, which will return to ‘the great atom pool in the sky’. And that there’s no afterlife to worry about.
In fact, the idea of an afterlife is arguably one which grows out of using the ‘soul’ model of life. After death, the soul which, by virtue of being the animating principle of life, could not die, had to linger on indefinitely, in bliss or woe. Or would do so until it was re-united with its former body, and had brought it back to life. It’s not too difficult to construct an afterlife of the soul in which it experiences Heaven or Hell and also Resurrection. One might suggest that Christian cosmology (or perhaps eschatology is the right word) was simply built upon Greek and Roman foundations, and represented a growing body of theory about what happened to the immortal soul after death – a subject in which the Greeks and Romans had unaccountably little interest.
The idea of an animating soul was common knowledge in Ancient Greece. Everybody knew about it. And the Christian extension of that idea (already prefigured in Ancient Egypt) into an indefinitely long afterlife, was state-of-the-art, cutting-edge thinking by about 300 AD. Anybody who had their heads screwed on, and had been reading the latest theological blockbusters hot from the scriptoria, stopped fretting about the brief interval of life before death, and started fretting instead about the interminable ages of their life after death.
If they’d followed Epicurus, however, they wouldn’t have bothered. Because Epicurus’ soul-atoms would have become as widely dispersed as body-atoms, and would have been recycled over and over again, much like the components of used cars.
Having established that the gods have no concern for us and that there is no afterlife, Epicurus now has to tackle the ethical problem of what the good life is and how we can lead it… His theory derives from his beliefs about hedonism (Greek hedone – ‘pleasure’) that absence of physical or mental pain is the key to happiness. The word is ataraxia, ‘freedom from anxiety’. This does not mean eternal self-indulgence. A hangover is painful. Nor does it mean asceticism, out of fear that pleasure may turn nasty on you… The ultimate aim, in fact, is to become like the gods – self-sufficient, undisturbed and unaffected by anything.
The implication of Epicurus’ philosophy is that life has no awesome, ultimate purpose. It has no aim, no greater end in view. One lives, free from anxiety, and dies. That is that.
This is also rather strikingly modern. It prefigures Benthamite happiness-maximizing Utilitarianism. And Jeremy Bentham was a fan of Epicurus.
Our new healthist environmentalists are, of course, obsessed with death in much the same way Epicurus could see in his own time. Death must be delayed as long as possible, by not smoking, drinking, or eating too much. And while the elaborate Christian afterlife of the immortal soul may have vanished, there still remains the indefinite human future, the future of our children and our children’s children and our children’s children’s children (lots of chiiiildren there, note). This long succession of children, stretching into the future, has replaced the idea of soul as something to worry about in the centuries and millennia ahead. Their ‘afterlife’ will only be as good as whatever we bequeath to them, in terms of looted resources, poisoned lands, radioactive fallout, etc. It is our duty, in this our brief interval of life, to prepare for that afterlife, by not polluting the planet with CO2 and tobacco smoke and Tesco plastic bags, and by minimizing our consumption of more or less everything, in order to ensure that their lives are not a living Hell. We must live ‘sustainably’ – i.e. in a manner that can last for a few thousand or perhaps even a few million years -. And if the human race dies out in the next one hundred years, it will be your fault, for not having lived on a diet of muesli and mung beans, and having flown to Spain for your undeserved holidays.
One afterlife has been replaced by another afterlife, much like an old valve radio is replaced by a modern transistor radio. And when it’s plugged in and switched on, the same message comes out of the new radio as came out of the old radio. Don’t enjoy this life. Prepare instead for the next life.