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In the third and final part of his research paper, Prof. Ashoka critiques the Epicurean arguments to uncover layers of meanings. A Different Truths exclusive.
In a paper that has become a touchstone for subsequent work, Thomas Nagel wrangled with these Epicurean arguments in order to defend his claim that if there were “no limit to the amount of life that it would be good to have, it may be that a bad end is in store for all of us.” On the other hand, Bernard Williams defended an opposing Epicurean argument: Lucretius’s belief that we should be horrified by the idea of immortality as defined by traditional religion, Plato, and others. To Lucretius, immortality would be unbearably tedious. Sure, one might be able to stay fresh for the first several million years of teaching intro logic, for instance, but eternity is a very long time; it might start to get a little stale. Also, our personal identity tends to change a bit over time. I am different from what I was in my junior high days (perhaps not different enough for my wife); but after billions of years, is it plausible to think I will remain recognisably myself, and if not, does it then make sense to talk about my immortality?
David Hume found consoling, though Nabokov found terrifying, another argument from the Epicurean arsenal: the so-called symmetry argument. We normally do not spend much time fretting about our pre-vital existence before we were conceived. This is because we did not yet exist. If our future death is a relevantly similar state of nothingness, why then should we worry about death any more than we worry about our pre-vital nonexistence? Nabokov, however, in Speak, Memory (1951) describes a young chronophobe looking at family movies before his birth and experiencing panic at the thought that life had been going on earlier without him. He is terrified at seeing in these movies a brand-new baby carriage, “with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin,” empty on the porch, awaiting his birth as if “in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.”
If our future death is a relevantly similar state of nothingness, why then should we worry about death any more than we worry about our pre-vital nonexistence?
Again, different intuitions can be explained and defended here– Nabokov’s chronophobe might not have straight all his thoughts about the metaphysical grounds of his identity–but again our conclusions here will depend on a host of intertwining views about personal identity, and our attitudes toward past and future experiences (and nonexperiences, like death). To be sure, these Epicurean arguments are extractable from their ancient context as a set of difficult individual puzzles. But those who, in the spirit of Williams, are paying closer attention to their original context are starting to discover a set of wider implications for our conceptions of death and the ancient claim that philosophy is a form of thanatology.
The detailed work surrounding these questions can be fascinating and deeply stimulating to academics and students alike. Yet, how many people, even among the readers of this portal, are likely to be aware of any of it? Very few, I imagine. Many more instead will have come across literary critic Stephen Greenblatt’s recent Pulitzer Prize– winning bestseller about Lucretius: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Indeed, many of us obscurely labouring away on Lucretius for the past several decades suddenly became noticed with a new respect by our comparative literature colleagues, and for that puffing up of our chests we owe a debt of thanks.
Greenblatt’s book is a gripping historical thriller populated by brave new intellectuals who – inspired by the rediscovery and transmission of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura during the Italian Renaissance – try to save the world from pleasure-hating monks by means of a heady and modern mixture of materialism, sex, and quantum mechanics. It is undoubtedly a narrative tour de force. Of course, one does not have to be Bruno Latour to be vaguely suspicious of a tale in which our modernity depended on a single idea in a single text, especially since anyone familiar with the history of Epicureanism knows that there were many other avenues of transmission for these ideas, and that even confident Epicureans, like Pierre Gassendi, rejected the swerve as nonsensical. So, as much as I wish it were true, I am afraid I remain unpersuaded that the swerve made the world “modern,” whatever that means.
Greenblatt’s book is a gripping historical thriller populated by brave new intellectuals who… try to save the world from pleasure-hating monks by means of a heady and modern mixture of materialism, sex, and quantum mechanics.
But my purpose here is not to be polemical. I want to conclude with a question that Greenblatt’s book and its provocative title raise about the relation of philosophy to its audience, old and new. Gideon Rosen, a philosopher at Princeton, has recently made the claim that, despite all the current soul searching about the humanities, things are actually just fine. The problem is that humanists naturally have a tough time reaching a wider public because the ideas they deal with are too complicated to be encapsulated in the sort of bullet points and simple narratives that the layperson comfortably digests. For Rosen, the problem is essentially one of bad press coupled with an intellectually inert public. If their lids get heavy when faced with detailed arguments about actualist comparativism, and if they prefer a memorable but misleading catchphrase about the swerve making us modern, that is their fault and not ours.
The problem is that humanists naturally have a tough time reaching a wider public because the ideas they deal with are too complicated to be encapsulated in the sort of bullet points and simple narratives that the lay person comfortably digests.
I wonder, however, if the problem really only goes in one direction. Especially with respect to today’s philosophers, I wonder whether, as they fall further into jargon-filled specialisms, they not only are forfeiting an ability to communicate their ideas to the public, to colleagues in other departments, and even to their own colleagues, but also are risking the loss of something essential to philosophy itself. John Venn, the greatest English logician before Russell, makes this point in The Logic of Chance (1866), a book that philosophers
“No science can safely be abandoned entirely to its own devotees…”, said John Venn.
In a way, perhaps not untimely, there has been a recent resurgence of interest (among those working in ancient philosophy) in Roman philosophers, especially Cicero and Seneca. Scholars are trying to understand how Roman philosophers managed to fashion a public discourse that was not only far from being “cramped” in Venn’s sense, but that was also able to address the most pressing challenges of the day, all the while armed with philosophy’s most technical arguments. As we face our own greatest challenges – the environment, questions of equality and justice, our relations to animals, gender – we can perhaps hold on to the hope that ancient philosophers will not only continue to be of use in presenting us with issues that are not empty and boring, but also that the philosophers of old might again teach today’s tongue-tied philosophers to begin to find a voice that can speak to and, in turn, be criticised by “those whose main culture has been of a more general character.”
©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
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