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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

if nature makes you a hog, vaunt yourself in the muck

“The truth and virtue says La Mettrie, are “existences that have value only insofar as they are service to someone who possesses them… But lacking such and such a virtue, such and such a truth, will science and societies suffer? Let that be so, but if I don’t garner any advantages from them, I will suffer. Thus, is it for me or for others that reason orders me to be happy?” This is his commentary on Fontenelle’s phrase: If I had my hand full of truths, I’d beware of opening it.” Le Mettrie is, on this point, clearer and more frank than Helvetius. Besides, he doesn’t deny any more than the latter that the elevated instincts carry man towards a conduct that is, apparently, disinterested; but, according to him, men are made variously, and they must conform to their nature: “if nature makes you a hog, vaunt yourself in the muck, like hogs do; for you are incapable of enjoying a more elevated happiness.” – Guyau, Le Morale d’Epicure.

Plutarch saw the Epicureans as the enemy, and wrote an essay against them - ‘Against Colotes, the Disciple and Favorite of Epicurus” – which preserves certain of Epicurus’ writings and sayings. One of them, which is quoted with the imputation that Epicurus was conceited, was a sentence from Epicurus’s letter to Idomeneus, in which Epicurus thanks Idomeneus for sending him fruits to feed his – Epicurus’ - ‘sacred body’. The paradoxes thicken here, of course – for how can there be a sacred dimension if the Gods exist in supreme indifference to man? And how can there be a body at all that is ‘mine’ when it is actually a collection of atoms, as little mine as the drops in a river would form something distinct from the river?

Martha Nussbaum takes Epicurus’ phrase to be referring specifically to something sacred about Epicurus – the sacred body being the center of a hero cult. Thus, it is identified with one particular body, and says nothing about other human bodies. In this way, Epicurus’ remarks about his body are similar to Jesus’ remarks about his body – it was the body of the hero, the divinity, that was sacred.

Let’s say that Nussbaum is right. When a particular body has been singled out as something sacred, we have, of course, a charismatic moment. In a sense, the whole positional economy tends towards the charismatic – it is the absolute level of positioning, the good that cannot be traded. But it can be shared – by symbolic cannibalism, by sex, by the word. That sharing is a sacrifice – the absolute sacrifice of the sacred is to annihilate itself on the altar of the sacred, and thus renew itself – in a triumph of romance over logic. But that avenue is blocked for the Epicurean. Which is why I’d hypothesize – boldly – that the sacredness is connected or coordinated with the Epicurean notion of pleasure.

Whether or not this has any validity in the ancient context, in the seventeenth century context, in which Epicurus served as both a counter to the ascetism of the Church and a counter to the dualism of Descartes, the libertin legitimated volupté by claiming that it had its root in Epicurus’ thought. Volupté, for Bayle, for instance, was a sort of philosophical calming of desires – la beatitude de l’homme consiste à etre à son aise. Here is the forerunner of bourgeois comfort, which already had its art in thousands of Dutch paintings. Bayle refuted the idea that Epicureanism would mean having impure commerce with women, gluttony, intoxication. Rather, the Epicurean struggles against the unruly passions. That form of ascesis clears Epicure, in Bayle’s view, of the scandals associated with ‘volupté”.

However, sixty years later, Le Mettrie is already writing about acting as a pig if it is your nature to act as a pig. We are already moving from the dawn of embourgeoisement to the ethics of Pere Karamazov. Volupté is not as simple as it seems.

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