the pursuit of unhappiness is fundamental to liberty

“Thus, let us carefully keep the thirst for immortality within us from drying up; better to suffer gloriously in a great circle, than to be pierced by a thousand pins in some obscure corner of the world.” – Herault de Sechelles.

In following the figure of Epicure, and the notion of epicurean materialism, LI is following a thought that we have played with for some time. It is that the pursuit of happiness has distorted the civilizing metric that really counts, which is of the quality of one’s unhappiness. Only after a certain level of material comfort is achieved does the question of doing without that comfort take on a deliberate cast. To break the spell of that collection of habits that went into primitive accumulation requires having reached a point at which one can turn around – a point at which inversion is possible. To quote Buchner’s letter again: “The word must is one of the curses with which Mankind is baptized. The saying: It must needs be that offenses come; but woe to him by whom the offense cometh” is terrifying. What is it in us that lies, murders, steals? I no longer care to pursue this thought.” The must is stamped on that struggle to accumulate – it is stamped on the material economy. It is also stamped on the positional economy – and the place where the two meet is that which, in us, “lies, murders, steals”.

An essay by Pierre Hadot, “There Are Nowadays Professors of Philosophy, but not Philosophers,” picks up on the Epicurean strain in Thoreau’s Walden, especially in the account of the encroachment of labor, the habits of a utilitarian servility, upon the ‘vital heat' of the human.

If Thoreau thus leaves to live in the woods, this is evidently not only for maintaining his vital heat in the most economical way possible, but it is that he wants “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”11 “I wanted to live deep,” he writes, “and suck out all the marrow of life [. . .].”12 And among these essential acts of life, there is the pleasure of perceiving the world through all his senses. It is to this that, in the woods, Thoreau directs the largest part of his time. One never grows tired of rereading the sensual beginning of the chapter titled “Solitude”: “This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself. As I walk along the
stony shore of the pond in my shirtsleeves, though it is cool as well as cloudy and windy, ... all the elements are unusually congenial to me. [...] Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath; yet, like the lake, my serenity is rippled but not ruffled.”13 In this chapter Thoreau wants, moreover, to show that, even alone, he is never alone, because he is aware (conscience) of communing with nature: “I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself.” “The most sweet and tender, the most innocent and encouraging society may be found in any natural object [. . .].”14 Hence he perceives in the sound itself of raindrops, “an infinite and unaccountable
friendliness.”15 Each little pine needle treats him as a friend, and he feels something
related to him in the most desolate and terrifying scenes of Nature. “Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way?”16 Thus, the perception of the world extends itself into a sort of cosmic consciousness.17

All that I have written until now bears a remarkable analogy to Epicurean philosophy, but also to certain aspects of Stoicism. Firstly, we find again in Epicureanism this critique of the manner in which men habitually live that we encountered in the first pages of Walden. “Human beings,” says Lucretius, “never cease to labor vainly and fruitlessly, consuming their lives in groundless cares [. . .].”18

For the Epicureans of whom Cicero speaks, men are unhappy due to immense and hollow desires for riches, glory, and domination. “They are especially tormented when they realize, too late, that they pursued wealth or power or possessions or honour to no avail, and have failed to obtain any of the pleasures whose prospect drove them to endure a variety of great suffering.”19

Salvation (Le Salut) rests, for Epicurus, in the distinction between desires that are natural and necessary and that are related to the conservation of life; desires that are only natural, like sexual pleasure; and desires that are neither natural nor necessary, like [those for] wealth.20 Satisfaction of the first21 suffices, in principle, to assure man a stable pleasure and therefore happiness. This amounts to saying that, for Epicurus, philosophy consists essentially, as for Thoreau, in knowing how to conserve one’s vital heat in a wiser way than other men. With a certain desire for provocation analogous to the one of Thoreau, one Epicurean sentence in effect declares: “The cry of the flesh: not to be hungry, not to be thirsty, not to be cold. Whoever enjoys this state and hopes to continue enjoying it can rival even God himself in happiness.”22 Happiness is, therefore, easy to attain: “Thanks be given to blessed nature,” one Epicurean sentence says, “which makes necessary things easily achievable, and those things which are difficult to achieve unnecessary.”23 “Everything easy to procure is natural while everything difficult to obtain is superfluous.”24

The American counter truth to the Jeffersonian pursuit of happiness is Thoreau’s invocation of living deliberately. Living deliberately is perennially in the worse position, however, since to live deliberately in an intense positional market either sets one up for failure or detachment from reality – a detachment that is either bogus (as with spiritualist movements and self help) or passionately irrelevant (which so often seems to be the mocking double of academic theory). These are the conditions under which the sage has been purged from our culture. To ask about these conditions is to ask about happiness itself, and its decay from an ideal to a spiel.

Which is why I am going on and on about Danton’s Death and Epicurus. In case you were wondering.


Brian said…
Ah positional goods. The be all and end all of my life :(
roger said…
Brian, I'm finding the positional market to be a fascinating notion - very useful.
Brian said…
At least I can share my current positional good collecttion mania this year-red wine.

Sharing makes up a little bit for the horrible impact on budgets and credit card balances. I will never learn, it seems, until I am stuck in my dotage, broke, in the absolutely worst kind of "elder care home."
Scruggs said…
Brian, the positional market has more to do with relative status, marketizing intangibles, the destruction of moral sensibilities and the zero sum motherfucker lifestyle. In it, sharing and access to resources dilutes value.