Aristotle, Epicurus, and Voltaire

by Andrea Elizabeth

While driving this morning I listened to three podcast readings of the works of these philosophers. I found agreeable and disagreeable things in all three. Before, I would dismiss these guys out of hand because a disagreeable statement would corrupt the whole guy and prove that you can only rely on the Bible. But now I am trying to open myself to people as people first, and these points of agreement and disagreement are just interesting things to talk about peaceably. Becoming one with the truth is a more mystical process than just weeding out things to mentally assent to. For those things I rely on the Church exclusively, who guides me in how to read the Bible even. Correct mental assention is an important thing, but only on what the Church says dogmatically. Not that everything else is up for grabs, but that the attainment of virtue also includes loving sinners, of whom I am first. And loving them does not always have to be tough. Authoritarianism is something I’m backing off from at the moment, who knows how long it will last, probably until I think about all the stuff on the floor in my boys’ room – but they’re in college right now so it will have to wait. But I digress, my main point is, as Arturo indirectly pointed me to yesterday to the incapsulated words of Pierre Hadot, “Philosophy is primarily a practice before being a theory.” And so I enjoyed the conversation about concepts such as pleasure and pain, tyranny, freedom, friendship, and poetics, even if I did not agree with all the maxims, which I found at times contradictory. Not that I agree with the law of non-contradiction which violates unity in Christ. I want to get back to distinctions at some point.

Aristotle’s Poetics introduce elements of tragedy mainly, while remarking on poetry mostly critically but also somewhat objectively, as when he talks about universals vs. particulars. He said action drives a tragedy, and that character is second. I want to listen to this again because my unfamiliarity with all the concepts limited my absorption first time through. But what I was dissatisfied with was the neat and tidyness and contrivance enclosed in the description of the completeness found in the tragic plot. Life is messier than that, and I feel it manipulates our emotions with the admitted goal of causing sympathy, and something else I forget. Also death is not really The End.

Which brings me to Epicurus, in his Principle Doctrines, thinking that death is the end of all pain and everything else. He was right about the unprofitability of some pleasures though. I don’t want to go into a treatise on denying our passions, but will for the sake of peace try to agree that a passionately indulgent life ultimately does not bring pleasure, which is a worthy goal. We just have to lift our sights. He also brought out, I think, that one should not disengage from his senses, but then said that certain desires, if rationally concluded will bring about more pain than pleasure, can be cut off. So he introduces a war between the mind and the senses, with the mind being the ultimate worthy victor, which seems contradictory to his main focus to me. He says that if there were no pain, we would not need science, and I don’t know if his elevation of natural science over fear of the influence of higher and lower powers is a result of his acknowledging pain in the world and preferring that approach to appeasing the gods, or if he is again contradicting himself in elevating rationality over the senses. In exploring distinctions at some point, I also want to explore making peace between the senses, including emotions, pleasure and pain, and the mind.

Lastly Voltaire. In his Selections from the Philosophical Dictionary, he presents, after sharply criticizing the Catholic Church, an idealistic view of Theism and tolerance which reminded me of the Declaration of Independence, as of course it would. But his scathing view of tyrants did not sound very tolerant to me. And that was a contradictory thing that I did not agree with. To me Ghandi was a less hypocritical tolerator of tyrants. I don’t want to villify all self-defensive actions, as I do deeply appreciate the soldiers who liberated people from Nazi rule, even if their leaders paved the way for Communism in eastern Europe, but I’ll leave that for others to discuss. Regarding self-defense, it seemed to me that Voltaire and Epicurus where mainly concerned with it, which seemed a bit unbalanced in the ideal scheme of things, but who of us is totally balanced anyway? Self-defense says that I am more worthy than you, and that may be true sometimes, but I don’t have enough experience or perspective to comment more on that at this time. Same goes for following heart or mind or how to unite those. I don’t trust my heart, and I don’t know what to do about it because I allow myself moments where I let it out, which I am insecure about.

Back to Aristotle’s Poetics, he seems to put actions first, then person, then essence (which can be seen as virtue). Putting philosophical concepts first, which can also be seen as essence, is also out of order. Not to pit them against each other, but the correct order of person, actions, and then essence may correct some of what’s bothers me in dramatic, or even poetic demonstrations. There is a philosophical concept of “being”, and we don’t want to be too ethereally passive about that, which would make a boring story – (forgive my encoding this sentence) philosophy /essence -> story/action. Actually being is an action anyway, so it confuses essence/philosphy and action/story. A character/person driven story would be real life (if you believe in free will) which is open-ended, at least till judgment day, and who knows after that. So is neat and tidy fiction not worth while? I’m sure it is, because I am told so and I intuit that my deep satisfaction with some stories is not all bad. Though I am increasingly dissatisfied with stories, which may be more about having outgrown them after getting over certain stages, or just not relating for some other objective reason, or about avoiding things that tempt me in a direction I don’t want to go, than there being anything “wrong” with them, again combatting my dismissive attitude. So am I combatting being dismissive because rationality should prevail over subjective experience, or because prejudice and judgmentalism are ultimately unpleasant, or because they are wrong/not like Christ.