Living with less – Humanism inspired by Epicurus

By | 20 Jul 2015

Photo of smoking chimney stacks in London, CanadaHuman success as a species has caused many grave problems.

  • Overpopulation, too many people vying for the Earth’s finite resources.
  • Overconsumption, too many people wanting material goods and energy so that the earth cannot provide for the billions of us.
  • Loss of biodiversity, as humans appropriate more and more of the planet for our use.
  • Pollution, huge volumes of waste and toxic human-made products polluting water, air and land.
  • Global warming, caused primarily by humans; already weather patterns and animal and plant distributions have changed, the oceans are acidifying, glaciers and ice caps are melting.

Individually we can take measures that address these problems, but if the majority are not doing the same then little is achieved. Governments typically driven by a growth and consumption economy expect science and technology to provide solutions. But is more of the same a rational response when the problems are threatening to overwhelm us?

An alternative is to radically change the way we live – use less energy, consume less, more recycling, conserve what is left of natural ecosystems, have fewer children, source goods and services locally i.e. live with less.

Could a Humanist worldview offer any directives on living with less? Yes, because Humanism is an open-ended worldview guided by reason and the best available evidence.

Since the 1830s Humanism has been recognised as a secular worldview that articulates an ethical responsible life based on reason and experience; its central focus, as the term indicates, are humans. However, modern Humanism now includes statements expressing concern for other species and the environment, unsurprisingly these are recent additions.

For example the Amsterdam Declaration 2002 includes the following sentence, under point 4:

Humanism insists that personal liberty must be combined with social responsibility. Humanism ventures to build a world on the idea of a free person responsible to society, and recognises our dependence on and responsibility for the natural world.

Our HSV introductory leaflet has the following under Ethical Values:

Humanists value human rights and environmental protection as set out in the declaration of the United Nations.

Further, in submissions and letters to authorities, HSV regularly expresses a firm commitment to conserving the natural environment. Do we need to go further and incorporate a stronger message within Humanism in response to the environmental problems listed above?

The Humanist worldview had its origins back in ancient Greek and Roman times, so going back to our foundational thinkers is a good place to start. Luke Slattery, in his recent book, Reclaiming Epicurus, points to a way to incorporate concern for other species and the environment into a Humanist worldview. The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BCE) led a group of followers – men, women, free citizens and slaves – to live in a semi-rural retreat out of Athens. Their guiding principle was the pursuit of pleasure, which they understood not so much as the fulfilment of desire as its rational mastery. A few surviving writings by Epicurus explain, his egalitarian band of followers aimed to live frugally and at peace amid ‘nature’s wealth’. Epicurus urged followers to ‘learn to be content with what satisfies fundamental needs, while renouncing what is superfluous’.

Epicurean schools of philosophy flourished in Greek settlements, and were influential with many Romans. However, along with other philosophy schools, these were closed down after the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity. Fortunately, during the Renaissance, the human-centred ideas from Greek and Roman times were rediscovered by the first humanist scholars.

The final paragraph of Reclaiming Epicurus starts:

If epicurean ideals were actively at work in our world they would serve to moderate our mania for more gadgets and consumer goods, cool the culture of insatiability, reconnect us to community and rephrase our conversation about happiness. The acquisitive impulse would be checked by a deeper sensitivity to nature. We might not work so hard. We would prize  relaxation over acquisition. For as the Epicurean reminds us, true pleasure – such as the pleasure of friendship and the enjoyment of simple things – is easily attained. But these Epicurean constraints are perfectly consistent with a creative economy, with the rationalism of science, with change and dynamism, with social evolution.

Guided by Epicurean values such as these, Humanism can be made to be far more instructive on the enormous environmental problems humanity currently faces.

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