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Rational Epicureanism

( Originally Published 1908 )

Thou wilt show me the path of life; in thy presence is fullness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for-evermore.

Hebrew Poetry.

It is impossible to crowd all the many meanings of human life into one word. Were we to listen only to poets and artists and musicians, we might conclude that the term beauty is a sufficient ex-planation of existence. After spending a few hours reading a history of philosophy, one might almost think that earth was created for the purpose of furnishing an arena for the display of speculative thought. If Goethe or Matthew Arnold is followed, personal culture seems to be the aim most worth seeking. In the market place, life is summed up in the, word business. In a revival meeting, the salvation of the soul crowds out all other aims. In our land there is a group of rich and idle young men and women intent only upon personal pleasure. Present enjoyment is the purpose of existence.

But this form of specialization is clearly an error. Our life is much too complex in its organization and too varied in its powers and wants to be satisfied continuously with one form of good. The soul has as many faces as a crystal, and, in turn, each of them wishes to reflect the light.

Archimedes rushed from his room to the street and cried out : "I have found it !" What had he found? He had found a method of estimating how much alloy a dishonest goldsmith had mixed in King Hiero's crown, when he had been ordered to make it of pure gold. A valuable discovery, indeed, but much was left undiscovered that was no less valuable. Thus no one should hastily conclude that, because he has found something very attractive in business or learning or personal culture or personal pleasure, there are not many other things fully as worthy of pursuit.

The bass drum is a simple instrument. It is easily tuned and easily played. But its range of expression is rather limited. There are many things in music which its one tone is powerless to interpret. So is it with life. It is not like a bass drum. It is a whole orchestra. In order to interpret existence, in all its moods, many simple and complex instruments are required. The surface of being is so irregular in its construction,—like earth, so diversified with hills and vales, deep, dark canons alternating with lofty, shining peaks,—that no theory will perfectly fit it. There is no form of government, no principle of philosophy, no creed of religion that fully meets the demands of the soul in all the days and years of its marvelous existence. Earth is always rolling forward in an encompassment of sunshine, but always a part of it is swathed in gloom. So, theories which account for some, leave other facts unexplained. Each hemisphere needs another hemisphere as its complement; and each doctrine of existence demands another doctrine to complete the circle. The moment the word Fatalism is pronounced, the mind instantly recalls the word Freedom,—as when we say odd it is by contrast with even. Gnosticism, which means knowing, made Agnosticism, which means not knowing, necessary. For the same reason, Pessimism was needed to balance Optimism. Neither word expresses perfectly the actual present condition of existence. Our world is not as bad or as good as it might be. It is a mixture of good and evil, and nothing is gained by denying the existence of either. The sane mind recognizes the real condition of the world and endeavors to get along with it as well as possible.

It is not an unusual form of error or human weakness to judge of the whole world from an individual or passing experience. Job wrote : "Man is born to trouble as the sparks to fly upward." The figure is strong and picturesque ; but, unmodified, it is not entirely truthful. That was the way life appeared to one who had lost property and children and friends; who was ill; and who was sitting in an ash-heap. But while he was in this condition there were others who were not ill nor poor nor bereft, and who might have written from their own experience : "Man is born to happiness as the sparks to fly upward." When Solomon wrote:

"All is emptiness," he was mistaken. He committed the error of generalizing from an individual experience. To the drunken man all things seem drunk-en. The ground seems to be rising and falling; houses and trees are staggering. So, one may mistake the emptiness of his own life for the emptiness of the world.

Cicero wrote to his wife : "If you and Tullia are well, I am well." This is a fine expression of conjugal and parental affection, and, as such, passes unchallenged. But as one may mistake his own misery, so one may mistake his own happiness for the misery or happiness of the world. If you and Tullia are well, I am well; and, if we three are well, all the world of mankind is well! But it is never well with all mankind. Thus pessimism or optimism, that has no other basis than a personal experience, is untrustworthy. Standing on a plain a man six feet tall can see six miles in every direction. But there is much more beyond than within his horizon. So the life of humanity is very great compared with the life of an individual. The only philosophy of real value must include the experience of all mankind. The desert and the garden are both found on earth.

Every form that philosophy has assumed in any era doubtless contained some valuable truth. But almost every theory has suffered from an over-extension of some part of it. Hence it is unfair to judge a thing by its abuses. A master should not be held responsible for all the exaggerations of his disciples. It would be unjust to charge Jesus with all the foolish and cruel acts which have been committed in his name. Plato has to be defended against the Platonists and Darwin against the Darwinians. Popular government has taken a form never contemplated by Washington and Jefferson:

With these illustrations in view, that theory of human life, which makes happiness an aim to be sought, should not receive unlimited condemnation. It is the misunderstanding of the means employed and the abuse of its privileges, and not the aim itself that is objectionable. Not the search for happiness, but the mistake as to what constitutes happiness deserves reproach. The brilliant poppy blossom gives innocent delight; it is the misuse of its distilled juices that brings misery.

The term Epicureanism bears a clouded reputation. In its rightful meaning, however, it merits no reproach. Originally it did not stand for unlicensed indulgence. Instead of being a gross sensualist, Epicurus was a high-minded philosopher. From his youth onward through all his seventy years he inquired into the nature of the world and sought to find the highest good for mankind. When he was only thirteen years old he was reading a poem of Hesiod in which it was stated that all things came from Chaos. Turning to his teacher, he said: "Then, from what did Chaos come?" He and his disciples purchased a large garden in which they passed much time holding high discourse concerning happiness. Over its entrance was written :

"The hospitable Genius of this place, where you will find happiness the highest good, will present you liberally with barley cakes and spring water. He will not provoke your appetite by artificial dainties, but satisfy it by natural food. Will you not be well entertained?"

One of the weaknesses of our common human nature is the readiness with which we attribute to those who differ from us, in doctrine, all the practical immoralities which are deduced from the doctrine as we understand, or, rather, misunderstand it. Hence, by his ancient and modern enemies, this garden of Epicurus has been called a "sty." This is a gross libel. Those within it did seek pleasure, indeed, but not in the manner those without thought they sought it. Those without assumed that pleasure meant unlimited gratification of appetite; whereas, those within taught that the highest pleasures are those that spring up in the mind after self-restraint. They sought happiness, not like irrational animals, but like rational souls.

Two forms of wealth are possible : One consists in possessing an abundance of material things ; the other consists in possessing simple tastes. A heart can reach contentment in two ways : First, by having; second, by not caring to have. In fractions we are taught that dividing the denominator gives the same result as multiplying the numerator. A similar rule holds good in life. To divide wants is the same as to multiply luxuries. Every one is free to select which he prefers to do ; but whatever may be the choice, it is made because it seems to contain or promise the greater happiness to the heart that makes it.

Some one started the saying that if he had the luxuries he could get along without the necessities, and the rather feeble witticism is now quite generally quoted. But, if it is possible to make luxuries a necessity, perhaps it is no less possible to make necessities a luxury. If so, one of the most satisfactory luxuries is the power to regulate all desires by reason. Barley cakes and water are not in them-selves very rich food. But, permitting them to rep-resent simple tastes and unspoiled desires in the garden of Epicurus, they are emblems of a really elegant luxury. Luxury no more consists in having a table loaded with costly viands than in possessing the ability to abstain from eating and drinking to satiety for the sake of a higher and more lasting pleasure. The first may belong only to the few; all may have the second. A clear head, an untroubled conscience, a non-irritable temper, and the privilege of waking in the morning without the consciousness of having made a fool of oneself the night before, are luxuries far surpassing those found in the banquet halls of Belshazzar or Solomon or Alexander. They are luxuries which no rational human being should deny himself.

To assume that the desire for happiness is sinful is to charge the Creator with having committed an error in constructing the world. That which is universal must be necessary, and that which is necessary must be beneficent. In the eighteenth century Helvetius set forth the doctrine that self-satisfaction is the motive of all human effort. The book containing it was denounced by the philosophers of the Sorbonne and condemned by the Parliament of Paris to be burned in public. This seems strange, because the author carefully pointed out that there are different grades of self-satisfaction. That of the base man may be sought in gratifying appetite alone; while, in the noble man, it may consist in subordinating private to general good. He may find his highest pleasure in toiling for the pleasure of others. Commenting upon the book, a brilliant French woman said: "It is popular, because it reveals to every one his own secret." Whether this judgment of the book is right or wrong, when we scrutinize our own motives we find that the desire for personal happiness is very powerful. Clark Russell and Dana and other writers of ocean experiences tell us that when a sail ship, homeward bound after a long absence, is being rapidly carried forward by favorable winds, sailors sing a rude song whose burden is that those whom they love on shore are pulling on the cable. So the heart is always drawn forward by the strongest attraction. If we long for tomorrow, it is because it seems better than today. If we think with joy of next year, it is because it seems to promise more of life's sunshine. All the greatness which marks the path over which humanity has journeyed is some desire attained. Whence came heaven but from the soul's wish for a happiness denied it on earth? Astronomers say that, not only do planets roll around a central sun, but the entire solar system is steadily drifting into new regions of space. It is attracted by some power greater than itself. So humanity not only circles around its daily duties, but it is drawn in a greater orbit toward more of happiness than earth can furnish.

When a river seeks the ocean; when a flame rises toward the sun; when birds make the air of a summer morning quiver with their glad notes; when a dragon fly darts from flower to flower; when a child reaches for a toy, each is obeying a law of its being. Each is seeking the. highest good it knows. No one censures them. So no blame need come to man in his wish for happiness. He may be mistaken as to what constitutes the highest good or the means to be employed in gaining it. But the instinct which impels him to seek for happiness is blameless.

Earth is a strange intermingling of use and beauty. It is not only a place to live, but to live with pleasure. It is more than a mere house in which shelter and food are found; it is a home abounding in friendship and joy. That is a fine touch in the book of Job representing a burst of gladness throughout the universe when earth was formed : "The morning stars sang together; and the sons of God shouted for joy." Formed in gladness, it moves in time to the same notes. The Creator takes the same care in giving rich colors to the flowers that He does in mixing the elements in air and water. The sun rises and sets at the appointed time, dividing day and night and inviting work and repose. But, in addition to this, a gorgeous picture is painted on the canvas of the sky, inviting admiration and wonder. The same Power that fashioned the ear for sound, fashioned the soul for music.

Seeing its utility and duty, as far as possible we should also recognize the beauty and gladness of the world. It is a great misfortune to have formed a complaining habit. Our new school of religious healers are right in insisting that the mind should not dwell upon the negative side of life; and that many of our ills are creations of our own imagination. Detectives and sensualists come to look upon all the world as thieves and libertines. It is merely a projection of their own minds. So the fault-finding heart multiplies the causes of evil ; magnifies every unpleasant circumstance ; and suspects every blessing of being a curse in disguise. The world is only its complaining self extended. On the other hand, he who habitually sees the goodness and beauty in the world finds misfortunes are often masked friends ; he can brush away November clouds ; he can banish poison from nettles and ivy. Many who are longing for happiness will only attain it by changing their philosophy of life. Happiness is a child of wisdom.

There was a period in which the church frowned upon all kinds of pleasure. It was a dreadful per-version of the genius of Christianity when a monastery was made the surest path to heaven. There are those here who can remember when gloom was mistaken for piety and enjoyment of innocent pleasures left a sense of guilt. Any exuberance of spirit, on Sunday, was instantly checked because it might be displeasing to God. There is a tradition that the coming of Christ was heralded by a song of gladness. How strange that, after its coming, earth should still be regarded as a prison or as a "vale of tears!" How the Bethlehem religion must have been distorted before it could he named, "A worship of sorrow," or "A sigh of despair from the sick heart of the world!"

We may congratulate ourselves that a better understanding of its spirit has corne. Only faint traces of the old error are now left. The hymns of modern worship are much more joyful than in former times. Happiness is not all postponed until after death. Not only are the monasteries of Catholicism much less crowded than in former centuries, but the gloomy cells of the Protestant theology are almost empty. Only now and then one is heard giving back the hollow echo of a solitary footstep. It is said sunbeams dim a blaze on the hearth. So beams of good-will and natural gladness, having fallen on the rest of earth for many years, Are now falling upon the church, blanching the flames of hell which once burned so fiercely for those who dared to be happy in this life. Not many, in any of the churches, are trying to keep this fire alive.

Everything takes a low form for the low, a high form for the high. The religion of Christ runs all the way from gross superstition to a pure, spirituality. Thus there is a base and a lofty Epicureanism. Out of the desire for pleasure have, indeed, come excesses of food and drink and raiment and amusement and . foolish and shameful displays. But thence, also, came painting, sculpture, poetry, mu-sic, all noble philosophies, and all high religions. Jesus pronounced his Beatitudes upon the poor in spirit, the pure in heart, the merciful, the seekers after righteousness, because of the higher and more lasting pleasure which followed that manner of living. An Epicureanism that teaches man to seek happiness in the pursuit of truth and goodness and beauty, not only escapes all reproach, but merits unmeasured praise. It is more than a philosophy; it is a religion.

Sermons By Reed Stuart:
Nature As A Means Of Grace

A Perpetual Gospel

The Palestine Philosophy Of Life

Rational Epicureanism

A Twenty Years Pastorate


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