Reading for the Second Meeting — EPICUREANISM


The next meeting. Our second meeting.

For our first we looked at… where we come from.

For this one we’re going to look at… where we are going.


There really isn’t any question about where we are all going, is there?

Like a great play, life is filled with moments of grace and beauty, laughter and joy. Perplexing moral dilemmas. Daunting challenges overcome. We wouldn’t give it up for a second.

But in the end, life is — I am sorry to say it — not a comedy, folks.

Like The Orestialike Hamlet, like Lear our lives belong, unmistakably, to the literary genre of tragedy.


As much as we try not to think about it, we know it’s true: our lives are going to end in death — often bloody, usually painful. For everyone.

Damn it, but it’s true.


For this next meeting we are going to confront this head-on.

Death — the “undiscovered country,” as Shakespeare called it.

(Though as my son pointed out to me, it HAS been discovered — just nobody has ever reported back. Kind of like the Vikings finding America?)


How does it change things to know there is an end?

What does a person do with this life?


Please note that this month we are going to have our meeting on the second Thursday, November 13,  instead of third (due to a conflict for a lot of members in the group). I hope that is ok with everyone.

Our meeting will focus on the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, and the conflict between Epicureanism and the religious/supernatural outlook that opposes it (and triumphed — until now).


Epicurus (341 BC – 270 BC)

Epicurus is the first philosopher in the Western tradition to look at lived experience, as opposed to gods or spirits or immaterial ideals, as the proper guide to life.

Epicurus’ famous four points are:

1. There are no gods or other divine beings to influence your life — so don’t waste your time on them.

2. There is no after-life. Deal with it.

3. All that is important for a good life is already available to you.

4. All that is terrible in life, i.e. suffering, is not worth worrying about… since it is usually either chronic or intense, but not both.

In this month’s reading I have included:

  • The Epicurious Reader;
  • Some chapters from Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve about the re-discovery (in the 15th century) of a famous paean to Epicurus, “On the Nature of Things” by the Roman poet Lucretius;
  • Some excerpts from Lucretius’ “On the Nature of Things

I may post more over the next weeks. Also, please feel free to find your own additional readings and materials online or elsewhere.

Enjoy! See you on the 13th.

On Théodore Monod


by Florence Joliff

[In our October meeting, Florence mentioned to the group that in thinking about the prehistoric era she had been led to the writings of Théodore Monod, a French explorer, anthropologist, poet and writer. I encouraged her to share on the blog some of what she had read… if she would be so kind as to translate it into English (most of his works are not translated). Florence sent the following by email.]


Théodore Monod: anthropologue, explorer, poet, writer

He wrote many books about his various explorations, always deeply interested in humankind, the definition of “progress”, and also obviously the ” modern” human relationship to nature.

He was an incredible nature lover and a great poet, also!
He conducted many observations, explorations, and trips in the Sahara desert ( and others) and found many paleolitic objects, paintings, etc.

His books are fantastic and a true pleasure to read over long period of time… I just wish he was translated in English! (other than the one book Desert).

Basic summary of some of his ideas:

Monod enumerates three steps/stages in recent humankind evolution:

1. The original relationship of man among other animals (magical and symbolic links with nature, and he argues that it is appropriate to still have some today);
2. Then the “divorce” with nature, leading to the “progress” of human power, rationalisation and domination etc. (He also recognizes the great steps in science);
3. And finally, our current “reconciliation need ” (this was my favorite part of his writings), namely, our need for a new way of thinking. Very similar to us!

SOME KEY SENTENCES I have extracted from his books:
To lead to the area of ” big stable joys”, humankind must be freed … by (among other elements) its sympathy, and establish a system of new moral values based on a general respect of life under all its shapes( animals, plants, living bodies).
He is inspired by Albert Schweitzer ‘s philosophy (in 1915) and also, briefly, Albert Einstein’s writings and thoughts…
Modern life, he held, must not be based on material comfort and individualism.

From homo “sapiens” to today homo “economicus”, all moral codes have been defined by religions and ideological systems.

Today humankind is facing new problems and issues generated  by the religion of progress, material profit, and “technolatrie”.

We must find again the “unity of things and living beings” with key words like: solidarity, communion, sympathy (empathy for others/ for all living beings)….
We must create a moral view as strong and demanding as our modern power. Otherwise we are in big danger of disappearing …
We must reconcile being and having.

He also makes reference to Victor Hugo very often: celui qui ceuille une fleur derange une etoile…
He wishes to live his life as his friend Teilhard (who had two passions: the love of science and the abiding question of god):  more eupraxie than orthodoxie: more rectitude of conduct than adherence to dogma.

Not sure this is clear Tom …and not perhaps very loyal to Théodore Monod (I have made a very approximate translation: Théodore Monod is much more complex and beautiful and simple in his writings).

Why the World Needs a Non-Supernatural Approach to Big Questions


I had two recent reminders of how important it is for us and others to develop a decidedly non-supernatural approach to all the big questions of life, and I thought I would share them with the group.

Reminder #1

Over recent weeks, on his popular blog The Daily Dish, the writer Andrew Sullivan has engaged his readers in a conversation about Sam Harris’ new book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (a book I found well worth reading, by the way).

In an early post, Sullivan, who is Catholic, discusses his and Harris’ different understandings of the tranquil feeling of “self-transcendence” that can arise during meditation or prayer (or even, unbidden, at other times).

In his usual concise manner, Sullivan lays out their opposing views:

“For Sam, this is evidence merely that meditation works, that stilling unending thoughts enables a person to live mindfully rather than to experience life as one goddamned distraction after another. He sees this as proof of the absence of a self and a way to live with clarity and calm as we are beset by feelings and passions, good and bad.

But the Pope suggests another way of seeing this: not as proof of the absence of self so much as the simplicity and calm of being oneself with God. It is a mysterious way of being, this communion with God. And maybe, experientially, it is indistinguishable from Sam’s meditative clarity and occasional epiphanies. But in it, for a Christian like me, the self does not disappear. It is merely overwhelmed by divine love and thereby fully becomes itself. In fact, this is the core mystery of our faith: communion with something greater and other than us, and a communion marked by love. In fact, something even more miraculous than that: a divine love that actually loves you uniquely.”

This irritated me.

It irritated me enough that I tapped out a quick email on my iPhone, while the kids jabbered and giggled around me.

I’m happy to say that Sullivan was good enough to include my contribution in his ongoing discussion with readers. (I am the “Another is more critical” in this post (click here to read).) Here’s what I wrote in full:

I love both you and Sam. I really do. I’m with him on the dangers and damage wrought by religion. With you on most political issues. But on this question from Waking Up, regarding the nature of the so-called “selfless” state of mind human beings sometimes experience during meditation or prayer, I’m afraid you are both wrong.

Andrew, why do you both seek transcendence so badly? For what you feel, what we all feel in these oceanic moments, is neither an experience of being flooded by God’s love (your view) or a glimpse into the underlying “selflessness” of consciousness (Sam’s view).

It is simply one way – one particularly harmonious and happy way! – that our particular species of primate experiences neuronal/electrical activity in our brains. We may speculate that meditation, prayer and the like probably have the effect of quieting activity in the left hemisphere and facilitating a more direct experience of the intuitive, non-verbal right hemisphere … something like that …Whatever it is, it is most certainly NOT anything transcendent, nor showing us a “truth” about the selfless nature of the universe. It is part of what our limited biology, fashioned by millions upon millions of years of adaptation, does.

Why is it so hard for you, and now Sam too, to accept your body and brain for what they are: your ONLY portal to experience, limited as they are, sometimes impulsive and directed, sometimes undifferentiated and peaceful, but always YOURS, beautiful and mortal and precious.

It is always self, and that is okay. Andrew, I say lovingly: go with the love you feel, and you can leave out the “God” part. To Sam I want to say: go with the love you feel, and you can leave out the incoherent idea of some “selflessness” uncannily experienced by the self.

155 years after On the Origin of Species and this is still hard for people to accept. But once you do it is clarifying, and liberating. It’s all natural, all animal – all the way down.

This may sound familiar to members of our group? You know my rants already.

Both Andrew, a Catholic, and Sam, an atheist, seem to be hung up on looking for a way “out” of self. As you know, I think that’s an old habit, inherited from religion.

In The Old New Way, as I see it, we are looking to find a way in — to be fully accepting of our place on this planet and in our bodies (with all of our limited cognitive capacities and conflicting moral drives and rapidly shifting emotional responses).

We want to accept ourselves as we are now. That, I think, is the right place, the only place, from which we can begin asking interesting questions about how to conduct our lives.

Beautiful. Mortal. Precious. Isn’t that enough?

Reminder #2

I had the pleasure of reading this week the biologist E. O. Wilson’s new book, The Meaning of Human Existence.

It was affirming how much Wilson is doing the same thing in this book that we are attempting in The Old New Way.

He begins his argument with an emphasis on primatology and prehistory (closely tracking the discussion we had in our first meeting), and then he takes off from there, trying to articulate a new perspective just as we are.

Here is what Wilson writes in the final chapter:

“The perquisite for attaining the goal is an accurate self-understanding. So, what is the meaning of human existence? I’ve suggested that it is the epic of the species, begun in biological evolution and prehistory, passed into recorded history, and… also what we will choose to become.”

But he knows that this will not be easy:

“The problem holding everything up thus far is that Homo sapiens is an innately dysfunctional species. We are hampered by the Paleolithic Curse: genetic adaptations that worked very well for millions of years of hunter-gatherer existence are increasingly a hindrance to global urban and technoscientific society…”

And he ends with an acknowledgement that any threat to the supernatural claims of the world’s major religions will be perceived as an attack, totally out of bounds, even taken as an expression of a “phobia”…

To this familiar response, he answers with an eloquent line:

“The idea is to place the personal dignity of the believer above the dignity of the belief that demands unquestioning obedience… That would be a true cry of freedom.”

I liked that.

A cry for freedom. Yes! That’s one way to see what we are up to.

Seeking a more accurate self-understanding. That too.

And finally, an acceptance that our lives are… beautiful, mortal, precious.

Can this “mortal” aspect of our lives be part of a net positive, when all is considered together? It is traditionally seen as a curse, a doom, a threat  — hence fables about an after-life. This, I think, is a crucial question that we will consider at our upcoming meeting (on Epicureanism).

Let’s keep at it. We will get somewhere, I am sure of it, one meeting at a time.

What Images of the After-life Did We Have When We Were Young?


At our next meeting, on November 13, we will examine the writings of Epicurus. Some of the questions that are sure to come up will concern the possibility of an after-life — or the lack thereof.

In anticipation of this meeting, I would like to invite members of our group to share with the rest of us some of the most vivid images of the after-life that come to your mind…

Take a moment to meditate on those images that, for whatever reason, traced themselves deeply in your neural networks when you were a child. The more unexpected and strange the better!


Why am I asking the group to share these images?

I have a hunch that, at our meeting it may be fruitful to examine some of our assumptions and fears regarding what happens after death by way of visual, non-verbal cues, rather than getting bogged down in words.

You can add your images in the comments below, or email them to me and I’ll post them.


To get us started, here are some of mine…

Probably my first strong encounter with death was when I saw the movie “King Kong” (1976)… I must have been about seven when I saw it. Remember when Jessica Lange must say goodbye to Kong?

There was no suggestion of an after-life. But I remember feeling shocked that everyone else in the movie would go on with their lives, while King Kong would never breathe again.

When my family moved to Hong Kong (we lived there between 1977 and 1981) I remember visiting a monastary where there was, on display, a dead monk covered with gold leaf. That made an impression.


Does this qualify as an after-life?

Then there’s that scene of Purgatory in the movie “Heaven Can Wait” (1978; I was nine), which stunned and terrified me (full disclosure: my childhood dream was to play quarterback in the NFL, so it cut particularly close to the bone).

Here’s the clip that set my mind racing:

But probably the most powerful image of an after-life that I encountered was in an art history class in my senior year in high school (I was 17, I think). My teacher put up a projection of Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, and something strange happened in my head.


(For a short video about this work, click here.)

I felt a surge of joy, and I couldn’t look away. It was all there: life… death… and the after-life, such as it is.

At odd moments during the day, for years after that, the image of that skeleton lying at the bottom of this image would come back to me. The Latin inscription above his reclining figure is:


Thank you, Masaccio, for clearing that up!

What else, let’s see… Crazy as it sounds, the Pixies’ “This Monkey’s Gone to Heaven” actually moved me with the finality of the end for the eponymous “monkey” (aka “an underwater guy / who controlled the sea / got killed by 10 million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey,” aka a symbol of humanity?)…


Okay. That’s what I can come up with right now. I’ll keep adding more as I think of them. How about you?


From Sheri

I was six and in love with our two puppies, “Nip and Tuck”.  After school one day I could not find “Tuck”.  They were always together.  We lived on an island in a lake in Wisconsin.  My mother said that she had no idea where he was, and suggested that I ask all the neighbors on the island if they had seen Tuck.  After
making those rounds with no sightings, I returned home miserable, teary, and desperate.  It was then that my mother admitted the truth:  Tuck had been hit by the milkman’s truck as he swung into our driveway and was dead.  “I want to see him dead”, I said.  Very reluctantly she led me to the row of garbage can outside our gate.  In an old cardboard box my Tucky lay, eyes open, flies covering his eyes and body.  This is it then, death?

Red eye fly - ugly-800

From Claudine







From Jeanne

Some of my wishes for an afterlife was having my own private angel, like Clarence in “It’s a wonderful Life”  Well maybe a bell won’t ring when my angel get’s his wings, but it is still one of my favorite films with a beautiful message about appreciating what you have.
Even as an adult, I was really affected by the beautiful paintings, and supernatural world after death,  and finding solace that things will be OK, for the departed  in “What Dreams May Come.” A good friend worked on paintings for this film, and her description of her creative process in painting the images affected her in a profound way. She entertained the possibility that this could be the reality of afterlife.  There was a moment when I asked myself, Could this be true?” But , I just could not let myself go there, I could not see how a being could actually enter an alternate world. The truth was, and still is that I wish it were true, but I know that it is not.  


Notes on Our Second Meeting — EPICUREANISM


There was much good cheer and buzzing conversation as members of our group arrived, so it took some effort to move everybody into the living room to begin our discussion.

But we managed! At about 8:35 pm, with our glasses refilled with wine and the fire roaring, we began meeting #2.

1. An Overview of Epicureanism

Before we began in earnest, I thought it might be helpful (particularly for those who had not had a chance to look at the readings), if I briefly summarized the philosophy of Epicurus.

I mentioned that, along with some other thinkers of his time in 4th century BCE Greece, Epicurus believed that everything in the universe is made up of tiny, indivisible particles — which they called “atoms” (a term that would be co-opted by chemists and physicists in the 1800s, so as to become familiar to us today).

From this Epicurus concluded that our universe is entirely material.

Despite his materialistic understanding of nature and the larger universe, however, Epicurus was not a determinist. He accounted for free will by way of something he called the “swerve,” in which one atom unpredictably changes its course. (At least in a poetic sense, this notion of a “swerve” brings to mind the discovery in quantum mechanics of wave-particle duality, i.e. whether a photon expresses itself as a wave or a particle will change, depending on what we do to it. Though, we might note, the question of free will is no closer to being clarified today than it was in ancient Greece!)

But enough of these speculations about the physical world… What did Epicurus have to say about how we should live our lives?

Epicurus argued for a simple, streamlined life, with a focus on friendship and reflection.

His famous four rules are:

i. Gods, if they exist, are not relevant to human life. He acknowledged that gods may exist, but he dismissed any possibility that they might be willing to intervene, or even show concern for our needs, in any way.

ii. There is no afterlife. When we die, that’s it… Sorry if you had your hopes up for mingling with Achilles and Patroclus in the Elysian Fields!

iii. Pleasure is available to us with minimal effort. He maintained that almost all of us have enough resources available to us, already, to secure our pleasure — a little water, a little barley, and you’re good! The rest of it is a distraction, not necessarily to be shunned (that extra piece of caramel is fine, take it!) but best if understood as such.

iv. Pain is not worth getting worked up about. As for suffering, Epicurus reassured his followers and readers that it is very rarely chronic and intense at the same time — so it shouldn’t cause us too much anxiety.

This notably human-centered, pleasure-seeking, materialistic philosophy was almost lost, following the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 313 CE and the triumph of the monotheistic traditions during the Dark Ages.

Except that it wasn’t lost entirely. It happened to get smuggled into the Renaissance — in a beautiful form! In the year 1417, a well-to-do adventurer and budding humanist, Poggio Bracciolini, set out from Italy to look for old Latin manuscripts. Poking around the library of a remote German monastery, he came upon a manuscript called “On the Nature of Things” by the Roman poet Lucretius, who had lived in the first century BCE.

By bringing Lucretius’ poem back to his circle of friends in Florence, Poggio preserved for us a faithful rendering of Epicurean thought, and one infused with great feeling. Copies of “On the Nature of Things” were passed, hand to hand, person to person, country to country, until Lucretius, and through him Epicurus, influenced such thinkers as Montaigne, Bacon, Shakespeare, Galileo…

Yet the story doesn’t end there, either.

For Stoics in the Roman era, and Christians and monotheists of all kinds ever since, the materialist philosophy of Epicurus posed a threat to their invisible orders (the “logos” or “universal reason” for the Stoics; “God,” “Allah,” “Spooky Electric,” or what have you for the religiously inclined). Hence, despite the discovery of Lucretius’ poem, the dominant discourses in our world have come down very hard on Epicurean philosophy for all these years, turning it into the caricature we know today.

As a result, it is associated in many people’s minds with a lavish meal, or with a dissolute life-style. For most of us the phrase “Eat, drink and be merry” comes to mind when we think of Epicureanism.

Escargot, swimming in garlic and butter. A rich creme brûlée…

The gout.

That kind of thing.

Yet many have managed to look past this caricature, too, and they have found themselves drawn to Epicurean thought.

Thomas Jefferson, who called himself an Epicurean, managed to slip the words “and the pursuit of happiness” into the Declaration of Independence. No small feat, that, with no small consequences for American culture. In recent times the ubiquitous contrarian Christopher Hitchens liked to describe himself as an Epicurean. In London, the School of Life, founded by Alain de Bouton, and The Idler, have even attempted to build institutions around the ideas and practice of Epicureanism.

So what do we think of this earliest recorded effort to develop a non-supernatural outlook on life? What did members of our group learn from reading Epicurus?

2. Does Epicureanism Lead to a Passive Life?

With the overview done, I wanted to launch the group into discussion.  So to provoke a reaction, I mentioned one aspect of Epicureanism that particularly nagged at me over the past few weeks, namely the question of whether the tenets of Epicureanism lead to a passive life.

For if we are merely seeking pleasure… and the highest pleasures, according to Epicurus, are to be had in friendship and reflection… then, if given the resources, wouldn’t we all retire to our own version of his “Garden”? Wouldn’t we all just lounge around all day sipping water, eating barley, and engaging in idle chit-chat?

What about leadership? What about risk-taking? What about courage?

What about — I don’t know — ISIS? The Keystone XL pipeline? Do we care? Or does the larger world just fade away?

Luis spoke up to say that when he was doing the reading he too sensed that there was something lacking in the Epicurean outlook on life.

He pointed out that it seems to have, as its basis, a kind of narrow, individualist point of view. Epicurus wants each person to seek to rid himself or herself of anxiety and pursue pleasure. But this ignores that we are social by nature, and always intermingled and connected with others. We care deeply about our immediate families, our loved ones, our friends, our neighbors, our fellow-citizens, our world… even our biosphere. And these concerns will sometimes weigh against our private pursuit of pleasure. “For example,” Luis cried out (impressing us all with his sincerity — lucky Sara, Julia and Marina!), “I would sacrifice my own pleasure, willingly, for the good of my family!”

Renée countered that, on her reading of Epicurus, he was not suggesting that a person should act selfishly on all occasions. Rather, Renée understood him to be saying that, by simplifying and streamlining your life, you will free yourself to enjoy your choices more, whatever they may be (including taking care of your family).

On a given occasion you may want to take a risk (like singing in public) or sacrifice for a relationship (like working ungodly hours to pay your children’s school tuitions), but these actions will be available to you precisely because you aren’t confused about gods or afterlife. You will pursue your choices and your life while being clear-eyed about the costs and rewards of your actions.

Yes, you can eat that caramel, or you can give it to your daughter (as Luis surely would), because you know you don’t need it; either way, now you know that it is a choice.

Gerry compared Epicurus’ teaching to the concept of “flow” developed by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. As Gerry explained it, if you are a skier at first moguls seem overwhelming but later they become part of the enjoyment. Losing your self-consciousness and getting directly into the act of living allows you to focus on the right challenges instead of getting caught up in useless anxieties.

3. The Finality of Death

Next, we got into a discussion about how our acceptance of the certainty of our death affects our the way we live our life. Is Epicurus right that when we recognize death as mere oblivion it… loses its sting?

Yann mentioned that he wakes up every morning with a sense of enchantment at the details of the world — the leaves, the sunlight streaming through them, the seemingly endless opportunities for pleasure. He thinks that his awareness of death increases this pleasure in that it encourages him to cherish each opportunity as it comes. For example, all summer he overcame his natural resistance to putting on a bathing suit and getting wet. because he knew that the pleasures he gained from swimming will not always be available to him.

Ken, too, suggested that knowing that our time on this planet is finite gives our lives more value. He mentioned a poem that made a strong impression on him — about a rare white orchid that blooms only once a year…

I objected to this line of reasoning, though. I explained that for the life of me, so to speak, I just can’t appreciate this notion that the certainty of our impending deaths gives our lives more meaning… that the flower which blooms only once a year is all the more exquisite for it, etc. etc.

To me, life is exquisite while it is lived for the obvious reason that I am experiencing it. Anything outside of this consciousness experience is, really by definition, the least interesting thing in the world to me. So death’s limitation of my experience does not enhance the quality of my experience in any way, it merely… limits it. How about a thousand white orchids blooming, every day? I have no problem with that picture.

I read the following line from Nabokov to the group:

“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”


This brief crack of light, I argued, is all we have. I understand that, and like Epicurus I don’t expect more. But I would be quite happy to see it extended into a vast sea of light. Immortality would be wonderful. I can’t imagine feeling otherwise.

Walden suggested that he was more bored when he was young for the very reason that he felt an abundance of time ahead of him. Now that he is older, and he feels more scarcity of time, he is never bored. He suggested that the approach of death has added greatly to his interest in life.

I responded that for me the dynamics are quite different. When I was young I too was more often bored, it’s true. Yet I don’t think this was because I felt an abundance of time: rather, I suspect it was because I didn’t know what to do with my time! As I have grown older I am happy to report that, like Walden, I am never bored, but that’s not at all because I sense the certainty of death approaching me. In fact, I resent death because I can now fill time better, giving more love, paying more attention to details, doing more thinking about the complexities of the world. Let it go on! Death impinges on the abundance of time I crave.

To me, then, death does not lose its sting in any case, whether we praise it as a motivation and a limiting device (as Yann, Ken and Wadlen do) or dismiss it as a mere state of oblivion (as Epicurus did). It is still… terrible, awful… a source of (what an apt phrase!) mortal terror.

Manon agreed with me on this, sharing that she fears it and does not welcome it on any terms.

4. More on Dealing With Death

This got us into a discussion about the toll of death on the living.

Epicurus urges his followers not to worry themselves with thoughts of death, since after all it will not trouble us at all when it comes (since we will be gone). But he seems to leave out the fact that, for those still living, the death of loved one is devastating. Devastating. Again, to Luis’ point, his philosophy seems geared to the perspective of each individual alone, but doesn’t consider our entanglements with others.

Dean cited findings that show that, on average, people’s baseline happiness bounces back after the death of a loved one within a matter of months (this phenomenon is sometimes referred to as “hedonic adaptation“). “So I’m with Epicurus,” Dean announced, “We shouldn’t worry about it.” (Dean admitted that he had dressed up as Epicurus for Halloween, and spent the evening in a toga ridiculing the flights of fancy of religious people… Hey kids, look, it’s Epicurus… Run! He doesn’t fear death!)

I pushed back on this. “Dean,” I said, “I think you are being a little cavalier, aren’t you? Yes, people’s self-reported “happiness” might bounce back, but that particular data stream is only a measure of one aspect of their experience. Even in cases where a person facing grief can find some equanimity, the death of a loved one will often reorient his or her outlook on life in a fundamental way, right? Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. A wife may never regain her former ambitions after the death of her husband, or a father may find himself oddly drawn to stories of loss and heartbreak, seeking to help those in need. Or those who have lost someone close to them may begin to cherish their friends and family more than ever. These changes may not be recorded by a study of self-reported mood or ‘happiness.’ But that doesn’t mean that they don’t count!”

Jeanne emphasized that, as a hospice nurse, she has witnessed many people who are near death coming to accept their fate. The ones who suffer the most, she said, are the people still living.

Karoline mentioned that she felt jealous, sometimes, of religious people whom she has witnessed recovering from something as devastating as their own child’s death, based on their belief in an afterlife where they will meet that child again. Dean said he didn’t wish for that flimsy tissue of lies in his life; he didn’t feel jealous of them at all but would rather face facts honestly.

I agreed with Dean… and I wondered if Karoline would really wish that kind of mythology upon herself despite its false comforts. Just to be difficult I gave her an hypothetical… “If I told you that I believed strongly in little dust-men floating at the ceiling of this room,” I asked, “and you could tell that they gave me a great sense of reassurance that everything would be okay (because they were hovering in the form of a triangle! or some such claim), would you really feel jealous of that consolation? Religious convictions are just as absurd as the dust-men, of course — only more familiar and protected by taboos from mockery. So why should their false consolation be any more worthy of your jealousy?”

Karoline clarified that even if she could not conceive believing in dust-men, or any of that supernatural stuff, her point was that it amazed her how comforting such fabrications can be. At least on a temporary basis, they are extremely effective in providing a buffer to the emotional havoc that experience can bring. In other cases, she added, she has witnessed parents without such beliefs unravel completely when faced with the death of a child.

Marie-José had a different story to tell. She explained that in his work her father used to attend the death-beds of many people in their region in Southern France. She has always remembered that he told her once, quite in passing and without further explanation, that the people who took an untimely death the most hard were the nuns in a nearby nunnery. So for these nuns anyway, religion did not provide the consolation it promised — or not enough.

I had witnessed the same, I mentioned, when my grandmother faced death. She had always been very adamant that we would all meet Jesus when we died. (And if we had not accepted Him into our hearts, she had warned, Jesus would shake his head and say, “I don’t know you.” My sister and I used to reenact the telling of this to scare each other.) As my grandmother lay in her hospice bed, however, she showed a great deal of anxiety. Contrast that with my grandfather, who did a few years later. He had never bothered too much with thoughts of an afterlife. Instead he sang fake Puccini arias in fake Italian during his last days.

In the end, faced with these contrasting stories, we concluded that whether you believe in an afterlife or not perhaps plays little role in whether you have anxiety about death… Who knows, maybe there are other factors at play, of which Epicurus and the faithful aren’t even aware?

Walden mentioned, in this respect, that after the sudden death of his mother, he and two of his sisters were able to absorb their loss over time, while the third, who had not been able to reconcile with their mother while she was still alive, still feels anguished by a sense of irresolution.

5. Do We Extend in Both Directions Outside of Our “Brief Crack of Light”?

Looping back to Luis’ comment at the beginning of the meeting, I mentioned that it seemed to me that Epicurus gets it wrong to focus so singularly on this life, this “brief crack of light,” as Nabokov so memorably put it.

Our concerns do extend past our own life. For surely we care deeply about our immediate loved ones even after they die. More than that, we care about our ancestors, our colleagues, our heroes, our friends’ parents, our neighbors. We research our genealogy and our language group. Yet it’s not even restricted to our own personal connections. We care about history. For example, as Yann knows (we have an endless debate going on this), I care deeply about the ideas behind the American experiment in representative democracy, about Lincoln’s understanding of human fallibility as the basis for this experiment (“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right…” or as he meant to say… to the extent that evolution has provided our particular species of bipedal primate with the capacity to see the right…).

Likewise, Yann and Dean and many in our group have already made abundantly clear how much they care about the future, even after they personally will be gone. We care about the effects of climate change, for example, on generations to come. We care about children that we don’t know personally and will never meet.

So our concerns and interests extend into the “eternities of darkness” on either side of us, into the past and the future.

Can we then live a kind of… modified Epicureanism?

Can we adopt Epicurus’ useful outlook in terms of our own lives (letting go of fables, grudgingly accepting that death is final, living simply, recognizing that pain will be manageable), but extend a more active and engaged outlook towards other lives around ours?

To do this, though, we will need a new way of telling stories. For the impact of another person on each of us, in most cases, is based on our living connection to that person. It can be unnerving to realize how little we care about the deaths of people we don’t know, for example. (No doubt that’s why statistics are often said to be “mind-numbing”!) We need something to bridge this gap, to expand the area of our interest.

How many people can we actually get ourselves to care about, looking back and reaching forward?

Once we do care for people, for how many years out can we expect this care to reach?

At what point will our willingness to devote our energies to something beyond our own brief life begin to flag?

In other words, what are the limits to our capacity for love, primates that we are, with brains and bodies adapted for the more narrow purpose of replicating our own DNA?

Does love have limits?

Maybe not?

6. Art and Death

This brought up the final area of discussion. Walden started us off by stating that he has come to the view that art does not need religion, but religion needs art. In other words, without the awe-inspiring Catholic cathedrals with their flying buttresses, without the aching beauty in the cadences of the Muslim morning call to prayer, without the rich colors of the cave paintings of Ajanta, religion would lose its power.


“Yes!” I said. “But that is true for the secularist, materialist, non-supernatural viewpoint as well, isn’t it? We need a new art!

“One that supports a scientific and naturalist angle into love and loss and the whole gamut of experience in between. We need an art that expresses our blissful sense of belonging with other people. We need an art that expresses sorrow and rage and confusion in the face of suffering, so that even people we don’t know can be seen as more than a statistic.”

I noticed Renée looking at me sideways, as if to say, “What are you on about now, honey?” But I kept going…

“As it is, art is experienced, more often than not, as separate from meaning, in a realm of its own. Sure it can stun us with beauty, or shock us, or make us wistful, but it usually doesn’t inspire us to action. We don’t expect it too either.

“That’s fine. I am all for art for art’s sake too. I distrust propaganda or heavy-handed meaning in art as much as anybody. But maybe, just maybe, in this context of asking ourselves how to live, art can do more?”

At this, Claudine shouted out: “Why do we need a new art, Tom? When I see time-lapse photos showing the melting of ice in the Arctic, I feel ready to take action. When I see a documentary on polar bears leaving their hunting grounds, I don’t need more than that. What do we need art to do in addition to that?”

“Well, you may be unusual, Claudine,” I answered, “I think most people need more than photographic documentation, more than the blunt facts of the matter. They need engagement. Again, not propaganda, but at least a direct acknowledgement that love is at the core of the work, as well as pain. That we aspire to preserve good things, gentle things, kindnesses, ambiguity, gratitude. It seems to me that most secular art does support these values, but it does so almost haphazardly. Is there a place where it could be done more intentionally, just as traditional religious art has done, for the purpose of increasing understanding, growing love, reducing suffering?”

Heléne emphasized that it all comes down to storytelling. As a marketing executive, she explained that she knows this is always the key to conveying information. (But is it only better marketing we are talking about? That struck me as depressing. Isn’t there more at stake here? An aspiration to love one another in a more lasting way? Isn’t that beyond a marketing plan, even while it demands it?)

Walden said that although he didn’t want to be cynical, he didn’t believe any art could make a difference in people’s actions on issues such as climate change. He expects us to continue emitting carbon into the atmosphere, until the younger generations end up taking to the streets in mass protest. No art could change that. Dean agreed and spoke of how ephemeral our emotional states are, our feelings of empathy most of all. They won’t last, he insisted.

“But certainly it’s worth a try!” I said.

Someone asked provocatively: “What good can a painting do, Tom? What has art ever done?”

I stood and hung my arms out to the sides. “Are you kidding me? When people walk through the Uffizi Gallery and gaze at paintings of Christ being crucified, I think when the painting works they look right through the dogma of religion. They see a human being suffering unjustly. They see his mother and friends in agony, helpless, as they look on. These images stay with them, lodge in their hearts, one might say despite the religious indoctrination that limits and squelches their meaning. Art can change the world. Has. Over and over.”

Renée mentioned that while hearing a countertenor sing a Bach Cantata last Sunday at a concert in Berkeley, she felt changed in a way that is lasting. Or staring at Monet’s haystacks a few years ago at the Metropolitan Museum.


Sometimes you can’t put it into words, but you are expanded in a way that you hadn’t been before the experience, and it alters how you act in the world.

7. Winding Up

It was getting late so we had to end. I realize, writing this, that in two meetings we have already set a high bar for what we do!

In our first meeting, we came to the realization that we need a new origin story, to supplant those of religion, one that accords with the latest science of primatology, anthropology, neuropsychology and prehistorical archeology.

Oh, and in the second meeting we realized that we needed a new art that allows us to reach into the two “eternities of darkness” — i.e. reach into the past and the future — surrounding our brief lives. We need to live with Epicurean simplicity and modesty, yet, nevertheless, with the assistance of art, learn to dream, grandly and ambitiously, outside of the narrow experience-frame of our own lifespan.

Alrighty then!

Got our work cut out for us.

See you all next month when we meet on the Winter Solstice. More on that to come.

As always, if you remember something from the meeting that I overlooked (and there are surely many things) please add it in the comments!

Art That Means Something


Following on our discussion on “Art and Death,” which arose at last week’s meeting, over the weekend I happened to read an article in the New York Times Sunday magazine on the artist Olafur Eliasson. I was breezing along when this passage in particular got me to put my tea down and sit up straighter on the pillows:

“There’s a reason why Eliasson feels an imperative to appeal to the broadest possible audience. He believes that in normal life we have a tendency to hurry along on autopilot, seldom questioning our deeper assumptions. Art, by goosing the senses, can make us more conscious of our positions in time, space, hierarchy, society, culture, the planet. In the long run, this heightened consciousness will result in change for the better — emotionally, socially, politically.”

Ah-ha! A non-ironical artist! Just what we were talking about in the Old New Way.

(On a sidenote, while reading this article I suddenly remembered that about seven years ago Renée and I took our kids to an Olafur Eliasson exhibit at SFMOMA. It was memorable. One room held a car entirely made of ice. But as we walked through the exhibit and gazed at the art, our son Cole, who was two, kept repeating the word “pine-cone.” “Pine cone?” Renée and I asked, looking at each other quizzically. “Why pine cone, Cole?” It wasn’t until we came to the final room of the exhibit, a small chamber that held the materials that Eliasson had collected as the inspiration behind his recent work, that we got our answer. At the center, in a clear lucite box sat… a single pine cone. The accompanying text stated that all of the work we had seen was, in Eliasson’s mind, a variation, a kind of riff, on its structure. For a moment we were speechless. “Pine cone!” said Cole, pointing to it with a look of deep satisfaction. “That’s right,” I finally answered him. “You had it right all along.”)

And Yet It Moves…


A recent media kerfuffle strikes me as an appropriate post for The Old New Way (particularly since at our next meeting we will be addressing the impact of the Scientific Revolution on our world).


So… in case you missed it.

A few weeks ago an ESPN baseball writer, Keith Law, found himself defending evolution against some silly talk spouted by another ESPN contributor, Curt Schilling.

Law pointed out, for example, that homo sapiens have not descended from any monkeys or apes now living (though we share a common ancestor).

In response, well, what did you think would happen in contemporary America? His Twitter account was promptly suspended by ESPN. Apparently, defending science is still a dicey career move in some corners.

When ESPN reinstated Law’s account a week later, his first Tweet was a beauty:

Eppur si muove.”

This is, according to legend, what Galileo Galilei muttered when he was sentenced to house arrest (for arguing that, based on the evidence, the Earth moves around the sun — and not vice versa).

“And yet it moves,” Galileo said, quietly.

A novel concept: humans don’t get to dictate to nature because we are part of it. Nature happens, whether we like it or not.

Click here for an article covering the great ESPN Twitter controversy of November, 2014.