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The Other Greek Philosophers
Epicurus & Job
Benjamin Kerstein explores an ancient faultline in Western thinking and modern culture by comparing the philosophies of Epicurus and Job.
A major strand of philosophy has held that an essential defining aspect of Western thought is the rivalry between Greek rationalism and Jewish (or other monotheistic) revelation. On one side are Socrates, Aristotle, and their predecessors and disciples, who sought to understand the world through observation, theory, and rational discussion. On the other side are Moses and his fellow prophets, seeking truth through an immediate experience of the divine. To describe this rivalry, philosophers have often employed the metaphor of ‘Athens vs. Jerusalem’. According to this Athens/Jerusalem dichotomy, these two forms of truth, reason and revelation, are irreconcilable, and despite occasional collaboration and cross-fertilization, will remain locked in permanent contention.
Historically speaking, the generally accepted view is that, following the fall of the classical world, which had been intellectually dominated by Athens, Jerusalem held the upper hand for centuries, and it was only with the Renaissance and the coming of modernity that Athens began to regain the hegemony it now enjoys. Yet to a surprising extent our world remains defined more by the rivalry between Athens and Jerusalem than by the victory of one over the other. Many of the intellectual conflicts in our world are defined by this stalemate: religion vs. science; liberal vs. conservative; traditional morality vs. modern individualism, etc. The conflict, it often seems, will never and cannot be settled.
It is possible however that the stalemate continues not because Athens and Jerusalem are irreconcilable, but because the metaphor is inaccurate. Perhaps the essential conflict at the heart of the postmodern world is indeed between Greek and Jewish thought, but in a profoundly different way than that described by ‘Athens vs. Jerusalem’. Perhaps this civil war is not reason vs. revelation, nor philosophy vs. theology, but is about something much more essential: the question of human suffering. That question is, in many ways, the question of what it means to be human. I believe that the Greek and Jewish answers to the question of human suffering is the great and insurmountable contradiction at the heart of postmodern thought. A more accurate metaphor for this tension, I believe, would be not ‘Athens vs. Jerusalem’ but ‘Epicurus and Job’.
Athens © A. Savin 2013
The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC) and the anonymous writer(s) of the Biblical story of Job both sought to confront a question that has often been elided, ignored, or dismissed as unsolvable: Why do human beings suffer? and by implication, What should we think and do about our suffering?
Both Epicurus and Job accept that suffering is, in many ways, a defining feature of human life. Suffering forces us to confront the most essential questions of existence: Why do we exist? Why are we condemned to an inevitable death? Is there such a thing as justice in a world that appears so flawed and imperfect – in which the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer? Is there a God or gods? And if they allow such suffering to continue, are they good or evil? What, in other words, is the meaning of existence, both ours and that of the world as a whole? Is there such a meaning, in fact?
Epicurus confronted these questions through a philosophy of atomism. Believing that the world and everything in it, including the gods, were the result of the random activities of invisible and indivisible particles (atom means ‘indivisible’), Epicurus concluded that the world was not so much good or evil, as essentially indifferent. As a result, human beings, themselves part of this indifferent universe, are doomed to endure both good and ill fortune, and cannot hope to escape suffering. In the face of the indifferent universe and the inevitability of suffering, Epicurus felt the most reasonable response for a human being was to seek to minimize suffering. In a sense, in response to his metaphysical conclusions, Epicurus formulated a moral imperative: Seek to reduce suffering – in particular, one’s own suffering. To achieve this, people should cultivate pleasure, and seek enjoyment and tranquility in life.
Then, as now, this message was widely misinterpreted by both supporters and detractors as a call to hedonism – that is, to pure sensual pleasure-seeking. But Epicurus was quite explicit that this was not the implication of his thinking. Instead, his philosophy advocated a search for ‘ataraxia’ – a form of happiness that was defined by an absence of pain, or at least the reduction of pain to an absolute minimum. Ataraxia could not be achieved by hedonism, Epicurus believed. Instead, one should seek the middle way between pleasure and pain. For example, one may take pleasure in food and drink; but one should not eat or drink too much, or one will suffer as a result of one’s excesses. Epicurus recommended instead the cultivation of a moderate life, in which one seeks the pleasures of intellectual excellence, virtuous behavior, the meeting of basic material needs and desires, and genuine and lasting friendship.
Epicurus also posited that suffering was not an insurmountable problem, ultimately speaking. Suffering was the result of sensation, or our inability to avoid feeling pain and sorrow. Death, as the end of all sensation, was therefore “nothing to be feared.” It was, in fact, something of a deliverance. Nothing awaits us after death. It is the end of ourselves, the dispersion of our constituent atoms into the void. But as such, it is also the end of our suffering. As a result, suffering is also not to be feared. Suffering that does not last, Epicurus felt, could be endured; and the suffering that cannot be endured never lasts for long, because it quickly ends in death. (Before modern medical technology, this was probably true.)
Epicurus, then, answered the question of human suffering through a rational philosophy of its amelioration through moderation. Life, he held, had no essential meaning. What meaning we bring to it we bring through our efforts to moderate its negative aspects, which we achieve by moderating ourselves and our behavior. To solve the question of suffering, then, is possible, and well within human capabilities. In this he was quintessentially Greek, and his answer, while not universal in Greek thought, nonetheless represented a significant strand in it.
Jerusalem © Matthias Kabel 2013
In many ways ancient Judaism faced an even more daunting task. As a religion that held that there was one God who was perfect and good, who created the world, and who then created man in his own image, Judaism was forced to see the problem of suffering not so much as a philosophical enigma as an existential threat.
Throughout the history of Jewish thought, many thinkers have simply given up on the question in despair. In the Perkei Avot, a collection of ancient rabbinical sayings, Rav Yannai is quoted as asserting, “Nothing is in our hands, not the suffering of the righteous, nor the prosperity of the wicked.” In other words, a consensus formed that the question of suffering was beyond the grasp of human beings, and that the answer existed only in the mind of God, perhaps obscured forever.To the extent that Judaism did tackle the question of suffering, it was only through the mystical tradition, where potentially dangerous and even heretical sentiments could be expressed in the esoteric language of the Kabbalah.
However this appears to have been a relatively late development in Hebrew history. The circumstances of the writing and compiling of the book of Job are obscure and controversial, but it certainly seems to have been composed before this theological consensus began to emerge. Certainly the book directly confronts the question that most later Jewish thinkers sought to avoid. There is no doubt that it is the longest, the most complex, the most explicit, and the most daunting confrontation with the question of suffering in Jewish theology, perhaps in Jewish literature as a whole.
For readers who don’t know the basic outline of the book of Job, it tells the tale of a ‘righteous man’ who ‘fears God’ and conducts himself impeccably according to divine law. But prompted by Satan, God tests Job by allowing Satan to strip Job of all his worldly goods, including family, health, and wealth. (Satan is not the demonic figure of later tradition, but simply ‘the adversary’ – which is what the name ‘Satan’ means.) Job then engages in a lengthy discussion with his friends, in which they assert the justice of his punishment while he protests his innocence. At the climax of the tale, God himself speaks “out of the storm wind,” berating Job’s ignorance of God’s design in creation, and so negating Job’s right to criticize the divine will. Job goes silent in response. God eventually restores everything he had previously taken from him.
The text is often bizarre and inscrutable, particularly in the lengthy prose poems that make up its bulk, prompting almost infinite interpretations of the story. Does God win the argument? Does Job? Does the story assert God’s justice or lack of it? Is Job’s ultimate silence acceptance or condemnation? Is God’s ultimate mercy a sign that Job has passed the test of faith, or an admission of guilt? What does it all mean? Beyond these questions, however, there is something completely unambiguous about the story: Job’s reaction to his suffering. That is, although it is uncertain whether Job regards his suffering as just or unjust, he never once regards it as meaningless. Suffering, he maintains throughout, means something. “Man is born to trouble,” he says at one point, asserting that suffering is essential to the human condition; “I was innocent,” he says to God, “and you destroyed me,” asserting the injustice of his situation; “Therefore have I uttered that which I understood not, things too wonderful for me, which I knew not,” he finally says, acknowledging the unanswerability of the question. But in each case, whatever point of view he adopts, Job perceives suffering as a moral consideration, concerning God, the world, and himself.
The text, then, appears to make an unsettling claim: given that God’s punishment of Job is essentially random and pointless, and his restoration of Job’s fortunes equally so, suffering may indeed be meaningless – but human beings cannot accept this meaninglessness. Like Job, we cannot find a reason for our suffering, and we cannot ameliorate it, in part because we can find no meaning in it, and yet we are doomed to seek a meaning for our suffering. And to a large extent the suffering is exacerbated by its meaninglessness. Meaninglessness, to Job and to us, does not negate suffering, but it is itself a form of suffering. So one cannot accept the injustice of suffering because this injustice is itself a form of suffering. Man is indeed born to trouble.
The book of Job, then, seems to be a dark mirror to Epicurean philosophy. In contrast to Epicurus, in effect Job rejects the very possibility of ataraxia. One cannot cultivate moderation, because the world is not moderate. It inflicts upon us extremes of suffering and injustice that we cannot stop ourselves from reacting to in an equally extreme fashion. In the meaninglessness of suffering, where Epicurus found reason and comfort, Job finds rage and despair.
“Who, me?” Job Rebuked by his Friends by William Blake, 1825
Epicurus vs. Job
It is my belief that the confrontation between these two worldviews – Epicurus’s qualified optimism and Job’s despairing pessimism – constitutes a philosophical confrontation at the heart of postmodern culture. This is not a contradiction between reason and revelation, but between two mutually incompatible answers to the problem of human suffering.
Today, to a great extent, Epicurus has the upper hand. The dominant ethos of our age is defined by a scientific consensus remarkably similar to the metaphysical concepts of Epicurus: we live in an indifferent, materialistic universe, one that has natural laws but no divine plan. Whether God exists or not – and he almost certainly does not – he cannot change these natural laws. Human beings, moreover, are tiny specks in an impossibly vast universe. As such, they are of little significance, let alone having meaning. There is no essential justice to the universe either. The innocent may suffer and the wicked prosper, but these are human value judgments and human concerns, and have no universal application. Suffering and injustice are unavoidable, and have no essential meaning.
Science itself makes no assertions as to how a human being ought to react to these ideas. Indeed, scientists usually assert, quite rightly, that that is not their job. Science merely observes, theorizes, and attempts to confirm. It does not make any ethical assertions. The culture at large, however, does so constantly; and its recommendations are often those of Epicurus. Indeed, fundamentally speaking, the vast middle class that dominates contemporary Western society grew by being fed largely Epicurean concepts: cultivate material pleasures, be moderate in doing so, try to enjoy life while it lasts, and do not fear death or suffering. Even in the unusually religious United States, most nominally faithful people nonetheless conduct their lives along Epicurean lines, and most mainstream religions have adapted themselves to this fact.
However, this hegemonic modern Epicureanism is marked by perpetual discontent. Our age is typified by sudden eruptions of fundamentalist religiosity; or by New Age, cult, and idiosyncratically personal searches for spirituality and meaning; or by political and social movements such as environmentalism and numerous others that have distinct similarities to religions; or by the rise and fall of messianic secular ideologies such as fascism and communism. Even in purely secular pursuits there is an obvious desperation at work, a need for meaning that ataraxia cannot satisfy.
The postmodern world, then, appears to live an Epicurean life while constantly turning towards Job, or at least casting a fearful glance at him: ataraxia and despairing anger seem locked in an uneasy coexistence. Perhaps this is because, in the end, both are partly correct. Certainly, Epicurus’s assertions about the material world have been confirmed by the conclusions of modern science; and indeed, his ethical recommendations may be the most viable method for achieving human tranquility and happiness. Yet Job’s restless reaction to his suffering – demonstrating that the materialistic, Epicurean conclusions of ultimate meaninglessness are impossible for suffering human beings to accept, that tranquility is ultimately impossible, and that human beings have a need, even a right, to struggle and rage at the injustice and meaningless of it all – seems far more credible, even more realistic, than Epicurus’s somewhat wishful concept of ataraxia. There is something in Job’s perplexed anger that is more honest in regard to human beings than Epicurus’s empty optimism, which often seems to demand not so much moderation as wilful self-deception in regard to the nature of both the world and the human psyche.
However, the mutual partial accuracy of their views – Epicurus in his optimism and Job in his pessimism – may point to a way out of the stalemate between Athens and Jerusalem. It is possible to accept that it is not Epicurus vs. Job, but Epicurus and Job; that the Greek account is correct on the level of the material universe, and the Jewish account correct on the level of the human.
At first such a mutual acceptance may seem unlikely, given the rivalry between science and religion. But it is important to note that the perspective of neither Epicurus nor Job requires religion. Job’s suffering, and his reaction to it, would still be valid and honest even if God does not speak out of the storm wind. Even in a godless universe – perhaps especially in a godless universe – human suffering remains. In Epicurus’s materialistic world, Job still sits in ashes and curses the day of his birth. Between ataraxia and the adversary, there may be a city that is neither Athens or Jerusalem.
© Benjamin Kerstein 2014
Benjamin Kerstein is a Tel Aviv-based writer and editor. His books are available at Amazon.com.