On religion and power

5 08 2009


As many know, I have a great affinity for the scholarship of the French philosopher, Pierre Hadot. The focus of his academic career is to return philosophy to its ancient function of being a “way of life” and not merely a series of convoluted doctrines that express what a particular person thinks about reality. I have not yet obtained Hadot’s latest book, The Present Alone is Our Happiness, but some digging on-line resulted in my finding a quote from this book:

I do not think that the fundamental desires of humans can change. The ruling or rich class seeks wealth, power, and honors, in antiquity just as in our day. All the misfortune of our actual civilization is in effect the exasperation of the desire for profit, in all the classes of society, for that matter, but especially the ruling class. Common morals can have simpler desires: work, happiness at home, health. The invocations of the gods in antiquity were the same ones that are now made to the Virgin Mary. One asked the same things to soothsayers as we ask of our horoscopes. It is not a question of the epoch. But when Epicurus distinguished natural and necessary desires, natural desires that are not necessary, and desires that are neither natural nor necessary, he did not want to enumerate all legitimate desires and explain how they could be satisfied; he wanted to define a style of life, taking conclusions from his intuition, according to which the pleasure corresponds to the suppression of a suffering caused by the desire. There is an analogy with Buddhism, very much in fashion these days. To be happy one must thus maximally diminish the causes of suffering, that is, the desires. In this manner he wanted to heal the suffering of humans. He thus recommended renouncing desires that are very difficult to satisfy in order to attempt to be content with desires that can more easily be satisfied – that is, finally and simply, the desire to eat, to drink, and to clothe oneself. Under an apparently down-to-earth aspect, there is something extraordinary in Epicureanism: the recognition of the fact that there is only one true pleasure, the pleasure of existing, and that to experience it one merely has to satisfy the desires that are natural and necessary for the existence of the body. The Epicurean experience is extremely instructive; it invites us, like Stoicism, to a total reversal of values.
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