In this article we argue that romantic love is not a vainglory (a self-defeating ego-first pleasure). And it is not shallow. In this article we argue that romantic love can be part of a fundamentally wise, kind, and joyful life.
First a review:
Epicurus (ancient Greek philosopher, 341–270BC) held that pleasure was the good. But not mindless pleasure. The height of pleasure he defined as freedom from pain in the body and turmoil in the soul. In general, he placed active pleasures (like plucking a summer-fresh peach and merrily chomping down) below passive pleasures (like sitting still enjoying a peaceful moment when you are not tortured by great pain or wanton desires).
That’s a somewhat ascetic notion of pleasure, reminding one of the Buddha freeing himself from the bonds of desire and thus cutting the cord that had tied him to illusion and suffering.
But Epicurus — here also not entirely unlike the Buddha — was more of a moderate than an ascetic, and he claimed that as long as you can maintain a state of freedom from physical pain and mental unrest, it is a fine idea to vary your pleasures.
Epicurus divided pleasure into three main categories:
Natural Necessary Pleasures: Like eating something when you are hungry, drinking water when you are thirsty. These you have to do, so go ahead and them.
Natural Unnecessary Pleasures: Like eating something yummy, taking a walk, having sex. It is fine to indulge in these in moderation. Go ahead and enjoy them — as long as you don’t indulge in them so much that they cause disease, injury, or other painful conditions; and as long as you don’t allow the pursuit of them to disturb your equilibrium. Assuming you respect these caveats, the natural necessary pleasures can be used to mix things up and add a little zest to life. Remember: the recommended mental state is freedom from obsessive attachment, so if you enjoy a glass of wine with dinner that’s OK; but if you find yourself lusting panic-stricken and desperate-dog howling-broken after wine, you’re headed in the wrong direction).
Unnatural Unnecessary Pleasures (also called “Vainglories”): Like prioritizing wealth, power, or fame. Or having a statues built to yourself. Or demanding the hottest possible sexual partner. These pleasures satisfy essentially imaginary needs and boring pleasures about how eternally grand your non-spiritual self is. (You really do NOT need and deep-down can’t even care about having a statue built in your honor. It’s an empty ego-trip.) Vainglories cannot be naturally gratified: they are an endless rabbit hole of gimmes.
Pursuing these pleasures amounts to molly-coddling, ratifying, and encouraging delusion; and that undermines your most fundamental mental pleasure: freedom from inner turmoil = joyful, wide-open-conscious-space peace of mind. Not only that: Since these pleasures rob you of your senses, pursuing them is physically dangerous and they are apt to increase your physical woes.
Epicurus’s heuristic for choosing whether or not to pursue any given pleasure:
Will this pleasure ultimately cause me more pain or more pleasure? If a little reflection reveals that the pleasure is really more of a pain than a a pleasure, let it go.
I’m so lonely and wretched.
I’m so frustrated by longing
and at that spot where my
heart and gut twist up together
I need my baby doll.
I need my sweet girl.
I need my heartsong.
I’m just a man and I know it.
According to some, Epicurus counted romantic love among the vainglories.
They’ll provide quotes
” … others again enslaved to the follies of love, impudent or reckless, wanton, headstrong and yet irresolute, always changing their minds. Such failings render their lives one unbroken round of misery. The conclusion is that no foolish man can be happy, nor any wise man fail to be happy.” [Cicero’s On Ends XVIII, 61], discussing Epicurus’s views.]
And there’s Vatican Saying #51 which scholars maintain is Epicurus’s advice to a young man:
“I learn [that] your bodily inclination leans most keenly towards sexual intercourse. If you neither [violate] the laws nor [disturb] well established morals nor [sadden] someone [close] (to you), nor [strain] (your) body, nor [spend] (what is needed for) necessities, use [your own choice] as you wish. (It is) [sure] difficult (to imagine), however, (that) none of these would be part (of sex) [because] sex never benefited (anyone). (It would be) better (if it did) not harm (you).” [http://wiki.epicurism.info/Vatican_Saying_51/]
It is weird from our modern perspective to imagine Epicurus OK with satisfying sexual urges, yet against what we think of as a magical, beautiful bond that transcends mere carnality, sublimating sexual desire until it is subsumed within and regulated by a holy, a lasting, an essentially selfless love seeped in the joy of shared adventure and satisfaction, and tempered by the wisdom of shared travail.
Honestly, this talk of Epicurus frowning on romantic rowboat rides with the sunlight framing your perfect form is most likely just an innocent cross-millennia concept-confusion.
As Cassius Amicus points out in Love, Marriage, and the Epicurean in the modern world, Epicurus was a great fan of healthy friendship (of which healthy, responsible, friendship-based romantic love could be considered a subcategory) and apparently fine with marriage, even going so far as to arrange for the marriage of a favorite student, “In the same way also, they [Amynomachus and Timocrates] shall be the guardians of the daughter of Metrodorus, and when she is of marriageable age, they shall give her to whomsoever Hermarchus shall select of his companions in philosophy, provided she is well behaved and obedient to Hermarchus.” [Epicurus’s last will and testament] [Of course, there might be some Third Century BC sexism going on here, assuming that Metrodorus shouldn’t be left to her own devices, but should rather be bound up with a philosophically-sound man. Then again, I don’t know; maybe he also thought that many of his favorite male pupils would also do well to deal with their longings in that way.]
We can all agree that some romantic love is not really love at all, but rather a mean and dirty trick / a vainglory.
And doubtless we moderns and Epicurus could also agree that some romantic love is not a vainglory at all, but a nice, wholesome, healthy natural unnecessary pleasure.
Romantic love can be compatible with both happiness and decency:
When two people click and fulfill each other’s longings and delight each other’s minds and hearts.
And when they treat each other well and grow together as they grow their love.
And when they manage this private joy while still participating in the wider one.
You want friends you can talk to and with whom you can have deep, satisfying, supportive, meaningful conversations. That’s healthy.
You want a lover you can talk to in the say way — but physically. That’s also a healthy desire.
Is it shallow that you seek friends whose minds and hearts appeal to you?
Is it shallow that you seek a lover whose mind, heart, and body appeals to you?
You’re shallow when you don’t most fundamentally and essentially love the Lord your God (a Light shining and through all things) with all your heart and mind and soul, and your neighbor (ie: EVERYONE) as yourself. But supposing you consistently prioritize this blessed state of tranquility, free from all selfish desire, pained only by a joyfully aching world-embracing, all-uplifting compassion — wouldn’t it then be OK to vary your pleasure a little with some innocent natural-unnecessary pleasures?
What is the relationship between shallowness and vainglories? Epicurus said there were no essentially good or bad pleasures, but he did warn against pleasures that please the ego more than the mind, heart, or body; these he classified as vainglories — generally to be avoided. And what is shallowness but satisfying the ego rather than the spirit/heart/mind/body, which longs not for self-congratulation but to grow in and through and for the Love that shines in and through all things.
Friends, there is the Light that shines through all things and that alone Knows that and in what sense it is True to say we are all in this together. And there is our need to translate that Light better and better into human life.
And there is a planet full of nuclear buttons ready to wreck billions of lives, a world of rising seas and sinking democracies, a humanity unready for the plagues they’re stirring up, a people still shattered upon the illusion that there are different peoples.
How can we worry about anything but being kind to those around us?
How pleasant it is to live wholesomely: To breathe in a little fresh air, feel a little sunlight on our face, exchange smiles with a neighbor, hugs with a loved one, and — if we get so very lucky— snuggles with a partner.
God loves us.
We love God in ourselves and in others.
And so we watch the Light shine through everything, overtake everything, be everything.
Epicurus was right that erecting monuments to oneself is a folly, and that pushing aside the other kids so you can have the biggest piece of cake or the one with the most frosting is ridiculous. But is it so very terrible to find someone that makes your mind, heart, and body tingle? And to then delight in this discovery and settle down with your compati-mate into domestic bliss? Isn’t it a reasonably good way to deal with a famously unruly and often destructive passion?
Surely Epicurus realized this. Surely, he was warning us not against romantic love, but against making gods out of romantic passions.
When does romantic love become egotripping nonsense? When is it “give me that piece of cake!” or “build a statue in my honor!” ?
And when is romantic love a nice, healthy expression of one’s humanity — like having a little piece of cake while chatting with a friend who happens to also be your sexual partner and with whom you therefore throw your arm around and cinch up next to in a blue diner booth somewhere in Middle America?
Oh please can’t we do this without being bad?!?
How can we enjoy pleasure without becoming captive to it? How can we be satisfied by affection without making it into a god? How can we be pleased with our mate without egotripping over possessing exclusive rights to their privates?
In the end, we must all sort out our own salvations.
We don’t know everything.
But we know that we should work for ever more aware, honest, accurate, competent, compassionate, kind, sharing, and joyful feeling/thinking/acting.
And we know that we should rejoice in our lives, this world, other people.
And we know we should be grounded in an ever-growing whole-being insight [ideas, feelings, and the Light within — all interacting imperfectly but still meaningfully together] into that and in what way it is True to say,
“We are all in this together!”
That much we know, and that much can be stated plainly.
And OK: we all want nice lives. Maybe it’s our snug little family, all dressed up in our Sunday best, eating grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup and watching a funny, all-ages sitcom. Travel and posting to our travel blog. A football game with a beer. Pretty scenery and time for painting. We’re just people.
We should preserve and nourish democracy and seek win-wins. The more corrupt and/or cut-throat the political/economic/societal climate, the harder it is to be both happy and decent. That is why fighting for a healthy, sustainable representative democracy is a moral imperative. Oh sure, you’ll rise above it all, but you gotta think of the people around you — already slacking off spriritually/emotionally/intellectually.
[See Supporting Biden is a Moral Imperative, Representative Democracy is a Spiritual Good, and I Don’t Know What to Say About Complex Systems for more on the wisdom of sharing government by together working for a healthier representative democracy.]
[Epicurus argued that the gods were too eternal and blessed to worry about us and so we should not worry about them. He also argued that the soul atoms were delicate and dispersed at death, so there could be no immortality of the soul. What do Pure Love leaning Something Deeperists think about that? We think: The totality of universes is a never-ending fire, extinguished and kindled in measure, created by neither the gods nor man; and that this totality is created, sustained, shot through with and ultimately one with the Wise Light of Pure Love that alone Knows that and in what sense it is True to say we’re all in this together. We think: Epicurus was right to say of skepticism “that logos is self-defeating!”, but that dogmatism requires a meaningful relationship to the Truth if if is going to help one choose one thought/action path over another. We think: the reason, Epicurus, that you are so fond of friendship is because you know that the joy of kind delight is not just a pleasure, it points us towards and flows off of the Way. We think: What is True is beyond mortal ken, but mortals can relate meaningfully enough to It to say, “We are all in this together; that is our starting point; we must keep returning to that, and to the habits of thought/action without which none of our thoughts/actions are meaningful to any of us: aware, clear, accurate, honest, kind, joyfully together. We think: I’m in love with you and that’s just fine, baby.”]
Author: Larry Dagger
Editors: Bartleby Willard & Amble Whistletown
Copyright: AM Watson
More Epicurus quotes:
Thus when we say that pleasure is the goal, we do not mean the pleasure of debauchery or sensuality, despite whatever the ignorant, disagreeable, or malignant people believe. By pleasure, we mean this: freedom from pain in the body and freedom from turmoil in the soul. For it is not continuous drinking and revelry, the sexual enjoyment of women and boys, or feasting upon fish and fancy cuisine which result in a happy life. Sober reasoning is what is needed, which decides every choice and avoidance and liberates us from the false beliefs which are the greatest source of anxiety.
Nothing could be more useful or more conducive to well-being than Epicurus’ doctrine as to the different classes of the desires. One kind he classified as both natural and necessary, a second as natural without being necessary, and a third as neither natural nor necessary; the principle of classification being that the necessary desires are gratified with little trouble or expense; the natural desires also require by little, since nature’s own riches, which suffice to content her, are both easily procured and limited in amount; but for the imaginary desires no bound or limit can be discovered.
Vain desires include desires for power, wealth, fame, and the like. They are difficult to satisfy, in part because they have no natural limit. If one desires wealth or power, no matter how much one gets, it is always possible to get more, and the more one gets, the more one wants. These desires are not natural to human beings, but inculcated by society and by false beliefs about what we need; e.g., believing that having power will bring us security from others. Epicurus thinks that these desires should be eliminated.
[Love Notes has more on Pure Love & Win-Wins]
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[This is a work of Something Deeperism]