We consider ourselves fortunate because one of our avid readers hands over back copies of the New York Review of Books for us to peruse and then donate to the literature faculties of local universities. Whenever some hit Bookworm, there’s a mad scrabble to get to them first. In the January 2013 edition one of the staff brought an essay by author Zadie Smith to everyone’s attention.
Zadie was pondering how to distinguish between joy and pleasure, and came to the conclusion that, after recalling the six times in her life that she has experienced joy that it is something that has very little real pleasure in it. And yet if it hadn’t happened at all, at least once, how would we live?
She admits that joy has a habit of multiplying dangerously, with children being the infamous example. Zadie says her child at three is mostly a joy, which means in fact the girl gives her parents not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that Zadie has come to recognize as joy.
Zadie Smith is an exceptional novelist, even more, an exceptional essayist and her book, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, covers a wide variety of topics including personal reflections, political observations, the profundities of everyday life and reflections on a heartbreaking trip to Liberia.
Once you’re hooked by the magic of Smith’s use of words, you may even subscribe to the monthly book review that kick-started this article and in which she is an occasional essayist.
Our latest entry to the philosophy shelves is Reclaiming Epicurus by Luke Slattery and is one in the special series of slim Penguin Specials that are designed to be read in a single sitting.
Slattery points out that those who confuse Epicurus with gourmands and even gluttony are on the wrong track. He argues that Epicurean philosophy counsels that genuine happiness comes from the quieting of desire — from less, not more.
Through his research and investigative travels, Slattery points out that had followers of Epicurus not been fiercely muted by early Christian hierarchies, then billions of us today would probably fill in our census details as being Epicureans. He also suggests that an Epicurean mindset would help us rethink our materialistic ways and face the challenges of man-made climate change. We may be able to rein in unsustainable development.
Karl Marx took his philosophical bearings from Epicurus and prefaced him in his doctoral thesis. He saw himself as Epicurus the Revolutionary and now that we’re born again Epicureans, we have decided to have another look at Karl, who like a lot of other revolutionary thinkers, has been maligned over the years.
Similar to Epicurus he advocated the principle of refusing to believe in intangible things, including religious deities. He said the intangibles are preconceived notions that can be manipulated. Thus it’s easy to understand why early doctrinal Christians ousted Epicurus and why early doctrinal Marxists ousted Christ.
To re-discover Karl, we’ll start off with The Communist Manifesto, which he co-authored with Engels, to enthuse with the theory before doctrinal reality set in and ousted a lot.
Arendt and Pilger
Staying on an Epicurean theme, journalist and ethicist John Pilger’s book, Hidden Agendas, is a personal account of some of the great liberation struggles of the late-20th century, and the people who gave up so much for their ideals. Pilger is passionately on the side of ordinary people and their extraordinary efforts to free themselves from oppression, which is probably why his neo-conservative critics try to paint him as a Marxist. His interview with Aung San Suu Kyi while she was under house arrest in Burma is extraordinary.
An unsettling aspect of this work is that that he deprives us of all our heroes, even the recently deceased Nelson Mandela, because they are flawed by the necessity of compromise in public life.
He pulls few punches and, for example, his accounts of South Africa and Vietnam's deprivations under World Bank-imposed strictures remind us that globalisation ‘does not lift all boats’ and even attempts to sink some.
And finally someone else we regard as Epicurean: Hannah Arendt
A recent biographical movie about this controversial, American/Jewish social theorist discusses her defense of Adolf Eichmann when he was on trial in Tel Aviv for Holocaust war crimes, and has brought her writings back into prominence.
In her re-issued 1958 book, The Human Condition, Arendt considered humankind from the perspective of the actions of which it is capable. She identified problems that still beset us such as diminishing human agency and political freedoms, and the irony that as human powers increase through technological and humanistic inquiry, we are less equipped to control the consequences of our actions.
You can see why the work is described as being perpetually timely.
Her defensive writings on supposed anti-semites — the philosopher Kant and the Catholic Pope, Saint Augustine — continue to make her a highly controversial figure among her religious cohort.