Epicurus and politics, a response

If you type in ‘Epicurus and politics’ into Google, the first result you get is an excellent post by Robert. Here, he explained Epicurus’ arguments against politics- the needless anxiety caused by a gullible public being fooled by charlatans only interested in their own gain. Charismatic figures will emerge, appealing to the public’s sense of collective virtue. But in reality the state is a clumsy instrument for achieving good- the pleasures of the collective are far more easily obtainable through smaller communities and voluntary exchange.

Robert’s argument against Epicurus is one I used to wholeheartedly agree with. The modern world is simply too influenced by politics to make non-involvement rational. The state is entrenched in every facet of human life, from education to the workplace to care for the elderly. I would add that Epicurus failed to foresee the good that can be achieved through political change. We would never have had the civil rights movement or the women’s liberation were it not for those who were willing to sacrifice their own pleasure to act in the public interest. In this regard, Aristotle’s conceptualisation of happiness as a life of virtuous activity may be more appropriate to the present day. What I like about Epicurus’ hedonism is that however individualistic, it makes no claims to a universal morality. Rather, it takes into account circumstances and deals in terms of general principles and practises, rather than doctrinaire dogma.

However, the limits of Aristotelian aspirations to virtue soon become apparent when dealing with situations where there are no good outcomes. Take for example, Brexit. The United Kingdom finds itself in a position where all plausible outcomes are bad. There was always a choice to be made between the sort of Brexit the country wants: either a Brexit where trade with the EU is restricted but the British government gains a decent degree of regulatory freedom, or a Brexit where trade remains relatively open but the UK gains virtually no additional sovereignty of its own. The Leave campaign lied about this choice, arguing we could have effectively as much trade with the EU as we do now while ‘taking back control.’ The British government has negotiated with the EU as if this lie is true, which is why its plan for Brexit is the worst of both worlds- it restricts trade with the EU greatly, particularly in services, while subjecting the UK to a ‘common rulebook’ with the EU, which would effectively mean the UK having to obey EU rules and ECJ rulings while having no say in how they are made.

Given the disastrous and incompetent nature of the British government and its negotiations, the UK has three choices. It can either accept May’s deal, leave without a deal, or stay in the EU. All options will be bad, but in varying ways. Accepting May’s deal with not only cost the country economically, it will satisfy almost no one. Leaving without a deal may be to the liking of a few hardcore Eurosceptics, but most people would be outraged by a rapidly deteriorating country with no arrangements on security or trade. Staying in the EU is only possible through a referendum, which would never pass Parliament. And even if somehow a referendum occurred, and Remain won, there would be a hard-Right backlash, complaining that democracy had been undermined and that the elites had subverted the will of the people. The results would be horrific. Disillusionment, apathy and a sense of hopelessness would reach record levels.

In this and other similarly dismal scenarios, Epicurean non-participation makes sense. Getting involved in politics will be a significant detriment on one’s happiness and peace of mind. You will waste time arguing with people who won’t ever change their mind. And in return, you won’t make the country much better, because there are no options worth fighting for. It makes more sense simply to try to survive the damage our politics inflicts on us, rather than deluding yourself into believing you can make a difference. The pompous, arrogant politicians Epicurus warned us about are just as notorious today as they were in his time.


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