What political cataclysm?

Yes, those who try to follow Epicurus and his teachings are not supposed to involve themselves in politics.  And yes, and many Epicureans are also libertarians, and certainly do not vote Democrat.   Epicureans are few and far between, so one doesn’t want to alienate those with whom one would otherwise agree.  But if the greatest objective in life is happiness, peace of mind, tranquility and freedom from fear and anxiety, then one would prefer a government that offered policies that helped it all along.  And that is certainly not on offer from the current American administration.
The outcome of the mid-term elections was tame in comparison to what it ought to have been.  The pundits are waxing lyrical about the recent political cataclysm visited upon the Republican party, calling it a tsunami and similar epithets.

But is it?

In any other democratic country a dismal record of chronic incompetence such as that of Bush would be properly punished. The Republicans would be wiped out, just as the Labour Party was at the beginning of the Thatcher era and the Tories were when Blair came to power in Britain. Now those were real political changes.

So why did the electorate deal so gently with the incompetents, who have done so much to endanger America and increase terrorism? The answer lies, firstly, in the gerrymandering of constituencies, which guarantees most incumbents their jobs, come what may. Only moderates representing the few marginal constituencies, are really vulnerable to defeat.

Secondly, it lies with the control of the press, radio and television by right-wing owners and corporations over large swathes of the country. The war is reported cursorily, the sex scandals alluded to in passing, but the full political news is passed over in favor of minor local issues. Serious reporters are being sacked and the airwaves are filled with the likes of Rush Limbaugh.

The Democrats have to do two serious things during the two years they are likely to control Congress:

1. Appoint a serious, non-partisan commission to oversee the settling of constituency boundaries and take it out of the hands of people like De Lay and activist Republican judges.

2. Pass a law limiting the ownership of media outlets to, say, one TV station, five radio stations and three newspapers (to be debated). Naturally, the people most involved in restricting free speech and information will label this a restraint of free speech and information.   But it is crucial if democracy is to be restored to health. There can be no democracy without the free flow of information and a fully informed electorate, and to claim that the political blogs are the answer is disingenuous – – only a small number of people will ever have the time in their lives to scour the political blogs, however thorough and worthy. The great mass of Americans will still absorb fair and unbalanced propaganda from the traditional media, if they pay attention at all.


  1. I’ve wondered if Democritus wasn’t in general a more subtle thinker than Epicurus; we focus on Epicurus since he was the successful popularizer, and we have more of his works, directly and through Lucretius.


    32 Poverty under democracy is as much to be preferred to so-called prosperity under an autocracy, as is freedom to slavery.

    33 One must give the highest importance to affairs of the state, that it may be well run. One must not pursue quarrels contrary to right, nor acquire a power contrary to the common good. The well-run state is the greatest protection, and contains all in itself; when this is safe, all is safe; when this is destroyed, all is destroyed.

    My view started with some scholarly book I looked at, comparing Democritus, Epicurus, and the pre-atomics. It noted that Epicurus advised staying out of politics, while Democritus said politics might not be a tranquil endeavor itself, but some involvement was needed to maintain a state which would allow tranquility. Pure Epicureans seem inclined to become free-riders, which I guess is fine in absolute terms if you can get away with it, but parasitism risks the host turning on you.

    As for saving democracy… the Athenians went in more for sortition, random selection, than for mass elections, and I think we could benefit from that. We don’t need legal experts in Congress; experts can be hired to write legal details, and probably are already in the form of aides and staffers. We need a represenative body to decide what the laws in general should be, what should be illegal and with what punishments, what is worth raising taxes to pay for.

  2. Very interesting points. Could I address one tpo start with?

    “33 One must give the highest importance to affairs of the state, that it may be well run. One must not pursue quarrels contrary to right, nor acquire a power contrary to the common good. The well-run state is the greatest protection, and contains all in itself; when this is safe, all is safe; when this is destroyed, all is destroyed.”

    Yes, I’ve been wrestling with this a lot. On the one hand I’ve not been reading the newspapers in pursuance of calmness and peace; on the other hand, with only 30-40% of voters voting, the shots being called by the very rich and the big corporations, and the media mainly controlled by those in bed with one political party, it seems totally irresponsible not to get involved to defend freedom and the Constitution. I think Democritus was right. Does that mean one is not an Epicurean? Or do you have to be more subtle, by which I mean that maybe the situation at any one moment should dictate one’s actions? When Democritus lived one was able to take part in the workings of the state; in the time of Epicurus, as D’Appolonia has pointed out elsewhere on this blog, there existed an early form of fascism, and it was difficult to de anything about that as an individual. What do you think?

  3. Evaluating situations on their merits vs. following rules blindly always has something going for it.

    But if we’re going to pick a rule, not just for ourselves but to preach to others, then Kant’s categorical imperative might apply. Or just thinking ahead: if we think we, and those who listen to us, are among the most reasonable and rational citizens, does it make sense to withdraw, and to tell those who listen to us to withdraw, leaving politics and power to those who can be less trusted to wield it? And the Democratic victory didn’t come from people lounging in their Gardens.

    It may make sense to withdraw if the risks are high, or if one is alone; it can make plenty of sense if one’s gifts simply do not fall in the areas of politics. But in general? — There’s an Epicurean paradox here, perhaps. After all, we’re told that death is nothing, and I think we’re told that the purest pleasure is to attain the absence of pain, after which getting ‘more’ is meaningless. (This does sound very Buddhist.) So is there any reason for the Epicurean, once achieving peak happiness, to be a coward for the sake of his skin?

    As for being an Epicurean, I think that depends on what one wants to mean by it, and what others will understand. If I want to identify with 2300+ year old materialist quasi-hedonist philosophy, more people will understand Epicurean than Democritan, perhaps. If one goes by some high level principles with flexible interpretation, then no problem. If one goes by dogma — which seems particularly silly given that most of the dogma has been lost to time and Christians — then I wouldn’t want to be one.

    But Democritus does seem to be more *engaged* in life. There’s the politics, and there’s the actual quest of science: all those lost books, and “I would rather discover one cause than be the king of Persia”, vs. E’s attitude of relaxing once a possible godless mechanism has been imagined.

    Heh, I wrote a lot. But if you want to get other people into discussion, I think it’d be better to move to one of the mailing lists — more people, easier tools, and easier for people to keep their own copies of discussion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.