File spoon-archives/lyotard.archive/lyotard_2001/lyotard.0106, message 37

Date: Sun, 10 Jun 2001 15:52:26 -0400
Subject: Re: Tantalizing ataraxia

Eric, and All,

I wonder???

> a feeling of peace and contentment, tranquility, joy and
> pleasure - without disturbance

What if Epicurus and his buddies had modern drugs - would they have spent a
greater percentage of their lives in such a state?

And isn't sublime "terror" excluded ?

Yes, the Greeks conceived of atoms, but didn't have the science and
technology that make us post-moderns believe in them, although we can never
see them.

Now the existence of many sub-atomic particles is scientifically
established, and beyond
that, forces, fields and energies perhaps as mystical as Egyptian gods, who
had been out there about 20 centuries before Epicurus .

Some day scientists may do experiments that convert inanimate matter to
living matter, elevating their "selves" to mini-gods.

Anyhow, this religious discussion gets back the philosophical basics of why
something rather than nothing, and what to do with a human life, especially


> The Greeks and Romans told two stories about Tantalus.  In one of them,
> water and luscious trees surround him. When he is thirsty and attempts
> to get a drink, the waters recede. When he is hungry and attempts to
> pluck a piece of fruit, the branches always remain out of reach.
> The other story tells of a rocky precipice constantly hanging over
> Tantalus' head. It threatens to topple at any time and crush him to
> death.
> Taken together, these stories seem to echo some of anxieties attendant
> to the current myths of consumption. The media and the corporation act
> as pimps for the various needs and desires their customers are forever
> attempting to gratify, but the brand names never truly satisfy the
> thirst and hunger inside of the weary marks. Consumers live like heroin
> junkies, always waiting for the man to come with the next big score.
> They also live in the constant fear that soon everything they have been
> struggling for will come crashing down upon them and their lives will
> have been in vain.
> This is the flip side of the Protestant work ethic, now secularized in
> the form of the autonomous self, whose development and maintenance is
> seen as the major goal of one's life, the achievement of which spans a
> continuous arc from birth to death.  Be all you can Be.
> When Lyotard spoke of the Postmodern as an incredulity towards
> metanarratives, he was widely misunderstood. Critics supposed him to be
> venturing into metaphysics with a metanarrative of the end of
> metnarratives. Or else, they said, he was simply wrong empirically.  The
> metanarratives were still with us and always would be.
> However, when Lyotard spoke of these metanarratives of emancipation, he
> was talking of something very specific, the end of modernity as it is
> legitimized in the myths of consumption and production described above.
> It is an historical project that works as a set-up or disposition that
> delays and defers immediate gratification in order to accumulate more of
> it over time. The old story of "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of
> Capitalism."
> Such modernity is not new.  It has very deep roots. As Lyotard points
> out in "The Confession of Augustine";  "From book XI of the Confessions
> Husserl reads off the phenomenology of the internal consciousness of
> time. In this book Augustine sketched out from below a
> libidinal-ontological constitution of temporality."
> Thus, the movement towards the postmodern suggests a break with a two
> thousand-year old tradition of Western Culture for which Christianity,
> in both its literal and secular forms, has tended to provide a normative
> basis.  The question arises whether the times are now ripe for a new
> religion, an equinox of the gods.
> One of the fastest growing religions in the West today is Buddhism. This
> religion has very much to offer to a contemporary sensibility.  It sees
> no need to posit a deity or even a self.  In some of its extreme forms,
> such as Zen, it even seems to suggest that conceptions of truth and
> moral judgements are inherently relative, the very kind of negative
> assertions for which the poststructuralists are constantly vilified.
> There are even suggestions that some Buddhist logicians practiced a kind
> of deconstructionism.
> Ultimately, however, regardless of how much Buddhism is down-sized and
> re-engineered to make it a fit object of consumption for Western
> audiences, it still carries over too much from its past for it to have a
> wide reception here. There remain wooly mystical constructs such as
> Nirvana, a belief in reincarnation, the lore of the masters and the
> supernatural realms of beneficent and wrathful deities that do not jibe
> well with contemporary scientific cosmologies. There is also a
> nihilistic and pessimistic metaphysics at Buddhism's heart that is life
> denying and sees the world as a place from which escape is the only
> possible answer.
> Is there another religion available which shares the strengths without
> the liabilities of Buddhism?
> There is, if the definition of what constitutes a religion is greatly
> expanded, and one is willing to revive a movement that for all intents
> and purposes is dead today and was killed by the rise of Christianity.
> Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who lived from 341-270 BCE in a very
> interesting period of history. He was born in the generation that
> followed Aristotle and Alexander the Great and thus lived at a time
> period when the Greek philosophical corpus was virtually complete and
> the Greek Empire had created a cosmopolitan political culture.
> He was noted for being a materialist and taught a atomistic theory of
> physics, which as Michel Serres has pointed out is remarkably
> contemporary and even shares some affinities with chaos theory.  He set
> up a school which he called the Garden and one that sounds like the
> first counter-cultural institution in history.  Here philosophy was
> taught, crops were raised and people lived and interacted.  He was
> notorious for including women as well as men at the school, a thing that
> was unheard of at that time.
> However, it is primarily because of his ethical and theological
> teachings that Epicurus is still relevant today.  He is commonly
> regarded as a hedonist because his ethics is based upon pleasure and
> pain, but this conception needs to be greatly qualified.  Epicurus
> believed (along with Aristotle) that there were two kinds of pleasure,
> what he called kinetic and katastematic.  Kinetic pleasure is the kind
> we are most familiar with - it is those pleasures which satisfy our
> needs such as eating, drinking, sex etc.  These pleasures tend to be
> momentary and fleeting.  The point Epicurus made was that while such
> pleasures were good in and of themselves, the pursuit of such pleasure
> often led to even greater suffering or pain.  Food can make us obese and
> love can make us dysfunctional.  Thus, although Epicurus based his ethic
> upon pleasure, he taught that reason is needed to help us determine what
> pleasures are worth pursuing.
> Furthermore, the real ethical goal, from Epricurus's point of view was
> the realization of katastematic pleasure. Such pleasure was continuous,
> rather than sporadic; and inherent rather than external.  This notion
> was presented through the doctrine, usually misunderstood, that pleasure
> is the absence of pain.  What Epicurus meant was this.  When we are in a
> state where our needs are met and there is no pain experienced, we
> notice a feeling of peace and contentment, tranquility, joy and
> pleasure.  Epicurus called this state ataraxia, a word that literally
> means "without disturbance".
> Epicurus taught that to the extent humans live in the state of ataraxia
> they live a life that is akin to the Gods and realize an inherent
> happiness.  This is the positive part of his theology.  The negative
> part was a criticism of conventional religion insofar it taught humans
> to fear the gods and to fear death as well as the underlying threat of
> punishment connected with both.
> Epicurus taught that since everything is composed of atoms, when we die
> there is no survival, but this should not make us fearful.  "Where we
> are, death is not and where death is, we are not."  With regard to the
> Gods, they exist as the positive images of bliss and joy.  They neither
> create nor punish. It is atoms, atoms, atoms all the way down. The gods
> may exist, but they are not in charge.
> The first point that should be obvious here is the deep connection that
> exists between the Epicurean teaching of ataraxia and the philosophy of
> Lyotard with regard to the sublime.  Both are marked by dialectical
> feelings of pleasure and pain and both resist discourse and
> representation.  To experience ataraxia is to experience the sublime.
> The sublime is now. Ataraxia is now.
> The second point is that if a significant number of people began to
> practice something like Epicureanism, it might begin to pose serious
> problems for capitalism because this movement  would amount to a
> rejection of the corporate imposed Platonic realm of idealized brand
> names. No more Logos.
> This rejection of commodification is perhaps the necessary counterpart
> to the rejection of work.  Suppose they built a mall and no one came.
> Tantalus Shrugged.
> What an irony it would be, if, 2000 years after the cry "Great Pan is
> Dead" was heard, paganism would once again return with a happy
> vengeance, this time in postmodern drag! Long live Pan!
> We must regard Tantalus as happy.  Who wants that Evian water (tm) and
> Golden Delicious apples (tm) anyway.


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