Hurtado showed how the persecuted early church wasn’t just offensive to Jews and Greeks. It was also attractive. The first Christians opposed abortion and infanticide by adopting children. They did not retaliate but instead forgave. They cared for the poor and marginalized. Their strict sexual ethic protected and empowered women and children.
Epicurus believed everything reduces to atoms and void – including our mind (psyche) – and so rejected the conception of the immortal soul, which had been central to prior religious and philosophical thought. The gods, he held, may exist – but even if they do, they have nothing to do with us, and hence give us no moral obligations, no divine law, and no higher purpose. Therefore, the best thing you can do, and in fact the highest good, is to pursue a life of pleasure.
The “Veneer Theory” (coined by De Waal) argues primarily that: morality is nothing but an afterthought, and selfishness and competitiveness is what defines us at our core. Michael Ghiselin summarized this view of morality shared by many biologists for over a century: “Scratch an ‘altruist’, and watch a ‘hypocrite’ bleed”. Biologists who shared these views of human nature essentially believed that moral sensibilities were some sort of accidental by-product of a biological process, thus going against the way that biology had hardwired us.
Epicurus, though, thinks we’re doing pleasure wrong. We navigate the landscape of pleasure and pain artlessly and inattentively, sometimes without any sort of plan at all. Epicureanism aims to point us in the right direction, to help us find security and joy, to do pleasure right. First, let’s briefly explore why Epicurus endorses hedonism, then turn to his distinctive approach to pleasure.
Instead of being what you are — unkind — you pursue the fictitious opposite put before you — kindness. To emphasize what we should be, only causes strain, giving momentum to what we already in fact are.
It’s one of life’s bitter ironies that one of the first things lost to moral certainty is the capacity for compassion. Righteousness is a cold, hard position, and an unshakeable one. It allows no room for one of the most basic tenants of human existence: doubt. Faith exists not in counterpoint to certainty but to doubt. And those in religious institutions who wish to commune with their fellows must never lose sight of the fact that doubt defines and binds us. Few of us have the capacity to defend a position of uncompromising certainty.
When it comes to loving and being loved, even the most jaded and worldly often feel deep insecurity. That’s true even when we’re in happy relationships. If we can find some comfort and direction in a mega-best-seller with a tacky cover, so be it. For those of us who hope to grow merrily old and saggy and gray with our beloveds, it’s a reminder that packaging isn’t everything.