Don’t worry. Be happy. Live in the present. The philosopher Rousseau said that was the natural condition of man, before he was screwed up by self-consciousness, time, awareness of death, and delayed gratification. So the key to happiness is to be really, really stupid.
The Epicurean philosopher says the rational person can achieve the same result. He finds serenity now by living beyond hope and fear. Fear of death is unreasonable. So too is our unreasonable hope to somehow get out of dying. The key to happiness is wisdom, which is more than being really, really smart. In a recent, thoughtful article, Particia Vieira and Michael Marder suggest that we get over being obsessed with the future by being better Epicureans. It goes without saying that I’m going to give my own spin on that suggestion.
It’s true that people are less and less obsessed with the past, maybe especially (but not only) in America. We have no historical sense, a sense which could give us a sense of place, purpose, and limits, as well as the chastening that comes with reflection on experience. That’s both good and bad. Surely it’s good not be saddled with too much traditional baggage and ancient grudges.
We’re obsessed with the future for a variety of reasons. For one, we think the future is actually in our own techno-hands. We used to think “climate change” was up to nature, and now we think it’s up to us. That means we might have trashed the planet beyond repair. It might also mean we can save ourselves from our own mess if we act aggressively now. It might also mean that we’re developing the techno-means to bring the climate change—which used to be caused by chance and necessity—under our personal control. That would mean no more natural climate change—such as an inconvenient ice age—that we can’t believe in.
We’re also obsessed with our personal futures. That’s partly because we don’t often believe that our personal beings are sustained by the grace of a personal God. We believe, with the Epicureans, that biological death is the end of me. But we’re less accepting of that fact. We believe that death is more in our control, because we know so much about risk factors we can avoid. And there is, of course, no one who obsesses more about his personal future than he who has the transhumanist hope for the Singularity and all that.
The trouble with being obsessed with the future of those not yet born, or our species, or all life on the planet is that we sacrifice the interests and enjoyments of people today to a rather speculative cause. Communism, everyone agrees, was evil because it justified terrorizing and slaughtering individuals we can actually see in the service of an imagined future paradise. Our obsessive futurology, arguably, is evidence that we haven’t yet learned enough from the monstrous failure of the ideologies of the 20th century.
There is, of course, a difference between obsessing about oneself and subordinating oneself to the interests of people or ecosystems or whatever not yet born. But, in both cases, we’re diverting ourselves from what we really know about ourselves and our limited future. Surely the authors are right that we shouldn’t let the future divert us from what is.
But there is something wrong, after all, about being Epicurean. Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote in his most private letters that he was an Epicurean. That means, in a way, his teaching about natural rights was public and provisional, as was the depth of his concern about protecting the rights of others. Jefferson wrote eloquently about the violence slavery did to particular persons, but he wasn’t as obsessive as we might have hoped about keeping slavery from having much of a future in his country. According to Jefferson himself, what’s wrong with Epicurean thinking is it produces a selfish negation of the natural instinct we all have as beneficent social and relational beings.
So the least we can say is there’s a middle point between the indifference of Epicurean serenity and ideological obsession when it comes to controlling the future. Our concern for past and future is properly relational. It begins with our parents and our children and extends, if more weakly, to our ancestors and to the future of the children of our children. It also begins with everyone we know and love in our particular place. It might have begun with Jefferson’s concern for his own slaves, whom he knew well and even loved. It did begin (even if it didn’t go far enough), Jefferson wrote, with the effects of tyranny on the souls of his own children. Thinking of the person in isolation and thinking of the abstraction “humanity” (or the abstraction “species”) are both pathologies of our very personal and excessively unrelational time.
A Christian might say that out of love of God we should love all those made in his image. That’s true. But that doesn’t mean we have to be obsessive about keeping them around. Their future is in the hands of their personal Creator. Christian environmentalism, although reasonable enough, is saved from obsessiveness by that personal fact.
This essay originally appeared at Big Think and is published here by the author’s permission.
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