Old People Salt Life, Epicureanism, and The Walking Dead


One of my students once told me a story about a top secret old folks resort where wealthy retirees spend their remaining days before death and judgement reaping their just rewards as the “greatest generation” who defeated Hitler, at least allowed the Civil Rights Movement to happen, and helped create the greatest period human prosperity ever. According to the student, the elderly men and women who lived at this resort were in a constant state of intoxication; their psychiatric meds were boosted by a daily steady stream of tropical drinks, which they imbibed as they zoomed about never ending golf courses. In his Confessions, St. Augustine of Hippo noticed this “carefree cheerfulness” that one can reach with a few coins at a liquor store as being “as good as it gets” here on earth. The point being that pleasure is cheap and easy to get, and, if there is no God, or God doesn’t really care about us, the best thing to do would be to fall asleep either on the streets of late Roman Milan or on the wheel of a golf cart.

Augustine, of course, is presenting a “street Epicureanism.” Epicureanism is one of the two key philosophies that has defined Western civilization.  This is the seminal point that Stephen Greenblatt makes in his work in The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.  While his thesis that the rediscovery of the Epicurean Lucretius’ work De Rerum Natura created the Enlightenment and the modern world is only kind of true—in the middle ages, educated men and women were well away of the philosophy (Dante, of course, puts Epicureans in hell in the 14 century), Greenblatt’s point the modernity is, at heart, entirely epicurean is entirely correct.

Epicureanism is, like much of ancient philosophy, principally therapeutic: it seeks to establish mental health through a right understanding of God, the soul, and the nature of things.  By understanding that God does not care about us and that human existence ends at death, we are free from the fear of punishment and the heavy weight of ethical decisions. The goal of life then is a selfish but moderate and tranquil pursuit of happiness. Like the Dude in The Big Lebowski, we should just abide and let the absurd and grotesque spectacle of life pass us by.

The alternative is the Stoic and Christian idea that life is fundamentally about self-denial and mortification of one’s will. Like the bishop in Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, the Christian is aware that we are not meant to be happy in this life, that is, we are not to pursue individual happiness. Peace “comes dropping slow” through obedience to God’s commands sacrificial love of neighbor. Greenblatt is much more honest and wiser than most contemporary Catholics—whether leftist or “evangelical”—who attempt to have the best of both worlds, watering themselves with pleasure and therapeutic consolation while at the same time cashing in at God’s grace at mass (Christopher Hitchens also was wise enough to see that Christianity fundamentally and truly is predicated on self-abnegation not the pursuit of individual desire).

While contemporary critics of Christianity deride the Faith as being destructive and masochist and inhumane precisely because it does not put human comfort as the highest pleasure, the Epicurean alternative, which many of them present, is a great failure. Nietzsche and the Left Bank existentialist crowd of Sartre and Camus were smart enough to see this failure. We are not content with life on the beach or keeping up with the latest installment of the Avengers movies. When we are truly developed as humans, we recognize the banality and emptiness of bourgeois society and realize that we will never be truly happy no matter how many times the Patriots win the Super Bowl. That is why, like Mr. John Keats, we suspend are desire in anticipation, so we can always be in a state of readiness for the next big thing. For if there were no next big thing, we would quickly grow disappointed—really, really disappointed.

I have not seen anything more than literally ten seconds of The Walking Dead. I know I would love it as much as I would of loved Lost and a number of TV shows that I have missed having foresworn television my sophomore year of high school. I do, however, know the basic plot of the TV show, and like all post-apocalyptic books, movies, TV shows, and video games, the show is more about right now than the future. We, of course, are zombies, as James Parker notes in “Our Zombies, Ourselves” but we are zombies precisely because Epicureanism does not work; we are not happy with Star Wars and an MSG high; we long for more in our leaves and are thus “always roaming with a hungry heart.”  It is time remember the great relief our ancestors felt when they threw away the sour milk of paganism and secular philosophy and embraced the true nourishment of the Gospel. Even the very secular John Stuart Mill knew that if we try to make ourselves happy, we never will be so.

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