The Human Predicament: Buddhist and Epicurean Understandings

A man in need of no introduction...

The problem presented by the human condition seems an appropriate place to begin any comparative analysis of Buddhism and Epicureanism, as these two philosophies are directly engaged with it (or variations of it) and explicitly understand this engagement to be their primary concern.  Unsurprisingly, given the differing cultural, religious and philosophical contexts out of which these philosophies of life emerged,  each has its own unique account of just what the human situation is and why it is problematic, but there is more than a little overlap between them.  This alone is interesting, but what is even more fascinating is how each of their conceptualizations both agree and disagree with the modern ‘common-sense’ [1] view of the matter, and what they have to say to the modern West.The Buddhist account is striking in its brevity, apparent simplicity (a simplicity that belies its complex analysis), and in its radical nature.  The Buddhist account of the human predicament may be summed up by the use of a single term: dukkha.  This term has no precise English counterpart and has been variously (and unfortunately) translated as ‘suffering’, ‘anxiety’, ‘pain’ and other such cognate terms.  Each of these terms is strongly emotionally charged in English, so perhaps the best translation to use is ‘dissatisfactory’, since it captures some of the sense that dukkha conveys without causing English speakers to recoil.  Choosing the definition of this term is crucial since the Buddhist claim is simply this: all things are dukkha (i.e. dissatisfactory).

This immediately strikes the modern Westerner as wrong – obviously, there are things in life that are dissatisfactory (e.g. rainy days, grumpy co-workers, traffic jams and taxes), but equally as obviously it seems that there are things in life that very much are satisfactory (e.g. sunny days, friends, our favourite songs, a good meal or sex).  This is to misunderstand the Buddhist claim, however.  It is not that there is nothing whatsoever that is pleasant or enjoyable, but that there is nothing that is perfectly so.  Everything changes, or fails to live up to our expectations, and there are experiences that are themselves pleasurable, but are causally dependent upon unpleasant experiences (e.g. filling an empty stomach).  And we must not forget those things that are essentially unpleasant: pain, fear, hunger, anxiety, sickness, anger, and death, to name a few.  Even worse, humans are trapped in the cycle of birth-death-rebirth.  Most Westerners feel that this would be a good thing, but recall that Buddhism maintains that everything is dissatisfactory – rebirth on this account means endless dissatisfaction!

… and one who sadly does: Epicurus

Epicureans take a somewhat similar position.  Human life is broadly dissatisfactory on this view as well, although (unlike the Buddhist picture) in a far less radical way.  On the Epicurean picture, humans are animals like any other [2] and are saddled with numerous (infinite?) desires.  This plethora of desires leaves us in a bad way – we are constantly let down because we can’t hope to satisfy them all.  On the Epicurean schema, there are different sorts of desire.  Some of these are impossible to satisfy (e.g. the desire not to die), some are practically impossible (e.g. to be the richest man alive), and others are quite readily satisfied.  But where the Epicurean analysis is interesting is in what it says about the source of the desires.  The claim is this: some of our desires are ‘natural’, arising from our given animal natures (a list of such desires would presumably include items like: sex, food, shelter, etc.), but some arise solely as the result of living in human societies (e.g. desires for social status or dominance).  It is these latter sorts of desires that bring us the greatest unhappiness in life.

So what the two visions share is an explanation of the human situation as one of being trapped in the unhappy circumstance of having desires/wants/needs that cannot be met.  It is obvious that, from these analyses, the answer is to somehow overcome this situation.  But more on this later.

Endnotes:

[1] I speak of ‘common-sense’ items with some degree of trepidation – it is embarrassingly often the case that what some philosopher takes to be ‘common-sense’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.

[2] Of immense interest is that the Epicureans had a theory of evolution (obviously, it differs in many respects from the Darwinian/neo-Darwinian evolutionary paradigm we take for granted today).

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