Epicurus's happiness as redemption and rebirth

I have always been transfixed by trees. My eyes search for them in the countryside, in the city, in the mountains; in the pine groves by the sea, in gardens, on the fresh paths through the woods.

Everything about trees fascinates me: the trunk that grows in both width and length, the rings that mark the passing of the years.
The knots in their branches; and then their crowns, full of leaves that cyclically renew themselves. When I was a child, the idea of evergreen trees troubled me: pines, spruces, magnolia trees; carob trees and olive trees, which remain robed in colour during the winter.
This worry came out of a strange idea, as children's ideas sometimes are: the bare branches in the winter, rather than appearing desolate, represented a time of rest, a pause that was necessary for rebirth. So, when it was explained to me that even evergreens lose their leaves, very gradually, and have new ones that reform and return them to their former glory, little by little, I made peace with their apparent immobility.
It was an insightful metaphor: I sensed, without realising it, how important the dialectics of change is, in the lives of trees, marking the time with their rings, and in the lives of humans - who measure time, measure changes, whether they are reversible or irreversible. 

I like to imagine these evergreen trees - holm oaks and olive trees, maybe even an ancient magnolia - in a garden whose history verges on myth, at least for those who love the history of philosophy in its first centuries of life, when it was a young, agile discipline, adventurous and passionate about how we can live in the full bloom of wonder.
That garden was known with the definite article: The Garden ( κπος), even though on closer examination it was more a vegetable garden than anything else. I close my eyes and I see it, blooming with fresh vegetables, fruit ripening under the Athenian sun; meanwhile, along the paths, under the portico, they are speaking about the mysteries of life, about matter coming together in swirling movements, and, above all, about happiness.

In that Athenian garden, between the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, the leaves of the trees, which the laws of time unfortunately prevent us from seeing, vibrated with the voice of one of the most extraordinary philosophers the world has ever known: Epicurus, who founded his school - with adjoining vegetable garden - with a slave, in a time when slaves were seen as lower than human beings, according to conventional wisdom. But not he, who rebelled against conventional wisdom, and opened the doors of his garden to slaves and women, at the cost of attracting snide remarks from his critics - indeed, his school was by far the most criticised and slandered of all the ancient schools. It may be partly because of this that the courage of his philosophy shines so brightly.

From Epicurus's teachings, we may be left with testaments that are incomplete - again due to the laws of time, which regenerate leaves, but damage ancient words, between fires, raids and simple wear and tear - but they speak to us in a language that illuminates, centuries later, and teach us a valuable lesson that we must not forget in these times that seem to freeze our hopes of rebirth with lazy, pessimistic paralysis. Epicurus spoke to women and men who were disoriented, in a period of historic crisis: the model of the pòlis was expanding, its boundaries widening; the adventure of Hellenism was turning the status of its citizens upside down, making them into subjects.

In the middle of the confusion of change, he had the acuity to choose his target well: the fears that caused sadness, held people hostage, made them miserable. Fears that centuries later, a modern epicurean, Baruch Spinoza, would call sad passions, which today beset our idea of the place we can occupy in the world, stiffening us with ridiculous defences of minuscule identities, making us fall into the trap of closing up as an antidote to everything.

Happiness, which for Epicurus was nourished by the social emotion of philìa - a supportive, generous gaze open to exchange with the living - is our ticket out of the intimidating shadow of sad passions. Happiness reminds us that we are a little forest that grows as one; it makes us immune to superstition, helps us to overcome confusion, weakens the power of paralysis.

Today, the words of Epicurus on happiness - as a collective hypothesis that is always possible, and that it is never too late to pursue with consciousness - give us back the promise of a life far from the painful entrapment of competition.
They lead us towards our responsibilities as living, thinking beings: to begin to bloom again, accepting the necessity of winter, of apparent inertia, as an essential part of regeneration.
And they invite us to wake up and sprout again, after the paralysis that has left us lying fallow.


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N° 11


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