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Epicureanism and Regret in Modern Culture

Are we, in modernity, losing our ability to regret?

Americans have epicurean tendencies, according to Steven L. Jones of the Bird and Babe blog. Epicureanism was first espoused by 4th century Greek philosophy Epicurus, and posits “pleasure” as the supreme good of life. In Jones’ mind, Americans are epicurean in three key ways:

 Aponia, the epicurean doctrine of avoiding bodily pain or exertion, explains the American fascination with efficiency and technology … Ataraxia, the epicurean doctrine of avoiding mental anguish (literally not getting yourself worked up), explains the perpetual criticism of Americans being apathetic, anti-intellectual or uninvolved in our political life … Agnosticism explains the general lack of concern of Americans for deep thinking about religion.

Peter Lawler has some corresponding thoughts at Big Think Tuesday, suggesting “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.” A Thursday piece by Carina Chocano in Aeon Magazine complemented Lawler’s observations and tied them into Jones’ definition of Ataraxia. Her piece, “Je Regrette,” explored society’s reluctance to express regret:

Life is not mysterious, it’s mathematics. All we have to do is track our productivity, our spending, our steps, our calorie intake. All we have to do is count our friends and likes and follows. The illusion of control that these tools grant us over every aspect of our lives is powerful. There is always something we can do today to avoid regret tomorrow. To admit regret is to admit to a previous failure of self-control. ‘In the reigning economic models of decision, human beings are “calculating machines” who decide their preferences based on calculations of utilities and probabilities,’ Landman writes. ‘We deny regret in part to deny that we are now or have ever been losers.’ In a culture that believes winning is everything, that sees success as a totalising, absolute system, happiness and even basic worth are determined by winning. It’s not surprising, then, that people feel they need to deny regret — deny failure — in order to stay in the game.”

According to these authors, modern culture is largely obsessed with pleasure. Thus we must avoid pleasure’s evil twin, pain, in all its physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual manifestations. This involves a purposeful forgetfulness, as well as a present fixation on positive sensations that undergird feelings of control.

Chocano thoughtfully points out that “The point of regret is not to try to change the past, but to shed light on the present. This is traditionally the realm of the humanities. What novels tell us is that regret is instructive. And the first thing regret tells us (much like its physical counterpart — pain) is that something in the present is wrong.” Ergo, regret rests a blazing hot finger on areas of regress or foulness in our history. It alerts us to pain, and often to sin. No wonder such feeling is antithetical to Epicureanism.

Having just finished The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, this idea of regret stood out to me. The book’s protagonist, Hester Prynne, is caught in adultery and forced to wear a scarlet “A” (for “adulteress”) as a public, permanent chastisement for her sin. As the years unfold, regret molds her thoughts and actions: she grows humble, penitent, and servant-hearted. The Puritans begin to soften toward her. Hawthorne writes that “not the sternest magistrate of that iron period would have imposed” the scarlet letter upon her any longer. Yet she continues to wear it. Why?

Hester, it seems, did not want to forget. Her life had been shaped and marked by this letter. Though it would undoubtedly have brought more pleasure to cast it away (as she does so temporarily in a moment of passion), she continued to wear it. Perhaps she recognized the good wrought through evil signified in that letter. Perhaps she understood she was wiser and stronger for that letter.

Historical characters have a different perspective on the past than our modern populace. Their everyday activities: sewing, weaving, cooking, cleaning, farming, etc., all emphasized the permanence and inter-connectedness of things. Garden vegetables found their way into evening dinners and canning jars. Wool became yarn, cloth, quilts and socks. Nearby trees became fences and firewood. Life functioned as a tapestry: stretching from its origins into the future, never wasted, never fully forgotten. Even the simplest error became opportunity to regrow, reuse, or remake something.

In our modern era, however, much of life can be easily discarded. Unwanted items or mistakes are easily trashed and forgotten. We buy most items from the grocery store, with little thought of their origin. Few of us make our own furniture, clothing, or home goods. This extends, perhaps most potently, into our new virtual lives: consider the “delete” button’s effect on our intellectual, philosophical consideration. The very idea that something can be purely “deleted”—never to appear again—is rather revolutionary. We can shred, crush, and pummel physical matter, but we can never fully destroy it. Van Gogh’s paintings-beneath-paintings offer an interesting depiction of how little people in times past could truly “erase” or “make over” past experiences.

One must also consider the “refresh” button. In one mere second, you can “delete” an entire experience. The “refresh” key takes a mere instant to make everything new. With instantaneous precision, we can update every moment, giving it new life. Delete and refresh are perhaps most dangerous in conjunction: if we use them consecutively, we can wipe out full passages of personal past in a heartbeat. Perhaps you posted an embarrassing status on Facebook? No matter. Delete it, and refresh your profile. No one need ever know. That heedless word, typed in an excess of emotion, is gone.

Of course, physical existence remains true to its material nature: we can’t just delete and refresh real life. The fabric of time and earth are crafted against us. But the intoxicating nature of this virtual existence, so easily customized, forgotten, and controlled, persuades us to attempt “delete + refresh” in physical reality. This is, perhaps, Epicureanism at its most potent. In our search for pleasure, regret weighs us down. It prevents us from reaching our greatest potential good. Therefore, we forget or reject the painful. We delete and refresh constantly, saving up only the most positive and pleasure-filled remembrances. We cast away our scarlet letters.

Do we lose something in the deleting? Chocano says yes: “The denial of regret … will not block the fall of the dominoes. It will just allow you to close your eyes and clap your hands over your ears as they fall, down to the very last one.” Life viewed as a series of manipulable, forgettable moments seems enticing. It seems freeing. But what if Hester had forgotten her adultery, or Raskolnikov his murderous history? What if Scrooge never visited his haunted, selfish past?

Hester’s stained past molded a brave future. Raskolnikov’s pain and penitence wrought redemption. Scrooge’s regret brought forth a new birth. Through their stories, we see a past and present connected, creating a tapestry of binding and redeeming moments.



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