The philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero introduced the Romans to the chief schools of Greek philosophy and was likely the most influential philosopher in ancient times but met his demise by getting too intimate with the politics of the period. He lived during the last days of the Roman Republic, in the latter half of the century before Christ. It was a time of power struggles, civil wars and the ascent and fall of Julius Caesar.
Following Caesar’s death, Cicero became an enemy of Mark Antony and made the mistake of attacking the new Emperor in a series of speeches. His 54-year-old severed head was hung in the Roman Forum.
Of Cicero’s books, six on rhetoric have survived, as well as parts of eight on philosophy. Of his speeches, 88 were recorded and 58 survive.
Among the surviving is Cicero’s De finibus bonorum et malorum (“On the ends of good and evil”).
That was really a quintology — 5 books — written over the course of about 6 weeks in the Summer of 45 (BC). Published 7 months before the assassination of Caesar, Cicero dedicated it to Brutus.
Cicero wanted to know, what is pleasure, what is good — what motivates us? Why are we here? What constitutes a good life? Using Socratic dialog, he attacked the hedonistic definition of pleasure and moved on to Stoicism and the proposition that by moral conduct humans can choose to live good lives. Cicero doubts the notion of moral human as the natural state, and rejects Stoical exclusion of other creature pleasures. In this Cicero prefigures what we are only now being told by neurobiologists about our meta-programmed predilections.
In the last book, Cicero describes what for him would seem a perfectly happy life, which includes both pursuit of virtue and external goods. At the end of the book, Cicero critiques the logical inconsistencies of his own conclusions, but not the broader principles, and says that while he has reservations, he designs his own life around these prescriptions.
Among the aphorisms found in De finibus are:
- All things start from small beginnings.
- Nature abhors a vacuum.
- No one wishes pain, but occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure some greater good.
- ’Tis an excess of pleasure not to feel a trifle uneasy.
Coming from challenging times filled with political intrigues, outright civil wars, assassinations, coups d’état and the cruelest of military empires, Cicero knew that humans are nasty pieces of work and that social order always hangs by a tenuous thread. What creates happiness is neither “busy pleasures which dally with our senses” nor “the fulsome satisfactions of eating, drinking and venery,” “like baboons and swines.” Even the absence of pain is not enough to create happiness, although it helps. Happiness, he said, is not dependent on things that pleasure the body, but on pleasures of the mind.
If increasing average national happiness is the goal of advanced capitalist societies and economies, then something seems to have gone awry. Whilst high income economies may have largely failed to date to decouple their economic growth from the most important measures of ecological footprint and impact, they have had more unwitting success in decoupling it from increasing the happiness of their populations. Various studies using both cross-national and within-country longitudinal data indicate that the correlation between happiness and per capita income or GDP seems to become weak or even disappear, at a level past about US $10,000 per year. —Martin Pullinger
For the past two centuries as a fossil-fueled technological revolution rocketed industrial productivity, neither leisure time nor security of food, health and shelter increased for the broad masses of humanity. Instead of translating productivity gains into affluence for the many, including ecological health, growing and globalized population kept downward pressure on wages and job availability—bringing about the socially accepted meme of casino economies and affluence for the few. For the few, this created previously unimagined wealth. For the many, it augured diminished expectations for succeeding generations.
We are in a bind that can no longer be moderated by changing to or from a gold standard, or cryptocurrency, or using complicated debt stimulus. Production and consumption are equal evils. As we peer over the edge of the cliff we are about to dive from, we keep hearing ideas about steady state economies, circular economies, gift economies and the like. Some of these pay more attention to biophysical constraints than previous economic models did. But do they pencil out in the social sphere? Can they stick as memes? Is there enough time left to matter?
Eleven years ago my book, The Post-Petroleum Guide and Cookbook: Recipes for Changing Times, hammered a relentless theme:
The principal challenge of the Great Change is not physical but mental (as it is in any survival situation). Collectively, societies that are heavily addicted to consumer goods and the pattern of waste that a consumer culture creates will have to struggle to adjust to a new normal. It will not be optional and neither money nor social position will allow you to escape.
The easy path is to downsize expectations and simplify your lifestyle. This path requires giving up certain ways of looking at the world in order to embrace other, more survival-oriented ways. The hard path is to try not to make this change, to somehow cling to the old ways as long as possible, which will entail huge — I would say cruel — efforts for diminishing yields.
The prosperous way down, to borrow Howard and Elisabeth Odum’s term, is not necessarily about working shorter hours and earning less, although that may become part of it. It is about making your daily activities something you control, rather than something that controls you.
Carl Honoré, a spokesperson for the Slow movement, suggested some painless ways to slow down that will fit any budget:
- Walking instead of driving
- Giving children more free time
- Reading instead of watching television
- Eating home-cooked meals with family and friends
- Taking up relaxing hobbies such as painting, gardening, or knitting
- Practicing yoga, tai chi, or meditation
- Unplugging from technology
- Indulging in leisurely love-making
- Simply resisting the urge to hurry unnecessarily
The presence of the clock gave birth to the notion that time lies outside our bodies — that it can be tracked by a machine, and that we can sit and watch it “fly” by, tick-tock, as though it is something linear, containable, and separate from the organic, flowing process of life. — Jose Arguelles
You can go rent a good surfer movie like Waveriders, Blue Crush or Step into Liquid and it lays out a sensibility of timelessness. When the waves aren’t running high enough, hard core surfers work, building boards or flipping burritos. Otherwise, “productivity” is measured by how close one can come to a perfect ride.
The opposite of growth is not contraction (except for population and resource extractions, which have to fall back to within natural limits). The opposite is a more graceful steady-state. That requires a shift from the material world to the real sources of happiness and fulfillment as humans. These are things surfers have already discovered.
Could it really be as simple as this? That to escape the bust that follows the boom, we only have to stop fighting it and enjoy living with less? Many who have gone that route say they would not go back. Substantial working time reduction in a way that successfully reconciles environmental and well-being goals — already brought about by simple policy changes in Sweden, the Netherlands and Belgium — can and does work.
We know from observations over millennia that population expansions are paused but not arrested by the four horsemen. The only proven way to amicably change fertility rates and have that stick is by improving the quality of life for women, small children, and the elderly, through social mores, and not by any other means. Running in a squirrel’s cage after infinite growth is folly.
In Metamorphosis, the Roman poet Ovid, born nine months before Cicero’s murder, retold the Greek’s story of Icarus who took flight on wax wings made by his father, Daedalus. When Icarus ignores his father’s warning not to fly too high, the sun melts the wax, and Icarus falls into the water and drowns. Like Icarus, our parents fashioned wings from fossil fuels and a few among them even warned us not to fly too high, lest we upset the thin atmosphere that shields us from the sun.
We don’t like limits. Ice Age after ice age, hominid populations have risen and fallen. Our cycles of expansion and contraction always wound up advancing civilization in the end. The latest expansion, propelled to untenable excess by draining deep reservoirs of soil carbon and deeper hydrocarbons, came with an expiration date. And yet we pile clever debt instruments upon even more clever debt instruments and build our globalized economy in the same way one builds a snowman — by rolling around balls of wet snow.
What happened to Icarus is the same as is happening to us, or to the snowman: the sun. It doesn’t need to be this way. We simply have to learn to relax.
Albert Bates is author of The Biochar Solution and The Paris Agreement. This post, part of a book in progress, continues next week with a practical means to return to the Holocene called Climate Ecoforestry. Albert can be supported at patreon.com/peaksurfer.