On Public Things

2002-09-02

After working all day on Jabber stuff and listening much of the time to Beatles music, I'm in a reflective mood about politics yet again. A member of the Colorado LP took me to task via email today for quitting the field, since I'm allegedly disgusted by the messy reality of practical politics, in which there are no rules and the ends justify the means. That's quite possible -- despite my time as a libertarian activist back in the mid-nineties, I think there is a certain wisdom in remaining outside the sordid fray of political maneuvering. George Harrison, my favorite songwriter among the Beatles, had the following inscribed in his passport: "In no way will I take part or interfere in government politics, but will assist in every way possible to bring about better understanding without creating any conflict."

Harrison's attitude here is quite Epicurean. Here are some relevant quotes by and about Epicurus:

One must free oneself from the prison of general education and politics. (Vatican Sayings, 58)

The wise man does not participate in civic life. (On Ways of Life)

Epicurus and Metrodorus urge their adherents to avoid public life and express disgust for those who participate in it, abusing the earliest and wisest lawgivers and urging contempt for the laws.... (Plutarch, Against Colotes)

The advice of Epicurus to steer clear of political entanglements is of a piece with his saying "lathe biosas" -- variously translated as live inconspicuously, live unknown, even live forgotten. It's an intriguing, almost Eastern, idea, similar in some ways to my idea of letting go of ought. Yet obviously even Epicurus did not live unknown -- he is said to have written 300 books, he founded a school of philosophy that lasted hundreds of years, and he is remembered even to this day. However, he pointedly did not get involved in contemporary politics -- instead he pursued a life of quiet happiness, friendship, and contemplation. I suppose this perspective has influenced my own conduct of life to a great degree; indeed, my poem In the Garden pays explicit homage to Epicurus:

In the garden of my life
I'm done with anger, done with strife.
I cultivate my own few joys
far from this culture's buzzing noise.

Colonnade and marketplace,
fame's small change and money's race,
academe's cold haughty tower --
have no meaning, hold no power.

Letting go of shoulds and oughts,
I concentrate on greener thoughts
and find as I fulfill my soul
that things spin calmly in control,

that though events conspire still,
they tend to bend towards my will.
No greater cause achieves the measure
than that of my own reasoned pleasure.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal