Sunday, February 26, 2017

Cicero and the Summer of 45

"Happiness, Cicero said, is not dependent on things that pleasure the body, but on pleasures of the mind."


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.

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.

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.
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.
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.
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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?

Cicero agreed with Aristotle that humans are a kind of moral diety, and fulfillment in life comes from meeting the ends “whereunto he is born, (through) observation and action, as a horse to racing, or an ox to ploughing….” (translation by Jeremy Collier)

Eleven years ago, in The Post-Petroleum Guide and Cookbook: Recipes for Changing Times, we began our now-seemingly 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, 2005

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 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.

6 comments:

Jim Parker said...

The fact that Cicero is still studied and read in Latin classes (I read Cicero in high school Latin III) is a testament to his wisdom and style.

Don Stewart said...

Albert
Gabe Brown from North Dakota is our Guest of Honor at the Organic Grower’s School in Asheville in a couple of weeks. He is leading a day-long workshop and giving a 90 minute class and delivering a keynote address. Meanwhile, Helen Disler in Australia has been posting videos from his visit to Australia. In addition, I will be participating in a Climate Change and Farming symposium in April. I have been putting together a few thoughts, and would like your reaction.

First, the notion of viewing grazing as a carbon sequestration activity:

https://www.farmingsecrets.com/cover-cropping-increases-profits/?inf_contact_key=f84a774d374e9f16facd97b28e1dd5b71a6fbc6a59322cc9cdce55d7dd6e9a70

Second, the notion of signing farms which are actively sequestering carbon and regenerating soil:

https://www.farmingsecrets.com/sustaining-degraded-farm/?inf_contact_key=8edc270a3ddd8716ed4d08fb07d54b7da64153062152c2c3814e1e9097c44a2f

Third, extending the notion of farm signage to suburban lawns and city parks:

https://www.bu.edu/news/2016/02/23/urban-soils-release-surprising-amounts-of-carbon-dioxide/

So the proposal is that a group in my area come up with signage which accurately identifies those landscapes which are being farmed and gardened in such a manner that carbon is being actively sequestered, particularly in the form of glomalin.

We could also extend it to signage indicating bio-char in the soil.

You know more about this subject than most people I know. Are there any hidden traps that I should be aware of? Can we make this work? Do the machines that the Boston people used have a role in demonstrating that we are actually succeeding?

Thanks
Don Stewart

Joe said...

Loved your quote from Lincoln!

The opposite of growth is not contraction (except for population and resource extractions, which have to fall back to within natural limits).

The "except for population and resource extractions" foreshadows some pretty serious and non-relaxing events. Or do you claim that population is not already well into overshoot and that we have plenty of time to let it decline by inculcating the appropriate "social mores"? If so, since the "population bomb" as been in the public consciousness for decades, why has it only been completely defused in the most affluent countries?

I'm sorry, but the first quote from Cicero was closest to the mark. Everyone needs to have a garden and know how to grow their own food, and the library better have lots of books with information about living without modern amenities such as electricity, automobiles and money. Rather than being a time to "relax", it's time to get to work acquiring that garden and building up it's productive capacity!

Danny C said...

Bravo Albert. Simple yet profound (again) in its wisdom. I personally study modern societies who get that a return, as it were, to simple pleasures and "unplugging" from the excesses of consuming leads to a fulfilled simplicity of pleasure. Pleasure from yourself, others, nature and the pace that only the dawning and a sunset of a day brings.

Don Stewart said...

Albert (and any others interested)
Sorry about the two dysfunctional links above. They are apparently from Helen Disler's proprietary library.

One of them features a sign at the farm gate identifying 'Brown Family Regenerative Farm'. The other is a short dissertation by Gabe about the importance of correctly grazing animals, and especially having lots of C4 grasses active in the summer, so as to maximize carbon into the soil.

Don Stewart

Zuni said...

Don Stewart: see the sign for backyard wildlife:
https://www.google.ca/search?q=national+wildlife+federation+yard+sign&rlz=1C1NHXL_enCA729CA729&espv=2&biw=1280&bih=670&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiQhtm_k8fSAhUM3IMKHUmPA00Q_AUIBygC#imgrc=8P0Dx8bso3eXoM:

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