When you want to smile then visit me: sleek, and fat I’m a hog, well cared-for, one of Epicurus’ herd.
– Horace, Epistles I.4.16
The Abrahamic religious traditions have generally been hostile to Epicurus. Apikoros was, in fact, a generic Jewish term for goy or gentile, comparable to the Islamic kafir, which translates as infidel.
The differences between the religions of the desert and the philosophy of the Garden are so deep and so many that they can not be reconciled. This irreconcilability is symbolized by the strict ban on ham in both Islam (where pig meat is considered haram, or unlawful) and Judaism (where it’s trefah, or not kosher). The dangerous pig, being considered the dirtiest animal, carries so many taboos against it that it can not be eaten or touched, and even pig characters in cartoons must be demeaned and never presented in a friendly manner.
Now, I’m not saying that the pig isn’t dirty, that it doesn’t carry parasites and doesn’t require special care when cooking … but so do beef and chicken. Furthermore, for a creature so vilified in one culture, the pig does seem innocent to us and to the millions who either raise it, love it as a pet or eat its flesh with frequency. Pigs are valued so highly that they’re considered a currency in many cultures (particularly in Papua and the rest of Oceania), andthe PETA webpage argues that their intelligence is comparable to that of dogs and cats.
There are several hypocrisies related to cultural corruption and perceptions that have gone unanalyzed for very long surrounding the pig. The first one is that, while its much larger cousin the elephant loves to bathe in mud (a practice which is good for the skin and even humans give themselves mud facials) and no one considers the elephant to be particularly dirtier than other beasts, there’s nothing more abhorrent and nasty to some people than a muddy pig. It’s almost the epitome of filth.
And then we reach the Epicurean layer of meaning attached to the pig, and we see that, like Epicureans, the pig is an endearing and jolly natural being that’s happy to eat the simplest foods. Decorations of pigs were found in the ruins of the city of Herculaneum, where Philodemus taught philosophy. When we read Horace’s poem it becomes clear that he’s using the term pig as a synonym for a happy, free, natural being who loves life. The person to whom he writes is invited to think of Horace as a well-cared-for Epicurean pig whenever he wants to cheer up, to laugh.
The Muslim world fasts during the month of Ramadan. There are some positive aspects to this practice. It’s believed that periodic fasting is good for the body, that it’s good to give the stomach a break from time to time, and that when the body does not have to spend vast amounts of energy in the process of digestion, it can then turn its energy to the process of detoxing, of removing germs and other debris that may cause cancer and other diseases – which explains why people have a natural tendency to lose their appetite when they’re sick. Many in the live foods movement fast from time to time.
Putting aside legitimate questions about the Muslim practice of fasting, about how much fasting is healthy and at what point can it become unhealthy and dangerous (at least for some people), the ethical question lies in the imposition of what we see as unnatural and unnecessary restrictions by the culture, dietary or otherwise. Eating during sunlight hours is forbidden in Muslim countries during Ramadan and anyone seen doing it is thought of as having broken an important part of the social contract, a contract that most Muslims did not willingly sign. Most Muslims are so by birth, not choice. Fasting during Ramadan is not optional in Islam.
How can anyone know the sincerity of someone’s faith when practicing it is not optional? This type of obligatory behavior in religious societies breeds a culture of hypocrisy and of punitive attitudes that replaces authentic piety with blind obedience.
But the point where cultural attitudes reach the apex of hypocrisy has to be sex. Islam proposes that men may have as many wives as they can afford and, in countries where Islam is the base for the law, polygamy is often still practiced as in the times of Muhammad, who had a lively harem of wives and concubines. One of his wives was “taken” from a conquered Jewish tribe after all the men were slaughtered (the women were forced into sex with men who had killed their husbands and fathers); another one of Muhammad’s wife had been married to his adoptive son, who graciously gave her up after noticing the prophet’s lascivious stears.
Let’s switch the tables, for the sake of an intellectual exercise. One wonders how society, in particular religious society, would react to an Epicurean community that lives a lifestyle comparable to that of Muhammad or the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, who had over 30 wives, two of whom were 14, and some of whom were already married to his followers prior to his taking them as wives. Abraham, the great patriarch of the Biblical tradition, had at least two wives, and in Genesis 30, Jacob has sex with four women: two sister-wives and two slaves-concubines.
What would pious Christians or Muslims say of an Epicurean philosopher living in a harem with 30 wives? What if some of those wives had been “taken” from others through warfare and murder?
One of Muhammad’s wives, Aisha, was six when married, nine when she had sex with him. He was 60. What would the pious Christian or Muslim say if Epicurus had kept a child as a wife in this manner?
To illustrate the double standard, what would they say if he lived with 30 young men, instead of a harem of women like Muhammad and Joseph Smith did?
We’ll never know if it would have bothered the Jew, Christian, Muslim or Mormon if their prophets had admitted they chose multiple sexual partners because they sought pleasure, because such things were never admitted publicly. No: GOD told them to do it. And so, it’s beyond reproach and the question of pleasure is not an issue, and that’s that.
How is it that virtuous Epicureans–who have never been known for having harems or treating women like property–merely by admitting that they considered pleasure valuable, scandalized communities that emerged from such scandalous beginnings? Should this audacity be allowed to persist unquestioned?
What we have before us is Euthyphro’s dilemma, which says: Is something right or wrong because God says it is, or does God love something because it’s inherently good and hate it because it’s inherently bad? When Plato penned the dilemma, it didn’t occur to him that it might be irrelevant and based on false premises.
Naturalist philosophy, by doing away with the belief that God is pleased or displeased at moral or immoral acts, places ethics on a plane that avoids false opinion of the kind that legitimizes random iniquities like sexual abuse of minors, the treatment of women as cattle, homophobic double-standards, and the vilification of a creature as innocent as the pig.
It’s curious that our society, as hostile as it is to traditions of polyamory, claims to have roots in the Abrahamic traditions, all of which were cradled in polyamory lifestyles that modeled quite questionable family values. Abraham, for instance, cast his second wife Hagar and his first son Ismael into the desert under the whispers of Sara, his first wife … and we’ve all heard of how much suffering was caused to Isaac’s son Joseph by his half-brothers’ jealousy. He was sold into slavery. Are the roots of Western civilization really Abrahamic? And if we concede that they aren’t, would it really be desirable that they were?
The next time you eat bacon or ham with your friends, remember these reasonings. Of all the foods available to humans, the flesh of the pig carries with it a set of religious taboos and controversies, along with philosophical questions and traditions that underline and make obvious the sharp distinction between true ethics and questionable, superstitious morals.