Some Epicurean Thoughts on the Riots and Peaceful Protest

The hashtag #ChicagoRiots was trending this weekend. I tried to stay away from the news cycle, but late last night my brother called me. He was alarmed at all that is happening. He lives in a neighborhood on the West Side of the city where violence is rampant, and he warned me not to go to work today. I will not be going to work today, and have had a chance to finally catch up on the news.

One of my worries is that the image of riots, looting, and burning cars and buildings give Trump and his ilk a chance to talk about riots instead of talking about justice for someone who died in police custody, and greater police accountability, which is where our focus should be.

Let’s put aside the peaceful protesters using their First Amendment right as they should, and consider the lack of hedonic calculus in the violent, chaotic mobs this weekend. Rioters are damaging both public and private property. The damage to public property will have to be paid for by the taxpayers. It’s hard to see how this higher tax bill helps to solve police brutality and systemic racism. The damage to private property will be paid for by insurers, and in the case of many small business and the uninsured, the damage will have to be paid by the business owners IF they can afford it. These investors will think twice before re-investing near communities that have seen riots, which will drive away jobs and perpetuate poverty in these communities. We still see the scars of the 1968 riots in many neighborhoods in Chicago, where there was never an economic recovery from the riots: they still have boarded-up buildings and rampant poverty. From the perspective of hedonic calculus, rioting is clearly an unintelligent strategy for social change.

On the other hand, no one should be surprised that a presidential term that started out with Trump saying that some white supremacists are “good people” and hesitating to be critical of his white supremacist base when they rallied and engaged in violent acts, has evolved into an election year where black people riot due to overt, systemic racist violence. A member of our Garden of Epicurus FB Group asked:

What is the Epicurean view of civil disobedience and peaceful protest?

Some on the group defended the idea of Lathe Biosas (Live unknown), and it’s true for most people it would be disadvantageous and dangerous to be in the midst of riots. Here is some of the discussion.

Alan. How about for someone who is affected directly by injustice and does not have the privilege to be unengaged? Wouldn’t they be unable to choose to remain in obscurity?

Additionally, if everyone adopted a similar reasoning and stayed home, then how would society procure the benefits (i.e., moral development, the upholding of justice, etc.) of civil demonstration that, assumedly, would not have otherwise come about?

I pose these questions because I don’t want Epicureanism to be misconstrued by enemies as societally oblivious, elitist, or privileged.

Robin. Epicureans have to play the long game. How do we protect a philosophy that has been actively stamped out over the last two thousand years. I feel for the people who are affected now. But I have a responsibility to people who may live a thousand years from now. I can do things. But I can do them without attracting the kind of attention that gets a philosophy killed.

Jason. I think it would be wise to follow the Satanic Temple‘s example in this and not attempt to use these protests to promote Epicurean philosophy but be staunch allies by using the calculus to be assistants (the very meaning of the name Epicurus) to those who struggle for equality in whatever way we feel we can.

Marcus. I think “live in obscurity” was more meant to discourage desire for fame, celebrity, power, as is the case of the average politician, or positions of power in general. I don’t think this applies to public protests, where people are relatively anonymous. However, it could apply to people aspiring to become leaders within protest movements, as some people like to use these situations as a means to advance their own personal ambitions.

Robin. It does apply to this situation. At any given moment, you could be filmed and on the news. If you were in a group where some participants became violent, you may be considered guilty by association in the eyes of people watching the video, even if you may just be a bystander. That’s not maintaining a low social profile, which is what the advice means.

Marcus. I still don’t think this is the same thing as being a person of power, for example Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, or even Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg. Also, imagine being a member of Epicurus’ Garden in ancient times and then being accused of participating in orgies and and insulting the gods (something Socrates was executed for). Remember the Epicureans had a bad reputation in some circles at the time. I see your point that taking part in protests does involve some risks, and that is for each individual to evaluate for themselves.

Robin. We all interpret differently, but my understanding comes from the sources and philological discussions. There are some exceptions, where the calculus leads to where nonparticipation is more painful than participating. Since that’s clearly not the case here, especially in the midst of a pandemic, I will keep my head down and out of the street.

Jason. Indeed, people in air-conditioned rooms are critical for the support of those on the ground. People don’t have any trouble understanding this in a military context but for some reason there is a sense that if you’re not on the street, you’re not contributing to social change. That hasn’t been my experience AT ALL. Winning hearts and minds can be done one-on-one too. Sometimes that’s the only way to reach some people.

Robin. Book two of Lucretius De Rerum Natura opens with a beautiful description of observing armies on the plain, emphasizing the pathos of distance.

How sweet, again, to see the clash of battle
Across the plains, yourself immune to danger

But nothing is more sweet than full possession of those calm heights, well built, well fortified by wise men teaching. To look down from here, at others wandering below, men lost, confused, in a hectic search for the right road.

Hiram. You have to carry out hedonic calculus, but Philodemus did say there were two forms of parrhesia / frank criticism: private parrhesia, and PUBLIC PARRHESIA. It seems like protests could be a form of public parrhesia meant to incite moral development in society at large.

Alan. Can anyone give an example of how the hedonic calculus would play out for you personally in deciding whether or not to engage in protest?

Hiram. Hmmm, that’s very subjective and depends on your values. If you have a bail attorney that is there in case you get arrested, and if you strongly believe in the protest, you may take greater risk. If you don’t, and if you’re smart, you probably won’t.

If you participate in protest with people that you trust and who are prudent and smart, you’ll be safer. So part of your calculus involves WHO you protest with, because some people who are young and fiery might put you at greater risk.

There are safe and effective methods of protest (like the boycott, which often attacks the TRUE perpetrators where it hurts them) that have historically shown great results.

Also, hedonic calculus is RESULTS-ORIENTED. If you read Philodemus’ scroll On anger, he says anger can be made virtuous by being made PRODUCTIVE, meaning that it resolves conflict and addresses grievances so that your course of action yields greater pleasure than pain. So you can turn poison into medicine if you channel your anger into a cause. And in “Against empty words“, Epicurus said that we think about whether our actions are right or wrong based on their consequences. So you have to consider what you’re trying to accomplish in every course of action.

And finally, Vatican Saying 71: Every desire must be confronted by this question: what will happen to me if the object of my desire is accomplished and what if it is not?

Alan. Thank you, that all makes sense to me. I still need help with one other matter, and it is this question that I keep struggling with, which is this issue of what our personal responsibility as individuals is to society.

If our views and political goals are aligned with those of an organized protest, but we decide to stay home due to our personal application of hedonic calculus to the context of our own life, are we failing to contribute to society’s moral development?

Hiram. It’s very hard to argue that you should put yourself in the path of danger for the sake of things that are so far out of your control. This is why you should think carefully about your course of action, which is not to say you should engage in INACTION. There are safer and more effective ways to create change than looting a Target or Walmart, and I think this is where you should deliberate.

Alan. Sorry, but who is talking about looting a Target? I said peaceful protest. But yes, the substance of your reply still holds. There may be better applications of our time and resources than us being another body in a crowd of (peaceful) demonstrators.

Hiram. The problem with the looting in target is that if you are seen next to the person who did it, this can be used to create a narrative about your involvement, so you have to be mindful WHO you protest with, and that may be somewhat outside your control.

Jason. Every organized protest has people behind the scenes coordinating relief efforts from home. First aid supplies, legal counsel, collecting of bail money for arrested protesters. None of that can be done in the street. If you want to get involved but the calculus doesn’t work out for you to be on the street, there are other options.

Don’t negate the efforts of patient, persistent, open and honest communication of values to your circles of acquaintance. This parrhesia can reap massive dividends and lead to good works. Mutual aid is an incredibly important part of Epicurean friendship.

Nathan. My view right now is that Americans have a short-term memory issue, and we’ve forgotten that COVID-19 is still wrecking lives. In the State of Florida, three days ago, for the first time in over a month, we had a record increase of new cases. Four months of this virus has killed nearly as many Americans as World War I did in four years.

The Epicurean view is this – “truth” gets obscured in politics, and politics instigates emotional responses that make problem-solving even more difficult. That’s happening right now. The bigger issue that’s affecting us as human beings is a global pandemic that still isn’t contained. In America, a cultural debate, and a law enforcement debate, and a civil rights debate, and a political party debate have all erupted in the messiest way possible, all at once, in the middle of an even larger issue.

The most dangerous thing people can do right now – one way or the other – is not wear masks.

Marcus. I don’t think there is an absolute “Epicurean view” on this question, but if you want to find justification for civil disobedience, it would be here, in Principle Doctrine 37: “Among the things held to be just by law, whatever is proved to be of advantage in men’s dealings has the stamp of justice, whether or not it be the same for all; but if a man makes a law and it does not prove to be mutually advantageous, then this is no longer just. And if what is mutually advantageous varies and only for a time corresponds to our concept of justice, nevertheless for that time it is just for those who do not trouble themselves about empty words, but look simply at the facts.”

Lucian. We are consequentialists. Options present themselves after events, and we either choose them or avoid them after sober reasoning about how the consequences will affect the blessedness of our life. Hedonic calculus never stops. Self correction by use of the Canon never stops. You have the tools to figure out was is best for yourself in whatever context you find yourself in.

We do not philosophize for the good of our Nation, or our Society. We philosophize for ourselves. Sometimes those coincide. We do not submit like the mob does. We neither fully embrace and submit to our society, nor do we completely discard it, as if we could not make some use of it. We welcome the good in it that arrives at us, and we reject the evil in it that arrives at us.

We are not disconnected from our friends. Diogenes Inscription tells us about the older soldier. In that example, the soldier calculates and concludes that acting will ensure the future he desires for his family and friends, a happy one. He imagines/visualizes and feels the affect/pleasure now, he takes the action later.

Cicero writes that the Torquatus’ family engaged their society both as politicians and also as warriors, when not doing so would be worse.

There are no general blanket rules. Use the tools that nature gave you. Desire ranking and categorization. Hedonic calculus to make good initial guesses, and the Canon of Truth to adapt your opinions to the future evidence and to correct yourself.

Author: hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014), 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and Epicurus of Samos – His Philosophy and Life: All the principal Classical texts Compiled and Introduced by Hiram Crespo (Ukemi Audiobooks, 2020). He's the founder of societyofepicurus.com, and has written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.