Ten top quotations from Epicurus

1. The art of living well and the art of dying well are one.

2. Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.

3. A free life cannot acquire many possessions, because this is not easy to do without servility to mobs or monarchs.

4. Not what we have but what we enjoy constitutes our abundance.

5. Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.

6. Of all the things which wisdom provides to make us entirely happy, much the greatest is the possession of friendship.

7. It is folly for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to obtain by himself.

8. I have never wished to cater to the crowd; for what I know they do not approve, and what they approve I do not know.

9. Misfortune seldom intrudes upon the wise man; his greatest and highest interests are directed by reason throughout the course of life.

10. The misfortune of the wise is better than the prosperity of the fool.

Hope for the day

So Doug Jones won the Alabama Senatorial seat with 49.9% of votes against Moore’s 48.4%. In his victory speech, Jones declared the campaign had been about “dignity, respect and the rule of law”.

Thank you, thank you, thank you! As a follower of the thoughts of Epicurus I try to avoid in-your-face party politics. You can get those in a thousand venues. But all decent, civilised people who find bare-faced lying and bullying distasteful must be relieved to see a candidate as measured, polite and courteous as Jones. In his victory speech no point scoring, put-downs or sexist or racist. Just when we were despairing of the crudeness and verbal violence that pervades the American public space, at least some faith has been restored. One hopes the present unpleasantness is a passing nightmare and that we will awaken to a return to the more civil and bipartisan behaviour of half a century ago.

The existence of God

To the Editor:
Are all religions equally valid or equally invalid? I suppose that it depends on one’s perspective. But here’s the thing: In normal human discourse, the individual who proposes an assertion such as “God exists” has the burden of coming forward with evidence that can be evaluated, analyzed and challenged. But the community of believers has never met its burden; not in thousands of years have they come up with anything more than “This is my faith,” or “This is what is written,” or “This is what has been taught for generations.” None of that is evidence.
Atheists have never had the burden of disproving a negative, and unless and until someone provides some evidence for the existence of God, I shall remain a happy and secure atheist.

God, to the religious, is the all-seeing creator of us all. It can be assumed that He created us for a purpose and does not mean us ill. Indeed, one could expect that he would want to protect, defend and succour all those He created and from time to time reassure His flock by showing His power to put a stop to hatred, violence and multiple other anti-social misbehaviours.

To those who harbour doubts about the existence of God would reply that, to the contrary, God, if he exists, has in fact stood by while his creatures kill each other in wars, contract horrible diseases, die too young, starve to death in some parts of the world, steal, murder, cheat, tell lies, exploit their power over others – and other selfish and greedy things I can’t momentarily call to mind.

Epicurus proposed that there was a group of gods who avoided getting involved in the ordinary lives of humans, caring not a jot about disease, early death, warfare, unhappiness and misery, but tolerant nonetheless. What their role on Earth actually was is a mystery. They mirrored human depravity, not condemned or sought to change it, but it seemed important to most men and women at the time that they were around to be adored. Reassuring, maybe.

That’s fine, and I for one respect their belief in God and the good works they do for communities and the poor, then and now. But to anathematize those who have doubts and bring religion into party politics (Roy Moore in his incoherence last night is an example) is unacceptable.

Why is pay between men and women so different?

Female high school graduates, aged 21 to 24, earn an average of 92 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts. Curiously, in America and contrary to expectations, the salaries of female graduates, in general, are 79% of those of their male peers of the same age group. Only a year ago the figure was 84%. At 21-24 most women have yet to have to make choices about having a family and scaling their working hours back.

This growing disparity can only be accounted for for the big demand for young male graduates in technology and finance, regarded as male jobs. Women who majored in business studies, for example, earned an average of $38,000, compared with $45,000 for men. Across all fields, including the more feminine fields, and controlling for major, occupation,and grade-point average, women still earned 7% less than men. (Economic Policy Institute report co-author: Teresa Kroeger)

I have been a “feminist” since I was 17, in so far as I have always been convinced that the ability to do a job well trumps gender. If the employee is smart, hard-working, efficient and pleasant to work with, what difference does gender make? I think Epicurus believed this as well, and was known for welcoming women into his garden on equal terms with the men. But for some reason some men feel uncomfortable with clever women in a company if they perform well, and also feel uncomfortable with them in the office if they don’t. We really should be past this by now. I think it has a lot to do with self-confidence and amour propre, and the fear of being outshone or being ordered about.

Another take on the same subject, from The Times. Interesting! :

Is the gender pay gap just a myth?

Why do women in Britain still get paid less (by an average of 18%) than men? If you believe the “shock-horror headlines”, says Professor Alison Wolf, it’s proof of “pervasive discrimination”. Yet “study after study” has looked for evidence of significant gender bias in the modern workplace, and “there just isn’t any to be found”. If you compare like with like – employees of the same age, education and rank who put in equal hours at the office in the same occupation – the “gender pay gap” doesn’t exist. The real story here is of a much bigger social divide, between “the elite and the rest”. The vast majority of women in Britain work in low-paid jobs, often doing chores outsourced by richer families: cleaning, childcare, looking after old people, preparing takeaway meals. On top of that, low-paid women are far more likely than professionals to work part-time when they have children; they don’t worry about derailing their careers, because they know another low-paid job will be waiting for them. It is the inferiority of the female labour market itself that drags down average wages – and that is a much harder problem to tackle than misogyny.
(Professor Alison Wolf, The Times)

Which of the two points of view above do you subscribe to?

Epicurus and politics

Epicurus was a strong advocate for the idea that people should reach and carry out agreements and promote fellowship and common sense cooperation. This implied a contractual form of government. Epicurus and his followers disapproved of agitation for social change because they saw political struggle as creating unnecessary stress. On the contrary, they advocated civic tranquillity, living unnoticed, abstaining from public life and the avoidance of anything that made enemies. This approach to politics suited those living under authoritarian (Alexander, the Roman Emperors) rule.

But is it appropriate for us today? We do not (yet)live under a totalitarian regime, although more and more people throughout the world are doing just that, or are threatened by dictatorial regimes. Our security and freedoms are being whittled away, both in the US and in Europe, and we are threatened by an unprecedented storm of bogus “news” and denigration of anyone seeking truth. Now unrestrained corporations and unscrupulous rich are endangering our health, safety and peace of mind. We no longer have thoughtful statesmen debating how to make life more happy and pleasant for the greatest number, but ideologues whose interest are power, money, keeping their jobs and drawing handsome pensions while kow-towing to their vulgar election funders. It’s scary.

I am personally worried that one party, controlling the Presidency and Congress and is busy berrymandering the constituencies and packing the Courts with lifetime political hacks calling themselves judges. This could presage a de facto end to democracy and the primacy of the Constitution. Gone are the wise men of honor. Perhaps we can survive a “Chinese Century” of hegemony, but can we survive a Mussolini style nationalism in America, the purge of liberals and progressives from public life? The world has seen turmoil before, but the last time (1939-45) a decent, democratic country was in the wings and came to the rescue of a Europe dominated by monsters. Now both the US and Europe are threatened, and possible help there is none.

How far can we be true Epicurians and ignore these threatening politics, and at what point do we get involved and resist? I wish I had the health and energy of youth, because there is only one responsible answer to this question.

Israel and Palestine. Enough is enough

Just over a hundred years ago, Britain’s foreign secretary Arthur Balfour signed a 67 word long statement that committed Britain for the first time to backing “the establishment in Palestine of a national homeland for the Jewish people”.

Israel and its supporters duly celebrated “the anniversary of a foundational moment” in their nation’s history. Palestinian representatives, meanwhile, called on Britain to apologise for the declaration – because it set in train a process that eventually led to much of the Palestinian population being “uprooted from their homes and condemned to life in squalid refugee camps”.

It is true that at the time of its creation, in 1948, Israel served as a haven for a people who had so recently faced mass extermination at the hands of the Nazis. They deserved resettlement after what they had gone through. But Palestine? Had the pious words within the Declaration been honoured, i.e. “without prejudicing the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”, then the situation would not be fraught. But they were not honoured, and the British could not keep the peace.

Balfour wrote the Declaration to raise money for the prosecution of WWI, but he gave inadequate weight to the fact that the land offered was already occupied. Some people believe that the present day Palestinians are descended from Jews left behind when their neighbours evacuated the area after the Roman invasion, and were converted to Islam at the time of the Prophet. (e.g they are historically Jewish). Correct or incorrect, it has all gone very wrong, and has been made very much worse by the advent of the Russian Jews, who have helped create a very right-wing and uncompromising (and corrupt) system (not me saying it – the President of Israel!)

Why mention this 100 year anniversary that has already passed by? This is the Epicurus blog, and Epicurus believed in moderation, discussion and compromise. Both sides in this dispute are stubborn and certain of their own rectitude. It is impossible even for people who are neither Jewish or Palestinian to have a civilized discussion on the subject, such are the passions aroused, especially among committed evangelical Christians. There has to be give and take. Trump’s intervention  changes nothing, except to announce his partisanship., unhelpful as usual.  The fact remains that the division of Jerusalem is perfectly possible, since both sides prize different bits of it.  The problem is Temple Mount, squabbled over for centuries.  The Palestinians have to accept the reality of the Israeli State, and share access to Temple Mount.  And the Israelis have to stop taking more and more Palestinian land, give the Palestinians an idependent state of their own – and share Temple Mount.  The rest of us are fed up with religion as manifested in that whole region.  Yes, it’s tribal, but we have had enough of it.

Is Israel ceasing to be a democracy?

This a bit long but important to know:

Israel is in the news again these days. President Trump is proposing to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, contrary to international policy. Is Israel the country that many Americans, particularly evangelicals. imagine it to be? Read on:

Arabs, peace activists and Israel’s left wing have long challenged as undemocratic the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But now that criticism is being leveled by former security officials and members of the right-wing establishment itself, including veterans of Mr. Netanyahu’s own political party and his Justice Department.
They say that the government’s efforts to control the news media, curtail the authority of the Supreme Court and undermine the military threaten the future of Israeli democracy.

Netanyahu and his colleagues are accused of corruption. A former chief of Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic security service, publically stated that if “the ethical and moral rot that leads us ontinues, this incredible Zionist enterprise will expire.” The attorney general has criticized efforts to thwart corruption investigations against Netanyahu, and the Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin, a member of Netanyahu’s party, has warned that “statesmanship has come to an end” and that Israel was “witnessing the winds of a second revolution or coup.” Rivlin accused those in power of working to delegitimize and weaken “the gatekeepers of Israel’s democracy,” and, crucially for a country that lacks a constitution, erode the justice system and the influence of the courts. The government, he said, was championing the will of the majority while weakening the institutions that protect the rights of the minority.

The internal politics of Israel has reached an unprecedented level of toxicity and partisanship. Netanyahu is responsible for attacks on the news media, efforts to impose sanctions on human rights organizations deemed to act against Israel abroad, and attempts to advance legislation in Parliament to override decisions of the Supreme Court. Politicians from Likud have maligned Shin Bet as cowardly and delusional, and branded former security chiefs critical of government policy as “leftists,” now almost a synonym for traitors in some right-wing circles. Netanyahu himself, under investigation in two graft cases, personally attacked the police in a Facebook post, accusing them of leaking details to the press. And Likud politicians are trying to prohibit the corruption investigations of a sitting prime minister.

“There is a clash not between left and right but between the values of the founding generation of leaders who put the common good and the interests of the state first and a newer, more populist and partisan politics epitomized by Mr. Netanyahu’s government.
Mr. Rivlin, 78, and Mr. Netanyahu, 68, though only a decade apart, reflect these two Israels. Mr. Rivlin champions the old-school nationalist but liberal democracy envisioned by the right-wing Zionist Revisionist movement of Zeev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin, who pushed for a greater Israel territorially but were sticklers for defending minority rights and the rule of law. Netanyahu, who has been elected four times, reflects the ethos of the digital age, leading what many describe as the most nationalist and illiberal government in Israel’s history. Meanwhile the opposition is divided, weak, and has no influence.

Daniel Gordis, an author and senior vice president of Jerusalem’s Shalem College for the liberal arts, says he views much of what is happening in Israel “in the shadow of the Trump administration.” With all the differences in personality, Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Trump have resorted to similar tactics, such as decrying the mainstream news media as purveyors of “fake news.”. Mr. Rivlin probably felt he had an obligation to speak up, Mr. Gordis said, because Israel was “inching ominously toward a watershed moment.” But unlike the United States, he added, “Israel is a 70-year-old democracy, not 250 years old.”

(An edited, shortened version of an article called “Is the End of Israeli Democracy Nigh? Israelis Debate Its Future” by Isabel Kershner in the New York Times, 31 October 2017)

Death on American roads

The United  States has the “most dangerous roads in the industrialised world”. The fatality rate in the US (per miles driven) is more than twice as high as in Britain or Sweden, and about 40% higher than in Canada or Australia. This isn’t one of those situations in which the US has long been an outlier – as is the case with, say, guns or the death penalty. As recently as 1990, America had a lower vehicle fatality rate than other affluent countries. So what happened?

The answer is that other nations decided that their road death tolls were unacceptable, and launched successful “evidence-based campaigns” to reduce them. America, where people are instinctively resistant to any perceived state infringement on their “freedom”, hasn’t taken this sort of concerted action. It is more lax about safety belts – and thus has more deaths – and needs more speed cameras and lower speed restrictions. Roll on, then, the days of the self-driving car. This technology promises to slash road fatalities across the industrialised world, but it will be a particular boon for America. (based on an article by David Leonhardt, The New York Times)

Good point. I live in the middle of a big city, but walk everywhere I can. Our car, bought four years ago has all of 12,000 on the clock. But walking here is a dangerous business. In Europe there are well- marked “zebra crossings” – fail to stop at one and you are in dead trouble with the police, heavily fined at the very least, and banned driving in some dangerous circumstances. In American cities  you take your life in your hands crossing the road. Getting eye contact with drivers is essential, because they believe they have the right of way at all times and that the speed limit is for the birds.  Add to that literally dismal or non-existent road lighting in the evenings, and drivers watching their cellphones more ardently that the road ahead, and you have the conditions for carnage.  I  have managed to stay alive for over 20 years, but it only takes a moment of inattention…… Rules of the road an infringement of personal freedom? Pah!

More on language ( re: grab it)

An online petition calling on Italians to stop using English words for which there are equivalents in their own language gathered nearly 70,000 signatures before it was closed. The petition was called Dillo in Italiano or “Say it in Italian”, and was backed by the Accademia della Crusca, a language institute founded in Florence in 1583. Italians should not squander the “history, culture and beauty of our language”, said the campaigners, who highlighted the growing use of clumsy hybrid terms such as “footing” (jogging), “baby parking” (crèche) and “mister” (football coach). The issue seems to be one of mounting concern: the Italian navy recently caused outrage by using the English slogan “Be cool and join the navy” on a recruitment poster, while the government ran into trouble for referring to a piece of legislation as “the jobs act” rather than “la legge sul lavoro”. (The Week)

Italian is a beautiful language. English is, too, but why further undermine your own wonderful and ancient culture by using these silly expressions. The British use the word “creche” (which is French); now the Italians use “baby parking”. Kiddies produced by Toyota?

English has always adopted foreign words since the days of the Romans; it is expected. But the Italians have done this less. Their way of life is already under seige by a huge influx of people. Were I Italian I would protest these pseudo-English importations, too.

Grab it!

Over the centuries I’m sure that what is acceptable and unacceptable to say has changed numerous times, and new modes of speech have been frowned upon or excoriated by older generation after older generation. So I am willing to accept that I sound a fuddy-duddy, or even an elitist (ouch!).

But one expression makes me cringe: “Grab it”. This phrase crops up all over the place, especially in advertisements: “Great pizza – grab it! (and enjoy greater sex,presumably).
I suppose “grab it” is intended to get impulsive people motivated to scamper off and buy pizza, or whatever, before anyone else can buy it. But to me it is vulgar. What it actually means is to snatch the product out of the hands of shop assistants, servers etc, without so much as a “thank you” or an “if you please”. This discourtesy is a further sign of the decline in manners. Many people couldn’t care less about the feelings of others; but so much the worse for them. Epicurus never used the word “courtesy”, but had he spoken English he would have agreed with me. “Buy it now” or “Order now!” has served us well enough for a Century. Dump “grabbit!”