Blog Post

Toward an Epicurean Scholarly Practice

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr ( I, II ) 

To be a scholar is to accept certain ascetic practices—this is an economic constraint as well as a voluntary and cultic self-discipline. The economic constraint comes via several forms of artificial scarcity: the shrinking public investment in education, the insistence that more educational transactions be accomplished with less money, the dogma that human experience be subsidized with maximum “efficiency.” The scholar is a heretic who must be punished:  he renounces the principle of short-term gain, for either himself or for his bosses; she embodies all the vices (self-indulgence) but none of the virtues (profit) of the luxury product. Like Oliver Twist, she dares to ask for more (more knowledge!) than is decreed sufficient for her vocational needs. Hence no amount of scholarly poverty is really shocking to public opinion.

You want more than your allotted vocational training??You want more than your allotted vocational training??

There are several strategies for coping with the terrible guilt of wanting to be a scholar within the all-encompassing atmosphere of puritanical American anti-intellectualism. Each strategy carries with it its corollary of perverse pleasures, and is guiltily modeled on the habitus of the business world against which we ambivalently posit ourselves. Maniacal productivism is a relatively pro-social strategy, and one to which the structures of professional advancement offer no resistance. The joy of over-caffeination and the soft egotistical glow of feeling busy: how central is this pleasure to every domain of American life! I’m afraid another strategy is political anger, of either the idealistic or the cynical variety. This praxis is always justified, given the large amount of injustice out there, and may even occasionally be helpful—but the risk of exhaustion is real, and it’s just a sad way to be all the time. Obsession-compulsion is another effective scholarly engine: you get to be a geek, you get to be the best in your field, and you get to rev up your motors to the neurotic pitch that proves your utility. If you have no obsession yet, one will be provided for you.

Here is my guilt: I am not really a puritan. It’s only an avid curiosity that’s kept me in the game thus far. So I had mixed feelings about this fascinating conversation between two lovely scholars about veganism (see pages 18-23). In fact it made me sort of panic and want to eat a donut. Yet I think my deeply symptomatic panic is not just food-based (there are apparently good vegan donut recipes), but also about the Sisyphean self-discipline of academic work.  When Berlant asked Stein, “What relation do you see between your scholarly pleasures and disciplines, on the one hand, and your incessant appetitive consciousness, on the other?” I got a little sad because the answer was so clear. Choosing veganism is (for me at least) to choose constraint amidst plenty—or maybe to choose constraint as if there were plenty—and so it does not conflict with academia’s already (I would argue) excessive commitment to ascetic ideals.*

Keep writing until you get the donut. Then accept that there is no donut.

Keep writing until you get the donut. Then accept that there is no donut.

How difficult it is, under current conditions, to imagine an alternative scholarly praxis based on Epicureanism. Epicurus was a materialist philosopher of the 4th century BC who called his school “The Garden” and valued friendship and pleasure above all. He got a bad name for vicious overindulgence, whoring and feasting—as Stephen Greenblatt tells it in The Swerve, the Christian fathers saw his philosophy as a “noxious threat” (101)—but in fact he believed that only moderate pleasures were truly reliable in the long run. (Indeed, Seneca reported that Epicurus would offer gruel and water to guests, since peace of mind is the truest pleasure.) He feasted with his friends, he sought to minimize pain, and the memory of these pleasures allowed him to contemplate death with the cheerfully balanced spirit known as ataraxia. As Americans, the idea of moderation is naturally abhorrent to us—it feels as if your potential for true excess, for pushing boundaries, is being left untapped. (The tradition of Epicurus as a discriminating gourmet—that we’re OK with.) Can you imagine the punitive rage that would be evoked, among all classes of society, by the spectacle of scholars failing to be miserable? But the path of asceticism we tread now, though it seems safe, is also precarious—we invite burn-out and reinforce the solitude of egotism, losing our ability to care for ourselves and others.

Epicureanism garden

I don’t know if I’m ready for full Epicureanism. Withdrawing from political battles, as Epicurus was accused of doing, seems both short-sighted and difficult. Politics can also be a pleasure, as some other Greek probably said. But friendship, self-care, lack of fear, moderation, generosity—without these as possibilities, however utopian, our scholarly praxis risks being merely a reaction to inherited structures of artificial scarcity. Vegans are also welcome at the feast.

*I felt I had to let Jordan Stein respond to my unfair dislike of veganism. He ripostes “My hesitation is that you characterize veganism as an asceticism, a doing-without. And that’s not really what it is, but more germanely, not at all how Lauren or I describe it. I for one am a great fan of donuts!” 

Associate Professor of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Eleanor Courtemanche teaches Victorian literature and economic thought at the University of Illinois, with occasional digressions into pop culture and media theory. Her book about Adam Smith's "invisible hand" and the construction of moral outcomes in complex Victorian novels was published in 2011. Here's her faculty webpage: http://www.english.illinois.edu/people/ecourtem.