Mar 10, 2012

What can Epicurus teach you about writing?

Epicurus: You owe him more than you know. You know why you’re reading this blog[1] on a screen and not on parchment? Epicurus. The ideas and technologies we now take for granted -- we can thank people like him.

The philosopher was born in 341 BC to Neocles and Chaerestrate, an Athenian couple who’d migrated to the island of Samos, even then a place of vineyards, blue skies and clear waters. Samos was a center of Ionian culture and home to a sea-loving people. The Samians were the first Greeks to reach the Gibraltar strait, or so we believe. They plied their vessels from Libya to the Black Sea. As member of the 12-city Ionian League and a major trade hub, Samos was a force to be reckoned with. Ruins of the great temple to Hera still stand. Pythagoras was born in Samos, too, and the city where he was born was renamed Pythagoreion almost sixty years ago (1955, to be exact).

Samos is where Epicurus first drew breath. It was a city of temples and schools and a place of passage for sailors from distant shores. The Mediterranean, you see, was the cradle of western civilization.

Psalida Beach, modern-day Samos. Source

 Epicurus was midwife to what we now call the scientific method. He maintained that you shouldn’t believe anything unless you could observe it directly or deduct it through rational means. Granted, there are a few problems with that principle. Yet on the whole it is sounder than claiming ‘a wizard did it’ is sufficient explanation for natural phenomena. Am I right?

Epicureanism is often mistaken for a philosophical defense of pleasure -- of hedonism and extreme detachment. Epicurus would have gnawed through his burial shroud in supernatural despair, if only he knew. (OK, I’m not going to turn this into an essay about zombies. Promise.)
See, the epicurean lifestyle is not exactly sybaritic. To the ancient philosopher, a good life entailed ataraxia, i.e., peace and freedom from fear; aponia, which is freedom from pain; and the cultivation of friendship. Luxury and the single-minded pursuit of pleasure hardly figure into it. Want to know more about this? I’ve included a three-minute video at the bottom of this post that may be jokey in tone but gets the facts right.

How does Epicurus concern us, as writers? What can we learn from him?
As you’ll see, a number of his insights relate to integrity and heroism. Do you want to develop a solid, remarkable protagonist? Epicurus, you have the floor.

“Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempest.”

Medals have got to be earned. Otherwise, they’re trinkets. Honors will never be heaped on them that turn tail and let panic win the day.

You can’t force the reader to accept your protagonist is competent or cunning. At best you can hint at such competence by showing the weapons she carries, or having secondary characters mention their feats in passing. Discreetly. And by ‘discreetly’ I mean this: start with a bang, you risk going out with a whimper.

Real heroes seldom boast. (I’d like to think so.) Big talk, as they know too well, is just talk. Heroes don’t need to advertise. If they’re any good, they’ll find plenty of people to advertise for them.

Surviving a storm at sea is a feat. Surviving that storm and saving lives is even better. Reputation is like fire -- fire that doesn’t burn isn’t real fire.

Can heroes truly prove themselves in times of peace?

“The art of living well and the art of dying well are one.”

A heroic protagonist understands the value and necessity of sacrifice. A heroic protagonist is inherently noble. OK, that is very problematic, but I just said it.

On to the explanation. All human societies have a notion of virtue. They know how to define right and wrong, social and antisocial conduct, and the notion of generosity is, I believe, a human universal.

That said, a hero is someone who combines a strong sense of duty (virtue) with extreme generosity. The hero is willing to risk his life for another. Basically, this is the kind of character that either embraces the social order fully when that social order appears just, or rebels against it when corruption replaces virtue.

The hero’s moral compass always points true north. That too can be a source of conflict. Usually, the most violent confrontations occur between factions that see the world in black & white, in terms of Us and Them, Good Guys and Bad Guys. But there’s room for a lot of friction between your hero and any character that sees the world in shades of gray.
·         Batman, for instance, tolerates the Penguin’s shadier activities in exchange for valuable information. That doesn’t mean they get along.
·         The noble Federation, in Star Trek, sometimes accommodates the money-grubbing Ferengi. Profit-oriented as they may be, the Ferengi don’t shy away from armed conflict.

“The greater the difficulty, the more the glory in surmounting it.”

Heroes need challenges -- Horus went up against his uncle Set, Hercules had to kill the Nemean Lion, Bellerophon the Chimera, and Jean-Luc Picard went toe-to-toe with the Borg… You get the idea.

But let’s go back to Hercules. Before the goddess Hera drove him to murder, this demigod who was actually the strongest man on Earth was living happily as a farmer. To atone for the killing of his wife and six sons, he embarked on the Twelve Labors. Among other trials, Hercules was forced to:
  • Steal four man-eating horses.
  • Clean the Augean stables, which hadn’t seen a mop in thirty years and were home to 1,000 immortal heads of cattle besides. There was a lot of shit to shovel, as you may imagine.
  • Kill the Stymphalian Birds, metal-feathered monstrosities sacred to Ares.

You might say that a hero pursues glory in vain. That nothing warrants the death of your protagonist. But this much is true: heroes often get themselves killed. There’s a fine line between heroism and recklessness.

Hercules subdues the Cretan Bull

 At a time when series in genre fiction are so popular, it is understandable that writers want to keep their lead characters alive for as long as possible. (And this goes some way in explaining the usefulness of vampires to any author producing serialized entertainment. Vampires are immortal and you can keep them going long after the demise of important human characters.)

But keep a character around for too long and he or she will devolve into a caricature. Characters do have life spans and they go bad, just like milk. Remember the X-Files? What did that show turn into, if not a tedious rehash of tired old concepts?[2]  


So sayeth Epicurus:

“You don't develop courage by being happy in your relationships every day. You develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity.”


This Three Minute Philosophy animation tells you all you need to know about epicureans and stoics. Really. It does.

[1] To my younger readers, who may not remember a time before the Internet: In the shadowed days of yore, when we your ancestors shivered in caves and dinosaurs built the pyramids, we didn’t have blogs. We told each other stories in the dark and waited for the sun to come up so we could catch a mouse or a dying sparrow for breakfast. It wasn’t until Thomas Edison and John Logie Baird invented the light bulb and then the TV that we got blogs, but back then they were called the news and they lived inside very large boxes that resembled stationary tablets with black & white screens and poor sound quality. Also, the touch interface consisted of actual buttons and knobs, believe it or not.[a]  

[a] Yes, once again I have added a footnote to a footnote. What do you even call those? Footsolenotes? Underfootnotes? (A waste of everybody’s time?) Anyhoo. To my older readers, who actually remember what it was like when Akhenaton roamed the Earth: I am aware of the factual inaccuracy of the claims above. The dinosaurs did not indeed build the pyramids, everyone knows the French put them there.

[2] I couldn’t bear watching seasons 8 & 9. It just wasn’t the X-Files anymore. 


What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.

In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 

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