Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Garden School of Epicurus

So, here I am, on my island retreat. No daily paper. No television. Nothing to buy. So little to consume. One road that goes nowhere really. An acre of sandy soil that we cultivate assiduously, with so little reward. Escape? Yes. Irresponsible? To turn one's back on the strife and pandemonium of the public domain? Perhaps.

We hear much about Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum in ancient Athens, schools that emphasized engagement with the polis. We hear less about the Garden School of Epicurus. Students there actually cultivated their little plot of land beyond the city walls. They ate the fruits and vegetables they teased from the soil. In his book Gardens, Robert Pogue Harrison writes of the Epicureans:
Their garden activity was also a form of education in the ways of nature: its cycles of growth and decay, its general equanimity, its balanced interplay of earth, water, air, and sunlight. Here, in the convergence of vital forces in the garden's microcosm, the cosmos manifested its greater harmonies; here the human soul rediscovered its essential connection to matter.
The most important lesson espoused by the Epicureans is knowledge that the soul is material and mortal, and that the goal of life should be careful cultivation of an equanimity of spirit.

It is a common misconception that Epicureanism is a selfish, amoral hedonism, a Mall-of-America self-indulgence. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, there is a certain disengagement from the hubbub of the polis and focus on self, but only to nurture qualities of companionship, gratitude and spiritual repose. These are the sources of human happiness, the Epicureans believed, and these are fostered by a quiet attention to nature -- not the wilderness, where nature runs unruly and wild, but the garden where the mortal human soul and the immortal soul of the world exist in symbiosis.