The Epicure’s Guide to Shaving
I realize now that the post title would also have been good for the book. I’m reading Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, thanks to The Eldest who sent me the book as a gift. (It arrived directly from Amazon, and when I opened it I was totally delighted—I thought I had just added it to my wish list, but I must have ordered it! I was so pleased with myself I jumped in and started reading, and when The Eldest called to see whether her gift had arrived, I kept telling her, “No, but I’m watching for it.” Finally she checked her Amazon account and saw that it had been delivered. I guess I had just added it to my wishlist rather than ordering it.)
Despite the little contretemps, I’m loving the book and how directly it applies to shaving (and much else). (Here’s a brief review from NPR.) Consider: Epicurus believed that the universe in which we live is fundamentally made of atoms: tiny indivisible particles that combine in various ways. The stars, the planets, trees, water, grass, animals, us: all made of atoms.
Initially the atoms were simply falling through space, but atoms from time to time swerve in an unpredictable fashion, thus bumping into their neighbors, forcing additional collisions, combining, and so on. After much time has passed, these random collisions and clumping have by now produced the universe in which we live—and the process continues.
Epicurus saw a world of continuous, on-going change. The constancy and universality of change as we look around us has caught the eye of many. Heraclitus commented that you cannot step into the same river twice: the water has moved, you have changed. Change is another way of referring to generation and corruption: coming into being and decaying away. Lucretius sees this continual process of old things dying and breaking down and new things emerging to last for a while and in their own turn mature, age, and fall away as an expression of Venus, goddess of procreation.
But to focus a bit on the dying away bit: Epicurus thought that we live a while in this world of change and then die—oblivion, never to return. Nothing. So it goes.
But while we’re here in this amazing world, we should enjoy our lives. This is what we get. This is our show, our day in the sun, and when it’s over—nothing. No encore, no memory, nothing.
Some interesting corollaries follow from such a view.
First, I would expect that Epicureans are seldom found among glory hounds: those like Achilles who go for a short glorious life. If this life is all we get, let’s take our time and enjoy it. Stretch it out, don’t cut it short. (Of course, as the Stoics observed, if life grows intolerable… well, one can always leave. And once you’re gone, nothing can matter to you because there’s no longer a you.)
Epicureans also would avoid excess in carnal pleasures, since even the meanest intellect can see that such excess generally results in short lives and physical pain and suffering, not to mention the mental torment from guilt, regrets, and the like. Epicurus would (and did) advocate a life of moderation and activity—but also daily enjoyment.
It seems logical, on the premise that this is our one experience of living, that we should strive to maximize our enjoyment of this life, and that would mean finding and appreciating daily pleasures: the small pleasures of daily life. You should find ways to enjoy what’s right at hand.
In particular, it would mean that any routine task that you do repeatedly should be recast as a source of enjoyment. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi discusses this mindset at length in his excellent book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (link is to inexpensive used copies). “Flow“, as Csíkszentmihályi defines it (and as discussed in Wikipedia at the link), is a state of mind that one would typically call happiness or joy. He gives an example of a guy who’s structured his life to maximize flow: a practicing Epicurean, in effect.
So the shaving connection: Shaving is an activity that many men are obliged to do daily. Therefore, shaving should be made an enjoyable activity, a source of daily pleasure. The alternative, enduring a daily chore from which one derives no pleasure, doesn’t really make sense, given the Epicurean picture of the universe: This is your single life, and at your death you will have exhausted your chances at life. So during your life, find small daily pleasures everywhere you can. Enjoy your life: as Lucretius would view it, your life is your gift from Venus. Make the most of it.