The Cognitive Backyard

Smoking with Epicurus

smoking with Epicurus

As far as smoking is concerned, I “grew up” fairly late compared to my other smoker friends. When I started smoking in the year 2000 my friends were already smokers for years. One of my favourite smoking companions was my elder brother, Usman. In fact, it was from his pack of Benson & Hedges that I smoked my first cigarette. I still miss those nights when we would sit for hours on the terrace or the roof of our house smoking and immersed in endless gibberish. 

It is still one of my most cherished memories of life, that quality time spent with my elder brother before he got married and relocated to Canada. Although he isn’t here anymore, I still go up on the terrace or the roof to sit late in the night to have a cup of tea and smoke. I love looking at the stars and the moon and wonder about the worlds around me. It’s purely magical; somehow, it tells me I am not that alone. I imagine about these worlds, places, and people. Sometimes, I am just swept away to another world, another time.

It was one such night earlier this month after my exams ended, I got tired of reading and went to the roof to smoke. I sat there and lighted a cigarette thinking that there should always be an exit button in life. Just as I was thinking about quitting, and I think a lot about it, I was swept off to this beautiful lake in a highlands valley. I stood there wondering where I was with the book still in one hand and my pack of Gold Leaf in the other. The sun was shining bright with a cool breeze blowing in the valley. There were about a dozen horses roaming around the lake, and birds flying in circles over its deep blue water.

smoking with Epicurus near a lake

I sat down by the lake looking around to see if the place looked familiar but it did not. It was very serene, however; sitting on the lake’s shore and watching the birds and the horses as the cool wind was gently slapping me on the face. I was about to light a cigarette that a manly figure appeared on the western horizon of the valley. The figure was moving in my direction. As it came closer I saw that it was a tall old man half cloaked in white holding a staff. Momentarily, the old man had reached me, I stood up thinking who he was and what was he doing alone in such a place. The old man was breathing heavily; he looked oddly familiar like from a Hollywood movie. He was taller than me, his hair was shining silver and he wore a slightly curled thick beard white as snow.

Just as his breath came back, he spoke with a deep voice, “can you tell me, young man, what is this place?”

“Err…I don’t know, I just came here too” I replied instantly.

“Hmm” he sighed deeply, “well as good as any place then, do you mind if I sit here and rest?”

“Oh! Not at all, please sit down” I replied, happy to have company, “can I ask what you are doing here all alone?”

“I am never alone, young man” he smiled, “but to answer you, I’d say I was just passing by”.

“You look oddly familiar, what is your name?” I asked.

“I am Epicurus” he replied looking at the horses on the other side of the valley.

“You can’t be serious, you mean the Epicurus? I mean the Greek?” I gasped in disbelief.

Hermes-type bust (pillar with the top as a scu...
Hermes-type bust (pillar with the top as a sculpted head) of Epicurus leaned with his back against his disciple Metrodorus of Lampsacus (the younger) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 “Yes, I am Greek, and you? Brown hair, brown skin, where are you from, Parthia?” he asked looking at me critically.

I was still amazed and hardly paid attention to his question, “Err…no…further down southeast…but you are supposed to be dead”.

“Aha! You are from India” he said confidently.

“Yeah! It should be India in your time” I replied reassuringly, thinking he wouldn’t know about what happened to India after his time, “but tell me why you are not dead?”

“Well, I suppose I am, are you too?” he smiled, looking at me inquisitively.

“I think I am not” I said like I wasn’t sure I should have said that.

“How do you know you are not dead? You are here, with me, so you should be dead too, the logic is fair don’t you think?” he looked immensely pleased saying that, his deep blue eyes almost giggled.

 “Well, that sounds convincing, although I am pretty sure I haven’t died yet” I replied giggling in response, “but it’s really funny”.

“What is?” he inquired.

“It’s funny that death didn’t concern you while you were alive, you thought it would be the end of your body and soul, and yet here you are, a ghost, talking to me” I replied, so happy to be able to tease him.

“I said I am dead, but you shouldn’t deduce I am a ghost” he replied smiling, “you would also recall that I was the first person who taught that nothing but only direct observation and logical deduction should be believed.”

“Yeah, thanks to you, we have the scientific methodology, I am not really fond of it though” I replied, partly offended, “but you are dead, you should be a ghost, it is only logical”.

“The idea of being after death is illogical, boy, that is why I am not a ghost” he said disappointed, “although I am not yet entirely sure what I am, that’s why I asked you what this place is hoping you would have some reason”.

“I hoped that too” I replied sadly.

“Oh, come now, don’t be so depressed, most people don’t have reason” he said patting my back, “by the way what are you holding in your hand?”

“It’s a book, here, you can look” I handed over the book to him.

“Hmm…strange language…but what is this book about, are you a learned man?” he asked sounding as good as impressed.

“Not really, it’s just a burden, I don’t understand most things” I replied trying not to sound too pleased about myself, “It’s The Consolation of Philosophy.”

A depiction of Boetius teaching his students (...
A depiction of Boetius teaching his students (1385). Boetius, a 6th century Christian philosopher, helped keep alive the classic tradition in post-Roman Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Aha! Boethius, that old fool” he said and smiled approvingly.

“Hey! Why would you call him that?” I wondered.

“For one thing, I didn’t quite like Romans and their arrogance, except Marcus, he was not that bad” he replied.

“You mean Marcus Aurelius” I asked.

“Yes, him” he replied.

“But, Boethius wasn’t really Roman, the Roman Empire was gone by that time” I said, puzzled.

“He was still Roman, born in Rome, and longed for the so-called glory of Rome; the reason of his plotting against the King” he said, exposing the full expanse of Greeks’ disgust of Rome, “but what do you think about him and his consolation?”

I paused to light a cigarette, and said, “I can relate to his work, I find I am almost as baffled as him about fortune and death.”

“What is this thing you are puffing?” he asked looking at the cigarette bemused.

“It is called cigarette, you want to try?” I asked.

“Yes, I like to experience things” he replied.

I gave him a cigarette explaining to him how to take a puff and helped him light the cigarette. He puffed and coughed vigorously, and said, “It tastes like burning coal, so you are puzzled about fortune and death, eh?”

“Yes, I am puzzled that if I am not able to control my destiny, why do I lament so much in the loss, or absence, of good fortune?” I told him.

“Because, dear boy, you find your happiness in objects, don’t find contentment in what you own, but find it in what you enjoy” he replied affectionately.

“It doesn’t make any sense to me, how can I be happy when there is nothing to be happy or content about?” I asked, puzzled again.

“It is because you desire so much of what you don’t have, you keep hoping for more, you are not happy with the fact that you have the things that you desired once” he replied.

“But, isn’t it just human to ask for more?” I inquired.

He puffed again, and coughed for a few seconds, and said, “This thing has a funny effect, my head is spinning a little, but yes it is one of our human follies to always want, but what we miss is the fact that if we are not satisfied with little, we are never satisfied with anything.”

“Yes, smoking does that if you are new to it” I said, “I had a teacher once, he told us that if you want to grow then don’t ever be satisfied with what you have” I told him what we were told during the MBA.

“I am not entirely sure what teachers of your time believe in” he replied, “in my time, education meant virtues of being, giving back to the people, and of knowledge itself”.

“I guess you have that one right, in my time education means learning ways to acquire wealth and be mean to others; we call that professionalism” I said to him, “although I am not entirely convinced that you had everything right”.

 “I never said that I was right all the time” he replied smiling, “but it is interesting to know that you doubt my views but relate to those of Boethius”.

“Well! There is a fundamental difference between you and Boethius, I am sure you are aware of that” I said.

“Yes, I know, he believed in a life after death, I did not” he said, “and he believed religion and reason can work together, I found them contradictory, and I assume that is why you relate with him too”.

 “You believed in gods too, but your gods were indifferent, to say the least” I responded, “and yes, I don’t believe we are just atoms accountable to no one, but I don’t believe in gods but one God; the Abrahamic God to be exact, and maybe that is also one reason I find Boethius relatable”.

“I have heard about that God” he replied, “why do you believe there is only one god and he isn’t indifferent?”

“Because of the harmony, look at those horses, this valley and the lake, or the heavens, don’t you feel there is a precise balance” I responded, “if there is a god at all, there has to be only one for such equanimity in the Universe, this doesn’t look like the work of more than one mind”.

“This idea of an absolute and unaccountable divine being dwarfs human pain, just as you now suffer, and the fortune that you don’t possess, and the death that hasn’t arrived bewilder you and you don’t find peace in the idea of a god” he said.

“I don’t really think that idea of a God disturbs my mind or dwarfs my pain, what disturbs my mind is the gap between what I wanted to become, and what I have become instead” I replied shaking my head, “there is an unending streak of misfortune”.

“If the gods listened to all our prayers, dear boy, humankind would have perished a long time ago, perhaps even before my time” he said smiling, “don’t fret in fear of what you have become now, remember that the secret of good life and death are one and the same.”

“And what is that secret?” I asked, looking at him.

He placed a hand on my shoulder and replied, “let reason direct the course of your life and misfortune will cease to intrude upon you, and don’t fear death because we cease to exist when it comes”.

I looked at him for a while trying to understand what he meant and asked, “how can I do that?”

“By subtracting your desires, and adding knowledge” he replied, “and to do that you don’t have much to pray to gods, these are fairly in your own hands”.

“So, you recommend not praying?” I asked.

“At least not for the things that you can control, don’t be a fool to expect gods to do everything for you, do your part of the work” he replied, “and remember that true courage and glory lie in overcoming your challenges”.

“I always face my challenges” I told him.

“I think not, you always want to quit, you face them because you don’t have a choice” he said, “that is not the same as overcoming challenges”.

“Hmmm…okay…I will try” I replied thoughtfully, trying to sound hopeful at the same time.

“Good!” he smiled, “well, I should be going then, thank you for the smoke”.

I smiled and said, “It was nice to meet you here, will we meet again?”

“Only if you wish” he said smiling in a strange manner and started walking away.

“Please bring Boethius and Marcus the next time, I want to meet them too” I shouted as he moved further.

“The Roman fools!” he said loudly, and laughed.

Just as he disappeared over the horizon, I woke up lying on the edge of my balcony and found that Boethius’ book had fallen over the other side.


Bilal Khan

I am a Lahore, Pakistan, based researcher in the fields of Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration.
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