Larry Gopnik was an ordinary, average ‘good man’ who tried to live an ethical life while advancing his mediocre life as a physics professor, when his personal and professional life fall apart on him completely. Nothing makes sense or has meaning any more, and Larry struggles to find out why all these disasters have occurred to him. No one can tell him why, though, not even the rabbis at the synagogue. It just seems that God and the universe are completely arbitrary and unjust, and Epicurus would have told him this was because there was no God. There was no overall meaning or purpose in the universe, no divine plan and no life after death. If at the end of the film Larry was about to face his own death, Epicurus would have advised him that there was no choice at all but to accept the arbitrary nature of the world and death as the inevitable end.
Larry Gopnik is the hero of A Serious Man (2009), living a quiet and dull life as a physics professor in an ordinary middle class neighborhood during the 1960s, until his entire world falls apart in every possible way. He tries to be a good and honest man in his conventional way, and to live according to the teachings of the Bible and the Jewish religion, bur Epicurus would have told him that there was no God and all religions were false. One calamity after another is heaped on Larry, in a completely unjust and arbitrary way, and Epicurus would have told him life was just like that. So it was for Larry, right down to the final moments of the film, when the doctor wants to see him immediately about his chest x-ray and a tornado is heading directly for his son’s school. Like most religious people, Larry assumes that all this bad fortune is a result of his own sins and that God is punishing him. He desperately tries to find out why God is angry with him and how it can be made right. As a physicist, he is familiar with the latest developments that show how nature may really be arbitrary and unknowable, without any real cause-and-effect, but he has trouble accepting this irrational universe—or an irrational and arbitrary God. His only choice would be to accept that either God is evil and capricious or (more likely) that there is no God.
Certainly everything that Larry one thought gave his life meaning just vanishes and evaporates on him, and in this crisis Epicurus would have advised him that he would have to find some other meaning and purpose beyond his professional and family life. All of these are disappearing on him in any case, so he will have to accept this as reality and do the best he can with whatever time he has left. His wife Judith announces that she is leaving him for another man and wants a divorce, and takes all of his money just before she walks out. He is forced to move into a motel with his unemployed brother Arthur, who spends all of his time trying to find some overall theory of the universe. Someone is writing poison-pen letters to the tenure committee denouncing him for a variety of misdeeds, including sodomy and soliciting prostitutes, and eventually he learns that this is her lover Sy Ableman. His son Danny is on drugs and is being threatened by the dealers at school because he owes them money, while his daughter is mainly concerned with her hair and is also stealing money from him for plastic surgery. One of his students, Clive Park, tries to bribe him with an envelope full of cash to get a passing grade, and when Larry tries to return the money Clive’s father threatens to public accuse him of taking bribes. None of the rabbis can explain why all of this is happening to him or what he can do to right it. Even the senior rabbi is playing Don’t You Want Somebody to Love on Danny’s radio and advising him to be a ‘good boy’. None of this makes any sense precisely because it seems so unjust and arbitrary, although any advice Epicurus could have given Larry in this total catastrophe would probably have been cold comfort.
Epicurus was often ridiculed and parodied as a hedonistic philosopher, even in his lifetime, and for that reason was often not taken seriously, but this is a complete distortion of what he actually wrote. In reality, he never taught the idea of “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”, no matter what his critics claimed, and did not endorse mindless gluttony, drunkenness and hedonism as a way of escaping the difficulties of life (Gordon, 2003, p. 5). Unlike Plato, the Stoics and the Christians, he did not believe in God, a Savior or an immortal soul, and also rejected all forms of astrology and superstition. As a materialist, he thought that the world was made up of atoms and that there was no Creator or divine plan for history or human life. Death was merely “the privation of sense-experience” and only nothingness existed rather than an afterlife (Gordon, p. 10). In this he differed from all the Idealist philosophers and religious believers and stated that “we have no sign posts. We set our own agenda. We make our way in our own strength”, which is actually a very difficult path to follow rather than a pleasurable or hedonistic one (Gordon, p. 8). Life was often harsh, arbitrary and cruel, but compared to most other philosophers of his time “he did not attempt to challenge the arbitrariness of life, he accepted it” (Gordon, p. 7). In his personal life he lived frugally and modestly, drinking only water and eating a vegetarian diet, and he also faced his own death from a long and painful illness with “courage and calmness” (Gordon, p. 10). This was how Epicurus taught all of his own followers to live, and to face death when the time came, and evidently Larry’s time has come. Obviously nothing is going to work out for him, despite what appeared to be a temporary reprieve before the final set of disasters struck. All Epicurus could tell him was that he would have to find his own meaning in this chaotic and random universe, since there was no God and no overall plan or purpose.
Gordon, D.R. (2003). “The Philosophy of Epicurus: Is It an Option for Today?” D.R Gordon and D.B. Suits (eds). Epicurus: His Continuing Influence and Relevance. Rochester Institute of Technology, pp. 5-16.
A Serious Man (2009). Prod and Dir: Ethan and Joel Coen. USA: Focus Features.