Advice to New Students of Epicurean Philosophy

The official release of the book r How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy by Penguin Random House (Amazon link here), was January 7th. It includes 15 chapters on various philosophies. I contributed the chapter on Epicureanism, and wrote a review of the rest of the book on the day it was published.

For the benefit of new students who wish to gain a deeper understanding of Epicureanism, here are a few guidelines to help you navigate your way though the online resources and communities, and the process of learning.

There’s a self-guided study curriculum at societyofepicurus.com, which constitutes a complete educational process for any intellectual wanting to gain a solid foundation. There are also two foundational epistles by Epicurus that are generally the first documents studied by students: the Epistle to Herodotus contains a brief intro to the canon and the physics (this was considered the “Little Epitome” by the ancients, which had to be studied by all new students), and the Epistle to Menoeceus contains the intro to the ethics. The Essential Epicurus includes all of these, and more. These works are also available via a web search, or on YouTube.

Here are a few points to keep in mind while studying:

1. Epistemological Dogmatism

Epicureanism is a dogmatic philosophy. In plain terms, this means that as a system, it teaches that truth is knowable and that there are knowable, measurable, observable Truths, as well as The Truth with a capital T. This set of epistemological positions are the precursors of the great human and historical enterprise of accumulating certified empirical data that we know as science. While the dogmatism that is familiar to us is that of the churches, whose claims originate in supposed revelation, this philosophical dogmatism is empirical and based on evidence and on the study of nature. At every step of the way, Epicurean philosophy respects the intelligence of the student, and refers its teachings to evidence.

As a result of this, Epicureans tend to have strong convictions. Some people do not like individuals with strong convictions. They would prefer to hear the familiar, post-modern doctrine that all religions, opinions, and cultures, are equally valid and deserve equal respect and an equal platform. If you sincerely wish to study Epicureanism, throw this out the door. It may seem odd to warn a student that she needs to be open-minded to consider a dogmatic teaching, but such is the paradigm that we find ourselves in.

Also, I advise new and old students to never think they have all the answers. Dogmatism does not have to entail arrogance. We can be people of conviction, and still have a considerate attitude towards others and openness towards many ideas. I wrote my book to take students with me on a learning adventure, but I have not stopped learning, evolving, and reading since, and relating new knowledge to what I had previously learned. I wrote Six things I learned after writing Tending the Epicurean Garden a couple of years after the book was published, and I could probably write a similar essay today. My essay for How to Live a Good Life is the most recently updated, most complete and mature version of how I would present EP to my readers, which is not to say that my views won’t continue expanding. What I’m saying by this is that Epicurean philosophy has not stopped being intellectually satisfying in spite of it being dogmatic.

2. Know Our Factions

For the same reason that we are dogmatists, and sometimes tend to have strong opinions, when we disagree with each other we sometimes tend to do so adamantly, and we sometimes have to agree to disagree. In the days of Philodemus, the two main factions were the orthodox (who stuck mainly to memorization and repetition of doctrines) and the rhetors (who elaborated the teachings and accepted the intellectual challenges of engaging ideas from various other schools).

Some of the people who call themselves Epicureans adhere to particular cultural traditions, like Secular Judaism, modern Satanism, or the Unitarian Church.  Some self-identify as eclectic, and think it’s possible to mix Epicurean philosophy with Stoicism, Objectivist, Buddhist, and other philosophies. And there are Epicurus-only fundamentalists who only adhere to specific things that Epicurus said (selectively or with a particular interpretation), and who often dismiss the writings of those who came after him. They are a small minority, but it’s important to know both that they exist, and that there are alternate views. One positive thing that must be said of the Epicurean fundamentalists is that they are staunch defenders of Pleasure. The EpicureanFriends.com forum is the main online space devoted to their perspective.

Some modern Greek Epicureans are involved in happiness activism (an idea which is rejected by others), while in the French world there are many who are greatly influenced by Michel Onfray. In the English-speaking world, many people are instead influenced by the new atheists. Then there are more-or-less apolitical Epicureans (insofar as one CAN be apolitical), as well as Epicureans with a diversity of strong political convictions–including the Greek nationalists.

I created the Society of Epicurus to propose an applied approach to Epicurean philosophy that connects theory with practice, and explores economics, friendship, etc. I have great interest in contemporary science-of-happiness research, and hope that in the future Epicureans will carry out concrete experiments to connect theory with practice, and complete translations and commentaries of the sources, for the benefit to other future students. I see Epicureanism as a conversation among friends and as an intellectual tradition that has evolved and grown, and that is in constant conversation with the world around us, with other philosophers, and with science. But not all Epicureans identify with my approach, and that’s perfectly okay!

The importance of understanding some of these factions, for the student, lies in the need to have a clear understanding of the sources of the information we find online. You should be able to filter out the idiosyncrasies and read the material critically, forming your own opinion and relating the content to your own ideas and existential projects. You should have the intellectual stamina to make this philosophy your own, if you hold its main convictions, while constantly testing your views against the views of others in the online Epicurean environment and outside of it.

3. Study by yourself and with others

Exercise yourself in these and kindred precepts day and night, both by yourself and with him who is like to you. – Epicurus, Epistle to Menoeceus

Our sources teach that, unlike other activities we may engage in where the pleasure comes after the activity, with philosophy, the enjoyment and the activity happen at the same time. Studying by ourselves and with others furnishes two types of pleasure: that of learning (mostly by ourselves) and that of friendship (with others).

Studying by ourselves also allows us to assimilate what we have learned from others, and to re-visit it from a distance, to question it, to certify it against sources and empirical evidence, and to form our own opinions.

If you do have the fortune and the opportunity of studying with others, consider whether the person(s) you are studying with seem to be happy. This may sound strange, but research shows that happiness is contagious, and since Epicurus taught that “at one and the same time we should laugh and philosophize“, a student of Epicureanism whose habitual disposition is anger or ill-will is not doing it right: this is a philosophy of pleasure. To paraphrase from Epicurus’ adage in Vatican Saying 14, “Don’t postpone your happiness!”

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About Hiram

Hiram is an author from the north side of Chicago who has written for The Humanist, Occupy, Infidels, Ateistas de Puerto Rico, El Nuevo Dia, and other publications. His book Tending the Epicurean Garden (Humanist Press, 2014) is a contemporary and interdisciplinary introduction to Epicureanism. He earned a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies from NEIU.