Catholic Apologist Attempts to Paint Epicureans as Flat-Earthers!

Aeon typically publishes very good quality essays, like the one I cited in the essay A Concrete Self titled Self-Evident. But from time to time, Aeon also posts essays that are not thoroughly researched, like Atoms and flat-earth ethics. The piece was written by James Hannam, who has written a book in defense of “God’s philosophers” where he praises the wisdom of the medieval period.

By the fourth paragraph, Hannam is claiming that Lucretius claimed that the Earth was flat in “On the Nature of Things” (and relates this to the idea of “up” and “down”), but then two paragraphs later he says: “Lucretius then explains that it’s an error to think that the Earth is at the centre of the Universe because, as the Universe is infinite, it can’t have a centre“. But if there is no center, than what this means is that in the Epicurean cosmos all things are relative (and there can be no up and down, except in relation to something). This is elaborated much more intuitively in Ontology of Motion, which I also reviewed.

Later, he says that Lucretius “also tries to convince us that the heavenly bodies are not very big or far away, and that they can even be buffeted about by the winds. He proposes that the world is rather like a snow globe. We are all living on a flat surface covered by a rounded vault, within which the stars and planets move around like the flakes of white when the snow globe is shaken” … But this is impossible to reconcile with the Epicurean doctrine of the innumerable worlds, which says:

First, an infinite number of worlds exists in the universe, some of which worlds are like and some of which are unlike our own. – Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus

It is more than clear that an infinity of other worlds, both similar and different from ours, could not possibly “move around like flakes of white” around the Earth (millions of them being of similar or bigger size)–which, again, is not believed to be in the center of the Epicurean cosmos, which is infinite and has no center.

The author also questions the sincerity of the first Epicureans and how one goes from the physics to the ethics, and tries to argue that Epicurus does not hold truth in high regard, that he instead builds his physics in service of his ethics … by which he intends to divorce ethics from the physics. This would lead to a Platonized ethics that is not informed by the study of nature. This, of course, was of great utility for Christian apologists and monks in his idealized medieval era. But it is absolutely unacceptable for us moderns. Ethics can and must be informed by the study of nature as a sure foundation, and must not be denaturalized and decontextualized, made sterile and useless.

In order to follow the line of discussion that demonstrates the sincerity with which Epicurus held his views about the physics, one need only read his Epistle to Herodotus, where each component is linked to the next beautifully and cogently like a chain of molecules. Indeed, in their going from physics to ethics, the Epicureans were following the guidance of nature. One does not see gods intervening in human affairs. One does observe the agency of sentient beings. One also observes that babies, puppies, and kittens shun pain and seek pleasure as soon as they come into this world, etc. And so, while the author says:

In short, Epicurus did not derive his ethics from his atomism. He believed in atoms because they provided a theory of nature that supported his ethics.

The truth is that Epicurus does not do this. He can never be quoted as saying: “Life should be pleasant therefore the gods don’t intervene“. In the Letter to Herodotus, Epicurus explains that bodies have inherent properties exhibited by the atoms and void in their many combinations, but that they also have relational properties when they interact with each other. The third Scholarch Polystratus later explains pleasure-pain as among the relational properties of nature which are exhibited by sentient beings in their interaction with their environment. There can be no pleasure-pain without sentience, and there can be no sentience without bodies. The physics must, by necessity, precede the ethics.

Furthermore, in the Letter to Herodotus Epicurus makes specific mention of astronomical phenomena as one area where they were forced to reason by analogy with things that are observed on Earth because they lacked direct empirical insight. They did not have spaceships or telescopes as we do today. This means that any errors–like the one concerning the size of the moon and others–would eventually be settled, but only upon the availability of evidence, as the canon requires. This means that the canon both yields a pedestal to, and embeds itself into, the historical process of amassing knowledge via empirical means, which is a process that includes all the sciences.

The author–who in 2009 wrote a piece arguing that the Catholic Church has been a net force of good in history–is aligned with Aristotelianism, which is in turn a tool of Christian apologetics. All his accusations stem from his lack of familiarity with the Epicurean canon and with how, in all things, Epicureans always refer their investigations to the study of nature. But one of the key problems with Hannam’s essay was articulated by our friend Jason:

Why do critics always think that Epicurean theories weren’t open to revision upon further evidence? They’ll take Epicurus’ written word as dogmatic truth but ignore where he said that we must be open to incorporating new sensory perceptions and testimonies of trusted friends examining the same phenomena. Epicurean dogmatism was always open to revision upon presentation of clear evidence to the contrary.

As to this, the Letter to Herodotus both opens and closes with exhortations to appeal in all things always to empirical evidence and to the (scientific) “study of nature”, and establishes that we must “keep our conclusions consistent with those things we have clearly grasped through our senses”. Keep in mind that the senses are in the canon (the standard of truth), and are therefore among the toolkit that serves as the ultimate authority in Epicurean philosophy. It is this canon–NOT Epicurus–that serves as the ultimate authority for the Epicureans. This means that any error, when measured against new empirical evidence and shown to be an error, must be declared an error and empirical evidence must be admitted in favor of innovation. Here is Epicurus in the Letter to Herodotus:

(at the opening)

… since I myself urge others to study Nature constantly, and I find my own peace of mind chiefly in a life devoted to that study, I have composed for you a shorter summary of the principles of the whole doctrine, which I will relate to you now.

… Most of all, we must keep our investigations strictly in accord with the evidence of the senses. We must ensure that we keep our conclusions consistent with those things we have already clearly grasped through our sensations, and through our feelings of pain and pleasure, and through those mental apprehensions that we receive through anticipations. We must always take as true those things that have already been clearly established, and refer back to them as foundations for our new judgments. This is the method we employ in investigating all new questions, regardless of whether the object of the question can be perceived directly by the senses, or whether it can only be understood by reasoning from that which has already been perceived. …

(at the closing, fourth paragraph prior to the ending)

We must always pay close attention to our perceptions from the senses, to our feelings of pain and pleasure, and to our mental apprehensions from the anticipations, both those we receive ourselves, and those received by other men. For we must conform our judgments to the clear evidence that is available to us through each of the standards of truth.

In Epicurus’ Instructions on Innovation, I quoted from the book Epicurus and the Epicurean Tradition:

In the necessary and inevitable process of updating Epicurean teaching and tradition, I have subjected the potential innovations to the criteria given by Epicurus (Erler, 2011) dealing with innovation and forbidding the ‘muddling’ of doctrines that disagree with each other. The two guidelines provided by Epicurus are akoloythia and symphonia, which translate as consistency (has no internal contradictions) and coherence (is in symphony with the rest of Epicurus’ doctrine).

Here, Epicurus clearly establishes that the teachings of Epicurean philosophy must continue to evolve (by the use of the canon), and sets consistency and coherence as guidelines for this. In academia, there has always been a tendency to imagine that Epicureanism was a closed, fossilized system incapable of evolution, but there would be no Epicureans today if that were the case.

In closing, I wish to accentuate vehemently–as I did with Ontology of Motion–that those writing about the Epicurean tradition must first acquaint themselves with the Letter to Herodotus in order to avoid embarrassing and redundant mistakes that can easily be checked. This epistle served as the “Little Epitome” that all beginner students had to master prior to moving on to more advanced material, and so we can imagine that the teachers frequently referred back to these first principles. Therefore, we strongly encourage students of Epicurus, as well as those who are interested in discussing Epicurus in any manner, to delve into an in-depth study of the Epistle to Herodotus, and to outline it and re-read it so as to internalize its contents.

Further Reading:

Letter to Herodotus

Epicurus and the Epicurean Tradition

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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.