Author Archives: Hiram

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.

Swinish Herds and Pastafarians: Comedy as an Ideological Weapon

The following piece was originally written for classics publication Eidolon.

Go ahead. Try us for thirty days. If you don’t like us, your old religion will most likely take you back. — Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

One of the newest international religious movements today requires its faithful to wear a pasta strainer on their heads and, on occasion, to dress up as pirates — as this couple did for the first Pastafarian wedding in New Zealand. The members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster posit an afterlife in a paradise island that features pirates, strippers and a beer volcano. Naturally, eating spaghetti and meatballs constitutes a sacrament.

Pastafarianism is a parody religion invented in recent years to make the point that the supernatural claims at the heart of most faiths are mutually contradictory. If we’re going to act as if they’re all just as plausible as each other for the sake of political correctness, then we might as well treat the idea that the Creator is a flying intergalactic nebula of noodles and meatballs — and its hosts of pirates — with the same undeserved respect we afford all other unempirical beliefs.

The roles played and tactics used by secularist comedians and philosophers in the ancient and modern worlds are similar enough that one finds some continuity in their narratives, arguments, and identities. The so-called “New Atheism” is not new. It went through a period of arrested development, but its infancy can be located in dusty scrolls written by ancient intellectuals.

Both the old Epicurean tradition and the modern secular movement have had to deal with thorny issues of free speech, religious privilege, and diversity. They have employed similar tactics in their respective culture wars, including comedy as a weapon against authoritarianism and backwardness. They’ve also both faced persecution for said weaponry. More specifically, the modern practitioners of Pastafarianism are engaging in the kind of disruptive and insightful satire that ancient Epicureans were known for.

The Church of FSM is not the first parody religion in history. At times, the ancient Epicureans also seem to treat their legitimately recognized philosophical tradition as a kind of parody religion, the first inkling of which is their own designation of the Canon as the “book that fell from the heavens”. The Canon was the main piece of foundational writing of Epicurus of Samos, which established the materialist standard of truth based on empirical observation. Epicureans’ love of the Canon was such that their intellectual enemies joked that the Canon had fallen from heaven. The Epicureans seized on this mockery and began jokingly referring to it that way: the Canon had indeed fallen from heaven! It was the atomist Bible, the philosophical Quran. The designation stuck.

Later on, in the first century BCE, the Roman Epicurean poet Lucretius produced didactic and amusing caricatures of his contemporaries’ beliefs that still resonate. After asking why Jove hurls bolts of lightning at innocent people and not at sinners, and why the god should waste his efforts directing fire at deserts and other isolated regions, Lucretius goes on to mock the idea of divine origins of lightning:

Or, as the clouds pass by, does he climb down onto them, that he may aim his bolt close-range?

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura VI.402–403

Needless to say, the tactic of mockery is still in use today among the New Atheists, and there is no shortage of Christians, Muslims and animists who attribute weather phenomena and plagues to an angry, vindictive god.

In the second century CE, Syrian satirist Lucian of Samosata authored a satirical exposé of Alexander of Abonoteichus, a false pagan prophet who profited handsomely from giving obscure oracles to wealthy patrons. His antics are reminiscent of those of Christian televangelists and snake-handling cults of our day. In order to impress people, Alexander walked around carrying a snake and foamed at the mouth, which Lucian explained by accusing the prophet of chewing herbs containing saponin.

Lucian’s work, titled Alexander the Oracle-Monger, constituted the closest thing to our generation’s Religulous for the people of the late Roman Empire. It also nearly cost Lucian his life. Alexander, as it turns out, was not only vindictive but also two-faced — he showered Lucian with favors while plotting to have him killed for mocking his cult. Lucian narrates the event towards the end of his work, in the sixth paragraph before the ending:

When I intended to sail, he sent me many parting gifts, and offered to find us […] a ship and crew — which offer I accepted in all confidence. When the passage was half over, I observed the master in tears arguing with his men, which made me very uneasy. It turned out that Alexander’s orders were to seize and fling us overboard; in that case his war with me would have been lightly won. But the crew were prevailed upon by the master’s tears to do us no harm. “I am sixty years old, as you can see,” he said to me; “I have lived an honest blameless life so far, and I should not like at my time of life, with a wife and children too, to stain my hands with blood.” And with that preface he informed us what we were there for, and what Alexander had told him to do.

When Lucian attempted to bring charges against the false prophet, the Roman senators convinced him to abandon the entire matter. Many of the senators were not only clients of the prophet, but also fearful of retaliation from his mobs of followers. Lucian gathered stories about Alexander’s fraudulent practices until the prophet died in old age, at which point he published the satire. The false prophet got away with attempted murder.

Fun fact: it is in this work that Lucian invented the tradition of literally calling out bullshit. At the beginning of Alexander the Oracle Monger, Lucian makes the very first reference to bull crap in literary history when comparing Alexander’s fraudulent and evil practices to “the unspeakable filth that three thousand oxen could produce in many years”:

You, my dear Celsus, possibly suppose yourself to be laying upon me quite a trifling task: “Write me down in a book and send me the life and adventures, the tricks and frauds, of the impostor Alexander of Abonutichus” […] if you will promise to read with indulgence, and fill up the gaps in my tale from your imagination, I will essay the task. I may not cleanse that Augean stable completely, but I will do my best, and fetch you out a few loads as samples of the unspeakable filth that three thousand oxen could produce in many years.

Lucian’s narrative is peppered with affectionate words of praise for Epicurus and his legacy, and the work was allegedly written as an act of Epicurean solidarity. From this introductory paragraph, we get another picture of the cheerful cultural milieu of the Epicureans. It depicts a kind of “culture of comedy” advanced by Epicureans like Lucian — who, in addition to being funny, was known as a brilliantly engaging and entertaining narrator. His close associates, like the one Celsus mentions here, enjoyed listening to his stories so much that they wanted a record for their ongoing amusement and that of future generations.

Going back to the original tale of religious immunity and privilege, we see that it resonates with contemporary and recent events. Consider, for example, the Catholic Church’s predatory practices and dodging of the judicial system for generations, which has also inspired much satire. Another parallel could be the violent Islamic attacks and intimidation against cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo and authors like Salman Rushdie. These conflicts show the tension between comedy and authoritarian religions, where (perhaps excessive and undeserved) respect is channeled toward certain persons or symbols. Even when our societies do enshrine the right to blaspheme within broader guarantees of freedom of expression, there are communities under the sway of authoritarian religions that may coerce the state into annulling those guarantees — if only temporarily.

Some may argue that it’s precisely because of these dangers that one must artfully employ parrhesia, which translates as “frank criticism” or “frank speech”. Parrhesia was initially a power reserved for free Greek citizens, but Epicurean philosophers turned it into a tool for constant self-betterment and education. Philodemus of Gadara taught that “philosophy heals through frank criticism.”

In his scroll On Frank Criticism, Philodemus mentions that philosophers employed two forms of therapeutic parrhesia. On the one hand, private criticism cleanses the human character and purges bad habits and diseases of the soul. On the other hand, public criticism helps emancipate people from blind traditions, societal conventions, and false views that are degrading and generate suffering. The idea was to diagnose a disease of the soul for treatment. Parrhesia could be unpleasant, like bad medicine, particularly when the recipient was wealthy or arrogant. The Epicureans were known for softening the medicine with “suavity”, a virtue of soft and gentle speech. Comedy can also help to lubricate parrhesia’s harshness.

In the modern LGBTQ community, parrhesia can take the form of “reading” someone. Although it can sometimes be demeaning, at other times it can genuinely serve to therapeutically humiliate or demonstrate a weakness or flaw of character: the arrogance and empty insinuation of moral superiority of a preacher, the lying tendencies of a politician, the insecurities of a bigot. Societies need to appoint clowns who look from the outside and deflate hypocrisies with mockery and frankness. Drag queens frequently perform this role in the West, as their Two-Spirit gender-variant counterparts did in pre-contact Native American cultures. The LGBTQ community also employs parrhesia in another way: the process of coming out of the closet. This practice not only creates the opportunity of authenticity for the person coming out, but forces greater authenticity on the rest of society.

The use of various forms of parrhesia is one of the threads that unites secular activists and their allies. Creationism and notions of divine intervention in nature were as large of a concern to pagans and secularists as they are today. Modern Pastafarians have built an entire circus of parody around the inane, absurd beliefs in divine creation that persist into the 21st century.

A note here will help to illustrate the different attitudes adopted by progressive secular communities and regressive religious ones, as exemplified by ancient Epicureans and contemporary Muslims. The pig is considered dirty and insulting in the Islamic tradition, whereas the Epicureans accepted the pig as a symbol for the pleasant life of a hedonist. In the villa of Herculaneum, Philodemus and his Epicurean community prominently displayed a sculpture of a pig. The poet Horace jokingly asserted that he was “a fat pig of Epicurus’ den.” The comparison of Epicureans with pigs seems to have started out as an insult by enemy schools inspired by the Epicureans’ love of pleasure.

Their cheerful affirmation in poetry and sculpture of being a swinish herd, even up to the adoption of the pig as a formal symbol as we see in Herculaneum, together with their designation of their Bible-like Canon as “the book that fell from heaven”, demonstrates the Epicureans’ cheerfulness and willingness to not take themselves too seriously. This seems to have been a proud cultural trait of the Epicureans. It is impossible to imagine Muslims so easily and jokingly assuming epithets like “pig”.

“Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.”— George Carlin

This quintessential cultural difference characterizes both the modern and ancient culture wars between secularists and religionists. We may argue that it goes back to Democritus, the precursor of Epicurus who was known as the “Laughing Philosopher” for making cheerfulness his key virtue and for the way in which he mocked human behavior. The tradition of the laughing philosophers had to start with the first atomist: materialism liberates us from unfounded beliefs to such an extent that it renders absurd the beliefs and the credulity of the mobs.

Epicureans and Cynics have continued this tradition. Atheist comedian George Carlin — who was in fact a Philosophy major — is one of the most recent and most brilliant examples of a laughing philosopher. He employed comedy and frank criticism in a manner that was blasphemous, disruptive, and liberating. He did not reserve his bad medicine for religion alone. His rant against the bankers, many years prior to the 2008 banking collapse, was nearly prophetic.

The phenomenon of parody religions is quite popular today among militant atheists. Pastafarians worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster and, as a form of protest against and commentary about the excesses of religious privilege, have in recent years been involved in controversies for insisting on having their official picture IDs taken with pasta strainers and requesting that their faith be legitimized via census.

As we’ve seen, ancient Epicureans also often behaved like a parody religion and used Pastafarian-like tactics. But the political intentions behind their disruption took a second seat behind the educational, philosophical, and comedic value of their cultural output. In the “Isle of the Blessed” passage from True History, Lucian invents and describes in great detail a paradise. He sends all the Epicureans and kindred spirits to his version of heaven, in the center of which is a sacred Well of Laughter, but refuses to admit members of enemy schools by comically depicting how they failed to find the isle. Aristotelians, on their way to the Isle of the Blessed, stopped and were perplexed at how it was possible for such a thing to exist. Stoics were busy scaling the hill of virtue. Lucian uses wit to expound the Epicurean doctrine of how relying too much on logic, or setting goals other than pleasure, can hinder human happiness.

Similarly, some Pastafarians will temporarily put all joking aside and argue that their cult does present some legitimate philosophical points concerning who carries the burden of proof with regards to religious claims, and how every single unprovable supernatural assertion is just as valid as the creation myth that we find in the Bible.

There is great tension in Europe as a result of the rise of Islamic extremism, and many Westerners are looking to an idealized past for a shared identity and solidarity. Although Epicurus was not an atheist, many secularists frequently look to Epicurus for a role model. As a result, this Greek humanist hero is making a comeback, as attested by the proliferation of Epicurean blogs and memes on social media. The wise man of Samos has even been replicated in effigies made with 3D printers — a highly personalized, futuristic sculptural tradition that has begun in our generation. Perhaps that is a symptom of how Epicurus is being reimagined for future generations by modern humanists.

We need culture heroes to uphold the values of Western civilization and free expression. Epicurus and the tradition of laughing philosophers provide a deep-rooted cultural well that satisfies the strong desire that many Westerners feel to re-imagine their identities in line with strong scientific and secular principles.

Pastafarians and the New Atheists have appropriated many of the methods and discourse that Epicureans initially proposed and used. Lucretius’ arguments about how the gods didn’t make this imperfect world for humans are still used today. Today’s so-called culture wars, expressions of which we find in both New Atheism and parody religions, are in many ways a continuation of the ancient conversations, identities, tactics, and narratives of the Epicureans, and more broadly of the laughing philosophers.

Parrhesia and comedy are not the only tools in the Epicurean toolkit. There is also suavity, the virtue of gentle and kind speech that Epicureans were known for, and it is here that the Epicureans might have something to add to New Atheism, helping people to find the balance between militancy and ataraxia — the peace of mind and stable pleasure that was the ultimate goal of Epicurean therapy. Frank speech is the sign of us being free citizens. But there are many ways of saying something, and sometimes the utility of our words is sacrificed in their harshness.

Happy Herculaneum Day!

Happy Herculaneum Day! Today is the anniversary of the eruption of the volcano that destroyed the city of Herculaneum, which hosted both Philodemus of Gadara and the poet Horace. In memory of those who came before us, this month we published links to essays and quotes from sources to help students of Epicurean philosophy who wish to deepen their understanding of the content of the Philodeman scrolls on piety and on property management.

First Principle of Autarchy

Second Principle of Autarchy

Fourth Principle of Autarchy

Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Principles of Autarchy

*

First Principle of Piety

Second, Third and Fourth Principles of Piety

FIfth, Sixth, and Seventh Principle of Piety

A Transcendental Epicureanism

The following is the translation of a chapter from the book Cosmos by Michel Onfray. Translated from the French by Ross Ragsdale. Edited for clarity by Hiram Crespo. The book was written by the eminent French intellectual shortly after the death of his father, and is an exploration of our place in the universe.

Michel Onfray no Fronteiras do Pensamento Santa Catarina 2012 (8212742449).jpgAncient philosophy functioned as an antidote to my Judeo-Christian education. I was intellectually, spiritually, and ontologically prepared by Roman Catholicism; it was hard for me to believe, at the age of 17, that we could not be moral without being Christian. Of course, I understood that being Christian did not in reality imply being moral: examples of vindictive priests, sadists, perverts, gropers of young boys, had proven that to me early on. The wrath of the parish priest of my hometown, the brutality and pedophilia of the Salesians that I endured in an orphanage, if not the immoral behavior of local figures who would go to the Sunday Mass … all this made up what I already empirically knew, that there existed a gulf between calling oneself a Christian and actually being one.

It is probably during this time that my distrust of words and my decision to judge according to the facts had been born. Smooth talkers, rhetoricians, sophists, verbose men, and orators immediately collapse against this extremely straightforward yardstick. In contrast, many modest, discreet, taciturn individuals prove to be the heroes of common life, for, without saying so, they do good around them. Secular sanctity exists. I’ve met her …

I loved learning that one could be moral without being a Christian. This was taught to me by my old master, Lucien Jerphagnon, who gave an epic account of Lucretius’ Roman Epicureanism. I discovered On the Nature of Things as an existential support from which I could organize my life while attempting to develop it properly, while honoring the Roman values of friendship, civicism, integrity, the given word and moral conflict. And then, discovering the rotundity of the earth–I was only seventeen years old, and one is quite serious when one is 17–I understood that pre-Christian thought provides a precious ore for a post-Christian philosophy, for at the time of Lucretius, (modern) fiction is in distant emergence.

I loved that an answer to the problem of death responded to the existential crisis of my time. This simple, succinct, efficient, frighteningly efficient, that where I am, death is not, and where death is, I am not, immediately convinced me that the event of death was not the idea of death, that the former is less present in a life–for death can be brief, immediate, sudden–and the latter can pervert actual death through anxiety, fear, worry, dread. We must live, while awaiting the day that shall not fail to occur but lacks immediate reality. The true certainty lies not in the existence of a life after death, but that of a life before death, a life of which we must make the best use.

Whence Epicurean hedonism. The Roman Epicureanism of Lucretius, its Campanian method, its belated truth with Philodemus of Gadara or Diogenes of Oenoanda, give Epicurus’ Greek Epicureanism another appearance. Nietzsche is right to say that philosophy is an autobiographical confession; that of Epicurus was the thought of a sick, fragile man with a weak body distorted by extremely painful kidney stones during a period that was unaware of any effective sedation. This is why his hedonism is austere, ascetic, minimal, and defines itself by the absence of pain. To refuse to satisfy all desires, (focusing mainly on) those of hunger and thirst, then to make of this satisfaction the peace of the body, therefore the peace of the soul, this links the hedonism of Epicurus to a wisdom of renouncement.

On the other hand, the Roman Epicureanism of Lucretius turns its back on the Greek formula. We are unaware of the biography of this Roman philosopher. We can barely affirm that he was a knight during the first year of the Common Era, but from his work we can deduce that his body was one of great health. Lucretius does not wish to define ataraxia as solely the satisfaction of necessary and natural desires; he wishes that all desires be satisfied if they are not repaid by a greater displeasure.

Where Epicurus thinks that quenching thirst and hunger is done with water and a bit of bread, Lucretius does not exclude what constituted the basic menu of the Herculaneum Epicureans whose Villa was found decorated with philosophically edifying works of art: sardines fished in the Mediterranean, olive oil produced with fruits from the garden, fish marinated with citrus from the orchard, butter, milk, cream and eggs from the farm animals, lamb’s meat grilled with the vine from which they would make fresh wine, bread made with the wheat from the surrounding fields. Roman Epicureanism–which was more practical, more empirical, livelier than Greek Epicureanism–appeared to me in my youth as an ontological Mediterranean sun.

The founder’s Greek Formula forbids (1) sexuality: for Epicurus, the libido is inscribed in the logic of natural desires, common to both humans and animals, but is unnecessary. Unncessary, for not satisfying sexual desire does not impede upon the life of the individual being and does not prevent the being from persevering in his being. We appreciate the pro domo advocacy from Epicurus, for whom sexual vitality should not be more powerful than non-sexual vitality. At 17 years old, when we have neither Epicurus’ modest body nor his modest health, Lucretius appears more satisfying.

On the Nature of Things does not forbid sexuality, unless its practice must be repaid by inconveniences that disturb the sage’s wisdom. Therefore, there isn’t a deontological posturing from Lucretius (a common characteristic of Roman thought), but rather a consequentialist affirmation (a character trait from Roman thought): if sexual desire troubles the soul, one should satisfy the desire; if this enjoyment is repaid by a displeasure, one must renounce it; if, on the contrary, the trouble of the desire resolves itself through pleasure, then we simply give free rein to our desire. Lucretius affirms that we are sexual beings, that sexuality is neither good nor bad, that her exercise need not produce disagreements that impede the sage from exercising his discipline. The Roman philosopher imagines a concrete life with a concrete sexuality for the concrete man where the Greek sanctity of Epicurus places its ethics on summits unattainable to the sage unless he renounces the world … to truly live as an ectoplasm (1).

What I did not see at the time when I first read Lucretius is the consolatory philosophical role he gives to science.  It’s only today that I understand it.  The Epicureans do not concern themselves with useless knowledge in order to lead a philosophical life. No taste for idle speculations, pure theory, intellectual rhetoric, disembodied speculation: they think in order to produce the happy life.  Science herself is no exception to this logic: the atomic theory, physics, the knowledge taught in the letters to Pythocles and Herodotus, aim for nothing more than pacifying doubts, crushing fear, and evaporating anxiety.

During my discovery of Epicurus, I was saddened to learn that only 3 letters remain, of which only one was devoted to ethics. The university only ever teaches the history of philosophy, but never the history of the history of philosophy. No one said that we owe the increasing scarcity of Epicurus’ complete work–who, according to Diogenes Laertius, had written more than 300 books–to the Judeo-Christian fury, which declared the ancient materialism null and void.

Walking the walk and talking the talk (joignant le geste et la parole), the Christians had succeeded in what Plato had dreamed: a great metaphorical inferno for works incompatible with idealist, spiritualist, and religious fictions. Hundreds of thousands of sheep were slaughtered to tan the skins on which were recorded the texts of the Christian sect, and atomistic thought was scraped; its leathers became scrolls for the plethora of gospels, or were erased, neglected, vilified, forgotten, insulted, caricatured, despised. Three unfortunate letters have survived this barbarous massacre from the followers of the love of neighbor.

These three letters, by chance, were summaries of the complete work for the disciples: dense and clear compendiums of what to remember, to teach to practice Epicurism. The Letters to Herodotus and Pythocles distressed me: what good are all these considerations on sounds, bodies, emptiness, arrangements, simulacra, perception, vision, celestial phenomena? And what of these claims that “nothing comes from nothing”, that “the universe is infinite”, or that teach the eternity of movement and other detailed considerations on the forms of the worlds, or that teach of the inifity of the worlds, of the true nature of eclipses, of meteors, of the movements and lights of the stars, of the variation in the duration of day and night, meteorology, light, thunder, lightning bolts, cyclones, tornados, earthquakes, hail, snow, dew, ice, the rainbow, the halo around the moon, the comets, stars that turn around one spot, those that wander in space–the shooting stars?

Impatient, I wanted existential recipes here and now, practical and practicable wisdoms, life skills, some concrete spiritual exercises. But I had not seen that a more careful reading of Epicurus would have dissipated my first movement: the materialistic physics lays out a concrete ontology, and forbids the foolishness of a metaphysics apart from physics. In other words, Epicurus forbids a religion that hides its name (2) and talks to us about essences, concepts, ideas to better bring us back or lead us to God, and (he forbids) the worlds of servitude that this legitimates, explains, excuses, and justifies.

Epicurus writes that scientific knowledge exempts us from subscribing to irrational cruelty. To advance knowledge is to contribute to the decline of the misunderstandings with which the legends, the fictions, the fables with which religion is nourished are formed. If we know that, in the sky, there is only matter, multiple atoms; if we discover that the gods are material and that, free of troubles, experiencing ataraxia, they function as models of practical wisdom, then we empty the sky of the gods of faith and theology, we stop submitting to false powers invested with false authority over men.

Science worthy of its name–the grammar suggests that it is a transcendental Epicureanism–undermines religion, when understood as superstition, that is: a belief in false gods. The only true gods are material and their divinity resides in their subtle constitution and singular arrangements. In the letter to Pythocles, after having spoken about lightning and its impact–once considered sacred because it had been designated by the gods to send messages to humans–Epicurus gives his version (of what it is). The atomist philosopher summons materialistic explanations: gatherings of swirling winds, conflations, the rupture of a part of their mass, their violent fall, the density and the compression of the clouds, the dynamics of the fire, the interaction between the celestial movements and the geology of the mountains. Then he concludes his concrete analysis of concrete phenomena: “Let only myth be excluded!”

“Let only myth be excluded!” This is the categorical imperative of what I call a transcendental Epicureanism. I am not usually a supporter of the transcendental, because the word is often used as ontological “loincloth” for the sacred, for the divine, for the immaterial, for the religious! I retain from this word the meaning which Littré attributes to it: “that which relies on data superior to sensible impression and observation” (3). In other words, there was a historical Epicureanism, dated, inscribed in dates, with philosophers, works, names, and books. The disciples of Epicurus found the word and the meaning.

Let us start from the diversity of Epicureanism: that of the contemporaries of the founder, and of the others who came later, such as Diogenes of Oenanda–from the 4th / 3rd century BCE to the 3rd century AD. Let us note that there was more than half a millennia of Epicurean philosophy in Greece, in Rome or Herculaneum, and elsewhere in Asia Minor. Some adherents were contemporaries of the decadent Athenian city, others of the conquering Roman Empire. Let us conclude that, notwithstanding the differences, there is a powerful constitutive force of Epicureanism, an energy that will, moreover, subtly nourish the current of intellectual resistance to Christianity.

I call transcendental Epicureanism this force which crystallizes around a certain number of untimely and unrealistic theses. The world is knowable; knowledge is the architect of happiness; happiness supposes the emancipation from all mythologies; mythologies are the only antidote to monistic materialism; monistic materialism fights religions; religions thrive on ascetic ideals; the ascetic ideal invites one to die in the world in his lifetime; to die in the world while alive is worse than truly dying one day; one must prepare to truly die one day; this preparation supposes philosophy–which is true knowledge of the true world, and recusal of fables and fictions. Da capo (4).

This transcendental Epicureanism now assumes that philosophy, so often lost in the worship of the pure verb, revives the Epicurean tradition of taste for science. Admittedly, science has become complex, specialized, fragmented, difficult to understand for a non-specialist. Rarely can a man anymore–like Descartes–be both a brilliant philosopher and also an inventor who leaves his name in the history of science. But the impossibility of knowing everything about the science of one’s time does not prevent us from knowing enough to stop saying nonsense about the world in general or about a particular subject.

The central questions in droves of considerations by contemporary philosophers–on bioethics, global warming, genetic engineering, natural gas, transgenesis, genetically modified organisms, patentability of life, biodiversity, cloning, the greenhouse effect–often come from the deontologist discourse. This resorts to the methodology of fear, which is dear to Hans Jonas, since it requires tapping into healthy reason. Magical thinking often feeds the rhetoric of catastrophism, which allows for a disconnected discourse of science. Ignorance of what science permits leads to a theoretical delusion that thinks more about science fiction than about science without fiction.

Materialists and atomists, Democritus and Epicurus thought from the information provided by their empirical intelligence. The ray of light in which suspended particles dance gives the intuitive impulse to a concrete physics that leads to an ethics free of deities. A transcendental Epicureanism requires use of the information that science can provide to avoid delirium purely and simply. In this configuration of timeless Epicureanism, the transcendental proves to be a remedy for transcendence.

Let’s ask astrophysics to provide an ontology that can illustrate what transcendental Epicureanism could be—in preparation for an ethics of ataraxia. We would discover that the atomistic intuitions of twenty-five centuries ago are globally corroborated by recent scientific discoveries in the field–whereas for the past two thousand years, science has never confirmed a single Christian hypothesis, and has furthermore invalidated them all: geology downgrades the Christian thesis of the world’s age, as astronomy does with geo-centrism, psychology challenges the thesis on free will, Darwinian naturalism dismantles the thesis of the divine origin of man, astrophysics that of the creationist origin of the world, etc.

On the other hand, the contemporary sciences validate many epicurean intuitions: the monism of matter; (when) reduced (to their minimal components), things are made up of pure and simple material combinations; the eternity of matter; the temporality of its arrangements; the inexistence of a void in a configuration where nothing is created from nothing, and nothing disappears into nothing; the alternating dynamic of decomposition and recomposition; the particle as a primordial element present in all existing things; the infinity of the universe, therefore of space; the existence of a plurality of worlds; the perishable character of our universe, which has come into being, is and will disappear; the ordering of the cosmos in reducible order to a mathematical formulation and to the laws of nature–all without a God or Creator.

Here is what we know about the cosmos as told by Jean-Pierre Luminet (henceforward, JPL), whose hypothesis of a crumpled universe seduces me. JPL is an astrophysicist, certainly, but also a music lover, musician, poet, writer, novelist, cartoonist, to whom must be added pedagogue, lecturer, professor, researcher. He resembles those men of the Renaissance who are by no means impressed by the universal, and who idly travel in all the intellectual worlds seemingly detached while unveiling all that is. JPL operates at the level of the big leagues, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Einstein, but our era does not like its geniuses.

JPL quotes the philosophers, certainly. He knows well the philosophy of science, and happily moves in all the worlds: from the poetic cosmological thought of the Presocratic ones, to the hardest physics of the contemporary researchers while passing by the classics, from Plato to Leibniz, from Nicolas de Cues to Giordano Bruno, from Copernicus to Typhoon Brahe, from Einstein to Riemann, from Gauss to Lobatchevski, but he manifests a particular fondness for the atomist of Abdera (Democritus), Epicurus and Lucretius, and their brilliant intuitions.

In the field of astronomy, the last thirty years have brought more than the last three millennia. Specialization of observation equipment brought about the advent of new concepts. Hence the astonishment to find that the finest apex of discoveries coincides with the empirical hypotheses of the materialists who, watching the dance of dust in a ray of light, construct a world, a universe, a cosmology, an ontology always from the point of view of foundations.

If the philosopher deduces the nature of reality from a few grains of dust, the astrophysicist specifies things. Originally, the universe is a compound of gas and plain dust floating between empty space and stars. There is no sun yet. In this nebula are all the atoms discovered by the materialists: which constitute the planets of the solar system, the earth and all that is on the earth, the human bodies–even myself, who am writing this book and you, who are reading it–everything under your gaze at the moment you read, and when you lift the head from these pages, all this is a compound of atoms floating in the nebula that has engendered us. The monistic truth cannot be better said: from the flea to the planets, from the giant squid of the underwater world to the stars, from the woodworm dear to the philosophers for their demonstrations, to Darwin who expounds the law of evolution in the animal kingdom, from the blade of grass to the galaxy, everything comes from this protostellar nebula solicited by the explosion of a supernova, a very large star, whose shock-wave shakes the balance of the nebula that collapses on itself, and causes chain reactions, giving birth to the sun–this light that nourishes planet Earth.

The mass of gas turns on itself, it contracts, the rotation accelerates, the cloud flattens and takes the form of a disk that makes possible the accretion, in other words the conglomeration of small bodies to form bigger ones until, from tiny dust, come the planets, including the earth, then man … the effects of gravity affect this movement of collapse of the Star on itself. For millions of years, these movements of accretions multiply.

Could not we find a scientific, physical, astrophysical formulation of what Epicureans call the clinamen? When Lucretius explains that everything is composed of atoms, to then explain that we went from a multitude of atoms that fell in the void, to the composite bodies (we have now), he resorts to this scientific hypothesis which proves to be an excellent scientific intuition: the poetic postulate of the swerve (clinamen): the declivity of an atom which encounters another which makes the aggregation of what is possible, this poetic postulate, therefore becomes a refined scientific formulation under the pen of the astrophysicists.

The sun that makes life possible on earth therefore has a date of birth: before it the universe was, after it the universe will be. When the latter happened, the universe was already 9 billion years old; its time is running out, it will last another 5 billion years. Before it, man was a potentiality without consciousness to think it; after it, man will not even be a memory, since no consciousness will be there to carry its memory. Man will have undergone an event in a huge atomic conflagration. But this event is believed to be everything and the center of everything, while it is buried in what is, in the same way as we see in stones and glaciers, volcanoes and storms, halo and rainbows.

To remain local and modest to our universe, JPL claims that it is finite but boundless, creating an oxymoron, since the end assumes the limit, limits an end, and that one cannot be finite and limitless. (He is referring to) a three-dimensional Euclidean space, of course, because, in this configuration, our conceptual and mental habits force us into a certain type of representation. But in a non-Euclidean space, the oxymoron disappears in favor of a new mental figure which allows, for example, if one is in a cube, to go out through the ceiling and thus to enter (another cube) through the floor.

This change in spatial paradigm makes it possible to solve a number of problems, including that of the shape of the universe. JPL says it is crumpled. In other words, much smaller than we imagine, and refracted by a device that makes us take for greater that it is. The real, at least what appears to us as such, is an immense combination of fictions, in this case optical illusions, topological mirages, ghosts. Lucretius held for an infinite universe because he wondered what would become of a javelin launched towards the finite at the moment when it would reach the limits of the universe: would it stop? Break against potential walls? But behind these walls of a finite world, what exists? And how do we name what would exist after the limit of the finite? Non-Euclidean geometry makes it possible to solve the problem: Lucretius’ javelin thrown towards the infinite would go infinitely into this finite but limitless universe: perpetual motion, eternity by the stars.

JPL explains that what we observe deceives us: different ages seem to us like the same time. The fossil radiation of the universe assumes that all our information about it is given by the light that reaches our gaze distorted by the force that structures the universe. Light does not move except by gravitation. So the straight line is not the shortest way. Gravitation digs an abyss of forces, which become the course of light and make it write singular partitions: many lights, divided in time stages over millions of years, reach the observer at once. The multiplicity of light-times merges into a single observation time. So that we think that the same thing at different stages is multiple things, as if we were taking a character we see in ten thousand pictures from their conception to their death, and imagining him as different individuals. These gravitational mirages show that vastness is not so vast, as much as one might think it is after seeing it.

JPL takes the example of a space whose interior would be lined with mirrors that would reflect a single candle: we would see as much as the refractions would allow, and yet it would be only the flame of a single candle as many times duplicated as there are mirrors. Real space is much smaller than the observed space. This universe is crumpled: a kind of mirror game enlarges a small representation. Our universe is a baroque theater.

This world is small, but there are many of them, and astrophysics speak of the multiverse. Our universe would have detached itself from the quantum vacuum to obey its own temporal clock and its singular spatial geometry while the multiverse would live outside space and time by aggregating universes incessantly in formation with their times and their spaces. This is totally novel and absolutely inconceivable for a brain formatted in our space-time.

Epicureans believed in multiple worlds and material gods between the worlds. Totally devoid of human form, of human feelings, their subtle atoms would embody a model of ataraxia which Epicurus called to imitate: the ataraxia of the sage was therefore shaped by the gods of the cosmos. The gods were anthropomorphic neither in form nor in substance, just ideal forms that could be activated as models of wisdom, which was reduced to pure pleasure of existence. (5)

But the intermundia are validated by astrophysics: they are black holes that are defined as a force of such gravity that it absorbs everything that comes within reach, it ingests and digests material, even light. Time dilates, matter decomposes and is absorbed, light rays deviate. The boundaries that delimit black holes are called “event horizons” because we cannot observe anything beyond them. There is no interior and exterior, no space and time, and all is reversed. Near this horizon, space turns like a glove. It is distortion of space-time.

Some say that the bottom of the rotating black hole is not a dead-end and that there are “worm holes”, which are kinds of tunnels that corresponding with other universes. We can also imagine “white fountains” that would be the opposite of black holes, which would not absorb but would spout matter engulfed by black holes. The bigbang would then be a huge white fountain perhaps connected to another universe that would have dumped some of its matter in our own universe. That’s how we are here.

The Epicurean atoms of the protostellar nebula, the clinamen as a poetic intuition of the astrophysical phenomenon of accretion, the Lucretian javelin launched towards the infinite which discovers its trajectory drawn by the astrophysics of JPL, the plurality of Epicurean worlds validated by the multiverse of the discoverers: here is evidence that a contemporary transcendental Epicureanism is possible or conceivable, and that physics–in this case astrophysics–is an introductory course to ethics.

Obviously, we see that the Judeo-Christian sky filled with angelic trinkets, paradisiacal fiction for glorious bodies, is outclassed by the assumptions of astrophysical science. This field of science claims its modesty: we know almost nothing about the universe and the cosmos. But what we are beginning to know forces us to revisit our conceptions of freedom, free will, choice, responsibility. Anyone who can reason understands that we are fruits of nature.

But we are also fruits of the cosmos, and this is much less evident to the mortals who often ignore the discoveries of the most recent astrophysics. The latest work on Higgs’ boson–which was finally discovered–should compel the latter-day theologians to surrender arms and instead consider retraining in ontology, provided it is materialistic. The heavenly Judeo-Christian hodgepodge, even when we no longer believe it literally, left traces in the soul shaped by more than a thousand years of ideology.

Magical thinking still exists in millions of human brains: from creationists to New Age shamans, from neo-Buddhists to Muslim theists, from custom-made monotheists from planetary megacities to spiritualism, from the anthroposophy of the proponents of biodynamic agriculture, devotees of Shinto spiritual creatures who invoke the gods of the lawn before carving them, from supporters of many sects–like the Raelians–who think that only the cloned will be saved and admitted into the spaceship that will ensure salvation to vodouisants and other African-American cults, there is no shortage of supporters of the supernatural recycled in religion after religion.

A materialistic ontology leans on this transcendental Epicureanism which recalls the link between man and nature, certainly, but also between man and the little we know of the cosmos. Let’s tap into our ability to enjoy the spectacle of this immensity, which presupposes the sublime: the sublime is the path of materialistic, atomistic, atheistic access to the oceanic feeling that brought the body back into the configuration that existed before the Judeo-Christian separation (from nature). The lessons given by the sublime activate in the being a force that was neglected, despised, vilified, hunted down by monotheisms. Renewing the search for it according to hedonistic logic, allows a post-Christian ethics in which transcendental Epicureanism plays a significant role.

Notes:

1. Here, Onfray seems to make Epicurus seem more austere than he was. Most contemporary Epicureans would not accept the view that Epicurus forbids sexuality. In the sources (See Vatican Saying 51), he merely warns about the potential dangers of sexuality to be mindful of.

2. When referring to a “religion that hides its name”, Onfray perhaps refers here to Christianity as nothing more than Platonism.

3. In other words, by setting “Let only myth be excluded!” as the only non-empirical source in his epistemology, Epicurus set a new, scientific boundary for ultimate, transcendental reality, one which supplies us with many of the same cosmological underpinnings that people find in religion.

4. “Da capo” means “from the beginning”; that is, “and back to the beginning”.

5. Here, it sounds like Onfray is combining the realist and idealist interpretations of the Epicurean gods.

Further reading:

Cosmos (in French) by Michel Onfray

The Evolution of Law in Epicurus and Nietzsche

I recently had the pleasure of reading the highly-recommended book by Nietzsche, The Antichrist. Many of its paragraphs merely served to add depth and detail to some of the things I had previously come to understand from reading his notes in Will to Power and other sources, like Zarathustra. Other paragraphs offered new insights either because of the way in which they were passionately and emphatically stated, or by virtue of their content. Paragraph 57 is one of the latter cases and caught my eye because usually, when Nietzsche discusses the origins of laws and mores, he employs a cynical tone and seeks the ulterior motives of the proponents. Here, he takes on the anthropologist’s tone that we find in Lucretius and Epicurus, and it might be interesting to compare how he views the primitive origins of moral and legal codes versus how the Epicureans viewed them.

In Nietzsche, the time when the laws are written down indicates a time when rules and contracts are standardized and experimentation is no longer encouraged as a result of certain legal precedents and practices becoming solidified in tradition. There are conservative and liberal interpretations of this process: to some–who are privileged by the existing laws–this creates a mythical “golden era” during which the population developed the best means to rule itself. To others, this imposes limits on how creative legislators allow themselves to be in adapting the legal code to new circumstances and keeping it relevant. Nietzsche, who is a staunch defendant of a type of aristocracy, supports the first interpretation, but nonetheless sympathizes with the second one.

A book of laws such as the Code of Manu has the same origin as every other good law-book: it epitomizes the experience, the sagacity and the ethical experimentation of long centuries; it brings things to a conclusion; it no longer creates. The prerequisite to a codification of this sort is recognition of the fact that the means which establish the authority of a slowly and painfully attained truth are fundamentally different from those which one would make use of to prove it.

A law-book never recites the utility, the grounds, the casuistical antecedents of a law: for if it did so it would lose the imperative tone, the “thou shall,” on which obedience is based. The problem lies exactly here.—At a certain point in the evolution of a people, the class within it of the greatest insight, which is to say, the greatest hindsight and foresight, declares that the series of experiences determining how all shall live—or can live—has come to an end. The object now is to reap as rich and as complete a harvest as possible from the days of experiment and hard experience.

So the creation of a code of laws is an act of power by which the law-givers say: these matters are no longer up for discussion. Nietzsche then explains how the ruling classes, having decided that the era of legal experimentation is over, create what Marx would have called “the superstructure”, the over-arching set of narratives that the ruling classes use to preserve their power.

In consequence, the thing that is to be avoided above everything is further experimentation—the continuation of the state in which values are fluent, and are tested, chosen and criticized ad infinitum. Against this a double wall is set up: on the one hand, revelation, which is the assumption that the reasons lying behind the laws are not of human origin, that they were not sought out and found by a slow process and after many errors, but that they are of divine ancestry, and came into being complete, perfect, without a history, as a free gift, a miracle…; and on the other hand, tradition, which is the assumption that the law has stood unchanged from time immemorial, and that it is impious and a crime against one’s forefathers to bring it into question.

The authority of the law is thus grounded on the thesis: God gave it, and the fathers lived it.—The higher motive of such procedure lies in the design to distract consciousness, step by step, from its concern with notions of right living (that is to say, those that have been proved to be right by wide and carefully considered experience), so that instinct attains to a perfect automatism—a primary necessity to every sort of mastery, to every sort of perfection in the art of life.

To draw up such a law-book as Manu’s means to lay before a people the possibility of future mastery, of attainable perfection—it permits them to aspire to the highest reaches of the art of life. To that end the thing must be made unconscious: that is the aim of every holy lie … – Nietzsche, The Antichrist

He then goes on to justify the caste system, which does not concern us for the purposes of this essay. I mainly wish to note that, against the conservative analysis we find in Nietzsche–who seeks to remind us of the original advantages that certified the ancient laws–we can posit the case for adaptability, progress and evolution of the legal code according to mutual advantage in the ancient Epicureans–who advocate for a fluid legal system that allows for perpetual processes of experimentation and adaptation.

Among the things held to be just by law, whatever is proved to be of advantage in men’s dealings has the stamp of justice, whether or not it be the same for all; but if a man makes a law and it does not prove to be mutually advantageous, then this is no longer just. And if what is mutually advantageous varies and only for a time corresponds to our concept of justice, nevertheless for that time it is just for those who do not trouble themselves about empty words, but look simply at the facts.

Where without any change in circumstances the things held to be just by law are seen not to correspond with the concept of justice in actual practice, such laws are not really just; but wherever the laws have ceased to be advantageous because of a change in circumstances, in that case the laws were for that time just when they were advantageous for the mutual dealings of the citizens, and subsequently ceased to be just when they were no longer advantageous.

Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines 37-38

Notice that, first and foremost, it is clear that men create the laws and that men have, at any point, the power to change them. Epicureans never allow for a “holy lie” to even plant its roots in the soil of philosophy. While Epicurean doctrines seem to allow for an aristocratic code (things of advantage may or may not be “the same for all”), we also find in the Epicurean sources a lack of emphasis on the priorities of the ruling class, and instead an egalitarian, anarchic, and–most importantly–pragmatic focus on mutual benefit.

In Book 5 of On the Nature of Things, Lucretius mentions how “neighbors began to form mutual alliances, wishing neither to do nor to suffer violence among themselves“, echoing again the indication that Epicureans believed contractarianism to be the earliest type of law.

Dialogue on the Extent to Which the Declaration of Independence is Consistent With Epicurean Philosophy

The following is an edited dialogue that took place on our Epicurean Friends forum.

Cassius. This is to pose a series of questions about one of the most famous passages of the American “Declaration of Independence.” As discussion develops on one or more of these in particular we can split the discussion into separate threads, but to start here is a list of questions:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

What do we know about whether this paragraph was written entirely by Thomas Jefferson, or contains modifications from others?

Hiram. According to this source,

Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?

Although we know Thomas Jefferson as the true author, the Second Continental Congress initially appointed five people to draw up a declaration. The committee included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was then given the task of writing a draft for the Declaration of Independence, which from June 11 to June 28 he worked on. Before he presented the Declaration to the Continental Congress, he showed it to John Adams and Benjamin Franklin; they made revisions. He presented the draft to Congress on July 1, 1776 and more revisions were made. On the fourth of July the delegates met in what we know today as Independence Hall, but back then was known as the Pennsylvania State House, and approved the Declaration. John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress signed the declaration along with Charles Thomson and it was sent to John Dunlap’s print shop for printing.

So it seems like this was a process not too different from how we have co-written together the narratives for videos on YouTube and some of our dialogues. Jefferson wrote it with feedback from four other men who were, presumably, steeped in the political philosophy of the day (Locke, Rousseau, and others).

Cassius. Yes that is exactly what would need to be analyzed in order to determine how much of the final result came about through Epicurean thinking, and how much was diluted/mutated by Christian or other ideas.

I am not aware that copies of the initial draft survive, but as we proceed with this investigation, if anyone has more detail on who added what, and when, that would be great.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Would an Epicurean agree that what follows in the paragraph after the first phrase are “self-evident?” What does “self-evident” mean?

Would an Epicurean agree that “all men are created equal.” It is absolutely clear that all men are NOT created equal in every respect (health, sex, race, capabilities, preferences, etc.) It is also clear to an Epicurean that men are not “created” if that term implies a supernatural god. In what respect, if any, would an Epicurean say that “all men are created equal.”

What does it mean to say “endowed by their Creator?” Would an Epicurean use this phrasing? If so, what would an Epicurean mean by “their Creator?”

What are “inalienable rights”? What is a “right”? How is a right “inalienable”?” It seems clear that this cannot be read superficially, as much of what we think of as “rights” are certainly taken from people all the time and thus are not “inalienable.” In what way, if any, can this phrase be reconciled with Epicurean philosophy?

What does the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” mean in Epicurean terms?

Hiram. I don’t think they are self-evident, or that Epicurus would agree that men were created (as there is no creator).

We know today that men evolved through natural selection, and that nature did not have an intention of creating men or any other particular species. Natural selection follows the path of least resistance, of greatest opportunity / advantage, if and when / insofar as species are able to adapt to their environment.

The document was written in the context of setting the grounds / seeds for a new country with a new law and a new constitutional framework. An Epicurean would consider these matters in terms of mutual benefit / mutual advantage. Within this context, I think “self-evident” implies that these are matters beyond reproach and that are not up for negotiation, that they constitute the minimum standard by which they were willing to found a new country and a new law, that the social contract would have to abide by these principles.

Men are not ‘created’. If we understand nature, metaphorically, as Creatrix, then we may concede this, but there is WAY too much religious baggage here to accept it in my view.

We are endowed by nature with certain instincts and faculties and tendencies, and (a very strong case can be made) with a sense of morality and justice, but not with rights, inalienable or not.

Rights are born from the laws or rules we create to facilitate co-existence. The only way in which we could say that they come from “the Creator” or “Nature” is if we ourselves are understood to be co-creators or part of nature, and you could make that case, but it’s best to speak clearly, and the original language seems to indicate a Creator in the deist sense, which is an error.

“Life, liberty, pursuit of happiness” – I want to go back to the idea of negotiating a new social contract for a new country, if I was Thomas Jefferson and if I had to negotiate the terms under which I, as an Epicurean, wanted to or was forced to co-exist with others OF RELIGIOUS CONVICTION, these ideas would definitely belong there. I would not care if others believe that these “inalienable rights” come from “the Creator” if, for the sake of mutual benefit, these rules are agreeable to me and others, even if I’d rather not word these principles as inalienable rights coming from a Creator.

In other words, this is a Charter for religious and non-religious people of various convictions and faiths to co-exist, and what pass for “inalienable rights” are acceptable to a non-religious person.

Life is safety; liberty is autarchy; and pursuit of happiness is self-explanatory and a natural extension of liberty; these are natural pleasures, and necessary to happiness and life in Epicurean terms.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Cassius. This passage is perhaps easiest to reconcile given the Principle Doctrines on “justice.” How could we elaborate on this in Epicurean terms as to the meaning of “just powers” and “consent of the governed?

Hiram. As for “just powers”, PD 37 speaks of them in terms of mutual advantage, and these powers may change and evolve and apply differently in different situations and to different people:

Among the things held to be just by law, whatever is proved to be of advantage in men’s dealings has the stamp of justice, whether or not it be the same for all; but if a man makes a law and it does not prove to be mutually advantageous, then this is no longer just. And if what is mutually advantageous varies and only for a time corresponds to our concept of justice, nevertheless for that time it is just for those who do not trouble themselves about empty words, but look simply at the facts.

Concrete examples in our own constitutional framework is how states have their rights and their form of sovereignty, versus how the federal government has its own rights and form of sovereignty and its own jurisdiction, versus how the different Indian Nations and Reservations have their own rights and forms of sovereignty, their own schools, police, etc. all according to mutual benefit.

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Cassius. Again, this passage seems directly supported by the Principle Doctrines on justice. How would an Epicurean elaborate on the meaning of this passage?

Hiram. This is an application of PD 37-38:

Where without any change in circumstances the things held to be just by law are seen not to correspond with the concept of justice in actual practice, such laws are not really just; but wherever the laws have ceased to be advantageous because of a change in circumstances, in that case the laws were for that time just when they were advantageous for the mutual dealings of the citizens, and subsequently ceased to be just when they were no longer advantageous.

The Declaration only mentions “safety and happiness”, which is a good start, but in the Letter to Menoeceus we find mention among the things that are needful and natural also of health of the body and tranquility of mind, of avoiding bodily uneasiness (threats, plagues, exploitation or slavery), which seems to imply that an Epicurean system of government would also be invested in public health, including mental health:

And of the necessary desires some are necessary if we are to be happy, some if the body is to be rid of uneasiness, some if we are even to live. He who has a clear and certain understanding of these things will direct every preference and aversion toward securing health of body and tranquillity of mind, seeing that this is the sum and end of a blessed life.

Are there any other Jefferson sources that may illuminate some of these questions?

Cassius. I especially think that this observation is of huge significance, and once we understand that our entire perspective on justice changes. It’s from Thomas Jefferson’s Epistle to James Madison, sent from Paris on Sept. 6, 1789:

I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self evident, “that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living;” that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. The portion occupied by an individual ceases to be his when himself ceases to be, and reverts to the society. If the society has formed no rules for the appropriation of its lands in severalty, it will be taken by the first occupants. These will generally be the wife and children of the decedent. If they have formed rules of appropriation, those rules may give it to the wife and children, or to some one of them, or to the legatee of the deceased. So they may give it to his creditor. But the child, the legatee or creditor takes it, not by any natural right, but by a law of the society of which they are members, and to which they are subject.

Hiram. So the key here is that rights are not “natural”, or “nature-given”, or “God-given”. They are created by the people who form the societies. And these rights and regulations can be changed by the people who form the societies.

“Please always remember my doctrines!” – Epicurus’ last words

 

 

 

 

A Concrete Self

The following is a portion of a book review of Why Buddhism is True, by Robert Wright.

I’ve tackled some of the problems related to the Buddhist doctrine of anatta–which posits that there is no self–in my review of Sam Harris’ Waking Up. Is the self a thing? Is it a mental function or a process? Depending on how we define the self, we may or may not find a self. In Why Buddhism is True, in order to prove that there is no-self, Wright limits discussion of the self to “the conscious self”, not the body, not the whole self, which reminds me of Cosma Raimondi’s argument about taking into consideration the whole of the human being. When the author speaks of the self as a “rational charioteer”–presumably meaning “conscious”?–, we are expected to accept that emotions or feelings are perceived as unconscious insofar as they are irrational, and that therefore there is no self, only nature acting as a puppeteer.

Another error in attempting to prove the doctrine of anatta goes back all the way to Siddhartha, the historical Buddha, and appears to be tied to the original Vedic and Hindu context. In the Bhagavad Gita and other Hindu scriptures, we find a defense of the idea of atman (the soul, in Sanskrit) as “the eternal aspect” of our self. This atman is sometimes described, interestingly, as an atomic particle. If Buddha could prove that there was nothing eternal in the sentient being, he could refute the doctrine of atman with a doctrine of anatta (no-self, in Pali). But what if the self, like all else, was real, just temporary? Why does the temporary conglomeration of certain conditions imply non-existence or non-reality? This does not follow, and so the arguments for the doctrine of anatta were, from the onset, flawed, because there is no atman to speak of in the first place. Selfhood does not need to be eternal in order to exist and be experienced as real by sentient beings. If the doctrine of anatta is reinterpreted to say that the self does not exist as_we_imagine_it_to_exist, then there is much more merit to the doctrine.

Now, in nature we see that even seemingly stable things like stones and mountains undergo geological processes over the aeons. We see that the trees can not exist without seeds sprouting, without solar light, without water, soil, and other elements, and that all things inter-exist. We see that, like all animals, we have millions of micro-organisms in our bellies without which we would not be able to properly digest our food: nothing exists in a vacuum. We are constantly exchanging particles with the rest of nature via breathing, acting, and eating. This recycling of particles between all things is poetically detailed early in the first book of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, inferring from phenomena like how the sea is replenished by rains, rivers, and other sources of water, and concluding that–since “nothing comes from nothing”–all things must deteriorate into the primal “germs” (that is, particles) that will make up new things:

Whence may the water-springs, beneath the sea,
Or inland rivers, far and wide away,
Keep the unfathomable ocean full?

And out of what does Ether feed the stars?
For lapsed years and infinite age must else
Have eat all shapes of mortal stock away:
But be it the Long Ago contained those germs,
By which this sum of things recruited lives,
Those same infallibly can never die,
Nor nothing to nothing evermore return.

If all other things in nature exist as processes, ever-changing, why must a member of the homo sapiens species exist as a Platonic essence, an eternal soul, an abstraction, an idea? Why can’t the self also be a process, just like the body and embedded within it, ever-changing from birth to death? Why can’t there be a concrete self, rather than an abstract self? What if, rather than a noun (self), we started referring to a process of ever becoming, which would more aptly describe what we are referring to–and yet doesn’t deny its reality as a felt experience of the sentient being?

The reason why Buddhists have not found a self is because they are not LOOKING for a CONCRETE self. They are looking for an abstraction, a Platonic “essence”, a Hindu atman. I believe that, with the help of Epicurean and Lucretian descriptions, and drawing strictly from the study of nature, it is possible for contemporary materialists to posit a theory of self that is corporeal, scientific, satisfying, and dynamic, to counter the Buddhist, nihilist, and other theories out there.

For the sake of clarity, Epicurean philosophy finds itself in the realist camp of this discussion–our position is pragmatic: we argue that the reality of the self matters. Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the Buddhists are on the anti-realist side of the debate.

To my knowledge, at least one scientific theory of concrete self has been advanced, and it has some of the features of the Buddhist doctrine of the aggregates (here described as “five dimensions”). It posits that the self is multitudinous and multi-disciplinary. Şerife Tekin presented her theory in an Aeon essay titled Self-Evident:

According to this model, the self is a dynamic, complex, relational and multi-aspectual mechanism of capacities, processes, states and traits that support a degree of agency. The multitudinous self has five distinct but functionally complementary dimensions: ecological, intersubjective, conceptual, private, and temporally extended. These dimensions work together to connect the individual to her body, her social world, her psychological world, and her environment.

Notice that Tekin mentions the feature of agency. Agency, or the ability to act over matter, is one of the attributes that proves the existence of a self Epicurean writings: a void can only be acted upon and has no agency. In other words, agency implies corporeal existence. In the Letter to Herotodus, Epicurus argues that the soul is made up of atoms, that it exists fully embedded into the body and provides it with sentience. As proof that it is corporeal, Epicurus cites how–unlike empty space–it can act and be acted upon.

There is the further point to be considered, what the incorporeal can be, if, I mean, according to current usage the term is applied to what can be conceived as self-existent. But it is impossible to conceive anything that is incorporeal as self-existent except empty space. And empty space cannot itself either act or be acted upon, but simply allows body to move through it. Hence those who call soul incorporeal speak foolishly. For if it were so, it could neither act nor be acted upon. But, as it is, both these properties, you see, plainly belong to soul.

What else does Epicurean tradition have to say regarding the concrete soul? In the Letter to Herodotus, Epicurus argues:

Next, keeping in view our perceptions and feelings (for so shall we have the surest grounds for belief), we must recognize generally that the soul is a corporeal thing, composed of fine particles, dispersed all over the frame … Still, it would not have had sensation, had it not been somehow confined within the rest of the frame.

Epicurus believed that the “soul” particles were finer or more subtle than other particles in the body. Contemporary science, instead, gives us the neurological system which, like the Epicurean soul, is entirely embedded into the body. It runs through the nervous system and is concentrated in two main organs: the brain, and the stomach–which contains enough neurons to be about the size of the brain of a small dog or cat. The Letter to Herodotus says that it is the soul that gives the body sentience.

But the rest of the frame, though it provides this indispensable conditions for the soul, itself also has a share, derived from the soul, of the said quality; and yet does not possess all the qualities of soul. Hence on the departure of the soul it loses sentience. For it had not this power in itself; but something else, congenital with the body, supplied it to body: which other thing, through the potentiality actualized in it by means of motion, at once acquired for itself a quality of sentience, and, in virtue of the neighborhood and interconnection between them, imparted it (as I said) to the body also.

Hence, so long as the soul is in the body, it never loses sentience through the removal of some other part. The containing sheaths may be dislocated in whole or in part, and portions of the soul may thereby be lost; yet in spite of this the soul, if it manage to survive, will have sentience. But the rest of the frame, whether the whole of it survives or only a part, no longer has sensation, when once those atoms have departed, which, however few in number, are required to constitute the nature of soul.

That the soul is corporeal and mortal, and leaves the body at the moment of death, is also argued by Lucretius in De Rerum Natura. There are other materialist theories of self that do not contradict, but in fact may add support to, the theories here presented. In a previous essay, I echoed a materialist conception of identity based on habitual behavior, which not only recognizes the concrete and changing self, but allows for the possibility of cultivation or sculpting of an ethically better self, that is, moral development–a subject that is very in tune with natural philosophy:

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” –Will Durant

To the extent that habitual behavior is unconscious or subconscious, it can be said to be a crystallized–even if capable of change or evolution–part of the self. This is a different way of thinking about identity, and yet it does not contradict Tekin’s model.

FEELINGS AS ARBITERS OF THOUGHT

In Why Buddhism is True, feelings are explained as **the** value-setting faculty. The author is really a champion of the primacy of feelings over reason in human behavior, arguing that the cognitive and effective / emotional functions are very intertwined. This is the premise behind Epicurean cognitive therapy: that reason and feeling can coach each other.

Feelings are, among other things, your brain’s way of labeling the importance of thoughts, and importance (in natural selection’s somewhat crude sense of the term) determines which thoughts enter consciousness. – Why Buddhism is True (p. 119)

Feelings tell us what to think about, and after all the thinking is done, they tell us what to do. – Why Buddhism is True (p. 124)

Read the rest of the review here.

Society of Friends of Epicurus (SoFE) Journal Volume 12 – 2017-18

Hiram Crespo
Michel Onfray and the Counter-History of Philosophy
June 2, 2017

Hiram Crespo
The Counter-History of Aromas
June 7, 2017

Hiram Crespo
Review of “De l’inhumanité de la religion”
June 26, 2017

Hiram Crespo
In Memory of Horace: Carpe Diem
July 2, 2017

Friends of Epicurus
“For There ARE Gods …”
July 6, 2017

Christos Yapijakis
Re-Hellenization in Light of Epicurean Philosophy: Way of Thinking
July 27, 2017

Hiram Crespo
Happy Herculaneum Day
Agosto 24, 2017

Hiram Crespo
Reasonings on Michel Onfray’s Hedonist Manifesto
December 17, 2017

Friends of Epicurus
Brief Dialogue on Duty and Ontology
January 7, 2018

George Kaplanis
Piety According to the Sources of Epicurean Philosophy
Agosto 24, 2018

Friends of Epicurus
Dialogue on Katastematic Pleasure
February 16, 2018

Hiram Crespo
On the Standard Interpretation of Static Pleasure
February 16, 2018

logo

On the Standard Interpretation of Static Pleasure

The following is based on On Cicero and Errors In The Standard View of Katastematic Pleasure by Mathew Wenham, which inspired in part our Dialogue on Katastematic Pleasure. Please read the dialogue for full context.

Some Epicureans are questioning Cicero’s interpretation of Epicurus’ definition of pleasure found in On Ends, and have cited several key essays in articulating their arguments. The Wenham essay is among them.

STATIC PLEASURE HAS BOTH EXPERIENTIAL AND ATTITUDINAL COMPONENTS

The founders of the Epicurean school were adamant that words had to clearly correlate to the attestations presented to our faculties by nature, and had to be clearly defined as such prior to any investigation into truth. The first error in Wenham is this:

“katastematic pleasure in Epicurus has it referring to “static” states from which feeling is absent.”

Katastematic pleasures were defined as pleasures by Epicurus, and a pleasure is not a pleasure if feeling is absent. So we would be accepting a false premise if we were to admit Wenham’s definition, which he gets from Cicero.

when we examine aspects of Epicurus’ epistemology, it seems to demand that we attribute to him an account of pleasure that fits the experiential framework. – Wenham

Wenham makes, from the onset, a clear distinction and separation between the attitudinal and the experiential approaches, and presents and either/or view of them. Can this be a true dichotomy? Can there not be a both/and approach–which would be entirely consistent with Epicurean polyvalent logic?

He solves the controversy in favor of experience, and I agree 100 % that Epicurean ethics concerns itself primarily with the immediate experience of a sentient being.

The problem is that attitude (diathesis) is central in both Diogenes—where it’s said that we are in control of it, and so this is tied to freedom and its moral repercussions—and Philodemus, for therapeutic purposes, as it is one’s attitudes / diathesis that are being healed and reformed via cognitive therapy. This means that Epicurean philosophy can not furnish the moral revolution that it promises without an in depth study of diathesis and its account of how and by which methods diathesis–one’s attitude and character, sometimes translated as “disposition”–must be reformed. The “anatomy” of long-term pleasure and its relation to disposition is explored in Diogenes’ Wall:

Let us now [investigate] how life is to be made pleasant for us both in states and in actions.

Let us first discuss states, keeping an eye on the point that, when the emotions which disturb the soul are removed, those which produce pleasure enter into it to take their place.

Well, what are the disturbing emotions? [They are] fears —of the gods, of death, and of [pains]— and, besides [these], desires that [outrun] the limits fixed by nature. These are the roots of all evils, and, [unless] we cut them off, [a multitude] of evils will grow [upon] us.

It is clear that life is made pleasant not just by the removal of anxieties and false beliefs, but also by replacing them with true beliefs based on the study of nature. It follows from what Diogenes is saying, that once the right view is accepted and the cognitive perturbation is corrected, the new view leads to a feeling of pleasure. Philodemus reports Epicurus as saying this, in On Piety:

“… we all regard our views as the true cause of our tranquility.”

Although ataraxia (non-perturbation, here translated as tranquility) is a means to pleasure and not the end itself, when we study the anatomy of a pleasant life, it seems that the opinion, or judgment, or cognitive component that leads to ataraxia is a pre-cursor, maybe even a reason / justification for pleasant experience, but is distinct from the (katastematic) pleasant existential state itself in the Epicurean system. One of the documents alluded to in our Dialogue on Katastematic Pleasure, a chapter of the book The Greeks on Pleasure by Gosling & Taylor, explains that

joy (chara) and a sense of well-being (euphrosune) seem to correspond to ataraxia and aponia as positive counterparts.

By positive here it meant the feeling component, without which katastematic pleasure would not qualify as pleasure. According to Diogenes Laertius, Epicurus, in On Telos, says that ataraxia and aponia imply a state of rest (katastema), joy and delight a state of motion and activity (kinesis). It is clear that when Epicurus used the word katastema to refer to aponia (painlessness) and ataraxia (tranquility), he was referring to a pleasant feeling of well being, not a purely cognitive judgement.

KATASTEMATIC PLEASURE DEPLETED OF FEELING, ACCORDING TO CICERO

At the heart of the controversy that we have been discussing is the error–originally attributed to Cicero, but partially traceable back to Plato–where Cicero assumed that everyone agrees that pleasure is an active stimulus and not a stable state, ergo it is a motion towards replenishment (vitality). In the attitudinal theory, pleasure is an intentional state or attitude (belief, desire), and in the case of “katastematic” it’s purely cognitive (that is, void of feeling). This view can be traced back to Plato because he held that pleasure was partially cognitive.

Wenham argues that the standard interpretation does not agree with the Epicurean canon, which does not admit a cognitive component. Cognition helps in interpreting the signs presented by nature to our faculties, and the canon (or measure of truth) is the set of faculties that receives raw data from nature. It does not interpret, and hence does not admit cognitive components.

But what Wenham is also saying is that the cognitive component informs katastematic pleasure, and the katastematic pleasure itself is felt as joy and a sense of wellbeing. It could also be experienced as gratitude, as confidence, as joy, as relaxation, or a variety of other mellows that constitute the pleasure itself.

In our discussion, some Epicureans–dismissing the Ciceronian (now seen as the standard / academic) interpretation as another chapter in our counter-history of philosophy–wish to do away entirely with katastematic pleasure, and even go as far as to deny that it is a truly Epicurean concept. Others hold that view that we need not deny the attitudinal component because it is a necessity that comes with freedom, and it is self-evident that a wholesome disposition can help to lead to a life of pleasure.

Those who hold the second view, also find that katastematic pleasure needs to be reaffirmed and properly understood as a felt experience, as a feeling. If we admit the Laertius quote and accept katastema as a category of pleasure, and insist on defining katastema as including FEELING, the entire Ciceronian argument falls. Here is the quote attributed to Epicurus, from Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book X:81-2

[81] “There is yet one more point to seize, namely, that the greatest anxiety of the human mind arises through the belief that the heavenly bodies are blessed and indestructible, and that at the same time they have volitions and actions and causality inconsistent with this belief ; and through expecting or apprehending some everlasting evil, either because of the myths, or because we are in dread of the mere insensibility of death, as if it had to do with us ; and through being reduced to this state not by conviction but by a certain irrational perversity, so that, if men do not set bounds to their terror, they endure as much or even more intense anxiety than the man whose views on these matters are quite vague. [82] But mental tranquility means being released from all these troubles and cherishing a continual remembrance of the highest and most important truths.

“Hence we must attend to present feelings and sense perceptions, whether those of mankind in general or those peculiar to the individual, and also attend to all the clear evidence available, as given by each of the standards of truth. For by studying them we shall rightly trace to its cause and banish the source of disturbance and dread, accounting for celestial phenomena and for all other things which from time to time befall us and cause the utmost alarm to the rest of mankind.

EXTRINSIC OBJECTS OF PLEASURE

Attending to “our present feelings and sensations” reminds us of the Zen-like Cyrenaic practice of presentism. Existentialist thinkers like Nietzsche and Sartre say that apprehension of something, or knowing someone, is the same as having power over that object. If this is the case, and if we are, indeed, present to our feelings and sensations–ataraxia can then be seen as a positive, dynamic, active consumption and enjoyment of reality here and now, and the exercise of “being present” (“presentism”) could help to make our attention available and maximize our ability to experience pleasure in our immediacy. Also, this would mean that static pleasures may also be, to some extent, active.

Wenham makes another contribution to the discussion, one that links the Epicurean theory of pleasure ethics to both Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus and Polystratus’ scroll Irrational Contempt. In the scroll, our third Scholarch argues that pleasure and aversion (and categories like noble or vile) DO exist in nature and are observable, but that they do not exist in the same way as the inherent properties of bodies. He refers to them as relational properties of bodies, which they exhibit when in the presence of certain other bodies. These two categories of primal and secondary properties of physical bodies exist within Epicurus’ physics. Polystratus uses examples like the magnet, which attracts iron, but not other stones; and of herbs which heal certain diseases but do not have healing properties in the presence of health.

ex·trin·sic, ADJECTIVE
  1. not part of the essential nature of someone or something; coming or operating from outside

Wenham’s assertion that there is in the experiential model an “experiential object extrinsic to the self” relates to Polystratus‘ assertion that what is experienced as pleasure or aversion exists not as a primary or inherent attribute of bodies, but is relational in nature. There is some object, whether mental or physical, that is enjoyed and incites pleasure in the organism.

FINAL WORDS

Our intention here, by posting both the dialogue on the controversy surrounding katastematic pleasure and a discussion of the sources mentioned, is to present the controversy and encourage familiarity with it among students of Epicurean philosophy.

Much more can be said about the anatomy of the pleasant life, according to Epicurean philosophy, and also according to modern science. In recent discussions, the similarities between the two feel-good hormones serotonin and endorphin and the two modes of pleasure have surfaced.

Serotonin regulates sleep cycles, mood and appetite, and gives people a general, stable sense of well-being (which likens it to katastematic pleasure) whereas endorphin is more euphoric and intense (which likens it to kinetic pleasure). Could these similarities add another layer of insight to this conversation? Answering that is beyond the scope and intention of this essay, but might be a worthwhile exploration for the future.

Further Reading:

Dialogue on Katastematic Pleasure

 

 

 

 

 

Dialogue on Katastematic Pleasure

It is clear that, as per Epicurus’ Epistle to Menoeceus, Pleasure is the Alpha and Omega in Epicurean ethics. For a sentient being, out of the two general modes of sentience–pleasure and pain–this mode is experienced as choice-worthy for its own sake, and it’s the one that our own nature seeks. But there are several complexities concerning how to define pleasure, compounded by the fact that many of the academics who have historically interpreted the texts for us have held anti-Epicurean convictions, and made worse by academic insistence on giving credit to what many Epicureans argue is Cicero’s–not Epicurus’–interpretation of Epicurean pleasure. Furthermore, our epistemology treats pleasure and aversion as a faculty. Other than in non-philosophical fields like anthropology and Darwinian evolution, this is typically not the way pleasure ethics is studied. In this discussion, we evaluate the anatomy of a pleasant life and, along the way, explore how philosophy must also guide science and how–contrary to popular stereotypes–Epicureans have always been involved in politics.

Cassius. While we are on the topic of goals, (the Epicurean Manifesto) is also a formulation that I personally find unacceptable, even though / especially because it is stated with admirable clarity near the end of the document: “But the adoption of the Epicurean telos of katastemic pleasure seems most appealing to those buffeted on the high seas of life. The older I get, the more I crave undisturbedness.”

I do not believe the Epicurean telos is “katastematic pleasure” and/or “undisturbedness”, even though that is the preferred position of modern academic commentators. The goal is PLEASURE, and efforts to dilute it with “katastematic” or rename it as “undisturbedness” are just as harmful – maybe more so – than saying that the goal is “virtue,” or “holiness,” or (for non-Greek speakers) “eudaemonia” – since there is no accepted English definition of that term.

Hiram. The problem with what you are saying is that the Epicurean Manifesto is the single most complete, concise and detailed description of Epicurean techniques of cognitive therapies, the next closest thing being Martha Nussbaum ‘s Therapy of Desires. The solution might be to read and engage the Epicurean Manifesto critically in writing, so that future students can see both your and Fogel’s perspective. But I would not dismiss the usefulness and need to know and promote the therapeutic methods.

And in fact I suspect that when at times you have complained about our lack of focus and our lack of ability to connect theory with practice, if you had taken the time to study these techniques, you might have had a better understanding of praxis in the Gardens.

Cassius. Yes, as you anticipate, I disagree that any article which focuses on katastematic pleasure as the goal of life is a valid representation of Epicurean philosophy or of “Epicurean techniques of cognitive therapies.” I don’t believe that approach is Epicurean at all.

Hiram. But the practices were there, so what do u make of that?

Cassius. What practices do you mean? What practices are documented in Epicurean texts?

Hiram. Nussbaum mentions repetition (for memorization of the teachings), reasonings (where you confront your bad habits via argumentation and cognitive therapy, and this seems to be linked to VS 46: “Let us completely rid ourselves of our bad habits as if they were evil men who have done us long and grievous harm.”), and “seeing before your eyes” (which, if you’ll remember, is a treatment for anger used in Philodemus’ times), and there were others I think. These are based on Philodemus texts mainly.

Cassius. I am not sure how thoroughly I will be able to go through this tonight but Nussbaum seems to regularly describe herself as an Aristotelian?

(On Nussbaum quotes) … I do not agree that Epicurean philosophy slights development of critical thought, nor do I consider the Stoics to be superior in any way, or the Epicureans “authoritarian” (as she claims) … Nor do I agree that Epicurean philosophy subordinates truth and good reasoning to “therapeutic efficacy” (she presumably is referring to the goal of living pleasurably) nor would I consider the Stoics and Aristotelians superior in this department … So Nussbaum considers Seneca “an advance of major proportions” over the Epicureans … I don’t agree that Lucretius contradicts Epicurus, and I don’t agree that Epicurus excluded marriage, sexual love, children, and political community … I do not agree that Epicureans are parasitic on the rest of the world …

If I read Wikipedia correctly, Nussbaum is not Jewish ethnically nor was she educated that way, she is a CONVERT to Judaism, which presumably means that as an adult she was so impressed by the brilliance of that sect, even after becoming expert in Hellenistic philosophy, that she ditched Hellenism and her prior beliefs to embrace that religion. I don’t believe in labeling someone by race, but I am totally comfortable making judgments about someone according to the religious views they embrace, especially when they embrace that religion later in life by choice, rather than having been indoctrinated in it early in life. Judaism has condemned Epicurus for 2000+ years, and the Epicureans returned the favor as we know from Diogenes of Oinoanda, and the Epicureans were involved in the conflict that the Jews celebrate as Hannakah. And that conflict has nothing to do with race or ethnicity, but a profoundly different view of nature/the universe, the goal of living, and the methodology for achieving it.

What I read in those sections of the book I’ve quoted is a slice and dice approach to ALL of Hellenistic philosophy according to her own views of correct analysis, which we can agree with or disagree with as we like, but should not take as even an effort to be fair to the Epicurean viewpoint. I would no more accept an assertion by Nussbaum about Epicurus at face value than I would an assertion of a Randian about Epicurus, a Stoic about Epicurus, or a Nazi about a Rabbi (or vice versa). Her claims ought to be scrutinized no less than anyone else’s, and I for one don’t accept the conclusions that Epicurus was a parasitic and manipulative authoritarian who had to be corrected and improved by Lucretius, and that Epicurean philosophy is inferior to Aristotle and the Stoics in any way. Someone who thinks that is not to be trusted in her interpretation of Epicurean “techniques.”

This is the second significant time in memory that I’ve run into Nussbaum as a source of conflicting interpretation of Epicurus. The first was almost ten years ago. A LOT of what we are talking about comes back over and over to “What is the goal of life?” The two categories of choice seem to be:

(A) If someone accepts that the goal is “katastematic pleasure” and focuses on ataraxia (1)–meaning “calmness”–and stops at that point, then they will follow the Nussbaum line, see calmness as a stated of mind-numbed nothingness that is not painful but has no content of ordinary pleasure, blend Stoic and Epicurean into a mashup blob, and just adopt Epicurus’ name for credibility.

(B) If one accepts that PLEASURE as ordinarily understood is the goal of life, and that being “calm” is simply an adjective that describes a way in which almost ANY pleasurable activity can be conducted, then one understands that the highest life is to be calm WHILE experiencing a full slate of ordinary pleasures. One can be calm while climbing Mount Everest, or hiking a canyon, or hang-gliding, or pushing a button to start a war, having sex, eating a banquet, or doing virtually any other activity that doesn’t require agitation and loss of control of mind while you are doing it. Pleasure remains the goal, and calmly (without disturbance or interruption) is just the best way to enjoy pleasure.

I know which one of these I choose, and while I wish Nussbaum and everyone else who follows this line well, I am not at all interested in it myself. I think the “tranquilism” line needs to be pointed out as a fundamentally flawed understanding of Epicurean philosophy, not something to coexist with as an ally, or to be learned from and adjusted to and held out as a valid interpretation. It is a rewrite of Epicurean philosophy with the intent of burying its meaning so deeply that it never again emerges to challenge the monotheist consensus.

Hiram. (After reading Wenham and Gosling & Taylor) I do not agree that we need to throw out katastematic pleasure. It seems to me like it is FELT and we should claim it as a FEELING, rather than accept it as painlessness, in other words–like elsewhere in EP–we should reclaim it with the proper definition. The main reasons for this are: 1. Epicurus is cited as mentioning katastema in Diogenes Laertius, and it would make us seem revisionists to deny this, and 2. the error is in Cicero for defining katastema as painlessness and lacking in feeling, rather than as a form of pleasure. But also, 3. I see a clear connection between katastema (an attitudinal approach to pleasures) and diathesis (dispositions)–which are central in both Philodemus and Diogenes. Here is the relevant quote from Diogenes’ Wall:

Let us now [investigate] how life is to be made pleasant for us both in states and in actions.

Let us first discuss states, keeping an eye on the point that, when the emotions which disturb the soul are removed, those which produce pleasure enter into it to take their place.

Well, what are the disturbing emotions? [They are] fears —of the gods, of death, and of [pains]— and, besides [these], desires that [outrun] the limits fixed by nature. These are the roots of all evils, and, [unless] we cut them off, [a multitude] of evils will grow [upon] us.

Once we remove the things that block pleasure (false views) and replace them with true views, these healthy dispositions lead to katastema (salvation, wholeness). This theory is important to understand. Also, Philodemus in On Piety says “our BELIEFS are the source of our happiness”.

Elli. Τhe word “katastematic” has not any meaning or connected with any concept to the issue of static and without motion, or apathy, etc. It is connected with the duration in time. We want to be in the katastematic pleasure as long as we can and as our organism/limits permit it based on the external circumstances. It is a very good Hellenic word, Cassius: all the Greek Epicureans can grasp its meaning, and they use it.

Hiram. But back to the original discussion: did you locate where she found the sources for these techniques or are you saying she made them all up? I think most of her sources are from Herculaneum. Most scholars who study and teach Epicurean philosophy are not Epicureans. She is not unique in that.

Cassius. I think you are correct that most of her sources are Philodemus, although some are Lucretius. I haven’t studied it enough in detail to have a general summary, although she admits that the Philodemus material is patchy and heavily reconstructed. My concerns would boil down to two categories:

(1) Without a lot more background of the Philodemus material I think it is very dangerous to draw sweeping conclusions that contradict a more charitable reading of the other texts, and that is what I think she is doing when she accepts the parasite/manipulation/authoritarian arguments. The only way to treat Philodemus material, in my view, is to lay out exact quotes in full, showing whatever context is available, and whatever guesses have been made about the text. My understanding from Philodemus’ “On Methods of Inference” is that that is one of the most complete texts left, and even it is missing huge chunks of important context. It seems to have been the pattern (as would make sense) that the Epicurean writers would describe the opposing position so as to show how it is wrong. When chunks of text are taken out of context and reconstructed it’s impossible to know whether Philodemus was stating his own view, or Epicurus’ view, or the view of some non-Epicurean. As it is, we are relying on modern writers whose views are very likely to be swayed by the peer pressure to interpret Epicurus in the mainstream way, which is neo-Stoic.

But probably my concern with Nussbaum in particular is more broad (2):

Just like in the letter to Menoeceus, it is possible to read very different possibilities into the same text, depending on our disposition. Nussbaum is very clearly a Socratic / Aristotelian / Stoic psychologist who accepts most of their premises about goal of life and methodology. So even if she is the most fair-minded person who ever lived, she is going to infer from any ambiguity a position that she finds more to her own liking, and interpret fragments that way. I am not saying that every statement she makes is false, by any means, but that the overall picture is distorted because she has an agenda which is not consistent with Epicurus’ agenda. Whenever we obsess over a tool (in this case methods of psychology) without first having the end goal and the basics of nature in mind, we’re going to end up worshiping the tools just like the Stoics worship “virtue” and the Aristotelian/Randians worship “reason.”

Hiram. So the only way to retrieve the Epicurean tools is then to go to those sources which are difficult to come by. I’m personally less interested in ad-hominem attacks against non-Epicureans than in revitalizing Epicurean tradition, and I could find the time to visit the Library at Loyola University again to access these rare translations and commentaries on the Herculaneum scrolls but my life has changed. I have full time work and a busier life than when I initially was able to read these sources, when I was under-employed. So my reasonings on them is what we have for now, and whatever translations are affordable on amazon.

But what I keep hearing from you is a dismissal of therapy and even of Philodemus, who (unlike us) enjoyed the direct lineage and teaching down from the Scholarchs, not a sincere desire to retrieve these methods.

Cassius. No I sincerely want to retrieve whatever is available, but my reasoning starts with the most documentable evidence and says:

1. “First get the basics before engaging in speculation.” And whenever there is speculation, my criteria for evaluating the speculation is

2.”Is the speculation consistent with the basics that we already know?”

I throw out much of Nussbaum’s commentary because I believe it to be speculation that contradicts evidence that we already believe to be clear.

As for the Obbink material on Philodemus, which I think you’re referring to, when I saw a copy of the book I think you are referring to (Philodemus’ On Piety, if I recall), it appeared to me to be extremely fragmentary and much less complete than the On Methods of Inference or the Rhetoric book. Some of it may be good, some of it may not, I just don’t know. But whenever something is so fragmentary it’s very difficult to use, and the fragments ought to be clearly displayed so that we see how much is being reconstructed. That’s one of the major issues I have with using Philodemus at all. We don’t have access to images showing what is reconstructed and what is not.

This issue is handled a little better with the Diogenes of Oinoanda material, where we have online access to at least a large part of Martin Ferguson Smith’s work, but some of the same danger exists there too.

So I don’t think that I am dismissing therapy or Philodemus, I just think that we have to be careful with speculation and make sure it conforms to the core material. And when there are large segments of people who like Epicurus who can’t even agree on what the core material means about painlessness, ataraxia, aponia, pleasure, and the like, then it seems to me that we have no hope of understanding or applying therapy towards the goal if we don’t understand clearly what the goal was.

Hiram. Have you given up on Epicurean therapy and any possibility of reconstruction of it?

The problem with that is that you can reiterate the end to infinity, but if we don’t teach people the means to that end, this may render our system of philosophy ultimately useless, lack of utility which goes against everything we are supposed to stand for. “Philosophy that doesn’t heal the soul is no better than medicine that doesn’t heal the body.”

Cassius. My view is that we can’t help anyone with a therapy unless we know what the goal is–we can’t “heal” until we know what it means to be healthy, and we haven’t yet got a firm consensus on that. In other words, until we decide what to tell people pleasure really is, and what is its relationship to painlessless, and calm, and ataraxia, and aponia, then we can’t do anything.

First, do no harm” often makes sense, and this is one of those cases. We have the view out there of Epicurus that has a totally different view of the goal than what I would maintain is the proper position, and I wouldn’t suggest anyone take any medicine until they know how the doctor dispensing it defines health. If the doctor’s goal is “calmness” then he is more likely to give me anesthesia than he is to give me medicine that will cure the pain and allow me to live pleasurably.

Hiram. I am saying that the Epicureans, not the academics, should be the ones informing people about these methods, but we first have to acquaint ourselves with them.

Elli. How could we achieve getting rid of our bad habits? By looking at the walls of our homes chanting alone some Epicurean Sayings by Epicurus, or with the discussions based on frankness of speech with our trusted friends? Who are the people we can trust? The already healed of course … and another question is: did we make it clear at last who are the ones that have already healed, or the ones who are (ready and able) to heal, or the ones who accept help for their healing? Trust is the first ally to accept your therapist and the therapy that (he) is suggesting.

This reminds me of a discussion that I had with my companion who says to me that the most ill persons are those that are visiting many doctors to find a cure, because they do not trust even themselves … Δια αλλήλων σώζεσθε [Dia allilon sozesthe] = “to be saved by one another”.

Hiram. Will we ever ourselves tackle the Philodemus sources and their therapeutic techniques, without the prism of these interpreters?

Cassius. An excellent question, and I don’t want to come across as discouraging you from doing that. What I mean do be doing in this discussion is explaining why I haven’t attacked that, not that you should not. There’s still a lot more to talk about so that is a good question:

There is nothing that would interest me more than getting access to new material. I think we ought to find new ways to keep pursuing that by trying to make more connections with the researchers, encouraging them to publish their material on the internet rather than exclusively on that ripoff JSTOR site, etc. I am 100% with you that I am completely enthusiastic about that.

The reason I have not put much into that lately is that when I did try to trace down what was available, such as the Voula Tsouna material, the books were frank in displaying that what’s left of the texts is in TERRIBLE condition. No one but an ancient Greek expert could even hope to make much of them, and it seems clear from the images that they print that the texts are so damaged that they can hardly get a full sentence or two on many pages. That leaves the few paragraphs that they an tease out as totally contextless, and as I’ve been saying in that context I don’t think we can rely on whatever they do recover to be the Epicurean portions. They could easily be quotes from enemies. So my observation is that we’ve got a huge uphill battle to get anything meaningful out of them. Heck, we can’t even find an image of the “Vatican List” to verify that, which out to be absolutely clear.

And as examples of where I think this has mislead us I will name two: “Live unknown” has absolutely no context, none of us do it, Epicurus and Lucretius didn’t do it, and so reading a dramatic amount into those two words has been an engraved invitation for Stoics and anti-Epicureans to paint us as cave-dwelling Stoics.

Another example is the Tetrapharmakon, which also has no context (2). To me, it is SO truncated as a summary of PD1-4 as to be almost as damaging as it is helpful. Every line of it is easily twisted into something that is almost a laughingstock, and I suspect that whoever wrote it had to have understood that and warned about that in the original text. But today it is paraded around like it is an oracle of Epicurus, and I strongly doubt he would even have approved of it at all. He left the first four in his own words, and if he had thought that “don’t fear the gods” and “don’t fear death” were good enough, he’d never have left the longer versions.

Those are just two examples how playing with excerpts can easily be turned against us just as much as help us. And I think that is what Nussbaum largely does. Elli may hate me for saying this but “eudaemonia” or any Greek or non-English word is never going to be sufficient to explain to an everyday American what the goal of life is. In fact, using an untranslated word implies that the meaning CANNOT be translated, which I will never accept.

Maybe I am alone in putting so much emphasis on “pleasure” vs “painlessness” but, to me, the first roadblock of reaching any normal person with Epicurean theory is going to be that normal people do not equate “painlessness” with anything but “anesthesia.” 95% of the people I think I would come into contact with will not go a step further if they think the goal of Epicurean philosophy is anesthesia. And anesthesia, plus a particular political position, is exactly what I perceive the majority of modern commentators are pushing. They are political Stoics / Simplicists / Humanists (in the sense of idealizing the goal of making no discrimination whatsoever among anyone), and they are simply using Epicurus as a convenient banner to carry their non-philosophical agenda. They don’t care about the connection between painlessness and pleasure because THEY DON’T WANT ANY connection between painlessness and pleasure.

I think I understand your desire to focus on therapy, but I think you are selling yourself short on where the really profound progress needs to be made before that. Tons of people are out there with self-help books on reducing anxiety, and I agree that reducing anxiety is a desirable goal. But the really groundbreaking work is redefining the common understanding of what the goal of life should be. Religionists and Platonists and Stoics don’t oppose Epicurus because he was in favor of reducing anxiety–they fully agree with that and rush to embrace THAT PART of Epicurus. But they embrace that PART, and ignore the core, because the CORE of Epicurean philosophy is the placement of PLEASURE are the center of life, and that is what they cannot accept. They insist on their own holiness, and their own virtue, and they realize that Pleasure is the rebel that will usurp their throne if they ever let it get a foothold.

That’s where the battle really lies, and every time we get off on reducing anxiety (or pain in general) as a sufficient goal, we give aid and comfort to the enemy and assist them in burying the heart of Epicurus even further.

The real life Alexander the Oracle Mongers are with us today and in much greater strength. But today their greatest weapon is not burning Epicurean books in fig tree fires. Their greatest weapon is convincing us that what Epicurus wrote means the opposite of what he intended.

One more comment to conclude this rant: So far as I know, there are only a couple of “respectable” sources for this point of view. Boris Nikolsky’s article, Gosling & Taylor‘s chapter on Epicurus, Mathew Wenham‘s article (On Cicero’s Interpretation of Katastematic Pleasure) and DeWitt’s book (but this point is not its focus). There may be a few in Greek, and I think Elli is right that Liantinis embodies this spirit, but I just don’t have access to that material.

Against that list is arrayed virtually every academic and popular book on Epicurus written in the last 100 years, and 99% of the internet websites online today.

To me, that means that the battle has to be joined on the most important point, with the few resources that we have, and getting off into other issues before securing the base is a guarantee of defeat.

THIS is the point I am making, here made by Matthew Wenham: So long as the standard model of katastematic pleasure being the goal of life prevails, Epicurean philosophy will remain as nothing more than historical interest. The entire game is in this issue. Game set match.

Hiram. Are you saying that katastematic pleasures do not exist or are you saying that they exist but that the goal includes them AND dynamic pleasures together, or in other words simply pleasure?

Cassius. I am saying that the entire katastematic/kinetic distinction is a rhetorical argument against Epicurus, and every time we accept any part of it we are undermining the philosophy. We know about it mainly because Cicero employed it as a rhetorical device in On Ends. He set up the argument with a straw man in Book 1 by having Torquatus identify the highest pleasure as absence of pain without positive pleasures, and then he demolished the argument in Book 2 by showing how inconsistent that is with the rest of the philosphy.

The distinction arises–as Nikolsky and Wenham point out–with Platonists who considered pleasure to be divisible into active and attitudinal/static divisions. They did this so in part so that they could argue that there is a pleasure separate from the body and real human action and experience, as part of their elevation of reason and thinking as superior to the body and action.

In contrast, Epicurus held that ALL pleasure is desirable, and he did not set up one kind of pleasure as superior to another, or one kind of pleasure as only worthwhile as a tool to obtain another type of pleasure.

Even more importantly, as Wenham points out, Epicurus held pleasure and pain to be part of the canonical faculties that operate by nature, and are inseparable from human living experiences. Separating out a type of pleasure as non-feeling, and considering that type of pleasure to be higher than ordinary pleasures of feeling, destroys the Epicurean model.

There’s more: if someone sets up one type of pleasure as higher than another, then there must be some faculty separate from pleasure to allow us to recognize which is “better” other than pleasure itself (pleasure itself does nothing other than recognize pleasure). This everyone else suggests is “reason”, and therefore conclude that pleasure alone is not the goal. They argue that the goal is pleasure + reason. Then, Plato develops that argument further and shows “logically” that reason alone is the highest good, and that pleasure is not even needed.

So all of these issues arise from the same katastematic/kinetic distinction. It is a dagger pointed at the heart of Epicurean philosophy which the Platonists developed and Cicero popularized and preserved in the records for the next 2000 years. As long as we accept this katastematic/kinetic distinction, Epicurean philosophy is doomed to be nothing more than a word game and a historical oddity that no one will take seriously.

Hiram. I disagree with you. Also, Cassius, this is NOT the “dagger pointed at the heart of Epicurean philosophy” that you imagine. It’s hard for me to understand how you get so worked up about this. Pleasure is self-evident to the organism experiencing it, and just like the eye can see many colors according to the spectrum and to the wavelength arriving at the eye, similarly various pleasures are available to the organism.

If you are arguing this, you are saying that that the only way to experience constant pleasures is to constantly be satisfying a thirst (because katastematic pleasure is the self-sufficient pleasure that exists when we aren’t satisfying a desire, so if we get rid of it, then we are on the hedonic threadmill like mice in a hoop).

Also, the distinction between these two kinds of pleasure is made in contemporary science of happiness, which demonstrates that it is a recognized feature of it. There, it is known as natural and synthetic happiness. The TED speech by Dan Gilbert is the shortest intro to this idea.

In Nichiren Buddhism, I also found that they use different verbiage for it, but the idea of katastematic and kinetic pleasures in some form or another exists in both scientific understanding, and in other cultures and philosophies that are seriously studying the science of happiness.

I think the key problem here is that if we don’t have katastematic pleasures, then the possibility of living in constant pleasures does not exist because the brain gets either addicted, or used to dopamine and is no longer excited by new experiences. Also, the question of one’s disposition has to be addressed: what state are we in habitually? If you throw out katastematic pleasures, you have a theory that requires constantly scratching an itch to experience pleasures.

What do you make of Diogenes of Oenoanda’s assertion distinguishing pleasures of the mind versus those of the body? It’s true that, in the end, the mind is part of the body, so the distinction is still within the physics ultimately. But to say that there IS no distinction is naive: the pleasures and pains of the mind last longer and can cause harm to the body, and also we are in control of our (mental) disposition, which implies that some kind of discipline to steer that mental disposition is desirable if you want to abide in pleasure persistently.

You say of Wenham that he speaks of “separating a type of pleasure as NON-FEELING”. I can’t imagine in what way a pleasure can be non-feeling. Not sure what you mean, and I have a feeling that this may be where we should re-affirm katastematic pleasure as a feeling.

I also don’t follow that the recognition of passive and active pleasures leads to the need for a third faculty, because both are directly experienced as pleasant by the organism. I think this is a false argument and you should simply tell that to your Platonist opponents: reason is the handmaiden of pleasure that helps to calculate benefit. No need to let their play of words entangle you like a boa constrictor into positions that are needlessly rhetorically complicated, and drain the pleasure from even philosophy itself. Long arguments get to the same place as short ones. Pleasure is self-evident.

Cassius. I am glad that we are able to air our disagreement so clearly because it is fundamental … “because katastematic pleasure is the self-sufficient pleasure that exists when we aren’t satisfying a desire, so if we get rid of it, then we are on the hedonic treadmill like mice in a hoop” << That is your definition, picked up from Cicero and others, and not from any core Epicurean text of Epicurus or an authoritative Epicurean.

Hiram. it’s part of the contemporary science of happiness, and it’s tied to the hedonic treadmill, and it’s what explains that a year after winning the lottery and losing a limb, the millionaire and the person who survived the accident can have equal levels of happiness. Neuroscientists know of hedonic adaptation and are trying to figure out ways to heighten the hedonic base level.

Jason. As the arrow of time flows ever in one direction and never pauses, even for an instant, and the atoms are always in motion (as that motion is how we measure time) I am finding the idea of static pleasure harder and harder to justify. We’re always having to replenish our stores of neurochemicals through consumption of new pleasures. I am willing to put myself on the line and state unequivocally that there is never a steady-state of pleasure or pain in any living organism, only a swervy oscillation toward and away from the limits of experience.

The prudent man arranges his life to dampen the pendulum swing and bias it towards the upper limit of pleasure for the duration of his life through repeated and varied applications of will.

Cassius. Yes Jason that is one of the core contradictions that shows this as something Epicurus would not embrace. There is nothing settled in life, no place of rest, just action until death. Hiram, I completely agree that we need to incorporate modern scientific discoveries, but we always have to keep separate whether our goal is to develop our own synthesis that we think we should be advocated, or whether we are working to identify what Epicurus thought. In this issue we’re not talking about physics issues like the size of the sun. We are talking about philosophical approaches which are tied to particular premises about the nature of the universe, which I don’t think have changed at all.

Hiram. So in this interpretation, Epicurus couldn’t have “called us to constant pleasures”, or if he did, he was lying? … If we dismiss science, we have dismissed the canon. As far as I know, scientific data has passed the sieve of the canon, we would not be connecting theory with practice, and our tradition would remain stagnant and incapable of evolving as it was intended to do by the use of the tools given for its evolution.

Cassius. No, I completely disagree. (Epicurus) is telling us that pleasures of some kind are always possible and always present and always available to serve as the guide of life. That’s what he means by constant–the constant availability of normal pleasures, INCLUDING the mental ones that you (and Diogenes of Oinoanda) are trying to break out as a separate category distinct to themselves. That is the issue–they are NOT a separate category of a distinct kind–they are simply mental processes, no different than reading a book or looking at art or whatever.

The canon rests on science, one of the observations of which is that all knowledge comes to us through the senses and the processing of what they give us. No one embraces science more enthusiastically than I do, but at the same time we can never forget that science is no different than any other tool–we pursue it in order to achieve pleasure, because we recognize by nature through feeling that nothing is desirable in life except pleasure.

Hiram. If we can’t understand or accept the scientific theory of happiness, how can we develop scientific methods for its achievement? I don’t feel comfortable with articulating our philosophy as opposed to the scientific establishment, much less with labeling the adoption of the scientific view as “eclecticism” because it’s not culture, it’s nature that it’s based on.

Cassius. Not sure I understand what you are saying exactly, but I do not believe that there can probably even be a “scientific theory of happiness.” Happiness is a conceptual term we have come up with to describe certain things we want to talk about, and it is in philosophy where we decide what is worth talking about and why. I understand science to be observation; data gathering; and the development of understanding of the causation of specific things. But as Frances Wright argues, causation is an endless series and incorporates innumerable inputs, and at some point we simply have to step back and make a judgment call as to what it all adds up to, because we are not capable by definition of observing every fact of causation in a chain which never had a beginning point in the first place. Philosophy guides science; philosophy tells us that the senses are primary; philosophy tells us that reason devoid of facts of sensation is worthless. Those are not “scientific” conclusions in the normal and regular use of the term “scientific”.

Elli. The erroneous ways of thinking may be divided into two categories, the systematically wrong mentality, and the foolishly misguided mentality. The systematic error, as it is called scientifically, is the way that may lead to disastrous results if we do not avoid it. The Epicurean Roman Lucretius points out: “Again, as in a building, if the first plumb-line be askew, and if the square deceiving swerve from lines exact, and if the level waver but the least in any part, the whole construction then must turn out faulty-shelving and askew, leaning to back and front, incongruous, that now some portions seem about to fall, and falls the whole ere long-betrayed indeed by first deceiving estimates: so too thy calculations in affairs of life must be askew and false, if sprung for thee from senses false. So all that troop of words marshalled against the senses is quite vain.” (De Rerum Natura IV 513-521, W.E. Leonard 1916).

The systematically wrong mindset usually uses literary falsification of reality. Some manipulate speech, either with sophism, or with rhetoric, or with dialectical techniques, or with sterile obsessive logic, using ways of cheating others or deluding oneself, usually with political or self-serving purposes. Literary falsification of reality includes the ideal mythological approach of the world, the “political lie” considered by Plato as the right of people in power, the superficial commentary of the phenomena, and sterile skepticism. All these verbal approaches based on the motto “mind comes first” are forms of subjectivity, idealism and intellectualism. These systematically wrong ways of thinking led the Hellenic world to intolerance and discord, and eventually to submission to Republican Rome, whose rising power came from collaboration of patricians and plebeians. These systematically wrong idealistic mentalities subsequently led mankind to the Middle Ages.

In the modern world, we may observe that subjectivity, obsessive ideologies, noncritical pluralistic chattering continue to result in barbaric disputes and inhuman fighting while the temporarily stronger prevails, according to the barbarous law of the jungle. In addition, there is the absurd misguided way of thinking, the impulsive, the “so I like it”, the variably eclectic mentality. This is usually an uncertain, shallow, and effortless way of imprudent dealing with any subject. It is characterized by lack of knowledge of reality, empty chattering, and myopic desires of the type “the purpose sanctifies the means”. An example result of this mentality is the recent decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw USA from the Paris Climate Agreement, which has sparked the outcry of many international scientific associations that called it “a dangerous denial of decision-making method based on scientific data”.

Nevetheless, there are many people against the scientific way of thinking and common sense, such as the Syndicate of Greek Electricity Workers that welcomed the Trump decision, combining unscientific nonsense and self-interest politics in an exemplary manner, since most of their jobs are still based on coal mining. Unfortunately, the nonsensical and superficial way of thinking is particularly widespread in modern societies. The Epicurean philosophy can assist its friends to combat this mentality of the many and to overcome the foolish, idealistic influences that create anxiety and turmoil. Studying and understanding Epicurean texts may help a well-intentioned reader to experience the objective, scientific and serene way of thinking of Epicurus without any misunderstandings. History teaches us that even charismatic people who did not understand the Epicurean scientific method, made mistakes in their appreciation. For example, the great thinker Voltaire, who generally admired Epicurus, erroneously considered as absurd the Master’s views regarding chance and evolution in nature.

(An excerpt of the presentation by Christos Yapijakis at the 10th Panhellenic Meeting of Epicureans, Mount Olympus, Greece Theme: «Re-Hellenization in light of Epicurean Philosophy»)

Jason. Part of the problem of a “scientific theory of happiness” is their first premises. What do they mean by happiness? Do they accept that pleasure is the sine non qua of life or are they, as Cassius puts it, “tranquilists?”

Cassius. Right–the selection of definitions is not a matter of “science alone” but of philosophy.

Jason. I want to put it on record too, that this is my biggest beef with neuroscientists like Sam Harris. He has put science in its proper place as the methodology of exploring our natural universe, but then denies that he has any preconceptions/bias at all when setting up his experiments and drawing conclusions from the results. He denies the utility of philosophy completely while making philosophical claims on the aims of science. I take issue with anyone who claims that science serves some end other than pleasure.

Cassius. I think if we can just get them to the point of understanding that pleasure is the goal, rather than religion or idealism, we will accomplish the most than an Epicurean organization could hope to accomplish. Cassius Longinus was obviously leader of what was effectively his own political party in the Roman Civil war, and I think we should be engaged in politics, but if we mix immediate interests with the big picture it seems to me we jeopardise the big picture.

I don’t know enough about Harris to comment on him particularly, but it seems to me scientists on both left and right make the same error that Jason is talking about. That passage from Frances Wright deserves a lot more attention as an explanation of why “science” is not the leader–a proper understanding of pleasure in a proper philosophical framework is the only way to understand the goal.

Hiram. Yes philosophy must guide science. Agreed. This is one of the main reasons for the urgency of our work in these times … (and don’t get me started with Sam Harris).

Science (like the canon) provides data drawn from nature to confirm doctrines also. So to say “this is what science says about this” is our equivalent to a Jew placing the “kosher” stamp on food, or a Muslims placing the “halal” stamp on food. It’s like putting the “canon” stamp, saying “there is ample, cross-verified, peer-reviewed data confirming these observations and therefore it is okay to set this as doctrinally valid”.

Science of happiness is one of the easiest gateways to teaching Epicurean ethics. It is my understanding that Epicurean teachers used to first give the observations, to demonstrate what is observed, and then reached their conclusions, and Lucretius does this in DRN, and it’s also part of what I sought to do in Tending the Epicurean Garden: to bridge modern insights and ancient doctrine for the benefit of modern people, and show the relevance of EP.

If we dismiss or disparage science as a means to the teaching, we lose opportunities to continue teaching in this manner, which is a method that also demonstrates our respect for the intelligence of our readers.

I would favor affirming BOTH the end and ALSO the validity of these means, maybe via a rhetorical devise like always saying “in order to live pleasantly, we find / it has been demonstrated that this or that is advantageous and useful”. I don’t want us to forget the utility of things (whether they be science, therapeutic methods, etc.) to advance philosophy.

Cassius. It seems to me that you are presuming that the goal is obvious to everyone, and that no one disputes that living happily should be the goal. That is far from true in my experience, and people are confused about every aspect of the question. Is there a goal? What is the goal? Should I try to live happily? What is happiness? Isn’t avoiding pain good enough? All those are incredibly complicated issues and unless people are straight on those, it makes no sense to even begin talking about therapeutic techniques.

Now certainly there is a target audience that is confident of all those things and ready to talk about precise techniques. But that was never Epicurus’ audience or the way he devoted his time. Epicurus was a philosophical warrior who engaged the philosophical enemy to break the chains they had imposed. There are innumerable good things to do after those chains are broken, but the great majority of people, I dare say, are still totally in their chains

Jason. I don’t think anyone is disparaging science as a methodology, only its application and idealism by those who have non-Epicurean goals. There is a LOT of bad “science” on the fringes of human knowledge. The methodology isn’t always followed closely because of competing aims. We have to be careful about accepting conclusions about experiments that we don’t understand ourselves when those drawing the conclusions have proven themselves ignorant of or hostile to the purpose of science.

Elli. Cassius, according to Diogenes Laertius (10.27-9), the major works of Epicurus include:

1. On Nature, in 37 books
2. On Atoms and the Void
3. On Love
4. Abridgment of the Arguments employed against the Natural Philosophers
5. Against the Megarians
6. Problems
7. Fundamental Propositions (Kyriai Doxai)
8. On Choice and Avoidance
9. On the Chief Good
10. On the Criterion (the Canon)
11. #Chaeridemus,
12. On the Gods
13. On Piety
14. #Hegesianax
15. Four essays on Lives
16. Essay on Just Dealing
17. #Neocles
18. Essay addressed to Themista
19. The Banquet (Symposium)
20. #Eurylochus
21. Essay addressed to Metrodorus
22. Essay on Seeing
23. Essay on the Angle in an Atom
24. Essay on Touch
25. Essay on Fate
26. Opinions on the Passions
27. Treatise addressed to Timocrates
28. Prognostics
29. Exhortations
30. On Images
31. On Perceptions
32. #Aristobulus
33. Essay on Music (i.e., on music, poetry, and dance)
34. On Justice and the other Virtues
35. On Gifts and Gratitude
36. #Polymedes
37. Timocrates (three books)
38. Metrodorus (five books)
39. Antidorus (two books)
40. Opinions about Diseases and Death, addressed to Mithras
41. #Callistolas
42. #Essay on Kingly Power
43. Anaximenes
44. Letters

In the works by Epicurus there are some persons’ names … I have a question: who are those persons? Are they only philosophers, or are they persons that have been involved with politics? And that essay on Kingly Power… does it not involve politics too? Also, Patro the Epicurean, from Wikipedia:

Patro (Greek: Πάτρων) was an Epicurean philosopher. He lived for some time in Rome, where he became acquainted, among others, with Cicero, and with the family of Gaius Memmius. Either now, or subsequently, he also gained the friendship of Atticus. From Rome he either removed or returned to Athens, and there succeeded Phaedrus as head of the Epicurean school, c. 70 BC. Memmius had, while in Athens, procured permission from the Areopagus court to pull down an old wall belonging to the property left by Epicurus for the use of his school. This was regarded by Patro as a sort of desecration, and he accordingly addressed himself to Atticus and Cicero, to induce them to use their influence with the Areopagus to get the decree rescinded. Atticus also wrote to Cicero on the subject. Cicero arrived at Athens the day after Memmius had departed for Mytilene. Finding that Memmius had abandoned his design of erecting the edifice with which the wall in question would have interfered, he consented to help in the matter; but thinking that the Areopagus would not retract their decree without the consent of Memmius, he wrote to the latter, urging his request in an elegant epistle, which is still in existence.

I have the impression that all the above people (including Patro the Epicurean) were involved with political affairs … and a later one and important Epicurean that was involved with politics too was–Thomas Jefferson!!

Jason. By the intermundial gods Elli, that letter to Memmius (the very Memmius that Lucretius dedicates DRN to, no less) leads to all kinds of unexplored places! The edition found on Perseus, has excellent notes that point in interesting directions. The cooperation of Epicureans and playwrights to commission a play in honor of a physician? Fantastic!

Elli. Wow!! Τhanks, Jason, I was looking for it!

Cassius. To summarize: Cicero saw this issue as one of the key elements of his attack on Epicirus, or he would not have highlighted it as he did. By doing so he convinces people that pleasure being the goal is not tenable or even significant, and that we should just incorporate whatever we want from Epicurus in our own non-pleasure-based philosophies. That makes Epicurus a handmaid to everyone else and buries the key message.

Elli. Some of my final thoughts: For involvement with politics, there needs to hide inside you a little Stoic personality, or (you need) to disguise your Epicurean inner personality with an outer Stoic one. Because if your nature is to be involved in politics, or (to be in) the company of academicians, you will be addressing Stoic personalities. You have to persuade them of Epicurean Philosophy (by mixing the goal) with aponia and ataraxia–all leading to happiness, bliss and prosperity, without insisting that the goal is pleasure net and clear. Because it is well known how hostile people are to this word. So, to persuade the others you use those words that sound better to their ears, and maybe you do your political job quite better.

The other issue is: How many can you trust inside the field of politics or among academicians, how many can you stand with, and how many will stand with you? The other issue is: How much money can you spend, and how many hours of your life can you spend too, in the company of such kinds of persons.

Αnd the last issue is that your aponia and ataraxia would be lost to a huge degree for the sake of politics, since mainly there are some persons ready to stab you on your back. But as Epicurus said in this Doctrine 7:

Some men want fame and status, thinking that they would thus make themselves secure against other men. If the life of such men really were secure, they have attained a natural good; if, however, it is insecure, they have not attained the end which by nature’s own prompting they originally sought.

Cassius. I better clarify my position on politics. I think Epicureans CAN and SHOULD be involved in politics. I am talking strictly about what an umbrella “Society of Epicurus” or similar organization should do that seeks to attract cooperation from a body of people. And that applies to what I do separately as well. I don’t begrudge others having political positions, but I firmly believe–at least in my own case–that I want to appeal to people of ALL political persuasions in the time I have left, or said another way, anyone of any political persuasion who is willing to listen to the argument and consider agreeing with it.

An obvious example is the Macedonia / Greek quarrel that Elli mentioned recently. I understand why that spurs emotions, but I would imagine that people on both sides of that could be Epicureans, just like people on both sides of the Roman civil war could be Epicureans. I would expect individual Epicureans to weigh in on it in that region, but I can understand that people on both sides have their own view of the pleasurable interests involved, and I can’t say that Epicurus would clearly take one side or the other.

Obviously I can’t imagine much appeal to religious political parties like Islam, but on issues such as economics, or even race relations, global warming, or thousands of other issues, there are going to be people on both sides of those issues who want see their own personal interests on one side, and some on the other, and to me there is no clear Epicurean position other than the pursuit of happiness is common to all people, so we need to be careful or there will be a conflict and if we don’t want that we have to work toward some kind of compromise.

And in fact, as an example, I think that the Epicureans in Greece, at least as individuals, probably ought to be more involved in politics than I perceive that they are, because it seems to me that they are under much more direct threat (for example from Islam, and the Orthodox Church) than we are here. And I think it is very justifiable for any group of people to want to retain its own integrity, so I can see Epicurean theory to be usable by a lot of different cultural and economic systems. What I want to continue to stress is that my non-politics position is because I think we are very early in any kind of Epicurean “movement” on the core issue of pleasure being the goal of life, and that it probably isn’t wise for those few of us who work together on core issues to allow ourselves to be divided by politics. That’s 99% of my point on politics.

As for the “pleasure vs. therapy” debate I’m saying mostly the same thing. I think all of us should pursue what interests us the most, and I am not trying to discourage anyone from anything that’s within the tent of working together on core issues. I think theories of Epicurus that focus on defining the goal solely as “absence of pain” are covertly anti-Epicurean and an umbrella organization should not be willing to accept that as a viable interpretation. I don’t perceive any of us as holding that opinion ourselves, but we seem to disagree on how much we will tolerate it or cooperate with it.

Notes:

  1. ataraxia means “lack of perturbation” in Greek.
  2. the Tetrapharmakon, or Four Cures, are a paraphrase of the first four of the Principal Doctrines.

Further Reading:

On the Standard Interpretation of Static Pleasure

The Counter-History of Philosophy

In Defense of Pleasure

Diogenes’ Wall On Pleasures