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.

Advice to New Students of Epicurean Philosophy

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

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

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

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

1. Epistemological Dogmatism

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

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

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

2. Know Our Factions

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

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

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

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

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

3. Study by yourself and with others

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: How to Live a Good Life

Today is the official book release date for How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy by Penguin Random House (Amazon link here), a collection of 15 essays edited by Massimo Pigliucci, Skye Cleary and Daniel Kaufman. In includes chapters on Epicureanism, Daoism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity Progressive Islam, Existentialism, and other philosophies of life as they are lived today.

The purpose of the book is to help people living in the 21st Century to tackle the challenges related to choosing a personal philosophy of life by giving them fifteen radically different examples of how others are doing it. Most of the essays were written by members of clergy or of academia. I wrote the Epicureanism chapter, and have had the opportunity to read the book in its entirety. From the intro, we learn that these are a few of the goals of the book:

First, to appreciate the sheer variety of philosophical points of view on life and better understand other human beings who have chosen to live according to a philosophy different from your own. Understanding is the beginning of both wisdom and compassion. Second, because you may wish to know something more about your own—chosen or inherited—life philosophy; our authors are some of the best and brightest in the field, and their chapters make for enlightening reading. Last, it is possible that you, too, have been questioning your current take on life, the universe, and everything, and reading about other perspectives may reinforce your own beliefs, prompt you to experiment with another philosophy, or perhaps even cause you to arrive at a new eclectic mix of ideas.

In the past, I have published commentaries on Buddhist, Daoist, Confucian, Humanist, Nietzschean and other philosophical traditions, as well as Christianity, Islam, and the Bahá’í Faith. I have learned much from each of these traditions. I’ve learned to appreciate Muhammad’s good business sense–even if I profoundly disagree with most of the rest of Islam. I’ve learned to come to terms with and appreciate some of the good aspects of my own Christian upbringing.

I even cheerfully stumbled across a Daoist philosopher who was Epicurean in all but name! One of my favorite chapters in the book was the one on Daoism, which coincidentally is the philosophy that has the most in common with Epicureanism. It reminded me that if there are innumerable atoms in infinite space, as Epicurean cosmology says, this means that the cosmos is very complex and phenomena may have multiple valid explanations from various perspectives. This modern Epicureans call “polyvalent logic”.

From Confucianism, I was reminded that relations are part of what defines our identities. From Stoicism, I learned that it is prudent to let go of what we have no control over. From the Progressive Islam chapter, I learned that the efforts to bring Islam into the future go well beyond ijtihad (independent interpretation of the Qur’an), and capitalize on the Qur’anic message of economic justice to make the religion relevant to contemporary progressive issues. From Reform Jewish Rabbi Barbara Block, I learned:

How wise our world would become if only we would all learn from each other!

I also learned that there is a non-theistic religion called Ethical Culture (aka Religious Humanism), which is in many ways similar to Humanistic Judaism and to the Unitarian Universalist Church.

Existentialist thinkers like Sartre and De Beauvoir were very interested in how people objectify each other, and asked questions about how we can best develop mature, intersubjective human relations between free individuals. The Existentialism chapter reminded me that enemies can sometimes be a source of healthy competition and–in a strange way–be at the same time good friends,

that other people are vitally important because they challenge us and open up possibilities in ways that we do not always see on our own, and the best kinds of relationships are those that are constructively critical

and that

signing up for a set of rules that someone else created is “bad faith,” meaning that we are not being authentic.

The Effective Altruism chapter reminded me that, if I’m going to be putting out efforts to help others, I may as well ensure that my efforts have the greatest impact.

It would be unfair for me to “review” the content of the Epicureanism chapter, since I myself wrote it. I will leave that to others. However, I will say that the experiment of writing this chapter was a great chance to re-evaluate my own personal philosophy and to re-visit many of the things that I’ve learned as a student of Epicurean philosophy, and that everyone should carry out this experiment as a way of assessing the ways in which we sculpt ourselves and our lives as pleasant, how we create meaning and value, how we deal with existential baggage and challenges, and how we discern truth from untruth. In fact, ancient Epicureans were known for writing Epitomes that summarized their doctrines as a learning and memorizing tool. So my exercise of writing this chapter is actually a recommended practice of the tradition.

If you read How to Live a Good Life and want to maximize the pleasure that you get from the book, my advice is that you take this project a step further and write an essay where you expound your own personal philosophy, perhaps inspired by a few of the things you read here. Most importantly, remember that philosophy is not just an exercise for academia: it’s an exercise for daily living.

Further Reading:

Lucian’s Sale of Creeds: an ancient satire of the various philosophies

How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy

The 20 Tenets of Society of Friends of Epicurus

Lea en español.

In the initial years of forming groups of friends and intellectual peers with the goal of studying, applying, and teaching Epicurean philosophy, we have frequently considered that it might be a good idea to have a concise, summarized set of clear Tenets to facilitate the process of teaching, to connect theory with practice, and to more clearly explain what it is that we believe in.

This has not been easy. We do not wish to risk over-simplifying ideas that, when summarized, lose either their potency or some aspect of them that requires further qualification in order to avoid grave errors. We also wish to keep a big tent that allows for opinions that are varied, yet orthodox enough to still be coherent with EP. Hence, for instance, the “three acceptable interpretations” of Epicurean theology in Tenet 12.

Ancient and modern Epicureans have always been encouraged to write down Outlines of their personal philosophy. This actually has great benefits: it helps to cognitively organize and make sense of what we believe, to find the coherence between our values and ideas, and to articulate them clearly. The Tenets are roughly based on the Outline that I (Hiram) wrote some time ago, edited and expanded.

The first five Tenets relate to the Canon (or, epistemology). The next five relate to the Physics (or, the nature of things). The final ten relate to the Ethics (or, the art of living). These are the three parts of Epicurean philosophy. In the notes section, you will find Epicurean sources and essays cross-referenced for each Tenet.

  1. Nature is knowable via the sensations (vision, audition, touch, smell, taste).

  2. Via the value-setting pleasure and aversion faculties, we know what is choice-worthy and avoidance-worthy.

  3. While sensations tell us that something IS or exists, it does not tell us WHAT it is. For THAT cognitive process, we must rely on a faculty tied to both language and memory. The faculty of anticipation helps us to recognize abstractions and things previously apprehended.

  4. We must infer the unseen / un-apprehended based on what has been previously seen / apprehended by any of our faculties; and we must re-adjust our views based on new evidence presented to our faculties.

  5. Our words and their meanings must be clear, and conform to the attestations that nature has presented to our faculties.

  6. All bodies are made of particles and void.

  7. Bodies have essential properties and incidental properties.

  8. Nothing comes from nothing.

  9. All things operate within the laws of nature, which apply everywhere.

  10. All that exists, exists within nature. There is no super-natural or un-natural “realm”; it would not have a way of existing outside of nature. Nature is reality.

  11. The end that our nature seeks is pleasure. It is also in our nature to avoid pain.

  12. There are three acceptable interpretations of the Epicurean gods: the realist interpretation, the idealist interpretation, and the atheist interpretation.

  13. The goal of religion is the experience of pure, effortless pleasure.

  14. Death is nothing to us because when we are, death is not and when death is, we are not. Since there is no sentience in death, it is never experienced by us.

  15. Under normal circumstances, we are in control of our mental dispositions.

  16. Choices and avoidances are carried out successfully (that is, producing pleasure as the final product) if we measure advantages/pleasures versus disadvantages/pains over the long term. This means that we may sometimes defer pleasure in order to avoid greater pains, or choose temporary disadvantage, but only and always for the sake of a greater advantage or pleasure later.

  17. To live pleasantly, we must have confident expectation that we will be able to secure the chief goods: those things that are natural and necessary for life, happiness, and health. Therefore, whatever we do to secure safety, friendship, autarchy, provision of food and drink and clothing, and other basic needs, is naturally good.

  18. Autarchy furnishes greater possibilities of pleasure than slavery, dependence, or relying on luck; The unplanned life is not worth living, and we must make what is in our future better than what was in our past.

  19. Friends are necessary for securing happiness. It is advantageous to promote Epicurean philosophy in order to widen our circle of Epicurean friends.

  20. Human relations should be based on mutual benefit.

Notes:

  1. “The doctrine of the first leg of the canon: sensations”. PD 23. The Epicurean Canon.
  2. “The second leg of the canon: pleasure and aversion”. The Pleasure / Aversion Faculty: an Introduction.
  3. “The third leg of the canon: anticipations”. The canon is known as the “tripod” because it stands on three legs. Epicurus and His Philosophy – Chapter VIII – Sensations, Anticipations, and Feelings.
  4. “The doctrine of inference”. Review of Philodemus’ On Methods of Inference. Philodemus: On Methods of Inference – A Study in Ancient Empiricism.
  5. Epicurus: Against the use of empty words.
  6. “Fourth, Nothing exists in the universe except bodies and space.  We conclude that bodies exist because it is the experience of all men, through our senses, that bodies exist.  As I have already said, we must necessarily judge all things, even those things that the senses cannot perceive, by reasoning that is fully in accord with the evidence that the senses do perceive.  And we conclude that space exists because, if it did not, bodies would have nowhere to exist and nothing through which to move, as we see that bodies do move.  Besides these two, bodies and space, and properties that are incidental to combinations of bodies and space, nothing else whatsoever exists, nor is there any evidence on which to speculate that anything else exists that does not have a foundation in bodies and space”. – Letter to Herodotus, Section 2
  7. “We must distinguish particles, which have eternal and essential properties, from bodies, which are combinations of particles and void, and which have qualities that are merely transitory while they are so combined. These temporary qualities we call “incidental” to the bodies with which they are associated. As with the permanent properties of particles, transitory incidental qualities of bodies do not have material existences of their own, nor can they be classified as incorporeal. When we refer to some quality as “incidental,” we must make clear that this incidental quality is neither essential to the body, nor a permanent property of the body, nor something without which we could not conceive the body as existing. Instead, the incidental qualities of a body are the result of our apprehending that they accompany the body only for a time. Although those qualities which are incidental are not eternal, or even essential, we must not banish incidental matters from our minds.  Incidental qualities do not have a material existence, nor do they exist independently in some reality that is beyond our comprehension. We must, instead, consider the incidental qualities of bodies as having exactly the character that our sensations reveal them to possess”. – Letter to Herodotus, Section 7
  8. First, nothing can be created out of that which does not exist. We conclude this to be true because if things could be created out of that which did not exist, we would see all things being created out of everything, with no need of seeds, and our experience shows us that this is not true. Second, nothing is ever completely destroyed to non-existence.  We conclude this because if those things which dissolve from our sight completely ceased to exist, all things would have perished to nothing long ago.  If all things had dissolved to non-existence, nothing would exist for the creation of new things, and we have already seen that nothing can come from that which does not exist. Third, the universe as a whole has always been as it is now, and always will be the same.  We conclude this because the universe as a whole is everything that exists, and there is nothing outside the universe into which the universe can change, or which can come into the universe from outside it to bring about change”. – Letter to Herodotus, Section 2
  9. PD 10-13.
  10. “To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise .. . without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence”. – Thomas Jefferson ; I conjure you, my brethren, remain true to the earth, and believe not those who speak unto you of superearthly hopes! Poisoners are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying ones and poisoned ones themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so away with them! Once blasphemy against God was the greatest blasphemy; but God died, and therewith also those blasphemers. To blaspheme the earth is now the dreadfulest sin, and to rate the heart of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth!” – Nietzsche, in Thus Spake Zarathustra
  11. “The doctrine of the telos, or the end”. “I call you to constant pleasures!” – Epicurus.
  12. The third way to look at the Epicurean GodsPhilodemus On Piety: Critical Text with Commentary
  13. Epicureanism as a Religious Identity; “We all regard our views as the true cause of our tranquility. … In On Holiness, he (Epicurus) calls a life of perfection the most pleasant and most blessed, and instructs us to guide against all defilement, with our intellect comprehensively viewing the best psychosomatic dispositions for the sake of fitting all that happens to us to blessedness …” – Philodemus of Gadara, On Piety; Philodemus On Piety: Critical Text with Commentary
  14. Review of Philodemus’ On Death. Letter to Menoeceus, third paragraph. Philodemus: On Death (Writings from the Greco-Roman World 29)
  15. Diogenes’ Wall: on PD 20.
  16. “The doctrine of hedonic calculus”. Back to the Basics. On Choices and Avoidances.
  17. “The doctrine of confident expectation”. See the Metrodorus portion in the essay In Memory of the Men.
  18. “The doctrine of personal sovereignty”. See the Metrodorus portion in the essay In Memory of the Men; How Epicurean Principles Can Help You Transform Your Financial and Personal Life. Vatican Sayings 36, 47, 65, 67; PD 15, 16
  19. “The doctrine of friendship”. On Friendship. Organization and Procedure in Epicurean Groups (PDF file), by Norman DeWitt. Health Effects of Isolation.
  20. “The doctrine of mutual advantage”. See PDs 31-40.

Book Review of “How to be Epicurean”, by Catherine Wilson

In recent months, many book reviews have been published, as well as podcasts and essays written by Catherine Wilson herself to promote her new book How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well. I finally had the opportunity to read, evaluate, and write my own review of the book.

I too have accepted the challenge of inviting modern people to the study of Epicurean philosophy, and have continued to learn constantly after writing my book so that some of my opinions may have evolved, and for that reason I probably have greater sympathy for Wilson’s efforts than most reviewers. The reader must understand that every approach to the task of presenting Epicureanism to a modern audience will bear the mark of our own personal histories, values, and idiosyncrasies, and is bound to be culturally specific and idiosyncratic. Apologists for capitalism and anarcho-capitalists will not love her book, but her arguments are often sound, if incomplete. Below are some of my specific critiques and commentaries.

The Good

The author says, accurately, that there are no natural rights, only conventional rights.

She calls for policy to be based on evidence.

The moral problem of euthanasia is very well explained in pages 138-140.

I applaud that she’s not afraid to tackle issues of sex and intimacy.

The Bad

In page 177, she claims that “no one can claim to perceive reality directly”. The premise behind the canon is that it is, indeed, possible to apprehend reality directly with our faculties. She didn’t delve into the Epicurean canon in much detail.

In page 183-4, the author’s (incorrect) view that the atomic theory is unempirical could have been turned into an opportunity to discuss the acceptable methods of inference–but, either way, this view is an error: atoms have been photographed (see this article by Live Science).

The Influence of Hostile Narratives

When reading Wilson as a non-academic proponent of Epicurean philosophy, it becomes very clear to me that she moves in (academic?) circles that are quite hostile to Epicurean ideas, and–in spite of her sincere and well-meaning defense of Epicurus–has suffered the contagion of these ideas to some extent.

For instance, she accepts accusations by the intellectual enemies of Epicureanism that are false as if they were historical truths. In page 112, she states as fact that Lucretius committed suicide without once evaluating the credibility of the claim or its dubious source. Suicide is forbidden in Epicureanism except in cases of terminal illness or while lying mortally wounded in battlefield. This is only one of many false accusations against Lucretius by the enemies of the Epicureans.

The author elsewhere gives credit to misogynistic accusations against the Garden. Proponents of virtue ethics and religions at times seemed to think that all emancipated women are whores, and described many of the women who participated in the Garden that way. The truth is that many of the founders were married, had children, and were raising them in the environment of the Garden. It was a family environment, as attested also by Epicurus’ final testament.

Wilson’s defense of empiricism in page 183 is not strong enough. She points out the dangers of scientific advance, and critiques empiricism as if ignorance (and its false consolations) were without dangers. This is the exact opposite of Michel Onfray’s bold Promethean Bio-Ethics, which I much prefer. We must not deny that there are dangers in knowledge, but I sense here also that she concedes to opinions that are foreign to the Epicurean study of nature, and which sometimes depict scientific advance as an insult to God, or as otherwise arrogance on the part of mortals.

Epicureanism is NOT a Philosophy of the Polis

On that note, the author seems to have accepted also (page 208) the insinuation that Lenin was in some way influenced by Epicureanism because he favored historical materialism–a doctrine that derives from Marx. She insinuates that Hobbes was Epicurean, yet the philosopher and author of Leviathan advocated for the big state and was a philosopher of the polis (of the nation-state).

Marx and Engels (who, she claims, were influenced by Epicurus) were also definitely not Epicurean, but their ideas that machines should do our work, that they should free men to enjoy their time, and that people should own the means of production have antecedents in Philodemus’ Art of Property Management scroll–particularly in the “delegation of tasks” doctrine.

The problem with conflating such a wide array of thinkers with the Epicureans is that this takes away the Epicurean Gospel from the realm of individual ethics into the realm of political and Platonic ethics, and confuses natural community with political community. We should consider the kings and mobs quote, which shows that neither the excesses of elitism/traditionalism nor of collectivism (as is the case with communism) are healthy according to the Epicureans. This quote places Epicureanism outside of the narratives of the right and the left of the political spectrum.

A free life cannot acquire many possessions, because this is not easy to do without servility to mobs or monarchs, yet it possesses all things in unfailing abundance; and if by chance it obtains many possessions, it is easy to distribute them so as to win the gratitude of neighbors. – Vatican Saying 67

Wilson argues that wealth should be shared (page 222), but does not link this with the sources. This is not entirely clear to me, but it seems that Epicurus DID say in VS 67 (above) that wealth should be shared … with friends or neighbors, not necessarily with the impersonal polis. Later Epicureans, like Thomas Jefferson, worried about the excesses of wealth disparity and called for the use of taxation to fix this problem.

Not Enough Sources Cited

The author does cite sources at times, but not often enough, and this is a bit problematic. For instance, when she claimed that the residents of the Garden were evading both politics AND business, I asked myself: What would be the source of that? I came across this potential source:

The love of money, if unjustly gained, is impious, and, if justly gained, is shameful; for it is unseemly to be parsimonious even with justice on one’s side. – Vatican Sayin 43

When arguing against “concentration of wealth”, or “greed”, maybe she should’ve cited her Lucretian and Epicurean sources in detail. One must particularly object to this in page 104:

Epicureans put no stock in the notion of individual desert, they are unmoved by arguments that the wealthy deserve their wealth and the poor do not deserve to partake of it.

The author, again, does not cite sources, and this seems to contradict Metrodorus’ instructions in Vatican Saying 45 that we should take pride in our own qualities, like our strength and self-sufficiency. I am unfamiliar with a source that would appear to justify “being unmoved by arguments” related to individual desert. VS 67 and a Philodeman scroll (Art of Property Management) advise that the wealthy should share their wealth with their friends–but this says nothing about “deserving” what one has.

The Importance of Mutual Advantage

In page 108, Wilson confuses the reader needlessly re: how laws can be just and yet not be of mutual benefit. Either she is contradicting the sources, or not expressing herself clearly. She could have easily cited PDs 37-38 on how rules may and do change.

I applaud that the author appeals to the importance of empirical data and sound science when discussing policy issues, like global warming and climate change. Empirical data is important. However, she did not mention how mutual advantage relates to policy. It is difficult or impossible to connect a philosophy of personal ethics like Epicureanism to policy at the level of state, or of community, without appealing to mutual advantage. If Wilson had appealed to the sources while explaining the concepts of justice / morality, she would have encountered repeated references to “mutual advantage” and this would have added credibility and clarity to her arguments.

If she had relied, again, on the first principles (in this case, the last ten of the Principal Doctrines), her explanation of how Epicurean philosophy provides moral guidance would have been much more cogent and complete. The fact that an area the size of Delaware has been declared unlivable in Louisiana has economic effects, and the building of new dams there and in other coastal regions would result in the spending of billions of dollars that would have to come from the pockets of tax payers. The problems generated by climate change are not abstract. If they are discussed in concrete, measurable, observable terms as they are directly experienced, then the issues of mutual advantage and disadvantage may be addressed. This is how Epicurean morality works, and Wilson wasted an opportunity to encourage her readers to philosophize like Epicureans about these issues.

There’s a reason why the founders made frequent appeals to memorize the sources. Epicurean ideas are much easier to explain and understand, and a lot more difficult to misconstrue or confuse, if they are explained from the sources. Our insistence on citing sources is not because we think Epicurus was infallible and we obey his unfailing authority. The arguments in the PDs, the VS and other sources were carefully articulated after hours and hours of discussion by the founders, and the words were carefully chosen for a reason–which it is our task to discern–, and by her failure to cite sources, the author risks sounding preachy, loses a bit of the clarity of her message, and reduces her credibility (as we’ve seen in some of her book’s reviews).

In one passage, the author tries to argue that a lack of justice in the afterlife (hell, or reincarnation) should not generate existential anxiety. Here, again, mutual advantage could have helped to explain that people are capable of being fair and moral without having to tremble in fear of hell. People who are cruel, exploitative, or unreliable, burn bridges with their fellow citizens and create many disadvantages for themselves and others. People who are fair, honest, and reliable, create many advantages for themselves and others.

Mutual advantage is also one of the most business-friendly principles in Epicurean doctrine, and it’s no surprise that Wilson’s defense of Epicureanism comes off as not business friendly. She barely mentioned this crucial component.

In Closing

These criticisms–as I said initially–do not take away from Wilson’s overall praiseworthy effort to promote Epicurean ideas. She has potentially initiated a conversation with her reader that–I hope–will contribute to her reader’s happiness. These efforts will always bear the mark of the idiosyncrasy of the proponent, and that is to be expected.

My goal in writing this post is to help students of Epicurean philosophy to connect the content to the sources, and to more critically read this and any other book inviting us to study Epicurean philosophy. For this reason, I invite readers of Wilson’s book to join us at the Garden of Epicurus Facebook group and share any questions you may have while reading this or other books.

Further Reading:

  Wrong Again? One more on Stoicism vs Epicureanism

A hostile review from the Wall Street Journal written by a Stoic

Another book review written by a capitalist who is critical of Wilson’s anti-capitalism: Not Quite the Playboy Life: A new book makes a spirited, if flawed, defense of Epicurean philosophy

How to be an Epicurean: A philosophy that values innocent pleasure, human warmth and the rewards of creative endeavour. What’s not to like?

The Epicurean Principal Doctrines

The following are a couple of translations of the PDs–by Cyril Bailey and by Peter St Andre. For comparison, here’s a Robert Drew Hicks translation, and the one by Erik Anderson. NE has a section that includes the PD with annotations and cross-links. We also have a PD memes section.


Monadnock Translation Cyril Bailey Translation
1. That which is blissful and immortal has no troubles itself, nor does it cause trouble for others, so that it is not affected by anger or gratitude (for all such things come about through weakness). The blessed and immortal nature knows no trouble itself nor causes trouble to any other, so that it is never constrained by anger or favour. For all such things exist only in the weak.
2. Death is nothing to us; for what has disintegrated lacks awareness, and what lacks awareness is nothing to us. Death is nothing to us, for that which is dissolved is without sensation; and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us.
3. The limit of enjoyment is the removal of all pains. Wherever and for however long pleasure is present, there is neither bodily pain nor mental distress. The limit of quantity in pleasures is the removal of all that is painful. Wherever pleasure is present, as long as it is there, there is neither pain of body nor of mind, nor of both at once.
4. Pain does not last continuously in the flesh; instead, the sharpest pain lasts the shortest time, a pain that exceeds bodily pleasure lasts only a few days, and diseases that last a long time involve delights that exceed their pains. Pain does not last continuously in the flesh, but the acutest pain is there for a very short time, and even that which just exceeds the pleasure in the flesh does not continue for many days at once. But chronic illnesses permit a predominance of pleasure over pain in the flesh.
5. It is not possible to live joyously without also living wisely and beautifully and rightly, nor to live wisely and beautifully and rightly without living joyously; and whoever lacks this cannot live joyously. It is not possible to live pleasantly without living prudently and honorably and justly, [nor again to live a life of prudence, honor, and Justice] without living pleasantly. And the man who does not possess the pleasant life, is not living prudently and honorably and justly, [and the man who does not possess the virtuous life], cannot possibly live pleasantly.
6. It is a natural benefit of leadership and kingship to take courage from other men (or at least from the sort of men who can give one courage). To secure protection from men anything is a natural good by which you may be able to attain this end.
7. Some people want to be well esteemed and widely admired, believing that in this way they will be safe from others; if the life of such people is secure then they have gained its natural benefit, but if not then they have not gained what they sought from the beginning in accordance with what is naturally appropriate. Some men wished to become famous and conspicuous, thinking that they would thus win for themselves safety from other men. Wherefore if the life of such men is safe, they have obtained the good which nature craves; but if it is not safe, they do not possess that for which they strove at first by the instinct of nature.
8. No pleasure is bad in itself; but the means of paying for some pleasures bring with them disturbances many times greater than the pleasures themselves. No pleasure is a bad thing in itself: but the means which produce some pleasures bring with them disturbances many times greater than the pleasures.
9. If every pleasure were condensed and were present at the same time and in the whole of one’s nature or its primary parts, then the pleasures would never differ from one another. If every pleasure could be intensified so that it lasted and influenced the whole organism or the most essential parts of our nature, pleasures would never differ from one another.
10. If the things that produce the delights of those who are decadent washed away the mind’s fears about astronomical phenomena and death and suffering, and furthermore if they taught us the limits of our pains and desires, then we would have no complaints against them, since they would be filled with every joy and would contain not a single pain or distress (and that’s what is bad). If the things that produce the pleasures of profligates could dispel the fears of the mind about the phenomena of the sky and death and its pains, and also teach the limits of desires (and of pains), we should never have cause to blame them: for they would be filling themselves full with pleasures from every source and never have pain of body or mind, which is the evil of life.
11. If our suspicions about astronomical phenomena and about death were nothing to us and troubled us not at all, and if this were also the case regarding our ignorance about the limits of our pains and desires, then we would have no need for studying what is natural. If we were not troubled by our suspicions of the phenomena of the sky and about death, fearing that it concerns us, and also by our failure to grasp the limits of pains and desires, we should have no need of natural science.
12. It is impossible for someone who is completely ignorant about nature to wash away his fears about the most important matters if he retains some suspicions about the myths. So it is impossible to experience undiluted enjoyment without studying what is natural. A man cannot dispel his fear about the most important matters if he does not know what is the nature of the universe but suspects the truth of some mythical story. So that without natural science it is not possible to attain our pleasures unalloyed.
13. It is useless to be safe from other people while retaining suspicions about what is above and below the earth and in general about the infinite unknown. There is no profit in securing protection in relation to men, if things above and things beneath the earth and indeed all in the boundless universe remain matters of suspicion.
14. Although some measure of safety from other people is based in the power to fight them off and in abundant wealth, the purest security comes from solitude and breaking away from the herd. The most unalloyed source of protection from men, which is secured to some extent by a certain force of expulsion, is in fact the immunity which results from a quiet life and the retirement from the world.
15. Natural wealth is both limited and easy to acquire, but the riches incited by groundless opinion have no end. The wealth demanded by nature is both limited and easily procured; that demanded by idle imaginings stretches on to infinity.
16. Chance steals only a bit into the life of a wise person: for throughout the complete span of his life the greatest and most important matters have been, are, and will be directed by the power of reason. In but few things chance hinders a wise man, but the greatest and most important matters reason has ordained and throughout the whole period of life does and will ordain.
17. One who acts aright is utterly steady and serene, whereas one who goes astray is full of trouble and confusion. The just man is most free from trouble, the unjust most full of trouble.
18. As soon as the pain produced by the lack of something is removed, pleasure in the flesh is not increased but only embellished. Yet the limit of enjoyment in the mind is produced by thinking through these very things and similar things, which once provoked the greatest fears in the mind. The pleasure in the flesh is not increased, when once the pain due to want is removed, but is only varied: and the limit as regards pleasure in the mind is begotten by the reasoned understanding of these very pleasures and of the emotions akin to them, which used to cause the greatest fear to the mind.
19. Finite time and infinite time contain the same amount of joy, if its limits are measured out through reasoning. Infinite time contains no greater pleasure than limited time, if one measures by reason the limits of pleasure.
20. The flesh assumes that the limits of joy are infinite, and that infinite joy can be produced only through infinite time. But the mind, thinking through the goal and limits of the flesh and dissolving fears about eternity, produces a complete way of life and therefore has no need of infinite time; yet the mind does not flee from joy, nor when events cause it to exit from life does it look back as if it has missed any aspect of the best life. The flesh perceives the limits of pleasure as unlimited, and unlimited time is required to supply it. But the mind, having attained a reasoned understanding of the ultimate good of the flesh and its limits and having dissipated the fears concerning the time to come, supplies us with the complete life, and we have no further need of infinite time: but neither does the mind shun pleasure, nor, when circumstances begin to bring about the departure from life, does it approach its end as though it fell short in any way of the best life.
21. One who perceives the limits of life knows how easy it is to expel the pain produced by a lack of something and to make one’s entire life complete; so that there is no need for the things that are achieved through struggle. He who has learned the limits of life knows that that which removes the pain due to want and makes the whole of life complete is easy to obtain, so that there is no need of actions which involve competition.
22. You must reflect on the fundamental goal and everything that is clear, to which opinions are referred; if you do not, all will be full of trouble and confusion. We must consider both the real purpose and all the evidence of direct perception, to which we always refer the conclusions of opinion; otherwise, all will be full of doubt and confusion.
23. If you fight against all your perceptions, you will have nothing to refer to in judging those which you declare to be false. If you fight against all sensations, you will have no standard by which to judge even those of them which you say are false.
24. If you reject a perception outright and do not distinguish between your opinion about what will happen after, what came before, your feelings, and all the layers of imagination involved in your thoughts, then you will throw your other perceptions into confusion because of your trifling opinions; as a result, you will reject the very criterion of truth. And if when forming concepts from your opinions you treat as confirmed everything that will happen and what you do not witness thereafter, then you will not avoid what is false, so that you will remove all argument and all judgment about what is and is not correct. If you reject any single sensation and fail to distinguish between the conclusion of opinion as to the appearance awaiting confirmation and that which is actually given by the sensation or feeling, or each intuitive apprehension of the mind, you will confound all other sensations as well with the same groundless opinion, so that you will reject every standard of judgment. And if among the mental images created by your opinion you affirm both that which awaits confirmation and that which does not, you will not escape error, since you will have preserved the whole cause of doubt in every judgment between what is right and what is wrong.
25. If at all critical times you do not connect each of your actions to the natural goal of life, but instead turn too soon to some other kind of goal in thinking whether to avoid or pursue something, then your thoughts and your actions will not be in harmony. If on each occasion, instead of referring your actions to the end of nature, you turn to some other nearer standard when you are making a choice or an avoidance, your actions will not be consistent with your principles.
26. The desires that do not bring pain when they go unfulfilled are not necessary; indeed they are easy to reject if they are hard to achieve or if they seem to produce harm. Of desires, all that do not lead to a sense of pain, if they are not satisfied, are not necessary, but involve a craving which is easily dispelled, when the object is hard to procure or they seem likely to produce harm.
27. Of all the things that wisdom provides for the complete happiness of one’s entire life, by far the greatest is friendship. Of all the things which wisdom acquires to produce the blessedness of the complete life, far the greatest is the possession of friendship.
28. The same judgment produces confidence that dreadful things are not everlasting, and that security amidst the limited number of dreadful things is most easily achieved through friendship. The same conviction which has given us confidence that there is nothing terrible that lasts forever or even for long, has also seen the protection of friendship most fully completed in the limited evils of this life.
29. Among desires, some are natural and necessary, some are natural and unnecessary, and some are unnatural and unnecessary (arising instead from groundless opinion). Among desires some are natural (and necessary, some natural) but not necessary, and others neither natural nor necessary, but due to idle imagination.
30. Among natural desires, those that do not bring pain when unfulfilled and that require intense exertion arise from groundless opinion; and such desires fail to be stamped out not by nature but because of the groundless opinions of humankind. Wherever in the case of desires which are physical, but do not lead to a sense of pain, if they are not fulfilled, the effort is intense, such pleasures are due to idle imagination, and it is not owing to their own nature that they fail to be dispelled, but owing to the empty imaginings of the man.
31. Natural justice is a covenant for mutual benefit, to not harm one another or be harmed. The justice which arises from nature is a pledge of mutual advantage to restrain men from harming one another and save them from being harmed.
32. With regard to those animals that do not have the power of making a covenant to not harm one another or be harmed, there is neither justice nor injustice; similarly for those peoples who have neither the power nor the desire of making a covenant to not harm one another or be harmed. For all living things which have not been able to make compacts not to harm one another or be harmed, nothing ever is either just or unjust; and likewise too for all tribes of men which have been unable or unwilling to make compacts not to harm or be harmed.
33. Justice does not exist in itself; instead, it is always a compact to not harm one another or be harmed, which is agreed upon by those who gather together at some time and place. Justice never is anything in itself, but in the dealings of men with one another in any place whatever and at any time it is a kind of compact not to harm or be harmed.
34. Injustice is not bad in itself, but only because of the fear caused by a suspicion that you will not avoid those who are appointed to punish wrongdoing. Injustice is not an evil in itself, but only in consequence of the fear which attaches to the apprehension of being unable to escape those appointed to punish such actions.
35. It is impossible to be confident that you will escape detection when secretly doing something contrary to an agreement to not harm one another or be harmed, even if currently you do so countless times; for until your death you will be uncertain that you have escaped detection. It is not possible for one who acts in secret contravention of the terms of the compact not to harm or be harmed, to be confident that he will escape detection, even if at present he escapes a thousand times. For up to the time of death it cannot be certain that he will indeed escape..
36. In general, justice is the same for all: what is mutually advantageous among companions. But with respect to the particulars of a place or other causes, it does not follow that the same thing is just for all. In its general aspect justice is the same for all, for it is a kind of mutual advantage in the dealings of men with one another: but with reference to the individual peculiarities of a country or any other circumstances the same thing does not turn out to be just for all.
37. Among things that are thought to be just, that which has been witnessed to bring mutual advantage among companions has the nature of justice, whether or not it is the same for everyone. But if someone legislates something whose results are not in accord with what brings mutual advantage among companions, then it does not have the nature of justice. And if what brings advantage according to justice changes, but for some time fits our basic grasp of justice, then for that time it is just, at least to the person who is not confused by empty prattle but instead looks to the facts. Among actions which are sanctioned as just by law, that which is proved on examination to be of advantage in the requirements of men’s dealings with one another, has the guarantee of justice, whether it is the same for all or not. But if a man makes a law and it does not turn out to lead to advantage in men’s dealings with each other, then it no longer has the essential nature of justice. And even if the advantage in the matter of justice shifts from one side to the other, but for a while accords with the general concept, it is nonetheless just for that period in the eyes of those who do not confound themselves with empty sounds but look to the actual facts.
38. When circumstances have not changed and things that were thought to be just are shown to not be in accord with our basic grasp of justice, then those things were not just. But when circumstances do change and things that were just are no longer useful, then those things were just while they brought mutual advantage among companions sharing the same community; but when later they did not bring advantage, then they were not just. Where, provided the circumstances have not been altered, actions which were considered just, have been shown not to accord with the general concept in actual practice, then they are not just. But where, when circumstances have changed, the same actions which were sanctioned as just no longer lead to advantage, there they were just at the time when they were of advantage for the dealings of fellow-citizens with one another, but subsequently they are no longer just, when no longer of advantage.
39. The person who has put together the best means for confidence about external threats is one who has become familiar with what is possible and at least not unfamiliar with what is not possible, but who has not mixed with things where even this could not be managed and who has driven away anything that is not advantageous. The man who has best ordered the element of disquiet arising from external circumstances has made those things that he could akin to himself and the rest at least not alien; but with all to which he could not do even this, he has refrained from mixing, and has expelled from his life all which it was of advantage to treat thus.
40. All those who have the power to obtain the greatest confidence from their neighbors also live with each other most enjoyably in the most steadfast trust; and experiencing the strongest fellowship they do not lament as pitiful the untimely end of those who pass away. As many as possess the power to procure complete immunity from their neighbours, these also live most pleasantly with one another, since they have the most certain pledge of security, and after they have enjoyed the fullest intimacy, they do not lament the previous departure of a dead friend, as though he were to be pitied.

 

Epicurean Arguments Against Racism

The reality-show spectacle of contemporary politics and society in our corner of the world the last few years has brought racism (and our favorite euphemism for it, “white nationalism”) out into the open. Efforts are proliferating to normalize overt racism, even in the highest circles of power. As Epicureans, we should always be thinking of ways in which Epicurean doctrines apply to our real world problems, and attempting to articulate what moral guidance we can find in our tradition for contemporary problems, always ensuring that our considerations are coherent with the rest of our worldview. Here are some of my thoughts on the issue of racism, as it relates to several Epicurean teachings.

Taking Pride in our Personal Qualities

The study of nature does not create men who are fond of boasting and chattering or who show off the culture that impresses the many, but rather men who are strong and self-sufficient, and who take pride in their own personal qualities not in those that depend on external circumstances. – Vatican Saying 45

VS 45, which was invoked in my latest Twentieth message, is an excellent starting point in this discussion–particularly the portion about taking “pride in their own personal qualities not in those that depend on external circumstances“.

Notice that this is tied here to “the study of nature”–meaning that this is a conclusion that we arrive at after carefully observing the nature of things. I believe that this ties to the fact that, when we observe people, we are observing concrete individuals and subjects, and we must judge them as such–not as abstractions, not as idealized and un-individualized objects. We are able to successfully form inter-subjective relations with others when we allow them their individuality, rather than project our values or prejudices. To paraphrase from A Few Days in Athens: “Stoics/idealists see humankind (in the abstract), Epicureans see (concrete, individual) men and women“.

Mortals do not get to choose what race, caste, ethnicity, tribe, or nation, they are born into. This is purely accidental, and has nothing to do with what one deserves or earns, what one has sacrificed or fought for. Philosophy requires each individual to be accountable for the content of her own character, her own qualities and habits. This is a reflection of our true worth, and this we are entitled to take pride in.

Races as Platonic Communities

Epicureanism is a philosophy of friendship, and few things are as toxic to friendship as politics. Insofar as race is political, racial discourse is political discourse.

If one wanted to inquire into what is most opposite to friendship, and the most fruitful of aversions, we would see simply that it is politics. – Philodemus of Gadara

Furthermore, we should ask ourselves what is the nature of racial “identity”. Is it real, or is it a cultural artifact, a construct invented by people? What is the ontological status of “race”, as it is used in our conventional discourse? If we investigate this, we have to conclude that racial communities are imagined communities. They are Platonic communities.

We are reminded of Dunbar’s number: anthropologist Robin Dunbar once sought to evaluate how many REAL, inter-personal relations the human brain is capable of processing, on average, and came up with the figure 147.8 … that is to say, the members of our species have the neurological ability to form less than 150 true friendships on average.

This is our natural community, our real community. Any “sense of community” beyond this, is therefore considered an imagined community. It’s purely Platonic, or political. Failure to acknowledge this distinction may lead to great dangers for our happiness. We may end up sacrificing our lives, or our most important and cherished values, for the sake of an imagined collective, and completely lose sight of the things that actually make life worth living, destroying them.

Politicians, oil investors and others who wish to profit from warfare, often appeal to nationalist sentiments in order to exploit people’s sense of imagined belonging for their own purposes. Most wars and terrorist acts (whether done for the sake of “the white race”, or “our people”, or “the nation”, or whether done for the sake of “Islam”, “Christianity” or “the Muslim community”) are inspired by loyalty to imagined communities, which instrumentalize the individual, and whose narratives monopolize people’s sense of identity and replace the narratives of our natural communities. This is from the Book on Community:

Every instrumentalization of a community and of the people who form it is destructive.

The Epicureans were right: we’re not “political animals.” It’s not majority decisions or power games that make us more fully ourselves, but personal freedom based on responsibility, belonging, and learning with those with whom we have decided to live.

The Epicureans (knew that that a community must protect itself against many of the partisan battles of the polis … They) also created an overwhelming defense against the great theological stories. Today these gods have evolved into “imagined communities”: homeland, class, gender … But the effect is the same: to force the individual to show loyalty to imaginary beings with whom conversation and negotiation is impossible. And since conversation is impossible with a divinity, a country, or a social class, all of them are replaced with magical-symbolic objects ….

… To accept nationalism means sooner or later accepting the subordination of the real community of work, life and affections to the imagined community of the nation.

This last paragraph could be applied to “racism” just as well.

Eumetry Concerns Friendship, Not Race

He who best knew how to meet fear of external foes made into one family all the creatures he could; and those he could not, he at any rate did not treat as aliens; and where he found even this impossible, he avoided all association, and, so far as was useful, kept them at a distance. – Principal Doctrine 39

The above doctrine likely originates in the Timocrates Affair in the early Garden, where one of the brothers of Metrodorus declared himself an enemy of Epicureanism. In recent years, it has been elaborated by people like Michel Onfray, who coined the word eumetry to refer to the right distance, or safe distance, that we should keep with each person.

Epicureans invoke PD 39 whenever it becomes clear that friendship with a particular person is impossible. However, there is no indication whatsoever that this doctrine says, or implies, that the cosmopolitan philosophy of Epicurus should exclude certain races or ethnicities. People of any ethnicity may hold Epicurean opinions. In antiquity, Epicurean Scholarchs sent missionaries to Asia, and some of the most prominent Epicureans were from what is today Lebanon and Syria (Lucian of Samosata, Philodemus of Gadara, Diogenes of Sidon), and they successfully converted so many Hellenized Jews to Epicureanism that the rabbis felt threatened and were compelled to produce propaganda against Epicurean ideas. Ancient Epicureans must have been very actively engaged in their recruitment. In our online Epicurean communities, we have mostly seen people who are of European ancestry, but we also have seen Blacks, Hispanics, and we have had sincere Epicureans of Punjabi (North Indian) heritage–like our old Australian friend Amrinder Singh, may he rest in peace.

And so PD 39 must never be used as a blanket excuse to mask racism. This was the message that guests found at the door of the Garden in Athens:

Welcome, Guest!

Here you do well to tarry!

Here our highest good is pleasure!

In his book against the use of empty words, Epicurus says that “we think empirically concerning actions based on the results observed from any course of action“. Vatican Saying 28 also says that “for friendship’s sake we must run risks“. The minor risks that come with welcoming newcomers, and with making new friends, are inherent to the teaching mission of the Epicurean Gardens. Therefore, it makes sense that the Garden would have been a welcoming space and that, only IF and AFTER a particular individual has proven their inability to be a good friend, then the person would be shunned (as per PD 39), and not prior to that. In this manner, our shunning of a social delinquent is empirically-based and consistent with the idea that we must run risks for the sake of the necessary pleasures of friendship. These issues arise often in the course of managing online Epicurean forums, but the principles apply in our social lives in general.

I hope this is just the beginning of a very important conversation among us. To summarize, I submit these three Epicurean arguments against racism, all of which are in my view consistent with our systematic methods of studying nature:

  1. the one for taking pride in our own personal qualities and not those attributed to accidents or to fate
  2. the one in favor of natural community, as opposed to Platonic community
  3. the one in favor of taking the risks necessary for friendship, which includes having a welcoming community of true friends, rather than a hostile one, and only judging new students of philosophy empirically–that is, “based on the results observed”

P.S. Our friend Nathan adds: “We tend to avoid hot-button, political issues, and racial prejudice in American history has always been heavily politicized. It is proper, however, to demonstrate that prejudiced thinking is never beneficial; racists make unnecessary enemies, limit the scope of their own imagination, and reduce the possibility of unexpected pleasure“.

Tilemahos adds: From the inscription of Diogenes the Oionandian: “Moreover, [it is] right to help [also] generations to come (for they too belong to us, though they are still unborn) and, besides, love of humanity prompts us to aid also the foreigners who come here”.

Philodemus Against Arrogance

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The Pursuit of Happiness: 21 Steps to Continuous Life Improvement

From the early days of the tradition, the founders have encouraged students of philosophy to write down concise summaries of their views in order to gain clarity and facilitate learning. We find that this practice of summarizing doctrines was mentioned and recommended in the opening portions of Epicurus’ Letters to Herotodus and to Pythocles.

We live in the age of short attention spans and of Wikipedia, and so naturally this tradition has been easily revived among us, and there is an entire sub-section in the EF forum dedicated to “Personal Outlines of Epicurean Philosophy” submitted by members. The following essay was written by “Garden Dweller”, a participant in the Epicurean Friends forum who, while slowly and systematically writing down his own personal life philosophy and while simultaneously studying Epicureanism, found himself agreeing with Epicurean teachings. Needless to say, this is his own personal philosophy, posted here with his permission. We encourage others to engage in a similar exercise here.

The Pursuit of Happiness: 21 Steps to Continuous Life Improvement

Learning how to examine one’s life and change it to maximize happiness is a very powerful skill. Increasing one’s tranquility and happiness can lift the human spirit to a high level of grace and dignity.

In this text, we propose a process of examining one’s life and carefully reconstructing it to maximize tranquility and happiness. We encourage each reader to examine his own life and make improvements based on his own judgment and free will.

This strategy is not for everyone: it requires a certain level of discipline to be able to choose behavior and action that benefits one’s life over the long term, rather than selecting instant gratification. If one is able to make decisions with maturity, the process of Continuous Life Improvement can lift one to a high level of happiness and contentment.

1. Be Sensitive and Learn From Your Senses!

Listen to what your body is telling you about the world. Your senses are your most direct and real connection with the physical world, and should be trusted more than dreams, imagination, things that you have heard from others or what you have been taught by others. Be sensitive to how your mind/body processes and reacts to physical sensations, and learn to recognize and distinguish negative sensations (pain) from positive sensations (pleasure).

Our written language is somewhat limited in the meanings it can convey through a single word. The words “pain” and “pleasure” are not adequate to describe the positive and negative sensations which we receive from our environment. Some synonyms for pain that one may sense include distress, dismay, discomfort, worry, anxiety, disturbance, fear, bother, discontent, displeasure, stress, distastefulness and unpleasantness. Synonyms for pleasure that one may sense include joy, peace, relief, comfort, contentment, enjoyment and satisfaction.

Learn to recognize which of your own feelings are positive, and which are negative by “listening” to or being aware of your own senses. Try to connect events, behaviors and actions which trigger these positive and negative feelings to identify cause and effect for positive and negative feelings.

Many sensations are not strongly painful or pleasurable, but one can often recognize that the body prefers one behavior over another, for example, depending on the outdoor temperature, the body may prefer sunshine to shade, or vice versa. Be open to these types of subtle sensations, both positive and negative.

2. Respond to Negative Feedback!

Be conscious of negative sensations and identify the actions, behaviors and situations that cause them. Find ways to change those behaviors to reduce or eliminate the negative sensations. Negative sensations include pain, discomfort, distress, anxiety, stress and fear.

When you recognize a negative sensation, try to determine which behavior or action caused the negative sensation and change it. Continually be aware of your sensations and strategically make changes in your life that relieve negative sensations. Eliminating behavior and actions that are the cause of negative sensations is a very powerful way to improve one’s life. Repeating this process over time will create enormous improvement in one’s life.

3. Be Rational!

The senses occur in the present moment, so one must use the rational mind to evaluate the cause of that sensation, which may have happened in the past. For example, “after drinking that tea, I became somewhat nervous and agitated…”, which might lead you to suspect that drinking that type of tea causes a certain level of distress. One can then eliminate this behavior to reduce one’s level of distress.

It is not always clear which behavior caused which sensation. The rational process of identifying cause and effect is an important skill and requires one to recall one’s actions over time and discover clues that indicate which behavior affected one’s sense of well being. Use cause and effect analysis to choose how to modify your behavior to reduce negative sensations.

4. Develop a Strategy!

A behavior or action which causes a negative sensation should be modified or eliminated to reduce the negative sensation. There may be a number of behaviors and actions that work together to cause negative sensations. Because the world is complex, this may require a multilevel strategy in response as one improves one’s life.

Changes in one area may have unintended consequences in other areas. A unified strategy that makes changes in many areas may be more effective than making a single change at a time. Learning from others and comparing strategies may be effective if others are following a similar philosophy.

5. Be Good to Yourself!

Choose behavior that maximizes positive sensations. Fill your day with pleasant places, people, activities and events. Listen to what your senses are telling you, and take action to move toward that which is pleasant. Seek out beauty, comfort, joy and contentment. Continually reassess a behavior or action to determine whether it continues to be pleasurable, or if it is becoming less positive over time. Improve your life every minute by constantly thinking about how you could increase your happiness and tranquility.

6. Use Long Term Cost/Benefit Analysis!

It is important to rationally choose behavior and actions which maximize positive sensations. Use a long term cost/benefit analysis to assess whether a short term pleasure is worthwhile over the long term. For example, a sexual relationship may cause emotional distress in the future if one is not selective about the type of person one has a relationship with. Avoid behavior that causes long term negative impacts on one’s life.

Assess a short term negative sensation which may resolve a problem based on the long term positive effects which it might bring. A visit to the dentist is unpleasant, but it can relieve a toothache and promote long term dental health. When considered on a rational basis, one can endure the short term pain for the long term benefit.

There are many such compromises which one must make in life. By focusing on the long term benefit, one can remain aware of the reason one is accepting the short term negative sensation. When the long term benefit no longer exists, one should then end the short term negative sensation.

In some cases, the best strategy may be to select a behavior which minimizes the negative effects of an activity which has some benefits. Working to earn money is a neccessity in today’s world. One can select a career with a minimum of negative impacts on one’s life, and one can live frugally to minimize the amount of money needed. The negative aspects of one’s time being controlled by others can be rationalized by the money which one can save for a future life unencumbered by work.

7. Control Desires!

Recognize that there are some desires which are needs that every human must satisfy, for example, the need for food, water, shelter and friendship. Respect these desires and focus on satisfying them with appropriate responses.

Desires which are not necessary for one’s basic needs are often desires which can damage one’s happiness if one pursues them. Pursuing desires for political power, sexuality, wealth, conspicuous consumption and fame might bring fleeting satisfaction, but over the long term cause distress and pain.

Learn to recognize the difference between desires which are necessary for one’s happiness, and those desires which are unnecessary and often destructive to one’s long term happiness. Use discipline to say no to unnecessary desires. Consciously reduce one’s thoughts about unnecessary desires.

8. Be Loyal to Yourself!

It is important to be relentlessly and completely true to your own self-interest. Every other person who you are in contact with will try to influence your behavior toward their interests. Organizations and governments will try to impress your mind with the “duty” to put their interests first. Businesses will try to influence your behavior in a way that is likely to increase purchases from them and will increase their profits.

In order to find true happiness, it is important to put your interests in the primary position. Delegating decisions which serve the best interest of others can lead to bitterness, dismay, and the feeling of being cheated. By following your own best interest, you will be honest, true, predictable and reliable to yourself and to others.

9. Choose Wisely!

There will be many decisions made throughout your life. They are all important. It is crucial to rationally choose the path your life follows, and to have the discipline to follow through with those choices. Many choices are difficult, and only by carefully considering the potential outcomes can one choose the optimum path. The best method is to rationally consider long term outcomes of action in the present. Consider, decide and act to live your life.

10. Cultivate Friendship!

Friendship is a necessary human need. Your state of mental well-being is affected by the mental state of those around you, in particular family and friends with whom you have frequent contact over a long period of time. It is human nature to need association with friends.

Seek out people with positive thoughts and lifestyles and get to know them. Reach out to communicate with friends regularly. Invite others and meet with others as often as you can to build a group of friends. Eat with friends, share your food with friends. Help friends, and ask friends for help when you need it. Learn how to develop friendship and how to respond to the social dynamics within a group of friends.

Support your friends to help keep them in a positive state of mind. Work to maintain lifelong friendships. As friendship develops over time, one gains trust and the friendship strengthens to the point of one’s friends being almost as important as one’s self.

11. Add Behaviors Which Bring Happiness!

As you make decisions on behavior throughout your life, be sensitive to feelings of joy, kindness, love, beauty, grace and other positive emotions. Select behavior and seek out situations that promote and maximize these feelings.

12. Shut Down Negative Thoughts!

You are enjoying something, and suddenly a thought comes flying out from your deep subconscious that causes you doubt, guilt, fear or anxiety. For example, you are taking a nice hot shower and enjoying it. Suddenly a thought comes through telling you that you should not waste hot water. Consider that thought, assess whether it is valid, and if not, let that thought pass, and continue to enjoy the shower. Don’t jump every time your subconcious mind comes up with an objection to something that you enjoy.

13. Recognize and Avoid Asceticism!

Ancient ascetics believed that the spirit was good and the body evil, and by punishing the body one enhanced the spirit. Some ascetics pursue this philosophy to the point of causing pain through self-flagellation, self-starvation and purposefully living in pain or discomfort. Some ascetics use a display of their self-torture as a way to draw attention to themselves. Avoid this behavior and always seek to increase happiness and tranquility in your life.

Asceticism includes simplifying or minimizing one’s life to an extreme level. When simplifying one’s life, do it to the extent that it increases happiness and tranquility. Don’t punish one’s self with pain or suffering for any reason other than cases where one gains a long term benefit through short term pain.

14. Ignore Negative Inputs!

Listening to negative news is debilitating. The information that enters your mind is what shapes your mind. Choose your incoming communication deliberately. Avoid media which push programming and choose media which allow you to select the information you wish to receive. Avoid people who are caught in negative thought patterns and who constantly speak about threats, dangers, crime and injustice.

Develop the state of your mind by choosing what enters your brain. Seek out a group of like-minded people to fill your day with thoughts of friendship and caring. Be kind and greet others with a smile to help others rise above the negativity. Doing so will benefit you as much as others.

15. Know that Happiness is Easy to Achieve!

It is easy to get the things necessary for basic human needs: food, water and shelter. A person who can obtain these basic things can be happy.

If your thoughts start to worry about how you are going to earn money to pay for something, ask yourself if you really need that item. Be calmed by the knowledge that basic human needs are easy to acquire, and anyone who has the basic human needs can be happy.

In addition to these items, by nature a human needs friendship, fascination (intellectual focus) and physical fitness. Friendship means social interaction and being part of a group of friends and family. Fascination and intellectual focus are the things one is passionate about. Often fascination is related to learning, building or creating. Physical fitness allows a person to be active and able to do a wide range of activities and it promotes health.

Note that the last three types of human needs can be satisfied without the need for money, if one chooses the right methods of obtaining these needs.

Comfort yourself with the knowledge that happiness is easy to achieve.

16. Preserve the Health of your Body

Your level of happiness over the long term depends on how you treat your body. Neglect and abuse can bring pain. Eat healthy foods, exercise and use your body to maintain your fitness level. Use appropriate hygiene and preventative medical care. Avoid alcohol and drugs in excess. Exercise is an example of a short term discomfort that has long term benefits. Strive to achieve a healthy mind in a healthy body.

17. Stay Frugal, But Enjoy!

Would you like to be able to decide how to spend your time each day? Frugality can give you this choice by reducing your expenses to an amount that you can fund with part time work or a small investment income. Reducing your desires to those things which you actually need will help you reduce your spending.

It is very important to spend less than you make. Spending more than you earn, buying on time, taking on credit, all of these bind you to servitude. When you spend money, think about the time that you will need to work to pay for that item.

It is good to save and invest. The purpose of savings are to allow you to live without work taking up your available time.

If you are fortunate to have a level of savings and are financially well off, feel free to do things with your money that bring you happiness. Be generous to others.

18. Use Rational Decisionmaking!

Rational decisionmaking means that one considers a number of criteria before making a decision on a behavior or action. For example, the choice of food that one eats is a complex prioritization that one makes every day.

Consider the following criteria used to select which food to eat:

  • Healthy
  • Low Cost
  • Tastes Good
  • Makes you feel good the next day
  • Easy to Cook

One might rate these criteria as to importance on a 1 to 10 scale. For example:

Importance Rating

10 Healthy

7 Low Cost

8 Tastes Good

5 Makes you feel good the next day

3 Easy to Cook

Then one might select a few food options and rate them according to the criteria:

 PIZZASALADFRIED RICE
HEALTHY287
LOW COST785
TASTES GOOD867
MAKES YOU FEEL GOOD THE NEXT DAY2108
EASY TO COOK385

Multiply each rating by the importance rate for that row and sum:

 PIZZASALADFRIED RICE
HEALTHY208070
LOW COST495635
TASTES GOOD644856
MAKES YOU FEEL GOOD THE NEXT DAY102016
EASY TO COOK92415
TOTAL152248182

The highest total amount indicates which choice would be most beneficial, based on the priority level given to each criteria.

This type of rational decision method for choosing food is an example of how one should approach many decisions, both mundane daily decisions such as what to eat, as well as long term life decisions. The criteria and rating system used in this example is a simplification of the process that people use to make decisions in real life.

The point here is not that you should use a spreadsheet to decide what to eat. The purpose of this example is to show how to make decisions based on consideration of the most important criteria, rather than based on immediate gratification. A certain level of discipline is needed to select the behavior or action that is most beneficial to one’s life over the long term.

19. Avoid Politics

Politics and discussion of politics involves dispute, disagreement, suspicion, rumor, lies, deception and retribution. To avoid the negative emotions that these actions bring, avoid participation in politics.

You may wish to participate in democratic voting. It may be best to inform yourself by researching the candidates or proposals in a very focused way rather than relying on media to inform you. Elections cause the media to behave in damaging ways. Often the candidates and media will try to convince the audience that things are desparately bad and changes must be made or disaster will strike. This leads to distress among those who are convinced by the narrative. To avoid this negative impact on your well-being, avoid watching media, in particular television. Select your news source based on its rational qualities and balanced reporting. Text-based news sources are best.

In some cases, you may wish to engage in political activity to defend a cause which is important to you. Be selective about how you choose to be an activist on an issue. Working in a support role will be less damaging to your mental health than being a candidate for office. However, if there are no other potential candidates and you see a need to protect something important to you, you may wish to be a candidate for an elected position. Do your best and try not to get caught up in the negative side of politics.

20. Overcome Your Fears!

What if I become destitute?

Remember that even in the simplest shelter, with simple food and water, one can achieve happiness. The things that one really needs are easy to get. By accepting a simple life, spending less than one earns and saving money for emergencies, one can maintain a secure, if simple, standard of living and achieve happiness.

How will I find a suitable partner if I am not rich?

The way to find a partner is to be socially engaged, to have a circle of friends that includes a number of potential partners, and to have inner peace and tranquility that allows for good communication with potential partners. A flashy car, new clothes, jewelry and trendy haircut are not required.

I will miss something in life if I do not become rich!

You need some wealth to live. However, extreme wealth does not necessarily bring happiness. In fact, it is more difficult for an extremely wealthy person to achieve tranquility. Work toward a level of wealth that allows you a simple life.

21. Simplify Your Life!

Most people will benefit from reducing the complexity of their lives. Simplification frees up the most valuable commodity which a person can have: time. However, simplification and elimination of things is not a goal in itself. Simplification and minimalism have value to the extent that they improve one’s life through reducing stress related to maintenance of things and by freeing up the time it takes to maintain them. It is also a frugal way to avoid unnecesary expenses. The goal of simplification and minimalism is to achieve a level of tranquility that is not disturbed by responsibilities and the maintenance of the things one owns.

Once a person reaches a minimalist state of tranquility and is enjoying the free time that simplification provides, one should seek to add behaviors and actions which increase happiness to one’s life. One may choose actions and behaviors that maximize positive effects while minimizing responsibilities and negative effects.

As one learns which things truly add value and happiness to one’s life, one can choose those beneficial behaviors which have a minimal impact on one’s financial resources. One can focus one’s time on a select group of friends that one knows are rational, kind, caring and without the overhead of drama, anger or deceit. One can spend time researching a subject which one is passionate about. One can create art, build furniture or perform music. One can express themselves through writing. Simplification of one’s life can lead to a flowering of expression that is made possible by reducing one’s responsibilities and maximizing free time.

Conclusion

In order to continuously improve one’s life, one needs to eliminate negative behavior and select behavior and actions that promote positive emotions.

These are the things that one needs to be happy:

  • FOOD
  • WATER
  • SHELTER
  • FRIENDSHIP
  • FASCINATION
  • PHYSICAL FITNESS

All of these things are easy to get. Some require a small amount of money. All of them require one to make good decisions about how to live one’s life.

August, 2019

Epicurean Festival in Italy

The Festival Epicureo recently took place in Senigallia, Italy. If you are familiar with Italian language, you will find videos of many discussions on this YouTube channel. It makes Italy the second country in Europe to have a symposium or weekend-long event dedicated specifically to promoting Epicurean Philosophy, and plans are underway to make this an annual event. The following report was sent by Michele Pinto, of the Epicurean Garden in Italy. It was edited for clarity by Hiram Crespo.

Scholars of Epicurus, disciples of Epicurus or Epicurean philosophers?

I have always read books with great interest and pleasure in which the authors–usually renowned university professors–explain and analyze the thought of Epicurus. Some of these authors’ attitudes annoy me because it is easy to criticize the ideas of those who, 2,300 years ago, did not have the tools we have today, but certainly have made important contributions in the history of thought–something that none of the authors of these books have done.

On the other side, I’ve met many people like me who have a different relationship with Epicurus. People who read Epicurus’s sentences not to understand a thought from the past, but to assess whether these ideas can help them improve their lives. Even here, we sometimes dangerously approach Epicurus uncritically, as if it were a revealed truth–an attitude that does no honor to anyone.

During the Epicurean Festival in Senigallia, I met many people, I listened to many speakers, and above all I made new and profound friendships. Each of the 13 speakers showed a different, original face of Epicurus, mediated by the personal sensitivity of the person presenting it.

Similarly, all of the parallel initiatives–the chef who recreated an epicurean lunch based on the few testimonies available, the Epicurean postcards that capture a smile, the writers who left their idea of Epicureanism on the wall of an underpass, the goldsmith that reinterpreted Horace’s piglet of the herd of Epicurus, the actress who lent the voice to Lucretius–each offered a different, personal, creative idea about Epicurus.

All this work, all these arguments, this whole festival has a very ancient and very simple name. Philosophy.

In Senigallia we didn’t meet just to study Epicurus. We didn’t meet just to celebrate Epicurus and to follow his teachings. In Senigallia we met to do philosophy together starting from the thought of one of the greatest philosophers of all time.

We are not only scholars of Epicurus, we are not only his disciples. We are Epicurean philosophers. To give continuity to this idea, to continue doing philosophy together, we have created an Epicurean association.

Together we could more easily support philosophical research, perhaps by offering a scholarship to the best degree theses on Epicurus. We could disclose the thought of Epicurus by translating his texts, and publishing studies on his thought. Above all, we could carry out philosophical research, studying together how to cure the evils of the soul and reach ataraxia in a modern world which is very different from the Hellenistic one.

To join, you can contact Michele Pinto (michele@pinto.an.it – 380.6026026). The annual fee is € 10, € 25 for the founding members.

Epicuro.org: el giardino della filosofia epicurea in Italia

L’eredità del Festival Epicureo: i capolavori del sottopasso di via Mamiani

On Anticipations

Epicurean Preconceptions, by Voula Tsouna, was published in academia.edu. Below is a quote from it. The word enargeia means immediacy, and denotes the quality of an unmediated insight which requires no arguments to establish itself as true.

Broadly speaking, there are two alternatives on the table. According to one, preconceptions derive their enargeia from their unmediated link to aisthēseis, sensations: because of their origin in sensation, they take on, as it were, the self-evidence and trustworthiness of sensation itself. (I call this the ‘Lockean view’.)

According to the other, the self-evidence of preconception lies, not so much in a natural continuity between preconception and sensation, as in the spontaneity of the association between the preconception and the corresponding object as well as the word that denotes that object. For example, as soon as we hear the word ‘horse’, the preconception of a horse comes automatically to mind, and it is precisely in virtue of this association that the preconception captures ‘both the unmediated nature of an experience and its direct connection with reality’. (I call this the ‘Kantian view’.)

Recall that Epicurus and his followers argue for the veridicality of all (sensations) partly by pointing out that they are alogoi, non-rational: the mind plays no role in sensations, whose trustworthiness depends, precisely, on the fact that they are non-rational events involving no interpretation at all (Diogenes Laertius 10.31-2).

Diogenes Laertius (10.33)–cited in the work–introduces preconceptions in this manner:

Before making this judgement, we must at some time or other have known by preconception the shape of a horse or a cow. We should not have given anything a name, if we had not first learnt its form by way of preconception. It follows, then, that preconceptions are clear. The object of a judgement is derived from something previously clear, by reference to which we frame the proposition, e.g. “How do we know that this is a man?”

In section five of the essay, which is about the length of a short book, the author explains the controversy surrounding whether anticipations are ontologically a separate thing, a third entity separate from the word and the thing meant. This controversy is summarized as the three-tiered interpretation (which accepts anticipations as a third, distinct thing and is influenced by the Stoic doctrine of lekta) versus the two-tiered interpretation, which says that only names and name-bearers (objects referred to by names) may exist. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that this last interpretation is truer to Epicurean teaching. The anticipations appear to be related to our brain’s pre-cognitive faculty of memorizing meanings and easily recalling them, as if unconsciously. If names are accurate, it’s because the named objects correspond to them, not because meaning somehow asserts itself independently of the named objects. We have no reason whatsoever, in my view, to suppose that they exist as de-contextualized Platonic ideas on their own, or to imagine that they emerge as phenomena in any way independent from the names or the things named. The author says:

Both the implicit denunciation of investigations of ‘mere utterance’ and the Epicurean rejection of dialectic are warnings against concentrating on language but losing connection with reality. And although Epicurus makes clear elsewhere that attending to prolepsis ensures, precisely, that we remain grounded in reality, nevertheless, in the present instance as well as in others, he chooses to highlight only words and things.

Furthermore, the view that meanings exist as separate things from names and things named is a useful nursery for superstitions of all sorts. Ancient Egyptians believed that words (written or spoken) had magical powers, and that a person’s name contained part of their essence. One could curse, influence or enchant a person by the use of their names, which is why the Pharaoh had numerous secret names, and why descendants had to continue repeating the names of their ancestors in the belief that, if the names were forgotten, their souls would no longer be efficient or would “die” on Earth.

This view of meanings as a separate thing from names and things named also lends itself to the superstition that meanings existed apart from, and even prior to, the things that are named–and so we have problems like “in the beginning was the Word“, where a complex cognitive process is believed to have preceded nature itself. The study of nature demonstrates that nature obviously existed prior to language, and that language is an emergent property of social sentient beings. Nature must not only provide a mind that has the ability to think, but also contents for it to think about, prior to the formation of thoughts and words.

For more discussions on anticipations, you may visit this forum page.

On Nature: Books XXV and XXVIII

Epicurus’ On Nature I-X
Epicurus’ On Nature – Books XI-XIV

Book 25

The work has many long sentences, which makes it hard to follow. I had written a commentary of a commentary on this book (from an English source), but I have re-read the book in French from Les Epicuriens. Here are a few new insights, and key concepts.

DEVELOPED PRODUCT

We see in philosophy and anthropology a contrast between nature and culture, and this is reflected in this book, where Epicurus compares “the original constitution” of an individual versus the “product in the process of development” (his character, which she cultivates), and finally the “developed product”–a fully mature character of someone who understands his “causal responsibility”.

GERMS / SEEDS

Epicurus talks about the “germs” or “seeds” (spermata) that we carry from birth of both wisdom and virtue, as well as ignorance and vices. Epicurus says “at first people act out their seeds, but later, a time comes where the developed product … depends absolutely on us and on our own opinions, which we ourselves have formed“. Our opinions or beliefs are linked to our moral development in this manner.

Epicurus later says “I don’t stop rambling on this point“, referring to how the “permanent attribute” of our character is the same as a sort of seed or germ, and he says that many things we do by contribution of our nature, many we do without its contribution, many where we discipline our nature, and many where we use our nature as guide that “leads us out of our inertia“.

ANTICIPATION OF CAUSAL RESPONSIBILITY

Epicurus says we have an anticipation of our causal responsibility“, and this has repercussions on praise and blame. Here, he is tying causal responsibility, and morality, to the canonic faculty of anticipation–a faculty by which we are able to apprehend abstractions.

DOCTRINAL DETERMINISM

Epicurus says that if all our views are born of necessity, then no one can change the opponent’s mind. This reminded me of this study, which shows that political ideology may be pre-determined or genetic.

… analyzing their data, the Blocks found a clear set of childhood personality traits that accurately predicted conservatism in adulthood. For instance, at the ages of three and four, the “conservative” preschoolers had been described as “uncomfortable with uncertainty,” as “rigidifying when experiencing duress,” and as “relatively over-controlled.” The girls were “quiet, neat, compliant, fearful and tearful, [and hoped] for help from the adults around.”

Likewise, the Blocks pinpointed another set of childhood traits that were associated with people who became liberals in their mid-twenties. The “liberal” children were more “autonomous, expressive, energetic, and relatively under-controlled.” Liberal girls had higher levels of “self-assertiveness, talkativeness, curiosity, [and] openness in expressing negative feelings.”

CALLING OUT THE OPPONENTS’ EXCHANGE OF NAMES

This is distinct from the problem of empty words that Epicurus addresses elsewhere. Epicurus says that determinists are “merely changing names” when they make moral claims or assign blame / praise, or classify people for their right / wrong thinking. He later says he does not stop re-hashing and restating that what determinists are arguing is nothing more than a mere exchange of words. This reminded me of the rectification of names by Confucius.

Book 28

Other speakers of our language teach us unsuspected, yet true meanings of words, contrary to our common usage. – Epicurus

This book is a polemic against Diodorus Cronus and his school. He was a dialectitian of Megaria (a “man of logic”) who believed space was indivisible and motion was impossible. Epicurus’ goal here was to defend the senses as a source of information about the world. It’s in this context that he refers to words like “attestations” (the testimonies of the senses), etc.

While dialectitians might argue about the way in which things exist and are real based on how language is used to refer to things, the atomists (like Epicurus) were realists. They embraced the physics, the study of nature, and knew that reality existed regardless of how clearly we apprehend it, or how long it takes us to learn about it. Hence, the Epicureans distrusted dialectics, and also the insinuation that, through the use of language, as if by magic, people were able to fundamentally change the nature of things or assert power over reality in any significant manner. In particular, Epicurus was suspicious of philosophers who liked to play with words in order to confuse people, particularly because this often rendered philosophy a useless game.

It is language that must conform to reality, not the other way around. Because of this, the meanings of words tend to be evident to us, as is made clear in one of the introductory paragraphs of the Epistle to Herodotus:

But first of all, Herodotus, before we begin the investigation of our opinions, we must firmly grasp the ideas that are attached to our words, so that we can refer to them as we proceed.  Unless we have a firm grasp of the meaning of each word, we leave everything uncertain, and we go on to infinity using empty words that are devoid of meaning.  Thus it is essential that we rely on the first mental image associated with each word, without need of explanation, if we are to have a firm standard to which to refer as we proceed in our study. – Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus

The issue of changing names in accordance to nature is addressed here. Epicurus taught that there are words that serve as vehicles for false opinions. He said names should only be changed to more exactly describe objects that are directly perceived, and only observed things can be renamed following this rule.  Language must correspond to perception.

Epicurus mentions that the founders wrote a separate treatise on ambiguity, where they discuss transferring words for what is knowable to things in the category of the unknowable. This work is not available for us to study.

One note of interest is that in this book, Epicurus admits the founders’ past errors regarding language misuse, and the evolution of their ideas. Ergo, we must be careful when we study the earlier sources, and we must be careful to date the sources we are studying if at all possible.

Further Reading:

Against the Use of Empty Words