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.

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

Epicurus’ On Nature – Books XI-XIV

Epicurus’ On Nature I-X

Book 11

This book rejects the idea that the Earth is the center of the cosmos, and discusses objects that float in the air. It says “certain people conceive Earth circled by walls … and suppose that Earth is in the center of everything“. Now, since Epicurus believed the universe was infinite, we know that he would have rejected the Earth-centered model because an infinite model of cosmos would not have a center and all things would be relative to each other. Instead, there would have to be innumerable “centers” or hubs. Epicurus had to use the language available to the ancients to explain what orbits are–and the organized dance between many orbiting bodies that acquires a certain balance of pushing and pulling and falling–without having the word “orbit” available.

Epicurus discusses where the sun rises and sets, and its distance from us; He offers various models to interpret this.

Les Epicuriens commentators categorize this book as a polemic against the ancient astronomers who were using certain tools or machines (alluded to in this book) to evaluate the movements of celestial objects, and against Eudoxus’ geocentric model. I found this article about Eudoxus of Cnidus, which says:

An astronomer named Eudoxus created the first model of a geocentric universe around 380 B.C. Eudoxus designed his model of the universe as a series of cosmic spheres containing the stars, the sun, and the moon all built around the Earth at its center. Unfortunately, as the Greeks continued to explore the motion of the sun, the moon, and the other planets, it became increasingly apparent that their geocentric models could not accurately nor easily predict the motion of the other planets.

The next section of the 11th book is on what sustains Earth from below and seeks to explain its stability. Epicurus argued that densities below and above provide counter-balance to each other, to maintain the “appropriate analogical model” for the immobility of Earth. He said that the Earth was “equidistant to all the sides”, and so it didn’t fall in any direction because it had similar pressure from all sides.

Here, from Epicurus’ mention of an “appropriate analogical model”–which he presumably was trying to create–it is clear that he was using the Epicurean method of looking at the things that can be observed and reasoning by analogy about the things that are beyond our observable horizon. This means that he appealed to how we can see that things of similar weight balance each other, and he’s applying that logic to the orbit of the Earth.

Book 12

This book addresses eclipses. Also, according to Philodemus, in book 12 (in a passage that did not survive) Epicurus said that humans had the idea of “certain imperishable natures”. This book appears to also address theology.

We see that in On Nature, Epicurus is addressing phenomena that caused superstitious fear and panic in the ancients, or that inspired mythical explanations. Obviously, the orbits of the sun and moon were a mystery and inspired mythical explanations. Epicurus’ lectures were meant to impress upon the students that, by applying their faculty of empirical reasoning to the study of nature, they would be able to come up with reasonable alternative theories.

We can surmise that some ancients, particularly those who rejected the myths and observed nature, would have observed that eclipses and phases of the moon apparently showed the shadow of the Earth against the moon, and would have reasoned that the Earth was round from the observation of its shadow against the moon. This is not mentioned in what remains of this book, but it would have been consistent with the Epicurean method (which relied on referring all investigations the study and observation of nature) to conclude from the phases of the moon that the Earth was round.

Book 13

This book seems to continue the conversations about gods in the previous book. Philodemus says that here, Epicurus addressed the “rapports of affinity, and also of hostility, that gods have with certain persons“.

Book 14

Based on the condensation of water (which can be seen turning into a gas/vapor, and also into solid ice), some ancient philosophers said that it can be inferred that all things come from a single substance, which changes due to condensation and rarefaction. Some philosophers believed the single primal substance was water (that is, all things could be broken down into water).

Epicurus’ refutation of this theory and his own alternate explanation is incomplete and unclear in the portions that remain of this book. We see him further down discussing the vaporization of water. Centuries later, Lucretius (in On the Nature of Things, Book IV) would describe in accurate detail the cycles of rain and condensation in one of the most brilliant passages of his epic poem. It is clear that these considerations furnished crucial inspiration for the early atomic theory.

The lecture in Book 14  was against monism–the above-cited doctrine that all things are ultimately made up of one single substance. Anaximenes and Diogenes of Apollonia were monists who said the primal substance was “air”, not water.

Epicurus discusses fire, and criticizes Plato’s Timaeus, saying Plato’s and other theories are based on faulty deduction. Epicurus reduces Plato’s physical theory to its absurd contradictions. For instance, he seems to be arguing that if things are really made of Platonic forms (like triangles, etc.), rather than from the atomists’ primal elements (that is, particles), then why are there no physicists creating new chemical combinations out of these Platonic triangles and circles? Here, he was acting in the tradition of the laughing philosophers. In Swinish Herds and Pastafarians: Comedy as an Ideological Weapon, I wrote:

Democritus, the precursor of Epicurus … was known as the “Laughing Philosopher” for making cheerfulness his key virtue and for the way in which he mocked human behavior. The tradition of the laughing philosophers had to start with the first atomist: materialism liberates us from unfounded beliefs to such an extent that it renders absurd the beliefs and the credulity of the mobs.

This book concludes with a portion that studies the differences between a sage and a compiler, saying that they are quite different. Epicurus tackles the issue of borrowing from other thinkers and mixing up disparate theories that are not coherent with each other. He says that sages do not praise both theories when they cite two opposite opinions. He accuses those who mix incoherent doctrines of “doctrinal solecism“, and indirectly criticizes the rhetors who are fond of empty praise.

A Note on Striking Blows for Epicurus

On Nature makes it clear that Epicureanism was born, and evolved, as a series of polemics. The first Epicureans enjoyed polemics. They relished opportunities to tackle intellectual challenges using their philosophical methods. Almost all of Epicurus’ points in this series of lectures are polemics written against someone else’s theories which are found to be wrong, and we also see many of Philodemus’ works were as well. For instance, we see Theophrastus being cited in Peri Oikonomias (and other works) as a source that the Epicureans of the FIrst Century BCE wrote against and commented on. We must conclude that he was considered a worthy opponent and a philosopher worth reading by them.

Therefore, we can imagine that it’s difficult to understand these arguments clearly without understanding these other ideas that they are refuting. Students of Epicurus must understand his contemporary thinkers, whose works they were reading and commenting on.

Further Reading:

Epicurus’ Instructions On Innovation

Epicurus’ On Nature I-X

I am currently re-reading Epicurus’ Books On Nature in Les Epicuriens, which is based on lectures given by Epicurus. We know that they were given late in Epicurus’ philosophical career because, in some of the lectures, Epicurus refers back to discussions with Metrodorus that they had years prior “back in the day”, and recognizes previous doctrinal mistakes that had been rectified after years of conversations to clarify their philosophical investigations (particularly concerning their “change of names” practices).

All of this means that we must be careful to not attribute too much authority to any extant writings that may have come from the earlier period. It also means that these books are actually transcripts of advanced lectures given by Epicurus after many years of engaging in philosophical discourse with input from his friends. Let’s try to imagine or re-construct what these lectures or discussions consisted of, so that we can create modern dialogues to replace the literature that is missing.

Book 1

Book One establishes clearly that all things are made of particles and void (cites Against Colotes). Les Epicuriens commentators say that this book is summarized in the Epistle to Herodotus.

Book 2

Book II establishes the existence of particles of light (photons, in modern physics), and establishes clearly that the speed of light is the speed limit of the universe.

Much of the following discussion focuses on how it is that bodies emit these particles (called simulacra in the original text). It is clear that these simulacra are particles by the fact that when they encounter resistance they bounce back, like any other particle. The sun emits light, it reaches water and we see blue because the solar “rays” (photons) do not fully penetrate into the depth of waters. Instead, these photons bounce back and reach our eyes. The denser the water, the less photons penetrate. This is how some solid bodies allow some light through, because they are not as dense as other walls.

A light bulb emits light particles, they bounce against a wall, and our eyes receive the “color”. This color is an emergent property of the photons when they bounce against the particles of the bodies that they touch.

Book II concludes by saying that they have just proven that light is made of these particles and that nothing can move faster than photons, and says here that what follows after this book are the “subjects appropriate to treat after this (subject)”. However, Books 3-9 were never recovered.

The following video follows up on the contents of this book. It helps to connect the nature of light as particles that travel at a certain speed through the void, with interesting repercussions of this insight that include the relativity of time and of all things. If the universe is only 14 billion years old, how can it be 92 billion light years wide?

The video also helps to explain why the ancient Epicureans concluded that time was relative and an emergent property of bodies, which was a very advanced cosmological position for them to assume 2,300 years ago. Epicurus’ Epistle to Herodotus says that “we must not believe that time has any properties other than being an incident to bodies”.

Epicurean cosmology establishes that bodies are made up of particles and void, and their conventional existence and properties are established by the quantity and other properties of the particles that make up the bodies. However, in the process of acquiring increased complexity and interacting with each other, bodies also acquire secondary, relational properties which are no less real than their conventional properties. A magnet’s attraction of certain metals is real. The attraction between two lovers is real, and so is the gravity between a planet and its host star. The chemical interaction that causes an explosion is also real. We observe these phenomena and, although they are not conventionally made up of “particles and void”, they are secondary properties of bodies exhibit according to the observable and measurable laws of nature.

Although those relational / secondary qualities are not eternal, or even essential, the Epistle to Herodotus teaches that we must not banish them from our minds. Incidental qualities do not have a material existence (they are not “atoms and void”), nor do they exist independently in some reality that is beyond our comprehension (some Platonic ether, or heaven, etc.). We must, instead, consider the incidental qualities of bodies as having exactly the character that our sensations reveal them to possess. Today, we are able to measure magnetic forces or gravitational pull, and we know these forces to be emergent properties of the relevant bodies. The epistle then goes on to explain that Time is one such incidental property of nature, that it does not exist apart from bodies:

For example, it is important to grasp firmly that “time” neither has a material existence, nor does it exist independently, apart from bodies. Nor must we think of “time” as a general conception, such as those conceptions which are formed by reasoning in our minds. Instead, we must think of time by referring to our intuitions, our mental apprehensions formed by anticipations, and it is in this context that we speak of a “long time,” or a “short time,” applying our intuitions to time as we do to other incidental qualities.

In evaluating time as an incidental quality, we must not search for expressions that we may think are better than those which are in common use, and we must not believe that time has any properties other than being an incident to bodies. We must evaluate time only in accord with our intuitions or anticipations.

Let’s unpack what’s being said here. Epicureans were known for clear, concise speech and for their insistence on calling things by their proper name, and for names to reflect things as they are observed in nature. Poetically addressing Love as Eros (imagined as a baby with diapers throwing arrows) or Time as Chronos (a scary old man whose approach can’t be avoided and who will, in the end, inevitably swallow us) is good in the realm of poetry and myth, but not in the realm of the study of nature.

Time is also not Platonic (that is, unnatural and unreal, a mere idea). It is not a God (as the ancients believed). All things are conventionally made of atoms and void. So the question that the ancient atomists would have been discussing was something like “Does Time not exist, then? If it does, in what way does Time exist“? And it made sense that Time, as a natural phenomenon, must have been an emergent or relational property of bodies. Ancient Epicureans posited that Time is a natural phenomenon and sought diligently to evaluate the nature of Time based on the study of nature by the use of our natural faculties by which we synchronize to nature’s circadian rhythms. The Letter continues:

For indeed, we need no demonstration, but only to reflect, to see that we associate time with days and nights, and with our internal feelings, and with our state of rest. These perceptions of incidental qualities are the root of what we call “time.”

Interesting to note that Epicurus links time to our anticipation of and attunement with the circadian rhythms. Epicurus here was saying that our own organism has a faculty that apprehends time.

Scientists now know that the Moon used to be a planet the size of Mars that collided w Earth early on, and has slowly been moving a ay from Earth in its orbit. Because of this, our Moon used to be much bigger in our sky billions, and later millions of years ago, and will eventually leave our orbit and become a “ploonet”. Also because of this, and because Earth and Moon are still tidally locked, days and nights used to be much shorter in the past (one day used to be only a few hours long), and they will get progressively longer in the future. Our sense of time will continue to evolve with our local planet-moon dance.

I wish to accentuate that to say that Time is incidental / relational to bodies is to relativize it. One light year is the distance a photon travels between two points in a year. This means that the light that we see coming from the stars was emitted millions of years ago. These stellar photons are (together with time) emergent properties of bodies and, since the speed of light is the speed limit of the cosmos, the photons have been traveling through the void together with time from those stellar bodies to our planet, some of them for millions of years.

Time is an emergent, natural process. This is what is meant by the Epicurean doctrine that “we must not believe that time has any properties other than being an incident to bodies”: that Time is neither a God, nor an “absolute” Platonic idea, but a natural, emergent, relational property of bodies (of matter) in space. We can only measure Time in units which–because all things are moving constantly relative to each other–are tied to orbital movements of bodies in space.

Books 3-4

Les Epicuriens says that these books are summarized in paragraphs 49-53 of the Letter to Herodotus, and Book 4 included Epicurus’ theory of memory–about which we get glimpses in the Lucretian “neural pathways” passage, so we do know that such a theory must have existed.

Books 5-9

Les Epicuriens says that these books are summarized in paragraphs 54-73 of the Letter to Herodotus.

Book 10

Discusses a bit about the nature of time, how to measure it (mentions days and nights), on the importance of using conventional language for it, and the fact that time is real.

Further Reading:

Les Epicuriens [Bibliotheque de la Pleiade] (French Edition)

Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus

In Memory of “The Men”

Epicurus will immediately send us as ambassadors Metrodorus, Hermarchus and Polyaenus. – Leontion’s Epistle to Lamia

Happy Twentieth to Epicureans everywhere! In his Final Testament, Epicurus stipulated that the feasts on the 20th of every month had to continue in memory of him and his beloved friend Metrodorus as was “the established custom” before he died. This post is in celebration of “the Men”–the Founders of Epicurean Philosophy Epicurus of Samos, and his ambassadors Metrodorus of Lampsachus, Hermarchus of Mytilene, and Polyaenus of Lampsachus. Every Twentieth, it is they (as well as other Epicureans of importance who came after them) who are the reason for the season!

We must always orient our discourse for the benefit of those who are solidly armed for happiness: our disciples. – Epicurus of Samos, On Nature 28

The life of Epicurus is a lesson of wisdom. It is by example, even more than precept, that he guides his disciples. Without issuing commands, he rules despotically … We are a family of brothers, of which Epicurus is the father. Many of us have had bad habits, many of us evil propensities, violent passions. That our habits are corrected, our propensities changed, our passions restrained, lies all with Epicurus … he has made me taste the sweets of innocence, and brought me into the calm of philosophy. It is thus, by rendering us happy, that he lays us at his feet. He cannot but know his power, yet he exerts it in no other way, than to mend our lives, or to keep them innocent. Candor, as you have already remarked, is a prominent feature of his mind, the crown of his perfect character. – Metrodorus, in A Few Days in Athens

We are quite familiarized with Epicurus, but not so much with the other three. Our friend Josh wrote a poem titled Hermarchus, Seeing the Bust of Epicurus. Hermarchus was the co-founder and second Scholarch of the Garden. I recently shared the following fragment, which I found in the book Les Epicuriens and translated into English:

This is why Timeus affirms that, whenever they begin any enterprise, sages always in some way invoke divinity. But the Epicurean Hermarchus says: “How do we avoid regressing to infinity in all enterprise if, even for a minor matter, we have need to turn to prayer. Because for one prayer we will need yet another prayer, and we will never stop praying at any point.”

This is what we know from Book 10 of Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers and other sources: Hermarchus, a student of rhetoric, was the successor of Epicurus and the first convert to the teachings of Epicurus in the early days when Epicurus first began teaching. He was born in Mytilene, Lesbos in 340 BCE from a poor family and died around 250 BCE of paralysis.

Hermarchus was the only one among the founders who was there both prior to Epicurus’ teaching mission, and at the time of his death when, according to Philodemus, he assisted the Hegemon, “wrapped him in a shroud, and kept vigil beside his remains“–a testimony of the tender love that existed among the first Friends of Epicurus who had grown old together in philosophy and were as family.

Some of the extant sayings in our tradition have been attributed to him, and it is believed that he was almost exclusively vegetarian and that he considered meat-eating an unnecessary desire because it contributes not to the maintenance of life but to a variation in pleasure.

A young man that loves glory, that is precocious wickedness. – Metrodorus of Lampsacus

Bust of Metrodorus / Epicurus

Bust of Metrodorus / Epicurus

Metrodorus of Lampsachus was known as a great administrator, linguist and financier, and was recognized as a sophos (sage) by the Epicureans and as “almost another Epicurus” by Cicero.

He was born in 330 BCE in Lampsachus, and died in 277 BCE, seven or eight years before the death of Epicurus. He never left Epicurus except once for six months spent on a visit to his native land. He had a bitter dispute with his brother Timocrates, who disagreed with certain key doctrines of the School–this was recently discussed in the essay Metrodorus’ Epistle to Timocrates.

He’s the one who formulated the importance of securing our natural and necessary goods now and making sure to have the confident expectation that we will be able to secure them in the future as part of the Epicurean art of living, and is responsible for these quotes:

I have anticipated you, Fortune, and entrenched myself against all your secret attacks. And we will not give ourselves up as captives to you or to any other circumstance; but when it is time for us to go, spitting contempt on life and on those who here vainly cling to it, we will leave life crying aloud in a glorious triumph-song that we have lived well. – Vatican Saying 47

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

Philodemus reports that Metrodorus was deeply interested in delineating doctrines concerning economics. He carried out careful evaluations concerning how to acquire and preserve wealth according to the elemental principles of Epicureanism, and applying hedonic calculus.

The good man is a good financier; The bad man is also a bad financier, just as Metrodorus has demonstrated. – Philodemus of Gadara

In addition, it’s possible to resume some of Metrodorus’ theses concerning both the sources from which one may procure wealth, as well as the manner by which one may preserve it. However, he constantly accentuated as a matter of fact that to meet occasionally with perturbations, worries and troubles is much more advantageous for the best mode of life possible than the opposite choice. – Philodemus of Gadara

From these quotes, it becomes clear that Metrodorus was a huge proponent of autarchy, which translates as personal sovereignty or self-sufficiency. He believed a sage had to be self-sufficient and neither depend on external factors, nor leave anything that is essential for happiness to Fate. He teaches us that we should always aim to have mastery over the things that we can control that concern our happiness. Hence, Norman DeWitt says that while all philosophers say that the unexamined life is not worth living, the Epicureans add that “the unplanned life is not worth living“.

Polyaenus of Lampsachus was the son of Athenodorus, a mathematician, and was considered a kind and trustworthy man. He died prior to Epicurus in 286 BC. Philodemus, in On Frank Criticism, says that Metrodorus described Polyaenus as “rather sententious … often insinuating himself into conversation and quite sociable”. Here are two quotes by him that I found in the book Les Epicuriens:

The more you benefit your friend, the more you serve your own self-interest. In fact, the kindness provoked by these benefits will come back to us.

Habit is born of small things, but (bad habits) gain vigor through (our) neglect.

This last fragment reminds me of Will Durant‘s materialist conception of identity: he said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” From the description as “sententious”–whose original sense was ‘full of meaning or wisdom’–and from the fact that he dedicated a scroll to the problem of Definitions, we can imagine Polyaenus as very careful when choosing words to make his speech clear and concise. For him to have been considered an important foundational figure, we can surmise that he must have greatly influenced–and brilliantly exemplified–the Epicurean practice of parrhesia (frank criticism) softened with suavity (gentle speech). He was known for using powerful proverbs and adages. He was great at conversation, but did not speak idly. His words were useful and profitable to those who had the pleasure of his company.

So these are Epicurus’ ambassadors: Hermarchus the loyal friend, Metrodorus the administrator, and Polyaenus the eloquent social butterfly.

A big thank you to Jason and Tyler for their Patreon support.

Further Reading:

Epicurean Advice for the Modern Consumer, by Tim O’Keefe

The 17 Scholarchs and the Empress

Metrodorus’ Epistle to Timocrates

Metrodorus’ Epistle to Timocrates

Timocrates of Lampsachus was both the brother of Metrodorus (one of the founders of Epicureanism), as well as an apostate of the first Epicurean community–although not a lethal enemy like the archetypal Judas. Because of their ties of blood, Timocrates was quoted as saying “that he both loved his brother as no one else did and hated him as no one else.”

Their differences were made public in epistles that they addressed to each other, which later circulated among many who either followed the teachings of the school, or were opponents interested in the gossip and the controversy. Metrodorus also wrote one work against his brother, and Timocrates a polemic against Epicurus entitled Delights.

Only fragments from third parties citing these sources survive. Here, I will cite passages from Metrodorus’ Epistle to his brother Timocrates, and will try to interpret the meager–yet essential and useful–content that is available.

The Belly Argument

It seems clear that Timocrates’ enmity with the Epicureans stemmed from not accepting that pleasure is the end that our nature seeks, although many sources cite the center of the controversy as being Metrodorus’ insistence that the belly is the “criterion” of all that contributes to the good life. Some people have argued that the attribution of this was done by enemies of Epicureanism to discredit the philosophy–and in fact they did use this to mock the Epicureans. But the “belly argument” is attested many times, and the epistles between the two brothers were circulated widely enough that it seems clear that many contemporaries and later commentators were aware of the main details of the controversy.

Let’s therefore assume that Metrodorus indeed argued that “the seat of good is the belly“, as he is credited. And let’s also assume that the first Epicureans very carefully chose their words so that they convey the intended meaning–as this is what they were known for, and we also know they criticized the unclear and flowery speech of poets and rhetors. We have no reason to suppose that Metrodorus was speaking poetically to generate confusion. What did he mean by this? One extant proverb may help to shed light on this.

What cannot be satisfied is not a man’s stomach, as most men think, but rather the false opinion that the stomach requires unlimited filling. – Vatican Saying 59

The Epicurean Inscription from Diogenes’ Wall is another source to help us interpret the belly passage. It taught that “desires that outrun the limits fixed by nature” are among the three “roots of all evils, and unless we cut them off, a multitude of evils will grow upon us“. And Principal Doctrine 20 establishes that it is up to the mind to understand the limits set by nature and to tame the flesh. It also says that “we should not force nature, but gently persuade her“.

Here, we begin to see a way in which the belly might be a “criterion” (or measuring stick) by which nature guides us. The belly teaches us that we only need so much nutrition, so much food, and no more. If we over-eat, our belly lets us know via lethargy, tiredness, fatigue, or sleepiness. If we eat too little or fail to eat, it lets us know via pangs of hunger. It literally growls like a wild beast. Similarly, we only need a natural measure of friends and community, a natural measure of wealth, etc. Not too much, not too little. And it is nature that sets these limits.

The Epicureans philosophize with our bodies, fully reconciled with nature. It is interesting that the belly was described as a “criterion” by Metrodorus–if we take this to be true and not an invention of enemies of the School. In our epistemology, the Canon (criteria of truth) includes pre-rational faculties which furnish raw data from nature with no rational input: hearing, taste, seeing, pleasure and pain, etc. I think that what Metrodorus was arguing is that we must pay attention to the pain and pleasure of the belly as guides from nature so that we may better understand the limits set by nature, and realize how easy to procure the natural and necessary pleasures are.

The belly argument also reminds us of Nietzschean and Freudian conceptions of the human animal as inhabited by a multitude of irrational drives and instincts vying for control over the chariot of our bodies and our lives. We are rational animals, but that is not all that we are.

The founders taught that we should care about our state of mind while eating. Epicurus compres eating alone to the behavior of lions and wolves, and told his followers to care as much about who they ate with as they did about what they ate.

Our opinion about our belly, and our relationship with it, helps to define how happy and satisfied we are with life overall. Many eating and health disorders are tied to people’s psychological states, philosophy of life, and sense of self-worth. But does it not make sense that healthy eating also correlates to healthy psychological states, a healthy philosophy of life, and a healthy sense of self-worth?

This may be pure coincidence, but it’s an interesting side note: we know today (although the ancients could not have known this) that it is in the belly that the “happiness hormones” like serotonin and anandamide are manufactured by our bodies, and that the bacteria in our gut play a crucial role in our habitual state of happiness or depression.

The “Need” to Save Greece

“It’s not necessary to try to save Greece or to get from her crowns of wisdom; what is needed is to eat and to drink, Timocrates, without harming the belly while we bring it joy”. – Metrodorus’ Letter to Timocrates

The above passage seems indicative of some of the objections that Timocrates presented against Epicurean doctrine. He seems to have advocated ideals like patriotism, and vain pursuits like fame or glory. Perhaps he called for the teaching of philosophy in the public sphere? Epicurus banned the practice of public sermons in favor of private ones after angry Platonists exiled him from the island of Lesbos, his ship wrecked and he nearly died. Timocrates’ points seem to be related to the “need” for acceptance and praise from common people in the city. The Timocrates affair may have inspired the following quotes:

I have never wished to cater to the crowd; for what I know they do not approve, and what they approve I do not know.

To speak frankly as I study nature I would prefer to speak in oracles that which is of advantage to all men even though it be understood by none, rather than to conform to popular opinion and thus gain the constant praise that comes from the many. – Vatican Saying 29

As you grow old you are such as I urge you to be, and you have recognized the difference between studying philosophy for yourself and studying it for Greece. I rejoice with you. – Vatican Saying 76

An anarchic and libertarian spirit sustained the early Epicurean community, which seems to have had a strict policy of separation of philosophy and state! Epicurus was not a philosopher of the polis, but of his own self-sufficient community. He did not trust public education (as we see in VS 76). One can make a strong argument that the early Epicureans raised and educated their own children in the Garden, and that modern Epicureans should also create their own educational establishments–like Michel Onfray did recently in France.

From the exchange between the two brothers, it also seems that Timocrates was making arguments in general defense of the virtues that were part of Greek cultural convention:

Besides, they would not buy for a penny the lot of all the virtues (if they’re) cut off from pleasure. – Metrodorus’ Epistle to Timocrates

On Public Life

While the “Live unknown” adage attributed to the early Epicureans is easily and often misinterpreted as a call to live a monastic life–which it was not–, the Timocrates affair may furnish some insight into the instances where Epicureans decried a life in public. Timocrates, on the other hand, seems to have defended the desire for the acceptance of common people, even of strangers. This desire is neither natural nor necessary, according to Epicurean ethics.

On this last point, Diogenes of Oenoanda in his Wall Inscription had this to say:

Diogenes states that the “sum of happiness is our disposition, of which we are masters”, by which he argues against choosing a career in military service–which produces dangers to our lives and health–or public speaking–which produces nervousness and insecurity.

Summary

From all these considerations, we may conclude that the some of the main controversies related to Timocrates’ apostasy had to do with the following points:

  1. Metrodorus defended the doctrine that pleasure is the end that our own nature seeks; Timocrates rejected this view, and was defending traditional Greek virtues instead, which were often considered as empty virtues by the Epicureans. Timocrates was ready to sacrifice his happiness in the altar of politics like so many people do still today.
  2. Metrodorus saw the need to defend the focus on natural and necessary pleasures as a path to happiness and self-sufficiency; Timocrates was arguing in favor of patriotism, fame, glory, and other vain ideals that are neither natural (although patriotism may be) nor necessary. Furthermore, these ideals may require huge sacrifices from us. The “need” for “saving Greece” seems to indicate fantasies of carrying out epic, (self-) sacrificial, and/or heroic deeds for a cause, or for fame, or for an imagined collective.
  3. Metrodorus’ ethical focus is on making sure that we are secure and have control over our lives, our space, and our circumstances. Because of this, the teaching of Epicurean philosophy happened in a private, intimate, safe and informal setting, among friends–not in the agora. Timocrates may have argued that desiring to have a public life (or perhaps teaching in public in order to be recognized for one’s wisdom) was natural and/or necessary.

There is one final question we should ask: Why was this controversy turned into such an important public affair? Epistolary literature was a means to promote Epicurean doctrine in the early years. I believe that the controversy between the two brothers serves as a lesson in who can be an Epicurean and who can not be one. It seems like the main doctrinal point on which even brothers can not reconcile is that pleasure is the end. But this has many ramifications for public versus private life, for our choices and avoidances, for our choice of career, and in many other areas of life.

Further Reading:

The 17 Scholarchs and the Empress

Natural Community Versus Polis

Ubuntu: African Humanism and Epicurean Philanthropy

From time to time, I evaluate philosophical concepts from various cultures or intellectuals, and write about them from an Epicurean perspective in order to explore what a cosmopolitan Epicureanism would look like. I’ve written about African philosophical concepts before–see, for instance, this essay on the virtue of coolness. Today I’m exploring the idea of humanity and humaneness, and of how we become humanized through friendship and wholesome social relations.

Ubuntu: an African Humanism

Modern African cultures are notoriously colonized by Islamic and Christian ideas, frequently to their detriment: Boko Haram’s–a group whose name means “books are forbidden”–sexual enslavement of school girls in Nigeria, and the threats by Islamists to destroy medieval scrolls of incalculable value in Timbuktu, come to mind. Increasingly, less of the aboriginal wisdom traditions survive, and often only in syncretistic forms. It’s therefore refreshing to find a vibrant humanist philosophical discourse in the south of the continent around the concept of Ubuntu. It’s a Bantu term that translates as “humanity”, and is often related to the proverb “I am because we are”–which implies that people form their identities by socialization.

This reminds me of another saying that the Mayans have: “I am another you”–which implies that when we see the other, we are seeing a mirror of us. AND, if you’ll indulge my pop culture reference, Ubuntu also reminds me of Michael Jackson’s epic song Another Part of Me–where he argues that we (who want a better world) are legion.

Ubuntu is a secular humanistic tradition indigenous to Africa. According to Wikipedia:

Ubuntu asserts that society, not a transcendent being, gives human beings their humanity. An example is a Zulu-speaking person who when commanding to speak in Zulu would say “khuluma isintu,” which means “speak the language of people”.

This reminds us a bit of Epicurus’ insistence on clear and conventional speech, which avoids “flowery words” and empty flattery linked to inauthenticity. Ubuntu carries the implication of being real, of not being fake, of being authentic. In a later example, the essay says:

According to Michael Onyebuchi Eze, the core of ubuntu can best be summarised as follows: ” A person is a person through other people” strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. …

Notice–in spite of the “idealism” reference–how the concreteness of the personhood of each individual is acknowledged. Here, we see a different, more egalitarian, approach to inter-subjectivity than, say, Sartre’s existentialist exploration of it. Sartre concludes that all or most interpersonal relations turn the other into an object, and that the objectified other resents the power exerted by the observer. Here, instead, the idea of a mirror is introduced, which implies an understanding of human nature that is much less oppressive, much more receptive of the other. This seems to be demonstrated in studies of bodily mirroring and empathy among humans and primates, as I discussed in my book review of The Bonobo and the Atheist:

… the author argues that these mechanisms are physical and neurological. He discusses processes of bodily synchronization, contagion of happiness or sadness, and yawn contagion which are seen in nature among many primates, and what is known as mirror neurons that “fuse people at a bodily level”.

“… we activate neural representations of motor actions in our brain similar to the ones we perceive or expect in the other … Frowns induce sadness, smiles happiness. Ulf Dimberg, the Swedish psychologist who conducted this research, told me about the initial resistance, which made it hard to get his findings published in the 1990s … at the time, empathy was viewed as a complex skill under cerebral control. We decide to be empathic, so the thinking went, on the basis of deliberate simulations in our head of how we would feel in someone else’s situation. Empathy was seen as a cognitive skill. Now we know that the process is both simpler and more automatic. It’s not that we lack control (breathing is automatic too, but we are still in command), but science looked at empathy entirely the wrong way. Empathy stems from unconscious bodily connections involving faces, voices, and emotions. Humans don’t decide to be empathic; they just are.”

Epicureans believe in polyvalent logic: we observe that sometimes not just one, but many truths and many interpretations are evident. Perhaps a synthesis of Sartre’s subject-object model and these subject-subject models might provide us with a more complete understanding of empathy?

In the context of post-apartheid South African history, Ubuntu was appropriated by Christian theologians (like Desmond Tutu) to promote interracial forgiveness and reconciliation. But it was about much more than “Christian” forgiveness, and secularists must be careful to preserve the “secular spirit” of this African humanism because–even if we admit that Christianity helped to inspire the crucial reconciliation work in South Africa–we know that non-Christians also frequently see it advantageous to forgive, as we saw in the Lucretius’ passage. It is not usually in our nature to want to be in perpetual conflict with our neighbors.

For man grew weary: the life of violence
and hatred left him sick, and more disposed
freely to choose the yoke of law and statute.
For angered men kept calling for revenge
more savage than just law will now permit;
this made man sicken of life by violence …

Better be a subject and at peace – Lucretius

Ubuntu is part of the philosophical heritage of several countries in Southern Africa, including places like Botswana and Zimbabwe. Madonna has linked her work with orphans in Malawi to this tradition. Recently, Botswana abolished the illegality of gay sex. It came as a surprise to me when, in the aftermath of the abolition of apartheid, South Africa became the first and only country in Africa to approve gay marriage. This is a continent whose countries are known for having very repressive attitudes towards LGBT people, and where until recently Ugandan Christians were trying to pass the “Kill the Gays” bill. The homophobic cruelty that is pervasive in so much of Africa is one of the saddest aspects of the Islamic and Western colonial legacies.

And so Ubuntu in post-apartheid South Africa was about more than forgiveness: it was about the re-humanization of the other, who had been dehumanized. It’s also about letting the other be a subject, and not just an object. This included blacks and whites, and colored, and LGBT people. Ubuntu includes everyone, and in this it departs from African religious philosophies–which usually exclude and dehumanize LGBT people–and is all-encompassing and all-inclusive. It also inspires traditional respect for elders, hospitality, and other African values and concrete actions that are done to help ensure that people belong and feel fully human in the presence of others. Ubuntu demonstrates that a type of secular humanism has come to furnish moral guidance to societies in southern Africa and exhibits the power to transform how people treat each other.

Community and Humaneness

Humaneness is not an exclusively African concept, although it takes on a particularly collectivist expression there because African societies are tribal. In my studies of Confucius, I learned about the concept of ren. Back then, I wrote:

which has multiple translations and is tied to the experience and the art of friendship. It can translate as humanity or authoritative conduct, virtue within society, manly or humane (as opposed to beastly), and carries the connotation of humane-ness. According to wikipedia, it’s “the good feeling a person experiences when being altruistic“, but according to Brooks & Brooks, the word carries different meanings according to context … The virtue of ren is so quintessential to civilized human life that it can properly be understood as the art of being human. In other words, we become truly human-like by association with other humans.

This insight stayed with me because it was fundamental to my understanding of Epicurus’ doctrines. Norman DeWitt, in Epicurus and His Philosophy, says that philanthropy–here understood as love of humanity–was a feature of ancient Epicureanism, and that the Christians appropriated this and many other features of how the Epicureans organized themselves.

Epicurus’ philanthropy was not empty virtue-signaling. We see in Principal Doctrine 39 that loving and accepting everyone is not very realistic–as the early Epicureans learned from their experience with Timocrates–so that type of Platonic, unnatural philanthropy is not what is meant here. The founders of Epicureanism were adamant that we should stick to the clear meaning of words, and that we should cultivate certain habitual dispositions (diathesis) that were healthy and pleasant. Philanthropy is composed of philos (love, friendship) and anthropos (humans). If friendship is a natural good that makes life worth living, and is one of the most important ingredients of human happiness (as our doctrine teaches), this means that people should make great efforts to acquire many friends, and to become worth-befriending themselves. This is how philanthropy may serve as a tool to create a pleasant life.

All of us live in a pluralistic society, and there is much that we as Epicureans can learn about the intellectual traditions, history, and practices of African Humanism, and the more recent research that also empirically supports the values of Ubuntu.

Hermarchus, Seeing the Bust of Epicurus

The following is a poem by our friend Joshua.

Ho! I–Master, I held from grief. We laid
Your body to its rest beneath the sky
And sun. What then to grieve? Thy atoms fly
Scattered, thy soul at more than peace which said
“Death is nothing”–but here! Thy sculptured head
Is wreathed with leaves of bay. Ah, how can I
Fall to grief? Your students with laughing cries
Honor you–your ‘membrance blesses their bread.

Should scholarchs fail, and birds alone here warble–
Should vine and olive go to sage and sorrel–
Still aged men would carve your like in marble
And shining youth crown thy head with laurel.

On Isms

“We’re sick and tired of your ism-schism game…” – Bob Marley

Our friend Alex recently brought up the issue of the intolerance of the word “Epicureanism” (and all isms) by some Epicureans, which has for a few years permeated our conversations. He says:

Some folks here insist that other folks say “Epicurean Philosophy” instead of saying “Epicureanism”. They say that “-isms” are closed systems, that “-isms” are ideologies. The dictionary does not seem to agree about the meaning of “-ism”. So why the intolerance? The whole world says Epicureanism, but the folks here should not? Meanwhile the dictionary has as a synonym for “philosophy” the word “ideology”, so a philosophy is an ideology.

The image furnished by Alex indicates that –ism is merely a suffix that is used to convert a verb into a noun, sort of like the ending -o in the Esperanto language. Dictionary.com gives the meaning of an ism as: “a distinctive doctrine, theory, system, or practice“–a definition which Epicurean philosophy certainly fulfills.

According to our friend Yiannis, the criticism of -isms appears to be based on a particular interpretation of a sentence found in Liantinis’ Stoa and Rome, where he poetically seems to accuse isms in general of a number of ills that befell humanity. He is referring here to Dimitris Liantinis–a philosophy professor and author of Gemma whose message included a jeremiad about the end of Western civilization, outdated anti-Semitic rhetoric, and a call for the return of Hellenistic values … but Liantinis himself was not even an Epicurean, he was more influenced by Nietzsche, and he committed suicide which is a most un-Epicurean thing to do–literally saying NO to life!

Visceral reactions against things are sometimes the function of projection, and it’s ironic that ism-phobia itself is becoming an ideology, and a reactionary one at that. While it’s important to understand and appreciate some of the arguments of the ism-phobic faction–at the core of which is the argument that Epicurus fought against idealisms of all kinds–, our friend Eileen reminds us:

I’ve seen this sort of thing in several unrelated forums. In my opinion, our culture is going through a cycle of authoritarian thinking and behavior at all levels of society and most aspects of life. Those with their hands on levers of power use them in anti-democratic ways and those who don’t content themselves with attempting to control the language and social behavior of others. This seems to be true of folks all across various political, religious, and philosophical spectrums.

But let’s go back to the first Epicureans, who advised that we should speak clearly and concisely, and to employ words as they conventionally used, with their conventional meaning attached to them–even as they acknowledged the many problems tied to conventional speech.

One should use ordinary expressions appropriately, and not express oneself inaccurately, nor vaguely, nor use expressions with double meaning. – Philodemus, in Rhetorica

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, in his Epistle to Herodotus

That should suffice to help us recover and make use of the original sense of the suffix -ism, while being cognizant of its problems.

Further Reading:

Against the Use of Empty Words

Philodemus of Gadara’s Rhetorica

Epicurus’ Epistle to Herodotus

Seven Reasons Why We Need More Epicurean Content Creators

From time to time, members of the Epicurean groups online ask questions like: “Wonder why Stoicism has such a wide appeal to moderns, where Epicureanism has languished somewhat?” … which often elicits some Epicureans citing this quote to justify their unwillingness to market the philosophy as it deserves:

I have never wished to cater to the crowd; for what I know they do not approve, and what they approve I do not know. – Epicurus

It’s a fair argument, I suppose, but I always wonder to what extent this device is meant as a way to mask a sense of defeat, or a refusal to admit that we have failed, in some important way, to promote a philosophy that would greatly benefit modern society.

Recently, a friend and contributor to The Epicurus Blog decided that he will create an Epicurus-friendly podcast. I will announce more on this as more information becomes available. In the meantime, here are seven reasons why I strongly feel that we need more Epicurean content creators:

1. Many of the old bloggers hardly create any content, and some have died. If you look at SoFE’s links page, you’ll find that Mark Walker’s The Epicurus Project posts an average of one blog per year, and the Menoeceus blog posted nothing last year. Worse yet, Jakko posted his good-bye blog in 2013 shortly before his death, and fortunately someone kept a copy of epicurus.info online in memory of Eric Anderson upon his death (when his page went offline for some time) … which made some of us concerned about who will continue our work when we’re gone. I can only conclude that a stronger network of collaborating Epicurean content creators is needed.

2. There are only two specifically-Epicurean YouTube channels that I’m aware of, and no Epicurean podcasts as of today. This would give us greater access to commuters and other audiences we have yet to reach.

3. There are some incentives for content creation available. It may produce a bit of income, may be treated as a business or a side hustle, and may even be a worthwhile experiment in autarchy. I will delve more into this in a future blog about affiliate marketing.

4. Many of the academic sources and interpreters of Epicurean philosophy are either indirect or hostile, and some online platforms have niches with similar attitudes. The subreddits /atheism and /philosophy have at times removed Epicurean content arbitrarily, rather than allow for an open market of ideas–sometimes relenting only after some level of activism on our part. Martha Nussbaum–one of the main contemporary interpreters of Epicurean sources in academia–has been notorious in her anti-Epicurean bias. She has said that Stoics and Aristotelians are superior to the Epicureans–whom she described as “parasitic” on the rest of the world–, that Seneca was “an advance of major proportions” over the Epicureans, and has even claimed that Epicureanism is not a philosophy. This all points to a need to have more people presenting EP on its own terms, both in our own niches and elsewhere.

5. Most Epicureans today exist in the non-academic world, and we must therefore rely on publishing platforms that have no academic or institutional support. There is almost no financial support available for the spread of Epicurean ideas (I have only one Patreon subscriber), and no non-profit organizations doing the educational work in the English-speaking world. Michel Onfray started the Université de Caen (and single-handedly published hundreds of books) to address this very problem in the French speaking world, but similar movements do not exist in the English- or Spanish-speaking worlds. As a result of this, one can hardly speak of there being an Epicurean intellectual movement in the world today.

6. Many of the noble initiatives that Epicureans have gotten involved in–like the Declaration of Pallini, which seeks to have the “right to happiness” recognized for all European citizens–would benefit from a greater audience and support.

7. The world needs Epicurean teachings. While there is much critique and pontificating around the problem of consumerism and limitless desires, and this has created alternatives like the minimalism/frugality and the tiny house movements, few intellectual traditions are positioned to provide people with the methods and theories to help them do the introspective work needed to become conscious consumers. Epicurean ethics’ curriculum of control of desires does this without falling into ascetic errors. In fact, our ethics have the potential to really help members of contemporary society to deal pragmatically with existential and economic problems like debt, anxiety, consumerism, isolation, lack of meaning, etc.

Even if you have little to no money to invest, you can start vlogging for free on YouTube, or create a free blog on WordPress, which is the most user-friendly blogging platform and easiest to learn. For more professional “dot com” websites, you may use GoDaddy or Bluehost. There is no shortage of YouTube videos and online educational sources that teach how easy it is to create professional websites with these services.

If we love philosophy, we should confer upon philosophy the kind of dignity that it confers upon us. If you love Epicurean teachings, please consider getting involved in content creation projects!