Hiram is an author from the north side of Chicago who has written for The Humanist, Greenewave, Om Times, 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.
Cassius. This is to pose a series of questions about one of the most famous passages of the American “Declaration of Independence.” As discussion develops on one or more of these in particular we can split the discussion into separate threads, but to start here is a list of questions:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
What do we know about whether this paragraph was written entirely by Thomas Jefferson, or contains modifications from others?
Although we know Thomas Jefferson as the true author, the Second Continental Congress initially appointed five people to draw up a declaration. The committee included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was then given the task of writing a draft for the Declaration of Independence, which from June 11 to June 28 he worked on. Before he presented the Declaration to the Continental Congress, he showed it to John Adams and Benjamin Franklin; they made revisions. He presented the draft to Congress on July 1, 1776 and more revisions were made. On the fourth of July the delegates met in what we know today as Independence Hall, but back then was known as the Pennsylvania State House, and approved the Declaration. John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress signed the declaration along with Charles Thomson and it was sent to John Dunlap’s print shop for printing.
So it seems like this was a process not too different from how we have co-written together the narratives for videos on YouTube and some of our dialogues. Jefferson wrote it with feedback from four other men who were, presumably, steeped in the political philosophy of the day (Locke, Rousseau, and others).
Cassius. Yes that is exactly what would need to be analyzed in order to determine how much of the final result came about through Epicurean thinking, and how much was diluted/mutated by Christian or other ideas.
I am not aware that copies of the initial draft survive, but as we proceed with this investigation, if anyone has more detail on who added what, and when, that would be great.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Would an Epicurean agree that what follows in the paragraph after the first phrase are “self-evident?” What does “self-evident” mean?
Would an Epicurean agree that “all men are created equal.” It is absolutely clear that all men are NOT created equal in every respect (health, sex, race, capabilities, preferences, etc.) It is also clear to an Epicurean that men are not “created” if that term implies a supernatural god. In what respect, if any, would an Epicurean say that “all men are created equal.”
What does it mean to say “endowed by their Creator?” Would an Epicurean use this phrasing? If so, what would an Epicurean mean by “their Creator?”
What are “inalienable rights”? What is a “right”? How is a right “inalienable”?” It seems clear that this cannot be read superficially, as much of what we think of as “rights” are certainly taken from people all the time and thus are not “inalienable.” In what way, if any, can this phrase be reconciled with Epicurean philosophy?
What does the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” mean in Epicurean terms?
Hiram. I don’t think they are self-evident, or that Epicurus would agree that men were created (as there is no creator).
We know today that men evolved through natural selection, and that nature did not have an intention of creating men or any other particular species. Natural selection follows the path of least resistance, of greatest opportunity / advantage, if and when / insofar as species are able to adapt to their environment.
The document was written in the context of setting the grounds / seeds for a new country with a new law and a new constitutional framework. An Epicurean would consider these matters in terms of mutual benefit / mutual advantage. Within this context, I think “self-evident” implies that these are matters beyond reproach and that are not up for negotiation, that they constitute the minimum standard by which they were willing to found a new country and a new law, that the social contract would have to abide by these principles.
Men are not ‘created’. If we understand nature, metaphorically, as Creatrix, then we may concede this, but there is WAY too much religious baggage here to accept it in my view.
We are endowed by nature with certain instincts and faculties and tendencies, and (a very strong case can be made) with a sense of morality and justice, but not with rights, inalienable or not.
Rights are born from the laws or rules we create to facilitate co-existence. The only way in which we could say that they come from “the Creator” or “Nature” is if we ourselves are understood to be co-creators or part of nature, and you could make that case, but it’s best to speak clearly, and the original language seems to indicate a Creator in the deist sense, which is an error.
“Life, liberty, pursuit of happiness” – I want to go back to the idea of negotiating a new social contract for a new country, if I was Thomas Jefferson and if I had to negotiate the terms under which I, as an Epicurean, wanted to or was forced to co-exist with others OF RELIGIOUS CONVICTION, these ideas would definitely belong there. I would not care if others believe that these “inalienable rights” come from “the Creator” if, for the sake of mutual benefit, these rules are agreeable to me and others, even if I’d rather not word these principles as inalienable rights coming from a Creator.
In other words, this is a Charter for religious and non-religious people of various convictions and faiths to co-exist, and what pass for “inalienable rights” are acceptable to a non-religious person.
Life is safety; liberty is autarchy; and pursuit of happiness is self-explanatory and a natural extension of liberty; these are natural pleasures, and necessary to happiness and life in Epicurean terms.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Cassius. This passage is perhaps easiest to reconcile given the Principle Doctrines on “justice.” How could we elaborate on this in Epicurean terms as to the meaning of “just powers” and “consent of the governed?
Hiram. As for “just powers”, PD 37 speaks of them in terms of mutual advantage, and these powers may change and evolve and apply differently in different situations and to different people:
Among the things held to be just by law, whatever is proved to be of advantage in men’s dealings has the stamp of justice, whether or not it be the same for all; but if a man makes a law and it does not prove to be mutually advantageous, then this is no longer just. And if what is mutually advantageous varies and only for a time corresponds to our concept of justice, nevertheless for that time it is just for those who do not trouble themselves about empty words, but look simply at the facts.
Concrete examples in our own constitutional framework is how states have their rights and their form of sovereignty, versus how the federal government has its own rights and form of sovereignty and its own jurisdiction, versus how the different Indian Nations and Reservations have their own rights and forms of sovereignty, their own schools, police, etc. all according to mutual benefit.
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Cassius. Again, this passage seems directly supported by the Principle Doctrines on justice. How would an Epicurean elaborate on the meaning of this passage?
Where without any change in circumstances the things held to be just by law are seen not to correspond with the concept of justice in actual practice, such laws are not really just; but wherever the laws have ceased to be advantageous because of a change in circumstances, in that case the laws were for that time just when they were advantageous for the mutual dealings of the citizens, and subsequently ceased to be just when they were no longer advantageous.
The Declaration only mentions “safety and happiness”, which is a good start, but in the Letter to Menoeceus we find mention among the things that are needful and natural also of health of the body and tranquility of mind, of avoiding bodily uneasiness (threats, plagues, exploitation or slavery), which seems to imply that an Epicurean system of government would also be invested in public health, including mental health:
And of the necessary desires some are necessary if we are to be happy, some if the body is to be rid of uneasiness, some if we are even to live. He who has a clear and certain understanding of these things will direct every preference and aversion toward securing health of body and tranquillity of mind, seeing that this is the sum and end of a blessed life.
Are there any other Jefferson sources that may illuminate some of these questions?
Cassius. I especially think that this observation is of huge significance, and once we understand that our entire perspective on justice changes. It’s from Thomas Jefferson’s Epistle to James Madison, sent from Paris on Sept. 6, 1789:
I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self evident, “that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living;” that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. The portion occupied by an individual ceases to be his when himself ceases to be, and reverts to the society. If the society has formed no rules for the appropriation of its lands in severalty, it will be taken by the first occupants. These will generally be the wife and children of the decedent. If they have formed rules of appropriation, those rules may give it to the wife and children, or to some one of them, or to the legatee of the deceased. So they may give it to his creditor. But the child, the legatee or creditor takes it, not by any natural right, but by a law of the society of which they are members, and to which they are subject.
Hiram. So the key here is that rights are not “natural”, or “nature-given”, or “God-given”. They are created by the people who form the societies. And these rights and regulations can be changed by the people who form the societies.
“Please always remember my doctrines!” – Epicurus’ last words
I’ve tackled some of the problems related to the Buddhist doctrine of anatta–which posits that there is no self–in my review of Sam Harris’ Waking Up. Is the self a thing? Is it a mental function or a process? Depending on how we define the self, we may or may not find a self. In Why Buddhism is True, in order to prove that there is no-self, Wright limits discussion of the self to “the conscious self”, not the body, not the whole self, which reminds me of Cosma Raimondi’s argument about taking into consideration the whole of the human being. When the author speaks of the self as a “rational charioteer”–presumably meaning “conscious”?–, we are expected to accept that emotions or feelings are perceived as unconscious insofar as they are irrational, and that therefore there is no self, only nature acting as a puppeteer.
Another error in attempting to prove the doctrine of anatta goes back all the way to Siddhartha, the historical Buddha, and appears to be tied to the original Vedic and Hindu context. In the Bhagavad Gita and other Hindu scriptures, we find a defense of the idea of atman (the soul, in Sanskrit) as “the eternal aspect” of our self. This atman is sometimes described, interestingly, as an atomic particle. If Buddha could prove that there was nothing eternal in the sentient being, he could refute the doctrine of atman with a doctrine of anatta (no-self, in Pali). But what if the self, like all else, was real, just temporary? Why does the temporary conglomeration of certain conditions imply non-existence or non-reality? This does not follow, and so the arguments for the doctrine of anatta were, from the onset, flawed, because there is no atman to speak of in the first place. Selfhood does not need to be eternal in order to exist and be experienced as real by sentient beings. If the doctrine of anatta is reinterpreted to say that the self does not exist as_we_imagine_it_to_exist, then there is much more merit to the doctrine.
Now, in nature we see that even seemingly stable things like stones and mountains undergo geological processes over the aeons. We see that the trees can not exist without seeds sprouting, without solar light, without water, soil, and other elements, and that all things inter-exist. We see that, like all animals, we have millions of micro-organisms in our bellies without which we would not be able to properly digest our food: nothing exists in a vacuum. We are constantly exchanging particles with the rest of nature via breathing, acting, and eating. This recycling of particles between all things is poetically detailed early in the first book of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, inferring from phenomena like how the sea is replenished by rains, rivers, and other sources of water, and concluding that–since “nothing comes from nothing”–all things must deteriorate into the primal “germs” (that is, particles) that will make up new things:
Whence may the water-springs, beneath the sea,
Or inland rivers, far and wide away,
Keep the unfathomable ocean full?
And out of what does Ether feed the stars?
For lapsed years and infinite age must else
Have eat all shapes of mortal stock away:
But be it the Long Ago contained those germs,
By which this sum of things recruited lives,
Those same infallibly can never die,
Nor nothing to nothing evermore return.
If all other things in nature exist as processes, ever-changing, why must a member of the homo sapiens species exist as a Platonic essence, an eternal soul, an abstraction, an idea? Why can’t the self also be a process, just like the body and embedded within it, ever-changing from birth to death? Why can’t there be a concrete self, rather than an abstract self? What if, rather than a noun (self), we started referring to a process of ever becoming, which would more aptly describe what we are referring to–and yet doesn’t deny its reality as a felt experience of the sentient being?
The reason why Buddhists have not found a self is because they are not LOOKING for a CONCRETE self. They are looking for an abstraction, a Platonic “essence”, a Hindu atman. I believe that, with the help of Epicurean and Lucretian descriptions, and drawing strictly from the study of nature, it is possible for contemporary materialists to posit a theory of self that is corporeal, scientific, satisfying, and dynamic, to counter the Buddhist, nihilist, and other theories out there.
For the sake of clarity, Epicurean philosophy finds itself in the realist camp of this discussion–our position is pragmatic: we argue that the reality of the self matters. Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the Buddhists are on the anti-realist side of the debate.
To my knowledge, at least one scientific theory of concrete self has been advanced, and it has some of the features of the Buddhist doctrine of the aggregates (here described as “five dimensions”). It posits that the self is multitudinous and multi-disciplinary. Şerife Tekin presented her theory in an Aeon essay titled Self-Evident:
According to this model, the self is a dynamic, complex, relational and multi-aspectual mechanism of capacities, processes, states and traits that support a degree of agency. The multitudinous self has five distinct but functionally complementary dimensions: ecological, intersubjective, conceptual, private, and temporally extended. These dimensions work together to connect the individual to her body, her social world, her psychological world, and her environment.
Notice that Tekin mentions the feature of agency. Agency, or the ability to act over matter, is one of the attributes that proves the existence of a self Epicurean writings: a void can only be acted upon and has no agency. In other words, agency implies corporeal existence. In the Letter to Herotodus, Epicurus argues that the soul is made up of atoms, that it exists fully embedded into the body and provides it with sentience. As proof that it is corporeal, Epicurus cites how–unlike empty space–it can act and be acted upon.
There is the further point to be considered, what the incorporeal can be, if, I mean, according to current usage the term is applied to what can be conceived as self-existent. But it is impossible to conceive anything that is incorporeal as self-existent except empty space. And empty space cannot itself either act or be acted upon, but simply allows body to move through it. Hence those who call soul incorporeal speak foolishly. For if it were so, it could neither act nor be acted upon. But, as it is, both these properties, you see, plainly belong to soul.
What else does Epicurean tradition have to say regarding the concrete soul? In the Letter to Herodotus, Epicurus argues:
Next, keeping in view our perceptions and feelings (for so shall we have the surest grounds for belief), we must recognize generally that the soul is a corporeal thing, composed of fine particles, dispersed all over the frame … Still, it would not have had sensation, had it not been somehow confined within the rest of the frame.
Epicurus believed that the “soul” particles were finer or more subtle than other particles in the body. Contemporary science, instead, gives us the neurological system which, like the Epicurean soul, is entirely embedded into the body. It runs through the nervous system and is concentrated in two main organs: the brain, and the stomach–which contains enough neurons to be about the size of the brain of a small dog or cat. The Letter to Herodotus says that it is the soul that gives the body sentience.
But the rest of the frame, though it provides this indispensable conditions for the soul, itself also has a share, derived from the soul, of the said quality; and yet does not possess all the qualities of soul. Hence on the departure of the soul it loses sentience. For it had not this power in itself; but something else, congenital with the body, supplied it to body: which other thing, through the potentiality actualized in it by means of motion, at once acquired for itself a quality of sentience, and, in virtue of the neighborhood and interconnection between them, imparted it (as I said) to the body also.
Hence, so long as the soul is in the body, it never loses sentience through the removal of some other part. The containing sheaths may be dislocated in whole or in part, and portions of the soul may thereby be lost; yet in spite of this the soul, if it manage to survive, will have sentience. But the rest of the frame, whether the whole of it survives or only a part, no longer has sensation, when once those atoms have departed, which, however few in number, are required to constitute the nature of soul.
That the soul is corporeal and mortal, and leaves the body at the moment of death, is also argued by Lucretius in De Rerum Natura. There are other materialist theories of self that do not contradict, but in fact may add support to, the theories here presented. In a previous essay, I echoed a materialist conception of identity based on habitual behavior, which not only recognizes the concrete and changing self, but allows for the possibility of cultivation or sculpting of an ethically better self, that is, moral development–a subject that is very in tune with natural philosophy:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” –Will Durant
To the extent that habitual behavior is unconscious or subconscious, it can be said to be a crystallized–even if capable of change or evolution–part of the self. This is a different way of thinking about identity, and yet it does not contradict Tekin’s model.
FEELINGS AS ARBITERS OF THOUGHT
In Why Buddhism is True, feelings are explained as **the** value-setting faculty. The author is really a champion of the primacy of feelings over reason in human behavior, arguing that the cognitive and effective / emotional functions are very intertwined. This is the premise behind Epicurean cognitive therapy: that reason and feeling can coach each other.
Feelings are, among other things, your brain’s way of labeling the importance of thoughts, and importance (in natural selection’s somewhat crude sense of the term) determines which thoughts enter consciousness. – Why Buddhism is True (p. 119)
Feelings tell us what to think about, and after all the thinking is done, they tell us what to do. – Why Buddhism is True (p. 124)
Some Epicureans are questioning Cicero’s interpretation of Epicurus’ definition of pleasure found in On Ends, and have cited several key essays in articulating their arguments. The Wenham essay is among them.
STATIC PLEASURE HAS BOTH EXPERIENTIAL AND ATTITUDINAL COMPONENTS
The founders of the Epicurean school were adamant that words had to clearly correlate to the attestations presented to our faculties by nature, and had to be clearly defined as such prior to any investigation into truth. The first error in Wenham is this:
“katastematic pleasure in Epicurus has it referring to “static” states from which feeling is absent.”
Katastematic pleasures were defined as pleasures by Epicurus, and a pleasure is not a pleasure if feeling is absent. So we would be accepting a false premise if we were to admit Wenham’s definition, which he gets from Cicero.
when we examine aspects of Epicurus’ epistemology, it seems to demand that we attribute to him an account of pleasure that fits the experiential framework. – Wenham
Wenham makes, from the onset, a clear distinction and separation between the attitudinal and the experiential approaches, and presents and either/or view of them. Can this be a true dichotomy? Can there not be a both/and approach–which would be entirely consistent with Epicurean polyvalent logic?
He solves the controversy in favor of experience, and I agree 100 % that Epicurean ethics concerns itself primarily with the immediate experience of a sentient being.
The problem is that attitude (diathesis) is central in both Diogenes—where it’s said that we are in control of it, and so this is tied to freedom and its moral repercussions—and Philodemus, for therapeutic purposes, as it is one’s attitudes / diathesis that are being healed and reformed via cognitive therapy. This means that Epicurean philosophy can not furnish the moral revolution that it promises without an in depth study of diathesis and its account of how and by which methods diathesis–one’s attitude and character, sometimes translated as “disposition”–must be reformed. The “anatomy” of long-term pleasure and its relation to disposition is explored in Diogenes’ Wall:
Let us now [investigate] how life is to be made pleasant for us both in states and in actions.
Let us first discuss states, keeping an eye on the point that, when the emotions which disturb the soul are removed, those which produce pleasure enter into it to take their place.
Well, what are the disturbing emotions? [They are] fears —of the gods, of death, and of [pains]— and, besides [these], desires that [outrun] the limits fixed by nature. These are the roots of all evils, and, [unless] we cut them off, [a multitude] of evils will grow [upon] us.
It is clear that life is made pleasant not just by the removal of anxieties and false beliefs, but also by replacing them with true beliefs based on the study of nature. It follows from what Diogenes is saying, that once the right view is accepted and the cognitive perturbation is corrected, the new view leads to a feeling of pleasure. Philodemus reports Epicurus as saying this, in On Piety:
“… we all regard our views as the true cause of our tranquility.”
Although ataraxia (non-perturbation, here translated as tranquility) is a means to pleasure and not the end itself, when we study the anatomy of a pleasant life, it seems that the opinion, or judgment, or cognitive component that leads to ataraxia is a pre-cursor, maybe even a reason / justification for pleasant experience, but is distinct from the (katastematic) pleasant existential state itself in the Epicurean system. One of the documents alluded to in our Dialogue on Katastematic Pleasure, a chapter of the book The Greeks on Pleasure by Gosling & Taylor, explains that
joy (chara) and a sense of well-being (euphrosune) seem to correspond to ataraxia and aponia as positive counterparts.
By positive here it meant the feeling component, without which katastematic pleasure would not qualify as pleasure. According to Diogenes Laertius, Epicurus, in On Telos, says that ataraxia and aponia imply a state of rest (katastema), joy and delight a state of motion and activity (kinesis). It is clear that when Epicurus used the word katastema to refer to aponia (painlessness) and ataraxia (tranquility), he was referring to a pleasant feeling of well being, not a purely cognitive judgement.
KATASTEMATIC PLEASURE DEPLETED OF FEELING, ACCORDING TO CICERO
At the heart of the controversy that we have been discussing is the error–originally attributed to Cicero, but partially traceable back to Plato–where Cicero assumed that everyone agrees that pleasure is an active stimulus and not a stable state, ergo it is a motion towards replenishment (vitality). In the attitudinal theory, pleasure is an intentional state or attitude (belief, desire), and in the case of “katastematic” it’s purely cognitive (that is, void of feeling). This view can be traced back to Plato because he held that pleasure was partially cognitive.
Wenham argues that the standard interpretation does not agree with the Epicurean canon, which does not admit a cognitive component. Cognition helps in interpreting the signs presented by nature to our faculties, and the canon (or measure of truth) is the set of faculties that receives raw data from nature. It does not interpret, and hence does not admit cognitive components.
But what Wenham is also saying is that the cognitive component informs katastematic pleasure, and the katastematic pleasure itself is felt as joy and a sense of wellbeing. It could also be experienced as gratitude, as confidence, as joy, as relaxation, or a variety of other mellows that constitute the pleasure itself.
In our discussion, some Epicureans–dismissing the Ciceronian (now seen as the standard / academic) interpretation as another chapter in our counter-history of philosophy–wish to do away entirely with katastematic pleasure, and even go as far as to deny that it is a truly Epicurean concept. Others hold that view that we need not deny the attitudinal component because it is a necessity that comes with freedom, and it is self-evident that a wholesome disposition can help to lead to a life of pleasure.
Those who hold the second view, also find that katastematic pleasure needs to be reaffirmed and properly understood as a felt experience, as a feeling. If we admit the Laertius quote and accept katastema as a category of pleasure, and insist on defining katastema as including FEELING, the entire Ciceronian argument falls. Here is the quote attributed to Epicurus, from Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book X:81-2
 “There is yet one more point to seize, namely, that the greatest anxiety of the human mind arises through the belief that the heavenly bodies are blessed and indestructible, and that at the same time they have volitions and actions and causality inconsistent with this belief ; and through expecting or apprehending some everlasting evil, either because of the myths, or because we are in dread of the mere insensibility of death, as if it had to do with us ; and through being reduced to this state not by conviction but by a certain irrational perversity, so that, if men do not set bounds to their terror, they endure as much or even more intense anxiety than the man whose views on these matters are quite vague.  But mental tranquility means being released from all these troubles and cherishing a continual remembrance of the highest and most important truths.
“Hence we must attend to present feelings and sense perceptions, whether those of mankind in general or those peculiar to the individual, and also attend to all the clear evidence available, as given by each of the standards of truth. For by studying them we shall rightly trace to its cause and banish the source of disturbance and dread, accounting for celestial phenomena and for all other things which from time to time befall us and cause the utmost alarm to the rest of mankind.
EXTRINSIC OBJECTS OF PLEASURE
Attending to “our present feelings and sensations” reminds us of the Zen-like Cyrenaic practice of presentism. Existentialist thinkers like Nietzsche and Sartre say that apprehension of something, or knowing someone, is the same as having power over that object. If this is the case, and if we are, indeed, present to our feelings and sensations–ataraxia can then be seen as a positive, dynamic, active consumption and enjoyment of reality here and now, and the exercise of “being present” (“presentism”) could help to make our attention available and maximize our ability to experience pleasure in our immediacy. Also, this would mean that static pleasures may also be, to some extent, active.
Wenham makes another contribution to the discussion, one that links the Epicurean theory of pleasure ethics to both Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus and Polystratus’ scroll Irrational Contempt. In the scroll, our third Scholarch argues that pleasure and aversion (and categories like noble or vile) DO exist in nature and are observable, but that they do not exist in the same way as the inherent properties of bodies. He refers to them as relational properties of bodies, which they exhibit when in the presence of certain other bodies. These two categories of primal and secondary properties of physical bodies exist within Epicurus’ physics. Polystratus uses examples like the magnet, which attracts iron, but not other stones; and of herbs which heal certain diseases but do not have healing properties in the presence of health.
not part of the essential nature of someone or something; coming or operating from outside
Wenham’s assertion that there is in the experiential model an “experiential object extrinsic to the self” relates to Polystratus‘ assertion that what is experienced as pleasure or aversion exists not as a primary or inherent attribute of bodies, but is relational in nature. There is some object, whether mental or physical, that is enjoyed and incites pleasure in the organism.
Our intention here, by posting both the dialogue on the controversy surrounding katastematic pleasure and a discussion of the sources mentioned, is to present the controversy and encourage familiarity with it among students of Epicurean philosophy.
Much more can be said about the anatomy of the pleasant life, according to Epicurean philosophy, and also according to modern science. In recent discussions, the similarities between the two feel-good hormones serotonin and endorphin and the two modes of pleasure have surfaced.
Serotonin regulates sleep cycles, mood and appetite, and gives people a general, stable sense of well-being (which likens it to katastematic pleasure) whereas endorphin is more euphoric and intense (which likens it to kinetic pleasure). Could these similarities add another layer of insight to this conversation? Answering that is beyond the scope and intention of this essay, but might be a worthwhile exploration for the future.
It is clear that, as per Epicurus’ Epistle to Menoeceus, Pleasure is the Alpha and Omega in Epicurean ethics. For a sentient being, out of the two general modes of sentience–pleasure and pain–this mode is experienced as choice-worthy for its own sake, and it’s the one that our own nature seeks. But there are several complexities concerning how to define pleasure, compounded by the fact that many of the academics who have historically interpreted the texts for us have held anti-Epicurean convictions, and made worse by academic insistence on giving credit to what many Epicureans argue is Cicero’s–not Epicurus’–interpretation of Epicurean pleasure. Furthermore, our epistemology treats pleasure and aversion as a faculty. Other than in non-philosophical fields like anthropology and Darwinian evolution, this is typically not the way pleasure ethics is studied. In this discussion, we evaluate the anatomy of a pleasant life and, along the way, explore how philosophy must also guide science and how–contrary to popular stereotypes–Epicureans have always been involved in politics.
Cassius. While we are on the topic of goals, (the Epicurean Manifesto) is also a formulation that I personally find unacceptable, even though / especially because it is stated with admirable clarity near the end of the document: “But the adoption of the Epicurean telos of katastemic pleasure seems most appealing to those buffeted on the high seas of life. The older I get, the more I crave undisturbedness.”
I do not believe the Epicurean telos is “katastematic pleasure” and/or “undisturbedness”, even though that is the preferred position of modern academic commentators. The goal is PLEASURE, and efforts to dilute it with “katastematic” or rename it as “undisturbedness” are just as harmful – maybe more so – than saying that the goal is “virtue,” or “holiness,” or (for non-Greek speakers) “eudaemonia” – since there is no accepted English definition of that term.
Hiram. The problem with what you are saying is that the Epicurean Manifesto is the single most complete, concise and detailed description of Epicurean techniques of cognitive therapies, the next closest thing being Martha Nussbaum ‘s Therapy of Desires. The solution might be to read and engage the Epicurean Manifesto critically in writing, so that future students can see both your and Fogel’s perspective. But I would not dismiss the usefulness and need to know and promote the therapeutic methods.
And in fact I suspect that when at times you have complained about our lack of focus and our lack of ability to connect theory with practice, if you had taken the time to study these techniques, you might have had a better understanding of praxis in the Gardens.
Cassius. Yes, as you anticipate, I disagree that any article which focuses on katastematic pleasure as the goal of life is a valid representation of Epicurean philosophy or of “Epicurean techniques of cognitive therapies.” I don’t believe that approach is Epicurean at all.
Hiram. But the practices were there, so what do u make of that?
Cassius. What practices do you mean? What practices are documented in Epicurean texts?
Hiram. Nussbaum mentions repetition (for memorization of the teachings), reasonings (where you confront your bad habits via argumentation and cognitive therapy, and this seems to be linked to VS 46: “Let us completely rid ourselves of our bad habits as if they were evil men who have done us long and grievous harm.”), and “seeing before your eyes” (which, if you’ll remember, is a treatment for anger used in Philodemus’ times), and there were others I think. These are based on Philodemus texts mainly.
Cassius. I am not sure how thoroughly I will be able to go through this tonight but Nussbaum seems to regularly describe herself as an Aristotelian?
(On Nussbaum quotes) … I do not agree that Epicurean philosophy slights development of critical thought, nor do I consider the Stoics to be superior in any way, or the Epicureans “authoritarian” (as she claims) … Nor do I agree that Epicurean philosophy subordinates truth and good reasoning to “therapeutic efficacy” (she presumably is referring to the goal of living pleasurably) nor would I consider the Stoics and Aristotelians superior in this department … So Nussbaum considers Seneca “an advance of major proportions” over the Epicureans … I don’t agree that Lucretius contradicts Epicurus, and I don’t agree that Epicurus excluded marriage, sexual love, children, and political community … I do not agree that Epicureans are parasitic on the rest of the world …
If I read Wikipedia correctly, Nussbaum is not Jewish ethnically nor was she educated that way, she is a CONVERT to Judaism, which presumably means that as an adult she was so impressed by the brilliance of that sect, even after becoming expert in Hellenistic philosophy, that she ditched Hellenism and her prior beliefs to embrace that religion. I don’t believe in labeling someone by race, but I am totally comfortable making judgments about someone according to the religious views they embrace, especially when they embrace that religion later in life by choice, rather than having been indoctrinated in it early in life. Judaism has condemned Epicurus for 2000+ years, and the Epicureans returned the favor as we know from Diogenes of Oinoanda, and the Epicureans were involved in the conflict that the Jews celebrate as Hannakah. And that conflict has nothing to do with race or ethnicity, but a profoundly different view of nature/the universe, the goal of living, and the methodology for achieving it.
What I read in those sections of the book I’ve quoted is a slice and dice approach to ALL of Hellenistic philosophy according to her own views of correct analysis, which we can agree with or disagree with as we like, but should not take as even an effort to be fair to the Epicurean viewpoint. I would no more accept an assertion by Nussbaum about Epicurus at face value than I would an assertion of a Randian about Epicurus, a Stoic about Epicurus, or a Nazi about a Rabbi (or vice versa). Her claims ought to be scrutinized no less than anyone else’s, and I for one don’t accept the conclusions that Epicurus was a parasitic and manipulative authoritarian who had to be corrected and improved by Lucretius, and that Epicurean philosophy is inferior to Aristotle and the Stoics in any way. Someone who thinks that is not to be trusted in her interpretation of Epicurean “techniques.”
This is the second significant time in memory that I’ve run into Nussbaum as a source of conflicting interpretation of Epicurus. The first was almost ten years ago. A LOT of what we are talking about comes back over and over to “What is the goal of life?” The two categories of choice seem to be:
(A) If someone accepts that the goal is “katastematic pleasure” and focuses on ataraxia (1)–meaning “calmness”–and stops at that point, then they will follow the Nussbaum line, see calmness as a stated of mind-numbed nothingness that is not painful but has no content of ordinary pleasure, blend Stoic and Epicurean into a mashup blob, and just adopt Epicurus’ name for credibility.
(B) If one accepts that PLEASURE as ordinarily understood is the goal of life, and that being “calm” is simply an adjective that describes a way in which almost ANY pleasurable activity can be conducted, then one understands that the highest life is to be calm WHILE experiencing a full slate of ordinary pleasures. One can be calm while climbing Mount Everest, or hiking a canyon, or hang-gliding, or pushing a button to start a war, having sex, eating a banquet, or doing virtually any other activity that doesn’t require agitation and loss of control of mind while you are doing it. Pleasure remains the goal, and calmly (without disturbance or interruption) is just the best way to enjoy pleasure.
I know which one of these I choose, and while I wish Nussbaum and everyone else who follows this line well, I am not at all interested in it myself. I think the “tranquilism” line needs to be pointed out as a fundamentally flawed understanding of Epicurean philosophy, not something to coexist with as an ally, or to be learned from and adjusted to and held out as a valid interpretation. It is a rewrite of Epicurean philosophy with the intent of burying its meaning so deeply that it never again emerges to challenge the monotheist consensus.
Hiram. (After reading Wenham and Gosling & Taylor) I do not agree that we need to throw out katastematic pleasure. It seems to me like it is FELT and we should claim it as a FEELING, rather than accept it as painlessness, in other words–like elsewhere in EP–we should reclaim it with the proper definition. The main reasons for this are: 1. Epicurus is cited as mentioning katastema in Diogenes Laertius, and it would make us seem revisionists to deny this, and 2. the error is in Cicero for defining katastema as painlessness and lacking in feeling, rather than as a form of pleasure. But also, 3. I see a clear connection between katastema (an attitudinal approach to pleasures) and diathesis (dispositions)–which are central in both Philodemus and Diogenes. Here is the relevant quote from Diogenes’ Wall:
Let us now [investigate] how life is to be made pleasant for us both in states and in actions.
Let us first discuss states, keeping an eye on the point that, when the emotions which disturb the soul are removed, those which produce pleasure enter into it to take their place.
Well, what are the disturbing emotions? [They are] fears —of the gods, of death, and of [pains]— and, besides [these], desires that [outrun] the limits fixed by nature. These are the roots of all evils, and, [unless] we cut them off, [a multitude] of evils will grow [upon] us.
Once we remove the things that block pleasure (false views) and replace them with true views, these healthy dispositions lead to katastema (salvation, wholeness). This theory is important to understand. Also, Philodemus in On Piety says “our BELIEFS are the source of our happiness”.
Elli. Τhe word “katastematic” has not any meaning or connected with any concept to the issue of static and without motion, or apathy, etc. It is connected with the duration in time. We want to be in the katastematic pleasure as long as we can and as our organism/limits permit it based on the external circumstances. It is a very good Hellenic word, Cassius: all the Greek Epicureans can grasp its meaning, and they use it.
Hiram. But back to the original discussion: did you locate where she found the sources for these techniques or are you saying she made them all up? I think most of her sources are from Herculaneum. Most scholars who study and teach Epicurean philosophy are not Epicureans. She is not unique in that.
Cassius. I think you are correct that most of her sources are Philodemus, although some are Lucretius. I haven’t studied it enough in detail to have a general summary, although she admits that the Philodemus material is patchy and heavily reconstructed. My concerns would boil down to two categories:
(1) Without a lot more background of the Philodemus material I think it is very dangerous to draw sweeping conclusions that contradict a more charitable reading of the other texts, and that is what I think she is doing when she accepts the parasite/manipulation/authoritarian arguments. The only way to treat Philodemus material, in my view, is to lay out exact quotes in full, showing whatever context is available, and whatever guesses have been made about the text. My understanding from Philodemus’ “On Methods of Inference” is that that is one of the most complete texts left, and even it is missing huge chunks of important context. It seems to have been the pattern (as would make sense) that the Epicurean writers would describe the opposing position so as to show how it is wrong. When chunks of text are taken out of context and reconstructed it’s impossible to know whether Philodemus was stating his own view, or Epicurus’ view, or the view of some non-Epicurean. As it is, we are relying on modern writers whose views are very likely to be swayed by the peer pressure to interpret Epicurus in the mainstream way, which is neo-Stoic.
But probably my concern with Nussbaum in particular is more broad (2):
Just like in the letter to Menoeceus, it is possible to read very different possibilities into the same text, depending on our disposition. Nussbaum is very clearly a Socratic / Aristotelian / Stoic psychologist who accepts most of their premises about goal of life and methodology. So even if she is the most fair-minded person who ever lived, she is going to infer from any ambiguity a position that she finds more to her own liking, and interpret fragments that way. I am not saying that every statement she makes is false, by any means, but that the overall picture is distorted because she has an agenda which is not consistent with Epicurus’ agenda. Whenever we obsess over a tool (in this case methods of psychology) without first having the end goal and the basics of nature in mind, we’re going to end up worshiping the tools just like the Stoics worship “virtue” and the Aristotelian/Randians worship “reason.”
Hiram. So the only way to retrieve the Epicurean tools is then to go to those sources which are difficult to come by. I’m personally less interested in ad-hominem attacks against non-Epicureans than in revitalizing Epicurean tradition, and I could find the time to visit the Library at Loyola University again to access these rare translations and commentaries on the Herculaneum scrolls but my life has changed. I have full time work and a busier life than when I initially was able to read these sources, when I was under-employed. So my reasonings on them is what we have for now, and whatever translations are affordable on amazon.
But what I keep hearing from you is a dismissal of therapy and even of Philodemus, who (unlike us) enjoyed the direct lineage and teaching down from the Scholarchs, not a sincere desire to retrieve these methods.
Cassius. No I sincerely want to retrieve whatever is available, but my reasoning starts with the most documentable evidence and says:
1. “First get the basics before engaging in speculation.” And whenever there is speculation, my criteria for evaluating the speculation is
2.”Is the speculation consistent with the basics that we already know?”
I throw out much of Nussbaum’s commentary because I believe it to be speculation that contradicts evidence that we already believe to be clear.
As for the Obbink material on Philodemus, which I think you’re referring to, when I saw a copy of the book I think you are referring to (Philodemus’ On Piety, if I recall), it appeared to me to be extremely fragmentary and much less complete than the On Methods of Inference or the Rhetoric book. Some of it may be good, some of it may not, I just don’t know. But whenever something is so fragmentary it’s very difficult to use, and the fragments ought to be clearly displayed so that we see how much is being reconstructed. That’s one of the major issues I have with using Philodemus at all. We don’t have access to images showing what is reconstructed and what is not.
This issue is handled a little better with the Diogenes of Oinoanda material, where we have online access to at least a large part of Martin Ferguson Smith’s work, but some of the same danger exists there too.
So I don’t think that I am dismissing therapy or Philodemus, I just think that we have to be careful with speculation and make sure it conforms to the core material. And when there are large segments of people who like Epicurus who can’t even agree on what the core material means about painlessness, ataraxia, aponia, pleasure, and the like, then it seems to me that we have no hope of understanding or applying therapy towards the goal if we don’t understand clearly what the goal was.
Hiram. Have you given up on Epicurean therapy and any possibility of reconstruction of it?
The problem with that is that you can reiterate the end to infinity, but if we don’t teach people the means to that end, this may render our system of philosophy ultimately useless, lack of utility which goes against everything we are supposed to stand for. “Philosophy that doesn’t heal the soul is no better than medicine that doesn’t heal the body.”
Cassius. My view is that we can’t help anyone with a therapy unless we know what the goal is–we can’t “heal” until we know what it means to be healthy, and we haven’t yet got a firm consensus on that. In other words, until we decide what to tell people pleasure really is, and what is its relationship to painlessless, and calm, and ataraxia, and aponia, then we can’t do anything.
“First, do no harm” often makes sense, and this is one of those cases. We have the view out there of Epicurus that has a totally different view of the goal than what I would maintain is the proper position, and I wouldn’t suggest anyone take any medicine until they know how the doctor dispensing it defines health. If the doctor’s goal is “calmness” then he is more likely to give me anesthesia than he is to give me medicine that will cure the pain and allow me to live pleasurably.
Hiram. I am saying that the Epicureans, not the academics, should be the ones informing people about these methods, but we first have to acquaint ourselves with them.
Elli. How could we achieve getting rid of our bad habits? By looking at the walls of our homes chanting alone some Epicurean Sayings by Epicurus, or with the discussions based on frankness of speech with our trusted friends? Who are the people we can trust? The already healed of course … and another question is: did we make it clear at last who are the ones that have already healed, or the ones who are (ready and able) to heal, or the ones who accept help for their healing? Trust is the first ally to accept your therapist and the therapy that (he) is suggesting.
This reminds me of a discussion that I had with my companion who says to me that the most ill persons are those that are visiting many doctors to find a cure, because they do not trust even themselves … Δια αλλήλων σώζεσθε [Dia allilon sozesthe] = “to be saved by one another”.
Hiram. Will we ever ourselves tackle the Philodemus sources and their therapeutic techniques, without the prism of these interpreters?
Cassius. An excellent question, and I don’t want to come across as discouraging you from doing that. What I mean do be doing in this discussion is explaining why I haven’t attacked that, not that you should not. There’s still a lot more to talk about so that is a good question:
There is nothing that would interest me more than getting access to new material. I think we ought to find new ways to keep pursuing that by trying to make more connections with the researchers, encouraging them to publish their material on the internet rather than exclusively on that ripoff JSTOR site, etc. I am 100% with you that I am completely enthusiastic about that.
The reason I have not put much into that lately is that when I did try to trace down what was available, such as the Voula Tsouna material, the books were frank in displaying that what’s left of the texts is in TERRIBLE condition. No one but an ancient Greek expert could even hope to make much of them, and it seems clear from the images that they print that the texts are so damaged that they can hardly get a full sentence or two on many pages. That leaves the few paragraphs that they an tease out as totally contextless, and as I’ve been saying in that context I don’t think we can rely on whatever they do recover to be the Epicurean portions. They could easily be quotes from enemies. So my observation is that we’ve got a huge uphill battle to get anything meaningful out of them. Heck, we can’t even find an image of the “Vatican List” to verify that, which out to be absolutely clear.
And as examples of where I think this has mislead us I will name two: “Live unknown” has absolutely no context, none of us do it, Epicurus and Lucretius didn’t do it, and so reading a dramatic amount into those two words has been an engraved invitation for Stoics and anti-Epicureans to paint us as cave-dwelling Stoics.
Another example is the Tetrapharmakon, which also has no context (2). To me, it is SO truncated as a summary of PD1-4 as to be almost as damaging as it is helpful. Every line of it is easily twisted into something that is almost a laughingstock, and I suspect that whoever wrote it had to have understood that and warned about that in the original text. But today it is paraded around like it is an oracle of Epicurus, and I strongly doubt he would even have approved of it at all. He left the first four in his own words, and if he had thought that “don’t fear the gods” and “don’t fear death” were good enough, he’d never have left the longer versions.
Those are just two examples how playing with excerpts can easily be turned against us just as much as help us. And I think that is what Nussbaum largely does. Elli may hate me for saying this but “eudaemonia” or any Greek or non-English word is never going to be sufficient to explain to an everyday American what the goal of life is. In fact, using an untranslated word implies that the meaning CANNOT be translated, which I will never accept.
Maybe I am alone in putting so much emphasis on “pleasure” vs “painlessness” but, to me, the first roadblock of reaching any normal person with Epicurean theory is going to be that normal people do not equate “painlessness” with anything but “anesthesia.” 95% of the people I think I would come into contact with will not go a step further if they think the goal of Epicurean philosophy is anesthesia. And anesthesia, plus a particular political position, is exactly what I perceive the majority of modern commentators are pushing. They are political Stoics / Simplicists / Humanists (in the sense of idealizing the goal of making no discrimination whatsoever among anyone), and they are simply using Epicurus as a convenient banner to carry their non-philosophical agenda. They don’t care about the connection between painlessness and pleasure because THEY DON’T WANT ANY connection between painlessness and pleasure.
I think I understand your desire to focus on therapy, but I think you are selling yourself short on where the really profound progress needs to be made before that. Tons of people are out there with self-help books on reducing anxiety, and I agree that reducing anxiety is a desirable goal. But the really groundbreaking work is redefining the common understanding of what the goal of life should be. Religionists and Platonists and Stoics don’t oppose Epicurus because he was in favor of reducing anxiety–they fully agree with that and rush to embrace THAT PART of Epicurus. But they embrace that PART, and ignore the core, because the CORE of Epicurean philosophy is the placement of PLEASURE are the center of life, and that is what they cannot accept. They insist on their own holiness, and their own virtue, and they realize that Pleasure is the rebel that will usurp their throne if they ever let it get a foothold.
That’s where the battle really lies, and every time we get off on reducing anxiety (or pain in general) as a sufficient goal, we give aid and comfort to the enemy and assist them in burying the heart of Epicurus even further.
The real life Alexander the Oracle Mongers are with us today and in much greater strength. But today their greatest weapon is not burning Epicurean books in fig tree fires. Their greatest weapon is convincing us that what Epicurus wrote means the opposite of what he intended.
Against that list is arrayed virtually every academic and popular book on Epicurus written in the last 100 years, and 99% of the internet websites online today.
To me, that means that the battle has to be joined on the most important point, with the few resources that we have, and getting off into other issues before securing the base is a guarantee of defeat.
THIS is the point I am making, here made by Matthew Wenham: So long as the standard model of katastematic pleasure being the goal of life prevails, Epicurean philosophy will remain as nothing more than historical interest. The entire game is in this issue. Game set match.
Hiram. Are you saying that katastematic pleasures do not exist or are you saying that they exist but that the goal includes them AND dynamic pleasures together, or in other words simply pleasure?
Cassius. I am saying that the entire katastematic/kinetic distinction is a rhetorical argument against Epicurus, and every time we accept any part of it we are undermining the philosophy. We know about it mainly because Cicero employed it as a rhetorical device in On Ends. He set up the argument with a straw man in Book 1 by having Torquatus identify the highest pleasure as absence of pain without positive pleasures, and then he demolished the argument in Book 2 by showing how inconsistent that is with the rest of the philosphy.
The distinction arises–as Nikolsky and Wenham point out–with Platonists who considered pleasure to be divisible into active and attitudinal/static divisions. They did this so in part so that they could argue that there is a pleasure separate from the body and real human action and experience, as part of their elevation of reason and thinking as superior to the body and action.
In contrast, Epicurus held that ALL pleasure is desirable, and he did not set up one kind of pleasure as superior to another, or one kind of pleasure as only worthwhile as a tool to obtain another type of pleasure.
Even more importantly, as Wenham points out, Epicurus held pleasure and pain to be part of the canonical faculties that operate by nature, and are inseparable from human living experiences. Separating out a type of pleasure as non-feeling, and considering that type of pleasure to be higher than ordinary pleasures of feeling, destroys the Epicurean model.
There’s more: if someone sets up one type of pleasure as higher than another, then there must be some faculty separate from pleasure to allow us to recognize which is “better” other than pleasure itself (pleasure itself does nothing other than recognize pleasure). This everyone else suggests is “reason”, and therefore conclude that pleasure alone is not the goal. They argue that the goal is pleasure + reason. Then, Plato develops that argument further and shows “logically” that reason alone is the highest good, and that pleasure is not even needed.
So all of these issues arise from the same katastematic/kinetic distinction. It is a dagger pointed at the heart of Epicurean philosophy which the Platonists developed and Cicero popularized and preserved in the records for the next 2000 years. As long as we accept this katastematic/kinetic distinction, Epicurean philosophy is doomed to be nothing more than a word game and a historical oddity that no one will take seriously.
Hiram. I disagree with you. Also, Cassius, this is NOT the “dagger pointed at the heart of Epicurean philosophy” that you imagine. It’s hard for me to understand how you get so worked up about this. Pleasure is self-evident to the organism experiencing it, and just like the eye can see many colors according to the spectrum and to the wavelength arriving at the eye, similarly various pleasures are available to the organism.
If you are arguing this, you are saying that that the only way to experience constant pleasures is to constantly be satisfying a thirst (because katastematic pleasure is the self-sufficient pleasure that exists when we aren’t satisfying a desire, so if we get rid of it, then we are on the hedonic threadmill like mice in a hoop).
Also, the distinction between these two kinds of pleasure is made in contemporary science of happiness, which demonstrates that it is a recognized feature of it. There, it is known as natural and synthetic happiness. The TED speech by Dan Gilbert is the shortest intro to this idea.
In Nichiren Buddhism, I also found that they use different verbiage for it, but the idea of katastematic and kinetic pleasures in some form or another exists in both scientific understanding, and in other cultures and philosophies that are seriously studying the science of happiness.
I think the key problem here is that if we don’t have katastematic pleasures, then the possibility of living in constant pleasures does not exist because the brain gets either addicted, or used to dopamine and is no longer excited by new experiences. Also, the question of one’s disposition has to be addressed: what state are we in habitually? If you throw out katastematic pleasures, you have a theory that requires constantly scratching an itch to experience pleasures.
What do you make of Diogenes of Oenoanda’s assertion distinguishing pleasures of the mind versus those of the body? It’s true that, in the end, the mind is part of the body, so the distinction is still within the physics ultimately. But to say that there IS no distinction is naive: the pleasures and pains of the mind last longer and can cause harm to the body, and also we are in control of our (mental) disposition, which implies that some kind of discipline to steer that mental disposition is desirable if you want to abide in pleasure persistently.
You say of Wenham that he speaks of “separating a type of pleasure as NON-FEELING”. I can’t imagine in what way a pleasure can be non-feeling. Not sure what you mean, and I have a feeling that this may be where we should re-affirm katastematic pleasure as a feeling.
I also don’t follow that the recognition of passive and active pleasures leads to the need for a third faculty, because both are directly experienced as pleasant by the organism. I think this is a false argument and you should simply tell that to your Platonist opponents: reason is the handmaiden of pleasure that helps to calculate benefit. No need to let their play of words entangle you like a boa constrictor into positions that are needlessly rhetorically complicated, and drain the pleasure from even philosophy itself. Long arguments get to the same place as short ones. Pleasure is self-evident.
Cassius. I am glad that we are able to air our disagreement so clearly because it is fundamental … “because katastematic pleasure is the self-sufficient pleasure that exists when we aren’t satisfying a desire, so if we get rid of it, then we are on the hedonic treadmill like mice in a hoop” << That is your definition, picked up from Cicero and others, and not from any core Epicurean text of Epicurus or an authoritative Epicurean.
Hiram. it’s part of the contemporary science of happiness, and it’s tied to the hedonic treadmill, and it’s what explains that a year after winning the lottery and losing a limb, the millionaire and the person who survived the accident can have equal levels of happiness. Neuroscientists know of hedonic adaptation and are trying to figure out ways to heighten the hedonic base level.
Jason. As the arrow of time flows ever in one direction and never pauses, even for an instant, and the atoms are always in motion (as that motion is how we measure time) I am finding the idea of static pleasure harder and harder to justify. We’re always having to replenish our stores of neurochemicals through consumption of new pleasures. I am willing to put myself on the line and state unequivocally that there is never a steady-state of pleasure or pain in any living organism, only a swervy oscillation toward and away from the limits of experience.
The prudent man arranges his life to dampen the pendulum swing and bias it towards the upper limit of pleasure for the duration of his life through repeated and varied applications of will.
Cassius. Yes Jason that is one of the core contradictions that shows this as something Epicurus would not embrace. There is nothing settled in life, no place of rest, just action until death. Hiram, I completely agree that we need to incorporate modern scientific discoveries, but we always have to keep separate whether our goal is to develop our own synthesis that we think we should be advocated, or whether we are working to identify what Epicurus thought. In this issue we’re not talking about physics issues like the size of the sun. We are talking about philosophical approaches which are tied to particular premises about the nature of the universe, which I don’t think have changed at all.
Hiram. So in this interpretation, Epicurus couldn’t have “called us to constant pleasures”, or if he did, he was lying? … If we dismiss science, we have dismissed the canon. As far as I know, scientific data has passed the sieve of the canon, we would not be connecting theory with practice, and our tradition would remain stagnant and incapable of evolving as it was intended to do by the use of the tools given for its evolution.
Cassius. No, I completely disagree. (Epicurus) is telling us that pleasures of some kind are always possible and always present and always available to serve as the guide of life. That’s what he means by constant–the constant availability of normal pleasures, INCLUDING the mental ones that you (and Diogenes of Oinoanda) are trying to break out as a separate category distinct to themselves. That is the issue–they are NOT a separate category of a distinct kind–they are simply mental processes, no different than reading a book or looking at art or whatever.
The canon rests on science, one of the observations of which is that all knowledge comes to us through the senses and the processing of what they give us. No one embraces science more enthusiastically than I do, but at the same time we can never forget that science is no different than any other tool–we pursue it in order to achieve pleasure, because we recognize by nature through feeling that nothing is desirable in life except pleasure.
Hiram. If we can’t understand or accept the scientific theory of happiness, how can we develop scientific methods for its achievement? I don’t feel comfortable with articulating our philosophy as opposed to the scientific establishment, much less with labeling the adoption of the scientific view as “eclecticism” because it’s not culture, it’s nature that it’s based on.
Cassius. Not sure I understand what you are saying exactly, but I do not believe that there can probably even be a “scientific theory of happiness.” Happiness is a conceptual term we have come up with to describe certain things we want to talk about, and it is in philosophy where we decide what is worth talking about and why. I understand science to be observation; data gathering; and the development of understanding of the causation of specific things. But as Frances Wright argues, causation is an endless series and incorporates innumerable inputs, and at some point we simply have to step back and make a judgment call as to what it all adds up to, because we are not capable by definition of observing every fact of causation in a chain which never had a beginning point in the first place. Philosophy guides science; philosophy tells us that the senses are primary; philosophy tells us that reason devoid of facts of sensation is worthless. Those are not “scientific” conclusions in the normal and regular use of the term “scientific”.
Elli. The erroneous ways of thinking may be divided into two categories, the systematically wrong mentality, and the foolishly misguided mentality. The systematic error, as it is called scientifically, is the way that may lead to disastrous results if we do not avoid it. The Epicurean Roman Lucretius points out: “Again, as in a building, if the first plumb-line be askew, and if the square deceiving swerve from lines exact, and if the level waver but the least in any part, the whole construction then must turn out faulty-shelving and askew, leaning to back and front, incongruous, that now some portions seem about to fall, and falls the whole ere long-betrayed indeed by first deceiving estimates: so too thy calculations in affairs of life must be askew and false, if sprung for thee from senses false. So all that troop of words marshalled against the senses is quite vain.” (De Rerum Natura IV 513-521, W.E. Leonard 1916).
The systematically wrong mindset usually uses literary falsification of reality. Some manipulate speech, either with sophism, or with rhetoric, or with dialectical techniques, or with sterile obsessive logic, using ways of cheating others or deluding oneself, usually with political or self-serving purposes. Literary falsification of reality includes the ideal mythological approach of the world, the “political lie” considered by Plato as the right of people in power, the superficial commentary of the phenomena, and sterile skepticism. All these verbal approaches based on the motto “mind comes first” are forms of subjectivity, idealism and intellectualism. These systematically wrong ways of thinking led the Hellenic world to intolerance and discord, and eventually to submission to Republican Rome, whose rising power came from collaboration of patricians and plebeians. These systematically wrong idealistic mentalities subsequently led mankind to the Middle Ages.
In the modern world, we may observe that subjectivity, obsessive ideologies, noncritical pluralistic chattering continue to result in barbaric disputes and inhuman fighting while the temporarily stronger prevails, according to the barbarous law of the jungle. In addition, there is the absurd misguided way of thinking, the impulsive, the “so I like it”, the variably eclectic mentality. This is usually an uncertain, shallow, and effortless way of imprudent dealing with any subject. It is characterized by lack of knowledge of reality, empty chattering, and myopic desires of the type “the purpose sanctifies the means”. An example result of this mentality is the recent decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw USA from the Paris Climate Agreement, which has sparked the outcry of many international scientific associations that called it “a dangerous denial of decision-making method based on scientific data”.
Nevetheless, there are many people against the scientific way of thinking and common sense, such as the Syndicate of Greek Electricity Workers that welcomed the Trump decision, combining unscientific nonsense and self-interest politics in an exemplary manner, since most of their jobs are still based on coal mining. Unfortunately, the nonsensical and superficial way of thinking is particularly widespread in modern societies. The Epicurean philosophy can assist its friends to combat this mentality of the many and to overcome the foolish, idealistic influences that create anxiety and turmoil. Studying and understanding Epicurean texts may help a well-intentioned reader to experience the objective, scientific and serene way of thinking of Epicurus without any misunderstandings. History teaches us that even charismatic people who did not understand the Epicurean scientific method, made mistakes in their appreciation. For example, the great thinker Voltaire, who generally admired Epicurus, erroneously considered as absurd the Master’s views regarding chance and evolution in nature.
(An excerpt of the presentation by Christos Yapijakis at the 10th Panhellenic Meeting of Epicureans, Mount Olympus, Greece Theme: «Re-Hellenization in light of Epicurean Philosophy»)
Jason. Part of the problem of a “scientific theory of happiness” is their first premises. What do they mean by happiness? Do they accept that pleasure is the sine non qua of life or are they, as Cassius puts it, “tranquilists?”
Cassius. Right–the selection of definitions is not a matter of “science alone” but of philosophy.
Jason. I want to put it on record too, that this is my biggest beef with neuroscientists like Sam Harris. He has put science in its proper place as the methodology of exploring our natural universe, but then denies that he has any preconceptions/bias at all when setting up his experiments and drawing conclusions from the results. He denies the utility of philosophy completely while making philosophical claims on the aims of science. I take issue with anyone who claims that science serves some end other than pleasure.
Cassius. I think if we can just get them to the point of understanding that pleasure is the goal, rather than religion or idealism, we will accomplish the most than an Epicurean organization could hope to accomplish. Cassius Longinus was obviously leader of what was effectively his own political party in the Roman Civil war, and I think we should be engaged in politics, but if we mix immediate interests with the big picture it seems to me we jeopardise the big picture.
I don’t know enough about Harris to comment on him particularly, but it seems to me scientists on both left and right make the same error that Jason is talking about. That passage from Frances Wright deserves a lot more attention as an explanation of why “science” is not the leader–a proper understanding of pleasure in a proper philosophical framework is the only way to understand the goal.
Hiram. Yes philosophy must guide science. Agreed. This is one of the main reasons for the urgency of our work in these times … (and don’t get me started with Sam Harris).
Science (like the canon) provides data drawn from nature to confirm doctrines also. So to say “this is what science says about this” is our equivalent to a Jew placing the “kosher” stamp on food, or a Muslims placing the “halal” stamp on food. It’s like putting the “canon” stamp, saying “there is ample, cross-verified, peer-reviewed data confirming these observations and therefore it is okay to set this as doctrinally valid”.
Science of happiness is one of the easiest gateways to teaching Epicurean ethics. It is my understanding that Epicurean teachers used to first give the observations, to demonstrate what is observed, and then reached their conclusions, and Lucretius does this in DRN, and it’s also part of what I sought to do in Tending the Epicurean Garden: to bridge modern insights and ancient doctrine for the benefit of modern people, and show the relevance of EP.
If we dismiss or disparage science as a means to the teaching, we lose opportunities to continue teaching in this manner, which is a method that also demonstrates our respect for the intelligence of our readers.
I would favor affirming BOTH the end and ALSO the validity of these means, maybe via a rhetorical devise like always saying “in order to live pleasantly, we find / it has been demonstrated that this or that is advantageous and useful”. I don’t want us to forget the utility of things (whether they be science, therapeutic methods, etc.) to advance philosophy.
Cassius. It seems to me that you are presuming that the goal is obvious to everyone, and that no one disputes that living happily should be the goal. That is far from true in my experience, and people are confused about every aspect of the question. Is there a goal? What is the goal? Should I try to live happily? What is happiness? Isn’t avoiding pain good enough? All those are incredibly complicated issues and unless people are straight on those, it makes no sense to even begin talking about therapeutic techniques.
Now certainly there is a target audience that is confident of all those things and ready to talk about precise techniques. But that was never Epicurus’ audience or the way he devoted his time. Epicurus was a philosophical warrior who engaged the philosophical enemy to break the chains they had imposed. There are innumerable good things to do after those chains are broken, but the great majority of people, I dare say, are still totally in their chains
Jason. I don’t think anyone is disparaging science as a methodology, only its application and idealism by those who have non-Epicurean goals. There is a LOT of bad “science” on the fringes of human knowledge. The methodology isn’t always followed closely because of competing aims. We have to be careful about accepting conclusions about experiments that we don’t understand ourselves when those drawing the conclusions have proven themselves ignorant of or hostile to the purpose of science.
Elli. Cassius, according to Diogenes Laertius (10.27-9), the major works of Epicurus include:
1. On Nature, in 37 books
2. On Atoms and the Void
3. On Love
4. Abridgment of the Arguments employed against the Natural Philosophers
5. Against the Megarians
7. Fundamental Propositions (Kyriai Doxai)
8. On Choice and Avoidance
9. On the Chief Good
10. On the Criterion (the Canon)
12. On the Gods
13. On Piety
15. Four essays on Lives
16. Essay on Just Dealing
18. Essay addressed to Themista
19. The Banquet (Symposium)
21. Essay addressed to Metrodorus
22. Essay on Seeing
23. Essay on the Angle in an Atom
24. Essay on Touch
25. Essay on Fate
26. Opinions on the Passions
27. Treatise addressed to Timocrates
30. On Images
31. On Perceptions
33. Essay on Music (i.e., on music, poetry, and dance)
34. On Justice and the other Virtues
35. On Gifts and Gratitude
37. Timocrates (three books)
38. Metrodorus (five books)
39. Antidorus (two books)
40. Opinions about Diseases and Death, addressed to Mithras
42. #Essay on Kingly Power
In the works by Epicurus there are some persons’ names … I have a question: who are those persons? Are they only philosophers, or are they persons that have been involved with politics? And that essay on Kingly Power… does it not involve politics too? Also, Patro the Epicurean, from Wikipedia:
Patro (Greek: Πάτρων) was an Epicurean philosopher. He lived for some time in Rome, where he became acquainted, among others, with Cicero, and with the family of Gaius Memmius. Either now, or subsequently, he also gained the friendship of Atticus. From Rome he either removed or returned to Athens, and there succeeded Phaedrus as head of the Epicurean school, c. 70 BC. Memmius had, while in Athens, procured permission from the Areopagus court to pull down an old wall belonging to the property left by Epicurus for the use of his school. This was regarded by Patro as a sort of desecration, and he accordingly addressed himself to Atticus and Cicero, to induce them to use their influence with the Areopagus to get the decree rescinded. Atticus also wrote to Cicero on the subject. Cicero arrived at Athens the day after Memmius had departed for Mytilene. Finding that Memmius had abandoned his design of erecting the edifice with which the wall in question would have interfered, he consented to help in the matter; but thinking that the Areopagus would not retract their decree without the consent of Memmius, he wrote to the latter, urging his request in an elegant epistle, which is still in existence.
I have the impression that all the above people (including Patro the Epicurean) were involved with political affairs … and a later one and important Epicurean that was involved with politics too was–Thomas Jefferson!!
Jason. By the intermundial gods Elli, that letter to Memmius (the very Memmius that Lucretius dedicates DRN to, no less) leads to all kinds of unexplored places! The edition found on Perseus, has excellent notes that point in interesting directions. The cooperation of Epicureans and playwrights to commission a play in honor of a physician? Fantastic!
Elli. Wow!! Τhanks, Jason, I was looking for it!
Cassius. To summarize: Cicero saw this issue as one of the key elements of his attack on Epicirus, or he would not have highlighted it as he did. By doing so he convinces people that pleasure being the goal is not tenable or even significant, and that we should just incorporate whatever we want from Epicurus in our own non-pleasure-based philosophies. That makes Epicurus a handmaid to everyone else and buries the key message.
Elli. Some of my final thoughts: For involvement with politics, there needs to hide inside you a little Stoic personality, or (you need) to disguise your Epicurean inner personality with an outer Stoic one. Because if your nature is to be involved in politics, or (to be in) the company of academicians, you will be addressing Stoic personalities. You have to persuade them of Epicurean Philosophy (by mixing the goal) with aponia and ataraxia–all leading to happiness, bliss and prosperity, without insisting that the goal is pleasure net and clear. Because it is well known how hostile people are to this word. So, to persuade the others you use those words that sound better to their ears, and maybe you do your political job quite better.
The other issue is: How many can you trust inside the field of politics or among academicians, how many can you stand with, and how many will stand with you? The other issue is: How much money can you spend, and how many hours of your life can you spend too, in the company of such kinds of persons.
Αnd the last issue is that your aponia and ataraxia would be lost to a huge degree for the sake of politics, since mainly there are some persons ready to stab you on your back. But as Epicurus said in this Doctrine 7:
Some men want fame and status, thinking that they would thus make themselves secure against other men. If the life of such men really were secure, they have attained a natural good; if, however, it is insecure, they have not attained the end which by nature’s own prompting they originally sought.
Cassius. I better clarify my position on politics. I think Epicureans CAN and SHOULD be involved in politics. I am talking strictly about what an umbrella “Society of Epicurus” or similar organization should do that seeks to attract cooperation from a body of people. And that applies to what I do separately as well. I don’t begrudge others having political positions, but I firmly believe–at least in my own case–that I want to appeal to people of ALL political persuasions in the time I have left, or said another way, anyone of any political persuasion who is willing to listen to the argument and consider agreeing with it.
An obvious example is the Macedonia / Greek quarrel that Elli mentioned recently. I understand why that spurs emotions, but I would imagine that people on both sides of that could be Epicureans, just like people on both sides of the Roman civil war could be Epicureans. I would expect individual Epicureans to weigh in on it in that region, but I can understand that people on both sides have their own view of the pleasurable interests involved, and I can’t say that Epicurus would clearly take one side or the other.
Obviously I can’t imagine much appeal to religious political parties like Islam, but on issues such as economics, or even race relations, global warming, or thousands of other issues, there are going to be people on both sides of those issues who want see their own personal interests on one side, and some on the other, and to me there is no clear Epicurean position other than the pursuit of happiness is common to all people, so we need to be careful or there will be a conflict and if we don’t want that we have to work toward some kind of compromise.
And in fact, as an example, I think that the Epicureans in Greece, at least as individuals, probably ought to be more involved in politics than I perceive that they are, because it seems to me that they are under much more direct threat (for example from Islam, and the Orthodox Church) than we are here. And I think it is very justifiable for any group of people to want to retain its own integrity, so I can see Epicurean theory to be usable by a lot of different cultural and economic systems. What I want to continue to stress is that my non-politics position is because I think we are very early in any kind of Epicurean “movement” on the core issue of pleasure being the goal of life, and that it probably isn’t wise for those few of us who work together on core issues to allow ourselves to be divided by politics. That’s 99% of my point on politics.
As for the “pleasure vs. therapy” debate I’m saying mostly the same thing. I think all of us should pursue what interests us the most, and I am not trying to discourage anyone from anything that’s within the tent of working together on core issues. I think theories of Epicurus that focus on defining the goal solely as “absence of pain” are covertly anti-Epicurean and an umbrella organization should not be willing to accept that as a viable interpretation. I don’t perceive any of us as holding that opinion ourselves, but we seem to disagree on how much we will tolerate it or cooperate with it.
ataraxia means “lack of perturbation” in Greek.
the Tetrapharmakon, or Four Cures, are a paraphrase of the first four of the Principal Doctrines.
An essay by George Kaplanis, founding member of the Group of friends of Epicurean Philosophy-Garden of Thessaloniki. Originally written in Greek; translation was edited for grammar correction and clarity by Elli Pensa and Hiram Crespo.
O humankind unhappy!- when it ascribed
Unto divinities such awesome deeds,
And coupled thereto rigours of fierce wrath!
What groans did men on that sad day beget
Even for themselves, and O what wounds for us,
What tears for our children’s children! Nor, O man,
Is thy true piety in this: with head
Under the veil, still to be seen to turn
Fronting a stone, and ever to approach
Unto all altars; nor so prone on earth
Forward to fall, to spread upturned palms
Before the shrines of gods, nor yet to dew
Altars with profuse blood of four-foot beasts,
Nor vows with vows to link. But rather this:
To look on all things with a master eye
And mind at peace.
For two years now, in the Gardens, we have been discussing two possibilities: a) whether Epicurus was an atheist, and was hiding behind a theology to avoid persecution, or b) whether Epicurus was indeed pious, and he meant what he said. Of course, Cicero explicitly states that the Epicurean methodology of thinking does not accept disjunctive dilemmas, but that is another big issue.
However, both in the above cases, Epicurus, integrating his theology into his philosophy, should have faced the problem of cohesion. That is to say, if we likened his philosophy to a coherent system, we should be able to go from one point to another. But if he built a theology simply as a cover up, he risked building something strange, unrelated to the rest, and ridicule, since, in that era, people would have understood it (was a cover up) immediately. Therefore, in order for his teaching to remain coherent, he had to manifest his piety to the gods, in line with his Physics, Canon, and Ethics.
And here we have to define “piety”. It is very easy, because it is defined by Lucretius (in his work “DE RERUM NATURA”, Book V, f. 1200 – 1205): << Piety is…. to be able to see everything with reasonable calculus (sober reasoning), without anxiety>> (see a different translation above).
And so, since “everything” goes back to the Nature of Things, the ataraxia on Ethics and the “calculus” in the Canon, the consistency exists at least in the practice, in the experiential approach of theology. This is piety, according to Lucretius: it isn’t to present yourself with your head covered, to bow before stones, to visit altars, to raise your hands to the sanctuaries, to repeat prayers one after another,
But when you can see all the things with sober calculus, piety is imitation of the gods, but also rivalry to the gods (that is: competing with them in bliss), which ultimately function as templates, and in my view as archetypes, meaning as prototypes, i.e. as reference points. Thus, the Epicurean tries to live as a god among men (see the closing words of the Letter to Meneoceus). This corresponds to the “theosis” (defined as “the likeness to or union with a god; deification. The process of attaining this state.”) that other religions have. But that “theosis” requires many sacrifices, pains, fasts, etc., while whoever lives according to Epicurean philosophy, becomes pious and competes with the gods in happiness. Noteworthy is Diogenes of Oenoandas‘ report:
For not small [or ineffectual] are these gains for us which make our disposition godlike and show that not even our mortality makes us inferior to the imperishable and blessed nature; for when we are alive, we are as joyful as the gods.
Thus, we conclude that the course of the life of Epicurus, which is a course of the study of Nature, is at the same time a course of theosis, in the epicurean sense. It is a course of initiation, but without secret/mystical teachings. This process also includes participation in religious feasts, because they honor the divine standards, as well as prayer.
As for prayer, Epicurus said that it is «οικείον» intimate to our nature to pray, and advised us to pray, not because the gods need prayers, but because in this way we can capture the value and perfection of the gods. Thus, in practice, prayer activates the mental and ethical forces of man, but it also activates his brain functions, stimulates the mind and helps to bring inspiration to the person who prays.
For years I had been looking for an Epicurean prayer. It was finally in front of me. Lucretius begins his work with a prayer to Aphrodite. Lucretius begins to write a scientific work, a work of scientific research on the nature of things. At first, he briefly refers to the dynamic of nature that moves things, and he attributes this to Aphrodite:
Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,
Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars
Makest to teem the many-voyaged main
And fruitful lands- for all of living things
Through thee alone are evermore conceived,
Through thee are risen to visit the great sun-
Before thee, Goddess, and thy coming on,
Flee stormy wind and massy cloud away,
For thee the daedal Earth bears scented flowers,
For thee waters of the unvexed deep
Smile, and the hollows of the serene sky
Glow with diffused radiance for thee!
Seeking a way to stimulate his mental functions and to enliven his inspiration, Lucretius continues the prayer :
And since ’tis thou alone
Guidest the Cosmos, and without thee naught
Is risen to reach the shining shores of light,
Nor aught of joyful or of lovely born,
Thee do I crave co-partner in that verse
Which I presume on Nature to compose.
Thus, Aphrodite, Lucretius and his work become one.
Cassius. I think it is true that we don’t owe “obligations” toward people with whom we have not come into contact with, as that would imply some absolute duty which does not exist. Do we owe a duty to the dead, or to the unborn future, just because they were at some point born? I don’t think so, nor do we owe a “duty” to people across the other side of the world just because they are alive. But to the extent we may potentially interact with them they have the capacity to cause us pleasure or pain, so there is to that extent a factor that needs to be considered.
Hiram. I have a strong intuitive sense that society has a right to extract a duty to the unborn future. Otherwise society might easily cook for itself its self-destruction. I don’t know how to articulate that yet, but if most people that I care about have children and grandchildren that they love, even if I don’t have future generations after me, it would be difficult to argue that I can destroy the future generations’ access to natural and necessary goods without facing backlash and compromising my access to civilized society.
Cassius. Yes but that is not a “duty” in the sense that the word is generally used, which is a reference to the gods or to absolute virtues. That use of the word is the primary one and why one of Cicero’s most widely known books was “On Duties” – De Officiis” I think the continuing key is the proper use of words and definitions so as not to give in to ideas that are incorrect.
Hiram. Is there an Epicurean definition of duty?
Cassius. My first thought is that just like “gods,” “duty” would have a specialized definition fitting how it arises, and would be limited to obligations undertaken voluntarily, by actual or implied contract. Certainly not obligations enforced outside by gods or by absolute virtue or non-existent standards like that.
In addition, thinking further about law, duties arise not only through actual or implied contract, but in “equity” arising from conduct. In other words my conduct toward someone else may create an obligation, such as when I start to save someone who has fallen into a pond through the ice, my action in starting to save them likely causes others to hang back, so in equity I have an obligation to finish the job because I have placed the drowning person in a worse position who is then relying on me to follow through.
Hiram. Can (our own?) nature impose a duty? A thing for which we suffer if we don’t comply?
Cassius. To say that our “nature” imposes a duty probably goes too far because unless we have done something by our own action then we are implying that Nature has some scheme to which we are *required* to conform. That is where the word duty has the sense of an outside-imposed obligation. I don’t think missing out on pleasure by not doing something would be the same thing as a “duty”. And that raises issues of free will as well, which is clearly natural and therefore sort of sets a ground rule of free choice.
Hiram. So a category different from duty should be given to things that are so highly advantageous that we feel strongly morally compelled to do them. I’m not sure what the word for that would be, but I think articulating these things might help us to better address many of the ethical problems of modern society and show the relevance and moral authority of Epicurean ideas.
Cassius. Well, maybe what you are referencing is still just the sense of pleasure, but that this type of pleasure is more intense and/or greater duration than others. Remember there is no motivating force – no “strong compelled” force of any kind – other than pain and pleasure. Admission of ANY force other than pain or pleasure destroys the system
I think we must never admit of ANY “moral force” or any source other than pleasure and pain. Everything else is conjecture / conceptualization / speculation / theory, which may or may not be very pleasurable or painful, but which has no motivating force on its own other than the pleasure or pain that arises from it.
Hiram. Let’s think concretely: in Bolivia there were four months of water wars some years back because the government had privatized all the water in the country and sold it to a private company. Before I became an Epicurean, when I wrote for the student paper at NEIU and other outlets, the issue of water privatization was something I took an interest in because it seemed to me so morally abhorrent to think that in the future, a handful of companies and their greedy CEOs would ensure that nations would go to war for water just as today they do for oil. The categorical distinction of natural and necessary that we find in Epicurus applies to water, but does not apply to oil. Is there not a natural duty to protect public access to water?
Cassius. No, I would say there is NO natural duty! There is only our prediction of the pleasure or pain that will arise from the action. In that case, the people privatizing and channelling the water in ways that are harmful to others must expect that the others will react actively and cause them pain, and the ones adversely affected must indeed do so if they are to vindicate their interests, because there are no outside supernatural forces to vindicate them.
That was the error of the Confederate States in their motto “Deo Vindice” – Vindicated by God — There IS no god or outside moral enforcing agent to come to the support of people – there is only the actions of live people. Actually there is also a passage in Plutarch’s Lives on Cassius and Brutus which I think makes the same point — we might wish to be able to call on supernatural forces as in Star Wars or Lord of the Rings to fight for us, but no such forces exist.
… It is true that abstractions such as thoughts of moral duties can themselves be highly pleasurable to us. So it is not correct to say that abstractions don’t exist and so they can’t bring us pleasure or pain. That is why we have to be sure to be clear when we say “nothing really exists except matter and void.” The meaning of that is that nothing exists ETERNALLY except matter and void, but for us living in the world of bodies which have come together during our lifetime, the bodies we observe and the ideas we discuss are very “real” TO US even if they are not eternal. So even though we are materialists, the world of ideas is very important to us and the source of much of our pleasure and pain. Epicurean philosophy teaches not that the world of ideas is not important, but that the world of ideas has to be tied to reality so that we don’t make the mistake of thinking that our ideas themselves are supernatural or have an eternal existence of their own.
Hiram. Maybe the question is not whether ideas are real or not (they are electric currents running among our neurons, so they exist in that way), but that there seems to be a distinction in Epicurus between sentient beings and non-sentient beings insofar as we can experience pleasure / aversion and other EXPERIENCES. How life is experienced is of great importance to us. Remember how Polyaenus was said to often coin new words for the sake of clear speech? I think we have to do that to articulate these problems. Epicurean philosophy sees sentient beings as arbiters (with the help of the canon) of reality and of things as they are, using their faculties, so the issue of sentience itself needs to be evaluated from an ontological perspective, and somewhat independent of the sources because whatever they said on this didn’t survive.
Cassius. I agree with what you wrote but I think you are making a point I am not exactly clear on. What do you mean from an ontological perspective?
Hiram. Ontology is the part of philosophy that deals with in what way things exist, so your question on atoms and void goes to that. (You were asking:) In what way do ideas exist? Similarly, in the case of sentient beings, we have the canon that says that pleasure and pain are real, but these are qualitatively different EXPERIENCES from when our body’s five senses tell us that rocks, trees, water exist out there as made up of atoms and void. These experiences exist, but in a different way from atoms and void, as emerging properties of some bodies, specifically of sentient beings.
Cassius. Well here I would keep in mind this from DL: “They affirm that there are two states of feeling, pleasure and pain, which arise in every animate being, and that the one is favorable and the other hostile to that being, and by their means choice and avoidance are determined; and that there are two kinds of inquiry, the one concerned with things, the other with nothing but words.” Going too far into ontology may wind up to be the path to inquiry that is “nothing but words”.
I finally took the time to read the paper Epicurean education and the rhetoric of concern. Well, actually, I must confess I didn’t read it: that’s what robots are for! I used an app called Natural Reader to have it read to me, to save time, and so that my eyes would not get tired.
The paper mentions Principal Doctrine 13 as an exhibit in the argument in favor of preaching Epicurean philosophy to the world for the sake of securing for ourselves and others the kind of life we long for. It struck me as a missing piece in a puzzle that I’ve been attempting to put together for some time. The zeal to teach the philosophy is philanthropic to some extent. Of course, that altruism and self-interest both dwell in our soul is not a revelation, and these things are not mutually contradictory but rather can co-exist and are both necessary for living a life of pleasure. This has always seemed clear and obvious to me. Not so to others.
12. It is impossible for someone to dispel his fears about the most important matters if he doesn’t know the nature of the universe but still gives some credence to myths. So without the study of nature there is no enjoyment of pure pleasure.
13. There is no advantage to obtaining protection from other men so long as we are alarmed by events above or below the earth or in general by whatever happens in the boundless universe.
And so it is clear that, to live a pleasant life according to Epicurean guidelines, we should have the right beliefs concerning the nature of things. It is also clear that we should contribute to the peace of mind and happiness of our Epicurean friends by studying together and helping to correct their false views, up to the point that we even may have to engage in what Philodemus in his scroll on frank criticism called “person-taming”, because we are by nature invested in the moral character and happiness of our true friends. This is consistent with Vatican Saying 15:
We place a high value on our characters as if they were our own possessions whether or not we are virtuous and praised by other men. So, too, we must regard the characters of those around us if they are our friends.
But what about strangers, and society in general? For that, we have a different strategy: the missionary aspect of Epicurean philosophy. The issue that the paper tackles is how a philosophical doctrine of so-called “egoism” can be philanthropic to the point of being a missionary humanism. This is where the author errs, and his tone is heavily influenced by the tired anti-Epicurean stereotypes (as selfish hedonists) that abound in academia.
Yet the author Sean McConnell hits an important insight when he articulates that for the sake of safety, and to ensure that other members of his society are capable of participating in the hedonistic covenant (to not harm or be harmed, and of mutual benefit), Epicureans see it in their self-interest to produce more Epicureans by teaching philosophy. In other words, just as in PD 13 we find that we can’t lead lives of pleasure if we hold false views, similarly it would be difficult for us to live pleasantly if we are surrounded by people whose false views render them incapable of living pleasantly, or of allowing others to live pleasantly. That rings more true to me, having had exchanges with contemporary Epicureans for a few years now, than the apparent inner contradiction between selfish and selfless impulses that the author seems to imagine.
We do engage in calculus of pleasure. But enamored as we are with the immediacy of pleasant experiences, I don’t think we calculate as consciously as he thinks we do. Also, we feel in our own realities the detrimental effects produced by homophobia, terrorism, and the lack of faith in science coming from the far religious right much more vividly and viscerally than how cold calculations are experienced by a logician. Yes, we would indeed feel safer in a world with less religion and more critical, empirical thinking. And yes, a more Epicurean world would make it less likely that others will poison our happiness, not to mention threaten our lives and our security. But an Epicurean is less likely to argue the choice of teaching philosophy in selfish-versus-altruism terms, and more likely to consider that it’s in our nature to do the things we find pleasure in (like philosophy) in the company of others, and for that sake, we have missionary philosophy. And these many selfish and altruistic reasons to teach philosophy are not mutually contradictory, but mutually reinforcing.
That’s one issue. On a separate (yet related) issue raised by the above mentioned paper, Cassius says:
I think the flaws here are (1) he is forcing Epicurus into the egoist vs altruist mold, neither of which applies to Epicurus. Epicurus says to follow pleasure, not yourself for the sake of yourself or others for the sake of others. Also (2) he is one of those who is constantly looking for some “virtue” that is “choiceworthy in itself” so he can find an exception to the rule that pleasure is the goal. This is what the later Epicureans were doing, as referenced in the article, and it is deadly because it contradicts the foundation of the philosophy.
Epicurus was not an altruist nor was he an “egoist with exceptions.” He was a consistent follower of pleasure, and it is no contradiction to say that in some situations our pleasure is maximized by putting the happiness of a friend above that of our own.
I would be careful in praising the article too much because he “defends” Epicurus by concluding that he is an egoist with exceptions, and that undermines the doctrines — Strictly speaking egoism is “Self above all” and altruism is “others above self” and NEITHER of those are correct analysis. His article should have rejected both as they applied to Epicurus. Not only are they not our points of reference, but I think it could be argued that “egoism” and “altruism” are two horns of a deadly false choice.
In fact that might be a good general conclusion I would reach — I would not agree that Epicurus was an “egoist” – I would dissect that word and show he is not.
It would be much better to reject the false definitions at the beginning and explain what he meant positively, and then attack the errors from there, rather than trying to employ words that now have false issues embedded in them without rooting out the false definitions.
I see Cassius’ point, and the author does seem to be coming from a place where he is constantly reiterating that Epicureans exhibit philanthropy IN SPITE OF themselves and their selfish philosophy. For instance, we read:
John Armstrong presents a compelling argument that the agreement and adherence to a contract neither to harm nor be harmed are premised firmly on an individual’s desire for his own end, even though Lucretius for instance suggests some degree of other-concern when he says that the contract included a provision for the protection of women and children, for “it is fair for all to pity the weak” (DRN 5.1019-1023)
This is the tone we find throughout the entire paper. These kinds of “yes this is selfish, but that is altruistic” are absent in Epicurean discourse. While we like to adhere to ancient writings in our study of philosophy, in my personal conversations with other 21st Century Epicureans, what I HAVE heard often is that it is in our nature to both protect ourselves as well as to want the happiness of others, particularly those close to us. That is, both the selfish and the altruistic impulses are natural, and they both serve a life of pleasure.
On August 24 of the year 79 of Common Era, the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried in the ash and pyroclastic material produced by the Mt Vesuvius eruption. The 79 eruption is the most famous volcanic eruption in ancient history, and recent comparable eruption events–like the one that wiped out the town of Plymouth, on the island of Montserrat–have been compared to it.
The town of Herculaneum contained the villa of the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, of the Piso clan, a patrician family. The villa was a wealthy enclave that overlooked the Mediterranean Sea, and contained a large ancient library of Epicurean texts, many of which have now been deciphered and translated into English with commentary. Commentaries on these texts can be found in the Philodemus Series on the Society of Epicurus page.
In addition to the scrolls preserving the wisdom of the original Scholarchs–many of which are actual notes that Philodemus took while studying philosophy under Zeno of Sidon–there are poems and other works of literature. In one epigram, Philodemus invites his benefactor of the Piso family to celebrate the Twentieth, the traditional feast of reason that was held monthly by the Epicureans.
Philodemus is not the only great Epicurean in history who catered to the Piso family. The poet Horace also frequented the villa, and Horace’s Epistle to the Pisos shows the highly cultured and refined nature of the exchange between them. Herculaneum was a major center of culture, philosophy, and the arts.
August 24th has been declared Herculaneum Day by the Society of Epicurus, as part of the Epicurean Year initiative. Please enjoy it by sharing the wisdom of the Library of Herculaneum with others!