Author Archives: Hiram

About Hiram

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.

Re-Hellenization in Light of Epicurean Philosophy: Way of Thinking

 

10th Panhellenic Meeting of Epicureans, Mount Olympus, Greece Theme: «Re-Hellenization in Light of Epicurean Philosophy» – Way of thinking
Christos Yapijakis 1) Founding Member of Friends of Epicurean Philosophy “Garden of Athens” 2) Assistant Professor of Neurogenetics, University of Athens Medical School, Athens, Greece

 

For the friends of Epicurean philosophy, Re-Hellenization is the emergence of the best ingredients of Humanism, according to the essence of Epicurus’ saying “friendship dances around the world summoning us all to awaken to the recognition of happiness” (Sententiae Vaticane 52). In antiquity, the Epicurean philosophy was panhuman and universal, the first worldview which embraced people of all age, gender, ethnicity and social order, men and women, rich and poor, free people and slaves. In addition to Epicurus’ disciples of Hellenic (Greek) origin, Epicurean teachings influenced Syrians like Mithres and Lucian, Romans like Lucretius and Piso, Hellenized Jews like most Sadducees and the writer of Ecclesiastes, Carthaginians like Terentius, and Celts like Catius Insuber. Irrespective of ethnicity, all Epicureans in antiquity were Hellenized and humanized. After the barbaric interval of a thousand medieval years, the same trend of Re-Hellenization and Humanization continued from the Renaissance to the present day. As Isocrates wrote, Hellene (Greek) is anyone who participates in Hellenic humanitarian education. And not someone who has the mythical and non-existent ‘Hellenic DNA’ as some idealists claim unscientifically…

The purpose of Hellenic humanitarian education is eudaimonia (happiness). According to the Epicurean philosophy, the blissful life, in other words the pleasurable state of living, cannot be achieved by someone without prudence, without virtues and without justice, that is to say without having the right way of thinking. The way of thinking is of great importance, since it represents the methodology used by someone to analyze the information one receives from the environment. There is the right way of thinking, the Epicurean one, based on the best use of natural human abilities, on the perception of senses and emotions, but also on calm, objective and educated reasoning. This is the way of thinking based on empirical, naturalistic, and ultimately scientific knowledge of the world, according to the moto “senses come first”.

The objective way of thinking has the advantage of leading well-intentioned people to similar conclusions. This objective way of thinking has led Epicurus and his students to reach numerous conclusions about nature that were proven by modern scientific research to be correct. This objective way of thinking reduced the amount of unnecessary disagreements and led to the consistency of opinions, to sound reasoning, to favorable communication and to high-regarded friendship that characterized the Epicurean communities for about seven centuries until the coming of the Middle Ages.

On the contrary, the wrong ways of thinking do not lead to blissful life, but lead instead to confusion and barbarity.

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 moto “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.

Perhaps even an intelligent person who uses merely rhetorical arguments can end up in foolish opinions, while observation and calm reasoning may lead a person of moderate intelligence to objective scientific thinking. The role of Science is not “to fight unemployment”, as an ignorant Greek High School student wrote recently in an exam. The method of Science, reminiscing the Epicurean Canon, provides the intellectual and technological resources for the liberation of thought and the pursuit of happiness of people, as was first recognized by Epicurus, the philosopher that enlightened humanity. The Re-Hellenization, which is synonymous with Humanism for the Epicureans, should be based on the education of all people in the scientific way of thinking, the objective observation of reality, the calm reasoning with ataraxia, and the friendly coexistence with the aim of the blissful civilized life.

“For there ARE Gods …”

Those things which without ceasing I have declared unto you, do them, and exercise yourself in them, holding them to be the elements of right life.

First believe that a God is a living being immortal and blessed, according to the notion of a god indicated by the common sense of mankind; and so believing, you shall not affirm of him anything that is foreign to his immortality or that is repugnant to his blessedness. Believe about him whatever may uphold both his blessedness and his immortality. For there are gods, and the knowledge of them is manifest; but they are not such as the multitude believe, seeing that men do not steadfastly maintain the notions they form respecting them.

Not the man who denies the gods worshipped by the multitude, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them is truly impious. For the utterances of the multitude about the gods are not true preconceptions but false assumptions; hence it is that the greatest evils happen to the wicked and the greatest blessings happen to the good from the hand of the gods, seeing that they are always favorable to their own good qualities and take pleasure in men like themselves, but reject as alien whatever is not of their kind.

Epicurus of Samos, Epistle to Menoeceus

An Epicurean Theology?

The establishment of an Epicurean Theology group on facebook opened the floodgates for revisiting the ancient sources and evaluating what the Epicureans of old actually believed and why. The subject had been mostly dismissed previously among modern Epicureans, in part because the sources are not easy to interpret and incomplete, and in part because the subject is largely seen as irrelevant. Some of us have advanced the third interpretation of the gods–i.e. the atheistic one, arguing that there is no place for them in our cosmology and that they do not pass the test of the Canon.

Some have also suggested that Epicurus may not have been sincere, that he was really an atheist but in order to avoid the prejudice that atheists suffered in his day, he devised his naturalist theology. But this does not seem correct: some sources cite Epicurus’ own hostility towards “the atheists”, and Philodemus mentions a few of his atheist enemies by name. These hostilities deserve attention on their own, but here it should suffice to mention that they seem to indicate that sincere pious activities were taking place inside the Garden.

The word “Gods” has so much baggage and has been so awfully misused, that it is understandable that so many Epicureans wish to just drop it and use another term. There was a tradition among early Epicureans of redefining terms in alignment with the study of nature, and it seems far more likely that this is what the ancient atomists did: in a cosmos that does not need a creator and that has no beginning or end, and where nothing comes from nothing, and in a cosmos where humans are not the apex of creation, the gods would have to be those super-evolved animals in the ecology of the cosmos that have reached the closest thing to perfection: the kind of animals that our descendants in the far future may hope to become as we continue evolving.

Some of the people involved in the initiative to focus on our theology believe that it has a lot to offer in a theological battleground decidedly monopolized by the idealists, and hold that the teachings about the Epicurean Gods are absolutely central, that they are much more than a vestigial legacy of science fiction in our tradition, and point to the fact that two of the seminal documents mention the Gods: The Letter to Menoeceus–where it is counted among the “elements of the right life”–and the very first of the Principal Doctrines–which shows how central this reasoning was to Epicurean philosophy.

A blessed and indestructible being has no trouble himself and brings no trouble upon any other being; so he is free from anger and partiality, for all such things imply weakness. – PD 1

There’s even a “thou shalt not” in the Epistle to Menoeceus: a taboo against holding vulgar beliefs about the gods that produce anything but pleasure. Epicurus said: “You shall not affirm of them anything that is foreign to their immortality or that is repugnant to their blessedness. Believe about them whatever may uphold both their blessedness and immortality“.

The two central attributes mentioned in these two documents that qualify a super-evolved animal as a deity are immortality–that is, indestructibility–and blessedness, which is sometimes described as a state of pure, uninterrupted pleasure or bliss. Implicit in this second attribute is the pre-requisite that it must be a sentient being capable of experiencing these heights of blissful existence.

The Denizens of the Intermundia

Epicurus gave a new definition to the gods not as supernatural beings, but as superior animals who are perfect in their bliss and self-sufficiency, making them pretty much irrelevant to us. They don’t need our worship or prayer, and in all likelihood do not know we even exist.

One ethical goal of this is to do away with fear-based superstition about the gods, to “civilize” them and thus free mortals from religious fear and degradation. According to the sources, these deities live in the region “between the worlds” (the intermundia). The reasoning for this, it seems, is that they would be less likely to be dismantled by the natural processes of decay familiar to us in our part of the cosmos: they would not be bombarded by particles, or subject to gamma ray bursts.

Because they evolved in a different environment and are immune to threats to their mortality, the gods would need to have radically different faculties. For instance, since they are entirely self-sustaining and self-sufficient, they would lack a sense of gratitude and vindictiveness as indicated in PD 1. The entire lack of external threats would also make them perfectly innocent and confident.

It is as difficult for us to imagine the self-sufficiency of the Gods as it would have been difficult for our primitive ape ancestors to imagine what the life of a modern human is like today, but we can speculate that if our post-human descendants in the far future decide to create a habitat that they can live in–far from the known galaxies in order to have at least one population of humans who can avoid the danger of gamma ray bursts, and secure their immortality in perpetuity as much as nature allows–they would probably evolve far past the instinctive biological clock that is tied to the circadian rhythms, to the orbits and rhythms the solar system that served as our cradle. Lack of exposure to natural light will mean that they will not need melanin. They will most likely develop radically different constitutions and lifestyles from ours living in such a radically stable environment.

The comparison of percentages of genes we share with other species, plus how distant in time we are to them after four billion years of evolution on Earth, plus the likelihood that future post-humans are highly likely to self-consciously direct their evolutionary journey via eugenics–particularly if they face the evolutionary pressures of isolation in space–might give us an idea of how much speciation may happen in the future of our own genome over deep time, and based on that we can then speculate about other possible superior species that may have evolved elsewhere.

The Art of Epicurean Piety

But were the Epicurean Gods objects of contemplation among the Epicureans of old? Were they the awe-struck Carl-Sagans of antiquity?

It is true that Epicurus sought to fight superstition and to banish the perturbations created by false or evil beliefs about deity, but there was also a positive pursuit of pleasure in piety. We find indications in Philodemus’ scroll on Piety and other sources that the first Epicureans found in contemplation of the Gods’ blessedness a source of pure, effortless pleasure. The scroll On Piety and other sources claim that through contemplation of the gods and pious practices, mortals are able to train themselves to lead lives of such self-sufficiency and pleasure, that they “will live as gods among men”, and in fact this is the promise with which the Epistle to Menoeceus concludes.

Exercise yourself in these and related precepts day and night, both by yourself and with one who is like-minded; then never, either in waking or in dream, will you be disturbed, but will live as a god among men. For man loses all semblance of mortality by living in the midst of immortal blessings.

We see that, from the onset all the way through the conclusion of the main ethical document in Epicurean philosophy, the Epicurean Gods are appealed to as models of the pleasant life that we should strive for. But this role for religion among Epicureans entirely hinges on their having pure and wholesome beliefs about their Gods, beliefs that are based on the study of nature, and not on superstition or vulgar piety. If these doctrines are correctly understood and piety is correctly carried out, then a kind of affinity with these blissful beings ensues that is experienced as “pure, unalloyed pleasure” by the pious mortal, and this is what Epicurus holds as the goal of all religion. In the Epistle to Menoeceus we are told that “hence it is that the greatest evils happen to the wicked and the greatest blessings happen to the good from the hand of the gods, seeing that they are always favorable to their own good qualities and take pleasure in men like themselves, but reject as alien whatever is not of their kind“.

It seems like this blissful side-effect of their contemplation happens as a matter of natural law, and not by any effort on part of the Gods, as beings of their kind would not bother with mortals at all. An analogy may be drawn from the way in which people are happier in the presence of loved ones, or the way in which people experience greater peace and joy in nature, or when breathing fresh air, or when they see the colors green and blue–which have been shown to have mood-boosting effects. One Epicurean mentioned the analogy of how dogs look up to humans as their alpha, and said that we could imagine that a similar kind of imprint might be involved in piety.

Epicurean piety can therefore be considered as falling within the realm of aesthetics. We can consider true (that is, natural) religion as an art-form and practice it as a way to cultivate certain pleasant experiences and attributes, to take into our minds divine beauty, tranquility and bliss in order to tread on blissful neural pathways with more frequency and habituate ourselves in them just as we train the body through exercise.

Furthermore, one last thing must be said of Epicurean theology and its unique value: it places noble expectations on theologians that their beliefs be aligned with nature while entirely ignoring wishful thinking, faith, and revelation as sources of knowledge. When Epicurus says: “Not the man who denies the gods worshipped by the multitude, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them is truly impious“, he is expecting us to align our values and views with nature and not with common belief. Epicurus challenges theologians to reconcile their views with the study of nature, which is the steady and stable foundation of all inquiry.

Some objections still remain for the realist, and even the idealist, interpretations of the Gods: Are they really a reliable source of pure pleasure, considering how many vulgar beliefs exist about the Gods in human culture and considering that only a few sages have been able to preserve the pure conception of the Gods? Doesn’t the lack of confirmation of their existence make them too speculative for serious consideration?

I’m still on the “third interpretation” of the gods myself, but these discussions have forced some of us to think about how some of the original doctrines can be appreciated, considered, and even defended, regardless of our agreement with them. If such a thing as Gods exist in nature, then these are the speculations that our non-supernatural cosmology offers … and, unlike the Gods of the supernatural cosmologies of traditional religions, we can say of our own Gods together with Lucretius that “this may have INDEED happened in the Great All“.

Further Reading:

Dialogues on the Epicurean Gods

 “This May Have Happened in the Great All

Epicureanism as a Religious Identity

Venus as Spiritual Guide

In Memory of Horace: Carpe Diem

The poet Horace (First Century BCE) was the son of a freed Roman slave. His father gave him a good education, which included philosophy, and Horace was outspoken in his Epicurean faith. He served in the Roman army under General Brutus and enjoyed the friendship of the poet Virgil and of Maecenas–a wealthy investor in the arts whose name later became synonymous with the tradition of patronizing intellectuals and artists. Although his full name was Quintus Horatius Flaccus (modern-day Spanish uses “flaco” to mean “skinny”), he was ironically and famously short and fat.

Treat every day that dawns for you as the last.
The hour that’s unhoped for will be welcome when it comes.
When you want to smile then visit me: sleek, and fat I’m a hog,
well cared-for, one of Epicurus’ herd.

Some of the Latin adages coined by Horace are still known and used today. The most famous one was the very Epicurean Carpe Diem, or “Seize the day”. Other adages are Nunc est bibendum, “Now we must drink”, and Sapere aude, or “Dare to be wise”.

In reality, Horace was more than a poet. He wrote the epistolary style of literature, as well as satires–many of which are for adults only–which praised Epicurean ideals, and his Ars Poetica is about more than the art and theory of poetry. It includes advise on writing and presenting plays–things like making sure that the emotions, gestures, and words displayed match and are presented in unison. The work was written in the style of an Epistle to the Pisos–the same family that financed the famous Epicurean Library and was taught philosophy by Philodemus in Herculaneum.

This rare constellation of famous names associated with Horace, together with the fact that many (including Maecenas) were believed to be Epicureans by conviction, indicates that here is a moment in history where we can get a unique glimpse into the imprint that our tradition has left, and where we can also juxtapose the ways in which the works and biographies of these personalities may have been informed by Epicurean ideas–as is the case with the time spent by Frances Wright and Thomas Jefferson in Monticello.

In his satires, Horace draws anecdotes from nature. While describing the hard-working tiny ant that “takes in its mouth whatever it can and adds it to the pile” in order to have food in a future season, he also praises the Epicurean virtue of contentment and self-sufficiency.

As if you had occasion for no more than a pitcher or glass of water, and should say, “I had rather draw [so much] from a great river, than the very same quantity from this little fountain.” Hence it comes to pass, that the rapid Aufidus carries away, together with the bank, such men as an abundance more copious than what is just delights. But he who desires only so much as is sufficient, neither drinks water fouled with the mud, nor loses his life in the waves.

But a great majority of mankind, misled by a wrong desire, cry, “No sum is enough; because you are esteemed in proportion to what you possess.”

Please enjoy the literary adventure that is Horace! The works of Horace can be found in poetryintranslation.com, or the Perseus Catalog. Here are some gleanings from his writings:

Be Happy Wherever You Are

Everyone Can Profit from Philosophy

In Praise of Simple Living

Dare to be Wise

Horace’s Epistle to the Pisos

The Miseries of the Wealthy

Miscellaneous Quotes

Further Reading:

Learning the Epistolary Poem: Poems that serve as letters to the world, by Hannah Brooks-Motl

Review of “De l’inhumanité de la religion”

I know not what a man is, I only how his price. – Bertolt Brecht

After reading and commenting on Michel Onfray’s literature for an English speaking audience in an attempt to fill the gap created by the lack of English translations of his work, I decided to also write a review of the book “On the Inhumanity of Religion” by the French-speaking Belgian author Raoul Vaneigem, which is also unavailable in English. Both books were adamantly recommended–and for a good reason!–by the Las Indias bloggers on their youtube channel on the occasion of the Día del Libro (the Day of the Book). Fortunately for me, Spanish is my first language and French is my third language–which I do not get to practice often–so I take a very particular pleasure in delving into provocative philosophical literature in Romance languages. It’s the kind of intellectual challenge that I live for!

There’s a reason why I took a particular interest in this book. In the past, in the piece Poverty: Secularism’s True Enemy, I’ve argued that we cannot create a REAL secular movement to defend the West from obscurantism and from the many evils of religion, unless and until we also fight the battle against poverty. This piece cites and relies heavily on research on how religiosity is statistically linked to poverty, high crime rates, low levels of educational achievement, and other societal dysfunctions. The most complete meta-study on this is by Paul Gregory. Please feel free to read that article and scan through its sources as a preamble to the intellectual feast that Vaneigem serves, and to help contextualize this discussion.

The Agricultural Enclosure as Religion’s Cradle

De l’inhumanité de la religion argues that there are material reasons for the rise of religion. Vaneigem describes how life changed for our precursors who lived at the dawn of the agricultural era in l’enclos agraire (the agricultural enclosure) and argues that the beginnings of organized religion can be traced there.

Prior to the agricultural revolution, human society was not nearly as stratified as it became later with agriculture, which created the need for the exploitation of human labor on a grand scale by more organized, and more dehumanized, societies. It is this problem of labor as dehumanization that Vaneigem focuses on, and on how religious conceptions–particularly those of sacrifice, including blood sacrifice and the Biblical “curse” of daily toil–became a prominent part of man’s worldview, reducing him to the state of a beast of burden.

Vaneigem argues that in the Neolithic Era, the man of desire and creation became separated from the man of production and market. Man turned libido into quantities of work and felt an “existential trouble”. While some thinkers have sought to solve this problem by advising revolutionary methods, the author notes that even Marx’s revolt alienates the individual and kills his joy because it keeps man in toil for the sake of the collective: man in socialism or communism still lives for the sake of others.

“The Spirit” as Enforcer of Labor

The celestial lie merely countersigns the truth of terrestrial exploitation and endorses the purchase of those who resign themselves.

Epicurus established the doctrine of the swerve to wage war against the tyranny of heaven and “heavenly destiny”. To accept one’s fate–one’s curse–when one is poor, or even middle-class, almost invariably means to toil and labor in submission. Let’s revisit one of the initial curses that the Bible casts upon man.

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your lifeBy the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” – Genesis 3:17-19

Before man was “cast out” of the primal hunter gatherer paradise, not only was there abundance in a manner that had been sustaining humans for millennia, but also people had worked only two hours on average per day to get food.

The Supreme Being as enforcer of labor is not only found in the Bible. In the East, the four caste system is also believed to have been established for all eternity by the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna himself, as related in the Gita.

According to the three modes of material nature and the work associated with them, the four divisions of human society are created by Me. – Shri Krishna, in Bhagavad Gita 4.13

Vaneigem does a good job of addressing the proverbial Platonic split between spirit and flesh in terms of how it affects man’s existential relationship to enforced labor. He talks about how “spirit dominates, matter is dominated“, how spirit “mutilates the body“, and how belief in spirit is alienation and objectifies real persons and bodies.

The author notes how desires, joy, and sex can usually only be entertained by night, and sometimes in shame, because they are “useless” (that is, they constitute leisure activities and do not lead to profit for the exploiters of man), and because by day we have to work. Therefore, the Platonic split has been experienced by man in terms of how we divide our night and day activities, with toil being experienced as violence perpetrated on the body and on nature by day, while at night dreams reveal “the secret scripture of the body“.

Among the other existential repercussions of enforced labor, the most prevalent one and the one easiest to quantify and observe in our society is in public health. It is sometimes claimed that around 75% of hospital visits have their origins in stress-related psychosomatic symptoms:

The pleasure of being was replaced with the anxious greed of having.

Raoul Vaneigem is quite direct and lucid in his French, and the best way to introduce key ideas in the book is by letting him speak in direct translation.

The divine power is born from the powerlessness to which the economy condemns man from the moment that it snatches him from life to reduce him to labor. The idea of God as creator …. master of man or arbiter of his fate is the sham of a system where the true specifically human power, creation, is dissolved by the need to work.

… Contrary to what has been … proclaimed throughout the centuries, the weakness of man is not inherent to his nature. It comes from his denaturalization, his renouncement of the only privilege that distinguishes him from the other kingdoms: the faculty to recreate the world with the goal of enjoying the creation of his own destiny.

The pillage of man’s creation for the benefit of the few, or the many, or for the benefit of some abstraction, was carried out according to the logic of sacrificial religiosity, but Vaneigem argues that it emerges from the predatory instinct on the part of those in power, and with the assistance of clergies.

It is here that the author elaborates an interesting claim that I also put forward years ago in a piece for Partially Examined Life titled Religion as Play. He argues that, prior to the agricultural revolution when most humans were hunter-gatherers, natural religion in its original form was a form of play. He thinks that initially, pre-ritual behavior was play, and was innocent and retained child-like elements. But then, when agriculture created the need for labor, those who attained power acquired the assistance of the priests who introduced the perversion of “sacred terror”, and ritualized play, slowly absorbing the playfulness, spontaneity and innocence into formal ritual. The conception of the sacred destroyed ritual as play, and terror inspired instead obedience, conformity, submission. We are reminded of the Biblical conception of the sacred, “kedosh”, which implies both separateness as well as that which is taboo, forbidden, which must not be named lest we disrespect it.

If Vaneigem is right, this greatly endorses Epicurus’ claim that the original goal of religion is to cultivate pure, unalloyed pleasure. We may be able to revisit the precursor of religion–play–and purge it from sacred terror in order to explore a natural spirituality inspired in Epicurean primitivism.

Nature Versus the Market

Where the market is everything, man is nothing.

In positing a “market denaturalization”, the author is also saying that there is a tension between nature and market.

One problem created by this tension has to do with how scarcity is profitable for some people, who have it among their interests to sometimes introduce scarcity in order to artificially increase profits. Not only is scarcity profitable, but frequently in consumerist society the values of exchange and of use do not match, yet the logic of the market, of profit, and of scarcity continues to operate even when it comes to items of first need. This breeds misery, but also violence.

In Naturalist Reasoning on Friendship, I argued that human behavior follows two patterns that have parallels in two ape societies: the abundance paradigm among the bonobo produces societies of cooperation and where “make love, not war” seems to be the law, whereas the chimpanzees are more hierarchical and much more violent. This has been explained by the fact that chimpanzees grew up isolated from bonobos, separated by a river, and the bonobos never had to fight over food and resources thanks to the abundance in their territory, while chimpanzees had faced scarcity throughout their evolutionary history, so they learned to compete and fight. Similar patterns of increased violence can be seen in human societies marked by scarcity versus those that enjoy abundance.

Corruption, with its antithetical spirit of purity and impurity, has no better guarantor than poverty. Its determination to destroy school, housing, transportation, natural agriculture, industry useful to society, returns with the old tradition of religious obscurantism which is so good for business.

The author argues that openness of the markets kills religion, and that historically there has been tension between the agricultural enclosure (l’enclos agraire)–which is isolated and favors religion–and the cosmopolitan openness of the market, which introduces foreign ideologies and encourages us to question our in-group doctrine. We can evaluate Trumpism, Brexit, Le Pen and similar movements–with their destruction of trade agreements and distrust of all things foreign–as religious/national provincialism of the sort that Vaneigem talks about, where people marginalized by neoliberal economic totalitarianism seek refuge in the familiar.

Another way in which nature and the market are in tension is by two problems caused by excessive consumption: 1. the environmental ills and 2. the impoverished and enslaved state brought about by massive debt. Consumerism and lucrative inutility–the frequent lack of relation between the use value and the monetary value of things–breed alienation, insatiable desires, as well as debt, which breeds wage slavery.

Vaneigem also mentions the separate issue of birth control as it relates to religion and poverty. Unable to produce more subjects by having children of their own, priests encourage people to over-breed irresponsibly, regardless of the prospects that these children will have of being able to live a pleasant life, get a good education, and escape the vicious cycle of poverty. In the case of some very dysfunctional Catholic societies, like what we see in Mexico, this also produces problems like the ones I described in Unwanted Children at the Border and the Evil Legacy of Catholicism.

Conclusion

For millennia, people have woven their identity around labor and have not know real freedom. For this reason Vaneigem says that, even after they have abandoned wishful thinking, “the widows of their oppression turn back to religion, not knowing who they are without it“. He inspiringly concludes his book by offering solutions to this problem and calling for a life-affirming philosophy. This includes a call to heal the Platonic split: we must restore the unity of body and conscience.

The aborted desires engender the Gods, the engendered desires will abort them … God and his avatars are nothing more than the phantoms of a mutilated body.

Only the aspiration to live will allow the passing of religion.

Some of the quotes from the book sound like paraphrases of things Epicurus would have said. For instance, the paradigm created when we stop trying to exploit nature and other humans reminds us of Epicurus’ teaching that we should “not force nature”.

Nature is called to escape oppressive work which denaturalizes it. The land is no longer a territory for conquest, but the site of the creation of infinite joys.

Towards the end of the book, Vaneigem offers the image of the type of creative well that we must become for ourselves in the process of self-creation, which reminds me of Lucian’s Well of Laughter. The book does a great job of revisiting Epicurean primitivism and calling for a return to an alignment with nature. It also reminds me of the third principle of autarchy drawn from Philodemus’ scroll On Property Management, which states: “the philosopher does not toil”. As we are increasingly replaced with robots, our need to reinvent labor, and the Epicurean gospel of living lives of pleasure and freedom, will become more of a moral imperative: the kind that will ultimately decide whether we build a dystopia or a utopia.

Further Reading:

Philodemus’ scroll on the Art of Property Management

 

A Counter-History of Aromas

For many years I’ve used lavender and other essential oils in infusions and for hot baths in my home, not knowing that I was practicing the art of aromatherapy. While reading a book by Michel Onfray recently, it occurred to me to look into this therapy associated with our most devalued faculty: the sense of smell.

Before I continue, I must clarify that here, I am referring to aromatherapy as a component of the regimen of pleasure that an Epicurean may develop, not as a medicinal therapy. There is no clear scientific evidence that proves that aromatherapy cures illness–although this does not mean that it does NOT cure or alleviate some conditions, in some instances. I’m interested in aromas from the perspective of a philosophy of pleasure, and from the perspective of the senses–and particularly the sense of smell–being a neglected object of philosophical discussion.

In his Spanish-language book Las sabidurías de la antigüedad (The Wisdoms of Antiquity)–the first in what appears will be a counter-history of philosophy book series–, French neo-Epicurean philosopher Michel Onfray discusses the sense of smell as a devalued sense that, in the public imagination, is often linked to dogs and other lower animals who are excited by sexual pheromones or by the smell of potential prey.

Aromas can create an ambience, or at least add great pleasure and beauty to a space and to an experience. They also help to build memories, as smell is processed in a part of the brain that is also in charge of memory-building and the processing of emotions. This is why scent can sometimes trigger flashbacks of memories when we come to a place we haven’t visited in a long time. It’s also why certain aromas can produce melancholy or cause us to miss our loved ones who aren’t here anymore. Like other mammals, humans use scent in the forming of bonds.

Scent is used for tracking and has been of great benefit to our society, particularly in the realm of law enforcement and investigation of crime (through the employment of trained dogs).

The sense of smell is essential for detecting germs and potential disease-causing agents, not just in the trash-can and other obvious places, but in our plates. Humans are probably one of the few mammals that have mostly forgotten the importance of taking in the scent of a meal prior to consumption. The sense of smell and taste are connected, which is why the aroma of good food makes us salivate as if we were already eating. By the same token, when we sense a bad smell in our food, we are instinctively repulsed. This reflex is a natural protection against disease. I invite my readers to learn to recognize smells both familiar and peculiar and to be more sensually present and to use their sense of smell more mindfully, particularly at the dinner table. This will enhance your enjoyment and identification of sensorial experiences.

Onfray helps us to think about the ways in which we materialists can philosophize, which are different from how idealists philosophize. Rather than relying on logic and on writing, Onfray says that hedonists should be more open to oral tradition, storytelling, and to theatrical displays where the teachings are embodied, not merely written about or pondered.

He accentuates the importance of anecdotes, which made me think of the anecdote of Epicurus’ manner of death and how it demonstrates the power that mental pleasure can have over bodily pain (see Principal Doctrine 20); or the anecdote of how the Platonists in Mitilene exiled Epicurus under threat of accusing him of blasphemy and he nearly shipwrecked, an expulsion which I’ve compared to Muhammad’s hajj or Moses’ out-of-Egypt journey for its pivotal place at the onset of the history of the hostilities between the materialists and the idealists, and for helping to give birth to a new paradigm that is in strict opposition to Plato. The counter-history of philosophy is composed, to a great extent, of commentaries about these seemingly minor anecdotes, in addition to the surviving literary fragments and archaeological objects.

One anecdote that Onfray takes the time to elaborate concerns Aristippus of Cirene–the inventor of hedonism–showing up at the agora wearing perfume. Like many other details in Platonic discourse, the anecdote is meant to show disdain, to caricaturize the pleasure-seeker as soft, as unlike the men of “virtue”. Onfray then goes on to discuss the role of the sense of smell as a “lower” instinct, and how different from the “higher” senses of sight and sound it is–sight, in particular, perhaps because it is most reminiscent of the Platonic “forms”? But the sense of smell is too earthly, too basic, too animal, too base.

Aristippus–like other hedonists–was accused of being soft, feminine, for showing up at the agora wearing perfume. But aren’t many of the things that make life worth living–and for the sake of which we philosophize–soft, supple, or feminine? Doesn’t nature often place tenderness in our hearts with regards to these things? Doesn’t life itself come in soft, vulnerable packages? We are reminded here that the “philosophers of virtue” follow an ideal that is masculine: the etymological root of both virtue and manhood in Latin is vir. Against this ideal, whatever is identified as feminine is considered NOT virtuous. Is this opinion useful or necessary? Is it based on the study of nature?

The Platonists are not the only ones who sin against the pleasures linked to this sense or deny its importance. Even one Epicurean of my acquaintance dismisses the use of incense–which produces a pleasant ambience and aroma with no significant perturbances–as an “Eastern” practice, although incense has always been used by the Christian Churches in the West and recent studies even suggest it has psychoactive and mood-boosting effects that alleviate anxiety and depression.

No philosophical evaluation of smell would be complete without including Lucretius’ discussion of how we can prove the existence of particles too minute to be seen by the naked eye in De Rerum Natura I:270-328. Lucretius mentions how we feel the wind in our faces and we see it moving the clouds as well as moving ships in the seas; how molecules of moisture disappear into the air slowly; he mentions the existence of germs in passing, and other examples of things seen in nature that demonstrate that molecules abound everywhere unseen. One of the points that Lucretius is making is that we must not rely only on visual testimony. It is here that he says:

Then too we know the varied smells of things
Yet never to our nostrils see them come.

Lucretius is saying that Epicureans must rely on more than sight and the pleasure-aversion faculty to philosophize properly. Smell is included in the Epicurean Canon: this means that nature has established that it is one of our connections with reality that can not be replaced by any other faculty, and furthermore that the sense of smell has sole jurisdiction over an aspect of reality that no other faculty may invade. No other philosophical system confers this kind of authority on an instinct as “base”.

Aromatherapy can serve, not as a therapy in the medical sense, but as an item in our pleasure regimen and an affirmation by a philosopher of a devalued instinct, of sensorial beauty and pleasure, of comfort, and ultimately as an affirmation of the senses and of the body.

Michel Onfray and the Counter-History of Philosophy

Read: The Counter-History of Philosophy

This commentary and review is based on the book Las sabidurías de la antigüedad: Contrahistoria de la filosofía, a Spanish-language translation of a book (not yet available in English) by French philosopher Michel Onfray. He is the founder of the Université Populaire de Caen, which provides a free liberal education, and is one of the most prominent public intellectuals in France today.

After witnessing the rise of the right-wing ideology of Le Pen–and the intellectual decadence that led to it–, Onfray felt that the French Republic needed to invest in the formation of new intellectuals. Feeling that the academic world had failed by giving too much undeserved importance to Plato and the idealists, and too little to Epicurus and the materialists, he set out to argue that the West needs a “counter-history of philosophy” from the perspective of the “friends of Epicurus and the enemies of Plato”.

Historiography as Warfare

In our discussion of Nietzsche’s philosophy, I mentioned (and criticized) some Nietzschean views which have had great influence in Onfray and serve, to a great extent, as presuppositions:

To Nietzsche, truth and reality are the concoction of someone who, in the process of positing a narrative of reality, is acting upon and exerting power over reality, creating reality.

… There are no facts, only interpretation.

The influence of Nietzsche in Onfray was also explored in his argument that there is a Nietzschean leftist ideology, a way of philosophizing that is Nietzschean “insofar as it takes Nietzsche as the starting point”.

We must start with Onfray’s Nietzschean influence because Onfray–like Nietzsche–recognizes that narrative is power and declares that we are at war. It is a war of ideas and ideologies, a war between materialists and idealists, between atomists and theologians, between creationists and scientists. Two cosmologies (in their many varieties) that can not be reconciled have been at war for millennia. We may think of them as the “culture wars” today. This is the subject of Onfray’s counter-history, and it frames his way of practicing philosophy.

Onfray says that the writing of history is in itself an act of war, that it is ideological and that there is a strategy, a series of goals, and a variety of methods of writing history that demonstrate the ways in which the intellectual battle is fought. Sometimes war is waged by imposing invisibility and silence on others; at other times it is by accentuating this or that piece of evidence.

Onfray starts with Plato himself, who never mentions Democritus directly, although his entire philosophy is a war-machine against Democritus. Plato’s tactic here is to ignore, to omit, to silence the enemy, so as to diminish and disregard his value. In one passage discussing Aristoxenus, Onfray narrates how Plato once insinuated that the works of Democritus should be burnt, but two Pythagoreans persuaded him not to burn them. At all times, Onfray convicts Plato of knowingly engaging in an ideological battle, a problem which is made worse by the fact that in the “official” history of philosophy, there haven’t been enough attempts to find the real voice of his opponents.

The academic world has adopted the Platonic narrative and delegated Democritus in the history books to the status of a “pre-Socratic”, which trivializes his intellectual achievement as the inventor of atomism, although Democritus lived at the same time as Socrates. Democritus was born in 460, Socrates in 470. Perhaps it’s easy enough for historians to fit facts and people into neat categories, but the myth of the “three classical philosophers”–Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle–has been perpetuated unthinkingly ad nauseam by academia, and has attributed an unfair amount of importance to these three to the detriment of all the others.

Onfray begins his counter-history by setting the record straight: Democritus, the inventor (together with Leucippus) of atomism and the first of the Laughing Philosophers is NOT a pre-Socratic. Democritus is the first anti-Platonist, active at the same time as Plato. Democritus and Plato start two separate philosophical lineages. The counter-history of philosophy gives us the narrative of the “other” lineage.

Plato knew Aristippus–the founder of hedonist doctrine–and was familiar with him and his opinions. Proof of this is that he mentions Aristippus directly when he reproaches his absence at Socrates’ death. But instead of using Aristippus as the mouthpiece of hedonism, he used the (fictional?) character of Philebus, merely a literary figure to embody pleasure in one of his “dialogues”. Plato doesn’t let Philebus talk or defend himself properly. Plato also exhibits ill-will when he exaggerates and caricatures his hedonist opponent, and then in the end portrays the character as going off running after a boy.

Why choose a fictional character to speak for a philosophy that has real proponents with real, coherent doctrines? Here, again, Plato’s war machine uses omission, silencing, ignoring his opponent, as if this demonstrated the validity of Plato’s arguments. We are reminded of how the Socrates that we know is Plato’s Socrates: we never hear of the Socrates that inspired the Cynics, or the Hedonists, or any of the other philosophical lineages that claimed him.

In view of the conflict of ideas that has taken place throughout history, Onfray argues that Mount Vesuvius protected the Herculaneum scrolls from Christian fury and fanaticism; that if the eruption of 79 CE hadn’t charred the papyri, we would have never gotten access to most of the works in Philodemus’ villa.

Striking a Blow for Epicurus

In his exposé of a religious fraud, the Epicurean satirist Lucian of Samosata included a revealing passage about “striking a blow for Epicurus” which demonstrates that the Epicureans, ancient as well as modern, have always seen ourselves as waging an intellectual battle:

… I was still more concerned (a preference which you may be far from resenting) to strike a blow for Epicurus, that great man whose holiness and divinity of nature were not shams, who alone had and imparted true insight into the good, and who brought deliverance to all that consorted with him.

This passage testifies to the fact that in the 2nd Century CE, Lucian saw himself as engaged in a fist-fight through the use of comedy and literature. Contemporary Epicureans generally hold the view that the ONLY way to understand Epicurus in depth is by understanding how rabidly anti-Plato he was: some have even argued that his entire system of philosophy can be understood mostly as a detailed, point-by-point refutation of Plato, who replaced nature with ideas. Ideas are okay, they’re just not “things” existing on their own–without matter–in the ether, or the plethora, or whatever the superstitious Platonists called the ideal realm.

Epicurus’ expulsion from Mitilene by the Platonists who had assumed control of the gymnasium, under threat of being accused of blasphemy, is another pivotal historical incident that usually escapes scrutiny by historians–even by Onfray himself. We know from the sources that this was a difficult season to travel by sea and that his ship capsized and he nearly lost his life. We know that this made Epicurus careful, and that he later on avoided preaching his philosophy in the agora, preferring the privacy of his Garden. But, why were the Platonists so offended by the idea of things being made up of atoms, or by the belief that life should be pleasant? What arguments and discussions can we speculate that they had with Epicurus prior to the expulsion?

Attempts to answer these questions may help to reveal many important issues of controversy, including the Epicureans’ passionate indignation with superstition and with the endless, pointless, irrelevant speculation of the other philosophers. This deserves its own series of imaginary “dialogues”.

Reconciling with Nature

In terms of how materialists and idealists philosophize, the two lineages are either difficult or impossible to reconcile: we philosophize from the body, we value the senses, the instincts, and the faculties–pleasure and aversion. We value emotions: Philodemus treats anger as a source of insight and says it can be rational and natural, whereas the Platonists have carried out a complete denaturalization and decontextualization of morality and philosophy. They invented an unnatural split between body and mind to devalue the body and elevate the imaginary, disembodied “spirit”. This was easily dismantled by Epicurus when he re-integrated the psyche within the body.

Onfray calls Platonism “the great neurosis at the heart of Western civilization”. It’s not just our happiness that suffers as a result of it. There is MUCH more at stake, including our connection with reality. Epicurus is still important and relevant today because his entire system is not only coherent, but also entirely based on the study of nature.

The Individual Versus the Polis

Following the logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, Onfray brings many intellectuals from diverse traditions together, whom he sees as fighting the war against Plato. In doing so, I admit that the comparison of hedonists with cynics seems a bit forced at times. But he does note the tension that exists between nature (fisos, body) and law (nomos), between the individual (and her freedom) and the polis (and its culture), as an underlying thread in the culture wars.

The Four Cures are a Philodeman invention, to which Onfray offers an alternative that includes what he calls a “tranquil atheism”. While discussing the Lucretian parable of the fortress of the wise–which is a beautiful defense of individualist ethics as distinct from the vulgarities of the masses–Onfray declares:

Hedonism does not require selfishness, or an evil joy (while seeing the suffering of others), but the construction of one’s self as a citadel, an impregnable fortress.

That the Epicurean chooses to be an individual and to focus on his own self-cultivation is not to be understood as obeying some commandment to be apolitical. Onfray claims that, while Philodemus rejects the autocracy of tyrants and the democracy of the vulgar masses, he prefers a king under the influence of philosophy. The source for this is unclear, but this should not impede us from forming our own ideals for the kind of government that leads most easily to a life of pleasure, of autarchy, and of ataraxia for its individuals, as surely Thomas Jefferson–an Epicurean himself–did when he wrote the words “pursuit of happiness” into the Declaration of Independence.

Perhaps a contemporary “ideal King” might be best embodied by the former President of Uruguay José Mujica, who specifically mentioned Epicurus while speaking to the community of nations, and who was subsequently celebrated at the annual symposium of Epicurean philosophy in Athens. Mujica is known for his moderate leftist-libertarian politics, for his authenticity and simple living in spite of earning a presidential salary, for his avowed atheism, and his call on all Latin Americans and Westerners to rethink the inherited values–most importantly consumerism–as “Christianity has failed us”, he says.

A leader who is adored by people throughout Latin America and the world, Mujica is acutely aware of the importance of disciplining our desires, and of the dangers posed by neoliberalism and by the capitalist model that requires constant growth, preferring instead a sustainable model of capitalist enterprise. Under his leadership, Uruguay has become the most prosperous nation in Latin America. It enjoys today liberal social policies, a high quality of life, and a poverty rate below 2%.

The House of Piso

Philodemus didn’t just challenge the stereotype of Epicureans as apolitical: he developed the Epicurean tradition in other ways, and challenged the stereotype of Epicureans as minimalists who live frugally. Philodemus taught philosophy to wealthy Romans–including Caesar’s own father-in-law. With him, the Epicurean tradition demonstrated–as is consistent with its own teaching–that it was willing to embrace luxuries when no disadvantages ensued from their enjoyment. This is a philosophy for men and women of all social classes.

The House of Piso was not the austere Garden of the original founders. Together with its library and cultural life, it resembled more a grand temple of refined pleasure. The villa at Herculaneum overlooked the Mediterranean Sea and was a fortress of refinement, culture, and luxury. We will get another glimpse into the vibrant cultural life contained within its walls when we study Horace’s Epistle to the Pisos.

Some Counter-History Trivia

The writing of Michel Onfray is peppered with references of interest to the student of Epicurean philosophy. Among some of the trivia points:

  • Philodemus’ library was discovered on the 19th day of October of 1752
  • Timon was the first one to associate Epicureans with the pig
  • While many have argued that De Rerum Natura is an incomplete work, acute observers will notice that Lucretius starts De Rerum Natura with the word “mother”, and ends it with the word “corpse”
  • Epicurus’ name means soccour or assistance, specifically “help during times of war”
  • Antiphon of Athens was a precursor of psychoanalysis and the first to propose that philosophy heals the soul through words. This would later be paraphrased by Philodemus. He was very persuasive, invented therapeutic philosophy, and wrote a work titled “The Art of Combatting Sadness”.
  • Maecenas, the wealthy patron of the arts whose name became synonymous with humanist philanthropy, is believed to have been Epicurean.

Alexander the Oracle Monger

In Praise of Lucian of Samosata, the 2nd-Century author

Alexander the Oracle Monger is an exposé of a religious fraud. The Fowler translation divides it apparently according to Greek lines or paragraphs. For ease of citation, we have preserved that convention. Because the text is long, of great historical value, and useful for teaching philosophy and critical thinking, the Friends of Epicurus feel that it is useful to keep and use these portions in order to more easily find a specific citation. We recommend the use of citations that look like “AOM 25”, etc. and we recommend that these divisions be called “portions”.

[1] You, my dear Celsus, possibly suppose yourself to be laying upon me quite a trifling task: Write me down in a book and send me the life and adventures, the tricks and frauds, of the impostor Alexander of Abonutichus. In fact, however, it would take as long to do this in full detail as to reduce to writing the achievements of Alexander of Macedon; the one is among villains what the other is among heroes. Nevertheless, if you will promise to read with indulgence, and fill up the gaps in my tale from your imagination, I will essay the task. I may not cleanse that Augean stable completely, but I will do my best, and fetch you out a few loads as samples of the unspeakable filth that three thousand oxen could produce in many years.

[2] I confess to being a little ashamed both on your account and my own. There are you asking that the memory of an arch-scoundrel should be perpetuated in writing; here am I going seriously into an investigation of this sort—the doings of a person whose deserts entitled him not to be read about by the cultivated, but to be torn to pieces in the amphitheater by apes or foxes, with a vast audience looking on. Well, well, if any one does cast reflections of that sort upon us, we shall at least have a precedent to plead. Arrian himself, disciple of Epictetus, distinguished Roman, and product of lifelong culture as he was, had just our experience, and shall make our defense. He condescended, that is, to put on record the life of the robber Tilliborus. The robber we propose to immortalize was of a far more pestilent kind, following his profession not in the forests and mountains, but in cities; he was not content to overrun a Mysia or an Ida; his booty came not from a few scantily populated districts of Asia; one may say that the scene of his depredations was the whole Roman Empire.

[3] I will begin with a picture of the man himself, as lifelike (though I am not great at description) as I can make it with nothing better than words. In person—not to forget that part of him—he was a fine handsome man with a real touch of divinity about him, white-skinned, moderately bearded; he wore besides his own hair artificial additions which matched it so cunningly that they were not generally detected. His eyes were piercing, and suggested inspiration, his voice at once sweet and sonorous. In fact there was no fault to be found with him in these respects.

[4] So much for externals. As for his mind and spirit—well, if all the kind Gods who avert disaster will grant a prayer, it shall be that they bring me not within reach of such a one as he; sooner will I face my bitterest enemies, my country’s foes. In understanding, resource, acuteness, he was far above other men; curiosity, receptiveness, memory, scientific ability—all these were his in overflowing measure. But he used them for the worst purposes. Endowed with all these instruments of good, he very soon reached a proud pre-eminence among all who have been famous for evil; the Cercopes, Eurybatus, Phrynondas, Aristodemus, Sostratus—all thrown into the shade. In a letter to his father-in-law Rutilianus, which puts his own pretensions in a truly modest light, he compares himself to Pythagoras.

Well, I should not like to offend the wise, the divine Pythagoras; but if he had been Alexander’s contemporary, I am quite sure he would have been a mere child to him. Now by all that is admirable, do not take that for an insult to Pythagoras, nor suppose I would draw a parallel between their achievements. What I mean is: if any one would make a collection of all the vilest and most damaging slanders ever vented against Pythagoras—things whose truth I would not accept for a moment—, the sum of them would not come within measurable distance of Alexander’s cleverness. You are to set your imagination to work and conceive a temperament curiously compounded of falsehood, trickery, perjury, cunning; it is versatile, audacious, adventurous, yet dogged in execution; it is plausible enough to inspire confidence; it can assume the mask of virtue, and seem to eschew what it most desires. I suppose no one ever left him after a first interview without the impression that this was the best and kindest of men, aye, and the simplest and most unsophisticated. Add to all this a certain greatness in his objects; he never made a small plan; his ideas were always large.

[5] While in the bloom of his youthful beauty, which we may assume to have been great both from its later remains and from the report of those who saw it, he traded quite shamelessly upon it. Among his other patrons was one of the charlatans who deal in magic and mystic incantations; they will smooth your course of love, confound your enemies, find you treasure, or secure you an inheritance. This person was struck with the lad’s natural qualifications for apprenticeship to his trade, and finding him as much attracted by rascality as attractive in appearance, gave him a regular training as accomplice, satellite, and attendant. His own ostensible profession was medicine, and his knowledge included, like that of Thoon the Egyptian’s wife, Many a virtuous herb, and many a bane; to all which inheritance our friend succeeded. This teacher and lover of his was a native of Tyana, an associate of the great Apollonius, and acquainted with all his heroics. And now you know the atmosphere in which Alexander lived.

[6] By the time his beard had come, the Tyanean was dead, and he found himself in straits; for the personal attractions which might once have been a resource were diminished. He now formed great designs, which he imparted to a Byzantine chronicler of the strolling competitive order, a man of still worse character than himself, called, I believe, Cocconas. The pair went about living on occult pretensions, shearing ‘fat-heads,’ as they describe ordinary people in the native Magian lingo. Among these they got hold of a rich Macedonian woman; her youth was past, but not her desire for admiration; they got sufficient supplies out of her, and accompanied her from Bithynia to Macedonia. She came from Pella, which had been a flourishing place under the Macedonian kingdom, but has now a poor and much reduced population.

[7] There is here a breed of large serpents, so tame and gentle that women make pets of them, children take them to bed, they will let you tread on them, have no objection to being squeezed, and will draw milk from the breast like infants. To these facts is probably to be referred the common story about Olympias when she was with child of Alexander; it was doubtless one of these that was her bed-fellow. Well, the two saw these creatures, and bought the finest they could get for a few pence.

[8] And from this point, as Thucydides might say, the war takes its beginning. These ambitious scoundrels were quite devoid of scruples, and they had now joined forces; it could not escape their penetration that human life is under the absolute dominion of two mighty principles, fear and hope, and that any one who can make these serve his ends may be sure of a rapid fortune. They realized that, whether a man is most swayed by the one or by the other, what he must most depend upon and desire is a knowledge of futurity. So were to be explained the ancient wealth and fame of Delphi, Delos, Clarus, Branchidae; it was at the bidding of the two tyrants aforesaid that men thronged the temples, longed for foreknowledge, and to attain it sacrificed their hecatombs or dedicated their golden ingots. All this they turned over and debated, and it issued in the resolve to establish an oracle. If it were successful, they looked for immediate wealth and prosperity; the result surpassed their most sanguine expectations.

[9] The next things to be settled were, first the theater of operations, and secondly the plan of campaign. Cocconas favoured Chalcedon, as a mercantile center convenient both for Thrace and Bithynia, and accessible enough for the province of Asia, Galatia, and tribes still further east. Alexander, on the other hand, preferred his native place, urging very truly that an enterprise like theirs required congenial soil to give it a start, in the shape of ‘fat-heads’ and simpletons. That was a fair description, he said, of the Paphlagonians beyond Abonutichus; they were mostly superstitious and well-to-do; one had only to go there with some one to play the flute, the tambourine, or the cymbals, set the proverbial mantic sieve a-spinning, and there they would all be gaping as if he were a God from heaven.

[10] This difference of opinion did not last long, and Alexander prevailed. Discovering, however, that a use might after all be made of Chalcedon, they went there first, and in the temple of Apollo, the oldest in the place, they buried some brazen tablets, on which was the statement that very shortly Asclepius, with his father Apollo, would pay a visit to Pontus, and take up his abode at Abonutichus. The discovery of the tablets took place as arranged, and the news flew through Bithynia and Pontus, first of all, naturally, to Abonutichus. The people of that place at once resolved to raise a temple, and lost no time in digging the foundations. Cocconas was now left at Chalcedon, engaged in composing certain ambiguous crabbed oracles. He shortly afterwards died, I believe, of a viper’s bite.

[11] Alexander meanwhile went on in advance; he had now grown his hair and wore it in long curls; his doublet was white and purple striped, his cloak pure white; he carried a scimitar in imitation of Perseus, from whom he now claimed descent through his mother. The wretched Paphlagonians, who knew perfectly well that his parentage was obscure and mean on both sides, nevertheless gave credence to the oracle, which ran: Lo, sprung from Perseus, and to Phoebus dear, High Alexander, Podalirius’ son!

Podalirius, it seems, was of so highly amorous a complexion that the distance between Tricca and Paphlagonia was no bar to his union with Alexander’s mother. A Sibylline prophecy had also been found:

Hard by Sinope on the Euxine shore Th’ Italic age a fortress prophet sees. To the first monad let thrice ten be added, Five monads yet, and then a triple score: Such the quaternion of th’ alexic name.

[12] This heroic entry into his long-left home placed Alexander conspicuously before the public; he affected madness, and frequently foamed at the mouth— a manifestation easily produced by chewing the herb soap-wort, used by dyers; but it brought him reverence and awe. The two had long ago manufactured and fitted up a serpent’s head of linen; they had given it a more or less human expression, and painted it very like the real article; by a contrivance of horsehair, the mouth could be opened and shut, and a forked black serpent tongue protruded, working on the same system. The serpent from Pella was also kept ready in the house, to be produced at the right moment and take its part in the drama—the leading part, indeed.

[13] In the fullness of time, his plan took shape. He went one night to the temple foundations, still in process of digging, and with standing water in them which had collected from the rainfall or otherwise. Here he deposited a goose egg, into which, after blowing it, he had inserted some new-born reptile. He made a resting-place deep down in the mud for this, and departed. Early next morning he rushed into the market-place, naked except for a gold-spangled loin-cloth; with nothing but this and his scimetar, and shaking his long loose hair, like the fanatics who collect money in the name of Cybele, he climbed on to a lofty altar and delivered a harangue, felicitating the city upon the advent of the God now to bless them with his presence. In a few minutes nearly the whole population was on the spot, women, old men, and children included; all was awe, prayer, and adoration. He uttered some unintelligible sounds, which might have been Hebrew or Phoenician, but completed his victory over his audience, who could make nothing of what he said, beyond the constant repetition of the names Apollo and Asclepius.

[14] He then set off at a run for the future temple. Arrived at the excavation and the already completed sacred fount, he got down into the water, chanted in a loud voice hymns to Asclepius and Apollo, and invited the God to come, a welcome guest, to the city. He next demanded a bowl, and when this was handed to him, had no difficulty in putting it down at the right place and scooping up, besides water and mud, the egg in which the God had been enclosed; the edges of the aperture had been joined with wax and white lead. He took the egg in his hand and announced that here he held Asclepius. The people, who had been sufficiently astonished by the discovery of the egg in the water, were now all eyes for what was to come. He broke it, and received in his hollowed palm the hardly developed reptile; the crowd could see it stirring and winding about his fingers; they raised a shout, hailed the God, blessed the city, and every mouth was full of prayers—for treasure and wealth and health and all the other good things that he might give. Our hero now departed homewards, still running, with the new-born Asclepius in his hands—the twice-born, too, whereas ordinary men can be born but once, and born moreover not of Coronis, nor even of her namesake the crow, but of a goose! After him streamed the whole people, in all the madness of fanatic hopes.

[15] He now kept the house for some days, in hopes that the Paphlagonians would soon be drawn in crowds by the news. He was not disappointed; the city was filled to overflowing with persons who had neither brains nor individuality, who bore no resemblance to men that live by bread, and had only their outward shape to distinguish them from sheep. In a small room he took his seat, very imposingly attired, upon a couch. He took into his bosom our Asclepius of Pella (a very fine and large one, as I observed), wound its body round his neck, and let its tail hang down. There was enough of this not only to fill his lap, but to trail on the ground also; the patient creature’s head he kept hidden in his armpit, showing the linen head on one side of his beard exactly as if it belonged to the visible body.

[16] Picture to yourself a little chamber into which no very brilliant light was admitted, with a crowd of people from all quarters, excited, carefully worked up, all aflutter with expectation. As they came in, they might naturally find a miracle in the development of that little crawling thing of a few days ago into this great, tame, human-looking serpent. Then they had to get on at once towards the exit, being pressed forward by the new arrivals before they could have a good look. An exit had been specially made just opposite the entrance, for all the world like the Macedonian device at Babylon when Alexander was ill. He was in extremis, you remember, and the crowd round the palace were eager to take their last look and give their last greeting. Our scoundrel’s exhibition, though, is said to have been given not once, but many times, especially for the benefit of any wealthy new-comers.

[17] And at this point, my dear Celsus, we may, if we will be candid, make some allowance for these Paphlagonians and Pontics. The poor uneducated ‘fat-heads’ might well be taken in when they handled the serpent—a privilege conceded to all who choose—and saw in that dim light its head with the mouth that opened and shut. It was an occasion for a Democritus, nay, for an Epicurus or a Metrodorus, perhaps, a man whose intelligence was steeled against such assaults by skepticism and insight, one who, if he could not detect the precise imposture, would at any rate have been perfectly certain that, though this escaped him, the whole thing was a lie and an impossibility.

[18] By degrees Bithynia, Galatia, Thrace, came flocking in, every one who had been present doubtless reporting that he had beheld the birth of the God, and had touched him after his marvelous development in size and in expression. Next came pictures and models, bronze or silver images, and the God acquired a name. By divine command, metrically expressed, he was to be known as Glycon. For Alexander had delivered the line: Glycon my name, man’s light, son’s son to Zeus.

[19] And now at last the object to which all this had led up, the giving of oracular answers to all applicants, could be attained. The cue was taken from Amphilochus in Cilicia. After the death and disappearance at Thebes of his father Amphiaraus, Amphilochus, driven from his home, made his way to Cilicia, and there did not at all badly by prophesying to the Cilicians at the rate of threepence an oracle. After this precedent, Alexander proclaimed that on a stated day the God would give answers to all comers. Each person was to write down his wish and the object of his curiosity, fasten the packet with thread, and seal it with wax, clay, or other such substance. He would receive these, and enter the holy place (by this time the temple was complete, and the scene all ready), whither the givers should be summoned in order by a herald and an acolyte. He would learn the God’s mind upon each, and return the packets with their seals intact and the answers attached, the God being ready to give a definite answer to any question that might be put.

[20] The trick here was one which would be seen through easily enough by a person of your intelligence (or, if I may say so without violating modesty, of my own), but which to the ordinary imbecile would have the persuasiveness of what is marvelous and incredible. He contrived various methods of undoing the seals, read the questions, answered them as seemed good, and then folded, sealed, and returned them, to the great astonishment of the recipients. And then it was, ‘How could he possibly know what I gave him carefully secured under a seal that defies imitation, unless he were a true God, with a God’s omniscience?’

[21] Perhaps you will ask what these contrivances were; well, then—the information may be useful another time. One of them was this. He would heat a needle, melt with it the under part of the wax, lift the seal off, and after reading warm the wax once more with the needle—both that below the thread and that which formed the actual seal—and re-unite the two without difficulty. Another method employed the substance called collyrium; this is a preparation of Bruttian pitch, bitumen, pounded glass, wax, and mastich. He kneaded the whole into collyrium, heated it, placed it on the seal, previously moistened with his tongue, and so took a mould. This soon hardened; he simply opened, read, replaced the wax, and reproduced an excellent imitation of the original seal as from an engraved stone. One more I will give you. Adding some gypsum to the glue used in book-binding he produced a sort of wax, which was applied still wet to the seal, and on being taken off solidified at once and provided a matrix harder than horn, or even iron. There are plenty of other devices for the purpose, to rehearse which would seem like airing one’s knowledge. Moreover, in your excellent pamphlets against the magicians (most useful and instructive reading they are) you have yourself collected enough of them—many more than those I have mentioned.

[22] So oracles and divine utterances were the order of the day, and much shrewdness he displayed, eking out mechanical ingenuity with obscurity, his answers to some being crabbed and ambiguous, and to others absolutely unintelligible. He did however distribute warning and encouragement according to his lights, and recommend treatments and diets; for he had, as I originally stated, a wide and serviceable acquaintance with drugs. He was particularly given to prescribing ‘cytmides,’ which were a salve prepared from goat’s fat, the name being of his own invention. For the realization of ambitions, advancement, or successions, he took care never to assign early dates; the formula was, ‘All this shall come to pass when it is my will, and when my prophet Alexander shall make prayer and entreaty on your behalf.’

[23] There was a fixed charge of a shilling the oracle. And, my friend, do not suppose that this would not come to much; he made something like L3,000 per annum; people were insatiable—would take from ten to fifteen oracles at a time. What he got he did not keep to himself, nor put it by for the future; what with accomplices, attendants, inquiry agents, oracle writers and keepers, amanuenses, seal-forgers, and interpreters, he had now a host of claimants to satisfy.

[24] He had begun sending emissaries abroad to make the shrine known in foreign lands; his prophecies, discovery of runaways, conviction of thieves and robbers, revelations of hidden treasure, cures of the sick, restoration of the dead to life—all these were to be advertised. This brought them running and crowding from all points of the compass; victims bled, gifts were presented, and the prophet and disciple came off better than the God; for had not the oracle spoken?—

Give what ye give to my attendant priest; My care is not for gifts, but for my priest.

[25] A time came when a number of sensible people began to shake off their intoxication and combine against him, chief among them the numerous Epicureans; in the cities, the imposture with all its theatrical accessories began to be seen through. It was now that he resorted to a measure of intimidation; he proclaimed that Pontus was overrun with atheists and Christians, who presumed to spread the most scandalous reports concerning him. He exhorted Pontus, as it valued the God’s favor, to stone these men. Touching Epicurus, he gave the following response. An inquirer had asked how Epicurus fared in Hades, and was told: Of slime is his bed, And his fetters of lead.

The prosperity of the oracle is perhaps not so wonderful, when one learns what sensible, intelligent questions were in fashion with its votaries. Well, it was war to the knife between him and Epicurus, and no wonder. What fitter enemy for a charlatan who patronized miracles and hated truth, than the thinker who had grasped the nature of things and was in solitary possession of that truth? As for the Platonists, Stoics, Pythagoreans, they were his good friends; he had no quarrel with them. But the unmitigated Epicurus, as he used to call him, could not but be hateful to him, treating all such pretensions as absurd and puerile. Alexander consequently loathed Amastris beyond all the cities of Pontus, knowing what a number of Lepidus’s friends and others like-minded it contained. He would not give oracles to Amastrians; when he once did, to a senator’s brother, he made himself ridiculous, neither hitting upon a presentable oracle for himself, nor finding a deputy equal to the occasion. The man had complained of colic, and what he meant to prescribe was pig’s foot dressed with mallow. The shape it took was: In basin hallowed, Be pigments mallowed.

[26] I have mentioned that the serpent was often exhibited by request; he was not completely visible, but the tail and body were exposed, while the head was concealed under the prophet’s dress. By way of impressing the people still more, he announced that he would induce the God to speak, and give his responses without an intermediary. His simple device to this end was a tube of cranes’ windpipes, which he passed, with due regard to its matching, through the artificial head, and, having an assistant speaking into the end outside, whose voice issued through the linen Asclepius, thus answered questions. These oracles were called autophones, and were not vouchsafed casually to any one, but reserved for officials, the rich, and the lavish.

[27] It was an autophone which was given to Severian regarding the invasion of Armenia. He encouraged him with these lines:

Armenia, Parthia, cowed by thy fierce spear, To Rome, and Tiber’s shining waves, thou com’st, Thy brow with leaves and radiant gold encircled.

Then when the foolish Gaul took his advice and invaded, to the total destruction of himself and his army by Othryades, the adviser expunged that oracle from his archives and substituted the following:

Vex not th’ Armenian land; it shall not thrive; One in soft raiment clad shall from his bow Launch death, and cut thee off from life and light.

[28] For it was one of his happy thoughts to issue prophecies after the event as antidotes to those premature utterances which had not gone right. Frequently he promised recovery to a sick man before his death, and after it was at no loss for second thoughts:

No longer seek to arrest thy fell disease; Thy fate is manifest, inevitable.

[29] Knowing the fame of Clarus, Didymus, and Mallus for sooth-saying much like his own, he struck up an alliance with them, sending on many of his clients to those places. So Hie thee to Clarus now, and hear my sire. And again, Draw near to Branchidae and counsel take. Or Seek Mallus; be Amphilochus thy counsellor.

[30] So things went within the borders of Ionia, Cilicia, Paphlagonia, and Galatia. When the fame of the oracle traveled to Italy and entered Rome, the only question was, who should be first; those who did not come in person sent messages, the powerful and respected being the keenest of all. First and foremost among these was Rutilianus. He was in most respects an excellent person, and had filled many high offices in Rome; but he suffered from religious mania, holding the most extraordinary beliefs on that matter. Show him a bit of stone smeared with unguents or crowned with flowers, and he would incontinently fall down and worship, and linger about it praying and asking for blessings. The reports about our oracle nearly induced him to throw up the appointment he then held, and fly to Abonutichus; he actually did send messenger upon messenger. His envoys were ignorant servants, easily taken in. They came back having really seen certain things, relating others which they probably thought they had seen and heard, and yet others which they deliberately invented to curry favor with their master. So they inflamed the poor old man and drove him into confirmed madness.

[31] He had a wide circle of influential friends, to whom he communicated the news brought by his successive messengers, not without additional touches of his own. All Rome was full of his tales; there was quite a commotion, the gentlemen of the Court being much fluttered, and at once taking measures to learn something of their own fate. The prophet gave all who came a hearty welcome, gained their goodwill by hospitality and costly gifts, and sent them off ready not merely to report his answers, but to sing the praises of the God and invent miraculous tales of the shrine and its guardian.

[32] This triple rogue now hit upon an idea which would have been too clever for the ordinary robber. Opening and reading the packets which reached him, whenever he came upon an equivocal, compromising question, he omitted to return the packet. The sender was to be under his thumb, bound to his service by the terrifying recollection of the question he had written down. You know the sort of things that wealthy and powerful personages would be likely to ask. This blackmail brought him in a good income.

[33] I should like to quote you one or two of the answers given to Rutilianus. He had a son by a former wife, just old enough for advanced teaching. The father asked who should be his tutor, and was told, Pythagoras, and the mighty battle-bard.

When the child died a few days after, the prophet was abashed, and quite unable to account for this summary confutation. However, dear good Rutilianus very soon restored the oracle’s credit by discovering that this was the very thing the God had foreshown – he had not directed him to choose a living teacher; Pythagoras and Homer were long dead, and doubtless the boy was now enjoying their instructions in Hades. Small blame to Alexander if he had a taste for dealings with such specimens of humanity as this.

[34] Another of Rutilianus’s questions was, Whose soul he had succeeded to, and the answer:

First thou wast Peleus’ son, and next Menander; Then thine own self; next, a sunbeam shalt be; And nine score annual rounds thy life shall measure.

At seventy, he died of melancholy, not waiting for the God to pay in full.

[35] That was an autophone too. Another time Rutilianus consulted the oracle on the choice of a wife. The answer was express: Wed Alexander’s daughter and Selene’s.

He had long ago spread the report that the daughter he had had was by Selene: she had once seen him asleep, and fallen in love, as is her way with handsome sleepers. The sensible Rutilianus lost no time, but sent for the maiden at once, celebrated the nuptials, a sexagenarian bridegroom, and lived with her, propitiating his divine mother-in-law with whole hecatombs, and reckoning himself now one of the heavenly company.

[36] His finger once in the Italian pie, Alexander devoted himself to getting further. Sacred envoys were sent all over the Roman Empire, warning the various cities to be on their guard against pestilence and conflagrations, with the prophet’s offers of security against them. One oracle in particular, an autophone again, he distributed broadcast at a time of pestilence. It was a single line: Phoebus long-tressed the plague-cloud shall dispel.

This was everywhere to be seen written up on doors as a prophylactic. Its effect was generally disappointing; for it somehow happened that the protected houses were just the ones to be desolated. Not that I would suggest for a moment that the line was their destruction; but, accidentally no doubt, it did so fall out. Possibly common people put too much confidence in the verse, and lived carelessly without troubling to help the oracle against its foe. Were there not the words fighting their battle, and long-tressed Phoebus discharging his arrows at the pestilence?

[37] In Rome itself he established an intelligence bureau well manned with his accomplices. They sent him people’s characters, forecasts of their questions, and hints of their ambitions, so that he had his answers ready before the messengers reached him.

[38] It was with his eye on this Italian propaganda, too, that he took a further step. This was the institution of mysteries, with hierophants and torch-bearers complete. The ceremonies occupied three successive days. On the first, proclamation was made on the Athenian model to this effect:

‘If there be any atheist or Christian or Epicurean here spying upon our rites, let him depart in haste; and let all such as have faith in the God be initiated and all blessing attend them.’ He led the litany with, ‘Christians, avaunt!’ and the crowd responded, ‘Epicureans, avaunt!’

Then was presented the child-bed of Leto and birth of Apollo, the bridal of Coronis, Asclepius born.

The second day, the epiphany and nativity of the God Glycon.

[39] On the third came the wedding of Podalirius and Alexander’s mother; this was called Torch-day, and torches were used. The finale was the loves of Selene and Alexander, and the birth of Rutilianus’s wife. The torch- bearer and hierophant was Endymion-Alexander. He was discovered lying asleep; to him from heaven, represented by the ceiling, enter as Selene one Rutilia, a great beauty, and wife of one of the Imperial procurators. She and Alexander were lovers off the stage too, and the wretched husband had to look on at their public kissing and embracing. If there had not been a good supply of torches, things might possibly have gone even further. Shortly after, he reappeared amidst a profound hush, attired as hierophant; in a loud voice he called, ‘Hail, Glycon!’, whereto the Eumolpidae and Ceryces of Paphlagonia, with their clod-hopping shoes and their garlic breath, made sonorous response, ‘Hail, Alexander!’

[40] The torch ceremony with its ritual skippings often enabled him to bestow a glimpse of his thigh, which was thus discovered to be of gold; it was presumably enveloped in cloth of gold, which glittered in the lamp-light. This gave rise to a debate between two wiseacres, whether the golden thigh meant that he had inherited Pythagoras’s soul, or merely that their two souls were alike; the question was referred to Alexander himself, and King Glycon relieved their perplexity with an oracle:

Waxes and wanes Pythagoras’ soul: the seer’s Is from the mind of Zeus an emanation. His Father sent him, virtuous men to aid, And with his bolt one day shall call him home.

[41] Although he cautioned all to abstain from intercourse with boys on the grounds that it was impious, for his own part this pattern of propriety made a clever arrangement. He commanded the cities of Pontus and Paphlagonia to send choir-boys for three years’ service, to sing hyms to the god in his household; they were required examine, select, and send the noblest, youngest, and most handsome. These he kept under ward and treated like bought slaves, sleeping with them and affronting them in every way. He made it a rule, too, not to greet anyone over eighteen years with his lips, or to embrace and kiss him; he kissed only the young, extending his hand to the others to be kissed by them. They were called “those within the kiss.”

[42] He duped the simpletons in this way from first to last, ruining women right and left as well as living with favourites. Indeed, it was a great thing that eveyone coveted if he simply cast his eyes upon a man’s wife; if, however, he deemed her worthy of a kiss, each husband thought that good fortune would flood his house. Many women even boasted that they had children by Alexander, and their husbands bore witness that they spoke the truth!

[43] I will now give you a conversation between Glycon and one Sacerdos of Tius; the intelligence of the latter you may gauge from his questions. I read it inscribed in golden letters in Sacerdos’s house at Tius.

‘Tell me, lord Glycon,’ said he, ‘who you are.’ ‘The new Asclepius.’ ‘Another, different from the former one? Is that the meaning?’ ‘That it is not lawful for you to learn.’ ‘And how many years will you sojourn and prophesy among us?’ ‘A thousand and three.’ ‘And after that, whither will you go?’ ‘To Bactria; for the barbarians too must be blessed with my presence.’ ‘The other oracles, at Didymus and Clarus and Delphi, have they still the spirit of your grandsire Apollo, or are the answers that now come from them forgeries?’ ‘That, too, desire not to know; it is not lawful.’ ‘What shall I be after this life?’ ‘A camel; then a horse; then a wise man, no less a prophet than Alexander.’

Such was the conversation. There was added to it an oracle in verse, inspired by the fact that Sacerdos was an associate of Lepidus: Shun Lepidus; an evil fate awaits him.

As I have said, Alexander was much afraid of Epicurus, and the solvent action of his logic on imposture.

[44] On one occasion, indeed, an Epicurean got himself into great trouble by daring to expose him before a great gathering. He came up and addressed him in a loud voice.

‘Alexander, it was you who induced So-and-so the Paphlagonian to bring his slaves before the governor of Galatia, charged with the murder of his son who was being educated in Alexandria. Well, the young man is alive, and has come back, to find that the slaves had been cast to the beasts by your machinations.’

What had happened was this. The lad had sailed up the Nile, gone on to a Red Sea port, found a vessel starting for India, and been persuaded to make the voyage. He being long overdue, the unfortunate slaves supposed that he had either perished in the Nile or fallen a victim to some of the pirates who infested it at that time; so they came home to report his disappearance. Then followed the oracle, the sentence, and finally the young man’s return with the story of his absence.

[45] All this the Epicurean recounted. Alexander was much annoyed by the exposure, and could not stomach so well deserved an affront. He directed the company to stone the man, on pain of being involved in his impiety and called Epicureans. However, when they set to work, a distinguished Pontic called Demostratus, who was staying there, rescued him by interposing his own body. The man had the narrowest possible escape from being stoned to death—as he richly deserved to be; what business had he to be the only sane man in a crowd of madmen, and needlessly make himself the butt of Paphlagonian infatuation?

[46] This was a special case; but it was the practice for the names of applicants to be read out the day before answers were given. The herald asked whether each was to receive his oracle; and sometimes the reply came from within, To perdition! One so repulsed could get shelter, fire or water, from no man; he must be driven from land to land as a blasphemer, an atheist, and—lowest depth of all—an Epicurean.

[47] In this connection Alexander once made himself supremely ridiculous. Coming across Epicurus’s Accepted Maxims, the most admirable of his books, as you know, with its terse presentment of his wise conclusions, he brought it into the middle of the market-place, there burned it on a fig-wood fire for the sins of its author, and cast its ashes into the sea. He issued an oracle on the occasion: The dotard’s maxims to the flames be given.

The fellow had no conception of the blessings conferred by that book upon its readers, of the peace, tranquillity, and independence of mind it produces, of the protection it gives against terrors, phantoms, and marvels, vain hopes and inordinate desires, of the judgment and candor that it fosters, or of its true purging of the spirit, not with torches and squills and such rubbish, but with right reason, truth, and frankness.

[48] Perhaps the greatest example of our rogue’s audacity is what I now come to. Having easy access to Palace and Court by Rutilianus’s influence, he sent an oracle just at the crisis of the German war, when M. Aurelius was on the point of engaging the Marcomanni and Quadi. The oracle required that two lions should be flung alive into the Danube, with quantities of sacred herbs and magnificent sacrifices. I had better give the words:

To rolling Ister, swoln with Heaven’s rain, Of Cybelean thralls, those mountain beasts, Fling ye a pair; therewith all flowers and herbs Of savour sweet that Indian air doth breed. Hence victory, and fame, and lovely peace.

These directions were precisely followed: the lions swam across to the enemy’s bank, where they were clubbed to death by the barbarians, who took them for dogs or a new kind of wolves; and our forces immediately after met with a severe defeat, losing some twenty thousand men in one engagement. This was followed by the Aquileian incident, in the course of which that city was nearly lost. In view of these results, Alexander warmed up that stale Delphian defense of the Croesus oracle: the God had foretold a victory, forsooth, but had not stated whether Romans or barbarians should have it.

[49] The constant increase in the number of visitors, the inadequacy of accommodation in the city, and the difficulty of finding provisions for consultants, led to his introducing what he called night oracles. He received the packets, slept upon them, in his own phrase, and gave answers which the God was supposed to send him in dreams. These were generally not lucid, but ambiguous and confused, especially when he came to packets sealed with exceptional care. He did not risk tampering with these, but wrote down any words that came into his head, the results obtained corresponding well enough to his conception of the oracular. There were regular interpreters in attendance, who made considerable sums out of the recipients by expounding and unriddling these oracles. This office contributed to his revenue, the interpreters paying him L250 each.

[50] Sometimes he stirred the wonder of the silly by answers to persons who had neither brought nor sent questions, and in fact did not exist. Here is a specimen:

Who is’t, thou askst, that with Calligenia All secretly defiles thy nuptial bed? The slave Protogenes, whom most thou trustest. Him thou enjoyedst: he thy wife enjoys— The fit return for that thine outrage done. And know that baleful drugs for thee are brewed, Lest thou or see or hear their evil deeds. Close by the wall, at thy bed’s head, make search. Thy maid Calypso to their plot is privy.

The names and circumstantial details might stagger a Democritus, till a moment’s thought showed him the despicable trick.

[51] He often gave answers in Syriac or Celtic to barbarians who questioned him in their own tongue, though he had difficulty in finding compatriots of theirs in the city. In these cases there was a long interval between application and response, during which the packet might be securely opened at leisure, and somebody found capable of translating the question. The following is an answer given to a Scythian:

Morphi ebargulis for night Chnenchicrank shall leave the light.

[52] Another oracle to some one who neither came nor existed was in prose. ‘Return the way thou earnest,‘ it ran; ‘for he that sent thee hath this day been slain by his neighbour Diocles, with aid of the robbers Magnus, Celer, and Bubalus, who are taken and in chains.’

[53] I must give you one or two of the answers that fell to my share. I asked whether Alexander was bald, and having sealed it publicly with great care, got a night oracle in reply: Sabardalachu malach Attis was not he.

Another time I did up the same question—What was Homer’s birthplace?—in two packets given in under different names. My servant misled him by saying, when asked what he came for, a cure for lung trouble; so the answer to one packet was: Cytmide and foam of steed the liniment give.

As for the other packet, he got the information that the sender was inquiring whether the land or the sea route to Italy was preferable. So he answered, without much reference to Homer: Fare not by sea; land-travel meets thy need.

[54] I laid a good many traps of this kind for him; here is another. I asked only one question, but wrote outside the packet in the usual form, So- and-so’s eight queries, giving a fictitious name and sending the eight shillings. Satisfied with the payment of the money and the inscription on the packet, he gave me eight answers to my one question. This was, When will Alexander’s imposture be detected? The answers concerned nothing in heaven or earth, but were all silly and meaningless together. He afterwards found out about this, and also that I had tried to dissuade Rutilianus both from the marriage and from putting any confidence in the oracle; so he naturally conceived a violent dislike for me. When Rutilianus once put a question to him about me, the answer was: Night-haunts and foul debauch are all his joy.

[55] It is true his dislike was quite justified. On a certain occasion I was passing through Abonutichus, with a spearman and a pikeman whom my friend the governor of Cappadocia had lent me as an escort on my way to the sea. Ascertaining that I was the Lucian he knew of, he sent me a very polite and hospitable invitation. I found him with a numerous company; by good luck I had brought my escort. He gave me his hand to kiss according to his usual custom. I took hold of it as if to kiss, but instead bestowed on it a sound bite that must have come near disabling it. The company, who were already offended at my calling him Alexander instead of Prophet, were inclined to throttle and beat me for sacrilege. But he endured the pain like a man, checked their violence, and assured them that he would easily tame me, and illustrate Glycon’s greatness in converting his bitterest foes to friends. He then dismissed them all, and argued the matter with me: he was perfectly aware of my advice to Rutilianus; why had I treated him so, when I might have been preferred by him to great influence in that quarter? By this time I had realized my dangerous position, and was only too glad to welcome these advances; I presently went my way in all friendship with him. The rapid change wrought in me greatly impressed the observers.

[56] When I intended to sail, he sent me many parting gifts, and offered to find us (Xenophon and me, that is; I had sent my father and family on to Amastris) a ship and crew—which offer I accepted in all confidence. When the passage was half over, I observed the master in tears arguing with his men, which made me very uneasy. It turned out that Alexander’s orders were to seize and fling us overboard; in that case his war with me would have been lightly won. But the crew were prevailed upon by the master’s tears to do us no harm.

‘I am sixty years old, as you can see,’ he said to me; ‘I have lived an honest blameless life so far, and I should not like at my time of life, with a wife and children too, to stain my hands with blood.’ And with that preface he informed us what we were there for, and what Alexander had told him to do.

[57] He landed us at Aegiali, of Homeric fame, and thence sailed home. Some Bosphoran envoys happened to be passing, on their way to Bithynia with the annual tribute from their king Eupator. They listened kindly to my account of our dangerous situation, I was taken on board, and reached Amastris safely after my narrow escape. From that time it was war between Alexander and me, and I left no stone unturned to get my revenge. Even before his plot I had hated him, revolted by his abominable practices, and I now busied myself with the attempt to expose him. I found plenty of allies, especially in the circle of Timocrates the Heracleot philosopher. But Avitus, the then governor of Bithynia and Pontus, restrained me, I may almost say with prayers and entreaties. He could not possibly spoil his relations with Rutilianus, he said, by punishing the man, even if he could get clear evidence against him. Thus arrested in my course, I did not persist in what must have been, considering the disposition of the judge, a fruitless prosecution.

[58] Among instances of Alexander’s presumption, a high place must be given to his petition to the Emperor: the name of Abonutichus was to be changed to Ionopolis; and a new coin was to be struck, with a representation on the obverse of Glycon, and, on the reverse, Alexander bearing the garlands proper to his paternal grandfather Asclepius, and the famous scimetar of his maternal ancestor Perseus.

[59] He had stated in an oracle that he was destined to live to a hundred and fifty, and then die by a thunderbolt. He had in fact, before he reached seventy, an end very sad for a son of Podalirius, his leg mortifying from foot to groin and being eaten of worms. It then proved that he was bald, as he was forced by pain to let the doctors make cooling applications to his head, which they could not do without removing his wig.

[60] So ended Alexander’s heroics. Such was the catastrophe of his tragedy; one would like to find a special providence in it, though doubtless chance must have the credit. The funeral celebration was to be worthy of his life, taking the form of a contest—for possession of the oracle. The most prominent of the impostors his accomplices referred it to Rutilianus’s arbitration which of them should be selected to succeed to the prophetic office and wear the hierophantic oracular garland. Among these was numbered the grey-haired physician Paetus, dishonoring equally his grey hairs and his profession. But Steward-of-the-Games Rutilianus sent them about their business ungarlanded, and continued the defunct in possession of his holy office.

[61] My object, dear friend, in making this small selection from a great mass of material has been twofold. First, I was willing to oblige a friend and comrade who is for me the pattern of wisdom, sincerity, good humor, justice, tranquillity, and geniality. But secondly I was still more concerned (a preference which you will be very far from resenting) to strike a blow for Epicurus, that great man whose holiness and divinity of nature were not shams, who alone had and imparted true insight into the good, and who brought deliverance to all that consorted with him. Yet I think casual readers too may find my essay not unserviceable, since it is not only destructive, but, for men of sense, constructive also.

Further Reading:
Swinish Herds and Pastafarians: Comedy as an Ideological Weapon

Self-Guided Study Curriculum

Epicurean philosophy is the only secular-humanist missionary philosophy that was born in Hellenistic Greece. It is also, among the old philosophical systems, the one that most continues to be of relevance. The corpus of our wisdom tradition is divided into three parts: Canon (its epistemology, or how to think about nature), Physics (the nature of things), and Ethics (the art of living).

The following is intended as a long-term, self-guided curriculum for people wanting to study Epicurean philosophy on their own and at their own pace. For additional support and resources, we advise students to join the Epicurean Philosophy facebook group and to raise questions about any of the reading material covered.

Book: Tending the Epicurean Garden

Essay: Six Things I Learned After Writing Tending the Garden  

Further ReadingElemental Epicureanism (read at the very least the Intro and Canonics) or the Foundations of Epicurean Philosophy video / presentation

Canon: the Standard of Truth

The ancient atomists were reacting against the Skeptics, a school founded by Pyrrho, when they stated that it is possible to have certainty and clear knowledge about nature by means of certain checks and balances–while the Pyrronists believed that certainty was impossible to obtain, and also that it was not desirable. In that sense the atomists were dogmatic: they understood that certainty was possible and desirable.

But if certainty is possible, there must be a standard for firmly establishing something as real. Hence the Canon–the standard of reality and an early precursor to the scientific method, which educates us on the primacy of the senses and of our natural faculties as judges of what is and is not true. This Canon includes: the five senses, the pleasure/aversion faculty, and anticipations.

Book: The Tripod of Truth: An Introduction to the Book That Fell From The Heavens, by Cassius Amicus

The Canon has two important effects: first, to establish nature as the standard and ultimate authority, rather than abstractions invented by mortals; second, to help us emancipate ourselves from traditional and arbitrary authorities, which helps explain how women and slaves could be treated as intellectual equals in the ancient Gardens or schools of Epicurus–this kind of equality was very rare in ancient Greece. They did not need priests, mediators, or experts in logic. They believed that each person can independently philosophize and be an arbiter of reality and of their ethical choices by using their nature-given faculties and always basing their views, choices and avoidances on the study of nature.

VideoAgainst the men of the crowdAbridged version; this essay is included in Elemental Epicureanism. It may be somewhat repetitive, but by reading it we can understand the Epicurean emphasis on the importance of having a tangible standard of verification.

Physics: The Nature of Things

The philosophy of existence, or in what way things exist, is called ontology. Atomists accept a scientific understanding of the nature of things, and because we accept that things are material, our ontology is Physics, which studies material bodies, and chemistry, which studies the interactions between different bodies. In the writings of Epicurus (as seen in his Epistle to Herodotus), we see that bodies have primary (their own) and secondary (relational) properties.

But modern ideas have ancient roots. Early pre-atomist philosophers speculated non-empirically that everything in the cosmos was made of a primal substance (or several). Some said it was water, other said fire. Anaximander said they were the four known “elements”.

The proto-Platonist Parmenides (515-440 BCE) postulated, again without attempting to reconcile his doctrines with the evidence of nature, that change does not exist, that everything is the same thing (ho Pan, “the whole”), and that our senses deceive us. However, when we see the evidence that nature presents to our faculties, we see the enormous diversity of things (not a single substance that can be called “the whole”), and we also see that there is constant change.

Zeno of Elea was known for his paradoxes, one of which postulated that, if we cut things progressively, we would get smaller and smaller particles to infinity and that this process would never end. This paradox was one of the inspirations for atomism. The word atom means “uncuttable” or “indivisible”.

The first atomists–Leucippus and Democrates–were attempting to prove Parmenides, Zeno, and the others wrong. They tried to reconcile all these cosmological models with the evidence in nature.

Some of the arguments of these early atomists are written in the Epistle to Herodotus. In response to the paradox of Zeno, they thought that if the particles could be cut to infinity, that would mean that all objects would have an infinite number of atoms. And we know that this is not the case because an object with infinite number of atoms would be of infinite size, and that is not what we see. Therefore, there must be a limited amount of atoms in each thing, and therefore there must be a point at which the particles are so small that they are no longer divisible: the a-tom (“in-divisible”).

Then, in considering the error of Parmenides, who denied the existence of change and movement claiming that “the whole” is the same always everywhere, they considered that there had to be empty space (not filled by “the whole”) between the particles because if there was no empty space, there could be no movement and change, which when we observe nature, we see that they obviously exist. Realizing that there must be space between these primordial particles–otherwise there would be no space to move, no sponges could fill with particles of water, nor would we observe things with greater and lesser density and weight–they concluded that in the cosmos, the two primal things must be atoms and void.

Things can either exist or not exist, and to exist is to be made up of atoms. Let’s put it in Shakespearean terms: “To be or not to be”. To be is to exist as particles, and not to be is to exist as void between the particles. Anything that exists, must root its existence in the dynamics between particles and void, or as relational or emergent properties of bodies which, as they increase in size and interact and form systems with each other, gain greater complexity.

Note: Today it is understood that the atom is divisible and modern Physics calls particles (eg, quartz, etc.) what the ancient Greeks called “atoms”. We must always consider this when translating from Greek, however if we put vocabulary aside, the basics of the classical theory are still valid: it is impossible to divide matter beyond a certain point.

In reading the Epistle to Herodotus we learn that the theories of the ancient atomists and their cosmology model include a fascinating doctrine of innumerable planets, some similar and others different from our own, some without life but others with life both similar and different from the one we see on Earth. This is a function of the infinity of atoms and emptiness in all directions, combined with a limited number of possible combinations of particles according to the laws of nature which are the same everywhere, so necessarily there must be infinite repetitions in every direction of the same phenomena that we see in our part of the cosmos. Ancient atomists speculated often about extraterrestrial life, and the Epicurean comedian Lucian wrote the comedy True Story, which is believed to be the first historical example of the genre of science fiction (although it also falls within the genre of fantasy).

*Essential Book*Letter to Herodotus, Elemental Edition / or watch a video of it. This constitutes “the smaller Epitome” which every beginner in Epicurean philosophy must study before moving on to more advanced material.

The Canon was invented by Nausiphanes, who was a student of Democritus and the teacher of Epicurus. However, Epicurus revolted against the determinist and mechanistic doctrine of his predecessors, as he believed in free will, and this revolt made it possible for Epicurus to become a moral reformer and to add an ethical component to the atomist teaching: a science of happiness and of morality. Epicurus saw that we are not mere robots, that there seems to be a natural impulse that allows for human freedom. He proposed that there must be some element of chaos in the particles, and theorized that there must be a swerve, a movement that happens at random. This element of chaos and chance may translate into what’s known as either Brownian motion, or–more likely–the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, in modern physics.

Ethics: the Art of Living

Blog: The Punctured Jar Parable

You are probably beginning to see the coherence of the Epicurean system: from the Canon, we get the Physics; and from the Canon and Physics, we get the Ethics. The Epicurean understanding of reality has many practical implications. It implies that it is not wise to fear or appease the gods, who intervene in nothing, since all things follow natural laws. It provides sober therapeutic treatment for the fear of death based on the Physics. More importantly, it implies that we only have one life and, if this insight is taken seriously, it gives us an urgency to make plans and to live pleasantly, to take advantage of the single, non-renewable time we have under the sun. The work of being happy is of supreme importance. The doctrine that says that it is in our nature to seek pleasure and to avoid pain is called hedonism. We inherited this doctrine from the intellectuals of the Libyan city of Cyrene, which has been called by Michel Onfray “a philosophical Atlantis”.

Cyrenaic Reasonings (a summary and commentary on the book by Kurt Lampe titled The Birth of Hedonism)

Ancient Writing: Epistle to Menoeceus (or watch video) 

Herculanean Scroll: Philodemus On Death

Essay: Epicurus’ Four Cures 

But what is happiness? What can we know empirically about happiness? And why do the Epicureans insist on establishing pleasure, and not “virtue” (or “happiness”) as the end? For the Epicureans, all Platonization of natural phenomena is a kind of alienation. Unlike (sometimes obscure) abstractions like “Virtue”, pain and pleasure are concrete and real, observable in nature, and are perceived and experienced directly by the sentient being. In that sense, they are not Platonic, but natural. They are instincts, they are natural and emerge from the body and its faculties. The faculty of pleasure and aversion is not an arbitrary dogma of an academic philosopher, but the guidance that nature itself gives us. If we look at newborn babies, or puppies or kitties, we will observe that they shun pain and seek pleasure.

Learn about the Stoic-Epicurean controversy by reading Chapter 3 of A Few Days in Athens (Review here)

Essays: On Epicurean Virtue and Dialogue on Virtue

Ancient Writing: Cicero’s De Finibus–According to New Epicurean, this is the clearest discourse about why virtue is not the end, and why the virtues should be seen as means for a pleasurable life. This is THE MAIN CONTROVERSY in the many disputes between Epicureans and other schools, especially the Stoics.

The faculty of aversion-pleasure is part of the Canon, so it is understood that through it, nature guides us in our choices and avoidances, as this is the main component of our moral faculty. In establishing pleasure as an end, it is important to understand that it is not a particular activity but a natural faculty, and therefore the definition of a pleasurable life is broad, diverse and individualized. Neither is it a Platonic abstraction, but concrete activities and natural states of mind. The science of happiness has demonstrated that there is something called “hedonic adaptation”: once a person gets used to the pleasure of an activity, she does not enjoy it as much. Failure to understand this phenomenon of adaptation leads to addictions, disenchantment, and other problems. In ancient Epicurean writings, this subject is covered as the need to understand the natural limits of our pleasures and desires. “Pleasant abiding” regardless of our objects of desire, for many, requires training and cultivation of our attention.

That is why Epicurean ethics teaches that we must develop a hedonic regimen, a menu of diverse and varied pleasures, and that we must take on the training to learn to experience constant pleasures, both dynamic and passive. This is done through philosophical practices such as daily cultivation of a spirit of gratitude, frequent association with our wholesome friends, repetition and memorization of teachings, self-reliance projects that protect us from long-term fears and insecurities, Cyrenaic adaptability that helps us to put less faith in our ability to control what happens in the future than in our ability to adapt to it, and other Epicurean practices.

Educational Videos; Gregory Sadler “Core Concepts” Series on Friendship, Mental and Bodily Pleasures, on Desires, on Pleasure, Prudence and Justice, on Utility of Justice, and on Pain and Pleasure

Shakers & Doers Podcast: On Happiness, Epicurus and Changing Your Mindset 

A Counter-History of Philosophy

Biography and History: Diogenes Laertius, Chapter 10: Epicurus (Perseus, Epicurus.net)

Video: A Gigantic Jigsaw Puzzle: The Epicurean Inscription of Diogenes of Oinoanda

Sometimes those of us who learn to love this philosophy acquire a sense of our place within its history. It is impossible to avoid noting that Platonism has been from the beginning the intellectual arch-enemy of our school, and in fact Epicurus and his great friend Hermarchus were expelled from Mytilene by the Platonists. This event is symbolic of the historical opposition between theologians and naturalistic philosophers, between the idealists and the materialists.

Academic philosophy has typically focused on Platonism and Aristotelianism, even though the scientific description of the universe has again and again confirmed the theories of the materialists. That is why modern intellectuals such as Michel Onfray have called for an alternative narrative: a counter-history of philosophy “spoken from the perspective of the friends of Epicurus and enemies of Plato”.

Lucretius in his book On the Nature of Things is a forerunner of this. In his epic poem, he shares anthropology-based origin stories by which he means to dismantle the mythical, non-empirical world-view of his predecessors. Philodemus of Gadara, in his scroll On Frank Criticism, explains that the philosopher must apply two forms of frank criticism (public and private) in order to help improve collective and personal moral character. In the arsenal of rhetorical tools that the Epicureans have historically used for this, we find the use of comedy and suavity.

Another tool we use to honor our own narrative is the monthly celebration of a feast of reason, where delicacies are shared and philosophy is studied the twentieth of every month. This tradition was established by Epicurus in his Final Testament, and is the reason why ancient Epicureans were known as eikadastai (the twentiers, or “the people of the twentieth”).

Essay: Swinish Herds and Pastafarians: Comedy as an Ideological Weapon

Book: Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura

 

The Taoist Hedonism of Yang Chu

What the mind likes is to be at peace; and its not being permitted rest I call obstruction of the mind’s nature. – Yang Chu, The Art of Life

Yang Chu replied: “According to the laws of nature there is no such thing as immortality.” – Yang Chu, The Folly of Desire for Long Life

In the past, I’ve shared a blog series titled Contemplations on Tao. In reality, the blog was based on the Tao Te Ching, and although TTC is solid ground to consider Taoism, the tradition is much more rich and diverse than merely that single book. Also, as I wrote the series, it seemed to me like there was a stronger connection between Epicurean philosophy and Taoism than most people recognized–particularly when considered against the backdrop of the “philosophies of the polis”, Confucianism, Stoicism, Platonism, etc. Tao and Epicurus trust nature, whereas these other ways felt forced, unnatural.

One of the most divergent thinkers in Taoist philosophy was a contemporary of Epicurus known as Yang Chu (sometimes spelled Zhu), a hedonist and highly individualistic philosopher–perhaps too much, for traditional Chinese society–who drew his views from naturalism and from his understanding of human nature. He proposed an individualist alternative to the ethics of the Mohists (universalists) and Confucians (who stressed social order). Yang Chu is the connection to Tao I was looking for. Not only that: he constitutes an untapped literary source from which we can study “Epicurean” philosophy with a fresh perspective, with its own anecdotes, parables, and wise, Yoda-like-sounding aphorisms.

In addition to giving us as legacy a treasure trove of Taoist literature, Yang Chu is alone among the ancient sages of China in calling pleasure the end of life, and also–like his Greek counterparts–he acknowledges the natural limits of desires and pleasures in his chapter on the Brevity of Conscious Life. According to EB:

Yang felt that human beings should live pleasurably, which for him implied a life in which both selfish inaction and selfless intervention in human affairs would be contrary extremes; instead, one should lead a natural life by cultivating and following one’s innate natural tendencies.

Although these teachings may seem out of place in Taoism according to some, in reality the teaching on these two extremes reminds us of our Taoist essays on military advise and on laissez faire: his thought is rooted in Tao, and in the view that we do not need to intervene in nature for it to run its course either via self-sacrifice or via selfish inaction (or withdrawal). It is in our nature to intervene when needed, and to take care of our own priorities when prudent. A similar logic is applied to the five senses: their obstruction is seen as going against nature and against Tao.

IEP summarizes the seventh chapter of Liezi, which is believed to have been authored by him, this way:

… It espouses a hedonistic philosophy: Life is short; Live for pleasure alone; Don’t waste time cultivating virtues.

The seventh chapter of the Lieh Tzu–a lesser-known source for Taoism than the Tao Te Ching–underwent a 1912 English translation by Anton Forke, who titled it Yang Chu’s Garden of Pleasure, and divided it into 19 short chapters. Some of the themes mirror Epicurean teachings to the point of being near-identical parallel doctrines. One example is in their joint rejection of fame and of traditional virtue as taught by other schools. The following passage reminds us of Polystratus’ indictment of blind pursuit of virtue without the study of nature.

CHAPTER V: FALSE VIRTUES

YANG CHU said: Po Yi was not without desire, for being too proud of his purity of mind, he was led to death by starvation. Chan-Chi was not passionless, for being too proud of his virtue he happened to reduce his family. Those who in pursuit of purity and virtue do good in a false way resemble these men.

As did the ancient Cyrenaics, Yang Chu’s philosophizing took the body as the starting point. For instance, Yang Chu articulates a defense of non-violence as an ethical principle and a rejection of brute force, argued from the perspective of human nature (chapter 16): since humans lack fangs, claws, and other natural defenses, man therefore must live by his wisdom. We find here a Taoist-libertarian theory of non-aggression (whose political, societal, and practical repercussions are many) rooted in the study of nature. Although the body is at the root of Chu’s intellectual life, the end result still constitutes an embodied and practical wisdom and philosophy that goes well beyond merely entertaining the seductions of the senses, which is how hedonists are typically stereotyped.

We also find a passage somewhat reminiscent of Jesus’ Gospels when the philosopher is arguing that we must not treat the dead as we do the living, which was a common superstition of his day.

CHAPTER VII: DUTY TO THE LIVING AND THE DEAD

So we may give the feverish rest, satiety to the hungry, warmth to the cold, and assistance to the miserable; but for the dead, when we have rightly bewailed them, to what use is it to place pearls and jewels in their mouths, or to dress them in state robes, or offer animals in sacrifice, or to expose effigies of paper?

In another chapter, we find a clash between a so-called “virtuous” king and his two pleasure-seeking brothers, who tell him:

CHAPTER IX: THE HAPPY VOLUPTUARIES

It is very difficult to preserve life, and easy to come by one’s death. Yet who would think of awaiting death, which comes so easily, on account of the difficulty of preserving life? You value proper conduct and righteousness in order to excel before others, and you do violence to your feelings and nature in striving for glory. That to us appears to be worse than death.

… See now. If anybody knows how to regulate external things, the things do not of necessity become regulated, and his body has still to toil and labour. But if anybody knows how to regulate internals, the things go on all right, and the mind obtains peace and rest.

The last paragraph resonates with the 20th Principal Doctrine of Epicurus. They seem to be arguing before their brother, the king, that it is best to stay away from political life, and that by fulfilling so many duties and virtues and expectations from others, these externalities rob us of happiness and compete against our true nature. At the end of the chapter, the king has gone to a sage to ask for guidance concerning his brothers, who are leading lives of indulgence. Here’s the verdict:

Teng-hsi said: “You are living together with real men without knowing it. Who calls you wise? Cheng has been governed by chance, and without merit of yours.”

In this passage, we see also a proto-Nietzschean repudiation of artificial, man-made morality–here, not merely as a reaction against the repression of nature that the dominant philosophy imposes on us, but positively in favor of the Taoist virtue of ziran, naturalness and authenticity. This acting in accordance to nature is the main platform from which Yang Chu philosophizes.

If Cyrene is, as Michel Onfray argues, a philosophical Atlantis, then perhaps Yang Chu’s city of Liang is a philosophical Shangri-La and, just like with the Cyrenaics, his long-dismissed school of Taoist thought deserves a second look.

Further Reading:

Yang Chu’s Garden of Pleasure: 7th Chapter of Lieh Tzu

Contemplations on Tao