Author Archives: Hiram

About Hiram

Hiram is an author from the north side of Chicago who has written for The Humanist, Occupy, Infidels, Ateistas de Puerto Rico, El Nuevo Dia, and other publications. His book Tending the Epicurean Garden (Humanist Press, 2014) is a contemporary and interdisciplinary introduction to Epicureanism. He earned a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies from NEIU.

Vatican Sayings – Brief Study Guide

Someday I dream we will have an online source for all the literary works in Epicurean philosophy, all in one place and searchable, with study guides, in various languages and with various translations available for comparison for the benefit of students of Epicurean Philosophy everywhere. I think of websites like Bible Gateway and some of the online Qur’an and Bhagavad Gita translation sites available online, where students can search for a subject or word, or systematically read and study a particular chapter. I envision this Epicurean site as including the entire ancient Epitome (the works of the founders), Elemental Epicureanism, On the Nature of Things, all the works by Philodemus, Diogenes’ Wall, Diogenes Laertius, and even A Few Days in AthensPerhaps it should even include some of Lucian’s worksAll of these works are worthy of careful study by sincere students of Epicurus, and have also accumulated a growing body of commentary by devoted readers that deserves to be preserved and built on. 

In the meantime, New Epicurean has been creating audio file on many subjects, and here’s a brief thematic study guide for the Vatican Sayings for beginners. As more study material becomes available, please stay appraised by joining our online forum and community at Epicurean Friends.com!

ON HAPPINESS

14. We have been born once and cannot be born a second time; for all eternity we shall no longer exist. But you, although you are not in control of tomorrow, are postponing your happiness. Life is wasted by delaying, and each one of us dies without enjoying leisure.

IN CELEBRATION OF WISDOM

27. The benefits of other activities come only to those who have already become, with great difficulty, complete masters of such pursuits, but in the study of philosophy pleasure accompanies growing knowledge; for pleasure does not follow learning; rather, learning and pleasure advance side by side.

32. The honor paid to a wise man is itself a great good for those who honor him.

36. Epicurus’s life when compared to that of other men with respect to gentleness and self-sufficiency might be thought a mere legend.

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

54. It is not the pretense but the real pursuit of philosophy that is needed; for we do not need the semblance of health but rather true health.

78. The noble man is chiefly concerned with wisdom and friendship; of these, the former is a mortal good, the latter an immortal one.

ON AUTARCHY

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

35. Don’t spoil what you have by desiring what you don’t have; but remember that what you now have was once among the things only hoped for.

71. Question each of your desires: “What will happen to me if that which this desire seeks is achieved, and what if it is not?”

67. Since the attainment of great wealth can scarcely be accomplished without slavery to crowds or to politicians, a free life cannot obtain much wealth; but such a life already possesses everything in unfailing supply. Should such a life happen to achieve great wealth, this too it can share so as to gain the good will of one’s neighbors.

68. Nothing is enough to someone for whom what is enough is little.

77. Freedom is the greatest fruit of self-sufficiency.

ON DEATH

31. It is possible to provide security against other things, but as far as death is concerned, we men all live in a city without walls.

ON FRIENDSHIP

34. We do not so much need the assistance of our friends as we do the confidence of their assistance in need.

61. Most beautiful is the sight of those close to us, when our original contact makes us of one mind or produces a great incitement to this end.

66. We show our feeling for our friends’ suffering, not with laments, but with thoughtful concern.

ON WHOLESOME CHARACTER

46. Let us completely rid ourselves of our bad habits as if they were evil men who have done us long and grievous harm.

53. We must envy no one; for the good do not deserve envy and as for the bad, the more they prosper, the more they ruin it for themselves.

79. He who is calm disturbs neither himself nor another.

69. The thankless nature of the soul makes the creature endlessly greedy for variations in its lifestyle.

EPICUREAN ATTITUDE TOWARDS FATE

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

65. It is pointless for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to obtain by himself.

ON CONSOLATION

55. We should find solace for misfortune in the happy memory of what has been and in the knowledge that what has been cannot be undone.

Swinish Herds and Pastafarians: Comedy as an Ideological Weapon

The following piece was originally written for classics publication Eidolon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura VI.402–403

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:
Lucian: Selected Dialogues (Oxford World’s Classics)

Happy Herculaneum Day!

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

First Principle of Autarchy

Second Principle of Autarchy

Fourth Principle of Autarchy

Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Principles of Autarchy

*

First Principle of Piety

Second, Third and Fourth Principles of Piety

FIfth, Sixth, and Seventh Principle of Piety

A Transcendental Epicureanism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

Cosmos (in French) by Michel Onfray

The Evolution of Law in Epicurus and Nietzsche

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines 37-38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiram. According to this source,

Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

A Concrete Self

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FEELINGS AS ARBITERS OF THOUGHT

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

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

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

Read the rest of the review here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiram Crespo
Happy Herculaneum Day
Agosto 24, 2017

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

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

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

Friends of Epicurus
Dialogue on Katastematic Pleasure
February 16, 2018

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

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On the Standard Interpretation of Static Pleasure

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

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

STATIC PLEASURE HAS BOTH EXPERIENTIAL AND ATTITUDINAL COMPONENTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KATASTEMATIC PLEASURE DEPLETED OF FEELING, ACCORDING TO CICERO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXTRINSIC OBJECTS OF PLEASURE

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

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

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

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

FINAL WORDS

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

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

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

Further Reading:

Dialogue on Katastematic Pleasure