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.

The Problem of Ataraxia in Nail

What follows is the first part of my book review of Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion, which is the second part of a trilogy. My review of the first book, Ontology of Motion, is here.

I must first clarify that my review of this book does not imply an endorsement of its ideas or methods. Ethics of Motion is, by its own admission, a deeply anti-Epicurean book. I would not recommend the book to people who are looking to use philosophy–as Epicurus advises–to live pleasantly and to create a happy life.

Prior to addressing the book review, there are some issues related to ataraxia that must be evaluated.

“Epicurus’ fetish of rational thought”?

Nail says that Epicurus is a “rationalist”, an “ascetic”, even an idealist. In page 176, he speaks of Epicurean “rationalism” and “fundamentalism”. In page 94, he argues that Epicurus advocated for a “purely MENTAL state of contemplation”, and in pages 8-9 he says that Lucretius argued against a “static ethics of Epicurean contemplation”–but fails to produce evidence or clear argumentation.

In page 198, he argues against “Epicurus’ fetish of rational thought”, for reason of which he says that Epicurus “lacks a genuine practical ethics” because Epicurus can’t imagine ethics or knowledge without conscious contemplation.

Concerning Epicurean so-called “rationalism”, Norman DeWitt’s book Epicurus & His Philosophy has an entire chapter on Epicurus’ “dethronement of reason” in favor of pleasure. Feeling (pleasure-pain) is a criterion within the Epicurean canon, which is the ultimate authority in Epicurean epistemology. Reason is not in the canon.

Furthermore, Nail argues that Lucretius is against ataraxia (page 3), while Epicurus is contemplative, and claims that the “goal” in Epicurus is not a life of pleasure but to attain ataraxia and “steer clear of dynamic pleasures”. No source is cited. Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus makes it clear that the goal of our choices and avoidances is pleasure–to it we must come back. It is our point of reference. There are no instructions to “steer clear of dynamic pleasures” anywhere in the Epicurean writings: Principal Doctrine 20 says that “the mind does NOT shun pleasure”, and PD 26 says that unnecessary desires generate no pain when neglected and are easily got rid of if they’re difficult to get or likely to produce harm. If they were easy to get and harmless, there would be no objection against them.

He seems to think ataraxia is “idealist” and purely static. Ataraxia means no-perturbations, and it’s a healthy and pleasant feeling. In Diogenes’ Wall, it’s described as dynamic emptying out of the mind from perturbations in order to make way for pleasures:

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.

He also cites portions 83-84 of Laertius to argue that ataraxia is static. When one reads the Laertius portions cited, Epicurus is saying that the study of nature helps us to secure peace of mind.

[83] … those … who are not altogether entitled to rank as mature students can in silent fashion and as quick as thought run over the doctrines most important for their peace of mind.”

[84] … To aid your memory you ask me for a clear and concise statement respecting celestial phenomena; for what we have written on this subject elsewhere is, you tell me, hard to remember, although you have my books constantly with you. I was glad to receive your request and am full of pleasant expectations.

The term “full of pleasant expectations” does not sound static, although this may include pleasures derived from one’s disposition. A person who is full of pleasant expectations concerning a friend with whom he’s studying philosophy is full of desire to reconnect with his student, discuss the material being studied, answer all his questions and engage him in the study of nature. Clearly, Epicurus enjoyed the company of Pythocles–who was not an unquestioning pupil, if we are to judge by the admonitions given by Epicurus concerning Pythocles’ atheism. In addition to the intellectual challenges that an astute student worthy of such a long and personal letter would pose, there were social pleasures that Epicurus was looking forward to.

Pythocles was, to sum it up, Epicurus’ friend. This made their exchange no less than holy. Are the pleasures of having a friend ascetic, purely mental, idealist, or static? I would argue that they are both katastematic and kinetic. They involve the dispositions of gratitude and remembering past pleasures as well as anticipating future ones (as we see in the letter), as well as the pouring of wine, the conversations over meals, the meals themselves, the exchange of letters and the intellectual past-times involved.

Katastematic Pleasure is Soft Motion

For all these reasons, we must carry out a careful study of the meaning of ataraxia and static pleasures before moving forward with the book review. Nail claims that to Lucretius there are only kinetic sensations, whereas it was Epicurus that said nothing static in nature.

The atoms are in a continual state of motion. – Epicurus, Letter to Herodotus

Nail mentions that the gods are motionless, or are only ideas sprung from Epicurus’ mind, but if they are made of atoms, then they can not be motionless just like katastematic (static) pleasures can not be motionless. If they are ideas, then they are motions in the tissue of someone’s brain.

Nail accurately identifies idealism as an error, and he sees materialism as motion, life and reality whereas idealism corresponds to non-motion, death, static non-reality. But then he goes further by saying, in page 61,

“Trying to create stasis will ALWAYS end in empty, unnecessary suffering”.

In my years studying Epicurean philosophy and learning how ethical considerations are always contextual, I’ve learned to avoid categorical statements like this one. Nail reminds me a bit of Glenn Beck when he takes a word, links it to words that sound like it, and runs off into unempirical theories. Stasis sounds like state, and so stasis leads to statism, militarism, wealth disparity, and individualism. All stability equals, to him, authoritarianism.

In page 75, Nail says “there’s no ataraxia for Lucretius”, but Lucretius appears to translate ataraxia as tranquilitas in Latin, a word that he in fact uses. He also says “there’s no ataraxia, or static mind”, but ataraxia and static mind are not the same thing. Epicurus acknowledges that the mind is moving even when we sleep, if we are to judge from the closing words in his Letter to Menoeceus:

… never, either in waking or in dream, will you be disturbed …

In page 119, Nail says “there are no katastematic pleasures because pleasure is fundamentally kinetic like the rest of nature”. And so we’ve seen that, in general, the argument is that all bodies are in constant motion and, therefore, Nail reasons that static pleasures do not exist. But the pleasures of the mind and the static pleasures related to our stable dispositions do exist, are natural, and are therefore types of motion, and distinct from idealism.

What Epicurus Argued Concerning Static Pleasures

According to Diogenes Laertius, the view that only kinetic pleasures exist is a Cyrenaic doctrine, not an Epicurean one. Notice the mention of “freedom from disquietude” (ataraxia, in Greek) and “freedom from pain” (aponia) as categories of “states of pleasure”–by which he meant, FEELINGS.

[Epicurus] differs with the Cyrenaics about pleasure. For they do not admit that pleasure can exist as a state, but place it wholly in motion. He, however, admits both kinds to be pleasure, namely, that of the soul, and that of the body, as he says in his treatise on Choice and Avoidance; and also in his work on the Chief Good; and in the first book of his treatise on Lives, and in his Letter against the Mitylenian Philosophers. And in the same spirit, Diogenes … speaks thus. “But when pleasure is understood, I mean both that which exists in motion, and that which is a state . . . .” And Epicurus, in his treatise on Choice, speaks thus: “Now, freedom from disquietude, and freedom from pain, are states of pleasure; but joy and cheerfulness are beheld in motion and energy.”

For [the Cyrenaics] make out the pains of the body to be worse than those of the mind; accordingly, those who do wrong, are punished in the body. But [Epicurus] considers the pains of the soul the worst; for that the flesh is only sensible to present affliction, but the soul feels the past, the present, and the future. Therefore, in the same manner, he contends that the pleasures of the soul are greater than those of the body.

These arguments are elaborated in Principal Doctrine 20 and by Diogenes of Oenoanda, so I won’t delve into them further, except to note that there is a mind-over-matter logic at play, but that does not constitute a call for asceticism or purely static pleasures. PD 20 states that the (rational) mind, unlike the (unconscious) body, is able to discern the limits of our desires and secure a life of pleasure. Here are some of my final criticisms of the line of thinking taken by Neil and others:

  1. The either/or view of kinetic (dynamic) vs katastematic (abiding, or static) pleasures is, in my view, un-Epicurean. Both those who insist that Epicurus posited only kinetic pleasures and those who insist he called for only katastematic pleasures are in error because Epicurus invited us to constant pleasures. Life involves cycles of labor and rest, and one does not have enough energy and time to constantly enjoy active pleasures, yet Epicurus calls us to constant pleasures, and even promises that we are able to experience constant pleasures at the end of his Letter to Menoeceus.
  2. Epicurus could not have called for an ascetic or contemplative life of only static or mental pleasures because, according to his doctrine, with many kinetic pleasures, nature doesn’t give us a choice. For instance, we do not have a choice to not eat, which is a kinetic pleasure. Therefore, even if we incorporate a science and practice of contemplation into our hedonic regimen to some extent, it’s impossible to live a life of only katastematic, or static/abiding, pleasures.
  3. While it is true (as we see in Nail) that some enemies of Epicurus have used katastematic pleasures to argue against Epicurean doctrines, it is wrong to dismiss them when, as we see in PD 20, stable or attitudinal pleasures are an important part of our ethics and are central to our theory of character development and to the cultivation of stable, habitual pleasure.
  4. We find a focus on dispositions (diathesis) or attitudes in Epicureans like Philodemus (who related them to our good and bad habits) and Diogenes (who argued that we are in control of our dispositions). There seems to have been an ongoing tradition related to how a philosopher of pleasure must cultivate habitual pleasant states. In Philodemus, we learn that these dispositions are supported by true beliefs that are based on nature, while empty beliefs support unwholesome dispositions and bad habits. Epicurus declared war on these bad attitudes in Vatican Saying 46.
  5. Diogenes Laertius cites by name at least four sources by Epicurus (see above), which tells us that Epicurus was emphatic in repeating the doctrine that both kinds of pleasures exist. We may interpret this as his attempt to rectify what he perceived as an error in Cyrenaic doctrine, whereas his own doctrine was meant to help us secure “the best life” (sometimes translated as “the complete life”, see PD 20).
  6. Sentience occurs in two varieties: pains and pleasures. Ataraxia is a pleasant feeling of non-perturbation and satisfaction. It’s not idealist, or ascetic, or merely rational–even if it entails, like all emotions, a cognitive component. It’s a feeling, and it involves movement, even if soft or gentle. Ataraxia is not “static mind” (the mind is never static for as long as we’re alive), and it’s not necessarily contemplative. It means “no perturbations”, and arises when we banish all false beliefs and anxieties.
  7. Vatican Saying 11 teaches that “For most people, to be quiet is to be numb and to be active is to be frenzied.” This seems to be an argument in favor of cultivating both static and active pleasant states, of training ourselves to enjoy both attitudinal and dynamic pleasures.

Further Reading:

Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion

Epicurus & His Philosophy (Minnesota Archive Editions)

Dialogues on Matter in Motion – Part II

This is the follow up to Dialogues on Matter in Motion – Part I

My copy of the book An Ethics of Motion has just arrived. I will eventually be posting a book review, but in the meantime I discovered the Latin course on Duolingo–which will hopefully help me whenever I need to refer back to De Rerum Natura in its original language–and have been learning Latin there. I’m a big fan of both Duolingo and Amikumu. Duolingo is a language-learning app that makes the learning process feel like a game, and one advances and learns quickly.

Follow-up to initial Dialogue on Matter in Motion

Nate. My first reaction is that Nail is arguing a popular notion against atomism that borders on what I call ‘quantum mysticism’. Martin has provided good analyses of this. Essentially, the suggestion that ‘atoms and void are dependent on [something else]’ is construed to mean ‘therefore, atoms and void do not really exist’ is flawed. Like you said in your response, we literally have pictures of atoms. That’s worth a hell of a lot. And fundamentally, if that picture is considered less valuable ‘evidence’ than some abstract notion of quantum foam, or string theory, then we’ve moved outside of the realm of practical philosophy, and wisdom, and have moved into the territory of theoretical obsession.

Doug. My general take is that evaluating Hellenistic philosophies based on the details of their physics is not useful. Obviously we’ve learned a lot since then. What’s important is to evaluate them on their approach to physics and the influence their physics has on their ethics. It is ethics that are of most concern with regard to modernizing the Hellenistic philosophies. So (while) Epicurus was wrong in detail about atoms, his overall approach looks awfully reasonable when it is compared with that of Stoicism.

Jason. I don’t get the desire to throw away particles and void. How can you have flow without a thing to flow and a void to flow into? All motion of particles are relative to all other particles and without space within which to move there can be no movement. I detect a desire for freedom to break out of physical paradigms.

Hiram. “A desire for freedom to break out of physical paradigms” … Can you elaborate?

Jason. Some people see physics as too restrictive to their flourishing. They don’t want to study it closely because they’re afraid of determinism (I think) or at very least feeling like their options are limited. By leaving things open, they are blissful in their ignorance, not understanding that studying nature removes fear of the unknown. They seem to get a thrill out of the limitless possibilities of dispensing with easily understood physics. They’re akin to the folks who misuse “quantum” in order to peddle woo, like Deepak Chopra and his ilk.

Alex. Why are caring what Nail says?

Hiram. Well, Nail’s book is selling very well and like The Swerve a few years ago, will likely bring new students to EP. A discussion of his book will help us examine the arguments.

Alex. Flows can refer to beams of light (images), flowing gases (i.e. air), flowing liquids (i.e. water), and also flows of solids through gases and liquids. Fields usually refer to forces and potential energy of a body that stays still while stuff (even light) flows around it. In that model, particles and bodies emit/absorb fields (images).

Flows are not uncuttable. Flows can be cut in space and cut in time. The word atom is problematic today. I prefer elementary particle. Composite particle. Body.

A stream of photons (image particles) is not a body in the usual sense. The photons are not bound to each other. They’re just correlated with the surface of the body that emitted them.

Re: “classical model” vs “standard model”, they mean almost the opposite of each other: Classical physics is a set of Deterministic models. Standard model is a quantum model (indeterminacy [swerve]). There comes a point where people just need to accept the facts of the indeterminacy and uncertainty. The swerve is real.

Hiram. I’ve always associated quantum with quantities or with a mathematical model, because in my mind “cuanto” in Spanish means “how much”.

Alex. Yes quantum does mean discrete too. That only the integers are needed. … -3, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 3

integer.
1.a whole number; a number that is not a fraction.
“integer values”
2.a thing complete in itself.

But it also means non-classical, non-determinisitic. Quantum tunneling is real. Even for an elementary particle. No particle can be isolated from the rest of the Universe. And since it cannot be isolated, it will be impacted by images. And those add up, and the particle swerves.

Flow of particles is not the same as an elementary particle.

Hiram. Yes, I’ve also always through that since there is void in all directions, that yielding property of void also may cause motion? Because we always see that particles tend to move wherever there is less density (for instance, in models related to the weather whenever there’s low pressure systems).

Alex. It’s counter to Epicureanism to say that the void has any properties.

Hiram. Thanks for correcting me. What do we call then the yielding motion that the void seems to generate, if not “a property” of emptiness?

Alex. I don’t know what you mean by “yielding motion that the void seems to generate. Is that Epicurean?

Jason. Motion is a property of particles, relative to others. It’s not a property of void. Void is no-thing. It has no properties. No! It’s is not Epicurean.

Alex. The void allows motion and motion transfer

Jason. Yielding can only be done by particles. Void is no-thing, it doesn’t yield, it is merely space-time.

Alex. The void allows images to impart motion on non-image particles/bodies. Yielding? As in slowing down? The void doesn’t do anything. Particles are located in spacetime.

Hiram. Thanks for clarifying. I think you would have been a better person to write a review of Ontology of motion than I, since you know your physics so much better. I wonder how many people will probably come to the study of Epicurean philosophy after reading his book.

Alex. If there are things there will always be motion.

Living Pleasantly in Times of Coronavirus

The World Health Organization has officially declared coronavirus a global pandemic, and new routines are slowly creeping into workplaces and homes. Now one has to use disinfectant wipes when one presses the button in the elevator, or uses a fax machine or copier.

Coronavirus mortality rate is currently 3%. If today’s world population is estimated at 7,577,130,400 people, then the highest possible amount of deaths by coronavirus is 227,313,912. That’s almost 70 % of the US population. Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday that the coronavirus was likely to infect about two-thirds of the German population, which is made up of 81.41 million people. Two thirds of that is 53,730,600, and a 3% mortality rate means that 1,611,918 Germans would die. This is a serious plague, even with its low mortality rate.

Plagues that kill a large proportion of the population happen every few generations, and became the stuff of myth and legend in many cultures. While during the present health crisis, many religious movements will act out their end-time fantasies and some will engage in eschatological activism, actively celebrating and pursuing their demented ideas about how the world should end, those of us who do not suffer from end-time fever will seek more prudent things to do with our time.

Pleasure ethics proponents like Aristippus teach that we should be adaptable and flexible, seeing in every situation opportunities for pleasure. Thinking like an Epicurean about the changes in lifestyle posed by coronavirus should lead us to build our pleasure regimen around the restrictions imposed by a pandemic.

We have reason to be germophobic these days. One of the easiest lifestyle changes we can implement is to be mindful of our personal space. Coronavirus transmits within about six feet (according to the CDC), so this is the recommended distance with strangers, say, on the train–if possible.

We should wash our hands frequently with anti-bacterial soap, and have anti-bacterial wipes handy. We should avoid touching our faces frequently, and avoid touching surfaces that are touched by many others, and we should use disinfected wipes to handle door knobs, elevator buttons, etc.

We do not have to wear facemasks unless we are caregivers to patients. Facemasks are in short supply, and should be reserved for those in close contact with patients. However, while riding the train, I’ve noticed that some people are using their scarves as both fashion and facemask.

The Pleasures of Nesting

Since in these times we must avoid crowds (no hospitals, no cruisers, no concerts, no sports events if at all possible), we should focus on the pleasures of privacy and make of our home a refuge of tranquil pleasure. These are times to make the most of the intimate pleasures. We may read or write in our journal, or engage in other private pleasures and hobbies that we at other times find easy excuses to dismiss for being too idle.

We may watch movies at home (or binge-watch a series or our favorite shows) alone or–better yet– with loved ones or friends, and cook and eat at home.

The Pleasures of Hygiene

The Goddess Hygeia is the personification of health, and her name shares semantic roots with the word hygiene. There has always existed an association between dis-ease and impurity, and between health and purity or cleanliness. Since purity/cleanliness has acquired increased importance now that we’re experiencing a global pandemic, we should take some time to focus on activities related to hygiene.

We should daily keep all the surfaces of our homes and work environments clean with disinfectants. I like to play lively music at home when I’m mopping and cleaning so that the activity is much more enjoyable. I also enjoy my bubble baths, but we can built our lifestyles around other hygiene rituals.

The Pleasures of Ataraxia

The most important and steady pleasure we should cultivate is keeping a pleasant disposition–of which we are in control–in spite of what we see in the news. We do not need to avoid the news, although it’s frequently useful to diminish our consumption of news media for the sake of peace of mind.

It is imprudent to panic. Death is nothing to us, so we should be concerned with the quality of our lives and the lives of those we love, for as long as we live.

Further Reading:

Learning from Lucretius in Times of Coronavirus

The Epicurean Doctrines on Wealth

At one and the same time we must philosophize, laugh, and manage our household and other business, while never ceasing to proclaim the words of true philosophy. – Vatican Saying 41

According to VS 41, the founders believed that economics is an important component of how Epicureans philosophize. Also, according to Philodemus:

We believe that the tranquil administration of one’s property does not require great subtlety and that wealth is superior to poverty. At the same time we believe that it’s necessary to hand down a tradition of the most general principles and to outline many details in the treatises concerning the care and preservation of possessions.

This means that ancient Epicureans were not only writing down outlines or epitomes of the doctrines on physics and on ethics, but also about economics. When we discuss economics here, we must not assume that the ancient Epicureans referred to what in modern English is referred to as macro-economics (monetary policy, etc.), but micro-economics (household management and business management). Again:

If someone reproaches us because we write about economy, that would be enough for us, together with Epicurus and Metrodorus, who give advice and exhortations on household management in a particularly accurate way, albeit with minimal details. – Philodemus, On Vices and Virtues

This means that these doctrines were handed down by the founders. The word used in these quotes was oikonomias (usually translated as household management). There’s also a Philodeman scroll that bears this name. This is from my commentary on Peri Oikonomias (translated as On the Art of Property Management):

Philodemus makes frequent appeals to the authority of Metrodorus, one of the founders of the School, who promoted the idea that hedonic calculus must be employed in the management of one’s household and economic affairs, making the point time and again that we must run certain risks and go through certain inconveniences in order to avoid greater ruin and gain greater advantages.

He disagreed with the destitute life of the Cynics, and appears to have made this point while arguing against them and in favor of a doctrine of the natural measure of wealth. This corresponds to that which is needed to secure the natural and necessary pleasures, and to have the confident expectation that we will be able to secure them in the future.

While many modern Epicureans are following the founders’ advice to write outlines of the doctrines concerning the physics and ethics, the study of Epicurean economics has been mostly neglected. My attempts to create an outline of the economics when I initially read Peri Oikonomias yielded “Seven Principles of Autarchy” (or, self-sufficiency) at the conclusion of my discussion of the scroll, and last year I dedicated my blog’s content at the evaluation of various aspects of the economics.

One other difficulty with dealing with these doctrines has to do with resistance from Epicureans who are critical of what they see as the so-called “minimalist interpretation”, but who do not seem to be critical of the limitless desires, consumerism, and other problems related to not being able to recognize the upper limit of the natural measure of wealth. This probably has to do with the influence of Ayn Rand and other neoliberal philosophers on many who come to the study of Epicurus, and who attempt to inject Randian conceptions of ambition and greed into Epicureanism–where they clearly do not belong, since Epicurus wanted his followers to have a mind that is content, satisfied, grateful, and capable of understanding how much is enough. For this reason, it is important to clearly understand what the original doctrines on economics were, so as to not be swayed by modern revisionism in either direction (towards extreme greed, or towards extreme minimalism).

Metrodorus Against the Cynics

As we saw above, these doctrines were in part inspired in a rejection of the destitute life of the cynics. We know from Diogenes Laertius’ biography that Epicurus also rejected the Cynic practice of begging daily because this is a wretched way of life and involves much toil and suffering (DL 10.119), and said that the sage would not be a mendicant and would “regard to his property and to his future” (DL 10.8). But Metrodorus may have taken issue with more than the Cynics’ full rejection of wealth. Cynics were known for living like dogs, in utter poverty, sleeping on the streets, not practicing hygiene, and having sex in public. The health and social problems associated with lack of hygiene and a life of squalor raise issues when we carry out hedonic calculus.

Epicurean literary tradition has one scene that shows what the exchanges between the Cynics and the Epicureans may have been like. Chapter Four of A Few Days in Athens depicts a visit made by Gryphus, who is described as a “pale, dirty, hairy cynic” whose tunic was torn, to the Garden.

Gryphus, short, square, and muscular; his tunic of the coarsest and not the cleanest woollen, in some places worn threadbare, and with one open rent of considerable magnitude, that proved the skin to be as well engrained as its covering : his girdle, a rope: his cloak, or rather rag, had the appearance of a sail taken from the wreck of an old trader: his feet bare, and thickly powdered with dust: of his face, little more might be distinguished than the nose; the lower part being obscured by a bushy and wide-spreading beard, and the upper, by a profusion of long, tangled, and grisly hair.

The chapter is meant to have comedic value, but there is of course educational value in it also.

The Natural Measure of Wealth

In arguing against the destitute life of the Cynics, the co-founder of Epicureanism Metrodorus taught the doctrine of the natural measure of wealth. What does this consist of?

The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity. – Principal Doctrine 15

Poverty, if measured by the natural end, is great wealth; but wealth, if not limited, is great poverty. – Vatican Saying 25

We see here an Epicurean distinction between wealth that is “natural” (physikos) and wealth that is empty (kenos). Seneca attributes these words to Epicurus:

There is also this saying of Epicurus: “If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if you do so according to opinion, you will never be rich.”  For nature’s wants are small; the demands of opinion are boundless.

According to the authors of Philodemus and the New Testament World,

There is for the philosopher a measure of wealth that, following the founders of the school, we have passed down in “On Wealth”, so as to render the account of the art of managing the acquisition of this and the preservation of this. – Column 12 of On the art of property management

Concerning measuring our desires by nature rather than by culture, we must remember this from Letter to Menoeceus:

We must also reflect that of desires some are natural, others are groundless; and that of the natural some are necessary as well as natural, and some natural only. 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. – Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus

Natural wealth will, therefore, include that wealth by which we procure health (food, water, health care), happiness (friends), and safety (warmth, shelter). But those are just the necessary natural desires. There are additional natural desires which are not necessary, and which merely add variety to our pleasure regimen.

The natural measure of wealth (ploutou metron) is not absolute (it depends on context), but it’s also not arbitrary. Concerning which unnecessary desires may be considered natural, Principal Doctrine 15 teaches that natural wealth is distinguished for being easily acquired (euporistos) while empty wealth is not. Notice that there is no absolute amount of wealth that is assigned to this. The natural measure of wealth will vary according to circumstances.

Philodemus’ On Wealth

There’s one more Philodeman source dealing with wealth. The scroll On Wealth is fragmentary, but mentions that death is nothing to us, probably meaning to explain that wealth will not protect us from death. At a later point in the scroll, Philodemus cites Epicurus offering a point-by-point refutation of Menander’s Georgos (“The Farmer”), a parody of the burdens of poverty. In this parody, the poet personifies Poverty as a hag that would not go away.

The essay On Wealth: New Fragments of Empedocles, Menander, and Epicurus by David Armstrong and Joseph Ponczoch argues that Epicurus defends Poverty in Menander’s Georgos (presumably so long as one is able to procure one’s natural desires, unlike the total destitution of the Cynics), and that

as is apparent from PHerc. 1570 as much as from the texts Balch cites, one can actually distinguish four clear degrees of wealth, with two extremes and two middle terms: immense wealth, (respectable) wealth, (respectable) poverty, and destitution. The notion that a state of poverty can still be respectable is at the heart of the content of pc. 5

Against Extreme Minimalism

In the Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus described what could be described as a minimalist lifestyle

… we regard. independence of outward things as a great good, not so as in all cases to use little, but so as to be contented with little if we have not much, being honestly persuaded that they have the sweetest enjoyment of luxury who stand least in need of it, and that whatever is natural is easily procured and only the vain and worthless hard to win. Plain fare gives as much pleasure as a costly diet, when one the pain of want has been removed, while bread an water confer the highest possible pleasure when they are brought to hungry lips. To habituate one’s se therefore, to simple and inexpensive diet supplies al that is needful for health, and enables a person to meet the necessary requirements of life without shrinking and it places us in a better condition when we approach at intervals a costly fare and renders us fearless of fortune. – Epicurus, in his Letter to Menoeceus

There seems to be a curriculum of pleasure at play here. We educate ourselves to better enjoy luxurious pleasures if we do not have them frequently. This way, we avoid the hedonic treadmill. We also easily become self-sufficient and confident of our ability to procure our needs by adopting a simple way of living. What we need to keep in mind is:

Frugality too has a limit, and the man who disregards it is like him who errs through excess. – Vatican Saying 63

It’s important to note that the goal of the Epicurean is to live a life filled with all the pleasures that nature makes easily available to us, it’s not to live minimally. As Epicurus says to Menoeceus: it’s “not so as in all cases to use little”. So if the minimalist lifestyle we have chosen generates more disadvantages than advantages, it’s time to reassess the limits of our simple lifestyle. For this reason, Metrodorus said that sometimes we accept many disadvantages for the sake of things without which we would suffer greatly.

Against Extreme Ambition

Concerning the upper limit of the natural measure of wealth, the founders submit the following concerns to our consideration in our choices and avoidances:

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

People generally dislike misers. The word used here, philokrematía (love of money), is also cited by Philodemus in Peri Oikonomias as a vice that we must guard against. It may lead to legal entanglements, reduce the number of our friends, and attract the distrust of friends and business associates. At least one of the Vatican Sayings criticizes how people sometimes sacrifice their freedom for money:

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. – Vatican Saying 67

Being beholden to crowds or leaders, we may sacrifice our values, or our reputation, or our privacy for money. Some people sacrifice of too much time at work for the sake of money, without the balance of being able to enjoy the fruits of their labor. We call them workaholics. It is difficult to argue that this passes hedonic calculus.

The desire for fame, together with the desire for unlimited amounts of wealth, are both criticized here:

The soul neither rids itself of disturbance nor gains a worthwhile joy through the possession of greatest wealth, nor by the honor and admiration bestowed by the crowd, or through any of the other things sought by unlimited desire. – Vatican Saying 81

We are reminded of the Princeton University study that showed that happiness correlates to wealth with an income of up to $75,000. Beyond that, happiness varies according to other factors, like health, and the amount and quality of friends.

That wealth itself, once acquired, is far from a guarantee of happiness, is attested in the Philodeman scrolls where we see a huge amount of concern with flatterers as a category of false friends. This is probably due to the fact that Philodemus was teaching Epicureanism to wealthy Romans, who attracted many kinds of flatterers, false friends, and people who were seeking their own self-interest by associating with the wealthy. Therefore, even if one is very gifted in interpersonal charm and attracts true friends with ease, it may be difficult for a wealthy person to know with certainty which friends are true ones and which ones are flatterers.

There are other problems tied to not recognizing the upper limit of the natural measure of wealth. Consumerism is tied to anxiety about status, and to false attribution of value to things rather than relations and experiences. Being ostentatious about one’s wealth and suffering from the “keeping up with the Joneses” syndrome may lead to additional problems of debt (which is a form of slavery), and constant craving for more unnecessary things. Once the things we acquire no longer “smell new”, we tire of them and want new toys.

Under what circumstances is ambition advantageous or not, useful or useless?

As we have seen with the “easily acquired” attribution of natural wealth, if the attainment of something comes with little effort and little to no disadvantages, it’s hard to argue against this type of ambition. Particularly, our ambitious efforts lead to wealth that is easily acquired if we employ our aptitude (that which we are good at), and if we enjoy doing what it takes to acquire things. In other words, the greater our aptitude, the less effort we have to put in. If we make great attempts at achieving something that we are not good at, or that we don’t like doing, the effort may not pass hedonic calculus.

Finally, one practical advice given by José Mujica, former president of Uruguay, is that we should measure the true value of things in terms of time instead of money. If we consider how many hours of work it will take to pay for our “new toys”–for instance, a new car–we will be more hesitant to buy frivolous things than if we merely think about the value we get from owning a status symbol. In reality, for as long as we earn an hourly income and have limited amounts of money available (as is the case with almost everyone), it may appear that we are buying things with cash, but we are really buying things with our time and with our lives. If we think about the money that we spend frivolously as the bond of our indentured servitude that it really is, we will become more humane towards ourselves.

Brief Dialogue on Ambition

In order to discern what other Epicureans think about ambition as a virtue or a vice, and about wealth, we had discussions in the Garden of Epicurus Facebook group. Here are a few highlights.

Hiram. What do others think about the ethics of ambition, from an Epicurean perspective? Under which circumstances is ambition advantageous / virtuous and under what conditions is it disadvantageous / a vice?

Ron. Clearly ambition can’t be inherently bad, because Epicurus was very ambitious himself.

Hiram. I don’t think anything is “inherently bad” in Epicurean philosophy, other than pain that doesn’t lead to a greater pleasure.

Doug. If you enjoy doing what you’re doing, it would seem to be fine. If you’re doing it for fame and status, there would be a problem.

Hiram. Is that because fame and status are desires that are impossible to satisfy?

Doug. That would be part of it. In the case of fame and status, there are downsides of these that are commonly not considered until they appear. I’m reminded of what Robert Pirsig did when his book became a best seller and his phone rang off the hook with people asking for interviews. He quit his job, loaded up his RV, and disappeared.

Hiram. Well, then there are people like Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson, who were clearly unhappy and didn’t live lives worth living in spite of their incredible success and fame.

Ron. Not sure about status. Low status can be a source of pain I think. But I would say there is a limit to how much is necessary for a pleasant life, beyond which striving for it is not worth it.

Mike. Let’s be honest. Fame and high status are like a double-edged sword. Yes, there is nothing wrong in desiring and enjoying them. However, that’s not always the case. In many cases, fame and status create much trouble. It is good if they provide peace of mind, bad if they produce anxiety and insecurities. Principal Doctrine 7 is clear on this: “Some people have sought to become famous and renowned, thinking that thus they would make themselves secure against their fellow-humans. If, then, the life of such persons really was secure, they attained natural good; if, however, it was insecure, they have not attained the end which by nature’s own prompting they originally sought.”

Hiram. Famous people frequently lose their privacy. Privacy is an extremely important pleasure that most people take for granted. Consider the British prince and Duchess Megan who recently moved to Canada. Even being royalty can’t make up for the difficulties.

Brief Dialogue on Wealth

Jason. It often results in unnecessary political and/or legal entanglements too. Look at Seneca for an ancient example of wealth not leading to a happy life. I’m sure we can all think of more recent examples too.

Hiram. I have an ambitious acquaintance who is workaholic. She has no children so no reason to work so hard but I have a feeling it keeps her from dealing with “stuff”. Some people avoid having an intellectual or philosophical life in order to avoid existential baggage.

Jason. I know more than one retiree who is “lost” as a result of no longer having to work for a living. I can’t imagine being so bored and incurious that I didn’t know what to do with myself.

Mike. Anxiety is not only a rich man’s disease. It is also a poor man’s problem. There are poor people who are too anxious even about little things. But the fact that Epicurus said that “Wealth, if not limited, is great poverty” implies that infinite desire is vain and therefore produces troubles in the soul such as anxiety, stress, or even paranoia.

An Outline of Oikonomias

I have carried out an investigation of Epicurean economics to the best of my ability, assured by Philodemus that it’s “necessary to hand down a tradition of the most general principles and to outline many details in the treatises concerning the care and preservation of possessions”. As a result of this, below is my outline of the doctrines concerning Epicurean micro-economics. I invite other students to develop their own outlines.

  • There is a natural measure of wealth (ploutou metron), and an Epicurean distinction between wealth that is “natural” (physikos) and wealth that is empty (kenos). The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure (euporistos); but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity and is impossible or difficult to procure.
  • In economics, as in all else, we must run certain risks and go through certain inconveniences in order to avoid greater ruin and gain greater advantages.
  • Since the attainment of great wealth can scarcely be accomplished without slavery, 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.
  • Our ambitious efforts lead to wealth that is easily acquired if we employ our aptitude (that which we are good at), and if we enjoy doing what it takes to acquire things. In other words, the greater our aptitude, the less effort we have to put in. If we make great attempts at achieving something that we are not good at, or that we don’t like doing, the effort may not pass hedonic calculus.
  • When we are habituated to simple pleasures, we are in a better position to enjoy luxurious ones.
  • Frugality too has a limit, and the man who disregards it is like him who errs through excess.
  • There is social wealth in addition to the wealth of things and possessions. Philodemus, in Art of Property Management, compares our investment of time and money and efforts on our friends with “sowing seeds” that will yield fruit in the future. (all the points that follow are from that scroll)
  • Association makes labor pleasant. We must choose our company prudently.
  • Our revenue must more than meet our immediate needs: it must facilitate a dignified life of leisure.
  • It’s prudent to cultivate multiple streams of income, among which deriving fees from the Garden’s teaching mission, rental property income and business ownership, which includes gainful employment of others, have special priority.
  • It’s prudent to have fruitful possessions, such as the various forms of ownership of means of production.

Further Reading:

On Philodemus’ Art of Property Management

Philodemus, On Property Management (Writings from the Greco-Roman World)ir?t=ataraxia0c-20&l=am2&o=1&a=1589836677

Horace, Ofellus and Philodemus of Gadara in Sermones 2.2, by Sergio Yona

An Epicurean measure of wealth in Horace

 [Philodemus] On Wealth (PHerc. 1570 Cols VI-XX, PCC. 4-6A): New Fragments of Empedocles, Menander, and Epicurus

Philodemus and the New Testament World

Society of Friends of Epicurus (SoFE) Journal Volume 14 – 2019-20

Hiram Crespo
Epicurean Arguments Against Racism
November 20, 2019

Hiram Crespo
Book Review of “How to be Epicurean”, by Catherine Wilson
December 18, 2019

Hiram Crespo
The 20 Tenets of Society of Friends of Epicurus
December 20, 2019

Nathan Bartman
On “-Isms” and Pleasure Wisdom
December 22, 2019

Hiram Crespo
Book Review: How to Live a Good Life
January 7, 2020

Hiram Crespo
Advice to New Students of Epicurean Philosophy
January 16, 2020

Hiram Crespo
La Mettrie: An Epicurean System; The Canon; Against Creationism; Anti-Seneca
February 12-26, 2020

Dr. Christos Yapijakis
The Philosophy of Epicurus: Humanism and Science Aiming for Happiness
February 19, 2020

Hiram Crespo
Ethics of Motion: The Problem of Ataraxia in Nail; An Anarcho-Socialist Lucretius?; Epicurean Environmentalism; Conclusion: Ethics of Motion
April 11-14, 2020

Hiram Crespo
On Philodemus’ Scroll 1005
April 15, 2020

Hiram Crespo
Ethics of Philodemus Book Review: Philodemus’ Method of Studying and Cultivating the Virtues; On Frankness and On Conversation; Moral Portraiture and Seeing Before the Eyes; Against Maximalism; Philodemus’ Economics
May 26-31, 2020

Hiram Crespo
Some Epicurean Thoughts on the Riots and Peaceful Protest
June 2, 2020

Jordan Crago
What being an Epicurean means to me
June 8, 2020

Society of Friends of Epicurus (SoFE) Journal Volume 13 – 2018-19

Hiram Crespo
A Concrete Self
February 25, 2018

Various
Dialogue on the Extent to Which the Declaration of Independence is Consistent With Epicurean Philosophy
April 16, 2018

Michel Onfray
A Transcendental Epicureanism
July 6, 2018

Hiram Crespo
Swinish Herds and Pastafarians: Comedy as an Ideological Weapon
September 5, 2018

Hiram Crespo
Book Review of Ontology of Motion
December 9, 2018

Hiram Crespo
Hygge and the Landscape of Pleasure
March 15, 2019

Our Friend Joshua
Hermarchus, Seeing the Bust of Epicurus

Hiram Crespo
Metrodorus’ Epistle to Timocrates
July 11, 2019

Hiram Crespo
In Memory of “The Men”
July 20, 2019

Hiram Crespo
Epicurus’ On Nature, Books I-X , Books XI-XIV, Books XXV and XXVIII
July 25-August 5, 2019

Michele Pinto
Epicurean Festival in Italy
September 26, 2019

Meme Series

Fun Epicurean Willy Wonka & Other Memes

La Mettrie: Anti-Seneca

The following concludes a series of blogs dedicated to Julien de la Mettrie. Previous essays: An Epicurean System; The Canon; Against Creationism. This one focuses on his work titled “Anti-Seneca”.

While the Système d’Epicure focuses on the physics and was evidently influenced by Lucretius, Anti-Seneca embodies the ethics of La Mettrie and appears to be a response to Seneca’s On The Happy Life. Lucius Annaeus Seneca was an ancient Stoic philosopher and writer from the Roman province of Hispania.

In the initial portion of the work, La Mettrie begins his criticism of Seneca (and the Stoics) by saying:

They are all soul, ignoring their bodies; let’s be all body, ignoring our souls.

However, this must be understood as poetic language. A great part of La Mettrie’s intellectual legacy consists of studying the soul as a natural, physical part of our constitution, wholly embedded into the flesh. La Mettrie’s favoring the body over the soul reminded me of this quote from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra:

Once the soul looked contemptuously on the body, and then that contempt was the supreme thing: the soul wished the body meagre, ghastly, and famished. Thus it thought to escape from the body and the earth.

Oh, that soul was itself meagre, ghastly, and famished; and cruelty was the delight of that soul!

But ye, also, my brethren, tell me: What doth your body say about your soul? Is your soul not poverty and pollution and wretched self-complacency?

La Mettrie locates many of the inherent tendencies of our character (melancholy, insight, tranquility, and happiness, among others) in the body. He says that much about what makes up our character is the result of our physical configuration, which we are born with.

Modern science of happiness research is still debating this issue, but some of the preliminary research seems to suggest that about 60 % of our happiness is up to nature–that is, genetics and environment–at least that’s what Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, claims. Other positive psychologists cite a 50/40/10 ratio where 50 % of our happiness is determined by genes, 40 % by our actions and attitudes (this includes what the ancient Epicureans knew as our “disposition”, of which we are in control), and they concede that 10 % depends on circumstances. This reminds us of Epicurus’ Epistle to Menoeceus, where he says that

… some things happen of necessity, others by chance, others through our own agency.

While La Mettrie and Epicurus do not assign ratios, the idea here is similar. It would be imprudent to deny our facticity, the fact that so much of what makes up our lives was set from before our birth (necessity); and also, that life throws us challenges and difficulties from time to time (chance). And yet, philosophy teaches us that we are not only able but also responsible to sculpt our characters to more fully enjoy all the pleasures that nature easily makes available, in the same way that a lotus flower has the power to grow from out of the mud into the most fragrant and beautiful flower.

I’m convinced that it’s me who have taken the decision, and I exult in my liberty. Everyone of our freest actions are like these. An absolute and necessary determination pulls us along, we who would never opt for slavery. How mad we are! And all the more unhappy are we madmen for constantly castigating ourselves for failures where we have no power.

La Mettrie employs his qualified determinism (which allows for natural liberty and volition) in the service of the abolition of remorse–which he has added to fear of death and of the gods, and to limitless desires, as another one of the evils that we must banish in our souls in order to be able to better enjoy life.

I say “qualified determinism” because, while saying this, La Mettrie is arguing that, if wicked people are able to live happy lives without remorse, “it would take a rather bizarre and irrational person to refuse to accept that they could ever be happy“. La Mettrie wrote Anti-Seneca in defense of the thesis that happiness–particularly Epicurean, natural, fully embodied happiness–is possible, but only if we use philosophy to reduce the effects of culture and education, and avoid adding more prejudices and artificialities to the ones we have inherited. La Mettrie comes back again and again to the problem of education and how it interferes with our natural happiness. He is saying that, to some extent, happiness is made up of choices that a philosopher makes, together with a process of re-education of the character.

At one point in the book, La Mettrie nearly succumbs to a Cyrenaic type of hedonic solipsism, only to take us back to the study of nature. When La Mettrie says

Healthy or sick, awake or asleep, our imagination can make us glad.

he is echoing Epicurus’ retort against the Cyrenaics when he argued that the bodily pleasures and pains were more powerful than those of the mind. While Aristippus advised his followers to engage in a practice known as presentism, to be present to the pleasures of the moment, Epicurus told his followers that they could, in addition to that, engage in reminiscing past pleasures and anticipating future ones. In this way, they could abide in constant pleasures. In Principal Doctrine 20, he again taught that the mind (not the flesh) is able to grasp the limits of nature, and is therefore best equipped to procure pleasures.

La Mettrie also echoes Philodemus (for instance, in On Music) when he argues that reason must serve nature in aiding us to be happy. For instance, when discussing the need to remove the false opinions (added by “an all-too-onerous education”) that produce unwarranted remorse or guilt, he says:

No, I would like us to owe to reason what so many scoundrels owe to habit.

La Mettrie also paraphrases Vatican Saying 45, which says that “the study of nature does not make men productive of boasting“, when he says:

The fine knowledge on which our soul so liberally prides itself, does it more discredit than credit, by depriving it of what its acquisition presupposes.

In La Mettrie, this mockery of man’s pride is really a mockery of the hegemony of reason among the intellectual class. Like Nietzsche, he argues that men are not so rational, that reason merely rationalizes and masks the passions, often presenting them as virtues or hiding our ugliest instincts.

True philosophical education reconciles us with nature, but the education that arrogant people boast of typically is not of this kind. La Mettrie’s critique of virtue follows along the same lines: it distances people from nature, it’s artificial, and so it has no value. In A Few Days in Athens, this same idea is expressed:

Zeno hath his eye on man, I mine on men: none but philosophers can be stoics; Epicureans all may be.

This work, titled Anti-Seneca, was also titled “On Happiness” by the author, who believed that to speak against Seneca is to say something about happiness. We see a contrast between nature and culture expressed as Epicurean naturality and Stoic artificialness, of which the first is decidedly the one that brings true happiness. One of the central arguments of the entire book is, therefore, that education and culture (and reason) often tends to dismantle our initial, natural, innocent disposition, and that the study of true philosophy must restore this initial disposition (and must restore feeling).

While in paragraph 66 of Système d’Epicure, La Mettrie mentions in passing that he’s a Stoic only at the time of death, we find elsewhere in passage 74:

No, I shall not be the corrupter of that innate taste for life which we have, I shall not spread Stoicism’s dangerous poison on the fine days and even on the prosperity of our Luciliuses. On the contrary, I shall try to blunt life’s thorns if I cannot reduce their number, in order to increase the pleasure of gathering its roses. And I pray those who, due to a deplorably unfavourable organization, are dissatisfied with the world’s splendid spectacle, to stay here, for religion’s sake if they have no humanity or, which is grander, for humanity’s sake if they have no religion.

Anti-Seneca includes a passage on the pleasures of literature and the other intellectual pleasures.

Thinking is only another way of feeling: it’s a feeling that is withdrawn … To devote ourselves to reading and thinking about pleasant things is a way to implant a near-constant pleasant feeling in ourselves.

When addressing people with debauched tendencies, he tells them to “wallow like a pig, and you’ll be happy like one“. Later on, he explains that he is not encouraging evil:

I feel compassion for it, since I find its excuse in the organism itself, which as a rule is difficult and often impossible to tame.

La Mettrie then goes back to the idea that all the nerves have a rendez-vous point somewhere inside the brain, and that

… those whose nerves are most agreeably affected, no matter what causes it, are necessarily the happiest of all.

This is the trunk from which the branches of happiness sprout.

by which he intends to say that, not only is the soul physical, but the conditions that allow happiness are also physical and bodily.

La Mettrie closes Anti-Seneca with a comical mix of praise and insult for the Stoic thinker who is the subject of his treatise. The brilliance of this passage lies in that he is actually imitating many of the things he criticizes in Seneca, calling him an intellectual rather than a philosopher, and offering him a high dose of his own medicine and his own double-speech. Frankly, this passage is La Mettrie at his most deliciously smart-ass.

Anti-Seneca concludes by saying that each creature has its own share of happiness available to it according to its tendencies and its constitution.

While Anti-Seneca could have benefited from less verbosity, it has its brilliant and funny moments. This is a recommended essay if you’re interested in the centuries-old discussions and reproaches between Stoics and Epicureans.

Further Reading:

The essay reviewed above is part of the anthology The Hedonist Alternative: “Anti-Seneca” and Other Texts

La Mettrie: Against Creationism

The following is a continuation of the book review of Histoire Naturelle de l’Ame, a book published in 1747 by Julien Offray de La Mettrie.

Some passages by La Mettrie remind us of the book Ontology of Motion, which argues that Lucretius accentuated that motion is an attribute of matter.

The most important repercussion of this is that motion is natural and does not require gods, spirits, or animating forces outside of nature: nature is “free of masters”, as Lucretius states.

In La Mettrie, in addition to the essential attributes of matter, there is something he called “la force mortice” (the dynamic force), which is “puissance” (power). In page 9, the relation between force and motion is established. This “puissance motrice de la matière” (mobile power of matter) is in every moving body, and it’s impossible not to conceive of these two attributes: that which moves, that which is moved. As we saw in Ontology of motion, the role that this plays is to abolish all supernatural or superstitious animism, and to replace it with the concept of a mechanical nature that exhibits motion on its own according to natural laws.

Against the Theologians

In Histoire Naturelle de l’Ame, La Mettrie closes by echoing Voltaire, saying that there’s no need to fear that philosophers will harm the religion of a country. No, it is the theologians who wish to preside over sects and political parties.

A hundred treatises on materialism are much less to fear than a merciless Jansenist or an ambitious Pontiff.

Nature has no Purpose

One of the features of the anti-creationist view of nature is that nature is blind, mechanical, that it does not “intend” to make this or that machine, this or that body, this organ or that ecosystem. These things appear as a result of random mutations or events, or of the never-ending dance of particles moving in space and relating to each other, and only once their function serves an advantage, do organisms begin to perfect the use of their organs. This argument was originally found in Lucretius.

Nature is blind, innocent, unaware, and in fact this blindness and innocence is a consolation for death.

Pre-Darwinian Naturalist Reasoning

La Mettrie lived prior to Darwin. His Lucretian argument for how humans emerged from the Earth are, therefore, pre-Darwinian, but based on the reasoning that if humans have not always existed, the Earth must have acted as the uterus of mankind.

Why, I ask you, modern anti-Epicureans, why should the Earth, that mother and nurse of all objects, have refused to animal seeds what she allowed to the meanest, most useless and most harmful vegetables?

Obviously, Darwin made huge contributions to our understanding of the evolution of life, and geneticists after him continued his work. But Lucretius demonstrates that the ancients did have an idea of natural selection, and La Mettrie is again writing a commentary on Lucretian ideas when he says:

Perfection was no more achieved in a day in nature than in art.

Art’s fumblings to imitate nature give us an idea of what nature’s fumblings were like.

The idea is that nature produced many anomalies and mutations. Those that were disadvantageous did not survive to pass on their seed, but those that were advantageous did pass on their seed, and after countless generations this produced beings that were increasingly adapted to their environment.

Man “came after” the beasts because man is more complex, therefore man took more time to make.

The case of mutants prove nature’s absent-mindedness and trial by error: her “innocence”, and her lack of intention and of “final causes”. Nature passed by many combinations before reaching the ones that worked effectively. Nature happens to have made eyes, not intending to, just as water serves as a mirror without intending to. He compares this to a metaphor of how chance on a canvas paints something.

Nature’s creation of eyes and ears follows laws of nature similar to the ones that govern the ebb and flow of the sea.

A Glorious Harbor

La Mettrie was deeply aware that much of what he was writing would be considered practically seditious by the religious authorities of his times, and yet he pressed these issues with zeal. We are reminded of chapter 14 of A Few Days in Athens, which closes with the following conclusion concerning the supposed immorality of atheism, originally believed by the character Theon to be a thought-crime. After explaining that it is no crime to believe with certainty in gods, but that’s it’s unreasonable, Wright’s Epicurus closes:

(Let) this truth remain with you: that an opinion, right or wrong, can never constitute a moral offence, nor be in itself a moral obligation. It may be mistaken; it may involve an absurdity, or a contradiction. It is a truth, or it is an error: it can never be a crime or a virtue.

La Mettrie closes his book by beautifully celebrating the breath of fresh air that intellectuals of his time were enjoying as a result of finally being able to openly discuss the anti-clerical ideas that they were entertaining. The Enlightenment had managed to create a “glorious harbor” for intellectuals, and it’s only here that intellectual life had been able to flourish after centuries under the asphyxiating grip of the clergy:

I salute you, favourable climate where any man who lives like others can think differently from others; where theologians do not act as judges of philosophers, a role of which they are incapable; where the freedom of the mind, humanity’s finest attribute, is not chained by prejudices; where one is not ashamed to say what one does not blush to think; and where there is no risk of becoming a martyr to the doctrine whose apostle one is. I salute you, country already celebrated by philosophers, where all those persecuted by tyranny find (if they are deserving and reputable), not a safe asylum but a glorious harbour; where one feels how far the victories of the mind are above all others; where the philosopher, finally crowned with honours and kindness, is only a monster to the minds of the mindless. May you, oh fortunate land, bloom more and more! May you appreciate your good fortune and make yourself worthy in everything, if possible, of the great man who is your King! Muses, Graces, Cupids and you, wise Minerva, when crowning with the most splendid laurels the august brow of this modern Julian — as worthy of governing, as learned, as clever and as philosophical as the classical one — you are only crowning your own handiwork.

Further Reading:

Book Review of Ontology of Motion

Histoire Naturelle de l’Ame (French Edition)

The Philosophy of Epicurus: Humanism and Science Aiming for Happiness

What follows is the report on the 10th Panhellenic Symposium of Epicurean Philosophy, February 8-9, 2020, Cultural Center of Pallini, Athens, Greece by Dr. Christos Yapijakis.

From left to right: Panagiotopoulos (Garden of Athens), Prof. Liolios, Prof. Chrousos, Mayor Zoutsos, Prof. Krimigis, Dr. Simopoulos, Prof. Pelegrinis, Prof. Yapijakis (Garden of Athens)

A top-of-the-world cultural event, the 10th Panhellenic Symposium of Epicurean Philosophy took place on the weekend of 8 and 9 February 2020 with the participation of a record number of more than five hundred Greeks inspired by the enlightening and humanistic philosophy of Epicurus. This is a unique philosophical conference, as it is the only one organized worldwide dedicated exclusively to Epicurean philosophy. It is also the largest national philosophical conference and the only one in Greece that has been established since 2011 as an institution from the people rather than from the university philosophers. It is organized annually with free entrance for the public by the Municipality of Pallini and the Friends of Epicurean Philosophy Garden of Athens; and Garden of Salonica; at the Cultural Center of Gerakas, located within the ancient area of ​​Gargettus, from which the philosopher Epicurus originated from.

The commencement of the Symposium was held by the Mayor of Pallini, Athanasios Zoutsos, followed by greetings from friends of Epicurus from all over the world and Greece. In this year’s 10th anniversary Panhellenic Symposium, Epicurus’ timeless contribution to human thought was highlighted by distinguished scientists and philosophers in a roundtable discussion coordinated by Christos Yapijakis, Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Athens and founding member of the “Garden of Athens”. Theodosis Pelegrinis, Professor of Philosophy and Former Rector of the University of Athens, referred to the humanistic philosophy of Epicurus; George Chrousos Professor of Medicine at the University of Athens, highlighted the Epicurean psychotherapeutic approach to stress management; Evangelos Protopapadakis, Assistant Professor of Philosophy of the University of Athens, discussed Epicurean ethics as based on human biology (bioethics); Anastasios Liolios, Professor of Physics at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and CERN researcher, presented Epicurean atomic physics as the ancestor of modern particle physics and quantum physics; Dionysis Simopoulos, Director Emeritus of Eugenides Planetarium, discussed the Epicurean perception regarding the existence of many worlds in the universe as confirmed by modern astronomy; Stamatios Krimigis, Professor of Space Physics and renown NASA scientist, described modern exploration of the possible existence of life on other planets, as predicted by Epicurus.

The amphitheater was packed – People sitting on the side stairs

Distinguished members of the “Gardens” made important speeches, among which it is worth mentioning “a new fragment of Diogenes of Oenoanda” by Yannis Avramidis of the Garden of Thessaloniki, and “Epicurean philosophy and nutrition” by Klea Nomikou-Tsantsaridi of the Garden of Athens.

In the artistic part of the Symposium, the presentation of one scene from Christos Yapijakis’ new theatrical play A Happy Greek, regarding Epicurus’ life and work, stood out. Directed by Stavros Spyrakis, the four amateur actors thrilled the audience with their performance and were rewarded by a particularly warm applause.

The 10th Panhellenic Symposium of Epicurean Philosophy has allowed hundreds of Greeks who have a need for learning and a desire for a better world to experience the timeless utility of Epicurean philosophy, which offers a mental shield to putative individual and social deadlocks. The scientific, humanistic and psychotherapeutic message of Epicurus on one hand expresses the simplest and most profound way of approaching a happy life with friendship and solidarity, even in difficult times, and on the other hand it differs fundamentally from the fashionable superficial message of “prosperity” propagated in Greece and internationally.

Dr. Christos Yapijakis, DMD, MS, PhD.
Associate Professor of Genetics

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Epicuros.gr