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.

PD 13 and False Views as Threat to Public Safety

I finally took the time to read the paper Epicurean education and the rhetoric of concern. Well, actually, I must confess I didn’t read it: that’s what robots are for! I used an app called Natural Reader to have it read to me, to save time, and so that my eyes would not get tired.

The paper mentions Principal Doctrine 13 as an exhibit in the argument in favor of preaching Epicurean philosophy to the world for the sake of securing for ourselves and others the kind of life we long for. It struck me as a missing piece in a puzzle that I’ve been attempting to put together for some time. The zeal to teach the philosophy is philanthropic to some extent. Of course, that altruism and self-interest both dwell in our soul is not a revelation, and these things are not mutually contradictory but rather can co-exist and are both necessary for living a life of pleasure. This has always seemed clear and obvious to me. Not so to others.

PD 12 and PD 13 both seem to be saying something similar.

12. It is impossible for someone to dispel his fears about the most important matters if he doesn’t know the nature of the universe but still gives some credence to myths. So without the study of nature there is no enjoyment of pure pleasure.

13. There is no advantage to obtaining protection from other men so long as we are alarmed by events above or below the earth or in general by whatever happens in the boundless universe.

And so it is clear that, to live a pleasant life according to Epicurean guidelines, we should have the right beliefs concerning the nature of things. It is also clear that we should contribute to the peace of mind and happiness of our Epicurean friends by studying together and helping to correct their false views, up to the point that we even may have to engage in what Philodemus in his scroll on frank criticism called “person-taming”, because we are by nature invested in the moral character and happiness of our true friends. This is consistent with Vatican Saying 15:

We place a high value on our characters as if they were our own possessions whether or not we are virtuous and praised by other men. So, too, we must regard the characters of those around us if they are our friends.

But what about strangers, and society in general? For that, we have a different strategy: the missionary aspect of Epicurean philosophy. The issue that the paper tackles is how a philosophical doctrine of so-called “egoism” can be philanthropic to the point of being a missionary humanism. This is where the author errs, and his tone is heavily influenced by the tired anti-Epicurean stereotypes (as selfish hedonists) that abound in academia.

Yet the author Sean McConnell hits an important insight when he articulates that for the sake of safety, and to ensure that other members of his society are capable of participating in the hedonistic covenant (to not harm or be harmed, and of mutual benefit), Epicureans see it in their self-interest to produce more Epicureans by teaching philosophy. In other words, just as in PD 13 we find that we can’t lead lives of pleasure if we hold false views, similarly it would be difficult for us to live pleasantly if we are surrounded by people whose false views render them incapable of living pleasantly, or of allowing others to live pleasantly. That rings more true to me, having had exchanges with contemporary Epicureans for a few years now, than the apparent inner contradiction between selfish and selfless impulses that the author seems to imagine.

We do engage in calculus of pleasure. But enamored as we are with the immediacy of pleasant experiences, I don’t think we calculate as consciously as he thinks we do. Also, we feel in our own realities the detrimental effects produced by homophobia, terrorism, and the lack of faith in science coming from the far religious right much more vividly and viscerally than how cold calculations are experienced by a logician. Yes, we would indeed feel safer in a world with less religion and more critical, empirical thinking. And yes, a more Epicurean world would make it less likely that others will poison our happiness, not to mention threaten our lives and our security. But an Epicurean is less likely to argue the choice of teaching philosophy in selfish-versus-altruism terms, and more likely to consider that it’s in our nature to do the things we find pleasure in (like philosophy) in the company of others, and for that sake, we have missionary philosophy. And these many selfish and altruistic reasons to teach philosophy are not mutually contradictory, but mutually reinforcing.

That’s one issue. On a separate (yet related) issue raised by the above mentioned paper, Cassius says:

I think the flaws here are (1) he is forcing Epicurus into the egoist vs altruist mold, neither of which applies to Epicurus. Epicurus says to follow pleasure, not yourself for the sake of yourself or others for the sake of others. Also (2) he is one of those who is constantly looking for some “virtue” that is “choiceworthy in itself” so he can find an exception to the rule that pleasure is the goal. This is what the later Epicureans were doing, as referenced in the article, and it is deadly because it contradicts the foundation of the philosophy.

Epicurus was not an altruist nor was he an “egoist with exceptions.” He was a consistent follower of pleasure, and it is no contradiction to say that in some situations our pleasure is maximized by putting the happiness of a friend above that of our own.

I would be careful in praising the article too much because he “defends” Epicurus by concluding that he is an egoist with exceptions, and that undermines the doctrines — Strictly speaking egoism is “Self above all” and altruism is “others above self” and NEITHER of those are correct analysis. His article should have rejected both as they applied to Epicurus. Not only are they not our points of reference, but I think it could be argued that “egoism” and “altruism” are two horns of a deadly false choice.

In fact that might be a good general conclusion I would reach — I would not agree that Epicurus was an “egoist” – I would dissect that word and show he is not.

It would be much better to reject the false definitions at the beginning and explain what he meant positively, and then attack the errors from there, rather than trying to employ words that now have false issues embedded in them without rooting out the false definitions.

I see Cassius’ point, and the author does seem to be coming from a place where he is constantly reiterating that Epicureans exhibit philanthropy IN SPITE OF themselves and their selfish philosophy. For instance, we read:

John Armstrong presents a compelling argument that the agreement and adherence to a contract neither to harm nor be harmed are premised firmly on an individual’s desire for his own end, even though Lucretius for instance suggests some degree of other-concern when he says that the contract included a provision for the protection of women and children, for “it is fair for all to pity the weak” (DRN 5.1019-1023)

This is the tone we find throughout the entire paper. These kinds of “yes this is selfish, but that is altruistic” are absent in Epicurean discourse. While we like to adhere to ancient writings in our study of philosophy, in my personal conversations with other 21st Century Epicureans, what I HAVE heard often is that it is in our nature to both protect ourselves as well as to want the happiness of others, particularly those close to us. That is, both the selfish and the altruistic impulses are natural, and they both serve a life of pleasure.

Happy Herculaneum Day!

On August 24 of the year 79 of Common Era, the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried in the ash and pyroclastic material produced by the Mt Vesuvius eruption. The 79 eruption is the most famous volcanic eruption in ancient history, and recent comparable eruption events–like the one that wiped out the town of Plymouth, on the island of Montserrat–have been compared to it.

The town of Herculaneum contained the villa of the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, of the Piso clan, a patrician family. The villa was a wealthy enclave that overlooked the Mediterranean Sea, and contained a large ancient library of Epicurean texts, many of which have now been deciphered and translated into English with commentary. Commentaries on these texts can be found in the Philodemus Series on the Society of Epicurus page.

In addition to the scrolls preserving the wisdom of the original Scholarchs–many of which are actual notes that Philodemus took while studying philosophy under Zeno of Sidon–there are poems and other works of literature. In one epigram, Philodemus invites his benefactor of the Piso family to celebrate the Twentieth, the traditional feast of reason that was held monthly by the Epicureans.

Philodemus is not the only great Epicurean in history who catered to the Piso family. The poet Horace also frequented the villa, and Horace’s Epistle to the Pisos shows the highly cultured and refined nature of the exchange between them. Herculaneum was a major center of culture, philosophy, and the arts.

August 24th has been declared Herculaneum Day by the Society of Epicurus, as part of the Epicurean Year initiative. Please enjoy it by sharing the wisdom of the Library of Herculaneum with others!

Further Reading:

The Epicurean Nag Hammadi

The Philodemus Series

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

The erroneous ways of thinking may be divided into two categories, the systematically wrong mentality and the foolishly misguided mentality. The systematic error, as it is called scientifically, is the way that may lead to disastrous results if we do not avoid it. The Epicurean Roman Lucretius points out: “Again, as in a building, if the first plumb-line be askew, and if the square deceiving swerve from lines exact, and if the level waver but the least in any part, the whole construction then must turn out faulty-shelving and askew, leaning to back and front, incongruous, that now some portions seem about to fall, and falls the whole ere long-betrayed indeed by first deceiving estimates: so too thy calculations in affairs of life must be askew and false, if sprung for thee from senses false. So all that troop of words marshalled against the senses is quite vain” (De rerum natura IV 513-521, W.E. Leonard 1916).

The systematically wrong mindset usually uses literary falsification of reality. Some manipulate speech, either with sophism, or with rhetoric, or with dialectical techniques, or with sterile obsessive logic, using ways of cheating others or deluding oneself, usually with political or self-serving purposes. Literary falsification of reality includes the ideal mythological approach of the world, the “political lie” considered by Plato as the right of people in power, the superficial commentary of the phenomena and sterile skepticism. All these verbal approaches based on the moto “mind comes first” are forms of subjectivity, idealism and intellectualism. These systematically wrong ways of thinking led the Hellenic world to intolerance and discord, and eventually to submission to Republican Rome, whose rising power came from collaboration of patricians and plebeians. These systematically wrong idealistic mentalities subsequently led mankind to the Middle Ages.

In the modern world, we may observe that subjectivity, obsessive ideologies, noncritical pluralistic chattering continue to result in barbaric disputes and inhuman fighting while the temporarily stronger prevails, according to the barbarous law of the jungle. In addition, there is the absurd misguided way of thinking, the impulsive, the “so I like it”, the variably eclectic mentality. This is usually an uncertain, shallow, and effortless way of imprudent dealing with any subject. It is characterized by lack of knowledge of reality, empty chattering, and myopic desires of the type “the purpose sanctifies the means”. An example result of this mentality is the recent decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw USA from the Paris Climate Agreement, which has sparked the outcry of many international scientific associations that called it “a dangerous denial of decision-making method based on scientific data”.

Nevetheless, there are many people against the scientific way of thinking and common sense, such as the Syndicate of Greek Electricity Workers that welcomed the Trump decision, combining unscientific nonsense and self-interest politics in an exemplary manner, since most of their jobs are still based on coal mining. Unfortunately, the nonsensical and superficial way of thinking is particularly widespread in modern societies. The Epicurean philosophy can assist its friends to combat this mentality of the many and to overcome the foolish, idealistic influences that create anxiety and turmoil. Studying and understanding Epicurean texts may help a well-intentioned reader to experience the objective, scientific and serene way of thinking of Epicurus without any misunderstandings. History teaches us that even charismatic people who did not understand the Epicurean scientific method made mistakes in their appreciation. For example, the great thinker Voltaire, who generally admired Epicurus, erroneously considered as absurd the Master’s views regarding chance and evolution in nature.

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

“For there ARE Gods …”

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

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

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

Epicurus of Samos, Epistle to Menoeceus

An Epicurean Theology?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Denizens of the Intermundia

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

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

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

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

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

The Art of Epicurean Piety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

Dialogues on the Epicurean Gods

 “This May Have Happened in the Great All

Epicureanism as a Religious Identity

Venus as Spiritual Guide

In Memory of Horace: Carpe Diem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be Happy Wherever You Are

Everyone Can Profit from Philosophy

In Praise of Simple Living

Dare to be Wise

Horace’s Epistle to the Pisos

The Miseries of the Wealthy

Miscellaneous Quotes

Further Reading:

 

Some Epicurean Aspects of Horace’s Upbringing in Satires 1.4, and Horace, Ofellus and Philodemus of Gadara in Sermones 2.2, by Sergio Yona

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

Review of “De l’inhumanité de la religion”

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

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

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

The Agricultural Enclosure as Religion’s Cradle

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

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

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

“The Spirit” as Enforcer of Labor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nature Versus the Market

Where the market is everything, man is nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

Philodemus’ scroll on the Art of Property Management

 

A Counter-History of Aromas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michel Onfray and the Counter-History of Philosophy

Read: The Counter-History of Philosophy

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

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

Historiography as Warfare

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

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

… There are no facts, only interpretation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Striking a Blow for Epicurus

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

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

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

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

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

Reconciling with Nature

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

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

The Individual Versus the Polis

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

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

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

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

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

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

The House of Piso

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

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

Some Counter-History Trivia

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

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