Category Archives: books

Epicurus’ On Nature I-X

I am currently re-reading Epicurus’ Books On Nature in Les Epicuriens, which is based on lectures given by Epicurus. We know that they were given late in Epicurus’ philosophical career because, in some of the lectures, Epicurus refers back to discussions with Metrodorus that they had years prior “back in the day”, and recognizes previous doctrinal mistakes that had been rectified after years of conversations to clarify their philosophical investigations (particularly concerning their “change of names” practices).

All of this means that we must be careful to not attribute too much authority to any extant writings that may have come from the earlier period. It also means that these books are actually transcripts of advanced lectures given by Epicurus after many years of engaging in philosophical discourse with input from his friends. Let’s try to imagine or re-construct what these lectures or discussions consisted of, so that we can create modern dialogues to replace the literature that is missing.

Book 1

Book One establishes clearly that all things are made of particles and void (cites Against Colotes). Les Epicuriens commentators say that this book is summarized in the Epistle to Herodotus.

Book 2

Book II establishes the existence of particles of light (photons, in modern physics), and establishes clearly that the speed of light is the speed limit of the universe.

Much of the following discussion focuses on how it is that bodies emit these particles (called simulacra in the original text). It is clear that these simulacra are particles by the fact that when they encounter resistance they bounce back, like any other particle. The sun emits light, it reaches water and we see blue because the solar “rays” (photons) do not fully penetrate into the depth of waters. Instead, these photons bounce back and reach our eyes. The denser the water, the less photons penetrate. This is how some solid bodies allow some light through, because they are not as dense as other walls.

A light bulb emits light particles, they bounce against a wall, and our eyes receive the “color”. This color is an emergent property of the photons when they bounce against the particles of the bodies that they touch.

Book II concludes by saying that they have just proven that light is made of these particles and that nothing can move faster than photons, and says here that what follows after this book are the “subjects appropriate to treat after this (subject)”. However, Books 3-9 were never recovered.

The following video follows up on the contents of this book. It helps to connect the nature of light as particles that travel at a certain speed through the void, with interesting repercussions of this insight that include the relativity of time and of all things. If the universe is only 14 billion years old, how can it be 92 billion light years wide?

The video also helps to explain why the ancient Epicureans concluded that time was relative and an emergent property of bodies, which was a very advanced cosmological position for them to assume 2,300 years ago. Epicurus’ Epistle to Herodotus says that “we must not believe that time has any properties other than being an incident to bodies”.

Epicurean cosmology establishes that bodies are made up of particles and void, and their conventional existence and properties are established by the quantity and other properties of the particles that make up the bodies. However, in the process of acquiring increased complexity and interacting with each other, bodies also acquire secondary, relational properties which are no less real than their conventional properties. A magnet’s attraction of certain metals is real. The attraction between two lovers is real, and so is the gravity between a planet and its host star. The chemical interaction that causes an explosion is also real. We observe these phenomena and, although they are not conventionally made up of “particles and void”, they are secondary properties of bodies exhibit according to the observable and measurable laws of nature.

Although those relational / secondary qualities are not eternal, or even essential, the Epistle to Herodotus teaches that we must not banish them from our minds. Incidental qualities do not have a material existence (they are not “atoms and void”), nor do they exist independently in some reality that is beyond our comprehension (some Platonic ether, or heaven, etc.). We must, instead, consider the incidental qualities of bodies as having exactly the character that our sensations reveal them to possess. Today, we are able to measure magnetic forces or gravitational pull, and we know these forces to be emergent properties of the relevant bodies. The epistle then goes on to explain that Time is one such incidental property of nature, that it does not exist apart from bodies:

For example, it is important to grasp firmly that “time” neither has a material existence, nor does it exist independently, apart from bodies. Nor must we think of “time” as a general conception, such as those conceptions which are formed by reasoning in our minds. Instead, we must think of time by referring to our intuitions, our mental apprehensions formed by anticipations, and it is in this context that we speak of a “long time,” or a “short time,” applying our intuitions to time as we do to other incidental qualities.

In evaluating time as an incidental quality, we must not search for expressions that we may think are better than those which are in common use, and we must not believe that time has any properties other than being an incident to bodies. We must evaluate time only in accord with our intuitions or anticipations.

Let’s unpack what’s being said here. Epicureans were known for clear, concise speech and for their insistence on calling things by their proper name, and for names to reflect things as they are observed in nature. Poetically addressing Love as Eros (imagined as a baby with diapers throwing arrows) or Time as Chronos (a scary old man whose approach can’t be avoided and who will, in the end, inevitably swallow us) is good in the realm of poetry and myth, but not in the realm of the study of nature.

Time is also not Platonic (that is, unnatural and unreal, a mere idea). It is not a God (as the ancients believed). All things are conventionally made of atoms and void. So the question that the ancient atomists would have been discussing was something like “Does Time not exist, then? If it does, in what way does Time exist“? And it made sense that Time, as a natural phenomenon, must have been an emergent or relational property of bodies. Ancient Epicureans posited that Time is a natural phenomenon and sought diligently to evaluate the nature of Time based on the study of nature by the use of our natural faculties by which we synchronize to nature’s circadian rhythms. The Letter continues:

For indeed, we need no demonstration, but only to reflect, to see that we associate time with days and nights, and with our internal feelings, and with our state of rest. These perceptions of incidental qualities are the root of what we call “time.”

Interesting to note that Epicurus links time to our anticipation of and attunement with the circadian rhythms. Epicurus here was saying that our own organism has a faculty that apprehends time.

Scientists now know that the Moon used to be a planet the size of Mars that collided w Earth early on, and has slowly been moving a ay from Earth in its orbit. Because of this, our Moon used to be much bigger in our sky billions, and later millions of years ago, and will eventually leave our orbit and become a “ploonet”. Also because of this, and because Earth and Moon are still tidally locked, days and nights used to be much shorter in the past (one day used to be only a few hours long), and they will get progressively longer in the future. Our sense of time will continue to evolve with our local planet-moon dance.

I wish to accentuate that to say that Time is incidental / relational to bodies is to relativize it. One light year is the distance a photon travels between two points in a year. This means that the light that we see coming from the stars was emitted millions of years ago. These stellar photons are (together with time) emergent properties of bodies and, since the speed of light is the speed limit of the cosmos, the photons have been traveling through the void together with time from those stellar bodies to our planet, some of them for millions of years.

Time is an emergent, natural process. This is what is meant by the Epicurean doctrine that “we must not believe that time has any properties other than being an incident to bodies”: that Time is neither a God, nor an “absolute” Platonic idea, but a natural, emergent, relational property of bodies (of matter) in space. We can only measure Time in units which–because all things are moving constantly relative to each other–are tied to orbital movements of bodies in space.

Books 3-4

Les Epicuriens says that these books are summarized in paragraphs 49-53 of the Letter to Herodotus, and Book 4 included Epicurus’ theory of memory–about which we get glimpses in the Lucretian “neural pathways” passage, so we do know that such a theory must have existed.

Books 5-9

Les Epicuriens says that these books are summarized in paragraphs 54-73 of the Letter to Herodotus.

Book 10

Discusses a bit about the nature of time, how to measure it (mentions days and nights), on the importance of using conventional language for it, and the fact that time is real.

Further Reading:

Les Epicuriens [Bibliotheque de la Pleiade] (French Edition)

Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus

Catholic Apologist Attempts to Paint Epicureans as Flat-Earthers!

Aeon typically publishes very good quality essays, like the one I cited in the essay A Concrete Self titled Self-Evident. But from time to time, Aeon also posts essays that are not thoroughly researched, like Atoms and flat-earth ethics. The piece was written by James Hannam, who has written a book in defense of “God’s philosophers” where he praises the wisdom of the medieval period.

By the fourth paragraph, Hannam is claiming that Lucretius claimed that the Earth was flat in “On the Nature of Things” (and relates this to the idea of “up” and “down”), but then two paragraphs later he says: “Lucretius then explains that it’s an error to think that the Earth is at the centre of the Universe because, as the Universe is infinite, it can’t have a centre“. But if there is no center, than what this means is that in the Epicurean cosmos all things are relative (and there can be no up and down, except in relation to something). This is elaborated much more intuitively in Ontology of Motion, which I also reviewed.

Later, he says that Lucretius “also tries to convince us that the heavenly bodies are not very big or far away, and that they can even be buffeted about by the winds. He proposes that the world is rather like a snow globe. We are all living on a flat surface covered by a rounded vault, within which the stars and planets move around like the flakes of white when the snow globe is shaken” … But this is impossible to reconcile with the Epicurean doctrine of the innumerable worlds, which says:

First, an infinite number of worlds exists in the universe, some of which worlds are like and some of which are unlike our own. – Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus

It is more than clear that an infinity of other worlds, both similar and different from ours, could not possibly “move around like flakes of white” around the Earth (millions of them being of similar or bigger size)–which, again, is not believed to be in the center of the Epicurean cosmos, which is infinite and has no center.

The author also questions the sincerity of the first Epicureans and how one goes from the physics to the ethics, and tries to argue that Epicurus does not hold truth in high regard, that he instead builds his physics in service of his ethics … by which he intends to divorce ethics from the physics. This would lead to a Platonized ethics that is not informed by the study of nature. This, of course, was of great utility for Christian apologists and monks in his idealized medieval era. But it is absolutely unacceptable for us moderns. Ethics can and must be informed by the study of nature as a sure foundation, and must not be denaturalized and decontextualized, made sterile and useless.

In order to follow the line of discussion that demonstrates the sincerity with which Epicurus held his views about the physics, one need only read his Epistle to Herodotus, where each component is linked to the next beautifully and cogently like a chain of molecules. Indeed, in their going from physics to ethics, the Epicureans were following the guidance of nature. One does not see gods intervening in human affairs. One does observe the agency of sentient beings. One also observes that babies, puppies, and kittens shun pain and seek pleasure as soon as they come into this world, etc. And so, while the author says:

In short, Epicurus did not derive his ethics from his atomism. He believed in atoms because they provided a theory of nature that supported his ethics.

The truth is that Epicurus does not do this. He can never be quoted as saying: “Life should be pleasant therefore the gods don’t intervene“. In the Letter to Herodotus, Epicurus explains that bodies have inherent properties exhibited by the atoms and void in their many combinations, but that they also have relational properties when they interact with each other. The third Scholarch Polystratus later explains pleasure-pain as among the relational properties of nature which are exhibited by sentient beings in their interaction with their environment. There can be no pleasure-pain without sentience, and there can be no sentience without bodies. The physics must, by necessity, precede the ethics.

Furthermore, in the Letter to Herodotus Epicurus makes specific mention of astronomical phenomena as one area where they were forced to reason by analogy with things that are observed on Earth because they lacked direct empirical insight. They did not have spaceships or telescopes as we do today. This means that any errors–like the one concerning the size of the moon and others–would eventually be settled, but only upon the availability of evidence, as the canon requires. This means that the canon both yields a pedestal to, and embeds itself into, the historical process of amassing knowledge via empirical means, which is a process that includes all the sciences.

The author–who in 2009 wrote a piece arguing that the Catholic Church has been a net force of good in history–is aligned with Aristotelianism, which is in turn a tool of Christian apologetics. All his accusations stem from his lack of familiarity with the Epicurean canon and with how, in all things, Epicureans always refer their investigations to the study of nature. But one of the key problems with Hannam’s essay was articulated by our friend Jason:

Why do critics always think that Epicurean theories weren’t open to revision upon further evidence? They’ll take Epicurus’ written word as dogmatic truth but ignore where he said that we must be open to incorporating new sensory perceptions and testimonies of trusted friends examining the same phenomena. Epicurean dogmatism was always open to revision upon presentation of clear evidence to the contrary.

As to this, the Letter to Herodotus both opens and closes with exhortations to appeal in all things always to empirical evidence and to the (scientific) “study of nature”, and establishes that we must “keep our conclusions consistent with those things we have clearly grasped through our senses”. Keep in mind that the senses are in the canon (the standard of truth), and are therefore among the toolkit that serves as the ultimate authority in Epicurean philosophy. It is this canon–NOT Epicurus–that serves as the ultimate authority for the Epicureans. This means that any error, when measured against new empirical evidence and shown to be an error, must be declared an error and empirical evidence must be admitted in favor of innovation. Here is Epicurus in the Letter to Herodotus:

(at the opening)

… since I myself urge others to study Nature constantly, and I find my own peace of mind chiefly in a life devoted to that study, I have composed for you a shorter summary of the principles of the whole doctrine, which I will relate to you now.

… Most of all, we must keep our investigations strictly in accord with the evidence of the senses. We must ensure that we keep our conclusions consistent with those things we have already clearly grasped through our sensations, and through our feelings of pain and pleasure, and through those mental apprehensions that we receive through anticipations. We must always take as true those things that have already been clearly established, and refer back to them as foundations for our new judgments. This is the method we employ in investigating all new questions, regardless of whether the object of the question can be perceived directly by the senses, or whether it can only be understood by reasoning from that which has already been perceived. …

(at the closing, fourth paragraph prior to the ending)

We must always pay close attention to our perceptions from the senses, to our feelings of pain and pleasure, and to our mental apprehensions from the anticipations, both those we receive ourselves, and those received by other men. For we must conform our judgments to the clear evidence that is available to us through each of the standards of truth.

In Epicurus’ Instructions on Innovation, I quoted from the book Epicurus and the Epicurean Tradition:

In the necessary and inevitable process of updating Epicurean teaching and tradition, I have subjected the potential innovations to the criteria given by Epicurus (Erler, 2011) dealing with innovation and forbidding the ‘muddling’ of doctrines that disagree with each other. The two guidelines provided by Epicurus are akoloythia and symphonia, which translate as consistency (has no internal contradictions) and coherence (is in symphony with the rest of Epicurus’ doctrine).

Here, Epicurus clearly establishes that the teachings of Epicurean philosophy must continue to evolve (by the use of the canon), and sets consistency and coherence as guidelines for this. In academia, there has always been a tendency to imagine that Epicureanism was a closed, fossilized system incapable of evolution, but there would be no Epicureans today if that were the case.

In closing, I wish to accentuate vehemently–as I did with Ontology of Motion–that those writing about the Epicurean tradition must first acquaint themselves with the Letter to Herodotus in order to avoid embarrassing and redundant mistakes that can easily be checked. This epistle served as the “Little Epitome” that all beginner students had to master prior to moving on to more advanced material, and so we can imagine that the teachers frequently referred back to these first principles. Therefore, we strongly encourage students of Epicurus, as well as those who are interested in discussing Epicurus in any manner, to delve into an in-depth study of the Epistle to Herodotus, and to outline it and re-read it so as to internalize its contents.

Further Reading:

Letter to Herodotus

Epicurus and the Epicurean Tradition

Porphyry’s Epistle to Marcella

At this year’s Epicurean Symposium in Athens, the recent rediscovery of a new, indirect Epicurean source was a main point of attention. The source is not Epicurean itself, but is by a philosopher who cites Epicurean sources elaborating on Principal Doctrine 15 (in bold, below) in one of its passages (paragraphs 27-31).

Like many of our sources, the work is written in epistolary style for educational purposes, and judging from some elements (like the reference to “divine law” as distinct from the law of nature, and the reference to abstinence being prescribed by the gods), its Epicurean core ideas are somewhat contaminated by non-Epicurean concepts that Porphyry drew from other philosophies. Here is a link to the English introduction and translation of the passage which was sent by our friends from Greece in pdf format. Below is the passage translation.

27. So then, first you must grasp the law of Nature and from it ascend to the divine law which also established the law of Nature. With these laws as your point of reference, you need never be concerned about the written law. “For the written laws are laid down for the sake of temperate men, not to keep them from doing wrong but from being wronged.” “The wealth of Nature, being truly philosophic, is well-defined and easily obtained, but the wealth of empty false opinions is ill-defined and hard to obtain (a). So then, the person who follows Nature and not empty false opinions is self-sufficient in everything. For satisfying Nature any possession is wealth, but for satisfying unlimited yearnings even the greatest wealth is nothing. It is <not> rare to find a man poor in the attainment of Nature but rich in empty false opinions. For no ignorant man is satisfied with what he has; instead he pines for what he does not have. So then, just as those who have a fever are always thirsty because of the serious nature of their disease and eagerly desire what is most detrimental, so also those who have the soul which manages it in distress are always in need of everything and fall prey to fickle desires under the influence of their excessive greed.”

28. Consequently, even the gods have prescribed remaining pure by abstinence from food and sex. This leads those who are pursuing piety toward Nature’s intent, which the gods themselves constituted, as though any excess, by being contrary to Nature’s intent, is defiled and deadly. “For the ordinary man who fears the simple way of life is driven by fear into actions which are most likely to produce it. And many who have become wealthy have not found relief from evils but rather an exchange for greater ones.” Therefore, the philosophers say that “nothing is as necessary as perceiving clearly what is not necessary,” and that “the greatest wealth of all is self-sufficiency,” and they take “the need of nothing as worthy of respect.” Therefore they exhort us to “practice not how we must provide for some necessity but how we will remain confident when it is not provided.

29. Let us neither censure the flesh as cause of great evils nor attribute our distress to external circumstances. Rather let us seek their causes in the soul, and, by breaking away from every vain yearning and hope for fleeting fancies, let us become totally in control of ourselves. For it is either through fear that a person becomes unhappy or through unlimited and empty desire (b). By bridling these feelings a person can gain possession of blessed reason for himself. To the extent that you are troubled, it is because you forget Nature, for you inflict upon yourself unlimited fears and desires. But it is better for you to have confidence as you lie on a bed of straw than to be in turmoil while you possess a gold couch and a costly table (c). As a result of lamentable labor, property is amassed but life becomes bestial.

30. Consider it in no way contrary to Nature for the soul to cry out when the flesh cries out. The flesh cries not to be hungry, not to be thirsty, not to be cold (d). And so it is difficult for the soul to repress these cries, but it is dangerous for it to disregard nature’s exhortations to it because of the self-sufficiency which grows in it from day to day. Nature also teaches us to regard the outcomes of fortune of little account and to know how to be unfortunate when we are favored by fortune, but not to consider the favors of fortune important when we experience misfortune. And Nature teaches us to accept unperturbed the good outcomes of fortune, but to stand prepared in the face of the seeming evils which come from it. For all that the masses regard as good is a fleeting fancy, but wisdom and knowledge have nothing in common with fortune.

31. Pain does not consist in lacking the goods of the masses but rather in enduring the unprofitable suffering that comes from empty false opinions. For the love of true philosophy causes every disturbing and painful desire to subside. Empty is the discourse of that philosopher by which no human passion is healed. For just as there is no benefit from medicine if it does not heal the bodies’ diseases, neither is there from philosophy if it does not purge the passion of the soul.” So then, the law of Nature prescribes these things and others like them.

Notes:

a. Principal Doctrine 15 paraphrased.

b. A similar passage in Diogenes’ Wall describes fears and unlimited desires as “the roots of all evils“, and so this portion is reliably Epicurean.

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

c. Epicurean Fragment 207.

d. Paraphrases Vatican Saying 33.

 

Vatican Sayings – Brief Study Guide

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

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

ON HAPPINESS

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

IN CELEBRATION OF WISDOM

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON AUTARCHY

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON DEATH

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

ON FRIENDSHIP

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

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

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

ON WHOLESOME CHARACTER

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

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

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

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

EPICUREAN ATTITUDE TOWARDS FATE

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

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

ON CONSOLATION

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

A Concrete Self

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FEELINGS AS ARBITERS OF THOUGHT

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

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

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

Read the rest of the review here.

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

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:

 Horace: Satires, Epistles and Ars Poetica (Loeb Classical Library, No. 194) (English and Latin Edition)

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 De l’inhumanité de la 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

 De l’inhumanité de la religion