Category Archives: books

On Philodemus’ Scroll 1005

The following is my synopsis and commentary of PHerc 1005, whose title is translated into French as “À l’addresse des …” in Les Epicuriens; the name of the scroll is not complete, but it seems to be addressed to people who call themselves Epicurean yet do not study the sources.

In the scroll that scholars identify as PHerc 1005, Philodemus admonishes those who call themselves Epicurean but do not know the writings and doctrines, and prefer outlines that generalize. He also warns about there being incomplete sources of ill repute.

In addition to the problem tied to the summaries of the doctrines, the scroll mentions that there were books in circulation about which Zeno of Sidon (his Master, who was the Epicurean Scholarch of Athens at the time) doubted their authenticity. This led students of Epicurean philosophy to praise people who lacked knowledge. Philodemus argued that it was “inexcusable to ignore our books” because, in the end, by reading works of doubtful origin, these students “lend an ear to the insults to our great men, and judging from the abundance of these insults, “it would appear they had all the vices!”. Therefore, he warns that the study of these illegitimate books would “make us walk backwards in sweetness” (=in pleasure).

He also accentuates the blessings that come with the study of the correct books. He explains that those who have studied philosophy from childhood to old age have written works that are very interesting for their precision (clarity), and elsewhere he speaks of “the exactness which characterizes us“. Clear speech was always of huge importance to the Epicureans. We may infer from this that some of the works being criticized by Philodemus lacked clarity and precision, or used words that the founders would likely not have used or approved of.

Works Mentioned

Philodemus mentions several works that did not survive to our day. He was attempting to direct the attention of students away from the works he deemed inauthentic and to these works. He mentions a book (or series?) by Epicurus titled The Virtues, and a collection of books titled Pragmateia (Application, or Practices?), which included the books of the four founders (Epicurus, Metrodorus, Hermarchus and Polyaenus). This would have been the Epicurean equivalent of the “New Testament”. Philodemus criticizes an individual who claimed to have the Pragmateia, but it turned out he only had the headings of chapters of “many anthologies”–which tells us that thte Pragmateia was a vast collection of works.

There is nothing wrong with having summaries or outlines of the works, but Philodemus was arguing that this was not an excuse to avoid the complete books. However, this work raises the problem that, considering the vast library of Epicurean books that existed, it’s understandable that students sought shortcuts because many of them probably either lacked the money or the time to read this many books.

As the generations went by, the Epicureans were confronted with attacks by Platonists, Stoics, and others, and developed methodologies and arguments specifically to address these attacks. In note 19, page 1310 of Les Epicuriens, we read:

The expression “Prescriptions to Follow” covers without a doubt a sort of practical manual, of a catechetical type (“do this, don’t do that”), which could have been meant to provide the disciples of the Garden with weapon to resist the attacks of the rival schools against Epicurean doctrine.

This “Prescriptions to Follow” work, rendered in Greek, was titled A Prostattetai Poiein.

Divine Raptures

This scroll also furnishes a window into the reverence paid to the founders by the Epicureans of late antiquity. In pages 738-739, we find Philodemus praising his Scholarch’s Zeno of Sidon ecstatic level of devotion for Epicurus and the other founders.

I have become a tireless flatterer … of the delights and divine raptures that Epicurus inspired him.

By this, we see that feelings were not only one of the criteria in the canon, but that the practice of Epicurean philosophy involved the exercise of wholesome and pleasant emotions.

Conclusion

I’d like to conclude with three observations:

  1. Philodemus is aware of the utility of summaries and outlines, and in fact not only is he (and/or his Scholarch Zeno of Sidon) responsible for the shortened formulation known as the Tetrapharmakos (Four Cures), but he also instructs his students to write outlines of the doctrines on wealth. So he is making full use of these outlines and summaries (also known as Epitomes) in his own method of teaching, and yet he also instructs his students to delve into the sources and read the books. So he is NOT telling people to avoid the use of outlines–he would not have forbidden a practice that he himself engaged in. What he was saying is that the outlines are tools for memorizing and learning, not an excuse to neglect our philosophical studies.
  2. Philodemus was a librarian. He probably had spent great amount of time collecting and having his scribes make copies (or making copies himself) of these important works, and wanted students to take advantage of his considerable amount of work, and he (and/or his Master Zeno of Sidon) also would have carefully chosen the volumes that he copied.
  3. Cicero also criticized how, when Epicureanism spread to the Latin-speaking world (Italy), many peasants and rural people with little intellectual formation converted to Epicureanism. Cicero’s critique was inspired in an elitist attitude: since when does “the rabble” philosophize? But Cicero was not committed to the proliferation of Epicurean doctrine. Philodemus, on the other hand, was evidently more concerned with the quality of the content that these common folk were consuming. We may compare this to how, in many parts of the so-called “third world”, many Christian churches today are led by pastors who do not have a real theological or professional formation as ministers, counselors, or deep familiarity with the Bible, and some of them have limited literacy. If something like this was happening among the Epicureans in Italy, then Philodemus did have reason for concern.

Having explained all these problems, Philodemus argues that many individuals fall into the category of sympathizers who haven’t been warned (non-avertis) about Epicurean teaching. This category is labeled “the profane” in the notes in Les Epicuriens–that is, non-initiates in philosophy, the almost-Epicurean, or the Epicurean-friendly. Philodemus concludes the scroll saying that many of these sorts of people (who assume the label Epicurean but do not diligently study the books) aren’t Epicurean.

Epicurean Environmentalism

What follows is part of my book review of Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion.

All perceptions are true because perception is continuous with nature … Our sense organs dilate and palpate in a diffractive harmony with the world. – Ethics of Motion, pages 188 and 181

Nail does a good job of explaining some of the ways in which we are embedded into nature. In page 2, Nail speaks of the need to “extend rights to nature”. I was looking forward to his explanation of this, but never really found a methodology by which this could be founded, if not in Epicureanism, at least in Lucretius. Nail is on to something when he discusses mutuality, and when he explains that we are part of our environment. But since Nail focuses on Lucretius while rejecting his Epicurean foundation, it’s hard for an Epicurean to find coherence in his theories.

This is not to say that there is no Epicurean environmentalism, or that we could never be able to theorize one based on Epicurean guidelines about justice based on mutual advantage. In the past, I’ve read environmentalism into the architecture of the Garden itself. Hermarchus–a co-founder of Epicureanism–does address some ecological issues, which I discussed in an essay on his posited vegetarianism. In that essay, we find Hermarchus saying:

Those who first defined what we ought to do, and what we ought not, very properly did not forbid us to kill other animals. For the advantage arising from these is effected … since it is not possible that men could be preserved, unless they endeavoured to defend those who are nurtured with themselves from the attacks of other animals.

… Some of those, of the most elegant manners, recollecting that they abstained from slaughter because it was useful to the public safety …. for the purpose of repelling the attacks of animals of another species

Here, we see that advantage is cited as the criterion for what is right and what should be approved by law. Hermarchus did not call for vegetarianism, but did say that the choice of which animals are killed for food, or to protect a household from attack by wild beasts, depends on advantage. Later, Hermarchus seems to argue that humans occupy an ecological niche in society that allows us to control the populations of certain animals. Again, his arguments rest on issues of advantage, including the possibility that some animals will compete with us for food.

Since, if we suffered them to increase excessively, they would become injurious to us. But through the number of them which is now preserved, certain advantages are imparted to human life. For sheep and oxen, and every such like animal, when the number of them is moderate, are beneficial to our necessary wants; but if they become redundant in the extreme, and far exceed the number which is sufficient, they then become detrimental to our life; the latter by employing their strength, in consequence of participating of this through an innate power of nature, and the former, by consuming the nutriment which springs up from the earth for our benefit alone. Hence, through this cause, the slaughter of animals of this kind is not prohibited, in order that as many of them as are sufficient for our use, and which we may be able easily to subdue, may be left.

On this account, from the above-mentioned causes, it is similarly requisite to think, that what pertains to the eating of animals, was ordained by those who from the first established the laws; and that the advantageous and the disadvantageous were the causes why some animals were permitted to be eaten and others not.

This is interesting to me because I have recently noticed and written about the emergence of insect-eating as society is attempting to adapt to the environmental cost of how we produce meat and the pragmatic problems related to overpopulation. We see that issues of advantage and disadvantage are often being cited in the educational literature concerning this trend: they cite disadvantages like the production of methane gases by cattle, the depletion of the fish in the sea, marine pollution, mercury in the waters, and on the side of the advantages, they cite the nutritional benefits of eating certain insects, and the ease and sustainability of production with few resources.

While acknowledging that there are no absolute standards of justice, Hermarchus appealed to advantage for human communities to defend a variety of environmental policies, depending on the circumstances. This is consistent with Principal Doctrien 37:

Among the things accounted just by conventional law, whatever in the needs of mutual association is attested to be useful, is thereby stamped as just, whether or not it be the same for all; and in case any law is made and does not prove suitable to the usefulness of mutual association, then this is no longer just. And should the usefulness which is expressed by the law vary and only for a time correspond with the prior conception, nevertheless for the time being it was just, so long as we do not trouble ourselves about empty words, but look simply at the facts. – Principal Doctrine 37

Notice that the advantage being considered is that of humans capable of creating, abiding by, and agreeing to laws. Laws are human cultural artifacts. One can not expect a shark, or a wolf, or a cat, to understand and obey laws–even if we may feel compassion for these creatures at times, and be naturally inclined to help them if they are suffering. An Epicurean environmentalism must recognize that humans are, at present, the stewards of our planet.

Another thing we CAN say and observe is that nature has set limits to what is needed for a life of complete pleasure. While it’s a good idea to have a reserve of grain and other goods, there’s a point beyond which Epicurus would acknowledge that the excesses of preparation create greater disadvantage than advantage.

In page 186, Nail says that “matter from the environment affects our mind”–which is accurate–but then he says that Lucretian ethics must consider non-sentient things … on what base? How? By which methodology? Who decides the laws and who abides by them? Whose considerations would be valid? In one passage, Nail mentions that non-sentient beings also “do ethics”. In what way does a stone DO ethics? As I’ve said before, in On Moral Development Epicurus mentions the anticipation of causal responsibility, which rests on individual moral agents. If we follow Nail’s attack on the individual, we lose an important point of reference for all morality–because not only are we the cause of our actions: we also suffer from them. We can’t say the same about non-sentient beings, or about an impersonal “environment”.

And so while we co-exist in mutuality with our environment, and could not live without the air we breathe and the food we eat and the other relations we have in our environment, it’s important to never lose sight of our agency and our causal responsibility.

The next essay of this book review will be my conclusion, and mention some of the good and bad things about Nail’s book. I wish to note that it was never my intention to write a diatribe against Nail. I am mainly writing this review for the benefit of newer students of Epicurean philosophy who might pick up this book expecting to gain Epicurean insights. Please, read what I and other Epicureans have to say, and read critically!

Further Reading:

Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion

An Anarcho-Socialist Lucretius?

What follows is part of my book review of Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion.

In this book, Nail seems to be taking his views about Lucretius in the direction of a radical skepticism, and his commentary includes a Marxist commentary of De Rerum Natura and a critique of capitalism that is a bit forced.

It is fair to question capitalism, and to address issues of economics. That’s all perfectly legitimate. However, capitalism is based on liquidity and movement of assets, goods and money. If Nail believes that movement is the nature of things, is not this liquidity also natural?

Lucretian Anarchism

In page 56–while equating stasis, the state, statues, and katastematic, stable pleasure–Nail goes as far as setting instability and anarchy / statelessness as an arbitrary ideal … which would render us unstable. It’s not clear how Nail’s anarchism works in practice (is Somalia an ideal state-less society?), but Epicurean anarchism is not anti-state. It’s, at most, indifferent to the state. But in page 56 of Ethics of Motion we read:

If there is no state that has not fallen prey to classism and militarianism of some variety, then there is no state that Lucretius can ethically endorse.

No Lucretian source cited. Elsewhere, Nail equates the state with wealth acquisition (which is bad?), again claiming that Lucretius is anti-state. In a previous Twentieth message titled Better Be a Subject and at Peace, I cited the portion of the fifth book of De Rerum Natura where Lucretius explains that people grew tired of vengeful, anarchic violence and of the violence tied to fighting over power, and accepted the peace that comes with the yoke of the state. Here is the relevant portion:

For man grew weary: the life of violence
and hatred left him sick, and more disposed
freely to choose the yoke of law and statute.
For angered men kept calling for revenge
more savage than just law will now permit;
this made man sicken of life by violence. (DRN V.1136-1150)
Better by far be subject, and at peace
than will to govern the world and hold a throne! (DRN V.1129-1130)

And so the idea that Lucretius would not support any state is not founded on the text and here, Lucretius is abiding by Epicurus’ Principal Doctrine 6.

In pages 58-59, Nail says Lucretius is against “anti-social individualism” … Where does Lucretius state this? Where does he say ethics is fundamentally collective, as Nail claims? It has always seemed to me that Epicurean philosophy does not accept this either-or logic Nail is applying. We are both individuals (Vatican Saying 14 accentuates our responsibility for our own happiness, and in On Moral Development Epicurus mentions the anticipation of moral responsibility as resting on individual agents) as well as social entities (several of the Principal Doctrines deal with mutual advantage), and ethics must attend to both.

If my readers are truly interested in a good Epicurean-compatible critique of capitalism and labor, I would direct you to the book On the inhumanity of religion.

Property as Theft

Neil takes huge interpretative liberties when he equates (in page 121) property and theft, where Lucretius is really saying that our life, our time, is borrowed (DRN 3.970-1). This equation is hard to reconcile with Philodemus’ discussions in On Property Management, which trace their origin to the founders’ doctrines on economics, on wealth, and on autarchy. Is Nail advocating having no property whatsoever? Is he willing to carry this out in his own life? Is this type of “utopian destitution” compatible with a pleasant life?

Philodemus of Gadara says that wealthy Epicurean friends should share the excess of their wealth with their friends. This is clear enough. Nail’s failure to explain WHO should abolish private property adds problems to his thesis. Should the state do this? Is he saying state communism is compatible with the nature of things? Would this state appropriation of all property not be an act that would require huge violence? If not the state, then who would abolish private property? It’s difficult for me, as a reader, to see the connection between theory and practice.

Collectivism in De Rerum Natura?

In page 134, Nail says “desire is collective”. He does not explain in what way desires are collective, so there is no real philosophical argument, only this statement. But we know from experience that desire happens in the body of individuals, and throughout the history of philosophy, politics, and anthropology, the tensions between the desires of the body and the demands of the collective have always been noted.

In page 135, Nail claims that matter is “always collective”. Not only does Lucretius not really speak in this manner or say this, but stressing the collective as if to diminish the individual seems arbitrary to me and strikes me as not based on the study of nature, but on political leanings. I say this as a proud leftist. I’m not opposed to leftist interpretations of any of our sources, but the interpretative liberties here are considerable. In page 137, Nail goes as far as re-defining the soul as collective:

The soul is not a merely imagined identity; it is a real, practical identity that gathers all the heterogeneous people into a single process (not state) of living and dying together.

No sources are cited for this statement, which is neither an Epicurean nor a Lucretian definition of the soul, which is material and individual. It’s hard to see how this relates to De Rerum Natura. If my readers want to read updated discussions on the physical, mortal soul from an Epicurean perspective, I would direct them to A Concrete Self, an essay that relates the Epicurean doctrine of the material soul to a wonderful essay by Serife Tekin titled Self-Evident.

The next essay will discuss Epicurean / Lucretian environmentalism.

The Problem of Ataraxia in Nail

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

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

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

“Epicurus’ fetish of rational thought”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katastematic Pleasure is Soft Motion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Epicurus Argued Concerning Static Pleasures

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion

Epicurus & His Philosophy (Minnesota Archive Editions)

Dialogues on Matter in Motion – Part II

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

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

Follow-up to initial Dialogue on Matter in Motion

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

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

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

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

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

Alex. Why are caring what Nail says?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex. The void allows motion and motion transfer

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

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

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

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

La Mettrie: an Epicurean System

The following essay (first in a series) is a review of Système d’Épicure (published in 1750), subtitled Philosophical reflections on the origins of animals, by French materialist philosopher Julien Offray de La Mettrie. The book is unfortunately not available (as far as I know) in English.

Other blogs: The Canon in LM, Against Creationism, and Anti-Seneca.

Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751) was a physician who treated venereal dis-eases. He seems to have seen himself as a philosophical functionary of Venus, perhaps (metaphorically) a priest or healer. We have to imagine that La Mettrie had to discuss with his patients very intimate details of their sexual lives and tendencies with frankness, and in a spirit of trust, and that this job would have required of him a willingness to not judge or shame his patients. From all this, and also from his body of literature, we may deduce his progressive sexual and social values–particularly progressive for his time.

In the essay A happiness fit for organic bodies: La Mettrie’s medical Epicureanism, Charles T. Wolfe reports that La Mettrie himself (in an anonymous work) referred to his philosophy as an Epicuro-Cartesian System, although in some of his writings he was critical of Descartes. His intellectual legacy involved the re-joining of the soul and the body by describing the soul as material and as part of the body, in this way materializing Cartesianism and healing the Platonic split between body and soul. Wolfe also claims that La Mettrie is an Epicuro-Spinozan, and says that he created a

new and perhaps unique form of Epicureanism in and for the Enlightenment: neither a mere hedonism nor a strict materialist speculation on the nature of living bodies, but a ‘medical Epicureanism’.

Wolfe also cites La Mettrie as saying “The physician is the only philosopher worthy of his country“, and explains that what he means is that the physician defines truth according to matter and nature, rather than as defined by religion or convention. La Mettrie also said: “The best philosophy is that of the physicians“.

La Mettrie, the physician, sees the body as a machine–a machine that produces pleasure (and pain). He firmly roots the search for happiness in the body and in matter. In Man, a Machine, he says: “Nature created us all to be happy“.

An Epicurean System

The Système consists on numbered paragraphs with philosophical contemplations on nature, and appears to have been written as a prose commentary on some of the ideas expressed by Lucretius in De Rerum Natura. La Mettrie seemed unfamiliar with Epicurus as a primary, direct source, but he knew of Lucretius and cited him often, as noted by André Comte-Sponville in the essay La Mettrie et le «Système d’Épicure».

In paragraph 49, he labels the latter part of the book “a project for life and death worthy of crowning an Epicurean system“. Considering that the author is elsewhere critical of philosophers who create systems, we have to evaluate this. Epicureanism is a coherent dogmatic philosophy whose ideas are all inter-connected, and here La Mettrie knows and begrudgingly acknowledges that he has birthed a system, and even confers a crown upon it. I say he did so bregudgingly, because he recognized that all these ideas flowed from his first principles, and were connected to each other in such a way, that it was impossible to deny that they made up a philosophical system, and one nearly identical to Epicurus’ own, so that he labeled it “an Epicurean system“.

In The Natural History of the Soul (review upcoming), La Mettrie severely criticizes the “systematizers” of philosophy, but in this book, we see him choosing the words “AN Epicurean system”–which implies that there are OTHER Epicurean systems, and many ways of being Epicurean–, and here we do not see his anti-système rhetoric.

So what does this critique of the systematizers consist of?

A Mass of Prejudices

He says the systematizers are full of bias and prejudice, which impedes the development of true wisdom because they have made up their mind prior to addressing the questions. In paragraph 64 of his Système, La Mettrie says his own “mass of prejudices” of education “disappeared early on in the divine brilliance of philosophy“–which further indicates that he observed how these prejudices were acquired through his society’s education system. We will revisit this when we discuss Anti-Seneca.

Elsewhere in his Natural History of the Soul, he makes frequent appeals to reason without bias or prejudice, saying that pre-judging is not the same as true wisdom. In our present book, he further links true judgement with seeing the relation between two or more ideas with an unbiased mind.

Systems and Presumption

So many philosophers have supported the opinion of Epicurus, that I dared to mix my voice with theirs; Like they did, what I am creating is nothing more than a system; Which shows us what an abyss we are immersed in when, wanting to break through the mists of time, we want to take presumptuous glances at what offers us no grip: because–admit creation (by God) or reject it–it is everywhere the same mystery, everywhere the same incomprehensibility. How did this Earth I live in form? … This is what the greatest geniuses will never do; they will battle in the philosophical field, as I have; they will sound the alarm to devotees, and will not teach us anything. – La Mettrie, Paragraph 41 of Système d’Epicure

We will address creationism at a later point. This is just one of several instances where the author connects systematization with the arrogance and presumption of philosophers. Later, in paragraph 44, he says:

It seems pleasant for (the philosopher) to live, pleasant to be the toy of himself, to play such a funny role, and to believe himself an important character.

This is, on its face, a legitimate critique of the philosopher. Perhaps we are the center of our own worlds in our own lives and experiences, but no individual or species is at the center of THE universe.

But this critique does deserve at least one reply: I disagree that the philosophers “will not teach us anything“. I mean, as opposed to whom? Do the theologians teach us SOMETHING? Aren’t theologians even more presumptuous when–unlike us materialists–we know that their hypotheses are not based on the study of nature?

Castles in the Air

In his Natural History of the Soul (and you will see that counter-references from his other works will often be useful when studying La Mettrie), in the instances where he is most critical of the systematizing philosophers, we see that he specifically is addressing the idealists–mentioning Malebranche, Leibniz and Descartes by name. He says these idealists built “castles in the air” (châteaux dans l’air). He elsewhere says that these “ambitious metaphysicians” have a “presumptuous imagination“.

Therefore, his critique against systems is specifically a critique of idealists, some of whom he mentions by name, and his accusation of building castles in the air relates to the problem of idealism and lack of empirical, material base in these systems. His reference to having created something “WORTHY OF crowning an Epicurean system” is therefore understood as following on this critique. He is saying that anything worthy of being called a system must first abandon idealism in favor of materialism.

And so, his anti-système rhetoric is a critique of the idealists in particular. When we discuss his argument that we get all our ideas from the senses at the end of this book, this critique will come into relief and focus, but for now it should be noted that the novel A Few Days in Athens–which was also produced by intellectuals from the Enlightenment generation–has parallel sayings where the author charges that the “pedantry of Aristotle” makes people confuse “prejudice for wisdom“. Both the accusation of presumption and the bias argument are made against the other philosophers.

An Epicurean Sceptic?

“The primary springs of all bodies, as well as of our own, are hidden from us and will probably always be.”

It is clear that La Mettrie follows the Epicurean tradition of philosophy, and even at times falls in the lineage of the laughing philosophers (if we consider his “advise to an old lady” who has lost her youth and sexual attraction). Towards the end of his Système, he says:

“… these “projects for life and death”: a voluptuous Epicurean in the course of life until my last breath, and a steady Stoic at the approach of death” … have left in my soul a feeling of voluptuousness which does not prevent me from laughing at the first.”

He is referring to all the paragraphs from the first part of the Système prior to the 49th, which is where he announces his Epicurean “system”. However, he claims, even insists that he is a sceptic and only begrudgingly admits that he is a dogmatist (a “systematizer”, to use his own term). In his Natural History of the Soul, he says “the true philosophy” doesn’t exist.

This raises questions concerning the extent to which it’s prudent to accept truths for which we have no evidence based on analogy with the available evidence, before we must adopt the label “sceptic” about this or that type of truth. To what extent are we being truly humble, and not imprudent or lacking in ability to infer truths, when we admit we do now know something that is considered a dark, unclear mystery? As the Epistle to Herodotus puts it:

We must by all means stick to our sensations, that is, simply to the present impressions whether of the mind or of any criterion whatever, and similarly to our actual feelings, in order that we may have the means of determining that which needs confirmation and that which is obscure.

One final note concerning how, in my view, La Mettrie’s epistemological approach is essentially Epicurean despite his hesitation to call himself a dogmatist: to him, knowledge that does not bring pleasure is rejected–and it is rejected BECAUSE it does not bring pleasure! In paragraph 26 he contrasts the pleasure of being in nature with trying to understand everything rationally, which is more an act of power over nature rather than blissful immersion in it:

Let us take things for what they seem to be. Let us look all around us: this circumspection is not devoid of pleasure and the sight is enchanting. Let us watch it admiringly, but without that useless itch to understand everything and without being tortured by curiosity, which is always superfluous when our senses do not share it with our minds.

On Religion and Politics

While others have related the Epicurean advise to remain apolitical and irreligious to the distinction between imagined community and natural communities, La Mettrie gives us this curious insight in paragraph 76:

Religion is only necessary for those who are incapable of feeling humanity. It is certain that it is useless to the intercourse of honest people. But only superior souls can feel this great truth. For whom then is the wonderful construction of politics made? For minds who would perhaps have found other checks insufficient, a species which unfortunately constitutes the greatest number.

In the next entry, we will see how La Mettrie treats the subject of the Epicurean canon.

Further Reading:

 Système d’Épicure (French Edition)

Book Review: How to Live a Good Life

Today is the official book release date for How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy by Penguin Random House (Amazon link here), a collection of 15 essays edited by Massimo Pigliucci, Skye Cleary and Daniel Kaufman. In includes chapters on Epicureanism, Daoism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity Progressive Islam, Existentialism, and other philosophies of life as they are lived today.

The purpose of the book is to help people living in the 21st Century to tackle the challenges related to choosing a personal philosophy of life by giving them fifteen radically different examples of how others are doing it. Most of the essays were written by members of clergy or of academia. I wrote the Epicureanism chapter, and have had the opportunity to read the book in its entirety. From the intro, we learn that these are a few of the goals of the book:

First, to appreciate the sheer variety of philosophical points of view on life and better understand other human beings who have chosen to live according to a philosophy different from your own. Understanding is the beginning of both wisdom and compassion. Second, because you may wish to know something more about your own—chosen or inherited—life philosophy; our authors are some of the best and brightest in the field, and their chapters make for enlightening reading. Last, it is possible that you, too, have been questioning your current take on life, the universe, and everything, and reading about other perspectives may reinforce your own beliefs, prompt you to experiment with another philosophy, or perhaps even cause you to arrive at a new eclectic mix of ideas.

In the past, I have published commentaries on Buddhist, Daoist, Confucian, Humanist, Nietzschean and other philosophical traditions, as well as Christianity, Islam, and the Bahá’í Faith. I have learned much from each of these traditions. I’ve learned to appreciate Muhammad’s good business sense–even if I profoundly disagree with most of the rest of Islam. I’ve learned to come to terms with and appreciate some of the good aspects of my own Christian upbringing.

I even cheerfully stumbled across a Daoist philosopher who was Epicurean in all but name! One of my favorite chapters in the book was the one on Daoism, which coincidentally is the philosophy that has the most in common with Epicureanism. It reminded me that if there are innumerable atoms in infinite space, as Epicurean cosmology says, this means that the cosmos is very complex and phenomena may have multiple valid explanations from various perspectives. This modern Epicureans call “polyvalent logic”.

From Confucianism, I was reminded that relations are part of what defines our identities. From Stoicism, I learned that it is prudent to let go of what we have no control over. From the Progressive Islam chapter, I learned that the efforts to bring Islam into the future go well beyond ijtihad (independent interpretation of the Qur’an), and capitalize on the Qur’anic message of economic justice to make the religion relevant to contemporary progressive issues. From Reform Jewish Rabbi Barbara Block, I learned:

How wise our world would become if only we would all learn from each other!

I also learned that there is a non-theistic religion called Ethical Culture (aka Religious Humanism), which is in many ways similar to Humanistic Judaism and to the Unitarian Universalist Church.

Existentialist thinkers like Sartre and De Beauvoir were very interested in how people objectify each other, and asked questions about how we can best develop mature, intersubjective human relations between free individuals. The Existentialism chapter reminded me that enemies can sometimes be a source of healthy competition and–in a strange way–be at the same time good friends,

that other people are vitally important because they challenge us and open up possibilities in ways that we do not always see on our own, and the best kinds of relationships are those that are constructively critical

and that

signing up for a set of rules that someone else created is “bad faith,” meaning that we are not being authentic.

The Effective Altruism chapter reminded me that, if I’m going to be putting out efforts to help others, I may as well ensure that my efforts have the greatest impact.

It would be unfair for me to “review” the content of the Epicureanism chapter, since I myself wrote it. I will leave that to others. However, I will say that the experiment of writing this chapter was a great chance to re-evaluate my own personal philosophy and to re-visit many of the things that I’ve learned as a student of Epicurean philosophy, and that everyone should carry out this experiment as a way of assessing the ways in which we sculpt ourselves and our lives as pleasant, how we create meaning and value, how we deal with existential baggage and challenges, and how we discern truth from untruth. In fact, ancient Epicureans were known for writing Epitomes that summarized their doctrines as a learning and memorizing tool. So my exercise of writing this chapter is actually a recommended practice of the tradition.

If you read How to Live a Good Life and want to maximize the pleasure that you get from the book, my advice is that you take this project a step further and write an essay where you expound your own personal philosophy, perhaps inspired by a few of the things you read here. Most importantly, remember that philosophy is not just an exercise for academia: it’s an exercise for daily living.

Further Reading:

Lucian’s Sale of Creeds: an ancient satire of the various philosophies

How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy

Book Review of “How to be Epicurean”, by Catherine Wilson

In recent months, many book reviews have been published, as well as podcasts and essays written by Catherine Wilson herself to promote her new book How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well. I finally had the opportunity to read, evaluate, and write my own review of the book.

I too have accepted the challenge of inviting modern people to the study of Epicurean philosophy, and have continued to learn constantly after writing my book so that some of my opinions may have evolved, and for that reason I probably have greater sympathy for Wilson’s efforts than most reviewers. The reader must understand that every approach to the task of presenting Epicureanism to a modern audience will bear the mark of our own personal histories, values, and idiosyncrasies, and is bound to be culturally specific and idiosyncratic. Apologists for capitalism and anarcho-capitalists will not love her book, but her arguments are often sound, if incomplete. Below are some of my specific critiques and commentaries.

The Good

The author says, accurately, that there are no natural rights, only conventional rights.

She calls for policy to be based on evidence.

The moral problem of euthanasia is very well explained in pages 138-140.

I applaud that she’s not afraid to tackle issues of sex and intimacy.

The Bad

In page 177, she claims that “no one can claim to perceive reality directly”. The premise behind the canon is that it is, indeed, possible to apprehend reality directly with our faculties. She didn’t delve into the Epicurean canon in much detail.

In page 183-4, the author’s (incorrect) view that the atomic theory is unempirical could have been turned into an opportunity to discuss the acceptable methods of inference–but, either way, this view is an error: atoms have been photographed (see this article by Live Science).

The Influence of Hostile Narratives

When reading Wilson as a non-academic proponent of Epicurean philosophy, it becomes very clear to me that she moves in (academic?) circles that are quite hostile to Epicurean ideas, and–in spite of her sincere and well-meaning defense of Epicurus–has suffered the contagion of these ideas to some extent.

For instance, she accepts accusations by the intellectual enemies of Epicureanism that are false as if they were historical truths. In page 112, she states as fact that Lucretius committed suicide without once evaluating the credibility of the claim or its dubious source. Suicide is forbidden in Epicureanism except in cases of terminal illness or while lying mortally wounded in battlefield. This is only one of many false accusations against Lucretius by the enemies of the Epicureans.

The author elsewhere gives credit to misogynistic accusations against the Garden. Proponents of virtue ethics and religions at times seemed to think that all emancipated women are whores, and described many of the women who participated in the Garden that way. The truth is that many of the founders were married, had children, and were raising them in the environment of the Garden. It was a family environment, as attested also by Epicurus’ final testament.

Wilson’s defense of empiricism in page 183 is not strong enough. She points out the dangers of scientific advance, and critiques empiricism as if ignorance (and its false consolations) were without dangers. This is the exact opposite of Michel Onfray’s bold Promethean Bio-Ethics, which I much prefer. We must not deny that there are dangers in knowledge, but I sense here also that she concedes to opinions that are foreign to the Epicurean study of nature, and which sometimes depict scientific advance as an insult to God, or as otherwise arrogance on the part of mortals.

Epicureanism is NOT a Philosophy of the Polis

On that note, the author seems to have accepted also (page 208) the insinuation that Lenin was in some way influenced by Epicureanism because he favored historical materialism–a doctrine that derives from Marx. She insinuates that Hobbes was Epicurean, yet the philosopher and author of Leviathan advocated for the big state and was a philosopher of the polis (of the nation-state).

Marx and Engels (who, she claims, were influenced by Epicurus) were also definitely not Epicurean, but their ideas that machines should do our work, that they should free men to enjoy their time, and that people should own the means of production have antecedents in Philodemus’ Art of Property Management scroll–particularly in the “delegation of tasks” doctrine.

The problem with conflating such a wide array of thinkers with the Epicureans is that this takes away the Epicurean Gospel from the realm of individual ethics into the realm of political and Platonic ethics, and confuses natural community with political community. We should consider the kings and mobs quote, which shows that neither the excesses of elitism/traditionalism nor of collectivism (as is the case with communism) are healthy according to the Epicureans. This quote places Epicureanism outside of the narratives of the right and the left of the political spectrum.

A free life cannot acquire many possessions, because this is not easy to do without servility to mobs or monarchs, yet it possesses all things in unfailing abundance; and if by chance it obtains many possessions, it is easy to distribute them so as to win the gratitude of neighbors. – Vatican Saying 67

Wilson argues that wealth should be shared (page 222), but does not link this with the sources. This is not entirely clear to me, but it seems that Epicurus DID say in VS 67 (above) that wealth should be shared … with friends or neighbors, not necessarily with the impersonal polis. Later Epicureans, like Thomas Jefferson, worried about the excesses of wealth disparity and called for the use of taxation to fix this problem.

Not Enough Sources Cited

The author does cite sources at times, but not often enough, and this is a bit problematic. For instance, when she claimed that the residents of the Garden were evading both politics AND business, I asked myself: What would be the source of that? I came across this potential source:

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

When arguing against “concentration of wealth”, or “greed”, maybe she should’ve cited her Lucretian and Epicurean sources in detail. One must particularly object to this in page 104:

Epicureans put no stock in the notion of individual desert, they are unmoved by arguments that the wealthy deserve their wealth and the poor do not deserve to partake of it.

The author, again, does not cite sources, and this seems to contradict Metrodorus’ instructions in Vatican Saying 45 that we should take pride in our own qualities, like our strength and self-sufficiency. I am unfamiliar with a source that would appear to justify “being unmoved by arguments” related to individual desert. VS 67 and a Philodeman scroll (Art of Property Management) advise that the wealthy should share their wealth with their friends–but this says nothing about “deserving” what one has.

The Importance of Mutual Advantage

In page 108, Wilson confuses the reader needlessly re: how laws can be just and yet not be of mutual benefit. Either she is contradicting the sources, or not expressing herself clearly. She could have easily cited PDs 37-38 on how rules may and do change.

I applaud that the author appeals to the importance of empirical data and sound science when discussing policy issues, like global warming and climate change. Empirical data is important. However, she did not mention how mutual advantage relates to policy. It is difficult or impossible to connect a philosophy of personal ethics like Epicureanism to policy at the level of state, or of community, without appealing to mutual advantage. If Wilson had appealed to the sources while explaining the concepts of justice / morality, she would have encountered repeated references to “mutual advantage” and this would have added credibility and clarity to her arguments.

If she had relied, again, on the first principles (in this case, the last ten of the Principal Doctrines), her explanation of how Epicurean philosophy provides moral guidance would have been much more cogent and complete. The fact that an area the size of Delaware has been declared unlivable in Louisiana has economic effects, and the building of new dams there and in other coastal regions would result in the spending of billions of dollars that would have to come from the pockets of tax payers. The problems generated by climate change are not abstract. If they are discussed in concrete, measurable, observable terms as they are directly experienced, then the issues of mutual advantage and disadvantage may be addressed. This is how Epicurean morality works, and Wilson wasted an opportunity to encourage her readers to philosophize like Epicureans about these issues.

There’s a reason why the founders made frequent appeals to memorize the sources. Epicurean ideas are much easier to explain and understand, and a lot more difficult to misconstrue or confuse, if they are explained from the sources. Our insistence on citing sources is not because we think Epicurus was infallible and we obey his unfailing authority. The arguments in the PDs, the VS and other sources were carefully articulated after hours and hours of discussion by the founders, and the words were carefully chosen for a reason–which it is our task to discern–, and by her failure to cite sources, the author risks sounding preachy, loses a bit of the clarity of her message, and reduces her credibility (as we’ve seen in some of her book’s reviews).

In one passage, the author tries to argue that a lack of justice in the afterlife (hell, or reincarnation) should not generate existential anxiety. Here, again, mutual advantage could have helped to explain that people are capable of being fair and moral without having to tremble in fear of hell. People who are cruel, exploitative, or unreliable, burn bridges with their fellow citizens and create many disadvantages for themselves and others. People who are fair, honest, and reliable, create many advantages for themselves and others.

Mutual advantage is also one of the most business-friendly principles in Epicurean doctrine, and it’s no surprise that Wilson’s defense of Epicureanism comes off as not business friendly. She barely mentioned this crucial component.

In Closing

These criticisms–as I said initially–do not take away from Wilson’s overall praiseworthy effort to promote Epicurean ideas. She has potentially initiated a conversation with her reader that–I hope–will contribute to her reader’s happiness. These efforts will always bear the mark of the idiosyncrasy of the proponent, and that is to be expected.

My goal in writing this post is to help students of Epicurean philosophy to connect the content to the sources, and to more critically read this and any other book inviting us to study Epicurean philosophy. For this reason, I invite readers of Wilson’s book to join us at the Garden of Epicurus Facebook group and share any questions you may have while reading this or other books.

Further Reading:

  Wrong Again? One more on Stoicism vs Epicureanism

A hostile review from the Wall Street Journal written by a Stoic

By a fellow Epicurean: How to be an Epicurean: Summary 1

Another book review written by a capitalist who is critical of Wilson’s anti-capitalism: Not Quite the Playboy Life: A new book makes a spirited, if flawed, defense of Epicurean philosophy

How to be an Epicurean: A philosophy that values innocent pleasure, human warmth and the rewards of creative endeavour. What’s not to like?

The Epicurean Principal Doctrines

The following are a couple of translations of the PDs–by Cyril Bailey and by Peter St Andre. For comparison, here’s a Robert Drew Hicks translation, and the one by Erik Anderson. NE has a section that includes the PD with annotations and cross-links. We also have a PD memes section.


Monadnock Translation Cyril Bailey Translation
1. That which is blissful and immortal has no troubles itself, nor does it cause trouble for others, so that it is not affected by anger or gratitude (for all such things come about through weakness). The blessed and immortal nature knows no trouble itself nor causes trouble to any other, so that it is never constrained by anger or favour. For all such things exist only in the weak.
2. Death is nothing to us; for what has disintegrated lacks awareness, and what lacks awareness is nothing to us. Death is nothing to us, for that which is dissolved is without sensation; and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us.
3. The limit of enjoyment is the removal of all pains. Wherever and for however long pleasure is present, there is neither bodily pain nor mental distress. The limit of quantity in pleasures is the removal of all that is painful. Wherever pleasure is present, as long as it is there, there is neither pain of body nor of mind, nor of both at once.
4. Pain does not last continuously in the flesh; instead, the sharpest pain lasts the shortest time, a pain that exceeds bodily pleasure lasts only a few days, and diseases that last a long time involve delights that exceed their pains. Pain does not last continuously in the flesh, but the acutest pain is there for a very short time, and even that which just exceeds the pleasure in the flesh does not continue for many days at once. But chronic illnesses permit a predominance of pleasure over pain in the flesh.
5. It is not possible to live joyously without also living wisely and beautifully and rightly, nor to live wisely and beautifully and rightly without living joyously; and whoever lacks this cannot live joyously. It is not possible to live pleasantly without living prudently and honorably and justly, [nor again to live a life of prudence, honor, and Justice] without living pleasantly. And the man who does not possess the pleasant life, is not living prudently and honorably and justly, [and the man who does not possess the virtuous life], cannot possibly live pleasantly.
6. It is a natural benefit of leadership and kingship to take courage from other men (or at least from the sort of men who can give one courage). To secure protection from men anything is a natural good by which you may be able to attain this end.
7. Some people want to be well esteemed and widely admired, believing that in this way they will be safe from others; if the life of such people is secure then they have gained its natural benefit, but if not then they have not gained what they sought from the beginning in accordance with what is naturally appropriate. Some men wished to become famous and conspicuous, thinking that they would thus win for themselves safety from other men. Wherefore if the life of such men is safe, they have obtained the good which nature craves; but if it is not safe, they do not possess that for which they strove at first by the instinct of nature.
8. No pleasure is bad in itself; but the means of paying for some pleasures bring with them disturbances many times greater than the pleasures themselves. No pleasure is a bad thing in itself: but the means which produce some pleasures bring with them disturbances many times greater than the pleasures.
9. If every pleasure were condensed and were present at the same time and in the whole of one’s nature or its primary parts, then the pleasures would never differ from one another. If every pleasure could be intensified so that it lasted and influenced the whole organism or the most essential parts of our nature, pleasures would never differ from one another.
10. If the things that produce the delights of those who are decadent washed away the mind’s fears about astronomical phenomena and death and suffering, and furthermore if they taught us the limits of our pains and desires, then we would have no complaints against them, since they would be filled with every joy and would contain not a single pain or distress (and that’s what is bad). If the things that produce the pleasures of profligates could dispel the fears of the mind about the phenomena of the sky and death and its pains, and also teach the limits of desires (and of pains), we should never have cause to blame them: for they would be filling themselves full with pleasures from every source and never have pain of body or mind, which is the evil of life.
11. If our suspicions about astronomical phenomena and about death were nothing to us and troubled us not at all, and if this were also the case regarding our ignorance about the limits of our pains and desires, then we would have no need for studying what is natural. If we were not troubled by our suspicions of the phenomena of the sky and about death, fearing that it concerns us, and also by our failure to grasp the limits of pains and desires, we should have no need of natural science.
12. It is impossible for someone who is completely ignorant about nature to wash away his fears about the most important matters if he retains some suspicions about the myths. So it is impossible to experience undiluted enjoyment without studying what is natural. A man cannot dispel his fear about the most important matters if he does not know what is the nature of the universe but suspects the truth of some mythical story. So that without natural science it is not possible to attain our pleasures unalloyed.
13. It is useless to be safe from other people while retaining suspicions about what is above and below the earth and in general about the infinite unknown. There is no profit in securing protection in relation to men, if things above and things beneath the earth and indeed all in the boundless universe remain matters of suspicion.
14. Although some measure of safety from other people is based in the power to fight them off and in abundant wealth, the purest security comes from solitude and breaking away from the herd. The most unalloyed source of protection from men, which is secured to some extent by a certain force of expulsion, is in fact the immunity which results from a quiet life and the retirement from the world.
15. Natural wealth is both limited and easy to acquire, but the riches incited by groundless opinion have no end. The wealth demanded by nature is both limited and easily procured; that demanded by idle imaginings stretches on to infinity.
16. Chance steals only a bit into the life of a wise person: for throughout the complete span of his life the greatest and most important matters have been, are, and will be directed by the power of reason. In but few things chance hinders a wise man, but the greatest and most important matters reason has ordained and throughout the whole period of life does and will ordain.
17. One who acts aright is utterly steady and serene, whereas one who goes astray is full of trouble and confusion. The just man is most free from trouble, the unjust most full of trouble.
18. As soon as the pain produced by the lack of something is removed, pleasure in the flesh is not increased but only embellished. Yet the limit of enjoyment in the mind is produced by thinking through these very things and similar things, which once provoked the greatest fears in the mind. The pleasure in the flesh is not increased, when once the pain due to want is removed, but is only varied: and the limit as regards pleasure in the mind is begotten by the reasoned understanding of these very pleasures and of the emotions akin to them, which used to cause the greatest fear to the mind.
19. Finite time and infinite time contain the same amount of joy, if its limits are measured out through reasoning. Infinite time contains no greater pleasure than limited time, if one measures by reason the limits of pleasure.
20. The flesh assumes that the limits of joy are infinite, and that infinite joy can be produced only through infinite time. But the mind, thinking through the goal and limits of the flesh and dissolving fears about eternity, produces a complete way of life and therefore has no need of infinite time; yet the mind does not flee from joy, nor when events cause it to exit from life does it look back as if it has missed any aspect of the best life. The flesh perceives the limits of pleasure as unlimited, and unlimited time is required to supply it. But the mind, having attained a reasoned understanding of the ultimate good of the flesh and its limits and having dissipated the fears concerning the time to come, supplies us with the complete life, and we have no further need of infinite time: but neither does the mind shun pleasure, nor, when circumstances begin to bring about the departure from life, does it approach its end as though it fell short in any way of the best life.
21. One who perceives the limits of life knows how easy it is to expel the pain produced by a lack of something and to make one’s entire life complete; so that there is no need for the things that are achieved through struggle. He who has learned the limits of life knows that that which removes the pain due to want and makes the whole of life complete is easy to obtain, so that there is no need of actions which involve competition.
22. You must reflect on the fundamental goal and everything that is clear, to which opinions are referred; if you do not, all will be full of trouble and confusion. We must consider both the real purpose and all the evidence of direct perception, to which we always refer the conclusions of opinion; otherwise, all will be full of doubt and confusion.
23. If you fight against all your perceptions, you will have nothing to refer to in judging those which you declare to be false. If you fight against all sensations, you will have no standard by which to judge even those of them which you say are false.
24. If you reject a perception outright and do not distinguish between your opinion about what will happen after, what came before, your feelings, and all the layers of imagination involved in your thoughts, then you will throw your other perceptions into confusion because of your trifling opinions; as a result, you will reject the very criterion of truth. And if when forming concepts from your opinions you treat as confirmed everything that will happen and what you do not witness thereafter, then you will not avoid what is false, so that you will remove all argument and all judgment about what is and is not correct. If you reject any single sensation and fail to distinguish between the conclusion of opinion as to the appearance awaiting confirmation and that which is actually given by the sensation or feeling, or each intuitive apprehension of the mind, you will confound all other sensations as well with the same groundless opinion, so that you will reject every standard of judgment. And if among the mental images created by your opinion you affirm both that which awaits confirmation and that which does not, you will not escape error, since you will have preserved the whole cause of doubt in every judgment between what is right and what is wrong.
25. If at all critical times you do not connect each of your actions to the natural goal of life, but instead turn too soon to some other kind of goal in thinking whether to avoid or pursue something, then your thoughts and your actions will not be in harmony. If on each occasion, instead of referring your actions to the end of nature, you turn to some other nearer standard when you are making a choice or an avoidance, your actions will not be consistent with your principles.
26. The desires that do not bring pain when they go unfulfilled are not necessary; indeed they are easy to reject if they are hard to achieve or if they seem to produce harm. Of desires, all that do not lead to a sense of pain, if they are not satisfied, are not necessary, but involve a craving which is easily dispelled, when the object is hard to procure or they seem likely to produce harm.
27. Of all the things that wisdom provides for the complete happiness of one’s entire life, by far the greatest is friendship. Of all the things which wisdom acquires to produce the blessedness of the complete life, far the greatest is the possession of friendship.
28. The same judgment produces confidence that dreadful things are not everlasting, and that security amidst the limited number of dreadful things is most easily achieved through friendship. The same conviction which has given us confidence that there is nothing terrible that lasts forever or even for long, has also seen the protection of friendship most fully completed in the limited evils of this life.
29. Among desires, some are natural and necessary, some are natural and unnecessary, and some are unnatural and unnecessary (arising instead from groundless opinion). Among desires some are natural (and necessary, some natural) but not necessary, and others neither natural nor necessary, but due to idle imagination.
30. Among natural desires, those that do not bring pain when unfulfilled and that require intense exertion arise from groundless opinion; and such desires fail to be stamped out not by nature but because of the groundless opinions of humankind. Wherever in the case of desires which are physical, but do not lead to a sense of pain, if they are not fulfilled, the effort is intense, such pleasures are due to idle imagination, and it is not owing to their own nature that they fail to be dispelled, but owing to the empty imaginings of the man.
31. Natural justice is a covenant for mutual benefit, to not harm one another or be harmed. The justice which arises from nature is a pledge of mutual advantage to restrain men from harming one another and save them from being harmed.
32. With regard to those animals that do not have the power of making a covenant to not harm one another or be harmed, there is neither justice nor injustice; similarly for those peoples who have neither the power nor the desire of making a covenant to not harm one another or be harmed. For all living things which have not been able to make compacts not to harm one another or be harmed, nothing ever is either just or unjust; and likewise too for all tribes of men which have been unable or unwilling to make compacts not to harm or be harmed.
33. Justice does not exist in itself; instead, it is always a compact to not harm one another or be harmed, which is agreed upon by those who gather together at some time and place. Justice never is anything in itself, but in the dealings of men with one another in any place whatever and at any time it is a kind of compact not to harm or be harmed.
34. Injustice is not bad in itself, but only because of the fear caused by a suspicion that you will not avoid those who are appointed to punish wrongdoing. Injustice is not an evil in itself, but only in consequence of the fear which attaches to the apprehension of being unable to escape those appointed to punish such actions.
35. It is impossible to be confident that you will escape detection when secretly doing something contrary to an agreement to not harm one another or be harmed, even if currently you do so countless times; for until your death you will be uncertain that you have escaped detection. It is not possible for one who acts in secret contravention of the terms of the compact not to harm or be harmed, to be confident that he will escape detection, even if at present he escapes a thousand times. For up to the time of death it cannot be certain that he will indeed escape..
36. In general, justice is the same for all: what is mutually advantageous among companions. But with respect to the particulars of a place or other causes, it does not follow that the same thing is just for all. In its general aspect justice is the same for all, for it is a kind of mutual advantage in the dealings of men with one another: but with reference to the individual peculiarities of a country or any other circumstances the same thing does not turn out to be just for all.
37. Among things that are thought to be just, that which has been witnessed to bring mutual advantage among companions has the nature of justice, whether or not it is the same for everyone. But if someone legislates something whose results are not in accord with what brings mutual advantage among companions, then it does not have the nature of justice. And if what brings advantage according to justice changes, but for some time fits our basic grasp of justice, then for that time it is just, at least to the person who is not confused by empty prattle but instead looks to the facts. Among actions which are sanctioned as just by law, that which is proved on examination to be of advantage in the requirements of men’s dealings with one another, has the guarantee of justice, whether it is the same for all or not. But if a man makes a law and it does not turn out to lead to advantage in men’s dealings with each other, then it no longer has the essential nature of justice. And even if the advantage in the matter of justice shifts from one side to the other, but for a while accords with the general concept, it is nonetheless just for that period in the eyes of those who do not confound themselves with empty sounds but look to the actual facts.
38. When circumstances have not changed and things that were thought to be just are shown to not be in accord with our basic grasp of justice, then those things were not just. But when circumstances do change and things that were just are no longer useful, then those things were just while they brought mutual advantage among companions sharing the same community; but when later they did not bring advantage, then they were not just. Where, provided the circumstances have not been altered, actions which were considered just, have been shown not to accord with the general concept in actual practice, then they are not just. But where, when circumstances have changed, the same actions which were sanctioned as just no longer lead to advantage, there they were just at the time when they were of advantage for the dealings of fellow-citizens with one another, but subsequently they are no longer just, when no longer of advantage.
39. The person who has put together the best means for confidence about external threats is one who has become familiar with what is possible and at least not unfamiliar with what is not possible, but who has not mixed with things where even this could not be managed and who has driven away anything that is not advantageous. The man who has best ordered the element of disquiet arising from external circumstances has made those things that he could akin to himself and the rest at least not alien; but with all to which he could not do even this, he has refrained from mixing, and has expelled from his life all which it was of advantage to treat thus.
40. All those who have the power to obtain the greatest confidence from their neighbors also live with each other most enjoyably in the most steadfast trust; and experiencing the strongest fellowship they do not lament as pitiful the untimely end of those who pass away. As many as possess the power to procure complete immunity from their neighbours, these also live most pleasantly with one another, since they have the most certain pledge of security, and after they have enjoyed the fullest intimacy, they do not lament the previous departure of a dead friend, as though he were to be pitied.