Category Archives: epicurus

On Nature: Books XXV and XXVIII

Epicurus’ On Nature I-X
Epicurus’ On Nature – Books XI-XIV

Book 25

The work has many long sentences, which makes it hard to follow. I had written a commentary of a commentary on this book (from an English source), but I have re-read the book in French from Les Epicuriens. Here are a few new insights, and key concepts.

DEVELOPED PRODUCT

We see in philosophy and anthropology a contrast between nature and culture, and this is reflected in this book, where Epicurus compares “the original constitution” of an individual versus the “product in the process of development” (his character, which she cultivates), and finally the “developed product”–a fully mature character of someone who understands his “causal responsibility”.

GERMS / SEEDS

Epicurus talks about the “germs” or “seeds” (spermata) that we carry from birth of both wisdom and virtue, as well as ignorance and vices. Epicurus says “at first people act out their seeds, but later, a time comes where the developed product … depends absolutely on us and on our own opinions, which we ourselves have formed“. Our opinions or beliefs are linked to our moral development in this manner.

Epicurus later says “I don’t stop rambling on this point“, referring to how the “permanent attribute” of our character is the same as a sort of seed or germ, and he says that many things we do by contribution of our nature, many we do without its contribution, many where we discipline our nature, and many where we use our nature as guide that “leads us out of our inertia“.

ANTICIPATION OF CAUSAL RESPONSIBILITY

Epicurus says we have an anticipation of our causal responsibility“, and this has repercussions on praise and blame. Here, he is tying causal responsibility, and morality, to the canonic faculty of anticipation–a faculty by which we are able to apprehend abstractions.

DOCTRINAL DETERMINISM

Epicurus says that if all our views are born of necessity, then no one can change the opponent’s mind. This reminded me of this study, which shows that political ideology may be pre-determined or genetic.

… analyzing their data, the Blocks found a clear set of childhood personality traits that accurately predicted conservatism in adulthood. For instance, at the ages of three and four, the “conservative” preschoolers had been described as “uncomfortable with uncertainty,” as “rigidifying when experiencing duress,” and as “relatively over-controlled.” The girls were “quiet, neat, compliant, fearful and tearful, [and hoped] for help from the adults around.”

Likewise, the Blocks pinpointed another set of childhood traits that were associated with people who became liberals in their mid-twenties. The “liberal” children were more “autonomous, expressive, energetic, and relatively under-controlled.” Liberal girls had higher levels of “self-assertiveness, talkativeness, curiosity, [and] openness in expressing negative feelings.”

CALLING OUT THE OPPONENTS’ EXCHANGE OF NAMES

This is distinct from the problem of empty words that Epicurus addresses elsewhere. Epicurus says that determinists are “merely changing names” when they make moral claims or assign blame / praise, or classify people for their right / wrong thinking. He later says he does not stop re-hashing and restating that what determinists are arguing is nothing more than a mere exchange of words. This reminded me of the rectification of names by Confucius.

Book 28

Other speakers of our language teach us unsuspected, yet true meanings of words, contrary to our common usage. – Epicurus

This book is a polemic against Diodorus Cronus and his school. He was a dialectitian of Megaria (a “man of logic”) who believed space was indivisible and motion was impossible. Epicurus’ goal here was to defend the senses as a source of information about the world. It’s in this context that he refers to words like “attestations” (the testimonies of the senses), etc.

While dialectitians might argue about the way in which things exist and are real based on how language is used to refer to things, the atomists (like Epicurus) were realists. They embraced the physics, the study of nature, and knew that reality existed regardless of how clearly we apprehend it, or how long it takes us to learn about it. Hence, the Epicureans distrusted dialectics, and also the insinuation that, through the use of language, as if by magic, people were able to fundamentally change the nature of things or assert power over reality in any significant manner. In particular, Epicurus was suspicious of philosophers who liked to play with words in order to confuse people, particularly because this often rendered philosophy a useless game.

It is language that must conform to reality, not the other way around. Because of this, the meanings of words tend to be evident to us, as is made clear in one of the introductory paragraphs of the Epistle to Herodotus:

But first of all, Herodotus, before we begin the investigation of our opinions, we must firmly grasp the ideas that are attached to our words, so that we can refer to them as we proceed.  Unless we have a firm grasp of the meaning of each word, we leave everything uncertain, and we go on to infinity using empty words that are devoid of meaning.  Thus it is essential that we rely on the first mental image associated with each word, without need of explanation, if we are to have a firm standard to which to refer as we proceed in our study. – Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus

The issue of changing names in accordance to nature is addressed here. Epicurus taught that there are words that serve as vehicles for false opinions. He said names should only be changed to more exactly describe objects that are directly perceived, and only observed things can be renamed following this rule.  Language must correspond to perception.

Epicurus mentions that the founders wrote a separate treatise on ambiguity, where they discuss transferring words for what is knowable to things in the category of the unknowable. This work is not available for us to study.

One note of interest is that in this book, Epicurus admits the founders’ past errors regarding language misuse, and the evolution of their ideas. Ergo, we must be careful when we study the earlier sources, and we must be careful to date the sources we are studying if at all possible.

Further Reading:

Against the Use of Empty Words

Epicurus’ On Nature – Books XI-XIV

Epicurus’ On Nature I-X

Book 11

This book rejects the idea that the Earth is the center of the cosmos, and discusses objects that float in the air. It says “certain people conceive Earth circled by walls … and suppose that Earth is in the center of everything“. Now, since Epicurus believed the universe was infinite, we know that he would have rejected the Earth-centered model because an infinite model of cosmos would not have a center and all things would be relative to each other. Instead, there would have to be innumerable “centers” or hubs. Epicurus had to use the language available to the ancients to explain what orbits are–and the organized dance between many orbiting bodies that acquires a certain balance of pushing and pulling and falling–without having the word “orbit” available.

Epicurus discusses where the sun rises and sets, and its distance from us; He offers various models to interpret this.

Les Epicuriens commentators categorize this book as a polemic against the ancient astronomers who were using certain tools or machines (alluded to in this book) to evaluate the movements of celestial objects, and against Eudoxus’ geocentric model. I found this article about Eudoxus of Cnidus, which says:

An astronomer named Eudoxus created the first model of a geocentric universe around 380 B.C. Eudoxus designed his model of the universe as a series of cosmic spheres containing the stars, the sun, and the moon all built around the Earth at its center. Unfortunately, as the Greeks continued to explore the motion of the sun, the moon, and the other planets, it became increasingly apparent that their geocentric models could not accurately nor easily predict the motion of the other planets.

The next section of the 11th book is on what sustains Earth from below and seeks to explain its stability. Epicurus argued that densities below and above provide counter-balance to each other, to maintain the “appropriate analogical model” for the immobility of Earth. He said that the Earth was “equidistant to all the sides”, and so it didn’t fall in any direction because it had similar pressure from all sides.

Here, from Epicurus’ mention of an “appropriate analogical model”–which he presumably was trying to create–it is clear that he was using the Epicurean method of looking at the things that can be observed and reasoning by analogy about the things that are beyond our observable horizon. This means that he appealed to how we can see that things of similar weight balance each other, and he’s applying that logic to the orbit of the Earth.

Book 12

This book addresses eclipses. Also, according to Philodemus, in book 12 (in a passage that did not survive) Epicurus said that humans had the idea of “certain imperishable natures”. This book appears to also address theology.

We see that in On Nature, Epicurus is addressing phenomena that caused superstitious fear and panic in the ancients, or that inspired mythical explanations. Obviously, the orbits of the sun and moon were a mystery and inspired mythical explanations. Epicurus’ lectures were meant to impress upon the students that, by applying their faculty of empirical reasoning to the study of nature, they would be able to come up with reasonable alternative theories.

We can surmise that some ancients, particularly those who rejected the myths and observed nature, would have observed that eclipses and phases of the moon apparently showed the shadow of the Earth against the moon, and would have reasoned that the Earth was round from the observation of its shadow against the moon. This is not mentioned in what remains of this book, but it would have been consistent with the Epicurean method (which relied on referring all investigations the study and observation of nature) to conclude from the phases of the moon that the Earth was round.

Book 13

This book seems to continue the conversations about gods in the previous book. Philodemus says that here, Epicurus addressed the “rapports of affinity, and also of hostility, that gods have with certain persons“.

Book 14

Based on the condensation of water (which can be seen turning into a gas/vapor, and also into solid ice), some ancient philosophers said that it can be inferred that all things come from a single substance, which changes due to condensation and rarefaction. Some philosophers believed the single primal substance was water (that is, all things could be broken down into water).

Epicurus’ refutation of this theory and his own alternate explanation is incomplete and unclear in the portions that remain of this book. We see him further down discussing the vaporization of water. Centuries later, Lucretius (in On the Nature of Things, Book IV) would describe in accurate detail the cycles of rain and condensation in one of the most brilliant passages of his epic poem. It is clear that these considerations furnished crucial inspiration for the early atomic theory.

The lecture in Book 14  was against monism–the above-cited doctrine that all things are ultimately made up of one single substance. Anaximenes and Diogenes of Apollonia were monists who said the primal substance was “air”, not water.

Epicurus discusses fire, and criticizes Plato’s Timaeus, saying Plato’s and other theories are based on faulty deduction. Epicurus reduces Plato’s physical theory to its absurd contradictions. For instance, he seems to be arguing that if things are really made of Platonic forms (like triangles, etc.), rather than from the atomists’ primal elements (that is, particles), then why are there no physicists creating new chemical combinations out of these Platonic triangles and circles? Here, he was acting in the tradition of the laughing philosophers. In Swinish Herds and Pastafarians: Comedy as an Ideological Weapon, I wrote:

Democritus, the precursor of Epicurus … was known as the “Laughing Philosopher” for making cheerfulness his key virtue and for the way in which he mocked human behavior. The tradition of the laughing philosophers had to start with the first atomist: materialism liberates us from unfounded beliefs to such an extent that it renders absurd the beliefs and the credulity of the mobs.

This book concludes with a portion that studies the differences between a sage and a compiler, saying that they are quite different. Epicurus tackles the issue of borrowing from other thinkers and mixing up disparate theories that are not coherent with each other. He says that sages do not praise both theories when they cite two opposite opinions. He accuses those who mix incoherent doctrines of “doctrinal solecism“, and indirectly criticizes the rhetors who are fond of empty praise.

A Note on Striking Blows for Epicurus

On Nature makes it clear that Epicureanism was born, and evolved, as a series of polemics. The first Epicureans enjoyed polemics. They relished opportunities to tackle intellectual challenges using their philosophical methods. Almost all of Epicurus’ points in this series of lectures are polemics written against someone else’s theories which are found to be wrong, and we also see many of Philodemus’ works were as well. For instance, we see Theophrastus being cited in Peri Oikonomias (and other works) as a source that the Epicureans of the FIrst Century BCE wrote against and commented on. We must conclude that he was considered a worthy opponent and a philosopher worth reading by them.

Therefore, we can imagine that it’s difficult to understand these arguments clearly without understanding these other ideas that they are refuting. Students of Epicurus must understand his contemporary thinkers, whose works they were reading and commenting on.

Further Reading:

Epicurus’ Instructions On Innovation

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

In Memory of “The Men”

Epicurus will immediately send us as ambassadors Metrodorus, Hermarchus and Polyaenus. – Leontion’s Epistle to Lamia

Happy Twentieth to Epicureans everywhere! In his Final Testament, Epicurus stipulated that the feasts on the 20th of every month had to continue in memory of him and his beloved friend Metrodorus as was “the established custom” before he died. This post is in celebration of “the Men”–the Founders of Epicurean Philosophy Epicurus of Samos, and his ambassadors Metrodorus of Lampsachus, Hermarchus of Mytilene, and Polyaenus of Lampsachus. Every Twentieth, it is they (as well as other Epicureans of importance who came after them) who are the reason for the season!

We must always orient our discourse for the benefit of those who are solidly armed for happiness: our disciples. – Epicurus of Samos, On Nature 28

The life of Epicurus is a lesson of wisdom. It is by example, even more than precept, that he guides his disciples. Without issuing commands, he rules despotically … We are a family of brothers, of which Epicurus is the father. Many of us have had bad habits, many of us evil propensities, violent passions. That our habits are corrected, our propensities changed, our passions restrained, lies all with Epicurus … he has made me taste the sweets of innocence, and brought me into the calm of philosophy. It is thus, by rendering us happy, that he lays us at his feet. He cannot but know his power, yet he exerts it in no other way, than to mend our lives, or to keep them innocent. Candor, as you have already remarked, is a prominent feature of his mind, the crown of his perfect character. – Metrodorus, in A Few Days in Athens

We are quite familiarized with Epicurus, but not so much with the other three. Our friend Josh wrote a poem titled Hermarchus, Seeing the Bust of Epicurus. Hermarchus was the co-founder and second Scholarch of the Garden. I recently shared the following fragment, which I found in the book Les Epicuriens and translated into English:

This is why Timeus affirms that, whenever they begin any enterprise, sages always in some way invoke divinity. But the Epicurean Hermarchus says: “How do we avoid regressing to infinity in all enterprise if, even for a minor matter, we have need to turn to prayer. Because for one prayer we will need yet another prayer, and we will never stop praying at any point.”

This is what we know from Book 10 of Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers and other sources: Hermarchus, a student of rhetoric, was the successor of Epicurus and the first convert to the teachings of Epicurus in the early days when Epicurus first began teaching. He was born in Mytilene, Lesbos in 340 BCE from a poor family and died around 250 BCE of paralysis.

Hermarchus was the only one among the founders who was there both prior to Epicurus’ teaching mission, and at the time of his death when, according to Philodemus, he assisted the Hegemon, “wrapped him in a shroud, and kept vigil beside his remains“–a testimony of the tender love that existed among the first Friends of Epicurus who had grown old together in philosophy and were as family.

Some of the extant sayings in our tradition have been attributed to him, and it is believed that he was almost exclusively vegetarian and that he considered meat-eating an unnecessary desire because it contributes not to the maintenance of life but to a variation in pleasure.

A young man that loves glory, that is precocious wickedness. – Metrodorus of Lampsacus

Bust of Metrodorus / Epicurus

Bust of Metrodorus / Epicurus

Metrodorus of Lampsachus was known as a great administrator, linguist and financier, and was recognized as a sophos (sage) by the Epicureans and as “almost another Epicurus” by Cicero.

He was born in 330 BCE in Lampsachus, and died in 277 BCE, seven or eight years before the death of Epicurus. He never left Epicurus except once for six months spent on a visit to his native land. He had a bitter dispute with his brother Timocrates, who disagreed with certain key doctrines of the School–this was recently discussed in the essay Metrodorus’ Epistle to Timocrates.

He’s the one who formulated the importance of securing our natural and necessary goods now and making sure to have the confident expectation that we will be able to secure them in the future as part of the Epicurean art of living, and is responsible for these quotes:

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. – Vatican Saying 47

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. – Vatican Saying 45

Philodemus reports that Metrodorus was deeply interested in delineating doctrines concerning economics. He carried out careful evaluations concerning how to acquire and preserve wealth according to the elemental principles of Epicureanism, and applying hedonic calculus.

The good man is a good financier; The bad man is also a bad financier, just as Metrodorus has demonstrated. – Philodemus of Gadara

In addition, it’s possible to resume some of Metrodorus’ theses concerning both the sources from which one may procure wealth, as well as the manner by which one may preserve it. However, he constantly accentuated as a matter of fact that to meet occasionally with perturbations, worries and troubles is much more advantageous for the best mode of life possible than the opposite choice. – Philodemus of Gadara

From these quotes, it becomes clear that Metrodorus was a huge proponent of autarchy, which translates as personal sovereignty or self-sufficiency. He believed a sage had to be self-sufficient and neither depend on external factors, nor leave anything that is essential for happiness to Fate. He teaches us that we should always aim to have mastery over the things that we can control that concern our happiness. Hence, Norman DeWitt says that while all philosophers say that the unexamined life is not worth living, the Epicureans add that “the unplanned life is not worth living“.

Polyaenus of Lampsachus was the son of Athenodorus, a mathematician, and was considered a kind and trustworthy man. He died prior to Epicurus in 286 BC. Philodemus, in On Frank Criticism, says that Metrodorus described Polyaenus as “rather sententious … often insinuating himself into conversation and quite sociable”. Here are two quotes by him that I found in the book Les Epicuriens:

The more you benefit your friend, the more you serve your own self-interest. In fact, the kindness provoked by these benefits will come back to us.

Habit is born of small things, but (bad habits) gain vigor through (our) neglect.

This last fragment reminds me of Will Durant‘s materialist conception of identity: he said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” From the description as “sententious”–whose original sense was ‘full of meaning or wisdom’–and from the fact that he dedicated a scroll to the problem of Definitions, we can imagine Polyaenus as very careful when choosing words to make his speech clear and concise. For him to have been considered an important foundational figure, we can surmise that he must have greatly influenced–and brilliantly exemplified–the Epicurean practice of parrhesia (frank criticism) softened with suavity (gentle speech). He was known for using powerful proverbs and adages. He was great at conversation, but did not speak idly. His words were useful and profitable to those who had the pleasure of his company.

So these are Epicurus’ ambassadors: Hermarchus the loyal friend, Metrodorus the administrator, and Polyaenus the eloquent social butterfly.

A big thank you to Jason and Tyler for their Patreon support.

Further Reading:

Epicurean Advice for the Modern Consumer, by Tim O’Keefe

The 17 Scholarchs and the Empress

Metrodorus’ Epistle to Timocrates

Epicureanism – Busts

The wise man will set up votive images. – Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, chapter on Epicurus

In the book Epicurus and His Philosophy, Norman DeWitt mentions that Epicurus’ image was celebrated in rings, in portraits displayed in living rooms, and was even venerated in marble sculpture.

According to the book The Sculpted Word, Epicureans were a missionary philosophy that did not preach in the public eye and had a passive model of recruitment that relied on strategically placed imagery and sculptures (although, in later times, Diogenes of Oenoanda built a Wall Inscription to recruit new Epicureans). An image speaks a thousand words. This resulted in an Epicurean style that sought to convey the desirable traits of a philosopher, a sage, and a healer through the media of sculpture, in the hopes that people would feel compelled by the presence of the sculpture to visit the Garden and inquire about the philosophy.

The central thesis in The Sculpted Word is that Epicurean busts sought to invite those inspired by the image to look into the philosophy. Sculptures were a passive method of recruitment. The book also includes a detailed evaluation of the different types of busts of Epicurus, Metrodorus, and other Scholarchs modeled after divine archetypes.

We can imagine that the busts of the classical deities were also meant to draw in the pious. Ancients frequently imagined that Athena was by the side of their heroes. If you were headed into an intellectual or personal battle, would you not want to emulate Athena’s strength, confidence and demeanor right by your side? And would these sculptures not be a useful aid in helping to assimilate her attributes? In this way, art has the potential to contribute to our moral development.

The Epicurus Busts

Athena, Goddess of Philosophy


Venus, Goddess of Pleasure

Both Norman DeWitt (likely the the best source to help us understand how ancient Epicureans organized themselves) and Frances Wright (who wrote a fictional account of the ancient Gardens titled A Few Days in Athens) mention that the patroness of the Epicurean Garden in Athens was Aphrodite / Venus Urania, who embodied heavenly love.

Design Toscano features beautiful Venus sculptures, including the Callipygian Venus (Item#KY1389), the Contessa Venus (Item#EU9278), Venus of Arles (Item#NG32788), and a Venus Italica (Item#NE160065). DT also features a canvas painting of The Birth of Venus 1485 (Item#DA1681) and a bronze statue of the same (Item#SU424).

The following are instead available from Amazon:

Oshún, the African Venus


SocietyofEpicurus.com is an affiliate site. We thank you for your support!

A Transcendental Epicureanism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

Cosmos (in French) by Michel Onfray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiram Crespo
Happy Herculaneum Day
Agosto 24, 2017

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

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

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

Friends of Epicurus
Dialogue on Katastematic Pleasure
February 16, 2018

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

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On the Standard Interpretation of Static Pleasure

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

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

STATIC PLEASURE HAS BOTH EXPERIENTIAL AND ATTITUDINAL COMPONENTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KATASTEMATIC PLEASURE DEPLETED OF FEELING, ACCORDING TO CICERO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXTRINSIC OBJECTS OF PLEASURE

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

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

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

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

FINAL WORDS

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

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

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

Further Reading:

Dialogue on Katastematic Pleasure

 

 

 

 

 

Brief Dialogue on Duty and Ontology

Cassius. I think it is true that we don’t owe “obligations” toward people with whom we have not come into contact with, as that would imply some absolute duty which does not exist. Do we owe a duty to the dead, or to the unborn future, just because they were at some point born? I don’t think so, nor do we owe a “duty” to people across the other side of the world just because they are alive. But to the extent we may potentially interact with them they have the capacity to cause us pleasure or pain, so there is to that extent a factor that needs to be considered.

Hiram. I have a strong intuitive sense that society has a right to extract a duty to the unborn future. Otherwise society might easily cook for itself its self-destruction. I don’t know how to articulate that yet, but if most people that I care about have children and grandchildren that they love, even if I don’t have future generations after me, it would be difficult to argue that I can destroy the future generations’ access to natural and necessary goods without facing backlash and compromising my access to civilized society.

Cassius. Yes but that is not a “duty” in the sense that the word is generally used, which is a reference to the gods or to absolute virtues. That use of the word is the primary one and why one of Cicero’s most widely known books was “On Duties” – De Officiis” I think the continuing key is the proper use of words and definitions so as not to give in to ideas that are incorrect.

Hiram. Is there an Epicurean definition of duty?

Cassius. My first thought is that just like “gods,” “duty” would have a specialized definition fitting how it arises, and would be limited to obligations undertaken voluntarily, by actual or implied contract. Certainly not obligations enforced outside by gods or by absolute virtue or non-existent standards like that.

In addition, thinking further about law, duties arise not only through actual or implied contract, but in “equity” arising from conduct. In other words my conduct toward someone else may create an obligation, such as when I start to save someone who has fallen into a pond through the ice, my action in starting to save them likely causes others to hang back, so in equity I have an obligation to finish the job because I have placed the drowning person in a worse position who is then relying on me to follow through.

Hiram. Can (our own?) nature impose a duty? A thing for which we suffer if we don’t comply?

Cassius. To say that our “nature” imposes a duty probably goes too far because unless we have done something by our own action then we are implying that Nature has some scheme to which we are *required* to conform. That is where the word duty has the sense of an outside-imposed obligation. I don’t think missing out on pleasure by not doing something would be the same thing as a “duty”. And that raises issues of free will as well, which is clearly natural and therefore sort of sets a ground rule of free choice.

Hiram. So a category different from duty should be given to things that are so highly advantageous that we feel strongly morally compelled to do them. I’m not sure what the word for that would be, but I think articulating these things might help us to better address many of the ethical problems of modern society and show the relevance and moral authority of Epicurean ideas.

Cassius. Well, maybe what you are referencing is still just the sense of pleasure, but that this type of pleasure is more intense and/or greater duration than others. Remember there is no motivating force – no “strong compelled” force of any kind – other than pain and pleasure. Admission of ANY force other than pain or pleasure destroys the system

I think we must never admit of ANY “moral force” or any source other than pleasure and pain. Everything else is conjecture / conceptualization / speculation / theory, which may or may not be very pleasurable or painful, but which has no motivating force on its own other than the pleasure or pain that arises from it.

Hiram. Let’s think concretely: in Bolivia there were four months of water wars some years back because the government had privatized all the water in the country and sold it to a private company. Before I became an Epicurean, when I wrote for the student paper at NEIU and other outlets, the issue of water privatization was something I took an interest in because it seemed to me so morally abhorrent to think that in the future, a handful of companies and their greedy CEOs would ensure that nations would go to war for water just as today they do for oil. The categorical distinction of natural and necessary that we find in Epicurus applies to water, but does not apply to oil. Is there not a natural duty to protect public access to water?

Cassius. No, I would say there is NO natural duty! There is only our prediction of the pleasure or pain that will arise from the action. In that case, the people privatizing and channelling the water in ways that are harmful to others must expect that the others will react actively and cause them pain, and the ones adversely affected must indeed do so if they are to vindicate their interests, because there are no outside supernatural forces to vindicate them.

That was the error of the Confederate States in their motto “Deo Vindice” – Vindicated by God — There IS no god or outside moral enforcing agent to come to the support of people – there is only the actions of live people. Actually there is also a passage in Plutarch’s Lives on Cassius and Brutus which I think makes the same point — we might wish to be able to call on supernatural forces as in Star Wars or Lord of the Rings to fight for us, but no such forces exist.

… It is true that abstractions such as thoughts of moral duties can themselves be highly pleasurable to us. So it is not correct to say that abstractions don’t exist and so they can’t bring us pleasure or pain. That is why we have to be sure to be clear when we say “nothing really exists except matter and void.” The meaning of that is that nothing exists ETERNALLY except matter and void, but for us living in the world of bodies which have come together during our lifetime, the bodies we observe and the ideas we discuss are very “real” TO US even if they are not eternal. So even though we are materialists, the world of ideas is very important to us and the source of much of our pleasure and pain. Epicurean philosophy teaches not that the world of ideas is not important, but that the world of ideas has to be tied to reality so that we don’t make the mistake of thinking that our ideas themselves are supernatural or have an eternal existence of their own.

Hiram. Maybe the question is not whether ideas are real or not (they are electric currents running among our neurons, so they exist in that way), but that there seems to be a distinction in Epicurus between sentient beings and non-sentient beings insofar as we can experience pleasure / aversion and other EXPERIENCES. How life is experienced is of great importance to us. Remember how Polyaenus was said to often coin new words for the sake of clear speech? I think we have to do that to articulate these problems. Epicurean philosophy sees sentient beings as arbiters (with the help of the canon) of reality and of things as they are, using their faculties, so the issue of sentience itself needs to be evaluated from an ontological perspective, and somewhat independent of the sources because whatever they said on this didn’t survive.

Cassius. I agree with what you wrote but I think you are making a point I am not exactly clear on. What do you mean from an ontological perspective?

Hiram. Ontology is the part of philosophy that deals with in what way things exist, so your question on atoms and void goes to that. (You were asking:) In what way do ideas exist? Similarly, in the case of sentient beings, we have the canon that says that pleasure and pain are real, but these are qualitatively different EXPERIENCES from when our body’s five senses tell us that rocks, trees, water exist out there as made up of atoms and void. These experiences exist, but in a different way from atoms and void, as emerging properties of some bodies, specifically of sentient beings.

Cassius. Well here I would keep in mind this from DL: “They affirm that there are two states of feeling, pleasure and pain, which arise in every animate being, and that the one is favorable and the other hostile to that being, and by their means choice and avoidance are determined; and that there are two kinds of inquiry, the one concerned with things, the other with nothing but words.” Going too far into ontology may wind up to be the path to inquiry that is “nothing but words”.