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).
Oshún, the African Venus
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.
Ancient 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.
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.
Cosmos (in French) by Michel Onfray
Michel Onfray and the Counter-History of Philosophy
June 2, 2017
The Counter-History of Aromas
June 7, 2017
Review of “De l’inhumanité de la religion”
June 26, 2017
In Memory of Horace: Carpe Diem
July 2, 2017
Friends of Epicurus
“For There ARE Gods …”
July 6, 2017
Re-Hellenization in Light of Epicurean Philosophy: Way of Thinking
July 27, 2017
Happy Herculaneum Day
Agosto 24, 2017
Reasonings on Michel Onfray’s Hedonist Manifesto
December 17, 2017
Friends of Epicurus
Brief Dialogue on Duty and Ontology
January 7, 2018
Piety According to the Sources of Epicurean Philosophy
Agosto 24, 2018
Friends of Epicurus
Dialogue on Katastematic Pleasure
February 16, 2018
On the Standard Interpretation of Static Pleasure
February 16, 2018
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
 “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.  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.
- 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.
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.
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”.
On August 24 of the year 79 of Common Era, the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried in the ash and pyroclastic material produced by the Mt Vesuvius eruption. The 79 eruption is the most famous volcanic eruption in ancient history, and recent comparable eruption events–like the one that wiped out the town of Plymouth, on the island of Montserrat–have been compared to it.
The town of Herculaneum contained the villa of the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, of the Piso clan, a patrician family. The villa was a wealthy enclave that overlooked the Mediterranean Sea, and contained a large ancient library of Epicurean texts, many of which have now been deciphered and translated into English with commentary. Commentaries on these texts can be found in the Philodemus Series on the Society of Epicurus page.
In addition to the scrolls preserving the wisdom of the original Scholarchs–many of which are actual notes that Philodemus took while studying philosophy under Zeno of Sidon–there are poems and other works of literature. In one epigram, Philodemus invites his benefactor of the Piso family to celebrate the Twentieth, the traditional feast of reason that was held monthly by the Epicureans.
Philodemus is not the only great Epicurean in history who catered to the Piso family. The poet Horace also frequented the villa, and Horace’s Epistle to the Pisos shows the highly cultured and refined nature of the exchange between them. Herculaneum was a major center of culture, philosophy, and the arts.
August 24th has been declared Herculaneum Day by the Society of Epicurus, as part of the Epicurean Year initiative. Please enjoy it by sharing the wisdom of the Library of Herculaneum with others!
10th Panhellenic Meeting of Epicureans, Mount Olympus, Greece Theme: «Re-Hellenization in Light of Epicurean Philosophy» – Way of thinking
Christos Yapijakis 1) Founding Member of Friends of Epicurean Philosophy “Garden of Athens” 2) Assistant Professor of Neurogenetics, University of Athens Medical School, Athens, Greece
For the friends of Epicurean philosophy, Re-Hellenization is the emergence of the best ingredients of Humanism, according to the essence of Epicurus’ saying “friendship dances around the world summoning us all to awaken to the recognition of happiness” (Sententiae Vaticane 52). In antiquity, the Epicurean philosophy was panhuman and universal, the first worldview which embraced people of all age, gender, ethnicity and social order, men and women, rich and poor, free people and slaves. In addition to Epicurus’ disciples of Hellenic (Greek) origin, Epicurean teachings influenced Syrians like Mithres and Lucian, Romans like Lucretius and Piso, Hellenized Jews like most Sadducees and the writer of Ecclesiastes, Carthaginians like Terentius, and Celts like Catius Insuber. Irrespective of ethnicity, all Epicureans in antiquity were Hellenized and humanized. After the barbaric interval of a thousand medieval years, the same trend of Re-Hellenization and Humanization continued from the Renaissance to the present day. As Isocrates wrote, Hellene (Greek) is anyone who participates in Hellenic humanitarian education. And not someone who has the mythical and non-existent ‘Hellenic DNA’ as some idealists claim unscientifically…
The purpose of Hellenic humanitarian education is eudaimonia (happiness). According to the Epicurean philosophy, the blissful life, in other words the pleasurable state of living, cannot be achieved by someone without prudence, without virtues and without justice, that is to say without having the right way of thinking. The way of thinking is of great importance, since it represents the methodology used by someone to analyze the information one receives from the environment. There is the right way of thinking, the Epicurean one, based on the best use of natural human abilities, on the perception of senses and emotions, but also on calm, objective and educated reasoning. This is the way of thinking based on empirical, naturalistic, and ultimately scientific knowledge of the world, according to the moto “senses come first”.
The objective way of thinking has the advantage of leading well-intentioned people to similar conclusions. This objective way of thinking has led Epicurus and his students to reach numerous conclusions about nature that were proven by modern scientific research to be correct. This objective way of thinking reduced the amount of unnecessary disagreements and led to the consistency of opinions, to sound reasoning, to favorable communication and to high-regarded friendship that characterized the Epicurean communities for about seven centuries until the coming of the Middle Ages.
On the contrary, the wrong ways of thinking do not lead to blissful life, but lead instead to confusion and barbarity.
The erroneous ways of thinking may be divided into two categories, the systematically wrong mentality and the foolishly misguided mentality. The systematic error, as it is called scientifically, is the way that may lead to disastrous results if we do not avoid it. The Epicurean Roman Lucretius points out: “Again, as in a building, if the first plumb-line be askew, and if the square deceiving swerve from lines exact, and if the level waver but the least in any part, the whole construction then must turn out faulty-shelving and askew, leaning to back and front, incongruous, that now some portions seem about to fall, and falls the whole ere long-betrayed indeed by first deceiving estimates: so too thy calculations in affairs of life must be askew and false, if sprung for thee from senses false. So all that troop of words marshalled against the senses is quite vain” (De rerum natura IV 513-521, W.E. Leonard 1916).
The systematically wrong mindset usually uses literary falsification of reality. Some manipulate speech, either with sophism, or with rhetoric, or with dialectical techniques, or with sterile obsessive logic, using ways of cheating others or deluding oneself, usually with political or self-serving purposes. Literary falsification of reality includes the ideal mythological approach of the world, the “political lie” considered by Plato as the right of people in power, the superficial commentary of the phenomena and sterile skepticism. All these verbal approaches based on the moto “mind comes first” are forms of subjectivity, idealism and intellectualism. These systematically wrong ways of thinking led the Hellenic world to intolerance and discord, and eventually to submission to Republican Rome, whose rising power came from collaboration of patricians and plebeians. These systematically wrong idealistic mentalities subsequently led mankind to the Middle Ages.
In the modern world, we may observe that subjectivity, obsessive ideologies, noncritical pluralistic chattering continue to result in barbaric disputes and inhuman fighting while the temporarily stronger prevails, according to the barbarous law of the jungle. In addition, there is the absurd misguided way of thinking, the impulsive, the “so I like it”, the variably eclectic mentality. This is usually an uncertain, shallow, and effortless way of imprudent dealing with any subject. It is characterized by lack of knowledge of reality, empty chattering, and myopic desires of the type “the purpose sanctifies the means”. An example result of this mentality is the recent decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw USA from the Paris Climate Agreement, which has sparked the outcry of many international scientific associations that called it “a dangerous denial of decision-making method based on scientific data”.
Nevetheless, there are many people against the scientific way of thinking and common sense, such as the Syndicate of Greek Electricity Workers that welcomed the Trump decision, combining unscientific nonsense and self-interest politics in an exemplary manner, since most of their jobs are still based on coal mining. Unfortunately, the nonsensical and superficial way of thinking is particularly widespread in modern societies. The Epicurean philosophy can assist its friends to combat this mentality of the many and to overcome the foolish, idealistic influences that create anxiety and turmoil. Studying and understanding Epicurean texts may help a well-intentioned reader to experience the objective, scientific and serene way of thinking of Epicurus without any misunderstandings. History teaches us that even charismatic people who did not understand the Epicurean scientific method made mistakes in their appreciation. For example, the great thinker Voltaire, who generally admired Epicurus, erroneously considered as absurd the Master’s views regarding chance and evolution in nature.
Perhaps even an intelligent person who uses merely rhetorical arguments can end up in foolish opinions, while observation and calm reasoning may lead a person of moderate intelligence to objective scientific thinking. The role of Science is not “to fight unemployment”, as an ignorant Greek High School student wrote recently in an exam. The method of Science, reminiscing the Epicurean Canon, provides the intellectual and technological resources for the liberation of thought and the pursuit of happiness of people, as was first recognized by Epicurus, the philosopher that enlightened humanity. The Re-Hellenization, which is synonymous with Humanism for the Epicureans, should be based on the education of all people in the scientific way of thinking, the objective observation of reality, the calm reasoning with ataraxia, and the friendly coexistence with the aim of the blissful civilized life.
Epicurean philosophy is the only secular-humanist missionary philosophy that was born in Hellenistic Greece. It is also, among the old philosophical systems, the one that most continues to be of relevance. The corpus of our wisdom tradition is divided into three parts: Canon (its epistemology, or how to think about nature), Physics (the nature of things), and Ethics (the art of living).
The following is intended as a long-term, self-guided curriculum for people wanting to study Epicurean philosophy on their own and at their own pace. For additional support and resources, we advise students to join the Epicurean Friends forum and to raise questions about any of the reading material covered.
Canon: the Standard of Truth
The ancient atomists were reacting against the Skeptics, a school founded by Pyrrho, when they stated that it is possible to have certainty and clear knowledge about nature by means of certain checks and balances–while the Pyrronists believed that certainty was impossible to obtain, and also that it was not desirable. In that sense the atomists were dogmatic: they understood that certainty was possible and desirable.
But if certainty is possible, there must be a standard for firmly establishing something as real. Hence the Canon–the standard of reality and an early precursor to the scientific method, which educates us on the primacy of the senses and of our natural faculties as judges of what is and is not true. This Canon includes: the five senses, the pleasure/aversion faculty, and anticipations.
Book: The Tripod of Truth: An Introduction to the Book That Fell From The Heavens, by Cassius Amicus
The Canon has two important effects: first, to establish nature as the standard and ultimate authority, rather than abstractions invented by mortals; second, to help us emancipate ourselves from traditional and arbitrary authorities, which helps explain how women and slaves could be treated as intellectual equals in the ancient Gardens or schools of Epicurus–this kind of equality was very rare in ancient Greece. They did not need priests, mediators, or experts in logic. They believed that each person can independently philosophize and be an arbiter of reality and of their ethical choices by using their nature-given faculties and always basing their views, choices and avoidances on the study of nature.
Video: Against the men of the crowd—Abridged version; this essay is included in Elemental Epicureanism. It may be somewhat repetitive, but by reading it we can understand the Epicurean emphasis on the importance of having a tangible standard of verification.
Physics: The Nature of Things
The philosophy of existence, or in what way things exist, is called ontology. Atomists accept a scientific understanding of the nature of things, and because we accept that things are material, our ontology is Physics, which studies material bodies, and chemistry, which studies the interactions between different bodies. In the writings of Epicurus (as seen in his Epistle to Herodotus), we see that bodies have primary (their own) and secondary (relational) properties.
But modern ideas have ancient roots. Early pre-atomist philosophers speculated non-empirically that everything in the cosmos was made of a primal substance (or several). Some said it was water, other said fire. Anaximander said they were the four known “elements”.
The proto-Platonist Parmenides (515-440 BCE) postulated, again without attempting to reconcile his doctrines with the evidence of nature, that change does not exist, that everything is the same thing (ho Pan, “the whole”), and that our senses deceive us. However, when we see the evidence that nature presents to our faculties, we see the enormous diversity of things (not a single substance that can be called “the whole”), and we also see that there is constant change.
Zeno of Elea was known for his paradoxes, one of which postulated that, if we cut things progressively, we would get smaller and smaller particles to infinity and that this process would never end. This paradox was one of the inspirations for atomism. The word atom means “uncuttable” or “indivisible”.
The first atomists–Leucippus and Democrates–were attempting to prove Parmenides, Zeno, and the others wrong. They tried to reconcile all these cosmological models with the evidence in nature.
Some of the arguments of these early atomists are written in the Epistle to Herodotus. In response to the paradox of Zeno, they thought that if the particles could be cut to infinity, that would mean that all objects would have an infinite number of atoms. And we know that this is not the case because an object with infinite number of atoms would be of infinite size, and that is not what we see. Therefore, there must be a limited amount of atoms in each thing, and therefore there must be a point at which the particles are so small that they are no longer divisible: the a-tom (“in-divisible”).
Then, in considering the error of Parmenides, who denied the existence of change and movement claiming that “the whole” is the same always everywhere, they considered that there had to be empty space (not filled by “the whole”) between the particles because if there was no empty space, there could be no movement and change, which when we observe nature, we see that they obviously exist. Realizing that there must be space between these primordial particles–otherwise there would be no space to move, no sponges could fill with particles of water, nor would we observe things with greater and lesser density and weight–they concluded that in the cosmos, the two primal things must be atoms and void.
Things can either exist or not exist, and to exist is to be made up of atoms. Let’s put it in Shakespearean terms: “To be or not to be”. To be is to exist as particles, and not to be is to exist as void between the particles. Anything that exists, must root its existence in the dynamics between particles and void, or as relational or emergent properties of bodies which, as they increase in size and interact and form systems with each other, gain greater complexity.
Note: We now believe that quarks are the smallest units that make up protons and neutrons. Electrons and photons are not made of quarks but are themselves elementary particles. These and a host of other particles are now considered the irreducible pieces which we may now consider to be what Democritus meant by “atoms.” We must always consider this when translating from Greek, however if we put vocabulary aside, the basics of the classical theory are still valid: it is impossible to divide matter beyond a certain point.
In reading the Epistle to Herodotus we learn that the theories of the ancient atomists and their cosmology model include a fascinating doctrine of innumerable planets, some similar and others different from our own, some without life but others with life both similar and different from the one we see on Earth. This is a function of the infinity of atoms and emptiness in all directions, combined with a limited number of possible combinations of particles according to the laws of nature which are the same everywhere, so necessarily there must be infinite repetitions in every direction of the same phenomena that we see in our part of the cosmos. Ancient atomists speculated often about extraterrestrial life, and the Epicurean comedian Lucian wrote the comedy True Story, which is believed to be the first historical example of the genre of science fiction (although it also falls within the genre of fantasy).
*Essential Book*: Letter to Herodotus, Elemental Edition / or watch a video of it. This constitutes “the smaller Epitome” which every beginner in Epicurean philosophy must study before moving on to more advanced material.
The Canon was invented by Nausiphanes, who was a student of Democritus and the teacher of Epicurus. However, Epicurus revolted against the determinist and mechanistic doctrine of his predecessors, as he believed in free will, and this revolt made it possible for Epicurus to become a moral reformer and to add an ethical component to the atomist teaching: a science of happiness and of morality. Epicurus saw that we are not mere robots, that there seems to be a natural impulse that allows for human freedom. He proposed that there must be some element of chaos in the particles, and theorized that there must be a swerve, a movement that happens at random. This element of chaos and chance may translate into what’s known as either Brownian motion, or–more likely–the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, in modern physics.
Ethics: the Art of Living
You are probably beginning to see the coherence of the Epicurean system: from the Canon, we get the Physics; and from the Canon and Physics, we get the Ethics. The Epicurean understanding of reality has many practical implications. It implies that it is not wise to fear or appease the gods, who intervene in nothing, since all things follow natural laws. It provides sober therapeutic treatment for the fear of death based on the Physics. More importantly, it implies that we only have one life and, if this insight is taken seriously, it gives us an urgency to make plans and to live pleasantly, to take advantage of the single, non-renewable time we have under the sun. The work of being happy is of supreme importance. The doctrine that says that it is in our nature to seek pleasure and to avoid pain is called hedonism. We inherited this doctrine from the intellectuals of the Libyan city of Cyrene, which has been called by Michel Onfray “a philosophical Atlantis”.
Cyrenaic Reasonings (a summary and commentary on the book by Kurt Lampe titled The Birth of Hedonism)
Herculanean Scroll: Philodemus On Death
Essay: Epicurus’ Four Cures
But what is happiness? What can we know empirically about happiness? And why do the Epicureans insist on establishing pleasure, and not “virtue” (or “happiness”) as the end? For the Epicureans, all Platonization of natural phenomena is a kind of alienation. Unlike (sometimes obscure) abstractions like “Virtue”, pain and pleasure are concrete and real, observable in nature, and are perceived and experienced directly by the sentient being. In that sense, they are not Platonic, but natural. They are instincts, they are natural and emerge from the body and its faculties. The faculty of pleasure and aversion is not an arbitrary dogma of an academic philosopher, but the guidance that nature itself gives us. If we look at newborn babies, or puppies or kitties, we will observe that they shun pain and seek pleasure.
Ancient Writing: Cicero’s De Finibus–According to New Epicurean, this is the clearest discourse about why virtue is not the end, and why the virtues should be seen as means for a pleasurable life. This is THE MAIN CONTROVERSY in the many disputes between Epicureans and other schools, especially the Stoics.
The faculty of aversion-pleasure is part of the Canon, so it is understood that through it, nature guides us in our choices and avoidances, as this is the main component of our moral faculty. In establishing pleasure as an end, it is important to understand that it is not a particular activity but a natural faculty, and therefore the definition of a pleasurable life is broad, diverse and individualized. Neither is it a Platonic abstraction, but concrete activities and natural states of mind. The science of happiness has demonstrated that there is something called “hedonic adaptation”: once a person gets used to the pleasure of an activity, she does not enjoy it as much. Failure to understand this phenomenon of adaptation leads to addictions, disenchantment, and other problems. In ancient Epicurean writings, this subject is covered as the need to understand the natural limits of our pleasures and desires. “Pleasant abiding” regardless of our objects of desire, for many, requires training and cultivation of our attention.
That is why Epicurean ethics teaches that we must develop a hedonic regimen, a menu of diverse and varied pleasures, and that we must take on the training to learn to experience constant pleasures, both dynamic and passive. This is done through philosophical practices such as daily cultivation of a spirit of gratitude, frequent association with our wholesome friends, repetition and memorization of teachings, self-reliance projects that protect us from long-term fears and insecurities, Cyrenaic adaptability that helps us to put less faith in our ability to control what happens in the future than in our ability to adapt to it, and other Epicurean practices.
A Counter-History of Philosophy
Sometimes those of us who learn to love this philosophy acquire a sense of our place within its history. It is impossible to avoid noting that Platonism has been from the beginning the intellectual arch-enemy of our school, and in fact Epicurus and his great friend Hermarchus were expelled from Mytilene by the Platonists. This event is symbolic of the historical opposition between theologians and naturalistic philosophers, between the idealists and the materialists.
Academic philosophy has typically focused on Platonism and Aristotelianism, even though the scientific description of the universe has again and again confirmed the theories of the materialists. That is why modern intellectuals such as Michel Onfray have called for an alternative narrative: a counter-history of philosophy “spoken from the perspective of the friends of Epicurus and enemies of Plato”.
Lucretius in his book On the Nature of Things is a forerunner of this. In his epic poem, he shares anthropology-based origin stories by which he means to dismantle the mythical, non-empirical world-view of his predecessors. Philodemus of Gadara, in his scroll On Frank Criticism, explains that the philosopher must apply two forms of frank criticism (public and private) in order to help improve collective and personal moral character. In the arsenal of rhetorical tools that the Epicureans have historically used for this, we find the use of comedy and suavity.
Another tool we use to honor our own narrative is the monthly celebration of a feast of reason, where delicacies are shared and philosophy is studied the twentieth of every month. This tradition was established by Epicurus in his Final Testament, and is the reason why ancient Epicureans were known as eikadastai (the twentiers, or “the people of the twentieth”).
Book: Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura