Further Reading / Watching:
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 Philosophy facebook group 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: Today it is understood that the atom is divisible and modern Physics calls particles (eg, quartz, etc.) what the ancient Greeks called “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
Dear Friends from Hellas,
I am writing this message of solidarity today, unfortunately, as the ultra-nationalist and strongly theocratic forces are rising to power in America, reminding us about how crucial it is to understand the important distinction between Platonic (that is, imaginary) communities and real, natural communities of friends that we can take refuge in. We do not know every individual that shares our race, our ethnicity, or our nationality, but we know our friends and family with intimacy, and we recognize them, and we choose them time and again because we find pleasure, familiarity, and safety in their association. The difference between Platonic community and natural community is that between unnecessary and necessary goods.
Epicurus taught his philosophy at a time when politics was synonymous to intrigue and in-fighting and back-stabbing, and it was impossible to live a life of pleasure while being involved in politics. Because of the polarized environment, political discussions today can be very heated and easily break friendships. While it is important to understand the dangers and the threats that come from the political realm, the next four years for us will be a great opportunity to practice the art of being apolitical, at least to the degree required to preserve our peace of mind, and also an opportunity to educate people on issues like the importance of providing children with a robust scientific education, and to teach them to think for themselves based on empirical evidence. A democracy can only function if the citizens are educated.
Everything that is happening in the world around us demonstrates that the teachings of the Epicureans today are just as relevant and as useful as they were when they emerged in the cradle of philosophy. Although Greece is still going through some financial difficulties, you must never forget the noble heritage that Epicurus gave you! That is a different kind of wealth, one that you should market and teach to the peoples of the rest of the world.
Society of Friends of Epicurus
“Parallel Sayings” Buddhist Meme Series
January 23, 2016
The Punctured Jar Parable
March 20, 2016
August 5, 2016
Tending the Epicurean Garden, by Hiram Crespo
September 4, 2016
Friends of Epicurus
Dialogue on Virtue
September 5, 2016
Society of Epicurus
Society of Epicurus Publishes Epitome in Esperanto
September 20, 2016
Friends of Epicurus
Dialogue on the Search for Meaning
October 8, 2016
Hermarchus on the Ethics of Vegetarianism and Treatment of Animals
October 24, 2016
The Gods of the Garden, the God of the Mount and the Absolute
February 5, 2017
Society of Epicurus
Panhellenic Symposium of Epicurean Philosophy, Greetings from Hiram Crespo, Founder of SoFE
February 24, 2017
Essays About Nietzsche’s Will to Power
February 27, 2017
The Bonobo and the Atheist Book Review
March 2, 2017
The Taoist Hedonism of Yang Chu
March 7, 2017
Ever since the poet Horace proudly called himself a “well-fed pig from Epicurus’ sty”, and with the discovery of a leaping pig in the villa of Herculaneum together with some of the most important scrolls that have been preserved in our tradition, the official mascot of the Epicureans has been a celebrated source of inspiration.
In this meme series, we commission a series of winged piglet angels to remind us of the Principal Doctrines on the Twentieth of every month. Please feel free to share these on social media!
Two great intellectual currents converged to create the great river of Epicurean philosophy. The first one is the atomist school founded by Leucippus and Democritus, the laughing philosopher, which concerned itself with the need for scientific and empirical certainly about the nature of things. This evolved into Epicurean physics. The second one was the Cyrenaic school of hedonism, which is the first Greek philosophy that posited that pleasure was the aim of life. This evolved into Epicurean ethics.
This blog series explores the threads that run through the Cyrenaic Schools and that make their way into the Epicurean one based on the highly-recommended book The Birth of Hedonism: The Cyrenaic Philosophers and Pleasure as a Way of Life, by Kurt Lampe.
The following is a review of the book Epicurus & Apikorsim by Yaakov Malkin.
Do not fear the Gods. – Philodemus of Gadara
Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. – Ecclesiastes 12:13
Apikorsim is the term used in the rabbinic Judaism for a heretic. The word originates in the term Epicurean, and testifies to the huge threat that Epicurus’ doctrine posed to the religious life of the Jews during the hellenistic era. In fact, it was the intense hellenization of Judea that prompted the radicalization of religious Jews under the Maccabees, and Philonides of Laodicea contributed to this process as an Epicurean missionary.
When I began reading the book, after watching a video where the author seems to refer to Apikorsim as just a euphemism for secularism, I wanted to know whether he had a clear understanding of Epicurean doctrine. I did not find an introduction to Epicurus’ canon, but I was very happy to find that, early in the book, Malkin accurately explains the physics and the ethics of Epicurus. After finishing the book, I believe that the lack of thorough familiarity with the canon was a minor weakness, as it would have helped him to much better articulate why we Epicureans believe what we believe, and it would have helped to more clearly express some of the ideas in the book. He mentions the “principles of justice”, for instance, but no clear details are given and no mention is made of hedonic calculus.
He also accentuates the importance of friendship, and even cites the moral example of Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the founder of the Secular Humanist Jewish denomination who beautifully embodied the ideals of friendship in his own life. This is in line with both Epicurean and Jewish traditions: in Israel, the rabbis are frequently treated as pop celebrities. Like other Jewish denominations, SHJ also boasts compilations of traditions, interpretations, anecdotes and teachings by humanist rabbis which comprise their own separate wisdom tradition within Judaism.
After doing this, he is concerned to show Apikorsim not always as Epicureans in the full doctrinal sense, but as a sister historical tradition to hellenistic Epicureanism, one descended from it yet distinct, and characterised by being an affront to orthodox Jewish religious views, as well as by the tension between being part of a people and being an individual with views that are at odds with the majority of one’s people. Like many other aspects of Judaism, concerned as it was initially with God’s supposed role in history, the Apikorsim identity for Malkin is a historical narrative, an atheistic counter-history of Judaism. When detailing the specific beliefs of the Apikorsim, Malkin cites three main points.
- Belief in free choice and in man’s sovereignty
- The importance of enjoyment and in bettering life; in fact, elsewhere he characterizes Epicureanism as a philosophy that improves life
- Belief in the prudent pursuit of pleasure
Concerning this last point of Apikorsim doctrine, Malkin defends it and says that happiness is anti-religion, that it is un-Christian, a provocation of the church. Hedonism is recognized as another key point of contention with religion.
Apikorsim can in theory be as orthodox as any other Epicurean, although they do not strictly have to be Epicurean in Milken’s narrative–he cites the rabbis arguing that Spinoza was “the greatest of the Apikorsim”, which again reminds us that the Apikorsim label originates with the rabbis. Orthodox or not, they are kindred spirits, and the cross-fertilization of Epicurean and Jewish ideas is facilitated by a shared iconoclastic (idol-smashing) attitude in both traditions, which encouraged the Apikorsim to smash the Jewish god like the last idol standing long before Nietzsche and Richard Dawkins made the clarion call to do so.
One key argument the author makes is that Jewish culture has always been diverse and boasts a lively non-religious and anti-clerical intellectual tradition, one that was at one point greatly influenced by the ideas of Epicurus, that replaced the centrality of God in Judaism with the laws of nature, and that sees orthodox Judaism as “a mythological culture”.
It becomes clear as we read this book that apikorsim is a label and identity that was initially imposed by hostile religious Jews with derision, that is it is imposed from outside by rabbis (the so-called “sages of the Talmud”) who cursed and argued against the Apikorsim amongst them, but then the author takes the historical label used generically for atheistic Jews throughout history, and wears it proudly. He argues that atheistic Jews have always existed, and that they’re also part of Judaism, that Jews are not a people of only one religion or only one philosophy. Apikorsim are now out and proud as one of the philosophical tribes who have always existed at the margins of Judaism for millenia, as attested in ancient writings.
Some of the assertions of the book seem a bit forced. Ecclesiastes and Job are characterized as Epicurean works. Judging from the initial quotes in my review, it’s easy to admit similarities and influence, but difficult to argue that Ecclesiastes is an Epicurean book in the strict sense. It does say that this is the one life, and that we should enjoy and be merry, and it does deny the existence of an afterlife. As for Job, Malkin argues that it rejects that god is just and says nature is neutral, that it is an existentialist and atheistic book where God makes a pact with the devil to destroy the life of Job. It depicts God as an anti-hero, a villain. This, again, seems forced as an argument that it’s an Epicurean work, as the teachings consider such evil fairy tales as impious.
Not the man who denies the gods worshipped by the multitude, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them is truly impious. – Epistle to Menoeceus
One strong point of Epicurus & Apikorsim is the severe critique of Plato, who is frequently characterized as a totalitarian philosopher who has left a heinous legacy which influenced the Christian Empire during the Dark Ages and many other evil and authoritarian regimes throughout history. The author also frequently cites Norman DeWitt, and says that his “book is one of the most comprehensive” on the subject of Epicurus. DeWitt is, indeed, considered one of the most important scholars by traditional Epicureans, and a good one to read if we want to get a glimpse of Epicurus on his own terms.
One interesting thesis presented by the author says that Epicurean principles guide the way in which we approach the tensions between free market economy and the welfare state. He cites consumerism as an example of Epicurean influence in modern culture, which it is not, in fact it’s a sign of lack of Epicurean insight within the culture. Epicurus gave us a curriculum for controling our desires, and former Uruguayan president Jose Mujica specifically cites Epicurus as a role model against consumerist values. Malkin is right, however, to antagonize traditional religion’s irresponsible doctrine that unbridled reproduction without fighting poverty is a good idea. A healthy model of economic growth is always needed.
The thesis is interesting, and we concede many of his points. In fact one letter by the Epicurean American founding father Thomas Jefferson was recently dug up where he argued that capitalism required protections against war-profiteering. This has been a recent topic of discussion in the Epicurean facebook group.
Towards the end of the book, Malkin discusses the legacy of Hiwi Al-Balkhi, one of the great Apikorsim cultural heroes. His writings were preserved only by hostile sources arguing against the anti-religious points he made.
Afterthought and Conclusion: a Covenant of Friendship
One afterthought that occured to me, having read this great volume, has to do with Epicurean contractarianism and what it may contribute to SHJ’s way of articulating its own identity within a legalistic, covenant-based tradition such as Judaism. In religious Judaism, the covenant comes from God and is imposed against the will of the “chosen”. A secular appropriation and re-interpretation of the covenant might be what Michel Onfray calls the “hedonic covenant”, where “I promote your pleasure in order to secure my own”. Might the secular humanist denomination of Judaism be able and willing to apply the contractarian theory to develop a working model of communitarian ethics, and to articulate in contractarian terms what kind of community it seeks to become?
Mitzvot (duties, commandments) are a central concept in Judaism, however they cannot emerge from God in a secular covenant of free men and women, but only from free agents engaging in binding contracts and oaths, so that if someone makes an agreement with others to follow this or that rule, then Apikorsim mitzvot are born. Otherwise, it is problematic to argue for a duty-based ethics without God or some kind of (potentially oppressive) caste system. A covenant of friendship might set the terms not only for what courtesies the members of SHJ owe each other, but also for what celebrations and traditions they will carry forward as choosing Jews, and can also serve to explore the nature of egalitarian friendship in clear terms. It would be an opportunity to philosophize around the pleasures of friendship. What could be more Epicurean?
Epicurus & Apikorsim is an important contribution to the history of Epicurean ideas, and unfortunately also the history of the persecution and violence that these ideas have encountered by the religious authorities. It’s also a proud affirmation of their value, and even reaffirms the theory that Epicureanism is, indeed, a kind of religious identity on par with Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and the rest. And like all identities, it is reinforced when for its sake people experience violence and abuse from others, as has been the case with the Apikorsim.
Finally, the book is also an affirmation of Jewishness, and of Jewish resilience and survival. Ataraxia here becomes Shalom, and natural philosophy syncretizes with cultural traditions unique to one people, seeking to reconcile the unending tension between nature and culture.
Judaism is unique in that it’s not just a religious tradition: it’s also ethnic and cultural, the product of a complicated history. Non-religious Jews have frequently felt like strangers in a strange land governed by superstition and religion, oftentimes hated by their religious peers. In fact, the author of Epicurus & Apikorsim recently received threats as a result of his work promoting secularism in Israel. In the end, Malkin’s work and the work of the SHJ denomination is meant to preserve the culturally-Jewish identity of secular Jews, whom the orthodox Jewish authorities oftentimes scare away. Apikorsim is, after all, part of the Jewish experience.
Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed