To eat and drink without a friend is to devour like the lion and the wolf. ― Epicurus
In a letter written in 1429, Cosma Raimondi–a native of Cremona in Lombardy, Italy who later migrated to France to teach–was one of the early Renaissance humanists who defended Epicurus against the Stoics, Platonists, and Aristotelians in an early epistolary treatise in defense of Epicurus and of virtuous pleasure. His letter–a translation of which is available from New Epicurean–and the fervor with which it was written, stand out as symptoms of the dawn of the Enlightenment. It’s titled A Letter to Ambrogio Tignosi in Defence of Epicurus against the Stoics, Academics and Peripatetics, and it was intended for an apostate who had at one point been Epicurean but had abandoned the Epicurean camp.
This indicates that they belonged to a circle of friends in the Italy of the early 15th Century that had an intellectually rich life and, in fact, he was a pupil of the well-known humanist teacher Gasparino Barzizza.
It is not just a dispute between ourselves, for all the ancient philosophers, principally the three sects of Academics, Stoics and Aristotelians, declared war to the death against this one man who was the master of them all. Their onslaught sought to leave no place for him in philosophy and to declare all his opinions invalid in my view, because they were envious at seeing so many more pupils taking themselves to the school of Epicurus than to their own.
Immediately, one feature stands out which reminds us of Jefferson’s epistle to William Short: his fervor for the doctrine. Jefferson refers to Epicurus as his Master and to himself as a pupil, and a true and passionate one who must defend the Master. In Jefferson’s letter, we find the author arguing in favor of the true, not the imputed teachings of Epicurus.
Cosma begins his arguments by ridiculing the Stoic view that virtue is the source of human happiness, and that even if a man is being tortured by the cruellest butchers, that he can still be happy. The author calls this view absurd and dismisses it as obviously and self-evidently false.
How again could you be further from any sort of happiness than to lack all or most of the things that themselves make up happiness? The Stoics think that someone who is starving and lame and afflicted with all the other disadvantages of health or external circumstances is nonetheless in a state of perfect felicity as long as he can display his virtue.
He then goes on to question the neglect of the flesh, of the body, which goes along with the rejection of pleasure and the exaltation of virtue, as problematic.
Why do they consider only the mind and neglect the body, when the body houses the mind and is the other half of what man is?
And in the same way that the body is not to be thought healthy when some part of it is sick, so man himself cannot be thought happy if he is suffering in some part of himself. As for their assigning happiness to the mind alone on the grounds that it is in some sense the master and ruler of mans body, it is quite absurd to disregard the body when the mind itself often depends on the state and condition the body and indeed can do nothing without it. Should we not deride someone we saw sitting on a throne and calling himself a king when he had no courtiers or servants? Should we think someone a fine prince whose servants were slovenly and misshapen?
The Stoics’ lack of concern for bodily integrity, which comes adorned with an air of fortitude and nobility, constitutes to a great extent lack of compassion on the one hand, and on the other hand it produces, in its practical effects, indifference towards injustices and evils that may be committed against innocent persons. Together with the arbitrary and unqualified elevation of apathy and resignation to the status of virtues, this leads to a lifestyle that impedes the addressing of grievances and is in huge contrast with the approach that we see in Philodemus’ scroll On Anger, which calls for the compassionate treatment of anger and indignation as a source of insight and as an excuse for reformation and change.
By requiring the silence and consent of our emotions, Stoicism holds its victims hostage to fate even when things might be done to address grievances and to challenge evil, dangerous and harmful paradigms. Without finding useful and pragmatic outlets for anger, there would have been no civil rights movement, no Stonewall riots, no possibility of redemption from injustices.
The rationalizing of dangerous, cruel and irrelevant so-called moral views divorced from the study of nature also produces a kind of alienation from nature. Or perhaps this rationalizing is produced by alienation? Cosma makes the observation:
I find it surprising that these clever Stoics did not remember when investigating the subject that they themselves were men. Their conclusions came not from what human nature demanded but from what they could contrive in argument.
Cosma then visits all the senses and comments on how they like to dwell on the sensory objects that are aesthetically pleasing. He takes a moment to notice the self-evident truths of hedonistic naturalism. He does not rationalize these pleasures, or link them to theories such as natural selection. He also does not deny mental pleasures, in fact he includes them in his contemplation. He then concludes:
Epicurus was right, then, to call pleasure the supreme good, since we are so constituted as almost to seem designed for that purpose. We also have a certain inherent mental disposition to seek and attain pleasure: as far as we can, we try to be happy and not sad.
Cosma also makes indirect mention of the doctrine of confident expectation, which indicates that we derive ataraxia not only from friends, philosophy, and other pleasures, but from the confident expectation that our friends will be there if we need them, that the necessary and natural goods are easy to attain, etc. This, together with his indication that virtue derives its value from the pleasure it brings, indicates the author’s deep insight into Epicurean ethics.
If virtue brings no pleasure or delight, why should we want it or make much of it? But if it does, why not concede that the greatest of all goods what should seek above all is that for the sake of which virtue itself is desirable
Since Epicurus does not suppose that life should be lived without virtue, I do not think he leads the life of animals. So he is not to be shunned like some traitor who would overthrow or pervert human society. He does not corrupt public morals; his whole doctrine is instead directed at making us as happy as we can be.
The epistle closes with an invitation to return back to the philosophy that Ambrogio had once, like Cosma, embraced and defended, and with a regretful declaration that, due to limited time, he was unable to cover more points.
Alex Díaz’ Presentation to Red Bank Humanists on Epicurean Philosophy:
Video by New Epicurean:
A Gigantic Jigsaw Puzzle: The Epicurean Inscription of Diogenes of Oinoanda
Share Ideas video titled “Epicurus: Taking Pleasure Seriously”
Gregory B Sadler Videos on Epicurus:
The following five reasonings comprise, together, a long and in-depth review of The Book of Community, by the collective of bloggers known as Los Indianos.
The members of Las Indias make up a coop whose communal experiments have been inspired, in part, by Epicurus’ Garden, and who have written in the past about Epicurean philosophy. In my exchanges with them, many new insights have emerged that expand our understanding of key Epicurean concepts.
One of the most fruitful conversations has been the natural community discourse, which differentiates between Platonic, imagined communities versus real, inter-subjective and interpersonal communities. This distinction is much more crucial than we may initially think. Indianos argue against involvement in politics based on the view that it replaces natural community with Platonic, imagined identities that do not necessarily constitute real communal life, real conversation and interaction. They even argue that Epicurean cosmopolitanism was a reaction again the citizen identity conferred by the polis–city-state–and that the early Gardens constituted communal experiments timidly suggestive of the ideals of statelessness. While reading the book, further insights emerged on the subject of natural community. Here is a quote from the review:
The Book of Community, among other things, expands on a conversation that inspired me to blog about natural community based on some of the insights that the Indianos have shared on their blog … Indianos interestingly cite how in 1993, Robin Dunbar published a study that predicted “the maximum size of a human group” to be 147.8. This is known as the Dunbar number, interpreted as “the cognitive limit in the number of individuals with whom any person can maintain stable relationships“. This seems to not only vindicate the doctrine on natural community which was initially formulated as a result of my exchange with the Indianos, but also attaches a specific number of individuals to the size of a natural community.
In the book, they explain in detail the lathe biosas teaching on why political involvement is bad for organic communities because manufactured narratives tend to compete with communal ones, they call for the use of ceremony in order to strengthen community, they celebrate autarchy and criticize the narrative of the “common good”. Please enjoy the five-part series of articles on community.
English translation of Las Indias’ Review of Tending the Epicurean Garden
After writing about my “Religion as Play” hypothesis at The Autarkist, which says that religion is a form of play favored by natural selection by which we develop social and cognitive skills that help us cope with difficulties, the online discussion on the facebook group instigated an entire series of considerations about religion; whether it is natural and necessary, natural and unnecessary, or neither natural nor necessary; and whether Epicureanism is, can be or should be a religious identity.
In this last piece, I am indebted in part to our friend Ilkka, from Finland. He had initially proposed the notion of Epicureanism as a religious identity in private, and later fleshed out the idea by mentioning Ninian Smart, a religious scholar according to whom there are seven dimensions to religious experience. I decided to compare his seven dimensions to the Epicurean tradition and found that it fits all of them neatly and qualifies as a religion per his criteria.
The refreshing thing about this last series of reasonings is that it moves away from the mockery and disdain that we sometimes exhibit for religion, and has a relatively positive view of religion as potentially having great therapeutic and artistic value. It also opens the door to the possibility of an Epicurean “census campaign” similar to the ones carried out by Jedis and Pastafarians, where they have sought to publicly identify and present as Jedi or Pastafarian in order to gain visibility, sometimes as activism or as parody, and also to challenge conventional conceptions of religiosity.
Epicurus, on the qualities of a Wise Man, as cited by Diogenes Laertius in Lives of Eminent Philosophers
Before quoting his words, however, let me go into the views of Epicurus himself and his school concerning the wise man.
There are three motives to injurious acts among men–hatred, envy, and contempt ; and these the wise man overcomes by reason. Moreover, he who has once become wise never more assumes the opposite habit, not even in semblance, if he can help it. He will be more susceptible of emotion than other men : that will be no hindrance to his wisdom. However, not every bodily constitution nor every nationality would permit a man to become wise.
 Even on the rack the wise man is happy. He alone will feel gratitude towards friends, present and absent alike, and show it by word and deed. When on the rack, however, he will give vent to cries and groans. As regards women he will submit to the restrictions imposed by the law, as Diogenes says in his epitome of Epicurus’ ethical doctrines. Nor will he punish his servants ; rather he will pity them and make allowance on occasion for those who are of good character. The Epicureans do not suffer the wise man to fall in love ; nor will he trouble himself about funeral rites; according to them love does not come by divine inspiration : so Diogenes in his twelfth book. The wise man will not make fine speeches. No one was ever the better for sexual indulgence, and it is well if he be not the worse.
 Nor, again, will the wise man marry and rear a family : so Epicurus says in the Problems and in the De Natura. Occasionally he may marry owing to special circumstances in his life. Some too will turn aside from their purpose. Nor will he drivel, when drunken : so Epicurus says in the Symposium. Nor will he take part in politics, as is stated in the first book On Life ; nor will he make himself a tyrant ; nor will he turn Cynic (so the second book On Life tells us) ; nor will he be a mendicant. But even when he has lost his sight, he will not withdraw himself from life : this is stated in the same book. The wise man will also feel grief, according to Diogenes in the fifth book of his Epilecta. And he will take a suit into court.  He will leave written words behind him, but will not compose panegyric. He will have regard to his property and to the future.
He will be fond of the country. He will be armed against fortune and will never give up a friend. He will pay just so much regard to his reputation as not to be looked down upon. He will take more delight than other men in state festivals.
The wise man will set up votive images. Whether he is well off or not will be matter of indifference to him. Only the wise man will be able to converse correctly about music and poetry, without however actually writing poems himself. One wise man does not move more wisely than another. And he will make money, but only by his wisdom, if he should be in poverty, and he will pay court to a king, if need be. He will be grateful to anyone when he is corrected. He will found a school, but not in such a manner as to draw the crowd after him ; and will give readings in public, but only by request. He will be a dogmatist but not a mere sceptic ; and he will be like himself even when asleep. And he will on occasion die for a friend.
The school holds that sins are not all equal ; that health is in some cases a good, in others a thing indifferent ; that courage is not a natural gift but comes from calculation of expediency ; and that friendship is prompted by our needs. One of the friends, however, must make the first advances (just as we have to cast seed into the earth), but it is maintained by a partnership in the enjoyment of life’s pleasures.
 Two sorts of happiness can be conceived, the one the highest possible, such as the gods enjoy, which cannot be augmented, the other admitting addition and subtraction of pleasures.
Like almost every other scroll written by Philodemus, this one was a reaction, summary and commentary on Crates of Mallus, who was himself commenting on theories by other thinkers. The book is mainly written in the negative, contradicting the theories on literary critique posited by other thinkers, but never really proposing a theory of the Epicurean School. The critiques focus mainly on the lack of clear definition of the terms used, and the ideals expressed, by other schools.
The conversation focuses on what is a poet, what is his role, and what constitutes a good poem, poetic excellence, and a good poet.
Among the arguments presented by other thinkers, we find the issue of whether poetry should have educational or character-building content, whether it should give poetic form to traditional content. Is good poetry charming to the ear and useless, as some argue? Or must the words be useful or have educational value? Philodemus argues that nothing prohibits the poet from creating useful content.
Another opponent says that a poet must use current idioms and possess the art of melody, but Philodemus uses the same critique that he uses for most other arguments throughout the text: these ideals are arbitrary. How are these ideals determined, and how are they judged?
Another opponent argues that poetry must be brief and contain evidence whereas for thought, it must have force of conviction and evidence also. He says this last is the art of the poet, but again Philodemus raises the same critique as he did with the previous one; adding that these criteria can also be applied to prose and are not exclusive to poetry.
Other arbitrary criteria are presented: poems must have vigor, richness, gravity, simplicity, refined conception, elaboration of style, and proper words. Philodemus questions what gravity consists of, and how poems that lack intensite are different from the pompous ones; he questions what is precisely meant by many of these criteria, and what Neoptolemus means by “posessing poetic art and power”, or what is meant elsewhere when it is said that poems must be “serious” and where no examples are provided of what this means, although it may be construed that they should contain wise thoughts and be meant to educate. A long portion of the scroll deals with whether poetry should be without value or serious–in other words, whether it’s purely aesthetic, or also didactic.
One Stoic presents the idea of “the principle of the art”, which again is not clearly defined and is derived from Stoic beliefs in how art is a gift of Divine Reason.
One point of controversy deals with how Philodemus differentiates between the faculties of hearing and of reason. He says it’s ridiculous to say that “a serious composition can’t be grasped by reason, only by ear”, as if the ear had judgement powers.
One argument where Philodemus coincides with other thinkers has to do with how there is a difference between a poet and one who creates great works; in other words, just as some musicians create bad music, so with poets. Another agreement has to do with how a vicious composition can damage a poem, even if it’s refined.
In coinciding regarding these points, Philodemus is conceding that “believe it or not” there are no arbitrary rules to judge poetry, yet rules do exist; he later states that only rhythm charms the ear and that only reason can judge composition.
… which brings us to the Canon. Although the scroll does not produce a literary theory that can be applied to judging poetry, based on the Canon it seems like it would be undeniable that a good poem should produce pleasure in the ear and be enjoyable (therefore appealing to the pleasure faculty within the Canon), and that it may or may not have usefulness. By this, we may be referring to educational value (poetry may help to memorize adages and teachings), or therapeutic benefit depending on the content, as we saw in our discussions on music.
Based on the French translation in Les Epicuriens of the original scroll from Herculaneum titled Les Poèmes V.
A discussion of Epicurean virtue is needed as a result of our constant encounters with students of philosophy who have been exposed to Stoic and Platonic notions about virtue devoid of context and of telos, as we understand it.
Clarifying some of the Problematic Issues
Concerning the end that nature has established for natural beings, our teachers insist that the end is pleasure, and Polystratus goes as far as saying that not having a clear understanding of how pleasure is the end is the architect of all evils. This is because of the confusion of values problem: people fail to attach accurate value to things and develop artificial systems of value that are not aligned with the nature of things. For the sake of the virtue of courage they may fight needless wars that generate more suffering than pleasure in the end; for the sake of the so-called “virtue” of duty they commit attrocities and accept authoritarian models of ethics that are dehumanizing. Virtue, to us, has no value if it does not lead to net pleasure after we subject our choices and avoidances to hedonic calculus.
Virtues in Epicurean doctrine are, therefore, downgraded to the status of means to pleasure whereas the Stoics see “Virtue” as the end … “Virtue” here in the singular, which is usually a symptom that we are being presented with a Platonized concept divorced from context in nature. Perhaps a good comparison to Epicurean virtues is the very practical conception of Buddhist upayas, which translate as efficient means, and incorporate not just virtues as they are frequently understood, but also specific techniques and practices.
Another crucial issue, which was discussed already in our Reasonings About Philodemus’ scroll On the Stoics, had to do with how when words are not clearly defined, they become useless.
A third issue emerged in our Reasonings About Philodemus’ scroll On Anger which puts our School in direct opposition with Stoic notions about virtue: it’s the compassionate recognition of anger and indignation as potentially having both a virtuous disposition and usefulness.
Our insistence in dethroning virtue in favor of pleasure, and others’ confusion of the means with the end, has produced discussions where we have been accused of being haters of “Virtue”, again in the singular. As a result of these controversies, and also as a way of extending the olive branch to our Stoic brethren, these reasonings on the Epicurean virtues attempt to rescue them from Platonized, dis-embodied oblivion, to capture them from the heavenly realms and to find where in nature the virtues can be observed and in what way they may lead to maximizing pleasure and avoiding pain.
Ancient Epicureans did not frequently address the virtues as points of reference, preferring instead to speak in clear and concise terms and to avoid words that were not clearly defined, but Frances Wright in her work A Few Days in Athens did incorporate a sermon on the virtues that might be a good starting point to explore them.
The Practical Means to Long-Term Pleasure Can Work in Unison
Epicurus stood in the midst of the expectant scholars. “My sons,” he said, “why do you enter the gardens? Is it to seek happiness, or to seek virtue and knowledge? Attend, and I will show you that in finding one, you shall find the three. To be happy, we must be virtuous; and when we are virtuous, we are wise. – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X
The problems generated from seeking virtue without knowledge are explored by Polystratus in his Irrational Contempt. They mostly deal with degenerating into degrading superstition. The above may have been a paraphrase of the fifth Principal Doctrine, which states:
It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the man is not able to live wisely, though he lives honorably and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life.
except that, if you’ll notice, the original doctrine excludes a reference to virtue because, as I said, the founders were hesitant to use words that led to misinterpretation and favored clear speech; and, as we’ve discussed, this is one of the criticisms of virtue in our school.
It frequently seems that A Few Days in Athens was written, in part, to appease worshipers of Virtue, of whom Frances Wright says that “many worship at the altar of Virtue, but few stop to inspect the pedestal on which She stands“. That pedestal is, of course, pleasure.
The first four doctrines correlate to the Four Cures, which constitute the basic points of the ethical doctrine. The fifth doctrine must have been important enough in our ethics, that it had to follow the Tetrapharmakon, as if only the Four Cures had been more important. I believe the reason for this has to do with it relating to the accusations by the philosophers of the polis that a hedonist could not be a good citizen. Professor John Thrasher addresses how Epicurean contractarianism answers this accusation. A modern version of the same accusation is the sociopath argument, where we have been asked “What is to keep a sociopath / psychopath from being a good Epicurean?”. The reply to this is found in Epicurus’ teaching that a sage will be willing to give his life for a friend, and also in Principal Doctrines 5 (above) and 39, which says:
The man who best knows how to meet external threats makes into one family all the creatures he can; and those he can not, he at any rate does not treat as aliens; and where he finds even this impossible, he avoids all dealings, and, so far as is advantageous, excludes them from his life.
The answer to the sociopath argument seems to be that we would ostracize this person and exclude him from our lives, and in fact the modern justice and prison systems already do just that. Our friend Cassius says:
Most sociopaths do not pursue pleasure wisely, honorably, and justly, and therefore cannot live happily, because the human nature of those around him will punish him and prevent it.
Which is true: the potential repercussions of sociopathic behavior include not only imprisonment, but also isolation, loss of support from friends and family, potential loss of jobs and other opportunities and sources of income. It is impossible, or at least very difficult, to have friendship or conduct business with partners who lack the ability to establish trusting relations with others.
And so, in order to ensure a life of pleasure, we must have knowledge of nature to avoid superstitious fears, and we must have blessed friendship which excludes sociopathic behavior and requires many wholesome dispositions. Happiness, wisdom, and the virtues all lead to the natural end that nature has established for us: the pleasant life.
Frances Wright’s Survey of the Epicurean Virtues
The relevant portion begins with Epicurus inviting his followers to sit and study at the feet of Philosophy with an open disposition, without pedantry and pretension.
Let us then begin: and first, let us for a while hush our passions into slumber, forget our prejudices, and cast away our vanity and our pride. Thus patient and modest, let us come to the feet of philosophy; let us say to her, ‘Behold us scholars and children, gifted by nature with faculties, affections, and passions. Teach us their use and their guidance. Show us how to turn them to account — how best to make them conduce to our ease, and minister to our enjoyment.’ – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X
Then, just as we see in the Bible’s wisdom books, where Wisdom speaks in the first person, the same thing happens:
“Sons of earth,” says the Deity, “you have spoken wisely; you feel that you are gifted by nature with faculties, affections, and passions; and you perceive that on the right exertion and direction of these depends your well-being. It does so. Your affections both of soul and body may be shortly reduced to two, pleasure and pain; the one troublesome, and the other agreeable. It is natural and befitting, therefore, that you shun pain, and desire and follow after pleasure. Set forth then on the pursuit; but ere you start, be sure that it is in the right road, and that you have your eye on the true object. Perfect pleasure, which is happiness, you will have attained when you have brought your bodies and souls into a state of satisfied tranquillity. To arrive at this, much previous exertion is requisite; yet exertion, not violent, only constant and even. – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X
Philosophy begins by pointing the finger at our natural faculties. The study of nature must begin from where we are, from the tools that we have to apprehend her. Among these tools, the one that is most relevant to ethics is the pleasure and aversion faculty. The natural goal established by our own nature is asserted as the first thing that we must clearly understand.
Immediately, the author knows that some will equate pleasure with debauchery and mindless instant gratification. She then introduces Prudence as the mother of all the virtues and handmaiden of wisdom. Sometimes translated as practical wisdom, prudence is a shortened form of pro-videntia, or prior-seeing, that is, seeing before things happen, seeing ahead (and planning ahead). Here, with regards to control of desires, Prudence is the reasoning faculty by which we conduct hedonic calculus, the comparative measure of pain versus pleasure over the long term.
And first, the body, with, its passions and appetites, demands gratification and indulgence. But beware! for here are the hidden rocks which may shipwreck your bark on its passage, and shut you out for ever from the haven of repose. Provide yourselves then with a skilled pilot, who may steer you through the Scylla and Charybdis of your carnal affections, and point the steady helm through the deep waters of your passions. Behold her! it is Prudence, the mother of the virtues, and the handmaid of wisdom. Ask, and she will tell you, that gratification will give new edge to the hunger of your appetites, and that the storm of the passions shall kindle with indulgence. Ask, and she will tell you, that sensual pleasure is pain covered with the mask of happiness. Behold she strips it from her face, and reveals the features of disease, disquietude, and remorse. – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X
Wright then argues that prudence leads to ataraxia, which translates as equanimity. A beautiful, poetic comparison of a pleasant life of ataraxia as “neither a roaring torrent, nor a stagnant pool, but a placid and crystal stream”. Notice how she sees ataraxia in positive terms, not as mere pain relief (the common academic interpretation of Epicurean ataraxia), but as pleasant abiding, “healthy contentment”, joy.
Ask, and she will tell you, that happiness is not found in tumult, but tranquillity; and that, not the tranquillity of indolence and inaction, but of a healthy contentment of soul and body. Ask, and she will tell you, that a happy life is like neither to a roaring torrent, nor a stagnant pool, but to a placid and crystal stream, that flows gently and silently along. – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X
Mother Philosophy then presents the virtues, beginning with temperance or moderation. She contributes to hedonic calculus by protecting us from “future evil” (evil means suffering to an Epicurean), and from “all disquiet to the soul and injury to the body”.
And now Prudence shall bring to you the lovely train of the virtues. Temperance, throwing a bridle on your desires, shall gradually subdue and annihilate those whose present indulgence would only bring future evil; and others more necessary and more innocent, she shall yet bring down to such becoming moderation, as shall prevent all disquiet to the soul and injury to the body.
Fortitude or endurance is seen next. Perhaps another word for courage, she protects us from fears and from fate.
Fortitude shall strengthen you to bear those diseases which even temperance may not be efficient to prevent; those afflictions which fate may level at you; those persecutions which the folly or malice of man may invent. It shall fit you to bear all things, to conquer fear, and to meet death.
Justice and generosity follow. The first one adds to our pleasure by making us safe among our neighbors. The latter one wins us friends, which are one of the most persistent sources of intense pleasure in life. Friendship is also addressed below.
Justice shall give you security among your fellows, and satisfaction in your own breasts. Generosity shall endear you to others, and sweeten your own nature to yourselves. Gentleness shall take the sting from the malice of your enemies, and make you extract double sweet from the kindness of friends.
Then, we see gratitude and friendship among the virtues. There are many documented benefits of gratitude, but here the author mentions how it helps us to bear our obligations pleasantly. In my studies of Epicurean doctrine, I’ve come to conclude that it’s impossible to profit from it if one is ungrateful.
Gratitude shall lighten the burden of obligation, or render it even pleasant to bear. Friendship shall put the crown on your security and your joy. With these, and yet more virtues, shall prudence surround you. And, thus attended, hold on your course in confidence, and moor your barks in the haven of repose.”
Also, notice here how pleasure is a gift of nature, and the virtues have to attend to nature as the final authority. In our tradition we never rebel against nature. That is the equivalent of rebelling against reality.
But, my sons, methinks I hear you say, ‘You have shown us the virtues rather as modifiers and correctors of evil, than as the givers of actual and perfect good. Happiness, you tell us, consists in ease of body and mind; yet temperance cannot secure the former from disease, nor can all the virtues united award affliction from the latter.’ True, my children, Philosophy cannot change the laws of nature; but she may teach us to accommodate ourselves to them. She cannot annul pain; but she can arm us to bear it.
After the train of the virtues is presented and the natural limits of the virtues are addressed, another efficient means follows: that of fond rememberance of happy memories. Again, not just virtues but also certain practices can serve as means to pleasure.
Hath he not memory to bring to him past pleasures, the pleasures of a well-spent life, on which he may feed even while pain racks his members, and fever consumes his vitals?
A later portion of the tenth chapter of A Few Days in Athens then evaluates further how avoiding vices and cultivating virtues can protect us from suffering. Temperance helps to diminish suffering due to poverty; modesty helps to experience luxury in the midst of simplicity and to avoid anger, disapointment and pain; knowledge protects us from superstition. It is reminiscent to Philodemus’ instruction on how self-sufficiency (another important virtue) protects us from being too vulnerable.
What is poverty, if we have temperance, and can be satisfied with a crust, and a draught from the spring? If we have modesty, and can wear a woolen garment as gladly as a tyrian robe? What is slander, if we have no vanity that it can wound, and no anger that it can kindle? What is neglect, if we have no ambition that it can disappoint, and no pride that it can mortify? What is persecution, if we have our own bosoms in which to retire, and a spot of earth to sit down and rest upon? What is death, when without superstition to clothe him with terrors, we can cover our heads, and go to sleep in his arms?
Vulnerability and Virtue
Fortitude and vulnerability are not opposed in a fluid system, whereas the philosophers of logic might invent sillogisms according to which they are mutually exclusive. In our system, just as both anger and gratitude can have virtuous dispositions, similarly vulnerability and fortitude can be virtuous.
Fear of death is then addressed, particularly the death of a friend or loved one, which is the most painful way in which we experience death. This is truly a difficult pain to bear, the author acknowledges, and she recalls the pleasures and the tenderness of friendship and of love for our close ones in one of the most moving portions of the novel.
Here, rather than feign fortitude, the author advises that we cry the necessary tears even as we engage in the pleasures of remembering our friends who have died. It should serve us as consolation that even crying and being vulnerable can be a virtue. Crying is essential to avoid depression and resolve grief, and our tears even contain toxins so that we are literally cleansed through them. There is absolutely nothing wrong with crying. It is entirely natural, and sometimes unavoidable, and we should not fear being vulnerable. Tied in with this, is the teaching that we should never avoid loving someone for fear of losing them at a later point because “happiness forbids it”. The author here presents us with the challenge of wishing that we had never met our loved ones.
And is it forbidden to us to mourn its loss? If it be, the power is not with us to obey. Should we, then, to avoid the evil, forego the good? Shall we shut love from our hearts, that we may not feel the pain of his departure? No; happiness forbids it. Experience forbids it. Let him who hath laid on the pyre the dearest of his soul, who hath washed the urn with the bitterest tears of grief — let him say if his heart hath ever formed the wish that it had never shrined within it him whom he now deplores. Let him say if the pleasures of the sweet communion of his former days doth not still live in his remembrance. If he love not to recall the image of the departed, the tones of his voice, the words of his discourse, the deeds of his kindness, the amiable virtues of his life. If, while he weeps the loss of his friend, he smiles not to think that he once possessed him. He who knows not friendship, knows not the purest pleasure of earth.
The rush of endorphins (the hormone associated with pleasure) that takes place after a good cry makes the case for crying and being vulnerable as an Epicurean virtue: it produces pleasure in the end and resolves grief. Crying, therefore, can also be an efficient means to maximizing pleasure.
This, then, my sons, is our duty, for this is our interest and our happiness; to seek our pleasures from the hands of the virtues, and for the pain which may befall us, to submit to it with patience, or bear up against it with fortitude. To walk, in short, through life innocently and tranquilly. – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X
Contrast this approach to emotions to the Stoic ideal of apathy, which deprives us of our full humanity and is sometimes an affront to our nature, as the above considerations and ethical challenges related to the death of a friend should make evident. It might even be considered cowardice to live our lives as a desperate attempt to avoid healthy and natural emotion, attachment and pain.
Our philosopher friends who are influenced by the Stoic school will notice how distinct our approaches are, and how far-reaching are the repercussions of Epicurus’ instruction that we “must not force nature”. Emotions are symptoms that we are human, and they deserve our consideration and compassion. With that, I will close these reasonings with one final quote from the novel:
Everyone may be an Epicurean, but only a philosopher may be a Stoic.
Recently there have been discussions about the boundaries of our doctrine among the members of our community. In the past this has been resolved by creating separate groups with divergent goals, so that those with a commitment to a puritan interpretation can focus on the work of the teaching mission, while those with a commitment to an ecclectic adaptation and application of the teachings can engage in their diverse interests.
I think this is generally a good approach, and in fact I think we should have more working groups delving into what might eventually evolve into an Epicurean contemplative tradition that is in line with our Canon, as well as engaging in other experiments related to the science of happiness with the goal of maximizing long-term pleasure and minimizing suffering.
In recent years, Sam Harris wrote in his piece Killing the Buddha about the need for a science of contemplation, where he argued that contemplative practices, insofar as they are scientific, should not be considered Buddhist or Hindu any more than alchemy and algebra are considered Islamic today.
What the world most needs at this moment is a means of convincing human beings to embrace the whole of the species as their moral community. For this we need to develop an utterly nonsectarian way of talking about the full spectrum of human experience and human aspiration. We need a discourse on ethics and spirituality that is every bit as unconstrained by dogma and cultural prejudice as the discourse of science is. What we need, in fact, is a contemplative science, a modern approach to exploring the furthest reaches of psychological well-being. It should go without saying that we will not develop such a science by attempting to spread “American Buddhism,” or “Western Buddhism,” or “Engaged Buddhism.”
… There is a reason that we don’t talk about “Christian physics” or “Muslim algebra,” though the Christians invented physics as we know it, and the Muslims invented algebra. Today, anyone who emphasizes the Christian roots of physics or the Muslim roots of algebra would stand convicted of not understanding these disciplines at all.
Our stress on an empirical foundation for happiness should also lead to the development of a contemplative science, but let’s first consider what the goal of this should be and what guidelines for innovation we were given.
The Two Criteria for Innovation
What has been missing in our discussions has been our founder’s own instructions on innovation, which were discussed by Michael Erler in the second chapter of the book Epicurus and the Epicurean Tradition, and which I cited in the early portions of my book as a preamble to the work that I was doing of showing how research on the science of happiness vindicates our teachings.
The relevant portion on doctrinal innovation has to do with the two criteria established by Epicurus himself to prevent muddling of doctrines that disagree with each other. These are consistency and coherence.
In the necessary and inevitable process of updating Epicurean teaching and tradition, I have subjected the potential innovations to the criteria given by Epicurus (Erler, 2011) dealing with innovation and forbidding the ‘muddling’ of doctrines that disagree with each other. The two guidelines provided by Epicurus are akoloythia and symphonia, which translate as consistency (has no internal contradictions) and coherence (is in symphony with the rest of Epicurus’ doctrine).
Let’s consider what is meant here: our tradition has always evolved by being challenged by other schools and in constant exchange with them. This exchange should always be fruitful and help us to discern what we believe and why. Epicurus was concerned about the possibility that this process, which is completely natural and to be expected, might introduce inconsistencies within our community and muddling in the minds of his followers.
Hence, innovations must be compared to what was previously known and established (and therefore be coherent and in harmony with the rest of our doctrine) and also they must be internally consistent and not self-contradictory. That’s fair enough.
However, sometimes we are presented with efficient means to a goal other than pleasure and happiness, which is where the controversy has risen regarding contemplative practices. Some of the more traditional Epicureans are arguing that, insofar as contemplative practices are ascetic and lead potentially to an escape of this reality (as in some salvific beliefs), or to “extinction of desires” (as in the case of Buddhist nirvana), they can not be considered truly Epicurean. The relevant source for this is here:
If you do not on every occasion refer each of your actions to the ultimate end prescribed by nature, but instead of this in the act of choice or avoidance turn to some other end, your actions will not be consistent with your theories. – Principal Doctrine 25
If we consider that Polystratus also mentioned that not knowing the end that was established by our own nature is the architect of all evils, then clearly we have to conclude that this is one of the worse ways that muddling of our doctrine can occur and that we’ve been advised about this from early on.
So there is the challenge for every Epicurean innovator: our contemplative practices, like our martial arts, cognitive therapy, or any other set of techniques that we wish to experiment with as part of our exploration of Epicurean philosophy, must refer back to adding pleasure and removing pain, as well as meet the above two criteria of being internally consistent and in coherence with the rest of the doctrine.
In our discussions on innovation, it would help everyone–and especially the future generations–if we would continue to refer back to these instructions. For people who do not love our intellectual legacy, this is a non-issue, but for the rest of us, it’s important to be both modern and relevant, as well as rooted in our tradition and in the goal that our own nature has established for us.
Sam Harris’ Killing the Buddha
The scroll On Music was written by Philodemus as a summary and commentary on four books written on music by various schools. The surviving fourth book comments on the theories on the physical and ethical effects of music presented by Diogenes of Babylon, a Stoic, which equated music with Platonic notions of the beautiful and the good.
Music incites to joy wherever it’s needed … to its highest point …
Diogenes even claimed that music can safeguard one’s virtue and become a constant attribute of virtuous men, and that it can initiate children into virtue and beauty. He said music serves to express courage, shame, or moderation and to imitate them in others, provoking a desired result, that it serves as an “impulse to beautiful acts” and reinforces ethical dispositions just as we believe good association does.
Melody pulls the soul from inertia when it’s at rest and leads it to awaken to such disposition that it may naturally move.
Another interesting part of Diogenes’ theory said that gymnastics is to the body what music is to the soul: it’s an exercise that moves it and constitutes a form of education, keeping it healthy and strong. He also compares them both to painting, which exercises the eye in recognizing beauty. Similarly, music exercises and moves the ear and mind in harmony, beauty, and aesthetics.
From its origins, music was linked to religion and consecrated to the gods, just as theater was. Diogenes argued that, in his day, trumpets were still used for battle and ceremony.
Different Kinds of Music
According to Diogenes, some people classify music as magnificent, as moderate, as courageous, or as disordered and shameful. Some melodies can be used for mating, other melodies incite effeminacy, and others can console the pangs of love.
Music is used to communicate values, patriotism, strength, hatred, pride, and tribal or territorial identities. As we saw in our Reasonings on Piety, Diogenes also believed that the diverse types of melodies produce attunement with the divinity that resonates with the virtues associated with each melody.
… not only do melodies share the fact of being appropriated for the veneration of deities, but also, due to the diversity of their powers, that melody is for that deity …
Following this train of thought, military songs are appropriate to worship Ares; to worship Dionysus, chaotic music is needed, and so on. This notion is accepted in many religious cultures, such as the Gnawa of Morocco, who worship jinns (although orthodox Islam forbids their worship) and classify them according to seven different colors and sets of symbols that represent archetypal forces. For each one of the color suites, a certain set of traditional rhythms are used to induce trance, and only that rhythm must be used. Notions of divine attunement via sound exist also in Hinduism, where specific mantras are used for specific deities; in Sikh faith where singing the names of God is a sacrament; and in some schools of Mahayana Buddhism. Diogenes was expressing beliefs that are still widely held.
Music is a Natural and Unnecessary Pleasure
One has not yet found relaxation or amusement more convenient for free men, certainly, than for one man to sing, for another to play the citar, and for a third one to dance.
Diogenes said that singing and dancing easily incite laughter and liberation from sorrow and tension.
Furthermore, music is also one of the common goods: everyone, in fact–both Greek and Barbarian–uses it and in every age.
Philodemus’ view is that it is clear that music is considered natural, but it is unnecessary for happiness, and unlike poetry, instrumental music can’t communicate philosophy or therapy because it does not employ the use of words and therapeutic philosophers heal through frank criticism, through arguments, through words.
The concept of music as a natural phenomenon deserves further evaluation. We may consider the uses of music in human culture and in the rest of nature. In other species, we see that sounds are employed among both animals and primitive societies to express territoriality. Many animals make calls to mark their territory and to warn potential invaders. Because this imperative protects their food-source, natural selection has favored it, and so it’s not unreasonable that music may have evolved out of this territorial instinct, among other potential reasons and benefits.
Music and its predecessors are also likely to have evoked, for the same reason, a sense of familiarity just as familiar smells and voices can awaken fond memories. Thus, we see that in human culture, patriotism and locality always find expression in music. Even without these values being transmitted, just singing along with friends with abandon can be a source of intense pleasure. Music can be transpersonal, it can create a sense of community, of participating in the collective mind of the tribe or group temporarily. The obvious protection from predators and hostility in nature gained from this must have been the reason why nature favored it by making it a source of great, easy pleasure.
In nature, sound is also used frequently as part of mating rituals and mating calls, and in human culture we also see that music is frequetly used to enhance the mating experience.
As to research on whether music is a natural phenomenon, I was alerted by a fellow Epicurean of a study that proposes that spoken language is a special type of music, and that music and language acquisition are treated as similar processes by the brain.
… newborns are sensitive to the rhythmic components of language and can distinguish between languages based on their rhythmic characteristics (whether or not the contrast includes their native language; Nazzi et al., 1998). Newborns have a preference for their native language as well (Moon et al., 1993), however this has only been explored using languages from two different rhythmic classes. Because the ability to discriminate between two languages of the same rhythmic class (e.g., English and German) does not appear until 4 months of age (Nazzi et al., 1998; Gervain and Mehler, 2010), new borns may show a preference for any language belonging to the same rhythmic class as their native language. If so, then newborns may not prefer their native language per se, but rather the rhythmic characteristics of that language (cf. Friederici et al., 2007). Indeed, infants’ early attention to rhythm (e.g., Ramus and Mehler, 1999; Ramus et al., 1999) suggest that they are absorbing the sonic structure of their native language – its rhythms of stresses, its phonemic character – much in the same way that we listen to music.
… The discrimination of consonance and dissonance has been cited as a human universal, with dissonance treated as displeasing (Fritz et al., 2009).
It’s too early to speak about the potential uses of music therapy, both in infants and adults, in neuroplasticity and in shaping the brain for this or that long-term purpose, but these studies suggest very early specialization for the speech and musical sounds of one’s native culture, which probably links music and speech to the territorial anticipations discussed earlier.
On the Origins of Dance
They enjoy song but exclude from nature that which incites us to the practice of music.
The controversy on the origins of dance reveals details about the different worldviews of the Stoics and Epicureans. Epicureans in antiquity did not only dedicate themselves to the study and defense of a natural cosmology and natural origins of things in order to challenge the fables. There was a tendency among other schools to rationalize origin stories and to assume that all of man’s acts were rational or calculated. This is what Philodemus says:
It is not true that the men of yore exercised in dance … with the purpose not only of seeing their bodies gain utility and to reach the dispositions of good people … but also to carry in their soul equally the good performance that they saw manifesting throughout their bodies, and to try to keep their soul constantly beautiful for the rest of their lives.
In fact, neither of these reasons was the origin of humanity’s first impulse to dance, or of its transmission by those who received it … It was, on the contrary, their ignorance of nature and exultation that brought them to form, in a manner that was instinctive and unthinking, as if forced, a circle in order to produce with their hands, their feet, and other parts of the bodies the organized movements …
It seems like what is being said here is that there are natural and human experiences that do not need to be rationalized, or planned. There is no need to project our calculated behavior against primitive humans … and that it’s okay that we are instinctive, natural beings. There’s almost an innocence that is implied here.
Notice that nothing is being said against dance as a practice, but what Philodemus criticizes is the lack of spontaneity that is presumed by the Stoics, the belief that man is only and always rational and never an instinctive animal with natural behaviors. There is nothing wrong with music being wild, natural, primal, a blissful act of savagery and instinct. Perhaps that’s precisely why it helps to relieve tension in the body and soul; perhaps there lies its therapeutic benefit.
And so, ultimately, the controversy on the origins of dance sheds light on how the two schools relate to nature, and on the primacy of pleasure for us versus the primacy of reason for our Stoic brethren. If nature guides an Epicurean to discover the bliss and release of dancing, then the Epicurean just dances, he or she surrenders and fully enjoys the emotion and the experience. The moment we rationalize what we’re doing, we established a distance with the experience that impedes its full enjoyment.
We must not force Nature but persuade her. We shall persuade her if we satisfy the necessary desires and also those bodily desires that do not harm us while sternly rejecting those that are harmful. – Vatican Saying 21
Primitive men may have philosophized about dancing after they had danced, but it’s not likely that they calculated the blissful trance in advance with the goals that Diogenes supposed.
Later in the work, Philodemus cites Democritus’ argument that music was a recent invention because it could have only emerged after people had time for leisure.
Philodemus’ Critique of Diogenes of Babylon
If they say that only these irrational realities provide harmony to the soul, then their error is double: it means those who can’t sing or dance, or who are unfamiliar with music, can’t be virtuous.
After summarizing Diogenes’ scroll, Philodemus argues that music (by which he means instrumental music, as he treats lyrics in a separate scroll on Poetry) is not capable of making us better or worse in character. This is one of his key points, and it’s because of the lack of words, of lyrics.
This view is consistent with the view that therapeutic philosophy heals with words, with arguments. Therefore, music can not replace philosophy in its healing role: it can not, by itself, fix the human character. It can only have therapeutic value if it incorporates the words of the healing doctrines of philosophy.
And those that say that we are sweetened by music because she softens our souls and would deprive them of their savagery, one may consider them perfect imbeciles. In fact, it is only reason–because she teaches that none of the strange things that unreason invents has been produced by nature and that, furthermore, nothing of what she produces has any importance–that can perfectly reach this result, once it has attained its perfection, and while she is still on the path to perfection, it can alleviate in proportion.
In our tradition, reason or logic is not included in the Canon, in the set of faculties used to apprehend reality directly. However, this does not mean that we do not appreciate reason, as some opponents of our school insinuate. We simply do not accept reasonings that do not derive insight from the study of nature, from evidence. Reasoning without connection to reality only leads to theology and superstition.
Reason is essential for the therapeutic process. It is through reason, based on evidence, that we produce arguments to heal the diseases of the soul. Music, being irrational, can not be considered therapeutic in the way that we understand therapy. It’s philosophy, not music, that educates. Philodemus refused to recognize musicians as philosophers.
Philodemus also denies that music can deliver us from a Bacchic trance, or a warrior’s fury for the same reason: only “adapted speech liberates from trance”. Similarly, in religious music, it’s poems that have “the beautiful part” in worship, and not the melodies, which provides only “the approval of the ear” according to Philodemus.
Diogenes had argued, by citing popular fables, that certain kinds of music would encourage temperance and chastity. Philodemus replies that music does not produce the virtue of temperance, and argues this by saying that if we were to base our views on fables, then hunting would produce temperance because Artemis is a virgin Goddess and a huntress.
Elsewhere, Philodemus also states that musical harmony has nothing to do with cosmology. Apparently some Stoics were repeating Pythagorean doctrines about the “music of the spheres” and other such beliefs. An accusation of being rustic and unsophisticated, due to their rejection of philosophical theories related to music, was presented against the Epicureans, to which Philodemus replied:
The Epicureans do not underestimate music for lack of culture; to them, only philosophy counts.
Philodemus does acknowledge that loud noise can create mental disorder and chaos, but rejects every theory of musical psychology as vain, and concludes the work by accusing music of impracticality.
The Canon’s Verdict
Let’s now take the evidence-based approach to music. While combing through my collection of music and considering the effects that songs have in my person, I found that melodies anchor memories and experiences of people and places from the past, including certain friends, a certain generation (such as, “the 80s” and “the college years”), and certain ethnicities (Afro-Cuban, African American, Spain, India). There’s also music that I associate with women, and other music that I associate with men. Then there are moods: there’s happy, devotional, playful, urban, comedic, political, and music that inspires solidarities.
There’s highly individualistic, original and creative music (Bjork, Cirque du Soleil) which did not fit any other category, some of whose lyrics did give messages about self-sufficiency, independence, and communicated or implied other values. Wherever music that I listen to transmits values or solidarities, it does so through the lyrics, not through the melody. On that basis, I coincide with Philodemus’ opinion regarding how melody without words does not seem to transmit virtue or vice.
However, I did come across several articles while doing research for and writing my book according to which mantra recitation changes the brain faster and more dramatically than previously thought, and has other proven health benefits.
Neuroscientist Marian Diamond, from the University of California, found chanting helps block the release of stress hormones and increases immune function, while another neuroscientist, Dr Alan Watkins at Imperial College London, showed that while chanting your heart rate and blood pressure will drop to its lowest of the day – Women’s Fitness Magazine
Whether it’s praying the rosary, chanting the nembutsu or the Hare Krishna mantra, the documented benefits are the same: chanting has medicinal properties. While this does not confirm the supernatural beliefs of the Catholics, Buddhists or Hare Krishnas, it does grant scientific merit to the practice of chanting and reciting mantras. So we should “Chant and Be Happy”, like the Hare Krishnas (and the Beatles) advised.
Practitioners of bhakti yoga (devotional yoga) in the Vaishnava and other Hindu traditions report that singing devotional songs is a way to channel and express love, that devotion “purifies the emotions” (helping to release negative ones and add healthy ones), that it’s like exerting a muscle, and that people can become happier and more loving as a result of this practice.
There’s a humanist alternative to these practices. Epicurus recommended the use of mnemonic devises (like repetition of short adages) to aid in memorizing his teachings and also encouraged the grateful remembrance of fond and happy memories as a spiritual practice. Repetition of adages as a meditation would not only help to memorize them but also, according to the above cited research, would produce a pleasant state of mind. Philodemus may have underestimated the potential benefits or uses of these practices, perhaps having had little or no experience with them, but he coincided with Epicurus that it’s the words and their content that heal, not the melodies or the rhythm.
Philodemus would have been proved wrong when it comes to his disputing Diogenes’ argument that music can move the body and soul. Research demonstrates that music enhances endurance during workout by about 15 percent:
Music distracts people from pain and fatigue, elevates mood, increases endurance, reduces perceived effort and may even promote metabolic efficiency. When listening to music, people run farther, bike longer and swim faster than usual—often without realizing it. In a 2012 review of the research, Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University in London, one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of exercise music, wrote that one could think of music as “a type of legal performance-enhancing drug.”
Other studies demonstrate that music leads to greater productivity, but that only works for repetitive tasks. In other instances at work, it can be a distraction. And so music may be generally helpful to control or regulate hedonic tone in our day-to-day lives, if applied correctly.
The lack of a comprehensive musical theory among ancient Epicureans does not mean that future Epicurean lovers of art may not, at some point, develop their own aesthetic theories based on the Canon and on available research.
We conclude that music is a natural and unnecessary pleasure and that, while music can not replace philosophy in its healing role or fix the human character, it can increase endurance in some instances and can have therapeutic value if it incorporates the healing words of philosophy.
Based on the French translation in Les Epicuriens of the original scroll from Herculaneum titled La Musique.
Music Oomph Published an Essay titled 21 Ways Music Makes You More Productive at Work