Aeon typically publishes very good quality essays, like the one I cited in the essay A Concrete Self titled Self-Evident. But from time to time, Aeon also posts essays that are not thoroughly researched, like Atoms and flat-earth ethics. The piece was written by James Hannam, who has written a book in defense of “God’s philosophers” where he praises the wisdom of the medieval period.
By the fourth paragraph, Hannam is claiming that Lucretius claimed that the Earth was flat in “On the Nature of Things” (and relates this to the idea of “up” and “down”), but then two paragraphs later he says: “Lucretius then explains that it’s an error to think that the Earth is at the centre of the Universe because, as the Universe is infinite, it can’t have a centre“. But if there is no center, than what this means is that in the Epicurean cosmos all things are relative (and there can be no up and down, except in relation to something). This is elaborated much more intuitively in Ontology of Motion, which I also reviewed.
Later, he says that Lucretius “also tries to convince us that the heavenly bodies are not very big or far away, and that they can even be buffeted about by the winds. He proposes that the world is rather like a snow globe. We are all living on a flat surface covered by a rounded vault, within which the stars and planets move around like the flakes of white when the snow globe is shaken” … But this is impossible to reconcile with the Epicurean doctrine of the innumerable worlds, which says:
First, an infinite number of worlds exists in the universe, some of which worlds are like and some of which are unlike our own. – Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus
It is more than clear that an infinity of other worlds, both similar and different from ours, could not possibly “move around like flakes of white” around the Earth (millions of them being of similar or bigger size)–which, again, is not believed to be in the center of the Epicurean cosmos, which is infinite and has no center.
The author also questions the sincerity of the first Epicureans and how one goes from the physics to the ethics, and tries to argue that Epicurus does not hold truth in high regard, that he instead builds his physics in service of his ethics … by which he intends to divorce ethics from the physics. This would lead to a Platonized ethics that is not informed by the study of nature. This, of course, was of great utility for Christian apologists and monks in his idealized medieval era. But it is absolutely unacceptable for us moderns. Ethics can and must be informed by the study of nature as a sure foundation, and must not be denaturalized and decontextualized, made sterile and useless.
In order to follow the line of discussion that demonstrates the sincerity with which Epicurus held his views about the physics, one need only read his Epistle to Herodotus, where each component is linked to the next beautifully and cogently like a chain of molecules. Indeed, in their going from physics to ethics, the Epicureans were following the guidance of nature. One does not see gods intervening in human affairs. One does observe the agency of sentient beings. One also observes that babies, puppies, and kittens shun pain and seek pleasure as soon as they come into this world, etc. And so, while the author says:
In short, Epicurus did not derive his ethics from his atomism. He believed in atoms because they provided a theory of nature that supported his ethics.
The truth is that Epicurus does not do this. He can never be quoted as saying: “Life should be pleasant therefore the gods don’t intervene“. In the Letter to Herodotus, Epicurus explains that bodies have inherent properties exhibited by the atoms and void in their many combinations, but that they also have relational properties when they interact with each other. The third Scholarch Polystratus later explains pleasure-pain as among the relational properties of nature which are exhibited by sentient beings in their interaction with their environment. There can be no pleasure-pain without sentience, and there can be no sentience without bodies. The physics must, by necessity, precede the ethics.
Furthermore, in the Letter to Herodotus Epicurus makes specific mention of astronomical phenomena as one area where they were forced to reason by analogy with things that are observed on Earth because they lacked direct empirical insight. They did not have spaceships or telescopes as we do today. This means that any errors–like the one concerning the size of the moon and others–would eventually be settled, but only upon the availability of evidence, as the canon requires. This means that the canon both yields a pedestal to, and embeds itself into, the historical process of amassing knowledge via empirical means, which is a process that includes all the sciences.
Why do critics always think that Epicurean theories weren’t open to revision upon further evidence? They’ll take Epicurus’ written word as dogmatic truth but ignore where he said that we must be open to incorporating new sensory perceptions and testimonies of trusted friends examining the same phenomena. Epicurean dogmatism was always open to revision upon presentation of clear evidence to the contrary.
As to this, the Letter to Herodotus both opens and closes with exhortations to appeal in all things always to empirical evidence and to the (scientific) “study of nature”, and establishes that we must “keep our conclusions consistent with those things we have clearly grasped through our senses”. Keep in mind that the senses are in the canon (the standard of truth), and are therefore among the toolkit that serves as the ultimate authority in Epicurean philosophy. It is this canon–NOT Epicurus–that serves as the ultimate authority for the Epicureans. This means that any error, when measured against new empirical evidence and shown to be an error, must be declared an error and empirical evidence must be admitted in favor of innovation. Here is Epicurus in the Letter to Herodotus:
(at the opening)
… since I myself urge others to study Nature constantly, and I find my own peace of mind chiefly in a life devoted to that study, I have composed for you a shorter summary of the principles of the whole doctrine, which I will relate to you now.
… Most of all, we must keep our investigations strictly in accord with the evidence of the senses. We must ensure that we keep our conclusions consistent with those things we have already clearly grasped through our sensations, and through our feelings of pain and pleasure, and through those mental apprehensions that we receive through anticipations. We must always take as true those things that have already been clearly established, and refer back to them as foundations for our new judgments. This is the method we employ in investigating all new questions, regardless of whether the object of the question can be perceived directly by the senses, or whether it can only be understood by reasoning from that which has already been perceived. …
(at the closing, fourth paragraph prior to the ending)
… We must always pay close attention to our perceptions from the senses, to our feelings of pain and pleasure, and to our mental apprehensions from the anticipations, both those we receive ourselves, and those received by other men. For we must conform our judgments to the clear evidence that is available to us through each of the standards of truth.
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).
Here, Epicurus clearly establishes that the teachings of Epicurean philosophy must continue to evolve (by the use of the canon), and sets consistency and coherence as guidelines for this. In academia, there has always been a tendency to imagine that Epicureanism was a closed, fossilized system incapable of evolution, but there would be no Epicureans today if that were the case.
In closing, I wish to accentuate vehemently–as I did with Ontology of Motion–that those writing about the Epicurean tradition must first acquaint themselves with the Letter to Herodotus in order to avoid embarrassing and redundant mistakes that can easily be checked. This epistle served as the “Little Epitome” that all beginner students had to master prior to moving on to more advanced material, and so we can imagine that the teachers frequently referred back to these first principles. Therefore, we strongly encourage students of Epicurus, as well as those who are interested in discussing Epicurus in any manner, to delve into an in-depth study of the Epistle to Herodotus, and to outline it and re-read it so as to internalize its contents.
At this year’s Epicurean Symposium in Athens, the recent rediscovery of a new, indirect Epicurean source was a main point of attention. The source is not Epicurean itself, but is by a philosopher who cites Epicurean sources elaborating on Principal Doctrine 15 (in bold, below) in one of its passages (paragraphs 27-31).
Like many of our sources, the work is written in epistolary style for educational purposes, and judging from some elements (like the reference to “divine law” as distinct from the law of nature, and the reference to abstinence being prescribed by the gods), its Epicurean core ideas are somewhat contaminated by non-Epicurean concepts that Porphyry drew from other philosophies. Here is a link to the English introduction and translation of the passage which was sent by our friends from Greece in pdf format. Below is the passage translation.
27. So then, first you must grasp the law of Nature and from it ascend to the divine law which also established the law of Nature. With these laws as your point of reference, you need never be concerned about the written law. “For the written laws are laid down for the sake of temperate men, not to keep them from doing wrong but from being wronged.” “The wealth of Nature, being truly philosophic, is well-defined and easily obtained, but the wealth of empty false opinions is ill-defined and hard to obtain (a). So then, the person who follows Nature and not empty false opinions is self-sufficient in everything. For satisfying Nature any possession is wealth, but for satisfying unlimited yearnings even the greatest wealth is nothing. It is <not> rare to find a man poor in the attainment of Nature but rich in empty false opinions. For no ignorant man is satisfied with what he has; instead he pines for what he does not have. So then, just as those who have a fever are always thirsty because of the serious nature of their disease and eagerly desire what is most detrimental, so also those who have the soul which manages it in distress are always in need of everything and fall prey to fickle desires under the influence of their excessive greed.”
28. Consequently, even the gods have prescribed remaining pure by abstinence from food and sex. This leads those who are pursuing piety toward Nature’s intent, which the gods themselves constituted, as though any excess, by being contrary to Nature’s intent, is defiled and deadly. “For the ordinary man who fears the simple way of life is driven by fear into actions which are most likely to produce it. And many who have become wealthy have not found relief from evils but rather an exchange for greater ones.” Therefore, the philosophers say that “nothing is as necessary as perceiving clearly what is not necessary,” and that “the greatest wealth of all is self-sufficiency,” and they take “the need of nothing as worthy of respect.” Therefore they exhort us to “practice not how we must provide for some necessity but how we will remain confident when it is not provided.
29. Let us neither censure the flesh as cause of great evils nor attribute our distress to external circumstances. Rather let us seek their causes in the soul, and, by breaking away from every vain yearning and hope for fleeting fancies, let us become totally in control of ourselves. For it is either through fear that a person becomes unhappy or through unlimited and empty desire (b). By bridling these feelings a person can gain possession of blessed reason for himself. To the extent that you are troubled, it is because you forget Nature, for you inflict upon yourself unlimited fears and desires. But it is better for you to have confidence as you lie on a bed of straw than to be in turmoil while you possess a gold couch and a costly table (c). As a result of lamentable labor, property is amassed but life becomes bestial.
30. Consider it in no way contrary to Nature for the soul to cry out when the flesh cries out. The flesh cries not to be hungry, not to be thirsty, not to be cold (d). And so it is difficult for the soul to repress these cries, but it is dangerous for it to disregard nature’s exhortations to it because of the self-sufficiency which grows in it from day to day. Nature also teaches us to regard the outcomes of fortune of little account and to know how to be unfortunate when we are favored by fortune, but not to consider the favors of fortune important when we experience misfortune. And Nature teaches us to accept unperturbed the good outcomes of fortune, but to stand prepared in the face of the seeming evils which come from it. For all that the masses regard as good is a fleeting fancy, but wisdom and knowledge have nothing in common with fortune.
31. Pain does not consist in lacking the goods of the masses but rather in enduring the unprofitable suffering that comes from empty false opinions. For the love of true philosophy causes every disturbing and painful desire to subside. Empty is the discourse of that philosopher by which no human passion is healed. For just as there is no benefit from medicine if it does not heal the bodies’ diseases, neither is there from philosophy if it does not purge the passion of the soul.” So then, the law of Nature prescribes these things and others like them.
b. A similar passage in Diogenes’ Wall describes fears and unlimited desires as “the roots of all evils“, and so this portion is reliably Epicurean.
Well, what are the disturbing emotions? [They are] fears —of the gods, of death, and of [pains]— and, besides [these], desires that [outrun] the limits fixed by nature. These are the roots of all evils, and, [unless] we cut them off, [a multitude] of evils will grow [upon] us.
I recently finished (slowly) reading How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life. Hygge (pronounced “huga”) is a Scandinavian lifestyle based on conviviality, on making life easy, and spending time with friends and in nature. One may find hygge recipes, hygge design ideas, mugs, clothing, fabrics, social events, and many other cultural memes.
Like sumak kawsay–the “good life” culture of the Incas and their modern heirs in South America–hygge is to the Scandinavians a localized type of Epicurean practice, a philosophy of life that is rooted in the landscape and in the culture. Wisdom traditions like hygge and sumak kawsay make philosophy and ethics both tangible and culturally specific.
One component of hygge is fika, the Scandinavian tradition of enjoying coffee with friends. By coffee we don’t just mean the drink, but also long, intimate, friendly conversation for hours. Fika reminds me of the culture of philosopher cafés, which is quite popular in France and became the breeding ground for many intellectual movements. The existentialists (particularly Sartre and De Beauvoir), for instance, were known for their conversations in Parisian cafés. Fika also reminds me of the (quasi-)ceremonial drinks of other cultures: South American yerba mate (the drink of friendship), Polynesian kava (the drink of peace), and others.
The book mentions the Spanish tradition of la sobremesa as an Iberian version of the fika tradition. I hadn’t heard the word. This appears to be a tradition in Spain where people enjoy conversation over tapas. Here are some of the Real Academia Española‘s definitions of sobremesa:
2. f. Tiempo que se está a la mesa después de haber comido.
2. loc. adv. Inmediatamente después de comer, y sin levantarse de la mesa.
(=the time that one is at the table after having eaten … immediately after eating, and without leaving the table)
In Spanish, we also have the word tertulias, which are informal gatherings to discuss current affairs, or the arts, or to hold other intellectual conversations. Fika reminds me of the Epicurean feasts on the 20th. The author invites us to honor fika, to treat our daily social act with friends over dinner like a sabbat, where everything stops and one allows for a collective restoration.
The author cites a program for immigrants to Sweden which helps them to connect to locals, make new friends, begin to assimilate and feel part of the local community over food. It’s true that food (and music) are two of the few things that bring people together (… just as much as religion and politics tear people apart).
Concerning exercise and the outdoors lifestyle, the book says:
“It’s never about looking good, it’s about feeling great all year round.” – p. 7
“You can’t be healthy if you’re always anxious about food, body, and about life in general.” – p. 19
In pages 39-40, the author says that while cultivating a good body image and confidence, we should focus more on what our body can do versus how it looks. Concerning expense:
“Don’t go crazy buying something fancy that costs an arm and a leg. You want something durable and sensible. Nature doesn’t care if you own the latest fashion brand accessory. The main thing is to invest carefully in a few useful items that will stand the test of time.” – p. 21
A large part of the book is dedicated to the Scandinavian theory and practice of creating an ambience (typically around the house) that is defined culturally as hygge. This type of décor is characterized by being natural and simple. The book (page 25) gives ideas for the best house plants (bamboo, aloe vera, etc.), and gives design ideas related to Scandinavian furniture and design.
I took great interest in this, in part, because about a year ago I was hired to translate two books from French into English and from Spanish into English for UIC architect Terry Nichols Clark. The final product is titled Latin Scenes: Streetlife and Local Place in France, Spain, and the World. It discusses the creation of “scenes” in different neighborhoods of European cities form the perspectives of policy, economics, migration, and culture.
Not only was I able to practice my languages, which I love, but I also learned to think differently about architecture, and to think in terms of the scenes that people create in order to live the way that they desire. It got me thinking about whether we may be able to create Epicurean urban (or rural) scenes to elicit pleasant experiences. Was “the Garden” not such a type of scene? Can there be an Epicurean theory of space and of architecture?
Particularly when it’s cold out (like it was here in Chicago a few weeks ago), the idea of nesting–the home-centered lifestyle–becomes appealing. In Chicago, for about 2-3 weeks every winter, we experience a phenomenon known informally as Chiberia. This is when I enjoy the pleasures of privacy the most. But hygge is also about friluftsliv–the English literal translation of which is “free air life”: life in the outdoors, no matter the season.
It is noteworthy that there are several other wisdom traditions that pay special attention to scenes. In LaVeyan Satanism, the creation of “total environments” fully dedicated to the pursuit of a particular set of pleasures is one of the doctrinal points. I believe this has to do with LaVeyan ritual theories, which aim at the creation of a sort of psychological “decompression chamber”.
Mahayana Buddhism also has doctrines related to the Buddhalands, the modern interpretations of which teach that each Buddha (or each awakening being) creates, with his or her merit and thoughts and actions, a Buddhaland around him or her, his own type of Buddha-scene which is a reflection of his accomplishment, awakening, kindness, and other qualities. In the Nichiren tradition, emphasis is placed on how there is unity between self and space. This makes sense if we consider that all experience requires not just a subject but also an object and a context: if the experience of a sentient being is to be pleasant, then the context into which that being is embedded–like a thread in a mat–must also be pleasant. All of this brings me to a fascinating figure: the Japanese guru of tidiness, Marie Kondo.
Our Fetishes of Gratitude
Kondo is only mentioned in passing in the book. In page 24, we are invited to use Kondo’s methods of tidying up to create hygge ambiance: ask yourself if an item sparks joy, and if not, ditch the item. She does not just focus on getting rid of clutter, but on keeping only items that spark joy. This means that we should have a positive or pleasant feeling that connects us to the items that we do keep.
So I decided to dig deeper and watched a few Marie Kondo videos on YouTube. Like the hygge lifestyle, Kondo’s concept of design is very similar to the simplicity, calm, and clarity of Japanese design and reminiscent of Shinto spirituality. Shintoism is the aboriginal religion of Japan. She was trained as a Shinto temple maiden, a role which taught her the ethical value of cleanliness and organization. Unlike the superstitious Feng Shui tradition–which focuses on furniture and item placement to attract luck and avert evil–Kondo focuses on personal space to maximize contentment (and also–as in hygge–utility).
Kondo incorporates ritual propriety into her tidiness practice, something she no doubt acquired from Shinto spirituality. Her teachings seem to aim at greater harmony between the inner and the outer worlds, and she considers the home to be one’s shrine, or power spot. Before she begins the process of de-cluttering a home, she will sit in the space and ritually greet the home.
Kondo is deeply aware of the emotional attachments and reactions people have to things, and teaches us to have mindfulness about the items we keep in our space, to dust them often, and display them with dignity and care. When an item no longer serves us and we decide to get rid of it, she teaches her clients “to thank their belongings” for their service before binning them. She uses this form of playful animism (again, inspired in the Shinto tradition) as a form of therapy. It helps people to feel less guilty about throwing away things that once may have held value or had utility.
Kondo is so mainstream that her name has come to signify “tidying up”. For example, if I say “today I am kondo-ing my desk“, this means I am applying Kondo’s techniques for tidying up.
Epicurus says of the knowledge we possess that it must lead to pleasure. Marie Kondo says the same thing of the **things** we possess and choose to keep in our space, and of the space we inhabit: they should give us a pleasant feeling. Her theories (as well as hygge notions of design and style) have a general connection with materialist philosophy. They help to connect theory and practice, to make philosophy tangible, concrete, and specific. We are invited to be grateful for the things we have (even if they have served their purpose and we no longer need them and decide to get rid of them), until each item in our space becomes a “fetish of gratitude”, a concrete, clear materialization of one of our grateful thoughts.
The ungrateful nature of the soul makes the creature endlessly greedy for variations in its lifestyle. – Vatican Saying 69
Happy Herculaneum Day! Today is the anniversary of the eruption of the volcano that destroyed the city of Herculaneum, which hosted both Philodemus of Gadara and the poet Horace. In memory of those who came before us, this month we published links to essays and quotes from sources to help students of Epicurean philosophy who wish to deepen their understanding of the content of the Philodeman scrolls on piety and on property management.
I recently had the pleasure of reading the highly-recommended book by Nietzsche, The Antichrist. Many of its paragraphs merely served to add depth and detail to some of the things I had previously come to understand from reading his notes in Will to Power and other sources, like Zarathustra. Other paragraphs offered new insights either because of the way in which they were passionately and emphatically stated, or by virtue of their content. Paragraph 57 is one of the latter cases and caught my eye because usually, when Nietzsche discusses the origins of laws and mores, he employs a cynical tone and seeks the ulterior motives of the proponents. Here, he takes on the anthropologist’s tone that we find in Lucretius and Epicurus, and it might be interesting to compare how he views the primitive origins of moral and legal codes versus how the Epicureans viewed them.
In Nietzsche, the time when the laws are written down indicates a time when rules and contracts are standardized and experimentation is no longer encouraged as a result of certain legal precedents and practices becoming solidified in tradition. There are conservative and liberal interpretations of this process: to some–who are privileged by the existing laws–this creates a mythical “golden era” during which the population developed the best means to rule itself. To others, this imposes limits on how creative legislators allow themselves to be in adapting the legal code to new circumstances and keeping it relevant. Nietzsche, who is a staunch defendant of a type of aristocracy, supports the first interpretation, but nonetheless sympathizes with the second one.
A book of laws such as the Code of Manu has the same origin as every other good law-book: it epitomizes the experience, the sagacity and the ethical experimentation of long centuries; it brings things to a conclusion; it no longer creates. The prerequisite to a codification of this sort is recognition of the fact that the means which establish the authority of a slowly and painfully attained truth are fundamentally different from those which one would make use of to prove it.
A law-book never recites the utility, the grounds, the casuistical antecedents of a law: for if it did so it would lose the imperative tone, the “thou shall,” on which obedience is based. The problem lies exactly here.—At a certain point in the evolution of a people, the class within it of the greatest insight, which is to say, the greatest hindsight and foresight, declares that the series of experiences determining how all shall live—or can live—has come to an end. The object now is to reap as rich and as complete a harvest as possible from the days of experiment and hard experience.
So the creation of a code of laws is an act of power by which the law-givers say: these matters are no longer up for discussion. Nietzsche then explains how the ruling classes, having decided that the era of legal experimentation is over, create what Marx would have called “the superstructure”, the over-arching set of narratives that the ruling classes use to preserve their power.
In consequence, the thing that is to be avoided above everything is further experimentation—the continuation of the state in which values are fluent, and are tested, chosen and criticized ad infinitum. Against this a double wall is set up: on the one hand, revelation, which is the assumption that the reasons lying behind the laws are not of human origin, that they were not sought out and found by a slow process and after many errors, but that they are of divine ancestry, and came into being complete, perfect, without a history, as a free gift, a miracle…; and on the other hand, tradition, which is the assumption that the law has stood unchanged from time immemorial, and that it is impious and a crime against one’s forefathers to bring it into question.
The authority of the law is thus grounded on the thesis: God gave it, and the fathers lived it.—The higher motive of such procedure lies in the design to distract consciousness, step by step, from its concern with notions of right living (that is to say, those that have been proved to be right by wide and carefully considered experience), so that instinct attains to a perfect automatism—a primary necessity to every sort of mastery, to every sort of perfection in the art of life.
To draw up such a law-book as Manu’s means to lay before a people the possibility of future mastery, of attainable perfection—it permits them to aspire to the highest reaches of the art of life. To that end the thing must be made unconscious: that is the aim of every holy lie … – Nietzsche, The Antichrist
He then goes on to justify the caste system, which does not concern us for the purposes of this essay. I mainly wish to note that, against the conservative analysis we find in Nietzsche–who seeks to remind us of the original advantages that certified the ancient laws–we can posit the case for adaptability, progress and evolution of the legal code according to mutual advantage in the ancient Epicureans–who advocate for a fluid legal system that allows for perpetual processes of experimentation and adaptation.
Among the things held to be just by law, whatever is proved to be of advantage in men’s dealings has the stamp of justice, whether or not it be the same for all; but if a man makes a law and it does not prove to be mutually advantageous, then this is no longer just. And if what is mutually advantageous varies and only for a time corresponds to our concept of justice, nevertheless for that time it is just for those who do not trouble themselves about empty words, but look simply at the facts.
Where without any change in circumstances the things held to be just by law are seen not to correspond with the concept of justice in actual practice, such laws are not really just; but wherever the laws have ceased to be advantageous because of a change in circumstances, in that case the laws were for that time just when they were advantageous for the mutual dealings of the citizens, and subsequently ceased to be just when they were no longer advantageous.
Notice that, first and foremost, it is clear that men create the laws and that men have, at any point, the power to change them. Epicureans never allow for a “holy lie” to even plant its roots in the soil of philosophy. While Epicurean doctrines seem to allow for an aristocratic code (things of advantage may or may not be “the same for all”), we also find in the Epicurean sources a lack of emphasis on the priorities of the ruling class, and instead an egalitarian, anarchic, and–most importantly–pragmatic focus on mutual benefit.
In Book 5 of On the Nature of Things, Lucretius mentions how “neighbors began to form mutual alliances, wishing neither to do nor to suffer violence among themselves“, echoing again the indication that Epicureans believed contractarianism to be the earliest type of law.
Some Epicureans are questioning Cicero’s interpretation of Epicurus’ definition of pleasure found in On Ends, and have cited several key essays in articulating their arguments. The Wenham essay is among them.
STATIC PLEASURE HAS BOTH EXPERIENTIAL AND ATTITUDINAL COMPONENTS
The founders of the Epicurean school were adamant that words had to clearly correlate to the attestations presented to our faculties by nature, and had to be clearly defined as such prior to any investigation into truth. The first error in Wenham is this:
“katastematic pleasure in Epicurus has it referring to “static” states from which feeling is absent.”
Katastematic pleasures were defined as pleasures by Epicurus, and a pleasure is not a pleasure if feeling is absent. So we would be accepting a false premise if we were to admit Wenham’s definition, which he gets from Cicero.
when we examine aspects of Epicurus’ epistemology, it seems to demand that we attribute to him an account of pleasure that fits the experiential framework. – Wenham
Wenham makes, from the onset, a clear distinction and separation between the attitudinal and the experiential approaches, and presents and either/or view of them. Can this be a true dichotomy? Can there not be a both/and approach–which would be entirely consistent with Epicurean polyvalent logic?
He solves the controversy in favor of experience, and I agree 100 % that Epicurean ethics concerns itself primarily with the immediate experience of a sentient being.
The problem is that attitude (diathesis) is central in both Diogenes—where it’s said that we are in control of it, and so this is tied to freedom and its moral repercussions—and Philodemus, for therapeutic purposes, as it is one’s attitudes / diathesis that are being healed and reformed via cognitive therapy. This means that Epicurean philosophy can not furnish the moral revolution that it promises without an in depth study of diathesis and its account of how and by which methods diathesis–one’s attitude and character, sometimes translated as “disposition”–must be reformed. The “anatomy” of long-term pleasure and its relation to disposition is explored in Diogenes’ Wall:
Let us now [investigate] how life is to be made pleasant for us both in states and in actions.
Let us first discuss states, keeping an eye on the point that, when the emotions which disturb the soul are removed, those which produce pleasure enter into it to take their place.
Well, what are the disturbing emotions? [They are] fears —of the gods, of death, and of [pains]— and, besides [these], desires that [outrun] the limits fixed by nature. These are the roots of all evils, and, [unless] we cut them off, [a multitude] of evils will grow [upon] us.
It is clear that life is made pleasant not just by the removal of anxieties and false beliefs, but also by replacing them with true beliefs based on the study of nature. It follows from what Diogenes is saying, that once the right view is accepted and the cognitive perturbation is corrected, the new view leads to a feeling of pleasure. Philodemus reports Epicurus as saying this, in On Piety:
“… we all regard our views as the true cause of our tranquility.”
Although ataraxia (non-perturbation, here translated as tranquility) is a means to pleasure and not the end itself, when we study the anatomy of a pleasant life, it seems that the opinion, or judgment, or cognitive component that leads to ataraxia is a pre-cursor, maybe even a reason / justification for pleasant experience, but is distinct from the (katastematic) pleasant existential state itself in the Epicurean system. One of the documents alluded to in our Dialogue on Katastematic Pleasure, a chapter of the book The Greeks on Pleasure by Gosling & Taylor, explains that
joy (chara) and a sense of well-being (euphrosune) seem to correspond to ataraxia and aponia as positive counterparts.
By positive here it meant the feeling component, without which katastematic pleasure would not qualify as pleasure. According to Diogenes Laertius, Epicurus, in On Telos, says that ataraxia and aponia imply a state of rest (katastema), joy and delight a state of motion and activity (kinesis). It is clear that when Epicurus used the word katastema to refer to aponia (painlessness) and ataraxia (tranquility), he was referring to a pleasant feeling of well being, not a purely cognitive judgement.
KATASTEMATIC PLEASURE DEPLETED OF FEELING, ACCORDING TO CICERO
At the heart of the controversy that we have been discussing is the error–originally attributed to Cicero, but partially traceable back to Plato–where Cicero assumed that everyone agrees that pleasure is an active stimulus and not a stable state, ergo it is a motion towards replenishment (vitality). In the attitudinal theory, pleasure is an intentional state or attitude (belief, desire), and in the case of “katastematic” it’s purely cognitive (that is, void of feeling). This view can be traced back to Plato because he held that pleasure was partially cognitive.
Wenham argues that the standard interpretation does not agree with the Epicurean canon, which does not admit a cognitive component. Cognition helps in interpreting the signs presented by nature to our faculties, and the canon (or measure of truth) is the set of faculties that receives raw data from nature. It does not interpret, and hence does not admit cognitive components.
But what Wenham is also saying is that the cognitive component informs katastematic pleasure, and the katastematic pleasure itself is felt as joy and a sense of wellbeing. It could also be experienced as gratitude, as confidence, as joy, as relaxation, or a variety of other mellows that constitute the pleasure itself.
In our discussion, some Epicureans–dismissing the Ciceronian (now seen as the standard / academic) interpretation as another chapter in our counter-history of philosophy–wish to do away entirely with katastematic pleasure, and even go as far as to deny that it is a truly Epicurean concept. Others hold that view that we need not deny the attitudinal component because it is a necessity that comes with freedom, and it is self-evident that a wholesome disposition can help to lead to a life of pleasure.
Those who hold the second view, also find that katastematic pleasure needs to be reaffirmed and properly understood as a felt experience, as a feeling. If we admit the Laertius quote and accept katastema as a category of pleasure, and insist on defining katastema as including FEELING, the entire Ciceronian argument falls. Here is the quote attributed to Epicurus, from Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book X:81-2
 “There is yet one more point to seize, namely, that the greatest anxiety of the human mind arises through the belief that the heavenly bodies are blessed and indestructible, and that at the same time they have volitions and actions and causality inconsistent with this belief ; and through expecting or apprehending some everlasting evil, either because of the myths, or because we are in dread of the mere insensibility of death, as if it had to do with us ; and through being reduced to this state not by conviction but by a certain irrational perversity, so that, if men do not set bounds to their terror, they endure as much or even more intense anxiety than the man whose views on these matters are quite vague.  But mental tranquility means being released from all these troubles and cherishing a continual remembrance of the highest and most important truths.
“Hence we must attend to present feelings and sense perceptions, whether those of mankind in general or those peculiar to the individual, and also attend to all the clear evidence available, as given by each of the standards of truth. For by studying them we shall rightly trace to its cause and banish the source of disturbance and dread, accounting for celestial phenomena and for all other things which from time to time befall us and cause the utmost alarm to the rest of mankind.
EXTRINSIC OBJECTS OF PLEASURE
Attending to “our present feelings and sensations” reminds us of the Zen-like Cyrenaic practice of presentism. Existentialist thinkers like Nietzsche and Sartre say that apprehension of something, or knowing someone, is the same as having power over that object. If this is the case, and if we are, indeed, present to our feelings and sensations–ataraxia can then be seen as a positive, dynamic, active consumption and enjoyment of reality here and now, and the exercise of “being present” (“presentism”) could help to make our attention available and maximize our ability to experience pleasure in our immediacy. Also, this would mean that static pleasures may also be, to some extent, active.
Wenham makes another contribution to the discussion, one that links the Epicurean theory of pleasure ethics to both Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus and Polystratus’ scroll Irrational Contempt. In the scroll, our third Scholarch argues that pleasure and aversion (and categories like noble or vile) DO exist in nature and are observable, but that they do not exist in the same way as the inherent properties of bodies. He refers to them as relational properties of bodies, which they exhibit when in the presence of certain other bodies. These two categories of primal and secondary properties of physical bodies exist within Epicurus’ physics. Polystratus uses examples like the magnet, which attracts iron, but not other stones; and of herbs which heal certain diseases but do not have healing properties in the presence of health.
not part of the essential nature of someone or something; coming or operating from outside
Wenham’s assertion that there is in the experiential model an “experiential object extrinsic to the self” relates to Polystratus‘ assertion that what is experienced as pleasure or aversion exists not as a primary or inherent attribute of bodies, but is relational in nature. There is some object, whether mental or physical, that is enjoyed and incites pleasure in the organism.
Our intention here, by posting both the dialogue on the controversy surrounding katastematic pleasure and a discussion of the sources mentioned, is to present the controversy and encourage familiarity with it among students of Epicurean philosophy.
Much more can be said about the anatomy of the pleasant life, according to Epicurean philosophy, and also according to modern science. In recent discussions, the similarities between the two feel-good hormones serotonin and endorphin and the two modes of pleasure have surfaced.
Serotonin regulates sleep cycles, mood and appetite, and gives people a general, stable sense of well-being (which likens it to katastematic pleasure) whereas endorphin is more euphoric and intense (which likens it to kinetic pleasure). Could these similarities add another layer of insight to this conversation? Answering that is beyond the scope and intention of this essay, but might be a worthwhile exploration for the future.
It is clear that, as per Epicurus’ Epistle to Menoeceus, Pleasure is the Alpha and Omega in Epicurean ethics. For a sentient being, out of the two general modes of sentience–pleasure and pain–this mode is experienced as choice-worthy for its own sake, and it’s the one that our own nature seeks. But there are several complexities concerning how to define pleasure, compounded by the fact that many of the academics who have historically interpreted the texts for us have held anti-Epicurean convictions, and made worse by academic insistence on giving credit to what many Epicureans argue is Cicero’s–not Epicurus’–interpretation of Epicurean pleasure. Furthermore, our epistemology treats pleasure and aversion as a faculty. Other than in non-philosophical fields like anthropology and Darwinian evolution, this is typically not the way pleasure ethics is studied. In this discussion, we evaluate the anatomy of a pleasant life and, along the way, explore how philosophy must also guide science and how–contrary to popular stereotypes–Epicureans have always been involved in politics.
Cassius. While we are on the topic of goals, (the Epicurean Manifesto) is also a formulation that I personally find unacceptable, even though / especially because it is stated with admirable clarity near the end of the document: “But the adoption of the Epicurean telos of katastemic pleasure seems most appealing to those buffeted on the high seas of life. The older I get, the more I crave undisturbedness.”
I do not believe the Epicurean telos is “katastematic pleasure” and/or “undisturbedness”, even though that is the preferred position of modern academic commentators. The goal is PLEASURE, and efforts to dilute it with “katastematic” or rename it as “undisturbedness” are just as harmful – maybe more so – than saying that the goal is “virtue,” or “holiness,” or (for non-Greek speakers) “eudaemonia” – since there is no accepted English definition of that term.
Hiram. The problem with what you are saying is that the Epicurean Manifesto is the single most complete, concise and detailed description of Epicurean techniques of cognitive therapies, the next closest thing being Martha Nussbaum ‘s Therapy of Desires. The solution might be to read and engage the Epicurean Manifesto critically in writing, so that future students can see both your and Fogel’s perspective. But I would not dismiss the usefulness and need to know and promote the therapeutic methods.
And in fact I suspect that when at times you have complained about our lack of focus and our lack of ability to connect theory with practice, if you had taken the time to study these techniques, you might have had a better understanding of praxis in the Gardens.
Cassius. Yes, as you anticipate, I disagree that any article which focuses on katastematic pleasure as the goal of life is a valid representation of Epicurean philosophy or of “Epicurean techniques of cognitive therapies.” I don’t believe that approach is Epicurean at all.
Hiram. But the practices were there, so what do u make of that?
Cassius. What practices do you mean? What practices are documented in Epicurean texts?
Hiram. Nussbaum mentions repetition (for memorization of the teachings), reasonings (where you confront your bad habits via argumentation and cognitive therapy, and this seems to be linked to VS 46: “Let us completely rid ourselves of our bad habits as if they were evil men who have done us long and grievous harm.”), and “seeing before your eyes” (which, if you’ll remember, is a treatment for anger used in Philodemus’ times), and there were others I think. These are based on Philodemus texts mainly.
Cassius. I am not sure how thoroughly I will be able to go through this tonight but Nussbaum seems to regularly describe herself as an Aristotelian?
(On Nussbaum quotes) … I do not agree that Epicurean philosophy slights development of critical thought, nor do I consider the Stoics to be superior in any way, or the Epicureans “authoritarian” (as she claims) … Nor do I agree that Epicurean philosophy subordinates truth and good reasoning to “therapeutic efficacy” (she presumably is referring to the goal of living pleasurably) nor would I consider the Stoics and Aristotelians superior in this department … So Nussbaum considers Seneca “an advance of major proportions” over the Epicureans … I don’t agree that Lucretius contradicts Epicurus, and I don’t agree that Epicurus excluded marriage, sexual love, children, and political community … I do not agree that Epicureans are parasitic on the rest of the world …
If I read Wikipedia correctly, Nussbaum is not Jewish ethnically nor was she educated that way, she is a CONVERT to Judaism, which presumably means that as an adult she was so impressed by the brilliance of that sect, even after becoming expert in Hellenistic philosophy, that she ditched Hellenism and her prior beliefs to embrace that religion. I don’t believe in labeling someone by race, but I am totally comfortable making judgments about someone according to the religious views they embrace, especially when they embrace that religion later in life by choice, rather than having been indoctrinated in it early in life. Judaism has condemned Epicurus for 2000+ years, and the Epicureans returned the favor as we know from Diogenes of Oinoanda, and the Epicureans were involved in the conflict that the Jews celebrate as Hannakah. And that conflict has nothing to do with race or ethnicity, but a profoundly different view of nature/the universe, the goal of living, and the methodology for achieving it.
What I read in those sections of the book I’ve quoted is a slice and dice approach to ALL of Hellenistic philosophy according to her own views of correct analysis, which we can agree with or disagree with as we like, but should not take as even an effort to be fair to the Epicurean viewpoint. I would no more accept an assertion by Nussbaum about Epicurus at face value than I would an assertion of a Randian about Epicurus, a Stoic about Epicurus, or a Nazi about a Rabbi (or vice versa). Her claims ought to be scrutinized no less than anyone else’s, and I for one don’t accept the conclusions that Epicurus was a parasitic and manipulative authoritarian who had to be corrected and improved by Lucretius, and that Epicurean philosophy is inferior to Aristotle and the Stoics in any way. Someone who thinks that is not to be trusted in her interpretation of Epicurean “techniques.”
This is the second significant time in memory that I’ve run into Nussbaum as a source of conflicting interpretation of Epicurus. The first was almost ten years ago. A LOT of what we are talking about comes back over and over to “What is the goal of life?” The two categories of choice seem to be:
(A) If someone accepts that the goal is “katastematic pleasure” and focuses on ataraxia (1)–meaning “calmness”–and stops at that point, then they will follow the Nussbaum line, see calmness as a stated of mind-numbed nothingness that is not painful but has no content of ordinary pleasure, blend Stoic and Epicurean into a mashup blob, and just adopt Epicurus’ name for credibility.
(B) If one accepts that PLEASURE as ordinarily understood is the goal of life, and that being “calm” is simply an adjective that describes a way in which almost ANY pleasurable activity can be conducted, then one understands that the highest life is to be calm WHILE experiencing a full slate of ordinary pleasures. One can be calm while climbing Mount Everest, or hiking a canyon, or hang-gliding, or pushing a button to start a war, having sex, eating a banquet, or doing virtually any other activity that doesn’t require agitation and loss of control of mind while you are doing it. Pleasure remains the goal, and calmly (without disturbance or interruption) is just the best way to enjoy pleasure.
I know which one of these I choose, and while I wish Nussbaum and everyone else who follows this line well, I am not at all interested in it myself. I think the “tranquilism” line needs to be pointed out as a fundamentally flawed understanding of Epicurean philosophy, not something to coexist with as an ally, or to be learned from and adjusted to and held out as a valid interpretation. It is a rewrite of Epicurean philosophy with the intent of burying its meaning so deeply that it never again emerges to challenge the monotheist consensus.
Hiram. (After reading Wenham and Gosling & Taylor) I do not agree that we need to throw out katastematic pleasure. It seems to me like it is FELT and we should claim it as a FEELING, rather than accept it as painlessness, in other words–like elsewhere in EP–we should reclaim it with the proper definition. The main reasons for this are: 1. Epicurus is cited as mentioning katastema in Diogenes Laertius, and it would make us seem revisionists to deny this, and 2. the error is in Cicero for defining katastema as painlessness and lacking in feeling, rather than as a form of pleasure. But also, 3. I see a clear connection between katastema (an attitudinal approach to pleasures) and diathesis (dispositions)–which are central in both Philodemus and Diogenes. Here is the relevant quote from Diogenes’ Wall:
Let us now [investigate] how life is to be made pleasant for us both in states and in actions.
Let us first discuss states, keeping an eye on the point that, when the emotions which disturb the soul are removed, those which produce pleasure enter into it to take their place.
Well, what are the disturbing emotions? [They are] fears —of the gods, of death, and of [pains]— and, besides [these], desires that [outrun] the limits fixed by nature. These are the roots of all evils, and, [unless] we cut them off, [a multitude] of evils will grow [upon] us.
Once we remove the things that block pleasure (false views) and replace them with true views, these healthy dispositions lead to katastema (salvation, wholeness). This theory is important to understand. Also, Philodemus in On Piety says “our BELIEFS are the source of our happiness”.
Elli. Τhe word “katastematic” has not any meaning or connected with any concept to the issue of static and without motion, or apathy, etc. It is connected with the duration in time. We want to be in the katastematic pleasure as long as we can and as our organism/limits permit it based on the external circumstances. It is a very good Hellenic word, Cassius: all the Greek Epicureans can grasp its meaning, and they use it.
Hiram. But back to the original discussion: did you locate where she found the sources for these techniques or are you saying she made them all up? I think most of her sources are from Herculaneum. Most scholars who study and teach Epicurean philosophy are not Epicureans. She is not unique in that.
Cassius. I think you are correct that most of her sources are Philodemus, although some are Lucretius. I haven’t studied it enough in detail to have a general summary, although she admits that the Philodemus material is patchy and heavily reconstructed. My concerns would boil down to two categories:
(1) Without a lot more background of the Philodemus material I think it is very dangerous to draw sweeping conclusions that contradict a more charitable reading of the other texts, and that is what I think she is doing when she accepts the parasite/manipulation/authoritarian arguments. The only way to treat Philodemus material, in my view, is to lay out exact quotes in full, showing whatever context is available, and whatever guesses have been made about the text. My understanding from Philodemus’ “On Methods of Inference” is that that is one of the most complete texts left, and even it is missing huge chunks of important context. It seems to have been the pattern (as would make sense) that the Epicurean writers would describe the opposing position so as to show how it is wrong. When chunks of text are taken out of context and reconstructed it’s impossible to know whether Philodemus was stating his own view, or Epicurus’ view, or the view of some non-Epicurean. As it is, we are relying on modern writers whose views are very likely to be swayed by the peer pressure to interpret Epicurus in the mainstream way, which is neo-Stoic.
But probably my concern with Nussbaum in particular is more broad (2):
Just like in the letter to Menoeceus, it is possible to read very different possibilities into the same text, depending on our disposition. Nussbaum is very clearly a Socratic / Aristotelian / Stoic psychologist who accepts most of their premises about goal of life and methodology. So even if she is the most fair-minded person who ever lived, she is going to infer from any ambiguity a position that she finds more to her own liking, and interpret fragments that way. I am not saying that every statement she makes is false, by any means, but that the overall picture is distorted because she has an agenda which is not consistent with Epicurus’ agenda. Whenever we obsess over a tool (in this case methods of psychology) without first having the end goal and the basics of nature in mind, we’re going to end up worshiping the tools just like the Stoics worship “virtue” and the Aristotelian/Randians worship “reason.”
Hiram. So the only way to retrieve the Epicurean tools is then to go to those sources which are difficult to come by. I’m personally less interested in ad-hominem attacks against non-Epicureans than in revitalizing Epicurean tradition, and I could find the time to visit the Library at Loyola University again to access these rare translations and commentaries on the Herculaneum scrolls but my life has changed. I have full time work and a busier life than when I initially was able to read these sources, when I was under-employed. So my reasonings on them is what we have for now, and whatever translations are affordable on amazon.
But what I keep hearing from you is a dismissal of therapy and even of Philodemus, who (unlike us) enjoyed the direct lineage and teaching down from the Scholarchs, not a sincere desire to retrieve these methods.
Cassius. No I sincerely want to retrieve whatever is available, but my reasoning starts with the most documentable evidence and says:
1. “First get the basics before engaging in speculation.” And whenever there is speculation, my criteria for evaluating the speculation is
2.”Is the speculation consistent with the basics that we already know?”
I throw out much of Nussbaum’s commentary because I believe it to be speculation that contradicts evidence that we already believe to be clear.
As for the Obbink material on Philodemus, which I think you’re referring to, when I saw a copy of the book I think you are referring to (Philodemus’ On Piety, if I recall), it appeared to me to be extremely fragmentary and much less complete than the On Methods of Inference or the Rhetoric book. Some of it may be good, some of it may not, I just don’t know. But whenever something is so fragmentary it’s very difficult to use, and the fragments ought to be clearly displayed so that we see how much is being reconstructed. That’s one of the major issues I have with using Philodemus at all. We don’t have access to images showing what is reconstructed and what is not.
This issue is handled a little better with the Diogenes of Oinoanda material, where we have online access to at least a large part of Martin Ferguson Smith’s work, but some of the same danger exists there too.
So I don’t think that I am dismissing therapy or Philodemus, I just think that we have to be careful with speculation and make sure it conforms to the core material. And when there are large segments of people who like Epicurus who can’t even agree on what the core material means about painlessness, ataraxia, aponia, pleasure, and the like, then it seems to me that we have no hope of understanding or applying therapy towards the goal if we don’t understand clearly what the goal was.
Hiram. Have you given up on Epicurean therapy and any possibility of reconstruction of it?
The problem with that is that you can reiterate the end to infinity, but if we don’t teach people the means to that end, this may render our system of philosophy ultimately useless, lack of utility which goes against everything we are supposed to stand for. “Philosophy that doesn’t heal the soul is no better than medicine that doesn’t heal the body.”
Cassius. My view is that we can’t help anyone with a therapy unless we know what the goal is–we can’t “heal” until we know what it means to be healthy, and we haven’t yet got a firm consensus on that. In other words, until we decide what to tell people pleasure really is, and what is its relationship to painlessless, and calm, and ataraxia, and aponia, then we can’t do anything.
“First, do no harm” often makes sense, and this is one of those cases. We have the view out there of Epicurus that has a totally different view of the goal than what I would maintain is the proper position, and I wouldn’t suggest anyone take any medicine until they know how the doctor dispensing it defines health. If the doctor’s goal is “calmness” then he is more likely to give me anesthesia than he is to give me medicine that will cure the pain and allow me to live pleasurably.
Hiram. I am saying that the Epicureans, not the academics, should be the ones informing people about these methods, but we first have to acquaint ourselves with them.
Elli. How could we achieve getting rid of our bad habits? By looking at the walls of our homes chanting alone some Epicurean Sayings by Epicurus, or with the discussions based on frankness of speech with our trusted friends? Who are the people we can trust? The already healed of course … and another question is: did we make it clear at last who are the ones that have already healed, or the ones who are (ready and able) to heal, or the ones who accept help for their healing? Trust is the first ally to accept your therapist and the therapy that (he) is suggesting.
This reminds me of a discussion that I had with my companion who says to me that the most ill persons are those that are visiting many doctors to find a cure, because they do not trust even themselves … Δια αλλήλων σώζεσθε [Dia allilon sozesthe] = “to be saved by one another”.
Hiram. Will we ever ourselves tackle the Philodemus sources and their therapeutic techniques, without the prism of these interpreters?
Cassius. An excellent question, and I don’t want to come across as discouraging you from doing that. What I mean do be doing in this discussion is explaining why I haven’t attacked that, not that you should not. There’s still a lot more to talk about so that is a good question:
There is nothing that would interest me more than getting access to new material. I think we ought to find new ways to keep pursuing that by trying to make more connections with the researchers, encouraging them to publish their material on the internet rather than exclusively on that ripoff JSTOR site, etc. I am 100% with you that I am completely enthusiastic about that.
The reason I have not put much into that lately is that when I did try to trace down what was available, such as the Voula Tsouna material, the books were frank in displaying that what’s left of the texts is in TERRIBLE condition. No one but an ancient Greek expert could even hope to make much of them, and it seems clear from the images that they print that the texts are so damaged that they can hardly get a full sentence or two on many pages. That leaves the few paragraphs that they an tease out as totally contextless, and as I’ve been saying in that context I don’t think we can rely on whatever they do recover to be the Epicurean portions. They could easily be quotes from enemies. So my observation is that we’ve got a huge uphill battle to get anything meaningful out of them. Heck, we can’t even find an image of the “Vatican List” to verify that, which out to be absolutely clear.
And as examples of where I think this has mislead us I will name two: “Live unknown” has absolutely no context, none of us do it, Epicurus and Lucretius didn’t do it, and so reading a dramatic amount into those two words has been an engraved invitation for Stoics and anti-Epicureans to paint us as cave-dwelling Stoics.
Another example is the Tetrapharmakon, which also has no context (2). To me, it is SO truncated as a summary of PD1-4 as to be almost as damaging as it is helpful. Every line of it is easily twisted into something that is almost a laughingstock, and I suspect that whoever wrote it had to have understood that and warned about that in the original text. But today it is paraded around like it is an oracle of Epicurus, and I strongly doubt he would even have approved of it at all. He left the first four in his own words, and if he had thought that “don’t fear the gods” and “don’t fear death” were good enough, he’d never have left the longer versions.
Those are just two examples how playing with excerpts can easily be turned against us just as much as help us. And I think that is what Nussbaum largely does. Elli may hate me for saying this but “eudaemonia” or any Greek or non-English word is never going to be sufficient to explain to an everyday American what the goal of life is. In fact, using an untranslated word implies that the meaning CANNOT be translated, which I will never accept.
Maybe I am alone in putting so much emphasis on “pleasure” vs “painlessness” but, to me, the first roadblock of reaching any normal person with Epicurean theory is going to be that normal people do not equate “painlessness” with anything but “anesthesia.” 95% of the people I think I would come into contact with will not go a step further if they think the goal of Epicurean philosophy is anesthesia. And anesthesia, plus a particular political position, is exactly what I perceive the majority of modern commentators are pushing. They are political Stoics / Simplicists / Humanists (in the sense of idealizing the goal of making no discrimination whatsoever among anyone), and they are simply using Epicurus as a convenient banner to carry their non-philosophical agenda. They don’t care about the connection between painlessness and pleasure because THEY DON’T WANT ANY connection between painlessness and pleasure.
I think I understand your desire to focus on therapy, but I think you are selling yourself short on where the really profound progress needs to be made before that. Tons of people are out there with self-help books on reducing anxiety, and I agree that reducing anxiety is a desirable goal. But the really groundbreaking work is redefining the common understanding of what the goal of life should be. Religionists and Platonists and Stoics don’t oppose Epicurus because he was in favor of reducing anxiety–they fully agree with that and rush to embrace THAT PART of Epicurus. But they embrace that PART, and ignore the core, because the CORE of Epicurean philosophy is the placement of PLEASURE are the center of life, and that is what they cannot accept. They insist on their own holiness, and their own virtue, and they realize that Pleasure is the rebel that will usurp their throne if they ever let it get a foothold.
That’s where the battle really lies, and every time we get off on reducing anxiety (or pain in general) as a sufficient goal, we give aid and comfort to the enemy and assist them in burying the heart of Epicurus even further.
The real life Alexander the Oracle Mongers are with us today and in much greater strength. But today their greatest weapon is not burning Epicurean books in fig tree fires. Their greatest weapon is convincing us that what Epicurus wrote means the opposite of what he intended.
Against that list is arrayed virtually every academic and popular book on Epicurus written in the last 100 years, and 99% of the internet websites online today.
To me, that means that the battle has to be joined on the most important point, with the few resources that we have, and getting off into other issues before securing the base is a guarantee of defeat.
THIS is the point I am making, here made by Matthew Wenham: So long as the standard model of katastematic pleasure being the goal of life prevails, Epicurean philosophy will remain as nothing more than historical interest. The entire game is in this issue. Game set match.
Hiram. Are you saying that katastematic pleasures do not exist or are you saying that they exist but that the goal includes them AND dynamic pleasures together, or in other words simply pleasure?
Cassius. I am saying that the entire katastematic/kinetic distinction is a rhetorical argument against Epicurus, and every time we accept any part of it we are undermining the philosophy. We know about it mainly because Cicero employed it as a rhetorical device in On Ends. He set up the argument with a straw man in Book 1 by having Torquatus identify the highest pleasure as absence of pain without positive pleasures, and then he demolished the argument in Book 2 by showing how inconsistent that is with the rest of the philosphy.
The distinction arises–as Nikolsky and Wenham point out–with Platonists who considered pleasure to be divisible into active and attitudinal/static divisions. They did this so in part so that they could argue that there is a pleasure separate from the body and real human action and experience, as part of their elevation of reason and thinking as superior to the body and action.
In contrast, Epicurus held that ALL pleasure is desirable, and he did not set up one kind of pleasure as superior to another, or one kind of pleasure as only worthwhile as a tool to obtain another type of pleasure.
Even more importantly, as Wenham points out, Epicurus held pleasure and pain to be part of the canonical faculties that operate by nature, and are inseparable from human living experiences. Separating out a type of pleasure as non-feeling, and considering that type of pleasure to be higher than ordinary pleasures of feeling, destroys the Epicurean model.
There’s more: if someone sets up one type of pleasure as higher than another, then there must be some faculty separate from pleasure to allow us to recognize which is “better” other than pleasure itself (pleasure itself does nothing other than recognize pleasure). This everyone else suggests is “reason”, and therefore conclude that pleasure alone is not the goal. They argue that the goal is pleasure + reason. Then, Plato develops that argument further and shows “logically” that reason alone is the highest good, and that pleasure is not even needed.
So all of these issues arise from the same katastematic/kinetic distinction. It is a dagger pointed at the heart of Epicurean philosophy which the Platonists developed and Cicero popularized and preserved in the records for the next 2000 years. As long as we accept this katastematic/kinetic distinction, Epicurean philosophy is doomed to be nothing more than a word game and a historical oddity that no one will take seriously.
Hiram. I disagree with you. Also, Cassius, this is NOT the “dagger pointed at the heart of Epicurean philosophy” that you imagine. It’s hard for me to understand how you get so worked up about this. Pleasure is self-evident to the organism experiencing it, and just like the eye can see many colors according to the spectrum and to the wavelength arriving at the eye, similarly various pleasures are available to the organism.
If you are arguing this, you are saying that that the only way to experience constant pleasures is to constantly be satisfying a thirst (because katastematic pleasure is the self-sufficient pleasure that exists when we aren’t satisfying a desire, so if we get rid of it, then we are on the hedonic threadmill like mice in a hoop).
Also, the distinction between these two kinds of pleasure is made in contemporary science of happiness, which demonstrates that it is a recognized feature of it. There, it is known as natural and synthetic happiness. The TED speech by Dan Gilbert is the shortest intro to this idea.
In Nichiren Buddhism, I also found that they use different verbiage for it, but the idea of katastematic and kinetic pleasures in some form or another exists in both scientific understanding, and in other cultures and philosophies that are seriously studying the science of happiness.
I think the key problem here is that if we don’t have katastematic pleasures, then the possibility of living in constant pleasures does not exist because the brain gets either addicted, or used to dopamine and is no longer excited by new experiences. Also, the question of one’s disposition has to be addressed: what state are we in habitually? If you throw out katastematic pleasures, you have a theory that requires constantly scratching an itch to experience pleasures.
What do you make of Diogenes of Oenoanda’s assertion distinguishing pleasures of the mind versus those of the body? It’s true that, in the end, the mind is part of the body, so the distinction is still within the physics ultimately. But to say that there IS no distinction is naive: the pleasures and pains of the mind last longer and can cause harm to the body, and also we are in control of our (mental) disposition, which implies that some kind of discipline to steer that mental disposition is desirable if you want to abide in pleasure persistently.
You say of Wenham that he speaks of “separating a type of pleasure as NON-FEELING”. I can’t imagine in what way a pleasure can be non-feeling. Not sure what you mean, and I have a feeling that this may be where we should re-affirm katastematic pleasure as a feeling.
I also don’t follow that the recognition of passive and active pleasures leads to the need for a third faculty, because both are directly experienced as pleasant by the organism. I think this is a false argument and you should simply tell that to your Platonist opponents: reason is the handmaiden of pleasure that helps to calculate benefit. No need to let their play of words entangle you like a boa constrictor into positions that are needlessly rhetorically complicated, and drain the pleasure from even philosophy itself. Long arguments get to the same place as short ones. Pleasure is self-evident.
Cassius. I am glad that we are able to air our disagreement so clearly because it is fundamental … “because katastematic pleasure is the self-sufficient pleasure that exists when we aren’t satisfying a desire, so if we get rid of it, then we are on the hedonic treadmill like mice in a hoop” << That is your definition, picked up from Cicero and others, and not from any core Epicurean text of Epicurus or an authoritative Epicurean.
Hiram. it’s part of the contemporary science of happiness, and it’s tied to the hedonic treadmill, and it’s what explains that a year after winning the lottery and losing a limb, the millionaire and the person who survived the accident can have equal levels of happiness. Neuroscientists know of hedonic adaptation and are trying to figure out ways to heighten the hedonic base level.
Jason. As the arrow of time flows ever in one direction and never pauses, even for an instant, and the atoms are always in motion (as that motion is how we measure time) I am finding the idea of static pleasure harder and harder to justify. We’re always having to replenish our stores of neurochemicals through consumption of new pleasures. I am willing to put myself on the line and state unequivocally that there is never a steady-state of pleasure or pain in any living organism, only a swervy oscillation toward and away from the limits of experience.
The prudent man arranges his life to dampen the pendulum swing and bias it towards the upper limit of pleasure for the duration of his life through repeated and varied applications of will.
Cassius. Yes Jason that is one of the core contradictions that shows this as something Epicurus would not embrace. There is nothing settled in life, no place of rest, just action until death. Hiram, I completely agree that we need to incorporate modern scientific discoveries, but we always have to keep separate whether our goal is to develop our own synthesis that we think we should be advocated, or whether we are working to identify what Epicurus thought. In this issue we’re not talking about physics issues like the size of the sun. We are talking about philosophical approaches which are tied to particular premises about the nature of the universe, which I don’t think have changed at all.
Hiram. So in this interpretation, Epicurus couldn’t have “called us to constant pleasures”, or if he did, he was lying? … If we dismiss science, we have dismissed the canon. As far as I know, scientific data has passed the sieve of the canon, we would not be connecting theory with practice, and our tradition would remain stagnant and incapable of evolving as it was intended to do by the use of the tools given for its evolution.
Cassius. No, I completely disagree. (Epicurus) is telling us that pleasures of some kind are always possible and always present and always available to serve as the guide of life. That’s what he means by constant–the constant availability of normal pleasures, INCLUDING the mental ones that you (and Diogenes of Oinoanda) are trying to break out as a separate category distinct to themselves. That is the issue–they are NOT a separate category of a distinct kind–they are simply mental processes, no different than reading a book or looking at art or whatever.
The canon rests on science, one of the observations of which is that all knowledge comes to us through the senses and the processing of what they give us. No one embraces science more enthusiastically than I do, but at the same time we can never forget that science is no different than any other tool–we pursue it in order to achieve pleasure, because we recognize by nature through feeling that nothing is desirable in life except pleasure.
Hiram. If we can’t understand or accept the scientific theory of happiness, how can we develop scientific methods for its achievement? I don’t feel comfortable with articulating our philosophy as opposed to the scientific establishment, much less with labeling the adoption of the scientific view as “eclecticism” because it’s not culture, it’s nature that it’s based on.
Cassius. Not sure I understand what you are saying exactly, but I do not believe that there can probably even be a “scientific theory of happiness.” Happiness is a conceptual term we have come up with to describe certain things we want to talk about, and it is in philosophy where we decide what is worth talking about and why. I understand science to be observation; data gathering; and the development of understanding of the causation of specific things. But as Frances Wright argues, causation is an endless series and incorporates innumerable inputs, and at some point we simply have to step back and make a judgment call as to what it all adds up to, because we are not capable by definition of observing every fact of causation in a chain which never had a beginning point in the first place. Philosophy guides science; philosophy tells us that the senses are primary; philosophy tells us that reason devoid of facts of sensation is worthless. Those are not “scientific” conclusions in the normal and regular use of the term “scientific”.
Elli. The erroneous ways of thinking may be divided into two categories, the systematically wrong mentality, and the foolishly misguided mentality. The systematic error, as it is called scientifically, is the way that may lead to disastrous results if we do not avoid it. The Epicurean Roman Lucretius points out: “Again, as in a building, if the first plumb-line be askew, and if the square deceiving swerve from lines exact, and if the level waver but the least in any part, the whole construction then must turn out faulty-shelving and askew, leaning to back and front, incongruous, that now some portions seem about to fall, and falls the whole ere long-betrayed indeed by first deceiving estimates: so too thy calculations in affairs of life must be askew and false, if sprung for thee from senses false. So all that troop of words marshalled against the senses is quite vain.” (De Rerum Natura IV 513-521, W.E. Leonard 1916).
The systematically wrong mindset usually uses literary falsification of reality. Some manipulate speech, either with sophism, or with rhetoric, or with dialectical techniques, or with sterile obsessive logic, using ways of cheating others or deluding oneself, usually with political or self-serving purposes. Literary falsification of reality includes the ideal mythological approach of the world, the “political lie” considered by Plato as the right of people in power, the superficial commentary of the phenomena, and sterile skepticism. All these verbal approaches based on the motto “mind comes first” are forms of subjectivity, idealism and intellectualism. These systematically wrong ways of thinking led the Hellenic world to intolerance and discord, and eventually to submission to Republican Rome, whose rising power came from collaboration of patricians and plebeians. These systematically wrong idealistic mentalities subsequently led mankind to the Middle Ages.
In the modern world, we may observe that subjectivity, obsessive ideologies, noncritical pluralistic chattering continue to result in barbaric disputes and inhuman fighting while the temporarily stronger prevails, according to the barbarous law of the jungle. In addition, there is the absurd misguided way of thinking, the impulsive, the “so I like it”, the variably eclectic mentality. This is usually an uncertain, shallow, and effortless way of imprudent dealing with any subject. It is characterized by lack of knowledge of reality, empty chattering, and myopic desires of the type “the purpose sanctifies the means”. An example result of this mentality is the recent decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw USA from the Paris Climate Agreement, which has sparked the outcry of many international scientific associations that called it “a dangerous denial of decision-making method based on scientific data”.
Nevetheless, there are many people against the scientific way of thinking and common sense, such as the Syndicate of Greek Electricity Workers that welcomed the Trump decision, combining unscientific nonsense and self-interest politics in an exemplary manner, since most of their jobs are still based on coal mining. Unfortunately, the nonsensical and superficial way of thinking is particularly widespread in modern societies. The Epicurean philosophy can assist its friends to combat this mentality of the many and to overcome the foolish, idealistic influences that create anxiety and turmoil. Studying and understanding Epicurean texts may help a well-intentioned reader to experience the objective, scientific and serene way of thinking of Epicurus without any misunderstandings. History teaches us that even charismatic people who did not understand the Epicurean scientific method, made mistakes in their appreciation. For example, the great thinker Voltaire, who generally admired Epicurus, erroneously considered as absurd the Master’s views regarding chance and evolution in nature.
(An excerpt of the presentation by Christos Yapijakis at the 10th Panhellenic Meeting of Epicureans, Mount Olympus, Greece Theme: «Re-Hellenization in light of Epicurean Philosophy»)
Jason. Part of the problem of a “scientific theory of happiness” is their first premises. What do they mean by happiness? Do they accept that pleasure is the sine non qua of life or are they, as Cassius puts it, “tranquilists?”
Cassius. Right–the selection of definitions is not a matter of “science alone” but of philosophy.
Jason. I want to put it on record too, that this is my biggest beef with neuroscientists like Sam Harris. He has put science in its proper place as the methodology of exploring our natural universe, but then denies that he has any preconceptions/bias at all when setting up his experiments and drawing conclusions from the results. He denies the utility of philosophy completely while making philosophical claims on the aims of science. I take issue with anyone who claims that science serves some end other than pleasure.
Cassius. I think if we can just get them to the point of understanding that pleasure is the goal, rather than religion or idealism, we will accomplish the most than an Epicurean organization could hope to accomplish. Cassius Longinus was obviously leader of what was effectively his own political party in the Roman Civil war, and I think we should be engaged in politics, but if we mix immediate interests with the big picture it seems to me we jeopardise the big picture.
I don’t know enough about Harris to comment on him particularly, but it seems to me scientists on both left and right make the same error that Jason is talking about. That passage from Frances Wright deserves a lot more attention as an explanation of why “science” is not the leader–a proper understanding of pleasure in a proper philosophical framework is the only way to understand the goal.
Hiram. Yes philosophy must guide science. Agreed. This is one of the main reasons for the urgency of our work in these times … (and don’t get me started with Sam Harris).
Science (like the canon) provides data drawn from nature to confirm doctrines also. So to say “this is what science says about this” is our equivalent to a Jew placing the “kosher” stamp on food, or a Muslims placing the “halal” stamp on food. It’s like putting the “canon” stamp, saying “there is ample, cross-verified, peer-reviewed data confirming these observations and therefore it is okay to set this as doctrinally valid”.
Science of happiness is one of the easiest gateways to teaching Epicurean ethics. It is my understanding that Epicurean teachers used to first give the observations, to demonstrate what is observed, and then reached their conclusions, and Lucretius does this in DRN, and it’s also part of what I sought to do in Tending the Epicurean Garden: to bridge modern insights and ancient doctrine for the benefit of modern people, and show the relevance of EP.
If we dismiss or disparage science as a means to the teaching, we lose opportunities to continue teaching in this manner, which is a method that also demonstrates our respect for the intelligence of our readers.
I would favor affirming BOTH the end and ALSO the validity of these means, maybe via a rhetorical devise like always saying “in order to live pleasantly, we find / it has been demonstrated that this or that is advantageous and useful”. I don’t want us to forget the utility of things (whether they be science, therapeutic methods, etc.) to advance philosophy.
Cassius. It seems to me that you are presuming that the goal is obvious to everyone, and that no one disputes that living happily should be the goal. That is far from true in my experience, and people are confused about every aspect of the question. Is there a goal? What is the goal? Should I try to live happily? What is happiness? Isn’t avoiding pain good enough? All those are incredibly complicated issues and unless people are straight on those, it makes no sense to even begin talking about therapeutic techniques.
Now certainly there is a target audience that is confident of all those things and ready to talk about precise techniques. But that was never Epicurus’ audience or the way he devoted his time. Epicurus was a philosophical warrior who engaged the philosophical enemy to break the chains they had imposed. There are innumerable good things to do after those chains are broken, but the great majority of people, I dare say, are still totally in their chains
Jason. I don’t think anyone is disparaging science as a methodology, only its application and idealism by those who have non-Epicurean goals. There is a LOT of bad “science” on the fringes of human knowledge. The methodology isn’t always followed closely because of competing aims. We have to be careful about accepting conclusions about experiments that we don’t understand ourselves when those drawing the conclusions have proven themselves ignorant of or hostile to the purpose of science.
Elli. Cassius, according to Diogenes Laertius (10.27-9), the major works of Epicurus include:
1. On Nature, in 37 books
2. On Atoms and the Void
3. On Love
4. Abridgment of the Arguments employed against the Natural Philosophers
5. Against the Megarians
7. Fundamental Propositions (Kyriai Doxai)
8. On Choice and Avoidance
9. On the Chief Good
10. On the Criterion (the Canon)
12. On the Gods
13. On Piety
15. Four essays on Lives
16. Essay on Just Dealing
18. Essay addressed to Themista
19. The Banquet (Symposium)
21. Essay addressed to Metrodorus
22. Essay on Seeing
23. Essay on the Angle in an Atom
24. Essay on Touch
25. Essay on Fate
26. Opinions on the Passions
27. Treatise addressed to Timocrates
30. On Images
31. On Perceptions
33. Essay on Music (i.e., on music, poetry, and dance)
34. On Justice and the other Virtues
35. On Gifts and Gratitude
37. Timocrates (three books)
38. Metrodorus (five books)
39. Antidorus (two books)
40. Opinions about Diseases and Death, addressed to Mithras
42. #Essay on Kingly Power
In the works by Epicurus there are some persons’ names … I have a question: who are those persons? Are they only philosophers, or are they persons that have been involved with politics? And that essay on Kingly Power… does it not involve politics too? Also, Patro the Epicurean, from Wikipedia:
Patro (Greek: Πάτρων) was an Epicurean philosopher. He lived for some time in Rome, where he became acquainted, among others, with Cicero, and with the family of Gaius Memmius. Either now, or subsequently, he also gained the friendship of Atticus. From Rome he either removed or returned to Athens, and there succeeded Phaedrus as head of the Epicurean school, c. 70 BC. Memmius had, while in Athens, procured permission from the Areopagus court to pull down an old wall belonging to the property left by Epicurus for the use of his school. This was regarded by Patro as a sort of desecration, and he accordingly addressed himself to Atticus and Cicero, to induce them to use their influence with the Areopagus to get the decree rescinded. Atticus also wrote to Cicero on the subject. Cicero arrived at Athens the day after Memmius had departed for Mytilene. Finding that Memmius had abandoned his design of erecting the edifice with which the wall in question would have interfered, he consented to help in the matter; but thinking that the Areopagus would not retract their decree without the consent of Memmius, he wrote to the latter, urging his request in an elegant epistle, which is still in existence.
I have the impression that all the above people (including Patro the Epicurean) were involved with political affairs … and a later one and important Epicurean that was involved with politics too was–Thomas Jefferson!!
Jason. By the intermundial gods Elli, that letter to Memmius (the very Memmius that Lucretius dedicates DRN to, no less) leads to all kinds of unexplored places! The edition found on Perseus, has excellent notes that point in interesting directions. The cooperation of Epicureans and playwrights to commission a play in honor of a physician? Fantastic!
Elli. Wow!! Τhanks, Jason, I was looking for it!
Cassius. To summarize: Cicero saw this issue as one of the key elements of his attack on Epicirus, or he would not have highlighted it as he did. By doing so he convinces people that pleasure being the goal is not tenable or even significant, and that we should just incorporate whatever we want from Epicurus in our own non-pleasure-based philosophies. That makes Epicurus a handmaid to everyone else and buries the key message.
Elli. Some of my final thoughts: For involvement with politics, there needs to hide inside you a little Stoic personality, or (you need) to disguise your Epicurean inner personality with an outer Stoic one. Because if your nature is to be involved in politics, or (to be in) the company of academicians, you will be addressing Stoic personalities. You have to persuade them of Epicurean Philosophy (by mixing the goal) with aponia and ataraxia–all leading to happiness, bliss and prosperity, without insisting that the goal is pleasure net and clear. Because it is well known how hostile people are to this word. So, to persuade the others you use those words that sound better to their ears, and maybe you do your political job quite better.
The other issue is: How many can you trust inside the field of politics or among academicians, how many can you stand with, and how many will stand with you? The other issue is: How much money can you spend, and how many hours of your life can you spend too, in the company of such kinds of persons.
Αnd the last issue is that your aponia and ataraxia would be lost to a huge degree for the sake of politics, since mainly there are some persons ready to stab you on your back. But as Epicurus said in this Doctrine 7:
Some men want fame and status, thinking that they would thus make themselves secure against other men. If the life of such men really were secure, they have attained a natural good; if, however, it is insecure, they have not attained the end which by nature’s own prompting they originally sought.
Cassius. I better clarify my position on politics. I think Epicureans CAN and SHOULD be involved in politics. I am talking strictly about what an umbrella “Society of Epicurus” or similar organization should do that seeks to attract cooperation from a body of people. And that applies to what I do separately as well. I don’t begrudge others having political positions, but I firmly believe–at least in my own case–that I want to appeal to people of ALL political persuasions in the time I have left, or said another way, anyone of any political persuasion who is willing to listen to the argument and consider agreeing with it.
An obvious example is the Macedonia / Greek quarrel that Elli mentioned recently. I understand why that spurs emotions, but I would imagine that people on both sides of that could be Epicureans, just like people on both sides of the Roman civil war could be Epicureans. I would expect individual Epicureans to weigh in on it in that region, but I can understand that people on both sides have their own view of the pleasurable interests involved, and I can’t say that Epicurus would clearly take one side or the other.
Obviously I can’t imagine much appeal to religious political parties like Islam, but on issues such as economics, or even race relations, global warming, or thousands of other issues, there are going to be people on both sides of those issues who want see their own personal interests on one side, and some on the other, and to me there is no clear Epicurean position other than the pursuit of happiness is common to all people, so we need to be careful or there will be a conflict and if we don’t want that we have to work toward some kind of compromise.
And in fact, as an example, I think that the Epicureans in Greece, at least as individuals, probably ought to be more involved in politics than I perceive that they are, because it seems to me that they are under much more direct threat (for example from Islam, and the Orthodox Church) than we are here. And I think it is very justifiable for any group of people to want to retain its own integrity, so I can see Epicurean theory to be usable by a lot of different cultural and economic systems. What I want to continue to stress is that my non-politics position is because I think we are very early in any kind of Epicurean “movement” on the core issue of pleasure being the goal of life, and that it probably isn’t wise for those few of us who work together on core issues to allow ourselves to be divided by politics. That’s 99% of my point on politics.
As for the “pleasure vs. therapy” debate I’m saying mostly the same thing. I think all of us should pursue what interests us the most, and I am not trying to discourage anyone from anything that’s within the tent of working together on core issues. I think theories of Epicurus that focus on defining the goal solely as “absence of pain” are covertly anti-Epicurean and an umbrella organization should not be willing to accept that as a viable interpretation. I don’t perceive any of us as holding that opinion ourselves, but we seem to disagree on how much we will tolerate it or cooperate with it.
ataraxia means “lack of perturbation” in Greek.
the Tetrapharmakon, or Four Cures, are a paraphrase of the first four of the Principal Doctrines.
I finally took the time to read the paper Epicurean education and the rhetoric of concern. Well, actually, I must confess I didn’t read it: that’s what robots are for! I used an app called Natural Reader to have it read to me, to save time, and so that my eyes would not get tired.
The paper mentions Principal Doctrine 13 as an exhibit in the argument in favor of preaching Epicurean philosophy to the world for the sake of securing for ourselves and others the kind of life we long for. It struck me as a missing piece in a puzzle that I’ve been attempting to put together for some time. The zeal to teach the philosophy is philanthropic to some extent. Of course, that altruism and self-interest both dwell in our soul is not a revelation, and these things are not mutually contradictory but rather can co-exist and are both necessary for living a life of pleasure. This has always seemed clear and obvious to me. Not so to others.
12. It is impossible for someone to dispel his fears about the most important matters if he doesn’t know the nature of the universe but still gives some credence to myths. So without the study of nature there is no enjoyment of pure pleasure.
13. There is no advantage to obtaining protection from other men so long as we are alarmed by events above or below the earth or in general by whatever happens in the boundless universe.
And so it is clear that, to live a pleasant life according to Epicurean guidelines, we should have the right beliefs concerning the nature of things. It is also clear that we should contribute to the peace of mind and happiness of our Epicurean friends by studying together and helping to correct their false views, up to the point that we even may have to engage in what Philodemus in his scroll on frank criticism called “person-taming”, because we are by nature invested in the moral character and happiness of our true friends. This is consistent with Vatican Saying 15:
We place a high value on our characters as if they were our own possessions whether or not we are virtuous and praised by other men. So, too, we must regard the characters of those around us if they are our friends.
But what about strangers, and society in general? For that, we have a different strategy: the missionary aspect of Epicurean philosophy. The issue that the paper tackles is how a philosophical doctrine of so-called “egoism” can be philanthropic to the point of being a missionary humanism. This is where the author errs, and his tone is heavily influenced by the tired anti-Epicurean stereotypes (as selfish hedonists) that abound in academia.
Yet the author Sean McConnell hits an important insight when he articulates that for the sake of safety, and to ensure that other members of his society are capable of participating in the hedonistic covenant (to not harm or be harmed, and of mutual benefit), Epicureans see it in their self-interest to produce more Epicureans by teaching philosophy. In other words, just as in PD 13 we find that we can’t lead lives of pleasure if we hold false views, similarly it would be difficult for us to live pleasantly if we are surrounded by people whose false views render them incapable of living pleasantly, or of allowing others to live pleasantly. That rings more true to me, having had exchanges with contemporary Epicureans for a few years now, than the apparent inner contradiction between selfish and selfless impulses that the author seems to imagine.
We do engage in calculus of pleasure. But enamored as we are with the immediacy of pleasant experiences, I don’t think we calculate as consciously as he thinks we do. Also, we feel in our own realities the detrimental effects produced by homophobia, terrorism, and the lack of faith in science coming from the far religious right much more vividly and viscerally than how cold calculations are experienced by a logician. Yes, we would indeed feel safer in a world with less religion and more critical, empirical thinking. And yes, a more Epicurean world would make it less likely that others will poison our happiness, not to mention threaten our lives and our security. But an Epicurean is less likely to argue the choice of teaching philosophy in selfish-versus-altruism terms, and more likely to consider that it’s in our nature to do the things we find pleasure in (like philosophy) in the company of others, and for that sake, we have missionary philosophy. And these many selfish and altruistic reasons to teach philosophy are not mutually contradictory, but mutually reinforcing.
That’s one issue. On a separate (yet related) issue raised by the above mentioned paper, Cassius says:
I think the flaws here are (1) he is forcing Epicurus into the egoist vs altruist mold, neither of which applies to Epicurus. Epicurus says to follow pleasure, not yourself for the sake of yourself or others for the sake of others. Also (2) he is one of those who is constantly looking for some “virtue” that is “choiceworthy in itself” so he can find an exception to the rule that pleasure is the goal. This is what the later Epicureans were doing, as referenced in the article, and it is deadly because it contradicts the foundation of the philosophy.
Epicurus was not an altruist nor was he an “egoist with exceptions.” He was a consistent follower of pleasure, and it is no contradiction to say that in some situations our pleasure is maximized by putting the happiness of a friend above that of our own.
I would be careful in praising the article too much because he “defends” Epicurus by concluding that he is an egoist with exceptions, and that undermines the doctrines — Strictly speaking egoism is “Self above all” and altruism is “others above self” and NEITHER of those are correct analysis. His article should have rejected both as they applied to Epicurus. Not only are they not our points of reference, but I think it could be argued that “egoism” and “altruism” are two horns of a deadly false choice.
In fact that might be a good general conclusion I would reach — I would not agree that Epicurus was an “egoist” – I would dissect that word and show he is not.
It would be much better to reject the false definitions at the beginning and explain what he meant positively, and then attack the errors from there, rather than trying to employ words that now have false issues embedded in them without rooting out the false definitions.
I see Cassius’ point, and the author does seem to be coming from a place where he is constantly reiterating that Epicureans exhibit philanthropy IN SPITE OF themselves and their selfish philosophy. For instance, we read:
John Armstrong presents a compelling argument that the agreement and adherence to a contract neither to harm nor be harmed are premised firmly on an individual’s desire for his own end, even though Lucretius for instance suggests some degree of other-concern when he says that the contract included a provision for the protection of women and children, for “it is fair for all to pity the weak” (DRN 5.1019-1023)
This is the tone we find throughout the entire paper. These kinds of “yes this is selfish, but that is altruistic” are absent in Epicurean discourse. While we like to adhere to ancient writings in our study of philosophy, in my personal conversations with other 21st Century Epicureans, what I HAVE heard often is that it is in our nature to both protect ourselves as well as to want the happiness of others, particularly those close to us. That is, both the selfish and the altruistic impulses are natural, and they both serve a life of pleasure.
A discussion on vegetarianism and ethics in the Epicurean Philosophy facebook group was initially incited by a provocative video on why we love dogs and eat pigs, which evaluates the controversy, double standards and hypocrisy of the matter. I’ve read more than once that one of the founders of the Epicurean school, the second Scholarch and Epicurus’ successor, Hermarchus of Mytilene, was vegetarian. But it has always been difficult to verify the source. Recently, we came across one indirect source in Porphyry’s On Abstinence. It cites Hermarchus’ polemical treatise Letters About Empedocles.
It turns out that the answer to our inquiry, according to Epicurean doctrine, is that the moral reasons for vegetarianism are relative to the circumstances and that they depend on advantage. If animals of a certain species are likely to become too numerous, eating them may be encouraged.
For instance, Puerto Rico in recent years has seen a proliferation of iguanas that are not native to the island but have taken over, as they have no natural predator in the island–except, perhaps, the powerful Caribbean hawk. As a result of this, one of the ways in which the locals have begun controlling the population is by doing the (previously) unthinkable: they are now adding iguana to the menu, and many people have found that they love the meat. It tastes like (as you may have guessed) chicken–that quintessentially “common” and “normal” meat. They now call it gallina de palo (“the chicken of the trees”).
The Arguments of the Epicureans, from Hermachus
Porphyry’s portion on Hermarchus begins in his paragraph 7. It begins by considering how ancient legislators declared manslaughter as unholy and punished it, and later argues that some people (only those who are unwise) need punishment in order to stop them from killing others, whereas the wise do not need to be reminded of such punishment. Later in paragraph 9, we see religion tied to this:
… The vulgar everywhere require something which may impede them from promptly performing what is not advantageous [to the community] …. For that part of the soul which is void of intellect, being variously disciplined, acquired a becoming mildness, certain taming arts having been from the first invented for the purpose of subduing the irrational impulses of desire, by those who governed the people.
By “taming arts” we may understand not only religious techniques for making individuals docile, but also a certain education, which instills presumably fear of the gods, of public shame, of being banished from the community, and of punishment.
As a continuation of a discussion against manslaughter, the morality of killing some animals is defended here for the sake of security. For instance, a community may need to slay a lion or wolves who are endangering its members.
Those who first defined what we ought to do, and what we ought not, very properly did not forbid us to kill other animals. For the advantage arising from these is effected … since it is not possible that men could be preserved, unless they endeavoured to defend those who are nurtured with themselves from the attacks of other animals.
This is consistent with the sixth Principal Doctrine, which says that anything done for the sake of security is a natural good. It is also extended to the realm of non-violence among humans. For mutual advantage and in order to secure ataraxia (a fear-less life) and to secure all the things that are necessary (access to food, trade), neighbors and strangers entered into covenants of non-harm.
Some of those, of the most elegant manners, recollecting that they abstained from slaughter because it was useful to the public safety …. for the purpose of repelling the attacks of animals of another species; but also for defence against men whose design was to act nefariously … they abstained from the slaughter of men …. in order that there might be a communion among them in things that are necessary, and that a certain utility might be afforded in each of the above-mentioned incommodities.
For the destruction of every thing noxious, and the preservation of that which is subservient to its extermination, similarly contribute to a fearless life.
Here, Hermarchus introduces his non-violent views towards members of other species. He argues that if an animal is not causing us harm or injury, it should not be killed.
Nor must it be said, that the law allows us to destroy some animals which are not corruptive of human nature, and which are not in any other way injurious to our life. For as I may say, no animal among those which the law permits us to kill is of this kind.
Of course, and consistent with Principal Doctrine 38, justice must always be relative to circumstances and these laws and categories of animals may change according to (dis)advantage, as we saw in the case of animals that overbreed and become too numerous, becoming a pest.
Since, if we suffered them to increase excessively, they would become injurious to us. But through the number of them which is now preserved, certain advantages are imparted to human life. For sheep and oxen, and every such like animal, when the number of them is moderate, are beneficial to our necessary wants; but if they become redundant in the extreme, and far exceed the number which is sufficient, they then become detrimental to our life; the latter by employing their strength, in consequence of participating of this through an innate power of nature, and the former, by consuming the nutriment which springs up from the earth for our benefit alone. Hence, through this cause, the slaughter of animals of this kind is not prohibited, in order that as many of them as are sufficient for our use, and which we may be able easily to subdue, may be left.
Three categories of animals are distinguished: the tame ones that are sometimes useful to us (therefore 1. useful tame animals and 2. useless tame animals), and 3. the savage ones that are not useful to us. Some may argue that some wild animals provide some utility, but here Hermarchus does not seem to acknowledge that anything natural and necessary can be attained from them. I can think of whale blubber, for instance, but the industry that this product spawned–and which nearly brought some species of whale to extinction–is widely considered immoral and evil today, and the products that this species offers humans can only be said to be “necessary” for certain populations of Inuits who survive through the winter thanks to it.
For it is not with horses, oxen, and sheep, and with all tame animals, as it is with lions and wolves and, in short, with all such as are called savage animals that, whether the number of them is small or great, no multitude of them can be assumed which, if left, would alleviate the necessity of our life. And on this account, indeed, we utterly destroy some of them; but of others, we take away as many as are found to be more than commensurate to our use.
The Scholarch was arguing that we are likely to want to keep some of these tame animals around (for food, clothing, transportation, etc.) but not so many that we can’t subdue them. But today, we may question whether it is fair to derive certain items of clothing and fashion from animals which can alternately be produced without causing suffering to any creature. The question of using horses rather than bikes or cars is, likewise, ridiculous. I would argue that the rise of the machines was meant to diminish the unnecessary suffering and labor of sentient beings, both human and non-human. Paragraph 12 concludes by reminding us that justice is based on advantage.
On this account, from the above-mentioned causes, it is similarly requisite to think, that what pertains to the eating of animals, was ordained by those who from the first established the laws; and that the advantageous and the disadvantageous were the causes why some animals were permitted to be eaten and others not.
So that, if Hermarchus was indeed vegetarian, or mostly vegetarian–which we do not know with certainty–he seems to have been arguing that because he did not live during a time when sheep, oxen, or other creatures were so numerous that they required laws to diminish their population in order to avoid their detriment to human populations, ergo he reasoned that this justified vegetarianism for the generation in which he lived.
Finally, the issue of animal intelligence may change this paradigm. For the time being, many countries already consider great apes as “non-human persons”, and a recent gathering of scientists in Vancouver also concluded that dolphins are “non-human persons”, mainly because it has been discovered that they have language (and social life) as complex as ours and that each dolphin answers to their own name. Several research stations are working on attempts to decipher dolphin speech, and some fishermen communities in Brasil have developed human-dolphin fishing techniques that produce mutual advantage by securing large amounts of smaller fish for the two higher species.
It’s possible that elephants, whose brains are bigger than ours, may soon join this new category of “non-human persons”, which constitutes a major paradigm shift in inter-species relations on Earth. If we are one day able to communicate with dolphins or to raise communities of great apes that use (as some individuals have) sign language to interact with us, we may reach a time in history when it is possible to have inter-species agreements and binding legal contracts. Hermarchus, in his day, considered this unthinkable but said that, if one day such a thing were possible, these contracts must be honored.
If, therefore, it was possible to make a certain compact with other animals in the same manner as with men, that we should not kill them, nor they us, and that they should not be indiscriminately destroyed by us, it would be well to extend justice as far as to this; for this extent of it would be attended with security. But since it is … impossible, that animals which are not recipients of reason should participate with us of law, on this account, utility cannot be in a greater degree procured by security from other animals, than from inanimate natures. But we can alone obtain security from the liberty which we now possess of putting them to death. And such are the arguments of the Epicureans.
But it is not only advantage, as Epicurus would have it, that explains the origins of justice when it comes to creatures that we can’t have agreements and contracts with, and in this Hermarchus departed slightly from the first Scholarch and we see the evolution of Epicurean doctrine as a result of exchanges with other schools.
The complicated discussion of animals and whatever courtesies and compassion we owe to dogs, cats, cows, and others, falls within a broader discussion of morality and where we get our morals from. It is here that the ancient Epicureans exhibited an accentuated interest in anthropology and elaborated theories of how moral instincts evolved naturally.
The Doctrine of Kinship
The Stoic doctrine of oikeiosis–which may translate as affinity, familiarity, affiliation, or endearment with those that are like us–establishes that there is a natural kinship among members of the same species, and was adapted by Hermarchus to help explain the origin of justice and homicide laws. He argues that we do not feel this kinship for animals, only for each other. Modern theories on how household pets, like dogs and cats, have evolved to trigger our evolutionary instincts to protect babies, may constitute an update to Hermarchus’ views.
In arguing that no animal which lacks logos (reason) has any share in justice, Hermarchus seeks to refute Empedocles’ view that a fellowship exists between men and irrational animals which makes it unjust to slay or sacrifice them.
As a side note, we may add context to these arguments by considering that Hermarchus was, in part, also defending the practice of animal sacrifice in order to feed his community on special occasions, as this was part of the 20th feasts and other pious and religious celebrations of the Epicureans.
Paul Waerdt, in his essay Epicurean Genealogy of Morals, argued that this kinship as a cause is subordinated to the calculation of advantage. That is: in Hermarchus, kinship does not replace advantage, but simply complements it as a source of morality and justice. His acceptance of it as a secondary cause keeps the utilitarian principle as higher priority, and is in line with the Epicurean way of reasoning, where multiple causes are acceptable as long as they do not contradict empirical evidence or each other.
In the acceptance of oikeiosis, Hermarchus introduces an innovation (see our two guidelines on innovation), even if he concedes that this oikeiosis is sometimes only experienced by those of a “finer nature”.
Theophrastus had argued that it was only just to kill naturally hostile animals because we are naturally akin to all other animals. Hermarchus, on the other hand, restricts kinship to only members of a community who contribute to its survival. This theory is very strongly vindicated, time and again, by the numerous historical and research examples mentioned in the awfully-named yet brilliant anthropology book The Lucifer Principle.
Hermarchus introduced the concept of individuals who exhibit “finer natures”, pointing the finger at the good influence on our character that we get from association with other people of good character.
Perhaps we may consider, instead, the possibility that various degrees of kinship can be recognized, and that there are many gray areas here? This may explain how some cultures–Vaishnava Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Vegans, and Jews who keep eco-kashrut–are more likely to exhibit a “finer nature” and to exhibit greater degrees of compassion for lesser sentient beings.
Hermarchus and the Epicurean Genealogy of Morals
The Scholarch discusses themes that are widely debated with great interest in the atheist community on the origins of morality as a natural phenomenon.
In Epicurean anthropology (as we see in Lucretius), the early stages of evolution of human traits is natural, and these only later give way to rationally-directed stages of development. We see this in Lucretius’ accounts of the evolution of language and friendship, for instance. Nature gave the initial incentive for morality, and later reason made nature’s insights more precise.
For instance, Hermarchus argued that ancient lawgivers conceived that homicide was not useful, had no utility or advantage. Concerning anti-homocide laws, he said they originate in the remembrance of a naturally advantageous practice of non violence, and later the taboo crystallized in the culture and mores of human groups.
The Kosher Example
The kashrut rules established in the Bible provide an insight into how, with time, rules that may have generated as a result of the study of nature, become crystallized into societal taboos that people consciously fashioned. It’s not difficult to imagine how the consumption of blood may have generated public health problems in some ancient societies. As for how ancient people decided what animals are fit to eat, this Neo-Hassidic page states:
… any animal that chews its cud can eat grasses and plants that are inedible to human beings, and any animal that has split hooves can walk (and graze) on land that is too rocky to farm with a plow. These characteristics together mean one very clear thing: the only land animals that we can eat according to the laws of kashrut are animals that do not compete with human beings for food.
Which means that the initial reasoning behind kashrut involved considerations of advantage in terms of, if we are going to consume the flesh of other animals, which are the ones that are the least likely to compete with us for food in our environment? This questions acquires greater urgency in a desert setting, where food scarcity is a frequent problem. Of course, the re-negotiation of passed-down tradition versus renewed considerations is constant, and many modern Jews are evaluating the merits of a contemporary discourse around eco-kashrut, or how the rules related to consumption can be expanded or changed to reflect ecological and labor concerns of our day.
All of the above considerations are part of our discourse on vegetarianism and treatment of animals.
The above discussion was informed, in part, by the essay “Epicurean Genealogy of Morals” by Paul A Vander Waerdt, from Duke University.