The Society of Friends of Epicurus has dedicated extensive dialogue to the suffix “–ism” regarding its relevance to the Epicurean tradition. In the Epicurean spirit of παρρησíα(or “parrhēsíā”) meaning “frank speech” or “speaking candidly”, the ancient Greek language did NOT employ the “–ism” when referring to the tradition of Epicurus (nor, for that matter, of any other ancient Greek philosophy). Thus, while the word can be employed for practical purposes, “Epicureanism” does NOTquite compliment the nuance of “Epicurean Philosophy”.
The English suffix, “-ism” — according to BOTHcommon and academic usages — is employed to designate a distinctive “doctrine“, “theory“, “attitude“, “belief“, “practice“, “process“, “state“, “condition“, “religion“, “system“, or “philosophy“. According to this definition, it is NOT incorrect to add a simple “–ism” at the end of “the philosophy of Epicurus“; it should, appropriatelyand accurately, render the word “Epicureanism” (or even “Epicurism“).
In more succinct terms, we can visualize “Epicurean–ism” simply as “Epicurean-philosophy“.
While this works for practical purposes, it may lead to several misconceptions:
Bracketing the suffix “-ism” to a name often indicates devotional worship of an individual (consider the differences between the old, misleading usage of “Mohammedanism” versus the preferred, contemporary usage of “Islam”). Epicureans do NOTworship Epicurus as a supernatural prophet, NOR as a manifestation of a transcendental ideal.
Bracketing the suffix “-ism” can ALSO indicate contempt for an individual or system. Consider, for example, when “Marxism”, “Leninism”, “Stalinism”, and “Maoism” are used by critics and detractors of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and many others. Thus, the word “Epicureanism” can be employed by critics and detractors of Epicurean philosophy as an indictment of Epicurus.
In the modern era, “-ism” is frequently used to identify political typologies. Terms like “Monarchism”, “Liberalism”, “Conservatism”, “Communism”and “Fascism” express ideological systems that — contrary to Epicurean philosophy — presuppose the existence of an ideal state or utopia, organized according to the dimensions of a perfect, timeless principle.
The suffix “-ισμός” (or “-ismós“) was rarely employed in ancient Greek; few examples of “-ism” (or “-ismós“) exist prior to New Latin, and the linguistic conventions of the modern era. In giving preference to the term “Epicurean philosophy”, we acknowledge the importance of privileging ancient Greek historical sources to the reliance upon Latin translations.
Our tradition of adding “-ism” to the end of words — in which we recognize distinctive “ideologies” —begins in the post-Classical period, corresponding to the Renaissance. Coming from the Latin “re-” (meaning “again”) and “nasci” (meaning “to be born”), this “Rebirth” resurrected the innovations and observations of Antiquity. The revival allowed scholars to adapt translations through the Latin language, using the Romanalphabet, sheathing many ancient Greek observations. Scholars began to liberally apply the suffix –ISMVS during this period of New Latin.
(I’m going to call the tradition — in which modern English-speakers partake — the “Ism–ism“, or, in other words, “the systemic practice of adding ‘-ism‘ to idea-expressing words”, sometimes as a celebration, sometimes as a derogation, sometimes as a religion, and sometimes as a political system. Due to the profound influence of Latin, and the linguistic conventions of the modern era, we ALL — in one way or another — have become dedicated Ismists.)
From the perspective of the contemporary world, the suffix –ISMVS (or “-ismus“) was first borrowed from the Old Latinlanguage of the Romans, and later appropriated by post-Classical peoples as New Latinand Contemporary Latin. We find an abundance of “-ism” and “-ismus” in both Romanceand Germanic language families. As with the Latin –ISMVS, our contemporary suffix “-ism” is used to indicate distinctive “doctrines“, “theories”, “attitudes”, “beliefs”, “practices“, “processes“, “states“, “conditions“, “religions“, “systems“, and “philosophies“.
Here, however, is where we note a difference that our Mediterranean friends have often recognized: while the Greek language — like (for example) Celtic and Indiclanguages — has evolved from a common Indo-European root, it did NOT adopt Latin conventions the same way that Romanceand Germanic languages have. Ancient Greek philosophers — perhaps, especially Epicurus — would NOT have thought of a “philosophy” as an “-ism”.
We receive the Latin –ISMVS or “-ismus” from the ancient Greek “-ισμός” (“-ismós“), which, itself, is a bracketing of two other ancient Greek words, those words being “-ίζω” (“–ízō“) and “–μός” (“–mós“). We’ll start with the former word. The suffix “-ίζω” (“-ízō“) was added to nouns to form new verbs. Let’s look at (x3) examples:
canonize |κανονίζω |kanonízō κανών or “kanṓn” literally referred to a “reed”, and carried the connotation of a “measuring rod” or “standard”. + “-ίζω“ (“-ízō or “-ize“) rendered “κανονίζω“, “kanonízō” or “canonize” meaning “to make standard“.
Hellenize | ἑλληνίζω |Hellēnízō ἑλλην or“Héllēn” literally referred to that which is “Greek”. + “-ίζω“ (“-ízō or “-ize“) rendered “ἑλληνίζω“, “Hellēnízō“, or “Hellenize” meaning “to make Greek“.
synchronize | συγχρονίζω | súnkhronosízō
σύγχρονος or “súnkhronos” literally referred to “synchronous” + “-ίζω“ (“-ízō or “-ize“) rendered “συγχρονίζω“, “súnkhronosízō“, or “synchronize” meaning “to sync“.
The key point with “-ίζω” (“-ízō“) — and our Modern English suffix “-ize” — is that we can turn any concept into a verb, or, in more philosophically interesting terms, we can ACTIVATE it.
The second suffix from which the ancient Greek “-ισμός” (“-ismós“)was bracketed is “–μός” (“–mós“). Contrary to the convention of ACTIVATING a word that represents a concept, adding “–μός” (“–mós“) ABSTRACTS an action. We can demonstrate this convention through (x3) other examples that translate well into Modern English:
cataclysm |κατακλυσμός | kataklusmós κατακλύζω (kataklúzō) – literally meant “to wash away”. + “–μός” (“–mós“)rendered “κατακλυσμός“, “kataklusmós” or “cataclysm“, meaning a “great flood“.
sarcasm| σαρκασμός | sarkasmós “σαρκάζω” or “sarkázō” literally, and figuratively meant “tearing apart” or “totear off the flesh”. + “–μός” (“–mós“)rendered “σαρκασμός“, “sarkasmós” or “sarcasm“, meaning “(figuratively) tearing apart“.
syllogism | συλλογισμός | sullogismós συλλογίζομαι (sullogízomai) literally meant “to compute” or “to infer”. + “–μός” (“–mós“) rendered “συλλογισμός“, “sarkasmós”,or “syllogism“, meaning an “inference“.
The key point with “–μός” (“–mós“)is that the ancient Greeks could turn anyverbinto a word that expressed an abstract concept, or, in more philosophically interesting terms, it could systematizeactivity into an idea.
The re-bracketing of the suffix “–μός” (“–mós“) appended with “-ίζω” (“–ízō“) presents us with “-ισμός” (or “-ismós“) or the suffix “-ism“, a convention which systematizes a verb that has been activated from a noun. Very few examples exist in ancient Greek. A suitable example for English mono-linguists can be demonstrated in the word “Sabbath”:
σάββατον | sábbaton literally means “theSabbath” (borrowed from the Hebrewשבתor “shabát”) + “–ίζω” (“-ízō or “–ize“) σαββατίζω | sabbatízō means “to make, observe, or keep the Sabbath” + “–ισμός” (“–ismós“) σαββατισμός | sabbatismósmeans “the state of keeping the Sabbath”
UNLIKE the ubiquitous –ISMVS of Latin, and the overused “-ism” of ModernEnglish, the ancient Greek –ισμός (or “ismós“) is almost NEVERused. The ancient Greeks did NOTshared our zeal for Ismism. When faced with the need to express a NEWword with FRESHmeaning, the ancient Greeks built words from either  the names of people and objects they directly knew or observed, and active forces they felt or experienced, but NOTas abstract systems.
So, why NOT “Epicureanism“?
The philosophy of Epicurus recognizes that weEXPERIENCE NATURE DIRECTLYand NOTindirectly as an abstractsystem. Epicurean philosophy and the instruments with which humanity can make informed and ethical decisions — the sensation of an atomic reality, theanticipation of natural patterns, and the feelings of pleasure and pain — neither depend upon allegiance to a single leader, nor initiation into a secret society, nor longing for a golden age.
Christ’s resurrection would NOT be known without the Gospels. Muhammad’s revelations would NOT be known without the Qur’an.
Even without the historical personage of Epicurus, human beings would still have sensed an atomic reality, anticipated the patterns of nature, and felt pleasure and pain, still have made mutual agreements, and still have formed friendships.
Without Jesus of Nazareth, Christians would NOTknow to recite the Lord’s Prayer. Without Muhammad, Muslims would NOTknow to perform Salah to Mecca five times a day.
NATURE, itself, is so much LARGER, more important, and more fundamental than any one personage or tradition. Even withoutEpicurean Philosophy, humans would still have developed scientific intellects to their own advantage.
“Epicureanism” (or, also, “Epicurism“) carries a connotation – albeit very slightly – that the philosophy of Epicurus is just another doctrinal institution that advertises immaterial truths from an untouchable dimension. It is not quite as authenticto recognize serious seekers of pleasure as “Epicureanists” who follow “Epicureanism” as opposed to “Epicureans” who study “Epicurean philosophy“. Our endeavor rests within our own bodies; NATURE, itself, is the greatest teacher.
All that being said …
… for practical purposes, there mostisn’t anything inherently incorrect about preferring the term “Epicureanism“; the “-ism“innocuously identifies a “philosophy“. In Modern English, this doescorrectly indicate the philosophy of Epicurus, apart from any oath to a mythic person or principle.
Nonetheless, the employment of “Epicurean philosophy” over “Epicureanism” serves to keep our anticipationsFRESH, to indicate to others that our interactions are bigger than disembodied souls paddling ideas back and forth in a court of Mind. It actsas a reminder that the path to wisdom is NOT a map that has been given to us from an Eternal Place of Perfection, but that we each carry a well-calibrated compass within ourselves to know the world and guide us to happiness.
“DON’T call [my belief system] an –ism!“
While the preference toward the phrase “Epicurean philosophy” may better reflect its ancient Greek origin, it shouldNOT indicate that the suffix “-ism” should be reserved as a derogation for non-Epicurean ideas, nor exclusively employed as a polemic toward Idealism. Even Epicurean philosophy, itself, incorporates the “-isms” of atomism, hedonism, naturalism, and materialism; these are most certainNOTidealistic.
Even ancient Greek opponents to Epicurean philosophy did NOT employ the “-ism”. Members of Plato’s Academy were “Academics”; members of Aristotle’s Lyceum with “Peripatetics”; members of Zeno’s Stoa were “Stoics”. It was only later that scholars began to employ the terms “Platonism”, “Aristotelianism”, and “Stoicism”.
Furthermore, this same acknowledgment applies to religious traditions:
The earliest rendering of the religion we refer to as “Judaism” was יהדות or “Yahadút”, from the Hebrew word יהודי(or“Y‘hudá”) meaning “the Jewish people” and the suffix ־ות (or “-ót” ) meaning “the tradition of”. The ismedword that we employ —“Judaism” — is found in Maccabees 2 in the Koine Greek language by Hellenistic Jews, written around 124 BCE (over a thousand years after the foundation of Hebrew monotheism), rendered as ιουδαϊσμός (or “Ioudaismós”).
The word “Zoroastrianism” is first attested from 1854 as an anglicization of the ancient Greek Ζωροάστρης (meaning “Zōroástrēs” or “Zoroaster”)borrowed from the Avestan word or “Zarathustra”. Ancient Iranians referred to their religion asor “Mazdayasna” translating to “worship of Mazda” (also romanized as “Mazdaism”). The word or “Mazda” both identifies the name of the Iranian Creator deity, and also, translates to “wisdom”.
The ismingof the religion of post-Classical Arabs has been noted for its inadequacy, and identified in the contemporary era as being largely offensive to the Islamic populations. Until the 20th century, the monotheistic religion of ٱلْإِسْلَام (or“al-Islām”) was identified by Europeans as “Mohammedanism” (or “Muhammadanism”),inappropriately implying that the prophet Muhammad was divine himself, in the same way that Christians think ofJesus of Nazareth as divine.
People from the Punjab region of India refer to their religious tradition as ਸਿੱਖੀ (or “Sikhī) anglicized to the English-speaking world as “Sikhism”. The word comes from the Sanskrit root शिक्षा or “śikṣā” meaning “to learn” or “to study”. (This recognition of the religious practitioner as a “student” is also found in the “Confucian” tradition).
The same is true of “Hinduism”, an anglicization of the Sanskrit सनातन धर्मor “Sanātana Dharma” meaning “Eternal Order“. In fact, the word “Hindu” itself was used by non-Indians to refer to people living around the Indus river. Ancient Indo-Iranian populations would have referred to themselves as आर्यor “Arya” (from which we get the term “Aryan“).
“Jainism” is first attested from 1858 as an anglicization of the Sanskrit adjectiveजैन“Jaina” which comes from the Sanskrit name for the 6thcentury BCE tradition जिन(or “Jina”). The word “Jina” is related to the verb जिmeaning “to conquer”, coming from जय(or “jaya”) meaning “victory”. The word “Jain” indicates a spiritual “conqueror”.
Our rendering of “Buddhism” is an anglicization of the original Pali बुद्धधम्म (or “Buddha Dhamma“) meaning approximately “The Awakened One’s Eternal Law“. The first recorded use of “Buddhism”was in 1801, after Europeans romanized the spelling of Indic vocabulary.
There is NO direct Chinese equivalent to the word “Confucianism” since it has never been organized as a formal institution. The word was coined in 1836 by Sir Francis Davis, a British sinologist, and second Governor of Hong Kong who reduced the vast collection of ancient Chinese practices into a title named after the philosopher Kǒng Fūzǐ ( or “Master Kong”). While no single Chinese word or logogram represents the collection of beliefs and practices that developed from the teachings of Master Kong (anglicized as “Confucius”), the word 儒 (or “Rú”) roughly translates as a “Man receiving instruction from Heaven” (also, a “scholar”), and is used to describe a student of Master Kong’s body of works.
The Taoists of ancient China identified the universal principle as 道or “Dào”, meaning “road”, “path” or “Way”. In China, the religious tradition is written 道教 or “Dàojiào” pronounced /’daʊ.ʨaʊ/ (or, for English mono-linguists, roughly transliterated as “dow-chyow”). It was anglicized as “Taoism” in 1838.
“Shintoism”— the anglicized name for the native religion of Japan — provides an interesting example of an ismized tradition.The word “Shinto” is of Chinese origin, constructed from the Kanji logograms for the words 神 “Shén”, (meaning “God”)and道“Dào” (meaning “Way”) rendering 神道or “Shéndào”. However, Shinto populations do not employ this phrase as often as they do the Japanese かむながらのみち or “kan’nagara no michi”, (written in the Hirgana writing system) loosely translated as“way of the divine transmitted from time immemorial”. Consequently, the word “Shintoism” is the anglicization of two syllables from Japanese Kanji, inherited from ancient China’s Hanji logograms.
Christianity has been the dominant tradition of the post-Classical, and modern worlds; thus, it has avoided being reductively –ismed (since the people who accused false traditions of being mere“–isms” tended to be Christian, themselves). The word “Christianism” is occasionally used to express contempt for Christian fundamentalism (much like “Islamism” is used to indicate contempt for Islamic fundamentalism.)
Evenearly Christians did NOT refer to their tradition using the same vocabulary as do modern Christians. Like Taoists, they used the metaphor of της οδου (or “tês hodoû”) meaning “The Way“. A non-Christian, community in Antioch first coined the term Χριστιανός (or“christianós“) to described the followers of The Way. Within 70 years, the early Church Father Ignatius of Antioch employed the term of Χριστιανισμός (or “Christianismós“) to refer to the Christianity.
Pleasure Wisdom Regardless of a preference to “Epicurean philosophy” versus “Epicureanism”, the insight of Epicurus’ philosophy demystifies nature and deflates the superstition of common religion. Epicurus anticipated the sciences of particle physics, optics, meteorology, neurology, and psychiatry. His logic was NOT one of theoretical axioms, but of a demonstrablehedonic calculus. Epicurus knewVirtue as a guide post to happiness, but NOTas happiness, itself.
Here, you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.
Further Reading: Hiram’s “On Isms“http://societyofepicurus.com/on-isms/
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Beekes, Robert, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Leiden, Netherlands, Brill, 2010.
Buck, Carl Darling, A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages, University of Chicago, 1949, reprinted 1988.
de Vaan, Michiel, Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages, vol. 7, of Leiden Indo-European Etymological Dictionary Series, Alexander Lubotsky ed., Leiden: Brill, 2008.
Fowler, H.W., A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Oxford University Press, 1926.
Grose, Francis, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, London, 1785; 2nd ed., London, 1788; 3rd ed., London, 1796; expanded by others as Lexicon Balatronicum. A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence, London, 1811.
Hall, J.R. Clark, A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 1894, reprint with supplement by Herbert D. Meritt, University of Toronto Press, 1984.
Johnson, Samuel, A Dictionary of the English Language, London, 1755.
Klein, Dr. Ernest, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Amsterdam: Elsevier Scientific Publishing Co., 1971.
Lewis, Charlton T., and Short, Charles, A New Latin Dictionary, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1891.
Liberman, Anatoly, Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology, University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Liddell, Henry George, and Robert Scott, eds., Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, Oxford University Press, 1883.
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.
The poet Horace (First Century BCE) was the son of a freed Roman slave. His father gave him a good education, which included philosophy, and Horace was outspoken in his Epicurean faith. He served in the Roman army under General Brutus and enjoyed the friendship of the poet Virgil and of Maecenas–a wealthy investor in the arts whose name later became synonymous with the tradition of patronizing intellectuals and artists. Although his full name was Quintus Horatius Flaccus (modern-day Spanish uses “flaco” to mean “skinny”), he was ironically and famously short and fat.
Treat every day that dawns for you as the last.
The hour that’s unhoped for will be welcome when it comes.
When you want to smile then visit me: sleek, and fat I’m a hog,
well cared-for, one of Epicurus’ herd.
Some of the Latin adages coined by Horace are still known and used today. The most famous one was the very Epicurean Carpe Diem, or “Seize the day”. Other adages are Nunc est bibendum, “Now we must drink”, and Sapere aude, or “Dare to be wise”.
In reality, Horace was more than a poet. He wrote the epistolary style of literature, as well as satires–many of which are for adults only–which praised Epicurean ideals, and his Ars Poetica is about more than the art and theory of poetry. It includes advise on writing and presenting plays–things like making sure that the emotions, gestures, and words displayed match and are presented in unison. The work was written in the style of an Epistle to the Pisos–the same family that financed the famous Epicurean Library and was taught philosophy by Philodemus in Herculaneum.
This rare constellation of famous names associated with Horace, together with the fact that many (including Maecenas) were believed to be Epicureans by conviction, indicates that here is a moment in history where we can get a unique glimpse into the imprint that our tradition has left, and where we can also juxtapose the ways in which the works and biographies of these personalities may have been informed by Epicurean ideas–as is the case with the time spent by Frances Wright and Thomas Jefferson in Monticello.
In his satires, Horace draws anecdotes from nature. While describing the hard-working tiny ant that “takes in its mouth whatever it can and adds it to the pile” in order to have food in a future season, he also praises the Epicurean virtue of contentment and self-sufficiency.
As if you had occasion for no more than a pitcher or glass of water, and should say, “I had rather draw [so much] from a great river, than the very same quantity from this little fountain.” Hence it comes to pass, that the rapid Aufidus carries away, together with the bank, such men as an abundance more copious than what is just delights. But he who desires only so much as is sufficient, neither drinks water fouled with the mud, nor loses his life in the waves.
But a great majority of mankind, misled by a wrong desire, cry, “No sum is enough; because you are esteemed in proportion to what you possess.”
I know not what a man is, I only how his price. – Bertolt Brecht
After reading and commenting on Michel Onfray’s literature for an English speaking audience in an attempt to fill the gap created by the lack of English translations of his work, I decided to also write a review of the book De l’inhumanité de la religion” by the French-speaking Belgian author Raoul Vaneigem, which is also unavailable in English. Both books were adamantly recommended–and for a good reason!–by the Las Indias bloggers on their youtube channel on the occasion of the Día del Libro (the Day of the Book). Fortunately for me, Spanish is my first language and French is my third language–which I do not get to practice often–so I take a very particular pleasure in delving into provocative philosophical literature in Romance languages. It’s the kind of intellectual challenge that I live for!
There’s a reason why I took a particular interest in this book. In the past, in the piece Poverty: Secularism’s True Enemy, I’ve argued that we cannot create a REAL secular movement to defend the West from obscurantism and from the many evils of religion, unless and until we also fight the battle against poverty. This piece cites and relies heavily on research on how religiosity is statistically linked to poverty, high crime rates, low levels of educational achievement, and other societal dysfunctions. The most complete meta-study on this is by Paul Gregory. Please feel free to read that article and scan through its sources as a preamble to the intellectual feast that Vaneigem serves, and to help contextualize this discussion.
The Agricultural Enclosure as Religion’s Cradle
De l’inhumanité de la religion argues that there are material reasons for the rise of religion. Vaneigem describes how life changed for our precursors who lived at the dawn of the agricultural era in l’enclos agraire (the agricultural enclosure) and argues that the beginnings of organized religion can be traced there.
Prior to the agricultural revolution, human society was not nearly as stratified as it became later with agriculture, which created the need for the exploitation of human labor on a grand scale by more organized, and more dehumanized, societies. It is this problem of labor as dehumanization that Vaneigem focuses on, and on how religious conceptions–particularly those of sacrifice, including blood sacrifice and the Biblical “curse” of daily toil–became a prominent part of man’s worldview, reducing him to the state of a beast of burden.
Vaneigem argues that in the Neolithic Era, the man of desire and creation became separated from the man of production and market. Man turned libido into quantities of work and felt an “existential trouble”. While some thinkers have sought to solve this problem by advising revolutionary methods, the author notes that even Marx’s revolt alienates the individual and kills his joy because it keeps man in toil for the sake of the collective: man in socialism or communism still lives for the sake of others.
“The Spirit” as Enforcer of Labor
The celestial lie merely countersigns the truth of terrestrial exploitation and endorses the purchase of those who resign themselves.
Epicurus established the doctrine of the swerve to wage war against the tyranny of heaven and “heavenly destiny”. To accept one’s fate–one’s curse–when one is poor, or even middle-class, almost invariably means to toil and labor in submission. Let’s revisit one of the initial curses that the Bible casts upon man.
To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life … By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” – Genesis 3:17-19
Before man was “cast out” of the primal hunter gatherer paradise, not only was there abundance in a manner that had been sustaining humans for millennia, but also people had worked only two hours on average per day to get food.
The Supreme Being as enforcer of labor is not only found in the Bible. In the East, the four caste system is also believed to have been established for all eternity by the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna himself, as related in the Gita.
According to the three modes of material nature and the work associated with them, the four divisions of human society are created by Me. – Shri Krishna, in Bhagavad Gita 4.13
Vaneigem does a good job of addressing the proverbial Platonic split between spirit and flesh in terms of how it affects man’s existential relationship to enforced labor. He talks about how “spirit dominates, matter is dominated“, how spirit “mutilates the body“, and how belief in spirit is alienation and objectifies real persons and bodies.
The author notes how desires, joy, and sex can usually only be entertained by night, and sometimes in shame, because they are “useless” (that is, they constitute leisure activities and do not lead to profit for the exploiters of man), and because by day we have to work. Therefore, the Platonic split has been experienced by man in terms of how we divide our night and day activities, with toil being experienced as violence perpetrated on the body and on nature by day, while at night dreams reveal “the secret scripture of the body“.
Among the other existential repercussions of enforced labor, the most prevalent one and the one easiest to quantify and observe in our society is in public health. It is sometimes claimed that around 75% of hospital visits have their origins in stress-related psychosomatic symptoms:
The pleasure of being was replaced with the anxious greed of having.
Raoul Vaneigem is quite direct and lucid in his French, and the best way to introduce key ideas in the book is by letting him speak in direct translation.
The divine power is born from the powerlessness to which the economy condemns man from the moment that it snatches him from life to reduce him to labor. The idea of God as creator …. master of man or arbiter of his fate is the sham of a system where the true specifically human power, creation, is dissolved by the need to work.
… Contrary to what has been … proclaimed throughout the centuries, the weakness of man is not inherent to his nature. It comes from his denaturalization, his renouncement of the only privilege that distinguishes him from the other kingdoms: the faculty to recreate the world with the goal of enjoying the creation of his own destiny.
The pillage of man’s creation for the benefit of the few, or the many, or for the benefit of some abstraction, was carried out according to the logic of sacrificial religiosity, but Vaneigem argues that it emerges from the predatory instinct on the part of those in power, and with the assistance of clergies.
It is here that the author elaborates an interesting claim that I also put forward years ago in a piece for Partially Examined Life titled Religion as Play. He argues that, prior to the agricultural revolution when most humans were hunter-gatherers, natural religion in its original form was a form of play. He thinks that initially, pre-ritual behavior was play, and was innocent and retained child-like elements. But then, when agriculture created the need for labor, those who attained power acquired the assistance of the priests who introduced the perversion of “sacred terror”, and ritualized play, slowly absorbing the playfulness, spontaneity and innocence into formal ritual. The conception of the sacred destroyed ritual as play, and terror inspired instead obedience, conformity, submission. We are reminded of the Biblical conception of the sacred, “kedosh”, which implies both separateness as well as that which is taboo, forbidden, which must not be named lest we disrespect it.
If Vaneigem is right, this greatly endorses Epicurus’ claim that the original goal of religion is to cultivate pure, unalloyed pleasure. We may be able to revisit the precursor of religion–play–and purge it from sacred terror in order to explore a natural spirituality inspired in Epicurean primitivism.
Nature Versus the Market
Where the market is everything, man is nothing.
In positing a “market denaturalization”, the author is also saying that there is a tension between nature and market.
One problem created by this tension has to do with how scarcity is profitable for some people, who have it among their interests to sometimes introduce scarcity in order to artificially increase profits. Not only is scarcity profitable, but frequently in consumerist society the values of exchange and of use do not match, yet the logic of the market, of profit, and of scarcity continues to operate even when it comes to items of first need. This breeds misery, but also violence.
In Naturalist Reasoning on Friendship, I argued that human behavior follows two patterns that have parallels in two ape societies: the abundance paradigm among the bonobo produces societies of cooperation and where “make love, not war” seems to be the law, whereas the chimpanzees are more hierarchical and much more violent. This has been explained by the fact that chimpanzees grew up isolated from bonobos, separated by a river, and the bonobos never had to fight over food and resources thanks to the abundance in their territory, while chimpanzees had faced scarcity throughout their evolutionary history, so they learned to compete and fight. Similar patterns of increased violence can be seen in human societies marked by scarcity versus those that enjoy abundance.
Corruption, with its antithetical spirit of purity and impurity, has no better guarantor than poverty. Its determination to destroy school, housing, transportation, natural agriculture, industry useful to society, returns with the old tradition of religious obscurantism which is so good for business.
The author argues that openness of the markets kills religion, and that historically there has been tension between the agricultural enclosure (l’enclos agraire)–which is isolated and favors religion–and the cosmopolitan openness of the market, which introduces foreign ideologies and encourages us to question our in-group doctrine. We can evaluate Trumpism, Brexit, Le Pen and similar movements–with their destruction of trade agreements and distrust of all things foreign–as religious/national provincialism of the sort that Vaneigem talks about, where people marginalized by neoliberal economic totalitarianism seek refuge in the familiar.
Another way in which nature and the market are in tension is by two problems caused by excessive consumption: 1. the environmental ills and 2. the impoverished and enslaved state brought about by massive debt. Consumerism and lucrative inutility–the frequent lack of relation between the use value and the monetary value of things–breed alienation, insatiable desires, as well as debt, which breeds wage slavery.
Vaneigem also mentions the separate issue of birth control as it relates to religion and poverty. Unable to produce more subjects by having children of their own, priests encourage people to over-breed irresponsibly, regardless of the prospects that these children will have of being able to live a pleasant life, get a good education, and escape the vicious cycle of poverty. In the case of some very dysfunctional Catholic societies, like what we see in Mexico, this also produces problems like the ones I described in Unwanted Children at the Border and the Evil Legacy of Catholicism.
For millennia, people have woven their identity around labor and have not know real freedom. For this reason Vaneigem says that, even after they have abandoned wishful thinking, “the widows of their oppression turn back to religion, not knowing who they are without it“. He inspiringly concludes his book by offering solutions to this problem and calling for a life-affirming philosophy. This includes a call to heal the Platonic split: we must restore the unity of body and conscience.
The aborted desires engender the Gods, the engendered desires will abort them … God and his avatars are nothing more than the phantoms of a mutilated body.
Only the aspiration to live will allow the passing of religion.
Some of the quotes from the book sound like paraphrases of things Epicurus would have said. For instance, the paradigm created when we stop trying to exploit nature and other humans reminds us of Epicurus’ teaching that we should “not force nature”.
Nature is called to escape oppressive work which denaturalizes it. The land is no longer a territory for conquest, but the site of the creation of infinite joys.
Towards the end of the book, Vaneigem offers the image of the type of creative well that we must become for ourselves in the process of self-creation, which reminds me of Lucian’s Well of Laughter. The book does a great job of revisiting Epicurean primitivism and calling for a return to an alignment with nature. It also reminds me of the third principle of autarchy drawn from Philodemus’ scroll On Property Management, which states: “the philosopher does not toil”. As we are increasingly replaced with robots, our need to reinvent labor, and the Epicurean gospel of living lives of pleasure and freedom, will become more of a moral imperative: the kind that will ultimately decide whether we build a dystopia or a utopia.
For many years I’ve used lavender and other essential oils in infusions and for hot baths in my home, not knowing that I was practicing the art of aromatherapy. While reading a book by Michel Onfray recently, it occurred to me to look into this therapy associated with our most devalued faculty: the sense of smell.
Before I continue, I must clarify that here, I am referring to aromatherapy as a component of the regimen of pleasure that an Epicurean may develop, not as a medicinal therapy. There is no clear scientific evidence that proves that aromatherapy cures illness–although this does not mean that it does NOT cure or alleviate some conditions, in some instances. I’m interested in aromas from the perspective of a philosophy of pleasure, and from the perspective of the senses–and particularly the sense of smell–being a neglected object of philosophical discussion.
In his Spanish-language book Las sabidurías de la antigüedad (The Wisdoms of Antiquity)–the first in what appears will be a counter-history of philosophy book series–, French neo-Epicurean philosopher Michel Onfray discusses the sense of smell as a devalued sense that, in the public imagination, is often linked to dogs and other lower animals who are excited by sexual pheromones or by the smell of potential prey.
Aromas can create an ambience, or at least add great pleasure and beauty to a space and to an experience. They also help to build memories, as smell is processed in a part of the brain that is also in charge of memory-building and the processing of emotions. This is why scent can sometimes trigger flashbacks of memories when we come to a place we haven’t visited in a long time. It’s also why certain aromas can produce melancholy or cause us to miss our loved ones who aren’t here anymore. Like other mammals, humans use scent in the forming of bonds.
Scent is used for tracking and has been of great benefit to our society, particularly in the realm of law enforcement and investigation of crime (through the employment of trained dogs).
The sense of smell is essential for detecting germs and potential disease-causing agents, not just in the trash-can and other obvious places, but in our plates. Humans are probably one of the few mammals that have mostly forgotten the importance of taking in the scent of a meal prior to consumption. The sense of smell and taste are connected, which is why the aroma of good food makes us salivate as if we were already eating. By the same token, when we sense a bad smell in our food, we are instinctively repulsed. This reflex is a natural protection against disease. I invite my readers to learn to recognize smells both familiar and peculiar and to be more sensually present and to use their sense of smell more mindfully, particularly at the dinner table. This will enhance your enjoyment and identification of sensorial experiences.
Onfray helps us to think about the ways in which we materialists can philosophize, which are different from how idealists philosophize. Rather than relying on logic and on writing, Onfray says that hedonists should be more open to oral tradition, storytelling, and to theatrical displays where the teachings are embodied, not merely written about or pondered.
He accentuates the importance of anecdotes, which made me think of the anecdote of Epicurus’ manner of death and how it demonstrates the power that mental pleasure can have over bodily pain (see Principal Doctrine 20); or the anecdote of how the Platonists in Mitilene exiled Epicurus under threat of accusing him of blasphemy and he nearly shipwrecked, an expulsion which I’ve compared to Muhammad’s hajj or Moses’ out-of-Egypt journey for its pivotal place at the onset of the history of the hostilities between the materialists and the idealists, and for helping to give birth to a new paradigm that is in strict opposition to Plato. The counter-history of philosophy is composed, to a great extent, of commentaries about these seemingly minor anecdotes, in addition to the surviving literary fragments and archaeological objects.
One anecdote that Onfray takes the time to elaborate concerns Aristippus of Cirene–the inventor of hedonism–showing up at the agora wearing perfume. Like many other details in Platonic discourse, the anecdote is meant to show disdain, to caricaturize the pleasure-seeker as soft, as unlike the men of “virtue”. Onfray then goes on to discuss the role of the sense of smell as a “lower” instinct, and how different from the “higher” senses of sight and sound it is–sight, in particular, perhaps because it is most reminiscent of the Platonic “forms”? But the sense of smell is too earthly, too basic, too animal, too base.
Aristippus–like other hedonists–was accused of being soft, feminine, for showing up at the agora wearing perfume. But aren’t many of the things that make life worth living–and for the sake of which we philosophize–soft, supple, or feminine? Doesn’t nature often place tenderness in our hearts with regards to these things? Doesn’t life itself come in soft, vulnerable packages? We are reminded here that the “philosophers of virtue” follow an ideal that is masculine: the etymological root of both virtue and manhood in Latin is vir. Against this ideal, whatever is identified as feminine is considered NOT virtuous. Is this opinion useful or necessary? Is it based on the study of nature?
The Platonists are not the only ones who sin against the pleasures linked to this sense or deny its importance. Even one Epicurean of my acquaintance dismisses the use of incense–which produces a pleasant ambience and aroma with no significant perturbances–as an “Eastern” practice, although incense has always been used by the Christian Churches in the West and recent studies even suggest it has psychoactive and mood-boosting effects that alleviate anxiety and depression.
No philosophical evaluation of smell would be complete without including Lucretius’ discussion of how we can prove the existence of particles too minute to be seen by the naked eye in De Rerum Natura I:270-328. Lucretius mentions how we feel the wind in our faces and we see it moving the clouds as well as moving ships in the seas; how molecules of moisture disappear into the air slowly; he mentions the existence of germs in passing, and other examples of things seen in nature that demonstrate that molecules abound everywhere unseen. One of the points that Lucretius is making is that we must not rely only on visual testimony. It is here that he says:
Then too we know the varied smells of things
Yet never to our nostrils see them come.
Lucretius is saying that Epicureans must rely on more than sight and the pleasure-aversion faculty to philosophize properly. Smell is included in the Epicurean Canon: this means that nature has established that it is one of our connections with reality that can not be replaced by any other faculty, and furthermore that the sense of smell has sole jurisdiction over an aspect of reality that no other faculty may invade. No other philosophical system confers this kind of authority on an instinct as “base”.
Aromatherapy can serve, not as a therapy in the medical sense, but as an item in our pleasure regimen and an affirmation by a philosopher of a devalued instinct, of sensorial beauty and pleasure, of comfort, and ultimately as an affirmation of the senses and of the body.
This commentary and review is based on the book Las sabidurías de la antigüedad: Contrahistoria de la filosofía, a Spanish-language translation of a book (not yet available in English) by French philosopher Michel Onfray. He is the founder of the Université Populaire de Caen, which provides a free liberal education, and is one of the most prominent public intellectuals in France today.
After witnessing the rise of the right-wing ideology of Le Pen–and the intellectual decadence that led to it–, Onfray felt that the French Republic needed to invest in the formation of new intellectuals. Feeling that the academic world had failed by giving too much undeserved importance to Plato and the idealists, and too little to Epicurus and the materialists, he set out to argue that the West needs a “counter-history of philosophy” from the perspective of the “friends of Epicurus and the enemies of Plato”.
To Nietzsche, truth and reality are the concoction of someone who, in the process of positing a narrative of reality, is acting upon and exerting power over reality, creating reality.
… There are no facts, only interpretation.
The influence of Nietzsche in Onfray was also explored in his argument that there is a Nietzschean leftist ideology, a way of philosophizing that is Nietzschean “insofar as it takes Nietzsche as the starting point”.
We must start with Onfray’s Nietzschean influence because Onfray–like Nietzsche–recognizes that narrative is power and declares that we are at war. It is a war of ideas and ideologies, a war between materialists and idealists, between atomists and theologians, between creationists and scientists. Two cosmologies (in their many varieties) that can not be reconciled have been at war for millennia. We may think of them as the “culture wars” today. This is the subject of Onfray’s counter-history, and it frames his way of practicing philosophy.
Onfray says that the writing of history is in itself an act of war, that it is ideological and that there is a strategy, a series of goals, and a variety of methods of writing history that demonstrate the ways in which the intellectual battle is fought. Sometimes war is waged by imposing invisibility and silence on others; at other times it is by accentuating this or that piece of evidence.
Onfray starts with Plato himself, who never mentions Democritus directly, although his entire philosophy is a war-machine against Democritus. Plato’s tactic here is to ignore, to omit, to silence the enemy, so as to diminish and disregard his value. In one passage discussing Aristoxenus, Onfray narrates how Plato once insinuated that the works of Democritus should be burnt, but two Pythagoreans persuaded him not to burn them. At all times, Onfray convicts Plato of knowingly engaging in an ideological battle, a problem which is made worse by the fact that in the “official” history of philosophy, there haven’t been enough attempts to find the real voice of his opponents.
The academic world has adopted the Platonic narrative and delegated Democritus in the history books to the status of a “pre-Socratic”, which trivializes his intellectual achievement as the inventor of atomism, although Democritus lived at the same time as Socrates. Democritus was born in 460, Socrates in 470. Perhaps it’s easy enough for historians to fit facts and people into neat categories, but the myth of the “three classical philosophers”–Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle–has been perpetuated unthinkingly ad nauseam by academia, and has attributed an unfair amount of importance to these three to the detriment of all the others.
Onfray begins his counter-history by setting the record straight: Democritus, the inventor (together with Leucippus) of atomism and the first of the Laughing Philosophers is NOT a pre-Socratic. Democritus is the first anti-Platonist,active at the same time as Plato. Democritus and Plato start two separate philosophical lineages. The counter-history of philosophy gives us the narrative of the “other” lineage.
Plato knew Aristippus–the founder of hedonist doctrine–and was familiar with him and his opinions. Proof of this is that he mentions Aristippus directly when he reproaches his absence at Socrates’ death. But instead of using Aristippus as the mouthpiece of hedonism, he used the (fictional?) character of Philebus, merely a literary figure to embody pleasure in one of his “dialogues”. Plato doesn’t let Philebus talk or defend himself properly. Plato also exhibits ill-will when he exaggerates and caricatures his hedonist opponent, and then in the end portrays the character as going off running after a boy.
Why choose a fictional character to speak for a philosophy that has real proponents with real, coherent doctrines? Here, again, Plato’s war machine uses omission, silencing, ignoring his opponent, as if this demonstrated the validity of Plato’s arguments. We are reminded of how the Socrates that we know is Plato’s Socrates: we never hear of the Socrates that inspired the Cynics, or the Hedonists, or any of the other philosophical lineages that claimed him.
In view of the conflict of ideas that has taken place throughout history, Onfray argues that Mount Vesuvius protected the Herculaneum scrolls from Christian fury and fanaticism; that if the eruption of 79 CE hadn’t charred the papyri, we would have never gotten access to most of the works in Philodemus’ villa.
Striking a Blow for Epicurus
In his exposé of a religious fraud, the Epicurean satirist Lucian of Samosata included a revealing passage about “striking a blow for Epicurus” which demonstrates that the Epicureans, ancient as well as modern, have always seen ourselves as waging an intellectual battle:
… I was still more concerned (a preference which you may be far from resenting) to strike a blow for Epicurus, that great man whose holiness and divinity of nature were not shams, who alone had and imparted true insight into the good, and who brought deliverance to all that consorted with him.
This passage testifies to the fact that in the 2nd Century CE, Lucian saw himself as engaged in a fist-fight through the use of comedy and literature. Contemporary Epicureans generally hold the view that the ONLY way to understand Epicurus in depth is by understanding how rabidly anti-Plato he was: some have even argued that his entire system of philosophy can be understood mostly as a detailed, point-by-point refutation of Plato, who replaced nature with ideas. Ideas are okay, they’re just not “things” existing on their own–without matter–in the ether, or the plethora, or whatever the superstitious Platonists called the ideal realm.
Epicurus’ expulsion from Mitilene by the Platonists who had assumed control of the gymnasium, under threat of being accused of blasphemy, is another pivotal historical incident that usually escapes scrutiny by historians–even by Onfray himself. We know from the sources that this was a difficult season to travel by sea and that his ship capsized and he nearly lost his life. We know that this made Epicurus careful, and that he later on avoided preaching his philosophy in the agora, preferring the privacy of his Garden. But, why were the Platonists so offended by the idea of things being made up of atoms, or by the belief that life should be pleasant? What arguments and discussions can we speculate that they had with Epicurus prior to the expulsion?
Attempts to answer these questions may help to reveal many important issues of controversy, including the Epicureans’ passionate indignation with superstition and with the endless, pointless, irrelevant speculation of the other philosophers. This deserves its own series of imaginary “dialogues”.
Reconciling with Nature
In terms of how materialists and idealists philosophize, the two lineages are either difficult or impossible to reconcile: we philosophize from the body, we value the senses, the instincts, and the faculties–pleasure and aversion. We value emotions: Philodemus treats anger as a source of insight and says it can be rational and natural, whereas the Platonists have carried out a complete denaturalization and decontextualization of morality and philosophy. They invented an unnatural split between body and mind to devalue the body and elevate the imaginary, disembodied “spirit”. This was easily dismantled by Epicurus when he re-integrated the psyche within the body.
Onfray calls Platonism “the great neurosis at the heart of Western civilization”. It’s not just our happiness that suffers as a result of it. There is MUCH more at stake, including our connection with reality. Epicurus is still important and relevant today because his entire system is not only coherent, but also entirely based on the study of nature.
The Individual Versus the Polis
Following the logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, Onfray brings many intellectuals from diverse traditions together, whom he sees as fighting the war against Plato. In doing so, I admit that the comparison of hedonists with cynics seems a bit forced at times. But he does note the tension that exists between nature (fisos, body) and law (nomos), between the individual (and her freedom) and the polis (and its culture), as an underlying thread in the culture wars.
The Four Cures are a Philodeman invention, to which Onfray offers an alternative that includes what he calls a “tranquil atheism”. While discussing the Lucretian parable of the fortress of the wise–which is a beautiful defense of individualist ethics as distinct from the vulgarities of the masses–Onfray declares:
Hedonism does not require selfishness, or an evil joy (while seeing the suffering of others), but the construction of one’s self as a citadel, an impregnable fortress.
That the Epicurean chooses to be an individual and to focus on his own self-cultivation is not to be understood as obeying some commandment to be apolitical. Onfray claims that, while Philodemus rejects the autocracy of tyrants and the democracy of the vulgar masses, he prefers a king under the influence of philosophy. The source for this is unclear, but this should not impede us from forming our own ideals for the kind of government that leads most easily to a life of pleasure, of autarchy, and of ataraxia for its individuals, as surely Thomas Jefferson–an Epicurean himself–did when he wrote the words “pursuit of happiness” into the Declaration of Independence.
Perhaps a contemporary “ideal King” might be best embodied by the former President of Uruguay José Mujica, who specifically mentioned Epicurus while speaking to the community of nations, and who was subsequently celebrated at the annual symposium of Epicurean philosophy in Athens. Mujica is known for his moderate leftist-libertarian politics, for his authenticity and simple living in spite of earning a presidential salary, for his avowed atheism, and his call on all Latin Americans and Westerners to rethink the inherited values–most importantly consumerism–as “Christianity has failed us”, he says.
A leader who is adored by people throughout Latin America and the world, Mujica is acutely aware of the importance of disciplining our desires, and of the dangers posed by neoliberalism and by the capitalist model that requires constant growth, preferring instead a sustainable model of capitalist enterprise. Under his leadership, Uruguay has become the most prosperous nation in Latin America. It enjoys today liberal social policies, a high quality of life, and a poverty rate below 2%.
The House of Piso
Philodemus didn’t just challenge the stereotype of Epicureans as apolitical: he developed the Epicurean tradition in other ways, and challenged the stereotype of Epicureans as minimalists who live frugally. Philodemus taught philosophy to wealthy Romans–including Caesar’s own father-in-law. With him, the Epicurean tradition demonstrated–as is consistent with its own teaching–that it was willing to embrace luxuries when no disadvantages ensued from their enjoyment. This is a philosophy for men and women of all social classes.
The House of Piso was not the austere Garden of the original founders. Together with its library and cultural life, it resembled more a grand temple of refined pleasure. The villa at Herculaneum overlooked the Mediterranean Sea and was a fortress of refinement, culture, and luxury. We will get another glimpse into the vibrant cultural life contained within its walls when we study Horace’s Epistle to the Pisos.
Some Counter-History Trivia
The writing of Michel Onfray is peppered with references of interest to the student of Epicurean philosophy. Among some of the trivia points:
Philodemus’ library was discovered on the 19th day of October of 1752
Timon was the first one to associate Epicureans with the pig
While many have argued that De Rerum Natura is an incomplete work, acute observers will notice that Lucretius starts De Rerum Natura with the word “mother”, and ends it with the word “corpse”
Epicurus’ name means soccour or assistance, specifically “help during times of war”
Antiphon of Athens was a precursor of psychoanalysis and the first to propose that philosophy heals the soul through words. This would later be paraphrased by Philodemus. He was very persuasive, invented therapeutic philosophy, and wrote a work titled “The Art of Combatting Sadness”.
Maecenas, the wealthy patron of the arts whose name became synonymous with humanist philanthropy, is believed to have been Epicurean.
What the mind likes is to be at peace; and its not being permitted rest I call obstruction of the mind’s nature. – Yang Chu, The Art of Life
Yang Chu replied: “According to the laws of nature there is no such thing as immortality.” – Yang Chu, The Folly of Desire for Long Life
In the past, I’ve shared a blog series titled Contemplations on Tao. In reality, the blog was based on the Tao Te Ching, and although TTC is solid ground to consider Taoism, the tradition is much more rich and diverse than merely that single book. Also, as I wrote the series, it seemed to me like there was a stronger connection between Epicurean philosophy and Taoism than most people recognized–particularly when considered against the backdrop of the “philosophies of the polis”, Confucianism, Stoicism, Platonism, etc. Tao and Epicurus trust nature, whereas these other ways felt forced, unnatural.
One of the most divergent thinkers in Taoist philosophy was a contemporary of Epicurus known as Yang Chu (sometimes spelled Zhu), a hedonist and highly individualistic philosopher–perhaps too much, for traditional Chinese society–who drew his views from naturalism and from his understanding of human nature. He proposed an individualist alternative to the ethics of the Mohists (universalists) and Confucians (who stressed social order). Yang Chu is the connection to Tao I was looking for. Not only that: he constitutes an untapped literary source from which we can study “Epicurean” philosophy with a fresh perspective, with its own anecdotes, parables, and wise, Yoda-like-sounding aphorisms.
In addition to giving us as legacy a treasure trove of Taoist literature, Yang Chu is alone among the ancient sages of China in calling pleasure the end of life, and also–like his Greek counterparts–he acknowledges the natural limits of desires and pleasures in his chapter on the Brevity of Conscious Life. According to EB:
Yang felt that human beings should live pleasurably, which for him implied a life in which both selfish inaction and selfless intervention in human affairs would be contrary extremes; instead, one should lead a natural life by cultivating and following one’s innate natural tendencies.
Although these teachings may seem out of place in Taoism according to some, in reality the teaching on these two extremes reminds us of our Taoist essays on military advise and on laissez faire: his thought is rooted in Tao, and in the view that we do not need to intervene in nature for it to run its course either via self-sacrifice or via selfish inaction (or withdrawal). It is in our nature to intervene when needed, and to take care of our own priorities when prudent. A similar logic is applied to the five senses: their obstruction is seen as going against nature and against Tao.
… It espouses a hedonistic philosophy: Life is short; Live for pleasure alone; Don’t waste time cultivating virtues.
The seventh chapter of the Lieh Tzu–a lesser-known source for Taoism than the Tao Te Ching–underwent a 1912 English translation by Anton Forke, who titled it Yang Chu’s Garden of Pleasure, and divided it into 19 short chapters. Some of the themes mirror Epicurean teachings to the point of being near-identical parallel doctrines. One example is in their joint rejection of fame and of traditional virtue as taught by other schools. The following passage reminds us of Polystratus’ indictment of blind pursuit of virtue without the study of nature.
CHAPTER V: FALSE VIRTUES
YANG CHU said: Po Yi was not without desire, for being too proud of his purity of mind, he was led to death by starvation. Chan-Chi was not passionless, for being too proud of his virtue he happened to reduce his family. Those who in pursuit of purity and virtue do good in a false way resemble these men.
As did the ancient Cyrenaics, Yang Chu’s philosophizing took the body as the starting point. For instance, Yang Chu articulates a defense of non-violence as an ethical principle and a rejection of brute force, argued from the perspective of human nature (chapter 16): since humans lack fangs, claws, and other natural defenses, man therefore must live by his wisdom. We find here a Taoist-libertariantheory of non-aggression (whose political, societal, and practical repercussions are many) rooted in the study of nature. Although the body is at the root of Chu’s intellectual life, the end result still constitutes an embodied and practical wisdom and philosophy that goes well beyond merely entertaining the seductions of the senses, which is how hedonists are typically stereotyped.
We also find a passage somewhat reminiscent of Jesus’ Gospels when the philosopher is arguing that we must not treat the dead as we do the living, which was a common superstition of his day.
CHAPTER VII: DUTY TO THE LIVING AND THE DEAD
So we may give the feverish rest, satiety to the hungry, warmth to the cold, and assistance to the miserable; but for the dead, when we have rightly bewailed them, to what use is it to place pearls and jewels in their mouths, or to dress them in state robes, or offer animals in sacrifice, or to expose effigies of paper?
In another chapter, we find a clash between a so-called “virtuous” king and his two pleasure-seeking brothers, who tell him:
CHAPTER IX: THE HAPPY VOLUPTUARIES
It is very difficult to preserve life, and easy to come by one’s death. Yet who would think of awaiting death, which comes so easily, on account of the difficulty of preserving life? You value proper conduct and righteousness in order to excel before others, and you do violence to your feelings and nature in striving for glory. That to us appears to be worse than death.
… See now. If anybody knows how to regulate external things, the things do not of necessity become regulated, and his body has still to toil and labour. But if anybody knows how to regulate internals, the things go on all right, and the mind obtains peace and rest.
The last paragraph resonates with the 20th Principal Doctrine of Epicurus. They seem to be arguing before their brother, the king, that it is best to stay away from political life, and that by fulfilling so many duties and virtues and expectations from others, these externalities rob us of happiness and compete against our true nature. At the end of the chapter, the king has gone to a sage to ask for guidance concerning his brothers, who are leading lives of indulgence. Here’s the verdict:
Teng-hsi said: “You are living together with real men without knowing it. Who calls you wise? Cheng has been governed by chance, and without merit of yours.”
In this passage, we see also a proto-Nietzschean repudiation of artificial, man-made morality–here, not merely as a reaction against the repression of nature that the dominant philosophy imposes on us, but positively in favor of the Taoist virtue of ziran, naturalness and authenticity. This acting in accordance to nature is the main platform from which Yang Chu philosophizes.
If Cyrene is, as Michel Onfray argues, a philosophical Atlantis, then perhaps Yang Chu’s city of Liang is a philosophical Shangri-La and, just like with the Cyrenaics, his long-dismissed school of Taoist thought deserves a second look.
Philosophers have always disagreed about what is the telos, the ultimate end or aim that we should pursue. The ancient Epicurean friends believed that pleasure is a broad and varied enough category for telos that it is flexible, and also that we have a pleasure-aversion faculty which helps us in our choices and avoidances. The following online dialogue on meaning versus pleasure took place in the Epicurean Philosophy Group.
Hiram. The Ancient Wisdom Project was brought to my attention by someone studying Epicurus. In there, I found this assessment of the life of pleasure where it is argued that a life of pleasure does not give MEANING, and that meaning is a component of human happiness separate from pleasure and happiness and (presumably) essential. Here is another AWP article on the problem.
I’m finding that one of the toughest things about Epicureanism is that it doesn’t seem to offer any solution to what I believe is my fundamental problem: a lack of meaning in my day-to-day life.
Cassius. Seems to me this is largely a subset of the “virtue vs pleasure” argument, here being stated in terms of a life being “meaningful” rather than good or virtuous. It is a HUGE point that we find only pleasure to be desirable in and of itself, but people just wont’ let go of the idea that they can rationalize some higher goal.
The challenge to Epicurean philosophy doesn’t have to be stated purely in terms of religion (like pleasing God for Christians/Jews/Muslims) or in terms of “helping others” like the more secular crowd likes to recast it (apparently this page is in that category). Anytime we see the argument that there is some “higher” calling or good above “pleasure” (in the wide definition that Epicurus gave it which includes mental and not just fleshly) then we’re confronting the same obstinate problem. Yes it’s indoctrinated in almost everyone alive at this point, but that doesn’t make it any more correct. It’s sad, pitiful, and disgusting (because it is an intentional rebellion against Nature) all at the same time.
And here’s the point which makes the explanation so difficult for those taken in by the mainstream evaluation of Epicurus: “Those things are good, and my experiment to date has shown that embracing elements of an Epicurean lifestyle can increase happiness (or rather, decrease unhappiness). But when I think about the natural end result of this lifestyle (a sort of minimalist retirement), I can’t help but think there really is no point to it. Living a pleasurable life, achieving ataraxia, seems appealing on the surface, but unsustainable as a lifetime pursuit.”
As long as “a sort of minimalist retirement” is seen as an accurate summary of Epicurean philosophy, then this problem is never going to be overcome. Leave “minimalist retirement” to the Stoics to whom it truly belongs.
And no, this is no Western thought – “Western thought seems to say “the world can be a cruel place and you should make it less cruel via good works and this will give your life meaning.” That’s not “Western” thought – it’s pure religious / secular-Platonic idealism that Epicurus clearly rejected. Yes that may be the majority in the West now, but it doesn’t represent Epicurean philosophy.
Jason. There is so much resistance to the idea of pleasure as the telos. “There has to be something more!” is the refrain I keep hearing over and over again. Selflessness seems to be the stand-in people claim to prefer, but when pointing out that there’s no such thing, they usually double-down or angrily storm off.
Cassius. One more quote from the second article to show this guy’s attitude: “I find the goal of becoming close to God far more attractive than living simply for pleasure.” For an Epicurean who knows his physics about the nature of the universe (uncreated, nonsupernatural) and the nature of true divinity (has no needs and neither grants favors or punishes error) that’s just absurd:
“Man can’t live by pleasure alone.
Spiritual disorder cannot be resolved— or joy worthy of the name produced— by wealth however great, by popular acclaim and respect, or by anything that causes unrestrained desire. – Epicurus
Still, I think there’s a reason pleasure is only a temporary antidote for cynicism, and that is that living for pleasure alone is not particularly meaningful.
Yes, it’s good to read great books and hang out with friends and eat brunch and take long walks, but there doesn’t seem be a point to it.
I suppose that is the philosophical difference between say the Epicurean, hedonistic philosophy and an Abrahamic religion. Hedonism says pleasure is good for its own sake. Christianity says life and pleasure should be used as a means to become closer to God.
While I’m still not certain about the God thing, I find the goal of becoming close to God far more attractive than living simply for pleasure.
Hiram. So he would rather set “becoming close to God” as the goal, even as he admits that he’s not sure that god exists? Is that coherent? Isn’t that what brought Mother Theresa to the most sublime heights of misery all her life?
Cassius. And to comment on Hiram Crespo’s phrasing of the original question: “…...that meaning is a component of human happiness separate from pleasure and happiness and (presumably) essential.” That’s the writer’s real problem. He is asserting that “meaning” exists separately from pleasure, which is the same error as alleging that “virtue” exists separately from pleasure. In truth, pleasure (and pain) are the only fundamental guides given by nature – the only ones that really exist as part of our fundamental makeup. Abstractions are great, but they cannot replace or supercede the ultimate guidance that lets us know what to choose and what to avoid. And replacing pleasure and pain with abstractions is exactly what these guys are trying to do. They are not willing to use abstractions as a tool for maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, which is the natural scenario – they want to REPLACE pleasure and pain with abstractions of their own making.
Maybe as important as any other aspect of this discussion is that “living in accord with the guidance of Nature” in the Epicurean framework (rather than in the false framework of “living in accord with reason” as suggested by the Stoics / Platonists / etc) ought to be considered MORE meaningful than any of these false abstractions. As I quoted the website above, the writer finds it more satisfying to “become close to god!” Not only is this absurd, but because it is absurd, it is offensive to assert that we can’t value and defend Nature (our true “mother” and “father” too) every bit as intensely as any fake religion ever valued its icon or its false abstraction. Lucretius gives us an example of how “true religion” and “true reason” can be channeled into intensity of feeling that matches or exceeds any mundane religion. The fact that there are few people who can replicate that today is not an indictment of Epicurean philosophy, it’s an indictment of the amount of poison that’s in the human bloodstream after 2000 years of false religion and rationalistic idealism.
Alexander. Without reading any of the links or comments yet… and because I have heard this argument so many times and parsed it already… I am pretty sure that by “meaning” folks mean the sum of two things:
1. “Legacy”, of which Epicurus talks about too, and he left “provisions” for the younger generations of Epicureans.
“While we are on the road, we must try to make what is before us better than what is past; when we come to the road’s end, we feel a smooth contentment.”
“At one and the same time we must philosophize, laugh, and manage our household and other business, while never ceasing to proclaim the words of true philosophy”
“Most beautiful is the sight of those close to us, when our original contact makes us of one mind or produces a great incitement to this end.”
“We show our feeling for our friends’ suffering, not with laments, but with thoughtful concern.”
“That we have suffered certain bodily pains aids us in preventing others like them.”
2. Not choosing every pleasure, but sometimes choosing what appears to be a pain … just as Epicurus explained in his letter to Menoeceus.
“But although happiness is the first and a natural good, for this same reason we do not choose every pleasure whatsoever, but at many times we pass over certain pleasures when difficulty is likely to ensue from choosing them. Likewise, we think that certain pains are better than some pleasures, when a greater pleasure will follow them, even if we first endure pain for time.”
A temporary postponement of immediate/illusory gratification in order to gain a longer term and greater gratification, and to avoid troubles that come with the consequences of the illusory gratification, and secure what brings peace and security.
“…but it does not follow that every pleasure is worthy of being chosen, just as every pain is an evil, and yet every pain must not be avoided. Nature requires that we resolve all these matters by measuring and reasoning whether the ultimate result is suitable or unsuitable to bringing about a happy life; for at times we may determine that what appears to be good is in fact an evil, and at other times we may determine that what appears to be evil is in fact a good.”
Often the type of trouble to be avoided is that which our __neighbor__ might complain to us about in addition to the usual ones. Epicurus speaks to our neighborly/friendly relationships too.
Hiram. Legacy: that is one key to replying to this argument, which is why in my book I focus so heavily on the idea of passing on our wisdom tradition, and why Norman Dewitt talked about “each one teach one” and our commitment to the teaching mission of the Gardens.
Alexander. Also the legacy of Diogenes of Oenoanda comes to mind. A public inscription on a stone wall through which anyone can use to better their lives. Even those not members of a Garden.
Hiram. And yet we have talked before about how Epicurean philosophy deserves to grow more than it has. I think another way to see this is as a challenge. To ask and attempt to answer in what ways does this philosophy help us to fashion meaning for our lives? Because that is what many people are looking for, and here is one atheist who sincerely delved into the study of Epicurus for a period of his life and came out unsatisfied, and here says why. This is an opportunity to reply.
Cassius. I remember a discussion in our group a long time ago when I cited the following from Diogenes of Oinoanda:
Fr. 5 [Others do not] explicitly [stigmatise] natural science as unnecessary, being ashamed to acknowledge [this], but use another means of discarding it. For, when they assert that things are inapprehensible, what else are they saying than that there is no need for us to pursue natural science? After all, who will choose to seek what he can never find?”
The point that is relevant here is “After all, who will choose to seek what he can never find?” People from a religious or Platonic orientation are insisting on seeking something that can never be found. They are living a fantasy and have decided that that fantasy is more important to them than dealing with the reality, that that fantasy does not exist. Epicurean philosophy can’t change the facts of reality and provide them something that does not exist. But I think what it can do is what I referenced above with Lucretius: it can point them in the direction of seeing that the truth is more important than any fantasy, and that they should (like Lucretius did) start using their talent at dreaming to start investing in the satisfaction that can come from cooperating with nature rather than rebelling against it.
Hiram. One of my readers recently emailed me, saying:
What does Epicurus mean by “I recommend constant study of Nature”?
To which I replied:
If you read the Epistle to Herodotus, Principal Doctrines 10-13, and Polystratus’ On Irrational Contempt, you will learn that protecting our minds from the culture’s supernatural insinuations requires a clear understanding of the nature of things and (in Polystratus specially) that if we do not balance the pursuit of virtue with the study of nature (science), that we fall into superstition and arrogance and many other problems. This is the main issue with religion today, but it was also in antiquity, which is why a SCIENCE of contemplation, and a scientific and transcultural spirituality and morality, is still so necessary. It’s very unfortunate that Sam Harris is dedicated to this ideal, yet he has no knowledge of Epicurus and Polystratus and the work they’ve done in this regard.
As I’ve gained depth in understanding Epicurus over the years, it’s become clear that he saw himself as coming to this world with the mission of reconciling us with nature, particularly after we fell into the error of Platonism, which Michel Onfray has called “the great neurosis at the heart of Western civilization”. Our tradition is meant to supplant religion, in part, by giving people a scientific alternative based on the study of nature. And the authority of the canon (and of our faculties) is REALLY the authority of nature, which is the same as reality. In many important ways, nature has replaced God in our tradition–it is our source of meaning, our ultimate reality, our ultimate authority, and we must seek alignment with her. I hope this helps to clarify your question.
Cassius. For example this is a similar thought of how we should approach Nature with as much awe as any “god”:
Hiram. One way in which nature has come to replace God in our tradition can be seen in this fragment:
Praise be to blessed Nature: she has made what is necessary easy to get, and what is not easy to get unnecessary.
This is the idea that deserves further attention: how Epicurus saw it as his mission to reconcile us with Nature after Plato had done his harm. We are called to have a relationship with nature (reality) rather than God. Can this be a source of awe and meaning and spirituality? I think it is.
Cassius. Yes Hiram I think that is the direction. DeWitt comments on this as well, but seems to downplay it for reasons I never understood. I think DeWitt’s observation sells them short and that the Epicureans DID see this same point:
Stephen. I understand the author’s feelings. But they ignore Epicurus’ views on friendship. Meaning for most people is found in relationships with others. Pleasure isn’t just eating and drinking. It can be conversation, art and doing philanthropy.
Ilkka. This is one of those False Dichotomies that people (i.e. me…) tend to point out… and be snooty about to your face. 🙂
In a contest of “pleasure vs. meaning”, pleasure wins with a submission. ALL of the things that are meaningful to you are pleasurable. Go on! Check if you like. We’ll wait…
In all of these nonsensical dichotomies, it’s always the case that people have been taught that suffering is good, and that there HAS to be something wrong with pleasure. Mostly I blame religion for this abuse…
For example, I do a lot of things for the Red Cross (a lot.). It gives me meaning in my life… a lot of meaning. And this is because it gives me a lot of pleasure (though it’s also painful and anxious at times).
You cannot simply walk into meaning. It is guarded by more than gods. There is pleasure there that never sleeps. It is folly to argue against it. 😉