Category Archives: hedonism

In Memory of Horace: Carpe Diem

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.”

Please enjoy the literary adventure that is Horace! The works of Horace can be found in poetryintranslation.com, or the Perseus Catalog. Here are some gleanings from his writings:

Be Happy Wherever You Are

Everyone Can Profit from Philosophy

In Praise of Simple Living

Dare to be Wise

Horace’s Epistle to the Pisos

The Miseries of the Wealthy

Miscellaneous Quotes

Further Reading:

Learning the Epistolary Poem: Poems that serve as letters to the world, by Hannah Brooks-Motl

Review of “De l’inhumanité de la religion”

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 “On the Inhumanity of 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 lifeBy 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.

Conclusion

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.

Further Reading:

Philodemus’ scroll on the Art of Property Management

 

A Counter-History of Aromas

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.

Michel Onfray and the Counter-History of Philosophy

Read: The Counter-History of Philosophy

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”.

Historiography as Warfare

In our discussion of Nietzsche’s philosophy, I mentioned (and criticized) some Nietzschean views which have had great influence in Onfray and serve, to a great extent, as presuppositions:

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.

The Taoist Hedonism of Yang Chu

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.

IEP summarizes the seventh chapter of Liezi, which is believed to have been authored by him, this way:

… 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-libertarian theory 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.

Further Reading:

Yang Chu’s Garden of Pleasure: 7th Chapter of Lieh Tzu

Contemplations on Tao

Dialogue on the Search for Meaning

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.

Any thoughts?

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 HerodotusPrincipal 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”:

DeReN

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:

nd

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. 😉

Further Reading:

Blog About the Search for Meaning – Based on this Dialogue

Science, Meaning & Spirituality: Towards a new Epicurean ‘Moral Psychology’ – Mark Walker, Buckinghamshire New University

The Pleasure and Aversion Faculty

Dialogue on Virtue

On Epicurean Virtue

logo

Dialogue On Virtue

In the past, we have approached the problematic issues related to who defines virtue and how, and what place if any virtue should have in Epicurean ethics, by evaluating Frances Wright’s passages from A Few Days in Athens concerning the subject. This will likely be the first in a series of follow-up dialogues on virtue as means and on pleasure as the end, as well as on other doctrinal differences–like the crucial one on nature as the guide rather than arbitrary and abstract ideals–, to help students of philosophy–particularly those who argue that there is little to no difference between the two schools–to clearly understand the differences between the Epicurean and the Stoic schools.

The discussions began on our facebook group when one of the members shared a couple of quotes on the subject. For the benefit of those studying the differences between the two schools, the dialogue has been edited with links and commentary, and the underlined comments denote opinions or views that are clearly Stoic and/or otherwise non-Epicurean, in order to bring out what we consider to be some of the key differences of opinion and to encourage discussion about if and why, and to what extent, these issues matter.

virt“Those who place the Chief Good in virtue alone are beguiled by the glamour of a name, and do not understand the true demands of nature. If they will consent to listen to Epicurus, they will be delivered from the grossest error. Your school dilates on the transcendent beauty of the virtues; but were they not productive of pleasure, who would deem them either praiseworthy or desirable?” – Toquatus

“Ask, and she will tell you, that happiness is not found in tumult, but tranquillity; and that, not the tranquillity of indolence and inaction, but of a healthy contentment of soul and body. Ask, and she will tell you, that a happy life is like neither to a roaring torrent, nor a stagnant pool, but to a placid and crystal stream, that flows gently and silently along.” – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X

Banton. Good and bad means good and bad for our happiness. Nothing is bad for happiness. Unhappiness doesn’t exist. Neither does the devil even though people will claim the experience of it.

Eric. Banton, I believe though we must weigh pleasure in terms of its greatest good to ourselves and others. So that may not be the most readily available peace, tranquility, and happiness. Sometimes we must delay it or hold off on it so that it can in fact produce a greater pleasure for all. Hedonic calculus matters here.

The devil has no empirical evidence to Epicurus’ naturalistic view. You’re right, there is no evidence for a devil, and thus it is nothing to us.

Banton. We must weigh pleasure in terms of the greatest good (what makes something good? We want it. That’s it.) Unhappiness likewise is nothing. We simply do what we want. We are free. I have a different take here. I don’t believe I’m 100% Epicurean but I think he is as close as we’ve gotten.

For an Epicurean reply to this, read these reasonings on Polystratus’ Herculaneum scroll, where he argues that good and bad can be discerned in nature as secondary or relational properties of things based on whether they produce pleasure or aversion.

Hiram. By “greatest” here you mean long-term, no? Not necessarily “collective“?

Banton. I was quoting Eric. I don’t believe there is a greatest good. The greatest good is whatever I want most.

Hiram. Without evaluating what your desires are and their repercussions, whether they are necessary or not, etc?

Banton. We are free to evaluate or not. So if I want to get drunk and I don’t believe anything makes that wrong or bad, I’m free to get drunk. Or anything else. That’s just an example.

Hiram. If you are exempt from hangovers and from damaging your personal relationships by being obnoxious when drunk.

Eric. That’s a fair example, but weighing the cost between pleasure and pain, getting drunk versus getting buzzed is a real differential IMO. One is Epicurean, the other Cyrenaic (This could be disputed). If you recall, Epicureanism is ‘virtuous pleasure’ so that act of drinking should be weighed with moderation and temperance.

Hiram. Rather than moderation and temperance, the specific word used in the sources is rather “advantage”, or sometimes “mutual advantage”.

Banton. Point is we are free.

Hiram. You are. But freedom can hinder or make happiness. This is why we need ethics.

Banton. Ah that’s where we disagree.

Hiram. Nature won’t give you a choice: if you plunge into a fire pit, you will burn and it WILL hurt. This is what is meant by the guidance of nature via the canon / via our own faculties.

Banton. Yet people have chosen to do it.

Hiram. Which is why we are so critical of other philosophies that “poison human happiness” (citing Frances Wright).

Banton. But you don’t know they weren’t happy to do it. Mohammed Bouazizi.

Hiram. I need context to judge in each case, so we can untangle this crucial matter. If a man is happy murder 50 people because of his faith, then that man was immoral and did not study philosophy, but yielded to superstition and arrogance. This is why Polystratus argued that seeking “virtue” without the study of nature only leads to arrogance and superstition and that when people do that, virtue comes to nothing.

Banton. Virtue, or the good, is only what a person wants. It’s not objective. I guess that’s the point. Consensus agreement only proves a consensus agreement. Epicurus believed in unhappiness and so tried to find ways to minimize it. I’m saying unhappiness does not exist, only the belief in it and the experience of that belief.

Cassius. This is bizarre. Epicurus talked about pain, and pain certainly exists to us. What exactly are you saying?

Hiram. This is where you’re disagreeing with Epicurus, just to clarify so that everyone understands this point. Epicureans believe that nature sets a standard, and that humans are free to use their pleasure faculty within the guidelines set by nature. Epicureans also advise people to study our own nature so that we can understand those guidelines, which desires are natural and which not, etc. Nature is the guide, and culture frequently corrupts ethics.

Banton. Pain does not cause unhappiness. Judging the pain as bad does. But what does bad mean? It means it causes unhappiness. So the belief in unhappiness is the cause of unhappiness. If I don’t believe pain can make me unhappy, I may seek to minimize the pain but I’m not going to feel unhappy about it. Epicurus believed unhappiness happens as a result of certain stimuli. The Stoics believe unhappiness happens as a result of other stimuli, namely desiring things not under your complete control. Both schools prescribed a way to control stimuli. I’m saying unhappiness is a myth, like the devil, and one only experiences unhappiness as a result of their belief in it. When you no longer believe in the devil (unhappiness) you don’t have to replace that with other beliefs. You are simply free to follow your desires and do what you want, whatever you want.

Hiram. You are platonizing unhappiness and deviating from what your nature requires when you reason this way.

Banton. What my nature requires for what? I’d love to hear the answer to that question.

Hiram. All that your nature requires is some food, human association, a home, health, safety. These are the kyriotatai or chief goods. They are the desires that are both natural and necessary. If you are grateful, you can live like a king with a basic provision of these things.

In the PDs you will see that there are desires without which you suffer. They are natural. We know that if you do not eat, you die. If you lack safety of a home you, may suffer from exposure or external threats. There’s research that shows isolation is a health risk factor on par with obesity and smoking, so you need other people. Your own nature and health will require these things. Your own body will require them.

You *could* ask why or what for, and you could posit answers (for those questions) like natural selection or whatever, but there is no point arguing with your own nature. This is what we mean by taking nature as your guide: she does not care. If you don’t eat you WILL suffer hunger. If you eat, you WILL experience pleasure.

Banton. So our nature requires things for survival and pleasure. This is not a revelation. Now if you believe we need survival and pleasure to be happy, to know subjectively that we don’t have to feel bad, lament, be dissatisfied then I disagree. And that’s my point, nothing is required for happiness, inner peace, inner joy.

Hiram. If we don’t survive, we’ll be dead: happiness won’t even be an issue. But if you’re saying that we don’t need pleasure to be happy, then what do you even mean by happiness? Are you platonizing it also? Are you dreaming that you’re happy while in physical pain and mental anguish?

BantonYes, if we’re dead nothing will be an issue, but to my knowledge this philosophy is not about survival and I don’t think we need a philosophy of survival. Most folks already know we need food, etc.

And yes, I’m saying we don’t need physical pleasure to be happy. People will tolerate the worst pain and circumstances and not be unhappy. As for mental anguish, that’s unhappiness and it is not caused by pain but by belief. Pain and pleasure are irrelevant to happiness.

Also, the belief that we need pleasures to be happy is really unhappiness. People fear not having what they need. Fear is unhappiness, or more accurately the anticipation of unhappiness. If they ever find themselves in such a position as they anticipated they will also be unhappy. Not because they don’t have what they need to be happy but because they believe they don’t.

Hiram. Alright, so what you are describing is Stoic doctrine and it seems that you are an entirely convinced Stoic. It does not seem like you are in the Epicurean process of therapy or interested in evaluating it.

Banton. I’m most definitely not Stoic. The Stoics also believe something is necessary for happiness, namely virtue or being good. So they try to be good to be happy, you guys try to minimize pain and maximize pleasure to be happy.

Hiram. You’re also most definitely not Epicurean, and your last three comments are Stoicism. Maybe you’re a certain KIND of Stoic, an unorthodox one, but you’re not a student of Epicurus. You have not established pleasure as the end. If your read Polystratus, or the Principal Doctrines, or Norman Dewitt, you will understand that this is essential in order to profit from this discourse: that we are committed to the rational and calculated pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.

Banton. I like to believe I’m an independent thinker. I think pleasure is closer to what I see as the truth than virtue. But physical pleasure, while preferred in some circumstances, does fulfill what I see as the end which is happiness.

Hiram. That’s right. You’re an independent thinker. But this discussion has been good to help people grasp some of the distinctions between the two schools, how we view nature as our guide, how virtue or “good” or some other arbitrary ideal is not set by nature, etc.

(on a separate thread within the same discussion)

Banton. People automatically weigh the costs and based on their values, they do what they want. The problem with these philosophies is that they all propose an ideal way of being. There is no ideal way of being. People are free to decide what is ideal to them.

Hiram. So just to clarify where Epicurus comes in with moral guidance, here he says that nature has established certain (empirically knowable) limits and guidelines, and made them easily evident to our faculties including the faculty of pleasure and aversion. The study of these natural limits is what makes us philosophers.

Eric. Sure, we’re all going to pursue the things that give us pleasure and happiness, but Epicureanism wasn’t intended to be a free license to pursue any old pleasure. Pleasure according to the philosophy meant being without physical and emotional pain, so some acts and practices need to be weighed in that light, otherwise it’s just hedonism/sensualism

Hiram. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with rational hedonism, it’s uncalculated hedonism that we criticize.

Eric. Is that supporting what I’m saying or intended to say something different?

Hiram. Supporting, but also ensuring that we do not look at hedonism with the kind of judgmental eye that Nietzsche associates with being “weary of this world”. One of the Principal Doctrines says that our faculties never shun pleasure. Pleasure can only be bad when the consequences are so poisonous to future pleasure that they neutralize the benefit. PD 20 is what I’m thinking of.

Eric. Ugh, that translation is cryptic!

Concerning the various translations of the Principal Doctrines other than the one found on epicurus.net, there is one by Peter Saint Andre available from Monadnock, another one by Robert Hicks on an MIT page.

For maximum convenience, NewEpicurean.com has a page dedicated to cross-referenced, clickable Principal Doctrines which link back to multiple resources.

Jason. Definitely not my favorite translation of PD 20. Strodach’s is preferable:

The body takes the limits of pleasure to be infinite, and infinite time would provide such pleasure. But the mind has provided us with the complete life by a rational examination of the body’s goals and limitations, and by dispelling our fears about a life after death, and so we no longer need unlimited time. On the other hand, [the mind] does not avoid pleasure, nor, when conditions occasion our departure from life, does it come to the end in a manner that would suggest that it had fallen short in any way of the best possible existence.

Eric. Applause!!!

Jason. Cassius’ rephrasing is great too:

Bodily pleasures seem unlimited, and so the body seems to wish to live forever. But the mind, recognizing that Nature does not allow the body to live forever, and recognizing that there is nothing to fear in the eternal time after death, guides us to a complete and optimal life, and we then realize that we no longer have the need for an unlimited time. Even though the mind enjoys pleasure, the mind does not feel remorse when the end of life approaches, so long as the mind has led the person to live the best life possible to him according to Nature.

Ronald. Epicurus says be virtuous in order to be happy, the stoics say be virtuous and you will be as happy as possible. I’m not sure there is a lot to fight about here.

(We would not have a controversy thousands of years after the foundation of the two schools if that were really the case)

Hiram. lol …. it’s a 2,300 year old fight. Ronald, so when a Muslim believes that the Quran 4:34 orders him to beat his wife and that it would be virtuous to do so, and he physically attacks her, where in this equation do you find pleasure? If virtue is not defined according to nature, and is just a Platonic imaginary ideal, what becomes of virtue? This is what Polystratus meant in his On Irrational Contempt when he said “virtue without the study of nature comes to nothing but arrogance and superstition”.

Panagiotis. Nature is the basis of everything.

Eric. I am absolutely convinced that the Roman Stoics believed what Epicurus taught, namely ‘virtuous pleasure’ produces happiness, peace, and tranquility. They (meaning Neo-Stoics) end up nit picking this, vacillating between what I just said, and practicing ‘virtue for its own sake’ or duty for duty’s sake. I can give you at least 10 quotes that show that the Roman Stoics didn’t say anything like Virtue for its own sake but rather being virtuous produces tranquility. So I guess it all depends who you’re asking. I believe you are correct there is not much to fight about since Epicurus simply interweaves virtue and tranquility.

Cassius. I think the only point I’ll offer, at least for the moment, is to go back to the quote: “were they not productive of pleasure, who would deem them either praiseworthy or desirable?” The word “happiness” is ambiguous to cover over a multitude of disputes. It is Epicurus who focuses on “pleasure”, and if one keeps to “pleasure”, then a lot of these ambiguities sort themselves out, and it’s much easier to see who is agreeing with Epicurus and who is disagreeing with him.

Ronald. The quote I think supports my point. When Epicurus says “were they not productive of pleasure,…” he seems to be conceding that they are productive of pleasure.

Daniel. (I) agree, and the real proof Epicurus truly understands what he talks about is how easy it is to understand pleasure and prudence without the ambiguities of other philosophies based on a telos focused purely on reason, virtue, or heavenly bodies.

Cassius. Of course “they” are productive of pleasure, but the question is what “they” are. Are “they” something arbitrarily defined by religion or by logic as virtue, or are “they” those activities defined by what is in fact productive of pleasurable living? The Stoics and others choose the former definition, the Epicureans the latter, and never the twain shall meet in theory, just in practicality. The error is in choosing theory that does not lead to pleasurable living vs. theory that is defined as leading to pleasurable living.

Ronald. “Just in practicality”. Exactly. I am not saying there is no difference, just not one where argument is of practical value. And I think Epicureanism is all about practical value.

Eric. Agreed, for the most part. If you’re willing and it’s appropriate, I think it would be beneficial to share all the quotes by the Roman Stoics that agree with Epicurus. I’ve spent a good amount of time collecting those passages that make ‘virtue for its own sake’ absurd and do in fact show that often they see virtue as a means to producing pleasure. Stoics do seem confused at times and you’re right that Epicurus is the one who focuses solely on virtue FOR THE SAKE OF pleasure.

Jason. I would enjoy that if you were to put a page or post together, Eric. It might serve my purposes to illuminate where Roman Stoics were “right” instead of pointing out how they were wrong to my friends, who wave the Stoic flag yet refuse to acknowledge their deviation from ancient Stoic thought.

Since they’re into deviations, a little positive reinforcement towards showing how their behavior and natural tendencies favor true philosophy–instead of their confused conceptions–might help them jump ship, if I could quote Stoic sources instead of simply arguing.

Eric. Interestingly, I’ve hit a brick wall (with Stoics) with trying to demonstrate how the Roman stoics did promote virtue because it provided peace of mind, freedom, etc. I do recognize the differences in terms of chief ends. I believe both parties are promoting ‘virtuous pleasure’ ultimately, however confused it might sound. Let me say this, Much of what Epictetus, Seneca and MA promoted was a life where one manages desires, aversions, impressions judgments FOR tranquility!

Jason. I’m not surprised. It appears that modern “Stoics” are quite confused about the purpose of philosophy. If you don’t acknowledge that philosophy has an end-goal, how can one derive a purpose for studying it?

Eric. They want to say that virtue is its own end, its own reward. They want to say it like a purse lipped moralist. They have to ADD tranquility. Check out this Seneca quote:

Pleasure is not a reward for virtue, nor its cause, but is something added on to it. Virtue is not chosen because it causes pleasure; but if it is chosen, it does cause pleasure.

The joy which arises from virtue . . . like happiness and tranquility . . . are consequences of the greatest good, but they do not constitute it.

– Seneca (Pierre Hadot translation in Inner Citadel)

What a bunch of hog shit! Elsewhere Seneca writes an entire letter On Tranquility of Mind where in he eases his friend with all kinds of methods to bring him to tranquility. Epictetus states a number of times what the practice of virtue is FOR, namely tranquility

Oh Seneca! Reading his works I get the distinct impression of a schoolboy on the verge of getting caught with his hand in the cookie-jar, freezing in place, not knowing whether to remove his hand grasping cookies or leaving them behind. He does seem to me a ‘rider of walls’ It’s just that all this bickering is not ultimately (about) differences of kinds. They are degrees in my view. I’m a student of ‘philosophies of virtuous pleasure’, and there are fascinating and useful agreements not just in Hellenistic philosophies but early Asian ones as well. Here’s Seneca talking like an Epicurean:

Seneca says about tranquility:

We are, therefore, seeking how the mind can follow a smooth and steady course, well disposed to itself, happily regarding its own condition and with no interruption to this pleasure, but remaining in a state of peace with no ups and downs: that will be tranquility.

And he doesn’t say this lightly:

But what you are longing for is great and supreme and nearly divine – not to be shaken.

Tranquility is GREAT, SUPREME and NEARLY DIVINE.

Hiram. It is unclear if the original Seneca passage that was translated into tranquility was “ataraxia”, which is an Epicurean term also. In either case, for the sake of clarity: we in Epicurean philosophy consider pleasure as the end, which can be qualified as tranquil pleasure, virtuous pleasure, and by other words. The danger with using fuzzy terms like virtue is that they can have wildly diverging meanings in various cultures, whereas pleasure is much clearer, and it’s a natural faculty used broadly enough to be a useful end. And we believe that it is nature itself that has set this standard for mortals.

Cassius. For anyone lurking who wants to compare the stoic quotes, here is my chart. And Eric, this is the irreconcilable point. The Stoics promote something they call virtue devoid of pleasure. The Epicureans promote virtue DEFINED by pleasurable result. And that is why it is very perilous to speak loosely of tranquility. Calmness in the experience of unbroken pleasure is desirable. Calmness in and of itself is not desirable nor the goal of Epicurean living. Yes that is a pretty good statement of their confusion.

Eric. As an aside: it does not appear at all there is a difference between ataraxia and apatheia EXPERIENTIALLY. The times in which the Roman Stoics say virtue produces peace of mind or tranquility, they seem to do so when they are taking about managing desires and practicing virtue. Apatheia for the Stoics was living without negative emotions or suffering, without emotional pain.

Hiram. Notice my criticism here of how by cutting ourselves off from our emotions, we fail to air our grievances and tyranny persists in the world. There are many dangers with apatheia: pathos, or the emotional side of being human, is part of our bag of instincts.

Eric. Apatheia (Greek: ἀπάθεια; from a- “without” and pathos “suffering” or “passion”) in Stoic philosophy refers to a state of mind where one is not disturbed by the passions. It is best translated by the word equanimity rather than indifference.

Hiram. Right, so “no passions”. Yet Philodemus writes that anger can be both productive and virtuous, if it leads to long-term pleasure by fixing a grievance that had been left unattended. So, the end is the stability of long term pleasure, and this may require strong ownership of one’s emotions and passions, not apatheia.

 

Cassius. This is not a criticism but let’s say a “challenge.” I note that your posts and your constructs very rarely use the word “pleasure” and when you do (not sure I remember many times, but I think so) I think you pick up the stoic concern that pleasure is something dangerous. So given that Epicurus is clearly an advocate of pleasure, and not just the mental types, I challenge you to incorporate that into your discussion of tranquility. I definitely think it is possible and correct to do so, but that it where it is extremely difficult to state the goal of life in terms that are compatible with Stoicism.

Here is an example to incorporate, Eric, which I don’t think anyone disputes is an accurate statement of Epicurean doctrine. It is observed too that in his treatise On the Ethical End, Diogenes Laertius writes in these terms: “I know not how to conceive the good, apart from the pleasures of taste, of sex, of sound, and the pleasures of beautiful form.” It is very difficult to fit this into a Stoic model without writing out of stoicism most of the ancient authorities.

Eric. Remind me again: are there two kinds of pleasures that amount to without pain and additive pleasures like food, sex, etc? Did only DL make that comment or do we find it in extant writings of Epicurus? I’m asking because Cicero seems to rail Toquatus around this idea of pleasure being only a negation of pain. He mocks the idea of this as being a neutral state, not pleasure as Diogenes Laetrius says above. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

Also, be reminded I’m not in any way trying to demonstrate that these two schools are very much like each other. I am saying there is a thread running through both when it comes to techniques and ways of looking at things that promote tranquility. I have no interest in trying to reconcile them at this point. I though it might be interesting also to show when Stoics very much sounded Epicurean.

 (on a separate thread of the conversation)

Christopher. Virtue is nature, human nature, with intelligence being what ultimately distinguishes us from other living things. So, I don’t see the issue – pursuing virtue is following nature.

Cassius. Just to be clear, I think this is a statement of opinion rather than an attempt to state the Epicurean position. The Epicurean position was that virtue, just like Platonic ideals, does/do not exist in and of themselves. There is no virtue “in the air” to which we can or should conform ourselves. There are only actions of humans in reality which have to be judged by their consequences, and the only natural mechanism for judging the consequences is the faculty of pleasure and pain. And for that reason, “virtue” is defined in the Epicurean mode as those actions which in fact lead to pleasurable living, and “vice” would be those actions which in fact lead to painful living. The reason for the coincidence of terms is that it is generally true that “wisdom” or “temperance” or “courage” or whatever are generally the proper tools for achieving pleasurable living, and avoiding pain. But torn from that context these terms have no meaning whatsoever other than whatever arbitrary meaning a religion or a rationalistic or arbitrary construct may give them. There is Communist Courage and Nazi Courage and Christian Courage and Buddhist Courage, all of which can be considered something in the meaning of will-power, but the goal and the direction of all of these is totally different and totally unappetizing to those outside that construct. The natural construct is pleasure and pain, and if one wants to truly live in conformity with nature (which we do, because nature is the ultimate reality) then one bases ones goals, and chooses one’s tools, based on natures standard of pleasure and pain.

And in real life, I think most people who are casual readers of philosophy reach just that conclusion. But to drill deeper is to see where the dispute really lies, and I think the dispute does have very deep consequences.

This is the end of this dialogue.

logo

The Punctured Jar Parable

Divine Pleasure, the Guide of life, persuades mortality and leads it on that, through her artful blandishments of love, it propagate the generations still, lest humankind should perish. – Lucretius, De Rerum Natura II.172

I’ve been enjoying the pleasures of reading Lucretius’ classic On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura), and will be blogging based on it in the future. I’m concerned today with Lucretius’ approach to therapeutic philosophy and to the pursuit of happiness as exemplified in his parable of the punctured jar.

The parable presents Epicurus as a Doctor that heals the ills of the soul. Like all good physicians, he must evaluate the symptoms and determine what the spiritual health problem is. The Frank Copley translation of DRN is much more eloquent in describing the existential situation of an ungrateful, unphilosophical mortal, linking her anxieties to a pervasive, untreated, and unevaluated fear of death.

Will you hang back, indignant that you must die: alive and awake, you live next door to death; you waste the greater part of life in sleep, and even waking, you snore, and dream, dream on; you wear a heart confounded by empty fears. You rarely can tell what caused them when, oppressed and drunk and wretched with unremitting cares, you wander, waver, and wonder where to turn.

Notice the Buddhist-like reference to wakeful dreaming. What is expected of a philosopher is a kind of awakening, of mindfulness, a way of paying attention. Let’s not think of this as a state (a noun, which often Platonizes what’s meant) but as a verb (an activity). We must be present in order to savor life.

In the parable, which is meant to serve as therapy for existential angst and fear of death, Mother Nature advises mortals to be ready to leave this world as one who has enjoyed a banquet and is satisfied. Satisfaction and gratitude are important ingredients in the cultivation of ataraxia. In the banquet passage, Lucretius places words on the lips of Mother Nature:

“Mortal, what hast thou of such grave concern
That thou indulgest in too sickly plaints?
Why this bemoaning and beweeping death?
For if thy life aforetime and behind
To thee was grateful, and not all thy good
Was heaped as in sieve to flow away
And perish unavailingly, why not,
Even like a banqueter, depart the halls,
Laden with life? why not with mind content
Take now, thou fool, thy unafflicted rest?
But if whatever thou enjoyed hath been
Lavished and lost, and life is now offence,
Why seekest more to add- which in its turn
Will perish foully and fall out in vain?
O why not rather make an end of life,
Of labour? For all I may devise or find
To pleasure thee is nothing: all things are
The same forever. Though not yet thy body
Wrinkles with years, nor yet the frame exhausts
Outworn, still things abide the same, even if
Thou goest on to conquer all of time
With length of days, yea, if thou never diest”

In the text, Lucretius argues that if we were to live forever, eventually the pleasures that the Earth has to offer would be all the same. There would be no new experiences, and therefore we should feel sated at the end of a good life.

Ungratefulness to life, to nature, to time, is on the other hand a mortal sin to the Epicurean philosopher. The William Leonard translation does not express it as beautifully as the Frank Copley one, which says: “you wanted what isn’t, scorned what is … life slipped through your fingers shapeless and unlovely“.

What’s being said here is that life is full of many kinds of blessings, but when we are mindless and ungrateful it’s as if we are walking through life with a punctured jar. The water in the punctured jar drains off and the blessings are squandered. With the help of Epicurus, we can train ourselves to make the vessel whole again so that we are enjoying the fullness of the blessings that life has to offer at all times.

In Book VI, his final one, Lucretius picks up the metaphor again, saying that when we fail to experience life’s pleasures, the “fault must lie within the vessel”, with the broken vessel image representing our own souls. The idea of our brokenness would be usurped by the Christians to build a guilt-based theology. In Epicurus and Lucretius, the goal is therapeutic.

For when saw he that well-nigh everything
Which needs of man most urgently require
Was ready to hand for mortals, and that life,
As far as might be, was established safe,
That men were lords in riches, honour, praise,
And eminent in goodly fame of sons,
And that they yet, O yet, within the home,
Still had the anxious heart which vexed life
Unpausingly with torments of the mind,
And raved perforce with angry plaints, then he,
Then he, the master, did perceive that ’twas
The vessel itself which worked the bane, and all,
However wholesome, which from here or there
Was gathered into it, was by that bane
Spoilt from within,- in part, because he saw
The vessel so cracked and leaky that nowise
‘T could ever be filled to brim; in part because
He marked how it polluted with foul taste
Whate’er it got within itself. So he,
The master, then by his truth-speaking words,
Purged the breasts of men, and set the bounds
Of lust and terror, and exhibited
The supreme good whither we all endeavour,
And showed the path whereby we might arrive
Thereunto by a little cross-cut straight …. And he proved
That mostly vainly doth the human race
Roll in its bosom the grim waves of care.
For just as children tremble and fear all
In the viewless dark, so even we at times
Dread in the light so many things that be
No whit more fearsome than what children feign,
Shuddering, will be upon them in the dark.
This terror then, this darkness of the mind,
Not sunrise with its flaring spokes of light,
Nor glittering arrows of morning can disperse,
But only nature’s aspect and her law.

Epicurean philosophy, therefore, is meant to help cleanse our souls by speaking truth, and by limiting our desires and fears through exposure to the study of nature, and by establishing clearly that life’s goal is happiness, and by which methods we most efficiently arrive at happiness: Epicurus gave us a science of happiness.

Today is the International Day of Happiness. Isolation and depression are proven health risks, epidemics on par with obesity and smoking. A smart mortal would never leave something as sacred and important as his or her happiness to the whims of fortune and chance. Happiness is a path best trod mindfully and in good company. Please share philosophical literature and content with your friends today and take care to restore your own punctured vessel via a philosophical education. You may also enjoy deep-belly laughter exercises for fifteen minutes … or share something funny online, or call a friend who is a clown and always makes you laugh. Whatever you do, don’t postpone your happiness today!

Cosma Raimondi: The Rebirth of Epicurean Fervor

In a letter written in 1429, Cosma Raimondi–a native of Cremona in Lombardy, Italy who later migrated to France to teach–was one of the early Renaissance humanists who defended Epicurus against the Stoics, Platonists, and Aristotelians in an early epistolary treatise in defense of Epicurus and of virtuous pleasure. His letter–a translation of which is available from New Epicurean–and the fervor with which it was written, stand out as symptoms of the dawn of the Enlightenment. It’s titled A Letter to Ambrogio Tignosi in Defence of Epicurus against the Stoics, Academics and Peripatetics, and it was intended for an apostate who had at one point been Epicurean but had abandoned the Epicurean camp.

This indicates that they belonged to a circle of friends in the Italy of the early 15th Century that had an intellectually rich life and, in fact, he was a pupil of the well-known humanist teacher Gasparino Barzizza.

It is not just a dispute between ourselves, for all the ancient philosophers, principally the three sects of Academics, Stoics and Aristotelians, declared war to the death against this one man who was the master of them all. Their onslaught sought to leave no place for him in philosophy and to declare all his opinions invalid in my view, because they were envious at seeing so many more pupils taking themselves to the school of Epicurus than to their own.

Immediately, one feature stands out which reminds us of Jefferson’s epistle to William Short: his fervor for the doctrine. Jefferson refers to Epicurus as his Master and to himself as a pupil, and a true and passionate one who must defend the Master. In Jefferson’s letter, we find the author arguing in favor of the true, not the imputed teachings of Epicurus.

Cosma begins his arguments by ridiculing the Stoic view that virtue is the source of human happiness, and that even if a man is being tortured by the cruellest butchers, that he can still be happy.  The author calls this view absurd and dismisses it as obviously and self-evidently false.

How again could you be further from any sort of happiness than to lack all or most of the things that themselves make up happiness? The Stoics think that someone who is starving and lame and afflicted with all the other disadvantages of health or external circumstances is nonetheless in a state of perfect felicity as long as he can display his virtue.

He then goes on to question the neglect of the flesh, of the body, which goes along with the rejection of pleasure and the exaltation of virtue, as problematic.

Why do they consider only the mind and neglect the body, when the body houses the mind and is the other half of what man is?

And in the same way that the body is not to be thought healthy when some part of it is sick, so man himself cannot be thought happy if he is suffering in some part of himself. As for their assigning happiness to the mind alone on the grounds that it is in some sense the master and ruler of mans body, it is quite absurd to disregard the body when the mind itself often depends on the state and condition the body and indeed can do nothing without it. Should we not deride someone we saw sitting on a throne and calling himself a king when he had no courtiers or servants? Should we think someone a fine prince whose servants were slovenly and misshapen?

The Stoics’ lack of concern for bodily integrity, which comes adorned with an air of fortitude and nobility, constitutes to a great extent lack of compassion on the one hand, and on the other hand it produces, in its practical effects, indifference towards injustices and evils that may be committed against innocent persons. Together with the arbitrary and unqualified elevation of apathy and resignation to the status of virtues, this leads to a lifestyle that impedes the addressing of grievances and is in huge contrast with the approach that we see in Philodemus’ scroll On Anger, which calls for the compassionate treatment of anger and indignation as a source of insight and as an excuse for reformation and change.

By requiring the silence and consent of our emotions, Stoicism holds its victims hostage to fate even when things might be done to address grievances and to challenge evil, dangerous and harmful paradigms. Without finding useful and pragmatic outlets for anger, there would have been no civil rights movement, no Stonewall riots, no possibility of redemption from injustices.

The rationalizing of dangerous, cruel and irrelevant so-called moral views divorced from the study of nature also produces a kind of alienation from nature. Or perhaps this rationalizing is produced by alienation? Cosma makes the observation:

I find it surprising that these clever Stoics did not remember when investigating the subject that they themselves were men. Their conclusions came not from what human nature demanded but from what they could contrive in argument.

Cosma then visits all the senses and comments on how they like to dwell on the sensory objects that are aesthetically pleasing. He takes a moment to notice the self-evident truths of hedonistic naturalism. He does not rationalize these pleasures, or link them to theories such as natural selection. He also does not deny mental pleasures, in fact he includes them in his contemplation. He then concludes:

Epicurus was right, then, to call pleasure the supreme good, since we are so constituted as almost to seem designed for that purpose. We also have a certain inherent mental disposition to seek and attain pleasure: as far as we can, we try to be happy and not sad.

Cosma also makes indirect mention of the doctrine of confident expectation, which indicates that we derive ataraxia not only from friends, philosophy, and other pleasures, but from the confident expectation that our friends will be there if we need them, that the necessary and natural goods are easy to attain, etc. This, together with his indication that virtue derives its value from the pleasure it brings, indicates the author’s deep insight into Epicurean ethics.

If virtue brings no pleasure or delight, why should we want it or make much of it? But if it does, why not concede that the greatest of all goods what should seek above all is that for the sake of which virtue itself is desirable

Since Epicurus does not suppose that life should be lived without virtue, I do not think he leads the life of animals. So he is not to be shunned like some traitor who would overthrow or pervert human society. He does not corrupt public morals; his whole doctrine is instead directed at making us as happy as we can be.

The epistle closes with an invitation to return back to the philosophy that Ambrogio had once, like Cosma, embraced and defended, and with a regretful declaration that, due to limited time, he was unable to cover more points.

Further Reading:

A Letter to Ambrogio Tignosi in Defence of Epicurus against the Stoics, Academics and Peripatetics, translated by Martin Davies

On Epicurean Virtue

A discussion of Epicurean virtue is needed as a result of our constant encounters with students of philosophy who have been exposed to Stoic and Platonic notions about virtue devoid of context and of telos, as we understand it.

Clarifying some of the Problematic Issues

Concerning the end that nature has established for natural beings, our teachers insist that the end is pleasure, and Polystratus goes as far as saying that not having a clear understanding of how pleasure is the end is the architect of all evils. This is because of the confusion of values problem: people fail to attach accurate value to things and develop artificial systems of value that are not aligned with the nature of things. For the sake of the virtue of courage they may fight needless wars that generate more suffering than pleasure in the end; for the sake of the so-called “virtue” of duty they commit attrocities and accept authoritarian models of ethics that are dehumanizing. Virtue, to us, has no value if it does not lead to net pleasure after we subject our choices and avoidances to hedonic calculus.

Virtues in Epicurean doctrine are, therefore, downgraded to the status of means to pleasure whereas the Stoics see “Virtue” as the end … “Virtue” here in the singular, which is usually a symptom that we are being presented with a Platonized concept divorced from context in nature. Perhaps a good comparison to Epicurean virtues is the very practical conception of Buddhist upayas, which translate as efficient means, and incorporate not just virtues as they are frequently understood, but also specific techniques and practices.

Another crucial issue, which was discussed already in our Reasonings About Philodemus’ scroll On the Stoics, had to do with how when words are not clearly defined, they become useless.

A third issue emerged in our Reasonings About Philodemus’ scroll On Anger which puts our School in direct opposition with Stoic notions about virtue: it’s the compassionate recognition of anger and indignation as potentially having both a virtuous disposition and usefulness.

Our insistence in dethroning virtue in favor of pleasure, and others’ confusion of the means with the end, has produced discussions where we have been accused of being haters of “Virtue”, again in the singular. As a result of these controversies, and also as a way of extending the olive branch to our Stoic brethren, these reasonings on the Epicurean virtues attempt to rescue them from Platonized, dis-embodied oblivion, to capture them from the heavenly realms and to find where in nature the virtues can be observed and in what way they may lead to maximizing pleasure and avoiding pain.

Ancient Epicureans did not frequently address the virtues as points of reference, preferring instead to speak in clear and concise terms and to avoid words that were not clearly defined, but Frances Wright in her work A Few Days in Athens did incorporate a sermon on the virtues that might be a good starting point to explore them.

The Practical Means to Long-Term Pleasure Can Work in Unison

Epicurus stood in the midst of the expectant scholars. “My sons,” he said, “why do you enter the gardens? Is it to seek happiness, or to seek virtue and knowledge? Attend, and I will show you that in finding one, you shall find the three. To be happy, we must be virtuous; and when we are virtuous, we are wise. – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X

The problems generated from seeking virtue without knowledge are explored by Polystratus in his Irrational Contempt. They mostly deal with degenerating into degrading superstition. The above may have been a paraphrase of the fifth Principal Doctrine, which states:

It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the man is not able to live wisely, though he lives honorably and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life.

except that, if you’ll notice, the original doctrine excludes a reference to virtue because, as I said, the founders were hesitant to use words that led to misinterpretation and favored clear speech; and, as we’ve discussed, this is one of the criticisms of virtue in our school.

It frequently seems that A Few Days in Athens was written, in part, to appease worshipers of Virtue, of whom Frances Wright says that “many worship at the altar of Virtue, but few stop to inspect the pedestal on which She stands“. That pedestal is, of course, pleasure.

The first four doctrines correlate to the Four Cures, which constitute the basic points of the ethical doctrine. The fifth doctrine must have been important enough in our ethics, that it had to follow the Tetrapharmakon, as if only the Four Cures had been more important. I believe the reason for this has to do with it relating to the accusations by the philosophers of the polis that a hedonist could not be a good citizen. Professor John Thrasher addresses how Epicurean contractarianism answers this accusation. A modern version of the same accusation is the sociopath argument, where we have been asked “What is to keep a sociopath / psychopath from being a good Epicurean?”. The reply to this is found in Epicurus’ teaching that a sage will be willing to give his life for a friend, and also in Principal Doctrines 5 (above) and 39, which says:

The man who best knows how to meet external threats makes into one family all the creatures he can; and those he can not, he at any rate does not treat as aliens; and where he finds even this impossible, he avoids all dealings, and, so far as is advantageous, excludes them from his life.

The answer to the sociopath argument seems to be that we would ostracize this person and exclude him from our lives, and in fact the modern justice and prison systems already do just that. Our friend Cassius says:

Most sociopaths do not pursue pleasure wisely, honorably, and justly, and therefore cannot live happily, because the human nature of those around him will punish him and prevent it.

Which is true: the potential repercussions of sociopathic behavior include not only imprisonment, but also isolation, loss of support from friends and family, potential loss of jobs and other opportunities and sources of income. It is impossible, or at least very difficult, to have friendship or conduct business with partners who lack the ability to establish trusting relations with others.

And so, in order to ensure a life of pleasure, we must have knowledge of nature to avoid superstitious fears, and we must have blessed friendship which excludes sociopathic behavior and requires many wholesome dispositions. Happiness, wisdom, and the virtues all lead to the natural end that nature has established for us: the pleasant life.

Frances Wright’s Survey of the Epicurean Virtues

The relevant portion begins with Epicurus inviting his followers to sit and study at the feet of Philosophy with an open disposition, without pedantry and pretension.

Let us then begin: and first, let us for a while hush our passions into slumber, forget our prejudices, and cast away our vanity and our pride. Thus patient and modest, let us come to the feet of philosophy; let us say to her, ‘Behold us scholars and children, gifted by nature with faculties, affections, and passions. Teach us their use and their guidance. Show us how to turn them to account — how best to make them conduce to our ease, and minister to our enjoyment.’ – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X

Then, just as we see in the Bible’s wisdom books, where Wisdom speaks in the first person, the same thing happens:

“Sons of earth,” says the Deity, “you have spoken wisely; you feel that you are gifted by nature with faculties, affections, and passions; and you perceive that on the right exertion and direction of these depends your well-being. It does so. Your affections both of soul and body may be shortly reduced to two, pleasure and pain; the one troublesome, and the other agreeable. It is natural and befitting, therefore, that you shun pain, and desire and follow after pleasure. Set forth then on the pursuit; but ere you start, be sure that it is in the right road, and that you have your eye on the true object. Perfect pleasure, which is happiness, you will have attained when you have brought your bodies and souls into a state of satisfied tranquillity. To arrive at this, much previous exertion is requisite; yet exertion, not violent, only constant and even. – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X

Philosophy begins by pointing the finger at our natural faculties. The study of nature must begin from where we are, from the tools that we have to apprehend her. Among these tools, the one that is most relevant to ethics is the pleasure and aversion faculty. The natural goal established by our own nature is asserted as the first thing that we must clearly understand.

Immediately, the author knows that some will equate pleasure with debauchery and mindless instant gratification. She then introduces Prudence as the mother of all the virtues and handmaiden of wisdom. Sometimes translated as practical wisdom, prudence is a shortened form of pro-videntia, or prior-seeing, that is, seeing before things happen, seeing ahead (and planning ahead). Here, with regards to control of desires, Prudence is the reasoning faculty by which we conduct hedonic calculus, the comparative measure of pain versus pleasure over the long term.

And first, the body, with, its passions and appetites, demands gratification and indulgence. But beware! for here are the hidden rocks which may shipwreck your bark on its passage, and shut you out for ever from the haven of repose. Provide yourselves then with a skilled pilot, who may steer you through the Scylla and Charybdis of your carnal affections, and point the steady helm through the deep waters of your passions. Behold her! it is Prudence, the mother of the virtues, and the handmaid of wisdom. Ask, and she will tell you, that gratification will give new edge to the hunger of your appetites, and that the storm of the passions shall kindle with indulgence. Ask, and she will tell you, that sensual pleasure is pain covered with the mask of happiness. Behold she strips it from her face, and reveals the features of disease, disquietude, and remorse. – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X

Wright then argues that prudence leads to ataraxia, which translates as equanimity. A beautiful, poetic comparison of a pleasant life of ataraxia as “neither a roaring torrent, nor a stagnant pool, but a placid and crystal stream”. Notice how she sees ataraxia in positive terms, not as mere pain relief (the common academic interpretation of Epicurean ataraxia), but as pleasant abiding, “healthy contentment”, joy.

Ask, and she will tell you, that happiness is not found in tumult, but tranquillity; and that, not the tranquillity of indolence and inaction, but of a healthy contentment of soul and body. Ask, and she will tell you, that a happy life is like neither to a roaring torrent, nor a stagnant pool, but to a placid and crystal stream, that flows gently and silently along. – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X

Mother Philosophy then presents the virtues, beginning with temperance or moderation. She contributes to hedonic calculus by protecting us from “future evil” (evil means suffering to an Epicurean), and from “all disquiet to the soul and injury to the body”.

And now Prudence shall bring to you the lovely train of the virtues. Temperance, throwing a bridle on your desires, shall gradually subdue and annihilate those whose present indulgence would only bring future evil; and others more necessary and more innocent, she shall yet bring down to such becoming moderation, as shall prevent all disquiet to the soul and injury to the body.

Fortitude or endurance is seen next. Perhaps another word for courage, she protects us from fears and from fate.

Fortitude shall strengthen you to bear those diseases which even temperance may not be efficient to prevent; those afflictions which fate may level at you; those persecutions which the folly or malice of man may invent. It shall fit you to bear all things, to conquer fear, and to meet death.

Justice and generosity follow. The first one adds to our pleasure by making us safe among our neighbors. The latter one wins us friends, which are one of the most persistent sources of intense pleasure in life. Friendship is also addressed below.

Justice shall give you security among your fellows, and satisfaction in your own breasts. Generosity shall endear you to others, and sweeten your own nature to yourselves. Gentleness shall take the sting from the malice of your enemies, and make you extract double sweet from the kindness of friends.

Then, we see gratitude and friendship among the virtues. There are many documented benefits of gratitude, but here the author mentions how it helps us to bear our obligations pleasantly. In my studies of Epicurean doctrine, I’ve come to conclude that it’s impossible to profit from it if one is ungrateful.

Gratitude shall lighten the burden of obligation, or render it even pleasant to bear. Friendship shall put the crown on your security and your joy. With these, and yet more virtues, shall prudence surround you. And, thus attended, hold on your course in confidence, and moor your barks in the haven of repose.”

Also, notice here how pleasure is a gift of nature, and the virtues have to attend to nature as the final authority. In our tradition we never rebel against nature. That is the equivalent of rebelling against reality.

But, my sons, methinks I hear you say, ‘You have shown us the virtues rather as modifiers and correctors of evil, than as the givers of actual and perfect good. Happiness, you tell us, consists in ease of body and mind; yet temperance cannot secure the former from disease, nor can all the virtues united award affliction from the latter.’ True, my children, Philosophy cannot change the laws of nature; but she may teach us to accommodate ourselves to them. She cannot annul pain; but she can arm us to bear it.

After the train of the virtues is presented and the natural limits of the virtues are addressed, another efficient means follows: that of fond rememberance of happy memories. Again, not just virtues but also certain practices can serve as means to pleasure.

Hath he not memory to bring to him past pleasures, the pleasures of a well-spent life, on which he may feed even while pain racks his members, and fever consumes his vitals?

A later portion of the tenth chapter of A Few Days in Athens then evaluates further how avoiding vices and cultivating virtues can protect us from suffering. Temperance helps to diminish suffering due to poverty; modesty helps to experience luxury in the midst of simplicity and to avoid anger, disapointment and pain; knowledge protects us from superstition. It is reminiscent to Philodemus’ instruction on how self-sufficiency (another important virtue) protects us from being too vulnerable.

What is poverty, if we have temperance, and can be satisfied with a crust, and a draught from the spring? If we have modesty, and can wear a woolen garment as gladly as a tyrian robe? What is slander, if we have no vanity that it can wound, and no anger that it can kindle? What is neglect, if we have no ambition that it can disappoint, and no pride that it can mortify? What is persecution, if we have our own bosoms in which to retire, and a spot of earth to sit down and rest upon? What is death, when without superstition to clothe him with terrors, we can cover our heads, and go to sleep in his arms?

Vulnerability and Virtue

Fortitude and vulnerability are not opposed in a fluid system, whereas the philosophers of logic might invent sillogisms according to which they are mutually exclusive. In our system, just as both anger and gratitude can have virtuous dispositions, similarly vulnerability and fortitude can be virtuous.

Fear of death is then addressed, particularly the death of a friend or loved one, which is the most painful way in which we experience death. This is truly a difficult pain to bear, the author acknowledges, and she recalls the pleasures and the tenderness of friendship and of love for our close ones in one of the most moving portions of the novel.

Here, rather than feign fortitude, the author advises that we cry the necessary tears even as we engage in the pleasures of remembering our friends who have died. It should serve us as consolation that even crying and being vulnerable can be a virtue. Crying is essential to avoid depression and resolve grief, and our tears even contain toxins so that we are literally cleansed through them. There is absolutely nothing wrong with crying. It is entirely natural, and sometimes unavoidable, and we should not fear being vulnerable. Tied in with this, is the teaching that we should never avoid loving someone for fear of losing them at a later point because “happiness forbids it”. The author here presents us with the challenge of wishing that we had never met our loved ones.

And is it forbidden to us to mourn its loss? If it be, the power is not with us to obey. Should we, then, to avoid the evil, forego the good? Shall we shut love from our hearts, that we may not feel the pain of his departure? No; happiness forbids it. Experience forbids it. Let him who hath laid on the pyre the dearest of his soul, who hath washed the urn with the bitterest tears of grief — let him say if his heart hath ever formed the wish that it had never shrined within it him whom he now deplores. Let him say if the pleasures of the sweet communion of his former days doth not still live in his remembrance. If he love not to recall the image of the departed, the tones of his voice, the words of his discourse, the deeds of his kindness, the amiable virtues of his life. If, while he weeps the loss of his friend, he smiles not to think that he once possessed him. He who knows not friendship, knows not the purest pleasure of earth.

The rush of endorphins (the hormone associated with pleasure) that takes place after a good cry makes the case for crying and being vulnerable as an Epicurean virtue: it produces pleasure in the end and resolves grief. Crying, therefore, can also be an efficient means to maximizing pleasure.

This, then, my sons, is our duty, for this is our interest and our happiness; to seek our pleasures from the hands of the virtues, and for the pain which may befall us, to submit to it with patience, or bear up against it with fortitude. To walk, in short, through life innocently and tranquilly. – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X

Contrast this approach to emotions to the Stoic ideal of apathy, which deprives us of our full humanity and is sometimes an affront to our nature, as the above considerations and ethical challenges related to the death of a friend should make evident. It might even be considered cowardice to live our lives as a desperate attempt to avoid healthy and natural emotion, attachment and pain.

Our philosopher friends who are influenced by the Stoic school will notice how distinct our approaches are, and how far-reaching are the repercussions of Epicurus’ instruction that we “must not force nature”. Emotions are symptoms that we are human, and they deserve our consideration and compassion. With that, I will close these reasonings with one final quote from the novel:

Everyone may be an Epicurean, but only a philosopher may be a Stoic.

logo