Chicago, IL, September 20, 2016: The Society of Friends of Epicurus has published an Esperanto-language Epitome for 21st-century users of the international language. It “was written for Esperanto speakers who want to apply the teachings of this cosmopolitan philosophy of personal happiness in their life”, and seeks to bring philosophy to the lives of ordinary people. According to the introduction:
“We know that the ancient Epicureans walked around with Epitomes, studying and memorizing the teachings. According to Norman DeWitt in his book ‘Epicurus and his Philosophy’, they began their studies with the Little Epitome, which survives today as the Epistle to Herodotus, and then graduated to the Greater Epitome.”
The book has an educational objective and follows a chapter-and-verse format in order to facilitate reference and dignify the text of considerable historical value that it contains. It includes the Principal Doctrines, Vatican Sayings, Letters to Menoeceus, Herodotus and Pythocles, Chronicles of the Scholarchs, and nine reasonings based on the Herculaneum scrolls. The introduction, translation and study guide are by Hiram Crespo, founder of the Society of Friends of Epicurus and author of Tending the Epicurean Garden/Cultivando el jardín epicúreo.
Ancient Epicureans made up an atomist School of philosophy recognized for its insistence that all reasoning should always refer to evidence, and were pioneers of modern scientific thought. They were among the first to propose the existence of the atom, photons, and the theories of natural selection and relativity. They also taught a secular ethics of happiness, and were the only ancient School that allowed women among their pupils.
Esperanto is an artificially created auxiliary language invented in the late 19th Century with the intention of serving as a politically-neutral secondary language, and of safeguarding linguistic diversity. It is the easiest to learn language in existence, with only sixteen grammar rules, no irregularities, and a vocabulary drawn mostly from Romance languages.
Epitomo is available directly from CreateSpace, from Amazon, and other sources. For more information, contact the author/translator Hiram Crespo, via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About SoFE: The Friends of Epicurus promote naturalist philosophy with the goal of securing the continuity of the wisdom tradition of Epicurus of Samos and all the later Epicurean intellectuals. They do this through interviews, books, memes, and articles. Other pages by Epicureans include NewEpicurean.com, afewdaysinathens.com, and ElementalEpicureanism.com.
The following is the English-language translation of the Spanish-language review of the book Tending the Epicurean Garden, in its first Spanish edition, which was originally written by Alan Furth for the Las Indias Blog.
Following the publication of the English translation of David’ post on Epicurus (“Fraternity, subversion, pigs and asparagus“), we contacted Hiram Crespo, with whom we have since maintained an enriching conversation about the role that Epicurean philosophy can play in the revival of the ancient therapeutic function of philosophy, a role that is becoming increasingly necessary in a world in accelerated decomposition.
Hiram is the founder of the Society of Friends of Epicurus and has just published a book that I had the pleasure of reading over the past two weeks.
The book is a condensed but comprehensive introduction to the basic principles and practice of Epicurean philosophy. But it also provides an interesting interpretation of the teachings of Epicurus from the point of view of positive psychology, neuroscience and other scientific disciplines that today corroborate much of the legacy of the master. Given the prominence of Epicurus as one of the first philosophers to defend the need to study science to get rid of our irrational fears, this aspect of the book is itself a tribute to his memory. One can not help thinking that, were he alive today, he would have expanded the focus of his teachings to address these issues.
The Road to Ataraxia
Throughout the book, Hiram breaks down the elements that Epicurus regarded as indispensable to achieve ataraxia, that state of imperturbability and serenity that would allow his disciples to live a genuinely pleasant life.
The road to ataraxia that Epicurus invites us to tread is fundamentally minimalist: although we are not called to give up the “kinetic” pleasures–those pleasures we enjoy as a result of achieving a more or less structured plan of action, like playing, engaging in sports, eating, drinking, or having sex–, those are considered secondary and potentially dangerous for their ability to cause restlessness, addictions, and generally to divert us away from ataraxia, particularly if they degenerate into a pursuit of the more destructive unnatural and unnecessary desires, like the lust for power, fame, glory and other delusions.
By contrast, Epicurus considers the “katastematic” or stable (abiding) pleasures to be essential. These are defined as those that nurture a state of inner harmony through the absence of pain of body and soul–a “soul” that is defined here in a strictly naturalistic sense, understood as the and neurological or nervous system, as everything that today we refer to as the psyche of an individual. And to eliminate the pain of the soul, Epicurus proposed several basic remedies, among which are philosophical reflection and cultivation of friendship, of true community.
The Analyzed Life
For Epicurus, philosophical reflection was primarily aimed at freeing us from prejudices and irrational beliefs that become a source of anxiety and fears of all kinds. Perhaps the best known example is his argument against the fear of death, but the general idea is that irrational passions–from excessive appetite for food and sex to irascibility and arrogance–generally are based on irrational beliefs, and that if we clarify the contradictions inherent in these beliefs, we will be liberated from the tyranny of the passions which support them.
Hiram also reminds us that much of this capacity to analyze our lives has to do with the simple–but not always easy–task of learning to focus our attention and direct it so that we may become aware of our habits and automatic forms of behavior: the analysed life is not necessarily only based on an advanced development of the faculties of reflection beyond the proper control of attention. This is perhaps one of the reasons why contemporary movements, like existential minimalism, are largely dedicated to the cultivation of mindfulness in a hyper-connected world that is increasingly full of banal distractions. But while in the blogosphere of existential minimalism, metaphors and meditation exercises inspired by Zen Buddhism abound, Hiram’s book reminds us that there is no need to go beyond our own very rich tradition of Western thought to find inspiration in this regard.
Attention is the tool used by our minds to give us a model of reality: if we misuse it and let our minds dissipate in every direction like a running river, we’ll get lost in the cracks of inertia and habit. By living according to our firm resolve to create pleasant lives and by paying attention, we make sure that is it we who captain the boat of the mind, and not the pirates of our unconscious tendencies.
The purest happiness requires full attention and is a way of being, not a way of thinking or seeking. At the moment that we make the observation that we are happy, we are moving away … from our experience through the act of observing it, and if we were, for example, entranced dancing and listening to music … now the experience is less ecstatic. The bubble breaks.
The calculated and rational hedonistic theory of philosophy is vehemently opposed to the hedonism of instant gratification commonly practiced today, which is not Epicurean at all. It requires a preliminary process of introspection, to distinguish between necessary and unnecessary desires.
David (de Ugarte) reminded us in his post that, above all else, what made Epicurus truly subversive was his strong sense of communal fraternity:
Like the Mithraics, who seem to have been influenced (by Epicurus) to a lesser extent than the Stoics, the Epicureans seem to intuit Dunbar‘s number. Not only are they preaching the apolitical stance, but they divide their communities so as to not be so many that fraternity can not be enjoyed, which in practice seems to be as important as freedom for the pursuit of happiness.
The fact that Hiram is committed to the growth of the Society of Friends of Epicurus already speaks for itself, but also in his book he makes it clear that he could not agree more with David regarding the prominence of fraternity as a fundamental value of Epicurean philosophy:
It is one thing to read and learn these lessons from a book, but quite another to learn them from close friends who wish us well, who express this affection, and remind us that death is nothing to us. This wholesome friendship makes all the difference. The experience of the teachings of philosophy is much more comforting when it’s acquired in the context of affiliation.
That is why Epicurean therapy only can be lived fully and concisely within a community of like-minded friends, and the task of building and nurturing a network of such friends should be seen as one of the most important long-term projects for every Epicurean philosopher.
One of the reflections that I like the most about Hiram’s book is the way in which he rescues the concept of “synthetic happiness” as posed by Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness, in light of Epicurean philosophy.
In his book, Gilbert demonstrates an enormous amount of empirical evidence–experimental and otherwise–according to which the human being has a kind of psychological immune system that allows us to maintain a stable level of psychic well-being regardless of external circumstances. For example, Gilbert refers to a study that analyzed data measuring the levels of psychological well-being of people who have won millions in the lottery and comparing them with those of people left paraplegic.
Surprisingly, the study concludes that differences in welfare levels of both groups are not significant after a year of winning the lottery or losing a limb. That’s why Gilbert tells us that happiness is synthetic: our psyche has the ability to manufacture it regardless of external events, and the quality of that manufactured happiness is as genuine as that obtained when one stumbles upon a lucky event in life. Happiness is not something we have to strive to find: it is the natural state of a truly healthy psyche.
This TED talk transmits a clearer picture of what Gilbert wants to convey in his book, and illustrates other interesting experiments that support his theory.
One of the fundamental conclusions that Gilbert arrives at in his book, is that the fact that we are surprised to learn that paraplegics are as happy as the lucky winners of a million dollar lottery, says a lot about how likely we are to have a strong irrational bias that prevents us from predicting the factors that contribute genuinely to our happiness.
As a corollary of this conclusion, one might then ask about the socio-cultural factors that reinforce this irrational bias which, ultimately, prevent us from seeing what Epicurus has been telling us for centuries, and which is right under our noses: that pleasure is easy to obtain and suffering is easy to bear.
And it almost irresistibly evident that among the socio-cultural factors that reinforce this bias are the artificially inflated production scales which are predominant in crony capitalism. Or as Gilbert puts it in his TED talk:
Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we want, and synthetic happiness is what we manufacture when we do not get what we want. And in our society, we have a strong bias to believe that synthetic happiness is of an inferior quality. And why do we have that belief? Well, it’s very simple. What kind of economic engine would work if we believed that not getting what you want can make us as happy as getting it?
It is an extremely interesting question. And our attempts to answer it will surely continue to generate discussions that will enrich the discourse on what it means to live an interesting life: a pleasant life like the one that Epicurus invites us to live.
According to Norman DeWitt, ancient Epicureans used to study a Little Epitome, which is extant today as the Letter to Herodotus, and would later on graduate to the Big Epitome for which, he suggests, Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura was used although some other volume must have been used during the first couple of centuries prior to Lucretius.
In celebration of his tradition and to encourage and facilitate the systematic study of its writings in Spain and Latin America, the Society of Friends of Epicurus recently released a Spanish-language Epítome: Escrituras Epicúreas, a collection of the ancient writings of our tradition with commentary and a study guide by Hiram Crespo, author of Tending the Epicurean Garden (Humanist Press, 2014).
The work is written in chapter and verse format, both for ease of reference and to dignify the considerable historical value of its content. It includes a Spanish translation of Principal Doctrines, Vatican Sayings and the Epistles to Moeneceus, Pythocles and Herodotus, in addition to a summarized chronicle of the lives of the Scholarchs and great masters of the tradition up to Philodemus of Gadara, as well as the Spanish translation of nine reasonings based on the surviving fragments of the Herculaneum Scrolls.
H. Hiram, Founder
A. Alex, Member
P. Pilar (interviewer, for Rey Yacolca Producciones)
H. Epicurus is one of the philosophers of the atomist tradition who studied under a teacher, Nausiphanes, who himself studied under Democritus, who along with Leucippus is the founder of the atomist school and father of materialist philosophy and is considered the first of the laughing philosophers. We talk about there being a tradition of laughing philosophers today thanks to Democritus. Basically it’s a series of philosophers who have studied the nature of things and believe in a natural, scientific explanation for reality. Because of that they have strong minds and aren’t easily convinced of superstitions, the common people’s beliefs, and they laugh at that and so that is part of their role. Many of them have been comedians. One of them died recently, George Carlin. I didn’t know he had studied philosophy, I thought he had studied acting. But no, he studied philosophy and was a great comedian who mocked everything, politics, corruption, religion, children, marriage, all the social conventions. That’s extremely important because we should learn to laugh at ourselves and look at society from the outside, which is also the role of philosophers. this is why the school Epicurus founded was at the boundaries of the polis. They looked at the polis from outside. I’ve always thought it interesting. So Epicurus was a pupil of the school of atomism that Democritus started. He took insights from science and physics and applied them to the realm of ethics. The art of living. Taking this knowledge about the true nature of things and to live happily and at ease.
A. It’s important, if we’re going to dedicate our time and our minds and our lives, that we not waste them in thoughts that are not of benefit, that will harm us and are only founded on fancy. It’s best to wait for problem to actually arrive before our eyes, our ears, and manifest physically. Problems usually generate less anxiety that we expect and are resolved, well, using the faculties that nature has given us ….
H. Well, I see Epicureanism as a vehement affirmation of life, joy, pleasure, and in general all the things that make life worth living. Many people, even in academia, it’s unfortunate, many teach philosophy and mix Stoicism and Epicureanism and much confusion is generated, people start to interpret Epicurus as an analgesic (pain reliever, to alleviate pain only) but it includes that and yet goes far beyond, and affirms the things that make life worth living. Tells you the things you must seek, the “principal things”, needful things that nature gives you no choice but to have in order to be happy and healthy. Friends, protection, shelter, wholesome association, home, food, clothes, but Epicurus takes you to enjoy those things to the max, and to also have an attitude of gratitude. To take notice of them and appreciate them because today people have attention deficit with the internet, instant gratification … people go through life and don’t notice the little things that make life worth living. They call their friends, talk to them, but don’t stop to appreciate the time they have (until they’re gone). And so Epicurean philo. accentuates always those things that make life worth living.
P. Yes, Hiram. When we were talking about this conversation between us three you were saying that if you could entitle this, it would be the science of happiness. So based on this and what Alex was saying that this has helped him to be more present, as you said more attentive, I was reading in this Las Indias review, they mention a researcher that talks about synthetic happiness as superior to natural happiness and says something very interesting. He says that we all think that natural happiness is real and good and other happiness sort of has less value. How have you experienced this and you, Alex? Have you put this in practice?
H. You’re talking about Dan Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist who wrote “Stumbling on Happiness” and we’ve exchanged emails, he’s a fan of Epicurus. He’s basically teaching Epicurean philosophy by another name, as is what’s being taught today as positive psychology, which focuses on the mind in its natural state, in its healthy state instead of focusing on pathology. It focuses on the mind when one is happy, healthy. This is positive psychology. It contains the science of happiness that he elaborates and now, people like Sam Harris and other neuroscientists are researching how the brain operates when one is happy. They’re scanning the brains of lamas and other people, looking at their brains when they meditate to see what is going on there, how it changes long term when people engage in meditation, or gratitude, and the other things that we also teach in Epicureanism. There’s a science of happiness, a theory of things observed, research on neuroplasticity which shows how the neural system and brain change over the years when people are involved in certain activities. These are scientific techniques towards what we call katastematic pleasure, Gilbert calls synthetic happiness, but it’s not that it’s any less real: in life, it’s experienced as real. I translated it (into English) as abiding pleasure (in the book). There is research being done now on how to increase the levels of steady, abiding pleasure that are normal for each person. It’s quite interesting, and it all vindicates Epicurus’ teaching. What Gilbert teaches is Epicureanism by another name.
A. What Stoics and ascetics teach is that we should reject certain pleasures and not try to find happiness like children, like when children are playing in joy, that we should just seek tranquility and only avoid pains. But Epicurus teaches that we should not reject joy, it’s not necessary to eat luxurious food daily, we should eat only what is necessary, but if we are invited to a banquet or a dance there is no need to reject it. One should accept it.
P. Hiram, when we were talking on facebook you were saying that a comparison could be made between the sumac kawsay (Incan “good living” philosophy) and Epicurean philo. I was researching this indigenous tradition. How would you contrast.
H. Sumak kawsay, the main differences are that this tradition comes from the elders from South America. First of all there is an ecological sensibility among indigenous values, a collectivist sensibility whereas in Epicurus life is celebrated and in fact Epicurean gardens were communities where things were shared, they were growing crops for food, writing scrolls, got fees from teaching philosophy. Living in self-sufficient context within a cooperativist context at a small level. Another parallel is the emphasis on ecology: one of the Principal Doctrines of Epicurus says that nature must not be forced, that we can gently influence her through soft and sweet persuasion, using natural tendencies to be happier and more efficient. Not going against nature. Another one is respect for elders, sages, the people teaching the wisdom tradition because they help to nurture wholesome character, so the importance of healthy association. The importance of leisure. Having time to love, as President Mujica of Uruguay says often: this idea that we are not wage slaves, that we need time for production and time to love, to be with friends, for joy, for sports, whatever, that is necessary for the mental health of people, for balance. These days things look like in Japan, where people work at times 16 hours a day, and that is seen as part of the culture. Much corporate culture is like that: we’re an antidote against that.
P. Makes sense, of course! Alex, I have a doubt. What’s your profession.
A. I’m electrical engineer.
P. With regards to what Hiram said, before you came to Epicurean philo. did you have time for quality leisure? Did you value your friends well?
A. Well, I think I sought to better my life so I have to say that I’m still learning. I didn’t value my friend as much as now, I’m now realizing I should. Also I’m making better use of my time of leisure, vacation, and time with friends which I sometimes didn’t before. Sometimes it’s best to seek what we have in common instead of our differences. But yes, I think it has helped but I still have work to do, am still experimenting and it’ll be some years, I don’t know, maybe less than that but I hope to better my life. (laugh)
P. We all do! Epicurus says “Good is easy to procure, Evil is easy to suffer”. I think that when we are not here and now, present, we accept things that are bad for us as something normal. In Eastern traditions, monks have to sit, etc. so they awaken. In this tradition, what is done? Are there exercises, ways to be more present?
H. Ancient Epicureans had their own exercises which incorporated a type of cognitive therapy. Epicurus was one of the precursors of psychotherapy. He acknowledged the existence of the subconscious and he taught that when people have bad habits usually there are underlying tendencies or opinions sustaining them, called dispositions. For instance, people who are consumerists, who like to squander money and be ostentatious about things that they don’t have, usually have beliefs, they think this will make them happy, that happiness can be experienced by showing off riches or measured against neighbors, based on other people’s standards and on comparisons with others. One can’t ever be happy that way. Happiness research shows that people who show off riches are usually in debt and people who are truly wealthy are like you and I, like any other normal person with a normal house and a normal car, just that they care more about their financial independence than showing off. So it’s all a fantasy, and when you are in the process of Epicurean therapy you’re challenging yourself in self-betterment using all this research to challenge yourself and your false beliefs that are the product of cultural corruption, beliefs without base, what society teaches common people and isn’t necessarily true in your nature. In therapy, we use reasonings, we use arguments: you argue against your own dispositions, your tendencies, your own beliefs, and you challenge yourself showing them legitimate information re: what does take you to happiness so that you slowly get rid of those bad habits of belief which produce the bad habits of your lived experience. So it’s a cognitive therapy process.
P. Hiram, I also read in that review that today science in many branches is proving what Epicurus said is still valid. As I hear what you say, I think Epicurus can be incorporated into our lives because what it does is show us what we can be with simple practices, so I’d like you to encourage people to investigate more about him. Because everyone knows about Plato, Aristotle but not about Epicurus, in college I never learned about him. So if it wasn’t for you, who have been slowly exposing me to this, I would have remained ignorant. My personal opinion now is that it’s important for everyone to incorporate this knowledge. Encourage the viewers to read your book and to approach this!
H. Actually I want to mention something as to what you said, that they didn’t teach you this at the University, and precisely there are misinterpretations in academia influenced by other schools many of which have been very opposed to Epicurus. A philo. professor from Univ. of Oklahoma, Dara Fogel, wrote the Epicurean Manifesto where she talks about this problem and how the academic world, what it teaches as philo. is in a fossilized state, a study of the history of itself, a repetition of historical events sometimes irrelevant, logical formulas often also irrelevant, that have nothing of the medicinal that Epicurus teaches and say nothing about how to live a healthy, happy life. I’ve also gotten feedback from one of my readers, he loved my book, but he talked about how when he was at the university he lost the desire to study philo. because the classes were so boring that he never thought philosophy could be THIS. It’s not what he expected: a system of applying logic. It’s not about that. We say that philosophy that doesn’t heal the soul is no better than medicine that doesn’t heal the body, to us. So I think people need a system to deal with their baggage, with their difficulties, not just that but also to plan a happy and healthy life. So Epicureanism equips you to do that for the long term with empirical, scientific knowledge so you can create a beautiful life and keep your feet firm, on the ground. I also like that it respects your intelligence. It doesn’t make any type of supernatural claim and such, it’s very scientific, naturalistic, and helps you to see reality, to see nature as shown before your natural faculties and take it as the starting point, so you have no risk of believing in things that aren’t evident to you. I really respect that. There is so much New Age stuff, many philosophies that don’t do that.
P. Great. Well, thank you so much Hiram. I think you’ve encouraged us with everything you’ve shared to be able to dig deeper into this. And you, Alex, thank you because I think that if I was an author and a friend accepted to get involved in a conversation about this it would be a huge joy. So I thank you both. Blessings!
H. I want to thank Alex also, and say he spoke very good Spanish, we’ve always talked in English and hadn’t heard his Spanish but he did well. And thank you, I’ve known you for many years, we’ve shared blogs, we’ve written about food!
Hiram loves languages and language-learning, and currently is fluent in English, Spanish, and the universal language of diplomacy Esperanto, and also knows enough French to get by and a little German. He recently graduated with high honors from a Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies at Northeastern Illinois University. He has another blog on goodreads and edits the official newsletter of the Society of Friends of Epicurus, titled Happy 20th!, and Sophie’s Journal, a literary and philosophical collection of works related to Epicurean philosophy.