Category Archives: History

Swinish Herds and Pastafarians: Comedy as an Ideological Weapon

The following piece was originally written for classics publication Eidolon.

Go ahead. Try us for thirty days. If you don’t like us, your old religion will most likely take you back. — Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

One of the newest international religious movements today requires its faithful to wear a pasta strainer on their heads and, on occasion, to dress up as pirates — as this couple did for the first Pastafarian wedding in New Zealand. The members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster posit an afterlife in a paradise island that features pirates, strippers and a beer volcano. Naturally, eating spaghetti and meatballs constitutes a sacrament.

Pastafarianism is a parody religion invented in recent years to make the point that the supernatural claims at the heart of most faiths are mutually contradictory. If we’re going to act as if they’re all just as plausible as each other for the sake of political correctness, then we might as well treat the idea that the Creator is a flying intergalactic nebula of noodles and meatballs — and its hosts of pirates — with the same undeserved respect we afford all other unempirical beliefs.

The roles played and tactics used by secularist comedians and philosophers in the ancient and modern worlds are similar enough that one finds some continuity in their narratives, arguments, and identities. The so-called “New Atheism” is not new. It went through a period of arrested development, but its infancy can be located in dusty scrolls written by ancient intellectuals.

Both the old Epicurean tradition and the modern secular movement have had to deal with thorny issues of free speech, religious privilege, and diversity. They have employed similar tactics in their respective culture wars, including comedy as a weapon against authoritarianism and backwardness. They’ve also both faced persecution for said weaponry. More specifically, the modern practitioners of Pastafarianism are engaging in the kind of disruptive and insightful satire that ancient Epicureans were known for.

The Church of FSM is not the first parody religion in history. At times, the ancient Epicureans also seem to treat their legitimately recognized philosophical tradition as a kind of parody religion, the first inkling of which is their own designation of the Canon as the “book that fell from the heavens”. The Canon was the main piece of foundational writing of Epicurus of Samos, which established the materialist standard of truth based on empirical observation. Epicureans’ love of the Canon was such that their intellectual enemies joked that the Canon had fallen from heaven. The Epicureans seized on this mockery and began jokingly referring to it that way: the Canon had indeed fallen from heaven! It was the atomist Bible, the philosophical Quran. The designation stuck.

Later on, in the first century BCE, the Roman Epicurean poet Lucretius produced didactic and amusing caricatures of his contemporaries’ beliefs that still resonate. After asking why Jove hurls bolts of lightning at innocent people and not at sinners, and why the god should waste his efforts directing fire at deserts and other isolated regions, Lucretius goes on to mock the idea of divine origins of lightning:

Or, as the clouds pass by, does he climb down onto them, that he may aim his bolt close-range?

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura VI.402–403

Needless to say, the tactic of mockery is still in use today among the New Atheists, and there is no shortage of Christians, Muslims and animists who attribute weather phenomena and plagues to an angry, vindictive god.

In the second century CE, Syrian satirist Lucian of Samosata authored a satirical exposé of Alexander of Abonoteichus, a false pagan prophet who profited handsomely from giving obscure oracles to wealthy patrons. His antics are reminiscent of those of Christian televangelists and snake-handling cults of our day. In order to impress people, Alexander walked around carrying a snake and foamed at the mouth, which Lucian explained by accusing the prophet of chewing herbs containing saponin.

Lucian’s work, titled Alexander the Oracle-Monger, constituted the closest thing to our generation’s Religulous for the people of the late Roman Empire. It also nearly cost Lucian his life. Alexander, as it turns out, was not only vindictive but also two-faced — he showered Lucian with favors while plotting to have him killed for mocking his cult. Lucian narrates the event towards the end of his work, in the sixth paragraph before the ending:

When I intended to sail, he sent me many parting gifts, and offered to find us […] a ship and crew — which offer I accepted in all confidence. When the passage was half over, I observed the master in tears arguing with his men, which made me very uneasy. It turned out that Alexander’s orders were to seize and fling us overboard; in that case his war with me would have been lightly won. But the crew were prevailed upon by the master’s tears to do us no harm. “I am sixty years old, as you can see,” he said to me; “I have lived an honest blameless life so far, and I should not like at my time of life, with a wife and children too, to stain my hands with blood.” And with that preface he informed us what we were there for, and what Alexander had told him to do.

When Lucian attempted to bring charges against the false prophet, the Roman senators convinced him to abandon the entire matter. Many of the senators were not only clients of the prophet, but also fearful of retaliation from his mobs of followers. Lucian gathered stories about Alexander’s fraudulent practices until the prophet died in old age, at which point he published the satire. The false prophet got away with attempted murder.

Fun fact: it is in this work that Lucian invented the tradition of literally calling out bullshit. At the beginning of Alexander the Oracle Monger, Lucian makes the very first reference to bull crap in literary history when comparing Alexander’s fraudulent and evil practices to “the unspeakable filth that three thousand oxen could produce in many years”:

You, my dear Celsus, possibly suppose yourself to be laying upon me quite a trifling task: “Write me down in a book and send me the life and adventures, the tricks and frauds, of the impostor Alexander of Abonutichus” […] if you will promise to read with indulgence, and fill up the gaps in my tale from your imagination, I will essay the task. I may not cleanse that Augean stable completely, but I will do my best, and fetch you out a few loads as samples of the unspeakable filth that three thousand oxen could produce in many years.

Lucian’s narrative is peppered with affectionate words of praise for Epicurus and his legacy, and the work was allegedly written as an act of Epicurean solidarity. From this introductory paragraph, we get another picture of the cheerful cultural milieu of the Epicureans. It depicts a kind of “culture of comedy” advanced by Epicureans like Lucian — who, in addition to being funny, was known as a brilliantly engaging and entertaining narrator. His close associates, like the one Celsus mentions here, enjoyed listening to his stories so much that they wanted a record for their ongoing amusement and that of future generations.

Going back to the original tale of religious immunity and privilege, we see that it resonates with contemporary and recent events. Consider, for example, the Catholic Church’s predatory practices and dodging of the judicial system for generations, which has also inspired much satire. Another parallel could be the violent Islamic attacks and intimidation against cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo and authors like Salman Rushdie. These conflicts show the tension between comedy and authoritarian religions, where (perhaps excessive and undeserved) respect is channeled toward certain persons or symbols. Even when our societies do enshrine the right to blaspheme within broader guarantees of freedom of expression, there are communities under the sway of authoritarian religions that may coerce the state into annulling those guarantees — if only temporarily.

Some may argue that it’s precisely because of these dangers that one must artfully employ parrhesia, which translates as “frank criticism” or “frank speech”. Parrhesia was initially a power reserved for free Greek citizens, but Epicurean philosophers turned it into a tool for constant self-betterment and education. Philodemus of Gadara taught that “philosophy heals through frank criticism.”

In his scroll On Frank Criticism, Philodemus mentions that philosophers employed two forms of therapeutic parrhesia. On the one hand, private criticism cleanses the human character and purges bad habits and diseases of the soul. On the other hand, public criticism helps emancipate people from blind traditions, societal conventions, and false views that are degrading and generate suffering. The idea was to diagnose a disease of the soul for treatment. Parrhesia could be unpleasant, like bad medicine, particularly when the recipient was wealthy or arrogant. The Epicureans were known for softening the medicine with “suavity”, a virtue of soft and gentle speech. Comedy can also help to lubricate parrhesia’s harshness.

In the modern LGBTQ community, parrhesia can take the form of “reading” someone. Although it can sometimes be demeaning, at other times it can genuinely serve to therapeutically humiliate or demonstrate a weakness or flaw of character: the arrogance and empty insinuation of moral superiority of a preacher, the lying tendencies of a politician, the insecurities of a bigot. Societies need to appoint clowns who look from the outside and deflate hypocrisies with mockery and frankness. Drag queens frequently perform this role in the West, as their Two-Spirit gender-variant counterparts did in pre-contact Native American cultures. The LGBTQ community also employs parrhesia in another way: the process of coming out of the closet. This practice not only creates the opportunity of authenticity for the person coming out, but forces greater authenticity on the rest of society.

The use of various forms of parrhesia is one of the threads that unites secular activists and their allies. Creationism and notions of divine intervention in nature were as large of a concern to pagans and secularists as they are today. Modern Pastafarians have built an entire circus of parody around the inane, absurd beliefs in divine creation that persist into the 21st century.

A note here will help to illustrate the different attitudes adopted by progressive secular communities and regressive religious ones, as exemplified by ancient Epicureans and contemporary Muslims. The pig is considered dirty and insulting in the Islamic tradition, whereas the Epicureans accepted the pig as a symbol for the pleasant life of a hedonist. In the villa of Herculaneum, Philodemus and his Epicurean community prominently displayed a sculpture of a pig. The poet Horace jokingly asserted that he was “a fat pig of Epicurus’ den.” The comparison of Epicureans with pigs seems to have started out as an insult by enemy schools inspired by the Epicureans’ love of pleasure.

Their cheerful affirmation in poetry and sculpture of being a swinish herd, even up to the adoption of the pig as a formal symbol as we see in Herculaneum, together with their designation of their Bible-like Canon as “the book that fell from heaven”, demonstrates the Epicureans’ cheerfulness and willingness to not take themselves too seriously. This seems to have been a proud cultural trait of the Epicureans. It is impossible to imagine Muslims so easily and jokingly assuming epithets like “pig”.

“Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.”— George Carlin

This quintessential cultural difference characterizes both the modern and ancient culture wars between secularists and religionists. We may argue that it goes back to Democritus, the precursor of Epicurus who was known as the “Laughing Philosopher” for making cheerfulness his key virtue and for the way in which he mocked human behavior. The tradition of the laughing philosophers had to start with the first atomist: materialism liberates us from unfounded beliefs to such an extent that it renders absurd the beliefs and the credulity of the mobs.

Epicureans and Cynics have continued this tradition. Atheist comedian George Carlin — who was in fact a Philosophy major — is one of the most recent and most brilliant examples of a laughing philosopher. He employed comedy and frank criticism in a manner that was blasphemous, disruptive, and liberating. He did not reserve his bad medicine for religion alone. His rant against the bankers, many years prior to the 2008 banking collapse, was nearly prophetic.

The phenomenon of parody religions is quite popular today among militant atheists. Pastafarians worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster and, as a form of protest against and commentary about the excesses of religious privilege, have in recent years been involved in controversies for insisting on having their official picture IDs taken with pasta strainers and requesting that their faith be legitimized via census.

As we’ve seen, ancient Epicureans also often behaved like a parody religion and used Pastafarian-like tactics. But the political intentions behind their disruption took a second seat behind the educational, philosophical, and comedic value of their cultural output. In the “Isle of the Blessed” passage from True History, Lucian invents and describes in great detail a paradise. He sends all the Epicureans and kindred spirits to his version of heaven, in the center of which is a sacred Well of Laughter, but refuses to admit members of enemy schools by comically depicting how they failed to find the isle. Aristotelians, on their way to the Isle of the Blessed, stopped and were perplexed at how it was possible for such a thing to exist. Stoics were busy scaling the hill of virtue. Lucian uses wit to expound the Epicurean doctrine of how relying too much on logic, or setting goals other than pleasure, can hinder human happiness.

Similarly, some Pastafarians will temporarily put all joking aside and argue that their cult does present some legitimate philosophical points concerning who carries the burden of proof with regards to religious claims, and how every single unprovable supernatural assertion is just as valid as the creation myth that we find in the Bible.

There is great tension in Europe as a result of the rise of Islamic extremism, and many Westerners are looking to an idealized past for a shared identity and solidarity. Although Epicurus was not an atheist, many secularists frequently look to Epicurus for a role model. As a result, this Greek humanist hero is making a comeback, as attested by the proliferation of Epicurean blogs and memes on social media. The wise man of Samos has even been replicated in effigies made with 3D printers — a highly personalized, futuristic sculptural tradition that has begun in our generation. Perhaps that is a symptom of how Epicurus is being reimagined for future generations by modern humanists.

We need culture heroes to uphold the values of Western civilization and free expression. Epicurus and the tradition of laughing philosophers provide a deep-rooted cultural well that satisfies the strong desire that many Westerners feel to re-imagine their identities in line with strong scientific and secular principles.

Pastafarians and the New Atheists have appropriated many of the methods and discourse that Epicureans initially proposed and used. Lucretius’ arguments about how the gods didn’t make this imperfect world for humans are still used today. Today’s so-called culture wars, expressions of which we find in both New Atheism and parody religions, are in many ways a continuation of the ancient conversations, identities, tactics, and narratives of the Epicureans, and more broadly of the laughing philosophers.

Parrhesia and comedy are not the only tools in the Epicurean toolkit. There is also suavity, the virtue of gentle and kind speech that Epicureans were known for, and it is here that the Epicureans might have something to add to New Atheism, helping people to find the balance between militancy and ataraxia — the peace of mind and stable pleasure that was the ultimate goal of Epicurean therapy. Frank speech is the sign of us being free citizens. But there are many ways of saying something, and sometimes the utility of our words is sacrificed in their harshness.

Philonides of Laodicea: Epicurean Missionary to the Middle East

_map_antiochSyria is suffering. One of the most prominent of the evils that assail her is ISIS. Religious fanaticism has sparked sexual slavery, crucifixions, decapitations, warfare, and a refugee crisis that is finally forcing everyone to see the humanity and vulnerability in the midst of the carnage. But Syria might have had an entirely different history if its people had preserved the teachings brought there over 21 centuries ago by a secular humanist missionary known as Philonides.

Hailed by NewEpicurean.com as an unsung hero, Philonides of Laodicea (200-130 BCE) was sent to Syria by the Scholarch of the Epicurean Garden in Athens to convert Asians to the naturalist philosophy of the atomists, marking a curious time in Hellenistic history when Greek humanists were sending secularizing missionaries to the Middle East.

He lived in the Seleucid court and greatly influenced the royal family there, converting some to Epicureanism, and kept a vast library of philosophical works. There, he taught philosophy to Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and according to Life of Philonides—a Herculaneum scroll—he converted Antiochus’ nephew King Demetrius I Soter. Together with his company of scholars, he helped to bring about the Hellenistic Era in Judea and was so highly esteemed that he was employed as ambassador, and stone monuments were erected to him. The brilliant satyrist Lucian of Samosata would eventually emerge from the Syrian communities of Epicurean philosophers that were nurtured in this environment.

Philonides was a prolific scholar, publishing more than a hundred books and collecting writings for the royal library. It was thanks to his work that, according to Norman DeWitt in his St. Paul and Epicurus, Antioch would eventually become a major center of Epicureanism. In this book, DeWitt demonstrates that many of the writings of St. Paul can be understood as a reaction against Epicurean teachings, and that Saul of Tarsus was so familiar with these teachings that he must have studied the philosophy in depth at one point.

Jewish students were exhorted “to master Torah so as to be able to answer the Epicurean”. – Norman DeWitt

Philonides lived during the generation that saw the rise of the Macabees, which inaugurated two decades of battle between fanatical Judaism and the Hellenizing forces in Judea. He also lived during the generation that saw the Hellenized Saducees—who, like the Epicureans, denied the afterlife–become one of the prominent Jewish sects. There is much speculation on how much Epicurean philosophy may have influenced their doctrine, particularly their denial of an afterlife. The fact that later Jewish tradition would use the term apikorsim as a derogatory word for Pagans bears testimony on the challenge posed by the intellectual life that Philonides sparked in the region.

It’s a sad irony that today, the Middle East—and Syria, in particular—is still inundated with superstition, fear-based religious fanaticism and violence. Its history and its present would have been much more glorious and peaceful if it had kept and fiercely defended Philonides’ secular ethics.

An Epicurean Year

As part of an effort to continue to produce memes and content that are relevant to the happenings at different stages of the year, Society of Epicurus is joining the initiative of the Epicurus page known as An Epicurean Year. According to its proponent, “the purpose here is to create a rotation of Doctrines, Sayings, other topics and issues to help anyone integrate Epicurean Philosophy into their lives through continuous study and practice” within the Gregorian calendar.

I have gone beyond his initial proposal and added a few celebrations. “An Epicurean year begins in February … because Epicurus’ birthday is in “Gamelion”, which corresponds (more or less) to February”.

Epicureans are known to celebrate the 20th of every month as a “feast of reason”, which is why every 20th defaults to a celebration known as eikas, or “twentieth” in honor of the request made in Epicurus’ will.

FEB 12. Charles R. Darwin birthday.

FEB 16th. Foundation of the Society of Friends of Epicurus

FEB. 20th. “A Feast for Life!”, as per initial proponent. Epicurus’ birthday.

MAR. 20th. “A Feast for Happiness!”, as the UN has declared this to be the International Day of Happiness.

MAR 21. SoFE celebrates Horace Day. The literary Legacy of Horace, a self-proclaimed “pig of Epicurus’ den”, is celebrated as part of World Poetry Day.

APR 13. Hitchens – Jefferson Day, a secular holiday proposed by a blogger based on Jefferson’s Day, where humanist books should be exchanged as gifts.

APR. 20th. “A Feast for Proper Pleasures”, as per initial proponent; perhaps because Spring, and Easter in particular, has always been associated with Venus. This usually also falls around Earth Day, so it’s a celebration of this Earth.

MAY 20th. “A Feast of the Good Desires!”, as per initial proponent.

JUNE 20th. Midsummer Feast.

JULY 20th. A Feast of Wisdom, as the Panathinaia, the Festival of Athena, the Goddess of Philosophy is celebrated in Hellenismos between July and August every year.

AUGUST 20. The ancient Athenians celebrated a festival of Panathenaea around their calendar’s version of August 13th. Since this falls closest to our 20th of August, on this 20th SoFE celebrates the literary opus of Frances Wright titled A Few Days in Athens.

AUGUST 24. HERCULANEUM DAY. On this date in the year 79 of Common Era, Mount Vesuvius erupted and the library in Herculaneum was covered in volcanic ash.

OCTOBER 1. It’s difficult to find the exact date for a festival in Taoism, since the Taoist calendar is lunar. Therefore, the National Day of China can be used to celebrate Chinese philosophers who have contributed to hedonism, and in particular can be used to celebrate Yang Chu.

OCTOBER 19. Philodemus’ library was discovered on this date in 1752

DEC 20th. HumanLight, the Humanist Solstice celebration which began in New Jersey among humanists and is now embraced widely by the American Humanist Association and others.

Please visit the original page for An Epicurean Year for more details on the project.