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On “-Isms” and Pleasure Wisdom

On “-Isms” and Pleasure Wisdom

Epicureanismvs.Epicurean Philosophy

The Society of Friends of Epicurus has dedicated extensive dialogue to the suffix “ism” regarding its relevance to the Epicurean tradition. In the Epicurean spirit of  παρρησíα  (or “parrhēsíā) meaning frank speech” or “speaking candidly”, the ancient Greek language did NOT employ the “ism” when referring to the tradition of Epicurus (nor, for that matter, of any other ancient Greek philosophy). Thus, while the word can be employed for practical purposes, Epicureanism” does NOT quite compliment the nuance of “Epicurean Philosophy.


The English suffix, “-ism” — according to BOTH common and academic usages — is employed to designate a distinctive “doctrine“, “theory“, “attitude“, “belief“, “practice“, “process“, “state“, “condition“, “religion“, “system“, or “philosophy“. According to this definition, it is NOT incorrect to add a simple “ism” at the end of the philosophy of Epicurus“; it should, appropriately and accurately, render the word “Epicureanism” (or even “Epicurism).

In more succinct terms, we can visualize “Epicureanismsimply as “Epicurean-philosophy“.

While this works for practical purposes, it may lead to several misconceptions:

  1. Bracketing the suffix “-ism” to a name often indicates devotional worship of an individual (consider the differences between the old, misleading usage of “Mohammedanism” versus the preferred, contemporary usage of “Islam). Epicureans do NOTworship Epicurus as a supernatural prophet, NOR as a manifestation of a transcendental ideal.
  2. Bracketing the suffix “-ism” can ALSO indicate contempt for an individual or system. Consider, for example, when “Marxism”, “Leninism”, “Stalinism”, and “Maoism” are used by critics and detractors of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and many others. Thus, the word “Epicureanism” can be employed by critics and detractors of Epicurean philosophy as an indictment of Epicurus.
  3. In the modern era, “-ism” is frequently used to identify political typologies. Terms like “Monarchism”, “Liberalism”, “Conservatism”, “Communism”and “Fascism” express ideological systems that — contrary to Epicurean philosophy — presuppose the existence of an ideal state or utopia, organized according to the dimensions of a perfect, timeless principle.
  4. The suffix “-ισμός” (or “-ismós“) was rarely employed in ancient Greek; few examples of “-ism” (or “-ismós“) exist prior to New Latin, and the linguistic conventions of the modern era. In giving preference to the term “Epicurean philosophy”, we acknowledge the importance of privileging ancient Greek historical sources to the reliance upon Latin translations.


Our tradition of adding “-ism” to the end of words — in which we recognize distinctive “ideologies” — begins in the post-Classical period, corresponding to the Renaissance. Coming from the Latin “re-” (meaning “again”) and “nasci” (meaning “to be born”), this “Rebirth” resurrected the innovations and observations of Antiquity. The revival allowed scholars to adapt translations through the Latin language, using the Romanalphabet, sheathing many ancient Greek observations. Scholars began to liberally apply the suffix –ISMVS during this period of New Latin.

(I’m going to call the tradition — in which modern English-speakers partake — the “Ismism“, or, in other words, “the systemic practice of adding ‘-ism‘ to idea-expressing words”, sometimes as a celebration, sometimes as a derogation, sometimes as a religion, and sometimes as a political system. Due to the profound influence of Latin, and the linguistic conventions of the modern era, we ALL — in one way or another — have become dedicated Ismists.)

From the perspective of the contemporary world, the suffix –ISMVS (or “-ismus“) was first borrowed from the Old Latin language of the Romans, and later appropriated by post-Classical peoples as New Latin and Contemporary Latin. We find an abundance of “-ism” and “-ismus” in both Romance and Germanic language families. As with the Latin ISMVS, our contemporary suffix “-ism” is used to indicate distinctive “doctrines“, “theories”, “attitudes”, “beliefs”, “practices“, “processes“, “states“, “conditions“, “religions“, “systems“, and “philosophies“.

Here, however, is where we note a difference that our Mediterranean friends have often recognized: while the Greek language — like (for example) Celtic and Indic languages — has evolved from a common Indo-European root, it did NOT adopt Latin conventions the same way that Romance and Germanic languages have. Ancient Greek philosophers — perhaps, especially Epicurus — would NOT have thought of a “philosophy” as an “-ism”.

ize | ίζω | ízō |

We receive the Latin –ISMVS or “-ismus” from the ancient Greek “-ισμός” (“-ismós“), which, itself, is a bracketing of two other ancient Greek words, those words being “-ίζω” (“ízō“) and “μός” (“mós“). We’ll start with the former word. The suffix “-ίζω” (“-ízō“) was added to nouns to form new verbs. Let’s look at (x3) examples:

  1. canonize | κανονίζω | kanonízō
    κανών or “kann literally referred to a “reed”, and carried the connotation of a “measuring rod” or “standard”.
    + “-ίζω (“-ízō or “-ize“) rendered “κανονίζω“, “kanonízō” or “canonize” meaning “to make standard“.
  2. Hellenize | ἑλληνίζω | Hellēnízō
    ἑλλην or llēn literally referred to that which is “Greek”.
    + “-ίζω (“-ízō or “-ize“) rendered “ἑλληνίζω“, “Hellēnízō“, or “Hellenize” meaning “to make Greek“.
  3. synchronize | συγχρονίζω | súnkhronosízō
    or “súnkhronos literally referred to “synchronous
    + “-ίζω (“-ízō or “-ize“) rendered “συγχρονίζω“, “súnkhronosízō“, or “synchronize” meaning “to sync“.

The key point with “-ίζω” (“-ízō“) — and our Modern English suffix “-ize” — is that we can turn any concept into a verb, or, in more philosophically interesting terms, we can ACTIVATE it.

μός | mós

The second suffix from which the ancient Greek “-ισμός” (“-ismós“) was bracketed is “μός” (“mós“). Contrary to the convention of ACTIVATING a word that represents a concept, adding “μός” (“mós“) ABSTRACTS an action. We can demonstrate this convention through (x3) other examples that translate well into Modern English:

  1. cataclysm |κατακλυσμός | kataklusmós
    κατακλύζω (kataklúzō) – literally meant “to wash away”.
    + “μός” (“mós“) rendered “κατακλυσμός“, “kataklusmós” or “cataclysm“, meaning a “great flood“.
  2. sarcasm | σαρκασμός | sarkasmós
    σαρκάζω” or “sarkázō literally, and figuratively meant “tearing apart” or “to tear off the flesh”.
    + “μός” (“mós“) rendered “σαρκασμός“, “sarkasmós” or “sarcasm“, meaning “(figuratively) tearing apart“.
  3. syllogism | συλλογισμός | sullogismós
    συλλογίζομαι (sullogízomai) literally meant “to compute” or “to infer”.
    + “μός” (“mós“) rendered “συλλογισμός“, “sarkasmós”, or “syllogism“, meaning an “inference“.

The key point with “μός” (“mós“) is that the ancient Greeks could turn any verb into a word that expressed an abstract concept, or, in more philosophically interesting terms, it could systematize activity into an idea.

ism | ισμός | ismós

The re-bracketing of the suffix “μός” (“mós“) appended with “-ίζω” (“ízō“) presents us with “-ισμός” (or “-ismós“) or the suffix “-ism“, a convention which systematizes a verb that has been activated from a noun. Very few examples exist in ancient Greek. A suitable example for English mono-linguists can be demonstrated in the word “Sabbath”:

  1. σάββατον | sábbaton literally means “the Sabbath” (borrowed from the Hebrew שבת or “shabát”)
    + “ίζω” (“-ízō or “ize“) σαββατίζω | sabbatízō means “to make, observe, or keep the Sabbath
    + “ισμός” (“ismós“) σαββατισμός | sabbatismós means “the state of keeping the Sabbath

UNLIKE the ubiquitous –ISMVS of Latin, and the overused “-ism” of Modern English, the ancient Greekισμός (or “ismós“) is almost NEVERused. The ancient Greeks did NOT shared our zeal for Ismism. When faced with the need to express a NEW word with FRESH meaning, the ancient Greeks built words from either [1] the names of people and objects they directly knew or observed, and [2] active forces they felt or experienced, but NOT as [3] abstract systems.

So, why NOT “Epicureanism“?

The philosophy of Epicurus recognizes that we EXPERIENCE NATURE DIRECTLY and NOT indirectly as an abstract system. Epicurean philosophy and the instruments with which humanity can make informed and ethical decisions — the sensation of an atomic reality, theanticipation of natural patterns, and the feelings of pleasure and pain — neither depend upon allegiance to a single leader, nor initiation into a secret society, nor longing for a golden age.

Christ’s resurrection would NOT be known without the Gospels.
Muhammad’s revelations would NOT be known without the Qur’an.

Even without the historical personage of Epicurus, human beings would still have sensed an atomic reality, anticipated the patterns of nature, and felt pleasure and pain, still have made mutual agreements, and still have formed friendships.

Without Jesus of Nazareth, Christians would NOT know to recite the Lord’s Prayer.
Without Muhammad, Muslims would NOT know to perform Salah to Mecca five times a day.

NATURE, itself, is so much LARGER, more important, and more fundamental than any one personage or tradition. Even without Epicurean Philosophy, humans would still have developed scientific intellects to their own advantage.

Epicureanism” (or, also, “Epicurism) carries a connotation – albeit very slightly – that the philosophy of Epicurus is just another doctrinal institution that advertises immaterial truths from an untouchable dimension. It is not quite as authentic to recognize serious seekers of pleasure as “Epicureanists” who follow “Epicureanism” as opposed to “Epicureans” who study “Epicurean philosophy“. Our endeavor rests within our own bodies; NATURE, itself, is the greatest teacher.

All that being said …

for practical purposes, there most isn’t anything inherently incorrect about preferring the term “Epicureanism; the “-isminnocuously identifies a “philosophy“. In Modern English, this does correctly indicate the philosophy of Epicurus, apart from any oath to a mythic person or principle.

Nonetheless, the employment of “Epicurean philosophy” over “Epicureanism” serves to keep our anticipations FRESH, to indicate to others that our interactions are bigger than disembodied souls paddling ideas back and forth in a court of Mind. It acts as a reminder that the path to wisdom is NOT a map that has been given to us from an Eternal Place of Perfection, but that we each carry a well-calibrated compass within ourselves to know the world and guide us to happiness.

DON’T call [my belief system] an –ism!

While the preference toward the phrase “Epicurean philosophy” may better reflect its ancient Greek origin, it should NOT indicate that the suffix “-ism” should be reserved as a derogation for non-Epicurean ideas, nor exclusively employed as a polemic toward Idealism. Even Epicurean philosophy, itself, incorporates the “-isms” of atomism, hedonism, naturalism, and materialism; these are most certain NOT idealistic.

Even ancient Greek opponents to Epicurean philosophy did NOT employ the “-ism”. Members of Plato’s Academy were “Academics”; members of Aristotle’s Lyceum with “Peripatetics”; members of Zeno’s Stoa were “Stoics”. It was only later that scholars began to employ the terms “Platonism”, “Aristotelianism”, and “Stoicism”.

Furthermore, this same acknowledgment applies to religious traditions:

The earliest rendering of the religion we refer to as “Judaism” was  יהדות  or “Yahadút”, from the Hebrew word  יהודי  (or Yhudá”) meaning “the Jewish people” and the suffix  ־ות  (or “-ót) meaning “the tradition of”. The ismed word that we employ — Judaism — is found in Maccabees 2 in the Koine Greek language by Hellenistic Jews, written around 124 BCE (over a thousand years after the foundation of Hebrew monotheism), rendered as  ιουδαϊσμός  (or “Ioudaismós”).

The word “Zoroastrianism” is first attested from 1854 as an anglicization of the ancient Greek Ζωροάστρης (meaning Zōroástrēs” or “Zoroaster”) borrowed from the Avestan word     or “Zarathustra”. Ancient Iranians referred to their religion as   orMazdayasna” translating to “worship of Mazda” (also romanized as “Mazdaism”). The wor   orMazda” both identifies the name of the Iranian Creator deity, and also, translates to “wisdom”.

The isming of the religion of post-Classical Arabs has been noted for its inadequacy, and identified in the contemporary era as being largely offensive to the Islamic populations. Until the 20th century, the monotheistic religion of  ٱلْإِسْلَام‎  (or al-Islām”) was identified by Europeans as “Mohammedanism” (or “Muhammadanism), inappropriately implying that the prophet Muhammad was divine himself, in the same way that Christians think of Jesus of Nazareth as divine.

People from the Punjab region of India refer to their religious tradition as  ਸਿੱਖੀ  (or Sikhī) anglicized to the English-speaking world as “Sikhism”. The word comes from the Sanskrit root  शिक्षा  or “śikṣā” meaning “to learn” or “to study”. (This recognition of the religious practitioner as a “student” is also found in the “Confucian tradition).

The same is true of “Hinduism”, an anglicization of the Sanskrit  सनातन धर्म  or “Sanātana Dharma” meaning “Eternal Order“. In fact, the word “Hinduitself was used by non-Indians to refer to people living around the Indus river. Ancient Indo-Iranian populations would have referred to themselves as आर्य or “Arya” (from which we get the term “Aryan“).

Jainism” is first attested from 1858 as an anglicization of the Sanskrit adjectiveजैन Jaina” which comes from the Sanskrit name for the 6thcentury BCE tradition  जिन  (or “Jina”). The word “Jina” is related to the verb  जि  meaning “to conquer”, coming from  जय  (or jaya”) meaning “victory”. The word “Jain” indicates a spiritualconqueror”.

Our rendering of “Buddhism” is an anglicization of the original Pali बुद्ध धम्म  (or “Buddha Dhamma“) meaning approximatelyThe Awakened One’s Eternal Law. The first recorded use of “Buddhism was in 1801, after Europeans romanized the spelling of Indic vocabulary.

There is NO direct Chinese equivalent to the word “Confucianism” since it has never been organized as a formal institution. The word was coined in 1836 by Sir Francis Davis, a British sinologist, and second Governor of Hong Kong who reduced the vast collection of ancient Chinese practices into a title named after the philosopher Kǒng Fūzǐ ( or “Master Kong”). While no single Chinese word or logogram represents the collection of beliefs and practices that developed from the teachings of Master Kong (anglicized as “Confucius”), the word  儒  (or “”) roughly translates as a “Man receiving instruction from Heaven” (also, a “scholar”), and is used to describe a student of Master Kong’s body of works.

The Taoists of ancient China identified the universal principle as or “Dào”, meaning “road”, “path” or “Way”. In China, the religious tradition is written 道教 or “Dàojiào” pronounced /’daʊ.ʨaʊ/ (or, for English mono-linguists, roughly transliterated asdow-chyow”). It was anglicized asTaoism” in 1838.

Shintoism”— the anglicized name for the native religion of Japanprovides an interesting example of an ismized tradition. The word “Shinto” is of Chinese origin, constructed from the Kanji logograms for the words  神 Shén”, (meaning “God”) and    Dào” (meaning “Way”) rendering  神道  or “Shéndào. However, Shinto populations do not employ this phrase as often as they do the Japanese  かむながらのみち  or “kan’nagara no michi”, (written in the Hirgana writing system) loosely translated as way of the divine transmitted from time immemorial”. Consequently, the word “Shintoism is the anglicization of two syllables from Japanese Kanji, inherited from ancient China’s Hanji logograms.

Christianity has been the dominant tradition of the post-Classical, and modern worlds; thus, it has avoided being reductively ismed (since the people who accused false traditions of being mere isms tended to be Christian, themselves). The word “Christianism” is occasionally used to express contempt for Christian fundamentalism (much like “Islamism” is used to indicate contempt for Islamic fundamentalism.)

Even early Christians did NOT refer to their tradition using the same vocabulary as do modern Christians. Like Taoists, they used the metaphor of της οδου (or “tês hodoû”) meaning “The Way“. A non-Christian, community in Antioch first coined the term  Χριστιανός  (or christianós“) to described the followers of The Way. Within 70 years, the early Church Father Ignatius of Antioch employed the term of  Χριστιανισμός  (or “Christianismós“) to refer to the Christianity.

Pleasure Wisdom

Regardless of a preference to “
Epicurean philosophy” versus “Epicureanism”, the insight of Epicurus’ philosophy demystifies nature and deflates the superstition of common religion. Epicurus anticipated the sciences of particle physics, optics, meteorology, neurology, and psychiatry. His logic was NOT one of theoretical axioms, but of a demonstrable hedonic calculus. Epicurus knew Virtue as a guide post to happiness, but NOT as happiness, itself.

Here, you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.

Cheers, friends!

Further Reading:
Hiram’s “On Isms


Works Cited

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Beekes, Robert, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Leiden, Netherlands, Brill, 2010.

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de Vaan, Michiel, Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages, vol. 7, of Leiden Indo-European Etymological Dictionary Series, Alexander Lubotsky ed., Leiden: Brill, 2008.

Fowler, H.W., A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Oxford University Press, 1926.

Grose, Francis, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, London, 1785; 2nd ed., London, 1788; 3rd ed., London, 1796; expanded by others as Lexicon Balatronicum. A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence, London, 1811.

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Johnson, Samuel, A Dictionary of the English Language, London, 1755.

Klein, Dr. Ernest, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Amsterdam: Elsevier Scientific Publishing Co., 1971.

Lewis, Charlton T., and Short, Charles, A New Latin Dictionary, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1891.

Liberman, Anatoly, Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology, University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Liddell, Henry George, and Robert Scott, eds., Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, Oxford University Press, 1883.

McSparran, Frances, chief editor, The Middle English Compendium, University of Michigan, 2006.

Room, Adrian, Place Names of the World, 2nd ed., McFarland & Co., 2006.

The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., Clarendon Press, 1989.

Watkins, Calvert, ed., The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, 2nd ed., Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000.

Weekley, Ernest, An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, John Murray, 1921; reprint 1967, Dover Publications.

Whitney, William Dwight, ed., The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, New York: The Century Co., 1902

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.

Further Reading:
Lucian: Selected Dialogues (Oxford World’s Classics)

Happy Herculaneum Day!

Happy Herculaneum Day! Today is the anniversary of the eruption of the volcano that destroyed the city of Herculaneum, which hosted both Philodemus of Gadara and the poet Horace. In memory of those who came before us, this month we published links to essays and quotes from sources to help students of Epicurean philosophy who wish to deepen their understanding of the content of the Philodeman scrolls on piety and on property management.

First Principle of Autarchy

Second Principle of Autarchy

Fourth Principle of Autarchy

Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Principles of Autarchy


First Principle of Piety

Second, Third and Fourth Principles of Piety

FIfth, Sixth, and Seventh Principle of Piety