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Epicureanism and the Live Foods Lifestyle

When someone or something attacks an ant-hill, soldier ants will swarm in a matter of seconds around the threat and keep it contained.  Similarly, when we are scarred due to violence or due to an accident, or when a virus or foreign bacteria enters our bodies, some of our blood cells behave like soldier ants swarming around the threat, containing it, coagulating blood in order to ensure that the precious resource is not lost, and a vast concerted effort by the immune system is carried out without any conscious effort on our part.

Nature, evolution, and natural selection, have given us the means to defend ourselves from threats and to survive.  There is a dietary lifestyle, made famous in part by Max Gerson (who elaborated a natural cancer therapy that bears his name) and by natural health pioneer Ann Wigmore, known as the live foods lifestyle.  You may have read or heard of the ‘raw foodies’, or ‘live foodists’ online or during your visits to health stores.  The philosophy behind live foods is that the body already has the wisdom to cure itself, that we simply have to optimize its potential by eating food that does not tax the immune system.

Live foodists believe that if one cooks food over a certain temperature (for most foods, generally over 118 degrees F), the enzymes (which help our bodies to assimilate and convert the foods to energy) begin to die and the nutritional value of the food is lost.

Let food be your medicine and let medicine be your food. – Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine

In recent years, a new field known as gastro-neurology has emerged.  Research demonstrates that humans have what’s being called a second brain in the stomach, which is about the size of a cat’s brain.  I am more tempted to call it the first brain, having evolved earlier.  Our main brain could have only grown out of a less complex, more primal organ.  This Scientific American article states:

Cutting-edge research is currently investigating how the second brain mediates the body’s immune response; after all, at least 70 percent of our immune system is aimed at the gut to expel and kill foreign invaders.

UCLA’s Mayer is doing work on how the trillions of bacteria in the gut “communicate” with enteric nervous system cells (which they greatly outnumber). His work with the gut’s nervous system has led him to think that in coming years psychiatry will need to expand to treat the second brain in addition to the one atop the shoulders.

Just as the soldier ants use chemicals to communicate with each other, the neurons in our stomach also coordinate communication throughout our bodies in order to heal and protect us.

My own experiments with live foods took place mainly during 2009, after I went to the emergency room twice with heart palpitations and was forced by my doctor (and by my body) to overcome caffeine addiction.  I read that one is encouraged to drink lots of water during this process and that the body was detoxing.

As I delved into the healing process, I decided to experience a full live-foods detox, including colon hydrotherapy to fully cleanse my colon.  Immediately after the colon cleanse, I felt more calm, alive, in control of my body and mind, and alert.  I even noticed aromas from flowers in my neighborhood that I had never noticed prior to this experience, although I had been living in this neighborhood for about five years.  My senses of sight and smell got more acute as a result of the colon cleanse.

This was very unexpected and naturally, although I’m not entirely a raw-foodist, I still incorporate much of the wisdom from that time into my lifestyle and I’ve encouraged some of my friends to learn about it.

My live foods experiments were a major learning experience for me and changed my relationship with food forever.  After this, I began brewing my own kombucha, I’ve experimented with sea weeds, superfoods like raw cacao and maca, and all-natural mood boosters like yerba maté, durian and kava.

Epicureanism and the Live Foods Lifestyle

I am sharing all of this here because it was Epicurus who said: The beginning and root of every good is the pleasure of the stomach.  He also encouraged a simple life, and as far as simple living, it does not get simpler than the live foods lifestyle: a vegan diet of fruits, uncooked vegetables, nuts, seeds, greens, and fermented foods with healthy gut bacteria like kombucha, kim chee, etc.

But also, Epicurus taught that what is good is pleasurable and that what is pleasurable is good: that body and mind have the wisdom to recognize that which is good for us.  I very strongly believe this, but I also believe that for the last 100 years, humans have been eating an unnatural, unhealthy, processed diet that has damaged our natural responses to food and devolved into addictions to sugar, caffeine, and other evils.  Modern man oftentimes is led by bad bacteria in his gut, or by addictions in his brain, to think that foods that are bad for him are good and vice versa.

The connection between the stomach and the emotional life, and our sense of well-being, is very deep and it probably goes back to the early days of our lives, when we were breast fed by our mothers and felt entirely safe, complete, in the state of pure pleasure, of primal ataraxia that newborn babies experience.

The immune system, what it does is distinguish between me and the other, and when one falls in love, the loved one is not perceived as other by the body. – Amit Goswami

In Epicureanism, all spirituality is embodied.  The visceral, the guts, seem to be the location of much of our primal reactions and instincts.  The emotional and existential aspects of consumption and diet, and the relationship between eating and associating with others, deserve further treatment within the Epicurean tradition.  When we relate to others, and when we consume food, we are bringing into our bodies and experiences the other, something external, and making it a part of us.  Research demonstrates that this has physical and health repercussions.

Rather than propose an ideal Epicurean diet, what follows is a brief survey of the diet of ancient Greeks, which would have been Epicurus’ diet, plus an invitation to consider experimenting with the live foods lifestyle and the consumption of mood-boosting superfoods in our culinary experiments.

What Epicurus Ate

Ancient Greeks dined almost daily on bread (leavened and unleavened) and water.  These were the two main features at Epicurus’ table, according to sources.  Epicurus stayed hydrated daily.

We also know that, from time to time, he enjoyed cheese.  Goat cheese and cottage cheese were the main cheeses consumed in ancient Greece.

Milk was believed to be a barbaric food by the Greeks.  However, in its fermented form (as yogurt or cheese), it was a delicacy.  We know today that fermented foods such as these have the good bacteria that helps us to digest our food and to fight disease, and that most humans lack the enzymes to digest milk properly after a certain age.  And so, the choice of consuming cheese as a major source of protein, which already contains within it the bacteria that helps to digest it, is wise indeed.

Epicurus’ diet also incorporated other features of the now-famous Mediterranean diet: olives and olive oil, honey and honey cakes, lentils and peas, onions, cabbage, and greens.  A little wine, which was diluted in water, was also consumed almost daily.  In the mornings, a typical breakfast consisted in bread dipped in wine.

Beef and pork were only consumed rarely and during religious festivals by most Greeks.  Fish was the main animal-derived protein consumed with some frequency: sardines, anchovies, tuna, octopus, and shellfish.  It was cooked in olive oil and flavored with rosemary, bay leaf, and thyme.  We know today that fish such as these contain Omega 3 oils, which act as mood-boosters, natural anti-depressants, and are excellent food for the brain.

To the many virtues of the now-popular Mediterranean diet, we must add the fact that ancient Greeks did not consume sugar as many do today.  Instead, they sweetened their foods with figs, dates, raisins, apples, pomegranates, fruits, and honey.  Anyone who has experimented with alternative sweeteners knows that it only takes a little honey to create a simple yet sumptuous meal, and that dates are usually so dense in flavor that a little goes a long way.  This more natural, less processed, way of sweetening and flavoring food certainly contributes to the health benefits that the Mediterranean diet is today known for.

Only wolves and lions eat alone.  You should not eat, not even a snack, on your own. – Epicurus

How one ate was just as important as what one ate.  Epicurus’ own conviction on this reflected Greek conventions.  Ancient Greeks ate together without utensils, using their hands and using bread as a spoon just as Ethiopians do today.  Whereas other apes groom each other in order to bond, Epicurus believed that civilized humans eat together: eating is a communal event in an Epicurean lifestyle.

Live Foods and Superfoods

The world of live foods is as vast as nature itself.  If you’re curious about live foods, my advise is that you learn at your own pace and treat each experiment as a learning process.  I have friends that do month-long live foods experiments.

Some people are 100 % into live foods and even go through periods of fruitarianism.  However, most raw-foodists do an 80-20% or a 60-40% combination of cooked and live foods.  While these lifestyles are not as austere as one might think, and in fact most of our ancestors fully lived these lifestyles for hundreds of millenia and the foods enjoyed are quite pleasant, it’s usually not good to be an extremist and temporary experiments with live foods are probably the ideal.

Most of us need to reacquaint ourselves with the simple pleasure of eating an apple, greens, a pineapple, an avocado, or a tomato in its natural state.  THIS is what live foods are about.  It’s also what Epicureanism is about: the desire to eat is a necessary pleasure, and we’re advised to fully nurture and enjoy it.

Even if you incorporate live foods as a small percentage of your dietary lifestyle, you will not only recognize the benefits in your body and mind but you will also receive valuable education from nature itself and you will find yourself enriched by the experience.

Hiram Crespo

Links:

Understand Epicurean influence in early Greek medicine: Hippocrates of Kos, the Father of Clinical Medicine, and Asclepiades of Bithynia, the Father of Molecular Medicine, by Christos Yapijakis, of the Epicurean Garden in Athens

Can Raw Foods Help with Depression?, from The Renegade Health Show

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The Virtue of Suavity and the System of Mutual Correction

Suavity is one of the key virtues of our tradition.  It’s the art of kind, sweet speech that Epicurean friends were known for in antiquity.

Epicurus was critical of the sophistry of other philosophical schools: that ability to twist meanings and words, and to convince others even of untruths.  There are times when philosophers use rhetoric to conceal Truth.  Aristotle considered rhetoric to be part of the organon, the toolkit of the philosopher.  But the Epicurean organon employed instead suavity.

True philosophy, Epicurus believed, is not about verbal ability.  Epicureans hold Truth in high regard and always prefer the plain, concise, clear Truth over dishonest wordplay.

But sometimes the Truth can be difficult to swallow and, if not careful, we can easily seem cynical when acting in service of Truth.  We must be mindful of the content of our character and the true purpose behind our words when we engage others in philosophical discourse, and even in trivial conversation.

Always tell the truth with kindness.  Never lie with kindness, or tell the truth with bitterness. – Sai Baba

By always telling the truth with kindness, we encourage people around us to always be authentic, at ease in their own skin, mindful, and insightful.  And so the art of suavity, the art of kindly telling the Truth, the art of wholesome communication, is an important virtue for us.  Suavity can be active, even bold.  In fact, it’s particularly necessary to employ suavity when informing others of severe Truths.  A vaccine may be painful, but it’s necessary at times: so with words of Truth.

There are many ways of saying things.  When we truly care about others, we should seek to give them insights that will help them to better themselves and to suffer less.  Epicurus considered those who don’t tell us the Truth to be false friends: untruth is a sign of unfaithfulness.

Ancient Epicureans engaged in a system of mutual criticism, which evolved into a central aspect of the tradition.  This system of mutual criticism is discussed at length by Norman W Dewitt in his piece titled Organization and Procedure in Epicurean Groups, where he explained how crucial this system is to Epicureanism as a practice, how it requires trust, and how one must learn to be humble and accept corrections.

Those that were more knowledgeable than others about the philosophy were expected to serve as mentors to newer Epicureans.  These Guides were also expected to abide by a set of rules, to never abuse their status, to always employ suavity in their mentoring process, and they in turn had to answer to more senior Epicureans so that there were checks and balances.

Suavity seems to have been the social lubricant in this process.  Suavity was part of Epicurean culture and of the very identity of an Epicurean.  One of the tasks of every Epicurean is to cultivate suavity, to learn the ability to always tell the truth with kindness.

INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY OF FRIENDS OF EPICURUS


Against Fatalism and False Consolations

Against Fatalism

“It is written”
Nothing is written!
“Truly, for some men, nothing is written, unless they write it.”
– From Lawrence of Arabia

Epicurean philosophy dismisses the Goddess of Fortune as a false idol and acts as a shield against fatalistic thinking: the belief that fate, Fortuna as Epicurus would personify her, has real power over us.  Many religions also teach that there is a destiny, that there are inexorable oracles and prophecies, and that we are enslaved to almighty, eternal schemes.  Ruling classes have always been fond of these types of teachings: they’re useful when a nation goes to war (particularly if the country being attacked is mentioned somewhere in scripture), or to demonize the other, or to keep social classes resigned to their lot.  Like other philosophical materialists, Epicurus firmly held that the human agent is free and that we are empowered as the authors of our own destinies.

Organized religions often steal the power of their adherents by immersing them in fatalistic belief systems, but there are also New Age movements that propose prophetic and fatalistic views, even if they partially give a nod to the realization that we are the change we seek to see.  Not all folk wisdom is bad, however.  Part of the role of true philosophy is to help us discern between genuine, rational self-help and empowerment versus superstition.

Accepting the Yes

Years ago, I visited a church affiliated to the Agape Church, which is a New Age (‘ecumenical’) church visited by celebrities in Los Angeles and heard them cite the following teaching: “Let go of the how and accept the Yes!

I thought: how convenient!  I attempted the exercise of surrender and, frankly, enjoyed how it felt.  But is this a philosophically legitimate piece of advise?  Can this remedy work within philosophy?

Epicurus did speak on the importance of feeling that we’re safe in the world.  In one of his teachings about friendship, Epicurus mentioned that by surrounding ourselves with friends, we feel safe.  The safety felt by others when surrendering to a higher power, in Epicureanism is acquired by trusting philosophy, friends, community, and nature.  It has a tangible context.

I am not fully against the Agape remedy.  I was merely citing it as a sample of the type of New Age folk wisdom that we’re surrounded by.  The above advise on letting go of the how and accepting the yes might be recommended for things over which we have no control, and it may work effectively in producing a state of safety and trust in nature (which easily provides all the things we need), but for all else it might be a false consolation and probably should be used along with an action plan.

The danger of these types of teaching is that one may remain ineffective in tackling life’s challenges.  Without an action plan, wishful thinking is just wishful thinking.  Tangible efforts must be given, a sacrifice of action, if we wish to penetrate the facticity and the reality of the world in which we are in effect free agents and co-creators.  This world is our work, our project, and to a great extent our creation and our projection.

Having said this, I do believe we must accept the Yes, and do so without a second thought.  Life, and the moment of Now, the only tangible reality into which we’re woven, is to be affirmed and relished.  Kierkegaard, the hesitant precursor of existentialism who was frequently preoccupied with issues of “yes or no”, is one of the most depressing philosophers I’ve read.  Philosophy should not demolish but build the human spirit.  Studies show that people of conviction are much happier than people who hesitate.

While embracing the pragmatic importance of accepting our mortal limitations, Epicurus didn’t hesitate or question whether we should say yes or no to life, to friendship, to happiness.  He brought the world the true consolation of certainty, empowerment and freedom that all true and wholesome philosophy should provide.

Don’t be fooled: a beautiful life is yours to conquer, if you want it.  Nothing is written, unless you write it!

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The Epicurean Revival

Now, farewell.  Remember all my words.– Epicurus’ last words

A funny twist happened in the 2012 narrative when the world didn’t end and no significant historical events transpired on the solstice.  Many 2012-ers began to speak of the world coming to a start.  Although I normally remain cynical, I liked the idea of a fresh perspective, the idea that periodically one can start again, remove the dross of the ages to use Marxist verbiage, or bad faith to use existentialist verbiage.  Alan Watts said our history is not our destiny.  Without renewal, we’d be slaves to the past.

At around the beginning of 2013, I decided to not only send an Act of Defection to the dioceses where I had been baptized as an infant without my consent, but also to take a vow to formally adopt Epicureanism as my philosophy, as was done in antiquity according to the sources which indicate that Epicurus “instituted a hierarchical system of levels among his followers, and had them swear an oath on his core tenets“.

I did this, in part, because for months I’ve been saying: “Wouldn’t it be great if the ancient schools and the Epicurean Gardens had not been dismantled, but had continued to exist until our day?”  Now, I’ve decided that rather than continuing to say this, I will be the change I want to see.

Some of my Epicurean associates question whether Seneca’s account of the oath linked back to Epicurus, or whether it was the invention of later disciples.  I don’t know that this matters: if the vow feels authentic, then it’s valid, as far as I’m concerned.  The formality of the Act of Defection led me to research the Epicurean oath, and after deliberating on whether or not to formally adopt the philosophy as my own, I wrote a simple discipleship resolution that reflected my level of adherence and am now officially and formally a proud disciple of Epicurus.  The following is a generic contemporary version of the vow that I wrote for this:

I, ___ , freely and out of my own authenticity declare myself a disciple of Epicurus and I resolve to follow his teachings and to adopt his doctrine as my own, to further it, update it, and make it relevant in my context.  I take refuge in his teachings and I resolve to share them with anyone who expresses a genuine interest in them.  I resolve to treat my mind as an Epicurean Garden and to cultivate it.  I resolve to apply the four remedies, to seek the three goods and to cultivate a blissful state of ataraxia.

In recent months, I took to delving into the Epicurean doctrine in a full manner, seeking to maximize the benefits and the consolations of philosophy.  And so I did not take this oath, until I had thoroughly studied the foundations upon which I was setting my spiritual welfare and, having considered that Epicurean Gardens persisted for seven centuries and obviously fulfilled the social, mental, and other needs of adherents, I decided that this noble philosophy was worthwhile, robust, relevant, and inspiring, that it represented the best and the highest of the secular humanist tradition, and that I needed and desired the light discipline that it provided me with.

Less than two months later, I founded the International Society of Friends of Epicurus with the help and/or solidarity of several independent groups and individuals, including the support of Cassius of the New Epicurean webpage.  We now have two meetup groups in New Jersey and Chicago.

Our vision is a full revival of the ancient schools and Gardens, so that philosophy will be seen again as the legitimate alternative to superstition and ignorance.  Just as there are temples for many religions in every city and village, there should be Epicurean Gardens and philosophical groups in every city.

We live in very confusing times.  The legacy of the dark ages still clouds the minds of many.  Discussions of ethics in our national discourse, unfortunately, too often degenerate into supernatural claims that seek to legitimize unwholesome policies based on wrong views: the habitual denial of civil rights to gay people, the predatory excesses of the church, the hesitation to fund legitimate science research that might save lives, and a general spirit of hostility towards science, even in some science classrooms, are some examples of the sad repercussions of the prevalence of false opinion in public policy.

Philosophy, which gives us the only proper context for any ethical debate, is flatly dismissed in our public discourse.  Are we not homo sapiens, the wise hominid?  Is sapiens not what makes us civilized, and unlike beasts?

We Epicureans are Secular Humanists, by definition, but said label is too broad to really encompass the core of our true values and the essence of our true spirituality.  Epicureans offer a fresh ethical discourse rooted in nature and in philosophy.  Our tradition contextualizes ethical issues within the realm of tangible human suffering versus tangible human happiness and tranquility.  Our tradition even stands at the very root of seminal notions that define the very basics of the worldview of Western civilization, like the idea of the social contract as a tool for non-violent cooperation and for the rule of law.

We’re told about our inherent right to be happy (or to not be happy: we’re certainly free to be miserable) … but Epicurus offered us the methodology for the pursuit of happiness.  Choices, choices, choices.  At every moment, we choose a path that leads to misery or happiness.  I, for one, do not take for granted the legacy of our Hegemon and have made my choice to recollect Epicurus’ words.

Hiram Crespo, Freelance Writer and Blogger
Editor of the Society of Epicurus webpage

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Questions and Answers: by Robert Hanrott

Robert Hanrott is the author of the Epicurus Blog, which has been useful in keeping Epicureanism relevant with regards to both contemporary issues and eternal concerns.

He has always lived between Britain and the east coast of the U.S. and was recently interviewed by students who were researching Epicureanism. His disclaimer is that the answers reflect only his understanding and not all Epicureans may agree with him. Below is the interview.

Questions and Answers

1. Why was Epicurus’ philosophy looked down upon by his contemporaries and eventually abandoned?

I would like to suggest that the answer to the first part of this question is psychological. One of the main things that distinguished the Stoics from the Epicureans was that the Stoics embraced public service and politics with enthusiasm and the Epicureans did not. The extrovert Stoics were out there socializing, networking, competing for honor and advancement on the one hand; the introvert and cerebral Epicureans, were content to be in the Garden, literally and metaphorically, enjoying a more stress-free life among a small group of friends. It is understandable that the extroverts, apparently more popular and in demand (and in charge), should look down on the more retiring Epicureans, who rejected the polis and involvement in politics. Meanwhile, the bulk of the Greek population was illiterate and preoccupied with survival during a time when Greek hegemony was collapsing, and had no access to the teachings of Epicurus. It was the elite who rejected Epicurus.

Under the Roman Republic politics were relatively more responsive to the people. After the civil war, the advent of the emperors and the assumption of military rule the regime became increasingly threatening and unpredictable. Independent thought and comment could result in death. As a result, Epicureanism became hugely popular and many people retired to the countryside, eschewing public life.

Epicureanism was alive and well until the time of Constantine and the emergence of Christianity as a state religion. Epicureans after that time were anathematized as anti-establishment and atheist. In fact, Epicurus was no atheist. Gods, he thought, existed, but they did not reward or punish humans, thus eliminating anxiety about angering them. Epicurean ideas on the after-life, however, were in stark contradiction to the fundamental belief of the Christians. It has to be pointed out that Epicureans were not picked on exclusively; many groups, including “heretical” Christian groups, ceased to be tolerated.

2. How did Lucretius’s epic poem De rerum natura contribute to Epicureanism and eventually instigate a revolution swerving the world into modernity?

One has the impression that Epicurus was a very serious person and his work, now lost, may have be hard going. At any rate, Lucretius sought to explain Epicureanism in an accessible way, and his six volumes of poetry now rank as one of the most outstanding pieces of literature in the Latin language. You might have the greatest idea ever thought up, but if you cannot popularize it you are lost. It was the role of Lucretius to elucidate the ideas of the great philosopher.

De rerum natura principally deals with atomism, nature, the universe, the body and the soul. Everything, he says, can be explained by natural laws, and not by superstition or the intervention of over-active gods. The idea set forth is that the gods waft around Mount Olympus and do not create universes. The soul dies with the body. Death is natural and not to be feared, for we and our atoms are all re-cycled in the grand scheme of things. There is a tendency for atoms to swerve at will and unexpectedly, which explains the free will enjoyed by human beings. Earthquakes and sicknesses are not caused by witchcraft. People get sick from natural causes. Nothing can be produced from nothing, and nothing can be reduced to nothing. The planets and space have their origin in an infinite number of atoms in a great void. The sun and moon, day and night, the seasons and natural calamities all obey a set of natural laws.

Lucretius has been described as a poet weak in science, but his real importance lies in the fact that his work survived until modern times, and although he postulated all sorts of wild possibilities about the nature of planets and stars, he and Epicurus (with a bow to Democritus before him) are responsible for helping to lay a foundation for the work of more scientifically proficient men during the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

The explosion, or revolution, that is scientific progress since the time of Galileo and Newton had one of its origins in the Garden. I say “one of its origins” because, for instance, a century before De rerum natura was rediscovered, men like William of Ockam were already applying scientific methods to the natural world. They were good scientists. Not everything can be put down to Lucretius.

3. Is there a strong connection between Renaissance Humanism and Lucretian Epicureanism? How are they similar? How are they different?

I would like to address this by quoting modern humanist beliefs, because they are almost timeless. Humanism is a philosophy of life that, without super-naturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity. The following are the tenets of modern Humanism (American Humanist Society, 2003):

* Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.

* Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.

* Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis (the espousal of science).

* Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals.

* Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships.

* Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.

* We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.

* We aim to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community.

* We are concerned for the well-being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views.

* We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.

So how has time and education changed the view of humanism? What would Epicurus and Renaissance Europeans really recognize and agree with if you could explain it all in their languages and find the right words?

The Renaissance listener, and Greeks and Romans in their Epicurean Gardens, might want to query and debate the emphasis on democracy (it hadn’t survived the Athenian debacle), and human rights and civil liberties, which are 20th century constructs. Conservation might not be counted as important in their sparsely populated worlds, and evolution, although implicit in Epicureanism, would be a novel idea. Time and culture make it difficult to know for certain, but after a long explanation and much debate I would guess that humanists of all centuries would be in general agreement with the drift of the above tenets.

4. How was the Enlightenment Era connected to Epicureanism?

“Dare to be free and respect the freedom and autonomy of others. It is only through the growth of knowledge that a person can be liberated from enslavement by prejudices, idols and avoidable errors.” — Immanuel Kant, 1785

The Enlightenment stood for the ethics of humanism, scientific objectivity and democratic values. Humanism is in many ways the modern version of Epicureanism, rejecting superstition and supporting a rational, scientific approach to living based upon the individual, his enjoyment of life and self-realization.

Epicureanism enjoyed a big revival in the 18th Century. Part of the reason for this can be found in the history of the previous century, when religious wars wracked Europe. The Germans in particular experienced some of the most barbarous and destructive violence in history up to that time. The Catholic Church was associated with reaction and obscurantism. Anti-clericalism was rife and has continued in countries like France to this day.

18th Century Europe, while it still had its wars, enjoyed a century of increasing wealth and education. Printing put the histories, the ideas, the philosophies and the poetry of the ancients in the hands of a wide audience. De rerum natura became a best seller among the elite. Church men still railed against godlessness, but the cat was out of the bag. In England the Royal Society promoted new professional scientific methods, and the efforts of the first British scientists were amplified all over Europe. Isaac Newton was the most prominent of the new scientists, but he had many colleagues. Epicurus was admired for departing from the age-old religious explanations of the world and the universe, and at last careful observation and experiment started to bear fruit.

5. Who do you feel is the most influential historical figure to have been influenced by Epicureanism? Why?

Epicureanism influenced many people down the ages, including such disparate people as the poet Horace, Diderot, Montaigne, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, Darwin, Ayn Rand, and Karl Marx. But my own candidate for most influential historical figure is Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). I pick him because of his influence in creating the American Constitution, a practical model of Enlightenment thinking. He and his colleagues were careful and pragmatic, keeping what was good in ancient practice and custom, but applying modern checks and balances to avoid too much power accruing to one branch of government. His pragmatism showed in how he dealt with slavery; he was rational and no extremist. His way of dealing with the outcome of a political revolution has been an example ever since. In 1819, Jefferson wrote a letter to a Mr. Short, a letter that started:

“… As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.”

6. How has Epicureanism influenced your life and the world we live in today?

It is said that most people pick the religion, the philosophy (and the politics) that suit their character, outlook and upbringing. In my case, the idea of the Garden, the less stressful life, doing my bit to ensure that everyone gets along together, living with moderation – all this appealed. Being skeptical about received wisdom of all kinds, and finding it difficult to thrive in tribal atmospheres where conformity is king, the idea of Epicureanism attracted me. I agree with Cyril Bailey when he described Epicurus as “the apostle of common sense.”

On the other hand I find it quite difficult to discern Epicurean influence in today’s world, aside from the benefits of science. It is true that the Western world (at least) has wholeheartedly adopted the less agreeable aspect of Epicureanism, which is materialism, although one could equally argue that that is down to capitalism, not Epicurus. The modern world has become a bit more rational and rejects superstition, but the things that make Epicureanism attractive and civilized: moderation, friendship, relative lack of selfishness and greed, a calm life, avoidance of pain and acceptance of death as natural are not strong not characteristics of our dominant culture. They surely exist, but remain of interest to a minority of the population.

7. How would the world be different today if Epicureanism was never restored?

Given the number of influential thinkers affected directly or indirectly by Epicurus (see my paper, Epicureanism after Epicurus) the intellectual history of the world would have been less rich, and I doubt whether the scientific revolution would ever have taken place. This would have left the world with an ever-rising population but a fraction of the technology we now possess.

8. How strong is Epicureanism in contemporary society?

I would be surprised if more than 5% of the American public had heard of it. But its influence lives on and permeates society nonetheless, owing to the work of people like Friedrich Nietzsche, Darwin, Ayn Rand, and Karl Marx, whether you like what they stand for or not.

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This is why I am an Epicurean

Reducing fear

I was attracted to Epicureanism in the first place by what Epicurus said about fear. Many years ago a girlfriend told me, “You will never be content until you have reduced your level of fear. It is obvious in everything you do“.  My wife calls it “eternal vigilance” At best it is an underlying and pervasive anxiety, at worst it leads to instant panics and irrationality. It is a burden.

So much of what I have done in my life has been driven by fear: fear of failure, fear of seeing the family reduced in the world, fear of being out of work, fear of letting down those who depend on me, fear of lack of money, fear of being disliked. So many fears!

I think most people are driven by fear to some degree or other. It is a normal human emotion, and it has some benefits. Without fear our ancestors would have been eaten by saber-toothed tigers. Without fear, the human race would not have achieved the levels of comfort, wealth, health, and control over its environment that it has achieved. Fear has been responsible for many good things as well as many evils.

Jesus told us not to fear, but Epicurus says it so simply, without the interpolations of priests. Some Christian sects build huge revenues out of a mixture of hope and fear: hope of the afterlife, and fear of everlasting damnation, brimstone and fire if you fail to adhere to their teachings. They use fear as a mechanism of social and political control. At present politicians, supported by the right-wing Christians, frighten us with the so-called “War on Terror”. A half-attentive population believes it all and votes for these people out of fear.

So the idea of personal “lack of fear” is attractive. Of course, you cannot eliminate all fear, nor should you. But Epicurus taught that the greatest objective in life is peace of mind — peace of mind comes when you have nothing to fear. He told us not to fear death — death itself does not hurt. And he told us that there is indeed eternal life, but not in the sense that Catholics believe. To Epicurus eternal life means that your atoms are recycled forever in a myriad of forms, from which there is nothing to fear, for nature is impartial.

Try not to fret about things you cannot control.

I suppose there is nothing exclusively Epicurean about this stricture. I am sure many philosophies, maybe several religions, teach the same thing. But I heard it first from Epicurus. Of course, it is one thing to quote the saying and quite another to live by it. You can’t have peace of mind if you are constantly busying yourself about things you cannot control. But we all do it, and maybe never stop doing it in one way or another. When one is retired and one has more time to think about the world, the more one gets concerned about misery and misgovernment and other age-old problems that will never be fixed. The irony is that the more retired you are the less power you have to change anything at all. It’s a good principle, though, and helpful.

Mental pleasure is better than bodily pleasure. Keep your mind alive.

It is inconvenient, often painful, to have things go wrong with your body, and therefore I assiduously look after it, but mainly for practical reasons. As I have become older I’ve become more concerned with matters of the mind. What a voyage of discovery it is trying to discover what the brain is capable of! Is there a limit to the number of melodies the brain can remember? Is there a limit to the number of tunes that can pop into the head, to be written down? Equipped with a rhyming dictionary and a thesaurus, where is the limit to the power of the brain to adopt unexpected rhyming couplets that take the story forward while still scanning, making sense and even sometimes being funny? Drawings of hippos are not great art, but the real trick is a trick of the brain — can it come up with an apposite, hopefully amusing concept or message that can be illustrated with a drawing of a hippo? How is one’s lateral thinking? Can one find connections between current and historical events and make from them a good story or a political case?

These things give me more pleasure than a good dinner or even an exotic holiday, much as I enjoy both.

Live simply and prudently, with self-control and moderation. Seek simple pleasures, those that satisfy natural and necessary desires, chief of which are food, drink, clothing, shelter, friendship and love.

I think Jesus says something very similar, and I’m sure the Eastern philosophies do. But it was Epicurus who made me think about it. Have I lived this way? I would like to think I have. It is really common sense, but it is difficult to do in a consumerist age, where possessions are deemed equivalent to happiness.

My only problem with this has been friendship. The reality has been that, like many men, I have been dependent on the women in my life for friends. Then, when divorce, for instance, comes along you realize whose friends they really were all along. It is disillusioning, and it can result in a withdrawal from intimacy (in the old, respectable sense of the word), for fear of rejection and the superficiality of some of the friendships one observes.

The quality of pleasure is more important than the quantity.

This is a very useful thing to tell us. We all chase around doing a host of things, hoping thereby to be happy. Actually, a few events, trips, or get-togethers of high quality are more satisfying than the constant activity and filling in of time on unsatisfying and second-rate happenings that simply leaves you tired and wishing you’d stayed at home.

Avoid upsetting and offending people

Common sense? Well yes, but not so common. Some people don’t care as long as they get what they want. Others, myself included, try their utmost to avoid offense and to please everyone (but be fierce in self-defense where necessary.) You can be more “successful” in life by pressing ahead in the face of objections and doing what you think is right regardless of the opinions of others (in your own or in the general interest). On the other hand, one lives a calmer life antagonizing as few people as possible.

“Let us live while we are alive”

Ah, there you have it! No one thanks you for living a life of self-abnegation and self-sacrifice. This is an idea popularized by the monastic movement and, later, by the puritans, neither of whom were as “pure’ as they tried to insist.

One is a long time dead. We have a brief time to enjoy the good things the earth has given us, and why not, as long as we harm no one else in the process. Only Epicurus says this, as far as I am aware. The church asks for acknowledgment of guilt, repentance, absolution, redemption, and after all that we still don’t know that we’ll go to heaven. Epicurus wants to stress the joy of living – – some churches want to stress the guilt one should feel for a host of actions or even thoughts. The congregations may sing jolly songs, but are wracked with guilt.

Epicurus absolves us from all the hang-ups and insists that we enjoy life. The implication is that this should be done with a laugh, a smile and a sense of humour.

Robert Hanrott, author of the Epicurus Blog.

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Critique of Ayn Rand and Moral Objectivism

That Ayn Rand’s rise in popularity coincides with the widest gap between rich and poor in US history should be seen as no coincidence. Her books are today much more popular than when she lived and attempts are being made by very wealthy parties to sell her ideology as the philosophy of our era.

Ayn Rand has been accused of Vulcanism, that is of exhibiting an attitude of pure logic unbalanced by empathy and humanity like the character Spock from Star Trek, who is from planet Vulcan. When people of high intelligence lack human empathy, they can be intellectually arrogant, even narcissistic.

One of the major criticisms of Ayn Rand is that all her heroes are narcissistic sociopaths, as she is: they are concerned only with themselves, with their own purpose and ambition, and they are entirely unconcerned with others.

Rand also ignores context in her assessment of reality: the persistence of her logic leads to places where philosophy gets utterly divorced from common sense and reality. Philosophical materialists must contend with the facticity that we are woven into in its entirety, even with those aspects of our facticity that are what she would view as not heroic, like the hunger of the masses.

There are practical reasons why we should address the hunger of the masses, that escape Rand. The hunger of the masses has throughout history had great power. Angry mobs can easily ignite revolutions and social upheaval. Rather than acknowledge the history of how hatred of the poor has led to their rebellion and to unrest, Rand dismisses the poor as parasites and their struggle as the pursuit of things not deserved.

There is further criticism of a lack of context in her thought. Rand argues that people have no right to be proud of accidental identities, like our race or gender, because they are not the result of our work. That’s usually a legitimate argument. However, there are people to whom society constantly says that they should be ashamed of who they are. This is the case with sexual minorities, blacks, etc. In these cases, great unnecessary emotional and mental harm is done (as quantified in rates of suicide and violence) and pride is a wholesome antidote and a remedy to shame.

The only way to accurately read the text of reality is within its con-text.

I am another you. You are another me. – Mayan proverb

But the main Epicurean criticism of Rand, many of whose followers claim Epicurean leanings, is her inability for human empathy. Even when rejecting societal consensus and the collective hypnosis of much of the general culture, Epicurus acknowledged that friendship, the ability to connect with others, is the most fundamental ingredient for being grounded, for being safe, for human happiness and well-being.

Although initially there may be a utilitarian, or selfish, reason to make a new friend, ultimately what they add to our lives is of such value that true friends may be willing to give their lives or otherwise make huge sacrifices for each other.  Regardless of why we may choose to make a new friend, ultimately the Epicurean ideal of philia is unselfish and (oh dear!) altruistic.  Altruism is the most hated word in Rand’s philosophy.  The notion that one should genuinely care for others, and act on this genuine concern is seen as unnatural devolution by Rand’s followers.

And so this is where Rand’s disciples, even those who claim to be Epicureans and who equate libertarianism with autarchy, have rejected a fundamental aspect of Epicurus’ teaching.  The most important ingredient in happiness, philia, requires a transgression against selfishness whereas Rand’s philosophy is encapsulated in a work titled The Virtue of Selfishness.

If ancient Epicureans had perceived that their mutual friendships were merely the fruit of a strategy by others to use them, their loyalties would not have endured the way they did. It would have been easy to see through this fundamental insincerity, and their whole lifestyle would have been a hypocrisy.  Instead, what we see is that the Gardens didn’t close until Justinian forced them to close in the sixth century: they obviously had consistently developed strong bonds of loyalty and friendship.  Like Normal DeWitt said, Epicureanism runs on philos.

If we develop a healthy inter-subjective view on human relations (rather than a subject-object view) and if we embrace the ideal of non-oppressive relations between equals, we’ll understand how in Epicurean doctrine, altruism and utilitarianism are not necessarily mutually contradictory.  Both are useful and necessary if we are to relate in a manner that fully recognizes all the perspectives of both subjects in the relationship.

Rand was profoundly intelligent, but reality is complex and extremes are never healthy.

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The Doctrine of Innumerable Worlds

 I am sending you, in accordance with your request, the arguments concerning an infinite number of worlds.  This doctrine came to be better articulated as a result of being turned over between the two of us face to face; for our agreements and disagreements with one another, and also our questionings, rendered the inquiry into the object of our search more precise.  The dialogue began something like this: “Diogenes,” said Theodoridas, “that the doctrine laid down by Epicurus on an infinite number of worlds is true I am confident”

– Extant Fragments of Diogenes’ Letter to Antipater

Epicurus, and it seems all the atomists, believed in the doctrine of innumerable worlds.  The doctrine is not expounded in any of the extant writings by Epicurus, who wrote about 300 scrolls, but a prominent Epicurean by the name Diogenes of Oeananda, who built a large wall in his home city and adorned it with Epicurean inscriptions, mentions the doctrine in his letter to Antipater.

The Drake Equation and Other Mathematical Models

Materialist philosophers appear to have derived this idea from the infinity of the cosmos: mathematically, such a cosmos would inherently carry within it countless possibilities.  Now that we’ve cited the source for this fascinating aspect of Epicurus’ teaching, let’s assess and update this doctrine in light of contemporary research.

As the centuries have advanced, scientists and mathematicians have made progressively more accurate attempts at identifying how many worlds are out there, although we have been able to confirm only several hundred exoplanets (outside our solar system).

According to calculations carried out by Charles Lineweaver and Daniel Grether at the University of New South Wales, at least 25 percent of Sun-like stars have planets, which would mean there are at least 100 billion stars with planets in our galaxy, and with about 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe, there would be at least 10 trillion planetary systems in the Universe.

In addition to mathematical models employed to determine how many planets, or how many planets with life might exist, there is one model used to determine how many civilizations able to communicate exist in the cosmos: the Drake Equation was devised by Dr. Frank Drake.  However, depending on what numbers we choose to enter as its variables, we may get wildly diverging amounts of habitable planets.

Harvard scholars suggests that we have 50 million habitable planets in the Milky Way Galaxy alone, based on their proposed values for the variables required in the Drake Equation.  Never mind other galaxies: we’ll never live long enough to even hope to ever make contact, so that the question is most likely irrelevant.

Corroborations on the existence and number of exoplanets have been coming in since the 1990’s.  Some of these have been discovered by astronomists and researchers working independently in all parts of the world, and other exoplanets have been discovered as part of exoplanetary research being carried out by Kepler and other telescopes specifically created for such a task.  In only a few years, Kepler has already found over 1,200 exoplanets –over 50 of them orbiting within the habitable zone–, and that was only by observing a small fraction of the sky.

But if it’s life we’re looking for, then we would need to account for the amounts of habitable moons in our galaxy.  Some of the planets in our own solar system have dozens of moons.  What if there IS a moon like Pandora out there, or like the Star Wars’ forest moon of Endor?  Adding moons to the equation would again multiply the final results.

By even the most conservative estimates, the cosmos has trillions of planets and is teeming with potentially habitable worlds.

On the Philosophical Repercussions of the Doctrine

We Epicureans represent a challenge to anyone who argues that scientific insight does not create human values, that only a subjective system of ethics can do that.  On the contrary, science is fundamental to our cosmology and to how we create our values.

The observable doctrine of the innumerable worlds, and in fact the field of astronomy, have a humbling effect on our values and both suggest that if we acquire an accurate sense of our dimension within the cosmos, we’ll have no choice but to be humble.  Genuine humility is born of this insight.  Let’s not forget that it was the scientists who first challenged the church’s teaching on the Earth being the center of the universe and of all creation having been made for, and given to, mankind.

We truly are insignificant in the scheme of things.  Carl Sagan made the exact same point in his scientific sermon titled The Pale Blue Dot, where he shared the smallest picture of Earth that the Hubble telescope had been able to send back in his time from the orbit of Saturn.  He argues that all of our petty wars, conflicts, passions, hatreds, occur within a quickly dissipating instant on a pale blue dot and are quickly forgotten; that these conflicts and hatreds, and our sense of self-importance, simply don’t matter.  I invite all my readers to take five minutes to ruminate on Sagan’s wisdom.

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Our Emblem and Motto

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The official ISFE emblem consists of the Greek-alphabet capital letter PHI in blue with the words Society of Epicurus written above it, against a white background.  The letter PHI was chosen to represent not just philosophy but also phylia, which usually gets translated as friendship, and of which Norman Dewitt said it’s the fuel on which Epicureanism runs.

The emblem represents our bonds of friendship: the central pillar is Epicurus and our shared affinity and affiliation with him is the circle that orbits around it.

The official motto of the Society is Sic Fac Omnia Tamquam Spectet Epicurus (which translates as Do all things as if Epicurus was Watching), a proverb given to us by the Iberian Stoic philosopher Seneca.

(A special thanks to Mark for his work on the emblem!!)

Epicureans by Region

Europe

Finland; city of Turku: Suomen Epikurolaiset (Finnish Epicureans)

Greece: Friends of Epicurean Philosophy

Spain (Córdoba): Please contact Antonio Pérez at apf.985@gmail.com

Australia

Sydney: Sydney Epicurus Philosophy Garden

North America

Subscribe to Happy 20th!, the Society of Epicurus Newsletter

Chicago IL area: Please contact Hiram at info@societyofepicurus.com

San Juan, Puerto Rico: Ernesto Williams at williamsbraa@gmail.com

Philadelphia PA area: Please contact Panagiotis Alexiou at pan.alexiou+sfe@gmail.com

For Twin Cities (St Paul/Minneapolis), MN area: Please contact Larry Gleason at Oldgypsy@aol.com

San Francisco CA area: Please contact Tom Merle at tom@epicurus.org

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada area: Please contact Eric Cire at Eric_Cire@societyofepicurus.com

INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY OF FRIENDS OF EPICURUS Please contact the Society at info@societyofepicurus.com if you, either individually or as host for a meetup or a group, would like to be added to the contact list.