Dialogues on Matter in Motion – Introduction

Go to his Garden some time and read the motto carved there: “Dear Guest, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.” The caretaker of that abode, a friendly host, will be ready for you; he will welcome you with barley-meal, and serve you water also in abundance, with these words: “Have you not been well entertained? This garden does not whet your appetite; but quenches it. Nor does it make you more thirsty with every drink; it slakes the thirst with a natural cure – a cure that requires no fee. It is with this type of pleasure that I have grown old.” – Seneca, reporting on the hospitality of the Garden

Exercise yourself in these and kindred precepts day and night, both by yourself and with him who is like to you; then never, either in waking or in dream, will you be disturbed, but will live as a god among people. For people lose all appearance of mortality by living in the midst of immortal blessings. – Epicurus, in his Epistle to Menoeceus

I have made it a tradition to write at least one Epicurean blog per month on the 20th of every month in observation of the feast that Epicurus established in his final will and testament. This has evolved into a chance to discuss some aspect of the teaching, and also of giving literary and other updates to the students of Epicurean philosophy. In one of my latest Twentieth messages, I wrote:

As some of you may already be aware, the blog Caute is authored by a Unitarian Church minister from Cambridge, UK, who identifies both with Christian atheism and with the Epicurean tradition. He has written about Lucretius more than once, and from time to time incorporates Epicureanism into his liturgy and even holds Epicurean gatherings in his church. His last piece is titled Learning from Lucretius in the Shadow of Coronavirus. There, he warns us against allowing peddlers of religious fear to exploit our existential vulnerabilities, and accentuates the importance of accepting the Epicurean doctrines on how death is nothing to us, rather than remaining neutral to the dangers of organized religion.

I acknowledged his background because it’s frequently useful to respect and meet people where they are. As a result of this mention, Andrew James Brown (author of the Caute blog), left a comment:

Dear Hiram, Greetings! Thanks for posting a link to my most recent Lucretian/Epicurean address. That’s very thoughtful and generous of you.

Secondly, just to say that I very much enjoyed your excellent, persuasive and admirably clear essay in “How to Live a Good Life” and will certainly be directing people to it. Bravo to you for that.

And, thirdly, a quick question relates to Epicurus understanding of in what consists the material conditions for nature as it appears (naturae species ratioque) and that held by Lucretius. Epicurus clearly thinks the material conditions are atoms and void but, at least if one follows Thomas Nail’s reading of the DRN (in his book Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion, see link below), Lucretius seems to think the material condition is constantly moving flow, folds and fields (the flow is what is ‘a-tomos’, indivisible, for Lucretius). If Nail is correct – and that is clearly debatable (even if I am personally persuaded) – then we get a development of Epicurean thinking and ethics that is not inconsistent with the way modern physics understands in what consists the material conditions for nature as it appears. This seems important because we now know Epicurus’ atomic theory is simply wrong and, as such, it seems to me to be the biggest barrier to people adopting an Epicurean way of being in the world with a clean heart and full pathos. Anyway, I’d value hearing your thoughts on the matter.

“Lucretius was not an Atomist” by Thomas Nail

Every best wish and thanks for all your splendid work. Marvellous stuff.

Andrew

To which I replied:

Hi! Thank you for the comment, and for visiting the blog.

I disagree that “Epicurus was simply wrong”. Atoms have been photographed, and are understood in much more detail today. However the word a-tomoi in Greek does not translate as atoms in English. I always translate the word as particles. The word means in-divisible. The early atomists were reacting against a pre-Socratic paradox that argued that bodies could be divided to infinity, but the atomists said if that was the case then there would be an infinite number of particles in each body, and then the bodies would be infinite in size which is not what our eyes report. So there must be a limit in small particles. Hence, a-tomoi, the indivisible units. That reasoning is still both sound and empirical.

The author of “God and the Atom” Victor Stenger defends the standard model of atoms.

Now, this is not mutually contradictory from flows because small particles will behave like water, just consider the sand and how easily bodies, wind and other forces can move through the grains. (I also remember in my discussions of the Tao Te Ching that I noticed a parallel between Epicurean atoms and void + ying and yang, because the only behavior of the void is that it yields, and ying is yielding while yang is asserting.) So this is what Epicurus called polyvalent logic: many explanations, theories and ways of explaining and understanding things are valid and acceptable so long as they don’t contradict evidence or each other.

So I don’t think Lucretius contradicted Epicurus, on the contrary, he starts each book praising him, and I wish we had more of the 37 books On Nature by Epicurus. We would be able to trace the ideas back more clearly.

When I wrote my review of Nail, I also remember thinking that he must not have read Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus. It seems like he only studied Lucretius, not the direct sources in Epicurus (Julien de la Mettrie also did this). I look forward to your reply and to continuing discussions on this. Cheers!

To which he replied:

Greetings once again. Thanks for the reply and, following that, I checked out your review of Nail’s book so I can see why you say what you say above. As I’ve already indicated I’m minded to think Nail is on to something but it’s clearly going to be impossible to explore this together properly in comment boxes! But I still think it is reasonable to say that ‘Epicurus is simply wrong’ in thinking that atoms and void are primary, i.e. they are themselves the material conditions for nature as it appears. Atoms and void now seem to be dependent on (or emerge from) ‘something’ much, much stranger and so a truly relevant, modern Epicurean stance in the world needs to take this into consideration. It strikes me that Nail’s reading of Lucretius (and Nail’s associated claim that Lucretius deliberately did not follow Epicurus’ atomism but radically revised it) gives us the way to be firmly in the Epicurean tradition but in a way that is not inconsistent with the way contemporary physics is suggesting the world is. Sticking with Epicurus’ original physics seems, as I’ve intimated, just the wrong thing to be doing.

With best wishes and thanks again for all your excellent writing and promotion of all things Epicurean. Much appreciated.

Andrew

Prior to continuing, perhaps we should remember Epicurus’ instructions on innovation.

In the necessary and inevitable process of updating Epicurean teaching and tradition, I have subjected the potential innovations to the criteria given by Epicurus (Erler, 2011) dealing with innovation and forbidding the ‘muddling’ of doctrines that disagree with each other. The two guidelines provided by Epicurus are akoloythia and symphonia, which translate as consistency (has no internal contradictions) and coherence (is in symphony with the rest of Epicurus’ doctrine).

And so let’s keep in mind that consistency and coherence are the two criteria that govern innovation, as we move forward. After Andrew’s last email, it made better sense to continue our discussions via email, as the comments section of a blog is not the best format for these types of discussion.

Hi Andrew!

Thanks again for commenting on my blog. I greatly respect your intellect and am open to hearing your thoughts or Nail’s thoughts on Lucretius. Since you’ve already read my own comments about Nail, and since you say (and I agree) that the blog comments section is not a good place to fully explore these matters, I’d like to see how we can present our ideas for the benefit of students of Epicurean philosophy.

This would be helpful for students of Epicurean philosophy, and it would also allow a fair hearing for Nail’s ideas on our webpage, and hopefully create friendly debates that help people to better assimilate Epicurean ideas. Let me know what you think.

Hiram

Andrew replied:

Greetings.

It’s a wonderful idea and I’m very happy to be involved in whatever way our conversations reveal to be the best way. Thank you for asking. I particularly value your point about the creation of friendly debates — goodness knows we need more of them in our world. Fortunately, I think that, on this particular subject, because both Epicurus’ atomic theory and Nail’s new take on (what may have been) Lucretius’ revised kinetic theory leave the basic Epicurean ethical stance intact. This means, to borrow and modify a phrase from my own very liberal church tradition, it is clear we need not think alike (about whether it’s all atoms/void or all flow/fold/field) in order to love alike. Modelling that will, in itself, be a great advert for the Epicurean way of life.

Equally important — as you so rightly note — most of us (and that includes me) are only familiar with the basics and it’s vital to keep that foregrounded in any public debates/fora. Having some input from someone genuinely familiar with contemporary physics will, of course, be a great help.

And lastly, but not least, I would like to stress that I, too, greatly respect your intellect and am open (and excited) to hearing your thoughts. Your work has done a great deal to get Epicurus’ way of being in the world out into the world in a wonderfully accessible way and your essay in the recent book is a splendid thing.

Warmest wishes,

Andrew J. Brown, Unitarian Minister
@caute

As you read in the introduction, Epicurus meant for us to practice philosophy as a friendly conversation among friends and in a warm, welcoming environment. Epicureans in antiquity were known for their virtue of suavity, or kind speech to each other, and part of the curriculum of human values they underwent in the Garden involved learning how to kindly communicate with friends. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to transfer the modeling of the virtue of suavity into an online platform, which loses many of the nuances of normal human communication, but in the coming weeks and months, Andrew and I (and hopefully others) will attempt to model these Epicurean virtues for the benefit of those learning Epicurean philosophy as we discuss Nail’s particular (and controversial) interpretation of Lucretius, as well as the intersection between Unitarianism and Epicureanism. Please stay tuned!

INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY OF FRIENDS OF EPICURUS