Honoring Our Sages

If you never give palm wine to your elders, you will never learn their proverbs. 

Yoruba proverb

Many contemporary freethinkers dislike the notion of revering a Sage, as reverence oftentimes implies a certain servile attitude, and presages the impossibility of dissent and an authoritarian paradigm. Those that came before us in Epicureanism, however, favored paying honors to sages.

How do we honor a Sage?  More specifically, how do we properly honor OUR Sages? The immediate, obvious answer is by pleasing them through the rememberance of their words and by following their advice.

Our tradition teaches that association and respect, even reverence, for a wholesome personality has character-building power. We develop virtuous character through wholesome association just as we develop vices, or bad habits, through evil association.

This is easily observable. Please do not believe this blindly: learn directly how this happens by paying attention to the dynamics in the various types of cliques in your surrounding communities and see how people’s temperaments and qualities affect each other, and how the more intimately and long-term people associate with each other, the stronger their mutual influence. This is how identities are built and how cultures and sub-cultures develop.

Some people have stronger tendencies to admire great personalities than others.  It may be that, because we’re social beings, we inherently need to admire our parents as children, and then other mentors and role models as we grow older. Perhaps the adage on honoring sages has as its purpose the right and healthy channeling of this natural tendency in all social creatures. If we must have an alpha male (or female), let it be a sage, a person of prudence and wisdom, of good character.

By directly associating with sages, we gain the most benefit. By studying, reading, discussing and pondering their teachings indirectly, we still gain some distant benefit. People who admire a well-spoken, well-mannered sage are much more likely to conduct themselves likewise (and to exhibit shame when they don’t) than people who admire celebrities that exhibit superficiality and banality, or worse yet, than people who admire gangsters and criminals.

By observing and understanding the opposite of a certain virtue (bad versus good association), we can more fully discern its importance. Gangster culture, in particular, celebrates the most vulgar elements of society in elaborate cults of personality, and much of this has even made its way into mainstream culture.

Honoring a sage is itself a great good to the one who honors. – Vatican Saying 32

Let’s first consider the layers of meaning behind honor. It’s tied to being held in high esteem, admired, with enjoying great respect among one’s peers. We often hear it’s an honor to meet someone, or to have someone at our table or at our event: it’s a privilege, a joy, something to boast about and to be proud of.

In religious traditions, shrine-building, singing, praising and other forms of worship are the norm. In Lucretius, we find a pseudo-religious feeling for his Master, Epicurus, which seems to indicate that Epicureans in antiquity exhibited this type of behaviour.

You, who out of such black darkness were first to lift up so shining a light, revealing the hidden blessings of life – you are my leader, O glory of the Grecian race. In your well-marked footprints now I plant my resolute steps … You are our father, illustrious discoverer of truth, and give me a father’s guidance. From your pages, as bees in flowery glades sip every blossom, so do I crop all your golden sayings – golden indeed, and for ever worthy of everlasting life … As soon as your reasoning, sprung from that godlike mind, lifts up its voice to proclaim the nature of the universe, then the terrors of the mind take flight, the ramparts of the world roll apart, and I see the march of events throughout the whole of space. – On the Nature of Things, Book III

Effigies, busts and depictions of Epicurus were common among ancient Epicureans. Many of them may have been treated in a way not too different from how deities and saints are treated in many religious cultures. People took pleasure in honoring him, and later they took pleasure in honoring the original Four Masters just as many Christians honor the apostles, or just as many Americans honor the Founding Fathers, Martin Luther King, some of their Presidents and other great patriots (to use a secular example). Monuments and memorials are built; their words and deeds are celebrated and remembered.

The adage Do all things as if Epicurus was watching emerged among friends who were living their lives as if Epicurus was watching and advised others to do likewise. This is behavior quite typical of religious people. Frequent rememberance of the Master brought back memories of the original community of philosopher friends and the pleasure of their discussions. The mental and existential strength derived from these friendships was recalled and vindicated.

In antiquity there was a civic cult: an official, public cult of the city. It was considered civic duty to honor the deity of one’s polis, for instance, with formal recognition of the guiding principle of the city. Athens had the good fortune of having the Goddess of Wisdom as a patron, and so it was a city of philosophers because people were taught to hold Wisdom in high regard. The Epicureans honored Epicurus in a manner not too different from the civic cults: there was formal, public recognition of the founder of the tradition as a Humanist culture hero. He didn’t answer prayers and was not divine in the superstitious sense of being an immortal or having supernatural powers. He was not an Olympian, but a mortal hero.

It would be unfair to carry out the teaching mission without honestly addressing the frank religiosity of many of the original and later disciples of Epicureanism. Colotes prostrated before Epicurus once out of gratitude and affection. Epicurus returned the honor, perhaps embarrassed or intimidated by the display.

This Lucretian attitude of reverence towards our Sages seems perhaps out of character when we contrast it with the anti-authoritarian nature of the Canon, with how we accept evidence and direct observation as the final authority.

This paradigm shift happens because the Sages’ authority is founded upon nature’s authority. We can argue with gravity, but it will still pull us. This firm foundation, this firm understanding, nurtured a firm faith and trust in those that came before. They were not charlatans but genuine truth-seeking philosophers who were vindicated by the Canon. And so, while we ultimately always reserve the right to disagree with each and every one of our Sages, we ultimately align with their doctrine on most crucial matters.

My respect for Philodemus increased tremendously as I studied his writings. It provided me with a sense of legacy, of strengthening of my essence in a way, and I felt my studies placed me within a lineage system where teachings were handed down and strengthened by each generation. I may not have fallen to my kness like Colotes did, but I felt culturally and spiritually richer, and it was a great honor to study him.

And so it is my sincerest honor to join Philodemus in saying that I’m a follower of Epicurus and his associates, according to whom it has been my choice to live.

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About Hiram

Hiram is an author from the north side of Chicago who has written for The Humanist, Greenewave, Om Times, and other publications. His book Tending the Epicurean Garden (Humanist Press, 2014) is a contemporary and interdisciplinary introduction to Epicureanism. He earned a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies from NEIU.

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