On Isms

“We’re sick and tired of your ism-schism game…” – Bob Marley

Our friend Alex recently brought up the issue of the intolerance of the word “Epicureanism” (and all isms) by some Epicureans, which has for a few years permeated our conversations. He says:

Some folks here insist that other folks say “Epicurean Philosophy” instead of saying “Epicureanism”. They say that “-isms” are closed systems, that “-isms” are ideologies. The dictionary does not seem to agree about the meaning of “-ism”. So why the intolerance? The whole world says Epicureanism, but the folks here should not? Meanwhile the dictionary has as a synonym for “philosophy” the word “ideology”, so a philosophy is an ideology.

The image furnished by Alex indicates that –ism is merely a suffix that is used to convert a verb into a noun, sort of like the ending -o in the Esperanto language. Dictionary.com gives the meaning of an ism as: “a distinctive doctrine, theory, system, or practice“–a definition which Epicurean philosophy certainly fulfills.

According to our friend Yiannis, the criticism of -isms appears to be based on a particular interpretation of a sentence found in Liantinis’ Stoa and Rome, where he poetically seems to accuse isms in general of a number of ills that befell humanity. He is referring here to Dimitris Liantinis–a philosophy professor and author of Gemma whose message included a jeremiad about the end of Western civilization, outdated anti-Semitic rhetoric, and a call for the return of Hellenistic values … but Liantinis himself was not even an Epicurean, he was more influenced by Nietzsche, and he committed suicide which is a most un-Epicurean thing to do–literally saying NO to life!

Visceral reactions against things are sometimes the function of projection, and it’s ironic that ism-phobia itself is becoming an ideology, and a reactionary one at that. While it’s important to understand and appreciate some of the arguments of the ism-phobic faction–at the core of which is the argument that Epicurus fought against idealisms of all kinds–, our friend Eileen reminds us:

I’ve seen this sort of thing in several unrelated forums. In my opinion, our culture is going through a cycle of authoritarian thinking and behavior at all levels of society and most aspects of life. Those with their hands on levers of power use them in anti-democratic ways and those who don’t content themselves with attempting to control the language and social behavior of others. This seems to be true of folks all across various political, religious, and philosophical spectrums.

But let’s go back to the first Epicureans, who advised that we should speak clearly and concisely, and to employ words as they conventionally used, with their conventional meaning attached to them–even as they acknowledged the many problems tied to conventional speech.

One should use ordinary expressions appropriately, and not express oneself inaccurately, nor vaguely, nor use expressions with double meaning. – Philodemus, in Rhetorica

But first of all, Herodotus, before we begin the investigation of our opinions, we must firmly grasp the ideas that are attached to our words, so that we can refer to them as we proceed. Unless we have a firm grasp of the meaning of each word, we leave everything uncertain, and we go on to infinity using empty words that are devoid of meaning. Thus it is essential that we rely on the first mental image associated with each word, without need of explanation, if we are to have a firm standard to which to refer as we proceed in our study. – Epicurus, in his Epistle to Herodotus

That should suffice to help us recover and make use of the original sense of the suffix -ism, while being cognizant of its problems.

Further Reading:

Against the Use of Empty Words

Philodemus of Gadara’s Rhetorica

Epicurus’ Epistle to Herodotus

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About Hiram

Hiram is an author from the north side of Chicago who has written for The Humanist, Occupy, Infidels, Ateistas de Puerto Rico, El Nuevo Dia, 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.