Reasonings About Polystratus’ On Irrational Contempt

Polystratus was the third Scholarch of the Epicurean Garden in Athens. He was the first one to guide the community of Friends after the four founders had died, and it’s believed that he had met Epicurus and studied under him when he was only a boy and Epicurus a very old man.

Only fragments of two of his writings remain. Here, we are concerned only with his work On Irrational Contempt, which is a polemic directed “against those who irrationally despise popular beliefs.” The work is a diatribe against the Cynics, or the Skeptics, or both. Polystratus’ adversaries appear to be full of insolence. As in the case of Colotes, Polystratus also argues that the philosophies of the other schools are impractical, cannot be used without doing harm to oneself, and that they do not practice what they preach.

Comparison with other animals

The work begins by saying that the animals can not learn from their mistakes and can not find the causes of things. Today we know that this is not true in all cases: apes and dolphins are so smart that some scientists consider them non-human persons.

Polystratus also denies that animals dream, but we know that dogs dream, and he says that animals do not believe in gods and have no powers of reasoning like us. This seems to be an important premise of the work. Later we will see why this is important, when Polystratus discusses the relative qualities of things. He seems to be arguing that belief in gods is a human quality, a natural product of the human psychological experience.

The Need to Study Nature and its Purpose

A large portion of the work is devoted to this topic. The Scholarch argues that we cannot free ourselves from irrational fears only by dialectical means, that we need evidence-based reasoning, and that only the study of nature can help us understand the gods. This argument is still valid even if for most of us, the conclusion that we come to when we study nature is that the gods do not exist.

Polystratus insists that we must clearly understand the purpose of the study of nature and of philosophy. Some say that we just need to find health only, and not pleasure or the study of nature, but then fall into superstition and its fears. Truth dispels all concerns and truths do not contradict each other. The Scholarch continues with more warnings against the charismatic rhetors, many of which could be applied to modern religious preachers:

Those who want to dedicate themselves to the study of nature must not continue to follow those who make them afraid and those who, not worrying about the truth or about agreeing with what they themselves have already proven, practice irony while neglecting their own opinion to please the audience around them; but should pronounce on every issue freely and practice a consistent and true philosophy, so that they can bring the work of true philosophy to its point of perfection without haste, with full awareness. You will recognize even more clearly the truth of what I say if you examine what other philosophers say … (lacuna 10 lines) …

Take heed of their own purposes, as some draw conclusions especially through syllogisms and axioms, which they themselves do not use or follow during their lives, and like others, to please their attending audiences or to confuse them In order to get approval from and seduce the crowd, they develop a colorful verbiage that achieves nothing for them nor for their audience, to improve them or to provide them a better life … (lacuna 5 lines) … as they have gotten rid of the teachings that are consistent with the purposes that our very nature seeks.

Without the latter, in fact, all other things have the status of artifice; what concerns us is actually improving our life, it is that thanks to which, free from that passions that affect thinking, we progress towards serenity and to a kind of life free of sadness and according to our nature. And this is a result that is only obtained, as I already said, by the proper study of nature guided by those who have examined what is the nature of all things, as well as the power that is in her to produce consequences meet her or foreign to her, and guided by those who have observed which desires are natural and which are not …

In any case, the fact that even virtuous actions often have no advantage because, in the cases mentioned above, men show too much arrogance or fall back without reason into superstitious fears, and because in other actions in life they make many mistakes of every kind, so that no one really exhibits virtue. We, in turn, committed to follow pleasure, will witness in our favor that our affairs are carried out with more ease in the circumstances within which hitherto we had exhibited pain.

This last paragraph specifically speaks against those who seek virtue without studying nature and reminds us of the prevalence among the religious of degrading superstitions and of arrogant self-righteousness. This is futile and destroys virtue. The point that the Scholarch is arguing is that virtue, piety and faith are worthless without the study of the nature of things. A scientific understanding of reality is necessary to live a pleasant and healthy life.

In the book A Few Days in Athens we find the Masters insisting that “many worship Virtue but few stop to evaluate the pedestal on which she stands.” This pedestal is pleasure. That is, it is extremely important to understand why virtues are virtues: because they are means to pleasure, not ends in themselves. If a virtue does not increase happiness or remove suffering it can not be called a virtue.

Polystratus argues this point, saying that those who look to Virtue without a specific goal, not based on the study of nature, fall into superstition and abandon virtue, some falling into great torment. Again, this applies to religious people who reject science.

The Beautiful and the Ugly, the Pleasant and the Unpleasant

The skeptics argued that the noble (to kalon) and the base (to aiskhron) are culturally conditioned and therefore not objectively real; that there is no good and evil that can be discerned in nature. As elsewhere in philosophical discourse, there is tension between nomos (law, custom) and physis (nature).

Pyrrho’s powerful argument seems to appeal to materialist doctrine. If objective reality is made up of atoms and void, then good and evil, to exist, would have to be similarly made up of atoms and void and would be evident and there would be no disagreement with regards to what these things are in the diverse cultures.

The argument given by his opponents is that bronze, gold, and other metals are universally recognize for what they are by their own nature, independently of culture.

The example given here (apparently, so opponents) is the bronze, gold and other metals are universally recognized for what they are independent of culture being what they are by nature, not by convention.

Polystratus argues that this is a false analogy: the beautiful and the ugly are as real as bronze, except that they exist in a different way and the comparison is not valid. It is here that he proposes that things have inherent or innate properties, and relative or dispositional properties–tendencies exhibited by things in relation to other things. The beautiful and the ugly belong to the latter category, as well as the pleasant and unpleasant (aesthetic and ethical categories).

The beautiful and the ugly, like the pleasant and the unpleasant, are not the same for all creatures. Opponents say that men make an error when they seek this and fail to seek that, as if that which is desirable should be the same for all. Health, belief and corruption and their opposites are different for each according to their effects, their relative qualities. The Scholarch argues that

either all the things that make these effects are false

or there is no need to reject the beautiful and the ugly as if they were false opinions because they are not identical for all, as is gold or stone.

One example given by the Scholarch deals with the various curative properties of a single drug, all of which are effective and real. If we suffer from one disease, the drug will treat the symptoms of that one disease. If we suffer from another disease, it will treat the other disease, but it’s the same conventional drug which has different relational effects.

Drugs work for some diseases but not for others or for those who are healthy. It is useless for everyone to act the same at all times. One must act according to one’s own nature and to circumstances and particular accidents.

A magnet may only attract metal and not cement, but it remains a magnet insofar as it attracts metal. Notice that this relational property of a magnet is as observable, as measurable, and as real as conventional properties.

Therefore, we must not grant the same rank to relative categories that we give to innate categories. One can not say that one exists and the other does not, or that one and the other have the same properties.

We can come up with many other examples of relative qualities. Peanuts can be nourishing or deadly (to some who are allergic), but they’re not inherently deadly: this is a relational property, not a conventional property. Colors and flavors are relational properties: we only see the color of an object when light reflects against it.

Rotten meat is good for vultures and lions who have the enzymes to digest it, but bad for humans who do not and may die after eating a carcass.

The Evils Produced by False Doctrines

In fact no one could, in a valid way, submit all the difficulties in life that these doctrines cause to a detailed rational examination in order to understand, all the while giving attention to the passions and events, how unfortunate it is to demonstrate an irrational boldness, to fall into all these misfortunes, and to also live slavishly following the opinions transmitted at random; to be the victim of the many difficulties and desires they engender, constantly devoting oneself to the many diverse activities and harmful practices that arise from them. All the while, one’s aspirations multiply irrationally–because one is unhappy in reality and remorseful–and also one is in charge of numerous concerns over others.

It so happens that the same people who spend their lives driven by storms or exposed to fearful suspicions, never account for the true benefit and joy of life. Instead, expelled early from life after many futile sufferings always born of vain hopes and never fully confirmed, they consequently accumulate over their heads yet other evils, for reason of their inability to distinctly recognize the end which our very nature aims for, and the means by which this end is naturally attained. Because ignorance of these things is the first cause of all evil.

Strive then to distance yourself from the adversities of which I have spoken. On the contrary, giving yourself account of all things, as has been said, in a manner adapted to life and affections.

The above quote reminds us of the selfless lives of misery and supposedly selfless abnegation lived by the likes of Mother Theresa, of whom it was revealed after she died that she was tormented her entire faith with doubts about her faith, and that she aimed to be close to human suffering rather than to remove the suffering. A full exposé of Mother Theresa, which demonstrates Polystratus’ point that virtue is worthless without the study of nature, but goes much further, was done by Christopher Hitchens in his book Missionary Position.


The view defended by Polystratus–according to which the pleasant and the unpleasant exist and are really observable in nature–is known as moral realism, or natural realism, and some modern thinkers like Sam Harris have made it their life’s mission to prove that morality exists in nature just as Polystratus did in his day.

In addition to arguing in favor of hedonist realism, Polystratus denounces the evils that arise when we do not align our moral judgements with the evidence presented by nature before us. Therefore, he argues that it is impossible or difficult to be truly moral without studying nature.

The Scholarch’s hedonist realism insists firmly that pleasure is the end established by nature, and that all the true virtues lead to it. We must reiterate the importance of the following passage:

Their inability to distinctly recognize the end which our very nature aims for, and the means by which this end is naturally attained … ignorance of these things is the first cause of all evil.

By not setting pleasure as the natural goal, many philosophers and religious ethical thinkers have elaborated artificial ideologies that, in the end, generate vast amounts of suffering. They dismiss pleasure and run after the dictatorship of the proletariat, the free-market, the god of the desert, manliness or honor, willing to kill and commit abuses for the sake of their ideals which are arbitrary and divorced from the study of nature, which shows us that natural beings chase after pleasure and avoid pain. Therefore, naturalist philosophers should seek the most rational and healthiest means to attain pleasure and evade aversion.

We may forgive these ideologies for their harm by taking into account that they never promised a pleasant life. If we do not set this goal from the onset, how can we expect it as an end result?

When we do not base our views firmly on the study of nature, and when we do not have clear insight into how the good is the pleasant and the bad is the unpleasant in our direct, real and immediate experience, we end up serving ends other than the ends that nature has established for us as natural beings.

Naturalist moral realism is simple: as natural beings we can directly discern, with our faculties, both good and evil.

Read also:

Epicurus and Democritean Ethics: An Archaeology of Ataraxia, by James Warren

Primary and Secondary Qualities: The Historical and Ongoing Debate,
edited by Lawrence Nolan

Very fragmentary transliteration of the Polystratus papyrus

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