Tag Archives: canon

Reasonings About Epicurus’ On Nature (Book 18): Against the Use of Empty Words

The video Epicurus: Against the Use of Empty Words is inspired in this writing.

One must rely on sharpness of perception to separate the notions of nature from those that are designed with difficulty or obscurity … Pay full attention to the power of the empirical reasoning. – Epicurus, On Nature, Book 18

The above mentioned volume was originally the 18th section of a series of talks given to an audience by Epicurus himself and was written between 296/295 Before Common Era.

The book invites us to call everything by its name based on empirical evidence whenever possible and to avoid empty words. Another founder of this tradition, Polyaenus, devoted a treaty to Definitions. The idea is that every word that is used must have a clear correspondence in nature, in reality, as is evident to our faculties.

The result of this doctrine is that the first Epicureans often changed the names of things with empirical justification, so that the words were in line with the things signified and with their own descriptions. The notion of the inconceivable is derived from this process because in order to refer to something, we must first clearly conceive it. In the treaty, the distinction is also discussed between the knowable and the unknowable (i.e., what can and can not be known through the senses and faculties).

The practice of clearly establishing the definitions before starting a debate or philosophical speech also originates from this concept.

Epicurean Terms

Following this line of thinking, a number of terms are introduced and used in the treaty. Today, we often like to refer to terms in modern languages so that the meaning is clear.

The word epíbole, which can translate as focusing, means the concentration of sight or hearing on the observed object. It is listening, not just hearing. It is observing, not just seeing. Epíbole involves an impression (Greek phantasia), which is received from the perceived object.

Other terms used in the treaty are: conceptual knowledge, attestations or testimony, similarity (for when we reason about the non-evident, we must always refer to it by analogy with the evident and what has already been conceived and perceived), and conceptual process (by which an opinion concerning a being or imperceivable phenomenon undergoes the conceivability test).

How to Reason about Actions and Theories

As we can see, all these terms attach importance to evidence and things perceived. This is consistent with an atomistic, materialistic and realistic philosophy. But what methods are used to reason about actions and theories?

Epicurus says that we think empirically concerning the actions based on the results observed from any course of action.

Concerning theories that do not seem to have empirical basis, they can be destroyed if they are false (whether rational or not), either if some other theoretical view based on it is false, or if when we establish a link with the action, this proves to be disadvantageous. If any of these things happen, it will be easy to conclude that theoretical arguments are false.

The Veiled Father

Epicurus uses an example from the philosophers of other schools who like to carry out verbal juggling. To make a long story short, when asked whether it is possible to know and not know something at the same time, a man is presented with his father wearing a veil. This supposedly proves that it is possible to know and to not know the same thing (because the man knows his father, but does not recognize him when veiled).

Epicureans, and men in general in ancient Greece, were often confronted by the rhetors and the philosophers of logic who liked to play with words. Epicurus makes use of this example to show that one can not conclude a universal (in this case, that it is possible to know and to not know something at the same time) based on a particular example. To reach a satisfactory conclusion to a universal proposition, its truth must be 1. based on empirical grounds and 2. translated into practical behavior by the person who admits it.

Epicurus not only forces us to consider the evidence provided, but establishes a relationship between practice and theory, which should both be aligned.

Why We Must Call Out Empty Words 

In a recent Spanish-language debateI had with a Christian, he made frequent reference to an arbitrary ideal: objective morality.

Many Christians use this supposed argument to justify the need for God (which is distinct from proving his existence), and even Sam Harris, in his book The Moral Landscape, goes running after this specter invented by Platonized theologians to confuse people.

The idea is that there is “objective good and evil” (again, Platonic concepts whose definition is not at all clear as it would be observable in nature) and that in order for these to exist, there must be a God. That is the entire argument. Here are some of my answers to this fallacy:

It’s problematic when you speak of “good and evil” as Platonic concepts without contextualizing them. That means nothing at all. It can mean anything. For a Muslim, submission is good … and so is beating his wife, per the Qur’an 4:34. To a Westerner, both are hateful concepts. It could make sense to speak of “good and evil” in a particular non-platonic, non-conceptual way, but these goods and evils still should be described in detail. When we study nature what we do see is pleasure and aversion: a baby is born, and without being corrupted by culture, instinctively seeks pleasure and tries to avoid pain. These are real experiences for living entities. Why then not speak of pleasures and pains, so that we clearly know what is meant when we speak of “morality” without juggling of words and without arbitrary authoritarianism?

… Because a supernatural moral theory does not include everyone and therefore can not be useful. People who do not believe in the particular religious beliefs of others will not be able to agree on anything. An objective morality can only be scientific, or based on the observation of nature.

… you never explained where you got this arbitrary criterion of “objective morality” and then you said that it comes not from religion but from God … you never confronted the Bible verses that show God as a grotesque monster and the dehumanizing and harmful effects that these defenses of religious morality have today. Taking again the example of Exodus 32:27-29, Moses has 3,000 people killed because GOD DIRECTLY supposedly commanded him, and then he praises the Levites for killing their siblings and neighbors for merely not sharing their beliefs. 3,000 people died that day, as under Osama Bin Laden on 9/11. If Moses were alive today, he would be considered a terrorist and would have to appear before an international tribunal for crimes against humanity. How do you defend this “objective morality” that you say comes “from God”?

These discussions were accompanied by several other examples of atrocities committed in the name of religion. The debater never confronted the grotesque verses in the Bible, and we never even took the time to look at examples of the long bloody history of theistic religions like Islam and Christianity.

Nowhere in our observations of nature, no-thing gives indication that there is an “objective morality”: it is only hedonism, the pleasure and aversion faculties, that appears to be the closest thing to morality in nature (the debater admitted this) and appear to be essential components of what we could call our moral compass, and are observable and real in nature, direct perceptions of experience or, to use one of the neologisms we mentioned above: they are attestations.

Notice how theologians and their spokesmen use arbitrary terms (such as “objective morality”), never bother to define them, much less clearly and in terms observable in nature, and they run with these concepts and build castles in the air, and when one comes to realize one is being carried away by their arguments, entire audiences have been abducted into a fantasy world, or a paradise with 72 virgins, or some other religious or non-religious fantasy entirely divorced from reality, from matter, from the world.

So this is not how we should philosophize. Let’s put our feet on the ground and use the Canon. Inventing words that mean nothing to talk about things that are not observable in nature, dear friends, is called quackery, and Epicureans will always be repudiated for refusing to call it by another name.

The above reasonings are based on the French translation of Book 18, On Nature in Les Epicuriens [Bibliotheque de la Pleiade] (French Edition) .

Epicurus: Against the Use of Empty Words

The New Canon

Most people who have interest in Epicureanism are seeking to improve their lives and to fine-tune their search for happiness, so that they generally are interested in the ethics, the ripened fruits of Epicurean discourse.  And there is nothing wrong with enjoying the soul-nurturing sweet nectar of a wholesome, calculated wisdom tradition that has come down to us … it is in the sweetest part of the tree, after all, that nature has placed the seed that might take root if it finds fertile soil.  For some plants, it’s the flower that is the genitalia, and for others it’s the fruit.

The spiritual garden that is Epicureanism gives us many varieties of flower and fruits, mellows to engage us in the pleasures of sane philosophy.  But at the root of our coherent system lies always, invariably, the Canon.  We all know that roots are neither the easiest to digest nor the sweetest to our palate.  Some, like carrots, can be had raw.  Others, like yams and cassava, require that we treat them, boil them, or fry them.  They require preparation and slow digestion.  But only from the root, from the Canon, can the fruits of naturalist philosophy self-perpetuate in our soul.

The Canon is not just a theoretical system of epistemology, defined as the theory of knowledge and of how it is properly attained and verified.  It was also one of the 300 scrolls that Epicurus wrote, of which only fragments remain.  The original scripture of the Canon is lost to us.  However, we do know from indirect sources what the Canon taught and we are able to recreate its teachings to a great extent.

Nausiphanes, Epicurus’ atomist teacher (who had been Democritus’ pupil), was the one who invented the tripod, the three-legged stool used as criteria by which to judge reality.  The tripod, as Epicurus taught it, consisted of:

1. sense perception (hearing, sight, smell, touch, taste) – materialists must be empiricists because reality and nature are one and the same; they must accept the evidence before our senses as our firm, undeniable connection to reality

2. feelings (pain, pleasure) – this is how nature, via natural selection, guides living entities and helps them to recognize the survival strategies of their ancestors

3. anticipations (inherited instincts and innate recognitions) – the baby must pre-cognitively anticipate the nipple in order to engage in the pleasures of feeding; people must recognize each other as people in order to engage in the pleasures of socializing, we must recognize our primal panic and vertigo while in the presence of an awesome predator or while standing at the edge of a cliff in order to avoid being eaten or falling, etc.

Of all these, sense perception is of key importance.  While reason is certainly a useful tool to apprehend reality, if fed wrong data or if left to speculate without being grounded on nature, reason can churn out catastrophic, absurd, needless, or impractical conclusions.

Residents of Papua New Guinea, amazed at the wealth brought in by Westerners during the II World War, believed that if they built wooden planes and landing strips, their ancestors would fly in cargo from the heavens.  Reasoning without the Canon can lead to falling off a cliff … or to the development of cargo cults, dissonant worldviews that seek to blend childish imaginings with unanalyzed sense-data and should serve as a metaphor for all other forms of Platonism.  If the Papuans had based their worldview on the study of nature and sought tangible sources for their knowledge, they would have concluded that death is final, that the ancestors do not intervene and that it is needless to await their cargo, and would have sought to find the legitimate sources for cargo as the product of labor in other lands.

Is it not tragic that people in so many cultures await Messiahs who died thousands of years ago, in spite of evidence that all humans have a life span usually shorter than one century?  Christians and Muslims are joined by the cargo cult adherents who await John Frum, an American god that visited them during the mid-20th Century.

Without empirical data we do not have science.  We have speculation or day-dreaming.  There is nothing wrong with day-dreaming.  This is fine for when we are poets and writers of fiction, but it’s not naturalist philosophy.

INTELLECT: It is by convention that color exists, by convention sweet, by convention bitter.

SENSES: Ah, wretched intellect, you get your evidence only as we give it to you, and yet you try to overthrow us. That overthrow will be your downfall.

– Wheewright, The Presocratics, p. 183

The word Canon translates as ruler, measuring stick (for reality).  In other traditions (like Catholicism), the Canon has legal connotations, and the Canon should perhaps be thought of as the Law or Rule concerning knowledge that was set by nature.  It was a sort of materialist Bible, was of central importance to ancient Epicureans, and was dubbed “the book that fell from heaven” in derision by enemies, jokingly by adherents.  It constitutes, in our view, the most biologically-rooted of all known epistemological systems in Hellenistic philosophy. It clearly serves a life-based, life-affirming philosophy of this world and guides us to what is deemed (by nature) to be necessary knowledge.

Unlike other philosophies, we do not accept that life is inherently absurd and empty of meaning.  Instead, we see that nature has given us tools to apprehend reality and that these tools give us all the knowledge and meaning we need.  We often perturb our souls by seeking knowledge beyond what is necessary.  We need to know how to survive and eat, how to relate to others, how to stay warm during a winter, how to protect ourselves from legitimate dangers, how to be happy … we must know (KNOW, here not cognitively but experientially) the taste of food and the safety of friendship … but we do not need to know immaterial beings from other realms, we do not need to know immortality and endless time, or endless anything.  We also do not need to FEAR these spirits or endless time.  Nature has not given us faculties to perceive these things because, even if they existed, they are not and have never been necessary.

For as children tremble and fear everything in the blind darkness, so we in the light sometimes fear what is no more to be feared than the things children in the dark hold in terror and imagine will come true. This terror therefore and darkness of mind must be dispelled not by the rays of the sun and glittering shafts of day, but by the aspect and law of nature. – Lucretius in De Rerum Natura II:56-62.

This is not to say that the knowledge that we gain by enhancing our senses (with microscopes or telescopes, for instance) is not good or that, because it’s acquired through artificial senses, that it’s less awe-inspiring.  But nature requires little of us.  Natural, unnecessary knowledge is icing on a cake compared to the little bread, water and fruits that we need.

One of the first modern attempts at reconstructing the wisdom of the Canon for a contemporary reader is Cassius Amicus’ The Tripod of Truth, An Introduction to the Book That Fell From the Heavens, which can be read online and is available from smashwords and from his webpage, newepicurean.com.  It’s ironic, having an introduction to the Canon but not having the actual work by Epicurus.  Cassius points to the section on the Canon in a previous work by Norman Dewitt as his main source.

Another very solid introduction to the Canon is the epistemology portion of the elementalepicureanism.com course.  There is much more that could be said about this subject and about each one of the three legs of the tripod. I encourage anyone interested in deepening their understanding to read these works, from which might emerge a New Canon, an actual body of literature.

This tangible source for our tradition should serve the didactic and spiritual purpose of the ancient one: to set up a firm foundation for materialist philosophers who wish to base their wisdom tradition on the study of nature and will accept no less than a scientific philosophy.  We must gain full awareness of how speculative philosophy and religion have the potential to produce unnatural beliefs and unrealistic expectations that can, if nurtured with full faith, torment the mortal soul.

No example of this is more universal than our unanalyzed fear of death and childish, arrogant rejection of our natural limits.  These have promoted the sacrifice of widows to their dead husbands, the tormenting of children and those in agony with visions of hell, or the promise of eternal damnation (and the reduction to the status of a social pariah) for those who can not honestly say they subscribe to this or that religious doctrine.  Lucretius, true and heroic Epicurean that he was, disbanded the false promises of unnatural worldviews and placed this advise on the lips of Mother Nature:

Why don’t you retire like a guest sated with the banquet of life, and with calm mind embrace a rest that knows no care? – Lucretius in De Rerum Natura III:938-9

The sad repercussion of not basing our assessment of (our natural fear of) death on the study of nature is oftentimes the development of a form of cargo cult.  This is, potentially, the difference between the forager who merely picks the fruits of philosophy and the Gardener who is a diligent keeper, nurturing the roots and even guiding artful bonsais to their maturity.  Lucretius contrasted the life of a calculated hedonist to that of adherents of other worldviews who nurture, instead, needless sorrows:

Pleasant it is, when over a great sea the winds trouble the waters, to gaze from shore upon another’s tribulation: not because any man’s troubles are a delectable joy, but because to perceive from what ills you are free yourself is pleasant. – Lucretius in De Rerum Natura II:1

The spiritual task of an Epicurean is that of reconciliation and engagement with nature.  Imperturbability and flourishing are the by-products of the task.

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