Tag Archives: hedonism

A Transcendental Epicureanism

The following is the translation of a chapter from the book Cosmos by Michel Onfray. Translated from the French by Ross Ragsdale. Edited for clarity by Hiram Crespo. The book was written by the eminent French intellectual shortly after the death of his father, and is an exploration of our place in the universe.

Michel Onfray no Fronteiras do Pensamento Santa Catarina 2012 (8212742449).jpgAncient philosophy functioned as an antidote to my Judeo-Christian education. I was intellectually, spiritually, and ontologically prepared by Roman Catholicism; it was hard for me to believe, at the age of 17, that we could not be moral without being Christian. Of course, I understood that being Christian did not in reality imply being moral: examples of vindictive priests, sadists, perverts, gropers of young boys, had proven that to me early on. The wrath of the parish priest of my hometown, the brutality and pedophilia of the Salesians that I endured in an orphanage, if not the immoral behavior of local figures who would go to the Sunday Mass … all this made up what I already empirically knew, that there existed a gulf between calling oneself a Christian and actually being one.

It is probably during this time that my distrust of words and my decision to judge according to the facts had been born. Smooth talkers, rhetoricians, sophists, verbose men, and orators immediately collapse against this extremely straightforward yardstick. In contrast, many modest, discreet, taciturn individuals prove to be the heroes of common life, for, without saying so, they do good around them. Secular sanctity exists. I’ve met her …

I loved learning that one could be moral without being a Christian. This was taught to me by my old master, Lucien Jerphagnon, who gave an epic account of Lucretius’ Roman Epicureanism. I discovered On the Nature of Things as an existential support from which I could organize my life while attempting to develop it properly, while honoring the Roman values of friendship, civicism, integrity, the given word and moral conflict. And then, discovering the rotundity of the earth–I was only seventeen years old, and one is quite serious when one is 17–I understood that pre-Christian thought provides a precious ore for a post-Christian philosophy, for at the time of Lucretius, (modern) fiction is in distant emergence.

I loved that an answer to the problem of death responded to the existential crisis of my time. This simple, succinct, efficient, frighteningly efficient, that where I am, death is not, and where death is, I am not, immediately convinced me that the event of death was not the idea of death, that the former is less present in a life–for death can be brief, immediate, sudden–and the latter can pervert actual death through anxiety, fear, worry, dread. We must live, while awaiting the day that shall not fail to occur but lacks immediate reality. The true certainty lies not in the existence of a life after death, but that of a life before death, a life of which we must make the best use.

Whence Epicurean hedonism. The Roman Epicureanism of Lucretius, its Campanian method, its belated truth with Philodemus of Gadara or Diogenes of Oenoanda, give Epicurus’ Greek Epicureanism another appearance. Nietzsche is right to say that philosophy is an autobiographical confession; that of Epicurus was the thought of a sick, fragile man with a weak body distorted by extremely painful kidney stones during a period that was unaware of any effective sedation. This is why his hedonism is austere, ascetic, minimal, and defines itself by the absence of pain. To refuse to satisfy all desires, (focusing mainly on) those of hunger and thirst, then to make of this satisfaction the peace of the body, therefore the peace of the soul, this links the hedonism of Epicurus to a wisdom of renouncement.

On the other hand, the Roman Epicureanism of Lucretius turns its back on the Greek formula. We are unaware of the biography of this Roman philosopher. We can barely affirm that he was a knight during the first year of the Common Era, but from his work we can deduce that his body was one of great health. Lucretius does not wish to define ataraxia as solely the satisfaction of necessary and natural desires; he wishes that all desires be satisfied if they are not repaid by a greater displeasure.

Where Epicurus thinks that quenching thirst and hunger is done with water and a bit of bread, Lucretius does not exclude what constituted the basic menu of the Herculaneum Epicureans whose Villa was found decorated with philosophically edifying works of art: sardines fished in the Mediterranean, olive oil produced with fruits from the garden, fish marinated with citrus from the orchard, butter, milk, cream and eggs from the farm animals, lamb’s meat grilled with the vine from which they would make fresh wine, bread made with the wheat from the surrounding fields. Roman Epicureanism–which was more practical, more empirical, livelier than Greek Epicureanism–appeared to me in my youth as an ontological Mediterranean sun.

The founder’s Greek Formula forbids (1) sexuality: for Epicurus, the libido is inscribed in the logic of natural desires, common to both humans and animals, but is unnecessary. Unncessary, for not satisfying sexual desire does not impede upon the life of the individual being and does not prevent the being from persevering in his being. We appreciate the pro domo advocacy from Epicurus, for whom sexual vitality should not be more powerful than non-sexual vitality. At 17 years old, when we have neither Epicurus’ modest body nor his modest health, Lucretius appears more satisfying.

On the Nature of Things does not forbid sexuality, unless its practice must be repaid by inconveniences that disturb the sage’s wisdom. Therefore, there isn’t a deontological posturing from Lucretius (a common characteristic of Roman thought), but rather a consequentialist affirmation (a character trait from Roman thought): if sexual desire troubles the soul, one should satisfy the desire; if this enjoyment is repaid by a displeasure, one must renounce it; if, on the contrary, the trouble of the desire resolves itself through pleasure, then we simply give free rein to our desire. Lucretius affirms that we are sexual beings, that sexuality is neither good nor bad, that her exercise need not produce disagreements that impede the sage from exercising his discipline. The Roman philosopher imagines a concrete life with a concrete sexuality for the concrete man where the Greek sanctity of Epicurus places its ethics on summits unattainable to the sage unless he renounces the world … to truly live as an ectoplasm (1).

What I did not see at the time when I first read Lucretius is the consolatory philosophical role he gives to science.  It’s only today that I understand it.  The Epicureans do not concern themselves with useless knowledge in order to lead a philosophical life. No taste for idle speculations, pure theory, intellectual rhetoric, disembodied speculation: they think in order to produce the happy life.  Science herself is no exception to this logic: the atomic theory, physics, the knowledge taught in the letters to Pythocles and Herodotus, aim for nothing more than pacifying doubts, crushing fear, and evaporating anxiety.

During my discovery of Epicurus, I was saddened to learn that only 3 letters remain, of which only one was devoted to ethics. The university only ever teaches the history of philosophy, but never the history of the history of philosophy. No one said that we owe the increasing scarcity of Epicurus’ complete work–who, according to Diogenes Laertius, had written more than 300 books–to the Judeo-Christian fury, which declared the ancient materialism null and void.

Walking the walk and talking the talk (joignant le geste et la parole), the Christians had succeeded in what Plato had dreamed: a great metaphorical inferno for works incompatible with idealist, spiritualist, and religious fictions. Hundreds of thousands of sheep were slaughtered to tan the skins on which were recorded the texts of the Christian sect, and atomistic thought was scraped; its leathers became scrolls for the plethora of gospels, or were erased, neglected, vilified, forgotten, insulted, caricatured, despised. Three unfortunate letters have survived this barbarous massacre from the followers of the love of neighbor.

These three letters, by chance, were summaries of the complete work for the disciples: dense and clear compendiums of what to remember, to teach to practice Epicurism. The Letters to Herodotus and Pythocles distressed me: what good are all these considerations on sounds, bodies, emptiness, arrangements, simulacra, perception, vision, celestial phenomena? And what of these claims that “nothing comes from nothing”, that “the universe is infinite”, or that teach the eternity of movement and other detailed considerations on the forms of the worlds, or that teach of the inifity of the worlds, of the true nature of eclipses, of meteors, of the movements and lights of the stars, of the variation in the duration of day and night, meteorology, light, thunder, lightning bolts, cyclones, tornados, earthquakes, hail, snow, dew, ice, the rainbow, the halo around the moon, the comets, stars that turn around one spot, those that wander in space–the shooting stars?

Impatient, I wanted existential recipes here and now, practical and practicable wisdoms, life skills, some concrete spiritual exercises. But I had not seen that a more careful reading of Epicurus would have dissipated my first movement: the materialistic physics lays out a concrete ontology, and forbids the foolishness of a metaphysics apart from physics. In other words, Epicurus forbids a religion that hides its name (2) and talks to us about essences, concepts, ideas to better bring us back or lead us to God, and (he forbids) the worlds of servitude that this legitimates, explains, excuses, and justifies.

Epicurus writes that scientific knowledge exempts us from subscribing to irrational cruelty. To advance knowledge is to contribute to the decline of the misunderstandings with which the legends, the fictions, the fables with which religion is nourished are formed. If we know that, in the sky, there is only matter, multiple atoms; if we discover that the gods are material and that, free of troubles, experiencing ataraxia, they function as models of practical wisdom, then we empty the sky of the gods of faith and theology, we stop submitting to false powers invested with false authority over men.

Science worthy of its name–the grammar suggests that it is a transcendental Epicureanism–undermines religion, when understood as superstition, that is: a belief in false gods. The only true gods are material and their divinity resides in their subtle constitution and singular arrangements. In the letter to Pythocles, after having spoken about lightning and its impact–once considered sacred because it had been designated by the gods to send messages to humans–Epicurus gives his version (of what it is). The atomist philosopher summons materialistic explanations: gatherings of swirling winds, conflations, the rupture of a part of their mass, their violent fall, the density and the compression of the clouds, the dynamics of the fire, the interaction between the celestial movements and the geology of the mountains. Then he concludes his concrete analysis of concrete phenomena: “Let only myth be excluded!”

“Let only myth be excluded!” This is the categorical imperative of what I call a transcendental Epicureanism. I am not usually a supporter of the transcendental, because the word is often used as ontological “loincloth” for the sacred, for the divine, for the immaterial, for the religious! I retain from this word the meaning which Littré attributes to it: “that which relies on data superior to sensible impression and observation” (3). In other words, there was a historical Epicureanism, dated, inscribed in dates, with philosophers, works, names, and books. The disciples of Epicurus found the word and the meaning.

Let us start from the diversity of Epicureanism: that of the contemporaries of the founder, and of the others who came later, such as Diogenes of Oenanda–from the 4th / 3rd century BCE to the 3rd century AD. Let us note that there was more than half a millennia of Epicurean philosophy in Greece, in Rome or Herculaneum, and elsewhere in Asia Minor. Some adherents were contemporaries of the decadent Athenian city, others of the conquering Roman Empire. Let us conclude that, notwithstanding the differences, there is a powerful constitutive force of Epicureanism, an energy that will, moreover, subtly nourish the current of intellectual resistance to Christianity.

I call transcendental Epicureanism this force which crystallizes around a certain number of untimely and unrealistic theses. The world is knowable; knowledge is the architect of happiness; happiness supposes the emancipation from all mythologies; mythologies are the only antidote to monistic materialism; monistic materialism fights religions; religions thrive on ascetic ideals; the ascetic ideal invites one to die in the world in his lifetime; to die in the world while alive is worse than truly dying one day; one must prepare to truly die one day; this preparation supposes philosophy–which is true knowledge of the true world, and recusal of fables and fictions. Da capo (4).

This transcendental Epicureanism now assumes that philosophy, so often lost in the worship of the pure verb, revives the Epicurean tradition of taste for science. Admittedly, science has become complex, specialized, fragmented, difficult to understand for a non-specialist. Rarely can a man anymore–like Descartes–be both a brilliant philosopher and also an inventor who leaves his name in the history of science. But the impossibility of knowing everything about the science of one’s time does not prevent us from knowing enough to stop saying nonsense about the world in general or about a particular subject.

The central questions in droves of considerations by contemporary philosophers–on bioethics, global warming, genetic engineering, natural gas, transgenesis, genetically modified organisms, patentability of life, biodiversity, cloning, the greenhouse effect–often come from the deontologist discourse. This resorts to the methodology of fear, which is dear to Hans Jonas, since it requires tapping into healthy reason. Magical thinking often feeds the rhetoric of catastrophism, which allows for a disconnected discourse of science. Ignorance of what science permits leads to a theoretical delusion that thinks more about science fiction than about science without fiction.

Materialists and atomists, Democritus and Epicurus thought from the information provided by their empirical intelligence. The ray of light in which suspended particles dance gives the intuitive impulse to a concrete physics that leads to an ethics free of deities. A transcendental Epicureanism requires use of the information that science can provide to avoid delirium purely and simply. In this configuration of timeless Epicureanism, the transcendental proves to be a remedy for transcendence.

Let’s ask astrophysics to provide an ontology that can illustrate what transcendental Epicureanism could be—in preparation for an ethics of ataraxia. We would discover that the atomistic intuitions of twenty-five centuries ago are globally corroborated by recent scientific discoveries in the field–whereas for the past two thousand years, science has never confirmed a single Christian hypothesis, and has furthermore invalidated them all: geology downgrades the Christian thesis of the world’s age, as astronomy does with geo-centrism, psychology challenges the thesis on free will, Darwinian naturalism dismantles the thesis of the divine origin of man, astrophysics that of the creationist origin of the world, etc.

On the other hand, the contemporary sciences validate many epicurean intuitions: the monism of matter; (when) reduced (to their minimal components), things are made up of pure and simple material combinations; the eternity of matter; the temporality of its arrangements; the inexistence of a void in a configuration where nothing is created from nothing, and nothing disappears into nothing; the alternating dynamic of decomposition and recomposition; the particle as a primordial element present in all existing things; the infinity of the universe, therefore of space; the existence of a plurality of worlds; the perishable character of our universe, which has come into being, is and will disappear; the ordering of the cosmos in reducible order to a mathematical formulation and to the laws of nature–all without a God or Creator.

Here is what we know about the cosmos as told by Jean-Pierre Luminet (henceforward, JPL), whose hypothesis of a crumpled universe seduces me. JPL is an astrophysicist, certainly, but also a music lover, musician, poet, writer, novelist, cartoonist, to whom must be added pedagogue, lecturer, professor, researcher. He resembles those men of the Renaissance who are by no means impressed by the universal, and who idly travel in all the intellectual worlds seemingly detached while unveiling all that is. JPL operates at the level of the big leagues, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Einstein, but our era does not like its geniuses.

JPL quotes the philosophers, certainly. He knows well the philosophy of science, and happily moves in all the worlds: from the poetic cosmological thought of the Presocratic ones, to the hardest physics of the contemporary researchers while passing by the classics, from Plato to Leibniz, from Nicolas de Cues to Giordano Bruno, from Copernicus to Typhoon Brahe, from Einstein to Riemann, from Gauss to Lobatchevski, but he manifests a particular fondness for the atomist of Abdera (Democritus), Epicurus and Lucretius, and their brilliant intuitions.

In the field of astronomy, the last thirty years have brought more than the last three millennia. Specialization of observation equipment brought about the advent of new concepts. Hence the astonishment to find that the finest apex of discoveries coincides with the empirical hypotheses of the materialists who, watching the dance of dust in a ray of light, construct a world, a universe, a cosmology, an ontology always from the point of view of foundations.

If the philosopher deduces the nature of reality from a few grains of dust, the astrophysicist specifies things. Originally, the universe is a compound of gas and plain dust floating between empty space and stars. There is no sun yet. In this nebula are all the atoms discovered by the materialists: which constitute the planets of the solar system, the earth and all that is on the earth, the human bodies–even myself, who am writing this book and you, who are reading it–everything under your gaze at the moment you read, and when you lift the head from these pages, all this is a compound of atoms floating in the nebula that has engendered us. The monistic truth cannot be better said: from the flea to the planets, from the giant squid of the underwater world to the stars, from the woodworm dear to the philosophers for their demonstrations, to Darwin who expounds the law of evolution in the animal kingdom, from the blade of grass to the galaxy, everything comes from this protostellar nebula solicited by the explosion of a supernova, a very large star, whose shock-wave shakes the balance of the nebula that collapses on itself, and causes chain reactions, giving birth to the sun–this light that nourishes planet Earth.

The mass of gas turns on itself, it contracts, the rotation accelerates, the cloud flattens and takes the form of a disk that makes possible the accretion, in other words the conglomeration of small bodies to form bigger ones until, from tiny dust, come the planets, including the earth, then man … the effects of gravity affect this movement of collapse of the Star on itself. For millions of years, these movements of accretions multiply.

Could not we find a scientific, physical, astrophysical formulation of what Epicureans call the clinamen? When Lucretius explains that everything is composed of atoms, to then explain that we went from a multitude of atoms that fell in the void, to the composite bodies (we have now), he resorts to this scientific hypothesis which proves to be an excellent scientific intuition: the poetic postulate of the swerve (clinamen): the declivity of an atom which encounters another which makes the aggregation of what is possible, this poetic postulate, therefore becomes a refined scientific formulation under the pen of the astrophysicists.

The sun that makes life possible on earth therefore has a date of birth: before it the universe was, after it the universe will be. When the latter happened, the universe was already 9 billion years old; its time is running out, it will last another 5 billion years. Before it, man was a potentiality without consciousness to think it; after it, man will not even be a memory, since no consciousness will be there to carry its memory. Man will have undergone an event in a huge atomic conflagration. But this event is believed to be everything and the center of everything, while it is buried in what is, in the same way as we see in stones and glaciers, volcanoes and storms, halo and rainbows.

To remain local and modest to our universe, JPL claims that it is finite but boundless, creating an oxymoron, since the end assumes the limit, limits an end, and that one cannot be finite and limitless. (He is referring to) a three-dimensional Euclidean space, of course, because, in this configuration, our conceptual and mental habits force us into a certain type of representation. But in a non-Euclidean space, the oxymoron disappears in favor of a new mental figure which allows, for example, if one is in a cube, to go out through the ceiling and thus to enter (another cube) through the floor.

This change in spatial paradigm makes it possible to solve a number of problems, including that of the shape of the universe. JPL says it is crumpled. In other words, much smaller than we imagine, and refracted by a device that makes us take for greater that it is. The real, at least what appears to us as such, is an immense combination of fictions, in this case optical illusions, topological mirages, ghosts. Lucretius held for an infinite universe because he wondered what would become of a javelin launched towards the finite at the moment when it would reach the limits of the universe: would it stop? Break against potential walls? But behind these walls of a finite world, what exists? And how do we name what would exist after the limit of the finite? Non-Euclidean geometry makes it possible to solve the problem: Lucretius’ javelin thrown towards the infinite would go infinitely into this finite but limitless universe: perpetual motion, eternity by the stars.

JPL explains that what we observe deceives us: different ages seem to us like the same time. The fossil radiation of the universe assumes that all our information about it is given by the light that reaches our gaze distorted by the force that structures the universe. Light does not move except by gravitation. So the straight line is not the shortest way. Gravitation digs an abyss of forces, which become the course of light and make it write singular partitions: many lights, divided in time stages over millions of years, reach the observer at once. The multiplicity of light-times merges into a single observation time. So that we think that the same thing at different stages is multiple things, as if we were taking a character we see in ten thousand pictures from their conception to their death, and imagining him as different individuals. These gravitational mirages show that vastness is not so vast, as much as one might think it is after seeing it.

JPL takes the example of a space whose interior would be lined with mirrors that would reflect a single candle: we would see as much as the refractions would allow, and yet it would be only the flame of a single candle as many times duplicated as there are mirrors. Real space is much smaller than the observed space. This universe is crumpled: a kind of mirror game enlarges a small representation. Our universe is a baroque theater.

This world is small, but there are many of them, and astrophysics speak of the multiverse. Our universe would have detached itself from the quantum vacuum to obey its own temporal clock and its singular spatial geometry while the multiverse would live outside space and time by aggregating universes incessantly in formation with their times and their spaces. This is totally novel and absolutely inconceivable for a brain formatted in our space-time.

Epicureans believed in multiple worlds and material gods between the worlds. Totally devoid of human form, of human feelings, their subtle atoms would embody a model of ataraxia which Epicurus called to imitate: the ataraxia of the sage was therefore shaped by the gods of the cosmos. The gods were anthropomorphic neither in form nor in substance, just ideal forms that could be activated as models of wisdom, which was reduced to pure pleasure of existence. (5)

But the intermundia are validated by astrophysics: they are black holes that are defined as a force of such gravity that it absorbs everything that comes within reach, it ingests and digests material, even light. Time dilates, matter decomposes and is absorbed, light rays deviate. The boundaries that delimit black holes are called “event horizons” because we cannot observe anything beyond them. There is no interior and exterior, no space and time, and all is reversed. Near this horizon, space turns like a glove. It is distortion of space-time.

Some say that the bottom of the rotating black hole is not a dead-end and that there are “worm holes”, which are kinds of tunnels that corresponding with other universes. We can also imagine “white fountains” that would be the opposite of black holes, which would not absorb but would spout matter engulfed by black holes. The bigbang would then be a huge white fountain perhaps connected to another universe that would have dumped some of its matter in our own universe. That’s how we are here.

The Epicurean atoms of the protostellar nebula, the clinamen as a poetic intuition of the astrophysical phenomenon of accretion, the Lucretian javelin launched towards the infinite which discovers its trajectory drawn by the astrophysics of JPL, the plurality of Epicurean worlds validated by the multiverse of the discoverers: here is evidence that a contemporary transcendental Epicureanism is possible or conceivable, and that physics–in this case astrophysics–is an introductory course to ethics.

Obviously, we see that the Judeo-Christian sky filled with angelic trinkets, paradisiacal fiction for glorious bodies, is outclassed by the assumptions of astrophysical science. This field of science claims its modesty: we know almost nothing about the universe and the cosmos. But what we are beginning to know forces us to revisit our conceptions of freedom, free will, choice, responsibility. Anyone who can reason understands that we are fruits of nature.

But we are also fruits of the cosmos, and this is much less evident to the mortals who often ignore the discoveries of the most recent astrophysics. The latest work on Higgs’ boson–which was finally discovered–should compel the latter-day theologians to surrender arms and instead consider retraining in ontology, provided it is materialistic. The heavenly Judeo-Christian hodgepodge, even when we no longer believe it literally, left traces in the soul shaped by more than a thousand years of ideology.

Magical thinking still exists in millions of human brains: from creationists to New Age shamans, from neo-Buddhists to Muslim theists, from custom-made monotheists from planetary megacities to spiritualism, from the anthroposophy of the proponents of biodynamic agriculture, devotees of Shinto spiritual creatures who invoke the gods of the lawn before carving them, from supporters of many sects–like the Raelians–who think that only the cloned will be saved and admitted into the spaceship that will ensure salvation to vodouisants and other African-American cults, there is no shortage of supporters of the supernatural recycled in religion after religion.

A materialistic ontology leans on this transcendental Epicureanism which recalls the link between man and nature, certainly, but also between man and the little we know of the cosmos. Let’s tap into our ability to enjoy the spectacle of this immensity, which presupposes the sublime: the sublime is the path of materialistic, atomistic, atheistic access to the oceanic feeling that brought the body back into the configuration that existed before the Judeo-Christian separation (from nature). The lessons given by the sublime activate in the being a force that was neglected, despised, vilified, hunted down by monotheisms. Renewing the search for it according to hedonistic logic, allows a post-Christian ethics in which transcendental Epicureanism plays a significant role.


1. Here, Onfray seems to make Epicurus seem more austere than he was. Most contemporary Epicureans would not accept the view that Epicurus forbids sexuality. In the sources (See Vatican Saying 51), he merely warns about the potential dangers of sexuality to be mindful of.

2. When referring to a “religion that hides its name”, Onfray perhaps refers here to Christianity as nothing more than Platonism.

3. In other words, by setting “Let only myth be excluded!” as the only non-empirical source in his epistemology, Epicurus set a new, scientific boundary for ultimate, transcendental reality, one which supplies us with many of the same cosmological underpinnings that people find in religion.

4. “Da capo” means “from the beginning”; that is, “and back to the beginning”.

5. Here, it sounds like Onfray is combining the realist and idealist interpretations of the Epicurean gods.

Further reading:

Cosmos (in French) by Michel Onfray

Dialogue On Virtue

In the past, we have approached the problematic issues related to who defines virtue and how, and what place if any virtue should have in Epicurean ethics, by evaluating Frances Wright’s passages from A Few Days in Athens concerning the subject. This will likely be the first in a series of follow-up dialogues on virtue as means and on pleasure as the end, as well as on other doctrinal differences–like the crucial one on nature as the guide rather than arbitrary and abstract ideals–, to help students of philosophy–particularly those who argue that there is little to no difference between the two schools–to clearly understand the differences between the Epicurean and the Stoic schools.

The discussions began on our facebook group when one of the members shared a couple of quotes on the subject. For the benefit of those studying the differences between the two schools, the dialogue has been edited with links and commentary, and the underlined comments denote opinions or views that are clearly Stoic and/or otherwise non-Epicurean, in order to bring out what we consider to be some of the key differences of opinion and to encourage discussion about if and why, and to what extent, these issues matter.

virt“Those who place the Chief Good in virtue alone are beguiled by the glamour of a name, and do not understand the true demands of nature. If they will consent to listen to Epicurus, they will be delivered from the grossest error. Your school dilates on the transcendent beauty of the virtues; but were they not productive of pleasure, who would deem them either praiseworthy or desirable?” – Toquatus

“Ask, and she will tell you, that happiness is not found in tumult, but tranquillity; and that, not the tranquillity of indolence and inaction, but of a healthy contentment of soul and body. Ask, and she will tell you, that a happy life is like neither to a roaring torrent, nor a stagnant pool, but to a placid and crystal stream, that flows gently and silently along.” – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X

Banton. Good and bad means good and bad for our happiness. Nothing is bad for happiness. Unhappiness doesn’t exist. Neither does the devil even though people will claim the experience of it.

Eric. Banton, I believe though we must weigh pleasure in terms of its greatest good to ourselves and others. So that may not be the most readily available peace, tranquility, and happiness. Sometimes we must delay it or hold off on it so that it can in fact produce a greater pleasure for all. Hedonic calculus matters here.

The devil has no empirical evidence to Epicurus’ naturalistic view. You’re right, there is no evidence for a devil, and thus it is nothing to us.

Banton. We must weigh pleasure in terms of the greatest good (what makes something good? We want it. That’s it.) Unhappiness likewise is nothing. We simply do what we want. We are free. I have a different take here. I don’t believe I’m 100% Epicurean but I think he is as close as we’ve gotten.

For an Epicurean reply to this, read these reasonings on Polystratus’ Herculaneum scroll, where he argues that good and bad can be discerned in nature as secondary or relational properties of things based on whether they produce pleasure or aversion.

Hiram. By “greatest” here you mean long-term, no? Not necessarily “collective“?

Banton. I was quoting Eric. I don’t believe there is a greatest good. The greatest good is whatever I want most.

Hiram. Without evaluating what your desires are and their repercussions, whether they are necessary or not, etc?

Banton. We are free to evaluate or not. So if I want to get drunk and I don’t believe anything makes that wrong or bad, I’m free to get drunk. Or anything else. That’s just an example.

Hiram. If you are exempt from hangovers and from damaging your personal relationships by being obnoxious when drunk.

Eric. That’s a fair example, but weighing the cost between pleasure and pain, getting drunk versus getting buzzed is a real differential IMO. One is Epicurean, the other Cyrenaic (This could be disputed). If you recall, Epicureanism is ‘virtuous pleasure’ so that act of drinking should be weighed with moderation and temperance.

Hiram. Rather than moderation and temperance, the specific word used in the sources is rather “advantage”, or sometimes “mutual advantage”.

Banton. Point is we are free.

Hiram. You are. But freedom can hinder or make happiness. This is why we need ethics.

Banton. Ah that’s where we disagree.

Hiram. Nature won’t give you a choice: if you plunge into a fire pit, you will burn and it WILL hurt. This is what is meant by the guidance of nature via the canon / via our own faculties.

Banton. Yet people have chosen to do it.

Hiram. Which is why we are so critical of other philosophies that “poison human happiness” (citing Frances Wright).

Banton. But you don’t know they weren’t happy to do it. Mohammed Bouazizi.

Hiram. I need context to judge in each case, so we can untangle this crucial matter. If a man is happy murder 50 people because of his faith, then that man was immoral and did not study philosophy, but yielded to superstition and arrogance. This is why Polystratus argued that seeking “virtue” without the study of nature only leads to arrogance and superstition and that when people do that, virtue comes to nothing.

Banton. Virtue, or the good, is only what a person wants. It’s not objective. I guess that’s the point. Consensus agreement only proves a consensus agreement. Epicurus believed in unhappiness and so tried to find ways to minimize it. I’m saying unhappiness does not exist, only the belief in it and the experience of that belief.

Cassius. This is bizarre. Epicurus talked about pain, and pain certainly exists to us. What exactly are you saying?

Hiram. This is where you’re disagreeing with Epicurus, just to clarify so that everyone understands this point. Epicureans believe that nature sets a standard, and that humans are free to use their pleasure faculty within the guidelines set by nature. Epicureans also advise people to study our own nature so that we can understand those guidelines, which desires are natural and which not, etc. Nature is the guide, and culture frequently corrupts ethics.

Banton. Pain does not cause unhappiness. Judging the pain as bad does. But what does bad mean? It means it causes unhappiness. So the belief in unhappiness is the cause of unhappiness. If I don’t believe pain can make me unhappy, I may seek to minimize the pain but I’m not going to feel unhappy about it. Epicurus believed unhappiness happens as a result of certain stimuli. The Stoics believe unhappiness happens as a result of other stimuli, namely desiring things not under your complete control. Both schools prescribed a way to control stimuli. I’m saying unhappiness is a myth, like the devil, and one only experiences unhappiness as a result of their belief in it. When you no longer believe in the devil (unhappiness) you don’t have to replace that with other beliefs. You are simply free to follow your desires and do what you want, whatever you want.

Hiram. You are platonizing unhappiness and deviating from what your nature requires when you reason this way.

Banton. What my nature requires for what? I’d love to hear the answer to that question.

Hiram. All that your nature requires is some food, human association, a home, health, safety. These are the kyriotatai or chief goods. They are the desires that are both natural and necessary. If you are grateful, you can live like a king with a basic provision of these things.

In the PDs you will see that there are desires without which you suffer. They are natural. We know that if you do not eat, you die. If you lack safety of a home you, may suffer from exposure or external threats. There’s research that shows isolation is a health risk factor on par with obesity and smoking, so you need other people. Your own nature and health will require these things. Your own body will require them.

You *could* ask why or what for, and you could posit answers (for those questions) like natural selection or whatever, but there is no point arguing with your own nature. This is what we mean by taking nature as your guide: she does not care. If you don’t eat you WILL suffer hunger. If you eat, you WILL experience pleasure.

Banton. So our nature requires things for survival and pleasure. This is not a revelation. Now if you believe we need survival and pleasure to be happy, to know subjectively that we don’t have to feel bad, lament, be dissatisfied then I disagree. And that’s my point, nothing is required for happiness, inner peace, inner joy.

Hiram. If we don’t survive, we’ll be dead: happiness won’t even be an issue. But if you’re saying that we don’t need pleasure to be happy, then what do you even mean by happiness? Are you platonizing it also? Are you dreaming that you’re happy while in physical pain and mental anguish?

BantonYes, if we’re dead nothing will be an issue, but to my knowledge this philosophy is not about survival and I don’t think we need a philosophy of survival. Most folks already know we need food, etc.

And yes, I’m saying we don’t need physical pleasure to be happy. People will tolerate the worst pain and circumstances and not be unhappy. As for mental anguish, that’s unhappiness and it is not caused by pain but by belief. Pain and pleasure are irrelevant to happiness.

Also, the belief that we need pleasures to be happy is really unhappiness. People fear not having what they need. Fear is unhappiness, or more accurately the anticipation of unhappiness. If they ever find themselves in such a position as they anticipated they will also be unhappy. Not because they don’t have what they need to be happy but because they believe they don’t.

Hiram. Alright, so what you are describing is Stoic doctrine and it seems that you are an entirely convinced Stoic. It does not seem like you are in the Epicurean process of therapy or interested in evaluating it.

Banton. I’m most definitely not Stoic. The Stoics also believe something is necessary for happiness, namely virtue or being good. So they try to be good to be happy, you guys try to minimize pain and maximize pleasure to be happy.

Hiram. You’re also most definitely not Epicurean, and your last three comments are Stoicism. Maybe you’re a certain KIND of Stoic, an unorthodox one, but you’re not a student of Epicurus. You have not established pleasure as the end. If your read Polystratus, or the Principal Doctrines, or Norman Dewitt, you will understand that this is essential in order to profit from this discourse: that we are committed to the rational and calculated pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.

Banton. I like to believe I’m an independent thinker. I think pleasure is closer to what I see as the truth than virtue. But physical pleasure, while preferred in some circumstances, does fulfill what I see as the end which is happiness.

Hiram. That’s right. You’re an independent thinker. But this discussion has been good to help people grasp some of the distinctions between the two schools, how we view nature as our guide, how virtue or “good” or some other arbitrary ideal is not set by nature, etc.

(on a separate thread within the same discussion)

Banton. People automatically weigh the costs and based on their values, they do what they want. The problem with these philosophies is that they all propose an ideal way of being. There is no ideal way of being. People are free to decide what is ideal to them.

Hiram. So just to clarify where Epicurus comes in with moral guidance, here he says that nature has established certain (empirically knowable) limits and guidelines, and made them easily evident to our faculties including the faculty of pleasure and aversion. The study of these natural limits is what makes us philosophers.

Eric. Sure, we’re all going to pursue the things that give us pleasure and happiness, but Epicureanism wasn’t intended to be a free license to pursue any old pleasure. Pleasure according to the philosophy meant being without physical and emotional pain, so some acts and practices need to be weighed in that light, otherwise it’s just hedonism/sensualism

Hiram. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with rational hedonism, it’s uncalculated hedonism that we criticize.

Eric. Is that supporting what I’m saying or intended to say something different?

Hiram. Supporting, but also ensuring that we do not look at hedonism with the kind of judgmental eye that Nietzsche associates with being “weary of this world”. One of the Principal Doctrines says that our faculties never shun pleasure. Pleasure can only be bad when the consequences are so poisonous to future pleasure that they neutralize the benefit. PD 20 is what I’m thinking of.

Eric. Ugh, that translation is cryptic!

Concerning the various translations of the Principal Doctrines other than the one found on epicurus.net, there is one by Peter Saint Andre available from Monadnock, another one by Robert Hicks on an MIT page.

For maximum convenience, NewEpicurean.com has a page dedicated to cross-referenced, clickable Principal Doctrines which link back to multiple resources.

Jason. Definitely not my favorite translation of PD 20. Strodach’s is preferable:

The body takes the limits of pleasure to be infinite, and infinite time would provide such pleasure. But the mind has provided us with the complete life by a rational examination of the body’s goals and limitations, and by dispelling our fears about a life after death, and so we no longer need unlimited time. On the other hand, [the mind] does not avoid pleasure, nor, when conditions occasion our departure from life, does it come to the end in a manner that would suggest that it had fallen short in any way of the best possible existence.

Eric. Applause!!!

Jason. Cassius’ rephrasing is great too:

Bodily pleasures seem unlimited, and so the body seems to wish to live forever. But the mind, recognizing that Nature does not allow the body to live forever, and recognizing that there is nothing to fear in the eternal time after death, guides us to a complete and optimal life, and we then realize that we no longer have the need for an unlimited time. Even though the mind enjoys pleasure, the mind does not feel remorse when the end of life approaches, so long as the mind has led the person to live the best life possible to him according to Nature.

Ronald. Epicurus says be virtuous in order to be happy, the stoics say be virtuous and you will be as happy as possible. I’m not sure there is a lot to fight about here.

(We would not have a controversy thousands of years after the foundation of the two schools if that were really the case)

Hiram. lol …. it’s a 2,300 year old fight. Ronald, so when a Muslim believes that the Quran 4:34 orders him to beat his wife and that it would be virtuous to do so, and he physically attacks her, where in this equation do you find pleasure? If virtue is not defined according to nature, and is just a Platonic imaginary ideal, what becomes of virtue? This is what Polystratus meant in his On Irrational Contempt when he said “virtue without the study of nature comes to nothing but arrogance and superstition”.

Panagiotis. Nature is the basis of everything.

Eric. I am absolutely convinced that the Roman Stoics believed what Epicurus taught, namely ‘virtuous pleasure’ produces happiness, peace, and tranquility. They (meaning Neo-Stoics) end up nit picking this, vacillating between what I just said, and practicing ‘virtue for its own sake’ or duty for duty’s sake. I can give you at least 10 quotes that show that the Roman Stoics didn’t say anything like Virtue for its own sake but rather being virtuous produces tranquility. So I guess it all depends who you’re asking. I believe you are correct there is not much to fight about since Epicurus simply interweaves virtue and tranquility.

Cassius. I think the only point I’ll offer, at least for the moment, is to go back to the quote: “were they not productive of pleasure, who would deem them either praiseworthy or desirable?” The word “happiness” is ambiguous to cover over a multitude of disputes. It is Epicurus who focuses on “pleasure”, and if one keeps to “pleasure”, then a lot of these ambiguities sort themselves out, and it’s much easier to see who is agreeing with Epicurus and who is disagreeing with him.

Ronald. The quote I think supports my point. When Epicurus says “were they not productive of pleasure,…” he seems to be conceding that they are productive of pleasure.

Daniel. (I) agree, and the real proof Epicurus truly understands what he talks about is how easy it is to understand pleasure and prudence without the ambiguities of other philosophies based on a telos focused purely on reason, virtue, or heavenly bodies.

Cassius. Of course “they” are productive of pleasure, but the question is what “they” are. Are “they” something arbitrarily defined by religion or by logic as virtue, or are “they” those activities defined by what is in fact productive of pleasurable living? The Stoics and others choose the former definition, the Epicureans the latter, and never the twain shall meet in theory, just in practicality. The error is in choosing theory that does not lead to pleasurable living vs. theory that is defined as leading to pleasurable living.

Ronald. “Just in practicality”. Exactly. I am not saying there is no difference, just not one where argument is of practical value. And I think Epicureanism is all about practical value.

Eric. Agreed, for the most part. If you’re willing and it’s appropriate, I think it would be beneficial to share all the quotes by the Roman Stoics that agree with Epicurus. I’ve spent a good amount of time collecting those passages that make ‘virtue for its own sake’ absurd and do in fact show that often they see virtue as a means to producing pleasure. Stoics do seem confused at times and you’re right that Epicurus is the one who focuses solely on virtue FOR THE SAKE OF pleasure.

Jason. I would enjoy that if you were to put a page or post together, Eric. It might serve my purposes to illuminate where Roman Stoics were “right” instead of pointing out how they were wrong to my friends, who wave the Stoic flag yet refuse to acknowledge their deviation from ancient Stoic thought.

Since they’re into deviations, a little positive reinforcement towards showing how their behavior and natural tendencies favor true philosophy–instead of their confused conceptions–might help them jump ship, if I could quote Stoic sources instead of simply arguing.

Eric. Interestingly, I’ve hit a brick wall (with Stoics) with trying to demonstrate how the Roman stoics did promote virtue because it provided peace of mind, freedom, etc. I do recognize the differences in terms of chief ends. I believe both parties are promoting ‘virtuous pleasure’ ultimately, however confused it might sound. Let me say this, Much of what Epictetus, Seneca and MA promoted was a life where one manages desires, aversions, impressions judgments FOR tranquility!

Jason. I’m not surprised. It appears that modern “Stoics” are quite confused about the purpose of philosophy. If you don’t acknowledge that philosophy has an end-goal, how can one derive a purpose for studying it?

Eric. They want to say that virtue is its own end, its own reward. They want to say it like a purse lipped moralist. They have to ADD tranquility. Check out this Seneca quote:

Pleasure is not a reward for virtue, nor its cause, but is something added on to it. Virtue is not chosen because it causes pleasure; but if it is chosen, it does cause pleasure.

The joy which arises from virtue . . . like happiness and tranquility . . . are consequences of the greatest good, but they do not constitute it.

– Seneca (Pierre Hadot translation in Inner Citadel)

What a bunch of hog shit! Elsewhere Seneca writes an entire letter On Tranquility of Mind where in he eases his friend with all kinds of methods to bring him to tranquility. Epictetus states a number of times what the practice of virtue is FOR, namely tranquility

Oh Seneca! Reading his works I get the distinct impression of a schoolboy on the verge of getting caught with his hand in the cookie-jar, freezing in place, not knowing whether to remove his hand grasping cookies or leaving them behind. He does seem to me a ‘rider of walls’ It’s just that all this bickering is not ultimately (about) differences of kinds. They are degrees in my view. I’m a student of ‘philosophies of virtuous pleasure’, and there are fascinating and useful agreements not just in Hellenistic philosophies but early Asian ones as well. Here’s Seneca talking like an Epicurean:

Seneca says about tranquility:

We are, therefore, seeking how the mind can follow a smooth and steady course, well disposed to itself, happily regarding its own condition and with no interruption to this pleasure, but remaining in a state of peace with no ups and downs: that will be tranquility.

And he doesn’t say this lightly:

But what you are longing for is great and supreme and nearly divine – not to be shaken.


Hiram. It is unclear if the original Seneca passage that was translated into tranquility was “ataraxia”, which is an Epicurean term also. In either case, for the sake of clarity: we in Epicurean philosophy consider pleasure as the end, which can be qualified as tranquil pleasure, virtuous pleasure, and by other words. The danger with using fuzzy terms like virtue is that they can have wildly diverging meanings in various cultures, whereas pleasure is much clearer, and it’s a natural faculty used broadly enough to be a useful end. And we believe that it is nature itself that has set this standard for mortals.

Cassius. For anyone lurking who wants to compare the stoic quotes, here is my chart. And Eric, this is the irreconcilable point. The Stoics promote something they call virtue devoid of pleasure. The Epicureans promote virtue DEFINED by pleasurable result. And that is why it is very perilous to speak loosely of tranquility. Calmness in the experience of unbroken pleasure is desirable. Calmness in and of itself is not desirable nor the goal of Epicurean living. Yes that is a pretty good statement of their confusion.

Eric. As an aside: it does not appear at all there is a difference between ataraxia and apatheia EXPERIENTIALLY. The times in which the Roman Stoics say virtue produces peace of mind or tranquility, they seem to do so when they are taking about managing desires and practicing virtue. Apatheia for the Stoics was living without negative emotions or suffering, without emotional pain.

Hiram. Notice my criticism here of how by cutting ourselves off from our emotions, we fail to air our grievances and tyranny persists in the world. There are many dangers with apatheia: pathos, or the emotional side of being human, is part of our bag of instincts.

Eric. Apatheia (Greek: ἀπάθεια; from a- “without” and pathos “suffering” or “passion”) in Stoic philosophy refers to a state of mind where one is not disturbed by the passions. It is best translated by the word equanimity rather than indifference.

Hiram. Right, so “no passions”. Yet Philodemus writes that anger can be both productive and virtuous, if it leads to long-term pleasure by fixing a grievance that had been left unattended. So, the end is the stability of long term pleasure, and this may require strong ownership of one’s emotions and passions, not apatheia.


Cassius. This is not a criticism but let’s say a “challenge.” I note that your posts and your constructs very rarely use the word “pleasure” and when you do (not sure I remember many times, but I think so) I think you pick up the stoic concern that pleasure is something dangerous. So given that Epicurus is clearly an advocate of pleasure, and not just the mental types, I challenge you to incorporate that into your discussion of tranquility. I definitely think it is possible and correct to do so, but that it where it is extremely difficult to state the goal of life in terms that are compatible with Stoicism.

Here is an example to incorporate, Eric, which I don’t think anyone disputes is an accurate statement of Epicurean doctrine. It is observed too that in his treatise On the Ethical End, Diogenes Laertius writes in these terms: “I know not how to conceive the good, apart from the pleasures of taste, of sex, of sound, and the pleasures of beautiful form.” It is very difficult to fit this into a Stoic model without writing out of stoicism most of the ancient authorities.

Eric. Remind me again: are there two kinds of pleasures that amount to without pain and additive pleasures like food, sex, etc? Did only DL make that comment or do we find it in extant writings of Epicurus? I’m asking because Cicero seems to rail Toquatus around this idea of pleasure being only a negation of pain. He mocks the idea of this as being a neutral state, not pleasure as Diogenes Laetrius says above. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

Also, be reminded I’m not in any way trying to demonstrate that these two schools are very much like each other. I am saying there is a thread running through both when it comes to techniques and ways of looking at things that promote tranquility. I have no interest in trying to reconcile them at this point. I though it might be interesting also to show when Stoics very much sounded Epicurean.

 (on a separate thread of the conversation)

Christopher. Virtue is nature, human nature, with intelligence being what ultimately distinguishes us from other living things. So, I don’t see the issue – pursuing virtue is following nature.

Cassius. Just to be clear, I think this is a statement of opinion rather than an attempt to state the Epicurean position. The Epicurean position was that virtue, just like Platonic ideals, does/do not exist in and of themselves. There is no virtue “in the air” to which we can or should conform ourselves. There are only actions of humans in reality which have to be judged by their consequences, and the only natural mechanism for judging the consequences is the faculty of pleasure and pain. And for that reason, “virtue” is defined in the Epicurean mode as those actions which in fact lead to pleasurable living, and “vice” would be those actions which in fact lead to painful living. The reason for the coincidence of terms is that it is generally true that “wisdom” or “temperance” or “courage” or whatever are generally the proper tools for achieving pleasurable living, and avoiding pain. But torn from that context these terms have no meaning whatsoever other than whatever arbitrary meaning a religion or a rationalistic or arbitrary construct may give them. There is Communist Courage and Nazi Courage and Christian Courage and Buddhist Courage, all of which can be considered something in the meaning of will-power, but the goal and the direction of all of these is totally different and totally unappetizing to those outside that construct. The natural construct is pleasure and pain, and if one wants to truly live in conformity with nature (which we do, because nature is the ultimate reality) then one bases ones goals, and chooses one’s tools, based on natures standard of pleasure and pain.

And in real life, I think most people who are casual readers of philosophy reach just that conclusion. But to drill deeper is to see where the dispute really lies, and I think the dispute does have very deep consequences.

This is the end of this dialogue.


Epistle on Pleasure, by Panagiotis

Ι post here a remarcable letter as send it to me by a new Epicurean friend in the Garden of Thessaloniki. Panagiotis Papavasiliou is among us for a few months and he understood very well the issue on pleasure. Panagiotis would be fom now on our Scholarch in the Garden of Thessaloniki and for a duration of six months.

His letter to me is as follows :

Good morning Elli !

Thank you for the attachment containing Boris Nikolsky’s text, I have started reading it and it seems very interesting to me, since the topic on pleasure is the beginning and the mean and the end for us the Epicureans. Until I shall complete reading it so I could comment, I am submitting to you both my point of view about kinetic and katastematic pleasure, their relation to the concept of time, the description of pleasure through pain, and apathy.

By observing nature Epicurus distinguished the lucidity (enargeia) of two general emotional situations in which all living beings are, whether pleasure or pain, excluding even a neutral status. Also clear is the tendency of all living beings for pleasure, which he called it good, that is pleasure (hedone) itself and anything useful to achieve it, and trying to avoid pain (ponos), the evil.

We know that every human being needs energy to move and be kept alive, which we usually receive through food. For this reason the pleasure of the stomach is the basis of all. We can easily imagine someone not moving/acting by himself to replace the energy he loses necessary in operating at least the vital organs (e.g. if he doesn’t eat) and he do not accept external influences (e.g. if he isn’t fed); it is only a matter of time to exhaust his energy stock and die.

Organisms also interact with their environment through their sensory organs. This data is processed in their brain and then they decide on how to take back power from the environment to produce action once again and so on. More precisely, emotions inform (i.e. all the animals that feature emotions, like human) about the stimuli that favour the maintenance of life (pleasure) and those that lead them to death (pain). Therefore, a human in order to live happily will seek for acts that bring pleasure and will avoid those who bear pain. Epicurean theory is not fundamentally different up to here with that of the Cyreneans.

And here comes Epicurus, with the sharp eye to grasp what Aristippus of Cyrene could not, the dimension of time in relation to pleasure, its duration. The grandfather manages with the maximum good/tool of wisdom to break down the walls that keep pleasure inside the narrow bonds of the present, extending it to the past and to the future. According to J.M. Guyau, it is time that turns hedone into utility. We avoid a pleasure in the present that will cause pain in the future; we are already receiving the pleasure of an earlier choice that had cost pain etc. Even if you feel sharp pain at the moment, we can ease or even eliminate it by recalling pleasant memories, as we can spoil our mood prejudging a future (non-existing) pain. So we can describe Epicureans as Prudent Hedonists, while Cyreneans as Extreme ones.

So with the good of wisdom humans turn the pleasure felt, gained by movement (kinesis) and thus costing energy, into a situation (katastasis) pleasure is felt. And, naturally, I am not suggesting two different pleasures, but one and the same, examining it in relation to time. Kinetic pleasure has a more temporary duration, while katastematic has a more permanent. It does not sound to me that correct to call katastematic pleasure as static, because there is simply nothing static in nature. Even when being in a state of pleasure, we will definitely need kinetic pleasures to remain in that situation.

Let’s imagine a diagram such as ECG (cardio-graph), a hedono-graph, where the horizontal axis represents time and the vertical represents the sense of pleasure. On the vertical axis there is a maximum (100% pleasure and 0% pain), a minimum (0% pleasure and 100% pain), and somewhere among them an indefinite but directly perceivable limit when the sense of pleasure prevails over pain. When we feel pain the line moves downwards, and when we feel pleasure it moves upwards. Happy is simply a life that can move the needle of the hedono-graph as much as possible within the area above the pleasure-pain limit. As the gods of Epicurus were immortals, they did not lose energy to be substituted, so the index was stuck at 100% permanently. Unlike gods, we common mortal beings certainly have a mixture of pleasures-pains, in which whenever the pleasures outweigh pains (e.g. 70-30% pleasures-pains) we are in a pleasant condition.

This way I can understand the Letter To Idomeneus: “22. On this blissful day, which is also the last of my life, I write this to you. My continual sufferings from strangury and dysentery are so great that nothing could increase them; but I set above them all the gladness of mind at the memory of our past conversations. But I would have you, as becomes your lifelong attitude to me and to philosophy, watch over the children of Metrodorus”. Something similar happens with the example you mentioned the other day Elli, suggesting that when I feel hungry but, since I know there food back at home that I am heading for, I only feel pleasure, not pain. In this situation I certainly feel my stomach pain from hunger, but through prudence I project and receive in advance the pleasure of some hot homemade food, which I consider safe to infer because that used to happen in the past. So I still potentially am in the same hedonic situation as before, bypassing the warning voice of the flesh via prudence.

As for the dilemma of “is pleasure the absence of pain or pain the absence of pleasure”, it really is a pseudo-dilemma, as most are, if not all. The essential difference here is in the disjunction “or” that uses the law of non-contradiction. In epistemological terms we can still use a reductio ad absurdum (Epicurus himself used it in order to prove the existence of atoms and the void) and every other logical method, as long as the inconceivability criterion is valid in any case. Though, using the method of Multiple Explanations (pleonachos tropos, or multi-valued or fuzzy logic) we prefer conjunction over disjunction, by suggesting both pleasure “and” pain. They both give us information about the emotional interaction we have with nature in order to make the necessary choices and/or avoidances when we seek pleasure, which is always the aim of our nature. The dying Epicurus, though he feels pain by the disease, he simultaneously feels pleasure, which is so much greater that he manages to keep blissful; he had finally remained in the hedonic situation that dominated.

Moreover, we will end up in Stoic apathy if we deny our passions, which all generally lead into pleasure and pain. The Stoics are they who deny both, saying that it does not matter what humans feel eventually, since whatever is predetermined for one to live, that he will live. Like Christians, trying to respond to the so-called “riddle of Epicurus” went so far as to deny the existence of evil (the riddle was not written by Epicurus himself, but it is attributed to him by the apologist Lactantius I think, who mentions it). We Epicureans not only recognize our passions, but our passions constitute a criterion for truth, and their “positive” side, pleasure, is the only “end” we recognize by our human nature.

I am sorry first for being late in replying, and second for the extent of my writing and the various repetitions. But I threaten you both that once I finish this article, I will come back with even more!

What do you say to share our chat with the remaining members, so that they would join in? Even better I suggest we place it on our forum.

I hope to see you in the evening.

Panagiotis Papavasiliou, Garden of Thessaloniki


Reasonings About Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape

After reading Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, I’ve decided to finally articulate some of the praise and criticism that, for some time now, Harris and his work have inspired in me.

The goal of The Moral Landscape is to set the groundwork for the development of a science of morality that is objective and informed by empirical facts, and therefore cross-cultural. The immediate effect of this is an attack on post-modernism, cultural relativism and the political correctness of the men of the crowd that impedes an honest moral discourse. This is important work, and follows up on a key conclusion that Harris expressed some years back in his piece Killing the Buddha:

What the world most needs at this moment is a means of convincing human beings to embrace the whole of the species as their moral community. For this we need to develop an utterly nonsectarian way of talking about the full spectrum of human experience and human aspiration. We need a discourse on ethics and spirituality that is every bit as unconstrained by dogma and cultural prejudice as the discourse of science is. What we need, in fact, is a contemplative science, a modern approach to exploring the furthest reaches of psychological well-being.

Anyone familiar with Epicurus’ distinction between nature’s guidance and cultural corruption can appreciate that Harris is headed in the right direction. Prior to delving into Harris’ work, I think it is important to present some of the work that has already been done by those that came before us in our tradition along these lines.

Polystratus’ View on Morality 

Epicurean doctrine (in the pen of Polystratus, the third Scholarch of the Athenian Garden) declares war on cultural relativism, makes the case for moral realism and teaches that good and evil are objective realities that can be discerned in the study of nature, but that these are not conventional qualities. Instead, they are dispositional qualities of things.

… fair and foul are relational or dispositional properties. In other words, they are tendencies exhibited by things in relation to other things. A magnet may only attract metal and not cement, but it remains a magnet insofar as it attracts metal. 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.

Polystratus, in his On Irrational Contempt, even says that not understanding that nature requires us to seek pleasure and avoid pain is at the root of all evil; that this is the quintessential distortion of our moral compass and the reason why hedonism is so important: pleasure and aversion are intrinsic values.

… your inability to distinguish what goal our very nature requires and with what it is by nature satisfied … the non recognition of these is the architect of all evils.

Many scientists argue that we can not go from what is (descriptive science) to what ought to be (which is generally presumed to be the role of morality and ethics), but in our tradition the doctrine that nature has established pleasure as the end is the result of a very simple observation which can be seen even in newborn babies. We observe that living beings naturally shun pain and seek pleasure; ergo pleasure is the end established by nature. Epicurus merely explains how things are, and then proposes the more intelligent, more efficient ways to pursue plesure. The question of ethics, then, becomes not just whether something is intrinsically good or bad (which, to Epicurus and to nature, only pleasure and pain are), but also becomes a matter of efficiency in the pursuit of human happiness and wellbeing. It is from this imperative of efficient pursuit of maximizing long-term happiness that Epicurus derives his “oughts”.

Polystratus argues for an objective, real morality based on our experience of pleasure and pain, which are experienced directly through our natural faculties and not imagined. Notice, also, how the moral faculty requires no logical formulas. The Reasonings on Polystratus’ On Irrational Contempt conclude:

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.

Harris’ Introduction

Harris begins the book arguing for the development of a moral science: a morality that would be objective. He recognizes the difficulty and complexity of this task. Intellectuals both within the scientific and religious community have argued that science cannot answer ethical questions, that it can only state to us facts about the nature of things and not how we OUGHT to live our lives.

One of the tasks that stands before Harris is to demonstrate via arguments, like Polystratus did, that the relational or dispositional nature of moral qualities (good and evil, fair and foul) are no less objective than their conventional qualities (solid, liquid, hot, cold, etc.); that insofar as they are measurable, observable, they are objective, real, and scientific.

If this is demonstrable, there is therefore no real Christian morality, no real Muslim morality, and these are arbitrary constructs, the fruits of cultural corruption, in the same way that we can not speak of an Islamic alchemy or a Christian theory of gravity.

He practices the materialist technique of the doublet by presenting in lucid description the good life versus the bad life: imagery of a life of misery, hunger and poverty in a war-torn society versus imagery of a life of opulence, luxury, tranquility and satisfaction. This exercise serves to give tangible ideas of what good and evil mean; Harris then says that he has met people who argue that these differences only exist in language. He does not say it–and uses “well-being” instead of long-term pleasure as the end–, but here he is arguing against Platonic, idealist concepts of good and evil, and for hedonism.

The moment one begins thinking about morality in terms of well-being, it becomes remarkably easy to discern a moral hierarchy across human societies.

He later goes on to argue that moral truth can be concretely determined based on the effects of actions (we would add: by their being fair or foul, pleasant or unpleasant).

This is a frequent source of confusion: consequentialism is less a method of answering moral questions than it is a claim about the status of moral truth.

Religion and Dogmatism

Harris is known for arguing against religion, but here he immediately equates religion with dogmatism. It does not appear to occur to him that there are dogmatic secular philosophies, and that not all dogma is wrong or dangerous. If a view is established and based on inequivocal empirical data, it can (and, I would argue, should) safely be asserted dogmatically so that future knowledge can be built upon its foundations. Scientists do this all the time (calling their dogmas theories once they’re no longer hypothetical), and this is a necessity of the long-term enterprise of gathering empirical data. Well, in philosophy, we call these established theories, doctrines and dogmas.

This is one instance where Harris fails at having the stamina that his own self-proclaimed mission calls for, and one of the reasons why for many years now I’ve argued that Harris desperately needs to study Epicurus and that the work that he’s attempting to do has already been done. He says:

Similarly, anyone truly interested in morality—in the principles of behavior that allow people to flourish—should be open to new evidence and new arguments that bear upon questions of happiness and suffering. Clearly, the chief enemy of open conversation is dogmatism in all its forms.Dogmatism is a well-recognized obstacle to scientific reasoning; and yet, because scientists have been reluctant even to imagine that they might have something prescriptive to say about values, dogmatism is still granted remarkable scope on questions of both truth and goodness under the banner of religion.

This is where we disagree. Religion and dogmatism are not one and the same. He later goes on to say.

… given that there are facts-real facts-to be known about how conscious creatures can experience the worst possible misery and the greatest possible well-being, it is objectively true to say that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions …

Ergo, moral dogmas can be asserted. Moral truths and moral errors can be called by their proper name. In the first chapter of his book, Harris sets out to prove that there existmoral truths and decries cultural relativism, but commits it when he fails to articulate that, perhaps, scientific morality can be served by assertions no less dogmatic than religions’ assertions. Moral truths are moral dogmas. If we recognize that science can give us certainty, then what’s wrong with being certain and dogmatic of scientific truths?

I agree with Harris that we can and should make cross-cultural moral judgements, but dogmatism is only harmful if it asserts falsehoods as truths; if it labels misery as happiness or vice-versa. Instead, what we are doing here is establishing a firm, empirical foundation for the dogmas we hold to be true. This is the responsible, reasonable thing to do. And insofar as we achieve empirical certainties, we have achieved new dogmas.

Moral Blindness in the Name of Tolerance

Fanciers of Hume’s is/ought distinction never seem to realize what the stakes are, and they do not see how abject failures of compassion are enabled by this intellectual “tolerance” of moral difference. – Sam Harris

Harris argues that the result of post-modern, arbitrary, unrestricted tolerance for all moral systems as long as they’re considered within their cultural framework, no matter how degrading or mutually contradictory, by need culminates in a tolerance for intolerance. We see it, for instance, in how we in the West must allow Muslims to settle and build mosques and preach their faith to new converts, but if a Westerner moves to Arabia, builds churches or temples of non-Muslim religions and preaches Christianity or atheism to new converts, he will likely face death or torture. We also see it in the tax-exemptions enjoyed by churches who discriminate daily, and in many other examples of religious (and, sometimes, non-religious) privilege.

This issue of how arbitrary judgements based on supernatural claims can pass for morality (and can later be shown to be deeply immoral) raises another argument, which Harris brings up later in the book. Just as the majority of people can be wrong about the Earth being flat, about the laws of physics, and about evolution, and are later shown to be wrong: Can the same not be said about treatment of women, prohibition of gay marriage, the Hindu practice of widow-burning, and other demonstrably immoral choices?

Moral Realism and Assigning a Goal to Science

In moral realism (moral claims can be true or false) and consequentialism (rightness of an act depends on how it impacts the well-being of conscious creatures.

Some time ago, I attempted to write a piece on what moral guidance Epicureanism can give to science, framing the conversation in terms of the hedonic covenant (science should maximize everyone’s pleasure and minimize everyone’s pain). In the first chapter of his book, Harris illustrates just how science can contribute to morality in three ways:

  1. by finding scientific explanations for immoral and moral human behavior
  2. by discerning and affirming moral truth in scientific terms
  3. by convincing people to abandon immoral behaviors that have been considered moral for reasons of cultural corruption

Most scientists involved in moral issues have delved into the first example, which is the least controversial of the three. The third scientific project constitutes one of the goals of scientific morality, yet it’s incredibly difficult to accomplish without tackling the second mammoth task (Harris’ own task, and Polystratus’). Hence, moral realism becomes a pre-requisite for the third project.

In the first chapter, Harris exemplifies how the second task might be completed by the example of how we may be able to measure the levels of wellbeing in societies of honor, after a man either kills his wife or his wife’s suitor as a result of jealousy versus when a man, in a more civilized society, simply accepts with compassion the event (which, in his example, did not result in disloyalty) and moves on. Measurable levels of happiness and unhappiness can be discerned by neuroscientists in the brains of survivors of abuse or death of loved ones. We know that stress finds expression in the hormone cortisone, and wellbeing in serotonin levels. We know that higher blood pressure and other physical symptoms result from suffering and high stress. These are measurable results of choices and avoidances, and therefore moral choices can be judged by their repercussions.

A Critique of Moral Objectivism

We must accept at least one important challenge to moral objectivism, and insofar as we are able to accept and tackle this challenge, it may be able to serve credibly as a source of moral guidance for future generations.

The charge is that, under the pretensions and, some may say, the arrogance of scientific moral certainty, at some point in the future someone or some group may embrace eugenics programs designed to remove people with sociopathic genes from the gene pool. This may be done via genetic manipulation, via the manipulation of fertility, or via extermination.

Certainly, if we were to fully embrace scientism, the charge would be a legitimate concern. Harris denies the charge of scientism. As long as we operate within the realm of naturalist philosophy and see science merely as a means to nature’s end, I’m not sure that the charge would apply to us, but we must still adress this problem.

In other words, how the insights of scientific morality are applied is of huge importance and carries great responsibility. But this only argues for the view that assigning a noble goal to science and to her insights is a necessity.

If we stick to the Epicurean hedonic covenant, to how hedonic calculus can be applied at the societal level, then the dual role of science is to maximize the wellbeing and to minimize the suffering of all members of society. Any application of this principle must be addressed, when the time comes, within its context.

So long as we lack the power to predict future effects, this issue is not quite the same as the rhetorical question of whether we should go back in time and kill baby Hitler, if we could do that. Scientism is precisely the kind of ideological devise that would attempt to precociously predict baseless conclusions.

The potentially dehumanizing, hellish error implicit in the misapplication of these insights finds expression in much of science fiction, particularly the post-apocalyptic kind. I recently read Ruinland, which depicts a world that has been destroyed by religious warfare where people have entirely lost faith in God, and robotic monsters are carrying out the executions of all humans who lack a gene responsible for empathy.

Like the case of the Deuteronomy law which orders the stoning to death of one’s son if he is an insolent alcoholic, I can easily think of many, more intelligent and compassionate ways to deal with a mutant that lacks empathy, including job training that maximizes the useful skills that he does have and the development of gene therapy. Presumably, by the time we’ve learned to build human-like robots to kill us, we will have also spent money on gene therapy research.

We must recognize that, once we accept moral objectivism, ethical questions of this sort do not necessarily become less complex. But that does not mean that insights gained through legitimate empirical methods are any less valid or useful. The fantasies of an infant are comforting, but once grown, the individual can’t return to them and must deal with hard reality. It is what it is.

The (Irrational) Moral Faculty

Harris dedicates a huge portion of his book to making the case for moral realism, for how science can inform the truth-value of moral claims. The problem, here, is recognizably huge. Harris says that most scientists are skeptical of scientific morality because our moral judgements seem to be emotional acts, not logical formulas or equations. But here, let us first remember a warning posed by Jostein Gaarder in Sophie’s World:

… We cannot use reason as a yardstick for how we ought to act … You know that the Nazis murdered millions of Jews. Would you say that there was something wrong with the Nazis’ reason, or with their emotional life?

… Many of them were exceedingly clear-headed. It is not unusual to find ice-cold calculation behind the most callous decisions. Many of the Nazis were convicted after the war, but they were not convicted for being ‘unreasonable’. They were convicted for being gruesome murderers.

If reliance on logic and reason is not necessarily useful here, then can we discern morals from empirical evidence? Or is there something other, some faculty inbred through natural selection that we must somehow study?

“Man was destined for society. His morality, therefore, was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his nature, as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality… The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. This sense is submitted indeed in some degree to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call Common sense. State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.” –Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, 1787.

This accusation by Thomas Jefferson, an Epicurean, that the moral faculty can be sometimes used best by someone undefiled by academia and that it is distinct from reason, at once argues how philosophy can be useful to everyone and not just the scholars, and yet leaves us confused as to where we can search for this moral faculty within the realm of empirical data.

The most we can say here is that, at least, scientists admit the difficulties of this task, of this responsibility, of articulating morals in scientific language. Because the moral faculty is such a complex matter that requires, at the very least, great advances in neuroscience, it seems more useful to put the moral faculty aside and focus on the true practicalities of moral questions.

The So-Called “Illusion of Free Will”

We are conscious of only a tiny fraction of the information that our brains process in each moment – Sam Harris

Harris argues that the fact that others seem to be frequently more conscious of our own thought processes than we are is an indication of lack of free will. He then argues that the fact that there is some kind of mechanism attached to volition (machines can scan conscious movements in the body milliseconds before they happen) indicates that people lack free will.

Harris at once acknowledges and dismisses the differences between voluntary action and involuntary action, and makes the mistake of non-sequitor by saying:

“Clearly, findings of this kind are difficult to reconcile with the sense that one is the conscious source of one’s actions.”

Now, in Epicurean therapy there is a recognition of something that we might today call the subconscious or the unconscious. Epicurus believed that certain behaviors and modes of thinking could “become stronger in the soul” through repetition and memorization. He believed that many of our habits have underlying dispositions that cause them, and that it was difficult or impossible to get rid of a habit without challenging the underlyingdisposition(s).

In my book, I use the example of the consumerist who tries to keep up with the Jones because he believes that having a house or car comparable to the neighbors’ will bring him happiness: it is only if and when he challenges these false notions about happiness, that he is free to pursue happiness based on new, true and healthy dispositions (subconscious views). This process of constant self-betterment is, in our tradition, the task of the ethical philosopher.

What this means is that Epicurus never rejected the existence of subconscious impulses for our behavior, and that free will operates within this context. In other words, by living the analysed life and becoming cognizant of our habitual patterns, we are then empowered to change them, if we so choose. We must be careful to question the premise that two views are mutually exclusive: they may both be true.

Is it possible that there will be people who live their lives more consciously than others, and that there will be people who are able to gain a greater level of conscious steering of their own life experience? I would say yes to both possibilities. Is it likely that some people who enjoy greater freedom, will not utilize it for reasons of culture or volition? That is also the case. There are many examples of wasted opportunities, as well as examples of addicts who recover and others who do not recover, for instance. A habit is not a death sentence.

Epicurean therapy pre-supposes a set of mutual expectations between philosophers. We have to trust each other as free moral agents in order to engage in the process of mutual correction. Therapy therefore becomes an opportunity and an incentive to live not just the analysed life, but a more fully conscious life.

It is not always necessary for two truths to be mutually exclusive: just as both tribal and universal tendencies can be moral forces in the world, similarly nature may pull the strings and human volition may interfere in that process. This is not at all unreasonable.

One Epicurean thinker, Cassius Amicus, argues that “it is outrageous that you have to say something that ought to be so clear. No one, least of all Epicurus, ever denied that there are pre-existing conditions and influences that affect our behavior. (Harris) is a smart guy – Why is he arguing against a straw man? Why does he not admit that we have SOME free will in some areas and not others? It is really too obvious to need much argument, and yet he is trying to be absolutist. Why?”

Which raises the possibility that he may not be writing in good will. I raised a similar accusation in the past against another philosopher that Harris bases his views on: Daniel Dennett. In his Prospect Magazine piece Are We Free?, he refers to Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura as a “Stoic masterpiece”. But Lucretius is not a Stoic, nor is his masterpiece a work of Stoicism.

Is it possible that Dennett, who is one of the most prominent philosophers of our generation, didn’t know that Lucretius was one of the great Epicurean thinkers in antiquity, that he was not a Stoic? There is a slim chance that might be the case, but there’s a greater chance that Dennett knew the difference between Epicurean and Stoic views on this matter and preferred to ignore the existence of the Epicurean  school and its teachings altogether. The question of free will is one of the great differences between the two schools, and it’s difficult to believe that a philosopher as immersed in the question of free will as he is was unaware of these distinctions. So the possibility of ill-will and of partiality to a certain set of views must be at least mentioned here.

Let’s look at the practical repercussions for society of free will being an illusion. Harris argues:

While viewing human beings as forces of nature does not prevent us from thinking in terms of moral responsibility, it does call the logic of retribution into question.

In other words, it is true that an instinctive murderer who suffers from a neurological disorder deserves more of our compassion than a murderer who plans and calculates for weeks an assassination and whose brain shows normal activity patterns. This is a valid point, but the logic of retribution may be questioned regardless of these facts. In other words, some of us would argue that the goal of the justice system should be, not retribution, but reform and recovery from sociopathic tendencies with the long-term goal of creating a pleasant life.

In the end the arguments of the determinists, like those of the Epicureans, seem to be calling for research that seeks to find cures instead of finding faults and declaring guilt. We are reminded of Frances Wright’s rhetorical question in A Few Days in Athens:

“When did Epicurus ever look at the vicious with anything other than compassion?”


It’s been said that those who ignore their history, are forced to repeat it. We are at a historical junction where fragments of an obscure scroll written by Polystratus, that were found among the ashes left behind in Herculaneum by the Mount Vesuvius eruption in the year 79 of Common Era, may hold vestiges of a conversation that we believe to be new and emerging. It’s not a new conversation: it’s at least as ancient as the second generation of Epicureans.

The Moral Landscape, in spite of its few imperfections, does a fairly good job of articulating the need for a moral realism. We’re happy that Harris has decided to join us in these ancient conversations.