Tag Archives: jefferson

Dialogues on Matter in Motion – Introduction

Go to his Garden some time and read the motto carved there: “Dear Guest, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.” The caretaker of that abode, a friendly host, will be ready for you; he will welcome you with barley-meal, and serve you water also in abundance, with these words: “Have you not been well entertained? This garden does not whet your appetite; but quenches it. Nor does it make you more thirsty with every drink; it slakes the thirst with a natural cure – a cure that requires no fee. It is with this type of pleasure that I have grown old.” – Seneca, reporting on the hospitality of the Garden

Exercise yourself in these and kindred precepts day and night, both by yourself and with him who is like to you; then never, either in waking or in dream, will you be disturbed, but will live as a god among people. For people lose all appearance of mortality by living in the midst of immortal blessings. – Epicurus, in his Epistle to Menoeceus

I have made it a tradition to write at least one Epicurean blog per month on the 20th of every month in observation of the feast that Epicurus established in his final will and testament. This has evolved into a chance to discuss some aspect of the teaching, and also of giving literary and other updates to the students of Epicurean philosophy. In one of my latest Twentieth messages, I wrote:

As some of you may already be aware, the blog Caute is authored by a Unitarian Church minister from Cambridge, UK, who identifies both with Christian atheism and with the Epicurean tradition. He has written about Lucretius more than once, and from time to time incorporates Epicureanism into his liturgy and even holds Epicurean gatherings in his church. His last piece is titled Learning from Lucretius in the Shadow of Coronavirus. There, he warns us against allowing peddlers of religious fear to exploit our existential vulnerabilities, and accentuates the importance of accepting the Epicurean doctrines on how death is nothing to us, rather than remaining neutral to the dangers of organized religion.

I acknowledged his background because it’s frequently useful to respect and meet people where they are. As a result of this mention, Andrew James Brown (author of the Caute blog), left a comment:

Dear Hiram, Greetings! Thanks for posting a link to my most recent Lucretian/Epicurean address. That’s very thoughtful and generous of you.

Secondly, just to say that I very much enjoyed your excellent, persuasive and admirably clear essay in “How to Live a Good Life” and will certainly be directing people to it. Bravo to you for that.

And, thirdly, a quick question relates to Epicurus understanding of in what consists the material conditions for nature as it appears (naturae species ratioque) and that held by Lucretius. Epicurus clearly thinks the material conditions are atoms and void but, at least if one follows Thomas Nail’s reading of the DRN (in his book Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion, see link below), Lucretius seems to think the material condition is constantly moving flow, folds and fields (the flow is what is ‘a-tomos’, indivisible, for Lucretius). If Nail is correct – and that is clearly debatable (even if I am personally persuaded) – then we get a development of Epicurean thinking and ethics that is not inconsistent with the way modern physics understands in what consists the material conditions for nature as it appears. This seems important because we now know Epicurus’ atomic theory is simply wrong and, as such, it seems to me to be the biggest barrier to people adopting an Epicurean way of being in the world with a clean heart and full pathos. Anyway, I’d value hearing your thoughts on the matter.

“Lucretius was not an Atomist” by Thomas Nail

Every best wish and thanks for all your splendid work. Marvellous stuff.

Andrew

To which I replied:

Hi! Thank you for the comment, and for visiting the blog.

I disagree that “Epicurus was simply wrong”. Atoms have been photographed, and are understood in much more detail today. However the word a-tomoi in Greek does not translate as atoms in English. I always translate the word as particles. The word means in-divisible. The early atomists were reacting against a pre-Socratic paradox that argued that bodies could be divided to infinity, but the atomists said if that was the case then there would be an infinite number of particles in each body, and then the bodies would be infinite in size which is not what our eyes report. So there must be a limit in small particles. Hence, a-tomoi, the indivisible units. That reasoning is still both sound and empirical.

The author of “God and the Atom” Victor Stenger defends the standard model of atoms.

Now, this is not mutually contradictory from flows because small particles will behave like water, just consider the sand and how easily bodies, wind and other forces can move through the grains. (I also remember in my discussions of the Tao Te Ching that I noticed a parallel between Epicurean atoms and void + ying and yang, because the only behavior of the void is that it yields, and ying is yielding while yang is asserting.) So this is what Epicurus called polyvalent logic: many explanations, theories and ways of explaining and understanding things are valid and acceptable so long as they don’t contradict evidence or each other.

So I don’t think Lucretius contradicted Epicurus, on the contrary, he starts each book praising him, and I wish we had more of the 37 books On Nature by Epicurus. We would be able to trace the ideas back more clearly.

When I wrote my review of Nail, I also remember thinking that he must not have read Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus. It seems like he only studied Lucretius, not the direct sources in Epicurus (Julien de la Mettrie also did this). I look forward to your reply and to continuing discussions on this. Cheers!

To which he replied:

Greetings once again. Thanks for the reply and, following that, I checked out your review of Nail’s book so I can see why you say what you say above. As I’ve already indicated I’m minded to think Nail is on to something but it’s clearly going to be impossible to explore this together properly in comment boxes! But I still think it is reasonable to say that ‘Epicurus is simply wrong’ in thinking that atoms and void are primary, i.e. they are themselves the material conditions for nature as it appears. Atoms and void now seem to be dependent on (or emerge from) ‘something’ much, much stranger and so a truly relevant, modern Epicurean stance in the world needs to take this into consideration. It strikes me that Nail’s reading of Lucretius (and Nail’s associated claim that Lucretius deliberately did not follow Epicurus’ atomism but radically revised it) gives us the way to be firmly in the Epicurean tradition but in a way that is not inconsistent with the way contemporary physics is suggesting the world is. Sticking with Epicurus’ original physics seems, as I’ve intimated, just the wrong thing to be doing.

With best wishes and thanks again for all your excellent writing and promotion of all things Epicurean. Much appreciated.

Andrew

Prior to continuing, perhaps we should remember Epicurus’ instructions on innovation.

In the necessary and inevitable process of updating Epicurean teaching and tradition, I have subjected the potential innovations to the criteria given by Epicurus (Erler, 2011) dealing with innovation and forbidding the ‘muddling’ of doctrines that disagree with each other. The two guidelines provided by Epicurus are akoloythia and symphonia, which translate as consistency (has no internal contradictions) and coherence (is in symphony with the rest of Epicurus’ doctrine).

And so let’s keep in mind that consistency and coherence are the two criteria that govern innovation, as we move forward. After Andrew’s last email, it made better sense to continue our discussions via email, as the comments section of a blog is not the best format for these types of discussion.

Hi Andrew!

Thanks again for commenting on my blog. I greatly respect your intellect and am open to hearing your thoughts or Nail’s thoughts on Lucretius. Since you’ve already read my own comments about Nail, and since you say (and I agree) that the blog comments section is not a good place to fully explore these matters, I’d like to see how we can present our ideas for the benefit of students of Epicurean philosophy.

This would be helpful for students of Epicurean philosophy, and it would also allow a fair hearing for Nail’s ideas on our webpage, and hopefully create friendly debates that help people to better assimilate Epicurean ideas. Let me know what you think.

Hiram

Andrew replied:

Greetings.

It’s a wonderful idea and I’m very happy to be involved in whatever way our conversations reveal to be the best way. Thank you for asking. I particularly value your point about the creation of friendly debates — goodness knows we need more of them in our world. Fortunately, I think that, on this particular subject, because both Epicurus’ atomic theory and Nail’s new take on (what may have been) Lucretius’ revised kinetic theory leave the basic Epicurean ethical stance intact. This means, to borrow and modify a phrase from my own very liberal church tradition, it is clear we need not think alike (about whether it’s all atoms/void or all flow/fold/field) in order to love alike. Modelling that will, in itself, be a great advert for the Epicurean way of life.

Equally important — as you so rightly note — most of us (and that includes me) are only familiar with the basics and it’s vital to keep that foregrounded in any public debates/fora. Having some input from someone genuinely familiar with contemporary physics will, of course, be a great help.

And lastly, but not least, I would like to stress that I, too, greatly respect your intellect and am open (and excited) to hearing your thoughts. Your work has done a great deal to get Epicurus’ way of being in the world out into the world in a wonderfully accessible way and your essay in the recent book is a splendid thing.

Warmest wishes,

Andrew J. Brown, Unitarian Minister
@caute

As you read in the introduction, Epicurus meant for us to practice philosophy as a friendly conversation among friends and in a warm, welcoming environment. Epicureans in antiquity were known for their virtue of suavity, or kind speech to each other, and part of the curriculum of human values they underwent in the Garden involved learning how to kindly communicate with friends. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to transfer the modeling of the virtue of suavity into an online platform, which loses many of the nuances of normal human communication, but in the coming weeks and months, Andrew and I (and hopefully others) will attempt to model these Epicurean virtues for the benefit of those learning Epicurean philosophy as we discuss Nail’s particular (and controversial) interpretation of Lucretius, as well as the intersection between Unitarianism and Epicureanism. Please stay tuned!

INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY OF FRIENDS OF EPICURUS

Happy Twentieth! On Epicurean Economics

Happy 20th to Epicureans everywhere! This month we celebrated 10 years of the GARDEN OF ATHENS: Celebration of a Decade of Pleasure, and the PEL podcast published their follow-up to the Lucretius episode (which focused on the physics), titled Epicurus on Seeking Pleasure. This one focuses on the ethics.

Episode 208: Epicurus on Seeking Pleasure (Part One)
Episode 208: Epicurus on Seeking Pleasure (Part Two)

This month, we discovered a piece published in thesimpledollar.com–a webpage that seeks to simplify financial education–titled How Epicurean Principles Can Help You Transform Your Financial and Personal Life, by Trent Hamm. The piece relates the Epicurean curriculum of control of desires and the mathematics of hedonic calculus to simple yet pleasant living, and financial independence. It’s also a great introduction and starting point for delving into Epicurean economics. The founders of EP specifically gave instructions to philosophize around economics, as autarchy (self-sufficiency) facilitates the confident expectation that we will be able to easily secure the natural and necessary goods, which confers tranquility and pleasure.

At one and the same time we must philosophize, laugh, and manage our household and other business, while never ceasing to proclaim the words of true philosophy. – Vatican Saying 41

Some of our precursors have begun to approach and flesh out the subject from various perspectives. Philodemus of Gadara, in the First Century, compiled the Epicurean wisdom tradition up to his day concerning economics into a scroll titled On the art of property Management. Both Trent Hamm and Philodemus wrote mainly on personal finances. Later on, Thomas Jefferson wrote on the excesses of wealth and poverty, and on his concept of the social contract. An NY Mag piece cites his initial introspections:

[T]he solitude of my walk led me into a train of reflections on that unequal division of property which occasions the numberless instances of wretchedness which I had observed in this country and is to be observed all over Europe. The property of this country is absolutely concentered in a very few hands … I asked myself what could be the reason that so many should be permitted to beg who are willing to work, in a country where there is a very considerable proportion of uncultivated lands? These lands are kept idle mostly for the aske of game. It should seem then that it must be because of the enormous wealth of the proprietors which places them above attention to the increase of their revenues by permitting these lands to be laboured.

Even in his early day, Jefferson had begun to worry about and problematize the gap between the rich and the poor and the moral problems related to the over-abundance and unequal distribution of wealth that characterize American capitalism. He was no socialist, but he did exhibit social-democratic tendencies in his ideas about progressive taxation. Here is how Jefferson proposes to address the obscene coexistence of concentrated wealth and underemployed workers:

I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree is a politic measure, and a practicable one.

Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right.

The main point I wish to accentuate here is this: “to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise“–as this reminds me of Philodemus’ doctrine of the natural measure of wealth, and there seems to be the beginnings of an Epicurean theory of taxation here, one that never got fully articulated until Jefferson’s day. The quickest explanation of the doctrine of the natural measure of wealth is from my commentary on Philodemus’ scroll:

One fundamental concept in the Epicurean understanding of economics is the concept of natural wealth.  In our assessment of desires, we classify them as either natural or unnatural and as necessary or unnecessary.  Those that are neither natural nor necessary, are said to be vain and empty.  The natural measure of wealth is that which corresponds to our natural and necessary desires, as opposed to empty desires.

Elsewhere in his scroll On Choices and Avoidances, Philodemus elaborates natural wealth in his doctrine of the principal things, or the chief goods (kyriotatai). These chief goods are things that lead to life, health, and happiness and include specifics like shelter, safety, food, clothing, health, and wholesome association. Here, Philodemus is echoing and elaborating on Epicurus’ Epistle to Menoeceus, where the Master says:

We must also reflect that of desires some are natural, others are groundless; and that of the natural some are necessary as well as natural, and some natural only. And of the necessary desires some are necessary if we are to be happy, some if the body is to be rid of uneasiness, some if we are even to live.

Philodemus–in On Choices and Avoidances–further criticizes people who do not discern clearly between the chief goods and empty desires. This preoccupation is one of the central concerns of Epicurean ethics, and it’s framed here by asking what it is that our own nature needs, and inviting us to separate natural pleasures form the vain desires instilled into our minds by cultural convention.

Column V. For men suffer the worst evils for the sake of the most alien desires which they take to be most necessary–I mean desires for sovereignty and … reputation and great wealth and suchlike luxuries … they neglect the most necessary appetites as if they were the most alien to nature.

And so Jefferson’s ideas on taxation are consistent with both the first elements of Epicurean ethics and with Philodemus’ elaboration of them, and they further flesh out both. He proposes that only income beyond what is needed to secure the natural and necessary desires should be taxed. This, of course, must be measured for each community (and even for some individuals who may, for instance, suffer from certain health risks or conditions) separately, based on particulars–for example, where housing or food is expensive, a greater allowance must be provided. Notice that access to health services is advocated here.

An Epicurean model of taxation based on Jefferson’s ideas would require that the basic measure of these chief goods be quantified, so as to only tax citizens beyond this point.

I have sought to present some of the basic ideas in Epicurean economics. My hope is that they will be further elaborated and discussed. Autarchy (self-sufficiency) involves some of the most important existential tasks that we have to undertake, as well as many of the most important instances of hedonic calculus that require long-term planning and deferral of gratification. The subject of autarchy should not be neglected: it should be one of the foundations upon which we build lives of easy pleasure.

Further Reading:

Philodemus, On Property Management (Writings from the Greco-Roman World)

Commentary on Philodemus’ scroll On the art of property management (Part I, Part II)

How Epicurean Principles Can Help You Transform your Financial Life

Dialogue on the Extent to Which the Declaration of Independence is Consistent With Epicurean Philosophy

The following is an edited dialogue that took place on our Epicurean Friends forum.

Cassius. This is to pose a series of questions about one of the most famous passages of the American “Declaration of Independence.” As discussion develops on one or more of these in particular we can split the discussion into separate threads, but to start here is a list of questions:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

What do we know about whether this paragraph was written entirely by Thomas Jefferson, or contains modifications from others?

Hiram. According to this source,

Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?

Although we know Thomas Jefferson as the true author, the Second Continental Congress initially appointed five people to draw up a declaration. The committee included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was then given the task of writing a draft for the Declaration of Independence, which from June 11 to June 28 he worked on. Before he presented the Declaration to the Continental Congress, he showed it to John Adams and Benjamin Franklin; they made revisions. He presented the draft to Congress on July 1, 1776 and more revisions were made. On the fourth of July the delegates met in what we know today as Independence Hall, but back then was known as the Pennsylvania State House, and approved the Declaration. John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress signed the declaration along with Charles Thomson and it was sent to John Dunlap’s print shop for printing.

So it seems like this was a process not too different from how we have co-written together the narratives for videos on YouTube and some of our dialogues. Jefferson wrote it with feedback from four other men who were, presumably, steeped in the political philosophy of the day (Locke, Rousseau, and others).

Cassius. Yes that is exactly what would need to be analyzed in order to determine how much of the final result came about through Epicurean thinking, and how much was diluted/mutated by Christian or other ideas.

I am not aware that copies of the initial draft survive, but as we proceed with this investigation, if anyone has more detail on who added what, and when, that would be great.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Would an Epicurean agree that what follows in the paragraph after the first phrase are “self-evident?” What does “self-evident” mean?

Would an Epicurean agree that “all men are created equal.” It is absolutely clear that all men are NOT created equal in every respect (health, sex, race, capabilities, preferences, etc.) It is also clear to an Epicurean that men are not “created” if that term implies a supernatural god. In what respect, if any, would an Epicurean say that “all men are created equal.”

What does it mean to say “endowed by their Creator?” Would an Epicurean use this phrasing? If so, what would an Epicurean mean by “their Creator?”

What are “inalienable rights”? What is a “right”? How is a right “inalienable”?” It seems clear that this cannot be read superficially, as much of what we think of as “rights” are certainly taken from people all the time and thus are not “inalienable.” In what way, if any, can this phrase be reconciled with Epicurean philosophy?

What does the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” mean in Epicurean terms?

Hiram. I don’t think they are self-evident, or that Epicurus would agree that men were created (as there is no creator).

We know today that men evolved through natural selection, and that nature did not have an intention of creating men or any other particular species. Natural selection follows the path of least resistance, of greatest opportunity / advantage, if and when / insofar as species are able to adapt to their environment.

The document was written in the context of setting the grounds / seeds for a new country with a new law and a new constitutional framework. An Epicurean would consider these matters in terms of mutual benefit / mutual advantage. Within this context, I think “self-evident” implies that these are matters beyond reproach and that are not up for negotiation, that they constitute the minimum standard by which they were willing to found a new country and a new law, that the social contract would have to abide by these principles.

Men are not ‘created’. If we understand nature, metaphorically, as Creatrix, then we may concede this, but there is WAY too much religious baggage here to accept it in my view.

We are endowed by nature with certain instincts and faculties and tendencies, and (a very strong case can be made) with a sense of morality and justice, but not with rights, inalienable or not.

Rights are born from the laws or rules we create to facilitate co-existence. The only way in which we could say that they come from “the Creator” or “Nature” is if we ourselves are understood to be co-creators or part of nature, and you could make that case, but it’s best to speak clearly, and the original language seems to indicate a Creator in the deist sense, which is an error.

“Life, liberty, pursuit of happiness” – I want to go back to the idea of negotiating a new social contract for a new country, if I was Thomas Jefferson and if I had to negotiate the terms under which I, as an Epicurean, wanted to or was forced to co-exist with others OF RELIGIOUS CONVICTION, these ideas would definitely belong there. I would not care if others believe that these “inalienable rights” come from “the Creator” if, for the sake of mutual benefit, these rules are agreeable to me and others, even if I’d rather not word these principles as inalienable rights coming from a Creator.

In other words, this is a Charter for religious and non-religious people of various convictions and faiths to co-exist, and what pass for “inalienable rights” are acceptable to a non-religious person.

Life is safety; liberty is autarchy; and pursuit of happiness is self-explanatory and a natural extension of liberty; these are natural pleasures, and necessary to happiness and life in Epicurean terms.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Cassius. This passage is perhaps easiest to reconcile given the Principle Doctrines on “justice.” How could we elaborate on this in Epicurean terms as to the meaning of “just powers” and “consent of the governed?

Hiram. As for “just powers”, PD 37 speaks of them in terms of mutual advantage, and these powers may change and evolve and apply differently in different situations and to different people:

Among the things held to be just by law, whatever is proved to be of advantage in men’s dealings has the stamp of justice, whether or not it be the same for all; but if a man makes a law and it does not prove to be mutually advantageous, then this is no longer just. And if what is mutually advantageous varies and only for a time corresponds to our concept of justice, nevertheless for that time it is just for those who do not trouble themselves about empty words, but look simply at the facts.

Concrete examples in our own constitutional framework is how states have their rights and their form of sovereignty, versus how the federal government has its own rights and form of sovereignty and its own jurisdiction, versus how the different Indian Nations and Reservations have their own rights and forms of sovereignty, their own schools, police, etc. all according to mutual benefit.

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Cassius. Again, this passage seems directly supported by the Principle Doctrines on justice. How would an Epicurean elaborate on the meaning of this passage?

Hiram. This is an application of PD 37-38:

Where without any change in circumstances the things held to be just by law are seen not to correspond with the concept of justice in actual practice, such laws are not really just; but wherever the laws have ceased to be advantageous because of a change in circumstances, in that case the laws were for that time just when they were advantageous for the mutual dealings of the citizens, and subsequently ceased to be just when they were no longer advantageous.

The Declaration only mentions “safety and happiness”, which is a good start, but in the Letter to Menoeceus we find mention among the things that are needful and natural also of health of the body and tranquility of mind, of avoiding bodily uneasiness (threats, plagues, exploitation or slavery), which seems to imply that an Epicurean system of government would also be invested in public health, including mental health:

And of the necessary desires some are necessary if we are to be happy, some if the body is to be rid of uneasiness, some if we are even to live. He who has a clear and certain understanding of these things will direct every preference and aversion toward securing health of body and tranquillity of mind, seeing that this is the sum and end of a blessed life.

Are there any other Jefferson sources that may illuminate some of these questions?

Cassius. I especially think that this observation is of huge significance, and once we understand that our entire perspective on justice changes. It’s from Thomas Jefferson’s Epistle to James Madison, sent from Paris on Sept. 6, 1789:

I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self evident, “that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living;” that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. The portion occupied by an individual ceases to be his when himself ceases to be, and reverts to the society. If the society has formed no rules for the appropriation of its lands in severalty, it will be taken by the first occupants. These will generally be the wife and children of the decedent. If they have formed rules of appropriation, those rules may give it to the wife and children, or to some one of them, or to the legatee of the deceased. So they may give it to his creditor. But the child, the legatee or creditor takes it, not by any natural right, but by a law of the society of which they are members, and to which they are subject.

Hiram. So the key here is that rights are not “natural”, or “nature-given”, or “God-given”. They are created by the people who form the societies. And these rights and regulations can be changed by the people who form the societies.

“Please always remember my doctrines!” – Epicurus’ last words