Tag Archives: jefferson

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