Tag Archives: morality

Ethics of Philodemus: Moral Portraiture and Seeing Before the Eyes

In short, whom do you consider better than someone who holds pious opinions about the gods, who is always fearless in the face of death, who has reasoned out the natural goal of life, and who has understood that the limit of good things is easy to fulfill and easy to achieve, whereas the limit of bad things is either short-lived or causes little pain? Someone who laughs at destiny, which is asserted by some to be the master of all things? – Epicurus, in his Epistle to Menoeceus

The practice of depicting the sage in detail–his attitudes, his demeanor, his opinions–is a positive version of the therapeutic practice of “seeing before the eyes”, which Philodemus uses for the treatment of vices like arrogance and anger. In those cases, he confronts the patient with visuals of the negative repercussions of continuing his behavior in order to discourage his bad behavior and encourage him on his path to moral development. In the case of depicting the sage, he is presenting him with a role model that he may emulate. In at least one of the surviving sayings, we learn that this practice of contemplating and praising the sage helps us to construct our own character and produces pleasure and other benefits in our souls.

The veneration of the wise man is a great blessing to those who venerate him. Vatican Saying 32

One way to consider this is to remember that everyone admires and praises others according to their own qualities. Frivolous people admire and praise frivolous role models. Evil or authoritarian people admire and praise evil and authoritarian leaders. Similarly, people who aspire to cultivate wisdom and pleasure, should admire and praise sages who embody those qualities. Whom we admire says a lot about our values and our character.

According to the book The Sculpted Word, the depiction of the sage in sculpture was used in the passive model of recruitment of new students. Not much has been written about Epicurean aesthetics, but we know that the patroness of the Epicurean Garden, the goddess Venus Urania, is the patroness of the arts, in addition to being the embodiment of Pleasure. If we follow the theory of recruitment found in The Sculpted Word, we find that art may at times have an important place and a therapeutic use in Epicurean philosophy. This resonates with Michel Onfray’s arguments against nihilistic art, where he calls instead for art that creates values.

In The Ethics of Philodemus, Tsouna makes an important clarification regarding the practice of seeing before the eyes. As we saw earlier in our book review, our emotions have a cognitive component, and our beliefs have causal relation with our feelings. For instance, in Principal Doctrine 29, we see that Epicurus classifies desires as natural or empty based on the kinds of beliefs they are based on: unnatural and unnecessary desires are said to be vain and empty, and to arise from groundless opinion.

For this reason, Philodemus argued that both the emotional and cognitive components of our vices need treatment, if we are to successfully overcome our vices and cultivate instead excellence of character. We need to challenge our false beliefs with arguments, but we need to also arouse the emotions. If we only attack the belief component that underlies our behavior without provoking the emotions, the learning may not be very strong in our souls, and the character may not be fully reformed. There’s also the danger that our “reform” may be insincere if we only talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. For instance, Philodemus criticizes those who censure but do little else about their bad habits.

While searching through the early Epicurean sources, I found this example of the founders encouraging us to bring forth indignation out of our emotional reserve as part of our arsenal of weapons against the vices:

Let us utterly drive from us our bad habits as if they were evil men who have long done us great harm. – Vatican Saying 46

It is clear that this is meant to encourage us not just to reform our beliefs, but also to be more fully and emotionally engaged in the project of moral reform. Like evil men who have abused us for a long time, our vices deserve our animosity and anger. They are enemies inside the gates. Therefore, this source appears to side with Philodemus (and also with Sextus Empiricus), who argued that philosophy heals and secures the happy life by means of reasoning and arguments–but that we also need to employ our feelings in the therapeutic process in order to treat both the cognitive and the emotional component.

“Seeing before the eyes” is meant to awaken and recruit our feelings against our vices and in favor of the excellences. In his scroll On anger, XXVIII, 5-40), Philodemus uses this technique to demonstrate how harmful the vice of irascibility (chronic rage) can be:

(Chronic ire compels you to) strive for victory, give pain, disparage people, and do many other unpleasant things. And when it escalates, it also becomes a cause of misanthropy and sometimes even of injustice, since neither juryman nor council member nor … any human being can every be just if governed by angry feelings. Moreover, for reasons that are easy to see, people who have it must also become despotic, suspicious of evil, liars, illiberal, sneaky, underhanded, ungrateful, and self-centered … They get no taste of goods throughout their lives, that is, the goods that derive from taking things easy in acceptable ways, as well as from mildness of manner and deep understanding.

Here, Philodemus reminds the patient who suffers from chronic ire of both the evils he may cause and of the goods he may be evading. By confronting the patient with these dangers, the technique means to incite a sincere reform of character.

Notice a few things: this exercise helps us to move from abstract theory to concrete reality. It’s also a great example of how a secular philosophy can help us in character development and virtue for sake of a life of pleasure, and not for the sake of virtue or to appease a supernatural being. This practice is also pragmatic in that it aids us in carrying out hedonic calculus. The philosopher who is imparting the medicine is saying: “Do you REALLY think you will get more pleasure if you keep acting this way?

In page 206 of The Ethics of Philodemus, Philodemus catalogues what images should be part of the “placing before the eyes” practice:

Philodemus describes them as “things that the patient is totally ignorant of, others that he has come to forget, others that he has not calculated at least in respect of their magnitude if not in respect of anything else, yet others that he has never contemplated altogether. The good philosophers depict all these evils even if with moderation emphasize that it is within the patient’s power to avoid them, and sketch the way in which we might least experience angry feelings”.

Further Reading:

The Sculpted Word: Epicureanism and Philosophical Recruitment in Ancient Greece

The Ethics of Philodemus

On Nature: Books XXV and XXVIII

Epicurus’ On Nature I-X
Epicurus’ On Nature – Books XI-XIV

Book 25

The work has many long sentences, which makes it hard to follow. I had written a commentary of a commentary on this book (from an English source), but I have re-read the book in French from Les Epicuriens. Here are a few new insights, and key concepts.


We see in philosophy and anthropology a contrast between nature and culture, and this is reflected in this book, where Epicurus compares “the original constitution” of an individual versus the “product in the process of development” (his character, which she cultivates), and finally the “developed product”–a fully mature character of someone who understands his “causal responsibility”.


Epicurus talks about the “germs” or “seeds” (spermata) that we carry from birth of both wisdom and virtue, as well as ignorance and vices. Epicurus says “at first people act out their seeds, but later, a time comes where the developed product … depends absolutely on us and on our own opinions, which we ourselves have formed“. Our opinions or beliefs are linked to our moral development in this manner.

Epicurus later says “I don’t stop rambling on this point“, referring to how the “permanent attribute” of our character is the same as a sort of seed or germ, and he says that many things we do by contribution of our nature, many we do without its contribution, many where we discipline our nature, and many where we use our nature as guide that “leads us out of our inertia“.


Epicurus says we have an anticipation of our causal responsibility“, and this has repercussions on praise and blame. Here, he is tying causal responsibility, and morality, to the canonic faculty of anticipation–a faculty by which we are able to apprehend abstractions.


Epicurus says that if all our views are born of necessity, then no one can change the opponent’s mind. This reminded me of this study, which shows that political ideology may be pre-determined or genetic.

… analyzing their data, the Blocks found a clear set of childhood personality traits that accurately predicted conservatism in adulthood. For instance, at the ages of three and four, the “conservative” preschoolers had been described as “uncomfortable with uncertainty,” as “rigidifying when experiencing duress,” and as “relatively over-controlled.” The girls were “quiet, neat, compliant, fearful and tearful, [and hoped] for help from the adults around.”

Likewise, the Blocks pinpointed another set of childhood traits that were associated with people who became liberals in their mid-twenties. The “liberal” children were more “autonomous, expressive, energetic, and relatively under-controlled.” Liberal girls had higher levels of “self-assertiveness, talkativeness, curiosity, [and] openness in expressing negative feelings.”


This is distinct from the problem of empty words that Epicurus addresses elsewhere. Epicurus says that determinists are “merely changing names” when they make moral claims or assign blame / praise, or classify people for their right / wrong thinking. He later says he does not stop re-hashing and restating that what determinists are arguing is nothing more than a mere exchange of words. This reminded me of the rectification of names by Confucius.

Book 28

Other speakers of our language teach us unsuspected, yet true meanings of words, contrary to our common usage. – Epicurus

This book is a polemic against Diodorus Cronus and his school. He was a dialectitian of Megaria (a “man of logic”) who believed space was indivisible and motion was impossible. Epicurus’ goal here was to defend the senses as a source of information about the world. It’s in this context that he refers to words like “attestations” (the testimonies of the senses), etc.

While dialectitians might argue about the way in which things exist and are real based on how language is used to refer to things, the atomists (like Epicurus) were realists. They embraced the physics, the study of nature, and knew that reality existed regardless of how clearly we apprehend it, or how long it takes us to learn about it. Hence, the Epicureans distrusted dialectics, and also the insinuation that, through the use of language, as if by magic, people were able to fundamentally change the nature of things or assert power over reality in any significant manner. In particular, Epicurus was suspicious of philosophers who liked to play with words in order to confuse people, particularly because this often rendered philosophy a useless game.

It is language that must conform to reality, not the other way around. Because of this, the meanings of words tend to be evident to us, as is made clear in one of the introductory paragraphs of the Epistle to Herodotus:

But first of all, Herodotus, before we begin the investigation of our opinions, we must firmly grasp the ideas that are attached to our words, so that we can refer to them as we proceed.  Unless we have a firm grasp of the meaning of each word, we leave everything uncertain, and we go on to infinity using empty words that are devoid of meaning.  Thus it is essential that we rely on the first mental image associated with each word, without need of explanation, if we are to have a firm standard to which to refer as we proceed in our study. – Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus

The issue of changing names in accordance to nature is addressed here. Epicurus taught that there are words that serve as vehicles for false opinions. He said names should only be changed to more exactly describe objects that are directly perceived, and only observed things can be renamed following this rule.  Language must correspond to perception.

Epicurus mentions that the founders wrote a separate treatise on ambiguity, where they discuss transferring words for what is knowable to things in the category of the unknowable. This work is not available for us to study.

One note of interest is that in this book, Epicurus admits the founders’ past errors regarding language misuse, and the evolution of their ideas. Ergo, we must be careful when we study the earlier sources, and we must be careful to date the sources we are studying if at all possible.

Further Reading:

Against the Use of Empty Words

The Evolution of Law in Epicurus and Nietzsche

I recently had the pleasure of reading the highly-recommended book by Nietzsche, The Antichrist. Many of its paragraphs merely served to add depth and detail to some of the things I had previously come to understand from reading his notes in Will to Power and other sources, like Zarathustra. Other paragraphs offered new insights either because of the way in which they were passionately and emphatically stated, or by virtue of their content. Paragraph 57 is one of the latter cases and caught my eye because usually, when Nietzsche discusses the origins of laws and mores, he employs a cynical tone and seeks the ulterior motives of the proponents. Here, he takes on the anthropologist’s tone that we find in Lucretius and Epicurus, and it might be interesting to compare how he views the primitive origins of moral and legal codes versus how the Epicureans viewed them.

In Nietzsche, the time when the laws are written down indicates a time when rules and contracts are standardized and experimentation is no longer encouraged as a result of certain legal precedents and practices becoming solidified in tradition. There are conservative and liberal interpretations of this process: to some–who are privileged by the existing laws–this creates a mythical “golden era” during which the population developed the best means to rule itself. To others, this imposes limits on how creative legislators allow themselves to be in adapting the legal code to new circumstances and keeping it relevant. Nietzsche, who is a staunch defendant of a type of aristocracy, supports the first interpretation, but nonetheless sympathizes with the second one.

A book of laws such as the Code of Manu has the same origin as every other good law-book: it epitomizes the experience, the sagacity and the ethical experimentation of long centuries; it brings things to a conclusion; it no longer creates. The prerequisite to a codification of this sort is recognition of the fact that the means which establish the authority of a slowly and painfully attained truth are fundamentally different from those which one would make use of to prove it.

A law-book never recites the utility, the grounds, the casuistical antecedents of a law: for if it did so it would lose the imperative tone, the “thou shall,” on which obedience is based. The problem lies exactly here.—At a certain point in the evolution of a people, the class within it of the greatest insight, which is to say, the greatest hindsight and foresight, declares that the series of experiences determining how all shall live—or can live—has come to an end. The object now is to reap as rich and as complete a harvest as possible from the days of experiment and hard experience.

So the creation of a code of laws is an act of power by which the law-givers say: these matters are no longer up for discussion. Nietzsche then explains how the ruling classes, having decided that the era of legal experimentation is over, create what Marx would have called “the superstructure”, the over-arching set of narratives that the ruling classes use to preserve their power.

In consequence, the thing that is to be avoided above everything is further experimentation—the continuation of the state in which values are fluent, and are tested, chosen and criticized ad infinitum. Against this a double wall is set up: on the one hand, revelation, which is the assumption that the reasons lying behind the laws are not of human origin, that they were not sought out and found by a slow process and after many errors, but that they are of divine ancestry, and came into being complete, perfect, without a history, as a free gift, a miracle…; and on the other hand, tradition, which is the assumption that the law has stood unchanged from time immemorial, and that it is impious and a crime against one’s forefathers to bring it into question.

The authority of the law is thus grounded on the thesis: God gave it, and the fathers lived it.—The higher motive of such procedure lies in the design to distract consciousness, step by step, from its concern with notions of right living (that is to say, those that have been proved to be right by wide and carefully considered experience), so that instinct attains to a perfect automatism—a primary necessity to every sort of mastery, to every sort of perfection in the art of life.

To draw up such a law-book as Manu’s means to lay before a people the possibility of future mastery, of attainable perfection—it permits them to aspire to the highest reaches of the art of life. To that end the thing must be made unconscious: that is the aim of every holy lie … – Nietzsche, The Antichrist

He then goes on to justify the caste system, which does not concern us for the purposes of this essay. I mainly wish to note that, against the conservative analysis we find in Nietzsche–who seeks to remind us of the original advantages that certified the ancient laws–we can posit the case for adaptability, progress and evolution of the legal code according to mutual advantage in the ancient Epicureans–who advocate for a fluid legal system that allows for perpetual processes of experimentation and adaptation.

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.

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.

Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines 37-38

Notice that, first and foremost, it is clear that men create the laws and that men have, at any point, the power to change them. Epicureans never allow for a “holy lie” to even plant its roots in the soil of philosophy. While Epicurean doctrines seem to allow for an aristocratic code (things of advantage may or may not be “the same for all”), we also find in the Epicurean sources a lack of emphasis on the priorities of the ruling class, and instead an egalitarian, anarchic, and–most importantly–pragmatic focus on mutual benefit.

In Book 5 of On the Nature of Things, Lucretius mentions how “neighbors began to form mutual alliances, wishing neither to do nor to suffer violence among themselves“, echoing again the indication that Epicureans believed contractarianism to be the earliest type of law.

Hermarchus on the Ethics of Vegetarianism and Treatment of Animals

A discussion on vegetarianism and ethics in the Epicurean Philosophy facebook group was initially incited by a provocative video on why we love dogs and eat pigs, which evaluates the controversy, double standards and hypocrisy of the matter. I’ve read more than once that one of the founders of the Epicurean school, the second Scholarch and Epicurus’ successor, Hermarchus of Mytilene, was vegetarian. But it has always been difficult to verify the source. Recently, we came across one indirect source in Porphyry’s On Abstinence. It cites Hermarchus’ polemical treatise Letters About Empedocles.

It turns out that the answer to our inquiry, according to Epicurean doctrine, is that the moral reasons for vegetarianism are relative to the circumstances and that they depend on advantage. If animals of a certain species are likely to become too numerous, eating them may be encouraged.

For instance, Puerto Rico in recent years has seen a proliferation of iguanas that are not native to the island but have taken over, as they have no natural predator in the island–except, perhaps, the powerful Caribbean hawk. As a result of this, one of the ways in which the locals have begun controlling the population is by doing the (previously) unthinkable: they are now adding iguana to the menu, and many people have found that they love the meat. It tastes like (as you may have guessed) chicken–that quintessentially “common” and “normal” meat. They now call it gallina de palo (“the chicken of the trees”).

The Arguments of the Epicureans, from Hermachus

Porphyry’s portion on Hermarchus begins in his paragraph 7. It begins by considering how ancient legislators declared manslaughter as unholy and punished it, and later argues that some people (only those who are unwise) need punishment in order to stop them from killing others, whereas the wise do not need to be reminded of such punishment. Later in paragraph 9, we see religion tied to this:

… The vulgar everywhere require something which may impede them from promptly performing what is not advantageous [to the community] …. For that part of the soul which is void of intellect, being variously disciplined, acquired a becoming mildness, certain taming arts having been from the first invented for the purpose of subduing the irrational impulses of desire, by those who governed the people.

By “taming arts” we may understand not only religious techniques for making individuals docile, but also a certain education, which instills presumably fear of the gods, of public shame, of being banished from the community, and of punishment.

As a continuation of a discussion against manslaughter, the morality of killing some animals is defended here for the sake of security. For instance, a community may need to slay a lion or wolves who are endangering its members.

Those who first defined what we ought to do, and what we ought not, very properly did not forbid us to kill other animals. For the advantage arising from these is effected … since it is not possible that men could be preserved, unless they endeavoured to defend those who are nurtured with themselves from the attacks of other animals.

This is consistent with the sixth Principal Doctrine, which says that anything done for the sake of security is a natural good. It is also extended to the realm of non-violence among humans. For mutual advantage and in order to secure ataraxia (a fear-less life) and to secure all the things that are necessary (access to food, trade), neighbors and strangers entered into covenants of non-harm.

Some of those, of the most elegant manners, recollecting that they abstained from slaughter because it was useful to the public safety …. for the purpose of repelling the attacks of animals of another species; but also for defence against men whose design was to act nefariously … they abstained from the slaughter of men …. in order that there might be a communion among them in things that are necessary, and that a certain utility might be afforded in each of the above-mentioned incommodities.

For the destruction of every thing noxious, and the preservation of that which is subservient to its extermination, similarly contribute to a fearless life.

Here, Hermarchus introduces his non-violent views towards members of other species. He argues that if an animal is not causing us harm or injury, it should not be killed.

Nor must it be said, that the law allows us to destroy some animals which are not corruptive of human nature, and which are not in any other way injurious to our life. For as I may say, no animal among those which the law permits us to kill is of this kind.

Of course, and consistent with Principal Doctrine 38, justice must always be relative to circumstances and these laws and categories of animals may change according to (dis)advantage, as we saw in the case of animals that overbreed and become too numerous, becoming a pest.

Since, if we suffered them to increase excessively, they would become injurious to us. But through the number of them which is now preserved, certain advantages are imparted to human life. For sheep and oxen, and every such like animal, when the number of them is moderate, are beneficial to our necessary wants; but if they become redundant in the extreme, and far exceed the number which is sufficient, they then become detrimental to our life; the latter by employing their strength, in consequence of participating of this through an innate power of nature, and the former, by consuming the nutriment which springs up from the earth for our benefit alone. Hence, through this cause, the slaughter of animals of this kind is not prohibited, in order that as many of them as are sufficient for our use, and which we may be able easily to subdue, may be left.

Three categories of animals are distinguished: the tame ones that are sometimes useful to us (therefore 1. useful tame animals and 2. useless tame animals), and 3. the savage ones that are not useful to us. Some may argue that some wild animals provide some utility, but here Hermarchus does not seem to acknowledge that anything natural and necessary can be attained from them. I can think of whale blubber, for instance, but the industry that this product spawned–and which nearly brought some species of whale to extinction–is widely considered immoral and evil today, and the products that this species offers humans can only be said to be “necessary” for certain populations of Inuits who survive through the winter thanks to it.

For it is not with horses, oxen, and sheep, and with all tame animals, as it is with lions and wolves and, in short, with all such as are called savage animals that, whether the number of them is small or great, no multitude of them can be assumed which, if left, would alleviate the necessity of our life. And on this account, indeed, we utterly destroy some of them; but of others, we take away as many as are found to be more than commensurate to our use.

The Scholarch was arguing that we are likely to want to keep some of these tame animals around (for food, clothing, transportation, etc.) but not so many that we can’t subdue them. But today, we may question whether it is fair to derive certain items of clothing and fashion from animals which can alternately be produced without causing suffering to any creature. The question of using horses rather than bikes or cars is, likewise, ridiculous. I would argue that the rise of the machines was meant to diminish the unnecessary suffering and labor of sentient beings, both human and non-human. Paragraph 12 concludes by reminding us that justice is based on advantage.

On this account, from the above-mentioned causes, it is similarly requisite to think, that what pertains to the eating of animals, was ordained by those who from the first established the laws; and that the advantageous and the disadvantageous were the causes why some animals were permitted to be eaten and others not.

So that, if Hermarchus was indeed vegetarian, or mostly vegetarian–which we do not know with certainty–he seems to have been arguing that because he did not live during a time when sheep, oxen, or other creatures were so numerous that they required laws to diminish their population in order to avoid their detriment to human populations, ergo he reasoned that this justified vegetarianism for the generation in which he lived.

Finally, the issue of animal intelligence may change this paradigm. For the time being, many countries already consider great apes as “non-human persons”, and a recent gathering of scientists in Vancouver also concluded that dolphins are “non-human persons”, mainly because it has been discovered that they have language (and social life) as complex as ours and that each dolphin answers to their own name. Several research stations are working on attempts to decipher dolphin speech, and some fishermen communities in Brasil have developed human-dolphin fishing techniques that produce mutual advantage by securing large amounts of smaller fish for the two higher species.

It’s possible that elephants, whose brains are bigger than ours, may soon join this new category of “non-human persons”, which constitutes a major paradigm shift in inter-species relations on Earth. If we are one day able to communicate with dolphins or to raise communities of great apes that use (as some individuals have) sign language to interact with us, we may reach a time in history when it is possible to have inter-species agreements and binding legal contracts. Hermarchus, in his day, considered this unthinkable but said that, if one day such a thing were possible, these contracts must be honored.

If, therefore, it was possible to make a certain compact with other animals in the same manner as with men, that we should not kill them, nor they us, and that they should not be indiscriminately destroyed by us, it would be well to extend justice as far as to this; for this extent of it would be attended with security. But since it is … impossible, that animals which are not recipients of reason should participate with us of law, on this account, utility cannot be in a greater degree procured by security from other animals, than from inanimate natures. But we can alone obtain security from the liberty which we now possess of putting them to death. And such are the arguments of the Epicureans.

But it is not only advantage, as Epicurus would have it, that explains the origins of justice when it comes to creatures that we can’t have agreements and contracts with, and in this Hermarchus departed slightly from the first Scholarch and we see the evolution of Epicurean doctrine as a result of exchanges with other schools.

The complicated discussion of animals and whatever courtesies and compassion we owe to dogs, cats, cows, and others, falls within a broader discussion of morality and where we get our morals from. It is here that the ancient Epicureans exhibited an accentuated interest in anthropology and elaborated theories of how moral instincts evolved naturally.

The Doctrine of Kinship

The Stoic doctrine of oikeiosis–which may translate as affinity, familiarity, affiliation, or endearment with those that are like us–establishes that there is a natural kinship among members of the same species, and was adapted by Hermarchus to help explain the origin of justice and homicide laws. He argues that we do not feel this kinship for animals, only for each other. Modern theories on how household pets, like dogs and cats, have evolved to trigger our evolutionary instincts to protect babies, may constitute an update to Hermarchus’ views.

In arguing that no animal which lacks logos (reason) has any share in justice, Hermarchus seeks to refute Empedocles’ view that a fellowship exists between men and irrational animals which makes it unjust to slay or sacrifice them.

As a side note, we may add context to these arguments by considering that Hermarchus was, in part, also defending the practice of animal sacrifice in order to feed his community on special occasions, as this was part of the 20th feasts and other pious and religious celebrations of the Epicureans.

Paul Waerdt, in his essay Epicurean Genealogy of Morals, argued that this kinship as a cause is subordinated to the calculation of advantage. That is: in Hermarchus, kinship does not replace advantage, but simply complements it as a source of morality and justice. His acceptance of it as a secondary cause keeps the utilitarian principle as higher priority, and is in line with the Epicurean way of reasoning, where multiple causes are acceptable as long as they do not contradict empirical evidence or each other.

In the acceptance of oikeiosis, Hermarchus introduces an innovation (see our two guidelines on innovation), even if he concedes that this oikeiosis is sometimes only experienced by those of a “finer nature”.

Theophrastus had argued that it was only just to kill naturally hostile animals because we are naturally akin to all other animals. Hermarchus, on the other hand, restricts kinship to only members of a community who contribute to its survival. This theory is very strongly vindicated, time and again, by the numerous historical and research examples mentioned in the awfully-named yet brilliant anthropology book The Lucifer Principle.

Hermarchus introduced the concept of individuals who exhibit “finer natures”, pointing the finger at the good influence on our character that we get from association with other people of good character.

Perhaps we may consider, instead, the possibility that various degrees of kinship can be recognized, and that there are many gray areas here? This may explain how some cultures–Vaishnava Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Vegans, and Jews who keep eco-kashrut–are more likely to exhibit a “finer nature” and to exhibit greater degrees of compassion for lesser sentient beings.

Hermarchus and the Epicurean Genealogy of Morals

The Scholarch discusses themes that are widely debated with great interest in the atheist community on the origins of morality as a natural phenomenon.

In Epicurean anthropology (as we see in Lucretius), the early stages of evolution of human traits is natural, and these only later give way to rationally-directed stages of development. We see this in Lucretius’ accounts of the evolution of language and friendship, for instance. Nature gave the initial incentive for morality, and later reason made nature’s insights more precise.

For instance, Hermarchus argued that ancient lawgivers conceived that homicide was not useful, had no utility or advantage. Concerning anti-homocide laws, he said they originate in the remembrance of a naturally advantageous practice of non violence, and later the taboo crystallized in the culture and mores of human groups.

The Kosher Example

The kashrut rules established in the Bible provide an insight into how, with time, rules that may have generated as a result of the study of nature, become crystallized into societal taboos that people consciously fashioned. It’s not difficult to imagine how the consumption of blood may have generated public health problems in some ancient societies. As for how ancient people decided what animals are fit to eat, this Neo-Hassidic page states:

… any animal that chews its cud can eat grasses and plants that are inedible to human beings, and any animal that has split hooves can walk (and graze) on land that is too rocky to farm with a plow. These characteristics together mean one very clear thing: the only land animals that we can eat according to the laws of kashrut are animals that do not compete with human beings for food.

Which means that the initial reasoning behind kashrut involved considerations of advantage in terms of, if we are going to consume the flesh of other animals, which are the ones that are the least likely to compete with us for food in our environment? This questions acquires greater urgency in a desert setting, where food scarcity is a frequent problem. Of course, the re-negotiation of passed-down tradition versus renewed considerations is constant, and many modern Jews are evaluating the merits of a contemporary discourse around eco-kashrut, or how the rules related to consumption can be expanded or changed to reflect ecological and labor concerns of our day.

All of the above considerations are part of our discourse on vegetarianism and treatment of animals.


The above discussion was informed, in part, by the essay “Epicurean Genealogy of Morals” by Paul A Vander Waerdt, from Duke University.


Synopsis of Epicurus’ “On Nature”, Book 25: On Moral Development

The following is based on the French translation found in the best Epitome of all things Epicurean in the French language: the 1550-page tome titled Les Epicuriens [Bibliotheque de la Pleiade] (French Edition).

A central concept here is the problem of causal responsibility, and whether this responsibility can be attached to our initial constitution (our nature, our physiology), to the environment, or to our agency.

If one’s nature is responsible for actions, we attach less praise and blame to actions. Epicurus says that there are people who are, by nature, “solidified” and lack malleability (changeability), ergo one does not try to encourage or incite that person to the accomplishment of the most opportune actions, as his or her nature does not allow us to assign causal responsibility.

F. Massi suggests that this malleability or softness, which is hated by the Stoics, is praised as good by Epicurus because it aids against solidification: one who is malleable, flexible, or soft, can make progress and become morally better through education. As a side note, this subject of how being flexible and malleable is a virtue in naturalist philosophy was elaborated during our Taoist Contemplations.

Yet, because of his evil nature, we denigrate and often hate a man so that in the end, in practice our reaction is frequently non-different from blame. The example given in the French-language book Les Epicuriens is that of a shark: we hate the creature, but we do not blame the shark for eating a man because the shark’s initial constitution and the developed product (of the shark’s character) are non-different.

This is the case even if we separate to some degree the first (initial) constitution (or nature) of a man from his product in the course of development, because the initial constitution (a man’s nature, no matter how evil) may sometimes make a way for it to be possible for other things (non-nature, culture, environment, education) to build a developed product, a wholesome character.

This is why we still admonish people who by nature are evil, and we do not fully absolve them of their crimes, we are merely more lenient with them. We do not treat them as we would wild beasts (in the words of Epicurus) because men are not sharks. Members of our species are domesticated creatures. Therefore, we have a bit more expectations of even the least morally developed of our fellow humans than we do of wild beasts.

Many of Epicurus’ reasonings in this book might be (and have been) interpreted to include cats, dogs, horses, and other animals whom we have domesticated, and whose behavior therefore departs from their initial constitution to some extent.

Therefore, there is a correlation between the initial constitution (or nature) of a creature, who may have anti-social or vicious tendencies, and the attribution of causal responsibility.

But as man matures, it ceases to be the case that he acts purely on impulse. This is moral development, and it transforms the initial constitution. We can therefore evaluate and describe man’s moral evolution.

According to Epicurus’ early theory concerning our instinctive, subconscious drives, we carry within us certain tendencies, or dispositions, which in turn inform our actions. Epicurus claimed that, in the process of moral development, one has the power to change one’s beliefs, and even to atomically change one’s mind. This, today, is being researched under the science of neuroplasticity. The goal of Epicurean therapy is, therefore, to transform our dispositions in order to have a final developed product, which is a good and happy character that experiences ataraxia and is free from irrational or superstitious fears.

People have, from the beginning, the germs of good, bad, and neutral tendencies. There comes a time when these seeds bear fruit, and that depends absolutely on us. We admonish, combat, and transform each other as if we had the causal responsability in ourselves and not just in our initial constitution.

Causal responsibility resides on agents, not merely on actions that are caused by previous movements, for it is agents who are observed to stop themselves from doing the evil things of which their nature is capable.

If a determinist argues against this, he can choose to continue admonishing and praising others, but will still leave intact our anticipation of responsibility–upon which our judgements of praise and blame are constructed–and will only have re-named it.

And, if all things are by necessity, then the determinists must not give themselves the responsibility for reasoning soundly, and give us the blame for reasoning unsoundly, therefore attributing to their adversaries the causal blame for their own wrong reasoning.

If all actions are determined by atoms (by nature), then our moral and social practices of admonition would make no sense. Therefore, Epicurus’ (determinist) adversary would have to renounce his moral, social and educational practice due to the incompatibility of theory and action.

In fact, the determinists’ actions and opinions would constantly be in contradiction, because we constantly stop ourselves and others from doing bad or stupid things, in spite of our own impulses and desires.

Our contribution (to our actions) consists on perceiving that, if we do not clearly understand the rules and criteria of all the things done by virtue of our opinions, and instead we follow our impulses irrationally, all is lost to excess and fault. – Epicurus

There are many things that are done with the contribution of nature, as well as many things which are done without its contribution; and also many things which are done by putting our nature in order (via restraining, educating, or training our initial constitution), and many other things are done where nature herself serves as guide.

Both causal responsibility and necessity procure each other. We are causally responsible to seek out the principle, rule and criterion by which to act, little by little.

Further Reading:

Les Epicuriens [Bibliotheque de la Pleiade] (French Edition)

Moral Responsibility and Moral Development in Epicurus, by
Susanne Bobzien

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