Tag Archives: naturalism

Cosma Raimondi: The Rebirth of Epicurean Fervor

In a letter written in 1429, Cosma Raimondi–a native of Cremona in Lombardy, Italy who later migrated to France to teach–was one of the early Renaissance humanists who defended Epicurus against the Stoics, Platonists, and Aristotelians in an early epistolary treatise in defense of Epicurus and of virtuous pleasure. His letter–a translation of which is available from New Epicurean–and the fervor with which it was written, stand out as symptoms of the dawn of the Enlightenment. It’s titled A Letter to Ambrogio Tignosi in Defence of Epicurus against the Stoics, Academics and Peripatetics, and it was intended for an apostate who had at one point been Epicurean but had abandoned the Epicurean camp.

This indicates that they belonged to a circle of friends in the Italy of the early 15th Century that had an intellectually rich life and, in fact, he was a pupil of the well-known humanist teacher Gasparino Barzizza.

It is not just a dispute between ourselves, for all the ancient philosophers, principally the three sects of Academics, Stoics and Aristotelians, declared war to the death against this one man who was the master of them all. Their onslaught sought to leave no place for him in philosophy and to declare all his opinions invalid in my view, because they were envious at seeing so many more pupils taking themselves to the school of Epicurus than to their own.

Immediately, one feature stands out which reminds us of Jefferson’s epistle to William Short: his fervor for the doctrine. Jefferson refers to Epicurus as his Master and to himself as a pupil, and a true and passionate one who must defend the Master. In Jefferson’s letter, we find the author arguing in favor of the true, not the imputed teachings of Epicurus.

Cosma begins his arguments by ridiculing the Stoic view that virtue is the source of human happiness, and that even if a man is being tortured by the cruellest butchers, that he can still be happy.  The author calls this view absurd and dismisses it as obviously and self-evidently false.

How again could you be further from any sort of happiness than to lack all or most of the things that themselves make up happiness? The Stoics think that someone who is starving and lame and afflicted with all the other disadvantages of health or external circumstances is nonetheless in a state of perfect felicity as long as he can display his virtue.

He then goes on to question the neglect of the flesh, of the body, which goes along with the rejection of pleasure and the exaltation of virtue, as problematic.

Why do they consider only the mind and neglect the body, when the body houses the mind and is the other half of what man is?

And in the same way that the body is not to be thought healthy when some part of it is sick, so man himself cannot be thought happy if he is suffering in some part of himself. As for their assigning happiness to the mind alone on the grounds that it is in some sense the master and ruler of mans body, it is quite absurd to disregard the body when the mind itself often depends on the state and condition the body and indeed can do nothing without it. Should we not deride someone we saw sitting on a throne and calling himself a king when he had no courtiers or servants? Should we think someone a fine prince whose servants were slovenly and misshapen?

The Stoics’ lack of concern for bodily integrity, which comes adorned with an air of fortitude and nobility, constitutes to a great extent lack of compassion on the one hand, and on the other hand it produces, in its practical effects, indifference towards injustices and evils that may be committed against innocent persons. Together with the arbitrary and unqualified elevation of apathy and resignation to the status of virtues, this leads to a lifestyle that impedes the addressing of grievances and is in huge contrast with the approach that we see in Philodemus’ scroll On Anger, which calls for the compassionate treatment of anger and indignation as a source of insight and as an excuse for reformation and change.

By requiring the silence and consent of our emotions, Stoicism holds its victims hostage to fate even when things might be done to address grievances and to challenge evil, dangerous and harmful paradigms. Without finding useful and pragmatic outlets for anger, there would have been no civil rights movement, no Stonewall riots, no possibility of redemption from injustices.

The rationalizing of dangerous, cruel and irrelevant so-called moral views divorced from the study of nature also produces a kind of alienation from nature. Or perhaps this rationalizing is produced by alienation? Cosma makes the observation:

I find it surprising that these clever Stoics did not remember when investigating the subject that they themselves were men. Their conclusions came not from what human nature demanded but from what they could contrive in argument.

Cosma then visits all the senses and comments on how they like to dwell on the sensory objects that are aesthetically pleasing. He takes a moment to notice the self-evident truths of hedonistic naturalism. He does not rationalize these pleasures, or link them to theories such as natural selection. He also does not deny mental pleasures, in fact he includes them in his contemplation. He then concludes:

Epicurus was right, then, to call pleasure the supreme good, since we are so constituted as almost to seem designed for that purpose. We also have a certain inherent mental disposition to seek and attain pleasure: as far as we can, we try to be happy and not sad.

Cosma also makes indirect mention of the doctrine of confident expectation, which indicates that we derive ataraxia not only from friends, philosophy, and other pleasures, but from the confident expectation that our friends will be there if we need them, that the necessary and natural goods are easy to attain, etc. This, together with his indication that virtue derives its value from the pleasure it brings, indicates the author’s deep insight into Epicurean ethics.

If virtue brings no pleasure or delight, why should we want it or make much of it? But if it does, why not concede that the greatest of all goods what should seek above all is that for the sake of which virtue itself is desirable

Since Epicurus does not suppose that life should be lived without virtue, I do not think he leads the life of animals. So he is not to be shunned like some traitor who would overthrow or pervert human society. He does not corrupt public morals; his whole doctrine is instead directed at making us as happy as we can be.

The epistle closes with an invitation to return back to the philosophy that Ambrogio had once, like Cosma, embraced and defended, and with a regretful declaration that, due to limited time, he was unable to cover more points.

Further Reading:

A Letter to Ambrogio Tignosi in Defence of Epicurus against the Stoics, Academics and Peripatetics, translated by Martin Davies

Reasonings About Philodemus’ On Music

The scroll On Music was written by Philodemus as a summary and commentary on four books written on music by various schools. The surviving fourth book comments on the theories on the physical and ethical effects of music presented by Diogenes of Babylon, a Stoic, which equated music with Platonic notions of the beautiful and the good.

Music incites to joy wherever it’s needed … to its highest point …

Diogenes even claimed that music can safeguard one’s virtue and become a constant attribute of virtuous men, and that it can initiate children into virtue and beauty. He said music serves to express courage, shame, or moderation and to imitate them in others, provoking a desired result, that it serves as an “impulse to beautiful acts” and reinforces ethical dispositions just as we believe good association does.

Melody pulls the soul from inertia when it’s at rest and leads it to awaken to such disposition that it may naturally move.

Another interesting part of Diogenes’ theory said that gymnastics is to the body what music is to the soul: it’s an exercise that moves it and constitutes a form of education, keeping it healthy and strong. He also compares them both to painting, which exercises the eye in recognizing beauty. Similarly, music exercises and moves the ear and mind in harmony, beauty, and aesthetics.

From its origins, music was linked to religion and consecrated to the gods, just as theater was. Diogenes argued that, in his day, trumpets were still used for battle and ceremony.

Different Kinds of Music

According to Diogenes, some people classify music as magnificent, as moderate, as courageous, or as disordered and shameful. Some melodies can be used for mating, other melodies incite effeminacy, and others can console the pangs of love.

Music is used to communicate values, patriotism, strength, hatred, pride, and tribal or territorial identities. As we saw in our Reasonings on Piety, Diogenes also believed that the diverse types of melodies produce attunement with the divinity that resonates with the virtues associated with each melody.

… not only do melodies share the fact of being appropriated for the veneration of deities, but also, due to the diversity of their powers, that melody is for that deity …

Following this train of thought, military songs are appropriate to worship Ares; to worship Dionysus, chaotic music is needed, and so on. This notion is accepted in many religious cultures, such as the Gnawa of Morocco, who worship jinns (although orthodox Islam forbids their worship) and classify them according to seven different colors and sets of symbols that represent archetypal forces. For each one of the color suites, a certain set of traditional rhythms are used to induce trance, and only that rhythm must be used. Notions of divine attunement via sound exist also in Hinduism, where specific mantras are used for specific deities; in Sikh faith where singing the names of God is a sacrament; and in some schools of Mahayana Buddhism. Diogenes was expressing beliefs that are still widely held.

Music is a Natural and Unnecessary Pleasure

One has not yet found relaxation or amusement more convenient for free men, certainly, than for one man to sing, for another to play the citar, and for a third one to dance.

Diogenes said that singing and dancing easily incite laughter and liberation from sorrow and tension.

Furthermore, music is also one of the common goods: everyone, in fact–both Greek and Barbarian–uses it and in every age.

Philodemus’ view is that it is clear that music is considered natural, but it is unnecessary for happiness, and unlike poetry, instrumental music can’t communicate philosophy or therapy because it does not employ the use of words and therapeutic philosophers heal through frank criticism, through arguments, through words.

The concept of music as a natural phenomenon deserves further evaluation. We may consider the uses of music in human culture and in the rest of nature. In other species, we see that sounds are employed among both animals and primitive societies to express territoriality. Many animals make calls to mark their territory and to warn potential invaders. Because this imperative protects their food-source, natural selection has favored it, and so it’s not unreasonable that music may have evolved out of this territorial instinct, among other potential reasons and benefits.

Music and its predecessors are also likely to have evoked, for the same reason, a sense of familiarity just as familiar smells and voices can awaken fond memories. Thus, we see that in human culture, patriotism and locality always find expression in music. Even without these values being transmitted, just singing along with friends with abandon can be a source of intense pleasure. Music can be transpersonal, it can create a sense of community, of participating in the collective mind of the tribe or group temporarily. The obvious protection from predators and hostility in nature gained from this must have been the reason why nature favored it by making it a source of great, easy pleasure.

In nature, sound is also used frequently as part of mating rituals and mating calls, and in human culture we also see that music is frequetly used to enhance the mating experience.

As to research on whether music is a natural phenomenon, I was alerted by a fellow Epicurean of a study that proposes that spoken language is a special type of music, and that music and language acquisition are treated as similar processes by the brain.

… newborns are sensitive to the rhythmic components of language and can distinguish between languages based on their rhythmic characteristics (whether or not the contrast includes their native language; Nazzi et al., 1998). Newborns have a preference for their native language as well (Moon et al., 1993), however this has only been explored using languages from two different rhythmic classes. Because the ability to discriminate between two languages of the same rhythmic class (e.g., English and German) does not appear until 4 months of age (Nazzi et al., 1998; Gervain and Mehler, 2010), new borns may show a preference for any language belonging to the same rhythmic class as their native language. If so, then newborns may not prefer their native language per se, but rather the rhythmic characteristics of that language (cf. Friederici et al., 2007). Indeed, infants’ early attention to rhythm (e.g., Ramus and Mehler, 1999; Ramus et al., 1999) suggest that they are absorbing the sonic structure of their native language – its rhythms of stresses, its phonemic character – much in the same way that we listen to music.

… The discrimination of consonance and dissonance has been cited as a human universal, with dissonance treated as displeasing (Fritz et al., 2009).

It’s too early to speak about the potential uses of music therapy, both in infants and adults, in neuroplasticity and in shaping the brain for this or that long-term purpose, but these studies suggest very early specialization for the speech and musical sounds of one’s native culture, which probably links music and speech to the territorial anticipations discussed earlier.

On the Origins of Dance

They enjoy song but exclude from nature that which incites us to the practice of music.

The controversy on the origins of dance reveals details about the different worldviews of the Stoics and Epicureans. Epicureans in antiquity did not only dedicate themselves to the study and defense of a natural cosmology and natural origins of things in order to challenge the fables. There was a tendency among other schools to rationalize origin stories and to assume that all of man’s acts were rational or calculated. This is what Philodemus says:

It is not true that the men of yore exercised in dance … with the purpose not only of seeing their bodies gain utility and to reach the dispositions of good people … but also to carry in their soul equally the good performance that they saw manifesting throughout their bodies, and to try to keep their soul constantly beautiful for the rest of their lives.

In fact, neither of these reasons was the origin of humanity’s first impulse to dance, or of its transmission by those who received it … It was, on the contrary, their ignorance of nature and exultation that brought them to form, in a manner that was instinctive and unthinking, as if forced, a circle in order to produce with their hands, their feet, and other parts of the bodies the organized movements …

It seems like what is being said here is that there are natural and human experiences that do not need to be rationalized, or planned. There is no need to project our calculated behavior against primitive humans … and that it’s okay that we are instinctive, natural beings. There’s almost an innocence that is implied here.

Notice that nothing is being said against dance as a practice, but what Philodemus criticizes is the lack of spontaneity that is presumed by the Stoics, the belief that man is only and always rational and never an instinctive animal with natural behaviors. There is nothing wrong with music being wild, natural, primal, a blissful act of savagery and instinct. Perhaps that’s precisely why it helps to relieve tension in the body and soul; perhaps there lies its therapeutic benefit.

And so, ultimately, the controversy on the origins of dance sheds light on how the two schools relate to nature, and on the primacy of pleasure for us versus the primacy of reason for our Stoic brethren. If nature guides an Epicurean to discover the bliss and release of dancing, then the Epicurean just dances, he or she surrenders and fully enjoys the emotion and the experience. The moment we rationalize what we’re doing, we established a distance with the experience that impedes its full enjoyment.

We must not force Nature but persuade her. We shall persuade her if we satisfy the necessary desires and also those bodily desires that do not harm us while sternly rejecting those that are harmful. – Vatican Saying 21

Primitive men may have philosophized about dancing after they had danced, but it’s not likely that they calculated the blissful trance in advance with the goals that Diogenes supposed.

Later in the work, Philodemus cites Democritus’ argument that music was a recent invention because it could have only emerged after people had time for leisure.

Philodemus’ Critique of Diogenes of Babylon

If they say that only these irrational realities provide harmony to the soul, then their error is double: it means those who can’t sing or dance, or who are unfamiliar with music, can’t be virtuous.

After summarizing Diogenes’ scroll, Philodemus argues that music (by which he means instrumental music, as he treats lyrics in a separate scroll on Poetry) is not capable of making us better or worse in character. This is one of his key points, and it’s because of the lack of words, of lyrics.

This view is consistent with the view that therapeutic philosophy heals with words, with arguments. Therefore, music can not replace philosophy in its healing role: it can not, by itself, fix the human character. It can only have therapeutic value if it incorporates the words of the healing doctrines of philosophy.

And those that say that we are sweetened by music because she softens our souls and would deprive them of their savagery, one may consider them perfect imbeciles. In fact, it is only reason–because she teaches that none of the strange things that unreason invents has been produced by nature and that, furthermore, nothing of what she produces has any importance–that can perfectly reach this result, once it has attained its perfection, and while she is still on the path to perfection, it can alleviate in proportion.

In our tradition, reason or logic is not included in the Canon, in the set of faculties used to apprehend reality directly. However, this does not mean that we do not appreciate reason, as some opponents of our school insinuate. We simply do not accept reasonings that do not derive insight from the study of nature, from evidence. Reasoning without connection to reality only leads to theology and superstition.

Reason is essential for the therapeutic process. It is through reason, based on evidence, that we produce arguments to heal the diseases of the soul. Music, being irrational, can not be considered therapeutic in the way that we understand therapy. It’s philosophy, not music, that educates. Philodemus refused to recognize musicians as philosophers.

Philodemus also denies that music can deliver us from a Bacchic trance, or a warrior’s fury for the same reason: only “adapted speech liberates from trance”. Similarly, in religious music, it’s poems that have “the beautiful part” in worship, and not the melodies, which provides only “the approval of the ear” according to Philodemus.

Diogenes had argued, by citing popular fables, that certain kinds of music would encourage temperance and chastity. Philodemus replies that music does not produce the virtue of temperance, and argues this by saying that if we were to base our views on fables, then hunting would produce temperance because Artemis is a virgin Goddess and a huntress.

Elsewhere, Philodemus also states that musical harmony has nothing to do with cosmology. Apparently some Stoics were repeating Pythagorean doctrines about the “music of the spheres” and other such beliefs. An accusation of being rustic and unsophisticated, due to their rejection of philosophical theories related to music, was presented against the Epicureans, to which Philodemus replied:

The Epicureans do not underestimate music for lack of culture; to them, only philosophy counts.

Philodemus does acknowledge that loud noise can create mental disorder and chaos, but rejects every theory of musical psychology as vain, and concludes the work by accusing music of impracticality.

The Canon’s Verdict

Let’s now take the evidence-based approach to music. While combing through my collection of music and considering the effects that songs have in my person, I found that melodies anchor memories and experiences of people and places from the past, including certain friends, a certain generation (such as, “the 80s” and “the college years”), and certain ethnicities (Afro-Cuban, African American, Spain, India). There’s also music that I associate with women, and other music that I associate with men. Then there are moods: there’s happy, devotional, playful, urban, comedic, political, and music that inspires solidarities.

There’s highly individualistic, original and creative music (Bjork, Cirque du Soleil) which did not fit any other category, some of whose lyrics did give messages about self-sufficiency, independence, and communicated or implied other values. Wherever music that I listen to transmits values or solidarities, it does so through the lyrics, not through the melody. On that basis, I coincide with Philodemus’ opinion regarding how melody without words does not seem to transmit virtue or vice.

However, I did come across several articles while doing research for and writing my book according to which mantra recitation changes the brain faster and more dramatically than previously thought, and has other proven health benefits.

Neuroscientist Marian Diamond, from the University of California, found chanting helps block the release of stress hormones and increases immune function, while another neuroscientist, Dr Alan Watkins at Imperial College London, showed that while chanting your heart rate and blood pressure will drop to its lowest of the day – Women’s Fitness Magazine

Whether it’s praying the rosary, chanting the nembutsu or the Hare Krishna mantra, the documented benefits are the same: chanting has medicinal properties. While this does not confirm the supernatural beliefs of the Catholics, Buddhists or Hare Krishnas, it does grant scientific merit to the practice of chanting and reciting mantras. So we should “Chant and Be Happy”, like the Hare Krishnas (and the Beatles) advised.

Practitioners of bhakti yoga (devotional yoga) in the Vaishnava and other Hindu traditions report that singing devotional songs is a way to channel and express love, that devotion “purifies the emotions” (helping to release negative ones and add healthy ones), that it’s like exerting a muscle, and that people can become happier and more loving as a result of this practice.

There’s a humanist alternative to these practices. Epicurus recommended the use of mnemonic devises (like repetition of short adages) to aid in memorizing his teachings and also encouraged the grateful remembrance of fond and happy memories as a spiritual practice. Repetition of adages as a meditation would not only help to memorize them but also, according to the above cited research, would produce a pleasant state of mind. Philodemus may have underestimated the potential benefits or uses of these practices, perhaps having had little or no experience with them, but he coincided with Epicurus that it’s the words and their content that heal, not the melodies or the rhythm.

Philodemus would have been proved wrong when it comes to his disputing Diogenes’ argument that music can move the body and soul. Research demonstrates that music enhances endurance during workout by about 15 percent:

Music distracts people from pain and fatigue, elevates mood, increases endurance, reduces perceived effort and may even promote metabolic efficiency. When listening to music, people run farther, bike longer and swim faster than usual—often without realizing it. In a 2012 review of the research, Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University in London, one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of exercise music, wrote that one could think of music as “a type of legal performance-enhancing drug.”

Other studies demonstrate that music leads to greater productivity, but that only works for repetitive tasks. In other instances at work, it can be a distraction. And so music may be generally helpful to control or regulate hedonic tone in our day-to-day lives, if applied correctly.

The lack of a comprehensive musical theory among ancient Epicureans does not mean that future Epicurean lovers of art may not, at some point, develop their own aesthetic theories based on the Canon and on available research.

We conclude that music is a natural and unnecessary pleasure and that, while music can not replace philosophy in its healing role or fix the human character, it can increase endurance in some instances and can have therapeutic value if it incorporates the healing words of philosophy.

Based on the French translation in Les Epicuriens of the original scroll from Herculaneum titled La Musique.

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On Natural Community

In Epicurean discourse we often get into discussions of minimalism from the perspective of natural and necessary desires: minimalism not for the sake of frugality and simplicity, but for the sake of having a deep conviction of what is and what isn’t necessary.

The natural measure of wealth is that which corresponds to our natural and necessary desires.

Thus, in our discussions of autarchy we talk about the natural measure of wealth, and during Pride month I discussed the natural measure of Pride (many people are forced into a healthy re-assessment of their self-worth as a result of bigotry and mistreatment). In a naturalist evaluation of equality, which is a term so misused and confusing, I argued that our shared, natural limitations and needs provide the basis for a REAL, experienced equality and that, because all mortals have a universal need to feed, when we gather around the tables we can experience true communal equality.

The contributors of the Las Indias blog, a bilingual virtual community dedicated to cooperative ethics which proclaims itself proudly Epicurean, has been steadily making the case for natural community. In a recent piece, David the Ugarte makes the case for the Epicurean communal model:

Indianos takes part in an Epicurean communitarian tradition: the community is a «society» of friends. From the Epicurean point of view friendship (fraternity) and knowledge are the central goals of community itself. So, you will accept and look for people you can become friend of. But you also will put (an)other condition to them: to share basic common contexts in order to be able (to) learn together. Consequently, community is something that happens (within) a cultural and philosophical common ground, not just a set of rules open to everybody.

The link to Epicurean communitarian tradition leads to another blog entry on community and happiness. At the core of Las Indias’ communitarian doctrine we find Adlerian theories on natural community (which is smaller in scale and based on REAL interpersonal relations), as opposed to non-natural or Platonic community: artificial ideological constructs and narratives that people use to weave their identities but that do not constitute real communities or translate into real interpersonal relations. Nation-building is the prime example. There are many other imagined communities based on political strategy and ideology that also fit the Platonic definition of being artificial communities.

Notice, also, how communities of friends evolve naturally and organically. It is easier to become friends with our friends’ friends because there is already some familiarity. A recent 20-year-long study proves that happiness (and sadness) spread like a contagion, which means that even at very subtle levels we mirror behavioral and psychological patterns in our social environment. Herd instincts exist in all social entities, whether we’re aware, whether we accept this or not. The fact that the term “contagious” is used in the study, places social relations within the framework of nature, not culture.

The idea of Epicurean friendship and intimacy is that we should be invested in the happiness, self-overcoming and moral betterment of our friends (and they in ours). In light of recent research, it makes perfect sense why this is so important: unlike with patriotic narratives and imaginary communities, in natural communities the happiness of our friends has a direct, tangible, measurable effect on our own long-term wellbeing.

Recent research on isolation demonstrates how it feels cold in the body, and how it’s a health risk factor that shortens one’s life span on par with obesity and smoking. People need to feel both productive and loved. If and when they don’t, their bodies and minds begin decaying. In other words, community is both natural and necessary, and (as with wealth, pride, etc.) people need at least a natural measure of community in their lives.

What to do? The wisdom tradition of the Scandinavians says it well in stanzas 43-44 of the Havamal. Call up your good and true friends and see them frequently, blend your mind with theirs, befriend their friends, never betray them, and honor them with gifts:

To his friend a man should bear him as friend,
to him and a friend of his;
but let him beware that he be not the friend
of one who is friend to his foe.

Do you have a friend whom you trust well,
from whom you crave good?
Share your mind with him, exchange gifts with him,
make efforts to find him often.

Further Reading:

Review of the Book of Community

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Reasonings About Polystratus’ On Irrational Contempt

Polystratus was the third Scholarch of the Epicurean Garden in Athens. He was the first one to guide the community of Friends after the four founders had died, and it’s believed that he had met Epicurus and studied under him when he was only a boy and Epicurus a very old man.

Only fragments of two of his writings remain. Here, we are concerned only with his work On Irrational Contempt, which is a polemic directed “against those who irrationally despise popular beliefs.” The work is a diatribe against the Cynics, or the Skeptics, or both. Polystratus’ adversaries appear to be full of insolence. As in the case of Colotes, Polystratus also argues that the philosophies of the other schools are impractical, cannot be used without doing harm to oneself, and that they do not practice what they preach.

Comparison with other animals

The work begins by saying that the animals can not learn from their mistakes and can not find the causes of things. Today we know that this is not true in all cases: apes and dolphins are so smart that some scientists consider them non-human persons.

Polystratus also denies that animals dream, but we know that dogs dream, and he says that animals do not believe in gods and have no powers of reasoning like us. This seems to be an important premise of the work. Later we will see why this is important, when Polystratus discusses the relative qualities of things. He seems to be arguing that belief in gods is a human quality, a natural product of the human psychological experience.

The Need to Study Nature and its Purpose

A large portion of the work is devoted to this topic. The Scholarch argues that we cannot free ourselves from irrational fears only by dialectical means, that we need evidence-based reasoning, and that only the study of nature can help us understand the gods. This argument is still valid even if for most of us, the conclusion that we come to when we study nature is that the gods do not exist.

Polystratus insists that we must clearly understand the purpose of the study of nature and of philosophy. Some say that we just need to find health only, and not pleasure or the study of nature, but then fall into superstition and its fears. Truth dispels all concerns and truths do not contradict each other. The Scholarch continues with more warnings against the charismatic rhetors, many of which could be applied to modern religious preachers:

Those who want to dedicate themselves to the study of nature must not continue to follow those who make them afraid and those who, not worrying about the truth or about agreeing with what they themselves have already proven, practice irony while neglecting their own opinion to please the audience around them; but should pronounce on every issue freely and practice a consistent and true philosophy, so that they can bring the work of true philosophy to its point of perfection without haste, with full awareness. You will recognize even more clearly the truth of what I say if you examine what other philosophers say … (lacuna 10 lines) …

Take heed of their own purposes, as some draw conclusions especially through syllogisms and axioms, which they themselves do not use or follow during their lives, and like others, to please their attending audiences or to confuse them In order to get approval from and seduce the crowd, they develop a colorful verbiage that achieves nothing for them nor for their audience, to improve them or to provide them a better life … (lacuna 5 lines) … as they have gotten rid of the teachings that are consistent with the purposes that our very nature seeks.

Without the latter, in fact, all other things have the status of artifice; what concerns us is actually improving our life, it is that thanks to which, free from that passions that affect thinking, we progress towards serenity and to a kind of life free of sadness and according to our nature. And this is a result that is only obtained, as I already said, by the proper study of nature guided by those who have examined what is the nature of all things, as well as the power that is in her to produce consequences meet her or foreign to her, and guided by those who have observed which desires are natural and which are not …

In any case, the fact that even virtuous actions often have no advantage because, in the cases mentioned above, men show too much arrogance or fall back without reason into superstitious fears, and because in other actions in life they make many mistakes of every kind, so that no one really exhibits virtue. We, in turn, committed to follow pleasure, will witness in our favor that our affairs are carried out with more ease in the circumstances within which hitherto we had exhibited pain.

This last paragraph specifically speaks against those who seek virtue without studying nature and reminds us of the prevalence among the religious of degrading superstitions and of arrogant self-righteousness. This is futile and destroys virtue. The point that the Scholarch is arguing is that virtue, piety and faith are worthless without the study of the nature of things. A scientific understanding of reality is necessary to live a pleasant and healthy life.

In the book A Few Days in Athens we find the Masters insisting that “many worship Virtue but few stop to evaluate the pedestal on which she stands.” This pedestal is pleasure. That is, it is extremely important to understand why virtues are virtues: because they are means to pleasure, not ends in themselves. If a virtue does not increase happiness or remove suffering it can not be called a virtue.

Polystratus argues this point, saying that those who look to Virtue without a specific goal, not based on the study of nature, fall into superstition and abandon virtue, some falling into great torment. Again, this applies to religious people who reject science.

The Beautiful and the Ugly, the Pleasant and the Unpleasant

The skeptics argued that the noble (to kalon) and the base (to aiskhron) are culturally conditioned and therefore not objectively real; that there is no good and evil that can be discerned in nature. As elsewhere in philosophical discourse, there is tension between nomos (law, custom) and physis (nature).

Pyrrho’s powerful argument seems to appeal to materialist doctrine. If objective reality is made up of atoms and void, then good and evil, to exist, would have to be similarly made up of atoms and void and would be evident and there would be no disagreement with regards to what these things are in the diverse cultures.

The argument given by his opponents is that bronze, gold, and other metals are universally recognize for what they are by their own nature, independently of culture.

The example given here (apparently, so opponents) is the bronze, gold and other metals are universally recognized for what they are independent of culture being what they are by nature, not by convention.

Polystratus argues that this is a false analogy: the beautiful and the ugly are as real as bronze, except that they exist in a different way and the comparison is not valid. It is here that he proposes that things have inherent or innate properties, and relative or dispositional properties–tendencies exhibited by things in relation to other things. The beautiful and the ugly belong to the latter category, as well as the pleasant and unpleasant (aesthetic and ethical categories).

The beautiful and the ugly, like the pleasant and the unpleasant, are not the same for all creatures. Opponents say that men make an error when they seek this and fail to seek that, as if that which is desirable should be the same for all. Health, belief and corruption and their opposites are different for each according to their effects, their relative qualities. The Scholarch argues that

either all the things that make these effects are false

or there is no need to reject the beautiful and the ugly as if they were false opinions because they are not identical for all, as is gold or stone.

One example given by the Scholarch deals with the various curative properties of a single drug, all of which are effective and real. If we suffer from one disease, the drug will treat the symptoms of that one disease. If we suffer from another disease, it will treat the other disease, but it’s the same conventional drug which has different relational effects.

Drugs work for some diseases but not for others or for those who are healthy. It is useless for everyone to act the same at all times. One must act according to one’s own nature and to circumstances and particular accidents.

A magnet may only attract metal and not cement, but it remains a magnet insofar as it attracts metal. Notice that this relational property of a magnet is as observable, as measurable, and as real as conventional properties.

Therefore, we must not grant the same rank to relative categories that we give to innate categories. One can not say that one exists and the other does not, or that one and the other have the same properties.

We can come up with many other examples of relative qualities. Peanuts can be nourishing or deadly (to some who are allergic), but they’re not inherently deadly: this is a relational property, not a conventional property. Colors and flavors are relational properties: we only see the color of an object when light reflects against it.

Rotten meat is good for vultures and lions who have the enzymes to digest it, but bad for humans who do not and may die after eating a carcass.

The Evils Produced by False Doctrines

In fact no one could, in a valid way, submit all the difficulties in life that these doctrines cause to a detailed rational examination in order to understand, all the while giving attention to the passions and events, how unfortunate it is to demonstrate an irrational boldness, to fall into all these misfortunes, and to also live slavishly following the opinions transmitted at random; to be the victim of the many difficulties and desires they engender, constantly devoting oneself to the many diverse activities and harmful practices that arise from them. All the while, one’s aspirations multiply irrationally–because one is unhappy in reality and remorseful–and also one is in charge of numerous concerns over others.

It so happens that the same people who spend their lives driven by storms or exposed to fearful suspicions, never account for the true benefit and joy of life. Instead, expelled early from life after many futile sufferings always born of vain hopes and never fully confirmed, they consequently accumulate over their heads yet other evils, for reason of their inability to distinctly recognize the end which our very nature aims for, and the means by which this end is naturally attained. Because ignorance of these things is the first cause of all evil.

Strive then to distance yourself from the adversities of which I have spoken. On the contrary, giving yourself account of all things, as has been said, in a manner adapted to life and affections.

The above quote reminds us of the selfless lives of misery and supposedly selfless abnegation lived by the likes of Mother Theresa, of whom it was revealed after she died that she was tormented her entire faith with doubts about her faith, and that she aimed to be close to human suffering rather than to remove the suffering. A full exposé of Mother Theresa, which demonstrates Polystratus’ point that virtue is worthless without the study of nature, but goes much further, was done by Christopher Hitchens in his book Missionary Position.

Conclusion

The view defended by Polystratus–according to which the pleasant and the unpleasant exist and are really observable in nature–is known as moral realism, or natural realism, and some modern thinkers like Sam Harris have made it their life’s mission to prove that morality exists in nature just as Polystratus did in his day.

In addition to arguing in favor of hedonist realism, Polystratus denounces the evils that arise when we do not align our moral judgements with the evidence presented by nature before us. Therefore, he argues that it is impossible or difficult to be truly moral without studying nature.

The Scholarch’s hedonist realism insists firmly that pleasure is the end established by nature, and that all the true virtues lead to it. We must reiterate the importance of the following passage:

Their inability to distinctly recognize the end which our very nature aims for, and the means by which this end is naturally attained … ignorance of these things is the first cause of all evil.

By not setting pleasure as the natural goal, many philosophers and religious ethical thinkers have elaborated artificial ideologies that, in the end, generate vast amounts of suffering. They dismiss pleasure and run after the dictatorship of the proletariat, the free-market, the god of the desert, manliness or honor, willing to kill and commit abuses for the sake of their ideals which are arbitrary and divorced from the study of nature, which shows us that natural beings chase after pleasure and avoid pain. Therefore, naturalist philosophers should seek the most rational and healthiest means to attain pleasure and evade aversion.

We may forgive these ideologies for their harm by taking into account that they never promised a pleasant life. If we do not set this goal from the onset, how can we expect it as an end result?

When we do not base our views firmly on the study of nature, and when we do not have clear insight into how the good is the pleasant and the bad is the unpleasant in our direct, real and immediate experience, we end up serving ends other than the ends that nature has established for us as natural beings.

Naturalist moral realism is simple: as natural beings we can directly discern, with our faculties, both good and evil.

Read also:

Epicurus and Democritean Ethics: An Archaeology of Ataraxia, by James Warren

Primary and Secondary Qualities: The Historical and Ongoing Debate,
edited by Lawrence Nolan

Very fragmentary transliteration of the Polystratus papyrus

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