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Michel Onfray and the Counter-History of Philosophy

Read: The Counter-History of Philosophy

This commentary and review is based on the book Las sabidurías de la antigüedad: Contrahistoria de la filosofía, a Spanish-language translation of a book (not yet available in English) by French philosopher Michel Onfray. He is the founder of the Université Populaire de Caen, which provides a free liberal education, and is one of the most prominent public intellectuals in France today.

After witnessing the rise of the right-wing ideology of Le Pen–and the intellectual decadence that led to it–, Onfray felt that the French Republic needed to invest in the formation of new intellectuals. Feeling that the academic world had failed by giving too much undeserved importance to Plato and the idealists, and too little to Epicurus and the materialists, he set out to argue that the West needs a “counter-history of philosophy” from the perspective of the “friends of Epicurus and the enemies of Plato”.

Historiography as Warfare

In our discussion of Nietzsche’s philosophy, I mentioned (and criticized) some Nietzschean views which have had great influence in Onfray and serve, to a great extent, as presuppositions:

To Nietzsche, truth and reality are the concoction of someone who, in the process of positing a narrative of reality, is acting upon and exerting power over reality, creating reality.

… There are no facts, only interpretation.

The influence of Nietzsche in Onfray was also explored in his argument that there is a Nietzschean leftist ideology, a way of philosophizing that is Nietzschean “insofar as it takes Nietzsche as the starting point”.

We must start with Onfray’s Nietzschean influence because Onfray–like Nietzsche–recognizes that narrative is power and declares that we are at war. It is a war of ideas and ideologies, a war between materialists and idealists, between atomists and theologians, between creationists and scientists. Two cosmologies (in their many varieties) that can not be reconciled have been at war for millennia. We may think of them as the “culture wars” today. This is the subject of Onfray’s counter-history, and it frames his way of practicing philosophy.

Onfray says that the writing of history is in itself an act of war, that it is ideological and that there is a strategy, a series of goals, and a variety of methods of writing history that demonstrate the ways in which the intellectual battle is fought. Sometimes war is waged by imposing invisibility and silence on others; at other times it is by accentuating this or that piece of evidence.

Onfray starts with Plato himself, who never mentions Democritus directly, although his entire philosophy is a war-machine against Democritus. Plato’s tactic here is to ignore, to omit, to silence the enemy, so as to diminish and disregard his value. In one passage discussing Aristoxenus, Onfray narrates how Plato once insinuated that the works of Democritus should be burnt, but two Pythagoreans persuaded him not to burn them. At all times, Onfray convicts Plato of knowingly engaging in an ideological battle, a problem which is made worse by the fact that in the “official” history of philosophy, there haven’t been enough attempts to find the real voice of his opponents.

The academic world has adopted the Platonic narrative and delegated Democritus in the history books to the status of a “pre-Socratic”, which trivializes his intellectual achievement as the inventor of atomism, although Democritus lived at the same time as Socrates. Democritus was born in 460, Socrates in 470. Perhaps it’s easy enough for historians to fit facts and people into neat categories, but the myth of the “three classical philosophers”–Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle–has been perpetuated unthinkingly ad nauseam by academia, and has attributed an unfair amount of importance to these three to the detriment of all the others.

Onfray begins his counter-history by setting the record straight: Democritus, the inventor (together with Leucippus) of atomism and the first of the Laughing Philosophers is NOT a pre-Socratic. Democritus is the first anti-Platonist, active at the same time as Plato. Democritus and Plato start two separate philosophical lineages. The counter-history of philosophy gives us the narrative of the “other” lineage.

Plato knew Aristippus–the founder of hedonist doctrine–and was familiar with him and his opinions. Proof of this is that he mentions Aristippus directly when he reproaches his absence at Socrates’ death. But instead of using Aristippus as the mouthpiece of hedonism, he used the (fictional?) character of Philebus, merely a literary figure to embody pleasure in one of his “dialogues”. Plato doesn’t let Philebus talk or defend himself properly. Plato also exhibits ill-will when he exaggerates and caricatures his hedonist opponent, and then in the end portrays the character as going off running after a boy.

Why choose a fictional character to speak for a philosophy that has real proponents with real, coherent doctrines? Here, again, Plato’s war machine uses omission, silencing, ignoring his opponent, as if this demonstrated the validity of Plato’s arguments. We are reminded of how the Socrates that we know is Plato’s Socrates: we never hear of the Socrates that inspired the Cynics, or the Hedonists, or any of the other philosophical lineages that claimed him.

In view of the conflict of ideas that has taken place throughout history, Onfray argues that Mount Vesuvius protected the Herculaneum scrolls from Christian fury and fanaticism; that if the eruption of 79 CE hadn’t charred the papyri, we would have never gotten access to most of the works in Philodemus’ villa.

Striking a Blow for Epicurus

In his exposé of a religious fraud, the Epicurean satirist Lucian of Samosata included a revealing passage about “striking a blow for Epicurus” which demonstrates that the Epicureans, ancient as well as modern, have always seen ourselves as waging an intellectual battle:

… I was still more concerned (a preference which you may be far from resenting) to strike a blow for Epicurus, that great man whose holiness and divinity of nature were not shams, who alone had and imparted true insight into the good, and who brought deliverance to all that consorted with him.

This passage testifies to the fact that in the 2nd Century CE, Lucian saw himself as engaged in a fist-fight through the use of comedy and literature. Contemporary Epicureans generally hold the view that the ONLY way to understand Epicurus in depth is by understanding how rabidly anti-Plato he was: some have even argued that his entire system of philosophy can be understood mostly as a detailed, point-by-point refutation of Plato, who replaced nature with ideas. Ideas are okay, they’re just not “things” existing on their own–without matter–in the ether, or the plethora, or whatever the superstitious Platonists called the ideal realm.

Epicurus’ expulsion from Mitilene by the Platonists who had assumed control of the gymnasium, under threat of being accused of blasphemy, is another pivotal historical incident that usually escapes scrutiny by historians–even by Onfray himself. We know from the sources that this was a difficult season to travel by sea and that his ship capsized and he nearly lost his life. We know that this made Epicurus careful, and that he later on avoided preaching his philosophy in the agora, preferring the privacy of his Garden. But, why were the Platonists so offended by the idea of things being made up of atoms, or by the belief that life should be pleasant? What arguments and discussions can we speculate that they had with Epicurus prior to the expulsion?

Attempts to answer these questions may help to reveal many important issues of controversy, including the Epicureans’ passionate indignation with superstition and with the endless, pointless, irrelevant speculation of the other philosophers. This deserves its own series of imaginary “dialogues”.

Reconciling with Nature

In terms of how materialists and idealists philosophize, the two lineages are either difficult or impossible to reconcile: we philosophize from the body, we value the senses, the instincts, and the faculties–pleasure and aversion. We value emotions: Philodemus treats anger as a source of insight and says it can be rational and natural, whereas the Platonists have carried out a complete denaturalization and decontextualization of morality and philosophy. They invented an unnatural split between body and mind to devalue the body and elevate the imaginary, disembodied “spirit”. This was easily dismantled by Epicurus when he re-integrated the psyche within the body.

Onfray calls Platonism “the great neurosis at the heart of Western civilization”. It’s not just our happiness that suffers as a result of it. There is MUCH more at stake, including our connection with reality. Epicurus is still important and relevant today because his entire system is not only coherent, but also entirely based on the study of nature.

The Individual Versus the Polis

Following the logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, Onfray brings many intellectuals from diverse traditions together, whom he sees as fighting the war against Plato. In doing so, I admit that the comparison of hedonists with cynics seems a bit forced at times. But he does note the tension that exists between nature (fisos, body) and law (nomos), between the individual (and her freedom) and the polis (and its culture), as an underlying thread in the culture wars.

The Four Cures are a Philodeman invention, to which Onfray offers an alternative that includes what he calls a “tranquil atheism”. While discussing the Lucretian parable of the fortress of the wise–which is a beautiful defense of individualist ethics as distinct from the vulgarities of the masses–Onfray declares:

Hedonism does not require selfishness, or an evil joy (while seeing the suffering of others), but the construction of one’s self as a citadel, an impregnable fortress.

That the Epicurean chooses to be an individual and to focus on his own self-cultivation is not to be understood as obeying some commandment to be apolitical. Onfray claims that, while Philodemus rejects the autocracy of tyrants and the democracy of the vulgar masses, he prefers a king under the influence of philosophy. The source for this is unclear, but this should not impede us from forming our own ideals for the kind of government that leads most easily to a life of pleasure, of autarchy, and of ataraxia for its individuals, as surely Thomas Jefferson–an Epicurean himself–did when he wrote the words “pursuit of happiness” into the Declaration of Independence.

Perhaps a contemporary “ideal King” might be best embodied by the former President of Uruguay José Mujica, who specifically mentioned Epicurus while speaking to the community of nations, and who was subsequently celebrated at the annual symposium of Epicurean philosophy in Athens. Mujica is known for his moderate leftist-libertarian politics, for his authenticity and simple living in spite of earning a presidential salary, for his avowed atheism, and his call on all Latin Americans and Westerners to rethink the inherited values–most importantly consumerism–as “Christianity has failed us”, he says.

A leader who is adored by people throughout Latin America and the world, Mujica is acutely aware of the importance of disciplining our desires, and of the dangers posed by neoliberalism and by the capitalist model that requires constant growth, preferring instead a sustainable model of capitalist enterprise. Under his leadership, Uruguay has become the most prosperous nation in Latin America. It enjoys today liberal social policies, a high quality of life, and a poverty rate below 2%.

The House of Piso

Philodemus didn’t just challenge the stereotype of Epicureans as apolitical: he developed the Epicurean tradition in other ways, and challenged the stereotype of Epicureans as minimalists who live frugally. Philodemus taught philosophy to wealthy Romans–including Caesar’s own father-in-law. With him, the Epicurean tradition demonstrated–as is consistent with its own teaching–that it was willing to embrace luxuries when no disadvantages ensued from their enjoyment. This is a philosophy for men and women of all social classes.

The House of Piso was not the austere Garden of the original founders. Together with its library and cultural life, it resembled more a grand temple of refined pleasure. The villa at Herculaneum overlooked the Mediterranean Sea and was a fortress of refinement, culture, and luxury. We will get another glimpse into the vibrant cultural life contained within its walls when we study Horace’s Epistle to the Pisos.

Some Counter-History Trivia

The writing of Michel Onfray is peppered with references of interest to the student of Epicurean philosophy. Among some of the trivia points:

  • Philodemus’ library was discovered on the 19th day of October of 1752
  • Timon was the first one to associate Epicureans with the pig
  • While many have argued that De Rerum Natura is an incomplete work, acute observers will notice that Lucretius starts De Rerum Natura with the word “mother”, and ends it with the word “corpse”
  • Epicurus’ name means soccour or assistance, specifically “help during times of war”
  • Antiphon of Athens was a precursor of psychoanalysis and the first to propose that philosophy heals the soul through words. This would later be paraphrased by Philodemus. He was very persuasive, invented therapeutic philosophy, and wrote a work titled “The Art of Combatting Sadness”.
  • Maecenas, the wealthy patron of the arts whose name became synonymous with humanist philanthropy, is believed to have been Epicurean.

Reasonings About Philodemus’ On Anger

The following arguments are explanations and comments based on Philodemu’s scroll On Anger (1). As expected, the fragments are incomplete but we have a fairly clear idea of ​​the arguments of the teacher.

The first thing to note is that, when it comes to anger, we see a huge contrast between the Stoic and Epicurean schools. Stoics idealized apathy (which literally means lack of emotion) and saw all anger as an evil that had to be repressed. Epicureans teach that it’s a bad idea to suppress human nature, and one of the main arguments we see is on how anger is completely natural. Philosophy would otherwise be castrating and lack compassion if it didn’t allow us to experience what is called natural anger.

Diagnosing an ailment of the soul

Epicurean therapeutic process has much in common with medicine, and is inspired by Hippocratic models: first a description of symptoms is given, then an illness diagnosed, then potential therapies and cures. The scroll begins with a physical description of the symptoms of anger. These symptoms are physical, psychological and social, and are described in detail, the way a doctor would.

Among the physical symptoms, we find that the face reddens and the heart quickens. The psychological ones include how one begins to plot revenge and takes delight in imagining that something bad happens to the enemy. Such anger is compared sometimes with dementia, and indeed Philodemus mentions something that is perhaps universally observable: the word mad, or going mad, often applies not just to crazy people but also to furious people. He was writing in Greek, but that is the case also in French with folie, and in other languages.

The social symptoms are the worst. The angry person says reckless things that are impossible to take back, sometimes in the presence of bosses or powerful people, and this precipitation can cost them “a bitter wage”, says Philodemus. Anger can cause exile, physical danger, legal problems, and rejection by family and friends. It can destroy families and relationships with loved ones, and can even destroy a country.

Philodemus mentions the dynamics that arise whenever there are relationships based on exploitation and domination, where the fate of the weak is controlled excessively, and sometimes in an abusive and exploitative way, by the powerful as in the case of slavery. In these cases, the animosities that may arise are huge. Sometimes these dynamics are still seen between workers and employers in modern labor.

Rational and natural anger

The first type of anger that Philodemus discusses is natural anger, which does not need treatment other than the hedonic calculus, i.e. the long-term measurement of gains and losses with the goal of ensuring net pleasure. The purpose of the hedonic calculus is not to find the most pleasant way to get revenge, but to ensure the highest long-term stable pleasure, which opens the doors for many creative techniques of non-violent conflict resolution and to resolve mutual benefits.

“Even the wise can sometimes appear to be temporarily angry.”

The philosophers of other schools, particularly the Stoics, questioned this teaching that anger was natural (3). Philodemus argued this in several ways. First, he said that anger was often unavoidable and compared the debt we owe to people who have hurt us voluntarily with the debt of gratitude we owe to people who have benefited us voluntarily by teaching us philosophy or by providing other goods. Seen this way, the desirability of good will among men and women is emphasized.

This factor of voluntary action is important by observable and obvious reasons. Never does a rational person feel gratitude or anger toward inanimate objects or toward chance and fate, but only to living entities. So anger can be natural when other living entities voluntarily cause us damage.

A good rule to determine whether anger is natural, is to measure whether the damage received causes a threat against natural and necessary goods, if they have the potential to destroy life or take away our safety, the health of the body or happiness.

Another example given to justify the concept of rational and natural anger is by giving three possible reactions to a voluntary loss or damage that we have done. The first is indifference, but this possibility is somewhat forced. The second is hostility, which is the most natural and expected. The third is to express friendship toward our abusers, which would be stupid.

The recognition of natural anger is important for another reason: it helps to understand the potential dangers of other ethical philosophies such as Stoicism (which idealizes unqualified resignation as a virtue and teaches to repress the natural and healthy emotions, never pondering that they may be healthy and productively channeled), Christianity (which says we should turn the other cheek), and others.

These ethical philosophies unnecessarily perpetuate social injustice that could be resolved through non-violent conflict resolution methods like the boycott, coming out of the closet and exposing our foes to shame and public scrutiny, and other tactics. Sometimes the remedies for social injustice have been somewhat violent, but in the long term, considering the benefits (the independence of India in the case of Gandhi, which ended economic exploitation, or the civil rights movement in the case of Martin Luther King Jr), these events have passed the sieve of hedonic calculus and were worthwhile.

A peculiar case is the example of the Stonewall Riots in 1969, in which gay, lesbian and transgender people first became involved in an armed urban battle against the NYPD, which constantly invaded the few spaces where members of the community could be themselves, humiliated and imprisoned them arbitrarily just for fun. The indignation of the Stonewall Riots is now recognized as a moment in history after which the modern movement of LGBT rights officially began, with its marches, struggles for a voice and space, and even culminating today with the recognition of egalitarian marriage.

Many other indignant voices (like Occupy, the Indignados movement in Spain, etc.) have taken place in history. In all these cases, we see that anger produces natural and rational ennobling causes to which we can dedicate ourselves to channel our anger. Philodemus spoke of thesse when he spoke of “virtuous dispositions” underlying our natural and rational anger.

These and other cases of outrage and public expression of anger have often produced great social change. If those who carried out these acts, had fallen into the errors of Christian philosophy (to embrace the cross and to love agony and victimization) or Stoic philosophy (to love unqualified resignation as a false, unnecessary and impractical value), it would have perpetuated huge unnecessary pain for many generations in all these cases. No social progress can happen if we don’t allow rational, natural anger to find expression and change the world, creating a new world like volcanoes after an eruption can produce new islands and new paradigms.

Philodemus explains the phenomenology of anger in the rational man. He says it begins as a pang, an initial mild indignation which then evolves into outrage as it increases until it manifests itself in anger when the person endorses it.

To conclude, there are cases where natural anger is not an evil. In fact, anger can be a good as long as it is brief and has its origin in a virtuous disposition. That is, anger can be virtuous and rational when damage is produced voluntarily, and even wise and virtuous men naturally and inevitably experience natural anger, which is moderate, rational, calculated.

Chronic Anger and Rage

The next two forms of anger are not rational, but are pathological and represent a loss of reason, that is, they are irrational (even if sometimes they have natural beginnings).

The second is chronic or addictive anger. This is not natural, but a disease of the soul. It is its continuity that shows how it’s irrational, which prevents one from fully enjoying all the pleasures available which are extremely important in life, and is also responsible for many evils.

Like depression (which is chronic sadness), chronic anger is a destructive disease of the soul characterized by particular symptoms. It is an obsessive anger about revenge, persistent, uncontrolled, intense and violent. One symptom of this second form of anger is that it’s oftentimes carried to the grave, and another symptom is that parents often teach it to their children, and their children’s children, leaving a sad legacy of violence, miscommunication and lack of love.

The third is rage (2), an excessive level of fury that deserves a name other than anger. In this case, the person instantly enjoys imagining or enacting the punishment of the enemy.

This fury can generate many difficulties. Philodemus describes this fury as wild and irrational: that is, its intensity is not deserved and does not correspond with the initial pang of indignation, as we would expect with rational anger.

This madness is temporary, yet the sufferer punishes himself in the worst way, so it deserves treatment.

However, Philodemus says that even the wise experience it sometimes as “a brief fury and, so to speak, aborted”. That is, the sage is a natural being subject to the natural conditions of mortality and pain, but does not become insane because of her anger or consider it a weakness. The important thing, again, is to subject these impulses of indignation and anger to reason and the hedonic calculus.

The wrath of the gods

In one passage, Philodemus talks about how men grotesquely mimick the wrath of the gods. It’s reminiscent of how modern preachers of fear-based religion still cite God’s anger to justify both man-made and natural disasters. He is not exactly arguing that belief in mad gods produces neurosis (perhaps he sees a correlation, not a cause), but clearly sometimes fables lend themselves to legitimize evils and therefore he blames the poets (in the case of the one God, we could speak of the prophets) for having imagined the wrath of grotesque gods who sends pestilence, kill innocent children and order genocide.

Another observation that emerges from this passage is that popular religion can be understood as a poetic function, and therefore as art. The possibility that religion is a form of art and self-expression, even one that could have some therapeutic use and help diagnose the ills of the soul, might be a valid way of understanding religion from a secular perspective.


Philodemus explains that the furious and the chronically angry can not advance in philosophy. A commitment to themselves, to their ataraxia, and to cognitive therapy is necessary live a pleasant life.

One of the treatments used by Philodemus and other philosophers was called seeing before the eyes. In this technique, the Epicurean guide confronts the patient with the consequences of chronic fury in the form of a vivid vision where the impact and effects of anger in relationships and the ability to enjoy life every day are presented clearly as if they were present here and now.

This is done using the rhetoric. It is a verbal exercise for the guide and one of guided visualization for the patient. The practice requires that we attribute a gruesome identity in detail to our anger, so that it is seen as an enemy of the soul.

Let us completely rid ourselves of our bad habits as if they were evil men who have done us long and grievous harm. – Vatican Saying 46

The physical features of fury were used in descriptions of symptoms by Greek philosophers as part of the art of vilifying vice. The master showed the patient the loss of support from friends, the removal of family, the possible loss of jobs and opportunities because of angry behavior, etc. Thus, the angry person can internalize the harm caused by their condition and increase their commitment to imperturbability.

Other treatments include reasonings, which may be seen as a form of preventive medicine (similar to reading and digesting this article) and arguments, which consist of personifying the disposition that produces the constant anger and confronting it with rational arguments for change. This type of cognitive therapy can be used in creative contexts, like a diary, a dramatization or a (written or oral) imaginary conversation.

The idea that we should protect our heads is metaphorically understood, but also physical. One of the remedies used in African religions is washing the head with cool water in the crown, nape and temples to calm us when we’re irate. This they do with prayers, but we can adapt it to a pleasant secular practice and easily turn it into an Epicurean remedy, since we recognize the physical symptoms of anger, including the heating of the face and head.

Self-sufficiency is also a preventive remedy for anger. Philodemus said the less we care about externalities, the less anger we have. Fury depends on our vulnerabilities and what we expose ourselves to.

Losing our heads because of anger has always produced great difficulties for many people, and there are fables and stories in all cultures that warn of its dangers. Therefore, we must always keep a cool head and cultivate ataraxia.

Adapted from the book Tending the Epicurean Garden, from the French translation of the Philodeman text (La colère) in the book Les Epicuriens and from Elizabeth Asmis’ commentary in her article The Necessity of Anger in Philodemus’ On Anger in the book Epicurus and the Epicurean Tradition.


1. Recently, new laser technology has been developed that will enable more scrolls to be deciphered. There are 300 burnt scrolls from Herculaneum that remain undeciphered.

2. In both English and French, rage is used in the translation as distinct from common anger and more intense.

3. The same categories that exist for desires (as we see in Principal Doctrines 26, 29 and 30) can be applied to anger. Also we categorizeanger as useful or useless, that is, anger can be channeled wisely so as to produce a greater good, or it can be channeled recklessly and produce many evils or produce nothing.


Reasonings About Philodemus’ On Choices and Avoidances (Part III)

 Continued from Reasonings About Philodemus’ On Choices and Avoidances (Part II)

Against Existing Only to Die

Now, Philodemus of Gadara lived during the first century Before Common Era. Therefore, he did not live to see this particular heresy become virally widespread as it became several centuries after he lived. Saul of Tarsus taught that mortals are saved and gain immortality by faith. But even before the rise of Christianity, Philodemus would have witnessed the initiates of the Eleusinian mysteries and the Orpheic mysteries and other such cults making similar claims about immortality through faith and participation in rituals.

The specific evil that he criticizes about these faiths in the afterlife had to do with the initiates’ unwillingness to live while they’re alive.

Column XVIII. “Do I not live decently and justly? Or do I not live in accordance with the laws applying to men? Then when I shall die I shall be immortal.” And they are cut off from everything by means of which they would have a better life, exactly like men who are sentenced to death.

In other words, in the expectation of a blissful afterlife, it is easy to not follow our bliss in this life. Time rushes through people and they do not experience the joys or seek the things that make life worth living. They look forward to the time after death as a consolation, and fail to live. Philodemus later says that such people at times neglect their health–even as they are frightened by diseases–and other things that matter, avoid great pleasures for fear of troubles in the afterlife, and he lists many other evidences of lacking an art of living.

Because they burden themselves needlessly in this manner, such a life is equated to a death sentence. As we saw in our discussion of the scroll On Death, it is one thing to exist, quite another to live.

The Qualities of the Prudent

After listing the qualities of the person who does not understand what really matters, Philodemus then turns to the person who does understand the easy-to-attain chief goods and has full confidence in his ability to procure them. The text mentions that he works with equanimity, either because he does so for the sake of friends of because he has “closely examined the things which yield fruit in return for his labours”.

The commentary explains that the prudent man chooses mild toils with great pleasures, in other words he subjects his labor paradigm to hedonic calculus, choosing activities that are useful and maximize his revenue. Such a man is content with only the necessary amount of money and is not greedy, lives in the present, is generous, industrious, and self-sufficient, and remains always devoted to philosophy. He’s friendly, caring, and grateful to others in the hopes that others will do likewise in the future. He also, importantly, takes good care of his health and self-betterment, administers his property diligently and reminisces about the past both analysing it and being grateful for it.

After establishing the criteria for successfully making choices and avoidances based on the chief goods and needful things, and teaching us the importance of being confident in our abilities to procure these, Philodemus then gave a list of examples of what happens when people fail to distinguish between natural and necessary pleasures and those that are vain and unnecessary.

The scroll ends with this auspicious account of how the prudent man who is aware of the chief goods, lives a virtuous life.


The above reasonings were inspired by the following source:  G. Indelli, V. Tsouna-McKirahan (edd., trans.): [Philodemus]: [On Choices and Avoidances]. (Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Filosofici, La Scuola di Epicuro, Collezione di testi ercolanesi diretta da Marcello Gigante, 15.) Pp. 248. Naples: Bibliopolis, 1995. ISBN: 88-7088-343-4.

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Rediscovering The Good and Meaningful Life Through Work

The Epicurean school of Hellenistic philosophy was the only missionary secular humanist tradition to come out of Greece. It set the foundation for Western civilization by teaching a theory and science of happiness, the social contract as the foundation for law and justice, atomist physics and naturalism as the ultimate reality, an early version of the theory of natural selection, a 2400-year-old doctrine of innumerable worlds that is now being vindicated by exoplanetary research, science as a means to overcome superstition and to formulate wholesome ethical standards and a stress on self-sufficiency as a requirement for the good life.

Autarchy (from αὐταρχία, “state of self rule”), understood as self-sufficiency, self-control, personal sovereignty and independence, is one of the ideals of ancient philosophy which we value highly in Epicureanism. The importance of self-sufficiency must be understood against the backdrop of a hedonistic view that life should be pleasant and that leisure is a requirement of the good life. Yet, this life of pleasure must balance productivity and leisure. If a man is to live a life of seeking pleasure for its own sake without balancing the pursuit of pleasure by prudence, he will become lazy, selfish, unreliable, and probably dependent on others.

Robert LeFevre, a self-proclaimed autarchist, has created a libertarian political theory which he has labeled autarchy and which is influenced by ancient philosophy. He frequently contrasts this autarchy with anarchy, which by comparison he sees as an impractical expression of immature rebelliousness. However, Epicurus advised his followers to “live unknown” and his teaching was apolitical. Political involvement, he believed, breeds intrigue, has a corrupting effect on the character and is detrimental to our serenity. Because his philosophy stressed tranquility, politics were generally shunned.

What this did throughout the centuries was protect Epicureanism from the corruption of the polis and from being misused by both the ruling classes (unlike Platonic philosophy, which was of great use to politicians) and by the mobs (unlike Marxism, which was manufactured specifically for the masses).

Epicurean discourse does not speak to power. It is a philosophy of the people and the discourse is horizontal; in fact one of the maxims found within our cultural memes is Occupy Your Soul. It falls within the tradition of the laughing philosophers like Democritus, who mock traditional authority. Because Epicureans believe in evidence before the senses as the first of the criteria for truth, this emancipates philosophers from the views of the majority and of tradition and makes each person an independent agent fully equipped with the tools and faculties to discern reality. Autarchy is not just a fiscal ideal: it’s also a spiritual one.

Money: A Natural and Necessary Desire

Our tradition categorizes desires as necessary or unnecessary, as well as natural or not natural. When we apply to money the same criteria that we apply to all desires, we must conclude that money is a natural and necessary desire within our culture. It provides safety and security, and the fear of not having money is a legitimate one.

A Princeton University study of Gallup data on wealth versus happiness concluded that the emotional benefits of having wealth peak at $75,000, and then may deteriorate from there based on several factors, among them isolation and health. This means that any wealth that one may wish to acquire beyond that threshold is to be considered a vain desire that can be easily dismissed, and perhaps even constitute more of a burden than a boon. For instance, people who are extremely wealthy oftentimes can not know with certainty whether the loyalties of certain friends depend on the material benefits gained from the friendship.

Yet, in our society, the vain desire for excessive amounts of money and displays of wealth have created high levels of debt, as well as petty and violent crime. In addition to this, many people who live in poverty have to subject themselves to abusive and exploitative bosses, bad working conditions, and a general lifestyle of stress all week only to conclude the social Friday by inebriating the stress to oblivion, and then spend the weekend recovering and dreading the following Monday.

The problem of debt (and the consumerism it feeds on) leads to the problem of slavery. These two used to be one and the same. In ancient societies, a person who was unable to pay his debt had to work as a slave for the person to whom he was indebted until his debt was paid in full. There has always been a blurry boundary between debt and slavery. High levels of debt today translate into indented slavery where people work to pay the banks. It is for this reason that debt is a primary concern if we are to apply Epicurean teachings in our lives. There can be no autarchy, no self-sufficiency and freedom, until one is free from debt.

If we are wage slaves and must have two or three jobs and never have time to spend with friends, to engage in the analyzed life, and to do the things that give us pleasure, it’s unlikely that philosophy, the arts, and the most refined civilization will flourish in our midst. Wage slavery is not compatible with a dignified life of philosophy, which requires leisure.

Autarchy requires an entrepreneurial spirit, as well as an accurate understanding of the measure of our true needs versus wants so that we can live free from money worries. It requires both the autonomy to be ourselves and the ability to make a comfortable living. Walking daily into a work environment that kills our souls, or where we do not earn sufficiently, is depressing. Authenticity and affluence are part of the balancing act of the Autarch.

Epicurean Ethics of Labor

Philosophers and sages have always discussed the acceptable ways of making a living as a natural extension of conversations about virtue, duty and the good. Different schools offered various criteria for discerning between wholesome and unwholesome professions, and wove these concerns into their wisdom traditions.

Philodemus was one of the main Epicurean philosophers of the first century of Common Era. When we consider Philodemus’ choices of wholesome ways to make a living, several criteria emerge by which we may judge our contemporary paradigm of labor and our available options.

In his screed On Property Management, Philodemus discussed various ways in which it was acceptable for a philosopher to earn a living, to be productive while having time for leisure. His autarchy teachings can be distilled into seven generalizations.

Among the acceptable ways to be a self-sufficient philosopher and have a life of pleasure and leisure we find that we are encouraged to create jobs and to employ others in our enterprises. We can gain self-sufficiency through joint ventures, such as worker coops. We’re also encouraged to own means of production, to cultivate multiple streams of income, and to own real estate and accept rent from tenants, which seems to be a tried-and-true way to facilitate a life of leisure and self-sufficiency as feasible two millenia ago as it is today.

Another thing we notice in Philodemus is that physical exploitation and cruelty are deemed unpleasant and that we should not participate in any work environment that is harsh or hellish. Like military service, work in a slaughterhouse, for instance, is the type of work where one may be perturbed by constant day-to-day killing of sentient beings.

If we don’t love what we do, we should establish a strategy to shift careers. If we’re interested in self employment, we may want to minimize the risk of our entrepreneurial ventures by initially doing the work on a part time basis. We should know the right people and seek successful mentors who can show us the ropes.

On the Need to Reinvent Labor and Retirement

We are living in times where there is a severe need to reinvent labor. Not only are jobs going to other countries: machines are replacing humans. They are becoming the cashiers in our supermarkets, they are the cash dispensers at our banks, they are answering our phones when we call most major companies (if we are not using online self-service). Each one of the 24-hour automated machines that corporations employ replaces three full-time around-the-clock jobs. Can this be an opportunity? How can we use automation in our favor in a sustainable people’s economy?

Curiously, the original meaning of the word robot was slave. Automated machines were meant to perform slave labor and the original, altruistic idea of robotics was to emancipate humans and other animals from exploitative or monotonous labor.

When we employed cars, trucks and cranes to replace the oxen, horses and other animals that we had enslaved, this was seen as a major advancement in terms of ending cruelty against the other species. But now that machines are replacing people and the population is growing, and with it poverty and unemployment, this generates a serious problem of shortage of labor that affects our ability to live with dignity. As a society, we are not extending the same courtesy of emancipation from labor to other humans that we extended to animals.

The mechanization of labor, in an ideal world, should increase ordinary people’s ability and opportunities to become self-sufficient and to own multiple means of production. It should create the opportunity to reimagine an economy where traditional labor takes up less of our time, where less money is needed, and where ordinary people can easily procure what they need in order to survive. Mechanization should not be seen as a sign of instability but as a remedy against the tediousness of the old model of nine-to-five labor.

Louis Kelso, in his books “The Capitalist Manifesto” and “Two-Factor Theory,” presented a practical economic vision of a world where the physical means of production are broadly owned by ordinary people rather than being owned by either the government or the wealthy few, thus freeing millions for a life of constructive leisure.

Futurists, like Jacques Fresco, have already begun to imagine a future world economy of this sort. But one need not be a dreamer: there are practical reasons to reinvent labor. The failure to pragmatically address the shortage of labor in an increasingly mechanized world will inevitably produce social unrest.

Autarchy and Discipline

Epicureanism gives philosophers existential tasks to complete. Some are introspective, others social; some are short-term, others are long-term. The implementation of self-sufficiency is perhaps the most important long-term task that a good Epicurean must revisit frequently and it requires planning, hard work, and creativity.

As a spiritual ideal, autarchy requires a deep respect for our own authority and our own decrees. As part of our autarchy strategies, we may incorporate various schemes of self-employment or freelancing; we may be part of a worker coop; we may invest or own, buy or sell real estate; we may also save a portion of our income in order to plan for early semi-retirement cycles, which may also serve as insurance in case we lose our jobs unexpectedly.

Planning for early semi-retirement cycles serves an additional, pragmatic purpose: as a rehearsal for the real thing, and this is far more important than most people realize. We must know how we wish to retire so we can plan for it and enjoy it. If we build our entire identity and social life around our job and don’t know what we’ll do when we retire, like many unsuccessful retirees we will be depressed when we find ourselves without it. We will feel unproductive and useless rather than experience retirement as a time to reap the fruits of our labor.

We have to build an identity of leisure, an identity outside of our jobs: learn our likes, our hobbies, our passions, get better at doing the things that we are passionate about, and perhaps even learn to make money on the side while doing them. If we find pleasure in our streams of income, then leisure and productivity are one and the same.

Semi-retirement is a chance to be productive by earning a part-time wage doing what we love as part of our retirement. In other words, just as we should reinvent labor, so should we reinvent retirement.

Most philosophers say the unanalyzed life is not worth living, but we Epicureans add a second part to this adage: the unplanned life is not worth living. This is especially true in these times. Also, freedom requires self-sufficiency. A philosophy of freedom can not make sense without a firm insistence on autarchy. By weaving the autarchy discourse into our wisdom traditions, we keep long-term goals in sight and remain diligent with regards to them.


The above piece was originally written for Occupy.org under the title The Epicurean Way: Rediscovering The Good and Meaningful Life Through Work.

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Reasonings about Philodemus’ On Death

The meditation of the wise man is a meditation on life, not on death.

– Wisdom 6:1, Humanist Bible

The beginning parts of the scroll On Death are very fragmentary and very little can be deciphered, but the scroll gets easier to read in its later portions. After studying its contents, I found it refreshing that a scroll on how death is nothing to us took such pains to dismantle the death-based cultural forms two millenia prior to Nietzche’s accusation that Christianity is a cult of death. Although Nietzche is a post-Christian philosopher who is known for having announced the death of God, much of what we think of as Nietzchean discourse began much earlier than Nietzche, with the Epicureans and our philosophy of life.

On the Error of Measuring Good by Time

In our considerations On Choices and Avoidances we learned about the Doctrine of the Chief Goods. We return to this doctrine. The readable portion of the scroll begins with a consideration of how men shun untimely death hoping to gain goods in additional time. Philodemus argues that it’s better to have lived a young life with the things that matter than to die without finding anything naturally good.

14.2 For it is characteristic of a sensible man to yearn to live on for a certain amount of time in order that he may complete his congenital and natural desires and receive in full the most fitting way of life that .. is possible … and consequently be filled full of good things and cast off all the disturbance that is concerned with the desires, sharing in stillness.

Epicurus said that we should live as long as we’re alive. Quality of our life marks the difference between merely existing and truly living. This is an important precept. It is foolish to wish to extend our lifespan if we are miserable and do not know how to live. The foolish man gains nothing by living a long life as long as he lives with fear, violence, envy and other vices, instead of acquiring the things that make life worth living.

For those who live a wretched life, death is a release (21.3-6) According to Philodemus losing our life at a young age, similarly, is only bad because we may be unable to procure the things that make life worth living, a task which requires some progress in philosophy. If we have lived a pleasant life, no one and nothing can take this away from us. When we die we won’t know that we have died because we won’t have our perception and awareness (19.27).

Therefore, the only thing that will have mattered is that we lived well. As we have seen, these reasonings are all consistent both with the doctrine of the principal things (kyriotatai) that truly matter and with the goal of calcualted hedonism: in the end, life must be pleasant.

On Rejoicing About Death

Since the dead don’t mind mockery, only the living, this is considered foolish and it generates no suffering to the person mocked when that person is dead and no longer exists. Similarly, rejoicing at the prospect of our own death is foolish if we have good. It only makes sense to rejoice at our death if it is perceived as liberation from intense suffering.

On Being Troubled by the Prospect of Death

22.1 In fact it is precisely in anticipating this while they are alive that they have the (sort of) death that has to do with them, whereas we are not troubled at any such prospect.

Because we only have perception and use of our senses while we live, the only way in which we experience our own death is indirectly as a prospect. In other words, we do not experience death when it comes. We are not there at all. Therefore, our apprehension of our future death is considered imprudent, as it is unavoidable that we will die and fearing it or losing our peace because of our future death does not change the fact of our mortality. Another way in which we trouble ourselves with death is by worrying about the extinction of our family line and about leaving a name. Because we won’t be there at all after we die, both relatives and strangers will have nothing to do with us and even people who have many descendants do not add enjoyment to their lives from their progeny after they die. Philodemus also argues that there are many others who bear our same name.

On Inheritance

Philodemus recognizes that it’s best to leave inheritance to our children, and that dying without offspring is naturally painful. So is leaving behind immediate family members who lack basic needs. One is to write a will to ensure that only the worthy will enjoy our inheritance. There is concern about the fruits of one’s labor going to relatives who might be wicked, who would not profit from our wealth at all. On the other hand, if one does not have worthy heirs, that is truly a reason for pity: it means that we haven’t lived well enough to nurture wholesome relations.

On Perturbations Due to Manner of Death

Ancient men often worried about things like dying at sea, or about dying a glorious death as a result of the belief that a better afterlife awaits those who die in battle (for instance: as heroes in Valhalla, or as jihadists with virgin attendants in the Islamic heaven) while old ladies who die a natural death, presumably, end up in Hades with all the other ordinary dead people.

Conversely, many people who deserve glory and fame, and are remembered for having lived noble lives, died natural deaths. If only a so-called “noble death” in battle makes one glorious, then most cultural heroes of humanity would have to be deemed ignoble. Therefore, we should not deem heroic our deaths instead of our lives. Living heroically is what has value and honor, says Philodemus. A dead person can perform no glorious deeds, and whatever glorious deeds are performed happen while we’re alive.

For a sensible person, the only way that dying in battle is desireable is if we are wounded and wish to be released from terrible pain. Philodemus derisively says that soldiers in battle die like cattle.

These false beliefs about a noble afterlife for those who die in battle are a great moral evil and have always been promoted by warlords and governments with military interests who have profited from the carnage. We’re reminded of oil investors and investors in the military industrial complex who today benefit handsomely from the use of apocalyptic imagery by conservative Christians who legitimize military intervention abroad, as these few have become powerful and wealthy interests in Western politics. However, it’s usually the poor who die in battle.

Many Catholics used to worry excessively about baptising their newborn in fear of a belief that unbaptised babies end up in limbo. When in recent years the Catholic Church changed its mind about limbo, many Catholics began raising questions about where these spurious afterlife teachings are drawn from and how they can change.

As for dying at sea, or in a bathtub or jacuzzi or pool for that matter, the scroll compares worrying about this to worrying about whether one’s corpse will be “eaten by fish or by maggots”. It won’t make a difference.

Some argued in antiquity that it was fortunate or noble to die in battle at sea, as if dying at sea for the sake of visiting friends or for the sake of learning was less noble. If anything is ignoble about dying at sea, it’s if one dies in search of profit or vain pursuits, but it is one’s life that’s wretched in this case, not one’s death.

Another matter attended in the scroll is the death of Socrates and other innocent victims that are either executed by miscarriages of justice, or justly executed. If one is guilty, this is pitiable not because of the manner of death, but because of how one lived. If one is innocent, then the most one can do is attempt to endure nobly and to be moderately troubled, as if it was an illness.

This portion is perhaps the least convincing in the entire scroll, which is otherwise powerful and cogent. We know in our day that there are countries where the innocent are put to death for apostasy, for being gay, or sometimes the punishment is not proportionate to the crime as in the case of stoning adulterers and women who wish to choose their husbands in Islamic societies. As Muslims move to Western countries, we are hearing more of “honor” killings of daughters by their own fathers or brothers, and even of “honor rapings” of women who do not cover their bodies “properly”.

These practices are certainly a great evil and the moral problem raised by Philodemus concerning the execution of the innocent is very complicated. It is difficult, we must concede, to remain unperturbed. As to those who worry about sudden death, Philodemus argues that all death is sudden. There is nothing extraordinary about sudden death, on the contrary, we should be surprised to live exceptionally long lives.

Unfinished Business

We all have projects that we would like to see concluded. Many people feel that they wish to leave a lasting legacy, but Philodemus says that very few great men achieve this and that this is an empty and vain desire. If fame while alive is empty, then fame after one is dead is even less of a source of true pleasure.

Sometimes it’s not death, but necessity or fortune that impedes us from achieving our goals in life and materializing our plans. Therefore, if we are concerned about dying prior to seeing one of our goals achieved, we should apply the same consolations that we apply in life to these troubles. If we know what matters (the chief goods), we’re unaffected and enjoy the good things in life, the things that make life worth living, unperturbed. It is here that Philodemus speaks of how the prudent man lives ready for his burial.

38.14 The sensible man, having received that which can secure the whole of what is sufficient for a happy life … goes about laid out for burial, and he profits by (each) day as if would by eternity.

One naturally feels concern for those close to us that have problems or who lack an art of living and haven’t learned to be happy. But these are things that are outside our control. Philodemus argues that the man who has lived well should not lament others’ miseries after he has escaped his own: he should go to his death happy that he lived well.

On Funeral Planning

There is another way in which people concern themselves too much with death and its cult. It is foolish to worry about the appearance of our corpse at the wake. Philodemus argues against those who are disgusted by the bad appearance of the corpse, or who worry about beauty, saying that all who die–beautiful or not–become skeletons within a short amount of time. He also argues against planning lavish burials as a waste of time and resources.

We are reminded of many of the practices associated with kings and chiefs, which incorporated not only the inclusion of material goods in the tomb but even such evil practices as burial of live slaves and widows with them. These traditions persisted in most continents for millenia.

Burials, if they are to be celebrated, are for the living, not for the dead. They help with closure. Philodemus praises decent burial practices that were emerging during his lifetime, where the expenditure that used to go toward lavish burials of wealthy senators were instead being spent on the living:

31.5 Among lawgivers, too, those who made dispositions naturally and well can be seen actually to have prevented excessive expenditure at funerals on the grounds that the living were being deprived of services: many give orders to do away with their property precisely because they begrudge this.

A lavish burial won’t fix a life lived wretchedly. On the other hand, a pleasant life well lived among friends can not be taken away from us if we don’t get a proper burial: this does not take away in the least from our happiness while we lived. Many great people have died without a burial. The scroll also argues convincingly against pitying the dead, for instance, if we happen to come across an unnamed tomb (32.24), saying that it is unintelligent to pity the dead.

32.20 Who is there who, on considering the matter with a clear head, will suppose that it makes the slightest difference, never mind a great one, whether it is above ground or below ground that one is unconscious?

The pain of not being remembered at all after death seems natural, but if one is friendless and has nothing good, then we get no relief from being remembered well or even as blessed. If, on the other hand we have many friends and live well, then being remembered or not after we die, again, takes nothing from that.

On the other hand, if our friends die before we do, then we might as well mourn everyone who was and ever will be. After we’re all dead, there won’t be anyone to remember us. Therefore, the issue of being remembered (or reviled, for that matter) after one dies should not be a source of perturbances. Instead, one should worry about living well.

Live Well, Die Well

It is important to understand that living well and dying well are the same thing. Philodemus criticizes rich men who think they won’t get old and die, don’t even write a will (an act which indicates some level of coming to terms with our own end), and are perplexed to see an old king as if power and old age were mutually exclusive. He says that they are attached to life out of fear of death, not because they live pleasantly. One should live while one is alive, but peacefully and prudently accept one’s mortality and natural limits.


The above reasonings were inspired by Philodemus: On Death (Writings from the Greco-Roman World 29) (Greek and English Edition) by Philodemus and W. Benjamin Henry.

Further Reading:
Is it moral to respect the wishes of the dead, above the living?
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