Epicurean philosophy is the only secular-humanist missionary philosophy that was born in Hellenistic Greece. It is also, among the old philosophical systems, the one that most continues to be of relevance. The corpus of our wisdom tradition is divided into three parts: Canon (its epistemology, or how to think about nature), Physics (the nature of things), and Ethics (the art of living).
The following is intended as a long-term, self-guided curriculum for people wanting to study Epicurean philosophy on their own and at their own pace. For additional support and resources, we advise students to join the Garden of Epicurus FB group and to raise questions about any of the reading material covered.
Canon: the Standard of Truth
The ancient atomists were reacting against the Skeptics, a school founded by Pyrrho, when they stated that it is possible to have certainty and clear knowledge about nature by means of certain checks and balances–while the Pyrronists believed that certainty was impossible to obtain, and also that it was not desirable. In that sense the atomists were dogmatic: they understood that certainty was possible and desirable.
But if certainty is possible, there must be a standard for firmly establishing something as real. Hence the Canon–the standard of reality and an early precursor to the scientific method, which educates us on the primacy of the senses and of our natural faculties as judges of what is and is not true. This Canon includes: the five senses, the pleasure/aversion faculty, and anticipations.
Book: The Tripod of Truth: An Introduction to the Book That Fell From The Heavens
The Canon has two important effects: first, to establish nature as the standard and ultimate authority, rather than abstractions invented by mortals; second, to help us emancipate ourselves from traditional and arbitrary authorities, which helps explain how women and slaves could be treated as intellectual equals in the ancient Gardens or schools of Epicurus–this kind of equality was very rare in ancient Greece. They did not need priests, mediators, or experts in logic. They believed that each person can independently philosophize and be an arbiter of reality and of their ethical choices by using their nature-given faculties and always basing their views, choices and avoidances on the study of nature.
Physics: The Nature of Things
The philosophy of existence, or in what way things exist, is called ontology. Atomists accept a scientific understanding of the nature of things, and because we accept that things are material, our ontology is Physics, which studies material bodies, and chemistry, which studies the interactions between different bodies. In the writings of Epicurus (as seen in his Epistle to Herodotus), we see that bodies have primary (their own) and secondary (relational) properties.
But modern ideas have ancient roots. Early pre-atomist philosophers speculated non-empirically that everything in the cosmos was made of a primal substance (or several). Some said it was water, other said fire. Anaximander said they were the four known “elements”.
The proto-Platonist Parmenides (515-440 BCE) postulated, again without attempting to reconcile his doctrines with the evidence of nature, that change does not exist, that everything is the same thing (ho Pan, “the whole”), and that our senses deceive us. However, when we see the evidence that nature presents to our faculties, we see the enormous diversity of things (not a single substance that can be called “the whole”), and we also see that there is constant change.
Zeno of Elea was known for his paradoxes, one of which postulated that, if we cut things progressively, we would get smaller and smaller particles to infinity and that this process would never end. This paradox was one of the inspirations for atomism. The word atom means “uncuttable” or “indivisible”.
The first atomists–Leucippus and Democrates–were attempting to prove Parmenides, Zeno, and the others wrong. They tried to reconcile all these cosmological models with the evidence in nature.
Some of the arguments of these early atomists are written in the Epistle to Herodotus. In response to the paradox of Zeno, they thought that if the particles could be cut to infinity, that would mean that all objects would have an infinite number of atoms. And we know that this is not the case because an object with infinite number of atoms would be of infinite size, and that is not what we see. Therefore, there must be a limited amount of atoms in each thing, and therefore there must be a point at which the particles are so small that they are no longer divisible: the a-tom (“in-divisible”).
Then, in considering the error of Parmenides, who denied the existence of change and movement claiming that “the whole” is the same always everywhere, they considered that there had to be empty space (not filled by “the whole”) between the particles because if there was no empty space, there could be no movement and change, which when we observe nature, we see that they obviously exist. Realizing that there must be space between these primordial particles–otherwise there would be no space to move, no sponges could fill with particles of water, nor would we observe things with greater and lesser density and weight–they concluded that in the cosmos, the two primal things must be atoms and void.
Things can either exist or not exist, and to exist is to be made up of atoms. Let’s put it in Shakespearean terms: “To be or not to be”. To be is to exist as particles, and not to be is to exist as void between the particles. Anything that exists, must root its existence in the dynamics between particles and void, or as relational or emergent properties of bodies which, as they increase in size and interact and form systems with each other, gain greater complexity.
Note: We now believe that quarks are the smallest units that make up protons and neutrons. Electrons and photons are not made of quarks but are themselves elementary particles. These and a host of other particles are now considered the irreducible pieces which we may now consider to be what Democritus meant by “atoms.” We must always consider this when translating from Greek, however if we put vocabulary aside, the basics of the classical theory are still valid: it is impossible to divide matter beyond a certain point.
In reading the Epistle to Herodotus we learn that the theories of the ancient atomists and their cosmology model include a fascinating doctrine of innumerable planets, some similar and others different from our own, some without life but others with life both similar and different from the one we see on Earth. This is a function of the infinity of atoms and emptiness in all directions, combined with a limited number of possible combinations of particles according to the laws of nature which are the same everywhere, so necessarily there must be infinite repetitions in every direction of the same phenomena that we see in our part of the cosmos. Ancient atomists speculated often about extraterrestrial life, and the Epicurean comedian Lucian wrote the comedy True Story, which is believed to be the first historical example of the genre of science fiction (although it also falls within the genre of fantasy).
*Essential Book*: Letter to Herodotus. This constitutes “the smaller Epitome” which every beginner in Epicurean philosophy must study before moving on to more advanced material.
The Canon was invented by Nausiphanes, who was a student of Democritus and the teacher of Epicurus. However, Epicurus revolted against the determinist and mechanistic doctrine of his predecessors, as he believed in free will, and this revolt made it possible for Epicurus to become a moral reformer and to add an ethical component to the atomist teaching: a science of happiness and of morality. Epicurus saw that we are not mere robots, that there seems to be a natural impulse that allows for human freedom. He proposed that there must be some element of chaos in the particles, and theorized that there must be a swerve, a movement that happens at random. This element of chaos and chance may translate into what’s known as either Brownian motion, or–more likely–the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, in modern physics.
Ethics: the Art of Living
Blog: Back to the Basics
Ancient Writing: Epistle to Menoeceus
You are probably beginning to see the coherence of the Epicurean system: from the Canon, we get the Physics; and from the Canon and Physics, we get the Ethics. The Epicurean understanding of reality has many practical implications. It implies that it is not wise to fear or appease the gods, who intervene in nothing, since all things follow natural laws. It provides sober therapeutic treatment for the fear of death based on the Physics. More importantly, it implies that we only have one life and, if this insight is taken seriously, it gives us an urgency to make plans and to live pleasantly, to take advantage of the single, non-renewable time we have under the sun. The work of being happy is of supreme importance. The doctrine that says that it is in our nature to seek pleasure and to avoid pain is called hedonism. We inherited this doctrine from the intellectuals of the Libyan city of Cyrene, which has been called by Michel Onfray “a philosophical Atlantis”.
Cyrenaic Reasonings (a summary and commentary on the book by Kurt Lampe titled The Birth of Hedonism)
Herculanean Scroll: Philodemus On Death
Essay: Epicurus’ Four Cures
But what is happiness? What can we know empirically about happiness? And why do the Epicureans insist on establishing pleasure, and not “virtue” (or “happiness”) as the end? For the Epicureans, all Platonization of natural phenomena is a kind of alienation. On the other hand, pain and pleasure are concrete and real, observable in nature, and are perceived and experienced directly by the sentient being. They are not Platonic, but natural and real. The faculty of pleasure and aversion is not an arbitrary dogma of an academic philosopher, but the guidance that nature itself gives us. If we look at newborn babies, or puppies or kitties, we will observe that they shun pain and seek pleasure.
The faculty of aversion-pleasure is part of the Canon, so it is understood that through it, nature guides us in our choices and avoidances, as this is the main component of our moral faculty. In establishing pleasure as an end, it is important to understand that it is not a particular activity but a natural faculty, and therefore the definition of a pleasurable life is broad, diverse and individualized. Neither is it a Platonic abstraction, but concrete activities and natural states of mind. The science of happiness has demonstrated that there is something called “hedonic adaptation”: once a person gets used to the pleasure of an activity, she does not enjoy it as much. Failure to understand this phenomenon of adaptation leads to addictions, disenchantment, and other problems. In ancient Epicurean writings, this subject is covered as the need to understand the natural limits of our pleasures and desires. “Pleasant abiding” regardless of our objects of desire, for many, requires training and cultivation of our attention.
That is why Epicurean ethics teaches that we must develop a hedonic regimen, a menu of diverse and varied pleasures, and that we must take on the training to learn to experience constant pleasures, both dynamic and passive. This is done through philosophical practices such as daily cultivation of a spirit of gratitude, frequent association with our wholesome friends, repetition and memorization of teachings, self-reliance projects that protect us from long-term fears and insecurities, Cyrenaic adaptability that helps us to put less faith in our ability to control what happens in the future than in our ability to adapt to it, and other Epicurean practices.
Educational Videos: How to Live a Good Life according to Epicurus; Gregory Sadler “Core Concepts” Series on Friendship, Mental and Bodily Pleasures, on Desires, on Pleasure, Prudence and Justice, on Utility of Justice, and on Pain and Pleasure
On Epicurean Economics – essay
A Counter-History of Philosophy
Biography and History: Diogenes Laertius, Chapter 10: Epicurus (Perseus)
Sometimes those of us who learn to love this philosophy acquire a sense of our place within its history. It is impossible to avoid noting that Platonism has been from the beginning the intellectual arch-enemy of our school, and in fact Epicurus and his great friend Hermarchus were expelled from Mytilene by the Platonists. This event is symbolic of the historical opposition between theologians and naturalistic philosophers, between the idealists and the materialists.
Academic philosophy has typically focused on Platonism and Aristotelianism, even though the scientific description of the universe has again and again confirmed the theories of the materialists. That is why modern intellectuals such as Michel Onfray have called for an alternative narrative: a counter-history of philosophy “spoken from the perspective of the friends of Epicurus and enemies of Plato”.
Lucretius in his book On the Nature of Things is a forerunner of this. In his epic poem, he shares anthropology-based origin stories by which he means to dismantle the mythical, non-empirical world-view of his predecessors. Philodemus of Gadara, in his scroll On Frank Criticism, explains that the philosopher must apply two forms of frank criticism (public and private) in order to help improve collective and personal moral character. In the arsenal of rhetorical tools that the Epicureans have historically used for this, we find the use of comedy and suavity.
Another tool we use to honor our own narrative is the monthly celebration of a feast of reason, where delicacies are shared and philosophy is studied the twentieth of every month. This tradition was established by Epicurus in his Final Testament, and is the reason why ancient Epicureans were known as eikadastai (the twentiers, or “the people of the twentieth”).
Book Review: Michel Onfray’s Hedonist Manifesto
Book: Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura
Book: A Few Days in Athens
What the mind likes is to be at peace; and its not being permitted rest I call obstruction of the mind’s nature. – Yang Chu, The Art of Life
Yang Chu replied: “According to the laws of nature there is no such thing as immortality.” – Yang Chu, The Folly of Desire for Long Life
In the past, I’ve shared a blog series titled Contemplations on Tao. In reality, the blog was based on the Tao Te Ching, and although TTC is solid ground to consider Taoism, the tradition is much more rich and diverse than merely that single book. Also, as I wrote the series, it seemed to me like there was a stronger connection between Epicurean philosophy and Taoism than most people recognized–particularly when considered against the backdrop of the “philosophies of the polis”, Confucianism, Stoicism, Platonism, etc. Tao and Epicurus trust nature, whereas these other ways felt forced, unnatural.
One of the most divergent thinkers in Taoist philosophy was a contemporary of Epicurus known as Yang Chu (sometimes spelled Zhu), a hedonist and highly individualistic philosopher–perhaps too much, for traditional Chinese society–who drew his views from naturalism and from his understanding of human nature. He proposed an individualist alternative to the ethics of the Mohists (universalists) and Confucians (who stressed social order). Yang Chu is the connection to Tao I was looking for. Not only that: he constitutes an untapped literary source from which we can study “Epicurean” philosophy with a fresh perspective, with its own anecdotes, parables, and wise, Yoda-like-sounding aphorisms.
In addition to giving us as legacy a treasure trove of Taoist literature, Yang Chu is alone among the ancient sages of China in calling pleasure the end of life, and also–like his Greek counterparts–he acknowledges the natural limits of desires and pleasures in his chapter on the Brevity of Conscious Life. According to EB:
Yang felt that human beings should live pleasurably, which for him implied a life in which both selfish inaction and selfless intervention in human affairs would be contrary extremes; instead, one should lead a natural life by cultivating and following one’s innate natural tendencies.
Although these teachings may seem out of place in Taoism according to some, in reality the teaching on these two extremes reminds us of our Taoist essays on military advise and on laissez faire: his thought is rooted in Tao, and in the view that we do not need to intervene in nature for it to run its course either via self-sacrifice or via selfish inaction (or withdrawal). It is in our nature to intervene when needed, and to take care of our own priorities when prudent. A similar logic is applied to the five senses: their obstruction is seen as going against nature and against Tao.
IEP summarizes the seventh chapter of Liezi, which is believed to have been authored by him, this way:
… It espouses a hedonistic philosophy: Life is short; Live for pleasure alone; Don’t waste time cultivating virtues.
The seventh chapter of the Lieh Tzu–a lesser-known source for Taoism than the Tao Te Ching–underwent a 1912 English translation by Anton Forke, who titled it Yang Chu’s Garden of Pleasure, and divided it into 19 short chapters. Some of the themes mirror Epicurean teachings to the point of being near-identical parallel doctrines. One example is in their joint rejection of fame and of traditional virtue as taught by other schools. The following passage reminds us of Polystratus’ indictment of blind pursuit of virtue without the study of nature.
CHAPTER V: FALSE VIRTUES
YANG CHU said: Po Yi was not without desire, for being too proud of his purity of mind, he was led to death by starvation. Chan-Chi was not passionless, for being too proud of his virtue he happened to reduce his family. Those who in pursuit of purity and virtue do good in a false way resemble these men.
As did the ancient Cyrenaics, Yang Chu’s philosophizing took the body as the starting point. For instance, Yang Chu articulates a defense of non-violence as an ethical principle and a rejection of brute force, argued from the perspective of human nature (chapter 16): since humans lack fangs, claws, and other natural defenses, man therefore must live by his wisdom. We find here a Taoist-libertarian theory of non-aggression (whose political, societal, and practical repercussions are many) rooted in the study of nature. Although the body is at the root of Chu’s intellectual life, the end result still constitutes an embodied and practical wisdom and philosophy that goes well beyond merely entertaining the seductions of the senses, which is how hedonists are typically stereotyped.
We also find a passage somewhat reminiscent of Jesus’ Gospels when the philosopher is arguing that we must not treat the dead as we do the living, which was a common superstition of his day.
CHAPTER VII: DUTY TO THE LIVING AND THE DEAD
So we may give the feverish rest, satiety to the hungry, warmth to the cold, and assistance to the miserable; but for the dead, when we have rightly bewailed them, to what use is it to place pearls and jewels in their mouths, or to dress them in state robes, or offer animals in sacrifice, or to expose effigies of paper?
In another chapter, we find a clash between a so-called “virtuous” king and his two pleasure-seeking brothers, who tell him:
CHAPTER IX: THE HAPPY VOLUPTUARIES
It is very difficult to preserve life, and easy to come by one’s death. Yet who would think of awaiting death, which comes so easily, on account of the difficulty of preserving life? You value proper conduct and righteousness in order to excel before others, and you do violence to your feelings and nature in striving for glory. That to us appears to be worse than death.
… See now. If anybody knows how to regulate external things, the things do not of necessity become regulated, and his body has still to toil and labour. But if anybody knows how to regulate internals, the things go on all right, and the mind obtains peace and rest.
The last paragraph resonates with the 20th Principal Doctrine of Epicurus. They seem to be arguing before their brother, the king, that it is best to stay away from political life, and that by fulfilling so many duties and virtues and expectations from others, these externalities rob us of happiness and compete against our true nature. At the end of the chapter, the king has gone to a sage to ask for guidance concerning his brothers, who are leading lives of indulgence. Here’s the verdict:
Teng-hsi said: “You are living together with real men without knowing it. Who calls you wise? Cheng has been governed by chance, and without merit of yours.”
In this passage, we see also a proto-Nietzschean repudiation of artificial, man-made morality–here, not merely as a reaction against the repression of nature that the dominant philosophy imposes on us, but positively in favor of the Taoist virtue of ziran, naturalness and authenticity. This acting in accordance to nature is the main platform from which Yang Chu philosophizes.
If Cyrene is, as Michel Onfray argues, a philosophical Atlantis, then perhaps Yang Chu’s city of Liang is a philosophical Shangri-La and, just like with the Cyrenaics, his long-dismissed school of Taoist thought deserves a second look.
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.
A discussion of Epicurean virtue is needed as a result of our constant encounters with students of philosophy who have been exposed to Stoic and Platonic notions about virtue devoid of context and of telos, as we understand it.
Clarifying some of the Problematic Issues
Concerning the end that nature has established for natural beings, our teachers insist that the end is pleasure, and Polystratus goes as far as saying that not having a clear understanding of how pleasure is the end is the architect of all evils. This is because of the confusion of values problem: people fail to attach accurate value to things and develop artificial systems of value that are not aligned with the nature of things. For the sake of the virtue of courage they may fight needless wars that generate more suffering than pleasure in the end; for the sake of the so-called “virtue” of duty they commit attrocities and accept authoritarian models of ethics that are dehumanizing. Virtue, to us, has no value if it does not lead to net pleasure after we subject our choices and avoidances to hedonic calculus.
Virtues in Epicurean doctrine are, therefore, downgraded to the status of means to pleasure whereas the Stoics see “Virtue” as the end … “Virtue” here in the singular, which is usually a symptom that we are being presented with a Platonized concept divorced from context in nature. Perhaps a good comparison to Epicurean virtues is the very practical conception of Buddhist upayas, which translate as efficient means, and incorporate not just virtues as they are frequently understood, but also specific techniques and practices.
Another crucial issue, which was discussed already in our Reasonings About Philodemus’ scroll On the Stoics, had to do with how when words are not clearly defined, they become useless.
A third issue emerged in our Reasonings About Philodemus’ scroll On Anger which puts our School in direct opposition with Stoic notions about virtue: it’s the compassionate recognition of anger and indignation as potentially having both a virtuous disposition and usefulness.
Our insistence in dethroning virtue in favor of pleasure, and others’ confusion of the means with the end, has produced discussions where we have been accused of being haters of “Virtue”, again in the singular. As a result of these controversies, and also as a way of extending the olive branch to our Stoic brethren, these reasonings on the Epicurean virtues attempt to rescue them from Platonized, dis-embodied oblivion, to capture them from the heavenly realms and to find where in nature the virtues can be observed and in what way they may lead to maximizing pleasure and avoiding pain.
Ancient Epicureans did not frequently address the virtues as points of reference, preferring instead to speak in clear and concise terms and to avoid words that were not clearly defined, but Frances Wright in her work A Few Days in Athens did incorporate a sermon on the virtues that might be a good starting point to explore them.
The Practical Means to Long-Term Pleasure Can Work in Unison
Epicurus stood in the midst of the expectant scholars. “My sons,” he said, “why do you enter the gardens? Is it to seek happiness, or to seek virtue and knowledge? Attend, and I will show you that in finding one, you shall find the three. To be happy, we must be virtuous; and when we are virtuous, we are wise. – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X
The problems generated from seeking virtue without knowledge are explored by Polystratus in his Irrational Contempt. They mostly deal with degenerating into degrading superstition. The above may have been a paraphrase of the fifth Principal Doctrine, which states:
It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the man is not able to live wisely, though he lives honorably and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life.
except that, if you’ll notice, the original doctrine excludes a reference to virtue because, as I said, the founders were hesitant to use words that led to misinterpretation and favored clear speech; and, as we’ve discussed, this is one of the criticisms of virtue in our school.
It frequently seems that A Few Days in Athens was written, in part, to appease worshipers of Virtue, of whom Frances Wright says that “many worship at the altar of Virtue, but few stop to inspect the pedestal on which She stands“. That pedestal is, of course, pleasure.
The first four doctrines correlate to the Four Cures, which constitute the basic points of the ethical doctrine. The fifth doctrine must have been important enough in our ethics, that it had to follow the Tetrapharmakon, as if only the Four Cures had been more important. I believe the reason for this has to do with it relating to the accusations by the philosophers of the polis that a hedonist could not be a good citizen. Professor John Thrasher addresses how Epicurean contractarianism answers this accusation. A modern version of the same accusation is the sociopath argument, where we have been asked “What is to keep a sociopath / psychopath from being a good Epicurean?”. The reply to this is found in Epicurus’ teaching that a sage will be willing to give his life for a friend, and also in Principal Doctrines 5 (above) and 39, which says:
The man who best knows how to meet external threats makes into one family all the creatures he can; and those he can not, he at any rate does not treat as aliens; and where he finds even this impossible, he avoids all dealings, and, so far as is advantageous, excludes them from his life.
The answer to the sociopath argument seems to be that we would ostracize this person and exclude him from our lives, and in fact the modern justice and prison systems already do just that. Our friend Cassius says:
Most sociopaths do not pursue pleasure wisely, honorably, and justly, and therefore cannot live happily, because the human nature of those around him will punish him and prevent it.
Which is true: the potential repercussions of sociopathic behavior include not only imprisonment, but also isolation, loss of support from friends and family, potential loss of jobs and other opportunities and sources of income. It is impossible, or at least very difficult, to have friendship or conduct business with partners who lack the ability to establish trusting relations with others.
And so, in order to ensure a life of pleasure, we must have knowledge of nature to avoid superstitious fears, and we must have blessed friendship which excludes sociopathic behavior and requires many wholesome dispositions. Happiness, wisdom, and the virtues all lead to the natural end that nature has established for us: the pleasant life.
Frances Wright’s Survey of the Epicurean Virtues
The relevant portion begins with Epicurus inviting his followers to sit and study at the feet of Philosophy with an open disposition, without pedantry and pretension.
Let us then begin: and first, let us for a while hush our passions into slumber, forget our prejudices, and cast away our vanity and our pride. Thus patient and modest, let us come to the feet of philosophy; let us say to her, ‘Behold us scholars and children, gifted by nature with faculties, affections, and passions. Teach us their use and their guidance. Show us how to turn them to account — how best to make them conduce to our ease, and minister to our enjoyment.’ – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X
Then, just as we see in the Bible’s wisdom books, where Wisdom speaks in the first person, the same thing happens:
“Sons of earth,” says the Deity, “you have spoken wisely; you feel that you are gifted by nature with faculties, affections, and passions; and you perceive that on the right exertion and direction of these depends your well-being. It does so. Your affections both of soul and body may be shortly reduced to two, pleasure and pain; the one troublesome, and the other agreeable. It is natural and befitting, therefore, that you shun pain, and desire and follow after pleasure. Set forth then on the pursuit; but ere you start, be sure that it is in the right road, and that you have your eye on the true object. Perfect pleasure, which is happiness, you will have attained when you have brought your bodies and souls into a state of satisfied tranquillity. To arrive at this, much previous exertion is requisite; yet exertion, not violent, only constant and even. – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X
Philosophy begins by pointing the finger at our natural faculties. The study of nature must begin from where we are, from the tools that we have to apprehend her. Among these tools, the one that is most relevant to ethics is the pleasure and aversion faculty. The natural goal established by our own nature is asserted as the first thing that we must clearly understand.
Immediately, the author knows that some will equate pleasure with debauchery and mindless instant gratification. She then introduces Prudence as the mother of all the virtues and handmaiden of wisdom. Sometimes translated as practical wisdom, prudence is a shortened form of pro-videntia, or prior-seeing, that is, seeing before things happen, seeing ahead (and planning ahead). Here, with regards to control of desires, Prudence is the reasoning faculty by which we conduct hedonic calculus, the comparative measure of pain versus pleasure over the long term.
And first, the body, with, its passions and appetites, demands gratification and indulgence. But beware! for here are the hidden rocks which may shipwreck your bark on its passage, and shut you out for ever from the haven of repose. Provide yourselves then with a skilled pilot, who may steer you through the Scylla and Charybdis of your carnal affections, and point the steady helm through the deep waters of your passions. Behold her! it is Prudence, the mother of the virtues, and the handmaid of wisdom. Ask, and she will tell you, that gratification will give new edge to the hunger of your appetites, and that the storm of the passions shall kindle with indulgence. Ask, and she will tell you, that sensual pleasure is pain covered with the mask of happiness. Behold she strips it from her face, and reveals the features of disease, disquietude, and remorse. – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X
Wright then argues that prudence leads to ataraxia, which translates as equanimity. A beautiful, poetic comparison of a pleasant life of ataraxia as “neither a roaring torrent, nor a stagnant pool, but a placid and crystal stream”. Notice how she sees ataraxia in positive terms, not as mere pain relief (the common academic interpretation of Epicurean ataraxia), but as pleasant abiding, “healthy contentment”, joy.
Ask, and she will tell you, that happiness is not found in tumult, but tranquillity; and that, not the tranquillity of indolence and inaction, but of a healthy contentment of soul and body. Ask, and she will tell you, that a happy life is like neither to a roaring torrent, nor a stagnant pool, but to a placid and crystal stream, that flows gently and silently along. – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X
Mother Philosophy then presents the virtues, beginning with temperance or moderation. She contributes to hedonic calculus by protecting us from “future evil” (evil means suffering to an Epicurean), and from “all disquiet to the soul and injury to the body”.
And now Prudence shall bring to you the lovely train of the virtues. Temperance, throwing a bridle on your desires, shall gradually subdue and annihilate those whose present indulgence would only bring future evil; and others more necessary and more innocent, she shall yet bring down to such becoming moderation, as shall prevent all disquiet to the soul and injury to the body.
Fortitude or endurance is seen next. Perhaps another word for courage, she protects us from fears and from fate.
Fortitude shall strengthen you to bear those diseases which even temperance may not be efficient to prevent; those afflictions which fate may level at you; those persecutions which the folly or malice of man may invent. It shall fit you to bear all things, to conquer fear, and to meet death.
Justice and generosity follow. The first one adds to our pleasure by making us safe among our neighbors. The latter one wins us friends, which are one of the most persistent sources of intense pleasure in life. Friendship is also addressed below.
Justice shall give you security among your fellows, and satisfaction in your own breasts. Generosity shall endear you to others, and sweeten your own nature to yourselves. Gentleness shall take the sting from the malice of your enemies, and make you extract double sweet from the kindness of friends.
Then, we see gratitude and friendship among the virtues. There are many documented benefits of gratitude, but here the author mentions how it helps us to bear our obligations pleasantly. In my studies of Epicurean doctrine, I’ve come to conclude that it’s impossible to profit from it if one is ungrateful.
Gratitude shall lighten the burden of obligation, or render it even pleasant to bear. Friendship shall put the crown on your security and your joy. With these, and yet more virtues, shall prudence surround you. And, thus attended, hold on your course in confidence, and moor your barks in the haven of repose.”
Also, notice here how pleasure is a gift of nature, and the virtues have to attend to nature as the final authority. In our tradition we never rebel against nature. That is the equivalent of rebelling against reality.
But, my sons, methinks I hear you say, ‘You have shown us the virtues rather as modifiers and correctors of evil, than as the givers of actual and perfect good. Happiness, you tell us, consists in ease of body and mind; yet temperance cannot secure the former from disease, nor can all the virtues united award affliction from the latter.’ True, my children, Philosophy cannot change the laws of nature; but she may teach us to accommodate ourselves to them. She cannot annul pain; but she can arm us to bear it.
After the train of the virtues is presented and the natural limits of the virtues are addressed, another efficient means follows: that of fond rememberance of happy memories. Again, not just virtues but also certain practices can serve as means to pleasure.
Hath he not memory to bring to him past pleasures, the pleasures of a well-spent life, on which he may feed even while pain racks his members, and fever consumes his vitals?
A later portion of the tenth chapter of A Few Days in Athens then evaluates further how avoiding vices and cultivating virtues can protect us from suffering. Temperance helps to diminish suffering due to poverty; modesty helps to experience luxury in the midst of simplicity and to avoid anger, disapointment and pain; knowledge protects us from superstition. It is reminiscent to Philodemus’ instruction on how self-sufficiency (another important virtue) protects us from being too vulnerable.
What is poverty, if we have temperance, and can be satisfied with a crust, and a draught from the spring? If we have modesty, and can wear a woolen garment as gladly as a tyrian robe? What is slander, if we have no vanity that it can wound, and no anger that it can kindle? What is neglect, if we have no ambition that it can disappoint, and no pride that it can mortify? What is persecution, if we have our own bosoms in which to retire, and a spot of earth to sit down and rest upon? What is death, when without superstition to clothe him with terrors, we can cover our heads, and go to sleep in his arms?
Vulnerability and Virtue
Fortitude and vulnerability are not opposed in a fluid system, whereas the philosophers of logic might invent sillogisms according to which they are mutually exclusive. In our system, just as both anger and gratitude can have virtuous dispositions, similarly vulnerability and fortitude can be virtuous.
Fear of death is then addressed, particularly the death of a friend or loved one, which is the most painful way in which we experience death. This is truly a difficult pain to bear, the author acknowledges, and she recalls the pleasures and the tenderness of friendship and of love for our close ones in one of the most moving portions of the novel.
Here, rather than feign fortitude, the author advises that we cry the necessary tears even as we engage in the pleasures of remembering our friends who have died. It should serve us as consolation that even crying and being vulnerable can be a virtue. Crying is essential to avoid depression and resolve grief, and our tears even contain toxins so that we are literally cleansed through them. There is absolutely nothing wrong with crying. It is entirely natural, and sometimes unavoidable, and we should not fear being vulnerable. Tied in with this, is the teaching that we should never avoid loving someone for fear of losing them at a later point because “happiness forbids it”. The author here presents us with the challenge of wishing that we had never met our loved ones.
And is it forbidden to us to mourn its loss? If it be, the power is not with us to obey. Should we, then, to avoid the evil, forego the good? Shall we shut love from our hearts, that we may not feel the pain of his departure? No; happiness forbids it. Experience forbids it. Let him who hath laid on the pyre the dearest of his soul, who hath washed the urn with the bitterest tears of grief — let him say if his heart hath ever formed the wish that it had never shrined within it him whom he now deplores. Let him say if the pleasures of the sweet communion of his former days doth not still live in his remembrance. If he love not to recall the image of the departed, the tones of his voice, the words of his discourse, the deeds of his kindness, the amiable virtues of his life. If, while he weeps the loss of his friend, he smiles not to think that he once possessed him. He who knows not friendship, knows not the purest pleasure of earth.
The rush of endorphins (the hormone associated with pleasure) that takes place after a good cry makes the case for crying and being vulnerable as an Epicurean virtue: it produces pleasure in the end and resolves grief. Crying, therefore, can also be an efficient means to maximizing pleasure.
This, then, my sons, is our duty, for this is our interest and our happiness; to seek our pleasures from the hands of the virtues, and for the pain which may befall us, to submit to it with patience, or bear up against it with fortitude. To walk, in short, through life innocently and tranquilly. – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X
Contrast this approach to emotions to the Stoic ideal of apathy, which deprives us of our full humanity and is sometimes an affront to our nature, as the above considerations and ethical challenges related to the death of a friend should make evident. It might even be considered cowardice to live our lives as a desperate attempt to avoid healthy and natural emotion, attachment and pain.
Our philosopher friends who are influenced by the Stoic school will notice how distinct our approaches are, and how far-reaching are the repercussions of Epicurus’ instruction that we “must not force nature”. Emotions are symptoms that we are human, and they deserve our consideration and compassion. With that, I will close these reasonings with one final quote from the novel:
Everyone may be an Epicurean, but only a philosopher may be a Stoic.
H. Hiram, Founder
A. Alex, Member
P. Pilar (interviewer, for Rey Yacolca Producciones)
H. Epicurus is one of the philosophers of the atomist tradition who studied under a teacher, Nausiphanes, who himself studied under Democritus, who along with Leucippus is the founder of the atomist school and father of materialist philosophy and is considered the first of the laughing philosophers. We talk about there being a tradition of laughing philosophers today thanks to Democritus. Basically it’s a series of philosophers who have studied the nature of things and believe in a natural, scientific explanation for reality. Because of that they have strong minds and aren’t easily convinced of superstitions, the common people’s beliefs, and they laugh at that and so that is part of their role. Many of them have been comedians. One of them died recently, George Carlin. I didn’t know he had studied philosophy, I thought he had studied acting. But no, he studied philosophy and was a great comedian who mocked everything, politics, corruption, religion, children, marriage, all the social conventions. That’s extremely important because we should learn to laugh at ourselves and look at society from the outside, which is also the role of philosophers. this is why the school Epicurus founded was at the boundaries of the polis. They looked at the polis from outside. I’ve always thought it interesting. So Epicurus was a pupil of the school of atomism that Democritus started. He took insights from science and physics and applied them to the realm of ethics. The art of living. Taking this knowledge about the true nature of things and to live happily and at ease.
A. It’s important, if we’re going to dedicate our time and our minds and our lives, that we not waste them in thoughts that are not of benefit, that will harm us and are only founded on fancy. It’s best to wait for problem to actually arrive before our eyes, our ears, and manifest physically. Problems usually generate less anxiety that we expect and are resolved, well, using the faculties that nature has given us ….
H. Well, I see Epicureanism as a vehement affirmation of life, joy, pleasure, and in general all the things that make life worth living. Many people, even in academia, it’s unfortunate, many teach philosophy and mix Stoicism and Epicureanism and much confusion is generated, people start to interpret Epicurus as an analgesic (pain reliever, to alleviate pain only) but it includes that and yet goes far beyond, and affirms the things that make life worth living. Tells you the things you must seek, the “principal things”, needful things that nature gives you no choice but to have in order to be happy and healthy. Friends, protection, shelter, wholesome association, home, food, clothes, but Epicurus takes you to enjoy those things to the max, and to also have an attitude of gratitude. To take notice of them and appreciate them because today people have attention deficit with the internet, instant gratification … people go through life and don’t notice the little things that make life worth living. They call their friends, talk to them, but don’t stop to appreciate the time they have (until they’re gone). And so Epicurean philo. accentuates always those things that make life worth living.
P. Yes, Hiram. When we were talking about this conversation between us three you were saying that if you could entitle this, it would be the science of happiness. So based on this and what Alex was saying that this has helped him to be more present, as you said more attentive, I was reading in this Las Indias review, they mention a researcher that talks about synthetic happiness as superior to natural happiness and says something very interesting. He says that we all think that natural happiness is real and good and other happiness sort of has less value. How have you experienced this and you, Alex? Have you put this in practice?
H. You’re talking about Dan Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist who wrote “Stumbling on Happiness” and we’ve exchanged emails, he’s a fan of Epicurus. He’s basically teaching Epicurean philosophy by another name, as is what’s being taught today as positive psychology, which focuses on the mind in its natural state, in its healthy state instead of focusing on pathology. It focuses on the mind when one is happy, healthy. This is positive psychology. It contains the science of happiness that he elaborates and now, people like Sam Harris and other neuroscientists are researching how the brain operates when one is happy. They’re scanning the brains of lamas and other people, looking at their brains when they meditate to see what is going on there, how it changes long term when people engage in meditation, or gratitude, and the other things that we also teach in Epicureanism. There’s a science of happiness, a theory of things observed, research on neuroplasticity which shows how the neural system and brain change over the years when people are involved in certain activities. These are scientific techniques towards what we call katastematic pleasure, Gilbert calls synthetic happiness, but it’s not that it’s any less real: in life, it’s experienced as real. I translated it (into English) as abiding pleasure (in the book). There is research being done now on how to increase the levels of steady, abiding pleasure that are normal for each person. It’s quite interesting, and it all vindicates Epicurus’ teaching. What Gilbert teaches is Epicureanism by another name.
A. What Stoics and ascetics teach is that we should reject certain pleasures and not try to find happiness like children, like when children are playing in joy, that we should just seek tranquility and only avoid pains. But Epicurus teaches that we should not reject joy, it’s not necessary to eat luxurious food daily, we should eat only what is necessary, but if we are invited to a banquet or a dance there is no need to reject it. One should accept it.
P. Hiram, when we were talking on facebook you were saying that a comparison could be made between the sumac kawsay (Incan “good living” philosophy) and Epicurean philo. I was researching this indigenous tradition. How would you contrast.
H. Sumak kawsay, the main differences are that this tradition comes from the elders from South America. First of all there is an ecological sensibility among indigenous values, a collectivist sensibility whereas in Epicurus life is celebrated and in fact Epicurean gardens were communities where things were shared, they were growing crops for food, writing scrolls, got fees from teaching philosophy. Living in self-sufficient context within a cooperativist context at a small level. Another parallel is the emphasis on ecology: one of the Principal Doctrines of Epicurus says that nature must not be forced, that we can gently influence her through soft and sweet persuasion, using natural tendencies to be happier and more efficient. Not going against nature. Another one is respect for elders, sages, the people teaching the wisdom tradition because they help to nurture wholesome character, so the importance of healthy association. The importance of leisure. Having time to love, as President Mujica of Uruguay says often: this idea that we are not wage slaves, that we need time for production and time to love, to be with friends, for joy, for sports, whatever, that is necessary for the mental health of people, for balance. These days things look like in Japan, where people work at times 16 hours a day, and that is seen as part of the culture. Much corporate culture is like that: we’re an antidote against that.
P. Makes sense, of course! Alex, I have a doubt. What’s your profession.
A. I’m electrical engineer.
P. With regards to what Hiram said, before you came to Epicurean philo. did you have time for quality leisure? Did you value your friends well?
A. Well, I think I sought to better my life so I have to say that I’m still learning. I didn’t value my friend as much as now, I’m now realizing I should. Also I’m making better use of my time of leisure, vacation, and time with friends which I sometimes didn’t before. Sometimes it’s best to seek what we have in common instead of our differences. But yes, I think it has helped but I still have work to do, am still experimenting and it’ll be some years, I don’t know, maybe less than that but I hope to better my life. (laugh)
P. We all do! Epicurus says “Good is easy to procure, Evil is easy to suffer”. I think that when we are not here and now, present, we accept things that are bad for us as something normal. In Eastern traditions, monks have to sit, etc. so they awaken. In this tradition, what is done? Are there exercises, ways to be more present?
H. Ancient Epicureans had their own exercises which incorporated a type of cognitive therapy. Epicurus was one of the precursors of psychotherapy. He acknowledged the existence of the subconscious and he taught that when people have bad habits usually there are underlying tendencies or opinions sustaining them, called dispositions. For instance, people who are consumerists, who like to squander money and be ostentatious about things that they don’t have, usually have beliefs, they think this will make them happy, that happiness can be experienced by showing off riches or measured against neighbors, based on other people’s standards and on comparisons with others. One can’t ever be happy that way. Happiness research shows that people who show off riches are usually in debt and people who are truly wealthy are like you and I, like any other normal person with a normal house and a normal car, just that they care more about their financial independence than showing off. So it’s all a fantasy, and when you are in the process of Epicurean therapy you’re challenging yourself in self-betterment using all this research to challenge yourself and your false beliefs that are the product of cultural corruption, beliefs without base, what society teaches common people and isn’t necessarily true in your nature. In therapy, we use reasonings, we use arguments: you argue against your own dispositions, your tendencies, your own beliefs, and you challenge yourself showing them legitimate information re: what does take you to happiness so that you slowly get rid of those bad habits of belief which produce the bad habits of your lived experience. So it’s a cognitive therapy process.
P. Hiram, I also read in that review that today science in many branches is proving what Epicurus said is still valid. As I hear what you say, I think Epicurus can be incorporated into our lives because what it does is show us what we can be with simple practices, so I’d like you to encourage people to investigate more about him. Because everyone knows about Plato, Aristotle but not about Epicurus, in college I never learned about him. So if it wasn’t for you, who have been slowly exposing me to this, I would have remained ignorant. My personal opinion now is that it’s important for everyone to incorporate this knowledge. Encourage the viewers to read your book and to approach this!
H. Actually I want to mention something as to what you said, that they didn’t teach you this at the University, and precisely there are misinterpretations in academia influenced by other schools many of which have been very opposed to Epicurus. A philo. professor from Univ. of Oklahoma, Dara Fogel, wrote the Epicurean Manifesto where she talks about this problem and how the academic world, what it teaches as philo. is in a fossilized state, a study of the history of itself, a repetition of historical events sometimes irrelevant, logical formulas often also irrelevant, that have nothing of the medicinal that Epicurus teaches and say nothing about how to live a healthy, happy life. I’ve also gotten feedback from one of my readers, he loved my book, but he talked about how when he was at the university he lost the desire to study philo. because the classes were so boring that he never thought philosophy could be THIS. It’s not what he expected: a system of applying logic. It’s not about that. We say that philosophy that doesn’t heal the soul is no better than medicine that doesn’t heal the body, to us. So I think people need a system to deal with their baggage, with their difficulties, not just that but also to plan a happy and healthy life. So Epicureanism equips you to do that for the long term with empirical, scientific knowledge so you can create a beautiful life and keep your feet firm, on the ground. I also like that it respects your intelligence. It doesn’t make any type of supernatural claim and such, it’s very scientific, naturalistic, and helps you to see reality, to see nature as shown before your natural faculties and take it as the starting point, so you have no risk of believing in things that aren’t evident to you. I really respect that. There is so much New Age stuff, many philosophies that don’t do that.
P. Great. Well, thank you so much Hiram. I think you’ve encouraged us with everything you’ve shared to be able to dig deeper into this. And you, Alex, thank you because I think that if I was an author and a friend accepted to get involved in a conversation about this it would be a huge joy. So I thank you both. Blessings!
H. I want to thank Alex also, and say he spoke very good Spanish, we’ve always talked in English and hadn’t heard his Spanish but he did well. And thank you, I’ve known you for many years, we’ve shared blogs, we’ve written about food!
A. And thanks to you all also.
Tending the Epicurean Garden (Humanist Press Review, 2014)
The first companions of Epicurus were known as the kathegemones (those who led the way) and were considered members of Epicurus’ philosophical family, his philoi (affiliates or friends).
From this initial group, two sets of leaders emerged: we have the Four Men (hoi andrei) who are properly considered the founders of our tradition and whom Philodemus treats as ultimate authorities, frequently citing them to underline the legitimacy of his teachings. They are Epicurus, Metrodorus, Hermarchus and Polyaenus. We also have the lineage of Scholarchs who succeeded Epicurus at the head of the Athens school. This article concerns these diadochi (from diadokhoi, “Successors”).
Diogenes Laertius in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers, mentions by name only the first nine of these Scholarchs. From later sources, we have two more that are mentioned in the times of emperor Hadrian, and due to their recognized authority, I’m extending the term Scholarch to include all four founders. Also, in the spirit of honoring the sages, and although they do not fall within the lineage of the Scholarchs proper, there were other extraordinary teachers who contributed greatly to the spread and the preservation of Epicureanism (Philodemus of Gadara, Lucretius, Philonides of Laodicea, and Diogenes of Oenoanda). They are included here as a homage.
Our tradition preserved itself through direct transmission and succession. As we saw with Philodemus, later Epicureans were very interested in preserving the teachings of the original Four Masters. Claiming a place under the succession (in his case, through Zeno) was therefore of great importance to Philodemus.
Our Hegemon Epicurus of Samos
Later generations of philosophers would call him “the Herald who saved us”. Read D. Laertius’ account of his life here.
Metrodorus of Lampsacus (the Younger)
Metrodorus was known as a great administrator, linguist and financier, and was recognized as a sophos (sage) by the Epicureans and as “almost another Epicurus” by Cicero.
He was born in 331/330 BC in Lampsachus, and died in 278/7 BC, seven or eight years before his master. He never left Epicurus except once for six months spent on a visit to his native land. He never acted as Scholarch but was among the Four Men.
Polyaenus of Lampsacus
The son of Athenodorus, a citizen of Lampsacus and mathematician, was considered a kind man. He died prior to Epicurus in 286 BC. He never acted as Scholarch but was among the Four Men.
Hermarcus of Mitylene
Hermarcus, a student of rhetoric, was the successor of Epicurus as second scholarch and the first convert to the teachings of Epicurus in the early days when Epicurus first began teaching. He was born in Mitylene, Lesbos in 340 BCE from a poor family and died around 250 BC of paralysis.
Hermarcus was the only one among the founders who was there both prior to Epicurus’ teaching mission, and at the time of his death when, according to Philodemus, he assisted the Hegemon, “wrapped him in a shroud, and kept vigil beside his remains“, perhaps a testimony of the tender love that existed among the first Friends of Epicurus who had grown old together in philosophy and were as family.
Some of the extant sayings in our tradition have been attributed to him, and it is believed that he was almost exclusively vegetarian and that he considered meat-eating an unnecessary desire because it contributes not to the maintenance of life but to a variation in pleasure.
He had been a young pupil of aged Epicurus, later attained succession as Scholarch c. 250 BCE and died 219-8 BCE. His life-long best friend was Hippoclides. Two of his writings remain: there are broken fragments of On Philosophy, and an interesting work titled On Irrational Contempt, a diatribe against the Sceptics where he argues in favor of a naturalist moral realism.
Polystratus is the first Scholarch who had not been a founding member and it’s here that issues of inheritance begin to harm the school, apparently because some non-Epicurean children of scholarchs would claim inheritance. Over the long-term, this seems to have harmed the continuity of the Athenian Garden.
We also know that Rome introduced legislation requiring the successors in the provincial philosophical schools to be Roman citizens in order to avoid subversion, which would later greatly diminish the number of available successors. The law would not be abolished until the second century of Common Era.
Dionysius of Lamptrai
He became the fourth succeessor of Epicurus in 219-8 BCE after contending for succession against Diotimos, as Polystratus had failed to designate the next Scholarch. It is most likely here that, according to Empress Plotina who wrote during the second century of Common Era, the pupils had to carry out an election to choose their next Hegemon.
Basilides of Tyre
He was born in Syria c. 245 BCE, appointed successor in 205 BCE and died c. 175 BCE. He had been pupil of Artemon, and he taught Philonides of Laodicea. Philodemus’ writings on anger are likely based on his work.
Philonides of Laodicea
Although not a Scholarch, he was an important missionary to Asia who spread Epicureanism in the East (Phoenicia, Syria) and is hailed by NewEpicurean.com as one of the unsung heroes of our tradition.
Apollodorus of Athens, the Kepotyrannos
The sixth Hegemon (190-110 BC) rose to the succession c. 147 BCE and had been known as the tyrant of the Garden due to the discipline he implemented. He wrote over four hundred books and is believed to have possibly restored the finances of the Athenian school, which may be how he got his nickname. We must remember that there were inheritance issues after the four founders passed away.
He is said to have written upwards of 400 books, none of which is extant and only two are mentioned by title: a Life of Epicurus and a Collection of Doctrines.
Zeno of Sidon
The seventh Hegemon is believed to have been born in Sidon (modern Lebanon) c. 166 BCE and succeeded his teacher Apollodorus as the head of the school c. 100-75 BCE
Some Epicureans call the Scholarchs that came after Apollodorus sophists, a term which carries negative connotations, perhaps because of the innovations they introduced. Many of these innovations were the result of interaction and debate with other schools. Some believe they were attempts to reconcile the writings of the founders with new insights.
The school had relied on memorization of sayings for many generations. Zeno was a prolific writer of over 400 books who engaged in textual criticism of Epicurus and revitalized the intellectual life of the school by rebelling against what he perceived as an inability to adapt, which is probably part of what inspired the accusations of sophistry. Perhaps the discipline he endured under Apollodorus gave him a rebellious edge?
In any case, he seems to have gathered a huge circle around him and to have influenced many important thinkers of his day, including Cicero (who greatly admired his logical and noble thought), Atticus, Demetrius the Laconian, Lucretius, and Philodemus. If the greatness of a teacher can be judged by the greatness of his students, then Zeno must have been one of the great Epicurean Masters, an incredibly important figure.
Philodemus’ works On Frank Criticism and On Anger are part of the Epitome of Conduct and Character, which is based on the Lectures of Zeno.
Titus Lucretius Carus
Lucretius (95-52 BCE) was a poet and author of De Rerum Natura, a didactic work that gives a complete exposition of the Epicurean system. This manuscript was rediscovered in the 15th Century by Poggio Bracciolini, its influence trickled down to Pierre Gassendi (who tried to reconcile atomism with Christianity), Giordano Bruno and other naturalist thinkers. According to many (including the author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern), Lucretius is the reason for the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. In other words, his words lifted humanity from the Dark Ages.
Philodemus of Gadara
Philodemus was not a Scholarch, but studied in Alexandria and later under Zeno in Athens, went on to teach philosophy to wealthy Romans, and preserved many of Zeno’s lectures in the library at Herculaneum. In spite of this, and unlike his master, he was orthodox in his views and often cited the original four founders in order to claim legitimacy. As a result of this, he is a hugely importance source.
The importance of his work cannot be underestimated. These scrolls were destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, but later rediscovered and many of the fragments deciphered. The remains of Philodemus’ work inspired the Philodemus Series at societyofepicurus.com and will likely continue to inspire our teaching mission.
The eighth Hegemon, Phaedrus, was a wealthy Athenian who lived from 138 – 170/69 BCE, having sought political exile in Rome in 88 BCE and later returning to Athens to succeed Zeno as Scholarch c. 75-70 BCE. He was a great orator and was known for writing witty epigrams.
He became the ninth Hegemon c . 70-50s BCE, and lived unfortunately during a time when the school in Athens, the house where Epicurus had lived, was in ruins. There is evidence of his efforts to save the building.
With him ends the supremacy of the Athenian school (around 51 BCE), which would no longer receive donations from the satellite schools in other cities. As Epicureanism expanded in Rome as it had done in the east, there was an increased division between the orthodox (gnesioi, or authentic) and the sophistic (sophistai) wings of the tradition.
By now, there were Epicurean communities in Lampsacus, Mitylene, Miletus, Thebes, Antiochia (which became a major center and even had an Epicurean library with smiling gods’ statues), Alexandria, Chalcis, Apameia, Gadara, Kos, Naples, Pergamom, Rhodes, Amastris, Oenoanda, and Herculaneum.
Diogenes of Oenoanda
Diogenes lived in a small town in what is now Turkey. He erected a wall with an Epicurean inscription in order to teach philosophy to the people of his town. There’s an abridged version of the contents of Diogenes’ Wall at epicurus.info, another one here, and newepicurean.com has a feature on it.
During the 2nd Century of Common Era, Popilius Theotimus, scholarch of the Garden at Athens, turned to Plotina, the Epicurean empress who had raised Emperor Hadrian, with a request to abolish the law that required the successor to be a Roman citizen. She succeeded in utilizing her influence on the emperor to change the laws.
HONORARY MENTION: THE EPICUREAN EMPRESS PLOTINA
As a side note, we do not know how early Plotina chose to follow Epicurus, whom she called Savior, or whether she raised Hadrian as an Epicurean, but we do have reason to believe that Plotina’s philosophy greatly influenced the emperor. It must be noted that the following words were inscribed on Hadrian’s coins: Humanitas, Felicitas, Libertas (Humanity, Happiness, and Freedom).
We know that Emperor Hadrian personally wrote to the Epicurean scholarch Heliodorus, the successor to Popilius Theotimus, conceding financial support to his school. Later in 178 Emperor Marcus Aurelius renewed interest in the Epicurean school in Athens by an endowment of ten thousand drachmas.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Is it moral to respect the wishes of the dead, above the living?
How Pride Came to Matter
June has come to be known as Pride month. It all started in 1969 when the police carried out a raid at the Stonewall Inn, a New York gay bar. As a matter of routine, the cops humiliated the sissies and drag queens, called them names, and began to imprison citizens for no apparent reason. This had been the norm for most of the 60s, but this night in June the gay community spontaneously decided it had had enough and exploded in indignation, in fury, and in pride.
People felt that this treatment was undeserved, that they deserved more humane treatment from the police.
The first armed uprising by sexual minorities in history took place that weekend in June. For a few nights, Stonewall Inn was afire with pride and anger against the police and the homophobic values and the hateful society they embodied. After the 1969 Stonewall Riots, every year in June there are Pride celebrations almost everywhere.
Pride has evolved from a political rally cry for gay rights into a general celebration of people’s right to be happy. Other discourses have made their way into the Pride celebrations: even autistic people are beginning to celebrate Autistic Pride during June to help educate others on the importance of neurodiversity. One of my personal autistic heroes, the celebrated Dr. Temple Grandin, eloquently made this case in a TED speech where she argued that the world needs all kinds of minds.
For many generations, most people had been religious and had mindlessly accepted that pride was sinful, as was man and all things human. But the Stonewall Riots and the gay movement with the Pride discourse that emerged from it produced a series of moral and intellectual challenges that are philosophically and ethically very interesting. It was not just an affront put up by a group of people who were demoralized and brutalized weekly by the police. Pride, within this context, was a cure against undeserved humiliation and shame.
And so, before we move forward and attempt to evaluate Pride as a virtue, the first thing we must acknowledge, the first benefit that Pride confers upon human civilization is that it protects individuals and groups from tyranny and oppression. Pride can be a spiritual power that takes over a person who is abused, tired or humiliated, and helps that person to stand up, to defend his or her rights, to fight for his dignity and for justice. Pride can be creative, like the volcano that erupts and is violent and disruptive at first, but then its flow can make new islands or new land, create new possibilities.
Vanity, Shame and Pride: On the Need to Recognize Vice and Virtue
When should we be proud and when should we be humble? To many of us, this seems a simple enough question, but it has been the subject of much careful consideration for moral thinkers throughout the ages.
The problem, in particular for those of us who grew up with a Christian epistemology, is one of muddling of our moral compass by false opinion and cultural corruption. By blindly making humility a virtue and pride a sin, and one of the so-called deadly sins at that, there was within the church a tradition of misuse of vanity, pride and humility in the service of social convention, supernaturalism and superstition.
We must recognize that there is a legitimate need and legitimate times for shame. But there has never been an authentic need for an entire culture, or an entire cosmology, built around shame (OR vanity, for that matter).
The church proposed that people should feel unnecessary shame at various forms of imaginary crimes, including the original sin that all babies are supposedly born with. Let’s call it the mea culpa complex. This produced unnecessary and unnatural guilt, which was also oftentimes disproportionate with the associated crime and, among the very pious, culminated in public and private expressions of self-loathing that sometimes carried neurotic elements. Denial of our sexual and natural selves, self-flagellation, mortification of the body, and other practices of sadism, torture and mutilation were culturally-accepted outlets for the mea culpa complex for centuries.
The fruit of knowledge was also forbidden and denigrated, as was philosophy (love of wisdom) and science: all carried the label of sin.
Although their beliefs were not self-evident, the false prophets who ruled society required blind acceptance of their doctrines, no matter how ridiculous or improbable they seemed. And so, vanity was also equated with intellectual stamina: the faithful, who equate credulity with virtue, at times consider the need for evidence and for rational explanations of baseless beliefs as a form of intellectual vanity rather than the natural, prudent and necessary requirements for an evidence-based search for truth.
The dictionary.com definition of pride is as follows:
a becoming or dignified sense of what is due to oneself or one’s position or character; self-respect; self-esteem.
pleasure or satisfaction taken in something done by or belonging to oneself or believed to reflect credit upon oneself: civic pride.
something that causes a person or persons to be proud: His art collection was the pride of the family.
satisfaction or pleasure taken in one’s own or another’s success, achievements, etc.
before 1000; Middle English (noun); Old English prȳde (cognate with Old Norse prȳthi bravery, pomp), derivative of prūd proud
The application of prudence to the issue of pride as a virtue or a vice requires that we accurately measure our self-worth. This implies, no doubt, how productive we are as members of our society; how true we are to our word and how capable of fulfilling our familial and societal duties. It’s also tied to how educated we are, and any other accomplishments. In fact, anything that would go on a resume, presumably, should be a legitimate source of pride.
The content of our character should also be a source of pride or shame: if we are wholesome, pleasant, and happy, employ suavity in our speech; if we through effort overcome our vices and cultivate our virtues, if we lead pleasant lives, we should be proud of that.
The Philosophers Opine
One of the early philosophers who discussed pride as a virtue was Aristotle, who identified pride as the crown of the virtues:
Now the man is thought to be proud who thinks himself worthy of great things, being worthy of them; for he who does so beyond his deserts is a fool, but no virtuous man is foolish or silly. The proud man, then, is the man we have described. For he who is worthy of little and thinks himself worthy of little is temperate, but not proud; for pride implies greatness …
To Aristotle, pride requires that a man both be virtuous and magnanimous (worthy of great things) and that he think himself worthy of great things. Temperance is also a virtue. Both virtues depend on how deserving one is.
A man, therefore, can not be proud if he is not deserving, worthy of great things. If he thinks himself worthy but is not, then he is vain and conceited. Vanity is not pride, but a vice that looks like it, a false or disproportionate sense of pride.
According to Aristotle, not many men can be truly proud. For pride to be a virtue, there needs to be an accurate sense of our worth, abilities and talents. It then becomes the cherry on top with the sprinkles. A mediocre worker or a man with a mean character, for instance, has a right to be temperate, not proud. Only a magnanimous being can be truly proud.
There are men who are puffed up with vanity, but there is also another vice based on an inaccurate sense of humility. Pusillanimity is the false humility, the shyness of a man who is of great worth but who thinks lowly of himself. The coward who thinks himself worthy of less than he is worthy of, is pusillanimous.
A 20th Century disciple of Aristotle, the objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand argued adamantly that pride has to be earned and taught that we should make ourselves worthy of life and love:
“One must earn the right to hold oneself as one’s own highest value by achieving one’s own moral perfection”
– The Virtue of Selfishness
She also argued that man should never take pride in accidental facts laid out by Fortune, like our race or gender or nationality, because they’re not in themselves achievements. Epicurean doctrine seems to somewhat echo this belief:
The study of nature does not create men who are fond of boasting and chattering or who show off the culture that impresses the many, but rather men who are strong and self-sufficient, and who take pride in their own personal qualities not in those that depend on external circumstances. – Vatican Saying 45
For a moment, it seems like Rand is making sense but she isn’t. We’re left with no possibility of inherent human dignity if we ignore that Pride can also be a cure for needless self-deprecation and shame resulting from societal corruption. Just as there is a natural measure of wealth versus cultural measures of wealth–which oftentimes lead to vain and empty desires–, there also seems to exist tension between our natural and cultural measures of pride.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be proud of things we didn’t choose (being of a certain ethnicity, sexual orientation, or nationality), but by the same token we should also not be ashamed of those things. There is a conception of pride as a healthy self-appreciation, an accurate and wholesome sense of self-esteem (sometimes in spite of societal pressure), that is missing from Randian discourse.
Perhaps this sense of inherent dignity should be called self-respect, but it often looks and feels like pride, and someone who has to work for years to achieve this sense of self-respect under the pressure of societal loathing or ignorance, might experience it as an accomplishment.
There’s another problem with the Randian approach to pride. If we take it at face value, what will we make of a human baby that is born entirely vulnerable? It has not lived long enough to accomplish anything, and so therefore is not worthy of love and protection, but it needs love and protection and will not survive without it. And what about autistic children and others who are capable of greatness but require very special attention to achieve it? There is no possibility of a continued humanity if we take this notion of earning our pride at face value. We would degenerate into beasts if we failed to respect and nurture the weak and the vulnerable: there is a missing ingredient here.
Rand believes that life is the highest good, but forgets to honor the pleasure principle, by which nature guides us, as equal to life: it is pleasure that seals the bond between mother and child, it is pleasure that makes things valuable, and in fact it is pleasure that makes life itself worth living. This is the immediate, direct experience of natural beings, and not dependent on culture.
And so Pride, as a virtue, must serve pleasure and its measurement must be subjected to hedonic calculus. Pleasure must always be our pole star. While it’s true that gay people did not experience the Pride revolution until after they stood up for themselves and carried out an uprising against police brutality at Stonewall, it’s also true that the brutality was uncalled for and that if society’s values had been better informed by hedonism, the embarrassing episode at the Stonewall Inn would have been entirely unnecessary.
It would have been a greater achievement, and one to be truly proud of, if we had been able to create a priori a pleasant society where people had the ability to lead happy lives, a society of free people that avoids the unpleasantness of uprisings in order to assert the right of consenting adults to enjoy sex and to love freely. In retrospect, the avoidance of unpleasantness is blessedness. We should take pride in the fact that we abolished and overcame slavery, for instance.
Similarly, if we as individuals develop an art of living pleasantly and avoid the detrimental repercussions of living violently, vulgarly, of living lives of vice, we also have every right to take pride in our technique of living, our guiding philosophy, because it leads to the creation of beautiful, happy lives, lives that are worth living, lives we can be proud of. It’s not just wealth and productivity, but also quality of life that gives a sense of worth to people.
Autarchy as the Natural Measure of Pride
We have seen in Vatican Saying 45 that self-sufficiency is tied to Epicurean notions of pride. Notice also that proportion also matters to us in helping to discern the natural measure of pride: conceit and vanity, false pride, are tied in Epicureanism with limitless and empty desires that enslave us. Philodemus warned us against spending more than what we have in order to fulfil the duties of our social status or to be ostentatious. Even the accurately proud man spends and lives within his means.
The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity. – Principal Doctrines 15
Pride, to an Epicurean, assumes the garb of autarchy, self sufficiency, not just as an economic ideal but also as a spiritual ideal. A proud Epicurean will not rely on Fortune, or fear her, but will build his own destiny and attempt to remain imperturbable and impervious to forces beyond his power.
I have anticipated you, Fortune, and entrenched myself against all your secret attacks. And we will not give ourselves up as captives to you or to any other circumstance; but when it is time for us to go, spitting contempt on life and on those who here vainly cling to it, we will leave life crying aloud in a glorious triumph-song that we have lived well. – Vatican Saying 47
Going back to the mea culpa complex, we must ask ourselves who was really puffed up with vanity. We must ask this as we ponder the true virtues of pride and temperance and the vices of vanity and pusillanimity against the tireless efforts made by science and empirical inquiry over millenia to uncover truth and the efforts made by religion to cover it, to ban it, to persecute it, and religion’s lazy explanations for things that had a discernable, natural explanation.
We must ask who is really puffed up with vanity when we contrast the contented attitude of the naturalist who accepts his mortality with equanimity versus the charlatan priest, pastor, guru or imam who will promise mortals an immortality that he has no way of conferring and that is not to be found anywhere in nature, for our senses all tell us that all that is born must die.
Epicurus was a proud man who claimed to be self-taught and did not give credit to his predecessors for his teachings. His doctrine was founded upon a Canon, a measuring stick that made evidence from the senses a criterion for truth. From the onset and from its very foundation, this is a philosophy that respects our intelligence.
He also was temperate in that he humbly accepted his natural limits and proclaimed that he did not need what he didn’t have, exhibiting a sober awareness of the right proportions of pride, and an awareness of where it degenerates into vanity or false humility. He lived a happy and virtuous life, and died grateful like one who is satisfied after a banquet.
This month, begin to consider how you earn the crown of autarchy and make the resolution to build a place in your soul for pride in your personal qualities and in your self-sufficiency. Have a Happy Pride Month.