The World Health Organization has officially declared coronavirus a global pandemic, and new routines are slowly creeping into workplaces and homes. Now one has to use disinfectant wipes when one presses the button in the elevator, or uses a fax machine or copier.
Coronavirus mortality rate is currently 3%. If today’s world population is estimated at 7,577,130,400 people, then the highest possible amount of deaths by coronavirus is 227,313,912. That’s almost 70 % of the US population. Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday that the coronavirus was likely to infect about two-thirds of the German population, which is made up of 81.41 million people. Two thirds of that is 53,730,600, and a 3% mortality rate means that 1,611,918 Germans would die. This is a serious plague, even with its low mortality rate.
Plagues that kill a large proportion of the population happen every few generations, and became the stuff of myth and legend in many cultures. While during the present health crisis, many religious movements will act out their end-time fantasies and some will engage in eschatological activism, actively celebrating and pursuing their demented ideas about how the world should end, those of us who do not suffer from end-time fever will seek more prudent things to do with our time.
Pleasure ethics proponents like Aristippus teach that we should be adaptable and flexible, seeing in every situation opportunities for pleasure. Thinking like an Epicurean about the changes in lifestyle posed by coronavirus should lead us to build our pleasure regimen around the restrictions imposed by a pandemic.
We have reason to be germophobic these days. One of the easiest lifestyle changes we can implement is to be mindful of our personal space. Coronavirus transmits within about six feet (according to the CDC), so this is the recommended distance with strangers, say, on the train–if possible.
We should wash our hands frequently with anti-bacterial soap, and have anti-bacterial wipes handy. We should avoid touching our faces frequently, and avoid touching surfaces that are touched by many others, and we should use disinfected wipes to handle door knobs, elevator buttons, etc.
We do not have to wear facemasks unless we are caregivers to patients. Facemasks are in short supply, and should be reserved for those in close contact with patients. However, while riding the train, I’ve noticed that some people are using their scarves as both fashion and facemask.
The Pleasures of Nesting
Since in these times we must avoid crowds (no hospitals, no cruisers, no concerts, no sports events if at all possible), we should focus on the pleasures of privacy and make of our home a refuge of tranquil pleasure. These are times to make the most of the intimate pleasures. We may read or write in our journal, or engage in other private pleasures and hobbies that we at other times find easy excuses to dismiss for being too idle.
We may watch movies at home (or binge-watch a series or our favorite shows) alone or–better yet– with loved ones or friends, and cook and eat at home.
The Pleasures of Hygiene
The Goddess Hygeia is the personification of health, and her name shares semantic roots with the word hygiene. There has always existed an association between dis-ease and impurity, and between health and purity or cleanliness. Since purity/cleanliness has acquired increased importance now that we’re experiencing a global pandemic, we should take some time to focus on activities related to hygiene.
We should daily keep all the surfaces of our homes and work environments clean with disinfectants. I like to play lively music at home when I’m mopping and cleaning so that the activity is much more enjoyable. I also enjoy my bubble baths, but we can built our lifestyles around other hygiene rituals.
The Pleasures of Ataraxia
The most important and steady pleasure we should cultivate is keeping a pleasant disposition–of which we are in control–in spite of what we see in the news. We do not need to avoid the news, although it’s frequently useful to diminish our consumption of news media for the sake of peace of mind.
It is imprudent to panic. Death is nothing to us, so we should be concerned with the quality of our lives and the lives of those we love, for as long as we live.
It is clear that, as per Epicurus’ Epistle to Menoeceus, Pleasure is the Alpha and Omega in Epicurean ethics. For a sentient being, out of the two general modes of sentience–pleasure and pain–this mode is experienced as choice-worthy for its own sake, and it’s the one that our own nature seeks. But there are several complexities concerning how to define pleasure, compounded by the fact that many of the academics who have historically interpreted the texts for us have held anti-Epicurean convictions, and made worse by academic insistence on giving credit to what many Epicureans argue is Cicero’s–not Epicurus’–interpretation of Epicurean pleasure. Furthermore, our epistemology treats pleasure and aversion as a faculty. Other than in non-philosophical fields like anthropology and Darwinian evolution, this is typically not the way pleasure ethics is studied. In this discussion, we evaluate the anatomy of a pleasant life and, along the way, explore how philosophy must also guide science and how–contrary to popular stereotypes–Epicureans have always been involved in politics.
Cassius. While we are on the topic of goals, (the Epicurean Manifesto) is also a formulation that I personally find unacceptable, even though / especially because it is stated with admirable clarity near the end of the document: “But the adoption of the Epicurean telos of katastemic pleasure seems most appealing to those buffeted on the high seas of life. The older I get, the more I crave undisturbedness.”
I do not believe the Epicurean telos is “katastematic pleasure” and/or “undisturbedness”, even though that is the preferred position of modern academic commentators. The goal is PLEASURE, and efforts to dilute it with “katastematic” or rename it as “undisturbedness” are just as harmful – maybe more so – than saying that the goal is “virtue,” or “holiness,” or (for non-Greek speakers) “eudaemonia” – since there is no accepted English definition of that term.
Hiram. The problem with what you are saying is that the Epicurean Manifesto is the single most complete, concise and detailed description of Epicurean techniques of cognitive therapies, the next closest thing being Martha Nussbaum ‘s Therapy of Desires. The solution might be to read and engage the Epicurean Manifesto critically in writing, so that future students can see both your and Fogel’s perspective. But I would not dismiss the usefulness and need to know and promote the therapeutic methods.
And in fact I suspect that when at times you have complained about our lack of focus and our lack of ability to connect theory with practice, if you had taken the time to study these techniques, you might have had a better understanding of praxis in the Gardens.
Cassius. Yes, as you anticipate, I disagree that any article which focuses on katastematic pleasure as the goal of life is a valid representation of Epicurean philosophy or of “Epicurean techniques of cognitive therapies.” I don’t believe that approach is Epicurean at all.
Hiram. But the practices were there, so what do u make of that?
Cassius. What practices do you mean? What practices are documented in Epicurean texts?
Hiram. Nussbaum mentions repetition (for memorization of the teachings), reasonings (where you confront your bad habits via argumentation and cognitive therapy, and this seems to be linked to VS 46: “Let us completely rid ourselves of our bad habits as if they were evil men who have done us long and grievous harm.”), and “seeing before your eyes” (which, if you’ll remember, is a treatment for anger used in Philodemus’ times), and there were others I think. These are based on Philodemus texts mainly.
Cassius. I am not sure how thoroughly I will be able to go through this tonight but Nussbaum seems to regularly describe herself as an Aristotelian?
(On Nussbaum quotes) … I do not agree that Epicurean philosophy slights development of critical thought, nor do I consider the Stoics to be superior in any way, or the Epicureans “authoritarian” (as she claims) … Nor do I agree that Epicurean philosophy subordinates truth and good reasoning to “therapeutic efficacy” (she presumably is referring to the goal of living pleasurably) nor would I consider the Stoics and Aristotelians superior in this department … So Nussbaum considers Seneca “an advance of major proportions” over the Epicureans … I don’t agree that Lucretius contradicts Epicurus, and I don’t agree that Epicurus excluded marriage, sexual love, children, and political community … I do not agree that Epicureans are parasitic on the rest of the world …
If I read Wikipedia correctly, Nussbaum is not Jewish ethnically nor was she educated that way, she is a CONVERT to Judaism, which presumably means that as an adult she was so impressed by the brilliance of that sect, even after becoming expert in Hellenistic philosophy, that she ditched Hellenism and her prior beliefs to embrace that religion. I don’t believe in labeling someone by race, but I am totally comfortable making judgments about someone according to the religious views they embrace, especially when they embrace that religion later in life by choice, rather than having been indoctrinated in it early in life. Judaism has condemned Epicurus for 2000+ years, and the Epicureans returned the favor as we know from Diogenes of Oinoanda, and the Epicureans were involved in the conflict that the Jews celebrate as Hannakah. And that conflict has nothing to do with race or ethnicity, but a profoundly different view of nature/the universe, the goal of living, and the methodology for achieving it.
What I read in those sections of the book I’ve quoted is a slice and dice approach to ALL of Hellenistic philosophy according to her own views of correct analysis, which we can agree with or disagree with as we like, but should not take as even an effort to be fair to the Epicurean viewpoint. I would no more accept an assertion by Nussbaum about Epicurus at face value than I would an assertion of a Randian about Epicurus, a Stoic about Epicurus, or a Nazi about a Rabbi (or vice versa). Her claims ought to be scrutinized no less than anyone else’s, and I for one don’t accept the conclusions that Epicurus was a parasitic and manipulative authoritarian who had to be corrected and improved by Lucretius, and that Epicurean philosophy is inferior to Aristotle and the Stoics in any way. Someone who thinks that is not to be trusted in her interpretation of Epicurean “techniques.”
This is the second significant time in memory that I’ve run into Nussbaum as a source of conflicting interpretation of Epicurus. The first was almost ten years ago. A LOT of what we are talking about comes back over and over to “What is the goal of life?” The two categories of choice seem to be:
(A) If someone accepts that the goal is “katastematic pleasure” and focuses on ataraxia (1)–meaning “calmness”–and stops at that point, then they will follow the Nussbaum line, see calmness as a stated of mind-numbed nothingness that is not painful but has no content of ordinary pleasure, blend Stoic and Epicurean into a mashup blob, and just adopt Epicurus’ name for credibility.
(B) If one accepts that PLEASURE as ordinarily understood is the goal of life, and that being “calm” is simply an adjective that describes a way in which almost ANY pleasurable activity can be conducted, then one understands that the highest life is to be calm WHILE experiencing a full slate of ordinary pleasures. One can be calm while climbing Mount Everest, or hiking a canyon, or hang-gliding, or pushing a button to start a war, having sex, eating a banquet, or doing virtually any other activity that doesn’t require agitation and loss of control of mind while you are doing it. Pleasure remains the goal, and calmly (without disturbance or interruption) is just the best way to enjoy pleasure.
I know which one of these I choose, and while I wish Nussbaum and everyone else who follows this line well, I am not at all interested in it myself. I think the “tranquilism” line needs to be pointed out as a fundamentally flawed understanding of Epicurean philosophy, not something to coexist with as an ally, or to be learned from and adjusted to and held out as a valid interpretation. It is a rewrite of Epicurean philosophy with the intent of burying its meaning so deeply that it never again emerges to challenge the monotheist consensus.
Hiram. (After reading Wenham and Gosling & Taylor) I do not agree that we need to throw out katastematic pleasure. It seems to me like it is FELT and we should claim it as a FEELING, rather than accept it as painlessness, in other words–like elsewhere in EP–we should reclaim it with the proper definition. The main reasons for this are: 1. Epicurus is cited as mentioning katastema in Diogenes Laertius, and it would make us seem revisionists to deny this, and 2. the error is in Cicero for defining katastema as painlessness and lacking in feeling, rather than as a form of pleasure. But also, 3. I see a clear connection between katastema (an attitudinal approach to pleasures) and diathesis (dispositions)–which are central in both Philodemus and Diogenes. Here is the relevant quote from Diogenes’ Wall:
Let us now [investigate] how life is to be made pleasant for us both in states and in actions.
Let us first discuss states, keeping an eye on the point that, when the emotions which disturb the soul are removed, those which produce pleasure enter into it to take their place.
Well, what are the disturbing emotions? [They are] fears —of the gods, of death, and of [pains]— and, besides [these], desires that [outrun] the limits fixed by nature. These are the roots of all evils, and, [unless] we cut them off, [a multitude] of evils will grow [upon] us.
Once we remove the things that block pleasure (false views) and replace them with true views, these healthy dispositions lead to katastema (salvation, wholeness). This theory is important to understand. Also, Philodemus in On Piety says “our BELIEFS are the source of our happiness”.
Elli. Τhe word “katastematic” has not any meaning or connected with any concept to the issue of static and without motion, or apathy, etc. It is connected with the duration in time. We want to be in the katastematic pleasure as long as we can and as our organism/limits permit it based on the external circumstances. It is a very good Hellenic word, Cassius: all the Greek Epicureans can grasp its meaning, and they use it.
Hiram. But back to the original discussion: did you locate where she found the sources for these techniques or are you saying she made them all up? I think most of her sources are from Herculaneum. Most scholars who study and teach Epicurean philosophy are not Epicureans. She is not unique in that.
Cassius. I think you are correct that most of her sources are Philodemus, although some are Lucretius. I haven’t studied it enough in detail to have a general summary, although she admits that the Philodemus material is patchy and heavily reconstructed. My concerns would boil down to two categories:
(1) Without a lot more background of the Philodemus material I think it is very dangerous to draw sweeping conclusions that contradict a more charitable reading of the other texts, and that is what I think she is doing when she accepts the parasite/manipulation/authoritarian arguments. The only way to treat Philodemus material, in my view, is to lay out exact quotes in full, showing whatever context is available, and whatever guesses have been made about the text. My understanding from Philodemus’ “On Methods of Inference” is that that is one of the most complete texts left, and even it is missing huge chunks of important context. It seems to have been the pattern (as would make sense) that the Epicurean writers would describe the opposing position so as to show how it is wrong. When chunks of text are taken out of context and reconstructed it’s impossible to know whether Philodemus was stating his own view, or Epicurus’ view, or the view of some non-Epicurean. As it is, we are relying on modern writers whose views are very likely to be swayed by the peer pressure to interpret Epicurus in the mainstream way, which is neo-Stoic.
But probably my concern with Nussbaum in particular is more broad (2):
Just like in the letter to Menoeceus, it is possible to read very different possibilities into the same text, depending on our disposition. Nussbaum is very clearly a Socratic / Aristotelian / Stoic psychologist who accepts most of their premises about goal of life and methodology. So even if she is the most fair-minded person who ever lived, she is going to infer from any ambiguity a position that she finds more to her own liking, and interpret fragments that way. I am not saying that every statement she makes is false, by any means, but that the overall picture is distorted because she has an agenda which is not consistent with Epicurus’ agenda. Whenever we obsess over a tool (in this case methods of psychology) without first having the end goal and the basics of nature in mind, we’re going to end up worshiping the tools just like the Stoics worship “virtue” and the Aristotelian/Randians worship “reason.”
Hiram. So the only way to retrieve the Epicurean tools is then to go to those sources which are difficult to come by. I’m personally less interested in ad-hominem attacks against non-Epicureans than in revitalizing Epicurean tradition, and I could find the time to visit the Library at Loyola University again to access these rare translations and commentaries on the Herculaneum scrolls but my life has changed. I have full time work and a busier life than when I initially was able to read these sources, when I was under-employed. So my reasonings on them is what we have for now, and whatever translations are affordable on amazon.
But what I keep hearing from you is a dismissal of therapy and even of Philodemus, who (unlike us) enjoyed the direct lineage and teaching down from the Scholarchs, not a sincere desire to retrieve these methods.
Cassius. No I sincerely want to retrieve whatever is available, but my reasoning starts with the most documentable evidence and says:
1. “First get the basics before engaging in speculation.” And whenever there is speculation, my criteria for evaluating the speculation is
2.”Is the speculation consistent with the basics that we already know?”
I throw out much of Nussbaum’s commentary because I believe it to be speculation that contradicts evidence that we already believe to be clear.
As for the Obbink material on Philodemus, which I think you’re referring to, when I saw a copy of the book I think you are referring to (Philodemus’ On Piety, if I recall), it appeared to me to be extremely fragmentary and much less complete than the On Methods of Inference or the Rhetoric book. Some of it may be good, some of it may not, I just don’t know. But whenever something is so fragmentary it’s very difficult to use, and the fragments ought to be clearly displayed so that we see how much is being reconstructed. That’s one of the major issues I have with using Philodemus at all. We don’t have access to images showing what is reconstructed and what is not.
This issue is handled a little better with the Diogenes of Oinoanda material, where we have online access to at least a large part of Martin Ferguson Smith’s work, but some of the same danger exists there too.
So I don’t think that I am dismissing therapy or Philodemus, I just think that we have to be careful with speculation and make sure it conforms to the core material. And when there are large segments of people who like Epicurus who can’t even agree on what the core material means about painlessness, ataraxia, aponia, pleasure, and the like, then it seems to me that we have no hope of understanding or applying therapy towards the goal if we don’t understand clearly what the goal was.
Hiram. Have you given up on Epicurean therapy and any possibility of reconstruction of it?
The problem with that is that you can reiterate the end to infinity, but if we don’t teach people the means to that end, this may render our system of philosophy ultimately useless, lack of utility which goes against everything we are supposed to stand for. “Philosophy that doesn’t heal the soul is no better than medicine that doesn’t heal the body.”
Cassius. My view is that we can’t help anyone with a therapy unless we know what the goal is–we can’t “heal” until we know what it means to be healthy, and we haven’t yet got a firm consensus on that. In other words, until we decide what to tell people pleasure really is, and what is its relationship to painlessless, and calm, and ataraxia, and aponia, then we can’t do anything.
“First, do no harm” often makes sense, and this is one of those cases. We have the view out there of Epicurus that has a totally different view of the goal than what I would maintain is the proper position, and I wouldn’t suggest anyone take any medicine until they know how the doctor dispensing it defines health. If the doctor’s goal is “calmness” then he is more likely to give me anesthesia than he is to give me medicine that will cure the pain and allow me to live pleasurably.
Hiram. I am saying that the Epicureans, not the academics, should be the ones informing people about these methods, but we first have to acquaint ourselves with them.
Elli. How could we achieve getting rid of our bad habits? By looking at the walls of our homes chanting alone some Epicurean Sayings by Epicurus, or with the discussions based on frankness of speech with our trusted friends? Who are the people we can trust? The already healed of course … and another question is: did we make it clear at last who are the ones that have already healed, or the ones who are (ready and able) to heal, or the ones who accept help for their healing? Trust is the first ally to accept your therapist and the therapy that (he) is suggesting.
This reminds me of a discussion that I had with my companion who says to me that the most ill persons are those that are visiting many doctors to find a cure, because they do not trust even themselves … Δια αλλήλων σώζεσθε [Dia allilon sozesthe] = “to be saved by one another”.
Hiram. Will we ever ourselves tackle the Philodemus sources and their therapeutic techniques, without the prism of these interpreters?
Cassius. An excellent question, and I don’t want to come across as discouraging you from doing that. What I mean do be doing in this discussion is explaining why I haven’t attacked that, not that you should not. There’s still a lot more to talk about so that is a good question:
There is nothing that would interest me more than getting access to new material. I think we ought to find new ways to keep pursuing that by trying to make more connections with the researchers, encouraging them to publish their material on the internet rather than exclusively on that ripoff JSTOR site, etc. I am 100% with you that I am completely enthusiastic about that.
The reason I have not put much into that lately is that when I did try to trace down what was available, such as the Voula Tsouna material, the books were frank in displaying that what’s left of the texts is in TERRIBLE condition. No one but an ancient Greek expert could even hope to make much of them, and it seems clear from the images that they print that the texts are so damaged that they can hardly get a full sentence or two on many pages. That leaves the few paragraphs that they an tease out as totally contextless, and as I’ve been saying in that context I don’t think we can rely on whatever they do recover to be the Epicurean portions. They could easily be quotes from enemies. So my observation is that we’ve got a huge uphill battle to get anything meaningful out of them. Heck, we can’t even find an image of the “Vatican List” to verify that, which out to be absolutely clear.
And as examples of where I think this has mislead us I will name two: “Live unknown” has absolutely no context, none of us do it, Epicurus and Lucretius didn’t do it, and so reading a dramatic amount into those two words has been an engraved invitation for Stoics and anti-Epicureans to paint us as cave-dwelling Stoics.
Another example is the Tetrapharmakon, which also has no context (2). To me, it is SO truncated as a summary of PD1-4 as to be almost as damaging as it is helpful. Every line of it is easily twisted into something that is almost a laughingstock, and I suspect that whoever wrote it had to have understood that and warned about that in the original text. But today it is paraded around like it is an oracle of Epicurus, and I strongly doubt he would even have approved of it at all. He left the first four in his own words, and if he had thought that “don’t fear the gods” and “don’t fear death” were good enough, he’d never have left the longer versions.
Those are just two examples how playing with excerpts can easily be turned against us just as much as help us. And I think that is what Nussbaum largely does. Elli may hate me for saying this but “eudaemonia” or any Greek or non-English word is never going to be sufficient to explain to an everyday American what the goal of life is. In fact, using an untranslated word implies that the meaning CANNOT be translated, which I will never accept.
Maybe I am alone in putting so much emphasis on “pleasure” vs “painlessness” but, to me, the first roadblock of reaching any normal person with Epicurean theory is going to be that normal people do not equate “painlessness” with anything but “anesthesia.” 95% of the people I think I would come into contact with will not go a step further if they think the goal of Epicurean philosophy is anesthesia. And anesthesia, plus a particular political position, is exactly what I perceive the majority of modern commentators are pushing. They are political Stoics / Simplicists / Humanists (in the sense of idealizing the goal of making no discrimination whatsoever among anyone), and they are simply using Epicurus as a convenient banner to carry their non-philosophical agenda. They don’t care about the connection between painlessness and pleasure because THEY DON’T WANT ANY connection between painlessness and pleasure.
I think I understand your desire to focus on therapy, but I think you are selling yourself short on where the really profound progress needs to be made before that. Tons of people are out there with self-help books on reducing anxiety, and I agree that reducing anxiety is a desirable goal. But the really groundbreaking work is redefining the common understanding of what the goal of life should be. Religionists and Platonists and Stoics don’t oppose Epicurus because he was in favor of reducing anxiety–they fully agree with that and rush to embrace THAT PART of Epicurus. But they embrace that PART, and ignore the core, because the CORE of Epicurean philosophy is the placement of PLEASURE are the center of life, and that is what they cannot accept. They insist on their own holiness, and their own virtue, and they realize that Pleasure is the rebel that will usurp their throne if they ever let it get a foothold.
That’s where the battle really lies, and every time we get off on reducing anxiety (or pain in general) as a sufficient goal, we give aid and comfort to the enemy and assist them in burying the heart of Epicurus even further.
The real life Alexander the Oracle Mongers are with us today and in much greater strength. But today their greatest weapon is not burning Epicurean books in fig tree fires. Their greatest weapon is convincing us that what Epicurus wrote means the opposite of what he intended.
Against that list is arrayed virtually every academic and popular book on Epicurus written in the last 100 years, and 99% of the internet websites online today.
To me, that means that the battle has to be joined on the most important point, with the few resources that we have, and getting off into other issues before securing the base is a guarantee of defeat.
THIS is the point I am making, here made by Matthew Wenham: So long as the standard model of katastematic pleasure being the goal of life prevails, Epicurean philosophy will remain as nothing more than historical interest. The entire game is in this issue. Game set match.
Hiram. Are you saying that katastematic pleasures do not exist or are you saying that they exist but that the goal includes them AND dynamic pleasures together, or in other words simply pleasure?
Cassius. I am saying that the entire katastematic/kinetic distinction is a rhetorical argument against Epicurus, and every time we accept any part of it we are undermining the philosophy. We know about it mainly because Cicero employed it as a rhetorical device in On Ends. He set up the argument with a straw man in Book 1 by having Torquatus identify the highest pleasure as absence of pain without positive pleasures, and then he demolished the argument in Book 2 by showing how inconsistent that is with the rest of the philosphy.
The distinction arises–as Nikolsky and Wenham point out–with Platonists who considered pleasure to be divisible into active and attitudinal/static divisions. They did this so in part so that they could argue that there is a pleasure separate from the body and real human action and experience, as part of their elevation of reason and thinking as superior to the body and action.
In contrast, Epicurus held that ALL pleasure is desirable, and he did not set up one kind of pleasure as superior to another, or one kind of pleasure as only worthwhile as a tool to obtain another type of pleasure.
Even more importantly, as Wenham points out, Epicurus held pleasure and pain to be part of the canonical faculties that operate by nature, and are inseparable from human living experiences. Separating out a type of pleasure as non-feeling, and considering that type of pleasure to be higher than ordinary pleasures of feeling, destroys the Epicurean model.
There’s more: if someone sets up one type of pleasure as higher than another, then there must be some faculty separate from pleasure to allow us to recognize which is “better” other than pleasure itself (pleasure itself does nothing other than recognize pleasure). This everyone else suggests is “reason”, and therefore conclude that pleasure alone is not the goal. They argue that the goal is pleasure + reason. Then, Plato develops that argument further and shows “logically” that reason alone is the highest good, and that pleasure is not even needed.
So all of these issues arise from the same katastematic/kinetic distinction. It is a dagger pointed at the heart of Epicurean philosophy which the Platonists developed and Cicero popularized and preserved in the records for the next 2000 years. As long as we accept this katastematic/kinetic distinction, Epicurean philosophy is doomed to be nothing more than a word game and a historical oddity that no one will take seriously.
Hiram. I disagree with you. Also, Cassius, this is NOT the “dagger pointed at the heart of Epicurean philosophy” that you imagine. It’s hard for me to understand how you get so worked up about this. Pleasure is self-evident to the organism experiencing it, and just like the eye can see many colors according to the spectrum and to the wavelength arriving at the eye, similarly various pleasures are available to the organism.
If you are arguing this, you are saying that that the only way to experience constant pleasures is to constantly be satisfying a thirst (because katastematic pleasure is the self-sufficient pleasure that exists when we aren’t satisfying a desire, so if we get rid of it, then we are on the hedonic threadmill like mice in a hoop).
Also, the distinction between these two kinds of pleasure is made in contemporary science of happiness, which demonstrates that it is a recognized feature of it. There, it is known as natural and synthetic happiness. The TED speech by Dan Gilbert is the shortest intro to this idea.
In Nichiren Buddhism, I also found that they use different verbiage for it, but the idea of katastematic and kinetic pleasures in some form or another exists in both scientific understanding, and in other cultures and philosophies that are seriously studying the science of happiness.
I think the key problem here is that if we don’t have katastematic pleasures, then the possibility of living in constant pleasures does not exist because the brain gets either addicted, or used to dopamine and is no longer excited by new experiences. Also, the question of one’s disposition has to be addressed: what state are we in habitually? If you throw out katastematic pleasures, you have a theory that requires constantly scratching an itch to experience pleasures.
What do you make of Diogenes of Oenoanda’s assertion distinguishing pleasures of the mind versus those of the body? It’s true that, in the end, the mind is part of the body, so the distinction is still within the physics ultimately. But to say that there IS no distinction is naive: the pleasures and pains of the mind last longer and can cause harm to the body, and also we are in control of our (mental) disposition, which implies that some kind of discipline to steer that mental disposition is desirable if you want to abide in pleasure persistently.
You say of Wenham that he speaks of “separating a type of pleasure as NON-FEELING”. I can’t imagine in what way a pleasure can be non-feeling. Not sure what you mean, and I have a feeling that this may be where we should re-affirm katastematic pleasure as a feeling.
I also don’t follow that the recognition of passive and active pleasures leads to the need for a third faculty, because both are directly experienced as pleasant by the organism. I think this is a false argument and you should simply tell that to your Platonist opponents: reason is the handmaiden of pleasure that helps to calculate benefit. No need to let their play of words entangle you like a boa constrictor into positions that are needlessly rhetorically complicated, and drain the pleasure from even philosophy itself. Long arguments get to the same place as short ones. Pleasure is self-evident.
Cassius. I am glad that we are able to air our disagreement so clearly because it is fundamental … “because katastematic pleasure is the self-sufficient pleasure that exists when we aren’t satisfying a desire, so if we get rid of it, then we are on the hedonic treadmill like mice in a hoop” << That is your definition, picked up from Cicero and others, and not from any core Epicurean text of Epicurus or an authoritative Epicurean.
Hiram. it’s part of the contemporary science of happiness, and it’s tied to the hedonic treadmill, and it’s what explains that a year after winning the lottery and losing a limb, the millionaire and the person who survived the accident can have equal levels of happiness. Neuroscientists know of hedonic adaptation and are trying to figure out ways to heighten the hedonic base level.
Jason. As the arrow of time flows ever in one direction and never pauses, even for an instant, and the atoms are always in motion (as that motion is how we measure time) I am finding the idea of static pleasure harder and harder to justify. We’re always having to replenish our stores of neurochemicals through consumption of new pleasures. I am willing to put myself on the line and state unequivocally that there is never a steady-state of pleasure or pain in any living organism, only a swervy oscillation toward and away from the limits of experience.
The prudent man arranges his life to dampen the pendulum swing and bias it towards the upper limit of pleasure for the duration of his life through repeated and varied applications of will.
Cassius. Yes Jason that is one of the core contradictions that shows this as something Epicurus would not embrace. There is nothing settled in life, no place of rest, just action until death. Hiram, I completely agree that we need to incorporate modern scientific discoveries, but we always have to keep separate whether our goal is to develop our own synthesis that we think we should be advocated, or whether we are working to identify what Epicurus thought. In this issue we’re not talking about physics issues like the size of the sun. We are talking about philosophical approaches which are tied to particular premises about the nature of the universe, which I don’t think have changed at all.
Hiram. So in this interpretation, Epicurus couldn’t have “called us to constant pleasures”, or if he did, he was lying? … If we dismiss science, we have dismissed the canon. As far as I know, scientific data has passed the sieve of the canon, we would not be connecting theory with practice, and our tradition would remain stagnant and incapable of evolving as it was intended to do by the use of the tools given for its evolution.
Cassius. No, I completely disagree. (Epicurus) is telling us that pleasures of some kind are always possible and always present and always available to serve as the guide of life. That’s what he means by constant–the constant availability of normal pleasures, INCLUDING the mental ones that you (and Diogenes of Oinoanda) are trying to break out as a separate category distinct to themselves. That is the issue–they are NOT a separate category of a distinct kind–they are simply mental processes, no different than reading a book or looking at art or whatever.
The canon rests on science, one of the observations of which is that all knowledge comes to us through the senses and the processing of what they give us. No one embraces science more enthusiastically than I do, but at the same time we can never forget that science is no different than any other tool–we pursue it in order to achieve pleasure, because we recognize by nature through feeling that nothing is desirable in life except pleasure.
Hiram. If we can’t understand or accept the scientific theory of happiness, how can we develop scientific methods for its achievement? I don’t feel comfortable with articulating our philosophy as opposed to the scientific establishment, much less with labeling the adoption of the scientific view as “eclecticism” because it’s not culture, it’s nature that it’s based on.
Cassius. Not sure I understand what you are saying exactly, but I do not believe that there can probably even be a “scientific theory of happiness.” Happiness is a conceptual term we have come up with to describe certain things we want to talk about, and it is in philosophy where we decide what is worth talking about and why. I understand science to be observation; data gathering; and the development of understanding of the causation of specific things. But as Frances Wright argues, causation is an endless series and incorporates innumerable inputs, and at some point we simply have to step back and make a judgment call as to what it all adds up to, because we are not capable by definition of observing every fact of causation in a chain which never had a beginning point in the first place. Philosophy guides science; philosophy tells us that the senses are primary; philosophy tells us that reason devoid of facts of sensation is worthless. Those are not “scientific” conclusions in the normal and regular use of the term “scientific”.
Elli. The erroneous ways of thinking may be divided into two categories, the systematically wrong mentality, and the foolishly misguided mentality. The systematic error, as it is called scientifically, is the way that may lead to disastrous results if we do not avoid it. The Epicurean Roman Lucretius points out: “Again, as in a building, if the first plumb-line be askew, and if the square deceiving swerve from lines exact, and if the level waver but the least in any part, the whole construction then must turn out faulty-shelving and askew, leaning to back and front, incongruous, that now some portions seem about to fall, and falls the whole ere long-betrayed indeed by first deceiving estimates: so too thy calculations in affairs of life must be askew and false, if sprung for thee from senses false. So all that troop of words marshalled against the senses is quite vain.” (De Rerum Natura IV 513-521, W.E. Leonard 1916).
The systematically wrong mindset usually uses literary falsification of reality. Some manipulate speech, either with sophism, or with rhetoric, or with dialectical techniques, or with sterile obsessive logic, using ways of cheating others or deluding oneself, usually with political or self-serving purposes. Literary falsification of reality includes the ideal mythological approach of the world, the “political lie” considered by Plato as the right of people in power, the superficial commentary of the phenomena, and sterile skepticism. All these verbal approaches based on the motto “mind comes first” are forms of subjectivity, idealism and intellectualism. These systematically wrong ways of thinking led the Hellenic world to intolerance and discord, and eventually to submission to Republican Rome, whose rising power came from collaboration of patricians and plebeians. These systematically wrong idealistic mentalities subsequently led mankind to the Middle Ages.
In the modern world, we may observe that subjectivity, obsessive ideologies, noncritical pluralistic chattering continue to result in barbaric disputes and inhuman fighting while the temporarily stronger prevails, according to the barbarous law of the jungle. In addition, there is the absurd misguided way of thinking, the impulsive, the “so I like it”, the variably eclectic mentality. This is usually an uncertain, shallow, and effortless way of imprudent dealing with any subject. It is characterized by lack of knowledge of reality, empty chattering, and myopic desires of the type “the purpose sanctifies the means”. An example result of this mentality is the recent decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw USA from the Paris Climate Agreement, which has sparked the outcry of many international scientific associations that called it “a dangerous denial of decision-making method based on scientific data”.
Nevetheless, there are many people against the scientific way of thinking and common sense, such as the Syndicate of Greek Electricity Workers that welcomed the Trump decision, combining unscientific nonsense and self-interest politics in an exemplary manner, since most of their jobs are still based on coal mining. Unfortunately, the nonsensical and superficial way of thinking is particularly widespread in modern societies. The Epicurean philosophy can assist its friends to combat this mentality of the many and to overcome the foolish, idealistic influences that create anxiety and turmoil. Studying and understanding Epicurean texts may help a well-intentioned reader to experience the objective, scientific and serene way of thinking of Epicurus without any misunderstandings. History teaches us that even charismatic people who did not understand the Epicurean scientific method, made mistakes in their appreciation. For example, the great thinker Voltaire, who generally admired Epicurus, erroneously considered as absurd the Master’s views regarding chance and evolution in nature.
(An excerpt of the presentation by Christos Yapijakis at the 10th Panhellenic Meeting of Epicureans, Mount Olympus, Greece Theme: «Re-Hellenization in light of Epicurean Philosophy»)
Jason. Part of the problem of a “scientific theory of happiness” is their first premises. What do they mean by happiness? Do they accept that pleasure is the sine non qua of life or are they, as Cassius puts it, “tranquilists?”
Cassius. Right–the selection of definitions is not a matter of “science alone” but of philosophy.
Jason. I want to put it on record too, that this is my biggest beef with neuroscientists like Sam Harris. He has put science in its proper place as the methodology of exploring our natural universe, but then denies that he has any preconceptions/bias at all when setting up his experiments and drawing conclusions from the results. He denies the utility of philosophy completely while making philosophical claims on the aims of science. I take issue with anyone who claims that science serves some end other than pleasure.
Cassius. I think if we can just get them to the point of understanding that pleasure is the goal, rather than religion or idealism, we will accomplish the most than an Epicurean organization could hope to accomplish. Cassius Longinus was obviously leader of what was effectively his own political party in the Roman Civil war, and I think we should be engaged in politics, but if we mix immediate interests with the big picture it seems to me we jeopardise the big picture.
I don’t know enough about Harris to comment on him particularly, but it seems to me scientists on both left and right make the same error that Jason is talking about. That passage from Frances Wright deserves a lot more attention as an explanation of why “science” is not the leader–a proper understanding of pleasure in a proper philosophical framework is the only way to understand the goal.
Hiram. Yes philosophy must guide science. Agreed. This is one of the main reasons for the urgency of our work in these times … (and don’t get me started with Sam Harris).
Science (like the canon) provides data drawn from nature to confirm doctrines also. So to say “this is what science says about this” is our equivalent to a Jew placing the “kosher” stamp on food, or a Muslims placing the “halal” stamp on food. It’s like putting the “canon” stamp, saying “there is ample, cross-verified, peer-reviewed data confirming these observations and therefore it is okay to set this as doctrinally valid”.
Science of happiness is one of the easiest gateways to teaching Epicurean ethics. It is my understanding that Epicurean teachers used to first give the observations, to demonstrate what is observed, and then reached their conclusions, and Lucretius does this in DRN, and it’s also part of what I sought to do in Tending the Epicurean Garden: to bridge modern insights and ancient doctrine for the benefit of modern people, and show the relevance of EP.
If we dismiss or disparage science as a means to the teaching, we lose opportunities to continue teaching in this manner, which is a method that also demonstrates our respect for the intelligence of our readers.
I would favor affirming BOTH the end and ALSO the validity of these means, maybe via a rhetorical devise like always saying “in order to live pleasantly, we find / it has been demonstrated that this or that is advantageous and useful”. I don’t want us to forget the utility of things (whether they be science, therapeutic methods, etc.) to advance philosophy.
Cassius. It seems to me that you are presuming that the goal is obvious to everyone, and that no one disputes that living happily should be the goal. That is far from true in my experience, and people are confused about every aspect of the question. Is there a goal? What is the goal? Should I try to live happily? What is happiness? Isn’t avoiding pain good enough? All those are incredibly complicated issues and unless people are straight on those, it makes no sense to even begin talking about therapeutic techniques.
Now certainly there is a target audience that is confident of all those things and ready to talk about precise techniques. But that was never Epicurus’ audience or the way he devoted his time. Epicurus was a philosophical warrior who engaged the philosophical enemy to break the chains they had imposed. There are innumerable good things to do after those chains are broken, but the great majority of people, I dare say, are still totally in their chains
Jason. I don’t think anyone is disparaging science as a methodology, only its application and idealism by those who have non-Epicurean goals. There is a LOT of bad “science” on the fringes of human knowledge. The methodology isn’t always followed closely because of competing aims. We have to be careful about accepting conclusions about experiments that we don’t understand ourselves when those drawing the conclusions have proven themselves ignorant of or hostile to the purpose of science.
Elli. Cassius, according to Diogenes Laertius (10.27-9), the major works of Epicurus include:
1. On Nature, in 37 books
2. On Atoms and the Void
3. On Love
4. Abridgment of the Arguments employed against the Natural Philosophers
5. Against the Megarians
7. Fundamental Propositions (Kyriai Doxai)
8. On Choice and Avoidance
9. On the Chief Good
10. On the Criterion (the Canon)
12. On the Gods
13. On Piety
15. Four essays on Lives
16. Essay on Just Dealing
18. Essay addressed to Themista
19. The Banquet (Symposium)
21. Essay addressed to Metrodorus
22. Essay on Seeing
23. Essay on the Angle in an Atom
24. Essay on Touch
25. Essay on Fate
26. Opinions on the Passions
27. Treatise addressed to Timocrates
30. On Images
31. On Perceptions
33. Essay on Music (i.e., on music, poetry, and dance)
34. On Justice and the other Virtues
35. On Gifts and Gratitude
37. Timocrates (three books)
38. Metrodorus (five books)
39. Antidorus (two books)
40. Opinions about Diseases and Death, addressed to Mithras
42. #Essay on Kingly Power
In the works by Epicurus there are some persons’ names … I have a question: who are those persons? Are they only philosophers, or are they persons that have been involved with politics? And that essay on Kingly Power… does it not involve politics too? Also, Patro the Epicurean, from Wikipedia:
Patro (Greek: Πάτρων) was an Epicurean philosopher. He lived for some time in Rome, where he became acquainted, among others, with Cicero, and with the family of Gaius Memmius. Either now, or subsequently, he also gained the friendship of Atticus. From Rome he either removed or returned to Athens, and there succeeded Phaedrus as head of the Epicurean school, c. 70 BC. Memmius had, while in Athens, procured permission from the Areopagus court to pull down an old wall belonging to the property left by Epicurus for the use of his school. This was regarded by Patro as a sort of desecration, and he accordingly addressed himself to Atticus and Cicero, to induce them to use their influence with the Areopagus to get the decree rescinded. Atticus also wrote to Cicero on the subject. Cicero arrived at Athens the day after Memmius had departed for Mytilene. Finding that Memmius had abandoned his design of erecting the edifice with which the wall in question would have interfered, he consented to help in the matter; but thinking that the Areopagus would not retract their decree without the consent of Memmius, he wrote to the latter, urging his request in an elegant epistle, which is still in existence.
I have the impression that all the above people (including Patro the Epicurean) were involved with political affairs … and a later one and important Epicurean that was involved with politics too was–Thomas Jefferson!!
Jason. By the intermundial gods Elli, that letter to Memmius (the very Memmius that Lucretius dedicates DRN to, no less) leads to all kinds of unexplored places! The edition found on Perseus, has excellent notes that point in interesting directions. The cooperation of Epicureans and playwrights to commission a play in honor of a physician? Fantastic!
Elli. Wow!! Τhanks, Jason, I was looking for it!
Cassius. To summarize: Cicero saw this issue as one of the key elements of his attack on Epicirus, or he would not have highlighted it as he did. By doing so he convinces people that pleasure being the goal is not tenable or even significant, and that we should just incorporate whatever we want from Epicurus in our own non-pleasure-based philosophies. That makes Epicurus a handmaid to everyone else and buries the key message.
Elli. Some of my final thoughts: For involvement with politics, there needs to hide inside you a little Stoic personality, or (you need) to disguise your Epicurean inner personality with an outer Stoic one. Because if your nature is to be involved in politics, or (to be in) the company of academicians, you will be addressing Stoic personalities. You have to persuade them of Epicurean Philosophy (by mixing the goal) with aponia and ataraxia–all leading to happiness, bliss and prosperity, without insisting that the goal is pleasure net and clear. Because it is well known how hostile people are to this word. So, to persuade the others you use those words that sound better to their ears, and maybe you do your political job quite better.
The other issue is: How many can you trust inside the field of politics or among academicians, how many can you stand with, and how many will stand with you? The other issue is: How much money can you spend, and how many hours of your life can you spend too, in the company of such kinds of persons.
Αnd the last issue is that your aponia and ataraxia would be lost to a huge degree for the sake of politics, since mainly there are some persons ready to stab you on your back. But as Epicurus said in this Doctrine 7:
Some men want fame and status, thinking that they would thus make themselves secure against other men. If the life of such men really were secure, they have attained a natural good; if, however, it is insecure, they have not attained the end which by nature’s own prompting they originally sought.
Cassius. I better clarify my position on politics. I think Epicureans CAN and SHOULD be involved in politics. I am talking strictly about what an umbrella “Society of Epicurus” or similar organization should do that seeks to attract cooperation from a body of people. And that applies to what I do separately as well. I don’t begrudge others having political positions, but I firmly believe–at least in my own case–that I want to appeal to people of ALL political persuasions in the time I have left, or said another way, anyone of any political persuasion who is willing to listen to the argument and consider agreeing with it.
An obvious example is the Macedonia / Greek quarrel that Elli mentioned recently. I understand why that spurs emotions, but I would imagine that people on both sides of that could be Epicureans, just like people on both sides of the Roman civil war could be Epicureans. I would expect individual Epicureans to weigh in on it in that region, but I can understand that people on both sides have their own view of the pleasurable interests involved, and I can’t say that Epicurus would clearly take one side or the other.
Obviously I can’t imagine much appeal to religious political parties like Islam, but on issues such as economics, or even race relations, global warming, or thousands of other issues, there are going to be people on both sides of those issues who want see their own personal interests on one side, and some on the other, and to me there is no clear Epicurean position other than the pursuit of happiness is common to all people, so we need to be careful or there will be a conflict and if we don’t want that we have to work toward some kind of compromise.
And in fact, as an example, I think that the Epicureans in Greece, at least as individuals, probably ought to be more involved in politics than I perceive that they are, because it seems to me that they are under much more direct threat (for example from Islam, and the Orthodox Church) than we are here. And I think it is very justifiable for any group of people to want to retain its own integrity, so I can see Epicurean theory to be usable by a lot of different cultural and economic systems. What I want to continue to stress is that my non-politics position is because I think we are very early in any kind of Epicurean “movement” on the core issue of pleasure being the goal of life, and that it probably isn’t wise for those few of us who work together on core issues to allow ourselves to be divided by politics. That’s 99% of my point on politics.
As for the “pleasure vs. therapy” debate I’m saying mostly the same thing. I think all of us should pursue what interests us the most, and I am not trying to discourage anyone from anything that’s within the tent of working together on core issues. I think theories of Epicurus that focus on defining the goal solely as “absence of pain” are covertly anti-Epicurean and an umbrella organization should not be willing to accept that as a viable interpretation. I don’t perceive any of us as holding that opinion ourselves, but we seem to disagree on how much we will tolerate it or cooperate with it.
ataraxia means “lack of perturbation” in Greek.
the Tetrapharmakon, or Four Cures, are a paraphrase of the first four of the Principal Doctrines.
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.
… 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-libertariantheory 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 the past, we have approached the problematic issues related to who defines virtue and how, and what place if any virtue should have in Epicurean ethics, by evaluating Frances Wright’s passages from A Few Days in Athens concerning the subject. This will likely be the first in a series of follow-up dialogues on virtue as means and on pleasure as the end, as well as on other doctrinal differences–like the crucial one on nature as the guide rather than arbitrary and abstract ideals–, to help students of philosophy–particularly those who argue that there is little to no difference between the two schools–to clearly understand the differences between the Epicurean and the Stoic schools.
The discussions began on our facebook group when one of the members shared a couple of quotes on the subject. For the benefit of those studying the differences between the two schools, the dialogue has been edited with links and commentary, and the underlined comments denote opinions or views that are clearly Stoic and/or otherwise non-Epicurean, in order to bring out what we consider to be some of the key differences of opinion and to encourage discussion about if and why, and to what extent, these issues matter.
“Those who place the Chief Good in virtue alone are beguiled by the glamour of a name, and do not understand the true demands of nature. If they will consent to listen to Epicurus, they will be delivered from the grossest error. Your school dilates on the transcendent beauty of the virtues; but were they not productive of pleasure, who would deem them either praiseworthy or desirable?” – Toquatus
“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
Banton. Good and bad means good and bad for our happiness. Nothing is bad for happiness. Unhappiness doesn’t exist. Neither does the devil even though people will claim the experience of it.
Eric. Banton, I believe though we must weigh pleasure in terms of its greatest good to ourselves and others. So that may not be the most readily available peace, tranquility, and happiness. Sometimes we must delay it or hold off on it so that it can in fact produce a greater pleasure for all. Hedonic calculus matters here.
The devil has no empirical evidence to Epicurus’ naturalistic view. You’re right, there is no evidence for a devil, and thus it is nothing to us.
Banton. We must weigh pleasure in terms of the greatest good (what makes something good? We want it. That’s it.) Unhappiness likewise is nothing. We simply do what we want. We are free. I have a different take here. I don’t believe I’m 100% Epicurean but I think he is as close as we’ve gotten.
For an Epicurean reply to this, read these reasonings on Polystratus’ Herculaneum scroll, where he argues that good and bad can be discerned in nature as secondary or relational properties of things based on whether they produce pleasure or aversion.
Hiram. By “greatest” here you mean long-term, no? Not necessarily “collective“?
Banton. I was quoting Eric. I don’t believe there is a greatest good. The greatest good is whatever I want most.
Hiram. Without evaluating what your desires are and their repercussions, whether they are necessary or not, etc?
Banton. We are free to evaluate or not. So if I want to get drunk and I don’t believe anything makes that wrong or bad, I’m free to get drunk. Or anything else. That’s just an example.
Hiram. If you are exempt from hangovers and from damaging your personal relationships by being obnoxious when drunk.
Eric. That’s a fair example, but weighing the cost between pleasure and pain, getting drunk versus getting buzzed is a real differential IMO. One is Epicurean, the other Cyrenaic (This could be disputed). If you recall, Epicureanism is ‘virtuous pleasure’ so that act of drinking should be weighed with moderation and temperance.
Hiram. Rather than moderation and temperance, the specific word used in the sources is rather “advantage”, or sometimes “mutual advantage”.
Banton. Point is we are free.
Hiram. You are. But freedom can hinder or make happiness. This is why we need ethics.
Banton. Ah that’s where we disagree.
Hiram. Nature won’t give you a choice: if you plunge into a fire pit, you will burn and it WILL hurt. This is what is meant by the guidance of nature via the canon / via our own faculties.
Banton. Yet people have chosen to do it.
Hiram. Which is why we are so critical of other philosophies that “poison human happiness” (citing Frances Wright).
Banton. But you don’t know they weren’t happy to do it. Mohammed Bouazizi.
Hiram. I need context to judge in each case, so we can untangle this crucial matter. If a man is happy murder 50 people because of his faith, then that man was immoral and did not study philosophy, but yielded to superstition and arrogance. This is why Polystratus argued that seeking “virtue” without the study of nature only leads to arrogance and superstition and that when people do that, virtue comes to nothing.
Banton. Virtue, or the good, is only what a person wants. It’s not objective. I guess that’s the point. Consensus agreement only proves a consensus agreement. Epicurus believed in unhappiness and so tried to find ways to minimize it. I’m saying unhappiness does not exist, only the belief in it and the experience of that belief.
Cassius. This is bizarre. Epicurus talked about pain, and pain certainly exists to us. What exactly are you saying?
Hiram. This is where you’re disagreeing with Epicurus, just to clarify so that everyone understands this point. Epicureans believe that nature sets a standard, and that humans are free to use their pleasure faculty within the guidelines set by nature. Epicureans also advise people to study our own nature so that we can understand those guidelines, which desires are natural and which not, etc. Nature is the guide, and culture frequently corrupts ethics.
Banton. Pain does not cause unhappiness. Judging the pain as bad does. But what does bad mean? It means it causes unhappiness. So the belief in unhappiness is the cause of unhappiness. If I don’t believe pain can make me unhappy, I may seek to minimize the pain but I’m not going to feel unhappy about it. Epicurus believed unhappiness happens as a result of certain stimuli. The Stoics believe unhappiness happens as a result of other stimuli, namely desiring things not under your complete control. Both schools prescribed a way to control stimuli. I’m saying unhappiness is a myth, like the devil, and one only experiences unhappiness as a result of their belief in it. When you no longer believe in the devil (unhappiness) you don’t have to replace that with other beliefs. You are simply free to follow your desires and do what you want, whatever you want.
Hiram. You are platonizing unhappiness and deviating from what your nature requires when you reason this way.
Banton. What my nature requires for what? I’d love to hear the answer to that question.
Hiram. All that your nature requires is some food, human association, a home, health, safety. These are the kyriotatai or chief goods. They are the desires that are both natural and necessary. If you are grateful, you can live like a king with a basic provision of these things.
In the PDs you will see that there are desires without which you suffer. They are natural. We know that if you do not eat, you die. If you lack safety of a home you, may suffer from exposure or external threats. There’s research that shows isolation is a health risk factor on par with obesity and smoking, so you need other people. Your own nature and health will require these things. Your own body will require them.
You *could* ask why or what for, and you could posit answers (for those questions) like natural selection or whatever, but there is no point arguing with your own nature. This is what we mean by taking nature as your guide: she does not care. If you don’t eat you WILL suffer hunger. If you eat, you WILL experience pleasure.
Banton. So our nature requires things for survival and pleasure. This is not a revelation. Now if you believe we need survival and pleasure to be happy, to know subjectively that we don’t have to feel bad, lament, be dissatisfied then I disagree. And that’s my point, nothing is required for happiness, inner peace, inner joy.
Hiram. If we don’t survive, we’ll be dead: happiness won’t even be an issue. But if you’re saying that we don’t need pleasure to be happy, then what do you even mean by happiness? Are you platonizing it also? Are you dreaming that you’re happy while in physical pain and mental anguish?
Banton. Yes, if we’re dead nothing will be an issue, but to my knowledge this philosophy is not about survival and I don’t think we need a philosophy of survival. Most folks already know we need food, etc.
And yes, I’m saying we don’t need physical pleasure to be happy. People will tolerate the worst pain and circumstances and not be unhappy. As for mental anguish, that’s unhappiness and it is not caused by pain but by belief. Pain and pleasure are irrelevant to happiness.
Also, the belief that we need pleasures to be happy is really unhappiness. People fear not having what they need. Fear is unhappiness, or more accurately the anticipation of unhappiness. If they ever find themselves in such a position as they anticipated they will also be unhappy. Not because they don’t have what they need to be happy but because they believe they don’t.
Hiram. Alright, so what you are describing is Stoic doctrine and it seems that you are an entirely convinced Stoic. It does not seem like you are in the Epicurean process of therapy or interested in evaluating it.
Banton. I’m most definitely not Stoic. The Stoics also believe something is necessary for happiness, namely virtue or being good. So they try to be good to be happy, you guys try to minimize pain and maximize pleasure to be happy.
Hiram. You’re also most definitely not Epicurean, and your last three comments are Stoicism. Maybe you’re a certain KIND of Stoic, an unorthodox one, but you’re not a student of Epicurus. You have not established pleasure as the end. If your read Polystratus, or the Principal Doctrines, or Norman Dewitt, you will understand that this is essential in order to profit from this discourse: that we are committed to the rational and calculated pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.
Banton. I like to believe I’m an independent thinker. I think pleasure is closer to what I see as the truth than virtue. But physical pleasure, while preferred in some circumstances, does fulfill what I see as the end which is happiness.
Hiram. That’s right. You’re an independent thinker. But this discussion has been good to help people grasp some of the distinctions between the two schools, how we view nature as our guide, how virtue or “good” or some other arbitrary ideal is not set by nature, etc.
(on a separate thread within the same discussion)
Banton. People automatically weigh the costs and based on their values, they do what they want. The problem with these philosophies is that they all propose an ideal way of being. There is no ideal way of being. People are free to decide what is ideal to them.
Hiram. So just to clarify where Epicurus comes in with moral guidance, here he says that nature has established certain (empirically knowable) limits and guidelines, and made them easily evident to our faculties including the faculty of pleasure and aversion. The study of these natural limits is what makes us philosophers.
Eric. Sure, we’re all going to pursue the things that give us pleasure and happiness, but Epicureanism wasn’t intended to be a free license to pursue any old pleasure. Pleasure according to the philosophy meant being without physical and emotional pain, so some acts and practices need to be weighed in that light, otherwise it’s just hedonism/sensualism
Hiram. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with rational hedonism, it’s uncalculated hedonism that we criticize.
Eric. Is that supporting what I’m saying or intended to say something different?
Hiram. Supporting, but also ensuring that we do not look at hedonism with the kind of judgmental eye that Nietzsche associates with being “weary of this world”. One of the Principal Doctrines says that our faculties never shun pleasure. Pleasure can only be bad when the consequences are so poisonous to future pleasure that they neutralize the benefit. PD 20 is what I’m thinking of.
Eric. Ugh, that translation is cryptic!
Concerning the various translations of the Principal Doctrines other than the one found on epicurus.net, there is one by Peter Saint Andre available from Monadnock, another one by Robert Hicks on an MIT page.
Jason. Definitely not my favorite translation of PD 20. Strodach’s is preferable:
The body takes the limits of pleasure to be infinite, and infinite time would provide such pleasure. But the mind has provided us with the complete life by a rational examination of the body’s goals and limitations, and by dispelling our fears about a life after death, and so we no longer need unlimited time. On the other hand, [the mind] does not avoid pleasure, nor, when conditions occasion our departure from life, does it come to the end in a manner that would suggest that it had fallen short in any way of the best possible existence.
Jason. Cassius’ rephrasing is great too:
Bodily pleasures seem unlimited, and so the body seems to wish to live forever. But the mind, recognizing that Nature does not allow the body to live forever, and recognizing that there is nothing to fear in the eternal time after death, guides us to a complete and optimal life, and we then realize that we no longer have the need for an unlimited time. Even though the mind enjoys pleasure, the mind does not feel remorse when the end of life approaches, so long as the mind has led the person to live the best life possible to him according to Nature.
Ronald. Epicurus says be virtuous in order to be happy, the stoics say be virtuous and you will be as happy as possible. I’m not sure there is a lot to fight about here.
(We would not have a controversy thousands of years after the foundation of the two schools if that were really the case)
Hiram. lol …. it’s a 2,300 year old fight. Ronald, so when a Muslim believes that the Quran 4:34 orders him to beat his wife and that it would be virtuous to do so, and he physically attacks her, where in this equation do you find pleasure? If virtue is not defined according to nature, and is just a Platonic imaginary ideal, what becomes of virtue? This is what Polystratus meant in his On Irrational Contempt when he said “virtue without the study of nature comes to nothing but arrogance and superstition”.
Panagiotis. Nature is the basis of everything.
Eric. I am absolutely convinced that the Roman Stoics believed what Epicurus taught, namely ‘virtuous pleasure’ produces happiness, peace, and tranquility. They (meaning Neo-Stoics) end up nit picking this, vacillating between what I just said, and practicing ‘virtue for its own sake’ or duty for duty’s sake. I can give you at least 10 quotes that show that the Roman Stoics didn’t say anything like Virtue for its own sake but rather being virtuous produces tranquility. So I guess it all depends who you’re asking. I believe you are correct there is not much to fight about since Epicurus simply interweaves virtue and tranquility.
Cassius. I think the only point I’ll offer, at least for the moment, is to go back to the quote: “were they not productive of pleasure, who would deem them either praiseworthy or desirable?” The word “happiness” is ambiguous to cover over a multitude of disputes. It is Epicurus who focuses on “pleasure”, and if one keeps to “pleasure”, then a lot of these ambiguities sort themselves out, and it’s much easier to see who is agreeing with Epicurus and who is disagreeing with him.
Ronald. The quote I think supports my point. When Epicurus says “were they not productive of pleasure,…” he seems to be conceding that they are productive of pleasure.
Daniel. (I) agree, and the real proof Epicurus truly understands what he talks about is how easy it is to understand pleasure and prudence without the ambiguities of other philosophies based on a telos focused purely on reason, virtue, or heavenly bodies.
Cassius. Of course “they” are productive of pleasure, but the question is what “they” are. Are “they” something arbitrarily defined by religion or by logic as virtue, or are “they” those activities defined by what is in fact productive of pleasurable living? The Stoics and others choose the former definition, the Epicureans the latter, and never the twain shall meet in theory, just in practicality. The error is in choosing theory that does not lead to pleasurable living vs. theory that is defined as leading to pleasurable living.
Ronald. “Just in practicality”. Exactly. I am not saying there is no difference, just not one where argument is of practical value. And I think Epicureanism is all about practical value.
Eric. Agreed, for the most part. If you’re willing and it’s appropriate, I think it would be beneficial to share all the quotes by the Roman Stoics that agree with Epicurus. I’ve spent a good amount of time collecting those passages that make ‘virtue for its own sake’ absurd and do in fact show that often they see virtue as a means to producing pleasure. Stoics do seem confused at times and you’re right that Epicurus is the one who focuses solely on virtue FOR THE SAKE OF pleasure.
Jason. I would enjoy that if you were to put a page or post together, Eric. It might serve my purposes to illuminate where Roman Stoics were “right” instead of pointing out how they were wrong to my friends, who wave the Stoic flag yet refuse to acknowledge their deviation from ancient Stoic thought.
Since they’re into deviations, a little positive reinforcement towards showing how their behavior and natural tendencies favor true philosophy–instead of their confused conceptions–might help them jump ship, if I could quote Stoic sources instead of simply arguing.
Eric. Interestingly, I’ve hit a brick wall (with Stoics) with trying to demonstrate how the Roman stoics did promote virtue because it provided peace of mind, freedom, etc. I do recognize the differences in terms of chief ends. I believe both parties are promoting ‘virtuous pleasure’ ultimately, however confused it might sound. Let me say this, Much of what Epictetus, Seneca and MA promoted was a life where one manages desires, aversions, impressions judgments FOR tranquility!
Jason. I’m not surprised. It appears that modern “Stoics” are quite confused about the purpose of philosophy. If you don’t acknowledge that philosophy has an end-goal, how can one derive a purpose for studying it?
Eric. They want to say that virtue is its own end, its own reward. They want to say it like a purse lipped moralist. They have to ADD tranquility. Check out this Seneca quote:
Pleasure is not a reward for virtue, nor its cause, but is something added on to it. Virtue is not chosen because it causes pleasure; but if it is chosen, it does cause pleasure.
The joy which arises from virtue . . . like happiness and tranquility . . . are consequences of the greatest good, but they do not constitute it.
– Seneca (Pierre Hadot translation in Inner Citadel)
What a bunch of hog shit! Elsewhere Seneca writes an entire letter On Tranquility of Mind where in he eases his friend with all kinds of methods to bring him to tranquility. Epictetus states a number of times what the practice of virtue is FOR, namely tranquility
Oh Seneca! Reading his works I get the distinct impression of a schoolboy on the verge of getting caught with his hand in the cookie-jar, freezing in place, not knowing whether to remove his hand grasping cookies or leaving them behind. He does seem to me a ‘rider of walls’ It’s just that all this bickering is not ultimately (about) differences of kinds. They are degrees in my view. I’m a student of ‘philosophies of virtuous pleasure’, and there are fascinating and useful agreements not just in Hellenistic philosophies but early Asian ones as well. Here’s Seneca talking like an Epicurean:
Seneca says about tranquility:
We are, therefore, seeking how the mind can follow a smooth and steady course, well disposed to itself, happily regarding its own condition and with no interruption to this pleasure, but remaining in a state of peace with no ups and downs: that will be tranquility.
And he doesn’t say this lightly:
But what you are longing for is great and supreme and nearly divine – not to be shaken.
Tranquility is GREAT, SUPREME and NEARLY DIVINE.
Hiram. It is unclear if the original Seneca passage that was translated into tranquility was “ataraxia”, which is an Epicurean term also. In either case, for the sake of clarity: we in Epicurean philosophy consider pleasure as the end, which can be qualified as tranquil pleasure, virtuous pleasure, and by other words. The danger with using fuzzy terms like virtue is that they can have wildly diverging meanings in various cultures, whereas pleasure is much clearer, and it’s a natural faculty used broadly enough to be a useful end. And we believe that it is nature itself that has set this standard for mortals.
Cassius. For anyone lurking who wants to compare the stoic quotes, here is my chart. And Eric, this is the irreconcilable point. The Stoics promote something they call virtue devoid of pleasure. The Epicureans promote virtue DEFINED by pleasurable result. And that is why it is very perilous to speak loosely of tranquility. Calmness in the experience of unbroken pleasure is desirable. Calmness in and of itself is not desirable nor the goal of Epicurean living. Yes that is a pretty good statement of their confusion.
Eric. As an aside: it does not appear at all there is a difference between ataraxia and apatheia EXPERIENTIALLY. The times in which the Roman Stoics say virtue produces peace of mind or tranquility, they seem to do so when they are taking about managing desires and practicing virtue. Apatheia for the Stoics was living without negative emotions or suffering, without emotional pain.
Hiram. Notice my criticism here of how by cutting ourselves off from our emotions, we fail to air our grievances and tyranny persists in the world. There are many dangers with apatheia: pathos, or the emotional side of being human, is part of our bag of instincts.
Eric. Apatheia (Greek: ἀπάθεια; from a- “without” and pathos “suffering” or “passion”) in Stoic philosophy refers to a state of mind where one is not disturbed by the passions. It is best translated by the word equanimity rather than indifference.
Hiram. Right, so “no passions”. Yet Philodemus writes that anger can be both productive and virtuous, if it leads to long-term pleasure by fixing a grievance that had been left unattended. So, the end is the stability of long term pleasure, and this may require strong ownership of one’s emotions and passions, not apatheia.
Cassius. This is not a criticism but let’s say a “challenge.” I note that your posts and your constructs very rarely use the word “pleasure” and when you do (not sure I remember many times, but I think so) I think you pick up the stoic concern that pleasure is something dangerous. So given that Epicurus is clearly an advocate of pleasure, and not just the mental types, I challenge you to incorporate that into your discussion of tranquility. I definitely think it is possible and correct to do so, but that it where it is extremely difficult to state the goal of life in terms that are compatible with Stoicism.
Here is an example to incorporate, Eric, which I don’t think anyone disputes is an accurate statement of Epicurean doctrine. It is observed too that in his treatise On the Ethical End, Diogenes Laertius writes in these terms: “I know not how to conceive the good, apart from the pleasures of taste, of sex, of sound, and the pleasures of beautiful form.” It is very difficult to fit this into a Stoic model without writing out of stoicism most of the ancient authorities.
Eric. Remind me again: are there two kinds of pleasures that amount to without pain and additive pleasures like food, sex, etc? Did only DL make that comment or do we find it in extant writings of Epicurus? I’m asking because Cicero seems to rail Toquatus around this idea of pleasure being only a negation of pain. He mocks the idea of this as being a neutral state, not pleasure as Diogenes Laetrius says above. Please correct me if I’m wrong.
Also, be reminded I’m not in any way trying to demonstrate that these two schools are very much like each other. I am saying there is a thread running through both when it comes to techniques and ways of looking at things that promote tranquility. I have no interest in trying to reconcile them at this point. I though it might be interesting also to show when Stoics very much sounded Epicurean.
(on a separate thread of the conversation)
Christopher. Virtue is nature, human nature, with intelligence being what ultimately distinguishes us from other living things. So, I don’t see the issue – pursuing virtue is following nature.
Cassius. Just to be clear, I think this is a statement of opinion rather than an attempt to state the Epicurean position. The Epicurean position was that virtue, just like Platonic ideals, does/do not exist in and of themselves. There is no virtue “in the air” to which we can or should conform ourselves. There are only actions of humans in reality which have to be judged by their consequences, and the only natural mechanism for judging the consequences is the faculty of pleasure and pain. And for that reason, “virtue” is defined in the Epicurean mode as those actions which in fact lead to pleasurable living, and “vice” would be those actions which in fact lead to painful living. The reason for the coincidence of terms is that it is generally true that “wisdom” or “temperance” or “courage” or whatever are generally the proper tools for achieving pleasurable living, and avoiding pain. But torn from that context these terms have no meaning whatsoever other than whatever arbitrary meaning a religion or a rationalistic or arbitrary construct may give them. There is Communist Courage and Nazi Courage and Christian Courage and Buddhist Courage, all of which can be considered something in the meaning of will-power, but the goal and the direction of all of these is totally different and totally unappetizing to those outside that construct. The natural construct is pleasure and pain, and if one wants to truly live in conformity with nature (which we do, because nature is the ultimate reality) then one bases ones goals, and chooses one’s tools, based on natures standard of pleasure and pain.
And in real life, I think most people who are casual readers of philosophy reach just that conclusion. But to drill deeper is to see where the dispute really lies, and I think the dispute does have very deep consequences.
Ι post here a remarcable letter as send it to me by a new Epicurean friend in the Garden of Thessaloniki. Panagiotis Papavasiliou is among us for a few months and he understood very well the issue on pleasure. Panagiotis would be fom now on our Scholarch in the Garden of Thessaloniki and for a duration of six months.
His letter to me is as follows :
Good morning Elli !
Thank you for the attachment containing Boris Nikolsky’s text, I have started reading it and it seems very interesting to me, since the topic on pleasure is the beginning and the mean and the end for us the Epicureans. Until I shall complete reading it so I could comment, I am submitting to you both my point of view about kinetic and katastematic pleasure, their relation to the concept of time, the description of pleasure through pain, and apathy.
By observing nature Epicurus distinguished the lucidity (enargeia) of two general emotional situations in which all living beings are, whether pleasure or pain, excluding even a neutral status. Also clear is the tendency of all living beings for pleasure, which he called it good, that is pleasure (hedone) itself and anything useful to achieve it, and trying to avoid pain (ponos), the evil.
We know that every human being needs energy to move and be kept alive, which we usually receive through food. For this reason the pleasure of the stomach is the basis of all. We can easily imagine someone not moving/acting by himself to replace the energy he loses necessary in operating at least the vital organs (e.g. if he doesn’t eat) and he do not accept external influences (e.g. if he isn’t fed); it is only a matter of time to exhaust his energy stock and die.
Organisms also interact with their environment through their sensory organs. This data is processed in their brain and then they decide on how to take back power from the environment to produce action once again and so on. More precisely, emotions inform (i.e. all the animals that feature emotions, like human) about the stimuli that favour the maintenance of life (pleasure) and those that lead them to death (pain). Therefore, a human in order to live happily will seek for acts that bring pleasure and will avoid those who bear pain. Epicurean theory is not fundamentally different up to here with that of the Cyreneans.
And here comes Epicurus, with the sharp eye to grasp what Aristippus of Cyrene could not, the dimension of time in relation to pleasure, its duration. The grandfather manages with the maximum good/tool of wisdom to break down the walls that keep pleasure inside the narrow bonds of the present, extending it to the past and to the future. According to J.M. Guyau, it is time that turns hedone into utility. We avoid a pleasure in the present that will cause pain in the future; we are already receiving the pleasure of an earlier choice that had cost pain etc. Even if you feel sharp pain at the moment, we can ease or even eliminate it by recalling pleasant memories, as we can spoil our mood prejudging a future (non-existing) pain. So we can describe Epicureans as Prudent Hedonists, while Cyreneans as Extreme ones.
So with the good of wisdom humans turn the pleasure felt, gained by movement (kinesis) and thus costing energy, into a situation (katastasis) pleasure is felt. And, naturally, I am not suggesting two different pleasures, but one and the same, examining it in relation to time. Kinetic pleasure has a more temporary duration, while katastematic has a more permanent. It does not sound to me that correct to call katastematic pleasure as static, because there is simply nothing static in nature. Even when being in a state of pleasure, we will definitely need kinetic pleasures to remain in that situation.
Let’s imagine a diagram such as ECG (cardio-graph), a hedono-graph, where the horizontal axis represents time and the vertical represents the sense of pleasure. On the vertical axis there is a maximum (100% pleasure and 0% pain), a minimum (0% pleasure and 100% pain), and somewhere among them an indefinite but directly perceivable limit when the sense of pleasure prevails over pain. When we feel pain the line moves downwards, and when we feel pleasure it moves upwards. Happy is simply a life that can move the needle of the hedono-graph as much as possible within the area above the pleasure-pain limit. As the gods of Epicurus were immortals, they did not lose energy to be substituted, so the index was stuck at 100% permanently. Unlike gods, we common mortal beings certainly have a mixture of pleasures-pains, in which whenever the pleasures outweigh pains (e.g. 70-30% pleasures-pains) we are in a pleasant condition.
This way I can understand the Letter To Idomeneus: “22. On this blissful day, which is also the last of my life, I write this to you. My continual sufferings from strangury and dysentery are so great that nothing could increase them; but I set above them all the gladness of mind at the memory of our past conversations. But I would have you, as becomes your lifelong attitude to me and to philosophy, watch over the children of Metrodorus”. Something similar happens with the example you mentioned the other day Elli, suggesting that when I feel hungry but, since I know there food back at home that I am heading for, I only feel pleasure, not pain. In this situation I certainly feel my stomach pain from hunger, but through prudence I project and receive in advance the pleasure of some hot homemade food, which I consider safe to infer because that used to happen in the past. So I still potentially am in the same hedonic situation as before, bypassing the warning voice of the flesh via prudence.
As for the dilemma of “is pleasure the absence of pain or pain the absence of pleasure”, it really is a pseudo-dilemma, as most are, if not all. The essential difference here is in the disjunction “or” that uses the law of non-contradiction. In epistemological terms we can still use a reductio ad absurdum (Epicurus himself used it in order to prove the existence of atoms and the void) and every other logical method, as long as the inconceivability criterion is valid in any case. Though, using the method of Multiple Explanations (pleonachos tropos, or multi-valued or fuzzy logic) we prefer conjunction over disjunction, by suggesting both pleasure “and” pain. They both give us information about the emotional interaction we have with nature in order to make the necessary choices and/or avoidances when we seek pleasure, which is always the aim of our nature. The dying Epicurus, though he feels pain by the disease, he simultaneously feels pleasure, which is so much greater that he manages to keep blissful; he had finally remained in the hedonic situation that dominated.
Moreover, we will end up in Stoic apathy if we deny our passions, which all generally lead into pleasure and pain. The Stoics are they who deny both, saying that it does not matter what humans feel eventually, since whatever is predetermined for one to live, that he will live. Like Christians, trying to respond to the so-called “riddle of Epicurus” went so far as to deny the existence of evil (the riddle was not written by Epicurus himself, but it is attributed to him by the apologist Lactantius I think, who mentions it). We Epicureans not only recognize our passions, but our passions constitute a criterion for truth, and their “positive” side, pleasure, is the only “end” we recognize by our human nature.
I am sorry first for being late in replying, and second for the extent of my writing and the various repetitions. But I threaten you both that once I finish this article, I will come back with even more!
What do you say to share our chat with the remaining members, so that they would join in? Even better I suggest we place it on our forum.
Most people who have interest in Epicureanism are seeking to improve their lives and to fine-tune their search for happiness, so that they generally are interested in the ethics, the ripened fruits of Epicurean discourse. And there is nothing wrong with enjoying the soul-nurturing sweet nectar of a wholesome, calculated wisdom tradition that has come down to us … it is in the sweetest part of the tree, after all, that nature has placed the seed that might take root if it finds fertile soil. For some plants, it’s the flower that is the genitalia, and for others it’s the fruit.
The spiritual garden that is Epicureanism gives us many varieties of flower and fruits, mellows to engage us in the pleasures of sane philosophy. But at the root of our coherent system lies always, invariably, the Canon. We all know that roots are neither the easiest to digest nor the sweetest to our palate. Some, like carrots, can be had raw. Others, like yams and cassava, require that we treat them, boil them, or fry them. They require preparation and slow digestion. But only from the root, from the Canon, can the fruits of naturalist philosophy self-perpetuate in our soul.
The Canon is not just a theoretical system of epistemology, defined as the theory of knowledge and of how it is properly attained and verified. It was also one of the 300 scrolls that Epicurus wrote, of which only fragments remain. The original scripture of the Canon is lost to us. However, we do know from indirect sources what the Canon taught and we are able to recreate its teachings to a great extent.
Nausiphanes, Epicurus’ atomist teacher (who had been Democritus’ pupil), was the one who invented the tripod, the three-legged stool used as criteria by which to judge reality. The tripod, as Epicurus taught it, consisted of:
1. sense perception (hearing, sight, smell, touch, taste) – materialists must be empiricists because reality and nature are one and the same; they must accept the evidence before our senses as our firm, undeniable connection to reality
2. feelings (pain, pleasure) – this is how nature, via natural selection, guides living entities and helps them to recognize the survival strategies of their ancestors
3. anticipations (inherited instincts and innate recognitions) – the baby must pre-cognitively anticipate the nipple in order to engage in the pleasures of feeding; people must recognize each other as people in order to engage in the pleasures of socializing, we must recognize our primal panic and vertigo while in the presence of an awesome predator or while standing at the edge of a cliff in order to avoid being eaten or falling, etc.
Of all these, sense perception is of key importance. While reason is certainly a useful tool to apprehend reality, if fed wrong data or if left to speculate without being grounded on nature, reason can churn out catastrophic, absurd, needless, or impractical conclusions.
Residents of Papua New Guinea, amazed at the wealth brought in by Westerners during the II World War, believed that if they built wooden planes and landing strips, their ancestors would fly in cargo from the heavens. Reasoning without the Canon can lead to falling off a cliff … or to the development of cargo cults, dissonant worldviews that seek to blend childish imaginings with unanalyzed sense-data and should serve as a metaphor for all other forms of Platonism. If the Papuans had based their worldview on the study of nature and sought tangible sources for their knowledge, they would have concluded that death is final, that the ancestors do not intervene and that it is needless to await their cargo, and would have sought to find the legitimate sources for cargo as the product of labor in other lands.
Is it not tragic that people in so many cultures await Messiahs who died thousands of years ago, in spite of evidence that all humans have a life span usually shorter than one century? Christians and Muslims are joined by the cargo cult adherents who await John Frum, an American god that visited them during the mid-20th Century.
Without empirical data we do not have science. We have speculation or day-dreaming. There is nothing wrong with day-dreaming. This is fine for when we are poets and writers of fiction, but it’s not naturalist philosophy.
INTELLECT: It is by convention that color exists, by convention sweet, by convention bitter.
SENSES: Ah, wretched intellect, you get your evidence only as we give it to you, and yet you try to overthrow us. That overthrow will be your downfall.
– Wheewright, The Presocratics, p. 183
The word Canon translates as ruler, measuring stick (for reality). In other traditions (like Catholicism), the Canon has legal connotations, and the Canon should perhaps be thought of as the Law or Rule concerning knowledge that was set by nature. It was a sort of materialist Bible, was of central importance to ancient Epicureans, and was dubbed “the book that fell from heaven” in derision by enemies, jokingly by adherents. It constitutes, in our view, the most biologically-rooted of all known epistemological systems in Hellenistic philosophy. It clearly serves a life-based, life-affirming philosophy of this world and guides us to what is deemed (by nature) to be necessary knowledge.
Unlike other philosophies, we do not accept that life is inherently absurd and empty of meaning. Instead, we see that nature has given us tools to apprehend reality and that these tools give us all the knowledge and meaning we need. We often perturb our souls by seeking knowledge beyond what is necessary. We need to know how to survive and eat, how to relate to others, how to stay warm during a winter, how to protect ourselves from legitimate dangers, how to be happy … we must know (KNOW, here not cognitively but experientially) the taste of food and the safety of friendship … but we do not need to know immaterial beings from other realms, we do not need to know immortality and endless time, or endless anything. We also do not need to FEAR these spirits or endless time. Nature has not given us faculties to perceive these things because, even if they existed, they are not and have never been necessary.
For as children tremble and fear everything in the blind darkness, so we in the light sometimes fear what is no more to be feared than the things children in the dark hold in terror and imagine will come true. This terror therefore and darkness of mind must be dispelled not by the rays of the sun and glittering shafts of day, but by the aspect and law of nature. – Lucretius in De Rerum Natura II:56-62.
This is not to say that the knowledge that we gain by enhancing our senses (with microscopes or telescopes, for instance) is not good or that, because it’s acquired through artificial senses, that it’s less awe-inspiring. But nature requires little of us. Natural, unnecessary knowledge is icing on a cake compared to the little bread, water and fruits that we need.
One of the first modern attempts at reconstructing the wisdom of the Canon for a contemporary reader is Cassius Amicus’ The Tripod of Truth, An Introduction to the Book That Fell From the Heavens, which can be read online and is available from smashwords and from his webpage, newepicurean.com. It’s ironic, having an introduction to the Canon but not having the actual work by Epicurus. Cassius points to the section on the Canon in a previous work by Norman Dewitt as his main source.
Another very solid introduction to the Canon is the epistemology portion of the elementalepicureanism.com course. There is much more that could be said about this subject and about each one of the three legs of the tripod. I encourage anyone interested in deepening their understanding to read these works, from which might emerge a New Canon, an actual body of literature.
This tangible source for our tradition should serve the didactic and spiritual purpose of the ancient one: to set up a firm foundation for materialist philosophers who wish to base their wisdom tradition on the study of nature and will accept no less than a scientific philosophy. We must gain full awareness of how speculative philosophy and religion have the potential to produce unnatural beliefs and unrealistic expectations that can, if nurtured with full faith, torment the mortal soul.
No example of this is more universal than our unanalyzed fear of death and childish, arrogant rejection of our natural limits. These have promoted the sacrifice of widows to their dead husbands, the tormenting of children and those in agony with visions of hell, or the promise of eternal damnation (and the reduction to the status of a social pariah) for those who can not honestly say they subscribe to this or that religious doctrine. Lucretius, true and heroic Epicurean that he was, disbanded the false promises of unnatural worldviews and placed this advise on the lips of Mother Nature:
Why don’t you retire like a guest sated with the banquet of life, and with calm mind embrace a rest that knows no care? – Lucretius in De Rerum Natura III:938-9
The sad repercussion of not basing our assessment of (our natural fear of) death on the study of nature is oftentimes the development of a form of cargo cult. This is, potentially, the difference between the forager who merely picks the fruits of philosophy and the Gardener who is a diligent keeper, nurturing the roots and even guiding artful bonsais to their maturity. Lucretius contrasted the life of a calculated hedonist to that of adherents of other worldviews who nurture, instead, needless sorrows:
Pleasant it is, when over a great sea the winds trouble the waters, to gaze from shore upon another’s tribulation: not because any man’s troubles are a delectable joy, but because to perceive from what ills you are free yourself is pleasant.– Lucretius in De Rerum Natura II:1
The spiritual task of an Epicurean is that of reconciliation and engagement with nature. Imperturbability and flourishing are the by-products of the task.