In a letter written in 1429, Cosma Raimondi–a native of Cremona in Lombardy, Italy who later migrated to France to teach–was one of the early Renaissance humanists who defended Epicurus against the Stoics, Platonists, and Aristotelians in an early epistolary treatise in defense of Epicurus and of virtuous pleasure. His letter–a translation of which is available from New Epicurean–and the fervor with which it was written, stand out as symptoms of the dawn of the Enlightenment. It’s titled A Letter to Ambrogio Tignosi in Defence of Epicurus against the Stoics, Academics and Peripatetics, and it was intended for an apostate who had at one point been Epicurean but had abandoned the Epicurean camp.
This indicates that they belonged to a circle of friends in the Italy of the early 15th Century that had an intellectually rich life and, in fact, he was a pupil of the well-known humanist teacher Gasparino Barzizza.
It is not just a dispute between ourselves, for all the ancient philosophers, principally the three sects of Academics, Stoics and Aristotelians, declared war to the death against this one man who was the master of them all. Their onslaught sought to leave no place for him in philosophy and to declare all his opinions invalid in my view, because they were envious at seeing so many more pupils taking themselves to the school of Epicurus than to their own.
Immediately, one feature stands out which reminds us of Jefferson’s epistle to William Short: his fervor for the doctrine. Jefferson refers to Epicurus as his Master and to himself as a pupil, and a true and passionate one who must defend the Master. In Jefferson’s letter, we find the author arguing in favor of the true, not the imputed teachings of Epicurus.
Cosma begins his arguments by ridiculing the Stoic view that virtue is the source of human happiness, and that even if a man is being tortured by the cruellest butchers, that he can still be happy. The author calls this view absurd and dismisses it as obviously and self-evidently false.
How again could you be further from any sort of happiness than to lack all or most of the things that themselves make up happiness? The Stoics think that someone who is starving and lame and afflicted with all the other disadvantages of health or external circumstances is nonetheless in a state of perfect felicity as long as he can display his virtue.
He then goes on to question the neglect of the flesh, of the body, which goes along with the rejection of pleasure and the exaltation of virtue, as problematic.
Why do they consider only the mind and neglect the body, when the body houses the mind and is the other half of what man is?
And in the same way that the body is not to be thought healthy when some part of it is sick, so man himself cannot be thought happy if he is suffering in some part of himself. As for their assigning happiness to the mind alone on the grounds that it is in some sense the master and ruler of mans body, it is quite absurd to disregard the body when the mind itself often depends on the state and condition the body and indeed can do nothing without it. Should we not deride someone we saw sitting on a throne and calling himself a king when he had no courtiers or servants? Should we think someone a fine prince whose servants were slovenly and misshapen?
The Stoics’ lack of concern for bodily integrity, which comes adorned with an air of fortitude and nobility, constitutes to a great extent lack of compassion on the one hand, and on the other hand it produces, in its practical effects, indifference towards injustices and evils that may be committed against innocent persons. Together with the arbitrary and unqualified elevation of apathy and resignation to the status of virtues, this leads to a lifestyle that impedes the addressing of grievances and is in huge contrast with the approach that we see in Philodemus’ scroll On Anger, which calls for the compassionate treatment of anger and indignation as a source of insight and as an excuse for reformation and change.
By requiring the silence and consent of our emotions, Stoicism holds its victims hostage to fate even when things might be done to address grievances and to challenge evil, dangerous and harmful paradigms. Without finding useful and pragmatic outlets for anger, there would have been no civil rights movement, no Stonewall riots, no possibility of redemption from injustices.
The rationalizing of dangerous, cruel and irrelevant so-called moral views divorced from the study of nature also produces a kind of alienation from nature. Or perhaps this rationalizing is produced by alienation? Cosma makes the observation:
I find it surprising that these clever Stoics did not remember when investigating the subject that they themselves were men. Their conclusions came not from what human nature demanded but from what they could contrive in argument.
Cosma then visits all the senses and comments on how they like to dwell on the sensory objects that are aesthetically pleasing. He takes a moment to notice the self-evident truths of hedonistic naturalism. He does not rationalize these pleasures, or link them to theories such as natural selection. He also does not deny mental pleasures, in fact he includes them in his contemplation. He then concludes:
Epicurus was right, then, to call pleasure the supreme good, since we are so constituted as almost to seem designed for that purpose. We also have a certain inherent mental disposition to seek and attain pleasure: as far as we can, we try to be happy and not sad.
Cosma also makes indirect mention of the doctrine of confident expectation, which indicates that we derive ataraxia not only from friends, philosophy, and other pleasures, but from the confident expectation that our friends will be there if we need them, that the necessary and natural goods are easy to attain, etc. This, together with his indication that virtue derives its value from the pleasure it brings, indicates the author’s deep insight into Epicurean ethics.
If virtue brings no pleasure or delight, why should we want it or make much of it? But if it does, why not concede that the greatest of all goods what should seek above all is that for the sake of which virtue itself is desirable
Since Epicurus does not suppose that life should be lived without virtue, I do not think he leads the life of animals. So he is not to be shunned like some traitor who would overthrow or pervert human society. He does not corrupt public morals; his whole doctrine is instead directed at making us as happy as we can be.
The epistle closes with an invitation to return back to the philosophy that Ambrogio had once, like Cosma, embraced and defended, and with a regretful declaration that, due to limited time, he was unable to cover more points.