The work has many long sentences, which makes it hard to follow. I had written a commentary of a commentary on this book (from an English source), but I have re-read the book in French from Les Epicuriens. Here are a few new insights, and key concepts.
We see in philosophy and anthropology a contrast between nature and culture, and this is reflected in this book, where Epicurus compares “the original constitution” of an individual versus the “product in the process of development” (his character, which she cultivates), and finally the “developed product”–a fully mature character of someone who understands his “causal responsibility”.
GERMS / SEEDS
Epicurus talks about the “germs” or “seeds” (spermata) that we carry from birth of both wisdom and virtue, as well as ignorance and vices. Epicurus says “at first people act out their seeds, but later, a time comes where the developed product … depends absolutely on us and on our own opinions, which we ourselves have formed“. Our opinions or beliefs are linked to our moral development in this manner.
Epicurus later says “I don’t stop rambling on this point“, referring to how the “permanent attribute” of our character is the same as a sort of seed or germ, and he says that many things we do by contribution of our nature, many we do without its contribution, many where we discipline our nature, and many where we use our nature as guide that “leads us out of our inertia“.
ANTICIPATION OF CAUSAL RESPONSIBILITY
Epicurus says we have an “anticipation of our causal responsibility“, and this has repercussions on praise and blame. Here, he is tying causal responsibility, and morality, to the canonic faculty of anticipation–a faculty by which we are able to apprehend abstractions.
Epicurus says that if all our views are born of necessity, then no one can change the opponent’s mind. This reminded me of this study, which shows that political ideology may be pre-determined or genetic.
… analyzing their data, the Blocks found a clear set of childhood personality traits that accurately predicted conservatism in adulthood. For instance, at the ages of three and four, the “conservative” preschoolers had been described as “uncomfortable with uncertainty,” as “rigidifying when experiencing duress,” and as “relatively over-controlled.” The girls were “quiet, neat, compliant, fearful and tearful, [and hoped] for help from the adults around.”
Likewise, the Blocks pinpointed another set of childhood traits that were associated with people who became liberals in their mid-twenties. The “liberal” children were more “autonomous, expressive, energetic, and relatively under-controlled.” Liberal girls had higher levels of “self-assertiveness, talkativeness, curiosity, [and] openness in expressing negative feelings.”
CALLING OUT THE OPPONENTS’ EXCHANGE OF NAMES
This is distinct from the problem of empty words that Epicurus addresses elsewhere. Epicurus says that determinists are “merely changing names” when they make moral claims or assign blame / praise, or classify people for their right / wrong thinking. He later says he does not stop re-hashing and restating that what determinists are arguing is nothing more than a mere exchange of words. This reminded me of the rectification of names by Confucius.
Other speakers of our language teach us unsuspected, yet true meanings of words, contrary to our common usage. – Epicurus
This book is a polemic against Diodorus Cronus and his school. He was a dialectitian of Megaria (a “man of logic”) who believed space was indivisible and motion was impossible. Epicurus’ goal here was to defend the senses as a source of information about the world. It’s in this context that he refers to words like “attestations” (the testimonies of the senses), etc.
While dialectitians might argue about the way in which things exist and are real based on how language is used to refer to things, the atomists (like Epicurus) were realists. They embraced the physics, the study of nature, and knew that reality existed regardless of how clearly we apprehend it, or how long it takes us to learn about it. Hence, the Epicureans distrusted dialectics, and also the insinuation that, through the use of language, as if by magic, people were able to fundamentally change the nature of things or assert power over reality in any significant manner. In particular, Epicurus was suspicious of philosophers who liked to play with words in order to confuse people, particularly because this often rendered philosophy a useless game.
It is language that must conform to reality, not the other way around. Because of this, the meanings of words tend to be evident to us, as is made clear in one of the introductory paragraphs of the Epistle to Herodotus:
But first of all, Herodotus, before we begin the investigation of our opinions, we must firmly grasp the ideas that are attached to our words, so that we can refer to them as we proceed. Unless we have a firm grasp of the meaning of each word, we leave everything uncertain, and we go on to infinity using empty words that are devoid of meaning. Thus it is essential that we rely on the first mental image associated with each word, without need of explanation, if we are to have a firm standard to which to refer as we proceed in our study. – Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus
The issue of changing names in accordance to nature is addressed here. Epicurus taught that there are words that serve as vehicles for false opinions. He said names should only be changed to more exactly describe objects that are directly perceived, and only observed things can be renamed following this rule. Language must correspond to perception.
Epicurus mentions that the founders wrote a separate treatise on ambiguity, where they discuss transferring words for what is knowable to things in the category of the unknowable. This work is not available for us to study.
One note of interest is that in this book, Epicurus admits the founders’ past errors regarding language misuse, and the evolution of their ideas. Ergo, we must be careful when we study the earlier sources, and we must be careful to date the sources we are studying if at all possible.