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Book Review: How to Live a Good Life

Today is the official book release date for How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy by Penguin Random House (Amazon link here), a collection of 15 essays edited by Massimo Pigliucci, Skye Cleary and Daniel Kaufman. In includes chapters on Epicureanism, Daoism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity Progressive Islam, Existentialism, and other philosophies of life as they are lived today.

The purpose of the book is to help people living in the 21st Century to tackle the challenges related to choosing a personal philosophy of life by giving them fifteen radically different examples of how others are doing it. Most of the essays were written by members of clergy or of academia. I wrote the Epicureanism chapter, and have had the opportunity to read the book in its entirety. From the intro, we learn that these are a few of the goals of the book:

First, to appreciate the sheer variety of philosophical points of view on life and better understand other human beings who have chosen to live according to a philosophy different from your own. Understanding is the beginning of both wisdom and compassion. Second, because you may wish to know something more about your own—chosen or inherited—life philosophy; our authors are some of the best and brightest in the field, and their chapters make for enlightening reading. Last, it is possible that you, too, have been questioning your current take on life, the universe, and everything, and reading about other perspectives may reinforce your own beliefs, prompt you to experiment with another philosophy, or perhaps even cause you to arrive at a new eclectic mix of ideas.

In the past, I have published commentaries on Buddhist, Daoist, Confucian, Humanist, Nietzschean and other philosophical traditions, as well as Christianity, Islam, and the Bahá’í Faith. I have learned much from each of these traditions. I’ve learned to appreciate Muhammad’s good business sense–even if I profoundly disagree with most of the rest of Islam. I’ve learned to come to terms with and appreciate some of the good aspects of my own Christian upbringing.

I even cheerfully stumbled across a Daoist philosopher who was Epicurean in all but name! One of my favorite chapters in the book was the one on Daoism, which coincidentally is the philosophy that has the most in common with Epicureanism. It reminded me that if there are innumerable atoms in infinite space, as Epicurean cosmology says, this means that the cosmos is very complex and phenomena may have multiple valid explanations from various perspectives. This modern Epicureans call “polyvalent logic”.

From Confucianism, I was reminded that relations are part of what defines our identities. From Stoicism, I learned that it is prudent to let go of what we have no control over. From the Progressive Islam chapter, I learned that the efforts to bring Islam into the future go well beyond ijtihad (independent interpretation of the Qur’an), and capitalize on the Qur’anic message of economic justice to make the religion relevant to contemporary progressive issues. From Reform Jewish Rabbi Barbara Block, I learned:

How wise our world would become if only we would all learn from each other!

I also learned that there is a non-theistic religion called Ethical Culture (aka Religious Humanism), which is in many ways similar to Humanistic Judaism and to the Unitarian Universalist Church.

Existentialist thinkers like Sartre and De Beauvoir were very interested in how people objectify each other, and asked questions about how we can best develop mature, intersubjective human relations between free individuals. The Existentialism chapter reminded me that enemies can sometimes be a source of healthy competition and–in a strange way–be at the same time good friends,

that other people are vitally important because they challenge us and open up possibilities in ways that we do not always see on our own, and the best kinds of relationships are those that are constructively critical

and that

signing up for a set of rules that someone else created is “bad faith,” meaning that we are not being authentic.

The Effective Altruism chapter reminded me that, if I’m going to be putting out efforts to help others, I may as well ensure that my efforts have the greatest impact.

It would be unfair for me to “review” the content of the Epicureanism chapter, since I myself wrote it. I will leave that to others. However, I will say that the experiment of writing this chapter was a great chance to re-evaluate my own personal philosophy and to re-visit many of the things that I’ve learned as a student of Epicurean philosophy, and that everyone should carry out this experiment as a way of assessing the ways in which we sculpt ourselves and our lives as pleasant, how we create meaning and value, how we deal with existential baggage and challenges, and how we discern truth from untruth. In fact, ancient Epicureans were known for writing Epitomes that summarized their doctrines as a learning and memorizing tool. So my exercise of writing this chapter is actually a recommended practice of the tradition.

If you read How to Live a Good Life and want to maximize the pleasure that you get from the book, my advice is that you take this project a step further and write an essay where you expound your own personal philosophy, perhaps inspired by a few of the things you read here. Most importantly, remember that philosophy is not just an exercise for academia: it’s an exercise for daily living.

Further Reading:

Lucian’s Sale of Creeds: an ancient satire of the various philosophies

How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy

Book Review of “How to be Epicurean”, by Catherine Wilson

In recent months, many book reviews have been published, as well as podcasts and essays written by Catherine Wilson herself to promote her new book How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well. I finally had the opportunity to read, evaluate, and write my own review of the book.

I too have accepted the challenge of inviting modern people to the study of Epicurean philosophy, and have continued to learn constantly after writing my book so that some of my opinions may have evolved, and for that reason I probably have greater sympathy for Wilson’s efforts than most reviewers. The reader must understand that every approach to the task of presenting Epicureanism to a modern audience will bear the mark of our own personal histories, values, and idiosyncrasies, and is bound to be culturally specific and idiosyncratic. Apologists for capitalism and anarcho-capitalists will not love her book, but her arguments are often sound, if incomplete. Below are some of my specific critiques and commentaries.

The Good

The author says, accurately, that there are no natural rights, only conventional rights.

She calls for policy to be based on evidence.

The moral problem of euthanasia is very well explained in pages 138-140.

I applaud that she’s not afraid to tackle issues of sex and intimacy.

The Bad

In page 177, she claims that “no one can claim to perceive reality directly”. The premise behind the canon is that it is, indeed, possible to apprehend reality directly with our faculties. She didn’t delve into the Epicurean canon in much detail.

In page 183-4, the author’s (incorrect) view that the atomic theory is unempirical could have been turned into an opportunity to discuss the acceptable methods of inference–but, either way, this view is an error: atoms have been photographed (see this article by Live Science).

The Influence of Hostile Narratives

When reading Wilson as a non-academic proponent of Epicurean philosophy, it becomes very clear to me that she moves in (academic?) circles that are quite hostile to Epicurean ideas, and–in spite of her sincere and well-meaning defense of Epicurus–has suffered the contagion of these ideas to some extent.

For instance, she accepts accusations by the intellectual enemies of Epicureanism that are false as if they were historical truths. In page 112, she states as fact that Lucretius committed suicide without once evaluating the credibility of the claim or its dubious source. Suicide is forbidden in Epicureanism except in cases of terminal illness or while lying mortally wounded in battlefield. This is only one of many false accusations against Lucretius by the enemies of the Epicureans.

The author elsewhere gives credit to misogynistic accusations against the Garden. Proponents of virtue ethics and religions at times seemed to think that all emancipated women are whores, and described many of the women who participated in the Garden that way. The truth is that many of the founders were married, had children, and were raising them in the environment of the Garden. It was a family environment, as attested also by Epicurus’ final testament.

Wilson’s defense of empiricism in page 183 is not strong enough. She points out the dangers of scientific advance, and critiques empiricism as if ignorance (and its false consolations) were without dangers. This is the exact opposite of Michel Onfray’s bold Promethean Bio-Ethics, which I much prefer. We must not deny that there are dangers in knowledge, but I sense here also that she concedes to opinions that are foreign to the Epicurean study of nature, and which sometimes depict scientific advance as an insult to God, or as otherwise arrogance on the part of mortals.

Epicureanism is NOT a Philosophy of the Polis

On that note, the author seems to have accepted also (page 208) the insinuation that Lenin was in some way influenced by Epicureanism because he favored historical materialism–a doctrine that derives from Marx. She insinuates that Hobbes was Epicurean, yet the philosopher and author of Leviathan advocated for the big state and was a philosopher of the polis (of the nation-state).

Marx and Engels (who, she claims, were influenced by Epicurus) were also definitely not Epicurean, but their ideas that machines should do our work, that they should free men to enjoy their time, and that people should own the means of production have antecedents in Philodemus’ Art of Property Management scroll–particularly in the “delegation of tasks” doctrine.

The problem with conflating such a wide array of thinkers with the Epicureans is that this takes away the Epicurean Gospel from the realm of individual ethics into the realm of political and Platonic ethics, and confuses natural community with political community. We should consider the kings and mobs quote, which shows that neither the excesses of elitism/traditionalism nor of collectivism (as is the case with communism) are healthy according to the Epicureans. This quote places Epicureanism outside of the narratives of the right and the left of the political spectrum.

A free life cannot acquire many possessions, because this is not easy to do without servility to mobs or monarchs, yet it possesses all things in unfailing abundance; and if by chance it obtains many possessions, it is easy to distribute them so as to win the gratitude of neighbors. – Vatican Saying 67

Wilson argues that wealth should be shared (page 222), but does not link this with the sources. This is not entirely clear to me, but it seems that Epicurus DID say in VS 67 (above) that wealth should be shared … with friends or neighbors, not necessarily with the impersonal polis. Later Epicureans, like Thomas Jefferson, worried about the excesses of wealth disparity and called for the use of taxation to fix this problem.

Not Enough Sources Cited

The author does cite sources at times, but not often enough, and this is a bit problematic. For instance, when she claimed that the residents of the Garden were evading both politics AND business, I asked myself: What would be the source of that? I came across this potential source:

The love of money, if unjustly gained, is impious, and, if justly gained, is shameful; for it is unseemly to be parsimonious even with justice on one’s side. – Vatican Sayin 43

When arguing against “concentration of wealth”, or “greed”, maybe she should’ve cited her Lucretian and Epicurean sources in detail. One must particularly object to this in page 104:

Epicureans put no stock in the notion of individual desert, they are unmoved by arguments that the wealthy deserve their wealth and the poor do not deserve to partake of it.

The author, again, does not cite sources, and this seems to contradict Metrodorus’ instructions in Vatican Saying 45 that we should take pride in our own qualities, like our strength and self-sufficiency. I am unfamiliar with a source that would appear to justify “being unmoved by arguments” related to individual desert. VS 67 and a Philodeman scroll (Art of Property Management) advise that the wealthy should share their wealth with their friends–but this says nothing about “deserving” what one has.

The Importance of Mutual Advantage

In page 108, Wilson confuses the reader needlessly re: how laws can be just and yet not be of mutual benefit. Either she is contradicting the sources, or not expressing herself clearly. She could have easily cited PDs 37-38 on how rules may and do change.

I applaud that the author appeals to the importance of empirical data and sound science when discussing policy issues, like global warming and climate change. Empirical data is important. However, she did not mention how mutual advantage relates to policy. It is difficult or impossible to connect a philosophy of personal ethics like Epicureanism to policy at the level of state, or of community, without appealing to mutual advantage. If Wilson had appealed to the sources while explaining the concepts of justice / morality, she would have encountered repeated references to “mutual advantage” and this would have added credibility and clarity to her arguments.

If she had relied, again, on the first principles (in this case, the last ten of the Principal Doctrines), her explanation of how Epicurean philosophy provides moral guidance would have been much more cogent and complete. The fact that an area the size of Delaware has been declared unlivable in Louisiana has economic effects, and the building of new dams there and in other coastal regions would result in the spending of billions of dollars that would have to come from the pockets of tax payers. The problems generated by climate change are not abstract. If they are discussed in concrete, measurable, observable terms as they are directly experienced, then the issues of mutual advantage and disadvantage may be addressed. This is how Epicurean morality works, and Wilson wasted an opportunity to encourage her readers to philosophize like Epicureans about these issues.

There’s a reason why the founders made frequent appeals to memorize the sources. Epicurean ideas are much easier to explain and understand, and a lot more difficult to misconstrue or confuse, if they are explained from the sources. Our insistence on citing sources is not because we think Epicurus was infallible and we obey his unfailing authority. The arguments in the PDs, the VS and other sources were carefully articulated after hours and hours of discussion by the founders, and the words were carefully chosen for a reason–which it is our task to discern–, and by her failure to cite sources, the author risks sounding preachy, loses a bit of the clarity of her message, and reduces her credibility (as we’ve seen in some of her book’s reviews).

In one passage, the author tries to argue that a lack of justice in the afterlife (hell, or reincarnation) should not generate existential anxiety. Here, again, mutual advantage could have helped to explain that people are capable of being fair and moral without having to tremble in fear of hell. People who are cruel, exploitative, or unreliable, burn bridges with their fellow citizens and create many disadvantages for themselves and others. People who are fair, honest, and reliable, create many advantages for themselves and others.

Mutual advantage is also one of the most business-friendly principles in Epicurean doctrine, and it’s no surprise that Wilson’s defense of Epicureanism comes off as not business friendly. She barely mentioned this crucial component.

In Closing

These criticisms–as I said initially–do not take away from Wilson’s overall praiseworthy effort to promote Epicurean ideas. She has potentially initiated a conversation with her reader that–I hope–will contribute to her reader’s happiness. These efforts will always bear the mark of the idiosyncrasy of the proponent, and that is to be expected.

My goal in writing this post is to help students of Epicurean philosophy to connect the content to the sources, and to more critically read this and any other book inviting us to study Epicurean philosophy. For this reason, I invite readers of Wilson’s book to join us at the Garden of Epicurus Facebook group and share any questions you may have while reading this or other books.

Further Reading:

  Wrong Again? One more on Stoicism vs Epicureanism

A hostile review from the Wall Street Journal written by a Stoic

Another book review written by a capitalist who is critical of Wilson’s anti-capitalism: Not Quite the Playboy Life: A new book makes a spirited, if flawed, defense of Epicurean philosophy

How to be an Epicurean: A philosophy that values innocent pleasure, human warmth and the rewards of creative endeavour. What’s not to like?

Vatican Sayings – Brief Study Guide

Someday I dream we will have an online source for all the literary works in Epicurean philosophy, all in one place and searchable, with study guides, in various languages and with various translations available for comparison for the benefit of students of Epicurean Philosophy everywhere. I think of websites like Bible Gateway and some of the online Qur’an and Bhagavad Gita translation sites available online, where students can search for a subject or word, or systematically read and study a particular chapter. I envision this Epicurean site as including the entire ancient Epitome (the works of the founders), Elemental Epicureanism, On the Nature of Things, all the works by Philodemus, Diogenes’ Wall, Diogenes Laertius, and even A Few Days in AthensPerhaps it should even include some of Lucian’s worksAll of these works are worthy of careful study by sincere students of Epicurus, and have also accumulated a growing body of commentary by devoted readers that deserves to be preserved and built on. 

In the meantime, New Epicurean has been creating audio file on many subjects, and here’s a brief thematic study guide for the Vatican Sayings for beginners. As more study material becomes available, please stay appraised by joining our online forum and community at Epicurean Friends.com!

ON HAPPINESS

14. We have been born once and cannot be born a second time; for all eternity we shall no longer exist. But you, although you are not in control of tomorrow, are postponing your happiness. Life is wasted by delaying, and each one of us dies without enjoying leisure.

IN CELEBRATION OF WISDOM

27. The benefits of other activities come only to those who have already become, with great difficulty, complete masters of such pursuits, but in the study of philosophy pleasure accompanies growing knowledge; for pleasure does not follow learning; rather, learning and pleasure advance side by side.

32. The honor paid to a wise man is itself a great good for those who honor him.

36. Epicurus’s life when compared to that of other men with respect to gentleness and self-sufficiency might be thought a mere legend.

45. The study of nature does not create men who are fond of boasting and chattering or who show off the culture that impresses the many, but rather men who are strong and self-sufficient, and who take pride in their own personal qualities not in those that depend on external circumstances.

54. It is not the pretense but the real pursuit of philosophy that is needed; for we do not need the semblance of health but rather true health.

78. The noble man is chiefly concerned with wisdom and friendship; of these, the former is a mortal good, the latter an immortal one.

ON AUTARCHY

29. To speak frankly as I study nature I would prefer to speak in oracles that which is of advantage to all men even though it be understood by none, rather than to conform to popular opinion and thus gain the constant praise that comes from the many.

35. Don’t spoil what you have by desiring what you don’t have; but remember that what you now have was once among the things only hoped for.

71. Question each of your desires: “What will happen to me if that which this desire seeks is achieved, and what if it is not?”

67. Since the attainment of great wealth can scarcely be accomplished without slavery to crowds or to politicians, a free life cannot obtain much wealth; but such a life already possesses everything in unfailing supply. Should such a life happen to achieve great wealth, this too it can share so as to gain the good will of one’s neighbors.

68. Nothing is enough to someone for whom what is enough is little.

77. Freedom is the greatest fruit of self-sufficiency.

ON DEATH

31. It is possible to provide security against other things, but as far as death is concerned, we men all live in a city without walls.

ON FRIENDSHIP

34. We do not so much need the assistance of our friends as we do the confidence of their assistance in need.

61. Most beautiful is the sight of those close to us, when our original contact makes us of one mind or produces a great incitement to this end.

66. We show our feeling for our friends’ suffering, not with laments, but with thoughtful concern.

ON WHOLESOME CHARACTER

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

53. We must envy no one; for the good do not deserve envy and as for the bad, the more they prosper, the more they ruin it for themselves.

79. He who is calm disturbs neither himself nor another.

69. The thankless nature of the soul makes the creature endlessly greedy for variations in its lifestyle.

EPICUREAN ATTITUDE TOWARDS FATE

47. I have anticipated you, Fortune, and entrenched myself against all your secret attacks. And we will not give ourselves up as captives to you or to any other circumstance; but when it is time for us to go, spitting contempt on life and on those who here vainly cling to it, we will leave life crying aloud in a glorious triumph-song that we have lived well.

65. It is pointless for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to obtain by himself.

ON CONSOLATION

55. We should find solace for misfortune in the happy memory of what has been and in the knowledge that what has been cannot be undone.

A Concrete Self

The following is a portion of a book review of Why Buddhism is True, by Robert Wright.

I’ve tackled some of the problems related to the Buddhist doctrine of anatta–which posits that there is no self–in my review of Sam Harris’ Waking Up. Is the self a thing? Is it a mental function or a process? Depending on how we define the self, we may or may not find a self. In Why Buddhism is True, in order to prove that there is no-self, Wright limits discussion of the self to “the conscious self”, not the body, not the whole self, which reminds me of Cosma Raimondi’s argument about taking into consideration the whole of the human being. When the author speaks of the self as a “rational charioteer”–presumably meaning “conscious”?–, we are expected to accept that emotions or feelings are perceived as unconscious insofar as they are irrational, and that therefore there is no self, only nature acting as a puppeteer.

Another error in attempting to prove the doctrine of anatta goes back all the way to Siddhartha, the historical Buddha, and appears to be tied to the original Vedic and Hindu context. In the Bhagavad Gita and other Hindu scriptures, we find a defense of the idea of atman (the soul, in Sanskrit) as “the eternal aspect” of our self. This atman is sometimes described, interestingly, as an atomic particle. If Buddha could prove that there was nothing eternal in the sentient being, he could refute the doctrine of atman with a doctrine of anatta (no-self, in Pali). But what if the self, like all else, was real, just temporary? Why does the temporary conglomeration of certain conditions imply non-existence or non-reality? This does not follow, and so the arguments for the doctrine of anatta were, from the onset, flawed, because there is no atman to speak of in the first place. Selfhood does not need to be eternal in order to exist and be experienced as real by sentient beings. If the doctrine of anatta is reinterpreted to say that the self does not exist as_we_imagine_it_to_exist, then there is much more merit to the doctrine.

Now, in nature we see that even seemingly stable things like stones and mountains undergo geological processes over the aeons. We see that the trees can not exist without seeds sprouting, without solar light, without water, soil, and other elements, and that all things inter-exist. We see that, like all animals, we have millions of micro-organisms in our bellies without which we would not be able to properly digest our food: nothing exists in a vacuum. We are constantly exchanging particles with the rest of nature via breathing, acting, and eating. This recycling of particles between all things is poetically detailed early in the first book of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, inferring from phenomena like how the sea is replenished by rains, rivers, and other sources of water, and concluding that–since “nothing comes from nothing”–all things must deteriorate into the primal “germs” (that is, particles) that will make up new things:

Whence may the water-springs, beneath the sea,
Or inland rivers, far and wide away,
Keep the unfathomable ocean full?

And out of what does Ether feed the stars?
For lapsed years and infinite age must else
Have eat all shapes of mortal stock away:
But be it the Long Ago contained those germs,
By which this sum of things recruited lives,
Those same infallibly can never die,
Nor nothing to nothing evermore return.

If all other things in nature exist as processes, ever-changing, why must a member of the homo sapiens species exist as a Platonic essence, an eternal soul, an abstraction, an idea? Why can’t the self also be a process, just like the body and embedded within it, ever-changing from birth to death? Why can’t there be a concrete self, rather than an abstract self? What if, rather than a noun (self), we started referring to a process of ever becoming, which would more aptly describe what we are referring to–and yet doesn’t deny its reality as a felt experience of the sentient being?

The reason why Buddhists have not found a self is because they are not LOOKING for a CONCRETE self. They are looking for an abstraction, a Platonic “essence”, a Hindu atman. I believe that, with the help of Epicurean and Lucretian descriptions, and drawing strictly from the study of nature, it is possible for contemporary materialists to posit a theory of self that is corporeal, scientific, satisfying, and dynamic, to counter the Buddhist, nihilist, and other theories out there.

For the sake of clarity, Epicurean philosophy finds itself in the realist camp of this discussion–our position is pragmatic: we argue that the reality of the self matters. Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the Buddhists are on the anti-realist side of the debate.

To my knowledge, at least one scientific theory of concrete self has been advanced, and it has some of the features of the Buddhist doctrine of the aggregates (here described as “five dimensions”). It posits that the self is multitudinous and multi-disciplinary. Şerife Tekin presented her theory in an Aeon essay titled Self-Evident:

According to this model, the self is a dynamic, complex, relational and multi-aspectual mechanism of capacities, processes, states and traits that support a degree of agency. The multitudinous self has five distinct but functionally complementary dimensions: ecological, intersubjective, conceptual, private, and temporally extended. These dimensions work together to connect the individual to her body, her social world, her psychological world, and her environment.

Notice that Tekin mentions the feature of agency. Agency, or the ability to act over matter, is one of the attributes that proves the existence of a self Epicurean writings: a void can only be acted upon and has no agency. In other words, agency implies corporeal existence. In the Letter to Herotodus, Epicurus argues that the soul is made up of atoms, that it exists fully embedded into the body and provides it with sentience. As proof that it is corporeal, Epicurus cites how–unlike empty space–it can act and be acted upon.

There is the further point to be considered, what the incorporeal can be, if, I mean, according to current usage the term is applied to what can be conceived as self-existent. But it is impossible to conceive anything that is incorporeal as self-existent except empty space. And empty space cannot itself either act or be acted upon, but simply allows body to move through it. Hence those who call soul incorporeal speak foolishly. For if it were so, it could neither act nor be acted upon. But, as it is, both these properties, you see, plainly belong to soul.

What else does Epicurean tradition have to say regarding the concrete soul? In the Letter to Herodotus, Epicurus argues:

Next, keeping in view our perceptions and feelings (for so shall we have the surest grounds for belief), we must recognize generally that the soul is a corporeal thing, composed of fine particles, dispersed all over the frame … Still, it would not have had sensation, had it not been somehow confined within the rest of the frame.

Epicurus believed that the “soul” particles were finer or more subtle than other particles in the body. Contemporary science, instead, gives us the neurological system which, like the Epicurean soul, is entirely embedded into the body. It runs through the nervous system and is concentrated in two main organs: the brain, and the stomach–which contains enough neurons to be about the size of the brain of a small dog or cat. The Letter to Herodotus says that it is the soul that gives the body sentience.

But the rest of the frame, though it provides this indispensable conditions for the soul, itself also has a share, derived from the soul, of the said quality; and yet does not possess all the qualities of soul. Hence on the departure of the soul it loses sentience. For it had not this power in itself; but something else, congenital with the body, supplied it to body: which other thing, through the potentiality actualized in it by means of motion, at once acquired for itself a quality of sentience, and, in virtue of the neighborhood and interconnection between them, imparted it (as I said) to the body also.

Hence, so long as the soul is in the body, it never loses sentience through the removal of some other part. The containing sheaths may be dislocated in whole or in part, and portions of the soul may thereby be lost; yet in spite of this the soul, if it manage to survive, will have sentience. But the rest of the frame, whether the whole of it survives or only a part, no longer has sensation, when once those atoms have departed, which, however few in number, are required to constitute the nature of soul.

That the soul is corporeal and mortal, and leaves the body at the moment of death, is also argued by Lucretius in De Rerum Natura. There are other materialist theories of self that do not contradict, but in fact may add support to, the theories here presented. In a previous essay, I echoed a materialist conception of identity based on habitual behavior, which not only recognizes the concrete and changing self, but allows for the possibility of cultivation or sculpting of an ethically better self, that is, moral development–a subject that is very in tune with natural philosophy:

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” –Will Durant

To the extent that habitual behavior is unconscious or subconscious, it can be said to be a crystallized–even if capable of change or evolution–part of the self. This is a different way of thinking about identity, and yet it does not contradict Tekin’s model.

FEELINGS AS ARBITERS OF THOUGHT

In Why Buddhism is True, feelings are explained as **the** value-setting faculty. The author is really a champion of the primacy of feelings over reason in human behavior, arguing that the cognitive and effective / emotional functions are very intertwined. This is the premise behind Epicurean cognitive therapy: that reason and feeling can coach each other.

Feelings are, among other things, your brain’s way of labeling the importance of thoughts, and importance (in natural selection’s somewhat crude sense of the term) determines which thoughts enter consciousness. – Why Buddhism is True (p. 119)

Feelings tell us what to think about, and after all the thinking is done, they tell us what to do. – Why Buddhism is True (p. 124)

Read the rest of the review here.

Review of “De l’inhumanité de la religion”

I know not what a man is, I only how his price. – Bertolt Brecht

After reading and commenting on Michel Onfray’s literature for an English speaking audience in an attempt to fill the gap created by the lack of English translations of his work, I decided to also write a review of the book De l’inhumanité de la religion” by the French-speaking Belgian author Raoul Vaneigem, which is also unavailable in English. Both books were adamantly recommended–and for a good reason!–by the Las Indias bloggers on their youtube channel on the occasion of the Día del Libro (the Day of the Book). Fortunately for me, Spanish is my first language and French is my third language–which I do not get to practice often–so I take a very particular pleasure in delving into provocative philosophical literature in Romance languages. It’s the kind of intellectual challenge that I live for!

There’s a reason why I took a particular interest in this book. In the past, in the piece Poverty: Secularism’s True Enemy, I’ve argued that we cannot create a REAL secular movement to defend the West from obscurantism and from the many evils of religion, unless and until we also fight the battle against poverty. This piece cites and relies heavily on research on how religiosity is statistically linked to poverty, high crime rates, low levels of educational achievement, and other societal dysfunctions. The most complete meta-study on this is by Paul Gregory. Please feel free to read that article and scan through its sources as a preamble to the intellectual feast that Vaneigem serves, and to help contextualize this discussion.

The Agricultural Enclosure as Religion’s Cradle

De l’inhumanité de la religion argues that there are material reasons for the rise of religion. Vaneigem describes how life changed for our precursors who lived at the dawn of the agricultural era in l’enclos agraire (the agricultural enclosure) and argues that the beginnings of organized religion can be traced there.

Prior to the agricultural revolution, human society was not nearly as stratified as it became later with agriculture, which created the need for the exploitation of human labor on a grand scale by more organized, and more dehumanized, societies. It is this problem of labor as dehumanization that Vaneigem focuses on, and on how religious conceptions–particularly those of sacrifice, including blood sacrifice and the Biblical “curse” of daily toil–became a prominent part of man’s worldview, reducing him to the state of a beast of burden.

Vaneigem argues that in the Neolithic Era, the man of desire and creation became separated from the man of production and market. Man turned libido into quantities of work and felt an “existential trouble”. While some thinkers have sought to solve this problem by advising revolutionary methods, the author notes that even Marx’s revolt alienates the individual and kills his joy because it keeps man in toil for the sake of the collective: man in socialism or communism still lives for the sake of others.

“The Spirit” as Enforcer of Labor

The celestial lie merely countersigns the truth of terrestrial exploitation and endorses the purchase of those who resign themselves.

Epicurus established the doctrine of the swerve to wage war against the tyranny of heaven and “heavenly destiny”. To accept one’s fate–one’s curse–when one is poor, or even middle-class, almost invariably means to toil and labor in submission. Let’s revisit one of the initial curses that the Bible casts upon man.

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your lifeBy the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” – Genesis 3:17-19

Before man was “cast out” of the primal hunter gatherer paradise, not only was there abundance in a manner that had been sustaining humans for millennia, but also people had worked only two hours on average per day to get food.

The Supreme Being as enforcer of labor is not only found in the Bible. In the East, the four caste system is also believed to have been established for all eternity by the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna himself, as related in the Gita.

According to the three modes of material nature and the work associated with them, the four divisions of human society are created by Me. – Shri Krishna, in Bhagavad Gita 4.13

Vaneigem does a good job of addressing the proverbial Platonic split between spirit and flesh in terms of how it affects man’s existential relationship to enforced labor. He talks about how “spirit dominates, matter is dominated“, how spirit “mutilates the body“, and how belief in spirit is alienation and objectifies real persons and bodies.

The author notes how desires, joy, and sex can usually only be entertained by night, and sometimes in shame, because they are “useless” (that is, they constitute leisure activities and do not lead to profit for the exploiters of man), and because by day we have to work. Therefore, the Platonic split has been experienced by man in terms of how we divide our night and day activities, with toil being experienced as violence perpetrated on the body and on nature by day, while at night dreams reveal “the secret scripture of the body“.

Among the other existential repercussions of enforced labor, the most prevalent one and the one easiest to quantify and observe in our society is in public health. It is sometimes claimed that around 75% of hospital visits have their origins in stress-related psychosomatic symptoms:

The pleasure of being was replaced with the anxious greed of having.

Raoul Vaneigem is quite direct and lucid in his French, and the best way to introduce key ideas in the book is by letting him speak in direct translation.

The divine power is born from the powerlessness to which the economy condemns man from the moment that it snatches him from life to reduce him to labor. The idea of God as creator …. master of man or arbiter of his fate is the sham of a system where the true specifically human power, creation, is dissolved by the need to work.

… Contrary to what has been … proclaimed throughout the centuries, the weakness of man is not inherent to his nature. It comes from his denaturalization, his renouncement of the only privilege that distinguishes him from the other kingdoms: the faculty to recreate the world with the goal of enjoying the creation of his own destiny.

The pillage of man’s creation for the benefit of the few, or the many, or for the benefit of some abstraction, was carried out according to the logic of sacrificial religiosity, but Vaneigem argues that it emerges from the predatory instinct on the part of those in power, and with the assistance of clergies.

It is here that the author elaborates an interesting claim that I also put forward years ago in a piece for Partially Examined Life titled Religion as Play. He argues that, prior to the agricultural revolution when most humans were hunter-gatherers, natural religion in its original form was a form of play. He thinks that initially, pre-ritual behavior was play, and was innocent and retained child-like elements. But then, when agriculture created the need for labor, those who attained power acquired the assistance of the priests who introduced the perversion of “sacred terror”, and ritualized play, slowly absorbing the playfulness, spontaneity and innocence into formal ritual. The conception of the sacred destroyed ritual as play, and terror inspired instead obedience, conformity, submission. We are reminded of the Biblical conception of the sacred, “kedosh”, which implies both separateness as well as that which is taboo, forbidden, which must not be named lest we disrespect it.

If Vaneigem is right, this greatly endorses Epicurus’ claim that the original goal of religion is to cultivate pure, unalloyed pleasure. We may be able to revisit the precursor of religion–play–and purge it from sacred terror in order to explore a natural spirituality inspired in Epicurean primitivism.

Nature Versus the Market

Where the market is everything, man is nothing.

In positing a “market denaturalization”, the author is also saying that there is a tension between nature and market.

One problem created by this tension has to do with how scarcity is profitable for some people, who have it among their interests to sometimes introduce scarcity in order to artificially increase profits. Not only is scarcity profitable, but frequently in consumerist society the values of exchange and of use do not match, yet the logic of the market, of profit, and of scarcity continues to operate even when it comes to items of first need. This breeds misery, but also violence.

In Naturalist Reasoning on Friendship, I argued that human behavior follows two patterns that have parallels in two ape societies: the abundance paradigm among the bonobo produces societies of cooperation and where “make love, not war” seems to be the law, whereas the chimpanzees are more hierarchical and much more violent. This has been explained by the fact that chimpanzees grew up isolated from bonobos, separated by a river, and the bonobos never had to fight over food and resources thanks to the abundance in their territory, while chimpanzees had faced scarcity throughout their evolutionary history, so they learned to compete and fight. Similar patterns of increased violence can be seen in human societies marked by scarcity versus those that enjoy abundance.

Corruption, with its antithetical spirit of purity and impurity, has no better guarantor than poverty. Its determination to destroy school, housing, transportation, natural agriculture, industry useful to society, returns with the old tradition of religious obscurantism which is so good for business.

The author argues that openness of the markets kills religion, and that historically there has been tension between the agricultural enclosure (l’enclos agraire)–which is isolated and favors religion–and the cosmopolitan openness of the market, which introduces foreign ideologies and encourages us to question our in-group doctrine. We can evaluate Trumpism, Brexit, Le Pen and similar movements–with their destruction of trade agreements and distrust of all things foreign–as religious/national provincialism of the sort that Vaneigem talks about, where people marginalized by neoliberal economic totalitarianism seek refuge in the familiar.

Another way in which nature and the market are in tension is by two problems caused by excessive consumption: 1. the environmental ills and 2. the impoverished and enslaved state brought about by massive debt. Consumerism and lucrative inutility–the frequent lack of relation between the use value and the monetary value of things–breed alienation, insatiable desires, as well as debt, which breeds wage slavery.

Vaneigem also mentions the separate issue of birth control as it relates to religion and poverty. Unable to produce more subjects by having children of their own, priests encourage people to over-breed irresponsibly, regardless of the prospects that these children will have of being able to live a pleasant life, get a good education, and escape the vicious cycle of poverty. In the case of some very dysfunctional Catholic societies, like what we see in Mexico, this also produces problems like the ones I described in Unwanted Children at the Border and the Evil Legacy of Catholicism.

Conclusion

For millennia, people have woven their identity around labor and have not know real freedom. For this reason Vaneigem says that, even after they have abandoned wishful thinking, “the widows of their oppression turn back to religion, not knowing who they are without it“. He inspiringly concludes his book by offering solutions to this problem and calling for a life-affirming philosophy. This includes a call to heal the Platonic split: we must restore the unity of body and conscience.

The aborted desires engender the Gods, the engendered desires will abort them … God and his avatars are nothing more than the phantoms of a mutilated body.

Only the aspiration to live will allow the passing of religion.

Some of the quotes from the book sound like paraphrases of things Epicurus would have said. For instance, the paradigm created when we stop trying to exploit nature and other humans reminds us of Epicurus’ teaching that we should “not force nature”.

Nature is called to escape oppressive work which denaturalizes it. The land is no longer a territory for conquest, but the site of the creation of infinite joys.

Towards the end of the book, Vaneigem offers the image of the type of creative well that we must become for ourselves in the process of self-creation, which reminds me of Lucian’s Well of Laughter. The book does a great job of revisiting Epicurean primitivism and calling for a return to an alignment with nature. It also reminds me of the third principle of autarchy drawn from Philodemus’ scroll On Property Management, which states: “the philosopher does not toil”. As we are increasingly replaced with robots, our need to reinvent labor, and the Epicurean gospel of living lives of pleasure and freedom, will become more of a moral imperative: the kind that will ultimately decide whether we build a dystopia or a utopia.

Further Reading:

Philodemus’ scroll on the Art of Property Management

 De l’inhumanité de la religion

 

SoFE Journal Volume 11 – 2016-2017

Articles

Hiram Crespo
“Parallel Sayings” Buddhist Meme Series
January 23, 2016

Hiram Crespo
The Punctured Jar Parable
March 20, 2016

Hiram Crespo
Cyrenaic Reasonings
August 5, 2016

Alan Furth
Tending the Epicurean Garden, by Hiram Crespo
September 4, 2016

Friends of Epicurus
Dialogue on Virtue
September 5, 2016

Society of Epicurus
Society of Epicurus Publishes Epitome in Esperanto
September 20, 2016

Friends of Epicurus
Dialogue on the Search for Meaning
October 8, 2016

Hiram Crespo
Hermarchus on the Ethics of Vegetarianism and Treatment of Animals
October 24, 2016

Matt Jackson
The Gods of the Garden, the God of the Mount and the Absolute
February 5, 2017

Society of Epicurus
Panhellenic Symposium of Epicurean Philosophy, Greetings from Hiram Crespo, Founder of SoFE
February 24, 2017

Hiram Crespo
Essays About Nietzsche’s Will to Power
February 27, 2017

Hiram Crespo
The Bonobo and the Atheist Book Review
March 2, 2017

Hiram Crespo
The Taoist Hedonism of Yang Chu
March 7, 2017

Friends of Epicurus
Self-Guided Study Curriculum
March 20, 2017

Lucian of Samosata
Alexander the Oracle Monger
March 27, 2017

Hiram Crespo / Digenes of Oenoanda
Gleanings from Diogenes’ Wall
April 15, 2017

Friends of Epicurus
Self-Guided Study Curriculum
March 20, 2017

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Tending the Epicurean Garden, by Hiram Crespo

The following is the English-language translation of the Spanish-language review of the book Tending the Epicurean Garden, in its first Spanish edition, which was originally written by Alan Furth for the Las Indias Blog (the link of which is no longer live, unfortunately).

Following the publication of the English translation of David’ post on Epicurus (“Fraternity, subversion, pigs and asparagus“), we contacted Hiram Crespo, with whom we have since maintained an enriching conversation about the role that Epicurean philosophy can play in the revival of the ancient therapeutic function of philosophy, a role that is becoming increasingly necessary in a world in accelerated decomposition.

Hiram is the founder of the Society of Friends of Epicurus and has just published a book that I had the pleasure of reading over the past two weeks.

The book is a condensed but comprehensive introduction to the basic principles and practice of Epicurean philosophy. But it also provides an interesting interpretation of the teachings of Epicurus from the point of view of positive psychology, neuroscience and other scientific disciplines that today corroborate much of the legacy of the master. Given the prominence of Epicurus as one of the first philosophers to defend the need to study science to get rid of our irrational fears, this aspect of the book is itself a tribute to his memory. One can not help thinking that, were he alive today, he would have expanded the focus of his teachings to address these issues.

The Road to Ataraxia

epicurusThroughout the book, Hiram breaks down the elements that Epicurus regarded as indispensable to achieve ataraxia, that state of imperturbability and serenity that would allow his disciples to live a genuinely pleasant life.

The road to ataraxia that Epicurus invites us to tread is fundamentally minimalist: although we are not called to give up the “kinetic” pleasures–those pleasures we enjoy as a result of achieving a more or less structured plan of action, like playing, engaging in sports, eating, drinking, or having sex–, those are considered secondary and potentially dangerous for their ability to cause restlessness, addictions, and generally to divert us away from ataraxia, particularly if they degenerate into a pursuit of the more destructive unnatural and unnecessary desires, like the lust for power, fame, glory and other delusions.

By contrast, Epicurus considers the “katastematic” or stable (abiding) pleasures to be essential. These are defined as those that nurture a state of inner harmony through the absence of pain of body and soul–a “soul” that is defined here in a strictly naturalistic sense, understood as the and neurological or nervous system, as everything that today we refer to as the psyche of an individual. And to eliminate the pain of the soul, Epicurus proposed several basic remedies, among which are philosophical reflection and cultivation of friendship, of true community.

The Analyzed Life 

For Epicurus, philosophical reflection was primarily aimed at freeing us from prejudices and irrational beliefs that become a source of anxiety and fears of all kinds. Perhaps the best known example is his argument against the fear of death, but the general idea is that irrational passions–from excessive appetite for food and sex to irascibility and arrogance–generally are based on irrational beliefs, and that if we clarify the contradictions inherent in these beliefs, we will be liberated from the tyranny of the passions which support them.

Hiram also reminds us that much of this capacity to analyze our lives has to do with the simple–but not always easy–task of learning to focus our attention and direct it so that we may become aware of our habits and automatic forms of behavior: the analysed life is not necessarily only based on an advanced development of the faculties of reflection beyond the proper control of attention. This is perhaps one of the reasons why contemporary movements, like existential minimalism, are largely dedicated to the cultivation of mindfulness in a hyper-connected world that is increasingly full of banal distractions. But while in the blogosphere of existential minimalism, metaphors and meditation exercises inspired by Zen Buddhism abound, Hiram’s book reminds us that there is no need to go beyond our own very rich tradition of Western thought to find inspiration in this regard.

Attention is the tool used by our minds to give us a model of reality: if we misuse it and let our minds dissipate in every direction like a running river, we’ll get lost in the cracks of inertia and habit. By living according to our firm resolve to create pleasant lives and by paying attention, we make sure that is it we who captain the boat of the mind, and not the pirates of our unconscious tendencies.

The purest happiness requires full attention and is a way of being, not a way of thinking or seeking. At the moment that we make the observation that we are happy, we are moving away … from our experience through the act of observing it, and if we were, for example, entranced dancing and listening to music … now the experience is less ecstatic. The bubble breaks.

The calculated and rational hedonistic theory of philosophy is vehemently opposed to the hedonism of instant gratification commonly practiced today, which is not Epicurean at all. It requires a preliminary process of introspection, to distinguish between necessary and unnecessary desires.

Friendship

David (de Ugarte) reminded us in his post that, above all else, what made Epicurus truly subversive was his strong sense of communal fraternity:

Like the Mithraics, who seem to have been influenced (by Epicurus) to a lesser extent than the Stoics, the Epicureans seem to intuit Dunbar‘s number. Not only are they preaching the apolitical stance, but they divide their communities so as to not be so many that fraternity can not be enjoyed, which in practice seems to be as important as freedom for the pursuit of happiness.

The fact that Hiram is committed to the growth of the Society of Friends of Epicurus already speaks for itself, but also in his book he makes it clear that he could not agree more with David regarding the prominence of fraternity as a fundamental value of Epicurean philosophy:

It is one thing to read and learn these lessons from a book, but quite another to learn them from close friends who wish us well, who express this affection, and remind us that death is nothing to us. This wholesome friendship makes all the difference. The experience of the teachings of philosophy is much more comforting when it’s acquired in the context of affiliation.

That is why Epicurean therapy only can be lived fully and concisely within a community of like-minded friends, and the task of building and nurturing a network of such friends should be seen as one of the most important long-term projects for every Epicurean philosopher.

Synthetic Happiness

One of the reflections that I like the most about Hiram’s book is the way in which he rescues the concept of “synthetic happiness” as posed by Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness, in light of Epicurean philosophy.

In his book, Gilbert demonstrates an enormous amount of empirical evidence–experimental and otherwise–according to which the human being has a kind of psychological immune system that allows us to maintain a stable level of psychic well-being regardless of external circumstances. For example, Gilbert refers to a study that analyzed data measuring the levels of psychological well-being of people who have won millions in the lottery and comparing them with those of people left paraplegic.

Surprisingly, the study concludes that differences in welfare levels of both groups are not significant after a year of winning the lottery or losing a limb. That’s why Gilbert tells us that happiness is synthetic: our psyche has the ability to manufacture it regardless of external events, and the quality of that manufactured happiness is as genuine as that obtained when one stumbles upon a lucky event in life. Happiness is not something we have to strive to find: it is the natural state of a truly healthy psyche.

This TED talk transmits a clearer picture of what Gilbert wants to convey in his book, and illustrates other interesting experiments that support his theory.

One of the fundamental conclusions that Gilbert arrives at in his book, is that the fact that we are surprised to learn that paraplegics are as happy as the lucky winners of a million dollar lottery, says a lot about how likely we are to have a strong irrational bias that prevents us from predicting the factors that contribute genuinely to our happiness.

As a corollary of this conclusion, one might then ask about the socio-cultural factors that reinforce this irrational bias which, ultimately, prevent us from seeing what Epicurus has been telling us for centuries, and which is right under our noses: that pleasure is easy to obtain and suffering is easy to bear.

And it almost irresistibly evident that among the socio-cultural factors that reinforce this bias are the artificially inflated production scales which are predominant in crony capitalism. Or as Gilbert puts it in his TED talk:

Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we want, and synthetic happiness is what we manufacture when we do not get what we want. And in our society, we have a strong bias to believe that synthetic happiness is of an inferior quality. And why do we have that belief? Well, it’s very simple. What kind of economic engine would work if we believed that not getting what you want can make us as happy as getting it?

It is an extremely interesting question. And our attempts to answer it will surely continue to generate discussions that will enrich the discourse on what it means to live an interesting life: a pleasant life like the one that Epicurus invites us to live.

Originally written by Alan Furth for the Las Indias Blog.

Further Reading from the Las Indias collective:

The Book of Community (SoFE Review here)

Tending the Epicurean Garden
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Book Review of Epicurus and Apikorsim

The following is a review of the book Epicurus & Apikorsim. The Influence of The Greek Epicurus and Jewish Apikorsim on Judaism, by Yaakov Malkin.

Do not fear the Gods. – Philodemus of Gadara
Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. – Ecclesiastes 12:13

Apikorsim is the term used in the rabbinic Judaism for a heretic. The word originates in the term Epicurean, and testifies to the huge threat that Epicurus’ doctrine posed to the religious life of the Jews during the hellenistic era. In fact, it was the intense hellenization of Judea that prompted the radicalization of religious Jews under the Maccabees, and Philonides of Laodicea contributed to this process as an Epicurean missionary.

When I began reading the book, after watching a video where the author seems to refer to Apikorsim as just a euphemism for secularism, I wanted to know whether he had a clear understanding of Epicurean doctrine. I did not find an introduction to Epicurus’ canon, but I was very happy to find that, early in the book, Malkin accurately explains the physics and the ethics of Epicurus. After finishing the book, I believe that the lack of thorough familiarity with the canon was a minor weakness, as it would have helped him to much better articulate why we Epicureans believe what we believe, and it would have helped to more clearly express some of the ideas in the book. He mentions the “principles of justice”, for instance, but no clear details are given and no mention is made of hedonic calculus.

He also accentuates the importance of friendship, and even cites the moral example of Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the founder of the Secular Humanist Jewish denomination who beautifully embodied the ideals of friendship in his own life. This is in line with both Epicurean and Jewish traditions: in Israel, the rabbis are frequently treated as pop celebrities. Like other Jewish denominations, SHJ also boasts compilations of traditions, interpretations, anecdotes and teachings by humanist rabbis which comprise their own separate wisdom tradition within Judaism.

After doing this, he is concerned to show Apikorsim not always as Epicureans in the full doctrinal sense, but as a sister historical tradition to hellenistic Epicureanism, one descended from it yet distinct, and characterised by being an affront to orthodox Jewish religious views, as well as by the tension between being part of a people and being an individual with views that are at odds with the majority of one’s people. Like many other aspects of Judaism, concerned as it was initially with God’s supposed role in history, the Apikorsim identity for Malkin is a historical narrative, an atheistic counter-history of Judaism. When detailing the specific beliefs of the Apikorsim, Malkin cites three main points.

  1. Belief in free choice and in man’s sovereignty
  2. The importance of enjoyment and in bettering life; in fact, elsewhere he characterizes Epicureanism as a philosophy that improves life
  3. Belief in the prudent pursuit of pleasure

Concerning this last point of Apikorsim doctrine, Malkin defends it and says that happiness is anti-religion, that it is un-Christian, a provocation of the church. Hedonism is recognized as another key point of contention with religion.

Apikorsim can in theory be as orthodox as any other Epicurean, although they do not strictly have to be Epicurean in Milken’s narrative–he cites the rabbis arguing that Spinoza was “the greatest of the Apikorsim”, which again reminds us that the Apikorsim label originates with the rabbis. Orthodox or not, they are kindred spirits, and the cross-fertilization of Epicurean and Jewish ideas is facilitated by a shared iconoclastic (idol-smashing) attitude in both traditions, which encouraged the Apikorsim to smash the Jewish god like the last idol standing long before Nietzsche and Richard Dawkins made the clarion call to do so.

One key argument the author makes is that Jewish culture has always been diverse and boasts a lively non-religious and anti-clerical intellectual tradition, one that was at one point greatly influenced by the ideas of Epicurus, that replaced the centrality of God in Judaism with the laws of nature, and that sees orthodox Judaism as “a mythological culture”.

It becomes clear as we read this book that apikorsim is a label and identity that was initially imposed by hostile religious Jews with derision, that is it is imposed from outside by rabbis (the so-called “sages of the Talmud”) who cursed and argued against the Apikorsim amongst them, but then the author takes the historical label used generically for atheistic Jews throughout history, and wears it proudly. He argues that atheistic Jews have always existed, and that they’re also part of Judaism, that Jews are not a people of only one religion or only one philosophy. Apikorsim are now out and proud as one of the philosophical tribes who have always existed at the margins of Judaism for millenia, as attested in ancient writings.

Some of the assertions of the book seem a bit forced. Ecclesiastes and Job are characterized as Epicurean works. Judging from the initial quotes in my review, it’s easy to admit similarities and influence, but difficult to argue that Ecclesiastes is an Epicurean book in the strict sense. It does say that this is the one life, and that we should enjoy and be merry, and it does deny the existence of an afterlife. As for Job, Malkin argues that it rejects that god is just and says nature is neutral, that it is an existentialist and atheistic book where God makes a pact with the devil to destroy the life of Job. It depicts God as an anti-hero, a villain. This, again, seems forced as an argument that it’s an Epicurean work, as the teachings consider such evil fairy tales as impious.

Not the man who denies the gods worshipped by the multitude, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them is truly impious. – Epistle to Menoeceus

One strong point of Epicurus & Apikorsim is the severe critique of Plato, who is frequently characterized as a totalitarian philosopher who has left a heinous legacy which influenced the Christian Empire during the Dark Ages and many other evil and authoritarian regimes throughout history. The author also frequently cites Norman DeWitt, and says that his “book is one of the most comprehensive” on the subject of Epicurus. DeWitt is, indeed, considered one of the most important scholars by traditional Epicureans, and a good one to read if we want to get a glimpse of Epicurus on his own terms.

One interesting thesis presented by the author says that Epicurean principles guide the way in which we approach the tensions between free market economy and the welfare state. He cites consumerism as an example of Epicurean influence in modern culture, which it is not, in fact it’s a sign of lack of Epicurean insight within the culture. Epicurus gave us a curriculum for controling our desires, and former Uruguayan president Jose Mujica specifically cites Epicurus as a role model against consumerist values. Malkin is right, however, to antagonize traditional religion’s irresponsible doctrine that unbridled reproduction without fighting poverty is a good idea. A healthy model of economic growth is always needed.

The thesis is interesting, and we concede many of his points. In fact one letter by the Epicurean American founding father Thomas Jefferson was recently dug up where he argued that capitalism required protections against war-profiteering. This has been a recent topic of discussion in the Epicurean facebook group.

Towards the end of the book, Malkin discusses the legacy of Hiwi Al-Balkhi, one of the great Apikorsim cultural heroes. His writings were preserved only by hostile sources arguing against the anti-religious points he made.

Afterthought and Conclusion: a Covenant of Friendship

One afterthought that occured to me, having read this great volume, has to do with Epicurean contractarianism and what it may contribute to SHJ’s way of articulating its own identity within a legalistic, covenant-based tradition such as Judaism. In religious Judaism, the covenant comes from God and is imposed against the will of the “chosen”. A secular appropriation and re-interpretation of the covenant might be what Michel Onfray calls the “hedonic covenant”, where “I promote your pleasure in order to secure my own”. Might the secular humanist denomination of Judaism be able and willing to apply the contractarian theory to develop a working model of communitarian ethics, and to articulate in contractarian terms what kind of community it seeks to become?

Mitzvot (duties, commandments) are a central concept in Judaism, however they cannot emerge from God in a secular covenant of free men and women, but only from free agents engaging in binding contracts and oaths, so that if someone makes an agreement with others to follow this or that rule, then Apikorsim mitzvot are born. Otherwise, it is problematic to argue for a duty-based ethics without God or some kind of (potentially oppressive) caste system. A covenant of friendship might set the terms not only for what courtesies the members of SHJ owe each other, but also for what celebrations and traditions they will carry forward as choosing Jews, and can also serve to explore the nature of egalitarian friendship in clear terms. It would be an opportunity to philosophize around the pleasures of friendship. What could be more Epicurean?

Epicurus & Apikorsim is an important contribution to the history of Epicurean ideas, and unfortunately also the history of the persecution and violence that these ideas have encountered by the religious authorities. It’s also a proud affirmation of their value, and even reaffirms the theory that Epicureanism is, indeed, a kind of religious identity on par with Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and the rest. And like all identities, it is reinforced when for its sake people experience violence and abuse from others, as has been the case with the Apikorsim.

Finally, the book is also an affirmation of Jewishness, and of Jewish resilience and survival. Ataraxia here becomes Shalom, and natural philosophy syncretizes with cultural traditions unique to one people, seeking to reconcile the unending tension between nature and culture.

Judaism is unique in that it’s not just a religious tradition: it’s also ethnic and cultural, the product of a complicated history. Non-religious Jews have frequently felt like strangers in a strange land governed by superstition and religion, oftentimes hated by their religious peers. In fact, the author of Epicurus & Apikorsim recently received threats as a result of his work promoting secularism in Israel. In the end, Malkin’s work and the work of the SHJ denomination is meant to preserve the culturally-Jewish identity of secular Jews, whom the orthodox Jewish authorities oftentimes scare away. Apikorsim is, after all, part of the Jewish experience.

Further Reading:

Epicurus & Apikorsim. The Influence of The Greek Epicurus and Jewish Apikorsim on Judaism
Tending the Epicurean Garden

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Review of The Book of Community

The following five reasonings comprise, together, a long and in-depth review of The Book of Community, by the collective of bloggers known as Los Indianos.

The members of Las Indias make up a coop whose communal experiments have been inspired, in part, by Epicurus’ Garden, and who have written in the past about Epicurean philosophy. In my exchanges with them, many new insights have emerged that expand our understanding of key Epicurean concepts.

One of the most fruitful conversations has been the natural community discourse, which differentiates between Platonic, imagined communities versus real, inter-subjective and interpersonal communities. This distinction is much more crucial than we may initially think. Indianos argue against involvement in politics based on the view that it replaces natural community with Platonic, imagined identities that do not necessarily constitute real communal life, real conversation and interaction. They even argue that Epicurean cosmopolitanism was a reaction again the citizen identity conferred by the polis–city-state–and that the early Gardens constituted communal experiments timidly suggestive of the ideals of statelessness. While reading the book, further insights emerged on the subject of natural community. Here is a quote from the review:

The Book of Community, among other things, expands on a conversation that inspired me to blog about natural community based on some of the insights that the Indianos have shared on their blog … Indianos interestingly cite how in 1993, Robin Dunbar published a study that predicted “the maximum size of a human group” to be 147.8. This is known as the Dunbar number, interpreted as “the cognitive limit in the number of individuals with whom any person can maintain stable relationships“. This seems to not only vindicate the doctrine on natural community which was initially formulated as a result of my exchange with the Indianos, but also attaches a specific number of individuals to the size of a natural community.

In the book, they explain in detail the lathe biosas teaching on why political involvement is bad for organic communities because manufactured narratives tend to compete with communal ones, they call for the use of ceremony in order to strengthen community, they celebrate autarchy and criticize the narrative of the “common good”. Please enjoy the five-part series of articles on community.

Part I: Book Review
Part II: Community Vs. Polis
Part III: Ceremony
Part IV: On Productive Autonomy
Part V: Learning in Community

Further Reading:

The Book of Community: A practical guide to working and living in community

English translation of Las Indias’ Review of Tending the Epicurean Garden