Author Archives: Hiram

About Hiram

Hiram is an author from the north side of Chicago who has written for The Humanist, Infidels, Ateistas de Puerto Rico, El Nuevo Dia, and other publications. He blogs at The Autarkist and is the author of Tending the Epicurean Garden (Humanist Press, 2014), How to Live a Good Life (Penguin Random House, 2020) and Epicurus of Samos – His Philosophy and Life: All the principal Classical texts Compiled and Introduced by Hiram Crespo (Ukemi Audiobooks, 2020). He earned a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies from NEIU.

Philodemus’ Method of Studying and Cultivating the Virtues

The following essay is the first in a blog series that was written as a book review of The Ethics of Philodemus.

The Ethics of Philodemus is a great introduction to the legacy of Philodemus of Gadara, who taught Epicurean philosophy to the father-in-law of Caesar during the first century in Herculaneum. He had studied under Diogenes of Sidon, who was the Scholarch of the School of Athens–an Epicurean Patriarch with direct lineage going back to Epicurus and Hermarchus. Many of his scrolls are notes that he took while studying under the Scholarch, and his legacy is the fruit of two centuries of living Epicurean tradition.

Defining the Terms

First of all, Herodotus, we must grasp the ideas attached to words, in order that we may be able to refer to them and so to judge the inferences of opinion or problems of investigation or reflection, so that we may not either leave everything uncertain and go on explaining to infinity or use words devoid of meaning. – Epicurus, in his Letter to Herodotus

Among his scrolls, we find a series of writings on the virtues and their corresponding vices. Concerning the word usually translated as virtue, one of our fellow students in the Garden of Epicurus Facebook group argued that virtue has many negative connotations, as it’s tied to Christian ideas of morality, and since Christianity is at war with the body and sexuality and pleasure, this may be an inadequate word to use today. According to Wikipedia,

Arete (Greek: ἀρετή), in its basic sense, means “excellence” of any kind. The term may also mean “moral virtue”. In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one’s full potential.

The correct Epicurean understanding of the virtues (aretai, meaning excellences) involves them being not ends in themselves, but means to a life of pleasure. Since Epicurus taught that we should use words as commonly used, I will henceforward use the term excellences for the sake of clarity.

Efficient Means to Pleasure

It’s important not to confuse the means for the end, but–as we will see–disregarding the means is as much of a mistake as confusing the ends. The excellences are important for a happy life (insofar as they relate to our dispositions and habits), and must be properly studied and understood. This is what Epicurus has to say of them:

Prudence is more valuable than philosophy and is the source of every other excellence, teaching us that it is not possible to live pleasantly without also living wisely and nobly and justly, nor to live wisely and nobly and justly without living pleasantly. For the excellences grow up together with the pleasant life, and the pleasant life is inseparable from them. – Epicurus, in his Letter to Menoeceus

Tsouna helps us to understand the ways in which the excellences grow together in the soul. Habits (both bad ones and good ones, that is: vices and virtues) grow and dwell together in the soul because they’re based on the same cognitive basis. They imply interconnected dispositions and traits that are based on false beliefs (in the case of vices, or bad habits) or true beliefs (in the case of virtues). In this manner, the Epicurean conception of vices and virtues sees them both as based on the study of nature. The main insight that Tsouna gives us about them helps to explain the ways in which, according to the Letter to Menoeceus, they “grow together” in the soul.

Philodemus repeatedly suggests that false beliefs tend to form clusters, and the same holds for the harmful emotions to which they give rise. – Voula Tsouna in The Ethics of Philodemus, page 280, note 138.

Emotions, according the the Epicureans, have a cognitive component. We feel (rightly or not) that we were wronged, so we feel anger. Or we may believe that our happiness depends on matching the level of wealth, beauty, or achievement of our neighbors, and struggle constantly to fit a mold that we do not fit–and this may inspire envy, or ill-intention towards our neighbors. Or we believe that fame or status will lead to a happy life, and this may inform many of our actions–and a sense of inferiority.

On the other hand, accurately believing that what is naturally good, is easy to get, produces a feeling of gratitude and pleasure, and greater confidence in our ability to be self-sufficient. This self-sufficiency creates a virtuous cycle, because it renders us less vulnerable to both fate and harm from others.

Philodemus believes vicious people are irrational and lack self awareness. They can’t explain their attitudes on adequate grounds. This is to say, since (as we have seen) the emotions have a cognitive component, the passions / emotions can be irrational, and that they are in fact irrational in vicious people. People who exhibit the excellences (virtuous people) exhibit rational emotions.

The Mother of the Excellences

Now, as we saw in the Epistle to Menoeceus, since Prudence secures other excellences, and is essential for our hedonic calculus, it occupies a higher place in Epicurean ethics that the other excellences. In the Epistle to Menoeceus, Prudence (or practical wisdom) is named as the mother of all the virtues. Also, according to Principal Doctrine 27,

Of all the things that wisdom provides for the complete happiness of one’s entire life, by far the greatest is friendship.

ὧν ἡ σοφία παρασκευάζεται εἰς τὴν τοῦ ὅλου βίου μακαριότητα πολὺ μέγιστόν ἐστιν ἡ τῆς φιλίας κτῆσις.

Here, Epicurus uses wisdom (sofía) rather than practical wisdom (fronesis). So we see that Epicurus saw Wisdom and/or Prudence (the practice of which is philosophy) as the procurer, the mother of all the means to happiness. Implicit in this Principal Doctrine is the view that people who lack friends, also lack prudence. We are beginning to see the excellences as Philodemus sees them: he has a symptomatic and empirical approach. He sees a good or bad habit, names it, and infers the underlying beliefs that inhabit the soul of the individual. Philodemus studies individuals’ characters, paying attention to the causes of pleasures and desires, to the causal relations between them, the dispositions and the habits that are in evidence.

In addition to this empirical approach, and also in order to not confuse the means for the ends, we must pay attention to the progression that we see in the sources from wisdom/prudence > to the virtues > to the pleasures, and henceforward, in order to speak clearly, avoid abstractions and stay connected with nature, we should speak of specific Epicurean virtues and of concrete instances of pleasant actions and states/dispositions which make up the pleasant life.

The book The Ethics of Philodemus mentions that there is a causal relation between the true virtues and the Epicurean pleasures, and between the virtues with each other. In other words, we as moral agents become the cause of our own happiness by employing them in our art of living and in our choices and avoidances. This causal relation is mentioned as “sowing seeds” in some Philodeman sources. For instance, he compares the things that we do for our friends and the sacrifices we suffer for their sake to “sowing seeds”. Let’s keep this in mind as we study Philodemus.

We may think of the psychological or hedonic utility of each excellence in terms of what pleasures it secures or causes. In his Epistle to Menoeceus, Epicurus mentions three categories of the necessary pleasures: for health, for happiness, and for life itself. Insofar as excellences lead to these goods, they are necessary, and we begin to see why they must grow together with the pleasant life.

The rational pursuit of pleasure can be conducted only with the aid of the virtues. – Voula Tsouna

Epicurus: the Physician of the Soul

Philosophy that does not heal the soul is no better than medicine that does not heal the body. – Epicurus

Physicians make the best philosophers. – Julien Offray de la Mettrie

As we’ve seen, Philodemus’ approach to the dis-eases of the soul was pragmatic: he observed the patient, inferred by means of signs, and gave a diagnosis. This is the method of the empiric school of medicine in ancient Greece, which strongly influenced the Epicurean approach to ethics: based on signs (semeion), they proceed from the visible to the invisible.

As part of this approach, Philodemus (and, presumably, Diogenes of Sidon and his circle) relied on medical records or histories (istoría) that had been kept on previous patients of Epicurean philosophy. These histories are mentioned in the scroll On frank criticism (Peri Parrhesias), and contain records of the treatment of vices and irrational passions by early authorities of the school, using the Epicurean method. The text cites Cleanthes and Metrodorus as two important sources for these histories. It’s safe to infer that Philodemus’ discussions of the vices and their opposing virtues were based, to some extent, on elaborations of these initial histories, and continued record-keeping following their methodology.

Finally, we must connect the “philosophy as medicine” approach to Epicurus’ sermon On Moral Development, where he discusses his materialist theory of moral development based on neuroplasticity. He said that, initially, we all carry our own constitution, and that some individuals are more malleable or changeable than others. But as we mature, we become causally responsible for the content of our characters up to the point where, through habituation, we change the atomic / physical structure of the brain. Epicurus’ theory of moral development is incredibly optimistic and imbued with very high and noble expectations, and helps to explain the salvific power of Epicurean philosophy: we must gently (by challenging our false views and habits, and nurturing wholesome ones) transform our very nature. If redemption from the vices was impossible, there would be no point in studying philosophy.

Let us now take a closer look at the excellences from the theoretical framework described above.

Prudence

Practical wisdom is essential for carrying out our choices and avoidances (hedonic calculus), and helps us to discern excellent habits from bad habits (vices), and to procure the means to a happy life.

Discipline

We must not violate nature, but obey her; and we shall obey her if we fulfil those desires that are necessary, and also those that are natural but bring no harm to us, but we must sternly reject those that are harmful. – Vatican Saying 21

Moderation or discipline opposes laziness, and this excellence helps us to achieve autarchy / self sufficiency, responsibility, and moral maturity. It also protects us from many annoyances or disadvantages linked to poverty, scarcity, illness (by helping us enjoy a healthy diet), and protects us from any potential embarrassments of educational or professional under-achievement, and–as we see in the above quote–discipline is necessary if we are to reject harmful desires.

Courage

This excellence is tied to protection and safety (a natural and necessary desire), and to the sixth Principal Doctrine:

In order to obtain security from other people any means whatever of procuring this was a natural good.

Courage is also sometimes necessary to preserve our friendships or protect our friends. Vatican Saying 28 says that we must run risks for the sake of friendship.

Justice

The just man is most free from disturbance, while the unjust is full of the utmost disturbance. – Vatican Saying 12

VS 12 argues that justice is tied to a certain wholesome and pleasant disposition that involves peace of mind and having a clear conscience: in other words, innocence.

In the Principal Doctrines, we see that justice is tied to the execution of what is of mutual benefit, and one of the Vatican Sayings says that “friendship initially starts as mutual benefit“–naturally, it would be difficult to befriend someone who takes advantage of us but does not produce any advantage for us, or whose relation brings mutual disadvantage. If one person is exploiting the other, there is no true friendship. Also, if a person is evil, it is difficult to acquire a friendly disposition towards that person: there must be some redeeming qualities in a person in order for friendship to emerge. A greater degree of innocence means that a person is more likely to be a loyal and trustworthy friend. Friendship is likely to occur between people who are just to each other, because it starts from mutual advantage. Justice and friendliness are two of the excellences that “grow together with pleasure” in our soul. It is commonly understood that we develop a good (or bad) character by associating with wholesome (or evil) friends and loved ones.

Autarchy

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

The greatest fruit of self-sufficiency is freedom. – Vatican Saying 77

Self-sufficiency (or, autarchy) is cited as one of the key excellences exhibited by both Epicurus and Metrodorus. It’s linked to maturity and developed character. It protects us from neediness and from lacking any of the things we need to live pleasantly. It also gives confidence. A person who is self-sufficient does not need the approval of strangers or of the masses. This excellence accompanies, and may be a pre-requisite for, generosity towards one’s friends.

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

Gratitude

The ungrateful greed of the soul makes the creature everlastingly desire varieties of in its lifestyle. – Vatican Saying 69

Without gratitude, it’s impossible to profit from Epicurean doctrines. Various sayings criticize the ungrateful person. One who accurately understands the limits set by nature to our desires, understands also how they justify our gratefulness. One Epicurean fragment says:

We are grateful to nature because she made the necessary things easy to procure, and the things that are difficult to acquire, she made them unnecessary.

Also, gratitude is a pleasant disposition that has psychosomatic benefits. It leads to both health and happiness, both of which natural and necessary goods. There are studies that link a grateful disposition to increased happiness and to health benefits, like greater quality of sleep and improvement in bodily and psychological health. Gratitude also strengthens friendships by producing gifts-exchanges and other concrete tokens of gratefulness to our friends in the form of words of advice and sharing of important experiences with them, while ungrateful people risk losing friends.

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 Saying 43

Gratitude is part of a cluster of healthy beliefs and habits, and is opposed by a cluster of bad ones. It has to do with our understanding of how much we need to be happy. Philodemus says that the self-sufficiency person feels a lesser degree of gratitude, because he does not feel that he needs the benefits of others. When we allow vain desires to settle in our character, one of the opposing moral ailments of gratitude and contentment, is envy, which involves comparing our happiness to that of others and the view that externals determine our happiness. Envy is an irrational disposition, or vice.

We must envy no one, for the good do not deserve envy and the bad, the more they prosper, the more they injure themselves. – Vatican Saying 53

Gratitude also helps us enjoy a complete life and has therapeutic value. The practice of grateful recollection of past pleasures is an important part of the hedonic regimen that Epicurus recommends:

The saying, “look to the end of a long life,” shows ungratefulness for past good fortune. – Vatican Saying 75

We must heal our misfortunes by the grateful recollection of what has been and by the recognition that it is impossible to undo that which has been done. – Vatican Saying 55

In pages 77 and 121 of Ethics of Philodemus, Tsouna describes one example of a treatment for ingratitude from Philodemus’ scrolls. It consisted on reading certain writings aloud (possibly the ones shared above), and an assignment that consisted of composing a speech against ingratitude.

Suavity

The excellence of gentle and kind speech (suavity) one of the main virtues by which ancient Epicureans were known. This tells us that part of the curriculum in human values that people learned in the Garden involved learning how to communicate. Sweet speech is intended to help us avoid hurting the feelings of others while administering the medicine of frank criticism–therefore it’s tied to both friendship and eloquence. The opposing vices would be harsh speech (a tendency to insult) and vulgarity.

Adaptability

This is the cardinal virtue of Aristippus of Cyrene, the inventor of pleasure ethics. It can be taken to an extreme. For instance, he was so willing to adapt to the association of the tyrant Dionysus, that he frequently allowed him to mistreat and abuse him. Most of us would probably limit our adaptability in cases where our self-respect suffers. However, adaptability may help us to find opportunities to have pleasant experiences and to avoid pain in most circumstances and help us to live pleasantly.

The opposing vice would be hard-headedness and inflexibility, which make it difficult for us to evolve and change. This reminds us of Epicurus’ mention (in On moral development) of malleability as a necessary quality for someone who wishes to develop his character.

Adaptability relates to social relations by helping us to give up the idea of absolute justice: in the last ten Principal Doctrines, we learn that there is no such thing, and that justice varies, changes, and is related to whatever is of mutual advantage in any given situation. An adaptable person is teachable, and is better able to see reality as it is, as relative.

Pride / Dignity

I include pride among the virtues because it refers to one who is magnanimous or a good person and knows his or her self-worth–but perhaps in modern English parlance, this virtue might be best expressed as dignity or a dignified demeanor or disposition. The opposing vices are self-loathing on one extreme, and arrogance on the other extreme.

While pride implies an accurate assessment of our sense worth, arrogance implies a sense of entitlement that far exceeds what one deserves. It affects cooperation and mutual respect between individuals, and ergo affects the social fabric, and produces misanthropy in general. Arrogant people are often incapable and unwilling to work with others for a common goal. Philodemus says that arrogant people lack self awareness, are irrational, and live a friendless life.

The study of nature does not make men productive of boasting or bragging nor apt to display that culture which is the object of rivalry with the many, but high-spirited and self-sufficient, taking pride in the good things of their own minds and not of their circumstances. – Vatican Saying 45

In order to be a virtue, pride must concern itself with our own actions, achievements and qualities, and not on the accidents of fate or of nature because, as Epicurus says in his Epistle to Menoeceus, “our own actions are free, and it is to them that praise and blame naturally attach“.

Arrogant people frequently take “pride” in things for which they had no causal responsibility, ergo their pride is unnatural and based on false views. People who deny that luck is blind (like many Stoics, Jews, Muslims, and Christians) risk falling into these false views when they believe that “God blesses” his chosen; this leads them to favor arbitrary judgement rather than one based on causal responsibility, and it also leads to and justifies having no pity or compassion for those who are unfortunate. Furthermore, arrogant people are hard to change because they don’t see the need for change.

Epicurus’ treatment of women and slaves as intellectual equals is an example of the non-arrogant sage who is yet proud and dignified, and who honors the dignity of others.

Further Reading:

Philodemus’ On Arrogance

Cheerfulness

We must laugh and philosophize at the same time and do our household duties and employ our other faculties, and never cease proclaiming the sayings of the true philosophy. – Vatican Saying 41

According to the above saying, in the study of Epicurean philosophy, if we’re not enjoying ourselves we’re not doing it right. Cheerfulness was the cardinal virtue of Democritus, the first of the “laughing philosophers” and the first atomist, and therefore an intellectual ancestor of Epicurus. Epicurus obviously adopted this excellence, but chose ataraxia as his cardinal virtue. The reasons for this may have to do with the importance he placed on our mental dispositions, as made evident by Principal Doctrine 20.

Ataraxia

The man who is serene causes no disturbance to himself or to another. – Vatican Saying 79

For Philodemus, thymos is a habitual / dispositional anger blown out of proportion: the vice of irascibility, an irrational excess of anger. The opposite virtue is even temper, peace of mind. There is also the problem of anxiety or angst (agonia, in Greek). Against these problems, we have the fearless imperturbability and peace of mind that we know as ataraxia, by which one may sculpt one’s soul as a refuge of tranquility.

This excellence is linked to autarchy insofar as a truly self-sufficient person is protected from unlimited, vain and empty desires. Therefore, autarchy has a causal relationship with ataraxia, and a contented mind that is always at ease also makes it easier to secure self-sufficiency:

The disturbance of the soul cannot be ended nor true joy created either by the possession of the greatest wealth or by honor and respect in the eyes of the mob or by anything else that is associated with or caused by unlimited desire. – Vatican Saying 81

This connection between self-sufficiency and our peace of mind, I believe, accentuates the importance of accepting both active and passive pleasures into our hedonic regimen. If we only accept kinetic (moving) pleasures, we will always have to chase external goods that will furnish our pleasure, but if we accept katastematic (abiding, or attitudinal) pleasures, then it naturally follows that we will cultivate certain dispositions and gain greater self-sufficiency in our pleasure.

Further Reading:

On the Virtue of Coolness

Philodemus’ On Anger

Good Will

In the scrolls by Philodemus, we find the word eunoia (good will, benevolence) as the opposite virtue of ill will (which carries suspicion, envy, malicious joy, and other unwholesome emotions based on empty beliefs). Good will is a disposition that characterizes relations between philosopher friends, and leads to gratitude and favors between them.

On envy and malicious joy, Philodemus says that these are bestial conditions, that they are tied to ungratefulness and lead to theft. These passions are tied to the false belief that externals are needed for happiness. Philodemus’ strategy to avoid malicious joy is to never indulge it.

We see examples of malicious joy today in gossip shows, in conflicts between religious fanatics where they exhibit joy at each other’s suffering and that of others whom they are taught to hate (the “God Hates Fags” movement, conflicts between Jews and Palestinians, etc.). We see it frequently in attitudes related to tribalism. If we survey a few examples of malicious joy, it’s not difficult to see why Philodemus calls this vice a bestial condition, and the ways in which it relates to false views, to superstition and arrogance.

Naturalness

The highest good is like water. Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive. It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao. – Tao Te Ching, Chapter 8

While the virtue of authenticity is most celebrated in the tradition of Existentialism, in Epicurean philosophy we do find frequent references to naturalness: an un-forced manner of living which reminds us of authenticity. Tsouna is not the first to note the ambiguity of the term “natural” as used by the Epicureans, and the need to clarify it. In page 224, note 93 of The Ethics of Philodemus, we find:

Zeno of Sidon (Epicurean Scholarch or Patriarch of the School of the First Century) and his entourage had explored (the ambiguities deriving from different senses of the term “natural”) … Man is said to be “by nature” a procurer of food, because he does this by unperverted instinct; “by nature” susceptible to pain because he is so by compulsion; “by nature” to pursue virtue, because he does it to his own advantage … According to Demetrius of Laconia, the expression “by nature” in Epicurus’ statement does not mean without perversion or distortion, but freely, without compulsion or force.

It’s possible that Demetrius said this because other Epicureans were arguing that naturalness is opposed to perversion (by culture, by upbringing, or by association?), and it’s possible that these other Epicureans were on to something. PD 15 is one of the sources that also refers to “natural” (wealth) versus empty wealth. Here, that which is natural is described as having a limit and being easy to procure.

Nature’s wealth at once has its bounds and is easy to procure; but the wealth of vain fancies recedes to an infinite distance. – Principal Doctrine 15

In this case, as in the case of the saying that “we do not the appearance of health but true health”, naturalness is tied to not being presumptuous and not feigning a certain disposition or state for the sake of public opinion. I compare this virtue of Epicurean authenticity with the Taoist virtue known as ziran, which most often gets translated as naturalness.

Based on what we’ve read, there are various ways in which something may be natural: it may be unforced or uncompelled; it may be advantageous; it may be sound, based on correct views and a correct assessment of relevant factors; and according to Philodemus, it may be an unperverted reaction to intentional offense. In any case, it makes sense that a philosophy of freedom would promote this kind of naturalness and authenticity.

Further Reading:

Ziran (Wikipedia)

Ziran (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Mindfulness

It occurs to me that there may be ethical problems today that the ancients did not think about, and maybe we could brainstorm modern “therapies” for these bad habits. I’m particularly thinking about: is there a therapy for short attention span? With so much instant gratification, so much media, and handheld phones trying to grab our attention all day every day, it would be beneficial to have practices that help us cultivate the benefits of focus.

If attentiveness or mindfulness is seen as a virtue, then absent-mindedness would be the disease it’s attempting to heal. There’s precedent for mindfulness practice in pleasure ethics: Aristippus taught his disciples a practice known as presentism, which involved being present to the pleasures available here and now. Epicurus later added reminiscing about past pleasures and anticipating future ones, but it would be an interesting experiment to revitalize some form of this practice of presentism, and to incorporate it as part of our hedonic regimen. Furthermore, the practice of presentism would help us to avoid postponing our happiness, which is one of the problems that Epicurus wanted to protect his disciples from:

We are born only once and cannot be born twice, and must forever live no more. You don’t control tomorrow, yet you postpone joy. Life is ruined by putting things off, and each of us dies without truly living. – Vatican Saying 14

If we find ourselves frequently postponing pleasure, and take VS 14 seriously, a practice that frequently reminds us to be mindful of, and thankful for, the present pleasures might help us to develop new habits that help us savor life. It could be a zen-like practice of abiding attentively in the here and now, or the chanting of this Vatican Saying like a mantra, or any other efficient means that helps us to cultivate a presence in the midst of the pleasures that are available.

Why Is This Information Vital?

The ways in which these excellences cause and influence each other, and “grow together with the pleasant life” as we have seen above, should demonstrate some of the reasons for their importance. But there are several other ways of thinking about the importance of the virtues in Epicurean philosophy: if Epicurus says that philosophy that does not heal the soul is no better than medicine that does not heal the body, then we may consider his teachings in terms of what dis-eases are being treated by the Epicurean doctrines. This helps us to understand the importance of studying philosophy for our happiness.

Studying the particular virtues also helps us to gain clarity regarding why we have chosen our values, and in what way they help us to live pleasantly. They may also help us in our process of choosing and avoiding.

Another way to consider the Epicurean doctrines concerning the excellences is by asking ourselves: What happens if we remove these virtues? From what we have seen, due to their habitual nature and their basis on true beliefs, excellences do not exist in isolation in our soul. The study of Philodemus’ approach to the excellences helps us to see the ways in which they “grow together with the pleasant life”, as Epicurus says in his Letter to Menoeceus. This is because many of these habits and attitudes (as well as their opposing vices) are based on particular beliefs concerning whether we need externals for happiness, or whether the happiness or suffering of strangers affects our own, etc. So if an individual lacks certain virtues, this shows inconsistencies in his or her adherence to some aspect of Epicurean philosophy.

It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and nobly and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and nobly and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the person is not able to live wisely, though he lives well and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life. – Principal Doctrine 5

One final note concerning our discussion of the Epicurean virtues concerns the reason why many of us came to the study of Epicurus in the first place: as traditional religion becomes obsolete, people look to more authentic ways of living, and for models of morality that do not depend on superstition. The Epicurean approach to moral development is based on the study of nature. It is empirical and does not require belief in the supernatural. In this manner, it addresses the inherited false belief that morality requires religion, or that it only derives from being religious–and that, therefore, non-religious people can’t be excellent (virtuous), or happy, or good. Epicurean philosophy posits a theory of moral development that is not only mature and pragmatic, but also based on the study of nature (which is to say: reality). For all these reasons, it deserves to be studied attentively.

Further Reading:

The Ethics of Philodemus

The Philodemus Series

On Philodemus’ Scroll 1005

The following is my synopsis and commentary of PHerc 1005, whose title is translated into French as “À l’addresse des …” in Les Epicuriens; the name of the scroll is not complete, but it seems to be addressed to people who call themselves Epicurean yet do not study the sources.

In the scroll that scholars identify as PHerc 1005, Philodemus admonishes those who call themselves Epicurean but do not know the writings and doctrines, and prefer outlines that generalize. He also warns about there being incomplete sources of ill repute.

In addition to the problem tied to the summaries of the doctrines, the scroll mentions that there were books in circulation about which Zeno of Sidon (his Master, who was the Epicurean Scholarch of Athens at the time) doubted their authenticity. This led students of Epicurean philosophy to praise people who lacked knowledge. Philodemus argued that it was “inexcusable to ignore our books” because, in the end, by reading works of doubtful origin, these students “lend an ear to the insults to our great men, and judging from the abundance of these insults, “it would appear they had all the vices!”. Therefore, he warns that the study of these illegitimate books would “make us walk backwards in sweetness” (=in pleasure).

He also accentuates the blessings that come with the study of the correct books. He explains that those who have studied philosophy from childhood to old age have written works that are very interesting for their precision (clarity), and elsewhere he speaks of “the exactness which characterizes us“. Clear speech was always of huge importance to the Epicureans. We may infer from this that some of the works being criticized by Philodemus lacked clarity and precision, or used words that the founders would likely not have used or approved of.

Works Mentioned

Philodemus mentions several works that did not survive to our day. He was attempting to direct the attention of students away from the works he deemed inauthentic and to these works. He mentions a book (or series?) by Epicurus titled The Virtues, and a collection of books titled Pragmateia (Application, or Practices?), which included the books of the four founders (Epicurus, Metrodorus, Hermarchus and Polyaenus). This would have been the Epicurean equivalent of the “New Testament”. Philodemus criticizes an individual who claimed to have the Pragmateia, but it turned out he only had the headings of chapters of “many anthologies”–which tells us that thte Pragmateia was a vast collection of works.

There is nothing wrong with having summaries or outlines of the works, but Philodemus was arguing that this was not an excuse to avoid the complete books. However, this work raises the problem that, considering the vast library of Epicurean books that existed, it’s understandable that students sought shortcuts because many of them probably either lacked the money or the time to read this many books.

As the generations went by, the Epicureans were confronted with attacks by Platonists, Stoics, and others, and developed methodologies and arguments specifically to address these attacks. In note 19, page 1310 of Les Epicuriens, we read:

The expression “Prescriptions to Follow” covers without a doubt a sort of practical manual, of a catechetical type (“do this, don’t do that”), which could have been meant to provide the disciples of the Garden with weapon to resist the attacks of the rival schools against Epicurean doctrine.

This “Prescriptions to Follow” work, rendered in Greek, was titled A Prostattetai Poiein.

Divine Raptures

This scroll also furnishes a window into the reverence paid to the founders by the Epicureans of late antiquity. In pages 738-739, we find Philodemus praising his Scholarch’s Zeno of Sidon ecstatic level of devotion for Epicurus and the other founders.

I have become a tireless flatterer … of the delights and divine raptures that Epicurus inspired him.

By this, we see that feelings were not only one of the criteria in the canon, but that the practice of Epicurean philosophy involved the exercise of wholesome and pleasant emotions.

Conclusion

I’d like to conclude with three observations:

  1. Philodemus is aware of the utility of summaries and outlines, and in fact not only is he (and/or his Scholarch Zeno of Sidon) responsible for the shortened formulation known as the Tetrapharmakos (Four Cures), but he also instructs his students to write outlines of the doctrines on wealth. So he is making full use of these outlines and summaries (also known as Epitomes) in his own method of teaching, and yet he also instructs his students to delve into the sources and read the books. So he is NOT telling people to avoid the use of outlines–he would not have forbidden a practice that he himself engaged in. What he was saying is that the outlines are tools for memorizing and learning, not an excuse to neglect our philosophical studies.
  2. Philodemus was a librarian. He probably had spent great amount of time collecting and having his scribes make copies (or making copies himself) of these important works, and wanted students to take advantage of his considerable amount of work, and he (and/or his Master Zeno of Sidon) also would have carefully chosen the volumes that he copied.
  3. Cicero also criticized how, when Epicureanism spread to the Latin-speaking world (Italy), many peasants and rural people with little intellectual formation converted to Epicureanism. Cicero’s critique was inspired in an elitist attitude: since when does “the rabble” philosophize? But Cicero was not committed to the proliferation of Epicurean doctrine. Philodemus, on the other hand, was evidently more concerned with the quality of the content that these common folk were consuming. We may compare this to how, in many parts of the so-called “third world”, many Christian churches today are led by pastors who do not have a real theological or professional formation as ministers, counselors, or deep familiarity with the Bible, and some of them have limited literacy. If something like this was happening among the Epicureans in Italy, then Philodemus did have reason for concern.

Having explained all these problems, Philodemus argues that many individuals fall into the category of sympathizers who haven’t been warned (non-avertis) about Epicurean teaching. This category is labeled “the profane” in the notes in Les Epicuriens–that is, non-initiates in philosophy, the almost-Epicurean, or the Epicurean-friendly. Philodemus concludes the scroll saying that many of these sorts of people (who assume the label Epicurean but do not diligently study the books) aren’t Epicurean.

Conclusion: Ethics of Motion

What follows is the conclusion of my book review of Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion.

The Good

Let me start my conclusion about Nail’s book by saying that it is true that the religious fantasies concerning immortality and a changeless heaven reveal a longing to overcome death, to overcome constant change and motion. It’s true that fear of death has the potential to make us hate life. And there are, at times, great insights in the book:

If ethics begins with a materialist philosophy, it will avoid the abstract immaterial traps of immortality, the good, and morality that lead to suffering, hatred of the body, hatred of matter, and hatred of motion. If people believe there are static moral duties, virtues, or values other than what their bodies can do, then they will end up hating their own immoral bodies. – Ethics of Motion, pages 57-58

Nail also does a good job of accentuating the physicality of the mortal soul and of memory, and his idea of death as part of the movement of life is accurate. He says that “death is not a value to us”, and calls for a performative, embodied philosophy–even if he does not clarify what this means in practice.

Nail also accurately names idealism as a tyranny over the body that takes many forms, but does not describe its mechanisms as accurately and eloquently as Vaneigem, resorting instead to listing abstract moral problems (like racism, etc …) without really describing how they’re linked to idealism.

An Atheist Lucretius?

It must be acknowledged that Lucretius does seem more anti-religion than Epicurus, and generally sees religion as a dangerous and evil force in society–but that does not necessarily mean that Lucretius did not believe in physical gods existing somewhere in the innumerable worlds. In the Epicurean cosmos, these gods simply don’t care about us!

But Nail claims that Lucretius offers ecstatic poems to gods he “doesn’t believe in” (page IX)–all this while comparing him to the “contemplative, serious, pessimistic” Epicurus who does believe in the gods. He again says in page 90 that “there are no gods”, while citing a passage unrelated to the gods. He claims in page 59 that “there are no transcendental gods” while citing DRN 1.83, but when we read that portion, it does not deny the gods exist. It only says religion can turn evil. This is not different from what Epicurus taught.

The Importance of Clear Speech

Epicurus in Against Empty Words and Philodemus in Rhetorica both argue that words should be clear, evident and concise in order to be useful in communication. Both are critical of the flowery language of the poets. Poetry presents unique problems when used to philosophize. We must concede that Lucretius, when he decided to undertake the project of translating Epicurean philosophy into Latin poetry, accepted the peculiar set of challenges that led to interpretations like the one we see in Nail, even if he didn’t fall into the notoriously esoteric lack of clarity that we see in philosophers like Nietzsche.

Since he’s not philosophizing as an Epicurean, Nail doesn’t follow Epicurean protocols of clear speech, and of using conventional words as used in common speech. For instance, it’s hard to even know what he’s talking about when he says in pages 115-116

These unethical consequences … are anti-ethical barriers to collectively deciding how to move well together, since they foreclose the possibility of pietas. If everyone is not included in the ethical process then there is no pietas and no moving well together.

It was never clear to me how Nail came to his definition of piety as having to do with “moving well together”, as this is impossible to detect in De Rerum Natura. I know that piedad, in Spanish sometimes means “to have mercy” on someone, but in Lucretius true piety is associated with seeing nature clearly (where the gods do not intervene and need not be feared).

Nor, O man,
Is thy true piety in this: with head
Under the veil, still to be seen to turn
Fronting a stone, and ever to approach
Unto all altars; nor so prone on earth
Forward to fall, to spread upturned palms
Before the shrines of gods, nor yet to dew
Altars with profuse blood of four-foot beasts,
Nor vows with vows to link. But rather this:
To look on all things with a master eye
And mind at peace.

Lucretius, in De Rerum Natura

Against Pleasure

Many of the anti-Epicurean ideas that the author, Thomas Nail, presents, are based on a flawed understanding of Epicurus. At other times, he says that “pleasure has no philosophical value on its own”, saying that Epicureans seek instead to avoid pain. However, in the Letter to Menoeceus we find that Epicurus calls pleasure “the alpha and omega” of the blessed life, and “our first and kindred good”. Here is another translation of that portion:

we call pleasure the beginning and end of the blessed life. For we recognize pleasure as the first good innate in us, and from pleasure we begin every act of choice and avoidance, and to pleasure we return again, using the feeling as the standard by which we judge every good.

Nail also says:

It is completely inverted to place our desire for pleasure as a uniquely human or even ethical priority. Pleasure exists before humans. Humans only exist because there is pleasure in nature.

Here, Nail is taking an argument from Lucretius’ diatribe against creationism and applying it to the telos, the observation that humans naturally seek pleasures and shun pains. While Epicurus says there are ethical insights we may learn from the study of nature, the method by which we infer ethical insights from the physics is perhaps not clearly explained in the surviving literature except when he gives general guidelines like “one should not force nature” (VS 21). Some have argued that Epicurean ethics are more descriptive than prescriptive. As a result, Nail misreads ethics into all sorts of physics in a manner that is not as intended by Lucretius, and fails to read ethical insights where they are to be found.

Conclusion

Nail is an academic who is not committed to Epicurean teachings or to an Epicurean lifestyle, and who delivers an anti-Epicurean book, by his own admission. Sometimes his thesis is a bit forced and over-interpreted.

What I most disliked in Ethics of Motion is the persistent and unwarranted ill-will and animosity against Epicurus. Nail even goes as far as to claim, without any evidence whatsoever, that Lucretius’ poetry in praise of Epicurus is satirical. What reasons he had to conclude this, I can’t imagine. We have absolutely no reason to assume that De Rerum Natura was written, in any way, to mock Epicurus. Lucretius lived during a generation that saw Epicurus increasingly revered as a hero of Hellenistic Humanism. A couple of centuries after Lucretius, Empress Plotina would still refer to Epicurus as her personal Savior, and even the comedian Lucian of Samosata wove into his satires heart-felt words of praise for Epicurus (“that great man whose holiness and divinity of nature were not shams, who alone had and imparted true insight into the good, and who brought deliverance to all that consorted with him“) and, in another passage, praised his Principal Doctrines. Even Seneca, a Stoic, conceded that Epicurus was a holy man and that his teachings were holy. This is a curious choice of words. If the pupil of an enemy school concedes this, why would anyone assume Lucretius’ own words of praise to be mockery? It’s more accurate to say that Lucretius contributed greatly to the promotion of Epicurus as a holy, near-mythical figure.

For all these reasons I do not recommend the book Ethics of Motion for sincere students of Epicurean philosophy who wish to use philosophy as intended: to help us to sculpt a pleasant life. I would, however, recommend a critical reading of it for poets, and for Unitarian, Sunday Assembly, Humanist celebrants, and other ministers who wish to utilize Lucretian poetry to weave Epicureanism into their liturgy, always keeping in mind that:

Philosophy that does not heal the soul is no better than medicine that does not heal the body. – Epicurus of Samos

Further Reading:

Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion

Epicurean Environmentalism

What follows is part of my book review of Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion.

All perceptions are true because perception is continuous with nature … Our sense organs dilate and palpate in a diffractive harmony with the world. – Ethics of Motion, pages 188 and 181

Nail does a good job of explaining some of the ways in which we are embedded into nature. In page 2, Nail speaks of the need to “extend rights to nature”. I was looking forward to his explanation of this, but never really found a methodology by which this could be founded, if not in Epicureanism, at least in Lucretius. Nail is on to something when he discusses mutuality, and when he explains that we are part of our environment. But since Nail focuses on Lucretius while rejecting his Epicurean foundation, it’s hard for an Epicurean to find coherence in his theories.

This is not to say that there is no Epicurean environmentalism, or that we could never be able to theorize one based on Epicurean guidelines about justice based on mutual advantage. In the past, I’ve read environmentalism into the architecture of the Garden itself. Hermarchus–a co-founder of Epicureanism–does address some ecological issues, which I discussed in an essay on his posited vegetarianism. In that essay, we find Hermarchus saying:

Those who first defined what we ought to do, and what we ought not, very properly did not forbid us to kill other animals. For the advantage arising from these is effected … since it is not possible that men could be preserved, unless they endeavoured to defend those who are nurtured with themselves from the attacks of other animals.

… Some of those, of the most elegant manners, recollecting that they abstained from slaughter because it was useful to the public safety …. for the purpose of repelling the attacks of animals of another species

Here, we see that advantage is cited as the criterion for what is right and what should be approved by law. Hermarchus did not call for vegetarianism, but did say that the choice of which animals are killed for food, or to protect a household from attack by wild beasts, depends on advantage. Later, Hermarchus seems to argue that humans occupy an ecological niche in society that allows us to control the populations of certain animals. Again, his arguments rest on issues of advantage, including the possibility that some animals will compete with us for food.

Since, if we suffered them to increase excessively, they would become injurious to us. But through the number of them which is now preserved, certain advantages are imparted to human life. For sheep and oxen, and every such like animal, when the number of them is moderate, are beneficial to our necessary wants; but if they become redundant in the extreme, and far exceed the number which is sufficient, they then become detrimental to our life; the latter by employing their strength, in consequence of participating of this through an innate power of nature, and the former, by consuming the nutriment which springs up from the earth for our benefit alone. Hence, through this cause, the slaughter of animals of this kind is not prohibited, in order that as many of them as are sufficient for our use, and which we may be able easily to subdue, may be left.

On this account, from the above-mentioned causes, it is similarly requisite to think, that what pertains to the eating of animals, was ordained by those who from the first established the laws; and that the advantageous and the disadvantageous were the causes why some animals were permitted to be eaten and others not.

This is interesting to me because I have recently noticed and written about the emergence of insect-eating as society is attempting to adapt to the environmental cost of how we produce meat and the pragmatic problems related to overpopulation. We see that issues of advantage and disadvantage are often being cited in the educational literature concerning this trend: they cite disadvantages like the production of methane gases by cattle, the depletion of the fish in the sea, marine pollution, mercury in the waters, and on the side of the advantages, they cite the nutritional benefits of eating certain insects, and the ease and sustainability of production with few resources.

While acknowledging that there are no absolute standards of justice, Hermarchus appealed to advantage for human communities to defend a variety of environmental policies, depending on the circumstances. This is consistent with Principal Doctrien 37:

Among the things accounted just by conventional law, whatever in the needs of mutual association is attested to be useful, is thereby stamped as just, whether or not it be the same for all; and in case any law is made and does not prove suitable to the usefulness of mutual association, then this is no longer just. And should the usefulness which is expressed by the law vary and only for a time correspond with the prior conception, nevertheless for the time being it was just, so long as we do not trouble ourselves about empty words, but look simply at the facts. – Principal Doctrine 37

Notice that the advantage being considered is that of humans capable of creating, abiding by, and agreeing to laws. Laws are human cultural artifacts. One can not expect a shark, or a wolf, or a cat, to understand and obey laws–even if we may feel compassion for these creatures at times, and be naturally inclined to help them if they are suffering. An Epicurean environmentalism must recognize that humans are, at present, the stewards of our planet.

Another thing we CAN say and observe is that nature has set limits to what is needed for a life of complete pleasure. While it’s a good idea to have a reserve of grain and other goods, there’s a point beyond which Epicurus would acknowledge that the excesses of preparation create greater disadvantage than advantage.

In page 186, Nail says that “matter from the environment affects our mind”–which is accurate–but then he says that Lucretian ethics must consider non-sentient things … on what base? How? By which methodology? Who decides the laws and who abides by them? Whose considerations would be valid? In one passage, Nail mentions that non-sentient beings also “do ethics”. In what way does a stone DO ethics? As I’ve said before, in On Moral Development Epicurus mentions the anticipation of causal responsibility, which rests on individual moral agents. If we follow Nail’s attack on the individual, we lose an important point of reference for all morality–because not only are we the cause of our actions: we also suffer from them. We can’t say the same about non-sentient beings, or about an impersonal “environment”.

And so while we co-exist in mutuality with our environment, and could not live without the air we breathe and the food we eat and the other relations we have in our environment, it’s important to never lose sight of our agency and our causal responsibility.

The next essay of this book review will be my conclusion, and mention some of the good and bad things about Nail’s book. I wish to note that it was never my intention to write a diatribe against Nail. I am mainly writing this review for the benefit of newer students of Epicurean philosophy who might pick up this book expecting to gain Epicurean insights. Please, read what I and other Epicureans have to say, and read critically!

Further Reading:

Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion

An Anarcho-Socialist Lucretius?

What follows is part of my book review of Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion.

In this book, Nail seems to be taking his views about Lucretius in the direction of a radical skepticism, and his commentary includes a Marxist commentary of De Rerum Natura and a critique of capitalism that is a bit forced.

It is fair to question capitalism, and to address issues of economics. That’s all perfectly legitimate. However, capitalism is based on liquidity and movement of assets, goods and money. If Nail believes that movement is the nature of things, is not this liquidity also natural?

Lucretian Anarchism

In page 56–while equating stasis, the state, statues, and katastematic, stable pleasure–Nail goes as far as setting instability and anarchy / statelessness as an arbitrary ideal … which would render us unstable. It’s not clear how Nail’s anarchism works in practice (is Somalia an ideal state-less society?), but Epicurean anarchism is not anti-state. It’s, at most, indifferent to the state. But in page 56 of Ethics of Motion we read:

If there is no state that has not fallen prey to classism and militarianism of some variety, then there is no state that Lucretius can ethically endorse.

No Lucretian source cited. Elsewhere, Nail equates the state with wealth acquisition (which is bad?), again claiming that Lucretius is anti-state. In a previous Twentieth message titled Better Be a Subject and at Peace, I cited the portion of the fifth book of De Rerum Natura where Lucretius explains that people grew tired of vengeful, anarchic violence and of the violence tied to fighting over power, and accepted the peace that comes with the yoke of the state. Here is the relevant portion:

For man grew weary: the life of violence
and hatred left him sick, and more disposed
freely to choose the yoke of law and statute.
For angered men kept calling for revenge
more savage than just law will now permit;
this made man sicken of life by violence. (DRN V.1136-1150)
Better by far be subject, and at peace
than will to govern the world and hold a throne! (DRN V.1129-1130)

And so the idea that Lucretius would not support any state is not founded on the text and here, Lucretius is abiding by Epicurus’ Principal Doctrine 6.

In pages 58-59, Nail says Lucretius is against “anti-social individualism” … Where does Lucretius state this? Where does he say ethics is fundamentally collective, as Nail claims? It has always seemed to me that Epicurean philosophy does not accept this either-or logic Nail is applying. We are both individuals (Vatican Saying 14 accentuates our responsibility for our own happiness, and in On Moral Development Epicurus mentions the anticipation of moral responsibility as resting on individual agents) as well as social entities (several of the Principal Doctrines deal with mutual advantage), and ethics must attend to both.

If my readers are truly interested in a good Epicurean-compatible critique of capitalism and labor, I would direct you to the book On the inhumanity of religion.

Property as Theft

Neil takes huge interpretative liberties when he equates (in page 121) property and theft, where Lucretius is really saying that our life, our time, is borrowed (DRN 3.970-1). This equation is hard to reconcile with Philodemus’ discussions in On Property Management, which trace their origin to the founders’ doctrines on economics, on wealth, and on autarchy. Is Nail advocating having no property whatsoever? Is he willing to carry this out in his own life? Is this type of “utopian destitution” compatible with a pleasant life?

Philodemus of Gadara says that wealthy Epicurean friends should share the excess of their wealth with their friends. This is clear enough. Nail’s failure to explain WHO should abolish private property adds problems to his thesis. Should the state do this? Is he saying state communism is compatible with the nature of things? Would this state appropriation of all property not be an act that would require huge violence? If not the state, then who would abolish private property? It’s difficult for me, as a reader, to see the connection between theory and practice.

Collectivism in De Rerum Natura?

In page 134, Nail says “desire is collective”. He does not explain in what way desires are collective, so there is no real philosophical argument, only this statement. But we know from experience that desire happens in the body of individuals, and throughout the history of philosophy, politics, and anthropology, the tensions between the desires of the body and the demands of the collective have always been noted.

In page 135, Nail claims that matter is “always collective”. Not only does Lucretius not really speak in this manner or say this, but stressing the collective as if to diminish the individual seems arbitrary to me and strikes me as not based on the study of nature, but on political leanings. I say this as a proud leftist. I’m not opposed to leftist interpretations of any of our sources, but the interpretative liberties here are considerable. In page 137, Nail goes as far as re-defining the soul as collective:

The soul is not a merely imagined identity; it is a real, practical identity that gathers all the heterogeneous people into a single process (not state) of living and dying together.

No sources are cited for this statement, which is neither an Epicurean nor a Lucretian definition of the soul, which is material and individual. It’s hard to see how this relates to De Rerum Natura. If my readers want to read updated discussions on the physical, mortal soul from an Epicurean perspective, I would direct them to A Concrete Self, an essay that relates the Epicurean doctrine of the material soul to a wonderful essay by Serife Tekin titled Self-Evident.

The next essay will discuss Epicurean / Lucretian environmentalism.

The Problem of Ataraxia in Nail

What follows is the first part of my book review of Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion, which is the second part of a trilogy. My review of the first book, Ontology of Motion, is here.

I must first clarify that my review of this book does not imply an endorsement of its ideas or methods. Ethics of Motion is, by its own admission, a deeply anti-Epicurean book. I would not recommend the book to people who are looking to use philosophy–as Epicurus advises–to live pleasantly and to create a happy life.

Prior to addressing the book review, there are some issues related to ataraxia that must be evaluated.

“Epicurus’ fetish of rational thought”?

Nail says that Epicurus is a “rationalist”, an “ascetic”, even an idealist. In page 176, he speaks of Epicurean “rationalism” and “fundamentalism”. In page 94, he argues that Epicurus advocated for a “purely MENTAL state of contemplation”, and in pages 8-9 he says that Lucretius argued against a “static ethics of Epicurean contemplation”–but fails to produce evidence or clear argumentation.

In page 198, he argues against “Epicurus’ fetish of rational thought”, for reason of which he says that Epicurus “lacks a genuine practical ethics” because Epicurus can’t imagine ethics or knowledge without conscious contemplation.

Concerning Epicurean so-called “rationalism”, Norman DeWitt’s book Epicurus & His Philosophy has an entire chapter on Epicurus’ “dethronement of reason” in favor of pleasure. Feeling (pleasure-pain) is a criterion within the Epicurean canon, which is the ultimate authority in Epicurean epistemology. Reason is not in the canon.

Furthermore, Nail argues that Lucretius is against ataraxia (page 3), while Epicurus is contemplative, and claims that the “goal” in Epicurus is not a life of pleasure but to attain ataraxia and “steer clear of dynamic pleasures”. No source is cited. Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus makes it clear that the goal of our choices and avoidances is pleasure–to it we must come back. It is our point of reference. There are no instructions to “steer clear of dynamic pleasures” anywhere in the Epicurean writings: Principal Doctrine 20 says that “the mind does NOT shun pleasure”, and PD 26 says that unnecessary desires generate no pain when neglected and are easily got rid of if they’re difficult to get or likely to produce harm. If they were easy to get and harmless, there would be no objection against them.

He seems to think ataraxia is “idealist” and purely static. Ataraxia means no-perturbations, and it’s a healthy and pleasant feeling. In Diogenes’ Wall, it’s described as dynamic emptying out of the mind from perturbations in order to make way for pleasures:

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.

He also cites portions 83-84 of Laertius to argue that ataraxia is static. When one reads the Laertius portions cited, Epicurus is saying that the study of nature helps us to secure peace of mind.

[83] … those … who are not altogether entitled to rank as mature students can in silent fashion and as quick as thought run over the doctrines most important for their peace of mind.”

[84] … To aid your memory you ask me for a clear and concise statement respecting celestial phenomena; for what we have written on this subject elsewhere is, you tell me, hard to remember, although you have my books constantly with you. I was glad to receive your request and am full of pleasant expectations.

The term “full of pleasant expectations” does not sound static, although this may include pleasures derived from one’s disposition. A person who is full of pleasant expectations concerning a friend with whom he’s studying philosophy is full of desire to reconnect with his student, discuss the material being studied, answer all his questions and engage him in the study of nature. Clearly, Epicurus enjoyed the company of Pythocles–who was not an unquestioning pupil, if we are to judge by the admonitions given by Epicurus concerning Pythocles’ atheism. In addition to the intellectual challenges that an astute student worthy of such a long and personal letter would pose, there were social pleasures that Epicurus was looking forward to.

Pythocles was, to sum it up, Epicurus’ friend. This made their exchange no less than holy. Are the pleasures of having a friend ascetic, purely mental, idealist, or static? I would argue that they are both katastematic and kinetic. They involve the dispositions of gratitude and remembering past pleasures as well as anticipating future ones (as we see in the letter), as well as the pouring of wine, the conversations over meals, the meals themselves, the exchange of letters and the intellectual past-times involved.

Katastematic Pleasure is Soft Motion

For all these reasons, we must carry out a careful study of the meaning of ataraxia and static pleasures before moving forward with the book review. Nail claims that to Lucretius there are only kinetic sensations, whereas it was Epicurus that said nothing static in nature.

The atoms are in a continual state of motion. – Epicurus, Letter to Herodotus

Nail mentions that the gods are motionless, or are only ideas sprung from Epicurus’ mind, but if they are made of atoms, then they can not be motionless just like katastematic (static) pleasures can not be motionless. If they are ideas, then they are motions in the tissue of someone’s brain.

Nail accurately identifies idealism as an error, and he sees materialism as motion, life and reality whereas idealism corresponds to non-motion, death, static non-reality. But then he goes further by saying, in page 61,

“Trying to create stasis will ALWAYS end in empty, unnecessary suffering”.

In my years studying Epicurean philosophy and learning how ethical considerations are always contextual, I’ve learned to avoid categorical statements like this one. Nail reminds me a bit of Glenn Beck when he takes a word, links it to words that sound like it, and runs off into unempirical theories. Stasis sounds like state, and so stasis leads to statism, militarism, wealth disparity, and individualism. All stability equals, to him, authoritarianism.

In page 75, Nail says “there’s no ataraxia for Lucretius”, but Lucretius appears to translate ataraxia as tranquilitas in Latin, a word that he in fact uses. He also says “there’s no ataraxia, or static mind”, but ataraxia and static mind are not the same thing. Epicurus acknowledges that the mind is moving even when we sleep, if we are to judge from the closing words in his Letter to Menoeceus:

… never, either in waking or in dream, will you be disturbed …

In page 119, Nail says “there are no katastematic pleasures because pleasure is fundamentally kinetic like the rest of nature”. And so we’ve seen that, in general, the argument is that all bodies are in constant motion and, therefore, Nail reasons that static pleasures do not exist. But the pleasures of the mind and the static pleasures related to our stable dispositions do exist, are natural, and are therefore types of motion, and distinct from idealism.

What Epicurus Argued Concerning Static Pleasures

According to Diogenes Laertius, the view that only kinetic pleasures exist is a Cyrenaic doctrine, not an Epicurean one. Notice the mention of “freedom from disquietude” (ataraxia, in Greek) and “freedom from pain” (aponia) as categories of “states of pleasure”–by which he meant, FEELINGS.

[Epicurus] differs with the Cyrenaics about pleasure. For they do not admit that pleasure can exist as a state, but place it wholly in motion. He, however, admits both kinds to be pleasure, namely, that of the soul, and that of the body, as he says in his treatise on Choice and Avoidance; and also in his work on the Chief Good; and in the first book of his treatise on Lives, and in his Letter against the Mitylenian Philosophers. And in the same spirit, Diogenes … speaks thus. “But when pleasure is understood, I mean both that which exists in motion, and that which is a state . . . .” And Epicurus, in his treatise on Choice, speaks thus: “Now, freedom from disquietude, and freedom from pain, are states of pleasure; but joy and cheerfulness are beheld in motion and energy.”

For [the Cyrenaics] make out the pains of the body to be worse than those of the mind; accordingly, those who do wrong, are punished in the body. But [Epicurus] considers the pains of the soul the worst; for that the flesh is only sensible to present affliction, but the soul feels the past, the present, and the future. Therefore, in the same manner, he contends that the pleasures of the soul are greater than those of the body.

These arguments are elaborated in Principal Doctrine 20 and by Diogenes of Oenoanda, so I won’t delve into them further, except to note that there is a mind-over-matter logic at play, but that does not constitute a call for asceticism or purely static pleasures. PD 20 states that the (rational) mind, unlike the (unconscious) body, is able to discern the limits of our desires and secure a life of pleasure. Here are some of my final criticisms of the line of thinking taken by Neil and others:

  1. The either/or view of kinetic (dynamic) vs katastematic (abiding, or static) pleasures is, in my view, un-Epicurean. Both those who insist that Epicurus posited only kinetic pleasures and those who insist he called for only katastematic pleasures are in error because Epicurus invited us to constant pleasures. Life involves cycles of labor and rest, and one does not have enough energy and time to constantly enjoy active pleasures, yet Epicurus calls us to constant pleasures, and even promises that we are able to experience constant pleasures at the end of his Letter to Menoeceus.
  2. Epicurus could not have called for an ascetic or contemplative life of only static or mental pleasures because, according to his doctrine, with many kinetic pleasures, nature doesn’t give us a choice. For instance, we do not have a choice to not eat, which is a kinetic pleasure. Therefore, even if we incorporate a science and practice of contemplation into our hedonic regimen to some extent, it’s impossible to live a life of only katastematic, or static/abiding, pleasures.
  3. While it is true (as we see in Nail) that some enemies of Epicurus have used katastematic pleasures to argue against Epicurean doctrines, it is wrong to dismiss them when, as we see in PD 20, stable or attitudinal pleasures are an important part of our ethics and are central to our theory of character development and to the cultivation of stable, habitual pleasure.
  4. We find a focus on dispositions (diathesis) or attitudes in Epicureans like Philodemus (who related them to our good and bad habits) and Diogenes (who argued that we are in control of our dispositions). There seems to have been an ongoing tradition related to how a philosopher of pleasure must cultivate habitual pleasant states. In Philodemus, we learn that these dispositions are supported by true beliefs that are based on nature, while empty beliefs support unwholesome dispositions and bad habits. Epicurus declared war on these bad attitudes in Vatican Saying 46.
  5. Diogenes Laertius cites by name at least four sources by Epicurus (see above), which tells us that Epicurus was emphatic in repeating the doctrine that both kinds of pleasures exist. We may interpret this as his attempt to rectify what he perceived as an error in Cyrenaic doctrine, whereas his own doctrine was meant to help us secure “the best life” (sometimes translated as “the complete life”, see PD 20).
  6. Sentience occurs in two varieties: pains and pleasures. Ataraxia is a pleasant feeling of non-perturbation and satisfaction. It’s not idealist, or ascetic, or merely rational–even if it entails, like all emotions, a cognitive component. It’s a feeling, and it involves movement, even if soft or gentle. Ataraxia is not “static mind” (the mind is never static for as long as we’re alive), and it’s not necessarily contemplative. It means “no perturbations”, and arises when we banish all false beliefs and anxieties.
  7. Vatican Saying 11 teaches that “For most people, to be quiet is to be numb and to be active is to be frenzied.” This seems to be an argument in favor of cultivating both static and active pleasant states, of training ourselves to enjoy both attitudinal and dynamic pleasures.

Further Reading:

Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion

Epicurus & His Philosophy (Minnesota Archive Editions)

Dialogues on Matter in Motion – Part II

This is the follow up to Dialogues on Matter in Motion – Part I

My copy of the book An Ethics of Motion has just arrived. I will eventually be posting a book review, but in the meantime I discovered the Latin course on Duolingo–which will hopefully help me whenever I need to refer back to De Rerum Natura in its original language–and have been learning Latin there. I’m a big fan of both Duolingo and Amikumu. Duolingo is a language-learning app that makes the learning process feel like a game, and one advances and learns quickly.

Follow-up to initial Dialogue on Matter in Motion

Nate. My first reaction is that Nail is arguing a popular notion against atomism that borders on what I call ‘quantum mysticism’. Martin has provided good analyses of this. Essentially, the suggestion that ‘atoms and void are dependent on [something else]’ is construed to mean ‘therefore, atoms and void do not really exist’ is flawed. Like you said in your response, we literally have pictures of atoms. That’s worth a hell of a lot. And fundamentally, if that picture is considered less valuable ‘evidence’ than some abstract notion of quantum foam, or string theory, then we’ve moved outside of the realm of practical philosophy, and wisdom, and have moved into the territory of theoretical obsession.

Doug. My general take is that evaluating Hellenistic philosophies based on the details of their physics is not useful. Obviously we’ve learned a lot since then. What’s important is to evaluate them on their approach to physics and the influence their physics has on their ethics. It is ethics that are of most concern with regard to modernizing the Hellenistic philosophies. So (while) Epicurus was wrong in detail about atoms, his overall approach looks awfully reasonable when it is compared with that of Stoicism.

Jason. I don’t get the desire to throw away particles and void. How can you have flow without a thing to flow and a void to flow into? All motion of particles are relative to all other particles and without space within which to move there can be no movement. I detect a desire for freedom to break out of physical paradigms.

Hiram. “A desire for freedom to break out of physical paradigms” … Can you elaborate?

Jason. Some people see physics as too restrictive to their flourishing. They don’t want to study it closely because they’re afraid of determinism (I think) or at very least feeling like their options are limited. By leaving things open, they are blissful in their ignorance, not understanding that studying nature removes fear of the unknown. They seem to get a thrill out of the limitless possibilities of dispensing with easily understood physics. They’re akin to the folks who misuse “quantum” in order to peddle woo, like Deepak Chopra and his ilk.

Alex. Why are caring what Nail says?

Hiram. Well, Nail’s book is selling very well and like The Swerve a few years ago, will likely bring new students to EP. A discussion of his book will help us examine the arguments.

Alex. Flows can refer to beams of light (images), flowing gases (i.e. air), flowing liquids (i.e. water), and also flows of solids through gases and liquids. Fields usually refer to forces and potential energy of a body that stays still while stuff (even light) flows around it. In that model, particles and bodies emit/absorb fields (images).

Flows are not uncuttable. Flows can be cut in space and cut in time. The word atom is problematic today. I prefer elementary particle. Composite particle. Body.

A stream of photons (image particles) is not a body in the usual sense. The photons are not bound to each other. They’re just correlated with the surface of the body that emitted them.

Re: “classical model” vs “standard model”, they mean almost the opposite of each other: Classical physics is a set of Deterministic models. Standard model is a quantum model (indeterminacy [swerve]). There comes a point where people just need to accept the facts of the indeterminacy and uncertainty. The swerve is real.

Hiram. I’ve always associated quantum with quantities or with a mathematical model, because in my mind “cuanto” in Spanish means “how much”.

Alex. Yes quantum does mean discrete too. That only the integers are needed. … -3, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 3

integer.
1.a whole number; a number that is not a fraction.
“integer values”
2.a thing complete in itself.

But it also means non-classical, non-determinisitic. Quantum tunneling is real. Even for an elementary particle. No particle can be isolated from the rest of the Universe. And since it cannot be isolated, it will be impacted by images. And those add up, and the particle swerves.

Flow of particles is not the same as an elementary particle.

Hiram. Yes, I’ve also always through that since there is void in all directions, that yielding property of void also may cause motion? Because we always see that particles tend to move wherever there is less density (for instance, in models related to the weather whenever there’s low pressure systems).

Alex. It’s counter to Epicureanism to say that the void has any properties.

Hiram. Thanks for correcting me. What do we call then the yielding motion that the void seems to generate, if not “a property” of emptiness?

Alex. I don’t know what you mean by “yielding motion that the void seems to generate. Is that Epicurean?

Jason. Motion is a property of particles, relative to others. It’s not a property of void. Void is no-thing. It has no properties. No! It’s is not Epicurean.

Alex. The void allows motion and motion transfer

Jason. Yielding can only be done by particles. Void is no-thing, it doesn’t yield, it is merely space-time.

Alex. The void allows images to impart motion on non-image particles/bodies. Yielding? As in slowing down? The void doesn’t do anything. Particles are located in spacetime.

Hiram. Thanks for clarifying. I think you would have been a better person to write a review of Ontology of motion than I, since you know your physics so much better. I wonder how many people will probably come to the study of Epicurean philosophy after reading his book.

Alex. If there are things there will always be motion.

Living Pleasantly in Times of Coronavirus

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.

Further Reading:

Learning from Lucretius in Times of Coronavirus

The Epicurean Doctrines on Wealth

At one and the same time we must philosophize, laugh, and manage our household and other business, while never ceasing to proclaim the words of true philosophy. – Vatican Saying 41

According to VS 41, the founders believed that economics is an important component of how Epicureans philosophize. Also, according to Philodemus:

We believe that the tranquil administration of one’s property does not require great subtlety and that wealth is superior to poverty. At the same time we believe that it’s necessary to hand down a tradition of the most general principles and to outline many details in the treatises concerning the care and preservation of possessions.

This means that ancient Epicureans were not only writing down outlines or epitomes of the doctrines on physics and on ethics, but also about economics. When we discuss economics here, we must not assume that the ancient Epicureans referred to what in modern English is referred to as macro-economics (monetary policy, etc.), but micro-economics (household management and business management). Again:

If someone reproaches us because we write about economy, that would be enough for us, together with Epicurus and Metrodorus, who give advice and exhortations on household management in a particularly accurate way, albeit with minimal details. – Philodemus, On Vices and Virtues

This means that these doctrines were handed down by the founders. The word used in these quotes was oikonomias (usually translated as household management). There’s also a Philodeman scroll that bears this name. This is from my commentary on Peri Oikonomias (translated as On the Art of Property Management):

Philodemus makes frequent appeals to the authority of Metrodorus, one of the founders of the School, who promoted the idea that hedonic calculus must be employed in the management of one’s household and economic affairs, making the point time and again that we must run certain risks and go through certain inconveniences in order to avoid greater ruin and gain greater advantages.

He disagreed with the destitute life of the Cynics, and appears to have made this point while arguing against them and in favor of a doctrine of the natural measure of wealth. This corresponds to that which is needed to secure the natural and necessary pleasures, and to have the confident expectation that we will be able to secure them in the future.

While many modern Epicureans are following the founders’ advice to write outlines of the doctrines concerning the physics and ethics, the study of Epicurean economics has been mostly neglected. My attempts to create an outline of the economics when I initially read Peri Oikonomias yielded “Seven Principles of Autarchy” (or, self-sufficiency) at the conclusion of my discussion of the scroll, and last year I dedicated my blog’s content at the evaluation of various aspects of the economics.

One other difficulty with dealing with these doctrines has to do with resistance from Epicureans who are critical of what they see as the so-called “minimalist interpretation”, but who do not seem to be critical of the limitless desires, consumerism, and other problems related to not being able to recognize the upper limit of the natural measure of wealth. This probably has to do with the influence of Ayn Rand and other neoliberal philosophers on many who come to the study of Epicurus, and who attempt to inject Randian conceptions of ambition and greed into Epicureanism–where they clearly do not belong, since Epicurus wanted his followers to have a mind that is content, satisfied, grateful, and capable of understanding how much is enough. For this reason, it is important to clearly understand what the original doctrines on economics were, so as to not be swayed by modern revisionism in either direction (towards extreme greed, or towards extreme minimalism).

Metrodorus Against the Cynics

As we saw above, these doctrines were in part inspired in a rejection of the destitute life of the cynics. We know from Diogenes Laertius’ biography that Epicurus also rejected the Cynic practice of begging daily because this is a wretched way of life and involves much toil and suffering (DL 10.119), and said that the sage would not be a mendicant and would “regard to his property and to his future” (DL 10.8). But Metrodorus may have taken issue with more than the Cynics’ full rejection of wealth. Cynics were known for living like dogs, in utter poverty, sleeping on the streets, not practicing hygiene, and having sex in public. The health and social problems associated with lack of hygiene and a life of squalor raise issues when we carry out hedonic calculus.

Epicurean literary tradition has one scene that shows what the exchanges between the Cynics and the Epicureans may have been like. Chapter Four of A Few Days in Athens depicts a visit made by Gryphus, who is described as a “pale, dirty, hairy cynic” whose tunic was torn, to the Garden.

Gryphus, short, square, and muscular; his tunic of the coarsest and not the cleanest woollen, in some places worn threadbare, and with one open rent of considerable magnitude, that proved the skin to be as well engrained as its covering : his girdle, a rope: his cloak, or rather rag, had the appearance of a sail taken from the wreck of an old trader: his feet bare, and thickly powdered with dust: of his face, little more might be distinguished than the nose; the lower part being obscured by a bushy and wide-spreading beard, and the upper, by a profusion of long, tangled, and grisly hair.

The chapter is meant to have comedic value, but there is of course educational value in it also.

The Natural Measure of Wealth

In arguing against the destitute life of the Cynics, the co-founder of Epicureanism Metrodorus taught the doctrine of the natural measure of wealth. What does this consist of?

The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity. – Principal Doctrine 15

Poverty, if measured by the natural end, is great wealth; but wealth, if not limited, is great poverty. – Vatican Saying 25

We see here an Epicurean distinction between wealth that is “natural” (physikos) and wealth that is empty (kenos). Seneca attributes these words to Epicurus:

There is also this saying of Epicurus: “If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if you do so according to opinion, you will never be rich.”  For nature’s wants are small; the demands of opinion are boundless.

According to the authors of Philodemus and the New Testament World,

There is for the philosopher a measure of wealth that, following the founders of the school, we have passed down in “On Wealth”, so as to render the account of the art of managing the acquisition of this and the preservation of this. – Column 12 of On the art of property management

Concerning measuring our desires by nature rather than by culture, we must remember this from Letter to Menoeceus:

We must also reflect that of desires some are natural, others are groundless; and that of the natural some are necessary as well as natural, and some natural only. And of the necessary desires some are necessary if we are to be happy, some if the body is to be rid of uneasiness, some if we are even to live. – Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus

Natural wealth will, therefore, include that wealth by which we procure health (food, water, health care), happiness (friends), and safety (warmth, shelter). But those are just the necessary natural desires. There are additional natural desires which are not necessary, and which merely add variety to our pleasure regimen.

The natural measure of wealth (ploutou metron) is not absolute (it depends on context), but it’s also not arbitrary. Concerning which unnecessary desires may be considered natural, Principal Doctrine 15 teaches that natural wealth is distinguished for being easily acquired (euporistos) while empty wealth is not. Notice that there is no absolute amount of wealth that is assigned to this. The natural measure of wealth will vary according to circumstances.

Philodemus’ On Wealth

There’s one more Philodeman source dealing with wealth. The scroll On Wealth is fragmentary, but mentions that death is nothing to us, probably meaning to explain that wealth will not protect us from death. At a later point in the scroll, Philodemus cites Epicurus offering a point-by-point refutation of Menander’s Georgos (“The Farmer”), a parody of the burdens of poverty. In this parody, the poet personifies Poverty as a hag that would not go away.

The essay On Wealth: New Fragments of Empedocles, Menander, and Epicurus by David Armstrong and Joseph Ponczoch argues that Epicurus defends Poverty in Menander’s Georgos (presumably so long as one is able to procure one’s natural desires, unlike the total destitution of the Cynics), and that

as is apparent from PHerc. 1570 as much as from the texts Balch cites, one can actually distinguish four clear degrees of wealth, with two extremes and two middle terms: immense wealth, (respectable) wealth, (respectable) poverty, and destitution. The notion that a state of poverty can still be respectable is at the heart of the content of pc. 5

Against Extreme Minimalism

In the Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus described what could be described as a minimalist lifestyle

… we regard. independence of outward things as a great good, not so as in all cases to use little, but so as to be contented with little if we have not much, being honestly persuaded that they have the sweetest enjoyment of luxury who stand least in need of it, and that whatever is natural is easily procured and only the vain and worthless hard to win. Plain fare gives as much pleasure as a costly diet, when one the pain of want has been removed, while bread an water confer the highest possible pleasure when they are brought to hungry lips. To habituate one’s se therefore, to simple and inexpensive diet supplies al that is needful for health, and enables a person to meet the necessary requirements of life without shrinking and it places us in a better condition when we approach at intervals a costly fare and renders us fearless of fortune. – Epicurus, in his Letter to Menoeceus

There seems to be a curriculum of pleasure at play here. We educate ourselves to better enjoy luxurious pleasures if we do not have them frequently. This way, we avoid the hedonic treadmill. We also easily become self-sufficient and confident of our ability to procure our needs by adopting a simple way of living. What we need to keep in mind is:

Frugality too has a limit, and the man who disregards it is like him who errs through excess. – Vatican Saying 63

It’s important to note that the goal of the Epicurean is to live a life filled with all the pleasures that nature makes easily available to us, it’s not to live minimally. As Epicurus says to Menoeceus: it’s “not so as in all cases to use little”. So if the minimalist lifestyle we have chosen generates more disadvantages than advantages, it’s time to reassess the limits of our simple lifestyle. For this reason, Metrodorus said that sometimes we accept many disadvantages for the sake of things without which we would suffer greatly.

Against Extreme Ambition

Concerning the upper limit of the natural measure of wealth, the founders submit the following concerns to our consideration in our choices and avoidances:

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 Saying 43

People generally dislike misers. The word used here, philokrematía (love of money), is also cited by Philodemus in Peri Oikonomias as a vice that we must guard against. It may lead to legal entanglements, reduce the number of our friends, and attract the distrust of friends and business associates. At least one of the Vatican Sayings criticizes how people sometimes sacrifice their freedom for money:

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. – Vatican Saying 67

Being beholden to crowds or leaders, we may sacrifice our values, or our reputation, or our privacy for money. Some people sacrifice of too much time at work for the sake of money, without the balance of being able to enjoy the fruits of their labor. We call them workaholics. It is difficult to argue that this passes hedonic calculus.

The desire for fame, together with the desire for unlimited amounts of wealth, are both criticized here:

The soul neither rids itself of disturbance nor gains a worthwhile joy through the possession of greatest wealth, nor by the honor and admiration bestowed by the crowd, or through any of the other things sought by unlimited desire. – Vatican Saying 81

We are reminded of the Princeton University study that showed that happiness correlates to wealth with an income of up to $75,000. Beyond that, happiness varies according to other factors, like health, and the amount and quality of friends.

That wealth itself, once acquired, is far from a guarantee of happiness, is attested in the Philodeman scrolls where we see a huge amount of concern with flatterers as a category of false friends. This is probably due to the fact that Philodemus was teaching Epicureanism to wealthy Romans, who attracted many kinds of flatterers, false friends, and people who were seeking their own self-interest by associating with the wealthy. Therefore, even if one is very gifted in interpersonal charm and attracts true friends with ease, it may be difficult for a wealthy person to know with certainty which friends are true ones and which ones are flatterers.

There are other problems tied to not recognizing the upper limit of the natural measure of wealth. Consumerism is tied to anxiety about status, and to false attribution of value to things rather than relations and experiences. Being ostentatious about one’s wealth and suffering from the “keeping up with the Joneses” syndrome may lead to additional problems of debt (which is a form of slavery), and constant craving for more unnecessary things. Once the things we acquire no longer “smell new”, we tire of them and want new toys.

Under what circumstances is ambition advantageous or not, useful or useless?

As we have seen with the “easily acquired” attribution of natural wealth, if the attainment of something comes with little effort and little to no disadvantages, it’s hard to argue against this type of ambition. Particularly, our ambitious efforts lead to wealth that is easily acquired if we employ our aptitude (that which we are good at), and if we enjoy doing what it takes to acquire things. In other words, the greater our aptitude, the less effort we have to put in. If we make great attempts at achieving something that we are not good at, or that we don’t like doing, the effort may not pass hedonic calculus.

Finally, one practical advice given by José Mujica, former president of Uruguay, is that we should measure the true value of things in terms of time instead of money. If we consider how many hours of work it will take to pay for our “new toys”–for instance, a new car–we will be more hesitant to buy frivolous things than if we merely think about the value we get from owning a status symbol. In reality, for as long as we earn an hourly income and have limited amounts of money available (as is the case with almost everyone), it may appear that we are buying things with cash, but we are really buying things with our time and with our lives. If we think about the money that we spend frivolously as the bond of our indentured servitude that it really is, we will become more humane towards ourselves.

Brief Dialogue on Ambition

In order to discern what other Epicureans think about ambition as a virtue or a vice, and about wealth, we had discussions in the Garden of Epicurus Facebook group. Here are a few highlights.

Hiram. What do others think about the ethics of ambition, from an Epicurean perspective? Under which circumstances is ambition advantageous / virtuous and under what conditions is it disadvantageous / a vice?

Ron. Clearly ambition can’t be inherently bad, because Epicurus was very ambitious himself.

Hiram. I don’t think anything is “inherently bad” in Epicurean philosophy, other than pain that doesn’t lead to a greater pleasure.

Doug. If you enjoy doing what you’re doing, it would seem to be fine. If you’re doing it for fame and status, there would be a problem.

Hiram. Is that because fame and status are desires that are impossible to satisfy?

Doug. That would be part of it. In the case of fame and status, there are downsides of these that are commonly not considered until they appear. I’m reminded of what Robert Pirsig did when his book became a best seller and his phone rang off the hook with people asking for interviews. He quit his job, loaded up his RV, and disappeared.

Hiram. Well, then there are people like Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson, who were clearly unhappy and didn’t live lives worth living in spite of their incredible success and fame.

Ron. Not sure about status. Low status can be a source of pain I think. But I would say there is a limit to how much is necessary for a pleasant life, beyond which striving for it is not worth it.

Mike. Let’s be honest. Fame and high status are like a double-edged sword. Yes, there is nothing wrong in desiring and enjoying them. However, that’s not always the case. In many cases, fame and status create much trouble. It is good if they provide peace of mind, bad if they produce anxiety and insecurities. Principal Doctrine 7 is clear on this: “Some people have sought to become famous and renowned, thinking that thus they would make themselves secure against their fellow-humans. If, then, the life of such persons really was secure, they attained natural good; if, however, it was insecure, they have not attained the end which by nature’s own prompting they originally sought.”

Hiram. Famous people frequently lose their privacy. Privacy is an extremely important pleasure that most people take for granted. Consider the British prince and Duchess Megan who recently moved to Canada. Even being royalty can’t make up for the difficulties.

Brief Dialogue on Wealth

Jason. It often results in unnecessary political and/or legal entanglements too. Look at Seneca for an ancient example of wealth not leading to a happy life. I’m sure we can all think of more recent examples too.

Hiram. I have an ambitious acquaintance who is workaholic. She has no children so no reason to work so hard but I have a feeling it keeps her from dealing with “stuff”. Some people avoid having an intellectual or philosophical life in order to avoid existential baggage.

Jason. I know more than one retiree who is “lost” as a result of no longer having to work for a living. I can’t imagine being so bored and incurious that I didn’t know what to do with myself.

Mike. Anxiety is not only a rich man’s disease. It is also a poor man’s problem. There are poor people who are too anxious even about little things. But the fact that Epicurus said that “Wealth, if not limited, is great poverty” implies that infinite desire is vain and therefore produces troubles in the soul such as anxiety, stress, or even paranoia.

An Outline of Oikonomias

I have carried out an investigation of Epicurean economics to the best of my ability, assured by Philodemus that it’s “necessary to hand down a tradition of the most general principles and to outline many details in the treatises concerning the care and preservation of possessions”. As a result of this, below is my outline of the doctrines concerning Epicurean micro-economics. I invite other students to develop their own outlines.

  • There is a natural measure of wealth (ploutou metron), and an Epicurean distinction between wealth that is “natural” (physikos) and wealth that is empty (kenos). The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure (euporistos); but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity and is impossible or difficult to procure.
  • In economics, as in all else, we must run certain risks and go through certain inconveniences in order to avoid greater ruin and gain greater advantages.
  • Since the attainment of great wealth can scarcely be accomplished without slavery, 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.
  • Our ambitious efforts lead to wealth that is easily acquired if we employ our aptitude (that which we are good at), and if we enjoy doing what it takes to acquire things. In other words, the greater our aptitude, the less effort we have to put in. If we make great attempts at achieving something that we are not good at, or that we don’t like doing, the effort may not pass hedonic calculus.
  • When we are habituated to simple pleasures, we are in a better position to enjoy luxurious ones.
  • Frugality too has a limit, and the man who disregards it is like him who errs through excess.
  • There is social wealth in addition to the wealth of things and possessions. Philodemus, in Art of Property Management, compares our investment of time and money and efforts on our friends with “sowing seeds” that will yield fruit in the future. (all the points that follow are from that scroll)
  • Association makes labor pleasant. We must choose our company prudently.
  • Our revenue must more than meet our immediate needs: it must facilitate a dignified life of leisure.
  • It’s prudent to cultivate multiple streams of income, among which deriving fees from the Garden’s teaching mission, rental property income and business ownership, which includes gainful employment of others, have special priority.
  • It’s prudent to have fruitful possessions, such as the various forms of ownership of means of production.

Further Reading:

On Philodemus’ Art of Property Management

Philodemus, On Property Management (Writings from the Greco-Roman World)ir?t=ataraxia0c-20&l=am2&o=1&a=1589836677

Horace, Ofellus and Philodemus of Gadara in Sermones 2.2, by Sergio Yona

An Epicurean measure of wealth in Horace

 [Philodemus] On Wealth (PHerc. 1570 Cols VI-XX, PCC. 4-6A): New Fragments of Empedocles, Menander, and Epicurus

Philodemus and the New Testament World