Category Archives: books

The Theodorians

The following is part of a book review of Cyreniacs Handbook: Handbook of Source Material for Cyrenaic Philosophy.

Theodorus the Atheist was discussed in a previous series of essays about the Cyrenaics. Like the other thinkers who were highlighted, he also founded a sect that bore his name. According to the Handbook,

Theodore was the founder of that branch of the Cyrenaic sect which was called after him “Theodorei”, “Theodoreans.” The general characteristics of the Cyrenaic philosophy are described elsewhere. The opinions of Theodore, as we gather them from the perplexed statement of Diogenes Laertius (ii. 98) partook of the lax character of the Cyrenaic school.

He taught that the great end of human life is to obtain joy and avoid grief, the one the fruit of prudence, the other of folly; that prudence and justice are good, their opposites evil; that pleasure and pain are indifferent. He made light of friendship and patriotism, and affirmed that the world was his country. He taught that there was nothing really disgraceful in theft, adultery, or sacrilege; but that they were branded only by public opinion, which had been formed in order to restrain fools … The wise man would indulge his passions openly without the least regard to circumstances.

But the great charge against him was atheism. “He did away with all opinions respecting the Gods,” says Laertius, but some critics doubt whether he was absolutely an atheist, or simply denied the existence of the deities of popular belief. The charge of atheism is sustained by the popular designation of Theodoras ”Atheus,” by the authority of Cicero (de Nat. Deor. i. 1), Laertius, Plutarch (De Placit. Philos. i. 7), Sextus Empiricus (Pyrrhon. Hypotyp. lib. iii.), and some of the Christian Fathers; while some other authorities speak of him as only rejecting the popular theology. Theodore wrote a book “Concerning God”, De Diis, which Laertius–who had seen it–says (ii. 97) was not to be disdained; and he adds that it was said to have been the source of many of the statements or arguments of Epicurus. According to Suidas he wrote many works both on the doctrines of his sect and on other subjects.

Elsewhere, it says:

Theodorus considered joy and grief to be the supreme good and evil, the one brought about by wisdom, the other by folly. Wisdom and justice he called goods, and their opposites evils, pleasure and pain being intermediate to good and evil. Friendship he rejected because it did not exist between the unwise nor between the wise; with the former, when the want is removed, the friendship disappears, whereas the wise are self-sufficient and have no need of friends.

Notice the statement on how Laertius held Theodorus’ book on divinity in high esteem, and considered it to be the source for “many of the arguments” we find in the Epicurean theories on theology and piety. Now, let’s consider this in light of what we know of Epicurean theology, as attested in Principal Doctrine 1 and Philodemus’ scroll On Piety. PD1 states:

A happy and eternal being has no trouble himself and brings no trouble upon any other being; hence he is exempt from movements of anger and partiality, for every such movement implies weakness.

The Monadnock translation says:

That which is blissful and immortal has no troubles itself, nor does it cause trouble for others, so that it is not affected by anger or gratitude (for all such things come about through weakness).

The pattern that immediately becomes evident here is that, just as Theodorus used to teach his philosophy in terms of pairs of opposites (joy/grief, prudence/folly, etc.), we see here a focus on “anger and partiality / gratitude“. Scholars have pointed out that this has to do with the gods’ autarchy (self-sufficiency): they do not need anything from anyone, ergo they are not of the constitution that would experience anger or gratitude, as no creature may harm or benefit them. We know from Lampe’s book that autarchy was one of the cardinal virtues of Theodorus, so this fits his profile, particularly if the gods are to be seen as ethical guides.

Also notice that these aspects of the theology do not touch on the physics. Unlike Epicurus, Theodorus was not of the lineage of Democritus and may not have come up with a physical theory of gods as super-evolved animals with bodies made of particles, as we see in Epicurean theology. This indicates that his ideas in the work On the Gods cited by Laertius (which seem to have influenced Epicurus) may have focused, instead, on the ethical aspects of the gods. Hence the two key attributes that Epicurus considers taboo to ascribe to deities in his Epistle to Menoeceus:

Do not ascribe to god anything that is inconsistent with immortality and blissfulness; instead, believe about god everything that can support immortality and blissfulness.

Some translations use the word happiness (that is: always abiding in pleasure, which fits the ethical ideal of hedonism), and indestructible (which fits the definition of a god). In the case of the gods’ immortality, Epicurus may have developed this theory by linking it to his atomist physics.

Like Epicurus, Theodorus seems to not have been a real atheist (in spite of his epithet “Theodorus the Atheist”). He seems to have rejected the vulgar and popular beliefs about the gods, as Epicurus did, and for that reason they were both misbranded atheists. Diogenes Laertius, in Life of Aristippus (2.97-104), says:

The Theodoreans derived their name from Theodorus, who has already been mentioned, and adopted his doctrines. Theodorus was a man who utterly rejected the current belief in the gods. And I have come across a book of his entitled Of the Gods which is not contemptible. From that book, they say, Epicurus borrowed most of what he wrote on the subject.

Here, we see that Anniceris is not the only proto-Epicurean in the Cyrenaic lineage. The Handbook has this to say of Theodorus, which could have easily been attributed to Epicurus, as it is consistent with his instruction that one should philosophize not for Greece, but for oneself:

It was reasonable, as he thought, for the good man not to risk his life in the defense of his country, for he would never throw wisdom away to benefit the unwise.

Elsewhere, the Handbook says of Theodorus:

He said the world was his country.

These teachings are identical to the Epicurean conception of cosmopolitanism, which is sustained by an anarchic spirit that choose nature over culture, true friends over imaginary or Platonic communities.

Further Reading:
Cyreniacs Handbook: Handbook of Source Material for Cyrenaic Philosophy

Dialogues on the Epicurean Gods

The Annicerians

The following is part of a book review of Cyreniacs Handbook: Handbook of Source Material for Cyrenaic Philosophy.

In my most recent Twentieth message, I argue for the possibility of an Afro-Greek intellectual ferment happening around Cyrene, which may have influenced pleasure philosophy. While studying Lampe’s book on the Cyrenaics, we learned that the philosophical lineage and tradition that Aristippus began there was very diverse, and that many of his disciples branched off into their own sects. However, since much of the philosophizing that took place there involved the celebration of Pleasure as our guide, Cyrene has been often neglected among students of philosophy, and for this reason Michel Onfray calls the city of Cyrene a philosophical Atlantis whose buried treasures we should rediscover.

Anniceris was a disciple of Aristippus, who is credited with inventing pleasure ethics, and he and his sect are considered Cyrenaic, but he was not an acritical follower. He was a reformer of Cyrenaic doctrine who established his own sect. He invented the idea of the hedonic calculus (which Epicurus appropriated and developed further by adding the hierarchy of desires). Anniceris has been called a proto-Epicurean. More on his doctrine can be found here.

Anniceris is supposed to have reformed the Cyrenaic sect, and to have introduced in its stead the Annicerian sect. – Strabo

One passage in the Cyrenaic Handbook says that Anniceris “became an Epicurean despite being an acquaintance of Paraebatus, the student of Aristippus“. According to his biography, he lived at the same time as Alexander the Great, which means that it is chronologically possible that he may have met Epicurus or some of the early Epicureans and converted to the new doctrine. However, since Anniceris is not mentioned as a prominent disciple in any of the extant Epicurean sources, this may be speculation, and we may treat the Annicerians as a pre-Epicurean sect. The Handbook says:

Anniceris had a brother by the name of Nicoteles, also a philosopher, and his student was the famous Posidonius. The sect called Annicerean originates from him. He lived at the time of Alexander the Great, he believed that friendship and patriotism were good in themselves and so seems to have created a sect that was halfway between Epicurean and Cyrenaic.

Among his sayings and teachings, we find many ideas that would later be elaborated on by the Epicureans, including the importance of cultivating healthy habits and dispositions, and the importance of friendship:

Instruction is not sufficient in itself to inspire us with confidence and to make us rise superior to the opinion of the multitude. Habits must be formed because of the bad disposition which has grown up in us from the first.

A friend should be cherished not merely for his utility – for, if that fails, we should then no longer associate with him – but for the good feeling for the sake of which we shall even endure hardships.

Clement of Alexandria had this to say of the Annicerians:

And those called Annicereans, of the Cyrenaic succession, laid down no definite end for the whole of life; but said that to each action belonged, as its proper end, the pleasure accruing from the action. These Cyrenaics reject Epicurus’ definition of pleasure, that is the removal of pain, calling that the condition of a dead man; because we rejoice not only on account of pleasures, but companionships and distinctions; while Epicurus thinks that all joy of the soul arises from previous sensations of the flesh.

It seems from this passage that the Annicerians focused on “the pleasures” rather than Pleasure. I have noted before that the use of plurals rather than singular nouns to refer to things is one technique that may be used by materialist philosophers to speak in clear and concrete language, rather than in abstract language. In A Few Days in Athens, this technique is used in the passage: “Zeno has his eyes on man; Epicurus has his eyes on men“–the idea here being that “man” is a Platonized, idealized abstraction while “men” are real, physical people. Ergo, Epicurus is more personal, and his philosophy is more humanized and reality-based.

Further Reading:

Cyreniacs Handbook: Handbook of Source Material for Cyrenaic Philosophy

The Birth of Hedonism: The Cyrenaic Philosophers and Pleasure as a Way of Life, by Kurt Lampe

Hegesias and Anniceris

Making Sense of Epicurean Friendship: An Intended Audience Approach

The Cyrenaics

The following is a book review of Cyreniacs Handbook: Handbook of Source Material for Cyrenaic Philosophy.

The Cyreniacs Handbook is a compilation of all that can be found in the available ancient sources about the Cyrenaics. The ideas are not explained or systematically explored. For that, I would enthusiastically recommend The Birth of Hedonism: The Cyrenaic Philosophers and Pleasure as a Way of Life, by Kurt Lampe (book review here). Since the ideas of the Cyrenaic School have been explored in my review of Lampe’s book, I will revisit some of the additional ideas I found of interest here.

The Cyrenaic School was founded by Aristippus of Cyrene. Lucian’s Sale of Creeds summarizes Aristippus’ doctrine this way: “Think the worst of things, make the most of things, get all possible pleasure out of things“.


He was able to adapt himself in both time and place. He enjoyed pleasure, but did not toil after more than what he had. His sayings were the best. Diogenes called him “the King’s Dog”. – Suda

In a previous discussion of the Cyrenaics, and again in the recent exploration of Philodemus’ method of studying and cultivating the virtues, I mentioned that Aristippus was known for the virtue of adaptability, and that he took pride in exacting enjoyment from all circumstances and being in control in adversity and prosperity. The Handbook explores this a bit further, saying (in page 16) that Aristippus could always turn a situation favorable, and that he got pleasure from what was present and didn’t toil to procure something not present. While many other philosophers (even in his own tradition) have a history of turning cynical and misanthropic, Aristippus said that his philosophy gave him the ability to feel at ease in any society (page 19), which is part of how this virtue of adaptability served him to live pleasantly.

Many of the Epicureans of later generations drew inspiration from Aristippus and were proud to see him as their precursor. This passage from Lucretius paraphrases Aristippus’ adaptability doctrine:

You yearned for what was not,
scorned what is.
Life slipped through your fingers shapeless and unlovely.

In Horace’s Epistle 1.1.1-19 we read:

I slip back privately to Aristippus precepts, trying to bend world to self and not self to world.

Here, we find that Horace (and Aristippus) flip the Stoic paradigm of control upside-down, inviting us to bend the world to ourselves, to use our freedom and creativity to creatively shape our environment and our reality in our favor, rather than allowing externals to control us and force us to change ourselves.

Is There a Neutral State of Sentience?

One of the sources mentioned in the Hand book discusses one of the controversies between the Cyrenaics and the Epicureans.

Among his other hearers was his own daughter Arete, who having borne a son named him Aristippus, and he from having been introduced by her to philosophical studies was called his mother’s pupil. He quite plainly defined the end to be the life of pleasure, ranking as pleasure that which lies in motion. For he said that there are three states affecting our temperament: one, in which we feel pain, like a storm at sea; another, in which we feel pleasure, that may be likened to a gentle undulation, for pleasure is a gentle movement, comparable to a favourable breeze; and the third is an intermediate state, in which we feel neither pain nor pleasure, which is similar to a calm. So of the feelings only, he said, we have the sensation. – Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 14.18

The first Epicureans argued against the existence of this third, intermediate state, and argued that all the experiences of the sentient being are either pleasant or painful.

Thinking about the past and the future

Tsouna argues (page 82 of The Ethics of Philodemus)  that we should think rightly concerning past and future, rather than not think of them at all. In our discussion of Philodemus’ critique of maximalism, we learned that

people who look to a long life or to the future in order to pursue new goods constantly are never able to achieve and enjoy the greatest pleasure because they are never content or satisfied. Furthermore, they think that happiness means a greater number of accumulated pleasures.

These teachings also go back to Aristippus, who recommended the practice of “presentism” to his disciples in order to help them squeeze pleasure out of their immediacy. He taught that never being anxious about the past or future is a sign of a constant, clear spirit. He also posited a type of dichotomy of control based on the present moment, and said that we should “care for only the present, for only that is in our power“. He judged of all good by the present alone, saying that the past is no longer, and the future is uncertain.

This is an interesting way of thinking about pleasure as it relates to time. In seeking to contrast this to what the Epicurean founders would have to say, I found PD 9:

If every pleasure were condensed and were present at the same time and in the whole of one’s nature or its primary parts, then the pleasures would never differ from one another. – Epicurean Principal Doctrine 9

Another translation says:

If all pleasure had been capable of accumulation … not only in recurrences in time, but all over the frame or, at any rate, over the principal parts of human nature, there would never have been any difference between one pleasure and another, as in fact there is.

The Epicurean focus (as usual) seems to be on the limits that nature places on our pleasures, and is (as in Aristippus) empirical: we SEE and FEEL that the pleasures are experienced as diverse, and we SEE and FEEL that they vary and have their limits in time, bodily or mental location, and intensity. Once available, there no need to intensify these pleasures, only to enjoy them. The anxiety that leads to constant intensification of pleasures and to seeking thrills, reflects ungratefulness of the creature towards nature, and is also based on a flawed understanding of nature.

Principal Doctrine 20 ties this to Aristippus’ presentism by reminding us that the flesh is not able to apprehend these natural limits, but the mind is. It is therefore up to the mind to clearly understand the natural limits of pleasure, and to secure the pleasant life by remaining in a contented disposition.

Further Reading:

Cyreniacs Handbook: Handbook of Source Material for Cyrenaic Philosophy

The Birth of Hedonism: The Cyrenaic Philosophers and Pleasure as a Way of Life

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.


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.

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

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.

La Mettrie: an Epicurean System

The following essay (first in a series) is a review of Système d’Épicure (published in 1750), subtitled Philosophical reflections on the origins of animals, by French materialist philosopher Julien Offray de La Mettrie. The book is unfortunately not available (as far as I know) in English.

Other blogs: The Canon in LM, Against Creationism, and Anti-Seneca.

Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751) was a physician who treated venereal dis-eases. He seems to have seen himself as a philosophical functionary of Venus, perhaps (metaphorically) a priest or healer. We have to imagine that La Mettrie had to discuss with his patients very intimate details of their sexual lives and tendencies with frankness, and in a spirit of trust, and that this job would have required of him a willingness to not judge or shame his patients. From all this, and also from his body of literature, we may deduce his progressive sexual and social values–particularly progressive for his time.

In the essay A happiness fit for organic bodies: La Mettrie’s medical Epicureanism, Charles T. Wolfe reports that La Mettrie himself (in an anonymous work) referred to his philosophy as an Epicuro-Cartesian System, although in some of his writings he was critical of Descartes. His intellectual legacy involved the re-joining of the soul and the body by describing the soul as material and as part of the body, in this way materializing Cartesianism and healing the Platonic split between body and soul. Wolfe also claims that La Mettrie is an Epicuro-Spinozan, and says that he created a

new and perhaps unique form of Epicureanism in and for the Enlightenment: neither a mere hedonism nor a strict materialist speculation on the nature of living bodies, but a ‘medical Epicureanism’.

Wolfe also cites La Mettrie as saying “The physician is the only philosopher worthy of his country“, and explains that what he means is that the physician defines truth according to matter and nature, rather than as defined by religion or convention. La Mettrie also said: “The best philosophy is that of the physicians“.

La Mettrie, the physician, sees the body as a machine–a machine that produces pleasure (and pain). He firmly roots the search for happiness in the body and in matter. In Man, a Machine, he says: “Nature created us all to be happy“.

An Epicurean System

The Système consists on numbered paragraphs with philosophical contemplations on nature, and appears to have been written as a prose commentary on some of the ideas expressed by Lucretius in De Rerum Natura. La Mettrie seemed unfamiliar with Epicurus as a primary, direct source, but he knew of Lucretius and cited him often, as noted by André Comte-Sponville in the essay La Mettrie et le «Système d’Épicure».

In paragraph 49, he labels the latter part of the book “a project for life and death worthy of crowning an Epicurean system“. Considering that the author is elsewhere critical of philosophers who create systems, we have to evaluate this. Epicureanism is a coherent dogmatic philosophy whose ideas are all inter-connected, and here La Mettrie knows and begrudgingly acknowledges that he has birthed a system, and even confers a crown upon it. I say he did so bregudgingly, because he recognized that all these ideas flowed from his first principles, and were connected to each other in such a way, that it was impossible to deny that they made up a philosophical system, and one nearly identical to Epicurus’ own, so that he labeled it “an Epicurean system“.

In The Natural History of the Soul (review upcoming), La Mettrie severely criticizes the “systematizers” of philosophy, but in this book, we see him choosing the words “AN Epicurean system”–which implies that there are OTHER Epicurean systems, and many ways of being Epicurean–, and here we do not see his anti-système rhetoric.

So what does this critique of the systematizers consist of?

A Mass of Prejudices

He says the systematizers are full of bias and prejudice, which impedes the development of true wisdom because they have made up their mind prior to addressing the questions. In paragraph 64 of his Système, La Mettrie says his own “mass of prejudices” of education “disappeared early on in the divine brilliance of philosophy“–which further indicates that he observed how these prejudices were acquired through his society’s education system. We will revisit this when we discuss Anti-Seneca.

Elsewhere in his Natural History of the Soul, he makes frequent appeals to reason without bias or prejudice, saying that pre-judging is not the same as true wisdom. In our present book, he further links true judgement with seeing the relation between two or more ideas with an unbiased mind.

Systems and Presumption

So many philosophers have supported the opinion of Epicurus, that I dared to mix my voice with theirs; Like they did, what I am creating is nothing more than a system; Which shows us what an abyss we are immersed in when, wanting to break through the mists of time, we want to take presumptuous glances at what offers us no grip: because–admit creation (by God) or reject it–it is everywhere the same mystery, everywhere the same incomprehensibility. How did this Earth I live in form? … This is what the greatest geniuses will never do; they will battle in the philosophical field, as I have; they will sound the alarm to devotees, and will not teach us anything. – La Mettrie, Paragraph 41 of Système d’Epicure

We will address creationism at a later point. This is just one of several instances where the author connects systematization with the arrogance and presumption of philosophers. Later, in paragraph 44, he says:

It seems pleasant for (the philosopher) to live, pleasant to be the toy of himself, to play such a funny role, and to believe himself an important character.

This is, on its face, a legitimate critique of the philosopher. Perhaps we are the center of our own worlds in our own lives and experiences, but no individual or species is at the center of THE universe.

But this critique does deserve at least one reply: I disagree that the philosophers “will not teach us anything“. I mean, as opposed to whom? Do the theologians teach us SOMETHING? Aren’t theologians even more presumptuous when–unlike us materialists–we know that their hypotheses are not based on the study of nature?

Castles in the Air

In his Natural History of the Soul (and you will see that counter-references from his other works will often be useful when studying La Mettrie), in the instances where he is most critical of the systematizing philosophers, we see that he specifically is addressing the idealists–mentioning Malebranche, Leibniz and Descartes by name. He says these idealists built “castles in the air” (châteaux dans l’air). He elsewhere says that these “ambitious metaphysicians” have a “presumptuous imagination“.

Therefore, his critique against systems is specifically a critique of idealists, some of whom he mentions by name, and his accusation of building castles in the air relates to the problem of idealism and lack of empirical, material base in these systems. His reference to having created something “WORTHY OF crowning an Epicurean system” is therefore understood as following on this critique. He is saying that anything worthy of being called a system must first abandon idealism in favor of materialism.

And so, his anti-système rhetoric is a critique of the idealists in particular. When we discuss his argument that we get all our ideas from the senses at the end of this book, this critique will come into relief and focus, but for now it should be noted that the novel A Few Days in Athens–which was also produced by intellectuals from the Enlightenment generation–has parallel sayings where the author charges that the “pedantry of Aristotle” makes people confuse “prejudice for wisdom“. Both the accusation of presumption and the bias argument are made against the other philosophers.

An Epicurean Sceptic?

“The primary springs of all bodies, as well as of our own, are hidden from us and will probably always be.”

It is clear that La Mettrie follows the Epicurean tradition of philosophy, and even at times falls in the lineage of the laughing philosophers (if we consider his “advise to an old lady” who has lost her youth and sexual attraction). Towards the end of his Système, he says:

“… these “projects for life and death”: a voluptuous Epicurean in the course of life until my last breath, and a steady Stoic at the approach of death” … have left in my soul a feeling of voluptuousness which does not prevent me from laughing at the first.”

He is referring to all the paragraphs from the first part of the Système prior to the 49th, which is where he announces his Epicurean “system”. However, he claims, even insists that he is a sceptic and only begrudgingly admits that he is a dogmatist (a “systematizer”, to use his own term). In his Natural History of the Soul, he says “the true philosophy” doesn’t exist.

This raises questions concerning the extent to which it’s prudent to accept truths for which we have no evidence based on analogy with the available evidence, before we must adopt the label “sceptic” about this or that type of truth. To what extent are we being truly humble, and not imprudent or lacking in ability to infer truths, when we admit we do now know something that is considered a dark, unclear mystery? As the Epistle to Herodotus puts it:

We must by all means stick to our sensations, that is, simply to the present impressions whether of the mind or of any criterion whatever, and similarly to our actual feelings, in order that we may have the means of determining that which needs confirmation and that which is obscure.

One final note concerning how, in my view, La Mettrie’s epistemological approach is essentially Epicurean despite his hesitation to call himself a dogmatist: to him, knowledge that does not bring pleasure is rejected–and it is rejected BECAUSE it does not bring pleasure! In paragraph 26 he contrasts the pleasure of being in nature with trying to understand everything rationally, which is more an act of power over nature rather than blissful immersion in it:

Let us take things for what they seem to be. Let us look all around us: this circumspection is not devoid of pleasure and the sight is enchanting. Let us watch it admiringly, but without that useless itch to understand everything and without being tortured by curiosity, which is always superfluous when our senses do not share it with our minds.

On Religion and Politics

While others have related the Epicurean advise to remain apolitical and irreligious to the distinction between imagined community and natural communities, La Mettrie gives us this curious insight in paragraph 76:

Religion is only necessary for those who are incapable of feeling humanity. It is certain that it is useless to the intercourse of honest people. But only superior souls can feel this great truth. For whom then is the wonderful construction of politics made? For minds who would perhaps have found other checks insufficient, a species which unfortunately constitutes the greatest number.

In the next entry, we will see how La Mettrie treats the subject of the Epicurean canon.

Further Reading:

 Système d’Épicure (French Edition)