Category Archives: epicurus

The following essay was written by Fernanda Diab, from the Faculty of Humanities and Educational Sciences – Udelar, in Uruguay. Her views are her own. It was translated by Hiram Crespo and shared here with her permission. Please note that the idea of asceticism is here treated in terms of exercises in self-care, rather than self-denial, and also please compare Foucault’s ideas about ethics as self-care with Epicurus’ sermon on moral development.

The complexity of Michel Foucault’s work is such that it is very difficult to make a full assessment of it. The trajectory of his thought has different stages, on which the author himself has made reflections, explained the foundations, and given diagnoses. They can be found in interviews and prologues. The complexity increases if we consider the variety of topics that he has addressed throughout his career, which may even lead us to think, as Couzens maintains, that “there may not be a single Foucault” (1).

Beyond some nuances, there is an agreement to divide Foucault’s work into three stages. The first is that of methodological works, among which the main one is “Words and things”; the second includes the works on power, where another of his main works stands out: “Surveillance and punishment”; and the third is dedicated to works on morality, distinguishing the three volumes of “History of sexuality” that constitute a truncated series since Foucault died before completing the fourth volume he had planned.

Foucault himself has also reflected on the development of his work and made some self-criticisms. As an example of this in “History of Madness” refers to three levels, which every historian should address, which could correspond to three periods of the development of his work. (2) These three levels would be: first, an area of ​​knowledge made up of concepts, theories and disciplines; second, a set of normative rules, such as those that distinguish between normal and pathological; and third, the way of relating to oneself. Despite being these three levels well marked in each of the three stages mentioned above, they can appear together in any of their works.

Another conventional way of ordering Foucault’s work is around certain central questions that he tries to answer. A first stage would be centered on the question of knowledge and it is recognized with the name of archaeology. It is located between 1961 and 1969 and the central works are “History of Madness” and “The Archaeology of Knowledge”. The second stage is known as genealogy and revolves around the question of power. The paradigmatic works of this stage are “Watch and punish” and the first volume of “History of sexuality”. And the third stage addresses the question about subjectivity or the technologies of subjectivity, with volumes II and III of “History of sexuality” being its most characteristic feature.

In Miguel Morey’s introduction to “Technologies of the self”, the author argues that the conventional divisions of Foucault’s work can lead to conceptual errors. For example, accepting the division according to the methodological aspects (archaeology, genealogy, techniques of subjectivity), may lead one to believe that each of the methodological procedures that were used by Foucault would substitute each other. According to Morey this is wrong. Instead he claims that these procedures “are encompassed in ever wider circles, but are not replaced at all.” (3)

According to Foucault’s own writings, a new ordering of his work can be proposed, in terms of ontology: “historical ontology of ourselves in relation to the truth that constitutes us as subjects of knowledge”, “historical ontology of ourselves in relation to the field of power through which we constitute ourselves as subjects acting on others ”,“ historical ontology in relation to ethics through which we constitute ourselves as moral agents ”. (4)

It is also possible to divide Foucault’s work into three axes of analysis: archaeology, genealogy, and ethics. In agreement with Morey, Arnold Davidson maintains that ethics is not a substitute for archaeology or genealogy, but adds that ethics modifies certain final methodological implications of those two. (5)

In any case, whether one talks about “works of morality”, “way of relating to oneself”, “technologies of subjectivity”, “historical ontology of ourselves” or “ethics”, reference is always being made to the the last stage of Foucault’s work, and it is in it that the text to be analyzed in this work is found, contained in Volume II of “History of sexuality”.

In the introduction to Volume II, under the title Moral and self-practice, Foucault analyzes four fundamental aspects of ethics, understanding it as the way in which the individual relates to himself and thus constitutes himself as a moral subject. This work aims to carry out an analysis of these aspects and their identification in Epicurus’ ethics.

Sexuality and self-care

Sexuality is approached by Foucault as a historically singular experience in which the individual is objectified for himself and for others. This not only occurs through an external discipline process that is exerted on the individual, but the individual self-disciplines. It is on this last point that he will emphasize the last volumes of The history of sexuality. Foucault pays attention to this aspect of human life and not to another because “unlike most other major interdiction systems, the one concerning sexuality has been paired with the obligation of a certain deciphering of one same”. (6)

In previous works where he analyzes the problem of power–for example in “Surveillance and Punishment”–he emphasizes how people exercise power over others. But in The history of sexuality, he studies how people exercise power over themselves, that is, how they constrain themselves. This self-control or self-discipline occurs with the more or less implicit purpose of becoming a certain kind of person. Hence, the history of sexuality has as its general framework a history of morals, insofar as it is conceived as one of the clearest ways through which individuals become moral subjects.

In making this shift from the analysis of the methods of discipline that are exerted on the subject to the forms of self-discipline, and in particular when finding sexuality a central element in the self-construction of the subject, Foucault had to abandon the study of sources of modernity and look back on the Greeks. For them sexuality was part of the moral, political, economic customs and became self-care. Foucault’s works are characterized by beginning with a point of difference, a strange phenomenon for modern sensibility. In his history of sexuality, this phenomenon is sexual practice among free adult and young men in the Greco-Roman tradition. It is also different with respect to modernity that above all for the Greeks what was important was not sexuality but the practice of freedom.

In Volumes II and III of “History of Sexuality”, he focuses on the history of subjectivity, that is, in which the subject is built but not as a result of external forces exerted on him, but as a result of his self-representation and therefore the self-control he exercises over himself. The central question is how the constitution of the self occurs through the various discourses about sex. In Volume II “The Use of Pleasures” he discusses how pleasure and desire constitute an element of tension in Greek society even though it is part of it. Tension is given by the relationship between “superior” and “inferior”: ruler and ruled, free man and slave, young and adult. Obtaining pleasure is then linked to a social position, it is not a transgression. But this conflicts with the relationship between the domain of pleasure and the practice of freedom. “Self-care has been, in the Greco-Roman world, the way by which individual freedom – or civic freedom to a certain extent – has been thought of as ethics.” (7)

Sexuality becomes problematic when love for young people threatens the way of life of the Greeks. A morally good life can only be conceived for those who have dominion over themselves and others, that is, for free adult men. This domain is achieved through an active posture. But love for young people could lead young people to a passive life which is incompatible with the practice of freedom for which young people should prepare. In this way sexuality becomes a moral problem for the Greeks. In Dreyfus and Rabinow’s interview, Foucault puts it this way: “The problem was that it could not be accepted that a boy who supposedly should become a free citizen could be dominated and used for someone’s pleasure.”

In Volume II, “The use of pleasures”, Foucault denies the possibility of writing a history of regulative moral codes since these constitute neither the only or the most important element of morality. It gives more attention to the subjectivity techniques by which the individual is constituted as a moral subject. It is not the codes that vary from the Greeks to Christianity but the modes of self-knowledge of the subjects and their self-construction as moral subjects.

Another point of interest of Foucault in the last two volumes of the history of sexuality is to trace how self-care in Greco-Roman culture became a renunciation of itself in Christianity. He finds that both Greeks and Christians valued ascetics, that is, they regarded as a virtuous practice the restriction of pleasures. However, that assessment is not the same. According to what Foucault tries to demonstrate in Volume III, for the Greeks asceticism is not a resignation but the souci de soi, that is, the care of the self. In L’Usage des plaisirs insists on the problematic nature of sexuality for the Greeks, who regarded physical excess not as perversion but as aesthetic ugliness. Instead paradoxically for Christianity, self-care implies a renunciation of oneself.

Morality and self-care

In the introduction of Volume II of “History of Sexuality” Foucault raises his primary interest, which is to trace how sexuality became a fundamental element of the self-constitution of the individual as a moral subject. Or more specifically it claims to “show how, in ancient times, sexual activity and pleasures were made problematic through self-care practices, by creating criteria for an aesthetic of existence”. (8) Ascetic austerity and the measuring of pleasures are not conceived as prohibitions but as lifestyle, as a luxury within a society. However Foucault adds that austerity practices cannot be considered as a simple refinement. “On the contrary, it is easy to see that each of the great figures of sexual austerity relates to an axis of experience and a beam of concrete relationships…” (9) such as the relationship with health or with their own sex. It is about determining “under what forms sexual behavior was problematized, becoming the object of restlessness, element of reflection, matter of stylization.” (10)

Under the title Moral and Practice of the Self, he asks what aspect of morality will be analyzed. He seeks to clarify the object of his history of sexuality, and for this he analyses the ambiguity of the term “moral”. First, morality means “a set of values and rules of action that are proposed to individuals and groups through various prescriptive devices, such as family, educational institutions, churches, etc.” (11) These values are explicitly transmitted, but it is also the case that they become diffuse and thus morality is a more complex game. So the term “moral” is basically associated with a moral code. But it can also be understood as “moral” as “the real behavior of individuals, in their relationship to the rules and values that are proposed to them”. (12) Here “moral” is linked to the way individuals relate to the aforementioned code. It would consist of the actual conduct of individuals in respecting or rejecting the code. This other meaning of the term “moral”, Foucault calls it “morality of behavior”. There is then in the field of morality on the one hand the standard of conduct, and on the other the conduct itself.

There is another constituent aspect of morality that will be emphasized. It is not how the subject relates to the norm but how the subject relates to himself. That is, how the subject self-understands and self-constructs as a moral subject. Even if the moral code is the same, there are several ways to conduct yourself in front of it, several ways in which the subject conducts itself in front of that code. In this diverse way of acting the individual is not only a moral agent, but also a moral subject.

Ethics is in Foucault’s writings understood as the study of the relationship of self to self. He understood that ethics is only part of the study of morality. Without wanting to deny the importance of the moral code or the actual conduct of the people (the other aspects of morality), he intends to shift the analysis towards the ways in which the individual self-constructs himself as a moral subject of his actions. The relationship with oneself, which Foucault calls “ethics”, has four aspects: the ethical substance, the mode of subjection, self-forming activity or asceticism, and the teleology of the moral subject.

The ethical substance or aphrodisia is that part of the individual that is taken as a “raw material” of his moral conduct. It can be the body, sexuality, pleasures; that will be transformed, shaped in such a way that they constitute the way through which the subject in turn is self-transformed as a moral subject. It is the part of the individual that will become the central point of self-care, that which the individual will “work on” to self-control. The ethical substance is not always the same, it was acquiring different forms and is one of the points that Foucault wants to demonstrate when comparing Greek ethics with Christianity.

Foucault calls “determination of the ethical substance”, “the way in which the individual should shape such or that part of himself as the main matter of his moral conduct.” (13) This aspect of ethics would be the one that answers the following question: “What part of myself or my conduct concerns moral conduct?” (14)

The second aspect of ethics is the mode of subjection, it is the one that establishes the link between the moral code and the self. It determines how the code has power over the self. In L’Usage del Plaisirs he defines it as follows: “it is the way in which the individual establishes his relationship with this moral code and recognizes an obligation to put it into play.” (15) And in the interview of Dreyfus and Rabinow: “it is the way people are invited or incited to recognize their moral obligations.” By saying “invited or incited”, it would appear that Foucault is referring to external elements acting on the subject inciting him to obey the law, and then we would no longer be in the field of ethics. But such incitement is exercised by the subject on himself and has to do with the way in which the law is presented to him as obligatory. The way of subjection to the law may be given as a divine law, by belonging to a community of which the individual feels a part or by being the means to attain a more beautiful existence.

The self-training activity is the medium or the whole of them, through which the individual changes, transforming to become an ethical subject. It is the activity “that we perform in ourselves–not only to make our behavior according to a given rule, but to try to transform ourselves into a moral subject of our conduct”. (16) We can see that the work that the individual does on himself is not solely intended to behave according to the law, to abide by it, but that the goal is the construction of the self and to become a moral subject.

This third aspect of ethics is the one that answers the question: “What are the means by which we can transform ourselves into ethical subjects?” (17) The concept of self-sculpting or asceticism in the broad sense can be equated with what Foucault called “technologies of the self”, which he defines as those operations that the individual performs on his body and his soul, his thoughts, or any form of his being. It’s about “… thoughtful and voluntary practices by which men not only set rules of conduct, but seek to transform themselves, modify themselves in their singular being, and make their lives a masterpiece.” (18)

With such operations, the transformation of oneself is achieved with the aim of achieving a certain state which may be of happiness, purity, wisdom or immortality. In “The Subject’s Hermeneutics”, when analyzing Hellenic philosophy, he refers to self-concern, a concept to which the Greek term epimeleia heautou corresponds. It is the ways in which the subjects unfold and constitute at the same time the object of their own action, shaping, building themselves, in a process of refinement to transform into a certain type of subject. Self-care is both a set of self-transformation practices and a duty, that is, a principle that is prescribed as a model of good life.

Finally Foucault defines the teleology of the moral subject that represents the kind of being to which the individual aspires when he behaves morally. The purpose of moral action is not only the adequacy of certain values and norms, but also aims at the constitution of the individual as a moral subject. The telos with which they tend to fulfill moral actions is also changing; thus the individual will aim to transform himself into a pure, immortal being free from his passions.

Volumes II and III of “History of Sexuality” can be understood as a study of the relationships between these four aspects of ethics in Greek and Roman society. In L’Usage des Plaisirs, Foucault discusses these four aspects of ethics through the following topics: health, women and wives, and boys. It emphasizes the importance that Foucault attaches to the relationship with himself in morality:

It is true that any moral action implies a relationship with the reality in which it takes place and a relationship with the code to which it refers, but it also implies a certain relationship with itself; this is not simply “self-awareness”, but a self-constitution as a “moral subject”, in which the individual circumscribes the part of himself that constitutes the object of this moral practice, defines his position in relation to the precept that he follows, sets a certain way of being that will be worth moral fulfillment of himself, and for this he acts on himself , seeks to know each other, is controlled, tested, perfected, transformed. (…) There is no particular moral action that does not refer to the unity of moral conduct; nor moral conduct that does not claim the constitution of itself as a moral subject, nor the constitution of the moral subject without “modes of subjectivity” and without an “ascetic” or “self-practice” that supports them. (19)

An Example from Epicurean Ethics

What I intend to do here is to track and identify in the ethics proposed by Epicurus, the aspects of ethics defined by Foucault and discussed above. I will try to identify the ethical substance, i.e. part of the individual that is considered as a relevant element of ethical judgment for the Epicureans. It will also attempt to determine the individual’s manner of subjection with respect to the law, how the Epicurean conceives the law as obligatory and abides by it. The same will be done with self-forming activity and with teleology. To do this, each of these aspects will be analyzed separately and supplemented with quotes from the garden philosopher.

1. Ethical substance

Let us utterly drive from us our bad habits as if they were evil men who have long done us great harm. – Epicurean Saying 46

As a philosophical doctrine typical of the Hellenistic period, Epicureanism retains certain characteristics of the Greek tradition. For the Greeks, acts linked to pleasure and desire were the point of support for ethical assessment. The point of interest that was considered relevant in moral actions was desires and pleasures. We can say then that in Epicureanism the ethical substance was acts linked to pleasure and desire. Pierre Hadot argues that the “experience of the flesh” forms the basis of Epicureanism–“flesh” not in the physical sense but as the subject of pain and pleasure. (20) In fact this doctrine has been known as a hedonistic doctrine because of its emphasis on pleasures, although as Epicurus himself clarifies this was misunderstood, as it sought the denial of pain (as will be seen below).

Epicurus preached: “It is not the drinks, nor the enjoyment of women, nor the sumptuous banquets that make life pleasant, but the sober thought that discovers the causes of all desire and all aversion and takes away the opinions that trouble souls.” (21) The teachings of Epicurus led to self-care through the measuring of desires. He can only own himself who is not a slave to his desires. Whoever suffers for what he does not have and desires, can never be free or happy, so it is necessary to evaluate the pleasures in order to know which are necessary and which are not. “For none among the foolish are content with what they possess, but they grief for what they do not have.” (22)

2. Modes of subjection

Epicureanism is peculiar in that Epicurus constituted for his followers a kind of god or divine man (theios aner); this characterization having been given to him by having been the only one to be able to attain wisdom on his own. (23) His authority over his disciples was very great–so much so, that association with the teacher was supremely important for the formation of the disciples. So after his death, the fundamental precept of his school was this: “Act always as if Epicurus was watching you.” This means that one of the most important elements by which Epicurus’s followers felt compelled to abide by their precepts was by their master’s own influential figure.

With the exception of Epicurus himself, the rest of the members of the Garden School needed, to attain wisdom, a tutor (Hegemon) with whom they had to maintain a strong bond of friendship. Community life for the Epicureans was very important. Since the founding of the Garden School, rather than the study of books, the essential thing was community life; and the best form of learning was that based on personal contact and dialogue. It was not about coercing men, but persuading them, which did not exclude authority. In that community only Epicurus was considered and called wise, the remaining members were aspiring sages. Presumably, this aspiration would act as a means of subjection to the precepts of Epicurus in order to attain the wisdom of the master.

The mode of subjection of the Epicureans is then linked to their loyalty to Epicurus. Upon entering the community, one gave an oath: “I will be loyal to Epicurus, according to whom I have chosen to live.” That loyalty was identified with friendship, as his followers were called “friends.”

If the disciples were impelled by the teacher’s image to obey the law or the precepts he gave them, one might wonder what subjected Epicurus himself to the obedience of certain moral standards. At this point there could be an overlap between the aspects identified by Foucault, and the mode of subjection is the telos itself. The way in which the individual conceives the standard as obligatory is closely linked to the sense of duty towards the model of being that he wants to achieve.

3. Self-forming activity

The fundamental means by which the individual must self-transform to become a moral subject is reflection. Philosophy turns out to be a “four-fold drug” meant to help us have the right attitude towards the gods, death, pleasure and pain. Epicurus’s considerations on these points are found in the Letter to Menoeceus, which is an invitation to the philosophical attitude. Philosophy is for Epicurus a fundamental element in self-care, because only through it can the individual lose those fears that do not allow him to achieve the true state of happiness that consists in the tranquility of the soul (ataraxia).

Philosophy has a therapeutic character (therapeutike). Its practice itself has a healing, liberating function. It helps us to discern which pleasures are necessary and which are not, while giving us elements (e.g. the physics) to eliminate the fears that afflict individuals. This type of philosophy is able to free the individual from annoying desires. The individual can only be saved from a disturbed life if he practices philosophy and, for this purpose, Epicurus understands that there is no age:

Let no one put off the love and practice of wisdom when young, nor grow tired of it when old. For it is never too early or too late for the health of the soul. Someone who says that the time to love and practice wisdom has not yet come or has passed is like someone who says that the time for happiness has not yet come or has passed. – Epicurus’ Epistle to Menoeceus

True freedom for Epicurus can only be achieved through philosophy because it frees man from that which disturbs him, and in this lies the liberating value of all knowledge since knowledge of cosmology and physics are also fundamental to making man a free and therefore happy subject.

If we were not troubled by the thought of heavenly things and that death means something to us and not knowing the limits of pains and desires, we would have no need for the science of nature. – Epicurus’ Principal Doctrine 11

The theoretical value that Aristotle attributed to philosophy, the value of knowledge for its own sake, changes with Epicurus and it becomes practical value. Prudence, the measuring of passions and desires, and the end of disturbances are the ultimate end of philosophical reflection.

The search for knowledge has the liberating function of being a “four-fold medicine”. Man, in order to be happy, must be freed from certain errors that disturb him: fear of the gods, fear of death, seeking excessive goods, and the limit of evil. As for the gods, he argues that as long as they are incorruptible and blessed, they cannot be attributed anything that goes against these characteristics. Man should not fear the actions of the gods upon him, as the gods have no worries and there’s no reason why man should be a worry to them. The gods live in pure ataraxia (tranquil pleasure). As for not fearing death, the explanation is based on his atomistic physical theory (which I will not develop here).

Second, train yourself to hold that death is nothing to us, because good and evil consist in sensation, and death is the removal of sensation … So death, the most terrifying of evils, is nothing to us, because as long as we exist death is not present, whereas when death is present we do not exist … It is nothing to those who live (since to them it does not exist) and it is nothing to those who have died (since they no longer exist). – Epicurus’ Epistle to Menoeceus

With regard to the pursuit of goods, he argues that it is easy to achieve and seek the limit of goods. Pleasures are sought if pain is avoided, so the magnitude of pleasures will depend on the greater or lesser distance from the pain. And this would build on the practices that Epicurus followers should carry out to achieve happiness. As for the evils he argues that these are limited in duration. Epicurus identifies evil with pain and says:

Continuous pain does not last long in the body; on the contrary, pain, if extreme, is present a short time, and even that degree of pain which barely outweighs pleasure in the body does not last for many days together. Illnesses of long duration even permit of an excess of pleasure over pain in the body. – Epicurus’ Principal Doctrine 4

Another fundamental element in the self-forming activity prescribed by Epicureanism is the cultivation of friendship. In Vatican Saying XXIII, he writes: “Of all the means that wisdom procures for our complete happiness, the possession of friendship is by far the most important thing.” The bonds that were established in the Garden School between men, women and children were basically given by friendship. In his will he prescribed that the house be preserved and that the philosophers would all live together. He also prescribed annual commemorations in his honor and of the disciples who had already passed.

The Epicurean conception of friendship is problematic because while exalted as a value, it is reduced to utility. In his Vatican Saying he says: “Every friendship is desirable in itself; however, it had its beginning in utility.” However, he then states: “He is not a friend who always seeks usefulness, nor he who never binds utility to friendship: since the former, transacts with favors what is given in exchange, and the other cuts off great hopes for the future.” This tension is resolved for Foucault in the idea that the existence of friends is a condition not of real help, but of hope and security to know that friends will be available to help us in the future. That’s why friendship is one of the forms of self-care. “Any man who is uneasy about himself should make friends”, says Foucault.

Meditation and calculation of pleasures are also self-care practices. In the Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus argues “one must meditate on these things night and day, and one will live as a god among men“. Since this inclination induces man to pleasure, one must reflect and calculate the consequences of each pleasure. In this way, one will be able to abandon those pleasures that cause many disgusts and endure those pains that generate greater pleasure. Reflection lets us know that the highest pleasure is the suppression of pain. It also allows us to determine several categories of desires: natural and necessary (e.g. desire to eat and drink); natural and unnecessary (e.g. desire to eat a delicacy); and others that are neither natural nor necessary (e.g. desire for a crown). According to this classification, the measuring of pleasures is prescribed, and then the wise will be able to achieve the greatest degree of pleasure giving satisfaction to the first kind of desires, and as Epicurus himself sustains “with a little bread and water, one rivals even Jupiter in happiness“.

The exercises prescribed by the wisdom teachers are of particular importance for self-care. Theory is not enough. Knowledge of the doctrine of Epicurus is not enough to reach wisdom. Permanent exercise is required. “First of all we must meditate, that is, assimilate intimately, become intensely aware of the fundamental dogmas.” (29) Epicurus prescribes in the Letter to Menoeceus: “All these teachings consider them, therefore, day and night, by yourself alone, and also with a companion like you. Thus you will not experience disturbance in sleep or vigil, but you will live as a god among men.” (30) One such exercise was a variant of praemeditatio malorum. This mental exercise consisted of meditating on future evils, but for the epicureans this was useless and they preferred to evoke past pleasures as a shelter from today’s evils. (31) In this regard, judgments, summaries, and dialogues with friends were considered to be the privileged means of exercising themselves on the road to wisdom.

4. Teleology of the Moral Subject

Epicurus identifies the end of man as happiness. Every man and woman should attain happiness. Happiness consists in the pursuit of pleasure. Pleasure is obtained by avoiding pain. The model that  guides the moral actions of the Epicureans is that of the one who has achieved both ataraxia (absence of mental perturbation, which is experienced as tranquil pleasure) and aponia (absence of bodily pain). The first consists of the tranquility of the soul that is distant from disturbances, and the second is the absence of pain. Whoever is in this situation will have found happiness. But these two states are subordinate to the pleasure that is the end that every man must pursue, and ataraxia and aponia are desirable because of the pleasure they bring.

Wise then is the one who achieves ataraxia, tranquility, peace of the soul, and he who does not allow himself to be disturbed by that which disturbs the vulgar: the fear of the gods, of death, of the future. Without such fears, and by limiting desires, happiness is attained.

The model pursued by the Epicureans is that of the gods who enjoy full tranquility and imperturbability. This is the telos they pursue, and in pursuit of which the prescriptions of the garden master are followed.

In short, Epicurean ethics is characterized by: taking pleasures as an object of transformation (ethical substance); basing obedience (to laws and conventions) in loyalty to Epicurus himself and in community, mainly based on the bonds of friendship (means of subjection); practicing self-care through philosophy, cultivation of friendship, meditation, and the calculation of pleasures (self-transforming activity); and by pursuing happiness–understood mainly as ataraxia (moral subject’s teleology).

What is the interest of this kind of morality for the contemporary subject? It is important to note that it does not seem to be Foucault’s intention to present such forms of self-compliance as alternatives to contemporary ones. He does not even intend to value them as better or worse, even though his work is presented as a critique of the society in which he lives. He, however, insists on the impossibility of returning to those earlier forms of understanding. As Couzens argues:

Although he does not build a totally different ideal than we can aspire to, his story makes us more aware of the inconveniences of our self-understanding and our practices. The imperative to change must come from within us, if it comes. Foucault can only hope that his historiography will help subvert what he believes are our self-deceiving tendencies to deny any such imperative. (32)

Or as Mark Poster (who considers Foucault’s “History of Sexuality” as a genealogical work) argues, the author’s intention is to “reveal the difference in a phenomenon in such a way that it undermines the certainty of the present without presenting the past as an alternative.” (33) This work denies all teleology and progressivism. At the same time it undermines the purported universality of the contemporary model of sexuality with its implications with respect to morality. This opens the way for the task of developing strategies to modify it.

However, I believe that what’s being proposed isn’t merely a negative path, which ends only in the acceptance of the impossibility of basing a morality on universalism. Beyond Foucault’s intention to resurrect morality as self-care, the model of self-transformation, of taking oneself as a center of concern and occupation, of making each person better, and in that way making us freer, can be a model of inspiration for contemporary man. As Paul Vayne argues: “Greek morality is dead, and Foucault considered it as undesirable as impossible to resurrect it; but an aspect of this morality, namely the idea of a working on oneself, seemed likely to return to a present meaning, in the manner of one of these columns of pagan temples that we sometimes see located in more recent buildings.” (34) The subject as an artist of his own life seems a very interesting normative principle in the context of massification, marginalization and lack of citizen participation, which are aspects of our societies that contrast with the modern ideal of autonomy.


1 Couzens, D., Foucault. Introduction, p.8.
2 Ibid., p.9
3 Morey, M., Introduction: The Question of method, in Technologies of the Self, p. 16.
4 Dreyfus, H., Rabinow, P., On the Genealogy of Ethics. Tell M.Foucault, p. 199.
5 Davidson, A., Archaeology, Genealogy, Ethics, in Foucault, p.246.
6 Foucault, M., Three Lectures at the University of Toronto, 1982; quoted by Morey, ibid., p.35
7 Foucault, M., Subject Hermeneutics, Annex, p.111.
8 Foucault, M., sex., II. The use of pleasures, p. 15.
9 Ibid., p. 25.
10 Ibid
11 Ibid., p.26.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid., p.27.
14 Foucault, M., On the Genealogy of Ethics, Dreyfus-Rabinow interview, p.200.
15 Foucault, M., Hist. of sex., II. The use of pleasures, ibid.
16 Ibid., p.28.
17 Foucault, M.; On the genealogy of ethics, interview by Dreyfus-Rabinow, p.202.
18 Foucault, M.; Subject’s hermeneutics, p.59 quote 5.
19 Foucault, M., Hist. of sex., II. The use of pleasures, p. 29.
20 Hadot, P. What is Ancient Philosophy?, p.129
21 Usener, 64, 12 and sigs., quoted by Brehier, History of Philosophy, p.485.
22 Ibid. Frag. 471, quoted by Mondolfo, Ancient Thought, p.105.
23 Foucault, M.; Ibid., p.141
24 Epicurus, Letter to Meneceus, 122, quoted by Mondolfo, Ancient Thought, p. 94.
25 Epicurus, Sent.princ., 11, quoted by Mondolfo, Ibid., p. 95.
26 Epicurus, Letter to Meneceo, 124-5, quoted by Mondolfo, Ibid.
27 Epicurus, Sent. Princ., 4, quoted by Mondolfo, Ibid.
28 Foucault, M.; Subject’s Hermeneutics, pp. 193-194
29 Hadot, P.; What is ancient philosophy?, p.138
30 Quoted in Ibid.
31 Foucault, M.; Subject’s hermeneutics, p.475
32 Couzens, D., ibid., p. 27.
33 Poster, M., ibid., p. 229.
34 Veyne, P.; The last Foucault and his morals, p.55.

Further Reading:

 Epicurus’ sermon on moral development

The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction

The History of Sexuality, Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure

The Foucault Reader

Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison

What being an Epicurean means to me

This essay by Jordan Crago was posted originally on The Modern Epicurean.

In the beginning of 2018, there was nothing especially wrong with my life. I had a comfortable long-term relationship approaching its fourth year; we lived together in a plain flat with our pets; I had a group of friends only an hour’s train ride away; I had a stable job; I was studying towards a humanities degree; and I was taking part in my local Church of England church, having converted to Anglicanism the year before. The problem? I was growing increasingly unhappy. And my future appeared to offer just more of the same.

Despite having been an atheist all my life, a powerful religious experience convinced me to convert to Anglicanism in 2017, in the hope it would improve my well-being. I knew of psychological evidence which says that religion makes people happier, and I remembered the anecdotal evidence given by grateful, joyful, even ecstatic people who “found God” from when I grew up in South Africa, a highly Evangelical country.

And indeed, while I did experience episodes of ecstasy about God’s overwhelming love, especially in the first couple of months after my conversion, on the whole my time as a Christian was more negative than positive. Doubt about the incredible (and by incredible, I mean not credible) theological doctrines assailed me from the moment I awoke until the moment I slept. And unfortunately, I was unsuccessful in finding a secularised version of Christianity which held on to what I liked—the spirituality—and rejected what I didn’t like; the supernaturalism.

If you try to weed out the elaborate supernaturalism of traditional Christianity—for instance, by re-interpreting Heaven as the state of “being one with God” and God as “the ground of being”—you wind up with a religion which looks and feels almost nothing like Christianity. For example, the ‘Our Father’ prayer makes sense if you believe you are communicating with an all-powerful personal entity, but not with an impersonal abstraction like “the ground of being.” For all its good intentions, liberal Christianity is underwhelming at best, schizophrenic at worst.

So I faced a choice: give in to my doubts and lose my religion, or do battle with my doubts to retain my religion. I chose the latter option and threw myself headlong into the study of Christian apologetics. And while I’m grateful for my study of apologetics—it introduced me to philosophy and taught me how to think—it didn’t achieve what I hoped it would. I wanted to find answers that would vanquish my doubts and light a blazing fire of faith, but it succeeded in maintaining little more than a flicker.

Worse than the doubt, however, was the guilt and self-loathing I felt about my repeated and numerous sins, especially of a sexual kind. I lived with my partner, whom I loved and who brought me joy, but the deacon who baptised me made it clear that as I grew in faith, I would need to rectify what he implied was the sin of my living in a sexually active relationship outside of wedlock. But how could I? How could I withdraw from a relationship I believed to be true and good? More and more I felt that far from improving my well-being, Christianity threatened it. As Fulke Greville, 1st Baron Brooke wrote:

Oh wearisome Condition of Humanity!

Born under one law, to another bound:

Vainly begot and yet forbidden vanity,

Created sick, commanded to be sound:

What meaneth Nature by these diverse laws?

Passion and reason, self-division cause.

Is it the mark, or Majesty of Power

To make offences that it may forgive?

About a year after my conversion, I renounced my faith. I’d had enough of the doubt and discomfort it brought, especially in my regard for myself and for others. Before Anglicanism, I had been a socialist. I celebrated the differences and individuality I saw in society. I was tolerant of everyone except the intolerant. Now I was a stuffy conservative. I condemned the degeneracy and immodesty I saw in society; the very same degeneracy and immodesty I saw in myself.

It was around this time I discovered Epicureanism. This philosophy is often mistakenly associated with fine dining and gluttony, but in point of fact the prime goal of Epicureanism is to remove the unnecessary and irrational pains of the body and worries of the mind that threaten tranquillity. Given that I have long suffered from anxiety and long yearned for peace of mind—the more intense for having survived Christianity—it’s little wonder why I was so immediately attracted to the philosophy of Epicurus.

As well as its vision of the good life—a tranquil life crammed full of pleasure—I was deeply attracted to its vision of the universe. There is no divine design or destiny, according to Epicurus; life is governed by the blind interplay of atoms in the void. Thus, there’s no divine all-seeing surveillance camera whose prohibitions on, say, whom you live with, you need fear or condemn yourself by. All you need to do is structure your life as wisely as possible to minimise misery and maximise happiness; primarily by cultivating close friendships and living cheerfully in a blessedly indifferent universe.

Epicurus taught—and I found out—that the price of religious belief is often guilt and fear, and he taught—and I found out—that freedom and happiness is only possible when you stop fearing God. Only when you recognise that the world is run by blind natural forces can we live rationally, freely, and happily. Not only because the Epicurean rids herself of a self-imposed Big Brother, but also because the Epicurean tries to accept reality as science presents it.

Probably the most famous element of Epicurean philosophy is the argument for why the fear of death is irrational. Lucretius sets it out like this: death isn’t an event that happens to you, because when you’re dead there isn’t a ‘you’ that anything can happen to. Everything is physical according to the Epicureans, and nothing is supernatural. You don’t have a soul that lives on, you have a mind which depends for its existence on your body; so when your body dies, so does your mind, and so do you.

I don’t think too many people are impressed by this argument; I’m not. Most of our fear about death isn’t a matter of rationality, it’s biological. None of the animals from which we’re descended could ever have survived had they not feared death. Even so, meditating on death and trying to reconcile yourself to it is very much in line with modern CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), which aims to make your reactions to unavoidable hardships more positive.

Also, Epicurean hedonism is, I think, in line with modern psychological approaches to well-being. Unlike the stereotype of a hedonist, the Epicurean doesn’t devote herself to short-term bodily pleasure, but to long-term mental tranquillity. Epicurus taught that our primary aim in life should be to free ourselves from pains and anxiety, and to be moderate in our enjoyment of pleasure, lest we end up being pained by the negative consequences thereof. For as Epicurus says: “Be moderate in order to taste the joys of life in abundance.”

In essence, Epicurus taught that to attain a good life all we need is the right attitude. If we have the right attitude we can, regardless of whether we’re wealthy or powerful, live pleasanter lives than great kings. If we lack this attitude, no amount of wealth, power, or fame can help us. What Epicurus calls tranquillity, Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert calls ‘synthetic happiness.’ Synthetic happiness comes from our good thoughts about our lives. If things seem bad at first, we can ‘fake it ‘till we become it’. And while ‘synthetic happiness’ is constructed in our minds and bodies, it is every bit as real as the happiness that comes, for example, from major success.

So, what does being an Epicurean mean to me? It means subscribing to a worldview strongly associated with science and the metaphysical assumptions it makes: first, there is no God; second, although the fear of death and other inevitable hardships is ineradicable, it can be softened by the empirical techniques of CBT; and finally, happiness depends not on trusting prayer and divine authority, but on trusting your own feelings and desires, and devoting yourself to enjoying and giving enjoyment to others, making sure never to harm yourself or others.

Ethics of Philodemus: Philodemus’ Economics

I wish to conclude my book review of The Ethics of Philodemus with a critical look at Philodemus. He and his teacher Zeno of Sidon, and their group, argued frequently against other schools, and against Epicureans who held different views from their own. There were several Epicurean factions. The sources mention at least two factions: the rhetors (who elaborated on the doctrine, mainly inspired by their discussions with other Schools) and the orthodox (who stuck to memorizing the sources). Philodemus claimed orthodoxy by making frequent appeals to the authority of the four founders, but also engaged in these debates.

Since Zeno of Sidon was a Scholarch of Athens of direct lineage to Epicurus and Hermarchus, he is likely to have preserved the most loyal interpretation of Epicureanism … but this is not to say that other Epicurean groups didn’t have legitimate arguments to offer which did not survive in the sources, or indirectly by being criticized in the Herculaneum scrolls. It’s also true that Zeno of Sidon was the successor of Apollodoros, the “Tyrant of the Garden”, and that much of Zeno’s work involved rebelling against the excessive authoritarianism of his predecessor (which may have been necessary in order to protect the Garden and its finances). We know that Zeno was tolerant, friendly, greatly admired, and welcomed Stoics and other non-Epicureans into the Garden to study philosophy together–this may be part of his effort to reject the authoritarianism of Apollodoros.

The subject of economics is the best place for a critical view of Philodemus.

The first criticism of Philodemus has to do with his categorical statement in his scroll On the art of property management, that “the philosopher does not toil“–which seems impractical, except in the case of the very wealthy Romans whom he was teaching. Few people have this privilege to not toil. This odd statement depicts Epicureanism as an exclusive sect for the elite, which it most certainly wasn’t at its inception. 

It’s impossible to abstain from toils. In fact, Philodemus himself cites Metrodorus’ arguments concerning how hedonic calculus must be applied (and sometimes we must go through certain disadvantages for the sake of greater advantages). Here, Metrodorus (the co-founder of Epicureanism) contradicts Philodemus’ statement that the philosopher does not toil. He says that wealth, health, and friendship involve toil, but that this toil is worth pursuing because we will suffer greatly without these goods. The philosopher will toil for the sake of greater pleasures, or to avoid great disadvantages.

One other small critique of Philodemus that I must accept, as someone who has been promoting and writing books on Epicureanism for many years, is that he says that making money from teaching philosophy is the ideal way to make a living … but how many people can really do this? I know of no one who can do this, at least in our day.

While we all agree that the best life is free from toil, the question is HOW can we achieve this? This is a great, and interesting, moral challenge.

One additional note concerning the study of Philodemus’ scroll on the art of property management comes from one of the newest members of SoFE: Marcus reminds us that it’s important to keep in mind that Philodemus’ target audience was the aristocracy of the late Roman Republic. He says:

I found this short video about the Roman patronage system which is good background to understanding Philodemus’ on wealth and property management.

Concerning the utility of wealth, Philodemus says we shouldn’t reject whatever wealth we may get as useless. A natural measure of wealth is clearly preferable to poverty–but the superiority of wealth is practical, not moral. He argues that the Epicurean philosopher does not need to be an expert in management or economics, however personal sovereignty requires that we learn this skill to some extent. Philodemus adds an ethical dimension to it. He worries about our disposition (diathesis) and about issues of hedonic calculus as they relate to the management of our estate: How do you manage your property and home while living ethically and without sacrificing your happiness?

One final critique that we must accept about Philodemus of Gadara is that he seems, to an extent greater than most people do today, okay with the selfish exploitation of others (slavery was normal in his society). However, I’ve always appreciated that Epicurean economics posits a sustainable capitalism that emphasizes the limits of our desires, and therefore it’s a capitalism that is somewhat self-critical, and against excess. This is a necessary antidote to what we see today, particularly in the US. I believe Epicurean philosophy, in this manner, represents a very healthy defense of classical liberal Western values.

This essay concludes my five-part review of The Ethics of Philodemus, by Voula Tsouna. If you’ve enjoyed this content, please consider supporting me on patreon either once or monthly. Content creation is time-consuming, so I do not yet offer any special perks to my patreon subscribers, but it boosts my morale, and it helps support both this website and the teaching mission of the Epicurean Gardens.

Further Reading:

The Ethics of Philodemus

The Epicurean Doctrines on Wealth

Ethics of Philodemus: Against Maximalism

Epicurean sources make frequent mention of the natural limits of desires. This teaching is meant to help us cultivate a mind that has an accurate understanding of how much is enough, and is therefore satisfied, content and grateful. ‪Both minimalism (see Vatican Saying 63) and maximalism (see Principal Doctrine 15, and Vatican Sayings 22, 25, 59, 67-69) are problematic in Epicurean philosophy. ‬

‪Maximalist thinking leads to the search for unattainable objects of desire and to the inability to feel any pleasure at all. – Voula Tsouna

In page 235, note 114 of The Ethics of Philodemus, we find the following:

Philodemus ad hominem argument may indicate that his opponents are maximalists: self indulgence like theirs could justify anything.

Principal Doctrine 21 mentions the idea of “a complete life” (βίον παντελῆ), which Tsouna relates to the problem of maximalism.

He who understands the limits of life knows how easy it is to procure enough to remove the pain of want and make the whole of life complete and perfect. Hence he has no longer any need of things which are not to be won save by labor and conflict.

What does this “complete and perfect life” consist of? This is where philosophers will consider the impact of length of life in one’s happiness, and how important it may be to achieve one’s plans before dying. 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. Vatican Saying 14 advises against postponing our happiness, and Principal Doctrine 9 argues against the view that we can condense pleasures in time or space. The idea is to be present to the pleasures that nature makes easily available: here and now, somewhere in our minds and bodies, we are able to experience some form of pleasure.

Perhaps the worst case of maximalism today can be seen in the transhumanists who desire immortality. PD 21 says that we must understand the limits set by nature in order to secure the complete life. The author of The Ethics of Philodemus does make one concession in page 262, in honor of this idea of “the complete life”, which still requires a clear definition.

One might wonder whether the attitude of Philodemus and, generally, of the Epicureans towards will-writing may not indicate some concern after all for the narrative model of the complete life.

Both Epicurus and Diogenes of Oenoanda expressed concern about their legacy towards the end of their lives. This may be indicative that some measure of leaving a legacy is a natural part of a complete life and (insofar as it’s not difficult to acquire) a natural pleasure, and does not exceed into maximalist terrain.

Further Reading:

The Ethics of Philodemus

Ethics of Philodemus: Moral Portraiture and Seeing Before the Eyes

In short, whom do you consider better than someone who holds pious opinions about the gods, who is always fearless in the face of death, who has reasoned out the natural goal of life, and who has understood that the limit of good things is easy to fulfill and easy to achieve, whereas the limit of bad things is either short-lived or causes little pain? Someone who laughs at destiny, which is asserted by some to be the master of all things? – Epicurus, in his Epistle to Menoeceus

The practice of depicting the sage in detail–his attitudes, his demeanor, his opinions–is a positive version of the therapeutic practice of “seeing before the eyes”, which Philodemus uses for the treatment of vices like arrogance and anger. In those cases, he confronts the patient with visuals of the negative repercussions of continuing his behavior in order to discourage his bad behavior and encourage him on his path to moral development. In the case of depicting the sage, he is presenting him with a role model that he may emulate. In at least one of the surviving sayings, we learn that this practice of contemplating and praising the sage helps us to construct our own character and produces pleasure and other benefits in our souls.

The veneration of the wise man is a great blessing to those who venerate him. Vatican Saying 32

One way to consider this is to remember that everyone admires and praises others according to their own qualities. Frivolous people admire and praise frivolous role models. Evil or authoritarian people admire and praise evil and authoritarian leaders. Similarly, people who aspire to cultivate wisdom and pleasure, should admire and praise sages who embody those qualities. Whom we admire says a lot about our values and our character.

According to the book The Sculpted Word, the depiction of the sage in sculpture was used in the passive model of recruitment of new students. Not much has been written about Epicurean aesthetics, but we know that the patroness of the Epicurean Garden, the goddess Venus Urania, is the patroness of the arts, in addition to being the embodiment of Pleasure. If we follow the theory of recruitment found in The Sculpted Word, we find that art may at times have an important place and a therapeutic use in Epicurean philosophy. This resonates with Michel Onfray’s arguments against nihilistic art, where he calls instead for art that creates values.

In The Ethics of Philodemus, Tsouna makes an important clarification regarding the practice of seeing before the eyes. As we saw earlier in our book review, our emotions have a cognitive component, and our beliefs have causal relation with our feelings. For instance, in Principal Doctrine 29, we see that Epicurus classifies desires as natural or empty based on the kinds of beliefs they are based on: unnatural and unnecessary desires are said to be vain and empty, and to arise from groundless opinion.

For this reason, Philodemus argued that both the emotional and cognitive components of our vices need treatment, if we are to successfully overcome our vices and cultivate instead excellence of character. We need to challenge our false beliefs with arguments, but we need to also arouse the emotions. If we only attack the belief component that underlies our behavior without provoking the emotions, the learning may not be very strong in our souls, and the character may not be fully reformed. There’s also the danger that our “reform” may be insincere if we only talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. For instance, Philodemus criticizes those who censure but do little else about their bad habits.

While searching through the early Epicurean sources, I found this example of the founders encouraging us to bring forth indignation out of our emotional reserve as part of our arsenal of weapons against the vices:

Let us utterly drive from us our bad habits as if they were evil men who have long done us great harm. – Vatican Saying 46

It is clear that this is meant to encourage us not just to reform our beliefs, but also to be more fully and emotionally engaged in the project of moral reform. Like evil men who have abused us for a long time, our vices deserve our animosity and anger. They are enemies inside the gates. Therefore, this source appears to side with Philodemus (and also with Sextus Empiricus), who argued that philosophy heals and secures the happy life by means of reasoning and arguments–but that we also need to employ our feelings in the therapeutic process in order to treat both the cognitive and the emotional component.

“Seeing before the eyes” is meant to awaken and recruit our feelings against our vices and in favor of the excellences. In his scroll On anger, XXVIII, 5-40), Philodemus uses this technique to demonstrate how harmful the vice of irascibility (chronic rage) can be:

(Chronic ire compels you to) strive for victory, give pain, disparage people, and do many other unpleasant things. And when it escalates, it also becomes a cause of misanthropy and sometimes even of injustice, since neither juryman nor council member nor … any human being can every be just if governed by angry feelings. Moreover, for reasons that are easy to see, people who have it must also become despotic, suspicious of evil, liars, illiberal, sneaky, underhanded, ungrateful, and self-centered … They get no taste of goods throughout their lives, that is, the goods that derive from taking things easy in acceptable ways, as well as from mildness of manner and deep understanding.

Here, Philodemus reminds the patient who suffers from chronic ire of both the evils he may cause and of the goods he may be evading. By confronting the patient with these dangers, the technique means to incite a sincere reform of character.

Notice a few things: this exercise helps us to move from abstract theory to concrete reality. It’s also a great example of how a secular philosophy can help us in character development and virtue for sake of a life of pleasure, and not for the sake of virtue or to appease a supernatural being. This practice is also pragmatic in that it aids us in carrying out hedonic calculus. The philosopher who is imparting the medicine is saying: “Do you REALLY think you will get more pleasure if you keep acting this way?

In page 206 of The Ethics of Philodemus, Philodemus catalogues what images should be part of the “placing before the eyes” practice:

Philodemus describes them as “things that the patient is totally ignorant of, others that he has come to forget, others that he has not calculated at least in respect of their magnitude if not in respect of anything else, yet others that he has never contemplated altogether. The good philosophers depict all these evils even if with moderation emphasize that it is within the patient’s power to avoid them, and sketch the way in which we might least experience angry feelings”.

Further Reading:

The Sculpted Word: Epicureanism and Philosophical Recruitment in Ancient Greece

The Ethics of Philodemus

Ethics of Philodemus Book Review: On Frankness and On Conversation

Frank Criticism as a Virtue

Since Epicureanism is a philosophy of friendship, frank criticism (parrhesia) is a crucial excellence. It is one of the defining features of Epicurean friendship, and stands opposed to the practice of flattering / wanting to please others mindlessly, and of lying–which often betrays a lack of commitment with the happiness and character development of our friends.

It’s also of great importance for hedonic calculus and to have our grievances heard in all our relations, and for conflict resolution, properly understood. If we are too reserved or shy to voice our grievances, a true and mature form of friendship will not flourish.

Philodemus taught that philosophy heals the character through frank criticism, so there are medicinal powers tied to frankness.

The Histories

In page 101 of The Ethics of Philodemus, we find mention of a book or series of books, lost to us, titled istoria (The Histories). The original source for this is Philodemus’ scroll On Frank Criticism (Peri Parrhesias), fragment Vb 8-9. Here, we gain knowledge about reports that were gathered by the previous Epicureans, beginning with the founders (Metrodorus is mentioned), on their techniques used to heal the vices of philosophy students. It seems like these “Histories” detailed the symptoms and diagnoses, and the types of therapeutic techniques that were used in each case.

That these Histories were preserved must be interpreted to mean that they were meant for posterity, so that future generations of Epicureans would have a deposit of information about character development, what often works and what doesn’t, etc.

In note 56 of page 116 of The Ethics of Philodemus, we find this from Voula Tsouna:

It seems that Cleanthes and Metrodorus are figures whom professors with a tougher disposition strive to emulate. ‘Regarding their teaching both in the present and in the past, they shall not differ [in any way] from Cleanthes and Metrodorus–for it is obvious that the one in authority will use more abundant frankness. Besides, [after some more] time, when they have gained knowledge of more cases than others who haven’t, they will use more parrhesia regarding these types of cases than those other teachers’ (On frank criticism, Fragment Vb. 1-12)

Here, Philodemus says that those in authority use more frankness, and that in this they learn from Metrodorus and Cleanthes (we must surmise that this is because they are inspired in these Histories which recorded the previous treatments offered by the School).

On Conversation

The Ethics of Philodemus mentions a scroll that I have not seen elsewhere and have not had access to. It’s titled Peri Omilias (On conversations), and also known as PHerc 873.

This scroll asks: “What is inappropriate speech, and what is appropriate speech“? Right speech is found mainly among Epicurean friends, promotes its ideals, includes parrhesia (frankness), the study of nature, and acts of sight and intellect (by which I assume is meant the feast of the 20th, the enjoyment of friendship and other pleasant activities). Philodemus says that a sage’s speech is pleasant and his conversations reflect his happy and tranquil state of mind.

Bad speech occurs in bad society and cultivates vice.

Interestingly, just as with wealth, with community, and with desires, we learn that there’s a limit to conversation (omilias peras, The Ethics of Philodemus, page 122). Philodemus teaches various tactics of speech, and praises selective silence: we must know when to speak and when not to. The “silent treatment” was a thing. Silent was an efficient tool in parrhesia and friendship. We don’t have enough in our sources to know every detail of the entire context behind this, but we can imagine that silence can be a great virtue if applied in cases where gossip or empty desires are being indulged in, or when a student asks an imprudent question.

The Epicureans paid great importance to clear and concise, unadorned communication, as this is important both in philosophy and in friendship. The following are some additional sources on the subject.

Further Reading:
The Ethics of Philodemus
Reasonings About Philodemus’ Rhetorica
Philodemus: On Frank Criticism (Discussion here)
As the Ancient Greeks knew, frankness is an essential virtue

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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)


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.


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.


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

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.