At one and the same time we must philosophize, laugh, and manage our household and other business, while never ceasing to proclaim the words of true philosophy. – Vatican Saying 41
According to VS 41, the founders believed that economics is an important component of how Epicureans philosophize. Also, according to Philodemus:
We believe that the tranquil administration of one’s property does not require great subtlety and that wealth is superior to poverty. At the same time we believe that it’s necessary to hand down a tradition of the most general principles and to outline many details in the treatises concerning the care and preservation of possessions.
This means that ancient Epicureans were not only writing down outlines or epitomes of the doctrines on physics and on ethics, but also about economics. When we discuss economics here, we must not assume that the ancient Epicureans referred to what in modern English is referred to as macro-economics (monetary policy, etc.), but micro-economics (household management and business management). Again:
If someone reproaches us because we write about economy, that would be enough for us, together with Epicurus and Metrodorus, who give advice and exhortations on household management in a particularly accurate way, albeit with minimal details. – Philodemus, On Vices and Virtues
This means that these doctrines were handed down by the founders. The word used in these quotes was oikonomias (usually translated as household management). There’s also a Philodeman scroll that bears this name. This is from my commentary on Peri Oikonomias (translated as On the Art of Property Management):
Philodemus makes frequent appeals to the authority of Metrodorus, one of the founders of the School, who promoted the idea that hedonic calculus must be employed in the management of one’s household and economic affairs, making the point time and again that we must run certain risks and go through certain inconveniences in order to avoid greater ruin and gain greater advantages.
He disagreed with the destitute life of the Cynics, and appears to have made this point while arguing against them and in favor of a doctrine of the natural measure of wealth. This corresponds to that which is needed to secure the natural and necessary pleasures, and to have the confident expectation that we will be able to secure them in the future.
While many modern Epicureans are following the founders’ advice to write outlines of the doctrines concerning the physics and ethics, the study of Epicurean economics has been mostly neglected. My attempts to create an outline of the economics when I initially read Peri Oikonomias yielded “Seven Principles of Autarchy” (or, self-sufficiency) at the conclusion of my discussion of the scroll, and last year I dedicated my blog’s content at the evaluation of various aspects of the economics.
One other difficulty with dealing with these doctrines has to do with resistance from Epicureans who are critical of what they see as the so-called “minimalist interpretation”, but who do not seem to be critical of the limitless desires, consumerism, and other problems related to not being able to recognize the upper limit of the natural measure of wealth. This probably has to do with the influence of Ayn Rand and other neoliberal philosophers on many who come to the study of Epicurus, and who attempt to inject Randian conceptions of ambition and greed into Epicureanism–where they clearly do not belong, since Epicurus wanted his followers to have a mind that is content, satisfied, grateful, and capable of understanding how much is enough. For this reason, it is important to clearly understand what the original doctrines on economics were, so as to not be swayed by modern revisionism in either direction (towards extreme greed, or towards extreme minimalism).
Metrodorus Against the Cynics
As we saw above, these doctrines were in part inspired in a rejection of the destitute life of the cynics. We know from Diogenes Laertius’ biography that Epicurus also rejected the Cynic practice of begging daily because this is a wretched way of life and involves much toil and suffering (DL 10.119), and said that the sage would not be a mendicant and would “regard to his property and to his future” (DL 10.8). But Metrodorus may have taken issue with more than the Cynics’ full rejection of wealth. Cynics were known for living like dogs, in utter poverty, sleeping on the streets, not practicing hygiene, and having sex in public. The health and social problems associated with lack of hygiene and a life of squalor raise issues when we carry out hedonic calculus.
Epicurean literary tradition has one scene that shows what the exchanges between the Cynics and the Epicureans may have been like. Chapter Four of A Few Days in Athens depicts a visit made by Gryphus, who is described as a “pale, dirty, hairy cynic” whose tunic was torn, to the Garden.
Gryphus, short, square, and muscular; his tunic of the coarsest and not the cleanest woollen, in some places worn threadbare, and with one open rent of considerable magnitude, that proved the skin to be as well engrained as its covering : his girdle, a rope: his cloak, or rather rag, had the appearance of a sail taken from the wreck of an old trader: his feet bare, and thickly powdered with dust: of his face, little more might be distinguished than the nose; the lower part being obscured by a bushy and wide-spreading beard, and the upper, by a profusion of long, tangled, and grisly hair.
The chapter is meant to have comedic value, but there is of course educational value in it also.
The Natural Measure of Wealth
In arguing against the destitute life of the Cynics, the co-founder of Epicureanism Metrodorus taught the doctrine of the natural measure of wealth. What does this consist of?
The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity. – Principal Doctrine 15
Poverty, if measured by the natural end, is great wealth; but wealth, if not limited, is great poverty. – Vatican Saying 25
We see here an Epicurean distinction between wealth that is “natural” (physikos) and wealth that is empty (kenos). Seneca attributes these words to Epicurus:
There is also this saying of Epicurus: “If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if you do so according to opinion, you will never be rich.” For nature’s wants are small; the demands of opinion are boundless.
According to the authors of Philodemus and the New Testament World,
There is for the philosopher a measure of wealth that, following the founders of the school, we have passed down in “On Wealth”, so as to render the account of the art of managing the acquisition of this and the preservation of this. – Column 12 of On the art of property management
Concerning measuring our desires by nature rather than by culture, we must remember this from Letter to Menoeceus:
We must also reflect that of desires some are natural, others are groundless; and that of the natural some are necessary as well as natural, and some natural only. And of the necessary desires some are necessary if we are to be happy, some if the body is to be rid of uneasiness, some if we are even to live. – Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus
Natural wealth will, therefore, include that wealth by which we procure health (food, water, health care), happiness (friends), and safety (warmth, shelter). But those are just the necessary natural desires. There are additional natural desires which are not necessary, and which merely add variety to our pleasure regimen.
The natural measure of wealth (ploutou metron) is not absolute (it depends on context), but it’s also not arbitrary. Concerning which unnecessary desires may be considered natural, Principal Doctrine 15 teaches that natural wealth is distinguished for being easily acquired (euporistos) while empty wealth is not. Notice that there is no absolute amount of wealth that is assigned to this. The natural measure of wealth will vary according to circumstances.
Philodemus’ On Wealth
There’s one more Philodeman source dealing with wealth. The scroll On Wealth is fragmentary, but mentions that death is nothing to us, probably meaning to explain that wealth will not protect us from death. At a later point in the scroll, Philodemus cites Epicurus offering a point-by-point refutation of Menander’s Georgos (“The Farmer”), a parody of the burdens of poverty. In this parody, the poet personifies Poverty as a hag that would not go away.
The essay On Wealth: New Fragments of Empedocles, Menander, and Epicurus by David Armstrong and Joseph Ponczoch argues that Epicurus defends Poverty in Menander’s Georgos (presumably so long as one is able to procure one’s natural desires, unlike the total destitution of the Cynics), and that
as is apparent from PHerc. 1570 as much as from the texts Balch cites, one can actually distinguish four clear degrees of wealth, with two extremes and two middle terms: immense wealth, (respectable) wealth, (respectable) poverty, and destitution. The notion that a state of poverty can still be respectable is at the heart of the content of pc. 5
Against Extreme Minimalism
In the Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus described what could be described as a minimalist lifestyle
… we regard. independence of outward things as a great good, not so as in all cases to use little, but so as to be contented with little if we have not much, being honestly persuaded that they have the sweetest enjoyment of luxury who stand least in need of it, and that whatever is natural is easily procured and only the vain and worthless hard to win. Plain fare gives as much pleasure as a costly diet, when one the pain of want has been removed, while bread an water confer the highest possible pleasure when they are brought to hungry lips. To habituate one’s se therefore, to simple and inexpensive diet supplies al that is needful for health, and enables a person to meet the necessary requirements of life without shrinking and it places us in a better condition when we approach at intervals a costly fare and renders us fearless of fortune. – Epicurus, in his Letter to Menoeceus
There seems to be a curriculum of pleasure at play here. We educate ourselves to better enjoy luxurious pleasures if we do not have them frequently. This way, we avoid the hedonic treadmill. We also easily become self-sufficient and confident of our ability to procure our needs by adopting a simple way of living. What we need to keep in mind is:
Frugality too has a limit, and the man who disregards it is like him who errs through excess. – Vatican Saying 63
It’s important to note that the goal of the Epicurean is to live a life filled with all the pleasures that nature makes easily available to us, it’s not to live minimally. As Epicurus says to Menoeceus: it’s “not so as in all cases to use little”. So if the minimalist lifestyle we have chosen generates more disadvantages than advantages, it’s time to reassess the limits of our simple lifestyle. For this reason, Metrodorus said that sometimes we accept many disadvantages for the sake of things without which we would suffer greatly.
Against Extreme Ambition
Concerning the upper limit of the natural measure of wealth, the founders submit the following concerns to our consideration in our choices and avoidances:
The love of money, if unjustly gained, is impious, and, if justly gained, is shameful; for it is unseemly to be parsimonious even with justice on one’s side. – Vatican Saying 43
People generally dislike misers. The word used here, philokrematía (love of money), is also cited by Philodemus in Peri Oikonomias as a vice that we must guard against. It may lead to legal entanglements, reduce the number of our friends, and attract the distrust of friends and business associates. At least one of the Vatican Sayings criticizes how people sometimes sacrifice their freedom for money:
Since the attainment of great wealth can scarcely be accomplished without slavery to crowds or to politicians, a free life cannot obtain much wealth; but such a life already possesses everything in unfailing supply. Should such a life happen to achieve great wealth, this too it can share so as to gain the good will of one’s neighbors. – Vatican Saying 67
Being beholden to crowds or leaders, we may sacrifice our values, or our reputation, or our privacy for money. Some people sacrifice of too much time at work for the sake of money, without the balance of being able to enjoy the fruits of their labor. We call them workaholics. It is difficult to argue that this passes hedonic calculus.
The desire for fame, together with the desire for unlimited amounts of wealth, are both criticized here:
The soul neither rids itself of disturbance nor gains a worthwhile joy through the possession of greatest wealth, nor by the honor and admiration bestowed by the crowd, or through any of the other things sought by unlimited desire. – Vatican Saying 81
We are reminded of the Princeton University study that showed that happiness correlates to wealth with an income of up to $75,000. Beyond that, happiness varies according to other factors, like health, and the amount and quality of friends.
That wealth itself, once acquired, is far from a guarantee of happiness, is attested in the Philodeman scrolls where we see a huge amount of concern with flatterers as a category of false friends. This is probably due to the fact that Philodemus was teaching Epicureanism to wealthy Romans, who attracted many kinds of flatterers, false friends, and people who were seeking their own self-interest by associating with the wealthy. Therefore, even if one is very gifted in interpersonal charm and attracts true friends with ease, it may be difficult for a wealthy person to know with certainty which friends are true ones and which ones are flatterers.
There are other problems tied to not recognizing the upper limit of the natural measure of wealth. Consumerism is tied to anxiety about status, and to false attribution of value to things rather than relations and experiences. Being ostentatious about one’s wealth and suffering from the “keeping up with the Joneses” syndrome may lead to additional problems of debt (which is a form of slavery), and constant craving for more unnecessary things. Once the things we acquire no longer “smell new”, we tire of them and want new toys.
Under what circumstances is ambition advantageous or not, useful or useless?
As we have seen with the “easily acquired” attribution of natural wealth, if the attainment of something comes with little effort and little to no disadvantages, it’s hard to argue against this type of ambition. Particularly, our ambitious efforts lead to wealth that is easily acquired if we employ our aptitude (that which we are good at), and if we enjoy doing what it takes to acquire things. In other words, the greater our aptitude, the less effort we have to put in. If we make great attempts at achieving something that we are not good at, or that we don’t like doing, the effort may not pass hedonic calculus.
Finally, one practical advice given by José Mujica, former president of Uruguay, is that we should measure the true value of things in terms of time instead of money. If we consider how many hours of work it will take to pay for our “new toys”–for instance, a new car–we will be more hesitant to buy frivolous things than if we merely think about the value we get from owning a status symbol. In reality, for as long as we earn an hourly income and have limited amounts of money available (as is the case with almost everyone), it may appear that we are buying things with cash, but we are really buying things with our time and with our lives. If we think about the money that we spend frivolously as the bond of our indentured servitude that it really is, we will become more humane towards ourselves.
Brief Dialogue on Ambition
In order to discern what other Epicureans think about ambition as a virtue or a vice, and about wealth, we had discussions in the Garden of Epicurus Facebook group. Here are a few highlights.
Hiram. What do others think about the ethics of ambition, from an Epicurean perspective? Under which circumstances is ambition advantageous / virtuous and under what conditions is it disadvantageous / a vice?
Ron. Clearly ambition can’t be inherently bad, because Epicurus was very ambitious himself.
Hiram. I don’t think anything is “inherently bad” in Epicurean philosophy, other than pain that doesn’t lead to a greater pleasure.
Doug. If you enjoy doing what you’re doing, it would seem to be fine. If you’re doing it for fame and status, there would be a problem.
Hiram. Is that because fame and status are desires that are impossible to satisfy?
Doug. That would be part of it. In the case of fame and status, there are downsides of these that are commonly not considered until they appear. I’m reminded of what Robert Pirsig did when his book became a best seller and his phone rang off the hook with people asking for interviews. He quit his job, loaded up his RV, and disappeared.
Hiram. Well, then there are people like Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson, who were clearly unhappy and didn’t live lives worth living in spite of their incredible success and fame.
Ron. Not sure about status. Low status can be a source of pain I think. But I would say there is a limit to how much is necessary for a pleasant life, beyond which striving for it is not worth it.
Mike. Let’s be honest. Fame and high status are like a double-edged sword. Yes, there is nothing wrong in desiring and enjoying them. However, that’s not always the case. In many cases, fame and status create much trouble. It is good if they provide peace of mind, bad if they produce anxiety and insecurities. Principal Doctrine 7 is clear on this: “Some people have sought to become famous and renowned, thinking that thus they would make themselves secure against their fellow-humans. If, then, the life of such persons really was secure, they attained natural good; if, however, it was insecure, they have not attained the end which by nature’s own prompting they originally sought.”
Hiram. Famous people frequently lose their privacy. Privacy is an extremely important pleasure that most people take for granted. Consider the British prince and Duchess Megan who recently moved to Canada. Even being royalty can’t make up for the difficulties.
Brief Dialogue on Wealth
Jason. It often results in unnecessary political and/or legal entanglements too. Look at Seneca for an ancient example of wealth not leading to a happy life. I’m sure we can all think of more recent examples too.
Hiram. I have an ambitious acquaintance who is workaholic. She has no children so no reason to work so hard but I have a feeling it keeps her from dealing with “stuff”. Some people avoid having an intellectual or philosophical life in order to avoid existential baggage.
Jason. I know more than one retiree who is “lost” as a result of no longer having to work for a living. I can’t imagine being so bored and incurious that I didn’t know what to do with myself.
Mike. Anxiety is not only a rich man’s disease. It is also a poor man’s problem. There are poor people who are too anxious even about little things. But the fact that Epicurus said that “Wealth, if not limited, is great poverty” implies that infinite desire is vain and therefore produces troubles in the soul such as anxiety, stress, or even paranoia.
An Outline of Oikonomias
I have carried out an investigation of Epicurean economics to the best of my ability, assured by Philodemus that it’s “necessary to hand down a tradition of the most general principles and to outline many details in the treatises concerning the care and preservation of possessions”. As a result of this, below is my outline of the doctrines concerning Epicurean micro-economics. I invite other students to develop their own outlines.
- There is a natural measure of wealth (ploutou metron), and an Epicurean distinction between wealth that is “natural” (physikos) and wealth that is empty (kenos). The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure (euporistos); but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity and is impossible or difficult to procure.
- In economics, as in all else, we must run certain risks and go through certain inconveniences in order to avoid greater ruin and gain greater advantages.
- Since the attainment of great wealth can scarcely be accomplished without slavery, a free life cannot obtain much wealth; but such a life already possesses everything in unfailing supply. Should such a life happen to achieve great wealth, this too it can share so as to gain the good will of one’s neighbors.
- Our ambitious efforts lead to wealth that is easily acquired if we employ our aptitude (that which we are good at), and if we enjoy doing what it takes to acquire things. In other words, the greater our aptitude, the less effort we have to put in. If we make great attempts at achieving something that we are not good at, or that we don’t like doing, the effort may not pass hedonic calculus.
- When we are habituated to simple pleasures, we are in a better position to enjoy luxurious ones.
- Frugality too has a limit, and the man who disregards it is like him who errs through excess.
- There is social wealth in addition to the wealth of things and possessions. Philodemus, in Art of Property Management, compares our investment of time and money and efforts on our friends with “sowing seeds” that will yield fruit in the future. (all the points that follow are from that scroll)
- Association makes labor pleasant. We must choose our company prudently.
- Our revenue must more than meet our immediate needs: it must facilitate a dignified life of leisure.
- It’s prudent to cultivate multiple streams of income, among which deriving fees from the Garden’s teaching mission, rental property income and business ownership, which includes gainful employment of others, have special priority.
- It’s prudent to have fruitful possessions, such as the various forms of ownership of means of production.
Epicurean Arguments Against Racism
November 20, 2019
Book Review of “How to be Epicurean”, by Catherine Wilson
December 18, 2019
The 20 Tenets of Society of Friends of Epicurus
December 20, 2019
On “-Isms” and Pleasure Wisdom
December 22, 2019
Book Review: How to Live a Good Life
January 7, 2020
Advice to New Students of Epicurean Philosophy
January 16, 2020
Dr. Christos Yapijakis
The Philosophy of Epicurus: Humanism and Science Aiming for Happiness
February 19, 2020
On Philodemus’ Scroll 1005
April 15, 2020
Ethics of Philodemus Book Review: Philodemus’ Method of Studying and Cultivating the Virtues; On Frankness and On Conversation; Moral Portraiture and Seeing Before the Eyes; Against Maximalism; Philodemus’ Economics
May 26-31, 2020
Some Epicurean Thoughts on the Riots and Peaceful Protest
June 2, 2020
What being an Epicurean means to me
June 8, 2020
A Concrete Self
February 25, 2018
A Transcendental Epicureanism
July 6, 2018
Swinish Herds and Pastafarians: Comedy as an Ideological Weapon
September 5, 2018
Book Review of Ontology of Motion
December 9, 2018
Hygge and the Landscape of Pleasure
March 15, 2019
Our Friend Joshua
Hermarchus, Seeing the Bust of Epicurus
Metrodorus’ Epistle to Timocrates
July 11, 2019
In Memory of “The Men”
July 20, 2019
Epicurean Festival in Italy
September 26, 2019
Some passages by La Mettrie remind us of the book Ontology of Motion, which argues that Lucretius accentuated that motion is an attribute of matter.
The most important repercussion of this is that motion is natural and does not require gods, spirits, or animating forces outside of nature: nature is “free of masters”, as Lucretius states.
In La Mettrie, in addition to the essential attributes of matter, there is something he called “la force mortice” (the dynamic force), which is “puissance” (power). In page 9, the relation between force and motion is established. This “puissance motrice de la matière” (mobile power of matter) is in every moving body, and it’s impossible not to conceive of these two attributes: that which moves, that which is moved. As we saw in Ontology of motion, the role that this plays is to abolish all supernatural or superstitious animism, and to replace it with the concept of a mechanical nature that exhibits motion on its own according to natural laws.
Against the Theologians
In Histoire Naturelle de l’Ame, La Mettrie closes by echoing Voltaire, saying that there’s no need to fear that philosophers will harm the religion of a country. No, it is the theologians who wish to preside over sects and political parties.
A hundred treatises on materialism are much less to fear than a merciless Jansenist or an ambitious Pontiff.
Nature has no Purpose
One of the features of the anti-creationist view of nature is that nature is blind, mechanical, that it does not “intend” to make this or that machine, this or that body, this organ or that ecosystem. These things appear as a result of random mutations or events, or of the never-ending dance of particles moving in space and relating to each other, and only once their function serves an advantage, do organisms begin to perfect the use of their organs. This argument was originally found in Lucretius.
Nature is blind, innocent, unaware, and in fact this blindness and innocence is a consolation for death.
Pre-Darwinian Naturalist Reasoning
La Mettrie lived prior to Darwin. His Lucretian argument for how humans emerged from the Earth are, therefore, pre-Darwinian, but based on the reasoning that if humans have not always existed, the Earth must have acted as the uterus of mankind.
Why, I ask you, modern anti-Epicureans, why should the Earth, that mother and nurse of all objects, have refused to animal seeds what she allowed to the meanest, most useless and most harmful vegetables?
Obviously, Darwin made huge contributions to our understanding of the evolution of life, and geneticists after him continued his work. But Lucretius demonstrates that the ancients did have an idea of natural selection, and La Mettrie is again writing a commentary on Lucretian ideas when he says:
Perfection was no more achieved in a day in nature than in art.
Art’s fumblings to imitate nature give us an idea of what nature’s fumblings were like.
The idea is that nature produced many anomalies and mutations. Those that were disadvantageous did not survive to pass on their seed, but those that were advantageous did pass on their seed, and after countless generations this produced beings that were increasingly adapted to their environment.
Man “came after” the beasts because man is more complex, therefore man took more time to make.
The case of mutants prove nature’s absent-mindedness and trial by error: her “innocence”, and her lack of intention and of “final causes”. Nature passed by many combinations before reaching the ones that worked effectively. Nature happens to have made eyes, not intending to, just as water serves as a mirror without intending to. He compares this to a metaphor of how chance on a canvas paints something.
Nature’s creation of eyes and ears follows laws of nature similar to the ones that govern the ebb and flow of the sea.
A Glorious Harbor
La Mettrie was deeply aware that much of what he was writing would be considered practically seditious by the religious authorities of his times, and yet he pressed these issues with zeal. We are reminded of chapter 14 of A Few Days in Athens, which closes with the following conclusion concerning the supposed immorality of atheism, originally believed by the character Theon to be a thought-crime. After explaining that it is no crime to believe with certainty in gods, but that’s it’s unreasonable, Wright’s Epicurus closes:
(Let) this truth remain with you: that an opinion, right or wrong, can never constitute a moral offence, nor be in itself a moral obligation. It may be mistaken; it may involve an absurdity, or a contradiction. It is a truth, or it is an error: it can never be a crime or a virtue.
La Mettrie closes his book by beautifully celebrating the breath of fresh air that intellectuals of his time were enjoying as a result of finally being able to openly discuss the anti-clerical ideas that they were entertaining. The Enlightenment had managed to create a “glorious harbor” for intellectuals, and it’s only here that intellectual life had been able to flourish after centuries under the asphyxiating grip of the clergy:
I salute you, favourable climate where any man who lives like others can think differently from others; where theologians do not act as judges of philosophers, a role of which they are incapable; where the freedom of the mind, humanity’s finest attribute, is not chained by prejudices; where one is not ashamed to say what one does not blush to think; and where there is no risk of becoming a martyr to the doctrine whose apostle one is. I salute you, country already celebrated by philosophers, where all those persecuted by tyranny find (if they are deserving and reputable), not a safe asylum but a glorious harbour; where one feels how far the victories of the mind are above all others; where the philosopher, finally crowned with honours and kindness, is only a monster to the minds of the mindless. May you, oh fortunate land, bloom more and more! May you appreciate your good fortune and make yourself worthy in everything, if possible, of the great man who is your King! Muses, Graces, Cupids and you, wise Minerva, when crowning with the most splendid laurels the august brow of this modern Julian — as worthy of governing, as learned, as clever and as philosophical as the classical one — you are only crowning your own handiwork.
What follows is the report on the 10th Panhellenic Symposium of Epicurean Philosophy, February 8-9, 2020, Cultural Center of Pallini, Athens, Greece by Dr. Christos Yapijakis.
A top-of-the-world cultural event, the 10th Panhellenic Symposium of Epicurean Philosophy took place on the weekend of 8 and 9 February 2020 with the participation of a record number of more than five hundred Greeks inspired by the enlightening and humanistic philosophy of Epicurus. This is a unique philosophical conference, as it is the only one organized worldwide dedicated exclusively to Epicurean philosophy. It is also the largest national philosophical conference and the only one in Greece that has been established since 2011 as an institution from the people rather than from the university philosophers. It is organized annually with free entrance for the public by the Municipality of Pallini and the Friends of Epicurean Philosophy Garden of Athens; and Garden of Salonica; at the Cultural Center of Gerakas, located within the ancient area of Gargettus, from which the philosopher Epicurus originated from.
The commencement of the Symposium was held by the Mayor of Pallini, Athanasios Zoutsos, followed by greetings from friends of Epicurus from all over the world and Greece. In this year’s 10th anniversary Panhellenic Symposium, Epicurus’ timeless contribution to human thought was highlighted by distinguished scientists and philosophers in a roundtable discussion coordinated by Christos Yapijakis, Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Athens and founding member of the “Garden of Athens”. Theodosis Pelegrinis, Professor of Philosophy and Former Rector of the University of Athens, referred to the humanistic philosophy of Epicurus; George Chrousos Professor of Medicine at the University of Athens, highlighted the Epicurean psychotherapeutic approach to stress management; Evangelos Protopapadakis, Assistant Professor of Philosophy of the University of Athens, discussed Epicurean ethics as based on human biology (bioethics); Anastasios Liolios, Professor of Physics at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and CERN researcher, presented Epicurean atomic physics as the ancestor of modern particle physics and quantum physics; Dionysis Simopoulos, Director Emeritus of Eugenides Planetarium, discussed the Epicurean perception regarding the existence of many worlds in the universe as confirmed by modern astronomy; Stamatios Krimigis, Professor of Space Physics and renown NASA scientist, described modern exploration of the possible existence of life on other planets, as predicted by Epicurus.
Distinguished members of the “Gardens” made important speeches, among which it is worth mentioning “a new fragment of Diogenes of Oenoanda” by Yannis Avramidis of the Garden of Thessaloniki, and “Epicurean philosophy and nutrition” by Klea Nomikou-Tsantsaridi of the Garden of Athens.
In the artistic part of the Symposium, the presentation of one scene from Christos Yapijakis’ new theatrical play A Happy Greek, regarding Epicurus’ life and work, stood out. Directed by Stavros Spyrakis, the four amateur actors thrilled the audience with their performance and were rewarded by a particularly warm applause.
The 10th Panhellenic Symposium of Epicurean Philosophy has allowed hundreds of Greeks who have a need for learning and a desire for a better world to experience the timeless utility of Epicurean philosophy, which offers a mental shield to putative individual and social deadlocks. The scientific, humanistic and psychotherapeutic message of Epicurus on one hand expresses the simplest and most profound way of approaching a happy life with friendship and solidarity, even in difficult times, and on the other hand it differs fundamentally from the fashionable superficial message of “prosperity” propagated in Greece and internationally.
Dr. Christos Yapijakis, DMD, MS, PhD.
Associate Professor of Genetics
In his Letter to Herodotus, Epicurus establishes the criteria of truth. This criteria are the faculties that nature gave us as a contact with reality: the anticipations (which form as we encounter and memorize sense objects), the five senses, and the pleasure-pain faculty.
It is essential that the first mental image associated with each word should be regarded, and that there should be no need of explanation, if we are really to have a standard to which to refer a problem of investigation or reflection or a mental inference. And besides we must keep all our investigations in accord with our sensations, and in particular with the immediate apprehensions whether of the mind or of any one of the instruments of judgment, and likewise in accord with the feelings existing in us, in order that we may have indications whereby we may judge both the problem of sense perception and the unseen. – Epicurus, in his Epistle to Herodotus
In this essay I will evaluate passages from Natural History of the Soul that discuss how the canon is to be used. We will once again see that his system and method are essentially Epicurean.
But, first of all, why is this subject important? In the first pages of the book, La Mettrie explains that not knowing the nature of the soul makes us submit to ignorance and faith, and that one can’t conceive the soul as abstraction, separate from the body. Body and soul were made at once together; to know the properties of the soul one must research those of the body, of which the soul is the animating principle. Since all properties that we observe suppose a subject they’re based on, idealists posit the soul exists by itself without the body, that it is unnatural or immaterial. In setting up a doctrine of unity of body and soul, La Mettrie answers to the idealists:
Yes, BUT why do you want me to imagine this subject to be of a nature absolutely distinct from the body?
The key premise of Natural History of the Soul is that the soul is physical, part of the body, and that it’s born with and dies with the body. Like Epicurus explains in his Epistle to Herodotus, the body is the passive component and the soul is the active component of the self; and furthermore, he says that there are no surer guides than the senses in our inquiry into the nature of the soul.
Reason: a Mechanism that Can Go Wrong
La Mettrie is, among other things, a defender of pleasure and highly skeptical of the value of reason. He also argues that happiness is not found in thoughts or in reason, but is born of the body.
Happiness depends on bodily causes, such as certain dispositions of the body, natural or acquired–that is, procured by the action of foreigner bodies over ours. – La Mettrie, in Histoire naturelle de l’ame, page 135-136
He argues that some people are by birth happier than others. He also argues that proud reason is a mechanism which can go wrong, and in paragraph 79 of his Système d’Epicure he speaks of how cold reason “disconcerts, freezes the imagination and makes pleasures flee“.
It’s difficult to know to what extent La Mettrie based his Natural History of the Soul on Lucretius.
To speak the truth, the senses never fail us, except when we judge their reports with too much precipitation, for otherwise they are loyal ministers. The soul may surely count on being averted by them of pitfalls thrown its way. The senses are ever alert, and are always ready to correct each other’s errors. – Histoire Naturelle de l’Ame, p. 69
Elsewhere he seems to concede that the senses aren’t fully reliable because perceptions can change. Sweet fruit becomes sour, even colors change with lighting. To all this, Epicurus would answer that even if we concede that the senses can err (and they do), still they are our best and only criteria that connect us with reality.
Towards the end of the book, we are raptured into a fascinating world of real-life Tarzans from European history when the author shares several stories that confirm that all ideas come from the senses. He narrates one story about a deaf man from Chartres who, upon hearing bells, started recovering his hearing. When he later started talking and was questioned by theologians, he didn’t understand the meaning of the concept of god or ideas related to the afterlife, etc. Another story had to do with a blind man who had to use touch to get an idea of things. Finally, he narrates the story of Amman, who taught the deaf to speak with touch and sight. He would have them touch their throat to feel the vibration of sound there, and read lips and use mirrors to practice using sight. (Interestingly, the It’s Okay to be Smart YouTube channel has a video on how blind people see with sound) At the closing of the book, the author says:
From all that has been said up to the present, it is easy to conclude with evidence that we don’t have a single innate idea, and that they’re all the products of the senses
He goes on to offer the formula:
No education, no ideas.
No senses, no ideas.
Less senses, less ideas.
Anticipations: a Constant Law
While La Mettrie doesn’t directly mention anticipations (the third canonic faculty), he does describe this faculty when he discusses speech and memory. I will make an attempt to offer a clear translation from the French, which is made difficult by the fact that the author uses long sentences.
The cause of memory is, in fact, mechanic–as memory itself is. It seems to depend on that which is nearby the bodily impressions of the brain, which trace ideas that follow it. The soul can not discover a trace, or an idea, without reminding the others which customarily went together. – La Mettrie, speaking of the “bodily impressions of the brain in p. 88-89 of “Natural history of the soul”
Since in order for a new movement (for instance, the beginning of a verse or a sound that hits the ears) to communicate on the field its impression to the part of the brain that is analogous to where one finds the first vestige of what one searches (that is, this other part of the brain (see note) where memory hides, or the trace of the following verses, and represents to the soul the follow-up to the first idea, or to the first words, it is necessary that new ideas be carried by a CONSTANT LAW to the same place to where the other ideas of the same nature as these were carried. – La Mettrie, speaking of the “constant law” by which memory functions in p. 89-90 of “Natural history of the soul”
(note: he uses the word moelle, which translates as “bone morrow”, but he must be referring to brian tissue or brain lobe of some sort)
Now, we know that much of La Mettrie’s writing was inspired on or based on Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, and this passage in particular is related to the passage where Lucretius mentions neural pathways in the brain. Notice that La Mettrie also refers to ideas tracing a path inside the brain.
Notice also that this is remarkably scientific, considering when it was written. To La Mettrie, ideas are “bodily impressions” in the brain. Ideas are material: they are physical and are lodged in (or happen to) the brain. Today we know that ideas are, concretely, electric signals shared by neurons according to established connections in the nodes between them, which are formed as a result of habitual and instinctive behavior by the animal.
Furthermore–and this is another feature of the canon as it is understood by most modern Epicureans: in p. 93 La Mettrie argues that the fact that we remember or recognize ideas with or without the consent of the will is seen as proof that they are pre-rational. The anticipations are sub-conscious, and obey what La Mettrie calls an “internal cause”.
The author seems intimately familiar with many details of the Epicurean canon. It seems that much of what he wrote were commentaries on Lucretian ideas, and that he was unfamiliar with Epicurus as a direct source. His familiarity was with Lucretius, which was a popular document in the intellectual life of anti-religious intellectuals of his day.
He does not use the same words as Lucretius (or Epicurus) used. He is employing clear speech in his native language to name things that we know as anticipations, canon, dogmatism, etc. He used “système” for dogmatic systems of philosophy, and referred to anticipations functionally as they related to memory and speech.
La Mettrie regards reason and the canonic faculties similarly to how the orthodox Epicurean does. He says of reason that it’s a “mechanism which often fails”. He frequently uses the term “internal causes” here (as opposed to “external”), perhaps admitting some acknowledgement of the existence of the unconscious or subconscious mind. That he goes to such lengths to argue that these faculties are pre-rational is very interesting.
Next, we will be focusing on controversies against the creationists and theologians.
On “-Isms” and Pleasure Wisdom
“Epicureanism” vs. “Epicurean Philosophy“
The Society of Friends of Epicurus has dedicated extensive dialogue to the suffix “–ism” regarding its relevance to the Epicurean tradition. In the Epicurean spirit of παρρησíα (or “parrhēsíā”) meaning “frank speech” or “speaking candidly”, the ancient Greek language did NOT employ the “–ism” when referring to the tradition of Epicurus (nor, for that matter, of any other ancient Greek philosophy). Thus, while the word can be employed for practical purposes, “Epicureanism” does NOT quite compliment the nuance of “Epicurean Philosophy”.
The English suffix, “-ism” — according to BOTH common and academic usages — is employed to designate a distinctive “doctrine“, “theory“, “attitude“, “belief“, “practice“, “process“, “state“, “condition“, “religion“, “system“, or “philosophy“. According to this definition, it is NOT incorrect to add a simple “–ism” at the end of “the philosophy of Epicurus“; it should, appropriately and accurately, render the word “Epicureanism” (or even “Epicurism“).
In more succinct terms, we can visualize “Epicurean–ism” simply as “Epicurean-philosophy“.
While this works for practical purposes, it may lead to several misconceptions:
- Bracketing the suffix “-ism” to a name often indicates devotional worship of an individual (consider the differences between the old, misleading usage of “Mohammedanism” versus the preferred, contemporary usage of “Islam”). Epicureans do NOTworship Epicurus as a supernatural prophet, NOR as a manifestation of a transcendental ideal.
- Bracketing the suffix “-ism” can ALSO indicate contempt for an individual or system. Consider, for example, when “Marxism”, “Leninism”, “Stalinism”, and “Maoism” are used by critics and detractors of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and many others. Thus, the word “Epicureanism” can be employed by critics and detractors of Epicurean philosophy as an indictment of Epicurus.
- In the modern era, “-ism” is frequently used to identify political typologies. Terms like “Monarchism”, “Liberalism”, “Conservatism”, “Communism”and “Fascism” express ideological systems that — contrary to Epicurean philosophy — presuppose the existence of an ideal state or utopia, organized according to the dimensions of a perfect, timeless principle.
- The suffix “-ισμός” (or “-ismós“) was rarely employed in ancient Greek; few examples of “-ism” (or “-ismós“) exist prior to New Latin, and the linguistic conventions of the modern era. In giving preference to the term “Epicurean philosophy”, we acknowledge the importance of privileging ancient Greek historical sources to the reliance upon Latin translations.
Our tradition of adding “-ism” to the end of words — in which we recognize distinctive “ideologies” — begins in the post-Classical period, corresponding to the Renaissance. Coming from the Latin “re-” (meaning “again”) and “nasci” (meaning “to be born”), this “Rebirth” resurrected the innovations and observations of Antiquity. The revival allowed scholars to adapt translations through the Latin language, using the Romanalphabet, sheathing many ancient Greek observations. Scholars began to liberally apply the suffix –ISMVS during this period of New Latin.
(I’m going to call the tradition — in which modern English-speakers partake — the “Ism–ism“, or, in other words, “the systemic practice of adding ‘-ism‘ to idea-expressing words”, sometimes as a celebration, sometimes as a derogation, sometimes as a religion, and sometimes as a political system. Due to the profound influence of Latin, and the linguistic conventions of the modern era, we ALL — in one way or another — have become dedicated Ismists.)
From the perspective of the contemporary world, the suffix –ISMVS (or “-ismus“) was first borrowed from the Old Latin language of the Romans, and later appropriated by post-Classical peoples as New Latin and Contemporary Latin. We find an abundance of “-ism” and “-ismus” in both Romance and Germanic language families. As with the Latin –ISMVS, our contemporary suffix “-ism” is used to indicate distinctive “doctrines“, “theories”, “attitudes”, “beliefs”, “practices“, “processes“, “states“, “conditions“, “religions“, “systems“, and “philosophies“.
Here, however, is where we note a difference that our Mediterranean friends have often recognized: while the Greek language — like (for example) Celtic and Indic languages — has evolved from a common Indo-European root, it did NOT adopt Latin conventions the same way that Romance and Germanic languages have. Ancient Greek philosophers — perhaps, especially Epicurus — would NOT have thought of a “philosophy” as an “-ism”.
–ize | –ίζω | –ízō |
We receive the Latin –ISMVS or “-ismus” from the ancient Greek “-ισμός” (“-ismós“), which, itself, is a bracketing of two other ancient Greek words, those words being “-ίζω” (“–ízō“) and “–μός” (“–mós“). We’ll start with the former word. The suffix “-ίζω” (“-ízō“) was added to nouns to form new verbs. Let’s look at (x3) examples:
- canonize | κανονίζω | kanonízō
κανών or “kanṓn” literally referred to a “reed”, and carried the connotation of a “measuring rod” or “standard”.
+ “-ίζω“ (“-ízō or “-ize“) rendered “κανονίζω“, “kanonízō” or “canonize” meaning “to make standard“.
- Hellenize | ἑλληνίζω | Hellēnízō
ἑλλην or “Héllēn” literally referred to that which is “Greek”.
+ “-ίζω“ (“-ízō or “-ize“) rendered “ἑλληνίζω“, “Hellēnízō“, or “Hellenize” meaning “to make Greek“.
- synchronize | συγχρονίζω | súnkhronosízō
σύγχρονος or “súnkhronos” literally referred to “synchronous”
+ “-ίζω“ (“-ízō or “-ize“) rendered “συγχρονίζω“, “súnkhronosízō“, or “synchronize” meaning “to sync“.
The key point with “-ίζω” (“-ízō“) — and our Modern English suffix “-ize” — is that we can turn any concept into a verb, or, in more philosophically interesting terms, we can ACTIVATE it.
–μός | –mós
The second suffix from which the ancient Greek “-ισμός” (“-ismós“) was bracketed is “–μός” (“–mós“). Contrary to the convention of ACTIVATING a word that represents a concept, adding “–μός” (“–mós“) ABSTRACTS an action. We can demonstrate this convention through (x3) other examples that translate well into Modern English:
- cataclysm |κατακλυσμός | kataklusmós
κατακλύζω (kataklúzō) – literally meant “to wash away”.
+ “–μός” (“–mós“) rendered “κατακλυσμός“, “kataklusmós” or “cataclysm“, meaning a “great flood“.
- sarcasm | σαρκασμός | sarkasmós
“σαρκάζω” or “sarkázō” literally, and figuratively meant “tearing apart” or “to tear off the flesh”.
+ “–μός” (“–mós“) rendered “σαρκασμός“, “sarkasmós” or “sarcasm“, meaning “(figuratively) tearing apart“.
- syllogism | συλλογισμός | sullogismós
συλλογίζομαι (sullogízomai) literally meant “to compute” or “to infer”.
+ “–μός” (“–mós“) rendered “συλλογισμός“, “sarkasmós”, or “syllogism“, meaning an “inference“.
The key point with “–μός” (“–mós“) is that the ancient Greeks could turn any verb into a word that expressed an abstract concept, or, in more philosophically interesting terms, it could systematize activity into an idea.
–ism | –ισμός | –ismós
The re-bracketing of the suffix “–μός” (“–mós“) appended with “-ίζω” (“–ízō“) presents us with “-ισμός” (or “-ismós“) or the suffix “-ism“, a convention which systematizes a verb that has been activated from a noun. Very few examples exist in ancient Greek. A suitable example for English mono-linguists can be demonstrated in the word “Sabbath”:
- σάββατον | sábbaton literally means “the Sabbath” (borrowed from the Hebrew שבת or “shabát”)
+ “–ίζω” (“-ízō or “–ize“) σαββατίζω | sabbatízō means “to make, observe, or keep the Sabbath”
+ “–ισμός” (“–ismós“) σαββατισμός | sabbatismós means “the state of keeping the Sabbath”
UNLIKE the ubiquitous –ISMVS of Latin, and the overused “-ism” of Modern English, the ancient Greek –ισμός (or “ismós“) is almost NEVERused. The ancient Greeks did NOT shared our zeal for Ismism. When faced with the need to express a NEW word with FRESH meaning, the ancient Greeks built words from either  the names of people and objects they directly knew or observed, and  active forces they felt or experienced, but NOT as  abstract systems.
So, why NOT “Epicureanism“?
The philosophy of Epicurus recognizes that we EXPERIENCE NATURE DIRECTLY and NOT indirectly as an abstract system. Epicurean philosophy and the instruments with which humanity can make informed and ethical decisions — the sensation of an atomic reality, theanticipation of natural patterns, and the feelings of pleasure and pain — neither depend upon allegiance to a single leader, nor initiation into a secret society, nor longing for a golden age.
Christ’s resurrection would NOT be known without the Gospels.
Muhammad’s revelations would NOT be known without the Qur’an.
Even without the historical personage of Epicurus, human beings would still have sensed an atomic reality, anticipated the patterns of nature, and felt pleasure and pain, still have made mutual agreements, and still have formed friendships.
Without Jesus of Nazareth, Christians would NOT know to recite the Lord’s Prayer.
Without Muhammad, Muslims would NOT know to perform Salah to Mecca five times a day.
NATURE, itself, is so much LARGER, more important, and more fundamental than any one personage or tradition. Even without Epicurean Philosophy, humans would still have developed scientific intellects to their own advantage.
“Epicureanism” (or, also, “Epicurism“) carries a connotation – albeit very slightly – that the philosophy of Epicurus is just another doctrinal institution that advertises immaterial truths from an untouchable dimension. It is not quite as authentic to recognize serious seekers of pleasure as “Epicureanists” who follow “Epicureanism” as opposed to “Epicureans” who study “Epicurean philosophy“. Our endeavor rests within our own bodies; NATURE, itself, is the greatest teacher.
All that being said …
… for practical purposes, there most isn’t anything inherently incorrect about preferring the term “Epicureanism“; the “-ism“innocuously identifies a “philosophy“. In Modern English, this does correctly indicate the philosophy of Epicurus, apart from any oath to a mythic person or principle.
Nonetheless, the employment of “Epicurean philosophy” over “Epicureanism” serves to keep our anticipations FRESH, to indicate to others that our interactions are bigger than disembodied souls paddling ideas back and forth in a court of Mind. It acts as a reminder that the path to wisdom is NOT a map that has been given to us from an Eternal Place of Perfection, but that we each carry a well-calibrated compass within ourselves to know the world and guide us to happiness.
“DON’T call [my belief system] an –ism!“
While the preference toward the phrase “Epicurean philosophy” may better reflect its ancient Greek origin, it should NOT indicate that the suffix “-ism” should be reserved as a derogation for non-Epicurean ideas, nor exclusively employed as a polemic toward Idealism. Even Epicurean philosophy, itself, incorporates the “-isms” of atomism, hedonism, naturalism, and materialism; these are most certain NOT idealistic.
Even ancient Greek opponents to Epicurean philosophy did NOT employ the “-ism”. Members of Plato’s Academy were “Academics”; members of Aristotle’s Lyceum with “Peripatetics”; members of Zeno’s Stoa were “Stoics”. It was only later that scholars began to employ the terms “Platonism”, “Aristotelianism”, and “Stoicism”.
Furthermore, this same acknowledgment applies to religious traditions:
The earliest rendering of the religion we refer to as “Judaism” was יהדות or “Yahadút”, from the Hebrew word יהודי (or “Y‘hudá”) meaning “the Jewish people” and the suffix ־ות (or “-ót” ) meaning “the tradition of”. The ismed word that we employ — “Judaism” — is found in Maccabees 2 in the Koine Greek language by Hellenistic Jews, written around 124 BCE (over a thousand years after the foundation of Hebrew monotheism), rendered as ιουδαϊσμός (or “Ioudaismós”).
The word “Zoroastrianism” is first attested from 1854 as an anglicization of the ancient Greek Ζωροάστρης (meaning “Zōroástrēs” or “Zoroaster”) borrowed from the Avestan word or “Zarathustra”. Ancient Iranians referred to their religion as or “Mazdayasna” translating to “worship of Mazda” (also romanized as “Mazdaism”). The word or “Mazda” both identifies the name of the Iranian Creator deity, and also, translates to “wisdom”.
The isming of the religion of post-Classical Arabs has been noted for its inadequacy, and identified in the contemporary era as being largely offensive to the Islamic populations. Until the 20th century, the monotheistic religion of ٱلْإِسْلَام (or “al-Islām”) was identified by Europeans as “Mohammedanism” (or “Muhammadanism”), inappropriately implying that the prophet Muhammad was divine himself, in the same way that Christians think of Jesus of Nazareth as divine.
People from the Punjab region of India refer to their religious tradition as ਸਿੱਖੀ (or “Sikhī) anglicized to the English-speaking world as “Sikhism”. The word comes from the Sanskrit root शिक्षा or “śikṣā” meaning “to learn” or “to study”. (This recognition of the religious practitioner as a “student” is also found in the “Confucian” tradition).
The same is true of “Hinduism”, an anglicization of the Sanskrit सनातन धर्म or “Sanātana Dharma” meaning “Eternal Order“. In fact, the word “Hindu” itself was used by non-Indians to refer to people living around the Indus river. Ancient Indo-Iranian populations would have referred to themselves as आर्य or “Arya” (from which we get the term “Aryan“).
“Jainism” is first attested from 1858 as an anglicization of the Sanskrit adjectiveजैन “Jaina” which comes from the Sanskrit name for the 6thcentury BCE tradition जिन (or “Jina”). The word “Jina” is related to the verb जि meaning “to conquer”, coming from जय (or “jaya”) meaning “victory”. The word “Jain” indicates a spiritual “conqueror”.
Our rendering of “Buddhism” is an anglicization of the original Pali बुद्ध धम्म (or “Buddha Dhamma“) meaning approximately “The Awakened One’s Eternal Law“. The first recorded use of “Buddhism” was in 1801, after Europeans romanized the spelling of Indic vocabulary.
There is NO direct Chinese equivalent to the word “Confucianism” since it has never been organized as a formal institution. The word was coined in 1836 by Sir Francis Davis, a British sinologist, and second Governor of Hong Kong who reduced the vast collection of ancient Chinese practices into a title named after the philosopher Kǒng Fūzǐ ( or “Master Kong”). While no single Chinese word or logogram represents the collection of beliefs and practices that developed from the teachings of Master Kong (anglicized as “Confucius”), the word 儒 (or “Rú”) roughly translates as a “Man receiving instruction from Heaven” (also, a “scholar”), and is used to describe a student of Master Kong’s body of works.
The Taoists of ancient China identified the universal principle as 道 or “Dào”, meaning “road”, “path” or “Way”. In China, the religious tradition is written 道教 or “Dàojiào” pronounced /’daʊ.ʨaʊ/ (or, for English mono-linguists, roughly transliterated as “dow-chyow”). It was anglicized as “Taoism” in 1838.
“Shintoism”— the anglicized name for the native religion of Japan — provides an interesting example of an ismized tradition. The word “Shinto” is of Chinese origin, constructed from the Kanji logograms for the words 神 “Shén”, (meaning “God”) and 道 “Dào” (meaning “Way”) rendering 神道 or “Shéndào”. However, Shinto populations do not employ this phrase as often as they do the Japanese かむながらのみち or “kan’nagara no michi”, (written in the Hirgana writing system) loosely translated as “way of the divine transmitted from time immemorial”. Consequently, the word “Shintoism” is the anglicization of two syllables from Japanese Kanji, inherited from ancient China’s Hanji logograms.
Christianity has been the dominant tradition of the post-Classical, and modern worlds; thus, it has avoided being reductively –ismed (since the people who accused false traditions of being mere “–isms” tended to be Christian, themselves). The word “Christianism” is occasionally used to express contempt for Christian fundamentalism (much like “Islamism” is used to indicate contempt for Islamic fundamentalism.)
Even early Christians did NOT refer to their tradition using the same vocabulary as do modern Christians. Like Taoists, they used the metaphor of της οδου (or “tês hodoû”) meaning “The Way“. A non-Christian, community in Antioch first coined the term Χριστιανός (or “christianós“) to described the followers of The Way. Within 70 years, the early Church Father Ignatius of Antioch employed the term of Χριστιανισμός (or “Christianismós“) to refer to the Christianity.
Regardless of a preference to “Epicurean philosophy” versus “Epicureanism”, the insight of Epicurus’ philosophy demystifies nature and deflates the superstition of common religion. Epicurus anticipated the sciences of particle physics, optics, meteorology, neurology, and psychiatry. His logic was NOT one of theoretical axioms, but of a demonstrable hedonic calculus. Epicurus knew Virtue as a guide post to happiness, but NOT as happiness, itself.
Here, you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.
Hiram’s “On Isms“https://societyofepicurus.com/on-isms/
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de Vaan, Michiel, Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages, vol. 7, of Leiden Indo-European Etymological Dictionary Series, Alexander Lubotsky ed., Leiden: Brill, 2008.
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From the early days of the tradition, the founders have encouraged students of philosophy to write down concise summaries of their views in order to gain clarity and facilitate learning. We find that this practice of summarizing doctrines was mentioned and recommended in the opening portions of Epicurus’ Letters to Herotodus and to Pythocles.
We live in the age of short attention spans and of Wikipedia, and so naturally this tradition has been easily revived among us, and there is an entire sub-section in the EF forum dedicated to “Personal Outlines of Epicurean Philosophy” submitted by members. The following essay was written by “Garden Dweller”, a participant in the Epicurean Friends forum who, while slowly and systematically writing down his own personal life philosophy and while simultaneously studying Epicureanism, found himself agreeing with Epicurean teachings. Needless to say, this is his own personal philosophy, posted here with his permission. We encourage others to engage in a similar exercise here.
The Pursuit of Happiness: 21 Steps to Continuous Life Improvement
Learning how to examine one’s life and change it to maximize happiness is a very powerful skill. Increasing one’s tranquility and happiness can lift the human spirit to a high level of grace and dignity.
In this text, we propose a process of examining one’s life and carefully reconstructing it to maximize tranquility and happiness. We encourage each reader to examine his own life and make improvements based on his own judgment and free will.
This strategy is not for everyone: it requires a certain level of discipline to be able to choose behavior and action that benefits one’s life over the long term, rather than selecting instant gratification. If one is able to make decisions with maturity, the process of Continuous Life Improvement can lift one to a high level of happiness and contentment.
1. Be Sensitive and Learn From Your Senses!
Listen to what your body is telling you about the world. Your senses are your most direct and real connection with the physical world, and should be trusted more than dreams, imagination, things that you have heard from others or what you have been taught by others. Be sensitive to how your mind/body processes and reacts to physical sensations, and learn to recognize and distinguish negative sensations (pain) from positive sensations (pleasure).
Our written language is somewhat limited in the meanings it can convey through a single word. The words “pain” and “pleasure” are not adequate to describe the positive and negative sensations which we receive from our environment. Some synonyms for pain that one may sense include distress, dismay, discomfort, worry, anxiety, disturbance, fear, bother, discontent, displeasure, stress, distastefulness and unpleasantness. Synonyms for pleasure that one may sense include joy, peace, relief, comfort, contentment, enjoyment and satisfaction.
Learn to recognize which of your own feelings are positive, and which are negative by “listening” to or being aware of your own senses. Try to connect events, behaviors and actions which trigger these positive and negative feelings to identify cause and effect for positive and negative feelings.
Many sensations are not strongly painful or pleasurable, but one can often recognize that the body prefers one behavior over another, for example, depending on the outdoor temperature, the body may prefer sunshine to shade, or vice versa. Be open to these types of subtle sensations, both positive and negative.
2. Respond to Negative Feedback!
Be conscious of negative sensations and identify the actions, behaviors and situations that cause them. Find ways to change those behaviors to reduce or eliminate the negative sensations. Negative sensations include pain, discomfort, distress, anxiety, stress and fear.
When you recognize a negative sensation, try to determine which behavior or action caused the negative sensation and change it. Continually be aware of your sensations and strategically make changes in your life that relieve negative sensations. Eliminating behavior and actions that are the cause of negative sensations is a very powerful way to improve one’s life. Repeating this process over time will create enormous improvement in one’s life.
3. Be Rational!
The senses occur in the present moment, so one must use the rational mind to evaluate the cause of that sensation, which may have happened in the past. For example, “after drinking that tea, I became somewhat nervous and agitated…”, which might lead you to suspect that drinking that type of tea causes a certain level of distress. One can then eliminate this behavior to reduce one’s level of distress.
It is not always clear which behavior caused which sensation. The rational process of identifying cause and effect is an important skill and requires one to recall one’s actions over time and discover clues that indicate which behavior affected one’s sense of well being. Use cause and effect analysis to choose how to modify your behavior to reduce negative sensations.
4. Develop a Strategy!
A behavior or action which causes a negative sensation should be modified or eliminated to reduce the negative sensation. There may be a number of behaviors and actions that work together to cause negative sensations. Because the world is complex, this may require a multilevel strategy in response as one improves one’s life.
Changes in one area may have unintended consequences in other areas. A unified strategy that makes changes in many areas may be more effective than making a single change at a time. Learning from others and comparing strategies may be effective if others are following a similar philosophy.
5. Be Good to Yourself!
Choose behavior that maximizes positive sensations. Fill your day with pleasant places, people, activities and events. Listen to what your senses are telling you, and take action to move toward that which is pleasant. Seek out beauty, comfort, joy and contentment. Continually reassess a behavior or action to determine whether it continues to be pleasurable, or if it is becoming less positive over time. Improve your life every minute by constantly thinking about how you could increase your happiness and tranquility.
6. Use Long Term Cost/Benefit Analysis!
It is important to rationally choose behavior and actions which maximize positive sensations. Use a long term cost/benefit analysis to assess whether a short term pleasure is worthwhile over the long term. For example, a sexual relationship may cause emotional distress in the future if one is not selective about the type of person one has a relationship with. Avoid behavior that causes long term negative impacts on one’s life.
Assess a short term negative sensation which may resolve a problem based on the long term positive effects which it might bring. A visit to the dentist is unpleasant, but it can relieve a toothache and promote long term dental health. When considered on a rational basis, one can endure the short term pain for the long term benefit.
There are many such compromises which one must make in life. By focusing on the long term benefit, one can remain aware of the reason one is accepting the short term negative sensation. When the long term benefit no longer exists, one should then end the short term negative sensation.
In some cases, the best strategy may be to select a behavior which minimizes the negative effects of an activity which has some benefits. Working to earn money is a neccessity in today’s world. One can select a career with a minimum of negative impacts on one’s life, and one can live frugally to minimize the amount of money needed. The negative aspects of one’s time being controlled by others can be rationalized by the money which one can save for a future life unencumbered by work.
7. Control Desires!
Recognize that there are some desires which are needs that every human must satisfy, for example, the need for food, water, shelter and friendship. Respect these desires and focus on satisfying them with appropriate responses.
Desires which are not necessary for one’s basic needs are often desires which can damage one’s happiness if one pursues them. Pursuing desires for political power, sexuality, wealth, conspicuous consumption and fame might bring fleeting satisfaction, but over the long term cause distress and pain.
Learn to recognize the difference between desires which are necessary for one’s happiness, and those desires which are unnecessary and often destructive to one’s long term happiness. Use discipline to say no to unnecessary desires. Consciously reduce one’s thoughts about unnecessary desires.
8. Be Loyal to Yourself!
It is important to be relentlessly and completely true to your own self-interest. Every other person who you are in contact with will try to influence your behavior toward their interests. Organizations and governments will try to impress your mind with the “duty” to put their interests first. Businesses will try to influence your behavior in a way that is likely to increase purchases from them and will increase their profits.
In order to find true happiness, it is important to put your interests in the primary position. Delegating decisions which serve the best interest of others can lead to bitterness, dismay, and the feeling of being cheated. By following your own best interest, you will be honest, true, predictable and reliable to yourself and to others.
9. Choose Wisely!
There will be many decisions made throughout your life. They are all important. It is crucial to rationally choose the path your life follows, and to have the discipline to follow through with those choices. Many choices are difficult, and only by carefully considering the potential outcomes can one choose the optimum path. The best method is to rationally consider long term outcomes of action in the present. Consider, decide and act to live your life.
10. Cultivate Friendship!
Friendship is a necessary human need. Your state of mental well-being is affected by the mental state of those around you, in particular family and friends with whom you have frequent contact over a long period of time. It is human nature to need association with friends.
Seek out people with positive thoughts and lifestyles and get to know them. Reach out to communicate with friends regularly. Invite others and meet with others as often as you can to build a group of friends. Eat with friends, share your food with friends. Help friends, and ask friends for help when you need it. Learn how to develop friendship and how to respond to the social dynamics within a group of friends.
Support your friends to help keep them in a positive state of mind. Work to maintain lifelong friendships. As friendship develops over time, one gains trust and the friendship strengthens to the point of one’s friends being almost as important as one’s self.
The Festival Epicureo recently took place in Senigallia, Italy. If you are familiar with Italian language, you will find videos of many discussions on this YouTube channel. It makes Italy the second country in Europe to have a symposium or weekend-long event dedicated specifically to promoting Epicurean Philosophy, and plans are underway to make this an annual event. The following report was sent by Michele Pinto, of the Epicurean Garden in Italy. It was edited for clarity by Hiram Crespo.
Scholars of Epicurus, disciples of Epicurus or Epicurean philosophers?
I have always read books with great interest and pleasure in which the authors–usually renowned university professors–explain and analyze the thought of Epicurus. Some of these authors’ attitudes annoy me because it is easy to criticize the ideas of those who, 2,300 years ago, did not have the tools we have today, but certainly have made important contributions in the history of thought–something that none of the authors of these books have done.
On the other side, I’ve met many people like me who have a different relationship with Epicurus. People who read Epicurus’s sentences not to understand a thought from the past, but to assess whether these ideas can help them improve their lives. Even here, we sometimes dangerously approach Epicurus uncritically, as if it were a revealed truth–an attitude that does no honor to anyone.
During the Epicurean Festival in Senigallia, I met many people, I listened to many speakers, and above all I made new and profound friendships. Each of the 13 speakers showed a different, original face of Epicurus, mediated by the personal sensitivity of the person presenting it.
Similarly, all of the parallel initiatives–the chef who recreated an epicurean lunch based on the few testimonies available, the Epicurean postcards that capture a smile, the writers who left their idea of Epicureanism on the wall of an underpass, the goldsmith that reinterpreted Horace’s piglet of the herd of Epicurus, the actress who lent the voice to Lucretius–each offered a different, personal, creative idea about Epicurus.
All this work, all these arguments, this whole festival has a very ancient and very simple name. Philosophy.
In Senigallia we didn’t meet just to study Epicurus. We didn’t meet just to celebrate Epicurus and to follow his teachings. In Senigallia we met to do philosophy together starting from the thought of one of the greatest philosophers of all time.
We are not only scholars of Epicurus, we are not only his disciples. We are Epicurean philosophers. To give continuity to this idea, to continue doing philosophy together, we have created an Epicurean association.
Together we could more easily support philosophical research, perhaps by offering a scholarship to the best degree theses on Epicurus. We could disclose the thought of Epicurus by translating his texts, and publishing studies on his thought. Above all, we could carry out philosophical research, studying together how to cure the evils of the soul and reach ataraxia in a modern world which is very different from the Hellenistic one.
To join, you can contact Michele Pinto (firstname.lastname@example.org – 380.6026026). The annual fee is € 10, € 25 for the founding members.