Category Archives: Epistemology

The Epicurean Canon in La Mettrie

The following is part of a book review of Histoire Naturelle de l’Ame by Julien Offray de La Mettrie.

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“.

The Senses

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”.

Some Conclusions

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.

Further Reading:

A Concrete Self

La Mettrie: an Epicurean System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Epicurean System

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

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

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

So what does this critique of the systematizers consist of?

A Mass of Prejudices

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

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

Systems and Presumption

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

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

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

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

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

Castles in the Air

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

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

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

An Epicurean Sceptic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Religion and Politics

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

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

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

Further Reading:

 Système d’Épicure (French Edition)

On “-Isms” and Pleasure Wisdom

On “-Isms” and Pleasure Wisdom

Epicureanismvs.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.

ISMs

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 “Epicureanismsimply as “Epicurean-philosophy“.

While this works for practical purposes, it may lead to several misconceptions:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

ISMVS

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 “Ismism“, 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:

  1. canonize | κανονίζω | kanonízō
    κανών or “kann 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“.
  2. Hellenize | ἑλληνίζω | Hellēnízō
    ἑλλην or llēn literally referred to that which is “Greek”.
    + “-ίζω (“-ízō or “-ize“) rendered “ἑλληνίζω“, “Hellēnízō“, or “Hellenize” meaning “to make Greek“.
  3. 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:

  1. cataclysm |κατακλυσμός | kataklusmós
    κατακλύζω (kataklúzō) – literally meant “to wash away”.
    + “μός” (“mós“) rendered “κατακλυσμός“, “kataklusmós” or “cataclysm“, meaning a “great flood“.
  2. 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“.
  3. 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”:

  1. 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 Greekισμός (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 [1] the names of people and objects they directly knew or observed, and [2] active forces they felt or experienced, but NOT as [3] 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 “-isminnocuously 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 Yhudá”) 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   orMazdayasna” translating to “worship of Mazda” (also romanized as “Mazdaism”). The wor   orMazda” 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 “Hinduitself 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 spiritualconqueror”.

Our rendering of “Buddhism” is an anglicization of the original Pali बुद्ध धम्म  (or “Buddha Dhamma“) meaning approximatelyThe 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 “”) 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 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 asdow-chyow”). It was anglicized asTaoism” in 1838.

Shintoism”— the anglicized name for the native religion of Japanprovides 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    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.

Pleasure Wisdom

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.

Cheers, friends!

Further Reading:
Hiram’s “On Ismshttps://societyofepicurus.com/on-isms/

 

Works Cited

Barnhart, Robert K., ed., Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, H.W. Wilson Co., 1988.

Beekes, Robert, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Leiden, Netherlands, Brill, 2010.

Buck, Carl Darling, A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages, University of Chicago, 1949, reprinted 1988.

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.

Fowler, H.W., A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Oxford University Press, 1926.

Grose, Francis, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, London, 1785; 2nd ed., London, 1788; 3rd ed., London, 1796; expanded by others as Lexicon Balatronicum. A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence, London, 1811.

Hall, J.R. Clark, A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 1894, reprint with supplement by Herbert D. Meritt, University of Toronto Press, 1984.

Johnson, Samuel, A Dictionary of the English Language, London, 1755.

Klein, Dr. Ernest, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Amsterdam: Elsevier Scientific Publishing Co., 1971.

Lewis, Charlton T., and Short, Charles, A New Latin Dictionary, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1891.

Liberman, Anatoly, Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology, University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Liddell, Henry George, and Robert Scott, eds., Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, Oxford University Press, 1883.

McSparran, Frances, chief editor, The Middle English Compendium, University of Michigan, 2006.

Room, Adrian, Place Names of the World, 2nd ed., McFarland & Co., 2006.

The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., Clarendon Press, 1989.

Watkins, Calvert, ed., The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, 2nd ed., Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000.

Weekley, Ernest, An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, John Murray, 1921; reprint 1967, Dover Publications.

Whitney, William Dwight, ed., The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, New York: The Century Co., 1902

On Anticipations

Epicurean Preconceptions, by Voula Tsouna, was published in academia.edu. Below is a quote from it. The word enargeia means immediacy, and denotes the quality of an unmediated insight which requires no arguments to establish itself as true.

Broadly speaking, there are two alternatives on the table. According to one, preconceptions derive their enargeia from their unmediated link to aisthēseis, sensations: because of their origin in sensation, they take on, as it were, the self-evidence and trustworthiness of sensation itself. (I call this the ‘Lockean view’.)

According to the other, the self-evidence of preconception lies, not so much in a natural continuity between preconception and sensation, as in the spontaneity of the association between the preconception and the corresponding object as well as the word that denotes that object. For example, as soon as we hear the word ‘horse’, the preconception of a horse comes automatically to mind, and it is precisely in virtue of this association that the preconception captures ‘both the unmediated nature of an experience and its direct connection with reality’. (I call this the ‘Kantian view’.)

Recall that Epicurus and his followers argue for the veridicality of all (sensations) partly by pointing out that they are alogoi, non-rational: the mind plays no role in sensations, whose trustworthiness depends, precisely, on the fact that they are non-rational events involving no interpretation at all (Diogenes Laertius 10.31-2).

Diogenes Laertius (10.33)–cited in the work–introduces preconceptions in this manner:

Before making this judgement, we must at some time or other have known by preconception the shape of a horse or a cow. We should not have given anything a name, if we had not first learnt its form by way of preconception. It follows, then, that preconceptions are clear. The object of a judgement is derived from something previously clear, by reference to which we frame the proposition, e.g. “How do we know that this is a man?”

In section five of the essay, which is about the length of a short book, the author explains the controversy surrounding whether anticipations are ontologically a separate thing, a third entity separate from the word and the thing meant. This controversy is summarized as the three-tiered interpretation (which accepts anticipations as a third, distinct thing and is influenced by the Stoic doctrine of lekta) versus the two-tiered interpretation, which says that only names and name-bearers (objects referred to by names) may exist. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that this last interpretation is truer to Epicurean teaching. The anticipations appear to be related to our brain’s pre-cognitive faculty of memorizing meanings and easily recalling them, as if unconsciously. If names are accurate, it’s because the named objects correspond to them, not because meaning somehow asserts itself independently of the named objects. We have no reason whatsoever, in my view, to suppose that they exist as de-contextualized Platonic ideas on their own, or to imagine that they emerge as phenomena in any way independent from the names or the things named. The author says:

Both the implicit denunciation of investigations of ‘mere utterance’ and the Epicurean rejection of dialectic are warnings against concentrating on language but losing connection with reality. And although Epicurus makes clear elsewhere that attending to prolepsis ensures, precisely, that we remain grounded in reality, nevertheless, in the present instance as well as in others, he chooses to highlight only words and things.

Furthermore, the view that meanings exist as separate things from names and things named is a useful nursery for superstitions of all sorts. Ancient Egyptians believed that words (written or spoken) had magical powers, and that a person’s name contained part of their essence. One could curse, influence or enchant a person by the use of their names, which is why the Pharaoh had numerous secret names, and why descendants had to continue repeating the names of their ancestors in the belief that, if the names were forgotten, their souls would no longer be efficient or would “die” on Earth.

This view of meanings as a separate thing from names and things named also lends itself to the superstition that meanings existed apart from, and even prior to, the things that are named–and so we have problems like “in the beginning was the Word“, where a complex cognitive process is believed to have preceded nature itself. The study of nature demonstrates that nature obviously existed prior to language, and that language is an emergent property of social sentient beings. Nature must not only provide a mind that has the ability to think, but also contents for it to think about, prior to the formation of thoughts and words.

For more discussions on anticipations, you may visit this forum page.

Book Review: Ontology and Ethics of Motion

Intro: On the Subject of Definitions

Ontology of Motion vs. Epistle to Herodotus

The Tao of Lucretius

Gravity Versus Freedom

On Relativity

Lucretius’ Venus

On Motion

Dialogues on Matter in Motion – Introduction

Dialogues on Matter in Motion – Part II

 

The Problem of Ataraxia in Nail

An Anarcho-Socialist Lucretius?

Epicurean Environmentalism

Conclusion: Ethics of Motion

Reasonings About Epicurus’ On Nature (Book 18): Against the Use of Empty Words

The video Epicurus: Against the Use of Empty Words is inspired in this writing.

One must rely on sharpness of perception to separate the notions of nature from those that are designed with difficulty or obscurity … Pay full attention to the power of the empirical reasoning. – Epicurus, On Nature, Book 18

The above mentioned volume was originally the 18th section of a series of talks given to an audience by Epicurus himself and was written between 296/295 Before Common Era.

The book invites us to call everything by its name based on empirical evidence whenever possible and to avoid empty words. Another founder of this tradition, Polyaenus, devoted a treaty to Definitions. The idea is that every word that is used must have a clear correspondence in nature, in reality, as is evident to our faculties.

The result of this doctrine is that the first Epicureans often changed the names of things with empirical justification, so that the words were in line with the things signified and with their own descriptions. The notion of the inconceivable is derived from this process because in order to refer to something, we must first clearly conceive it. In the treaty, the distinction is also discussed between the knowable and the unknowable (i.e., what can and can not be known through the senses and faculties).

The practice of clearly establishing the definitions before starting a debate or philosophical speech also originates from this concept.

Epicurean Terms

Following this line of thinking, a number of terms are introduced and used in the treaty. Today, we often like to refer to terms in modern languages so that the meaning is clear.

The word epíbole, which can translate as focusing, means the concentration of sight or hearing on the observed object. It is listening, not just hearing. It is observing, not just seeing. Epíbole involves an impression (Greek phantasia), which is received from the perceived object.

Other terms used in the treaty are: conceptual knowledge, attestations or testimony, similarity (for when we reason about the non-evident, we must always refer to it by analogy with the evident and what has already been conceived and perceived), and conceptual process (by which an opinion concerning a being or imperceivable phenomenon undergoes the conceivability test).

How to Reason about Actions and Theories

As we can see, all these terms attach importance to evidence and things perceived. This is consistent with an atomistic, materialistic and realistic philosophy. But what methods are used to reason about actions and theories?

Epicurus says that we think empirically concerning the actions based on the results observed from any course of action.

Concerning theories that do not seem to have empirical basis, they can be destroyed if they are false (whether rational or not), either if some other theoretical view based on it is false, or if when we establish a link with the action, this proves to be disadvantageous. If any of these things happen, it will be easy to conclude that theoretical arguments are false.

The Veiled Father

Epicurus uses an example from the philosophers of other schools who like to carry out verbal juggling. To make a long story short, when asked whether it is possible to know and not know something at the same time, a man is presented with his father wearing a veil. This supposedly proves that it is possible to know and to not know the same thing (because the man knows his father, but does not recognize him when veiled).

Epicureans, and men in general in ancient Greece, were often confronted by the rhetors and the philosophers of logic who liked to play with words. Epicurus makes use of this example to show that one can not conclude a universal (in this case, that it is possible to know and to not know something at the same time) based on a particular example. To reach a satisfactory conclusion to a universal proposition, its truth must be 1. based on empirical grounds and 2. translated into practical behavior by the person who admits it.

Epicurus not only forces us to consider the evidence provided, but establishes a relationship between practice and theory, which should both be aligned.

Why We Must Call Out Empty Words 

In a recent Spanish-language debateI had with a Christian, he made frequent reference to an arbitrary ideal: objective morality.

Many Christians use this supposed argument to justify the need for God (which is distinct from proving his existence), and even Sam Harris, in his book The Moral Landscape, goes running after this specter invented by Platonized theologians to confuse people.

The idea is that there is “objective good and evil” (again, Platonic concepts whose definition is not at all clear as it would be observable in nature) and that in order for these to exist, there must be a God. That is the entire argument. Here are some of my answers to this fallacy:

It’s problematic when you speak of “good and evil” as Platonic concepts without contextualizing them. That means nothing at all. It can mean anything. For a Muslim, submission is good … and so is beating his wife, per the Qur’an 4:34. To a Westerner, both are hateful concepts. It could make sense to speak of “good and evil” in a particular non-platonic, non-conceptual way, but these goods and evils still should be described in detail. When we study nature what we do see is pleasure and aversion: a baby is born, and without being corrupted by culture, instinctively seeks pleasure and tries to avoid pain. These are real experiences for living entities. Why then not speak of pleasures and pains, so that we clearly know what is meant when we speak of “morality” without juggling of words and without arbitrary authoritarianism?

… Because a supernatural moral theory does not include everyone and therefore can not be useful. People who do not believe in the particular religious beliefs of others will not be able to agree on anything. An objective morality can only be scientific, or based on the observation of nature.

… you never explained where you got this arbitrary criterion of “objective morality” and then you said that it comes not from religion but from God … you never confronted the Bible verses that show God as a grotesque monster and the dehumanizing and harmful effects that these defenses of religious morality have today. Taking again the example of Exodus 32:27-29, Moses has 3,000 people killed because GOD DIRECTLY supposedly commanded him, and then he praises the Levites for killing their siblings and neighbors for merely not sharing their beliefs. 3,000 people died that day, as under Osama Bin Laden on 9/11. If Moses were alive today, he would be considered a terrorist and would have to appear before an international tribunal for crimes against humanity. How do you defend this “objective morality” that you say comes “from God”?

These discussions were accompanied by several other examples of atrocities committed in the name of religion. The debater never confronted the grotesque verses in the Bible, and we never even took the time to look at examples of the long bloody history of theistic religions like Islam and Christianity.

Nowhere in our observations of nature, no-thing gives indication that there is an “objective morality”: it is only hedonism, the pleasure and aversion faculties, that appears to be the closest thing to morality in nature (the debater admitted this) and appear to be essential components of what we could call our moral compass, and are observable and real in nature, direct perceptions of experience or, to use one of the neologisms we mentioned above: they are attestations.

Notice how theologians and their spokesmen use arbitrary terms (such as “objective morality”), never bother to define them, much less clearly and in terms observable in nature, and they run with these concepts and build castles in the air, and when one comes to realize one is being carried away by their arguments, entire audiences have been abducted into a fantasy world, or a paradise with 72 virgins, or some other religious or non-religious fantasy entirely divorced from reality, from matter, from the world.

So this is not how we should philosophize. Let’s put our feet on the ground and use the Canon. Inventing words that mean nothing to talk about things that are not observable in nature, dear friends, is called quackery, and Epicureans will always be repudiated for refusing to call it by another name.

The above reasonings are based on the French translation of Book 18, On Nature in Les Epicuriens [Bibliotheque de la Pleiade] (French Edition) .


Video:
Epicurus: Against the Use of Empty Words