Category Archives: Ethics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexuality and self-care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morality and self-care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Example from Epicurean Ethics

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

1. Ethical substance

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

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

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

2. Modes of subjection

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

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

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

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

3. Self-forming activity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Teleology of the Moral Subject

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Further Reading:

 Epicurus’ sermon on moral development

The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction

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

The Foucault Reader

Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison

The Theodorians

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

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

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

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

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

Elsewhere, it says:

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

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

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

The Monadnock translation says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elsewhere, the Handbook says of Theodorus:

He said the world was his country.

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

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

Dialogues on the Epicurean Gods

The Annicerians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clement of Alexandria had this to say of the Annicerians:

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

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

Further Reading:

Cyreniacs Handbook: Handbook of Source Material for Cyrenaic Philosophy

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

Hegesias and Anniceris

Making Sense of Epicurean Friendship: An Intended Audience Approach

The Cyrenaics

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

In Horace’s Epistle 1.1.1-19 we read:

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

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

Is There a Neutral State of Sentience?

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

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

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

Thinking about the past and the future

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

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

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

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

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

Another translation says:

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

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

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

Further Reading:

Cyreniacs Handbook: Handbook of Source Material for Cyrenaic Philosophy

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

Some Epicurean Thoughts on the Riots and Peaceful Protest

The hashtag #ChicagoRiots was trending this weekend. I tried to stay away from the news cycle, but late last night my brother called me. He was alarmed at all that is happening. He lives in a neighborhood on the West Side of the city where violence is rampant, and he warned me not to go to work today. I will not be going to work today, and have had a chance to finally catch up on the news.

One of my worries is that the image of riots, looting, and burning cars and buildings give Trump and his ilk a chance to talk about riots instead of talking about justice for someone who died in police custody, and greater police accountability, which is where our focus should be.

Let’s put aside the peaceful protesters using their First Amendment right as they should, and consider the lack of hedonic calculus in the violent, chaotic mobs this weekend. Rioters are damaging both public and private property. The damage to public property will have to be paid for by the taxpayers. It’s hard to see how this higher tax bill helps to solve police brutality and systemic racism. The damage to private property will be paid for by insurers, and in the case of many small business and the uninsured, the damage will have to be paid by the business owners IF they can afford it. These investors will think twice before re-investing near communities that have seen riots, which will drive away jobs and perpetuate poverty in these communities. We still see the scars of the 1968 riots in many neighborhoods in Chicago, where there was never an economic recovery from the riots: they still have boarded-up buildings and rampant poverty. From the perspective of hedonic calculus, rioting is clearly an unintelligent strategy for social change.

On the other hand, no one should be surprised that a presidential term that started out with Trump saying that some white supremacists are “good people” and hesitating to be critical of his white supremacist base when they rallied and engaged in violent acts, has evolved into an election year where black people riot due to overt, systemic racist violence. A member of our Garden of Epicurus FB Group asked:

What is the Epicurean view of civil disobedience and peaceful protest?

Some on the group defended the idea of Lathe Biosas (Live unknown), and it’s true for most people it would be disadvantageous and dangerous to be in the midst of riots. Here is some of the discussion.

Alan. How about for someone who is affected directly by injustice and does not have the privilege to be unengaged? Wouldn’t they be unable to choose to remain in obscurity?

Additionally, if everyone adopted a similar reasoning and stayed home, then how would society procure the benefits (i.e., moral development, the upholding of justice, etc.) of civil demonstration that, assumedly, would not have otherwise come about?

I pose these questions because I don’t want Epicureanism to be misconstrued by enemies as societally oblivious, elitist, or privileged.

Robin. Epicureans have to play the long game. How do we protect a philosophy that has been actively stamped out over the last two thousand years. I feel for the people who are affected now. But I have a responsibility to people who may live a thousand years from now. I can do things. But I can do them without attracting the kind of attention that gets a philosophy killed.

Jason. I think it would be wise to follow the Satanic Temple‘s example in this and not attempt to use these protests to promote Epicurean philosophy but be staunch allies by using the calculus to be assistants (the very meaning of the name Epicurus) to those who struggle for equality in whatever way we feel we can.

Marcus. I think “live in obscurity” was more meant to discourage desire for fame, celebrity, power, as is the case of the average politician, or positions of power in general. I don’t think this applies to public protests, where people are relatively anonymous. However, it could apply to people aspiring to become leaders within protest movements, as some people like to use these situations as a means to advance their own personal ambitions.

Robin. It does apply to this situation. At any given moment, you could be filmed and on the news. If you were in a group where some participants became violent, you may be considered guilty by association in the eyes of people watching the video, even if you may just be a bystander. That’s not maintaining a low social profile, which is what the advice means.

Marcus. I still don’t think this is the same thing as being a person of power, for example Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, or even Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg. Also, imagine being a member of Epicurus’ Garden in ancient times and then being accused of participating in orgies and and insulting the gods (something Socrates was executed for). Remember the Epicureans had a bad reputation in some circles at the time. I see your point that taking part in protests does involve some risks, and that is for each individual to evaluate for themselves.

Robin. We all interpret differently, but my understanding comes from the sources and philological discussions. There are some exceptions, where the calculus leads to where nonparticipation is more painful than participating. Since that’s clearly not the case here, especially in the midst of a pandemic, I will keep my head down and out of the street.

Jason. Indeed, people in air-conditioned rooms are critical for the support of those on the ground. People don’t have any trouble understanding this in a military context but for some reason there is a sense that if you’re not on the street, you’re not contributing to social change. That hasn’t been my experience AT ALL. Winning hearts and minds can be done one-on-one too. Sometimes that’s the only way to reach some people.

Robin. Book two of Lucretius De Rerum Natura opens with a beautiful description of observing armies on the plain, emphasizing the pathos of distance.

How sweet, again, to see the clash of battle
Across the plains, yourself immune to danger

But nothing is more sweet than full possession of those calm heights, well built, well fortified by wise men teaching. To look down from here, at others wandering below, men lost, confused, in a hectic search for the right road.

Hiram. You have to carry out hedonic calculus, but Philodemus did say there were two forms of parrhesia / frank criticism: private parrhesia, and PUBLIC PARRHESIA. It seems like protests could be a form of public parrhesia meant to incite moral development in society at large.

Alan. Can anyone give an example of how the hedonic calculus would play out for you personally in deciding whether or not to engage in protest?

Hiram. Hmmm, that’s very subjective and depends on your values. If you have a bail attorney that is there in case you get arrested, and if you strongly believe in the protest, you may take greater risk. If you don’t, and if you’re smart, you probably won’t.

If you participate in protest with people that you trust and who are prudent and smart, you’ll be safer. So part of your calculus involves WHO you protest with, because some people who are young and fiery might put you at greater risk.

There are safe and effective methods of protest (like the boycott, which often attacks the TRUE perpetrators where it hurts them) that have historically shown great results.

Also, hedonic calculus is RESULTS-ORIENTED. If you read Philodemus’ scroll On anger, he says anger can be made virtuous by being made PRODUCTIVE, meaning that it resolves conflict and addresses grievances so that your course of action yields greater pleasure than pain. So you can turn poison into medicine if you channel your anger into a cause. And in “Against empty words“, Epicurus said that we think about whether our actions are right or wrong based on their consequences. So you have to consider what you’re trying to accomplish in every course of action.

And finally, Vatican Saying 71: Every desire must be confronted by this question: what will happen to me if the object of my desire is accomplished and what if it is not?

Alan. Thank you, that all makes sense to me. I still need help with one other matter, and it is this question that I keep struggling with, which is this issue of what our personal responsibility as individuals is to society.

If our views and political goals are aligned with those of an organized protest, but we decide to stay home due to our personal application of hedonic calculus to the context of our own life, are we failing to contribute to society’s moral development?

Hiram. It’s very hard to argue that you should put yourself in the path of danger for the sake of things that are so far out of your control. This is why you should think carefully about your course of action, which is not to say you should engage in INACTION. There are safer and more effective ways to create change than looting a Target or Walmart, and I think this is where you should deliberate.

Alan. Sorry, but who is talking about looting a Target? I said peaceful protest. But yes, the substance of your reply still holds. There may be better applications of our time and resources than us being another body in a crowd of (peaceful) demonstrators.

Hiram. The problem with the looting in target is that if you are seen next to the person who did it, this can be used to create a narrative about your involvement, so you have to be mindful WHO you protest with, and that may be somewhat outside your control.

Jason. Every organized protest has people behind the scenes coordinating relief efforts from home. First aid supplies, legal counsel, collecting of bail money for arrested protesters. None of that can be done in the street. If you want to get involved but the calculus doesn’t work out for you to be on the street, there are other options.

Don’t negate the efforts of patient, persistent, open and honest communication of values to your circles of acquaintance. This parrhesia can reap massive dividends and lead to good works. Mutual aid is an incredibly important part of Epicurean friendship.

Nathan. My view right now is that Americans have a short-term memory issue, and we’ve forgotten that COVID-19 is still wrecking lives. In the State of Florida, three days ago, for the first time in over a month, we had a record increase of new cases. Four months of this virus has killed nearly as many Americans as World War I did in four years.

The Epicurean view is this – “truth” gets obscured in politics, and politics instigates emotional responses that make problem-solving even more difficult. That’s happening right now. The bigger issue that’s affecting us as human beings is a global pandemic that still isn’t contained. In America, a cultural debate, and a law enforcement debate, and a civil rights debate, and a political party debate have all erupted in the messiest way possible, all at once, in the middle of an even larger issue.

The most dangerous thing people can do right now – one way or the other – is not wear masks.

Marcus. I don’t think there is an absolute “Epicurean view” on this question, but if you want to find justification for civil disobedience, it would be here, in Principle Doctrine 37: “Among the things held to be just by law, whatever is proved to be of advantage in men’s dealings has the stamp of justice, whether or not it be the same for all; but if a man makes a law and it does not prove to be mutually advantageous, then this is no longer just. And if what is mutually advantageous varies and only for a time corresponds to our concept of justice, nevertheless for that time it is just for those who do not trouble themselves about empty words, but look simply at the facts.”

Lucian. We are consequentialists. Options present themselves after events, and we either choose them or avoid them after sober reasoning about how the consequences will affect the blessedness of our life. Hedonic calculus never stops. Self correction by use of the Canon never stops. You have the tools to figure out was is best for yourself in whatever context you find yourself in.

We do not philosophize for the good of our Nation, or our Society. We philosophize for ourselves. Sometimes those coincide. We do not submit like the mob does. We neither fully embrace and submit to our society, nor do we completely discard it, as if we could not make some use of it. We welcome the good in it that arrives at us, and we reject the evil in it that arrives at us.

We are not disconnected from our friends. Diogenes Inscription tells us about the older soldier. In that example, the soldier calculates and concludes that acting will ensure the future he desires for his family and friends, a happy one. He imagines/visualizes and feels the affect/pleasure now, he takes the action later.

Cicero writes that the Torquatus’ family engaged their society both as politicians and also as warriors, when not doing so would be worse.

There are no general blanket rules. Use the tools that nature gave you. Desire ranking and categorization. Hedonic calculus to make good initial guesses, and the Canon of Truth to adapt your opinions to the future evidence and to correct yourself.

Philodemus’ Method of Studying and Cultivating the Virtues

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

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

Defining the Terms

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

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

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

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

Efficient Means to Pleasure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mother of the Excellences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epicurus: the Physician of the Soul

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

A free life cannot acquire many possessions, because this is not easy to do without servility to mobs or monarchs, yet it possesses all things in unfailing abundance; and if by chance it obtains many possessions, it is easy to distribute them so as to win the gratitude of neighbors. – Vatican Saying 67


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

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

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

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

The love of money, if unjustly gained, is impious, and, if justly gained, is shameful; for it is unseemly to be parsimonious even with justice on one’s side. – Vatican Saying 43

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Pride / Dignity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

Philodemus’ On Arrogance


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

On the Virtue of Coolness

Philodemus’ On Anger

Good Will

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

Ziran (Wikipedia)

Ziran (Encyclopedia Britannica)


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

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

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

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

Why Is This Information Vital?

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

The Ethics of Philodemus

The Philodemus Series

On “-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.


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.


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
    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 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

The 20 Tenets of Society of Friends of Epicurus

Lea en español.

In the initial years of forming groups of friends and intellectual peers with the goal of studying, applying, and teaching Epicurean philosophy, we have frequently considered that it might be a good idea to have a concise, summarized set of clear Tenets to facilitate the process of teaching, to connect theory with practice, and to more clearly explain what it is that we believe in.

This has not been easy. We do not wish to risk over-simplifying ideas that, when summarized, lose either their potency or some aspect of them that requires further qualification in order to avoid grave errors. We also wish to keep a big tent that allows for opinions that are varied, yet orthodox enough to still be coherent with EP. Hence, for instance, the “three acceptable interpretations” of Epicurean theology in Tenet 12.

Ancient and modern Epicureans have always been encouraged to write down Outlines of their personal philosophy. This actually has great benefits: it helps to cognitively organize and make sense of what we believe, to find the coherence between our values and ideas, and to articulate them clearly. The Tenets are roughly based on the Outline that I (Hiram) wrote some time ago, edited and expanded.

The first five Tenets relate to the Canon (or, epistemology). The next five relate to the Physics (or, the nature of things). The final ten relate to the Ethics (or, the art of living). These are the three parts of Epicurean philosophy. In the notes section, you will find Epicurean sources and essays cross-referenced for each Tenet.

  1. Nature is knowable via the sensations (vision, audition, touch, smell, taste).

  2. Via the value-setting pleasure and aversion faculties, we know what is choice-worthy and avoidance-worthy.

  3. While sensations tell us that something IS or exists, it does not tell us WHAT it is. For THAT cognitive process, we must rely on a faculty tied to both language and memory. The faculty of anticipation helps us to recognize abstractions and things previously apprehended.

  4. We must infer the unseen / un-apprehended based on what has been previously seen / apprehended by any of our faculties; and we must re-adjust our views based on new evidence presented to our faculties.

  5. Our words and their meanings must be clear, and conform to the attestations that nature has presented to our faculties.

  6. All bodies are made of particles and void.

  7. Bodies have essential properties and incidental properties.

  8. Nothing comes from nothing.

  9. All things operate within the laws of nature, which apply everywhere.

  10. All that exists, exists within nature. There is no super-natural or un-natural “realm”; it would not have a way of existing outside of nature. Nature is reality.

  11. The end that our nature seeks is pleasure. It is also in our nature to avoid pain.

  12. There are three acceptable interpretations of the Epicurean gods: the realist interpretation, the idealist interpretation, and the atheist interpretation.

  13. The goal of religion is the experience of pure, effortless pleasure.

  14. Death is nothing to us because when we are, death is not and when death is, we are not. Since there is no sentience in death, it is never experienced by us.

  15. Under normal circumstances, we are in control of our mental dispositions.

  16. Choices and avoidances are carried out successfully (that is, producing pleasure as the final product) if we measure advantages/pleasures versus disadvantages/pains over the long term. This means that we may sometimes defer pleasure in order to avoid greater pains, or choose temporary disadvantage, but only and always for the sake of a greater advantage or pleasure later.

  17. To live pleasantly, we must have confident expectation that we will be able to secure the chief goods: those things that are natural and necessary for life, happiness, and health. Therefore, whatever we do to secure safety, friendship, autarchy, provision of food and drink and clothing, and other basic needs, is naturally good.

  18. Autarchy furnishes greater possibilities of pleasure than slavery, dependence, or relying on luck; The unplanned life is not worth living, and we must make what is in our future better than what was in our past.

  19. Friends are necessary for securing happiness. It is advantageous to promote Epicurean philosophy in order to widen our circle of Epicurean friends.

  20. Human relations start with mutual benefit.


  1. “The doctrine of the first leg of the canon: sensations”. PD 23. The Epicurean Canon.
  2. “The second leg of the canon: pleasure and aversion”. The Pleasure / Aversion Faculty: an Introduction.
  3. “The third leg of the canon: anticipations”. The canon is known as the “tripod” because it stands on three legs. Epicurus and His Philosophy – Chapter VIII – Sensations, Anticipations, and Feelings.
  4. “The doctrine of inference”. Review of Philodemus’ On Methods of Inference. Philodemus: On Methods of Inference – A Study in Ancient Empiricism.
  5. Epicurus: Against the use of empty words.
  6. “Fourth, Nothing exists in the universe except bodies and space.  We conclude that bodies exist because it is the experience of all men, through our senses, that bodies exist.  As I have already said, we must necessarily judge all things, even those things that the senses cannot perceive, by reasoning that is fully in accord with the evidence that the senses do perceive.  And we conclude that space exists because, if it did not, bodies would have nowhere to exist and nothing through which to move, as we see that bodies do move.  Besides these two, bodies and space, and properties that are incidental to combinations of bodies and space, nothing else whatsoever exists, nor is there any evidence on which to speculate that anything else exists that does not have a foundation in bodies and space”. – Letter to Herodotus, Section 2
  7. “We must distinguish particles, which have eternal and essential properties, from bodies, which are combinations of particles and void, and which have qualities that are merely transitory while they are so combined. These temporary qualities we call “incidental” to the bodies with which they are associated. As with the permanent properties of particles, transitory incidental qualities of bodies do not have material existences of their own, nor can they be classified as incorporeal. When we refer to some quality as “incidental,” we must make clear that this incidental quality is neither essential to the body, nor a permanent property of the body, nor something without which we could not conceive the body as existing. Instead, the incidental qualities of a body are the result of our apprehending that they accompany the body only for a time. Although those qualities which are incidental are not eternal, or even essential, we must not banish incidental matters from our minds.  Incidental qualities do not have a material existence, nor do they exist independently in some reality that is beyond our comprehension. We must, instead, consider the incidental qualities of bodies as having exactly the character that our sensations reveal them to possess”. – Letter to Herodotus, Section 7
  8. First, nothing can be created out of that which does not exist. We conclude this to be true because if things could be created out of that which did not exist, we would see all things being created out of everything, with no need of seeds, and our experience shows us that this is not true. Second, nothing is ever completely destroyed to non-existence.  We conclude this because if those things which dissolve from our sight completely ceased to exist, all things would have perished to nothing long ago.  If all things had dissolved to non-existence, nothing would exist for the creation of new things, and we have already seen that nothing can come from that which does not exist. Third, the universe as a whole has always been as it is now, and always will be the same.  We conclude this because the universe as a whole is everything that exists, and there is nothing outside the universe into which the universe can change, or which can come into the universe from outside it to bring about change”. – Letter to Herodotus, Section 2
  9. PD 10-13.
  10. “To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise .. . without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence”. – Thomas Jefferson ; I conjure you, my brethren, remain true to the earth, and believe not those who speak unto you of superearthly hopes! Poisoners are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying ones and poisoned ones themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so away with them! Once blasphemy against God was the greatest blasphemy; but God died, and therewith also those blasphemers. To blaspheme the earth is now the dreadfulest sin, and to rate the heart of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth!” – Nietzsche, in Thus Spake Zarathustra
  11. “The doctrine of the telos, or the end”. “I call you to constant pleasures!” – Epicurus.
  12. The third way to look at the Epicurean GodsPhilodemus On Piety: Critical Text with Commentary
  13. Epicureanism as a Religious Identity; “We all regard our views as the true cause of our tranquility. … In On Holiness, he (Epicurus) calls a life of perfection the most pleasant and most blessed, and instructs us to guide against all defilement, with our intellect comprehensively viewing the best psychosomatic dispositions for the sake of fitting all that happens to us to blessedness …” – Philodemus of Gadara, On Piety; Philodemus On Piety: Critical Text with Commentary
  14. Review of Philodemus’ On Death. Letter to Menoeceus, third paragraph. Philodemus: On Death (Writings from the Greco-Roman World 29)
  15. Diogenes’ Wall: on PD 20.
  16. “The doctrine of hedonic calculus”. Back to the Basics. On Choices and Avoidances.
  17. “The doctrine of confident expectation”. See the Metrodorus portion in the essay In Memory of the Men.
  18. “The doctrine of personal sovereignty”. See the Metrodorus portion in the essay In Memory of the Men; How Epicurean Principles Can Help You Transform Your Financial and Personal Life. Vatican Sayings 36, 47, 65, 67; PD 15, 16
  19. “The doctrine of friendship”. On Friendship. Organization and Procedure in Epicurean Groups (PDF file), by Norman DeWitt. Health Effects of Isolation.
  20. “The doctrine of mutual advantage”. See PDs 31-40.

Epicurean Arguments Against Racism

The reality-show spectacle of contemporary politics and society in our corner of the world the last few years has brought racism (and our favorite euphemism for it, “white nationalism”) out into the open. Efforts are proliferating to normalize overt racism, even in the highest circles of power. As Epicureans, we should always be thinking of ways in which Epicurean doctrines apply to our real world problems, and attempting to articulate what moral guidance we can find in our tradition for contemporary problems, always ensuring that our considerations are coherent with the rest of our worldview. Here are some of my thoughts on the issue of racism, as it relates to several Epicurean teachings.

Taking Pride in our Personal Qualities

The study of nature does not create men who are fond of boasting and chattering or who show off the culture that impresses the many, but rather men who are strong and self-sufficient, and who take pride in their own personal qualities not in those that depend on external circumstances. – Vatican Saying 45

VS 45, which was invoked in my latest Twentieth message, is an excellent starting point in this discussion–particularly the portion about taking “pride in their own personal qualities not in those that depend on external circumstances“.

Notice that this is tied here to “the study of nature”–meaning that this is a conclusion that we arrive at after carefully observing the nature of things. I believe that this ties to the fact that, when we observe people, we are observing concrete individuals and subjects, and we must judge them as such–not as abstractions, not as idealized and un-individualized objects. We are able to successfully form inter-subjective relations with others when we allow them their individuality, rather than project our values or prejudices. To paraphrase from A Few Days in Athens: “Stoics/idealists see humankind (in the abstract), Epicureans see (concrete, individual) men and women“.

Mortals do not get to choose what race, caste, ethnicity, tribe, or nation, they are born into. This is purely accidental, and has nothing to do with what one deserves or earns, what one has sacrificed or fought for. Philosophy requires each individual to be accountable for the content of her own character, her own qualities and habits. This is a reflection of our true worth, and this we are entitled to take pride in.

Races as Platonic Communities

Epicureanism is a philosophy of friendship, and few things are as toxic to friendship as politics. Insofar as race is political, racial discourse is political discourse.

If one wanted to inquire into what is most opposite to friendship, and the most fruitful of aversions, we would see simply that it is politics. – Philodemus of Gadara

Furthermore, we should ask ourselves what is the nature of racial “identity”. Is it real, or is it a cultural artifact, a construct invented by people? What is the ontological status of “race”, as it is used in our conventional discourse? If we investigate this, we have to conclude that racial communities are imagined communities. They are Platonic communities.

We are reminded of Dunbar’s number: anthropologist Robin Dunbar once sought to evaluate how many REAL, inter-personal relations the human brain is capable of processing, on average, and came up with the figure 147.8 … that is to say, the members of our species have the neurological ability to form less than 150 true friendships on average.

This is our natural community, our real community. Any “sense of community” beyond this, is therefore considered an imagined community. It’s purely Platonic, or political. Failure to acknowledge this distinction may lead to great dangers for our happiness. We may end up sacrificing our lives, or our most important and cherished values, for the sake of an imagined collective, and completely lose sight of the things that actually make life worth living, destroying them.

Politicians, oil investors and others who wish to profit from warfare, often appeal to nationalist sentiments in order to exploit people’s sense of imagined belonging for their own purposes. Most wars and terrorist acts (whether done for the sake of “the white race”, or “our people”, or “the nation”, or whether done for the sake of “Islam”, “Christianity” or “the Muslim community”) are inspired by loyalty to imagined communities, which instrumentalize the individual, and whose narratives monopolize people’s sense of identity and replace the narratives of our natural communities. This is from the Book on Community:

Every instrumentalization of a community and of the people who form it is destructive.

The Epicureans were right: we’re not “political animals.” It’s not majority decisions or power games that make us more fully ourselves, but personal freedom based on responsibility, belonging, and learning with those with whom we have decided to live.

The Epicureans (knew that that a community must protect itself against many of the partisan battles of the polis … They) also created an overwhelming defense against the great theological stories. Today these gods have evolved into “imagined communities”: homeland, class, gender … But the effect is the same: to force the individual to show loyalty to imaginary beings with whom conversation and negotiation is impossible. And since conversation is impossible with a divinity, a country, or a social class, all of them are replaced with magical-symbolic objects ….

… To accept nationalism means sooner or later accepting the subordination of the real community of work, life and affections to the imagined community of the nation.

This last paragraph could be applied to “racism” just as well.

Eumetry Concerns Friendship, Not Race

He who best knew how to meet fear of external foes made into one family all the creatures he could; and those he could not, he at any rate did not treat as aliens; and where he found even this impossible, he avoided all association, and, so far as was useful, kept them at a distance. – Principal Doctrine 39

The above doctrine likely originates in the Timocrates Affair in the early Garden, where one of the brothers of Metrodorus declared himself an enemy of Epicureanism. In recent years, it has been elaborated by people like Michel Onfray, who coined the word eumetry to refer to the right distance, or safe distance, that we should keep with each person.

Epicureans invoke PD 39 whenever it becomes clear that friendship with a particular person is impossible. However, there is no indication whatsoever that this doctrine says, or implies, that the cosmopolitan philosophy of Epicurus should exclude certain races or ethnicities. People of any ethnicity may hold Epicurean opinions. In antiquity, Epicurean Scholarchs sent missionaries to Asia, and some of the most prominent Epicureans were from what is today Lebanon and Syria (Lucian of Samosata, Philodemus of Gadara, Diogenes of Sidon), and they successfully converted so many Hellenized Jews to Epicureanism that the rabbis felt threatened and were compelled to produce propaganda against Epicurean ideas. Ancient Epicureans must have been very actively engaged in their recruitment. In our online Epicurean communities, we have mostly seen people who are of European ancestry, but we also have seen Blacks, Hispanics, and we have had sincere Epicureans of Punjabi (North Indian) heritage–like our old Australian friend Amrinder Singh, may he rest in peace.

And so PD 39 must never be used as a blanket excuse to mask racism. This was the message that guests found at the door of the Garden in Athens:

Welcome, Guest!

Here you do well to tarry!

Here our highest good is pleasure!

In his book against the use of empty words, Epicurus says that “we think empirically concerning actions based on the results observed from any course of action“. Vatican Saying 28 also says that “for friendship’s sake we must run risks“. The minor risks that come with welcoming newcomers, and with making new friends, are inherent to the teaching mission of the Epicurean Gardens. Therefore, it makes sense that the Garden would have been a welcoming space and that, only IF and AFTER a particular individual has proven their inability to be a good friend, then the person would be shunned (as per PD 39), and not prior to that. In this manner, our shunning of a social delinquent is empirically-based and consistent with the idea that we must run risks for the sake of the necessary pleasures of friendship. These issues arise often in the course of managing online Epicurean forums, but the principles apply in our social lives in general.

I hope this is just the beginning of a very important conversation among us. To summarize, I submit these three Epicurean arguments against racism, all of which are in my view consistent with our systematic methods of studying nature:

  1. the one for taking pride in our own personal qualities and not those attributed to accidents or to fate
  2. the one in favor of natural community, as opposed to Platonic community
  3. the one in favor of taking the risks necessary for friendship, which includes having a welcoming community of true friends, rather than a hostile one, and only judging new students of philosophy empirically–that is, “based on the results observed”

P.S. Our friend Nathan adds: “We tend to avoid hot-button, political issues, and racial prejudice in American history has always been heavily politicized. It is proper, however, to demonstrate that prejudiced thinking is never beneficial; racists make unnecessary enemies, limit the scope of their own imagination, and reduce the possibility of unexpected pleasure“.

Tilemahos adds: From the inscription of Diogenes the Oionandian: “Moreover, [it is] right to help [also] generations to come (for they too belong to us, though they are still unborn) and, besides, love of humanity prompts us to aid also the foreigners who come here”.

Philodemus Against Arrogance

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Catholic Apologist Attempts to Paint Epicureans as Flat-Earthers!

Aeon typically publishes very good quality essays, like the one I cited in the essay A Concrete Self titled Self-Evident. But from time to time, Aeon also posts essays that are not thoroughly researched, like Atoms and flat-earth ethics. The piece was written by James Hannam, who has written a book in defense of “God’s philosophers” where he praises the wisdom of the medieval period.

By the fourth paragraph, Hannam is claiming that Lucretius claimed that the Earth was flat in “On the Nature of Things” (and relates this to the idea of “up” and “down”), but then two paragraphs later he says: “Lucretius then explains that it’s an error to think that the Earth is at the centre of the Universe because, as the Universe is infinite, it can’t have a centre“. But if there is no center, than what this means is that in the Epicurean cosmos all things are relative (and there can be no up and down, except in relation to something). This is elaborated much more intuitively in Ontology of Motion, which I also reviewed.

Later, he says that Lucretius “also tries to convince us that the heavenly bodies are not very big or far away, and that they can even be buffeted about by the winds. He proposes that the world is rather like a snow globe. We are all living on a flat surface covered by a rounded vault, within which the stars and planets move around like the flakes of white when the snow globe is shaken” … But this is impossible to reconcile with the Epicurean doctrine of the innumerable worlds, which says:

First, an infinite number of worlds exists in the universe, some of which worlds are like and some of which are unlike our own. – Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus

It is more than clear that an infinity of other worlds, both similar and different from ours, could not possibly “move around like flakes of white” around the Earth (millions of them being of similar or bigger size)–which, again, is not believed to be in the center of the Epicurean cosmos, which is infinite and has no center.

The author also questions the sincerity of the first Epicureans and how one goes from the physics to the ethics, and tries to argue that Epicurus does not hold truth in high regard, that he instead builds his physics in service of his ethics … by which he intends to divorce ethics from the physics. This would lead to a Platonized ethics that is not informed by the study of nature. This, of course, was of great utility for Christian apologists and monks in his idealized medieval era. But it is absolutely unacceptable for us moderns. Ethics can and must be informed by the study of nature as a sure foundation, and must not be denaturalized and decontextualized, made sterile and useless.

In order to follow the line of discussion that demonstrates the sincerity with which Epicurus held his views about the physics, one need only read his Epistle to Herodotus, where each component is linked to the next beautifully and cogently like a chain of molecules. Indeed, in their going from physics to ethics, the Epicureans were following the guidance of nature. One does not see gods intervening in human affairs. One does observe the agency of sentient beings. One also observes that babies, puppies, and kittens shun pain and seek pleasure as soon as they come into this world, etc. And so, while the author says:

In short, Epicurus did not derive his ethics from his atomism. He believed in atoms because they provided a theory of nature that supported his ethics.

The truth is that Epicurus does not do this. He can never be quoted as saying: “Life should be pleasant therefore the gods don’t intervene“. In the Letter to Herodotus, Epicurus explains that bodies have inherent properties exhibited by the atoms and void in their many combinations, but that they also have relational properties when they interact with each other. The third Scholarch Polystratus later explains pleasure-pain as among the relational properties of nature which are exhibited by sentient beings in their interaction with their environment. There can be no pleasure-pain without sentience, and there can be no sentience without bodies. The physics must, by necessity, precede the ethics.

Furthermore, in the Letter to Herodotus Epicurus makes specific mention of astronomical phenomena as one area where they were forced to reason by analogy with things that are observed on Earth because they lacked direct empirical insight. They did not have spaceships or telescopes as we do today. This means that any errors–like the one concerning the size of the moon and others–would eventually be settled, but only upon the availability of evidence, as the canon requires. This means that the canon both yields a pedestal to, and embeds itself into, the historical process of amassing knowledge via empirical means, which is a process that includes all the sciences.

The author–who in 2009 wrote a piece arguing that the Catholic Church has been a net force of good in history–is aligned with Aristotelianism, which is in turn a tool of Christian apologetics. All his accusations stem from his lack of familiarity with the Epicurean canon and with how, in all things, Epicureans always refer their investigations to the study of nature. But one of the key problems with Hannam’s essay was articulated by our friend Jason:

Why do critics always think that Epicurean theories weren’t open to revision upon further evidence? They’ll take Epicurus’ written word as dogmatic truth but ignore where he said that we must be open to incorporating new sensory perceptions and testimonies of trusted friends examining the same phenomena. Epicurean dogmatism was always open to revision upon presentation of clear evidence to the contrary.

As to this, the Letter to Herodotus both opens and closes with exhortations to appeal in all things always to empirical evidence and to the (scientific) “study of nature”, and establishes that we must “keep our conclusions consistent with those things we have clearly grasped through our senses”. Keep in mind that the senses are in the canon (the standard of truth), and are therefore among the toolkit that serves as the ultimate authority in Epicurean philosophy. It is this canon–NOT Epicurus–that serves as the ultimate authority for the Epicureans. This means that any error, when measured against new empirical evidence and shown to be an error, must be declared an error and empirical evidence must be admitted in favor of innovation. Here is Epicurus in the Letter to Herodotus:

(at the opening)

… since I myself urge others to study Nature constantly, and I find my own peace of mind chiefly in a life devoted to that study, I have composed for you a shorter summary of the principles of the whole doctrine, which I will relate to you now.

… Most of all, we must keep our investigations strictly in accord with the evidence of the senses. We must ensure that we keep our conclusions consistent with those things we have already clearly grasped through our sensations, and through our feelings of pain and pleasure, and through those mental apprehensions that we receive through anticipations. We must always take as true those things that have already been clearly established, and refer back to them as foundations for our new judgments. This is the method we employ in investigating all new questions, regardless of whether the object of the question can be perceived directly by the senses, or whether it can only be understood by reasoning from that which has already been perceived. …

(at the closing, fourth paragraph prior to the ending)

We must always pay close attention to our perceptions from the senses, to our feelings of pain and pleasure, and to our mental apprehensions from the anticipations, both those we receive ourselves, and those received by other men. For we must conform our judgments to the clear evidence that is available to us through each of the standards of truth.

In Epicurus’ Instructions on Innovation, I quoted from the book Epicurus and the Epicurean Tradition:

In the necessary and inevitable process of updating Epicurean teaching and tradition, I have subjected the potential innovations to the criteria given by Epicurus (Erler, 2011) dealing with innovation and forbidding the ‘muddling’ of doctrines that disagree with each other. The two guidelines provided by Epicurus are akoloythia and symphonia, which translate as consistency (has no internal contradictions) and coherence (is in symphony with the rest of Epicurus’ doctrine).

Here, Epicurus clearly establishes that the teachings of Epicurean philosophy must continue to evolve (by the use of the canon), and sets consistency and coherence as guidelines for this. In academia, there has always been a tendency to imagine that Epicureanism was a closed, fossilized system incapable of evolution, but there would be no Epicureans today if that were the case.

In closing, I wish to accentuate vehemently–as I did with Ontology of Motion–that those writing about the Epicurean tradition must first acquaint themselves with the Letter to Herodotus in order to avoid embarrassing and redundant mistakes that can easily be checked. This epistle served as the “Little Epitome” that all beginner students had to master prior to moving on to more advanced material, and so we can imagine that the teachers frequently referred back to these first principles. Therefore, we strongly encourage students of Epicurus, as well as those who are interested in discussing Epicurus in any manner, to delve into an in-depth study of the Epistle to Herodotus, and to outline it and re-read it so as to internalize its contents.

Further Reading:

Letter to Herodotus

Epicurus and the Epicurean Tradition