Category Archives: Friendship

Ethics of Philodemus Book Review: On Frankness and On Conversation

Frank Criticism as a Virtue

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

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

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

The Histories

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

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

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

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

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

On Conversation

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

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

Bad speech occurs in bad society and cultivates vice.

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

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

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

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

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

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de Vaan, Michiel, Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages, vol. 7, of Leiden Indo-European Etymological Dictionary Series, Alexander Lubotsky ed., Leiden: Brill, 2008.

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.

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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

Ubuntu: African Humanism and Epicurean Philanthropy

From time to time, I evaluate philosophical concepts from various cultures or intellectuals, and write about them from an Epicurean perspective in order to explore what a cosmopolitan Epicureanism would look like. I’ve written about African philosophical concepts before–see, for instance, this essay on the virtue of coolness. Today I’m exploring the idea of humanity and humaneness, and of how we become humanized through friendship and wholesome social relations.

Ubuntu: an African Humanism

Modern African cultures are notoriously colonized by Islamic and Christian ideas, frequently to their detriment: Boko Haram’s–a group whose name means “books are forbidden”–sexual enslavement of school girls in Nigeria, and the threats by Islamists to destroy medieval scrolls of incalculable value in Timbuktu, come to mind. Increasingly, less of the aboriginal wisdom traditions survive, and often only in syncretistic forms. It’s therefore refreshing to find a vibrant humanist philosophical discourse in the south of the continent around the concept of Ubuntu. It’s a Bantu term that translates as “humanity”, and is often related to the proverb “I am because we are”–which implies that people form their identities by socialization.

This reminds me of another saying that the Mayans have: “I am another you”–which implies that when we see the other, we are seeing a mirror of us. AND, if you’ll indulge my pop culture reference, Ubuntu also reminds me of Michael Jackson’s epic song Another Part of Me–where he argues that we (who want a better world) are legion.

Ubuntu is a secular humanistic tradition indigenous to Africa. According to Wikipedia:

Ubuntu asserts that society, not a transcendent being, gives human beings their humanity. An example is a Zulu-speaking person who when commanding to speak in Zulu would say “khuluma isintu,” which means “speak the language of people”.

This reminds us a bit of Epicurus’ insistence on clear and conventional speech, which avoids “flowery words” and empty flattery linked to inauthenticity. Ubuntu carries the implication of being real, of not being fake, of being authentic. In a later example, the essay says:

According to Michael Onyebuchi Eze, the core of ubuntu can best be summarised as follows: ” A person is a person through other people” strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. …

Notice–in spite of the “idealism” reference–how the concreteness of the personhood of each individual is acknowledged. Here, we see a different, more egalitarian, approach to inter-subjectivity than, say, Sartre’s existentialist exploration of it. Sartre concludes that all or most interpersonal relations turn the other into an object, and that the objectified other resents the power exerted by the observer. Here, instead, the idea of a mirror is introduced, which implies an understanding of human nature that is much less oppressive, much more receptive of the other. This seems to be demonstrated in studies of bodily mirroring and empathy among humans and primates, as I discussed in my book review of The Bonobo and the Atheist:

… the author argues that these mechanisms are physical and neurological. He discusses processes of bodily synchronization, contagion of happiness or sadness, and yawn contagion which are seen in nature among many primates, and what is known as mirror neurons that “fuse people at a bodily level”.

“… we activate neural representations of motor actions in our brain similar to the ones we perceive or expect in the other … Frowns induce sadness, smiles happiness. Ulf Dimberg, the Swedish psychologist who conducted this research, told me about the initial resistance, which made it hard to get his findings published in the 1990s … at the time, empathy was viewed as a complex skill under cerebral control. We decide to be empathic, so the thinking went, on the basis of deliberate simulations in our head of how we would feel in someone else’s situation. Empathy was seen as a cognitive skill. Now we know that the process is both simpler and more automatic. It’s not that we lack control (breathing is automatic too, but we are still in command), but science looked at empathy entirely the wrong way. Empathy stems from unconscious bodily connections involving faces, voices, and emotions. Humans don’t decide to be empathic; they just are.”

Epicureans believe in polyvalent logic: we observe that sometimes not just one, but many truths and many interpretations are evident. Perhaps a synthesis of Sartre’s subject-object model and these subject-subject models might provide us with a more complete understanding of empathy?

In the context of post-apartheid South African history, Ubuntu was appropriated by Christian theologians (like Desmond Tutu) to promote interracial forgiveness and reconciliation. But it was about much more than “Christian” forgiveness, and secularists must be careful to preserve the “secular spirit” of this African humanism because–even if we admit that Christianity helped to inspire the crucial reconciliation work in South Africa–we know that non-Christians also frequently see it advantageous to forgive, as we saw in the Lucretius’ passage. It is not usually in our nature to want to be in perpetual conflict with our neighbors.

For man grew weary: the life of violence
and hatred left him sick, and more disposed
freely to choose the yoke of law and statute.
For angered men kept calling for revenge
more savage than just law will now permit;
this made man sicken of life by violence …

Better be a subject and at peace – Lucretius

Ubuntu is part of the philosophical heritage of several countries in Southern Africa, including places like Botswana and Zimbabwe. Madonna has linked her work with orphans in Malawi to this tradition. Recently, Botswana abolished the illegality of gay sex. It came as a surprise to me when, in the aftermath of the abolition of apartheid, South Africa became the first and only country in Africa to approve gay marriage. This is a continent whose countries are known for having very repressive attitudes towards LGBT people, and where until recently Ugandan Christians were trying to pass the “Kill the Gays” bill. The homophobic cruelty that is pervasive in so much of Africa is one of the saddest aspects of the Islamic and Western colonial legacies.

And so Ubuntu in post-apartheid South Africa was about more than forgiveness: it was about the re-humanization of the other, who had been dehumanized. It’s also about letting the other be a subject, and not just an object. This included blacks and whites, and colored, and LGBT people. Ubuntu includes everyone, and in this it departs from African religious philosophies–which usually exclude and dehumanize LGBT people–and is all-encompassing and all-inclusive. It also inspires traditional respect for elders, hospitality, and other African values and concrete actions that are done to help ensure that people belong and feel fully human in the presence of others. Ubuntu demonstrates that a type of secular humanism has come to furnish moral guidance to societies in southern Africa and exhibits the power to transform how people treat each other.

Community and Humaneness

Humaneness is not an exclusively African concept, although it takes on a particularly collectivist expression there because African societies are tribal. In my studies of Confucius, I learned about the concept of ren. Back then, I wrote:

which has multiple translations and is tied to the experience and the art of friendship. It can translate as humanity or authoritative conduct, virtue within society, manly or humane (as opposed to beastly), and carries the connotation of humane-ness. According to wikipedia, it’s “the good feeling a person experiences when being altruistic“, but according to Brooks & Brooks, the word carries different meanings according to context … The virtue of ren is so quintessential to civilized human life that it can properly be understood as the art of being human. In other words, we become truly human-like by association with other humans.

This insight stayed with me because it was fundamental to my understanding of Epicurus’ doctrines. Norman DeWitt, in Epicurus and His Philosophy, says that philanthropy–here understood as love of humanity–was a feature of ancient Epicureanism, and that the Christians appropriated this and many other features of how the Epicureans organized themselves.

Epicurus’ philanthropy was not empty virtue-signaling. We see in Principal Doctrine 39 that loving and accepting everyone is not very realistic–as the early Epicureans learned from their experience with Timocrates–so that type of Platonic, unnatural philanthropy is not what is meant here. The founders of Epicureanism were adamant that we should stick to the clear meaning of words, and that we should cultivate certain habitual dispositions (diathesis) that were healthy and pleasant. Philanthropy is composed of philos (love, friendship) and anthropos (humans). If friendship is a natural good that makes life worth living, and is one of the most important ingredients of human happiness (as our doctrine teaches), this means that people should make great efforts to acquire many friends, and to become worth-befriending themselves. This is how philanthropy may serve as a tool to create a pleasant life.

All of us live in a pluralistic society, and there is much that we as Epicureans can learn about the intellectual traditions, history, and practices of African Humanism, and the more recent research that also empirically supports the values of Ubuntu.