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The Virtue of Suavity and the System of Mutual Correction

Suavity is one of the key virtues of our tradition.  It’s the art of kind, sweet speech that Epicurean friends were known for in antiquity.

Epicurus was critical of the sophistry of other philosophical schools: that ability to twist meanings and words, and to convince others even of untruths.  There are times when philosophers use rhetoric to conceal Truth.  Aristotle considered rhetoric to be part of the organon, the toolkit of the philosopher.  But the Epicurean organon employed instead suavity.

True philosophy, Epicurus believed, is not about verbal ability.  Epicureans hold Truth in high regard and always prefer the plain, concise, clear Truth over dishonest wordplay.

But sometimes the Truth can be difficult to swallow and, if not careful, we can easily seem cynical when acting in service of Truth.  We must be mindful of the content of our character and the true purpose behind our words when we engage others in philosophical discourse, and even in trivial conversation.

Always tell the truth with kindness.  Never lie with kindness, or tell the truth with bitterness. – Sai Baba

By always telling the truth with kindness, we encourage people around us to always be authentic, at ease in their own skin, mindful, and insightful.  And so the art of suavity, the art of kindly telling the Truth, the art of wholesome communication, is an important virtue for us.  Suavity can be active, even bold.  In fact, it’s particularly necessary to employ suavity when informing others of severe Truths.  A vaccine may be painful, but it’s necessary at times: so with words of Truth.

There are many ways of saying things.  When we truly care about others, we should seek to give them insights that will help them to better themselves and to suffer less.  Epicurus considered those who don’t tell us the Truth to be false friends: untruth is a sign of unfaithfulness.

Ancient Epicureans engaged in a system of mutual criticism, which evolved into a central aspect of the tradition.  This system of mutual criticism is discussed at length by Norman W Dewitt in his piece titled Organization and Procedure in Epicurean Groups, where he explained how crucial this system is to Epicureanism as a practice, how it requires trust, and how one must learn to be humble and accept corrections.

Those that were more knowledgeable than others about the philosophy were expected to serve as mentors to newer Epicureans.  These Guides were also expected to abide by a set of rules, to never abuse their status, to always employ suavity in their mentoring process, and they in turn had to answer to more senior Epicureans so that there were checks and balances.

Suavity seems to have been the social lubricant in this process.  Suavity was part of Epicurean culture and of the very identity of an Epicurean.  One of the tasks of every Epicurean is to cultivate suavity, to learn the ability to always tell the truth with kindness.


Against Fatalism and False Consolations

Against Fatalism

“It is written”
Nothing is written!
“Truly, for some men, nothing is written, unless they write it.”
– From Lawrence of Arabia

Epicurean philosophy dismisses the Goddess of Fortune as a false idol and acts as a shield against fatalistic thinking: the belief that fate, Fortuna as Epicurus would personify her, has real power over us.  Many religions also teach that there is a destiny, that there are inexorable oracles and prophecies, and that we are enslaved to almighty, eternal schemes.  Ruling classes have always been fond of these types of teachings: they’re useful when a nation goes to war (particularly if the country being attacked is mentioned somewhere in scripture), or to demonize the other, or to keep social classes resigned to their lot.  Like other philosophical materialists, Epicurus firmly held that the human agent is free and that we are empowered as the authors of our own destinies.

Organized religions often steal the power of their adherents by immersing them in fatalistic belief systems, but there are also New Age movements that propose prophetic and fatalistic views, even if they partially give a nod to the realization that we are the change we seek to see.  Not all folk wisdom is bad, however.  Part of the role of true philosophy is to help us discern between genuine, rational self-help and empowerment versus superstition.

Accepting the Yes

Years ago, I visited a church affiliated to the Agape Church, which is a New Age (‘ecumenical’) church visited by celebrities in Los Angeles and heard them cite the following teaching: “Let go of the how and accept the Yes!

I thought: how convenient!  I attempted the exercise of surrender and, frankly, enjoyed how it felt.  But is this a philosophically legitimate piece of advise?  Can this remedy work within philosophy?

Epicurus did speak on the importance of feeling that we’re safe in the world.  In one of his teachings about friendship, Epicurus mentioned that by surrounding ourselves with friends, we feel safe.  The safety felt by others when surrendering to a higher power, in Epicureanism is acquired by trusting philosophy, friends, community, and nature.  It has a tangible context.

I am not fully against the Agape remedy.  I was merely citing it as a sample of the type of New Age folk wisdom that we’re surrounded by.  The above advise on letting go of the how and accepting the yes might be recommended for things over which we have no control, and it may work effectively in producing a state of safety and trust in nature (which easily provides all the things we need), but for all else it might be a false consolation and probably should be used along with an action plan.

The danger of these types of teaching is that one may remain ineffective in tackling life’s challenges.  Without an action plan, wishful thinking is just wishful thinking.  Tangible efforts must be given, a sacrifice of action, if we wish to penetrate the facticity and the reality of the world in which we are in effect free agents and co-creators.  This world is our work, our project, and to a great extent our creation and our projection.

Having said this, I do believe we must accept the Yes, and do so without a second thought.  Life, and the moment of Now, the only tangible reality into which we’re woven, is to be affirmed and relished.  Kierkegaard, the hesitant precursor of existentialism who was frequently preoccupied with issues of “yes or no”, is one of the most depressing philosophers I’ve read.  Philosophy should not demolish but build the human spirit.  Studies show that people of conviction are much happier than people who hesitate.

While embracing the pragmatic importance of accepting our mortal limitations, Epicurus didn’t hesitate or question whether we should say yes or no to life, to friendship, to happiness.  He brought the world the true consolation of certainty, empowerment and freedom that all true and wholesome philosophy should provide.

Don’t be fooled: a beautiful life is yours to conquer, if you want it.  Nothing is written, unless you write it!

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The Epicurean Revival

Now, farewell.  Remember all my words.– Epicurus’ last words

A funny twist happened in the 2012 narrative when the world didn’t end and no significant historical events transpired on the solstice.  Many 2012-ers began to speak of the world coming to a start.  Although I normally remain cynical, I liked the idea of a fresh perspective, the idea that periodically one can start again, remove the dross of the ages to use Marxist verbiage, or bad faith to use existentialist verbiage.  Alan Watts said our history is not our destiny.  Without renewal, we’d be slaves to the past.

At around the beginning of 2013, I decided to not only send an Act of Defection to the dioceses where I had been baptized as an infant without my consent, but also to take a vow to formally adopt Epicureanism as my philosophy, as was done in antiquity according to the sources which indicate that Epicurus “instituted a hierarchical system of levels among his followers, and had them swear an oath on his core tenets“.

I did this, in part, because for months I’ve been saying: “Wouldn’t it be great if the ancient schools and the Epicurean Gardens had not been dismantled, but had continued to exist until our day?”  Now, I’ve decided that rather than continuing to say this, I will be the change I want to see.

Some of my Epicurean associates question whether Seneca’s account of the oath linked back to Epicurus, or whether it was the invention of later disciples.  I don’t know that this matters: if the vow feels authentic, then it’s valid, as far as I’m concerned.  The formality of the Act of Defection led me to research the Epicurean oath, and after deliberating on whether or not to formally adopt the philosophy as my own, I wrote a simple discipleship resolution that reflected my level of adherence and am now officially and formally a proud disciple of Epicurus.  The following is a generic contemporary version of the vow that I wrote for this:

I, ___ , freely and out of my own authenticity declare myself a disciple of Epicurus and I resolve to follow his teachings and to adopt his doctrine as my own, to further it, update it, and make it relevant in my context.  I take refuge in his teachings and I resolve to share them with anyone who expresses a genuine interest in them.  I resolve to treat my mind as an Epicurean Garden and to cultivate it.  I resolve to apply the four remedies, to seek the three goods and to cultivate a blissful state of ataraxia.

In recent months, I took to delving into the Epicurean doctrine in a full manner, seeking to maximize the benefits and the consolations of philosophy.  And so I did not take this oath, until I had thoroughly studied the foundations upon which I was setting my spiritual welfare and, having considered that Epicurean Gardens persisted for seven centuries and obviously fulfilled the social, mental, and other needs of adherents, I decided that this noble philosophy was worthwhile, robust, relevant, and inspiring, that it represented the best and the highest of the secular humanist tradition, and that I needed and desired the light discipline that it provided me with.

Less than two months later, I founded the International Society of Friends of Epicurus with the help and/or solidarity of several independent groups and individuals, including the support of Cassius of the New Epicurean webpage.  We now have two meetup groups in New Jersey and Chicago.

Our vision is a full revival of the ancient schools and Gardens, so that philosophy will be seen again as the legitimate alternative to superstition and ignorance.  Just as there are temples for many religions in every city and village, there should be Epicurean Gardens and philosophical groups in every city.

We live in very confusing times.  The legacy of the dark ages still clouds the minds of many.  Discussions of ethics in our national discourse, unfortunately, too often degenerate into supernatural claims that seek to legitimize unwholesome policies based on wrong views: the habitual denial of civil rights to gay people, the predatory excesses of the church, the hesitation to fund legitimate science research that might save lives, and a general spirit of hostility towards science, even in some science classrooms, are some examples of the sad repercussions of the prevalence of false opinion in public policy.

Philosophy, which gives us the only proper context for any ethical debate, is flatly dismissed in our public discourse.  Are we not homo sapiens, the wise hominid?  Is sapiens not what makes us civilized, and unlike beasts?

We Epicureans are Secular Humanists, by definition, but said label is too broad to really encompass the core of our true values and the essence of our true spirituality.  Epicureans offer a fresh ethical discourse rooted in nature and in philosophy.  Our tradition contextualizes ethical issues within the realm of tangible human suffering versus tangible human happiness and tranquility.  Our tradition even stands at the very root of seminal notions that define the very basics of the worldview of Western civilization, like the idea of the social contract as a tool for non-violent cooperation and for the rule of law.

We’re told about our inherent right to be happy (or to not be happy: we’re certainly free to be miserable) … but Epicurus offered us the methodology for the pursuit of happiness.  Choices, choices, choices.  At every moment, we choose a path that leads to misery or happiness.  I, for one, do not take for granted the legacy of our Hegemon and have made my choice to recollect Epicurus’ words.

Hiram Crespo, Freelance Writer and Blogger
Editor of the Society of Epicurus webpage


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Questions and Answers: by Robert Hanrott

Robert Hanrott is the author of the Epicurus Blog, which has been useful in keeping Epicureanism relevant with regards to both contemporary issues and eternal concerns.

He has always lived between Britain and the east coast of the U.S. and was recently interviewed by students who were researching Epicureanism. His disclaimer is that the answers reflect only his understanding and not all Epicureans may agree with him. Below is the interview.

Questions and Answers

1. Why was Epicurus’ philosophy looked down upon by his contemporaries and eventually abandoned?

I would like to suggest that the answer to the first part of this question is psychological. One of the main things that distinguished the Stoics from the Epicureans was that the Stoics embraced public service and politics with enthusiasm and the Epicureans did not. The extrovert Stoics were out there socializing, networking, competing for honor and advancement on the one hand; the introvert and cerebral Epicureans, were content to be in the Garden, literally and metaphorically, enjoying a more stress-free life among a small group of friends. It is understandable that the extroverts, apparently more popular and in demand (and in charge), should look down on the more retiring Epicureans, who rejected the polis and involvement in politics. Meanwhile, the bulk of the Greek population was illiterate and preoccupied with survival during a time when Greek hegemony was collapsing, and had no access to the teachings of Epicurus. It was the elite who rejected Epicurus.

Under the Roman Republic politics were relatively more responsive to the people. After the civil war, the advent of the emperors and the assumption of military rule the regime became increasingly threatening and unpredictable. Independent thought and comment could result in death. As a result, Epicureanism became hugely popular and many people retired to the countryside, eschewing public life.

Epicureanism was alive and well until the time of Constantine and the emergence of Christianity as a state religion. Epicureans after that time were anathematized as anti-establishment and atheist. In fact, Epicurus was no atheist. Gods, he thought, existed, but they did not reward or punish humans, thus eliminating anxiety about angering them. Epicurean ideas on the after-life, however, were in stark contradiction to the fundamental belief of the Christians. It has to be pointed out that Epicureans were not picked on exclusively; many groups, including “heretical” Christian groups, ceased to be tolerated.

2. How did Lucretius’s epic poem De rerum natura contribute to Epicureanism and eventually instigate a revolution swerving the world into modernity?

One has the impression that Epicurus was a very serious person and his work, now lost, may have be hard going. At any rate, Lucretius sought to explain Epicureanism in an accessible way, and his six volumes of poetry now rank as one of the most outstanding pieces of literature in the Latin language. You might have the greatest idea ever thought up, but if you cannot popularize it you are lost. It was the role of Lucretius to elucidate the ideas of the great philosopher.

De rerum natura principally deals with atomism, nature, the universe, the body and the soul. Everything, he says, can be explained by natural laws, and not by superstition or the intervention of over-active gods. The idea set forth is that the gods waft around Mount Olympus and do not create universes. The soul dies with the body. Death is natural and not to be feared, for we and our atoms are all re-cycled in the grand scheme of things. There is a tendency for atoms to swerve at will and unexpectedly, which explains the free will enjoyed by human beings. Earthquakes and sicknesses are not caused by witchcraft. People get sick from natural causes. Nothing can be produced from nothing, and nothing can be reduced to nothing. The planets and space have their origin in an infinite number of atoms in a great void. The sun and moon, day and night, the seasons and natural calamities all obey a set of natural laws.

Lucretius has been described as a poet weak in science, but his real importance lies in the fact that his work survived until modern times, and although he postulated all sorts of wild possibilities about the nature of planets and stars, he and Epicurus (with a bow to Democritus before him) are responsible for helping to lay a foundation for the work of more scientifically proficient men during the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

The explosion, or revolution, that is scientific progress since the time of Galileo and Newton had one of its origins in the Garden. I say “one of its origins” because, for instance, a century before De rerum natura was rediscovered, men like William of Ockam were already applying scientific methods to the natural world. They were good scientists. Not everything can be put down to Lucretius.

3. Is there a strong connection between Renaissance Humanism and Lucretian Epicureanism? How are they similar? How are they different?

I would like to address this by quoting modern humanist beliefs, because they are almost timeless. Humanism is a philosophy of life that, without super-naturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity. The following are the tenets of modern Humanism (American Humanist Society, 2003):

* Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.

* Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.

* Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis (the espousal of science).

* Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals.

* Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships.

* Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.

* We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.

* We aim to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community.

* We are concerned for the well-being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views.

* We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.

So how has time and education changed the view of humanism? What would Epicurus and Renaissance Europeans really recognize and agree with if you could explain it all in their languages and find the right words?

The Renaissance listener, and Greeks and Romans in their Epicurean Gardens, might want to query and debate the emphasis on democracy (it hadn’t survived the Athenian debacle), and human rights and civil liberties, which are 20th century constructs. Conservation might not be counted as important in their sparsely populated worlds, and evolution, although implicit in Epicureanism, would be a novel idea. Time and culture make it difficult to know for certain, but after a long explanation and much debate I would guess that humanists of all centuries would be in general agreement with the drift of the above tenets.

4. How was the Enlightenment Era connected to Epicureanism?

“Dare to be free and respect the freedom and autonomy of others. It is only through the growth of knowledge that a person can be liberated from enslavement by prejudices, idols and avoidable errors.” — Immanuel Kant, 1785

The Enlightenment stood for the ethics of humanism, scientific objectivity and democratic values. Humanism is in many ways the modern version of Epicureanism, rejecting superstition and supporting a rational, scientific approach to living based upon the individual, his enjoyment of life and self-realization.

Epicureanism enjoyed a big revival in the 18th Century. Part of the reason for this can be found in the history of the previous century, when religious wars wracked Europe. The Germans in particular experienced some of the most barbarous and destructive violence in history up to that time. The Catholic Church was associated with reaction and obscurantism. Anti-clericalism was rife and has continued in countries like France to this day.

18th Century Europe, while it still had its wars, enjoyed a century of increasing wealth and education. Printing put the histories, the ideas, the philosophies and the poetry of the ancients in the hands of a wide audience. De rerum natura became a best seller among the elite. Church men still railed against godlessness, but the cat was out of the bag. In England the Royal Society promoted new professional scientific methods, and the efforts of the first British scientists were amplified all over Europe. Isaac Newton was the most prominent of the new scientists, but he had many colleagues. Epicurus was admired for departing from the age-old religious explanations of the world and the universe, and at last careful observation and experiment started to bear fruit.

5. Who do you feel is the most influential historical figure to have been influenced by Epicureanism? Why?

Epicureanism influenced many people down the ages, including such disparate people as the poet Horace, Diderot, Montaigne, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, Darwin, Ayn Rand, and Karl Marx. But my own candidate for most influential historical figure is Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). I pick him because of his influence in creating the American Constitution, a practical model of Enlightenment thinking. He and his colleagues were careful and pragmatic, keeping what was good in ancient practice and custom, but applying modern checks and balances to avoid too much power accruing to one branch of government. His pragmatism showed in how he dealt with slavery; he was rational and no extremist. His way of dealing with the outcome of a political revolution has been an example ever since. In 1819, Jefferson wrote a letter to a Mr. Short, a letter that started:

“… As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.”

6. How has Epicureanism influenced your life and the world we live in today?

It is said that most people pick the religion, the philosophy (and the politics) that suit their character, outlook and upbringing. In my case, the idea of the Garden, the less stressful life, doing my bit to ensure that everyone gets along together, living with moderation – all this appealed. Being skeptical about received wisdom of all kinds, and finding it difficult to thrive in tribal atmospheres where conformity is king, the idea of Epicureanism attracted me. I agree with Cyril Bailey when he described Epicurus as “the apostle of common sense.”

On the other hand I find it quite difficult to discern Epicurean influence in today’s world, aside from the benefits of science. It is true that the Western world (at least) has wholeheartedly adopted the less agreeable aspect of Epicureanism, which is materialism, although one could equally argue that that is down to capitalism, not Epicurus. The modern world has become a bit more rational and rejects superstition, but the things that make Epicureanism attractive and civilized: moderation, friendship, relative lack of selfishness and greed, a calm life, avoidance of pain and acceptance of death as natural are not strong not characteristics of our dominant culture. They surely exist, but remain of interest to a minority of the population.

7. How would the world be different today if Epicureanism was never restored?

Given the number of influential thinkers affected directly or indirectly by Epicurus (see my paper, Epicureanism after Epicurus) the intellectual history of the world would have been less rich, and I doubt whether the scientific revolution would ever have taken place. This would have left the world with an ever-rising population but a fraction of the technology we now possess.

8. How strong is Epicureanism in contemporary society?

I would be surprised if more than 5% of the American public had heard of it. But its influence lives on and permeates society nonetheless, owing to the work of people like Friedrich Nietzsche, Darwin, Ayn Rand, and Karl Marx, whether you like what they stand for or not.


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This is why I am an Epicurean

Reducing fear

I was attracted to Epicureanism in the first place by what Epicurus said about fear. Many years ago a girlfriend told me, “You will never be content until you have reduced your level of fear. It is obvious in everything you do“.  My wife calls it “eternal vigilance” At best it is an underlying and pervasive anxiety, at worst it leads to instant panics and irrationality. It is a burden.

So much of what I have done in my life has been driven by fear: fear of failure, fear of seeing the family reduced in the world, fear of being out of work, fear of letting down those who depend on me, fear of lack of money, fear of being disliked. So many fears!

I think most people are driven by fear to some degree or other. It is a normal human emotion, and it has some benefits. Without fear our ancestors would have been eaten by saber-toothed tigers. Without fear, the human race would not have achieved the levels of comfort, wealth, health, and control over its environment that it has achieved. Fear has been responsible for many good things as well as many evils.

Jesus told us not to fear, but Epicurus says it so simply, without the interpolations of priests. Some Christian sects build huge revenues out of a mixture of hope and fear: hope of the afterlife, and fear of everlasting damnation, brimstone and fire if you fail to adhere to their teachings. They use fear as a mechanism of social and political control. At present politicians, supported by the right-wing Christians, frighten us with the so-called “War on Terror”. A half-attentive population believes it all and votes for these people out of fear.

So the idea of personal “lack of fear” is attractive. Of course, you cannot eliminate all fear, nor should you. But Epicurus taught that the greatest objective in life is peace of mind — peace of mind comes when you have nothing to fear. He told us not to fear death — death itself does not hurt. And he told us that there is indeed eternal life, but not in the sense that Catholics believe. To Epicurus eternal life means that your atoms are recycled forever in a myriad of forms, from which there is nothing to fear, for nature is impartial.

Try not to fret about things you cannot control.

I suppose there is nothing exclusively Epicurean about this stricture. I am sure many philosophies, maybe several religions, teach the same thing. But I heard it first from Epicurus. Of course, it is one thing to quote the saying and quite another to live by it. You can’t have peace of mind if you are constantly busying yourself about things you cannot control. But we all do it, and maybe never stop doing it in one way or another. When one is retired and one has more time to think about the world, the more one gets concerned about misery and misgovernment and other age-old problems that will never be fixed. The irony is that the more retired you are the less power you have to change anything at all. It’s a good principle, though, and helpful.

Mental pleasure is better than bodily pleasure. Keep your mind alive.

It is inconvenient, often painful, to have things go wrong with your body, and therefore I assiduously look after it, but mainly for practical reasons. As I have become older I’ve become more concerned with matters of the mind. What a voyage of discovery it is trying to discover what the brain is capable of! Is there a limit to the number of melodies the brain can remember? Is there a limit to the number of tunes that can pop into the head, to be written down? Equipped with a rhyming dictionary and a thesaurus, where is the limit to the power of the brain to adopt unexpected rhyming couplets that take the story forward while still scanning, making sense and even sometimes being funny? Drawings of hippos are not great art, but the real trick is a trick of the brain — can it come up with an apposite, hopefully amusing concept or message that can be illustrated with a drawing of a hippo? How is one’s lateral thinking? Can one find connections between current and historical events and make from them a good story or a political case?

These things give me more pleasure than a good dinner or even an exotic holiday, much as I enjoy both.

Live simply and prudently, with self-control and moderation. Seek simple pleasures, those that satisfy natural and necessary desires, chief of which are food, drink, clothing, shelter, friendship and love.

I think Jesus says something very similar, and I’m sure the Eastern philosophies do. But it was Epicurus who made me think about it. Have I lived this way? I would like to think I have. It is really common sense, but it is difficult to do in a consumerist age, where possessions are deemed equivalent to happiness.

My only problem with this has been friendship. The reality has been that, like many men, I have been dependent on the women in my life for friends. Then, when divorce, for instance, comes along you realize whose friends they really were all along. It is disillusioning, and it can result in a withdrawal from intimacy (in the old, respectable sense of the word), for fear of rejection and the superficiality of some of the friendships one observes.

The quality of pleasure is more important than the quantity.

This is a very useful thing to tell us. We all chase around doing a host of things, hoping thereby to be happy. Actually, a few events, trips, or get-togethers of high quality are more satisfying than the constant activity and filling in of time on unsatisfying and second-rate happenings that simply leaves you tired and wishing you’d stayed at home.

Avoid upsetting and offending people

Common sense? Well yes, but not so common. Some people don’t care as long as they get what they want. Others, myself included, try their utmost to avoid offense and to please everyone (but be fierce in self-defense where necessary.) You can be more “successful” in life by pressing ahead in the face of objections and doing what you think is right regardless of the opinions of others (in your own or in the general interest). On the other hand, one lives a calmer life antagonizing as few people as possible.

“Let us live while we are alive”

Ah, there you have it! No one thanks you for living a life of self-abnegation and self-sacrifice. This is an idea popularized by the monastic movement and, later, by the puritans, neither of whom were as “pure’ as they tried to insist.

One is a long time dead. We have a brief time to enjoy the good things the earth has given us, and why not, as long as we harm no one else in the process. Only Epicurus says this, as far as I am aware. The church asks for acknowledgment of guilt, repentance, absolution, redemption, and after all that we still don’t know that we’ll go to heaven. Epicurus wants to stress the joy of living – – some churches want to stress the guilt one should feel for a host of actions or even thoughts. The congregations may sing jolly songs, but are wracked with guilt.

Epicurus absolves us from all the hang-ups and insists that we enjoy life. The implication is that this should be done with a laugh, a smile and a sense of humour.

Robert Hanrott, author of the Epicurus Blog.

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Critique of Ayn Rand and Moral Objectivism

That Ayn Rand’s rise in popularity coincides with the widest gap between rich and poor in US history should be seen as no coincidence. Her books are today much more popular than when she lived and attempts are being made by very wealthy parties to sell her ideology as the philosophy of our era.

Ayn Rand has been accused of Vulcanism, that is of exhibiting an attitude of pure logic unbalanced by empathy and humanity like the character Spock from Star Trek, who is from planet Vulcan. When people of high intelligence lack human empathy, they can be intellectually arrogant, even narcissistic.

One of the major criticisms of Ayn Rand is that all her heroes are narcissistic sociopaths, as she is: they are concerned only with themselves, with their own purpose and ambition, and they are entirely unconcerned with others.

Rand also ignores context in her assessment of reality: the persistence of her logic leads to places where philosophy gets utterly divorced from common sense and reality. Philosophical materialists must contend with the facticity that we are woven into in its entirety, even with those aspects of our facticity that are what she would view as not heroic, like the hunger of the masses.

There are practical reasons why we should address the hunger of the masses, that escape Rand. The hunger of the masses has throughout history had great power. Angry mobs can easily ignite revolutions and social upheaval. Rather than acknowledge the history of how hatred of the poor has led to their rebellion and to unrest, Rand dismisses the poor as parasites and their struggle as the pursuit of things not deserved.

There is further criticism of a lack of context in her thought. Rand argues that people have no right to be proud of accidental identities, like our race or gender, because they are not the result of our work. That’s usually a legitimate argument. However, there are people to whom society constantly says that they should be ashamed of who they are. This is the case with sexual minorities, blacks, etc. In these cases, great unnecessary emotional and mental harm is done (as quantified in rates of suicide and violence) and pride is a wholesome antidote and a remedy to shame.

The only way to accurately read the text of reality is within its con-text.

I am another you. You are another me. – Mayan proverb

But the main Epicurean criticism of Rand, many of whose followers claim Epicurean leanings, is her inability for human empathy. Even when rejecting societal consensus and the collective hypnosis of much of the general culture, Epicurus acknowledged that friendship, the ability to connect with others, is the most fundamental ingredient for being grounded, for being safe, for human happiness and well-being.

Although initially there may be a utilitarian, or selfish, reason to make a new friend, ultimately what they add to our lives is of such value that true friends may be willing to give their lives or otherwise make huge sacrifices for each other.  Regardless of why we may choose to make a new friend, ultimately the Epicurean ideal of philia is unselfish and (oh dear!) altruistic.  Altruism is the most hated word in Rand’s philosophy.  The notion that one should genuinely care for others, and act on this genuine concern is seen as unnatural devolution by Rand’s followers.

And so this is where Rand’s disciples, even those who claim to be Epicureans and who equate libertarianism with autarchy, have rejected a fundamental aspect of Epicurus’ teaching.  The most important ingredient in happiness, philia, requires a transgression against selfishness whereas Rand’s philosophy is encapsulated in a work titled The Virtue of Selfishness.

If ancient Epicureans had perceived that their mutual friendships were merely the fruit of a strategy by others to use them, their loyalties would not have endured the way they did. It would have been easy to see through this fundamental insincerity, and their whole lifestyle would have been a hypocrisy.  Instead, what we see is that the Gardens didn’t close until Justinian forced them to close in the sixth century: they obviously had consistently developed strong bonds of loyalty and friendship.  Like Normal DeWitt said, Epicureanism runs on philos.

If we develop a healthy inter-subjective view on human relations (rather than a subject-object view) and if we embrace the ideal of non-oppressive relations between equals, we’ll understand how in Epicurean doctrine, altruism and utilitarianism are not necessarily mutually contradictory.  Both are useful and necessary if we are to relate in a manner that fully recognizes all the perspectives of both subjects in the relationship.

Rand was profoundly intelligent, but reality is complex and extremes are never healthy.


The Doctrine of Innumerable Worlds

 I am sending you, in accordance with your request, the arguments concerning an infinite number of worlds.  This doctrine came to be better articulated as a result of being turned over between the two of us face to face; for our agreements and disagreements with one another, and also our questionings, rendered the inquiry into the object of our search more precise.  The dialogue began something like this: “Diogenes,” said Theodoridas, “that the doctrine laid down by Epicurus on an infinite number of worlds is true I am confident”

– Extant Fragments of Diogenes’ Letter to Antipater

Epicurus, and it seems all the atomists, believed in the doctrine of innumerable worlds.  The doctrine is not expounded in any of the extant writings by Epicurus, who wrote about 300 scrolls, but a prominent Epicurean by the name Diogenes of Oeananda, who built a large wall in his home city and adorned it with Epicurean inscriptions, mentions the doctrine in his letter to Antipater.

The Drake Equation and Other Mathematical Models

Materialist philosophers appear to have derived this idea from the infinity of the cosmos: mathematically, such a cosmos would inherently carry within it countless possibilities.  Now that we’ve cited the source for this fascinating aspect of Epicurus’ teaching, let’s assess and update this doctrine in light of contemporary research.

As the centuries have advanced, scientists and mathematicians have made progressively more accurate attempts at identifying how many worlds are out there, although we have been able to confirm only several hundred exoplanets (outside our solar system).

According to calculations carried out by Charles Lineweaver and Daniel Grether at the University of New South Wales, at least 25 percent of Sun-like stars have planets, which would mean there are at least 100 billion stars with planets in our galaxy, and with about 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe, there would be at least 10 trillion planetary systems in the Universe.

In addition to mathematical models employed to determine how many planets, or how many planets with life might exist, there is one model used to determine how many civilizations able to communicate exist in the cosmos: the Drake Equation was devised by Dr. Frank Drake.  However, depending on what numbers we choose to enter as its variables, we may get wildly diverging amounts of habitable planets.

Harvard scholars suggests that we have 50 million habitable planets in the Milky Way Galaxy alone, based on their proposed values for the variables required in the Drake Equation.  Never mind other galaxies: we’ll never live long enough to even hope to ever make contact, so that the question is most likely irrelevant.

Corroborations on the existence and number of exoplanets have been coming in since the 1990’s.  Some of these have been discovered by astronomists and researchers working independently in all parts of the world, and other exoplanets have been discovered as part of exoplanetary research being carried out by Kepler and other telescopes specifically created for such a task.  In only a few years, Kepler has already found over 1,200 exoplanets –over 50 of them orbiting within the habitable zone–, and that was only by observing a small fraction of the sky.

But if it’s life we’re looking for, then we would need to account for the amounts of habitable moons in our galaxy.  Some of the planets in our own solar system have dozens of moons.  What if there IS a moon like Pandora out there, or like the Star Wars’ forest moon of Endor?  Adding moons to the equation would again multiply the final results.

By even the most conservative estimates, the cosmos has trillions of planets and is teeming with potentially habitable worlds.

On the Philosophical Repercussions of the Doctrine

We Epicureans represent a challenge to anyone who argues that scientific insight does not create human values, that only a subjective system of ethics can do that.  On the contrary, science is fundamental to our cosmology and to how we create our values.

The observable doctrine of the innumerable worlds, and in fact the field of astronomy, have a humbling effect on our values and both suggest that if we acquire an accurate sense of our dimension within the cosmos, we’ll have no choice but to be humble.  Genuine humility is born of this insight.  Let’s not forget that it was the scientists who first challenged the church’s teaching on the Earth being the center of the universe and of all creation having been made for, and given to, mankind.

We truly are insignificant in the scheme of things.  Carl Sagan made the exact same point in his scientific sermon titled The Pale Blue Dot, where he shared the smallest picture of Earth that the Hubble telescope had been able to send back in his time from the orbit of Saturn.  He argues that all of our petty wars, conflicts, passions, hatreds, occur within a quickly dissipating instant on a pale blue dot and are quickly forgotten; that these conflicts and hatreds, and our sense of self-importance, simply don’t matter.  I invite all my readers to take five minutes to ruminate on Sagan’s wisdom.


Our Emblem and Motto


The official ISFE emblem consists of the Greek-alphabet capital letter PHI in blue with the words Society of Epicurus written above it, against a white background.  The letter PHI was chosen to represent not just philosophy but also phylia, which usually gets translated as friendship, and of which Norman Dewitt said it’s the fuel on which Epicureanism runs.

The emblem represents our bonds of friendship: the central pillar is Epicurus and our shared affinity and affiliation with him is the circle that orbits around it.

The official motto of the Society is Sic Fac Omnia Tamquam Spectet Epicurus (which translates as Do all things as if Epicurus was Watching), a proverb given to us by the Iberian Stoic philosopher Seneca.

(A special thanks to Mark for his work on the emblem!!)


Having imbibed the flavor of solitude and the flavor of tranquility, one becomes free from fear and free from evil, drinking the juice of delight in Truth. – Dhammapada 15:9

Ataraxia is the Greek word for equanimity, sometimes translated as imperturbability.  It generally translates as tranquility, serenity, or peace. The entire system of Epicurus‘ teachings is meant to cultivate a state of abiding pleasure which includes ataraxia. This makes perturbation (defined as mental disquiet, disturbance, or agitation) the enemy of the philosopher.

Like Buddha’s doctrines about nirvana, ataraxia requires the extinction of desires, to reach a sated state of not-wanting, not-hungering, a state of satisfaction.  However, Epicurus distinguished between the necessary and the unnecessary desires, and concluded that since we cannot escape certain needs (such as shelter or food), that the wise man should attend to those needs and dismiss the unnecessary and vain desires.  He also pointed to the fact that these needs are easy to procure.

Our longing, our craving, our thirsting for something other than Reality is what dissatisfies us. – Steve Hagen

Desires are like fire.  When fed, they get stronger and they want more.  When we indulge in them, we find that they increase over time instead of going away.  They can also become addictive and enslave us.  Research indicates that sugar is as addictive as any other drug and that when people fall in love, the brain operates as if addicted to another person.  We can easily become dependent on external factors and must therefore be watchful of our minds.

Ataraxia is satisfaction with life as it is here and now, not seeking its perfection but accepting its limitations and never minding them.  It’s the mental aboveness of one who’s learned to be happy and to live in a pleasant state always, regardless of conditions.  Ataraxia is taking pleasure in living.

Although it’s defined in negative terms (as non-perturbance), Epicurus–who called mortals to constant pleasures–maintained that the sage could train himself to experience more or less constant pleasure, and insisted that ataraxia is a mindful, positive state of peaceful abiding which can be cultivated through certain disciplines, including the cultivation of deep gratitude to life, to nature, to one’s teachers and ancestors, etc.

Recollection and Oblivion

Unlike Cyrenaic hedonists, who taught that bodily pleasures are superior to mental ones, Epicurus taught that they are equally valid, except that mental pleasures and pains could be experienced over the long-term. As a result of this, remembering past pleasures, anticipating future ones, and other techniques of abiding in pleasure were accepted as part of the hedonic regimen of an Epicurean.

One of the remedies that Epicurus employed was recollection, which must hold hands with oblivion.  He recognized that we are all selective in our memory, that impressions of past pleasures stay in the mind and can be evoked easily. This includes fond memories of laughter and play with friends, of the affection of loved ones, of happy songs, funny situations, and silly people.

Epicurus in his death bed, on his last day on Earth and while experiencing great physical pain, wrote an epistle to a friend where he confessed how happy he was to reminisce about their time together. Being able to easily ignore pain and to evoke and hold pleasant recollections is an art that can be learned.

The ingratitude of the soul makes a creature greedy for endless variation in its way of life. – Vatican Saying 69

Equally important is thankfulness, which might be seen as a form of recollection of the good things that we sometimes take for granted. Sincere gratitude is an act of instant awakening which changes any situation into a positive one. There are studies that suggest a clear positive correlation between gratitude and happiness.

Recollection should be balanced with oblivion: the blessed ability to forget unpleasant situations and people. Loved ones who pass away or move on, should be let go after our initial mourning.  This is healing after the trauma of death or separation. Sad or difficult situation should also be let go. A philosopher must learn the art of dismissal, along with the art of recollection.

When a loved one dies or when we’ve been wronged, we often tell ourselves we’ll never forget. But do we really want to never forget? Do we really wish to live our short years regretting what could have been, or nurturing our grief and hatred? Is it intelligent to make ourselves miserable while living in the past, haunted by memories while being inexorably swallowed by Time? That is a choice we have to make frequently.

The value of forgetfulness is one of the most important principles in the science of happiness. The inability to let go is sometimes a disease that should be treated like an enemy who has wronged us for years.

If by bad habit our minds frequently evoke a memory or an experience of anger, fear or other negative experiences, one technique is to choose a word that we can train ourselves to use to instantly dismiss them. Buddhists do this with the word neti, which translates as ‘not this’, or ‘not now’. In Epicurean parlance, these techniques are known as remedies (from the Greek, pharmakon).

There is a reason why nature has stipulated that we must have a cycle of sleep and wakefulness. The mind needs to reboot, recharge, and begin again. Otherwise, it gets saturated with experience and we’re exhausted. Thankfully every morning, we live again, and we have this choice to recollect and forget at every moment.


The Three Goods

In philosophical and ethical parlance, a good is that which should be sought for its own sake, a thing of intrinsic value.  Virtues, such as honesty, justice, liberty, are goods.  In Epicurean teaching, there are three main goods out of which all other virtues flow.


Of all the means to insure happiness throughout the whole life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends. – Epicurus

Epicurus saw friendship as the most important ingredient for happiness and as a type of insurance against life’s difficulties.

It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us as the confident knowledge that they will help us – Sayings, 34

It’s clear that there is mutual benefit in friendship.  But association is more than I’ll scratch your back, you’ll scratch mine.  We become who we are, develop an identity, through socializing. Association is one of the most fundamental experiences for humans: we acquire even the most subtle of influences from our associations. From our accent and our patterns of speech and the things that we pay importance to, to our values and our attitudes in life: association is the forge in which our personalities evolve.

Discerning between wholesome and bad associations is a basic task of every philosopher.  No person of wisdom wishes to waste time with fools who are frivolous, except perhaps in the case of souls who are awakening to more mature ways of thinking and living.

It’s impossible to replicate ancient Epicureanism without engaging our friends in philosophical discourse: by blending the analysed life with the ideal of friendship, we are properly practicing Epicureanism. While writing about ancient Epicureans, Norman Dewitt mentioned that they employed a system of mutual correction by which they were able to apply the teachings.

The Society of Friends of Epicurus was founded with the vision of becoming an ongoing attempt at experimenting with recreating Epicurean friendships and communities.  It’s not difficult to imagine that the teaching on Death is nothing to us would have been experienced as a warm consolation when imparted within the context of a loving community of friends.  This is a quite different experience from the cold, calculated doctrine that one would encounter in academia.  The embrace of a friend transforms a doctrine into an experience of human empathy, love, phylia, which Dewitt in fact identified as the fuel on which the Epicurean tradition runs.  For this reason, I believe that it’s impossible to truly replicate the practice of Epicureanism, as it was lived in antiquity, without a Society of Friends.

But even beyond the context of practicing philosophy, there are numerous studies that demonstrate the positive effects that good friends have on well-being, happiness, safety and security.  We’re able to be ourselves, we gain confidence, we’re better able to laugh at life and at ourselves, we laugh more, we feel stronger, our enjoyment of pleasures is increased and our ability to tackle difficulties is enhanced with the help of friends.

Analysed Life

An Epicurean is a pragmatist who doesn’t practice philosophy for its own sake, regardless of how valuable, noble, and esteemed wisdom may inherently be, but as a means in the pursuit of happiness, and ergo must develop a firm resolution to be happy and discipline his own mind.

Let us completely rid ourselves of our bad habits as if they were evil men who have done us long and grievous harm. – Sayings, 46

Happiness is an art and a science. Today, we know how the brain works when happy or stressed, what foods contain the tryptophan that synthesizes into serotonin, the chemical of happiness. There is a burgeoning science of happiness. There are specific and useful methodologies, both philosophical and empirical, that can make one a happier person, some of which require consistency and discipline.  We can apply a scientific approach to them and figure out which ones work for us.

There is no expectation of happiness without an analysed life. Certainly, an Epicurean must be at least introspective enough to study his or her desires, dismissing many of them as incompatible with happiness and imperturbability.

We’re never called on to do what hurts.  We just do what hurts out of ignorance and habit.  Once we see what we’re doing, we can stop.

– Steve Hagen

All this inner work requires a firm resolution and conviction. So does the cultivation of wholesome friends, the attainment of autonomy, and many of the other psychological and social tasks assigned by Epicurus, which together constitute a complete program for well-being.

A person who has not made the resolution to be happy will be dragged like a pebble in the river by wasteful distractions, hatreds, capricious and mindless desires, and a general lack of discipline. He may encounter moments of joy here and there, but many of these joys will be mindless, gone before he can relish them, and without the conviction and the means he may lack the tools to deal with life’s baggage. If it’s hard for even many mindful people to be happy, for mindless and thankless people it’s entirely unexpected.

The mindless will sometimes drown in even the vainest of unnecessary suffering whereas the mindful will avoid unnecessary suffering, and otherwise accept with humility and wisdom the limitations imposed by nature.


Self-government, independence, and autonomy, and the liberty that comes with them, are the third good. This autarchy is not just fiscal and monetary, but also emotional and mental. Emancipating ourselves from the misery of unnecessary and capricious wants is a form of autarchy.

In antiquity, Epicurus devised the method of living in a commune known as the Garden.  In it, they enjoyed cultivating the Garden not just for pleasure, but also for food.  The scribes that worked in the Garden lived off of the fees from their work replicating the scrolls and educational material they produced, and from fees paid from lecturing and teaching.  Any business in which we find pleasure and affords us with sustainability would constitute a modern Garden.  Epicurus favored self-sufficiency and self-employment over wage slavery.

Something must be said here about Epicurean politics.  Although Epicurus advised his followers to avoid politics, clearly the act of not participating in the dominant culture’s schemes is a political, even a subversive, act.

One thread that is noticed throughout the tradition of philosophical materialism is the concern with human relations between equals.  We see it in Marx, who wrote his dissertation on Epicurus’ materialism, and we see it in Sartre whose existentialist theory evolved into a Marxist theory of inter-subjective (rather than subject-object) relations not based on domination.

The ideal model for human interaction for Epicurus is friendship, which again is an inter-subjective, egalitarian model.  It’s interpersonal rather than a subject-object model.  His Garden was known to be a place where women and even slaves engaged in philosophical discourse with men as equals, a tradition so progressive in its day that it was deemed scandalous.  Here, we can see how liberated, how removed from cultural consensus Epicurus was, and we can see the fruits of this emancipation.

A free person is unable to acquire great wealth because that is not easily achieved without enslavement to the masses or to the powers that be. Instead, he already has everything he needs, and in abundance. But if by chance he should have great wealth, he could easily share it with his fellows to win their goodwill. – Sayings, 65

Epicureanism is apolitical in order to preserve ataraxia, but it’s also profoundly subversive and political when we consider the implications of autarchy, which is often contrasted to anarchy as a more analysed and balanced alternative.  Self-sufficiency and autonomy of the individual can only lead to liberty and an ethical system that places full responsibility on each person and promotes cooperation among fully sovereign individuals rather than dependence or domination.