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The Epicurean Canon in La Mettrie

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

In his Letter to Herodotus, Epicurus establishes the criteria of truth. This criteria are the faculties that nature gave us as a contact with reality: the anticipations (which form as we encounter and memorize sense objects), the five senses, and the pleasure-pain faculty.

It is essential that the first mental image associated with each word should be regarded, and that there should be no need of explanation, if we are really to have a standard to which to refer a problem of investigation or reflection or a mental inference. And besides we must keep all our investigations in accord with our sensations, and in particular with the immediate apprehensions whether of the mind or of any one of the instruments of judgment, and likewise in accord with the feelings existing in us, in order that we may have indications whereby we may judge both the problem of sense perception and the unseen. – Epicurus, in his Epistle to Herodotus

In this essay I will evaluate passages from Natural History of the Soul that discuss how the canon is to be used. We will once again see that his system and method are essentially Epicurean.

But, first of all, why is this subject important? In the first pages of the book, La Mettrie explains that not knowing the nature of the soul makes us submit to ignorance and faith, and that one can’t conceive the soul as abstraction, separate from the body. Body and soul were made at once together; to know the properties of the soul one must research those of the body, of which the soul is the animating principle. Since all properties that we observe suppose a subject they’re based on, idealists posit the soul exists by itself without the body, that it is unnatural or immaterial. In setting up a doctrine of unity of body and soul, La Mettrie answers to the idealists:

Yes, BUT why do you want me to imagine this subject to be of a nature absolutely distinct from the body?

The key premise of Natural History of the Soul is that the soul is physical, part of the body, and that it’s born with and dies with the body. Like Epicurus explains in his Epistle to Herodotus, the body is the passive component and the soul is the active component of the self; and furthermore, he says that there are no surer guides than the senses in our inquiry into the nature of the soul.

Reason: a Mechanism that Can Go Wrong

La Mettrie is, among other things, a defender of pleasure and highly skeptical of the value of reason. He also argues that happiness is not found in thoughts or in reason, but is born of the body.

Happiness depends on bodily causes, such as certain dispositions of the body, natural or acquired–that is, procured by the action of foreigner bodies over ours. – La Mettrie, in Histoire naturelle de l’ame, page 135-136

He argues that some people are by birth happier than others. He also argues that proud reason is a mechanism which can go wrong, and in paragraph 79 of his Système d’Epicure he speaks of how cold reason “disconcerts, freezes the imagination and makes pleasures flee“.

The Senses

It’s difficult to know to what extent La Mettrie based his Natural History of the Soul on Lucretius.

To speak the truth, the senses never fail us, except when we judge their reports with too much precipitation, for otherwise they are loyal ministers. The soul may surely count on being averted by them of pitfalls thrown its way. The senses are ever alert, and are always ready to correct each other’s errors. –  Histoire Naturelle de l’Ame, p. 69

Elsewhere he seems to concede that the senses aren’t fully reliable because perceptions can change. Sweet fruit becomes sour, even colors change with lighting. To all this, Epicurus would answer that even if we concede that the senses can err (and they do), still they are our best and only criteria that connect us with reality.

Towards the end of the book, we are raptured into a fascinating world of real-life Tarzans from European history when the author shares several stories that confirm that all ideas come from the senses. He narrates one story about a deaf man from Chartres who, upon hearing bells, started recovering his hearing. When he later started talking and was questioned by theologians, he didn’t understand the meaning of the concept of god or ideas related to the afterlife, etc. Another story had to do with a blind man who had to use touch to get an idea of things. Finally, he narrates the story of Amman, who taught the deaf to speak with touch and sight. He would have them touch their throat to feel the vibration of sound there, and read lips and use mirrors to practice using sight. (Interestingly, the It’s Okay to be Smart YouTube channel has a video on how blind people see with sound) At the closing of the book, the author says:

From all that has been said up to the present, it is easy to conclude with evidence that we don’t have a single innate idea, and that they’re all the products of the senses

He goes on to offer the formula:

No education, no ideas.
No senses, no ideas.
Less senses, less ideas.

Anticipations: a Constant Law

While La Mettrie doesn’t directly mention anticipations (the third canonic faculty), he does describe this faculty when he discusses speech and memory. I will make an attempt to offer a clear translation from the French, which is made difficult by the fact that the author uses long sentences.

The cause of memory is, in fact, mechanic–as memory itself is. It seems to depend on that which is nearby the bodily impressions of the brain, which trace ideas that follow it. The soul can not discover a trace, or an idea, without reminding the others which customarily went together. – La Mettrie, speaking of the “bodily impressions of the brain in p. 88-89 of “Natural history of the soul”

Since in order for a new movement (for instance, the beginning of a verse or a sound that hits the ears) to communicate on the field its impression to the part of the brain that is analogous to where one finds the first vestige of what one searches (that is, this other part of the brain (see note) where memory hides, or the trace of the following verses, and represents to the soul the follow-up to the first idea, or to the first words, it is necessary that new ideas be carried by a CONSTANT LAW to the same place to where the other ideas of the same nature as these were carried. – La Mettrie, speaking of the “constant law” by which memory functions in p. 89-90 of “Natural history of the soul”

(note: he uses the word moelle, which translates as “bone morrow”, but he must be referring to brian tissue or brain lobe of some sort)

Now, we know that much of La Mettrie’s writing was inspired on or based on Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, and this passage in particular is related to the passage where Lucretius mentions neural pathways in the brain. Notice that La Mettrie also refers to ideas tracing a path inside the brain.

Notice also that this is remarkably scientific, considering when it was written. To La Mettrie, ideas are “bodily impressions” in the brain. Ideas are material: they are physical and are lodged in (or happen to) the brain. Today we know that ideas are, concretely, electric signals shared by neurons according to established connections in the nodes between them, which are formed as a result of habitual and instinctive behavior by the animal.

Furthermore–and this is another feature of the canon as it is understood by most modern Epicureans: in p. 93 La Mettrie argues that the fact that we remember or recognize ideas with or without the consent of the will is seen as proof that they are pre-rational. The anticipations are sub-conscious, and obey what La Mettrie calls an “internal cause”.

Some Conclusions

The author seems intimately familiar with many details of the Epicurean canon. It seems that much of what he wrote were commentaries on Lucretian ideas, and that he was unfamiliar with Epicurus as a direct source. His familiarity was with Lucretius, which was a popular document in the intellectual life of anti-religious intellectuals of his day.

He does not use the same words as Lucretius (or Epicurus) used. He is employing clear speech in his native language to name things that we know as anticipations, canon, dogmatism, etc. He used “système” for dogmatic systems of philosophy, and referred to anticipations functionally as they related to memory and speech.

La Mettrie regards reason and the canonic faculties similarly to how the orthodox Epicurean does. He says of reason that it’s a “mechanism which often fails”. He frequently uses the term “internal causes” here (as opposed to “external”), perhaps admitting some acknowledgement of the existence of the unconscious or subconscious mind. That he goes to such lengths to argue that these faculties are pre-rational is very interesting.​​

Next, we will be focusing on controversies against the creationists and theologians.

Further Reading:

A Concrete Self

La Mettrie: an Epicurean System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Epicurean System

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

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

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

So what does this critique of the systematizers consist of?

A Mass of Prejudices

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

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

Systems and Presumption

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

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

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

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

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

Castles in the Air

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

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

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

An Epicurean Sceptic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Religion and Politics

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

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

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

Further Reading:

 Système d’Épicure (French Edition)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epicurean Terms

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

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

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

How to Reason about Actions and Theories

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

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

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

The Veiled Father

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

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

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

Why We Must Call Out Empty Words 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Video:
Epicurus: Against the Use of Empty Words

The New Canon

Most people who have interest in Epicureanism are seeking to improve their lives and to fine-tune their search for happiness, so that they generally are interested in the ethics, the ripened fruits of Epicurean discourse.  And there is nothing wrong with enjoying the soul-nurturing sweet nectar of a wholesome, calculated wisdom tradition that has come down to us … it is in the sweetest part of the tree, after all, that nature has placed the seed that might take root if it finds fertile soil.  For some plants, it’s the flower that is the genitalia, and for others it’s the fruit.

The spiritual garden that is Epicureanism gives us many varieties of flower and fruits, mellows to engage us in the pleasures of sane philosophy.  But at the root of our coherent system lies always, invariably, the Canon.  We all know that roots are neither the easiest to digest nor the sweetest to our palate.  Some, like carrots, can be had raw.  Others, like yams and cassava, require that we treat them, boil them, or fry them.  They require preparation and slow digestion.  But only from the root, from the Canon, can the fruits of naturalist philosophy self-perpetuate in our soul.

The Canon is not just a theoretical system of epistemology, defined as the theory of knowledge and of how it is properly attained and verified.  It was also one of the 300 scrolls that Epicurus wrote, of which only fragments remain.  The original scripture of the Canon is lost to us.  However, we do know from indirect sources what the Canon taught and we are able to recreate its teachings to a great extent.

Nausiphanes, Epicurus’ atomist teacher (who had been Democritus’ pupil), was the one who invented the tripod, the three-legged stool used as criteria by which to judge reality.  The tripod, as Epicurus taught it, consisted of:

1. sense perception (hearing, sight, smell, touch, taste) – materialists must be empiricists because reality and nature are one and the same; they must accept the evidence before our senses as our firm, undeniable connection to reality

2. feelings (pain, pleasure) – this is how nature, via natural selection, guides living entities and helps them to recognize the survival strategies of their ancestors

3. anticipations (inherited instincts and innate recognitions) – the baby must pre-cognitively anticipate the nipple in order to engage in the pleasures of feeding; people must recognize each other as people in order to engage in the pleasures of socializing, we must recognize our primal panic and vertigo while in the presence of an awesome predator or while standing at the edge of a cliff in order to avoid being eaten or falling, etc.

Of all these, sense perception is of key importance.  While reason is certainly a useful tool to apprehend reality, if fed wrong data or if left to speculate without being grounded on nature, reason can churn out catastrophic, absurd, needless, or impractical conclusions.

Residents of Papua New Guinea, amazed at the wealth brought in by Westerners during the II World War, believed that if they built wooden planes and landing strips, their ancestors would fly in cargo from the heavens.  Reasoning without the Canon can lead to falling off a cliff … or to the development of cargo cults, dissonant worldviews that seek to blend childish imaginings with unanalyzed sense-data and should serve as a metaphor for all other forms of Platonism.  If the Papuans had based their worldview on the study of nature and sought tangible sources for their knowledge, they would have concluded that death is final, that the ancestors do not intervene and that it is needless to await their cargo, and would have sought to find the legitimate sources for cargo as the product of labor in other lands.

Is it not tragic that people in so many cultures await Messiahs who died thousands of years ago, in spite of evidence that all humans have a life span usually shorter than one century?  Christians and Muslims are joined by the cargo cult adherents who await John Frum, an American god that visited them during the mid-20th Century.

Without empirical data we do not have science.  We have speculation or day-dreaming.  There is nothing wrong with day-dreaming.  This is fine for when we are poets and writers of fiction, but it’s not naturalist philosophy.

INTELLECT: It is by convention that color exists, by convention sweet, by convention bitter.

SENSES: Ah, wretched intellect, you get your evidence only as we give it to you, and yet you try to overthrow us. That overthrow will be your downfall.

– Wheewright, The Presocratics, p. 183

The word Canon translates as ruler, measuring stick (for reality).  In other traditions (like Catholicism), the Canon has legal connotations, and the Canon should perhaps be thought of as the Law or Rule concerning knowledge that was set by nature.  It was a sort of materialist Bible, was of central importance to ancient Epicureans, and was dubbed “the book that fell from heaven” in derision by enemies, jokingly by adherents.  It constitutes, in our view, the most biologically-rooted of all known epistemological systems in Hellenistic philosophy. It clearly serves a life-based, life-affirming philosophy of this world and guides us to what is deemed (by nature) to be necessary knowledge.

Unlike other philosophies, we do not accept that life is inherently absurd and empty of meaning.  Instead, we see that nature has given us tools to apprehend reality and that these tools give us all the knowledge and meaning we need.  We often perturb our souls by seeking knowledge beyond what is necessary.  We need to know how to survive and eat, how to relate to others, how to stay warm during a winter, how to protect ourselves from legitimate dangers, how to be happy … we must know (KNOW, here not cognitively but experientially) the taste of food and the safety of friendship … but we do not need to know immaterial beings from other realms, we do not need to know immortality and endless time, or endless anything.  We also do not need to FEAR these spirits or endless time.  Nature has not given us faculties to perceive these things because, even if they existed, they are not and have never been necessary.

For as children tremble and fear everything in the blind darkness, so we in the light sometimes fear what is no more to be feared than the things children in the dark hold in terror and imagine will come true. This terror therefore and darkness of mind must be dispelled not by the rays of the sun and glittering shafts of day, but by the aspect and law of nature. – Lucretius in De Rerum Natura II:56-62.

This is not to say that the knowledge that we gain by enhancing our senses (with microscopes or telescopes, for instance) is not good or that, because it’s acquired through artificial senses, that it’s less awe-inspiring.  But nature requires little of us.  Natural, unnecessary knowledge is icing on a cake compared to the little bread, water and fruits that we need.

One of the first modern attempts at reconstructing the wisdom of the Canon for a contemporary reader is Cassius Amicus’ The Tripod of Truth, An Introduction to the Book That Fell From the Heavens, which can be read online and is available from smashwords and from his webpage, newepicurean.com.  It’s ironic, having an introduction to the Canon but not having the actual work by Epicurus.  Cassius points to the section on the Canon in a previous work by Norman Dewitt as his main source.

Another very solid introduction to the Canon is the epistemology portion of the elementalepicureanism.com course.  There is much more that could be said about this subject and about each one of the three legs of the tripod. I encourage anyone interested in deepening their understanding to read these works, from which might emerge a New Canon, an actual body of literature.

This tangible source for our tradition should serve the didactic and spiritual purpose of the ancient one: to set up a firm foundation for materialist philosophers who wish to base their wisdom tradition on the study of nature and will accept no less than a scientific philosophy.  We must gain full awareness of how speculative philosophy and religion have the potential to produce unnatural beliefs and unrealistic expectations that can, if nurtured with full faith, torment the mortal soul.

No example of this is more universal than our unanalyzed fear of death and childish, arrogant rejection of our natural limits.  These have promoted the sacrifice of widows to their dead husbands, the tormenting of children and those in agony with visions of hell, or the promise of eternal damnation (and the reduction to the status of a social pariah) for those who can not honestly say they subscribe to this or that religious doctrine.  Lucretius, true and heroic Epicurean that he was, disbanded the false promises of unnatural worldviews and placed this advise on the lips of Mother Nature:

Why don’t you retire like a guest sated with the banquet of life, and with calm mind embrace a rest that knows no care? – Lucretius in De Rerum Natura III:938-9

The sad repercussion of not basing our assessment of (our natural fear of) death on the study of nature is oftentimes the development of a form of cargo cult.  This is, potentially, the difference between the forager who merely picks the fruits of philosophy and the Gardener who is a diligent keeper, nurturing the roots and even guiding artful bonsais to their maturity.  Lucretius contrasted the life of a calculated hedonist to that of adherents of other worldviews who nurture, instead, needless sorrows:

Pleasant it is, when over a great sea the winds trouble the waters, to gaze from shore upon another’s tribulation: not because any man’s troubles are a delectable joy, but because to perceive from what ills you are free yourself is pleasant. – Lucretius in De Rerum Natura II:1

The spiritual task of an Epicurean is that of reconciliation and engagement with nature.  Imperturbability and flourishing are the by-products of the task.

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