Tag Archives: humanism

Cosma Raimondi: The Rebirth of Epicurean Fervor

In a letter written in 1429, Cosma Raimondi–a native of Cremona in Lombardy, Italy who later migrated to France to teach–was one of the early Renaissance humanists who defended Epicurus against the Stoics, Platonists, and Aristotelians in an early epistolary treatise in defense of Epicurus and of virtuous pleasure. His letter–a translation of which is available from New Epicurean–and the fervor with which it was written, stand out as symptoms of the dawn of the Enlightenment. It’s titled A Letter to Ambrogio Tignosi in Defence of Epicurus against the Stoics, Academics and Peripatetics, and it was intended for an apostate who had at one point been Epicurean but had abandoned the Epicurean camp.

This indicates that they belonged to a circle of friends in the Italy of the early 15th Century that had an intellectually rich life and, in fact, he was a pupil of the well-known humanist teacher Gasparino Barzizza.

It is not just a dispute between ourselves, for all the ancient philosophers, principally the three sects of Academics, Stoics and Aristotelians, declared war to the death against this one man who was the master of them all. Their onslaught sought to leave no place for him in philosophy and to declare all his opinions invalid in my view, because they were envious at seeing so many more pupils taking themselves to the school of Epicurus than to their own.

Immediately, one feature stands out which reminds us of Jefferson’s epistle to William Short: his fervor for the doctrine. Jefferson refers to Epicurus as his Master and to himself as a pupil, and a true and passionate one who must defend the Master. In Jefferson’s letter, we find the author arguing in favor of the true, not the imputed teachings of Epicurus.

Cosma begins his arguments by ridiculing the Stoic view that virtue is the source of human happiness, and that even if a man is being tortured by the cruellest butchers, that he can still be happy.  The author calls this view absurd and dismisses it as obviously and self-evidently false.

How again could you be further from any sort of happiness than to lack all or most of the things that themselves make up happiness? The Stoics think that someone who is starving and lame and afflicted with all the other disadvantages of health or external circumstances is nonetheless in a state of perfect felicity as long as he can display his virtue.

He then goes on to question the neglect of the flesh, of the body, which goes along with the rejection of pleasure and the exaltation of virtue, as problematic.

Why do they consider only the mind and neglect the body, when the body houses the mind and is the other half of what man is?

And in the same way that the body is not to be thought healthy when some part of it is sick, so man himself cannot be thought happy if he is suffering in some part of himself. As for their assigning happiness to the mind alone on the grounds that it is in some sense the master and ruler of mans body, it is quite absurd to disregard the body when the mind itself often depends on the state and condition the body and indeed can do nothing without it. Should we not deride someone we saw sitting on a throne and calling himself a king when he had no courtiers or servants? Should we think someone a fine prince whose servants were slovenly and misshapen?

The Stoics’ lack of concern for bodily integrity, which comes adorned with an air of fortitude and nobility, constitutes to a great extent lack of compassion on the one hand, and on the other hand it produces, in its practical effects, indifference towards injustices and evils that may be committed against innocent persons. Together with the arbitrary and unqualified elevation of apathy and resignation to the status of virtues, this leads to a lifestyle that impedes the addressing of grievances and is in huge contrast with the approach that we see in Philodemus’ scroll On Anger, which calls for the compassionate treatment of anger and indignation as a source of insight and as an excuse for reformation and change.

By requiring the silence and consent of our emotions, Stoicism holds its victims hostage to fate even when things might be done to address grievances and to challenge evil, dangerous and harmful paradigms. Without finding useful and pragmatic outlets for anger, there would have been no civil rights movement, no Stonewall riots, no possibility of redemption from injustices.

The rationalizing of dangerous, cruel and irrelevant so-called moral views divorced from the study of nature also produces a kind of alienation from nature. Or perhaps this rationalizing is produced by alienation? Cosma makes the observation:

I find it surprising that these clever Stoics did not remember when investigating the subject that they themselves were men. Their conclusions came not from what human nature demanded but from what they could contrive in argument.

Cosma then visits all the senses and comments on how they like to dwell on the sensory objects that are aesthetically pleasing. He takes a moment to notice the self-evident truths of hedonistic naturalism. He does not rationalize these pleasures, or link them to theories such as natural selection. He also does not deny mental pleasures, in fact he includes them in his contemplation. He then concludes:

Epicurus was right, then, to call pleasure the supreme good, since we are so constituted as almost to seem designed for that purpose. We also have a certain inherent mental disposition to seek and attain pleasure: as far as we can, we try to be happy and not sad.

Cosma also makes indirect mention of the doctrine of confident expectation, which indicates that we derive ataraxia not only from friends, philosophy, and other pleasures, but from the confident expectation that our friends will be there if we need them, that the necessary and natural goods are easy to attain, etc. This, together with his indication that virtue derives its value from the pleasure it brings, indicates the author’s deep insight into Epicurean ethics.

If virtue brings no pleasure or delight, why should we want it or make much of it? But if it does, why not concede that the greatest of all goods what should seek above all is that for the sake of which virtue itself is desirable

Since Epicurus does not suppose that life should be lived without virtue, I do not think he leads the life of animals. So he is not to be shunned like some traitor who would overthrow or pervert human society. He does not corrupt public morals; his whole doctrine is instead directed at making us as happy as we can be.

The epistle closes with an invitation to return back to the philosophy that Ambrogio had once, like Cosma, embraced and defended, and with a regretful declaration that, due to limited time, he was unable to cover more points.

Further Reading:

A Letter to Ambrogio Tignosi in Defence of Epicurus against the Stoics, Academics and Peripatetics, translated by Martin Davies

Reasonings on Religion

After writing about my “Religion as Play” hypothesis at The Autarkist, which says that religion is a form of play favored by natural selection by which we develop social and cognitive skills that help us cope with difficulties, the online discussion on the facebook group instigated an entire series of considerations about religion; whether it is natural and necessary, natural and unnecessary, or neither natural nor necessary; and whether Epicureanism is, can be or should be a religious identity.

In this last piece, I am indebted in part to our friend Ilkka, from Finland. He had initially proposed the notion of Epicureanism as a religious identity in private, and later fleshed out the idea by mentioning Ninian Smart, a religious scholar according to whom there are seven dimensions to religious experience. I decided to compare his seven dimensions to the Epicurean tradition and found that it fits all of them neatly and qualifies as a religion per his criteria.

The refreshing thing about this last series of reasonings is that it moves away from the mockery and disdain that we sometimes exhibit for religion, and has a relatively positive view of religion as potentially having great therapeutic and artistic value. It also opens the door to the possibility of an Epicurean “census campaign” similar to the ones carried out by Jedis and Pastafarians, where they have sought to publicly identify and present as Jedi or Pastafarian in order to gain visibility, sometimes as activism or as parody, and also to challenge conventional conceptions of religiosity.

Religion as Play

Religion and the Natural State of Humanity

Epicureanism as a Religious Identity

Further Reading;

Reasonings on Philodemus’ “On Piety” Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV


Reasonings About Confucius’ Analects


Note: The Analects seem to be, like the Qur’an, disorganized: a mishmash of a scripture that must be studied in an order other than how it’s organized. Therefore, throughout these reasonings I’ve mostly utilized the text from The Original Analects by E. Bruce Brooks and A. Taeko Brooks, which are organized by subject with commentary. The only occasion during which I replaced their choice of translation, was when their word “gentleman” became my “higher man”, as this translation of junzi is highly controversial.

Confucianism, known in Chinese as the Tradition of the Scholars, is the eastern tradition of secular humanism. It is based on the teachings of Master Kong, whose name is known to the West as Confucius as a result of the first major reports on Chinese culture having been brought back by Marco Polo. His teachings (or the teachings attributed to him by his later disciples) were collected in a series of classics. These include The Analects, which are among the most revered and best preserved writings in world secular philosophy.

Unlike in the West, where so many of the founding writings of our humanism were destroyed by Christians, by time, and by feuding philosophical traditions, the teachings of Confucius were preserved with reverence by followers who had great respect for their sages, and are now considered to serve as the foundation for an entire civilization, conferring upon it stability, pride, and a deep sense of its own tradition and cultural wealth.

A general overview of the Confucian system will reveal a deep concern with stability, harmony and order, with emphasis placed on respect for elders and on the use of ceremony to secure stability. In this essay, as is now customary, I will present an Epicurean interpretation and commentary on the system. I will also argue that there are therapeutic components to Li, the ritual teachings, and point out some of the parallels between the two philosophies.

On the Rectification of Names

Epicurean masters have always been adamant that words without clear definitions, or that bear no relation to things in nature, must be avoided. Please refer to the Reasonings About Philodemus’ Rhetorica, the portion “Against Obscurity”. This was a major concern in Philodemus, and ergo we must imagine it was for the founders of Epicureanism. This notion is used (and, I believe, misused at times) in Confucius’ doctrine of the rectification of names. On the doctrine, Wikipedia says:

Confucius believed that social disorder often stemmed from failure to perceive, understand, and deal with reality. Fundamentally, then, social disorder can stem from the failure to call things by their proper names, and his solution to this was zhèngmíng (Chinese: [正名]; pinyin: zhèngmíng; literally: “rectification of terms”).

We begin to see, immediately, that in Master Kong’s tradition there is an association between nature (reality) and societal order. This is seen in societies with rigid class divisions and authoritarian governments, but also in societies where the philosophers of the ruling class are the proponents of narrative. Confucius certainly was one such philosopher of the polis/state. To shed some light on how this Heaven-focused naturalism affects our worldview, I should cite a passage from On Why Materialism Matters, where I argue that the study of nature presents us with a universe that emerges from the bottom-up instead of being “governed” from the top-down, and then explain:

The idea that the universe is “run” from the top down reflects a worldview that has obviously been favored by the ruling classes from the early times of the divine Pharaohs and god-kings.  It’s old trickery, the vestige of a very old ideology, one that has absolutely no foundation in the study of nature.  When we study nature, we see that there is absolutely no reason to suppose that things evolved backwards: they have always emerged and are always emerging.

It is true that much of what is enshrined in the Confucian traditions of Li, or ritual etiquette, constitutes what most Americans would identify as, well, ass-kissing. To be fair, we should let Master Kong speak for himself in Analects 13:3, and view him on his own terms. Notice the Yoda-like chain-of-causation reply by the Master:

Dz-lu said, “If the ruler of Wei were waiting for the Master to run his government, what would the Master do first?”

The Master replied, “It would certainly be to rectify names, would it not?”

Dz-lu said, “Is there such a thing? The Master is off the track. What is this about rectifying?”

The Master said, “How uncultivated you are, Yu! The superior man, with respect to what he does not understand, should maintain an abashed silence.

If names are not rectified, language is not in accordance with the nature of things. If language is not in accordance with the nature of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. If affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be just. When punishments are not just, the people do not know how to move hand or foot.

Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. The superior man’s relation to words is to leave nothing whatever to chance.”

We will consider how rituals and propriety affect punishments and legal protocol in the later portion on Li. We are here concerned with how a philosopher “leaves nothing whatever to chance” when expressing himself. We begin to see the transparency exhibited by the Epicurean masters, who frequently criticized the rhetors and those who obscured speech, or used flowery words, to say nothing or, worse, to adorn lies. The decency of plain speech is hailed as a virtue in both traditions.

The Master said: “Someone who is a clever speaker and maintains a contrived smile is seldom considered to be a really good person. – Analects 1:3

Clever words confuse virtue. – Analects 15:27

Words must reach their goal. – Analects 15:41

Master Kong was not what we would today call politically correct, and he served the interests of the state and of the ruling classes. It is here that the rectification of names became an excuse to justify relations that are based on domination which do not necessarily find themselves justified in the study of nature: women must serve their husbands, and indeed Master Kong does express strong opinions against women. He also argued that if a superior loves his inferiors, he will make them work. Rectification of names implied that not only must a parent act like a parent and a son or daughter like such, but also that a ruler must act like a ruler, and a servant must act like a servant.

The rectification of names is tied to the idea that virtues vary according to the role, for purposes of efficiency. Etiquette and rules of propriety or yi (which translates as “rightness, morality, appropriateness”) are then tied to each societal role. Proper adherence to the virtues tied to one’s role produces the most efficient and harmonious society.

Duke Ding asked how a ruler should employ his ministers and how a minister should serve his ruler. Confucius replied, saying: “The prince employs his ministers with propriety; the ministers serve their prince with good faith.” – Analects 3:19

This may be quite appropriate, particularly in the case of parental roles to discipline, educate and guide children. If these roles are inverted or not fulfilled, there is disharmony. But there is a point where, by making itself useful to the rulers, the philosophy becomes a tool to advance what we Epicureans call cultural corruption. At least one Analect proposes an unnatural deontology (a duty-based morality) where a righteous man is expected to blindly follow orders even if this is a danger to him.

To see profit but think of right; to see danger but accept orders. – Analects 14:12

This, to us, constitutes a Stoic view of morality and duty which is not based on the study of nature and which celebrates resignation while letting fate decide the results of our blind obedience. This is a symptom of top-down narratives that seep into naturalism.

Moral Authority and the Importance of Role Models

To be fair, some of the narratives of common people do find their way into the Analects, which also teach that “to be poor and without resentment is difficult” (Analects 14:10). There are a couple of instances of anti-authoriarianism, or at least checks and balances, where those being ruled reserve the right to judge a superior or ruler.

But if he’s not good and everyone obeys, will this not destroy a state? – Analects 13:15

Raise up the straight and put them over the crooked, and the people will be submissive. Raise up the crooked and put them over the straight, and the people will not be submissive – Analects  2:19

If a ruler is evil, he will find it difficult to rule and will likely need to rule by force. That a master may lead by virtue has already been compared to Epicurean teachings in my Reasonings on Philodemus’ On Frank Criticism, where I said:

Confucius said that when leaders are virtuous, the people naturally feel shame when they are wrong whereas when leaders are not virtuous, they rule by fear instead and people follow the law for fear of punishment.

… We must also … distill one further insight from Confucius’ observation. Liberal societies are not a good thing in themselves: healthy association and wholesome leadership are required to make them virtuous and happy societies. In other words, it’s not enough for people to not be ruled by fear, and one of the ways in which Epicureanism is meant to work for our constant moral self-betterment, is by us avoiding the shame of disappointing the love and loyalty of our caring friends, particularly the wisest and most virtuous among them.

In other words, Master Kong theorizes that evil rulers have no choice but to be authoritarian. Virtuous rulers do not have to, because in the presence of virtuous leaders, people experience shame and fear of disapointment. With this discourse, the philosopher influenced rulers to be kinder, more virtuous, and generous.

The Master said: “If you govern the people legalistically and control them by punishment, they will avoid crime, but have no personal sense of shame. If you govern them by means of virtue and control them with propriety, they will gain their own sense of shame, and thus correct themselves.” – Analects 2:3

He developed a theory of De (moral force, or moral authority, sometimes translated as excellence), saying that it is contagious. Some Confucian traditions teach that moral authority has cultural and magical-religious power, although this is probably extra-canonical. What Analects 2:1 says is that a great man with De is like the pole star: other stars bow to it. Elsewhere in Analects 12:19, there is a famous reference to how great leaders are like the wind that makes the grass (the common people) bend.

In this sense, Master Kong’s contribution to philosophical traditions of non-violent conflict resolution is praiseworthy. For the powerless, the only non-violent resources that have worked historically to successfully create long-term societal change and end oppression have been the boycott (Martin Luther King, Jr and Ghandi) and the political act of coming out (gay, atheist, etc.) to confront people’s bigotries, but these carry potentially great risk. On the other hand, by speaking to power in these terms, Master Kong is proposing that rulers rule with propriety and fairness and arguing that, by this virtue of moral force (De), rulers can govern and bring stability without the use of force.

De is also a quality that increases with age, and serves to justify respect for elders. Like Nietzsche’s example of the honey sacrifice, Master Kong also argues that we should respecting elders because age increases ataraxia and wisdom (Analects 2:4). Just as by associating with good and happy people, we gain good and happy qualities, similarly association with people who have great moral force increases our own moral stamina. For this reason, it is almost universally preached that the practice of philosophy requires frequent wholesome association.

Honoring a sage is itself a great good to the one who honors. – Vatican Saying 32

Master Kong lived during times of great turmoil and frequently had to move from one city to the next to avoid conflict, which is why the order of priorities that Master Kong established for government was: 1. confidence of the people, 2. food, and 3. weapons. Epicurus also lived through similar times, experienced exile and used the Garden as a place to stay away from politics. We may judge Confucian emphasis on tact and protocol, as well as his advise on government and what may seem to us like an exaggerated focus on stability, as an adaptation to the difficulties of living in violent times.

Confucian Naturalism

Death is nothing to us. – Epicurus

It is clear that Master Kong’s doctrines are for the living, for this world and for human society. In this sense, Confucianism is a humanism and a naturalism (rather than a doctrine based on the supernatural). Like the Epicurean masters, Master Kong taught that reverence for the ancestral spirits and gods had a beneficial moralizing influence on the person engaged in worship and constituted a set of morale-building ritual techniques. Piety has more to do with the one doing the honoring than with the one honored. He refused to entertain ghost stories and supernatural claims.

The master never discussed strange phenomena, physical exploits, disorder or ghost stories. – Analects 7:21

Chi Lu asked about serving the spirits. Confucius said, “If you can’t yet serve men, how can you serve the spirits?” Lu said, “May I ask about death?” Confucius said, “If you don’t understand what life is, how will you understand death?” – Analects 11:12

Tian, or Heaven, is a critical component of Confucian naturalism, and one which draws some superstitious elements into the tradition. This heaven has a law, an order, ergo, its reverence is tied to ideas about Earthly government, which is then believed to be aligned with Heaven. Unfortunately, it also has a movement, ergo astrological predictions, oracles and other superstitions find justification in it.

Although immanence is stressed, there is also a numenic and transcendental component to this philosophy. Tian sounds at times like the Force from Star Wars, a mysterious, supernatural reality that is to be held in awe. However, it must be noted that Heaven bears some resemblence to Epicurean references to Nature as our Guide because it’s tied to nature and that which we can’t control (generally understood as many of the forces that shape destiny). Kurtis Hagen argues that

Misleadingly translated as “Heaven,” tian refers to the sky (Analects 19.25), and to the conditions and regularities of nature (Analects 17.19), which are held in awe (Analects 16.8). Also, tian often refers to that which is beyond human control (see Analects 9.5 and 9.6, 11.9, 12.5, 14.35). In addition, it has associations that carry over from earlier religious conceptions, which link it with ancestors and spirits.

In the Xunzi, (Heaven) as nature is stressed.

Heaven is broadly understood as reality, as the nature of things, as the laws of nature. It can also be interpreted as our own nature, insofar as it is nature that confers upon us our DNA, and ergo to a great extent, our destiny, our fate, “that which we can’t control”, which was stipulated about us before we were born. To whatever extent things are determined by nature, Master Kung attributed these things to Heaven.

There is as much of Nature beneath our feet and all around us, as there is of Nature in the skies. Why speak of Heaven, instead of Nature? Why must Nature/Reality be transcendental? I think this has to do with stressing that all the things that lie outside our control are found in Tian, and so it becomes a useful concept (particularly in therapeutic ceremony) tied to necessity and to our natural limits. There is also an aesthetic and spiritual component to Heaven.

The Master said: “The noble man stands in awe of three things: (1) He is in awe of the decree of Heaven. (2) He is in awe of great men. (3) He is in awe of the words of the sages.” – Analects 16:8

Perhaps this decree of heaven is the same as the laws of nature? In any case, Heaven literally means the Sky, but stands for cosmos, for destiny, for reality, for Nature, and is of enormous philosophical importance in Eastern naturalism.

Ceremony, the Social Contract and Stability

The first thing to understand about Li (which translates as “ritual propriety, etiquette”), which is central to Confucian tradition, is that ceremony and ritual are aligned with diplomacy. Li not only stipulates proper greetings and protocol for good working relations between the people in different societal roles (filial piety between children and parents, relations between teachers-pupils or rulers-peoples, etc.), but also is useful in law and justice, for reconciling kings/kingdoms, for reconciling enemies and sealing covenants between rulers or clans. Hence the importance of knowing and following ceremonial protocol.

Li exists in every civilized society, to some extent. There are marriage and funeral ceremonies, and usually ceremonies to welcome new children into the tribe or family (baby namings, baptismal rites). In America, we have strict rules as part of our judicial protocol, that govern behavior when we attend courts. There are societies in Oceania where elders gather in a sacred tree, the nakamal, to drink the drink of peace (kava) to settle disputes and reconcile enemies. Ritual can be cathartic and redemptive.

It is possible that Li is an inherited instinct, an archetypal element in human nature, and therefore a significant element which has not been given enough attention in Western naturalist philosophical traditions. Even chimpanzees have their own culturally-ordained greetings and grooming behavior expected between members of different ranks.

These ceremonies confer a sense of establishment. They secure stability, continuity and tradition. Epicurus recognized Li (ritual) as a preserving societal principle by instituting the eikas celebrations on the 20th of every month, and stressing their importance in his last will.

And from the revenues … make separate provision for … the meeting of all my School held every month on the twentieth day to commemorate Metrodorus and myself according to the rules now in force. – Epicurus, in his Last Will

I believe that the celebrations on the 20th of every month were part of how Epicurus applied the theory of the social contract to securing the cultural continuity of Epicureanism, and I believe that this is how Epicureanism as a school of philosophy is supposed to work. An oath was made by his pupils, which may have included the agreement to observe of “the sacred festival table“. Epicurus would not have mentioned that there were “rules now in force” if these rules had not been created through a contractarian system, which is the only means consistent with Epicurean doctrine to bring about a sense of duty. It is in this manner, and in this manner only, that Li is tied to morality: a ceremony can only be a duty if it is contract-bound.

By declaring the oath, his pupils entered into a social contract that was created with the purpose of making sure that the words and the legacy of the original founders would reach future generations. A couple of centuries later Philodemus, in On Piety, mentions that Epicurus is said to have warned against “violating the covenant of the sacred festival table”. What this means is that the oath successfully produced centuries of vibrant cultural life, and that the festival table was still viewed as the sacred ceremonial duty of all the school’s affiliates during the days of Philodemus of Gadara (who lived in the First Century of Common Era).

The oath to Epicurus was fulfilled through ceremony. It created a responsibility to continue a monthly gathering, and a simple set of ceremonial protocols, a natural and necessary measure of Li. This is how the stability of our own tradition was preserved well into the Christian age, and excelled that of all the other schools of the Hellenistic period. The tradition didn’t end until Justinian had all the philosophical schools that competed with Christianity closed in the 6th Century.

This is just one example of how ceremony ensures stability, order and tradition, as Master Kung proposed.

There is, of course, an aesthetic and harmonious component to Li. Ceremony should also create beauty and produce pleasure. Why not?

Li can assist with self-cultivation and self-expression, and have therapeutic and artistic/creative value. Ceremony is an art and an act of cosmos-creation and self-creation, in a sense, part of what the Greeks know as biou techne (art of living). It can be a way of creatively resolving our own inner conflicts and of expressing our good-will, our gratitude, our yay-saying, of asserting who we are with regards to the cosmos, to others, to reality, to our own problems, to death, and to life. According to Herbert Fingarette, who authored The Secular as Sacred, through Li the individual incorporates and extends himself into the matrix of tradition. He or she may re-contextualize the self as part of something greater. In many primitive cultures, this something is magical, but it may just as well be psychological. Through Li, a person may align himself with self-chosen virtues, with a worldview, or with a school’s masters, and therefore gain a sense of transcendence in history and time, find his/her place in society.

On the Higher Man

Just as, in our own tradition, we explore what a higher human being lives and acts like in the image of the self-sufficient, self-governing Autarch, and just as Nietzsche carries out a similar exercise with the Overman, Master Kong proposes that there is a higher man (junzi), whom he contrasts to the little man, and who possesses the following qualities: he engages in a process of contant self-cultivation, mainly through education, is respectful of elders, an assiduous servant, and is kind.

… is steadfast but not stubborn. – Analects 15:37

… easy to serve but not hard to please … – Analects 13:25

… (his) speech is sincere and honest, and (his) way of carrying (him)self is earnest and reverent … – Analects 15:6

… From afar, he appears majestic; close up, he seems warm; listening to his speech, he seems polished. – Analects 19:9

When substance predominates over style, it is crude. When style predominates over substance, it is pedantic. When style and substance are in balance, then you have the higher man. – Analects 6:18

Keep in mind, here, that style is also related to Li, refinement, good manners and etiquette. Because the rules of propriety are rigid, there is always the danger of empty ritual and the higher man must exhibit sincerity and presence when in social situations. The Confucian higher man, sometimes translated as a gentleman, is also self-sufficient.

The Master said: “The noble man seeks within himself. The inferior man seeks within others. The noble man strives but does not wrangle. He has friends, but doesn’t belong to a clique.” – Analects 15:21-22

The Master said: “The noble man is in harmony but does not follow the crowd. The inferior man follows the crowd, but is not in harmony.” – Analects 13:23

The higher man is not a utensil (2:12) to be used by others, but he uses his inferiors in ways that are appropriate (not excessive). This is reminiscent of Philodemus’ arguments that it is wrong for a philosopher to employ others in mining or to create other exploitative labor conditions. These teachings constitute moral guidance particularly applicable in societies with high degrees of inequality.

Constant Self-Cultivation Through Education

We might be able to conduct a comparative evaluation with Nietzsche’s Overman, who must constantly engage in self-overcoming to realize his highest potential, but this process of self-overcoming is not explained in detail. With N., each philosopher is left to determine how to overcome the self.

Master Kong, on the other hand, was explicit and clear on this: constant self-cultivation requires education. Confucianism teaches that man is perfectable through education. The higher man is an educated man, a scholar, and education is a long-term process that incorporates ethics, human values and philosophy, lasts a lifetime and never ends.

The virtues of the student include love of learning, being easy to correct (Analects 1:14), ability and insight enough to learn from both the more virtuous and the less virtuous (Analects 7:22), and ability to reflect when he studies (Analects 2:15).

The wisdom tradition related to learning includes advise for memorization and maximizing one’s results: the student, for instance, must also engage in leaving ideas alone for a while, sleep on them, and return to them at a later point.

Imperturbability as an Ideal

The higher man is poised and unruffled, the little man is always in a dither. – Analects 7:37

The Master was warm but strict, imposing but not aggressive, respectful but calm. – Analects 7:38

A man without stability will incur shame. – Analects 13:22

Innocence, as a component of imperturbability, suggests inner perfection and echoes doctrines on having no reason for guilt found in Epicurus’ Principal Doctrine 37 and in A Few Days In Athens. Epicurus says innocence helps us by not being regretful of past deeds, which contributes to tranquility and helps to cultivate imperturbable, abiding pleasure. Here is Master Kong’s parallel saying:

Sima Niu asked about the qualities of the noble man. Confucius said, “The noble man is free from anxiety and fear.” Niu said, “Free from anxiety and fear? Is this all it takes to be a noble man?” Confucius said, “If you reflect within yourself and find nothing to be ashamed of, how could you have anxiety or fear?” – Analects 12:4

On Friendship

The enjoyment of cultivation in music and ritual, the enjoyment of speaking of the goodness of others and the enjoyment of being surrounded by friends of good character are all beneficial. – Analects 16:5

As in the case of Epicurean philos, in Confucianism, there are specific ethical guidelines that rule friendship. In addition to being loyal, friends must be invested in each other’s constant moral self-betterment and be a good influence on each other’s characters.

Speak to your friends honestly, and skillfully show them the right path. – Analects 12:23

There are also injunctions against being accusatory, as this leads to  separation (Analects 4:26), and (just as Philodemus does in On Frank Criticism) Master Kong warns his followers against flatterers, calling them dangerous (Analects 15:11).

The closest thing to our philos (virtuous friendship, in Epicureanism) in Confucianism is ren, which has multiple translations and is tied to the experience and the art of friendship. It can translate as humanity or authoritative conduct, virtue within society, manly or humane (as opposed to beastly), and carries the connotation of humane-ness. According to wikipedia, it’s “the good feeling a person experiences when being altruistic“, but according to Brooks & Brooks, the word carries different meanings according to context.

Ren sounds like the parallel Scandinavian concept of frith, the peace and safety we feel when in good company. It’s the harmonious, peaceful and happy feeling among members of a societal group that results from the application of the golden rule.

What you don’t want done to yourself, don’t do to others. – Analects 12:2

Now the ren man, wishing himself to be established, sees that others are established, and, wishing himself to be successful, sees that others are successful. To be able to take one’s own feelings as a guide may be called the art of ren. – Analects 6:30

The virtue of ren is so quintessential to civilized human life that it can properly be understood as the art of being human. In other words, we become truly human-like by association with other humans.

On Piety

“Sacrificing as if present” means sacrificing to the spirits as if they were present. Confucius said, “If I do not personally offer the sacrifice, it is the same as not having sacrificed at all.” – Analects 3:12

The art and ceremonies of piety require sincerity in order to have the intended effects on one’s character. The practitioner must not only act as if the spirit was really there (regardless of supernatural belief: again, as was also explained by our own Masters, piety is beneficial for the one doing the honoring), but he must also be present himself. Master Kong insists that without this presence of mind, Li is void and ineffective. If carried out with presence, piety has similar effects as wholesome association.

There are other culturally-sanctioned rules regarding filial piety. One is not to travel too far from one’s parents (Analects 4:19), and must always remain available to take care of them in old age. As for reverence after they die, there is a period of ritual mourning of three years. Parents are the main shapers of character, and so Master Kong was extremely conservative in this regard when questioned about the practical inconveniences of this, asking his pupil “Didn’t your parents also love you for three years“?

How inhumane Zai Wo is! It is only after three years that a child avoids his parent’s embrace. The three-year period of mourning is observed throughout society. Wasn’t Zai Wo loved three years by his parents? – Analects 17:19

In ancient Western humanism, respect for one’s elders was no different. Epicurus himself engaged in familial piety, and observed feasts and sacrifices for his deceased family members.

Although filial piety must always be expressed while our parents are still alive, there are also proper ways to remember them after they die. Eastern tradition posits that a family shrine, certain offerings and pious practices are required, and Master Kong taught his disciples to exhibit an attitude of sincere sadness while mourning. In Epicureanism, on the other hand, loved ones who are gone must be remembered with gratefulness by the virtuous and their remembrance is a celebration of their lives.

Further Reading:

The Original Analects

In Happy Twentieth!, Luis Granados invites humanists to celebrate the traditional Epicurean monthly feasts of reason

Confucius: The Secular as Sacred, by Herbert Fingarette


The 17 Scholarchs and the Empress

The first companions of Epicurus were known as the kathegemones (those who led the way) and were considered members of Epicurus’ philosophical family, his philoi (affiliates or friends).

From this initial group, two sets of leaders emerged: we have the Four Men (hoi andrei) who are properly considered the founders of our tradition and whom Philodemus treats as ultimate authorities, frequently citing them to underline the legitimacy of his teachings. They are Epicurus, Metrodorus, Hermarchus and Polyaenus. We also have the lineage of Scholarchs who succeeded Epicurus at the head of the Athens school. This article concerns these diadochi (from diadokhoi, “Successors”).

Diogenes Laertius in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers, mentions by name only the first nine of these Scholarchs. From later sources, we have two more that are mentioned in the times of emperor Hadrian, and due to their recognized authority, I’m extending the term Scholarch to include all four founders. Also, in the spirit of honoring the sages, and although they do not fall within the lineage of the Scholarchs proper, there were other extraordinary teachers who contributed greatly to the spread and the preservation of Epicureanism (Philodemus of Gadara, Lucretius, Philonides of Laodicea, and Diogenes of Oenoanda). They are included here as a homage.

Our tradition preserved itself through direct transmission and succession. As we saw with Philodemus, later Epicureans were very interested in preserving the teachings of the original Four Masters. Claiming a place under the succession (in his case, through Zeno) was therefore of great importance to Philodemus.

Our Hegemon Epicurus of Samos

Later generations of philosophers would call him “the Herald who saved us”. Read D. Laertius’ account of his life here.

Metrodorus of Lampsacus (the Younger)

Metrodorus was known as a great administrator, linguist and financier, and was recognized as a sophos (sage) by the Epicureans and as “almost another Epicurus” by Cicero.

He was born in 331/330 BC in Lampsachus, and died in 278/7 BC, seven or eight years before his master. He never left Epicurus except once for six months spent on a visit to his native land. He never acted as Scholarch but was among the Four Men.

Polyaenus of Lampsacus

The son of Athenodorus, a citizen of Lampsacus and mathematician, was considered a kind man. He died prior to Epicurus in 286 BC. He never acted as Scholarch but was among the Four Men.

Hermarcus of Mitylene

Hermarcus, a student of rhetoric, was the successor of Epicurus as second scholarch and the first convert to the teachings of Epicurus in the early days when Epicurus first began teaching. He was born in Mitylene, Lesbos in 340 BCE from a poor family and died around 250 BC of paralysis.

Hermarcus was the only one among the founders who was there both prior to Epicurus’ teaching mission, and at the time of his death when, according to Philodemus, he assisted the Hegemon, “wrapped him in a shroud, and kept vigil beside his remains“, perhaps a testimony of the tender love that existed among the first Friends of Epicurus who had grown old together in philosophy and were as family.

Some of the extant sayings in our tradition have been attributed to him, and it is believed that he was almost exclusively vegetarian and that he considered meat-eating an unnecessary desire because it contributes not to the maintenance of life but to a variation in pleasure.


He had been a young pupil of aged Epicurus, later attained succession as Scholarch c. 250 BCE and died 219-8 BCE. His life-long best friend was Hippoclides. Two of his writings remain: there are broken fragments of On Philosophy, and an interesting work titled On Irrational Contempt, a diatribe against the Sceptics where he argues in favor of a naturalist moral realism.

Polystratus is the first Scholarch who had not been a founding member and it’s here that issues of inheritance begin to harm the school, apparently because some non-Epicurean children of scholarchs would claim inheritance. Over the long-term, this seems to have harmed the continuity of the Athenian Garden.

We also know that Rome introduced legislation requiring the successors in the provincial philosophical schools to be Roman citizens in order to avoid subversion, which would later greatly diminish the number of available successors. The law would not be abolished until the second century of Common Era.

Dionysius of Lamptrai

He became the fourth succeessor of Epicurus in 219-8 BCE after contending for succession against Diotimos, as Polystratus had failed to designate the next Scholarch. It is most likely here that, according to Empress Plotina who wrote during the second century of Common Era, the pupils had to carry out an election to choose their next Hegemon.

Basilides of Tyre

He was born in Syria c. 245 BCE, appointed successor in 205 BCE and died c. 175 BCE. He had been pupil of Artemon, and he taught Philonides of Laodicea. Philodemus’ writings on anger are likely based on his work.

Philonides of Laodicea

Although not a Scholarch, he was an important missionary to Asia who spread Epicureanism in the East (Phoenicia, Syria) and is hailed by NewEpicurean.com as one of the unsung heroes of our tradition.

Apollodorus of Athens, the Kepotyrannos

The sixth Hegemon (190-110 BC) rose to the succession c. 147 BCE and had been known as the tyrant of the Garden due to the discipline he implemented. He wrote over four hundred books and is believed to have possibly restored the finances of the Athenian school, which may be how he got his nickname. We must remember that there were inheritance issues after the four founders passed away.

He is said to have written upwards of 400 books, none of which is extant and only two are mentioned by title: a Life of Epicurus and a Collection of Doctrines.

Zeno of Sidon

The seventh Hegemon is believed to have been born in Sidon (modern Lebanon) c. 166 BCE and succeeded his teacher Apollodorus as the head of the school c. 100-75 BCE

Some Epicureans call the Scholarchs that came after Apollodorus sophists, a term which carries negative connotations, perhaps because of the innovations they introduced. Many of these innovations were the result of interaction and debate with other schools. Some believe they were attempts to reconcile the writings of the founders with new insights.

The school had relied on memorization of sayings for many generations. Zeno was a prolific writer of over 400 books who engaged in textual criticism of Epicurus and revitalized the intellectual life of the school by rebelling against what he perceived as an inability to adapt, which is probably part of what inspired the accusations of sophistry. Perhaps the discipline he endured under Apollodorus gave him a rebellious edge?

In any case, he seems to have gathered a huge circle around him and to have influenced many important thinkers of his day, including Cicero (who greatly admired his logical and noble thought), Atticus, Demetrius the Laconian, Lucretius, and Philodemus. If the greatness of a teacher can be judged by the greatness of his students, then Zeno must have been one of the great Epicurean Masters, an incredibly important figure.

Philodemus’ works On Frank Criticism and On Anger are part of the Epitome of Conduct and Character, which is based on the Lectures of Zeno.

Titus Lucretius Carus

Lucretius (95-52 BCE) was a poet and author of De Rerum Natura, a didactic work that gives a complete exposition of the Epicurean system. This manuscript was rediscovered in the 15th Century by Poggio Bracciolini, its influence trickled down to Pierre Gassendi (who tried to reconcile atomism with Christianity), Giordano Bruno and other naturalist thinkers. According to many (including the author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern), Lucretius is the reason for the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. In other words, his words lifted humanity from the Dark Ages.

Philodemus of Gadara

Philodemus was not a Scholarch, but studied in Alexandria and later under Zeno in Athens, went on to teach philosophy to wealthy Romans, and preserved many of Zeno’s lectures in the library at Herculaneum. In spite of this, and unlike his master, he was orthodox in his views and often cited the original four founders in order to claim legitimacy. As a result of this, he is a hugely importance source.

The importance of his work cannot be underestimated. These scrolls were destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, but later rediscovered and many of the fragments deciphered. The remains of Philodemus’ work inspired the Philodemus Series at societyofepicurus.com and will likely continue to inspire our teaching mission.


The eighth Hegemon, Phaedrus, was a wealthy Athenian who lived from 138 – 170/69 BCE, having sought political exile in Rome in 88 BCE and later returning to Athens to succeed Zeno as Scholarch c. 75-70 BCE. He was a great orator and was known for writing witty epigrams.


He became the ninth Hegemon c . 70-50s BCE, and lived unfortunately during a time when the school in Athens, the house where Epicurus had lived, was in ruins. There is evidence of his efforts to save the building.

With him ends the supremacy of the Athenian school (around 51 BCE), which would no longer receive donations from the satellite schools in other cities. As Epicureanism expanded in Rome as it had done in the east, there was an increased division between the orthodox (gnesioi, or authentic) and the sophistic (sophistai) wings of the tradition.

By now, there were Epicurean communities in Lampsacus, Mitylene, Miletus, Thebes, Antiochia (which became a major center and even had an Epicurean library with smiling gods’ statues), Alexandria, Chalcis, Apameia, Gadara, Kos, Naples, Pergamom, Rhodes, Amastris, Oenoanda, and Herculaneum.

Diogenes of Oenoanda

Diogenes lived in a small town in what is now Turkey. He erected a wall with an Epicurean inscription in order to teach philosophy to the people of his town. There’s an abridged version of the contents of Diogenes’ Wall at epicurus.info, another one here, and newepicurean.com has a feature on it.

Popilius Theotimus

During the 2nd Century of Common Era, Popilius Theotimus, scholarch of the Garden at Athens, turned to Plotina, the Epicurean empress who had raised Emperor Hadrian, with a request to abolish the law that required the successor to be a Roman citizen. She succeeded in utilizing her influence on the emperor to change the laws.


As a side note, we do not know how early Plotina chose to follow Epicurus, whom she called Savior, or whether she raised Hadrian as an Epicurean, but we do have reason to believe that Plotina’s philosophy greatly influenced the emperor. It must be noted that the following words were inscribed on Hadrian’s coins: Humanitas, Felicitas, Libertas (Humanity, Happiness, and Freedom).


We know that Emperor Hadrian personally wrote to the Epicurean scholarch Heliodorus, the successor to Popilius Theotimus, conceding financial support to his school. Later in 178 Emperor Marcus Aurelius renewed interest in the Epicurean school in Athens by an endowment of ten thousand drachmas.

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