Tag Archives: materialism

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.

Back to the Main Page

Carvaka and Epicurus

Carvaka is the Indian philosophy of materialism. It is considered a precursor of Epicureanism, and here we will look primarily at Carvaka, leaving to the end a brief comparison of the two philosophies.

It is worth establishing a few parallels at the outset, however. Both Carvaka and Epicureanism are materialisms, and since materialism is the basic concept for atheism, it is not surprising that both reject the influence, if not the existence, of gods. As a result, both are seen as threatening by the dominant religious authorities, to the point that their works were destroyed. Much of what we know about them derives from writings about them rather than by them. Due largely to persecution by the Christians, Epicureanism had died out by 400 CE, with the last significant revival occurring in the 18th century. Similarly, Carvaka’s philosophy seems to have died out shortly after 1400 CE.  Carvaka scriptures consist of the Brhaspati or Lokayata sutras.

As the Brahmins could not refute these sutras logically, the Carvakas were demonized and they were destroyed. Neither these texts nor any other writings of the Carvaka school have been preserved, although there are many references to them in the Vedas, a large body of texts originating in India, written roughly between 1500 and 500 BCE. They form the basis of the Hindu religion, and orthodox Hindus believe the Vedas were not written by man but directly revealed, just as fundamentalist Christians and Muslims believe that the Bible and the Koran respectively were not written by man. Despite India’s reputation for religion and mystics, the Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen maintains that there is a larger volume of atheistic and agnostic writings in Sanskrit and Pali (an Indo-Aryan dialect) than in any other classical tradition–Greek, Latin, Hebrew, or Arabic. He points out that Buddhism, developed in India, is the only agnostic world religion.

Materialists were among the earliest Indian philosophers and arose primarily as a reaction to the “heretics” and especially the “nihilists” who rebelled against the Vedas. The heretics denied the authority of the Vedas, and the nihilists claimed that nothing existed except thought. The materialists rejected gods and the dominance of the Vedic priests but also nihilism. They attempted to understand and explain natural phenomena through the properties of the four material elements: earth, water, fire, and air. Carvakas believed that the elements may change their nature at any time; thus nature does not contain eternal laws. Like modern day scientists, they believed that life and intelligence originate from inanimate substance by chance. Thus, the mind is not separate from the body, but part of it. When the body dies, life and intelligence perish also.

As materialists, Carvakas believed that direct perception is the surest method to prove the truth of anything. Some interpreters say that they thought inference (or cause and effect relationships) was useless, while others suggest they thought inference can be useful in extending knowledge in the real world but should not be used to establish dogma regarding the supernatural, life after death, or any other phenomenon which is not available to ordinary perceptual experience. In any case, they thought that we need not and should not rely on testimony or comparisons to make inferences. Rather we should discover direct cause and effect in nature itself and not base our beliefs on the experience and teachings of others.

Carvakas believed there is no hell except hell on earth and there is no paradise except the sensual pleasures of everyday life; that the activities of religious priests are not an indication of the existence of another world but simply represent a livelihood.

Both Epicureans and Carvakas advocated joyful living (unlike Buddhism and Jainism, which emphasize penance) but were accused wrongly of advocating hedonism. Both believed we should “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.” And Carvakas even suggested that a person go into debt if necessary to live a happy life.

Like Epicurus, Carvakas thought one should be careful in choosing one’s pleasures to make sure that they do not bring pain as a consequence. The fine arts like music were to be encouraged as they bring pleasure and Carvakas (followers of Carvaka) contributed to their development.

Many of the above teachings of the Carvakas and Epicurus are admirable and appealing. However, some believe there is an anti-social side to both. Nothing is recognized by the Carvakas as a duty, and they do not recognize vice and virtue. They believed that one could do what one wanted to acquire wealth which would in turn facilitate pleasure. Thus Carvakas have been associated with Machiavellian behaviour to accumulate wealth and power, behaviour that many today would view as unethical, if not illegal.

Some commentators believe that the amoralism of the Carvakas is only a logical conclusion of their premises, however. They may have had a more moral view than some believe, disliked the killing of animals, and some Carvakas were vegetarians. And we know that they were not without social concerns, as they accused the Brahman pundits of exploiting poor people by getting them to support unnecessary rituals and sacrifices in the name of god. Also, Carvakas denied the artificial divisions in society promoted by the caste system and restrictions on women.

Carvakas did have an answer to those who would accuse them of encouraging amoral behaviour. They believed that the rationale for good conduct does not arise out of perception, but is rather a logical conclusion based on the desirability of social harmony. Regulation of negative human activity (theft, murder, etc.) should be undertaken by the state, and man will abstain from activities prohibited by the state in order to avoid punishment. Moreover, the science of the laws of state are the ones worth studying, as they are man-made and can be changed and perfected.

Epicurus was clearly much influenced by the Carvakas, perhaps through intervening materialists, despite the 300 years that separated them. In some sense, one can view Epicurus as a more sophisticated version of Carvaka philosophy, which taught that the elements are divisible into tiny particles, but not into atoms, as atoms are invisible and hence incompatible with the premise that all knowledge is based on perception. But there is a weakness in relying completely on perception; we remain ignorant of things invisible, and we can be deceived and misled by our own fears, prejudices and expectations. Epicurus was able to go the next step and accept the concept of atoms even though we can not see them.

Regarding the supernatural, the position of Epicurus is again similar to but not as extreme as that of Carvakas, who rejected the idea of all supernatural phenomena whether in terms of gods or the afterlife, but Epicurus acknowledged that there could be gods, only the gods are not interested in the affairs of man. Hence, we should live our lives as if there were no gods. Both schools believed that pleasure should be our main goal in life, but Carvakas wrote mainly about pleasures of the body whereas Epicurus believed that pleasures of the mind are actually superior to pleasures of the body, again, a more sophisticated concept. Finally, just as Carvakas claimed dignity for all people, Epicurus denied the divisions in Greek society associated with women and used his Garden to promote the idea of freedom and equality.

by Martha Horsley

Read about the Carvaka School in HumanisticTexts.org
Read about Indian Materialism from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy


Acharya, Madhava. 14th century. Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha. Internet
Hanrott, Robert. 2006. Epicurus.
Jayaram, V. 2007. Atheism in Ancient India. www. hinduwebsite.com
Raju, P. T. 2005. Philosophical Traditions of India. Internet
Roy, Avijit. 2006. Rationalism, Freethinking and Prospects of Mukto-mona.Internet
Sellars, Roy Wood. 1927. Why Naturalism and Not Materialism Philosophical Review (36) (1927), pp. 216-225. Sen, Amartya. 1998. An Assessment of the Millenium. Internet