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The Annicerians

The following is part of a book review of Cyreniacs Handbook: Handbook of Source Material for Cyrenaic Philosophy.

In my most recent Twentieth message, I argue for the possibility of an Afro-Greek intellectual ferment happening around Cyrene, which may have influenced pleasure philosophy. While studying Lampe’s book on the Cyrenaics, we learned that the philosophical lineage and tradition that Aristippus began there was very diverse, and that many of his disciples branched off into their own sects. However, since much of the philosophizing that took place there involved the celebration of Pleasure as our guide, Cyrene has been often neglected among students of philosophy, and for this reason Michel Onfray calls the city of Cyrene a philosophical Atlantis whose buried treasures we should rediscover.

Anniceris was a disciple of Aristippus, who is credited with inventing pleasure ethics, and he and his sect are considered Cyrenaic, but he was not an acritical follower. He was a reformer of Cyrenaic doctrine who established his own sect. He invented the idea of the hedonic calculus (which Epicurus appropriated and developed further by adding the hierarchy of desires). Anniceris has been called a proto-Epicurean. More on his doctrine can be found here.

Anniceris is supposed to have reformed the Cyrenaic sect, and to have introduced in its stead the Annicerian sect. – Strabo

One passage in the Cyrenaic Handbook says that Anniceris “became an Epicurean despite being an acquaintance of Paraebatus, the student of Aristippus“. According to his biography, he lived at the same time as Alexander the Great, which means that it is chronologically possible that he may have met Epicurus or some of the early Epicureans and converted to the new doctrine. However, since Anniceris is not mentioned as a prominent disciple in any of the extant Epicurean sources, this may be speculation, and we may treat the Annicerians as a pre-Epicurean sect. The Handbook says:

Anniceris had a brother by the name of Nicoteles, also a philosopher, and his student was the famous Posidonius. The sect called Annicerean originates from him. He lived at the time of Alexander the Great, he believed that friendship and patriotism were good in themselves and so seems to have created a sect that was halfway between Epicurean and Cyrenaic.

Among his sayings and teachings, we find many ideas that would later be elaborated on by the Epicureans, including the importance of cultivating healthy habits and dispositions, and the importance of friendship:

Instruction is not sufficient in itself to inspire us with confidence and to make us rise superior to the opinion of the multitude. Habits must be formed because of the bad disposition which has grown up in us from the first.

A friend should be cherished not merely for his utility – for, if that fails, we should then no longer associate with him – but for the good feeling for the sake of which we shall even endure hardships.

Clement of Alexandria had this to say of the Annicerians:

And those called Annicereans, of the Cyrenaic succession, laid down no definite end for the whole of life; but said that to each action belonged, as its proper end, the pleasure accruing from the action. These Cyrenaics reject Epicurus’ definition of pleasure, that is the removal of pain, calling that the condition of a dead man; because we rejoice not only on account of pleasures, but companionships and distinctions; while Epicurus thinks that all joy of the soul arises from previous sensations of the flesh.

It seems from this passage that the Annicerians focused on “the pleasures” rather than Pleasure. I have noted before that the use of plurals rather than singular nouns to refer to things is one technique that may be used by materialist philosophers to speak in clear and concrete language, rather than in abstract language. In A Few Days in Athens, this technique is used in the passage: “Zeno has his eyes on man; Epicurus has his eyes on men“–the idea here being that “man” is a Platonized, idealized abstraction while “men” are real, physical people. Ergo, Epicurus is more personal, and his philosophy is more humanized and reality-based.

Further Reading:

Cyreniacs Handbook: Handbook of Source Material for Cyrenaic Philosophy

The Birth of Hedonism: The Cyrenaic Philosophers and Pleasure as a Way of Life, by Kurt Lampe

Hegesias and Anniceris

Making Sense of Epicurean Friendship: An Intended Audience Approach

The Cyrenaics

The following is a book review of Cyreniacs Handbook: Handbook of Source Material for Cyrenaic Philosophy.

The Cyreniacs Handbook is a compilation of all that can be found in the available ancient sources about the Cyrenaics. The ideas are not explained or systematically explored. For that, I would enthusiastically recommend The Birth of Hedonism: The Cyrenaic Philosophers and Pleasure as a Way of Life, by Kurt Lampe (book review here). Since the ideas of the Cyrenaic School have been explored in my review of Lampe’s book, I will revisit some of the additional ideas I found of interest here.

The Cyrenaic School was founded by Aristippus of Cyrene. Lucian’s Sale of Creeds summarizes Aristippus’ doctrine this way: “Think the worst of things, make the most of things, get all possible pleasure out of things“.

Adaptability

He was able to adapt himself in both time and place. He enjoyed pleasure, but did not toil after more than what he had. His sayings were the best. Diogenes called him “the King’s Dog”. – Suda

In a previous discussion of the Cyrenaics, and again in the recent exploration of Philodemus’ method of studying and cultivating the virtues, I mentioned that Aristippus was known for the virtue of adaptability, and that he took pride in exacting enjoyment from all circumstances and being in control in adversity and prosperity. The Handbook explores this a bit further, saying (in page 16) that Aristippus could always turn a situation favorable, and that he got pleasure from what was present and didn’t toil to procure something not present. While many other philosophers (even in his own tradition) have a history of turning cynical and misanthropic, Aristippus said that his philosophy gave him the ability to feel at ease in any society (page 19), which is part of how this virtue of adaptability served him to live pleasantly.

Many of the Epicureans of later generations drew inspiration from Aristippus and were proud to see him as their precursor. This passage from Lucretius paraphrases Aristippus’ adaptability doctrine:

You yearned for what was not,
scorned what is.
Life slipped through your fingers shapeless and unlovely.

In Horace’s Epistle 1.1.1-19 we read:

I slip back privately to Aristippus precepts, trying to bend world to self and not self to world.

Here, we find that Horace (and Aristippus) flip the Stoic paradigm of control upside-down, inviting us to bend the world to ourselves, to use our freedom and creativity to creatively shape our environment and our reality in our favor, rather than allowing externals to control us and force us to change ourselves.

Is There a Neutral State of Sentience?

One of the sources mentioned in the Hand book discusses one of the controversies between the Cyrenaics and the Epicureans.

Among his other hearers was his own daughter Arete, who having borne a son named him Aristippus, and he from having been introduced by her to philosophical studies was called his mother’s pupil. He quite plainly defined the end to be the life of pleasure, ranking as pleasure that which lies in motion. For he said that there are three states affecting our temperament: one, in which we feel pain, like a storm at sea; another, in which we feel pleasure, that may be likened to a gentle undulation, for pleasure is a gentle movement, comparable to a favourable breeze; and the third is an intermediate state, in which we feel neither pain nor pleasure, which is similar to a calm. So of the feelings only, he said, we have the sensation. – Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 14.18

The first Epicureans argued against the existence of this third, intermediate state, and argued that all the experiences of the sentient being are either pleasant or painful.

Thinking about the past and the future

Tsouna argues (page 82 of The Ethics of Philodemus)  that we should think rightly concerning past and future, rather than not think of them at all. In our discussion of Philodemus’ critique of maximalism, we learned that

people who look to a long life or to the future in order to pursue new goods constantly are never able to achieve and enjoy the greatest pleasure because they are never content or satisfied. Furthermore, they think that happiness means a greater number of accumulated pleasures.

These teachings also go back to Aristippus, who recommended the practice of “presentism” to his disciples in order to help them squeeze pleasure out of their immediacy. He taught that never being anxious about the past or future is a sign of a constant, clear spirit. He also posited a type of dichotomy of control based on the present moment, and said that we should “care for only the present, for only that is in our power“. He judged of all good by the present alone, saying that the past is no longer, and the future is uncertain.

This is an interesting way of thinking about pleasure as it relates to time. In seeking to contrast this to what the Epicurean founders would have to say, I found PD 9:

If every pleasure were condensed and were present at the same time and in the whole of one’s nature or its primary parts, then the pleasures would never differ from one another. – Epicurean Principal Doctrine 9

Another translation says:

If all pleasure had been capable of accumulation … not only in recurrences in time, but all over the frame or, at any rate, over the principal parts of human nature, there would never have been any difference between one pleasure and another, as in fact there is.

The Epicurean focus (as usual) seems to be on the limits that nature places on our pleasures, and is (as in Aristippus) empirical: we SEE and FEEL that the pleasures are experienced as diverse, and we SEE and FEEL that they vary and have their limits in time, bodily or mental location, and intensity. Once available, there no need to intensify these pleasures, only to enjoy them. The anxiety that leads to constant intensification of pleasures and to seeking thrills, reflects ungratefulness of the creature towards nature, and is also based on a flawed understanding of nature.

Principal Doctrine 20 ties this to Aristippus’ presentism by reminding us that the flesh is not able to apprehend these natural limits, but the mind is. It is therefore up to the mind to clearly understand the natural limits of pleasure, and to secure the pleasant life by remaining in a contented disposition.

Further Reading:

Cyreniacs Handbook: Handbook of Source Material for Cyrenaic Philosophy

The Birth of Hedonism: The Cyrenaic Philosophers and Pleasure as a Way of Life

The Problem of Ataraxia in Nail

What follows is the first part of my book review of Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion, which is the second part of a trilogy. My review of the first book, Ontology of Motion, is here.

I must first clarify that my review of this book does not imply an endorsement of its ideas or methods. Ethics of Motion is, by its own admission, a deeply anti-Epicurean book. I would not recommend the book to people who are looking to use philosophy–as Epicurus advises–to live pleasantly and to create a happy life.

Prior to addressing the book review, there are some issues related to ataraxia that must be evaluated.

“Epicurus’ fetish of rational thought”?

Nail says that Epicurus is a “rationalist”, an “ascetic”, even an idealist. In page 176, he speaks of Epicurean “rationalism” and “fundamentalism”. In page 94, he argues that Epicurus advocated for a “purely MENTAL state of contemplation”, and in pages 8-9 he says that Lucretius argued against a “static ethics of Epicurean contemplation”–but fails to produce evidence or clear argumentation.

In page 198, he argues against “Epicurus’ fetish of rational thought”, for reason of which he says that Epicurus “lacks a genuine practical ethics” because Epicurus can’t imagine ethics or knowledge without conscious contemplation.

Concerning Epicurean so-called “rationalism”, Norman DeWitt’s book Epicurus & His Philosophy has an entire chapter on Epicurus’ “dethronement of reason” in favor of pleasure. Feeling (pleasure-pain) is a criterion within the Epicurean canon, which is the ultimate authority in Epicurean epistemology. Reason is not in the canon.

Furthermore, Nail argues that Lucretius is against ataraxia (page 3), while Epicurus is contemplative, and claims that the “goal” in Epicurus is not a life of pleasure but to attain ataraxia and “steer clear of dynamic pleasures”. No source is cited. Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus makes it clear that the goal of our choices and avoidances is pleasure–to it we must come back. It is our point of reference. There are no instructions to “steer clear of dynamic pleasures” anywhere in the Epicurean writings: Principal Doctrine 20 says that “the mind does NOT shun pleasure”, and PD 26 says that unnecessary desires generate no pain when neglected and are easily got rid of if they’re difficult to get or likely to produce harm. If they were easy to get and harmless, there would be no objection against them.

He seems to think ataraxia is “idealist” and purely static. Ataraxia means no-perturbations, and it’s a healthy and pleasant feeling. In Diogenes’ Wall, it’s described as dynamic emptying out of the mind from perturbations in order to make way for pleasures:

Let us first discuss states, keeping an eye on the point that, when the emotions which disturb the soul are removed, those which produce pleasure enter into it to take their place.

He also cites portions 83-84 of Laertius to argue that ataraxia is static. When one reads the Laertius portions cited, Epicurus is saying that the study of nature helps us to secure peace of mind.

[83] … those … who are not altogether entitled to rank as mature students can in silent fashion and as quick as thought run over the doctrines most important for their peace of mind.”

[84] … To aid your memory you ask me for a clear and concise statement respecting celestial phenomena; for what we have written on this subject elsewhere is, you tell me, hard to remember, although you have my books constantly with you. I was glad to receive your request and am full of pleasant expectations.

The term “full of pleasant expectations” does not sound static, although this may include pleasures derived from one’s disposition. A person who is full of pleasant expectations concerning a friend with whom he’s studying philosophy is full of desire to reconnect with his student, discuss the material being studied, answer all his questions and engage him in the study of nature. Clearly, Epicurus enjoyed the company of Pythocles–who was not an unquestioning pupil, if we are to judge by the admonitions given by Epicurus concerning Pythocles’ atheism. In addition to the intellectual challenges that an astute student worthy of such a long and personal letter would pose, there were social pleasures that Epicurus was looking forward to.

Pythocles was, to sum it up, Epicurus’ friend. This made their exchange no less than holy. Are the pleasures of having a friend ascetic, purely mental, idealist, or static? I would argue that they are both katastematic and kinetic. They involve the dispositions of gratitude and remembering past pleasures as well as anticipating future ones (as we see in the letter), as well as the pouring of wine, the conversations over meals, the meals themselves, the exchange of letters and the intellectual past-times involved.

Katastematic Pleasure is Soft Motion

For all these reasons, we must carry out a careful study of the meaning of ataraxia and static pleasures before moving forward with the book review. Nail claims that to Lucretius there are only kinetic sensations, whereas it was Epicurus that said nothing static in nature.

The atoms are in a continual state of motion. – Epicurus, Letter to Herodotus

Nail mentions that the gods are motionless, or are only ideas sprung from Epicurus’ mind, but if they are made of atoms, then they can not be motionless just like katastematic (static) pleasures can not be motionless. If they are ideas, then they are motions in the tissue of someone’s brain.

Nail accurately identifies idealism as an error, and he sees materialism as motion, life and reality whereas idealism corresponds to non-motion, death, static non-reality. But then he goes further by saying, in page 61,

“Trying to create stasis will ALWAYS end in empty, unnecessary suffering”.

In my years studying Epicurean philosophy and learning how ethical considerations are always contextual, I’ve learned to avoid categorical statements like this one. Nail reminds me a bit of Glenn Beck when he takes a word, links it to words that sound like it, and runs off into unempirical theories. Stasis sounds like state, and so stasis leads to statism, militarism, wealth disparity, and individualism. All stability equals, to him, authoritarianism.

In page 75, Nail says “there’s no ataraxia for Lucretius”, but Lucretius appears to translate ataraxia as tranquilitas in Latin, a word that he in fact uses. He also says “there’s no ataraxia, or static mind”, but ataraxia and static mind are not the same thing. Epicurus acknowledges that the mind is moving even when we sleep, if we are to judge from the closing words in his Letter to Menoeceus:

… never, either in waking or in dream, will you be disturbed …

In page 119, Nail says “there are no katastematic pleasures because pleasure is fundamentally kinetic like the rest of nature”. And so we’ve seen that, in general, the argument is that all bodies are in constant motion and, therefore, Nail reasons that static pleasures do not exist. But the pleasures of the mind and the static pleasures related to our stable dispositions do exist, are natural, and are therefore types of motion, and distinct from idealism.

What Epicurus Argued Concerning Static Pleasures

According to Diogenes Laertius, the view that only kinetic pleasures exist is a Cyrenaic doctrine, not an Epicurean one. Notice the mention of “freedom from disquietude” (ataraxia, in Greek) and “freedom from pain” (aponia) as categories of “states of pleasure”–by which he meant, FEELINGS.

[Epicurus] differs with the Cyrenaics about pleasure. For they do not admit that pleasure can exist as a state, but place it wholly in motion. He, however, admits both kinds to be pleasure, namely, that of the soul, and that of the body, as he says in his treatise on Choice and Avoidance; and also in his work on the Chief Good; and in the first book of his treatise on Lives, and in his Letter against the Mitylenian Philosophers. And in the same spirit, Diogenes … speaks thus. “But when pleasure is understood, I mean both that which exists in motion, and that which is a state . . . .” And Epicurus, in his treatise on Choice, speaks thus: “Now, freedom from disquietude, and freedom from pain, are states of pleasure; but joy and cheerfulness are beheld in motion and energy.”

For [the Cyrenaics] make out the pains of the body to be worse than those of the mind; accordingly, those who do wrong, are punished in the body. But [Epicurus] considers the pains of the soul the worst; for that the flesh is only sensible to present affliction, but the soul feels the past, the present, and the future. Therefore, in the same manner, he contends that the pleasures of the soul are greater than those of the body.

These arguments are elaborated in Principal Doctrine 20 and by Diogenes of Oenoanda, so I won’t delve into them further, except to note that there is a mind-over-matter logic at play, but that does not constitute a call for asceticism or purely static pleasures. PD 20 states that the (rational) mind, unlike the (unconscious) body, is able to discern the limits of our desires and secure a life of pleasure. Here are some of my final criticisms of the line of thinking taken by Neil and others:

  1. The either/or view of kinetic (dynamic) vs katastematic (abiding, or static) pleasures is, in my view, un-Epicurean. Both those who insist that Epicurus posited only kinetic pleasures and those who insist he called for only katastematic pleasures are in error because Epicurus invited us to constant pleasures. Life involves cycles of labor and rest, and one does not have enough energy and time to constantly enjoy active pleasures, yet Epicurus calls us to constant pleasures, and even promises that we are able to experience constant pleasures at the end of his Letter to Menoeceus.
  2. Epicurus could not have called for an ascetic or contemplative life of only static or mental pleasures because, according to his doctrine, with many kinetic pleasures, nature doesn’t give us a choice. For instance, we do not have a choice to not eat, which is a kinetic pleasure. Therefore, even if we incorporate a science and practice of contemplation into our hedonic regimen to some extent, it’s impossible to live a life of only katastematic, or static/abiding, pleasures.
  3. While it is true (as we see in Nail) that some enemies of Epicurus have used katastematic pleasures to argue against Epicurean doctrines, it is wrong to dismiss them when, as we see in PD 20, stable or attitudinal pleasures are an important part of our ethics and are central to our theory of character development and to the cultivation of stable, habitual pleasure.
  4. We find a focus on dispositions (diathesis) or attitudes in Epicureans like Philodemus (who related them to our good and bad habits) and Diogenes (who argued that we are in control of our dispositions). There seems to have been an ongoing tradition related to how a philosopher of pleasure must cultivate habitual pleasant states. In Philodemus, we learn that these dispositions are supported by true beliefs that are based on nature, while empty beliefs support unwholesome dispositions and bad habits. Epicurus declared war on these bad attitudes in Vatican Saying 46.
  5. Diogenes Laertius cites by name at least four sources by Epicurus (see above), which tells us that Epicurus was emphatic in repeating the doctrine that both kinds of pleasures exist. We may interpret this as his attempt to rectify what he perceived as an error in Cyrenaic doctrine, whereas his own doctrine was meant to help us secure “the best life” (sometimes translated as “the complete life”, see PD 20).
  6. Sentience occurs in two varieties: pains and pleasures. Ataraxia is a pleasant feeling of non-perturbation and satisfaction. It’s not idealist, or ascetic, or merely rational–even if it entails, like all emotions, a cognitive component. It’s a feeling, and it involves movement, even if soft or gentle. Ataraxia is not “static mind” (the mind is never static for as long as we’re alive), and it’s not necessarily contemplative. It means “no perturbations”, and arises when we banish all false beliefs and anxieties.
  7. Vatican Saying 11 teaches that “For most people, to be quiet is to be numb and to be active is to be frenzied.” This seems to be an argument in favor of cultivating both static and active pleasant states, of training ourselves to enjoy both attitudinal and dynamic pleasures.

Further Reading:

Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion

Epicurus & His Philosophy (Minnesota Archive Editions)

Book Review: How to Live a Good Life

Today is the official book release date for How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy by Penguin Random House (Amazon link here), a collection of 15 essays edited by Massimo Pigliucci, Skye Cleary and Daniel Kaufman. In includes chapters on Epicureanism, Daoism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity Progressive Islam, Existentialism, and other philosophies of life as they are lived today.

The purpose of the book is to help people living in the 21st Century to tackle the challenges related to choosing a personal philosophy of life by giving them fifteen radically different examples of how others are doing it. Most of the essays were written by members of clergy or of academia. I wrote the Epicureanism chapter, and have had the opportunity to read the book in its entirety. From the intro, we learn that these are a few of the goals of the book:

First, to appreciate the sheer variety of philosophical points of view on life and better understand other human beings who have chosen to live according to a philosophy different from your own. Understanding is the beginning of both wisdom and compassion. Second, because you may wish to know something more about your own—chosen or inherited—life philosophy; our authors are some of the best and brightest in the field, and their chapters make for enlightening reading. Last, it is possible that you, too, have been questioning your current take on life, the universe, and everything, and reading about other perspectives may reinforce your own beliefs, prompt you to experiment with another philosophy, or perhaps even cause you to arrive at a new eclectic mix of ideas.

In the past, I have published commentaries on Buddhist, Daoist, Confucian, Humanist, Nietzschean and other philosophical traditions, as well as Christianity, Islam, and the Bahá’í Faith. I have learned much from each of these traditions. I’ve learned to appreciate Muhammad’s good business sense–even if I profoundly disagree with most of the rest of Islam. I’ve learned to come to terms with and appreciate some of the good aspects of my own Christian upbringing.

I even cheerfully stumbled across a Daoist philosopher who was Epicurean in all but name! One of my favorite chapters in the book was the one on Daoism, which coincidentally is the philosophy that has the most in common with Epicureanism. It reminded me that if there are innumerable atoms in infinite space, as Epicurean cosmology says, this means that the cosmos is very complex and phenomena may have multiple valid explanations from various perspectives. This modern Epicureans call “polyvalent logic”.

From Confucianism, I was reminded that relations are part of what defines our identities. From Stoicism, I learned that it is prudent to let go of what we have no control over. From the Progressive Islam chapter, I learned that the efforts to bring Islam into the future go well beyond ijtihad (independent interpretation of the Qur’an), and capitalize on the Qur’anic message of economic justice to make the religion relevant to contemporary progressive issues. From Reform Jewish Rabbi Barbara Block, I learned:

How wise our world would become if only we would all learn from each other!

I also learned that there is a non-theistic religion called Ethical Culture (aka Religious Humanism), which is in many ways similar to Humanistic Judaism and to the Unitarian Universalist Church.

Existentialist thinkers like Sartre and De Beauvoir were very interested in how people objectify each other, and asked questions about how we can best develop mature, intersubjective human relations between free individuals. The Existentialism chapter reminded me that enemies can sometimes be a source of healthy competition and–in a strange way–be at the same time good friends,

that other people are vitally important because they challenge us and open up possibilities in ways that we do not always see on our own, and the best kinds of relationships are those that are constructively critical

and that

signing up for a set of rules that someone else created is “bad faith,” meaning that we are not being authentic.

The Effective Altruism chapter reminded me that, if I’m going to be putting out efforts to help others, I may as well ensure that my efforts have the greatest impact.

It would be unfair for me to “review” the content of the Epicureanism chapter, since I myself wrote it. I will leave that to others. However, I will say that the experiment of writing this chapter was a great chance to re-evaluate my own personal philosophy and to re-visit many of the things that I’ve learned as a student of Epicurean philosophy, and that everyone should carry out this experiment as a way of assessing the ways in which we sculpt ourselves and our lives as pleasant, how we create meaning and value, how we deal with existential baggage and challenges, and how we discern truth from untruth. In fact, ancient Epicureans were known for writing Epitomes that summarized their doctrines as a learning and memorizing tool. So my exercise of writing this chapter is actually a recommended practice of the tradition.

If you read How to Live a Good Life and want to maximize the pleasure that you get from the book, my advice is that you take this project a step further and write an essay where you expound your own personal philosophy, perhaps inspired by a few of the things you read here. Most importantly, remember that philosophy is not just an exercise for academia: it’s an exercise for daily living.

Further Reading:

Lucian’s Sale of Creeds: an ancient satire of the various philosophies

How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy

Book Review of “How to be Epicurean”, by Catherine Wilson

In recent months, many book reviews have been published, as well as podcasts and essays written by Catherine Wilson herself to promote her new book How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well. I finally had the opportunity to read, evaluate, and write my own review of the book.

I too have accepted the challenge of inviting modern people to the study of Epicurean philosophy, and have continued to learn constantly after writing my book so that some of my opinions may have evolved, and for that reason I probably have greater sympathy for Wilson’s efforts than most reviewers. The reader must understand that every approach to the task of presenting Epicureanism to a modern audience will bear the mark of our own personal histories, values, and idiosyncrasies, and is bound to be culturally specific and idiosyncratic. Apologists for capitalism and anarcho-capitalists will not love her book, but her arguments are often sound, if incomplete. Below are some of my specific critiques and commentaries.

The Good

The author says, accurately, that there are no natural rights, only conventional rights.

She calls for policy to be based on evidence.

The moral problem of euthanasia is very well explained in pages 138-140.

I applaud that she’s not afraid to tackle issues of sex and intimacy.

The Bad

In page 177, she claims that “no one can claim to perceive reality directly”. The premise behind the canon is that it is, indeed, possible to apprehend reality directly with our faculties. She didn’t delve into the Epicurean canon in much detail.

In page 183-4, the author’s (incorrect) view that the atomic theory is unempirical could have been turned into an opportunity to discuss the acceptable methods of inference–but, either way, this view is an error: atoms have been photographed (see this article by Live Science).

The Influence of Hostile Narratives

When reading Wilson as a non-academic proponent of Epicurean philosophy, it becomes very clear to me that she moves in (academic?) circles that are quite hostile to Epicurean ideas, and–in spite of her sincere and well-meaning defense of Epicurus–has suffered the contagion of these ideas to some extent.

For instance, she accepts accusations by the intellectual enemies of Epicureanism that are false as if they were historical truths. In page 112, she states as fact that Lucretius committed suicide without once evaluating the credibility of the claim or its dubious source. Suicide is forbidden in Epicureanism except in cases of terminal illness or while lying mortally wounded in battlefield. This is only one of many false accusations against Lucretius by the enemies of the Epicureans.

The author elsewhere gives credit to misogynistic accusations against the Garden. Proponents of virtue ethics and religions at times seemed to think that all emancipated women are whores, and described many of the women who participated in the Garden that way. The truth is that many of the founders were married, had children, and were raising them in the environment of the Garden. It was a family environment, as attested also by Epicurus’ final testament.

Wilson’s defense of empiricism in page 183 is not strong enough. She points out the dangers of scientific advance, and critiques empiricism as if ignorance (and its false consolations) were without dangers. This is the exact opposite of Michel Onfray’s bold Promethean Bio-Ethics, which I much prefer. We must not deny that there are dangers in knowledge, but I sense here also that she concedes to opinions that are foreign to the Epicurean study of nature, and which sometimes depict scientific advance as an insult to God, or as otherwise arrogance on the part of mortals.

Epicureanism is NOT a Philosophy of the Polis

On that note, the author seems to have accepted also (page 208) the insinuation that Lenin was in some way influenced by Epicureanism because he favored historical materialism–a doctrine that derives from Marx. She insinuates that Hobbes was Epicurean, yet the philosopher and author of Leviathan advocated for the big state and was a philosopher of the polis (of the nation-state).

Marx and Engels (who, she claims, were influenced by Epicurus) were also definitely not Epicurean, but their ideas that machines should do our work, that they should free men to enjoy their time, and that people should own the means of production have antecedents in Philodemus’ Art of Property Management scroll–particularly in the “delegation of tasks” doctrine.

The problem with conflating such a wide array of thinkers with the Epicureans is that this takes away the Epicurean Gospel from the realm of individual ethics into the realm of political and Platonic ethics, and confuses natural community with political community. We should consider the kings and mobs quote, which shows that neither the excesses of elitism/traditionalism nor of collectivism (as is the case with communism) are healthy according to the Epicureans. This quote places Epicureanism outside of the narratives of the right and the left of the political spectrum.

A free life cannot acquire many possessions, because this is not easy to do without servility to mobs or monarchs, yet it possesses all things in unfailing abundance; and if by chance it obtains many possessions, it is easy to distribute them so as to win the gratitude of neighbors. – Vatican Saying 67

Wilson argues that wealth should be shared (page 222), but does not link this with the sources. This is not entirely clear to me, but it seems that Epicurus DID say in VS 67 (above) that wealth should be shared … with friends or neighbors, not necessarily with the impersonal polis. Later Epicureans, like Thomas Jefferson, worried about the excesses of wealth disparity and called for the use of taxation to fix this problem.

Not Enough Sources Cited

The author does cite sources at times, but not often enough, and this is a bit problematic. For instance, when she claimed that the residents of the Garden were evading both politics AND business, I asked myself: What would be the source of that? I came across this potential source:

The love of money, if unjustly gained, is impious, and, if justly gained, is shameful; for it is unseemly to be parsimonious even with justice on one’s side. – Vatican Sayin 43

When arguing against “concentration of wealth”, or “greed”, maybe she should’ve cited her Lucretian and Epicurean sources in detail. One must particularly object to this in page 104:

Epicureans put no stock in the notion of individual desert, they are unmoved by arguments that the wealthy deserve their wealth and the poor do not deserve to partake of it.

The author, again, does not cite sources, and this seems to contradict Metrodorus’ instructions in Vatican Saying 45 that we should take pride in our own qualities, like our strength and self-sufficiency. I am unfamiliar with a source that would appear to justify “being unmoved by arguments” related to individual desert. VS 67 and a Philodeman scroll (Art of Property Management) advise that the wealthy should share their wealth with their friends–but this says nothing about “deserving” what one has.

The Importance of Mutual Advantage

In page 108, Wilson confuses the reader needlessly re: how laws can be just and yet not be of mutual benefit. Either she is contradicting the sources, or not expressing herself clearly. She could have easily cited PDs 37-38 on how rules may and do change.

I applaud that the author appeals to the importance of empirical data and sound science when discussing policy issues, like global warming and climate change. Empirical data is important. However, she did not mention how mutual advantage relates to policy. It is difficult or impossible to connect a philosophy of personal ethics like Epicureanism to policy at the level of state, or of community, without appealing to mutual advantage. If Wilson had appealed to the sources while explaining the concepts of justice / morality, she would have encountered repeated references to “mutual advantage” and this would have added credibility and clarity to her arguments.

If she had relied, again, on the first principles (in this case, the last ten of the Principal Doctrines), her explanation of how Epicurean philosophy provides moral guidance would have been much more cogent and complete. The fact that an area the size of Delaware has been declared unlivable in Louisiana has economic effects, and the building of new dams there and in other coastal regions would result in the spending of billions of dollars that would have to come from the pockets of tax payers. The problems generated by climate change are not abstract. If they are discussed in concrete, measurable, observable terms as they are directly experienced, then the issues of mutual advantage and disadvantage may be addressed. This is how Epicurean morality works, and Wilson wasted an opportunity to encourage her readers to philosophize like Epicureans about these issues.

There’s a reason why the founders made frequent appeals to memorize the sources. Epicurean ideas are much easier to explain and understand, and a lot more difficult to misconstrue or confuse, if they are explained from the sources. Our insistence on citing sources is not because we think Epicurus was infallible and we obey his unfailing authority. The arguments in the PDs, the VS and other sources were carefully articulated after hours and hours of discussion by the founders, and the words were carefully chosen for a reason–which it is our task to discern–, and by her failure to cite sources, the author risks sounding preachy, loses a bit of the clarity of her message, and reduces her credibility (as we’ve seen in some of her book’s reviews).

In one passage, the author tries to argue that a lack of justice in the afterlife (hell, or reincarnation) should not generate existential anxiety. Here, again, mutual advantage could have helped to explain that people are capable of being fair and moral without having to tremble in fear of hell. People who are cruel, exploitative, or unreliable, burn bridges with their fellow citizens and create many disadvantages for themselves and others. People who are fair, honest, and reliable, create many advantages for themselves and others.

Mutual advantage is also one of the most business-friendly principles in Epicurean doctrine, and it’s no surprise that Wilson’s defense of Epicureanism comes off as not business friendly. She barely mentioned this crucial component.

In Closing

These criticisms–as I said initially–do not take away from Wilson’s overall praiseworthy effort to promote Epicurean ideas. She has potentially initiated a conversation with her reader that–I hope–will contribute to her reader’s happiness. These efforts will always bear the mark of the idiosyncrasy of the proponent, and that is to be expected.

My goal in writing this post is to help students of Epicurean philosophy to connect the content to the sources, and to more critically read this and any other book inviting us to study Epicurean philosophy. For this reason, I invite readers of Wilson’s book to join us at the Garden of Epicurus Facebook group and share any questions you may have while reading this or other books.

Further Reading:

  Wrong Again? One more on Stoicism vs Epicureanism

A hostile review from the Wall Street Journal written by a Stoic

By a fellow Epicurean: How to be an Epicurean: Summary 1

Another book review written by a capitalist who is critical of Wilson’s anti-capitalism: Not Quite the Playboy Life: A new book makes a spirited, if flawed, defense of Epicurean philosophy

How to be an Epicurean: A philosophy that values innocent pleasure, human warmth and the rewards of creative endeavour. What’s not to like?

Vatican Sayings – Brief Study Guide

Someday I dream we will have an online source for all the literary works in Epicurean philosophy, all in one place and searchable, with study guides, in various languages and with various translations available for comparison for the benefit of students of Epicurean Philosophy everywhere. I think of websites like Bible Gateway and some of the online Qur’an and Bhagavad Gita translation sites available online, where students can search for a subject or word, or systematically read and study a particular chapter. I envision this Epicurean site as including the entire ancient Epitome (the works of the founders), Elemental Epicureanism, On the Nature of Things, all the works by Philodemus, Diogenes’ Wall, Diogenes Laertius, and even A Few Days in AthensPerhaps it should even include some of Lucian’s worksAll of these works are worthy of careful study by sincere students of Epicurus, and have also accumulated a growing body of commentary by devoted readers that deserves to be preserved and built on. 

In the meantime, New Epicurean has been creating audio file on many subjects, and here’s a brief thematic study guide for the Vatican Sayings for beginners. As more study material becomes available, please stay appraised by joining our online forum and community at Epicurean Friends.com!

ON HAPPINESS

14. We have been born once and cannot be born a second time; for all eternity we shall no longer exist. But you, although you are not in control of tomorrow, are postponing your happiness. Life is wasted by delaying, and each one of us dies without enjoying leisure.

IN CELEBRATION OF WISDOM

27. The benefits of other activities come only to those who have already become, with great difficulty, complete masters of such pursuits, but in the study of philosophy pleasure accompanies growing knowledge; for pleasure does not follow learning; rather, learning and pleasure advance side by side.

32. The honor paid to a wise man is itself a great good for those who honor him.

36. Epicurus’s life when compared to that of other men with respect to gentleness and self-sufficiency might be thought a mere legend.

45. The study of nature does not create men who are fond of boasting and chattering or who show off the culture that impresses the many, but rather men who are strong and self-sufficient, and who take pride in their own personal qualities not in those that depend on external circumstances.

54. It is not the pretense but the real pursuit of philosophy that is needed; for we do not need the semblance of health but rather true health.

78. The noble man is chiefly concerned with wisdom and friendship; of these, the former is a mortal good, the latter an immortal one.

ON AUTARCHY

29. To speak frankly as I study nature I would prefer to speak in oracles that which is of advantage to all men even though it be understood by none, rather than to conform to popular opinion and thus gain the constant praise that comes from the many.

35. Don’t spoil what you have by desiring what you don’t have; but remember that what you now have was once among the things only hoped for.

71. Question each of your desires: “What will happen to me if that which this desire seeks is achieved, and what if it is not?”

67. Since the attainment of great wealth can scarcely be accomplished without slavery to crowds or to politicians, a free life cannot obtain much wealth; but such a life already possesses everything in unfailing supply. Should such a life happen to achieve great wealth, this too it can share so as to gain the good will of one’s neighbors.

68. Nothing is enough to someone for whom what is enough is little.

77. Freedom is the greatest fruit of self-sufficiency.

ON DEATH

31. It is possible to provide security against other things, but as far as death is concerned, we men all live in a city without walls.

ON FRIENDSHIP

34. We do not so much need the assistance of our friends as we do the confidence of their assistance in need.

61. Most beautiful is the sight of those close to us, when our original contact makes us of one mind or produces a great incitement to this end.

66. We show our feeling for our friends’ suffering, not with laments, but with thoughtful concern.

ON WHOLESOME CHARACTER

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

53. We must envy no one; for the good do not deserve envy and as for the bad, the more they prosper, the more they ruin it for themselves.

79. He who is calm disturbs neither himself nor another.

69. The thankless nature of the soul makes the creature endlessly greedy for variations in its lifestyle.

EPICUREAN ATTITUDE TOWARDS FATE

47. I have anticipated you, Fortune, and entrenched myself against all your secret attacks. And we will not give ourselves up as captives to you or to any other circumstance; but when it is time for us to go, spitting contempt on life and on those who here vainly cling to it, we will leave life crying aloud in a glorious triumph-song that we have lived well.

65. It is pointless for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to obtain by himself.

ON CONSOLATION

55. We should find solace for misfortune in the happy memory of what has been and in the knowledge that what has been cannot be undone.

A Concrete Self

The following is a portion of a book review of Why Buddhism is True, by Robert Wright.

I’ve tackled some of the problems related to the Buddhist doctrine of anatta–which posits that there is no self–in my review of Sam Harris’ Waking Up. Is the self a thing? Is it a mental function or a process? Depending on how we define the self, we may or may not find a self. In Why Buddhism is True, in order to prove that there is no-self, Wright limits discussion of the self to “the conscious self”, not the body, not the whole self, which reminds me of Cosma Raimondi’s argument about taking into consideration the whole of the human being. When the author speaks of the self as a “rational charioteer”–presumably meaning “conscious”?–, we are expected to accept that emotions or feelings are perceived as unconscious insofar as they are irrational, and that therefore there is no self, only nature acting as a puppeteer.

Another error in attempting to prove the doctrine of anatta goes back all the way to Siddhartha, the historical Buddha, and appears to be tied to the original Vedic and Hindu context. In the Bhagavad Gita and other Hindu scriptures, we find a defense of the idea of atman (the soul, in Sanskrit) as “the eternal aspect” of our self. This atman is sometimes described, interestingly, as an atomic particle. If Buddha could prove that there was nothing eternal in the sentient being, he could refute the doctrine of atman with a doctrine of anatta (no-self, in Pali). But what if the self, like all else, was real, just temporary? Why does the temporary conglomeration of certain conditions imply non-existence or non-reality? This does not follow, and so the arguments for the doctrine of anatta were, from the onset, flawed, because there is no atman to speak of in the first place. Selfhood does not need to be eternal in order to exist and be experienced as real by sentient beings. If the doctrine of anatta is reinterpreted to say that the self does not exist as_we_imagine_it_to_exist, then there is much more merit to the doctrine.

Now, in nature we see that even seemingly stable things like stones and mountains undergo geological processes over the aeons. We see that the trees can not exist without seeds sprouting, without solar light, without water, soil, and other elements, and that all things inter-exist. We see that, like all animals, we have millions of micro-organisms in our bellies without which we would not be able to properly digest our food: nothing exists in a vacuum. We are constantly exchanging particles with the rest of nature via breathing, acting, and eating. This recycling of particles between all things is poetically detailed early in the first book of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, inferring from phenomena like how the sea is replenished by rains, rivers, and other sources of water, and concluding that–since “nothing comes from nothing”–all things must deteriorate into the primal “germs” (that is, particles) that will make up new things:

Whence may the water-springs, beneath the sea,
Or inland rivers, far and wide away,
Keep the unfathomable ocean full?

And out of what does Ether feed the stars?
For lapsed years and infinite age must else
Have eat all shapes of mortal stock away:
But be it the Long Ago contained those germs,
By which this sum of things recruited lives,
Those same infallibly can never die,
Nor nothing to nothing evermore return.

If all other things in nature exist as processes, ever-changing, why must a member of the homo sapiens species exist as a Platonic essence, an eternal soul, an abstraction, an idea? Why can’t the self also be a process, just like the body and embedded within it, ever-changing from birth to death? Why can’t there be a concrete self, rather than an abstract self? What if, rather than a noun (self), we started referring to a process of ever becoming, which would more aptly describe what we are referring to–and yet doesn’t deny its reality as a felt experience of the sentient being?

The reason why Buddhists have not found a self is because they are not LOOKING for a CONCRETE self. They are looking for an abstraction, a Platonic “essence”, a Hindu atman. I believe that, with the help of Epicurean and Lucretian descriptions, and drawing strictly from the study of nature, it is possible for contemporary materialists to posit a theory of self that is corporeal, scientific, satisfying, and dynamic, to counter the Buddhist, nihilist, and other theories out there.

For the sake of clarity, Epicurean philosophy finds itself in the realist camp of this discussion–our position is pragmatic: we argue that the reality of the self matters. Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the Buddhists are on the anti-realist side of the debate.

To my knowledge, at least one scientific theory of concrete self has been advanced, and it has some of the features of the Buddhist doctrine of the aggregates (here described as “five dimensions”). It posits that the self is multitudinous and multi-disciplinary. Şerife Tekin presented her theory in an Aeon essay titled Self-Evident:

According to this model, the self is a dynamic, complex, relational and multi-aspectual mechanism of capacities, processes, states and traits that support a degree of agency. The multitudinous self has five distinct but functionally complementary dimensions: ecological, intersubjective, conceptual, private, and temporally extended. These dimensions work together to connect the individual to her body, her social world, her psychological world, and her environment.

Notice that Tekin mentions the feature of agency. Agency, or the ability to act over matter, is one of the attributes that proves the existence of a self Epicurean writings: a void can only be acted upon and has no agency. In other words, agency implies corporeal existence. In the Letter to Herotodus, Epicurus argues that the soul is made up of atoms, that it exists fully embedded into the body and provides it with sentience. As proof that it is corporeal, Epicurus cites how–unlike empty space–it can act and be acted upon.

There is the further point to be considered, what the incorporeal can be, if, I mean, according to current usage the term is applied to what can be conceived as self-existent. But it is impossible to conceive anything that is incorporeal as self-existent except empty space. And empty space cannot itself either act or be acted upon, but simply allows body to move through it. Hence those who call soul incorporeal speak foolishly. For if it were so, it could neither act nor be acted upon. But, as it is, both these properties, you see, plainly belong to soul.

What else does Epicurean tradition have to say regarding the concrete soul? In the Letter to Herodotus, Epicurus argues:

Next, keeping in view our perceptions and feelings (for so shall we have the surest grounds for belief), we must recognize generally that the soul is a corporeal thing, composed of fine particles, dispersed all over the frame … Still, it would not have had sensation, had it not been somehow confined within the rest of the frame.

Epicurus believed that the “soul” particles were finer or more subtle than other particles in the body. Contemporary science, instead, gives us the neurological system which, like the Epicurean soul, is entirely embedded into the body. It runs through the nervous system and is concentrated in two main organs: the brain, and the stomach–which contains enough neurons to be about the size of the brain of a small dog or cat. The Letter to Herodotus says that it is the soul that gives the body sentience.

But the rest of the frame, though it provides this indispensable conditions for the soul, itself also has a share, derived from the soul, of the said quality; and yet does not possess all the qualities of soul. Hence on the departure of the soul it loses sentience. For it had not this power in itself; but something else, congenital with the body, supplied it to body: which other thing, through the potentiality actualized in it by means of motion, at once acquired for itself a quality of sentience, and, in virtue of the neighborhood and interconnection between them, imparted it (as I said) to the body also.

Hence, so long as the soul is in the body, it never loses sentience through the removal of some other part. The containing sheaths may be dislocated in whole or in part, and portions of the soul may thereby be lost; yet in spite of this the soul, if it manage to survive, will have sentience. But the rest of the frame, whether the whole of it survives or only a part, no longer has sensation, when once those atoms have departed, which, however few in number, are required to constitute the nature of soul.

That the soul is corporeal and mortal, and leaves the body at the moment of death, is also argued by Lucretius in De Rerum Natura. There are other materialist theories of self that do not contradict, but in fact may add support to, the theories here presented. In a previous essay, I echoed a materialist conception of identity based on habitual behavior, which not only recognizes the concrete and changing self, but allows for the possibility of cultivation or sculpting of an ethically better self, that is, moral development–a subject that is very in tune with natural philosophy:

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” –Will Durant

To the extent that habitual behavior is unconscious or subconscious, it can be said to be a crystallized–even if capable of change or evolution–part of the self. This is a different way of thinking about identity, and yet it does not contradict Tekin’s model.

FEELINGS AS ARBITERS OF THOUGHT

In Why Buddhism is True, feelings are explained as **the** value-setting faculty. The author is really a champion of the primacy of feelings over reason in human behavior, arguing that the cognitive and effective / emotional functions are very intertwined. This is the premise behind Epicurean cognitive therapy: that reason and feeling can coach each other.

Feelings are, among other things, your brain’s way of labeling the importance of thoughts, and importance (in natural selection’s somewhat crude sense of the term) determines which thoughts enter consciousness. – Why Buddhism is True (p. 119)

Feelings tell us what to think about, and after all the thinking is done, they tell us what to do. – Why Buddhism is True (p. 124)

Read the rest of the review here.

Review of “De l’inhumanité de la religion”

I know not what a man is, I only how his price. – Bertolt Brecht

After reading and commenting on Michel Onfray’s literature for an English speaking audience in an attempt to fill the gap created by the lack of English translations of his work, I decided to also write a review of the book De l’inhumanité de la religion” by the French-speaking Belgian author Raoul Vaneigem, which is also unavailable in English. Both books were adamantly recommended–and for a good reason!–by the Las Indias bloggers on their youtube channel on the occasion of the Día del Libro (the Day of the Book). Fortunately for me, Spanish is my first language and French is my third language–which I do not get to practice often–so I take a very particular pleasure in delving into provocative philosophical literature in Romance languages. It’s the kind of intellectual challenge that I live for!

There’s a reason why I took a particular interest in this book. In the past, in the piece Poverty: Secularism’s True Enemy, I’ve argued that we cannot create a REAL secular movement to defend the West from obscurantism and from the many evils of religion, unless and until we also fight the battle against poverty. This piece cites and relies heavily on research on how religiosity is statistically linked to poverty, high crime rates, low levels of educational achievement, and other societal dysfunctions. The most complete meta-study on this is by Paul Gregory. Please feel free to read that article and scan through its sources as a preamble to the intellectual feast that Vaneigem serves, and to help contextualize this discussion.

The Agricultural Enclosure as Religion’s Cradle

De l’inhumanité de la religion argues that there are material reasons for the rise of religion. Vaneigem describes how life changed for our precursors who lived at the dawn of the agricultural era in l’enclos agraire (the agricultural enclosure) and argues that the beginnings of organized religion can be traced there.

Prior to the agricultural revolution, human society was not nearly as stratified as it became later with agriculture, which created the need for the exploitation of human labor on a grand scale by more organized, and more dehumanized, societies. It is this problem of labor as dehumanization that Vaneigem focuses on, and on how religious conceptions–particularly those of sacrifice, including blood sacrifice and the Biblical “curse” of daily toil–became a prominent part of man’s worldview, reducing him to the state of a beast of burden.

Vaneigem argues that in the Neolithic Era, the man of desire and creation became separated from the man of production and market. Man turned libido into quantities of work and felt an “existential trouble”. While some thinkers have sought to solve this problem by advising revolutionary methods, the author notes that even Marx’s revolt alienates the individual and kills his joy because it keeps man in toil for the sake of the collective: man in socialism or communism still lives for the sake of others.

“The Spirit” as Enforcer of Labor

The celestial lie merely countersigns the truth of terrestrial exploitation and endorses the purchase of those who resign themselves.

Epicurus established the doctrine of the swerve to wage war against the tyranny of heaven and “heavenly destiny”. To accept one’s fate–one’s curse–when one is poor, or even middle-class, almost invariably means to toil and labor in submission. Let’s revisit one of the initial curses that the Bible casts upon man.

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your lifeBy the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” – Genesis 3:17-19

Before man was “cast out” of the primal hunter gatherer paradise, not only was there abundance in a manner that had been sustaining humans for millennia, but also people had worked only two hours on average per day to get food.

The Supreme Being as enforcer of labor is not only found in the Bible. In the East, the four caste system is also believed to have been established for all eternity by the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna himself, as related in the Gita.

According to the three modes of material nature and the work associated with them, the four divisions of human society are created by Me. – Shri Krishna, in Bhagavad Gita 4.13

Vaneigem does a good job of addressing the proverbial Platonic split between spirit and flesh in terms of how it affects man’s existential relationship to enforced labor. He talks about how “spirit dominates, matter is dominated“, how spirit “mutilates the body“, and how belief in spirit is alienation and objectifies real persons and bodies.

The author notes how desires, joy, and sex can usually only be entertained by night, and sometimes in shame, because they are “useless” (that is, they constitute leisure activities and do not lead to profit for the exploiters of man), and because by day we have to work. Therefore, the Platonic split has been experienced by man in terms of how we divide our night and day activities, with toil being experienced as violence perpetrated on the body and on nature by day, while at night dreams reveal “the secret scripture of the body“.

Among the other existential repercussions of enforced labor, the most prevalent one and the one easiest to quantify and observe in our society is in public health. It is sometimes claimed that around 75% of hospital visits have their origins in stress-related psychosomatic symptoms:

The pleasure of being was replaced with the anxious greed of having.

Raoul Vaneigem is quite direct and lucid in his French, and the best way to introduce key ideas in the book is by letting him speak in direct translation.

The divine power is born from the powerlessness to which the economy condemns man from the moment that it snatches him from life to reduce him to labor. The idea of God as creator …. master of man or arbiter of his fate is the sham of a system where the true specifically human power, creation, is dissolved by the need to work.

… Contrary to what has been … proclaimed throughout the centuries, the weakness of man is not inherent to his nature. It comes from his denaturalization, his renouncement of the only privilege that distinguishes him from the other kingdoms: the faculty to recreate the world with the goal of enjoying the creation of his own destiny.

The pillage of man’s creation for the benefit of the few, or the many, or for the benefit of some abstraction, was carried out according to the logic of sacrificial religiosity, but Vaneigem argues that it emerges from the predatory instinct on the part of those in power, and with the assistance of clergies.

It is here that the author elaborates an interesting claim that I also put forward years ago in a piece for Partially Examined Life titled Religion as Play. He argues that, prior to the agricultural revolution when most humans were hunter-gatherers, natural religion in its original form was a form of play. He thinks that initially, pre-ritual behavior was play, and was innocent and retained child-like elements. But then, when agriculture created the need for labor, those who attained power acquired the assistance of the priests who introduced the perversion of “sacred terror”, and ritualized play, slowly absorbing the playfulness, spontaneity and innocence into formal ritual. The conception of the sacred destroyed ritual as play, and terror inspired instead obedience, conformity, submission. We are reminded of the Biblical conception of the sacred, “kedosh”, which implies both separateness as well as that which is taboo, forbidden, which must not be named lest we disrespect it.

If Vaneigem is right, this greatly endorses Epicurus’ claim that the original goal of religion is to cultivate pure, unalloyed pleasure. We may be able to revisit the precursor of religion–play–and purge it from sacred terror in order to explore a natural spirituality inspired in Epicurean primitivism.

Nature Versus the Market

Where the market is everything, man is nothing.

In positing a “market denaturalization”, the author is also saying that there is a tension between nature and market.

One problem created by this tension has to do with how scarcity is profitable for some people, who have it among their interests to sometimes introduce scarcity in order to artificially increase profits. Not only is scarcity profitable, but frequently in consumerist society the values of exchange and of use do not match, yet the logic of the market, of profit, and of scarcity continues to operate even when it comes to items of first need. This breeds misery, but also violence.

In Naturalist Reasoning on Friendship, I argued that human behavior follows two patterns that have parallels in two ape societies: the abundance paradigm among the bonobo produces societies of cooperation and where “make love, not war” seems to be the law, whereas the chimpanzees are more hierarchical and much more violent. This has been explained by the fact that chimpanzees grew up isolated from bonobos, separated by a river, and the bonobos never had to fight over food and resources thanks to the abundance in their territory, while chimpanzees had faced scarcity throughout their evolutionary history, so they learned to compete and fight. Similar patterns of increased violence can be seen in human societies marked by scarcity versus those that enjoy abundance.

Corruption, with its antithetical spirit of purity and impurity, has no better guarantor than poverty. Its determination to destroy school, housing, transportation, natural agriculture, industry useful to society, returns with the old tradition of religious obscurantism which is so good for business.

The author argues that openness of the markets kills religion, and that historically there has been tension between the agricultural enclosure (l’enclos agraire)–which is isolated and favors religion–and the cosmopolitan openness of the market, which introduces foreign ideologies and encourages us to question our in-group doctrine. We can evaluate Trumpism, Brexit, Le Pen and similar movements–with their destruction of trade agreements and distrust of all things foreign–as religious/national provincialism of the sort that Vaneigem talks about, where people marginalized by neoliberal economic totalitarianism seek refuge in the familiar.

Another way in which nature and the market are in tension is by two problems caused by excessive consumption: 1. the environmental ills and 2. the impoverished and enslaved state brought about by massive debt. Consumerism and lucrative inutility–the frequent lack of relation between the use value and the monetary value of things–breed alienation, insatiable desires, as well as debt, which breeds wage slavery.

Vaneigem also mentions the separate issue of birth control as it relates to religion and poverty. Unable to produce more subjects by having children of their own, priests encourage people to over-breed irresponsibly, regardless of the prospects that these children will have of being able to live a pleasant life, get a good education, and escape the vicious cycle of poverty. In the case of some very dysfunctional Catholic societies, like what we see in Mexico, this also produces problems like the ones I described in Unwanted Children at the Border and the Evil Legacy of Catholicism.

Conclusion

For millennia, people have woven their identity around labor and have not know real freedom. For this reason Vaneigem says that, even after they have abandoned wishful thinking, “the widows of their oppression turn back to religion, not knowing who they are without it“. He inspiringly concludes his book by offering solutions to this problem and calling for a life-affirming philosophy. This includes a call to heal the Platonic split: we must restore the unity of body and conscience.

The aborted desires engender the Gods, the engendered desires will abort them … God and his avatars are nothing more than the phantoms of a mutilated body.

Only the aspiration to live will allow the passing of religion.

Some of the quotes from the book sound like paraphrases of things Epicurus would have said. For instance, the paradigm created when we stop trying to exploit nature and other humans reminds us of Epicurus’ teaching that we should “not force nature”.

Nature is called to escape oppressive work which denaturalizes it. The land is no longer a territory for conquest, but the site of the creation of infinite joys.

Towards the end of the book, Vaneigem offers the image of the type of creative well that we must become for ourselves in the process of self-creation, which reminds me of Lucian’s Well of Laughter. The book does a great job of revisiting Epicurean primitivism and calling for a return to an alignment with nature. It also reminds me of the third principle of autarchy drawn from Philodemus’ scroll On Property Management, which states: “the philosopher does not toil”. As we are increasingly replaced with robots, our need to reinvent labor, and the Epicurean gospel of living lives of pleasure and freedom, will become more of a moral imperative: the kind that will ultimately decide whether we build a dystopia or a utopia.

Further Reading:

Philodemus’ scroll on the Art of Property Management

 De l’inhumanité de la religion

 

SoFE Journal Volume 11 – 2016-2017

Articles

Hiram Crespo
“Parallel Sayings” Buddhist Meme Series
January 23, 2016

Hiram Crespo
The Punctured Jar Parable
March 20, 2016

Hiram Crespo
Cyrenaic Reasonings
August 5, 2016

Alan Furth
Tending the Epicurean Garden, by Hiram Crespo
September 4, 2016

Friends of Epicurus
Dialogue on Virtue
September 5, 2016

Society of Epicurus
Society of Epicurus Publishes Epitome in Esperanto
September 20, 2016

Friends of Epicurus
Dialogue on the Search for Meaning
October 8, 2016

Hiram Crespo
Hermarchus on the Ethics of Vegetarianism and Treatment of Animals
October 24, 2016

Matt Jackson
The Gods of the Garden, the God of the Mount and the Absolute
February 5, 2017

Society of Epicurus
Panhellenic Symposium of Epicurean Philosophy, Greetings from Hiram Crespo, Founder of SoFE
February 24, 2017

Hiram Crespo
Essays About Nietzsche’s Will to Power
February 27, 2017

Hiram Crespo
The Bonobo and the Atheist Book Review
March 2, 2017

Hiram Crespo
The Taoist Hedonism of Yang Chu
March 7, 2017

Friends of Epicurus
Self-Guided Study Curriculum
March 20, 2017

Lucian of Samosata
Alexander the Oracle Monger
March 27, 2017

Hiram Crespo / Digenes of Oenoanda
Gleanings from Diogenes’ Wall
April 15, 2017

Friends of Epicurus
Self-Guided Study Curriculum
March 20, 2017

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