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Epicurus’ Instructions On Innovation

Recently there have been discussions about the boundaries of our doctrine among the members of our community. In the past this has been resolved by creating separate groups with divergent goals, so that those with a commitment to a puritan interpretation can focus on the work of the teaching mission, while those with a commitment to an ecclectic adaptation and application of the teachings can engage in their diverse interests.

I think this is generally a good approach, and in fact I think we should have more working groups delving into what might eventually evolve into an Epicurean contemplative tradition that is in line with our Canon, as well as engaging in other experiments related to the science of happiness with the goal of maximizing long-term pleasure and minimizing suffering.

In recent years, Sam Harris wrote in his piece Killing the Buddha about the need for a science of contemplation, where he argued that contemplative practices, insofar as they are scientific, should not be considered Buddhist or Hindu any more than alchemy and algebra are considered Islamic today.

What the world most needs at this moment is a means of convincing human beings to embrace the whole of the species as their moral community. For this we need to develop an utterly nonsectarian way of talking about the full spectrum of human experience and human aspiration. We need a discourse on ethics and spirituality that is every bit as unconstrained by dogma and cultural prejudice as the discourse of science is. What we need, in fact, is a contemplative science, a modern approach to exploring the furthest reaches of psychological well-being. It should go without saying that we will not develop such a science by attempting to spread “American Buddhism,” or “Western Buddhism,” or “Engaged Buddhism.”

… There is a reason that we don’t talk about “Christian physics” or “Muslim algebra,” though the Christians invented physics as we know it, and the Muslims invented algebra. Today, anyone who emphasizes the Christian roots of physics or the Muslim roots of algebra would stand convicted of not understanding these disciplines at all.

Our stress on an empirical foundation for happiness should also lead to the development of a contemplative science, but let’s first consider what the goal of this should be and what guidelines for innovation we were given.

The Two Criteria for Innovation

What has been missing in our discussions has been our founder’s own instructions on innovation, which were discussed by Michael Erler in the second chapter of the book Epicurus and the Epicurean Tradition, and which I cited in the early portions of my book as a preamble to the work that I was doing of showing how research on the science of happiness vindicates our teachings.

The relevant portion on doctrinal innovation has to do with the two criteria established by Epicurus himself to prevent muddling of doctrines that disagree with each other. These are consistency and coherence.

In the necessary and inevitable process of updating Epicurean teaching and tradition, I have subjected the potential innovations to the criteria given by Epicurus (Erler, 2011) dealing with innovation and forbidding the ‘muddling’ of doctrines that disagree with each other. The two guidelines provided by Epicurus are akoloythia and symphonia, which translate as consistency (has no internal contradictions) and coherence (is in symphony with the rest of Epicurus’ doctrine).

Let’s consider what is meant here: our tradition has always evolved by being challenged by other schools and in constant exchange with them. This exchange should always be fruitful and help us to discern what we believe and why. Epicurus was concerned about the possibility that this process, which is completely natural and to be expected, might introduce inconsistencies within our community and muddling in the minds of his followers.

Hence, innovations must be compared to what was previously known and established (and therefore be coherent and in harmony with the rest of our doctrine) and also they must be internally consistent and not self-contradictory. That’s fair enough.

However, sometimes we are presented with efficient means to a goal other than pleasure and happiness, which is where the controversy has risen regarding contemplative practices. Some of the more traditional Epicureans are arguing that, insofar as contemplative practices are ascetic and lead potentially to an escape of this reality (as in some salvific beliefs), or to “extinction of desires” (as in the case of Buddhist nirvana), they can not be considered truly Epicurean. The relevant source for this is here:

If you do not on every occasion refer each of your actions to the ultimate end prescribed by nature, but instead of this in the act of choice or avoidance turn to some other end, your actions will not be consistent with your theories. – Principal Doctrine 25

If we consider that Polystratus also mentioned that not knowing the end that was established by our own nature is the architect of all evils, then clearly we have to conclude that this is one of the worse ways that muddling of our doctrine can occur and that we’ve been advised about this from early on.

So there is the challenge for every Epicurean innovator: our contemplative practices, like our martial arts, cognitive therapy, or any other set of techniques that we wish to experiment with as part of our exploration of Epicurean philosophy, must refer back to adding pleasure and removing pain, as well as meet the above two criteria of being internally consistent and in coherence with the rest of the doctrine.

In our discussions on innovation, it would help everyone–and especially the future generations–if we would continue to refer back to these instructions. For people who do not love our intellectual legacy, this is a non-issue, but for the rest of us, it’s important to be both modern and relevant, as well as rooted in our tradition and in the goal that our own nature has established for us.

Further Reading

Sam Harris’ Killing the Buddha

Epicurus and the Epicurean Tradition