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On the extant fragments of Epicurus (341–270 BCE) dealing with ethics, including his "Letter to Menoceus" and collections known as “The Principal Doctrines” and “The Vatican Collection of Epicurean Sayings.”
How are we supposed to act once we understand nature as we outlined in episode 206, i.e., atoms bouncing and swerving around in the void temporarily producing order through fortuitous collisions? There's no room in this picture for gods that tell us what to do, so our values are instead dependent on us, and not on our choice but on our nature.
Epicurus claimed that naturally, people pursue pleasure and avoid pain. This is the only reason we act at all; it is our motive force. But just as in the case of perception, we sometimes lose sight of the immediate data, and we get ideas that things like fame or extravagant wealth will bring us pleasure, when in fact these goals bring with them more pain both in the difficulty of obtaining them and in the end result when they are are obtained. Epicurus was even more down on sex than his follower Lucretius; this obvious pleasure brings with it too many difficulties to make it worth pursuing.
This view presents obvious difficulties. First, how do we really know what behavior is "natural"? Epicurus points us to the behavior of animals and babies. They don't pursue socially engendered desires. However, they're not known for delayed gratification either, because they don't have reason like adults. Once you admit that reason is needed to wisely choose among potential pleasures, then there's room for a difference of opinion in exactly what is "natural" for an adult. One Epicurean can wholly shun social status, while another can claim that attaining a certain level of status is the only way to ensure security.
Second, what is "pleasure?" Epicurus thought that physical pleasures and pains are the basic, and that mental pleasures and pains are always referential to physical ones. Worries about death and loss are ultimately, on this view, worries about a physically painful experience. But does this view capture his support for friendship as a key good? First and foremost, he says, we need friends as a mutual support network; they can help us when times are bad. But we also simply enjoy their conversation, i.e.. the content of their ideas, and that doesn't sound very physical. Again, Epicurus prescribes a strict regimen whereby things like the love of philosophy and artistic endeavors shouldn't be pursued for their own sake, but only insofar as they help us achieve peace of mind. But once you allow that pleasures need not be physical, you're open to claims that things like philosophical curiosity or artistic enjoyment are basic pleasures.
Deciding that there can't be gods to boss us around might sound like is takes the pressure off: We can live how we want. But Epicurus thought that our wants are fundamentally distorted by social values, so serious interventions are needed to help us rediscover our "natural" selves, to see the wisdom of a quiet life free from vain exertions, and so he started The Garden, which was basically a cult to totally immerse people in his teachings and overcome any "irrational" attachments that members might have to their "vain" desires. Despite the supposed connection between this way of life and a proper scientific understanding of the physical world, they were not known as good scientists (as the Aristotelians were), because beyond the point of understanding Epicurus's conclusions and so attaining peace of mind (ataraxia) scientific pursuits are vain. Likewise, they learned philosophy solely to defend Epicureanism against conflicting views, not to really understand those other views and try to objectively weigh their merits.
Of course, we observed with Stoicism that older thinkers like Epictetus had similarly strict views that were reinterpreted even in ancient times to allow various ways of life, but Epicurean views were systematically wiped out by the Catholic Church in a way that Stoic views were not, so the long historical tradition running up to the present day that Stoicism enjoys was cut short in the case of Epicureanism, leaving it much more to our imaginations and judgment as to what a contemporary Epicureanism should be like.
Mark, Wes, and Dylan try to sort through these and other issues using a couple of good secondary sources: Tim O’Keefe’s Epicureanism (2010) and Martha Nussabum’s The Therapy of Desire (1994). The primary readings are all in The Epicurus Reader, which also includes characterizations of Epicurean views by Cicero, Plutarch, and others.
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Epicurus picture by Genevieve Arnold.
Luke T says
Where (and why) withered Epicureanism?
As a side-bar to Episode’s #208’s primary content, is it not interesting to observe how the different schools of ancient Hellenistic thought (Epicureanism, Stoicism, Platonism, Aristotelianism, Cynicism) each in their own way surreptitiously survived (or were later resurrected) as regimes of thought, as the locus of worldly power gradually shifted from Greece, to Rome, and thereafter to modern European nation-states?
Most of us know already, of course, how the advent of Roman imperial rule, and then Constantine’s conversion to Christianity (in 312 C.E.), entirely reshaped the trajectory of European history (i.e. making it, in handsome part, a story of state religion). But then Christian trinitarian doctrine is heavily informed by Neo-Platonism, the New Testament recommends several passages with a Stoic bent, and Aristotle’s thought receives a major renewal of life – centuries down the road – when his translated works are reproduced from medieval Arabic into Church Latin, setting Thomas Aquinas (and fellow travelers) off on a quest to synthesize rationalism with revelation.
Fine; all well and good. But then what of Epicureanism? How should we account for its more modest purchase on Western thinkers’ minds, through time? That is to say, if these competing, ancient philosophical schools had achieved something approximating parity (or stability) in their capture on the ancient Greek imagination – at their peak, mutual flowering – what was it about Epicureanism that allowed her narrative thread to atrophy so greatly, compared to peer fraternal orders?
The popular explanation perhaps, and as alluded to in Episode #208, goes something like this: “Hey, Epicureans were reckoned to be hedonists. Hedonism was censured by early Christian thought. Christian thought and ethics ultimately prevailed in public sanction. Therefore, any contest between the two necessarily means that Epicureanism loses out.”
But could the Epicureans’ (inevitable?) public defeat been finally less about hedonism than their commitment to atomistic materialism? The latter worldview clashing strongly (and more than other Hellenistic schools presumably did) with Christianity’s Neo-Platonic dogma on metaphysics and epistemology?
Given that a non-caricatured portrayal of Epicurus recommends a fairly muted, and self-reflective, posture towards seeking pleasure (and avoiding pain), it stands to reason that a more salient and existential conflict – between dwellers of The Garden, say, and competing Hellenistic schools – was the former’s removal of God from the ontological machine. And not instead some libertine spirit, perceived to be possessed by its practicioners, or the same’s reckless abandonment of dignity, poise, and circumspection.
Even a casual observer of history apprehends that the Ancients, of all stripes and persuasions, had deep and abiding commitments to the supernatural, and that ineffable element’s role in determining the fate and lives of mankind. To take a bold stance against as much, and say “No!” To assert essentially that “contingency’s a real puzzle,” and “whatever randomness or indeterminacy adds up to net, it’s not interested in your personal story.” This appears to me the most bracing posture of all, be we in the 4th century B.C. or 2019.
Jennifer Tejada says
So I am reading Seneca right now – a stoic – and he mentions Epicurus quite favorably at first. Later he gets a little bit more critical and eventually he is just critical. There is a thought that he was writing these letters to leaders to try and persuade them to adopt the Stoic school and not Epicureanism. I found this interesting. Thought you might. Epicureanism sounds a whole lot like a cult to me. I wonder how the modern observer would perceive their practices if they were occurring today. Stoicism doesn’t strike me so much that way.
Luke T says
That’s interesting, Jen. One gets the sense – from this anecdote of yours, and others I have observed – that there was some real, no kidding competition between these different ancient schools, for patrons and followers and fellow travelers, and so on.
Perhaps the original Epicureans were straight-up cultists (as we would probably characterize such a phenomenon, in modern vernacular). I think my old Philosophy of Religion buddies would probably blanch at such a casual use of the vocabulary, however. (They tend to prefer the appellation ‘new religion,’ an artful term which I still have not decided is merely politically correct, or in fact more precisely descriptive.)
Regardless, we can reasonably infer there was some definite rivalry between the camps, especially where their methodologies or principles seem to overlap or converge. There was some speculation recently, in the same spirit, recently on the FB thread for this episode.
Not being more conversant with the historical nuances, finally, I will plead ignorance for now. But it’s assuredly subject matter we (and PEL) should make efforts to return to in the future. Quite an absorbing thread.
Dan Johnson says
Regarding Fukuyama, here’s a few questions I have, since you asked for suggestions. I should be clear I haven’t had a chance to read his “Identity” book yet, I’ve just watched a few of his recent speaking engagements on Youtube. These are the questions that popped to mind when I listened to them.
I’d love it if Fukuyama was asked about his thoughts regarding “thymos” (aka the “spirited” part of the soul referred to in Plato’s Republic). Why are we better off using a broad, vague idea like “thymos” rather than just “anger” or “chauvinism” or whatever? Why is the concept of “thymos” actually explanatory of anything, and not just a somewhat different label for more commonplace concepts? Can thymos be compared to any concepts or processes discussed by modern psychologists, social scientists, or biologists to any extent? If we’re living in a time when thymos is resurgent, why now, and how do we know it’s thymos as opposed to something else?
Assuming thymos is a worthwhile concept…. Is thymos just fundamentally in tension with liberal democracy, and thymos is going to just have to atrophy to some extent? Or would liberal democracy have to change to make room for thymos, and what would that look like? Does thymos have anything to do with why racism seems to be declaring itself out in the open in the way it generally hasn’t since the 70s? Does thymos have anything to do with why there’s a social justice great awakening and renewed interest in socialism?
Also, since he’s harkening back to Platonic psychology, what does he think of Hume’s theory that reason is better understood as just instrumental? Is there just a semantic disagreement between Hume and Plato (e.g., maybe they were both just referring to the moderate passions, but using different labels) — or is there a real disagreement? Does he have any thoughts about Kwame Appiah’s somewhat more Humean work on identity? For example, maybe the resurgence in thymos results from the fact that we’re all slowly coming to realize that, whether we admit it or not, there’s nothing particularly special, distinctive, or powerful about our identities, and “identity” is just sort of a story we tell ourselves at most for practical reasons, or because we can’t help but do so — and that’s traumatizing to thymos? Can thymos live with the fact that our world is almost inevitably going to be cosmopolitan?