In Praise of Frances Wright
The first thing I told myself after reading A Few Days in Athens is “Why did I wait so long to read this masterpiece?”. That was the same reaction I had to reading Lucian’s Alexander the Oracle-Monger, a work which I knew about for very long but had been too lazy to read, and I even felt the need to apologize to our predecessor by writing a piece in praise of Lucian. Let this be my piece in praise of Frances Wright, as this is perhaps the only extant work by a female Epicurean author advocating in no uncertain terms a return to the wisdom of Epicurus.
The work had been recommended to me by Cassius, who has a page dedicated to it at newepicurean.com, and who has said the following:
It is an amazing piece of material … It probably qualifies as the real (Epicurean) “Atlas Shrugged” or ultimate English-language manifesto of Epicurean philosophy, and it also lends itself to almost being used–without any changes at all–for a modern movie or screenplay that could easily be staged … I believe the portrayal of doctrine to be 100% faithful … Almost all the minute episodes and references are from various books of Diogenes Laertius, but the material is combined and told in story-form in such a way as to be a work of genius.
In general, I find the book extremely faithful to the core texts on every core point. And virtually every aspect of the book is a helpful explanation of Epicurean doctrine, along with a comparison of how he differed from other philosophers.
Short of Epicurus’ own letters, and Lucretius, and Diogenes of Oinoada, this is probably THE undiscovered treasure of world Epicurean literature. I am not familiar with what has been published in other languages, but it really stands alone in the English world, at least.
Simply by reading this one, single, easy-and-fun-to-read book, any educated layman can have a better grasp of the core ideas of Epicurus than most college students have after four years and a degree in philosophy.
Cassius also expresses doubts as to whether a young Frances Wright wrote the work by herself or with the aid of her great-uncle James Mylne, a professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow College who mentored her during a period of her life, as she was an orphan and moved to live with him in Scotland when she was 21. We can’t make any definite claims of co-authorship by her uncle, but he would have had a reputation to uphold, and with this being a book written partly in defense of atheism, it’s fair to consider the possibility of co-authorship.
I personally do not doubt that she could have written the work entirely by herself. She was a brilliant, passionate woman with very progressive views who (according to the sources) was acquainted with French materialist philosophy from an early age (a tradition which originates, let us not forget, with Pierre Gassendi: an Epicurean) and later went on to become a secularist, feminist and abolitionist activist, as well as one of Susan B. Anthony’s personal heroes.
A Few Days in Athens was also personally recommended by Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette.
A treat to me of the highest order. The matter and manner of the dialogue is strictly ancient … the scenery and portraiture of the interlocutors are of higher finish than anything in that line left us by the ancients; and like Ossian, if not ancient, it is equal to the best morsels of antiquity. – Thomas Jefferson
… which should lead us to consider the historical importance of this work and its author. Together with Lafayette, Wright is known to have spent some time in the company of Thomas Jefferson when she came to America, an event which led to her humanitarian plan to purchase, educate, and later emancipate slaves. She scandalously criticized racial segregation more than a century prior to its abolition and called for miscegenation: the cultural and sexual mixing of races. She also exchanged letters with Jefferson, and shared with him an outspoken, profound distrust of the central bank.
As an interesting side note, which is reminiscent of the suspicion aroused by Epicurus’ early and precocious treatment of women as intellectual equals: the relationship between Lafayette and Wright also attracted gossip, and she even suggested he legally adopt her in order to silence the dissenting voices. It seems that Lafayette considered her worthy of meeting the other great minds of her day. So rare were the instances of women being treated as intellectual equals. It’s a testament to Epicureanism’s progressive values that our tradition nurtured these egalitarian models (invariably enduring gossip as it did so) 2,400 years ago, and then again a couple of hundred years ago.
It’s possible that A Few Days in Athens (which was written at the insistence of her co-conspirator Lafayette) is the novel that converted the founding father to Epicureanism, and in fact Jefferson carried around a notebook with quotes from the book.
Cassius also attests as to how complete an education in Epicureanism just reading this book represents, which makes is therefore a must-read for everyone studying our tradition and wanting to get a grasp of it on its own terms.
One thing this book NAILS DOWN is that (Jefferson) was not just some generic deist who had vague anti-christian feelings. This books shows (because it contains) that he was fully conversant in the most intricate details of the debates between the ancient schools, so when he said “I too am an Epicurean” he was not just talking loosely — he would have had a full understanding of what that meant.
The only set of views that is a later development in Epicureanism is Frances’ apparent agnosticism, which contrasts with the piety of the original founders of our tradition. This sympathy with atheistic views even takes on a strident tone reminiscent of contemporaries like Richard Dawkins and (Epicurean author) Christopher Hitchens at the point towards the end of the novel where religion is even denominated the root of all evil.
I have found the first link in the chain of evil; I have found it–in all countries–among all tribes and tongues and nations; I have found it, Fellow-men, I have found it in RELIGION.
We have named the leading error of the human mind, the bane of human happiness, the perverter of human virtue! It is RELIGION, that dark coinage of trembling ignorance! That poisoner of human felicity! That blind guide of human reason! That dethroner of human virtue which lies at the root of all evil and all the misery that pervade the world!
We must treat Wright as an independent mind with an independent history and interpretation of Epicureanism. Just as Simone de Beauvoir was the feminist counterpart to Sartre among the French existentialists, Wright may be seen as an insightful feminist who is much less forgiving of religion than men (who have always enjoyed–even if at times unaware–religion’s privileges) may be inclined to be. Frances Wright’s Epicureanism is not the Epicureanism of our founders. It is a much freer, contemporary version of our tradition, one that could have only flourished where dissent does not necessarily invite danger.
Yet, this Epicureanism retains its refined, polished quality, and even fills the heart with love of virtue. Sages are viewed as compassionate, playful and just; the innocence of the good is justly protected and insisted upon, as there can be no imperturbability without innocence; good manners and wholesome character are celebrated.
If I ever saw simple, unadorned goodness; If I ever heard simple, unadorned truth, it is in, it is from Epicurus.
The book A Few Days in Athens is itself an exercise in good association and leaves us with the accompanying after-glow. One can easily envision and experience the healthy effects of associating with the virtuous, and one ends up wishing to profit from the study at the feet of philosophy–who is personified and even speaks in the first person, as in other wisdom traditions, in a section of the book.
Proper Relation Between Master and Pupil
The Stoic master Zeno and our own, Epicurus, are seen throughout the book as Guru figures. In a manner somewhat reminiscent of the Eastern protocol for relations between guru (spiritual teacher) and chela (pupil), here the pupil must be ready and receptive to the instructor and to the teaching in order to profit from the relationship.
Teach me, guide me, make me what you will. My soul is in your hand. – Theon, taking refuge in Epicurus in A Few Days in Athens
On the other hand, reciprocity is expected and the Guru must be worthy of the name and lead by example. It’s understood that Epicurus taught by example and that his life is his message.
I answer (Stoic lies) with my life. – Epicurus, in A Few Days in Athens
Epicureans in antiquity believed that true sages taught philosophy by embodying the virtues so thoroughly that their mere presence had an effect on pupils. A similar belief exists also in the East, where the vision of a saint (called darshan), either in dream or awakened state, is considered a huge blessing. Wright’s book contains a detailed description of the main woman philosopher from the original Garden, Leontion. She is depicted as being comparable to Athena in dignity, wisdom and demeanor.
Throughout the text Epicurus is depicted as mild and candid. The author places words of praise for Epicurus and his virtues on the lips of Metrodorus, again evocating a sense ofdarshan, thus:
The life of Epicurus is a lesson of wisdom. It is by example, even more than precept, that he guides his disciples. Without issuing commands, he rules despotically … We are a family of brothers, of which Epicurus is the father.
Many of us have had bad habits, many of us evil propensities, violent passions. That our habits are corrected, our propensities changed, our passions restrained, lies all with Epicurus … he has made me taste the sweets of innocence, and brought me into the calm of philosophy. It is thus, by rendering us happy, that he lays us at his feet.
He cannot but know his power, yet he exerts it in no other way, than to mend our lives, or to keep them innocent.
Candor, as you have already remarked, is prominent feature of his mind, the crown of his perfect character.
Beholding the wisdom and virtue of a sage is crucial. The ultimate authority, however, is always the canon: the natural faculties by which we directly apprehend reality. It is this canon that vindicates a true sage. Once Theon (a Stoic who stumbles into Epicurus and must confront his deep-seated and demoralizing prejudices against hedonist philosophy) has his false notions put in their right place, Epicurus encourages him to think for himself based on the immediacy of his direct experience.
Learn henceforth to form judgements upon knowledge, not report. Credulity is always a ridiculous, often a dangerous failing.
The Abstract Versus the Real
We see an attack on Stoic and Platonic tendencies to speak of abstractions instead of addressing reality as it is, in the following quote attributed to Epicurus in the text.
Zeno hath his eye on man, I mine on men: none but philosophers can be stoics; Epicureans all may be.
Man, as an abstract idea removed from material reality and context, is contrasted here with men as individuals that exist interwoven with reality and context. The effect that this is said to have is that only philosophers can be stoics, but all may be Epicureans. To paraphrase the book, Zeno sees man as he should be; Epicurus sees him as he is. This is an important insight, and one that Thomas Jefferson in his Epistle to Peter Carr elaborated:
He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler, if he had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science. For one man of science, there are thousands who are not. What would have become of them?
Man was destined for society. His morality, therefore, was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong, merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his Nature, as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality, and not the [beautiful], truth, etc., as fanciful writers have imagined.
The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. This sense is submitted, indeed, in some degree, to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call common sense. State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.
In a similar vein, later in the text there is a reference to how words are to things what means are to the end. When it is explained that virtue is happiness, it is understood that men speak of virtue (which is the means) as the end (which is really happiness) because they haven’t been able to distinguish the abstract conception of the pleasant from the real experience of pleasure.
I feel myself virtuous because my soul is at rest. – Epicurus, in A Few Days in Athens
Virtue and happiness (abiding pleasure) can be said to be one and the same insofar as one is the means to the other.
Of all the thousands who have yielded homage to virtue, hardly one has thought of inspecting the pedestal she stands upon.
Just as good and virtue equals pleasure, similarly evil is the abstraction to refer to pain, which is concrete.
With evil passions I should be disturbed and uneasy; with uncontrolled apetites I should be disorded in body as well as mind.
This important issue of abstractions versus concrete things, and of how words must always have concrete, clear and concise meaning, appears again and again: we find it in Philodemus, and it must be traced back to the original founders of the tradition.
It’s even more important when we consider what other philosophers do with rhetoric, how they twist truths and bend them for the benefit of their clients or to demonstrate their ability to persuade, and when we consider the blatant disregard for truth among the rhetors, a matter which will be covered in future reasonings concerning Philodemus’ Rhetorica.
Therefore, when discussing philosophy with other schools, as well as with each other, it’s important that words are clearly defined in concrete and concise terms to avoid confusion. This subject is revisited later in the text, when Metrodorus critiques the pedantry of Aristotle and how his dark sayings entice the mobs.
The language of truth is too simple for inexperienced ears. We start in search of knowledge like the demi-gods of old in search of adventure, prepared to encounter giants, to scale mountains … to find none of these things, but in their stead, a smooth road through a pleasant country with a familiar guide to direct our curiosity and point out the beauties of the landscape, disappoints us of all exploit and all notoriety; and our vanity turns too often from the fair and open fields into error’s dark labyrinths, where we mistake mystery for wisdom, pedantry for knowledge, and prejudice for virtue.
By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them
The above quote is associated with Jesus in the Gospels, but Wright appropriated it and prophetically placed it on the lips of Epicurus during a discussion with Zeno on the future decay and the future reputations of their respective schools, both of which they anticipate will be calumniated by “ambitious bigots”.
From the flavor, we pronounce of the fruit; from the beauty and the fragrance of the flower; and in a system of morals, or of philosophy, or of whatever else, what tends to produce good we pronounce to be good, what to produce evil, we pronounce to be evil.
We are here invited to judge each philosophy by the good it does (the pleasure it confers) and the evil (suffering) it prevents. If by these simple criteria we were to judge religions and philosophies prominent today, this would help us to judge Islam, Christianity, Marxism and other worldviews in light of historical and contemporary events (including how much violence and suffering they have produced) with a lucid and sober mind. Unlike political correctness, bigotries and bias, the pain and pleasure principle are not subjective or relative. They are real, natural, observable, concrete experiences.
“I gently awaken their sleeping faculties …”
The above considerations regarding virtue and pleasure, and how (guided by nature) one must distinguish them as the means and the end, have specific repercussions on the way in which Zeno and Epicurus teach philosophy. Epicurus concedes that Stoics are virtuous as well, but the severity and gravity of Zeno is contrasted beautifully against the compassion and the sweet mellows Epicurean philosophy.
With all his weaknesses, all his errors, all his sins … I call from my Gardens to the thoughtless, the headstrong, and the idle. “Where do ye wander, and what do ye seek? Is it pleasure? Behold it here. Is it ease? Enter and repose.” Thus do I court them from the table of drunkenness and the bed of licentiousness: I gently awaken their sleeping faculties, and draw the veil from their understandings.
“My sons, do you seek pleasure? I seek her also. Let us make the search together. You have tried wine, you have tried love; you have sought amusement in revelling, and forgetfulness in indolence. You tell me you are disappointed: that your passions grew, even while you gratified them; your weariness increased even while you slept. Let us try again. Let us quiet our passions, not by gratifying but subduing them; let us conquer our weariness, not by rest, but by exertion.”
Thus do I win their ears and their confidence. Step by step I lead them on … Temperance presides at the repast; innocence, at the festival; disgust is changed to satisfaction; listlessness, to curiosity; brutality, to elegance; lust gives place to love; Bacchanalian hilarity to friendship.
The contrast here lies in Epicurean insistence of gently yielding to the good in our nature, rather than the authoritarian, repressive approach of the Stoics. This is consistent with the proper understanding of virtue as not arising from some arbitrary or authoritarian principle (such as duty) but rather as that which gives way to the most pleasant existence. Let’s call this the grassroots understanding of virtue, since it is not implemented from the top-down, but organically.
Part of how Epicurus plants the seeds of his Garden and of pleasure and virtue in the hearts of his followers is by inflaming them with love of wisdom and of philosophy, and with a sense of fraternity with each other. A Few Days in Athens describes the serene life of philosophy in the most sublime manner.
A happy life is like neither to a roaring torrent, nor a stagnant pool, but to a placid and crystal stream that flows gently and silently along.
The text goes on to list all the virtues and how they make life pleasant, and insightfully ends up recognizing the relationship that philosophy has to nature.
True, Philosophy cannot change the laws of nature; but she may teach us to accomodate to them. She cannot annul pain; but she can arm us to bear it.
This passage begins a wonderful litany in praise of philosophy and what she can do for our souls, and concludes thus:
This … is our interest and our hapiness: to seek our pleasures from the hands of the virtues, and for the pain which may befall us, to submit to it with patience, or bear up against it with fortutide. To walk … through life innocently and tranquilly: and to look on death as its gentle termination, which it becomes us to meet with ready minds, neither regretting the past, nor anxious for the future.
A Mind Free of Prejudice
It were a poor compliment to the truths I have hitherto worshipped, did I shrink from their investigation. – Theon
The final portion of the book is perhaps the most controversial and difficult part, as it contains a polemic against conventional beliefs about God and a defense of atheism. It calls for questioning religious beliefs and a blissful indifference to deity. This is the part of the book that is most reminiscent to contemporary militant atheist authors, except that here the polemic is contextualized within Epicurean discourse and it does not specifically constitute a call to atheism as much as a call to end prejudice against atheists and against atheism.
Wright’s Epicurus had to first break the ice and challenge Theon’s blind adherence to Stoic doctrines about the Gods. He begins by challenging how a belief can be considered a crime or a virtue, as this attaches merit to credulity, and furthermore attaches demerit to investigation.
If the doubt of any truth shall constitute a crime, then the belief of the same truth should constitute a virtue.
The conversation then focuses on whether the mind has the power to believe or disbelieve, at pleasure, any truths whatsoever, or whether it possesses the power of investigation. In other words, do we owe it to ourselves to investigate truth claims? Do we even hold truth in high regard? Do we arrogantly believe as we wish, regardless of facts, or of the cost to our safety or to our lives of the tenets we hold?
A prudent and fair person can here only agree that investigation is necessary and a matter of intellectual decency. Therefore, it is fair to investigate whether the Gods exist or not, and it is fair to refrain from reaching a conclusion until we can directly apprehend them. Doubt is not a crime and unjustified certainty is not a virtue.
You enquire if the doctrine we have essayed to establish, be not dangerous. I reply, not if it be true. Nothing is so dangerous as error, nothing so safe as truth.
When asked by Theon what is truth and what is the fixed basis for it, Wright’s Epicurus answers:
A truth I consider to be an ascertained fact; which truth would be changed into an error, the moment the fact on which it rested was disproved. (Truth) surely has the most fixed (basis) of all: the nature of things, and it is only an imperfect insight into that nature which occasions all our erroneous conclusions, whether in physics or morals.
This notion of how one truth leads to another truth in a chain of causation is then elaborated into a sermon on the importance of attaching ourselves to empirical evidence and to our senses and faculties, since if the senses are denied, we are “set on wrong path as false views lead to more false views”.
The point of the anti-theological sermon is that we must free our minds from prejudice and from cultural corruption. Unlike religion and cultural values, science and empirical accumulation of knowledge are free from bias.
Chapter XIV closes with the following conclusion concerning the supposed immorality of atheism, which was believed by Theon originally to be a thought-crime. After explaining that it is no crime to believe with certainty in gods, but that’s it’s unreasonnable, Wright’s Epicurus closes:
(Let) this truth remain with you: that an opinion, right or wrong, can never constitute a moral offence, nor be in itself a moral obligation. It may be mistaken; it may involve an absurdity, or a contradiction. It is a truth, or it is an error: it can never be a crime or a virtue.
Leontium then assumes the role of instructor and criticizes Plato’s ideas and how theologians and Platonists establish laws and doctrines with no input from the study of nature, leading people into error, upon which of course further error is built.
A theory is built, and all animate and inanimate nature is made to speak in its support; an hypothesis is advanced and all the mysteries of nature are treated as explained.
Here, she would be making a mockery of Mormon “archaeogists” who have journeyed in vain to the lands of the first nations in the Americas in search of proof of the people and places of the mythical Book of Mormon, just as many Christians “archaeologists” have done in the Middle East. In this manner, a mind filled with cultural corruption and prejudice will start off on false premises that are unproven, and make the findings and the evidence accomodate to their pre-established views without considering the possibility that they’re based on a fraudulent foundation.
The science of philosophy is simply a science of observation, both as regards the world without us, and the world within; and to advance in it, are requisite only sound senses, well developed and exercised faculties, and a mind free of prejudice.
In a later chapter, we find a related sermon against what we might call the god of the gaps: the filling in the spaces of our ignorance with supernatural claims, which are considered evil insofar as they are fear-based and disturb our souls with fears of hell, of death, or of wrathful and tyrannical deities, robbing us of our freedom and happiness. The questions about gods and their nature must be addressed, for they
either open our minds to knowledge of the wonders working in and around us, as our senses and faculties can attain, or close them forever with the bands of superstitions, leaving us a prey to fear, the slaves of our ungoverned imagination, wondering and trambling at every occurrence in nature, and making our existence and destiny sources of dread and mystery.
… It behooves us to see that we come with willing minds; that we say not “so far will we go and no farther; we will examine, but only so long as the result of our examination shall confirm our preconceived opinions.”
The First Cause
The didactic novel continues with Theon arguing the existence of God by citing a first cause. It is here that we find the same answer to that argument that has been used by the likes of Richard Dawkins, who asks what caused the first cause: if all things have a cause, we end up right where we started. This is an old argument.
Epicureans have always held that it has never been in evidence that something comes from nothing. All things, when they decompose, their atoms return to the elements and form new things so that although constant change is everywhere in evidence, nothing comes from nothing. The constituents of all things (the atoms) are therefore held to be eternal.
Metrodorus Calls for a Neuroscience
There is no mystery in nature … things being as they are, is no more wonderful, than it would be if they were different.
Another area where thinkers, both religious and philosophical, have frequently made spurrious claims is the nature of the mind and of consciousness. Wright’s Metrodorus bursts the bubble of mystery and awe that surrounds the human mind by proposing a materialist view and explaining that mind is a property of the living and has no existence independent of matter.
No real advances can be made in the philosophy of the mind, without a deep scrutiny into the operations of nature, or material existences. Mind being only a quality of matter, the study we call the philosophy of mind is necessarily only a branch of general physics (the study of nature).
Against Fear-Based Religion
The final portion constitutes a diatribe against religion. The argument that it’s useful and that we should consider its utilitarian benefits is refuted with the argument that the world is full of religion and full of misery and crime. The text then goes into a litany of reasons why religion is mischievous and laments the state of the men who practice fear-based religion.
His best faculties dormant; his judgment unawakened; his very senses misemployed; all his energies misdirected; trembling before the coinage of his own idle fancy; seeing over all creation a hand of tyranny extended; and instead of following virtue, worshipping power! Monstruous creation of ignorance! … Man, boasting of superior reason, of moral discrimination, imagines a being at once unjust, cruel, and inconsistent, then kissing the dust, calls himself its slave.
To fear a being on account of his power is degrading, to fear him as he be good, ridiculous.
It is here that we find a detailed elaboration of Epicurus’ Trilemma, which says:
(1) If God is unable to prevent evil, he is not omnipotent.
(2) If God is not willing to prevent evil, he is not good.
(3) If God is willing and able to prevent evil, then why is there evil?
The theologian is then invited to banish fear and doubt from his creed, for love alone can be claimed by gods or yielded by men. The problem of fear-based religion and of the vulgar notions that people have about wrathful gods who interfere in human affairs is tackled one last time on the grounds of how degrading these beliefs are to humans.
Theist! You make your god a being more weak, more silly than yourself.
The final portion closes with the argument that if a God exists, any being worthy of the name God would want us to be happy and would be concerned with its own happiness and pleasure, wishing us to focus on our own. Therefore, the conclusion of all these reasonings is that we should:
Enjoy, and be happy! Do you doubt the way? Let Epicurus be your guide. The source of every enjoyment is within yourselves. Good and evil lie before you. the good is all which can yield you pleasure; the evil, what must bring you pain. Here is no paradox, no dark saying, no moral hid in fables.
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