Book Review: The Ethics of Philodemus

The following essay is the first in a blog series that was written as a book review of The Ethics of Philodemus.

Philodemus’ Method of Studying and Cultivating the Virtues

The Ethics of Philodemus is a great introduction to the legacy of Philodemus of Gadara, who taught Epicurean philosophy to the father-in-law of Caesar during the first century in Herculaneum. He had studied under Diogenes of Sidon, who was the Scholarch of the School of Athens–an Epicurean Patriarch with direct lineage going back to Epicurus and Hermarchus. Many of his scrolls are notes that he took while studying under the Scholarch, and his legacy is the fruit of two centuries of living Epicurean tradition.

Defining the Terms

First of all, Herodotus, we must grasp the ideas attached to words, in order that we may be able to refer to them and so to judge the inferences of opinion or problems of investigation or reflection, so that we may not either leave everything uncertain and go on explaining to infinity or use words devoid of meaning. – Epicurus, in his Letter to Herodotus

Among his scrolls, we find a series of writings on the virtues and their corresponding vices. Concerning the word usually translated as virtue, one of our fellow students in the Garden of Epicurus Facebook group argued that virtue has many negative connotations, as it’s tied to Christian ideas of morality, and since Christianity is at war with the body and sexuality and pleasure, this may be an inadequate word to use today. According to Wikipedia,

Arete (Greek: ἀρετή), in its basic sense, means “excellence” of any kind. The term may also mean “moral virtue”. In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one’s full potential.

The correct Epicurean understanding of the virtues (aretai, meaning excellences) involves them being not ends in themselves, but means to a life of pleasure. Since Epicurus taught that we should use words as commonly used, I will henceforward use the term excellences for the sake of clarity.

Efficient Means to Pleasure

It’s important not to confuse the means for the end, but–as we will see–disregarding the means is as much of a mistake as confusing the ends. The excellences are important for a happy life (insofar as they relate to our dispositions and habits), and must be properly studied and understood. This is what Epicurus has to say of them:

Prudence is more valuable than philosophy and is the source of every other excellence, teaching us that it is not possible to live pleasantly without also living wisely and nobly and justly, nor to live wisely and nobly and justly without living pleasantly. For the excellences grow up together with the pleasant life, and the pleasant life is inseparable from them. – Epicurus, in his Letter to Menoeceus

Tsouna helps us to understand the ways in which the excellences grow together in the soul. Habits (both bad ones and good ones, that is: vices and virtues) grow and dwell together in the soul because they’re based on the same cognitive basis. They imply interconnected dispositions and traits that are based on false beliefs (in the case of vices, or bad habits) or true beliefs (in the case of virtues). In this manner, the Epicurean conception of vices and virtues sees them both as based on the study of nature. The main insight that Tsouna gives us about them helps to explain the ways in which, according to the Letter to Menoeceus, they “grow together” in the soul.

Philodemus repeatedly suggests that false beliefs tend to form clusters, and the same holds for the harmful emotions to which they give rise. – Voula Tsouna in The Ethics of Philodemus, page 280, note 138.

Emotions, according the the Epicureans, have a cognitive component. We feel (rightly or not) that we were wronged, so we feel anger. Or we may believe that our happiness depends on matching the level of wealth, beauty, or achievement of our neighbors, and struggle constantly to fit a mold that we do not fit–and this may inspire envy, or ill-intention towards our neighbors. Or we believe that fame or status will lead to a happy life, and this may inform many of our actions–and a sense of inferiority.

On the other hand, accurately believing that what is naturally good, is easy to get, produces a feeling of gratitude and pleasure, and greater confidence in our ability to be self-sufficient. This self-sufficiency creates a virtuous cycle, because it renders us less vulnerable to both fate and harm from others.

Philodemus believes vicious people are irrational and lack self awareness. They can’t explain their attitudes on adequate grounds. This is to say, since (as we have seen) the emotions have a cognitive component, the passions / emotions can be irrational, and that they are in fact irrational in vicious people. People who exhibit the excellences (virtuous people) exhibit rational emotions.

The Mother of the Excellences

Now, as we saw in the Epistle to Menoeceus, since Prudence secures other excellences, and is essential for our hedonic calculus, it occupies a higher place in Epicurean ethics that the other excellences. In the Epistle to Menoeceus, Prudence (or practical wisdom) is named as the mother of all the virtues. Also, according to Principal Doctrine 27,

Of all the things that wisdom provides for the complete happiness of one’s entire life, by far the greatest is friendship.

ὧν ἡ σοφία παρασκευάζεται εἰς τὴν τοῦ ὅλου βίου μακαριότητα πολὺ μέγιστόν ἐστιν ἡ τῆς φιλίας κτῆσις.

Here, Epicurus uses wisdom (sofía) rather than practical wisdom (fronesis). So we see that Epicurus saw Wisdom and/or Prudence (the practice of which is philosophy) as the procurer, the mother of all the means to happiness. Implicit in this Principal Doctrine is the view that people who lack friends, also lack prudence. We are beginning to see the excellences as Philodemus sees them: he has a symptomatic and empirical approach. He sees a good or bad habit, names it, and infers the underlying beliefs that inhabit the soul of the individual. Philodemus studies individuals’ characters, paying attention to the causes of pleasures and desires, to the causal relations between them, the dispositions and the habits that are in evidence.

In addition to this empirical approach, and also in order to not confuse the means for the ends, we must pay attention to the progression that we see in the sources from wisdom/prudence > to the virtues > to the pleasures, and henceforward, in order to speak clearly, avoid abstractions and stay connected with nature, we should speak of specific Epicurean virtues and of concrete instances of pleasant actions and states/dispositions which make up the pleasant life.

The book The Ethics of Philodemus mentions that there is a causal relation between the true virtues and the Epicurean pleasures, and between the virtues with each other. In other words, we as moral agents become the cause of our own happiness by employing them in our art of living and in our choices and avoidances. This causal relation is mentioned as “sowing seeds” in some Philodeman sources. For instance, he compares the things that we do for our friends and the sacrifices we suffer for their sake to “sowing seeds”. Let’s keep this in mind as we study Philodemus.

We may think of the psychological or hedonic utility of each excellence in terms of what pleasures it secures or causes. In his Epistle to Menoeceus, Epicurus mentions three categories of the necessary pleasures: for health, for happiness, and for life itself. Insofar as excellences lead to these goods, they are necessary, and we begin to see why they must grow together with the pleasant life.

The rational pursuit of pleasure can be conducted only with the aid of the virtues. – Voula Tsouna

Epicurus: the Physician of the Soul

Philosophy that does not heal the soul is no better than medicine that does not heal the body. – Epicurus

Physicians make the best philosophers. – Julien Offray de la Mettrie

As we’ve seen, Philodemus’ approach to the dis-eases of the soul was pragmatic: he observed the patient, inferred by means of signs, and gave a diagnosis. This is the method of the empiric school of medicine in ancient Greece, which strongly influenced the Epicurean approach to ethics: based on signs (semeion), they proceed from the visible to the invisible.

As part of this approach, Philodemus (and, presumably, Diogenes of Sidon and his circle) relied on medical records or histories (istoría) that had been kept on previous patients of Epicurean philosophy. These histories are mentioned in the scroll On frank criticism (Peri Parrhesias), and contain records of the treatment of vices and irrational passions by early authorities of the school, using the Epicurean method. The text cites Cleanthes and Metrodorus as two important sources for these histories. It’s safe to infer that Philodemus’ discussions of the vices and their opposing virtues were based, to some extent, on elaborations of these initial histories, and continued record-keeping following their methodology.

Finally, we must connect the “philosophy as medicine” approach to Epicurus’ sermon On Moral Development, where he discusses his materialist theory of moral development based on neuroplasticity. He said that, initially, we all carry our own constitution, and that some individuals are more malleable or changeable than others. But as we mature, we become causally responsible for the content of our characters up to the point where, through habituation, we change the atomic / physical structure of the brain. Epicurus’ theory of moral development is incredibly optimistic and imbued with very high and noble expectations, and helps to explain the salvific power of Epicurean philosophy: we must gently (by challenging our false views and habits, and nurturing wholesome ones) transform our very nature. If redemption from the vices was impossible, there would be no point in studying philosophy.

Let us now take a closer look at the excellences from the theoretical framework described above.

Prudence

Practical wisdom is essential for carrying out our choices and avoidances (hedonic calculus), and helps us to discern excellent habits from bad habits (vices), and to procure the means to a happy life.

Discipline

We must not violate nature, but obey her; and we shall obey her if we fulfil those desires that are necessary, and also those that are natural but bring no harm to us, but we must sternly reject those that are harmful. – Vatican Saying 21

Moderation or discipline opposes laziness, and this excellence helps us to achieve autarchy / self sufficiency, responsibility, and moral maturity. It also protects us from many annoyances or disadvantages linked to poverty, scarcity, illness (by helping us enjoy a healthy diet), and protects us from any potential embarrassments of educational or professional under-achievement, and–as we see in the above quote–discipline is necessary if we are to reject harmful desires.

Courage

This excellence is tied to protection and safety (a natural and necessary desire), and to the sixth Principal Doctrine:

In order to obtain security from other people any means whatever of procuring this was a natural good.

Courage is also sometimes necessary to preserve our friendships or protect our friends. Vatican Saying 28 says that we must run risks for the sake of friendship.

Justice

The just man is most free from disturbance, while the unjust is full of the utmost disturbance. – Vatican Saying 12

VS 12 argues that justice is tied to a certain wholesome and pleasant disposition that involves peace of mind and having a clear conscience: in other words, innocence.

In the Principal Doctrines, we see that justice is tied to the execution of what is of mutual benefit, and one of the Vatican Sayings says that “friendship initially starts as mutual benefit“–naturally, it would be difficult to befriend someone who takes advantage of us but does not produce any advantage for us, or whose relation brings mutual disadvantage. If one person is exploiting the other, there is no true friendship. Also, if a person is evil, it is difficult to acquire a friendly disposition towards that person: there must be some redeeming qualities in a person in order for friendship to emerge. A greater degree of innocence means that a person is more likely to be a loyal and trustworthy friend. Friendship is likely to occur between people who are just to each other, because it starts from mutual advantage. Justice and friendliness are two of the excellences that “grow together with pleasure” in our soul. It is commonly understood that we develop a good (or bad) character by associating with wholesome (or evil) friends and loved ones.

Autarchy

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

The greatest fruit of self-sufficiency is freedom. – Vatican Saying 77

Self-sufficiency (or, autarchy) is cited as one of the key excellences exhibited by both Epicurus and Metrodorus. It’s linked to maturity and developed character. It protects us from neediness and from lacking any of the things we need to live pleasantly. It also gives confidence. A person who is self-sufficient does not need the approval of strangers or of the masses. This excellence accompanies, and may be a pre-requisite for, generosity towards one’s friends.

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

Gratitude

The ungrateful greed of the soul makes the creature everlastingly desire varieties of in its lifestyle. – Vatican Saying 69

Without gratitude, it’s impossible to profit from Epicurean doctrines. Various sayings criticize the ungrateful person. One who accurately understands the limits set by nature to our desires, understands also how they justify our gratefulness. One Epicurean fragment says:

We are grateful to nature because she made the necessary things easy to procure, and the things that are difficult to acquire, she made them unnecessary.

Also, gratitude is a pleasant disposition that has psychosomatic benefits. It leads to both health and happiness, both of which natural and necessary goods. There are studies that link a grateful disposition to increased happiness and to health benefits, like greater quality of sleep and improvement in bodily and psychological health. Gratitude also strengthens friendships by producing gifts-exchanges and other concrete tokens of gratefulness to our friends in the form of words of advice and sharing of important experiences with them, while ungrateful people risk losing friends.

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 Saying 43

Gratitude is part of a cluster of healthy beliefs and habits, and is opposed by a cluster of bad ones. It has to do with our understanding of how much we need to be happy. Philodemus says that the self-sufficiency person feels a lesser degree of gratitude, because he does not feel that he needs the benefits of others. When we allow vain desires to settle in our character, one of the opposing moral ailments of gratitude and contentment, is envy, which involves comparing our happiness to that of others and the view that externals determine our happiness. Envy is an irrational disposition, or vice.

We must envy no one, for the good do not deserve envy and the bad, the more they prosper, the more they injure themselves. – Vatican Saying 53

Gratitude also helps us enjoy a complete life and has therapeutic value. The practice of grateful recollection of past pleasures is an important part of the hedonic regimen that Epicurus recommends:

The saying, “look to the end of a long life,” shows ungratefulness for past good fortune. – Vatican Saying 75

We must heal our misfortunes by the grateful recollection of what has been and by the recognition that it is impossible to undo that which has been done. – Vatican Saying 55

In pages 77 and 121 of Ethics of Philodemus, Tsouna describes one example of a treatment for ingratitude from Philodemus’ scrolls. It consisted on reading certain writings aloud (possibly the ones shared above), and an assignment that consisted of composing a speech against ingratitude.

Suavity

The excellence of gentle and kind speech (suavity) one of the main virtues by which ancient Epicureans were known. This tells us that part of the curriculum in human values that people learned in the Garden involved learning how to communicate. Sweet speech is intended to help us avoid hurting the feelings of others while administering the medicine of frank criticism–therefore it’s tied to both friendship and eloquence. The opposing vices would be harsh speech (a tendency to insult) and vulgarity.

Adaptability

This is the cardinal virtue of Aristippus of Cyrene, the inventor of pleasure ethics. It can be taken to an extreme. For instance, he was so willing to adapt to the association of the tyrant Dionysus, that he frequently allowed him to mistreat and abuse him. Most of us would probably limit our adaptability in cases where our self-respect suffers. However, adaptability may help us to find opportunities to have pleasant experiences and to avoid pain in most circumstances and help us to live pleasantly.

The opposing vice would be hard-headedness and inflexibility, which make it difficult for us to evolve and change. This reminds us of Epicurus’ mention (in On moral development) of malleability as a necessary quality for someone who wishes to develop his character.

Adaptability relates to social relations by helping us to give up the idea of absolute justice: in the last ten Principal Doctrines, we learn that there is no such thing, and that justice varies, changes, and is related to whatever is of mutual advantage in any given situation. An adaptable person is teachable, and is better able to see reality as it is, as relative.

Pride / Dignity

I include pride among the virtues because it refers to one who is magnanimous or a good person and knows his or her self-worth–but perhaps in modern English parlance, this virtue might be best expressed as dignity or a dignified demeanor or disposition. The opposing vices are self-loathing on one extreme, and arrogance on the other extreme.

While pride implies an accurate assessment of our sense worth, arrogance implies a sense of entitlement that far exceeds what one deserves. It affects cooperation and mutual respect between individuals, and ergo affects the social fabric, and produces misanthropy in general. Arrogant people are often incapable and unwilling to work with others for a common goal. Philodemus says that arrogant people lack self awareness, are irrational, and live a friendless life.

The study of nature does not make men productive of boasting or bragging nor apt to display that culture which is the object of rivalry with the many, but high-spirited and self-sufficient, taking pride in the good things of their own minds and not of their circumstances. – Vatican Saying 45

In order to be a virtue, pride must concern itself with our own actions, achievements and qualities, and not on the accidents of fate or of nature because, as Epicurus says in his Epistle to Menoeceus, “our own actions are free, and it is to them that praise and blame naturally attach“.

Arrogant people frequently take “pride” in things for which they had no causal responsibility, ergo their pride is unnatural and based on false views. People who deny that luck is blind (like many Stoics, Jews, Muslims, and Christians) risk falling into these false views when they believe that “God blesses” his chosen; this leads them to favor arbitrary judgement rather than one based on causal responsibility, and it also leads to and justifies having no pity or compassion for those who are unfortunate. Furthermore, arrogant people are hard to change because they don’t see the need for change.

Epicurus’ treatment of women and slaves as intellectual equals is an example of the non-arrogant sage who is yet proud and dignified, and who honors the dignity of others.

Further Reading:

Philodemus’ On Arrogance

Cheerfulness

We must laugh and philosophize at the same time and do our household duties and employ our other faculties, and never cease proclaiming the sayings of the true philosophy. – Vatican Saying 41

According to the above saying, in the study of Epicurean philosophy, if we’re not enjoying ourselves we’re not doing it right. Cheerfulness was the cardinal virtue of Democritus, the first of the “laughing philosophers” and the first atomist, and therefore an intellectual ancestor of Epicurus. Epicurus obviously adopted this excellence, but chose ataraxia as his cardinal virtue. The reasons for this may have to do with the importance he placed on our mental dispositions, as made evident by Principal Doctrine 20.

Ataraxia

The man who is serene causes no disturbance to himself or to another. – Vatican Saying 79

For Philodemus, thymos is a habitual / dispositional anger blown out of proportion: the vice of irascibility, an irrational excess of anger. The opposite virtue is even temper, peace of mind. There is also the problem of anxiety or angst (agonia, in Greek). Against these problems, we have the fearless imperturbability and peace of mind that we know as ataraxia, by which one may sculpt one’s soul as a refuge of tranquility.

This excellence is linked to autarchy insofar as a truly self-sufficient person is protected from unlimited, vain and empty desires. Therefore, autarchy has a causal relationship with ataraxia, and a contented mind that is always at ease also makes it easier to secure self-sufficiency:

The disturbance of the soul cannot be ended nor true joy created either by the possession of the greatest wealth or by honor and respect in the eyes of the mob or by anything else that is associated with or caused by unlimited desire. – Vatican Saying 81

This connection between self-sufficiency and our peace of mind, I believe, accentuates the importance of accepting both active and passive pleasures into our hedonic regimen. If we only accept kinetic (moving) pleasures, we will always have to chase external goods that will furnish our pleasure, but if we accept katastematic (abiding, or attitudinal) pleasures, then it naturally follows that we will cultivate certain dispositions and gain greater self-sufficiency in our pleasure.

Further Reading:
Philodemus’ On Anger

Good Will

In the scrolls by Philodemus, we find the word eunoia (good will, benevolence) as the opposite virtue of ill will (which carries suspicion, envy, malicious joy, and other unwholesome emotions based on empty beliefs). Good will is a disposition that characterizes relations between philosopher friends, and leads to gratitude and favors between them.

On envy and malicious joy, Philodemus says that these are bestial conditions, that they are tied to ungratefulness and lead to theft. These passions are tied to the false belief that externals are needed for happiness. Philodemus’ strategy to avoid malicious joy is to never indulge it.

We see examples of malicious joy today in gossip shows, in conflicts between religious fanatics where they exhibit joy at each other’s suffering and that of others whom they are taught to hate (the “God Hates Fags” movement, conflicts between Jews and Palestinians, etc.). We see it frequently in attitudes related to tribalism. If we survey a few examples of malicious joy, it’s not difficult to see why Philodemus calls this vice a bestial condition, and the ways in which it relates to false views, to superstition and arrogance.

Naturalness

The highest good is like water. Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive. It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao. – Tao Te Ching, Chapter 8

While the virtue of authenticity is most celebrated in the tradition of Existentialism, in Epicurean philosophy we do find frequent references to naturalness: an un-forced manner of living which reminds us of authenticity. Tsouna is not the first to note the ambiguity of the term “natural” as used by the Epicureans, and the need to clarify it. In page 224, note 93 of The Ethics of Philodemus, we find:

Zeno of Sidon (Epicurean Scholarch or Patriarch of the School of the First Century) and his entourage had explored (the ambiguities deriving from different senses of the term “natural”) … Man is said to be “by nature” a procurer of food, because he does this by unperverted instinct; “by nature” susceptible to pain because he is so by compulsion; “by nature” to pursue virtue, because he does it to his own advantage … According to Demetrius of Laconia, the expression “by nature” in Epicurus’ statement does not mean without perversion or distortion, but freely, without compulsion or force.

It’s possible that Demetrius said this because other Epicureans were arguing that naturalness is opposed to perversion (by culture, by upbringing, or by association?), and it’s possible that these other Epicureans were on to something. PD 15 is one of the sources that also refers to “natural” (wealth) versus empty wealth. Here, that which is natural is described as having a limit and being easy to procure.

Nature’s wealth at once has its bounds and is easy to procure; but the wealth of vain fancies recedes to an infinite distance. – Principal Doctrine 15

In this case, as in the case of the saying that “we do not the appearance of health but true health”, naturalness is tied to not being presumptuous and not feigning a certain disposition or state for the sake of public opinion. I compare this virtue of Epicurean authenticity with the Taoist virtue known as ziran, which most often gets translated as naturalness.

Based on what we’ve read, there are various ways in which something may be natural: it may be unforced or uncompelled; it may be advantageous; it may be sound, based on correct views and a correct assessment of relevant factors; and according to Philodemus, it may be an unperverted reaction to intentional offense. In any case, it makes sense that a philosophy of freedom would promote this kind of naturalness and authenticity.

Further Reading:

Ziran (Wikipedia)

Ziran (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Mindfulness

It occurs to me that there may be ethical problems today that the ancients did not think about, and maybe we could brainstorm modern “therapies” for these bad habits. I’m particularly thinking about: is there a therapy for short attention span? With so much instant gratification, so much media, and handheld phones trying to grab our attention all day every day, it would be beneficial to have practices that help us cultivate the benefits of focus.

If attentiveness or mindfulness is seen as a virtue, then absent-mindedness would be the disease it’s attempting to heal. There’s precedent for mindfulness practice in pleasure ethics: Aristippus taught his disciples a practice known as presentism, which involved being present to the pleasures available here and now. Epicurus later added reminiscing about past pleasures and anticipating future ones, but it would be an interesting experiment to revitalize some form of this practice of presentism, and to incorporate it as part of our hedonic regimen. Furthermore, the practice of presentism would help us to avoid postponing our happiness, which is one of the problems that Epicurus wanted to protect his disciples from:

We are born only once and cannot be born twice, and must forever live no more. You don’t control tomorrow, yet you postpone joy. Life is ruined by putting things off, and each of us dies without truly living. – Vatican Saying 14

If we find ourselves frequently postponing pleasure, and take VS 14 seriously, a practice that frequently reminds us to be mindful of, and thankful for, the present pleasures might help us to develop new habits that help us savor life. It could be a zen-like practice of abiding attentively in the here and now, or the chanting of this Vatican Saying like a mantra, or any other efficient means that helps us to cultivate a presence in the midst of the pleasures that are available.

Why Is This Information Vital?

The ways in which these excellences cause and influence each other, and “grow together with the pleasant life” as we have seen above, should demonstrate some of the reasons for their importance. But there are several other ways of thinking about the importance of the virtues in Epicurean philosophy: if Epicurus says that philosophy that does not heal the soul is no better than medicine that does not heal the body, then we may consider his teachings in terms of what dis-eases are being treated by the Epicurean doctrines. This helps us to understand the importance of studying philosophy for our happiness.

Studying the particular virtues also helps us to gain clarity regarding why we have chosen our values, and in what way they help us to live pleasantly. They may also help us in our process of choosing and avoiding.

Another way to consider the Epicurean doctrines concerning the excellences is by asking ourselves: What happens if we remove these virtues? From what we have seen, due to their habitual nature and their basis on true beliefs, excellences do not exist in isolation in our soul. The study of Philodemus’ approach to the excellences helps us to see the ways in which they “grow together with the pleasant life”, as Epicurus says in his Letter to Menoeceus. This is because many of these habits and attitudes (as well as their opposing vices) are based on particular beliefs concerning whether we need externals for happiness, or whether the happiness or suffering of strangers affects our own, etc. So if an individual lacks certain virtues, this shows inconsistencies in his or her adherence to some aspect of Epicurean philosophy.

It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and nobly and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and nobly and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the person is not able to live wisely, though he lives well and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life. – Principal Doctrine 5

One final note concerning our discussion of the Epicurean virtues concerns the reason why many of us came to the study of Epicurus in the first place: as traditional religion becomes obsolete, people look to more authentic ways of living, and for models of morality that do not depend on superstition. The Epicurean approach to moral development is based on the study of nature. It is empirical and does not require belief in the supernatural. In this manner, it addresses the inherited false belief that morality requires religion, or that it only derives from being religious–and that, therefore, non-religious people can’t be excellent (virtuous), or happy, or good. Epicurean philosophy posits a theory of moral development that is not only mature and pragmatic, but also based on the study of nature (which is to say: reality). For all these reasons, it deserves to be studied attentively.

On Frankness and On Conversation

Frank Criticism as a Virtue

Since Epicureanism is a philosophy of friendship, frank criticism (parrhesia) is a crucial excellence. It is one of the defining features of Epicurean friendship, and stands opposed to the practice of flattering / wanting to please others mindlessly, and of lying–which often betrays a lack of commitment with the happiness and character development of our friends.

It’s also of great importance for hedonic calculus and to have our grievances heard in all our relations, and for conflict resolution, properly understood. If we are too reserved or shy to voice our grievances, a true and mature form of friendship will not flourish.

Philodemus taught that philosophy heals the character through frank criticism, so there are medicinal powers tied to frankness.

The Histories

In page 101 of The Ethics of Philodemus, we find mention of a book or series of books, lost to us, titled istoria (The Histories). The original source for this is Philodemus’ scroll On Frank Criticism (Peri Parrhesias), fragment Vb 8-9. Here, we gain knowledge about reports that were gathered by the previous Epicureans, beginning with the founders (Metrodorus is mentioned), on their techniques used to heal the vices of philosophy students. It seems like these “Histories” detailed the symptoms and diagnoses, and the types of therapeutic techniques that were used in each case.

That these Histories were preserved must be interpreted to mean that they were meant for posterity, so that future generations of Epicureans would have a deposit of information about character development, what often works and what doesn’t, etc.

In note 56 of page 116 of The Ethics of Philodemus, we find this from Voula Tsouna:

It seems that Cleanthes and Metrodorus are figures whom professors with a tougher disposition strive to emulate. ‘Regarding their teaching both in the present and in the past, they shall not differ [in any way] from Cleanthes and Metrodorus–for it is obvious that the one in authority will use more abundant frankness. Besides, [after some more] time, when they have gained knowledge of more cases than others who haven’t, they will use more parrhesia regarding these types of cases than those other teachers’ (On frank criticism, Fragment Vb. 1-12)

Here, Philodemus says that those in authority use more frankness, and that in this they learn from Metrodorus and Cleanthes (we must surmise that this is because they are inspired in these Histories which recorded the previous treatments offered by the School).

On Conversation

The Ethics of Philodemus mentions a scroll that I have not seen elsewhere and have not had access to. It’s titled Peri Omilias (On conversations), and also known as PHerc 873.

This scroll asks: “What is inappropriate speech, and what is appropriate speech“? Right speech is found mainly among Epicurean friends, promotes its ideals, includes parrhesia (frankness), the study of nature, and acts of sight and intellect (by which I assume is meant the feast of the 20th, the enjoyment of friendship and other pleasant activities). Philodemus says that a sage’s speech is pleasant and his conversations reflect his happy and tranquil state of mind.

Bad speech occurs in bad society and cultivates vice.

Interestingly, just as with wealth, with community, and with desires, we learn that there’s a limit to conversation (omilias perasThe Ethics of Philodemus, page 122). Philodemus teaches various tactics of speech, and praises selective silence: we must know when to speak and when not to. The “silent treatment” was a thing. Silent was an efficient tool in parrhesia and friendship. We don’t have enough in our sources to know every detail of the entire context behind this, but we can imagine that silence can be a great virtue if applied in cases where gossip or empty desires are being indulged in, or when a student asks an imprudent question.

The Epicureans paid great importance to clear and concise, unadorned communication, as this is important both in philosophy and in friendship. The following are some additional sources on the subject.

Further Reading:
Reasonings About Philodemus’ Rhetorica
Philodemus: On Frank Criticism (Discussion here)
As the Ancient Greeks knew, frankness is an essential virtue

Moral Portraiture and Seeing Before the Eyes

In short, whom do you consider better than someone who holds pious opinions about the gods, who is always fearless in the face of death, who has reasoned out the natural goal of life, and who has understood that the limit of good things is easy to fulfill and easy to achieve, whereas the limit of bad things is either short-lived or causes little pain? Someone who laughs at destiny, which is asserted by some to be the master of all things? – Epicurus, in his Epistle to Menoeceus

The practice of depicting the sage in detail–his attitudes, his demeanor, his opinions–is a positive version of the therapeutic practice of “seeing before the eyes”, which Philodemus uses for the treatment of vices like arrogance and anger. In those cases, he confronts the patient with visuals of the negative repercussions of continuing his behavior in order to discourage his bad behavior and encourage him on his path to moral development. In the case of depicting the sage, he is presenting him with a role model that he may emulate. In at least one of the surviving sayings, we learn that this practice of contemplating and praising the sage helps us to construct our own character and produces pleasure and other benefits in our souls.

The veneration of the wise man is a great blessing to those who venerate him. Vatican Saying 32

One way to consider this is to remember that everyone admires and praises others according to their own qualities. Frivolous people admire and praise frivolous role models. Evil or authoritarian people admire and praise evil and authoritarian leaders. Similarly, people who aspire to cultivate wisdom and pleasure, should admire and praise sages who embody those qualities. Whom we admire says a lot about our values and our character.

According to the book The Sculpted Word, the depiction of the sage in sculpture was used in the passive model of recruitment of new students. Not much has been written about Epicurean aesthetics, but we know that the patroness of the Epicurean Garden, the goddess Venus Urania, is the patroness of the arts, in addition to being the embodiment of Pleasure. If we follow the theory of recruitment found in The Sculpted Word, we find that art may at times have an important place and a therapeutic use in Epicurean philosophy. This resonates with Michel Onfray’s arguments against nihilistic art, where he calls instead for art that creates values.

In The Ethics of Philodemus, Tsouna makes an important clarification regarding the practice of seeing before the eyes. As we saw earlier in our book review, our emotions have a cognitive component, and our beliefs have causal relation with our feelings. For instance, in Principal Doctrine 29, we see that Epicurus classifies desires as natural or empty based on the kinds of beliefs they are based on: unnatural and unnecessary desires are said to be vain and empty, and to arise from groundless opinion.

For this reason, Philodemus argued that both the emotional and cognitive components of our vices need treatment, if we are to successfully overcome our vices and cultivate instead excellence of character. We need to challenge our false beliefs with arguments, but we need to also arouse the emotions. If we only attack the belief component that underlies our behavior without provoking the emotions, the learning may not be very strong in our souls, and the character may not be fully reformed. There’s also the danger that our “reform” may be insincere if we only talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. For instance, Philodemus criticizes those who censure but do little else about their bad habits.

While searching through the early Epicurean sources, I found this example of the founders encouraging us to bring forth indignation out of our emotional reserve as part of our arsenal of weapons against the vices:

Let us utterly drive from us our bad habits as if they were evil men who have long done us great harm. – Vatican Saying 46

It is clear that this is meant to encourage us not just to reform our beliefs, but also to be more fully and emotionally engaged in the project of moral reform. Like evil men who have abused us for a long time, our vices deserve our animosity and anger. They are enemies inside the gates. Therefore, this source appears to side with Philodemus (and also with Sextus Empiricus), who argued that philosophy heals and secures the happy life by means of reasoning and arguments–but that we also need to employ our feelings in the therapeutic process in order to treat both the cognitive and the emotional component.

“Seeing before the eyes” is meant to awaken and recruit our feelings against our vices and in favor of the excellences. In his scroll On anger, XXVIII, 5-40), Philodemus uses this technique to demonstrate how harmful the vice of irascibility (chronic rage) can be:

(Chronic ire compels you to) strive for victory, give pain, disparage people, and do many other unpleasant things. And when it escalates, it also becomes a cause of misanthropy and sometimes even of injustice, since neither juryman nor council member nor … any human being can every be just if governed by angry feelings. Moreover, for reasons that are easy to see, people who have it must also become despotic, suspicious of evil, liars, illiberal, sneaky, underhanded, ungrateful, and self-centered … They get no taste of goods throughout their lives, that is, the goods that derive from taking things easy in acceptable ways, as well as from mildness of manner and deep understanding.

Here, Philodemus reminds the patient who suffers from chronic ire of both the evils he may cause and of the goods he may be evading. By confronting the patient with these dangers, the technique means to incite a sincere reform of character.

Notice a few things: this exercise helps us to move from abstract theory to concrete reality. It’s also a great example of how a secular philosophy can help us in character development and virtue for sake of a life of pleasure, and not for the sake of virtue or to appease a supernatural being. This practice is also pragmatic in that it aids us in carrying out hedonic calculus. The philosopher who is imparting the medicine is saying: “Do you REALLY think you will get more pleasure if you keep acting this way?

In page 206 of The Ethics of Philodemus, Philodemus catalogues what images should be part of the “placing before the eyes” practice:

Philodemus describes them as “things that the patient is totally ignorant of, others that he has come to forget, others that he has not calculated at least in respect of their magnitude if not in respect of anything else, yet others that he has never contemplated altogether. The good philosophers depict all these evils even if with moderation emphasize that it is within the patient’s power to avoid them, and sketch the way in which we might least experience angry feelings”.

Further Reading:

The Sculpted Word: Epicureanism and Philosophical Recruitment in Ancient Greece

Against Maximalism

Epicurean sources make frequent mention of the natural limits of desires. This teaching is meant to help us cultivate a mind that has an accurate understanding of how much is enough, and is therefore satisfied, content and grateful. ‪Both minimalism (see Vatican Saying 63) and maximalism (see Principal Doctrine 15, and Vatican Sayings 22, 25, 59, 67-69) are problematic in Epicurean philosophy. ‬

‪Maximalist thinking leads to the search for unattainable objects of desire and to the inability to feel any pleasure at all. – Voula Tsouna

In page 235, note 114 of The Ethics of Philodemus, we find the following:

Philodemus ad hominem argument may indicate that his opponents are maximalists: self indulgence like theirs could justify anything.

Principal Doctrine 21 mentions the idea of “a complete life” (βίον παντελῆ), which Tsouna relates to the problem of maximalism.

He who understands the limits of life knows how easy it is to procure enough to remove the pain of want and make the whole of life complete and perfect. Hence he has no longer any need of things which are not to be won save by labor and conflict.

What does this “complete and perfect life” consist of? This is where philosophers will consider the impact of length of life in one’s happiness, and how important it may be to achieve one’s plans before dying. 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. Vatican Saying 14 advises against postponing our happiness, and Principal Doctrine 9 argues against the view that we can condense pleasures in time or space. The idea is to be present to the pleasures that nature makes easily available: here and now, somewhere in our minds and bodies, we are able to experience some form of pleasure.

Perhaps the worst case of maximalism today can be seen in the transhumanists who desire immortality. PD 21 says that we must understand the limits set by nature in order to secure the complete life. The author of The Ethics of Philodemus does make one concession in page 262, in honor of this idea of “the complete life”, which still requires a clear definition.

One might wonder whether the attitude of Philodemus and, generally, of the Epicureans towards will-writing may not indicate some concern after all for the narrative model of the complete life.

Both Epicurus and Diogenes of Oenoanda expressed concern about their legacy towards the end of their lives. This may be indicative that some measure of leaving a legacy is a natural part of a complete life and (insofar as it’s not difficult to acquire) a natural pleasure, and does not exceed into maximalist terrain.

Philodemus’ Economics

I wish to conclude my book review of The Ethics of Philodemus with a critical look at Philodemus. He and his teacher Zeno of Sidon, and their group, argued frequently against other schools, and against Epicureans who held different views from their own. There were several Epicurean factions. The sources mention at least two factions: the rhetors (who elaborated on the doctrine, mainly inspired by their discussions with other Schools) and the orthodox (who stuck to memorizing the sources). Philodemus claimed orthodoxy by making frequent appeals to the authority of the four founders, but also engaged in these debates.

Since Zeno of Sidon was a Scholarch of Athens of direct lineage to Epicurus and Hermarchus, he is likely to have preserved the most loyal interpretation of Epicureanism … but this is not to say that other Epicurean groups didn’t have legitimate arguments to offer which did not survive in the sources, or indirectly by being criticized in the Herculaneum scrolls. It’s also true that Zeno of Sidon was the successor of Apollodoros, the “Tyrant of the Garden”, and that much of Zeno’s work involved rebelling against the excessive authoritarianism of his predecessor (which may have been necessary in order to protect the Garden and its finances). We know that Zeno was tolerant, friendly, greatly admired, and welcomed Stoics and other non-Epicureans into the Garden to study philosophy together–this may be part of his effort to reject the authoritarianism of Apollodoros.

The subject of economics is the best place for a critical view of Philodemus.

The first criticism of Philodemus has to do with his categorical statement in his scroll On the art of property management, that “the philosopher does not toil“–which seems impractical, except in the case of the very wealthy Romans whom he was teaching. Few people have this privilege to not toil. This odd statement depicts Epicureanism as an exclusive sect for the elite, which it most certainly wasn’t at its inception.

It’s impossible to abstain from toils. In fact, Philodemus himself cites Metrodorus’ arguments concerning how hedonic calculus must be applied (and sometimes we must go through certain disadvantages for the sake of greater advantages). Here, Metrodorus (the co-founder of Epicureanism) contradicts Philodemus’ statement that the philosopher does not toil. He says that wealth, health, and friendship involve toil, but that this toil is worth pursuing because we will suffer greatly without these goods. The philosopher will toil for the sake of greater pleasures, or to avoid great disadvantages.

One other small critique of Philodemus that I must accept, as someone who has been promoting and writing books on Epicureanism for many years, is that he says that making money from teaching philosophy is the ideal way to make a living … but how many people can really do this? I know of no one who can do this, at least in our day.

While we all agree that the best life is free from toil, the question is HOW can we achieve this? This is a great, and interesting, moral challenge.

One additional note concerning the study of Philodemus’ scroll on the art of property management comes from one of the newest members of SoFE: Marcus reminds us that it’s important to keep in mind that Philodemus’ target audience was the aristocracy of the late Roman Republic. He says:

I found this short video about the Roman patronage system which is good background to understanding Philodemus’ on wealth and property management.

Concerning the utility of wealth, Philodemus says we shouldn’t reject whatever wealth we may get as useless. A natural measure of wealth is clearly preferable to poverty–but the superiority of wealth is practical, not moral. He argues that the Epicurean philosopher does not need to be an expert in management or economics, however personal sovereignty requires that we learn this skill to some extent. Philodemus adds an ethical dimension to it. He worries about our disposition (diathesis) and about issues of hedonic calculus as they relate to the management of our estate: How do you manage your property and home while living ethically and without sacrificing your happiness?

One final critique that we must accept about Philodemus of Gadara is that he seems, to an extent greater than most people do today, okay with the selfish exploitation of others (slavery was normal in his society). However, I’ve always appreciated that Epicurean economics posits a sustainable capitalism that emphasizes the limits of our desires, and therefore it’s a capitalism that is somewhat self-critical, and against excess. This is a necessary antidote to what we see today, particularly in the US. I believe Epicurean philosophy, in this manner, represents a very healthy defense of classical liberal Western values.

This essay concludes my five-part review of The Ethics of Philodemus, by Voula Tsouna. If you’ve enjoyed this content, please consider supporting me on patreon either once or monthly. Content creation is time-consuming, so I do not yet offer any special perks to my patreon subscribers, but it boosts my morale, and it helps support both this website and the teaching mission of the Epicurean Gardens.

Further Reading:

The Ethics of Philodemus

The Epicurean Doctrines on Wealth

Author: hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014), 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and Epicurus of Samos – His Philosophy and Life: All the principal Classical texts Compiled and Introduced by Hiram Crespo (Ukemi Audiobooks, 2020). He's the founder of societyofepicurus.com, and has written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.