Epicurean Festival in Italy

The Festival Epicureo recently took place in Senigallia, Italy. If you are familiar with Italian language, you will find videos of many discussions on this YouTube channel. It makes Italy the second country in Europe to have a symposium or weekend-long event dedicated specifically to promoting Epicurean Philosophy, and plans are underway to make this an annual event. The following report was sent by Michele Pinto, of the Epicurean Garden in Italy. It was edited for clarity by Hiram Crespo.

Scholars of Epicurus, disciples of Epicurus or Epicurean philosophers?

I have always read books with great interest and pleasure in which the authors–usually renowned university professors–explain and analyze the thought of Epicurus. Some of these authors’ attitudes annoy me because it is easy to criticize the ideas of those who, 2,300 years ago, did not have the tools we have today, but certainly have made important contributions in the history of thought–something that none of the authors of these books have done.

On the other side, I’ve met many people like me who have a different relationship with Epicurus. People who read Epicurus’s sentences not to understand a thought from the past, but to assess whether these ideas can help them improve their lives. Even here, we sometimes dangerously approach Epicurus uncritically, as if it were a revealed truth–an attitude that does no honor to anyone.

During the Epicurean Festival in Senigallia, I met many people, I listened to many speakers, and above all I made new and profound friendships. Each of the 13 speakers showed a different, original face of Epicurus, mediated by the personal sensitivity of the person presenting it.

Similarly, all of the parallel initiatives–the chef who recreated an epicurean lunch based on the few testimonies available, the Epicurean postcards that capture a smile, the writers who left their idea of Epicureanism on the wall of an underpass, the goldsmith that reinterpreted Horace’s piglet of the herd of Epicurus, the actress who lent the voice to Lucretius–each offered a different, personal, creative idea about Epicurus.

All this work, all these arguments, this whole festival has a very ancient and very simple name. Philosophy.

In Senigallia we didn’t meet just to study Epicurus. We didn’t meet just to celebrate Epicurus and to follow his teachings. In Senigallia we met to do philosophy together starting from the thought of one of the greatest philosophers of all time.

We are not only scholars of Epicurus, we are not only his disciples. We are Epicurean philosophers. To give continuity to this idea, to continue doing philosophy together, we have created an Epicurean association.

Together we could more easily support philosophical research, perhaps by offering a scholarship to the best degree theses on Epicurus. We could disclose the thought of Epicurus by translating his texts, and publishing studies on his thought. Above all, we could carry out philosophical research, studying together how to cure the evils of the soul and reach ataraxia in a modern world which is very different from the Hellenistic one.

To join, you can contact Michele Pinto (michele@pinto.an.it – 380.6026026). The annual fee is € 10, € 25 for the founding members.

Epicuro.org: el giardino della filosofia epicurea in Italia

L’eredità del Festival Epicureo: i capolavori del sottopasso di via Mamiani

Epicurus’ On Nature

I am currently re-reading Epicurus’ Books On Nature in Les Epicuriens, which is based on lectures given by Epicurus. We know that they were given late in Epicurus’ philosophical career because, in some of the lectures, Epicurus refers back to discussions with Metrodorus that they had years prior “back in the day”, and recognizes previous doctrinal mistakes that had been rectified after years of conversations to clarify their philosophical investigations (particularly concerning their “change of names” practices).

All of this means that we must be careful to not attribute too much authority to any extant writings that may have come from the earlier period. It also means that these books are actually transcripts of advanced lectures given by Epicurus after many years of engaging in philosophical discourse with input from his friends. Let’s try to imagine or re-construct what these lectures or discussions consisted of, so that we can create modern dialogues to replace the literature that is missing.

Book 1

Book One establishes clearly that all things are made of particles and void (cites Against Colotes). Les Epicuriens commentators say that this book is summarized in the Epistle to Herodotus.

Book 2

Book II establishes the existence of particles of light (photons, in modern physics), and establishes clearly that the speed of light is the speed limit of the universe.

Much of the following discussion focuses on how it is that bodies emit these particles (called simulacra in the original text). It is clear that these simulacra are particles by the fact that when they encounter resistance they bounce back, like any other particle. The sun emits light, it reaches water and we see blue because the solar “rays” (photons) do not fully penetrate into the depth of waters. Instead, these photons bounce back and reach our eyes. The denser the water, the less photons penetrate. This is how some solid bodies allow some light through, because they are not as dense as other walls.

A light bulb emits light particles, they bounce against a wall, and our eyes receive the “color”. This color is an emergent property of the photons when they bounce against the particles of the bodies that they touch.

Book II concludes by saying that they have just proven that light is made of these particles and that nothing can move faster than photons, and says here that what follows after this book are the “subjects appropriate to treat after this (subject)”. However, Books 3-9 were never recovered.

The following video follows up on the contents of this book. It helps to connect the nature of light as particles that travel at a certain speed through the void, with interesting repercussions of this insight that include the relativity of time and of all things. If the universe is only 14 billion years old, how can it be 92 billion light years wide?

The video also helps to explain why the ancient Epicureans concluded that time was relative and an emergent property of bodies, which was a very advanced cosmological position for them to assume 2,300 years ago. Epicurus’ Epistle to Herodotus says that “we must not believe that time has any properties other than being an incident to bodies”.

Epicurean cosmology establishes that bodies are made up of particles and void, and their conventional existence and properties are established by the quantity and other properties of the particles that make up the bodies. However, in the process of acquiring increased complexity and interacting with each other, bodies also acquire secondary, relational properties which are no less real than their conventional properties. A magnet’s attraction of certain metals is real. The attraction between two lovers is real, and so is the gravity between a planet and its host star. The chemical interaction that causes an explosion is also real. We observe these phenomena and, although they are not conventionally made up of “particles and void”, they are secondary properties of bodies exhibit according to the observable and measurable laws of nature.

Although those relational / secondary qualities are not eternal, or even essential, the Epistle to Herodotus teaches that we must not banish them from our minds. Incidental qualities do not have a material existence (they are not “atoms and void”), nor do they exist independently in some reality that is beyond our comprehension (some Platonic ether, or heaven, etc.). We must, instead, consider the incidental qualities of bodies as having exactly the character that our sensations reveal them to possess. Today, we are able to measure magnetic forces or gravitational pull, and we know these forces to be emergent properties of the relevant bodies. The epistle then goes on to explain that Time is one such incidental property of nature, that it does not exist apart from bodies:

For example, it is important to grasp firmly that “time” neither has a material existence, nor does it exist independently, apart from bodies. Nor must we think of “time” as a general conception, such as those conceptions which are formed by reasoning in our minds. Instead, we must think of time by referring to our intuitions, our mental apprehensions formed by anticipations, and it is in this context that we speak of a “long time,” or a “short time,” applying our intuitions to time as we do to other incidental qualities.

In evaluating time as an incidental quality, we must not search for expressions that we may think are better than those which are in common use, and we must not believe that time has any properties other than being an incident to bodies. We must evaluate time only in accord with our intuitions or anticipations.

Let’s unpack what’s being said here. Epicureans were known for clear, concise speech and for their insistence on calling things by their proper name, and for names to reflect things as they are observed in nature. Poetically addressing Love as Eros (imagined as a baby with diapers throwing arrows) or Time as Chronos (a scary old man whose approach can’t be avoided and who will, in the end, inevitably swallow us) is good in the realm of poetry and myth, but not in the realm of the study of nature.

Time is also not Platonic (that is, unnatural and unreal, a mere idea). It is not a God (as the ancients believed). All things are conventionally made of atoms and void. So the question that the ancient atomists would have been discussing was something like “Does Time not exist, then? If it does, in what way does Time exist“? And it made sense that Time, as a natural phenomenon, must have been an emergent or relational property of bodies. Ancient Epicureans posited that Time is a natural phenomenon and sought diligently to evaluate the nature of Time based on the study of nature by the use of our natural faculties by which we synchronize to nature’s circadian rhythms. The Letter continues:

For indeed, we need no demonstration, but only to reflect, to see that we associate time with days and nights, and with our internal feelings, and with our state of rest. These perceptions of incidental qualities are the root of what we call “time.”

Interesting to note that Epicurus links time to our anticipation of and attunement with the circadian rhythms. Epicurus here was saying that our own organism has a faculty that apprehends time.

Scientists now know that the Moon used to be a planet the size of Mars that collided w Earth early on, and has slowly been moving a ay from Earth in its orbit. Because of this, our Moon used to be much bigger in our sky billions, and later millions of years ago, and will eventually leave our orbit and become a “ploonet”. Also because of this, and because Earth and Moon are still tidally locked, days and nights used to be much shorter in the past (one day used to be only a few hours long), and they will get progressively longer in the future. Our sense of time will continue to evolve with our local planet-moon dance.

I wish to accentuate that to say that Time is incidental / relational to bodies is to relativize it. One light year is the distance a photon travels between two points in a year. This means that the light that we see coming from the stars was emitted millions of years ago. These stellar photons are (together with time) emergent properties of bodies and, since the speed of light is the speed limit of the cosmos, the photons have been traveling through the void together with time from those stellar bodies to our planet, some of them for millions of years.

Time is an emergent, natural process. This is what is meant by the Epicurean doctrine that “we must not believe that time has any properties other than being an incident to bodies”: that Time is neither a God, nor an “absolute” Platonic idea, but a natural, emergent, relational property of bodies (of matter) in space. We can only measure Time in units which–because all things are moving constantly relative to each other–are tied to orbital movements of bodies in space.

Books 3-4

Les Epicuriens says that these books are summarized in paragraphs 49-53 of the Letter to Herodotus, and Book 4 included Epicurus’ theory of memory–about which we get glimpses in the Lucretian “neural pathways” passage, so we do know that such a theory must have existed.

Books 5-9

Les Epicuriens says that these books are summarized in paragraphs 54-73 of the Letter to Herodotus.

Book 10

Discusses a bit about the nature of time, how to measure it (mentions days and nights), on the importance of using conventional language for it, and the fact that time is real.

Book 11

This book rejects the idea that the Earth is the center of the cosmos, and discusses objects that float in the air. It says “certain people conceive Earth circled by walls … and suppose that Earth is in the center of everything“. Now, since Epicurus believed the universe was infinite, we know that he would have rejected the Earth-centered model because an infinite model of cosmos would not have a center and all things would be relative to each other. Instead, there would have to be innumerable “centers” or hubs. Epicurus had to use the language available to the ancients to explain what orbits are–and the organized dance between many orbiting bodies that acquires a certain balance of pushing and pulling and falling–without having the word “orbit” available.

Epicurus discusses where the sun rises and sets, and its distance from us; He offers various models to interpret this.

Les Epicuriens commentators categorize this book as a polemic against the ancient astronomers who were using certain tools or machines (alluded to in this book) to evaluate the movements of celestial objects, and against Eudoxus’ geocentric model. I found this article about Eudoxus of Cnidus, which says:

An astronomer named Eudoxus created the first model of a geocentric universe around 380 B.C. Eudoxus designed his model of the universe as a series of cosmic spheres containing the stars, the sun, and the moon all built around the Earth at its center. Unfortunately, as the Greeks continued to explore the motion of the sun, the moon, and the other planets, it became increasingly apparent that their geocentric models could not accurately nor easily predict the motion of the other planets.

The next section of the 11th book is on what sustains Earth from below and seeks to explain its stability. Epicurus argued that densities below and above provide counter-balance to each other, to maintain the “appropriate analogical model” for the immobility of Earth. He said that the Earth was “equidistant to all the sides”, and so it didn’t fall in any direction because it had similar pressure from all sides.

Here, from Epicurus’ mention of an “appropriate analogical model”–which he presumably was trying to create–it is clear that he was using the Epicurean method of looking at the things that can be observed and reasoning by analogy about the things that are beyond our observable horizon. This means that he appealed to how we can see that things of similar weight balance each other, and he’s applying that logic to the orbit of the Earth.

Book 12

This book addresses eclipses. Also, according to Philodemus, in book 12 (in a passage that did not survive) Epicurus said that humans had the idea of “certain imperishable natures”. This book appears to also address theology.

We see that in On Nature, Epicurus is addressing phenomena that caused superstitious fear and panic in the ancients, or that inspired mythical explanations. Obviously, the orbits of the sun and moon were a mystery and inspired mythical explanations. Epicurus’ lectures were meant to impress upon the students that, by applying their faculty of empirical reasoning to the study of nature, they would be able to come up with reasonable alternative theories.

We can surmise that some ancients, particularly those who rejected the myths and observed nature, would have observed that eclipses and phases of the moon apparently showed the shadow of the Earth against the moon, and would have reasoned that the Earth was round from the observation of its shadow against the moon. This is not mentioned in what remains of this book, but it would have been consistent with the Epicurean method (which relied on referring all investigations the study and observation of nature) to conclude from the phases of the moon that the Earth was round.

Book 13

This book seems to continue the conversations about gods in the previous book. Philodemus says that here, Epicurus addressed the “rapports of affinity, and also of hostility, that gods have with certain persons“.

Book 14

Based on the condensation of water (which can be seen turning into a gas/vapor, and also into solid ice), some ancient philosophers said that it can be inferred that all things come from a single substance, which changes due to condensation and rarefaction. Some philosophers believed the single primal substance was water (that is, all things could be broken down into water).

Epicurus’ refutation of this theory and his own alternate explanation is incomplete and unclear in the portions that remain of this book. We see him further down discussing the vaporization of water. Centuries later, Lucretius (in On the Nature of Things, Book IV) would describe in accurate detail the cycles of rain and condensation in one of the most brilliant passages of his epic poem. It is clear that these considerations furnished crucial inspiration for the early atomic theory.

The lecture in Book 14  was against monism–the above-cited doctrine that all things are ultimately made up of one single substance. Anaximenes and Diogenes of Apollonia were monists who said the primal substance was “air”, not water.

Epicurus discusses fire, and criticizes Plato’s Timaeus, saying Plato’s and other theories are based on faulty deduction. Epicurus reduces Plato’s physical theory to its absurd contradictions. For instance, he seems to be arguing that if things are really made of Platonic forms (like triangles, etc.), rather than from the atomists’ primal elements (that is, particles), then why are there no physicists creating new chemical combinations out of these Platonic triangles and circles? Here, he was acting in the tradition of the laughing philosophers. In Swinish Herds and Pastafarians: Comedy as an Ideological Weapon, I wrote:

Democritus, the precursor of Epicurus … was known as the “Laughing Philosopher” for making cheerfulness his key virtue and for the way in which he mocked human behavior. The tradition of the laughing philosophers had to start with the first atomist: materialism liberates us from unfounded beliefs to such an extent that it renders absurd the beliefs and the credulity of the mobs.

This book concludes with a portion that studies the differences between a sage and a compiler, saying that they are quite different. Epicurus tackles the issue of borrowing from other thinkers and mixing up disparate theories that are not coherent with each other. He says that sages do not praise both theories when they cite two opposite opinions. He accuses those who mix incoherent doctrines of “doctrinal solecism“, and indirectly criticizes the rhetors who are fond of empty praise.

A Note on Striking Blows for Epicurus

On Nature makes it clear that Epicureanism was born, and evolved, as a series of polemics. The first Epicureans enjoyed polemics. They relished opportunities to tackle intellectual challenges using their philosophical methods. Almost all of Epicurus’ points in this series of lectures are polemics written against someone else’s theories which are found to be wrong, and we also see many of Philodemus’ works were as well. For instance, we see Theophrastus being cited in Peri Oikonomias (and other works) as a source that the Epicureans of the FIrst Century BCE wrote against and commented on. We must conclude that he was considered a worthy opponent and a philosopher worth reading by them.

Therefore, we can imagine that it’s difficult to understand these arguments clearly without understanding these other ideas that they are refuting. Students of Epicurus must understand his contemporary thinkers, whose works they were reading and commenting on.

Further Reading:

Epicurus’ Instructions On Innovation

Book 25

The work has many long sentences, which makes it hard to follow. I had written a commentary of a commentary on this book (from an English source), but I have re-read the book in French from Les Epicuriens. Here are a few new insights, and key concepts.

DEVELOPED PRODUCT

We see in philosophy and anthropology a contrast between nature and culture, and this is reflected in this book, where Epicurus compares “the original constitution” of an individual versus the “product in the process of development” (his character, which she cultivates), and finally the “developed product”–a fully mature character of someone who understands his “causal responsibility”.

GERMS / SEEDS

Epicurus talks about the “germs” or “seeds” (spermata) that we carry from birth of both wisdom and virtue, as well as ignorance and vices. Epicurus says “at first people act out their seeds, but later, a time comes where the developed product … depends absolutely on us and on our own opinions, which we ourselves have formed“. Our opinions or beliefs are linked to our moral development in this manner.

Epicurus later says “I don’t stop rambling on this point“, referring to how the “permanent attribute” of our character is the same as a sort of seed or germ, and he says that many things we do by contribution of our nature, many we do without its contribution, many where we discipline our nature, and many where we use our nature as guide that “leads us out of our inertia“.

ANTICIPATION OF CAUSAL RESPONSIBILITY

Epicurus says we have an anticipation of our causal responsibility“, and this has repercussions on praise and blame. Here, he is tying causal responsibility, and morality, to the canonic faculty of anticipation–a faculty by which we are able to apprehend abstractions.

DOCTRINAL DETERMINISM

Epicurus says that if all our views are born of necessity, then no one can change the opponent’s mind. This reminded me of this study, which shows that political ideology may be pre-determined or genetic.

… analyzing their data, the Blocks found a clear set of childhood personality traits that accurately predicted conservatism in adulthood. For instance, at the ages of three and four, the “conservative” preschoolers had been described as “uncomfortable with uncertainty,” as “rigidifying when experiencing duress,” and as “relatively over-controlled.” The girls were “quiet, neat, compliant, fearful and tearful, [and hoped] for help from the adults around.”

Likewise, the Blocks pinpointed another set of childhood traits that were associated with people who became liberals in their mid-twenties. The “liberal” children were more “autonomous, expressive, energetic, and relatively under-controlled.” Liberal girls had higher levels of “self-assertiveness, talkativeness, curiosity, [and] openness in expressing negative feelings.”

CALLING OUT THE OPPONENTS’ EXCHANGE OF NAMES

This is distinct from the problem of empty words that Epicurus addresses elsewhere. Epicurus says that determinists are “merely changing names” when they make moral claims or assign blame / praise, or classify people for their right / wrong thinking. He later says he does not stop re-hashing and restating that what determinists are arguing is nothing more than a mere exchange of words. This reminded me of the rectification of names by Confucius.

Book 28

Other speakers of our language teach us unsuspected, yet true meanings of words, contrary to our common usage. – Epicurus

This book is a polemic against Diodorus Cronus and his school. He was a dialectitian of Megaria (a “man of logic”) who believed space was indivisible and motion was impossible. Epicurus’ goal here was to defend the senses as a source of information about the world. It’s in this context that he refers to words like “attestations” (the testimonies of the senses), etc.

While dialectitians might argue about the way in which things exist and are real based on how language is used to refer to things, the atomists (like Epicurus) were realists. They embraced the physics, the study of nature, and knew that reality existed regardless of how clearly we apprehend it, or how long it takes us to learn about it. Hence, the Epicureans distrusted dialectics, and also the insinuation that, through the use of language, as if by magic, people were able to fundamentally change the nature of things or assert power over reality in any significant manner. In particular, Epicurus was suspicious of philosophers who liked to play with words in order to confuse people, particularly because this often rendered philosophy a useless game.

It is language that must conform to reality, not the other way around. Because of this, the meanings of words tend to be evident to us, as is made clear in one of the introductory paragraphs of the Epistle to Herodotus:

But first of all, Herodotus, before we begin the investigation of our opinions, we must firmly grasp the ideas that are attached to our words, so that we can refer to them as we proceed.  Unless we have a firm grasp of the meaning of each word, we leave everything uncertain, and we go on to infinity using empty words that are devoid of meaning.  Thus it is essential that we rely on the first mental image associated with each word, without need of explanation, if we are to have a firm standard to which to refer as we proceed in our study. – Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus

The issue of changing names in accordance to nature is addressed here. Epicurus taught that there are words that serve as vehicles for false opinions. He said names should only be changed to more exactly describe objects that are directly perceived, and only observed things can be renamed following this rule.  Language must correspond to perception.

Epicurus mentions that the founders wrote a separate treatise on ambiguity, where they discuss transferring words for what is knowable to things in the category of the unknowable. This work is not available for us to study.

One note of interest is that in this book, Epicurus admits the founders’ past errors regarding language misuse, and the evolution of their ideas. Ergo, we must be careful when we study the earlier sources, and we must be careful to date the sources we are studying if at all possible.

Further Reading:

Against the Use of Empty Words

Les Epicuriens [Bibliotheque de la Pleiade] (French Edition)

Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus

Metrodorus’ Epistle to Timocrates

Timocrates of Lampsachus was both the brother of Metrodorus (one of the founders of Epicureanism), as well as an apostate of the first Epicurean community–although not a lethal enemy like the archetypal Judas. Because of their ties of blood, Timocrates was quoted as saying “that he both loved his brother as no one else did and hated him as no one else.”

Their differences were made public in epistles that they addressed to each other, which later circulated among many who either followed the teachings of the school, or were opponents interested in the gossip and the controversy. Metrodorus also wrote one work against his brother, and Timocrates a polemic against Epicurus entitled Delights.

Only fragments from third parties citing these sources survive. Here, I will cite passages from Metrodorus’ Epistle to his brother Timocrates, and will try to interpret the meager–yet essential and useful–content that is available.

The Belly Argument

It seems clear that Timocrates’ enmity with the Epicureans stemmed from not accepting that pleasure is the end that our nature seeks, although many sources cite the center of the controversy as being Metrodorus’ insistence that the belly is the “criterion” of all that contributes to the good life. Some people have argued that the attribution of this was done by enemies of Epicureanism to discredit the philosophy–and in fact they did use this to mock the Epicureans. But the “belly argument” is attested many times, and the epistles between the two brothers were circulated widely enough that it seems clear that many contemporaries and later commentators were aware of the main details of the controversy.

Let’s therefore assume that Metrodorus indeed argued that “the seat of good is the belly“, as he is credited. And let’s also assume that the first Epicureans very carefully chose their words so that they convey the intended meaning–as this is what they were known for, and we also know they criticized the unclear and flowery speech of poets and rhetors. We have no reason to suppose that Metrodorus was speaking poetically to generate confusion. What did he mean by this? One extant proverb may help to shed light on this.

What cannot be satisfied is not a man’s stomach, as most men think, but rather the false opinion that the stomach requires unlimited filling. – Vatican Saying 59

The Epicurean Inscription from Diogenes’ Wall is another source to help us interpret the belly passage. It taught that “desires that outrun the limits fixed by nature” are among the three “roots of all evils, and unless we cut them off, a multitude of evils will grow upon us“. And Principal Doctrine 20 establishes that it is up to the mind to understand the limits set by nature and to tame the flesh. It also says that “we should not force nature, but gently persuade her“.

Here, we begin to see a way in which the belly might be a “criterion” (or measuring stick) by which nature guides us. The belly teaches us that we only need so much nutrition, so much food, and no more. If we over-eat, our belly lets us know via lethargy, tiredness, fatigue, or sleepiness. If we eat too little or fail to eat, it lets us know via pangs of hunger. It literally growls like a wild beast. Similarly, we only need a natural measure of friends and community, a natural measure of wealth, etc. Not too much, not too little. And it is nature that sets these limits.

The Epicureans philosophize with our bodies, fully reconciled with nature. It is interesting that the belly was described as a “criterion” by Metrodorus–if we take this to be true and not an invention of enemies of the School. In our epistemology, the Canon (criteria of truth) includes pre-rational faculties which furnish raw data from nature with no rational input: hearing, taste, seeing, pleasure and pain, etc. I think that what Metrodorus was arguing is that we must pay attention to the pain and pleasure of the belly as guides from nature so that we may better understand the limits set by nature, and realize how easy to procure the natural and necessary pleasures are.

The belly argument also reminds us of Nietzschean and Freudian conceptions of the human animal as inhabited by a multitude of irrational drives and instincts vying for control over the chariot of our bodies and our lives. We are rational animals, but that is not all that we are.

The founders taught that we should care about our state of mind while eating. Epicurus compres eating alone to the behavior of lions and wolves, and told his followers to care as much about who they ate with as they did about what they ate.

Our opinion about our belly, and our relationship with it, helps to define how happy and satisfied we are with life overall. Many eating and health disorders are tied to people’s psychological states, philosophy of life, and sense of self-worth. But does it not make sense that healthy eating also correlates to healthy psychological states, a healthy philosophy of life, and a healthy sense of self-worth?

This may be pure coincidence, but it’s an interesting side note: we know today (although the ancients could not have known this) that it is in the belly that the “happiness hormones” like serotonin and anandamide are manufactured by our bodies, and that the bacteria in our gut play a crucial role in our habitual state of happiness or depression.

The “Need” to Save Greece

“It’s not necessary to try to save Greece or to get from her crowns of wisdom; what is needed is to eat and to drink, Timocrates, without harming the belly while we bring it joy”. – Metrodorus’ Letter to Timocrates

The above passage seems indicative of some of the objections that Timocrates presented against Epicurean doctrine. He seems to have advocated ideals like patriotism, and vain pursuits like fame or glory. Perhaps he called for the teaching of philosophy in the public sphere? Epicurus banned the practice of public sermons in favor of private ones after angry Platonists exiled him from the island of Lesbos, his ship wrecked and he nearly died. Timocrates’ points seem to be related to the “need” for acceptance and praise from common people in the city. The Timocrates affair may have inspired the following quotes:

I have never wished to cater to the crowd; for what I know they do not approve, and what they approve I do not know.

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

As you grow old you are such as I urge you to be, and you have recognized the difference between studying philosophy for yourself and studying it for Greece. I rejoice with you. – Vatican Saying 76

An anarchic and libertarian spirit sustained the early Epicurean community, which seems to have had a strict policy of separation of philosophy and state! Epicurus was not a philosopher of the polis, but of his own self-sufficient community. He did not trust public education (as we see in VS 76). One can make a strong argument that the early Epicureans raised and educated their own children in the Garden, and that modern Epicureans should also create their own educational establishments–like Michel Onfray did recently in France.

From the exchange between the two brothers, it also seems that Timocrates was making arguments in general defense of the virtues that were part of Greek cultural convention:

Besides, they would not buy for a penny the lot of all the virtues (if they’re) cut off from pleasure. – Metrodorus’ Epistle to Timocrates

On Public Life

While the “Live unknown” adage attributed to the early Epicureans is easily and often misinterpreted as a call to live a monastic life–which it was not–, the Timocrates affair may furnish some insight into the instances where Epicureans decried a life in public. Timocrates, on the other hand, seems to have defended the desire for the acceptance of common people, even of strangers. This desire is neither natural nor necessary, according to Epicurean ethics.

On this last point, Diogenes of Oenoanda in his Wall Inscription had this to say:

Diogenes states that the “sum of happiness is our disposition, of which we are masters”, by which he argues against choosing a career in military service–which produces dangers to our lives and health–or public speaking–which produces nervousness and insecurity.

Summary

From all these considerations, we may conclude that the some of the main controversies related to Timocrates’ apostasy had to do with the following points:

  1. Metrodorus defended the doctrine that pleasure is the end that our own nature seeks; Timocrates rejected this view, and was defending traditional Greek virtues instead, which were often considered as empty virtues by the Epicureans. Timocrates was ready to sacrifice his happiness in the altar of politics like so many people do still today.
  2. Metrodorus saw the need to defend the focus on natural and necessary pleasures as a path to happiness and self-sufficiency; Timocrates was arguing in favor of patriotism, fame, glory, and other vain ideals that are neither natural (although patriotism may be) nor necessary. Furthermore, these ideals may require huge sacrifices from us. The “need” for “saving Greece” seems to indicate fantasies of carrying out epic, (self-) sacrificial, and/or heroic deeds for a cause, or for fame, or for an imagined collective.
  3. Metrodorus’ ethical focus is on making sure that we are secure and have control over our lives, our space, and our circumstances. Because of this, the teaching of Epicurean philosophy happened in a private, intimate, safe and informal setting, among friends–not in the agora. Timocrates may have argued that desiring to have a public life (or perhaps teaching in public in order to be recognized for one’s wisdom) was natural and/or necessary.

There is one final question we should ask: Why was this controversy turned into such an important public affair? Epistolary literature was a means to promote Epicurean doctrine in the early years. I believe that the controversy between the two brothers serves as a lesson in who can be an Epicurean and who can not be one. It seems like the main doctrinal point on which even brothers can not reconcile is that pleasure is the end. But this has many ramifications for public versus private life, for our choices and avoidances, for our choice of career, and in many other areas of life.

Further Reading:

The 17 Scholarchs and the Empress

Natural Community Versus Polis

On Isms

“We’re sick and tired of your ism-schism game…” – Bob Marley

Our friend Alex recently brought up the issue of the intolerance of the word “Epicureanism” (and all isms) by some Epicureans, which has for a few years permeated our conversations. He says:

Some folks here insist that other folks say “Epicurean Philosophy” instead of saying “Epicureanism”. They say that “-isms” are closed systems, that “-isms” are ideologies. The dictionary does not seem to agree about the meaning of “-ism”. So why the intolerance? The whole world says Epicureanism, but the folks here should not? Meanwhile the dictionary has as a synonym for “philosophy” the word “ideology”, so a philosophy is an ideology.

The image furnished by Alex indicates that –ism is merely a suffix that is used to convert a verb into a noun, sort of like the ending -o in the Esperanto language. Dictionary.com gives the meaning of an ism as: “a distinctive doctrine, theory, system, or practice“–a definition which Epicurean philosophy certainly fulfills.

According to our friend Yiannis, the criticism of -isms appears to be based on a particular interpretation of a sentence found in Liantinis’ Stoa and Rome, where he poetically seems to accuse isms in general of a number of ills that befell humanity. He is referring here to Dimitris Liantinis–a philosophy professor and author of Gemma whose message included a jeremiad about the end of Western civilization, outdated anti-Semitic rhetoric, and a call for the return of Hellenistic values … but Liantinis himself was not even an Epicurean, he was more influenced by Nietzsche, and he committed suicide which is a most un-Epicurean thing to do–literally saying NO to life!

Visceral reactions against things are sometimes the function of projection, and it’s ironic that ism-phobia itself is becoming an ideology, and a reactionary one at that. While it’s important to understand and appreciate some of the arguments of the ism-phobic faction–at the core of which is the argument that Epicurus fought against idealisms of all kinds–, our friend Eileen reminds us:

I’ve seen this sort of thing in several unrelated forums. In my opinion, our culture is going through a cycle of authoritarian thinking and behavior at all levels of society and most aspects of life. Those with their hands on levers of power use them in anti-democratic ways and those who don’t content themselves with attempting to control the language and social behavior of others. This seems to be true of folks all across various political, religious, and philosophical spectrums.

But let’s go back to the first Epicureans, who advised that we should speak clearly and concisely, and to employ words as they conventionally used, with their conventional meaning attached to them–even as they acknowledged the many problems tied to conventional speech.

One should use ordinary expressions appropriately, and not express oneself inaccurately, nor vaguely, nor use expressions with double meaning. – Philodemus, in Rhetorica

But first of all, Herodotus, before we begin the investigation of our opinions, we must firmly grasp the ideas that are attached to our words, so that we can refer to them as we proceed. Unless we have a firm grasp of the meaning of each word, we leave everything uncertain, and we go on to infinity using empty words that are devoid of meaning. Thus it is essential that we rely on the first mental image associated with each word, without need of explanation, if we are to have a firm standard to which to refer as we proceed in our study. – Epicurus, in his Epistle to Herodotus

That should suffice to help us recover and make use of the original sense of the suffix -ism, while being cognizant of its problems.

Further Reading:

Against the Use of Empty Words

Philodemus of Gadara’s Rhetorica

Epicurus’ Epistle to Herodotus

Dialogue on the Extent to Which the Declaration of Independence is Consistent With Epicurean Philosophy

The following is an edited dialogue that took place on our Epicurean Friends forum.

Cassius. This is to pose a series of questions about one of the most famous passages of the American “Declaration of Independence.” As discussion develops on one or more of these in particular we can split the discussion into separate threads, but to start here is a list of questions:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

What do we know about whether this paragraph was written entirely by Thomas Jefferson, or contains modifications from others?

Hiram. According to this source,

Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?

Although we know Thomas Jefferson as the true author, the Second Continental Congress initially appointed five people to draw up a declaration. The committee included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was then given the task of writing a draft for the Declaration of Independence, which from June 11 to June 28 he worked on. Before he presented the Declaration to the Continental Congress, he showed it to John Adams and Benjamin Franklin; they made revisions. He presented the draft to Congress on July 1, 1776 and more revisions were made. On the fourth of July the delegates met in what we know today as Independence Hall, but back then was known as the Pennsylvania State House, and approved the Declaration. John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress signed the declaration along with Charles Thomson and it was sent to John Dunlap’s print shop for printing.

So it seems like this was a process not too different from how we have co-written together the narratives for videos on YouTube and some of our dialogues. Jefferson wrote it with feedback from four other men who were, presumably, steeped in the political philosophy of the day (Locke, Rousseau, and others).

Cassius. Yes that is exactly what would need to be analyzed in order to determine how much of the final result came about through Epicurean thinking, and how much was diluted/mutated by Christian or other ideas.

I am not aware that copies of the initial draft survive, but as we proceed with this investigation, if anyone has more detail on who added what, and when, that would be great.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Would an Epicurean agree that what follows in the paragraph after the first phrase are “self-evident?” What does “self-evident” mean?

Would an Epicurean agree that “all men are created equal.” It is absolutely clear that all men are NOT created equal in every respect (health, sex, race, capabilities, preferences, etc.) It is also clear to an Epicurean that men are not “created” if that term implies a supernatural god. In what respect, if any, would an Epicurean say that “all men are created equal.”

What does it mean to say “endowed by their Creator?” Would an Epicurean use this phrasing? If so, what would an Epicurean mean by “their Creator?”

What are “inalienable rights”? What is a “right”? How is a right “inalienable”?” It seems clear that this cannot be read superficially, as much of what we think of as “rights” are certainly taken from people all the time and thus are not “inalienable.” In what way, if any, can this phrase be reconciled with Epicurean philosophy?

What does the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” mean in Epicurean terms?

Hiram. I don’t think they are self-evident, or that Epicurus would agree that men were created (as there is no creator).

We know today that men evolved through natural selection, and that nature did not have an intention of creating men or any other particular species. Natural selection follows the path of least resistance, of greatest opportunity / advantage, if and when / insofar as species are able to adapt to their environment.

The document was written in the context of setting the grounds / seeds for a new country with a new law and a new constitutional framework. An Epicurean would consider these matters in terms of mutual benefit / mutual advantage. Within this context, I think “self-evident” implies that these are matters beyond reproach and that are not up for negotiation, that they constitute the minimum standard by which they were willing to found a new country and a new law, that the social contract would have to abide by these principles.

Men are not ‘created’. If we understand nature, metaphorically, as Creatrix, then we may concede this, but there is WAY too much religious baggage here to accept it in my view.

We are endowed by nature with certain instincts and faculties and tendencies, and (a very strong case can be made) with a sense of morality and justice, but not with rights, inalienable or not.

Rights are born from the laws or rules we create to facilitate co-existence. The only way in which we could say that they come from “the Creator” or “Nature” is if we ourselves are understood to be co-creators or part of nature, and you could make that case, but it’s best to speak clearly, and the original language seems to indicate a Creator in the deist sense, which is an error.

“Life, liberty, pursuit of happiness” – I want to go back to the idea of negotiating a new social contract for a new country, if I was Thomas Jefferson and if I had to negotiate the terms under which I, as an Epicurean, wanted to or was forced to co-exist with others OF RELIGIOUS CONVICTION, these ideas would definitely belong there. I would not care if others believe that these “inalienable rights” come from “the Creator” if, for the sake of mutual benefit, these rules are agreeable to me and others, even if I’d rather not word these principles as inalienable rights coming from a Creator.

In other words, this is a Charter for religious and non-religious people of various convictions and faiths to co-exist, and what pass for “inalienable rights” are acceptable to a non-religious person.

Life is safety; liberty is autarchy; and pursuit of happiness is self-explanatory and a natural extension of liberty; these are natural pleasures, and necessary to happiness and life in Epicurean terms.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Cassius. This passage is perhaps easiest to reconcile given the Principle Doctrines on “justice.” How could we elaborate on this in Epicurean terms as to the meaning of “just powers” and “consent of the governed?

Hiram. As for “just powers”, PD 37 speaks of them in terms of mutual advantage, and these powers may change and evolve and apply differently in different situations and to different people:

Among the things held to be just by law, whatever is proved to be of advantage in men’s dealings has the stamp of justice, whether or not it be the same for all; but if a man makes a law and it does not prove to be mutually advantageous, then this is no longer just. And if what is mutually advantageous varies and only for a time corresponds to our concept of justice, nevertheless for that time it is just for those who do not trouble themselves about empty words, but look simply at the facts.

Concrete examples in our own constitutional framework is how states have their rights and their form of sovereignty, versus how the federal government has its own rights and form of sovereignty and its own jurisdiction, versus how the different Indian Nations and Reservations have their own rights and forms of sovereignty, their own schools, police, etc. all according to mutual benefit.

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Cassius. Again, this passage seems directly supported by the Principle Doctrines on justice. How would an Epicurean elaborate on the meaning of this passage?

Hiram. This is an application of PD 37-38:

Where without any change in circumstances the things held to be just by law are seen not to correspond with the concept of justice in actual practice, such laws are not really just; but wherever the laws have ceased to be advantageous because of a change in circumstances, in that case the laws were for that time just when they were advantageous for the mutual dealings of the citizens, and subsequently ceased to be just when they were no longer advantageous.

The Declaration only mentions “safety and happiness”, which is a good start, but in the Letter to Menoeceus we find mention among the things that are needful and natural also of health of the body and tranquility of mind, of avoiding bodily uneasiness (threats, plagues, exploitation or slavery), which seems to imply that an Epicurean system of government would also be invested in public health, including mental health:

And of the necessary desires some are necessary if we are to be happy, some if the body is to be rid of uneasiness, some if we are even to live. He who has a clear and certain understanding of these things will direct every preference and aversion toward securing health of body and tranquillity of mind, seeing that this is the sum and end of a blessed life.

Are there any other Jefferson sources that may illuminate some of these questions?

Cassius. I especially think that this observation is of huge significance, and once we understand that our entire perspective on justice changes. It’s from Thomas Jefferson’s Epistle to James Madison, sent from Paris on Sept. 6, 1789:

I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self evident, “that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living;” that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. The portion occupied by an individual ceases to be his when himself ceases to be, and reverts to the society. If the society has formed no rules for the appropriation of its lands in severalty, it will be taken by the first occupants. These will generally be the wife and children of the decedent. If they have formed rules of appropriation, those rules may give it to the wife and children, or to some one of them, or to the legatee of the deceased. So they may give it to his creditor. But the child, the legatee or creditor takes it, not by any natural right, but by a law of the society of which they are members, and to which they are subject.

Hiram. So the key here is that rights are not “natural”, or “nature-given”, or “God-given”. They are created by the people who form the societies. And these rights and regulations can be changed by the people who form the societies.

“Please always remember my doctrines!” – Epicurus’ last words

Porphyry’s Epistle to Marcella

At this year’s Epicurean Symposium in Athens, the recent rediscovery of a new, indirect Epicurean source was a main point of attention. The source is not Epicurean itself, but is by a philosopher who cites Epicurean sources elaborating on Principal Doctrine 15 (in bold, below) in one of its passages (paragraphs 27-31).

Like many of our sources, the work is written in epistolary style for educational purposes, and judging from some elements (like the reference to “divine law” as distinct from the law of nature, and the reference to abstinence being prescribed by the gods), its Epicurean core ideas are somewhat contaminated by non-Epicurean concepts that Porphyry drew from other philosophies. Here is a link to the English introduction and translation of the passage which was sent by our friends from Greece in pdf format. Below is the passage translation.

27. So then, first you must grasp the law of Nature and from it ascend to the divine law which also established the law of Nature. With these laws as your point of reference, you need never be concerned about the written law. “For the written laws are laid down for the sake of temperate men, not to keep them from doing wrong but from being wronged.” “The wealth of Nature, being truly philosophic, is well-defined and easily obtained, but the wealth of empty false opinions is ill-defined and hard to obtain (a). So then, the person who follows Nature and not empty false opinions is self-sufficient in everything. For satisfying Nature any possession is wealth, but for satisfying unlimited yearnings even the greatest wealth is nothing. It is <not> rare to find a man poor in the attainment of Nature but rich in empty false opinions. For no ignorant man is satisfied with what he has; instead he pines for what he does not have. So then, just as those who have a fever are always thirsty because of the serious nature of their disease and eagerly desire what is most detrimental, so also those who have the soul which manages it in distress are always in need of everything and fall prey to fickle desires under the influence of their excessive greed.”

28. Consequently, even the gods have prescribed remaining pure by abstinence from food and sex. This leads those who are pursuing piety toward Nature’s intent, which the gods themselves constituted, as though any excess, by being contrary to Nature’s intent, is defiled and deadly. “For the ordinary man who fears the simple way of life is driven by fear into actions which are most likely to produce it. And many who have become wealthy have not found relief from evils but rather an exchange for greater ones.” Therefore, the philosophers say that “nothing is as necessary as perceiving clearly what is not necessary,” and that “the greatest wealth of all is self-sufficiency,” and they take “the need of nothing as worthy of respect.” Therefore they exhort us to “practice not how we must provide for some necessity but how we will remain confident when it is not provided.

29. Let us neither censure the flesh as cause of great evils nor attribute our distress to external circumstances. Rather let us seek their causes in the soul, and, by breaking away from every vain yearning and hope for fleeting fancies, let us become totally in control of ourselves. For it is either through fear that a person becomes unhappy or through unlimited and empty desire (b). By bridling these feelings a person can gain possession of blessed reason for himself. To the extent that you are troubled, it is because you forget Nature, for you inflict upon yourself unlimited fears and desires. But it is better for you to have confidence as you lie on a bed of straw than to be in turmoil while you possess a gold couch and a costly table (c). As a result of lamentable labor, property is amassed but life becomes bestial.

30. Consider it in no way contrary to Nature for the soul to cry out when the flesh cries out. The flesh cries not to be hungry, not to be thirsty, not to be cold (d). And so it is difficult for the soul to repress these cries, but it is dangerous for it to disregard nature’s exhortations to it because of the self-sufficiency which grows in it from day to day. Nature also teaches us to regard the outcomes of fortune of little account and to know how to be unfortunate when we are favored by fortune, but not to consider the favors of fortune important when we experience misfortune. And Nature teaches us to accept unperturbed the good outcomes of fortune, but to stand prepared in the face of the seeming evils which come from it. For all that the masses regard as good is a fleeting fancy, but wisdom and knowledge have nothing in common with fortune.

31. Pain does not consist in lacking the goods of the masses but rather in enduring the unprofitable suffering that comes from empty false opinions. For the love of true philosophy causes every disturbing and painful desire to subside. Empty is the discourse of that philosopher by which no human passion is healed. For just as there is no benefit from medicine if it does not heal the bodies’ diseases, neither is there from philosophy if it does not purge the passion of the soul.” So then, the law of Nature prescribes these things and others like them.

Notes:

a. Principal Doctrine 15 paraphrased.

b. A similar passage in Diogenes’ Wall describes fears and unlimited desires as “the roots of all evils“, and so this portion is reliably Epicurean.

Well, what are the disturbing emotions? [They are] fears —of the gods, of death, and of [pains]— and, besides [these], desires that [outrun] the limits fixed by nature. These are the roots of all evils, and, [unless] we cut them off, [a multitude] of evils will grow [upon] us.

c. Epicurean Fragment 207.

d. Paraphrases Vatican Saying 33.

A Concrete Self

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FEELINGS AS ARBITERS OF THOUGHT

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

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

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

Read the rest of the review here.

The Evolution of Law in Epicurus and Nietzsche

I recently had the pleasure of reading the highly-recommended book by Nietzsche, The Antichrist. Many of its paragraphs merely served to add depth and detail to some of the things I had previously come to understand from reading his notes in Will to Power and other sources, like Zarathustra. Other paragraphs offered new insights either because of the way in which they were passionately and emphatically stated, or by virtue of their content. Paragraph 57 is one of the latter cases and caught my eye because usually, when Nietzsche discusses the origins of laws and mores, he employs a cynical tone and seeks the ulterior motives of the proponents. Here, he takes on the anthropologist’s tone that we find in Lucretius and Epicurus, and it might be interesting to compare how he views the primitive origins of moral and legal codes versus how the Epicureans viewed them.

In Nietzsche, the time when the laws are written down indicates a time when rules and contracts are standardized and experimentation is no longer encouraged as a result of certain legal precedents and practices becoming solidified in tradition. There are conservative and liberal interpretations of this process: to some–who are privileged by the existing laws–this creates a mythical “golden era” during which the population developed the best means to rule itself. To others, this imposes limits on how creative legislators allow themselves to be in adapting the legal code to new circumstances and keeping it relevant. Nietzsche, who is a staunch defendant of a type of aristocracy, supports the first interpretation, but nonetheless sympathizes with the second one.

A book of laws such as the Code of Manu has the same origin as every other good law-book: it epitomizes the experience, the sagacity and the ethical experimentation of long centuries; it brings things to a conclusion; it no longer creates. The prerequisite to a codification of this sort is recognition of the fact that the means which establish the authority of a slowly and painfully attained truth are fundamentally different from those which one would make use of to prove it.

A law-book never recites the utility, the grounds, the casuistical antecedents of a law: for if it did so it would lose the imperative tone, the “thou shall,” on which obedience is based. The problem lies exactly here.—At a certain point in the evolution of a people, the class within it of the greatest insight, which is to say, the greatest hindsight and foresight, declares that the series of experiences determining how all shall live—or can live—has come to an end. The object now is to reap as rich and as complete a harvest as possible from the days of experiment and hard experience.

So the creation of a code of laws is an act of power by which the law-givers say: these matters are no longer up for discussion. Nietzsche then explains how the ruling classes, having decided that the era of legal experimentation is over, create what Marx would have called “the superstructure”, the over-arching set of narratives that the ruling classes use to preserve their power.

In consequence, the thing that is to be avoided above everything is further experimentation—the continuation of the state in which values are fluent, and are tested, chosen and criticized ad infinitum. Against this a double wall is set up: on the one hand, revelation, which is the assumption that the reasons lying behind the laws are not of human origin, that they were not sought out and found by a slow process and after many errors, but that they are of divine ancestry, and came into being complete, perfect, without a history, as a free gift, a miracle…; and on the other hand, tradition, which is the assumption that the law has stood unchanged from time immemorial, and that it is impious and a crime against one’s forefathers to bring it into question.

The authority of the law is thus grounded on the thesis: God gave it, and the fathers lived it.—The higher motive of such procedure lies in the design to distract consciousness, step by step, from its concern with notions of right living (that is to say, those that have been proved to be right by wide and carefully considered experience), so that instinct attains to a perfect automatism—a primary necessity to every sort of mastery, to every sort of perfection in the art of life.

To draw up such a law-book as Manu’s means to lay before a people the possibility of future mastery, of attainable perfection—it permits them to aspire to the highest reaches of the art of life. To that end the thing must be made unconscious: that is the aim of every holy lie … – Nietzsche, The Antichrist

He then goes on to justify the caste system, which does not concern us for the purposes of this essay. I mainly wish to note that, against the conservative analysis we find in Nietzsche–who seeks to remind us of the original advantages that certified the ancient laws–we can posit the case for adaptability, progress and evolution of the legal code according to mutual advantage in the ancient Epicureans–who advocate for a fluid legal system that allows for perpetual processes of experimentation and adaptation.

Among the things held to be just by law, whatever is proved to be of advantage in men’s dealings has the stamp of justice, whether or not it be the same for all; but if a man makes a law and it does not prove to be mutually advantageous, then this is no longer just. And if what is mutually advantageous varies and only for a time corresponds to our concept of justice, nevertheless for that time it is just for those who do not trouble themselves about empty words, but look simply at the facts.

Where without any change in circumstances the things held to be just by law are seen not to correspond with the concept of justice in actual practice, such laws are not really just; but wherever the laws have ceased to be advantageous because of a change in circumstances, in that case the laws were for that time just when they were advantageous for the mutual dealings of the citizens, and subsequently ceased to be just when they were no longer advantageous.

Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines 37-38

Notice that, first and foremost, it is clear that men create the laws and that men have, at any point, the power to change them. Epicureans never allow for a “holy lie” to even plant its roots in the soil of philosophy. While Epicurean doctrines seem to allow for an aristocratic code (things of advantage may or may not be “the same for all”), we also find in the Epicurean sources a lack of emphasis on the priorities of the ruling class, and instead an egalitarian, anarchic, and–most importantly–pragmatic focus on mutual benefit.

In Book 5 of On the Nature of Things, Lucretius mentions how “neighbors began to form mutual alliances, wishing neither to do nor to suffer violence among themselves“, echoing again the indication that Epicureans believed contractarianism to be the earliest type of law.

A Transcendental Epicureanism

The following is the translation of a chapter from the book Cosmos by Michel Onfray. Translated from the French by Ross Ragsdale. Edited for clarity by Hiram Crespo. The book was written by the eminent French intellectual shortly after the death of his father, and is an exploration of our place in the universe.

Michel Onfray no Fronteiras do Pensamento Santa Catarina 2012 (8212742449).jpgAncient philosophy functioned as an antidote to my Judeo-Christian education. I was intellectually, spiritually, and ontologically prepared by Roman Catholicism; it was hard for me to believe, at the age of 17, that we could not be moral without being Christian. Of course, I understood that being Christian did not in reality imply being moral: examples of vindictive priests, sadists, perverts, gropers of young boys, had proven that to me early on. The wrath of the parish priest of my hometown, the brutality and pedophilia of the Salesians that I endured in an orphanage, if not the immoral behavior of local figures who would go to the Sunday Mass … all this made up what I already empirically knew, that there existed a gulf between calling oneself a Christian and actually being one.

It is probably during this time that my distrust of words and my decision to judge according to the facts had been born. Smooth talkers, rhetoricians, sophists, verbose men, and orators immediately collapse against this extremely straightforward yardstick. In contrast, many modest, discreet, taciturn individuals prove to be the heroes of common life, for, without saying so, they do good around them. Secular sanctity exists. I’ve met her …

I loved learning that one could be moral without being a Christian. This was taught to me by my old master, Lucien Jerphagnon, who gave an epic account of Lucretius’ Roman Epicureanism. I discovered On the Nature of Things as an existential support from which I could organize my life while attempting to develop it properly, while honoring the Roman values of friendship, civicism, integrity, the given word and moral conflict. And then, discovering the rotundity of the earth–I was only seventeen years old, and one is quite serious when one is 17–I understood that pre-Christian thought provides a precious ore for a post-Christian philosophy, for at the time of Lucretius, (modern) fiction is in distant emergence.

I loved that an answer to the problem of death responded to the existential crisis of my time. This simple, succinct, efficient, frighteningly efficient, that where I am, death is not, and where death is, I am not, immediately convinced me that the event of death was not the idea of death, that the former is less present in a life–for death can be brief, immediate, sudden–and the latter can pervert actual death through anxiety, fear, worry, dread. We must live, while awaiting the day that shall not fail to occur but lacks immediate reality. The true certainty lies not in the existence of a life after death, but that of a life before death, a life of which we must make the best use.

Whence Epicurean hedonism. The Roman Epicureanism of Lucretius, its Campanian method, its belated truth with Philodemus of Gadara or Diogenes of Oenoanda, give Epicurus’ Greek Epicureanism another appearance. Nietzsche is right to say that philosophy is an autobiographical confession; that of Epicurus was the thought of a sick, fragile man with a weak body distorted by extremely painful kidney stones during a period that was unaware of any effective sedation. This is why his hedonism is austere, ascetic, minimal, and defines itself by the absence of pain. To refuse to satisfy all desires, (focusing mainly on) those of hunger and thirst, then to make of this satisfaction the peace of the body, therefore the peace of the soul, this links the hedonism of Epicurus to a wisdom of renouncement.

On the other hand, the Roman Epicureanism of Lucretius turns its back on the Greek formula. We are unaware of the biography of this Roman philosopher. We can barely affirm that he was a knight during the first year of the Common Era, but from his work we can deduce that his body was one of great health. Lucretius does not wish to define ataraxia as solely the satisfaction of necessary and natural desires; he wishes that all desires be satisfied if they are not repaid by a greater displeasure.

Where Epicurus thinks that quenching thirst and hunger is done with water and a bit of bread, Lucretius does not exclude what constituted the basic menu of the Herculaneum Epicureans whose Villa was found decorated with philosophically edifying works of art: sardines fished in the Mediterranean, olive oil produced with fruits from the garden, fish marinated with citrus from the orchard, butter, milk, cream and eggs from the farm animals, lamb’s meat grilled with the vine from which they would make fresh wine, bread made with the wheat from the surrounding fields. Roman Epicureanism–which was more practical, more empirical, livelier than Greek Epicureanism–appeared to me in my youth as an ontological Mediterranean sun.

The founder’s Greek Formula forbids (1) sexuality: for Epicurus, the libido is inscribed in the logic of natural desires, common to both humans and animals, but is unnecessary. Unncessary, for not satisfying sexual desire does not impede upon the life of the individual being and does not prevent the being from persevering in his being. We appreciate the pro domo advocacy from Epicurus, for whom sexual vitality should not be more powerful than non-sexual vitality. At 17 years old, when we have neither Epicurus’ modest body nor his modest health, Lucretius appears more satisfying.

On the Nature of Things does not forbid sexuality, unless its practice must be repaid by inconveniences that disturb the sage’s wisdom. Therefore, there isn’t a deontological posturing from Lucretius (a common characteristic of Roman thought), but rather a consequentialist affirmation (a character trait from Roman thought): if sexual desire troubles the soul, one should satisfy the desire; if this enjoyment is repaid by a displeasure, one must renounce it; if, on the contrary, the trouble of the desire resolves itself through pleasure, then we simply give free rein to our desire. Lucretius affirms that we are sexual beings, that sexuality is neither good nor bad, that her exercise need not produce disagreements that impede the sage from exercising his discipline. The Roman philosopher imagines a concrete life with a concrete sexuality for the concrete man where the Greek sanctity of Epicurus places its ethics on summits unattainable to the sage unless he renounces the world … to truly live as an ectoplasm (1).

What I did not see at the time when I first read Lucretius is the consolatory philosophical role he gives to science.  It’s only today that I understand it.  The Epicureans do not concern themselves with useless knowledge in order to lead a philosophical life. No taste for idle speculations, pure theory, intellectual rhetoric, disembodied speculation: they think in order to produce the happy life.  Science herself is no exception to this logic: the atomic theory, physics, the knowledge taught in the letters to Pythocles and Herodotus, aim for nothing more than pacifying doubts, crushing fear, and evaporating anxiety.

During my discovery of Epicurus, I was saddened to learn that only 3 letters remain, of which only one was devoted to ethics. The university only ever teaches the history of philosophy, but never the history of the history of philosophy. No one said that we owe the increasing scarcity of Epicurus’ complete work–who, according to Diogenes Laertius, had written more than 300 books–to the Judeo-Christian fury, which declared the ancient materialism null and void.

Walking the walk and talking the talk (joignant le geste et la parole), the Christians had succeeded in what Plato had dreamed: a great metaphorical inferno for works incompatible with idealist, spiritualist, and religious fictions. Hundreds of thousands of sheep were slaughtered to tan the skins on which were recorded the texts of the Christian sect, and atomistic thought was scraped; its leathers became scrolls for the plethora of gospels, or were erased, neglected, vilified, forgotten, insulted, caricatured, despised. Three unfortunate letters have survived this barbarous massacre from the followers of the love of neighbor.

These three letters, by chance, were summaries of the complete work for the disciples: dense and clear compendiums of what to remember, to teach to practice Epicurism. The Letters to Herodotus and Pythocles distressed me: what good are all these considerations on sounds, bodies, emptiness, arrangements, simulacra, perception, vision, celestial phenomena? And what of these claims that “nothing comes from nothing”, that “the universe is infinite”, or that teach the eternity of movement and other detailed considerations on the forms of the worlds, or that teach of the inifity of the worlds, of the true nature of eclipses, of meteors, of the movements and lights of the stars, of the variation in the duration of day and night, meteorology, light, thunder, lightning bolts, cyclones, tornados, earthquakes, hail, snow, dew, ice, the rainbow, the halo around the moon, the comets, stars that turn around one spot, those that wander in space–the shooting stars?

Impatient, I wanted existential recipes here and now, practical and practicable wisdoms, life skills, some concrete spiritual exercises. But I had not seen that a more careful reading of Epicurus would have dissipated my first movement: the materialistic physics lays out a concrete ontology, and forbids the foolishness of a metaphysics apart from physics. In other words, Epicurus forbids a religion that hides its name (2) and talks to us about essences, concepts, ideas to better bring us back or lead us to God, and (he forbids) the worlds of servitude that this legitimates, explains, excuses, and justifies.

Epicurus writes that scientific knowledge exempts us from subscribing to irrational cruelty. To advance knowledge is to contribute to the decline of the misunderstandings with which the legends, the fictions, the fables with which religion is nourished are formed. If we know that, in the sky, there is only matter, multiple atoms; if we discover that the gods are material and that, free of troubles, experiencing ataraxia, they function as models of practical wisdom, then we empty the sky of the gods of faith and theology, we stop submitting to false powers invested with false authority over men.

Science worthy of its name–the grammar suggests that it is a transcendental Epicureanism–undermines religion, when understood as superstition, that is: a belief in false gods. The only true gods are material and their divinity resides in their subtle constitution and singular arrangements. In the letter to Pythocles, after having spoken about lightning and its impact–once considered sacred because it had been designated by the gods to send messages to humans–Epicurus gives his version (of what it is). The atomist philosopher summons materialistic explanations: gatherings of swirling winds, conflations, the rupture of a part of their mass, their violent fall, the density and the compression of the clouds, the dynamics of the fire, the interaction between the celestial movements and the geology of the mountains. Then he concludes his concrete analysis of concrete phenomena: “Let only myth be excluded!”

“Let only myth be excluded!” This is the categorical imperative of what I call a transcendental Epicureanism. I am not usually a supporter of the transcendental, because the word is often used as ontological “loincloth” for the sacred, for the divine, for the immaterial, for the religious! I retain from this word the meaning which Littré attributes to it: “that which relies on data superior to sensible impression and observation” (3). In other words, there was a historical Epicureanism, dated, inscribed in dates, with philosophers, works, names, and books. The disciples of Epicurus found the word and the meaning.

Let us start from the diversity of Epicureanism: that of the contemporaries of the founder, and of the others who came later, such as Diogenes of Oenanda–from the 4th / 3rd century BCE to the 3rd century AD. Let us note that there was more than half a millennia of Epicurean philosophy in Greece, in Rome or Herculaneum, and elsewhere in Asia Minor. Some adherents were contemporaries of the decadent Athenian city, others of the conquering Roman Empire. Let us conclude that, notwithstanding the differences, there is a powerful constitutive force of Epicureanism, an energy that will, moreover, subtly nourish the current of intellectual resistance to Christianity.

I call transcendental Epicureanism this force which crystallizes around a certain number of untimely and unrealistic theses. The world is knowable; knowledge is the architect of happiness; happiness supposes the emancipation from all mythologies; mythologies are the only antidote to monistic materialism; monistic materialism fights religions; religions thrive on ascetic ideals; the ascetic ideal invites one to die in the world in his lifetime; to die in the world while alive is worse than truly dying one day; one must prepare to truly die one day; this preparation supposes philosophy–which is true knowledge of the true world, and recusal of fables and fictions. Da capo (4).

This transcendental Epicureanism now assumes that philosophy, so often lost in the worship of the pure verb, revives the Epicurean tradition of taste for science. Admittedly, science has become complex, specialized, fragmented, difficult to understand for a non-specialist. Rarely can a man anymore–like Descartes–be both a brilliant philosopher and also an inventor who leaves his name in the history of science. But the impossibility of knowing everything about the science of one’s time does not prevent us from knowing enough to stop saying nonsense about the world in general or about a particular subject.

The central questions in droves of considerations by contemporary philosophers–on bioethics, global warming, genetic engineering, natural gas, transgenesis, genetically modified organisms, patentability of life, biodiversity, cloning, the greenhouse effect–often come from the deontologist discourse. This resorts to the methodology of fear, which is dear to Hans Jonas, since it requires tapping into healthy reason. Magical thinking often feeds the rhetoric of catastrophism, which allows for a disconnected discourse of science. Ignorance of what science permits leads to a theoretical delusion that thinks more about science fiction than about science without fiction.

Materialists and atomists, Democritus and Epicurus thought from the information provided by their empirical intelligence. The ray of light in which suspended particles dance gives the intuitive impulse to a concrete physics that leads to an ethics free of deities. A transcendental Epicureanism requires use of the information that science can provide to avoid delirium purely and simply. In this configuration of timeless Epicureanism, the transcendental proves to be a remedy for transcendence.

Let’s ask astrophysics to provide an ontology that can illustrate what transcendental Epicureanism could be—in preparation for an ethics of ataraxia. We would discover that the atomistic intuitions of twenty-five centuries ago are globally corroborated by recent scientific discoveries in the field–whereas for the past two thousand years, science has never confirmed a single Christian hypothesis, and has furthermore invalidated them all: geology downgrades the Christian thesis of the world’s age, as astronomy does with geo-centrism, psychology challenges the thesis on free will, Darwinian naturalism dismantles the thesis of the divine origin of man, astrophysics that of the creationist origin of the world, etc.

On the other hand, the contemporary sciences validate many epicurean intuitions: the monism of matter; (when) reduced (to their minimal components), things are made up of pure and simple material combinations; the eternity of matter; the temporality of its arrangements; the inexistence of a void in a configuration where nothing is created from nothing, and nothing disappears into nothing; the alternating dynamic of decomposition and recomposition; the particle as a primordial element present in all existing things; the infinity of the universe, therefore of space; the existence of a plurality of worlds; the perishable character of our universe, which has come into being, is and will disappear; the ordering of the cosmos in reducible order to a mathematical formulation and to the laws of nature–all without a God or Creator.

Here is what we know about the cosmos as told by Jean-Pierre Luminet (henceforward, JPL), whose hypothesis of a crumpled universe seduces me. JPL is an astrophysicist, certainly, but also a music lover, musician, poet, writer, novelist, cartoonist, to whom must be added pedagogue, lecturer, professor, researcher. He resembles those men of the Renaissance who are by no means impressed by the universal, and who idly travel in all the intellectual worlds seemingly detached while unveiling all that is. JPL operates at the level of the big leagues, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Einstein, but our era does not like its geniuses.

JPL quotes the philosophers, certainly. He knows well the philosophy of science, and happily moves in all the worlds: from the poetic cosmological thought of the Presocratic ones, to the hardest physics of the contemporary researchers while passing by the classics, from Plato to Leibniz, from Nicolas de Cues to Giordano Bruno, from Copernicus to Typhoon Brahe, from Einstein to Riemann, from Gauss to Lobatchevski, but he manifests a particular fondness for the atomist of Abdera (Democritus), Epicurus and Lucretius, and their brilliant intuitions.

In the field of astronomy, the last thirty years have brought more than the last three millennia. Specialization of observation equipment brought about the advent of new concepts. Hence the astonishment to find that the finest apex of discoveries coincides with the empirical hypotheses of the materialists who, watching the dance of dust in a ray of light, construct a world, a universe, a cosmology, an ontology always from the point of view of foundations.

If the philosopher deduces the nature of reality from a few grains of dust, the astrophysicist specifies things. Originally, the universe is a compound of gas and plain dust floating between empty space and stars. There is no sun yet. In this nebula are all the atoms discovered by the materialists: which constitute the planets of the solar system, the earth and all that is on the earth, the human bodies–even myself, who am writing this book and you, who are reading it–everything under your gaze at the moment you read, and when you lift the head from these pages, all this is a compound of atoms floating in the nebula that has engendered us. The monistic truth cannot be better said: from the flea to the planets, from the giant squid of the underwater world to the stars, from the woodworm dear to the philosophers for their demonstrations, to Darwin who expounds the law of evolution in the animal kingdom, from the blade of grass to the galaxy, everything comes from this protostellar nebula solicited by the explosion of a supernova, a very large star, whose shock-wave shakes the balance of the nebula that collapses on itself, and causes chain reactions, giving birth to the sun–this light that nourishes planet Earth.

The mass of gas turns on itself, it contracts, the rotation accelerates, the cloud flattens and takes the form of a disk that makes possible the accretion, in other words the conglomeration of small bodies to form bigger ones until, from tiny dust, come the planets, including the earth, then man … the effects of gravity affect this movement of collapse of the Star on itself. For millions of years, these movements of accretions multiply.

Could not we find a scientific, physical, astrophysical formulation of what Epicureans call the clinamen? When Lucretius explains that everything is composed of atoms, to then explain that we went from a multitude of atoms that fell in the void, to the composite bodies (we have now), he resorts to this scientific hypothesis which proves to be an excellent scientific intuition: the poetic postulate of the swerve (clinamen): the declivity of an atom which encounters another which makes the aggregation of what is possible, this poetic postulate, therefore becomes a refined scientific formulation under the pen of the astrophysicists.

The sun that makes life possible on earth therefore has a date of birth: before it the universe was, after it the universe will be. When the latter happened, the universe was already 9 billion years old; its time is running out, it will last another 5 billion years. Before it, man was a potentiality without consciousness to think it; after it, man will not even be a memory, since no consciousness will be there to carry its memory. Man will have undergone an event in a huge atomic conflagration. But this event is believed to be everything and the center of everything, while it is buried in what is, in the same way as we see in stones and glaciers, volcanoes and storms, halo and rainbows.

To remain local and modest to our universe, JPL claims that it is finite but boundless, creating an oxymoron, since the end assumes the limit, limits an end, and that one cannot be finite and limitless. (He is referring to) a three-dimensional Euclidean space, of course, because, in this configuration, our conceptual and mental habits force us into a certain type of representation. But in a non-Euclidean space, the oxymoron disappears in favor of a new mental figure which allows, for example, if one is in a cube, to go out through the ceiling and thus to enter (another cube) through the floor.

This change in spatial paradigm makes it possible to solve a number of problems, including that of the shape of the universe. JPL says it is crumpled. In other words, much smaller than we imagine, and refracted by a device that makes us take for greater that it is. The real, at least what appears to us as such, is an immense combination of fictions, in this case optical illusions, topological mirages, ghosts. Lucretius held for an infinite universe because he wondered what would become of a javelin launched towards the finite at the moment when it would reach the limits of the universe: would it stop? Break against potential walls? But behind these walls of a finite world, what exists? And how do we name what would exist after the limit of the finite? Non-Euclidean geometry makes it possible to solve the problem: Lucretius’ javelin thrown towards the infinite would go infinitely into this finite but limitless universe: perpetual motion, eternity by the stars.

JPL explains that what we observe deceives us: different ages seem to us like the same time. The fossil radiation of the universe assumes that all our information about it is given by the light that reaches our gaze distorted by the force that structures the universe. Light does not move except by gravitation. So the straight line is not the shortest way. Gravitation digs an abyss of forces, which become the course of light and make it write singular partitions: many lights, divided in time stages over millions of years, reach the observer at once. The multiplicity of light-times merges into a single observation time. So that we think that the same thing at different stages is multiple things, as if we were taking a character we see in ten thousand pictures from their conception to their death, and imagining him as different individuals. These gravitational mirages show that vastness is not so vast, as much as one might think it is after seeing it.

JPL takes the example of a space whose interior would be lined with mirrors that would reflect a single candle: we would see as much as the refractions would allow, and yet it would be only the flame of a single candle as many times duplicated as there are mirrors. Real space is much smaller than the observed space. This universe is crumpled: a kind of mirror game enlarges a small representation. Our universe is a baroque theater.

This world is small, but there are many of them, and astrophysics speak of the multiverse. Our universe would have detached itself from the quantum vacuum to obey its own temporal clock and its singular spatial geometry while the multiverse would live outside space and time by aggregating universes incessantly in formation with their times and their spaces. This is totally novel and absolutely inconceivable for a brain formatted in our space-time.

Epicureans believed in multiple worlds and material gods between the worlds. Totally devoid of human form, of human feelings, their subtle atoms would embody a model of ataraxia which Epicurus called to imitate: the ataraxia of the sage was therefore shaped by the gods of the cosmos. The gods were anthropomorphic neither in form nor in substance, just ideal forms that could be activated as models of wisdom, which was reduced to pure pleasure of existence. (5)

But the intermundia are validated by astrophysics: they are black holes that are defined as a force of such gravity that it absorbs everything that comes within reach, it ingests and digests material, even light. Time dilates, matter decomposes and is absorbed, light rays deviate. The boundaries that delimit black holes are called “event horizons” because we cannot observe anything beyond them. There is no interior and exterior, no space and time, and all is reversed. Near this horizon, space turns like a glove. It is distortion of space-time.

Some say that the bottom of the rotating black hole is not a dead-end and that there are “worm holes”, which are kinds of tunnels that corresponding with other universes. We can also imagine “white fountains” that would be the opposite of black holes, which would not absorb but would spout matter engulfed by black holes. The bigbang would then be a huge white fountain perhaps connected to another universe that would have dumped some of its matter in our own universe. That’s how we are here.

The Epicurean atoms of the protostellar nebula, the clinamen as a poetic intuition of the astrophysical phenomenon of accretion, the Lucretian javelin launched towards the infinite which discovers its trajectory drawn by the astrophysics of JPL, the plurality of Epicurean worlds validated by the multiverse of the discoverers: here is evidence that a contemporary transcendental Epicureanism is possible or conceivable, and that physics–in this case astrophysics–is an introductory course to ethics.

Obviously, we see that the Judeo-Christian sky filled with angelic trinkets, paradisiacal fiction for glorious bodies, is outclassed by the assumptions of astrophysical science. This field of science claims its modesty: we know almost nothing about the universe and the cosmos. But what we are beginning to know forces us to revisit our conceptions of freedom, free will, choice, responsibility. Anyone who can reason understands that we are fruits of nature.

But we are also fruits of the cosmos, and this is much less evident to the mortals who often ignore the discoveries of the most recent astrophysics. The latest work on Higgs’ boson–which was finally discovered–should compel the latter-day theologians to surrender arms and instead consider retraining in ontology, provided it is materialistic. The heavenly Judeo-Christian hodgepodge, even when we no longer believe it literally, left traces in the soul shaped by more than a thousand years of ideology.

Magical thinking still exists in millions of human brains: from creationists to New Age shamans, from neo-Buddhists to Muslim theists, from custom-made monotheists from planetary megacities to spiritualism, from the anthroposophy of the proponents of biodynamic agriculture, devotees of Shinto spiritual creatures who invoke the gods of the lawn before carving them, from supporters of many sects–like the Raelians–who think that only the cloned will be saved and admitted into the spaceship that will ensure salvation to vodouisants and other African-American cults, there is no shortage of supporters of the supernatural recycled in religion after religion.

A materialistic ontology leans on this transcendental Epicureanism which recalls the link between man and nature, certainly, but also between man and the little we know of the cosmos. Let’s tap into our ability to enjoy the spectacle of this immensity, which presupposes the sublime: the sublime is the path of materialistic, atomistic, atheistic access to the oceanic feeling that brought the body back into the configuration that existed before the Judeo-Christian separation (from nature). The lessons given by the sublime activate in the being a force that was neglected, despised, vilified, hunted down by monotheisms. Renewing the search for it according to hedonistic logic, allows a post-Christian ethics in which transcendental Epicureanism plays a significant role.

Notes:

1. Here, Onfray seems to make Epicurus seem more austere than he was. Most contemporary Epicureans would not accept the view that Epicurus forbids sexuality. In the sources (See Vatican Saying 51), he merely warns about the potential dangers of sexuality to be mindful of.

2. When referring to a “religion that hides its name”, Onfray perhaps refers here to Christianity as nothing more than Platonism.

3. In other words, by setting “Let only myth be excluded!” as the only non-empirical source in his epistemology, Epicurus set a new, scientific boundary for ultimate, transcendental reality, one which supplies us with many of the same cosmological underpinnings that people find in religion.

4. “Da capo” means “from the beginning”; that is, “and back to the beginning”.

5. Here, it sounds like Onfray is combining the realist and idealist interpretations of the Epicurean gods.

Further reading:

Cosmos (in French) by Michel Onfray