Cyrenaic Handbook – Book Review

The following is a book review of Cyreniacs Handbook: Handbook of Source Material for Cyrenaic Philosophy

The Cyrenaics

The Cyreniacs Handbook is a compilation of all that can be found in the available ancient sources about the Cyrenaics. The ideas are not explained or systematically explored. For that, I would enthusiastically recommend The Birth of Hedonism: The Cyrenaic Philosophers and Pleasure as a Way of Life, by Kurt Lampe (book review here). Since the ideas of the Cyrenaic School have been explored in my review of Lampe’s book, I will revisit some of the additional ideas I found of interest here.

The Cyrenaic School was founded by Aristippus of Cyrene. Lucian’s Sale of Creeds summarizes Aristippus’ doctrine this way: “Think the worst of things, make the most of things, get all possible pleasure out of things“.


He was able to adapt himself in both time and place. He enjoyed pleasure, but did not toil after more than what he had. His sayings were the best. Diogenes called him “the King’s Dog”. – Suda

In a previous discussion of the Cyrenaics, and again in the recent exploration of Philodemus’ method of studying and cultivating the virtues, I mentioned that Aristippus was known for the virtue of adaptability, and that he took pride in exacting enjoyment from all circumstances and being in control in adversity and prosperity. The Handbook explores this a bit further, saying (in page 16) that Aristippus could always turn a situation favorable, and that he got pleasure from what was present and didn’t toil to procure something not present. While many other philosophers (even in his own tradition) have a history of turning cynical and misanthropic, Aristippus said that his philosophy gave him the ability to feel at ease in any society (page 19), which is part of how this virtue of adaptability served him to live pleasantly.

Many of the Epicureans of later generations drew inspiration from Aristippus and were proud to see him as their precursor. This passage from Lucretius paraphrases Aristippus’ adaptability doctrine:

You yearned for what was not,
scorned what is.
Life slipped through your fingers shapeless and unlovely.

In Horace’s Epistle 1.1.1-19 we read:

I slip back privately to Aristippus precepts, trying to bend world to self and not self to world.

Here, we find that Horace (and Aristippus) flip the Stoic paradigm of control upside-down, inviting us to bend the world to ourselves, to use our freedom and creativity to creatively shape our environment and our reality in our favor, rather than allowing externals to control us and force us to change ourselves.

Is There a Neutral State of Sentience?

One of the sources mentioned in the Hand book discusses one of the controversies between the Cyrenaics and the Epicureans.

Among his other hearers was his own daughter Arete, who having borne a son named him Aristippus, and he from having been introduced by her to philosophical studies was called his mother’s pupil. He quite plainly defined the end to be the life of pleasure, ranking as pleasure that which lies in motion. For he said that there are three states affecting our temperament: one, in which we feel pain, like a storm at sea; another, in which we feel pleasure, that may be likened to a gentle undulation, for pleasure is a gentle movement, comparable to a favourable breeze; and the third is an intermediate state, in which we feel neither pain nor pleasure, which is similar to a calm. So of the feelings only, he said, we have the sensation. – Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 14.18

The first Epicureans argued against the existence of this third, intermediate state, and argued that all the experiences of the sentient being are either pleasant or painful.

Thinking about the past and the future

Tsouna argues (page 82 of The Ethics of Philodemus)  that we should think rightly concerning past and future, rather than not think of them at all. In our discussion of Philodemus’ critique of maximalism, we learned that

people who look to a long life or to the future in order to pursue new goods constantly are never able to achieve and enjoy the greatest pleasure because they are never content or satisfied. Furthermore, they think that happiness means a greater number of accumulated pleasures.

These teachings also go back to Aristippus, who recommended the practice of “presentism” to his disciples in order to help them squeeze pleasure out of their immediacy. He taught that never being anxious about the past or future is a sign of a constant, clear spirit. He also posited a type of dichotomy of control based on the present moment, and said that we should “care for only the present, for only that is in our power“. He judged of all good by the present alone, saying that the past is no longer, and the future is uncertain.

This is an interesting way of thinking about pleasure as it relates to time. In seeking to contrast this to what the Epicurean founders would have to say, I found PD 9:

If every pleasure were condensed and were present at the same time and in the whole of one’s nature or its primary parts, then the pleasures would never differ from one another. – Epicurean Principal Doctrine 9

Another translation says:

If all pleasure had been capable of accumulation … not only in recurrences in time, but all over the frame or, at any rate, over the principal parts of human nature, there would never have been any difference between one pleasure and another, as in fact there is.

The Epicurean focus (as usual) seems to be on the limits that nature places on our pleasures, and is (as in Aristippus) empirical: we SEE and FEEL that the pleasures are experienced as diverse, and we SEE and FEEL that they vary and have their limits in time, bodily or mental location, and intensity. Once available, there no need to intensify these pleasures, only to enjoy them. The anxiety that leads to constant intensification of pleasures and to seeking thrills, reflects ungratefulness of the creature towards nature, and is also based on a flawed understanding of nature.

Principal Doctrine 20 ties this to Aristippus’ presentism by reminding us that the flesh is not able to apprehend these natural limits, but the mind is. It is therefore up to the mind to clearly understand the natural limits of pleasure, and to secure the pleasant life by remaining in a contented disposition.

The Annicerians

In my most recent Twentieth message, I argue for the possibility of an Afro-Greek intellectual ferment happening around Cyrene, which may have influenced pleasure philosophy. While studying Lampe’s book on the Cyrenaics, we learned that the philosophical lineage and tradition that Aristippus began there was very diverse, and that many of his disciples branched off into their own sects. However, since much of the philosophizing that took place there involved the celebration of Pleasure as our guide, Cyrene has been often neglected among students of philosophy, and for this reason Michel Onfray calls the city of Cyrene a philosophical Atlantis whose buried treasures we should rediscover.

Anniceris was a disciple of Aristippus, who is credited with inventing pleasure ethics, and he and his sect are considered Cyrenaic, but he was not an acritical follower. He was a reformer of Cyrenaic doctrine who established his own sect. He invented the idea of the hedonic calculus (which Epicurus appropriated and developed further by adding the hierarchy of desires). Anniceris has been called a proto-Epicurean. More on his doctrine can be found here.

Anniceris is supposed to have reformed the Cyrenaic sect, and to have introduced in its stead the Annicerian sect. – Strabo

One passage in the Cyrenaic Handbook says that Anniceris “became an Epicurean despite being an acquaintance of Paraebatus, the student of Aristippus“. According to his biography, he lived at the same time as Alexander the Great, which means that it is chronologically possible that he may have met Epicurus or some of the early Epicureans and converted to the new doctrine. However, since Anniceris is not mentioned as a prominent disciple in any of the extant Epicurean sources, this may be speculation, and we may treat the Annicerians as a pre-Epicurean sect. The Handbook says:

Anniceris had a brother by the name of Nicoteles, also a philosopher, and his student was the famous Posidonius. The sect called Annicerean originates from him. He lived at the time of Alexander the Great, he believed that friendship and patriotism were good in themselves and so seems to have created a sect that was halfway between Epicurean and Cyrenaic.

Among his sayings and teachings, we find many ideas that would later be elaborated on by the Epicureans, including the importance of cultivating healthy habits and dispositions, and the importance of friendship:

Instruction is not sufficient in itself to inspire us with confidence and to make us rise superior to the opinion of the multitude. Habits must be formed because of the bad disposition which has grown up in us from the first.

A friend should be cherished not merely for his utility – for, if that fails, we should then no longer associate with him – but for the good feeling for the sake of which we shall even endure hardships.

Clement of Alexandria had this to say of the Annicerians:

And those called Annicereans, of the Cyrenaic succession, laid down no definite end for the whole of life; but said that to each action belonged, as its proper end, the pleasure accruing from the action. These Cyrenaics reject Epicurus’ definition of pleasure, that is the removal of pain, calling that the condition of a dead man; because we rejoice not only on account of pleasures, but companionships and distinctions; while Epicurus thinks that all joy of the soul arises from previous sensations of the flesh.

It seems from this passage that the Annicerians focused on “the pleasures” rather than Pleasure. I have noted before that the use of plurals rather than singular nouns to refer to things is one technique that may be used by materialist philosophers to speak in clear and concrete language, rather than in abstract language. In A Few Days in Athens, this technique is used in the passage: “Zeno has his eyes on man; Epicurus has his eyes on men“–the idea here being that “man” is a Platonized, idealized abstraction while “men” are real, physical people. Ergo, Epicurus is more personal, and his philosophy is more humanized and reality-based.

Further Reading:

Hegesias and Anniceris

The Theodorians

Theodorus the Atheist was discussed in a previous series of essays about the Cyrenaics. Like the other thinkers who were highlighted, he also founded a sect that bore his name. According to the Handbook,

Theodore was the founder of that branch of the Cyrenaic sect which was called after him “Theodorei”, “Theodoreans.” The general characteristics of the Cyrenaic philosophy are described elsewhere. The opinions of Theodore, as we gather them from the perplexed statement of Diogenes Laertius (ii. 98) partook of the lax character of the Cyrenaic school.

He taught that the great end of human life is to obtain joy and avoid grief, the one the fruit of prudence, the other of folly; that prudence and justice are good, their opposites evil; that pleasure and pain are indifferent. He made light of friendship and patriotism, and affirmed that the world was his country. He taught that there was nothing really disgraceful in theft, adultery, or sacrilege; but that they were branded only by public opinion, which had been formed in order to restrain fools … The wise man would indulge his passions openly without the least regard to circumstances.

But the great charge against him was atheism. “He did away with all opinions respecting the Gods,” says Laertius, but some critics doubt whether he was absolutely an atheist, or simply denied the existence of the deities of popular belief. The charge of atheism is sustained by the popular designation of Theodoras ”Atheus,” by the authority of Cicero (de Nat. Deor. i. 1), Laertius, Plutarch (De Placit. Philos. i. 7), Sextus Empiricus (Pyrrhon. Hypotyp. lib. iii.), and some of the Christian Fathers; while some other authorities speak of him as only rejecting the popular theology. Theodore wrote a book “Concerning God”, De Diis, which Laertius–who had seen it–says (ii. 97) was not to be disdained; and he adds that it was said to have been the source of many of the statements or arguments of Epicurus. According to Suidas he wrote many works both on the doctrines of his sect and on other subjects.

Elsewhere, it says:

Theodorus considered joy and grief to be the supreme good and evil, the one brought about by wisdom, the other by folly. Wisdom and justice he called goods, and their opposites evils, pleasure and pain being intermediate to good and evil. Friendship he rejected because it did not exist between the unwise nor between the wise; with the former, when the want is removed, the friendship disappears, whereas the wise are self-sufficient and have no need of friends.

Notice the statement on how Laertius held Theodorus’ book on divinity in high esteem, and considered it to be the source for “many of the arguments” we find in the Epicurean theories on theology and piety. Now, let’s consider this in light of what we know of Epicurean theology, as attested in Principal Doctrine 1 and Philodemus’ scroll On Piety. PD1 states:

A happy and eternal being has no trouble himself and brings no trouble upon any other being; hence he is exempt from movements of anger and partiality, for every such movement implies weakness.

The Monadnock translation says:

That which is blissful and immortal has no troubles itself, nor does it cause trouble for others, so that it is not affected by anger or gratitude (for all such things come about through weakness).

The pattern that immediately becomes evident here is that, just as Theodorus used to teach his philosophy in terms of pairs of opposites (joy/grief, prudence/folly, etc.), we see here a focus on “anger and partiality / gratitude“. Scholars have pointed out that this has to do with the gods’ autarchy (self-sufficiency): they do not need anything from anyone, ergo they are not of the constitution that would experience anger or gratitude, as no creature may harm or benefit them. We know from Lampe’s book that autarchy was one of the cardinal virtues of Theodorus, so this fits his profile, particularly if the gods are to be seen as ethical guides.

Also notice that these aspects of the theology do not touch on the physics. Unlike Epicurus, Theodorus was not of the lineage of Democritus and may not have come up with a physical theory of gods as super-evolved animals with bodies made of particles, as we see in Epicurean theology. This indicates that his ideas in the work On the Gods cited by Laertius (which seem to have influenced Epicurus) may have focused, instead, on the ethical aspects of the gods. Hence the two key attributes that Epicurus considers taboo to ascribe to deities in his Epistle to Menoeceus:

Do not ascribe to god anything that is inconsistent with immortality and blissfulness; instead, believe about god everything that can support immortality and blissfulness.

Some translations use the word happiness (that is: always abiding in pleasure, which fits the ethical ideal of hedonism), and indestructible (which fits the definition of a god). In the case of the gods’ immortality, Epicurus may have developed this theory by linking it to his atomist physics.

Like Epicurus, Theodorus seems to not have been a real atheist (in spite of his epithet “Theodorus the Atheist”). He seems to have rejected the vulgar and popular beliefs about the gods, as Epicurus did, and for that reason they were both misbranded atheists. Diogenes Laertius, in Life of Aristippus (2.97-104), says:

The Theodoreans derived their name from Theodorus, who has already been mentioned, and adopted his doctrines. Theodorus was a man who utterly rejected the current belief in the gods. And I have come across a book of his entitled Of the Gods which is not contemptible. From that book, they say, Epicurus borrowed most of what he wrote on the subject.

Here, we see that Anniceris is not the only proto-Epicurean in the Cyrenaic lineage. The Handbook has this to say of Theodorus, which could have easily been attributed to Epicurus, as it is consistent with his instruction that one should philosophize not for Greece, but for oneself:

It was reasonable, as he thought, for the good man not to risk his life in the defense of his country, for he would never throw wisdom away to benefit the unwise.

Elsewhere, the Handbook says of Theodorus:

He said the world was his country.

These teachings are identical to the Epicurean conception of cosmopolitanism, which is sustained by an anarchic spirit that choose nature over culture, true friends over imaginary or Platonic communities.

Further Reading:

Cyreniacs Handbook: Handbook of Source Material for Cyrenaic Philosophy

The Birth of Hedonism: The Cyrenaic Philosophers and Pleasure as a Way of Life

Book Review: The Ethics of Philodemus

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

Philodemus’ Method of Studying and Cultivating the Virtues

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

Defining the Terms

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

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

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

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

Efficient Means to Pleasure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mother of the Excellences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epicurus: the Physician of the Soul

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

A free life cannot acquire many possessions, because this is not easy to do without servility to mobs or monarchs, yet it possesses all things in unfailing abundance; and if by chance it obtains many possessions, it is easy to distribute them so as to win the gratitude of neighbors. – Vatican Saying 67


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

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

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

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

The love of money, if unjustly gained, is impious, and, if justly gained, is shameful; for it is unseemly to be parsimonious even with justice on one’s side. – Vatican Saying 43

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Pride / Dignity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

Philodemus’ On Arrogance


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:
Philodemus’ On Anger

Good Will

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

Ziran (Wikipedia)

Ziran (Encyclopedia Britannica)


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

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

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

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

Why Is This Information Vital?

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

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

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

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

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

On Frankness and On Conversation

Frank Criticism as a Virtue

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

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

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

The Histories

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

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

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

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

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

On Conversation

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

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

Bad speech occurs in bad society and cultivates vice.

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

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

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

Moral Portraiture and Seeing Before the Eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

The Sculpted Word: Epicureanism and Philosophical Recruitment in Ancient Greece

Against Maximalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does this “complete and perfect life” consist of? This is where philosophers will consider the impact of length of life in one’s happiness, and how important it may be to achieve one’s plans before dying. People who look to a long life or to the future in order to pursue new goods constantly are never able to achieve and enjoy the greatest pleasure because they are never content or satisfied. Furthermore, they think that happiness means a greater number of accumulated pleasures. Vatican Saying 14 advises against postponing our happiness, and Principal Doctrine 9 argues against the view that we can condense pleasures in time or space. The idea is to be present to the pleasures that nature makes easily available: here and now, somewhere in our minds and bodies, we are able to experience some form of pleasure.

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

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

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

Philodemus’ Economics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

The Ethics of Philodemus

The Epicurean Doctrines on Wealth

Some Epicurean Thoughts on the Riots and Peaceful Protest

The hashtag #ChicagoRiots was trending this weekend. I tried to stay away from the news cycle, but late last night my brother called me. He was alarmed at all that is happening. He lives in a neighborhood on the West Side of the city where violence is rampant, and he warned me not to go to work today. I will not be going to work today, and have had a chance to finally catch up on the news.

One of my worries is that the image of riots, looting, and burning cars and buildings give Trump and his ilk a chance to talk about riots instead of talking about justice for someone who died in police custody, and greater police accountability, which is where our focus should be.

Let’s put aside the peaceful protesters using their First Amendment right as they should, and consider the lack of hedonic calculus in the violent, chaotic mobs this weekend. Rioters are damaging both public and private property. The damage to public property will have to be paid for by the taxpayers. It’s hard to see how this higher tax bill helps to solve police brutality and systemic racism. The damage to private property will be paid for by insurers, and in the case of many small business and the uninsured, the damage will have to be paid by the business owners IF they can afford it. These investors will think twice before re-investing near communities that have seen riots, which will drive away jobs and perpetuate poverty in these communities. We still see the scars of the 1968 riots in many neighborhoods in Chicago, where there was never an economic recovery from the riots: they still have boarded-up buildings and rampant poverty. From the perspective of hedonic calculus, rioting is clearly an unintelligent strategy for social change.

On the other hand, no one should be surprised that a presidential term that started out with Trump saying that some white supremacists are “good people” and hesitating to be critical of his white supremacist base when they rallied and engaged in violent acts, has evolved into an election year where black people riot due to overt, systemic racist violence. A member of our Garden of Epicurus FB Group asked:

What is the Epicurean view of civil disobedience and peaceful protest?

Some on the group defended the idea of Lathe Biosas (Live unknown), and it’s true for most people it would be disadvantageous and dangerous to be in the midst of riots. Here is some of the discussion.

Alan. How about for someone who is affected directly by injustice and does not have the privilege to be unengaged? Wouldn’t they be unable to choose to remain in obscurity?

Additionally, if everyone adopted a similar reasoning and stayed home, then how would society procure the benefits (i.e., moral development, the upholding of justice, etc.) of civil demonstration that, assumedly, would not have otherwise come about?

I pose these questions because I don’t want Epicureanism to be misconstrued by enemies as societally oblivious, elitist, or privileged.

Robin. Epicureans have to play the long game. How do we protect a philosophy that has been actively stamped out over the last two thousand years. I feel for the people who are affected now. But I have a responsibility to people who may live a thousand years from now. I can do things. But I can do them without attracting the kind of attention that gets a philosophy killed.

Jason. I think it would be wise to follow the Satanic Temple‘s example in this and not attempt to use these protests to promote Epicurean philosophy but be staunch allies by using the calculus to be assistants (the very meaning of the name Epicurus) to those who struggle for equality in whatever way we feel we can.

Marcus. I think “live in obscurity” was more meant to discourage desire for fame, celebrity, power, as is the case of the average politician, or positions of power in general. I don’t think this applies to public protests, where people are relatively anonymous. However, it could apply to people aspiring to become leaders within protest movements, as some people like to use these situations as a means to advance their own personal ambitions.

Robin. It does apply to this situation. At any given moment, you could be filmed and on the news. If you were in a group where some participants became violent, you may be considered guilty by association in the eyes of people watching the video, even if you may just be a bystander. That’s not maintaining a low social profile, which is what the advice means.

Marcus. I still don’t think this is the same thing as being a person of power, for example Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, or even Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg. Also, imagine being a member of Epicurus’ Garden in ancient times and then being accused of participating in orgies and and insulting the gods (something Socrates was executed for). Remember the Epicureans had a bad reputation in some circles at the time. I see your point that taking part in protests does involve some risks, and that is for each individual to evaluate for themselves.

Robin. We all interpret differently, but my understanding comes from the sources and philological discussions. There are some exceptions, where the calculus leads to where nonparticipation is more painful than participating. Since that’s clearly not the case here, especially in the midst of a pandemic, I will keep my head down and out of the street.

Jason. Indeed, people in air-conditioned rooms are critical for the support of those on the ground. People don’t have any trouble understanding this in a military context but for some reason there is a sense that if you’re not on the street, you’re not contributing to social change. That hasn’t been my experience AT ALL. Winning hearts and minds can be done one-on-one too. Sometimes that’s the only way to reach some people.

Robin. Book two of Lucretius De Rerum Natura opens with a beautiful description of observing armies on the plain, emphasizing the pathos of distance.

How sweet, again, to see the clash of battle
Across the plains, yourself immune to danger

But nothing is more sweet than full possession of those calm heights, well built, well fortified by wise men teaching. To look down from here, at others wandering below, men lost, confused, in a hectic search for the right road.

Hiram. You have to carry out hedonic calculus, but Philodemus did say there were two forms of parrhesia / frank criticism: private parrhesia, and PUBLIC PARRHESIA. It seems like protests could be a form of public parrhesia meant to incite moral development in society at large.

Alan. Can anyone give an example of how the hedonic calculus would play out for you personally in deciding whether or not to engage in protest?

Hiram. Hmmm, that’s very subjective and depends on your values. If you have a bail attorney that is there in case you get arrested, and if you strongly believe in the protest, you may take greater risk. If you don’t, and if you’re smart, you probably won’t.

If you participate in protest with people that you trust and who are prudent and smart, you’ll be safer. So part of your calculus involves WHO you protest with, because some people who are young and fiery might put you at greater risk.

There are safe and effective methods of protest (like the boycott, which often attacks the TRUE perpetrators where it hurts them) that have historically shown great results.

Also, hedonic calculus is RESULTS-ORIENTED. If you read Philodemus’ scroll On anger, he says anger can be made virtuous by being made PRODUCTIVE, meaning that it resolves conflict and addresses grievances so that your course of action yields greater pleasure than pain. So you can turn poison into medicine if you channel your anger into a cause. And in “Against empty words“, Epicurus said that we think about whether our actions are right or wrong based on their consequences. So you have to consider what you’re trying to accomplish in every course of action.

And finally, Vatican Saying 71: Every desire must be confronted by this question: what will happen to me if the object of my desire is accomplished and what if it is not?

Alan. Thank you, that all makes sense to me. I still need help with one other matter, and it is this question that I keep struggling with, which is this issue of what our personal responsibility as individuals is to society.

If our views and political goals are aligned with those of an organized protest, but we decide to stay home due to our personal application of hedonic calculus to the context of our own life, are we failing to contribute to society’s moral development?

Hiram. It’s very hard to argue that you should put yourself in the path of danger for the sake of things that are so far out of your control. This is why you should think carefully about your course of action, which is not to say you should engage in INACTION. There are safer and more effective ways to create change than looting a Target or Walmart, and I think this is where you should deliberate.

Alan. Sorry, but who is talking about looting a Target? I said peaceful protest. But yes, the substance of your reply still holds. There may be better applications of our time and resources than us being another body in a crowd of (peaceful) demonstrators.

Hiram. The problem with the looting in target is that if you are seen next to the person who did it, this can be used to create a narrative about your involvement, so you have to be mindful WHO you protest with, and that may be somewhat outside your control.

Jason. Every organized protest has people behind the scenes coordinating relief efforts from home. First aid supplies, legal counsel, collecting of bail money for arrested protesters. None of that can be done in the street. If you want to get involved but the calculus doesn’t work out for you to be on the street, there are other options.

Don’t negate the efforts of patient, persistent, open and honest communication of values to your circles of acquaintance. This parrhesia can reap massive dividends and lead to good works. Mutual aid is an incredibly important part of Epicurean friendship.

Nathan. My view right now is that Americans have a short-term memory issue, and we’ve forgotten that COVID-19 is still wrecking lives. In the State of Florida, three days ago, for the first time in over a month, we had a record increase of new cases. Four months of this virus has killed nearly as many Americans as World War I did in four years.

The Epicurean view is this – “truth” gets obscured in politics, and politics instigates emotional responses that make problem-solving even more difficult. That’s happening right now. The bigger issue that’s affecting us as human beings is a global pandemic that still isn’t contained. In America, a cultural debate, and a law enforcement debate, and a civil rights debate, and a political party debate have all erupted in the messiest way possible, all at once, in the middle of an even larger issue.

The most dangerous thing people can do right now – one way or the other – is not wear masks.

Marcus. I don’t think there is an absolute “Epicurean view” on this question, but if you want to find justification for civil disobedience, it would be here, in Principle Doctrine 37: “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.”

Lucian. We are consequentialists. Options present themselves after events, and we either choose them or avoid them after sober reasoning about how the consequences will affect the blessedness of our life. Hedonic calculus never stops. Self correction by use of the Canon never stops. You have the tools to figure out was is best for yourself in whatever context you find yourself in.

We do not philosophize for the good of our Nation, or our Society. We philosophize for ourselves. Sometimes those coincide. We do not submit like the mob does. We neither fully embrace and submit to our society, nor do we completely discard it, as if we could not make some use of it. We welcome the good in it that arrives at us, and we reject the evil in it that arrives at us.

We are not disconnected from our friends. Diogenes Inscription tells us about the older soldier. In that example, the soldier calculates and concludes that acting will ensure the future he desires for his family and friends, a happy one. He imagines/visualizes and feels the affect/pleasure now, he takes the action later.

Cicero writes that the Torquatus’ family engaged their society both as politicians and also as warriors, when not doing so would be worse.

There are no general blanket rules. Use the tools that nature gave you. Desire ranking and categorization. Hedonic calculus to make good initial guesses, and the Canon of Truth to adapt your opinions to the future evidence and to correct yourself.

The Dude’s Letter To Menoeceus

Below is the Dude’s Letter to Menoeceus, a re-writing of one of our main writings for the parody religion of Dudeism, which is based on the film The Big Lebowski. The translation was furnished by a fellow member of Society of Epicurus, Nathan, who is also a musician and goes on twitter by the handle @ShazdarTheBard. Check out his music here. My favorite song by him is I Hate My Job.

Hey Meno, what’s up?

So, I’ve been keeping my mind limber and some new shit has come to light, man: I figure that wisdom is like learning how to bowl. Bear with me here. This shit is far out.

First off, it’s always a good time to bowl. Don’t be afraid to take off the bumpers when you’re young, or, to start learning when you’re old. Bowling’s just about having fun. It’s not about scoring trophies.

Everyone should learn to bowl, man. When you grow old, you’ll look back and know that you really rolled. And when you’re young, you know that someday you’re really going to fit right in there. Don’t listen to anyone who says, you know, “you’ll never get good”, or, like, “what’s the point?” or “the balls won’t fit your fingers.” Fuckin ‘A! That’s bullshit, man, because there are hundreds of balls in just about every size. Anyway, even if you can’t throw a strike, as long as you’re having fun, you’re getting better—you’re getting wise. So learn to enjoy life in the lanes, because once the tournament is over, you don’t get to go back and play again. You know, it’s like Lennon said: “Imagine there’s no heaven.” J.W. Lennon. John Winston Lennon!

Now, if you really want to live the good life, man, all you have to do is learn to abide. First of all, you should take comfort knowing that Dudeness abides. It’s out there taking ‘er easy for all us sinners. I’m talking about the universe here. The entire cosmos lets its massive balls swing in the intergalactic breeze, man. The universe doesn’t want to keep you down like the Man and his goons. It’s not like some fucking nihilist pissing on your rug and dropping marmots into your bath while you’re burning a jay. Not even close, man. Nobody knows if there is a God or not. But if there is one, he definitely listens to Creedence.

Indeed, man, there are some really, you know, interesting superstitions out there. But if there really is a Big LeGodski, he sure as shit isn’t sitting on a cloud, throwing lightning bolts, or tossing people down volcanoes. The big Dude in the sky wouldn’t sacrifice little Lebowskis or kill pacifists for stepping over the line a little. Let’s be consistent here, man. Happiness isn’t just some fucking advertisement that passes you on the side of a bus, man – it’s seeing through all the bullshit. Like we did as kids! Of course, some of us eat up all the superstitions. And because of that, the Man gets to tell us that we’re not supposed to be happy yet, or, that we have to wait to be happy some time later. Well, you know, that’s, just, like, just their opinion, man. It’s like Cicero said: “Cui bono.” You know? “Look for the person who would benefit from this shit.” It’s all a scam, man! What’s the fuckin’ point? It’s just a game!

And we each have our own game to play. The Dude doesn’t care what game someone else is into. The Dude only cares about the game that the Dude cares about. People assume that their gods are as judgmental and greedy as they are. But when your thinking isn’t so uptight, you can see that the priorities of the universe just aren’t compatible with the priorities of the Man. The whole cosmos is a lot more complex, you know?

One of the biggest things people get hung up on is death. But you know what, man? There’s no reason to fear the reaper. No one goes to their own funeral, right? Remember, the reaper’s always out of sight, so there’s a good reason to keep him out of mind. You can’t live forever, so don’t waste your life trying.

Look, man, some people are fragile, very fragile. They think that death is like, either a bad acid trip, or maybe a peaceful sleep. Fuck that! That doesn’t make any sense. You can’t be and be dead at the same time, man. You can’t be anything if don’t exist. Think about that, man. Far fucking out!

The good life can’t be all about death, or avoiding death. The good life is about listening to a good album, or sliding into a warm tub. You know what I mean? Get it while it’s hot! Don’t just sit around waiting for leftovers. And also, don’t be so uptight, you know, taking things personally, sweating the small stuff. Your life’s not a race, man. You don’t get a medal for finishing first. Enjoy it while it lasts. If you look at life this way, you’ll learn to live well. And you’ll learn to die well, as well.

All this goes for everyone, man, old folks and kids alike, because, you know, everyone’s welcome at the alley, and it’s always open. Only a goddamn moron would tell a kid to give up, or to tell an old man it’s too fucking late.

Equally moronic are the nihilists who say: “Fuck this. Bowling sucks. I wish I weren’t even born.” If they really believe that life isn’t worth living, then why don’t they just kill themselves? But they won’t, man, because nihilism is just a pose. It’s not a real philosophy.

There are lots of facets to this, man, lots of ins and outs. For one, consider this – you don’t own the future. But at the same time, the future doesn’t own you. So don’t set up false expectations or get your hopes up too much. But also, man, don’t just give up entirely and surrender your balls just because you throw a gutter from time to time.

There are some things that you’ve got to have in life. It’s like the difference between the main dish and the toppings. You need to tell the difference between the two if you want to find your path. If you can differentiate between what you need and what you want, you’ll stay healthy throughout the games regardless of how many points you rack up. And that’s the point, man – being healthy feels good. When you make wholesome choices (in the parlance of our times), you’ll be more likely to be happy.

Think about this: you eat when you’re hungry, drink when you’re thirsty, jerk off when you’re horny, shit when nature calls, and, when you’re lonely you, you know, engage in coitus, or you go bowling.

You feel good when you get what you need. And that’s what it’s all about, man. It’s how we make choices. It’s how we spend our day. Feelings are how you make sense of all this shit. It’s like Obi-Wan Kenobi said: “Trust your feelings, man, you know them to be true.” You mostly want things that feel good because they satisfy your needs. When you make bad choices, you feel like shit and get sick. Now, that being said, man, sometimes shitty things turn out better than you’d think. So, later on, it turns out that they weren’t so bad after all. So, given the nature of all that shit, it’s pretty clear that it’s not just all black versus white, you know? Some things suck, but turn out all right, while some run smoothly and then turn into fucking disasters.

So, like, for example, music is awesome, right? But I hate the fucking Eagles, man. So depending on your perspective, music isn’t always good. The only thing that’s always good is to feel good. For instance, when you’re having a bad trip, just take it easy, man. You can still get yourself to feel good by takin’ it easy, and then working your way back home.

The same thing goes for your checking account. You’ve got to feed the monkey. But you don’t want to be so desperate you’re blowing strangers for cash. Also, if you’re lucky enough to be loaded you shouldn’t wear your money on your sleeve and make yourself a target. Don’t let yourself get kidnapped! Know what you really need, and you’ll be able to survive it all, even if you go broke.

When I say that feeling good is what’s really good, I don’t mean, you know, becoming a cash machine. Life isn’t about getting bumped up into a higher tax bracket. What’s really good is taking it easy. When you learn to take it easy, you develop the wisdom to see life for what it really is. But hey, you’ve got to be careful! If you’re not honest with yourself, you’ll never be able to see life for what it truly is, and you’ll never be able to be happy. That’s because without wisdom you can’t actually know what it is that makes you happy.

Once you figure all this out, it will really tie everything together. When you realize that happiness is your choice, there can be no reason to get bummed, since, as the fella said, “The only thing we have to fear, man, is fear itself.” Right? Lady Luck favors no one, contrary to, you know, popular opinion in Vegas. There’s no reason for her to piss on your rug. She’s got her own shit to deal with. What matters is how you handle everything when your rug gets pissed on. In the same way, when it comes to bowling, it’s better to calmly lose a fair game than to win by cheating. “Calmer than you are!” as my friend Walter might say. Just as the Dude abides, so does calm always prevail in the end.

So anyway, if you keep your mind limber and meditate on this stuff, you’re bound to bring universal Dudeness into your life. There is an inexhaustible tournament in the heavenly alleys of wisdom, yet it’s only once you learn how to play that you can relax and really take ‘er easy. And it’s only then that you can begin to truly enjoy the game.

I hope you make it to the finals!

Your friend,

The Dude

Review: Thomas Nail’s Ethics of Motion

What follows is part of my book review of Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion.

The Problem of Ataraxia in Nail

What follows is the first part of my book review of Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion, which is the second part of a trilogy. My review of the first book, Ontology of Motion, is here.

I must first clarify that my review of this book does not imply an endorsement of its ideas or methods. Ethics of Motion is, by its own admission, a deeply anti-Epicurean book. I would not recommend the book to people who are looking to use philosophy–as Epicurus advises–to live pleasantly and to create a happy life.

Prior to addressing the book review, there are some issues related to ataraxia that must be evaluated.

“Epicurus’ fetish of rational thought”?

Nail says that Epicurus is a “rationalist”, an “ascetic”, even an idealist. In page 176, he speaks of Epicurean “rationalism” and “fundamentalism”. In page 94, he argues that Epicurus advocated for a “purely MENTAL state of contemplation”, and in pages 8-9 he says that Lucretius argued against a “static ethics of Epicurean contemplation”–but fails to produce evidence or clear argumentation.

In page 198, he argues against “Epicurus’ fetish of rational thought”, for reason of which he says that Epicurus “lacks a genuine practical ethics” because Epicurus can’t imagine ethics or knowledge without conscious contemplation.

Concerning Epicurean so-called “rationalism”, Norman DeWitt’s book Epicurus & His Philosophy has an entire chapter on Epicurus’ “dethronement of reason” in favor of pleasure. Feeling (pleasure-pain) is a criterion within the Epicurean canon, which is the ultimate authority in Epicurean epistemology. Reason is not in the canon.

Furthermore, Nail argues that Lucretius is against ataraxia (page 3), while Epicurus is contemplative, and claims that the “goal” in Epicurus is not a life of pleasure but to attain ataraxia and “steer clear of dynamic pleasures”. No source is cited. Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus makes it clear that the goal of our choices and avoidances is pleasure–to it we must come back. It is our point of reference. There are no instructions to “steer clear of dynamic pleasures” anywhere in the Epicurean writings: Principal Doctrine 20 says that “the mind does NOT shun pleasure”, and PD 26 says that unnecessary desires generate no pain when neglected and are easily got rid of if they’re difficult to get or likely to produce harm. If they were easy to get and harmless, there would be no objection against them.

He seems to think ataraxia is “idealist” and purely static. Ataraxia means no-perturbations, and it’s a healthy and pleasant feeling. In Diogenes’ Wall, it’s described as dynamic emptying out of the mind from perturbations in order to make way for pleasures:

Let us first discuss states, keeping an eye on the point that, when the emotions which disturb the soul are removed, those which produce pleasure enter into it to take their place.

He also cites portions 83-84 of Laertius to argue that ataraxia is static. When one reads the Laertius portions cited, Epicurus is saying that the study of nature helps us to secure peace of mind.

[83] … those … who are not altogether entitled to rank as mature students can in silent fashion and as quick as thought run over the doctrines most important for their peace of mind.”

[84] … To aid your memory you ask me for a clear and concise statement respecting celestial phenomena; for what we have written on this subject elsewhere is, you tell me, hard to remember, although you have my books constantly with you. I was glad to receive your request and am full of pleasant expectations.

The term “full of pleasant expectations” does not sound static, although this may include pleasures derived from one’s disposition. A person who is full of pleasant expectations concerning a friend with whom he’s studying philosophy is full of desire to reconnect with his student, discuss the material being studied, answer all his questions and engage him in the study of nature. Clearly, Epicurus enjoyed the company of Pythocles–who was not an unquestioning pupil, if we are to judge by the admonitions given by Epicurus concerning Pythocles’ atheism. In addition to the intellectual challenges that an astute student worthy of such a long and personal letter would pose, there were social pleasures that Epicurus was looking forward to.

Pythocles was, to sum it up, Epicurus’ friend. This made their exchange no less than holy. Are the pleasures of having a friend ascetic, purely mental, idealist, or static? I would argue that they are both katastematic and kinetic. They involve the dispositions of gratitude and remembering past pleasures as well as anticipating future ones (as we see in the letter), as well as the pouring of wine, the conversations over meals, the meals themselves, the exchange of letters and the intellectual past-times involved.

Katastematic Pleasure is Soft Motion

For all these reasons, we must carry out a careful study of the meaning of ataraxia and static pleasures before moving forward with the book review. Nail claims that to Lucretius there are only kinetic sensations, whereas it was Epicurus that said nothing static in nature.

The atoms are in a continual state of motion. – Epicurus, Letter to Herodotus

Nail mentions that the gods are motionless, or are only ideas sprung from Epicurus’ mind, but if they are made of atoms, then they can not be motionless just like katastematic (static) pleasures can not be motionless. If they are ideas, then they are motions in the tissue of someone’s brain.

Nail accurately identifies idealism as an error, and he sees materialism as motion, life and reality whereas idealism corresponds to non-motion, death, static non-reality. But then he goes further by saying, in page 61,

“Trying to create stasis will ALWAYS end in empty, unnecessary suffering”.

In my years studying Epicurean philosophy and learning how ethical considerations are always contextual, I’ve learned to avoid categorical statements like this one. Nail reminds me a bit of Glenn Beck when he takes a word, links it to words that sound like it, and runs off into unempirical theories. Stasis sounds like state, and so stasis leads to statism, militarism, wealth disparity, and individualism. All stability equals, to him, authoritarianism.

In page 75, Nail says “there’s no ataraxia for Lucretius”, but Lucretius appears to translate ataraxia as tranquilitas in Latin, a word that he in fact uses. He also says “there’s no ataraxia, or static mind”, but ataraxia and static mind are not the same thing. Epicurus acknowledges that the mind is moving even when we sleep, if we are to judge from the closing words in his Letter to Menoeceus:

… never, either in waking or in dream, will you be disturbed …

In page 119, Nail says “there are no katastematic pleasures because pleasure is fundamentally kinetic like the rest of nature”. And so we’ve seen that, in general, the argument is that all bodies are in constant motion and, therefore, Nail reasons that static pleasures do not exist. But the pleasures of the mind and the static pleasures related to our stable dispositions do exist, are natural, and are therefore types of motion, and distinct from idealism.

What Epicurus Argued Concerning Static Pleasures

According to Diogenes Laertius, the view that only kinetic pleasures exist is a Cyrenaic doctrine, not an Epicurean one. Notice the mention of “freedom from disquietude” (ataraxia, in Greek) and “freedom from pain” (aponia) as categories of “states of pleasure”–by which he meant, FEELINGS.

[Epicurus] differs with the Cyrenaics about pleasure. For they do not admit that to pleasure can exist as a state, but place it wholly in motion. He, however, admits both kinds to be pleasure, namely, that of the soul, and that of the body, as he says in his treatise on Choice and Avoidance; and also in his work on the Chief Good; and in the first book of his treatise on Lives, and in his Letter against the Mitylenian Philosophers. And in the same spirit, Diogenes … speaks thus. “But when pleasure is understood, I mean both that which exists in motion, and that which is a state . . . .” And Epicurus, in his treatise on Choice, speaks thus: “Now, freedom from disquietude, and freedom from pain, are states of pleasure; but joy and cheerfulness are beheld in motion and energy.”

For [the Cyrenaics] make out the pains of the body to be worse than those of the mind; accordingly, those who do wrong, are punished in the body. But [Epicurus] considers the pains of the soul the worst; for that the flesh is only sensible to present affliction, but the soul feels the past, the present, and the future. Therefore, in the same manner, he contends that the pleasures of the soul are greater than those of the body.

These arguments are elaborated in Principal Doctrine 20 and by Diogenes of Oenoanda, so I won’t delve into them further, except to note that there is a mind-over-matter logic at play, but that does not constitute a call for asceticism or purely static pleasures. PD 20 states that the (rational) mind, unlike the (unconscious) body, is able to discern the limits of our desires and secure a life of pleasure. Here are some of my final criticisms of the line of thinking taken by Neil and others:

  1. The either/or view of kinetic (dynamic) vs katastematic (abiding, or static) pleasures is, in my view, un-Epicurean. Both those who insist that Epicurus posited only kinetic pleasures and those who insist he called for only katastematic pleasures are in error because Epicurus invited us to constant pleasures. Life involves cycles of labor and rest, and one does not have enough energy and time to constantly enjoy active pleasures, yet Epicurus calls us to constant pleasures, and even promises that we are able to experience constant pleasures at the end of his Letter to Menoeceus.
  2. Epicurus could not have called for an ascetic or contemplative life of only static or mental pleasures because, according to his doctrine, with many kinetic pleasures, nature doesn’t give us a choice. For instance, we do not have a choice to not eat, which is a kinetic pleasure. Therefore, even if we incorporate a science and practice of contemplation into our hedonic regimen to some extent, it’s impossible to live a life of only katastematic, or static/abiding, pleasures.
  3. While it is true (as we see in Nail) that some enemies of Epicurus have used katastematic pleasures to argue against Epicurean doctrines, it is wrong to dismiss them when, as we see in PD 20, stable or attitudinal pleasures are an important part of our ethics and are central to our theory of character development and to the cultivation of stable, habitual pleasure.
  4. We find a focus on dispositions (diathesis) or attitudes in Epicureans like Philodemus (who related them to our good and bad habits) and Diogenes (who argued that we are in control of our dispositions). There seems to have been an ongoing tradition related to how a philosopher of pleasure must cultivate habitual pleasant states. In Philodemus, we learn that these dispositions are supported by true beliefs that are based on nature, while empty beliefs support unwholesome dispositions and bad habits. Epicurus declared war on these bad attitudes in Vatican Saying 46.
  5. Diogenes Laertius cites by name at least four sources by Epicurus (see above), which tells us that Epicurus was emphatic in repeating the doctrine that both kinds of pleasures exist. We may interpret this as his attempt to rectify what he perceived as an error in Cyrenaic doctrine, whereas his own doctrine was meant to help us secure “the best life” (sometimes translated as “the complete life”, see PD 20).
  6. Sentience occurs in two varieties: pains and pleasures. Ataraxia is a pleasant feeling of non-perturbation and satisfaction. It’s not idealist, or ascetic, or merely rational–even if it entails, like all emotions, a cognitive component. It’s a feeling, and it involves movement, even if soft or gentle. Ataraxia is not “static mind” (the mind is never static for as long as we’re alive), and it’s not necessarily contemplative. It means “no perturbations”, and arises when we banish all false beliefs and anxieties.
  7. Vatican Saying 11 teaches that “For most people, to be quiet is to be numb and to be active is to be frenzied.” This seems to be an argument in favor of cultivating both static and active pleasant states, of training ourselves to enjoy both attitudinal and dynamic pleasures.

An Anarcho-Socialist Lucretius? 

In this book, Nail seems to be taking his views about Lucretius in the direction of a radical skepticism, and his commentary includes a Marxist commentary of De Rerum Natura and a critique of capitalism that is a bit forced.

It is fair to question capitalism, and to address issues of economics. That’s all perfectly legitimate. However, capitalism is based on liquidity and movement of assets, goods and money. If Nail believes that movement is the nature of things, is not this liquidity also natural?

Lucretian Anarchism

In page 56–while equating stasis, the state, statues, and katastematic, stable pleasure–Nail goes as far as setting instability and anarchy / statelessness as an arbitrary ideal … which would render us unstable. It’s not clear how Nail’s anarchism works in practice (is Somalia an ideal state-less society?), but Epicurean anarchism is not anti-state. It’s, at most, indifferent to the state. But in page 56 of Ethics of Motion we read:

If there is no state that has not fallen prey to classism and militarianism of some variety, then there is no state that Lucretius can ethically endorse.

No Lucretian source cited. Elsewhere, Nail equates the state with wealth acquisition (which is bad?), again claiming that Lucretius is anti-state. In a previous Twentieth message titled Better Be a Subject and at Peace, I cited the portion of the fifth book of De Rerum Natura where Lucretius explains that people grew tired of vengeful, anarchic violence and of the violence tied to fighting over power, and accepted the peace that comes with the yolk of the state. Here is the relevant portion:

For man grew weary: the life of violence
and hatred left him sick, and more disposed
freely to choose the yoke of law and statute.
For angered men kept calling for revenge
more savage than just law will now permit;
this made man sicken of life by violence. (DRN V.1136-1150)
Better by far be subject, and at peace
than will to govern the world and hold a throne! (DRN V.1129-1130)

And so the idea that Lucretius would not support any state is not founded on the text and here, Lucretius is abiding by Epicurus’ Principal Doctrine 6.

In pages 58-59, Nail says Lucretius is against “anti-social individualism” … Where does Lucretius state this? Where does he say ethics is fundamentally collective, as Nail claims? It has always seemed to me that Epicurean philosophy does not accept this either-or logic Nail is applying. We are both individuals (Vatican Saying 14 accentuates our responsibility for our own happiness, and in On Moral Development Epicurus mentions the anticipation of moral responsibility as resting on individual agents) as well as social entities (several of the Principal Doctrines deal with mutual advantage), and ethics must attend to both.

If my readers are truly interested in a good Epicurean-compatible critique of capitalism and labor, I would direct you to the book On the inhumanity of religion.

Property as Theft

Neil takes huge interpretative liberties when he equates (in page 121) property and theft, where Lucretius is really saying that our life, our time, is borrowed (DRN 3.970-1). This equation is hard to reconcile with Philodemus’ discussions in On Property Management, which trace their origin to the founders’ doctrines on economics, on wealth, and on autarchy. Is Nail advocating having no property whatsoever? Is he willing to carry this out in his own life? Is this type of “utopian destitution” compatible with a pleasant life?

Philodemus of Gadara says that wealthy Epicurean friends should share the excess of their wealth with their friends. This is clear enough. Nail’s failure to explain WHO should abolish private property adds problems to his thesis. Should the state do this? Is he saying state communism is compatible with the nature of things? Would this state appropriation of all property not be an act that would require huge violence? If not the state, then who would abolish private property? It’s difficult for me, as a reader, to see the connection between theory and practice.

Collectivism in De Rerum Natura?

In page 134, Nail says “desire is collective”. He does not explain in what way desires are collective, so there is no real philosophical argument, only this statement. But we know from experience that desire happens in the body of individuals, and throughout the history of philosophy, politics, and anthropology, the tensions between the desires of the body and the demands of the collective have always been noted.

In page 135, Nail claims that matter is “always collective”. Not only does Lucretius not really speak in this manner or say this, but stressing the collective as if to diminish the individual seems arbitrary to me and strikes me as not based on the study of nature, but on political leanings. I say this as a proud leftist. I’m not opposed to leftist interpretations of any of our sources, but the interpretative liberties here are considerable. In page 137, Nail goes as far as re-defining the soul as collective:

The soul is not a merely imagined identity; it is a real, practical identity that gathers all the heterogeneous people into a single process (not state) of living and dying together.

No sources are cited for this statement, which is neither an Epicurean nor a Lucretian definition of the soul, which is material and individual. It’s hard to see how this relates to De Rerum Natura. If my readers want to read updated discussions on the physical, mortal soul from an Epicurean perspective, I would direct them to A Concrete Self, an essay that relates the Epicurean doctrine of the material soul to a wonderful essay by Serife Tekin titled Self-Evident.

Epicurean Environmentalism

All perceptions are true because perception is continuous with nature … Our sense organs dilate and palpate in a diffractive harmony with the world. – Ethics of Motion, pages 188 and 181

Nail does a good job of explaining some of the ways in which we are embedded into nature. In page 2, Nail speaks of the need to “extend rights to nature”. I was looking forward to his explanation of this, but never really found a methodology by which this could be founded, if not in Epicureanism, at least in Lucretius. Nail is on to something when he discusses mutuality, and when he explains that we are part of our environment. But since Nail focuses on Lucretius while rejecting his Epicurean foundation, it’s hard for an Epicurean to find coherence in his theories.

This is not to say that there is no Epicurean environmentalism, or that we could never be able to theorize one based on Epicurean guidelines about justice based on mutual advantage. In the past, I’ve read environmentalism into the architecture of the Garden itself. Hermarchus–a co-founder of Epicureanism–does address some ecological issues, which I discussed in an essay on his posited vegetarianism. In that essay, we find Hermarchus saying:

Those who first defined what we ought to do, and what we ought not, very properly did not forbid us to kill other animals. For the advantage arising from these is effected … since it is not possible that men could be preserved, unless they endeavoured to defend those who are nurtured with themselves from the attacks of other animals.

… Some of those, of the most elegant manners, recollecting that they abstained from slaughter because it was useful to the public safety …. for the purpose of repelling the attacks of animals of another species

Here, we see that advantage is cited as the criterion for what is right and what should be approved by law. Hermarchus did not call for vegetarianism, but did say that the choice of which animals are killed for food, or to protect a household from attack by wild beasts, depends on advantage. Later, Hermarchus seems to argue that humans occupy an ecological niche in society that allows us to control the populations of certain animals. Again, his arguments rest on issues of advantage, including the possibility that some animals will compete with us for food.

Since, if we suffered them to increase excessively, they would become injurious to us. But through the number of them which is now preserved, certain advantages are imparted to human life. For sheep and oxen, and every such like animal, when the number of them is moderate, are beneficial to our necessary wants; but if they become redundant in the extreme, and far exceed the number which is sufficient, they then become detrimental to our life; the latter by employing their strength, in consequence of participating of this through an innate power of nature, and the former, by consuming the nutriment which springs up from the earth for our benefit alone. Hence, through this cause, the slaughter of animals of this kind is not prohibited, in order that as many of them as are sufficient for our use, and which we may be able easily to subdue, may be left.

On this account, from the above-mentioned causes, it is similarly requisite to think, that what pertains to the eating of animals, was ordained by those who from the first established the laws; and that the advantageous and the disadvantageous were the causes why some animals were permitted to be eaten and others not.

This is interesting to me because I have recently noticed and written about the emergence of insect-eating as society is attempting to adapt to the environmental cost of how we produce meat and the pragmatic problems related to overpopulation. We see that issues of advantage and disadvantage are often being cited in the educational literature concerning this trend: they cite disadvantages like the production of methane gases by cattle, the depletion of the fish in the sea, marine pollution, mercury in the waters, and on the side of the advantages, they cite the nutritional benefits of eating certain insects, and the ease and sustainability of production with few resources.

While acknowledging that there are no absolute standards of justice, Hermarchus appealed to advantage for human communities to defend a variety of environmental policies, depending on the circumstances. This is consistent with Principal Doctrien 37:

Among the things accounted just by conventional law, whatever in the needs of mutual association is attested to be useful, is thereby stamped as just, whether or not it be the same for all; and in case any law is made and does not prove suitable to the usefulness of mutual association, then this is no longer just. And should the usefulness which is expressed by the law vary and only for a time correspond with the prior conception, nevertheless for the time being it was just, so long as we do not trouble ourselves about empty words, but look simply at the facts. – Principal Doctrine 37

Notice that the advantage being considered is that of humans capable of creating, abiding by, and agreeing to laws. Laws are human cultural artifacts. One can not expect a shark, or a wolf, or a cat, to understand and obey laws–even if we may feel compassion for these creatures at times, and be naturally inclined to help them if they are suffering. An Epicurean environmentalism must recognize that humans are, at present, the stewards of our planet.

Another thing we CAN say and observe is that nature has set limits to what is needed for a life of complete pleasure. While it’s a good idea to have a reserve of grain and other goods, there’s a point beyond which Epicurus would acknowledge that the excesses of preparation create greater disadvantage than advantage.

In page 186, Nail says that “matter from the environment affects our mind”–which is accurate–but then he says that Lucretian ethics must consider non-sentient things … on what base? How? By which methodology? Who decides the laws and who abides by them? Whose considerations would be valid? In one passage, Nail mentions that non-sentient beings also “do ethics”. In what way does a stone DO ethics? As I’ve said before, in On Moral Development Epicurus mentions the anticipation of causal responsibility, which rests on individual moral agents. If we follow Nail’s attack on the individual, we lose an important point of reference for all morality–because not only are we the cause of our actions: we also suffer from them. We can’t say the same about non-sentient beings, or about an impersonal “environment”.

And so while we co-exist in mutuality with our environment, and could not live without the air we breathe and the food we eat and the other relations we have in our environment, it’s important to never lose sight of our agency and our causal responsibility.

The next essay of this book review will be my conclusion, and mention some of the good and bad things about Nail’s book. I wish to note that it was never my intention to write a diatribe against Nail. I am mainly writing this review for the benefit of newer students of Epicurean philosophy who might pick up this book expecting to gain Epicurean insights. Please, read what I and other Epicureans have to say, and read critically!

The Good

I concede that it is true that the religious fantasies concerning immortality and a changeless heaven reveal a longing to overcome death, to overcome constant change and motion. I concede that fear of death has the potential to make us hate life. And there are, at times, great insights in the book:

If ethics begins with a materialist philosophy, it will avoid the abstract immaterial traps of immortality, the good, and morality that lead to suffering, hatred of the body, hatred of matter, and hatred of motion. If people believe there are static moral duties, virtues, or values other than what their bodies can do, then they will end up hating their own immoral bodies. – Ethics of Motion, pages 57-58

Nail also does a good job of accentuating the physicality of the mortal soul and of memory processes, and his idea of death as part of the movement of life is accurate. He says that “death is not a value to us”, and calls for a performative, embodied philosophy–even if he does not clarify what this means in practice.

Nail also accurately names idealism as a tyranny over the body that takes many forms, but does not describe its mechanisms as accurately and eloquently as Vaneigem, resorting instead to listing abstract moral problems (like racism, etc …) without really describing how they’re linked to idealism.

An Atheist Lucretius?

It must be acknowledged that Lucretius does seem more anti-religion than Epicurus, and generally sees religion as a dangerous and evil force in society–but that does not necessarily mean that Lucretius did not believe in physical gods existing somewhere in the innumerable worlds. In the Epicurean cosmos, these gods simply don’t care about us!

But Nail claims that Lucretius offers ecstatic poems to gods he “doesn’t believe in” (page IX)–all this while comparing him to the “contemplative, serious, pessimistic” Epicurus who does believe in the gods. He again says in page 90 that “there are no gods”, while citing a passage unrelated to the gods. He claims in page 59 that “there are no transcendental gods” while citing DRN 1.83, but when we read that portion, it does not deny the gods exist. It only says religion can turn evil. This is not different from what Epicurus taught.

The Importance of Clear Speech

Epicurus in Against Empty Words and Philodemus in Rhetorica both argue that words should be clear, evident and concise in order to be useful in communication. Both are critical of the flowery language of the poets. Poetry presents unique problems when used to philosophize. We must concede that Lucretius, when he decided to undertake the project of translating Epicurean philosophy into Latin poetry, accepted the peculiar set of challenges that led to interpretations like the one we see in Nail.

Since he’s not philosophizing as an Epicurean, Nail doesn’t follow Epicurean protocols of clear speech, and of using conventional words as used in common speech. For instance, it’s hard to even know what he’s talking about when he says in pages 115-116

These unethical consequences … are anti-ethical barriers to collectively deciding how to move well together, since they foreclose the possibility of pietas. If everyone is not included in the ethical process then there is no pietas and no moving well together.

It was never clear to me how Nail came to his definition of piety as having to do with “moving well together”, as this is impossible to detect in De Rerum Natura. I know that piedad, in Spanish sometimes means “to have mercy” on someone, but in Lucretius true piety is associated with seeing nature clearly (where the gods do not intervene and need not be feared).

Nor, O man,
Is thy true piety in this: with head
Under the veil, still to be seen to turn
Fronting a stone, and ever to approach
Unto all altars; nor so prone on earth
Forward to fall, to spread upturned palms
Before the shrines of gods, nor yet to dew
Altars with profuse blood of four-foot beasts,
Nor vows with vows to link. But rather this:
To look on all things with a master eye
And mind at peace.

Lucretius, in De Rerum Natura

Against Pleasure

Many of the anti-Epicurean ideas that the author, Thomas Nail, presents, are based on a flawed understanding of Epicurus. At other times, he says that “pleasure has no philosophical value on its own”, saying that Epicureans seek instead to avoid pain. However, in the Letter to Menoeceus we find that Epicurus calls pleasure “the alpha and omega” of the blessed life, and “our first and kindred good”. Here is another translation of that portion:

we call pleasure the beginning and end of the blessed life. For we recognize pleasure as the first good innate in us, and from pleasure we begin every act of choice and avoidance, and to pleasure we return again, using the feeling as the standard by which we judge every good.

Nail also says:

It is completely inverted to place our desire for pleasure as a uniquely human or even ethical priority. Pleasure exists before humans. Humans only exist because there is pleasure in nature.

While Epicurus says there are ethical insights we may learn from the study of nature, the method by which we infer ethical insights from the physics is perhaps not clearly explained in the surviving literature except when he gives general guidelines like “one should not force nature” (VS 21). Some have argued that Epicurean ethics are more descriptive than prescriptive. As a result, Nail misreads ethics into all sorts of physics in a manner that is not as intended by Lucretius, and fails to read ethical insights where they are to be found.


Nail is an academic who is not committed to Epicurean teachings or to an Epicurean lifestyle, and who delivers an anti-Epicurean book, by his own admission. Sometimes his thesis is a bit forced and over-interpreted. He curiously coincides with Epicurus in one important way: he argues in page 8 that we, as readers, actively assign meaning to a text. Words on paper are subject to the active interpretation of a reader, and come alive differently with each cognitive engagement. Reading is an active process, and must be done critically.

What I most disliked in Ethics of Motion is the persistent and unwarranted ill-will and animosity against Epicurus. Nail even goes as far as to claim, without any evidence whatsoever, that Lucretius’ poetry in praise of Epicurus is satirical. What reasons he had to conclude this, I can’t imagine. We have absolutely no reason to assume that De Rerum Natura was written, in any way, to mock Epicurus. Lucretius lived during a generation that saw Epicurus increasingly revered as a hero of Hellenistic Humanism. A couple of centuries after Lucretius, Empress Plotina would still refer to Epicurus as her personal Savior, and even the comedian Lucian of Samosata wove into his satires heart-felt words of praise for Epicurus (“that great man whose holiness and divinity of nature were not shams, who alone had and imparted true insight into the good, and who brought deliverance to all that consorted with him“) and, in another passage, praised his Principal Doctrines. Even Seneca, a Stoic, conceded that Epicurus was a holy man and that his teachings were holy. If the pupil of an enemy school concedes this, why would anyone assume Lucretius’ own words of praise to be mockery?

For all these reasons I do not recommend the book Ethics of Motion for sincere students of Epicurean philosophy who wish to use philosophy as intended: to help us to sculpt a pleasant life. I would, however, recommend a critical reading of it for poets, and for Unitarian, Sunday Assembly, Humanist celebrants, and other ministers who wish to utilize Lucretian poetry to weave Epicureanism into their liturgy, always keeping in mind that:

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

Further Reading:

Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion

Epicurus’ Epistle to Herodotus

The following is the Cyril Bailey translation.

For those who are unable, Herodotus, to work in detail through all that I have written about nature, or to peruse the larger books which I have composed, I have already prepared at sufficient length an epitome of the whole system, that they may keep adequately in mind at least the most general principles in each department, in order that as occasion arises they may be able to assist themselves on the most important points, in so far as they undertake the study of nature. But those also who have made considerable progress in the survey of the main principles ought to bear in mind the scheme of the whole system set forth in its essentials. For we have frequent need of the general view, but not so often of the detailed exposition. Indeed it is necessary to go back on the main principles, and constantly to fix in one’s memory enough to give one the most essential comprehension of the truth. And in fact the accurate knowledge of details will be fully discovered, if the general principles in the various departments are thoroughly grasped and borne in mind; for even in the case of one fully initiated the most essential feature in all accurate knowledge is the capacity to make a rapid use of observation and mental apprehension, and this can be done if everything is summed up in elementary principles and formulae. For it is not possible for anyone to abbreviate the complete course through the whole system, if he cannot embrace in his own mind by means of short formulae all that might be set out with accuracy in detail. Wherefore since the method I have described is valuable to all those who are accustomed to the investigation of nature, I who urge upon others the constant occupation in the investigation of nature, and find my own peace chiefly in a life so occupied, have composed for you another epitome on these lines, summing up the first principles of the whole doctrine.

First of all, Herodotus, we must grasp the ideas attached to words, in order that we may be able to refer to them and so to judge the inferences of opinion or problems of investigation or reflection, so that we may not either leave everything uncertain and go on explaining to infinity or use words devoid of meaning. For this purpose it is essential that the first mental image associated with each word should be regarded, and that there should be no need of explanation, if we are really to have a standard to which to refer a problem of investigation or reflection or a mental inference. And besides we must keep all our investigations in accord with our sensations, and in particular with the immediate apprehensions whether of the mind or of any one of the instruments of judgment, and likewise in accord with the feelings existing in us, in order that we may have indications whereby we may judge both the problem of sense perception and the unseen.

Having made these points clear, we must now consider things imperceptible to the senses. First of all, that nothing is created out of that which does not exist: for if it were, everything would be created out of everything with no need of seeds. And again, if that which disappears were destroyed into that which did not exist, all things would have perished, since that into which they were dissolved would not exist. Furthermore, the universe always was such as it is now, and always will be the same. For there is nothing into which it changes: for outside the universe there is nothing which could come into it and bring about the change.

Moreover, the universe is bodies and space: for that bodies exist, sense itself witnesses in the experience of all men, and in accordance with the evidence of sense we must of necessity judge of the imperceptible by reasoning, as I have already said. And if there were not that which we term void and place and intangible existence, bodies would have nowhere to exist and nothing through which to move, as they are seen to move. And besides these two, nothing can even be thought of either by conception or on the analogy of things conceivable such as could be grasped as whole existences and not spoken of as the accidents or properties of such existences. Furthermore, among bodies some are compounds, and others those of which compounds are formed. And these latter are indivisible and unalterable (if, that is, all things are not to be destroyed into the non-existent, but something permanent is to remain behind at the dissolution of compounds): they are completely solid in nature, and can by no means be dissolved in any part. So it must needs be that the first beginnings are indivisible corporeal existences.

Moreover, the universe is boundless. For that which is bounded has an extreme point: and the extreme point is seen against something else. So that as it has no extreme point, it has no limit; and as it has no limit, it must be boundless and not bounded. Furthermore, the infinite is boundless both in the number of the bodies and in the extent of the void. For if on the one hand the void were boundless, and the bodies limited in number, the bodies could not stay anywhere, but would be carried about and scattered through the infinite void, not having other bodies to support them and keep them in place by means of collisions. But if, on the other hand, the void were limited, the infinite bodies would not have room wherein to take their place.

Besides this the indivisible and solid bodies, out of which too the compounds are created and into which they are dissolved, have an incomprehensible number of varieties in shape: for it is not possible that such great varieties of things should arise from the same atomic shapes, if they are limited in number. And so in each shape the atoms are quite infinite in number, but their differences of shape are not quite infinite, but only incomprehensible in number.

And the atoms move continuously for all time, some of them falling straight down, others swerving, and others recoiling from their collisions. And of the latter, some are borne on, separating to a long distance from one another, while others again recoil and recoil, whenever they chance to be checked by the interlacing with others, or else shut in by atoms interlaced around them. For on the one hand the nature of the void which separates each atom by itself brings this about, as it is not able to afford resistance, and on the other hand the hardness which belongs to the atoms makes them recoil after collision to as great a distance as the interlacing permits separation after the collision. And these motions have no beginning, since the atoms and the void are the cause.

These brief sayings, if all these points are borne in mind, afford a sufficient outline for our understanding of the nature of existing things.

Furthermore, there are infinite worlds both like and unlike this world of ours. For the atoms being infinite in number, as was proved already, are borne on far out into space. For those atoms, which are of such nature that a world could be created out of them or made by them, have not been used up either on one world or on a limited number of worlds, nor again on all the worlds which are alike, or on those which are different from these. So that there nowhere exists an obstacle to the infinite number of the worlds.

Moreover, there are images like in shape to the solid bodies, far surpassing perceptible things in their subtlety of texture. For it is not impossible that such emanations should be formed in that which surrounds the objects, nor that there should be opportunities for the formation of such hollow and thin frames, nor that there should be effluences which preserve the respective position and order which they had before in the solid bodies: these images we call idols.

Next, nothing among perceptible things contradicts the belief that the images have unsurpassable fineness of texture. And for this reason they have also unsurpassable speed of motion, since the movement of all their atoms is uniform, and besides nothing or very few things hinder their emission by collisions, whereas a body composed of many or infinite atoms is at once hindered by collisions. Besides this, nothing contradicts the belief that the creation of the idols takes place as quick as thought. For the flow of atoms from the surface of bodies is continuous, yet it cannot be detected by any lessening in the size of the object because of the constant filling up of what is lost. The flow of images preserves for a long time the position and order of the atoms in the solid body, though it is occasionally confused. Moreover, compound idols are quickly formed in the air around, because it is not necessary for their substance to be filled in deep inside: and besides there are certain other methods in which existences of this sort are produced. For not one of these beliefs is contradicted by our sensations, if one looks to see in what way sensation will bring us the clear visions from external objects, and in what way again the corresponding sequences of qualities and movements.

Now we must suppose too that it is when something enters us from external objects that we not only see but think of their shapes. For external objects could not make on us an impression of the nature of their own colour and shape by means of the air which lies between us and them, nor again by means of the rays or effluences of any sort which pass from us to them — nearly so well as if models, similar in color and shape, leave the objects and enter according to their respective size either into our sight or into our mind; moving along swiftly, and so by this means reproducing the image of a single continuous thing and preserving the corresponding sequence of qualities and movements from the original object as the result of their uniform contact with us, kept up by the vibration of the atoms deep in the interior of the concrete body.

And every image which we obtain by an act of apprehension on the part of the mind or of the sense-organs, whether of shape or of properties, this image is the shape or the properties of the concrete object, and is produced by the constant repetition of the image or the impression it has left. Now falsehood and error always lie in the addition of opinion with regard to what is waiting to be confirmed or not contradicted, and then is not confirmed or is contradicted. For the similarity between the things which exist, which we call real and the images received as a likeness of things and produced either in sleep or through some other acts of apprehension on the part of the mind or the other instruments of judgment, could never be, unless there were some effluences of this nature actually brought into contact with our senses. And error would not exist unless another kind of movement too were produced inside ourselves, closely linked to the apprehension of images, but differing from it; and it is owing to this, supposing it is not confirmed, or is contradicted, that falsehood arises; but if it is confirmed or not contradicted, it is true. Therefore we must do our best to keep this doctrine in mind, in order that on the one hand the standards of judgment dependent on the clear visions may not be undermined, and on the other error may not be as firmly established as truth and so throw all into confusion.

Moreover, hearing, too, results when a current is carried off from the object speaking or sounding or making a noise, or causing in any other way a sensation of hearing. Now this current is split up into particles, each like the whole, which at the same time preserve a correspondence of qualities with one another and a unity of character which stretches right back to the object which emitted the sound: this unity it is which in most cases produces comprehension in the recipient, or, if not, merely makes manifest the presence of the external object. For without the transference from the object of some correspondence of qualities, comprehension of this nature could not result. We must not then suppose that the actual air is molded into shape by the voice which is emitted or by other similar sounds — for it will be very far from being so acted upon by it — but that the blow which takes place inside us, when we emit our voice, causes at once a squeezing out of certain particles, which produce a stream of breath, of such a character as to afford us the sensation of hearing.

Furthermore, we must suppose that smell too, just like hearing, could never bring about any sensation, unless there were certain particles carried off from the object of suitable size to stir this sense-organ, some of them in a manner disorderly and alien to it, others in a regular manner and akin in nature.

Moreover, we must suppose that the atoms do not possess any of the qualities belonging to perceptible things, except shape, weight, and size, and all that necessarily goes with shape. For every quality changes; but the atoms do not change at all, since there must needs be something which remains solid and indissoluble at the dissolution of compounds, which can cause changes; not changes into the nonexistent or from the non-existent, but changes effected by the shifting of position of some particles, and by the addition or departure of others. For this reason it is essential that the bodies which shift their position should be imperishable and should not possess the nature of what changes, but parts and configuration of their own. For thus much must needs remain constant. For even in things perceptible to us which change their shape by the withdrawal of matter it is seen that shape remains to them, whereas the qualities do not remain in the changing object, in the way in which shape is left behind, but are lost from the entire body. Now these particles which are left behind are sufficient to cause the differences in compound bodies, since it is essential that some things should be left behind and not be destroyed into the non-existent.

Moreover, we must not either suppose that every size exists among the atoms, in order that the evidence of phenomena may not contradict us, but we must suppose that there are some variations of size. For if this be the case, we can give a better account of what occurs in our feelings and sensations. But the existence of atoms of every size is not required to explain the differences of qualities in things, and at the same time some atoms would be bound to come within our ken and be visible; but this is never seen to be the case, nor is it possible to imagine how an atom could become visible.

Besides this we must not suppose that in a limited body there can be infinite parts or parts of every degree of smallness. Therefore, we must not only do away with division into smaller and smaller parts to infinity, in order that we may not make all things weak, and so in the composition of aggregate bodies be compelled to crush and squander the things that exist into the non-existent, but we must not either suppose that in limited bodies there is a possibility of continuing to infinity in passing even to smaller and smaller parts. For if once one says that there are infinite parts in a body or parts of any degree of smallness, it is not possible to conceive how this should be, and indeed how could the body any longer be limited in size? (For it is obvious that these infinite particles must be of some size or other; and however small they may be, the size of the body too would be infinite.) And again, since the limited body has an extreme point, which is distinguishable, even though not perceptible by itself, you cannot conceive that the succeeding point to it is not similar in character, or that if you go on in this way from one point to another, it should be possible for you to proceed to infinity marking such points in your mind.

We must notice also that the least thing in sensation is neither exactly like that which admits of progression from one part to another, nor again is it in every respect wholly unlike it, but it has a certain affinity with such bodies, yet cannot be divided into parts. But when on the analogy of this resemblance we think to divide off parts of it, one on the one side and another on the other, it must needs be that another point like the first meets our view. And we look at these points in succession starting from the first, not within the limits of the same point nor in contact part with part, but yet by means of their own proper characteristics measuring the size of bodies, more in a greater body and fewer in a smaller. Now we must suppose that the least part in the atom too bears the same relation to the whole; for though in smallness it is obvious that it exceeds that which is seen by sensation, yet it has the same relations. For indeed we have already declared on the ground of its relation to sensible bodies that the atom has size, only we placed it far below them in smallness. Further, we must consider these least indivisible points as boundary-marks, providing in themselves as primary units the measure of size for the atoms, both for the smaller and the greater, in our contemplation of these unseen bodies by means of thought. For the affinity which the least parts of the atom have to the homogeneous parts of sensible things is sufficient to justify our conclusion to this extent: but that they should ever come together as bodies with motion is quite impossible.

[Furthermore, in the infinite we must not speak of “up” or “down,” as though with reference to an absolute highest or lowest — and indeed we must say that, though it is possible to proceed to infinity in the direction above our heads from wherever we take our stand, the absolute highest point will never appear to us — nor yet can that which passes beneath the point thought of to infinity be at the same time both up and down in reference to the same thing: for it is impossible to think this. So that it is possible to consider as one single motion that which is thought of as the upward motion to infinity and as another the downward motion, even though that which passes from us into the regions above our heads arrives countless times at the feet of beings above and that which passes downwards from us at the head of beings below; for none the less the whole motions are thought of as opposed, the one to the other, to infinity.]

Moreover, the atoms must move with equal speed, when they are borne onwards through the void, nothing colliding with them. For neither will the heavy move more quickly than the small and light, when, that is, nothing meets them: nor again the small more quickly than the great, having their whole course uniform, when nothing collides with them either: nor is the motion upwards or sideways owing to blows quicker, nor again that downwards owing to their own weight. For as long as either of the two motions prevails, so long will it have a course as quick as thought, until something checks it either from outside or from its own weight counteracting the force of that which dealt the blow. Moreover, their passage through the void, when it takes place without meeting any bodies which might collide, accomplishes every comprehensible distance in an inconceivably short time. For it is collision and its absence which take the outward appearance of slowness and quickness.

Moreover, it will be said that in compound bodies too one atom is faster than another, though as a matter of fact all are equal in speed: this will be said because even in the least period of continuous time all the atoms in aggregate bodies move towards one place, even though in moments of time perceptible only by thought they do not move towards one place but are constantly jostling one against another, until the continuity of their movement comes under the ken of sensation. For the addition of opinion with regard to the unseen, that the moments perceptible only by thought will also contain continuity of motion, is not true in such cases; for we must remember that it is what we observe with the senses or grasp with the mind by an apprehension that is true. Nor must it either be supposed that in moments perceptible only by thought the moving body too passes to the several places to which its component atoms move (for this too is unthinkable, and in that case, when it arrives all together in a sensible period of time from any point that may be in the infinite void, it would not be taking its departure from the place from which we apprehend its motion); for the motion of the whole body will be the outward expression of its internal collisions, even though up to the limits of perception we suppose the speed of its motion not to be retarded by collision. It is of advantage to grasp this first principle as well.

Next, referring always to the sensations and the feelings, for in this way you will obtain the most trustworthy ground of belief, you must consider that the soul is a body of fine particles distributed throughout the whole structure, and most resembling wind with a certain admixture of heat, and in some respects like to one of these and in some to the other. There is also the part which is many degrees more advanced even than these in fineness of composition, and for this reason is more capable of feeling in harmony with the rest of the structure as well. Now all this is made manifest by the activities of the soul and the feelings and the readiness of its movements and its processes of thought and by what we lose at the moment of death. Further, you must grasp that the soul possesses the chief cause of sensation: yet it could not have acquired sensation, unless it were in some way enclosed by the rest of the structure. And this in its turn having afforded the soul this cause of sensation acquires itself too a share in this contingent capacity from the soul. Yet it does not acquire all the capacities which the soul possesses: and therefore when the soul is released from the body, the body no longer has sensation. For it never possessed this power in itself, but used to afford opportunity for it to another existence, brought into being at the same time with itself: and this existence, owing to the power now consummated within itself as a result of motion, used spontaneously to produce for itself the capacity of sensation and then to communicate it to the body as well, in virtue of its contact and correspondence of movement, as I have already said. Therefore, so long as the soul remains in the body, even though some other part of the body be lost, it will never lose sensation; nay more, whatever portions of the soul may perish too, when that which enclosed it is removed either in whole or in part, if the soul continues to exist at all, it will retain sensation. On the other hand the rest of the structure, though it continues to exist either as a whole or in part, does not retain sensation, if it has once lost that sum of atoms, however small it be, which together goes to produce the nature of the soul. Moreover, if the whole structure is dissolved, the soul is dispersed and no longer has the same powers nor performs its movements, so that it does not possess sensation either. For it is impossible to imagine it with sensation, if it is not in this organism and cannot effect these movements, when what encloses and surrounds it is no longer the same as the surroundings in which it now exists and performs these movements.

Furthermore, we must clearly comprehend as well, that the incorporeal in the general acceptation of the term is applied to that which could be thought of as such as an independent existence. Now it is impossible to conceive the incorporeal as a separate existence, except the void: and the void can neither act nor be acted upon, but only provides opportunity of motion through itself to bodies. So that those who say that the soul is incorporeal are talking idly. For it would not be able to act or be acted on in any respect, if it were of this nature. But as it is, both these occurrences are clearly distinguished in respect of the soul. Now if one refers all these reasonings about the soul to the standards of feeling and sensation and remembers what was said at the outset, he will see that they are sufficiently embraced in these general formulae to enable him to work out with certainty on this basis the details of the system as well.

Moreover, as regards shape and colour and size and weight and all other things that are predicated of body, as though they were concomitant properties either of all things or of things visible or recognizable through the sensation of these qualities, we must not suppose that they are either independent existences (for it is impossible to imagine that), nor that they absolutely do not exist, nor that they are some other kind of incorporeal existence accompanying body, nor that they are material parts of body: rather we should suppose that the whole body in its totality owes its own permanent existence to all these, yet not in the sense that it is composed of properties brought together to form it (as when, for instance, a larger structure is put together out of the parts which compose it, whether the first units of size or other parts smaller than itself, whatever it is), but only, as I say, that it owes its own permanent existence to all of them.
All these properties have their own peculiar means of being perceived and distinguished, provided always that the aggregate body goes along with them and is never wrested from them, but in virtue of its comprehension as an aggregate of qualities acquires the predicate of body.

Furthermore, there often happen to bodies and yet do not permanently accompany them accidents, of which we must suppose neither that they do not exist at all nor that they have the nature of a whole body, nor that they can be classed among unseen things nor as incorporeal. So that when according to the most general usage we employ this name, we make it clear that accidents have neither the nature of the whole, which we comprehend in its aggregate and call body, nor that of the qualities which permanently accompany it, without which a given body cannot be conceived. But as the result of certain acts of apprehension, provided the aggregate body goes along with them, they might each be given this name, but only on occasions when each one of them is seen to occur, since accidents are not permanent accompaniments. And we must not banish this clear vision from the realm of existence, because it does not possess the nature of the whole to which it is joined nor that of the permanent accompaniments, nor must we suppose that such contingencies exist independently (for this is inconceivable both with regard to them and to the permanent properties), but, just as it appears in sensation, we must think of them all as accidents occurring to bodies, and that not as permanent accompaniments, or again as having in themselves a place in the ranks of material existence; rather they are seen to be just what our actual sensation shows their proper character to be.

Moreover, you must firmly grasp this point as well; we must not look for time, as we do for all other things which we look for in an object, by referring them to the general conceptions which we perceive in our own minds, but we must take the direct intuition, in accordance with which we speak of “a long time” or “a short time,” and examine it, applying our intuition to time as we do to other things. Neither must we search for expressions as likely to be better, but employ just those which are in common use about it.

Nor again must we predicate of time anything else as having the same essential nature as this special perception, as some people do, but we must turn our thoughts particularly to that only with which we associate this peculiar perception and by which we measure it. For indeed this requires no demonstration, but only reflection, to show that it is with days and nights and their divisions that we associate it and likewise also with internal feelings or absence of feeling, and with movements and states of rest; in connection with these last again we think of this very perception as a peculiar kind of accident, and in virtue of this we call it time.

And in addition to what we have already said we must believe that worlds, and indeed every limited compound body which continuously exhibits a similar appearance to the things we see, were created from the infinite, and that all such things, greater and less alike, were separated off from individual agglomerations of matter; and that all are again dissolved, some more quickly, some more slowly, some suffering from one set of causes, others from another. And further we must believe that these worlds were neither created all of necessity with one configuration nor yet with every kind of shape. Furthermore, we must believe that in all worlds there are living creatures and plants and other things we see in this world; for indeed no one could prove that in a world of one kind there might or might not have been included the kinds of seeds from which living things and plants and all the rest of the things we see are composed, and that in a world of another kind they could not have been.

Moreover, we must suppose that human nature too was taught and constrained to do many things of every kind merely by circumstances; and that later on reasoning elaborated what had been suggested by nature and made further inventions, in some matters quickly, in others slowly, at some epochs and times making great advances, and lesser again at others. And so names too were not at first deliberately given to things, but men’s natures according to their different nationalities had their own peculiar feelings and received their peculiar impressions, and so each in their own way emitted air formed into shape by each of these feelings and impressions, according to the differences made in the different nations by the places of their abode as well. And then later on by common consent in each nationality special names were deliberately given in order to make their meanings less ambiguous to one another and more briefly demonstrated. And sometimes those who were acquainted with them brought in things hitherto unknown and introduced sounds for them, on some occasions being naturally constrained to utter them, and on others choosing them by reasoning in accordance with the prevailing mode of formation, and thus making their meaning clear.

Furthermore, the motions of the heavenly bodies and their turnings and eclipses and risings and settings, and kindred phenomena to these, must not be thought to be due to any being who controls and ordains or has ordained them and at the same time enjoys perfect bliss together with immortality (for trouble and care and anger and kindness are not consistent with a life of blessedness, but these things come to pass where there is weakness and fear and dependence on neighbors). Nor again must we believe that they, which are but fire agglomerated in a mass, possess blessedness, and voluntarily take upon themselves these movements. But we must preserve their full majestic significance in all expressions which we apply to such conceptions, in order that there may not arise out of them opinions contrary to this notion of majesty. Otherwise this very contradiction will cause the greatest disturbance in men’s souls. Therefore we must believe that it is due to the original inclusion of matter in such agglomerations during the birth-process of the world that this law of regular succession is also brought about.

Furthermore, we must believe that to discover accurately the cause of the most essential facts is the function of the science of nature, and that blessedness for us in the knowledge of celestial phenomena lies in this and in the understanding of the nature of the existences seen in these celestial phenomena, and of all else that is akin to the exact knowledge requisite for our happiness: in knowing too that what occurs in several ways or is capable of being otherwise has no place here but that nothing which suggests doubt or alarm can be included at all in that which is naturally immortal and blessed. Now this we can ascertain by our mind is absolutely the case. But what falls within the investigation of risings and settings and turnings and eclipses, and all that is akin to this, is no longer of any value for the happiness which knowledge brings, but persons who have perceived all this, but yet do not know what are the natures of these things and what are the essential causes, are still in fear, just as if they did not know these things at all: indeed, their fear may be even greater, since the wonder which arises out of the observation of these things cannot discover any solution or realize the regulation of the essentials.

And for this very reason, even if we discover several causes for turnings and settings and risings and eclipses and the like, as has been the case already in our investigation of detail, we must not suppose that our inquiry into these things has not reached sufficient accuracy to contribute to our peace of mind and happiness. So we must carefully consider in how many ways a similar phenomenon is produced on earth, when we reason about the causes of celestial phenomena and all that is imperceptible to the senses; and we must despise those persons who do not recognize either what exists or comes into being in one way only, or that which may occur in several ways in the case of things which can only be seen by us from a distance, and further are not aware under what conditions it is impossible to have peace of mind. If, therefore, we think that a phenomenon probably occurs in some such particular way, and that in circumstances under which it is equally possible for us to be at peace, when we realize that it may occur in several ways, we shall be just as little disturbed as if we know that it occurs in some particular way.

And besides all these matters in general we must grasp this point, that the principal disturbance in the minds of men arises because they think that these celestial bodies are blessed and immortal, and yet have wills and actions and motives inconsistent with these attributes; and because they are always expecting or imagining some everlasting misery, such as is depicted in legends, or even fear the loss of feeling in death as though it would concern them themselves; and, again, because they are brought to this pass not by reasoned opinion, but rather by some irrational presentiment, and therefore, as they do not know the limits of pain, they suffer a disturbance equally great or even more extensive than if they had reached this belief by opinion. But peace of mind is being delivered from all this, and having a constant memory of the general and most essential principles.

Wherefore we must pay attention to internal feelings and to external sensations in general and in particular, according as the subject is general or particular, and to every immediate intuition in accordance with each of the standards of judgment. For if we pay attention to these, we shall rightly trace the causes whence arose our mental disturbance and fear, and, by learning the true causes of celestial phenomena and all other occurrences that come to pass from time to time, we shall free ourselves from all which produces the utmost fear in other men.

Here, Herodotus, is my treatise on the chief points concerning the nature of the general principles, abridged so that my account would be easy to grasp with accuracy. I think that, even if one were unable to proceed to all the detailed particulars of the system, he would from this obtain an unrivaled strength compared with other men. For indeed he will clear up for himself many of the detailed points by reference to our general system, and these very principles, if he stores them in his mind, will constantly aid him. For such is their character that even those who are at present engaged in working out the details to a considerable degree, or even completely, will be able to carry out the greater part of their investigations into the nature of the whole by conducting their analysis in reference to such a survey as this. And as for all who are not fully among those on the way to being perfected, some of them can from this summary obtain a hasty view of the most important matters without oral instruction so as to secure peace of mind.

La Mettrie: Against Creationism

The following is a continuation of the book review of Histoire Naturelle de l’Ame, a book published in 1747 by Julien Offray de La Mettrie.

Some passages by La Mettrie remind us of the book Ontology of Motion, which argues that Lucretius accentuated that motion is an attribute of matter.

The most important repercussion of this is that motion is natural and does not require gods, spirits, or animating forces outside of nature: nature is “free of masters”, as Lucretius states.

In La Mettrie, in addition to the essential attributes of matter, there is something he called “la force mortice” (the dynamic force), which is “puissance” (power). In page 9, the relation between force and motion is established. This “puissance motrice de la matière” (mobile power of matter) is in every moving body, and it’s impossible not to conceive of these two attributes: that which moves, that which is moved. As we saw in Ontology of motion, the role that this plays is to abolish all supernatural or superstitious animism, and to replace it with the concept of a mechanical nature that exhibits motion on its own according to natural laws.

Against the Theologians

In Histoire Naturelle de l’Ame, La Mettrie closes by echoing Voltaire, saying that there’s no need to fear that philosophers will harm the religion of a country. No, it is the theologians who wish to preside over sects and political parties.

A hundred treatises on materialism are much less to fear than a merciless Jansenist or an ambitious Pontiff.

Nature has no Purpose

One of the features of the anti-creationist view of nature is that nature is blind, mechanical, that it does not “intend” to make this or that machine, this or that body, this organ or that ecosystem. These things appear as a result of random mutations or events, or of the never-ending dance of particles moving in space and relating to each other, and only once their function serves an advantage, do organisms begin to perfect the use of their organs. This argument was originally found in Lucretius.

Nature is blind, innocent, unaware, and in fact this blindness and innocence is a consolation for death.

Pre-Darwinian Naturalist Reasoning

La Mettrie lived prior to Darwin. His Lucretian argument for how humans emerged from the Earth are, therefore, pre-Darwinian, but based on the reasoning that if humans have not always existed, the Earth must have acted as the uterus of mankind.

Why, I ask you, modern anti-Epicureans, why should the Earth, that mother and nurse of all objects, have refused to animal seeds what she allowed to the meanest, most useless and most harmful vegetables?

Obviously, Darwin made huge contributions to our understanding of the evolution of life, and geneticists after him continued his work. But Lucretius demonstrates that the ancients did have an idea of natural selection, and La Mettrie is again writing a commentary on Lucretian ideas when he says:

Perfection was no more achieved in a day in nature than in art.

Art’s fumblings to imitate nature give us an idea of what nature’s fumblings were like.

The idea is that nature produced many anomalies and mutations. Those that were disadvantageous did not survive to pass on their seed, but those that were advantageous did pass on their seed, and after countless generations this produced beings that were increasingly adapted to their environment.

Man “came after” the beasts because man is more complex, therefore man took more time to make.

The case of mutants prove nature’s absent-mindedness and trial by error: her “innocence”, and her lack of intention and of “final causes”. Nature passed by many combinations before reaching the ones that worked effectively. Nature happens to have made eyes, not intending to, just as water serves as a mirror without intending to. He compares this to a metaphor of how chance on a canvas paints something.

Nature’s creation of eyes and ears follows laws of nature similar to the ones that govern the ebb and flow of the sea.

A Glorious Harbor

La Mettrie was deeply aware that much of what he was writing would be considered practically seditious by the religious authorities of his times, and yet he pressed these issues with zeal. We are reminded of chapter 14 of A Few Days in Athens, which closes with the following conclusion concerning the supposed immorality of atheism, originally believed by the character Theon to be a thought-crime. After explaining that it is no crime to believe with certainty in gods, but that’s it’s unreasonable, Wright’s Epicurus closes:

(Let) this truth remain with you: that an opinion, right or wrong, can never constitute a moral offence, nor be in itself a moral obligation. It may be mistaken; it may involve an absurdity, or a contradiction. It is a truth, or it is an error: it can never be a crime or a virtue.

La Mettrie closes his book by beautifully celebrating the breath of fresh air that intellectuals of his time were enjoying as a result of finally being able to openly discuss the anti-clerical ideas that they were entertaining. The Enlightenment had managed to create a “glorious harbor” for intellectuals, and it’s only here that intellectual life had been able to flourish after centuries under the asphyxiating grip of the clergy:

I salute you, favourable climate where any man who lives like others can think differently from others; where theologians do not act as judges of philosophers, a role of which they are incapable; where the freedom of the mind, humanity’s finest attribute, is not chained by prejudices; where one is not ashamed to say what one does not blush to think; and where there is no risk of becoming a martyr to the doctrine whose apostle one is. I salute you, country already celebrated by philosophers, where all those persecuted by tyranny find (if they are deserving and reputable), not a safe asylum but a glorious harbour; where one feels how far the victories of the mind are above all others; where the philosopher, finally crowned with honours and kindness, is only a monster to the minds of the mindless. May you, oh fortunate land, bloom more and more! May you appreciate your good fortune and make yourself worthy in everything, if possible, of the great man who is your King! Muses, Graces, Cupids and you, wise Minerva, when crowning with the most splendid laurels the august brow of this modern Julian — as worthy of governing, as learned, as clever and as philosophical as the classical one — you are only crowning your own handiwork.

Further Reading:

Book Review of Ontology of Motion

Histoire Naturelle de l’Ame (French Edition)

La Mettrie: Anti-Seneca

The following concludes a series of blogs dedicated to Julien de la Mettrie. This one focuses on his work titled “Anti-Seneca”.

While the Système d’Epicure focuses on the physics and was evidently influenced by Lucretius, Anti-Seneca embodies the ethics of La Mettrie and appears to be a response to Seneca’s On The Happy Life. Lucius Annaeus Seneca was an ancient Stoic philosopher and writer from the Roman province of Hispania.

In the initial portion of the work, La Mettrie begins his criticism of Seneca (and the Stoics) by saying:

They are all soul, ignoring their bodies; let’s be all body, ignoring our souls.

However, this must be understood as poetic language. A great part of La Mettrie’s intellectual legacy consists of studying the soul as a natural, physical part of our constitution, wholly embedded into the flesh. La Mettrie’s favoring the body over the soul reminded me of this quote from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra:

Once the soul looked contemptuously on the body, and then that contempt was the supreme thing: the soul wished the body meagre, ghastly, and famished. Thus it thought to escape from the body and the earth.

Oh, that soul was itself meagre, ghastly, and famished; and cruelty was the delight of that soul!

But ye, also, my brethren, tell me: What doth your body say about your soul? Is your soul not poverty and pollution and wretched self-complacency?

La Mettrie locates many of the inherent tendencies of our character (melancholy, insight, tranquility, and happiness, among others) in the body. He says that much about what makes up our character is the result of our physical configuration, which we are born with.

Modern science of happiness research is still debating this issue, but some of the preliminary research seems to suggest that about 60 % of our happiness is up to nature–that is, genetics and environment–at least that’s what Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, claims. Other positive psychologists cite a 50/40/10 ratio where 50 % of our happiness is determined by genes, 40 % by our actions and attitudes (this includes what the ancient Epicureans knew as our “disposition”, of which we are in control), and they concede that 10 % depends on circumstances. This reminds us of Epicurus’ Epistle to Menoeceus, where he says that

… some things happen of necessity, others by chance, others through our own agency.

While La Mettrie and Epicurus do not assign ratios, the idea here is similar. It would be imprudent to deny our facticity, the fact that so much of what makes up our lives was set from before our birth (necessity); and also, that life throws us challenges and difficulties from time to time (chance). And yet, philosophy teaches us that we are not only able but also responsible to sculpt our characters to more fully enjoy all the pleasures that nature easily makes available, in the same way that a lotus flower has the power to grow from out of the mud into the most fragrant and beautiful flower.

I’m convinced that it’s me who have taken the decision, and I exult in my liberty. Everyone of our freest actions are like these. An absolute and necessary determination pulls us along, we who would never opt for slavery. How mad we are! And all the more unhappy are we madmen for constantly castigating ourselves for failures where we have no power.

La Mettrie employs his qualified determinism (which allows for natural liberty and volition) in the service of the abolition of remorse–which he has added to fear of death and of the gods, and to limitless desires, as another one of the evils that we must banish in our souls in order to be able to better enjoy life.

I say “qualified determinism” because, while saying this, La Mettrie is arguing that, if wicked people are able to live happy lives without remorse, “it would take a rather bizarre and irrational person to refuse to accept that they could ever be happy“. La Mettrie wrote Anti-Seneca in defense of the thesis that happiness–particularly Epicurean, natural, fully embodied happiness–is possible, but only if we use philosophy to reduce the effects of culture and education, and avoid adding more prejudices and artificialities to the ones we have inherited. La Mettrie comes back again and again to the problem of education and how it interferes with our natural happiness. He is saying that, to some extent, happiness is made up of choices that a philosopher makes, together with a process of re-education of the character.

At one point in the book, La Mettrie nearly succumbs to a Cyrenaic type of hedonic solipsism, only to take us back to the study of nature. When La Mettrie says

Healthy or sick, awake or asleep, our imagination can make us glad.

he is echoing Epicurus’ retort against the Cyrenaics when he argued that the bodily pleasures and pains were more powerful than those of the mind. While Aristippus advised his followers to engage in a practice known as presentism, to be present to the pleasures of the moment, Epicurus told his followers that they could, in addition to that, engage in reminiscing past pleasures and anticipating future ones. In this way, they could abide in constant pleasures. In Principal Doctrine 20, he again taught that the mind (not the flesh) is able to grasp the limits of nature, and is therefore best equipped to procure pleasures.

La Mettrie also echoes Philodemus (for instance, in On Music) when he argues that reason must serve nature in aiding us to be happy. For instance, when discussing the need to remove the false opinions (added by “an all-too-onerous education”) that produce unwarranted remorse or guilt, he says:

No, I would like us to owe to reason what so many scoundrels owe to habit.

La Mettrie also paraphrases Vatican Saying 45, which says that “the study of nature does not make men productive of boasting“, when he says:

The fine knowledge on which our soul so liberally prides itself, does it more discredit than credit, by depriving it of what its acquisition presupposes.

In La Mettrie, this mockery of man’s pride is really a mockery of the hegemony of reason among the intellectual class. Like Nietzsche, he argues that men are not so rational, that reason merely rationalizes and masks the passions, often presenting them as virtues or hiding our ugliest instincts.

True philosophical education reconciles us with nature, but the education that arrogant people boast of typically is not of this kind. La Mettrie’s critique of virtue follows along the same lines: it distances people from nature, it’s artificial, and so it has no value. In A Few Days in Athens, this same idea is expressed:

Zeno hath his eye on man, I mine on men: none but philosophers can be stoics; Epicureans all may be.

This work, titled Anti-Seneca, was also titled “On Happiness” by the author, who believed that to speak against Seneca is to say something about happiness. We see a contrast between nature and culture expressed as Epicurean naturality and Stoic artificialness, of which the first is decidedly the one that brings true happiness. One of the central arguments of the entire book is, therefore, that education and culture (and reason) often tends to dismantle our initial, natural, innocent disposition, and that the study of true philosophy must restore this initial disposition (and must restore feeling).

While in paragraph 66 of Système d’Epicure, La Mettrie mentions in passing that he’s a Stoic only at the time of death, we find elsewhere in passage 74:

No, I shall not be the corrupter of that innate taste for life which we have, I shall not spread Stoicism’s dangerous poison on the fine days and even on the prosperity of our Luciliuses. On the contrary, I shall try to blunt life’s thorns if I cannot reduce their number, in order to increase the pleasure of gathering its roses. And I pray those who, due to a deplorably unfavourable organization, are dissatisfied with the world’s splendid spectacle, to stay here, for religion’s sake if they have no humanity or, which is grander, for humanity’s sake if they have no religion.

Anti-Seneca includes a passage on the pleasures of literature and the other intellectual pleasures.

Thinking is only another way of feeling: it’s a feeling that is withdrawn … To devote ourselves to reading and thinking about pleasant things is a way to implant a near-constant pleasant feeling in ourselves.

When addressing people with debauched tendencies, he tells them to “wallow like a pig, and you’ll be happy like one“. Later on, he explains that he is not encouraging evil:

I feel compassion for it, since I find its excuse in the organism itself, which as a rule is difficult and often impossible to tame.

La Mettrie then goes back to the idea that all the nerves have a rendez-vous point somewhere inside the brain, and that

… those whose nerves are most agreeably affected, no matter what causes it, are necessarily the happiest of all.

This is the trunk from which the branches of happiness sprout.

by which he intends to say that, not only is the soul physical, but the conditions that allow happiness are also physical and bodily.

La Mettrie closes Anti-Seneca with a comical mix of praise and insult for the Stoic thinker who is the subject of his treatise. The brilliance of this passage lies in that he is actually imitating many of the things he criticizes in Seneca, calling him an intellectual rather than a philosopher, and offering him a high dose of his own medicine and his own double-speech. Frankly, this passage is La Mettrie at his most deliciously smart-ass.

Anti-Seneca concludes by saying that each creature has its own share of happiness available to it according to its tendencies and its constitution.

While Anti-Seneca could have benefited from less verbosity, it has its brilliant and funny moments. This is a recommended essay if you’re interested in the centuries-old discussions and reproaches between Stoics and Epicureans.

Further Reading:

The essay reviewed above is part of the anthology The Hedonist Alternative: “Anti-Seneca” and Other Texts

La Mettrie: an Epicurean System

The following essay (first in a series) is a review of Système d’Épicure (published in 1750), subtitled Philosophical reflections on the origins of animals, by French materialist philosopher Julien Offray de La Mettrie. The book is unfortunately not available (as far as I know) in English.

Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751) was a physician who treated venereal dis-eases. He seems to have seen himself as a philosophical functionary of Venus, perhaps (metaphorically) a priest or healer. We have to imagine that La Mettrie had to discuss with his patients very intimate details of their sexual lives and tendencies with frankness, and in a spirit of trust, and that this job would have required of him a willingness to not judge or shame his patients. From all this, and also from his body of literature, we may deduce his progressive sexual and social values–particularly progressive for his time.

In the essay A happiness fit for organic bodies: La Mettrie’s medical Epicureanism, Charles T. Wolfe reports that La Mettrie himself (in an anonymous work) referred to his philosophy as an Epicuro-Cartesian System, although in some of his writings he was critical of Descartes. His intellectual legacy involved the re-joining of the soul and the body by describing the soul as material and as part of the body, in this way materializing Cartesianism and healing the Platonic split between body and soul. Wolfe also claims that La Mettrie is an Epicuro-Spinozan, and says that he created a

new and perhaps unique form of Epicureanism in and for the Enlightenment: neither a mere hedonism nor a strict materialist speculation on the nature of living bodies, but a ‘medical Epicureanism’.

Wolfe also cites La Mettrie as saying “The physician is the only philosopher worthy of his country“, and explains that what he means is that the physician defines truth according to matter and nature, rather than as defined by religion or convention. La Mettrie also said: “The best philosophy is that of the physicians“.

La Mettrie, the physician, sees the body as a machine–a machine that produces pleasure (and pain). He firmly roots the search for happiness in the body and in matter. In Man, a Machine, he says: “Nature created us all to be happy“.

An Epicurean System

The Système consists on numbered paragraphs with philosophical contemplations on nature, and appears to have been written as a prose commentary on some of the ideas expressed by Lucretius in De Rerum Natura. La Mettrie seemed unfamiliar with Epicurus as a primary, direct source, but he knew of Lucretius and cited him often, as noted by André Comte-Sponville in the essay La Mettrie et le «Système d’Épicure».

In paragraph 49, he labels the latter part of the book “a project for life and death worthy of crowning an Epicurean system“. Considering that the author is elsewhere critical of philosophers who create systems, we have to evaluate this. Epicureanism is a coherent dogmatic philosophy whose ideas are all inter-connected, and here La Mettrie knows and begrudgingly acknowledges that he has birthed a system, and even confers a crown upon it. I say he did so bregudgingly, because he recognized that all these ideas flowed from his first principles, and were connected to each other in such a way, that it was impossible to deny that they made up a philosophical system, and one nearly identical to Epicurus’ own, so that he labeled it “an Epicurean system“.

In The Natural History of the Soul (review upcoming), La Mettrie severely criticizes the “systematizers” of philosophy, but in this book, we see him choosing the words “AN Epicurean system”–which implies that there are OTHER Epicurean systems, and many ways of being Epicurean–, and here we do not see his anti-système rhetoric.

So what does this critique of the systematizers consist of?

A Mass of Prejudices

He says the systematizers are full of bias and prejudice, which impedes the development of true wisdom because they have made up their mind prior to addressing the questions. In paragraph 64 of his Système, La Mettrie says his own “mass of prejudices” of education “disappeared early on in the divine brilliance of philosophy“–which further indicates that he observed how these prejudices were acquired through his society’s education system. We will revisit this when we discuss Anti-Seneca.

Elsewhere in his Natural History of the Soul, he makes frequent appeals to reason without bias or prejudice, saying that pre-judging is not the same as true wisdom. In our present book, he further links true judgement with seeing the relation between two or more ideas with an unbiased mind.

Systems and Presumption

So many philosophers have supported the opinion of Epicurus, that I dared to mix my voice with theirs; Like they did, what I am creating is nothing more than a system; Which shows us what an abyss we are immersed in when, wanting to break through the mists of time, we want to take presumptuous glances at what offers us no grip: because–admit creation (by God) or reject it–it is everywhere the same mystery, everywhere the same incomprehensibility. How did this Earth I live in form? … This is what the greatest geniuses will never do; they will battle in the philosophical field, as I have; they will sound the alarm to devotees, and will not teach us anything. – La Mettrie, Paragraph 41 of Système d’Epicure

We will address creationism at a later point. This is just one of several instances where the author connects systematization with the arrogance and presumption of philosophers. Later, in paragraph 44, he says:

It seems pleasant for (the philosopher) to live, pleasant to be the toy of himself, to play such a funny role, and to believe himself an important character.

This is, on its face, a legitimate critique of the philosopher. Perhaps we are the center of our own worlds in our own lives and experiences, but no individual or species is at the center of THE universe.

But this critique does deserve at least one reply: I disagree that the philosophers “will not teach us anything“. I mean, as opposed to whom? Do the theologians teach us SOMETHING? Aren’t theologians even more presumptuous when–unlike us materialists–we know that their hypotheses are not based on the study of nature?

Castles in the Air

In his Natural History of the Soul (and you will see that counter-references from his other works will often be useful when studying La Mettrie), in the instances where he is most critical of the systematizing philosophers, we see that he specifically is addressing the idealists–mentioning Malebranche, Leibniz and Descartes by name. He says these idealists built “castles in the air” (châteaux dans l’air). He elsewhere says that these “ambitious metaphysicians” have a “presumptuous imagination“.

Therefore, his critique against systems is specifically a critique of idealists, some of whom he mentions by name, and his accusation of building castles in the air relates to the problem of idealism and lack of empirical, material base in these systems. His reference to having created something “WORTHY OF crowning an Epicurean system” is therefore understood as following on this critique. He is saying that anything worthy of being called a system must first abandon idealism in favor of materialism.

And so, his anti-système rhetoric is a critique of the idealists in particular. When we discuss his argument that we get all our ideas from the senses at the end of this book, this critique will come into relief and focus, but for now it should be noted that the novel A Few Days in Athens–which was also produced by intellectuals from the Enlightenment generation–has parallel sayings where the author charges that the “pedantry of Aristotle” makes people confuse “prejudice for wisdom“. Both the accusation of presumption and the bias argument are made against the other philosophers.

An Epicurean Sceptic?

“The primary springs of all bodies, as well as of our own, are hidden from us and will probably always be.”

It is clear that La Mettrie follows the Epicurean tradition of philosophy, and even at times falls in the lineage of the laughing philosophers (if we consider his “advise to an old lady” who has lost her youth and sexual attraction). Towards the end of his Système, he says:

“… these “projects for life and death”: a voluptuous Epicurean in the course of life until my last breath, and a steady Stoic at the approach of death” … have left in my soul a feeling of voluptuousness which does not prevent me from laughing at the first.”

He is referring to all the paragraphs from the first part of the Système prior to the 49th, which is where he announces his Epicurean “system”. However, he claims, even insists that he is a sceptic and only begrudgingly admits that he is a dogmatist (a “systematizer”, to use his own term). In his Natural History of the Soul, he says “the true philosophy” doesn’t exist.

This raises questions concerning the extent to which it’s prudent to accept truths for which we have no evidence based on analogy with the available evidence, before we must adopt the label “sceptic” about this or that type of truth. To what extent are we being truly humble, and not imprudent or lacking in ability to infer truths, when we admit we do now know something that is considered a dark, unclear mystery? As the Epistle to Herodotus puts it:

We must by all means stick to our sensations, that is, simply to the present impressions whether of the mind or of any criterion whatever, and similarly to our actual feelings, in order that we may have the means of determining that which needs confirmation and that which is obscure.

One final note concerning how, in my view, La Mettrie’s epistemological approach is essentially Epicurean despite his hesitation to call himself a dogmatist: to him, knowledge that does not bring pleasure is rejected–and it is rejected BECAUSE it does not bring pleasure! In paragraph 26 he contrasts the pleasure of being in nature with trying to understand everything rationally, which is more an act of power over nature rather than blissful immersion in it:

Let us take things for what they seem to be. Let us look all around us: this circumspection is not devoid of pleasure and the sight is enchanting. Let us watch it admiringly, but without that useless itch to understand everything and without being tortured by curiosity, which is always superfluous when our senses do not share it with our minds.

On Religion and Politics

While others have related the Epicurean advise to remain apolitical and irreligious to the distinction between imagined community and natural communities, La Mettrie gives us this curious insight in paragraph 76:

Religion is only necessary for those who are incapable of feeling humanity. It is certain that it is useless to the intercourse of honest people. But only superior souls can feel this great truth. For whom then is the wonderful construction of politics made? For minds who would perhaps have found other checks insufficient, a species which unfortunately constitutes the greatest number.

In the next entry, we will see how La Mettrie treats the subject of the Epicurean canon.

Further Reading:

Système d’Épicure (French Edition)

The Epicurean Canon in La Mettrie

The following is part of a book review of Histoire Naturelle de l’Ame by Julien Offray de La Mettrie.

In his Letter to Herodotus, Epicurus establishes the criteria of truth. This criteria are the faculties that nature gave us as a contact with reality: the anticipations (which form as we encounter and memorize sense objects), the five senses, and the pleasure-pain faculty.

It is essential that the first mental image associated with each word should be regarded, and that there should be no need of explanation, if we are really to have a standard to which to refer a problem of investigation or reflection or a mental inference. And besides we must keep all our investigations in accord with our sensations, and in particular with the immediate apprehensions whether of the mind or of any one of the instruments of judgment, and likewise in accord with the feelings existing in us, in order that we may have indications whereby we may judge both the problem of sense perception and the unseen. – Epicurus, in his Epistle to Herodotus

In this essay I will evaluate passages from Natural History of the Soul that discuss how the canon is to be used. We will once again see that his system and method are essentially Epicurean.

But, first of all, why is this subject important? In the first pages of the book, La Mettrie explains that not knowing the nature of the soul makes us submit to ignorance and faith, and that one can’t conceive the soul as abstraction, separate from the body. Body and soul were made at once together; to know the properties of the soul one must research those of the body, of which the soul is the animating principle. Since all properties that we observe suppose a subject they’re based on, idealists posit the soul exists by itself without the body, that it is unnatural or immaterial. In setting up a doctrine of unity of body and soul, La Mettrie answers to the idealists:

Yes, BUT why do you want me to imagine this subject to be of a nature absolutely distinct from the body?

The key premise of Natural History of the Soul is that the soul is physical, part of the body, and that it’s born with and dies with the body. Like Epicurus explains in his Epistle to Herodotus, the body is the passive component and the soul is the active component of the self; and furthermore, he says that there are no surer guides than the senses in our inquiry into the nature of the soul.

Reason: a Mechanism that Can Go Wrong

La Mettrie is, among other things, a defender of pleasure and highly skeptical of the value of reason. He also argues that happiness is not found in thoughts or in reason, but is born of the body.

Happiness depends on bodily causes, such as certain dispositions of the body, natural or acquired–that is, procured by the action of foreigner bodies over ours. – La Mettrie, in Histoire naturelle de l’ame, page 135-136

He argues that some people are by birth happier than others. He also argues that proud reason is a mechanism which can go wrong, and in paragraph 79 of his Système d’Epicure he speaks of how cold reason “disconcerts, freezes the imagination and makes pleasures flee“.

The Senses

It’s difficult to know to what extent La Mettrie based his Natural History of the Soul on Lucretius.

To speak the truth, the senses never fail us, except when we judge their reports with too much precipitation, for otherwise they are loyal ministers. The soul may surely count on being averted by them of pitfalls thrown its way. The senses are ever alert, and are always ready to correct each other’s errors. –  Histoire Naturelle de l’Ame, p. 69

Elsewhere he seems to concede that the senses aren’t fully reliable because perceptions can change. Sweet fruit becomes sour, even colors change with lighting. To all this, Epicurus would answer that even if we concede that the senses can err (and they do), still they are our best and only criteria that connect us with reality.

Towards the end of the book, we are raptured into a fascinating world of real-life Tarzans from European history when the author shares several stories that confirm that all ideas come from the senses. He narrates one story about a deaf man from Chartres who, upon hearing bells, started recovering his hearing. When he later started talking and was questioned by theologians, he didn’t understand the meaning of the concept of god or ideas related to the afterlife, etc. Another story had to do with a blind man who had to use touch to get an idea of things. Finally, he narrates the story of Amman, who taught the deaf to speak with touch and sight. He would have them touch their throat to feel the vibration of sound there, and read lips and use mirrors to practice using sight. (Interestingly, the It’s Okay to be Smart YouTube channel has a video on how blind people see with sound) At the closing of the book, the author says:

From all that has been said up to the present, it is easy to conclude with evidence that we don’t have a single innate idea, and that they’re all the products of the senses

He goes on to offer the formula:

No education, no ideas.
No senses, no ideas.
Less senses, less ideas.

Anticipations: a Constant Law

While La Mettrie doesn’t directly mention anticipations (the third canonic faculty), he does describe this faculty when he discusses speech and memory. I will make an attempt to offer a clear translation from the French, which is made difficult by the fact that the author uses long sentences.

The cause of memory is, in fact, mechanic–as memory itself is. It seems to depend on that which is nearby the bodily impressions of the brain, which trace ideas that follow it. The soul can not discover a trace, or an idea, without reminding the others which customarily went together. – La Mettrie, speaking of the “bodily impressions of the brain in p. 88-89 of “Natural history of the soul”

Since in order for a new movement (for instance, the beginning of a verse or a sound that hits the ears) to communicate on the field its impression to the part of the brain that is analogous to where one finds the first vestige of what one searches (that is, this other part of the brain (see note) where memory hides, or the trace of the following verses, and represents to the soul the follow-up to the first idea, or to the first words, it is necessary that new ideas be carried by a CONSTANT LAW to the same place to where the other ideas of the same nature as these were carried. – La Mettrie, speaking of the “constant law” by which memory functions in p. 89-90 of “Natural history of the soul”

(note: he uses the word moelle, which translates as “bone morrow”, but he must be referring to brian tissue or brain lobe of some sort)

Now, we know that much of La Mettrie’s writing was inspired on or based on Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, and this passage in particular is related to the passage where Lucretius mentions neural pathways in the brain. Notice that La Mettrie also refers to ideas tracing a path inside the brain.

Notice also that this is remarkably scientific, considering when it was written. To La Mettrie, ideas are “bodily impressions” in the brain. Ideas are material: they are physical and are lodged in (or happen to) the brain. Today we know that ideas are, concretely, electric signals shared by neurons according to established connections in the nodes between them, which are formed as a result of habitual and instinctive behavior by the animal.

Furthermore–and this is another feature of the canon as it is understood by most modern Epicureans: in p. 93 La Mettrie argues that the fact that we remember or recognize ideas with or without the consent of the will is seen as proof that they are pre-rational. The anticipations are sub-conscious, and obey what La Mettrie calls an “internal cause”.

Some Conclusions

The author seems intimately familiar with many details of the Epicurean canon. It seems that much of what he wrote were commentaries on Lucretian ideas, and that he was unfamiliar with Epicurus as a direct source. His familiarity was with Lucretius, which was a popular document in the intellectual life of anti-religious intellectuals of his day.

He does not use the same words as Lucretius (or Epicurus) used. He is employing clear speech in his native language to name things that we know as anticipations, canon, dogmatism, etc. He used “système” for dogmatic systems of philosophy, and referred to anticipations functionally as they related to memory and speech.

La Mettrie regards reason and the canonic faculties similarly to how the orthodox Epicurean does. He says of reason that it’s a “mechanism which often fails”. He frequently uses the term “internal causes” here (as opposed to “external”), perhaps admitting some acknowledgement of the existence of the unconscious or subconscious mind. That he goes to such lengths to argue that these faculties are pre-rational is very interesting.​​

Next, we will be focusing on controversies against the creationists and theologians.

Further Reading:

A Concrete Self