Euthanasia, how to live well and die well – by Takis Panagiotopoulos, translated by Rachel Forides
A discussion on vegetarianism and ethics in the Epicurean Philosophy facebook group was initially incited by a provocative video on why we love dogs and eat pigs, which evaluates the controversy, double standards and hypocrisy of the matter. I’ve read more than once that one of the founders of the Epicurean school, the second Scholarch and Epicurus’ successor, Hermarchus of Mytilene, was vegetarian. But it has always been difficult to verify the source. Recently, we came across one indirect source in Porphyry’s On Abstinence. It cites Hermarchus’ polemical treatise Letters About Empedocles.
It turns out that the answer to our inquiry, according to Epicurean doctrine, is that the moral reasons for vegetarianism are relative to the circumstances and that they depend on advantage. If animals of a certain species are likely to become too numerous, eating them may be encouraged.
For instance, Puerto Rico in recent years has seen a proliferation of iguanas that are not native to the island but have taken over, as they have no natural predator in the island–except, perhaps, the powerful Caribbean hawk. As a result of this, one of the ways in which the locals have begun controlling the population is by doing the (previously) unthinkable: they are now adding iguana to the menu, and many people have found that they love the meat. It tastes like (as you may have guessed) chicken–that quintessentially “common” and “normal” meat. They now call it gallina de palo (“the chicken of the trees”).
The Arguments of the Epicureans, from Hermachus
Porphyry’s portion on Hermarchus begins in his paragraph 7. It begins by considering how ancient legislators declared manslaughter as unholy and punished it, and later argues that some people (only those who are unwise) need punishment in order to stop them from killing others, whereas the wise do not need to be reminded of such punishment. Later in paragraph 9, we see religion tied to this:
… The vulgar everywhere require something which may impede them from promptly performing what is not advantageous [to the community] …. For that part of the soul which is void of intellect, being variously disciplined, acquired a becoming mildness, certain taming arts having been from the first invented for the purpose of subduing the irrational impulses of desire, by those who governed the people.
By “taming arts” we may understand not only religious techniques for making individuals docile, but also a certain education, which instills presumably fear of the gods, of public shame, of being banished from the community, and of punishment.
As a continuation of a discussion against manslaughter, the morality of killing some animals is defended here for the sake of security. For instance, a community may need to slay a lion or wolves who are endangering its members.
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.
This is consistent with the sixth Principal Doctrine, which says that anything done for the sake of security is a natural good. It is also extended to the realm of non-violence among humans. For mutual advantage and in order to secure ataraxia (a fear-less life) and to secure all the things that are necessary (access to food, trade), neighbors and strangers entered into covenants of non-harm.
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; but also for defence against men whose design was to act nefariously … they abstained from the slaughter of men …. in order that there might be a communion among them in things that are necessary, and that a certain utility might be afforded in each of the above-mentioned incommodities.
For the destruction of every thing noxious, and the preservation of that which is subservient to its extermination, similarly contribute to a fearless life.
Here, Hermarchus introduces his non-violent views towards members of other species. He argues that if an animal is not causing us harm or injury, it should not be killed.
Nor must it be said, that the law allows us to destroy some animals which are not corruptive of human nature, and which are not in any other way injurious to our life. For as I may say, no animal among those which the law permits us to kill is of this kind.
Of course, and consistent with Principal Doctrine 38, justice must always be relative to circumstances and these laws and categories of animals may change according to (dis)advantage, as we saw in the case of animals that overbreed and become too numerous, becoming a pest.
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.
Three categories of animals are distinguished: the tame ones that are sometimes useful to us (therefore 1. useful tame animals and 2. useless tame animals), and 3. the savage ones that are not useful to us. Some may argue that some wild animals provide some utility, but here Hermarchus does not seem to acknowledge that anything natural and necessary can be attained from them. I can think of whale blubber, for instance, but the industry that this product spawned–and which nearly brought some species of whale to extinction–is widely considered immoral and evil today, and the products that this species offers humans can only be said to be “necessary” for certain populations of Inuits who survive through the winter thanks to it.
For it is not with horses, oxen, and sheep, and with all tame animals, as it is with lions and wolves and, in short, with all such as are called savage animals that, whether the number of them is small or great, no multitude of them can be assumed which, if left, would alleviate the necessity of our life. And on this account, indeed, we utterly destroy some of them; but of others, we take away as many as are found to be more than commensurate to our use.
The Scholarch was arguing that we are likely to want to keep some of these tame animals around (for food, clothing, transportation, etc.) but not so many that we can’t subdue them. But today, we may question whether it is fair to derive certain items of clothing and fashion from animals which can alternately be produced without causing suffering to any creature. The question of using horses rather than bikes or cars is, likewise, ridiculous. I would argue that the rise of the machines was meant to diminish the unnecessary suffering and labor of sentient beings, both human and non-human. Paragraph 12 concludes by reminding us that justice is based on advantage.
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.
So that, if Hermarchus was indeed vegetarian, or mostly vegetarian–which we do not know with certainty–he seems to have been arguing that because he did not live during a time when sheep, oxen, or other creatures were so numerous that they required laws to diminish their population in order to avoid their detriment to human populations, ergo he reasoned that this justified vegetarianism for the generation in which he lived.
Finally, the issue of animal intelligence may change this paradigm. For the time being, many countries already consider great apes as “non-human persons”, and a recent gathering of scientists in Vancouver also concluded that dolphins are “non-human persons”, mainly because it has been discovered that they have language (and social life) as complex as ours and that each dolphin answers to their own name. Several research stations are working on attempts to decipher dolphin speech, and some fishermen communities in Brasil have developed human-dolphin fishing techniques that produce mutual advantage by securing large amounts of smaller fish for the two higher species.
It’s possible that elephants, whose brains are bigger than ours, may soon join this new category of “non-human persons”, which constitutes a major paradigm shift in inter-species relations on Earth. If we are one day able to communicate with dolphins or to raise communities of great apes that use (as some individuals have) sign language to interact with us, we may reach a time in history when it is possible to have inter-species agreements and binding legal contracts. Hermarchus, in his day, considered this unthinkable but said that, if one day such a thing were possible, these contracts must be honored.
If, therefore, it was possible to make a certain compact with other animals in the same manner as with men, that we should not kill them, nor they us, and that they should not be indiscriminately destroyed by us, it would be well to extend justice as far as to this; for this extent of it would be attended with security. But since it is … impossible, that animals which are not recipients of reason should participate with us of law, on this account, utility cannot be in a greater degree procured by security from other animals, than from inanimate natures. But we can alone obtain security from the liberty which we now possess of putting them to death. And such are the arguments of the Epicureans.
But it is not only advantage, as Epicurus would have it, that explains the origins of justice when it comes to creatures that we can’t have agreements and contracts with, and in this Hermarchus departed slightly from the first Scholarch and we see the evolution of Epicurean doctrine as a result of exchanges with other schools.
The complicated discussion of animals and whatever courtesies and compassion we owe to dogs, cats, cows, and others, falls within a broader discussion of morality and where we get our morals from. It is here that the ancient Epicureans exhibited an accentuated interest in anthropology and elaborated theories of how moral instincts evolved naturally.
The Doctrine of Kinship
The Stoic doctrine of oikeiosis–which may translate as affinity, familiarity, affiliation, or endearment with those that are like us–establishes that there is a natural kinship among members of the same species, and was adapted by Hermarchus to help explain the origin of justice and homicide laws. He argues that we do not feel this kinship for animals, only for each other. Modern theories on how household pets, like dogs and cats, have evolved to trigger our evolutionary instincts to protect babies, may constitute an update to Hermarchus’ views.
In arguing that no animal which lacks logos (reason) has any share in justice, Hermarchus seeks to refute Empedocles’ view that a fellowship exists between men and irrational animals which makes it unjust to slay or sacrifice them.
As a side note, we may add context to these arguments by considering that Hermarchus was, in part, also defending the practice of animal sacrifice in order to feed his community on special occasions, as this was part of the 20th feasts and other pious and religious celebrations of the Epicureans.
Paul Waerdt, in his essay Epicurean Genealogy of Morals, argued that this kinship as a cause is subordinated to the calculation of advantage. That is: in Hermarchus, kinship does not replace advantage, but simply complements it as a source of morality and justice. His acceptance of it as a secondary cause keeps the utilitarian principle as higher priority, and is in line with the Epicurean way of reasoning, where multiple causes are acceptable as long as they do not contradict empirical evidence or each other.
In the acceptance of oikeiosis, Hermarchus introduces an innovation (see our two guidelines on innovation), even if he concedes that this oikeiosis is sometimes only experienced by those of a “finer nature”.
Theophrastus had argued that it was only just to kill naturally hostile animals because we are naturally akin to all other animals. Hermarchus, on the other hand, restricts kinship to only members of a community who contribute to its survival. This theory is very strongly vindicated, time and again, by the numerous historical and research examples mentioned in the awfully-named yet brilliant anthropology book The Lucifer Principle.
Hermarchus introduced the concept of individuals who exhibit “finer natures”, pointing the finger at the good influence on our character that we get from association with other people of good character.
Perhaps we may consider, instead, the possibility that various degrees of kinship can be recognized, and that there are many gray areas here? This may explain how some cultures–Vaishnava Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Vegans, and Jews who keep eco-kashrut–are more likely to exhibit a “finer nature” and to exhibit greater degrees of compassion for lesser sentient beings.
Hermarchus and the Epicurean Genealogy of Morals
The Scholarch discusses themes that are widely debated with great interest in the atheist community on the origins of morality as a natural phenomenon.
In Epicurean anthropology (as we see in Lucretius), the early stages of evolution of human traits is natural, and these only later give way to rationally-directed stages of development. We see this in Lucretius’ accounts of the evolution of language and friendship, for instance. Nature gave the initial incentive for morality, and later reason made nature’s insights more precise.
For instance, Hermarchus argued that ancient lawgivers conceived that homicide was not useful, had no utility or advantage. Concerning anti-homocide laws, he said they originate in the remembrance of a naturally advantageous practice of non violence, and later the taboo crystallized in the culture and mores of human groups.
The Kosher Example
The kashrut rules established in the Bible provide an insight into how, with time, rules that may have generated as a result of the study of nature, become crystallized into societal taboos that people consciously fashioned. It’s not difficult to imagine how the consumption of blood may have generated public health problems in some ancient societies. As for how ancient people decided what animals are fit to eat, this Neo-Hassidic page states:
… any animal that chews its cud can eat grasses and plants that are inedible to human beings, and any animal that has split hooves can walk (and graze) on land that is too rocky to farm with a plow. These characteristics together mean one very clear thing: the only land animals that we can eat according to the laws of kashrut are animals that do not compete with human beings for food.
Which means that the initial reasoning behind kashrut involved considerations of advantage in terms of, if we are going to consume the flesh of other animals, which are the ones that are the least likely to compete with us for food in our environment? This questions acquires greater urgency in a desert setting, where food scarcity is a frequent problem. Of course, the re-negotiation of passed-down tradition versus renewed considerations is constant, and many modern Jews are evaluating the merits of a contemporary discourse around eco-kashrut, or how the rules related to consumption can be expanded or changed to reflect ecological and labor concerns of our day.
All of the above considerations are part of our discourse on vegetarianism and treatment of animals.
The above discussion was informed, in part, by the essay “Epicurean Genealogy of Morals” by Paul A Vander Waerdt, from Duke University.
Philosophers have always disagreed about what is the telos, the ultimate end or aim that we should pursue. The ancient Epicurean friends believed that pleasure is a broad and varied enough category for telos that it is flexible, and also that we have a pleasure-aversion faculty which helps us in our choices and avoidances. The following online dialogue on meaning versus pleasure took place in the Epicurean Philosophy Group.
Hiram. The Ancient Wisdom Project was brought to my attention by someone studying Epicurus. In there, I found this assessment of the life of pleasure where it is argued that a life of pleasure does not give MEANING, and that meaning is a component of human happiness separate from pleasure and happiness and (presumably) essential. Here is another AWP articleon the problem.
I’m finding that one of the toughest things about Epicureanism is that it doesn’t seem to offer any solution to what I believe is my fundamental problem: a lack of meaning in my day-to-day life.
Cassius. Seems to me this is largely a subset of the “virtue vs pleasure” argument, here being stated in terms of a life being “meaningful” rather than good or virtuous. It is a HUGE point that we find only pleasure to be desirable in and of itself, but people just wont’ let go of the idea that they can rationalize some higher goal.
The challenge to Epicurean philosophy doesn’t have to be stated purely in terms of religion (like pleasing God for Christians/Jews/Muslims) or in terms of “helping others” like the more secular crowd likes to recast it (apparently this page is in that category). Anytime we see the argument that there is some “higher” calling or good above “pleasure” (in the wide definition that Epicurus gave it which includes mental and not just fleshly) then we’re confronting the same obstinate problem. Yes it’s indoctrinated in almost everyone alive at this point, but that doesn’t make it any more correct. It’s sad, pitiful, and disgusting (because it is an intentional rebellion against Nature) all at the same time.
And here’s the point which makes the explanation so difficult for those taken in by the mainstream evaluation of Epicurus: “Those things are good, and my experiment to date has shown that embracing elements of an Epicurean lifestyle can increase happiness (or rather, decrease unhappiness). But when I think about the natural end result of this lifestyle (a sort of minimalist retirement), I can’t help but think there really is no point to it. Living a pleasurable life, achieving ataraxia, seems appealing on the surface, but unsustainable as a lifetime pursuit.”
As long as “a sort of minimalist retirement” is seen as an accurate summary of Epicurean philosophy, then this problem is never going to be overcome. Leave “minimalist retirement” to the Stoics to whom it truly belongs.
And no, this is no Western thought – “Western thought seems to say “the world can be a cruel place and you should make it less cruel via good works and this will give your life meaning.” That’s not “Western” thought – it’s pure religious / secular-Platonic idealism that Epicurus clearly rejected. Yes that may be the majority in the West now, but it doesn’t represent Epicurean philosophy.
Jason. There is so much resistance to the idea of pleasure as the telos. “There has to be something more!” is the refrain I keep hearing over and over again. Selflessness seems to be the stand-in people claim to prefer, but when pointing out that there’s no such thing, they usually double-down or angrily storm off.
Cassius. One more quote from the second article to show this guy’s attitude: “I find the goal of becoming close to God far more attractive than living simply for pleasure.” For an Epicurean who knows his physics about the nature of the universe (uncreated, nonsupernatural) and the nature of true divinity (has no needs and neither grants favors or punishes error) that’s just absurd:
“Man can’t live by pleasure alone.
Spiritual disorder cannot be resolved— or joy worthy of the name produced— by wealth however great, by popular acclaim and respect, or by anything that causes unrestrained desire. – Epicurus
Still, I think there’s a reason pleasure is only a temporary antidote for cynicism, and that is that living for pleasure alone is not particularly meaningful.
Yes, it’s good to read great books and hang out with friends and eat brunch and take long walks, but there doesn’t seem be a point to it.
I suppose that is the philosophical difference between say the Epicurean, hedonistic philosophy and an Abrahamic religion. Hedonism says pleasure is good for its own sake. Christianity says life and pleasure should be used as a means to become closer to God.
While I’m still not certain about the God thing, I find the goal of becoming close to God far more attractive than living simply for pleasure.
Hiram. So he would rather set “becoming close to God” as the goal, even as he admits that he’s not sure that god exists? Is that coherent? Isn’t that what brought Mother Theresa to the most sublime heights of misery all her life?
Cassius. And to comment on Hiram Crespo’s phrasing of the original question: “…...that meaning is a component of human happiness separate from pleasure and happiness and (presumably) essential.” That’s the writer’s real problem. He is asserting that “meaning” exists separately from pleasure, which is the same error as alleging that “virtue” exists separately from pleasure. In truth, pleasure (and pain) are the only fundamental guides given by nature – the only ones that really exist as part of our fundamental makeup. Abstractions are great, but they cannot replace or supercede the ultimate guidance that lets us know what to choose and what to avoid. And replacing pleasure and pain with abstractions is exactly what these guys are trying to do. They are not willing to use abstractions as a tool for maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, which is the natural scenario – they want to REPLACE pleasure and pain with abstractions of their own making.
Maybe as important as any other aspect of this discussion is that “living in accord with the guidance of Nature” in the Epicurean framework (rather than in the false framework of “living in accord with reason” as suggested by the Stoics / Platonists / etc) ought to be considered MORE meaningful than any of these false abstractions. As I quoted the website above, the writer finds it more satisfying to “become close to god!” Not only is this absurd, but because it is absurd, it is offensive to assert that we can’t value and defend Nature (our true “mother” and “father” too) every bit as intensely as any fake religion ever valued its icon or its false abstraction. Lucretius gives us an example of how “true religion” and “true reason” can be channeled into intensity of feeling that matches or exceeds any mundane religion. The fact that there are few people who can replicate that today is not an indictment of Epicurean philosophy, it’s an indictment of the amount of poison that’s in the human bloodstream after 2000 years of false religion and rationalistic idealism.
Alexander. Without reading any of the links or comments yet… and because I have heard this argument so many times and parsed it already… I am pretty sure that by “meaning” folks mean the sum of two things:
1. “Legacy”, of which Epicurus talks about too, and he left “provisions” for the younger generations of Epicureans.
“While we are on the road, we must try to make what is before us better than what is past; when we come to the road’s end, we feel a smooth contentment.”
“At one and the same time we must philosophize, laugh, and manage our household and other business, while never ceasing to proclaim the words of true philosophy”
“Most beautiful is the sight of those close to us, when our original contact makes us of one mind or produces a great incitement to this end.”
“We show our feeling for our friends’ suffering, not with laments, but with thoughtful concern.”
“That we have suffered certain bodily pains aids us in preventing others like them.”
2. Not choosing every pleasure, but sometimes choosing what appears to be a pain … just as Epicurus explained in his letter to Menoeceus.
“But although happiness is the first and a natural good, for this same reason we do not choose every pleasure whatsoever, but at many times we pass over certain pleasures when difficulty is likely to ensue from choosing them. Likewise, we think that certain pains are better than some pleasures, when a greater pleasure will follow them, even if we first endure pain for time.”
A temporary postponement of immediate/illusory gratification in order to gain a longer term and greater gratification, and to avoid troubles that come with the consequences of the illusory gratification, and secure what brings peace and security.
“…but it does not follow that every pleasure is worthy of being chosen, just as every pain is an evil, and yet every pain must not be avoided. Nature requires that we resolve all these matters by measuring and reasoning whether the ultimate result is suitable or unsuitable to bringing about a happy life; for at times we may determine that what appears to be good is in fact an evil, and at other times we may determine that what appears to be evil is in fact a good.”
Often the type of trouble to be avoided is that which our __neighbor__ might complain to us about in addition to the usual ones. Epicurus speaks to our neighborly/friendly relationships too.
Hiram. Legacy: that is one key to replying to this argument, which is why in my book I focus so heavily on the idea of passing on our wisdom tradition, and why Norman Dewitt talked about “each one teach one” and our commitment to the teaching mission of the Gardens.
Alexander. Also the legacy of Diogenes of Oenoanda comes to mind. A public inscription on a stone wall through which anyone can use to better their lives. Even those not members of a Garden.
Hiram. And yet we have talked before about how Epicurean philosophy deserves to grow more than it has. I think another way to see this is as a challenge. To ask and attempt to answer in what ways does this philosophy help us to fashion meaning for our lives? Because that is what many people are looking for, and here is one atheist who sincerely delved into the study of Epicurus for a period of his life and came out unsatisfied, and here says why. This is an opportunity to reply.
Cassius. I remember a discussion in our group a long time ago when I cited the following from Diogenes of Oinoanda:
Fr. 5 [Others do not] explicitly [stigmatise] natural science as unnecessary, being ashamed to acknowledge [this], but use another means of discarding it. For, when they assert that things are inapprehensible, what else are they saying than that there is no need for us to pursue natural science? After all, who will choose to seek what he can never find?”
The point that is relevant here is “After all, who will choose to seek what he can never find?” People from a religious or Platonic orientation are insisting on seeking something that can never be found. They are living a fantasy and have decided that that fantasy is more important to them than dealing with the reality, that that fantasy does not exist. Epicurean philosophy can’t change the facts of reality and provide them something that does not exist. But I think what it can do is what I referenced above with Lucretius: it can point them in the direction of seeing that the truth is more important than any fantasy, and that they should (like Lucretius did) start using their talent at dreaming to start investing in the satisfaction that can come from cooperating with nature rather than rebelling against it.
Hiram. One of my readers recently emailed me, saying:
What does Epicurus mean by “I recommend constant study of Nature”?
To which I replied:
If you read the Epistle to Herodotus, Principal Doctrines 10-13, and Polystratus’ On Irrational Contempt, you will learn that protecting our minds from the culture’s supernatural insinuations requires a clear understanding of the nature of things and (in Polystratus specially) that if we do not balance the pursuit of virtue with the study of nature (science), that we fall into superstition and arrogance and many other problems. This is the main issue with religion today, but it was also in antiquity, which is why a SCIENCE of contemplation, and a scientific and transcultural spirituality and morality, is still so necessary. It’s very unfortunate that Sam Harris is dedicated to this ideal, yet he has no knowledge of Epicurus and Polystratus and the work they’ve done in this regard.
As I’ve gained depth in understanding Epicurus over the years, it’s become clear that he saw himself as coming to this world with the mission of reconciling us with nature,particularly after we fell into the error of Platonism, which Michel Onfray has called “the great neurosis at the heart of Western civilization”. Our tradition is meant to supplant religion, in part, by giving people a scientific alternative based on the study of nature. And the authority of the canon (and of our faculties) is REALLY the authority of nature, which is the same as reality. In many important ways, nature has replaced God in our tradition–it is our source of meaning, our ultimate reality, our ultimate authority, and we must seek alignment with her. I hope this helps to clarify your question.
Cassius. For example this is a similar thought of how we should approach Nature with as much awe as any “god”:
Hiram. One way in which nature has come to replace God in our tradition can be seen in this fragment:
Praise be to blessed Nature: she has made what is necessary easy to get, and what is not easy to get unnecessary.
This is the idea that deserves further attention: how Epicurus saw it as his mission to reconcile us with Nature after Plato had done his harm. We are called to have a relationship with nature (reality) rather than God. Can this be a source of awe and meaning and spirituality? I think it is.
Cassius. Yes Hiram I think that is the direction. DeWitt comments on this as well, but seems to downplay it for reasons I never understood. I think DeWitt’s observation sells them short and that the Epicureans DID see this same point.
Stephen. I understand the author’s feelings. But they ignore Epicurus’ views on friendship. Meaning for most people is found in relationships with others. Pleasure isn’t just eating and drinking. It can be conversation, art and doing philanthropy.
Ilkka. This is one of those False Dichotomies that people (i.e. me…) tend to point out… and be snooty about to your face. 🙂
In a contest of “pleasure vs. meaning”, pleasure wins with a submission. ALL of the things that are meaningful to you are pleasurable. Go on! Check if you like. We’ll wait…
In all of these nonsensical dichotomies, it’s always the case that people have been taught that suffering is good, and that there HAS to be something wrong with pleasure. Mostly I blame religion for this abuse…
For example, I do a lot of things for the Red Cross (a lot.). It gives me meaning in my life… a lot of meaning. And this is because it gives me a lot of pleasure (though it’s also painful and anxious at times).
You cannot simply walk into meaning. It is guarded by more than gods. There is pleasure there that never sleeps. It is folly to argue against it. 😉
Blog About the Search for Meaning – Based on this Dialogue