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AN EPICUREAN DIALOGUE
(By Defensor Fidei)
Gaius: I have been lately reading on Epicurus and the Stoics.
Lucius: I see.
Gaius: I became intrigued by Thomas Jefferson‘s letter to his friend William Short:
''I too am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us. Epictetus indeed has given us what was good of the Stoics; all beyond, of their dogmas, being hypocrisy and grimace. Their great crime was in their calumnies of Epicurus and misrepresentations of his doctrines; in which we lament to see the candid character of Cicero engaging as an accomplice. Diffuse, vapid, rhetorical, but enchanting. His prototype Plato, eloquent as himself, dealing out mysticisms incomprehensible to the human mind, has been deified by certain sects usurping the name of Christians; because, in his foggy conceptions, they found a basis of impenetrable darkness whereon to rear fabrications as delirious, of their own invention...“---Thomas Jefferson
And, isn’t it surprising how easily self-proclaimed modern Stoics, such as Massimo Pigliucci, adapt their discourse to the correct political guideline, or how often ‘Stoicism’ (D.Robertson) is just a label to describe CBT + a philosophical gloss, just a repackage of commonplace religion and humanist positions?
Lucius: Basically, Stoicism allows for the easy continuation of fantastic and preposterous religious and moral idealism in all its many forms. Stoicism is particularly in harmony with prevailing Platonic and Abrahamic ethics and morality.
Take Revilo P Oliver, who was one of the best classicists the USA had. In diverse essays‚ but mostly in ‘The Origins of Christianity,’ one can read:
"Unlike Epicureanism and the New Academy, which were philosophic products of the Greek mind and expounded by Greeks, Stoicism was an alien doctrine foisted onto the Aryan peoples of Antiquity. Stoicism was founded and to a considerable extent promoted by Semites, and although it included, by chance or design, much that was in conformity with the Aryan spirit and mentality, it was hybrid, a bastard philosophy, for it also contained much that was Semitic and alien to our race…That criticism may make you uneasy. I understand. We all respect Stoicism because it was endowed with a glamorous prestige by the great men whose creed it was. We are Aryans, and by a racial imperative inherent in our blood, far stronger than ratiocination, we admire heroism and fortitude. Stoicism was in practice the creed of Cato of Utica and many another Roman aristocrat who lived bravely and died proudly, meeting his fate with unflinching resolution. We instinctively pay homage to such men, and we venerate even more women of exemplary courage, like Arria, the devoted wife of A. Caecina Paetus ("Paete, non dolet.") Panaetius did make of an originally Semitic doctrine a creed that includes much that was consonant with the spirit and mentality of our race…But much as we admire great Romans, we must remember that, as Gilbert Murray remarked, Stoicism retained from its origins a latent fanaticism in its religiosity and it professed to offer a kind of Salvation to unhappy mankind; despite its ostentatious appeal to nature and reason, it was a kind of evangelism whose professions dazzled the reason. It professed to deduce from biology an asceticism that was in fact fundamentally inhuman and therefore irrational, e.g., the limitation of sexual intercourse to the begetting of offspring. Although it was the creed of heroes, we cannot but feel that there was in it something sickly and deformed. Stoicism, furthermore, was an intellectual disaster. It carried with it the poisonous cosmopolitanism that talks about "One World" and imagines that Divine Providence has made all human beings part of the Divine Plan, so that there are no racial differences, but only differences in education and understanding of the Stoics’ Truth. That is why we today so often do not know the race of an individual who had learned to speak and write good Greek (or Latin) and had been given, or had adopted, a civilized name. Our sources of information were so bemused by vapid verbiage about the Brotherhood of Man that they forgot to discriminate...”
---Revilo P Oliver
Gaius: Don’t you think that by remarking the Semitism of Stoicism you will be misunderstood and your critique disqualified as racist?
Lucius: Not at all. Today there are two prevalent ways of studying moral values. One posits that these can be rationally verified and established: values will be universally valid, and once errors are cleared away it will be a matter merely of distinguishing between right and wrong, good and evil. The alternative way considers that since all values are relative and therefore equivalent, nothing sensible or interesting may be said about them.
There is, however, a third approach. This is genealogical and shows the human, social, philosophical, and religious breeding ground of a certain doctrine: inquires as to the origin of certain ideas; of which type of man they are expression; what it is they reflect—and to where they lead. Any world view is inescapably linked to a particular outlook on man, the world, and history; and, in its turn, it depends on the mental constitution—itself anchored at a biological level—of the particular people by whom it was created.
Gaius: Interesting. Let me now tell you about two modern books on the same topic.
‘The Swerve: How the World Became Modern’ (UK title: The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began) is a book by Stephen Greenblatt and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.
Greenblatt tells the story of how Poggio Bracciolini, a 15th-century papal emissary and obsessive book hunter, saved the last copy of the Roman poet Lucretius's 'On the Nature of Things' from near-terminal neglect in a German monastery, thus reintroducing important ideas that sparked the modern age.
Ten years before 'The Swerve', Benjamin Wiker – a Christian fundamentalist - published a book that covers much of the same ground: 'Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists'.
Wiker and Greenblatt agree in their historical narrative of the modern world as a product of the turn away from the Christian cosmology of intelligent design to the Lucretian cosmology of evolutionary atomism and how Epicurean ideas shaped the leading modern thinkers in philosophy and science (Galileo, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Gassendi, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Newton, Hume, Spinoza, Darwin, and Nietzsche). Greenblatt celebrates this historical turn as moral progress, while Wiker laments it as moral degeneration.
The gist of Wiker‘s book is this:
Christians must see the world as intelligently designed by the divine Creator, who exercises providential care over human beings and who judges them in the afterlife as deserving heavenly rewards or hellish punishments for eternity. Christians can interpret many of the ancient philosophers, Platonists, Aristotelians (here Wiker means Aquinas and Scholastic metaphysics, which is a distortion of Aristotle) and Stoics, as teaching that the world is fundamentally mindful and purposive and thus supporting a Christian cosmology. But they can't do this with the atomistic cosmology of Epicurus and Lucretius, which must be seen as the fundamental rival to Christianity.
Moreover, Wiker argues, one must defend Christian cosmology if one wants to defend Christian morality. As a comprehensive account of the universe, every cosmology implies a morality, because every account of nature as a whole implies an account of human nature - the moral and intellectual life of human beings - as part of cosmic nature.
Some telling quotations:
"Why has contemporary science chosen to ignore or dismiss the existence of a designing intelligence? Why has it sided with the materialist?"
"...As I shall argue, modern science itself was designed to exclude a designer. Even more surprising, modern science was designed by an ancient Greek: Epicurus..."
"...The argument of this book is that the ancient materialist Epicurus provided an approach to the study of nature - a paradigm, as the historian of science Thomas Kuhn called it - which purposely and systematically excluded the divine from nature, not only in regard to the creation and design of nature, but also in regard to divine control of, and intervention in, nature..."
"...This secularization culminated in Darwinism because it was with Darwin that materialism, which had been slowly but surely permeating and re-forming the predecessor Christian culture, finally reached and devoured God the creator and the immortal human soul, leaving behind a completely Godless, soulless universe..."
"...Every distinct view of the universe, every theory of nature, necessarily entails a view of morality; every distinct view of morality, every theory about human nature, necessarily entails a cosmology to support it..."
"...The so-called culture wars are the result of this great conflict...Epicurean materialism and Christianity have been implacable foes since the very origin of Christianity...there is no possibility for compromise in the current moral debates between the rival sides…"
"...The entire materialist account of human nature, society, morality, and religion, which forms the stream of modernity flowing toward its culmination in Darwin, is found clearly and succinctly stated in Lucretius. Lucretius seems so modern because we are so Lucretian..."
"...For anyone even mildly familiar with modern evolutionary theory this is a remarkable passage (De Rerum Natura, 5.837-77)…
(1) Random variation at the atomic level brings about a diversity of creatures at the level of species.
(2) Monsters (later called monstrosities by Darwin) do not survive because they cannot defend themselves, nor provide sustenance, nor procreate by the 'ways of Venus.'
(3) Whatever animals have survived must have been the fittest, having greater cunning, courage or quickness (or greater utility to human beings), and so are 'able by procreation to forge out the chain of the generations.'
(4) Like the monsters, those species that are less fit do not survive, for they 'lay at the mercy of others for prey and profit…until nature brought that kind to destruction,' that is, extinction...“
"...Whether we are Christian or not, it is simply true from the very beginning Christianity set itself completely against Epicureanism at all points. The victory of Christianity in the first five hundred years A.D. necessitated the defeat of Epicurean materialism. The two could not coexist..."
"...Nor could they coexist when Epicureanism was revised in the Renaissance...This, the antagonism between moral Darwinism and Christianity in the 19th century and beyond was and is simply a continuation of a very ancient animosity…"
„...In focusing on Christianity for historical reasons, we should not forget the fundamental cosmological and moral agreement between Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Since all three share a common foundation in the Old Testament, all three will be in basic opposition to Epicurean materialism (and hence moral Darwinism). Consequently, much of what is said about Christianity in its opposition to Epicureanism could be said of Judaism and Islam as well...“
“…As the Roman Republic crumbled from internal decay, and the two Caesars, Julius and then Augustus, substituted imperial for republican rule, the new empire championed the philosophy of the Stoics, which seemed to answer far better to the required virtues of duty and self-sacrifice for the common good than did the apolitical and pleasure-based morality of Epicureanism…In addition, while Stoicism argued that the natural order was divinely ordained and the gods watched over human affairs, Epicureanism denied any relation of the gods either to nature or human affairs – and moreover had the malodorous reputation of being either openly or secretly atheistic…”
“…But during the first four centuries of Christianity, Epicureanism was a living rival, strong enough and pervasive enough to be an object of worry, and hence an object of scorn, both in regard to its focus on pleasure and the denial of the soul’s immortality, and its alleged atheism…”
“…The thirteenth-century incorporation of Aristotle as the pagan philosopher most compatible with Christianity deserves our special attention…it was Aristotle’s account of nature, as taken up by Christianity, that formed the intellectual foundation of scholasticism; as a result scholasticism was the reigning intellectual approach going into the Renaissance…much of the success in reintroducing Epicurean materialism on friendly terms in the West depended on a general discontent with the excessive dry formalism into which scholasticism had unfortunately fallen by the Renaissance…Christians, at least some of them, were therefore ready to use one pagan philosophy (Epicureanism) to uproot another (Aristotelianism)…”
“…because of some who were enamoured with Aristotle and neglected or downplayed Scripture as a source of truth, other Christians (the so-called radical Augustinians) came to see Aristotle’s thought as a kind of spiritual contamination and tried to destroy its influence. The theology they used to combat Aristotelianism, called nominalism, inadvertently paved the way for Epicureanism…”
“…In the spring of 1417 Epicureanism was awakened from its deep slumber. Poggio Bracciolini, infected with the characteristic Renaissance desire to…” [Here, Wiker summarises the rediscovery of De Rerum Natura. The story is told in disparaging terms, of course, just the opposite of “The Swerve”. There’s a moment in which he even hints that the destruction or loss of Lucretius’s book would have saved us lots of trouble. ]
“…The works of Epicurus, along with those of his poetic spokesman, became once again available…the publishing history of both attest to the spread of interest in Epicureanism all over Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and the firm restablishing of Epicurean materialism by the seventeenth century…”
“…First, there was the not-such-a-bad-guy approach of simple restoration without advocacy…Second, there was the honey-on-the-rim-of-bitter-poison approach of introducing Epicureanism through an appreciation of Lucretius the poet…A third way attempted to subordinate the materialism of Epicureanism to Christianity, creating a Christianized hybrid of two utterly irreconcilable views of the universe…”
“…As we go from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, the atomism of Epicurus and Lucretius moved from being an alien smuggled into Christianized culture in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to being the only tenable theoretical view of natural philosophy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The time period may be conveniently marked by the contiguous lives of Galileo Galilei (1554-1642) and Isaac Newton (1642-1727)…”
“…chief among the various figures who contributed to the victory of materialist atomism in science…Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) and Robert Boyle (1627-1691).
“…Bruno was the martyr for the cause…Gassendi was engaged in ongoing conversations with the most famous philosophers and scientists of the day – Kepler, Galileo, Mersenne and Thomas Hobbes – and his books enjoyed a wide and enthusiastic readership. Finally, Boyle was the great advocate of taking atomism from the theoretical realm of the physicists to the very practical realm of the chemists…”
“…If we may provide the briefest statement that characterizes the Galilean-Newtonian revolution, we might call it the vindication of atomism through the victory of mathematics…With the complete theoretical victory of Epicurean materialism, all the essential elements of Epicurus’s system – the eternal and indestructible atoms, the infinite universe with the unlimited number of worlds, the banishment of the creator God, the rejection of miracles, the displacement of design in nature by chance and material necessity, and the elimination of the immaterial soul – fell into place…”
“…For those living in the two centuries between Newton’s Principia and the dawn of the twentieth century, the world was as Newton had described it, and that world was almost exactly as Epicurus had planned it. To understand that moral Epicureanism followed necessarily upon the adoption of theoretical Epicureanism, and that moral Darwinism is the culmination of moral Epicureanism, is to understand the modern world…”--- Benjamin Wiker
Lucius: It is extremely difficult to get a sympathetic undistorted view on Epicurus and Epicureanism today. Norman DeWitt‘s 'Epicurus and his Philosophy' is probably the best place to start.
Christian officials diligently rounded up and burnt any work of philosophy written from a materialist perspective, like those by Epicurus and his followers. The fragmentary literary remains of Epicurus, a voluminous author who published over 300 books, is due to the zealous efforts of Christian book burners.
But the enmity is older. There's a clear dichotomy in Ancient Greek thought going back to the V-IV centuries BCE, Idealism (Metaphysics, Gods, Mysticism, Asceticism, Dualism) vs. Materialism (Empiricism, Atheism, Pragmatism, Hedonism, Monism). There's no doubt about who won this cultural war. The winners always write history.
The history of philosophy has been the triumph of Platonic Idealism and its manifestation in Judaic, Christian, and Islamic belief. The dichotomy Plato vs. Democritus/Epicurus has had several iterations in Medieval (Scholastics), Renaissance (Neo-Platonists, Augustinians, Luther and the Reformation), Baroque (Descartes) and Enlightenment (Kant) times.
All the books of Plato survived the Dark Ages. Democritus is said to have been disliked so much by Plato that the latter wished all of his books burned. None of his writings have survived. Ditto for Epicurus and the Epicurean tradition. Even what we know of Socrates has come to us mediated through Plato. Aristotle's work was also completely distorted by the Scholastics. So-called ‘Aristotelian‘ metaphysics derive from that time.
Gaius: How is Epicurus different from Aristotle?
Lucius: Aristotle could be used -and misused- more easily by Islam, Judaism and Christianity, because, contrary to Epicurus, his philosophy allowed speculation on the idea of a Creator (First Mover) and the immortality of the Soul (A celestial tyrant and eternal damnation for bad boys are an Abrahamic predilection).
Gaius: I’m trying to figure out why Epicurean philosophy was wiped out so easily after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Lucius: Try a social analysis.
Plato‘s philosophy was for ‚the intellectuals‘; the ethics of Plato are tied to his whole system of knowledge, including politics. The doctrines of Epicurus appealed chiefly to the middle classes, the bourgeoisie; the ethics of Epicurus are separated from politics and joined only with physics (and Aristotle). The teachings of Jesus were for the very poor, the lost sheep. The ethics of Jesus are isolated from both physics and politics and fitted into a development scheme of salvation.
It is easy to figure out how this story ends.
Gaius: And what do you think is the relevance of Epicurus today?
Lucius: Epicurean philosophy is the only ancient philosophy that is so much compatible with modern Science, due to its empirical evidence-based method.
Epicurus was mostly influenced by Democritean physics and Aristotelian biological ethics. Epicurus was very much interested in observing and understanding nature with the aim of achieving serenity and happiness. His study of nature was not theoretical. He thought that we need science in order to be happy. He thought we need the study of nature as a means of avoiding myths, fears of the unknown and superstition.
Epicurus spoke about the atomic nature of sense perception almost like a neurobiologist would describe it today, that atoms come from the environment, either straight like the photons that we see or in waves that we hear. He spoke about the evolution of species based on natural selection; Darwin was influenced by Epicurus through his grandfather.
Epicurus was the first philosopher to introduce the concept of justice as a social construct.
The rediscovery of the Epicurean philosophy in Renaissance helped us to evolve during Empiricism, Enlightenment and Modern Era of Science. After about a millennium of imposed silence during the Middle Ages, in 1417 the discovery of the great poem “On the nature of things” of the Roman Epicurean Lucretius made a great impact in disseminating the philosophy of Epicurus during the Renaissance. One of the major political figures of the Enlightenment was self-declared Epicurean Thomas Jefferson, who introduced the human right of the pursuit of happiness, the first time after Epicurus, in the United States Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was also the founder of the first public American university, the University of Virginia. Before that American universities were either religious or private.
The Epicurean philosophy constitutes an ethical system based on observed human nature and not on abstract ideas. It is based on common human biology and psychology. For him, philosophy is a useless endeavour if it doesn’t make people better in order to live a happier life in harmony with other people. He mentioned that the right philosophy based on naturalism cures the anxieties of the soul in a similar manner that the right medicine cures the pains of the body.
The Epicurean philosopher tries to live like a god among people‘!
Gaius: To conclude, two thousand years of Platonism and Abrahamism have created a false opposition between Pleasure and Virtue. The opposite of virtue is vice, not pleasure. Pleasure is a life-affirming experience, an affirmation of our presence in this world. Virtue in its etymological sense derives from ‚vir‘, male agency and strength; vice denotes weakness and escapism from reality. The reward of virtue is pleasure; the penalty of vice, pain.
Lucius: Yep, exactly. Current Stoicism's self-help is just shit in polyester greco-roman robes. However, CBT - self authoring - is indeed the answer to the method of instruction on an educational scale. Although it's Epicurus that provides what it is that we should instruct.