Epicurus and the Epicureans

“You ought to be a slave to philosophy in order to achieve true liberty.”

The Four Part Cure: Don’t fear god, Don’t worry about death; What is good is easy to get, and What is terrible is easy to endure.

I am writing this wrapped in a (-n albeit beautiful) shawl, in a freezing tin roof hut, in the shadow of the Himalayas. In many ways, I can see the truth and value of Epicurean teachings*: I’m living simply, my basic needs are covered but my existence is not especially extravagant or lavish, and still I am as happy as I have ever been in my life. There are some crucial differences between my happiness (and how I’ve come to it) and Epicurean happiness, but, as usual, I find having an active life (pursuing the living of philosophy and not just the understanding of it – if you can actually have understanding without experience) brings me closer to the heart of philosophical works. (I connected particularly with the maxim: “Send me a small measure of cheese, so that when I want to have a feast I shall be able to do so.” CHEESE WOULD BE A FEAST FOR ME RIGHT NOW. I AM FROM WISCONSIN AND I HAVE NOT HAD LEGIT CHEESE IN MONTHS. MONTHS!!! p.s. go pack go!)

“…one must believe that it is the job of physics to work out precisely the cause of the most important things, and that blessedness lies in this part of meteorological knowledge and in knowing what the natures are which are observed in these meteorological phenomena, and all matters related to precision on this topic.”

I am completely unconvinced by Epicurean physics, which leaves me doubtful of the rest of his philosophical system, given its interdependency. Not that the ethics aren’t problematic in their own way. The collection of works I read included the testimony of Cicero and polemic of Plutarch, in themselves longer than the three extant letters and Diogenes Laetius’ doxographical reports and collection of maxims. It was Cicero who really smashed my opinion of Epicurean atomism, albeit with much carelessness and sarcasm. (I am recounting my understanding of Epicurean physics having read only part of de rerum natura, which I will read in full presently, and please, as usual, consider my dealing with philosphers here as basic, incomplete, and possibly unfair.)

Epicurus is at one point accused (by Plutarch) of “stealing” atomism from Democritus. What Epicurus adds to the picture is an unexplained and seemingly uncaused swerving of atoms. Epicurus holds that atoms have size, shape, and weight. Atoms fall because they have weight, but they fall through a void so they all fall equally fast. (This is confusing to me, probably because of my limited intellectual capacity, but if atoms were “falling” at equal speeds through a void – both the void and the number of atoms being infinite – how is this movement at all?) In this case, nothing would happen because there is no interaction. But Epicurus claims (and Lucretius follows suit) that atoms swerve just the minimal interval (what is this?) which causes them to collide and interact. This is the basis of things in the world. Cicero, rightly in my opinion, mockingly criticizes this view – how can there be an uncaused swerve? Why the minimum interval and not the maximum or some other? Why not many minimum intervals? Cicero himself is not convinced by the atomists (that atoms exist) but he entertains Epicurus long enough to essentially dismantle his atomism. Lucretius seems oblivious of this objection, as he writes: “Again and again, that is why it is necessary that that atoms swerve slightly – but not more than the minimum; otherwise, we would seem to be inventing oblique motions and then the plain facts would refute us.” … well, now, this is awkward.

Plutarch brings up another problem, although it seems less damning. These early philosophers held almost unanimously that something cannot come from nothing. Epicurus himself held it, which is of most importance; he states as much in the beginning of the letter to Herodotus. The criticism of atomism is how – given that atoms are unchanging and lack qualities other than size, shape, and weight – atoms could produce the varying qualities we know in the world, such as colors. Epicureans seem to want to explain secondary properties (e.g. color) as epiphenomena resulting from atomic combinations (never mind the problem of colliding atoms without the swerve).

I’m also incredibly skeptical of the reliance and trust Epicureans have in sense-perception. “For what is visible not only is presented as visible but also is such as it is presented [as being]; and what is audible is not only presented as audible but also is like that in truth; and similarly for the rest.” Sense-perceptions are true, and we can rely on their truth wholeheartedly (apparently). There is an (unconvincing) attempt to respond to the obvious objection here: “Some people are deceived by the difference between the presentations which seem to come from the same perceptible, for example, a visible thing, according to which [i.e., the difference] the object is presented as being of varying colour or varying shape or as different in some other way. For they supposed that one of the presentations which differ and conflict in this way must be true and the one derived from the opposites must be false. This is foolish and the product of men who do not have a comprehensive view of the nature of things.” This claim entails, and is made explicit, that when you see a tower far away and it looks quite small and perhaps the shape is a bit distorted, and when you walk closer and it looks much bigger and perhaps rounder or sharper, in fact both perceptions were correct, for “it remains for distorted opinion to think that the same object of presentation was observed from close up and from a distance. Unfortunately I can’t get behind a theory of sensibles that gives such infallibility to the senses.

(Cicero also has some cheeky and somewhat misguided criticism for this Epicurean account of sense-perception: “Anyway, how do all your images of things arise from the atomic bodies? Even if they existed, which they don’t, they might perhaps bump into each other and be shaken up by their collisions; but they could not impart form, shape, colour, and life.”)

So knowing about all these physical things is a way to ethical living, because knowing the truth about the world means we can live in it with most pleasure. This expresses itself in several ways. For one, when I don’t have fear that the gods will meddle in my life (because I don’t hold superstitions about them and the cosmos), I am free from a certain kind of disturbance. Though I disagreed with much of the Epicurean literature I read, this particular passage was a *pleasure* to read, and theodicy, or the problem of evil, has been one of recent acute interest: “‘God,’ he says, ‘either wants to eliminate bad things and cannot, or can but does not want to, or neither wishes to nor can, or both wants to and can. If he wants to and cannot, then he is weak – and this does not apply to god. If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful – which is equally foreign to god’s nature. If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful and so not a god. If he wants to and can, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?” Epicurus believes he has successfully argued that the gods (or God) are not workmen, undertaking burdens and feeling concern for the cosmos. They (or it) are totally concerned with their own blessedness, and wouldn’t be bothered or disturbed by the trifling problems of humans.

Secondly, if I understand the universe, there is no reason for me to fear death. Epicurus, like Democritus, holds that the soul dies with the body, and that there should be no fear or disturbance in the mind regarding a ‘life after death.’ “…a correct knowledge of the fact that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life a matter for contentment, not by adding a limitless time [to life] but by removing the longing for immortality. For there is nothing fearful in life for one who has grasped that there is nothing fearful in the absence of life.” (emphasis mine)

The ethics gets a little bit wacky. For Epicurus, injustice in itself is not a bad thing. What is bad about injustice is the disturbance it brings to the mind, the idea that one might get caught and consequently punished (since the highest aim in life is to be free from disturbances and to live in tranquility). This seems to be a weak base (if a base at all) for an ethical system. Epicurus seems to think he has avoided this objection by saying that, well, we never really know whether we will be caught (never mind that many people are capable of doing wrong and simply forgetting or not caring much that they did it, or of convincing themselves that they will never be caught). This does not seem to address the issue of someone who commits an injustice but feels no disturbance for it – perhaps they don’t think it was wrong. If they never get caught… we have something of a moral conundrum on our hands. This isn’t much of a system at all, by some appearances.

“And just as hatred, envy, and contempt are inimical to pleasures, so friendships are not only the most trustworthy supports for our pleasures, but they also produce them, as much for our friends as for ourselves.” Friendship is very important to Epicurus, and he seems to claim that one should make as much an effort for the pleasure of friends as one does for oneself. The utilitarian vs (some might say necessarily) nonutilitarian nature of friendship is one that several of the Epicureans grappled with; however the cards fell, though, friendship has a particularly useful status to the wise man living in the Epicurean way, and it doesn’t seem to be solely utilitarian, in that we do not have friends only for the pleasure they bring us (although this doesn’t seem so radical a proposition). Though (mutual?) advantage might be the first bond, eventually a love between the two friends will develop which transcends the mere utility of the relationship.

But this doesn’t seem to apply to romantic partners. “The wise man will not have intercourse with a woman in a manner forbidden by the laws, according to Diogenes in his summary of Epicurus’ ethical doctrines… ‘Sexual intercourse, they say, never helped anyone, and one must be satisfied if it has not harmed.'”

Plutarch gives, in my opinion, one of the strongest criticisms of Epicurus when he writes: “So if the soul supposes that its good lies in the stable condition of the body and in confidence about [the condition of] the body [as Epicurus thinks it does], then it cannot live out its life free of fear and upset. For the body is not only subject to storms and squalls from outside itself, like the sea, but from within itself it generates more and greater upsets.” I can attest to the truth of this, as I am sure many can.

There were aspects of Epicureanism that really spoke to me, but overall I am unconvinced and in some ways uninterested. This seems very much like the kind of philosophy only a privileged white man would write, regarding the highest goal as pleasure and thinking that contenting ourselves with very little we can be happy and at peace (in his defense, he believed women equally capable of living in such a way and included them as such, quite radical for the time). Such conditions are unrealistic for so many people in the world. Perhaps someone with a very strong will might find solace in these teachings – in fact, by the description of the Garden and his followers, in many ways Epicurus seems quite similar to Indian gurus, which are borderline cultish from my experience – but I believe in addition to a strong will they would require some level of stupidity and/or excessive privilege.

*It is my understanding that many have come to associate Epicureanism with excessive pleasure in fine food, drink, etc., the gross worship of sensual pleasures. This seems not at all correct, a distortion of the grandest kind. So I do not refer to this understanding in my use of “Epicurean” or “Epicureanism.” I would refer you to the extant letters: “Therefore, becoming accustomed to simple, not extravagant, ways of life makes one completely healthy, makes man unhesitant in the face of life’s necessary duties, puts us in a better condition for the times of extravagance which occasionally come along, and makes us fearless in the face of chance. So when we say that pleasure is the goal we do not mean the pleasures of the profligate or the pleasures of consumption, as some believe, either from ignorance and disagreement or from deliberate misinterpretation, bur rather the lack of pain in the body and disturbance in the soul” (131-132).


One thought on “Epicurus and the Epicureans

  1. Pingback: EPICUREANISM | One Minute Theory

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