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The Epicurean Option

Dane Gordon on the friends of Epicurus.

Epicureanism may be distinguished as a philosophy in two somewhat lamentable ways. It has possibly been vilified more than any other, a practice which began during Epicurus’ lifetime. And the vilification is so unjust and disregarding of truth that it requires only a slight understanding of Epicureanism to see that it is false. Yet what is in fact a willful distortion of a philosophy has passed into the language. An epicure is defined in Webster’s dictionary as one devoted to sensual pleasures, and although my students may know nothing else about philosophy they do know that according to the Epicureans we should eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.

Epicureanism, however, was widely followed for about five hundred years, from the beginning of the third century before the time of Christ to the third and possibly the fourth century after. Since then it has captured the reflective allegiance of many people. It was surely not in sarcasm that Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend William Short:

As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrine of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.

Even so there are serious criticisms. Zeller, for example, charges Epicureanism with “philosophical sterility. No other system” he writes, “troubled itself so little about the foundation on which it rested, none confined itself so exclusively to the utterances of its founder.” (E. Zeller The Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics, 1892 p.413)

In these aspects it is more like a theology than a philosophy, except that in Christianity, manifestly a theology, there is a development of doctrine and profound and original reflection of a kind quite absent from Epicureanism. One of the strengths of Epicureanism was its sense of community. The fellowship of the Garden, as it was known, included women and slaves in an endearing example of philosophic camaraderie and personal caring. Nevertheless there are aspects of it that suggest a siege mentality which contrasts unfavourably with the universalism of the Stoics. Why give our attention to such a philosophy other than out of historical or antiquarian interest? Egyptian, Assyrian and Canaanite religions were once dominant through much of the ancient near east and held the willing commitment of great numbers of people. Now, these religions are dead. So,we might argue, is Epicureanism.

Yet even if that were correct it is a valid endeavour to try to understand what moved the ancient world. To do this we have to enter as far as we can into the thinking and personal convictions of its inhabitants. From that point of view there is value in the study of Epicureanism.

But my reflections have led me to want to do more. Certainly to ask what attracted people to Epicureanism for so long a time, but beyond that to put the further question, whether what attracted people then could attract them now. Could Epicureanism be a genuine option in the contemporary world?

A handy summary of Epicurus’ philosophical concerns can be found in his Letter to Herodotus:

There are things that account for major disturbances in men’s minds. First they assume that celestial bodies are blessed and eternal, yet have impulses, actions and purposes quite inconsistent with divinity. Next they anticipate and foresee eternal suffering as depicted in myths, or even fear the very lack of consciousness that comes with death as if this could be a concern to them. Finally, they suffer all this, not as a result of reasonable conjecture, but through some sort of unreasoning imagination; and since in imagination they set no limit to suffering, they are beset by turmoil as great as if there were a reasonable basis for their dread.

According to Lucretius at the beginning of his De Rerum Natura, Epicurus was the first to “raise his mortal eyes” in defiance of the gods and to crush superstition beneath his feet.

Why was this so important to Epicurus? An answer might require something like a psychological study of Epicurus’ character, which is probably not possible, but we could consider some of the details of his life. His parents were Athenian, but they lived on the island of Samos and so lacked the class of Athenian residents. Later the family was expelled from Samos and had to settle in Colophon. His father was a school teacher. Diogenes Laertius writes that they kept a school together on very low terms. One wonders whether it was something like the penny schools of 19th century England. His mother was a fortune teller. He travelled as her helper when she visited the small cottages in their neighbourhood. Richard Hibler writes somewhat disparagingly of this and suggests that Epicurus’ strong objection to supernaturalism can be traced to his experience as a ‘sorcerer’s apprentice’.(R.W. Hibler Happiness through Tranquillity: The School of Epicurus , 1984, p.2) I would propose another, less disparaging way to regard the young Epicurus’ travels with his mother. Fortune tellers are found in North America and Western Europe now, and they serve much the same function as they did then, providing a source of counsel and assurance for those generally poor and timid people who would hesitate, even be afraid, to approach a professional counsellor, or psychiatrist, or doctor, or a minister. Why is it that frequently hospital patients will confide in the nurse and not the doctor? It is, I think, at least worth considering as a hypothesis that these experiences did not give Epicurus simply a contempt for superstition. Certainly they made him aware of its failure to provide real help, but much more they developed in him a compassion for those who turned toward it. They helped to give him an understanding of the human condition which Plato and Aristotle and possibly even Socrates most likely never had because they did not move in those circles. But Epicurus did, and it made him aware of women and children and the lower classes of people and of slaves as real people whose private fears and ambitions would scarcely ever have reached the grandeur of poetry and philosophy, but still had the depth of anxiety about the meaning and direction of their lives.

Epicurus chose to express his philosophy by means of the atomic theory of Leucippus and Democritus. Simply put, it was the view that existence in total consists of atoms and empty space. Epicurus applied it rigorously – even our thoughts are physical, even our imagination. All knowledge is therefore sensory, more specifically, all sensation is touch. As Lucretius put it “For touch and nothing but touch (by all that men call holy!) is the essence of our bodily sensations.” The atoms of the external world interact with the finer atoms of the mind and spirit and what we know, or don’t truly know is our correct or incorrect interpretation of that physical interaction. In such a totally physical universe there can be nothing supernatural. It is all natural. Even the gods whom, Epicurus believed, existed between the worlds of the infinite universe, were physical, passing their time in conversation, quite uninterested in humans and speaking most likely, according to Philodemus, in Greek!

Epicurus was sure that as people understood the physical nature of existence they would lose their fear of the supernatural, and so of death. He promoted his view with something of a missionary fervour as expressed by Lucretius. “The dread and darkness of the mind can be dispelled only by an understanding of the outward form and inner workings of nature.” (De Rerum Natura Bk1, 62-79)

Epicurus did not adopt atomism uncritically. He made changes which initially created problems for his own theory, but provided it, through their resolution, with a distinctive characteristic. Unlike Democritus Epicurus thought that atoms had weight and that they fell through the void like rain. He assumed correctly that objects of different weights falling through the void (a vacuum) would travel at the same speed. They would therefore never mingle to form what we call molecules, and so there could not be a world of objects. Further, as the atoms which compose thought followed an unvarying path there could be no independent decisions. But this was contrary to the indisputable fact that objects exist which are composed of many atoms and that men and women do make real choices. Epicurus therefore proposed that as the atoms fell, every so often one would swerve and so create the interaction which both allowed for objects and broke the determinism of thought.

Cicero regarded this as the most impossible thing in the world, “perfectly childish… nothing” he wrote “can be more discreditable to a philosopher than to say that anything takes place without a cause.” (De Finibus I VI) But that is the point, for in this Epicurus had made a most distinctive contribution to philosophy. We can understand by comparison with the Stoics. Like the Epicureans the Stoics were materialists; the universe is physical, there is nothing in it which is supernatural. They too, like the Epicureans, refer to god, and their god is also physical. Unlike the Epicureans the Stoics believed in a universal reason, a logos, which directed, in fact determined, everything which a human being should do. To know what that was, a person needed to put himself in touch with the logos and then live in accord with the nature of things. In times of need the Stoic had something to turn to outside of himself. By comparison the Epicurean option was stark; in times of need there was nowhere to turn. The concept of the swerve not only rejected teleology, it created a universe in which nothing could be depended upon outside what an individual herself could do. It was an indeterministic universe, an ocean of existence with no land in sight, no lifejacket, no reason for the movement of the sea, no reason in fact for being in the sea. But rather than being a cause for despair, for the Epicureans it was a source of strength, evocative of a much later philosophy. I quote from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity:

… if man is free to define for himself the conditions of a life which is valid in his own eyes, can he not choose whatever he likes and act however he likes? Dostoevski asserted, “If God does not exist everything is permitted” … However, far from God’s absence authorizing all license, the contrary is the case…. Man bears the responsibility for a world which is not the work of a strange power, but of himself, where his defeats are inscribed, and his victories as well… One cannot start by saying that our earthly destiny has or has not importance, for it depends upon us to give it importance. It is up to man to make it important to be a man, and he alone can feel his success or failure. (p15)

It is another way of putting the existentialist maxim that what people are is a consequence of the choices they make; they do not choose because of what they are. Human beings often like to have things both ways: they don’t like to work, but they like the salary, they don’t believe in God or an afterlife, but in times of stress both may be useful. Epicurus rejected such ambivalence. He made the decision to live life in terms of this life only and not entertain false hopes about any other. In their place were hopes about human existence which were not dashed because life on earth does not last forever. Human hopes were deliberately limited to this life. Its end was accepted when it came. Death therefore was not important, because in a non-teleological system the meaning of life is now. Here we find the real strength and contemporary relevance of Epicureanism which makes it a worthy alternative to its later competitor, Christianity. Both required a decision: to turn toward or to reject supernatural help. In the one case a helping hand or, as the Bible puts it, the everlasting arms (Deuteronomy 33.27) to enable a believer to live in a manner approved by God, in the other, no helping hand, one’s own hand, that is, a personal commitment to live with the resources which this life alone can provide.

However, Epicurus’ way of explaining how life should be lived has been continuously misleading. It appeared to him as an obvious fact that everyone seeks to gain pleasure and avoid pain. The new-born baby seeks the pleasure of its mother, the old person seeks quiet, safety and care. Pleasure, however, is of many kinds; in popular thinking it is especially associated with eating, drinking, sex and abandoning responsibility. Epicurus was aware of this misunderstanding. In his Letter to Menoeceus he wrote:

When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or wilful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul.

The simplicity of Epicurean life: vegetables from the garden, bread, water, the occasional pot of cheese, a little wine, has something of a legendary character. It is unfortunate that it has been so poorly understood.

The other component of the pleasurable life was friendship. “Of all the means which are procured by wisdom to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends.” If Epicurean simplicity of life was legendary so was the closeness of their friendships. While close friendships are rare in antiquity writes Cicero “in one single house, and that a small one, what great crowds of friends did Epicurus collect, and how strong was the bond of affection which held them together. And this is the case even now among the Epicureans.”(De Finibus XX)

Friendship was the core of the garden community, almost as if it substituted for the deities which Epicurus had banished. Its members accepted the fact that they lived in an unpredictable impersonal existence with no resources but themselves. They rejected the notion of Tyche, Fortune, Chance or Luck which gripped huge numbers of people of the time with the “unreasonable, dismal desperate conviction” that everything was under its control. The Epicureans created for themselves a means of achieving peace of mind which was under their control. I do not believe that the inevitability of death affected this. Death was the unalterable limit to life, a given which was not a factor in the content of life except that once recognized, life could be valued more for its own sake and used more wisely.

A bold endeavour, almost contrary to human nature. Bold, yet surprisingly successful; it seemed to work for several hundred years for at least some people, within the limits of their mortality. One wonders whether, when the Christian teaching of the family of God became dominant, those who accepted it and rejected Epicureanism had lost some inner conviction about themselves and one another, about their own capacity to live in their own strength.

This was the Epicurean option by which many in the ancient world chose to live. It was not “hedonism rooted in the conviction of inevitable defeat” as Lamprecht proposes. (Our Philosophical Traditions: A Brief History of Philosophy of Western Civilization, NY, 1955 p.82)

For the Epicureans there could be no defeat, not death, for that was simply the anticipated conclusion. Possibly, if the Epicurean abandoned her own principles, there could be defeat, but it was not inevitable, nor was it irreversible, especially with the help of friends.

Yet the option was a hard one. It appealed only to a certain type of personality, those who really could trust; those who could make a decision, and keep it, to reject metaphysical questions about the nature of God and the meaning of life. Some could do that, but for others it was and is not possible to stop asking such questions: for example, questions about death, which were answered by the Epicureans by denying the importance of death. The requirement not to be concerned about so profound a matter is almost a contradiction within Epicureanism itself, for the warmth of personality which finds pleasure in friendship is most likely to want to reach beyond the limits of reason for an explanation when friends have gone. Yes, as Epicurus taught: “when we are death is not, and when death is we are not.” It is a complete answer, and is no answer to those whose hearts are burning. So one wonders: if it required so stern a discipline upon natural affection, how much of an option was it really for most people then, and could it be an option today?

At the beginning of his autobiography Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov writes “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness…. Nature expects a full grown man to accept the two black voids, fore and aft, as stolidly as he accepts the extraordinary visions in between.” This is surely the precise challenge of Epicureanism: to accept the two black voids fore and aft as a natural and inevitable part of life. In which case, in some respects, Epicureanism, though not by that name, is still an option.

© Professor Dane R. Gordon 1999

Dane Gordon is a Professor of Philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, New York

This article is an abbreviated version of a paper given at a meeting of the Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy in Baruch College, New York City.

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