The Third Way to Look at the Epicurean Gods

There are two traditional interpretations on the Epicurean Gods: the realist interpretation says that gods are natural beings whose bodies are made of atoms. The word used in ancient writings is zoa, which translates as (higher) animals. The idealist interpretation is more recent, and it basically proposes that gods are mental or cultural constructs.

However, in a recent blog by our Scandinavian friend Ilkka (a blog which he writes in memory of the late Jaako, author of the Being Human blog), he argues that there is a third way to look at the Epicurean gods. He says:

We know the universe better than was possible for Epicurus, and even though he was well ahead of his time in his metaphysics, we are well ahead of him.

Gods, as Epicurus defined them, are impossible in the light of the evidence that we have. In effect, there is a conflict with what the Canon (Epicurean theory of knowledge) says about Nature and what Epicurean metaphysics says about the gods.

And the Canon has primacy in such matters!

A third interpretation goes therefore like this:

In the light of the evidence, we must say that there cannot be any physical beings such as the gods defined by Epicurus. So the realist interpretation is clearly false.

What then about the idealist interpretation? It’s not self-evidently false in the light of the evidence, but it has other problems. The main one being, “Is it necessary for the promotion of happiness to advocate belief in imaginary beings?” The most likely answer to this is “no”, since truth itself is a high value for an Epicurean.

The Canon (= ruler, yardstick), for those unfamiliar, is the standard of truth established in our epistemology. It basically requires that there exist evidence before our senses, but also recognizes the pain and pleasure principle as well as anticipations as natural faculties. The purpose of the Canon is to ensure that all philosophy is based on the study of nature instead of imaginary standards.

Ilkka concludes that “to date no proposed deity has passed the Canon”. I find Ilkka’s interpretation to be healthy and grounded in the study of nature. Many contemporary Epicureans, myself included, favor the development of an atheology based on the Canon, rather than adherence to the theology of those that came before.

There is the possibility of conceiving of something based on inferences from indirect evidence, without having directly perceived the thing. For instance, based on the assumption that there are innumerable atoms and infinite space (there is no visible boundary to the universe in all directions, as far as can be seen), ancient atomists conceived of a doctrine of innumerable worlds, a doctrine which is now being vindicated by exoplanetary research. But what makes the Gods inconceivable is not their blessedness or their higher intelligence, both of which are plausible and can be seen in many living entities: it’s their immortality.

When we study the nature of things we learn that all things that are composed of atoms and molecules eventually disintegrate and change. Metrodorus argued a defense of the Epicurean Gods (unsuccessfully, in my view) by arguing against this observation, and was later echoed by Philodemus in his On Piety.

Also, even if a natural being was able to perpetuate himself or herself for eons while remaining imperturbable and blissful, the habitat or context within which that being exists would be interrupted for, as we know, stars and planets all have life spans. At some point, the being would lose its habitat and the possibility of self-perpetuation.

The issue of definitions is also key. The term god is not neatly defined. In our cosmology, because things can only exist within nature, a god outside of nature is out of the question. Gods must be natural beings. But, can a god be mortal? It is one thing to argue that a natural being is blessed and imperturbable, and also has a long lifespan and is worthy of the label god, but it’s another thing to argue that immortals exist in a universe where all things are impermanent. In our experience, all composite things must disintegrate. Therefore, it is inconceivable that a thing may exist which does not disintegrate. This argument of inconceivability was discussed in the Reasonings About Philodemus’ “On Methods of Inference”, where it was paraphrased and clarified:

We may call this the argument of no known exceptions: since all men are known to die, and we have no reason to suspect that men outside of our direct experience are immortal, then we can conclude that all men are mortal. The words used by Philodemus are “with no case drawing us to the contrary”.

And so, from the evidence-based method of reasoning that is available to us in our tradition, it is difficult to continue to defend the traditional interpretations of the Gods, and based on the argument of inconceivability the only honest thing I can do is endorse what Ilkka calls the third way to look at the Epicurean Gods: as non-existent or as non-beings. Let’s call this the non-theistic interpretation.

The key questions that would determine whether a philosopher adheres to the non-theistic versus the idealist interpretation have to do with whether there is a use for Gods or whether religion is natural and necessary; whether it is natural but unnecessary; or both unnatural and unnecessary. The following questions may still deserve further exploration:

  • While the Gods may be unnecessary, are they still natural? Polystratus would argue that they are, in some way, a by-product of the human psyche. Jungian psychotherapy hints that Gods may serve an important psychological role in rites of passage and in times of severe crisis.
  • Might the idealist interpretation of the Gods still serve a purpose in Epicurean therapy, perhaps by being employed in techniques for the cultivation of ataraxia, serenity, and bliss?
  • Do these uses of mental constructs and deistic techniques produce a different quality of ataraxia than the simplicity of the non-theistic approach?

Further Reading:

On the Canon, Reason and Nature

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Concord: a Book on Friendship

Friendship as Virtuous Communion

The book of Concord within the Humanist Bible contains a wisdom tradition related to friendship, which is at first defined as something that can only exist among good people. This is reiterated when it is explained that since virtue originally gives rise to friendship, if there is no virtue then friendship can not last, and that friendship only makes us do good things. A partner in crime is, therefore, not a true friend. A virtue is a means that leads to pleasure. Concord says that it is a friend’s virtue that we love (16:8).

Friendship is the handmaid of virtue, not a partner in guilt. – Concord 13:12, Good Book: a Humanist Bible

By “worthy of friendship” I mean the friendship of those who have in themselves the qualities that attract affection. Such people are rare; and indeed all excellent things are rare. – Concord 12:14-15

True friendship is then separated from Platonic friendship, as true friendship requires that we “concern ourselves with facts, not imaginary or ideal perfections”. The process of true friendship is then described in concrete terms: affection is aroused when we see good in friends (4:22), and ties get stronger with proximity and familiarity.

Friendship Must Pass the Test of Hedonic Calculus: the Trials and Blessings of Friendship

An interesting question is posed in Concord: can we be good and imperturbable? In other words: only the good, the caring, worry about their friends. This is an interesting ethical matter, the answer for which possibly lies elsewhere in the book and is explained in terms of hedonic calculus.

Just as Philodemus explains that, after conducting hedonic calculus, sometimes for the sake of greater long-term pleasures we make sacrifices and suffer through certain pains, similarly sometimes we suffer for the sake of friendship (8:1). This is not only because of the benefits of friendship weighed against the difficulties, but also because of the pain of loss and the “hole in the world” that we experience after our friends leave us.

The advantages or friendship must therefore be kept in mind. Chapter 3 details what those advantages are: friendship makes life worth living, it allows us to open our mind to others, to have people to share our joy and prosperity with, and they also make our misfortunes become easier to bear. Friendship is said to be better than all the other goods: it confers strength in weakness, hope in despair, and finally in a friend we can see another self.

A true friend is, as Aristotle says, a kind of second self.  – Concord 13:3

Be not quick to break the bond of love for your friend; Sorrow will rend the heart if you dare not tell another your whole mind. – Havamal

The Rules of Friendship

One should do for, and ask from, friends only what is good (7:1). In other words, true friends must be a good influence on each other. Parting with friends is also oftentimes a natural part of life. We are given as a rule to let friends flourish and pursue their own interests (12:11). But there are two great taboos in friendship; two tests that a true friend must pass:

And though it is true that the hour of need shows the friend indeed, yet it is in the following two ways that most people betray their untrustworthiness and inconstancy: By disdaining friends when they are themselves prosperous, or by deserting them in their distress. – Concord 10:9-10

Qualities to Seek in a Friend

We are advised against befriending people whom we’ll have as foes later, and told that we should carefully select our friends. Chapter 11 elaborates on the qualities that we should seek in an ideal friend: loyalty, firmness, stability, simplicity, a sociable disposition, and a sympathetic nature, moved by what moves us. Superficial acquaintances with whom we form temporary friendships with a common goal, for instance in sports or studies, are oftentimes temporary and not true, lasting friendships.

This same chapter speaks of how friends must engage in frank speech and never conceal their true sentiments from each other, a subject which is revisited and treated in depth in chapter 15, which specifically calls for mutual correction and warns against flattery.

Speaking of flattery, chapter 9 tackles the possibility that wealth forbids friendship and that “Fortune is blind and makes blind those she favors“. Wealth breeds self-interest in all parties involved. There is, throughout many wisdom traditions, an eternal enmity between wealth and friendship. Although every true friendship brings profitability and advantage, we are warned against the degrading effects of self-interest, which devalue the noble quality of friendship:

But most people not only recognise nothing as good in our life unless it is profitable. But they also look upon friends as so much stock, caring most for those who will bring them most profit. Accordingly they never possess that most beautiful and most spontaneous friendship which exists solely for itself, without any ulterior motive. – Concord 12:16-18

At the closing of the text we see a paraphrase of Epicurus’ words on friendship (16:9): I declare that of all the blesings which either fortune or nature has bestowed upon me, I know none to compare with friendship.

Further Reading:

Reasonings About Philodemus’ On Frank Speech, Parts One, Two and Three

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Man is What He Makes of What Life Gives Him

Volition consists of a series of continuous, undiscouraged, unceasing determinations and acts revolving around a desire, until it becomes dynamic enough to produce the much-craved result. “Will and act until victory” is the slogan of all volitive activity. – Paramahansa Yogananda

The Epicurean online community has recently experienced division stemming, mainly, from different conceptions of free will versus determinism. On the one hand there was a traditional consensus among the founders of the tradition that man is born free and has free will. In the humanist tradition, the Epicurean doctrine of the swerve is the symbol for man’s freedom and volition, our heroic Promethean spark. On the other hand, there is a vocal minority, more or less influenced by Stoicism, that believes in determinism.

The truth, in my view, is that we have free will to some extent or another. If there didn’t exist some level of determinism in nature, the laws of nature would be impossible to discern. There are planetary orbits which can be mathematically discerned through observation, for instance, and we can predict with certainty where planetary bodies will be at any given point based on this data. Thales of Miletus, the first great philosopher, became famous after he predicted an eclipse.

We Epicureans do not rebel against the predictability of natural phenomena of this sort. What we rebel against vehemently is the extension of determinist views to a realm that can only be labelled as cultural corruption. Earlier this year, in the piece Pythagoras and the Swerve, I wrote concerning this subject for societyofepicurus.com:

What we rebel against is the belief that our destinies are determined by the movements of the stars or the whims of spirits and gods; that Krishna established the caste system in the Bhagavad Gita; that Jehovah established the perpetual slavery of women in Genesis to punish Eve’s transgression; that Allah established shari’a laws by which society must be governed; that our lives are and must be ruled by unnecessary restrictions and ancient taboos that are beyond reproach. These things are not determined by the laws of nature.  They are forms of cultural corruption.

… Epicurus saw a cultural determinism that claimed to be natural, an inertia, a program that benefited certain groups, a series of unchallenged false premises that the mobs were governed by and that he wanted to emancipate men from.  He saw these false views lucidly for the superstitions that they were.  He saw that these premises had no legitimate scientific foundation.  So he named this spark of freedom without which we would be robots.

Citing a quote from my book on false philosophies, Robert Hanrott recently wrote in the Epicurus blog:

Most philosophies, like religions, become successful by bolstering the power of the ruler or ruling class.

For a more nuanced understanding of why this is important, consider taking the time to read Frances Wright’s A Few Days in Athens. A portion of the book is dedicated to clarifying why virtue is not the end or goal in life, and why pleasure must be the end. The gist of the argument deals with how by making virtue the end, living beings become objects in the service of non-living ideals, creating duty-based ethical systems that are not based on nature but on cultural corruption and becoming themselves means to an end. They relinquish philosophies of life in favor of false idealisms.

In a recent facebook conversation, someone new to Epicureanism said the following:

Can cultivating virtue be seen as an enterprise for cultivating pleasure? I feel good when I behave virtuously, a deep happiness comes over me and I’m wondering if it is permissible in Epicureanism to cultivate virtue for the sake of pleasure or is virtue it’s own reward?

To which I replied:

If virtue was its own reward, you would not describe it as a “pleasant” experience, or as “being happy”. Clearly, you see pleasure and happiness as the goal, which is why you verbalize it this way. Ergo, virtue leads to pleasure, which is why it’s virtuous. If a virtue produced pain, or if it produced more pain over the long term than pleasure, then it would not be a true virtue, but a disease or a bad habit.

This is exactly the argument that is made in A Few Days in Athens. Virtue is a means to the true end and goal established by nature: a pleasant existence free of pain. Pleasure and aversion are the real, tangible, natural experience of happiness and unhappiness in the human body and mind. They are not imaginary.

This is extremely important to preserve human dignity. When mortals think of themselves as means to an end, they oftentimes become degraded like ants in a colony. Poor people often fight and give their lives for their country or religion, for the interests and profits of the rich, or for other ignoble “causes”.

Determinist views and false, corrupt prophecies ultimately are used by the ruling classes to convince their inferiors to engage in jihad for the sake of an imagined future global theocracy, or to fight for their oil and military industrial complex profits because of obscure Biblical prophecies according to which an inevitable great war must happen in some unfortunate (oil-rich) corner of the world before some great Messiah returns. They convince women of the inevitability of their subservience to men, and justify with prophetic fervor every kind of evil and abuse that would otherwise be inexcusable.

Furthermore, they weave their oppression into a perpetual litany of fear-based doctrine. Man, they say, must carry his cross: that is the only way to attain “virtue”.

Epicurus, instead, frees mortals from this imagined, but self-fufilling, bondage which takes a living mortal and degrades him into a Pinocchio, a man-like machine whose choices have been made for it by whatever silent, invisible, unnamed force pulls the strings.

I recognize that this freedom that we have is limited more or less by context, by what Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir called the facticity within which we emerge and which places constraints on us. We can’t change our gender (well, now we can) and race, although perhaps we can change nationality and learn new languages and cultures. De Beauvoir elaborated on how being a woman places peculiar constraints, and I think similar discourses can be and have been elaborated by cultural groups, etc. In addition to biological constraints, there are cultural restrictions placed on us that shape who we become.

But putting aside the extent of our materialist facticity and putting aside fanatical attachments to hard determinism or hard free-will, in all cases freedom is the ideal over treating people as objects or tools of artificial, non-living so-called higher ideals.

Sartre later in his life become more of a materialist and Marxist, in part in recognition of these constraints, but in the end one of his great insights is that MAN IS WHAT HE MAKES OF WHAT LIFE GIVES HIM. And although I don’t subscribe to many of Sartre’s other views, I do believe THAT to be true in some way or to some extent.

In other words, in the end, humans have the power to engage in life creatively, to invent new things, to become masters of new arts and sciences, to have projects that transcend them, and to have an art of living that defines them more than what fate throws at them.
So ultimately I believe that (this is very important): a recognition of free will and what one should ideally do with one’s freedom should inform one’s philosophical work and long-term existential tasks.

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Among other things, majorities of Muslims – varying somewhat according to region – favor putting to death apostates and adulterers, condemn homosexuality, abortion, and euthanasia as immoral, and believe that “a wife must obey her husband.”  Large minorities condone “honor killings.”  It should be noted that for practical reasons, the Pew Center could not survey Muslims in the repressive, highly conservative Gulf States (including Saudi Arabia, the homeland of Wahhabism), so, if anything, these numbers provide an excessively moderate summary of Muslim positions on issues progressives hold dear.

- Salon.com’s Bill Maher’s atheist values: Why progressives must defend enlightenment, critique religious extremism

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“Strike a blow 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!” – Lucian

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Lawgiver: the Philosophy of Leadership

Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude. – Thomas Jefferson

Lawgiver is one of the books included in Good Book: a Humanist Bible. It is a complete introductory course in the wisdom traditions tied to leadership and statesmanship and is useful in evaluating the ethical questions one may face as a leader. Everyone in a position of leadership would benefit from studying Lawgiver, which can be thought of as a Bible of Leadership.

Lawgiver was a much more enjoyable read than I expected it to be. It incorporated some illustrative narrative in addition to the didactic content. Below is an thematically-organized overview with some commentary on the book.

The Use of State and Law

Chapters 1-4 argue that the aim of government is security and liberty, and that vices can’t be removed by being made unlawful; that prohibitions of free speech and violations of liberty only produce hypocrisy, flattery, sedition, and corruption. These are very relevant arguments today. At once, this represents a critique on the war on drugs, on state paternalism, on anti-blasphemy laws, and on every attack on civil liberties.

Chapter 11, speaking on the purpose of the state, explains that all communities assemble to seek good, but the state is assembled to seek the highest good; and that there are different kinds of state, useful according to circumstances.

Chapters 12-13 explain what a constitution is (as opposed to laws), and that a constitution is stable and long-lasting if it includes all the political elements. Three types of government are discussed. It is argued that the end of a community is the happiness of all its members.

Chapter 14 explains that one must know the good life before one can know the good state or government; and that happiness (either as virtue or pleasure) relies more on internals than externals.

The Art of Leadership

Chapter 6 deals with the wisdom of alliances: both friends and enemies will respect and trust us if we take sides instead of remaining neutral, and only non-friends demand neutrality. Verses 20-22 advise never to ally oneself with someone more powerful than one is, as then we’re at their mercy. Chapter 7 deals with how there should be roles and how we should celebrate and reward those whom we lead.

Chapter 8 teaches the art of remaining imperturbable as a leader, and discusses some of the necessary virtues of a leader. Later on, Lawgiver argues that it is better to rule by trust and goodwill, and warns against bribery.

Task Delegation

Delegating tasks according to skills is important, as the choice of assistants is one of the first things by which people form their opinions about leader. Chapter 9 tells us how to judge a good assistant and how to win assistant’s loyalty and trust.

Task delegation is resumed in chapter 24, where it says that the statesman reserves for himself only the most important events and matters, and delegates all other tasks to good, trustworthy men according to their skills and is aware of his affairs. This chapter also endorses (v. 28-34) the wisdom of plural leadership models as more efficient, less taxing, more cooperative, saying that when the leader does it all he will make mistakes. Teamwork is also more enjoyable. Later, in chapter 26, another perspective is added to this when the author discusses checks and balances: if people invite sovereign power to weigh in in all matters, a population enslaves itself to the state.

On Keeping the Faith

Chapter 10 teaches the wisdom of solving conflicts, and speaks of when leaders may feel like betraying their covenants. There are two ways of solving disputes: men do so by agreement and beasts by contest. If the first fails, sometimes a leader must resort to the latter. We are advised “not to keep the faith” when it might be turned against us, or when the reasons for our pledge no longer exist. No one’s bound to keep the faith if it’s injurious, and a good leader won’t request it.

Sometimes leaders have to feign faith and good qualities; but this becomes necessary only when virtue can not triumph. According to the author, these means are vindicated by history, not by philosophy. This is an interesting ethical gray area.

The Public Life

Live unknown (Lathe biosas). – Epicurus

Chapter 15 explains how the public life can be a bad choice, how once chosen it can’t easily be quit and we must serve those we wish to rule or offend those we wish to please. It explains that it’s not safe or smart to try to change the character of a people, but if we know by what things people are naturally led and pleased, we can slowly lead them. The author later explains that statesmen shouldn’t let disagreements subsist and advises several strategies to sway the people.

Chapter 16 continues discussing the public life saying that there’s no privacy, that it requires restrain of character, focus and single-mindedness. It jokes that people often vote for things that they dislike.

He who lays under a good tree, gets good shade. – Latin American proverb

Chapter 19 goes into the quick, slow, and noble ways to gain fame, which include defeating a public opponent.  If we attack a good man, we will become public enemies and be destroyed. Chapter 20 continues by recommending that we slowly gain fame and power by association with a mentor as a protégé, so long as the mentor is of good character and isn’t envious. This advise was given to Alexander the Great when he was young: to gain friends for as long as another is king.

Chapter 21 resumes the conversation on the public life by saying that if we give up friends for it, we will attract flatterers and that we must learn to balance private and public affairs by choosing friends with our same aspirations and values, that complete and perfect our work. We must be mindful that they don’t err or take advantage of the situation; we must grant favors but kindly reject absurd or base ones as “not in accord with their own excellence or reputation”. Chapter 22 continues discussing favors to friends for mutual aid; and says that for the sake of common goals and of the state, enemies should put aside their animosity in pursuit of higher ideals.

A Leader’s Word

Careful choice of expression has always been a major teaching in many of the world’s wisdom traditions. Chapters 17-18 deal with the importance of oratory. It later advises that maxims, metaphors and examples can be used to dramatize what is meant; and that ridicule or derision should only be used in self-defense or for didactic purposes.

Chapter 23 deals with frank speech, saying that we should give testimony in just cases even for enemies; criticize opponents by mentioning someone of better character; and then goes on to say that the proper way to state blame is not by insult, only frankness, and with the goal of bringing repentance. Abusive speakers eventually get their mouths shut.

Conflict Resolution

There are several instances where advise is given on how to resolve a variety of conflicts. Chapter 33 closes by explaining that state discord often starts as private disputes among friends, but later spill into larger arenas. A good leader reminds the people of this and contains these smaller disputes. After a detailed description of the good, prudent man of kind demeanor and speech in chapter 31, the book closes saying that others will yield to us if we are mild and gentle, and rivalries become less important.

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E-book Available in English from Humanist Press

Under the tagline Be Smart About Being Happy, the American Humanist Association and its publishing branch Humanist Press sent their press release to announce that Tending the Epicurean Garden is now available via their webpage as an e-book.

Humanist Press has a heavy focus on e-book technology. The paperback had been available from months on amazon, but what makes the HP e-book a worthwhile investment for people who are interested in the profiting from their Epicurean studies is that readers who buy the e-book directly from Humanist Press will be able to leave comments on the book which, once approved, become forever part of the work.

In addition to this, Lucretius by WH Mallock, with commentary has been made available by HP as a free companion volume to Tending the Garden.

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