Happy 20th of April!

Nothing can be created from nothing.”
— Lucretius

Epicureans are known for celebrating the 20th of the month feasting with friends.  Today I’m not feasting, in fact I’m quite mentally drained and tired from so much visual and intellectual activity.  Today I finished the final proof-reading process for my upcoming book Tending the Epicurean Garden (Humanist Press), which will probably come out in the fall.

I didn’t intend for the final copy of the book to be turned in on the 20th, but it just so happened.  I’m excited, no doubt, and very proud of the work I did on the book.  It’s the product of years of passionate introspection and research.  It’s didactic, but also very personal.  Into the book I poured what I consider to be the truest, most scientific approach to spirituality, to the creation of meaning and value based on the study of nature.

I also feel a sense of debt to those that came before me.  Epicurus, Metrodorus, Hermarchus, Polyaenus, Lucian, Philodemus, Lucretius, Thomas Jefferson, Norman Dewitt, and also Cassius Amicus of newepicurean.com just to name a few.  The book didn’t emerge from a vacuum, but from the fertile soil of an Epicurean tradition that is much richer and pragmatic than most people today realize.

Now, I’m going to rest.

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Unchallenged Premises

If the false premises of an influential philosopher are not challenged, generations of his followers–acting as the culture’s subconscious–milk them down to their ultimate consequences. – Ayn Rand

The most curious thing happened while I was reading Ayn Rand: I found myself agreeing with many of the things she said.  Rand has been called a gateway drug to extreme right-wing ideology, and has influenced many powerful politicians and millionaires of our generation, most notably Ron Paul who sees her as his Guru … and former overlord of the Federal Reserve Bank, Alan Greenspan, who was her pupil and within her circle for many years.

Her philosophy sustains such theories as Reaganomics, which had the effect of trickling down poverty and economic marginalization for generations.  It also called for privatization of government jurisdiction (private schools, private for-profit prisons, etc.) and deregulation of industries–like the one of the financial sector which led to its collapse in the fall of 2008.  What was Rand’s resplendent utopia for a wealthy minority was materializing as a dystopia to the majority of people.

Most people are unfamiliar with how the global neoliberal economic regime works, how it rules over us unseen, without a name or a face, a government of unelected, unaccountable, corrupt bankers behind the world’s democratically elected governments.  It might as well be voodoo.  It’s a mystery to most people.  A recent piece from The Philosopher’s Mail, in fact, argues that news media prefers it that way, as our ignorance and distraction benefits the corporate powers that they answer to.

After the 2008 crisis, when most of the world was wondering what in hell just happened, Alan Greenspan–who had been heading the world’s most powerful central bank during the crisis–had to admit that there was a fundamental flaw in his worldview, one which he couldn’t identify.  He had believed, like Rand, that markets were somehow able to regulate themselves.

During the testimony, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) says “you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made”.  He replied by saying “the question is whether it is accurate or not, and what I’m saying to you is: yes, I found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is, but I’m very distressed by that fact”.

Where exactly did this ideology of his come from?  In his book The Age of Turbulence, Alan Greenspan says:

Ayn Rand became a stabilizing force in my life … and in the fifties and early sixties I became a regular at the weekly gatherings at her apartment.

Having been milked down to its ultimate consequences, the ideology of Ayn Rand produced–through the person of a first-generation disciple–a financial crisis of such magnitude, and where corruption of over-privileged, criminal Wall Street bankers in the unregulated financial sector was so rampant, that they bled about 40% of the funds that American retirees had put aside.

Hardworking grandparents, widows, and decent elderly folks can’t retire and have to work into their 70s because of Rand’s ideas, which were, as she put it, milked down to their ultimate consequences.

I do agree with Ayn Rand that philosophy is fundamental, that it inspires policy and ethical decision-making at every level of society, and that people should very carefully evaluate their philosophical views and those of their leaders.  I agree with her that it’s often intellectuals who guide the destinies of nations.  But beyond that, she was wrong about many things.

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In Memory of a Laughing Philosopher

Like thousands of his followers, I enjoyed the comedy of George Carlin, found myself challenged by his cynicism, and years later looked back and more than once had to say: “George Carlin was right when he said this or that!”

What many people don’t know is that he was a Philosophy major. Carlin mastered the art of critical thinking and applied it incisively and eloquently to all things.

What’s more, he never minced words, spoke concisely, spoke his mind truthfully, and was able to draw laughter from people by doing so, which is a great Epicurean virtue.  He falls within the tradition of the laughing philosophers, a tradition championed proverbially by Democritus, the father of atomism, who believed that cheerfulness was the supreme virtue.

One of the things that characterize the laughing philosophers is that they mock traditional authorities.  Materialists, because they believe the criteria for reality involve direct perception by the senses and the empirical method, invariably fall within this lineage.  No outside authority is needed.  The materialist Canon, therefore, has the power to emancipate man from external authority.  Hence, in the Epicurean writings we find verses like:

To be frank, I would prefer as I study nature to speak in revelations about what is of advantage to all men even though it be understood by none, rather than to conform to popular opinion and thus gain the scattered praise that is broadcast by the many.

Since the attainment of riches can rarely be accomplished without servitude to crowds or sovereigns, a free life cannot obtain much wealth, but such a life has all necessities in unfailing supply. Should such a life happen to fall upon great wealth, this too it can share as to gain the good will of those about.

- Vatican Sayings 29 and 67

Detached from societal conventions, liberated from peer pressure, laughing philosophers don’t just dismiss false authority. It is called by its name, ridiculed.  Seen as empty and vain.  Charlatans are charlatans, frauds are frauds, whether they are well-meaning or not.

The philosophers of the polis cater to the ruling classes and worry about the ideal (and docile) citizen, but for the laughing philosophers, truth is held in higher regard than societal conventions.

 

One of the most prophetic speeches Carlin ever gave had to do with the bankers.  He gave it several years prior so the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement.  The discourse that emerged from Occupy resonated and was almost in unison with Carlin’s polemic against the bankers.

In the New World, among the First Nations, clowns were considered sacred people.  They were considered necessary.  Some tribes called them ‘contrarians’ because they did and said everything backwards, and in doing so challenged all the conventions.

Every society needs laughing philosophers who are willing to look at the culture as a questioning outsider, challenging misguided presumptions and national mythologies, mocking authority, removing the veil from what is sacred, helping people to remember not to take themselves too seriously.

Without these thinkers, societies become stagnant, stale, and self-destructive: the sheeple become docile and the elites exhibit authoritarian tendencies, and hostilities increase as this tension goes on without the lubricant of philosophical insight.

And so while, at first, I found it curious that Carlin was not a Theater major but a Philosophy major, it now makes perfect sense.

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Diogenes on Righteousness Vs. Credulity

[So it is obvious that wrong-doers, given that they do not fear the penalties imposed by the laws, are not] afraid of [the gods.] This [has to be] conceded. For if they were [afraid, they] would not [do wrong]. As for [all] the others, [it is my opinion] that the [wise] are not [(reasoning indicates) righteous] on account of the gods, but on account of [thinking] correctly and the [opinions] they hold [regarding] certain things [and especially] pains and death (for indeed invariably and without exception human beings do wrong either on account of fear or on account of pleasures), and that ordinary people on the other hand are righteous, in so far as they are righteous, on account of the laws and the penalties, imposed by the laws, hanging over them. But even if some of their number are conscientious on account of the laws, they are few: only just two or three individuals are to be found among great segments of multitudes, and not even these are steadfast in acting righteously; for they are not soundly persuaded about providence. A clear indication of the complete inability of the gods to prevent wrong-doings is provided by the nations of the Jews and Egyptians, who, as well as being the most superstitious of all peoples, are the vilest of all peoples.

On account of what kind of gods, then, will human beings be righteous? For they are not righteous on account of the real ones or on account of Plato’s and Socrates’ Judges in Hades. We are left with this conclusion; otherwise, why should not those who disregard the laws scorn fables much more?

So, with regard to righteousness, neither does our doctrine do harm [not does] the opposite [doctrine help], while, with regard to the other condition, the opposite doctrine not only does not help, but on the contrary also does harm, whereas our doctrine not only does not harm, but also helps. For the one removes disturbances, while the other adds them, as has already been made clear to you before.

- Inscription on Diogenes’ Wall, Fr. 20

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“Diogenes, that the doctrine laid down by Epicurus on an infinite number of worlds is true I am confident”
— Theodoridas

The première of the Cosmos series included Bruno reading from an obscure ancient manuscript: Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, the main source for ancient Epicurean doctrine.  Now, the followers of Cosmos are beginning to connect the dots back to Lucretius and Epicurus. This article traces the ideas of Giordano Bruno presented during the first episode as having been inspired by Lucretius. The article says:

“….. Bruno got the idea of infinite space from Lucretius, but he also read Nicolas of Cusa, who related the concept to an infinite God.”

 

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Message from Cassius Amicus to the 4th Epicurean Symposium in Athens (voiceover is in English)

Cassius is the author of newepicurean.com.  A full report on the symposium is available from Society of Epicurus.

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Time to Love

“Our Western and Christian civilization is a giant failure because it transformed life into a call to spend, to consume and accumulate and what it’s wasting are hours of life upon this planet. We don’t have a youth crisis, what we have is a crisis of civilization that includes them, the elderly, and the fate of human life on Earth. Youth feel it because they need more FREE TIME time, time that is not quantified, TIME TO LOVE, and that’s what they least have. I’m an old conservative man but this square, organized world as we believe it to be, doesn’t seem to me like it’s making people happy. Is this man’s destiny? Or should we see something that we can’t yet define in the rebellions and unwillingness to conform of the youth, and perhaps a sense of liberty and of a different civilization?” 

- President of Uruguay, Mujica

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