The Sheeple Meme

(Cato) had a saying … that the Roman people were like sheep; for they, when single, do not obey, but when all together in a flock, they follow their leaders: ‘So you’, said he, ‘when you have got together in a body, let yourselves be guided by those whom singly you would never think of being advised by.’ – Acts 54:19-20, The Good Book: a Humanist Bible

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Blogroll Tag with the Author Collaborative Network

As a participant in ACN’s blogroll, I was tagged by author and blogger Gina Briganti, who asked me the following question:

Hiram, will you share three books that inspired or influenced you to write your book on Epicurean philosophy?

There are definitely more than three books that inspired me, but I’ll stick to three. One is the book El Maravilloso Universo de la Magia (The Wonderful World of Magic) by Chilean New-Age author Enrique Barrios. I read this book when I was about 19 years old, and although I no longer believe in its teachings, it did inspire me with the idea of wanting to become the kind of author that takes a reader on an adventure to discover a new philosophy or a new window into seeing the world differently, with more freedom.

Another book was Verlaine Crawford’s Ending the Battle Within, which is a personal narrative mixed into an applied therapeutic practice that she invented and which is very reminiscent both of Jungian psychoanalysis and of the ancient therapeutic practices of the Epicureans. Her infusion-integration technique consists on getting to know one’s sub-personalities and engaging them in order to get them to agree, to achieve inner psychological harmony. It reminds me of the dispositions, the false opinions that according to Epicureanism underlie our habits, that we are to evaluate in order to create a good character (reducing bad habits/vices and increasing good ones/virtues).

Another book that has inspired me is a small one titled The Law of Success by Paramahansa Yogananda, who used to be one of my gurus. Like some of his other books, it’s a collection of adages and nuggets of practical wisdom that produce a more pleasant, happier, more peaceful life. It helped to inspire me to gather my own wisdom tradition. Many Epicurean works also are written in this format, as short Maxims that are easy to memorize.

All these books are outside the Epicurean tradition, which says something about how unconventional and un-academic my book is for a philosophy book. This is exactly how I wanted it with Tending the Epicurean Garden. I wanted to show people that philosophy is not only for academia, that it’s inspiring, useful, relevant, and has therapeutic and practical value.

To close the blog roll, I am tagging HM CLark, whose self-titled blog is here. My question is: What motivated you to write and then self publish your first book ‘The Kalarthri’?

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A Naturalist Evaluation of Equality: The Public Tables


Equality, in today’s Western discourse, is an over-used word that means different things to different people. Equal treatment before the law is almost invariably meant (the marriage equality debate), and oftentimes issues of economic justice and access to resources deemed necessary are meant by it, but some conservatives argue that equality serves as an excuse to confer unearned and undeserved privileges on people and that there is no such a thing as equality. Some people are more intelligent than others; some are wealthier than others. Some are skilled at some things, others are skilled at other things. It’s clear that we are not all the same.

Cultural relativism also adds another layer of confusion of values to this notion of equality. Much of or culture has come to embrace religious privilege to the point where all religions are believed to have equal dignity or to be equally worthy of respect, but it’s clear that not all religions and cultures share the same views and values, and that some religions are far more violent and/or superstitious than others; some are more progressive and others are more regressive. Islam teaches jihad (war against the infidels) whereas Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism teaches ahimsa (non-violence). The Bahá’í Faith claims it accepts scientific insight whereas aboriginal shamanism and creationism are radically anti-scientific.

As to the truth-value of their claims, it’s also clear that they make mutually contradictory supernatural claims and that there is massive fraud going on in religion. Religion is not the way to discerning reality and to the study of nature.

And curiously, while religion has profited handsomely from the culture’s insistence on equality, it is in religion that we find most of the artificial notions of inequality that plagued humanity throughout its history: the Hindu caste system; the Muslim division of the world between Islam and the infidels; the Quran’s ordering husbands to beat their wives if they disobey; Christian repudiation of women and gays; Old Testament and Book of Mormon celebration of racism and legitimization of slavery, etc.

Some have argued that equality as an ideal is self-evident and have even enshrined equality in the founding documents of countries (“all men are created equal”), producing national mythologies that are meant to have specific consequences in society and its collective psyche. The irony and hipocrisy of these well-meaning ideological constructs lies in the fact that many of the American founding fathers owned slaves and that women originally didn’t have the right to vote, so that the doctrine in practice meant “all white men are created equal”. It’s clear that not only were we not created, but that we were also not created equal; and that non-religious doctrines have also spread false notions of equality and inequality.

What exactly is meant by this discourse? Is there, instead, a notion of equality that we can find in nature and that is free of cultural corruption?

If we root our discourse in nature and look at humans as natural beings, we find that we all need similar things. We are all equally mortal, we all equally need shelter, safety, food, and other people. It is by concerning ourselves with what is natural and necessary (which, in Epicurean parlance, is known as the doctrine of the chief goods) that we find human relations and experiences that meet the many dictionary definitions of equality:

equal \ˈē-kwəl\
: the same in number, amount, degree, rank, or quality
: not changing
: the same for each person
: of the same measure, quantity, amount, or number as another
: identical in mathematical value or logical denotation
: equivalent
: like in quality, nature, or status
: like for each member of a group, class, or society
: regarding or affecting all objects in the same way
: impartial
: free from extremes
: tranquil in mind or mood
: not showing variation in appearance, structure, or proportion

It’s most often in our natural limits and needs that we find our universally natural equality, our common denominator, and it’s at the table that we most often unite as equals and joyfully share with other humanity. Notice that religion and economics and nationalism, while proclaiming that they unify us, have always been divisive, but on the other hand things like food (and sometimes good, pleasant music) have universally united people, sometimes very different from each other, in one place, in one shared mind, and in one experience.

The Public Tables Passage in the Humanist Bible

In the book of Acts, from AC Grayling’s Humanist Bible, there are narratives related to several heroic secular Lawgivers from antiquity. The book includes an interesting passage on the Spartan custom of public tables, which was instituted via an ordinance by Lycurgus:

The third and most masterly stroke of this great lawgiver, by which he delivered a yet more effective blow against luxury and the desire of riches, was the ordinance he made that they should all eat in common, of the same bread and meat, and should not spend their lives at home lying on costly couches at splendid tables delivering themselves into the hands of their tradesmen and cooks to fatten like greedy brutes and to ruin not only their minds but their bodies which, enfeebled by indulgence, would stand in need of long sleep, warm bathing, freedom from work and, in a word, as much care and attendance as if they were continually sick …

For the rich, being obliged to go to the same table as the poor, could not make use of their abundance, nor so much as please their vanity by looking at or displaying it. The common table ordinance in particular exasperated the wealthier men.

Acts 5:1-10, Good Book: a Humanist Bible

The passage then goes on to relate how the mobs of the wealthy attempted to stone Lycurgus the Lawgiver as a result of the Common Table ordinance and he had to flee for his life into the marketplace and eventually “Alcander struck his face with a stick and put out one of his eyes” (verse 14). Alcander later was exposed to public shame and went on to become one of Lycurgus’ “most zealous admirers“.

The next chapter of Acts goes on to explain how this tradition of the Common Table had various names which were related to words like philitia because it was an opportunity to make friends, or phido because “they were so many schools of sobriety“. The public tables are referred to as “schools of temperance” where citizens learned to “converse with pleasantry” and where all members had to be agreeable to each other. The cooperative way in which the tradition was organized and observed is explained.

Implicit in the narrative is the view that a huge gap between rich and poor has demoralizing effects on society and creates mutual hostilities between citizens. There are many other examples of this in the Humanist Bible, including the beginnings of an uprising against the bankers in Acts 19 which today seems almost prophetic.

But the purpose of the public tables was not just to manufacture a space where the hostilities between the social classes could be assuaged. It was also to create community, to foster friendship, and the public tables even had didactic value. People learned proper etiquette, philosophy, and social skills.

The Epicurean Oath of the Table

The public tables tradition is reminiscent of the feast of reason that was established by Epicurus in his last will as the only shared cultural tradition to be celebrated by the Epicureans on the 20th of every month.

And from the revenues … make separate provision for … the meeting of all my School held every month on the twentieth day to commemorate Metrodorus and myself according to the rules now in force. – Epicurus, in his Last Will

Anyone that understands Epicurean contractarianism knows that the only way in which a rule can be in place is by it being established as part of the social contract. An oath was taken on the core tenets of Epicureanism by converts. The responsibilities that Epicureans owed each other and their larger community all emerged from their oath of allegiance to the communal covenant. There is no other way for there to exist “the rules now in force” that are mentioned by Epicurus. Elsewhere, Philodemus in On Piety mentions that Epicurus is said to have warned against “violating the covenant of the sacred festival table”.

And so the Epicureans’ feast of reason had a precedent in Lycurgus’ ordinance of the public tables, and it’s likely that the underlying reasons and the uses for both traditions may be somewhat similar.

When people eat together, they share relatively as equals and build community. A sense of intimacy and familiarity emerges in circles of friends who have a habit of dining together with some frequency. Because there will always be and always has been universal demand for food as one of the basic necessities of our species, it is a natural place to experience philanthropy and humanism, to evaluate the universal concerns shared by all people and to engage in philosophical discourse.

We also know that when Philodemus taught Epicureanism to wealthy Romans, there were awkward situations that resulted from the Epicurean practice of frank criticism. These awkward moments are likely to have frequently taken place within the context of the egalitarian, communal setting that was the monthly celebration on the twentieth. Experiments in community-building are always likely to test social boundaries, particularly when partnered with frank criticism.

It is in our shared breath, our shared life, in our mortal identity as natural beings with natural limits that we are all equal. As I’ve said before, nature gives us no choice. Rich or poor, religious or atheist, male or female, gay or straight, we all must eat, must age, and must die, but of all these activities, dining is the most communal. It is at the public tables that we all have the potential to understand our natural equality.

Also read:

Luis Granados has written Happy Twentieth!, a testimonial piece for The Humanist on how he celebrates the 20th.  He proposes that celebrating the 20th with close friends is a more intimate alternative to Sunday Assemblies for non-religious people.

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Seek the Good!

It is irrational and poor-hearted not to seek good things for fear of losing them. – Acts 17:12, the Good Book: a Humanist Bible



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Intactness as Naturalist Puritanism


The Abrahamic Covenant

There has been much recent controversy around the issue of circumcision, which has become the male side of the right-to-choose debate in America, where the practice is still common but being challenged.

The practice of circumcision originated in different parts of the world independently but is most often associated with Judaism. In order to attract the Greeks and facilitate their mass conversion to Christianity, Paul of Tarsus had to abolish the barbaric practice of genital mutilation that had been established as part of God’s eternal covenant with the descendants of Abraham. It would have most likely been impossible to convince the Greeks, whose humanism was too entrenched and led them to view the human body as the unit of measure of all good, to adopt the practice. Below is how the covenant of circumcision was established in Jewish scripture:

This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised.  You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.  For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant. – Genesis 17:10-14

Jews and most Muslims, who have a hadith according to which Muhammad was circumcised, engage in the practice. Most Christians don’t practice it, except many in America.

Hindus do not mutilate their newborn, as they view it as a strange and foreign practice brought to India by the Muslims. Sikhs are strongly against circumcision and, furthermore, against changing anything else that nature does to the natural human person, for which reason the members of the Khalsa Order do not believe in cutting one’s hair ever during one’s lifetime, including beard and all other hair. Intactness of the penis is only one expression of the overall approach of acceptance of the intact human body that is part of Sikh philosophy.

Arguments For and Against

The American medical establishment from time to time has defended circumcision. During the Victorian era, it was argued that it prevented masturbation. In 1949 this view was challenged by Douglas Gairdner, a Cambridge paediatrician who argued:

Nature is a possessive mistress, and whatever mistakes she makes about the structure of the less essential organs such as the brain and stomach, in which she is not much interested, you can be sure that she knows best about the genital organs.

It is today being argued that circumcision prevents STDs, and research has been produced to this effect. But, children are not sexually active when they are being mutilated as newborn. Is it not appropriate, then, to wait for the child to reach puberty so he can make an informed decision prior to engaging in sexual activity?

Aside from the religious views, some people argue in favor of circumcision for scientific and aesthetic reasons. We find that some people believe the circumcised penis is more attractive. Then again, others find the uncircumcised penis more attractive, or are indifferent.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has endorsed a statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics saying that circumcision prevents urinary tract infections, penile cancer (a condition rarer than male breast cancer), and transmission of some sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. However, these are groups that profit from the procedure and have a financial interest in promoting circumcision and elevating it to the status of a revered tradition.

As for arguments against the practice: intactivists argue that there are possible serious medical complications and the so-called medical benefits of the procedure do not justify the practice, which is not perceived as normal in most countries.

We must also consider the moral argument in favor of ownership of one’s body. A newborn child is not able to decide whether or not to have an unnecessary, irrevocable procedure where a part of his body is removed from him forever. Implicit in the practice is the premise that it is moral and acceptable for such crucial choices to be made without the consent of the individual. This is a premise which has many and profound ramifications.

And finally, there is the problem of loss of sensation in the head of the penis and surrounding area, which is rich in nerve endings for the purpose of sexual pleasure. Implicit in the practice of circumcision may be the premise that such pleasure is bad, evil, unnecessary, or sinful. All of these arguments are exacerbated by the fact that the procedure is an entirely unnecessary act of genital mutilation and represents the normalization of cruelty.

In recent years, the movement to restore the normalcy of the intact penis has become more vocal and visible, with initiatives like Intact America, a non-profit organization that educates people on the dangers and the immorality of the practice, which is deemed by many as barbaric.

Several cultural memes have proliferated online. There is an intactivist blog titled May the foreskin be with you, there’s Occupy Foreskin, and there’s a moving video online where a mother apologized to her son for circumcising him as a child which has generated mainstream media attention.

On the other hand secularists, particularly those with political tendencies, have branded this a church and state issue and frequently compare male circumcision with female genital mutilation, where the clitoris is removed.

The Hedonic Covenant

If we frame the intactivist movement within the Humanist ethical context, particularly in terms of the Epicurean social contract–an agreement not to harm or be harmed–, it is difficult to argue in favor or circumcision of newborn children.

It is also clear that many who were led to the practice under religious pretenses were obeying tradition blindly and that, within our discourse, the practice acquires the connotation of cultural corruption as opposed to the expected acceptance of the wisdom of nature, of natural selection and of nature as the ideal. The religious attack on the prepuce, seen in this light, can be understood as a departure from what nature intended in favor of a peculiar brand of culture that sees nature as something inferior or evil to be conquered, to be transcended, to be opposed. There is an ecological component to intactivism.

The practice of male circumcision of newborn children, even if found desirable (for instance, for aesthetic reasons), may furthermore be categorized within our ethical doctrine as unnatural and unnecessary, and therefore vain and empty.

For all these reasons, I am proud to add my voice and my moral support to the legions of cyber-intactivists who are fighting this counter-jihad against circumcision. Like the so-called “moral” issue of avoidance of eating the flesh of the pig for religious reasons, this new standoff in the culture wars has the potential to furnish interesting new insights about culture’s perceptions and what culture does to the human body, and can help to uncover some of the problematic and even dangerous premises behind many of the false views upheld by the mobs which affect the basic human rights of children every day.

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Enargeia and the Monkey Mind

In the process of seeking a meditative outlet for my practice of Epicureanism, I have explored with zazen and gained valuable insights that take me back to the third of the Four Cures that one of our masters, Philodemus, taught. It is said that the good, the pleasant, is easy to attain. What can be easier to attain than the breath? Calm abiding in the breathing experience is the most basic of the natural, katastemic (passive) pleasures which hold a place of priority in Epicurean practice. It’s just being. And one can’t have well-being without first simply being. Add to that gratitude and focus, and you have pleasant abiding.

One of the qualities of zen is that it is said to be a place of no-mind. No-mind is impossible, actually, so the expression no-mind simply means doing away with thoughts to have pure, direct experience without the mediator of the chatter, the narratives that our minds build up, what some Buddhist teachers have called the lull of words that we use to weave reality.

The mind is difficult to control. Many yogis try to control it through control of breath. Zen practitioners simply abide in it, observe it without judgement and let it be, settling into awareness and accepting the contents of the monkey mind. Witnessing.

It’s always been curious that Epicurus didn’t leave too many writings about contemplation and how to deal with the monkey mind. My suspicion is that either those writings were lost or this was part of the oral, direct teaching that we will never be able to fully recover. But this is crucial, and a necessary part of our practice of applied philosophy. Our tradition calls on us to tame or slay the monsters of the mind. There have to be specific techniques, specific lore and teachings surrounding how to do this.

Zen brings me back to the canon, the very spring from which our doctrine emerges, which is founded on how we as natural beings can directly apprehend reality with our natural faculties. In Epicureanism, we speak of enargeia, of immediacy of direct experience. This is no different from zen. Like the canon, zen produces a state of clear thinking which, in our philosophy, translates even into the realm of rhetorics and how we are to speak clearly and concisely, naming things by their names and never generating confusion through the misuse or abuse of words. Epicureans speak in the language of haiku. Nothing is left to guesswork.

This clarity of speech requires, as a pre-condition, a clarity of mind and of perception that is found within the canon. We say that the canon liberates us from traditional authorities like priests, logicians, prophets and such. But the link between the canon and the natural states of bliss and pleasant abiding that paying attention to immediacy can produce is never talked about in Epicureanism. We usually don’t communicate (perhaps because it’s wordless and doesn’t lend itself to transmission) how this simplicity and immediacy of experience creates freedom and release in our beings, how it leads to us becoming liberated natural beings. For the sake of the continuity of our tradition, we have to overcome this ineffability, this inability to express Epicurean spirituality.

The canon is not just about being able to perceive and apprehend reality directly and to be free in this manner. The experience of reality from a place of abiding pleasure is itself what it means to be spiritual as a natural being. Spirituality, let’s not forget, is not about ghosts, specters and the afterlife but shares semantic roots with spirit, with breath. Our naturalist spirituality is a philosophy of life in the truest and most complete sense of the word.

I believe the problem of difficulty of transmission of naturalist spirituality has to do with the fact that Epicureanism was first conceived as a Western secular philosophy, and unlike Eastern spiritualities and philosophies, the Western variety traditionally has never conceived of itself as being able to do without words. The rhetors have defined for so long what it means to be a philosopher that a quiet, wordless monk can only be imagined a mystic, never a non-Platonic philosopher. But mystic implies that there’s a mystery to master. There is no such thing in naturalism, on the contrary. The ordinary has the potential to be an epiphany at every moment. At every moment, we can choose the freedom of a wordless, free mind. And when we articulate words, these words express with clarity the things evident, the things perceived, and usually nothing more. Certainly not the inconceivable, not the supernatural. And while it’s true that words burst the bubble when one is in a contemplative state, the transmission of Epicureanism among peers will require that we find expression for the insights we gain as we work through the teaching.

When we challenged the supermacy of reason in favor of the guidance of nature, we were challenging the supermacy of the mind. It is in the spiritual and contemplative technologies used to control the mind that we have to carry out our work in Epicureanism. We must study the mind to protect the mind.

The mystic in Western philosophy has almost invariably subjected his mind to platonic views and to the imaginary and supernatural realms. We do not know how to be Epicureans and must re-learn beginning with the rudimentary tools of the canon. I submit that that is almost all we need … plus a disciplined, attentive, and blissfully grateful mind.

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