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.