Foundation: Science Fiction and Myth

I just finished watching the first season of the series Foundation–based on a novel by the same name–in which we find themes that resonate specifically with ancient Egyptian myth, although the aesthetics do not immediately suggest ancient Kemet.

As for whether it’s worth watching, yes, although it’s a little disorienting because of the huge time lapse between the historical events described in the plot. The ideas in the series are thought-provoking. The aesthetics is less like Star Wars, more like the retelling of an epic. The many planets and civilizations visited do not look too different from Earth. It’s an anthropocentric series, and it asks whether there might be mathematical formulae by which one may accurately predict future large-scale events. The sage who supposedly deciphers these historical codes is a type of future Pythagoras, his prophecies repeated and studied over the aeons.

One common theme: mortals who are rendered quasi immortal by some secret technology, or by magic. When it comes to transcending death, ancient Egyptian myth is rich. Osiris’ resurrection comes to mind.

The three Foundation characters that constitute “Empire” (a man named Cleon who is triple-cloned to live as a young man, adult man, and old man at the same time) are one model of an immortal being which reminds us of the belief in the divinity of the Pharaoh, who was himself an incarnation of the ba (soul) of Horus. Just as the Sun sets and rises forever and ever, the Divine King (empowered or possessed by Horus’ soul) will always be restored, and there would be eternal stability, in their belief.

In Foundation, we see a future technology by which a woman enters a sarcophagus-like ship which keeps her alive and in hibernation for 30, 150, or more years at a time, during which time the sarcophagus-like ship travels a huge distance in space. When she revives she is still of the same age as when she went into hibernation. Here, I see echoes of Osiris’ sarcophagus traveling in the currents of the Nile after his brother Set killed him, and eventually transcending his own death.

Foundation was brought to my attention by a fellow Epicurean when we dedicated an Eikas program to the intersection between science fiction and philosophy. We noted how many genres that relied on the magical (like the superhero and zombie genres) in their world-building, have in recent years relied more on future technologies. Sci-fi often serves as a great platform to explore philosophical ideas, but the genre also has archetypal imagery and themes that are evocative in ways that suggest something more Dionysian, and evocative of ancient myth. Foundation is a modern myth.

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Book Review of Talking Stick: Peacemaking as a Spiritual Path

I picked up Stephan Beyer’s Talking Stick: Peacemaking as a Spiritual Path thanks to a neighbor, Fran, who is a librarian and who always has dozens of books in his house. Over the years we have always shared the books we’ve enjoyed with each other, and this book seemed interesting to me because (like yerba maté and kava, my two ceremonial drinks) it merges elements of ceremony with practices that have social utility.

I will first share some basic notes on the practice of the Talking Stick, then a few of the pros, and then the cons of the book. The talking stick is a medicine of the Native American peoples. It is a tradition whereby a communal “Council” is held (either to make important decisions, or as a form of tribunal) and, in order to evade chaos and facilitate communication and listening, a talking stick is passed around the circle. Only the person holding the stick may speak, and for as long as that person speaks everyone else must be listening. The Talking Stick is passed around the circle and everyone shares whatever they wish to say. Fran told me that he has used the Talking Stick with his students, and this tradition has been successfully used in schools throughout the country in order to keep the peace among the students and to diffuse conflict.

The book details the “four intentions”, which are the Council’s social contract. The ceremony and theory of the Talking Stick moves us from blame-seeking to identifying an unmet need that requires attention.

The author rejects the “punitive and violent mythology” we have inherited, which is admirable, and he criticizes how, in our conventional model of “justice”, we usually seek to craft outcomes (punish the wrongdoer, or enforce atonement in some concrete way) rather than deepen relationships. He rejects these transactional models of relating and says we should embrace “process” (versus “product”).

This seems more practical than the forever-war mentality of embittered opponents. However, it seems to imply that, even if we do not see any results, we should still employ the same “process”–which seems unpragmatic. It seems legitimate to expect or want results. We all want to have something to show for whatever time and effort we put into activities, even peacekeeping.

Beyer refuses to use “victim-offender” verbiage, saying that victimization implies moral superiority and is hierarchical. Does it really imply moral superiority? There seems to be a Christian-influenced epistemological error here. People who suffer are not always good, and people who make others suffer are sometimes observed to be defending themselves from some evil thing or person.

Also, we observe that there ARE people who are morally superior to others. There are people who are more responsible, kinder, or more just than others. Some are wiser, more mature, or more experienced than others. To deny this is to reject all ethical and behavioral standards.

On the other hand, when people offend others, they must sometimes admit their offense in order to begin a process of moral and personal development. Rejecting all talk of victim-offender seems, in this case, counter-productive.

And so one potential danger here is that, by rejecting plain facts and by avoiding naming victim-offender relations, this may lead to lack of moral clarity and denial of personal responsibility. I understand that the role of the peacekeeper is to keep the peace, but at what cost?

The Talking Stick ceremony has helped many communities to heal from trauma, and this book provides a good, complete introduction to this wisdom tradition. I advise readers to engage the book critically, and to keep in mind that the task of peacemaking is not always easy.

Further Reading:
Talking Stick: Peacemaking as a Spiritual Path

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Expanse – the Finale

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed the series Expanse, which is known for science fiction that is more realistic than most. The series deals candidly with issues of space politics, and also with scientific issues like how gravity would affect life aboard a spaceship.

I initially took an interest in the series as a fan of Steven Strait, whom I discovered in 10,000 BC. It turned out to be a good series for binge-watching when it’s cold outside. I did not read the novels the series is based on, but apparently the finale cut the narrative short. 

The planet Laconia is supposed to have produced a huge galactic empire in the original storyline. But at the end of the series, Laconia has barely been settled, and what little we know of it from one of the storylines seems to not have found its conclusion. Presumably, this is because the growth of such an empire would have required many generations, and it would have been difficult to follow the familiar main characters into the Laconian storyline.

As far as world-building is concerned, Expanse creates believable colonies in the solar system. Belters (residents of the Asteroid Belt) have developed an English-based Créole language, and their fashion sense creatively blends futuristic and punk styles. The actors chosen for the roles are of a much more diverse background than we are accustomed to, with many of them being Canadians of various backgrounds, but we also see Africans, Asians, Indians, New Zealanders, Native Americans, Persians, and others. Strong women leaders and soldiers also play prominent roles. This, in my view, adds to the realistic non-mystique of Expanse.

My next binge-watching adventure will be The Book of Bobba Fett. If it’s salient enough, I’ll write a review of it.

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Dune 2021

After a long-enough wait, Dennis Villeneuve’s Dune finally hit the theaters last night and I was among the first to show up to watch it. Dune is a philosophical, artistic and cultural masterpiece, and it involves phenomenal worldbuilding, but one movie does not do it justice. In fact, the film (at over two hours) had just enough time to introduce many of the key concepts of the Duniverse, and it tells about half of the original story. Since it’s unfair to provide a full review of half a movie, instead I’m going to share a few highlights of the movie.

  • It has the grandeur that a Dune movie should have: some of the ships are almost the size of small nations.
  • Their “helicopters” look like metallic gigantic fireflies.
  • Months ago, someone said this movie would be “dark”, and it is. It’s visually dark. Although Arrakis is a desert planet and gets plenty of sun, the heat and sun are not ideal for life outdoors, and the people live in enclosures that seem a bit claustrophobic. The desert landscape is magical, though, and I suspect we will see more of it in the sequels, when the inside of sietches is revealed (a sietch is an underground cave system that includes a reservoir of water and allows for human habitation).
  • For some reason, the planet Caladan (which has oceans and is the homeworld of the House of Atreides) has Scottish, Irish, or other Celtic heritage. I don’t remember this being the case in the 80’s movie.
  • A beautiful conlang (artificial language) was created for this movie by the same language expert who worked on the Game of Thrones languages. The script reminds me a bit of Ethiopian writing.

Further Reading:

Nietzsche and the Dune Saga

Book Review of “Winds of Dune

 

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Happy Eikas: Prometheus Bound

Hi. This month (and henceforward), the literary updates and the Eikas message will be at societyofepicurus.com. Please check our Twentieth message for the new paperback edition of our Epitome: Epicurean Writings, and also some notes from the discussion we had during our Twentieth zoom meeting, which was an Epicurean interpretation of the Prometheus myth.

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Happy Twentieth: On “Love Your Neighbor”

Happy Twentieth to all the disciples of Epicurus! Psyche Magazine published an essay titled Sprinkle a little ancient philosophy into your daily routines, and the Ad Navseam podcast published an episode titled The Whole Enchilada: Epicureanism and Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura. Unfortunately, midway through the episode the authors cast doubt on whether Epicureans can be good citizens–never mind the historian Diogenes Laertius’ testimony about the character of Epicurus. To balance this, I would invite the student to read John Thrasher’s essay on Epicurean contractarianism.

This month, the latest episode of the Newstalk podcast “Talking History” is titled “Epicurus: a Life”. Several scholars were interviewed.

Love Your Neighbor

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. ’The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

– Jesus the Nazarene, in The Gospel according to Mark 12:28-31

Having been raised in a Christian household has made me aware of both the utility and the futility of Christian ethos–whether we delve into the details, or stick to the basics. Christianity provides a formative ethical framework for almost all of my family members and a large portion of the society I live in. Even after people leave Christianity behind, or stop taking most of its claims seriously, many still consider themselves Christian Humanists and frequently still unquestioningly accept the wisdom of “Love your neighbor“. Not wanting to embrace it or dismiss it without careful consideration, I decided to take a second look at the second of the two Christian commandments through the lens of my Epicurean ethical framework to see if “Love your neighbor” still works.

I believe that Epicurus would argue that a commandment to love God is a bit strange: if one is commanded to love someone, is it love or is it fear? Can sentient beings be ORDERED to feel an emotion? Furthermore, the Principal Doctrines on justice recognize the personal sovereignty of the individual, and so we do not have “commandments”, only doctrines and adages.

So the first Christian commandment is irrelevant to us, but I believe the second commandment is not only sound, but also that Epicurus and most of the Epicurean Guides might argue that it’s generally advantageous to love our neighbors–maybe not as much as we love ourselves, but we can still argue that it’s advantageous to let our brain brew its oxytocin and endorphin rush for them. I believe that they would argue this from the perspective of the safety and the advantages it brings, rather than merely virtue-signal around the teaching, as a sign of respect for the intelligence of their pupils. In fact, Lucretius, in De Rerum Natura 5:1015-27 includes compassion for the weak among the foundational cultural traits of human societies listed in Liber Qvintvs:

Then, too, did neighbours ‘gin to league as friends,
Eager to wrong no more or suffer wrong,
And urged for children and the womankind
Mercy, of fathers, whilst with cries and gestures
They stammered hints how meet it was that all
Should have compassion on the weak. 

But first, let us clarify what the second Christian commandment says and what it doesn’t say. “Love your neighbor”, on its face, does not mean that we should love everyone everywhere and always. No one has the attention span or time to love everyone. It’s naturally impossible to love everyone. Love, if it’s true, if the word has any real meaning, is a time-consuming pleasure. Two individuals must have wholesome exchanges and get to know each other with some level of depth, which takes some time. They must take time to communicate, and to demonstrate care with concrete tokens of friendship.

Notice that the word chosen in English to translate the Gospel teaching is “neighbor”–which in its prolepsis implies physical proximity. In Spanish, the word chosen is “prójimo”, which is related to words like proximity and also implies nearness. Our friend Nathan adds:

Within the ancient Hebrew context of Leviticus, ‘neighbor’ does not refer to ‘humanity’, it only refers to ‘other members of our tribe’. The full quotation from Leviticus is important for context: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” (19:18 NRSV)

PD’s 27 and 39-40 argue for the benefits of loving our neighbors and keeping them near. The Doctrines seem to argue that it’s advantageous to love those who are in our proximity, for the sake of our safety and happiness. Although PD 39 is often used to justify the exclusion from our circles of people who bring trouble or conflict, it starts by spelling out the following ideal scenario:

The man who best knows how to meet external threats makes into one family all the creatures he can. – Principal Doctrine 39

Other issues we must discuss are the feasibility argument and the argument for a complete ethical education. We don’t know to what extent it’s possible to TRULY love all of our neighbors. It’s impractical for a community to set up a rule in its social contract that is impossible to follow, however, it’s not irrational to expect an agreement of harmlessness (rather than love) from relative strangers. While the Christian commandment is noble, it potentially imposes and breeds hypocrisy, whereas the Epicurean conception of justice founded on an agreement to neither harm nor be harmed is much more realistic and practical.

That is the feasibility argument. The argument for a complete ethical education, on the other hand, says: while a commandment by a god to love him makes that god sound narcissistic, and while his commanding us to love others sounds authoritarian, Epicurus’ approach of expounding arguments for the advantages and benefits of befriending and loving our neighbors constitutes a more complete ethical education, and appeals to both our self-interest and our prudence. Most importantly, it does not produce false reasons to love our neighbors, and respects the intelligence and autarchy of the practitioner of philosophy.

Some enemies of Epicurean philosophy have argued that Epicureans would not make good citizens, or have concern for others outside of their immediate circle, however:

  1. Epicurus took care of orphans: he adopted and provided for the daughter of his best friend Metrodorus when she was orphaned. She must have been very young when Metro died, as he died eight years prior to Epicurus’ death and, as of the writing of his final will, Epicurus had not yet made arrangements for her to get married. Therefore, Epicurus had assumed responsibility for her and helped to raise her into adulthood
  2. Epicurus taught his friends how to live properly and pleasantly: he had a concrete and useful curriculum that provided an ethical and philosophical education for both young and old in his community which specifically contributed to their happiness and to living correctly
  3. The practice of friendship (philía) was a central aspect of the teaching mission. Each friend furnishes a concrete instance of loving our neighbor
  4. Epicurus fed the people every month in a feast: his Kepos functioned like what we would think of today as a communal non-profit organization. The welcome sign at the gate in the garden said “_STRANGER_, here you do well to tarry”. Since strangers were welcome in the garden, this means that Epicurus fed strangers, which sounds like near-universal charity

Epicurus, I would argue, was an exemplary citizen by any measure who sought to make into one tribe all the creatures that he was able to befriend. When asking about this subject in our FB group, one of the group members Shahab had this to say:

I think showing affection toward a neighbor makes you feel more safe beside them. Nothing is guaranteed, as men wish more harm upon each other. In any case, your neighbor may be a religious, a superstitious family, or they may be from people working for the government (as in authoritarian regimes). In these cases you wouldn’t feel safe if you don’t show them friendly feelings, or once upon a time, inviting them for a party where they can find, at least, Epicurean friendly attitude, reassuring for a healthy happy life. Malevolent neighbors can sabotage your reputation, making you feel unsafe in the neighborhood. So, as long as it benefits an Epicurean, showing a well-calculated love and friendliness toward one’s neighbor is, to me, a wise thing to do.

Not everyone considers “Love your neighbor” as being useful. Jason says:

PD 39 sums it up for me. Enroll everyone possible into the social contract. Benevolence meets benevolence. If they cannot or will not keep the contract, avoid them and their disturbance. If they cannot be avoided, expel them. The English word love is too much of a catch-all term for all of the varieties of positive feeling I experience to apply it universally to all sentients.

The biochemistry of my brain responds differently to different people and circumstances. Putting all those feelings under one word makes for vague speech, something Christianity, out of all the Abrahamic faiths, excels in. It is precisely that vagueness that makes it incompatible with Epicurean philosophy.

Nathan also says:

“He who best knew how to meet fear of external foes made into one family all the creatures he could; and those he could not, he at any rate did not treat as aliens; and where he found even this impossible, he avoided all association, and, so far as was useful, kept them at a distance” (Principal Doctrine 39).

I invite everyone to heed scientific research, get vaccinated, and wear a mask. To those who are unable to get vaccinated, I understand and encourage safe practices. To those who take unnecessary risks, I’ll avoid like the plague.

To answer your original question: no, Epicurus would not have endorsed (Love thy neighbor), because that proposition is justified by devotional worship of a Creator and does not consider any negative consequences of unconditional love.

From PD 39, and from the above discussion, we conclude that he wisdom of setting boundaries must be balanced with making into one tribe everyone we can … and it’s up to each one of us to determine the extent of each.

Therefore, I believe Epicurus loved his neighbors just as well or better than any good Christian, because he demonstrated life-long love for those who were near him (and taught them by example how to love each other) not with naive, religious idealisms but with concrete tokens of benefits, and for the right reasons.

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The Book of Job: an Indictment of the God character

Many have tried to justify the existence of God in light of all the evil in the world.

The Book of Job–uniquely refreshing among Bible books in its honesty–makes it clear that the monotheistic God character is not a moral example and is not a good tool to help explain the existential state of mortals. The monotheistic God idea creates many more problems than it solves. I recently had the pleasure of reading the Book of Job. Here are some notes of interest about it.

The “Holy Ones”

The book twice makes mention of “the holy ones” (5:1, 15:15), and contrasts them with mortals (which means that these “holy ones” are immortal). This indicates that the authors of the Book of Job were still polytheists, but they considered the Canaanite chief god El Shaddai (with whom Abraham believed to have made a pact) to be the supreme deity among many.

The text mentions the various lands that the four mortal characters mentioned in the Book of Job were from: Taman is associated with Yemen, for instance. Job himself was from the “land of Uz”–which is part of Aram elsewhere in the Bible. If Job was Aramean, the “holy ones” to him would have been deities like El, Ashtarte, Baal Hadad, Shamash (Sun), Nin (Moon), Anat, and others.

God Makes a Pact with Satan

The first time I heard of the idea that God had made a pact with the Devil was from Iaakov Malkin, author of Epicurus & Apikorsim. The relevant passage is Job 1:8-12. It shows Satan tempting God’s ego and succeeding (Job 2:3), as a result of which Job lost all his animals, sons and daughters, and most of his slaves, and later even his health–yet Job still praises God (1:21). This is not a matter of atheist interpretation of the text. In the text, God plainly and clearly admits that he was not just tempted, but incited by Satan, and God admits causal responsibility for his unjustified tyranny (“without any reason”):

And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.” – Job 2:3

Job’s Angst

The Book of Job is an example of existentialist philosophical literature. In some ways, it reminds me of Arjuna’s depression in the first chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, when he realizes he must kill his family members and tells Krishna that he does not wish to fight. The Gita treats Arjuna’s turmoil as a “yoga” because it leads to his spiritual questioning. 

I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil.” – Job 3:26

Job curses the day of his birth (3.1), and wishes he hadn’t been born (3:11). He hates his own life (10.1), doesn’t understand why he was born (10.18) and wants god to kill him (6:8-9). His depression and suicidal ideation are expressed throughout the text (7:15-16). 

Furthermore, the Book of Job makes a connection between exploitative labor / wage slavery and depression / existentialist angst, or meaninglessness. Job compares this life to hired labor (7:1-3), which contributes to making life senseless or alienating. 

Since Job is blameless, he cannot accept the idea that he is being punished for some sin, or that suffering is punishment (10.2), which makes his pain unbearable because it makes no sense. As a result, Job can’t sleep, and the thought of death makes him anxious and bitter, which contributes to life’s meaninglessness (7:4-11).

Failed Apologetics

You, however, smear me with lies; you are worthless physicians, all of you! – Job, speaking to his “friends” in 13:4

The Book of Job places before our eyes the psychological abuse and humiliation that characterizes primitive (and, often, modern) monotheism. In fact, the book’s role seems to be to persuade worshipers to praise their divine wrong-doer in spite of the admitted moral problems implied in this.

Job has four “friends” who offer him advice in the text. I place the word “friends” in quotes because they all engage in “blame-the-victim” behavior (8:4), although from the get-go we see that Job was blameless and was scared of his god (1:1), and that his god behaves like a cruel bully. 

In Job 4:7-8, Eliphaz the Temanite denies that god is unjust, and claims that everyone gets their karma, but his apologetics fail. He attributes many legendary and miraculous deeds to God, which are easily explained today as natural phenomena, or dismissed as mythical.

Later, Bildad the Shuhite appeals to “ancestral knowledge” (8:10-13) when he argues that that the godless are made to perish, but this is not true. All creatures perish, religious or atheist, and death is natural and has nothing to do with how pious we are. Furthermore, we are deeply aware that “ancestral knowledge” is wrong about many things, even if it mixes legitimate observations of nature into faulty interpretations of them. 

But these apologetics do not work, by the admission of the God character himself at the end of the book, who tells Job that, out of all that has been said, he was the only one who spoke truthfully about the nature of God. This includes the assertion that “the wicked” (or “the godless”, as they are indistinguishable for some reason even in this text) live their lives in peace and prosperity (21:7-14). This is a commentary on the practice by men of God of celebrating when something evil happens to their enemies (22.19). Here, there is no vindication of good over evil whatsoever (21.23-26). 

Here is where the indictment of monotheism as a philosophical failure is most clear. If there is only one God in charge of both all the good and all the evil in the cosmos, then this renders him useless as a moral guide. In order to be all things to everyone, God must be viewed as amoral, but this is not what is claimed of him in inherited tradition.

“For he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal.” – Job 5:18

Even if I summoned him and he responded, I do not believe he would give me a hearing. He would crush me with a storm and multiply my wounds for no reason. He would not let me catch my breath but would overwhelm me with misery.

It is all the same; that is why I say, ‘He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.’ When a scourge brings sudden death, he mocks the despair of the innocent. When a land falls into the hands of the wicked, he blindfolds its judges. If it is not he, then who is it? – Job 9:16-18, 22-24

Does it please you to oppress me, to spurn the work of your hands, while you smile on the plans of the wicked?” – Job, in 10:3

The tents of marauders are undisturbed, and those who provoke God are secure— those God has in his hand. – Job 12:6

I cry out to you, God, but you do not answer; I stand up, but you merely look at me. You turn on me ruthlessly; with the might of your hand you attack me. – Job 30:20-21

It’s no surprise that Job is depressed, if we consider what he believes about his god, about whom Job “cannot speak up without fear of him” (9:35). This means that he is restraining his expression, and makes us wonder the extent to which the authors of the Book of Job were openly atheists amongst themselves. This is one other reason why the Book of Job is fascinating: I have a suspicion that at least some of the authors of this one Biblical book were atheists.

But as a mountain erodes and crumbles and as a rock is moved from its place, as water wears away stones and torrents wash away the soil, so you destroy a person’s hope. – Job (referring to his god), 14:18-19

If there are multiple gods and they’re all equal in power, some good and some evil, this at least protects the reputation of the good gods and makes it easy to blame the evil gods. But here, God is almighty and his power can’t be resisted, yet he falls for the Devil’s temptations and endangers mortals “without any reason”. And since he is a power-hungry and worship-hungry, and needs constant appeasement, this renders him positively a bully. Throughout the book, God is a violent, dangerous and cruel character. He not only experiences anger, but (like one who never reached adulthood and moral maturity) does not know how to restrain it (Job 9:5-10, :13)

“Who has resisted him and come out unscathed?” – Job 9:4

Perhaps this is the reason for Jesus’ accusations in John 8:44:

You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. – Jesus, in John 8:44, speaking to a group of people identified as “the Jews”

Conclusion

From an Epicurean perspective, the Book of Job is a work of impiety. It accuses God of so many cruelties and crimes, that he’s indistinguishable from a demonic figure (Job 16.9). Job tells God’s advocates: Will you speak wickedly on God’s behalf? Will you speak deceitfully for him?” (13.7), as this seems to be what is required to defend God.

The Book of Job is the most honest (and possibly the only) treatment in the Bible of how harmful the idea of the God character is. It’s a great existentialist and philosophical work. Its authors are the most anti-theist of all the Bible book authors–and in fact this book is being read today as atheist literature by many ex-Christians. It’s possible that some of the authors or sources of the book were atheists, even if they were scared of going too far in their criticism of their god idea. This makes Job unique in the Biblical canon.

I close this essay with Epicurus’ Trilemma, which is actually of unknown origin, but which beautifully and clearly articulates many of the problems that the Book of Job uncovers.

If God is unable to prevent evil, then he is not all-powerful.
If God is not willing to prevent evil, then he is not all-good.
If God is both willing and able to prevent evil, then why does evil exist?

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Happy Eikas! Venus Over Mars

Happy Twentieth of August! This month, we published Epicurus’ Instructions on Meleta, Part II (from notes taken during our last Eikas zoom), and SoFE member Nathan Bartman compiled a list of Epicurean Philosophers throughout history.

We’ve also created an Epicureanism page at the Spiritual Naturalist Society, and initial essays titled An Epicurean Approach to Secularizing Rites of Passage and On Natural Holiness. SNS is one of the few ecumenical initiatives that I’ve been involved in–the other main one was when I wrote the Epicureanism essay for How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy

I’m sure I’ve shared this before, but I heard it again and noticed the level of skill involved in making it, and figured I’d share it again: an Epicurean devotional chant titled “Lumen Inlustrans“, which was sung by a Friend of the Society, Alan. The lyrics are from the Proem of Book III of Lucretius’ The Nature of Things. The English Translation by Martin Ferguson Smith: “You, who out of such deep darkness first found a way to raise such a brilliant light and illumine life’s comforts, you, glory of the Greek people, I follow, and in your footsteps I now tread boldly — less from a desire to rival you than because of love, which inspires me to imitate you.

Venus over Mars

The opening portion of Liber Primus (Book One) of De Rerum Natura contains a poem in praise of the Goddess Venus. I will not share the entire poem, only the relevant portion, by which I’d like to bring attention to the way in which she is called upon to TAME warfare and violence, personified as Mars:

 

Divine one, give my words
Immortal charm. Lull to a timely rest
O’er sea and land the savage works of war
,
For thou alone hast power with public peace
To aid mortality; since he who rules
The savage works of battle, puissant Mars,
How often to thy bosom flings his strength
O’ermastered by the eternal wound of love-
And there, with eyes and full throat backward thrown,
Gazing, my Goddess, open-mouthed at thee,
Pastures on love his greedy sight, his breath
Hanging upon thy lips. Him thus reclined
Fill with thy holy body, round, above!

Pour from those lips soft syllables to win
Peace for the Romans
, glorious Lady, peace!

Notice that Mars is reclined, and she above. Mars–the God of War–has been overpowered by Venus’ charms. This image of Venus over Mars is a philosophical and spiritual statement by Lucretius: it means that pleasure subdues wrath, aggression, and our harsh ways. It may also mean that bitterness has been and can be conquered by sweetness, and it may also signal an invitation away from politics to politeness, a swerve away from force to cooperation. It’s an image that is bursting with life, with life-force being both spent and created, with pleasure, with vitality. Nature renews itself. It re-creates itself. Nature is at play.

But the image is just one of several images that Lucretius is placing before our eyes. Immediately after this passage in this same book, Liber Primus, we find a passage where Epicurus similarly tames and overpowers religion, leaving it trampled underfoot.

Whilst human kind
Throughout the lands lay miserably crushed
Before all eyes beneath Religion
– who
Would show her head along the region skies,
Glowering on mortals with her hideous face
A Greek it was who first opposing dared
Raise mortal eyes that terror to withstand,
Whom nor the fame of Gods nor lightning’s stroke
Nor threatening thunder of the ominous sky
Abashed; but rather chafed to angry zest
His dauntless heart to be the first to rend
The crossbars at the gates of Nature old.
And thus his will and hardy wisdom won;
And forward thus he fared afar, beyond
The flaming ramparts of the world, until
He wandered the unmeasurable All.
Whence he to us, a conqueror, reports
What things can rise to being, what cannot,
And by what law to each its scope prescribed,
Its boundary stone that clings so deep in Time.
Wherefore Religion now is under foot,
And us his victory now exalts to heaven.

These images are offered together: Mars is subdued by Venus, and religion is subdued by Epicurus. In the pen of Lucretius, these two ideas belong together. Is he accusing religion of being belligerent and violent like Mars? We similarly see imagery of the apparently weaker force overtaking the stronger one in the Tao Te Ching:

Water achieves its work, but does not take credit
It clothes and feeds myriad things, but does not rule over them

The female always overcomes the male with serenity
Using serenity as the lower position

Tao Te Ching, Chapters 34 and 61

Here, the so-called weaker force is compared with water–just like Aphrodite is born from the foam in the waters, and just as Oshun (her African counterpart) is embodied in a river. It’s true that water, although less feisty than fire, subdues fire and cools over-heated bodies. Also, biochemistry (life, Venus) is traditionally thought to have occurred in the primeval waters of Earth.

Perhaps the image of Venus over Mars represents the futility of cultural inventions that try to override natural drives and cover up natural truths. Creationism rather than evolution by natural selection. Choirs of angels in heaven rather than innumerable planets with living beings. Mythology rather than scientifically- and anthropologically-informed natural history. Instead in these passages, Venus embodies nature, and Epicurus embodies the diligent study of nature.

Mars is also part of nature: aggression and violence are seen throughout nature, but Lucretius shows via this epiphany of Venus over Mars that even where nature produces drives and instincts that are harmful to life, in the end life tends to subdue these instincts. There have been many massive extinctions on Earth, and wars, but life continued–in part because the warlike instincts evolved precisely to protect life.

This dance between violence and life (biochemistry, which we may take Venus to mean) is also represented in the myth of Venus’ origin from the violence of Uranus’ castration. From his genitals and blood, we are told that Aphrodite is born in the “foam of the waters”. Although myths cannot truly replace scientific and empirical ways of thinking, this myth reminds me of the Panspermia hypothesis, which says that life (or its elements) came from outer space in the form of rocks, which fell from heaven (Uranus literally means heaven).

Once Uranus is castrated, he remains still an immortal. He cannot die, just as the Heavens (which he personifies) cannot die. He therefore becomes Urania, which is said to be the “heavenly” aspect of Aphrodite. Why is post-op-transgender Uranus (or whatever remains of him) identified with Aphrodite both on Earth (where his genitals give rise to Aphrodite) and in the heavens (where Uranus becomes Urania)? Perhaps this is a mythical-poetic way of understanding that the biochemistry (life) that we find on Earth (which we associate with Aphrodite), will also be found in the innumerable worlds. Perhaps this also says something about life itself, wherever it may be found: how it is resilient, how it always has to develop an immune system and learn to defend itself, how it keeps returning every year or after every major extinction event.

Out of all these elements of chaos and violence, biochemistry (which requires some semblance of stability), once it arises, tends to subdue the other elements of nature eventually. And just as we observe that inert bodies take the path of least resistance in their movements, similarly living bodies also take the path of least resistance by following pleasure and shunning pain. This Lucretian spiritual principle–Venus subduing Mars, Pleasure subduing aggression–is a curious epiphany and seems to be one of the profound truths expounded in De rerum natura.

 

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Happy Twentieth: Liber Qvintvs

Happy Eikas to Epicureans everywhere! Please enjoy the Epicurus episode of the PhilosoPies podcast. The Hellenistic Age Podcast also published an “Epicurus and Epicureanism” episode. The following two essays were published on SoE:

Nature has no masters: Lucretius, Epicurus, and Effortless Action
Laughter as a Philosophical Practice

I also published an essay deepening our insights into Principal Doctrines 18-21. At last month’s Eikas meeting, we had an engaging discussion on Philodemus, On Anger, which was facilitated by our friend Marcus (Thank you!). I had previously written about this scroll, but discussing it with others allowed its useful teachings to become much clearer for everyone.

Liber Qvintvs

Oh luckless human kind, to grant the gods such powers, and top them off with bitter fury! – Liber Qvintvs, 1194-1195

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is lucretius_de_rerum_natura.jpgI’ve had the pleasure of reading Copley’s translation of De Rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) at least twice now. I’m not the first one to notice that DRN is as much about the ethics as it is about the physics, as both are connected in Epicurean philosophy. I’ve also noticed that the Fifth Book of DRN is the most complete extant compendium of ancient Epicurean anthropology that we have. 

The main ethical goal of the Liber Qvintvs is to replace the inherited ancient myths about the gods handing down laws, language, writing, weapons, arts, crafts, and other “gifts of civilization” with non-supernatural explanations for all these phenomena based on the study of nature. Ancient people used to believe that Dionysus gave us wine cultivation, Athena gave us the arts and crafts, Hermes gave us language and writing, Urania gave us astronomy, etc. Today, many still believe that the tribal god of the Jews gave us all the languages (via the Babel myth) and that he created all things … but since we see that nothing comes from nothing, there is no need for a Creator of all matter.

That this process of replacing myth with natural theories concerning the “gifts of civilization” is the over-arching theme of Liber Qvintvs is evidenced by how it ends, as if summarizing: “Thus, step by step, time lays each fact before us, and reason lifts it to the coasts of light; for men saw one thing clarify another till civilization reached its highest peak“. Here, Lucretius seems to be saying that we become properly civilized by dismissing supernatural explanations for phenomena and learning, through the study of nature, about the way things work.

Earth the All-Mother is also our common tomb: she gives, but takes away, and grows again. – Liber Qvintvs, 259-260

In Liber Qvintvs, Lucretius beautifully exemplifies how we may use the Epicurean canon in order to investigate questions in the realm of culture and anthropology. The most interesting case study for this is the origin of language (1028-1090). Of course, we can not go back in time and observe how it emerged, so here we are forced to apply the Epicurean method of inferring by analogy about the non-evident based on the evident. Since the last Twentieth message was about how we use the canon, I wish to point out how Lucretius applies this method of inference by analogy to the origin of language. The passage begins by stating what the theory says: that there is no teleology. Instead, nature first randomly produces certain faculties in our bodies, some of which then prove to be advantageous, and then later culture and artifice perfect the use of these faculties. A curious insight is provided here:

All creatures sense their powers and how to use them. – Liber Qvintvs, 1033

This deserves further elaboration elsewhere, as it is profoundly intuitive and insightful, but for now let us focus on the issue of language. Lucretius points to a few signs from nature in his investigation of the origins of language. Citing examples from many species (calves who attack with their yet-to-develop horns, lion’s kittens who play with their claws and fangs in order to hone their skills, tiny birds who flutter their wings), Lucretius argues that we see that human children use gestures to point at what they see, which seems to demonstrate a natural instinct to communicate. He ridicules the idea that one single person in remote antiquity (to the ancients, a God like Hermes or Thoth) could invent all the words of an entire language, since communication requires more than one person who must all understand and use words with an agreed-upon meaning.

Lucretius cites how various species make different noises to effectively communicate at a rudimentary level according to necessity. Hounds bear their teeth as a threat, lick their pups to comfort them, and cry when in pain. A stallion squeals, his nostril gapes, when he is in his prime. Birds make different noises when they fight over food or battle their prey. Having cited these concrete examples, and citing feeling as a guide of sentient beings, Lucretius then infers (by analogy) that

if varied feelings, then, force animals, dumb though they are, to utter varied cries, how much more likely that in those days men could use one and another term for different things.

And in this manner, Lucretius exemplifies how we apply our canonical methods of reasoning by analogy (here, inferring about the non-evident based on that which is evident) in the realm of anthropology. Furthermore, Liber Qvintvs includes a natural explanation of the origin of friendship and compassion for the weak and vulnerable in our communities, insightful thoughts on the origin of government, and in one sci-fi passage it even describes a war that involves great beasts in the innumerable worlds. He describes the origins of religion and the arts, as well as the beginning of the historical era (the writing down of events). The origins of music are described in a beautiful passage about the “people of the forest” (silvestre genus) who are the “children of the Earth” (terrigenarum)–perhaps the first-ever example of Epicurean primitivism.

We find assistance for interpreting the Golden Words passage, where Lucretius praises the words of true philosophy, epitomized by Epicurus’ doctrines, and names them “golden, and most worthy of eternal life“. In a passage on the evolution of metalworking (line 1280), Lucretius compares gold favorably to iron, saying that while iron exacerbated the problem of warfare, men increase daily their search for gold, praise it and grant it honor beyond belief. We must assume that this, too, is the attitude we should have towards the Golden Words of true philosophy. He seems to be saying: look for gold, not iron–which is to say, perhaps, “make love, not war“, or maybe “seek pleasure and prosperity, not conflict” but he says this without ignoring the nuances. Lucretius does not idealize gold, and in fact he warns people about incessant desires for more, about greed as the “dark side” of this choice of wealth over violence / gold over iron. He also recognizes that the tools made from iron are useful in farming and technology. 

People in antiquity believed that all these “civilizing gifts” or decrees were handed down by the gods at the dawn of creation. Some cultures, like the Sumerians, had very elaborate and politically interesting myths concerning the Més (the “divine decrees” by which the gods civilized humans), control over which was ludicrously fought over by gods from different cities according to Sumerian myth. In Liber Qvintvs, Lucretius demystifies each Mé, revealing each to be the natural product of culture and nature taking their course. He proved that Athena did not give us olives (or law, or philosophy, or weaving), that Dionysus did not give us wine, that Aristos did not give us cheese-making, etc. It is mortals who have fashioned the Més, and since (like the laws of human society) they are not divine but natural, these techniques, practices, or wisdom-traditions can be perfected or updated over long spans of many generations … and, most importantly, they do not serve gods. They serve mortals.

Overall, although DRN has many inspiring and moving passages, Liber Qvintvs is my favorite of the six books of De rerum natura, a treasure-trove of wisdom, an intellectual feast. If you do not have time to read the entire work, I recommend that you focus only on Liber Qvintvs so as to get a feel for why Lucretius (together with his Hegemon, Epicurus) is such an essential foundational figure in Western thought.

Further Reading:

Philodemus, On Anger (Writings from the Greco-roman World)

On the Nature of Things

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PD 20: a Six-Part Doctrine

In recent months, a few of the members of the Society of Epicurus have been systematically studying all the Principal Doctrines of Epicurus as part of a process of gaining a concise understanding of all the pragmatic repercussions of each one. This has been a very gratifying process, and has created many new insights into the tradition.

When one systematically studies the PDs, the flow of the Doctrines becomes evident, as does the fact that they are the conclusions of long discussions among the founders which were found to be the most advantageous teachings for our happiness. Epicurus was saying: “If you don’t have time to study my 300 scrolls, at least study these 40 short Doctrines and be happy!”.

The first four (the Tetrapharmakos) are of great cosmological and ethical importance for the individual. The social Doctrines (on friendship, justice, and on the establishment of a “society of friends”) are towards the end. In between them, we find portions on the philosophy and ethics of science (PDs 10-13), on autarchy (PDs 15-16), the canonics (PDs 22-25), and the portion I am presenting today deals with the mental disciplines of pleasure (PDs 18-21). Principal Doctrine 20 in specific is a six-part formula, and although we’ve studied it before, I’d like to focus here on each one of the six parts of the Doctrine separately in order to extract new insights.

The flesh receives as unlimited, the limits of pleasure; and to provide it requires unlimited time. But the mind, intellectually grasping what the end and limit of the flesh is, and banishing the terrors of the future, procures a complete and perfect life, and we no longer have need of unlimited time. Nevertheless the mind does not shun pleasure, and even when circumstances make death imminent, the mind does not lack enjoyment of the best life.

Epicurus’ instructions in our study of his Doctrines revolve around repetition and memorization. Due to the length of this Doctrine, repeating and memorizing may be a bit more daunting than is the case with other Doctrines. Let us therefore divide the Doctrine into six portions, so that we can more carefully repeat, memorize, and carefully study each assertion, and compare it to other sources, until we fully assimilate all the cognitive and pragmatic repercussions of the Doctrine.

  1. The flesh receives as unlimited, the limits of pleasure.
  2. To provide this pleasure requires unlimited time.
  3. The mind, intellectually grasping what the end and limit of the flesh is, procures a complete and perfect life.
  4. The mind, banishing the terrors of the future, procures a complete and perfect life, and we no longer have need of unlimited time.
  5. The mind does not shun pleasure.
  6. Even when circumstances make death imminent, the mind does not lack enjoyment of the best life.

The Flesh Lacks Self-Control and Discipline

The first two statements are not saying that pleasure in the flesh is bad: only that the flesh does not have a means to discern their limits. Epicurean Saying 37, which seems to associate pleasant states with vitality and health, reiterates this:

Nature is weak in the face of what is bad, not what is good; for it is kept whole by pleasures and broken down by pains.

Among other things, the 20th Doctrine is a cure for limitless desires of the flesh: that is part of its medicine. The first statement says that the flesh does not know discipline: only the mind does, thanks to the faculty of reason. The second one says that this could potentially result in being assaulted by an infinite number of desires. We see that an existential problem is being framed in terms of the distinction between the flesh and the mind, their different natures, and their different powers. As with all the Doctrines, we must understand this clearly in order to carry out our choices and rejections prudently.

The Mind Must Discipline the Flesh

I divided 3 and 4 into two sentences, although originally they were one, because there are two assertions being made. These assertions are tied to the preceding PDs 18-19: the Baseline Doctrine and the Doctrine that stresses the limits of pleasure in time. If you study them with attention, you will see that PD’s 18 through 21 “give a sermon” together and seem to have been compiled as the authoritative conclusions of a single ethical discussion, the point of which was to say that the mind is responsible for securing a stable life of pleasure.

What are these Doctrines saying together? PD 18 and the third portion of PD 20, together, explain that the mind is able to grasp the limits of the flesh, which are mentioned in PD 18. The mind is able to directly observe, with full enargeia or immediacy, that as soon as the belly is somewhat full, there are no more pangs of hunger. It is able to apprehend that we do not experience pain when we neglect sexual passion, that it is not necessary, and that we can be content without it. While the flesh is unconscious and unable to apprehend these natural limits, the mind is aware and capable.

Similarly, PD 19, and the fourth statement of PD 20, together teach the superiority of reason over time, and how the mind is able to choose and reject how to reason about the past and future in such a way as to experience pleasure, and procure “a complete and perfect life“, a content and satisfied life that lacks nothing, that needs nothing. The point here is that we must think correctly about the past and future, rather than avoid thinking about them or think only of the present (as the Cyrenaics recommended). This is done by pleasant expectation and grateful recollection, two practices that Epicurus encouraged. PD 21 will complete these considerations, empowering us to question the amount of effort or sacrifice we dedicate to needless pleasures.

The Mind Must be Made an Ally

The fifth assertion, on its own, is of profound significance. It reminds me of Vatican Saying 21’s assertion that “We must not violate nature, but obey her“, or in some translations “We must not force nature, but gently persuade her“. This is essential to help us understand Epicurean ethics. If the mind does not shun pleasure, this means–again–that the mind is an ally in our practice of philosophy and in our pursuit of happiness; that our approach should be gentle; and that we do not have to fight against it, but work with it.

In cases where people have bad habits or insatiable desires that produce unwanted consequences and no longer passes hedonic calculus, they are often able to find a higher or healthier pleasure. When I found that coffee was harmful to my health, I opted for yerba maté, a herbal drink with stimulating properties that does not give me jitters. Similarly, the current globalized market furnishes a near infinite variety of culinary products that are guilt-free, fat-free, gluten-free, alcohol-free, fair trade, etc. This allows opportunities for moral agents to avoid feeling like we are punishing ourselves whenever we attempt to make healthier or more prudent choices. The thing to keep in mind is that there is usually a healthier pleasure available.

The final assertion reminds me of research on NDE’s (near-death experiences), which shows that, as soon as the brain realizes that we are dying and that it’s not getting the oxygen it needs, the brain immediately starts releasing blissful hormones. The body has the wisdom to die pleasantly. Epicurus’ manner of death is the prime example of this, but there may be other empirical sources of data by which we can glean further insights into the sixth assertion of this Doctrine. One that comes to mind involves the studies of meditating monks who are able to control their body’s temperature and to reach blissful states of mind at will. While the first skill may only be useful in cold environments, the second skill–if gained–is useful as a daily practice, and constitutes a pragmatic encounter with this Doctrine of great educational value. One way to practice PD 20 is by nurturing contemplative practices that reliably lead to blissful states.

The main intention of this final assertion is to show an extreme example of how the mind, once made an ally in our pursuit of pleasure, is indeed a reliable source of happiness (and of confident expectation of continued happiness). But in order for the mind to play the ethical role it’s supposed to play for an Epicurean, it must be kept healthy, ethically educated, and disciplined.

The flesh is unconscious; the mind is not. Protecting our mental health and cultivating disciplines of mental pleasure helps us to manage the quality of our sentience.

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