Happy Twentieth of May: Better Be a Subject and at Peace

The Epicurean adage lathe biosas, which is translated usually as “Live Unknown”, is an invitation to live life away from politics, to not cater to the mobs and instead to be distinct and separate from them. This is a pre-requisite for a life of ataraxia.

The members of the Las Indias coop, in their strongly libertarian ruminations on community, argue that in addition to preserving ataraxia, lathe biosas had the effect of helping small communities to formulate their communitarian identities without input from the official narratives promoted by the state. In this sense, a stateless Epicurean cosmopolitan identity was affirmed against a backdrop where the mobs were programmed to be citizens of the polis and to serve its interests. But Epicurean Gardens were not anarchic communes: their brand of resistance against politics produced confident indifference towards the polis/state, not the desire to violently overthrow it.

It’s in Book V of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura that we get a glimpse of the reasoning behind the lathe biosas attitude. Epicurean communities had evolved for over 200 years by the time Lucretius took to the pen, so that the DRN verses were the ripened fruit of at least ten generations of initial and uninterrupted Epicurean discourse around these matters. In verse 1440-1 we read that some of the underlying issues behind the need for the stability of a state had to do with security and with the emergence of capitalism and private property. As societies got urbanized and more complex, and as private property and land created communities where families were increasingly more isolated from their neighbors,

soon men were living their lives behind strong walls,
and land was divided in private plots for farming.

Private property lead to theft and fiercer fights for resources, but some “men made treaties of mutual aid and friendship” (verse 1443). Some people took refuge under strong kings and warlords to gain protection, but of course power invites envy and scorn, and these were easily overthrown.

Then kings were killed; the ancient majesty
and pride of sceptre and throne fell, overturned;
the bright ensign of royalty lay bloodied
under the feet of the mob, mourning lost glory:
men lustily trampled what they had vastly feared.
Life sank to the depths, the dregs, back to confusion,
with everyone wanting top rank and highest power.
Then, here and there, men learned to choose officials,
establish constitutions, and live by law.
For man grew weary: the life of violence
and hatred left him sick, and more disposed
freely to choose the yoke of law and statute.

For angered men kept calling for revenge
more savage than just law will now permit;
this made man sicken of life by violence. (DRN V.1136-1150)
Better by far be subject, and at peace,
than will to govern the world and hold a throne! (DRN V.1129-1130)

This is not to say that all involvement in politics is to be shunned. A strong case can be made that a responsible citizen should at least be somewhat involved in his communal and national politics. What we have to keep in mind is that when Epicurus preached his gospel, Alexander the Great had recently been killed, his empire had been divided among his heirs, and the Greek states were experiencing an expansion into foreign realms together with great political intrigue, in-fighting over power and wealth, and frequent back-stabbing. Politics in antiquity were even dirtier than today. Therefore, it is not difficult to understand why an apolitical life was recommended, and we should use our discretion to determine to what extent we wish to be political, always keeping in mind that our goal is not empty and vain pursuits, but a life of steady pleasure and happiness.

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The New African Century Dawns in Hispanic West Africa

The 21st Century may be unofficially the Asian Century, thanks to the rise of China, Japan, and India, but in terms of population growth, as well as–in some countries–economic growth, the 21st Century also belongs to Africa.

There are a few countries leading the African century. Some are oil-rich, others have a strong financial sector. They include Zambia, Nigeria–if it’s able to evade the talibanization of its northern territory–and Equatorial Guinea, the second smallest country in Africa, and an oil-rich one. For its size and its oil, it’s known as the African Kuwait. Pictures and videos showing the fast development that these countries are currently undergoing, challenge every stereotype about African countries living in misery that we have inherited as Westerners that grew up watching the CARE fund-raising campaigns. That is the old Africa.

Equatorial Guinea in particular is putting in place a process of offering high-quality education to all of its youth, building modern hospitals and preparing health care professionals–with the help of Cuba, Israel and other countries–and diversifying its economy in order to ensure that the country can continue prospering after the oil boom. This overarching philosophy and future-looking vision is being called Horizon 2020. The female mayor of the capital city of Malabo, in a recent interview, boasted of how efficiently her country is run, of how the mindset of Guineans is changing, and of how she was able to transform her city and turn it into a bastion of cleanliness that promotes good public health.

MalaboBut Equatorial Guinea is a fascinating example of the new Africa, to me at least, because it’s the only independent African state where Spanish is the national language. The fact that literacy among the youth is at near 100%, that education is such a high priority for the government, and the fact that such a high percentage of its population is under the age of 15, makes EG the ideal case study for an emerging African country. Oil was discovered in the nineties, and although initially the country’s dictatorship used the revenues mostly for its lavish lifestyle, today the country is spending a huge amount in the social sector and in never-ending large-scale construction projects. Malabo’s skyline now resembles one of a Western country.

It’s also emerging in terms of the formation of its proud identity as a Hispanic African nation. Nearly everyone speaks Spanish there, and the accent is quite distinct from most of the Spanish speaking world. Most Hispanic American countries inherited mostly an Andalusian (southern Spain) accent due to migration, but Equatorial Guinea’s colonization happened differently and late in the colonial era, and so the young country speaks a Spanish closer to the Castilian spoken in Europe, yet distinctly African thanks to a strong influence from the native, tonal African tongues spoken by the various ethnicities in the country. Unlike Fang, Bubi and other local languages, Spanish is not a tonal language … at least outside of Guinea. No Spanish dialect like it exists, even in parts of the Caribbean that received many Africans.

The youngest generation of ecuatoguineanos, as they’re called in Spanish, is the first one living in the new African century as a developed or nearly-developed country, the first ones to enjoy educational opportunities never before available and to see a growing middle class as a defining feature of what it means to live in Africa. Hip-hop, reguetón and rap are among the cultural forms that unite them.

As a side note: the only world celebrity of my acquaintance of Guinean ancestry is actually a Spaniard, the soulful diva Concha Buika whose deep voice and visceral style of singing are unique only to her. There is no language in my mind as beautiful as Spanish, and yet in her jazzy voice Spanish music reaches new heights.

Guinea’s place in the Hispanic world is unique particularly for Black Hispanics in the Americas, whose identities were forged within the context and experience of slavery, rebellion, syncretism, and exploitation. Yet curiously, because their country is so small, Guineans look to the Americas for inspiration much more frequently than Afro-Hispanics look to Guinea, which is a proud, independent and free example of the self-chosen marriage of Spanish and African civilizations.

It might have been easier for Guineans–for reasons of trade and cultural integration–if, upon founding their new country, they had chosen French as their national language and assimilated into the rest of their region. But they had been Spanish citizens for over a century, and Spanish is the only language that all the ethnicities had in common, and it was neutral among them whereas the imposition of the language of the Fang majority might have produced ethnic hostilities and resentment, so they chose Spanish as their national language. French is co-official for pragmatic reasons in GE, but very few speak it fluently. Without Spanish, there is no Equatorial Guinea.

Malabo-IIIn recent years, EG announced that it will soon inaugurate its own, independent, national branch of the Academy of the Spanish Language. The only other country pending to have one is Israel, for its Ladino dialect of Spanish. This constitutes a coming of age for a relatively new Spanish-speaking country founded in the sixties that is still undergoing the formation of its own identity. The entire country is, literally and culturally, a project under construction, and I’m very much looking forward with optimism to its future prosperity and to its future cultural contributions to the larger world.

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Utilitarian Reasonings II: Of the Higher Pleasures


One of the archaeological objects found in the villa of the papyri at Herculaneum, together with the Epicurean scrolls written by Philodemus of Gadara, was the leaping pig sculpture which has become symbolic of the Epicurean community. The origin of this symbol is traced to the enemies of Epicurus who accused hedonists of living like pigs. Because the Epicureans were graceful, rather than nurture resentment, they cheerfully adopted the poor mascot as their symbol.

That the pig made its way into Horace’s poetry and Herculanean sculpture serves as testimony of the enduring hostility and name-calling that the other schools unleashed upon the Epicureans. Of this, Mill writes in the second chapter of his Utilitarianism:

When … attacked, the Epicureans have always answered, that it is not they, but their accusers, who represent human nature in a degrading light; since the accusation supposes human beings to be capable of no pleasures except those of which swine are capable.

He then delves into the subject of the varying kinds of pleasure available to humans, and how not all are equally desireable, beginning with a consideration that justifies Epicurean discussions about the importance of having a confident expectation that friends will help in time of need, and other kinds of confident expectation for the sake of which we undergo many sacrifices and do things that may seem, at first, inconsistent with a hedonist lifestyle. For the sake of these things, we spend time and energy nurturing friendships, working hard to earn a living or an education, and many other things that swine don’t bother with, because these things lead to a greater stability, to more money, or richer relations which then become a source of steady and reliable pleasure. In other words: we can scheme and work to gain self-sufficiency in our pleasure.

… If one of the two (pleasures) is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account.

Having established this, he then concludes that pleasure, to a human, is both very different from a swine’s pleasure, and also harder to acquire.

A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type …

It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect.

There are many more things that could be said of the different kinds of pleasure, but the main take-away from Mill’s passage is that the purpose of the study of the various kinds of pleasure available is so that we can more easily and clearly calculate between them in our choices and avoidances. The ancient Epicureans did this, and proposed–together with things like PD 26a doctrine of the chief goods or kyriotatai (those desires that are natural and necessary) in order to help our evaluation of priorities.

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On the Epicurean Gods

Although many modern Epicureans are atheists, and although Epicurus increasingly is being claimed by the secular movement as a culture hero and predecessor, in reality Epicurus of Samos was not an atheist. His interpretation of the gods occupies a unique place in the history of theology. Ancient atomists rejected the idea that humans were the apex of all creation. They believed in a doctrine of innumerable worlds, which was based in the view that atoms were innumerable but their possible combinations were limited, a paradigm which allows us to discern the laws of nature, and which leads to the hypothesis that in every direction in space we will eventually see replications and variations of the same things we see nearby, which are produced everywhere by the same laws of nature. This line of thinking is explained in the Epistle to Herodotus.

The doctrine of innumerable worlds is no longer pure speculation or science fiction. Exoplanetary research is now vindicating the ancient atomist doctrine. Ultimately there must be beasts and human-like creatures in other worlds, if we follow the line of thinking of the ancients. This is because the same laws of nature apply everywhere, and in an infinite universe the possibilities are also endless. The “gods” that exist within the Epicurean context are entirely natural beings within an ecosystem made up on innumerable worlds. They are not supernatural, for nothing exists beyond or outside of nature: they are naturally evolved beings.

These “gods” should be sentient beings, but they do not answer prayer. They do not need our worship, service, or devotion. They would dwell in perfect, imperturbable pleasure and peace in order to properly qualify as divine beings. They do not fit the traditional conceptions of gods, much less of “THE God” that cultural corruption leads mortals to believe in. Speculation based on the study of nature does not produce such supernatural beings: it merely leads us to conclude that there is likelihood that beings much more advanced than we are, exist out there.

Discussions about the Epicurean gods and their nature have resurfaced in recent discussions in the Epicurean Philosophy group on facebook. The discussions arise from the problem of misuse of words: almost invariably when non-initiates use the term “god” or “gods”, they are not referring to an Epicurean and naturalist understanding of the gods but to their own fancy. So there is great need to clarify the term “gods”.

An atheistic interpretation of the Epicurean gods has in recent years come to be accepted by many, which has led both Ilkka and myself to write about it.

We have also published a Dialogue on the Epicurean Gods which took place last November among us, and New Epicurean has recently published Lucretius: Proving That The Standard Definition of Gods Is Wrong By Appealing to the True Epicurean Gods, which includes many of the sources on the subject.

The recent explosion of exoplanets discovered by the thousands by astronomers, some of which are Earth-like, as well as the multiplication of such worlds by the innumerable moons that in all likelihood orbit around them, makes this a highly relevant and fascinating topic for our generation. Hopefully within the next few decades, when the next generation’s season of Cosmos is made, we will have clear images of exoplanets and a much more accurate understanding of our place within the universe.

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Utilitarian Reasonings I

The ancient Epicureans’ contractarian ideas on justice have greatly influenced contemporary libertarianism, and conceptions of hedonic calculus–the comparative evaluation of the pleasure versus pain generated by our choices and avoidances–have been applied, sometimes in a manner that is not very artful, to public policy in attempts to demonstrate their relevance and usefulness. But pleasure is a highly individualistic ethical principle, and there are some problems with the application of hedonic calculus to policy at the collective level. Many Epicureans express doubt that hedonic calculus can or should be applied to entire communities or states, while others–like Michel Onfray–enthusiastically speak of a hedonic covenant that seeks to maximize the other’s benefit and pleasure in order to secure and maximize our own.

Utilitarians–like Bentham and Stuart Mill–have been the main proponents of equations and formulas that seek to use hedonic calculus in policy and ethical decision-making at the collective level. This in spite of the fact that, from the onset, Jeremy Bentham in
An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, says that “community is a fictitious body” (Chapter 1.4), which echoes to some extent accusations that we’ve seen in Epicurean discourse along the lines of most of what we think of as community is Platonic, and can be contrasted with natural community. Might we be able to revisit Utilitarian theories in view of these considerations?

Here is the first problem that Utilitarianism faces. If, by its own admission, Utilitarianism concedes that community is fictitious–and therefore, that only individuals are real–then, why not stick to individual and strictly interpersonal ethics if we are hedonists? I imagine Utilitarians would argue that public policy is a messy and complicated matter, and that the Utilitarian project reflects the sincere efforts of policy-makers to apply some scientific standard to their responsibilities.

Utilitarianism also has the effect of providing the left and progressive movements with a framework and a tool that helps us to assuage the (sometimes narcissistic and unhealthy) extremes of the West’s individualism. The eradication of ignorance, poverty, and contagious disease can be said to increase the benefit and pleasure, and the decrease the loss and the pain of all the members of society, so that a pretty uncontroversial case can be made for these projects at the level of public policy rooted in hedonist and utilitarian ethics. Other, more controversial cases can be made in favor of progressive causes like cannabis legalization, but these controversies arise from cultural convention and not from common-sense, careful evaluation of facts in light of the mutual advantage principle.

I will begin by setting up some of the basics, and in future blogs will explore more in depth some of the more complex dimensions of the Utilitarian doctrine.

Utilitarianism Is a Hedonism

One of the first insights that we get from reading both Bentham’s and Mill’s writings advocating Utilitarian ethics is that they are convinced that their tradition is firmly founded on the recognition that the pleasure and pain faculties are the guides that our own nature has given us to help us live ethical lives, and that these faculties are essential for our moral compass.

Their reasonings start from the declaration of the doctrine that the end that our own nature seeks is pleasure and happiness, and Mill also refutes the concept of virtue as an end, seeing it instead as a means to pleasure, and adamantly advocates for the avoidance of sacrifice except for a higher pleasure.

In addition to denouncing needless self-sacrifice, we also find an adamant denounciation of ascetism in Bentham’s foundational work, as the anti-hedonism and as a danger to human happiness. With ascetism being the domain of “moralists and religionists” in their own words, it is clear that we must make room for Utilitarian intellectuals in the firmament of our counter-history of philosophy.

We also see that Utilitarian intellectuals consider it their task to argue that pleasure and pain, as the guides of life, are natural and scientific standards, and that even non-hedonist thinkers have had to concede that real criteria are needed and that arbitrary ones only serve tyranny, corruption, and moral confusion. This is reminiscent of modern thinkers–like Sam Harris–and ancient ones like our third Scholarch Polystratus, who argued for a moral realism and against culture-based relativism.

Finally, we see in the foundational writings of the Utilitarians that, like Epicurus and Aristippus, they argued that the goodness and choice-worthiness of pleasure and the badness and avoidance-worthiness of pain are self-evident to our senses and faculties. Epicurus specifically refused to argue this issue with rationalists. This is not a matter of logic. We can argue with our own nature, but when it comes to pain and pleasure, these are real criteria provided by nature and we argue and rebel against nature only to our detriment.

Utilitarianism is Founded on Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines

… the creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.

… the theory of life on which this theory of morality is grounded- namely, that pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.

– John Stuart Mill, in Utilitarianism, Chapter 2

Jeremy Bentham (Chapter 1.2) also defines utilitarianism along the same lines. The key quotes that will help us understand to what extent their utility principle is one and the same as Epucurus’ mutual advantage principle can be found in Principal Doctrines 31-38. Here, we see the requirement of a “pledge” by an agent, a free man or woman with the power to make decisions and enter into contracts with others.

In Mill and Bentham, the problem of agency is addressed in many nuances, but more liberties are taken to argue that policy-makers have the power and responsibility to account for the happiness of non-agents, so that the welfare of animals and small children is accounted for. Outside of this, it seems that the mutual advantage principle that Epicureans associate with natural justice is identical in most important respects to the utility principle.

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Lucretius, in honor of Earth Day

In his epic poem, Lucretius refers to Earth as Mother numerous times, but also takes the time to explain that the personification of Earth as Mother is merely a figure of speech, an act of poetry, and that the planet is not a sentient being as the ancients imagined it to be. The current Gaia hypothesis is a contemporary pseudo-scientific reincarnation of that belief. It is true that beings evolve progressively more complex through symbiotic relationships, but these networks of life do not themselves automatically become separate sentient beings. Here is the relevant passage:

Truly is earth insensate for all time;
But, by obtaining germs of many things,
In many a way she brings the many forth
Into the light of sun. And here, whoso
Decides to call the ocean Neptune, or
The grain-crop Ceres, and prefers to abuse
The name of Bacchus rather than pronounce
The liquor’s proper designation, him
Let us permit to go on calling earth
Mother of Gods, if only he will spare
To taint his soul with foul religion.

– Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Book II

Later, in the third book, Lucretius delves into the problem of demystifying sentience itself by studying the nature and the physicality of the psyche.

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