Horace’s Epistle to the Pisos

Art of Poetry, aka Epistle to the Pisos was written in the epistolary style that the early Epicurean founders were known for, and which was later imitated in the New Testament. Horace follows Epicurean rhetorical conventions himself (short, concise, clear speech) and advises other writers, whatever their subject, to keep it simple and uniform.

This, or I am mistaken, will constitute the merit and beauty of arrangement, that the poet just now say what ought just now to be said, put off most of his thoughts, and waive them for the present.

…  Whatever precepts you give, be concise; that docile minds may soon comprehend what is said, and faithfully retain it. All superfluous instructions flow from the too full memory.

… He who joins the instructive with the agreeable, carries off every vote, by delighting and at the same time admonishing the reader.

The following paragraph sounds like it might have been drawn from Taoist scriptures: it calls for effortless naturalness in literature. As we saw in the Taoist contemplations, this naturalness (ziran) is a virtue shared by the Epicureans and Taoists.

The great majority of us poets, father, and youths worthy such a father, are misled by the appearance of right. I labour to be concise, I become obscure: nerves and spirit fail him, that aims at the easy: one, that pretends to be sublime, proves bombastical: he who is too cautious and fearful of the storm, crawls along the ground: he who wants to vary his subject in a marvelous manner, paints the dolphin in the woods, the boar in the sea. The avoiding of an error leads to a fault, if it lack skill.

Like Epicureans before him, Horace believed that poetry derives from both nature and culture–although he does not specifically delve into whether it emerged initially from our nature, and only later was shaped by culture. He makes the argument that languages die and evolve–referring here to his choice of Latin over Greek, which was a sign of his times–and that it is acceptable to break with tradition as long as coherence and rules of uniformity are followed.

Horace also advises writers to mind their strengths and weaknesses, and choose a subject and style in accordance with them. After advising unskilled writers to act prudently and not publish their works until they have been read and evaluated by trusted experts, Horace shares another valuable nugget of wisdom:

A word once sent abroad, can never return.

As we see with George Carlin, whom most people enjoy as a comedian while forgetting that he was a philosopher on and off the stage, so with Horace: he is typically read as a poet, but his literature can be seen as one way of engaging in philosophy. The above piece of advise is accompanied in the epistle to the Piso Family by advise against the flatterers almost identical to the advise we see in Philodemus in On Frank Criticism. Friendship is sacred to the Epicureans, and at the heart of this important subject is the admonition related to whether a person of means and privilege is able to discern between true and false friends.

As a crier who collects the crowd together to buy his goods, so a poet rich in land, rich in money put out at interest, invites flatterers to come [and praise his works] for a reward. But if he be one who is well able to set out an elegant table, and give security for a poor man, and relieve him when entangled in gloomy law-suits; I shall wonder if with his wealth he can distinguish a true friend from a false one. … As those who mourn at funerals for pay, do and say more than those that are afflicted from their hearts; so the sham admirer is more moved than he that praises with sincerity. … Thus, if you compose verses, let not the fox’s concealed intentions impose upon you.

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Happy Twentieth! – The Havamal, on Isolation

Happy Twentieth to Epicureans everywhere. Over the last month, Philosophy Now published a piece titled The Epicurean option, which gives a glimpse into how Epicurus’ upbringing made him particularly attuned to the spiritual and psychological needs of common folk, and I published an introductory piece on the Counter-History of Philosophy and on French hedonist intellectual Michel Onfray on SocietyofEpicurus.com. I even delved into the counter-history of Aromas. These articles are the beginning of an attempt to get closer to the French-speaking hedonists and their way of doing philosophy, as many of Onfray’s works are unavailable in English.

This month my new Spanish-language blog Arte de vivir finally went live on the El Nuevo Día webpage. END is the most visited webpage and the most widely-read mainstream daily paper in Puerto Rico. My inaugural blog article was published on the fifth anniversary of the imprisonment of the humanist blogger Raif Badawi, who had made repeated calls to secularize Saudi Arabia. He was later publicly tortured by flogging, and has since become a symbol of the tyranny of the Islamic-fascist Saudi regime, and inspired the rallying cry #FreeRaif. The blog was written in solidarity, and includes a few quotes by Raif.

Haris Dimitriadis recently published Epicurus and the pleasant life: Living by the philosophy of nature in book and e-book formats, and even has a new youtube channel promoting a life of pleasure and philosophy.

Two members of the Society of Friends of Epicurus have created new groups on facebook: Epicurean Theology is for people who have an interest in exploring theology from the perspective of the Epicureans and EH+ is for people who wish to explore themes related to transhumanism from the perspective of Epicurean philosophy. We also have a new SoFE member, Nate, who came up with his own version of the Four Cures in the process of writing the essays that make up part of our membership request process. Together with Yoda’s Four Cures, produced in celebration of this year’s Star Wars Day (May the 4th Be With You!), Nate’s Four Cures join the growing constellation of online SoFE memes:

“The gods are all cheesy
and ‘Hell’ is a laugh;
The best things are easy,
The worst things don’t last.”

The Havamal belongs to one of the wisdom traditions that have nourished me over the years. It contains the advise of the Scandinavian elders as preserved by a caste of ancient and medieval bards known as skalds, who used rhyme and music to memorize the wise advise given by old people.

In it, mixed with some other folklore, we find one of the most complete and ennobling wisdom teachings on the human values associated with true friendship and loyalty. Some other wisdom traditions, like the oral scripture of Ifá and the proverbs of the Yoruba people which have been preserved orally even in places like Cuba and Brasil, give fragments of this wisdom: “One tree does not a forest make”, the Yoruba elders say. But the Havamal coherently treats the subject of friendship at length–which is why I cite heavily from it in my book‘s chapter on friendship: it tells us in specific detail how to identify true and false friends, how to honor true ones, how we should nurture our most important friendships and not let the love of friends turn cold, and finally–the subject that I wish to focus on today–it reminds us of the reasons why our nature seeks and needs friends.

The pine tree wastes which is perched on the hill,
nor bark nor needles shelter it;
such is the man whom none doth love;
for what should he longer live?

Havamal, Stanza 50

“The pine tree wastes …” We are given the image of a dried out tree wasting and dying: fit metaphor for a man who has no friends. This verse is interesting for many reasons: it gives an image that resonates with the real, proven detrimental health effects of chronic solitude. Research has demonstrated that loneliness increases the risk of premature death and damages health as much as obesity and smoking. There are even studies that show the physiological effects of solitude: it feels cold. The human body–literally, not metaphorically–needs the warmth, the embrace, the hugs, the affection of another.

The stanza also describes the sorry existential reality of such a man, and insinuates that friendship is one of the things that makes life worth living and gives meaning and purpose to life: “For what should he longer live?”.

“For what should we longer live?” – If we ever know anyone who is asking himself or herself this question, we should remind them of the pleasure of companionship and reach out to all their friends and loved ones to make sure that their presence is available in that person’s life. People need people.

While some people from time to time may desire or even need temporary solitude, it is clear that we are not built for long-term solitude. Confucius made the argument that we become truly human–and humanized–by association. With no friends, we become dehumanized and misanthropic.

I am reminded of a fellow Epicurean from Greece who told an anecdote of how, while her mother was dying, she found solace in the company of her daughter and this made her terminal cancer a bit more bearable. The anecdote was shared within the context of discussion around my recent piece for The Humanist on euthanasia, which was inspired in Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court. The argument being made was that, while the option of euthanasia deserves to be discussed, the importance of being a loving presence in the lives of those we love–particularly in their most vulnerable times–makes all the difference in their quality of life, and it may even help to avoid having to make the bitter choice of “death with dignity”. Holding the hand of a loved one can counteract even the worst physical pain to the point where we can gain the strength and willpower to live another day.

Last Year’s Twentieth Message: Better Be a Subject and at Peace

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Horace: Dare to be Wise

If you don’t set your mind on honest aims and pursuits,
On waking, you’ll be tortured by envy or lust.
Why so quick to remove a speck from your eye, when
If it’s your mind, you put off the cure till next year?
Who’s started has half finished: dare to be wise: begin!
He who postpones the time for right-living resembles
The rustic who’s waiting until the river’s passed by:
Yet it glides on, and will roll on, gliding forever.
… House and fortune grant
As much pleasure to one who’s full of fear and craving
As painting to sore eyes, poultice to gouty joint,
Or lute to ears that ache from accumulated wax.
Unless the jar is clean whatever you pour in sours.

Horace, Book I, Epistle 1

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The Keepers … and Besty DeVos

At the invitation of an atheist friend, I watched the Netflix documentary series The Keepers recently. The series is the result of an investigation not by the Baltimore police, but by victims and concerned citizens who took it upon themselves to do the job that the authorities failed to do after hundreds of minors experienced decades of sexual and psychological abuse from Catholic clergy in a heavily Catholic city.

But the series revolves not just around the many incidents of sexual abuse and psychological manipulation by demented priests: it focuses on the murder of a nun who was about to raise her voice against the priest, and the cover-up by both the ecclesiastic and secular the authorities. It seems that the silence of members of the police was purchased by the priest–whose own brother was a Baltimore cop–with sexual favors, and that many of the girls were handed over to cops (and other prominent and non-prominent men) for sexual gratification.

I strongly recommend the series to help people understand how dangerous the Catholic cult is. It gives a glimpse into the kinds of things that happen in Catholic Schools and just how much authority the priests are willing to exert over the bodies of children, not just their minds. There is an entire professional caste that dedicates itself to instilling fear and guilt in people from their most vulnerable age, to then later manipulate those same individuals by the religious fear and guilt that they’ve instilled.

It also shows us the dangers of trusting “ecclesiastical authorities”. Many of the victims went to “church authorities” instead of the police initially, blindly misplacing their trust by taking refuge in their predators. In the Catholic Church, we see the exact same psychology of absolute control over vulnerable individuals that we see in any other cult.

The documentary does a great job of reminding us of the serious dangers of religious privilege. But what the documentary does not delve into, and must be addressed, is the current trend toward allowing clergy broad access to children via the privatization of education throughout the United States. We can think of this as the Pakistanization of America–the mass conversion of schools into institutions of indoctrination–and it’s an initiative headed by Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, who has openly vowed to use the education system to bring about “God’s kingdom” on Earth.

There are many other problems, in addition to the culture of sexual predatory behavior within the Catholic, Mormon and other cults. In yeshivas (or Jewish schools) in New York–in addition to sexual assault issues which seem to prevail in deeply religious environments–there have been complains of lack of educational standards. These schools are being used to indoctrinate children, and little to no secular and useful education is provided outside of the religious curriculum. So they’re basically brain-washing factories. As in the case of the Baltimore priest, authorities repeatedly failed to investigate these claims to avoid problems with the powerful local Jewish community. Girls in some yeshivas have also complained of harassment by “modesty squads”.

One more thing must be said about indoctrination in schools: it leaves unnecessary and evil burdens for the next generation. We saw in the case of the “Kill the Gays bill” in Uganda, how the Bush regime funded homophobic hysteria in Africa by earmarking a third of the money that was given to African countries for HIV prevention initiatives for “abstinence only education”–which is NOT real sex education. This was merely an excuse for Republicans to give millions of dollars to the churches to indoctrinate children according to Victorian, regressive, and anti-gay ideologies that have done great harm in the US. It took a decade for homophobic hysteria to become mainstream in Uganda and for the mobs to carry out the kind of violence against the bodies of LGBT people in the tiny country that led to the “Kill the Gays bill” being nearly passed, and rejected only to be replaced with a law only a bit less draconian, but just as unnecessary.

What will the children indoctrinated in schools influenced by the policies of Betsy DeVos attempt to do ten years from now? How will they vote? What policies will they want to see implemented? Will they degenerate into fanatical mobs of Christian fascists like the ones in Uganda?

There are many other problems with the Pakistanization of our school system. We must consider, for instance, that the school voucher initiative in Indiana–courtesy of our current Vice President Mike Pence–helps to finance an Islamic madrassa that has already produced at least one terrorist, and that it is thanks to the intrusion of religious indoctrination in the schools that the flames of old, stale hatreds were fanned by renewed generations in countries like Ireland and Israel, perpetuating religious fanaticism, obscurantism and violence between Protestants and Catholics, between Jews and Muslims who grow up isolated from their neighbors and full of mutual distrust. Why replicate that in the United States at a time when diversity and racial relations already difficult to negotiate?

We do not need fanatics using the schools to bring about “God’s kingdom on Earth”. What we do need from the schools is to teach children critical thinking skills, together with real science and real skills for living. Perhaps a philosophy curriculum should replace the religious one. Teach them philosophy! Teach them how to think, not what to think!

Further Reading:

The Unbinding of Isaac and the Manchester Attack


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#Orlando A Year Later: In Memory of Shane Tomlison

After the tragedy in Orlando exactly one year ago, I’ve attempted to remember at least some of the people who died there individually via my blog in order to humanize the tragedy. Shane was in his early thirties, and was making a name for himself as a singer and performer. There are numerous videos online of Shane singing, dancing, and performing. He was well known in the Orlando area prior to the loss of his life at Pulse on the 12th of June of 2016. Here, he seems outgoing, handsome, joyful, full of youth, and he’s also obviously very talented. This other video was posted as an homage by people who had the privilege of performing together with him.

Please have a Happy and Safe Pride Month!


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Horace: Everyone can Profit from Philosophy

Is your mind fevered with greed and wretched desire:
There are words and cries with which to ease the pain,
And you can rid yourself of the worst of your sickness.
Are you swollen with love of glory: then certain rites
Renew you, purely if you read the page three times.
Envious, irascible, idle, drunken, lustful,
No man’s so savage he can’t be civilised,
If he’ll attend patiently to self-cultivation.

Horace, Book I, Epistle 1

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Horace: In Praise of Simple Living

Learn how great the virtue is, my friends, of plain living …
When exercise has made you less fastidious, hungry,
Thirsty, then spurn plain food, refuse to drink the mead …
Well, bread and salt will soothe a rumbling belly.
Why so? The greatest pleasure’s not in costly flavours,
it resides In you yourself.

Gourmet eating is ridiculous.
It’s a belly seldom hungry that scorns common fare.

Now learn the benefits that accompany plain living.
First good health …
But the plain-living man who eats then snatches a nap
Quick as a flash, rises refreshed for his appointed tasks.

In times Of uncertainty who’s more confident?
The man Who’s accustomed a fastidious mind and body
To excess, or the man content with little, wary
Of what’s to come, who wisely in peace prepared for war?

Book II, Satire II

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