Eleventh Taoist Contemplation: People Like the Side Paths

The relationship between naturalism, tranquility, and simplicity is explored.

The great Tao is broad and plain
But people like the side paths

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 53

The above portion of Taoist scripture is immediately reminiscent of the “pedantry of Aristotle” paragraph in A Few Days in Athens, where Frances Wright’s Metrodorus speaks on how simple, clear, sober and easy philosophy is, and yet how people make it difficult and deviate from virtue, efficiency, and truth, always wanting more than needed and seeking more than what is there for the sake of curiosity or vanity.

“It might seem strange,” said Metrodorus, “that the pedantry of Aristotle should find so many imitators, and his dark sayings so many believers, in a city, too, now graced and enlightened by the simple language, and simple doctrines of an Epicurus. — But the language of truth is too simple for inexperienced ears. We start in search of knowledge, like the demigods of old in search of adventure, prepared to encounter giants, to scale mountains, to pierce into Tartarean gulfs, and to carry off our prize from the grip of some dark enchanter, invulnerable to all save to charmed weapons and deity-gifted assailants. To find none of all these things, but, in their stead, a smooth road through a pleasant country, with a familiar guide to direct our curiosity, and point out the beauties of the landscape, disappoints us of all exploit and all notoriety; and our vanity turns but too often from the fair and open champaigne, into error’s dark labyrinths, where we mistake mystery for wisdom, pedantry for knowledge, and prejudice for virtue.”

Further Reading:

A Few Days in Athens, Friends of Epicurus Edition

Detailed Review of A Few Days in Athens

Online Versions of the Tao Te Ching:

DC Lau’s Translation

S Mitchell translation

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Secular Alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous & Applying Hedonic Calculus to Public Policy

The May-June 2015 issue of The Humanist includes a few pieces on a secular alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous, which has recently been exposed by EXPAA, Leavingaa.com, Penn & Teller and others as an inefficient recovery therapy that’s only supported with public funds because it’s filled with religious propaganda. In the editor’s note for the issue, Jennifer Bardi writes:

Case Western Reserve researchers showed that when people think God “made” them a certain way, they’re more apt to blame him for their moral transgressions.

The piece that details the secular alternative to AA, known as SMART (Self-Management & Recovery Training), is here. For this issue of The Humanist, your truly wrote Whose Pleasure? Whose Pain? Applying the Hedonic Calculus to Public Policy, where I discuss whether it makes sense to apply the Epicurean ethical method of hedonic calculus at the collective level. In the piece I argue:

These considerations raise questions about what happens to the credibility and usefulness of humanist ethical concepts, like the hedonic calculus, when corporations appropriate them in their lobbying strategies. While we would like Epicurean humanism to influence public policy, it is imperative that the teachings are properly understood and used.

I then praise Senator Dick Durbin for including factors like obesity and heart disease among the long-term considerations in his calculus of benefit and loss, but in the end I conclude

It seems the hedonic calculus works best as a guide to making ethical choices at the individual level. At the societal level, we should omit its use, and instead simply recognize the right to happiness, leisure, clean air and water, and other basic rights.

Enjoy reading and please share these links!

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Tenth Taoist Contemplation: Laissez Faire

Laissez Faire is a French term that translates as “allow doing“, or “let it be“. The Taoists have frequently been labeled libertarian. Their attitudes towards government are consistent with everything else about them: by not engaging in forceful action, and by having a strategy of action that highly values flexibility and allowing things to take their course naturally, government is most effective.

When there are many restrictions in the world
The people become more impoverished
The more laws are posted
The more robbers and thieves there are

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 57

When taxes are too high,
people go hungry.
When the government is too intrusive,
people lose their spirit.

Act for the people’s benefit.
Trust them; leave them alone.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 75

Lao-Tse is basically arguing against government meddling and taxation, and saying that too much government makes people difficult to govern. Instead, he believes that sovereigns should “Take the world by constantly applying non-interference” (chapter48).

There is, however, a problem with the interpretation of Taoism in an economic and political system where the government and business act alike, and where big business often exhibits many of the features of government. Here, the warnings against intervention by the powerful can apply to both government and big business. For instance, in Taoist scripture a comparison is made between the laws of men and the laws of nature in this regard. The Tao of heaven (of nature) is said to be balanced and self-regulating, wheres the Tao of the people is like Wall Street: it increases the gap between rich and poor.

The Tao of heaven
Reduces the excessive
And adds to the lacking

The Tao of people is not so
It reduces the lacking
In order to offer to the excessive

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 77

Which then raises the question: how, other than through government, can we ensure that big business does not meddle and allow small business to also flourish? Under normal and healthy circumstances, government should function so that it naturally has an effect that “reduces the excessive and adds to the lacking”.

Please enjoy and share the entire series of Contemplations On Tao blog entries

Online Versions of the Tao Te Ching:

DC Lau’s Translation

S Mitchell translation

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The #Lucretius Meme Campaign

SocietyofEpicurus.com has published a series of memes based on Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), the 1st-Century great Epicurean masterpiece which proposed natural explanations for things that inspired superstitious fear and awe in ancient man (like the orbits of planets and lightening), explained their early theory of the atom and of natural selection, proposed that there was an innumerable quantity of worlds with life in them, and many other fascinating ideas that are still considered progressive today. DRN is a major early work of naturalist cosmology and one of the books that inspired Giordano Bruno and caused a paranoid church to have him cooked alive for heresy.

Lucretius 1

The Lucretius Meme Campaign contains quotes in both Spanish and English, and in some cases also powerful imagery that illustrates the importance of the points made by the Roman poet.

Lucretius4

More memes and educational material can be found at SoE’s Memes and Pamphlets page. Please feel free to share these memes with others and on social media!

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On Neocles’ and Chaerestrate’s Son

The mother is always an important shaper of the character of a child, usually the most important instructor and moral exemplary. Frequently, contemplations of the moral character of personalities like Jesus and Krishna have focused on their upbringing and pasttimes as children of Mary and Devaki, or hinged on the virtuous character of their mothers. If a mother is virtuous, the child is likely to be also and, on the other hand, if she’s not, the child is unlikely to be virtuous. Hence, we see that among the most frequent insults that men face we can find accusations of being a bastard (a son whose father is unknown or doesn’t recognize him) and son of a bitch (one whose mother is a whore). While there are sexist tones to these insults (children of fathers who are promiscuous are never insulted in this manner) and classist tones as well (single mothers are far more likely to raise their children in poverty), it is generally true that parents of good character influence their children to have good character.

It is also frequently true that children who rebel against their parents who have had either false views or bad character, develop intellectual or moral stamina much greater than their ancestors, and that children raised in good homes can and do go astray frequently. But in the end, we can not change our lineage: we are all descendants of our particular ancestors and must contend with and react to a certain cultural, intellectual, and moral legacy that is outside of our control.

Which brings me to Epicurus. For some time, I’ve been wanting to write about his parents and, in particular, his mother and the influence that she had on him. It is my view and that of others in the Epicurean movement that in order to understand Epicurus, one must understand his milieu and that the better we understand his milieu, the better we can understand him and the evolution of his ideas because, like most or all philosophers, he was reacting to the ideas and the cultural baggage of those that came before.

The Schoolteacher’s Son

Of Neocles, Epicurus’ father, we know that he was a schoolteacher and that Epicurus was frequently insulted by being called “the schoolteacher’s son”, which was (to some people, anyway) indicative of lower societal standing.

The only other major reference to a schoolteacher in Epicurus’ biography is his own first teacher, Pamphilus, who was a Platonist and against whom he rebelled. Pamphilus was teaching the Greek myth of creation out of initial chaos when one of his student, the little Epicurus, challenged him to explain what this primal chaos actually consisted of, as he found it impossible to conceive of, or to conceive of something coming out of nothing. At the insistence of the young pupil, Pamphilus was unable to produce a cogent explanation of primal chaos and little Epicurus dismissed the Greek creation myth as a superstition. Henceforward, he would dedicate his entire life to proving that it was possible to construct a scientific, naturalist cosmology based on empirical evidence.

He would later be fortunate enough to study under Nausiphanes, who had himself been a pupil of Democritus, the father of modern science and inventor of the theory of the atom. And so we see that the resistance met in the classroom by the teacher of Epicurus is no different from the resistance that must exist today in classrooms and madrasas all over the world where the oppression of religion and superstition is imposed on children. Over 2,000 years prior to Malala almost losing her life for being an activist in favor of equal education for Pakistani girls, Epicurus had a strong and perceptive mind from a very young age and was one of the pioneers of the resistance against schoolteachers hypnotized by religious insinuations, one of the first ones to stand up and say: “Prove it! Convince me!”.

Purifications and Charms

If his father was of lowly origins, his mother was even lowlier for different reasons. At least Neocles loved knowledge and understood the importance of an education. Chaerestrate’s prevalent tendency to accept irrational and superstitious views inspired compassion in Epicurus, and yet the sincerity of her piety had a hint of innocence that Epicurus also loved. Epicurus would later, as a Scholarch, defend piety as a virtuous way of self-expression (a fact which is attested with insistent by Philodemus of Gadara in the Herculaneum scrolls), so long as it didn’t degenerate into superstition and belief in the suspension of nature’s laws.

To pray is natural. – Epicurus, in On Lifecourses

 

This is what Diogenes Laertius wrote about Epicurus’ childhood in the tenth chapter of his Lives of Eminent Philosophers:

They allege that he used to go round with his mother to small cottages to perform purification rites and read charms, and assist his father in his school for a pitiful fee; further, that one of his brothers was a pimp and lived with the courtesan Leontion [“Lioness”]; that he put forward as his own the doctrines of Democritus about atoms and of Aristippus about pleasure; that he was not a genuine Athenian, a charge brought by Timocrates and by Herodotus in a book On the Training of Epicurus as a Cadet, that he basely flattered Mithras, the viceroy of Lysimachus, bestowing on him in his letters Apollo’s titles of “Healer” and “Lord.”

These are all reports, many of them concocted by enemies who hated the idea of pleasure as the end of a good life, and to be taken with a grain of salt. However, notice the portion on Chaerestrate, Epicurus’ mother, who was said to be a faith healer who visited common people and gave them “purification rites and read charms”, the sacraments appropriate for a sort of witch or faith healer … or perhaps this was not too different from the way Catholic mothers in Latin America pray novenas (nine-day rounds of rosaries) together from home to home.

It’s not difficult to see, when we understand Epicurus’ teachings, that he was reacting as much to his mother as to Pamphilus, to Plato, to Democritus and the Cyrenaics. His emphasis on the importance of having a clear and lucid (enargeia) understanding of the nature of things (scientific worldview) and his animosity against the perturbances incited by every form of superstition and irrational fear, comes from here. He must have seen “faith healing” in his childhood and realized it was quackery, and naturally made attempts to turn people away from its dangers.

“Turn Away from the Speeches of Rhetoricians”

His mother remained superstitious well into old age. In ancient Greece, most people had deep and sincere faith in dreams, visions, and oracles. Later in life when Epicurus had established his school, we learn of a letter sent by his mother apparently saying that she had seen him in a dream and that she was worried, thinking the dream to be a bad omen. He replies, encouraging her not to worry and to study natural philosophy so that she too can become happy and imperturbable. In the letter, he mentions that she has rejected naturalism in favor of “the speeches of rhetors”, philosophers who do not commit philosophy to therapeutic ends as the Epicureans did. We find fragments of his Epistle to Chaerestrate in the Epicurean Inscription at Oenoanda:

[… you must carry out a careful and] sure [inquiry] into them. [For when images] of persons who are far away [from our sight invade our mind, they cause the greatest disturbance …

Therefore, with regard to these matters, mother, [be of good heart: do not reckon] the visions [of us to be bad]; rather, [when you see them], think of us daily [acquiring] something [good] and advancing [further in happiness]. For not small [or ineffectual] are these gains for us which make our disposition godlike and show that not even our mortality makes us inferior to the imperishable and blessed nature; for when we are alive, we are as joyful as the gods, [knowing that death is nothing to us; and when we dead, we are without sensation ….]

[Some fear death because it involves loss of the good things of life. But this fear is vain: each man, when he has been deprived of the good things will be] equally [distressed if] he perceives his loss; but if he does not perceive it, how does he suffer loss?

Think of us then, mother, as always joyful in the midst of such good things and show enthusiasm for what we are doing. But in heaven’s name, do not be so generous with the contributions which you are constantly sending us. For … I should rather go without so that you may not, although in fact I am living in plenty in all respects, because of our friends and because of father constantly sending us money, and recently also through Cleon sending nine minas. Therefore neither of you should be distressed individually on our account, but you should make use of one another … [At present you reject our philosophy; but later you will wish, when your hostility has been banished,] to open the congenial entrances to our community, and you will turn away from the speeches of rhetoricians, in order that you may hear something of our tenets. After that we confidently hope that you will knock very soon at the doors of philosophy … – Diogenes’ Wall Inscription, Fragments 125-127

The Nostradamus Effect

But rhetors and dialectitians were not the only ones who encouraged religious perturbances to go unattended. Later in the Oenoanda Inscription, we find further arguments against oracles in the fragment concerning Antiphon.

In this case a natural philosopher used arguments of a dialectician, attempting the art of divination concerning dreams and wholly trusting them. For … Antiphon, he says, predicted, when he was consulted by a runner who was just about to compete for a prize at Olympia, that he would be beaten. For the runner, he says, said, when consulting Antiphon, that he thought that an eagle was giving chase in his dreams. And Antiphon at once told him to remember that an eagle always drives other birds before it and is itself last. However, he says that another interpreter declared, when he was consulted, that the god did not say at all to the runner “you will be beaten,” and that the eagle is no cause for anxiety. If, thanks to Antiphon, he (the runner) had not shown him (the interpreter) up, so that he was able to see that the dream could be interpreted in entirely different ways, he would not have suspected that he was receiving unreliable advice … – Diogenes’ Wall Inscription, Fragment 24 of the Martin Ferguson Smith translation

This episode, where an obscure prophecy is taken as sacred truth and interpreted in enough contradictory ways as to render it demonstrably and completely useless and irrelevant, is not too different from Christian and Islamic prophecies from scripture and tradition. People today use scripture in ways no different from how Pagans treated the oracles of their Gods in antiquity.

But let’s reason based on the canon and look at recent empirical evidence concerning prophecies and how they easily get out of hand. The Antinous Prophecies was an experiment conducted by a skeptic to prove the existence of the so-called Nostradamus Effect, which is basically the idea that gullible people will always concoct meaning when they come upon an obscure, unclear oracle. The experiment consisted on creating an imaginary quatrain (a stanza of prophecy) and telling a group of people that it was written by Nostradamus, then asking them to interpret the quatrain in light of historical events. The majority of the participants in the study immediately tied the quatrain to real events and many were positively convinced that Nostradamus’ prophecy had come true, and that he must be a genious. The supposedly Nostradamian quatrain had been authored by the researcher for purposes of his experiment.

The demonstration of the Nostradamus Effect should worry us all and imprint upon us the importance of protecting our minds from the insinuations of oracles and religious leaders. We see millions who base their entire lives on concoctions no different from the Antinous prophecies and end up living lives of self-abnegation, renouncing their own happiness, impeding the happiness of others, and even committing atrocities for the sake of these unscrupulous inventions.

Chaerestrate’s Son

Having considered these, which are the most prominent features of Epicurus’ mother and of his relationship with her, we can read the concern and love in his letter and we can relate to it. Many of us have loved ones who are deeply, sincerely, even virtuously religious. Some of us at times do not wish to interrupt the blissful surrender that our loved ones of faith seem to enjoy, but if we understand that a naturalist philosophy can produce a much more stable bliss, or if we see that the faith of our loved ones is leading them to unwholesome and perturbed beliefs, then we may feel compelled to at least tell one person to consider naturalism or Epicureanism for their spiritual needs.

In a way, it can be a good thing to have deeply religious family members. I’m convinced that it was his love for his mother that kept Epicurus from demeaning and demoralizing people of faith, and that made him want to tend to religious fear through therapeutic philosophy. I, for one, can’t think of a better way to rebel against the false views of those that came before us.

Further Reading:

 The Elemental Message from the Oenoanda Inscription, from NewEpicurean.com

Oinoanda: What the Truth Was Before it Turned to Ruins

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Ninth Taoist Contemplation: Control of Desires

 Nothing is enough to someone for whom what is enough is little. The thankless nature of the soul makes the creature endlessly greedy for variations in its lifestyleVatican Sayings 68-69

Goods that are difficult to acquire make one cause damage. – Tao Te Ching 12

Lao-Tse explains that the high use the low as their foundation and basis. A mountain is not a mountain, except with relation to the valley or the lower slopes. And, what is a king without subjects?

The value of small things lies in that they are enough, and true goods (natural and necessary desires) are easy to attain; ergo that which is difficult to attain is not a true good. Like with all else, in Taoism, having an accurate perception of reality and of the true measure of what’s needed, helps us to fully enjoy the things that we do have.

Excessive hoarding must lead to heavy loss
Knowing contentment avoids disgrace
Knowing when to stop avoids danger

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 44

It’s important to have a healthy relation to reality and to things, and to have clear insight into how much we really need of what really makes us happy. The more we have in excess, the more we fear to lose. This is true even of time.

The Master gives himself up
to whatever the moment brings.
He knows that he is going to die,
and her has nothing left to hold on to:
no illusions in his mind,
no resistances in his body.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 50

And so the key here is to curb mindless desires that ignore the fundamental nature of things, so that we have no vulnerable points where life can harm us. Lack of excessive desire and need for praise, diminishes petty passions; in this manner, Taoism favors detached action.

Nothing can replace this introspective process. Like Socrates, who stated that he knew nothing (although we question if he really meant this literally), Lao-Tse found virtue in acknowledging that we are unaware of our faults and taking the first steps to uncover them so that we may diagnose what we Epicureans call the diseases of the soul.

To know that you do not know is highest
To not know but think you know is flawed

Only when one recognizes the fault as a fault
can one be without fault

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 71

As a result of these insights, Epicureanism offers a program to control desires. The introspective process deals with learning to discern clearly between those that nature has made natural and necessary, those that are natural but unnecessary, and those that are neigher natural nor necessary and, therefore, empty. Through this process, we come to understand the doctrine of the principal things, or of the chief goods, which was explained by Philodemus in On Choices and Avoidances. As far as empty desires, they can be easily dismissed, but if we have bad habits based on false views about the value of things, then this may require more discipline.

Let us completely rid ourselves of our bad habits as if they were evil men who have done us long and grievous harm. – Vatican Saying 46

You must unlearn what you’ve learned. – Jedi Master Yoda

In this case, it is said that we fight cultural corruption by controling our unnecessary desires, by unlearning them. In other words, the dispositions and false beliefs underlying these desires do not come from nature. They come from culture.

The techniques used in treating the diseases of the soul are many, and beyond the scope of this blog. They can be learned in the chapter on Epicurean therapy in Tending the Epicurean Garden, and Martha Nussbaum in her book The Therapy of Desire covers the therapeutic practices of the Epicureans together with those of other schools.

Online Versions of the Tao Te Ching:

DC Lau’s Translation

S Mitchell translation

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“Imagine No Religion, David!”

David Archuleta recently published a half-ass apology about some anti-gay-marriage tweets he recently sent. It’s important to not demean anyone for their fraudulent religious views, regardless of how ridiculous they are, but sometimes the false beliefs themselves are very worthy of criticism and I’ve been a fan of his for years. Below is my sincere message to him in reply to the controversy.

 

I once sang along “Imagine no religion” with you, but you lost my loyalty as a fan. Yes you have a right to be wrong about this, but you’re PROFOUNDLY wrong. I think you’re talented but it’s so sad that a young talented person like you is immersed in a religion as regressive, racist and homophobic as Mormonism.

It wouldn’t bother me so much if the founder of your religion hadn’t had over 30 wives, some of whom were minors, and some of whom were already married to his followers before he “took” them. I’m not sure how you can rationalize that, and then make heteronormative statements: gay marriage is a relationship model between equals and not about treating women like cattle like your prophet did. Maybe that’s why it bothers the leaders of your church so much!

Religion dresses in innocence and rhetoric things that are entirely ignoble. Like John Lennon said, “I hope one day you’ll join us” and sincerely hope you one day grow out of it.

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