The Havamal, on Loyalty

A man must be a friend
to his friend,
for himself and for the friend,
but no man must
be a friend of a friend
of his foe.

Havamal 43


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Happy Twentieth: Pale Blue Dot

This month, the Menoeceus Blog published an entry on Epicurean Extremes, and I published the piece “For the ARE Gods …” about Epicurean theology, finished a blog series in celebration of the Epicurean poet Horace, had the great pleasure of reading a book by Raoul Vaneigem titled De l’inhumanité de la religion, and published a book review on it. It was by far one of the most enjoyable and inspiring reads I’ve had in a long time, and my hope is that the review did it some justice.

Since one of the observations made in “For there ARE Gods” is that Epicureans seem to have been the Carl-Sagans of antiquity, this Twentieth I decided to share an inspiring sermon by Carl Sagan on our true place in the universe.

Further Reading:

Last Year’s 20th Message: “This May Have Happened in the Great All

Twentieth Archive from

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America: “Out of Many, One”

The motto of our nation is E Pluribus Unum (“Out of Many, One”), and one can’t exaggerate the extent to which this motto defines America in all phases of its history. Many intellectuals, most prominent among them Locke, influenced the political ideas that gave birth to the federation of 50 states (soon to be 51, maybe 52 or even 53), a district and a few territories that make up the United States of America. When I visited the nation’s capital a few years ago and saw the dignified neo-classical architecture of the federal buildings, it seemed to me like America consciously sought to imagine itself as a continuation of ancient Rome and Greece. Being an Epicurean–and aware of fellow Epicurean Thomas Jefferson’s role in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence–I naturally felt that this way of imagining ourselves made sense. But the extent to which Native Americans influenced the idea of, and provided a model for, America since before its earliest conception is not known by many.

According to this piece, Canasatego, leader of the Onondaga nation and spokesman for the Iroquois Confederation, advised the British colonists in 1744:

“. . . We heartily recommend Union and a Good Agreement between you our Brethren. Our wise Forefathers established Union and Amity between the Five Nations; this has made us formidable, this has given us great weight and Authority with our Neighboring Nations. We are a Powerfull confederacy, and by your observing the same Methods our wise Forefathers have taken, you will acquire fresh Strength and Power.”

Benjamin Franklin later insinuated that if the Indians could have a federation, certainly the British colonies could do likewise. The Iroquois Confederation–the origins of which trace back to somewhere between the 12th and 15th Century–was made up of (initially five, later) six nations that shared linguistic and cultural similarities and occupied land east of Lake Ontario in what is today New York and Pennsylvania. They formed a federation of independent nations in order to secure protection from outside threats.

The Iroquois Constitution–known as the “Great Law of Peace”–provided for checks and balances in government in order to avoid too much concentration of power in one individual or group, and in order to secure individual freedoms. It also delineated processes of democratic decision-making and a “recall power” that allowed the clan mothers to remove unsatisfactory chiefs, which appears to have inspired the constitutional process of impeachment. This provided an early model for the sometimes complicated system of checks and balances that exists in the US Constitution between the federal government, the state governments and Indian Nations, as well as between the judicial, executive, and legislative branches of government.

The Indian laws were superior to our post-contact laws in at least one respect: women had full participation in government. The suffrage would not happen until the 1920’s.

The paper American Indian Influence on the United States Constitution and its Framers argues that Thomas Jefferson admired and sought to imitate the minimal government of the Native Americans, their love of freedom, peace, and justice, and their lack of a monarchy.

It’s not easy for a country as large as the United States, with such a complicated history, with so many constituent populations and so many competing interests, to keep it together and remain stable and peaceful. And yet, in spite of many imperfections, we have managed quite well thanks, in part, to the framers of the Constitution and their openness to non-European, aboriginal American political ideas that remain useful and practical to this day.

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Horace: Miscellaneous Quotes

When we consider our own faults, we accidentally blind our eyes with a smear of ointment, but viewing our friends’ we’re as keen-eyed as eagles

Justice was created out of the fear of injustice. Nature doesn’t, can’t, distinguish between right and wrong… Let’s have rules, to lay down a fair punishment for every crime.

Book I, Satire III

Ridicule usually cuts through things better, more swiftly, than force.

Book I, Satire X

I’ve no small longing
To approach that distant fountain,
and there be allowed
To imbibe the precepts for living a happy life.

Book II, Satire IV

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Horace: The Miseries of the Wealthy

All Hate you,
your friends and neighbours,
girls and boys.
Yet you wonder,
setting money before all else,
that no-one offers you the love you’ve failed to earn!
While if you tried to win and keep the love of those kin
Nature gave you without any trouble on your part…

Horace, Book I, Satire I

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Draco Rosa: I’m here!

Since this month is the nativity of one of my favorite gods of rock, Robi Rosa (a.k.a. Draco)–who was born on the night the Stonewall Riots took place–I thought I’d share one of my favorite songs by him, from my favorite CD by him–which is named after the song: Songbirds and Roosters.

The song’s chorus contains an existential cry: “I’m here! … While I’m here smile just for a while!”. We only get one life, and time wasted will never be recovered. Time is a non-renewable resource. People almost always wait for their loved ones to pass away before they express their devotion, their love, their gratitude, their whatever … but then it’s too late. We should seize the moment and notice each other’s presence–and love, and laughter, and all the things that we give each other that make life worth living–while we’re here, not after.

I’m here, so care for me
Laugh for me
While I’m here
Smile, just for a while

I’m here, so die with me
Smile with me
While I’m here
Smile, just for a while

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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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