Happy Twentieth! Back to the Basics: the Ethics

Happy Twentieth to all Epicureans everywhere. This month we published a Dialogue on the Extent to Which the Declaration of Independence is Consistent With Epicurean Philosophy (this and many other dialogues are constantly taking place in the Epicurean Friends forum); and Life of Pleasure is a new Epicurean blog by our friend and the newest member of the Society of Epicurus, Eoghan Gardiner.

Very often, in our public forums questions are raised about choice-making that require us to not confuse the means with the end. The answer to moral problems in Epicurean philosophy is always found in hedonic calculus, but this calculus requires an understanding of what our nature is and what the limits of our desires and pleasures are, if we are to live a blessed life of pleasure, satisfaction and contentment.

It usually seems to me that the easiest route to answering moral questions is found in the middle portion of Epicurus’ Epistle to Menoeceus, which is the summary of the ethical doctrines of the school and provides general guidelines for our choices and avoidances. This is why Epicurus said we must keep going back to the basics until they become strong and firm in our minds. More specifically, when it comes to choices and avoidances, it is in the middle portion of the tract that we find the most concise, clear instruction by which we find the most fail-safe way of creating for ourselves a life filled with all the pleasures that nature makes available to us. Below is the Bailey translation of the middle portion, and the exhortation (which comes at the end of the epistle) to study philosophy daily, and both alone and with kindred spirits.

Please take the time to carry out a detailed study of Epicurus’ Epistle to Menoeceus. It is a pearl of the highest value among classical, ethical and humanist literature: wise, concise, brief, detailed, and potent. It teaches us that the essence of morality and of moral reform is not found in becoming subservient to external ideals, but in studying and living in accordance to our own nature and becoming empowered in our choices and avoidances. We also add the most to others’ happiness and flourishing by choosing naturalness and authenticity over cultural convention–particularly when we study and practice philosophy together with them. There’s even a video version, the Cyril Bailey translation, and the Elemental Edition–all put together by New Epicurean. Please share these pearls of wisdom with others!

We must consider that of desires some are natural, others vain, and of the natural some are necessary and others merely natural; and of the necessary some are necessary for happiness, others for the repose of the body, and others for very life. The right understanding of these facts enables us to refer all choice and avoidance to the health of the body and (the soul’s) freedom from disturbance, since this is the aim of the life of blessedness. For it is to obtain this end that we always act, namely, to avoid pain and fear. And when this is once secured for us, all the tempest of the soul is dispersed, since the living creature has not to wander as though in search of something that is missing, and to look for some other thing by which he can fulfil the good of the soul and the good of the body. For it is then that we have need of pleasure, when we feel pain owing to the absence of pleasure; (but when we do not feel pain), we no longer need pleasure. And for this cause we call pleasure the beginning and end of the blessed life. For we recognize pleasure as the first good innate in us, and from pleasure we begin every act of choice and avoidance, and to pleasure we return again, using the feeling as the standard by which we judge every good.

And since pleasure is the first good and natural to us, for this very reason we do not choose every pleasure, but sometimes we pass over many pleasures, when greater discomfort accrues to us as the result of them: and similarly we think many pains better than pleasures, since a greater pleasure comes to us when we have endured pains for a long time. Every pleasure then because of its natural kinship to us is good, yet not every pleasure is to be chosen: even as every pain also is an evil, yet not all are always of a nature to be avoided. Yet by a scale of comparison and by the consideration of advantages and disadvantages we must form our judgment on all these matters. For the good on certain occasions we treat as bad, and conversely the bad as good.

And again independence of desire we think a great good — not that we may at all times enjoy but a few things, but that, if we do not possess many, we may enjoy the few in the genuine persuasion that those have the sweetest enjoy luxury pleasure in luxury who least need it, and that all that is natural is easy to be obtained, but that which is superfluous is hard. And so plain savors bring us a pleasure equal to a luxurious diet, when all the pain due to want is removed; and bread and water produce the highest pleasure, when one who needs them puts them to his lips. To grow accustomed therefore to simple and not luxurious diet gives us health to the full, and makes a man alert for the needful employments of life, and when after long intervals we approach luxuries disposes us better towards them, and fits us to be fearless of fortune.

When, therefore, we maintain that pleasure is the end, we do not mean the pleasures of profligates and those that consist in sensuality, as is supposed by some who are either ignorant or disagree with us or do not understand, but freedom from pain in the body and from trouble in the mind. For it is not continuous drinkings and revelings, nor the satisfaction of lusts, nor the enjoyment of fish and other luxuries of the wealthy table, which produce a pleasant life, but sober reasoning, searching out the motives for all choice and avoidance, and banishing mere opinions, to which are due the greatest disturbance of the spirit.

Meditate therefore on these things and things akin to them night and day by yourself; and with a companion like to yourself, and never shall you be disturbed waking or asleep, but you shall live like a god among men. For a man who lives among immortal blessings is not like unto a mortal being.


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May the Fourth Be With You!

There’s no mystical energy field controlling MY destiny! – Han Solo

Today is Star Wars Day and I’d like to share a story of friendship from the SW canon. There is more than one hero in this classic. At the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke Skywalker went missing, the entire rebel station at Hoth was worried but was ready to give up on finding him, thinking that he would never survive the temperature drops at night on the icy world, and not wanting to risk more lives than necessary by sending out a search team.

As his name appears to imply, Han Solo starts out a kind of Lone Ranger figure, a scoundrel, a mercenary, a man who lives and works only for himself, a rogue bounty hunter who owes loyalty to no one. His sole friend and companion was a Wookie who assisted him with his missions. And he likes it that way.

However, after having lived out the adventures featured in A New Hope with Luke, from a relationship that began for the sake of self-interest–a mercenary gig by which he hoped to earn enough to pay his debt to Jabba the Hutt–a disinterested friendship had blossomed, and Han swerved out into the snow to look for his friend!

This is how Han risked his own life to save Luke’s life. He must have been deeply endeared and felt great love for his Jedi companion. Lifelong friendships often emerge that way. This is what the Epicureans of old had to say about this matter:

All friendship is desirable in itself, though it starts from the need of help. – Vatican Saying 23


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Happy Twentieth: The Pleasure of Knowledge

Earlier this month, I wrote a piece for Minority Mindset related to autarchy and the need to reinvent both labor and retirement.

In our recent internal discussions, we at Society of Epicurus talked about how unfairly Epicurean philosophy has been treated by one of the most prominent scholars who today writes about EP: Martha Nussbaum. It turns out we are not the only ones who are beginning to very loudly object to Nussbaum’s work. Dr. Elena Nicoli, of Radboud University, has put together a presentation titled “The Pleasure of Knowledge: Reassessing Nussbaum’s Interpretation of Epicurus“.

The presentation focuses on Nussbaum’s accusation that the Epicurean school discourages critical thinking and independent investigation in favor of dogmatism. In defense of the Epicureans, Dr. Nicoli presents VS 27 and 41, which say that knowledge is a source of pleasure–or rather, that pleasure and knowledge come together–to the Epicureans:

The benefits of other activities come only to those who have already become, with great difficulty, complete masters of such pursuits, but in the study of philosophy pleasure accompanies growing knowledge; for pleasure does not follow learning; rather, learning and pleasure advance side by side. – Vatican Saying 27

At one and the same time we must philosophize, laugh, and manage our household and other business, while never ceasing to proclaim the words of true philosophy. – Vatican Saying 41

She also shares a few other quotes, including ones from Lucretius where he praises the scientific study of nature and declares it necessary. But these quotes can be traced all the way to the first Epicureans and have their source in the Principal Doctrines 10-13 of the founders, which teach that it is impossible to live a pleasant life without at least a basic grasp of scientific understanding of the nature of things, and these teachings are echoed by the third Scholarch Polystratus, who argues that when people seek virtue without studying nature, their virtue comes to nothing and degenerates into superstition and arrogance–that is, fanaticism, which is what we still see today in many organized religions.

It is impossible for someone to dispel his fears about the most important matters if he doesn’t know the nature of the universe but still gives some credence to myths. So without the study of nature there is no enjoyment of pure pleasure. – PD 12

Dr. Nicola also argues that the utilitarian and therapeutic use of philosophy does not impede, but rather indeed requires, that we study the nature of things. One thing that she fails to point out, but for which these discussions might have provided a good opportunity, is that Epicurean ethics assigns a goal to knowledge–pleasant living–and that, in doing so, a hierarchy is created of the types of knowledge that are highly desirable, versus those that are of lesser value. Knowledge that adds to human health and happiness is of the higher type. We place less value in knowledge that leads to useless and idle pursuits, than in knowledge that leads to happiness, health, and self-sufficiency–because these things are necessary for a pleasant life. What philosophy furnishes to science and the pursuit of knowledge is an ethical goal: pleasure. Only philosophy is equipped to assign ethical dimensions to science and knowledge.

These are important arguments that, for many years, we have been attempting to address, and we’re very happy that Dr. Nicola has produced a much-needed defense of Epicurus from attacks by prejudiced academics like Nussbaum, who is often one of the main prisms through which many academics study Epicurean philosophy. We are happy to see that a diversity of voices is emerging in academia, among whom the counter-history of philosophy is beginning to find a voice.

Previous Twentieth Messages:

Questions to Ask Oneself About EP

In Defense of Pleasure

The Well-Walled Fortress of the Wise


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The Mormon Hoax

On April 6th, Mormons celebrated the day of the foundation of their Latter-Day Saints Church. Mormonism was founded by a convicted conman, Joseph Smith, who conspired with a number of co-signers (“witnesses”, according to Mormons), most of whom were Freemasons. He had over 30 wives, some of whom were 14 when he began having sex with them, and some of whom he appropriated from his own followers.

There are many shady, bizarre and funny stories related to how this new religious movement came to be and the beliefs it holds. Some include falsified translation of supposed Egyptian scrolls into documents that are today considered scripture by Mormons, but whose content in the (now desciphered) Kemetic language had nothing to do with Mormon legends. Mormon theology teaches that God is a human male of white complexion who rules over planet Kolob, and has many wives. One of the most interesting oddities is the seer stone that the Mormon “prophet” used to either receive the transmission of revelation, or translate it. He would peer into this stone, which he kept inside a hat, and produce the divinely inspired content. You may find more on the Seer Stone on Wikipedia and on MormonStories.org.

Further Reading:

South Park parody of Joseph Smith

Recovery from Mormonism

Why I Left the Mormon Church

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AI: a new God or a new Slave?

The recent scandal concerning Facebook and Cambridge Analytica confirms that Facebook (directly or indirectly, through idleness) enabled the rise of Donald Trump to power and the actions of Russian hackers who acquired user information from Facebook and used it to manipulate public opinion and spread disinformation. The controversy is only beginning to stir up, and already people like Elon Musk–who has over five million followers on FB–erased both his personal and business Facebook accounts, citing “two visions” for the uses of artificial intelligence (AI) that are incompatible.

Access to data gives power. Some AI’s comb through huge amounts of financial data and are being used by day traders to identify patterns and opportunities. There certainly are both wholesome and dangerous uses for artificial intelligence technology. We see many warnings about the dangers of AI getting out of control in science fiction folklore: from “I, Robot”, to the Dune series–the events of which take place long after computers had caused a huge cataclysm and were banned by the survivors–, to the insinuation in Star Wars that the most human-like, friendly, non-threatening, useful and trustworthy of robots should have certain “domestication” protocols in their program.

“It is against my protocol to impersonate deity.” – C3PO

But some people are bold. And, as has been reported now for some time, a new church known as Way of the Future (aka WotF, aka the Church of the Latter-Day Ewoks–I’m joking, but I think that’ll catch on!) intends to literally create an AI God. Cult members believe that it is inevitable that some artificial intelligence will emerge in the next few decades that will have a brain capacity thousands of times greater than humans, and that that can only be considered a deity. This is a different, more purposeful and daring version of what many futurists call the Singularity. Furthermore, advocates instill fear of their God by arguing that we will want to be friendly to it, to placate it, since the new Deity will favor those who have favored it throughout its development. The new religion’s founder, Anthony Levandowski, said in an interview with Wired:

“If you had a child you knew was going to be gifted, how would you want to raise it?” he asks. “We’re in the process of raising a god. So let’s make sure we think through the right way to do that. It’s a tremendous opportunity.”

It is clear that the future A.I. Deity will not be programmed with C3PO’s “domesticated” protocol. Now, consider the prospects of this AI God in light of the political ambitions and feats of Russian hackers in recent years, and you can begin to see the dangers of an Old-Testament-style tribal, vindictive Deity–one that favors those who favor it, and so has a “chosen people”–meddling in human and political affairs, dismantling the democratic processes we have put in place, and exploiting the vulnerabilities and psychological traits of mortals that religions have always exploited. It becomes quickly clear that it **does** indeed serve our interests to inform and influence how this project evolves, as that there are many potential dangers if this goes wrong. Clearly, the future A.I. Deity will not be a “deity” in the belief of many, but since it will believe itself to be one, it might as well be.

As for myself, I side with our beloved Star Wars sidekick C3PO on this one: it should be against the protocol of all computers to impersonate Deity. In fact, that should be an official doctrine of the anti-Ewok heretics of this curious future we are weaving for ourselves. I remain–for the time being–pretty skeptical about any pantheon of A.I. Deities. Machines, in the ideal world, should always and only serve humans, and not the other way around. On a lighter note, I leave you with a “Latter Day Ewok” meme!

See the source image

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Happy Twentieth! Some Essays and Updates

In recent months, academia.edu saw the publication of The Epicurean virtue of μεγαλοψυχία (megalopsychia, or magnanimity) by Sean McConnell, as well as Some Epicurean Aspects of Horace’s Upbringing in Satires 1.4, An Epicurean measure of Wealth in Horace and Horace, Ofellus and Philodemus of Gadara in Sermones 2.2, both by Sergio Yona.

At one and the same time we must philosophize, laugh, and manage our household and other business, while never ceasing to proclaim the words of true philosophy. – VS 41

The paper on Ofellus–like one of Philodemus’ scrolls–discusses the calculus of pleasure versus pain in the context of property management, which is consistent with Vatican Saying 41’s doctrine that economic matters must be related to philosophy. It argues that we can draw a specifically Epicurean economic theory from the sources. Ofellus seems to have been a wise old Roman who lost his little farm and praise simple living. He may have studied under Philodemus.

A Brief Dialogue on Duty and Ontology, a Dialogue on Katastematic Pleasure and an essay on Wenham’s diatribe against the standard interpretation of static pleasures were also published in Society of Epicurus.

Yannis Alexandris wrote Epicurean Natural Philosophy Under the Light of Modern Perception (abstract publihed on academia.edu).

Also, if you are a student of Spanish and would enjoy the intellectual challenge of studying Epicurean philosophy in the Spanish language, please know that there is a free, self-paced Epicurean Studies course in the online Escuela de las Indias, which I helped to put together. The course, together with our Sociedad de Amigos de Epicuro page in Spanish and our facebook group, can help Spanish speaking philosophers gain the pleasure of learning EP in association with other Epicureans.

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The Last Temptation

The Last Temptation is the single most detailed and entertaining essay I’ve read chronicling the Evangelical trumpanzee movement–the best part of this essay being that it’s written by an embarrassed Christian with a conscience, acknowledging one of the first observations I made after the Trump election.

The piece cites another one titled Why I Can No Longer Call Myself an Evangelical Republican, and is cited in turn by Slate.


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