Hermarchus on the Ethics of Vegetarianism and Treatment of Animals

A discussion on vegetarianism and ethics in the Epicurean Philosophy facebook group was initially incited by a provocative video on why we love dogs and eat pigs, which evaluates the controversy, double standards and hypocrisy of the matter. I’ve read more than once that one of the founders of the Epicurean school, the second Scholarch and Epicurus’ successor, Hermarchus of Mytilene, was vegetarian. But it has always been difficult to verify the source. Recently, we came across one indirect source in Porphyry’s On Abstinence. It cites Hermarchus’ polemical treatise Letters About Empedocles.

It turns out that the answer to our inquiry, according to Epicurean doctrine, is that the moral reasons for vegetarianism are relative to the circumstances and that they depend on advantage. If animals of a certain species are likely to become too numerous, eating them may be encouraged.

For instance, Puerto Rico in recent years has seen a proliferation of iguanas that are not native to the island but have taken over, as they have no natural predator in the island–except, perhaps, the powerful Caribbean hawk. As a result of this, one of the ways in which the locals have begun controlling the population is by doing the (previously) unthinkable: they are now adding iguana to the menu, and many people have found that they love the meat. It tastes like (as you may have guessed) chicken–that quintessentially “common” and “normal” meat. They now call it gallina de palo (“the chicken of the trees”).

The Arguments of the Epicureans, from Hermachus

Porphyry’s portion on Hermarchus begins in his paragraph 7. It begins by considering how ancient legislators declared manslaughter as unholy and punished it, and later argues that some people (only those who are unwise) need punishment in order to stop them from killing others, whereas the wise do not need to be reminded of such punishment. Later in paragraph 9, we see religion tied to this:

… The vulgar everywhere require something which may impede them from promptly performing what is not advantageous [to the community] …. For that part of the soul which is void of intellect, being variously disciplined, acquired a becoming mildness, certain taming arts having been from the first invented for the purpose of subduing the irrational impulses of desire, by those who governed the people.

By “taming arts” we may understand not only religious techniques for making individuals docile, but also a certain education, which instills presumably fear of the gods, of public shame, of being banished from the community, and of punishment.

As a continuation of a discussion against manslaughter, the morality of killing some animals is defended here for the sake of security. For instance, a community may need to slay a lion or wolves who are endangering its members.

Those who first defined what we ought to do, and what we ought not, very properly did not forbid us to kill other animals. For the advantage arising from these is effected … since it is not possible that men could be preserved, unless they endeavoured to defend those who are nurtured with themselves from the attacks of other animals.

This is consistent with the sixth Principal Doctrine, which says that anything done for the sake of security is a natural good. It is also extended to the realm of non-violence among humans. For mutual advantage and in order to secure ataraxia (a fear-less life) and to secure all the things that are necessary (access to food, trade), neighbors and strangers entered into covenants of non-harm.

Some of those, of the most elegant manners, recollecting that they abstained from slaughter because it was useful to the public safety …. for the purpose of repelling the attacks of animals of another species; but also for defence against men whose design was to act nefariously … they abstained from the slaughter of men …. in order that there might be a communion among them in things that are necessary, and that a certain utility might be afforded in each of the above-mentioned incommodities.

For the destruction of every thing noxious, and the preservation of that which is subservient to its extermination, similarly contribute to a fearless life.

Here, Hermarchus introduces his non-violent views towards members of other species. He argues that if an animal is not causing us harm or injury, it should not be killed.

Nor must it be said, that the law allows us to destroy some animals which are not corruptive of human nature, and which are not in any other way injurious to our life. For as I may say, no animal among those which the law permits us to kill is of this kind.

Of course, and consistent with Principal Doctrine 38, justice must always be relative to circumstances and these laws and categories of animals may change according to (dis)advantage, as we saw in the case of animals that overbreed and become too numerous, becoming a pest.

Since, if we suffered them to increase excessively, they would become injurious to us. But through the number of them which is now preserved, certain advantages are imparted to human life. For sheep and oxen, and every such like animal, when the number of them is moderate, are beneficial to our necessary wants; but if they become redundant in the extreme, and far exceed the number which is sufficient, they then become detrimental to our life; the latter by employing their strength, in consequence of participating of this through an innate power of nature, and the former, by consuming the nutriment which springs up from the earth for our benefit alone. Hence, through this cause, the slaughter of animals of this kind is not prohibited, in order that as many of them as are sufficient for our use, and which we may be able easily to subdue, may be left.

Three categories of animals are distinguished: the tame ones that are sometimes useful to us (therefore 1. useful tame animals and 2. useless tame animals), and 3. the savage ones that are not useful to us. Some may argue that some wild animals provide some utility, but here Hermarchus does not seem to acknowledge that anything natural and necessary can be attained from them. I can think of whale blubber, for instance, but the industry that this product spawned–and which nearly brought some species of whale to extinction–is widely considered immoral and evil today, and the products that this species offers humans can only be said to be “necessary” for certain populations of Inuits who survive through the winter thanks to it.

For it is not with horses, oxen, and sheep, and with all tame animals, as it is with lions and wolves and, in short, with all such as are called savage animals that, whether the number of them is small or great, no multitude of them can be assumed which, if left, would alleviate the necessity of our life. And on this account, indeed, we utterly destroy some of them; but of others, we take away as many as are found to be more than commensurate to our use.

The Scholarch was arguing that we are likely to want to keep some of these tame animals around (for food, clothing, transportation, etc.) but not so many that we can’t subdue them. But today, we may question whether it is fair to derive certain items of clothing and fashion from animals which can alternately be produced without causing suffering to any creature. The question of using horses rather than bikes or cars is, likewise, ridiculous. I would argue that the rise of the machines was meant to diminish the unnecessary suffering and labor of sentient beings, both human and non-human. Paragraph 12 concludes by reminding us that justice is based on advantage.

On this account, from the above-mentioned causes, it is similarly requisite to think, that what pertains to the eating of animals, was ordained by those who from the first established the laws; and that the advantageous and the disadvantageous were the causes why some animals were permitted to be eaten and others not.

So that, if Hermarchus was indeed vegetarian, or mostly vegetarian–which we do not know with certainty–he seems to have been arguing that because he did not live during a time when sheep, oxen, or other creatures were so numerous that they required laws to diminish their population in order to avoid their detriment to human populations, ergo he reasoned that this justified vegetarianism for the generation in which he lived.

Finally, the issue of animal intelligence may change this paradigm. For the time being, many countries already consider great apes as “non-human persons”, and a recent gathering of scientists in Vancouver also concluded that dolphins are “non-human persons”, mainly because it has been discovered that they have language (and social life) as complex as ours and that each dolphin answers to their own name. Several research stations are working on attempts to decipher dolphin speech, and some fishermen communities in Brasil have developed human-dolphin fishing techniques that produce mutual advantage by securing large amounts of smaller fish for the two higher species.

It’s possible that elephants, whose brains are bigger than ours, may soon join this new category of “non-human persons”, which constitutes a major paradigm shift in inter-species relations on Earth. If we are one day able to communicate with dolphins or to raise communities of great apes that use (as some individuals have) sign language to interact with us, we may reach a time in history when it is possible to have inter-species agreements and binding legal contracts. Hermarchus, in his day, considered this unthinkable but said that, if one day such a thing were possible, these contracts must be honored.

If, therefore, it was possible to make a certain compact with other animals in the same manner as with men, that we should not kill them, nor they us, and that they should not be indiscriminately destroyed by us, it would be well to extend justice as far as to this; for this extent of it would be attended with security. But since it is … impossible, that animals which are not recipients of reason should participate with us of law, on this account, utility cannot be in a greater degree procured by security from other animals, than from inanimate natures. But we can alone obtain security from the liberty which we now possess of putting them to death. And such are the arguments of the Epicureans.

But it is not only advantage, as Epicurus would have it, that explains the origins of justice when it comes to creatures that we can’t have agreements and contracts with, and in this Hermarchus departed slightly from the first Scholarch and we see the evolution of Epicurean doctrine as a result of exchanges with other schools.

The complicated discussion of animals and whatever courtesies and compassion we owe to dogs, cats, cows, and others, falls within a broader discussion of morality and where we get our morals from. It is here that the ancient Epicureans exhibited an accentuated interest in anthropology and elaborated theories of how moral instincts evolved naturally.

The Doctrine of Kinship

The Stoic doctrine of oikeiosis–which may translate as affinity, familiarity, affiliation, or endearment with those that are like us–establishes that there is a natural kinship among members of the same species, and was adapted by Hermarchus to help explain the origin of justice and homicide laws. He argues that we do not feel this kinship for animals, only for each other. Modern theories on how household pets, like dogs and cats, have evolved to trigger our evolutionary instincts to protect babies, may constitute an update to Hermarchus’ views.

In arguing that no animal which lacks logos (reason) has any share in justice, Hermarchus seeks to refute Empedocles’ view that a fellowship exists between men and irrational animals which makes it unjust to slay or sacrifice them.

As a side note, we may add context to these arguments by considering that Hermarchus was, in part, also defending the practice of animal sacrifice in order to feed his community on special occasions, as this was part of the 20th feasts and other pious and religious celebrations of the Epicureans.

Paul Waerdt, in his essay Epicurean Genealogy of Morals, argued that this kinship as a cause is subordinated to the calculation of advantage. That is: in Hermarchus, kinship does not replace advantage, but simply complements it as a source of morality and justice. His acceptance of it as a secondary cause keeps the utilitarian principle as higher priority, and is in line with the Epicurean way of reasoning, where multiple causes are acceptable as long as they do not contradict empirical evidence or each other.

In the acceptance of oikeiosis, Hermarchus introduces an innovation (see our two guidelines on innovation), even if he concedes that this oikeiosis is sometimes only experienced by those of a “finer nature”.

Theophrastus had argued that it was only just to kill naturally hostile animals because we are naturally akin to all other animals. Hermarchus, on the other hand, restricts kinship to only members of a community who contribute to its survival. This theory is very strongly vindicated, time and again, by the numerous historical and research examples mentioned in the awfully-named yet brilliant anthropology book The Lucifer Principle.

Hermarchus introduced the concept of individuals who exhibit “finer natures”, pointing the finger at the good influence on our character that we get from association with other people of good character.

Perhaps we may consider, instead, the possibility that various degrees of kinship can be recognized, and that there are many gray areas here? This may explain how some cultures–Vaishnava Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Vegans, and Jews who keep eco-kashrut–are more likely to exhibit a “finer nature” and to exhibit greater degrees of compassion for lesser sentient beings.

Hermarchus and the Epicurean Genealogy of Morals

The Scholarch discusses themes that are widely debated with great interest in the atheist community on the origins of morality as a natural phenomenon.

In Epicurean anthropology (as we see in Lucretius), the early stages of evolution of human traits is natural, and these only later give way to rationally-directed stages of development. We see this in Lucretius’ accounts of the evolution of language and friendship, for instance. Nature gave the initial incentive for morality, and later reason made nature’s insights more precise.

For instance, Hermarchus argued that ancient lawgivers conceived that homicide was not useful, had no utility or advantage. Concerning anti-homocide laws, he said they originate in the remembrance of a naturally advantageous practice of non violence, and later the taboo crystallized in the culture and mores of human groups.

The Kosher Example

The kashrut rules established in the Bible provide an insight into how, with time, rules that may have generated as a result of the study of nature, become crystallized into societal taboos that people consciously fashioned. It’s not difficult to imagine how the consumption of blood may have generated public health problems in some ancient societies. As for how ancient people decided what animals are fit to eat, this Neo-Hassidic page states:

… any animal that chews its cud can eat grasses and plants that are inedible to human beings, and any animal that has split hooves can walk (and graze) on land that is too rocky to farm with a plow. These characteristics together mean one very clear thing: the only land animals that we can eat according to the laws of kashrut are animals that do not compete with human beings for food.

Which means that the initial reasoning behind kashrut involved considerations of advantage in terms of, if we are going to consume the flesh of other animals, which are the ones that are the least likely to compete with us for food in our environment? This questions acquires greater urgency in a desert setting, where food scarcity is a frequent problem. Of course, the re-negotiation of passed-down tradition versus renewed considerations is constant, and many modern Jews are evaluating the merits of a contemporary discourse around eco-kashrut, or how the rules related to consumption can be expanded or changed to reflect ecological and labor concerns of our day.

All of the above considerations are part of our discourse on vegetarianism and treatment of animals.

The above discussion was informed, in part, by the essay “Epicurean Genealogy of Morals” by Paul A Vander Waerdt, from Duke University.


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Happy Twentieth of October: The Goal of True Spiritual Practice: Pure, Effortless Pleasure

Happy Twentieth to all the Epicureans and Humanists everywhere! In my Six Things I Learned After Writing “Tending the Epicurean Garden” post, one of the points mentioned was this:

Neuroscience was a field of great interest to Epicurean philosophy from the onset. Epicurus, in his speech on Moral Development, discussed how the “atomic structure” of the brain can be changed through certain practices (like repetition of certain teachings), and how as part of our moral development, we must take ownership of the content of our brains and our characters. Later on, Lucretius discussed neural pathways in his On the Nature of Things. It is clear that, as Epicureans, we are responsible for the steady and diligent cultivation of our brains in the same way that athletes are responsible for the cultivation of their bodies.

I wanted to follow up on this point, as I would hate to lose momentum with this. It seems like an important part of the Epicurean project had to do with giving people a non-superstitious, scientific alternative to religious practice, a naturalist spiritual discipline of some sort exemplified by the practice of repetition, which the Epicureans were known for, and other practices that they probably engaged in.

The just person has noble expectations concerning the Gods, and at the same time exceedingly enjoys pleasures that are unalloyed and effortless.

When I wrote my reasonings based on the scroll On Piety by Philodemus of Gadara, I should have expanded the definition of piety, or used another word, to imply all spiritual discipline and all spiritual practice. There’s a chapter on the science of meditation in my book which discusses the merits recognized by science in the practices of zen, metta meditation, and chanting. But since these practices require no religious belief and can be enjoyed by entirely secular people, do they qualify as piety?

Piety is an antiquated word with lots of cultural baggage. Many examples of piety that we may be familiar with are so vulgar that they can hardly be considered examples of true spirituality, falling rather in the superstition–or worse, sadism–category.

Sam Harris in his essay Killing the Buddha makes a call for the development of a science of contemplation and of a purely secular, empirical, scientific, and therefore transcultural, way of looking at morality. I keep going back to this essay because it is so pivotal to the work that I think Epicureans of our generation should be doing. Naturalist philosophers should take back spiritual practice, and more specifically assign to said practice the goal that our own nature seeks: the avoidance of pain and the cultivation of steady pleasure. Many Buddhist, Stoic, and other disciples stop at avoidance of pain and refuse to acknowledge pleasant abiding as the real goal. The argument for naturalizing spirituality has been articulated before, but not in terms that were as clear as Epicurean discourse demands.

Many contemporary atheists are attracted by the message of Epicurus, but (understandably, perhaps) are not willing to give up their anti-religion bias. I realize that the word piety will recall this bias, as it did for me. I want to stress every word in this insight from the Herculaneum scroll on piety, from a secular standpoint, so that we can evaluate the possibility of a fully scientific spiritual practice for modern humanists: The goal of true spiritual practice is unalloyed, effortless pleasure.

  • The Goal: This is one of the main issues of contention that Buddhists, Stoics, and others have with the Epicureans, and it’s non-negotiable: the end that our own nature seeks is Pleasure.
  • True Spiritual Practice: rather than piety, which often evokes the need for a deity, deities, or ancestors, we should consider as “true spiritual practices” those disciplines that produce existential wellbeing which are validated by empirical evidence and research (which would make them “true”, useful, scientific). There’s research that shows the benefits of chanting (lowers blood pressure, slows heart rate, produces tranquility and increases self-control), metta meditation (which encourages the release of oxytocin, a mood-booster that makes people feel safer, more trusting, sociable, and happier), and zazen (produces a clearer, more attentive mind in addition to an increased sense of wellbeing). To the extent that we can argue that these practices lead to a pleasant life, they would be recommended by Epicurean philosophy.
  • Unalloyed: pure, unmixed, with no perturbations or other side effects that might cancel the benefits. Another way to think of this in terms of hedonic calculus, is as “net pleasure”. Practices that come with fear of gods or fear of hell/afterlife, for instance, are not of this kind.
  • Effortless: the easiest pleasure is that which is gained from fulfilling our natural and necessary desires, because our nature has a strong inclination for it. The choice of this word (probably by Epicurus, who may have been the original source of this quote by Philodemus) may have been intended to shoo away the temptation to engage in ascetic forms of religiosity, which idealizes agony and austerity instead of pleasure. Effortlessness then becomes a guarantor against anti-hedonistic forms of spirituality.
  • Pleasure: that is, not “painlessness”, or “avoidance of pain”, but positively pleasant abiding, which is a symptom of true wellbeing.

I will continue to explore practices that foster wellbeing and promote pleasure along these lines, and will continue writing about them. I invite others to do the same. Perhaps modern Epicureans can learn from each other, and eventually gather a wisdom tradition with many concrete and useful things to teach about naturalist spiritual discipline.

Further Reading:

Further Insights from Chanting the Four Cures

Reasonings About Neuroscience (based on the book Buddha’s Brain)

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RJB VIII: A Humanist Commentary on the Passion Narrative

Render Unto Caesar …

Curiously, one of the most frequently cited secular proverbs comes to us from the Gospel, and from the lips of Jesus of Nazareth himself: Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s. Jesus believed in the right of a government to tax its people, in the rule of law, and in the separation of religion and state.

But what’s more: Jesus’ manner of death can be read as a narrative that indicts the adulterous relationship between religion and state that existed in ancient Judea … and one in which it’s the religious mobs who corrupt the state, and not the other way around. When the mobs were gathered insisting that the governor have Jesus executed for religious reasons, this is what the Bible says happened:

When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” – Matthew 27:24

If Judea had enjoyed a strictly secular system of laws, and if the religious mobs had honored that secularism, Jesus–who was innocent of sedition–would not have had to die. There is absolutely no need whatsoever to attempt any further theological speculation beyond this.

Jesus Creates a(n Alternative) Family

When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,”  and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. – John 19:26-27

The anti-LGBT narrative that permeates much of conservative Christianity ignores key facts about Jesus of Nazareth–whether he was a real historical figure or a fictional character is besides the point. Jesus never married, and in fact advised his followers not to marry if possible, so it is absurd that anyone would insist that he is some kind of nuclear-family-values role model.

That he made of Mary and John an alternative family while hanging from the cross is, on the one hand, a symptom of how high a priority it was for Jesus to make sure that they would not be alone after he was gone. On the other hand, it was a flat denial of the doctrine that a family must be headed, or defined, by a heterosexual couple. It’s controversial to speculate whether Jesus and John were a couple, but we do know with certainty that John and Mary were not a sexual couple, and do not conform therefore to the expectations of a family that we find in heteronormative discourse.

What Jesus created from the cross was an alternative family by any and all definitions–and the purpose for which he created the only family that he ever created was to avoid their destitution and aloneness, not for procreation. The LGBT community’s struggles have produced an update to what we think of as family which, in light of this, is more in line with Jesus of Nazareth than the proposed family values of heteronormative orthodoxy.

Closing Comments

It’s important that we read the Gospels critically, not with the credulity of the opiated mobs, much less with the agenda of Muslim apologists like Reza Aslan or the worship of agony and pain we see in Mel Gibson, Mother Theresa and their ilk. Some Atheists for Jesus find the naiveté of the JC Superstar hippies somewhat tempting, but that is also not the same as reading a text critically. Jefferson teaches us that there are, indeed, pearls of wisdom to be found amid the nonsense, and that it’s important to name both the wisdom and the nonsense. The wisdom tradition in the Gospels–like many others–is part of the legacy of all humanity.

While it is clear that the Gospels should not be the ultimate moral authority and source for morals for contemporary people, it’s also undeniable that the Gospels have had an important influence in Western civilization throughout the last fifteen centuries, at least. Many people who have abandoned traditional religion still feel that they have to, in some way, come to terms with their Christian legacy. Others fail to see any value in the Gospels. I’m hoping that this blog series, written through the lens of both Thomas Jefferson and of a modern Epicurean, has helped in some way in that regard, particularly in terms of bringing into relief the useful humanist teachings that can be found in the Gospels.

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Raif Badawi, on Secularism

Secularism is the most important refuge for citizens of a country. Secularism respects everyone and doesn’t offend anyone. It’s the practical solution to lift countries out of the third world and into the first.

Raif Badawi, imprisoned Saudi secular blogger

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Dialogue on the Search for Meaning

This blog follows up on a recent online dialogue on meaning versus pleasure which took place in the Epicurean Philosophy Group. The most important conclusion, as far as using Epicurean tools to weave meaning into our lives, was shared by both myself and Cassius (of NewEpicurean.com):

Cassius. Maybe as important as any other aspect of this discussion is that “living in accord with the guidance of Nature” in the Epicurean framework … ought to be considered MORE meaningful than any of these false abstractions. As I quoted the website above, the writer finds it more satisfying to “become close to god!” Not only is this absurd, but because it is absurd, it is offensive to assert that we can’t value and defend Nature (our true “mother” and “father” too) every bit as intensely as any fake religion ever valued its icon or its false abstraction.

Hiram. As I’ve gained depth in understanding Epicurus over the years, it’s become clear that he saw himself as coming to this world with the mission of reconciling us with nature … Our tradition is meant to supplant religion, in part, by giving people a scientific alternative based on the study of nature. And the authority of the canon (and of our faculties) is REALLY the authority of nature, which is the same as reality. In many important ways, nature has replaced God in our tradition–it is our source of meaning, our ultimate reality, our ultimate authority, and we must seek alignment with her.

This can be seen in the Epicurean prayer in the fragment that says: “Praise be to blessed Nature: she has made what is necessary easy to get, and what is not easy to get unnecessary.”

We also discussed the importance of legacy and mission (in particular the teaching mission of the Epicurean Gardens). To be fair, the original poster had not adopted an Epicurean identity entirely and was merely consecrating one month of his life to it. In the past, we have discussed how Epicurean philosophy is complete and cogent, and therefore confers an identity upon the follower. Delving into it for one month, particularly without Epicurean friends with whom one can blend one’s mind, does not produce the kind of benefit that the tradition gives.

In a way, Epicurean philosophy is more of a distinct type of meaning-endowing “consecration” than pure monotheism because we are smashing one further idol and fully consecrating ourselves to the study of nature, and refusing to replace her with religious fantasies. Many people have difficulty with this, but that is the challenge than an Epicurean has accepted: we are trying to be both happy and authentic, to be happy in reality and not by trying to escape reality.

I want to discuss ways in which one acquires meaning by being part of one’s own sacred narrative.

There is a scene in the Lotus Sutra (a Mahayana Buddhist scripture) that mentions millions of boddhisattvas (beings in the process of awakening) who were present and witnessed a part of the sutra narrative known as the “Treasure Tower scene”. In the Nichiren tradition, the devotees are taught that those awakening beings are the millions of souls who chant the Nam Myoho Renge Kyo mantra daily. Similarly the Torah mentions (as if present) the Jews of the future who were not physically there at the time when all of Israel stood at Mount Sinai receiving God’s laws. Converts to Judaism are told that, according to the Torah, “all of the Jewish people” were there in front of Mount Sinai, including them. This idea of participating in the sacred narrative enshrined in the scripture of these traditions gives adherents a sense of transcendence, of participating in the sacred narrative in a very real way by being mentioned in scripture and abducted into it.

Similarly, speaking for myself and how Epicurean philosophy gives me meaning, I take great pride in standing on the shoulders of the Epicurean intellectuals that came before me and continuing their legacy. There is a kind of historical transcendence that one gains from being fully committed to the Epicurean teaching mission. This is not too different from the kinds of historical transcendence that people in some religions experience.

In the past, I’ve blogged about the stages of development in hedonistic spirituality, drawing from the three kinds of pupils that Epicurus recognized. The followers of Epicurus asserted that his life had taken on the appearance of a legend to them, and if we consider the stages of Epicurus’ own biography, we can glean how this is so and we can also evaluate our philosophical evolution in light of his own. Here are five stages whereby we become Epicurus-like:

  1. Youthful Rebellion. As a child in his grammar school, Epicurus confronted his Platonic teacher, exhibiting youthful rebellion, when his teacher could not empirically explain the creationist myth of the Greeks and the “chaos” that existed at the beginning of creation. He then developed a resolution to establish a natural cosmology to counter-act the myths.
  2. Seeker Who Is Morally Responsible. Later, under his teacher Nausiphanes, Epicurus discovered that there was an atomist school that satisfied his need for a natural cosmology. But it taught a mechanistic view of nature, which he rejected by postulating a swerve in order to justify freedom of choice. In this way, Epicurus became a moral reformer, as the mechanistic view did not allow for personal responsibility.
  3. Truth Sayer. Epicurus’ independence of spirit got him into trouble in the city of Mitiline, where he confronted the Platonists with parrhesia (frank criticism), but this was not welcomed. He was exiled, and nearly lost his life. It was here that Epicurus learned that it is best to remain out of politics and to seek a life without controversy, employing parrhesia only with those close to him whom he trusted. Every Epicurean must master balancing militancy (and our natural desire to better the world) and ataraxia.
  4. Formation and Social Maturity. Having developed a quite complete teaching, Epicurus after his exile turned to Colophon where he and his friends first became a community and together elaborated the right teaching. This is the stage where one’s insights are shared within the context of community, of circles of friends, and philos (the sacred friendship idealized in this philosophy) is born here.
  5. Refuge. The philosophy had a clear identity by the time the Garden settled in Athens, the city that was consecrated to the Goddess of philosophy. In this ripened stage, the Epicurean (like Epicurus) has gained the wisdom that matters on what makes life worth living and is living according to the teaching with missionary zeal.

I hope these discussions have helped Epicureans and non-Epicureans to consider how meaning is a means to pleasure, and how meaning can be positively acquired within our tradition.

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RJB VII: The Gospels’ Indictment of Manonism

occupy-GOLDEN-CALFYou can’t serve both God and money! – Jesus of Nazareth

Manon is the personification of the demon of greed, as well as the Hebrew word for money. Manonism, or the cult of money, received a theatrical indictment during the Occupy Movement when the Wall Street bull was paraded by Christian activists among the demonstrators and mockingly worshipped in a scene that was meant to remind us of Moses and the golden calf episode in the Bible. Later, the newly-published first issue of the Occupy Wall Street Journal called Wall Street the “financial Gomorrah of America”.

More recently, only days after the Orlando massacre, Republicans blocked legislation that might have made it more difficult to people who are suspected of terrorism, or mentally unbalanced, to gain access to certain guns. This seemed to contradict common sense, basic decency, and respect for life, but our politicians are beholden to moneyed interests and place higher priority on profit than all these other values, and the NRA lobbyists are quite wealthy. The US is the biggest weapons producer and exporter on Earth.

Similarly, for the sake of profit, time and again, we find our politicians and many other functionaries engaging in immoral acts, placing the lives and health of their clients and constituents in danger.

Money is a means. It’s a very useful and practical means for acquisition and exchange of goods, but nonetheless a means, and should not be seen as the end. We know this from the observation that there are people of wealth who are miserable, and there’s research that suggests that money acquired beyond a certain point does not lead to greater happiness. This research vindicates the doctrine of Philodemus of Gadara concerning the natural measure of wealth.

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RJB VI: A Few Problems with the Gospels

A few problems have to be named when reading the Gospels. First, when we study nature, there is no final judgment, no life after death, no god, no hellfire, and also there’s no discourse in the Bible to explain these as metaphors. We are left with a mythological worldview that is incompatible with the nature of things.

The use of parables in the Gospels also suffers from lack of clarity. Some of the problems with the following passages arise out of this: throughout history, many fundamentalist Christians have failed to see the parables as symbols, instead choosing a literal reading of them. This either distorts the value of the teaching, or in some cases entirely makes it useless and evil.

And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny.  But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.

But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? – Matthew 20:9-15

The Kingdom of God is often described as a Kingdom of justice and righteousness, however in this one parable, there seem to be some serious issues concerning workers’ rights. Furthermore, it is pointless for workers to air their grievances in labor, as their exploitation is deemed “lawful”. Workers who have been exploited and not paid fairly for their work, after working long hours in the heat of the day, are simply dismissed arrogantly and condescendingly, with this parable being set as an example of what the Kingdom of God is like.

“But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me!” – Luke 19:27

For most of us who grew up with long-haired, hippie, pacifist Jesus as a superhero and as a role model, it is easy to brush aside the sudden transformation into a Middle Eastern dictator that happens in a flash, then subsides. It is also difficult to figure out what to make of the fact that this “Slay them before me!” statement is said in the middle of a parable, so that the problem of lack of clarity in the parables can be catastrophic. During the Middle Ages, Inquisitors removed the eyes of sinners–as per Jesus’ instructions elsewhere in the Gospels, who said that if your hand or your eye makes you sin, remove it! Based on this historical precedent, it must be said that teachers who are perceived to have spiritual authority that speak in obscure parables before credulous masses are, therefore, a serious danger and threat to humanity.

When discussing ethical matters upon which hinge important choices and avoidances that determine the nature of human interaction, it is imperative that we make use of clear speech and that words are clearly defined so that the matter is not confused. Philodemus of Gadara, while voicing the opinions of the Epicurean Scholarchs in his Rhetorica, is a major defender of the virtue of clear speech.

Further Reading:

Reasonings About Philodemus’ Rhetorica

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