Cyrenaic Reasonings III: Theodorus the Godless

This is the third in a blog series on Cyrenaic Philosophy. Please also read the first and second parts.

Atheism, as understood today–particularly in its militant strands–is a fairly modern phenomenon but it’s not by any means new. Many centuries before the Common Era, there was a philosopher militant and outspoken enough to bear the epithet “the Godless”, and he left a lasting legacy: the biographer Diogenes Laertius claims that Epicurus took most of what he said about the gods from Theodorus the Godless, who apparently wrote a scroll (lost to us) titled On the Gods. His later followers, the Theodorans, were known for their polemics and attacks on other philosophers.

Theodorus’ virtues were prudence and justice, and he set joy (and distress) as the ends in his doctrine, presumably the former to be sought and the latter to be avoided. He repudiated friendship and politics. He was magnanimous, proud, and continued teaching Hegesias’ virtues of indifference and autarchy.

In defending the virtues as means to pleasure, he used the example of letter order within words and sentences. The letters by themselves are useless and do not bring any advantage, but when organized meaningfully they convey sense: similarly with utilitarian virtue. The usefulness of virtues in the pursuit of pleasure is self-evident.

Only sages are true kings. – Theodorus the Godless

Theodorus, like his predecessor Hegesias, saw a clear distinction between sages and fools. He said that laws, rules, and penalties exist only for sake of fools, and that sages did not need them because they were naturally good. He therefore rejected the laws of the polis, and sought what is natural and lawful for the self. He was committed to his own “nature”.

We find a paraphrase of one of his sayings in the first and second verses of the Buddhist scripture known as Dhammapada, sometimes known as the Gospel of Sidhartha Buddha. Theodorus’ saying is

Foolishness generates distress and joy follows prudence.

… whereas verses 1-2 of the first Dhamapada chapter read:

Mind precedes all knowables,
mind’s their chief, mind-made are they.
If with a corrupted mind
one should either speak or act
dukkha (suffering) follows caused by that,
as does the wheel the ox’s hoof.

Mind precedes all knowables,
mind’s their chief, mind-made are they.
If with a clear, and confident mind
one should speak and act
happiness follows caused by that,
as one’s shadow ne’er departing.

The influence of Theodorus can even be seen as late as in Philodemus of Gadara, who taught philosophy to wealthy Romans in the first century. Theodorus’ teaching that “it makes no difference whether you rot underground or above it, or at sea”, by which he meant that death is nothing because no one actually experiences it, was later paraphrased by Philodemus in his scroll On Death.

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Happy Twentieth: THIS May Have Happened in the Great All

Happy Twentieth to Epicureans everywhere. This month I will evaluate one curious feature of the doctrine of innumerable worlds: the way in which it seems to have inspired wonder for many generations, and even a storytelling tradition that served as a precursor to science fiction, or as the earliest sample of it. It was initially expounded in detail as a natural by-product of atomist reasonings by Epicurus himself in his Epistle to Herodotus, aka the “Little Epitome”, and in the second century it was mentioned in Diogenes’ Wall. It also helped to inspire the very first work of science fiction in history, Lucian’s True History, which indicates in my mind that speculation about extraterrestrial life–even in the context of comedy–has always been part of the Epicurean cultural tradition.

The doctrine of innumerable worlds was always in the cosmological background, like radiation from the big bang. We reminded each other that there are worlds similar and different to our own in all directions, too numerous to count, an infinity of them, with inhabitants of every kind, and that the laws that govern their coming into existence and living are similar to the ones here (because the same laws of nature apply everywhere), and so therefore they likely live by biological laws similar to the ones on Earth. This pervasive presence of the innumerable worlds in our imagery made its way into Lucretius’ epic poem in a curious manner.

After describing (in a passage on the origins of warfare) an elaborate battle that included humans using animals for warfare, which drove many of the animals mad with rage, Lucretius goes on to say:

This
We, then, may hold as true in the great All,
In divers worlds on divers plan create,
Somewhere afar more likely than upon
One certain Earth.

Lucretius, Book 5 of De Rerum Natura

The Frank Copley translation, as usual, is more clear: “We’d better contend this happened in the All, the myriad worlds created myriad ways, rather than on some one specific sphere.

When Lucretius speaks in this manner, it becomes clear that in this poet’s mind, the innumerable worlds serve as a place to theorize about parallel Earths and Earth-like environments, literally, ad infinitum. This is because, to the atomists, no boundary is observable in all directions. Centuries after the first atomists began entertaining these thoughts, as an avid and passionate participant in our wisdom tradition, Lucretius probably participated in many conversations where people discussed how they imagined the innumerable worlds to be, and perhaps even told elaborate stories filled with intricate details about extraterrestrial characters, societies, and mythologies, closing with the thought: “this may have happened in the Great All, somewhere in the infinity of worlds out there”. We certainly know that Lucian and Lucetius engaged their muse in this manner.

Most people typically think that only traditional religions free the imagination in this manner, having us imagine the heavens in marvelous shapes, colors, and sounds. Hinduism claims that the Gods live in the Vaikuntha planets, Mahayana Buddhists talk about infinite number of Buddha-lands in all directions, and the Quran speaks of Allah as Rabbil Al-Ameen, or “Lord of (all) the Worlds”. But naturalist philosophy also paints us the picture of a wondrous cosmos. A naturalist cosmos is richer than that of traditional religions because it is, literally, infinite in possibilities both in time and space. Like Lucretius, we can say we live in that universe where anything is possible, get on his magic carpet and finish our stories with the words: “This may have been somewhere, sometime in the Great All”.

Further Reading:

Space.com’s Exoplanets Page

Exoplanets.org

 

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Atheist Parable of the Train

No one has ever cut off a head in the name of atheism. No one ever has cut into human flesh and looked into a camera and said: in the name of NOTHING! – Jim Jeffries

I discovered Jim Jeffries’ comedy thanks to a friend who introduced him as an “atheist comedian” and showed me his early religion routine. Later, I saw his God is drunk at a party routine and realized that I’ve become his fan, although I don’t always like him. But foul-mouthed Jeffries has moments where he’s brilliant.

In the middle of his last comedy special, which is titled Freedumb and features a huge American flag in the background, the Australian standup comedian serves an insightful critique of how freedom has come to mean nothing in American discourse. He jokes, seriously, that Americans love to hear that we’re the land of the free when in reality we have the largest prison population on Earth, twice as large as the next country (South Africa). The supposedly “freest country” has the least percentage of free people. He then makes a few comparisons of our freedoms versus those of freer countries like Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands.

He also shared a parable to explain how atheists see the religious mobs, arguing that “religious people are holding us back”, and explaining that it is a myth that we need to save “the Earth”. Earth will continue fine without us. In fact, when seen from space, the signs of human civilization look like mold on a petri dish. When we’re gone, Earth will thrive without us. It’s our species that must save itself from itself.

In the parable of the train, he compares humanity with a train that is running slowly. He argues that atheist scientists are inside the first car, running the engine and making the entire thing work.

In the second car, he jokes that you can find agnostics, who annoy him with their lack of intellectual stamina.

It’s in the back of the train that one finds the religious mobs being carried by the scientists up front. There are so many of them, and relatively so few people at the front of the train, that the poor thing can’t run properly and is struggling to even move.

I realize that this is only a joke, but there are more kernels of truth than most people will admit. About 95% of the members of the Academy of the Sciences are atheists, and in recent weeks there has been a media storm around Ken Ham’s unveiling of his so-called replica of Noah’s Ark, which is a huge and profoundly stupid waste of money and resources that could have gone to scientific research, or to provide education or self-sufficiency assistance to people in poor countries, or to many, many other worthy causes. Instead, it celebrates a Bronze-Age myth that is taken seriously by almost half of the population in the United States.

The politically-incorrect idea that religious people are indeed holding us back was posited over a century ago by Nietzsche, who proposed that the Overman–our next evolutionary phase–must rid her/himself of religion and make his own meaning and value. In fact this has been said time and again by atheists throughout history, and it’s becoming increasingly evident.

By the way, there is a REAL Noah’s Ark somewhere in icy Norway. Scientists there stored seeds and DNA samples from all the Earth species that they were able to acquire and placed them in a vault to be perpetually preserved at sub-zero temperature so that, should many of those species die out or go extinct in a great cataclysm, they can be brought back. Another better way to spend money than Ham’s inane and retrograde Noah’s Ark museum project. We need more people in the first car of the train!

Also Read:

Comedy as an Ideological Weapon

Against the Use of Empty Words

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Cyrenaic Reasonings II: Hegesias and Anniceris

Hegesias

Magnanimous people seem disdainful. – Hegesias

Hegesias had a huge difference of opinion with Anniceris on what makes up the ideal life. Among his anti-social views, we find that he believed that the sage is like a king, has no peer and can’t have friends. He viewed all human relations as subject-object interactions and considered people to be merely instrumental. He also praised the virtue of detached enjoyment of courtesans and the treatment of women as sexual objects, with the understanding that the objectification was mutual.

Lampe argues that “hero ethics” was domesticated by philosophers, and that Hegesias embodies a sort of “heroic code”, where the philosopher is likened to a king. The traditional Greek heroic code involved good reputation, tokens of honor, competition, and violence. This heroic code does not seem particularly hedonistic, and in fact seems to generate great pain and bring ruin to the people.

There is another instance where this ancient intellectual does not seem to fit the profile of a pleasure-seeker. Hegesias claimed that happiness (eudaimonia) was impossible, and his pessimism was notorious for having influenced some of his listeners to commit suicide, according to spurrious surviving anecdotes.

Like Aristippus the Younger, Hegesias believed in a “comprehensive end”, which he defined as “no pain or distress”. He also did not differentiate between sources of pleasure and, in defence of his virtue of indifference, he once said:

It doesn’t matter how much money you have, the rich don’t experience pleasure differently from the poor … Fame and ignominy are (also) indifferent to pleasure.

He argued that when we disdain fame, we become self sufficient in honor, and that since most people lack the intelligence to judge whether or not we’re great, we should therefore live with indifference to fame (that is, lathe biosas).

He also argued (less convincingly) that slavery and freedom were equal and could afford similar amounts of pleasure. This, of course, is a questionable, perhaps a false, consolation.

Anniceris

Anniceris valued non-instrumental friends, respect for parents, action for one’s country, and gratitude. Anniceris was reacting against Hegesias in these respects, which concern the best means that lead to a life of pleasure.

His main disagreement with Hegesias had to do with the role of friends and the good will of others: he argued that, even if we initially acquire friends for utilitarian reasons–for advantage or benefit–ultimately these relationships evolve into a source of pleasure derived from the happiness and wellbeing of the other. Epicurus’ doctrines, when viewed against the backdrop of these controversies, are clearly a continuation and defence of Annaceris’ brand of hedonism. On the value of friends for their own sake and not as instruments, Lampe says:

Anniceris’ doctrine is not only consistent, it is a great improvement on the doctrine of his mainstream predecessors. It preserves the fundamental role of each individual’s experiences of pleasure and pain while simultaneously acknowledging the real psychological force and importance of normal human relationships.

Among his main contributions to the Cyrenaic tradition, Anniceris seems to have taken an interest in elaborating an “economy of pleasure” that defines value in terms of a currency of hedons and dolors (which represent units of pleasure and pain). This indicates that–like later thinkers–he proposed an ethics where choices and avoidances are based on hedonic calculus, and in fact Anniceris seems an important link between and the Cyrenaic procession of arguments and those of the Epicureans.

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In Honor of Angélique Kidjo

kidjoOur masters in the Epicurean tradition are adamant that we only get one life. Too often, we unfortunately wait for celebrities, artists, mentors, and people we admire to die before we find the words to show how much we celebrate and appreciate them. I will not wait for this woman to die without offering my praise to her beautiful musical legacy. I am posting this today in celebration of the 56th birthday of a woman whose joyful, authentic musical legacy I’ve enjoyed for decades. Angélique Kidjo is fortunately still with us, alive and well, and she’s my favorite African artist of all time. I have yet to come across an African musician with the talent, authenticity, and the vocal range that this woman has. I also enjoy that her lyrics have a conscience, and that she’s not afraid to reach across the pond and celebrate the shared musical legacy that her continent has with Latin America, the US, and the Caribbean.

My initiation into Angélique Kidjo’s ecstasies, highs, and mysteries came in the form of enjoying the song that made her famous, Batonga. Throughout her career she has recorded many albums, including one CD exploring the influence that African music has had in United States’ music (Oremi), another one (Black Ivory Soul) on the influence it has had in Brasilian music, and another one (Oyaya) exploring the influence Africa had in Caribbean music.

Kidjo hails from Benin, and in addition to being a truly cosmopolitan artist, she has also been involved in numerous philanthropic projects in and outside of Africa. Some of my favorite songs by her are Senie, Adouma, Mutoto Kwanza, Bahia, Tumba and Iemandja.

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In Memory of A Mother Lioness

brenda-lee-marquez-mccool-2Last year for Pride, I was in San Francisco when they announced that gay marriage was the law of the land and it was the most magical Pride I’ve ever had the pleasure of enjoying. I woke up the next morning to witness random weddings taking place on the sidewalks of San Francisco. I was not naive. I knew that homophobia still existed, and the events in Orlando this year during Pride tragically reminded us of how much work there is still to do. This year, Pride was more sober.

Today is the one-month anniversary of the Orlando shooting and I’d like to do my part in helping to honor the memory of at least some of those who died by telling their stories. This will also help to make sure that we do not soon forget, as often happens when the victims are LGBT or, in this case, allies of the LGBT community.

Among those killed was Brenda Lee Marquez-McCool. She died a hero, choosing to become a human shield to protect her gay son, who survived, and with whom she was there to dance Latin music. She not only threw herself over the body of her son when the bullets came but also, once wounded, ordered him to run so that her sacrifice would not be in vain.

49-year old Brenda had been an outspoken ally of LGBT people and a mother figure to many in her community in addition to her eleven children. She had also twice survived cancer, which probably helps to explain her short hair, as well as her vigorous desire to live and to enter her fifth decade dancing.

The US has about 5% of the world’s population, yet over 30% of the mass shootings on Earth happen here.

#DisarmHate

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Cyrenaic Reasonings I: Aristippus the Older and Aristippus the Younger

Cyrene: a Philosophical Atlantis

Two great intellectual currents converged to create the great river of Epicurean philosophy. The first one is the atomist school founded by Leucippus and Democritus, the laughing philosopher, which concerned itself with the need for scientific and empirical certainly about the nature of things. This evolved into Epicurean physics. The second one was the Cyrenaic school of hedonism, which is the first Greek philosophy that posited that pleasure was the aim of life. This evolved into Epicurean ethics.

In the coming weeks I will be exploring the threads that run through the Cyrenaic Schools and that make their way into the Epicurean one based on the highly-recommended book The Birth of Hedonism: The Cyrenaic Philosophers and Pleasure as a Way of Life, by Kurt Lampe.

Modern hedonist Michel Onfray in his L’invention du plaisir calls the Cyrenaics “a philosophical Atlantis“. He was referring to its famed ancient glory and intellectual achievement, and also to how it was buried–as if by Poseidon’s wrath–under the violent, terrible ocean of Platonic ideas. He also calls Platonism “a neurosis of Western civilization”, against which Cyrenaics built “an anti-Platonic war machine”. The consensus among Epicureans is that we cannot understand Epicurus properly and in his own terms if we do not understand the anti-Platonic nature of his philosophical project. Hence, we have to look to Cyrene, a Greek polis in North Africa in what is today Libya.

Aristippus of Cyrene founded the first philosophical school that proposed hedonism. He believed it to be self-evident that pleasure is the aim that our own nature seeks, and that it also seeks the avoidance of pain. The center of the Cyrenaic school was always in Libya–which is why the school is identified with Cyrene, although many of these thinkers went to Athens and other cities, and their ideas did spread.

Epistemology

Unlike the Epicureans, who valued and believed in the possibility of scientific and empirical certainty, the Cyrenaics were skepticists. They separated the experiences (pathe) from what caused them. Experiences are direct and self-evident and we could know things about them with certainty, whereas we could know less about their causes.

This schism produced a kind of hedonic solipsism. They retreated into their own experiences like turtles into their shell. They knew they were being cut or burnt, but refused to recognize as real the knife that cut them, the iron or fire that burned them. They were so radical in their loyalty to this skepticism that, rather than recognizing the connection between their experiences and external reality, they preferred to speak in terms of “I am being cooled, I am being sweetened, etc.”, therefore ignoring the causes of their experiences.

This may seem immature or impractical to us, and in fact later hedonists (i.e. Epicurus) took hedonism to the next level when they acknowledged both experiences and their sources as real.

Ethics

There is one key doctrine that both Epicureans and Cyrenaics share. To the Cyrenaics, pleasure is satisfying and ergo choice-worthy for its own sake, and pain is repellent and ergo avoidance-worthy. These truths, they argued, are directly experienced and self-evident, and require no arguments or logic. Epicurus also refused to argue about pleasure and pain, saying that these are faculties within our own nature that receive raw data from nature, and not subject to logical formulas or arguments.

This constituted an ecological and philosophical revolt of the body against its by-product, the soul. The arrogance of the rebellion and tyranny of Logos against matter was over. Reason was replaced by Nature. Plato’s ideas and Aristotelian logic had been replaced by nature’s hedonic tone. Aphrodite had usurped Athena’s philosophical primacy.

Pleasure, sometimes qualified further as “tranquil pleasure”, is therefore the end (telos), in the sense that it is final, comprehensive, and sufficient.

Lampe thinks that Cyrenaics are eudaimonics (believed in happiness as the end, not just pleasure), but most scholars disagree. It’s likely that a variety of views existed within the school regarding the end. One of the key arguments for hedonism (i.e. pleasure as the end) in its inception had to do with how pleasure is not the same thing as happiness. Pleasure is an instance, happiness is a collection of pleasures, and as such happiness is therefore an abstraction, a platonized alternative to the real experience of pleasure. This argument is interesting, and still generates debate and various opinions today.

The Founder and the Lineage

The Cyrenaic school is not entirely uniform in its doctrine. Instead it seems to have evolved and changed, so that various strains of Cyrenaic philosophy evolved.

Aristippus was confident. He valued confidence and being comfortable, rather than anxious or fearful. Later hedonists will teach that, in order to secure a life of pleasure, one must have confident expectation and avoid uncertainty, which exacerbates fear. In Vatican Saying 34, we see how friendship is one important source of confident expectation.

Aristippus believed that his philosophy gave sociability and adaptability and made him able to associate confidently with others. This adaptability in space and time is an important Cyrenaic and hedonistic virtue. Aristippus “enjoyed what’s present and didn’t hunt after what’s not“–an attitude that would later be paraphrased by Lucretius–and saw the world in terms of opportunities for enjoyment and risks of pain.

Aristippus also instructed his disciples in a zen-like discipline known as “presentism”, or being in the present, as a therapeutic spiritual exercise. This virtuous practice was linked to the philosopher’s adaptability: he was willing to put less faith in his ability to control what happens in the future than in his ability to adapt to it. This would later influence defiant attitudes towards Fortune in Principal Doctrine 16 and Vatican Saying 47.

The influence of this virtuous adaptability in later Epicureanism shows up in the last two of the four remedies–“pleasure is easy to attain, pain is easy to endure”–and in the fragment that says: “We thank nature for she made the needful things easy to acquire, and the things difficult to acquire she made then unnecessary”. This all sounds like the kind of hedonist ethical training that Aristippus would have instituted.

Aristippus’ daughter was Arete, and his student was Antipater. Arete taught the philosophy to her son, Aristippus the Metrodidact, who formally set pleasure as the goal and defined it as kinetic (or moving, dynamic), as smooth motion. He also said that we exclusively and only have perception of our own pathe states (that is: pleasure and aversion, or the hedonic tone). Many people still confuse the first Aristippus with his grandson, when in truth they each made distinct contributions to the philosophy.

The Metrodidact’s only named pupil was Theodorus the Godless, who wrote a work titled On the Gods and idealized indifference. He lived in Athens he influenced people in high places. This Theodorus the Godless character reminds me of George Carlin, another atheist philosopher and one of whose famous speeches is on the importance of “not giving a shit”.

Antipater, the initial disciple of the first Aristippus, taught Epitimides, who taught Hegesias–who was known for his pessimism and egoism, and Anniceris–Hegesias’ opponent who valued friendship and sometimes was mistakenly called a proto-Epicurean. He also taught Dionysus of Heraclea, who is known to have said that he “trusted his body instead of the stoa”.

From these students of Aristippus’ teachings, three Cyrenaic schools emerged: the Hegesiacs, the Annicerans, and the Theodoreans. We will look at these next.

P.S. When events do not go as expected, it is up to us to decide who we are with regards to those events. Look at inconveniences as opportunities to train yourself in the arts of adaptability. You may find that your quality of life improves considerably. I recently found myself initially bothered by the need to spend half a day running errands, but then decided to apply what I had learned from Aristippus. I decided to turn my adventure through town into an opportunity to stop and eat my favorite pizza, which made the entire trip worth it. Little opportunities to apply philosophical insights do make a difference in one’s life.

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