The Philosophy of Dark

For the last couple of months, my neighbor and I have been binge-watching episodes of the first and second season of Dark, which is like a German version of Stranger Things, but with more adultery and less CGI … but that’s, of course, a very simplistic way of describing the series. Like much sci-fi, there’s as much (or more) focus on the ideas as there is on character development.

The basic problem of the series is that a time machine or method of time travel exists that opens portals every 33 years and allows the residents of a small town to develop complex relations with the people from three-decade intervals. Much character development revolves around the desire to change fate which, supposedly, can not be changed. While there probably are more elements of fantasy than sci-fi in the series, it does raise some interesting hypothetical scenarios and philosophical questions.

The Self Through Time

After watching the finale, it became clear to me that Dark draws inspiration from Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return. It also makes us look at identity through time. The series raises questions about identity and the extent to which we are today the same person that we were decades ago. Some characters change so radically that they adopt a new name, or enmities evolve between the selves from other times. Can we create a transcendental sense of self that is detached from its personal history?

What would you tell your older self? Your younger self? Are we the same self? In what ways are we enemies to our older or future self? In what ways may we be friends to our future self?

There is obvious therapeutic utility to these hypothetical scenarios: many people have a strong need to forgive their past self, or envision their future self.

A Stoic Series

Ultimately, Dark is about determinism. The characters develop a strong belief in unavoidable destiny, even as they struggle time and again in vain against the destinies they are shown. In the series, Time is a god. Time is not personified, but in a way it’s treated as a character. Just as Chronos swallowed his own children, and the Hindu god of time Kala manifests in the Bhagavad Gita devouring soldiers who are dying in battle, Time here also swallows people.

And just like with the Biblical god (and perhaps the ancient Greek Gods, if we are to judge from the Prometheus myth), the worshipers of this god are given admonitions against trying to “play God”. They are shown awful unintended consequences when they challenge the dictates of Lord Time.

Just as Planet of the Apes and King Kong emerged at a time when people were struggling to accept the Darwinian idea that we evolved from lower animals, and just as The Matrix explored our fears about a cyber-apocalypse around the year 2000, Dark explores more recent apprehensions about what is being called “the God particle”, and about experiments with particle physics that had been taking place in isolated labs in Europe.

Whenever these types of admonitions are given legitimacy, it echoes the pessimistic warnings often made by religious people against playing god, and against the advance of science. While I disagree with the “morale” of this fable, it’s true that this fatalism helps to keep the plot intriguing.

Ancestral Veneration

Ancestral altars are made in every culture by people who wish to contact their loved ones. The fantasy of being able to open a portal and to hug once again a person whom we loved … well, that fantasy is observed universally. It’s clear that it fulfills a therapeutic role for people, regardless of what we may believe about the actual ontological status of ancestral veneration practices.

The time machine performs that role in several scenes in the series: people are able to once again see loved ones who had passed. Old wounds re-open, and sometimes unresolved conflicts are allowed to heal, unsaid words are verbalized, etc.

In spite of ideological commitments on the part of the writers of the series that I do not share, I believe fans of fantasy and science fiction will likely enjoy Dark.

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Happy Twentieth! On the misfortune of the wise and the prosperity of the fool

Happy Twentieth of September! Some updates: SoFE has a new Instagram Feed and a new Books We Recommend section, and I translated the essay Epicurean ethics as a morality of self-care from Spanish. A new video on the Epicurean gods is the first in a new Tetrapharmakos series of videos. The second one is titled Death is Nothing to Us: The Epicureans on Death. We will be publishing many more educational modules. If you’d like to support the teaching mission of the Epicurean Gardens, please consider subscribing to my Patreon.

Jordan, author of the Modern Epicurean blog, published Epicurean Ethics Considered and Defended–a commentary on Toby Sherman’s thesis “Epicureanism: An Ancient Guide to Modern Wellbeing”. This is a summary of a thesis which aims to defend the Epicurean claim that the upper limit of pleasure is the absence of pain. Jordan says that “it’s a fairly advanced piece, and that one would need a fair grasp of Epicurean ethics before reading it”. One needs to understanding aponia and ataraxia, the distinctions amongst desires, and the difference between kinetic and static pleasure.

George Kateb has posted a video about Epicurean Thoughts on Death, and popular YouTuber Einzelgänger has posted a video titled How Epicurus Keeps Calm. Medium has published The Epicurean Guide to Happiness by Aushaf Widisto.

A new pamphlet has been added to SoFE: Epicureanism, a brief introduction gives a quick overview of the Four Cures.

In the essay How to not fear your death, the author mentions some of the Epicurean therapeutic teachings to heal fear of death.

Parts I, II, III and IV of the book review of Pyrrho’s Way: The Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism. In this review, I use a modern introduction and explanation of Pyrrhonic Skepticism to defend the Epicurean canon, and to explain the difference between Skeptic and Epicurean conceptions of ataraxia. Doug Bates–author of the book I reviewed–replied with an essay titled Epicureanism Versus Pyrrhonism. Overall, these discussions have been very productive and help students of EP to discern the difference between the two traditions and to understand the importance of the canon.

In his Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus says that the misfortune of the wise is better than the prosperity of the fool. This is a radical statement, and I decided to attempt to unpack this. Vatican Saying 53 may help with this:

We must envy no one, for the good do not deserve envy and the bad, the more they prosper, the more they injure themselves.

The argument here seems to be that the ignorant to not know how to enjoy life. It can be dangerous for a person who is foolish or who suffers from mental health issues to have unlimited access to wealth, particularly if she’s not able to discern the limits of pleasure.

By now, we are all acquainted with celebrities who die an early death, or who fall into addiction. My first thought when I read about this has to do with people I’ve known who, upon getting money in excess of what they need, have spent it on unnecessary cosmetic surgery. One friend who did this was in his 30’s, was obsessed with his appearance, and at one point disappeared from social media and we did not hear from him again. He had been dealing with depression, and it’s common for depressed people to self-isolate, but in his case I always wondered if maybe he did the ONE cosmetic surgery that went too far and is now embarrassed to be seen in public.

I believe that the saying that “the misfortune of the wise is better than the prosperity of the fool” is, in part, a critique of the meritocracy myth. Perhaps others agree, or disagree. Let me know in the comments. But it is clear, from this statement, that not everyone who is wise gets prosperity and that not everyone who is foolish is also poor, and that the wise know what to do with their prosperity OR poverty whereas the foolish do not know what to do with either.

The meritocracy myth says that those who prosper DESERVE to prosper, and that they know better what to do with their prosperity than those who fail to prosper. While it is true that sometimes good people do prosper (and, presumably, do deserve to prosper), the Letter to Menoeceus and VS 53 remind us that evil people and foolish people may also prosper, and that when they do they often injure themselves.

One final point I wish to make is that this distinction between the wise and the foolish is key to understanding the Epicurean approach to moral problems, and how “justice” is not the same for everyone (as the Principal Doctrines declare). Prudence is important to Epicureans, and observing the behavior of people who lack prudence versus those who are wise is an important exercise. It helps us to understand that not everyone is equally deserving of trust, or equally capable of carrying certain responsibilities.

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Happy Birthday, José Feliciano

In 1968, a blind Puerto Rican man sang the national anthem at the World Series. His name was José Feliciano, and his performance is considered of historical importance, not only because he was Hispanic, and blind, but also because he performed the anthem with a Spanish guitar and sang a very unconventional, jazzy version of the anthem. This was considered risky, controversial, and perhaps disrespectful. But immediately after his performance, it became clear that people loved his version of the anthem, and he forever changed the conventions concerning how to sing the national anthem.

A couple of years later, his song Feliz Navidad was released, which by now has become the most well-known bilingual Christmas song. Because of his decades-long place in the pantheon of Hispanic celebrities, and because of the inspiring story of a man who was born blind but was able to rise to such heights, many people have become endeared to Feliciano. He’s become an ambassador for both the Spanish-Speaking and the English-speaking Americas, as attested by his openness to so many musical influences. His song Americano is frequently played by Hispanic new US citizens at their naturalization ceremony.

Feliciano has also changed the conventions tied to traditional Spanish-language music. His cover of Moliendo Café is quintessentially Latin but it sounds like a precursor to modern Latin rock and is, by far, the best version of this classic.

Most recently, many Millennials have discovered Feliciano thanks to one of his old songs being featured in the film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. His cover of California Dreamin’ is better than the original, in my view.

Thank you, José Feliciano, for the many hours of listening pleasure your music has given me!

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Epicurean Ataraxia Vs. Skeptic Ataraxia

The following is the conclusion of the book review of Pyrrho’s Way: The Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism, by Doug Bates. Here are Parts I, II and III.

The end to be realized they hold to be suspension of judgement, which brings with it tranquility like its shadow: so (Skeptic philosophers) Timon and Aenesidemus declare. – Diogenes Laertius 9.11 (107)

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow. – First two verses of the Dhammapada (Buddha’s Gospel)

It is also possible that the Epicureans, whose aim was also ataraxia, learned something from Pyrrho; there are indications of an association between Pyrrho and Nausiphanes, the teacher of Epicurus. But if so, the extent of the Epicureans’ borrowing was strictly limited. For them, ataraxia is to be attained by coming to understand that the universe consists of atoms and void; and the Epicureans’ attitude towards the senses was anything but one of mistrust. – Conclusion of Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s essay on Pyrrho

Pyrrho is believed to have been a student of Democritus (the co-inventor of atomism), so Nausiphanes (Epicurus’ atomist teacher) may have met Pyrrho while studying atomism from Democritus. Epicurus most likely met Pyrrho through his teacher, Nausiphanes. Upon witnessing Pyrrho’s serene state of mind and behavior, Epicurus seems to have been so impressed that he replaced Democritus’ cheerfulness with ataraxia as an ethical ideal. Laertius’ account of Pyrrho’s life in DL 9.11 (64) says:

even Nausiphanes, when (he was) a young man, was captivated by (Pyrrho): at all events he used to say that we should follow Pyrrho in disposition but himself in doctrine; and he would often remark that Epicurus, greatly admiring Pyrrho’s way of life, regularly asked him for information about Pyrrho; and that he was so respected by his native city that they made him high priest, and on his account they voted that all philosophers should be exempt from taxation.

The Pyrrhonist view that ataraxia comes about from suspension of belief stands in opposition to the Epicurean view that ataraxia comes about from RIGHT belief about the nature of things. Both traditions developed methods to “cure by argument”, but while the Pyrrhonist method was meant to produce epoche (suspension of belief), the Epicurean method was meant to align our views with the evidence of nature.

Pyrrhonist ataraxia also helps people to let go of having to be right … but in order to do this, it engages in complicated processes of dismantling one’s views. Does arguing endlessly against appearances REALLY produce ataraxia? According to Pyrrho’s Way (page 39), once epoche is achieved consistently, one will experience aphasia (which translates as “non-assertion, silence, speechlessness”). In page 225, Bates says that Pyrrhonism causes speechlessness and sleeplessness. It’s not clear why these “achievements” are seen as desirable.

Is belief the same as attachment, as Bates claims? Can we believe pleasure is good, pain is bad, and enjoy pleasure without attachment–like a bee that collects pollen and nectar, then moves on to the next flower? Can we train ourselves to have a disposition that is both pleasant and detached? If this is so, then we must discard the Pyrrhonian argument that belief and attachment are one and the same thing.

When we study Philodemus’ method of studying and cultivating the virtues, we see the difference between Pyrrhonism and Epicureanism. In Epicureanism, false beliefs are REPLACED with true ones once we become aware of our behavioral output informed by our beliefs. Pyrrhonist methods call for a constant questioning of truths in order to achieve epoche, or suspension of belief. For instance, an Epicurean who is a maximalist might use the study of nature to assimilate the truth that we need very little to live pleasantly, and may do away with consumerist tendencies, or with buying things that do not add to happiness and are quickly obsolete. It’s not clear to me what a Pyrrhonist would do. Since he accepts cultural conventions, will he attempt to keep up with wealthier neighbors, get into debt, and remain a wage slave for the rest of his life? How does suspension of belief help him? Since he refuses to hold beliefs concerning h0w much is needed in life, how will he know what to do, how much he should struggle, or what limits nature sets to his desires? I have a strong suspicion that Colotes and other ancient Epicureans who argued that Epicureanism is the only philosophy that can actually be practiced, may have been drawing on anti-Pyrrho criticism.

While looking through the sources to see what the founders of Epicureanism may have to say about the relation between ataraxia and dogma (which is to say certainty, as opposed to Pyrrhonist ataraxia that would rely on “suspension” of opinions), Principal Doctrines 22-25 seem to offer important insights. PD 22 says that if we don’t “take into account … all clear evidence of sense to which we refer our opinions … everything will be full of uncertainty and confusion.” PD 25 says that if we fail to heed the pleasure and aversion faculty, our “acts will not be consistent with our theories.” PD 23 specifically tackles the problem of Skepticism: “If you fight against all your sensations, you will have no standard to which to refer, and thus no means of judging even those judgments which you pronounce false.” PD 24 argues that radical Skepticism produces confusion.

If you reject absolutely any single sensation without stopping to discriminate with respect to that which awaits confirmation between matter of opinion and that which is already present, whether in sensation or in feelings or in any immediate perception of the mind, you will throw into confusion even the rest of your sensations by your groundless belief and so you will be rejecting the standard of truth altogether. If in your ideas based upon opinion you hastily affirm as true all that awaits confirmation as well as that which does not, you will not escape error, as you will be maintaining complete ambiguity whenever it is a case of judging between right and wrong opinion.

Notice that PD 24 stresses the value of discriminating between that which “awaits confirmation” (evidence) and that which is evident. In this PD, he stresses the importance of not rushing into a conclusion without evidence, and also of not dismissing the confirmations or evidence that nature presents. In Pyrrhonism, all truths remain in a state of “awaiting confirmation”. Epicurus began with a mind of skepticism (he was able to discern which things await confirmation), but applied the canon once things were evident and clear.

The Empirical School of Medicine

The therapeutic method known as “cure by argument” may have been originally Skeptic. Sextus Empiricus, who lived before Philodemus of Gadara, used it. Both Philodemus and Sextus were influenced in their approach to therapeutic philosophy by the Empiric school of medicine.

According to Bates (page 168) that school had a “tripod of medicine”: observe (the symptoms), keep a history (of prior observations made by others), and find an analogy (select treatment by comparing with a known disease that most resembles the observed symptoms).

There’s another way in which historical forces shaped Hellenistic philosophy: Epicurus’ own personal history influenced the doctrine he proclaimed. His mother Chaerestrate had been very superstitious, suffered from fear of dreams and other supernatural beliefs, and in his doctrine Epicurus sought to heal similar problems in others. Later, during the French Enlightenment, La Mettrie had struggled with unwarranted Catholic guilt, so his path to ataraxia included banishing that perturbance by adopting a sex-affirming attitude. It’s possible that both nature and culture may produce other, yet-unnamed, obstacles to ataraxia.

The key thing to understand is that for the Skeptics, the path to ataraxia is found in suspension of beliefs. They argue that the soul is treated by methods of inquiry that lead to epoche. For the Epicureans, ataraxia isn’t found in suspension of belief, but in right belief (about the gods, about the future, about the past, about death, about natural and non-mythical explanations for phenomena, etc.) and it’s a feeling of tranquil pleasure that (according to Diogenes of Oenoanda) allows for OTHER pleasures to enter the soul.

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Sale of Creeds: Pyrrho

Since I’m writing a blog series on Pyrrhonism, I thought I’d share the Pyrrhonic portion of Lucian’s comedy “Sale of Creeds”, where each philosophy that was popular in antiquity is personified as a slave being sold in the market. The Epicurean slave simply liked sweet things and was quite content. The funniest character in the satire was Diogenes the Cynic, who behaved like a dog–barking and wiggling its tail and licking its owner (as well as other behavior …). The Pyrrho portion sees comedic value in the slave’s questioning whether he was REALLY been sold and whether he REALLY has an owner.

Zeus. Now get those benches straight there, and make the place fit to be seen. Bring up the lots, one of you, and put them in line. Give them a rub up first, though; we must have them looking their best, to attract bidders. Hermes, you can declare the sale-room open, and a welcome to all comers.–For Sale! A varied assortment of Live Creeds. Tenets of every description.–Cash on delivery; or credit allowed on suitable security.

Hermes. Here they come, swarming in. No time to lose; we must not keep them waiting … Now I want Epicureanism. Who offers for Epicureanism? He is a disciple of the laughing creed and the drunken creed, whom we were offering just now. But he has one extra accomplishment–impiety. For the rest, a dainty, lickerish creed.

Sixth D. What price?

Her. Eight pounds.

Sixth D. Here you are. By the way, you might let me know what he likes to eat.

Her. Anything sweet. Anything with honey in it. Dried figs are his favourite dish.

Sixth D. That is all right. We will get in a supply of Carian fig-cakes…

Zeus. What have we left?

Her. There is Scepticism. Come along, Pyrrhias, and be put up. Quick’s the word. The attendance is dwindling; there will be small competition. Well, who buys Lot 9?

Ninth D. I. Tell me first, though, what do you know?

Sc. Nothing.

Ninth D. But how’s that?

Sc. There does not appear to me to be anything.

Ninth D. Are not we something?

Sc. How do I know that?

Ninth D. And you yourself?

Sc. Of that I am still more doubtful.

Ninth D. Well, you are in a fix! And what have you got those scales for?

Sc. I use them to weigh arguments in, and get them evenly balanced, They must be absolutely equal–not a feather-weight to choose between them; then, and not till then, can I make uncertain which is right.

Ninth D. What else can you turn your hand to?

Sc. Anything; except catching a runaway.

Ninth D. And why not that?

Sc. Because, friend, everything eludes my grasp.

Ninth D. I believe you. A slow, lumpish fellow you seem to be. And what is the end of your knowledge?

Sc. Ignorance. Deafness. Blindness.

Ninth D. What! sight and hearing both gone?

Sc. And with them judgement and perception, and all, in short, that distinguishes man from a worm.

Ninth D. You are worth money!–What shall we say for him?

Her. Four pounds.

Ninth D. Here it is. Well, fellow; so you are mine?

Sc. I doubt it.

Ninth D. Nay, doubt it not! You are bought and paid for.

Sc. It is a difficult case. . . . I reserve my decision.

Ninth D. Now, come along with me, like a good slave.

Sc. But how am I to know whether what you say is true?

Ninth D. Ask the auctioneer. Ask my money. Ask the spectators.

Sc. Spectators? But can we be sure there are any?

Ninth D. Oh, I’ll send you to the treadmill. That will convince you with a vengeance that I am your master.

Sc. Reserve your decision.

Ninth D. Too late. It is given.

Her. Stop that wrangling and go with your purchaser. Gentlemen, we hope to see you here again to-morrow, when we shall be offering some lots suitable for plain men, artisans, and shopkeepers.

Lucian, Sale of Creeds

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In Defense of Dogmatism

The following is the continuation of the book review of Pyrrho’s Way: The Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism, by Doug Bates. The first part of the review is here.

In Pyrrho’s Way, Doug Bates presents numerous arguments in favor of the Hellenistic Skeptic tradition, and against dogmatism. For the sake of clarity, let me explain what is at stake. In modern parlance, generic skepticism means “a skeptical attitude; doubt as to the truth of something”, and a second definition (of the philosophy of Skepticism) is as “the theory that certain knowledge is impossible“. Skeptical means “not easily convinced; having doubts or reservations”, and a second definition says that Skeptical philosophy relates to the theory that certain knowledge is impossible.

On the other hand, a modern definition of dogmatism is “the tendency to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true, without consideration of evidence or the opinions of others“. These are the first definitions that showed up for me in an online search. Part of the problem that we face when we discuss ancient philosophy in a 21st Century setting, is that words carry meanings that were not originally intended. Notice that both definitions unfairly dismiss evidence as a criterion for dogma, which is the Epicurean method. Being skeptical is called for when we have no evidence one way or another. That is fair: but when we HAVE evidence and corroboration of it by various senses and faculties, then (Epicureans argue) it is necessary to acknowledge dogmatic truths, so that we may found additional knowledge in the future on the truths already established, and verify them against these truths. The dogmatism of the Epicureans is empirical, evidence-based. The modern definition of dogmatism seems to exclude this, perhaps because dogmatism has come to be associated with Christian and other faiths whose doctrines have nothing to do with empirical evidence.

Furthermore, in introducing this controversy, we must also explain the meaning of the Canon. In Epicurean philosophy, the Canon is the standard of truth that was established by nature. To us, this Canon is composed of three sets of faculties (frequently known as the Tripod of Truth): the five senses, the pleasure / aversion faculty, and the anticipations (a pre-rational faculty tied to memory and speech). In generic philosophy, the canon (from the Greek word for “measuring stick”) is any standard that is established for truth–so that the canon includes the implicit understanding that truth can be attained. So the question of the extent to which we should be skeptical or dogmatical, in the philosophical sense, is tied to the problem of the canon, whether it’s fair to establish a standard of truth, and to what extent it’s trustworthy.

Bates polemicizes (page 41) the tendency to “dogmatize” regarding the non-evident. For instance, Epicurus’ Letter to Pythocles dogmatizes concerning astronomical phenomena (which was not empirically available to the ancients via telescopes or space flights) utilizing the Epicurean method of inference by analogy, as described in Philodemus’ scroll On Methods of Inference. While this method is not perfect, and there may be problems in determining the extent to which two phenomena must be similar in order for the inference to apply, this method remains much more reliable, safer, and useful than speculation without evidence. Also, this critique does not address the core problem with Skepticism: that it treats evidence as unimportant, dismissing it as “appearances”, not as truth.

Pyrrho’s Way (by showing us some of the key flaws of Skepticism) allows us an opportunity to see why philosophy should not be endlessly speculative, and why doctrines not only help us to assimilate important truths, but can also be useful as Epicurean upayas, or efficient means to a pleasant life.

Frequently while reading the book, it occurred to me that Skepticism is not too different from nihilism. No truths can be established, and nothing has meaning. When I approached the author to see if he wanted to engage in friendly debate concerning this point, he did not produce an argument against skepticism being nihilistic. In his book, he accuses nihilism of being just another dogma, which sounds like Pyrrhonist word-play. It looks, walks, and quacks like nihilism.

Are All “Truths” Equally Valid?

Let’s consider the main epistemological problem at hand. Pyrrho would agree with those that say that everything is fake news. No certainty is ever possible. In one passage of the book, Bates gives same amount of credibility to a baby having one father versus multiple fathers, as some tribes believe, thereby resulting in extreme moral and epistemological relativity. This view might find some adherents in the nihilistic, post-modern world–but it’s extremely flawed. Extreme suspension of belief is non-empirical: it treats all empirical truths as equally valid to dangerous or idiotic superstitions.

Furthermore, the lack of a canon, of a standard of empirical evidence is dangerous. We saw it most recently in the death of Herman Cain, and in Brasil President Balsonaro’s CoVid diagnosis. These two prominent leaders had been denialists of scientific “dogmas”, of truths that had been empirically established, and had surrounded themselves with peddlers of religious faith who insisted that scientific insight has no value. Cain’s death shows that empirical facts do make a difference, and can indeed be a matter of life and death.

Science is of particular importance to Epicurean dogmatists because, in many ways, the scientific method has perfected the Epicurean canon. It has given us focused, and highly efficient, methodologies to use and interpret empirical data.

Bates claims that Skepticism is responsible for scientific advance–and there may be some limited merit to that claim–but science could not have evolved using the tools skepticism provides because if we accept that no truth or certainty is possible, a hypothesis can’t evolve into a theory. It remains forever in a speculative state because there is no canon, no standard to determine whether its truths can be established. In page 167, Bates equates science’s insights to “faith”, and disregards both evidence as well as checks and balances that might help us discern between truth and untruth. Following the Skeptical method, there’s nothing wrong with “prophet” Muhammad’s unwillingness to provide proof for his outlandish supernatural claims, and they have to be considered potentially true even in the face of evidence against them because societal convention (in some societies) accepts them.

Many of the false beliefs that people adopt are dangerous to our lives, our health, and our happiness. Denialism about CoVID (and about sexual education, and many other matters related to health) can have devastating results, including death. The belief among some fundamentalists that God forbids blood transfusion has led to the death of many children of pious families. Unwarranted religious beliefs also lead to great violence and injustice–from terrorism to the loss of even the most basic civil freedoms in many countries.

Does Dogmatism Really Make us Arrogant?

At times, Pyrrho’s Way reads like an anti-dogmatist manifesto. Are dogmas as dangerous as Skepticism claims? Bates (in page 234) goes as far as to claim that all evil done to others is based on “beliefs”, and even that the civil war was caused by dogmatism–which was a bit forced. He also says (page 36) that the “analog to dogma in Buddhism is attachment”, “conceit”, and that dogmas are like parasites which must be removed via epoche (the suspension of opinion). Epoche is achieved through the opposition of arguments.

Can one hold something to be true while remaining unattached to this truth? I think it’s possible to remain unattached, but not necessarily always desirable.

In a scholarly dispute, he who loses gains more because he has learned something. – VS 74

The book argues the simplistic view that “skeptics are humble and dogmatists are arrogant”. But dogmatism can be the humble acceptance of evidence. An arrogant dogmatist would say “I have the truth, and if you disagree I will cease being your friend“. A humble dogmatist may say “I know these truths, but I respect that you have a different opinion“. An arrogant skeptic will be a troll, constantly questioning one’s every opinion while offering no alternative views because there are no truths out there. A humble skeptic will use his methodology to achieve ataraxia.

Can Humans Live Without a Criterion for Truth?

I’ve seen all of the above in people I’ve met. Laertius, Book 9.11 (74) of his Lives of Eminent Philosophers said

            The Sceptics were constantly engaged in overthrowing the dogmas of all schools, but enunciated none themselves; and though they would go so far as to bring forward and expound the dogmas of the others, they themselves laid down nothing definitely, not even the laying down of nothing. So much so that they even refuted their laying down of nothing, saying, for instance, “We determine nothing,” since otherwise they would have been betrayed into determining …

Pyrrhonists are adamant that the rejection of all dogmas is not itself a dogma, but this requires great skill at word play and rhetoric on their part. Pyrrho classifies things as evident (the Zen word is “intimate”) or non-evident (harder to reconcile among people), and will concede that things are evident, but not that they’re real. The “appearances versus facts” controversy sounds like word play. Appearances are particles in photons, aromas are particles in the air, noise is waves in the air, etc. There’s a way in which these attestations from nature can’t be other than factual. Later in (103), Laertius continues to attest to the arguments between Skeptists and Dogmatists, citing the Skeptics as saying:

And we say in conversation that a certain thing appears white, but we are not positive that it really is white.

Diogenes Laertius 9.11 (106) is more biographer than philosopher, but even in his work he argues that it’s impossible to go through life without a criterion for truth by saying:

Therefore the apparent is the Sceptic’s criterion, as indeed Aenesidemus says; and so does Epicurus.

Even La Mettrie, who called himself an “Epicurean Skeptic”, focused on the canon in his studies of the faculties of the soul. And so the Skeptics are often accused by the dogmatists of word play: appearances, which are evident for all, for all intents and purposes are true. Why not call them true? When the book argues that “we (Skeptics) do not oppose evident truths“, this is the same as trying to say that something can be evident but untrue. Laertius, in his account of Pyrrho’s life, seems to indicate that Skepticism proves to be unreliable by saying (Book 9.11, 71)

Some call Homer the founder of this school, for to the same questions he more than anyone else is always giving different answers at different times, and is never definite or dogmatic about the answer.

Can a person that acts in this way be considered reliable and dependable? Even as they claim to have no doctrines or criteria for truth, they still need a functional canon or practical standard. Their insistence that their standard is not a canon simply renders their words meaningless. In Diogenes Laertius 9.11 (101), this is the reported

There is nothing good or bad by nature, for if there is anything good or bad by nature, it must be good or bad for all persons alike, just as snow is cold to all. But there is no good or bad which is such to all persons in common; therefore there is no such thing as good or bad by nature. For either all that is thought good by anyone whatever must be called good, or not all. Certainly all cannot be so called; since one and the same thing is thought good by one person and bad by another; for instance, Epicurus thought pleasure good and Antisthenes thought it bad; thus on our supposition it will follow that the same thing is both good and bad. But if we say that not all that anyone thinks good is good, we shall have to judge the different opinions; and this is impossible because of the equal validity of opposing arguments. Therefore the good by nature is unknowable.

This critique by Diogenes Laertius, that Skeptics withheld judgment even on ethical matters, reminds me of Philodemus’ critiques against the rhetors who worked as lawyers, and frequently defended both the right and wrong position in court cases. The view that since subjective experiences are relative, there are no moral truths, is rejected by the Epicureans, who point out that nothing absolute exists. We know that Polystratus argued in this manner in Irrational Contempt. His argument echoes Epicurus’ Epistle to Herodotus, which says that in addition to primary or inherent properties, bodies also have relational properties. In this way, the first Epicureans argued in favor of a moral realism based on the physics.

Different people experience things differently. Polystratus attributed this to the relational properties of bodies. He cited examples of how some people are allergic to bees or peanuts, but not to other things, or how some plants cure people with certain diseases but not others, or how a magnet attracts certain stones but not others. He said that this is the result of the properties of the relevant bodies. Similarly, the pleasant and the painful, the noble and the vile, are also relational properties. Social chemistry is, literally, chemistry. Just as we may be affected by the presence of a certain allergen in the air, people affect each other in their social interactions, which–we now know–produce the release of oxytocin and other hormones. Polystratus’ argument is that nothing absolute exists, but that does not render relational properties of bodies any less real.

One other problem must be pointed out concerning Pyrrhonist ethics. If we say that nothing is inherently good or bad, does this not lead to a lack of critical thinking? Is there no cruelty, no harm, no pain or suffering? Can these things be “good”? Can words have meaning anymore? Anyone who has a moral compass, must refer his moral judgments to SOME criterion, or else he’s practicing passive nihilism.

Skeptics, who pride themselves in being the inquirers, find shortcuts to end the inquiry without sincerely evaluating any potential solutions, while the Epicureans do not give up on the inquiry. This is because the Skeptics are not seeking a solution to philosophical problems: they are seeking the suspension of judgment.

To What Extent is Skepticism Called For

To be fair, the Epicurean must start every investigation from the point of view of skepticism, and withhold opinion until clear evidence is presented. We have a canon or empirical standard, and we are flexible enough to allow for inferring about the non-evident based on the evident. For instance, I’m skeptical concerning the existence of gods. I feel that we should prudently withhold a definite opinion until after evidence has been gathered and evaluated.

I concede that withholding opinion about the non-evident is generally wise and justified, but ONCE evidence is presented, Skepticism’s utility is limited. While in theory the skeptical method may sound stimulating to some individuals, in practice it leads to endless, pointless, speculation.

Further Reading:

Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism

Pyrrho’s Way: The Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism

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Pyrrho: Buddha’s Apostle to the West

The following is the first part of a book review of Pyrrho’s Way: The Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism, by Doug Bates.

The key premise of the book Pyrrho’s Way is that the founder of the Hellenistic Skeptic School, Pyrrho of Elis, had been exposed to Buddhism when he traveled to India with Alexander, and had brought it back to the West. In fact, the author claims that Sextus Empiricus was a Zen master who spoke in Western philosophical language, and that his Outlines of Pyrrhonism is the “clearest Buddhist text” he had ever encountered, and that it demystifies Buddhism. However, the philosophical tradition of Greece relied more on reason than mysticism, while Buddhist philosophy had for centuries been wrapped up in religiosity. Also, many koans and other methods of the Zen Buddhist tradition are specifically designed to perplex the rational mind. So the task of unpacking Buddhism for a Hellenistic audience would not have been an easy one.

The arguments of the author Douglas Bates (himself a Zen practitioner) are not without merit. In my discussions of the Lotus Sutra–a Mahayana Buddhist scripture–I delved into efficient means (upayas), which were utilized by the historical Buddha Siddhartha Gautama, and later on by his followers, as techniques for enlightenment and happiness. Much of the Lotus Sutra is dedicated to explaining how different upayas are necessary for different students. Upayas are interesting to me because Seneca attests to the fact that Epicurus also acknowledged various types of students, who required various types of methods of teaching.

At one point in history, the Kingdom of Gandhara connected India with Greece. This is the same Kingdom that produced the massive Buddha statues that the Taliban destroyed. The path between the two ancient civilizations had been opened up by Alexander, and Pyrrho had journeyed through it early on with Alexander and met the gymnosophists (“naked wise men”, or yogis) in India. Bates’ argument is that, just as Bodhidharma brought Buddhism to China, Pyrrho of Elis brought it to the Greek world–and, furthermore, that he fashioned a particular set of upayas (efficient means) to teach Buddhism within the context of Western philosophy, with its heavy emphasis on reason and rhetoric.

This means that the earliest form of Secular Buddhism–which is seen as a recent trend–is actually as old as the Hellenistic period. It also means that we should take a second look at the Hellenistic period, and acknowledge the cosmopolitan diversity that it contained, which stretched all the way to India.

While a strong argument can be made that Pyrrho did indeed bring Buddhist philosophy to the West, the philosophical arguments of the Pyrrhonists themselves deserve a critical look. In the next few days, I will delve deeper into the particular issues.

Further Reading:

Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism (Studies in Comparative Philosophy and Religion)

Pyrrho’s Way: The Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism

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Happy Twentieth! On Polyvalent Logic

Happy Twentieth! I’m excited to announce that the newest member of the Society of Epicurus, Alan, contributed very professional quality video editing for Epicurean Doctrines On Wealth, the first educational video that we post in years. We will be posting more modules of this sort in the coming months.

One update on behalf of Patreon: those who are abroad and have considered becoming Patreon subscribers may be happy to know that everyone in the UK, EU and U.S. can now pledge my Patreon in their local currency of Euros (€), British Pounds (£) or U.S. Dollars ($). This will help prevent you paying extra conversion fees from your bank or card when pledging in a currency that’s not your own. For those of you who would like to switch your preferred currency you can follow these steps:

  1. On Patreon.com, hover over your avatar in the top right of your screen.
  2. Click Manage memberships.
  3. Find this page, and click Edit.
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  5. Click Update to save your settings.

For those of you outside of these currencies, you’ll continue to see your pledge priced in my currency. Patreon subscriptions help to pay for the societyofepicurus.com webpage, and also will hopefully one day help me to live up to the teachings of Philodemus of Gadara in his scroll On the art of property management, where he teaches that the ideal way to make a living is from teaching philosophy. I do not believe I’ll ever make a living from teaching Epicuranism, but I enjoy doing it and I’ll be happy if it’s one of multiple streams of income. Here are a few literary updates:

One member of our Garden of Epicurus FB group shared the essay The Lazy Way To An Awesome Life: 3 Secrets Backed By Research, suggesting that BAT (Behavioral Activation Therapy) might be a good Epicurean alternative to CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). The essay says: “The gist of Behavioral Activation Therapy is we gotta do happy to feel happy.” The truth is that CBT is not the exclusive product of Stoicism (it also exists, for instance, in the scrolls written by Philodemus of Gadara 2,100 years ago). BAT does bear close resemblance to materialist conceptions of identity that say that we are what we habitually do.

In the essay The End of Epicurean Infinity: Critical Reflections on the Epicurean Infinite Universe, Frederik A. Bakker repeats the accusation that Epicurean cosmology is untenable because it was argued in order to serve the purposes of the ethics. The counter-argument to this is that the Epicurean theory of atoms and void (on which all else, including both the ethics and the physics, is founded) is based on empirical observations attested, for instance, in Lucretius’ poetic mention of a mote of dust dancing in the air, his description of the evaporation of water, and his discussion of sponges and how they would not be able to absorb water if there was no void in them. From this, and from subsequent reasoning, the Epicureans drew the doctrine of innumerable worlds and their theology–which posits that the gods are blissful superior animals who live in their planetary abodes and do not intervene in our affairs. All of these ideas are connected and all of these theories sustain each other, and all of them are inferred from previous observations. The author, however, asserts that the Epicureans

did not doubt which of the accepted explanations was true: they were adamant that all accepted explanations – even mutually incompatible ones – were true

If two hypotheses are mutually incompatible, it’s difficult to see how anyone can argue that one must hold that they are both right, rather than withhold judgment until clear evidence is available. Lucretius VI.703-711 seems to call for a variety of causes, so that at least one of them might turn out to be true, but I believe polyvalent logic does not need to exclude the possibility that more than one theory is true simultaneously. What we call polyvalent logic is exemplified most eloquently in Epicurus’ Epistle to Pythocles, where Epicurus says:

When one accepts one theory and rejects another which is equally consistent with the phenomenon in question, it is clear that one has thereby blundered out of any sort of proper physics and fallen into mythology.

This means that only in the realm of myth do things only have a single explanation, and that  we should not reject any theory which does not contradict the evidence. Referring to the evidence of nature is what justifies polyvalent logic. For instance, when we observe the rain and condensation cycles, we can appeal to multiple explanations to what we see based on the laws of gravity, based on water’s observed behavior at different temperatures, and based on the evaluation of air pressure in different places. These “theories” do not compete, and all correlate with evidence and are all simultaneously true, and if the intervention of the gods is excluded from these “theories” it’s because the gods have not been observed intervening in the weather, in astronomical phenomena, or in human affairs. If an immortal non-terrestrial being is ever observed intervening in this manner, any person of common sense will be forced to evaluate the evidence he or she has seen.

Similarly, we have evidence that tardigrades can survive in space, and that therefore the first forms of life may have come to Earth from space fully formed. But we also know that many or most comets in our solar system are full of ice water, and that many of the elements that make up carbon-based life must have arrived on Earth via meteoric impacts. And we know that RNA precedes DNA, so that the various molecules that make up RNA must have accidentally emerged many times prior to combining and evolving into complex life. We also know that vents in the deep ocean carry nutrients and elements that may support or give rise to life, so it’s possible that life (and/or the elements that make up life) emerged multiple times and in multiple ways, none of which contradicts the evidence of nature, on which we base all of our opinions. These theories are not mutually contradictory. They are all valid.

Furthermore, the Epicurean cosmos does not have creators because it has always existed, so there was no beginning of all things. “Nothing comes from nothing” is an Epicurean mantra. That nothing has ever been seen to come from nothing is a foundational observation of the atomists. Any gods that are based on empirical observation must therefore not only be non-supernatural, physical, super-evolved beings, but also not the creators or sustainers of the universe, which requires no such feature. Therefore, any reference by Epicureans to how things were “in the beginning” must only be hypothetical, refer to the nature of things at all times, and mean to illustrate a point.

Still, the essay produces an interesting set of intellectual challenges, and–together with Epicurus’ Epistle to Herodotus–is a great stimulus for anyone who wishes to consider questions of natural cosmology.

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Happy Twentieth! “The Covenant of the Sacred Festival Table”

Happy Twentieth to all students of Epicurean philosophy! Some years ago, I wrote a book review of Lampe’s highly-recommended book on the Cyrenaics. This month, I published a book review of Cyreniacs Handbook: Handbook of Source Material for Cyrenaic Philosophy, which is a compilation of all that can be found in the available ancient sources about the Cyrenaics. The ideas are not explained or systematically explored. This is up to the reader. I explore them from an Epicurean perspective here:

The Cyrenaics

The Annicerians

Theodorians

The Aeon essay Laughter is vital coincides with our re-visiting Aristipus and provides and interesting commentary on his virtue of adaptability, which it contrasts with “mechanical inelasticity”. It cites Henri Bergson’s philosophical musings concerning laughter, where he speculates that laughter evolved as a social instinct.

Social life, wrote Bergson, requires a ‘delicate adjustment of wills’ and constant ‘reciprocal adaptation’ between the members of the group. Society therefore needs its members to display ‘the greatest possible degree of elasticity and sociability’, and needs to guard itself against ‘a certain rigidity of body, mind and character’. These ossified expressions of human life are, according to Bergson, at the source of the comical, because this is precisely what laughter seeks to correct.

We recently came across Making Sense of Epicurean Friendship: the Intended Audience Approach, which argues that Epicurus gave different teachings to students according to their maturity and advancement. This resonates with Seneca’s report that Epicurus classified his students into three groups: those who were able to find truth on their own (like himself), those who were able to find it but needed kind encouragement and were open to it (like Metrodorus), and those who needed more forceful encouragement (like Hermarchus)–but are not to be reproached, because if they advance, it’s by working harder than others.

The Covenant of the Sacred Festival Table

Philodemus, in his scroll On Piety, mentions that Epicurus is said to have warned against “violating the covenant of the sacred festival table”. Today, I’d like to dissect these interesting words. Most modern Epicureans have come together mainly online, and we celebrate the Twentieth by writing blogs and greeting each other online with some measure of informal conviviality. But the celebration of the Twentieth was originally a holy affair. It was festive, but at some moment during the festivities there would have been a moment of solemnity in memory of the Epicureans who had gone before. The festival was conceived as a memorial service in honor of Metrodorus, and was religiously celebrated every month by the time Epicurus penned his final will and testament:

And from the revenues made over by me to Amynomachus and Timocrates let them to the best of their power in consultation with Hermarchus make separate provision … for the meeting of all my School held every month on the twentieth day to commemorate Metrodorus and myself according to the rules now in force– Epicurus’ will

Epicurus would sometimes feed large groups of people in his Garden. It’s likely that the sacramental slaughter of animals would have taken place on special occasions (for instance, on the Twentieth), in which case the actual ceremonies would have begun early in the day, perhaps in the morning of the Twentieth. If a larger animal was slaughtered, this may have been done the previous day and allowed to cook overnight. The animal would have had to be dispatched, cleaned and seasoned prior to cooking, and this takes time.

The feasts on the Twentieth are in line with these doctrines:

We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink, for dining alone is leading the life of a lion or wolf.

Honoring a sage is a huge benefit to he who does the honoring.

We honor our friends who have passed not by lamenting, but by pleasant remembrance.

In Epicurean piety, there is no deity or spirit receiving the sacrifice. Instead, the act is about creative self-expression, about articulating one’s values, and–most importantly–it’s meant to benefit and help to form our character, and produce pleasure. Some enemies of Epicurus have accused him of insincerity (since, after all, the Epicurean gods are live in outer space and do not enjoy the sacrifices), but we see numerous indications of sincerity in the sources. Philodemus’ scroll On Piety stresses the reverence of Epicurus and his disciples, particularly on the Twentieth, when Epicurus’ “house was decorated piously” for the occasion. The oaths and invocations taken by the Epicureans were always religious in nature. Epicurus gave instructions to take these oaths seriously and not to swear on anything other than the holy gods. Finally, there’s the passage from Epicurus’ non-extant Epistle to Diotimus, cited by Philodemus, where he warned against “violating the covenant of the sacred festival table”. It’s these curious words that I’d like to focus on today.

The warning against violating “a covenant” implies that (at least some of) the disciples of Epicurus had sworn a sacred oath (perhaps to Zeus or Aphrodite Urania, who is believed to have been the patroness of the Garden) to celebrate this festival religiously every Twentieth. Also, Epicurus stresses the sacredness of the feast, a fact which strengthens the intuition that some modern Epicureans have that Epicureanism is a type of religious identity, in addition to a philosophy.

Furthermore, the use of the word “covenant” naturally reminds us of the Abrahamic religions, and of the eucharist. It’s not unlikely that the Christian eucharist drew inspiration, at least in part, from the Twentieth–Norman DeWitt argues in St. Paul and Epicurus that in fact many things were borrowed by the Christians from the Epicurean communities. Certainly, if we consider that Epicurus precedes Christianity by more than a couple of centuries, the Christian celebration of a communal feast to commemorate a covenant that binds a community together sounds like a “borrowed” or appropriated tradition. But this “covenant” was initially rooted in Epicurean doctrines on natural justice, and the observation of the Twentieth would have been an occasion to put into practice the theories of Epicurean contractarianism that we find in the last ten of the Principal Doctrines. In PDs 36-38, we see that the things that are found “useful in mutual association” (even if for a time) are what make laws or contracts “just“.

If Epicurus had his disciples bound by an oath and by a covenant (which means “an agreement, a legally-binding contract”) to celebrate the Twentieth, this means that he found this practice useful in mutual association. And he was right. The feast was carried out for many generations, and it cemented the loyalty of the School to such an extent, that the Epicureans within a few generations were known as “the Twentiers“. I’ve argued in the past that these celebrations are what helped Epicureanism to persist for seven centuries as a living tradition.

It was also a sign of self-respect on the part of the small community of friends: it means that they held their friendships with each other in such high esteem, that they considered them worthy of celebration in the most solemn manner. We do not bind ourselves to others in these kinds of fraternal arrangements except when there’s great trust and love among us, and these are deemed worth preserving.

The Twentieth is a memorial service. It’s about continuity and about preserving the memories we have created with our friends, and those of the Epicureans of the past. It was originally religious in nature, but not meant as a sacrifice in the crude sense, as understood by people who entertain the common superstitions. It’s meant to benefit the living (because death is no-thing, it’s non-being), who should approach it with a grateful disposition towards those being remembered and conviviality towards the other participants.

Read more:

 Happy Twentieth!

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On Nietzsche and the Dune Saga

I’ve been working on a book review of the Handbook of Source Material for Cyrenaic Philosophy, which will feature in the Society of Epicurus page later this month. The book is a compilation (with no commentary added) of everything that we can find in the ancient sources on the Cyrenaics, and it’s a great resource for students of pleasure ethics.

The Cyrenaics were not a single, unified School but a collection of various lineages that go back to Aristippus. One of those lineages–the sect known as the Theodorians–was initiated by Theodorus the Atheist, who was not actually atheistic and whose ideas inspired Epicurus’ own theology. In the Handbook, this is attributed to him:

He taught that there was nothing really disgraceful in theft, adultery, or sacrilege; but that they were branded only by public opinion, which had been formed in order to restrain fools … The wise man would indulge his passions openly without the least regard to circumstances.

Theodorus believed that laws and religious superstitions about punishment in the afterlife were all contrived in order to restrain fools, and that the wise did not need these restrictions–real or imagined. This is not a view that is unique to him. Hegesias (another Cyrenaic) shared it. Diogenes of Oenoanda was cynical about religion’s ability to bully people into having a good character:

Clear proof of the complete inability of religion to prevent wrong-doing is provided by the example of the Jews and the Egyptians.  These nations, while being among the most religious and superstitious of men, are also the most vile.

Nietzsche shared both Theodorus’ opinion that laws are meant to restrain fools and that the higher men do not need the same restrictions as those of mediocre intelligence, as well as Diogenes’ cynicism about religion’s inefficiency in restraining the most vile, and about the ignoble instincts that lurk underneath people’s pretensions of piety. Nonetheless, because Nietzsche had a deep understanding of human nature, he recognized that the mobs of lower men and women needed and would always have their own religions, and he recognized that these religions would be reflections of their uncultivated characters, and even thought that they could be of utility to the higher men. This nuanced view was shared by Seneca, who said:

Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.

As some of you may know, I’m stoked about the upcoming Dune film (which coincides somewhat closely with my birthday), and I expect that the Seneca adage will be brilliantly illustrated in the plot of the epic, as it is in all of the Dune Universe in general, and in the Bene Gesserit sisterhood in particular. I discussed the sisterhood briefly in my Winds of Dune book review, saying that they are

a galactic sisterhood of witches who manipulate human societies and their histories by seeding folk myths in the cultures that they can later exploit, and are obsessed with bloodlines and with the creation of superhuman messiah-like beings …

… I don’t remember previous Dune novels treating the Bene Gesserit as the insidious, tyrannical, dangerous, and evil sorority that they are …

Dune serves a fascinating future history that features religions that will have evolved from modern mainstream faiths after much syncretism. It also explores the sinister effects that a new religion can have in an entire planet in a manner that evokes the first few centuries of Islamic expansion and the first few centuries of Christian hegemony in the Roman empire, both of which were among the bloodiest and cruelest episodes in human history. The battles for power among the descendants of Muhammad were of Game of Thrones proportions and involved massacres and petty feuds that continue to this day.

Similarly, the “Messiah” or God-man of Dune carries out genocide against infidel planets, and erases entire planetary systems. That the Duniverse is situated more than 8,000 years into OUR future gives us an idea of the danger, pessimism and cynicism that saturates Frank Herbert’s fiction. One of the things I love about the science fiction genre is the potential for an author to offer warnings to the future generations and engage them in a critical conversation. For all the undeniable grandeur, seduction, and beauty of Dune, the planet is a dangerous den of fanaticism, authoritarianism, and cruelty–all of which religion serves to cement. A reader might be perplexed by the author’s magical pen and by how these contradictions are not sugar-coated. They coexist, even dance together, producing a tragedy so beautiful that we STILL want to visit Dune.

It’s this beauty mixed with horror that makes Dune such a powerful saga. Dune should be seen as transhumanist and Nietzschean mythology. The higher man is a god, literally. Having been the result of genetic engineering in order to produce a being that blends Mentat and Bene Gesserit powers, he has evolved so far past the rest of humanity, that he has physically transformed himself and assimilated the powers and attributes of Shai Hulud–the serpent-like avatar of God in the epic. The rules and conventions of his world do not apply to him.

They also do not apply to the members of the Sisterhood, which in many ways are the true hands that stir the cosmic puppet-show. They are Nietzschean in almost every way. Their whole business is the manufacture of the higher man, of the Overman. They view history and society as Nietzsche does. While they conspire to have the common folk believe in traditional religions, they themselves follow the Nietzschean code of seceding in order to experiment with the fashioning of the higher man:

Ye lonesome ones of today, ye seceding ones, ye shall one day be a people: out of you who have chosen yourselves, shall a chosen people arise: and out of it the Superman. – Thus Spake Zarathustra.

They even consume mind-altering spice mélange as part of a practice of a form of shamanism by which they give meaning to their world, which is one of the achievements of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.

If you, like me, look forward to the release of Dune this year and enjoy Dune-related content, you may enjoy Quinn’s Ideas–a YouTube channel by a huge Dune fan who frequently posts video commentaries on aspects of Dune. If you love Dune imagery, you may enjoy this CAW page.

Further Reading:

Winds of Dune Book Review

Dune (Book 1), the original Nebula and Hugo-award winning novel

Frank Herbert’s Dune Saga (three-book series)

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