Happy Eikas! On the Intersection Between Science Fiction and Epicurean Philosophy

Happy Twentieth of May to all Epicureans. This month, we published our latest video, titled The Four Sisters and the Doctrine of Stigma–which discusses Principal Doctrines 5, 17, and 35–and a book review of Compass of Pleasure. Please enjoy Episode 161 of the Jungian Life, titled When Words Lose Their Meaning. It’s a psychoanalysis podcast, and this episode makes great points against the Platonized intellectual life. Epicurus and the atheist’s guide to happiness is not entirely accurate, but a good introduction to Epicurean philosophy for atheists.

The essay Nature has no masters: Lucretius, Epicurus, and Effortless Action explores one of the many similarities between Taoism and Epicureanism, many of which became evident in the book How to Live a Good Life. It deals with the virtue of effortless / efficient action.

Kristin Girten wrote the essay COVID-19 upended Americans’ sense of individualism and invited us to embrace interconnectedness – an idea from Greek philosopher Epicurus. I appreciate the essay, however I do not agree that one must choose between being an individual and being a collective, rather we need some measure of both.

Aeon published an essay on Milton’s “heretical” writing, mentioning at one point the Greek concept of parrhesía (frank criticism), which is a central Epicurean concept. The Epicurean Guide Philodemus of Gadara taught that there are two forms of parrhesía: public and private. Milton is particularly concerned with the public kind, and with the fight for free expression in a (1600’s English) society where the clergy had political power and made it impossible to publish works it didn’t like. The essay reminds us of the historical importance of parrhesía as a practice.

We read Milton anachronistically if we fail to realize that free speech is … primarily the exercise of virtuous character, not a right enshrined in law. By speaking freely, a person demonstrates their possession of moral virtue; and their freedom to speak in such a manner embodies the virtuous nature of the society in which they live.

We had a death in our Koinonia: Jesús was a brilliant professor of political science in Venezuela, and had become a regular in our Eikas zooms. We will miss him. In his memory, I wrote the essay How do we mourn our fallen?, where I also noted the rebirth of the Roman Epicurean burial tradition in the West: one of Jesús’ friends, aware of his sincerely-held beliefs, inscribed “Non fvi, fvi, non svm, non cvro” on the fresh cement of his tomb and sent us a picture as a gesture of solidarity and kindness.

Here’s an image of Alan’s Epicurean shrine with a picture of our Friend Jesús.

The passing of a member reminded me of the huge privilege of having Epicurean friends with whom we can practice. Epicurus says at the closing of his Letter to Menoeceus that we should practice meleta both by ourselves and with others of like mind. This second field of praxis involves Epicurean friendship, without which one can’t properly practice as Epicurus taught. The reason why it’s a huge privilege to have Epicurean Friends with whom we can blend our minds is because, for most of the last 1,600 years, it has been nearly impossible for most people of Epicurean conviction to encounter other Epicurean friends, and it was often dangerous for people to express Epicurean ideas. Giordano Bruno was burned by the Catholic Church for saying that he believed in the Doctrine of Innumerable Worlds–which displaced Earth from the imagined “center” of the universe. If it wasn’t for the internet, and for the information age, most of us would not have found Epicurean philosophy–let alone each other. And so it really is a huge privilege for philosophers in our generation to be able to have a small circle of sincere Epicurean friends.

During our last Eikas meeting, we also discussed the intersection between science fiction and Epicurean philosophy, focusing on the Doctrine of Innumerable Worlds, which serves as a type of “Stargate” rhetorical or literary device that allows us to imagine what life might be like in other planets. I read passages from Lucretius and Lucian. In the Lucretian passage, we are abducted into a war that involves wild beasts going mad with fury while they fight. At the end of the scene, the poet confesses that this may have happened “in the Great All”, rather than on our particular planet, and so we find ourselves inadvertently reading a sci-fi passage in ancient Roman language. He wrote this in the First Century. The passage from Lucian was from True Story, and involved comical depictions of “the people of the Moon”.

We also discussed many other science fiction works: I recommended Expanse as one of the most accurate science-fiction series out there (I just watched the fifth-season finale recently, after binge-watching for weeks), and I discussed a bit about Star Trek’s triumphant humanism, how it explores many philosophical questions, and how it imagines a future where science and human effort have made religion and poverty obsolete.

Our friend Alan recommended Ursula K. Le Guin, author of The Dispossessed; Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Mars Trilogy, and The Years of Rice and Salt; Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos; Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem; and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Marcus recommended Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and brought up an article about Star Trek and Hedonism which mentions the “pleasure planet” in Star Trek, which is called Risa.

Looking back, covering this theme was a great way to honor the memory of Jesús: with our Eikas zoom discussion, we “traversed the cosmos” thanks to imagination, art, and sci-fi. Lastly, in closing, here’s a passage from A Few Days in Athens which talks about the naturalness of mourning a friend: 

Ah! my sons, here indeed is a pain — a pain that cuts into the soul. There are masters that will tell you otherwise; who will tell you that it is unworthy of a man to mourn even here. But such, my sons, speak not the truth of experience or philosophy, but the subtleties of sophistry and pride. He who feels not the loss, hath never felt the possession. He who knows not the grief, hath never known the joy. See the price of a friend in the duties we render him, and the sacrifices we make to him, and which, in making, we count not sacrifices, but pleasures. We sorrow for his sorrow; we supply his wants, or, if we cannot, we share them. We follow him to exile. We close ourselves in his prison; we soothe him in sickness; we strengthen him in death: nay, if it be possible, we throw down our life for his. Oh! What a treasure is that for which we do so much! And is it forbidden to us to mourn its loss? If it be, the power is not with us to obey. Should we, then, to avoid the evil, forego the good? Shall we shut love from our hearts, that we may not feel the pain of his departure? No; happiness forbids it. Experience forbids it.”

Further Reading:
Lucian’s Isle of the Blessed

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Happy Twentieth of April! On Conversation

Happy Twentieth to our friends everywhere. The essay An Epicurean Approach to Secularizing Rites of Passage–which seeks to demonstrate how we can purge them of superstition and apply contractarian ideas to them–was just published at Infidels.org, and blogger Eric Barker has published the essay This Is How To Make Emotionally Intelligent Friendships: 6 Secrets, which resonates with Epicurean doctrines on friendship. We also came across Arnav Paruthi’s essay Epicurus: The one who thought pleasure was the ultimate good.

In the past, we’ve discussed Peri Omilias (On conversations), aka PHerc 873:

This scroll asks: “What is inappropriate speech, and what is appropriate speech“?  …. Philodemus says that a sage’s speech is pleasant and his conversations reflect his happy and tranquil state of mind. Bad speech occurs in bad society and cultivates vice.

… we learn that there’s a limit to conversation (omilias perasThe Ethics of Philodemus, page 122). Philodemus teaches various tactics of speech, and praises selective silence: we must know when to speak and when not to.

According to IEPOn Conversation examines the social settings of different types of speech, the usefulness of staying silent, and contemplation. The little that we have on Peri Omilias does not allow for a very in-depth study of the subject of conversation, but it serves as a good conversation starter. This essay is my attempt to create a short, modern epitome on conversation.

The Utility of Conversation

As our friendships develop, we learn to cooperate and create something together. Conversations constitute many of the units that concretely make up how that friendship is experienced. I have often described the second field of meleta as a friendly “conversation among friends“, and have said that this is how we experience Epicurean philosophy.

We are able to get to know each other through conversation. Some authors even argue that conversation is an art. When you ex-press your-self, you are pressing your self out into the world, as if into an art piece. A part of you, of your mind, takes the shape of words, or art, or–in this case–conversation. In The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure, author Catherine Blyth argues that conversation is necessary for normal human development: 

“Babies who aren’t talked to, or who are talked at abusively, grow disruptive and can’t express themselves.”

She says that good chat has wit, vitality, clarity, and tact, and that “good talkers get dates and win contracts“. True conversation enriches relationships, and is also a medicine for isolation, but friendship takes time to develop. True conversation allows us to pay a visit to the head of another human being. It requires attention and interest in the other. Each conversation is a step in the direction of strengthening our circle.

Conversation and justice

Our theory of justice requires consent or agreement, ergo communication is essential for a righteous society. There can be no justice without true and efficient communication. Our word is our power, it’s the means by which we give consent or agreement to others, and so conversation is shared power, cooperation, equality.

We are reminded of the myth of the Tower of Babel, where the god of the desert decided he didn’t want humans having conversations because that would lead them to huge achievements, and so he cursed them by confusing their languages. The myth seems to be saying that high levels of efficient communication have the power to raise us to a god-like status and to achievements so great that even the gods would be jealous. Good, effective communication is how problems are solved non-violently and intelligently, and it’s how great projects reach their completion.

Clear Speech and Clear Thinking Go Together

Obscurity is of two kinds: intentional and unintentional. It is intentional when one has nothing to say and conceals the poverty of his thought by obscure language that he may seem to say something useful. Connected with this is the use of many digressions, poetic images, recondite allusions and archaic language. Solecisms prevent the hearer from understanding many things. Only the true philosopher is free from these faults. – Philodemus, in Rhetorica

True and useful communication requires clarity–in fact, clarity is the only requirement in Epicurus’ rhetoric. Clear speech and clear thinking go together and assist each other. We think more clearly when we know how to express our ideas well, and we express our ideas well if we have a strongly developed habit of thinking clearly, empirically and critically. In this way, clear speech and clear thinking form a virtuous cycle. When we think aloud, we learn better.

How to be a good conversationalist

Conversation can be (un)satisfying, but it’s possible to learn and practice conversation skills. Z Hereford says:

You can develop the ability to listen attentively, ask fitting questions, and pay attention to the answers – all qualities essential to the art of conversation.

This is where our ongoing educational projects, our openness to learn something new frequently, really comes in handy. Doing this makes us interesting and gives us something to say. 

Expand your vocabulary by reading and writing more. Look up words you’re not familiar with. Make efforts to find the words that most accurately express what you’re intending to say, or (as the founders of Epicurean philosophy did) coin or re-purpose words for the sake of clarity, always making sure to clearly define them prior to using them in conversation.

Think before you speak. Learn to communicate your emotions, even when in an emotional state. Try to remain objective. If you can’t, then wait until when you’re calm. Take time to think your position through before speaking. There’s also the practice of eye contact, which increases intimacy and attention.

Formal versus Informal Speech

Blythe’s book establishes a difference between different modes of conversation. A distant approach is formal; an approach that gives options or shows deference is hesitant; and a friendly approach is direct.

She notes that political correctness impedes interpersonal relations. Politeness and tolerance are okay for a diverse society, but true friendship allows (and sometimes requires) intimacy, openness and frankness: you can be yourself with a friend.

Public Speech is not Conversation

I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.” – Epicurus

Conversation is an active, social faculty of the soul with strong links to our sense of identity and personal history. Now, I am speaking here of conversation as opposed to public speaking, which was discouraged as a career path in Diogenes’ Wall Inscription because it produces “nervousness and insecurity”. Public speaking is also more impersonal than conversation. The Epicurean seeks true, face-to-face interpersonal relations (friendships), which require intimacy and trust. Conversation is not the same as public speaking.

Laertius did report that Epicureans gave lectures, but only upon invitation. This means that there was a clear distinction, from the beginning, in Epicurean philosophy between intimate discourse and public discourse. We see, for instance, that Philodemus of Gadara separates public parrhesia (meant to criticize society at large) versus private parrhesia (meant to develop the character of a friend) as two distinct forms of frank criticism–presumably because they require different skills and attempt to accomplish different goals. All of this means that, to communicate efficiently, we must take into consideration our audience.

Also, true conversation may take place through modern social media, but media may also hinder it because it encourages a failure to meet the eye, or at times the distraction of phones becomes an excuse for poor interpersonal relations. There are many pros with modern media: conversations via email and messenger are not in real time, which allows for more thought-out responses, clarity, accuracy … but as for the cons: these conversations are less personal, and to the extent that we outsource our thinking to machines (which are now developing algorithms to attempt to finish our sentences), we ourselves risk becoming to some extent unthinking automatons. Lazy and unattentive conversation makes for a poor quality of communication.

The 20th as a Friendly-Epicurean-Conversation Workshop

Epicurus categorized breaking bread with a fellow human being as that which makes us different from lions and wolves. He taught that we become properly civilized through friendly conversation.

Many cultures have their own traditions of intellectual discourse, and furnish opportunities for learning to engage in true, efficient, and wholesome conversation. I recently shared an epitome of the Havamal’s wisdom tradition around the subject of conversation. I was originally going to include the Havamal’s advice in this essay, but I quickly realized that it has such practical, complete, rich and varied recommendations that it deserved its own separate essay–so please read, enjoy, comment on, and share both essays.

There are other “conversation cultures” out there: the Paris salon–where both great thinkers and everyday intellectuals have for generations nurtured lively philosophical discussions–, the Scandinavian Fika, and the Spanish sobremesa and tertulia–all of which incorporate their versions of the Epicurean practice of the Twentieth feast and conversation. Epicurus intended to institute a version of this within the Hellenistic philosophical context. To get the most out of this practice, we should do what Blyth recommends in her book:

“Incorporate conversation into your personal evolution.” – Catherine Blyth, in The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure

Further Reading:

The Havamal 

TED Speech: The art of meaningful conversation

Philodemus on Conversation

Rhetorica





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The Havamal on Conversation

The Havamal–a valuable depository of Germanic ancestral wit–has a quite developed wisdom tradition around friendship and conversation. There’s even a word–frith–which denotes the pleasure and comfort that we experience when we enjoy our time among those we love. Stanza 57 mentions how speech is a way to kindle ideas in others, to transfer memes as if by contagion.

Brand kindles from brand until it be burned,
spark is kindled from spark.
Man unfolds him by speech with man …

The Havamal invites us to converse with the elderly (Stanza 133) and wise, with those who have positive things to contribute to our lives and our characters. Conversation, here, becomes a workshop for character development, and a constituent part of the practice of friendship. We practice friendship through wholesome conversation. However, we should be careful to take the time to cultivate a new friend, according to Stanza 65:

Each man should be watchful and wary in speech,
and slow to put faith in a friend.

When we’re in the presence of the wise, or if we travel and go outside our comfort zone, the Havamal advises that we have something to say.

He hath need of his wits who wanders wide,
aught simple will serve at home;
but a gazing-stock is the fool who sits
mid the wise, and nothing knows.

Stanza 27 repeats this, only to explain that if we recognize ourselves as less wise than those we associate with, we should keep silent–which is to say, we should really be listening and learning. Younger persons must think before they speak. Stanzas 28-29 say that the art of conversation reveals who is truly wise:

Wise he is deemed who can question well, and also answer back …
Too many unstable words are spoken by him who never holds his peace …

The wise choose their worlds intelligently and carefully, and when they do speak they do not waste words. Stanza 9 further recommends that we gain wisdom on our own rather than rely on the advice of others, which is not always useful. Stanza 18 says we should travel and see the world, so that we may more easily identify those with wisdom. All of these pieces of advise fit the profile of the god Odin (the god of wisdom to whom the Havamal is attributed).

Stanza 121 warns us to choose our association–and our conversation partners–carefully, with the implicit understanding that evil speech has the power to corrupt our character:

Never in speech with a foolish knave
shouldst thou waste a single word

We see in the Havamal also an insistence that conversation should be sweet, pleasant. Stanza 119 says:  in sweet converse call the righteous to thy side.

Not everyone deserves our time and attention. Still, Stanza 6 advises against pedantry and arrogance (“Let no man glory in the greatness of his mind”), and says that we must also know when to keep silent for the sake of prudence. Stanza 22 further advises against disclosing the faults of others, as we too have our own faults.

Stanza 17 teaches us a method by which we may learn what others are really thinking: inebriation … and Stanzas 11, 12, 13 and 19 advise us to stay sober in order to avoid being “cracked open” by others, and Stanzas 46 and 116 specifically advise that we withhold our thoughts from those we don’t yet trust.

Stanzas 122 and 123 accentuates the distinction we must make between flatterers (also, see Stanzas 24-25) and true friends. It seems to be saying that the way to avoid the manipulation of a flatterer is to seek the association of the righteous, and to be free of the need to be praised.

From the lips of such thou needst not look
for reward of thine own good will …
There is mingling in friendship when man can utter
all his whole mind to another;
there is nought so vile as a fickle tongue;
no friend is he who but flatters.

Further Reading:

The Havamal 

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American Gods: a modern myth

I recently enjoyed the finale of the third season of the series American Gods, after having enjoyed reading the novel many years ago–so long ago that it’s hard for me to remember where the series adaptation took liberties, and where it stayed true to the original. But that’s besides the point. I have thoroughly enjoyed the series, and strongly recommend it to anyone interested in mythology. If you’re concerned about minor spoilers, please watch the series all the way to the third-season finale prior to reading the rest of this blog.

First, I wish to note that Neil Gaiman is, indeed, one of the most talented writers of the fantasy genre, and that this work is in line with his other works (the Lucifer Morningstar series, Sandman, etc.), which typically weave and recycle mythical characters from various cultures into the modern world, modern society, and modern science and media. The result of this is what many would call the “re-enchantment of the modern world” through myth and storytelling–which is certainly part of the role that art should have in society.

I won’t give away too many details of the plot, except to speculate that I think the character of Mr. World is Loki (shapeshifting trickster), and that the character Techno Boy is Prometheus. This is my fan theory (I don’t remember the identities of these characters in the original novel), and I’m aware that some other fans share this theory.

Loki is a character that stands in places of crisis and transformation (ready to either save everyone or fuck shit up–all depends on his whim and self-interest at the time), and Prometheus (whose name means “forward-looking”) is the god of planning for the future, whose identity is rooted in the future. America is one of the youngest countries in the world, and has had to build its sense of cultural identity using Promethean themes: the myth of economic and scientific progress, the myth of manifest destiny, or something yet to happen which a particular country is destined to do, all these things are Promethean. I use the word myth here not in the sense of a fabrication, but in the sense of an organizing narrative that gives meaning to a people. My point is that America has often rooted its sense of identity in an imagined destiny (the future) rather than in the past.

If (as Carl Jung argues) myths are to the collective psyche what dreams are to the personal psyche, then American Gods is a fascinating exploration of the psyche of America–including those parts of the psyche that need healing or are broken. The racial blend of the main character, Shadow Moon, together with the fact that Wednesday (the Germanic god Odin) is his father, also reflect tensions in the American psyche concerning the racial identities of the country. In portraying these themes within the context of a great apocalyptic battle between the old and new gods, the series nearly attains prophetic powers in its ability to comment on the times we live in.

The third-season finale included a moment of transition and initiation for Shadow Moon. His sacrifice at the World Tree resonated with the Christian theme of passion, death, and rebirth. Odin’s similar sacrifice was shamanic in nature and presumably had no Christian themes initially, as shamanic initiations in many cultures involve similar death and rebirth themes. In the American Gods episode, the similarities with Christianity were probably accentuated on purpose. For instance, Shadow Moon hangs upright from the World Tree, not upside-down like Odin has historically been depicted. He is prepared for his ordeal by the Norns, who cleanse and anoint his body in a manner reminiscent of the three Maries of the Gospel narrative (who are themselves, in my view, modeled after Isis and Nephthys in the passion, death and resurrection mystery play of Osiris). According to the Havamal, Odin sacrificed himself to himself for the runes and for shamanic insights:

137.
I trow I hung on that windy Tree
nine whole days and nights,
stabbed with a spear, offered to Odin,
myself to mine own self given,
high on that Tree of which none hath heard
from what roots it rises to heaven.

138.
None refreshed me ever with food or drink,
I peered right down in the deep;
crying aloud I lifted the Runes
then back I fell from thence.

… but Shadow Moon’s sacrifice follows the logic of the Christian God (when this god is imagined as a monster who accepts human sacrifice in order to “forgive” sins, aggrandize himself and/or gain glory), rather than the Odinist logic of making sacrifices in order to earn greater wisdom. Odin’s ordeal has often been described as a shamanic initiation, but it also functioned as a foundational myth that justified the practice of leaving sacrifices to Odin at a yew tree–be it a horn with mead or a slain enemy. Sacrifices were left hanging from the branch of a yew tree, which is associated with Yggdrasil, the World Tree.

Shadow Moon had hung from a tree in an early episode which was reminiscent of the lynchings of Black men by white mobs in earlier times in the US. It should create some discomfort in us that these racist lynchings have resonance with ancient Germanic human sacrifice to a god who is often still claimed by white supremacists today. But Shadow Moon has had to come to terms both with the brutality of this history, as well as with his own complicated ancestry as a son of Odin. This makes for a viscerally-appealing choice of imagery meant to depict the tension between America’s varied racial heritage and its Germanic roots.

There are fans of the show that claim that Loki and Odin are working in collusion. This is much more plausible than most people realize: truth is they’re both Tricksters, and in Norse storylines, we learn that Odin and Loki had a blood pact from ancient times. Loki betrayed this blood-brotherhood when he killed Odin’s son Balder, but the matter of why Odin would choose to have this type of covenant in the first place with a being like Loki remains unresolved, since Odin (in spite of his many transformations) was supposed to be mainly a god of wisdom. Gaiman (who no doubt knows the back-story) seems to be saying that ill-advised loyalties may carry long-term catastrophic consequences …

As in the Biblical book of Revelations, and as in the Ragnarok legend, the climax of American Gods will happen when the final battle between the “Old Gods” of Paganism and the “New Gods” (Mr. World, Media, Money, Technology, and others) finally takes place–once again, accentuating the tensions that come with anxiously negotiating our identity at the crossroads of the past and the future. A free society, and free individuals, must not settle the matter of their identity merely by being rooted in the past and in ancestry, as comforting as these may be–because this rootedness leaves us powerless in the face of fate, and in the face of whatever entanglements we may have inherited. Freedom implies projecting oneself assertively into the future in some manner that is self-initiated, self-guided in some way.

American Gods is a fascinating and enjoyable experiment in myth-making. Like the superhero genre (which I’m afraid has recycled enough themes to become redundant and boring by now), it puts a mirror to America’s face, but this mirror doesn’t reflect back an ideal, epic, or heroic image. Instead, it fully accepts the mess, the psychological brokenness, the work-in-progress that we all are, and (as Gaiman does in his other works) the author gives us playful and interesting metaphors to describe the world we live in and navigate our way in it.

Further Reading:

American Gods

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Black Orpheus: Some Philosophical Musings

The following essay was inspired, in part, by Jean Paul Sartre’s essay titled “Black Orpheus”, which explores the Négritude movement from an existentialist perspective. The essay helped to inspire the 1959 film Orfeu Negro, as well as a more modern remake of it titled Orfeu (a modern retelling of the Orpheus myth set in the favelas, or poor Black neighborhoods of Rio). This last one is the version of the film that I saw, and greatly enjoyed. You may read Sartre’s Black Orpheus here.

“La Négritude”

I recently had the pleasure of reading Black Orpheus, an essay by Jean Paul Sartre on the literary and philosophical movement known as Négritude. This is a literary, political, philosophical, and art critique movement that emerged in the 1930’s among French-speaking Black intellectuals in Africa, Europe, and the Americas, and later expanded into the Afro-Hispanic Caribbean. There was also a meeting of minds with the Harlem Renaissance intellectuals and artists, so that the movement became multilingual, and it’s still evolving.

The concerns of the movement were very much aligned with the ever-relevant moral, political, and cultural issues related to colonialism and its pervasive psychological effects. The Négritude movement resonated with many colonized peoples and served as a nexus, a space where meetings of minds took place that transcended native languages.

Black Orpheus was written as an introduction to an anthology of essays that ended up being formative for many intellectuals in the Négritude movement, and it injected Marxist and Existentialist opinions into the movement. 

Before I delve into my review and my thoughts on Black Orpheus, I wish to note the disclaimer that the text of the essay is tainted by Marxist determinism, yet it remains profoundly insightful in many places. In our last Twentieth message, I talked about how the soul sees and is seen. Sartre starts by framing white privilege in terms of “seeing without being seen”, which in his philosophy implies always being a subject, and never being an object to others.

In our study of the Epicurean soul, we learned that Epicurus thought of it in terms of acting and being acted upon, and I accentuated that this also implies knowing and being known. In Sartre, the way we objectify others is through the gaze. In our social relations we are all defined, in part, by how others see us, and we feel objectified by the gaze (and the speech) of others.

The Négritude conversation starts, appropriately, with the problem of the White gaze upon the Black body, and what its perception does. The first thing I will note is the recognition that the soul is embodied. We are all soul, including body and mind. The second thing is that, while politicized identities like Queerness and–most visibly–Blackness are Platonized, political, useful, and convenient fictions, there are ways in which Blackness is not a Platonic identity. It’s tangible, observable, and has real effects in interactions with others. And so–in Sartrean language–it’s part of the facticity of those who wear Blackness on their bodies.

Négritude and Autarchy

Kujichagulia is the principle of self-determination: “to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.”

Becoming self-conscious and awakening requires that we see (objectify) ourselves, becoming both subjects and objects, and only then can we define ourselves. The Négritude movement applies techniques of self-determination by moving from necessity to freedom: Blackness is affirmed not because we can’t escape it, but because it has worth and is liberating. It makes Blackness the center, makes the tropics Ground Zero for its worldview, and relegates white people and Europe to a remote afterthought. Blackness becomes life; whiteness artificiality, removal from nature (at least for those who are not white from birth, but who are forced to imitate whiteness as a result of colonialism). Furthermore, in Négritude, Blacks are writing for an audience made up of other Blacks.

Language is Power

Sartre argues in Black Orpheus that liberating literature for Africans must be poetic, and that prose can’t be used because the French language evolved elsewhere, is too analytical, and can’t express the Black reality and psyche well. There are also the problems of inherent bias: we see examples of how whiteness is associated with innocence and virtue, while Blackness is associated with brokenness or with crime, with being soiled (so that Sartre says that “As soon as (the Black man) opens his mouth, he accuses himself“). Language is power, and Négritude calls for the wielding of power by these “Black Evangelists” to make the French language theirs and make it express the Black reality–so that Sartre says that “to build his truth, (the Black philosopher-artist) must first destroy others’ truth”.

This paradigm of how language gets trapped in power struggles at the mercy of the “gaze” of others is not exclusive to the Négritude movement. We are reminded of the “correction of words” practice that Epicurus referred to in his sermon against empty words, which served utility, accuracy, and clarity. Epicurus taught that this practice happens in all cultures, and that in fact coining and correcting words was the task of intellectuals in the advanced third-stage of language evolution, and was a completely natural process. The first Epicureans coined terms to purge the inherited language from Platonism and with misuses, confusion of values, and inaccuracies. Confucius also had a “correction of words” practice, and the Rastafarians (an Afro-Jamaican religion and a Black liberation theology and philosophy) also have adopted Iyaric speech in order to bend language in a way that short-circuits the many colonial and racist land-mines that exist in the English language. Delving into specific case studies would be a long tangent for this essay, but if this interests you, I invite you to read and study the lyrics of Bob Marley’s songs of freedom, his “redemption songs”.

This insight into how naming is power has a long history in African philosophies and beliefs. The Goddess Isis, for instance, was once able to control the god Ra by learning his “secret” name. Ancient Egyptians had superstitions concerning the magical properties of names, and how they allowed us to have power over something or someone. In truth, there is nothing supernatural about objectifying what we name. It’s in the nature of language to do so.

Another example of how language is power comes from Haiti: in the French language and in Catholicism, Africa is a hell filled with heathens who revere Voodoo spirits (who are demons). However, in Haiti, in the Créole language, and in the religion of Voodoo, the land of the ancestors–their “heaven”–is known as Guinée (a name for their ancestral lands). Heaven looks like Africa, presumably because it’s where we join our ancestors, and the ancestors of Haitians were from Guinea and other parts of West Africa. This subversion of French normalcy in Haiti demonstrates how Négritude exerts its power through poetry, through art, and through language.

A Non-Idealized African History

Here, we must address the temptation inherent in Négritude to idealize history. In some of the early Afro-Caribbean poetry, there was a problem of idealizing African things, stripping the Black soul of the terrors and the injustices that it knew, or perhaps denying or ignoring the role that the cruelty and brutality of some Africans over other Africans had in the slave trade. This perhaps may have served a therapeutic purpose, but it certainly did not serve educational purposes.

One obvious case is the idealizing of African Kingdoms that were built on the backs of slaves (like the Islamic Songhai empire), and of course the idealizing of ancient Egypt (Kemet), whose pyramids must have been built, in part, by slaves, and required huge sacrifices from the laborers. In Puerto Rico’s Négritude movement, Luis Palés Matos’ poetry stands out as a naive idealization of all things Black, including the Congolese queen Tembandumba. This is from Palés’ most celebrated poem, Majestad Negra.

Por la encendida calle antillana
Va Tembandumba de la Quimbamba
–Rumba, macumba, candombe, bámbula—
Entre dos filas de negras caras.
Ante ella un congo–gongo y maraca–
ritma una conga bomba que bamba.

Matos has been celebrated for generations, but has also been criticized. While romanticising Blackness, he exotized it, caricatured it, or reduced it to music, rhythm and superstition. In the poem Majestad Negra, Palés celebrates a historical character, Tembandumba. He does this lyrically and without critique. This is one of his most celebrated poems, however discovering the true biography of the character it celebrates was just as eye-opening for me as it was to learn about some of the more tyrannical biographical details of the emperor and dictator Haile Selassie (who was deified by the Rastas as a Black messiah).

It turns out that the African Queen Tembandumba was a sociopathic ruler of the Yagas, a Bantu people from what is now Angola. Her mother was Mussasa, against whom she rebelled, and declared herself the Queen. After taking power, she led the Yagas into war by demanding that mothers kill their babies and turn their bodies into ointments, mixed with herbs. She then beat her own son to death in a mortar, prepared the ointment and rubbed it against her body, declaring that would make her invulnerable. The women of the tribe immediately imitated her actions with their own children. She eventually found resistance to this practice, and had to resort to the use of male babies captured in war for her magical ointment, which she believed granted her power.

Furthermore, in the actual biography, there is nothing of the dancing, sensual, Black beauty queen that we see in Palés poem. Those who came to see Tembandumba described her as repulsive. She had only one eye, having lost the other one in a battle. According to a 1910 European source, she used to kill her lovers and was eventually poisoned by one of them.

In Tembandumba’s biography we see nothing of the joy of living, or the jubilant celebration of African culture, that we see in the idealized poem Majestad Negra. The real Tembandumba was not beautiful, or virtuous, but a bloody warrior and an evil witch with serious mental health problems.

Know what your problem is? You think that if someone’s an underdog that means they’re the good guy. – a line from the series Expanse, fifth season 

The dangers of idealizing African history are very different from the dangers of idealizing the European hegemonic past. People who are wronged by historical events sometimes feel justified in committing comparable retaliatory injustices, and character development requires a healthy self-awareness on our part. And so the challenge for the Négritude movement is to celebrate Blackness while learning from the past, and avoiding naive romanticizing of the past.

Anti-Christian Négritude

Négritude is the only literature that’s truly revolutionary. – Jean Paul Sartre

Christianity is, of course, complicit in slavery. The doctrines of original sin and of the fall served to convince some Blacks that they were partly to blame for their situation, and that they had committed sins prior to birth. The narrative of redemption, with its hope and with the historical process of abolition of slavery and the continued process of emancipation it initiated, was also echoed in the Black experience. The myths of “the mark of Cain” or “Ham’s curse” are also often cited to justify hatred or abuse of Blacks. It would be interesting (but beyond the scope of this essay) to evaluate the beliefs of Afro-diasporic religions against the beliefs of slavery-supporting Christians, and to see what tangible effects they have had in historical relations between Blacks and their subjugators.

And so, for Black intellectuals who wish to regain a sense of dignity and pride after the holocaust of slavery (which is known as Maafa) and its after-effects, one of the most complicated intellectual tasks is the project of accusing both Christianity and Islam in their role during slavery and colonialism, while avoiding a descent into nihilism. It is here that an interesting cross-breeding of Nietzschean ideas takes place in the Négritude movement, and the myth of Orpheus the lyre player gains relief.

Black people must become lyrical. – Jean Paul Sartre, in Black Orpheus

Nietzsche explored the Apollonian (rational) and Dionysian (irrational) tendencies in the human soul, and he believed that we find meaning in the irrational, the ecstatic, with its madness and all its dangers. Négritude offers a variety of particular and concrete instances of overcoming, as it is associated with many elements (like art, rhythm, music, and trance) that are full of natural, Dionysian vitality, while some Négritude intellectuals have characterized Hellenistic (so-called “white” philosophy) as Apollonian. Black memory is embodied, possessed, illiterate, ecstatic, and lyrical. In dances of the soul, Black memory possesses the body in order to be reconstituted. Black philosophy is, therefore, irrational (and Dionysian), in the sense of being primarily vital, natural. In fact, the Greek character Orpheus was syncretized or merged with Dionysus. To speak of a Black Orpheus is to speak of a Black incarnation of Dionysus.

One of the founding fathers of Négritude was Leopold Senghor (who went on to become the first president of the independent country of Senegal). Informed by these values, he placed great focus on the arts and established cultural policies in Senegal based on Négritude. The healthy and strong sense of national identity and relative stability that his country has enjoyed, unlike some of the other African countries with similar colonial histories, is believed to attest for the health of the soul that Négritude ideas have conferred upon Black people in the post-colonial reality.

Nietzsche saw art as redeeming a meaningless life. Black man’s descent into himself makes Sartre think of the myth of Orpheus, who descends to Hades to save Euridice. Sartre says Négritude poetry is “Orphic”–which is to say: lyrical. He speaks of Black poetry as “words gone mad”, but (just like the Orphic mystery religion) these “words gone mad” provide a sense of transcending, are therapeutic, and may even give paths to redemption and freedom, to overcoming by re-imagining and re-creating oneself.

Lucretius and Nature’s vitality

The poetic and spiritual vitality of Lucretius’ poem is specifically compared favorably to the Négritude movement’s vitality and poetry in page 41 of (the online version of) Black Orpheus (here). We are reminded of Lucretius’ declaration that Nature has no masters, no gods, that it is wild, anarchic, free … Dionysian …

The (white) engineer’s prose is contrasted with the (Black) farmer’s poetry, with the understanding that engineering and prose are rational pursuits, while poetry and farming are irrational, natural, vital. 

I wish to add my own commentary here to state that this Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy endorsed by Sartre and others is false, in my view. We know this viscerally as practicing Epicureans, because the entire canon of Epicurus places importance on the irrational (or pre-rational) data furnished by our faculties from nature. So while Epicureanism carries the maturity of the legacy of Hellenistic philosophy, it can be described as partially rational and partially irrational. It’s neither entirely Apollonian, nor fully Dionysian, and anyone arguing that we must elevate one over the other is probably not using the entirety of their faculties.

Conclusion

While Négritude has left a mark in the intellectual lives of many African, colonized, and Afro-diasporic individuals, and while it has provided interesting points of view from which indigenous traditions of art critique, philosophy, and resistance have emerged, its posited tenets are not perfect or fully developed, and deserve continued scrutiny.

I wrote this essay while thinking of the countless hours I’ve spent absolutely enjoying African-inspired literature (I’m currently reading a novel by Octavia Butler, a Nebula- and Hugo-winning Black sci-fi author) and music, and of the 15 % of African ancestry that my DNA test revealed–but we can’t forget that we are still emerging from the Trump regime and the frequent attacks on the bodies of young Black men by cops, the Black Lives Matter protests, and many of the other events that culminated in the frenzies of 2020. Critical discussions of Négritude are as relevant today as they were over 70 years ago, when it was first articulated, and Black Orpheus is still birthing lyrical odes to relief his woes.

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Happy Twentieth! Some Thoughts on the Soul

Happy Twentieth to Epicureans everywhere, and Happy World Happiness Day! Today’s Twentieth is peculiar because it is a day set aside to take stock of the things that we have accomplished towards becoming happier, and to take stock of the things that we may yet do towards sculpting a happier version of ourselves. This Twentieth coincides with the spring equinox, and is an auspicious and convenient time for spring cleaning rituals–an opportunity to release and let go of the things that impede our happiness (every variety of bitterness in our hearts, or things that bring back memories that it may be time to let go of) and to make room for the things that will sweeten our lives and bring greater pleasure.

Someone in our Garden of Epicurus group shared a link to the Darwin Award lecture for 2021 with Dr Oliver Scott Curry, “where he explains the co-operation and ‘contracts’ that humans have that create our understanding of morality. It conforms perfectly with what Epicurus was saying over 2000 years ago. Science is finally catching up!“.

The Epicurean Doctrine of the Psyche: On the Nature of the Soul

In antiquity, Epicurean concern for a natural definition of the soul revolved initially around the study of nature, and around the need to reject Platonized, superstitious, and unnatural understandings of the soul. Later, Christianity and other religions employed the Platonized soul in the enforcement of labor, and added new varieties of afterlife fantasies, further alienating mortals from their own souls. We have seen that belief in the decontextualized, supernatural soul has done great damage. I recently shared the passages from Epicurus’ Epistle to Herodotus related to the soul, which relate to an essay I had written years ago titled A Concrete Self. Here, I’d like to unpack some of what the Hegemon teaches in Letter to Herodotus regarding the soul, as this is a difficult subject that remains unclear for many and deserves deeper study among modern Epicureans. Passage 67 of the Letter to Herodotus says:

“There is the further point to be considered, what the incorporeal can be, if according to current usage the term is applied to what can be conceived as self-existent. But it is impossible to conceive anything that is incorporeal as self-existent except empty space. And empty space cannot itself either act or be acted upon, but simply allows a body to move through it. Hence those who call soul incorporeal speak foolishly. For if it were so, it could neither act nor be acted upon. But, as it is, both these properties, you see, plainly belong to soul.

Epicurus explained the existence of a soul–which is corporeal, has observable properties, and is “composed of particles dispersed all over the frame”–and how it can act and be acted upon. This is an interesting choice of words. This means that we observe that sentient beings can be both a subject and an object to others, while inert bodies can only be acted upon, and in this there is a distinction between them. The body of a sentient being endowed with soul is capable of agency (it can act).

The soul (like the body) can act, and can also be acted upon. Power (over others, or under others) is implied in this: the soul exerts power over other souls of sentient beings and over inert bodies, and can be itself subdued by external bodies. This reminds us of the existentialists, and their preoccupation with the gaze (and also speech), which inevitably objectifies others. Sartre’s and De Beauvoir’s preoccupation with inter-subjectivity is a central theme in their ethics.

This idea serves as a link in the chain that goes from the physics to the ethics, as we can see plainly. Morality is born from the acceptance of agency, and also from the complex relations that sentient beings form when their bodies interact. How do we “act upon” other souls? We can help or harm another sentient being. We can oppress, exploit, or save, another being. We can cooperate with other beings. We can choose and avoid. If other beings are capable of communication and agreement with us, we can form covenants not to harm or be harmed, and then justice is born from mutual benefit. This symbiosis is the naturally just, or righteous, way of acting and being acted upon.

This is not to say that “acting upon other bodies and being acted upon” only leads to insights about ethics. The ethics of how we act upon the bodies and souls of others and how other souls act upon our bodies and souls is as natural as ethics gets. But there are epistemological teachings here, as well. The entire passage on the soul in the Letter to Herodotus begins with an appeal to the canon, saying that we know about the corporeal, natural soul from our feelings, prolepsis, and senses (“the surest grounds for belief”).

Epicurean Saying 27 argues that in philosophy, both learning (the acquisition of knowledge) and pleasure happen at the same time. This inserts the pleasures of knowing into the hedonic regimen. To say that knowledge can also be an object that the soul may act upon (own, manage, enjoy) is to say that knowledge is possible, and that the things that are known are real and exist in nature. Other bodies can be known (when their particles hit our eyes, ears, nose, etc.), and in some way what is known is also “acted upon” by the soul. As Sartre discusses, knowing something or someone carries a certain element of power over what is known.

Now, this knowledge creates a certain distance, or at least distinction, between the knower and what is known. Practitioners of the Hindu yoga of philosophy (jñana yoga, or yoga of knowledge) expressed this in terms of the field (prakriti, nature) and the knower of the field (purusha, or soul). This is how nature knows itself. There is a subject: a sentient being with cognitive faculties that enable it to know nature, and there is an object: a field that is passive, it’s known but does not act. However, in the Hindu tradition, it is often asserted–without evidence–that the soul is immortal and unchanging. What we observe is that the knower and the known are both part of nature, and therefore temporary.

Therefore, since we are dogmatists and we accept that knowledge is possible, we consider the act of knowing or learning (and the acts of remembering and forgetting) a way of acting upon. To be a sage, or a scientist, is to be a subject. That which is known is the object. That the soul acts and is acted upon means (among other things) that it can know things and be known.

There is in the Epistle to Herodotus, furthermore, a relation between particle motion and the soul which deserves careful evaluation. This is from passage 64 of the Epistle to Herodotus:

… on the departure of the soul it loses sentience. For it had not this power in itself; but something else, congenital with the body, supplied it to the body: which other thing, through the potentiality actualized in it by means of motion, at once acquired for itself a quality of sentience, and, in virtue of the neighbourhood and interconnexion between them, imparted it to the body also.

Prior to explaining how the body has sentience for as long as there is a soul within it, even if it loses certain non-essential body parts, Epicurus explains that the soul is “something else, congenital with the body”. This is not to say that the soul is Platonic or split from the body: we see that it is clearly physical, embedded into the flesh, and like other bodies in nature it interacts and has chemical and ethical reactions and interactions with other bodies.

However, this distinction between sentient bodies and inert bodies is a “potentiality” actualized by means of motion. In other words, our pragmatic encounter with the soul has to do with the observation that a body will be dead, or inert, without certain kinds of motion that the soul is responsible for (breathing lungs and blood that is circulating throughout the body to bring nutrients to all cells, at the very least). These types of motion are therefore contrasted with the inert behavior of a dead body: the organs go limp, there is no more breath or blood flow, and there are no more electric signals in the neural system. A body may have the potentiality of sentience, but without this “something else, congenital with the body”, which brings certain forms of motion, there is no animation, no sentience. The link between Principal Doctrine 2 (“Death is nothing to us”) and sentience was made plain in a previous essay, where I argued that PD2 is a two-sided doctrine:

The second Principal Doctrine, in positing that “death is nothing to us” because there is no sentience in death, also reveals that life is experienced by us, and defined, as sentience.

And so the study of death from an Epicurean, non-superstitious perspective also necessarily reveals something about life and sentience. Lucretius’ focus on particle motion as providing alternative, non-supernatural explanations for things that were previously accounted for by an appeal to animistic beliefs is really an echo of Epicurus’ Epistle to Herodotus (and perhaps of other sources, now lost to us, where these ideas must have been clarified).

For we cannot think of it as sentient, except it be in this composite whole and moving with these movements.

Here in passage 66, Epicurus appeals to the faculty of prolepsis to remind us that 1. we can’t conceive of a sentient body without motion, and 2. we should not be content with simplistic solutions for the nature of the soul, due to its complexity. All complex phenomena are produced by composite bodies, frequently in interaction with other bodies or with their environment. In other words, to demystify the soul, we need to be prepared to treat it as a difficult subject whose nature will not be revealed easily to us. If we expect easy answers concerning the soul, we will fall back into degrading superstition. Let us more concretely apprehend the nature and physicality of the soul. This is from passage 65:

But the rest of the frame, whether the whole of it survives or only a part, no longer has sensation, when once those atoms have departed, which, however few in number, are required to constitute the nature of soul.

It says here that a certain (not yet known) number of certain kinds of particles are required to constitute the soul. This is a very complex issue to consider. Most scientists today think of death in terms of two phenomena: the cessation of unconscious bodily processes (like breathing and digestion), and the cessation of neural activity (whence we get the idea of “brain-dead” comatose patients). Epicurus gets as close as an ancient man could have gotten to establishing the nature of the soul in terms of a variety of concrete tissue in our bodies responsible for concrete processes. This will require future scientific studies to fully unveil, and will likely inspire many controversies, but on this hinges our full emancipation from the superstitious and degrading ideas we have inherited concerning the soul.

Pleasure and Vitality

Vatican Saying 37 links pleasures (goods) to an experience of vitality and pains (evils) to an experience of weakness in our nature, in our flesh and mind. This is an interesting choice of words, as it reinforces the connection between pleasure and a certain vitality or health in the body and soul which was mentioned by Epicurus himself in his Epistle to Menoeceus, and has also been noted by philosophers like Nietzsche, Michel Onfray, and La Mettrie. This “hedonic vitality” may have been discussed in other sources that are now lost to us, and should be a subject of renewed study, and it may help to explain philosophy as medicinal and linked to health of the body and soul.

It could be argued that the two attributes of the gods (immortality and bliss) are also reflective of a deeply-entrenched conception of the gods (and all moral ideals) as being full of both vitality and pleasure. These ideas may have come from Theodorus the Atheist, who is believed to have inspired much of Epicurean theology.

Conclusion

We have seen a few salient features:

  • We observe the natural soul–which is physical, composite, and congenital with the body–with our five senses and with our feelings, and we use prolepsis to conceive of the soul. We see sentience in bodies and certain forms of motion that the soul imparts to the body. Without these motions, the body’s life potential is not realized.
  • The soul acts and is acted upon, and this has physical, epistemic and ethical repercussions.
  • The soul has flesh: there exist minimum required amounts and types of particles of tissue in the body without which life does not happen. We observe that if one loses a finger, one remains alive, but if one loses (for instance) the heart or certain critical parts of the brain tissue, one dies.

I hope that other Epicureans will continue evaluating these particular ideas further, as the subject of the nature of the soul is an important part of how we emancipate ourselves from forms of superstition that remain popular today, and this teaching on the soul is also a crucial deepening aspect of the second Philodeman Cure (“death is nothing to us”) and the second Principal Doctrine.

Many secular intellectuals have given up on the study of the nature of the soul, leaving it up to religionists to act as blind guides on the subject, perhaps because they do not wish to insult their sensibilities, or perhaps because they do not know how to approach the subject empirically, or do not understand the dangers, the alienation, the superstitions, and the potential terrors that result from Platonizing the soul. We should stand on the shoulders of Epicurus, Lucretius, La Mettrie and other predecessors, and continue their philosophical legacy by insisting–and demonstrating–that the nature of the soul is material, even carnal.

Notice that Epicurus does not over-simplify or add terrors or mystical ideas to the soul that lack an empirical basis. This diligent effort to evaluate the nature of the soul is quite unique in the history of ancient anthropology and philosophy.

Further Reading:

A Concrete Self

The Friends of Epicurus Epitome: Epicurean Writings and Study Guide includes the Letter to Herodotus and other essential reading

Book Review of De l’inhumanité de la religion

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Happy Twentieth! On the Occasion of the Birth of the Hegemon

Happy Twentieth to Epicureans everywhere. Aeon published an essay on Epistemic well-being which resonates strongly with Epicurean concepts about the utility of knowledge, and at SoFE we published The Four Foods Epicurus Enjoyed and we published a video on frank criticism and another one on Eikas – The Epicurean Feast of the Twentieth, which places before our eyes what it would have been like to attend a feast of reason and pleasure.

The book The Friends of Epicurus Epitome: Epicurean Writings and Study Guide is now available only as an ebook.

For many years, we have had difficulty establishing with certainty the date of the birth of Epicurus. This is because the Attic calendar–whose months were mentioned in Epicurus’ Last Will and Testament–was not widely used. It was very much a local calendar, and was lunisolar, which adds great confusion for us who are used to our (solar) Gregorian calendar. The Birth of the Hegemon should naturally be our biggest holiday, our equivalent of Christmas, Mawlid, or Buddha Purnima, so at the SoFE we decided it was time to fix the date and to start developing traditions around the holiday of the Birth of the Hegemon.

The Lunisolar Calendar Discussion

We looked into various possible solutions. I considered adapting the Attic calendar into a simplified lunisolar calendar, abandoning the traditional and difficult-to-pronounce Greek month names and replacing them with the generic “First Moon”, “Second Moon”, etc. as names for our months. Some years would have twelve moons, and others would have thirteen. According to Wikipedia:

The year was meant to begin with the first sighting of the new moon after the summer solstice.

This would have been easy enough, as there are plenty of lunar calendars online we can consult. In his final will, Epicurus describes “the customary celebration of my birthday on the tenth day of Gamelion in each year“. Gamelion was the seventh month, which typically falls in January-February. But in 2020-2021, the summer solstice coincided with the new moon, and therefore the lunisolar months came very early. According to space.com, there was a new moon on June 21st of 2020, which is right at the solstice, so the solstice coincided with the New (Lunisolar) Year.

If we count seven new moons from there, we will see that space.com sets the seventh new moon of year 2,361 of the Age of Epicurus as December the 14th.

Therefore, the tenth day of the seventh moon in this simplified lunisolar calendar, counting from December 14th, would have been the 23rd day of December of 2020–which would have been the Birth of the Hegemon in our simplified lunisolar calendar. However, in the ancient Attic calendar, each month began with the “first sighting of the new moon”, which in this case was probably one or two nights after the New Moon of the 14th of December of 2020. We are beginning to see how difficult it is to plan ahead for this, which creates many disadvantages.

When we say that we are in the Year of Epicurus 2,361, we calculate that from 2020 (current year in the Gregorian calendar, which begins the lunisolar cycle of 2020-2021), plus 341 (Before Common Era, the year of his birth).

When I consulted with the other members of the SoFE concerning the problem of the date of this holiday, we considered the possibility of adopting a private lunisolar calendar merely with the intention of clearly calculating the Birth of the Hegemon every year, and we had to carry out hedonic calculus between this option and sticking to our familiar Gregorian calendar for the sake of simplicity, ease, and custom. The idea of fixing the Birth of the Hegemon to the Gregorian calendar prevailed. While I am not averse to the idea of a lunisolar calendar, the utility of this is limited, since the only major lunisolar holiday we celebrate is the Birth of the Hegemon.

Also, we customarily have zoom gatherings on the Twentieth of every month (or sometimes on the most convenient date close to the Twentieth), which makes it advantageous to merge the Birth of the Hegemon and the Twentieth on its given month, and also helps us to respect and to make the best use of each other’s time.

Therefore, the Society of Friends of Epicurus has officially set the holiday of the Birth of the Hegemon to be henceforward celebrated on the 20th of February every year.

Meaning of Hegemon

Epicurus was known as the Hegemon by his disciples. We pronounce this word according to the US conventional pronunciation found here. This word is related to “hegemony”, which translates as:

 preponderant influence or authority over others. – Webster Dictionary

Other translations of the word are political, and do not apply to the ancient usage. This does not mean that he is infallible, or a prophet. He’s the founder of our School, our moral example due to his empirical thinking, clear and frank speech and clear thought, freedom from superstition and harmful beliefs, his pleasant disposition, his autarchy, his friendliness, and his kindness. He was the first Epicurean, the one whose name (and a portion of his identity) we make our own when we call ourselves Epicureans. The name Epicurus means “Friend” or “Ally”, and we know that friendship was holy to the first Epicureans, so in our Koinonia we strive to be true Friends and allies to each other.

We recognize only Epicurus of Samos as our Hegemon. His successors (diadochi) of direct lineage in the Garden of Athens were known as Scholarchs (Hermarchus, Polystratus, Zeno of Sidon, etc.) The Age of the Scholarchs lasted over five centuries. No one today can claim direct lineage, and so there are no Scholarchs today.

Under the Scholarchs, were the kath-hegetes (Guides)–people like Philodemus of Gadara, Philonides of Laodicea, Diogenes of Oenoanda, etc. In our SoFE lineage, this is the only office that we recognize as still existing today.

How to Celebrate the Birth of the Hegemon

We will allow the Birth of the Hegemon to organically evolve as a holiday, but initially our tradition will consist of remembering some of the key events in the biography and some of the key features of the character of Epicurus of Samos through poetry, declamation, and other art forms. We encourage all followers of Epicurus to write their own poems and statements in memory of the Hegemon for this day and to publish them on social media.

Today, we Hail the Hegemon and we invite all followers of Epicurean philosophy to learn about, toast, celebrate, and remember Epicurus in your own way. We wish you a pleasant Hegemon Day. Peace and Safety!

Alan’s Contribution:

In response to your request to write something for the Birth of the Hegemon, I have adapted the Prayer of St. Francis to Epicureanism:

“Master, let me freely choose to be an instrument of divine pleasure:
where there is fear, let me have courage;
where there is discomfort, let me take comfort;
where there is injury, let me remain just;
where there is confusion, let me be clear:
where there is darkness, let me show the light of your true philosophy.

O Wise Master, you have taught me that I may not so much seek
to be remembered as to remember,
to be praised as to praise,
to be thanked as to be thankful.
to be learned as to learn,
to be honored as to honor,
to be desirous of what I do not have as to remember what I already have.

For it is in expressing gratitude to you that we are blessed,
it is in graciousness that we are graced,
it is in eliminating pain that we find true pleasure,
it is in seeking friendship that we find immortal goodness,
And it is in dying that we disperse back to Nature.

Eireni kai asphalia/pax et securitas/peace and safety”

Marcus shared this short poem by the poet Athenaeus (quoted by Diogenes Laertius):

“You toil, men, at worthless tasks,
and in your greed
For gain you start quarrels and wars:
But nature’s wealth has its limits,
Though empty judgment treads a limitless path.
So heard the wise son of Neocles,
either from the Muses,
Or from the holy tripod of Pytho”

This is by Matt:

Hear these words O children of Nature’s swerve.
Let us rejoice in the freedom we desperately deserve.
Of prudent wisdom long obscured by shame.
Professed by Epicurus of noble fame.
Lucretius penned in days of old.
Across the gap of time, a truth so bold.
Arise the days of hedonic measure.
Restoring the truth of humankind’s pleasure.
Dispel the fears of death’s illusion.
Release humankind from all confusion.
Again I say, O children of Nature’s swerve.
Be frank in speech and keep your nerve.
Be ready now to strike your blow.
For Epicurus, his Garden and all who know.
The days shall come when the world will extol.
That pleasurable living was indeed the goal.

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Happy 20th! The Parables of the Hunter and the Isle of the Blessed

Happy Twentieth to Epicureans everywhere! Some literary updates:

A new, English-language Friends of Epicurus Epitome is finally available (only on Kindle for now). Students of Epicurean philosophy in antiquity were known to carry epitomes to help them in their studies. Initially, they read the Little Epitome (Epicurus’ Epistle to Herodotus), and they later moved on to more advanced literature compiled into the Big Epitome. This modern Epitome by the Society of Friends of Epicurus (a non-academic fraternity of philosopher friends) contains Epicurus’ main epistles, Principal Doctrines, and Vatican Sayings with a thematic index and study guide.

We have a new video titled The Epicurean Tradition of Frank Criticism.

Catherine Wilson wrote an essay titled Why Epicureanism, not Stoicism, is the philosophy we need now.

SoFE also published the “Isle of the Blessed” portion of Lucian’s True Story, which is available in its entirety at Gutenberg.org. True Story has continued relevance to our generation because it is a parody and commentary on “fake news”, on popular resistance against empirical thinking, and on people’s frequent inability to discern truth from falsehood.

Continuing our study of the PD’s, our Friend Harmonious wrote the Parable of the Hunter, which eloquently illustrates the pragmatic repercussions of Principal Doctrine 5, and the essay On the utility of the Epicurean Gods gives a pragmatic encounter with PD 1.

Both the Isle of the Blessed and the Parable of the Hunter raise interesting questions for us. The founders of Epicureanism were adamant that disciples must employ clear speech in all communication. For instance, when discussing rhetoric, Epicurus made clarity the only requirement. This was meant to avoid the empty words, confusion and word-play of many other philosophers.

Colotes (a first generation disciple) argued thatit is unworthy of the truthfulness of a philosopher to use fables in his teaching“, but Lucretius–who wrote De Rerum Natura a couple of centuries later–would disagree. And so would many modern Epicureans: for instance, the Punctured Jar parable is one of the best allegories for understanding the salvific power of the words of true philosophy, as it was understood by Lucretius in the First Century.

Also, parables are a way to practice “placing before the eyes”, which is a visualization exercise used in Epicureanism in order to help us clearly understand the teachings. For this reason, I believe the Parable of the Hunter is extremely useful and powerful, and also that Principal Doctrine 5 requires “placing before the eyes” in order to be properly understood. This is because the Epicurean conception of justice is based on agreements, and the parable helps us to see a concrete example of justice in terms of agreements. It is easy to fall into the temptation to reduce justice to arbitrary notions like equality/civil rights or guilt/obedience, depending on whether we are influenced by modern social and constitutional conventions or sin-based/authoritarian religions. But even in a very simple society there can be justice based on mutual benefit and on agreements, as our Principal Doctrines teach, and it can manifest in something as simple as an agreement to hunt down prey for a tribe.

In Lucian’s Isle of the Blessed, on the other hand, we find a treasure trove of beautiful Epicurean imagery and allegory. Without losing sight of the original comedic intention of the author, and while still laughing and enjoying the work in its original context, we can still exploit and take pleasure in the myth-making powers of our mind for didactic and ethical purposes using the colorful and potent ideas that Lucian deposited in this passage of True Story.

If I, as an Epicurean Guide, was to make the Isle of the Blessed even more advantageous for the happiness of a student, I would point out that the Well of Pleasure represents our hedonic regimen, our easy sources of pleasure that we can draw water from time and again; that the Well of Laughter represents all the memories and experiences in our own mind that we can rely on to easily make us laugh and lighten up our day, so that it becomes a reminder to carry out the practice of laughter yoga; that the Seven Gates to the Golden City represent different ways in which we can “enter”, interpret or gain clear cognitive assimilation of the Golden Words (the Lucretian Aurea Dicta, which is to say, the Doctrines of True Philosophy).

I would go as far as to compare Lucian’s Isle of the Blessed with the Lotus Sutra in Mahayana Buddhism, in terms of the potential usefulness of its allegories. But there’s a difference. Buddhist upayas (“efficient means” used by the enlightened beings in order to save suffering sentient beings) are often excuses for the white lies of conventional religion, and a major theme in the Lotus Sutra. On the other hand, in Epicureanism our advantageous and efficient means to happiness may include parables, but these parables and their imagery awaken the seeds of pleasure in our minds without obscuring the clear, simple truths we gain from the study of nature.

Here’s another parable or metaphor to illustrate my point: Lucretius says that Epicurus, with his Doctrines, has conquered and tamed religion, and left it trampled at our feet. This is powerful imagery. We may read it in passing in De Rerum Natura without thinking much of it, but it amounts to a Promethean epiphany. It goes to the heart of Epicurean spirituality. The Hegemon has stolen the fire of religion and given us a tamed version of religiosity in the service of pleasure ethics, teaching us that religiosity must serve mortals, and never the other way around. Imagine what world we could create, if even 10% or 20% percent of mortals–rather than give up religion altogether and passively accept the nihilism of our age–woke up to the truths of this parable, and found religion trampled at their feet?! They would stop mindlessly projecting their power and creativity–and displaying (sometimes vulgarly) the unexamined content of their character in their projections–and they would maturely start taking full ownership of the content of their character, of their religiosity, of their speech, and of their spiritual practice. They would elevate religion to a form of art, following Epicurus’ and Lucretius’ example.

I said this in Tending the Epicurean Garden, and I’ll say it again: we should attribute to philosophy the same dignity that philosophy confers upon us. In order to clearly understand how philosophy dignifies us, parables like these ones are advantageous.

If you’d like to study EP with us, please join us at the Garden of Epicurus FaceBook group. You may also support us by subscribing to me on Patreon, or by buying our merch on our new SoFE shop.

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Three Kings Day: a Case Study in Filial Piety

The last time I spoke to my parents, my mother mentioned that “God willing”, next year for “Three Kings Day” we should be together if this pandemic has ended. She says she wants to hug everyone. In 2020, I lost three of my uncles and my dad’s best friend. Coronavirus took three of those souls, and my mom’s second-youngest brother died just after Christmas after spending a month of agony on a ventilator and without being able to say goodbye.

My very Catholic grandfather had made a “promise” to the Three Kings to celebrate their feast on the 6th of January every year with music, food, and recitation of the rosary. The Feast of the Three Kings is a jíbaro (mountain peasant) folk tradition. On the night of the 5th of January, children were told to place “pasto” (grass) for the camels under the bed, or somewhere else in the house. The Kings would take the food and leave a gift. There was no Santa Claus before the Americans arrived in Puerto Rico. Santa Claus was seen as a type of fat American God of consumerism (even if he was jolly and endearing), and represented different values to us than the Three Kings.

After the Americans invaded Puerto Rico, the tradition of the Three Kings Day came to represent the “old” Puerto Rico with its Catholic piety and its rural cultural expressions, and for many decades Santa Claus was seen as a foreign threat to those old traditions. But it was futile to fight Santa Claus, and (although he came from the North Pole, was VERY over-dressed for Caribbean weather, and looked initially very foreign) we eventually ended up accepting and cherishing both traditions. So one of the utilities of the “Fiesta de Reyes” is cultural resistance, and the preservation of the culture that existed before the Americans arrived in Puerto Rico. A pig was sacrificed to make lechón (roasted pig). All the traditional holiday foods were prepared, and people hired folk musicians who knew how to play the cuatro (the local evolution of the Spanish guitar) and sing aguinaldos–Christmas songs which are nothing like the sober carols of the North, but are more festive, and celebrate rural values.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” – Matthew 2:1-2

The feast is only superficially rooted in the Bible. The sacrificial pig is forbidden and non-kosher in Biblical Judaism. The Magi were not “Kings”, they were Persian astrologers who would have been seeking the Saoshyant (Zoroastrian Savior), not the Jewish Messiah. The names of the Magi are never mentioned in scripture: they were added later by tradition and their number limited to three in order to accommodate the three gifts of myrrh, incense, and gold, and yet later in imagery they were made to fit the Puerto Rican narrative of the three ancestral ethnicities. Even then, two of their names render homage to Pagan Gods: Gaspar, Melchor (in honor of Melqart, the Phoenician Baal of Carthage) and Baal-thazar. The fact that the feast nearly coincides with the New Year tempts us to reimagine the divine child imagery as a metaphor for the promising year that has just begun. Not that it matters for practical purposes, but the entire tradition was slowly made up over many generations to fit various interests.

When my grandfather died, my mother decided to take up the “promesa de Reyes”. She acquired the icon of the Three Kings that my grandfather used to honor–a beautiful carved wooden altar piece. Since preparations for the Fiesta de Reyes required so much work, she made sure it was a potluck, with many family members participating and bringing different dishes. Later, when my mom could no longer do it, her brother–my uncle, who was the one who traditionally slaughtered, prepared, and roasted the pig–stepped in and started celebrating the Fiesta de Reyes in memory of my grandfather in the neighborhood where he lived (and where most of that side my family lives). That uncle now lives in New York, and I don’t think the Fiesta de Reyes is celebrated anymore by anyone in the family. The tradition has been lost, and the new generations have very different values and priorities.

The oath to celebrate Three Kings (la “promesa de Reyes”) did many things for my family. It made the Three Kings an ancestral totem, giving my mother’s side of the family a central symbol around which we gathered for the holidays every year. It served as an outlet for Catholic piety. It helped us to preserve our songs, our family holiday recipes, serving as a means to preserve cultural heritage. It brought our family together and gave us a sense that we had our own traditions. So the Fiesta de Reyes is an interesting case study in the practice of filial piety, showing how family traditions can be preserved at least for a couple of additional generations, for as long as someone diligent in the family makes a promise to keep these traditions. Typically, when one person has this initiative, the rest of the family and close community jumps in and helps with the celebrations. When that person dies, out of love and reverence, his descendants frequently feel a strong desire to honor their memory as they would have wanted, which helps acquaint the following generations with the family traditions. Even I, as anti-Catholic as I am, still associate the Three Kings with my reverence and love for my grandfather, and my mother spent this year’s Three Kings Day wishing to be able to hug her family members next year on this same date once the pandemic is over.

The “Fiesta de Reyes”, because it is a vow or an oath that was made by my ancestors, is an interesting feature of my family’s history, and an interesting case study in filial piety for me–which reminds me of the celebration of the Twentieth in the Epicurean Gardens. Why? Because Epicurus (as attested in his Final Will and Testament)–although he did not believe in the afterlife–saw great utility in family traditions and in honoring the memory of the dead, and established the Twentieth and many other festivities in honor of his ancestors and the deceased of his family. Filial piety was one of the motivating factors in the traditions of the Garden, and a cardinal virtue among the first Epicureans. The Twentieth is a memorial service for Metrodorus and Epicurus, our philosophical ancestors. Filial piety is an expression of the apolitical spirit of the Garden because it focuses on the narratives of our small communities and tribes, dignifying and strengthening them, and happily ignores the “official” and political narratives and interests of the more impersonal polis or state.

At the closing of the Isle of the Blessed passage in True Story, King Radhamanthus randomly and spontaneously pulls a tuber from under the ground and tells Lucian to pray to this root if he’s ever in danger. It was Lucian’s final joke at the expense of the King before he left the isle … but, in a way (and I’m being VERY liberal in my interpretation), it IS healthy and natural to look to our ROOTS when we feel unsafe. Our roots feel familiar, our roots are comforting. Most of us generally feel loved, safe and happy when we are surrounded by family. Filial piety is one of the most universal human values. It is observed in every culture. Traditions of filial piety help to pass down knowledge of recipes, of songs, of playing certain musical instruments and other family traditions and ancestral knowledge. I’m hoping that next year, I will be able to spend Three Kings Day with my parents and surrounded by the loud noises and the banquet that inhabit my memory of our Feast of the Three Kings.

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Happy Twentieth of December! – On Sentience

Happy Twentieth to all students of Epicurus everywhere! After a many-year-long wait, philosopher Greg Sadler finally published his Honest Review of Hiram Crespo, Tending The Epicurean Garden. It was mostly a very positive review, which I appreciated. The YouTube channel Vox Stoica also published a nearly 30-minute long video titled What is Epicureanism and is it compatible with Stoicism? Again, in spite of the source being from another School, they were mostly accurate in their depiction of the Epicurean school.

Philosophy Now has an essay on hedonism in ancient India and Greece.

After attempting to unpack the scarce quotes that Philodemus included in his scroll “On Piety” from Epicurus’ work titled On Holiness, I revisited the subject in On Natural Holiness. One of the members of the SoFE, Alan, recorded an Epicurean devotional song titled Lumen Inlustrans.

SoFE’s latest video is titled The Epicureans on the nature of the soul, and explains all the nuances and general features of our doctrine of the physical, mortal soul (psyche), which is embedded into the body and dies with it. The rectification of the meaning of the word soul according to nature is an important contributions that modern Epicurean philosophy can potentially make to our culture, where so many souls are still mystified by supernatural conceptions of the soul which keep them trapped in superstitious and fear-based creeds. These false views are based on the Platonic split between body and soul, which Epicurus was reacting against when he articulated these ideas.

This paper on Epicurus’ On Nature: Book 28 discusses the evolution of the Epicurean canon, which was ongoing even ten years after the foundation of the Garden. It may supplement the essay titled New Evidence for the Epicurean Theory of the Origin of Language: Philodemus, On Poems V, by Jacob Mackey, which evaluates the Epicurean theory of language.

I’ve published my exegetical discussion of Principal Doctrines 10-14, which focus on the pleasures of safety and privacy, and on the utility of science. I did not recently publish exegetical content concerning PD 15 because I had published, back in March, an epitome of the Epicurean Doctrines concerning wealth which is, basically, a detailed elaboration of the repercussions of PD 15 (and then some), so please refer to that essay in your efforts to deepen your study of PD 15, the “Doctrine of the natural measure of wealth”.

Our journey through the Principal Doctrines continues with PD 16, which contains taboos against the worship of Fate or of Fortune and warns us to apply reason. The main other instance where Epicurus accentuates the importance of applying reason is when we think of time (PD 19). This is because we do not directly experience past and future, except through remembrance and anticipation in the here and now. So this Doctrine is tied to an accurate understanding of the ontology of Time as an emerging feature of nature. We can not travel back and forth in time. Any enjoyment we get from the past and the future, happens now. And so, Epicurus says that a true sage that sees nature clearly, is self-sufficient in his happiness and does not postpone his pleasures.

On Sentience

sentient adjective

Definition of sentient
1: responsive to or conscious of sense impressions
sentient beings
2: AWARE
3: finely sensitive in perception or feeling

– Webster’s Dictionary’s definition of sentient

Sentience is one of the most central ideas in Epicurean philosophy the name for which is not explicitly mentioned in the surviving sources. Sentience is taken for granted, for instance, in our prolepsis of guilt, merit, and causal responsibility, all of which require agency, which requires sentience.

Sentience is also what justifies the canon, which is our methodology for knowing about nature. Compare the word anaisthetei (“lacks awareness“) in PD 2, On Death, and the word aisthesesin (“if you fight against all your perceptions…”) in PD 23, one of the Doctrines on canonics. There is nothing supernatural about awareness or sentience. All knowledge is physical: rooted in the relevant perceptive or neural tissue of a sentient being, evolved by nature by natural selection, as sentience and perception provide advantage to sentient beings to help them live and escape being hunted. This does not mean that nature meant or willed natural selection, but that the path of least resistance led to the development of sentience and perception.

The second Principal Doctrine, in positing that “death is nothing to us” because there is no sentience in death, also reveals that life is experienced by us, and defined, as sentience.

And our Doctrines on justice allow for the recognition of what some scientists are calling “non-human persons”. For instance, scientists who study dolphins and whales made an official declaration some years back, saying that these animals should be considered “non-human persons” due to their high levels of intelligence. They made mention of the complexity of dolphin language, and how each dolphin responds to their own name. Some countries recognize the “non-human person” status of chimpanzees and other great apes.

According to our Doctrines on justice, if an animal is capable of making agreements with us–that is to say, if a creature becomes domesticated enough to interact with us according to certain agreements (the pet’s “house rules”), or if we are able to decipher, for instance, dolphin communication to the point where we can enter into a contract of not harming each other (and perhaps even helping each other) with a certain community of dolphins, then those animals are not only sentient, but also intelligent enough to partake in justice. They may be able to, in theory, have certain rights recognized under our laws.

And so here is one of the highest peaks of sentience: the ability to communicate clearly enough with another creature, that a consensus or agreement can be reached. Concrete instances of Justice emerge out of those interactions between the higher sentient beings, similar to how complexities and systems emerge as a result of the relational properties of some bodies (plants that are medicinal or poisonous to some creatures; allergens; a magnet’s attraction to certain rocks, etc.)

Principal Doctrine 32 is worded in a manner that is not anthropocentric, but accepts animals of all types–perhaps also in recognition of the innumerable sentient beings, including higher sentient beings, that Epicurean cosmology posits as existing in the innumerable worlds.

Which raises the question: did the ancient Epicureans ever try to imagine what it would be like to have justice between members of different planets? Lucian’s (very enjoyable) Second-Century fable titled “True History” shows that, although he was a comedian, he had an interest in extraterrestrial themes. The adventure starts with a war between the peoples of two planets. In De Rerum Natura, 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 (in the First Century BCE):

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

So that, at the end of the scene he has just painted, the poet reveals to us that we are witnessing the birth of ancient “science fiction” in a way, that the events he has just described happened most likely not on Earth, but on another of the innumerable worlds.

The Epicureans have always reasoned that the same laws of nature apply everywhere and at all times, so that we can safely infer that in other worlds we should expect things to function and behave like they do in our proximity, so long as the same variables are present. This is why the Doctrine of innumerable worlds is articulated as there existing beings “both similar to and different from” the ones on Earth in the innumerable worlds. And so if sentience evolved here, then we should expect to see it elsewhere.

Philosophical language used for sentience is also of great utility for an Epicurean who seeks to practice the Doctrines. For instance, the term qualia refers to individual instances of subjective conscious experience. When Epicurus advises us to remember past pleasure as part of our hedonic regimen, he is basically saying that we should attempt to revisit the particular qualia that were most pleasant to us in the past, so that we have a treasury of “memory-gems” in our psyche–instances of pleasure the memory of which is crystallized enough in our minds, that they can be easily recalled or remembered, and enjoyed. While other philosophers speculate endlessly about the nature of consciousness, we Epicureans may instead capitalize on the healthiest, most pleasant qualia in our practice.

Finally, many of the other philosophers have labeled humans as “rational animals”, but much of human behavior is not rational. To speak of sentient beings really is an accurate way to describe the kinds of animals that humans are, to a true and natural identity: we are sentient beings: self-sustaining bodies with the faculties needed for perceiving or feeling things.

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