The Pleasure-Aversion Faculty: An Introduction

Having explored the third leg of the Canon, and established some premises–most important among them the connection between the Canon and Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection–I’d like to explore another misunderstood aspect of the Canon.

We teach that pleasure is the end that our own nature has established for us, and that this is evident in infants, and in “kittens and puppies”, to use a term borrowed from Cassius. But pleasure is not just the natural end for living beings: like the five senses, pleasure and aversion are faculties, defined in the dictionary as “inherent mental or physical powers”.

Many haters of the body and haters of this world (people who preach an afterlife and teach cults of death, as well as idealist philosophers) like to argue that we Epicureans are hedonists in the vulgar sense, that we’re about instant gratification of the senses and consumerism. Our tradition’s curriculum for control of desires and their subjection to hedonic calculus contradicts these claims, but they are nonetheless still parroted by the uninitiated.

Others–like certain neo-Aristotelians sects–argue that pleasures, as criteria, are “subjective” and “illogical” and that other, supposedly “objective” criteria are needed for ethical decisions. But humans are not logical or rational: we are natural beings whose brains have two sets of faculties: one rational or linear, the other irrational or non-linear, and we could not possibly meet our natural needs via purely rational methods without paying attention to our irrational faculties. This is self-evident. We must apply reason to the problems of needing food, shelter, and other basic needs. Nature does not give us a choice: we know we have to solve these problems because our own nature tells us through the faculties included in the Canon. Therefore, without the Canon, without this essential connection to reality as it concerns us, we can not survive or function.

And so, we are hedonists not because we’re whimsical or irrational, not because we seek constant gratification, but because our naturalist philosophy is based on the observation that nature itself has established pleasure and aversion as guides to identify the needful and the harmful things.

In Tending the Epicurean Garden, I cite the example of the relation between bees and plants. Millions of years ago, the plants decided to embellish their genitalia by producing flowers with nectar to attract certain insects, whom they found were particulary attracted and attuned to the scent and flavor of certain highly-nutritious substances that the plants knew how to produce. The plants benefited by spreading their pollen through the land and gaining diversity, which is one of the benefits of sexual reproduction. Over time, their mutual attunement is such that, without certain species of bees, there are hundreds of species of plants that would have no way to reproduce.

The plants and insects that were best at maximizing the mutual benefit of this relation were able to more successfully pass on their genes, until all the members of their groups that survived had mastered these new skills and adapted into their constitution new faculties: the plants learned to produce nectar that was sweeter and more nutritious, and bees grew better able to identify these sources of food. Speciation (the process of becoming a new species) has frequently been triggered by specialization.

Later on, a relation based on mutual pleasure and mutual benefit emerged among plants and the first primates, who were small descendants of rodent-like mammals that had decided to live in the trees for protection from land predators. The plants adapted the same technique they used with the insects, and turned their flowers into fruits. When these primates ate the fruits, they either ate the seeds whole, which were later fertilized in the excrement, or threw the seeds to the ground to be fertilized.

The plants and primates that were best at maximizing the mutual benefit of this relation were able to more successfully pass on their genes, until again all the members of their groups that survived had mastered these new skills and perfected new faculties. Plants began to place their seeds into delicious pockets of sweet food (that the primates found pleasure in) and to use colorful, attention-grabbing marketing when their seed-bearing fruits had ripened to maturity, and so monkeys became the first mammals to clearly identify the color red.

Even today, studies on the effects of color on humans still appear to show that red and orange (which is red, mixed in with yellow) stimulate the apetite. This is a primate reflex, an anticipation to use a term from the Epicurean Canon.

Also, notice that living beings do not choose fruits or flowers because we’re whimsical, or irrational, but because we are natural beings being led by nature via the hedonic tone, via the pleasure and aversion faculties.

If we go even further back in time, we will notice that a symbiotic relation developed between all animals and plants in the planet from its early history so that we inhale the oxygen that plants exhale, and plants inhale our carbon.

As a result of this, humans generally feel an increased sense of wellbeing when in nature surrounded by plants and greenery, or when in the presence of the ocean and when breathing its fresh air. One of the simplest, yet potentially intense, pleasures available to man comes from inhaling the fresh air from the ocean. We must bear in mind that the algae in the ocean produce 90% of the oxygen on Earth. The most needful thing, from the get-go, became the simplest form of pleasure.

Again, let’s take the example of the effect of the colors green (plants) and blue (ocean) to consider how pleasure relates to visual cues. Studies on the effect of different colors on the human mind and body demonstrate that human eyes take the most pleasure in, and derive the most well-being from, blue and green hues:

“green relaxes the body and alleviates stress … people working in green offices have proven to be more satisfied with their jobs”

Not only does ataraxia frequently look green, blue and white, but our eyes are particularly apt to perceive these particular colors, and we are most attuned to them, presumably because they are the most needful and important.

The same study that I cited previously on the anticipations article says that our eyes are uniquely receptive to blue light, and that white light has anti-depressant properties.

Another example I use in my book is the pleasure we take in our pets, and I even speculate that in the future, some of the humans and dolphins who have learned to fish together in parts of Brasil could evolve similar mutual-benefit covenants, to more easily access each other’s evolutionary triggers

Dogs and cats trigger anticipations that we evolved to feel when in the presence of vulnerable human infants: they have infant-like faces and evoke our parental instincts. Enjoying the company of a pet has been shown to decrease depression, to aid autistic children, and to encourage the secretion of serotonin, oxytocin, and other feel-good hormones. The pleasant nature of our relationships with our pets may also be explained by the mutual benefit: obviously they are fed by us and enjoy comfort and safety and love in our homes, but they also keep rodents out of our pantries, help with hunting and shepherding, and can be employed as guardians, protectors of family and property, and even as guides to the blind, to help save drowning victims and for many other things.

Thanks be to blessed Nature because she has made what is necessary easy to supply, and what is not easy unnecessary. – Epicurean Fragment

Epicurean masters teach that necessary things are both easy to attain and pleasant, and that things that are difficult to attain, are not necessary. Therefore, we should be grateful to nature and abide in this state of existential gratitude and pleasure, enjoying life with ease. This is our attitude towards reality as natural beings, our place in our natural cosmology.

What I’ve shared here are just a few of the most basic, evident and universal examples of why the pleasure faculty is so important to us, and an essential part of the Canon, in the Epicurean tradition.

Pleasure is the suavity in nature’s voice. Our hedonism is not about us being subjective, or whimsical, it’s what we mean what we say that nature is our guide: if we ignore our faculties, it’s only to our detriment and to our harm. If we heed them, it’s to our advantage.

Our natural goods are all pleasant, and pleasure is always good. The key is hedonic calculus: to pursue pleasure in a way that is rational and takes into account the calculus of long-term benefit versus loss so that we ensure that we don’t generate greater aversion in the process of seeking pleasure.

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In Solidarity With Draw Muhammed Day

Muhammed

The above picture is my all-time favorite Draw Muhammed Day entry. It shows something that most Islamophobes would never consider: a smiley, down-to-Earth, friendly image of the Arabian prophet.

Many people use DMD as a chance to depict Muhammad as a blood-drenched terrorist. I like that this image not only challenges the Islamo-fascist attempts to extend to us infidels their prohibition against depicting their prophet, but also challenges the vilification of Muslims by some militant atheists. Not all Muslims take their religion that seriously: many Muslims are down-to-Earth, genuinely whomesome, good people.

Smiling Muhammad saying “Peace to You” (Salamo Alaykum) is a stereotype-shattering image, plus the Masters of my own Epicurean tradition teach that religious figures must always be depicted smiling and reflecting ataraxia and the other virtues of philosophy. On this 20th of May, I wish you all Peace and Imperturbability.

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Epicurean Writings by Cassius Amicus

Cassius Amicus, the founder of newepicurean.com, is a prolific writer of educational material on Epicurean philosophy and one of the first people in our century to dedicate himself to the teaching mission of the Epicurean Gardens.

It was, in part, thanks to his webpage, his moral support, and his directing me to Norman DeWitt’s article on Epicurean organizations, that I developed the resolve and the inspiration to engage in the work of the Society of Friends of Epicurus.

The following are links to his books and children’s poems, many of which he has made available for free or for very affordable prices.

Also, visit his sites newepicurean.com and Elemental Epicureanism,where you will find a great amount of additional educational material.

Books by Cassius Amicus:

The Tripod of Truth – An Introduction to Epicurus’ Canon of Truth

Elemental Epicureanism  (also on amazon) – One of the most complete English-language sources of our writings all in one place (for Spanish, see Epitome)

The Annotated Doctrines of Epicurus

A Life Worthy of the Gods: the Life and Work of Epicurus

An Introduction to the Nature of Things

The Doctrines of Epicurus – Annotated

Jackson Barwis – Collected Works

Ante Oculos – Epicurus and the Evidence-Based Life

Children’s Poems:

Thus Purred Catius’ Cat – An Epicurean Children’s Book

Catius’ Cat And The Forty Mice – A Second Epicurean Poem For Children Of All Ages

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Anticipations: An Introduction

One of the least understood (and most difficult to understand and explain) concepts in Epicurean epistemology is the idea of anticipations, an innate and (most of us believe) pre-cognitive faculty that helps us to identify natural and necessary information within our environment.

Together with the five senses and the pleasure-aversion principle, anticipations form the Canon, or measuring stick for reality, which is compared to a tripod because it stands on these three legs. The Canon, our masters teach, is our connection to reality. If we consider what three components are included in it, two things become immediately clear:

  1. The Canon is pre-cognitive (although some argue against this, see Dialogue Concerning Innate Principles by Jackson Barwis, or better yet you may read On Three Legs We Stand, which is NewEpicurean.com’s excellent introduction to the Canon. NE has another piece explaining anticipations here)
  2. There is a clear connection between the Darwinian theory of evolution through natural selection and the Canon. In other words, we believe that our ancestors developed exactly the faculties that they needed to survive and thrive in their environment.

No other (ancient or perhaps modern) system of epistemology (theory of the proper way to think) is as rooted in biology as the Epicurean Canon. It is fully based on the premise that we are animals, natural beings who evolved with the precise tools needed to gather natural and necessary knowledge from their environment. With the Canon, we start the process of philosophy from where we are, from who we are, within nature.

Having established that, I wish to elaborate on anticipations with a curious example that became available to me when I was translating Epicurus’ Epistle to Herodotus for the Spanish-language Epitome.

There, the master seems to be saying that time is discerned through our anticipations and that it does not “exist independently, apart from bodies”, which leads us to think that time is only real and experienced as it’s made available to us through our faculty to attune to the circadian (night-and-day) rhythms of Earth:

It is important to grasp firmly that “time” neither has a material existence, nor does it exist independently, apart from bodies. Nor must we think of “time” as a general conception, such as those conceptions which are formed by reasoning in our minds. Instead, we must think of time by referring to our intuitions, our mental apprehensions formed by anticipations, and it is in this context that we speak of a “long time,” or a “short time,” applying our intuitions to time as we do to other incidental qualities.

In evaluating time as an incidental quality, we must not search for expressions that we may think are better than those which are in common use, and we must not believe that time has any properties other than being an incident to bodies. We must evaluate time only in accord with our intuitions or anticipations.

For indeed, we need no demonstration, but only to reflect, to see that we associate time with days and nights, and with our internal feelings, and with our state of rest. These perceptions of incidental qualities are the root of what we call “time.”

Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus, Section 7

Incidental qualities are properties that are not innate to things in themselves, but that result from interaction with other bodies or phenomena. They’re also known as relational properties in some instances (as in the case of Polystratus’ use of the concept). What Epicurus was pointing the finger to was a proto-theory of relativism, which says that time and space are both properties of nature woven into each other.

What Epicurus is saying here is that time, to us as natural beings, is perceivable as the planetary rotation which produces day and night cycles in our experience. There are many mechanisms in the human person by which we are attuned to these circadian rhythms, which affect our sleep cycle, our hormonal output, our alertness, and our moods.

Other creatures (like many birds) are attuned to the magnetic field, which they need in order to navigate and migrate. We seem to tune into the circadian rhythms through our exposure to daylight, which then governs our sense of time.

Studies show that humans are uniquely receptive to blue and white light, and that “blues are the most important wavelengths for entraining the circadian system”

Researchers have shown in humans that light influences hormone secretion, heart rate, alertness, sleep propensity, body temperature, and gene expression. Moreover, in such studies, blue wavelengths have been found to exert more powerful effects than green wavelengths.

In experiments published in the September 2003 issue of The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, Brainard, Czeisler, and Steven Lockley, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, compared suppression of melatonin in humans during 6.5 hours of nighttime exposure by monochromatic light at 460 nm, the peak sensitivity of melanopsin cells, with 555 nm, the peak sensitivity of the visual system. The blue wavelength suppressed melatonin for about twice as long as the green.

… blue also proved more powerful in elevating body temperature and heart rate and in reducing sleepiness, according to Gilles Vandewalle, of the Center for the Study of Sleep and of Biological Rhythms at the University of Montréal.

And so when Epicurus discusses anticipations as part of the canon, he is talking about extremely important sets of faculties and inherited instincts that regulate many key aspects of human behavior. In the past, I’ve used the infant’s recognition of faces and of the mother’s nipple as examples of anticipations.

A future blog will expand on the Canon by discussing the pleasure and aversion faculties.

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Reasonings on Ptahhotep’s Maxims, Part III

On the Physical Nature of the Soul

That the soul is either physical, or has a physical component, according to Ptahhotep and as understood by him, is attested in his assertion that a man’s son is the “seed of his ka“, which translates as soul, and not just the seed of his body (II.12).

Consistent with this view, a son would inherit both physical and spiritual or mental/psychological qualities from his parents. Both free will and determinism are affirmed, using as an example the chance we take every time we have a child. We do not know what will be the nature of his character and skills. In other words, we inherit the nature of our soul and not just physical traits, and insofar as we inherit certain physical and spiritual attributes, nature places limits on our freedom.

This is a complex concept, one which has some interesting philosophical repercussions, however I am here more insterested in exploring the notion of the physicality and nature of the soul, as this is a subject that is very underdeveloped in Epicurean and materialist philosophical discourse.

There are a few concrete examples of the physicality of the soul and of soul phenomena in Ptahhotep’s Maxims. In II.14 we learn of his belief that the belly is where great anger, raw passions, evils, take place in the body; it is the region of Seth, the evil god who betrayed and murdered his own brother Osiris and abused his nephew Horus.

Later, in II.17 the philosopher argues that the one who pleads is “purging his body”. It’s possible that this was just an expression, just as we attach physicality to the soul with expressions like carrying a heavy burden or load (worries), tense relations (the stress and tension are felt in the muscles), etc. However, these expressions are no less intuitively accurate, and in fact when we open up about things that have been bothering us for a long time, we may feel cleansed, less tense, purged, afterwards.

In Spanish, the term for when someone therapeutically lets it all out and speaks his mind, releasing his emotions, is “desahogarse“, which literally translate as un-drowning-oneself. Presumably, a person who is going through emotional turmoil feels like he or she is drowning and must speak his mind. A similar intuitive verbal cue is given in these Ancient Egyptian expressions: the body must be purged, cleansed. Research by William Frey cited in PsychCentral demonstrates that tears are full of the toxins that we release when we cry.

A man in distress wants to wash his heart more than win the case. Not all pleas can be granted, but a good hearing calms the heart. – Maxims of Ptahhotep II.17

It is therefore understood that listening to another human being is, in itself, an act of kindness and compassion.

On Coolness and Heat

In II.25, Ptahhotep speaks about the flames of the hot of heart. This is a complex religious and metaphysical subject that is also present in other African traditions that warn against hot-headedness and advise specific ceremonies meant to “cool the head”. In the Tablet of Yays and Nays I discussed this briefly while making the point that we should make philosophy tangible in physical reality.

But heat is not always and entirely bad: there’s a natural measure of warmth that humans need. Our closest ape relatives are very tactile, particularly during their first two years of life, and need constant physical and tactile reassurance from others. Vesta, the deity of the hearth and home, is symbolized by a sacred flame, a sacred warmth that is at the core of what it means to have a home. While doing research for my book, I stumbled upon research by Dr. Zhong which demonstrates that loneliness feels literally cold.

The Soul in Therapy and in Psychological Immunity

The near universality of notions about the soul or spirit seems to indicate an archetype. In other words, in addition to our physical traits, we are also born with instincts or psychological traits which find expression in religious concepts such as this one.

Just as humans engage in a victory dance that is similar to expressions of power that are universally seen in greater apes, similarly humans engage in a spiritual technique of reaching out for what the ancient Egyptians called the double (which they called the Ba), raising our arms to heaven in prayer. One rarely orients oneself towards the floor in prayer. This behavior may be archetypal, as it is seen in many cultures.

Do we have an instinct to seek the better, wiser part of ourselves through communication? Epicurus seemed to believe we did. He plainly stated: “To pray is natural“. This says nothing about the supernatural beings or higher self that we may envision, but it does say something about human nature and about our natural and instinctive use of therapeutic means. Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert suggested that humans have a psychological immune system in addition to a physical one.

The Egyptian notion of Ba finds its highest scriptural expression in Berlin Papyrus 3024, known as The Discussion between a man and his Ba, where the Ba or double clearly takes on the role of preserving the life of man. The best English translation of this papyrus is the book Rebel in the Soul, by Egyptologist Bika Reed. It includes very interesting clarifying comments. In this document we see all the subtleties of Ba as well as the very sophisticated metaphysical concepts that the Ancient Egyptians used to entertain.

The papyrus relates that a man is depressed and considering suicide, and argues with his Ba – which Bika Reed translates as ‘destiny’, but in the papyrus, this Ba is clearly personified and even has marked differences of opinion with the mortal ego, so that it is more appropriate to translate Ba as the ‘Spirit of destiny’, or maybe ‘the Future Self’. It is far beyond the scope of this article to relate this to Nietzsche’s Ubermansch, but because the Overman acted as Nietzsche’s euphemism for man’s destiny, I must at least mention that there seems to be a parallel concept here.

The responsibility of Ba in the papyrus account is to ensure that the man fulfils ALL of his destiny until the day of his death, which is appointed from heaven (or by nature), and so Ba must not allow suicide to take place. It is Ba who decides the time of death, not the mortal ego: and so, there is a distinction between ego and Ba where Ba is wiser and superior and acts as the Guardian of man’s destiny. In the papyrus, the poor man contemplating suicide says:

Dying for me today
is health to the sick;
as liberation from slavery.

Dying for me today
is myrrh;
as a refuge from a windy day.

Dying for me today
is smelling a lotus;
like being on the shores of ecstasy.

Dying for me today
flood is coming;
as returning home from the war.

In reply to these lamentations, the Ba exhibits compassion and tries to console and reason with the mortal, offering numerous arguments against suicide.

While you’re conscious,
you belong to life.

It is interesting to consider the possibility that this Ba may be, not a spirit or Guardian angel, but an instinct, an immune function of a normal human psyche, that we may access this part of our psyche through some of the techniques that religion proposes, and that these techniques might be empirically evaluated through experiments. Their usefulness does not prove the supernatural claims of religions, which are often mutually contradictory, but non-religious people might use these techniques to relate to themselves instead of relating with gods or spirits.

Inasmuch as humans exhibit a universal natural tendency to fortify themselves mentally and to self-medicate through prayer and other instinctive forms of therapy in support of their mental health, a case can probably be made in favor of exploring therapeutic methods of this sort, and incorporating them as part of what ancient Epicureans would have called techne biou, an art of living.

 Further Reading:

Rebel in the Soul: An Ancient Egyptian Dialogue Between a Man and His Destiny, by Bika Reed

Enumeration used in these reasonings is from this translation of Ptahhotep’s Maxims

The Instruction of Ptah-Hotep, from the translation by Battiscombe G. Gunn

The Maxims, from humanistictexts.org

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The Counter-History of Philosophy

French hedonist philosopher Michel Onfray has made his name by, among other things, founding the Popular University of Caen, away from Paris and every other known hub of intellectual life, as a way to rebel against what he sees as the Plato-infested mainstream of academic philosophy. Like American professor Dr. Dara Fogel, author of the Epicurean Manifesto, he rebels against the obsession with irrelevant, useless and unscientific philosophy and against how this type of philosophy receives an exaggerated amount of attention and privilege in academia.

He wants philosophy to be a practice, to be useful and medicinal for, as Epicurus said, philosophy that does not heal the soul is no better than medicine that does not heal the body.

Onfray is one of the neo-hedonists who are making calls for a re-invention of the notion of philosophy and for taking philosophy back from the universities and from the academic world so that it can serve its intended purpose in the intimacy of the lives of everyday people. His Université Populaire concept is not too different from the Garden of Epicurus, which was also established at the margins of the polis and also derived its proud identity from its marginal status.

Not many of his concepts are new or revolutionary. He’s rooted in the great intellectual traditions of the past, but his idea of teaching a contre-histoire de la philosophie is revolutionary within the context of modern professional philosophy. He has replaced the prevalence of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, the so-called “classics”, with Democritus, Epicurus, and Philodemus. He calls for a counter-history of philosophy, for attaching accurate value to the “other” philosophers, the ones who actually made progress towards the right understanding of the nature of things, the ones who said things were made of atoms and not of ideas, the ones that accurately described reality and emancipated mortals from superstition.

Those of us involved in the teaching mission of Society of Friends of Epicurus are painfully aware of the effects that academic philosophy has had on the existential health and the quality of intellectual life of people in our day, because to whatever extent people even know about philosophy (the field has degenerated into such irrelevance that interest in philosophy is now minimal), what they do know is not applied to the health of our souls, and many do not even think that philosophy has a therapeutic use.

Recent interactions in the Epicurean Philosophy facebook group with newcomers who have been influenced by academia have included them asking us questions like whether we can look inside our own eyes, and therefore if we can’t, then how do we know that we exist? … a discussion which at first left me cross-eyed. I do not need to “look” into my own eyes to know I’m here as a temporary sentient being, and that my body is made of atoms and space. But in what way does such speculation help the health of the soul?

Therefore, I wish to join Onfray’s crusade against mainstream academic philosophy and Platonic thinkers in favor of a more honest and a truly humanist and naturalist retelling of the counter-history of philosophy. Philosophy has been defined by its worst proponents for long enough.

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A Few Society of Epicurus Milestones

Society of Epicurus Facebook Page suddenly reached (well) over 1,000 likes after a Yoda meme was posted in celebration of Star Wars Day (“May the 4th Be With You!”), which included the adage “I am virtuous because my soul is at ease”, which is actually a quote from A Few Days in Athens.

There’s now a bookstore, which we will be updating frequently as new books become available that are written by Friends of Epicurus. It currently showcases mainly books by Hiram Crespo and Cassius Amicus, but also has links to other books on humanism and from academia.

The last book to be added was Epitome, a Spanish-language translation of Epicurean Writings with commentary and study guide by myself. It includes the Principal Doctrines, Vatican Sayings and the Epistles to Moeneceus, Pythocles and Herodotus, in addition to a summarized chronicle of the lives of the Scholarchs and great masters of the tradition up to Philodemus of Gadara, as well as the Spanish translation of nine reasonings based on the surviving fragments of the Herculaneum Scrolls. The book is available from Amazon, or directly from CreateSpace.

An interview of two members of Society of Epicurus in Spanish was translated into English recently and can be found here.

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yoda

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