Epistles could be termed the Book of Good Manners, a book which completes one’s education within The Good Book: A Humanist Bible. It concerns itself mainly with the importance of wholesome association and of a good education in how to properly conduct oneself in the company of others, but it also accentuates the importance of education and of good philosophical hygiene (limiting one’s desires and analyzing things). It’s also the only book where I’ve found direct mention of Epicurus in the Humanist Bible.
Knowledge and Manners
One of the key points of the book is that we must balance wisdom with good manners, for “learning without good breeding is pedantry”. Good manners help dignify us as well as help us in the business world and cement our security. This requirement of wisdom is articulated in chapter 19 as “gentleness of manner, firmness of mind”, is given as an adage to remember.
It’s within this context that the book provides verses (4:1-7) which could be used as liturgy for coming of age ceremonies, perhaps humanist versions of Jewish bar/bat mitzvahs or Catholic confirmations. Verse 9 even mentions that the pivotal or recommended age for such rite of passage would be at 16-17 years old.
In general, the importance of education is accentuated in chapter 8, with an insistence (verses 7-8) on the need to have good mentors and wholesome educators. In chapter 16, it is advised that a complete education requires that youth learn about being sociable, about manners, and about keeping company.
On Noble Expectations
A discussion of Philodemus’ work On Piety uncovers how ancients believed sages should have noble expectations of both the gods and of each other. Epistles begins with a discussion of how thinking highly of humanity promotes virtue, and how the virtuous don’t have contempt of people.
Along these lines, a very important subject within hedonism is treated: the accusation that love of others and self love are mutually exclusive and opposing forces. The author argues that kindness pleases us and that virtue produces pleasure (2:25-27), that virtue and pleasure are non-different. For if I love a friend, I will find pleasure in pleasing that friend and seeing him happy. This insight, however, comes from a place where we have noble expectations of others, where we do not suspect selfish designs behind the good-will of others.
Later, in Epistles 2:28-36, the author argues that love of the fame and glory acquired when we pursue virtue is PROOF of love of virtue itself. Unlike the Matthew 6 passage in the Gospels, where Jesus accuses of hypocrisy those who are ostentatious about their piety, and unlike Krishna’s instructions in the Bhagavad Gita to engage in pious acts with no regards to the results, here the author makes the case that a person who wishes to be known for performing virtuous deeds, clearly admires the virtues and wishes to celebrate them.
One could make a case for both sides. This is an interesting philosophical question which deserves further discussion: clearly there is a distinction between love of virtue and love of glory of virtue. But is the latter a symptom of the former?
The hedonic covenant is also discussed in Epistles in the following terms:
Mutual complaisances, attentions and sacrifices of little conveniences are as natural an implied compact between civilized people, as protection and obedience are between a state and its citizens; whoever, in either case, violates that compact, justly forfeits the advantages arising from it. – Epistles 11:20-21
I have not found treatises on logic proper in the Good Book, but Epistles 4:20-24 does advise that we use reason and not accept authority blindly, and 1:17 discusses the importance of making sure that we draw inferences by comparing things that are alike so that we won’t draw false inferences.
Chapter 3 delves into the realm of economics and argues that a “strong mind sees things in true proportion”.
The Value of Time Used Wisely
Like in many other wisdom traditions, we are told to value time and not waste it: one day is good enough for everything. The day should be used for work and study, the evening to enjoy the company of good friends. Similarly, business and pleasure are not opposed to each other, but assist each other. Both productivity and leisure are necessary.
Later, the author explains that when we rush to do something or hurry to present ourselves when called, this denotes the importance of the thing being done or the person being attended to, and diminishes our own importance. The value we place on our own time relates to our own sense of personal value
On Dignity and Association
In On the Natural Measure of Pride, I argued the distinctions between arrogance, pride, humility and pusillanimity. These distinctions are addressed in Epistles 18:1-6, but here they are called by different names with virtuous pride being called dignity, and arrogance being called simply pride. In that piece, which was written for the Pride issue of Happy 20th! and inspired by Aristotelian discourse, the distinction between virtuous pride, arrogance and humility is based on an accurate sense of one’s worth. It’s within this context that we must frame our discussion of being dignified (rightfully proud) and behaving with decorum.
As a side note, I must mention that AC Grayling’s Good Book is not politically correct. There is a tension in the text concerning social and class distinctions, and perhaps an extreme amount of concern for rank which is probably more at home in Confucius than in contemporary Western thought–although Europe has preserved more of its status preservation culture than America and its ruling classes are more likely to be recognized as superior by the so-called peasantry. I believe this makes some verses seem inconsistent with the rest of the book. For instance, for all the air of superiority and condescension that emanates elsewhere from the plain recognition that not everyone is equal in rank and in wisdom, there is a passage that speaks strongly against having a superiority complex and against condescension, asking that we do unto others and avoid these qualities.
As part of this (extreme?) concern for rank, Epistles advises against too much familiarity and informality with our inferiors. These are pieces of advise intended to remind inferiors of their place.
I leave it to other readers to decide for themselves whether this is an inconsistency. For someone like myself who lives in America and was raised with strong horizontal values, condescension and superiority complex generally seem in much worse taste than they seem for people from other cultures.
Having said that, I do believe there is a place in philosophy for discussing the importance of having an accurate sense of self-worth and of dignity based on good character and, most importantly, for discussing the need to avoid vulgar association. Having a wisdom tradition that teaches how to be dignified and that recognizes the added dignity of the virtuous is still, in my view, a good and wholesome thing. The author even recommends reading Cicero’s Offices, which gives advise on decorum and dignity.
It is impossible to separate this notion of how one must carry oneself in a dignified manner from the context of association, since wholesome or vile association invariably have an effect on character.
In the text (just as my mother has advised me, and many community elders have advised their youth also), we are invited to study human behavior (of ourselves and of others) and to be mindful of our character and expression and the characters and habits of those we associate with. The text specifically explains that we can judge people by the things that they take pleasure in: their activities and hobbies.
It’s important for youth to be able to identify bad company. People who are small minded, frivolous, and vulgar are described in detail and declared to be low and ill-bred company. Among the “things that lower and sink characters” we find vulgar language, and are advised to make good use of the instrument of language. Specific advise is given regarding trusting our friends who are young and inexperienced, telling them all our secrets, thinking these friendships to be founded on a solid foundation.
Another tension exists in the text concerning the advise which has been frequently given in many wisdom traditions against flatterers and regarding how to deal with them, and advise elsewhere on how to influence people by researching their dominant trait and prevailing passions and speaking to them, in order to gain influence over people. Would this not also make flatterers of us?
As to the dignified manner to deal with enemies, we are invited to (avoid making enemies, and whenever that’s not possible, to) disarm them with gentleness and to be easy and civil with them, even laughing with them if possible when they joke with insolence, rather than act shy and uncomfortable in their presence. Taking ourselves too seriously is socially bad, but it’s also bad for our own tranquility and happiness.
Epistles invites us to study human nature, and also gives us its own insights about human nature. We are told that men are more governed by appearance than by reality, that men aren’t rational, that nine times out of ten men don’t act on reason, that “man is a complex machine”, and finally that human nature is always the same: while customs vary, human nature remains. Humans were the same 300 years ago and will remain the same centuries into the future.
References to the Master
Thus far, there have been two passages in the Humanist Bible where Epicurus is mentioned. They are:
Epicurus wrote: ‘If you life according to nature, you will never be poor; if you live according to opinion, you will never be rich.’ Nature’s wants are slight; the demands of opinion are boundless … Natural desires are limited; but those that spring from false opinion typically have no stopping-point. – Epistle 24:1-2, 24:5
The following chapter speaks about the importance of joy, of keeping a cheerful mind, of having a purpose, a goal, so that we are the ones steering our boats. A case for the analysed, purposeful life is made.
… another saying by Epicurus: ‘They live ill who are always beginning to live.’ … To live at all is to live well. That is the burden of all that I have written ... – Epistle 25:17 and 19
I recommend the book of Epistles for a younger reader who is willing to profit from its teachings, as youth stand to benefit the most from it.