Today marks the 2-year anniversary of the “official” publication of my book (review here), although the book had been available on Amazon prior to that date. I wrote the bulk of the content on Tending the Epicurean Garden during the year 2013, but in the years since I have not ceased to learn about philosophy and about the many subjects I discussed in TtEG. For some time, I’ve wanted to give my readers a clear learning path for after they’re done reading my book, and this occasion is as good as any, so here are six important things I’ve learned about Epicurean philosophy after writing Tending the Epicurean Garden.
1. The Philodemus Series
I delved into the reading of the scrolls from the villa of Herculaneum shortly after completing my book. The scrolls are the remnants that survived the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 of Common Era. They are a treasure trove of ancient humanist wisdom, the Humanist Nag Hammadi. In one of the scrolls, for instance, the Scholarch Polystratus anticipates the contemporary work of Sam Harris by over 22 centuries: he lays out sober and robust arguments for a hedonist moral realism based on theories of physics and ethics laid out by Epicurus in his Epistle to Herodotus. In this scroll he battled cultural and moral relativism, and superstition, and also defended the scientific study of nature as essential for ethics, decency and morality.
Epicurus’ teachings against the use of empty words help us to better understand Philodemus’ Rhetorica and Methods of Inference, and in general just help us to reason more clearly. The scroll about property management provides useful guidance for our life-long self-sufficiency projects, but the most important scroll in my view, and the greatest masterpiece of humanist literature from Herculaneum has to be the one On Death, which catalogues all the logical and common-sense repercussions of our teaching that death is nothing to us.
2. Norman DeWitt is key to understanding Epicurean philosophy on its own terms. He is particularly good at explaining the Canon (epistemology) and the importance of the doctrine of pleasure as the end. Read his Philosophy for the Millions pamphlet, which narrates and gives some perspective on the historical battle between the naturalist philosophy of the scientists and the Platonic philosophy of the mystics and charlatans.
4. Neuroscience was a field of great interest to Epicurean philosophy from the onset. Epicurus, in his speech on Moral Development, discussed how the “atomic structure” of the brain can be changed through certain practices (like repetition of certain teachings), and how as part of our moral development, we must take ownership of the content of our brains and our characters. Later on, Lucretius discussed neural pathways in his On the Nature of Things. It is clear that, as Epicureans, we are responsible for the steady and diligent cultivation of our brains in the same way that athletes are responsible for the cultivation of their bodies.
5. Natural community (family, tribe, circle of friends) is conceived as distinct from Platonic (or imagined) communities (nations, races, ethnicities, etc.) Just as we learn in Philodemus that there is a natural measure of wealth (that corresponds with ensuring that we can satisfy our natural and necessary desires), our friends from the Las Indias Coop, while reasoning about the world from an Epicurean perspective, also argued that there is a natural (measure of) community, and even cite modern research to separate natural from Platonic communities.
I use the word “measure” here to refer specifically to the Dunbar number (almost 150), which indicates how many real, significant relationships humans are cognitively able to have. Natural selection strongly favors this because our ancestors evolved in tribes, which protected individuals from weather, wild beasts, and other dangers, and also secured access to food sources and transferred traditional wisdom about where to find them. There’s other research that demonstrates that isolation is a health risk on par with obesity and smoking, so that the lone-wolf “ideal” is also unhealthy and unnatural.
There’s simply no question that humans are tribal by nature. In Epicurus, the philos ideal (devoted friendship with our intellectual kin) is considered the healthiest way to build our tribe and channel our social instinct.
6. The Cyrenaics were a philosophical Atlantis, and paved the way for Epicurean ethics just as Democritus and Leucippus paved the way for physics.