Happy Twentieth to Epicureans everywhere! Among the good news this month: we deepened our understanding of Diogenes’ Wall and SoFE has a new member, our good friend Jason–who is also, together with Tom of the Epicurus for Modern Times facebook group, one of my patreon subscribers. Many thanks to both of you for your kind support! Unfortunately, the bad news: we lost an Epicurean friend from Australia, Amrinder Singh, in a plane accident. He was a small-plane enthusiast. We have a picture of him doing what he apparently enjoyed most: we can see the Herculaneum pig icon on his helmet, which is indicative of how much he loved Epicurean philosophy. Soar high, Amrinder!
The month of April marks the beginning of spring on the northern hemisphere, where all of nature awakens to the beautiful mysteries of Venus, to life, to fertility, to sex, to pleasure.
I invite you to carry out an experiment. Utter the word “Pleasure” time and again, and write down what impressions and what memories and what free association comes up in your psyche.
When I started studying Epicurean philosophy–and although for about twenty years prior to this I was no longer involved in the Catholic faith of my childhood–I initially noticed that the word Pleasure had been damaged in my mind by Christian ideas. According to PD 20, “the mind does not shun pleasure”: this resistance came from culture, not from my own nature. Perhaps a vain association with sin, with decadence, with things that are forbidden, dangerous, shocking or vulgar, was still there.
The Goddess Venus was–and still is–vilified and frequently associated with harlots for her exuberant embrace of pleasure, both carnal and otherwise. Many people have grown up with unevaluated inhibitions and biases, and never think to even once question these underlying–and often unconscious–beliefs and impressions.
New Epicurean posted an essay years back in defense of pleasure with the opening poem to Venus in On the Nature of Things, where Venus is replaced with “painlessness” so as to drain the poem of its refined vitality. The idea is to refute the anti-Epicurean claim that what our sources mean by Pleasure, is merely absence of pain and not a positive state of delight. The noble Epicurus and Metrodorus were men of decency! They could not possibly have meant Pleasure when they spoke of Pleasure!
Well, one thing that the Epicureans were known for was plain speech, and yes: we mean Pleasure when we use the word Pleasure. And this fits within the larger vision of reconciling us with nature in order to correct the damage done by Plato: Epicurus wanted to train people to trust their own senses and faculties, to trust their own instincts and nature again.
And this Pleasure isn’t only “mental” or “Platonic” either. Vatican Saying 51 warns us to apply hedonic calculus and to try to avoid certain dangers that come with sex, but does not advise against having sex (presumably because celibacy is unnatural). Principal Doctrine 20 explains that it is not in our nature or in the nature of the mind to ever shun Pleasure.
No separate category for the carnal pleasures is invented in the early sources, as far as I know. Also, biographer Diogenes Laertius–and Bailey, in his Extant Remains–attributes this saying to Epicurus: “I know not how I can conceive of the good, if I withdraw the pleasures of taste, of love (that is, sex), of hearing, and the pleasurable emotions caused to sight by beautiful form“.
Here is Lucretius’ poem. If you wish to carry out the experiment that New Epicurean suggests, where references to “Venus”, “Goddess”, etc. are replaced with “painlessness”, feel free to go ahead, and to also engage in the free association experiment detailed above. As for myself, in this Twentieth of April I would not blaspheme against the gifts of life and of nature. On the Nature of Things does not begin with a poem in honor of self-narcotization and anesthesia: it begins by honoring and taking refuge in the beautiful mythical and poetic embodiment of Divine Pleasure, who has the power to tame even Ares.
Delight of Human kind, and Gods above;
Parent of Rome; Propitious Queen of Love;
Whose vital pow’r, Air, Earth, and Sea supplies;
And breeds what e’r is born beneath the rowling Skies:
For every kind, by thy prolifique might,
Springs, and beholds the Regions of the light:
Thee, Goddess thee, the clouds and tempests fear,
And at thy pleasing presence disappear:
For thee the Land in fragrant Flow’rs is drest,
For thee the Ocean smiles, and smooths her wavy breast;
And Heav’n it self with more serene, and purer light is blest.
For when the rising Spring adorns the Mead,
And a new Scene of Nature stands display’d,
When teeming Budds, and chearful greens appear,
And Western gales unlock the lazy year,
The joyous Birds thy welcome first express,
Whose native Songs thy genial fire confess:
Then savage Beasts bound o’re their slighted food,
Strook with thy darts, and tempt the raging floud:
All Nature is thy Gift; Earth, Air, and Sea:
Of all that breathes, the various progeny,
Stung with delight, is goaded on by thee.
O’er barren Mountains, o’er the flow’ry Plain,
The leavy Forest, and the liquid Main
Extends thy uncontroul’d and boundless reign.
Through all the living Regions dost thou move,
And scattr’st, where thou goest, the kindly seeds of Love:
Since then the race of every living thing,
Obeys thy pow’r; since nothing new can spring
Without thy warmth, without thy influence bear,
Or beautiful, or lovesome can appear,
Be thou my ayd: My tuneful Song inspire,
And kindle with thy own productive fire;
While all thy Province Nature, I survey,
And sing to Memmius an immortal lay
Of Heav’n, and Earth, and every where thy wond’rous pow’r display.
To Memmius, under thy sweet influence born,
Whom thou with all thy gifts and graces dost adorn.
The rather, then assist my Muse and me,
Infusing Verses worthy him and thee.
Mean time on Land and Sea let barb’rous discord cease,
And lull the listening world in universal peace.
To thee, Mankind their soft repose must owe,
For thou alone that blessing canst bestow;
Because the brutal business of the War
Is manag’d by thy dreadful Servant’s care:
Who oft retires from fighting fields, to prove
The pleasing pains of thy eternal Love:
And panting on thy breast, supinely lies,
While with thy heavenly form he feeds his famish’d eyes:
Sucks in with open lips, thy balmy breath,
By turns restor’d to life, and plung’d in pleasing death.
There while thy curling limbs about him move,
Involv’d and fetter’d in the links of Love,
When wishing all, he nothing can deny,
Thy charms in that auspicious moment try;
With winning eloquence our peace implore,
And quiet to the weary World restore.
Lucretius’ Poem to Venus, De Rerum Natura
Last Year’s Twentieth: The Well Walled Fortress of the Wise