PD 13 and False Views as Threat to Public Safety

I finally took the time to read the paper Epicurean education and the rhetoric of concern. Well, actually, I must confess I didn’t read it: that’s what robots are for! I used an app called Natural Reader to have it read to me, to save time, and so that my eyes would not get tired.

The paper mentions Principal Doctrine 13 as an exhibit in the argument in favor of preaching Epicurean philosophy to the world for the sake of securing for ourselves and others the kind of life we long for. It struck me as a missing piece in a puzzle that I’ve been attempting to put together for some time. The zeal to teach the philosophy is philanthropic to some extent. Of course, that altruism and self-interest both dwell in our soul is not a revelation, and these things are not mutually contradictory but rather can co-exist and are both necessary for living a life of pleasure. This has always seemed clear and obvious to me. Not so to others.

PD 12 and PD 13 both seem to be saying something similar.

12. It is impossible for someone to dispel his fears about the most important matters if he doesn’t know the nature of the universe but still gives some credence to myths. So without the study of nature there is no enjoyment of pure pleasure.

13. There is no advantage to obtaining protection from other men so long as we are alarmed by events above or below the earth or in general by whatever happens in the boundless universe.

And so it is clear that, to live a pleasant life according to Epicurean guidelines, we should have the right beliefs concerning the nature of things. It is also clear that we should contribute to the peace of mind and happiness of our Epicurean friends by studying together and helping to correct their false views, up to the point that we even may have to engage in what Philodemus in his scroll on frank criticism called “person-taming”, because we are by nature invested in the moral character and happiness of our true friends. This is consistent with Vatican Saying 15:

We place a high value on our characters as if they were our own possessions whether or not we are virtuous and praised by other men. So, too, we must regard the characters of those around us if they are our friends.

But what about strangers, and society in general? For that, we have a different strategy: the missionary aspect of Epicurean philosophy. The issue that the paper tackles is how a philosophical doctrine of so-called “egoism” can be philanthropic to the point of being a missionary humanism. This is where the author errs, and his tone is heavily influenced by the tired anti-Epicurean stereotypes (as selfish hedonists) that abound in academia.

Yet the author Sean McConnell hits an important insight when he articulates that for the sake of safety, and to ensure that other members of his society are capable of participating in the hedonistic covenant (to not harm or be harmed, and of mutual benefit), Epicureans see it in their self-interest to produce more Epicureans by teaching philosophy. In other words, just as in PD 13 we find that we can’t lead lives of pleasure if we hold false views, similarly it would be difficult for us to live pleasantly if we are surrounded by people whose false views render them incapable of living pleasantly, or of allowing others to live pleasantly. That rings more true to me, having had exchanges with contemporary Epicureans for a few years now, than the apparent inner contradiction between selfish and selfless impulses that the author seems to imagine.

We do engage in calculus of pleasure. But enamored as we are with the immediacy of pleasant experiences, I don’t think we calculate as consciously as he thinks we do. Also, we feel in our own realities the detrimental effects produced by homophobia, terrorism, and the lack of faith in science coming from the far religious right much more vividly and viscerally than how cold calculations are experienced by a logician. Yes, we would indeed feel safer in a world with less religion and more critical, empirical thinking. And yes, a more Epicurean world would make it less likely that others will poison our happiness, not to mention threaten our lives and our security. But an Epicurean is less likely to argue the choice of teaching philosophy in selfish-versus-altruism terms, and more likely to consider that it’s in our nature to do the things we find pleasure in (like philosophy) in the company of others, and for that sake, we have missionary philosophy. And these many selfish and altruistic reasons to teach philosophy are not mutually contradictory, but mutually reinforcing.

That’s one issue. On a separate (yet related) issue raised by the above mentioned paper, Cassius says:

I think the flaws here are (1) he is forcing Epicurus into the egoist vs altruist mold, neither of which applies to Epicurus. Epicurus says to follow pleasure, not yourself for the sake of yourself or others for the sake of others. Also (2) he is one of those who is constantly looking for some “virtue” that is “choiceworthy in itself” so he can find an exception to the rule that pleasure is the goal. This is what the later Epicureans were doing, as referenced in the article, and it is deadly because it contradicts the foundation of the philosophy.

Epicurus was not an altruist nor was he an “egoist with exceptions.” He was a consistent follower of pleasure, and it is no contradiction to say that in some situations our pleasure is maximized by putting the happiness of a friend above that of our own.

I would be careful in praising the article too much because he “defends” Epicurus by concluding that he is an egoist with exceptions, and that undermines the doctrines — Strictly speaking egoism is “Self above all” and altruism is “others above self” and NEITHER of those are correct analysis. His article should have rejected both as they applied to Epicurus. Not only are they not our points of reference, but I think it could be argued that “egoism” and “altruism” are two horns of a deadly false choice.

In fact that might be a good general conclusion I would reach — I would not agree that Epicurus was an “egoist” – I would dissect that word and show he is not.

It would be much better to reject the false definitions at the beginning and explain what he meant positively, and then attack the errors from there, rather than trying to employ words that now have false issues embedded in them without rooting out the false definitions.

I see Cassius’ point, and the author does seem to be coming from a place where he is constantly reiterating that Epicureans exhibit philanthropy IN SPITE OF themselves and their selfish philosophy. For instance, we read:

John Armstrong presents a compelling argument that the agreement and adherence to a contract neither to harm nor be harmed are premised firmly on an individual’s desire for his own end, even though Lucretius for instance suggests some degree of other-concern when he says that the contract included a provision for the protection of women and children, for “it is fair for all to pity the weak” (DRN 5.1019-1023)

This is the tone we find throughout the entire paper. These kinds of “yes this is selfish, but that is altruistic” are absent in Epicurean discourse. While we like to adhere to ancient writings in our study of philosophy, in my personal conversations with other 21st Century Epicureans, what I HAVE heard often is that it is in our nature to both protect ourselves as well as to want the happiness of others, particularly those close to us. That is, both the selfish and the altruistic impulses are natural, and they both serve a life of pleasure.

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About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' and founder of societyofepicurus.com. He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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