The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Interview conducted by Patrick de Méritens for Le Figaro, July 27, 2012.Translation: Hiram Crespo.

Patrice de Méritens: How was your meeting with Epicurus?

Michel Onfray: I met him indirectly through Lucretius, with Lucien Jerphagnon who was my master at the University of Caen. He gave a course on The Nature of Things, which describes the world according to the principles of Epicurus. It was a real love at first sight. First, because the course brought together a handful of students, probably less than ten, and gave the impression of a meeting of contemporary disciples of the master. Lucien Jerphagnon had a great talent of tribune and one could really believe that he was what he said, namely, an ancient sage, rather Stoic (later, it would be Plotinian, then Augustinian …) which had just put his toga in his office to avoid attracting the attention of his colleagues who were too jealous, a garment he would not fail to endorse once out of the faculty … I held that philosophy could be lived, that it should not be merely a doctoral peroration. It was useless to read and meditate a text if we did not live it later on a daily basis.

It was a thunderbolt for a second reason because, having been programmed in Christianity since my childhood, I was torn between what seemed then a contradiction, but was resolved from the first sessions: how could an atheist be moral? It did not occur to me–but, if I’m allowed an excuse, I wasn’t even 20–that we could not believe in God and, at the same time, practice good and reject evil! The association of morality with the Christian religion and that of atheism with immorality were commonplace. Lucretius allowed me to get rid of it. He explained, in fact, what is good, what is bad; he affirmed the existence of diverse and material gods, and added that they were making a mockery of men … I discovered that Christianity could be a parenthesis, a moment in history, but not the whole story. From then on, one could imagine an exit from Christianity by studying pre-Christian thoughts. Lucretius became a stick of dynamite in a church …

P.M: It is essentially thanks to Lucretius that we know the thought of Epicurus, whose writings were systematically eliminated–we will come to it. But first, what are the criteria for recognizing and asserting themselves as epicureans?

M.O: Epicurus had the good sense of using shortcuts. The schools claiming him were very numerous in the Mediterranean basin. He wrote summaries for these communities. The three letters that remain to us are summaries of his thought–notably his letter to Menoeceus, which constitutes a synthesis of his morals. He also summed up his summaries in formulas … Thus with the tetrapharmakon, the fourfold remedy. Anyone who wants to be an epicurean must be convinced of four things.

The first: the gods are not to be feared: multiple, made up of matter like all that exists, they are in the intermundia, at the junction points between the worlds which are multiple, and do not care about men.

Second: death is not to be feared. When I’m here, it’s not here; when she is here, I am no longer here, so I have nothing to fear: I will not see her, I only worry about an idea. Death is painful because it is presentified. It is then given a power that should not be given. I must not pollute my present life with the fear of a thing to come. Death is a representation against which I can not fight.

The third: suffering is bearable–(unclear). Apart from a real objective part, suffering is a subjective representation that I can work on.

The fourth: happiness is possible–it lies in the belly, said Epicurus, and the inability to understand this sentence is the origin of the most serious misunderstanding.

Epicureanism would be a philosophy of the belly, and of the lower abdomen! Now Epicurus says: the belly is the place of desires, the desires are of three orders: natural and necessary when they are common to animals and to men, and when not to satisfy them, leads to death–to drink and to eat; natural and unnecessary when they are common to humans and animals, but can’t be satisfied without some harm–sexuality, for example; unnatural and unnecessary, they are the privilege of men – desire to possess, desire for honors, desire for wealth, reputation, etc.

Epicurus explains that, to know happiness, one only needs to satisfy the natural and necessary desires: to drink when one is thirsty, to eat when one is hungry, to appease the pain which are the thirst and the hunger. But not with a vintage Sauternes or with foie gras: with water and bread. It is said that Epicurus once made a little pot of cheese offered by his friends … To eliminate the suffering that is hunger and thirst for bread and water is the absence of trouble, ataraxia; it is the happiness to which Epicurus invites his disciples …

A contemporary epicurean can reactualize this tetrapharmakon: god does not exist, so there is nothing to fear from that side; death is not to be feared–it is, Epicurus was right, the end of an arrangement that bore our name, but the atoms continue to be; Suffering is bearable–one can indeed act by the will on the part of representation that is always a pain outside of its objective part; Happiness is possible, it is enough to focus on being, the construction of oneself as a free subjectivity and (unclear) …

P.M: Why was Epicurus a victim of this conspiracy which ends up calling him a “hog”?

M.O: Much has been written about Epicureanism, but almost nothing about the destruction of the Epicurean corpus by centuries of Christianity. The dominant narrative in Christian historiography was recently taken up by Paul Veyne in When Our World Became Christian. The professor at the College de France affirms, against all historical truth, that apart from all the violence, the triumph of Christianity can be explained by the content of this religion which is of love, by the radiance of its Lord and by its sublime conception of the world! To convince oneself of the contrary, let us read the excellent book by Benjamin Gras, The Destruction of Paganism in the Roman Empire (published by him via Publibook–we understand that no publisher takes the risk of this truth …) which teaches in an extremely documented way that Christianity, to impose itself, has resorted to lies, cunning, violence, brutality, vandalism.

Philosophers whose thinking was compatible with Christianity were privileged: the idealism of Plato and the Platonists, the metaphysics of Aristotle and Aristotelians, the dolorism and the Stoic ascetic ideal. On the other hand, all that was incompatible with Christianity was persecuted: the closing of philosophical schools, the destruction of libraries, the persecution of philosophers (Alexandria’s Hypatia was stoned by Christians at the beginning of the fifth century …). Epicureanism has obviously done the work to deserve this persecution: this school indeed teaches that there is a multiplicity of material gods, that pleasure is the root of morality, that there is no sin, that we are only arranged atoms, we must not be afraid of death because there is no immaterial soul likely to suffer the law of a single god … We understand that the 300 books of Epicurus, but also the other books of the materialists of antiquity, have disappeared from circulation. We have only three letters left and some sentences from Epicurus. These three letters escaped the fury of the Christian inquisitors because they are included in the histories of the philosophers written by Diogenes Laertius. Without this, the Christians would have removed the entire Epicurean production from the philosophical map.

In their lifetime, the burning of the heretics was not possible, but there was a way to fight this opposing philosophical school: slander, and it’s still a good way today to prevent the reading of the works of a philosopher who bothers them and debates their thesis on the merits … It was enough to make Epicurus a debauched man who prostituted women, a guzzler who vomited from drinking and eating like a glutton, a hypocrite who taught asceticism but practiced orgy and lived in luxury, to discredit a work through these calumnies.

It is the Stoics, a competing school, who have caricatured Epicureanism to impose their leadership in the contemporary intellectual field–if one wishes to speak like Bourdieu … In the political campaigns for the Senate, it was easy to discredit the adversary by presenting him as a hog … The Epicurean hog is an insult in the Stoic war. It will take an enlightened priest, Gassendi, to rehabilitate the figure and write a work on Epicurus in the seventeenth century: the very beautiful “Life and manners of Epicurus”, which begins to liken Epicurus and Christ, a proximity that is also found in Erasmus and Montaigne …

P.M .: Did Nietzsche not see in Epicureanism a pagan pre-Christianity without notion of sin?

Michel Onfray: Nietzsche abandons his first Wagnerian biographical period through Epicurus, before entering a third period which will be that of the superman. Epicurus embodies a moment of peace and serenity. Italy after Germany, Genoa after Bayreuth, the Mediterranean sun after the Germanic mists … At this time, he wants to create a philosophical community in a kind of farm he seeks to buy with his sister. He wants autonomy of life, invention and the practice of new possibilities of existence. He aims at frugality, he even plans to create a vegetable garden. He wants a “cloister for free spirits” in which to train the trainers of a post-Christian humanity, in which the sovereign good would be ataraxia, the absence of suffering, pain, a kind of eudemonism–happiness as the sovereign good–whose model is in the light of the paintings of Claude Gellée, says Lorrain. Epicureanism is a philosophy that is content with the given reality, which does not live in, by and for the other-worlds, which knows that there is only one world and that it is pure immanence. No Christian sin attached to a whimsical mythology, but just an existential fault: to miss out on his life, because we only have one …

P.M: Explain to us the Garden of Epicurus, which could be described as Plato’s Anti-Republic.

M.O: The Garden of Epicurus welcomes everyone: women, children, young people, old people, strangers, metics (foreigners), non-citizens. Epicurus thinks that one does not need to be a man, a citizen … to do philosophy, unlike Plato who selects his disciples to make them men of power. Epicurus wants a happy community of philosophers in the city, apart, as a microsociety that resists society for being too corrupt. Plato wants to transform the city in an aristocratic way to achieve a society in which the philosopher king is at the top, while the workers produce at the base to feed the class of soldiers who prevent the people from defeating his king … Epicurus is at the base of any future democracy, Plato is at the base of totalitarianism: Karl Popper shows well in The Open Society and its Enemies how the philosopher of the Republic lays the foundations of the socialism of the barbed wire of the twentieth century … Epicurus is the thinker who gives the means to resist all possible totalitarianism …

M.O: Epicureanism has always been the philosophy of resistance to dominant models that are idealistic, spiritualistic. The ruling power legitimates its power by invoking an other-world in which sovereignty would be rooted. Epicurus proposes a theory of the immanent contract as foundation of policy. Idealism is the companion of theocracy; Epicureanism, that of democracy. No dictator can claim Epicurus or Epicureanism–he always invites blood and tears, effort and rigor. Yesterday and today, Plato is the philosopher of lovers of tyranny, Epicurus that of the lovers of “true freedom”, to speak like Rimbaud …

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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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