Happy Twentieth: The Pleasure of Knowledge

Earlier this month, I wrote a piece for Minority Mindset related to autarchy and the need to reinvent both labor and retirement.

In our recent internal discussions, we at Society of Epicurus talked about how unfairly Epicurean philosophy has been treated by one of the most prominent scholars who today writes about EP: Martha Nussbaum. It turns out we are not the only ones who are beginning to very loudly object to Nussbaum’s work. Dr. Elena Nicoli, of Radboud University, has put together a presentation titled “The Pleasure of Knowledge: Reassessing Nussbaum’s Interpretation of Epicurus“.

The presentation focuses on Nussbaum’s accusation that the Epicurean school discourages critical thinking and independent investigation in favor of dogmatism. In defense of the Epicureans, Dr. Nicoli presents VS 27 and 41, which say that knowledge is a source of pleasure–or rather, that pleasure and knowledge come together–to the Epicureans:

The benefits of other activities come only to those who have already become, with great difficulty, complete masters of such pursuits, but in the study of philosophy pleasure accompanies growing knowledge; for pleasure does not follow learning; rather, learning and pleasure advance side by side. – Vatican Saying 27

At one and the same time we must philosophize, laugh, and manage our household and other business, while never ceasing to proclaim the words of true philosophy. – Vatican Saying 41

She also shares a few other quotes, including ones from Lucretius where he praises the scientific study of nature and declares it necessary. But these quotes can be traced all the way to the first Epicureans and have their source in the Principal Doctrines 10-13 of the founders, which teach that it is impossible to live a pleasant life without at least a basic grasp of scientific understanding of the nature of things, and these teachings are echoed by the third Scholarch Polystratus, who argues that when people seek virtue without studying nature, their virtue comes to nothing and degenerates into superstition and arrogance–that is, fanaticism, which is what we still see today in many organized religions.

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. – PD 12

Dr. Nicola also argues that the utilitarian and therapeutic use of philosophy does not impede, but rather indeed requires, that we study the nature of things. One thing that she fails to point out, but for which these discussions might have provided a good opportunity, is that Epicurean ethics assigns a goal to knowledge–pleasant living–and that, in doing so, a hierarchy is created of the types of knowledge that are highly desirable, versus those that are of lesser value. Knowledge that adds to human health and happiness is of the higher type. We place less value in knowledge that leads to useless and idle pursuits, than in knowledge that leads to happiness, health, and self-sufficiency–because these things are necessary for a pleasant life. What philosophy furnishes to science and the pursuit of knowledge is an ethical goal: pleasure. Only philosophy is equipped to assign ethical dimensions to science and knowledge.

These are important arguments that, for many years, we have been attempting to address, and we’re very happy that Dr. Nicola has produced a much-needed defense of Epicurus from attacks by prejudiced academics like Nussbaum, who is often one of the main prisms through which many academics study Epicurean philosophy. We are happy to see that a diversity of voices is emerging in academia, among whom the counter-history of philosophy is beginning to find a voice.

Previous Twentieth Messages:

Questions to Ask Oneself About EP

In Defense of Pleasure

The Well-Walled Fortress of the Wise


About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014), 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and Epicurus of Samos – His Philosophy and Life: All the principal Classical texts Compiled and Introduced by Hiram Crespo (Ukemi Audiobooks, 2020). He's the founder of societyofepicurus.com, and has written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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