Happy Twentieth to Epicureans and allies everywhere! In my book, in the chapter on friendship (which is my favorite chapter in the book), I mentioned that human beings need affection, and that “friends are for hugging”. While reading the essay The Life of the Skin-Hungry: Can You Go Crazy from a Lack Of Touch?, I learned that some psychologists are actually using the terms “skin hunger” and “touch hunger” to refer to the syndrome experienced by people who suffer from chronic lack of affection.
The recently-published book How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well received a mediocre review from Kirkus, and a quite hostile one from the Wall Street Journal–written by no less than an editor of a Stoic book about Seneca–which said:
Here his philosophic system seems to suggest escapism. Lucretius, in his poetic exegesis of the system, used the metaphor of a fortress, built high on a coastal headland, from which one can watch as others, aboard ship, struggle to survive a sea-storm. The watcher feels bliss at being out of harm’s way and meanwhile, as critics have noted, lends no aid.
But anyone that studies the sources knows that the true Epicurean does NOT seek “escape” (unless his life or livelihood is in danger), and DOES lend aid to others: Lucretius wrote his work as an act of evangelical zeal! Epicureanism was a missionary humanistic philosophy with a teaching mission. Our School sent a missionaries to many places, including the Middle East! Bottom line: when you read a book review, consider the filter through which it was read.
Philodemus on Arrogance
The study of nature does not create men who are fond of boasting and chattering or who show off the culture that impresses the many, but rather men who are strong and self-sufficient, and who take pride in their own personal qualities not in those that depend on external circumstances. – Vatican Saying 45
Among the Herculaneum scrolls that have been deciphered by Philodemus, one of the least discussed is the one on arrogance. Perhaps this is a symptom of how unfrequently we engage our habit of self-assessment. No one likes to swallow bitter medicine!
I suppose this is a peculiar vice of the philosophers of all the schools, and I’m sure we have all been guilty at some point or another. People of greater intelligence frequently are observed to exhibit little patience with those of lesser intelligence. It takes a good measure of virtue to be respectful and kind to those who disagree with us, particularly when it is certain that they are wrong in their views (due to superstition or lack of habitual critical and empirical thinking).
This kindness must not be mistaken for agreement, or for an ecumenical spirit–and this basic measure of humility does not mean that we bow our heads in acceptance of lies. All “truths” are not equally valid. There are lies and mis-interpretations, there is error, and there are proven facts. So the key for the true sage is to stand his ground, and engage in parrhesia (frank criticism) with suavity, with kind speech, with sincerity and patience, and respecting the dignity and humanity of the other.
The founders’ efforts to use common words and to stay away from flowery speech, in addition to their habit of clear and plain speech, were consistent with their worldview, but also served as a way to teach by example that arrogance in philosophy was unnecessary and that–unlike Socrates–a teacher of philosophy does not need to humiliate his student to make a point. Sometimes the best way to teach is by being unassuming, friendly and authentic.
Also, in Epicureanism, one does not just teach the doctrine, but one also must exemplify it by kindness to one’s friends in the philosophy. This is hard to express in online communities, where sincere disagreements easily get misconstrued into personal attacks as a result of inability to add a smile, a tone, and suavity to one’s words. But it will be made clear to anyone that studies what life in the original Garden was like, that there was an intangible curriculum in human values and in friendly interaction, in addition to the official doctrine, that theory was there connected with practice, and that a huge part of the immediate pleasure that we derive from the study of philosophy “by ourselves and with kindred spirits”–as stated in the Letter to Menoeceus, and in Vatican Saying 41–derived from the pleasure of friendship and wholesome human interaction.
Philodemus’ scroll on arrogance should be studied by every soul that wants to nurture a process of sincere moral development. It challenges us to dismiss armchair philosophy, to get out of our heads, and to develop true inter-subjective relations that lead to pleasant living and mutual advantage, to look the other in the eye and honor his or her humanity regardless of station or belief, regardless of how deep our disagreements.
“It might seem strange,” said Metrodorus, “that the pedantry of Aristotle should find so many imitators, and his dark sayings so many believers, in a city, too, now graced and enlightened by the simple language, and simple doctrines of an Epicurus. — But the language of truth is too simple for inexperienced ears. We start in search of knowledge, like the demigods of old in search of adventure, prepared to encounter giants, to scale mountains, to pierce into Tartarean gulfs, and to carry off our prize from the grip of some dark enchanter, invulnerable to all save to charmed weapons and deity-gifted assailants. To find none of all these things, but, in their stead, a smooth road through a pleasant country, with a familiar guide to direct our curiosity, and point out the beauties of the landscape, disappoints us of all exploit and all notoriety; and our vanity turns but too often from the fair and open champaigne, into error’s dark labyrinths, where we mistake mystery for wisdom, pedantry for knowledge, and prejudice for virtue.” – Metrodorus of Lampsacus, in A Few Days in Athens by Frances Wright
Further Reading and Updates:
To Live Unnoticed: The Epicurean Remedy Against Vanity – The Greek Philosopher Epicurus Developed a Challenging Method Against Social Anxiety, Vanity and Egotism
The video Epicurus: The Philosophy of Pleasure was published this month. It’s not perfect (for instance, it claims–without citing a source–that Epicurus was “celibate”), but it’s a good introduction to Epicurean ideas and conversations
The upcoming book How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy will include chapters on Epicureanism, Stoicism, Aristotelianism, Christianity, Progressive Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Existentalism, and more
Lucien Greaves wrote a piece for Patheos on the Harmful Superstition of Exorcism which is reminiscent of Lucretius’ quote: “To what evil deeds does religion persuade!”
This week, an Aeon article mentioned Epicureanism while arguing that being happy does not mean relentless, competitive work.