Happy Twentieth! Armed for Happiness

Happy Twentieth to all the students of Epicurean philosophy! We received a report on the 10th Symposium of Epicurean Philosophy, which takes place annually in the neighborhood of Pallini in Athens, which in ancient times was known as Gargettos. This is the neighborhood where Epicurus had his Garden. This year’s symposium–which focused on exoplanetary science–broke attendance records.

As some of you may already be aware, the blog Caute is authored by a Unitarian Church minister from Cambridge, UK, who identifies both with Christian atheism and with the Epicurean tradition. He has written about Lucretius more than once, and from time to time incorporates Epicureanism into his liturgy and even holds Epicurean gatherings in his church. His last piece is titled Learning from Lucretius in the Shadow of Coronavirus. There, he warns us against allowing peddlers of religious fear to exploit our existential vulnerabilities, and accentuates the importance of accepting the Epicurean doctrines on how death is nothing to us, rather than remaining neutral to the dangers of organized religion.

I recently came upon this quote by an enemy of Epicurean philosophy, which stirred curiosity about the various things that this fragment says. I enjoy a good intellectual challenge, so decided to evaluate what the controversy may have entailed.

“So too Epicurus, when he wishes to get rid of the natural fellowship of men with one another, makes use of the very principle of which he is getting rid. For what does he say? ‘Men, be not deceived, be not misled or deluded. There is no natural fellowship of rational beings with one another: believe me. Those who state the contrary deceive you and mislead your reason.’ What concern, then, is it of yours? … Man, why do you take thought for our sake, why do you keep awake for us, why do you light your lamp, why do you rise early, why do you write such big books? … for this is the life of which you pronounce yourself worthy: eating, drinking, copulation, evacuation, and snoring. What does it matter to you, what opinions others will hold on these matters, or whether they are right or wrong? … What, then, was it that roused Epicurus from his slumbers and compelled him to write what he wrote?” – Epictetus

We must first acknowledge that it’s entirely possible that Epicurus did not say this, as many enemies of the School have purposefully misrepresented the teachings throughout history. To make things worse, things said by contending philosophers can easily be taken out of context and misconstrued. Having said that, and even if we concede that there is some ill-will here, I’d like to give Epictetus the benefit of the doubt and assume that Epicurus DID say this.

Secondly, Epictetus claims that Epicurus “wishes to get rid of the natural fellowship of men“, and yet in his own critique he admits that in practice Epicurus acts in fellowship with men. I suspect that the original statement by Epicurus involved the view that universal, impersonal philanthropy is either impossible or unnatural (because it is not natural to love an abstraction or an impersonal token of beings; one only naturally loves other concrete, real, individual beings). And yet, Principal Doctrine 39 says that we should “try to make all beings into one family“, and Epicureanism is the first and only missionary humanistic philosophy that antiquity produced, and it is clear that Epicurus had devoted himself to teaching others how to be happy while studying nature, which seems to imply some level of philanthropy.

In a reality-based materialist philosophy, the idea of universal love for all beings is difficult to argue, or even imagine or justify. It’s unnatural, and no individual has the time, or the attention span, needed to attend to all beings, even if that individual is pleasantly disposed towards people in general.

From the passage we must infer that, in the context of a discussion between Stoics and Epicureans, the Stoics were arguing their cosmopolitan idea that there is “a natural fellowship of rational beings” that includes all of humankind. The cosmopolitanism of the Epicureans, however, is quite different from the Stoics’ cosmopolitanism. It has a distinct anarchic, apolitical flavor. It differentiates between doing philosophy for ourselves as individuals and doing philosophy for Greece, for the nation, or the polis, or any other political, Platonic, or imagined community. It refuses to be appropriated in the service of an impersonal entity. And it sees individuals as natural beings–not just rational animals, CERTAINLY not political animals–with the drives, feelings, and instincts of the individual as an important component of any real, natural community of friends.

That Epicurus sent missionaries to Asia proves that this community of friends WAS cosmopolitan and diverse. But it’s also true that not everyone was receptive, welcoming, or able to profit from Epicurean teachings.

We must always orient our discourse for the benefit of those who are solidly armed for happiness: our disciples. – Epicurus of Samos, On Nature 28

In investigating nature I would prefer to speak openly and like an oracle to give answers serviceable to all mankind, even though no one should understand me, rather than to conform to popular opinions and so win the praise freely scattered by the mob. – Vatican Saying 29

Therefore, it should be understood that Epicurus wrote for and taught philosophy to selected individuals. In addition, the manner of passing down of Epicurean tradition seems to have been highly personal and inter-subjective. I have often argued that Epicureanism is, among other things, (meant to be experienced as) a conversation among friends that has taken place over centuries. In his Epistle to Menoeceus, Epicurus invites the reader to study both alone and with others–friends are able to check on our development, offer frank criticism, challenge our biases, and offer perspectives that a lone student may not be able to come up with.

It must be emphasized that, rather than speaking to “the public”, Epicurus directs his attention to concrete individuals, to subjects, and avoids being impersonal. All his epistles are directed to specific individuals.

So greatly blessed were Metrodorus and I that it has been no harm to us to be unknown, and almost unheard of, in this well-known land of Greece. – Epicurus

Here is a nice expression by Epicurus, written to one of the partners of his studies: “I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.” – Seneca, Letters to Lucilius

This attitude likely originated in Epicurus’ negative experience at the gymnasium in Mytilene. We know that he began his career teaching philosophy there, but was expulsed from Lesbos violently by the Platonists, shipwrecked and nearly died. When he did set up a School, he avoided preaching in public and set up a private Garden, instead. Later on, one of the controversies between the School and Timocrates had to do with opinions on the public life, and as late as the Second Century, Diogenes of Oenoanda, in Fragment 112 of his Wall Inscription, was still critical of a career in public speaking. Part of the pleasure of studying philosophy appears to involve the privacy and the intimacy of a conversation among friends, the dedicated attention, and the friendship itself.

Having said this, even if loving an impersonal, universal “humanity” or some other abstraction is unnatural, the Epicurean tradition does teach that it is natural to care for our neighbors–particularly those whom we know face-to-face, and particularly those who are weaker than we are. The origin of compassion for our neighbors is discussed in On the nature of things:

And when they saw an offspring born
From out themselves, then first the human race
Began to soften. …
And Love reduced their shaggy hardiness;
And children, with the prattle and the kiss,
Soon broke the parents’ haughty temper down.
Then, too, did neighbours ‘gin to league as friends,
Eager to wrong no more or suffer wrong,
And urged for children and the womankind
Mercy, of fathers, whilst with cries and gestures
They stammered hints how meet it was that all
Should have compassion on the weak. And still,
Though concord not in every wise could then
Begotten be, a good, a goodly part
Kept faith inviolate- or else mankind
Long since had been unutterably cut off,
And propagation never could have brought
The species down the ages.

Lucretius, in De Rerum Natura 5:1015-27

It’s believed that Lucretius based DRN on Epicurus’ more than 30 books On Nature, and Book V of DRN in particular is the most fascinating and complete treatment of Epicurean anthropology that we have. Here, Lucretius says several things: he tells us that humans got softer as they got civilized (“love reduced their shaggy hardiness“), that friendship arose as a result of a shared pursuit of mutual benefit, that as a result of these friendships between neighbors mercy was urged upon the children, the women and the weak, and finally it ends with “how meet it was that all should have compassion on the weak“. It even goes as far as saying that without this compassion, “propagation never could have brought the species down the ages“. This doctrine was shockingly demonstrated by recent discovery of evidence that Neanderthals–who died out and were replaced by our own ancestors–cannibalized each other.

One final word on Epictetus’ question–“What, then, was it that roused Epicurus from his slumbers and compelled him to write what he wrote?”: The pleasure of leaving a legacy renders life meaningful and pleasant, particularly as we reach the end of our lives. Diogenes, in his Wall Inscription, mentions that at the end of his life, he wanted to leave Epicurean teachings for the benefit of the future generations of residents of Oenoanda. Epicurus, at the hour of his death, also uttered the final words “Never forget my teachings!” It’s almost like they wanted to extend to others the pleasure that they found in philosophy during their lives one final time, because they felt that philosophy was the thing of greatest value, the one thing that helped them make their own lives worth living.

There seems to be a natural philanthropic inclination in the Epicurean teaching mission, even if it’s not entirely untinged by pride. Clearly, the ruins of Diogenes’ Wall still bear his name. But a healthy sense of pride has frequently stimulated wholesome behavior, and this pride is well-earned, in my esteem, by those who are solidly armed for happiness. The question is, what worthy outlet will we find for this Epicurean philanthropy that wishes to spread happiness? Like Epicurus and his companions who grew old together in philosophy, we all have our select individuals, our friends, our chosen ones.

Further Reading:

Community vs. Polis

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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5 Responses to Happy Twentieth! Armed for Happiness

  1. Andrew James Brown says:

    Dear Hiram, Greetings! Thanks for posting a link to my most recent Lucretian/Epicurean address. That’s very thoughtful and generous of you.

    Secondly, just to say that I very much enjoyed your excellent, persuasive and admirably clear essay in “How to Live a Good Life” and will certainly be directing people to it. Bravo to you for that.

    And, thirdly, a quick question relates to Epicurus understanding of in what consists the material conditions for nature as it appears (naturae species ratioque) and that held by Lucretius. Epicurus clearly thinks the material conditions are atoms and void but, at least if one follows Thomas Nail’s reading of the DRN (see link below), Lucretius seems to think the material condition is constantly moving flow, folds and fields (the flow is what is ‘a-tomos’, indivisible, for Lucretius). If Nail is correct – and that is clearly debatable (even if I am personally persuaded) – then we get a development of Epicurean thinking and ethics that is not inconsistent with the way modern physics understands in what consists the material conditions for nature as it appears. This seems important because we now know Epicurus’ atomic theory is simply wrong and, as such, it seems to me to be the biggest barrier to people adopting an Epicurean way of being in the world with a clean heart and full pathos. Anyway, I’d value hearing your thoughts on the matter.

    “Lucretius was not an Atomist” by Thomas Nail

    Every best wish and thanks for all your splendid work. Marvellous stuff.



    • hiramcrespo says:

      Hi! Thank you for the comment, and for visiting the blog.

      I disagree that “Epicurus was simply wrong”. Atoms have been photographed, and are understood in much more detail today. However the word a-tomoi in Greek does not translate as atoms in English. I always translate the word as particles. The word means in-divisible. The early atomists were reacting against a pre-Socratic paradox that argued that bodies could be divided to infinity, but the atomists said if that was the case then there would be an infinite number of particles in each body, and then the bodies would be infinite in size which is not what our eyes report. So there must be a limit in small particles. Hence, a-tomoi, the indivisible units. That reasoning is still both sound and empirical.

      The author of “God an the Atom” Victor Stenger defends the classical model of atoms.

      Now, this is not mutually contradictory from flows because small particles will behave like water, just consider the sand and how easily bodies, wind and other forces can move through the grains. (I also remember in my discussions of the Tao Te Ching that I noticed a parallel between Epicurean atoms and void + ying and yang, because the only property of the void is that it yields, and ying is yielding while yang is asserting.) So this is what Epicurus called polyvalent logic: many explanations, theories and ways of explaining and understanding things are valid and acceptable so long as they don’t contradict evidence or each other.

      So I don’t think Lucretius contradicted Epicurus, on the contrary, he starts each book praising him, and I wish we had more of the 37 books On Nature by Epicurus. We would be able to trace the ideas back more clearly.

      When I wrote my review of Nail, I also remember thinking that he must not have read Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus. It seems like he only studied Lucretius, not the direct sources in Epicurus (Julien de la Mettrie also did this). I look forward to your reply and to continuing discussions on this. Cheers!


      • Andrew James Brown says:

        Greetings once again. Thanks for the reply and, following that, I checked out your review of Nail’s book so I can see why you say what you say above. As I’ve already indicated I’m minded to think Nail is on to something but it’s clearly going to be impossible to explore this together properly in comment boxes! But I still think it is reasonable to say that ‘Epicurus is simply wrong’ in thinking that atoms and void are primary, i.e. they are themselves the material conditions for nature as it appears. Atoms and void now seem to be dependent on (or emerge from) ‘something’ much, much stranger and so a truly relevant, modern Epicurean stance in the world needs to take this into consideration. It strikes me that Nail’s reading of Lucretius (and Nail’s associated claim that Lucretius deliberately did not follow Epicurus’ atomism but radically revised it) gives us the way to be firmly in the Epicurean tradition but in a way that is not inconsistent with the way contemporary physics is suggesting the world is. Sticking with Epicurus’ original physics seems, as I’ve intimated, just the wrong thing to be doing.

        With best wishes and thanks again for all your excellent writing and promotion of all things Epicurean. Much appreciated.



  2. Ear Markos says:

    Andrew, I don’t follow your reasoning. What about Epicurus’ matter and void is wrong? You’ve invoked modern physics as a counter-point but you haven’t shown where they contradict one another. If matter and void are “wrong” then all that follows it is as well. Epicurean ethics rest on Epicurean physics. If you remove them from their context they cease to have any firm grounding.

    We might as well replace them with the flying spaghetti monster, then.

    I am unconvinced by Thomas Nail’s arguments. His interpretation seems like a great way to sell books, less reliable when put into the context of the greater Epicurean canon. Lucretius isn’t the only Epicurean writer and it’s well-understood in academia that he wasn’t an advanced student of Epicurean philosophy.


  3. Doug Bates says:

    I don’t read ancient Greek, but the translations that say “get rid of” or “cut off” appear to be literal translations for a figure of speech meaning to deny.

    One overall difference between Epicurean and Stoic philosophies is that the Epicureans tend towards the thinking of the Democriteans that much of what we understand about our existence is by convention (i.e., determined by people) whereas the Stoics tend to think that things are by nature (essential to things in themselves), which they aim to live in accordance with. In this case, the Stoics think that the fellowship of man is by nature whereas Epicurus thinks it is manmade, and thus denies that it is by nature. Epictetus thinks that it if is not by nature, then there’s no reason for Epicurus to pursue it.


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