Diogenes’ Wall: on Old Age

We should not view the young man as happy, but rather the old man whose life has been fortunate. The young man at the height of his powers is often befuddled by chance and driven from his course; but the old man has dropped anchor in old age as in a harbor, since he secures in sure and thankful memory goods for which he was once scarcely confident of. – Vatican Saying 17

We’ve all seen the archetypal wise old man or wise old woman in movies and mythology. With age comes wisdom, and in many wisdom traditions there is an insistence in respecting the elderly and a recognition that these traditions originally flowed from the gray hair of the old people. We see it in the respect and even reverence for ancestors and the elderly that is expected in many strongly-traditional Asian and African cultures, and in the Scandinavian wisdom tradition:

Hold never in scorn the hoary singer;
oft the counsel of the old is good;
come words of wisdom from the withered lips
of him left to hang among hides,
to rock with the rennets
and swing with the skins.

Havamal 133

And yet, although in the old days respect for the elderly and one’s ancestors seemed to be a universally recognized and most fundamental human value, today many families and societies easily discard and de-prioritize their elderly because they are not at their productive peak in terms of labor and of raising children. Instead of honoring celebrities and the superficiality of pop culture, perhaps we should learn once again to honor and profit from the wisdom of our old people, which is meant to keep us grounded, stable, and happy and to help us avoid the same mistakes they made.

In Epicurus’ final testament, we find that the original friends of Epicurus had all grown old together in philosophy, and naturally (as we see in VS 17) they philosophized about old age as well. The Diogenes’ Wall inscription has an entire section on old age (Fragments 137-157) where he argues that old age is not bad, that the mind is usually still firm, and that the young can also suffer from dim vision and other illnesses that old people tend to suffer from. He also argued that older people are better able to articulate great and wise speech, and learn to fight with words, not weapons.

In more recent times, Daniel Klein authored the book Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life. Here, he delves into discussions of old age as he is interviewed for the Life Matters podcast.

Video: Life Lessons from 100-year-olds

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Diogenes’ Wall: “Who will choose to seek what he can never find?”

I wish to share a meme-worthy portion of Diogenes’ Wall today. In Fragments 4 and 5, Diogenes argues in defense of the natural sciences. These Fragments in themselves are of great value, considering the great hostility toward science that the current regime in the United States exhibits. It’s unfortunate that history continues its circular attitudes in regards to this matter, always returning to a view that gives wholly undeserved credit to a pre-scientific worldview even in the 21st Century. Here is the portion:

… [as is supposed by] some of the philosophers and especially the Socratics. They say that pursuing natural science and busying oneself with investigation of [celestial phenomena] is superfluous and unprofitable, and they do [not even] deign [to concern themselves with such matters.]

[Others do not] explicitly [stigmatise] natural science as unnecessary, being ashamed to acknowledge [this], but use another means of discarding it. For, when they assert that things are inapprehensible, what else are they saying than that there is no need for us to pursue natural science? After all, who will choose to seek what he can never find?

“After all, who will choose to seek what he can never find?”

“After all, who will choose to seek what he can never find?”

In a recent conversation with another Epicurean, this passage was brought up with emphasis on this question, asked rhetorically and used to criticize the Platonists and religious people who waste their time seeking things that can not, by their own admission, be found because they exist supposedly “outside of nature”. If they were to admit–as we do–that whatever exists outside of nature is imaginary, and not real, because nature is reality, then the matter would be immediately settled. But they keep on seeking what can never be found, and arrogantly making claims in their search that confuse people, rather than referring their thought process to the evidence that nature presents to our faculties. This, we deem a huge and unfortunate waste of time.

Now, here is how Diogenes closes his argument, by saying that we would not be able to refer to anything without first being able to apprehend some aspect of its nature, which therefore shows that the nature of things is apprehensible:

Now Aristotle and those who hold the same Peripatetic views as Aristotle say that nothing is scientifically knowable, because things are continually in flux and, on account of the rapidity of the flux, evade our apprehension. We on the other hand acknowledge their flux, but not its being so rapid that the nature of each thing [is] at no time apprehensible by sense-perception. And indeed [in no way would the upholders of] the view under discussion have been able to say (and this is just what they do [maintain] that [at one time] this is [white] and this black, while [at another time] neither this is [white nor] that black, [if] they had not had [previous] knowledge of the nature of both white and black.

See Also:

Oinoanda: “What the Truth Was Before it Turned into Ruins”

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Diogenes’ Wall: on Principal Doctrine 20

The flesh receives as unlimited the limits of pleasure; and to provide it requires unlimited time. But the mind, intellectually grasping what the end and limit of the flesh is, and banishing the terrors of the future, procures a complete and perfect life, and we have no longer any need of unlimited time. Nevertheless the mind does not shun pleasure, and even when circumstances make death imminent, the mind does not lack enjoyment of the best life. – Principal Doctrine 20

One of the many controversies in Epicurean philosophy has to do with whether the pleasures of the soul (or mental pleasures) are superior to those of the body, which is a doctrine that many attribute to Epicurus, perhaps to distance him from the earlier hedonism of the Cyrenaics, or perhaps to liken him a bit more to the Stoics or other philosophers who preach asceticism instead of hedonism.

I do not believe that Epicurus ever actually _said_ that mental pleasures are “superior” to those of the body: we see above in PD 20 that the mind does  *not* shun pleasure. Period. But many Epicureans and non-Epicureans after him have come to the conclusion that they are superior. What Epicurus did say is that the pleasures (and pains) of the mind last longer than those of the body: we may hurt our bodies and be in pain for 10, or 30 minutes, or sometimes for longer in the cases of chronic disease, but these cases are rare. We may enjoy a meal, a drink, or sex, and those pleasures can last, but not for very long.

Mental pleasure and mental anxiety, on the other hand, can last a lifetime, or many years. We can also consciously reminisce, or anticipate, these pleasures–in fact, Epicurus advised this as a practice for abiding in pleasure. In this sense, the Epicurean distinguishes himself from the Cyrenaic, who only limited the opportunities for pleasure to that which was right in front of him in the here-and-now.

Diogenes of Oenoanda, in his Wall Inscription, elaborated on this: he argued first that it is difficult to compare the mental pains to bodily pains (Fragment 44), and later expressed that the soul is more powerful than the body (Fragment 48), and that “if we neglect the soul and only care for body (as Aristippus–the founder of the Cyrenaic school–advised) we’ll be deprived of the greatest pleasures“, which implies that he believed that the pleasures of the mind _are_ greater than those of the body.

In Fragment 106, Diogenes argues that it is natural for those in physical pain to express their pain, but that it is unnatural to complain for not being fully healthy. He is once again demonstrating the difference of physical versus mental pain, and how we have much more control of the mental state than the physical one.

Diogenes lived in the Second Century of Common Era, and had been fortunate enough to receive a centuries-long tradition of uninterrupted Epicurean discourse. One thing we can say with certainty is that, by the time the Wall was erected in Oenoanda, the Epicureans had been pondering these questions for many generations and had formed quite elaborate arguments on them.

In Fragment 45, Diogenes argues that the soul is greater and more powerful than the body (as PD 20 teaches) by the demonstration that we see in depressed people, who sometimes stop eating and self-inflict physical harm as a result of their chronic sadness: when the soul is in a state of great suffering, the body also suffers. He’s arguing that soul pains are bigger than bodily pains, but in some rare cases the opposite can also be true: bodily pains can be so intense and chronic that the mind is affected. In all cases, the training of the mind’s disposition so that it may abide in pleasure habitually is advised.

Consistent with what’s been said before, in Fragment 112 Diogenes states that the “sum of happiness is our disposition, of which we are masters”, by which he argues against choosing a career in military service–which produces dangers to our lives and health–or public speaking–which produces nervousness and insecurity. The idea is that we can more easily be self-sufficient in our pleasure if we retain our ability to control our mental disposition.

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Does Faith Have to be a Bad Word?

I was recently one of the judges in a literary contest organized by the editorial team at Ateistas de Puerto Rico. The contest accepted essays from anywhere in the Spanish speaking world. The original intention was to identify secular and/or atheist intellectuals in Latin America, and then to give them a platform by inviting them to write as part of the editorial team, as we perceived that there were atheists in Latin America, but there seemed to be a vacuum in visibility and access to platforms.

We recently announced the winners and shared their three essays online (you may use google translate if you don’t know Spanish). The essay contest was a huge success for many reasons. We got essays from both the Old and New World (Spain, as well as Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Puerto Rico), and were able to learn from each other’s perspectives. One friend from Argentina shared some experiences that his community had when starting to organize an atheist organization in Buenos Aires, and explained the difference between secularism and atheism, and why they are both necessary. A few other writers shared personal anecdotes, while others dispelled myths about atheists.

The winning essay (palabra soez means “dirty word”) discusses how faith has become a bad word among many atheists, and how in reality there are many proven benefits to faith, and how perhaps we should not throw away the baby with the bathwater. His essay reminded me of how the word faith was used by ancient Epicureans to refer to how they placed their trust in each other, and yet today this innocence is lost and most Epicureans avoid the word faith to refer to their philosophical tradition–although, as we’ve discussed before, Epicureanism does exhibit the seven dimensions of religion and constitutes a kind of religious identity.

The winning essay also reminded me of an episode of Bizarre Foods where Andrew Zimmern went to South Africa and spent some time among the Khoi-San people of the Kalahari desert. The San people (aka “the Bushmen”) have been identified by geneticists as the very first branch of humanity, and have both Asian and African features. They are the epitome of man in his natural state. They speak a unique language with click sounds, and their shamanic spirituality (aka “shaking medicine”)–as well as their innocence–has been celebrated by anthropologists like Bradford Keeney. In the episode, Zimmern did not just eat as the locals ate: he also participated in a sacred dance around a fire where healers entered trance. At one point, one of the healers touched Zimmern in his heart while praying for him in trance, and the white TV host started crying in the middle of the Kalahari, not being able to really articulate WHY he was crying.

Human beings are not merely “rational” beings: we also are irrational, and have irrational needs. We need to play, to dance, to loosen up, we need to be touched and loved–not just erotically. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, engage in constant tactile interaction with their mothers for the first two years of their lives and frequently reassure each other with touch. People need affection.

I greatly enjoyed reading the Spanish-language essays, and there were many good insights, but the question posed by the winning essay lingers, and perhaps deserves more focused attention: Does faith have to be a bad word? Can we be fully human if we insist on being only “rational” beings, out of touch with the deeper layers of our identity, our instincts, and our humanity? Are there aspects of faith that are organic and natural, perhaps features of the “psychological immune system” that Dan Gilbert proposes in his TED speech on the science of happiness?

P.S. Here are the dictionary.com definitions of “faith”. Notice that only definitions 2, 3, and 5 are overtly religious or superstitious, and even if we concede this, there are atheistic religions like Buddhism and Jainism that fulfill nearly all of the given definitions.

1. confidence or trust in a person or thing:
2. belief that is not based on proof:
3. belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion:
4. belief in anything, as a code of ethics, standards of merit, etc.:
5. a system of religious belief:
6. the obligation of loyalty or fidelity to a person, promise, engagement, etc.:
7. the observance of this obligation; fidelity to one’s promise, oath, allegiance, etc.:

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Diogenes’ Wall: on the Pleasures

In the coming weeks, The Autarkist will be covering in detail some gleanings from Diogenes’ Wall Inscription. Diogenes of Oenoanda was a wealthy Epicurean from the Second Century of Common Era who lived in what is today the south of Turkey. He erected the wall with an inscription of Epicurean teachings so that the teachings would benefit all passers-by. The two major portions of the inscription are an epitome on the physics and another one on the ethics. The key portion on pleasure are fragments 32-35. It begins by tackling how virtues are the means and pleasure is the end:

If, gentlemen, the point at issue between these people and us involved inquiry into «what is the means of happiness?» and they wanted to say «the virtues» (which would actually be true), it would be unnecessary to take any other step than to agree with them about this, without more ado. But since, as I say, the issue is not «what is the means of happiness?» but «what is happiness and what is the ultimate goal of our nature?», I say both now and always, shouting out loudly to all Greeks and non-Greeks, that pleasure is the end of the best mode of life, while the virtues, which are inopportunely messed about by these people (being transferred from the place of the means to that of the end), are in no way an end, but the means to the end …

He then goes on to argue that the virtues benefit man, and exist and act for the sake of his nature. Diogenes says that there are three categories of causes of pleasure according to time: those that precede the pleasure, those that coincide with it (coincident causes, among which the virtues are to be found according to Diogenes), and those that follow the pleasure. Fragment 33:

Well now, I want to deflect also the error that … further inflates your doctrine as ignorant. The error is this: [not] all causes in things precede their effects, even if the majority do, but some of them precede their effects, others [coincide with] them, and others follow them.

Examples of causes that precede are cautery and surgery saving life: in these cases extreme pain must be borne, and it is after this that pleasure quickly follows.

Examples of coincident causes are [solid] and liquid nourishment and, in addition to these, [sexual acts:] we do not eat [food] and experience pleasure afterwards, nor do we drink wine and experience pleasure afterwards, nor do we emit semen and experience pleasure afterwards; rather the action brings about these pleasures for us immediately, without awaiting the future.

[As for causes that follow, an example is expecting] to win praise after death: although men experience pleasure now because there will be a favourable memory of them after they have gone, nevertheless the cause of the pleasure occurs later.

Now you, being unable to mark off these distinctions, and being unaware that the virtues have a place among the causes that coincide with their effects (for they are borne along with [pleasure), go completely astray.]

The ability to remember and anticipate past and future pleasures will be discussed in a future essay, and relates to this, but first I wish to explain that the above passage is controversial among Epicureans, who tend to stay away from talk of virtue precisely because of our preference for clear speech. Prudence is the kind of virtue by which we plan for the future, and while we may take pleasure in the anticipation of future confidence and stability, it’s not immediately clear that it (like all “the virtues”, according to Diogenes) is coincident with its effect (pleasure).

In Fragment 34, Diogenes rephrases the portion on choices and avoidances from the Letter to Menoeceus, and then once again revisits the subject of pleasures’ causes in time using garden imagery, explaining how the seeds of different pleasures germinate in different seasons.

… [let us] not [avoid every pain that is present, and let us not choose every pleasure, as the many always do. Each person must employ reasoning,] since he [will not always achieve immediate success: just as] exertion (?) [often] involves one [gain at the beginning and] certain [others as time passes by], so it is also with [experiencing pleasure;] for sowings of seeds do [not] bring [the same benefit] to the sower but we see some seeds very quickly germinating [and bearing fruit and others taking longer] …………… of pleasures and  [pains] …….. [pleasure].

In my book, I translated katastematic pleasure as abiding pleasure, and kinetic as dynamic pleasure. Dan Gilbert in his science of happiness book and TED Talk, uses natural and synthetic happiness. The Oenoanda page speaks instead of pleasure in states and in actions (static and active), and gives some insight into how an Epicurean from the Second Century CE defined static pleasure and into how ataraxia (equanimity, imperturbability), while not identical to pleasure, opens the way for pleasure.

Let us now [investigate] how life is to be made pleasant for us both in states and in actions.

Let us first discuss states, keeping an eye on the point that, when the emotions which disturb the soul are removed, those which produce pleasure enter into it to take their place.

Well, what are the disturbing emotions? [They are] fears —of the gods, of death, and of [pains]— and, besides [these], desires that [outrun] the limits fixed by nature. These are the roots of all evils, and, [unless] we cut them off, [a multitude] of evils will grow [upon] us.

The premise here is that, as sentient beings, at least so long as we are awake and conscious, we are always in some state of being. As philosophers, we should therefore be mindful of the dispositions that inform our states of mind—and some of these are hidden or unconscious–so that the perturbances can be healed in order to allow for pleasure to enter and take their place. Notice that there are four roots of evil that are clearly identified for our introspection and inner work.

Of the unconscious nature of many of these fearful dispositions, we read in Fragment 35:

As a matter of fact this fear is sometimes clear, sometimes not clear—clear when we avoid something manifestly harmful like fire through fear that we shall meet death by it, not clear when, while the mind is occupied with something else, it (fear) has insinuated itself into our nature and [lurks] …

This accentuates the psychotherapeutic nature of Epicurean ethics: we frequently use avoidance, repression, projection, and other techniques to lie to ourselves about what perturbs us. We therefore have to confront ourselves with honesty in order to profit from the Epicurean process of philosophy. And so Epicurean therapy–the purpose of which is to secure a life filled with pleasures–requires introspection, focus, attention, and the healing and training of the mind so that it may be pleasantly occupied.

See Also:

Oinoanda: “What the Truth Was Before it Turned into Ruins”

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Happy Twentieth: Lucretius on Iron and War, and some Updates

Happy Twentieth to Epicureans everywhere! During the month of February in Athens, Epicureans from all over Greece got together for their annual symposium. As is customary, I sent a message of solidarity on behalf of the Friends of Epicurus. Here is the full report of the symposium in English.

This month the essays about Nietzsche’s Will to Power went live on the Society of Epicurus page, and I was introduced to an intriguing discovery: YANG CHU, the Taoist hedonist sage who authored the seventh chapter of Lieh Tzu. This chapter has been translated into English as Yang Chu’s Garden of Pleasure: a literary and philosophical treasure trove filled with wise parables and teachings that many Epicureans will likely end up considering an important source of inspiration and guidance.

Look for my article on euthanasia on TheHumanist.com. A new self-guided and self-paced study curriculum (which covers the entire corpus of our tradition) is live on the SocietyofEpicurus.com page for the benefit of philosophy students, and the Spanish version also. We are also celebrating the growth of the Society of Friends of Epicurus: Matt Jackson is our newest member. He lent his voice to the introductory video on our youtube channel.

And finally, I was invited to discuss Epicurean philosophy at a high school philosophy club, and had a great experience interacting with brilliant young minds about hedonic calculus and about choices and avoidances.

This month I’ll share a passage from De Rerum Natura on how war expanded to an industrial scale after the discovery of iron. The passage raises questions about technology and how we should apply it to the end that our own nature seeks: Pleasure. There is a Yoruba legend that says that the only being in the universe who could tame the warrior Ogún was the most beautiful of the Goddesses, Oshún (the African Aphrodite), who would smear herself in honey and dance naked for him, enchanting him and making him do her bidding for the sake of peace and prosperity in the land. If Ogún is “sweetened”, rather than wage war or remove his skills from civilization, he would use his skills for sweetness, diminishing the brute labor required from men and beasts by making machines and weapons that make life easier. So it’s an interesting Epicurean commentary on this archetype: by offering its skills to the service of Oshun (i.e. Pleasure), all of civilization and all of society is helped! In De Rerum Natura, we also see that Mars stops his displays of aggression and his fighting, and gently surrenders to Venus in the opening poem.

ogThe month of March takes its name from the god of war, Mars. The Lucretius passage on how the invention of iron exacerbated man’s violence and made warfare on a larger scale possible reminds me of an African War God known as Ogún, whose counterpart is Hephaistos / Vulcan in the classical pantheon.

Ogún is a warrior god and the spirit of iron. He is associated with train tracks, iron, smithwork, and really he is the orisha associated with all technology and mechanics. The Yoruba people (and their Lucumí counterparts in the island of Cuba) believe that Ogún never tires and is constantly working. This is because he is associated with, or embodied in, the tools used to work the land. Many Yorubas believe that without Ogún, advanced civilization would be impossible.

But he’s more than the Divine Mechanic. They also believe that war would be impossible without him, and in fact Ogún is also the Voodoo god in whose honor the people of Haiti offered a sacrifice at the onset of the island-wide bloody slave revolt that eventually led to Haiti’s independence. Voodoo faithful believe that Ogún is the orisha who liberated them from slavery.

Now, Epicurean doctrine teaches that anything that secures our safety and our life is a natural good. The good side of this archetype is that chariots and weapons allowed many who were defenseless before to not succumb to tyranny, and to defend themselves. In Lucretius, a secular humanist evaluation of the association between iron and warfare is explored. The passage ends explaining how Discord multiplies the horrors of war.

How nature of iron discovered was, thou mayst
Of thine own self divine. Man’s ancient arms
Were hands, and nails and teeth, stones too and boughs-
Breakage of forest trees- and flame and fire,
As soon as known. Thereafter force of iron
And copper discovered was; and copper’s use
Was known ere iron’s, since more tractable
Its nature is and its abundance more.
With copper men to work the soil began,
With copper to rouse the hurly waves of war,
To straw the monstrous wounds, and seize away
Another’s flocks and fields. For unto them,
Thus armed, all things naked of defence
Readily yielded. Then by slow degrees
The sword of iron succeeded, and the shape
Of brazen sickle into scorn was turned:
With iron to cleave the soil of earth they ‘gan,
And the contentions of uncertain war
Were rendered equal.
And, lo, man was wont
Armed to mount upon the ribs of horse
And guide him with the rein, and play about
With right hand free, oft times before he tried
Perils of war in yoked chariot;
And yoked pairs abreast came earlier
Than yokes of four, or scythed chariots
Whereinto clomb the men-at-arms. And next
The Punic folk did train the elephants-
Those curst Lucanian oxen, hideous,
The serpent-handed, with turrets on their bulks-
To dure the wounds of war and panic-strike
The mighty troops of Mars. Thus Discord sad
Begat the one Thing after other, to be
The terror of the nations under arms,
And day by day to horrors of old war
She added an increase.

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura

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Tending the Garden with the Youth

I had the great pleasure of discussing Epicurean ethics with a group of about twenty students from the Philosophy Club at Jones High School in Chicago yesterday. After introducing myself and explaining what led me to write Tending the Epicurean Garden, I read Principal Doctrines 26, 29 and 30, as well as the portion of the Letter to Menoeceus that talks about how–although pleasure is choice-worthy for its own sake and pain is avoidance-worthy for its own sake–not every pleasure is to be sought and not every pain to be avoided. I also discussed the differences between the natural and necessary desires, those that are natural but unnecessary, and those that are empty, and the importance of having some kind of standard for our choices and avoidances, and explained hedonic calculus.

We considered real-life scenarios to apply hedonic calculus, and mentioned questions about access to information, as many of the Herculaneum scrolls are not available to everyday people due to the high cost of academic translations available. I also discussed some of the contemporary research on the science of happiness, went over some of the findings, and talked about how much of this research is actually taking place in universities here in Chi-Town.

But one thing that struck me was how easily they understand issues of power and how power affects narratives. When asked why Epicurean philosophy hadn’t been more widely taught, I simply mentioned: “Plato. And Christianity“. And it seemed immediately like they understood. I shared a bit of the counter-history of philosophy angle when I explained that Epicurus was reacting mainly to Plato when he offered a materialist philosophy, as Plato had de-contextualized and de-naturalized philosophy. On contrast, Epicurus wanted to reconcile us with nature.

The modern efforts to bring creationism and superstition into the classroom are nothing new, in fact they are an ancient cultural war: it has take the form of science versus theology, materialism versus idealism, and other forms. But the Jones students fill me with hope: the high school philosophy club was initiated by students, who get no extracurricular credit for it. They are genuinely interested in the philosophical questions and in critical thinking. Jones is a college prep school and is one of the best in the city of Chicago. My overall impression is that the youth were super smart, organized, curious, respectful and attentive, and my visit there, their hospitality, and their passion for philosophical questions will be quite memorable to me for some time.

Yes, there’s a cult of ignorance taking over America. But there’s still MUCH reason to hope!!!!

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