Happy Twentieth! – On Nature’s Alphabet

Tomorrow is International Mother Language Day–I’ve written previously on my general interest in languages, and specifically my interest in the international language Esperanto–so I thought I’d share an interesting observation that I made while studying De Rerum Natura.  In it, Lucretius frequently posits that nature has her own alphabet. We may think of it as the table of the elements, or perhaps in the case of life we may think of it as the four letters that, using a unique binary code, make up the DNA strands in all known living beings.

This idea stems, it seems to me, from the atomists’ observation that while there may be an infinite number of atoms, there is a limited number of possible combinations of atoms. It would be nearly impossible to discern laws of nature if the possible combinations of atoms was infinite. The fact that we are able to discern some order tells us that nature sets limits to what is possible and what isn’t. The same happens with language and sense: every language has its rules, and what falls outside those rules is nonsense.

With such being the nature of things, if we break up all things to their minimal constituents, we will eventually come across nature’s alphabet: the basic combinations out of which all things are made, just as paragraphs, sentences, and words all ultimately must be reduced to letters. Here is the analogy made by Lucretius:

Nay, thou beholdest in our verses here
Elements many, common to many worlds,
Albeit thou must confess each verse, each word
From one another differs both in sense
And ring of sound- so much the elements
Can bring about by change of order alone.

The above is from Book I. Later in Book II, he elaborates on this metaphor by comparing the laws of nature with the rules of grammar.

Why, even in these our very verses here
It matters much with what and in what order
Each element is set: the same denote
Sky, and the ocean, lands, and streams, and sun;
The same, the grains, and trees, and living things.

It is entirely natural for a poet like Lucretius to draw analogies between his art and the subject of his writing. What he is NOT saying, and we may draw from his metaphor, is that by studying nature, we can observe how she fashions meaning. And by this we mean real, not Platonic meaning, and certainly not magical meaning like the one that students of the runes and of Kabbalah pretend to draw from the Nordic and Hebrew letters.

Many philosophers are concerned with the absurdity of it all and with how they claim that things do not have inherent meaning, but Lucretius is here inviting us to consider both the craft of poetry as an art that confers and creates meaning, and also–most importantly–the possibility that by studying physics and by learning nature’s own alphabet, we can discern meaning in nature that is relevant, useful, and yet no less poetic and Dionysian.

In Book IV, Lucretius refers to “winged words” when speaking of how atoms-waves travel distances and are perceived in the air as scents, in the ocean as waves, or in other things we find in nature. By this he means tho impress us with how the semantics of nature can be directly perceived by our faculties, and there is no need for translation. Nature’s alphabet is real, and the sense it conveys can be directly apprehended. Nature can literally speak to our senses.

Each body produced by nature is a book. Every ecosystem, an anthology. Every species, a mythology. Every planet, an encyclopaedia.

I find this to be a beautiful way to encourage mortals to resist the temptations of other-worldly promises that so poetically insinuate themselves to us frequently, and to instead keep our feet on the ground and be content with the meaning that we can grasp from the study of nature.

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Two Cosmological Models Compared

See Will to Power Reasonings I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI and XII

It’s time to entertain our inner Carl Sagan by comparing the cosmological views of Nietzsche versus those of the Epicurean school. Two distinct naturalist models of the cosmos can be discerned here.

Let me attempt to explain the different cosmologies in my own words, and then I will cite Nietzsche: it seems like Nietzsche does not accept the infinity of atoms and of space, so that rather than a doctrine of innumerable worlds existing in all directions, his paradigm produces a doctrine of eternal recurrence of similar things because–as the ancient atomists noted–when we study the nature of things, we see that there are limited possible COMBINATIONS of atoms.

In N these combinations happen in limited space and time. Because we reject that notion, we instead can imagine innumerable worlds, similar and different from our own, and this is an important feature of the cosmology of the ancient atomists–which includes living beings from other planets, some with intelligence. In Nietzsche’s paradigm, because all in nature is cyclical in limited space and time, and because there is a limit to the possible combination of factors allowed by the laws of nature, eventually there must exist a repetition of phenomena. N concluded that all things must eventually happen over and over again in infinite time. This is what’s known as the eternal recurrence.

If the world may be thought of as a certain definite quantity of force and as a certain definite number of centers of force–and every other representation remains indefinite and therefore useless–it follows that, in the great dice game of existence, it must pass through a calculable number of combinations. In infinite time, every possible combination would at some time or another be realized; more: it would be realized an infinite number of times. And since between every combination and its next recurrence all other possible combinations would have to take place, and each of these combinations conditions the entire sequence of combinations in the same series, a circular movement of absolutely identical series is thus demonstrated: the world as a circular movement that has already repeated itself infinitely often and plays its game in infinitum.

This conception is not simply a mechanistic conception; for if it were that, it would not condition an infinite recurrence of identical cases, but a final state. Because the world has not reached this, mechanistic theory must be considered an imperfect and merely provisional hypothesis. – WtP 1066

So the key distinction between the cosmologies of E and N is innumerable worlds versus innumerable times. I have shared these reasonings with our friend Cassius, from New Epicurean, who adds:

I can see the appeal of the observation that (1) if something has happened, that means that it is the result of a possible combination of the elements, then (2) if it happened once, in an infinite and eternal universe it will then happen again (?) and in fact (3) it will happen over and over repeatedly. It’s point 2 that seems to me the problem. If the universe is infinite and the number of elements is boundless, even though a combination has proved to be possible in the past, why would the elements ever rearrange into the same position again? Nietzsche’s point might not even be reasonable in a “closed system” universe, but it doesn’t seem reasonable to me to suggest under an Epicurean boundless/infinite system.

What N’s theory does is add a layer of myth to each one of our lives, our days, our occurrences–which have all happened an infinite number of times–and so adds transcendence and meaning to life, maybe. In WtP 462, N says that eternal recurrence is a “means of breeding and selection” … “in place of metaphysics and religion”. I am unsure exactly what he means by this, but I do know that one of the ethical repercussions of the theory is that we are to live our lives heroically so that, at the end of our lives, we will have no regrets and, if we were to re-live our entire existence an infinite number of times, we would be happy to do so.

On the other hand, the Epicurean accepts that he will only live once, and must therefore capture in the pulsations of his life all the pleasure he can in order to make his one life worth living. The eternal recurrence and the innumerable worlds models both lead to a ‘seize the day’ mindset, each in their own way. A life well lived!

Here conclude my reasonings on Nietzsche’s Will to Power, the purpose of which was to imagine a productive and engaging conversation between the Nietzscheans and the Epicureans, and to accentuate the similarities and differences for the benefit of philosophy students everywhere. If you have enjoyed them, please discuss them and share them! You may also support Epicurean content on Patreon!

Further Reading:

Letter to Herodotus, Epicurus.net

Letter to Herodotus, Elemental Edition

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On the Difference Between Parrhesia and Plain Trolling

Bill Maher has always championed liberal values–though not the mooshy kind of people that are afraid to have their feelings hurt–and has always been an outspoken free-speech fundamentalist. True to his values, Maher had troll Milo Yiannopoulos as a guest on his show recently.

This IGD piece criticizes Maher for giving Milo a platform to spew his hatred, and in my view the criticism is fair. It is one thing to argue that Milo has the right or freedom to express himself, and he certainly does have that right, and it’s guaranteed by the constitution. But that is NOT at stake here. On his agenda is the normalization of white supremacist discourse, and by allowing Milo a platform as public as Maher’s show, without really subjecting him to the criticism that we have come to expect from such a liberal space in media, this advances said agenda.

By the way, the page calls Milo a white nationalist, but I’m not sure that applies to him, as he’s an immigrant from Britain and not an American citizen–he’s not a white “nationalist”, he’s just a self-loathing gay, an ultra-conservative troll, and an attention whore who has apparently bought into the near entirety of the paranoid alt-right discourse without qualifying the excesses of religious privilege and the many other incoherent and degrading bits, even those bits that de-legitimize his own life, his own right to exist and to be healthy and happy as a gay man.

At the core of the confusion in values that Milo challenges us to confront, is the question of what we Epicureans know as parrhesia (frank criticism) and its needed role in society. According to Philodemus of Gadara in his On Frank Criticism (Peri Parrhesias), there are two forms of frank criticism: private and public. Here, we are not concerned with the private form. In the public sphere, free speech should be applied to correct the false views and the traditions that are in error.

The philosopher must speak frankly and openly to outside society in order to help emancipate others from ignorance or from tradition, and from the forms of suffering that ignorance and tradition generate.

Confucius, for instance, confronted the ancient Chinese custom of burial of live slaves with their master with great moral stamina before a local ruler, and with his eloquence and intelligence, (he) single-handedly ended the practice. Siddhartha Buddha confronted the caste system and the Vedic practices of animal sacrifice.  Ancient Greek atomists confronted false healers with the theory that germs produce illness and assuaged people’s fears about the gods, prophecy, heavenly bodies, and earthquakes by teaching that natural laws govern the way things are.

Now, while Milo certainly has a constitutionally-guaranteed right to free speech, and in spite of how much he wishes to dignify his freedom of speech and make himself out to be a victim of the so-called “free speech police”, he is not applying parrhesia. While refusing to call transgender persons by their gender identity, he argued with insistence that transgender people are “vastly disproportionaly involved in sex crime“, without citing specific statistics or sources. This is false. In fact–just as I suspected before looking for legitimate data–transgender people are FAR more likely to be victimized than to be the aggressors. According to this page that gathers national statistics (which can be acquired via a google search in seconds):

Most studies reveal that approximately 50% of transgender people experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetime.

One in ten transgender individuals have been sexually assaulted in a healthcare setting.

My blog is not (usually) about politics, and I’m not (usually) about fact-checking mass media in this post-fact era. That would be too exhausting and would take too much time away from my true passions, but I feel that parrhesia is a fundamental human value and that, when the tendency to hold as sacred our freedom of speech degenerates into the dignification of trolling and lying, it’s time to go back to the basics about why freedom of speech matters. Again: no one may question anyone else’s right to free speech. That is not at issue here: we are not only free to speak. We are also responsible for the content of our words and, when we lie in such a public forum and our words do real damage, we are liable to be exposed to public correction, and perhaps even shame and humiliation. Let’s hope that, in the future, Bill Maher can better discern the difference.

Further Reading:

Reasonings on Philodemus’ On Frank Criticism, Part I, II and III

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Against Moirolatry

To submit to fate is to submit to evil, to stop fighting it. – Nietzsche, WtP 1019

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For what does one have to atone most?

For one’s modesty; for having failed to listen to one’s most personal requirements; for having mistaken oneself; for having underestimated oneself; for having lost a good ear for one’s instincts: this lack of reverence for oneself revenges itself through every kind of deprivation: health, friendship, well-being, pride, cheerfulness, freedom, firmness, courage. One never afterward forgives oneself for this lack of genuine egoism: one takes it for an objection, for a doubt about a real ego.

Nietzsche, Will to Power 918

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Nietzsche on Introversion

See Will to Power Reasonings I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII and IX

The issue of introversion in Nietzsche and in society deserves separate and focused attention. Introverts, in spite of their unique contributions that they are uniquely equipped to make, are among the invisible minorities that it is often still okay to discriminate against in work environments and social settings. Categorized as unpopular, nerdy, book-worms, and other stereotypes and generalizations, introverts frequently go on to earn a higher wage and to exhibit greater levels of ingenuity, innovation, creativity, discipline, and intelligence than the general population. But in recent years, many proud introverts have begun to become advocates and change the perception of this most unnoticed of minorities.

Nietzsche was an early champion of introverts, seeing introversion as an opportunity to excel and as a trait of a certain kind of higher man: the introvert, mythically imagined as a hermit living in a cave, has the potential to become the archetypal sage. Silent, unwilling to waste words, yet rich inside. Noble. Meticulous in his observations. Rigorous in his interpretation. He lives and moves in a habitat that favors philosophy. No wonder Nietzsche–ever the contrarian–favors the introvert and laments his societal devaluation!

But in idealizing the hermit, N raises many questions. How much solitude is good? How much is healthy? This is a question that was raised recently in the Epicurean Philosophy facegroup discussion group, and generated great interest. In the portion on community (Point 5) of the Six Things I Learned after writing my book, I discuss how the Epicureans solve this question by using empirical data on human nature to produce a unique doctrine of philosophical friendship.

In WtP 886, N argues that the solitary and the gregarious must be judged separately, by different moral standards. His defense of the introvert is also a defense of individualism, and of the individual against the collective: he notes that social mores that are based on the herd instinct oftentimes coincide with the objectification of others for the sake of the ideals of the collective.

Along the lines of this, autistic individuals have also in recent years begun to take pride in and conscience of their difference. Dr. Temple Grandin, who has a biographical movie based on her life story, delivered a deeply insightful TED speech titled The World Needs All Kinds of Minds, where she argued that the education system must tend to people with different kinds of brains in order to maximize the unique gifts that these individuals have for society. Some autistic persons have such keen ability to memorize details, to solve math problems, or to sense the world differently from other humans, that they are gold mines in terms of unique accomplishments in certain fields of inquiry. But in order to flourish as themselves, they require a customized educational curriculum from an early age.

Typically, diversity is not framed as neurodiversity, but considering how many geniuses have been diagnosed or suspected autistic throughout history, perhaps rather than the sometimes unfortunate moral and cultural relativism that the diversity discourse has fallen into, it should be reclaimed in favor of forms of diversity that help the progress of human thought and human society.

Nietzsche was very aware of the contradictions and tensions in the human soul. In WtP 778, he argued that passions can create dis-integration and inner conflict unless one passion is master, or unless a few of them are juxtaposed in peace; and that it is healthy, normal and strong to restrain our competing impulses, whereas fear of the senses and passions implies weakness. In these ruminations we note another benefit of introversion: it clears the way for philosophical and therapeutic hygiene, and safeguards a healthy mind.

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Happy Darwin Day!

apeToday we celebrate Darwin Day, a holiday that is dedicated to anthropology and meant to encourage appreciation of the natural sciences and the study of nature and of our origins. I decided that I’d like to share some verses from philosopher A.C. Grayling’s Good Book: a Humanist Bible, which I read and reviewed in detail over the last few years.

Using Biblical language and editorial style, the Good Book presents a non-supernatural alternative to the Bible. It draws its spirituality and philosophy from humanism rather than religion. The Book of Genesis in Grayling’s Humanist Bible particularly resonates with Epicurean teachings about the nature of things.

Bodies are unions of the primal atoms. And those no power can quench; they live by their own powers, and endure. – Genesis 8:1

All things take their origin from earlier kinds. – Genesis 3:1

All things are body or arise from it; the real is the corporeal, visible and invisible alike. – Genesis 7:3

I am convinced that the human intellect makes its own difficulties, not using the true, sober and judicious methods of inquiry at our disposal, from which comes the manifold ignorance of things which causes innumerable mischiefs in the world. Therefore let us try to see whether that commerce between the human mind and the nature of things, a commerce more precious than anything on earth, for it is nothing less than the search for truth, can be perfected; or if not, yet improved to a better condition than it now displays. – Genesis 14:1-5

Find more quotes on the Good Book Tumblr feed

 Darwin and the Planet of the Apes

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