Lucian’s Lover of Lies

Merry Christmas everyone! I recently had the pleasure of reading Lucian’s Lover of Lies, which is reputed to have inspired The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Like his other work True History, he starts off lamenting how people prefer lies to truth … and as in Alexander the Oracle Monger, the description of ancient Pagan quackery reminded me of contemporary Evangelical quackery. Apparently these types of spectacle were quite popular during the first and second century. Here is the portion on exorcism:

I shall be glad, now, to hear your views on the subject of those who cure demoniacal possession; the effect of their exorcisms is clear enough, and they have spirits to deal with.

I need not enlarge on the subject: look at that Syrian adept from Palestine: every one knows how time after time he has found a man thrown down on the ground in a lunatic fit, foaming at the mouth and rolling his eyes; and how he has got him on to his feet again and sent him away in his right mind; and a handsome fee he takes for freeing men from such horrors.

He stands over them as they lie, and asks the spirit whence it is. The patient says not a word, but the spirit in him makes answer, in Greek or in some foreign tongue as the case may be, stating where it comes from, and how it entered into him. Then with adjurations, and if need be with threats, the Syrian constrains it to come out of the man. I myself once saw one coming out: it was of a dark, smoky complexion.’

‘Ah, that is nothing for you,’ I replied; ‘your eyes can discern those ideas which are set forth in the works of Plato, the founder of your school: now they make a very faint impression on the dull optics of us ordinary men.’

Lucian, in Lover of Lies

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What if the Sadducees Had Persisted?

This month’s Twentieth message by New Epicurean tells the counter-history of Hannukah. It mentions the Sadducees in passing, and how the uprising of the Maccabees–which is commemorated during Hanukah–concluded in such a manner, that this lineage of Judaism disappeared, and the rabbinical tradition that we know today derives from the lineage of the Pharisees.

The name of the Sadducees shares semantic roots with the word for righteousness (tsadak), and they shared many of the beliefs of the Epicureans, among them according to Josephus:

  • There is no fate
  • God does not commit evil
  • man has free will
  • the soul is not immortal; there is no afterlife, and
  • there are no rewards or penalties after death

A burgeoning contemporary Jewish sect shares the Epicurean spirit of the Sadducees: Humanistic Judaism has been training rabbis for generations now, its members are atheists and humanists who nonetheless affirm a secular Jewish identity, and among the literature in their wisdom tradition we find Yaakov Malkin’s book Epicurus and Apikorsim. I’m sure that our ideas about Abrahamic religions in general, and Judaism in particular, would today be quite different if this lineage of Judaism hadn’t been rejected for its Hellenizing influences. There would be greater diversity of opinion in Abrahamic religions, more openness to scientific inquiry, and less fundamentalism.

Most Jews today live secular lives, and–as New Epicurean says in its closing remarks–we hope that when they celebrate Hanukah, they remember and pay homage to the Sadducees and other non-rabbinical voices in their tradition.

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Are we all existentialists?

“The tension between (is and ought) is felt much less clearly in real life than at the conceptual level at which most philosophers like to dwell. They feel that we can not reason ourselves from one level to the other, and they are right, but who says that morality is or needs to be rationally constructed? What if it is grounded in emotional values?” – Dutch anthropologist Frans de Waal, in his book The Bonobo and the Atheist

Ronnie de Sousa recently wrote How evolutionary biology makes everyone an existentialist for Aeon. My initial reaction: Platonism–with its endless, pointless speculation that often leads nowhere, and at other times settles on denaturalized, decontextualized conclusions–makes people seek universals and absolutes and ultimately renders philosophy useless and confuses all inquiry. The Epicurean view on this is not accurately presented in the essay. As explained in a previous essay on the Cyrenaics:

There is one key doctrine that both Epicureans and Cyrenaics share. To the Cyrenaics, pleasure is satisfying and ergo choice-worthy for its own sake, and pain is repellent and ergo avoidance-worthy. These truths, they argued, are directly experienced and self-evident, and require no arguments or logic. Epicurus also refused to argue about pleasure and pain, saying that these are faculties within our own nature that receive raw data from nature, and not subject to logical formulas or arguments.

The Epicurean Canon also says that each set of faculties is the only and ultimate authority in its jurisdiction: the eyes can not judge what we hear, only hearing can do that. Similarly the ears can not judge what we see: only eyes can, and so on with smell, taste, AND PLEASURE AND AVERSION, the only faculties given to us by nature that communicate to us what is choice-worthy and avoidance-worthy. These are the conclusions we can draw from the study of nature.

The middle portion of the Epistle to Menoeceus tells us the best way to use these faculties in our choices and avoidances.

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Happy Twentieth: the Epicureans and the Original Jedi

Happy 20th to Epicureans everywhere! This month, I published a series of Reasonings on Michel Onfray’s Hedonist Manifesto–Please make sure to read, share, and comment!–and comedian Andy Zaltzman hosted the podcast “My Life as an Epicurean“, where he spent a week following several of the teachings of our philosophy.

Aeon recently published an article mentioning Epicureans on the philosophical repercussions that finding extraterrestrial life might have. Also a couple of papers on Epicurean philosophy have been recently uploaded to Academia.edu: Epicurean education and the rhetoric of concern, and Nietzsche and Kant on Epicurus and Self-Cultivation.

It’s that season again! No, I’m not talking about Humanlight, or Kwanzaa, or Christmas. As many of our readers know, HumanLight is the humanist Festival of Lights that serves as an alternative to religious and cultural solstice celebrations like Christmas and Kwanzaa, celebrating instead the Enlightenment and the reawakening of wisdom, of science, of knowledge and of human potential. As anyone who has read The Swerve knows, the Epicurean tradition had much to do with instigating the Renaissance, and a festival that celebrates the rebirth of light in this world is an ideal metaphor for our philosophy. But that’s not even the season I’m writing about today: it’s Star Wars season. A new Star Wars film is upon us, and the title The Last Jedi has many fans asking themselves: Who exactly were the First Jedi, anyway?

It turns out the Jedi and Sith philosophies that we’ve come to know from what we’ve seen of the saga so far–as well as Jediism, the new religious movement it sparked–are actually heretical offshoots of the original conception of the Force, which had a decidedly Taoist bent. According to the Dawn of the Jedi comic series, the Force was initially posited in planet Tython by priests, philosophers and sages from many planets all over the unnamed “galaxy far away” who came together to study and evaluate their universally shared philosophies and religions, and to find the common core of a universal spirituality and philosophy: the original Jedi upheld the Esperanto of religions.

The planet Tython had two moons: the light moon Ashla and the dark moon Bogan. These were linked to two fundamental forces of nature that the original Je’daii Order was able to manipulate and keep in balance (a third element of their art was bendu, or “balance”). Notice that Je’daii is spelled differently from Jedi. It means “mystic center“. The precursors of the Jedi Order were not aligned with Ashla, the light side of the Force. Eventually, there was a battle between the disciples and Ashla (the Jedi) and those of Bogan (the Sith). This caused an imbalance between the light and dark sides of the Force which led to a cataclysm that destroyed Tython.

When we hear about the “selflessness” that Jedi attribute to themselves, it seems like we can associate Ashla (light side) with the (frequently unhealthy) extreme of selflessness, and when we find the thirst for unbridled power in the Sith, we can say that being heavy on Bogan (the dark side) leads them to the unhealthy extremes of selfishness. In Dawn of the Jedi, Ashla and Bogan were forces of nature. But, like with the Tao, this balance in the Force extends into almost every field of endeavor and even has ties to checks and balances needed in society and government. Notice that the Jedi, in rising against the Empire, were–as is typical of populist revolutions–rising against the Sith (greed for power) and in favor of “the many”.

This contrast between the Jedi and the early Je’daii, therefore, has **political** implications. The original Je’daii had to strive to remain always, in every way, and in all circumstances, more or less politically neutral–except to fix imbalances between Ashla and Bogan. They were born from the neutral space that allowed for the meeting between many species in the galaxy in a spirit of good will, and politics would have easily eroded their conversations and coalitions.

Rather than (self-less and collectivist) socialism and (self-ish and individualist) capitalism as two forces that must forever be mutually exclusive, in reality and in practice we always find in history that a balance must be kept between both forces.

There are legitimate reasons why both impulses are required: we may argue for a natural measure of individualism based on the need and fundamental human right for people to stand up and air their grievances when an injustice has occurred, and for the preservation of our freedom, happiness, health, etc. In balance, well-known abuses and excesses of highly-selfish exploiters–like the privatization of water and the enslavement of entire societies through debt–argue against unbridled individualism in politics and economics. There’s also a need for some level of collectivism and mutual aid (hedonic contract) in every society, for the sake of safety, protection, securing food sources and access to other basic needs, help in emergencies, etc.

For all of history, these two forces that today we may generically associate with capitalism and socialism must forever be in tension and in balance, producing many varieties and combinations of agreements that may (or may not), at different times and in different situations, serve the interests of both the majority and the minorities. At times it may be advantageous to support (aspects of) capitalism, at other times (aspects of) socialism, in order to keep a healthy balance between them.

Seen in this light, the Epicurean attitudes against -isms are pragmatic and necessary. The Jedi of the Star Wars saga claim to be (like neo-Stoics and many traditional religions) aligned with Ashla against Bogan. To their credit, they may have been acting in the spirit of the original Je’daii, attempting to set right the imbalance that resulted from the rise of the Sith / Bogan. The Epicureans are most like the original Je’daii who kept the two in ecological, Tao-like balance (“bendu“), always rejecting ideologies and keeping their mind on the ultimate goal, a vitality and ataraxia which is experienced as healthy pleasure.

According to Wookiepedia, one of the four roles that a graduate from the Jedi Academy may enter is diplomat. This mediator role is intimately related to Epicurean doctrines on justice (that is, mutual advantage), and can also be related to the Epicurean attitude of cosmopolitanism, one where identity and community are de-coupled from the state (the polis) and allegiances are free to be as universal as is advised by mutual advantage. This libertarian spirit, like all politics, requires some diplomacy. In this role, the Jedi’s precursors were seeking to uphold Epicurean justice, the maximization of mutual advantage and the reduction of mutual hostilities.

A diplomat must be highly trustworthy and able to relate to the self-interest of all. A very careful balance between individual and collective interests and needs must be kept in mind at all times. So in the thought experiment we are engaging in with the Force, a Jedi diplomat must balance Ashla and Bogan in the social and political sphere. To sacrifice one for the other is incoherent and very likely unattainable in diplomacy. To put it in the simplest and most plain terms: no sheep will want to negotiate their fate with a majority of wolves, if the mediator’s priority is only placed on the collective and the majority with no input from the selfish and individual interests of sheep. But what if the sheep are the majority: must the wolves go hungry? Some sacrifice is needed, one that recognizes the natural needs of all. Epicureans do not believe in absolute justice, opting instead for a relational, contextual, pragmatic, and ever-shifting evaluation of mutual benefit in all judgment which must take into consideration the many variables and circumstances involved (see Principal Doctrines 37-38). This, coupled with the tradition that says ancient Epicureans often used “suavity” in their speech, leads me to think of our philosophy as having left a particular–and rich, even if unmined–legacy in the realm of diplomacy.

The post-modern collapse of traditional religion–with its naïve and decontextualized ideas about absolute justice–has created a void that many have filled with what’s available in pop culture: according to their tendencies and whims, people have flocked to anything from Harry Potter as Sacred Text to Jedi Churches. Unlike these alternatives to myth-based and fear-based religion, Society of Epicurus is rooted in the intellectual and humanistic traditions of Hellenism which form the foundation of Western civilization. But that doesn’t mean we must ignore the huge utility of pop culture as a force that brings together intellects and helps us weave meaning into our lives.

Enjoy the new Star Wars! May the Force be With You and may you abide in pleasure this Twentieth!

Further Reading:

Last Year’s 20th Message: Epicurus on Gratitude

Join the Epicurean Natural Justice Facebook Group
How Camus and Sartre split up over the question of how to be free
HumanLight Page

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Would a True God Bring Trouble to Jerusalem?

I must begin by recognizing that the love one feels for one’s land, whether native or ancestral, can be sometimes very real and heart-felt. The recent hurricanes in Puerto Rico have brought back memories of the love and education I received from old people in my family, and of their wholesome example, self-sufficiency, pride, foods and other things that are always going to be a cherished part of me.

I can understand the love of Jerusalem felt by Matisyahu, who sings a song to the city, or the love felt by Israeli singer Yasmin Levy whose beautiful rendition of Irme Kero in Ladino (the medieval Judeo-Spanish dialect) is filled with longing that can be described as spiritual. In fact, I often listen to Sephardic music. The themes of exile and longing for a home remind me of both my Puerto Rican and my gay experience.

Having said that–and for the very same reason that this is one of the natural vulnerabilities of humans that religions are often keen to exploit–it is our responsibility to make sure that no priest or imam, no religion, no ideology, usurps those things we cherish in the service of ideals that lead to suffering, idiocy, violence, injustice, etc. Epicurus was always sounding the alarm that the beliefs we choose must be our source of happiness.

The above video is a funny and accurate description of the history of Jerusalem–which is about to burn, courtesy of Trump’s big mouth, and courtesy of poisonous religious hatreds whose seeds were planted in the Bronze Age. Secular humanist–and particularly Epicurean–philosophy can give real moral guidance in these times, and provide a much-needed critique of the very bad idea of a god that intervenes in history, has chosen tribes in petty battles, and invites them to engage in genocide. If we don’t question the false, infantile, evil beliefs surrounding this God, if we don’t put him on trial and expose the legacy of these false beliefs and actively look for and find healthier beliefs to replace them, these bad ideas will continue to spread like a cancer–together with the bloodshed they bring.

Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot gives us some cosmological perspective on how petty this God looks, when he is imagined as entangled in these tribal wars and hatreds, to someone who understand our real place as tiny creatures in the vast cosmos.

The fact that this is addressed in the very first of Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines–which argues that a divinity, if it exists, would not bring trouble to other beings–implies that this is an important and basic principle to an Epicurean, and that it deserves to be one of the first foundations among our commonly accepted views.

A blessed and indestructible being has no trouble himself and brings no trouble upon any other being; so he is free from anger and partiality, for all such things imply weakness.

So we have to ask ourselves: Would a true divine being worthy of the name God bring this much trouble to Jerusalem, or to any other nation, tribe, or population? The clear moral superiority of Epicurus in this regard is undeniable. Epicurus assigns to true religion the goal of helping us to experience “pure, unalloyed pleasure”, and in his Epistle to Menoeceus says:

Believe about God whatever may uphold both his blessedness and his immortality … Not the man who denies the gods worshiped by the multitude, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them is truly impious.

These are moderate standards! It’s not much to ask. And yet these standards have the power to dignify us, and even to reform and elevate religion!

Our beliefs about our Gods are a serious moral issue that affects everyone’s well-being and global security. In the Torah, God (or rather, God’s ventriloquists who attribute these ignoble and infamous words to God) calls on the Jews to kill all those who live in Canaanite lands and leave no one alive, and take their women as sex slaves, etc. As a result, the entire Old Testament is an orgy of genocide and violence, all done in the name of greed and the desire to grab land that belonged to other tribes. That this was planned from the beginning is obvious in the Torah, which seems to have been written as a justification for these campaigns of religious terror:

Numbers 13:2 Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites.

Numbers 35:8 The towns you give the Levites from the land the Israelites possess are to be given in proportion to the inheritance of each tribe: Take many towns from a tribe that has many, but few from one that has few.

There are many episodes of genocide and terror in the Old Testament. One that stands out in my memory is found in Joshua 10:26, where Joshua decided to hang the corpses of the kings of various tribes that he mass-slaughtered from high poles so that they would be visible to everyone and cause terror and intimidation. I wish those who believe in the Bible would be more honest and willing to put visuals next to the verses of their holy text: they would see that their sacred book was written with blood, that entire books within it are barbaric and uncivilized, and that if the acts depicted in it were to happen today, the perpetrator would be considered a terrorist and would have to appear before a tribunal for crimes against humanity.

Islam is no less guilty of imagining its divinity with ignoble attributes. In one verse calling for holy vengeance in Koran 2:191, Muhammad claimed that his God said things like “murder them wherever you find them” and “disbelief is worse than murder”. Concerning Jerusalem specifically, Australian Imam Tawhidi reports that one hadith teaches that prophet Muhammad was so hostile to the Jews and resentful of the fact that they didn’t convert to Islam, that he used to go to the toilet in the direction of (the now “holy” city of) Jerusalem! In fact, he changed the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca because he was rejected by the Jews.

While Islam has many sacred cities and sites, and none has been desecrated by Jews, the Ottomans built the Dome of the Rock on top of the holiest site in the only city that is holy to the Jews: Jerusalem. Consider the insolence of asking for tolerance after you plant a temple on top of your neighbor’s holiest temple, even after your prophet went to the toilet in its direction out of hatred for your people! Imagine the scandal and violence that would ensue if this was done to them: if Jews or Christians were to level the Kaaba in Mecca and build a synagogue or church on top! This arrogance is a pattern in Islam. Raif Badawi had this to say on the idea of building a mosque where 9/11 took place:

What increases my pain is this (Islamist) chauvinist arrogance which claims that the innocent blood, which was shed by barbarian, brutal minds under the slogan ‘Allah Akbar’, means nothing when compared with the act of building an Islamic mosque whose mission will be to re-spawn new terrorists and demanding even that the mosque be constructed near the same area. This is a blatant affront to the memory of American Society in particular and humanity in general, none of whom accept in any way that scene of mass murder.

… Suppose that we put ourselves a little in the place of American citizens. Would we accept that a Christian or Jew assaults us in our own house and then build a church or synagogue in the same area of the attack???? I doubt it.

The God of Abrahamic religions in these scriptures behaves like Don King. He starts fights among nations apparently for his own amusement or profit. He tells Jews to invade a land, and then tells Muslims to fight to the end those who invade their lands or expel them from their home. Is this behavior worthy of a god? Again, our first Principal Doctrine teaches that these things imply weakness on the part of a deity: Would a true divine being worthy of the name God bring this much trouble to Jerusalem?

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion. – Steven Weinberg

The sorry state in which the world is today as a result of people’s particular and stupid beliefs about the city of Jerusalem is an indictment against conventional religion and a warning about its dangers. Because of the profound superstition and ignorance of so many, these disputes are unavoidable. But if more people looked to Athens rather than to Jerusalem, to Epicurus rather than to Abraham, to philosophy rather than to religion, we would see less of the kinds of violent international entanglements that we are seeing. Our beliefs would be a source of pleasure, not of misery.

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Onfray’s Politics

Epicureans are often stereotyped as apolitical hermits that take refuge in the isolation of their gardens among their circles of friends, and avoid public life. But history bears witness against this stereotype: many Epicureans–like founding father Thomas Jefferson and feminist abolitionist Frances Wright–have found that, in their particular circumstances, involvement in politics and activism has positively contributed to a life filled with enjoyment. Onfray calls for a renaissance of the libertarian left, arguing that politics does not need to entail intrigue or take away from our serenity and pleasure, and furthermore that it is nearly impossible to be apolitical while experiencing life in the human flesh.

True to the Epicurean focus on the unmediated experience of the individual, as it is lived in his flesh–as opposed to the Platonic focus on the “life of the state” or polis–, Epicurean politics are characterized by small acts of resistance, by personal choices that swerve in this or that direction, that constitute a lifestyle of activism and power over our world. He argues that this is no less political that other forms of activism that directly concern themselves with the state. Even by ignoring and being indifferent to the narratives of the state and articulating our own, we are engaging in libertarian politics, acting as free women and men.

Aiming for a better state, a peaceful society, and a happy civilization is a somewhat infantile desire … We need nomadic Epicurean Gardens, constructed around ourselves. Wherever we find ourselves, there should we build the world we aspire to and should avoid the one we reject… Is this a minimalist politics? Yes. A wartime politics? Of course. A politics of resisting a more powerful enemy? Clearly. But it is still politics.

This concludes our Reasonings on Michel Onfray’s Hedonist Manifesto. I hope you’ve enjoyed the blog series. Please share and comment, and also feel free to support my content on patreon.

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A Promethean Bioethics

Human beings are a rope between apes and super-humans. – Nietzsche

When calling for a “preventative eugenics” in Hedonist Manifesto, Onfray brilliantly tackles many people’s apprehensions about the ethics of eugenics–which has become such a bad word–by calling for a compassionate, hedonist transhumanism in service of public health and preventative medicine, including gene therapy.

So the challenge that he accepts is to articulate an Epicurean morality and ethics of transhumanism. Onfray says that a libertarian, Promethean eugenics would “increase the chance of a happy presence in the world”. Consider that: being healthy is always preferable to being sick; being happy is always preferable to being chronically depressed; having all the body parts that we need is always preferable to having to live without our limbs. These are not frivolous enhancements to our bodily composition: any science (like gene therapy), technology (like bionic legs or arms), or other ways of transcending the human condition and body that help a patient to avoid or heal depression, chronic illness, or incapacity is moral if it increases the chance of a happy presence in the world, and/or decreases the chance of a miserable presence in the world.

For an even more concise definition of what is and what isn’t frivolous, we may use the tool of Epicurus’ division of desires as natural and necessary, natural but unnecessary, and neither natural nor necessary, to determine to what extent the goal of a therapy is in line with our nature.

Onfray offers us Prometheus–who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans–as a forward-looking humanist role model in this regard: a type of Nietzschean Over-Man. Although he was punished by the Olympians for his transgression on behalf of mortals, Prometheus was revered as a hero and a god by our classical humanist predecessors. Human genius, technology, and science do indeed represent an affront to the gods of the old morality and of humanity’s infancy. Onfray does not kiss the ground in awe of some ancient taboo, like many among the religious do; neither does he sink his head in the sand when confronted with the very real difficulties tied to eugenics and transhumanism–defined as the efforts by science and technology to help humans transcend their limits. Instead, he celebrates Promethean transgression, and frames the discussion of its inherent dangers within the field of Epicurean ethics.

This has to be understood as part of his broader effort to de-Christianize the flesh on the face of attempts by paternalistic clergies to control our bodies, to make important life decisions on our behalf concerning family planning, and even to impede the advance of stem-cell research and other potentially life-saving science by appealing to baseless, supernatural beliefs that attribute an immortal and immaterial soul to living cells that have yet to even attain sentience.

If we base our ethics on the study of nature and accept the Epicurean doctrine that our own nature seeks to avoid pain and to experience pleasure, then the possibility of a compassionate bioethics emerges that affirms the many gifts of science and puts science to good use for the welfare of humanity. This is not to say that there won’t remain areas of confusion and complexity when it comes to morality, or that our choices and avoidances will always and in every case be made easy by the study of philosophy. Life is complicated, and there will likely be difficult moral choices at some time or another. Epicurean ethics dignify us, and allow us greater clarity and more sober reasoning concerning what leads to a life of pleasure.

Further Reading:
Epicurean Transhumanism Facebook Group

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