“I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence.”
– Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1820
...[T]o give rest to my mind, I was obliged to recur ultimately to my habitual anodyne:
"I feel: therefore I exist." I feel bodies which are not myself: there are other existencies then. I call them matter. I feel them changing place. This gives me motion. Where there is an absence of matter, I call it void, or nothing, or immaterial space. On the basis of sensation, of matter and motion, we may erect the fabric of all the certainties we can have or need.
To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise.
- Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, August 15, 1820
The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them; and for this obvious reason, that nonsense can never be explained.
- Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, July 5, 1814
Think of me fat and sleek and in good keeping, when you wish to laugh, a hog of Epicurus' herd.Horace - Letter IV to Albius Tibullus
Statement of Purpose
The purpose of this website is to promote the study of the philosophy of Epicurus. Epicurus held that it is impossible to live a happy life without living wisely, honestly, and justly. He also held that in order to live wisely, one must devote oneself regularly to the study of the true Nature of Things. Epicurus held that the knowledge such study brings is the only antidote to the irrational fears and errors into which men are otherwise prone to falling. For additional detail, please see the About Us / Statement of Purpose page.
I have now completed a second “Epicurean poem for children of all ages,” and I submit it for the reading and listening pleasure of the Epicurean public at the links below.
I wrote Thus Purred Catius’ Cat as an overview of basic tenets of Epicureanism for readers who come at the subject with little or no background. With that foundation hopefully laid, this second poem introduces Epicurus’ Forty Authorized Doctrines. I have attempted to place them in focus as I think they were intended: as a memory tool useful for giving the student a command over the most important elements of the doctrine, thereby enabling him to build confidence and strength in applying the whole. Because references within this poem are a continuation of the first, readers are advised to review Thus Purred Catius’ Cat before tackling this edition.
Once again I want to apologize that I am neither a poet, nor an artist, nor probably a particularly deep thinker. I claim only to be someone who is very impressed by the ideas of Epicurus, who thinks that they deserve a wider audience, and who is making an effort to do the best he can with the limited talent he has available.
I am providing links to the ebook (epub) edition and to the video versions below. Currently the video is available only on Vimeo, but I hope to have this on Youtube very soon.
Before going further, I want to note that I have dedicated the first edition of this poem in part to Jaakko Wallenius, with whom I first came into contact through his Being Human blog and his work on Facebook. This small gesture is a way of thanking him for his long efforts in spreading Epicurean and other philosophical ideas, especially through his setting up of the original Epicurus Facebook page that has been so helpful to me personally. Over these last several years, Jaakko has shown the sort of Epicurean strength that I am working to highlight in this second poem. Although I am not a close personal friend and I do not know the details, I do know that Jaakko has diligently pursued his philosophical interests even while suffering from a very difficult health situation. Jaakko has shown real dedication to the pursuit of truth, and I trust he will continue that work for many years to come.
As I indicated earlier, I hope to expand the project to release the Catius Cat poems as a dedicated website, but that remains a work in progress. As an experiment in expanding the circulation of “Catius Cat and the Forty Mice” and “Thus Purred Catius’ Cat, I have posted both to Amazon. On the theory that many people believe that something that is free cannot be any good, I am also experimenting with a small price for these two books. I will probably adjust the pricing over time, but I want to emphasize that I don’t want a fee to stand in the way of anyone learning more about Epicurus. If you are reading this and want a copy of the epub for personal educational purposes, please simply email me and I will be glad to assist. Of course also please keep in mind that the full text is in the post below, as well as in the video!
A video version which contains the text read aloud by a very good computer voice, is below.
If you take away nothing else from this article and this website, open your mind to this: that much of what you may think you know about Epicurus is probably wrong. In the ancient world Epicurus’ fame once eclipsed that of Plato and Aristotle, and his Forty Authorized Doctrines were well known by educated people long before the Christian Bible was written. But what is generally taught about Epicurus today does not stem from Epicurus or his followers — most of whose work is lost to us today — as it does from the work of enemies of Epicureanism. Epicurus waged a philosophic war against false philosophers and false religions, and his enemies found their best defense was to distort and misrepresenting Epicurus’ true teachings.
For his views on the role of religion in life, false religionists condemned him as an atheist, even though he taught a more firm basis for belief in real otherworldly beings than did the religionists themselves. For his views on man’s ability to know truth, the false philosophers denounced him for rejecting the higher reason of Plato, even though he taught that all reason, to be valid, must be based on evidence. For his views of the role of pleasure in morality, both religionists and philosophers denounced him as a “hedonist,” even though he simply looking to Nature for an uncorrupted view of the goal of all living things.
The greatest part of the confusion about Epicurus that exists today arises because we tend to see some lesser aspect of Epicureanism as something that appears familiar, and we jump to the conclusion that Epicurus shared our own frame of mind on how he reached that conclusion. For example, many look at Epicurus’ devotion to simple pleasures and his shunning of politics as justification for all versions of ascetic living and passivity. A study of Epicurus will show that this is far from the truth, but the basic error arises because we fail to understand that each of Epicurus’s conclusions was an integrated part of a whole philosophy, and that common thread of this philosophy is a central insight about man’s means of knowledge: neither the “reason” of the academics nor the “divine revelation” of the religionists are valid means of showing us how to live according to Nature. Continue reading »
Today I used VS 26 “One must presume that long and short arguments contribute to the same end,” in a post on Facebook, but in using it in a context I thought might be amusing, I realized that this is one that always seemed a little dark to me. It doesn’t really make much sense as worded, and it’s not even clear to me whether it means “be concise” or whether it has some deeper meaning. In looking for an explanation, I came across a statement in Lucretius that may well have been drawn from the same source. And as an added bonus for this post, I get to point out the benefits of comparing multiple translations:
My favorite “poetic” translation of Lucretius is by Rolfe Humphries, who in Book IV includes these lines:
How swiftly is an image borne along? What speed is given its flight across the air? How long a space, how brief a time, is used As each with different aim pursues its course? In answering, I’ll try to have my verse Be sweetly-spoken, but not long; I’ll take Swans for my model, not the honking cranes Raucous in flight among the southern clouds.
That seems to be relevant, but not entirely clear either. Why choose swans as a model rather than cranes?
But let’s look to Munro, who I gather aimed for a more literal translation:
Now mark: how swift the motion is with which idols are borne along, and what velocity is assigned to them as they glide through the air, so that but a short hour is spent on a journey through long space, whatever the spot towards which they go with a movement of varied tendency, all this I will tell in sweetly worded rather than in many verses; as the short song of the swan is better than the loud noise of cranes scattered abroad amid the ethereal clouds of the south.
So if Lucretius was drawing on the same thought that produced Fragment 26, the oddly worded “one must presume” should not obscure the point: fewer words are indeed better when the same purpose can be achieved. Of course that begs the question of whether there is something even deeper. Are cranes and swans both calling out for the same reason? Presumably the point is hammered home if we know that both cranes and swans are accomplishing the same thing through their calling, but that swans are achieving their goals more efficiently. (But I thought cranes were migratory and using their calls to help them fly in flocks over long distances. Is that the same reason that swans sing?)
Today I received a very nice email from a reader of the blog who resides in Australia, and he provided me a link to a video series he produced entitled “Good Without God.” He is Dr. Milad Milani from the University of Western Sydney, and the theme of his series is how it is very possible to be “good” without the traditional idea of “god.” Here is the blurb which describes the concluding video of his series:
‘Good without God’ is a new series from Inside Religion compiled in conjunction with Allied Media Australia. The series looks at what it means to be good without being religious or believing in God. The program explores religious, atheistic and humanist themes, asking about the future of religion in the life of ordinary people. In the final segment of the program, the idea that religion is a natural by-product of the human species comes full circle. Yet it may be that religion is a pre-modern utility that only sticks around by virtue of sentimentality and superstition.”
Dr. Milani’s video series is very well produced and I highly recommend it! I have no criticisms (as if I were qualified to give any ) but I do have a suggestion for viewers of the video and perhaps for Dr. Milani’s future videos:
As you watch this, I suggest you ask yourself: “What do you presume the meaning of “good” to be? What do you presume the meaning of “god” to be?” Dr. Milani proceeds through the series as you would expect, accepting the ordinary definitions and reaching excellent conclusions based on those definitions. He of course concludes that there can be “good” without “god,” and in the ordinary context he is certainly correct and the videos are very useful.
What I am finding as my own research into Epicureanism proceeds, however, is that it is essential to define what we mean by both of these two — both “good” and “god.” And it seems to me now that the fight over the meaning of these two terms goes right to the heart of Epicurus’ challenges to the orthodox academics and religionists.
It is not necessary to belabor the point on “god” — Epicurus was very clear that he was not an atheist, and he did believe in “gods” — but his definition of god did NOT include “supernatural,” “all-powerful,” or any other attribute that would place a god outside or above Nature. For those who want to complain that “this is not the standard definition,” I simply will cite Epicurus himself, who cared more for truth and accuracy than for satisfying the crowd: “VS 29. To speak frankly as I study nature I would prefer to speak in oracles that which is of advantage to all men even though it be understood by none, rather than to conform to popular opinion and thus gain the constant praise that comes from the many. “ In short, Epicurus conformed his definitions to the truth as established by the evidence of Nature, not to the consensus of the crowd, the schoolteachers, or the conjurers.
And the point about “good” is equally important. “Good” is like “virtue” – it does not exist. This is a topic that is permeating much of my recent work and many recent posts, so I will not belabor it here. I’ll leave the point with one of my recent favorite quotes, the last words of the dying Brutus after the battle of Phillipi: “O wretched Virtue, thou wert but a name, and yet I worshipped thee as real indeed; but now, it seems, thou were but fortune’s slave.” Do I need to expand on this? “Virtue” and “good” are only names; they exist only in the minds of the priests and false philosophers. Your challenge as an Epicurean is to see how important it is to rid your mind of nonsense words such as these!
It seems to me there is a great deal to be learned from the section in Cicero’s “On Ends” where the Epicurean speaker is discussing the Stoic argument of the statue’s hand (this version from Epicurus.net):
”Yet at Athens, so my father used to tell me when he wanted to air his wit at the expense of the Stoics, in the Ceramicus there is actually a statue of Chrysippus seated and holding out one hand, the gesture being intended to indicate the delight which he used to take in the following little syllogism: “Does your hand want anything, while it is in its present condition?” Answer: “No, nothing.”—“But if pleasure were a good, it would want pleasure.”—“Yes, I suppose it would.”—“Therefore pleasure is not a good.” An argument, as my father declared, which not even a statue would employ, if a statue could speak; because though it is cogent enough as an objection to the Cyrenaics, it does not touch Epicurus. For if the only kind of pleasure were that which so to speak tickles the senses, an influence permeating them with a feeling of delight, neither the hand nor any other member could be satisfied with the absence of pain unaccompanied by an agreeable and active sensation of pleasure. Whereas if, as Epicurus holds, the highest pleasure be to feel no pain, Chrysippus’s interlocutor, though justified in making his first admission, that his hand in that condition wanted nothing, was not justified in his second admission, that if pleasure were a good, his hand would have wanted it. And the reason why it would not have wanted pleasure is that to be without pain is to be in a state of pleasure.
The last sentence is they key, and even this translation (or Cicero’s original) probably does not make the point clear. In Epicurean doctrine, it is correct to think and to see that TO BE ALIVE IS TO EXPERIENCE A STATE OF PLEASURE. Call it your static pleasure rather than active pleasure if you like, but the Stoic / Platonic error is to think that “pleasure” is a term that has to be restricted to some abnormal state where you are being tickled. This is why Epicurus said that “it is to continuous pleasure that I call you….” and why Plato argued that continuous pleasure is not possible.
In the philosophical wars you have to make your choice and take your position: either life is good, and it is a pleasure to be alive, or life is a constant mind/body split whether the mind is imprisoned in a dirty shell of a body from which we should always seek to escape. The latter is the Platonic/Stoic/Christian, and the former is Epicurus. These views are NOT compatible, they are NOT reconcilable, they are NOT blendable, and the history of the last 2000 years is the story of how the other side has been winning. Refer to Nietzsche’s “Antichrist” for further detail.
For additional confirmation of the split in views, which was clear in the ancient world and needs to be made equally clear today, here is an excerpt from Lucian of Samosata, who clearly was very familiar with Epicurean doctrine, referring to the Christians in his work “Death of Peregrine:”
You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on trust, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property. Now an adroit, unscrupulous fellow, who has seen the world, has only to get among these simple souls, and his fortune is pretty soon made; he plays with them.
It’s also clear that a lot more work needs to be done to rescue PD3 and PD4 from the relative obscurity in which they now reside, but DeWitt devotes a lot of excellent discussion to this and I recommend it highly. Even now when I read PD3 it seems awkwardly worded, but DeWitt makes a great deal of progress in explaining why it, and several other doctrines, are fundamental core rejections of the very definition of pleasure as argued by the Platonic/Stoics. When pain is removed, there is NO NEED TO ADD ANYTHING ELSE, BECAUSE PLEASURE IS THE DEFAULT STARTING POINT OF THE LIVING BEING:
PD3. The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain. When such pleasure is present, so long as it is uninterrupted, there is no pain either of body or of mind or of both together.
In my last post I commented that I had learned of two recent updates by Peter St. Andre, and this is to comment on the second of those updates. But first, let me drop back and say that I consider Peter to be one of the most interesting commentators on Epicurus on the net, most importantly because he regularly produces original work that advances the cause of greater understanding of Epicurus. I don’t know Peter personally, but his bio is very impressive, and the philosophers and writers he admire indicate (at least to me) that he has an excellent grasp of the basic issues that color modern interpretations of Epicurus.
The purpose of this post is to draw attention to his latest update to “Letters on Epicurus: A Dialogue about Happiness.” I gather that this is something of a work in progress, but apparently very advanced. As the title indicates, it is a work in the form of an exchange of letters between two friends who are studying Epicurus and commenting to each other about their findings. I think the result is a great piece of original work that promises to get even more valuable as Peter continues to polish it.
And with that comment, as I did last time, I am going to dash off in a totally different direction, because the “Letters on Epicurus” needs no commentary or suggestions from me. What the “Letters on Epicurus” does prompt in me, however, is a broadside lecture (mostly to myself) on a very related topic:
That’s because what really strikes me about “Letters on Epicurus” is that thisis the type of project — original thinking to produce new work calculated to bring Epicurus to the attention of new readers — that is exactly what the world needs now.
It has been very valuable to me to participate in online forums and the Garden of Epicurus Facebook page, and to exchange comments with other researchers on challenging points made by other philosophers, ancient and modern. But what Peter’s essay reminds me of is that my main interest lies elsewhere – in the projection of Epicurean principles at a fundamental level to those who may not even know Epicurus’ name, or the first thing about “philosophy.” Continue reading »
It is very helpful to me as a student of Epicurus to read the writings of other students of Epicurus and to see what they find interesting. That shouldn’t be surprising, given that Epicurus himself recommended that his students study his ideas and compare notes: “Exercise yourself in these and related precepts day and night, both by yourself and with one who is like-minded; then never, either in waking or in dream, will you be disturbed, but will live as a god among men.“ (Letter to Menoeceus)
I recently learned of two new posts from Peter St. Andre, the first entitled “Epicurean Analysis” and posted on February 24th. In this blog post, Peter points out that Epicurus provided us what amounts to an unified theory for analyzing the vices of envy, anger, desire for power, fame, honor, and luxury. I encourage you to read his full post, so I won’t quote it all here, but the end result is the observation that, “according to Epicurus, a “vice” or “sin” is a pattern of thought and behavior that is driven by a specific fear and that leads to an unnatural or unnecessary desire, thus taking you off the path to happiness.”
I agree with each and every one of his examples, but let me quote only one and offer a couple of observations. Here’s Peter’s last example: “The fear of failure leads to laziness — the desire to get something for nothing. Yet the ideal is not passivity but active confidence in your abilities and the pursuit of self-improvement.”
For an eloquent statement of the disaster of decadence that awaits those who disparage Pleasure, see the selections in bold red below. Consider how much of the worlds religions and philosophies are a “recipe for décadence, and no less for idiocy.”
“A word now against Kant as a moralist. A virtue must be our invention; it must spring out of our personal need and defense. In every other case it is a source of danger. That which does not belong to our life menaces it; a virtue which has its roots in mere respect for the concept of “virtue,” as Kant would have it, is pernicious. “Virtue,” “duty,” “good for its own sake,” goodness grounded upon impersonality or a notion of universal validity—these are all chimeras, and in them one finds only an expression of the decay, the last collapse of life, the Chinese spirit of Königsberg. Quite the contrary is demanded by the most profound laws of self-preservation and of growth: to wit, that every man find his own virtue, his own categorical imperative. A nation goes to pieces when it confounds its duty with the general concept of duty. Nothing works a more complete and penetrating disaster than every “impersonal” duty, every sacrifice before the Moloch of abstraction.—To think that no one has thought of Kant’s categorical imperative as dangerous to life!… The theological instinct alone took it under protection!—An action prompted by the life-instinct proves that it is a right action by the amount of pleasure that goes with it: and yet that Nihilist, with his bowels of Christian dogmatism, regarded pleasure as an objection…. What destroys a man more quickly than to work, think and feel without inner necessity, without any deep personal desire, without pleasure—as a mere automaton of duty? That is the recipe for décadence, and no less for idiocy.… Kant became an idiot.—And such a man was the contemporary of Goethe! This calamitous spinner of cobwebs passed for the German philosopher—still passes today!… I forbid myself to say what I think of the Germans…. Didn’t Kant see in the French Revolution the transformation of the state from the inorganic form to the organic? Didn’t he ask himself if there was a single event that could be explained save on the assumption of a moral faculty in man, so that on the basis of it, “the tendency of mankind toward the good” could be explained, once and for all time? Kant’s answer: “That is revolution.” Instinct at fault in everything and anything, instinct as a revolt against nature, German décadence as a philosophy—that is Kant!—”
- F. W. Nietzsche
Go to Epicurus' Garden and read the motto carved there:
“Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.”
The care-taker of that abode, a kindly host, will be ready for you; he will welcome you with barley-meal and serve you water also in abundance, with these words:
“Have you not been well entertained? This garden does not whet your appetite; it quenches it. Nor does it make you more thirsty with every drink; it slakes the thirst by a natural cure, a cure that demands no fee."
- Seneca, Letters, Book I, XXI
“Thus Purred Catius’ Cat”
‘Catius Cat and the 40 Mice”
The Place To Start:
If you are a new student of Epicurus, this is the book you want first (click the image to search at Abebooks):
Professor Dewitt gives an excellent overall view of Epicurus' life and philosophy, and having that overview before digging into the details is very helpful.