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
The entire poem is outstanding as is reproduced in full below, but here is a highlight:
“Happy he, Self-centred, who each night can say
My life is lived: the morn may see
A clouded or a sunny day:
That rests with Jove: but what is gone,
He will not, cannot turn to nought;
Nor cancel, as a thing undone,
What once the flying hour has brought.”
Continue reading »
For purposes of this post I will put aside for a moment the question of whether search for a “Supreme Good” is a Stoic/Platonic rationalization of which Epicurus did or did not approve. For now, let’s look at a selection from Seneca that may help us decide whether — to the extent the discussion of a “supreme good” is useful – we should consider Epicurus’ view of it to have been “Pleasure,” or as Norman Dewitt suggests, “life” (or “life in the absence of unendurable pain”):
(Seneca’s Letters – Book II – Letter LXVI)
We find mentioned in the works of Epicurus two goods, of which his Supreme Good, or blessedness, is composed, namely, a body free from pain and a soul free from disturbance. These goods, if they are complete, do not increase; for how can that which is complete increase? The body is, let us suppose, free from pain; what increase can there be to this absence of pain? The soul is composed and calm; what increase can there be to this tranquility? Just as fair weather, purified into the purest brilliancy, does not admit of a still greater degree of clearness; so, when a man takes care of his body and of his soul, weaving the texture of his good from both, his condition is perfect, and he has found the consummation of his prayers, if there is no commotion in his soul or pain in his body.
Whatever delights fall to his lot over and above these two things do not increase his Supreme Good; they merely season it, so to speak, and add spice to it. For the absolute good of man’s nature is satisfied with peace in the body and peace in the soul. I can show you at this moment in the writings of Epicurus a graded list of goods just like that of our own school. For there are some things, he declares, which he prefers should fall to his lot, such as bodily rest free from all inconvenience, and relaxation of the soul as it takes delight in the contemplation of its own goods.
And there are other things which, though he would prefer that they did not happen, he nevertheless praises and approves, for example, the kind of resignation, in times of ill-health and serious suffering, to which I alluded a moment ago, and which Epicurus displayed on that last and most blessed day of his life. For he tells us that he had to endure excruciating agony from a diseased bladder and from an ulcerated stomach, so acute that it permitted no increase of pain; “and yet,” he says, “that day was none the less happy.”
And no man can spend such a day in happiness unless he possesses the Supreme Good.
It seems to me this selection is very supportive of DeWitt’s position. It is only the possession of a “supreme good” defined as a strength of will that can focus on health of body and mind under all but unendurable circumstances – that makes the search for pleasure possible.
There are varying interpretations of what Epicurus meant when he advised us to avoid “the crowd” and to avoid devoting ourselves to a life of politics. In the pursuit of greater accuracy on this, let’s consider several of the most relevant texts (selected here from Epicurus.net):
PD6. In order to obtain protection from other men, any means for attaining this end is a natural good.
PD7. Some men want fame and status, thinking that they would thus make themselves secure against other men. If the life of such men really were secure, they have attained a natural good; if, however, it is insecure, they have not attained the end which by nature’s own prompting they originally sought.
PD14. Protection from other men, secured to some extent by the power to expel and by material prosperity, in its purest form comes from a quiet life withdrawn from the multitude.
PD39. The man who best knows how to meet external threats makes into one family all the creatures he can; and those he can not, he at any rate does not treat as aliens; and where he finds even this impossible, he avoids all dealings, and, so far as is advantageous, excludes them from his life.
PD40. Those who possess the power to defend themselves against threats by their neighbors, being thus in possession of the surest guarantee of security, live the most pleasant life with one another; and their enjoyment of the fullest intimacy is such that if one of them dies prematurely, the others do not lament his death as though it called for pity.
VS7. For an aggressor to be undetected is difficult; and for him to be confident that his concealment will continue is impossible.
VS45. The study of nature does not create men who are fond of boasting and chattering or who show off the culture that impresses the many, but rather men who are strong and self-sufficient, and who take pride in their own personal qualities not in those that depend on external circumstances.
VS58. We must free ourselves from the prison of public education and politics.
VS67. Since the attainment of great wealth can scarcely be accomplished without slavery to crowds or to politicians, a free life cannot obtain much wealth; but such a life already possesses everything in unfailing supply. Should such a life happen to achieve great wealth, this too it can share so as to gain the good will of one’s neighbors. Continue reading »
Today I am in the mood for some intense thinking about the depth to which the modern world has fallen from the Epicurean period. Where better to go for assistance in passing judgment on the modern world than to Nietzsche, whose words echo several core thoughts of Epicurus? Nietzsche is complex and his words must be read carefully, with translations checked and context fully understood, but here are a few lines from Thus Spake Zarathustra that seem clear and appropriate:
“I conjure you, my brethren, remain true to the earth, and believe not those who speak unto you of superearthly hopes! Poisoners are they, whether they know it or not.
Despisers of life are they, decaying ones and poisoned ones themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so away with them!
Once blasphemy against God was the greatest blasphemy; but God died, and therewith also those blasphemers. To blaspheme the earth is now the dreadfulest sin, and to rate the heart of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth!
Once the soul looked contemptuously on the body, and then that contempt was the supreme thing:—the soul wished the body meagre, ghastly, and famished. Thus it thought to escape from the body and the earth.
Oh, that soul was itself meagre, ghastly, and famished; and cruelty was the delight of that soul! Continue reading »
I am collecting on my page of Thomas Jefferson quotes each of the references I can find where he makes a statement that seems directly or indirectly to be a statement of Epicureanism. I’ve just found a new reference, albeit brief, to “man’s innate sense of justice,” which I have added to the page and reproduce here in full. The subject of “anticipations” is complex, but I believe very worthy of study. Here’s the quote (divided into several paragraphs for readability):
… I learn … with great pleasure that you have resolved on continuing your history of parties. Our opponents are far ahead of us in preparations for placing their cause favorably before posterity. Yet I hope even from some of them [for] the escape of precious truths, in angry explosions or effusions of vanity, which will betray the genuine monarchism of their principles. They do not themselves believe what they endeavor to inculcate: that we were an opposition party, not on principle, but merely seeking for office. The fact is, that at the formation of our government, many had formed their political opinions on European writings and practices, believing the experience of old countries, and especially of England, abusive as it was, to be a safer guide than mere theory.
The doctrines of Europe were that men in numerous associations cannot be restrained within the limits of order and justice but by forces physical and moral, wielded over them by authorities independent of their will. Hence their organization of kings, hereditary nobles, and priests. Still further to constrain the brute force of the people, they deem it necessary to keep them down by hard labor, poverty, and ignorance, and to take from them, as from bees, so much of their earnings as that unremitting labor shall be necessary to obtain a sufficient surplus barely to sustain a scanty and miserable life. And these earnings they apply to maintain their privileged orders in splendor and idleness, to fascinate the eyes of the people and excite in them a humble adoration and submission, as to an order of superior beings. Although few among us had gone all these lengths of opinion, yet many had advanced, some more, some less, on the way. And in the convention which formed our government, they endeavored to draw the cords of power as tight as they could obtain them, to lessen the dependence of the general functionaries on their constituents, to subject to them those of the states, and to weaken their means of maintaining the steady equilibrium which the majority of the convention had deemed salutary for both branches, general and local. To recover, therefore, in practice, the powers which the nation had refused, and to warp to their own wishes those actually given, was the steady object of the federal party.
Ours, on the contrary, was to maintain the will of the majority of the convention and of the people themselves. We believed, with them, that man was a rational animal, endowed by nature with rights and with an innate sense of justice; and that he could be restrained from wrong and protected in right by moderate powers confided to persons of his own choice and held to their duties by dependence on his own will. We believed that the complicated organization of kings, nobles, and priests was not the wisest nor best to effect the happiness of associated man; that wisdom and virtue were not hereditary; that the trappings of such a machinery consumed by their expense those earnings of industry they were meant to protect, and, by the inequalities they produced, exposed liberty to sufferance. We believed that men enjoying in ease and security the full fruits of their own industry, enlisted by all their interests on the side of law and order, habituated to think for themselves and to follow their reason as their guide, would be more easily and safely governed than with minds nourished in error and vitiated and debased, as in Europe, by ignorance, indigence, and oppression. Continue reading »
A recent Facebook post from a strong fan of Epicurus has me thinking that the epistemological perspective is the best way of understanding the reference in PD3 to the “limit of pleasure,” which can otherwise seem fairly obscure (at least to me!): “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.” (Epicurus.net)
Diogenes Laertius’ biography of Epicurus indicates that Epicurus viewed Pleasure as one of his three co-equal legs of the Canon of Truth. Thus as an epistemological tool Pleasure (and Anticipations as well) is a “sense” parallel to sight or sound or any of other “five senses.’ We can use this parallel to decode PD3 by substituting another sense in the same phrase, for example: “The magnitude of sight reaches its limit in the removal of all darkness. When such brightness is present, so long as it is uninterrupted, there is no darkness of body or mind or of both together.” This would mean that when our eyes are overwhelmed by a strong and pure brightness (such as by looking at the sun) we can no longer perceive any variation in the brightness at all, and at that point our sight has reached its upper limit. In turn, the lower limit of sight would be the state of complete darkness where we can perceive no brightness at all outlining any object, and thus we perceive only total blackness.
Or another example: “The magnitude of hearing reaches its limit in the removal of all silence. When such loudness is present, so long as it is uninterrupted, there is no silence of body or mind or of both together.” This would mean that when our ears are overwhelmed by such a loud sound (such as standing near a rocket at lift-off) we can no longer perceive any variation in sound at all, and our hearing has reached its upper limit. In turn, the lower limit of hearing would be state of complete silence where we can perceive no sound at all, and thus we perceive only total silence.
Viewed in this way, it can be seen that PD3 is not a pronouncement that there is some kind of otherworldly state of “greatest pleasure” that equates with ‘absence of pain,” as we might think if we are under the influence of Platonist or religious views. Thus it would be a great error to think that Epicurus was speaking of an “otherworldly” state that we should seek to reach by suppressing our feelings in a Stoic or “Eastern” manner. Yes, Pleasure has an “evaluative” aspect that conveys to us immediately whether a thing is pleasing to us or painful to us, but the manner in which it performs this function is a “sense” – an epistemological tool just like seeing or hearing. It is not in itself a “final destination” any more than a particular sight or sound or smell should be considered a final destination or “end.”
If this view is correct, there are important implications. No matter who we are or what our circumstances, we all live our lives experiencing pleasure on a scale that varies as we go about our everyday living, but never leaves us completely until death, just in the same way that our eyes constantly experience sight while they are open and our ears constantly experience sound while we are awake. Thus “Pleasure” is best seen as the state in which Nature created us to live. Our experience of Pleasure should be with us constantly, just as it is our natural state for our eyes to see and our hears to hear. Viewed in this way Pleasure is emphatically not a “sin” or a “weakness” or an obstacle to proper living, any more than sight or hearing are themselves obstacles to proper living.
And one more implication: those philosophies and religions which condemn Pleasure are as contrary to Nature – as EVIL – as if they condemned the sense of sight or hearing – which they often do!
Peace and Safety to the Epicureans of today, no matter where you might be!
For today’s Twentieth post I would like to focus on a single thought; the importance of reading the original texts of Epicurus for yourself, putting aside all preconceptions about what you THINK Epicurus was talking about.
Much misinformation arises — even among fans of Epicurus — when people think they know going in, from their general absorption of the culture around us, what Epicurus was all about. In my own case, I know now from my own reading that I have a very different view of Epicurus from when I first started reading his works several years ago.
Epicurus’ perspective in many areas was in strong disagreement with majority views both in his own time and today. This poses a challenge for new students who neither expect the depth of his revolutionary ideas nor have enough context to understand how those ideas were revolutionary.
It is therefore very important to read the major ancient texts on Epicurus for yourself. If you are a fan of Epicurus and you have not read the Diogenes Laertius biography in full, you must put that on your reading list. Then, after that, it is VERY helpful to read Lucretius. Lucretius spends more time on atoms – for purposes of showing that the universe operates on Natural principles rather than at the whim of gods – than most of us need today. But do not let your sense of scientific superiority deceive you – most of the value in Lucretius is in his THOUGHT PROCESS, where you can see illustrated the principles of thinking that Epicurus advised. Also, don’t fail to read Cicero’s extended essay in the name of Torquatus, and the remnants of the wall of Diogenes of Oenoanda. All of these are linked on my website and at Epicurus.info and Epicurus.net as well.
And if you come to the subject of Epicurus without a grounding in the basic ideas of ancient philosophy, you will need a commentary to assist you, and as always I recommend Norman DeWitt’s “Epicurus and His Philosophy” as the place to start for that context.
So if you are a fan of Epicurus, check your preconceptions at the door and dive in to the ancient texts.
As Seneca recorded: Sic fac omnia tamquam spectet Epicurus! So do all things as though watching were Epicurus!
And as Philodemus wrote: “I will be faithful to Epicurus, according to whom it has been my choice to live.“