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Promoting the Study of the Philosophy of Epicurus

Against Plato

Perhaps one day a world will arise in which we can safely ignore the errors of false religion and false philosophy, and we can spend our time meditating solely on that which is true.  Until such a world arises, however — and there is no reason to think it ever will — we who live in this world are constantly confronted with the demands of assorted malcontents who pester us with error and constantly require our attention and our philosophical swordsmanship.

As we strap on our philosophical helmets to resist false religion and false philosophy, it is important to keep in mind that one of the most important battles to which Epicurus calls us is against the many variants of the core principles of Plato.  We often consider Epicurus as sparring with the Stoics due to the survival of many of Cicero’s dialogues pitting Stoic against Epicurean, but the Stoic school arose well after the foundation of Epicureanism.  Although the Stoics adopted many Platonic positions (and thus became antagonists of the Epicureans) the origin of the Stoic error was with Plato, and it is against Plato that Epicurus targeted many of his most powerful arguments.

Given the adoption of many Platonic errors by Christianity and the persistence of many other forms of Platonism in today’s world, it is essential to understand Epicurus’s role as a crusader as much against Platonism as against false religion.  Norman DeWitt covered several important basics of this history in Chapter 1 of Epicurus and His Philosophy

“While it was in the role of moral reformer that Epicurus felt himself absolved from the duty of reverence for his predecessors, it was in the role of natural scientist that he became the antagonist of Platonism in particular.  It was his choice to revive the tradition of Ionian science, which had been interrupted by Socrates and Plato.

A few details will suffice to amplify this statement.  Greek philosophy had made its advances in two separate areas and exhibited two general trends; the earlier was confined to cities of the Aegean Sea, the later to cities of southern Italy.  The former trend was observational and speculative, the latter mathematical and contemplative.  The Aegean Greeks were familiar with all the industrial techniques of the time, such as spinning, felling, fermentation, ceramics, and metallurgy, and they were acute observers of seasons, climates, winds, waters, and storms.  Obsessed by the phenomenon of universal change combined with permanence of the whole, they devoted themselves to the task of discovering the unchanging something that underlay all changing things.  After propounding and rejecting or improving one solution after another, they finally arrived at the belief that the ultimate existences were invisible and indivisible bodies, which they called atoms.  It was this atomic theory that Epicurus espoused and revived.

The Greeks of Italy, on the contrary, were not greatly interested in physical change or in natural processes.  They were addicted to the sitting posture.  In art they are represented as comfortably seated with a slender rod or radius in the hand, with which they draw figures on a sanded floor.  Counters and writing tablets are also at hand.  The advances made by them were in the domains of geometry and arithmetic and these advances were so remarkable as to capture the imagination of the contemporary world and to overshadow for a time the progress which had been made by their Ionian brethren.  Geometry in particular, though itself a positivistic study, inspired in the minds of men a new movement that was genuinely romantic.

It was the romantic aspect of the new knowledge that captivated Plato, who was no more than up-to-date as a mathematician himself.  In geometry he seemed to see absolute reason contemplating absolute truth, perfect precision of concept joined with finality of demonstration.
He began to transfer the precise concepts of geometry to ethics and politics just as modern thinkers transferred the concepts of biological evolution to history and sociology.  Especially enticing was the concept which we know as definition.  This was a creation of the geometricians; they created it by defining straight lines, equilateral triangles, and other regular figures.  If these can be defined, Plato tacitly reasoned, why not also justice, piety, temperance, and other virtues? This is reasoning by analogy, one of the trickiest of logical procedures.  It holds good only between sets of true similars.  Virtues and triangles are not true similars.  It does not follow, therefore, because equilateral triangles can be precisely defined, that justice can be defined in the same way.  Modern jurists warn against defining justice; it is what the court says it is from time to time.

The deceptiveness of analogy, however, does not prevent it from flourishing, and Plato committed himself to the use of it unreservedly.  In this he was abetted by a happy coincidence.  The method of analysis by question and answer, developed by Socrates recently before, commended itself as the very technique that was needed for the quest of definitions in the domain of ethics.  By disposition Socrates was a gifted actor, staging semiprivate theatricals before small groups.  As for Plato, in an earlier age he might have become a dramatist.  Thus it is not astonishing that the fruit of their joint invention was the dramatization of logic which is called dialectic, best exemplified by the Platonic dialogues.

Yet this was only the beginning.  One false step invites another.  The quest of a definition, of justice, for example, presumes the existence of the thing to be defined.  If equilateral triangles did not exist, they certainly could not be defined.  Assume that justice can be defined and at once it is assumed that justice exists just as equilateral triangles exist.  Hence arose Plato’s theory of ideas.  The word idea means shape or form and he thought of abstract notions as having an independent existence just as geometrical figures exist, a false analogy.

The theory of ideas was rejected as an absurdity by the young Epicurus, because he was a materialist and denied all existences except atoms and space.  The theory once rejected, the instrument became useless; scientists have no use for dramatized logic; they depend chiefly upon their senses.

Plato became guilty of another error upon which the sharp-eyed Epicurus did not fail to place a finger.  From Pythagoras was inherited the belief in the repeated rebirth or transmigration of souls.  Along with this went the belief that the body was a tomb or prison-house, which blurred the vision of reason and prevented perfection of knowledge.  All that the human being perceived was the transient appearance of things as opposed to the eternal ideas.  This to Epicurus was virtually skepticism.

This error, moreover, was compounded and also aggravated.  Closely allied to geometry was the study of astronomy.  The latter, in turn, required the observation of heavenly bodies.  Thus Plato was in the position of assuming the validity of sensation in the case of the remoter phenomena and denying it in the case of the nearer terrestrial phenomena.  This was a glaring inconsistency.

The aggravation consisted in the belief that circular motion, which was in those days ascribed to heavenly bodies, was the only perfect and eternal motion and identifiable with Reason itself.  Reason, in turn, was identified with the divine nature.  Therefore the planets were declared to be gods.  This seemed both shocking and absurd to Epicurus; shocking because it meant having more gods to fear, absurd because august gods were assumed to become hurtling balls of fire.

These criticisms, plainly explicit or implicit in the writings of Epicurus, were as stinging and penetrating as any to be urged against Platonism in antiquity, and to men of the Academy they seemed nothing short of blasphemy.”