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Promoting the Study of the Philosophy of Epicurus

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“Do you, then, interrogated I, maintain the reality of innate principles? I do, answered he in a firm tone; and I hope, for the sake of sound morals and of truth, important objects with you, to convince you of that reality.”

Today’s post is a much-revised introduction to the Jackson Barwis Ebook, On Three Legs We Stand.  Why spend time with Jackson Barwis?  Because if Epicurus was right, and if the sense of Preconceptions is a co-equal third category of sense with which Nature endows man for the discovery of truth, then we must of necessity be very far off course if we fail to acknowledge even its very existence.  How can we hope to come to proper conclusions about the nature of human life if we fail to develop our understanding of Preconceptions with as much attention as we devote to developing our understanding of our sense of sight, or our sense of hearing, or our sense of pain and pleasure?  How can we employ our Preconceptions properly unless we understand the rules by which they must be applied, in the same way that we understand that the limitations of our vision require us to make multiple observations to check the accuracy of the things we see, and we understand that the limitations of our sense of pain and pleasure require us to determine when we must sometimes choose pain in order to obtain a greater pleasure?

Unless more Epicurean texts are discovered at Herculaneum or elsewhere, we have few authoritative resources on which to base our understanding of Preconceptions.  For the reasons stated in this ebook, it appears to me that Barwis’ development of his idea of innate principles is highly consistent with what we know of Epicurus’ views, and thus this largely unknown author deserves much further study and discussion.  If readers of this blog are aware of similar works, please let me know!  The latest updated version of this ebook can be downloaded for free here.

Herewith, the revised Introduction to On Three Legs We Stand, Epicurus and the Dialogues of Jackson Barwis.

INTRODUCTION

When we are told that benevolence is pleasing; that malevolence is painful; we are not convinced of these truths by reasoning, nor by forming them into propositions: but by an appeal to the innate internal affections of our souls: and if on such an appeal, we could not feel within the sentiment of benevolence, and the peculiar pleasure attending it; and that of malevolence and its concomitant pain, not all the reasoning in the world could ever make us sensible of them, or enable us to understand their nature.

But the truth or falsehood of moral propositions must be judged of by another measure; through a more interesting medium:  we must apply to our internal sense; our divine monitor and guide within; through which the just and unjust, the right and wrong, the moral beauty and deformity of human minds, and of human actions, can only be perceived.  And this internal sense must most undoubtedly be innate, as we have already shown; it could not otherwise have existence in us; we not being able, by reasoning, or by any other means, to give ourselves any new sense, or to create, in our nature, any principle at all.

— Jackson Barwis, Dialogues Concerning Innate Principles

Now whoever reflects on the rashness and absurdity of [false ideas about the gods] must inevitably entertain the highest respect and veneration for Epicurus, and perhaps even rank him in the number of those beings who are the subject of this dispute, for he alone first founded the idea of the existence of the gods on the impression which Nature herself hath made on the minds of all men.  … Epicurus calls this preconception; that is, an antecedent conception of the fact in the mind, without which nothing can be understood, inquired after, or discoursed on; the force and advantage of which reasoning we receive from that celestial volume of Epicurus concerning the Rule and Judgment of things.

— Marcus Tullius Cicero, On The Nature of the The Gods

 

The name of Jackson Barwis is little remembered today, but at his death in 1810 he was:

…well known in the mercantile world for his honor and integrity, and not unknown in the literary world, having written some Dialogues on Liberty, and other publications, which shewed great vigor of intellect and acuteness of reasoning.”

The works referred to in Barwis’ obituary and included in this volume are 1776’s Three Dialogues Concerning Liberty, 1779’s Dialogues Concerning Innate Principles, Containing An Examination of Mr. Locke’s Doctrine On That Subject, and 1793’s A Fourth Dialogue Concerning Liberty.

These dialogues are of great interest for a number of reasons.  For the student of political theory, they provide valuable background on the Natural Law political philosophy held by men such as Thomas Jefferson and incorporated in America’s Declaration of Independence.  Without this background, terms such as “inalienable rights” can seem obscure or even naive today.  These dialogues show how inalienable rights fit within the “compact theory” of government associated today with the name of John Locke, and – more importantly – they show that Locke’s version of the compact theory, and his theory of men’s minds as a “blank slate” were not without opponents within the “Natural Law” school.

The Natural Law limitations on the compact theory are developed lucidly in Three Dialogues on Liberty.  Barwis argues that no government, no matter how firmly grounded in the common consent of the governed, can justly claim to have received as delegated powers those rights of the individual which no person by Nature may delegate to another – or, in other terms, alienate from himself.  Here rests the Natural limitation on the just power of all government, no matter how democratically it may be constituted:

As long as they [the government] observe the compact (although the powers they exercise be deemed permanent in the state) the only just conclusion we can draw is that they exercise their power legally, and according to the intent for which it was delegated to them:  but that cannot give them the least claim to a right to a perpetual exercise of that power independent of the people from whom it was received, and from whom alone all just power is derived.  In short, continued he, somewhat enthusiastically, the just rights of human nature, founded on the divine principles which the all-wise Creator hath originally impressed on the human species, are utterly unalienable by any means whatsoever!  No rights of princes, no powers of magistracy, no force of laws, no delusive compacts, grants, or charters, can ever entitle any part of mankind to deprive their fellow-creatures of these natural rights!  All the nations upon earth (those in the most slavish, as well as those in the most free state) possess an innate, inherent, and indisputable right, to assert their liberty at all times!   Nor can anything be more glorious than the attempt, founded on just principles, even if it fail:  for then we shall feel the sublime satisfaction of being actuated by those divine principles which, from their native truth and beauty, as well as from our inward sense of them, we know to be the laws of God!

While it is important to understand the political reasons for upholding natural inalienable rights, Barwis recognized that political opinions must be justified at a deeper level.  Thus the most significant and fascinating of Barwis’ work is “Dialogue on Innate Principles, Containing An Examination of Mr. Locke’s Doctrine On That Subject.”  It is here where we see that inalienable rights are grounded in the existence of innate principles, and it is here we discover how great a similarity this line of thinking bears to that of Epicurus, for whom this work is subtitled.
The subject of whether men possess “innate principles” endowed by Nature is highly contentious.  Barwis argues squarely against the Lockean notion of the “blank slate” – the “unscribed tablet” – which dates at least as far back as Aristotle.  As stated by one authority:

[Our] modern idea of the [tabula rasa] theory is mostly attributed to John Locke’s expression of the idea in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in the 17th century. In Locke’s philosophy, tabula rasa was the theory that the (human) mind is at birth a “blank slate” without rules for processing data, and that data is added and rules for processing are formed solely by one’s sensory experiences. The notion is central to Lockean empiricism.

As the reader explores Barwis’ criticisms of the “blank slate” and other aspects of Lockean theory, it is impossible to miss the similarity of the views Barwis advocates to those of Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher termed by his admirers as the “master-builder of human happiness.”  Many parallels can be noted in addition to those listed here.

In matters of religion, both Barwis and Epicurus paid due respect to the religious sensibilities of their day, while explicitly separating the gods from any direct role in the operation of good government or the lives of men.  Barwis repeatedly refers to the “all-wise Creator,” but in terms very similar to those used by Jefferson and other eighteenth century deists, and it is clear that divine revelation plays no part in Barwis’ Natural Law analysis.  For example:

Neither do I think it necessary here to enter into any dispute concerning what religion may be fortunate enough to be the only true one; our present business being only to discover, if we can, in what manner religion may be rendered most favorable to the just liberties of mankind.
Were I inclined to libertine wit, said I, I might answer you “Not in any manner at all.”  But I only impertinently interrupt you.
Not at all, replied he; for I am not quite certain that there may not be some truth in the observation; at least, if we were to be governed by our past experience of all religions, when not properly controlled by the civil power.

For both Barwis and Epicurus, the laws of Nature by which men should conduct their lives must be determined – not through religion – but through the three categories of faculties granted to men by Nature.

The first two of these faculties are (1) the “five senses” – vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste, and (2) the pain / pleasure mechanism – the faculty which provides direct feedback in the form of sensations of pleasure or pain in response to the experiences of life.

In addition to these first two sets faculties, which are familiar to us all, both Epicurus and Barwis maintain the existence of a third endowment by nature:  a faculty of innate or natural principles.  Before we examine Barwis’ view of this faculty, let us turn first to the greatest ancient proponent of innate principles – Epicurus.

Epicurus held that Nature endows men with innate principles in the same manner that other animal life is endowed with what is generally termed instincts, and he named this third faculty “Preconceptions” or “Anticipations, holding it to be co-equal with the five senses and the pain / pleasure mechanism.  The fragmentary nature of the surviving texts renders it difficult to determine with precision many important aspects of Epicurus’ view of Preconceptions, but sufficient texts remain that we may establish a general outline.  Diogenes Laertius, Epicurus’ ancient biographer, recorded the following definition of Preconceptions:

Now in the Canon, Epicurus says that the criteria of truth are the senses, the preconceptions, and the passions.”  He continues, “By preconception, the Epicureans mean a sort of comprehension as it were, or right opinion, or notion, or general idea which exists in us; or, in other words, the recollection of an external object often perceived anteriorly.”

This definition is hardly satisfying.  How can a “recollection” of an external object be perceived “anteriorly?”  Laertius offers this explanation:

Such, for instance, is the idea ‘Man is a being of such and such a nature.’  At the same moment that we utter the word man, we conceive the figure of a man, in virtue of a preconception which we owe to the preceding operations of the senses.  Therefore the first notion which each word awakens in us is a correct one; in fact we could not seek for anything if we had not previously some notion of it.  To enable us to affirm that what we see at a distance is a horse or an ox, we must have some preconception in our minds which makes us acquainted with the form of a horse or an ox.  We could not give names to things if we had not a preliminary notion of what the things were.  These preconceptions then furnish us with certainty.  And with respect to judgments, their certainty depends on our referring them to some previous notion, of itself certain, in virtue of which we affirm such and such a judgment; for instance, ‘How do we know whether this thing is a man?’

Further, in his famous list of Epicurus’ Principle Doctrines, Laertius informs us that preconceptions must be applied to our decision-making in the same manner as information obtained from the other two categories of faculties:

We must not discard any evidence provided by a sense simply because it does not fit our prior conceptions, and we must always distinguish between those matters which are certain and those which are uncertain.  We must do this so we can determine whether our conclusions go beyond that which is justified by the actual evidence of the senses.  We cannot be confident of our conclusions unless they are justified by actual, immediate, and clear evidence, and this evidence must come from the five senses, from the sense of pain and pleasure, and from the conceptions of the mind which arise from the Anticipations. If we fail to keep in mind the distinction between the certain and the uncertain, we inject error into the evaluation of the evidence provided by the senses, and we destroy in that area of inquiry every means of distinguishing the true from the false.

Thus Epicurus taught that in order to determine the truth of any particular question, Nature provides that a man must apply his intelligence to evaluate the impressions he receives from all three of his faculties for perceiving reality.  A man must evaluate all relevant data provided by the five senses, by the pain/pleasure mechanism, and by the Preconceptions, and classify a conclusion as true only if it can be squared with all the evidence.  This evaluative process is essentially one of comparison:  new data which has not yet been evaluated must be compared against conclusions previously drawn from data which has been evaluated in order to reach conclusions which can be deemed reliable.  Epicurus stressed that the data available on certain questions may not be sufficient to afford certainty, and we must on those questions be prepared to wait – to suspend judgment – until further data becomes available, if ever.  In the meantime, and even if necessary for our entire lives, we must never allow ourselves to accept positions on speculative issues (especially in religion) that would require us to reject or ignore conclusions on more immediate issues that have been established by clear and convincing evidence.

In another observation that some will find surprising, Epicurus held that Preconceptions, like the other sensations, are superior to reason.  Here we may refer to the words of Jackson Barwis, who echoes sentiments recorded many centuries before by Lucretius and by Diogenes Laertius:

They [innate principles] must be in us antecedently to all our reasonings about them, or they could never be in us at all:  for we cannot, by reasoning, create any thing, the principles of which did not exist antecedently. We can, indeed, describe our innate sentiments and perceptions to each other; we can reason, and we can make propositions about them; but our reasonings neither are, nor can create in us, moral principles.  They exist prior to, and independently of, all reasoning, and all propositions about them.

This [Locke’s view that reason is given to man as a substitute for innate moral principles],  returned he, is what Mr. Locke would have us to understand, but most certainly it cannot be so, for as we have shown before, we are not able by reasoning to create principles in things.  The principles of all things exist in them before we begin to reason about them, or they never could be made to exist at all by any human power.
Our reason must always have some foundation to build upon; that foundation must exist before we begin to reason, or we could not reason at all.  We can neither perceive or understand anything as a subject of reasoning whose principles do not exist prior to our reasoning.  Thus moral maxims, when true, must be founded on some principles in the human nature which are originally inherent in man, and our reasoning in the formation of such maxims must be regulated by those originally-inherent principles. Had we not such principles innate or born with is, our reason could have no ground to go upon concerning morals, for reasoning could never make a man, devoid of innate moral principles, perceive the justice or truth of any moral maxim.  Indeed, without such principles he could never know anything at all of moral maxims, for when any moral maxim is proposed to us we can neither understand it or examine into its truth or falsehood without referring to our internal touchstone, our innate moral sentiments; they alone enable us to understand it, and by them only can we judge of its truth or falsehood, for its truth or falsehood to us depends entirely upon its agreement or disagreement with them.

In regard to Epicurus’ teaching on the nature of innate principles, Marcus Tullius Cicero preserves for us an important discussion in his work entitled On The Nature of The Gods.  In the course of recounting the opinions on religion held by various poets and philosophers, Cicero records:

“Now whoever reflects on the rashness and absurdity of these tenets [held by other religions and philosophies], must inevitably entertain the highest respect and veneration for Epicurus, and perhaps even rank him in the number of those beings who are the subject of this dispute, for he alone first founded the idea of the existence of the gods on the impression which nature herself hath made on the minds of all men.  For what nation, what people are there, who have not, without any learning, a natural idea, or prenotion of a Deity?  Epicurus calls this preconception; that is, an antecedent conception of the fact in the mind, without which nothing can be understood, inquired after, or discoursed on; the force and advantage of which reasoning we receive from that celestial volume of Epicurus, concerning the Rule and Judgment of things.  Here, then, you see the foundation of this question clearly laid; for since it is the constant and universal opinion of mankind, independent of education, custom, or law, that there are Gods; it must necessarily follow that this knowledge is implanted in our minds, or rather innate in us.  That opinion respecting which there is a general agreement in universal nature must infallibly be true; therefore it must be allowed that there are Gods; for in this we have the concurrence, not only of almost all philosophers, but likewise of the ignorant and illiterate.  It must be confessed that the point is established, that we have naturally this idea, as I said before, or pre-notion of the existence of the Gods…. On the same principle of reasoning we think that the Gods are happy and immortal; for that nature, which hath assured us that there are Gods, has likewise imprinted in our minds the knowledge of their immortality and felicity; and if so, what Epicurus hath declared in these words, is true: “That which is eternally happy cannot be burdened with any labour itself, nor can it impose any labour on another; nor can it be influenced by resentment or favour; because things which are liable to such feelings must be weak and frail.”

Further discussion of Epicurus’ view of Preconceptions is beyond the scope of this work, but readers seeking further information should refer to Chapter VIII of Norman DeWitt’s Epicurus and His Philosophy, where this issue is pursued in detail.

In addition to the central issue of innate principles, many other direct similarities between the views of Epicurus and Jackson Barwis are worth noting.

First, both men held that philosophy must serve as a practical tool for the production of human happiness, or else it is worse than useless.  In the words of Barwis:

It should seem, therefore, much more consonant to the character of genuine philosophy to endeavor to strengthen and confirm the mind in just principles, than to puzzle and confound it with difficulties and vain objections.  For though the human understanding may be, nay must be, incapable of solving many difficulties in the nature of things: yet to stick to those difficulties tenaciously and to apply them continually to prove the uncertainty of our knowledge and to leave us perplexed and confounded is doubtless but a very untoward, left-handed, kind of  philosophy.  In her genuine course, she leads us gently on as far as our understandings will carry us, and we can see our way clearly:  when difficulties occur (and they must frequently occur in works formed by infinite wisdom when examined by such minds as ours) she shows us their nature and extent and explains them (if at all explicable) as well and as far as she can, continually keeping in view the nature of man and his true interest and proper business upon the earth.

Second, Epicurus grounded his philosophy in the view that the universe is composed of indivisible elements which possess unchanging eternal characteristics.  In the following passage, one can almost hear Barwis contemplating the “atoms” in a manner befitting Lucretius or Epicurus himself:

I humbly conceive, then, continued he, that no thing or being in the universe could possibly exist or be what it is without certain necessarily-inherent qualities, properties, energies, or laws; which together form and constitute its nature and cause it to be specifically what it is.  These necessarily-inherent qualities, properties, energies, or laws whatever names they may be called by, or what I would now be understood to signify by the word principles, as being prime, or first, in the constituting of the natures of all things.  Thus all the animal creation, all the vegetables, have their general and their specific principles.  Earth, water, air, fire, have their principles.  The Earth as a whole in itself, or, as a part in our planetary system, has its principles.  Our planetary system as a whole, or, as relative to other systems, or to the universe, has its principles.  The universe as a whole must also have its principles, by which all its parts are made relative and are chained and united together; although in a manner totally incomprehensible by any but its all-wise and all-powerful Creator.  But of him, the great first cause!  The principle of all principles!  Of Him, from whom the whole universe and all that it contains derive their principles, what shall we say, or how speak, with propriety?  So weak, so incompetent, or are we that we are lost in the contemplation of his nature, and hardly know how to discourse of him with tolerable sense or without absurdity and danger of impiety and profanation.

Third, an absolutely critical tenet of Epicurean philosophy is that men possess the free will to determine their own lives.  Men are not the puppets of gods, fate, or any other form of “necessity,” and every man is responsible for his own actions.  Barwis stakes out the same position:

That every single animal of the same species differs from others does not so far shock me as to make me conclude that the principles of their nature are not the same in kind.  Much less does it affect me in the human species when I consider man as a rational creature in a higher degree, as a free agent in point of morals, indued with innate conscious principles, and as the elector and chooser of his own moral happiness or misery.  For surely whoever will consider these distinctions, what they are in us, and how we are affected by them, cannot be much surprised to find more diversity in men than in any other kind of creatures whose natures are restrained to instincts, and who are incapable of any degree of moral free agency.

Fourth, although Epicurus was not an atheist, he firmly held that men are not subject to the whims of any gods.  False religion is among the greatest impediments to human happiness, and Epicurus held that it was not he, but the multitude, who held impious opinions about the gods.  On this subject Barwis wrote some of his most incisive commentary, showing in the third of his Three Dialogues on Liberty how religion is inimical to the just liberties of mankind:

I conclude, answered he, that be the modes of worship what they may, the ideas of the Deity, in the minds of vulgar worshipers in general, are, and ever will be, false, erroneous, and idolatrous; and that the case can never be otherwise as long as men form their ideas of the attributes and perfections of the Deity from unjust and ill-founded fears, and senseless hopes, and from all the variable and fluctuating passions and affections with which they feel themselves agitated.
That is, in short, said I, as long as men shall be men.
True, it is so, replied he; and for that very reason.  I also conclude that it is tyranny to attempt to force men to practice any particular modes of worship, though perfectly right and true; and that they ought to be left free to exercise themselves in the religious way so as may be most suitable to their own capacities and will;  provided only that they offend not against the just laws of human nature.

And finally, to what destination does Barwis follow these Epicurean paths?  To the conclusion that the proper life for man, and the only true religious piety, is found in living according to the evidence and the guidance to which “the Creator”– Nature – has granted us access through our three faculties:

However, we may truly say, continued he, that with regard to the relation we stand in to God and to his concatenated creation, we cannot possibly serve him better or render him juster worship than by paying the strictest attention to those innate principles with which he has endued our nature, and by which he has clearly pointed out (if we suffer not our attention to be diverted by false lights) our road to what is most eligible and best both in our moral and physical conduct in this life.

In conclusion, it is proper to observe that Barwis composed his Dialogues because he saw that the justification for individual liberty is not self-evident to all men, and that if men are to live happily and in liberty they must understand and uphold the proper foundation on which liberty rests.  Such understanding was never more needed than today.  In a world where submission is preached from pulpits, minarets, and government offices, and liberty is viewed more with suspicion than with reverence, these words seem particularly timely:

I know of but one reason therefore for refusing toleration to any religion, and that is, when we are certain its principles and professors are intolerant themselves.  Such was, formerly, the temper of the Jews, and such still is the temper of some religionists, even in these enlightened days.

The Dialogues of Jackson Barwis show us how necessary it is to understand all three of the legs on which liberty stands.

– Cassius Amicus

Post Script, May 30, 2011

Is it only a coincidence that the volume of Epicurus which Cicero praised, and the Epicureans held, so highly, the “Canon of Truth,” seems to have totally disappeared from the face of the Earth, when lesser volumes have survived?  Is it possible that the subject explored by Jackson Barwis in his Dialogues, and Epicurus in his discussions of Preconceptions, strikes so powerfully at the heart of all revealed religions, who argue that but for revelation, no source of morality exists, and no standard of morality is possible, that the religions which replaced Epicureanism could not allow such a work to exist?  The recovery of the original work, or a reconstruction of its contents, should be a central interest of modern Epicureans.  As a very small effort in that direction, the present author has prepared another volume, The Tripod of Truth, An Introduction To The Book That Fell From the Heavens, also available at www.NewEpicurean.com.