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Mosaic Of Marcus Vesonius Primus

Doctrine 24: The Master Instrument of the Architect of Human Happiness

A recent discussion on the nature of the gods recalls to my mind the importance of one of the Authorized Doctrines that is least famous, but which can hardly be overestimated in significance:  Doctrine 24.   I believe this doctrine to be so significant that it is likely within itself a capsule summary of the lost “Canon of Truth.”  I also believe that the application of this doctrine can be usefully illustrated by reference to the famous “libella” (or “level“) portrayed in the mosaic of Marcus Vesonius Primus in Pompeii.

First, let’s refer to Doctrine 24:***

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 conceptions of the mind which arise from the five senses, from the sense of pain and pleasure, and  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.

In this doctrine, and in several other authoritative ancient texts, we find that Epicurus stressed the importance of clearly separating (1) those thing which are certain from (2) those things which are uncertain.  As the conclusion of Doctrine 24 states very clearly, if we fail to keep in mind the distinction between the certain and uncertain, then not only do we immediately go astray, we also we destroy in that area of inquiry any possibility of discerning the true from the false. 

How do we “bridge the gap” between those things for which we have enough direct evidence to be certain of our conclusion, and those things for which the evidence is unclear?  Here we refer to Diogenes Laertius’ biography:

It follows from these considerations that we should judge those things which are obscure by their analogy to those things which we perceive directly. In fact, every notion proceeds from the evidence provided by the senses, either directly, or as a result of some analogy, or proportion, or combination to that which we do perceive directly, reasoning always participating in these operations.

From this I believe it fair to conclude that Epicurus firmly rejected the idea that the process of discerning truth from falsehood is a matter either of “reasoning” or of “divine inspiration.”  Rather, Epicurus held that the proper means of determining truth starts with the identification of that which is known to be true by the clear direct evidence of the senses, with “senses” understood here in the wider Epicurean definition, as including not only the five conventional senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell) but also the pain /pleasure mechanism and the Anticipations.   Any and all new observations or contentions are then compared against that starting point of truth, always referring to and applying the same three categories of senses to determine the truth or falsehood of the matter being considered.  This process is not primarily a matter of logic or “pure reason” at all, but a matter of comparing new observations which we wish to discern as true or false against past observations confirmed through the study of Nature.  Cicero records for us on this point the following observation:

Theoretical logic, on which your Platonic school lays such stress, Epicurus held to be of no assistance either as a guide to conduct or as an aid to thought. In contrast, he deemed Natural Philosophy to be all-important. Natural Philosophy explains to us the meaning of terms, the nature of cause and effect, and the laws of consistency and contradiction.

Let’s now return to the mosaic and picture in our minds the libella.  It is the law of consistency and contradiction which the libella employs to determine truth.  He who uses the libella first places one arm against the object known to be “true” and then places the other against the object to be judged, thus determining if the height of the second object is consistent with or contradicts that of the first object.

We read the libella by examining how the “plumb line” falls against the scored indicator of the libella, but this begs the central question:  “How did we calibrate the libella in the first place, and how do we know that the reading of the libella means anything?”

Doctrine 24 tells us the answer:

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.

Our confidence in the reading of the libella comes because we have previously calibrated it against clear prior evidence provided by the Five Senses, the Pain/Pleasure mechanism, and the Anticipations.  In applying the libella to judge new matter, we can only be confident of the correctness of our conclusion if the plumb falls against the pre-set indicator on the instrument.  Only when the plumb line is perpendicular are we justified in concluding that the matter is true and consistent with what we know to be true.

With this as background we can examine the question of the nature of the gods.  Epicurus clearly tells us in the letter to Menoceus that gods exist as “perfect” beings who have no need to create worlds or meddle in the affairs of men.  We can illustrate Epicurus’ assessment of Zeus by imagining that he figuratively placed one arm of his libella against the starting point (the sum total of Epicurus’ own experience), then directed the other arm toward the Platonic / Religious conception of  Zeus.  Epicurus would have observed that the plumb line fell perpendicular only if  Zeus was measured to be “perfect” according to the Anticipation of the true nature of gods.   The significance of this analogy is that any other measurement of any other attribute of Zeus (wrath, charity, goals for mankind, physical body, language spoken by him, punishment of the wicked, reward for the innocent, etc.) must also be deemed to be true only if the plumb line remains perpendicular as the new contention is examined.

By this standard are we able to contend for any other measurement of an attribute of a god which may also be considered to be true?  Perhaps we can, but the essential requirement is that any additional contention must be consistent with the first observation:  For any new contention to be entertained as possibly true, it must comport with the evidence of the five conventional senses, the pain /pleasure mechanism, and the Anticipations.  Any new contention must remain consistent with the gods’ perfection, which we know to be true based on the evidence of the Anticipations.

Thus in considering any of the recorded Epicurean theories about the nature of the gods, or any new theories we suggest ourselves, we must keep in mind that no speculation is allowable that is inconsistent with the Anticipated attribute of perfection.  A theory which does not conflict with perfection, such the residence of the gods being in the spaces “between the worlds,” is allowable as “possible” because it is not inconsistent with perfection.  But such a theory may not be categorized as certain — the theorizer must “wait” — until that theory can be verified with clear, uncontradicted evidence provided by the conventional five senses, the pain/pleasure mechanism, and the anticipations.  Consider Doctrine 25:

If you consider those ideas which are only an opinion, and must await further information before they can be verified, to be of equal authority with those ideas which bear about them an immediate certainty, you will not escape error. For if you do this you will be confusing doubtful opinions with those which are not doubtful, and true judgments with those of an uncertain character.

Epicurus stated very firmly in his discussion of astronomical matters that it is permissible to consider a theory as possible only if that theory  both (1) has some basis in known evidence, and (2) is not contradicted by any known evidence.  To hold that among the possible theories one is certainly true, and others are certainly false, is to reason as would an astrologer or a fortune-teller, and is to abandon all those things on which our lives and happiness rest.   As Epicurus stated in the Letter to Pythocles:

But if we abandon the rule of accepting only those hypotheses that are reasonable, and we renounce the attempt to explain the the heavenly phenomena by means of analogies that are founded on the evidence provided by senses, then we are conducting ourselves in complete disregard of the science of Nature in favor of falling into fables.

Here we close with the immortal words from Book V of Lucretius, in which we should read “the senses” to refer to all three categories of the Epicurean canon:

Many are the other marvels … we see which seek to shake the credit of the senses. But such efforts are quite in vain, since the greatest part of these cases deceive us on account of the opinions which we add ourselves, taking things as seen which have not been seen by the senses. For nothing is harder than to separate those facts that are clearly true from those that are doubtful, which the mind adds itself.

And if a man contends that nothing can be known, he knows not whether this contention itself can be known, since he admits that he knows nothing. I will therefore decline to argue the question against him who places his head where his feet should be. And yet granting that he knows his contention to be true, I would still put this question: Since he has never yet seen any truth in things, how does he know what “knowing” and “not knowing” are? What has produced his knowledge of the difference between the true and the false, and between the doubtful and the certain?

You will find that it is from the senses that comes all knowledge of the true, and that the senses cannot be refuted. For that which is of itself able to distinguish the false from the true must from the Nature of the case be proved with a higher certainty. Well, then, what can fairly be accounted of higher certainty than the senses? Shall reasoning founded on the senses be able to contradict those same senses, when that reasoning is wholly founded on the senses? If the senses are not true, then all reasoning based on them is rendered false. Shall the ears be able to take the eyes to task, or the sense of touch take ears to task? Shall the sense of taste call in question the sense of touch, or the nostrils refute it or the eyes controvert it? Not so, for each separately has its own distinct office, each its own power. We therefore must perceive what is soft and cold or hot by one distinct faculty, and by another perceive the different colors of things and thus see all objects which have color. Taste too is a separate faculty; smells spring from one source, sounds from another. It therefore must follow that any one sense cannot confute any other. Nor can any sense take itself to task, since equal credit must be assigned to it at all times. What therefore has at any time appeared true to each sense, is true.

And so if you find your reason is unable to explain the cause why things which, seen close at hand, are square, but at distance appear round, it is better, if you are at a loss for a reason, to state an erroneous cause, than to let slip from your grasp on any side those things which are manifestly true, and in so doing ruin the groundwork of belief and wrench up all the foundations on which life and existence rest. For not only would all reason give way, but life itself would at once fall to the ground unless you choose to trust the senses, shunning the precipices and errors of this sort that are to be avoided, and pursuing the opposite. All that host of words drawn out in array against the senses is quite without meaning.

Once more: As in a building, if the rule first applied by the builder is awry, and the square is untrue and swerves from its straight lines, and if there is the slightest hitch in any part of the level, all the construction must be faulty, all must be awry, crooked, sloping, leaning forwards, leaning backwards, without symmetry, so that some parts seem ready to fall, and others do fall, all ruined by the first erroneous measurements. So too, all reasoning of things which is founded on false interpretations of the senses will prove to be distorted and false.








*** In paraphrase form.  I recognize that I am specifically separating out the five senses, the pain/pleasure mechanism, and the Anticipations beyond what the text alone might justify, but I believe this paraphrase to be consistent with the meaning of the many variations of the translations by the recognized experts.  Here are several direct translations for comparison:

Yonge:  If you simply discard one sense, and do not distinguish between the different elements of the judgment so as to know on the one hand, the induction which goes beyond the actual sensation, or, on the other, the actual and immediate notion, the affections, and all the conceptions of the mind which lean directly on the sensible representation, you will be imputing trouble into the other sense, and destroying in that quarter every species of criterion.

Bailey:  If you reject any single sensation and fail to distinguish between the conclusion of opinion as to the appearance awaiting confirmation and that which is actually given by the sensation or feeling, or each intuitive apprehension of the mind, you will confound all other sensations as well with the same groundless opinion, so that you will reject every standard of judgment.  And if among the mental images created by your opinion you affirm both that which awaits confirmation and that which does not, you will not escape error, since you will have preserved the whole cause of doubt in every judgment between what is right and what is wrong.

Strodach:  If you summarily rule out any single sensation and do not make a distinction between the element of belief that is superimposed on a percept that awaits verification and what is actually present in sensation or in the feelings or some precept of the mind itself, you will cast doubt on all other sensations by your unfounded interpretation and consequently abandon all the criteria of truth.  On the other hand, in cases of interpreted data, if you accept as true those that need verification as well as those that do not, you will still be in error, since the whole question at issue in every judgment of what is true or not true will be left intact.