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Promoting the Study of the Philosophy of Epicurus

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Epicurus v. Cicero on Natural Law and Justice

I am probably not going to add this to my Epicurus v. Stoicism chart (to be posted here soon!), because Cicero did not consider himself Stoic, and I want to keep the chart as accurate about Stoicism as possible. But if you would like to observe an extreme contrast between Epicurus and other ancient viewpoints on the nature of government, compare these two views of the nature of law and justice:

“True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrong-doing by its prohibitions. And it does not lay its commands or prohibitions upon good men in vain, although neither have any effect on the wicked. It is a sin to try to alter this law, nor is it allowable to attempt to repeal a part of it, and it is impossible to abolish it entirely. We cannot be freed from its obligations by Senate or People, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it. And there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and all times, and there will be one master and ruler, that is, God, over us all, for He is the author of this law, its promulgator, and its enforcing judge. Whoever is disobedient is fleeing from himself and denying his human nature, and by reason of this very fact he will suffer the worst penalties, even if he escapes what is commonly called punishment .” . .” — Marcus Tullius Cicero, Republic, The Laws, 59 – 47 B.C.

To me, this is a clear unification of religious and Platonic viewpoint, to assert that there exists “out there” universal laws which should be applied to all men at all times in all places. Compare that with Epicurus from the Principal Doctrines, and I think you can easily see how one viewpoint leads to centralized power and enforced one-size-fits-all morality, and one side leads to local communities which govern themselves with maximum freedom in accord with their own views of the “pursuit of happiness”:

33. There never was such a thing as absolute justice, but only agreements made in mutual dealings among men in whatever places at various times providing against the infliction or suffering of harm.

36. In general justice is the same for all, for it is something found mutually beneficial in men’s dealings, but in its application to particular places or other circumstances the same thing is not necessarily just for everyone.

37. Among the things held to be just by law, whatever is proved to be of advantage in men’s dealings has the stamp of justice, whether or not it be the same for all; but if a man makes a law and it does not prove to be mutually advantageous, then this is no longer just. And if what is mutually advantageous varies and only for a time corresponds to our concept of justice, nevertheless for that time it is just for those who do not trouble themselves about empty words, but look simply at the facts.

38. Where without any change in circumstances the things held to be just by law are seen not to correspond with the concept of justice in actual practice, such laws are not really just; but wherever the laws have ceased to be advantageous because of a change in circumstances, in that case the laws were for that time just when they were advantageous for the mutual dealings of the citizens, and subsequently ceased to be just when they were no longer advantageous.