Nil Posse Creari De Nilo! / Nothing Can Be Created From Nothing!

Doctrines 21-30

Promoting the Study of the Philosophy of Epicurus



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21. He who is acquainted with the natural limits of life understands that those things that remove the pain that arises from need, and those things which make the whole of life complete, are easily obtainable, and that he has no need of those things that can only be attained with trouble.

NewEpicurean Commentary: An understanding of Nature leads us to see that the things which Nature requires — those things that remove physical pain — are easy to obtain, and are all that are needed to furnish a complete and optimal life. Thus the man who understands the laws of Nature no longer desires those things which are more trouble to obtain than they are worth.

22. We must keep in mind the conceptions established by reality and the evidence provided by our senses, and to those we must refer all our opinions, otherwise all things in life will be full of confusion and doubt.

Diogenes Laertius: In regard to the five senses, [Epicurus states] that the senses themselves are devoid of reason, and they are not capable of receiving any impressions from memory. For they are not by themselves the cause of any impression, and when they have received any impression from any external cause, they can add nothing to it, nor can they subtract anything from it. Moreover, they are not within the control of the other senses; for one sense cannot judge another, as all observations have an equal value, and their objects are not identical. In other words, one sensation cannot control another, since the effects of all of them influence us equally. Also, reason by itself cannot pronounce judgment on the senses; for … all reasoning rests on the senses for its foundation. Reality and the evidence provided by the senses establish the certainty of our faculties; for the impressions of sight and hearing are just as real, just as evident, as pain. 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. In regard to the preconceptions, Epicurus meant a sort of comprehension, or right opinion, or notion, or general idea which exists within us. In other words, a preconception is a kind of mental recollection of an external object that we experience before we perceive it. For instance, one example is the idea: “Man is a being of such and such 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. [An anticipation is] therefore the first notion which each word awakens within us …. In fact, we could not seek for anything if we did not previously have some notion about 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 and an ox. We could not even give names to things, if we did not have 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 which has already been established to be certain. This is how we affirm or judge the answer to any question; for instance, “How do we know whether this thing is a man?”

Letter to Herodotus: First of all, Herodotus, one must determine with exactness the meaning and concept behind every word so that we are able to refer to that concept as an established standard as we pursue our research. Otherwise, the judgments that we reach will have no foundation, and we will go on studying to infinity without understanding, because we will be using words devoid of meaning. In fact, it is absolutely necessary that we grasp directly the fundamental concept which each word expresses, without need of reminder, if we are to have a standard on which to rest all our investigations. In order to do this we must keep all our investigations in accord with and reconciled to the evidence from our senses, especially in those matters in which our minds have grasped a clear view and reached a firm judgment. We must do this so we may identify that point in the examination where we find it necessary to reserve judgment as to the truth of a matter, which will occur when we do not have immediately perceptible to us sufficient evidence to form a clear determination.

Letter to Pythocles: The regular and periodic march of the heavenly phenomena has nothing in it that would surprise us if we would only pay attention to the analogous facts which take place here on earth under our own eyes. Above all things, let us beware against making a god interpose itself here, for we ought always to consider a god to be exempt from all toil and perfectly happy. Otherwise we shall find ourselves giving vain explanations to the heavenly phenomena, as has happened already to a crowd of philosophers. Because they do not recognize what is really possible and what is not, they have fallen into vain theories, supposing that for all phenomena there is but one single mode of production, and rejecting all other explanations which are also founded on probability. They have adopted the most unreasonable opinions because they failed to place in the forefront of the analysis the evidence of the senses, which ought always to serve as the first basis for explaining all phenomena.

Letter to Pythocles: The thunderbolt may be produced either by a violent condensation of the winds, or by their rapid motion and collisions. …. In short, one may give a number of explanations of the thunderbolt. Above all things we must always be on guard against fables, and fables will easily be avoided if one follows faithfully the phenomena that are observed directly in searching for the explanation of those things which are only perceived indirectly.

Lucretius De Rerum Natura Book I: But now to resume the thread of the design that I am weaving in verse: all nature then, as it exists by itself, is founded on two things: there are bodies and there is void in which these bodies are placed and through which they move about. For that material things exist is declared by the general acknowledgement of mankind. Unless, at the very first, our conviction of this is firmly grounded, there will be nothing to which we can appeal in regard to things that are only perceived indirectly, in order to prove anything by the reasoning of the mind. Then again, if room and space which we call void did not exist, bodies could not be placed anywhere nor move about at all to any side; as we have demonstrated to you already.

NewEpicurean Commentary: The ultimate goal of human life is to live a happy life here on this earth, in this reality, without being deceived that there is some other dimension or other standard for how we should live our lives. The key to determining the laws of Nature, and how they apply to us, is to refer all questions to our senses, and to make sure that all our opinions are consistent with reality as we sense and experience it. Applying any other standard other than a reasoned understanding of reality as experienced through our senses will lead to a life full of confusion and turmoil.

23. If we resist the senses, we have nothing left to which we can refer, or by which we may judge, the falsehood of the senses which we condemn.

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura Book IV: [I]f 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 this man knows his contention to be true, I would still ask this question: Since he has never yet seen any truth in any thing, 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 all knowledge of the true comes from the senses, and that the senses cannot be refuted. For anything which on its own can distinguish that which is false from that which is true must by nature possess a higher certainty than the thing which it judges. Well, then, what can fairly be accounted of higher certainty than the senses? Shall reasoning alone be able to contradict the sensations? No, not when reasoning is itself wholly reliant on the senses for its accuracy. If the evidence of the senses is not true, then all reasoning based on that evidence is rendered false. Are the ears able to take the eyes to task, or the sense of touch take the ears to task? Shall the sense of taste or smell or vision call into question the sense of touch? No, for each sense has its own separate and distinct office and power. … It therefore follows that no sense can refute any other. Nor can any sense take itself to task, since equal credit must be assigned to the evidence it produces at all times. What has at any time appeared true to each sense must be taken as a true sensation. At times you may experience sensations which your reason is unable to explain — for example, why a tower close at hand is seen to be square, but when seen at a distance appears round. In such cases it is better, if you are at a loss for a reason to explain this, to admit that you do not know the truth of the matter, rather than to accept an explanation that makes no sense. If you accept as true a possibility that contradicts your senses, you have set the stage to let slip from your grasp all those other things which you know to be manifestly true. In so doing you will ruin the groundwork of all your beliefs, and wrench up all the foundations on which life and existence rest. For not only would all reason give way, but life itself would fall to the ground, unless you pursue the truth and choose to trust the senses, shunning the steep cliffs of life that must be avoided. All that host of words drawn out in array against the senses is quite without meaning. If, in the construction of a building, the measuring stick first applied by the builder is crooked, or his square is untrue and swerves from its straight lines, or if there is the slightest hitch in any part of his level, all the construction will turn out to be faulty, crooked, sloping, leaning forward or backward, 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 not founded on the senses will prove to be distorted and false.

Lucretius De Rerum Natura Book I: To say that all things are fire, and that nothing really exists except fire, as one philosopher does, is clearly sheer insanity. For this man takes his stand on the side of the senses at the same time that he fights against the senses. His argument challenges the authority of the senses, on which rests all our convictions, even his own belief about this fire (as he calls it) that is known only to himself. For what he is saying is that he believes that the senses can truly perceive fire, but he does not believe they can perceive all other things, which are not a bit less clear! Now this is clearly as false as it is foolish, for to what shall we appeal to resolve the question? What more certain test can we apply but that of the senses to judge truth and falsehood? Why should anyone choose to abolish all other things and choose to leave only fire? Why not abolish fire, and hold that nature is composed of all other things? It would be equal madness to affirm either one or the other position.

Letter to Herodotus: [As we move to the consideration of phenomena such as the nature of sight and images], we must consider that there may be [various] manners in which things of this kind are produced. But we must never accept anything in these various possibilities which at all contradicts the senses, and [in evaluating these things] we must consider in what way the senses are exercised and the relationship that is established between the external objects we observe and ourselves.

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 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.

Letter to Herodotus: [We must also consider] the possibility of error and false judgments. These arise due to our supposing that a preconceived idea will be confirmed, or at any event will not be overturned, by additional evidence when we receive it. Falsehood and error arise when we form an opinion prematurely, without waiting for additional evidence to confirm or to contradict our conclusion before reaching it. [We must always recognize that] the representations we receive from images have been received by our intelligence like reflections from a mirror, whether those images are perceived in a dream or through any other conceptions of the mind or the senses. But [we cannot conclude that] these representations resemble the objects from which they came closely enough so that we can call them real and true unless we are examining objects that we perceive directly. Error arises when we receive impressions which our minds accept as a direct representation but which in fact are not. In such cases, due to considerations that are unique to ourselves, our minds mistakenly take these indirect perceptions and form conceptions which go beyond the reality of the actual object. Error results when our minds reach conclusions based on evidence that is not confirmed, or is contradictory, rather than based on evidence that we directly observe to be confirmed and uncontradicted. We must carefully preserve these principles so that we will not reject the authority of our faculties when we perceive truth directly. We must also observe these principles so that we will not allow our minds to believe that what is false or what is speculative has been established with equal firmness with what is true, because this results in everything being thrown into confusion. If you simply reject any sensory experience which you believe to be incorrect, and you fail to reason and integrate those sensations which appear to conflict with those you know to be true, you will introduce a fundamental error into your logic that will lead you to be unable to separate true from false. Also, is a blunder to consider that some theory that is untested, and not proven to conform with reality, has the same status of truth as other knowledge which you know to be true, and which has been proven to be consistent with reality. This latter error is a blunder because you will then introduce doubt into your reasoning and lose the ability to distinguish the true from the false in everything.

25. If we consider those opinions which are only tentative, and must await further information before they can be verified, to be of equal authority with those opinions which bear about them an immediate certainty, we will not escape error. For if we do this we overlook the reason for doubt between that which is right and that which is wrong.

Lucretius De Rerum Natura Book IV: Many are the 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.

Diogenes Laertius: The Epicureans refer to ‘opinion’ as supposition, and say that it is at times true, and at times false. An opinion which is supported by evidence, and is not contradicted by other evidence is true. An opinion which is not supported by evidence, and is contradicted by other evidence, is false. On this account they have introduced the expression of “waiting,” such as when, before pronouncing that a thing seen is a tower, we must wait until we approach it, and learn what it looks like when we are nearby.

NewEpicurean Commentary: If you allow yourself to think that speculations which are not grounded in reality (such as speculations about the heavens or about infinity, subjects which you do not have the ability to verify) are of equal authority with deductive reasoning grounded in direct evidence (such as observations about things close at hand that you know to be true by experience) you will surely fall into error, because you will be confusing what is speculative with what is certain.

26. If on every occasion we do not refer all our actions to the chief end of Nature, and if we turn aside to some other standard when we are determining what to seek or to avoid, then our actions will not be consistent with our principles.

Letter to Menoeceus: To this view of Happiness as our starting point and as our goal we refer every question of what to choose and what to avoid. And to this same goal of happy living we again and again return, because whether a thing brings Happiness is the rule by which we judge every good.

Cicero’s Defense of Epicurus: Epicurus holds that Nature’s ultimate goal for life is pleasure, or happiness, which he holds to be the chief good, with pain, whether physical or mental, being the chief evil. Epicurus sets out to show this as follows: Every living thing, as soon as it is born, seeks after pleasure, and delights in it as its chief good. It also recoils from pain as its chief evil, and avoids pain so far as is possible. Nature’s own unbiased and honest judgment leads every living thing to do this from birth, and it continues to do as long as it remains uncorrupted. Epicurus refuses to admit any need for discussion to prove that pleasure is to be desired and pain is to be avoided, because these facts, he thinks, are perceived by the senses, in the same way that fire is hot, snow is white, and honey is sweet. None of these things need be proved by elaborate argument — it is enough merely to draw attention to them.

Cicero’s Defense of Epicurus: A city torn by faction cannot prosper, nor can a house whose masters are at strife. Much less then can a mind that is divided against itself and filled with inward discord taste any particle of pure and liberal pleasure. One who is perpetually swayed by conflicting and incompatible opinions and desires can know no peace or calm. If the pleasantness of life is diminished by the serious bodily diseases, how much more must it be diminished by the diseases of the mind! Extravagant and vain desires for riches, fame, power, and other pleasures of license, are nothing but mental diseases. Grief, trouble and sorrow gnaw the heart and consume it with anxiety if men fail to realize that the mind need feel no pain unless it is connected with some pain of body, present or to come. Yet all foolish men are afflicted by at least one of these diseases — and therefore there is no foolish man who is not unhappy.

NewEpicurean Commentary: Nature provides that we must act according to the ultimate goal set for us by Nature – a life a happiness. All actions must therefore be judged according to whether those actions will or will not lead to attaining a happy life. If we use any other standard we will find ourselves in hopeless confusion.

27. Of all the things which the wise man seeks to acquire to produce the happiness of a complete life, by far the most important is the possession of friendship.

Cicero’s Defense of Epicurus: There remains a topic that is supremely relevant to this discussion – the subject of Friendship. Your [Platonic] school maintains that if pleasure is held to be the Chief Good, friendship will cease to exist. In contrast, Epicurus has pronounced in regard to friendship that of all the means to happiness that wisdom has devised, none is greater, none is more fruitful, none is more delightful than friendship. Not only did Epicurus commend the importance of friendship through his words, but far more, through the example of his life and his conduct. How rare and great friendship is can be seen in the mythical stories of antiquity. Review the legends from the remotest of ages, and, many and varied as they are, you will barely find in them three pairs of friends, beginning with Theseus and ending with Orestes. Yet Epicurus in a single house (and a small one at that) maintained a whole company of friends, united by the closest sympathy and affection, and this still goes on today in the Epicurean school. … The Epicureans maintain that friendship can no more be separated from pleasure than can the virtues, which we have discussed already. A solitary, friendless life is necessarily beset by secret dangers and alarms. Hence reason itself advises the acquisition of friends. The possession of friends gives confidence and a firmly rooted hope of winning pleasure. And just as hatred, jealousy and contempt are hindrances to pleasure, so friendship is the most trustworthy preserver and also creator of pleasure for both our friends and for ourselves. Friendship affords us enjoyment in the present, and it inspires us with hope for the near and distant future. Thus it is not possible to secure uninterrupted gratification in life without friendship, nor to preserve friendship itself unless we love our friends as much as ourselves. … For we rejoice in our friends’ joy as much as in our own, and we are equally pained by their sorrows. Therefore the wise man will feel exactly the same towards his friends as he does towards himself, and he will exert himself as much for his friend’s pleasure as he would for his own. All that has been said about the essential connection of the virtues with pleasure must be repeated about friendship. Epicurus well said (and I give almost his exact words): “The same creed that has given us courage to overcome all fear of everlasting or long-enduring evil after death has discerned that friendship is our strongest safeguard in this present term of life. … All these considerations go to prove not only that the rationale of friendship is not impaired by the identification of the chief good with pleasure, but, in fact, without this, no foundation for friendship whatsoever can be found.”

Vatican Collection 78: The noble soul occupies itself with wisdom and friendship; of these the one is a mortal good, the other immortal.

28. The same opinion that encourages us to trust that no evil will be everlasting, or even of long duration, shows us that in the space of life allotted to us the protection of friendship is the most sure and trustworthy.

NewEpicurean Commentary: A firm understanding of the Nature of things allows us to see that nothing terrible lasts forever, or even for a long time, and it also allows us to see that nothing enhances our security so much as does friendship.

29. Of the desires, some are natural and necessary, some are natural but not necessary, and some are neither natural nor necessary, but owe their existence to vain imagination.

Vatican Collection 20: Of our desires some are natural and necessary, others are natural but not necessary; and others are neither natural nor necessary, but are due to groundless opinion.

NewEpicurean Commentary: You will more easily keep reason in charge of your desires if you remember that some desires are both natural and necessary, some are natural but not necessary, and some are neither natural nor necessary but purely the result of illusions that we pick up from other people.

30. Those desires that do not lead to pain if they are not satisfied are not necessary, and they may be overcome by observing whether they are difficult to gratify or likely to produce injury.

Letter to Menoeceus: But although happiness is the first and a natural good, for this same reason we do not choose every pleasure whatsoever, but at many times we pass over certain pleasures when difficulty is likely to ensue from choosing them. Likewise, we think that certain pains are better than some pleasures, when a greater pleasure will follow them, even if we first endure pain for time. Every Pleasure is therefore by its own Nature a good, but it does not follow that every pleasure is worthy of being chosen, just as every pain is an evil, and yet every pain must not be avoided. Nature requires that we resolve all these matters by measuring and reasoning whether the ultimate result is suitable or unsuitable to bringing about a happy life; for at times we may determine that what appears to be good is in fact an evil, and at other times we may determine that what appears to be evil is in fact a good.

Vatican Collection 21: We must not violate nature, but obey her; and we shall obey her if we fulfil those desires that are necessary, and also those that are natural but bring no harm to us, but we must sternly reject those that are harmful.

NewEpicurean Commentary: The illusory desires that we pick up from other people include some desires that are natural, but would not create any pain if not fulfilled. Such desires can be overcome by acknowledging that they are difficult to gratify or likely to produce harm greater than achieving the desire is worth.


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