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Happy Twentieth – “How Long Should the Parthenon Stand?”

Peace and Safety to the Epicureans of today, no matter where you might be – Happy Twentieth!

For today’s Twentieth,  in some troubled times in the United States, I would like to discuss a passage from Thomas Jefferson, consider it in context with the Epicurean principles of justice contained in Principal Doctrines 31 through 40, and apply the result to contemporary issues.

Let’s first quote the Doctrines in the translation by Cyril Bailey.  This will remind us that in the Epicurean world view there are no absolute standards of justice of any kind, shape, or form, no matter how emotionally we may wish there were:

PD 31 The justice which arises from nature is a pledge of mutual advantage to restrain men from harming one another and save them from being harmed.

PD 32 For all living things which have not been able to make compacts not to harm one another or be harmed, nothing ever is either just or unjust; and likewise too for all tribes of men which have been unable or unwilling to make compacts not to harm or be harmed.

PD 33 Justice never is anything in itself, but in the dealings of men with one another in any place whatever and at any time it is a kind of compact not to harm or be harmed.

PD 34 Injustice is not an evil in itself, but only in consequence of the fear which attaches to the apprehension of being unable to escape those appointed to punish such actions.

PD 35 It is not possible for one who acts in secret contravention of the terms of the compact not to harm or be harmed, to be confident that he will escape detection, even if at present he escapes a thousand times. For up to the time of death it cannot be certain that he will indeed escape.

PD 36 In its general aspect justice is the same for all, for it is a kind of mutual advantage in the dealings of men with one another: but with reference to the individual peculiarities of a country or any other circumstances the same thing does not turn out to be just for all.

PD 37 Among actions which are sanctioned as just by law, that which is proved on examination to be of advantage in the requirements of men’s dealings with one another, has the guarantee of justice, whether it is the same for all or not. But if a man makes a law and it does not turn out to lead to advantage in men’s dealings with each other, then it no longer has the essential nature of justice. And even if the advantage in the matter of justice shifts from one side to the other, but for a while accords with the general concept, it is nonetheless just for that period in the eyes of those who do not confound themselves with empty sounds but look to the actual facts.

PD 38 Where, provided the circumstances have not been altered, actions which were considered just, have been shown not to accord with the general concept in actual practice, then they are not just. But where, when circumstances have changed, the same actions which were sanctioned as just no longer lead to advantage, there they were just at the time when they were of advantage for the dealings of fellow-citizens with one another, but subsequently they are no longer just, when no longer of advantage.

PD 39 The man who has best ordered the element of disquiet arising from external circumstances has made those things that he could akin to himself and the rest at least not alien; but with all to which he could not do even this, he has refrained from mixing, and has expelled from his life all which it was of advantage to treat thus.

PD 40 As many as possess the power to procure complete immunity from their neighbours, these also live most pleasantly with one another, since they have the most certain pledge of security, and after they have enjoyed the fullest intimacy, they do not lament the previous departure of a dead friend, as though he were to be pitied.

Now here is the heart of this Twentieth post as it applies to today’s turmoil in the United States:  Thinking about these foregoing doctrines, what do they tell us about what extent we have an obligation to continue the traditions of those who came before us?  How long must we look at their statues and consider them as our own?

There are many ways to think about that question, but here is what Thomas Jefferson – in my view with these Epicurean views in mind – wrote to James Madison about the debts we owe (or do not owe) to our ancestors:

“The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water. Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government. The course of reflection in which we are immersed here on the elementary principles of society has presented this question to my mind; and that no such obligation can be transmitted I think very capable of proof. I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self evident, “that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living;” that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. The portion occupied by an individual ceases to be his when himself ceases to be, and reverts to the society. If the society has formed no rules for the appropriation of its lands in severalty, it will be taken by the first occupants. These will generally be the wife and children of the decedent. If they have formed rules of appropriation, those rules may give it to the wife and children, or to some one of them, or to the legatee of the deceased. So they may give it to his creditor. But the child, the legatee or creditor takes it, not by any natural right, but by a law of the society of which they are members, and to which they are subject. Then no man can by natural right oblige the lands he occupied, or the persons who succeed him in that occupation, to the paiment of debts contracted by him. For if he could, he might during his own life, eat up the usufruct of the lands for several generations to come, and then the lands would belong to the dead, and not to the living, which would be reverse of our principle. What is true of every member of the society individually, is true of them all collectively, since the rights of the whole can be no more than the sum of the rights of individuals.”

Jefferson’s full letter to Madison is here.

The current turmoil is at least superficially related to the maintenance of monuments devoted to heroes of a bygone day.  The majority of people today, at least in certain areas of the country, no longer honor those past heroes, and in fact they find them offensive.  Are they to live forever in the shadow of monuments which were erected by generations who now reside only in cemeteries?  Based on the reasoning set forth above, I believe it is true that Jefferson would say, “of course not.” And in so doing he would find firm support in the principal doctrines of Epicurus.

But is this the end of the implications of the question for us?  Clearly in the Epicurean universe there is unchanging standard, no god to which to appeal for a final resolution (such as in the ridiculous slogan of the Confederacy “Deo Vindice“).

I believe Epicurus would remind us that the wheel of life turns on, never stopping.  Today we may find ourselves in the majority and able to enforce our will in such things as monuments and forms of governments, but tomorrow we may find ourselves in the minority.  The Epicurean movement was born and prospered in an era of Greco-Roman architecture, culture, and forms of government, which were themselves swept away in ensuing generations.  Today we may find ourselves cheering the demolition of monuments and the suppression of speech we find offensive – tomorrow we may find that our own monuments and speech are the ones being suppressed.

My view is that students of Epicurus have the most to offer in analyzing the underlying philosophical issues, as did Jefferson in observing that the earth belongs to the living.  So rather than discuss short term political issues, my small contribution to this debate will be to remind all sides that pleasure is the goal of life, and that the Platonic idealism that lurks in the shadows of this debate is as false today as it was when it was first promoted, when the Athens stood in all its monumental glory.

So to get back to the title of the post:  “How long should the Parthenon stand?”  The only answer I can suggest is “as long as the majority of people living in Greece wish it to remain standing.

[I ought to clarify that by saying “majority” I am not saying that Epicurus would probably endorse democracy in all situations. The pain of a minority in having its will suppressed is just as real as the pleasure of a majority in having its will exercised. The point here is simply that whoever has the power to enforce its will will determine how long the Parthenon standards. It’s not easy to say whether they will be democrats, theists, oligarchs, or whatever, but one thing we CAN say about them with confidence is that they will be living.]

In a fast-changing world with European populations in general and Greek populations in particular changing dramatically in composition, how long will that be?  In light of recent experiences with ancient monuments in Islamic countries, and the growth of Islam in Europe and around the world, I doubt that any of our remaining Greco-Roman monuments have much of a future.

So as we decide personally whether to cheer the removal of this or that Confederate general in the United States of 2017, remember that the earth belongs to the living – and the Parthenon belongs to the Greeks, whatever their current religious views might turn out to be.

Thinking about current demographic trends and how they relate to the the final fate of the Parthenon does not make me happy as an Epicurean.  However the issues which will control the date of the Parthenon’s final destruction, and the fate of all else we enjoy and find pleasurable in our world, are exactly the kind of issues that Epicurus advised us to study.  We have only ourselves to rely on to study these principles, and to apply them to secure our own happiness – while we ourselves are among the living.




As Seneca recorded: Sic fac omnia tamquam spectet Epicurus! So do all things as though watching were Epicurus!

And as Philodemus wrote: “I will be faithful to Epicurus, according to whom it has been my choice to live.”

Additional discussion of this post and other Epicurean ideas can be found at the Epicurean Philosophy Facebook Group and