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Promoting the Study of the Philosophy of Epicurus


How Would Epicurus Answer Nietzsche?

This weekend I finished reading H.L. Mencken’s “The Philosophy of Frederich Nietzsche” and I’d like to pick out part of Mencken’s conclusion as particularly interesting to a student of Epicurus.  In future posts I may address other aspects,  but the following paragraphs by Mencken powerfully state at least three major arguments (1) that there are absolutely no rules of natural morality engraved on the hearts of men that apply at all times and all places, and (2) as a result of (1) the Christian view that every normal man should love his brother is as much without foundation as any other, and that (3) the true foundation of human action is the “will to power.”

Here is Mencken’s summary from his final chapter:

Now for the final argument: that the impulse to self sacrifice, for all its costliness, is native to the soul of man, and that, no matter how much we strive to destroy it, we must ever harbor it in our bosoms. Herein we perceive a thesis that has provided ammunition for theologians and metaphysicians since the dawn of civilization, and is accepted today, as an irrefutable axiom, by all who pound pulpits and wave their arms and call upon their fellow men to repent. It has clogged all philosophy for ten thousand years; it has been a premise in a million moral syllogisms; it has survived the assaults of all the iconoclasts that ever lived. It is taught in our schools and lies at the bottom of all our laws, prophecies and revelations. And what is this king of all axioms and emperor of all fallacies? Simply the idea that there are rules of “natural morality” engraven upon the heart of man – that all men, at all times and everywhere, have agreed, do now agree, and will agree forever, unanimously and without reservation, that certain things are right and certain other things are wrong.  

In every treatise upon ethics and “moral philosophy” these rules of “natural morality” are given in the first chapter. One of them is the rule that murder is a crime. Another is the rule that the liar is an abomination. Another is the rule that the thief is an outcast. To them the moralists of Christendom have added another. It is the rule that every normal man loves his brother – that the soul of the Samaritan is in all of us. Ages ago some primeval soothsayer made the rough draft of this catalogue, and ever since then each successive moralist has adopted it and expanded it. It is now the Cabala and Magna Charta of all who discourse upon evil and describe the face and qualities of sin. And yet, despite this vast sound and glitter of authority, the fallacy of assuming that these are “natural” laws is demonstrated by all history and human experience. Nothing is right to all men and nothing is wrong. There has never existed an idea that someone did not combat. There has never been a virtue that someone did not denounce as a sin. There has never been a sin that someone did not exalt as a virtue. There is today, and ever has been, but one universal impulse in all healthy human beings and that one, as everyone knows, is the impulse to remain alive – the life instinct – the will to power.

Nietzsche himself spent his best years proving this, and we have seen how he set about the task – how he showed that the “good” of one race and of one age was the “bad” of some other race and some other age. All history bears him out. Mankind is ever revising and abandoning its “inherent” ideas. We say that the human mind “instinctively revolts” against cruel and excessive punishments, and yet a moment’s reflection recalls the fact that the world is, and always has been, peopled with millions to whom cruelty seems and seemed natural and agreeable. We say that man has an “inherent” impulse to be fair and just, and yet it is a commonplace of observation that multitudes of men, in the midst of our most civilized societies, are the very reverse. Therefore we may set aside the argument that a “natural” instinct for humility and self-sacrifice stands as an impassable barrier in the path of Nietzsche’s Dionysian philosophy. There is no such barrier. There is no such instinct. It is an idea merely – an idea powerful and persistent, but still mutable and mortal. Some day, perhaps, we shall abandon it.

It is not pleasant thus to use the knife upon our souls. It is not pleasant to smash the axioms of ages and cast them out forever. What pain is greater than that of disillusion?  But it is only by facing pain unafraid that men move on to higher things.  “Every step toward the truth has had to be fought for at the expense of all that human hearts and human love hold dear.”

Herein we find the cornerstone of Nietzsche’s philosophy, and herein, perhaps, we discern the germ of that future philosophy which will rise beyond it. Today we cling to our illusions and guard them from sacrilegious hands, because we know that their death brings us exquisite anguish. But some day – who knows? – there may arise a race of men to whom disillusion will mean, not sorrow, but joy – a race in whom the yearning for the truth will transcend the yearning for a rock and a refuge. And when that time comes – will there remain any color of extravagance in the dream of a superman?

How would Epicurus have responded to this?  Let me hazard an initial summary response to each of the assertions I labeled above.  I would certainly be interesting in any readers’ comments:

(1) That there are absolutely no rules of natural morality engraved on the hearts of men that apply at all times and all placesTo the extent that this statement is a contention that no god has engraved ideas of morality in the minds of men, this is a correct statement.  PD1 is a refutation of any such action by any god.  To the extent that that statement contends that there are absolute ideas (as opposed to “principles”) of any kind that are engraved in the minds of men that control at all times and all places, this is a correct statement.  PD33 is a direct statement that “justice” has no independent existence, and PD36 is a direct statement that although justice is the same for all in the sense of always being mutually beneficial, the details of what is just and unjust varies according to place and other circumstances.  On the other hand, to the extent this is a statement that no principles of human nature exist which, when applied to particular places and circumstances, lead to conclusions as to proper conduct, the statement is incorrect.  Each of the Forty Principal Doctrines are derived from unchanging principles of human nature, and are applicable at all times and all places.  

(2) That as a result of (1) the Christian view that every normal man should love his brother is as much without foundation as any other.  The view that every normal man should love his brother, and the view that every man is loved equally by god and is therefore equally valuable, has absolutely no basis in any command or sanction by any god.  Thus according to the standard reasoning of all world religions, this assertion is baseless.  PD1.  On the other hand, there are principles of human nature which address the proper relationship among men, and thus it is not correct to assert that simply because no god commands us to love one another, the strong should feel free to exploit the weak.  There are too many Doctrines against this idea to list here, but to start as high as PD5 we have a clear foundation for living justly with one another – ” It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the man is not able to live wisely, though he lives honorably and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life.”    We know from PD 31 that “Natural justice is a pledge of reciprocal benefit, to prevent one man from harming or being harmed by another.”   And we know further that a happy life depends upon friendship: PD27.  “Of all the means which wisdom acquires to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is friendship.”  This does not mean, however, that we must make friends of ALL men, for that is impossible:  PD39. “The man who best knows how to meet external threats makes into one family all the creatures he can; and those he can not, he at any rate does not treat as aliens; and where he finds even this impossible, he avoids all dealings, and, so far as is advantageous, excludes them from his life.”  This in Epicureanism there is no foundation for asserting that all men should love each other.  There is, however, a very clear foundation for asserting that the most desirable state of human relationship is that of friendship, which we should strive to achieve where possible.  Where impossible, the alternative does not mean that it is acceptable to exploit or enslave those who are not our friends, — the proper alternative with those who are not our friends is to stand aloof from them and exclude them from our dealings.

(3) The true universal impulse behind all human action is the “will to power.”  A full definition of the “will to power” as discussed by Nietzsche is too complex to address in the context of this post.  It will have to suffice for now to point to the Letter of Menoeceus for the clear assertion not “power” but “pleasure” or “happy living” is the Natural end of all living beings, including man:  “So we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed towards attaining it.” … “And even as men choose of food not merely and simply the larger portion, but the more pleasant, so the wise seek to enjoy the time which is most pleasant and not merely that which is longest. And he who admonishes the young to live well and the old to make a good end speaks foolishly, not merely because of the desirability of life, but because the same exercise at once teaches to live well and to die well.”  … “Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting-point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing.  And since pleasure is our first and native good, for that reason we do not choose every pleasure whatsoever, but will often pass over many pleasures when a greater annoyance ensues from them. And often we consider pains superior to pleasures when submission to the pains for a long time brings us as a consequence a greater pleasure. While therefore all pleasure because it is naturally akin to us is good, not all pleasure is should be chosen, just as all pain is an evil and yet not all pain is to be shunned. It is, however, by measuring one against another, and by looking at the conveniences and inconveniences, that all these matters must be judged. Sometimes we treat the good as an evil, and the evil, on the contrary, as a good.” … “When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of revelry, not sexual lust, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul. Of all this the beginning and the greatest good is wisdom. Therefore wisdom is a more precious thing even than philosophy ; from it spring all the other virtues, for it teaches that we cannot live pleasantly without living wisely, honorably, and justly; nor live wisely, honorably, and justly without living pleasantly. For the virtues have grown into one with a pleasant life, and a pleasant life is inseparable from them. Who, then, is superior in your judgment to such a man? He holds a holy belief concerning the gods, and is altogether free from the fear of death. He has diligently considered the end fixed by nature, and understands how easily the limit of good things can be reached and attained, and how either the duration or the intensity of evils is but slight. Fate, which some introduce as sovereign over all things, he scorns, affirming rather that some things happen of necessity, others by chance, others through our own agency. For he sees that necessity destroys responsibility and that chance is inconstant; whereas our own actions are autonomous, and it is to them that praise and blame naturally attach. It were better, indeed, to accept the legends of the gods than to bow beneath that yoke of destiny which the natural philosophers have imposed. The one holds out some faint hope that we may escape if we honor the gods, while the necessity of the naturalists is deaf to all entreaties. Nor does he hold chance to be a god, as the world in general does, for in the acts of a god there is no disorder; nor to be a cause, though an uncertain one, for he believes that no good or evil is dispensed by chance to men so as to make life blessed, though it supplies the starting-point of great good and great evil. He believes that the misfortune of the wise is better than the prosperity of the fool. It is better, in short, that what is well judged in action should not owe its successful issue to the aid of chance.”


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