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Promoting the Study of the Philosophy of Epicurus

“I love you too well to leave you to the company of a life-long dream.”

“I see you digging up treasure, spreading your wings, nursing extravagant ideas, indulging impossible hopes; and I love you too well to leave you to the company of a life-long dream—a pleasant one, if you will, but yet a dream; I beseech you to get up and take to some every-day business, such as may direct the rest of your life’s course by common sense. Your acts and your thoughts up to now have been no more than Centaurs, Chimeras, Gorgons, or what else is figured by dreams and poets and painters, chartered libertines all, who reek not of what has been or may be. Yet the common folk believe them, bewitched by tale and picture just because they are strange and monstrous.”

These words of Lucian from his Hermotimus strike me as carrying a particularly powerful Epicurean message.  I have re-written the introduction to my Lucian e-book to emphasize this dialog and the Epicurean tone of its argument.  The full ebook is available for free download here.

I have included the full introduction below:

Lucian:  Lion of Epicurus

There is a story that some sculptor, Phidias, I think, seeing a single claw, calculated from it the size of the lion, if it were modeled proportionally. So, if some one were to let you see a man’s hand, keeping the rest of his body concealed, you would know at once that what was behind was a man, without seeing his whole body.  …

Well, but tell me; when Phidias saw the claw, would he ever have known it for a lion’s if he had never seen a lion? Could you have said the hand was a man’s, if you had never known or seen a man? Why are you dumb? Let me make the only possible answer for you—that you could not; I am afraid Phidias has modeled his lion all for nothing; for it proves to be neither here nor there. What resemblance is there? What enabled you and Phidias to recognize the parts was just your knowledge of the wholes—the lion and the man. But in philosophy—the Stoic, for instance—how will the part reveal the other parts to you, or how can you conclude that they are beautiful? You do not know the whole to which the parts belong.

Lucian – from Hermotimus, Or, The Rival Philosophies

Lucian of Samosata lived from about 125 AD to 180 AD, and during that time he traveled throughout the Greek and Roman world, producing a body of commentary of such wit and insight that his fame has lasted for almost two thousand years.  Although Lucian’s reputation is well known today, he is generally considered a “skeptic” whose trademark was wholly satire and other negative commentary.  Such a view holds that Lucian offered little if anything that was positive in the place of the hypocrisy he criticized.

It is one point of this book to assert that this view is false:  Lucian is viewed today purely as critic because the unifying thread of his criticisms is very difficult for the modern reader to identify.  This difficulty in turn stems from the fact that the pattern of thought which unifies Lucian’s work has been the target of two thousand years of misrepresentation, which has succeeded so well that his point of view can hardly be recognized today.   As the works included here will illustrate, that point of view – that unifying thread – that pattern of thought – is Epicureanism.

In contrast to the body of work of another famous ancient writer, Lucretius, whose entire literary output seems to have been devoted to the promotion of Epicureanism, history has preserved a wide variety of Lucian’s works on subjects other than philosophy and religion.  In part because he trained his satirical skills on so many different subjects, it is an easy error to consider Lucian as a professional skeptic who was equally cynical on every topic.

But this is not so – Lucian was not equally cynical about every topic.  In order to see this, however, we must first arm ourselves with a basic knowledge of competing views of the time, and of a school that has almost been lost to history.  Only then can we see that there is one school, and one philosopher, whose arguments Lucian adopts and whose founder Lucian praises; the school of Epicurus.

Throughout Lucian’s work, the classic enemies of the Epicureans – the Platonists, the Stoics, the Academics, and others – are the prime targets of his biting words.  But Epicurus himself is never treated with less than courtesy, and rarely if ever is a later Epicurean a target of derision.

In general, Lucian refers to Epicurus in tones that can only be described as reverential, such in the following passage from Alexander the Oracle-Monger:

In this connection Alexander once made himself supremely ridiculous. Coming across Epicurus’s Accepted Maxims, the most admirable of his books, as you know, with its terse presentment of his wise conclusions, he brought it into the middle of the market-place, there burned it on a fig-wood fire for the sins of its author, and cast its ashes into the sea.  He issued an oracle on the occasion:  “The dotard’s maxims to the flames be given.”

The fellow had no conception of the blessings conferred by that book upon its readers, of the peace, tranquillity, and independence of mind it produces, of the protection it gives against terrors, phantoms, and marvels, vain hopes and inordinate desires, of the judgment and candor that it fosters, or of its true purging of the spirit, not with torches and squills and such rubbish, but with right reason, truth, and frankness.

In addition to this explicit ringing endorsement, Lucian’s Epicureanism can be seen clearly in the arguments he employs against his targets.  Here, however, we confront the issue referenced in the title of this book and in the passage from Hermotimus.  Epicureanism has been denounced by the religious, academic, and political establishments for two thousand years, and the Epicurean school has long been cowed into silence.  As a result, who can say with any authority that he has  “seen an Epicurean?”  And if we have never seen an Epicurean, how can we judge whether Lucian should be considered one?  As Lucian himself answers in Hermotimus, the only way we can reach reliable conclusions is to devote ourselves to the study of the facts that are available to us.

It is beyond the scope of this work to provide an exhaustive discussion of the entire sweep of Epicurean philosophy (for that discussion, see the author’s Ante Oculos – Epicurus and the Evidence-Based Life), but for our purposes here it is essential to consider at least the basic principles which Epicurus emphasized in his first four doctrines:

  • Doctrine 1.  Any being which is happy and imperishable neither has trouble itself, nor does it cause trouble to anything else.  A perfect being does not have feelings either of anger or gratitude, for these feelings only exist in the weak.
  • Doctrine 2.  Death is nothing to us, because that which is dead has no sensations, and that which cannot be sensed is nothing to us.
  • Doctrine 3.  Life affords continuous pleasure so long as nothing is present to cause us to feel pain.  The highest possible state of pleasure that can be achieved is experienced at the removal of every cause of pain.
  • Doctrine 4.  Bodily pain does not last continuously.  The most intense pain is present only for a very short time, and pain which outweighs the body’s pleasures does not continue for long.  Even chronic pain permits a predominance of pleasure over pain.

Let us consider each of these propositions more closely, as the reader will find many applications of them in the material that follows.

First and foremost, Epicureanism is based on the proposition that the universe is not subject to the government or the whims of supernatural gods.  Epicurus did not consider it necessary to conclude that “gods” do not exist, and in fact he held that “gods” of a sort do exist, much as we believe today that life in the universe is not confined to this world.  But the essential point is that any “god” worthy of the name which may exist is “perfect,” and therefore has no need of anger or gratitude.  This means that men should live their lives as unconcerned about the doings of the gods as the gods are unconcerned about the doings of men.  Just as there are no meddling gods, there is no “Fate” that controls men’s lives, nor is there any supernatural “Fortune” which blesses the lucky and punishes the unfortunate.  Epicurus always held that firm evidence is the test of truth, and he recognized the limits of the evidence available to men.  His emphasis was therefore not on ridiculing those who claim merely to have seen gods themselves, for those persons might after all have witnessed “images” which could not otherwise be explained.  But the necessary implication of the first doctrine is that those who claim special access to gods, and special abilities to communicate with gods, are doubtless frauds and charlatans.

This first doctrine of Epicurus pervades Lucian’s work, and this attitude toward the gods is the trademark for which he is best remembered.  The folly of those who believe that gods govern the workings of the universe is portrayed at its height in Zeus Tragoedus, where the argument of Damis forcefully conveys the Epicurean view.

Epicurus’ second most famous doctrine is condensed in the phrase “death is nothing to us.”   As in most condensations, however, the meaning of this phase must be considered carefully in order to avoid confusion.  Its meaning is certainly not that death is something to be dismissed cavalierly as of no significance to man.  In fact, the meaning of this doctrine is the opposite of that proposition.  Death is significant to us, critically so,  for if we are to live happily we must always remember that death is coming and with it our lives will be at an end.  The phrase is true in this specific sense:  death is a state of nothingness to us because our consciousness – that which we consider to be our mind, our intelligence, our “us” – ceases to exist at death, and after death what we formerly considered the “we” no longer exists to experience anything – and so experiences nothing.  Epicurus held that there is no evidence that men have immortal souls which somehow survive the death of the body and remain conscious to experience punishment or reward in some other world after death.  Because there is no evidence of any existence after death, it makes no sense to order one’s life in fear of punishment, or in hope of reward, in some after-death world which does not exist.  Lucian’s scorn for elaborate theories of the continued existence of the soul after death is clear in many of the passages throughout this work, and the issue is directly addressed in words delivered fictionally by Epicurus himself in The Double Indictment.

Epicurus’ third principle observation about human life was that Nature – not gods, not religion, not false philosophers – has set the standard for the highest good possible to man:  a “pleasurable” or “happy” life.  Because there is no evidence for the existence of any “life after death,” otherworldly “forms,” or other mandates outside of or superior to the Natural universe, man’s only standard of conduct is that provided by Nature.  The only evidence that does exist – Nature’s evidence – leads to the conclusion that the highest possible goal for a man is to live his natural lifespan in happiness.  This goal is possible for all men, within the limits prescribed by Nature, because the only thing that a man requires in order to be happy is the absence of pain.  This is a view embraced in part, and roughly, in the modern phrase that “the best things in life are free.”  As with each of Epicurus’  doctrines, this is a principle of wide application, but it requires the acknowledgment that Nature is our only guide.  The best things in life are, if not totally “free,” at least readily obtainable with reasonable effort, if we will but employ and heed the faculties which Nature has provided to men for this purpose.  Lucian incorporates this insight into a number of passages, such as that in The Double Indictment where Epicurus speaks against the nonsense of those who denounce pleasure.

Epicurus’ fourth principle observation regarded the role of pain in man’s life.  Epicurus observed that just as death warrants our attention as the ultimate limitation on man’s life, pain warrants our attention as Nature’s guide warning us away from paths that are destructive.  The essential point is that pain is a fact of life, but manageable, and the fact that pain exists is no more a negation of life than the fact that death exists.  We must all order our lives giving the avoidance of pain the attention that it deserves,  just as Lucian conveys through Dionysius in the argument of Epicurus.

Applications of the views of Epicurus abound in the selections included here, but one work deserves special attention:  Hermotimus, Or, The Rival Philosophies.  In this work, the longest of Lucian’s dialogs, Lucian (under the name of “Lycinus” engages a friend “Hermotimus” who belongs to the Stoic school in an exchange that is superficially about the difficulty of knowing which, if any, of the philosophic schools is correct.  As we look for Lucian’s ultimate position on these issues, we should first start with a number of observations:

Although Hermotimus is identified as a Stoic, the positions of the Stoic school that are relevant to this discussion are essentially the same as those of the Platonists (the Academy) in regard to there existing a “higher truth” that is above the senses and the reality of this world.  To a significant but somewhat lesser degree this position was also shared by the Aristotelians (the Peripatetics), and the lesser schools.  All but the Epicureans essentially shared the theory that “Virtue” should be sought and could be found through a kind of reasoning “superior” to the senses and the evidence of Nature.  In contrast, Epicurus held that nothing exists except reality (“matter and void”) and that the search for some higher truth above Nature was bound to be fruitless because no such dimension exists.

The non-Epicurean philosophers held that happiness, wealth, glory, and pleasures have nothing to do with the virtuous life, and that in fact (to varying degrees) each of these is a hindrance, obstacle, or even an evil in the effort to lead a virtuous life.  Of course Epicurus held otherwise, identifying pleasure as a guide given by Nature for proper living, and evaluating wealth and even glory as not intrinsically improper.  Epicurus developed his famous classification of desires into the natural and necessary, natural but not necessary, and neither natural nor necessary  as a means of evaluating when a desire was appropriate to pursue, and when a desire may properly be pursued, according to the guidelines established by Nature.

A significant part of the dialog is devoted to a series of specific difficulties that must be confronted by any new student who wishes to choose which of the competing philosophies to follow.  In a series of insightful exchanges, Lycinus shows Hermotimus that it is impossible to be “certain” that one or the other path is correct until the student has devoted great effort and time to studying each of the alternative paths.   It is in this section that Lucian employs the “lion analogy” – pointing out that if the only part of the body that one saw was the foot, it would be impossible to know that the foot belonged to a lion unless one had previously seen a complete lion.

Lucian demolishes the Stoic’s pretense to know that his school was “the correct one,” and in so doing appears to set the stage for concluding that no knowledge of “the truth” is possible.  Here, however, if one knows the position of Epicurus, we see the dialog turn even more clearly into a brilliant exposition of Epicureanism.  Doctrines twenty-two through twenty-six of Epicurus’ principle maxims set forth Epicurus’ view that while there are definite Natural limits to a man’s knowledge, such as are inevitable in an infinite universe that has and will exist for an eternity of time, it is ridiculous to take the position that “no” knowledge is possible.  An even clearer statement of this proposition was contained in Book IV of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, and the point that true knowledge is grounded in the evidence of the senses is so important that Lucretius is worth quoting here at length:

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.

Lycinus emphasizes that the error of the non-Epicurean schools is to seek a “higher truth” which they can never grasp.  This argument is attributed in other ancient texts to Epicurus himself, who stated that “it is not good to desire the impossible.”

Next, Lycinus diagnoses the deadly disease of all variants of Platonism, which essentially includes all non-Epicurean schools, as the “basing of hopes on a dream-vision” or on one’s “own wild fancy” without ever asking whether these aspirations are “realizable or consistent with humanity.”  If you read but one section of Lucian’s work, read this diagnosis in full:

… Practically all who pursue philosophy do no more than disquiet themselves in vain.  Who could conceivably go through all the stages I have rehearsed?  You admit the impossibility yourself.  As to your present mood, it is that of the man who cries and curses his luck because he cannot climb the sky, or plunge into the depths of the sea at Sicily and come up at Cyprus, or soar on wings and fly within the day from Greece to India; what is responsible for his discontent is his basing of hopes on a dream-vision or his own wild fancy, without ever asking whether his aspirations were realizable or consistent with humanity.  You too, my friend, have been having a long and marvelous dream; and now reason has stuck a pin into you and startled you out of your sleep; your eyes are only half open yet, you are reluctant to shake off a sleep which has shown you such fair visions, and so you scold.  It is just the condition of the day-dreamer; he is rolling in gold, digging up treasure, sitting on his throne, or somehow at the summit of bliss; for dame How-I-Wish is a lavish facile Goddess, that will never turn a deaf ear to her votary, though he have a mind to fly, or change statures with Colossus, or strike a gold- reef.  Well, in the middle of all this, in comes his servant with some every-day question, wanting to know where he is to get bread, or what he shall say to the landlord, tired of waiting for his rent; and then he flies into a temper, as though the intrusive questioner had robbed him of all his bliss, and is ready to bite the poor fellow’s nose off.

As you love me, do not treat me like that.  I see you digging up treasure, spreading your wings, nursing extravagant ideas, indulging impossible hopes; and I love you too well to leave you to the company of a life-long dream—a pleasant one, if you will, but yet a dream; I beseech you to get up and take to some every-day business, such as may direct the rest of your life’s course by common sense. Your acts and your thoughts up to now have been no more than Centaurs, Chimeras, Gorgons, or what else is figured by dreams and poets and painters, chartered libertines all, who reek not of what has been or may be. Yet the common folk believe them, bewitched by tale and picture just because they are strange and monstrous.

I fancy you hearing from some teller of tales how there is a certain lady of perfect beauty, beyond the Graces themselves or the Heavenly Aphrodite, and then, without ever an inquiry whether his tale is true, and such a person to be found on earth, falling straight in love with her, like Medea in the story enamored of a dream-Jason.  And what most drew you on to love, you and the others who worship the same phantom, was, if I am not mistaken, the consistent way in which the inventor of the lady added to his picture, when once he had got your ear. That was the only thing you all looked to, with that he turned you about as he would, having got his first hold upon you, averring that he was leading you the straight way to your beloved.  After the first step, you see, all was easy; none of you ever looked round when he came to the entrance, and inquired whether it was the right one, or whether he had accidentally taken the wrong; no, you all followed in your predecessors’ footsteps, like sheep after the bell-wether, whereas the right thing was to decide at the entrance whether you should go in.

Perhaps an illustration will make my meaning clearer: when one of those audacious poets affirms that there was once a three-headed and six-handed man, if you accept that quietly without questioning its possibility, he will proceed to fill in the picture consistently—six eyes and ears, three voices talking at once, three mouths eating, and thirty fingers instead of our poor ten all told; if he has to fight, three of his hands will have a buckler, wicker targe, or shield apiece, while of the other three one swings an axe, another hurls a spear, and the third wields a sword.  It is too late to carp at these details, when they come; they are consistent with the beginning; it was about that that the question ought to have been raised whether it was to be accepted and passed as true. Once grant that, and the rest comes flooding in, irresistible, hardly now susceptible of doubt, because it is consistent and accordant with your initial admissions. That is just your case; your love-yearning would not allow you to look into the facts at each entrance, and so you are dragged on by consistency; it never occurs to you that a thing may be self- consistent and yet false; if a man says twice five is seven, and you take his word for it without checking the sum, he will naturally deduce that four times five is fourteen, and so on ad libitum. This is the way that weird geometry proceeds: it sets before beginners certain strange assumptions, and insists on their granting the existence of inconceivable things, such as points having no parts, lines without breadth, and so on, builds on these rotten foundations a superstructure equally rotten, and pretends to go on to a demonstration which is true, though it starts from premises which are false.

Just so you, when you have granted the principles of any school, believe in the deductions from them, and take their consistency, false as it is, for a guarantee of truth. Then with some of you, hope travels through, and you die before you have seen the truth and detected your deceivers, while the rest, disillusioned too late, will not turn back for shame: what, confess at their years that they have been abused with toys all this time? So they hold on desperately, putting the best face upon it and making all the converts they can, to have the consolation of good company in their deception; they are well aware that to speak out is to sacrifice the respect and superiority and honor they are accustomed to; so they will not do it if it may be helped, knowing the height from which they will fall to the common level. Just a few are found with the courage to say they were deluded, and warn other aspirants. Meeting such a one, call him a good man, a true and an honest; nay, call him philosopher, if you will; to my mind, the name is his or no one’s; the rest either have no knowledge of the truth, though they think they have, or else have knowledge and hide it, shamefaced cowards clinging to reputation.

Had Lucian been a true skeptic or cynic, the dialog would have ended destructively, which nothing but a cynical observation that no truth is possible.  But in case the point is not already clear, Lucian was no Skeptic, and after diagnosing the disease he offered the Epicurean prescription in the guise of an Aesop fable:

A man sat on the shore and counted the waves breaking; missing count, he was excessively annoyed. But the fox came up and said to him: ‘Why vex yourself, good sir, over the past ones? You should let them go, and begin counting afresh.’ So you, since this is your mind, had better reconcile yourself now to living like an ordinary man; you will give up your extravagant haughty hopes and put yourself on a level with the commonalty; if you are sensible, you will not be ashamed to unlearn in your old age, and change your course for a better.

Consider this prescription in the older and purer form, as rendered by Cicero in his Defense of Epicurus in De Finibus:

You amuse yourself by thinking that Epicurus was uneducated. The truth is that Epicurus refused to consider any education to be worthy of the name if it did not teach us the means to live happily. Was Epicurus to spend his time, as you encourage Triarius and me to do, perusing the poets, who give us nothing solid and useful, but only childish amusement? Was Epicurus to occupy himself like Plato, with music and geometry, arithmetic and astronomy, which are at best mere tools, and which, if they start from false premises, can never reveal truth or contribute anything to make our lives happier and therefore better?  Was Epicurus to study the limited arts such as these, and neglect the master art, so difficult but correspondingly so fruitful, the art of living? No! It was not Epicurus who was uninformed. The truly uneducated are those who ask us to go on studying until old age the subjects that we ought to be ashamed not to have learned when we were children!

In sum, the works of Lucian collected here are invaluable fragments of the Epicurean mosaic which has been all but lost to the world.  From them, and from the words and ideas of Epicurus collected by Diogenes Laertius, Lucretius, and other writers, it is possible to assemble the pieces and gain our own view of philosophy’s greatest “lion” of which we formerly were able to observe only the paws.

Peace and Safety!