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Promoting the Study of the Philosophy of Epicurus


“It was Epicurus’ Determination to Dethrone Reason and Set Up Nature As the Norm.”

A recent Facebook discussion and a particular reminder from Stefan bring to mind Norman DeWitt’s argument against the fallacy of thinking that Epicurus held “pleasure” to be the “highest good.” In his 1951 article The Summum Bonum Fallacy, DeWitt showed that Epicurus held that the greatest good is life itself, rather than “pleasure.”  Of interest here is that Epicurus demonstrated this point not through “reason,” but through practical experience — by observing that we experience the greatest relief and happiness in those very real episodes when we escape from the peril of imminent death.   This contention is found in DeWitt’s quote from Plutarch’s Moralia, which is a real jewel because it is not generally included in common collections of Epicurus’ writings:

“That which causes the unsurpassable joy is the bare escape from some awful calamity, and this is the nature of ‘good,’ if one apprehends it rightly and then stands by his finding, instead of walking around uselessly and harping on the meaning of ‘good.”

This quote reminds us that Epicurus was emphatically anti-Platonist (and “walking around uselessly” may be a swipe at Aristotle and his Peripatetics as well).  The key point is that Epicurus rejected Plato’s contention that we can “reason” our way to truth apart from the evidence of the senses, the anticipations, and the plain-pleasure mechanism.  Put another way, Epicurus was rejecting the Platonic idea that reason is a tool of knowledge superior to those tools granted us by Nature.

Epicurus stressed that any reasoning, in order to be valid, must be rooted directly in and constantly checked against the evidence that we gather through the three legs of the canon of truth.  The Platonic error is to allow “reason” to race ahead to conclusions beyond those that are supported by clear evidence, by which we fall into tremendous error.  It is in such ways that men delude themselves into believing that the stars are gods, or that gods direct the lives of men.  Today we have been educated to believe the Platonic ideal that “reason” is the key to correct thinking and living.  But that is Platonism,  it is not what Epicurus taught, and it is not true.

Yes, of course, when properly applied reason is of great assistance in validating conclusions.  Even then, however, the source of the truth  is not in the tool through which we evaluate it, but in the nature of that reality which we are observing.  The only reliable evidence that Nature allows us to gather about reality comes to us through the senses, the anticipations, and the pain/pleasure mechanism — not through reason.

Many passages can be used to support this point, but one of the best is contained in Cicero’s De Finibus.  There, in the Epicurean argument delivered by Torquatus, Cicero records that Epicurus held that “logic” (a word that carries the implication that its primary operation on itself, rather than on the evidence of  nature) is virtually worthless.  Such “reasoning” apart from reality is meaningless because it does not  start with correct premises.  Correct premises can only be derived through the three legs of the canon, and correct premises can never be contradicted by “reason” without any supporting evidence.

In this process of deriving evidence,  “reason” plays a role that — to the extent it exists at all — is distinctly subordinate.  Lucretius makes the explicit point in De Rerum Natura, and Cicero records his version of the argument as follows:

Logic, on which your school lays such stress, he held to be of no effect either as a guide to conduct or as an aid to thought. Natural Philosophy he deemed all-important. This science explains to us the meaning of terms, the nature of predication, and the law of consistency and contradiction; secondly, a thorough knowledge of the facts of nature relieves us of the burden of superstition, frees us from fear of death, and shields us against the disturbing effects of ignorance, which is often in itself a cause of terrifying apprehensions; lastly, to learn what nature’s real requirements are improves the moral character also. Besides, it is only by firmly grasping a well-established scientific system, observing the Rule or Canon that has fallen as it were from heaven so that all men may know it—only by making that Canon the test of all our judgments, that we can hope always to stand fast in our belief, unshaken by the eloquence of any man.

On the other hand, without a full understanding of the world of nature it is impossible to maintain the truth of our sense-perceptions. Further, every mental presentation has its origin in sensation: so that no certain knowledge will be possible, unless all sensations are true, as the theory of Epicurus teaches that they are. Those who deny the validity of sensation and say that nothing can be perceived, having excluded the evidence of the senses, are unable even to expound their own argument. Besides, by abolishing knowledge and science they abolish all possibility of rational life and action. Thus Natural Philosophy supplies courage to face the fear of death; resolution to resist the terrors of religion; peace of mind, for it removes all ignorance of the mysteries of nature; self-control, for it explains the nature of the desires and distinguishes their different kinds; and, as I showed just now, the Canon or Criterion of Knowledge, which Epicurus also established, gives a method of discerning truth from falsehood.

Thus the ancient Epicureans argued that it was not Epicurus who disparaged education by demoting “reason” and its Platonic handmaids (mathematics, geometry, and the like) from the primary role played by the Canon of Truth.  It was in fact the Platonists, who asserted that reason can abstract itself from reality, who did not understand what education is all about:

If then the doctrine I have set forth is clearer and more luminous than daylight itself; if it is derived entirely from Nature’s source; if my whole discourse relies throughout for confirmation on the unbiased and unimpeachable evidence of the senses; if lisping infants, nay even dumb animals, prompted by Nature’s teaching, almost find voice to proclaim that there is no welfare but pleasure, no hardship but pain—and their judgment in these matters is neither sophisticated nor biased—ought we not to feel the greatest gratitude to him who caught this utterance of Nature’s voice, and grasped its import so firmly and so fully that he has guided all sane-minded men into the paths of peace and happiness, calmness and repose?

You are pleased to think him uneducated. The reason is that he refused to consider any education worth the name that did not help to school us in happiness. Was he to spend his time, as you encourage Triarius and me to do, in perusing poets, who give us nothing solid and useful, but merely childish amusement? Was he to occupy himself like Plato with music and geometry, arithmetic and astronomy, which starting from false premises cannot be true, and which moreover if they were true would contribute nothing to make our lives pleasanter and therefore better? Was he, I say, to study arts like these, and neglect the master art, so difficult and correspondingly so fruitful, the art of living?

No! Epicurus was not uneducated: the real philistines are those who ask us to go on studying till old age the subjects that we ought to be ashamed not to have learnt in boyhood.

Now we return to DeWitt’s argument in the Summum Bonum Fallacy article:

In Greek the end or telos of an art or activity is called “the good” of that art or activity. Life itself is an activity, and its telos is above all others “the good.” Thus the telos and “the good” are equivalents. For neither of these is there an equivalent in Latin. So translators adopted summum bonum as a makeshift. Its demerit is ambiguity, and through this the fallacy originated. In Greek the practice is to say “the greatest good” and not “the highest good,” and to Epicurus “the greatest good” was not pleasure but life itself. In other words, to him the summum bonum was not the telos.

Epicurus, holding body and soul to be alike corporeal, placed the two on a parity, and one of his definitions of happiness is “a healthy mind in a healthy body.” Moreover, denying both pre-existence and immortality, he was bound to see all values concentrated within the brief span of mortal life. Thus life itself became “the greatest good.” …

Epicurus had no patience with Platonic dialectic; he said there were “two kinds of inquiry, the one about realities and the other about sheer verbiage.” It was his determination to dethrone reason and set up Nature as the norm. The feelings, for instance, were one of Nature’s criteria. In order to identify “the greatest good” he instituted a simple test. The greatest good is bound to be associated with the greatest pleasure or joy. Now, no joy is greater than the escape, let us say, from imminent shipwreck. This joy results from the preservation of life. Life, therefore, is the greatest good. The pertinent text is as follows: “That which causes the unsurpassable joy is the bare escape from some awful calamity, and this is the nature of ‘good,’ if one apprehends it rightly and then stands by his finding, instead of walking around uselessly and harping on the meaning of ‘good.”‘

Recognition of life as “the greatest good” is on record in Vatican Collection 42: “The same span of time embraces both beginning and end of the greatest good.” The meaning of this is not obscure. It marks life as limited by birth and death. It denies both pre-existence and survival of the soul, and is a contradiction of Plato, who sponsored both these doctrines. Editors, however, misled by the summum bonum fallacy, feel bound that “the greatest good” shall be pleasure, and consequently emend the text, producing a sentence genuinely obscure, which need not concern us.

Other confirmatory passages are citable. The “desirability of life” is mentioned as a reason for placing a higher value upon old age as against youth,’ contrary to a prevailing opinion. The same feeling motivates the scorn expressed for a dictum of Theognis: “A good thing it is never to have been born or, being born, to have passed with all speed through the gates of Hades.” The supreme value placed upon life determines also the attitude toward suicide (Vatican Collection 38): “Small is the man from every point of view who discovers many plausible reasons for taking leave of life.”

This doctrine of Epicurus furnished philosophy with a perennial topic. He thought of life as a voyage or a journey in which the wise man should always find a balance of pleasure over pain. Suicide in his opinion was not a dereliction of duty, but the abandonment of an opportunity to enjoy happiness to the fullest degree. In the second of his books On Lives he is reported as saying: “But even if deprived of his sight, [the wise man] will not turn aside from the journey of life.”

To conclude, Epicurus was not arguing against reason itself, but against the semi-divine place to which reason had been elevated by the Platonists.  This is the context in which the Epicureans referred to the Canon as that celestial book, which, as it were, fell to us from the heavens.  It is not always easy to be sure when the ancient Epicureans were exhibiting their standard good humor, or purposely exaggerating to stress a point, but this is one area where the importance of the issue deserved the strong rhetoric.

The prevailing wisdom taught by the crowd today is that the great philosophical divide is between “reason” or “unreason.”  This analysis is a dead end, for the true divide is between whether we place our confidence in Nature, and the tools of perception which Nature provides to us, or whether we elevate to a form of worship our own reasonings that we believe can trump the reality of Nature.  On this issue we have the clear words of Epicurus, which ring much more profoundly when we understand his crusade against the mortal error of Platonism and what we might today call “political correctness”:

 “We must free ourselves from the prison of public education and politics.”  Vatican Saying 58.

“Set sail and flee from every form of education.”  Epicurus’ advice to Pythocles