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Promoting the Study of the Philosophy of Epicurus

Bylert Utrecht Heraclitus Democritus

Must I Believe “XXX” That Epicurus Said?

In the Epicurean Philosophy Facebook Group we often run into questions such as “Must I believe XXX that Epicurus said?”  Here’s an example:  “Must every position held by Epicurus originally stay the same today? For instance, are we obliged to believe in gods (albeit deist ones)? I am an atheist personally, but otherwise find my views overall almost identical.”

To people who ask questions like this, here is my answer:

You can believe anything you want to believe. The only thing that **must** occur to you is death. The decision to believe or not believe anything less than the existence of death – which happens to you regardless of whether you believe it or not – comes down to Vatican Saying71. …. “What will happen to me if that which this desire seeks is achieved, and what if it is not?”” In other words, “What will happen to me if I believe this, and what will happen if I don’t?

The same thought process, tweaked slightly, turns into this: “What will happen to me if I disregard anything that Epicurus held to be important?”  This is often asked in regard to controversial or unpopular Epicurean positions such as the existence of “gods,” or the non-existence of absolute justice, or the dangers that arise from living too simply (see Vatican Saying 63).

In the case of Epicurean “gods,” regardless of whether “gods” exist in the way Epicurus discussed them, we know that Epicurus concluded that “gods” don’t concern themselves with us, and are not to be feared.  But other issues remain.  What happens to our overall goal of happy living if we ignore the conclusion, or if we ignore Epicurus’ reasoning and assert positions to be proven fact without considering Epicurus’ evidence and reasoning?

Epicurus set up a very elaborate structure, including both specific observations and logical reasoning based on those observations, to support his assertions about the nature of the universe in which we live.  Among these were Epicurus’ assertions that life exists throughout the universe, and that life exists on scales of perfection from low to high, and not just here on Earth.  If you are confident that Epicurus was wrong to think that any of these observations or arguments are relevant to you, then by all means ignore them.

But you ignore Epicurus at your peril.  Perhaps you are not like most people, and you personally never devote a second to worrying about gods.  Even so, it is not possible for you to isolate yourself from the rest of the world.  No matter what you think personally, just like Epicurus did, you yourself live in a world filled with other people who are going to take actions that will dramatically impact your life, based on what they believe. If you choose to ignore the common culture and religious feeling around you, you do so at your peril, as many people in the Middle East have found out for ages and are continuing to find out today.

Regardless of the self-contradiction, many people buy the dominant cultural view that “eclecticism” is the one true path.  One of our friends remarked in a recent discussion that eclectic = confused,” and in my view he is exactly correct.  One of the most important benefits of studying Epicurus is that you begin to see how important it is to have a comprehensive system that takes into account physics, religion, ethics, history, love, sex, friendship, and the entire spectrum of human experience.

Nobody is going to stop you if you want to chop up the system because you are personally devoted to some specific ideal or position. But for their own sake, such people ought to step back and ask themselves several questions before they erect their own systems:  Are they bringing to their new eclectic philosophy the same breadth of study of the nature of the universe that Epicurus conducted?  Will their new eclectic philosophy be based on the same depth of knowledge of the critical philosophical positions that Epicurus employed?  Will their new eclectic philosophy reflect the same lifetime of education and effort and that Epicurus brought to his system? 

Many times we see people latch onto some unproven – and unprovable – speculation in physics or mathematics.  Such people decide that because Epicurus said something that appears to conflict with the latest “research,” they are safe to ignore the interlocking aspects of the Epicurean system head off into the wilderness on their own.  Once detached from the system, such people adopt as their only criteria for what to accept or what to reject a single question:  Does it tickle their fancy of the moment?

This is an eternal problem with human nature, as Lucretius discussed in Book I of his poem (Humphries translation):

For example, Heraclitus, that great captain,
Whose fame is bright because of his dark speech,
More so, of course, among the empty-headed,
Than earnest Greek researchers after truth.
Fools have more love and admiration, always,
For things their blindness sees in hidden meanings;
They base their truths on what can sometimes tickle
Their ears, or what is soaked in sweetish sound.

Not only does “tickling the ears” pose a seductive lure toward error, so does fear of the implications of a system which draws us to conclusions that we find, in our eclectic taste, to be dangerous.  If we abandon the implications of the evidence and consistent reasoning, we lose the true road:

Another thing: if your Stoics grant that void
Is mixed with things, then fire of course can thicken
Or thin;
[T]he trouble with holding to this notion
Is that they see too many things in conflict,
[they] Shun recognition of a void in things,
[they] Fear the steep road, and therefore lose the true one.

 

When observations are insufficient to determine the truth, it takes courage to “wait” – to affirm that the truth is not known – rather than to adopt a pet theory and hold it to be without doubt the full and complete truth.  That is one of the many reasons why Epicurean philosophy is the opposite of eclecticism.  We may not understand the full and complete truth about something, but one thing we do know:  adopting a hodgepodge of eclectic ideas without regard to their consistency is a prescription for disaster.  The truth is as Lucretius wrote in Book IV:


If a building

Were planned by someone with a crooked ruler
Or an inaccurate square, or spirit-level
A little out of true, the edifice,
In consequence, would be a frightful mess,
Warped, wobbly, wish-wash, weak and wavering,
Waiting a welter of complete collapse –
So let your rule of reason never be
Distorted by the fallacies of sense
Lest all your logic prove a road to ruin.