Never Underestimate Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson’s letter to William Short is tremendously useful for us today to illustrate the continuing relevance of Epicurus.  In just a few lines, Jefferson summarizes several of the most important concepts that must be grasped by anyone who seeks to understand Epicurus:

  1. The genuine doctrines of Epicurus constitute the greatest moral philosophy left to us from Greece and Rome — which implies they are the greatest in the history of the world.
  2. Epicurus’ doctrines have been intentionally distorted and misrepresented by his opponents — and therefore we must be careful in our own study to separate the truth he left us from the distortions of his enemies.
  3. The chief opponent whose ideas Epicurus fought against, and whose influence must be overcome even today, was Plato, who dealt in “mysticisms incomprehensible to the human mind.”
  4. Plato’s stepchildren include Cicero, who we lament to include in this list due to his otherwise candid character.  Cicero was followed later by “certain sects” of  the Christians, who found in Plato’s “foggy conceptions … a basis of impenetrable darkness upon which to rear fabrications as delirious of their own invention” .. which Jesus, had he known of them, “would disclaim … with the indignation which their caricatures of his religion so justly excite.”

As we proceed with our study of Epicurus we must also heed Jefferson’s admonition to avoid one particularly-dangerous distortion:  the false idea that Epicurus advocated a lifestyle of inactivity, withdrawal, reserve, and passivity  — to use Jefferson’s word, “indolence.”

I take the liberty of observing that you are not a true disciple of our master Epicurus in indulging the indolence to which you say you are yielding.  One of his canons, you know, was that “that indulgence which prevents a greater pleasure, or produces a greater pain, is to be avoided.”  Your love of repose will lead, in its progress, to a suspension of healthy exercise, a relaxation of mind, an indifference to everything around you, and finally to a debility of body, and hebetude of mind, the farthest of all things from the happiness which the well-regulated indulgences of Epicurus ensure; fortitude, you know is one of his four cardinal virtues. That teaches us to meet and surmount difficulties; not to fly from them, like cowards; and to fly, too, in vain, for they will meet and arrest us at every turn of our road. Weigh this matter well; brace yourself up….

Epicurus teaches us to confront and overcome our difficulties, not to run from them.  Attempts to evade are in vain because the difficulties from which we flee will “meet and arrest us at every turn of our road.”  Nature requires that we “brace ourselves up” against error and defeat it.  As  Lucretius wrote in De Rerum Natura, “The truth, it seems to me, not only meets Falsehood head-on, but cuts off its retreat, and so is doubly victor.” (Humphries translation)

So weigh Jefferson’s words well, and brace yourself up against any notion that Epicureanism leads to inactivity or withdrawal from the affairs of the world.  The true Epicurean will exercise his body, sharpen his mind, and take a deep interest in all things around him.  In so doing, he will develop a well-regulated strength of body and mind that can alone ensure a happy life.

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