Peace and Safety to the Epicureans of today, no matter where you might be!
For today’s Twentieth I want to pick up on a mention made in a recent post by Hiram at the Society of Epicurus. Hiram referred to the statement of Lucian in his “Alexander the Oracle Monger” about wanting to “strike a blow for Epicurus.” I’d like to elaborate on what “striking a blow for Epicurus” means to me by citing another passage from Lucian.
But first, here’s an underlying issue: What should our attitude toward Epicurus be today? Was Epicureanism in the past just another competing “religion” or “cult” to which one was asked to turn over one’s individuality and one’s own thoughts so as to replace them with the wisdom of a guru? By my reading, Epicurus taught just the opposite — everything he wrote indicates that the guide to life – pleasure – is to be experienced individually. We are born as individuals, and we die as individuals – there is no “god” or “society” or “virtue” to which anyone should dream of turning over his mind and his desire to pursue individual pleasure.
So every bit as rigorously as Epicurus rejected pursuing virtue for the sake of virtue, he would in my view advise us to reject Epicureanism for the sake of Epicureanism.
Here is a passage from Lucian’s HERMOTIMUS, or THE RIVAL PHILOSOPHIES, which makes the point well. Keep in mind that I am stripping the following conclusion out of its context, so it will lose its force by standing alone here. I urge you to read the entire dialog.
[P]ractically 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.
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 honour 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.
No need for tears, dear fellow; [here] is a very sensible fable of Aesop’s. 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.
And now I will be off to metamorphose myself. When we next meet, there will be no long, shaggy beard, no artificial composure; I shall be natural, as a gentleman should. I may go as far as a fashionable coat, by way of publishing my renunciation of nonsense. I only wish there were an emetic that would purge out every doctrine they have instilled into me; I assure you, if I could reverse Chrysippus’s plan with the hellebore, and drink forgetfulness, not of the world but of Stoicism, I would not think twice about it. Well, Lycinus, I owe you a debt indeed; I was being swept along in a rough turbid torrent, unresisting, drifting with the stream; when lo, you stood there and fished me out, a true deus ex machina. I have good enough reason, I think, to shave my head like the people who get clear off from a wreck; for I am to make votive offerings to-day for the dispersion of that thick cloud which was over my eyes. Henceforth, if I meet a philosopher on my walks (and it will not be with my will), I shall turn aside and avoid him as I would a mad dog.
Peace and safety to you all!
As Seneca recorded: Sic fac omnia tamquam spectet Epicurus! So do all things as though watching were Epicurus!
And as Philodemus wrote: “I will be faithful to Epicurus, according to whom it has been my choice to live.“