Peace and Safety to the Epicureans of today, no matter where you might be!
This Twentieth of August is a good time to look back at a specific aspect of Western history, and to remember the quote attributed to Menander in reference to Themistocles and to Epicurus:
Salutations to you two, both of you sons of Neocles, one of whom saved us from servitude, the other from folly.”
In terms of both folly and servitude, recent discussions on the Facebook forum have been very sober in noting the rise in suicides in Greece in the last several years. These suicides are no doubt in part a reaction to economic circumstances that seem to be on the point of bringing Greece into servitude to the international financial system. In the most considerate and compassionate way possible, however, I want to write this brief note today that the reaction to flee to suicide under current circumstances is folly.
The standard of living in Greece, and in most of the Western world today, is at or near peaks never seen before – at least in financial and material terms. The standard that is not near a peak is neither financial nor material, but intellectual and “spiritual.” In this intellectual and spiritual decline Greece is apparently ahead of many, but the rest of the West is following closely behind.
No doubt important economic changes are ahead for Greece. Those economic changes have to be decided by the people of Greece, and not by experts in Brussels or anywhere else.
The answer to the more important changes that must occur are even more certainly found in Greece itself. World history is full of civilizations that were confident and flourishing in economic situations we would consider primitive today. History is also full of peoples who gave up all economic stability to march across deserts and cross oceans to start new lives from virtually nothing except intellectual and spiritual confidence.
Greece is uniquely well positioned among all peoples of the world, for it is able to say that it can look to its own past for the diagnosis and cure of the diseases that hinder it today.
But it is no answer for Greece (or anyone else) to say simply that the answer is in “philosophy.” The worst of the diseases that afflict the West have their own roots in “philosophy,” including to a large degree that of Greece.
The answer is as Menander observed: when Greece was wallowing in “folly,” it was Epicurus who pointed the way out.
The problem for Greece and the West is to look and see that the disease was introduced by some of its brightest philosophical stars. The diagnosis and cure comes from a philosopher whose name is taken in vain when it is used at all. Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to bring issues into sharp focus, so here is the observation – not in words of Greek – but in the words of two presidents of the United States:
I am just returned from one of my long absences, having been at my other home for five weeks past. Having more leisure there than here for reading, I amused myself with reading seriously Plato’s republic. I am wrong however in calling it amusement, for it was the heaviest task-work I ever went through. I had occasionally before taken up some of his other works, but scarcely ever had patience to go through a whole dialogue.
While wading thro’ the whimsies, the puerilities, & unintelligible jargon of this work, I laid it down often to ask myself how it could have been that the world should have so long consented to give reputation to such nonsense as this? How the soi-disant Christian world indeed should have done it, is a piece of historical curiosity. But how could the Roman good sense do it? And particularly how could Cicero bestow such eulogies on Plato? Altho’ Cicero did not wield the dense logic of Demosthenes, yet he was able, learned, laborious, practised in the business of the world, & honest. He could not be the dupe of mere style, of which he was himself the first master in the world. With the moderns, I think, it is rather a matter of fashion and authority.
Education is chiefly in the hands of persons who, from their profession, have an interest in the reputation and the dreams of Plato. They give the tone while at school, and few, in their after-years, have occasion to revise their college opinions. But fashion and authority apart, and bringing Plato to the test of reason, take from him his sophisms, futilities, & incomprehensibilities, and what remains? In truth he is one of the race of genuine Sophists, who has escaped the oblivion of his brethren, first by the elegance of his diction, but chiefly by the adoption & incorporation of his whimsies into the body of artificial Christianity. His foggy mind is for ever presenting the semblances of objects which, half seen thro’ a mist, can be defined neither in form or dimension.
Yet this which should have consigned him to early oblivion really procured him immortality of fame & reverence. The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ levelled to every understanding, and too plain to need explanation, saw, in the mysticisms of Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system which might, from it’s indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power & pre-eminence.
The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them: and for this obvious reason – that nonsense can never be explained. Their purposes however are answered. Plato is canonised: and it is now deemed as impious to question his merits as those of an Apostle of Jesus. He is peculiarly appealed to as an advocate of the immortality of the soul; and yet I will venture to say that were there no better arguments than his in proof of it, not a man in the world would believe it. It is fortunate for us that Platonic republicanism has not obtained the same favor as Platonic Christianity; or we should now have been all living, men, women and children, pell mell together, like the beasts of the field or forest. Yet ‘Plato is a great Philosopher,’ said La Fontaine. But says Fontenelle, ‘Do you find his ideas very clear’?—‘Oh no! he is of an obscurity impenetrable.’—‘Do you not find him full of contradictions?’—‘Certainly, replied La Fontaine, he is but a Sophist.’ Yet immediately after, he exclaims again, ‘Oh Plato was a great philosopher.’— Socrates had reason indeed to complain of the misrepresentations of Plato; for in truth his dialogues are libels on Socrates.
Does Greece need an American to tell it to look to Epicurus rather than Plato? If one American president is not enough, here is a second:
I am very glad you have Seriously read Plato: and still more rejoiced to find that your reflections upon him so perfectly harmonize with mine. Some thirty years ago I took upon me the severe task of going through all his works. With the help of two Latin translations, and one English and one French translation, and comparing some of the most remarkable passages with the Greek, I laboured through the tedious toil.
My disappointment was very great, my astonishment was greater and my disgust was shocking. Two things only did I learn from him. 1. that Franklin’s ideas of exempting Husbandmen and Mariners &c from the depredations of War were borrowed from him. 2. that sneezing is a cure for the hickups. Accordingly I have cured myself and all my friends of that provoking disorder for thirty years with a Pinch of Snuff.
Some parts of some of his dialogues are entertaining, like the writings of Rousseau: but his Laws and his Republic from which I expected most, disappointed me most. I could Scarcely exclude the Suspicion that he intended the latter as a bitter Satyre upon all Republican Government, as Xenophon undoubtedly designed by his Essay on Democracy, to ridicule that Species of Republic. In a late letter to the learned and ingenious Mr Taylor of Hazelwood, I suggested to him the project of writing a novel, in which the hero should be sent upon his travels through Plato’s Republic, and all his adventures, with his observations on the principles and opinions, the arts and sciences, the manners customs and habits of the citizens should be recorded. Nothing can be conceived more destructive of human happiness; more infallibly contrived to transform men and women into brutes, yahoos, or dæmons than a community of wives and property.
The year 1814 was a year much less advanced in material goods than is Greece today. Yet the economic backwardness of 1814 did not reduce the fire of intellectual confidence that men like Jefferson and Adams exhibited in rejecting the errors of Plato.
While Jefferson saw through all of the Platonic error, Adams remained confused by the “spiritual” side of Plato. Jefferson’s response to Adams’s confusion, written on August 15, 1820, holds the key to the future for both Greece and the West:
[Referring to Adams’ letter…] Its crowd of scepticisms kept me from sleep. I read it, and laid it down: read it, and laid it down, again and again: and to give rest to my mind, I was obliged to recur ultimately to my habitual anodyne, ‘I feel: therefore I exist.’ I feel bodies which are not myself: there are other existencies then. I call them matter. I feel them changing place. This gives me motion. Where there is an absence of matter, I call it void, or nothing, or immaterial space. On the basis of sensation, of matter and motion, we may erect the fabric of all the certainties we can have or need. I can conceive thought to be an action of a particular organisation of matter, formed for that purpose by its creator, as well as that attraction in an action of matter, or magnetism of loadstone. When he who denies to the Creator the power of endowing matter with the mode of action called thinking shall shew how he could endow the Sun with the mode of action called attraction, which reins the planets in the tract of their orbits, or how an absence of matter can have a will, and, by that will, put matter into motion, then the materialist may be lawfully required to explain the process by which matter exercises the faculty of thinking. When once we quit the basis of sensation, all is in the wind. To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise.
The hope for the future of Greece and the West is to be found not in some generic call to philosophy as a whole, but in the philosophy of Epicurus.
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.”