Peace and Safety to the Epicureans of today, no matter where you might be![In preparing this post for today’s Twentieth memorial, it was my intention to focus on a modern application of the following passage from A Few Days In Athens. Before I do that, however, I see I need to issue an important correction to my web page and ebook versions of Chapter XVI. Although the recorded versions, which I highly recommend, are correct, the web and ebook versions of the fifth paragraph of Chapter XVI had a typo which omitted a significant passage. In the excerpt below, that passage is now in bold. If you have downloaded an epub or mobi edition I suggest you re-download by clicking on one of the attached links or the links on the AFewDaysInAthens.com home page. Now, to today’s post:]
Most students of Epicurus are very familiar with his Principal Doctrines, the Vatican Sayings, and Epicurus’s Letters as recorded in the Biography of Epicurus by Diogenes Laertius. All of these facts are extremely helpful to know and to commit to memory, but no list of words ever gave any of us direct instruction on how to handle a particular situation in our own lives. It is up to us to learn and understand the principles set forth in the core Epicurean texts so that they can be properly applied. In other words, we need to learn to think like an Epicurean.
In the following passage from Chapter Sixteen of A Few Days in Athens, Frances Wright sets out important insights on Epicurus’ advice on how to think independently. One of the core passages is “We have exhorted you to use your eyes, and your judgments, never your imagination; to abstain from theory, and rest with facts; and to understand that in the accumulation of facts, as regards the nature and properties of substances, the order of occurrences, and the consequences of actions, lies the whole science of philosophy, physical and moral.”
Here is the passage in full, which Wright has Epicurus deliver in preparation for presenting to an assembly his views on one of the most difficult of issues: religion –
We must come with our eyes and our ears, our hearts and our understandings open; anxious, not to find ourselves right, but to discover what is right; asserting nothing which we cannot prove; believing nothing which we have not examined; and examining all things fearlessly, dispassionately, perseveringly.”
“In our preceding discourses, and, for such as have not attended these, in our writings, we have endeavored to explain the real object of philosophical enquiry; we have directed you to the investigation of nature, to all that you see of existences and occurrences around you; and we have shown that, in these existences and occurrences, all that can be known, and all that there is to be known, lies hid. We have exhorted you to use your eyes, and your judgments, never your imagination; to abstain from theory, and rest with facts; and to understand that in the accumulation of facts, as regards the nature and properties of substances, the order of occurrences, and the consequences of actions, lies the whole science of philosophy, physical and moral. We have seen, in the course of our enquiry, that in matter itself exist all causes and effects; that the eternal particles, composing all substances are, so far as we know and can reason, eternal, and in their nature unchangeable; and it is apparently only the different disposition of these eternal and unchangeable atoms that produces all the varieties in the substances constituting the great material whole, of which we form a part. Those particles, whose peculiar agglomeration or arrangement, we call a vegetable to-day, pass into, and form part of an animal to-morrow; and that animal again, by the falling asunder of its constituent atoms, and the different approximation and agglomeration of the same, — or, of the same with other atoms, — is transformed into some other substance presenting a new assemblage of qualities. To this simple exposition of the phenomena of nature (which, you will observe, is not explaining their wonders, for that is impossible, but only observing them) we are led by the exercise of our senses. In studying the existences which surround us, it is clearly our business to use our eyes, and not our imaginations. To see things as they are, is all we should attempt, and is all that is possible to be done. We have seen, in the course of our inquiry, that in matter itself exist all causes and effects; that the eternal particles, composing all substances, form the first and last links in the chain of occurrences, or of cause and effect, at which we can arrive; that the qualities, inherent in these particles, produce, or are followed by certain effects; that the changes, in position, of these particles, produce or are followed by certain other qualities and effects; that the sun appears, and that light follows his appearance; that we throw a pearl into vinegar, and that the pearl vanishes from our eyes, to assume the form or forms of more subtle, but not less real substances; that the component particles of a human being fall asunder, and that, instead of a man, we find a variety of other substances or existences, presenting new appearances, and new properties or powers; that a burning coal touches our hand, that the sensation of pain follows the contact, that the desire to end this sensation is the next effect in succession, and that the muscular motion of withdrawing the hand, following the desire, is another. That in all this succession of existences and events, there is nothing but what we see, or what we could see, if we had better eyes; that there is no mystery in nature, but that involved in the very existence of all things; and that things being as they are is no more wonderful than it would be if they were different. That an analogous course of events, or chain of causes and effects, takes place in morals as in physics; that is to say, in examining those qualities, of the matter composing our own bodies, which we call mind, we can only trace a train of occurrences, in like manner as we do in the external world; that our sensations, thoughts, and emotions, are simply effects following causes, a series of consecutive phenomena, mutually producing and produced.”
“When we have taken this view of things, observe how all abstruse questions disappear; how all science is simplified; all knowledge rendered easy and familiar to the mind! Once started in this only true road of inquiry, every step we make is one in advance. To whatever science we apply, that is, to whatever part of matter, or to whichever of its qualities, we direct our attention, we shall, in all probability, make important, because true, discoveries. It is the philosophy of nature in general, or any one of those subdivisions of it, which we call the philosophy of Mind, Ethics, Medicine, Astronomy, Geometry, &c., the moment we occupy ourselves in observing and arranging in order the facts, which are discovered in the course of observation, we acquire positive knowledge, and may safely undertake to develop it to others.”
Epicurus applied these instructions himself in the structure of his surviving letters. In addition, an extended example of how this procedure applies is contained in Lucretius’ On The Nature of Things, where the poet starts (in Book I) with observation that nothing comes from nothing, and then establishes this thesis not by abstract reasoning, but by observation of Nature:
This terror then and darkness of mind must be dispelled not by the rays of the sun and glittering shafts of day, but by the aspect and the law of nature; the warp of whose design we shall begin with this first principle, nothing is ever gotten out of nothing by divine power.
Fear in sooth holds so in check all mortals, because they see many operations go on in earth and heaven, the causes of which they can in noway understand, believing them therefore to be done by power divine.
For these reasons when we shall have seen that nothing can be produced from nothing, we shall then more correctly ascertain that which we are seeking, both the elements out of which everything can be produced and the manner in which all things are done without the hand of the gods.
Throughout Book I, Lucretius argues his point purely on the basis of observation of Nature. He does not refer to Epicurus or anyone else as an “accepted authority.” He points to the evidence, tells us to look and observe for ourselves, and then draw the conclusions that are clearly supported by what we see.
This is the path by which we find truth, and by which we push aside the errors and prejudices which stand between us and the truth.
There are many famous examples (Copernicus, et al.) of brave men and women who followed evidence rather than authority and found new truths that are essential to us all in the modern world.
One small contemporary example, however, is that which is presented in the Youtube video which I will link to below. I don’t intend to argue the merits of the points raised here, but I do want to applaud the method involved in this presentation, which was given recently by Gary Taubes at Cornell University. Taubes’ work is an excellent example of challenging dogma that is absolutely accepted by “the establishment,” and doing it by personal research connected to clear evidence, and thereby uncovering contradictions and distortions in the accepted viewpoint. The title of the talk is “Why We Get Fat – The Diet/Weight Relationship – An Alternative Hypothesis.”
Many of the most important teachings of Epicurus were (and are) direct contradictions of views held to be “holy” by the majority of men. Who is correct? How do we know? We don’t ultimately grasp and hold any truth by reading it in a book, or hearing it spoken. In order to be firm in our conviction that something is true we must understand the evidence and be able to apply a thought process by which we can prove to ourselves that the conclusion is true.
Learning how to “follow the evidence” properly is as important an aspect of the Epicurean lifestyle as anything else, and that is why Doctrines 23 and 24 address the issue explictly.
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.”