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Peace and Safety For your Twentieth of October: Two Ways of Looking At Decision-Making

Peace and Safety to the Epicureans of today, no matter where you might be!

Life frequently requires us to make decisions with far-reaching effects.  We have had much discussion lately in our Epicurean circles lately about “determinism” vs. “free will,” and the cites below show two ways of looking at decision-making from very different philosophical perspectives.

First, the Stoic view:  Shakespeare, in his Julius Caesar has Brutus (who was a committed Stoic) say these famous words prior to the Battle of Philippi:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.  – Julius Caesar Act 4, scene 3, 218–224

While this quote is Shakespearean art rather than a text from the ancients, I think it accurately reflects the mindset that sees human life as largely determined by forces (here, tides) beyond our control.  And I would suggest that this quote reflects Stoicism on a sunny day:  in general, the conclusion of the sort of determinism to which Stoicism leads is that human choice does not play a role at all, given that all events (even human choices) are predetermined.

In contrast, Epicurus is reported (by Seneca) to have written about decision-making unleashed from obsession and unnatural focus on pre-determined events:

Read the letter of Epicurus which appears on this matter; it is addressed to Idomeneus. The writer asks him to hasten as fast as he can, and beat a retreat before some stronger influence comes between and takes from him the liberty to withdraw. But he also adds that one should attempt nothing except at the time when it can be attempted suitably and seasonably. Then, when the long-sought occasion comes, let him be up and doing. Epicurus forbids us to doze when we are meditating escape; he bids us hope for a safe release from even the hardest trials, provided that we are not in too great a hurry before the time, nor too dilatory when the time arrives. … (Seneca’s Letters – Book I – Letter XXIII)

This is an articulate and balanced statement of the Epicurean view.  Though there are many influences in life beyond our control, humans are ultimately”free agents” who have the power to make the ultimate decision on how to respond to external events.  This power of response is far more broad than suggested by the Stoics, who focus on employing superficial methods such as suppressing our emotions, or imagining that external events are of no concern to us.

The advice of Epicurus is to look to the context and circumstances.  Epicurus tells us to avoid the Platonic trap of thinking that there are ideal principles to follow in all cases, and he tells us to avoid the Aristotelian trap of thinking that we can “reason” our way to uniform formulas that will tell us how to act.

Instead, Epicurus knows that the facts we confront are as changing as the eternal motion of the atoms, but that the call of Nature to seek pleasure and live happily is uniform.  Thus Epicurus does not look to another dimension, or to a supernatural reason for guidance.  Instead, he tells us to remain vigilant, focus on being alert, and look for the best moment, acting neither too early nor too late as the circumstances indicate.

In this context recall Vatican Saying 71:  “Question each of your desires: “What will happen to me if that which this desire seeks is achieved, and what if it is not?”  

This advice may appear to imply that there are no standards at all, that we should follow an unrestrained subjectivism and relativism, and that we should have a devil-may-care attitude of “doing whatever we want.”  Such a conclusion would be the opposite of the truth. Epicurus never refers to false standards of conduct such as “virtue” or “reason,” but neither does he teach that no standards exist at all.

In Epicurean philosophy, the standard is always provided by Nature.  It is to Nature that we should look to see what is changing, and what is eternal.  In Nature, the atoms are eternally in motion.  Nothing formed from atoms is ever eternally “at rest.”   Thus there is no eternal yardstick of human conduct anywhere in the universe.  There are no “one size fits all” solutions to the problems of life, and it is a deep philosophical error to look for them.

But this is not the full and complete picture.  There are no absolute standards on an eternal scale of time, but that is not the scale of time that is relevant to us as human beings.  The only scale of time relevant to us is that of our lifetime.  And here – during our lifetime, Nature provides the standard to which we should look for guidance.

For so long as we live, we possess only one standard that is durable.  But we need to realize that this standard does not exist in a spiritual world, or in a world of mathematical formulas, or anywhere at all outside ourselves.  This standard – this “object” that is our only durable possession in life, is not an ideal form or a logical formula.  In fact it is not an “object” of any kind, butfaculty.   The durable possession which Nature gives us all as the basis of conduct during our lives is the sense of Pleasure and Pain.

Ideal virtues and logical syllogisms are but figments of the imaginations of false philosophers.  It is only the faculty of sensing Pleasure and Pain — the faculty by which we recognize Lucretius’ Divine Pleasure, Guide of Life –– that is with us from birth to death.  The foundation for proper decision-making therefore has nothing to do with religion or virtue or other dimensions or logical syllogisms.  The true and only real basis for all proper decision-making is the ability to apply with intelligence the data we obtain through the faculties Nature gave us.  Those faculties, which it is the task of the Epicurean Canon of Truth to instruct us how to apply, are Pleasure and Pain, our Senses, and our Anticipations.

Intelligent application of these faculties is not easy, but it is possible. Successful application is the reason we study Epicurean philosophy, and our reward is the what Epicurus spoke of when said,  “Exercise yourself in these and related precepts day and night, both by yourself and with one who is like-minded; then never, either in waking or in dream, will you be disturbed, but you will live as a god among men.”


As Seneca recorded: Sic fac omnia tamquam spectet EpicurusSo 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.”