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Promoting the Study of the Philosophy of Epicurus

The Same Span of Time – The Major Works of Thomas Cooper, M.D.

Today I am pleased to announce the launch of another Ebook which may be of interest to students of Epicureanism:  The Same Span of Time:  The Major Works of Thomas Cooper, M.D.

The title is of course a reference to the core Epicurean doctrine that the “soul” does not survive the death of the body.  This principle is found throughout Epicureanism, but especially in Principle Doctrine Two.  The phrase used here to encapsulate the same idea comes from the Norman DeWitt translation of Vatican Saying  42:  “The same span of time includes both the beginning and the termination of the greatest good.”

Thomas Cooper was born in England in 1759, and before he died some eighty years later, he had participated in the French Revolution, been imprisoned in America under the Alien and Sedition Acts, become the personal friend of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and served as second president of what is now the University of South Carolina.  During his life Cooper was a strong proponent of the view that “the soul” is born and dies with the human body.  In Cooper’s day, this doctrine was not promoted with its Epicurean label, but — in order to distinguish it from the notion that the soul is  “Immaterial” — was generally referred to as “Materialism.”  The primary advocates of Immaterialism were of course the priests of the various religions, and so Cooper’s rhetorical guns were also regularly aimed at organized religion.  Much of the work included here reflects Cooper’s opinion that he wrote in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1822:   “I cannot help exclaiming with Lucretius, ‘Tantum haec religio potuit suadere malorum.'”

I have included in this post the Introduction which describes the content of the ebook, which can be downloaded free of charge here.  I hope this work is of use to students of Epicureanism as they pursue their studies of the mortality of the soul.  I also want to add that I take special pleasure in this edition:  although some of Cooper’s works can be found on the internet as scans of the original early-1800’s editions, they have not been readily accessible digital format.  Cooper’s works deserve to be cited and remembered, especially since, like much of the work of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, they serve as a “bridge” allowing modern students to see that as recently as two hundred years ago major historical figures held and praised the ideas of the ancient Epicureans.   Just as Cooper adopted a request from Ajax in Homer’s Iliad for his own slogan, we might take the same slogan as Epicureans:  all that we require as we seek to promote the ideas of Epicurus is the fair opportunity to be heard; all we ask of Nature is that she Grant us day light and fair play!

Note:  It appears that Cooper adopted this from a longer Greek phrase.  I am not able to translate it myself, but here it is:

Introduction to:      The Same Span of Time:  The Major Works of Thomas Cooper, M.D.

Of all the Principal Doctrines which the ancient Epicureans held to be crucial for living life happily, two ranked above all the rest:

(1)        Any perfect being has no trouble of its own, nor does it cause trouble to anyone else; and such a being has no emotions of anger or gratitude, as those emotions exist only in beings that are weak;

(2)        Death is nothing to us, because that which is dead has no sensations, and that which cannot be sensed is nothing to us.

These Doctrines have far-reaching application, but their most immediate effect is to explode all common religious superstitions at their root:  If these doctrines are true, the affairs of men are not controlled by supernatural gods, and men do not possess immortal souls whom the priests may threaten with the punishment of the gods  – or reward after death  – for their worldly actions.

For two thousand years these two Doctrines have been the special target of all who fought to suppress the ideas of Epicurus, and in the main those efforts have largely prevailed.  Even though priests have offered  no proof for their claims, few men have been willing to stand publicly against the false threat of eternal punishment in hell and the false promise of eternal reward in heaven.  Even in our modern world, those who reject the superstitions of ages past cling to the hope of some kind of life after death or find the thought that their consciousness ends at death too horrible to contemplate.  Not every man, however, has stood aside from challenging these false promises and threats.  This volume contains the major works of one such man.

Thomas Cooper was born in Westminster, England, in 1759.  Educated at (but not graduated from)  Oxford, he pursued a multi-tracked career in law, medicine, and education, but his real interest was clearly philosophic and political reform.  Cooper traveled to Europe to participate in the French Revolution, and then, in 1794, migrated to the United States with his friend Joseph Priestley, who is credited with the discovery of oxygen.  Throughout his life, Cooper fought the forces of political and religious oppression, and in the process he befriended Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and many other luminaries of the period.

Although he was well known in his day, memory of Cooper has largely faded from common view. One place, ironically, where his name evokes a glint of recognition is within the confines of the University of South Carolina, where he served as that institution’s second president (from 1821 to 1834) and where the school’s library is named for him today.  It was during those years that the forces of religious oppression that had dogged Cooper throughout his adult life engaged his most direct attention.  In the end, those forces obtained his removal as president of the university, but during his stay in Columbia Cooper found new fame in political affairs – as an eloquent opponent of the growing power of the federal government.  This fame allowed him to remain active through the end of his life, and during that time he published (or in some cases republished) the works collected here.  The writing collected here will endure to Cooper’s everlasting credit – and will be remembered far longer than his religious enemies, who Thomas Jefferson aptly described as “conjurers.”

Unlike Jefferson, Cooper never claimed  – at least in any writing preserved today – to be an Epicurean himself, but most of his most memorable writing was devoted (or conformable) to the ideas first popularized by Epicurus almost two thousand years before – especially in his first two Doctrines.[i] Cooper’s most significant articles on these subjects are preserved here in this volume.

The first section of this volume is devoted to Cooper’s The Scripture Doctrine of Materialism.  The meaning of the word “materialism” today is muddied at best, and certainly conveys a negative aura in the minds of most people.  In Cooper’s time, however, to call oneself a materialist was to state very specifically and clearly that one believed that man’s soul (or consciousness) is a property of “matter”, and did not exist outside or apart from the material of the human body.  The important observation to make first in this regard is that those who held Cooper’s view did not purport to be able to explain the detail of the type of matter of which the soul consists.  Rather, their point was that in whatever form it exists, it is natural, and not a supernatural or otherworld ghost that continues to exist after the death of the body, in the sense commonly held to be true by most religions.

In The Scripture Doctrine of Materialism, Cooper turns words the Gospels against the religion-for-profit churches of his own day.  Cooper points out that if one consults the words of Jesus and his apostles, rather than those who came after and sought to “explain” them later,  the views stated or implied by Jesus’ own words and actions supports the view that – in general – consciousness ends at death.  Cooper persuasively argues that Jesus preached a bodily resurrection, akin to that which He himself allegedly achieved, and thus even for a Christian the correct view should be that the soul dies with the death of the body, only to be resurrected on “the last day” in the case of those who accepted the promised salvation while living.  The Scripture Doctrine of Materialism is interesting to us today mainly for the same reason that Cooper likely intended – as a “foot in the door” to encourage those Christians who had never considered the matter to open their minds to the views supported by the evidence of Nature.

The Appendix on the Clergy is a broadside against the occupation that bedeviled Cooper throughout his career.  Cooper detested the Clergy, and in turn they detested him.  The clergy of South Carolina repeatedly attacked Cooper’s livelihood as president of the University, and he responded in kind, summarizing his views as follows:  “The priesthood in every age, in every country, forbid discussion, frowned down all investigation; they require, like other tyrants, passive obedience and non-resistance.  They denounce every man who opposes their views: not merely their spiritual, but their temporal views.  Their intent here, as elsewhere, is to fetter your minds first, and your bodies afterwards; and finally, to command your pockets.”

Earlier in his life, Cooper had composed the more technical “A View Of The Metaphysical And Physiological Arguments In Favor Of  Materialism.”  This work, more technical in nature in addressing the connections of Soul to Body, was dedicated to “The Medical Gentlemen Of The United States, As The Most Competent Judges Of The Arguments Contained In Them.”  Rather than appealing to the masses by way of citations to Jesus and the Bible, here Cooper surveyed the latest medical research of his day in setting out the dependency of consciousness on the body for its existence.  There are many parallels in this work to the arguments of Lucretius in De Rerum Natura, so this work is of special interests to Epicureans.[ii]

Annexed  to both of Cooper’s works on materialism are two fascinating letters to Cooper from Thomas Jefferson.  Cooper had forwarded copies of both works for Jefferson’s personal use, and these letters make clear the high regard for Cooper and his ideas.

After a lifetime of feuding with the religious institutions of his day (of which group the Presbyterians were his special nemesis) Cooper published To Any Member of Congress, a broadside volley of arguments against the increasing tendency of the clergy in the United States to seek special privileges for themselves, and to drive from public life all who refused to worship at their altars.

The final work in this volume is not religious or philosophical, but was perhaps the most famous of Cooper’s work in his own day – a history of political affairs in the United States since the Revolution entitled “Consolidation.”   Here the reader who might be tempted to romanticize the founding period of America  as a world full of Thomas Jeffersons will be surprised to read just how closely the devotees of centralized power came to turning the United States into a hereditary monarchy.   The dividing line on the issues had already been drawn geographically in Cooper’s time, with the Northern industrialists seeking to use the powers of central government to tax the farming and mercantile interests of the rest of the country to support themselves.  Despite his geographic allegiances, Cooper pointed out the deficiencies even in such Southern leaders as John C. Calhoun, who had shown themselves too ready to accept the idea of redistribution (in the form of national funding for “internal improvements”) so long as they were themselves included in the ranks of the distributees.  Consolidation shows how the ideas of Jefferson and Madison that the Union was composed of Sovereign States who retained the power to veto unconstitutional legislation had been eroded to the point of non-existence, and the tragedy to which that erosion was bound to lead.

Consolidation, dealing as it does with political issues, is less reliable as a reflection of Epicurean ideas, but even here it would be well to refer back to the Principal Doctrines.  As shown by the famous example of Cassius resistance to Caesar’s consolidation of power in the Roman Republic, ancient Epicureans can most certainly be classified as in favor of limited government.  Consider, for example, Doctrine Thirty-Nine:

He who desires to live tranquilly without having anything to fear from other men ought to make them his friends.  Those whom he cannot make friends he should at least avoid rendering enemies, and if that is not in his power, he should avoid all dealings with them as much as possible, and keep away from them as far as it is in his interest to do so.

Although not stated in political terms, this Doctrine is a nothing if not a prescription for keeping governmental units limited to those who share bonds of friendship, for no doubt those bonds would serve to unite the members of such union in voluntary agreements of the strongest force.  But for those who cannot be made friends – those who disagree on fundamental issues – it is proper to withdraw from contact, not seek to change their minds or attitudes by force.

Some readers may seek out this present volume solely for the sake of Consolidation. So be it – I strongly suspect that Cooper would be happy to expand the audience for the views that he himself considered most important by use of such a device as including that essay here.  And not least of all would he be pleased to know that his writings are finally freely available to everyone – even in his adopted home state of South Carolina.

[i] The exception to this, as will be discussed in notes below, is that Cooper’s devotion to the idea of the soul as being born and dying with the body seems to have led him to accept, in at least some of his writing, a form of determinism.  This is a hazard that Epicurus specifically warned against, but which does not seem to be addressed or explained in Cooper’s extant works.  Related to this is Cooper’s explicit acceptance of the “blank slate” theory, which is also referenced in notes below.

[ii] With the provision that it appears that Cooper accepted the “blank slate” theory of John Locke, rather than the intuitionist view that Epicurus apparently held in his concept of Preconceptions / Anticipations.  The reader is referred on this point to the work of Norman Dewitt, and to the “Dialogue on Innate Principles” by Jackson Barwis, for the alternative viewpoint that is more consistent with Epicureanism.