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Promoting the Study of the Philosophy of Epicurus

The True Life According To Nature

Continuing in a series of posts focusing on excerpts from DeWitt’s Epicurus and His Philosophy, today we look at the Epicurean view of “life according to Nature.”   In the following excerpt from Chapter 1, DeWitt points out the derivation of Epicurus’ view of life according to Nature, and how it differs from the Platonic / Stoic view:

“Especially conspicuous in the Canon of Epicurus is the omission of Reason as a criterion of truth.  Only the Sensations, Anticipations, and Feelings are recognized as direct contacts between man and his physical and social environment.  By virtue of being direct contacts, they acquire a priority over Reason and in effect exalt Nature over Reason as affording a norm of truth.

How this revolution came about may be explained by recalling a few details.  The Ionian scientists had studied nature chiefly in her terrestrial aspects, taking reason for granted as a faculty.  The Italian Greeks had ignored the terrestrial aspects of nature and exploited the faculty of reason.  This procedure led from arithmetic and geometry to astronomy, and by astronomy was revealed the celestial order of nature.  This inflexible celestial order captivated the imagination of Plato, who was a romantic, and it was this he was imitating when he proposed in his Republic and his Laws a rigidly regimented polity, of which a travesty now flourishes in Soviet Russia.

After this Platonic interruption the Ionian tradition was recycled by the later Aristotle, but he switched the emphasis from inorganic to organic nature.  The sciences of zoology and botany were founded by him.  In the course of these studies he arrived at the conclusion “that Nature does nothing at random.” Of this discovery he did not realize the importance.  It signified that organic nature is governed by laws.  In reality it marks the discovery of a new order of nature, the terrestrial order, as contrasted with the celestial order of Plato’s grandiose cosmogony.

It was the lead of Aristotle that Epicurus chose to follow.  He looked to organic nature as furnishing the norm just as Plato had looked to reason.  This divergence resulted in two opposing interpretations of the phrase “living according to Nature.” To the Stoics, who hitched their wagon to Plato’s star, it signified the imitation of the inflexible celestial order by a rigid and unemotional morality.  To Epicurus and Epicureans, “living according to Nature,” though they never made a slogan of it, signified living according to the laws of our being.  Of this being the emotions were recognized as a normal and integral part, undeserving of suspicion or distrust.

How the new terrestrial order of nature and the older celestial order operate as points of departure for inferential truth may be illustrated simply in the case of justice.  For Epicurus the Feelings are the criterion.  Injustice hurts and justice promotes happiness.  Therefore human beings make a covenant with one another “not to injure or be injured.” Justice is this covenant.  It is of Nature.  No dialectic is necessary to discover the fact; it is a matter of observation.  The sense of justice is innate; it is an Anticipation or Prolepsis existing in advance of experience and anticipating experience.  Even certain animals possess it; elephants, for example, the bulls excepted, do not injure one another and they marshal the herd to protect one another against injury from outside.

Plato, on the contrary, taking his departure from the analogy between geometry and ethics and politics, requires a definition; dialectic is invoked as the instrument and the ten books of the Republic are devoted to the quest.  In the background are the mathematical notion of ratio and the musical notion of harmony.  Thus at long length the conclusion is reached that justice is a harmony of the three constituents of the soul, reason, passion, and desire.  Justice in the state is a harmony of the constituent classes.

Plato was complicating philosophy for the few who find self-gratification in complexity.  Epicurus was simplifying philosophy for the many who were willing to live by their philosophy.  Platonic justice seemed to him a specious pretense.  In Vatican Collection 54 he wrote:  “‘We should not pretend to philosophize but philosophize honestly, because it is not the semblance of health we need but real health.”

Epicurus analyzed human nature just as the later Aristotle analyzed ethics and politics, like a student of natural science observing the ways of plants and animals.  It was this method he was following when he scrutinized human nature in action and reduced the direct contacts between man and his physical and social environment to Sensations, Anticipations, and Feelings.  It was the same method he followed when he classified human desires as “natural and necessary, natural but not necessary and neither natural nor necessary.” After the same fashion he scanned the behavior of man in society and concluded “that the injuries inflicted by men are caused by hatred or by envy or by contempt.”

The best evidence of a certain validity in the Canon was the ridicule heaped upon it; ridicule is available when arguments are lacking.  A tacit tribute to its validity is the fact that the idea of the Prolepsis or Anticipation, the innate idea, was adopted by the Stoics and appears as an accepted commonplace in Cicero’s thought.  The Sensations were seized upon as the weakest leg of the canonic tripod and in this instance misrepresentation scored a victory.  The fallacy that Epicurus declared all sensations to be true and hence trustworthy still flourishes.  This would mean that vision informs us no more correctly about a cow at twenty paces than at half a mile.

Equally fallacious was the allegation that the Canon had been set up as a substitute for logic.  To make such a claim is on a par with asking a trial lawyer to criticize a chemist, or, as Epicurus might have said, to ask the ears to pass judgment on the nose; the phenomena of which they are competent judges would not fall in the same class.  The function of ancient logic was to score points and make opponents wince but no adversaries or witnesses were needed for the use of the Canon; solitude was sufficient.  The modern scientist in his laboratory follows a like method.  He depends upon the sensations as Epicurus did.  The researcher works on the basis of an hypothesis, which he puts to the test of experiment, that is, of the senses, and these, exactly as Epicurus said, “confirm or fail to confirm” the truth of the proposition.  Even the theory of Einstein, that rays of light from distant stars are bent in passing the sun, was tested by photographs taken during an eclipse, and photographs are merely extensions of vision.”