A Refresher On Epicurean Basics
We tend to spend a lot of time on particular issues of interest to people who already have a fundamental orientation to Epicurus. If you know the basics, then you’re likely interested in debates about quantum physics, free will, the meaning of “virtue,” speculations about the nature of “gods,” etc. But if you are new to Epicurus and you drop in on these debates in the middle, it won’t be surprising if you find it all confusing.
Those of us who are serious about studying Epicurus ought to always be able to quickly generate in our minds our own “quick and dirty” outline of the philosophy. We are constantly confronted with problems in life that can knock us off our feet and cause us to want to “reboot” in a moment or two to regain our orientation. That’s why we ought always have a thought process ready at hand to help us do that. In a real sense it is at this level that we show whether we really understand what Epicurus taught us.
There are going to be countless ways of formulating this, but for the sake of wider interest let’s look at the “reboot sequence” that Thomas Jefferson described to us. On receiving a letter from John Adams in which Adams had asserted a religious viewpoint on life, Jefferson described how it took him aback: “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…..”
Jefferson’s “habitual anodyne” is a reboot sequence that should be immediately familiar to students of Epicurus. It should also immediately remind us how Epicurus stood against the worship of “logic” familiar to us as the “I think therefore I am” reasoning of the establishment. Jefferson’s reboot sequence is rooted in the Epicurean canon, and it focuses on the senses as the basis of the only true type of reasoning. Jefferson set it out this way:
“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.”
Here Jefferson illuminates for us the core foundation on which Epicurean philosophy is built, and we can see how the philosophical structure is erected in each step of the sequence:
“I feel, therefore I exist” – Our knowledge of the universe is based on our senses. Knowledge is not based on wishful thinking, or on fantasy, or on any other variation of speculative reasoning divorced from the senses. We know we exist because we have feeling. Absent feeling we are dead, and this is the basis for the conclusion recorded in Epicurean Doctrine 2 leading to “death is nothing to us.”
“I feel bodies which are not myself; there are other existences then; I call them matter.” – *What* do we feel? We feel things that exist, which are composed of what we call matter. Whether the matter is combined into things we call galaxies, stars, planets, bodies, molecules, or atoms, or whether it exists singly in some form of quantum particle, anything that we deem to exist in reality must ultimately be provable to exist through reasoned application of the senses.
“I feel them changing place. This gives me motion.” – On the basis of things as they appear to us we observe certain things to be clear. One of the things we observe clearly is that bodies change place and are thus in motion. Some would ask us to quibble our entire lives with logical speculations such as that motion is impossible. They would have us believe that we cannot really walk across a room and would have us trust our logic, not our senses. You will confront these types everywhere, and you have to be ready to respond confidently that you are a friend of reality, and that you are immune to those speculations that deny reality because you understand the absurdity of denying that the senses are our ultimate foundation.
“Where there is an absence of matter, I call it void, or nothing, or immaterial space.” – Just like there are those who want to deny that we can walk across the room, there are those who will place word games with you such as “existence exists – ‘nothing’ doesn’t exist, therefore everything is something and there is no void.” Once again, you can spend a lifetime trapped in word games that are calculated to persuade you to doubt your confidence in the senses. You must be prepared to know why you embrace reality, and you must have a firm grasp of the folly involved in pursuing “logic” which contradicts reality.
“On the basis of sensation, of matter and motion, we may erect the fabric of all the certainties we can have or need.” – Yes we can, but do not be complacent: it is up to YOU to erect this fabric for your own life. Happy and pleasurable living requires **action**. It it is up to YOU to use the faculties that Nature provided you to reach out for and grasp the pleasurable living that is possible. If you become seduced by religious fantasies and speculative logic that is not grounded in reality, you will not attain the happy living that is possible to you.
So don’t think that simply indulging in pleasure makes you an Epicurean. Let me close this post by reminding you of another passage in which Jefferson illustrated this:
“I take the liberty of observing that you are not a true disciple of our master Epicurus, in indulging the indolence to which you say you are yielding. One of his canons, you know, was that “that indulgence which prevents a greater pleasure, or produces a greater pain, is to be avoided.” Your love of repose will lead, in its progress, to a suspension of healthy exercise, a relaxation of mind, an indifference to everything around you, and finally to a debility of body, and hebetude of mind, the farthest of all things from the happiness which the well-regulated indulgences of Epicurus ensure; fortitude, you know is one of his four cardinal virtues. That teaches us to meet and surmount difficulties; not to fly from them, like cowards; and to fly, too, in vain, for they will meet and arrest us at every turn of our road. Weigh this matter well; brace yourself up….”
Brace yourself up, and join us here in helping others brace themselves up by asking questions and discussing the philosophy of Epicurus.
Note: All of the quotes above can be referenced at http://newepicurean.com/?p=414