Epicurus: Against Skepticism

Time to launch a new category for the blog:  Against Skepticism.  This is a topic that is second in importance perhaps only to Against Platonism.  The two are closely related, but while the criticism against Plato focused on the error of believing in otherworldly forms, the criticism against the skeptics (led in Epicurus’ day by Pyrrho) focused on the error in not believing in the ability to determine anything  whatsoever with certainty.  In my own view, the error of Platonism remains with us today largely in the religious context, but also in any worldviews that preach “virtue” or “the good” without grounding that good, as did Nature, in the pleasurable life of the individual.  This is widely recognized among Epicurus-influenced leaders of the past, and was specifically identified at the time of Jefferson in his personal letters and in Frances Wright’s “A Few Days in Athens.”

The error of Skepticism (or Pyrrhonism, if one likes to use the ancient word), is perhaps more insidious, and also remains strong today.  In my view, an example is the use which has been put to the physics work of Werner Heisenberg.  Here, the famous “uncertainty principle” has been transmuted in the minds of the public from what it was (a scientific observation of an unexplained atomic phenomena) to an unchallengeable proof of radical Pyrrhonism – the view that NOTHING can be proven with certainty.  Interpretations of phenomena in modern physics (notice I say interpretations, not the facts themselves) continue to be marshaled to make philosophical points far beyond the facts themselves,  in exactly the way Lucretius warned against when he pointed out that not only reason, but life itself, is lost unless we have the courage and the nerve to trust the senses (here in Humphries version):

And if your reasoning faculties can find no explanation why a thing looks square when seen close up, and round when farther off, even so, it might be better for a man who lacks the power of reason, to give out some idiotic theory, than to drop all hold of basic principles, break down every foundation, tear apart the frame that holds our lives, our welfare. All is lost, not only reason, but our very life, unless we have the courage and the nerve to trust the senses, to avoid those sheer downfalls into the pits and tarns of nonsense. All that verbose harangue against the senses Is utter absolute nothing. If a building were planned by someone with a crooked ruler or an inaccurate square, or spirit-level a little out of true, the edifice, in consequence, would be a frightful mess, Warped, wobbly, wish-wash, weak and wavering, waiting a welter of complete collapse – So let your rule of reason never be distorted by the fallacies of sense lest all your logic prove a road to ruin. (see note at end of this post for Munro version).

I will have much more to say on this topic.  Many of the ideas of Epicurus are unwelcome in the modern world, but few are as universally dismissed and disdained as his view on the ability to determine truth.

To launch this category, lets review what Epicurus identified to be at stake and why the issue is important, first in the following references collected by Norman DeWitt in his “Epicurus and His Philosophy”:

Chapter I.
In the succession of philosophers the place of Epicurus is immediately after Plato and Pyrrho the skeptic. Platonism and skepticism were among his chief abominations. The false opinion is to think him opposed to Stoicism. The traditional order of mention, Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics, is the exact reverse of the chronological succession. The philosophy of Epicurus was an immediate reaction to the skepticism of Pyrrho and it was offered to the public as a fully developed system before Zeno the founder of Stoicism even began to teach.

Chapter I.  
If appeal be made to the historical process, it will become clear that skepticism and dogmatism are also related by the logic of cause and effect. The man who denies the possibility of knowledge is challenging others to declare that knowledge is possible. This challenge had never been seriously taken up before the time of Epicurus, because to speculative thinkers skepticism is merely another way of thinking and escapes notice as a menace or a danger. Neither could this aspect of it have presented itself to Epicurus before he became aware of a passion for the increase of human happiness. This passion once awakened, however, he speedily developed a special acumen for discerning even latent skepticism, as in the teachings of his own Democritus, not to omit those of Plato and Aristotle. His later critiques of preceding philosophies stressed this feature.

He was first alerted to this danger by his last teacher, Nausiphanes. This able man had been a pupil of Pyrrho of Elis, who in the company of Anaxarchus, a follower of Democritus, had accompanied Alexander the Great on his eastern campaigns. In the course of these journeys Pyrrho made acquaintance with the wise men of Persia and India, who were not less self-confident than the wise men of Greece. The result for him was the loss of all faith in the certainty of knowledge, reason and sensation seeming alike untrustworthy.

Both Nausiphanes and the young Epicurus admired the placidity of Pyrrho but rebelled against his skepticism. This reaction resulted in the erection of a criterion of truth, which Nausiphanes called his Tripod, obviously so named because capable of standing firmly on its three legs. Subsequently Epicurus quarreled violently with his teacher, seemingly on moral grounds, and feeling himself thereafter absolved from all gratitude he published his own Canon with a threefold basis, Sensations, Anticipations, and Feelings. By the Sensations was meant the evidences furnished by the five senses. The Anticipations were innate ideas, such as that of justice, which exist in advance of experience and so anticipate it. The Feelings are pleasure and pain, Nature’s educators, her Go and Stop signals. (See note 2 below)

Chapter III.
The imperturbability of Pyrrho was indifference and a sort of resignation to belief in the impossibility of knowledge. With this sort of resignation it is clear that neither Nausiphanes nor Epicurus had any patience. The distinction of becoming the first dogmatists may perhaps be claimed for them. Nausiphanes admired only the disposition of Pyrrho and rejected his skepticism. He erected a canon of knowledge, which means that he asserted the possibility of knowledge. He called his canon the Tripod, though information is lacking us concerning the three legs of this triad. The astute Epicurus did not take over this name, but he did set up three criteria of knowledge, the Sensations, Anticipations, and Feelings. These he chose to call his Canon. That it was in reality filched from Nausiphanes is expressly stated by a reliable writer. If there be truth in this report — and such charges were often made with little justification — the achievement of Epicurus was to bring the idea to universal knowledge; his gifts as a publicist were of a high order.

Chapter III.
The defection of Epicurus from the teachings of Democritus, however, is almost wholly in the domain of ethics. To him as a moral reformer two things ranked foremost as abominations, skepticism and physical determinism. To such moral indignation Nausiphanes seems to have been immune; even if he rejected Pyrrhonian skepticism, this need not mean that he became alert to the evil of skepticism in general. To Epicurus he seemed insensate. The pupil was advancing beyond the teacher.

Chapter III.
As for Democritus himself, he committed himself to a certain degree of skepticism when he declared “atoms and void to be the only existences and all else to exist by convention.” This, however, was only individual skepticism, which did not prevent him from practicing cheerfulness (euthumia) any more than Pyrrho was prevented from enjoying indifference. To Epicurus, on the contrary, belief or disbelief had become a matter of morals and the happiness of mankind. He was incapable of taking comfort in a negative attitude, as did Democritus and Pyrrho. Thus he was compelled by the inward urge to become a pragmatist as well as a dogmatist and to insist that knowledge must not only be possible but also have relevance to action and to happiness In this matter none of his teachers had set him an example.

Chapter VII.
The institution of the Canon reflects a contemporary striving for an increase of precision in all the arts, sculpture, architecture, music, and mathematics, but the immediate provocation is to be found in the teachings of Pyrrho the skeptic and of Plato. Pyrrho’s rejection of both reason and the sensations as criteria rendered acute the need of establishing a canon of truth. In the judgment of Epicurus Plato also ranked as a skeptic, because he belittled the sensations as undependable and phenomena as deceptive, the only real and eternal existences being the ideas. Thus in his system reason became the only contact between man and reality, and human reason was crippled by the imprisonment of the soul in the body.

Epicurus denied the existence of Platonic ideas on the ground that the only existences were atoms and empty space. Thus to his thinking man stood face to face with physical reality and his sensations constituted the sole contact with this reality. Had he stopped at this point he would have been an empiricist, but he did not. He made room also for a kind of intuition, which is incompatible with empiricism. He postulated that man was equipped in advance by Nature for living in his prospective environment, and not in his physical environment alone but also in his social environment. In addition to the five senses this equipment included innate ideas, such as that of justice, and these ideas, because they existed in advance of experience, were called Anticipations. Moreover, as Epicurus postulated, each experience of the individual, the sensations included, is accompanied by a secondary reaction of pleasure or pain. These pleasures and pains are the Feelings, which also rank as criteria, being Nature’s Go and Stop signals.

Thus Nature, having equipped man with a triple contact with his environment, becomes a norm, while the Platonic Reason is eliminated along with the Platonic Ideas. It now remains to explain in more detail the dethronement of Reason and the recognition of Nature as the norm.

Chapter XIV.
A doctrine of Faith made its appearance for the first time in the philosophy of Epicurus, though it was only in revealed religion that it later attained a full development. It was born of skepticism, a hostile reaction to the teachings of Pyrrho, whose pupil Nausiphanes was the tutor of Epicurus. The latter seems at first to have admired the great skeptic, perhaps for his serenity, but later he revolted violently and resolved that happiness must be based upon the certainty of knowledge rather than upon resignation to the belief that knowledge was impossible. In the heat of this revulsion he declared Pyrrho “incapable either of learning or of being instructed” and became dogmatic on the subject of dogmatism, asserting “that the wise man will dogmatize and not be a doubter.”

Chapter XIV.
A brief chain argument will show how the doctrine of Faith fits into the new matrix of meanings. As a dogmatist Epicurus believed that truth was discoverable and also that he had discovered it. He called his teachings “true philosophy.” Since this philosophy was presented as ultimate truth it demanded of the disciple the will to believe and in the case of junior pupils subjection to indoctrination.

If this belief had consisted merely in intellectual assent to the doctrine that the universe consists of atoms and void or the like, it would have been on a par with Plato’s theory of ideas. It did not, however, stop at this point; it assumed also that the path to true happiness had been discovered, so that over and above mere belief the disciple must feel gratitude and reverence for the discoverer. The new truth attains the status of a revelation and its author the status of a savior. Thus faith in doctrine is conjoined with faith in the leader or guide.

While this conjunction of faith in doctrine with faith in the leader introduces a dynamic emotional element, it still falls short of making a complete picture. The disciple cannot live to himself. Epicurus thought of his oracular teachings as “beneficial for all men,” and he planned coherence for all the local brotherhoods in which his disciples were enrolled. All members depended upon one another for what St. Paul referred to as Peace and Safety. This means that the Epicurean must not only feel faith in doctrine and leader but also in friends and friendship. The authority for this is Vatican Saying 34, which exhibits a play upon words that is characteristic of the master’s style: “We do not so much have need of help from friends in time of need as faith in help in time of need.” This is an excellent commentary upon the words of St. Paul, “faith which worketh by love.”

There is a difference, however; Epicurus was more restrained and stopped short of fanatical trust in his creed. Friendship was subject to planning and began with advantage even if developing into affection and faith. Authorized Doctrine 40: “All those who have best succeeded in building up the ability to feel secure from the attacks of those around them have lived the happiest lives with one another, as having the firmest faith.” Thus even faith is in part the result of planning.

Epicurus was aware nevertheless of the saving function of faith. He assures his disciples that his account of the soul will result in “the firmest faith,”48 and the sole objective of the study of celestial phenomena is to acquire “tranquillity and a firm faith.”49 His account of the soul would result in emancipating the disciple from the fear of death, and his account of celestial phenomena on a physical basis would spare men the fear of Plato’s astral divinities.60 The supreme function of faith was to banish fears and uncertainties from life.

It is uncertainty rather than outright disbelief that seemed to Epicurus the opposite of faith. Assuredly uncertainty was deemed more destructive of happiness. Two of the Authorized Doctrines, 12 and 13, bear upon this point: “It is impossible for men to dispel the fear concerning things of supreme importance not understanding the nature of the whole universe but suspecting there may be some truth in the stories related in the myths. Consequently it is impossible without the knowledge of Nature to enjoy the pleasures unalloyed.” “Nothing is gained by building up the feeling of security in our relations with men if the things above our heads and those beneath the earth and in general those in the unseen are matters of suspicion.” The vogue of these teachings among disciples is evidenced by their repetition in the Vatican Collection, 49 and 72.



Note 1:  In certain respects I prefer Munro’s translation, especially in the very last phrase.  Munro does a better job of capturing the meaning I think was intended, that of the error of relying on false interpretations of the senses, caused either by failure to observe distortions involved in particular sensations, or, more likely referred to here, caused by the lure of those who use dialectical or logical arguments to undermine confidence in the senses.   Munro’s version:  “And if reason shall be unable to explain away the cause why things which close at hand were square, at a distance looked round, it yet is better, if you are at a loss for the reason, to state erroneously the causes of each shape than to let slip from your grasp on any side things manifest and ruin the groundwork of belief and wrench up all the foundations on which rest life and existence. For not only would all reason give way, life itself would at once fall to the ground, unless you choose to trust the senses and shun precipices and all things else of this sort that are to be avoided, and to pursue the opposite things. All that host of words then be sure is quite unmeaning which has been drawn out in array against the senses. Once more, as in a building, if the rule first applied is wry, and the square is untrue and swerves from its straight lines, and if there is the slightest hitch in any part of the level, all the construction must be faulty, all must be wry, crooked, sloping, leaning forwards, leaning backwards, without symmetry, so that some parts seem ready to fall, others do fall, ruined all by the first erroneous measurements; so too all reason of things must needs prove to you distorted and false, which is founded on false senses.”

Note 2. I would substitute the term innate principles for innate ideas, following the lead of Jackson Barwis cited elsewhere on this website.   Innate Principles implies a mechanism for recognizing various types of relationships such as we call justice, but not the specific fact situations that we encounter in our particular lives.  Innate ideas, at least as that term is ordinarily used, implies a knowledge of particular fact situations (such as capitalism or socialism) that few would argue we have at birth.  I cannot see Epicurus arguing for the latter (innate ideas), but the former (innate principles) seems consistent with anticipations being a “faculty” equivalent to the other two legs in the canon of truth.

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