To The Hearts in Darkness: A Brief Introduction To Epicureanism
O hearts in darkness!
Under what shadows and among what dangers
Your lives are spent, such as they are. But look –
Your nature snarls, yaps, barks for nothing, really,
Except that pain be absent from the body
And mind enjoy delight, with fear dispelled,
– Lucretius, On The Nature of Things
When Thomas Jefferson wrote “I too am an Epicurean,” he was not referring to his taste in food or wine. Most people have only a distorted understanding of Epicurus and his views, but Jefferson had thoroughly studied the subject. In 1819, he wrote “I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.”
If you take away nothing else from this website, open your mind to this: that much of what you may think you know about Epicurus is probably wrong. In the ancient world Epicurus’ fame once eclipsed that of Plato and Aristotle. His Forty Authorized Doctrines were well known by educated people long before the Christian Bible was written. But Epicurus waged a war of ideas against both false philosophies and false religions, and much of what passes for information about Epicurus today are the distortions and misrepresentations of his enemies.
Ages of false religionists have condemned Epicurus as an atheist, even though he taught a more firm basis for belief in real otherworldly beings than did the religionists themselves. Ages of false philosophers have denounced Epicurus for rejecting the “higher” reason of Plato, even though embraced more firmly than did they the true reason that is based on evidence rather than speculation. And ages of both religionists and philosophers have denounced Epicurus as a “hedonist,” even though he taught that “Pleasure” – the one real signal that Nature gives men to show them how to live – must be followed according to well-reasoned prudence.
Much confusion arises because portions of what Epicurus taught appear familiar. Many look at Epicurus’ devotion to simple pleasures, and to his shunning of politics, and conclude that he shared their own passion for ascetic living, or their own passivity and stoicism in the face of external events. These conclusions are far from accurate, but such errors prevail when we fail to understand the foundation on which Epicureanism was built. The ancient texts still exist to allow us to reclaim that foundation, but we must put aside our preconceptions and take Epicurus at his word — and give him the credit for saying what he meant and meaning what he said.
And what Epicurus said is that living happily requires effort, in the form of studying Nature through the faculties she has given us, and and learning from the evidence she provides. It is not merely wrong to start with the conclusions and adopt them as our own — the conclusions are an end result, and to start at the end is to override the central insight on which the philosophy is built. Epicurus taught his students to start at the beginning. The first essential step is to master what he referred to as the “Canon of Truth,” which is comprised of (1) the tools Nature provides to us for observing the world, and (2) the proper means of using those tools.
As a second step, we must then take the tools Nature has provided, and our knowledge of how to use them, and apply them to the world around us to learn about Nature – that is, we must explore the science of Physics and reach conclusions about the nature of the universe.
As a third step, which can be taken only after the first two steps have been mastered, we must apply the lessons learned in our studies to determine how men should live – the science of Ethics.
Let’s examine these three steps more closely:
In his first step, Epicurus was well aware that false philosophers and false religionists contend that men do not have the capacity to determine truth on their own. Such men contend that we must rely on gods or “experts” to tell them us to live, and they set up high-sounding words such as “virtue,” “reason,” “divine revelation,” or “the greatest good of the greatest number” as the ultimate sources of real knowledge. Epicurus rejected all of this out of hand, and he pointed out that these words describe things that do not exist in themselves, and that they are nothing more than pure speculation. The truth, Epicurus held, is that Nature herself equips men with a clear, simple, and direct road to truth. This road is real. It is not speculation. And it exists even if the ability of each person to follow it does vary from man to man; even if some men are born blind and some men refuse to open their eyes. Nature equips men with three real categories of faculties: (1) the five senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste), (2) the faculty of perceiving pain and pleasure, and (3) the faculty (which Epicurus called “preconceptions” or “anticipations”) of perceiving innate principles such as “justice.” These faculties provide us not only the sight that is necessary to avoid walking off cliffs, but also the ability to learn to perceive important relationships such that of justice, and the ability to perceive that there is pleasure in one course and pain in another. These faculties precede and have no requirement for “abstract reasoning” as advocated by false philosophers. Thomas Jefferson expressed the point this way:
“He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler if he had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science. For one man of science, there are thousands who are not. What would have become of them? Man was destined for society. His morality, therefore, was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong, merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his Nature, as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality, and not the [beautiful], truth, &c., as fanciful writers have imagined. The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. This sense is submitted, indeed, in some degree, to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call common sense. State a moral case to a plowman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, & often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.”
It is a widespread error to believe that Nature gave men only the five sense as means of learning how to live. Epicurus held (as Jefferson intimates) that Nature also gave men the faculty of perceiving pain and pleasure, and the faculty of perceiving moral relationships such as justice and injustice (called anticipations or preconceptions) as guidance in living. These three faculties are trustworthy because Nature has programmed them to simply report to us what they observe without evaluation. They may not provide a complete picture at every moment, but the picture they do provide is untainted by false opinion. And with an insight that might be the hardest of all for us to accept, Epicurus stressed that once we make fundamental judgments about the reality directly before us, we can never allow o “reason” or “faith” to contradict the truths that Nature’s faculties have established. To elevate “reason” as a crowning distinction of men alone, and to believe that “reason” can find truth higher than or different from that established by real evidence, is to rebel against Nature, to guarantee confusion, and to make living a happy life impossible.
In his second step, Epicurus was well aware of the views of false religions and philosophers that the universe was created at some point in time by one or more gods, that the stars and planets are controlled by the gods, that men (and perhaps the gods as well!) are ruled by Fate, that the gods intervene to reward those whom they love and punish those whom they hate, and that this punishment and reward continues after death in some other dimension. One again Epicurus rejected all these opinions, and looked past legend for the evidence that Nature makes accessible to us through the tools she provides. And the keystone physical principle that Epicurus identified remains true today: “Nothing can be created from nothing.” We do not “reason” this to be true, we see it to be true; it is consistent with every observation we have ever made with our own eyes and in our own experience. Never have we seen anything that conflicts with this rule, and every phenomena that we do observe confirms it. Following a similar process of observation and reasoning, Epicurus identified Twelve Elemental Observations about the Universe. These simple observations have profound implications, for we must not accept any views that contradict them. We must hold firmly to the evidence and reject speculation; we must not for a moment grant the possibility that ever — not five thousand years ago according to the Bible, not billions of years ago according to others, and not tomorrow according to the purveyor of skeptics or New Age theorists – can something be created from nothing. From reasoning such as this we conclude that the universe as a whole is eternal, and not the creation of a supernatural; that men have free will; that men are not predestined by “Fate;” that men have no need to fear punishment or reward from capricious gods either now or after death; that men can find all the truth that is necessary for them to find; that happiness is possible; and that the requirements of happy living are few and simple. These truths are not matters of speculation or mere opinion – they are the ground rules of life as set by Nature, and as certain and provable as any chemistry experiment in any physics class.
And in his third step, Epicurus was well aware that false religions and philosophies had erected “the will of god” or “virtue” or “reason” as standards of conduct. But as should now be amply clear, Epicurus dismissed these as pure speculation – groundless, empty words – and essentially unreal. What is real is the Universe itself; the only real way we have to know anything about that universe is through our natural faculties; and the only real stop and go signal we have is Nature’s faculty of pleasure and pain. Through Nature’s faculties, and through them alone, are we able to hear what Nature has to say to us, in a voice untainted by the errors and lies of other men. Through these faculties, and through them alone, do we have the capacity to know without possibility of error what Nature would have us to know. Then and only then, if we reason truly based on the evidence provided by Nature, is living happily a goal that is well within reach.
Just as he had identified Twelve Elemental observations about Nature, Epicurus identified Forty Authorized Doctrines to assist us in living happily. Each doctrine is runs deep with profound implication, but the four most significant doctrines (followed by a few of their direct implications) are:
“Doctrine 1: Any being which is happy and imperishable neither has trouble itself, nor does it cause trouble to anything else. A perfect being does not have feelings either of anger or gratitude, for these feelings exist only in the weak.” Nature disposes men to find sugar to be sweet, fire to be hot, and music to be pleasing. In a similar way Nature disposes men, through the sense of Anticipations, to perceive that just as imperfect things exist in the universe, so do perfect things — gods. To be worthy of the name, however, such gods must be perfect – without flaw. They must be without any attributes, such as feelings of anger or gratitude, that are not consistent with perfection. Thus Nature disposes man to the conclusion that Gods do exist, as do other species of animals and men on other planets, but all forms of life, including gods, have come into being according to the laws of Nature, and are governed by those same laws. One of those Natural laws is that men possess free will, and thus it is we — not the Gods — who deserve the credit or the blame for our actions. The future is not set, and there is no fate for us but what we make for ourselves..
“Doctrine 2: Death is nothing to us, because that which is dead has no sensations, and that which cannot be sensed is nothing to us.” Nature shows us through all our faculties that consciousness began at birth and ends at death. There is no Hell or punishment threatening us after death, and just as all that happened before our birth has no effect on us during our lives, neither does anything that happens after our death have any effect on us. What comes in life is everything to us; death is nothing to us.
“Doctrine 3: The limit of quantity in pleasures is the removal of all that is painful. Wherever pleasure is present, as long as it is there, there is neither pain of body nor of mind, nor of both at once.” Nature has established that the consciousness of being alive without pain is the highest of pleasure, and that man’s true needs are very simple — little more than food, water, air, and shelter. It is an illusion to believe that those things that are beyond the reach of the normal man are required in order to live a complete life. Neither power, fame, luxurious material possessions, or an unlimited lifespan are required to live happily — all that is required is to live according to Nature.
“Doctrine 4: Bodily pain does not last continuously. The most intense pain is present only for a very short time, and pain which outweighs the body’s pleasures does not continue for long. Even chronic pain permits a predominance of pleasure over pain.” Nature has provided that we need not fear pain. Pain is not continuous, not unconquerable, and thus need not be feared. Intense pain lasts only briefly, and either departs quickly or brings life to a quick end, but by either means is equally gone. Pain that is not intense is outweighed by the pleasure which life itself gives to us, and even this pain generally departs in due course, or becomes manageable over time, as we continue to experience the pleasures of life. In such cases where we find extended pain to be unbearable, it is easily within our power to end such pain by ending our lives, and even in such cases we need have no regret, because Nature has called us to measure our success in life not by its length, but by its happiness.
This brief introduction is only an outline of the wisdom of Epicurus. Epicurus advised the use of outlines to establish the big picture before studying the details, but the study never ends; like the atoms themselves, living is movement, and action, and the need for us to contemplate Nature will end no sooner than will our need to eat or drink.
The philosophy of Epicurus was developed for all who wish to live happy lives by following Nature rather than false religions and false philosophies. These are not ivory-tower speculations, they are the same method for happy living that Lucretius, the great poet of Epicureanism, described two thousand years ago:
Our life is spent
In shadows, and it suffers in the dark.
As children tremble and fear everything
In their dark shadows, we, in the full light,
Fear things that really are not one bit more awful
Than what poor babies shudder at in darkness,
The horrors they imagine to be coming.
Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled, then, not by sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into Nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation.