Today I address a narrow segment of readers who have special need for the message of Epicurus – those readers who have come into contact with the philosophy of Ayn Rand. The following is not based on a political perspective, and the point of view stated here applies whether the reader is a fan of Barak Obama or Ronald Reagan.
In her 1964 interview with Playboy, Ayn Rand stated “I consider National Review the worst and most dangerous magazine in America. The kind of defense that it offers to capitalism results in nothing except the discrediting and destruction of capitalism. Do you want me to tell you why? [PLAYBOY: Yes, please.] Because it ties capitalism to religion. The ideological position of National Review amounts, in effect, to the following: In order to accept freedom and capitalism, one has to believe in God or in some form of religion, some form of supernatural mysticism. Which means that there are no rational grounds on which one can defend capitalism. Which amounts to an admission that reason is on the side of capitalism’s enemies, that a slave society or a dictatorship is a rational system, and that only on the ground of mystic faith can one believe in freedom. Nothing more derogatory to capitalism could ever be alleged, and the exact opposite is true. Capitalism is the only system that can be defended and validated by reason.”
I submit that the “worst and most dangerous” label that Ayn Rand attached to National Review magazine is equally applicable to her Objectivist philosophy. In doing so, I fully accepts Rand’s premise that a faulty support structure ultimately undermines any short term benefits of superficial agreement, whether in public policy or philosophy.
Here is the thesis in sum: Rand’s philosophy causes a regression to the very method of analysis that she denounced most strongly. Objectivism today is in essence the same “rationalism” which Rand originally associated with Plato. This has occurred because Rand accepted the view that men are born as “blank skates.” This view had been advocated by both John Locke and Rand’s ultimate hero, Aristotle, and it is not correct as popularly understood. In adopting slogans such as “Reason is the ultimate virtue” and “Emotions are not tools of cognition,” modern Objectivism has built a wall of separation much more critical than that which separates church and state. This wall hides from its followers not false religion, but a true and criticially important human faculty – a faculty that was previously understood by other philosophers, and which is essential to a proper understanding of the nature of morality. This faculty which Objectivism suppresses is an essential foundation of morality. As we shall see, Thomas Jefferson called this faculty “the moral sense,” and the pedigree of the viewpoint is traceable to at least as far back as Epicurus.
Objectivist literature praises the views of the American Founding Fathers as expressions of those of John Locke, and through Locke, of Aristotle. In “For the New Intellectual” Rand wrote: “In the modern world, under the influence of the pervasive new climate, a succession of thinkers developed a new conception of the nature of government. The most important of these men and the one with the greatest influence on America was John Locke. The political philosophy Locke bequeathed to the Founding Fathers is what gave rise to the new nation’s distinctive institutions. That political philosophy is the social implementation of the Aristotelian spirit.”
As those familiar with Objectivist literature are also aware, Rand considered her own version of Aristotelianism to be superior to the original, which allowed her to view her own work as an improvement on that of men such as Jefferson. In the Ominous Parallels, Rand heir Leonard Peikoff wrote: “The political philosophy of America’s Founding Fathers ….has to be expanded—because it was only a magnificent beginning, not a completed job, it was only apolitical philosophy without a full philosophical and moral foundation, which the ‘conservatives’ cannot provide.”
In a December 17, 1973, article in the “Ayn Rand Letter” specifically endorsed by Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff wrote: “When the men of the Enlightenment counted on Locke (and his equivalents) as their intellectual defender, they were counting on a philosophy of reason so profoundly undercut as to be in process of self-destructing. The same destruction was occurring in Europe in the field of ethics. Although Locke and many others had held out the promise of a rational, demonstrative science of ethics, none of them delivered on this promise; none could produce or define such an ethics. Meanwhile, European voices, rising and growing louder, were declaring that the principles of ethics are ultimately based not on reason, but on feeling.”
James Wilson, one of the most distinguished legal philosophers of the American Enlightenment, a man who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, expresses this view clearly. Reflecting the influence of Hume (and others), Wilson declares: “The ultimate ends of human actions, can never, in any case, be accounted for by reason. They recommend themselves entirely to the sentiments and affections of men, without dependence on the intellectual faculties.” Morality, he states, derives from man’s “moral sense” or “instincts” or “conscience.” As to the validation of this faculty’s pronouncements, “I can only say, I feel that such is my duty. Here investigation must stop…” Jefferson, among others, held similar views. But, regardless of who formally agreed or disagreed with Wilson on this issue, the fact is that he spoke for all of them: no American did identify the basis of a rational, scientific ethics; all—admittedly or not—were relying for ethical guidance on what they felt to be moral.”
The task of rising above this “whim-worship,” as it is seen in Objectivist eyes, and the task of formulating this “rational, scientific” basis for ethics, was of course left to Ayn Rand. The implication Rand wished her readers to accept was clear: Jefferson had failed to identify the corrupt core of Platonism; Jefferson had failed to embrace the method of thinking advocated by Aristotle; Jefferson had instead relied on a mystical, religious, anti-Reason, intellectually untenable emotionalism as his basis for human morality. Jefferson’s own philosophical views are unworthy of serious consideration.
This Objectivist theory of history is incomplete and inaccurate. First, we will allow Thomas Jefferson speak for himself. In his letter to his nephew, Peter Carr, on August 10, 1787, Jefferson wrote:
Moral Philosophy. I think it lost time to attend lectures on this branch. 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 ploughman 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. In this branch, therefore, read good books, because they will encourage, as well as direct your feelings. The writings of Sterne, particularly, form the best course of morality that ever was written. Besides these, read the books mentioned in the enclosed paper; and, above all things, lose no occasion of exercising your dispositions to be grateful, to be generous, to be charitable, to be humane, to be true, just, firm, orderly, courageous, &c. Consider every act of this kind, as an exercise which will strengthen your moral faculties & increase your worth.
Objectivists are often surprised to learn that Jefferson was familiar with and opposed to Plato, as revealed by this passage which dismissed the Platonic standard of “beautiful,” or “truth” as relevant to morality, and dismissed the Platonic (and Aristotelian) idea that morality is a matter of “science.” But Jefferson’s familiarity with Plato went much deeper.
On July 5, 1814, Jefferson wrote the following to John Adams. Displayed here is a case against Plato more clear than most Objectivists ever hear from the standard Randian sources:
…. I am just returned from one of my long absences, having been at my other home for five weeks past. Having more leisure there than here for reading, I amused myself with reading seriously Plato’s Republic. I am wrong, however, in calling it amusement, for it was the heaviest task-work I ever went through. I had occasionally before taken up some of his other works, but scarcely ever had patience to go through a whole dialogue. While wading through the whimsies, the puerilities, and unintelligible jargon of this work, I laid it down often to ask myself how it could have been, that the world should have so long consented to give reputation to such nonsense as this? How the soi-disant Christian world, indeed, should have done it, is a piece of historical curiosity. But how could the Roman good sense do it? And particularly, how could Cicero bestow such eulogies on Plato! Although Cicero did not wield the dense logic of Demosthenes, yet he was able, learned, laborious, practised in the business of the world, and honest. He could not be the dupe of mere style, of which he was himself the first master in the world. With the moderns, I think, it is rather a matter of fashion and authority. Education is chiefly in the hands of persons who, from their profession, have an interest in the reputation and the dreams of Plato. They give the tone while at school, and few in their after years have occasion to revise their college opinions. But fashion and authority apart, and bringing Plato to the test of reason, take from him his sophisms, futilities and incomprehensibilities, and what remains? In truth, he is one of the race of genuine sophists, who has escaped the oblivion of his brethren, first, by the elegance of his diction, but chiefly, by the adoption and incorporation of his whimsies into the body of artificial Christianity. His foggy mind is forever presenting the semblances of objects which, half seen through a mist, can be defined neither in form nor dimensions. Yet this, which should have consigned him to early oblivion, really procured him immortality of fame and reverence. The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ levelled to every understanding, and too plain to need explanation, saw in the mysticism of Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system, which might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power and pre-eminence. The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them; and for this obvious reason, that nonsense can never be explained. Their purposes, however, are answered. Plato is canonized; and it is now deemed as impious to question his merits as those of an Apostle of Jesus. He is peculiarly appealed to as an advocate of the immortality of the soul; and yet I will venture to say, that were there no better arguments than his in proof of it, not a man in the world would believe it. It is fortunate for us, that Platonic republicanism has not obtained the same favor as Platonic Christianity; or we should now have been all living, men, women and children, pell mell together, like beasts of the field or forest. Yet “Plato is a great philosopher,” said La Fontaine. But, says Fontenelle, “Do you find his ideas very clear?” “Oh no! he is of an obscurity impenetrable.” “Do you not find him full of contradictions?” “Certainly,” replied La Fontaine, “he is but a sophist.” Yet immediately after he exclaims again, “Oh, Plato was a great philosopher.” Socrates had reason, indeed, to complain of the misrepresentations of Plato; for in truth, his dialogues are libels on Socrates.
From these two selections, the Randian reader should already see that Jefferson’s understanding of Plato was far deeper than the Objectivist student is ever instructed. This should bring home the realization that no one as familiar with Plato as Jefferson would rest his understanding of morality either on Plato’s forms or Aristotles pedantic categories. Time after time in the writings that are left to us, Jefferson referred to a “moral sense” as the true foundation of morality, with this “sense” being neither a Platonic ideal or an Aristotelian syllogism, but as much a part of a man’s body as his arm or his legs. Here are additional references:
Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on French Treaties, 1793: “Questions of natural right are triable by their conformity with the moral sense and reason of man.”
Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on French Treaties, 1793: “The true fountains of evidence [are] the head and heart of every rational and honest man. It is there nature has written her moral laws, and where every man may read them for himself.”
Thomas Jefferson to John Manners, 1817: “The evidence of [the] natural right [of expatriation], like that of our right to life, liberty, the use of our faculties, the pursuit of happiness, is not left to the feeble and sophistical investigations of reason, but is impressed on the sense of every man.”
Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Law, 1814: “Nature [has] implanted in our breasts a love of others, a sense of duty to them, a moral instinct, in short, which prompts us irresistibly to feel and to succor their distresses.”
Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1823: “I believe that justice is instinct and innate, that the moral sense is as much a part of our constitution as that of feeling, seeing, or hearing; as a wise Creator must have seen to be necessary in an animal destined to live in society.”
Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816: “When we come to the moral principles on which the government is to be administered, we come to what is proper for all conditions of society. Liberty, truth, probity, honor, are declared to be the four cardinal principles of society. I believe that morality, compassion, generosity, are innate elements of the human constitution; that there exists a right independent of force.”
At this point the confirmed Randian can be expected to object “But these are proof that Jefferson was a religious mystic at best or a whim-worshiper at worst!”
The answer to this objection lies in the Objectivist failure to look closely at what is being described when Jefferson refers to a moral “sense.” Objectivists presume that Jefferson is saying that babies are born with moral maxims implanted in their brains; that they are minted socialist or capitalist from the womb. The quotes above, showing Jefferson dissecting Plato with Rand-like precision, should be enough to cause them to check their premises.
Having never heard that Jefferson analogized the moral sense to arms or legs, Objectivists have never considered that arms and legs, though present at birth, are largely unusable. Like the eyes and the ears, the arms and legs are faculties that must be allowed time and experience to develop before they can be employed properly. This lack of development at birth, however, is no argument whatsoever that they did not exist at birth.
Thus the key insight that Jefferson held, which Objectivism fails to appreciate, is that moral “principles” are much different from moral “ideas.” The view Jefferson is describing rests on the foundation that these are two very different things.
Jefferson reserved much of his theoretical philosophical writing for his private letters, and so far I have not been able to locate an extended treatment of this point from his own pen. But what we do not have in Jefferson’s handwriting is amply made up by a small volume published in 1789 by English author Jackson Barwis, teacher of Jefferson’s friend Thomas Cooper.
Barwis’ Dialogues on Innate Principles is a short, eloquent, and poetic work subtitled “An Examination of Mr. Locke’s Doctrine On that Subject.” This book is a pleasure to read and freely available on the internet, so I will not attempt to replicate its argument here. In very short summary, Barwis explains that the “principles”of things are much different than “data” or “maxims” about those same things. For example, the principles of geometry involve recognition of matters such as length, width, and extension. On top of these, an incredible structure of geometric science can be erected by the reasoning mind of man. Nevertheless, length, width, and extension existed before any eye ever saw them or any reasoning was ever applied to them.
In a similar way, principles of wavelength and color existed before the reasoning mind ever examined the information provided by the eyes. Principles of pitch and tone existed before the reasoning mind ever examined the information provided by the ears.
In the field of morality, fundamental principles (not maxims!!) of the relations of human beings to themselves, to each other, and to the universe existed before the reasoning mind ever considered them.
In this way the “moral sense” is exactly analogous to the sense of sight or the sense of hearing. At birth, the mind has seen nothing and heard nothing. Yet both eyes and ears are born with us, and stand ready to perceive information about the world around us. That information is evaluated by the sense of pain and pleasure, and then further processed in the reasoning mind.
Likewise, at birth, the moral sense contains no information. The moral sense knows neither capitalism nor socialism nor freedom nor slavery. Yet the moral sense is born with us, and absent its existence as a faculty such moral relationships would never be recognized in the first place. Without eyes the blind man can never understand color. Without the moral sense, issues such as capitalism vs. socialism, freedom vs. slavery would never enter our mental radar for analysis. Without the moral sense men would no more be concerned with issues of justice than cats or dogs are interested in playing Scrabble.
Having now introduced the issue, I must step back and defer to Jackson Barwis. I must acknowledge that complete discussion of these issues to Objectivism would require a book, not a blog post. Even more troubling, I must recognize that the minds of many fans of Ayn Rand are closed to consideration of these issues.
The best I can hope to accomplish is to equip casual readers of Rand, who have not fully conditioned their minds to worship “Reason” as an absolute Platonic abstraction rather than as a tool of the mind, that there is a way out of their dilemma. Do I really believe that Objectivism is the “worst and most dangerous philosophy in America?” No. Apparently Rand thought in those terms about National Review, but the terms apply to Objectivism only in this limited sense: Those who have enough insight to realize that their consciences are not to be ignored, but trusted, will never fall prey to the worst perils of Objectivism. But many people of good will, out of a desire to “be the best they can be” in a Randian universe, succeed in suppressing their own consciences in the mistaken belief that “Reason is the Highest Virtue,” and the “Emotions are not tools of cognition.” The segment of society for whom Objectivism is the worst danger is the Objectivist community itself. As Nathaniel Branden wrote in his Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand,
“I can think of many occasions in my own life when I refused to listen to my feelings and followed instead my conscious beliefs — which happened to be wrong — with disastrous results. If I had listened to my emotions more carefully, and not been so willing to ignore and repress them, my thinking — and my life — would have advanced far more satisfactorily.” … “If, in page after page of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, you show someone being heroic by ruthlessly setting feelings aside, and if you show someone being rotten and depraved by, in effect, diving headlong into his feelings and emotions, and if that is one of your dominant methods of characterization, repeated again and again, then it doesn’t matter what you profess, in abstract philosophy, about the relationship of reason and emotion. You have taught people: repress, repress, repress.”
It is likely that Ayn Rand herself did not suffer from the worst of the perils described here, at least for her entire life. She seems to have destroyed her latter years in a rationalist and fruitless effort to psychoanalyze Nathaniel Branden, rather than to admit to herself that he simply did not love her romantically. But well before these final years, Rand had been warned about her fixation on Aristotelian rationalism. In her biography “Ayn Rand and the World she Made,” Ann Heller recorded the following about Rand’s mentor, Isabel Paterson:
The two also conducted a fascinating, though highly charged, argument about the limits of Aristotelian deductive reasoning. Paterson thought that Rand’s use of logic sometimes resembled the arid arguments put forward by the philosophers Rand most disliked. When such philosophers “had strung some words together, in the form of a syllogism or other logical construction, they thought that [the formulation] had to be so—without asking if the facts which constitute the necessary premises are so,” Paterson wrote. Take, for example, the logic of, “All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal. That is a good syllogism,” she wrote, “but its truth depends on the premises being true—that men are mortal, that Socrates is a man. Logic is an instrument for dealing with whatever you can get into its measure.” The older woman thought that God and men were both to some degree immeasurable. She argued that Rand trusted deductive reasoning too much and overlooked matters that reason might identify as being worthy of investigation but that were illogical, or inexplicable, at least for now. Rand thought that the alternative to a morality of reason was “the fiat of revelation,” and that to hypothesize entities and spheres that the human mind was by its nature inadequate to understand was at best perverse.
Heller also recorded that Rand was taken to task publicly about Aristotle by professor Sidney Hook in the New York Times Book Review:
One [review which threw Rand into a rage] was Professor Hook’s allegation that she had misread Aristotle. The distinguished philosopher and historian at NYU was making a point that Isabel Paterson had tried to make years earlier: “A is A” implies nothing, he wrote, other than a logical method to test the consistency of philosophical observations and ideas and cannot be used as the basis for a code of ethics. He disagreed that free minds cannot exist without free markets and surmised that her rhetoric drove her into corners she did not really wish to occupy. For example, if “all the evils popularly ascribed to capitalism” had actually been caused by government interference, as she asserted in the book, then what accounted for the horrors of nineteenth-century child labor, which the government had remedied? (Rand answered that if it weren’t for the jobs that capitalism had created in the first place, the children would have starved to death.) As to her blanket rejection of altruism, he wrote, “I am confident that even at some danger to herself Miss Rand would not rush out of a burning building and leave a helpless child behind. She refuses to call such an action unselfish because she falls back on the truism that every voluntary choice is a choice of the self, which she mistakes as an act for [the] self.” He ended with a gibe: Although a writer need not be a professional philosopher to write an interesting book about philosophy, substituting indignation for analysis was not the way to do it.
I cannot close this post without pointing the way to the real antidote to Platonic rationalism. Despite what Objectivists tend to believe, Aristotle was not the only anti-Platonic Greek philosopher of significance. In many ways, Aristotle carried on and retransmitted the errors of Plato, as even the Randians admit.
But history does have an inspiring example of a philosopher who challenged head-on both Platonic and Aristotelian errors. History has a philosophic giant whose wisdom spread far and wide in the ancient world, to the point where Cicero noted his views had taken Italy by storm, and Nietzsche noted that virtually every educated mind of the Roman world honored his name. History has a figure who centuries of misrepresentation and attack have not been able to eliminate, whose genius has shown through even to extent of prompting Jefferson to refer to him as “our master” and say of himself: “I too am an Epicurean.”
Further development must be left to the reader to follow the references mentioned here. The best explanation of the Epicurean theory of the canon of truth, the three legs of which include the moral sense in my view, is contained in Norman Dewitt’s “Epicurus and His Philosophy.” There the subject is discussed under the name Epicurus gave it – “Anticipations” or “Preconceptions.” In my view, Dewitt’s explanation would be more precise if he had employed Barwis’ terminology and referred to “innate principles” rather than “innate ideas.” But if the reader first consults Barwis’ explanation of the moral sense, Dewitt’s citations to the Epicurean viewpoint can be read in a way highly consistent with the Jeffersonian viewpoint.
And we have at least one additional interim reference point. Pierre Gassendi, whose “Life and Morals of Epicurus” and other works are credited with re-introducing Epicurean ideas into the European world in the 1600’s, wrote the following in his list of the names of Epicurus’ books. Note the use of the term “faculty” instead of “ideas”:
“Πεογνωςιμον, Praecognitorium; so I render it, because he seemeth in this to have discoursed of the Praecognitive faculty.”
As we move toward a close, here is a recap:
Understanding of this subject requires identification of “the moral sense” or “Anticipations/Preconceptions” as a sense, parallel to that of the sense of seeing or the sense of hearing. Neither the eyes nor the ears nor this moral sense are born with content at birth, but all senses operate according to fundamental principles which govern and limit their operation.
Proper understanding also requires identification that the process of “evaluation” is separate from the process of perception. The eyes do not tell us that a tree is pleasing or painful. The ears do not tell us that a sound is pleasing or painful. Likewise the moral sense / sense of anticipations does not tell us that the moral relationship under consideration is pleasing or painful. A sense is not an evaluative mechanism, and it is in this way that it is correct to say that “all sensations are true.” Senses report to us – report to us truly and without opinion or bias – exactly what they perceive, without the addition any evaluation whatsoever. Their report may be accurate to the full facts; it may be incomplete; or it may be distorted by the conditions under which the perception was received. Short-range evaluation of a perception is a function of the separate Pain / Pleasure mechanism. Long-range evaluation, to determine whether the activity generating the pain or pleasure is to be pursued or avoided, is a function of the reasoning mind, which processes ALL of the information that is available to it. And yes, objectivists, the information available to the reasoning mind in moral matters includes the information generated by the moral sense.
Properly considered as an evaluation of perceptions generated by the moral sense, emotions ARE tools of cognition.
It is here that Rand, Locke, and Aristotle fail to see what Epicurus realized. The “standard of truth” as Epicurus referred to it, is a triad; a stool with three legs — (1) the five senses, (2) the pain pleasure mechanism, and (3) the anticipations/preconceptions. Aristotle and Plato rejected the third leg as a faculty given us by Nature, Objectivism carries on the Aristotelian tradition, and as a result the human mind cannot stand firm on matters of morality. As Barwis elaborates in detail, Aristotle and Locke and Rand would have us to believe that “Reason” can take the place and serve in the position of this third leg. This is a function that Reason most assuredly cannot perform. Barwis states this beautifully:
Is not our reason given us to supply, in some degree, the place of innate moral principles?
This, returned he, is what Mr. Locke would have us to understand, but most certainly it cannot be so, for as we have shown before, we are not able by reasoning to create principles in things. The principles of all things exist in them before we begin to reason about them, or they never could be made to exist at all by any human power. Our reason must always have some foundation to build upon; that foundation must exist before we begin to reason, or we could not reason at all. We can neither perceive or understand anything as a subject of reasoning whose principles do not exist prior to our reasoning. Thus moral maxims, when true, must be founded on some principles in the human nature which are originally inherent in man, and our reasoning in the formation of such maxims must be regulated by those originally-inherent principles. Had we not such principles innate or born with us, our reason could have no ground to go upon concerning morals, for reasoning could never make a man, devoid of innate moral principles, perceive the justice or truth of any moral maxim. Indeed, without such principles he could never know anything at all of moral maxims, for when any moral maxim is proposed to us we can neither understand it or examine into its truth or falsehood without referring to our internal touchstone, our innate moral sentiments; they alone enable us to understand it, and by them only can we judge of its truth or falsehood, for its truth or falsehood to us depends entirely upon its agreement or disagreement with them.
I advise my Objectivist friends to give greater credit to Jefferson than they have given him to date. Above all, in order to see how deeply Jefferson was immersed in these same philosophic details, read Frances Wright’s “A Few Days In Athens,” which Jefferson called “A treat to me of the highest order.”
How few Objectivists know anything about Frances Wright; how few know about Wright’s visit to Monticello with the Marquis de Lafayette! How few know anything of significance about Stoicism; how Stoicism waged a war against Epicureanism that was not successful until Stoicism and all variants of Arototelianism and Platonism allied themselves with Christianity! Jefferson set forth all this in his letter to William Short of October 31, 1819, but how few Objectivists have ever heard of it!
Jefferson’s letter to Short will be my last citation to the Jeffersonian era. I have only scratched the surface of what could be presented. The material presented here, however, is ample for intellectual activists, as the Objectivists like to pride themselves as being, to follow the lead of Thomas Jefferson:
As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us. Epictetus indeed, has given us what was good of the stoics; all beyond, of their dogmas, being hypocrisy and grimace. Their great crime was in their calumnies of Epicurus and misrepresentations of his doctrines; in which we lament to see the candid character of Cicero engaging as an accomplice. Diffuse, vapid, rhetorical, but enchanting. His prototype Plato, eloquent as himself, dealing out mysticisms incomprehensible to the human mind, has been deified by certain sects usurping the name of Christians; because, in his foggy conceptions, they found a basis of impenetrable darkness whereon to rear fabrications as delirious, of their own invention. These they fathered blasphemously on him who they claimed as their founder, but who would disclaim them with the indignation which their caricatures of his religion so justly excite.
Of Socrates we have nothing genuine but in the Memorabilia of Xenophon; for Plato makes him one of his Collocutors merely to cover his own whimsies under the mantle of his name; a liberty of which we are told Socrates himself complained. Seneca is indeed a fine moralist, disguising his work at times with some Stoicisms, and affecting too much of antithesis and point, yet giving us on the whole a great deal of sound and practical morality. But the greatest of all the reformers of the depraved religion of his own country, was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill, we have the outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man; outlines which it is lamentable he did not live to fill up. Epictetus and Epicurus give laws for governing ourselves, Jesus a supplement of the duties and charities we owe to others. The establishment of the innocent and genuine character of this benevolent moralist, and the rescuing it form the imputation of imposture, which has resulted from artificial systems, ** invented by ultra-Christian sects, and unauthorized by a single word ever uttered by him, is a most desirable object, and one to which Priestley has successfully devoted his labors and learning. It would in time, it is to be hoped, effect a quiet euthanasia of the heresies of bigotry and fanaticism which have so long triumphed over human reason, and so generally and deeply afflicted mankind; but this work is to be begun by winnowing the grain form the chaff of the historians of his life. I have sometimes thought of translating Epictetus (for he has never been tolerably translated into English) by adding the genuine doctrines of Epicurus from the Syntagma of Gassendi, and an abstract from the Evangelists of whatever has the stamp of the eloquence and fine imagination of Jesus. The last I attempted too hastily some twelve or fifteen years ago. It was the work of two or three nights only, at Washington, after getting through the evening task of reading the letters and papers of the day. But with one foot in the grave, these are now idle projects for me. My business is to beguile the wearisomeness of declining life, as I endeavor to do, by the delights of classical reading and of mathematical truths, and by the consolations of a sound philosophy, equally indifferent to hope and fear.
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….!
When human life, all too conspicuous,
Lay foully groveling on earth, weighed down
By grim Religion looming from the skies,
Horribly threatening mortal men, a man,
A Greek, first raised his mortal eyes
Bravely against this menace. No report
Of gods, no lightning-flash, no thunder-peal
Made this man cower, but drove him all the more
With passionate manliness of mind and will
To be the first to spring the tight-barred gates
Of Nature’s hold asunder. So his force,
His vital force of mind, a conqueror
Beyond the flaming ramparts of the world
Explored the vast immensities of space
With wit and wisdom, and came back to us
Triumphant, bringing news of what can be
And what cannot, limits and boundaries,
The borderline, the bench mark, set forever.
Religion, so, is trampled underfoot,
And by his victory we reach the stars.
THE Canon [of Truth, as set forth by Epicurus] was not an afterthought, as the Stoics asserted, but occupied the first place in the triad of Canon, Physics, and Ethics. This arrangement is unalterable, because the Ethics were deduced from the Physics and the truth of both Physics and Ethics was subject to the test of the Canon, which included Sensations, Anticipations, and Feelings.The task of expounding the Canon would be much simpler were it not for ancient and modern confusions and ambiguities that beset the topic. Epicurus disposed of it in a single roll. The word canon denotes a rule or straightedge but metaphorically includes all the instruments employed by a builder. A perspicuous account of it is presented by Lucretius, who mentions also the square and the plumb line. Apart from this passage, however, Lucretius misleads the reader, because he gives exclusive prominence to the Sensations and seems to have lacked a clear understanding of the workings of Anticipations and Feelings as criteria.These last two criteria, it is manifest, were not discussed in the Big Epitome which Lucretius had before him. In the graded textbooks of Epicurus the topic must have been reserved for advanced students. It is doubtful whether Lucretius was even acquainted with the roll that treated of the Canon. This is unfortunate, because his own one-sided treatment is largely to blame for the classification of Epicurus as an empiricist and for the ascription to him of belief in “the infallibility of sensation.” It is an even worse mistake to have confused the tests of truth with the content of truth, that is, the tools of precision with the stones of the wall. This was the blunder of Pierre Gassendi, who revived the study of Epicurus in the seventeenth century. It was his finding “that there is nothing in the intellect which has not been in the senses.” From this position John Locke, in turn, set out as the founder of modern empiricism. Thus a misunderstanding of Epicurus underlies a main trend of modern philosophy. This astonishing fact begets an even greater concern for a correct interpretation, which may cause Locke to appear slightly naive.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….
While by this line of argument it will be observed that the incorporeal, eternal, and unerring reason of Plato and Aristotle is eliminated, the purely human, mortal reason remains. Even this is subordinated to the sensations: “Not even reason can refute the sensations, for reason depends wholly upon them.” This does not mean, as Gassendi imagined, that the whole content of thought is derived from the sensations, which was not the teaching of Epicurus, but rather that the deprivation of sensation is virtually death.8 The basic idea is the conviction that reason is incapable of making direct contact with reality; reason is active only when the sensations are active. Without the sensations reason possesses no criteria, since they along with the Anticipations and Feelings function as contacts with reality.
[Chapter 11] It should nevertheless be remembered that a misunderstanding of [Epicurus’] teaching gave rise to Gassendi’s doctrine “that there is nothing in the intellect which has not been in the senses” and that this in turn was a starting point for John Locke and modern empiricism. Epicurus was not himself an empiricist but rather an intuitionist: the mind of the infant was to his thinking not a blank tablet but already laced with the faint outlines of ideas that should gradually acquire definition in pace with experience, instruction, and reflection.
(2) Again, we aver that mental pleasures and pains arise out of bodily ones (and therefore I allow your contention that any Epicureans who think otherwise put themselves out of court; and I am aware that many do, though not those who can speak with authority); but although men do experience mental pleasure that is agreeable and mental pain that is annoying, yet both of these we assert arise out of and are based upon bodily sensations.
(3) Yet we maintain that this does not preclude mental pleasures and pains from being much more intense than those of the body; since the body can feel only what is present to it at the moment, whereas the mind is also cognizant of the past and of the future. For granting that pain of body is equally painful, yet our sensation of pain can be enormously increased by the belief that some evil of unlimited magnitude and duration threatens to befall us hereafter. And the same consideration may be transferred to pleasure: a pleasure is greater if not accompanied by any apprehension of evil. This therefore clearly appears, that intense mental pleasure or distress contributes more to our happiness or misery than a bodily pleasure or pain of equal duration.