Peace and Safety to the Epicureans of today, no matter where you might be!
In recent weeks a series of “terrorist” attacks has rocked the world, and I would like to address just one small but profound aspect of how Epicurean philosophy applies to analyzing these events:
Whether we are considering the Epicurean definition of “justice” as something that does not exist as an absolute, or whether we are discussing that the Epicurean “canon of truth” means that the five senses, the sense of pain and pleasure, and the anticipations are the real “test of truth” given to men by Nature, it is important to realize that these are concepts which do not just apply to people we happen to like. Just as with the Epicurean observations on “death” and on “the nature of the gods,” the Epicurean observations on justice and truth are not “choices” that we can choose to apply for ourselves or not. Whether or not we choose to accept it, we die. Whether or not we choose to accept it, there is in fact no universe-creating god whose perspective on “right” and “wrong” conduct applies to all men.
And whether or not we find it appealing, those whom we choose to label as “terrorists” are covered just as much as we are by the observations that (1) there is no “absolute justice” and (2) men are “created by Nature to pursue pleasure.”
We frequently focus on the methods of living that are most successful in living pleasurably, and on understanding that there is no reward or punishment after death, and on similar ethical issues. But in these challenging times when we are forced to confront how to act collectively to deal with extremely difficult issues, we need to remember that our enemies are human just as we are, and Epicurean observations apply to them just as well as to us.
Even the most “depraved” ISIS suicide bomber is created by Nature to pursue pleasure. While he or she may be pursuing their activities in ways we find abhorrent, at root the pleasure-pain mechanism is still active in their decisions on how to live. And the test of their conduct is not whether we approve of it, but whether it in fact leads them to lives of happiness.
Likewise, one man’s suicide bomber is another man’s freedom fighter, and the clear implication of the Epicurean doctrines on justice is that the foundation of justice is the agreement to live in mutual peace and safety, and that absence such an agreement, there is no “absolute justice” to which to refer as an umpire.
PD10 says: “If the things that produce the pleasures of profligates could dispel the fears of the mind about the phenomena of the sky and death and its pains, and also teach the limits of desires (and of pains), we should never have cause to blame them: for they would be filling themselves full with pleasures from every source and never have pain of body or mind, which is the evil of life.” This saying applies to ISIS just as well as it applies to the International Red Cross. Epicurean philosophy brings us observations that are eternally true about the nature of life, but it does not provide us ready-made analysis to unwind situations which are extremely complicated by their past development. Both ISIS and the West have made choices about their conduct toward the other in the past, and they now pursue specific goals for the future.
Epicurus tells us to observe closely and pay close attention to the meaning of every observation, and he tells us to never assume that evidence which is conflicting or unclear can have only one possible explanation. In times when people are killing each other in ways that we are tempted to to label as “irrational” to to command to “stop,” Epicurean philosophy is more needed than ever. So the next time you are confronted by an emotional plea to reduce difficult situations to slogans and prayers, if you wish to avoid hopeless confusion remember PD24:
24. If you reject any single sensation and fail to distinguish between the conclusion of opinion as to the appearance awaiting confirmation and that which is actually given by the sensation or feeling, or each intuitive apprehension of the mind, you will confound all other sensations as well with the same groundless opinion, so that you will reject every standard of judgment. And if among the mental images created by your opinion you affirm both that which awaits confirmation and that which does not, you will not escape error, since you will have preserved the whole cause of doubt in every judgment between what is right and what is wrong.
As Seneca recorded: Sic fac omnia tamquam spectet Epicurus! So do all things as though watching were Epicurus!
And as Philodemus wrote: “I will be faithful to Epicurus, according to whom it has been my choice to live.”