I have been reminded that I regularly make fairly pointed comments on the topic of “reason,” and I want to take this opportunity to explain why. This post is especially for readers outside the United States, for whom I recognize my frame of reference may be difficult to follow.
First and foremost, it is absolutely clear that Epicurus held “reason” in high regard. Below are several selections from the ancient texts which make that clear. Among the most clear is PD16, which emphasizes that the wise man will direct the greatest and highest interests of his whole life by reason. I don’t know how much more unmistakeable an endorsement can be! Here are a few other references:
PD 16. Chance seldom interferes with the wise man; his greatest and highest interests have been, are, and will be, directed by reason throughout his whole life.
PD 19. Unlimited time and limited time afford an equal amount of pleasure, if we measure the limits of that pleasure by reason.
Letter to Menoeceus: It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of revelry, not sexual lust, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul.
Cicero, On Ends, has the Epicurean Torquatus say: The same principle will lead us to pronounce that Temperance also is not desirable for its own sake, but because it bestows peace of mind, and soothes the heart with a tranquilizing sense of harmony. For it is temperance that warns us to be guided by reason in what we desire and avoid.
Cicero, On Ends, has the Epicurean Torquatus say: Men of sound natures, therefore, are summoned by the voice of true reason to justice, equity, and honesty.
Cicero, On Ends, has the Epicurean Torquatus say: Moreover, any pains that the Wise Man may encounter are never so severe but that he has more cause for gladness than for sorrow. Again, it is a fine saying of Epicurus that “the Wise Man is but little interfered with by fortune: the great concerns of life, the things that matter, are controlled by his own wisdom and reason.”
The rub, however, comes when one fails to remember that all reasoning, to be valid, must be based on facts. I fervently hope that all readers will lead lives untroubled by those who see no need to ground their reasonings in reality, but I have not been so lucky myself. In the US we have philosophical bumper stickers that read “Reason: The Highest Virtue,” as if reason could operate on its own without reference to facts based on evidence. It seems to me that the reminder that true reasoning must always be tied to evidence can hardly be repeated often enough. Even laying aside the main statement in Book IV of Lucretius (quoted in the Addendum below), such warnings recur numerous times in the work of Epicurus himself:
Letter to Herodotus: Further, the whole of being consists of bodies and space. For the existence of bodies is everywhere attested by sense itself, and it is upon sensation that reason must rely when it attempts to infer the unknown from the known.
Letter to Herodotus: Again, we must suppose that nature too has been taught and forced to learn many various lessons by the facts themselves, that reason subsequently develops what it has thus received and makes fresh discoveries, among some tribes more quickly, among others more slowly, the progress thus made being at certain times and seasons greater, at others less.
Letter to Herodotus: And as for things not visible, so far as those who were conscious of them tried to introduce any such notion, they put in circulation certain names for them, either sounds which they were instinctively compelled to utter or which they selected by reason on analogy according to the most general cause there can be for expressing oneself in such a way.
Letter to Pythocles: Certain stars may revolve without setting not only for the reason alleged by some, because this is the part of the world round which, itself unmoved, the rest revolves, but it may also be because a circular eddy of air surrounds this part, which prevents them from traveling out of sight like other stars or because there is a dearth of necessary fuel farther on, while there is abundance in that part where they are seen to be. Moreover there are several other ways in which this might be brought about, as may be seen by anyone capable of reasoning in accordance with the facts.
The essential point is that as important and critical as “reasoning” is, “true reason” necessarily relies upon accurate assessment of the facts of reality. The danger is that we are constantly tempted to short-circuit the judgment process. In Epicurean terms, we fail to wait until our evidence is sufficient to justify our conclusions. In his book Epicurus and His Philosophy, Norman DeWitt makes many references to this theme, and I defer to his scholarship for the best explanation of the issue. But it is not necessary to refer to DeWitt to observe how important this issue was to Epicurus. In addition to Lucretius’ warning in Book IV, Cicero emphasized the point by using it as his summation in defense of Epicurus in “On Ends.” Placing it at the apex of his argument emphasizes the fact that this is one of the most important aspects distinguishing Epicurus from the Platonic / Aristotelian philosophers who had preceded him:
You are pleased to think him [Epicurus] uneducated. The reason is that he refused to consider any education worth the name that did not help to school us in happiness. Was he to spend his time, as you encourage Triarius and me to do, in perusing poets, who give us nothing solid and useful, but merely childish amusement? Was he to occupy himself like Plato with music and geometry, arithmetic and astronomy, which starting from false premises cannot be true, and which moreover if they were true would contribute nothing to make our lives pleasanter and therefore better? Was he, I say, to study arts like these, and neglect the master art, so difficult and correspondingly so fruitful, the art of living? No! Epicurus was not uneducated: the real philistines are those who ask us to go on studying till old age the subjects that we ought to be ashamed not to have learnt in boyhood.
As important as I have found this issue to be personally, perhaps it has not troubled many readers of this blog. Those who have overcome the temptations of “rationalism” have immunized themselves from many of the worst philosophic errors. But for those like me who find the issue troubling and important, I will do my best to discuss it clearly, for:
Vain is the word of a philosopher which does not heal any suffering of humankind. For just as there is no profit in medicine if it does not expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy either, if it does not expel the suffering of the mind. Epicurus
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Here is the reference from Lucretius Book IV, as translated by HAJ Munro, which is perhaps the most definitive and clear statement on this issue:
Many are the other marvels of this sort we see, which all seek to shake as it were the credit of the senses: quite in vain, since the greatest part of these cases cheats us on account of the mental suppositions which we add of ourselves, taking those things as seen which have not been seen by the senses.
For nothing is harder than to separate manifest facts from doubtful which straightway the mind adds on of itself.
Again if a man believe that nothing is known, he knows not whether this even can be known, since he admits he knows nothing.
I will therefore decline to argue the case against him who places himself with head where his feet should be.
And yet granting that he knows this, I would still put this question, since he has never yet seen any truth in things, whence he knows what knowing and not knowing severally are, and what it is that has produced the knowledge of the true and the false and what has proved the doubtful to differ from the certain.
You will find that from the senses first has proceeded the knowledge of the true and the false and that the senses cannot be refuted.
For that which is of itself to be able to refute things false by true things must from the nature of the case be proved to have the higher certainty.
Well then, what must fairly be accounted of higher certainty than sense?
Shall reason founded on false sense be able to contradict them, wholly founded as it is on the senses?
And if they are not true, then all reason as well is rendered false.
Or shall the ears be able to take the eyes to task, or the touch the ears? Again shall the taste call in question this touch, or the nostrils refute or the eyes controvert it? Not so, I guess; for each apart has its own distinct office, each its own power; and therefore we must perceive what is soft and cold or hot by one distinct faculty, by another perceive the different colors of things and thus see all objects which are conjoined with color.
Taste too has its faculty apart; smells spring from one source, sounds from another.
It must follow therefore that any one sense cannot confute any other.
No nor can any sense take itself to task, since equal credit must be assigned to it at all times.
What therefore has at any time appeared true to each sense, is true.
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.
Additional references relevant to the same topic from the Principal Doctrines are:
22. We must consider both the ultimate end and all clear sensory evidence, to which we refer our opinions; for otherwise everything will be full of uncertainty and confusion.
23. If you fight against all your sensations, you will have no standard to which to refer, and thus no means of judging even those sensations which you claim are false.
24. If you reject absolutely any single sensation without stopping to distinguish between opinion about things awaiting confirmation and that which is already confirmed to be present, whether in sensation or in feelings or in any application of intellect to the presentations, you will confuse the rest of your sensations by your groundless opinion and so you will reject every standard of truth. If in your ideas based upon opinion you hastily affirm as true all that awaits confirmation as well as that which does not, you will not avoid error, as you will be maintaining the entire basis for doubt in every judgment between correct and incorrect opinion.
25. If you do not on every occasion refer each of your actions to the ultimate end prescribed by nature, but instead of this in the act of choice or avoidance turn to some other end, your actions will not be consistent with your theories.
From DeWitt’s Epicurus and His Philosophy, From Chapter I, Epicurus as a Man of Science, discussing the error of Platonism:
Geometry in particular, though itself a positivistic study, inspired in the minds of men a new movement that was genuinely romantic. It was the romantic aspect of the new knowledge that captivated Plato, who was no more than up-to-date as a mathematician himself. In geometry he seemed to see absolute reason contemplating absolute truth, perfect precision of concept joined with finality of demonstration.
He began to transfer the precise concepts of geometry to ethics and politics just as modern thinkers transferred the concepts of biological evolution to history and sociology. Especially enticing was the concept which we know as definition. This was a creation of the geometricians; they created it by defining straight lines, equilateral triangles, and other regular figures. If these can be defined, Plato tacitly reasoned, why not also justice, piety, temperance, and other virtues? This is reasoning by analogy, one of the trickiest of logical procedures. It holds good only between sets of true similars. Virtues and triangles are not true similars. It does not follow, therefore, because equilateral triangles can be precisely defined, that justice can be defined in the same way. Modern jurists warn against defining justice; it is what the court says it is from time to time.
The deceptiveness of analogy, however, does not prevent it from flourishing, and Plato committed himself to the use of it unreservedly. In this he was abetted by a happy coincidence. The method of analysis by question and answer, developed by Socrates recently before, commended itself as the very technique that was needed for the quest of definitions in the domain of ethics. By disposition Socrates was a gifted actor, staging semiprivate theatricals before small groups. As for Plato, in an earlier age he might have become a dramatist. Thus it is not astonishing that the fruit of their joint invention was the dramatization of logic which is called dialectic, best exemplified by the Platonic dialogues. Yet this was only the beginning. One false step invites another. The quest of a definition, of justice, for example, presumes the existence of the thing to be defined. If equilateral triangles did not exist, they certainly could not be defined. Assume that justice can be defined and at once it is assumed that justice exists just as equilateral triangles exist. Hence arose Plato’s theory of ideas. The word idea means shape or form and he thought of abstract notions as having an independent existence just as geometrical figures exist, a false analogy. The theory of ideas was rejected as an absurdity by the young Epicurus, because he was a materialist and denied all existences except atoms and space. The theory once rejected, the instrument became useless; scientists have no use for dramatized logic; they depend chiefly upon their senses.
Note: All quotations, other than the Lucretius reference as translated by HAJ Munro, are from Epicurus.net