Reflections on Epicurean Ethics

A recent discussion on Facebook prompted the following reflections, which I want to summarize on the NewEpicurean blog for future reference. The discussion was prompted in part by a common question asked of anyone who posits the idea that there is a knowable code of morality. Let me paraphrase the essence of the question this way, tongue-in-cheek: “OK smart alec, you say that the Epicurean moral code is superior to others. Go ahead, if you can, give me a LIST of your moral rules and tell me why they are correct!”

In order to tackle this question we must first observe that there is a philosophical error in the question. The question presumes that a “list” is possible, and that in the absence of such a list the moral code is invalid or insufficient. According to my understanding of Epicureanism, an absolute list is impossible to compile, but not because of some inadequacy or deficiency in our understanding. The very attempt to formulate a list, indeed the very desire to ask for the list, is based on a flawed premise. The error is that there is some omnipotent god or some highest point or some place of rest from which everything can be summarized and viewed, and from which point of omnipotence the viewer can conclude, for example, that: “YES, killing someone is always wrong.”

This ignores the readily apparent truth that the everyday actions about which we think we can require a moral judgment, such as the act of killing, must be evaluated in the context in which those actions are committed. In the question of killing, one must ask “Was the person killed a child against whom the killer was simply prejudiced over the color of his skin, or was the person killed a terrorist who was about to detonate a bomb and kill hundreds of innocent people?” The propriety of an action has to be judged in its context, and there are boundless numbers of circumstances and contexts which may be encountered.

But does the fact that the number of circumstances are boundless mean that NO judgments about ANY actions are possible? Of course not. The attributes of the nature of man and the daily circumstances in which we find ourselves are NOT boundless in number. Judgments of good or evil within particular contexts MUST be made, and actions must be taken on those judgments if we are to live happily. There is quite simply no way to avoid making the judgment of whether to come in out of the rain or to walk away from the edge of the cliff. To refrain from making such judgments is to choose an early death. One may choose some other end rather than happiness (for example, to serve god) but life requires that we order our actions by some purposeful standard.

Should we reject Epicurus’ view of morality because a boundless number of circumstances creates too great a need for wisdom, which can come only through study, discussion, and individual judgment? Is this not a pitiless morality because some men are incapable of achieving such wisdom? Here we must remember that the Epicureans stressed as high in importance as Doctrine 5 that it is not “POSSIBLE to live pleasantly without living wisely, honorably, and justly. Nor can one live wisely, honorably, and justly without living pleasantly. But those who for any reason do not live wisely, honorably, and justly cannot possibly live pleasantly.”

Bitter or not, Epicurus clearly held that it is not possible to live happily in life without thinking, discussing, and making individual judgments about the nature of things. Epicurus held that his morality was true because it was based on the Nature of things, and as such it is a moral code that applies to all men. Not all men, however, are going to be successful in living a happy life, as some men’s abilities are inadequate, and some men whose abilities are adequate are prevented from doing so by outside circumstances. The men, women, and children who died in the World Trade Center did not experience the opportunity to live happily for a normal lifespan. Neither are those who are every day born which such horrible birth defects that they have no hope of living even a few years of normal life. When facing such facts, rather than retreat into fairy tales that have no foundation in reality Epicurus held that such regrettable circumstances are facts of life which all men must consider when choosing how to live their lives.

Let’s look further into how these views are contained in the Principle Doctrines. Doctrine 36 states that in general, justice is the same for all, for justice is a mutual advantage in the dealings of men with each other, but in different nations and under different circumstances, the application of justice may differ. Doctrines 37 and 38 are an elaboration of the proposition that “justice” (which is a categorical term for much of what people think of as “morality”) changes with outward circumstance to reflect what is to mutual advantage for the attainment of happiness under those particular circumstances.

I use the phrase “outward circumstance” here to emphasize the point that while “outward” circumstances may vary, the nature of man sets ground rules, among which is the rule that happiness (or “pleasure”) — and not the will of gods or the will of other men — is the end of the individual man. The point is that morality is NOT haphazard or random or infinitely variable because human nature is limited within natural borders, and these natural limits must be accounted for in determining what will in fact be mutually advantageous to the production of happiness.

This is why the Principle Doctrines and core Epicurean principles are as applicable today as when Epicurus first taught them. The Doctrines are “principles” of human nature that underlay all proper morality and human action. The Epicurean sequence involves first trusting the senses to establish the truth and reality of those facts and circumstances which are clearly before our eyes and then never allowing ourselves to be backtracked into a contradiction against those things we know to be true. Thus the Epicurean method for making moral judgment in context is to compare the facts and circumstances of each situation to those situations that are known with clarity. If the information available to us is sufficient to judge intelligently, then we do so; if the information is insufficient and the context unclear, then we “wait” (per Diogenes Laertius). No one said it was easy, and no one said it was foolproof, but the Epicurean method is superior to any other because no superior method is possible to beings of limited knowledge, and no beings of unlimited knowledge exist.

Although I do not consider the phrase “everything is relative” to be Epicurean, what IS Epicurean is to say “Among those actions which the law sanctions as just, that which is determined to be of mutual advantage is in fact just whether or not it is universally regarded to be so. But if a law, once established, is determined not to be mutually advantageous, then it is by nature unjust. As to those laws which were at first just, but later become unjust, such laws were in fact just for the period in which they were of mutual advantage, at least in the eyes of those who do not confound themselves with empty words, but look to the actual facts.” (Doctrine 37, to the effect that morality can only be evaluated under particular facts) Further, “Where actions which were formerly considered to be just under former circumstances are seen not to accord with the general concept of mutual advantage, then they are seen not to have been just. But actions which were in fact of mutual advantage and therefore just at one time under former circumstances, but cease being of mutual advantage under new circumstances, cease also being just.” (Doctrine 38, to the effect that mutual advantage in producing happiness is the core principle.)

Thus the Principle Doctrines (which are themselves grounded in core Epicurean physics that the universe is Natural and governed by laws which arise from the unchanging eternal elements) provide an unchanging framework from which each individual judges the morality of changing actions under changing circumstances.

What do we tell children, or those who are hopeless lost in religion or other error, about Epicurean morality? I would suggest that answer helps explain the order in which we find the Principle Doctrines. No doubt the ancient Epicureans started early, bringing up both children and newcomers starting with the basic principles: First observe that nothing comes from nothing, from which we know that the universe is natural and not subject to capricious gods. You only live so long then you’re gone, so you must live happily while you can. A happy life is attainable if you life wisely, honestly, and justly. There is no need to fear horrible pain because it can be avoided. Then, and perhaps MOST of all, follow the Epicurean method of thinking mentioned above: Always start with and hold on to those things that you can establish with your own senses clearly in front of you. Never accept the hypotheses of priests or philosophers that contradict those things that you know from your own senses to be true. Deal with that which is unknown by analogizing with that which is known, and NEVER allow your imaginations or rationalizations to run wild without evidence to support them.

And so in sum I would contend that what is left to us from Diogenes Laertius, Lucretius, Diogenes of Oinoinda, the Epicurean discussions in Cicero, and the principles that are easily deducible therefrom, provide a fully satisfactory basis for a proper understanding of the PRINCIPLES of morality and virtue. I would contend that Epicureanism is in fact the antidote to an “anything-goes, if it feels right, do it” attitude toward life. The very existence of the list we know as the Principle Doctrines speaks eloquently that the Epicureans held that NOT everything goes. Through that list, the ancient Epicureans left to us a core statement of the principles by which we can determine what goes, and what doesn’t go, in the fields of morality and virtue.

Is this easy? Not at all. Throughout history, the “establishment” has taught that morality and virtue are impossible outside of obedience to the group or to divine revelation. And thus one of the core teachings of Epicurus was that we must break free of the thinking of the establishment if we are to find truth and happiness.

And how do we proceed? I suggest there is no better way than to follow the core instruction that Epicurus left to us in the Letter to Menoeceus:  Dedicate ourselves to the regular study of nature and of the fundamental matters of life and death that are open to our own senses.

Only those things that we can see and understand for ourselves can we hope to explain to others. Yes, we need to be prepared to answer the professional Platonists and their derivatives in the philosophy departments, but it is even more important that we are able to explain the Epicurean viewpoint in everyday terms so that we ourselves, and our friends with whom we live and work, can understand it. So far as I know, there is no record that Epicurus spent his adult life in the Agora staging public debates with opposing philosophers. Rather, Epicurus saw to his own happiness, and to the happiness of those he numbered as his friends, and he first made sure that they organized their own thoughts about the nature of things, only then communicating those central truths to others outside the garden who were receptive.

Thus the circumstances under which we live influence how we apply Epicureanism today. Epicurus first planted and tended his garden within his own walls because the Athens of his day was hostile to the full Epicurean message, but tolerant of its existence within its own garden. In later years, the Roman world opened the opportunity for the Epicureans to spread the truth outside the original garden, and Epicureans flourished throughout much of the Roman world, spreading their doctrine for a time even to the upper classes of the Roman Republic. Then, as both Roman Republicanism and the Age of Epicureanism declined together and for related reasons, it became necessary for those who followed Epicurus to keep their views to themselves.

Epicureanism does not provide a list of commandments, but it does provide the core Natural principles of morality and ethics through which each man may hope to secure the happiness of himself and his friends within the context of their own particular garden. The scope of action according to circumstance may be as limited as a house in Athens, or as wide as the entire world, but the task is the same: to study Nature, to equip ourselves to understand her basic truths, and to arm ourselves mentally and physically to live happily regardless of the errors of the crowd.

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