What do we do when we are confronted by differences of opinion among people who believe very strongly in their ideals, even though those ideals vary tremendously from person to person? Do we decide that it is impossible to decide because there is no solid standard of proof when it comes to religion, philosophy, politics, or other contentious subjects?
The ancient Epicureans thought it was very important to answer that question in a way that contributes to, rather than undermines, our confidence in our capacity to live happily. What follows is a brief passage from Philodemus’ “On Methods of Inference” that give us clues to the Epicurean approach. The text is taken from Phillip and Estelle De Lacy’s translation published 1941 by the American Philological Association, “Philodemus – On Methods of Inference – A Study In Ancient Empiricism.”
But before we can make much sense of the text, let’s put into perspective several key terms which are necessary for us to begin to see what Philodemus is driving at:
- “On Method of Inference” – This is the title that modern commentators have given to Philodemus’s scroll, but all that is left of it are fragments from Herculaneum, not the entire presentation. It is not clear that this is the title that Philodemus would have preferred, and it means little to us today. Rather than assign a technical title, it might be more fair to describe the subject in simpler terms: “On How To Think About Issues Where Evidence Is Lacking Or Insufficient To Form An Obvious Conclusion.” In other words, Philodemus was concerned about the proper method of answering questions such as “Is there life after death?” where direct evidence is lacking or conflicting. The method to use in approaching such issues is very controversial. Those who follow religion assert that divine revelation is key. Other (non-Epicurean) philosophers assert that “abstract logic” is key. The Epicureans had a third answer to this question, and that’s what Philodemus was setting out to explain.
- “The Stoics” – Philodemus was particularly concerned about answering and refuting the Stoics, because the Stoics were the primary proponents of the use of syllogisms and other tools of abstract logic as the method for approaching difficult questions. But the argument Philodemus raises goes far beyond “Stoics.” It applies to anyone, of any or no philosophic persuasion, who bases their thinking on abstractions. Such people tend to see difficult questions in terms of essentials, and in terms of black and white positions that can be fully defined in terms that amount to “A” or “B.” Having confidence that their classifications are correct, such people easily conclude that all truth is determined by the application of formulas such as “If A equals B and B equals C then A equals C.”
- “The construction of opinion” – This probably refers to the use of chain arguments (such as the A equals C example above) which necessarily rest on links (opinions) that are themselves open to doubt. This method is persuasive only when one ignores the fact that no chain can be stronger than its weakest link, but when one becomes overconfident in one’s method of classification (consider Aristotle’s categories) then it is easy to confuse “opinion” with “fact.”
- “He who has established a test of controversies by the method of analogy” – This is a clear reference to Philodemus’ own position – the Epicurean position, which was based on use of “analogy” and other methods of direct comparison of clearly established facts, rather than manipulation of abstractions.
- “The construction of inferences” – In other words, any deductive conclusion which we have to reach based on evidence that is not clear (a conclusion based on “inferential evidence”)
- “Contraposition of the argument ‘in so far as this is such’” – This is a reference to abstract reasoning based on syllogisms. Non-Epicurean philosophers rested their confidence in “logic,” and asserted that no assertion can ever be “true” unless the assertion could be stated as a formula such that it could be reworded into its opposite, and the opposition assertion shown to be false. “Contraposition” is a reference to the word game involved in rewording a positive assertion in a negative form.
- “The method of analogy” – The Epicurean approach to determining truth rested on directly grasping the evidence provided by the natural faculties – the five senses (translated here as “perceptions”), the “anticipations,” and the faculty of pain and pleasure (translated here as “feelings”). The precise outlines the Epicurean canon of truth are controversial, but several aspects are clear. The Epicureans believed that the faculties provided by nature are our only source of direct and reliable evidence, and as such they are the necessary foundation of – and serve as a limit for – all proper reasoning. This orientation differs dramatically from the Stoic (and other philosophers) because it de-emphasizes the role and the assessment of “abstract reasoning.” In this view, man is not “the rational animal” distinguished from the rest of the universe by a mystical faculty of “reasoning” given by the gods or by fate. Instead, men are granted by nature the faculties which form the three legs of the Epicurean canon, and rather than the abstraction of “reason,” all questions of theoretical “truth” are to be judged by comparison (“the method of analogy) with the only real “evidence” worthy of the term – the direct perceptions made by one of the faculties given men by nature. In the Epicurean view, the further one strays from making ones judgments based on the evidence obtained at the perceptual level (which must be remembered to include not only the five senses, but also the “anticipations” and the faculty of pain and pleasure) then the more likely one is to commit error. Thus the classic Epicurean complaint against the Stoics and all those who worship “reason” is the error of “rationalism” – the belief that logic can create truth separate and apart from the evidence of reality which we obtain through our natural faculties.
With that background, let’s turn to Philodemus, as translated by De Lacy:
“Furthermore, the Stoics often invent peculiar and impossible arguments according to the construction of opinion. They seize upon the mythical inventions of some (poets, etc.); while at the same time they disbelieve those (poets) who, they think, have altered some of the myths used by the Stoics, yet who agree (with the Stoics) regarding other myths. In this way they try to strengthen their own belief. But he who has established a test of controversies by the method of analogy differs (from the Stoics) in the highest degree.”
“The construction of inferences is not established by contraposition of the argument “in so far as this is such,” but by appearances which give the necessary evidence. Indeed, even if one does not know how mental perception will be judged, he thinks that inferences from signs should be constructed if they are verified by observation and do not conflict with present appearances, which are called the criteria of the unperceived: namely, perception, anticipations, mental perceptions, and feelings.
One ought not to stop with the apparent, but from the apparent make inferences about the unperceived; nor mistrust the facts proved through apparent objects according to analogy, but trust them just as one trusts the facts from which the inference is made.”
The explanation given above should be of some help in grasping the background of the passage. But what has not been commented on already is the most important aspect: the conclusion Philodemus reaches. And the importance is critical because the issue of how to think about difficult subjects is not just a matter of debate for philosophers – it’s crucially important if we are to live our lives happily.
And what Philodemus is saying is that it IS possible, and appropriate, to reach firm conclusions about difficult subjects. In other words, we “ought not stop with the apparent.” It is not necessary, for example, to stop once we realize that we are alive, and conclude that we can say nothing with confidence about death because we have never spoken with someone who is dead.
Even though we ourselves have never been dead, it is fully appropriate that we “make inferences about the unperceived.” and we do so “from the apparent.” We take the evidence we have observed ourselves throughout our lives about dead things, and reason from that evidence about the deaths of ourselves and those who are still living around us.
Examine Lucretius and you will see that Epicurean philosophy is one long discussion of starting with that which is apparent, and from the apparent drawing inferences on which we base our lives and our pursuit of happiness. If we are to live with confidence, we must not “mistrust the facts proved through apparent objects according to analogy.” Even though we have never been dead ourselves, we must not mistrust the observations we have made about all who have died before us. We can and must have confidence in our conclusions about death – a condition we have never been in ourselves – even though we have never been there to see it first hand.
In last paragraph I used the example of reasoning about death to make the point understandable. The principle is extremely broad, however, and certainly not limited to death. We face many questions in life which are much less emotional than death but are yet just as insolvable during our own lifetimes. In facing those questions we must decide whether we are frozen in fear, like a deer in headlights, or whether we will have confidence in our decisionmaking. The Epicureans counseled confidence but not foolhardiness – and the Epicureans counseled that we should certainly avoid the foolhardiness of those who come to believe that their abstractions are real.
Nature provides us faculties for living, and we are to trust those faculties and use them to the best of our abilities.