The Epicurean Views the Modern Mind Finds Unthinkable: “Dogmatism” and “Free Will”

[Update:  See this page for summary of this topic.]

It is my experience that there are two Epicurean views which more than any other cause the modern mind to recoil in horror.  These views are even difficult for some fans of Epicurus to accept. Strangely (to me) we are not talking about “pleasure as the highest good” or even “higher beings which do not involve themselves with men.”  What we are talking about (when we can talk without being shouted down) are two views Epicurus repeatedly stated, which are:

(1) That “truth” on some matters is within our reach, which Diogenes Laertius relays to us as ” [The wise man] will be a dogmatist but not a mere skeptic.”  Epicurus amplified this by calling “Pyrrho [the Skeptic] an ignorant boor.”

(2) That men have some degree of control over their own lives, which is generally understood to mean that men have some degree of “free will” and that all things are not governed by “necessity.”  “Determinism” is the general word used to describe these anti-Epicurean views.

The clamor against these views has been incessant for two thousand years, and it shows no signs of abating today.  I will not here attempt to psychoanalyze which the opponents of the “free will” and “the possibility of finding truth” find these views so revolting that they cannot stop arguing against them.  I will simply repeat a number of the cites that establish these views in the Epicurean texts.  The sheer frequency with which they were repeated even in the fragmentary texts remaining to us show that this issue was as incendiary in the ancient world as it is today, and for good reason.  Those who value their privileged positions as preachers of religion and “logic” have everything to gain, and much to lose, by allowing men to think that they have any control over their lives.  It suits the elite just fine to have common men believe that from the beginning of time by the mechanical act of Nature, or by the word of their particular God, that all things have been determined ahead of time.  Authorities find it very inconvenient for their subjects to question why they do not act positively to improve their lot in life.  The argument that “what is” was ordained by God, or Fate, or for any reason cannot be changed is of great benefit to those who hold the whip over the mentally or physically weak.

The same goes for the issue of skepticism. The preachers and authorities of logic have poisoned the word “dogmatism” so that the very mention of it evokes the worst images of a Stalin or a Hitler.  But totalitarianism is not the meaning of the word – “dogmatism” simply means that some things are held to be true, and the issue before the house is WHAT things are held to be true, and HOW that truth is established.  Religion and Academicians have so poisoned the discussion that it is not possible to argue that ANYTHING  is “true” in polite company. As with “necessity,” Epicurus rejected this as hogwash.

Both of these positions (free will and the possibility of truth) underly virtually every aspect of Epicurean philosophy.  Without them, nothing else in the philosophy makes any sense at all.  But these points are not just implicit – they are also stated explicitly.

Here are a number of key references in the Epicurean texts to “free will”:

Letter to Menoeceus:

Fate, which some introduce as sovereign over all things, he scorns, affirming rather that some things happen of necessity, others by chance, others through our own agency. For he sees that necessity destroys responsibility and that chance is inconstant; whereas our own actions are autonomous, and it is to them that praise and blame naturally attach. It were better, indeed, to accept the legends of the gods than to bow beneath that yoke of destiny which the natural philosophers have imposed. The one holds out some faint hope that we may escape if we honor the gods, while the necessity of the naturalists is deaf to all entreaties. Nor does he hold chance to be a god, as the world in general does, for in the acts of a god there is no disorder; nor to be a cause, though an uncertain one, for he believes that no good or evil is dispensed by chance to men so as to make life blessed, though it supplies the starting-point of great good and great evil. He believes that the misfortune of the wise is better than the prosperity of the fool. It is better, in short, that what is well judged in action should not owe its successful issue to the aid of chance.

Vatican Sayings:

9. Necessity is an evil; but there is no necessity for continuing to live with necessity.

20. (PD 29) Of our desires some are natural and necessary, others are natural but not necessary; and others are neither natural nor necessary, but are due to groundless opinion.

21. We must not force Nature but persuade her. We shall persuade her if we satisfy the necessary desires and also those bodily desires that do not harm us while sternly rejecting those that are harmful.

40. He who asserts that everything happens by necessity can hardly find fault with one who denies that everything happens by necessity; by his own theory this very argument is voiced by necessity.

58. We must free ourselves from the prison of public education and politics.

77. Freedom is the greatest fruit of self-sufficiency.

Many many others have the inference, like VS 58 and 77, that we have the free will to take action, otherwise they are meaningless.

The entire system of ethics described in Diogenes Laertius presupposes free will, stated here as the ability to choose and avoid:

“But as to the conduct of life, what we ought to avoid and what to choose, he writes as follows. Before quoting his words, however, let me go into the views of Epicurus himself and his school concerning the wise man.

Diogenes Laertius records the Epicurus rejected ANY attempt to predict the future:

Elsewhere he rejects the whole of divination, as in the short epitome, and says, “No means of predicting the future really exists, and if it did, we must regard what happens according to it as nothing to us.”

Lucretius Book 2:

Once again, if every motion is always linked on, and the new always arises from the old in order determined, nor by swerving do the first-beginnings make a certain start of movement to break through the decrees of fate, so that cause may not follow cause from infinite time; whence comes this free will for living things all over the earth, whence, I ask, is it wrested from fate, this will whereby we move forward, where pleasure leads each one of us, and swerve likewise in our motions neither at determined times nor in a determined direction of place, but just where our mind has carried us? For without doubt it is his own will which gives to each one a start for this movement, and from the will the motions pass flooding through the limbs. Do you not see too how, when the barriers are flung open, yet for an instant of time the eager might of the horses cannot burst out so suddenly as their mind itself desires?

On the issue of Skepticism and the possibility of truth, in addition to the statement of Diogenes Laertius cited above, we have the following:

These Principal Doctrines describe the manner in which truth is determined:

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.

This section of Lucretius Book IV makes the same point even more emphatically:

Again, if any one thinks that nothing is known, he knows not whether that can be known either, since he admits that he knows nothing. Against him then I will refrain from joining issue, who plants himself with his head in the place of his feet. And yet were I to grant that he knows this too, yet I would ask this one question; since he has never before seen any truth in things, whence does he know what is knowing, and not knowing each in turn, what thing has begotten the concept of the true and the false, what thing has proved that the doubtful differs from the certain? You will find that the concept of the true is begotten first from the senses, and that the senses cannot be gainsaid. For something must be found with a greater surety, which can of its own authority refute the false by the true. Next then, what must be held to be of greater surety than sense? Will reason, sprung from false sensation, avail to speak against the senses, when it is wholly sprung from the senses? For unless they are true, all reason too becomes false. Or will the ears be able to pass judgement on the eyes, or touch on the ears? or again will the taste in the mouth refute this touch; will the nostrils disprove it, or the eyes show it false? It is not so, I trow. For each sense has its faculty set apart, each its own power, and so it must needs be that we perceive in one way what is soft or cold or hot, and in another the diverse colours of things, and see all that goes along with colour. Likewise, the taste of the mouth has its power apart; in one way smells arise, in another sounds. And so it must needs be that one sense cannot prove another false. Nor again will they be able to pass judgement on themselves, since equal trust must at all times be placed in them.

Therefore, whatever they have perceived on each occasion, is true. And if reason is unable to unravel the cause, why those things which close at hand were square, are seen round from a distance, still it is better through lack of reasoning to be at fault in accounting for the causes of either shape, rather than to let things clear seen slip abroad from your grasp, and to assail the grounds of belief, and to pluck up the whole foundations on which life and existence rest. For not only would all reasoning fall away; life itself too would collapse straightway, unless you chose to trust the senses, and avoid headlong spots and all other things of this kind which must be shunned, and to make for what is opposite to these. Know, then, that all this is but an empty store of words, which has been drawn up and arrayed against the senses. Again, just as in a building, if the first ruler is awry, and if the square is wrong and out of the straight lines, if the level sags a whit in any place, it must needs be that the whole structure will be made faulty and crooked, all awry, bulging, leaning forwards or backwards, and out of harmony, so that some parts seem already to long to fall, or do fall, all betrayed by the first wrong measurements; even so then your reasoning of things must be awry and false, which all springs from false senses.

These principals are so key to Epicurean philosophy that it makes no sense to consider oneself an Epicurean without them.  We therefore, over the years, and to this day, find that some people prefer to consider themselves Neo-Epicureans, because they like other aspects of the philosophy beyond these, without recognizing that the philosophy stands or falls as a unit.  No doubt this desire for eclecticism is why men like Marcus Aurelius ended up with a blend of Stoic and Epicurean (and other ideas) so amalgamated that the origins are hard to recognize, much less separate.   And as an amalgamation which made no sense as a unit, such a mishmash of philosophy as Marcus Aurelius held was bound to be swept into the dustbin of history, as it was.

It is very tempting to say “to each his own” on these issues.  Certainly every Epicurean advocate of free will will also advocate that each person follow the views that the evidence shows them as individuals to be true. But that is not the same as saying that all views are true.  As Epicureans, we should aggressively defend the right to be wrong.  But if we are going to be consistent with Epicurus, we also have to defend the position that some views are wrong, while some are right.  The modern world thinks a statement like this is tantamount to totalitarianism.  The modern world is wrong.  The Epicurean view of these issues as contained in the citations above was as correct two thousand years ago, and it remains correct today.

Note:  For a helpful July, 2014, ScientificAmerican interview with an eminent physicist George Ellis relevant to these topics, click here.

Also, our friend Elli just did this nice graphic for the Epicurean Philosophy facebook page:



02-22-16 – A good article on this topic linked by I.V. – Yes, You Have Free Will – This is Why – SLATE.COM

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