Toward A Better Understanding Of Epicurus: Eight Areas Of Focus For 2015

My goal in writing about Epicurus is to point the way to happier living today through Epicurean philosophy.  Only historians and academics are interested in detail for the sake of detail, or debate for the sake of debate.  Epicurus spoke to people who wanted to improve their own lives, and his philosophy applies as well today as it did in ancient Athens and Rome.

Before we can begin to apply Epicurean ideas today, however, we must first understand them.  Epicurus developed a philosophy that was in fundamental conflict with the establishment philosophies of his day, often in ways that are not familiar to us two thousand years later. Schools based on the views of Plato (Academics), Aristotle (Peripatetics), and Diogenes (Cynics) dominated the pre-Epicurean Greek world. Other schools, such as that of Zeno (the Stoics) arose later to carry on their same basic message.  Despite superficial differences, these other philosophers shared the same conceit – that “reasoning” or “faith” can show us the path we should follow in life.  Just as historians seem to prefer “detail for the sake of detail,” and academics prefer “debate for the sake of debate,” each competing school had its own formula for achieving their view of “the good.”  We know this point of view today from those who say we should pursue “art for the sake of art,” or “virtue for the sake of virtue,” or “love for the sake of love,” or “equality for the sake of equality.”  To all of these Epicurus said one thing:  No!  Do not presume that you are smarter than Nature.  Do not attempt to out-think Nature.  Nature has created you to pursue pleasure.  Learn how to pursue pleasure properly according to the rules of Nature and you will live happily – choose another path, by your own “faith” or “reasoning,” and you will live a life of confusion and misery.

In response to Epicurus, the Stoics and the Academics and the Peripatetics and the Cynics and the religionists, when they are in an honest mood, say:  We look down on pleasure, and we embrace confusion and misery so long as it is for the sake of our higher good!”

The educated elite for two thousand years have been well aware of these starkly different points of view.  Men like Cicero devoted their philosophical careers to working to discredit the Epicurean point of view.  Every school of philosophy and every sect of religion had its own variation on the argument.  “We know the truth,” they said, and, We can show you, by our religion or by our reasoning, why the goal of your life should be virtue/holiness/etc.  Forget Epicurus – we can show you how to look to a higher goal than mere pleasure.”

In pursuing their campaign to discredit him, however, the opponents of Epicurus faced a considerable problem:  Epicurus was renowned for his kind, compassionate, and friendly character.  Much of his wisdom was expressed so persuasively that it could not easily be refuted.  Men like Cicero had many friends who were devout Epicureans, and those friends would not accept specious character assassination as argument.  They would not accept lies about Epicurus’ character as credible attacks on Epicurus’ ideas.  The educated part of ancient world, and most educated commentators in the ages since then, have known better than to accept the slanders that Epicurus’ less-intelligent opponents have employed against him.

In the cases of those commentators who were honest enough to state their disagreements with Epicurus plainly, and explain the reasons behind those disagreements, we are fairly well able to judge for ourselves who is right.  The more dangerous problem has arisen from another type of anti-Epicurean commentator — from those who distort the meaning of what Epicurus said to make it sound like Epicurus held views more like their own.  

For our present purposes it is not important whether these distortions arose intentionally, as with Cicero, or innocently, as with those in later years who relied on Cicero for their own understanding.  Older writers such as Cicero had direct access to Epicurean texts and teachers which were lost in later centuries, so the older distortions should not be excused as arising from lack of knowledge.  However as years passed and Epicurean texts were lost, the distortions left by Cicero and Stoic writers became the main textual material available to many people.  In these circumstances it would have been remarkable if later writers had not accepted the distortions as accurate.   With the loss of texts came the loss of connection with the basic philosophical background within which Epicurus had formulated his teachings.  Commentators who failed to understand why Epicurus held his views either dismissed what Epicurus said summarily, or adapted what Epicurus said to their own understanding of the truth.  Thus gathered a jumbled Marcus Aurelian mishmash of concepts as an avalanche, and with it greater and greater confusion about what Epicurus really taught.

We have now endured ages of this process, feeding on itself,  and getting worse over the centuries.  Much of what we read today in philosophy has been so thoroughly filtered through a homogenized  Judeo/Christian/Humanist consensus that we can no longer recognize that any other viewpoint is possible.  Bitter wars have raged between Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other religionists about the details of religious controversies.  Corresponding wars have been waged between various philosophical camps, including those we refer to as belonging to the “Humanist” tradition, but which are largely variants of Stoicism.  There have been no lasting victors in those wars, but the wars consumed the West’s attention, and distracted most from seeing that Epicurus taught that ALL of these camps were wrong.

I have selected below eight areas where modern cultural consensus is particularly potent in blinding us to what Epicurus taught.  It would take many books to give these issues the attention they deserve, but I think I will help in our further study of Epicurus if we make a start by at least framing the alternatives in each area.  Before I start let me be clear:  It is possible that I am the only one who finds difficulties in these areas.  I apologize in advance for stating what some feel is obvious, or obviously wrong.  But in my own intensive reading of Epicurean literature over the last five years, these are the areas where I think the most progress can be made in explaining Epicurus’ views more clearly:

(1)  “Atomism” vs. “Universalism”  

I rank this first because of its extreme importance, and my own slowness in recognizing the issues involved.  Like many people, my eyes tend to glaze over at the first mention of  “atoms and void.”  But are we really so much smarter than the ancients?  Do we even understand why they held this physical question to be significant?  Let me set up the question by reminding you of four sentences from Epicurus’ letter to Herodotus.  Read these without glazing over, and I promise I will not worry you further about physics, at least for the moment:

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. And if there were no space (which we call also void and place and intangible nature), bodies would have nothing in which to be and through which to move, as they are plainly seen to move. Beyond bodies and space there is nothing which by mental apprehension or on its analogy we can conceive to exist.

Epicurean philosophy is built like a skyscraper erected on a deep foundation.  No matter how high the structure is extended, foundational concepts must always be remembered, and are never to be violated, in the process of building higher.   That means we cannot set these observations about atoms and void aside as irrelevant, and then proceed to erect our own formulation, by reasoning or faith, that contradicts this foundation.

Nothing exists except matter and void. Nothing exists except matter and void.  This is not a purely physical concept, it is the foundation of a philosophy, and it means that all “ideas” or “concepts” of virtue, of holiness, or of any “values” of any type, whether grounded in religion, in reason, in humanism, or any other –ism, are ultimately non-existent.  While these concepts certainly exist as “constructions of the human mind,” that is the only way in which they exist.  Nature neither sanctions nor cares for what we create in our own minds apart from that which is directly tied to the reality of things that exist.

I dislike using words like “Atomism” and “Hedonism” because they are so loaded with negative and ambiguous connotations.  But here is the practical result of how this aspect of Epicurus stacks up against all other religions and most other philosophers:

All religions, philosophies, and political programs that promote “Universalism” are fraudulent and oppressive.  When St. Paul ranted that his flocks were giving in to the “weak and beggarly elements,” he was showing that he understood the issue far better than most of us do today.  All our major religions, first and especially Judaism, but also its descendants Christianity and Islam, are united with Platonism and Stoicism in asserting that there is only one goal of life, one way to live, and one law for all men.  They differ on the details, of course, but they are united in the “universalism” which is at their root.  If you want a single word that illustrates the issue of opposite viewpoints, the opposite of universalism is atomism.  There is nothing “universal” that does not arise from the nature of atoms and void.  Those things which are true in our lives; those things which Nature calls us to pursue – all these arise from the nature of the elements – the atoms, in Greek terminology.  The approach to everything in life is therefore not “top – down.”  Everything is not generated from a single “god” or by a “prime mover,” and nothing can be evaluated from a single “universally objective” point of view.  I resist using the term “bottom – up,” to describe the Epicurean view, because that rings in the modern ear as an admission that the atoms are inferior to something higher.  But the problem of corrupted terminology is exactly what we must get around.  The atoms are the universe, and it is the Judeo/Christian/Humanist viewpoint that has convinced us that we can construct something in our minds higher and better than Nature herself has created.

There is a tremendous amount to be said about this topic, and I expect to return to it again and again.  But in sum, the issue permeates the modern world, and is perhaps the single most important misrepresentation to overcome.  “Monism,” the worship of “the one,” is the opposite of atomism.  Nature exists in all its glory only through its elements, and the truth that derives from these elements is all that we have.  In Epicurean terms, our guide to life is the faculty of Pleasure and Pain which Nature gave to us.  Pleasure and pain are a faculty, they are not a universal set of absolute standards to which all men must conform.  Nature does not require all men to prefer vanilla to chocolate ice cream, but nature does require normal men to prefer eating ice cream to being boiled alive.  Those who seek under the sanction of Plato or of Judeo/Christian/Islamic dogma to force all men to live the same way and value the same things are guilty of the worst sort of violence to this principle of nature.  We are all familiar with the way religion expresses this view, but here is the same view, in particularly precise language, from Cicero:

“True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrongdoing by its prohibitions. And it does not lay its commands or prohibitions upon good men in vain, though neither have any effect on the wicked. It is a sin to try to alter this law, nor is it allowable to attempt to repeal any part of it, and it is impossible to abolish it entirely. We cannot be freed from its obligations by senate or people, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it. And there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and all times, and there will one master and ruler, that is, God, over us all, for he is the author of this law, its promulgator, and its enforcing judge. Whoever is disobedient is fleeing from himself and denying his human nature, and by reason of this very fact he will suffer the worst penalties, even if he escapes what is commonly called punishment . . .”

Powerful forces for the last two thousand years have promoted the view stated here by Cicero.  “Monism” of one kind or another – religious and secular – is held to be the only possible orientation. The forces of “internationalization” and “equality” and “brotherly love” have swelled in force to where individual freedom, individual preference, and individual personality, and free association of groups who wish to associate only with each other, and to exclude others, are held to be the greatest of evils.

It’s time we re-examine and re-think the foundation of Epicurean philosophy — nothing exists except atoms and void; nothing comes from nothing; nothing goes to nothing.  From this foundation it is a direct chain to the conclusions of the principal doctrines about the nature of justice, which include:

33. There never was such a thing as absolute justice, but only agreements made in mutual dealings among men in whatever places at various times providing against the infliction or suffering of harm.  

36. In general justice is the same for all, for it is something found mutually beneficial in men’s dealings, but in its application to particular places or other circumstances the same thing is not necessarily just for everyone.

Universalism in all its variants has been, and continues to be, one of the most potent obstacles to living according to Epicurean philosophy.  Epicurus was the mortal enemy of universalism in the ancient world, and his philosophy remains its mortal enemy today.


 (2)  Dogmatism vs. Skepticism

“Dogmatism” is another word that has been so polluted as to be almost unusable.  Modern discussion uses the word only to describe the worst sort of religious and irrational fanatics, as if there is no middle ground between “I know everything” and “I know nothing.”  In fact, the skeptics have largely won the day.  Anyone who stops and thinks about what he says knows that he should “never say never” and that he should always bend over backwards to hedge so as not to sound “dogmatic” about even the most obvious of truths.

The area of “dogmatism” is one of those issues where opponents of Epicurus are so overconfident of their position that they simply deny the truth of what Epicurus said, rather than feeling the need to distort his argument.   The mainstream establishment thinks that if it simply whips out the “Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle” they can sweep away all opposition.  To them we say as did Lucretius in Book Four:

And if your reasoning faculties can find no explanation why a thing looks square when seen close up, and round when farther off, even so, it might be better for a man who lacks the power of reason, to give out some idiotic theory, than to drop all hold of basic principles, break down every foundation, tear apart the frame that holds our lives, our welfare.  All is lost, not only reason, but our very life, unless we have the courage and the nerve to trust the senses, to avoid those sheer downfalls into the pits and tarns of nonsense. All that verbose harangue against the senses is utter absolute nothing.

Thankfully the march of progress in physics has not ground to a total halt.  Already there are important voices who can be found to explain how modern physics does not invalidate all of philosophy.

Nevertheless, even though the issues are clear, the question of whether knowledge is possible is an important area for more writing and discussion.  Too many people have been led to think that physics is worthless and an impediment to happy living.  The truth is that physics is too important to ignore. A confident understanding that the universe operates on natural principles, and neither at the whim of gods nor chaotically, is essential to our happy living, as Lucretius calls out to us even today:

Our terrors and our darknesses of mind must be dispelled, not by the sunshine’s rays, not by those shining arrows of the light, but by insight into nature, and a scheme of systematic contemplation.


(3) Free Will vs. Determinism

The best way to lose friends and create enemies on the internet, I have found, is to engage in unlimited discussion of “free will.”  Anyone remotely familiar with debate on “free will” knows what kind of heat this topic can generate.  Details can be pursued ad nauseum, but suffice it for this discussion to point out that Epicurus and Lucretius clearly held to a rational version of the “free will” view. Epicurus considered the topic so important that he devoted one of his  lengthy passages in his letter to Menoeceus to the topic:

Who, then, is superior in your judgment to such a man? He holds a holy belief concerning the gods, and is altogether free from the fear of death. He has diligently considered the end fixed by nature, and understands how easily the limit of good things can be reached and attained, and how either the duration or the intensity of evils is but slight. 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.

For the same reasons that Epicurus saw this to be an issue of critical importance on which to take a firm stand, so should we.  So long as the modern world remains dominated by crusaders against free will (which is to say, for so long as the modern world continues to exist) students of Epicurus will need to work to understand and be able to explain, and have confidence in, the Epicurean position.


(4) Hedonism vs Epicurean Philosophy

“Hedonism” is a term that has probably been used to suppress interest in Epicurus with greater success than any other.  It is so loaded with connotations of drunkenness and depravity that it is worth using only in purely academic discussions.  There is good reason why the ancient Epicureans referred to their studies as “Epicurean philosophy” or “Epicureanism,” rather than “Pleasurism.”   Cicero has left to us one of the best explanations of the true Epicurean view of Pleasure in his “On Ends,” and Epicurus himself makes the point in the Letter to Menoeceus:

When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. 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. Of all this the beginning and the greatest good is wisdom. Therefore wisdom is a more precious thing even than philosophy ; from it spring all the other virtues, for it teaches that we cannot live pleasantly without living wisely, honorably, and justly; nor live wisely, honorably, and justly without living pleasantly. For the virtues have grown into one with a pleasant life, and a pleasant life is inseparable from them.

The difference between Epicurean philosophy and the common understanding of the word “Hedonism” is basic and easy to understand.  But it is also one where the distortionists have been most successful, and thus it is one of the most frequently misunderstood by those who have never read Epicurus.  The point can’t be explained often enough.


(5) “Active AND  Static Pleasures” vs. “The Greatest Pleasure IS the Absence of Pain” 

This is perhaps, more than any other, error has arisen because Epicurus is viewed through Stoic/religious/hostile eyes.  There is little doubt but Stoicism (to the extent you can pin down a single Stoic view) was hostile to pleasure, and indeed it was hostile to strong emotions of any kind.  This Stoic view played right into the Judeo/Christian hostility to pleasure, and into the religious attitude of “leaving everything to God” that is so prominent in certain circles today.  Over the years, as the hostility to pleasure became more dominant, and the ancient philosophical background faded into obscurity, the meaning of Principle Doctrines Three and Four have become more and more obscure.  Anti-pleasure/ Pro-Stoic commentators thus found it increasingly easy to use these third and fourth doctrines to argue that Epicurus was basically a Stoic/Ascetic after all.  Their argument amounts to: “What else could Epicurus have meant, when he said that the greatest pleasure IS the absence of pain, other than that we should suppress all strong emotions, and live simply and ascetically?”  

This is one of the more difficult questions in this list to unwind.  It will require the most intense work in coming years.  The key to the right direction, in my view, was suggested by Norman DeWitt in “Epicurus and His Philosophy.”  My interpretation of DeWitt’s insight is this:  Look first back to doctrines One and Two. Observe that they are not stated in Ten Commandment “Thou shalt not” style, but rather in the form of technical observations which must be evaluated before it is seen that they are foundations for sweeping and important philosophical points.  When we observe that perfect beings cause no trouble to anyone, we must look for the implcation, and see that the significance is profound: the meaning is that gods did not create or control our world.  When we observe that “death is nothing to us” the message seems flippant – until we realize that this is the foundation for understanding that life is everything to us.”

Likewise, Doctrines three and four are not to be taken solely on the face value of their technical points.  The observation that “pleasure reaches its limit at the absence of pain” and “continuous pain does not last long” may seem tediously technical at first.  Much the same could be said about perfect beings not causing trouble, but we know the explosive implications because we are attuned to the assertions of the world’s main religions.

In much the same way, Doctrines Three and Four provide the foundation exploding the foundations of the ancient world’s major philosophies, built on Plato and Aristotle.  Plato had held, and Aristotle had followed, that pleasure CANNOT be the guide of life, because continuous pleasure in life is impossible.  That which impossible in theory is impracticable in real life.

It is thus a major mistake to view Doctrines Three and Four as stating some kind of universal rule about how to live.  Universal commandments for living are foreign to Epicurus – Epicureans follow pleasure, nor formulas.  Instead, what doctrines three and four do is show the error of Plato by showing that a life of continuous pleasure IS possible.  That which is possible in theory then becomes practicable (if not guaranteed) in real life.   By opening the door to seeing how Nature has in fact established Pleasure as the guide of life, Epicurus has provided the necessary logical legitimacy to his philosophy.  Pleasure cannot be looked to always as the guide to life if continuous pleasure is not possible, and if pain can overwhelm pleasure.  But when the truths of Doctrines Three and Four are realized, we see Nature has established we should accept Nature’s designation of Pleasure as our guide, because a life of continuous pleasure IS possible.  And this means further that Doctrines Three and Four are consistent with other important aspect of what we know about Epicurean philosophy.  There is no conflict between Doctrines Three and Four and the pursuit of active pleasure, because three and four are not meant to imply that a state of painlessness as a zombie is some kind of cosmically desirable stable state.  There ARE no “cosmically desirable” or
“stable” states.  All matter is constantly in motion; matter never comes to rest and nor do we.  Nature has established that ALL pleasures, both active and passive, are valid and desirable. Epicurus tells us that our actions as to each must be judged by the same standard:  does the action we choose or avoid lead to net maximized pleasure, or net pain?

These paragraphs only scratch the surface of what needs to be discussed in this topic.  Those interested in pursuing this are urged to consult DeWitt’s book for much more discussion of these points.


(6)  “Empiricism” vs. the Epicurean Canon

Just as Epicurus is generally described in modern texts as a “hedonist,” he is also generally referred to as an “empiricist.”  As DeWitt points out, this distorts the truth, and makes it appear that Epicurus stated that the five senses are our only sources of reliable evidence.  This ignores the co-equal status and role of “Anticipations” and the “Pleasure/Pain Mechanism,” and thus overturns the organization of Epicurus’ “Canon of Truth.”  In this issue we have a passage from DeWitt in which I think the basic point is correct, even if the term “innate principles” would have been better than “innate ideas“:

It can be no mere accident that John Locke, who during his sojourn in France from 1675 to 1679 became a friend of Francois Bernier, the most outstanding exponent of Gassendi’s doctrines, should have been the one to write an Essay concerning Human Understanding and fix upon the sensations as the source of all knowledge. The thesis as he develops it is not true to the doctrines of Epicurus. It is based upon a mistranslation of a sentence, rightly attributed to Epicurus, which to Gassendi seemed to mean “that there is nothing in the intellect which has not been in the senses.” Thus by a sort of irony Epicurus seems to have furnished a starting point for modern empiricism; in reality he was something of an intuitionist and his concept of innate ideas was incompatible with empiricism.

The mistake of Gassendi, to which Locke fell a prey, was in confusing the test of knowledge with the source of knowledge. Epicurus based his Ethics upon his Physics and as a basis of his Physics he laid down the Twelve Elementary Principles, derived chiefly from his predecessors, the truth of which he made no pretence of deriving from sensation. Moreover, the test of the truth of all inferential conclusions was not single but triple, Sensations, Anticipations (innate ideas), and Feelings. The mind of the newborn infant, so far from seeming to him a blank tablet, was thought to have dimly inscribed upon it, as the venous system is outlined in the embryo, the patterns of the thoughts of the mature man. Locke’s theory of cognition, compared to that of Epicurus, is naive.

Epicurus held that the innate faculties of pleasure/pain and “anticipations” are co-equal thirds of his “tripod of truth.”  Until we understand this we will never completely understand Epicurean epistemology.


(7) “Living Simply” vs. “Living Pleasurably”

Rarely a day goes by that I am not grateful that Vatican Saying 63 was preserved for us:  “There is also a limit in simple living, and he who fails to understand this falls into an error as great as that of the man who gives way to extravagance.”  That is because many of our good friends on the Facebook discussion group came to Epicurus, as I myself, through appreciation of aspects of Roman Stoicism, in which “livingly simply” is held in high esteem.

The error is simple, and again is made worse by our Judeo/Christian/Humanist orthodoxy.  The point of life according to Nature is Pleasurable living – singly, solely, only.  All other goals, to the extent they deviate more or less from this goal, are non-natural and bound to lead to confusion and unhappiness.

Here the power of the establishment orthodoxy is at its strongest.  Religion and establishment philosophy combine to set up ascetic self-denial as an unmitigated good.  Both religion and establishment philosophy holds that those who live the lowest to the ground are the highest, and that all luxury above the barest of necessities is undesirable conspicuous consumption.

That was not Epicurus view:

Again, we regard independence of outward things as a great good, not so as in all cases to use little, but so as to be contented with little if we have not much, being honestly persuaded that they have the sweetest enjoyment of luxury who stand least in need of it, and that whatever is natural is easily procured and only the vain and worthless hard to win. Plain fare gives as much pleasure as a costly diet, when once the pain of want has been removed, while bread and water confer the highest possible pleasure when they are brought to hungry lips. To habituate one’s self, therefore, to simple and inexpensive diet supplies all that is needful for health, and enables a man to meet the necessary requirements of life without shrinking, and it places us in a better condition when we approach at intervals a costly fare and renders us fearless of fortune.

Many people presume that “living simply” is a common nexus between Epicurean philosophy and Stoicism.  We can blame Marcus Aurelius and many others for that, but the point is huge.  If misunderstood, it serves as a major obstacle to understanding the true views of Epicurus.


(8) “Living Unknown” vs. “Living Pleasurably”

Sigh.  “Live Unknown” is one of the most widely “known” sayings supposedly made by Epicurus.  The truth is, we don’t really know that Epicurus said it (it’s not in his letters), and even if he did say it, we have absolutely no context for it.  It is true that in general Epicurus and Lucretius frequently suggested that we separate from the crowd, that we not look to the crowd for happiness, and that we take care to separate ourselves from the crowd as much as necessary for our own happiness. It is also true that Epicurean texts explicitly warn against pursuing a career in politics.  (Note:  I think a “career in politics” is a very different thing from “engaging in targeted political action.”  So far as I know, Cassius Longinus did not engage in a “career in politics” after converting to Epicurean philosophy, but he saw no contradiction in Epicurean views and participating in the Roman civil war.)

But the simple statement “live unknown,” coming down to us without any context, has all the markings and limitations of the advice to “live simply.”  We do not live simply for the sake of living simply, nor do we live unknown for the sake of living unknown.  Living simply and living unknown are techniques, and we should choose to pursue both, or neither, of these techniques purely on the basis of our own individual contexts.  If it is necessary for our happiness to eat bread and water and live in a cave on the side of a mountain, then we should do so.  If our circumstances allow us to live solid affluent middle or even upper-class lives in the modern world without jeopardizing our future happiness, then we should do so.  It is even completely appropriate to engage in conduct that will lead to fame and notoriety, as did Epicurus and Lucretius, if that notoriety comes from engaging in conduct that will lead to the happiness of ourselves and our friends, such as is the case in promoting Epicurean philosophy.


On the last day of his life, Epicurus wrote to a friend: “On this blissful day, which is also the last of my life, I write this to you. My continual sufferings from strangury and dysentery are so great that nothing could increase them; but I set above them all the gladness of mind at the memory of our past conversations. But I would have you, as becomes your lifelong attitude to me and to philosophy, watch over the children of Metrodorus.”

On that day when Epicurus died, the world lost the last authoritative spokesman for Epicurean philosophy.  I can be no more certain of what Epicurus meant than any other commentator can be, but the point I want to stress here is that you should not accept the views of any commentator without scrutiny.  Compare the statements of the texts to the facts of reality.  The views I have stated here may well be incorrect, but so may be the views of those commentators who have been blessed by the anti-Epicurean establishment that has ruled the West for two thousand years.

I have enjoyed and appreciated the interaction I have had with all of you who have read and responded to my comments in the past.  I hope my work has been of some interest and help in your own thinking and living.  I also hope that posts like this will encourage you to pursue your own study and writing, and that together we can, with Lucian, “strike a blow for Epicurus, that great man whose holiness and divinity of nature were not shams, who alone had and imparted true insight into the good, and who brought deliverance to all that consorted with him.”


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