Posts by Stan85

    I've mentioned in another thread that the Epicurean philosophy strikes me as deeply pessimistic. I think this pessimism is brought out beautifully in Edward Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: http://classics.mit.edu/Khayyam/rubaiyat.html


    Sure, Khayyam may not be an orthodox Epicurean, but his attack on the theistic or conventional judgments and his praise of simple pleasures are in complete conformity with Epicureanism. Yet unlike, say, Lucretius, his tone is distinctly somber. Rather than liberation from the false values of the herd, the subtext here seems to be disillusionment and skepticism.


    The following verses seem to be of particular relevance for Epicureanism:


    It would be interesting to compare orthodox Epicureanism with the worldview suggested by these lines.

    Thank you for your thoughts. I was not familiar with the text of Diogenes of Oenoanda quoted above. The idea of present pleasure caused by future anticipation is one I've come across before, but I didn't know its origin. The text also renders the dictum that "virtue is its own reward" in an Epicurean color. It reminds me of a passage in a book by E.T. Jaynes, a physicist who made contributions to probability theory, where he is concerned to separate physical causality from logical causality. Come to think of it, was this not one of the major points of criticism that Carneades and his followers leveled at the Stoics and their notion of divine logos? I don't remember the details of their criticism, but it would seem that confusing the two concepts is so natural that it would take a genius to discern the distinction for the first time.


    I wasn't raised in any religious tradition and my parents were agnostics with no religious affiliation, but I consider myself a reluctant atheist or agnostic. I suspect that William James (another reluctant agnostic) was right that immortality is a natural human need. To me the doctrine that we have a stake in what happens long after we are gone inasmuch as we derive pleasure from contemplating our posthumous reputation, or "the good that we shall leave behind us," has something of the character of a perpetual motion machine once you've removed any conception of good beyond pleasure itself.


    But be it as it may, I think my difficulty with the Epicurean treatment of mortality is only a consequence of a more general difficulty in Epicurean ethics. We voluntarily endure present pain and hardship in order to attain future goods: some kind of achievement, the mastery of an art or a field of knowledge, or reputation, or wealth, a trophy wife, the safety of the state--what not. So far not only will the Epicureans agree with me, they'll remind me that, far from giving unalloyed pain, the struggles and the toils on the way to attaining future goods are themselves considerable sources of pleasure; some would say that they are the sources of the greatest pleasure that we ever experience. So far we're in complete agreement. But let me bring forward a psychological observation. Take the list of good things that were just mentioned. Ordinary common sense would classify some of the things on that list (knowledge, safety) as things that are good in themselves, others, like a trophy wife, as avenues to pleasure and little more. Now I don't think I'd be mistaken to remark that, as a matter of fact, we reap much greater pleasure when we work toward those things that we see as inherently good rather than as means. Indeed, we would experience hardly any pleasure at all when working for something that we see as nothing but a means to pleasure. But of course, unlike common sense, Epicureanism sees pleasure as the sole good, the one principle by which the goodness of things is to be judged. Therefore, as a matter of psychology, a consistent Epicurean could not find pleasure in work, in any kind of sacrifice of the present for the future. Ironically, he is cut off from the most common, the most easily accessible fountain of pleasure in human life.


    Thank you for taking the time to read my ramblings. I'll be interested to hear your thoughts.

    I'm not an expert, but it seems obvious to me that these ethical conclusions follow from Epicurean principles:


    1. Being absolutely mortal, I have no stake in the future.


    2. I owe the world (or "humanity") nothing, and I am owed nothing by the world (or "humanity") in return.


    3. Duty is always ultimately self-chosen.


    These propositions are liberating, but also somewhat unsettling, disorienting--perhaps the opposite of what a livable ethics should be! Though I count myself an admirer of Epicurus, unlike others I find his philosophy deeply pessimistic. To me Epicureans are like a shipwrecked crew who wound up on an island with limited food and no hope to be rescued. They know they are going to die, but make the most of their situation. They enjoy each other's company and conversation, play games, and devise various means to divert themselves while the supplies run out. Is this not the Epicurean view of the world? I am not saying that it is false, only that it is not a bright and cheerful one.

    I wouldn't consider myself a disciple of the Epicurean philosophy, but I'm interested in it as an object of study.


    I believe that the Epicurean conception of the universe is essentially that of modern science-- essentially in that whatever differences there are between the two systems, they are unimportant for considering human conduct and human good. By modern science, I mean physics certainly, but especially I mean Darwinian biology and the now prevailing view that there are no supernatural forces intervening in human life, and that man is an animal among the rest, his capacities and behavior determined by genes and evolutionary imperatives.


    I'm persuaded that Epicureanism is the only intelligent ethics available to someone who accepts this view. Epicureanism is synonymous with the ethics of unbelief, of skepticism, then.


    I'm also intrigued by the otherworldy character of Epicureanism. From what I've seen this is not sufficiently recognized by admirers of Epicurus, except for Michael Oakeshott.