Wilson (Catherine) - "How To Be An Epicurean"

  • I now (in the past, I thought differently) think it is a major mistake to use the "all that really exists..." phrasing as Wilson does in this article. That is the method by which Religionists and Academics fool people into thinking that Epicurus is not worthwhile because their lives are only illusions -- "not really existing."


    Sure the atoms and void are what have ETERNAL and UNCHANGING existence, but the bodies that are formed from atoms and void during our lifetimes are very real to us, and those bodies are every bit as "real" to us the atoms themselves. In fact, the bodies that we see and otherwise sense are in our own experience ALL that is really real to us!


    "Epicurus, by contrast, was a materialist. All that really existed, he declared, were indestructible atoms – tiny mobile particles, invisible to the naked eye, with various shapes and sizes, but devoid of colour, odour, flavour and sound, and separated by void space."

  • she makes the astonishing statement "we live longer than our ancestors but in a sicklier fashion." Really? I have not seen evidence of that. Seems like she needs to cite sources.

    I presume, based on the preceding context, that she is referring here to so-called diseases of civilization, such as obesity, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, certain cancers, etc. And by "our ancestors", she probably means our pre-agricultural ancestors. I don't know what evidence there is to support this claim, but in-context, it doesn't seem totally preposterous.


    4) P 24 "they sought... to balance the ethical treatment of others with our own self-interest"-- omg. So, what is ethical, then, lol? "Balance" used this way is a huge pet peeve of mine. There is no need to balance-- the pleasure of others is on the same side of the scale as my own, inseparable, although this depends on specifically who they are. These things are inseparable for a typically empathetic human. Understanding this is absolutely critical to understanding Epicurus, I believe. Believing that these pleasures are on opposite sides of some imaginary scale will lead to nonsense finagling, every single time. You only wind up with this stuff if you forget about subjective feelings.


    I would like this 100X if I could! The importance of this when it comes to ethics and justice cannot be over-emphasized.


    5) P 24, discusses what she sees as the 3 key claims of Epicurus-- material nature of reality, no divine oversight, and finality of death. Although I do think these are important, I do not know that I would consider them more important than the way he put subjective feelings of pleasure and pain into the Canon or that this can be derived from those 3 items without the experience of feelings.

    In Wilson's defense, the Kindle preview I'm looking at only says that these are Epicurus' "most famous" teachings. I might dispute that, but I don't see her explicitly stating that she believes they are the most important (although that might be reasonably inferred).


    In any case, what we consider most important is going to be a subjective thing. For people coming from a religious background, these may well be the most important lessons to be learned from Epicurus.


    7) P 34 "Epicurus himself pointed out that the direct pursuit of pleasurable sensations is usually self defeating." What? Did he do that? I missed it. She doesn't give a reference

    This is going to go down as one of the most ridiculous statements in the book.

    LOL! I'd be very interested to see a reference for that one!

  • You should pitch your own articles to publications like Partially Examined Life, etc. if you really want your own views and interpretations to be available.

    "Please always remember my doctrines!" - Epicurus' last words

  • Cassius, I liked Hiram's post in the most positive and encouraging way. You've created a remarkable amount of valuable content which could add a lot to the discussion. But taking that next step probably involves a lot of additional work and could be opening a can of worms; I respect your hedonic calculus in the matter! :thumbup:

  • 6) P 27 I may be over my head here-- could use some help. She includes the sense perceptions of sweet, bitter, etc as "conventions" as opposed to "natural"-- I think she has misunderstood.

    Yeah...it's also a bit strange to quote Democritus on physics as a way of elucidating what Epicurus taught about ethics.


    My take on her overall point is that Epicureans did not take things like the existing social structure, culture, traditions, laws, beliefs, etc. for granted. Those things are only to be considered useful to the extent that they provide pleasure to humans (edit: Wilson would apparently include other species here too), and not useful to the extent that they do not. In other words, Epicurus was a radical, which I think DeWitt also says, and with which I agree. She's talking about ethics.


    The Democritus quote seems like a non-sequitur. He's talking about physics, not ethics. He's saying that things like flavors don't have a physical existence. Only the molecules exist. The flavor is only the way our taste buds and brain perceive the molecules, to which we assign the words bitter, sweet, etc.


    If I try really hard, and squint my eyes, I can kind of, almost, see an analogy there. But really, I think she's conflating two entirely different categories of things, and creating unnecessary confusion.

    Edited once, last by Todd ().

  • In response to Godfrey's and Hiram's encouragement to me to post more, let me focus on this first:


    You've created a remarkable amount of valuable content which could add a lot to the discussion

    And so did Norman DeWitt, in writing what I think is by far the best book on Epicurus in 100 years. Did he break through in the long term into the academic circles, or is he ignored?


    You should pitch your own articles to publications like Partially Examined Life, etc.

    And that's part of the same issue. The "mainstream" places of discussion aren't just unaware of the DeWitt / Alternate argument -- they DISAGREE with it -- and if they have their way, they will also SUPPRESS it, which is why it can only arise *outside* and not *within* or even *with the encouragement of* the "mainstream" circles.


    I don't think it is very helpful to categorize the issue as a "political" divide unless we also trace the same divide through the "politics" of the last 2000 years. But the big issue is that there is an elitist class (and I am talking about Platonic-style elitism) that has always wanted to control the conversation, and always will want to control the conversation, and they see Epicurus clearly as a threat to their power and their elitism. So my view has been and remains largely that we have to build our own base among the common people on the street who Cicero looked down on, rather than looking to the establishments of the elite.


    Now having said that I am sure that there are some good people in Academia, and some in the mainstream platforms, who will be open to the alternative view. In some cases that is going to be because they are surprised that there IS an alternate view, since they don't know there is another view, as they have been so successful in shutting down DeWitt.


    And I do want to do what I can to circulate my / our material in much wider circles. But I think Twitter and social media are likely to be more productive than to try to get sanction from the organs of the establishment.


    Nevertheless I am up for any avenues that will accept our material!

  • Todd, although we have more of certain diseases, we've gotten the ability to treat or cure others, and on balance I think it would need proof to say we are overall sicklier. Cancer rates actually appear to be about the same now as in early humans-- wild animals get cancer-- but we can treat it now in many cases. There's evidence that infections are milder in developed countries partly because less virulent strains out compete the ones that kill you quickly. In less developed places, people are stuck going around with guinea worms, etc-- all sorts of parasites that make life wretched. There's a theory we've traded that for autoimmune dz and allergies, but I'll take a walnut allergy over a guinea worm any day. We can cure sexually transmitted diseases that used to result in chronic misery, like syphilis. Childbirth fistulas are rare now. It would be hard to set up a comparison, but her statement strikes me as extreme. Pet peeve of mine, professionally. Non medical people making extreme claims without citations. Lol

  • Schema oxymoron is a rhetorical play-trick. As we say "a prudent prodigal, "a fast turtle" "an ascetic hedonist" etc. Schema oxymoron is a rhetorical device that uses an ostensible self-contradiction to illustrate a rhetorical point or to reveal a paradox. A more general meaning of "contradiction in terms" is recorded by the οxford english dictionary in 1902.


    "We live longer but in a sicklier fashion".

    The above sounds to my ears as a schema oxymoron. Because, if we were lived in a sicklier fashion/way we won't manage to live longer than our ancestors.


    But any way, and as our friend Elayne indicates through eras and periods in the history of medical science, and on the basis of environmental conditions, and molecular genetics there are diseases that appear and diseases that disappear. However, the efforts by the doctors on medical science are holding very well, till today, as are continuous, and especially in our era on molecular genetics, neurogenetics etc. Moreover, in a Nature of the multiple causes and multiple effects/results it is totally unscientific to draw such kind of conclusions as Mrs. Wilson does with the above phrase. But it is well known now, that in academician circles of philosophy, such kind of claims as conclusions have led to the confusion that means also that when someone does not have many sources of scientific studies and researches his/her claim/theory is foolishness.


    "Now all goes on without disturbance as far as regards each of those things which may be explained in several ways so as to harmonize with what we perceive, when one admits, as we are bound to do, probable theories about them. But when one accepts one theory and rejects another, which harmonizes as well with the phenomenon, it is obvious that he altogether leaves the path of scientific inquiry and has recourse to myth". - Epicurus to Pythocles

    Beauty and virtue and such are worthy of honor, if they bring pleasure; but if not then bid them farewell!

  • My copy just arrived, I'll be reading it when I get home.

    Edit: No I won't, my card keeps getting declined and I have to call the bank & wait a few days :cursing:

    Happiness: a good bank account, a good cook, and a good digestion.

    Edited 2 times, last by Charles Edwins ().

  • Charles Edwins (and to others reading this thread): I have prepared a blank outline of the book for ease of use in making notes on each section: Outlining Catherin Wilson's "How To Be An Epicurean" - A Blank Form


    You can just cut and paste that outline into a new post of your own and then add your notes as you go along.


    Everyone should feel free to make your own thread, preferably in this same sub-form; I would propose titles such as "Charles' Outline of Wilson's How To Be An Epicurean" for each thread.

  • It seems from what I've read here that she has a distorted view of Epicureanism common now. The view that we're sicklier now than in prior eras also seems highly questionable. We have our problems, but life expectancy (a concept often misunderstood) was lower because of greater unchecked diseases and injuries which could lead to it. I also think viewing wealth as a zero-sum game is usually fallacious (not that there are no issues with the income gap). From what I can tell also many people want to advocate Epicureanism for their purposes, unconcerned with (or unaware of) what the philosophy really says.

  • Regarding the wellness of Primitive versus Civilized Man, the relevant passage in Lucretius is V:988-1010. He contrasts the two using three specific examples. To summarize:


    1. Primitive humans were on balance more likely to die by predation or festering wounds. Civilized humans are seldom devoured by beasts, but often die in droves at sea or on the battlefield.


    2. Primitive humans suffered from a lack of food. Civilized humans, from overabundance ("penuria" vs "copia"). What the disease is that results from rerum copia is not specified; gout has long been thought of as a 'rich man's disease'.


    3. Primitive humans unwittingly poisoned themselves. Civilized humans kill themselves [and, it is implied, each other] with deliberate skill.


    There's no question that civilized humans today are much healthier than their primitive ancestors. But for a 1st century Roman the arithmetic was quite different. There's an amusing story in Caesar's De Bello Gallico about a Gallic chief who forbade the import of goods, especially wine, from Rome. He didn't want his hardy frontier tribe to succumb to the ills of Roman culture and civilization.

  • Michael if you do buy and read the book I hope you will consider adding your comments in this subforum as you do. That would be a great help to everyone!


    I have been trying to read through it systematically but I find it very difficult to keep up my enthusiasm. She flips effortlessly between statements that adhere to the Epicurean texts and those that are clearly her own personal / political preference without any regard for consistency in doing so.


    There's very little doubt in my mind but that this book is going to be helpful for introducing more people to Epicurus, but at the same time it is going to perpetuate the "humanist" view of Epicurus that seeks to identify him with particular popular political positions that are not at all inherent in the Classical Epicurean position.

  • Very astute observations by Lucretius. I'm no expert on this, but that seems largely accurate. Of course, the life expectancy now is still greater than in his time. "Rich men's diseases" are also probably more common as a result of our prosperity. Even in his time however others might have occurred due to obesity etc.

  • Cassius, given what I've read here I'll probably just get it from the library (I've checked on that-it's available). That is a good idea often anyway, to see if you really like it enough to purchase later. I will read it at some point and comment about what she says. However, as you know far more about Epicureanism than I do any errors will be probably less obvious. We'll see.

  • And that's part of the same issue. The "mainstream" places of discussion aren't just unaware of the DeWitt / Alternate argument -- they DISAGREE with it -- and if they have their way, they will also SUPPRESS it, which is why it can only arise *outside* and not *within* or even *with the encouragement of* the "mainstream" circles.

    I think it's great that there's an open, wide market (agora?) of ideas out there and that people are openly disagreeing with us. That's not a reason not to engage people. I WANT to hear their disagreements. I've written for Partially Examined Life. I wrote a chapter for "How to Live a Good Life", together with 14 other people whose views are all at odds with mine. I've never experienced this exposure as scary in any way whatsoever, on the contrary. Philodemus, if you read most of his scrolls, was REACTING against the views and writings of others (Theophrastus, the mathematicians, etc.). This is how philosophy advances and grows and gains relevance and a wider audience.


    But if you do not participate in public discourse, you forfeit the right to lament that your views are excluded. So you SHOULD participate.

    "Please always remember my doctrines!" - Epicurus' last words

  • i suppose I am not as much of a libertarian as you are Hiram. I am interested in people who see the same things that I do and form friendships on that basis. I recognize that everyone will not agree, and the problem is not lack of communication, nor will it be resolvable by communication.

  • Epicurus was highly successful in his time, and part of the reason is that he did not waste time debating opponents in the public square. By forming his own Garden, he was able to teach uninterrupted and to build a base from which outreach could occur. This strategy resulted in widespread adoption of his philosophy for centuries after his death. And that is what we are doing, following Epicurus' example of developing a strong, clearly defined hub from which to send our "leaflets" into the public space.


    The success of competing philosophies does not rest only upon accuracy but upon many other factors, including power and timing. In that circumstance, it is critical to develop a strong nucleus, with a clear identity, and proceed carefully. Being more concerned with numbers than clarity at this stage only results in dilution of the philosophy and eventually an unrecognizable amorphous mess.

    When powerful opponents are actively promoting interpretations of Epicurus which require the ignoring of some of his own writing and life, we are not forfeiting any right to lament their deplorable actions just because we've chosen to build our opposition carefully and in circles where they have less influence. That is an astonishing assertion.


    When developing a non-violent resistance to tyranny, do you send 3 or 4 revolutionaries to yell at the established army? Instead of taking time to build a strong movement in places where the army hasn't bothered to frequent?