Welcome Cleveland Oakie!

  • I agree that that's the general tone of Wilson's book. For someone who's never heard of Epicureanism, maybe it could be an entry point for further exploration? From my perspective, that's why it's important. It's really the first book to get some popular press coverage for Epicureanism after the glut of Stoicism books for so long.

  • Yes "fluffy" is a very good term for it. I've watched some of Wilson's videos and I do tend to think that she gives a good "vibe" as being a nice person and "gets it" better than do some of the others. But I don't think she's primarily into Epicurus as much as she is into general philosophy, and so she comes across as more cautious than she would otherwise.

  • A few observations/questions:


    1. I'm most of the way through DeWitt's book, and in Chapter 14 he writes of Epicurus, "He favored a minimum of government and chose to look upon men as free individuals in a society transcending local political boundaries." Is this an eccentric opinion of DeWitt's, or would most experts on Epicurus describe him as a kind of libertarian or classical liberal? It is interesting to me that my current intense interest in Epicureanism was spurred by Bryan Caplan's recommendation that everyone read the "Letter to Menoeceus." (Caplan is a libertarian blogger, college professor and author. Many of his views are decidedly Epicurean, i.e. he stresses the importance of friendship.)


    2. Now that I know more about Epicureanism, thanks to DeWitt's book, I have to say that the Epicurean position that puzzles me the most is the denunciation of mathematics. Is there a ancient Greek cultural context here that I'm not getting?


    3. About sex, same question. Is Epicurus negative toward sex because he opposed older men hitting on young boys, or is there something else at work here? I don't see how, for example, married sex would contradict Epicurean principles.


    4. I didn't really get an answer to my query about Hiram Crespo's book, but related to that, I was browsing on Kindle the other night and I ran across Cassius' "Elemental Epicureanism" and bought it for 99 cents. At that price, and with its collection of basic texts, it ought to be recommended to every new person joining this website. I'll note that an "H. Crespo" recommended it and gave it five stars.

  • I'll take a shot at some of these;

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    1. I'm most of the way through DeWitt's book, and in Chapter 14 he writes of Epicurus, "He favored a minimum of government and chose to look upon men as free individuals in a society transcending local political boundaries." Is this an eccentric opinion of DeWitt's, or would most experts on Epicurus describe him as a kind of libertarian or classical liberal?

    While we do heavily push DeWitt as the best introduction to Epicurean Philosophy, many of us also recognize his tendency in several ways to extrapolate beyond the textual evidence. I cannot recall a citation in the relevant texts where this opinion is directly expressed.


    Complicating the problem are several historical facts worth mentioning. First, and In support of DeWitt's assertion, we do know that Epicurus chose to settle in democratic Athens. He had other options, some of which had more centralized governments. (I'll also mention that we try to avoid the thorny issue of politics on this forum, for what I think are obvious reasons.)


    The second factor is that capitalism as we understand it did not exist, and had not been proposed. Further, Epicurus himself held slaves; it's difficult in any age to hold liberty as a strong value when slavery is de rigeur. There are no classical texts from any author surviving which propose abolitionism as an object. The ancients simply saw these issues differently than we do.


    Quote

    2. Now that I know more about Epicureanism, thanks to DeWitt's book, I have to say that the Epicurean position that puzzles me the most is the denunciation of mathematics. Is there a ancient Greek cultural context here that I'm not getting?


    There certainly is! Epicurus lived in a demon-haunted age, and Mathematics were not exempt from this broader context. Pythagoras had proposed a connection between geometry and the "10 concentric celestial spheres". His claim was not only about geometry and astronomy, but about "Truth". Plato as well saw a connection between Euclidean geometric theorems, and the kind of pure absolute moral theory that he himself was dabbling in; hence the sign over his door—"Let no man enter here who has not studied geometry".


    This will help to indicate the other problem with Mathematics—namely, that the Ancient Greeks had no real taste for their practical application. As an example of this; the Alexandrians had done the work of developing an understanding of pneumatics and hydraulics, and they even devised a basic steam engine. And what did they use things for? Tricks and sorcery to complement the charlatanism of the temples and oracles.


    Yes, that's right; they were one step away from attaching a piston and a wheel to this contraption, by which effort they could have discovered locomotive power! But they didn't.


    Epicurus did not have time for philosophy that did not invite a practical application. He was surrounded by geometers, and at the end of all their inquiries they were finding God.


    He knew they were on the wrong track entirely, and so dismissed them.

  • "I know that I am by nature mortal, and ephemeral—but when I trace at my leisure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies, my feet no longer touch the Earth, but I stand in the presence of Zeus Himself and take my fill of ambrosia."

    -Claudius Ptolemy, Almagest


    This is sort of what I mean by "finding god" in mathematics.

  • Regarding politics, I agree with JJElbert that Epicurus pre-dated much of today's political and economic theory and therefore it's a bit of a stretch to make a case for him espousing libertarianism, Marxism or any other current or recent ideology.


    For my own curiosity about an Epicurean take on politics, I've just begun reading Wilson's How To Be An Epicurean. I've been avoiding that book because it veers into politics, but since it was listed in the recent thread on books on practical EP I figured I'd give it a chance.


    Some comments on the first pages of the book. Wilson clearly states that the book is her take on EP and that not everyone will agree with her. Paraphrasing another statement of hers, the value of studying a philosophy is in learning to think for oneself, not in becoming a follower. I find this line of thinking refreshing, particularly when considering the oft expressed desire for Epicurean "spiritual exercises" along the lines of Stoic practices.


    But I digress. Comments on Wilson probably belong in another thread. I just wanted to mention her as someone to read for an alternate take on reading politics into EP.

  • Very good comments from Joshua and Godfrey. I think I agree with all of them so I won't repeat that part in what I write:


    1. I'm most of the way through DeWitt's book, and in Chapter 14 he writes of Epicurus, "He favored a minimum of government and chose to look upon men as free individuals in a society transcending local political boundaries." Is this an eccentric opinion of DeWitt's, or would most experts on Epicurus describe him as a kind of libertarian or classical liberal? It is interesting to me that my current intense interest in Epicureanism was spurred by Bryan Caplan's recommendation that everyone read the "Letter to Menoeceus." (Caplan is a libertarian blogger, college professor and author. Many of his views are decidedly Epicurean, i.e. he stresses the importance of friendship.)


    Response One: Again I agree with Godfrey and Joshua and think that (1) it is hard to apply the systems Epicurus was involved in to modern systems. And (2) I think ultimately we have to look to Epicurus' position on Justice to see that he was very flexible and I think he would say that the system of government that is most appropriate depends on the facts. But I also do think that it is fair to infer that as for Epicurus himself and his friends, they who were often simple in their tastes, self-sufficient, etc. would naturally be attracted to themselves live under a system that reflected those simple and "live and let live tastes." So I think it's understandable how "libertarians" today can see commonalities in their views with those of Epicurus, but they shouldn't take it too far. Epicurus was above all practical, and interested in the results in action, and he would not likely say "Everyone in the world ought to live as me and my friends in Athens in 300 BC preferred to live." So in thinking that Epicurus endorsed their political viewpoints, I think they would be in error, just as would be almost everyone who tries to enlist Epicurus for their applied political viewpoints.



    2. Now that I know more about Epicureanism, thanks to DeWitt's book, I have to say that the Epicurean position that puzzles me the most is the denunciation of mathematics. Is there a ancient Greek cultural context here that I'm not getting?


    Response 2: Be sure to see the material in our recent thread on Epicurus and Propositional Logic: Propositional Logic, Truth Tables, and Epicurus' Objection to "Dialectic" And also these threads: Explaining Epicurus' Position On The "Size of the Sun" And Related Issues of Speculative Math / Geometry The basic point is that "science" is very similar to "wisdom" in virtue- no "system" is fully accurate to the facts of reality, and those limitations must always be remembered. The same goes especially for mathematics, which allows us to create "models" but not duplicate reality. People who forget those limitations lose themselves in pursuit of ideal forms which do not exist in reality.


    3. About sex, same question. Is Epicurus negative toward sex because he opposed older men hitting on young boys, or is there something else at work here? I don't see how, for example, married sex would contradict Epicurean principles.


    Response 3: I think it is most accurate to say that Epicurus cautioned that care be used in sex just as he would or did in terms of alcohol or any other high-risk activities that tend toward intoxication. Intoxication makes it difficult for us to be honest in predicting the results of our actions - in answering the question "What will happen to me if I choose this course of action?" Epicurus warned against the pain that comes from intoxicated pursuit of sex / romance but he did not condemn the pleasure itself, and he recognized sex for one of the real hallmark experiences of life by which we know ultimately what pleasure is. "The pleasure of sex" is a feeling that is hard to fail to feel and understand, so I think the best way to appeciate Epicurus on this is that he is always reminding us that all pleasures are desirable, but some bring the danger of more pain than others do, and the fact of life is that this is a pleasure to handle with great care.


    4. I didn't really get an answer to my query about Hiram Crespo's book, but related to that, I was browsing on Kindle the other night and I ran across Cassius' "Elemental Epicureanism" and bought it for 99 cents. At that price, and with its collection of basic texts, it ought to be recommended to every new person joining this website. I'll note that an "H. Crespo" recommended it and gave it five stars.


    Response 4: My "books" are little more than compilations and the only reason there is a charge for any of them is that I couldn't figure out way to get them on Kindle without there being a charge. If you get any benefit from them I will be glad but they all need dramatic revision - which I hope to do someday. As to Hiram's book that is a complicated subject. A significant number of people find that it contains helpful suggests for the pursuit of pleasure, but it was not written as a basic textbook (such as the DeWitt book) and it should not be depended upon for basic theory. The people who like it the most are generally those who read it first, and before they read DeWitt or some other book on theory. Those who read DeWitt or other reliable theory generally I find to be less well disposed toward it. Anyone who is interested in reading about the differences between Hiram's approach and those of most of us at this forum would do well to read this thread: Discussion of the Society of Epicurus' 20 Tenets of 12/21/19



    If I missed something let me know and I will come back to it!

  • Thank you very much to everyone for taking the time to offer thoughtful replies, and I also will follow the links you guys offer when I get time.

  • Just wanted to log that I am plugging away on my reading. I finished DeWitt's book and now tonight I finished Catherine Wilson's "Very Short Introduction" book. Wilson's book is not bad, but I thought DeWitt's was more interesting.


    I have "How To Be An Epicurean" on hold at the library, so that will be next.

  • Of possible related interest: One of the reasons I enjoyed the DeWitt book is that I like reading about classical history and culture anyway: I just finished reading "Five Roman Lives," a recent translation of five of Plutarch's lives: Pompey, Caesar, Cicero, Brutus and Antony, and the lives sometimes mention Epicureans. Apparently at least some of Caesar's assassins were Epicureans; a book I have on hold at the library, "The Last Assassin: The hunt for the killers of Julius Caesar" by Peter Stothard apparently goes into some detail on that.


    I was surprised that the "Very Short Introduction to Epicureanism" doesn't mention DeWitt's book. So I looked up Epicureanism in my third edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary, and it doesn't mention the book either!


    As I've been invited to submit questions, I did have one: Has anyone seen any evidence that Epicurus might have been influenced by Buddhism? Of course, Epicurus did not advocate either indulgence or extreme ascetism but recommend a sensible middle course, and I'm struck by how his actual advice (as opposed to misconceptions) is rather reminiscent of the Middle Way of Buddhism. Siddhartha of course was raised in luxury and experimented with ascetism and ultimately rejected both.

  • You will get lots of takers on the Buddhism question so I will leave that to others.


    On the DeWitt book, as you read more of the "conventional" commentary you will see why Dewii is both held in disrepute in the "establishment" and why some of us like him!


    As for Caesar, there were probably Epicureans on both sides of that.

  • Quote

    As I've been invited to submit questions, I did have one: Has anyone seen any evidence that Epicurus might have been influenced by Buddhism?

    Good question! This is rather complicated, but the short answer is "probably not". This could be a long post...


    Alexander the Great


    Epicurus was living and working in the late fourth century and early 3rd century BCE. Gautama Buddha lived somewhere between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE.


    There was a very gradual inter-fluence of Greek and Indian thought starting possibly with the Presocratics (more on that in a bit), but not coming to a head until Alexander the Great's Indian Campaign in 327 BCE, 14 years after Epicurus' birth. Epicurus did muster for the mandatory two-year Athenian military training at his coming of age, but he never campaigned as a soldier.


    Bactria


    When I say that the Greco-Indian exchange of ideas was gradual, I do mean that in every sense. Bactria in Central Asia (Afghanistan and other parts of the present-day Middle East) was on the far-flung limits of the frontier of Greek civilization. Even to get that far, you had to cover the whole breadth of Persia.


    Having gotten that far, there was even more trouble ahead; between Bactria and India there still lay the formidable barrier of the towering peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains. There was no direct sea-route to India from the Mediterranean until the construction of the Suez Canal in the 1860s. There was, in Antiquity, an overland route over this same land-bridge, and one of Alexander's dreams in founding Alexandria was to fully exploit it. This did happen eventually, for a few hundred years, but not in a systematic way until well after Epicurus' death. Egypt before the Ptolemies was a civilization in what appeared to be terminal decline–a mere vassal of the Persians.


    King Ashoka


    Nor did Buddhism even spread throughout India until quite late in Antiquity; the key figure in its spread was King Ashoka of the Mauryan Empire, who didn't come to power until 2 years before Epicurus died. Ashoka, in a spirit of innovation prefiguring Constantine, took the unusual step of establishing Buddhism as the Imperial State Religion.


    The earliest surviving artefacts of Greco-Buddhist art date from the 1st to 3rd centuries CE. Now, to be fair, very little Greek art in general survives from the time of Epicurus. Most of what we know about it comes from the Roman copies that were made starting sometime around the late 2nd/1st centuries BCE, and on through the Imperial Period.


    The Ionian School


    I mentioned the Presocratics earlier. I will lay the groundwork here by talking a little bit about the philosophical tradition that Epicureanism stems from. Epicurus himself was an Athenian citizen by birth, but not a resident; he was born on Samos at the Eastern extent of the Aegean. This cluster of islands off the Greek mainland (known collectively as Ionia) experienced a cultural flourishing in the centuries preceding Epicurus' birth, a flourishing that predated the flowering of Athens, and that had its center in the city of Miletus on the Greek coast of Asia Minor.


    The 'Ionian School', as it is sometimes called, was quite unusual in its approach to philosophy—particularly when compared with the later Platonic style. Where logic and dialectic would come to rule in Athens, the Ionians tended (though not universally) to prefer the direct experience of nature, and to make inferences about the physical laws that governed it. If Socrates and Plato are the fathers of Dialectic Philosophy, it was the Ionians who took the first faltering steps toward physical science.


    There was Anaximander, who drew the first map of the world and concluded that it was spherical; Xenophanes, an early agnostic; Heraclitus, who intuited that all things in nature are in motion; Anaxagoras, who supposed that the sun was not divine at all, but simply a huge, burning stone; Empedocles, who thought that the Cosmos was uncreated and eternal; and, most importantly for us, Democritus and Leucippus, who posited that all bodies are made of indivisible atoms suspended in void.


    Democritus


    Quote

    By convention sweet, by convention bitter, by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention colour; in reality atoms and void.


    Of these last, Democritus is better attested. He was said to have been born into a wealthy family. Rather than building on that legacy, he chose instead to use his inheritance to fund his particular avocation–the pursuit of philosophy, wherever on Earth that might lead him.


    He traveled far and wide; Assyria, Babylon, Egypt–even, it is rumored, as far away as Ethiopia on the east coast of Africa, and, yes, to India.


    Since Democritus was Epicurus' most important source (despite the latter's protestations), it would do well to dwell on this Indian connection.


    Unfortunately, we cannot! There is but a hint that Democritus ever made it that far. Even if he had, the topic on which Epicurus most seriously diverges from Democritus is precisely Ethics, the subject we are reviewing now. Had Epicurus stuck with Democritean atomic-determinism, it might be interesting to address Indian concepts like Karma in light of that. But Epicurus forged his own path; a radical embrace of free-will.


    That's a lot for now. I will try to return to this thread in a day or two and outline what I think are key differences between Epicurean and Buddhist thought.


    (I have no qualifications to do so, by the way, except that I was once a Secular Buddhist and am now an Epicurean.)


    -josh

  • And by the by, Cleveland Okie, if you ever run short of reading material, The Rise and Fall of Alexandria has become far and away my favorite history book on Hellenistic thought. The near-total lack of any material on Epicurus or on Buddhism will not satisfy as an answer to your question, but there's a good deal of interesting stuff on Alexander the Great, the Ptolemaic dynasty, and the Great Library.

  • Personally, I'm more inclined to believe that any perceived similarities between Buddhism and Epicureanism are due to convergent evolution rather than direct contact. What works, works, regardless of the geography or time period.

  • There's a book titled Greek Buddha, by Christopher Beckwith, that describes how Pyrrho spent several years with Alexander and studied the version of Buddhism existing at that time. He proposes that there may have been cross pollination between Pyrrho and the Buddhists.


    I believe that DL mentions that Epicurus was an admirer of Pyrrho. If all of this was so, I can imagine that Epicurus made improvements to Pyrrho's ideas in the same way that he did to Democritus' ideas. For example, as I understand Buddhism, a goal is to eliminate desire (which is of course impossible: you really have to desire to eliminate desire in order to eliminate desire!). Epicurus came up with an elegant and more evidence based theory of the various types of desire. But this is speculation on my part and I gather that Beckwith's book is controversial.