Epicurus: Against the Use of Empty Words

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

  • Very impressive work in assembling the text and the narration!


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    In its battle against the errors of Platonic philosophy, Epicurean philosophy invites us to call things by their proper name and to avoid empty words.

    The first Epicureans often changed the names or definitions of things with empirical justification, so that the words were in line with the things signified and with their own descriptions. The idea is that every word that is used must have a clear correspondence in nature, in reality, as is evident to our faculties.

    The practice of clearly establishing the definitions before starting an investigation, debate, or philosophical speech originates from this idea, which helps us to philosophize with our feet on the ground and to avoid pointlessly building castles in the air.

    This was such an important issue that Polyaenus, one of the founders of Epicurean philosophy, devoted a treatise to Definitions. In the treatise, the distinction is also discussed between the knowable and the unknowable (i.e., what can and cannot be known through the senses and faculties).

    When the mind clearly focuses on an impression received from a perceived object, the mind acquires a clear concept of the object and is able to assign a category or definition to it.

    This is known as an attestation or testimony.

    Epicureans greatly value enargeia, which is the clear immediacy of an attestation.

    In the absence of an immediate or direct apprehension of the object, the mind is able to carry out a conceptual process by which an opinion concerning a being or imperceivable phenomenon undergoes the conceivability test.

    This typically involves reasoning about that which is non-evident by using an analogy from that which is evident and similar, that which has already been perceived and conceived clearly.

    The notion of the inconceivable is derived from this process because in order to refer to something, we must first clearly conceive it.

    As we can see, all these terms attach importance to evidence and things perceived. But what methods are used to reason about actions and theories? Epicurus says that we think empirically concerning actions based on the results observed from any course of action.

    If we have the intellectual rigor to follow these guidelines, we can easily dismiss false opinions, theoretical arguments, and judgments if they are based on false testimony, or if when we establish a link with action, it proves to be disadvantageous.

    People in ancient Greece were often confronted by rhetors , sophists, and logicians who liked to play with words and confuse people.

    For instance, when asked whether it is possible to know and not know something at the same time, a man was presented with his father wearing a veil. This supposedly proves that it is possible to know and to not know the same thing (because the man knows his father, but does not recognize him when veiled).

    Epicurus makes use of this example to show that one can not conclude a universal based on a particular example -- in this case, that it is possible to know and to not know something at the same time

    To reach a satisfactory conclusion to a universal proposition, its truth must be based on empirical grounds, and translated into practical behavior by the person who admits it.

    Epicurus not only forces us to consider the evidence provided, but establishes a relationship between practice and theory.

    I see the description now on the Youtube page.

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    And on the Society of Epicurus page:


    Also, I didn't immediately recognize the veil analogy near the end of the audio. What is the source for that?

    Edit: I see you are citing this book, which you have mentioned before:


    I still have seen no other English material on this book 18 of On Nature, so I don't have a clue whether this text is reconstructed or how reliable it may be. I hope we'll eventually find more information on this because if there is substantial material from Book 18 available, we need access to it in English.

  • Hiram have you found anything further about who the writer and editor of this book are, in terms of their background and qualifications? I would love to know what access they have to the fragments of Book 18.

    I see this page describing the book https://www.librairiecosmopoli…-de-traducteurs-gallimard

    which google translate gives (poorly) as:

    "Epicetus" for Epictetus, "hog" for others, Epicurus sparked fierce debate. Calling for individual liberation from fears and delusions, an overt attack of superstition, his philosophy was perhaps too innovative. She passed on to posterity thanks to De rerum natura by Lucretius, and to Epogenide's Life of Diogenes Laertius, which transcribed the Master's Philosophical Abstracts and his Maximal Capitals - before the discovery, at Herculaneum, of a philosophical library resurrect other epicurean writings. This volume opens on the indispensable testimony of Diogenes Laertius, then it offers, for the first time in French, a translation of the found fragments of the Nature of Epicure. Then come the collections of testimonies and fragments relating to the disciples of the first generation (Métrodore, Hermarque ...), in a presentation identical to that of the volume that the Pleiade dedicated to the Presocratics. Garden disciples who flourished at the turn of the 2nd-1st centuries BC, we give the few texts, Zeno of Sidon, Philodemus, which have reached us, and of course the poem of Lucretius, here published in a new translation . In counterpoint is the testimony of Cicero, one of the main detractors of epicureanism. Finally, we focus on epicureanism of the first-third centuries, known mainly through testimonies (Plutarch, Seneca, Galen). The volume ends with Diogenes d'Oenoanda, who wanted to give the inhabitants of his city the epicurean precepts by engraving them on a wall. Thus we are given back the epicurean philosophy, with which a whole dimension of modernity was constituted

    Edition published under the direction of Daniel Delattre and Jackie Pigeaud.

  • Yes, my source was the French book, which I went out of my way to get years ago because it contained many works not available in English.

    Les Epicureans has no "writer". It is a translation of ancient works with commentaries from MANY intellectuals and sources, compiled and edited by two men, among which DeLattre seems to have been the central figure because he seems to focus solely on Epicurean / Philodeman sources. Les Epicureans is basically a French-language Encyclopaedia Epicurea. And it feels like a an Epicurean Bible because it has all the ancient sources.

    Daniel DeLattre is here:


    and he's tied to the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique / French National Centre for Scientific Research


    and judging from his papers on academia it looks like he's almost exclusively focused on the Herculanean papyri.

    Also, keep in mind that Michel Onfray is HUGE in France (and that his main narrative is "counter-history of philosophy from the perspective of the friends of Epicurus and enemies of Plato"), and that citizens of the French Republic tend to have a much more robust intellectual life than many other countries, so it's very likely that this author is very intimately familiar with the details and important issues to Epicurean Philosophy and seems like he's committed to preserving EP for future generations.

    The other editor, Jackie Pigeaud, died in 2016. Here is an essay in homage of his memory that you can google translate if you're into the philosophical subject of melancholy:



    and here are his works


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

  • "For instance, when Epicurus asked whether it is possible to know and not know something at the same time..."

    This sounds as an Epicurean argument. If this same argument goes for Nature (and not for a father) that is presented here in Earth with many of our known laws, but as we investigate the phenomena here on Earth based on the analogy of the Canon we can make assumptions for the unseen i.e. like Nature to be as a mother that is covered with a veil.

    And how we can make assumptions? With the manifold way by Epicurus. This of what our friends in the Garden of Thessaloniki are saying that the science of today is called as "fuzzy logic". But the right term has to be called as "the manifold way" by Epicurus that it is possible to know and to not know something in the same time. This is for the purpose to not be agitated by Myths with ghosts and supernatural beings as gods that produce fear of the unknown as well as from the charlatanism, superstition and prejudices. Thus, and as Epicurus said, the only thing that has to be excluded from our investigations are Myths, and the absolutes.

    From an excerpt to Epicuru's epistle to Pythocles we see how Epicurus knows and does not know something in the same time. And that means also that he is waiting that time that his assumptions will be proved and not contradicted in the future by the experiences of men, and the science that investigates the same phenomena.

    If Epicurus lived in our era he would be very happy to see with his own eyes those videos with moon landings.

    From Pythocles : "The wanings of the moon and its subsequent waxings might be due to the revolution of its own body, or equally well to successive conformations of the atmosphere, or again to the interposition of other bodies; they may be accounted for in all the ways in which phenomena on earth invite us to such explanations of these phases; provided only one does not become enamoured of the method of the single cause and groundlessly put the others out of court, without having considered what it is possible for a man to observe and what is not, and desiring therefore to observe what is impossible. Next the moon may have her light from herself or from the sun. For on earth too we see many things shining with their own, and many with reflected light. Nor is any celestial phenomenon against these explanations, if one always remembers the method of manifold way and investigates hypotheses and explanations consistent with them, and does not look to inconsistent notions and emphasize them without cause and so fall back in different ways on different occasions on the method of the single cause. The impression of a face in the moon may be due to the variation of its parts or to interposition or to any one of many causes which might be observed, all in harmony with phenomena. For in the case of all celestial phenomena this process of investigation must never be abandoned – for if one is in opposition to clear-seen facts, he can never have his part in true peace of mind".


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

  • This is the kind of thing that I'd like to work on correlating:

    (1) The book by DeLattre apparently indicates that the material being discussed is from Book 18 of On Nature. it was published in 2010.

    (2) The Wurzburg Center for Epicurean Studies listing of the available texts does not even include anything from Book 18 at all: Wurzburg Center for Epicurean Studies

    There must be a way to find either at Wurzburg or some other site a comprehensive listing of what parts of what books are available.

  • Thanks Hiram -- I don't read French but I think I will go ahead and get a copy. The description of contents on this page looks pretty comprehensive, and Google translate generally does a reasonable job with French.


    This was a bit complex to read sometimes (huge tome with little letters and dense content) but also EXTREMELY rewarding in terms of how much I got out of it.

    This is also my main source for Polystratus' argument for moral realism, which is very relevant today with so many books trying to root morality in nature (Sam Harris, "The Atheist and the Bonobo", "The moral animal", etc.) All these intellectuals are trying to reinvent the wheel. The Epicureans drew from the Letter to Herodotus and the classification of inherent and relational properties of bodies to infer a natural morality where pleasure and aversion (and other ethical categories) are relational attributes of bodies. If we could modernize this discourse, we may be able to greatly and credibly influence this modern discourse.

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

  • Hiram, not speaking French, I don't have the same access to Michael Onfray's work-- but I found this article by him which seems to be a different perspective than Epicurean. His hedonism is a "balance" between pleasure for oneself and others. If he does that, then he has caused balance to be more important or as important as pleasure. Then he talks about the universal things he believes, including some abstract quality of "worth" of different humans.

    I definitely take a lot of pleasure in witnessing the pleasure of those I love, so it is included already in my own pleasure-- it isn't a separate thing that needs to be balanced. And I don't even assign "worth" to humans at all. That's an abstract concept which eventually results in the turning of humans into math problems, and then the math becomes more important than the actual pleasure.

    Onfray says a happy human is "better" than an unhappy human- what does he mean by better? Is there a "better" that is different from pleasure? If he said "I am happier being around happy humans than unhappy humans" or "I am happier living around other people for whom pleasure is the goal" it would make more sense. That would be something I could agree with.

    I make this comment because if he is a central figure representing Epicurus in France, his version sounds significantly different from the direction we are going here.


  • Good find Elayne. I've never understood why anyone would want to identify themselves as a "Hedonist" rather than an "Epicurean" other than as a way of distancing themselves from the full implications of Epicurean theory.

    Who are these "others"? Why "must" their interests be considered equal to the interests of myself, family, and actual or potential friends?

    "Must" is always a loaded word. Says who?

    More of the same, as Elayne pointed out. So "he believes" these things? Based on what? "Worth"? To whom? Why?

    And as Elayne said, why is a happy human being "better" than an unhappy human being? The "universal" dose of pleasure? This sounds like Benthamite utilitarianism - the "greatest good for the greatest number" for which I see no basis in Epicurus.

    And while I personally agree with this, we are supposed to be discussing philosophy. WHY are these outcomes desirable, especially if we're just interested in the greatest pleasure for the greatest number -- why not just kill all the minorities and the majority would then be totally happy, wouldn't they? Why should we consider those who are killed in the process? All these questions seem to me to be unresolveable under what he has said so far.

    On the other hand, I think they ARE resolvable under the plain words of Epicurus, including PD39 and PD40 - we simply have to recognize that there are no absolute standards of right and wrong, and that every living being will prosper or fail according to how they and their like-minded friends organize their affairs:

    PD 39. The man who best knows how to meet external threats makes into one family all the creatures he can; and those he can not, he at any rate does not treat as aliens; and where he finds even this impossible, he avoids all dealings, and, so far as is advantageous, excludes them from his life.

    PD 40. Those who possess the power to defend themselves against threats by their neighbors, being thus in possession of the surest guarantee of security, live the most pleasant life with one another;

  • Please contact me if, while reading the French sources, things don't make sense. I know it's a Romance language and the book is written in a style that intellectuals in France are fond of, but which makes use of long-winded metaphors and bizarre expressions that require some familiarity with the language. I'm fluent, and yet I needed to consult an online French dictionary frequently while reading.

    Elayne the best English language source for Onfray, and a great introduction to his intellectual legacy is Hedonist Manifesto. Here is my review:


    I can't speak for him, but On happiness and worth, I'll refer you to the study by Dr. Christakis that I mentioned in my book, that showed that happiness is contagious, and the comparison between this study and another study on the correlation between money and happiness that showed that a happy friend adds aprox. $20,000 worth of happiness to our lives. So that is the "worth" of a happy friend.

    Onfray does not revile utilitarianism and cynicism, for example, as much as he reviles Plato. He reserves most of his venom for Plato, and insofar as other philosophies/ers resonate with his counter-history of philosophy, he affirms them. For instance, he calls himself "a Nietzschean, insofar as he takes Nietzsche as a starting point in philosophizing". And he's a huge champion of THE BODY and its instincts and faculties (and ergo of libertarian individualism, versus the societal pressures and conventions that impose inauthenticity).

    So -- whatever else we may say of him-- he has brought many thousands in Europe and the French speaking world to the study of Epicurus with his gospel of pleasure and his call to re-write history from an Epicurean perspective. Everyone that I've met in the Spanish world that knows about Epicurus is pretty familiar with Onfray. By contending with his words, we inject ourselves into thousands of discussions about Epicurus that are happening all over Europe and Latin America.

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

  • Hiram thanks for the part about being willing to check the French translations ---

    Also - what do you think Onfray would answer as to his supporting reasoning for questions like "Who are these "others"? Why "must" their interests be considered equal to the interests of myself, family, and actual or potential friends?" "Must" is always a loaded word. Says who?

    In regard to a quote like this:


    I doubt he would say that his opinion is rooted in either Epicurus or hedonism for that matter, unless he just wanted to coin his own brand of hedonism that takes for granted that "everyone" is entitled to equal consideration as we make our own decisions.

    Presuming that he appeals to some outside authority for why that "must" be true, sounds like he is verging on platonism himself.

  • Again I can't speak for him but my guess is that in his social contract, the "others" are the citizens of the French Republic.

    The French take their Republican values VERY seriously. They struggled too much for them to take them for granted. They see their Republic as the fruit of the Enlightenment and Paris is La Cité des Lumières (the City of Lights). Liberté, Egalité, Solidarité are part of their national covenant, sort of like our "pursuit of happiness" and other statements in our foundational documents in America--and this is why the French are much more comfortable with social democracy and labor activism than we are (because of the solidarity portion).

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

  • Yes I think that is the way forward toward reconciling the tension -- by limiting the circle of "others" to those who are truly in some sense our friends. But it's very hard to draw those lines, especially if a philosophy is grounded in opposition to drawing any lines, and considering everything to be "universal" in application.

    That's where I think the last then PD's make clear that Epicurus did not go in that direction.

  • Yes, this is where the "cosmopolitan" values of the Epicureans were indifferent to the values of the polis (state), and where natural community differs from Platonic / imagined community. "Cosmopolitan" meant, in a way, non-polis.


    The issue today is that international law does not permit stateless individuals (which is why there was so much controversy around the supposed civil rights of the "ISIS brides"), so we will always have to live with people's political identities and their implications (even if they are Platonic or imposed or whatever), and I would argue that life is much more pleasant when, rather than fighting our political identities we embrace and are able to take pride in them like Onfray does with La République, or like we like to sometimes over-romanticize Thomas Jefferson and others for their Epicurean and/or Enlightenment ideals.

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

  • so we will always have to live with people's political identities and their implications

    I agree with much of that post Hiram, but I think this part goes further than I would go. In all human history to date there has been a great deal of ebb and flow and change about where people live, with whom, etc., so I would expect that to continue to be the case. And what stirs a lot of that movement is that people who want to live together, in their way of living, aren't always going to be stopped by the simple desire of other people to live differently. Populations frequently come into conflict by force, and probably always will. So from my personal Epicurean point of view, if the great majority of my neighbors decide that they don't like my way of life, I would like to think that I am mentally and emotionally (if not physically) prepared to defend it with force if necessary.

    Given that the life of myself and my friends is short, I would take no risks in engaging in social experiments with people who quite frankly tell me that they hate my guts for whatever reason. And that means, in appropriate circumstances, being willing and able to defend ourselves by force, if necessary.

    In support of this I would cite:

    6. In order to obtain protection from other men, any means for attaining this end is a natural good.

    14. Protection from other men, secured to some extent by the power to expel and by material prosperity, in its purest form comes from a quiet life withdrawn from the multitude.

    39. The man who best knows how to meet external threats makes into one family all the creatures he can; and those he can not, he at any rate does not treat as aliens; and where he finds even this impossible, he avoids all dealings, and, so far as is advantageous, excludes them from his life.

    40. Those who possess the power to defend themselves against threats by their neighbors, being thus in possession of the surest guarantee of security, live the most pleasant life with one another; and their enjoyment of the fullest intimacy is such that if one of them dies prematurely, the others do not lament his death as though it called for pity.