Epicurean Philosophy Vs. Humanism

  • I have never considered Epicurean philosophy to be a form of "Humanist" philosophy any more than it is a form of Stoicism or Platonism. I haven't written extensively on this, in part because many Humanists are allies on certain important points, such as rejection of Supernatural Religion.

    But I was reminded of this point today and I think it is time to start a thread on it. My position is that "Humanism" is just another "-ism" that has a goal at its center which is very different from Epicurean philosophy. It will take much citation and explanation to explain this, but let's start in this post with the frequent Humanist slogan:


    That should be an immediate tipoff that feeling - pleasure and pain - are not at the center of Humanism. What's at the center is "being good." And advocacy of being a good person is always a tipoff that the person advocating that position has his or her own definition of "What a Good Person Is." And therein is the slippery slope of all Idealist philosophies and religions: In the atomistic universe recognized by Epicurus, in which there is no center point of observation, no supernatural creating god, and nothing eternal except elements and void - there IS no single definition of "good."

    I will come back to this as time allows, because I know my criticism of "Humanism" is not unique, nor is it rooted only in Epicurus or even in Nietzsche. I don't consider this issue to be a word game, and I consider it important not to unnecessarily offend the many good people who embrace the term "humanism" for reasons that are compatible with Epicurus.

    But Epicurean philosophy is about being precise with words, and keeping Nature - not idealism - at its center, so this is an issue which needs to be developed and understood.

    I fully agree with this reference to Nietszche as recorded at Wikipedia: "For Friedrich Nietzsche, humanism was nothing more than an empty figure of speech – a secular version of theism."

    Here is a useful Wilipedia article as a starting point for reference.

    Here is an article at Academia.com: Nietsche's Overcoming of Humanism ["In this section, I will discuss the transition from Platonic-Christian values to the values of secular humanism and attempt to show how these values, from a Nietzschean perspective, constitute another instantiation of the nihilistic paradigm"]

  • "Nietzsche's Overcoming of Humanism" REHA KULDAŞLI

    Above I said that with the death of God, the function of a central agency that orders beings is assumed by human being. To be more precise, this function is granted to an evaluation of human being understood to a great extent in rationalistic terms. The transmigration of this function from God to human being raises the value of human being to a degree in which it is conceived as above other beings due to this ordering power. That is, an evaluation of human being begins to occupy the seat vacated by God without a fundamental change in the structure. In Nietzsche’s terminology, God is replaced by its shadow, i.e., the rationalistic, more precisely, the subjectivistic (see 2.5, below) conception of human being. With this, human being’s search for security in the world from the perspective of self-preservation undergoes a modification. The previous ideal of spiritual salvation turns into a scientific-rationalistic conception of salvation, although the underlying tendencies and their unconscious desire for the overcoming of suffering remain operative. With respect to these tendencies, Nietzsche says:

    What they would like to strive for with all their powers is the universal, green, pasture-happiness of the herd, with security, absence of danger, comfort, an easing of life for everyone. The two songs and doctrines they sing most frequently are called ‘Equality of Rights’ and ‘pity for all things that suffer’ – and they assume that suffering itself is something we must do away with."

  • Reference: (Not that I agree with it) Wikipedia: Criticism of Humanism:

    Polemics about humanism have sometimes assumed paradoxical twists and turns. Early-20th-century critics such as Ezra Pound, T. E. Hulme, and T. S. Eliot considered humanism to be sentimental "slop" (Hulme)[citation needed] or "an old bitch gone in the teeth" (Pound). Postmodern critics who are self-described anti-humanists, such as Jean-François Lyotard and Michel Foucault, have asserted that humanism posits an overarching and excessively abstract notion of humanity or universal human nature, which can then be used as a pretext for imperialism and domination of those deemed somehow less than human. "Humanism fabricates the human as much as it fabricates the nonhuman animal", suggests Timothy Laurie, turning the human into what he calls "a placeholder for a range of attributes that have been considered most virtuous among humans (e.g. rationality, altruism), rather than most commonplace (e.g. hunger, anger)". Nevertheless, philosopher Kate Soper notes that by faulting humanism for falling short of its own benevolent ideals, anti-humanism thus frequently "secretes a humanist rhetoric".

    In his book, Humanism (1997), Tony Davies calls these critics "humanist anti-humanists". Critics of antihumanism, most notably Jürgen Habermas, counter that while antihumanists may highlight humanism's failure to fulfil its emancipatory ideal, they do not offer an alternative emancipatory project of their own. Others, like the German philosopher Heidegger. considered themselves humanists on the model of the ancient Greeks but thought humanism applied only to the German "race" and specifically to the Nazis and thus, in Davies' words, were anti-humanist humanists. Such a reading of Heidegger's thought is itself deeply controversial; Heidegger includes his own views and critique of Humanism in Letter On Humanism. Davies acknowledges that, after the horrific experiences of the wars of the 20th century, "it should no longer be possible to formulate phrases like 'the destiny of man' or the 'triumph of human reason' without an instant consciousness of the folly and brutality they drag behind them". For "it is almost impossible to think of a crime that has not been committed in the name of human reason". Yet, he continues, "it would be unwise to simply abandon the ground occupied by the historical humanisms. For one thing humanism remains on many occasions the only available alternative to bigotry and persecution. The freedom to speak and write, to organise and campaign in defence of individual or collective interests, to protest and disobey: all these can only be articulated in humanist terms."

    Modern humanists, such as Corliss Lamont or Carl Sagan, hold that humanity must seek for truth through reason and the best observable evidence and endorse scientific skepticism and the scientific method. However, they stipulate that decisions about right and wrong must be based on the individual and common good, with no consideration given to metaphysical or supernatural beings. The idea is to engage with what is human. The ultimate goal is human flourishing; making life better for all humans, and as the most conscious species, also promoting concern for the welfare of other sentient beings and the planet as a whole. The focus is on doing good and living well in the here and now, and leaving the world a better place for those who come after. In 1925, the English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead cautioned: "The prophecy of Francis Bacon has now been fulfilled; and man, who at times dreamt of himself as a little lower than the angels, has submitted to become the servant and the minister of nature. It still remains to be seen whether the same actor can play both parts".

    Sentientist philosophers criticise humanism for focusing too strongly, sometimes even exclusively, on the human species. They propose sentientism as an extension of humanism that grants degrees of moral consideration to all sentient beings—those capable of experiencing. Sentient beings include humans and most non-human animals and could potentially include artificial or alien intelligences."

  • Let's anticipate an argument: "You can't cite Nietzsche for an Epicurean position! Nietzsche thought that suffering (pain!) was good, and Epicurus thought that ABSENCE of pain was the greatest good."

    To unwind that you would have to step through many issues, but here are two important ones:

    (1) Epicurus said that we specifically at times choose pain, when the choice leads to greater pleasure or less pain in the end. Epicurus did not advocate the elimination of the ability to feel pain - that would be anaesthesia or death.

    (2) Despite what the choir of academics say, "absence of pain" is not the definition of the Epicurean goal for living. The Epicurean goal of living is "pleasure," and "pleasure" and "absence of pain" are not strict equivalents. Epicurus is very clear throughout his writing that pleasure is a *feeling* that all of us understand through our senses. "Absence of pain" is (in my view) best understood as a *concept* which has an important use in showing that pleasure has a limit and can thus be defined as the goal of life.

    Concepts are abstractions useful for producing pleasure; concepts are not pleasures in themselves. Words on a page are not pleasures unless we experience them. The reason it is useful to establish a "limit of pleasure" conceptually is to deal with irritants like Plato and Seneca who chatter that nothing can be considered a highest conceptual goal if it can be made better by adding something else to it (i.e., if it has no "limit"). Epicurus points out that all experience is either pleasurable or painful, so when pains are eliminated from experience, then experience is by definition full of pleasures. At that point, experience has conceptually reached its limit of pleasure - its fullest potential - and the Platonists and Aristotelians and humanists are left to walk around endlessly arguing about the meaning of "good."

  • Also - and I know this is one of your favorite sayings, Hiram, that we should not use "empty words." In naming a philosophy or an outlook, the word is intended to summarize the core idea. Probably if one were looking for a single word for Epicurus, the word would be more like "Naturist" or something that identifies the entire sweep of the philosophy - even more so than "pleasure." Putting the word "Human" in that role puts more pressure on it than it can bear, because there is so much more to the universe than humanity. Yes, all that really matters to us is "us," and from a certain perspective "man is the measure of all things" but I don't think Epicurus would have looked at it that way.

    If Epicurus had thought that gods created the universe he would have been a theist. If Epicurus thought that there were a realm of ideas he would have been a Platonist. If Epicurus had thought that playing word-games was of supreme importance he would have been a Stoic. But I think he was focused on the big picture of physics, epistemology, and ethics, and selecting out "human" from the picture ends up misrepresenting what it is all about. In fact it begs the question of categories as well, because how do we know what a "human" is, or how a human should live, without answering all those other questions?

    I know you are right that most people consider Epicurean philosophy to be both Humanist and Hedonist, but I think it's our job as Epicureans to point the way to a more clear understanding of the big picture. We are not subsets of them - they are a false and narrowed perspective that stand in the way of a more complete understanding.

  • There is a very useful discussion going on about this at the Facebook page, and there are posts there which really need to be preserved for future reference, against the day that Facebook decides to delete that group. I dislike linking to the facebook page, and I also dislike cutting and pasting from other places to here, but sometimes it's necessary. When that discussion cools down I will find a way to preserve the core parts so that the discussion can continue here. In the meantime:


  • I agree with Hiram. I think there is value in saying that Epicurean Philosophy is a specific system of thought within both the Humanist and Hedonist traditions. There are specific and important differences with large parts of those wider traditions, but it is also likely that we can find common ground and allies there.

    I think a friendly approach will benefit us more than an adversarial one in trying to spread the word about Epicurean Philosophy and building communities around that.