Posts by JJElbert

    Those are good focusing questions, Cassius. I wanted to explore the question of whether video games in broad terms are a 'waste of time'. Let us assume that this means they are unconstructive—designed not for education, or for research, or anything like that, but for mere enjoyment. I actually left the thread title vague because I think that a lot of things fall into this category—television, popular fiction, pornography, watching sports, etc.

    So let's put it like this;

    Setting aside the moral aspects of the question, should an Epicurean spend large quantities of time in relatively passive content-consumption?

    TL;DR—This post is a bit rambling. Skip to the next one for a discussion of the question, "Are video games a waste of time?"


    When I was a young boy—the middle child of three—my parents brought home a Nintendo Entertainment System. It had been an especially difficult pregnancy for my mother; she was often sick, and particularly struggled to keep down food. I was born with a significant deformity of the chest and nearly died. I was baptized at the hospital for fear that I wouldn't make it.

    Based on these and other factors, my parents were informed of two probabilities. The first was that my poor prenatal nutrition predicted a lifelong struggle with overeating and weight gain, and the second was that my mental development and mind/body coordination would be slow and possibly foreshortened.

    To help with the second problem, my dad convinced my mother that video games—then in their infancy—would help with developing coordination. I also did Hooked on Phonics, created the year before I was born, to help me keep up with my peers.

    In fact I exceeded them. My senior year of high school, I took the ACT test and got a perfect score of 36 in Reading Comprehension. It was 2006, and I was bookish, with a high reputation among my teachers, and skinny as a rail.

    And I still played video games. A LOT of video games. Like many young people, and especially boys, they became a part of my identity. They were the main focus of my peer group, the main use of my money from my first job, and the major use of my free time.

    I am nearly 32 now, gainfully employed, and while I haven't owned a gaming console for several years, I still play them on my laptop. Sometimes I play for hours at a stretch, while new and unread books languish on the shelf.

    The public conception among our elders that video games will turn us all into violent sociopaths seems to have abated in the intervening decades, but it's been supplanted by a milder one—we're lazy, and we're wasting our lives.

    Let's explore the question!

    Cassius, I think you are right—this was a strong episode. Thanks to all who participated!

    I particularly enjoyed the discussion of Epicurus as leader, teacher and so forth. I'm sure that I'm as guilty as anyone of investing too much attachment into the figure himself; you can see it in some of my poems. Elayne's cautions are well taken, and she is a valuable voice.

    I might add a few points to flesh out my own thinking; and to redeem, in a way, Lucretius and Lucian and others who have covered him with honor.

    The first thing I would say is that we are shielded by the philosophy itself against the worst forms of hagiography. It will never be asserted—it couldn't be taken seriously if it were—that Epicurus was set apart in significance from other mortals. We will not, cannot, fall into the demeaning trap of thinking him heralded, prophecied, chosen, or marked by signs and portents. He performed no miracles; he was born to no god; he ascended into no paradise.

    He was a mammal—like other mammals, born of a natural sexual union (how absurd that we have to say that out loud!), and kin to the beasts of the field, and did not disgrace himself by claiming otherwise. What little there was of nobility in his painful, animalistic and ignoble death, was nobility of mind and philosophy. He claimed no other.

    Nor did he claim to heal; but taught us only, perhaps, how we might find health ourselves. He could not make the deaf to hear or the blind see. He gave no voice to the mute—the voice he gave was to pleasure itself, in a world that did not want to hear it.

    Of his temperament even some of his enemies could speak well. In his school, Diogenes Laertius tells us that he declined the perils of communal property—for he foresaw that greed and mistrust were bitter poison to wholesome fellowship. His easy grace, his mild manner and simple bearing showed how ill-fitted was the bacchanalian mask that his slanderers put upon him.

    Elayne is right; what could be more obvious than that pleasure is the proper end of life? It was a pearl richer than all the rest of ancient philosophy—so much muck. And yet it took an Epicurus to pry out that pearl, and bring it up into sunlight.

    If I believed that a job done once was done forever, and that so worthy a truth as this would stand itself apparent for all coming time, then we could leave off honoring him.

    But the agora of ideas isn't getting less absurd and obscure; it's growing muckier by the day! And for as long as we are confronted with an endless parade of charlatans, we shall have need of Epicurus.

    Welcome, Susan! It seems like ages since the Bhagavat Gita and the Upanishads were part of my regular reading 🤔.

    I do come from a background of intense interest in Buddhism. That was—to borrow a term—in another life, so I don't know how helpful I'll be. I expect you will have things to teach us!

    As a student of Vedanta, you are already trained to understand a few of the most important Epicurean conclusions about consciousness. The first is that human consciousness cannot reasonably be unique. The Śramaṇas of India understood this well; any theory of consciousness that attempts to explain the human mind must also account for the mind of the rat in the sewers. It won't do to say that we are special; Epicurus believed that we are all sprung from celestial seed. Our minds emerge spontaneously from indestructible matter. Since matter is thought to be infinite, the number of conscious beings is thought to be infinite as well.

    The second conclusion we share with Vedanta is that other minds are worth studying as a healthful practice for our own minds. There are minds as far exceeding ours in capability as ours exceed other mammals. The gods, if such exist, must be fully natural—not so far unlike ourselves. And if they pass their days in deepest happiness, as Epicurus reasoned they must, then they are a fit subject for human contemplation. Life is a long struggle in the dark, said Lucretius; and yet with philosophy, we may learn to rival Zeus in happiness. We also benefit from the honor we bestow on the wise.

    There are many other comparisons to be made, and the disagreements between Epicurus and the schools of the East are broad as well as deep. But it is a promising position to start from!


    A good find Cassius, but rather sad—it seems to confirm DeWitt; "It was the fate of Epicurus to be named if condemned, unnamed if approved."

    Henry David Thoreau rode the 19th century lecture circuit as well. I am absolutely convinced from a comprehensive reading of his published works and private letters that he did not believe in a personal god, or in any hell or paradise, and yet he sometimes evokes this theme in his lectures—as when arguing against slavery, or pleading for the life of John Brown. A case of tailoring his message to his audience, I suppose. The Reform movement had strong ties to the Romantic movement in Europe and the Transcendentalists in America, as well as the Quaker and Unitarian churches.

    Tell an audience of nineteenth century men and women that you are going to educate children on the model of the best philosophers in Europe, and they might applaud you. Tell them that the foundation stones of that philosophy were laid by Epicurus as a bulwark against Plato and religion, and the same audience might balk to hear it.

    Pestalozzi, by contrast, was a Christian humanist trained for the clergy.

    This would be a subject worthy of a monograph; in lieu of such at present, I will take the thesis in defense of her authorship here.

    I haven't read any of her other works at full length, but the evidence I've seen so far fairly convinced me.

    Like Diogenes of Oenoanda, Wright was cosmopolitan. Born in Scotland and orphaned, she lived throughout her life in England and America, and for brief interludes in France. She traveled even more widely; through Europe, through the United States and the frontier, south as far as Haiti, north into Canada. It might properly be said that she lived on the road.

    In this capacity she was both writer and orator, and was the first woman in the country to lecture mixed company in public on subjects of morality and politics. She was in this respect a new Leontion, and suffered similar calumnies. She was also the first woman in America to edit a published journal.

    She befriended Lafayette and Jefferson, Bentham and Mill. She attempted a utopian community for the betterment of African slaves, which failed. Even so, she supported other communities throughout her life. On her career she had this to say, in a letter to Lafayette:


    Trust me, my beloved friend, the mind has no sex but what habit and education give it, and I who was thrown in infancy upon the world like a wreck upon the waters have learned, as well to struggle with the elements as any male child of Adam.

    The biblical reference is superficial; more subtle is the allusion to Lucretius, whom she surely read. From Cyril Bailey's translation;


    Then again, the child, like a sailor tossed ashore by the cruel waves, lies naked on the ground, dumb, lacking all help for life, when first nature has cast him forth by travail from his mother’s womb into the coasts of light, and he fills the place with woful wailing, as is but right for one for whom it remains in life to pass through so much trouble.

    Her allusion to this passage precedes Alfred Tennyson's (In Memoriam) by over twenty years.

    Like Epicurus she was critical of superstition, critical of priests and clergy, and critical of the institution of marriage—and yet like Metrodorus she did marry, and bore a child.

    It might rightly be said that she wrote out her Epicurean philosophy once (and rather completely), and gave the rest of her life to living it.

    I agree with Cassius' concluding thoughts—more reading of her other works is in order!

    The recent thread on Julius Caesar has me thinking about Trajan, Hadrian and Plotina. There are, I think, two letters of Plotina (one to Hadrian and one to the Epicurean community in Athens [?]), and then Hadrian's reply/decree. Do we have these somewhere? I don't see much on Plotina here.

    I've been thinking about how to respond to this thread since I first read it this morning. And then this evening I received news—and if you follow the news, you'll know what I'm talking about—that has thrown the whole question into especially sharp relief.

    People hold that there is a set of rights that are inherent in the state of nature, but nobody anywhere knows what those rights are exactly. I'm with Elayne—I don't believe they exist. But suppose they did; to whom would you award the job of deciding which rights are natural? Who would you give that task—the task of interpreter? The Natural Law argument had classical antecedents, but after the fall of classical civilization the earthly authority over that "Law" was subsumed entirely into the aegis of the christian church. Should they be the ones who decide which rights are natural and inalienable?

    The men and women of the European Enlightenment needed there to be inalienable rights; they did not have the luxury of choosing between the best of all possible political theories. They were not theoreticians—they were rebels, and the prototype of all rebellion in the western mind is the figure of Prometheus. Repurposing natural law out from under the yoke of the church was a necessary simulacrum of Promethean daring—stealing fire from the gods as a gift for all mankind. This was a great boon, so far as it went. And yet, think what they wrought!

    By resting their best philosophical case on natural rights, the American Founders (to take the earlier example) left open the door to every manner of specious argument. The condition of the African slave? Natural. They'd be worse off without us. The disenfranchisement of women? Natural. They are the weaker sex. The racial partition of society? Natural. What right do we have to intermix what God at Babel hath set apart? The prohibition of homosexual sex and marriage? Natural. Two men, after all, cannot procreate.

    Man is indeed an animal, but he is a human animal. Let us have a human, and not a natural or divine, conception of justice. Any attempt to found our rights on the laws of nature is an attempt that gives a hostage to fortune, to those whose modus operandi is to argue in bad faith.

    Justice and rights that are understood to exist by convention, and not by nature, are not always successful, but this at least is true: they always avoid the original, seminal hypocrisy of 'natural law'. There will always be men and women who wish to deny you your rights, or your justice; don't allow them to hide behind the skirts of Nature or Nature's God. Make them look you in the face and tell you, one fallible mammal to another, that it is really temporal power, and NOT intemporal nature that emboldens them.

    Thank you, Godfrey! We are working out of a boat this week and we've seen this heron a few times. I got a few good pictures this morning, I'll post them when I get home!

    The Heron

    O Heron wan in water wading!

    Thou opus of untailored fashion—

    Sure-footed on the shoreline's footing—

    A tulle train, dawnlight's glisten,

    Gowns thy form in matchless morning!

    Heron! Ready in verdure reedy—

    Agéd angler, weedmidst waiting,

    Patient, still in silence stolen

    From the olden deep unending

    'Til the wide world's wild breaking—

    Hunter haunting on the march and

    interstice of world and world;

    Sea and sky, blade of beak

    Azure upon azure rending—

    Virtue of a vise unyielding.

    What crooked timber frames thy neck?

    Methinks that it is not so stiff.

    Whence the whittling of thy wing?

    What the aurum of thine eye?

    Where, thy heartblood's ceaseless spring?

    Are thou Plato's man-of-gold,

    Who rules a tribe of bronzéd fins?

    Or yet a hermit cynical,

    Who tossed aside his needless dish?

    Is this thy solemn sandy porch?

    Nay, for thou art too like me:

    We bear the stamp of origins.

    Fatherless thou wert so feathered,

    Motherless milked on thy sweet streams,

    And here, alone, we stand together—

    No more! Aye, fly! Fly to thine pleasure

    Great noble bird, sun-midst sailing,

    Prow a-gleaming, southward seeking;

    Seek thee still a sweeter shore

    And I, a sweet philosophy.

    Yet I will linger here a time

    Tasting of the morning's fruits—

    'Ere long the yawning sea shall call:

    The tide shall fail, and then the light,

    And we shall mingle, you and I

    Void with void, and mote with mote.


    Religious guilt? Not at all. My firmest conviction is of materialism. I am not a materialist because I am an Epicurean—I am an Epicurean in part because I am, above all, a materialist.

    The things I do miss, I miss from Buddhism. First, a vast and rich textual canon, against which ours is quite paltry. Second, a living tradition in uninterrupted practice for over two and a half thousand years. Third, a profound sense of place attached to this tradition. The temples, the pagodas, the gardens and monuments. All bearing the unmistakable stamp of their origin. I miss the meditation altar in the front room of my old apartment. Some days I even miss being a vegetarian!

    I irregularly kept a journal in those days, and reading it a year later I was amused to find what I wrote down as my rationale (to myself) for not 'taking refuge'. Taking refuge is the ceremony of conversion to Buddhism, and at the height of my practice I wrote in my journal the reason I couldn't do it. I wrote just three words, but they were enough.

    Atoms and Void.

    Atoms and void...atoms and void...

    Those three words expressed everything that on some level I already knew I felt—atoms and void.They indicated my latent distrust of a religion that traffics in the fear of death, while promising a nebulous bliss in another life. Atoms and void.They encapsulated the sum total of everything I hoped, and everything I dreamed. In this life, not another or another. Modern Buddhists will tell you that rebirth and nirvana and heavens and hells are metaphorical. No, thank you; I prefer to take my metaphysic without metaphor. State the case as clearly as you can, or leave off trying to convince me. Atoms and Void!

    And you know what? I don't miss it. I really don't. I don't miss the nagging sense of doubt of what I've known all along. I don't miss the cargo-cult of meditation pillows and candles and tea, when deep down I know that nothing is happening inside.

    Unlike Jesus of Nazareth (who I really do think was either a lunatic or a pious fraud), Siddhartha Gautama may actually have been a compelling and insightful historical figure—and possibly even a good moral teacher. The story of Kisa Gotami and the mustard seed in Buddhism is far superior to the story of Lazarus, because its final conclusion is the truth; people don't come back from the dead. It simply doesn't happen.

    But I'm happy to leave them both at the gate, and follow that pleasant path to the garden where nobody ever asks me to lie to myself.

    That's another great one, Cassius! What's so striking about that list is that most of the stories are about wild or captive animals that don't have a long history of domestication.

    I love stories like this. There are other stories of animals 'adopting' stray and vulnerable members of other species. Pure heartwarming goodness. And philosophically important as well, as Don points out.

    Your English is great, Camotero; have no fear on that point ;)

    The classic example is the square tower that appears to the senses to be round from far away.

    Reality: the tower is square

    Misleading sensation: the tower is round

    Option 1: discard the evidence of the senses because they are misleading. Knowledge cannot be derived from the senses.

    Option 2: analyze all relevant sensations to arrive at a more complete understanding. Knowledge can be derived from the senses.

    Pyrrho, the Skeptic, chose option 1.

    Epicurus is emphatic; Choose option 2!

    Regarding gratitude, I don't agree that this emotion in the subject implies or requires an object.

    I find myself alive in the universe. I know that there is sorrow, and fear, and that life sometimes hurts—but I also know that it is wonderful, really wonderful, sometimes sublime, just to be alive here. There is beauty and delight here that will move me even at my last breath. There is knowledge and philosophy to dull my pains, and to enhance my pleasures. There is friendship, romance, love, art, and literature—all the choicest fruits of a peaceable and prosperous age, in a free and civil society. To say that I am grateful is simply to say that I appreciate it. To appreciate something, and to appreciate the gift of something, are two different things. One who appreciates wine recognizes its worth and its specialness in a deep and penetrating way.

    That's what it is to appreciate life and its blessings; to pause for a time and take stock. To see it deeply, and recognize its worth.

    Because it could so easily have gone the other way.


    Unfortunately as I understand it, academic historians do not like to engage in broad sweeping historiographic narratives which may be overly simplistic (the biggest example of this usually given is Edward Gibbon's 1776 History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire).

    This is certainly the case, even when it has nothing to do with theology; Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel both elicit a similar response, and the debate proceeds forever and forever ad nauseum.

    My own observation is that those who detract the historical thesis that they dismiss as merely a "Whig Fable" do so by trying to prove too much. I once read an argument put forward suggesting that the totemic power ascribed to books by medievals was a sign of their love of literacy. This could not, of course, be further from the truth; what could be a more obvious sign of illiteracy, than to think of books as sacred or totemic!? A literate person reads books, hungry only for what the contain. They reproduce books so that they can save them from oblivion, or else pass them on to other readers. It is only the illiterate who content themselves with the dry crust of the thing itself.

    And does it matter whether Giordano Bruno was murdered for free inquiry or for occult heresy? In either case the salient point remains; he was murdered by a tyrannical and imperious church for holding the wrong opinion. With nearly all of these quibbles, the fault-finding historians succeed only in failing to grasp the obvious. St. Paul delivered his most powerful sermon on the Areopagus in Athens, and he left that city a free man. He preached in a synagogue in Jerusalem, and he left Jerusalem in chains.