Posts by Todd

    Hi, Hiram. Nope, you don't know me. I apologize if my comments were a bit over-familiar. I've been lurking around here and on FB for a while, commenting occasionally when the mood strikes. I appreciate your efforts toward the practical application of Epicurean philosophy, even though I disagree with some of your methods and conclusions.

    Anyway, regarding Hermarchus and the rabbits...first of all, that is a damn confusing example, because Hermarchus is talking about justice between humans and rabbits, when I thought we were talking about relations between humans.

    To quote from your article:

    But it is not only advantage, as Epicurus would have it, that explains the origins of justice when it comes to creatures that we can’t have agreements and contracts with, and in this Hermarchus departed slightly from the first Scholarch and we see the evolution of Epicurean doctrine as a result of exchanges with other schools.

    So Hermarchus is departing from the teachings of Epicurus. I think that rather undermines the point you were trying to make with this example.

    Nevertheless, it does seem likely that early Epicureans were trying to draw conclusions on practical matters, and possibly even make Epicurean policy pronouncements.

    To the extent that they were merely giving advice with the aim of helping others to enjoy more pleasure, I have no objection, and in fact I think this is a valuable undertaking.

    To the extent that they were insisting that their personal value judgments were or ought to be binding on other Epicureans, I think they were mistaken.

    Wilson SHOULD HAVE used the method of evaluating what concrete advantages and disadvantages involve the concrete people affected by policies

    But the only people capable of making this evaluation are the ones affected! Not Wilson, or you, or I.

    And even the people affected can only make the evaluation for themselves, not on behalf of others.

    I do think there are things that can be said, from an Epicurean perspective, with respect to various policies, and I approve of your intention to work in that direction. But what I have seen so far of your method completely ignores that fact that pleasure is subjective. If you don't keep that firmly in mind, then IMO you are departing from Epicurean philosophy rather than extending and applying it.

    Quote from Cassius

    there IS NO Epicurean "Golden rule" that we must always treat others as we would want to be treated ourselves because each decision is going to be based on the circumstances of the individuals involved: there across-the-board rules for which there is any authority to say that we should always follow them

    This is true, but I think it is also possible to identify some rules (or rules-of-thumb) that are almost always useful to follow, in the sense that following them will tend to increase our pleasure. I assume that the identification of these kinds of rules is part of the aim of SoE. That seems like an undertaking that could be valuable to many people; however, it is important to keep any such rules(-of-thumb) in their proper context within Epicurean philosophy, to prevent them being elevated to the status of commandments.

    Quote from Hiram

    SOE20: Human relations should be based on mutual benefit.

    The lack of any qualification here is troubling. However, if it is understood that our own pleasure is always the end of any such relations, then it seems compatible with Epicurean philosophy.

    Except perhaps in the case of an extreme misanthrope, we are going to have to interact with others in the course of pursuing our own pleasure. If our interactions with others tend to cause pain for them, then they're likely to discontinue the interaction and/or avoid such interactions with us in the future. Since we were presumably seeking pleasure from the interaction, we must now consider ourselves worse off due to the interaction no longer taking place. Therefore, it is in our interest (it will increase our pleasure) if we can find a way to make the interaction pleasurable for the other person as well - i.e., mutually beneficial.

    As long as this rule-of-thumb remains subordinate to the principle that our own pleasure is always the ultimate end, then it seems like a reasonable application of Epicurean philosophy.


    Also, in my piece for Partially Examined Life on "Applying the Epicurean Theory of Justice to Cannabis Legalization", I use mutual advantage to translate an issue that seems abstract into concrete terms: there's the disadvantage for the state of not being able to tax the revenue from illicit cannabis sales, there's the disadvantage for thousands of youth and their families when they're incarcerated at high rates for victimless crimes related to cannabis use and sale, there's the advantage of the potential small businesses that may emerge if legalized, there's the advantages for the medical use of it, etc.

    The rule-of-thumb seems to have been elevated to an absolute principle, and the rest of Epicurean philosophy temporarily set aside.

    You seem to be putting yourself in the position of one of Plato's philosopher-kings, and saying, "If we do (or do not) force people to behave in a certain way, what will be the most beneficial outcome for society?"

    You are presuming first, to know what others will find pleasant or painful. Then you are further presuming that you can predict, measure, and compare the resulting pleasures and pains for all the affected individuals, in order to arrive at a conclusion as to what is most beneficial for society. You will sacrifice the pleasure of some for the supposedly greater pleasure of others. By what standard will you judge?

    Pleasure is entirely subjective, and is not reducible to any value that can be compared between individuals. (BTW, I dislike the expression "hedonic calculus" for this reason, as it implies that pleasure can be reduced to a number and used in mathematical equations.)

    Your approach seems to me the very antithesis of Epicurean!

    Unless, perhaps I misunderstand, and you are only saying that this is the policy that would bring YOU the most pleasure. In that case, I suppose you are acting consistently with Epicurean principles (although in contradiction to SOE20), and I would encourage the rest of your society to overthrow your tyrannical regime! :-)

    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.'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.

    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!

    I probably fluctuate between low-carb and keto most of the time.

    I'm a big fan of Mark Sisson, who I would describe as an unconscious Epicurean.

    And so maybe the entire passage by Epicurus is not referring to language or communication but is referring to having confidence in our own thought processes?

    IMO, the importance of the "first mental image" is in a rhetorical or polemical context.

    I think the point was to be wary of people who insist on definitions for words that we all understand intuitively. The Platonists and Aristotelians being the likely suspects.

    Two examples come to mind:

    First, that Epicurus refused to define pleasure, to avoid being led into an argument where someone would twist the words of his definition to mean something entirely different from what we all understand by pleasure.

    Second, an anecdote from Diogenes Laertius, where some philosopher has defined "man" as a featherless biped. Later, someone shows up with a plucked chicken and says, "Behold, a man!" (I'm paraphrasing, but that's the gist of it.)

    Would it be helpful to have a list of core texts that people could include with a checkmark or something to indicate if they have read it?

    Yes, that would definitely be helpful. First, it makes it easier for people to do, but also it gives an idea of the kind of things you're looking for.

    Ideally, it would be nice to have a pre-defined list, plus the ability to add custom entries.

    have you read Diogenes Laertius from start to finish?

    The biography of Epicurus, yes. If you literally mean all of it, then no.

    Have you read any of "On Ends"?

    Yes. I may have read the whole thing long ago, but I've certainly read the parts related to Epicurus.

    How about Frances Wright? Did you read "A Few Days In Athens?"

    Yes. I remember enjoying it the first time I read it, but I started re-reading it recently, and it seems to have lost some of its appeal for me.

    I think the difference is that I know more about Epicurus' philosophy now, and Wright sometimes has Epicurus saying things that I seem not quite consistent. Probably she was trusting Cicero to give a fair presentation.

    I have no trouble with people expressing their own views on Epicurus, though I may disagree. But to have the words coming from Epicurus' own mouth is...jarring.


    I've read and re-read DeWitt a few times over the last ~5 years, or so. That was my introduction to Epicurus, and I keep coming back to EAHP, just to make sure I stay mostly on the right track.

    I've read Lampe, and some others (academic and non-academic). I read a lot, so you'll have to forgive me if I can't name too many names off the top of my head. I usually only remember the ones I liked.

    I have not read anything by Wilson. I was intrigued when I saw she had a new book coming out, but a quick skim of the Amazon preview turned me off. (I have to say, though, that I was pleasantly surprised by the video of her talk that you posted here. Maybe I'll give her a second chance.)

    Lucretius...I've tried, but I just can't make myself do it. I don't seems like a lot of words to explain (or confuse?) a simple concept. I guess I'm just not a fan of didactic poetry.

    In the past, I've read some Aristotle (and Scholastic analysis), Plato, and the Roman Stoics. All in translation, of course.

    I've spent a lot of the last 25 years or so studying and thinking about economics, ethics and politics. I'm continuously surprised by the overlap between Epicurean philosophy and my economic and political views, which developed long before I had any interest in Epicurus. (At least I feel like there is a lot of overlap, but I realize other Epicureans may not agree!)

    Edit: I neglected to mention that I discovered DeWitt via, so I have you to thank for that!

    no one understands "happiness" or "eudaimonia" in the Epicurean way

    You paint a bleak picture, Cassius, but I don't think things are quite as bad as that.

    I think most people DO understand happiness in the Epicurean way, although they may not articulate it in the same terms.

    I'm sure you know this, but I'll say it for the benefit of others who may come across this thread. Many of Epicurus' ideas on pleasure can be understood as descriptive, not normative. It's not that we should pursue pleasure. We do pursue pleasure. We almost can't help it. But when we're not conscious of that, it's easy to be misled as to the appropriate means for achieving the end. And that, to me, is the great value of Epicurus' philosophy. (To give credit where it's due, I probably read this in DeWitt, but I can't recall).

    Don't be so pessimistic! :)

    The ultimate issue in this discussion, as I see it, is the polemical issue


    Here is a case where the situtation is actually in our favor! Our understanding of happiness is actually very close to that of the average person.

    We should be seizing that opportunity, and I feel like at least the title of Hiram's article is exactly on the right track there.

    It's Stoicism, which despite its current (and hopefully fleeting) popularity, is at a disadvantage. Stoicism seems appealing, until you find out that this thing they call happiness, really isn't what you had in mind at all!

    "Wait. Happiness is Virtue??? WTF?!?! Hey, I heard the Epicureans had some different ideas. (Thank you, Seneca!!!) Maybe I should check them out..."


    Additional thoughts I'm having on this topic:

    I can't help but think of Stoicism as the gateway drug to Epicureanism.

    "Stoicism: Suffering is a Virtue. Happiness consists in Virtue. Therefore, Suffering = Happiness. Got it?"

    The problem of leading with pleasure in our marketing efforts is that we've been so conditioned to think of pleasure as a vice, that there are many people it's just not going to appeal to. But everyone wants to be happy.

    I'm not at all trying to suggest that we should de-emphasize pleasure. More like, "Want to be happy? Try Pleasure."

    Epicurus used the word eudaimonia himself, but had his own definition and context, just as he had for "gods."

    How do you reconcile this with Epicurus' advocacy of clarity of language, and using words in the sense that immediately comes to mind?

    (His refusal to even define pleasure is a wonderful example, by the way.)

    I have no doubt that other Greek philosophers, and maybe even later Epicureans, were debating the definition of eudaimonia, but I suspect Epicurus would not have used it if his meaning was liable to be misunderstood by the average Greek of his day.

    Now, possibly eudaimonia does not translate precisely to what we (modern non-academics) understand by "happiness", but given the usual contexts, that translation seems quite reasonable to me, and unobjectionable in relation to the rest of Epicurus' philosophy.

    As for "gods"...yes, it does seem that he is using that term to mean something rather different than what the average person would have understood. But then, he also wrote entire books to explain his ideas. Also, I've noticed that in some places the translation is "immortal beings" rather than "gods". Could it be that he chose that phrase instead of "gods" deliberately?

    Sorry if this is a bit of a side-track to this thread. I just couldn't let your statement pass without comment! :)

    I think dishonesty is learned though!

    I say this just as an interesting thing I've observed with my daughter - I'm not trying to make any point related to this discussion of Justice.

    Do you agree?

    Edit:. After I wrote this, I realized that we're probably not thinking of the same thing when we use these words, and that is the root of much of the seeming disagreement.

    When you say honesty or Justice, you mean feelings, but when I use those words, I'm thinking of concepts.


    I can't imagine Epicurus defining justice two different ways-- a prolepsis AND a definition for what counts as justice and what doesn't.

    Right, but if we trust the sources, it seems like that is exactly what we are faced with. I'm inclined to give more weight to the PDs relating to justice, which all contain some form of "justice is" or "justice is not". If he was describing the conditions that give rise to a sense of justice or injustice, I'd expect them to read differently. Could this be an issue of translation?


    But they should be aware of the types of actions that will trigger each other to sense injustice.

    Yes! Very important!

    I fully approve of strict reading!

    So, I see now that you are being very narrow in what you mean by justice: it's an agreement (necessary, but not sufficient), but not just any agreement; it's specifically an agreement not to harm.

    I can work with that definition for the sake of pursuing this discussion. As per one of my previous comments, I don't think that invalidates any of my arguments.

    I would personally go further, to say that it's unjust to violate ANY of our explicit agreements (not merely to withdraw from them - but to deliberately violate), but I can see where some might object, and I don't think it's a terribly important point right now.


    Epicurus referred to justice as an agreement to avoid harm, but does that necessarily mean it is the inverse -- to maximize pleasure? As you observe later in the post justice is a small part of a circle encompassing "pain." Does reducing pain in that area necessarily lead to maximized pleasure? I will have to think further about that.

    I guess I should have made a distinction.

    In some of my references to maximizing pleasure, I'm thinking of explicit agreements. I see no reason to limit the scope of our agreements to avoidance of harm. If you want to say agreements to increase our pleasure are strictly outside the scope of justice, I won't object, but I don't really see much of a difference.

    Also, I have in mind that maximizing pleasure should be the ultimate aim of ALL our actions, including how we think of justice, and the specific agreements we make regarding it. Again, I won't argue if you want to define the scope of justice more narrowly.

    The distinction between avoidance of harm and maximizing pleasure is more important in relation to tacit agreements, because in that context we often have very limited information about the other person's preferences, and we want to avoid making incorrect assumptions (inadverently causing pain for both of us).