How To Convert A Neo-Epicurean Into A Classical Epicurean

  • I think I really agree with most everything I am reading in Nate's post, and the angle in which I would elaborate on it is the issue of who it is that "we" would constitute in terms of the purpose of and what "we" are doing in our work here.

    The issue of labels is pretty complex so I want to focus on how to apply Nate's points to "us." I consider "us" to be people who are really working to reconnect and extend the work of the original Epicurean school. For whatever reason, even if you want to consider something as mundane as "identifying" with a football or sports team (but I think it's much more profound than that) there is a group of people who really want to focus first on identifying and understanding what Epicurus taught, and then deciding whether they accept it, rather than approaching philosophy as a smorgasbord of offerings from which we can pick and choose at our own time and pace and apply to our own lives as we wish. This latter type of person is primarily eclectic and more interested in consuming and going his or her own way, and I really have no issue with that. To each his own and all that. For search a person the term "neoEpicurean" should not be seen as offensive because he's no more or less neoEpicurean than he is neoStoic or NeoAristelian or anything else.

    Then there are those of us who are content to focus on one school so we can really learn it, and we get more pleasure out of swimming in a single school than constantly flitting in different directions. There are apparently both kinds of fish in the world, and I don't think either path is inherently inferior or superior. But for those of us who are convinced that swimming in a single school is our most efficient path toward what we perceive to be our desired goal, it is much more important to understand the core issues and have consistent positions that can be used to evaluate new and different issues, than it is to constantly interchange among and between schools searching to choose what we may thing is "the best from each" before we have really become persuaded that we know what "the best" really is.

    So in reconnecting with the original Epicurean school there are benefits and pitfalls in spending significant time in talking about competing viewpoints. Some people enjoy that and insist on it, but I am convinced that many people find that to be distracting and distasteful - they want to focus on "one thing at a time" and understand it as completely as possible before they move on to something else.

    So I guess what I am saying is that I don't see the issue of "neo-Epicurean" as necessarily a put-down, though clearly it can have that connotation IF you start from the position that consistency is a virtue. That's really the point - the "neo-Epicureans" are not generally as nearly concerned about consistency as some other people are, so their standard of what can be incorporated is a lot wider than is the standard of some other people.

    For me, it is easy to look at anyone who wants to talk about issues in physics and say "so long as your issues are still within the strictly natural explanations of the universe, and you do not open the door to the supernatural, then your discussions are fine and I am sure Epicurus would have approved."

    But that's kind of begging the question, because the harder issues (or so that is my disposition) are in ethics and epistemology, and that's where efforts to incorporate what might be called "psychology" are much more fraught with danger, because it's the "direction" of the other philosophies that cause the major incompatibilities.

    I think I'll stop for the moment. The real litmus-test / "explosive" issues are getting pretty well fleshed out - they include:

    1 - the strict rejection of all supernatural theories

    2 - the strict rejection of life after death

    3 - the insistence on the central role of feeling (pleasure and pain, widely understood) in constituting the goal of life (which people call "happiness")

    4 - the recognition that because pleasure is the only standard given by nature of what to choose is pleasure, all other considerations (virtue, revelation, etc) are subservient to pleasure.

    5 - the recognition that pleasure and pain are not limited to immediate bodily sensations but include EVERYTHING we find desirable in life for itself, whether "bodily" or mental/emotional/spiritual or whatever name you want to attach to it.

    6 - the epistemological emphasis on the three categories of the canon as primary over logic/reason,

    There are as Joshua said a lot more things to include, but these continue to be the hot button issues.

    One more thing in relation to "logic" - I think there is a lot to be gained from exploring the intersection of logic and physics more closely. The reason I regularly push back on the "eternal" universe issue is that I think that this involves a choice that Epicurus saw as essential to human psychology and to defeating skepticism. We are always going to want more information than is available to us, and I don't think we yet appreciate that this was a key to Epicurus as it was. We're not EVER going to solve questions of "origin of the universe" because we cannot go back in time and "see" what happened ourselves, so there will always be doubt. And I think Epicurus held that this is an issue of "logic" or however you want to frame the mental question: "How do you live with questions that are important but to which you will never really know a 'final' answer?"

    And I think when we drill into the texts on epistemology what emerges is a kind of attitude toward "confidence" that has to take precedence in the end over "let's go look for the person who is most 'expert' in physics and ask him what he thinks." We may be here talking about some of DeWitt's comments about Epicurean versions of "faith" or we may be talking about the details of Philodemus "On Methods of Inference," or we may be talking about something else, but ultimately there are implications of the conflict between "logic" and "the Epicurean canon" in which Epicurus seems to advise (and I think I agree) that the canon must be held to supercede and call a halt to unending skepticism and possibilities for questioning on issues like infinity and eternality.

    I won't go further with that now but I think it relates to the issue of how wide a net we can cast in talking productively about other philosophies and incorporating their teachings. Maybe the point is that to Epicurus I don't think it was any more important to know everything there is to know about competing philosophies than it is to know everything about physics. For most people all we can do is grasp the basic outlines of the issues, form a conclusion about the general issue, and go with it. So the first task of the ancient Epicurean school seems to have been to educate its people on all of the fundamental issues, show them in general why their position was superior, educate them to the general attacks they would receive and how to respond to them, and then go out and live as "happily" as possible.

  • melkor - Thank you again for your question. We started the thread back in January but only when you asked your question today did we really get off the ground, and this discussion we're having now is what I always hoped we would have from it.

    Also to add in this point, there is a lot of parallel in what we are discussing now to the issues raised in Lucian's Hermotimus which I think is one of his best dialogs. He really dives well into the issue of how you can judge among competing philosophies before you are an expert in each one.

    I am looking for another quote but here is an important one, becfause it not only talks about this difficulty of consistency, but it also very interestingly veers into opposition to "weird geometry" which I think is an artifact of the general Epicurean resistance to "expert opinion" not tied to evidence of the senses:


    Perhaps an illustration will make my meaning clearer: when one of those audacious poets affirms that there was once a three-headed and six-handed man, if you accept that quietly without questioning its possibility, he will proceed to fill in the picture consistently—six eyes and ears, three voices talking at once, three mouths eating, and thirty fingers instead of our poor ten all told; if he has to fight, three of his hands will have a buckler, wicker targe, or shield apiece, while of the other three one swings an axe, another hurls a spear, and the third wields a sword. It is too late to carp at these details, when they come; they are consistent with the beginning; it was about that that the question ought to have been raised whether it was to be accepted and passed as true. Once grant that, and the rest comes flooding in, irresistible, hardly now susceptible of doubt, because it is consistent and accordant with your initial admissions. That is just your case; your love-yearning would not allow you to look into the facts at each entrance, and so you are dragged on by consistency; it never occurs to you that a thing may be self- consistent and yet false; if a man says twice five is seven, and you take his word for it without checking the sum, he will naturally deduce that four times five is fourteen, and so on ad libitum. This is the way that weird geometry proceeds: it sets before beginners certain strange assumptions, and insists on their granting the existence of inconceivable things, such as points having no parts, lines without breadth, and so on, builds on these rotten foundations a superstructure equally rotten, and pretends to go on to a demonstration which is true, though it starts from premisses which are false.

  • Here is the part of the Hermotimus dialog which addresses the problem of everyone pointing to their own school as the way to the truth, and the traveler not knowing which one to believe as the best guide:

  • In regard to the relationship between logic and reality I have another point: it ought to be clear that to discuss "pleasure is the goal of life" is a logical abstraction itself, and not really something that is "real" - just the same as if we were to say that "virtue" or "being a good person" is "the" goal of life.

    The truth is that real people exist only in the present, and our goals are intimately connected with the reality of the present. Our "real" goal at Amy one moment is very mundane: it is to sleep, or to eat lunch, or to talk to a friend, or take a shower, or squash a bug, or whatever. Yes each of those fall within a framework of pleasure and pain, but that framework is an abstraction created by us for purposes of analysis. Pleasure and pain and bugs and food and showers are all very real, but the idea of abstracting these into a "goal of life" is an aid to our understanding of our place in the universe, an alternative to religion or academic abstractions proposing some other goal, and needs to be seen that way so that we understand the limitations of any discussion of "the goal of life."

    It seems to me that it is highly useful to discuss things in these terms so that we can see the error of religion and virtue-based ethics, which are based on "ideals" not grounded in reality. But there is a hazard that we need to keep wary of because by engaging in debate about "the goal of life" we have entered a playing field set up originally by Platonists and other nonEpicureans where it is very easy to accept their premises and forget that we have abstracted out and left out essential aspects of reality.

    I am saying this to emphasize that u think this separates Epicurus from the norm and the constant debating about ideals which we should reject in the first place.