Reverence and Awe In Epicurean Philosophy

  • [ADMIN EDIT BY CASSIUS: This is a new thread, split off from an ongoing conversation, to discuss the general topic the role of "reverence," "awe" and similar feelings in Epicurean Philosophy.]

    Cassius, no I am not talking about Greek neo-paganism at all. I’m referring to Stoic teachings on Providence, the Logos, and Nature ( a sort of monistic panentheism). The sentiment expressed in Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus is pretty unique to him. Other Stoics do not anthropomorphise god in this way, except poetically like Lucretius does. I’m not sure how to refer to these type of teachings.

    I mention the split in the Stoic community as illustrative of the number of people (myself included) who can’t swallow always being told that they are backwards, uneducated, and superstitious because they can’t shake the feeling that there must be something bigger or more profound than the human mind in the universe. That’s what happened there.

  • for learning and for feeling affiliated with a group

    Yes I have always thought that "feeling affiliated with a group" is an important enjoyable experience that we're lacking in, and need to work to cultivate.

    because they can’t shake the feeling that there must be something bigger or more profound than the human mind in the universe.

    Ok that's the profound issue with lots of ramifications. It can easily lead to a "supernatural creator" argument that would be irreconcilable with Epicurean physics on the nature of the universe, and yet it is clear the Epicureans saw a feeling of "reverence" to be a very legitimate part of their philosophy. There's of course all the discussion in Lucretius about the gods, in the opening of Book 1 and in the rest of the book two, and there's that saying to the effect of "Thanks be to blessed Nature that she has made what is necessary easy to obtain, and ... what is necessary easy to obtain, and what is not easy unnecessary."

    Combined in that last saying you've got an attitude that is either reverence or close to reverence, combined with a word "blessed" that describes something similar, even if all of it is completely natural and absolutely not part of a divine creator of the universe.

    We have not tended to talk about this much - I kind of associate it in my mind with the category of "images," which we also don't talk about much but which I think has great potential for being explored. With images, however, the issue is more plainly non-supernatural, in that everyone understands implicitly that the senses of sight and hearing and other things imply a movement of "atoms" across space (presumably from object to our eyes) that supernatural gods aren't necessarily involved in.

    With the topic of divinity though (and eternality and infinity, which have some of the same issues) it's more important to keep the lines of distinction clear. I know not everyone thinks the same way about these issues or considers them to be important, but I personally consider the category something that I hope anyone interested in it will explore and post about. I think it's related to the "sense of being affiliated" feeling that is important to a lot of people to have, and important to cultivate if we expect to develop anything more than just a small group of isolated period in a small corner of the internet.

    And all this is also related to the creationism arguments about "design" and how those should be evaluated logically. The issue of how organization can arise from non-organization is closely related to whether life can emerge from non-life. Even as I type this I have several tracks of mind about it. Living beings are surely made from non-living components. But that not the same issue as whether that process of life from non-life is ongoing and continuous (I think it probably is, but I'm not 100% sure how to express that). There's also the "infinity / eternality" issue, which presumably means that there's no way to go behind the issue that the universe (as a whole) is eternal and so living things have always existed somewhere just as has the non-living. Similarly, under Epicurean theory, were the individual gods at one point "born," or has there eternally been a "race of gods" that has always existed somewhere, just like there has been a spectrum of living beings existing somewhere eternally?

    I personally don't think these issues are answered or made irrelevant by "big bang" or other physics theories indicating that "the universe" had a beginning point in time. That's because personally I think Epicurus took the "logical position" that the universe cannot possibly have an end point, so whatever "big bang" we are observing is "local" rather than "universal." The interplay between "logical position" and "local experiments and their interpretations" is very hard to sort out.

    Going back to the recently quoted excerpt from the letter to Velleius, it seems clear that Epicurus did in fact seem more willing to accept a logical position in an area we today might find to be overreaching:

    Moreover there is the supremely potent principle of infinity, which claims the closest and most careful study; we must understand that it has in the sum of things everything has its exact match and counterpart. This property is termed by Epicurus isonomia, or the principle of uniform distribution. From this principle it follows that if the whole number of mortals be so many, there must exist no less a number of immortals, and if the causes of destruction are beyond count, the causes of conservation also are bound to be infinite.

    All these are issues that i do not know the answer to, but I think that those who are interested in should pursue, and I would tell anyone interested in them to let's set up a subforum to post our thoughts and explorations over time.

  • I’m struggling with the common conclusion that positing any sort of consciousness different from humans and animals is necessarily a defence of the supernatural. I don’t see that connection. Why would a god-like being necessarily have to exist and function outside the laws of matter and physics? Why would such a consciousness necessarily be a creator God or even remotely anthropomorphic? I know this is the form we are used to seeing in paganism and Abrahamic religions, but for me, “divine“ in no way equals supernatural, and does not need to.

  • Susan, I think the key thing is that any such consciousness would be materially based. The mind is what the brain does-- so the beings most advanced in pleasure, wherever they are, are necessarily made of matter also, not disembodied.

    I agree they don't necessarily have to resemble humans. What they get pleasure from could be completely different from our own pleasure. Pleasure is how we are ranking them, not any other feature-- so when we say they are "greater", that doesn't mean that they are necessarily more intellectually or technologically advanced, or that their virtues are remotely like ours.

    I have considered it's entirely possible that the most currently pleasure-filled beings in the universe might even be some species right here on our planet. Perhaps it is a species that does not consider death as problematic at all, rather than being immortal. Since pleasure is a feeling, I don't think we can put any qualifiers on it, that it has to be pleasure over certain things, to count. There's no reason, for instance, that such beings would have to know or care about humans. Which species in the universe is the most pleasure filled at any one time might even change, and that actually sounds plausible to me.

  • I know this is the form we are used to seeing in paganism and Abrahamic religions, but for me, “divine“ in no way equals supernatural, and does not need to.

    I agree with you, but this is one of apparently many situations where Epicurean definitions may depart from common usage. In this case, if "divine" does not equal supernatural, we probably need to be aggressive in articulating what it does mean. But does this definition really help anything or is it just circular?

  • "Bigger or more profound" than the human mind-- if that means more effective at gaining and maintaining pleasurable lives, it would be Epicurean. Although I find awe to be one of the pleasures and can imagine feeling awed in the presence of a supremely pleasure filled being, the profundity isn't in the being-- it's how I feel in the presence of something incomprehensible. That incomprehensible sensation can be pleasurable, but it's not the way I would rank the beings as gods. That would rest on their own internal feelings of pleasurableness. It's quite possible humans would meet such beings and feel no recognition or awe, if we didn't realize who we were encountering.

  • Along the lines of noting that "supremely good" may be circular and unhelpful, let me observe this:

    there must be something bigger or more profound than the human mind in the universe

    For the same reason "supremely good" doesn't advance the ball much, the words "bigger" and "more profound" also need further definition / articulation.

  • Although I find awe to be one of the pleasures

    YES I think that is a very key point! Awe is something we find agreeable, anything we find agreeable is a pleasure, so awe still fits within the context of "pleasure as the ultimate good."

    At least that's the way I think we're all using the word "awe."

  • Awe is something we find agreeable, anything we find agreeable is a pleasure, so awe still fits within the context of "pleasure as the ultimate good."

    I can imagine that someone might object and saying we're playing a word game with "pleasure" here, and that we are being inconsistent because we aren't supposed to like or approve of word games.

    I think Epicurus's response would be to say that ultimately this particular observation is not an endless serious of word reductionism, but in this case "pleasure" reduces to a "feeling" which is primary and which cannot be second-guessed and must be accepted as a foundational premise for which no proof is needed.

    To the extent there is any accuracy in the accusation that this is a word game, part of the response would be that "they started it" when the opposition first suggested that "logos" or words in themselves were the foundation of how we should live. Epicurus in pointing to "pleasure" as the ultimate good was just showing people the way to unwind that false contention of the Platonists and so many others, and to get back to the ultimate reality of everything that matters to us, which is not "words" but "feeling."

  • Sure, works for me! But I think it would have to have that “worthy of reverence” element.

    Elayne, thank you for your reply. Now this one has been bugging me since I conceded on our conference call that the most perfect being would be that which experiences the most pleasure.

    Well, what if that being were the proverbial “pig in sh**”? Oh dear... Great for the pig, but I feel pretty uneasy about buying a bust of a pig and going to the local pig farm to worship... Heck, I guess I would have to give up bacon for life! - Madness. ;)

    So this conclusion is rather making me squirm. :rolleyes:

  • I think "pigs" were an intentional "in your face" argument to take things to the logical extreme, which is, in fact, following our "word game" that "pleasure" is the ultimate good, and that there is no universal sanction for contending that one person's pleasure is "better" than another's. We all have our private views about that, and we think our own feeling of pleasure is superior, but ultimately there is no "universal" justification for that view.

  • This last issue of relative estimations of pleasure deserves a lot more articulation. Elayne, when you get a chance, I want to be sure to hear your view...

    Because in my view this is one of the key issues. I am ready to say that each of us is totally proper in considering OUR version of pleasure (meaning, each person's pleasure, for that person) to be exactly what each person is called by nature to pursue, under all the Epicurean rules.

    At the same time, that does not lead me to the total relativism / nihilism of saying that "nothing matters" and that any choice is equally valid, because that does not follow at all.

    I am thinking the logical conclusion is that we just have to get acclimated to understanding that (for example) how we spend our own lives are and should be of ultimate value to US, while at the same time acknowledging that others' lives hold that same status to them, and that we just have to come to terms that there is no Natural "single right answer" that allows us to say which of the choices is "best." Other than, of course, that the only guide that NATURE has given to us is in fact the feeling of pleasure and pain, very broadly and widely considered.

  • Susan, yes! You are getting exactly to the heart of what people confront in themselves, in order to understand this philosophy. We have been so indoctrinated to think "worthy of reverence" must refer to some quality other than pleasure. People resist letting go of it. Indeed, it makes them squirm.

    Setting anything other than the feeling of pleasure as the measure of greatness means you have got virtue ethics mixed up in there.

    The feeling of reverence is a pleasure. But our having that feeling does not necessarily coincide with the being's skill at their own pleasure. It does seem to me that we might be more likely to feel reverence for such a being if we ourselves fully endorse pleasure! There's a reason I use a pig statue for my skype photo 😉.

  • Setting anything other than the feeling of pleasure as the measure of greatness means you have got virtue ethics mixed up in there.

    That's another way of saying the same thing that seems to important to stress. The "definition" of pleasure that is current today is far too narrow, and because we play the game with the public definition of "pleasure" being so narrow, it is hard even to communicate the full extent of Epicurean theory until that is made clear.

  • I'll throw in here that one of the activities stimulating the strongest pleasurable feeling of reverence in my own body is holding a newborn... the opposite of big and profound, lol. Newborns have gained little skill at deliberately achieving their own pleasure-- they are not godlike in that way. They have an innate preference for pleasure, along with some innate behaviors to get their needs met, like crying to be fed or held. But I still experience a deeply pleasurable wonderment and awe when holding them.

  • Don't let me derail the current direction of the discussion, but I finally took the time to find this quote, which appears relevant. Of course Nietzsche is full of all sorts of trouble and ambiguities, but his interest in Epicurus, and his strong denunciation of stoicism and standards of absolute virtue, means to me that Nietzsche's line of thinking as to REVERENCE probably has relevance to our discussion:…-287-quote_f5535481a.html

    I am curious as to your reaction to this, Susan (and of course Elayne's or anyone else's too)

  • That's definitely relevant! A couple of thoughts... first, he sticks to what a noble human is. Not a universal quality for all beings, but a species he knows about and is one of. Then he ties the definition to a feeling, specifically the feeling of reverence, which keeps it from being abstract. If accepted as a definition, it makes the word "noble" useful for communication, whereas an idealistic use results in confused communication.

    To be fully pleasure filled, I think a human would need to experience pleasure about their own self. Thinking about ourselves, our actions, our personalities-- if that is painful, how can we be pleasure filled?

    I am not sure every human finds reverence to be an indispensable pleasure, rather than one variation of mental pleasure-- I mean that a lack of that feeling probably doesn't universally cause pain. But I do agree it is one of my own pleasures. I'm not sure if I feel it towards myself-- but I do feel pleasure about myself. And when I notice a feature of myself that I don't like, I set about to change it.

    For myself, I might propose a modification to his definition, that a noble person is one who has chosen to form themselves into a self they take pleasure in. There's an aspect of us that reflects upon our own nature, as if we are judging ourselves to be a friend or a foe, a hero or anti-hero. If a person takes pleasure in knowing that she is patient, she might practice patience so she can enjoy both being patient and experiencing herself as patient.

  • I don't want to turn this into a Nietzsche tangent, but this sentence sounds like a workable implementation of his "will to power" which superceded the will to "self-preservation." Maybe that can or should be generalized to "Will to pleasure." Regardless of Nietzsche, it will be a frequent question as to how the Epicurean view relates to "self--preservation." It is necessary to have an explanation of why "self-preservation" is not the Epicurean goal, which would include as a primary example the text that we sometimes give our lives for a friend. DeWitt is onto something I think in saying that Epicurus was holding "life" to be the ultimate value, but that's not clear enough. He's almost definitely right though that Epicurus was saying that pleasure and pain and virtue and everything else have no meaning, except to the living.


    For myself, I might propose a modification to his definition, that a noble person is one who has chosen to form themselves into a self they take pleasure in.

  • What if we were to run with this idea of “awe”... Elayne feels awe at a new-born human life, a music lover feels awe at a new Hans Zimmer orchestral piece, Carl Sagan feels awe for the cosmos, a Southerner feels awe the first time she sees the Aurora Borealis, a young man is awed by a beautiful woman, a philosopher is awed by her first reading of The Letter to Monoecious, a physicist is awed quantum entanglement equations, I am awed by my lucid dreams.... What do all these things have in common? We are not awed by the simple sensory stimulus sans some sort of comprehension of those stimuli. It is something ABOUT the babe, or the music, or the aurora, or the philosophical idea that result in the feeling. What is that something that is common to all these experiences?

    My Aunt and Uncle are vocal atheists who hold up Carl Sagan as their exemplar of an atheist. So I was surprised when I heard him in a documentary talk about the Cosmos in a fashion that I could only call deeply spiritual. I think he had something in common with people who actually call themselves spiritual or even religious. I have ideas as to what that commonality is, but what do you think?

    Re Nietzsche, I have never been in awe of myself... Is that unusual?

  • Ah, interesting, Susan-- I actually don't think it is something in the baby, the music, or the aurora, any more than I think the pain of a hot pepper is in the pepper. Sure, capsaicin is in the pepper, but for birds it isn't painful. I think all feeling responses are properties of the subject doing the feeling, and that similar stimuli will often bring about similar feelings because we are in the same species. I don't think the Aurora Borealis, absent an observer, contains anything that would universally provoke awe.

    We know some of the typical human triggers of awe. Things that are vast in size tend to do it, like mountains. I haven't read about a single common feature, but I would be interested to hear your hypothesis. Paul Pearsall wrote a whole book about Awe, which he proposed was actually a specific basic emotion.

    Why we evolved awe would be an interesting evolutionary biology question-- does it serve some sort of fitness function? I bet this was an interesting talk-- the blurb describes awe as having a pro-social function, so maybe it has helped humans survive and reproduce. https://positiveorgs.bus.umich…rstanding-of-the-sublime/