Why Tranquility Should Not Be the Main Goal for an Epicurean

  • I like the way Martin has put it.

    Once you've got the core arguments right in your mind, there's room to relax. But minds are imperfect, and memory is frail---so that a certain degree of 'regular maintenance' is necessary to keep one's philosophy on a right heading.

    The best way to preserve books from rotting away is to keep them in circulation, and to make new copies from time to time as the old ones fail. Papyrus crumbles, parchment fades---after a generation, nobody remembers anything. So it is with philosophy. We owe this much, I think, to our future selves---to keep the philosophical machinery of our minds in good working order: and perhaps we owe something more; something to those nameless millions as yet unborn, who have not heard the story of Epicurus of Samos. Who will not hear that story, unless we here and others like us are prepared to spend some small part of our own precious time in preserving it---to pass on that torch.

    Because to strike a blow for Epicurus is in some measure to strike a blow against time itself, and forgetfulness. Consider--the whole history of our species up to this moment has transpired before the Milky Way galaxy has completed a tenth of one percent of its rotation! We bloom for a day, we lucky few; and in a flash our lives are gone, withered like grapes on the vine.

    But though the vine whither, the Garden still has her secrets. By the end of a century no part of her is left unchanged. This plant dies, and that plant dies---

    And the Garden remains. In what seems the bleakest winter, all of her hope lies hidden---tucked away in a seed.

    Ah, but such seeds! In a monastery in Germany in 1417, a poem sprouted that had lain dormant for a thousand years, unfolding in its spreading leaves the knowledge of nature, and the way things are. Another of these, Italy held in her bosom; mouldering but not lost, buried under a hundred feet of volcanic ash, a cache of papyrus scrolls in 1750 sent forth green tendrils; fresh thoughts from long ago, winding their way through the dark tunnels of the lost villa toward living daylight. Then in 1884, in Turkey on the coast of Asia---where, knitted into cold barren stone, the very words of Epicurus himself were found to have taken root. Indeed, even the library of the Vatican itself came to bear this startling, alien and ancient fruit.

    Who knows but that the hand of a child may not bury that acorn, whose growth comes to tower over every other oak. For a seed is so small a thing---and in the planting, it is then that we strike our greatest blow. But how should we do this?

    Something comes to mind;


    VS41. We must laugh and philosophize at the same time and do our household duties and employ our other faculties, and never cease proclaiming the sayings of the true philosophy.

  • But minds are imperfect, and memory is frail---so that a certain degree of 'regular maintenance' is necessary to keep one's philosophy on a right heading

    Yes that is true and in addition even the best minds and memories are influenced by our surroundings - the Epicurean material on images stresses that. So that when we are surrounded by antiEpicurean images every day, as most of us are, we have to take steps to innoculate ourselves from their influence.

    I don't like always sounding the "call to battle" alarm but I think it is clear that such a conflict is constantly going on whether we acknowledge it or not. Unless we find a desert island and live without TV and internet that's unlikely to change.

    It appears even the Epicurean gods werent unchanging as the basis of their deathlessness but that they found the power to replace their own makeup from the flow of atoms - a useful analogy for us I think (Joshua's "regular maintenance").

  • Eloquently stated, Joshua !!

    One thing that strikes me as I read your writing was that, like science, if the philosophy of Epicurus is ever truly lost, there's a chance someone in the future would recreate - or rediscover - it on their own under a different name.

    Being based on natural principals and having a foundation in a material world, one could, if necessary, "discover" that the world is built of "little seeds", that the "soul" dies with the body, that if there are "gods" (of that concept arises) that they don't bother us, the rational pursuit of pleasure is a worthy goal, and so on.

    I find it very difficult to believe that the same could be said for Christian substitution theology or even virtue-based Stoicsm. Maybe some kind of "Buddhist" "science of mind" involving meditation because the mind is always there to study and engage in introspection.

    But I've heard this argument from scientists and agnostics/atheists: that science is "rediscoverable" and religion is not. Some new form of theology would emerge to control the masses and to strike fear into them. But scientific principles are manifest in the universe: E=mc², the Earth goes around the sun, etc. I would include living beings are attracted to pleasure and avoid pain in there which underpins the philosophy we know as Epicurus's but in the future could be "resurrected" by someone else independent of knowledge of the Garden. That doesn't mean we don't respect or honor Epicurus now since the philosophy does spring from him and we know it now. I think I take comfort in this rediscoverability, but I'm curious if anyone agrees or has any thoughts iin this direction.

  • that science is "rediscoverable" and religion is not.

    It might be necessary to be a little more precise about the meaning of "religion." I would expect that Christianity or Judaism or precise religions would not be rediscoverable, but there seems to be a lot in the Epicurean texts about how humans sort of "naturally" fell into the mistake of thinking that there are supernatural forces.

    So in the generic sense of "religion" meaning "belief in something supernatural" that might be something that humans on desert islands might not only rediscover but be "naturally" inclined towards.

    Just thinking out loud there mostly.

  • I agree about rediscoverability, but on a less hypothetical note religion has become a dominant power structure and will always use any vestige of its tremendous resources to see that its ideas, and therefore power, prevail.

    It seems to me that "realists" don't often see the need to fight for their beliefs as they are self evident. Meanwhile the "idealists" expend great effort defending and spreading their beliefs. Could this be due to the fears inherent in "idealism"? Particularly the fear of looking like a fool? This in addition to the craving for power.

  • .

    Could this be due to the fears inherent in "idealism"? Particularly the fear of looking like a fool?

    I agree with your comment about craving for power. I don't think I have heard you comment previously about fear being inherent in idealism. What are your thoughts on that?

  • I'm just speculating that when you believe in and promote something with no empirical basis, it would be natural to fear having your beliefs shown as groundless. Not an obvious fear on the surface but a deep seeded one that you would only become aware of by paying attention to your sensations, preconceptions and feelings.

    I've noticed this in myself various times in different contexts. I may have a feeling that I'm digging my heals in about some issue, but when I examine my faculties I realize that I'm reacting this way because I don't have all of the facts and my ego is perhaps digging in. I'm describing this ego reaction as fear.

    But for those who are promoting a "noble lie" in order to achieve certain ends, having their falsity exposed could truly be dangerous and worthy of fearing. At the very least it would be a threat to their power, which such a person would presumably fear.

    Also, when I wrote that comment I was specifically thinking of religion. The fears inherent in that are, of course, fearing gods and death, as well as what I've just described.

  • I am enjoying reading everyone's comments, such good and helpful insights!

    Godfrey ...this comes up for me after reading what you wrote...That the "fear" and the need to defend ideology/religion arises due to how the mind forms concepts.

    The Tao te Ching (Stephen Mitchell translation) says:

    I am currently contemplating how Taoism compares with Epicureanism. It seems that some of it fits, but yet other aspects are too much like Pyrrhonism/Skepticism.

  • Kalosyni the first two lines of that quote seem particularly spot on.

    The attached thesis paper may be of interest, "Friedrich Nietzsche, The Presocratic Greeks, and Taoist Thought" by Deborah Theodore. I read it quite a while ago so I can't remember the details other than I enjoyed it and I believe it had some pertinent information in it.

  • I did want to add that I concur with the thoughts above that I think the idea of some kind of supernatural power probably would be rediscovered or never go away. That concept along with an afterlife seems to go back well into the prehistoric origins of humans. But the specific manifestations of Shiva, Odin, Yahweh, Zeus, Ahura-Mazda, etc. are unlikely to be rediscovered as well as the rites texts associated with them.

  • I think I will just insert this random thought here:

    I think some people who start out in reading Epicurus read so much about the word "ataraxia" that they conclude from sheer dominance of discussion that ataraxia was the focus of Epicurus' work.

    It would probably help them to lose their fixation on ataraxia to realize that the entirely separate word "aponia" was used for "absence of pain." It seems to me intuitively that if someone wanted to go off in the wrong direction and fixate on one of these words as the goal rather than pleasure, it would make more sense to fixate on "aponia" than "ataraxia." And that would also be more accurate from the point of view of the measurement of quantity and canonics aspect since - given that pain and pleasure are the only two passions - in terms of quantity "absence of pain" and "fullness of pleasure" would mean the same thing.

    Once you realize that there is not one but two Greek words that are used in this context, maybe it becomes more understandable that it's necessary to look deeper - back to the original word of pleasure - than to take these other statements about tranqility and absence of pain in isolation.

  • Thank you for this thread. My comments fold some of what I've absorbed reading this with thoughts I'd already come to.

    First, I identify as an introvert. I learned long ago the definition of an introvert as someone who tends to replenish their energy more in solitude than with others, though they may still find great pleasure in the company of others - especially friends. I have known extroverts who, being the opposite sort, found much alone-time to be tiring. Except for a few on the hard edges of the spectrum, most of us likely find ourselves in some range of "ambiversion."

    I enjoy measures of both solitude and company. That is just part of my personal hedonic calculus.

    Similarly for tranquility (atarxia) and other pleasures. I can experience tranquillitas alone and in the company of others. And I don't find it in conflict with other pleasures, any more than I find the pleasure of a good afternoon nap in conflict with the pleasure of a glass of wine. And tranquility, for me, does not imply stillness - just a non-turmoiled mind. I can experience tranquility in meditation as well as while watching an exciting sports event. again, it's just all part of my personal hedonic calculus - lesson which has taken a long time to learn.

    I find in Epicureanism, as I understand it thus far, a kind of relaxation - perhaps like letting out a long sigh - that I do not find in, say, Stoicism or Zen. Though the path does take practice, it does not seem to be a gritting-of-the teeth sort. That's why, in part, that I decided to revisit it.