Joshua Level 03
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Posts by Joshua


    One of the issues at play here seems to be the use of the words "good" and "bad" which begins to - albeit unconsciously - give desire and pain and pleasure a moral coloring.

    I resist this formulation as well. Also, the word "natural" has become hugely problematic--Natural Law, so called, is something like a 4th revelation in Christianity after the person of Jesus and the two testaments. Montaigne made the odd claim that atheism was 'unnatural', and the claims have only gotten worse since.


    I think I can work up a good head of steam to argue that desire is at the root of what it means to be alive, which is why advocacy of suppression of all desire strikes me as so "evil."

    Yes, but that's not my position either.


    I think an argument can readily be made that these feelings of desire are not problems, but the healthy functioning we should wish to occur, and that we find these spurs to action pleasurable rather than painful.

    But that's exactly what pain is--a healthfully functioning signal that something is wrong and needs to change.


    When we lose all desire, we die. In a very real sense life IS at root the desire for pleasure. Robots and the dead cannot feel or desire. Is not in a very real sense life the ability to desire?

    This is true also for pain.


    Would the Epicurean gods feel pleasure in their blessedness if they did not desire that pleasure?

    It's not clear to me how desire for a thing and the experience of a thing can reside together--the pleasure fulfills the desire. I'm no longer thirsty after I've drunk...

    If the gods desire what they already have, this sounds more to me like they're jealous of what they have, which seems to imply a fear that they could lose it.


    The question remains whether they are feelings, sensations, thoughts, or something else....

    This is really what we need to figure out. I could be convinced (maybe) that desire is not necessarily a kind of pain, but I really reject including it among pleasures. The very existence of desire indicates a lack of satisfaction.


    From that table above, desire (epithymia) is a feeling of something that results in some pleasure. The opposite of desire is fear (phobos) which appears to be a feeling repelling against something that leads to pain.

    I'm not sure I can get on board with the underlined part above. Lucian opposes fear to hope, which I think is nearer the mark;


    And from this point, as Thucydides might say, the war takes its beginning. These ambitious scoundrels were quite devoid of scruples, and they had now joined forces; it could not escape their penetration that human life is under the absolute dominion of two mighty principles, fear and hope (ἐλπίδος καὶ φόβου) and that anyone who can make these serve his ends may be sure of a rapid fortune.

    Which drives me on to my next (tentative) conclusion--that fear and hope are both kinds of desire. Desire is everything that happens when you see things as they are, and wish that they were different. When unscrupulous scoundrels prey on hope and fear, they prey on desire.

    And now for the tricky part--if I defend my thesis that desire presents as a feeling of pain, how do I avoid the path that Cassius is rightly concerned about? In truth I don't think there's a real problem here, because I don't think that pain is necessarily "bad" or "evil". If I lean against a hot stove, I ought to be thankful that nature has furnished a biological alarm system warning me to move quickly, or risk serious injury. Rocks and gods and corpses can get by without pain, but not me--I need pain in order to go on living. Some rare people don't experience pain, and are at high risk for an early or sudden death;

    Congenital insensitivity to pain - Wikipedia


    Congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP), also known as congenital analgesia, is one or more extraordinarily rare conditions in which a person cannot feel (and has never felt) physical pain.[1] The conditions described here are separate from the HSAN group of disorders, which have more specific signs and cause. Because feeling physical pain is vital for survival, CIP is an extremely dangerous condition.[1] It is common for people with the condition to die in childhood due to injuries or illnesses going unnoticed.[1][2] Burn injuries are among the more common injuries.

    So I don't want to lose the sensation of pain. I also very generally don't want to experience the sensation of pain--it's necessary, and very natural, but it doesn't feel good--I'd rather experience continuous pleasure.

    I think it's like that with desire. I understand that I have a 2 or 3 pound mammalian brain, and that, having that, I am driven almost constantly by the desire for things that are likewise desired by nearly all other mammals--the desire for food, water, shelter, warmth, sex, rest, etc. In addition to these are the particularly human desires, cultivated by things like community engagement, culture, society, economics, etc.

    I cannot fulfill all of my desires. Moreover, Epicurus recognized a tendency in us to develop new desires when we have worn out or satisfied the old ones. If desire is a kind of pain, as I argue, and if I cannot fulfill all of my desires, the question naturally arises as to what I should do about them. It is by no means obvious or self-evident that, because desire is a kind of pain, the only thing left to do is to spurn desire, suppress it, condemn it, or bury it in a hole. I have basically four options; I can try to fulfill them all, and inevitably fail. I can spit contempt on them all, and probably end up dead sooner than later. I can proceed more or less reactively and without a plan, satisfying the easy desires as they pass and seldom reaching far for the difficult ones. Or I can develop and establish a plan of choice and avoidance, with the goal of maximizing pleasurable outcomes over the course of a whole human life. Some desires will have to be put by; some will have to be vigorously rejected; some will be indulged for the sake of pleasure, and some other few will be made into something like a life's ambition--the desire which, well-chosen, will become the theme of a life well-lived.

    Can we expect such an outcome from desire, if desire is a kind of pain? Why not? Pain is not nature's moral or judicial punishment--pain, like pleasure, is one of nature's guide-posts. Desire and pain direct us toward lives of pleasure and remembrance--the happy memory of all that we have come to enjoy in our lives. If there is an opposite to desire, then let that be it.

    I rather think that Epicurus dismissed poetry as a great source of lies, as Lucian expresses in his True History:


    This attraction is in the veiled reference underlying all the details of my narrative; they parody the cock-and-bull stories of ancient poets, historians, and philosophers; I have only refrained from adding a key because I could rely upon you to recognize as you I have no truth to put on record, having lived a very humdrum life, I fall back on falsehood — but falsehood of a more consistent variety; for I now make the only true statement you are to expect — that I am a liar. This confession is, I consider, a full defense against all imputations. My subject is, then, what I have neither seen, experienced, nor been told, what neither exists nor could conceivably do so. I humbly solicit my readers’ incredulity.

    Lucretius acknowledges this as well. The bitter wormwood of philosophy needs honey, or the people who need it won't accept it--they must be "charmed", not to say deceived, into taking their medicine.

    Very cool! If you start from the brown leather on the left and go to the red leather on the right, that's 8 total if you count Creech as one. Stephen Greenblatt records that Jefferson had "five Latin texts of De Rerum Natura, along with translations in English, Italian, and French." So the numbers don't allow for a second English translation, if in fact there are only 8. Greenblatt does not give the total sum.

    While I'm at it with quotations, let's add first Menander, and then Lucian;


    Hail, you twin-born sons of Neocles, of whom the one saved his country from slavery, the other from folly.


    Alexander once made himself supremely ridiculous. Coming across Epicurus’s Principal Doctrines, the most admirable of his books, as you know, with its terse presentment of his wise conclusions, he brought it into the middle of the marketplace, there burned it on a figwood fire for the sins of its author, and cast its ashes into the sea. He issued an oracle on the occasion: “The dotard’s doctrines to the flames be given.” The fellow had no conception of the blessings conferred by that book upon its readers, of the peace, tranquillity, and independence of mind it produces, of the protection it gives against terrors, phantoms, and marvels, vain hopes and insubordinate desires, of the judgment and candor that it fosters, or of its true purging of the spirit, not with torches and squills and such rubbish, but with right reason, truth, and frankness.

    Show Notes:

    Stephen Greenblatt' mother:


    The young Greenblatt didn’t fear his own death, but he was instilled with a deep fear of his mother’s death, thanks to his mother, who possessed “an absolute certainty that she was destined for an early grave”. Greenblatt writes: “My life was full of extended, operatic scenes of farewell...even when I simply left the house for school, she clung to me tightly, speaking of her fragility and of the distinct possibility that I would never see her again.”

    Mrs Greenblatt's fears turned out to be unfounded - she lived until she was almost 90 - but Stephen was very struck by how the fear of death could make life unliveable.

    Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow:


    We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?

    John Augustus Shedd


    A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.

    Michel de Montaigne


    I want death to find me planting my cabbages, but careless of death, and still more of my unfinished garden.”


    xkcd: Click and Drag

    (Click and drag)

    Friar Laurence, Romeo and Juliet:




    But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.

    This may serve to illustrate a contrasting approach:


    And he saith unto them, "Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?" Then he arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm. So the men marveled, saying, “Who can this be, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?”

    Are they to count on this intercession every time they put to sea? Failing that, their woes are doubled. "Where is God in all of this?"

    I heard that said by someone close to me this very week.

    Have you formulated any opinion as to the meaning of this?

    Allow me to free-associate:

    In his 31st Vatican Saying, Epicurus writes that "it is possible to provide security against other things, but as far as death is concerned, we men all live in a city without walls."

    This condition is not at all times apparent to all of us; so that the necessary first step in philosophical instruction is to convince the student that their's is a condition which requires philosophical intervention. But just as the physician contends not only with injuries and disease, but also with quacks and charlatans who exacerbate them, the philosopher will find that the whole of the earth has been salted against his seeds.

    Does he wish to illustrate the precarious condition of his listeners? Their ears are ringing with the promises of a false security--of a life beyond the grave--of the spiritual power of the church and the temporal power of institutions. They--we--must be made to adventure on life, then, so as to remember its perils, and no one who puts forth on open water will have forgotten them.

    Epicurus' invitation to the sea is then, rightly understood, an invitation to philosophy. It is an invitation to throw off false security, and in our danger find real peace in the freedom from fear.

    There are two 'proverbs' that relate to some of these same or similar ideas as well. "One man's meat is another man's poison", and "as sure as pig likes marjoram". Both 'proverbs' are actually quotations or references to Lucretius.

    Romeo and Juliet: Act 2, Scene 3--Friar LaurenceLucretius, Book 5: Cyril Bailey translation--various passages
    The grey-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night,
    Chequering the eastern clouds with streaks of light;
    And fleckled darkness, like a drunkard, reels
    From forth day's path and Titan's fiery wheel.
    Now, ere the sun advance his burning eye,
    The day to cheer and night's dank dew to dry,
    I must upfill this osier cage of ours
    With baleful weeds and precious-juicèd flowers.
    1. The golden morning light of the radiant sun reddens over the grass bejewelled with dew,
    and the pools and ever-running streams give off a mist, yea, even as the earth from time to
    time is seen to steam.
    2. [...] sun’s blazing wheel [...]
    The earth that's nature's mother is her tomb;
    What is her burying grave, that is her womb.
    And from her womb children of diverse kind
    We, sucking on her natural bosom, find;
    Many for many virtues excellent,
    None but for some, and yet all different.
    3. Without doubt the mother of all is seen herself to be the universal tomb of things.
    4. But each thing comes forth after its own manner, and all preserve their separate
    marks by a fixed law of nature.
    O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
    In plants, herbs, stones, and their true qualities.
    For nought so vile that on the earth doth live,
    But to the earth some special good doth give;
    Nor aught so good but, strained from that fair use,
    Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.
    Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied;
    And vice sometime, by action, dignified.
    5. Of such great matter is it, what is the power of each thing.
    6. And many there are, which by their usefulness are
    commended to us, and so abide, trusted to our tutelage.
    [Friar Laurence holds up a small flower]
    Within the infant rind of this weak flower
    Poison hath residence — and medicine power,
    For this being smelt —
    [He smells the flower]
    with that part cheers each part;
    Being tasted, stays all senses with the heart.
    7. Indeed, we may see the bearded goats often grow fat on hemlock,
    which to man is rank poison.
    8. What was of value, becomes in turn of no worth; and then another thing
    rises up and leaves its place of scorn, and is sought more and more each day,
    and when found blossoms into fame, and is of wondrous honor among men.
    Two such opposèd kings encamp them still
    In man as well as herbs — grace and rude will;
    And where the worser is predominant,
    Full soon the canker death eats up that plant.

    9. Nor in any other way do we see one another to be mortal; except that we fall
    sick of the same diseases as those whom nature has sundered from life.
    10. They unwitting would often pour out poison for themselves,
    now with more skill they give it to others.

    What interests me most about these comparisons is the way in which Lucretius restrains from making moral judgments, the way Shakespeare invites his readers to do. You'll notice how much I had to "stretch" the meaning in the last row in Lucretius, in order to vaguely echo that in Shakespeare.

    If you struggle to read Shakespeare, as many of us do, I can very heartily recommend the Folger Shakespeare Library's dramatic full-cast reading of Romeo and Juliet. Available on Audible!

    When I toured the Jack Daniel's distillery, I was surprised to see that they opened the fermentation vats and allowed people to peek their heads in. But when the brew comes out fermented, distilled, and charcoal filtered, it's 40 percent alcohol and they spray it on your hands as a sanitizer.

    Somebody did an analysis of all of the species of wood used in surviving furniture from Pompeii and Herculaneum; acacia, alder, ash, beech, boxwood, walnut, wild olive, willow, making up stools, crates, tables, bedframes, and shrines to the household gods. There's a particularly poignant cradle on rockers.

    I have also brewed mead, which was drinkable if only just. From memory, the process was simple and my equipment rather non-technical. It consisted primarily of taking a clean glass vessel of a fair size, adding together water, citrus and honey, mixing in the yeast--did I proof the yeast? I don't remember--and fixing a common party balloon over the mouth of the vessel. Prick the balloon with a needle--in its contracted state, the hole will close to prohibit outside yeast and bacteria.

    But set all of this aside in a warmish spot, and soon the brew begins to bubble. The releasing gases will inflate the balloon enough to open the prick hole, releasing the gas. This also supplies positive pressure, so that the hole in the balloon only vents, and does not admit outside air. As the fermentation progresses, and the brew runs out of sugar, the balloon will go limp again. The mixture, now properly mead, is ready to be filtered and drunk. This process can take several weeks.

    Martin was wondering whether I had missed the mark on Hamlet in what I said above. He might be right; the stage having been set with the murder of Hamlet's father, a crime which Hamlet could not prove, was there really any way to avoid a tragic ending? I don't know.

    That Hamlet's tragic flaw is indecision, procrastination, or vacillation is also disputed by critics. The main argument in support of that conclusion comes from a well known public lecture by the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge;


    Man is distinguished from the brute animals in proportion as thought prevails over sense: but in the healthy processes of the mind, a balance is constantly maintained between the impressions from outward objects and the inward operations of the intellect;—for if there be an overbalance in the contemplative faculty, man thereby becomes the creature of mere meditation, and loses his natural power of action. Now one of Shakespeare's modes of creating characters is to conceive any one intellectual or moral faculty in morbid excess, and then to place himself, Shakespeare, thus mutilated or diseased, under given circumstances. In Hamlet he seems to have wished to exemplify the moral necessity of a due balance between our attention to the objects of our senses, and our meditation on the workings of our minds,—an equilibrium between the real and the imaginary worlds. In Hamlet this balance is disturbed: his thoughts, and the images of his fancy, are far more vivid than his actual perceptions, and his very perceptions, instantly passing through the medium of his contemplations, acquire, as they pass, a form and a colour not naturally their own. Hence we see a great, an almost enormous, intellectual activity, and a proportionate aversion to real action consequent upon it, with all its symptoms and accompanying qualities. This character Shakespeare places in circumstances, under which it is obliged to act on the spur of the moment:—Hamlet is brave and careless of death; but he vacillates from sensibility, and procrastinates from thought, and loses the power of action in the energy of resolve. Thus it is that this tragedy presents a direct contrast to that of Macbeth; the one proceeds with the utmost slowness, the other with a crowded and breathless rapidity.

    The effect of this overbalance of the imaginative power is beautifully illustrated in the everlasting broodings and superfluous activities of Hamlet's mind, which, unseated from its healthy relation, is constantly occupied with the world within, and abstracted from the world without,—giving substance to shadows, and throwing a mist over all common-place actualities.

    It is possible to accept Coleridge's presupposition that there is a tragic flaw, but find that flaw in something else: an Oedipal complex, pride or hubris, etc.

    It is also possible to approach the text without reference to any tragic flaw, as such. But I think Coleridge's view has become predominant.


    1. Epicurus believed there were real beings existing somewhere in the universe who were eternally blissful, who had bodies that didn't decay, and who took no interest or action in human affairs, and who did NOT create or maintain the universe.

    Yes! Just today I read an article by the Catholic Herald from 2019 that uses this formulation: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

    It called to my mind one of Hitchens' witticisms.


    He says that I am an ex-Trotskyist (true), a “popinjay” (true enough, since its original Webster’s definition means a target for arrows and shots), and that I cannot hold a drink (here I must protest).

    Deism is a precise word with a precise meaning. The Epicurean gods do not qualify. Epicurus' gods are, in fact, so non-essential in the cosmos that one could (and I do) leave them out entirely. Can we satisfy all of his ethical and epistemological claims without them? I suspect so-- but if not, this is the ethical raison d'être of the Idealist view which Don has described. It only remains to speak of epistemology.

    There are two points under this heading:

    First, the Letter to Menoikeus makes the intriguing claim that knowledge of the gods is "clear", or "engraved on men's minds", or else "plain to see", according to various translations. He seemed to think, like Montaigne, that atheism is "unnatural":

    Quoth Montaigne:


    We are brought to a belief of God either by reason or by force. Atheism being a proposition as unnatural as monstrous, difficult also and hard to establish in the human understanding, how arrogant soever, there are men enough seen, out of vanity and pride, to be the authors of extraordinary and reforming opinions, and outwardly to affect the profession of them; who, if they are such fools, have, nevertheless, not the power to plant them in their own conscience. Yet will they not fail to lift up their hands towards heaven if you give them a good thrust with a sword in the breast, and when fear or sickness has abated and dulled the licentious fury of this giddy humour they will easily re-unite, and very discreetly suffer themselves to be reconciled to the public faith and examples.

    Were I to challenge Epicurus on this point, I would put it to him that he has allowed himself to become "enamored of the single cause", a tendency which he strives to reject in the Letter to Pythocles". That most humans in all times and places have believed in gods does not imply their existence--that is merely one explanation of the phenomena. In the absence of any sensory evidence, why shouldn't the best explanation be found in psychology? In pattern-seeking behavior, confirmation bias, and in our evolutionary tendency to infer agency? To Epicurus' credit, he does manage to avoid all of Montaigne's Platonist bigotry; It is not the man who denies the gods worshipped by the multitude, who is impious, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them.

    And lastly, the second epistemological point that the gods appear to satisfy: the principle of isonomia.


    This 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 forces of destruction are beyond count, the forces of conservation must also be infinite.

    -Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods

    I haven't got much to say about that proposition. I hope I haven't left anything important out, but others may supply my deficiency!

    I apologize if the point has already been made, but it occurs to me to approach the question in these terms;

    Epicurus said that "gods there are", and that those gods dwell incorruptibly in a perpetual state of eudaimonia--of pleasure, unmixed with any pain or disturbance.

    He did not say that "gods there once were"--that they were living in incorruptible pleasure and peace, but they are no more because they've all killed themselves out of ennui and desperation ages ago.

    If the gods still find pleasure in living through all the ages of the this world, we may surmise that eternity would also do good service to an Epicurean. But we shall not have it.


    You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.


    Something to think on--remembering while we think that Hamlet is a tragedy only because he couldn't make up his mind!


    [...] The draught swallowed by all of us at birth is a draught of death.

    Vatican Saying 30

    There's a Greek anti-baptism for a Greek 'anti-Christ'!

    A book that I always meant to read but never got around to is God is not One; The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World by Stephen Prothero. I gather that what he's doing in that book is pushing back against a trend that we see with Epicureanism all the time--the "they're-all-basically-saying-the-same-thing" crowd. Joseph Campbell is often cited as an example of the other camp.

    Prothero in his own words:


    According to the Dalai Lama, "the essential message of all religions is very much the same." From this perspective, popularized by "perennial philosophers" such as Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell and Huston Smith, all religions are beautiful and all are true. The prevailing metaphor portrays the world's religions as different paths up the same mountain. "It is possible to climb life's mountain from any side," writes Mr. Smith, "but when the top is reached the trails converge."

    This is a seductive sentiment in a world in which religious violence can seem as present and potent as God. But it is dangerous, disrespectful and untrue.

    I've never been more annoyed with myself after recording than I am today... 😑

    I've always thought that two things were crucial for anyone presuming to hold forth under the name of Epicurus. The first was to make an honest and diligent effort to understand what he was writing. The second was to express that understanding to others, in a way that was consistent with the plain reading of the text, as well as with the tenor of the whole philosophy.

    I don't think I succeeded very well with the second part. Nevertheless, and in lieu of rehashing the issue, I want to take some time to pursue an angle that Kalosyni introduced.

    We were discussing the consideration of an Epicurean god as an image, eidolon, or archetype, and Kalosyni brought up Joseph Campbell. I think it's a connection deserving of further comment.

    A word I kept using was 'demarcate'. What I was attempting to illustrate was the contrast I perceived, and wanted to patrol, between the natal moral claims of "religion" and the epistemological claims about the gods being made by Epicurus. And yet I think that Joseph Campbell would suggest that the moral claims have nearly always been secondary and incidental in myth and religion, and that the symbolism and emotional impact has always been primary. I don't know---and it's been many years since I read Campbell, so that I don't know whether I could say more.

    One thing I will say is that Lucretius had an advantage that Epicurus did not have. Epicurus could not have respectably cast himself as a Prometheus figure--it would have looked ridiculous. Lucretius, though--writing from the comfortable distance of two and a half centuries--suggests exactly this comparison, and it's this symbol, more than any eidolon of the gods, that I find to be a compelling reason to push forward in the pursuit of pleasure and happiness.