The Epicurean Viewpoint
by George Kaplanis founding member of the Epicurean Garden in Thessaloniki
Now I ask you: what is the “Epicurean Viewpoint”?
- It is the view that we gain from looking through the Canon of Epicurus.
- If our viewpoint was gained through the Platonic Dialectic, it would have been a Platonic view.
- And if our viewpoint came through the use of Dialectical Materialism, it would be a Marxist view.
And now, where will we look to gain this Epicurean viewpoint?
- I suggest we take it straight from Epicurus himself.
But there are many different impressions of what Epicurus taught as a philosopher.
Of course, many of those impressions are misleading.
I came to understand this from a conversation with several friends who I tried to introduce to Epicurus. They did not know anything about him, so I tried to copy the example of Seneca, who said this in trying to introduce Epicurus:
"Read Epicurus’ epistle which is addressed to Idomeneus, in which Epicurus urged him to rush as soon as possible and escape, before a stronger force interfered and deprived him of the freedom to withdraw. Epicurus also added that no one should attempt anything until he can attempt it in the appropriate conditions and with the appropriate opportunity. But when the expected opportunity comes, we must be ready to grab it. Epicurus forbids us to stay idle when we should think about how to flee, and he gives us the hope of a way out even from the most difficult situations, as long as we are not in a hurry before our time and we do not hesitate when the right opportunity comes.” (1*)
What Does This Letter Mean?
It is obvious, one friend said to me. Obviously Idomeneus was a military commander, who was in danger of being bypassed and surrounded by superior forces. So, he sends a messenger to Epicurus, asking him what to do. Thus Epicurus replied with this letter, advising him to disengage quickly from his positions, but not to attempt anything immediately, but to wait, because strategic thinking required that he always have his forces ready to fight, and that he choose the place, the time, the appropriate conditions, and the appropriate opportunity -- and then attack without hesitation. It is indicative that Epicurus also advised him not to remain idle during the planning for this retreat, showing deep knowledge that the biggest losses to an army arise during retreat. In conclusion, the letter concerns the teaching of military strategy; that is, Epicurus was a warlord who taught strategy and created a military academy which was named "The Garden."
There were objections.
No! That explanation is so obvious that it cannot be real. Anyone, even the most superficial among us, who reads this letter immediately would think that it was written by a military leader. But you are lured by the obvious. Truth is always difficult for us, because it is hidden. We find the truth only by decoding the letter, which is as follows:
Idomeneus was a great trader - that is, a player - of the stock exchanges. At one point, he had great positions on certificates that secured Greek bonds. An insider warned him of a pre-arranged massive placement of investment funds in the bond market, which will lead to a sharp drop in interest rates, and to a collapse in the price of those certificates. But before the destruction could hit, he asked Epicurus what to do, and Epicurus sent the above letter. As you noticed in the letter, the key positions and instructions contained in any trading strategy manual were briefly reproduced. Therefore, Epicurus was a great analyst of the financial markets, and apparently had set up an investment advisory firm, called "The Garden." In other words - that's the Garden of Money!
Oh, that was too much! At this point, I thought it had to intervene:
My friends, we have to take into account the history of the times. Idomeneus was a politician who exercised power.
Leave that, one of them told me, "I have it"
-Idomeneus found out that the data that the statistical office was about to produce would be frightening for the public debt-to-GDP ratio. That's when he asked Epicurus for help. Epicurus sent him the letter to tell him that the only way to save himself was to call for elections, to lose them, and disappear! Of course, he also gave him other advice that every politician should follow, such as how to wait for the appropriate opportunity to stand for election to become a prime minister. So Epicurus was a political mentor! He taught political science and the art of politics, and for that purpose he had founded a faculty of political executives, who named it, as you understand, "The Garden."
Here, at last, the absurdity of my little story is finished. What I have told you is nothing more than a simple transfer of the same structure into three different fields of life. (2*)
The "Complete Principles" of the Letter (3*)
Let’s now discuss the “complete principles” - that is, the general directions.
Is the above text a philosophical text?
Let me ask the question in a different way:
Does philosophy exist in order to keep our minds consumed in contemplation? Or, does philosophy exist to find out "what can be done and what cannot, and on what steady and strong laws everything is based?" (4*)
So, we must first ask: What does "everything" include?
In short, in this text Epicurus advises us how to use our mind to survive and win.
Survival and victory.
“Survival” and “victory” are strange words to be heard in a philosophical symposium.
But if we find these words strange, have we not simply shrunk Epicurus to our own size? And when I say we have shrunk Epicurus, I mean this: “Have we limited the exercise field of Epicurean philosophy?”
For example, we know from Diogenes Laertius that Epicurus was calm and gentle. So in that context the image of a kind teacher is a help and assistance for us, but also a limitation. Let’s overcome this limitation and assume the image of Epicurus facing some cruel and dangerous reality, a matter of life or death. How we will imagine Epicurus then?
Do we imagine Epicurus to be awkward and passive in the face of the need for action? And not only passive, but also a little stoic?
Are not cases of "life or death" demanding action not included in the "everything" scope of philosophy, that we mentioned earlier and stole from Lucretius?
Let's make the issue clear: In the above text, Epicurus was acting as a political mentor. The other scenarios, which were created by my imagination, arose from a simple transfer of the structure of the Canon, analogizing to other situations. We can do that because this text has a soul inside of it; that is, it has foundations. And this soul is structured in a way that survives and wins. That is why the text must be read as a whole. In each of the hypothetical cases I described, I used the whole text along with the spirit behind it.
The entire sweep of Epicurean philosophy sometimes reminds me of a mosaic. One tile alone does not say anything. For example, the proposition "pleasure is good" is easily misunderstood, because it is only one tile of the mosaic of the Epicurean philosophy.
Now the issue we are talking about is coherence.
Epicurean philosophy is a coherent whole. Let us dare, in our inadequate way, to treat it as it was created: as a coherent system where from any point you can find your way to another. For example: We know from the area of ethics the importance of friendship, and from the area of Physics that forces of repulsion exists, and from the Canon that stable strategies of behavior lead to causes and effects which produce a common benefit.
Epicurus did not stress the distinction between the Canon and Physics (we are still discussing coherence) because it is self-evident that the Canon is based on the atomic theory, that is, on Physics. If you dismiss the atomic theory, the Canon is left suspended in space, and will collapse without support. Likewise, by changing Physics you also change Logic. Then, when you go to look for the principles of friendship, where will you look for them? You will find yourself looking where Plato looked – in a world of fantasy rather than reality.
Epicurean philosophy protects itself with consistency. This is its self-defense. If someone tries to replace one piece with another piece from elsewhere, the entire philosophy will end up as nothing – if not something worse than nothing.
Let's return to the above quote from Lucretius, who told us that Epicurus came to tell us what can be done and what cannot, and on what firm laws of nature the foundation of everything is based.
What fields of life does "everything" include? Is it possible to divide life into different fields?
Many times, despite our wishes, we create our own limitations in Epicurean philosophy. Within these limitations a similar setting generally emerges: The garden, the calm, meek and wise Epicurus, the students around him, the lectures and the discussions – all Laboratory conditions. And as we deal within these limitations we often say “Epicurus says this,” “Epicurus says the other,” and “how nice Epicurus speaks,” and the like. It suits us to convey with our imagination the ideal conditions of the laboratory within the Garden of life. But at some point, we come back to reality when a well-known fifty-year-old unemployed man asks us for twenty euros to spend for a week.
When we are confronted by this sort of reality – a request for a loan from someone in tragic circumstances, the ideal conditions of the laboratory collapse.
And then we have to make the adjustment from the theoretical, within our self-imposed limitations, to the real – from the Garden of Epicurus to the Garden of Life. And because we wish to live within our Garden, whether we desire it or not we turn the Garden of Epicurus into a Garden of Epicureans. If someone characterizes the Garden of Epicurus as a utopia, I will thank him with all sincerity - because a utopia – a vision of the goal - is a mandatory stepping stone to changing things. But utopia as a vision, and that is what Marx refers to as the "Abstract potential" can be transformed into a "eutopia" (a place of pleasurable living) that is real, which in Epicurean terms we say is made possible by the swerve. And while impossible utopias do not exist, a eutopia that is real is truly a possibility through human free will. And all of this is made coherent through the atomic theory, which is Epicurean Physics.
We discuss all these things in the Garden of Thessaloniki, agreeing and disagreeing delightfully and pleasantly. One of us, Dimitris Liarmakopoulos, dared to get outside these fences, to travel with mind and thought into uncharted areas, and to investigate what can be done and what cannot, by writing his book "Eutopia in the Garden of Epicureans".
In our discussion we have tried to overcome a barrier -- to send away any limitation involved in considering our philosophy as limited to laboratory conditions. Our goal is to allow it to become more vigorous, that is to say, by clarifying in our minds what we already know: That a basic function of our philosophy is to help us to meet both our natural and our necessary desires.
But there are obstacles that lie between our desires and their satisfaction. If these obstacles are not dissolved, Epicurean philosophy will be nothing. If we allow that we can then label it nothing more than one more philosophical school at the University, and leave it there imprisoned.
The genius of Epicurus realized that we must from the start identify all obstacles and then think about how to overcome them.
- Go ahead, Epicurus says, go ahead towards your happiness.
- But, teacher, I have God over me, who can strike me at any moment with his divine wrath.
- Do not fear God - move on.
- But, teacher, I have before me the death that awaits me.
- Do not worry about death, it is nothing to us. Move on.
- But, teacher, it is hard to get the good things that I need for happiness.
- The good is easy to get. Move on.
Here we distinguish a structure in the way of Epicurus. That structure is this:
In life we find obstacles. We must examine those obstacles by looking at the first principles, that is, the foundations of the phenomena we face. Let us not forget that Epicurus also described the Canon as "About Criterion and Principle", which refers to phenomena and the foundations of all things. Once we identify those foundations, then we can use our mental processes to find ways to break the barriers that stand in our way. And as we look back at the result, we see that every time an obstacle is removed, that particular pain goes away.
We can transfer this structure to every issue we examine.
We must throw political and ideological limitations into the trash, because they are the obstacles to happiness which we face.
It is enough for us to remain firm, holding tight to the values of Epicurean philosophy and the Epicurean Canon.
(1*) Epistulae morales, 22.5-6. Epicurud - Ethics, G. Zografidis, ZETROS Publications, p. 158.
(2*) To make it more understandable, this is what lawyers try to locate when they investigate the case law.
(3*) Epicurus points out that the individual becomes more intelligible if we hold the general view of the subject: “...ή τε κυριωτάτη επιβολή επί τα πράγματα έσται και δη και το κατά μέρος ακρίβωμα παν εξευρήσεται, των ολοσχερωτάτων τύπων εύ περιειλημμένων και μνημονευομένων.” (in order to obtain a valid understanding of the facts and the individual to be precisely defined, as long as we have recruit and keep in our memory our general views). Epistle to Herodotus, 36.
(4*) Lucretius, "De Rerum Natura", Book I, 75-80.