Epicurean Philosophy, Modern Science, and Life
A live conversation between Christos Yapijakis, geneticist and philosopher, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece and Stefano Cianfarani, University of Rome ‘Tor Vergata’, Italy Transcribed from the live conversation by Uri Klempner With contributions by Ze’ev Hochberg, Alan Rogol, George Werther and Jesús Argente
Originally posted 10/29/18.
Stefano Cianfarani: A short historical introduction to the topic starting from Socrates and his most brilliant student Plato who founded here in Athens the Academia, and one of Plato’s students was Aristotle who founded the school named Lyceum here in Athens. Notably, still now Academia describes the University and Lyceum denotes the best high school in many countries including Italy. We are talking about Plato in 5th century BC, Aristotle in the 4th Century BC. Then we have Epicurus who is considered a philosopher of the Hellenistic era. Let me remind you that Aristotle was the tutor of Alexander the Great. We consider the Hellenistic era the period of time coming from the death of Alexander the Great up to the Roman Empire. The interesting thing today is to talk about Epicurus as a precursor of modern science and Professor Yapijakis is going to tell us what the link is between Epicurus’ philosophy and modern science. Let me remind that Epicurus founded here in Athens the Garden school of philosophers and one of the main issues of this school was the empirical observation of nature what we can say the evidence-based knowledge which can be considered a precursor of evidence-based medicine in some way.
Christos Yapijakis: First of all, I would like to thank Professor Chrousos and Professor Hochberg for the invitation and Professor Cianfarani for the conversation. This is a great opportunity for me to discuss Epicurus’ philosophy and his relevance today with such distinguished thinkers and doers. Hopefully this philosophical discussion may be a fascinating and enlightening experience for us all.
I am a geneticist, clinician and scientist, and a friend of Epicurean philosophy. I will do my best to present the scientific basis and the humanistic values of Epicurean philosophy as a pragmatist scientist, not as an Epicurean. Our way of thinking in this modern world is basically eclectic, combining different ideas and belief systems. Therefore, I will stick to the facts and I will present my opinion like a modern scientist with humanistic values based on the available evidence. Of course, personal beliefs should always be respected as long as they do not harm other people.
I will present a short introduction of the Epicurean philosophy in relation to three points: its scientific value, its past influence, and its humanistic value today. I will stress the current need for a universal humanistic scientific philosophy, and I will emphasize the fact that the Epicurean ethical philosophy is based on human neurobiology and biological psychology by giving you some examples. I will end up with some thoughts on healthy developmental education of children.
My first point is the scientific value of the Epicurean philosophy. It is the only ancient philosophy that is so much compatible with modern Science, due to its empirical evidence-based method. I will start saying that Epicurus had three philosophy teachers, a Platonist, an Aristotelian, and a Democritean, but he was mostly influenced by Democritean physics and Aristotelian biological ethics. Epicurus was very much interested in observing and understanding nature with the aim of achieving serenity and happiness. His study of nature was not theoretical. He thought that we need science in order to be happy. He thought we need the study of nature as a means of avoiding myths, fears of the unknown and superstition. For this purpose, he introduced the methodology of Canon according to specific criteria of truth. In Greek, Canon means “ruler”, an instrument we use in order to measure something. Canon was an empirical methodology of enquiry consisting of observation by the senses and drawing inferences of the unknown based on the analogies observed. So Epicurus used certain criteria of truth: everything that we sense is true, we should believe it; concepts in our minds are based always on past sense observations; emotions are another criterion of truth because whatever pleases us is friendly to our nature and whatever causes us pain is unfriendly.
Epicurus combined the atomic physics of Democritus and the biological ethics of Aristotle correcting their inconsistencies and errors using observations and the Canon. This approach made Epicurean philosophy very comprehensive and among all ancient philosophies by far the most compatible with modern scientific findings. Epicurus taught that one should propose many possible different theories to explain a phenomenon, and not accept as true a theory until one has observational facts. This is another thing that is common with modern science. Epicurus and his students introduced several notions that were reaffirmed by scientific inquiry in the last four centuries. For example, the atomic weight; this is how Dalton in the early 1800s proved that the atomic theory was correct by measuring the weight of the so-called atoms. Another example is the emerging new properties of chemical substances based on their atomic structure. Epicurus was the first to speak about the chemistry laws, that atoms have certain characteristics but when they are combined into forming a molecule, the molecule will have emerging properties and different characteristics than the atoms it contains. His philosophy even predicted that diseases have a molecular basis. Epicurus also wrote about the multitude of worlds in the universe, while, for example, Aristotle said that there was only one world. When two Swiss astronomers in 1995 discovered the first exoplanet, they wrote a paper with the title “Epicurus was right, other planets exist outside the solar system”. Epicurus spoke about the atomic nature of sense perception almost like a neurobiologist would describe it today, that atoms come from the environment, either straight like the photons that we see or in waves that we hear. He spoke about the evolution of species based on natural selection; Darwin was influenced by Epicurus through his grandfather, that’s why he was prepared to observe what he observed in Galapagos Islands. Epicurus was a champion for the existence of free will, based on the observation that there is chance in the universe. According to him, if there wasn’t any chance then every event would be predetermined and we would not have free will. Free will is not caused by chance, but its mechanism is allowed to happen because the universe is not deterministic. Epicurus was the first philosopher to introduce the concept of justice as a social construct, the progress of civilization and many other notions including the existence of extraterrestrial life on other planets that science is still investigating. This is the scientific basis of Epicurean philosophy.
The second point I would like to make is Epicurus’ past influence based on historical facts. The rediscovery of the Epicurean philosophy in Renaissance helped humankind to evolve during Empiricism, Enlightenment and Modern Era of Science. After about a millennium of imposed silence during the Middle Ages, in 1417 the discovery of the great poem in 7400 verses “On the nature of things” of the Roman Epicurean Lucretius made a great impact in disseminating the philosophy of Epicurus during the Renaissance. Many philosophers of Empiricism and Enlightenment were influenced by Epicurus, including Locke and the French encyclopaedists. One of the major political figures of the Enlightenment was self-declared Epicurean Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, the author of the American declaration of independence, who introduced the human right of the pursuit of happiness, the first time after Epicurus. Jefferson was also the founder of the first public American university, the University of Virginia. Before that American universities were either religious or private for wealthy men. Several modern philosophers were influenced by Epicurus; among them the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill should be mentioned. Several early scientists recognized the influence of Epicurean influences in their work, including Galileo, when he saw planets with satellites. An astronomer friend of Galileo, a Catholic priest named Gassendi, was the one who reinstated the Epicurean philosophy. Other noted early scientists with Epicurean influences include Boyle the early chemist, Newton with gravity, Dalton with atomic weight. Several life scientists and physicians discovered biological mechanisms proposed by Epicureans, including Darwin (evolution by natural selection), Pasteur (life derives from life), Mendel (the laws of genetics that were first observed by Epicureans as Lucretius’ poem attests), Freud (psychotherapy) and Garrod (the molecular basis of disease). The Epicurean philosophy has a scientific value, thus in the past it has influenced and helped humanity to stand on its feet during Empiricism, Enlightenment and the modern era of Science.
The third point I would like to make is the humanistic value of Epicurus’ philosophy. The Epicurean philosophy constitutes an ethical system based on observed human nature and not on abstract ideas. It is based on common human biology and psychology and constitutes the basis of modern secular humanism. Epicurus thought that the purpose of philosophy was to increase human happiness; otherwise, it is a useless endeavor. For him, philosophy is a useless endeavor if it doesn’t make people better in order to live a happier life in harmony with other people. He mentioned that the right philosophy based on naturalism cures the anxieties of the soul in a similar manner that the right medicine cures the pains of the body. Epicurus observed that we are naturally inclined towards pleasure which is measured by the absence of pain. He defined happiness as a condition in which the body does not feel pain and the soul is not anxious. He tried to free people from superstition and unsubstantiated fears of the unknown. He observed that there is chance in the world and no destiny; thus, he taught that the existence of chance atomic movements permits free will in people. He offered a four-part remedy (the Tetrapharmacos) for mentally curing the anxieties of the soul in order to live a pleasant, virtuous and fearless life. The first part of the Tetrapharmakos states “do not fear god”. According to Epicurus, gods do exist but they are not fearful. Since nothing comes from nothing in Epicurean philosophy, the existence of gods may be inferred by the fact that people have the notion of a god as a happy and everlasting being. But as all of us observe, the world is so imperfect because obviously gods are not concerned with people or celestial bodies. For Epicurus it is absurd and unrespectable to be afraid of the gods instead of admiring them as examples of perfect happiness. The Epicurean philosopher tries to live like a god among people. Epicurus advises us to have God as a guiding example worthy of admiration, not fear. The second part of the Tetrapharmakos states “death is nothing to us”. Death destroys our material body and material soul, because all we are is a structure of composite molecules. The composite molecules have a lifespan and then are destroyed into atoms; the atoms are eternal. So death destroys our soul and senses, therefore as long as we live we will never experience it. So we don’t have to be afraid of death. Instead of wasting our lifetime worrying about something that we will not experience, we may be armed with the right philosophy, prudence and friendship and always remember the last two parts of the Tetrapharmakos: “all necessary good is easy to achieve”, while “all bad is easy to endure”. These are the four medicines of Epicurus. The message of Epicurus was that all people (including wealthy and poor men, women, even slaves) may achieve happiness if their way of living is based on prudence, virtue, justice, friendship and scientific knowledge. Without scientific knowledge about how the world works we cannot be happy, Epicurus says. He was the first philosopher that laid the foundations of Enlightenment in the modern era style.
Numerous recent studies have shown that people feel happier when they satisfy their basic needs and have meaningful relationships with their relatives and friends regardless of economic or social status. So the basic values of modern humanism, secular humanism, are all shared with Epicurean philosophy: friendship for all humans (philanthropy in Greek), naturalism and realism, social contract (justice as a human agreement), freedom of belief including freedom of religion (first established in the modern world by Thomas Jefferson). Jefferson was the one who proposed that any person could adore any god in any religion that he or she prefers without persecution. He thought that humans have a central value because they are humans and have human rights. A human is the central value and no abstract ideas can justify human suffering. So there is a humanistic value in Epicurean philosophy.
Let me now comment on why we need a basic humanistic scientific philosophy today. I think that many problems of the world today stem from the current schizophrenic situation that evidence-based knowledge is separated from belief. We know by empirical experience in scientific observation that humankind faces problems such as tribal conflicts, socioeconomic crisis, religious and political fanaticism, as well as mounting environmental hazards. But the majority of humanity still analyzes the data subjectively (in a ‘metamodern’ personal way) and not objectively. Science by itself can provide exquisite knowledge, but its proper use requires a moral and emotional philosophy, that is ethical philosophy, that is missing both in science and in today’s society. We need a basic humanistic scientific ethical philosophy, I would call it an Epicurean-like, that teaches us both the scope of science which is evidence-based knowledge of reality in order to be happier and create more humane societies and realistic in a scientific way of thinking based on observation. The Epicurean philosophy constitutes a sound basis for dealing with everything from interpreting nature to everyday decision making by offering practical advice. It places the highest value on life within the limits of Nature, human happiness based on knowledge, friendship and virtue. What unites us all people includes humanistic values (the ‘right to pursue happiness’) and scientific observation of reality. The main issue is how many people will understand this before a possible major catastrophe. Education of younger generations may be the solution.
My last part of the initial presentation of Epicurean philosophy is that the Epicurean ethics is based on human neurobiology and biological psychology. I will stick to not too many details but to the main points of course because you all know parts of this, but I will try to connect how the human brain works with the Epicurean philosophy and human nature. You know that all living organisms originate from a common ancestor and all current biological structures derived from alteration or improvement of ancestral biological structures. So the human brain actually consists of three different interconnected brains that arose during evolution: a) the ‘reptilian brain’, mainly the hypothalamus that controls the instincts of hunger, thirst, sexual drive etc.; b) the ‘mammalian brain’ which corresponds mainly to the amygdala and the hippocampus and it controls the emotions, pleasure, fear, love, anger, hate etc.; and the ‘brain of primates’ of higher apes and humans that corresponds mainly to the grey matter of the cerebral cortex, representing about two thirds or more of the total size of the human brain. It controls as you know the cognitive functions, logical thinking and imagination. Cognitive functions develop during childhood and adolescence in humans, while in apes they remain relatively stable. The three parts of the human brain are interconnected and interact with synaptic neural networks, and for example, a sense experience that we have stimulates the hippocampus and the amygdala. Hippocampus manages the short-term memory; the amygdala determines the positive, neutral or negative emotional experience. If the experience is strongly positive or strongly negative, then it is stored in the cortex in the primate brain. So it is the emotional choosing of our brain that stores our memory. This is how Epicurus described that: “Pleasure is the starting point and goal of living blessedly for we recognize this as our first innate good. This is our starting point for every choice and avoidance.”
The reptilian brain corresponds to the instincts and their desires. If I’m thirsty I desire to drink, if I’m hungry I desire to eat etc. But because our desires may be other than instincts Epicurus recognized that there are three forms of desires. One form is for natural and necessary things. If I’m thirsty I have to drink, so I can drink water and I will not be thirsty anymore. The second form includes natural and unnecessary desires; for example, if I’m thirsty to drink champagne of 30 years old. The third for includes unnatural and unnecessary desires which is vanity, for example to put my name on a sign on a tall building. Epicurus said that the only way that our body will suffer is when we avoid the natural and necessary desires. If I’m thirsty I cannot postpone forever to drink water. Every time that I feel I have a natural and necessary desire I will have to satisfy this desire. Otherwise my body will be in pain. Regarding the unnatural and unnecessary desires for fame, fortune, vanity and fancy things, Epicurus counsels us to forget them. To obtain them is hard, they will create us more pain than good, so it is better to forget them all the way. While the natural and unnecessary desires, for example to drink champagne when I’m thirsty, Epicurus says that we don’t need them but if we go to a dinner with other people and we are offered champagne then we may drink it and enjoy it but without any strife, because people who don’t need this kind of natural and unnecessary desires they enjoy them better. Only the natural and necessary desires, which correspond to the instincts, we should always satisfy otherwise we’ll feel pain.
Epicurus determined the purpose of life on emotional grounds: to be happy, to live a pleasurable life, aiming at the blissful state of physical lack of pain and mental lack of agitation and anxiety. Above all Epicurus considers prudence, the practical wisdom which is part of the cognitive faculty in the primate brain, as the supreme regulator of conscious selection of what brings happiness with wise satisfaction or physical needs and instincts and preservation of emotional balance by tasting those pleasures that do not result in greater pain instead of pleasure. The problem in humans is that while the biological system of desire is in the reptile brain (namely the reward system, the dopamine system), the pleasure system is in the mammalian brain, corresponding to a bath of endorphins. The important point is that desire and pleasure have a different biological background and therefore this distinction may create psychological problems in humans, since they usually do not readily distinguish them. The average person confuses desire to obtain something with a belief of pleasure upon fulfillment of one’s wishes. This is how advertising works. I see a car with a happy man inside, and I believe that if I buy this car I will be happy, which is not the case. In addition, the biological system controlling the emotion of fear is in the mammalian brain. But with the primate brain, with cognitive function with prudence, we can understand that most fears are only imaginary and unsubstantiated. For example, if I walk in the street and I see a car coming towards me I have to be fearful of the car so that I will move and avoid it. But if I think while I’m sitting in a building that if I exit the building a car will run over me, this is a phobia. I create a scenario into my brain and I fear because of this scenario. The important thing to always remember is that both the reptilian brain, the instincts, and the mammalian brain, the emotions, are for now. It’s absurd and useless for me to say that in next year on October 20th at 5:13 in the afternoon I will be thirsty, or that I will be fearful. The emotions are a system that evolved in mammals in order to change their behavior because of the environment. Whatever we like and gives us pleasure we continue to do it. Whatever makes us feel pain, we have to stop it and then do something else. For example, when a monkey finds a fruit that is very tasteful, if he is on a tree, then he will eat it and find pleasure in it. But if he is on the ground and there is a lion coming, the monkey will be fearful and look for shelter before eating the fruit. We have to recognize this biological basis of emotions, because our mind has the capacity for past memories, understanding the present and planning the future, therefore if we create fearful scenarios we may end up with fear emotions like phobias.
The Epicurean approach of psychotherapy that was used in the School of Epicureans in the ancient times was called the therapy of the soul: “psyches therapeia”, psychotherapy, exactly as we call it today and is based on human nature. It reveals the absurdity of unsubstantiated fears by curing mental agitation with facts. It aims for a serene blissful state achieved by engaging prudence, practical wisdom, by free will. Modern existential cognitive psychotherapy which seems to be more effective than other approaches focuses on the identification of one’s fears and negative thoughts revealing their absurd character and then proposes their systematic engagement with pleasurable activities. Therefore, we need evidence-based and narrative-based psychotherapy, therapy of the soul, with friendly frank criticism based on empirical observations, as the Epicureans needed it 2000 years ago, because our human nature remains the same.
Cianfarani: Let me be a little bit provocative. Going back to the modern science. First of all, I’d like to remind you that despite the fact that Epicurus wrote more than 300 papers, just three letters, and a few fragments are left to us from Epicurus. Most of all we know about Epicurus comes from the Roman philosopher of the first century Lucretius, who reports the Epicurean vision of life and nature in his masterpiece “De Rerum Natura”. As you know Democritus was the founder of atomistic philosophy. But his point of view was a deterministic atomistic view of nature. Epicurus goes even farther as for Epicurus just chance and necessity regulate nature, recalling us the famous book of the Nobel prize winner in 1965 Jacques Monod: “Chance and Necessity”. On the other side, Aristotle believed in the purpose, in the aim behind any natural phenomena, including human life. So the description of nature according to Aristotle was based on common laws regulating all nature facts or nature appearances. The question is, don’t you think that there are limitations in the view of Epicurus based on chance and necessity. Translating that into our common practice as physicians. To give you an example, if we look at the effectiveness of a new therapy, we can discover a new drug just by chance or by necessity, and we can say that this drug is effective in curing Mr. X with a disease but also Mr. Y and Mr. Z with the same disease. The conclusion is based on the facts that this new drug, which was discovered by chance, is effective in curing different subjects with the same disease. But the next step would be: why? If we just base our knowledge on empiricism, on the facts or senses like Epicurus, we don’t go beyond what we see. The next step would be the reason; why? To quote what Einstein said about that: “Imagination is more important than knowledge, for knowledge is limited whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
Yapijakis: Thank you very much for raising this point. First of all, I would say that Democritus spoke about atomic physics in an intellectual way. He didn’t believe in observation. He thought that senses should not be trusted. On the other hand, Aristotle was the first philosopher that was using the empirical observation. He had two teachers. We always recall his teacher Plato. But Aristotle had another teacher before Plato, his father Nicomachus, who was a physician. Although he was trained in Plato’s Academy his original medical observational and empirical study helped him overcome the Platonic idealistic philosophy. Aristotle wrote somewhere that Plato and the truth are friends but I prefer the truth. Aristotle was the first observational philosopher, because as we all know physicians empirically observe the symptoms and make a diagnosis.
Aristotle used this observational empirical method for living organisms but he thought that some ideas, some concepts, should be reached by logic alone. By logic alone he said that since women are inferior to men they should have fewer teeth. Instead of observing and counting the teeth of women and changing his belief that he reached by logic, he preferred to write in two places that women and female animals have fewer teeth than males. Another belief of Aristotle was teleology; that everything in Nature has a purpose. There is a scope in the universe and the last event is the purpose of the previous events. As if I would say to you that the purpose of your lives was to come here today to listen to my talk. Which is not the truth of course. So the basic problem of Aristotle was that he had these beliefs that by observation an objective scientist like Epicurus would easily overcome. I would say in response to your comment that Epicurus lets free the people to make any hypothesis that they want, any hypothesis explaining a phenomenon using imagination is justified. But the hypothesis has to be judged by the observation, by the facts, in order to be considered correct or be disregarded, like any modern scientist would do. We can make whatever hypothesis we want but it’s the actual experiment that will show us that if our hypothesis is correct or not. Actually in the Garden of Epicurus most probably the first experiments started. We don’t know this for sure, but we know that the leader of the Aristotelian School at that time Strato of Lampsacus, who coexisted with Epicurus in Athens for twenty years, certainly started doing experiments. Strato most probably learned this from Epicurus, but there is no proof of this yet. This is a hypothesis. We know that Strato conducted experiments, so he disregarded the teleology of Aristotle, he accepted that everything is composed by individual bodies and void, and he started a scientific tradition in the Hellenistic time with Eratosthenes, Archimedes etc. of philosophers that performed experiments. So this was the difference between Aristotle and Epicurus. Aristotle was a great philosopher and without him probably Epicurus would not be that great. But I think that Epicurus became even greater than the great Aristotle and much more humane.
Cianfarani: Can we agree with the Emmanuel Kant’s statement that “concepts without percepts are empty and percepts without concepts are blind”?
Yapijakis: Well, yes and no, it depends because Kant is a subjective philosopher. Kant thinks that every person understands nature in a different way, which is of course right at a certain point – for example, a guy like me with myopia will see differently without contact lenses or glasses. But we basically see the same things, we may understand the same things and we can have an objective way of communicating, which is science. Of course, there are differences in opinions and perspectives but we can see and hear nature as it is. To answer your question, we may communicate objectively if we use the concepts in their original meaning coming from the senses. This is what Epicurus insists that we should do in order to communicate. We should use the term ‘table’ for what it originally means. Not as a roundtable in a symposium, let’s say, or any poetical, allegoric, other symbolic meaning. Because in this way we could not communicate. Epicurus insisted that natural philosophers, like scientists today, should use the terminology that corresponds to the things that we can perceive by senses. Otherwise, we’ll end up talking about things in different meanings, as often is done by rhetoricians, by politicians, by poets and then we cannot communicate.
Ze’ev Hochberg: In the Hebrew language, we use the phrase “Epikoros” when we want to talk about somebody who is not a believer. If somebody is God forbid a scientist and does not believe in God, he is called an Epikoros. The phrase Epikoros was coined many years ago – in the second century, in the time of the Mishna, known as the “Oral Torah”. During that time the Jews were expelled from Palestine by the Romans, and only a few scholars remained. They started to discuss philosophy, and for them Epikoros was a dirty word. And when I listened to you I understood why. A very important part of Judaism is fear from God. The same is true for Christianity. In Christianity suffering is a high virtue; people intentionally suffer. And this is different from Epicurus’ strive for happiness. I have a question for you Christos. How is Epicurean philosophy different from hedonism? We speak quite a lot about hedonism as a mechanism for childhood obesity. We have a special center in the frontal brain for hedonism; for Epicureanism?
Yapijakis: I will answer your interesting thoughts in two parts. First regarding the Jewish name of Epicurus and then on hedonism. First of all, it’s a historical fact that the Epicurean philosophy was the first international secular humanistic philosophy that spread in the Hellenistic world. It was not dedicated only for Greeks but it proselytized Syrians, Jews, Egyptians, Romans, and Celts. There were even Carthaginians. Because it is a philosophy that address all humans, not only Greek. Second, during the Hellenistic period there was a political religious strife between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Sadducees were the priests of the temple in Jerusalem at that time, and they were heavily Hellenized. They dressed like Greeks, they spoke Greek fluently, and they were mostly influenced by Epicureanism, which was in fashion at that time. So they believed that God wants us to live a happy life and that there is no afterlife. The best way to obey God’s will according to the Sadducees was to enjoy life and be virtuous, friendly to others and things like that. There is a book in the Bible called “Ecclesiastes” (Greek for “Qohelet” in Hebrew) that suggests that every major dream is vain, one should enjoy every day and not expect the future things. This book was written probably by a Sadducee, an Epicurean-influenced Jew. And the opposing fraction was the Pharisees, from the word Farsi meaning Persian. The Pharisees were the priests that collaborated with the Persians during the Persian occupation before the Greeks came to Israel. They introduced into Judaism Zoroastrian ideas which were dualistic Platonic ideas, for example that there is a good God and a bad devil; there is after life with punishment for the sinners and things like that. Those teachings did not exist in Judaism before the Pharisees. Today’s Judaism is a Pharisaic Judaism. The Pharisees called their rivals “Epicureans” as a curse against the Sadducees, and the word Epikoros remained in Hebrew as a name for nonbeliever, agnostic, atheist. This is a remnant from the political history of things. Later in the beginning of the Roman era, there was a Jew called Philo of Alexandria who was a Hellenized Jew and a Platonist who somehow combined Judaism and Platonism. Thus, Judaism, Christianity and to a certain extent Islam are very Platonic religions.
In order to answer about the hedonism, I would have to say that hedonism was first proposed by another philosopher before Epicurus, Aristippus. He was a student of Socrates. The students of Socrates included Plato, Xenophon, Antisthenes the Cynic and Aristippus. Aristippus believed that there is no happy life, so everybody can live their life looking for pleasure all the time, and especially eating, drinking and having sex in a promiscuous way. Everything is subjective and there is no ethics in reality. We cannot understand nature, because each one of us has a different subjective perspective – the Kantian way. All that exists is looking for pleasure, as much pleasure as possible. Aristippus became a council of a tyrant in Syracuse in Sicily. He became a philosopher entertaining a tyrant in order to have a lot of pleasure. This is what we call extreme hedonism. This mindless hedonism, as we Epicureans call it, would not lead us to happiness. This is the kind of hedonism that modern Western society promotes with the money and the advertisements and consumerism – making people to look for hedonism in material things as a substitute for real happiness. On the opposite, the Epicurean hedonism is prudent, since our goal is not pleasure of the moment but a happy life, a pleasurable life. The Epicurean hedonism is a different kind of hedonism. In order to have a pleasurable life you have to be virtuous. Virtue is not a goal; it’s a means for a happy life. If you’re not virtuous and you are aggressive with other people you will not feel safe. If we seek only pleasure for its own sake, we will be self-destroyed sooner or later. But if we understand our nature, then we may know that pleasure simply informs us that something is good for us. But we have to think that if we continue doing this pleasurable thing will I get more pleasure or more pain? For example, if I like chocolate and I eat 10 kilos of chocolate, my stomach will ache. I have to use my prudence to understand what this pleasure will bring to me, which is more pain. Epicurus says that a pleasure that leads to more pains should be avoided. We should select instead pains that would lead to greater pleasures. For example, if I’m a student I will have to read and lose a weekend of pleasure to study, but I’ll succeed in my exam on Monday, and I will live a pleasurable week and be happy.
Alan Rogol: I’ve spent four decades at Mr. Jefferson’s University in Virginia. He lived at Monticello, which was up the mountain, he took a spyglass and designed the university. But on his grave he never said that he was president of the United States. He was most proud to be author of the Declaration of American independence, author of the statute of Virginia for religious freedom, absolutely unheard of at those times, and the father of the University of Virginia.
Yapijakis: This was because of Epicurean influence as he said in his letters. “I am an Epicurean” he wrote, that’s why I believe it. The Epicureans like the great Thomas Jefferson wanted to make a revolution but not the revolution with guns and knives and things like that. But the revolution of the mind. That’s a kind of enlightenment. That’s why what they did was they taught the science of their times freely to everybody. This is what the French Epicurean encyclopaedists did. They printed an encyclopedia with all the knowledge of that time for everybody to share. And this is what Jefferson did when he founded the first public university for everybody, men and women to be there. And the same was done by other Epicureans in other countries. Jeremy Bentham in England founded the University College London, which was the first public university in England that accepted women and men, Catholics, Protestants, whatever. Because the other universities accepted only Protestants, only Catholics, only men and things like that. Also in Russia another Epicurean, the scientist Lomonosov created the first public University of Moscow.
George Werther: I understand that Epicurus was not completely areligious, he believes that gods had a role but in fact his philosophy was at odds with the modern theological thinking. So my question is how does Epicurean philosophy in the current age contrast with modern theology and say Christianity or Judaism which say essentially all our morality and ethics has to be based on religion whereas this is not.
Yapijakis: First of all Epicurus was certain, he did not just believe, he was certain that there were gods. He was certain because of his Canon, the method he used to understand nature. He used this method for the gods as well. But he also thought that all religions were fake, since they were based on myths and literature. In addition, he observed that religions did not respect the gods. The Platonists relied on myths so they thought that Epicurus was not religious enough for their like. The same opinion they had for Aristotle. For about a thousand years during the Middle Age Aristotle was mostly considered an atheist. And that’s why when his tomb was found in his home town Stagira about a couple of years ago, it was also discovered that it was destroyed by the then Byzantine Romans of the sixth century to build a fortress, because Aristotle was considered an atheist. Because he didn’t believe in God in the same manner the Platonists would believe. Aristotle was fortunate enough to be liked by the Islamic world. There were some Epicurean influenced and Aristotelian influenced Islamists, mostly Persians and Arabs, who created the Arabic renaissance in the 8th and 9th century; all the great Muslim astronomers, physicians and philosophers were of that period. Omar Khayyam is such an example of a renowned Epicurean influenced astronomer, mathematician, physician and poet of that era. If you read his poems you will see the Epicurean influence. The Arabic renaissance lasted 2-3 centuries until a Platonic Islamic clergy said that these scientific endeavors were works of the devil. After that the Islamic world remained mostly in the Middle Ages until today. In Europe Aristotle was revived by the Italian Catholic priest Thomas Aquinas in the 12th century. Thomas Aquinas managed to Christianize Aristotle, so the modern Roman Catholic Church is mostly Aristotelian. Platonic Aristotelian but mostly Aristotelian, while the Greek Orthodox Church remains Platonic. A few centuries later, in late Renaissance, another Catholic priest, the Frenchman Pierre Gassendi revived the Epicurean philosophy around 1650. He influenced many people because after him the Enlightenment started. Gassendi also Christianized the Epicurean philosophy but probably not enough because Epicurus was not accepted by the Catholic Church. He was accepted mostly by some Protestants in England, like Hobbes and Locke; later he inspired the French philosophers of the Enlightenment.
Today, because of freedom of thinking, freedom of speech, and the perseverance of scientific thought in the modern world, all religions have started to include humanistic environmental thinking and try to say things about things that science discovers. For example, the Catholic Church has something to say about evolution of living organisms, namely that there was a divine providence for evolution. I’m proposing that we should use the Epicurean philosophy not as an anti-religious dogma or an alternative religion, but as a common humanistic scientific philosophy that would unite us all Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists etc. based on a pragmatic and scientific basis. Whatever I believe in my private life it’s my right but I will not impose my opinion to you. This is what Jefferson said because of Epicurus. This is what I think the United Nations say today.
Cianfarani: Aristotle founded metaphysics. He founded a need of going beyond the physics, trying to discover the laws beyond it. The question is going back to the modern science and scientific method. But if everything according to Epicurus is just regulated by chance, so why should we study biology or physics?
Yapijakis: Chance is a rare phenomenon. But necessity also exists of course. And necessity most often make things happen. There are lots of necessary laws of nature. Rarely ever a chance phenomenon happens. But because there are many different phenomena happening at the same time chance more often influences reality than if there was only one phenomenon. For example there is gravity, so a cup stays on its place on a table. But there is also atomic movement inside a cup, and there is a slight possibility that the majority of the atoms of the cup may go towards one side direction and the cup may fall without anybody touching it. There is this probability but it’s very rare. A physicist said that in a human life twice or three times something like this, an unexpected phenomenon, will happen within our range of three meters. But mostly we’ll be sleeping or not paying attention or will think that something fell because its position was unstable or whatever. Chance exists in the universe and we know that from experiments. What you are saying is how we can live our lives if there is chance. This is the beauty of it, because we’re free beings. We are free to destroy ourselves and this planet or free to be happy living together. Maybe there is a divine providence in the universe that we haven’t seen so far. I’m not against that theory. I’m saying that we should communicate, we should understand nature and our nature, and use our best of our capabilities in order to have a happy life. All of us. Every person is entitled to happiness on their own merit.
Jesus Argente: You mentioned Epicurus about his address in brain function. And I would like to ask you what the main concept of the brain was that he had at that time?
Yapijakis: At that time there was the concept that the brain is the center of our soul, as first proposed by the Pythagorean physician Alcmaeon. That concept was accepted by Plato, because he was under Pythagorean influence. But Aristotle, who did a lot of anatomy studies in animals, thought that the brain was only freezing the blood. So he said that the heart was the center of the soul. Because Epicurus trusted the great scientist of that time Aristotle, and not the theoretician of that time Plato, he made the same mistake. Epicurus believed Aristotle and he said that the center of the soul is the heart. But he said that the soul has a center part and another part that is peripheral all over the body. The center part decides where to send the directions and the peripheral part sends information to the center part.
Maybe it is the right time to say something about children. You all know that Finland is one of the best countries regarding education for decades. Finland is in the northern part of Europe as you know. I looked for a text on education and philosophy from a Finnish perspective. I found a Finnish text on the historical perspective of teaching philosophy to children, which starts with Epicurus and his philosophy. That is because Epicurus was the first philosopher who said that we should not teach our children unnecessary and useless things, but to teach them about their nature and nature in general in order to learn how to live a good life. According to Epicurus there is never too early for philosophy because there is never an early time to be happy. Therefore, some of the education approaches used in Finland are influenced by the Epicurean philosophy or related concepts.
Coming to the end of our conversation. I would like to present you a diagram derived from Carlo Cipolla’s ‘The basic laws of human stupidity’. The horizontal axis corresponds to the action of one person that acts in a positive way for him or her, or in a negative way for him or her, and what influence this actions has on others; positive or negative more or less. So if I would do an action that will cause me to gain but others will lose, I’m a crook. If do an action that I will lose and others will gain I will be a victim, if I do it all the time. If I do something that I will lose and others will lose, I’m stupid. Like some terrorists that kill themselves and other people. But if I do something that I will gain and others will gain at the same time I’m clever. To combine this way of thinking with the possibly corresponding anxiety or the lack of anxiety that Epicurus wants, the only person that remains calm is the clever person who is in the win-win situation, as I have mentioned in my essay ‘Epicurean egoistic altruism’. The victim has the anxiety of recognition: “I always put myself behind others, they never recognize my mighty sacrifice”. The stupid has the anxiety of uncertainty. The crook has the anxiety of punishment. It doesn’t matter if he or she remains without punishment. The crook will never be sure that he or she will avoid punishment, as Epicurus mentioned. So the only way to be happy is to always try to act cleverly in win-win situations. This fact may be easily taught to younger generations.