Epicurean Philosophy or Epicureanism?

Epicurean Philosophy or Epicureanism?

In a recent conversation to the Garden of Thessaloniki, a question was raised whether the Epicureans could participate as a party to the political scene of the Country. The friend George Kaplanis replied that this could not be done, because Epicurean philosophy is not an ideology, and as a philosophy is or should be in the background of politics, in the same way that philosophy, although not a science, is in the background of all sciences.


If philosophy provides science with the method of research, it also provides politics with the method of analyzing political and social process and the moral framework of decisions taken.


The background to the policy of the Modern Greek State is purely idealistic, since the dominant religion and Platonism and Stoicism that survived through it have a strong influence on the political scene of the Country. But also the materialistic philosophy of Marxism that affects the Left has also been strangely transformed into idealistic ideology.


But how is the ideology characterized? According to Theodosis Pelegrinis in his dictionary of philosophy in the corresponding term, the term ideology generally means a set of ideas, positions and perceptions, embodied in a unified system, which is projected as the true image of reality. Those who adopt it are obliged to think and regulate their lives according to it. All the "-isms" are basically ideologies and are by their nature dogmatic and metaphysical, that is they are based on unproved mental forms which are construed as reality, downgrading the material reality at the level of a takeoff of these mental forms. Ideologies are necessarily deterministic and teleological. This means that they admit a purpose to which the universe and, by extension, society and man necessarily tend. The purpose is set by a Creator or the imperative necessity in the sequence of events. As the holders of absolute truth, ideologists do not tolerate and do not discuss the opinions of others in the logic that anyone who is not with us is against us. This is the logic of the white-black, of good and bad that arises from the principle of Aristotle's excluded third party. Thus it is common for ideologists to use in their controversies "wooden" and affirmative talk, to enumerate and attribute to their opponents the qualities and "signs" that they have nothing to do with reality, thus leading to their demonization. Frequent ending of ideologies and religions, which are also ideologies, is obsession and fanaticism, which leads to blind passion and hatred against anyone who supports opinions different from their own beliefs.


The ideologist simply believes in his chimera without seeking evidence and documentation about the subject of his faith. Result of this attitude of ideologues and their inability to present the facts to the suffering of sober crisis, based on reality, is that they are easily being victims of the propaganda and manipulation of individuals or interests exploiting ideologies to gain social and political power to promote their self-serving purposes.


At the level of politics, ideologues raise every real problem of society into an ideological one, resulting in sterile and endless confrontations with their opponents, so that the real problem continues, to be forgotten and remains unresolved (e.g. migration).


Another principle of Aristotle, which is also in the background of Modern Greek politics and not just perception, is the Golden Rule, is the Golden or the middle way that one has to choose in solving the issues and avoiding extreme decisions. This has been translated into the practice of politics, like the tendency to round things up to gain common acceptance. To get ambiguous positions on key issues that require groundbreaking solutions. To suggest solutions, usually misty and fruitless in the long run, to have, at least seemingly, everyone satisfied. To follow always consensus and not come to rupture. To take always into account the so-called political costs in decision making. In the end, do nothing! Other expressions deriving from the Golden rule of measure are the non-existent average person, the apolitical Middle Space and so on. Metaxas' decision to reject the Italian ultimatum and put Greece in the whirlwind of war was an extreme decision. But how many Greeks will disagree that it was the right decision? It is true, however, that we would blatantly blame Aristotle if we would ascribe to him the glorification of mediocrity that characterizes the Modern Greek society!


And the Epicurean philosophy? Our friend George Kaplanis insists that it’s not an ideology. It is not Epicureanism. Not only it did not inspire Modern Greek politics, but was often slandered when it was not ignored by the spiritual leadership of the Place. The citizens’ well-being was never foreseen as a purpose in the Constitution of Greece, as it is provided in the American Constitution. It is true that Epicurean philosophy has been characterized as dogmatic because it rejects a priori the divine intervention in nature, the divine providence and immortality of the soul. However, it results in this conclusion after thorough research and observation of nature. In any case, the Epicurean position is less dogmatic than position of Plato and idealists through centuries, which are purely mental constructs and have supported all of their philosophical structure in unsubstantiated beliefs.


Epicurus said philosophy is an action that, with reasonable approaches and thoughts, serves the happy life. (Sextus Empiricus, To Mathematicians, XI 169). It is a personal and selfish philosophy. Epicurus is not primarily interested in society as a whole, but in its constituent unit, that is human. Human disclaimed from titles, social status, gender, material goods, whom he tries to make shielded against his most primitive fears about the gods, natural phenomena and death, but also against his most deadly passion, greed, a hidden child from the same primitive fears and the insecurity that they cause.


Central element of philosophy's approach is prudence, which helps the man to assess his needs with prudence and sober reasoning. To enjoy the approachable pleasures and avoid those that will lead to greater pain. Friendship, which is the greatest virtue according to Epicurus, has a selfish motivation and aims at the personal sense of security. Beyond friendship, the social contract and the justice that it imposes among people ensures the safe living in the wider society.


With regard to politics, the Epicurean will deal with only when he believes that his own involvement will contribute to the removal of his own or his friends’ pain, a pain that causes an unpleasant political situation or an external danger.


With prudence and with the valuable tool, that is the Epicurean’s manifold way of thinking and acting that does not trap human in artificial dilemmas and encounters the issues from many perspectives and according to the real facts, he will examine all possible choices and he will propose what he considers feasible and right under the present conditions. He will not be short-circuited in obsessions and suggestions without meaning, well-felt in the ear but inapplicable in practice. He is not about slogans but about the point. He will not deal with profound analysis, general and vague, about how we arrived here, demonstrating knowledge and rhetoric skills. He will not denounce everyone and everything with pompousness from the balconies, but with frankness of speech, clarity and documentation, he will formulate his proposal even if he knows that a lot of people will begrudge. Besides, he does not intend to be liked, but to benefit. He is serious, self-sufficient, self-esteemed person and praise of the others does not add anything to him. He does not seek for glory and material wealth because he knows well that they are not the ones that will offer him safety and bliss, but the friendship of the people.


“Living freely”, says the Master, “can’t provide wealth, because this is not easy without servility to the mob or the power. It may, however, have everything necessary to lasting abundance. And if he gets rich, he will easily share it accordingly, getting the favor of his fellow men”.

Besides, the attempt to acquire and maintain material wealth is interwoven with anxiety and mental distress that can only lead to unhappiness and will provoke the envy of its fellow citizens.


His self-sufficiency fortifies him from the temptations of power and keeps him away from unnameable transactions, briberies and traps, thus preserving his freedom of will. He feels more pleasure in offering than in receiving.


The Epicurean is a deeply democratic man. He does not distinguish his fellow citizens according to their social position, gender or property, therefore he treats them all as friends with the same measures and above all with justice, in order not to be harmed but to benefit from social cohabitation. He seeks his personal bliss through the bliss of the whole.


He does not impose his opinion or appear as the guardian of the Absolute Truth, considering himself to be wiser than others, but with mildness, clear, simple and documented speech he cites his arguments by trying to convince his interlocutors, while with attention and severity he listens and weighs the arguments of the other people. He will express his disagreement without ironic comments and useless insulting insinuations towards his interlocutors, which create tension and disorient from the discussion of the case’s substance. When he is asked a specific question, he gives –if he knows– a specific answer, or he admits with frankness that he is not aware of it. Nebulous and vague answers, dialectical acrobatics, sophistry and foolish dilemmatic discourse, do not characterize the Epicureans.


He supports his political action in prudence and the proper speech, knowing that it is better to fail in something based on wisdom, than to succeed based on luck.


And he will also accept the well-intentioned criticism, as he knows that he is not infallible, but not even the wisest of the people, and that the good result depends not only on good intentions, but also on his ability and intuition to choose the appropriate strategies for achieving the goal of pleasure, strategies that their effectiveness is not always apparent in advance.


So what will be the phenotype of an Epicurean politician? A man of low-tone, calm and serious, prudent with clear views and substantiated speech dealing with thesubstance of things, seeking to be effective and fair in the exercise of power in favor of the bliss of the whole, through which he seeks his personal pleasure and bliss. He is often unpleasant to many people because he does not caress ears, he is not corrupted, nor does he count the notorious “political cost”, he is not granted to anybody and he does not get angry with anybody.


Thus, Epicurean philosophy is not an ideology. It does not claim any absolute truth, nor does it seek to make any ideal society. Besides, no ideal society can arise from imperfect people in an imperfect, anyhow, material reality. Controversies and conflicts will not cease to exist, as this is required by the law of evolution and study of Nature, to which human society is also integrated. The ideal, perfect and absolute are in the brain of idealists, not in the real world. But Epicurus is on the right path by trying with his philosophy as an instrument to keep human as much as possible in his mental balance. Such a person is a precious citizen whatever his social position, whatever the social system that is embedded. The study of Nature does not make men productive of boasting or bragging nor apt to display that culture which is the object of rivalry with the many, but high-spirited and self-sufficient, taking pride in their own personalities’ good things and not of their circumstantial external things (E.S. 45). And history proved that no social system, as fair as it may be in theory, can stand adequately without mental balanced citizens.


11.11.2013, by Dimitris Altas Cardiologist, member of the Epicurean Garden in Thessaloniki

Beauty and virtue and such are worthy of honor, if they bring pleasure; but if not then bid them farewell!

Comments 1

  • This certainly mirrors my own political position in most aspects! If a person identifies with a political group, it quickly turns into a competitive team situation where every position is seen through either an ideological lens, or, as I have observed to be more common, through the lens of loyalty to a team.


    What I mean by that is that even within a political group, positions for or against an action tend to be based on opposing a rival group, and afterwards a gloss of justification by ideology is applied.


    A person who is a member becomes unable to clearly evaluate the risks and benefits of an action. When she steps outside the group, suddenly her vision begins to clear up. Then she can freely take positions which serve her personal happiness, on specific actions.


    The part where I feel differently is that I am not seeking the bliss of the whole population-- so I would not meet his criteria for a good politician.