Saturday, November 19, 2011


Epicurism: The pursuit of sensory pleasure.

Epicureanism:  The natural and moral philosophy of Epicurus.

The Nature of Things:  The magnificent poem by Lucretius presenting the philosophy of Epicurus

It has been my intention over the past 10-15 years to become better informed in the Greek Philosophers.  Naively, I started with the names with which I was most familiar; Socrates, Plato, Aristotle.  It was difficult reading, and I tended to lay the books aside, because I just wasn't getting much satisfaction.

I had another chance to try some heavy, but in this case wonderfully rewarding, reading over the past two months after listening to an NPR talk show discussing a poem by Lucretius, The Nature of Things.  It seemed this poem described things made of atoms flying around largely empty space and a world in which the pursuit of happiness occurred within a moral philosophy of humanistic concern.

 -  De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things) by Titus Lucretius Carus - Translated by A. E. Stallings
 -  Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity by Catherine Wilson

 -  The Swerve: How the World became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

There are no primary documents left to us by Epicurus (Greek, 341-270 B.C.E).  Most of the contemporary writing from his time is that of other philosophers,and most were critical of Epicureanism.  Diogenes did summarize Epicureanism in his review of Greek philosophers.  Epicureanism was incompatible with any of the cults of the Greek or Roman gods, and was later considered by the Christians to be heretical.
There is a singular record of his teaching written around 60-50 B.C.E. by an Epicurean student and Roman Citizen, Lucretius,  in the form of a poem.  Oh, but what a poem.  More than 7,000 lines, no characters and no story, but perhaps the most beautiful presentation of thought ever recorded. (Try the poem's 4th book  for maybe the most intense description of human physical love you will ever read.)  Lucretius said by placing a rim of honey (his poetry) around the rim of the glass, one would be more likely to drink the contents which otherwise seemed strange or even unpalatable.

However, it is not the shear beauty of the poetry that overwhelms me, but the incredible insight into nature provided by the Epicurean philosophy.  His prescient concept of a world made of atoms and empty space preceded "modern" science by almost two thousand years, and was the basis for the science of Newton, Galileo, and others.  He suggested the basis for evolution long before Darwin and even discussed a "probability" of particle movement and location, hinting at the "new" science of quantum physics.  There is an excellent summary (and drawing of Lucretius) in this New Yorker article.

In Epicurean morals, pain is an unqualified evil.  Because death is the end for each sentient being, we should enjoy ourselves to the extent that our enjoyment of present pleasures does not diminish the quantity of pleasure we can enjoy in the future, to the extent that our present enjoyments do not destroy health, bring down the wrath or contempt of others upon us, or subject us to the torments of guilt and regret.  Moral wisdom consists not in ascetic practice, but in prudence and foresight, for experience of mankind assures us that moderation and avoidance of dissipation tend to make for a less painful life.

Thomas Jefferson had 5 Latin editions of The Nature of Things, and one each in French, Italian, and English.  He wrote to a friend "I too am an Epicurean."  It is no surprise that the Declaration of Independence speaks of the right to "the pursuit of happiness."  In a letter to William Short Jefferson writes: 

"I take the liberty of observing that you are not a true disciple of our master Epicurus, in indulging the indolence to which you say you are yielding. One of his canons, you know, was that "that indulgence which prevents a greater pleasure, or produces a greater pain, is to be avoided." Your love of repose will lead, in its progress, to a suspension of healthy exercise, a relaxation of mind, an indifference to everything around you, and finally to a debility of body, and hebetude of mind, the farthest of all things from the happiness which the well-regulated indulgences of Epicurus ensure; fortitude, you know is one of his four cardinal virtues. That teaches us to meet and surmount difficulties; not to fly from them, like cowards; and to fly, too, in vain, for they will meet and arrest us at every turn of our road."

Some proposals within The Nature of Things:

* Invisible particles constitute everything in the world, and all things are made of indivisable "atomes" or "Seeds" and empty space.
* These atoms are limited in shape and size, but each shape and size is infinite in number.
* These particles are always in motion within an infinite void.
* The particles do not travel straight, but "swerve," collide, hook together, come apart.
* Aggregation of atoms produces visible objects, plants or animals.
* When these things die or undergo dissolution, these atoms are dispersed back into the world, available for construction of new things.
* Nature continuously experiments.  Things better adapted increase in number while things less well adapted disappear.
* The universe has no creator or designer.
* The universe was not about nor created for humans.
* Humans are not unique nor fundamentally different from other animals.
* The soul is inherent to the physical body and dies with the body.
* There is no afterlife
* Death is nothing to us, neither pleasure nor pain nor longing nor fear.
* Organized religions are superstitious delusions.
* Religions are always cruel.
* There are no angles, demons, or ghosts.
* The highest goal of human life is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.
* The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain, but delusion and anxiety.
* Awe and wonder come from understanding nature.

 "The Swerve" is a shorter, more readable text, most concerned with how the poem survived the sac of Rome and and the Catholic inquisition, to be discovered just in time for the evolutionary ideas of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Wilson's lengthier text is more comprehensive, academic, and therefore a bit more of a challenge as a weekend read.  A.E. Stallings' translation of "The Nature of Things" is touted as excellent and  probably the best available english edition.
"Unlike social and financial status, which are unlimited,
Peace of mind can be wholly secured"


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