**This is the eightieth in a series of weekly reports on news from the world of Epicurean Philosophy. Our home base for discussion is https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/ Copies of these posts, and links to active Epicurean websites, are stored at EpicurusCentral.wordpress.com.
**As of tonight, our group has grown to 956. Last week this time we were 896. Soon we will probably break 1,000, and we’ll try to do something to observe the milestone. We continue to grow steadily, and we welcome all participants and lurkers. We are here to discuss Epicurean Philosophy, have fun, and in the words of Lucian, “strike a blow for Epicurus – that great man whose holiness and divinity of nature were not shams, who alone had and imparted true insight into the good, and who brought deliverance to all that consorted with him!”
**Because we have so many new members and lurkers, I think it is a good idea to use the weekly update not only for news, but to place some of the discussions in a context in which our new participants can more easily follow along.
Over the last several weeks, we have had much discussion of “determinism.” The primary reason for that focus is that the Epicurean doctrine of the “swerve” of the atom was developed to explain how it is we have the ability to make choices that influence the direction of our lives. This is important because there is a continuing battle in philosophy over whether people are essentially robots. Many opinion leaders in the religious world argue that gods control our destinies. Many opinion leaders of the atheist/secular world argue that our genes or our environment are in complete control of our destinies. Epicurus staked out a firm position in this war by observing that normal men have at least some degree of free will. As a scientist, Epicurus realized that this meant that the atoms that make us up must not be simple billiard balls, slaves of the action and reaction of hitting each other, but must also have some degree of ability to swerve from their paths so that they can break the chain of fate. Grounded on this swerve of the atom, Epicurean philosophy affirms that men possess the ability to think for themselves and make decisions as to what to choose and avoid. Because we have this freedom – and ONLY because we have this freedom, it makes sense to study philosophy and exert effort to work to improve our lives.
This past week we began to focus on a new topic: the role of pleasure in human life. Most everyone knows that Epicurus held pleasure to be the guide of life, rather than “virtue,” but few understand what this really means, or appreciate the complexities of the issue. One of the most interesting complexities arises from what some consider to be conflicting passages in the Epicurean texts about the role of “active pleasures” vs. “static pleasures.” If you read most any modern commentary on Epicurus, you will find the view that the goal of life according to Epicurus was something like “tranquility” (you will often see the word “ataraxia”). This emphasis on tranquility is often combined with the third and fourth items in the “Four part cure,” which are listed in our graphic at the top of the Facebook page. These are (3)”what is good is easy to get” and (4)”what is terrible is easy to endure.” Current residents of Syria and northern Iraq, or new students of Epicurus anywhere, are to be excused if they find these formulations superficial, unclear, or contradictory with their own experience. More troubling still is that many formulations of this view of Epicurean pleasure can sound as if Epicurus advised a life of asceticism, suppression of emotion, and repression of the active pleasures that bring joy to life.
Many of us are here in this group because we truly believe that Epicurean philosophy is uniquely insightful and valid even today as the appropriate approach to how to live our lives. We have many varying interpretations of the issues raised in the last paragraph, held by very smart people of good faith. It is not possible to summarize all those views here, but for now, what new students of Epicurus should know is that the academic interpretation of pleasure I just stated does not stand unchallenged.
The leading modern exponent of a very different view of Epicurean pleasure, and the meaning of Authorized Doctrines three and four, was Norman DeWitt, author of “Epicurus and His Philosophy.” The essence of DeWitt’s argument is PD3 and PD4 are best interpreted as directed at the philosophic context of Epicurus’ day. DeWitt collects the evidence, much of it from Aristotle’s “Nichomachean Ethics,” that Epicurus faced a challenge much more difficult than the question of “how” to follow pleasure. DeWitt points out that with few exceptions (Eudoxus being a notable one), the major Greek philosophers before Epicurus had argued not only that Pleasure “was not” the guide of life, but that Pleasure “COULD NOT” be the guide of life. Those arguments are too complex to relate here in full, but they are discussed in detail by Dewitt in the latest addition to our “Files” section (link below). The basic argument, however, was Plato’s assertion that it is impossible to live a life of “continuous” pleasure. In other words, because we frequently seem to find pleasure in life absent, we cannot look to pleasure for guidance all the time. This and similar arguments, if true, would blow out of the water any contention that Pleasure could be the guide of life, thus leading us back to the need for “virtue.”
Before returning to DeWitt, compare the abbreviations contained in the “Four Part Cure” to the actual wording of PD3 and PD4. I think you will see immediately that the abbreviation is very different and less precise than the wording of full doctrine. The most likely explanation for this, according to the DeWitt view, is that the reason PD3 states that the “limit” (completeness? fullness?) of pleasure occurs when all pain is absent is that this was Epicurus’ response to Plato’s allegation that pleasure could not be continuous. In this view, PD3 and PD4 are elemental theoretical statements that a life of “continous pleasure” is possible, and achievable. Epicurus accomplishes this by pointing out that life in the absence of pain is pleasurable in itself, and that pain in life is generally short and endurable. This means that these doctrines are a PHILOSOPHICAL PROOF that Plato was wrong, and that a life of great pleasure can be continuous and complete in a variety of circumstances. These doctrines are not, and were never intended to be, an argument that we should all live the most simple life possible. They are not, and should not be considered to be, arguments that modern Syrians are confused when they find the good to be quite hard to get, and the terrible quite difficult to endure.
Why is this issue important? Because much of the prevailing Epicurean literature, outside of Norman DeWitt, makes it sound as if Epicurus condemned all “active pleasures” and that he thought we are poor Epicureans if we pursue anything but “static pleasures.” This interpretation suffers from the failure that it is guaranteed to turn off any normal active happy and joyful person of youthful age (or youthful attitude), and — more importantly — if Norman DeWitt is right, then it is a highly regrettable misunderstanding of Epicurus’ true view that both active and static pleasures are desirable, and that our decision to choose or avoid them is determined solely by the question of whether the particular pleasure is achievable without excessive pain.
Just as with “determinism,” you will see the proper role of “active pleasures” and “static pleasures” regularly discussed in Epicurean circles. I submit to you that you will avoid confusion if you keep in mind two clear statements from the ancient Epicurean record: (1) Diogenes Laetius (Epicurus’ biographer) recorded that “[Epicurus] differs from the Cyrenaics with regard to pleasure. They do not include under the term the pleasure which is a state of rest, but only that which consists in motion. Epicurus admits BOTH; [emphasis added] also pleasure of mind as well as of body, as he states in his work On Choice and Avoidance and in that On the Ethical End, and in the first book of his work On Human Life and in the epistle to his philosopher friends in Mytilene.” (2) Vatican Saying 63: “There is also a limit in simple living, and he who fails to understand this falls into an error as great as that of the man who gives way to extravagance.”
I hope you see the significance of issues such as determinism, free will, and Epicurus’ view of the nature of pleasure, and how they impact our decisions on how to live. If you have questions, please ask! We won’t resolve anything with finality, but we can certainly make the issues more clear for you, and I submit that clear and independent thinking on them will benefit you regardless of your conclusions.
Before turning to the rest of the news, note the following links where the above issues were discussed this week:
*Excerpts from Norman DeWitt on PD3 and PD4 and the nature of pleasure – https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/permalink/743679825680980/
*Hiram’s post on “The Problem of Desire” https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/permalink/743212929061003/
*Hiram’s post “Let’s talk about your hedonism” https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/permalink/743236002392029/
***In other news this week:
**The leader of the Athenian Garden of Epicurus forwarded me a fascinating link on radio-telescope views of formation of a planetary system, with reference to Epicurus’ own description: https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/permalink/743191422396487/
**Mitja M. asked for help with a school project https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/permalink/742390939143202/
**Hiram posted on the “Epicurus and Job” article in Philosophy Today https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/permalink/742793972436232/
**Elli posted on “The Tea of Olympus” https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10204697607583140&set=gm.743329672382662&type=1 (and in case any new reader thinks that this is a female writing about food rather than sticking to topic, I dare you to ask her about Nietzsche’s views on Epicurus, or Liantinis’ views on Stoicism, or ask her to say something good about Plato!
**Also going on this week is a great spurt of “likes” over at the Society of Friends of Epicurus page. Check it out if you have not: https://www.facebook.com/SocietyOfFriendsOfEpicurus.
**Manzoor B. posted about dealing with the tragedies of life: https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/permalink/741362955912667/
**Alexander R linked to an article about how the mind adds opinion to what the senses report. https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/permalink/743344315714531/
**Yiannis T. posted to an interesting article about a book by Daniel Dennett on how to argue intelligently and charitably. https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/permalink/742143709167925/
**If anyone is confused about how much talent we have in the group, be sure to check out the post in which one of our participants recites a portion of Lucretius in a restored version of ancient spoken Latin. And check out some of the comments, which are amazingly advanced. https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=348120915367723
**Lopunis R. posted to a link about Thoreau which served as an occasion to talk about ways he is similar and also differs from Epicurus. https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/permalink/743790412336588/
**An inquiry from Soufian M. about Socrates prompted some interesting replies. https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/permalink/743512845697678/
**OK that’s an update on the new posts for this week! Feel free to post any comments in this thread. I apologize if I missed anyone or anything. As always, if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, please add a comment or participate in the Epicurean Philosophy Facebook Group https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/ or hop around the internet world of Epicurean Philosophy by checking the links here: EpicurusCentral.wordpress.com
PEACE AND SAFETY!