Monday, March 24, 2014

Epicureanism: An introduction.

Epicurus, by Raphael 

"Nothing to fear from god,
Nothing to worry about in death.
Good is easy to obtain,
and evil easy to endure." 
- Philodemus. 
The life affirming philosophy of Epicurus should interest atheists and humanists. Epicureans believe the universe consists of bits of matter called atoms; that natural selection led to the diversity of life around us; that the most pleasant life was a pain free, tranquil life shared with friends and free from the fear of gods. This post follows my approach to the history of ideas by examining Epicureanism under three headings: theory, ethics and wisdom.

Epicureanism: The theory

A philosophical theory aims to gather knowledge of the natural world to determine how we should live and act. For Epicurus the essential feature of the cosmos is that it consists of the interaction of atoms and that is purposeless. Epicureans thought atoms the smallest indivisible elements of matter from which all compound bodies consist. Everything else is just attributes of bodies. Motion for example is an attribute of a body and time is a measurement of motion. That motion exists is considered self-evident; we see the proof around us. However for motion to be possible, there must exist a void, empty space for bodies and atoms to move into.

The Epicurean account of the cosmos is of an infinitely extending void with infinite atoms falling downward under their own weight (weight for Epicurus was simply the characteristic of atoms to fall downwards). Collisions would occur causing atoms to bond together to form bodies. Eventually enough atoms bonded to form the earth, animal life and other planets.  Our world is just one of an infinite number of possible world.

This makes Epicurus a materialist offering a naturalistic explanation of the cosmos. Of course, he was wrong - atoms are not invisible and do not 'fall' downwards. Materialism advances unlike theistic explanations of the natural world. Thankfully however Epicurean ethics and wisdom is mostly independent of this physical theory whose main purpose was to strip away superstitious accounts of creation.

Epicureanism: The Ethics

Greek philosophers sought to answer two main questions:  what is of value for it's own sake and how do we obtain it?  For Epicurus, only one's own pleasure has intrinsic value and everything else has value only as a means to one's own pleasure. This claim earned Epicureanism the contempt of later Christians who mocked the philosophy as undisciplined self-indulgence. The charge is however unwarranted for Epicurus taught living virtuously was essential for a pleasant life.

The chief virtues are prudence and moderation. Not all pleasure is good because some pleasure can lead to long term suffering, and not all pain is bad because some immediate pain is necessary for long term pleasure. Furthermore we are often fooled by society into desiring objects which do not bring pleasure. The path to true pleasure and happiness lie in reducing our desire for pointless objects, fulfilling our natural desires in moderation and living in security surrounded by friends.

Epicureanism: Wisdom

Wisdom is a lofty term for lifestyle advice which arises from a theoretical and ethical understanding of the world around us. Practical wisdom is necessary to understand our desires which fall into three categories: the natural and necessary, natural but not necessary, and the vain. Desire itself is a judgement that we lack something good. Pleasure arises from satisfying our natural desires and eliminating vain desires such as the desire for fame or for wealth as these desires cause long term suffering as they are without limit: a man desiring wealth can never be satisfied as there is always more wealth to accumulate.

A practical understanding of the natural world is also necessary to remove harmful fear of Gods and fear of death: when we live, death does not exist and when we die, we do not exist. So death cannot be harmful to us because there is no 'us' to harm.

Although he advised against political engagement, Epicurus developed a social contract theory of justice separate from the state which he viewed as hopelessly corrupt. Justice is merely a human invention created when groups of humans join together to form a community and agree to protect and not harm each other. Just and unjust are relative to the communities in which they formed.

So live modestly amid friends, gain knowledge and wisdom through philosophy, avoid politics and control your desires. Hardly the wanton indulgent philosophy Epicureanism is often protrayed as.
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