Tag Archives: Ethics

Out of the mainstream

Epicurus received some sort of conventional education and so was in a position to comment on its strengths and weaknesses. We are told that as a schoolboy he was upset with his teachers because they could not explain a passage about Chaos in the poet Hesiod (see Theogony 116, 123), and this prompted him to turn to philosophy for answers. For this anecdote Diogenes Laertius cites the philosopher Apollodorus, a head of the Epicurean school in the second century BC, presumably a credible source.

According to Hesiod, ‘first there was Chaos’ (116). Next came Earth, Tartarus (the underworld) and Eros. ‘From Chaos came Erebus and black Night’ (123). Night united with Erebus (nether darkness) to produce Aether (the upper atmosphere) and Day. Earth of herself produced Heaven and Pontus (sea), and then united with Heaven to produce Ocean and a number of other deities, including Cronus, who was hostile to his father Heaven. Thus Hesiod uses myth and genealogy to explain the origins of the world – an unsatisfactory procedure from a scientific point of view, though informative for traditional attitudes and beliefs.

The use of Hesiod in early education, and popular familiarity with his poetry, are illustrated by a passage in a speech of the Athenian orator Aeschines delivered in 330 BC (Against Ctesiphon 135). In making a point against his opponent Demosthenes, Aeschines quotes seven lines from Hesiod’s Works and Days (240-244, 246-247), and says this is why we memorize the sentiments of the poets when we are children – so that we can make use of them when we are men. He also quotes the first two of these lines in another speech (On the Embassy 158).

For Epicurus, this culturally conditioned approach to education was not only inadequate but misleading. It was necessary to strike out in a new direction if people were to understand the universe on a scientific basis and adjust their lives successfully to the demands of reality. The old ideas did not provide a reliable guide for understanding the world or for understanding how to live a happy life.

In Epicurus’ view the habits and values of politics were similarly misguided and misleading. In fact, according to Vatican Saying 58, conventional education and politics together form a ‘prison’ from which people have to escape in order to live happy and successful lives.

Thoughts for the Day, September 13: ‘We must release ourselves from the prison of conventional education and political activity.’ (Vatican Sayings 58.)

Getting rid of bad habits

In the dialogue Minos, which has been attributed to Plato, Socrates refers to the importance of learning how to distinguish between good and wicked men (διαγιγνώσκειν χρηστοὺς καὶ πονηροὺς ἄνδρας, Minos 319a). In Aristophanes’ play The Acharnians, the chorus complain of the indignity that those who pursued the enemy at the battle of Marathon are now in old age pursued in the law courts by young speakers (‘wicked men’, ἀνδρῶν πονηρῶν) practised in rhetoric (698-700).

Epicurus uses similar vocabulary in Vatican Saying 46 (quoted below), but here the term ‘wicked men’ is applied figuratively to bad habits that distort the individual’s outlook and behaviour. Perhaps we can say that for Epicurus the wicked opponents of our moral situation are to a significant extent internalized: we are a problem to ourselves, in so far as we have within us habits of thought and conduct that need to be driven out like wicked men.

The opportunity to improve, and hence to progress towards greater happiness, is available to us if we are prepared to examine ourselves and distinguish between habits worth developing and habits that must be completely eradicated.

Thoughts for the Day, September 6: ‘Let us completely chase away bad habits as if they were wicked men who have done great harm for a long time’ (Vatican Sayings 46).

Investigating nature improves the investigator

Epicureanism encourages scientific investigation – the investigation of nature – because we need a clear understanding of the universe and our place in it in order to form a soundly based system of ethics. Without an adequately worked out ethical system we could not be sure how to put our needs and desires in proper perspective.

Epicurus argues that understanding the world and life shows us the centrality of pleasure in the behaviour of living things. This gives us a guide to regulating human behaviour. If pleasure (carefully defined) is the guiding principle in the life of evolved organisms (the ‘goal of nature’), the principle which explains the way to well-being and happiness, then we need to consider the best way to live pleasantly in the light of our knowledge of how the universe is constructed and how we are constructed.

This gives philosophy a therapeutic value, and indeed makes the therapeutic value of philosophy its chief purpose. Philosophy is not simply an intellectual exercise or an opportunity for point-scoring. Nor is it a field for endlessly asking questions without answering them. It has a definite practical purpose. The investigator is obliged to approach the subject in an honest and critical way and work towards clear, honest and effective answers.

This approach affects one’s view of the purpose of discovery and debate, and of the role of knowledge and education. It is vital for the well-being of individuals and of the wider community to have a clear understanding of nature and of the implications for human conduct. Fine talk, showing off, impressive rhetoric, an educational curriculum that fails to provide necessary insights into the universe, life and human behaviour – these are not the way to promote well-being and happiness.

Genuine scientific enquiry, philosophically pursued by the individual researcher, inevitably leads to a deepening appreciation of the place of humanity in the scheme of things. In Epicurean terms, understanding nature throws light on the wealth that nature provides and the options and natural limits which ought to guide our decision-making and actions, whatever the circumstances of our life may be.

Thoughts for the Day, September 5: ‘The investigation of nature does not produce people who are skilled in grandiose talk or bragging or who display the sort of education greatly prized by the majority, but people who are self-confident and self-sufficient and who focus on their personal well-being, not on how good their circumstances are’ (Vatican Sayings 45).

The need for sound reasoning

In the ancient Greek philosophical tradition, the practice arose of dividing philosophy into three mains areas: physics (the construction of the universe), ethics (principles of behaviour) and logic (methods of understanding). If we were to reduce our description of the system of Epicurus to an absolute minimum of detail in these three areas, what would be the core features around which the rest of his system of philosophy would revolve?

In physics, the atomist theory of matter is central. For ethics and logic, Principal Doctrine 22 indicates (I believe) the key details: for ethics, the concept of a τέλος (telos), the end or goal to which lives should be directed; and for logic, the importance of ἐνάργεια (enargeia), clear perception to control our understanding of the world around us.

Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus refers to the ‘goal of nature’ (133), which evidently means the goal of living as determined by nature, of which human beings form a part. The ‘goal of nature’ is also referred to in Principal Doctrine 25. The Letter to Menoeceus further speaks of the goal of pleasure (131), and treats ‘bodily health and tranquillity of soul’ as ‘the goal of living a happy life.’ (128). Living pleasantly is an essential goal because it is part of the natural order of things.

In our interactions with the natural world we encounter a number of complexities of interpretation which cause us to form judgments in stages on the basis of different types of evidence. We form preliminary opinions in response to initial impressions of the world around, but the accuracy of these opinions must be tested by more careful consideration of available evidence. Here (as I understand it) we need the clear and distinct perceptions which Principal Doctrine 22 urges us to consider. As Diogenes Laertius explains the matter (Lives 10.34), an opinion can be true or false and must await confirmation by reference to more definite testimony. He gives the example of seeing a tower from a distance: its actual configuration requires closer inspection.

It is up to us as to whether we are prepared to conform our lives to the goal of nature and adjust our opinions in the light of evidence. Failure to observe the requirements will inevitably involve confusion (ἀκρισία) and disturbance (ταραχή). Sound reasoning is required to ensure that our choices in matters of ethics and logic combine with our knowledge of physics to form a successful philosophy of life.

Thoughts for the Day, July 15: ‘It is necessary to take into account the essential goal (of living) and each clear perception (of reality) to which we refer our opinions; otherwise, everything will be full of confusion and disturbance’ (Principal Doctrines 22).

The best type of security

Whereas Principal Doctrines 11-13 deal with the need to settle our minds about nature as a whole, Principal Doctrine 14 focuses on the need to address sources of insecurity in our circumstances and way of life. First of all we need basic levels of protection and resources to conduct our lives with a sufficient degree of freedom and independence. Then we need to concentrate on how we go about living life.

Epicurus sees quietness as a feature of a well-lived life. This points to the need to cultivate inner peace and a peaceful way of life, both of which are necessary if we are to have the opportunity to think deeply about the questions that affect us and others most – the beliefs and values that to a large extent determine the sorts of lives we are able to lead.

If we are able to concentrate on working through issues that disturb our peace of mind and spoil our manner of life, and if we are able to avoid becoming entangled in misguided attitudes to life in the world around, then we are well on the way to achieving the best type of security – a security that comes from our approach to life, not just from our circumstances.

Thoughts for the Day, July 8: ‘Once we have attained a certain amount of security against other people, our strongest support and finest resource is the security that comes from living quietly and not going along with the crowd’ (Principal Doctrines 14).

9/7/12. Textual notes: I take δυνάμει τε ἐξερειστικὴ καὶ εὐπορία εἰλικρινεστάτη together as meaning ‘the most supportive in strength and the finest resource’. I follow τε of the manuscripts, not Usener’s emendation τινὶ. As far as I can see the emendation ἐξοριστικῇ (‘defensive’) for ἐξερειστικὴ (‘supportive’), noted by Hicks, is unnecessary and unconvincing. The former is followed by Inwood and Gerson, The Epicurus Reader (1994), p. 33. Perhaps ἐξερειστικὴ could have some connotation of ‘defensive’, if it includes the idea of ‘buttressing’.

The good, the bad and the reckless

All pleasures are good – Epicurus says as much in Principal Doctrine 8. So why can’t we have as much pleasure as we like? The Epicurean response is that there are natural limits, and to go beyond those limits is to court unhappiness and disaster.*

A living organism naturally likes what is pleasant and dislikes what is unpleasant and painful. This recognition of the natural order of things gives a starting-point for the Epicurean theory of ethics, with pleasure acknowledged as the main goal in life. But how do we reach that goal in the best possible way?

Whereas Principal Doctrine 8 says that pleasure is good, Principal Doctrine 10 says that pain is bad. In a sense, as living organisms we already know this: what is favourable to our well-being is good for us, what is inimical to our well-being is bad for us. This is re-stating the basis for the theory of ethics. Ethics concerns behaviour, and behaviour involves choice: on top of the basis in nature we can build a theory of how we ought to behave and what choices we ought to make.

Again we are guided by nature, which sets limits. For example, we can eat until we are satisfied or we can eat until we feel that we have had too much. The pleasure in eating and satisfying our hunger is good; the pain in over-eating is bad. This principle of a natural limit can be applied widely, and gives us a key criterion for making choices.

Pleasure calls for constant decision-making to determine how things stand in relation to pleasure and how to achieve the best outcomes. The analytical and evaluative aspect requires practical wisdom. Personal and social dimensions involve friendship and justice. Principal Doctrine 5 weaves these themes together by saying that wisdom, goodness and justice are inseparable from pleasure, and pleasure from them.

Throughout these ethical challenges we are considering what it means to be human. Pleasure and pain affect us at the bodily level and at the level of thinking and feeling. In both respects we speak of well-being. In the latter respect especially we speak of happiness, which is impaired not only by circumstantial factors but by the way we think and feel about them. Tragically, we can impair our happiness by worrying about things that need cause us no concern – for example, the gods (they will not hurt us) and death (it is nothing). Fear is a part of our pain, and worrying about pain is a part of our fears. In fact, observation tells us that what is good and what is bad in life occur within natural limits: hence we need not worry as to whether we will have enough of the good things we desire, so long as we keep desires within appropriate limits; and we need not worry about suffering too much of the bad, as the bad also has natural limits.

In the light of these and related considerations, it is within our power as human beings to address challenges, to promote well-being and to increase happiness. Two of the most foolish things we can do are to feed our fears and to over-feed our desires – as reckless people do who think that living without limits will bring them happiness. Their focus on pleasure is understandable but their approach to pleasure is misguided. Pleasure is a part of nature, and nature sets limits. If they were on the right track as far as pleasure and happiness are concerned, we would have no reason to find fault with their ill-disciplined behaviour. But by misinterpreting pleasure they are giving themselves pain – and that is bad.

Thoughts for the Day, July 5: ‘If the things that give pleasure to reckless people rescued their minds from fears about celestial and terrestrial phenomena and death and painful suffering, and in addition taught them the natural limit of desires, we would never have reason to criticize them, because from every direction they would be filled up with pleasures, and from no direction would they be experiencing bodily pain or mental distress – which is in fact what ‘bad’ means’ (Principal Doctrines 10). Interpreting ἄσωτος as signifying careless in matters of money or morals or both, I translate the word here as ‘reckless’ with special reference to the moral aspect.

* 6/7/12. See also ‘Radical and conservative’ on the need for selectivity and ‘Condensed pleasure’ on the need for balance.

7/7/12. In the translation of Principal Doctrine 10, I have changed ‘astronomical phenomena’ to ‘celestial and terrestrial phenomena’; see ‘Our need to know’ for discussion of the term.

Radical and conservative

Epicurean ethics operates on the basis of a number of fundamental principles. Explanations are provided as to how these principles apply, and there are warnings about behaviours that are unnecessary or harmful, but the emphasis is on thinking through what is desirable rather than adhering to a fixed code of conduct. The individual is expected to philosophize – that is, to examine possibilities and options by means of sound philosophical method – and to make decisions accordingly.

Compared with conventional approaches to morality, this approach has the potential to be transformative. Certain accepted standards may be correct because they are informed by sound wisdom in the light of extensive experience; but all standards are regarded as accessible to scrutiny and evaluation. Whether a course of action is to be considered right or wrong depends on careful analysis of the factors involved.

The Epicurean approach leaves room for individual liberty without neglecting the need for restraint. The principles have a guiding and restraining effect, and the individual is warned of risks in going beyond limits that are part of the natural order of things. What these limits are is a key question, and awareness of the limits is essential for living ethically.

Principal Doctrine 8 illustrates the twin aspects of freedom and restraint. On the one hand, there is an exceptionally open attitude to pleasures as acceptable. ‘No pleasure is bad in itself.’ It is characteristic of a living organism to desire pleasures and to avoid pains, and so what is pleasant to an organism is consistent with its nature. On the other hand, pleasure itself is not a sufficient criterion for choosing or rejecting a certain course of action. It is not safe to choose something simply because it gives pleasure. We have to ask whether the choice of a particular pleasure will lead to adverse consequences, for ‘with some pleasures the things that give the pleasure also give troubles many times larger than the pleasures.’

How do we decide whether choosing a particular pleasure may have adverse consequences? We need understanding based on knowledge and experience – in other words, practical wisdom. The society in which we live can help to some extent, with its accumulated store of information and insight built up over many generations. Is that mushroom poisonous? Does that drug cause cognitive damage? Will this personal relationship cause more hurt than happiness? Accurate information and well-informed guidance can prevent many problems.

But not all advice is sound. A whole society can get things wrong, as demonstrated by the present environmental predicament. Community norms may help in relieving the strain of constant decision-making, but they may also lead to disaster. Even where established patterns of behaviour may seem innocuous, ethical responsibility requires us to be thoughtful and open to discovering a better way.

Decision-making based on Epicurean principles takes an independent line in the light of observation and analysis. By conventional standards the resulting choices may range from the breathtakingly radical to the curiously conservative.

Thoughts for the Day, July 3: ‘No pleasure is bad in itself, but with some pleasures the things that give the pleasure also give troubles many times larger than the pleasures’ (Principal Doctrines 8).

Epicurus and modern physics

An Epicurean philosophy of life approaches the question of how we should live by asking basic questions about the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The universe is a mysterious and perplexing place, and we are working with finite minds and limited knowledge. How are we to develop principles of understanding and behaviour that will enable us to live as successfully as possible? Epicurean philosophy focuses on the importance of rational enquiry for attaining reliable insights into ourselves and our world. Unnecessary assumptions, such as we find in traditional theologies, can safely be cast aside, and by honest and open enquiry we can progressively clarify our situation in the world and the opportunities and responsibilities which are open to us.

Flourishing in the late fourth and early third centuries BC (341-270), Epicurus could look back to the investigations and theorising of earlier philosophers. Especially impressive, in Epicurus’ view, was the idea (associated with the Presocratic philosophers Leucippus and Democritus) that the origins and development of things could be best explained on the assumption that matter is composed of continually moving atoms which combine and recombine to form everything in the universe. This means that the universe operates according to some fixed principles but not in such a fixed way as to make everything the outcome of rigid determinism. Consequently, also, we ourselves have a certain amount of freedom to make choices that will affect the extent to which we and others manage to live successful and happy lives.

The Epicurean system of thought offers many attractive insights for working out how we should live in relation to the natural world and to each other. But its credibility would be considerably weakened if the atomist theory of matter turned out to be seriously misleading. In fact, however, modern scientific discoveries have confirmed that the ancient atomists were on the right track in their theory of how the universe is constructed.

On his website The Information Philosopher, Harvard scientist Bob Doyle discusses Epicurus with special reference to issues of determinism and free will:

One generation after Aristotle, Epicurus argued that as atoms moved through the void, there were occasions when they would “swerve” from their otherwise determined paths, thus initiating new causal chains… He wanted to break the causal chain of physical determinism and deny claims that the future is logically necessary.

Modern physics provides evidence which confirms the ancient proposal that atoms move in unpredictable ways even though this random movement is not so apparent in larger objects composed of atoms:

… we now know that atoms do not occasionally swerve, they always move unpredictably whenever they are in close contact with other atoms. Everything in the material universe is made of atoms in unstoppable perpetual motion. “Deterministic” paths are only the case for very large objects, where the statistical laws of atomic physics average to become nearly certain dynamical laws…

Thus both the atomist theory and Epicurus’ adaptation of it find confirmation in modern discoveries:

So Epicurus’ intuition of a fundamental randomness was correct. Just as Democritus’ intuition of atoms in a void was confirmed by modern physics, so Epicurus’ swerve (the “clinamen”) has been confirmed by quantum physics.

Bob Doyle, ‘Epicurus’, The Information Philosopher.