Tag Archives: Science

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.)

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).

Better to be misunderstood than to dilute the message

The ancient Greek philosophical tradition made remarkable progress, largely lost to sight when church and state conspired to impose a doctrinaire view of the world. With the re-emergence of neglected texts and ideas in the post-medieval period, there were fresh opportunities to clarify long-standing intellectual challenges and to make further progress. However, such was the hold that institutionalized beliefs had over minds and customs that, whether through failure of insight or through fear of consequences, all too often understanding was accommodated to acceptability.

We see this in the work of Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), who did a great deal to revive interest in Epicurean philosophy, but with an admixture of ideas more congenial to church tradition. The result was, in his and other cases, that opportunities were missed to bring to bear the full force of an honest and open critique.

Gassendi’s Latin version with commentary of Book X of Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers was translated into English and expanded by Walter Charleton (1619-1707) in his Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charltoniana, or, A fabrick of science natural, upon the hypothesis of atoms (London, 1654). Charleton considered himself

… strictly obliged, to præfer the interest of Truth, infinitely above that of Opinion, how plausible and splendid soever, and by whomsoever conceived and asserted.

This was the necessary principle which had to survive, in the midst of eclecticism, harmonization, accommodation and reaction, to ensure that clear-eyed observation and sound reasoning could ultimately triumph.

Thoughts for the Day, August 21: ‘To be frank, in explaining nature I would rather deliver oracles about what is to everyone’s advantage, even if no one were to understand, than agree with popular opinions and enjoy receiving the constant praise of the majority’ (Vatican Sayings 29).

Walter Charleton, Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charltoniana, or, A fabrick of science natural, upon the hypothesis of atoms, founded by Epicurus, repaired [by] Petrus Gassendus, augmented [by] Walter Charleton, London, 1654, p. 382, quoted in Emily Booth, A Subtle and Mysterious Machine: The Medical World of Walter Charleton (1619-1707) (Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 18), Dordrecht, Springer, 2005, p. 15.