Epicurean Ethics in a World Without Magic

A Personal Credo, Part I


For the Greek philosopher Epicurus, the goal of life was ataraxia, best defined as tranquility or the absence of anxiety.

August 28, 2012 | Michael Lind

T. S. Eliot described himself as "classicist in literature, monarchist in politics and Anglo-Catholic in religion." Daniel Bell said that he was a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics and a conservative in culture. For what it is worth, I would describe myself as an Epicurean in ethics, a Lockean in politics, and a Listian in economics.

One can be an ethical naturalist in the tradition of Epicurus without being a republican liberal in the tradition of John Locke or an economic nationalist in the tradition of Friedrich List. But the traditions are compatible and I see them as forming a hierarchy. Listian economic nationalism helps to realize the political objectives of Lockean republican liberalism, which in turn secures the conditions in which individuals can more easily achieve the Epicurean objective of ataraxia, or freedom from anxiety.

Readers need not fear that in this space I will be regularly quoting the ancient Greek sage, the early modern British philosopher or the nineteenth century German political economist. But as I will explain the next few posts, the traditions these thinkers represent make up the context for much of what I think and write and say.

Epicureanism:  Ethics in a World Without Magic

In the mythology of the Star Trek series, the philosophy of the inhabitants of the planet Vulcan, with its emphasis on logic, was founded by an ancient Vulcan sage named Surak. I have often thought that Epicurus (341 BC – 270 BC), who spent most of his maturity teaching in Athens in the generation after Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, was the Surak of the planet Earth. Epicurus is less well known than the Socratics, the Buddha and the founders of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Unlike all of them, he was right.

From the earlier school of Democritus, Epicurus inherited his cosmology, which, apart from details, is essentially that of modern science. Matter is made up of combinations of atoms; there are countless planets and stars other than our own; living things evolved from non-living matter; primitive humans developed tool use and civilization over a prolonged period of time.

The significance of Epicurus was that he figured out an appropriate ethical system to correspond with Democritean atomism. The use of the term "Epicurean" to refer to voluptuaries and gourmets is a legacy of anti-Epicurean propaganda. In fact Epicureanism is a moderately ascetic philosophy, rather like Buddhism or Taoism. For Epicurus the goal of life was ataraxia, which is better defined as tranquility or the absence of anxiety than "happiness" in the sense of intense pleasure.

Epicurus distinguished three kinds of desires:  natural and necessary (desires for food and water), natural and unnecessary (including sexual desire, of which Epicurus wrote that it "never did anyone any good, and that one ought to consider himself fortunate, if it didn't do him any harm"), and unnatural and unnecessary (insatiable desires for power, wealth and fame). To put it another way, Epicurus identified true goods with absolute goods like basic health and false goods with positional "trophy" goods based on social status and interpersonal comparisons. Like Chinese Taoists, Epicureans might participate in commerce and public life but the ideal was a tranquil retreat like the famous garden in which Epicurus taught.

Unlike Aristotle and Plato, Epicurus did not believe that happiness was reserved for the superior few. The only Greek philosopher who admitted slaves and women to his school, Epicurus was a radical democrat in ethics. The good had to be accessible to the poor, powerless and uneducated majority of humankind. It followed that the genuine good took the form of minimal nutrition and simple pleasures, of which the most important was friendship. Epicurus and his followers had nothing against wealth, as long as the rich shared their wealth and could live cheerfully in poverty, if necessary. And unlike the Stoics, they thought that participation in politics should be avoided, if possible.

The greatest obstacle to tranquility of mind, according to Epicurus, was anxiety, including anxiety about offending imaginary gods. For the disease of anxiety, Epicurus prescribed his tetrapharmakos or "four-fold cure," which in one translation is as follows:

Don’t fear the gods;

Don’t fear death;

What is good is easy to get;

What is terrible is easy to endure.

"Don’t fear the gods." Don’t waste your life worrying about the wrath of Athena or Yahweh or other divinities. They are as imaginary as Santa Claus or Darth Vader.

"Don’t fear death." Humans like other organisms have finite lifespans, and feel nothing bad or good after they dissolve into their constituent atoms.

"What is good is easy to get." A healthy human animal has minimal nutritional and exercise needs which in all but extreme circumstances are easy to satisfy.

"What is terrible is easy to endure." By this Epicurus meant that prolonged pain tends to be limited, while intense pain generally does not last, if only because you die or pass out.  Epicurus composed cheerful farewell letters to his friends while dying from painful kidney disease.

The scientific study of nature, for Epicurus and his followers, is therapeutic, inasmuch as it replaces anxieties based on ignorance or disturbing supernatural fantasies with an understanding of the way that the cosmos really works. Much of the work of Epicureans would be considered science popularization today, including the Roman poet Lucretius’s long poem expounding atomist cosmology, De rerum Natura, "Of the Nature of Things." I for one find that when I am sick in bed nothing is more diverting than a good TV documentary on the moons of Jupiter or prehistoric life.

Needless to say, Epicureans should be as skeptical about contemporary eco-mysticism as they are about polytheism and monotheism. While aesthetics or collective self-interest might justify wilderness preservation, resource conservation, or mitigation of industry-induced global warming, no Epicurean would feel guilty about harvesting trees or digging up ores. Rearranging matter for their own benefit is what living things do.

A moral teacher rather than a revolutionary, Epicurus and his followers pragmatically obeyed local rulers and conformed outwardly to custom. Indeed, Epicurus cleverly avoided the charge of atheism, which had been fatal to Socrates, by explaining that gods might exist, but if they did, they must be perfect beings in distant parts of the universe who are too exalted to pay attention to mere humans.

Although Epicurus did not develop them, his materialist, science-based philosophy had radically democratic and liberal implications, which were developed by philosophers in later ages, including John Locke, as I will explain in my next post.

See Part II here.

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