Sunday, August 30, 2015

A brief exploration of Epicurus

I recently finished a rather short compilation of the philosopher entitled The Essential Epicurus.  A serviceable edition if not a tad brisk; also, I don't care much for maxims and axiomatic writing, which is one reason why I don't consider Nietzsche a great writer unlike many; and prefer instead the writings of say the Cynic-Stoics or ol' Schop. But then again I haven't read much of the Stoics yet so I'll have to read the book I bought recently to compare the two.

I'll try to make this flow as naturally as I can, but it may be a bit choppy.  Here goes:

The first observation I made in this book is for an Empiricist he sure makes a lot of declarations that he has no evidence of.  Whether or not the Universe is finite or infinite and eternal or not being the main one's that come to mind.  However, when it comes to many things, such as cyclones and rainfall he merely makes intellectual speculation, which reading is interesting on more than one level and I certainly don't begrudge his inaccuracy - as long as he is merely speculating and not making claims with knowledge he doesn't have.  Intellectual curiosity, honesty and rigor are to be commended in all times, but especially in the time he lives in.  I particularly liked his idea that Earthquakes happen due-to wind trapped inside the Earth.

However, though his intellectual rigor is to be commended, inside of their respected sciences (e.g. meteorology, cosmology etc) his analyses have little to no value.  Here I largely concur with the Skeptics and Cynics, in that any claim of knowledge must follow from evidence and that particularly in this stage of human knowledge philosophy should be focused primarily on ethics.  It is true that no scientific knowledge is possible without first theorizing and a great deal of trial and error (perhaps centuries for much of it as a necessity; or that's simply how long it took for Newton, Einstein and others to be born.  Though a synthesis of the two factors seems most-likely) but ethics seems to supersede intricate knowledge of our reality.  For without ethics we wouldn't have the tools for dealing with each other and living well, which would allow far-more intelligent stable people who are sound of mind who may pursue scientific endeavors.  Also ethics gives science its proper utilitarian basis.  Though the notion of knowledge being a good and virtuous thing for its own sake holds sway psychologically for me.

Also, though there is no dispute empirical data and understanding of our world is one of the most invaluable things to Man, it wouldn't be quite as necessary in some ways if people practiced kindness, fairness and a general sense of concern to the other.  Knife wounds would not need to be treated with knowledge of infection if they were not to occur; and metallurgy to construct prisons and mad houses wouldn't be as necessary if all were given the proper material, psychological and social conditions for living a virtuous life, rather than condemned to poverty and damned a second time for theft - a natural consequence of poverty.

As a quick note, particularly claiming to be an Empiricist, I find it absurd he claims there is knowledge of the deities’ existences' (which ones?  Greek or some that we don't have the names of?  Then how do we know them?).  It seems almost that with his unreasonable optimism and with his general preachings that what he claims to be so falls in-line with his Negative Utilitarian preachings.  That is, if he deems it best, most soothing for people, he will pronounce this or that, and overall he may like Plato, believe in the "noble lie" which he pronounces to be true because of its supposed utility.  I am not claiming this is what Epicurus is doing, but this notion came 'cross my mind as I was reading, perhaps for his tone if not for his at-times wholly unwarranted optimism.  Here I find myself far-more with the Cynic-Stoic's attitude of "bearing existence" and if it is more trouble than it's worth suicide becomes reasonable. They seem to acknowledge that life for many people has many painful things about it, and is not merely "brief and curable" as Epicurus believes.  

Though there is great wisdom in "death is nothing to us" it seems he highly conflates its value and at times seems to believe that once this is accepted all other worldly troubles disappear, or there are very-little worldly troubles at-all, or very-little that Epicureans should deal with since he recommends removal of one's self from city life and politics.  I will aim at the last part momentarily, but first I'd like to say the obvious:  namely that a wretched and sorrowful life is still so (perhaps even perceptively more-so) even with the realization that this is the only life we have and death ends all suffering.  Epicurus rationalizes - as I've already said - much suffering as momentarily trifles or as something which can always be cured.  And though in principle this may be true, there for billions in the past, present and foreseeable future will suffer immensely from a lack of knowledge, resource(s), or lack of action of said knowledge to save their lives or better their condition (typically in the form of ending suffering).  It seems unlikely neither their spirits, nor their condition will improve from the knowledge that they have great agony from a curable illness.

Returning to the social point:  here he clearly lacks the philanthropy that the Cynics (and Stoics I believe) find a crucial element in their ethics.  One of the problems I've had with Epicureanism for some time is it seems focused on an individual living the good life, not how to make possible the good life for everyone.  We can't all just escape to our own Gardens and eat bread and water; also attempts at both materially and mentally improve our Brother's lot is of ethical importance.  

This brings me to Epicurus' notion of justice which seems at-times Libertarian in nature:  don't harm me and I won't harm you - with no notion of aiding others simply for the utilitarian benefit that takes the form of their lives improving.  Some early Christian philosophers (Augustine being the main one) claim that the Cynics were as they presented themselves for selfish reasons of drawing attention to themselves; and though there might be some truth to this overall I think they merely wish to display the "good life" as they see it and wittily attack vice where they encounter it.  In fact, Diogenes says he takes lesson from the tutor that, "sings a tad too sharp so the chorus will be right on key," or, lives in extreme asceticism to teach others to simply live and be happy with less and change their thinking.  Which seems a valid explanation, but this was meant to be on Epicurus on not on those unruly yet wise Greek dogs of antiquity.

Despite his lack of Internationalism or social camaraderie (though he does glorify friendship similarly to Aristotle) he does profess much of the wisdom of the Cynic-Stoics in being happy with very-little and not focusing on sensual but instead moral and cerebral pleasures - though I don't think he gives either quite their proper due.

I was going to show further flaws in his epistemology, but this seems unnecessary.  However, I do think I should quickly acknowledge that though there are similarity, some differences I noticed 'tween him and the Cynic-Stoics is while the C-Ss merely say one can bare poverty and it is nothing to be feared, Epicurus (in at-least one of his lines) goes the Mother Teresa route in saying that it is actually fortunate or a blessing to live in poverty - scientific data that shows it stunts brain development and causes a wide array of psychological and emotional problems seems unlikely to warmly concur with such a sentiment.  Also he seems more Anti-sex than the Cynic-Stoics.  While they I think acknowledge that it's associated with popularity/fame and therefore the Ego and with an obsession with sensual pleasures; I don't think they deny that, like technology, it can be a good in life if appreciated properly and not allowed to "corrupt" them.

I think he foolishly embraces free will and does so on utilitarian grounds (which is the main element along with his optimism and "polydeism" where he seems somewhat dishonest - at-least in a way; he may believe what he says, but says it only because he believes it's best for people) and on supposed indeterminacy which he is both lacking in knowledge to purport, and does not grant an organism "free will" in either the Augustinian nor the Humean sense of the word.  It seems largely to assign praise and blame and to give people the comforting illusions necessary to maintain the illusion of autonomy (which even we Hard Determinists have in our daily lives) and pride; which of course anyone with a proper viewing of human nature will find it brings far-more suffering (from rationalizing the state of things as a record of freely acting individuals) and lowly states of mind to people than compassion and humility.

In general, with what I just mentioned, and with the pro-poverty anti-sex stuff, Epicurus seems more along the lines of some forms of Christian thinking than I originally thought or would have anticipated.  Overall, I liked the reading, but thought it was a little stiff and well, "utilitarian" in its writing style.  I think it definitely is worth reading for early ponderings in natural science, and for an early, albeit short, treatise on utilitarian-esque philosophy.

In closing, I think it is very-functional but not to be sought after for reading material.  Epicurus is a philosopher who frankly does not offer a great deal of exploration of his ideas, and reading him (particularly for his ethics) does not leave one with a greater sense of understanding of his philosophy than when one read his Wikipedia and Stanford articles.  Or perhaps that's simply how I feel because I've known of Epicurus for years now.  Great for beginners, would not recommend for those who are already knowledgeable.

SIDE NOTE:  Also having just read Candide I just realized now that Voltaire had a kind-of Epicurean ending in having all the main characters (some of which still purport optimism like Epicurus, though it is of a different kind) tend to their garden and leaving the world in its state of immense suffering and disrepair.

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