Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Critique of the Tetrapharmakos

For those of you who are unaware, Epicurus’ Tetrapharmakos (which to my knowledge was actually written by an Epicurean poet, not the man himself, but reflects the humanist aspects of his philosophy quite well) is listed below:
Don't fear god,
Don't worry about death;
What is good is easy to get, and
What is terrible is easy to endure.
Epicureanism has been a great source of inspiration and solace for me over the years.  I like to think that Epicurus helped me graduate high school even, considering I was in an apathetic stupor and researching his ideas gave me the motivation to finish the crap I had to to get my diploma.  And although I loosely consider myself “Epicurean” I do find several faults with his otherwise very practical and sensible philosophy of how to live.  This will not be an examination of every fault I see in it, but rather an examination of the Tetrapharmakos and whether or not the “optimism” let’s call it of Epicurus is advisable and sound.
Quickly I’d like to say that the first three seem reasonable to me.  We shouldn’t fear punishment from supernatural beings, this gives us unnecessary pain and fear.  We shouldn’t worry about death, only pain is bad, and when we’re dead we won’t exist so we won’t be in pain.  Once again, very rational.  What is good is easy to get is slightly more conditional and open to critique but in my view still true overall.  Yes, there are millions of people who are starving and live in squalor, and they don’t have what’s good and necessary for a good life.  But with the correct political and social change this can be alleviated.  This is a problem that will likely exist as long as human beings are condemned to existence, but for most of the first world the main message of the third stanza rings true.  The bare necessities of life are easy to attain and much unhappiness is created by wanting what we shouldn’t have or don’t need – a point that Epicurus, the Cynics, the Stoics and many other ancient philosophers would see clearly. 
The problem with the fourth stanza however is not political or social, that is to say, it is not a circumstantial problem that could be easily solved with the correct factors.  It is a statement about human existence that is simply untrue and shows an area where Schopenhauer seems more knowledgeable than our friend Epicurus.  To clarify, what Epicurus is saying is that the most intense agonies don’t last long, persisting pain is mild, and if life does become unbearable we can choose to commit suicide to end our pain.  If memory serves Epicurus also says that pain is a rare occurrence in life, though I currently lack the citation for this.  These claims are truly wrong.  Not based on social happenstance, but based on the very functioning of the human body.  Intense physical pain can and does occur throughout the world; and psychological pain in mild forms occurs daily in almost everyone on this planet.  People are often unhappy.  And though this in-part can be remedied through proper state of mind, lowering expectations and not wanting what isn’t of intrinsic value anyway, ultimately to be human will always be to suffer needlessly and at some point in time greatly. 
Epicurus’ thought seems, though not explicitly Anti-Natal, to be very open to Anti-Natalist thinking.  The best thing in life for Epicurus is to not be in pain (he claims that pleasure is the highest or only intrinsic good, but his understanding of the highest pleasure is that it is merely the complete absence of pain); if we were never born, we never could have been in pain.  Therefore, it is better never to have been, to have been spared the great pains of biological and human existence.  Epicurus himself was celibate and did not wish to marry though he did not enforce this way of living on his followers.
I already wrote some notes I had when I read some fragments of Epicurus.  But I’m driven back to this man and his philosophy, in-part because in my departure from Virtue Ethics I’ve come to appreciate him all the more.  Asides from perhaps the Ancient Skeptics (who deal with claims of metaphysics and epistemology, which are of lesser importance than ethics) I consider him to be the wisest of all the Ancient Greek philosophers; perhaps of all the Ancient philosophers period.
I’m constantly bogged down reading things I don’t want to now.  But hopefully I will be able to explore the philosophers who I have come to find the greatest kinship with which is Epicurus, the Cynics, the Skeptics, Buddhists, Hume, Schopenhauer, Mill, and Bakunin.

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