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Epicurus and Ayn Rand

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I have gathered over the years that some others who post here share an interest in Roman and Greek history that goes beyond the respect that Ayn Rand paid to Aristotle. Lately I have been doing some reading on Epicurus and thought I would post a couple of items I found interesting. I now see that my own past notions about the teachings of Epicurus were wrong, and that I had been influenced by the mainstream distortion that Epicurus stood for nothing more than "eat drink and be merry..." I thought others might enjoy the following references and have comments that would further my own study.

It is my understanding that because the early Christians showed their usual competency at suppressing dissenting ideas by burning Epicurus’ books, most of his original work has been lost. There is some hope, however, that scrolls of some of those lost works may still be found at the excavation of the library in Herculaneum, and more fragments of the Epicurean “wall inscription” will be found at the site of ancient Oinoanda in Turkey.

Before posting this I did a search of previous references to Lucretius and Epicurus on this board, and saw the several references to the phrase “death is nothing to us.” Taken in context, it seems clear that this phrase was not meant to deprecate the joy and importance of life, and it should not be off-putting to a fan of Ayn Rand. Rather, the phrase was intended squarely to meet the claims of mystical religions that man will suffer eternal punishment in an afterlife for sins on earth. It was for that reason – to show that consciousness stops at death and no eternal punishments are forthcoming - that the phrase was considered important by the Epicureans. As Lucretius said in what may be the definitive surviving statement of Epicureanism, his poem On The Nature of Things:

You will yourself some day or other seek to fall away from us, overborne by the terrific utterances of priests. Yes, indeed, for how many dreams can they even now invent for you, enough to upset the principles of life and to confound all your fortunes with fear! And with reason; for if men saw that a limit has been set to tribulation, they would have strength to defy the superstititions and threatenings of the priests. But, as it is, there is no way of resistance and no power, because everlasting punishment is to be feared after death. …. This terror of mind therefore and this gloom must be dispelled, not by the sun’s rays or the bright shafts of day, but by the aspect and law of nature. (Book I, De Rerum Natura, Smith translation)

Lucretius’ poem is very impressive, with many parts of its scientific descriptions surprisingly modern, such as his description of the infinite universe, other worlds besides ours, formation of matter from atoms, and natural explanation for life on earth. Based on the general observation that (1) nothing comes from nothing and (2) nothing goes to nothing, he advocates of study of universe based purely on reason and observation. But his philosophical attacks on mysticism are particularly good, such as this section (I note that the translator’s use of the word “idiotic” is probably a poor choice of words, and that Lucretius meant it is OK to be wrong so long as you as it stems from an error of knowledge rather than from abandoning reason):

"And if your reasoning faculties can find no explanation why a thing looks square when seen close up, and round when farther off, even so it might be better for a man who lacks the power of reason to give out some idiotic theory than to drop hold of all basic principles, break down every foundation, and tear apart the frame that holds our lives, or welfare. All is lost, not only reason, but our very life, unless we have the courage and the nerve to trust the senses and to avoid those sheer downfalls into the pits of nonsense."

If a building were planned by someone with a crooked ruler or an inaccurate square, or a spirit-level a little out of true, the edifice, in consequence, would be a frightful mess -- warped, wobbly, wish-wash, weak, and wavering -- waiting for complete collapse. So let your rule of reason never be distorted by errors of sense, lest your logic prove a road to ruin." (Book IV, De Rerum Natura, Humphries translation) [emphasis added]

There is an interesting in-depth article entitled “Epicurus and Rand” written apparently in 1990 or thereabouts by Ray Shelton and available for free at http://www.objectivity-archive.com/volume2_number3.html#1 (Note: I have no information about the credibility of the author of the journal in which this was printed, but the article is well-sourced and stands on its own.) This article as best I can determine is the most detailed treatment anywhere of parallels between the ideas of Ayn Rand and those of Epicurus. A followup article is posted here: http://folk.uio.no/thomas/po/parallel-metaethics.html.

Another interesting web site is http://www.epicurus.info, which posts the letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Short with Jefferson’s statement:

“I too am an Epicurian. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.”

To me, it appears that Jefferson was making an argument similar and expanding on the point Lucretius made in the excerpt above when he wrote:

"We certainly are not to deny whatever we cannot account for. A thousand phenomena present themselves daily which we cannot explain; but where facts are suggested bearing no analogy with the laws of nature as yet known to us, their verity needs proofs proportioned to their difficulty. A cautious mind will weigh well the opposition of the phenomenon to everything hitherto observed, the strength of the testimony by which it is supported, and the errors and misconceptions to which even our senses are liable."
--Thomas
. ME 11:441 [emphasis added]

There is also this article entitled “The Epicurean Roots of Some Classical Liberal and Misean Concepts” available here: http://www.quebecoislibre.org/05/050415-14.htm which focuses on Ludwig von Mises’ affection for Epicurus, with this statement from Human Action:

“The historical role of the theory of the division of labor as elaborated by British political economy from Hume to Ricardo consisted in the complete demolition of all metaphysical doctrines concerning the origin and the operation of social cooperation. It consummated the spiritual, moral and intellectual emancipation of mankind inaugurated by the philosophy of Epicureanism.

The two best websites on Epicurus appear to be http://www.epicurus.info/ and http://www.epicurus.net/

For anyone who decides to dive into Lucretius’ poem, I highly recommend the Audible.com reading by narrator Charlton Griffin of the Humphries translation.

As a closing thought I should mention that of course any parallels between the ideas of Ayn Rand and those of Epicurus takes nothing away from Ayn Rand. Rather than being concerned that any of Rand's ideas derive from Epicurus, the great benefit of knowing about those who had similar ideas in the past is to learn from their example. Based on my initial reading, it appears a case could be made that, through 100 AD at least, significant sections of the educated classes of the Roman world were well on their way toward developing a non-Platonic reason-based philosophy of life on earth, and they were making significant progress against the superstitions of the prior periods. (For the reaction in Athens by the Epicureans to Paul, see Acts 17:18 “Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoics, encountered him. And some said, ‘What will this babbler say?’”)

It is sad that they failed, but learning more about the Epicureans' history and the suppression of their work by the establishment church may well be of interest as we promote the work of Ayn Rand. Preserving their memory also in a small way vindicates the mission they undertook for themselves to fight superstition and error. In studying Epicurus I found this from Seneca, who often quoted Epicurus, and was here writing about the need to spread correct philosophy rather than play games with words:

Would you really know what philosophy offers to humanity? Philosophy offers counsel. Death calls away one man, and poverty chafes another; a third is worried either by his neighbor's wealth or by his own. So-and-so is afraid of bad luck; another desires to get away from his own good fortune. Some are ill-treated by men, others by the gods. Why, then, do you frame for me such games as these? It is no occasion for jest; you are retained as counsel for unhappy men, sick and the needy, and those whose heads are under the poised axe. Whither are you straying? What are you doing?

This friend, in whose company you are jesting, is in fear. Help him, and take the noose from about his neck. Men are stretching out imploring hands to you on all sides; lives ruined and in danger of ruin are begging for some assistance; men's hopes, men's resources, depend upon you. They ask that you deliver them from all their restlessness, that you reveal to them, scattered and wandering as they are, the clear light of truth. Tell them what nature has made necessary, and what superfluous; tell them how simple are the laws that she has laid down, how pleasant and unimpeded life is for those who follow these laws, but how bitter and perplexed it is for those who have put their trust in opinion rather than in nature.

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Here is one more particularly apt quote from Lucretius I meant to include (De Rerum Natura Book IV, line 449). Ayn Rand fans should find the argument familiar:

Moreover, if someone thinks that he knows nothing, he also does not know whether this can be known, since he admits that he knows nothing. So I shall not bother to argue with him, since he is standing on his head already.

But nevertheless, conceding that he does know this, I would also ask the following question: since he has never before seen anything true in the world, how does he know what it is to know and what it is not to know? What could have created the conceptions of truth and falsity, and what could have proven that the doubtful is distinct from what is certain?

You will discover that the conception of truth was originally created by the senses, and that the senses cannot be refuted. For one must find something with greater authority which could all on its own refute what is false by means of what is true.

But what should be given greater authority than the senses? Will reason which derives from a false sense perception be able to contradict them, when it is completely derived from the senses? And if they are not true, all of reason becomes false as well. Will the ears be able to criticize the eyes, or the eyes the touch? Furthermore, will the taste organs of the mouth quarrel with the touch, or will the nose confute it, or the eyes disprove it?

In my view, this is not so. For each sense has been allotted its own separate jurisdiction, its own distinct power. And so it is necessary that we separately perceive what is soft and cold or hot and separately perceive the various colours and see the features which accompany colour. Similarly the mouth's taste is separate, and odours come to be separately, and sounds too are separate. And so it is necessary that one set of senses not be able to refute another. Nor, moreover, will they be able to criticize themselves, since they will at all times have to command equal confidence.

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Thank you very much for posting this in-depth set of references for Epicurus. Posts such as yours add greatly to the value of this FORUM. I will certainly be adding some of these to my reading list.

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