The Legacy of Epicurus


The Legacy of Epicurus
The most interesting aspect of your moral philosophy of happiness sans suffering is its familiarity. I detect an implied hedonism in many of your comments. I don’t sense that you would agree with the Cyrenaics, who sought personal pleasure above all, especially sensual pleasures. They believed no benefit could be gained from logic or mental cogitation. The only knowable reality in Cyrenaicism was empirically recognized via the five senses. The Roman emperors Tiberius and Caligula sought this reality to an extreme. Epicureans still sought pleasure, but they recognized that the uncontrolled pursuit of pleasure often led to a decrease in pleasure later in life. They made it their goal to pursue pleasure in moderation. They also recognized that pleasure could be attained by gaining knowledge, a form of pleasure that the Cyrenaics rejected.

As a teenager Epicurus read frequently the works of Democritus, a pre-Socratic philosopher and scientist who, along with Leucippus, constructed a theory of nature strikingly similar to that of early twentieth-century science. In the 3rd and 4th centuries BC, Democritus and Leucippus described nature as composed of atoms, the smallest indivisible unit of matter. They considered all of nature to be composed of either atoms or vacuous space. Since these fundamental components of nature existed eternally, no need existed to include a concept of God. Democritus was a strict materialist, whose philosophy, developed from his scientific theories, parallels the philosophical views of most scientists today. Democritus developed a very lofty set of rules for human behavior, urging moderation in all things along with the cultivation of culture as the surest way of achieving the most desirable goal of life, namely, cheerfulness.80 “Epicurus thought that he had liberated man from the fear of God and from the fear of death.”81 Since death merely represented the cessation of natural existence, and the atoms that comprised humans no longer functioned, no pain or suffering could exist after death. What you’re trying to accomplish today by putting an end to faith, Epicurus already attempted over 2300 years ago!

Of course, if Epicurus had wholly eradicated faith in his time, we would be living in a completely secular culture today. Obviously, faith lived on. Within Epicurus’ sphere of influence an atheistic moral philosophy freely developed. His moral emphasis “focused upon the individual and his immediate desires for bodily and mental pleasures instead of upon abstract principles of right conduct or consideration of God’s commands.”82 Individual happiness became the guiding principle of human morality. Epicurus recognized that we all have a clear sense of the difference between pain and pleasure, and that we view pleasure as by far the more desirable. Hence, Epicurus’ philosophy focused on the avoidance of pain and the accrual of pleasure. Unlike the Cyrenaics, Epicurus recognized that a lifetime of pleasure would not come from drunken revelry and the unconstrained satisfaction of lust. He opted for a more moderate stance that avoided overindulgence. Yet, ultimately, like the Cyreniacs, the Epicureans lived as hedonists with a moral philosophy of self-absorption. They avoided concern for the needs of the poor and societal troubles unless they happened to impinge upon their individual happiness in some way. “The only function of civil society that Epicurus would recognize was to deter those who might inflict pain upon individuals.”83 The comparison between your morality and Epicureanism may fail if you truly do have a concern for the welfare of others, even those unknown to you. However, it succeeds in that neither you nor Epicurus has any warrant or rational impetus for such concern.

The Legacy of Epicurus – Attaining Personal Happiness
Perhaps you prefer the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill or Peter Singer. On Singer’s philosophy, you can never attain personal happiness unless you have something to be happy about, and one such focus should include your desire to increase the personal happiness of others. Unfortunately, this leads to the adoption of the concept of the greater good. Such utilitarianism may have argued that the institution of slavery in colonial America benefited more people in society than it harmed, hence it was good. This would have proven especially true for the slave owner. Since there was no way to quantify or measure the degree of pleasure derived by the general population or the degree of displeasure inflicted upon the slaves, the determination of the greater good came down to individual personal happiness. If you asked a utilitarian slave to judge the situation, his response would have differed greatly from the response of the slave owner.

In the last chapter of The End of Faith you point out your reluctance to criticize Buddhism, professing your proclivity toward Eastern thought. I might suggest that you are drawn to Buddhism, not by its rationality, but because it seems to highlight things you already personally desire, such as peace, love, freedom from suffering and, most of all, no God. Fundamental to Buddhist philosophy, however, we find the concept that we are all anātman, devoid of the self or the soul. This may appeal to you in light of your propensity toward reductive physicalism. However, how do you reconcile the Buddhist view of the 4 Noble Truths with rational western thought? Let me summarize the 4 Noble Truths:

  1. Suffering exists.
  2. The cause of suffering is desire.
  3. The end of suffering requires the extinguishing of desire.
  4. The way to extinguish desire is by following the Eightfold Path.
I won’t delve into the Eightfold Path in this treatise, however, implicit within, one finds the necessity to desire freedom from desire. Not only is this intrinsically incoherent, but also utterly discordant with your desire to see The End of Faith.

In the end, I haven’t found a succinct statement of your philosophical beliefs. In The End of Faith you stated that, “The notion of a moral community resolves many paradoxes of human behavior.”84 Yet you go on to say that, “The problem of specifying the criteria for inclusion in our moral community is one for which I do not have a detailed answer.”85 Then you get to the crux of your problem and our difference. You state that we cannot simply categorize all humans as part of our moral community and all animals as not. You elaborate further by claiming, “Most of us suspect rabbits are not capable of experiencing happiness or suffering on a human scale. Admittedly we could be wrong about this. And if it ever seems that we have underestimated the subjectivity of rabbits, our ethical stance toward them would no doubt change.”86 Scientifically, almost all animals have pain receptors that cause them to avoid painful circumstances. An electric fence would hardly contain horses or cattle if not viewed as a deterrent. Since we have no way of assessing the happiness of animals, even though they feel pain, on your criteria we could not include them in the community.

How does the notion of a moral community, presumably that group deserving of especially humane treatment, resolve so many paradoxes when you cannot clearly define criteria for inclusion in it? Humanity, by virtue of the imago dei, is the only moral community you should seek, and the recognition of the sanctity of human life, regardless of subjectivity, Christians hold in the highest regard. Humanity includes humans at the earliest stages of development as well as humans, like Terri Schiavo or Christopher Reeve, who have suffered tragically.

Can you understand now why I mentioned the Cyrenaics earlier? You reserve your concern regarding inclusion in your moral community for any creature capable of experiencing happiness, pain or suffering now. In spite of the lifetime of potential human-scale happiness denied an aborted fetus, since they have no ability to suffer now, you exclude them from your moral community. Ultimately, if natural selection devoid of God brought us to where we are today, then we would have no one to turn to but ourselves for inclusion criteria. The acceptance of the God hypothesis signifies that the Christian’s moral community has already been determined.

Keep Reading!

Read Page 1 of Letter To A Christian Nation: A Response.

80 Samuel E. Stumpf, Socrates to Sartre 4th Ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 1988), p. 28.
81 Ibid., p. 111.
82 Ibid.
83 Ibid., p. 113.
84 Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), p. 176.
85 Ibid., p. 177.
86 Ibid.

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