Epicurus’s philosophy

The philosophy of Epicurus wielded great influence, both in the ancient world and in the early modern world (as Steven Greenblatt shows in The Swervelink). That philosophy was atomist, materialist, atheist, and oriented towards happiness as the highest human good. (The atheist part is complicated; he didn’t deny the existence of the gods, but he denied any possible connection between them and humanity.) It is a life philosophy that emphasizes moderation of desire, friendship, and inner tranquility. And perhaps unexpectedly, it is not hedonistic in the usual understanding of that term. So what is not to like about this philosophy?

The basic premises of materialism and humanism are just as solid as they were in the 3rd century BCE. To be sure, physics and the understanding of the fine structure of the world has moved beyond the atomism of Epicurus. But the conviction that all that exists is natural and that there is no supernatural — this conviction holds true. 

And the philosophy of living seems compelling as well. Live to create happiness for yourself and those around you, for the fullness of a human life; be grateful for the pleasures afforded you; be attentive to your friends; do not fear death. These are powerful maxims for constructing and living a good human life. We might even say that it provides a powerful alternative to the dominant consumerist model of happiness that is presented to us every day — more things will make you happy. Epicurus urges us to find our way to taking pleasure in a piece of barley bread and a half pint of weak wine, and the occasional luxury of a pot of cheese. In a world of increasingly strained resources, we need more models of happiness that emphasize satisfaction rather than consumption. 

But philosophy is more than just putting forward plausible-sounding ideas; it is about offering analysis and argument for conclusions. So how compelling is the reasoning that Epicurus offers for particular conclusions? How convincing a philosopher is he? In one sense it is difficult to answer the question because so little of the corpus of Epicurus still exists. But texts exist in which his central ideas about nature, the heavens, and life are described in reasonable detail. How compelling are the arguments that he puts forward on these subjects?

As a philosophy of matter, Epicurus’s theory of the atom and the swerve is debatable. In fact, Cicero’s critique of the central idea of the “swerve” seems compelling and logical:

Then this clever fellow, when it occurred to him that if they all moved directly down and, as I said, in a straight line, it would never come about that one atom could make contact with another and so … he introduced a fictitious notion: he said that an atom swerves by a very little bit, indeed a minimal distance, and that in this way are produced the mutual entanglements, linkages, and cohesions of the atoms as a result of which the world and all the parts of the world and everything in it are produced. .. The swerve itself is made up to suit his pleasure … (The Epicurus Reader, 47)

You [Epicureans] do this all the time. You say something implausible and want to avoid criticism, so you adduce something which is absolutely impossible to support it! It would be better to give up the point under attack than to defend it in such a brazen manner. For example, when Epicurus saw that, if the atoms moved by their own weight straight down, nothing would be in our power, since the atoms’ movements would be certain and necessitated, he found a way to avoid necessity–a point which had escaped Democritus’ notice. He says that an atom, although it moves downward in a straight line because of its weight and heaviness, swerves a little bit. This claim is more shameful than the inability to defend the point he is trying to support. (54)

It would appear that Cicero makes hash of the central contribution of Epicurus to metaphysics, the idea of the swerve! (One aspect of the argument now makes sense to me–the idea that falling atoms cannot collide. We have to add the premise that they fall at the same speed; then the conclusion follows.)

This letter by Cicero is an impressive piece of philosophical reasoning throughout. Cicero teases out the implications of various concepts and premises — cause, truth, fate — and shows that the atomist theory of Epicurus fails to make coherent sense of these concepts.

This is on the side of the philosophy of nature; what about society?

What the philosophy seems to lack is any adequate analysis of society and politics beyond the circle of one’s friends and family. Unlike Socrates, there is no real discussion of justice; unlike Plato, there is no analysis of power and dominion. Here is a maxim on justice and conduct from The Principal Doctrines:

The justice of nature is a pledge of reciprocal usefulness, [i.e.] neither to harm one another nor be harmed. (The Epicurus Reader, 35)

This is a weaker principle than the golden rule and the categorical imperative, in that it involves refraining from harm rather than doing good; and it has no implications for the justice of institutions. And this is one of the very few places in the surviving texts where the issue of justice arises at all.

Several things seem fair to judge from this quick sample. First, Epicurus made sustained efforts to contribute to the theory of the atom and the void. His contributions were sometimes original, and they were philosophically assailable. Second, he had very little by way of a developed theory of the justice of society. Unlike other figures in Greek philosophy, he seems to have devoted little attention to the larger workings of society beyond the personal. And third, his philosophy of living — what is really his most powerful and enduring contribution — remains insightful and inspiring. This is so, not because of the specific arguments he offers, but largely because of the way he makes sense of permanent human circumstances like pleasure, suffering, sickness, friendship, and death. That philosophy presupposes materialism and atheism; but it isn’t dependent on the specifics of Epicurus’s reasoning about the technical issues surrounding atoms, motion, and the swerve.


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