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Epicureanism's Relationship to Other Traditions

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Early Greek Philosophy

For humans, the art of living, or wisdom, is not something that comes automatically, but instead is an object of intellectual judgement. For most people throughout history, such judgements are not made in a systematic fashion using one's own mind, but rather are left in the hands of authority figures who bind others to them by framing their instruction in terms of myths, presiding over ritual, and exercising alleged oracular powers.

In the Greek world of the early 6th century B.C., an unusual set of social circumstances upset this age-old pattern. The Greeks, who had not only settled Greece itself but were also colonizing the west coast of Turkey (known in ancient times as Ionia), southern Italy, and Sicily, had developed numerous decentralized political and religious structures and in some areas a kind of free-wheeling frontier culture that stripped priests and aristocrats of their intellectual monopoly and opened up the quest for wisdom to all.

In an atmosphere where political and economic competition was supplemented by intellectual competition, certain men came to be celebrated for their practical intellectual innovations. One of these was Thales of the Ionian city of Miletus. Thales made the daring suggestion that the world wasn't merely the plaything of capricious gods, but rather had a regularity to it that renders it predictable and that can be explained by the properties of a fundamental substance, water, which supposedly composed all of matter. Thale's prediction of a solar eclipse on May 28th, 585 B.C. greatly impressed other Greeks, enough so that others were willing to propagate his teachings and even try to improve upon them.

While Thales' astronomical prowess may only have been a simple deduction from patterns already known to the Egyptians and the Babylonians, his speculative physics was something completely new. For the first time, the world was being treated as a legitimate object of independent study. Knowledge about the world, in other words, was conforming to observation and not to arbitrary say-so in a way that had never been attempted before.

Others from Miletus followed Thales' example. His student Anaximander came up with the idea that matter as such didn't have determinate properties such as the wetness of water, but rather that there were powers in a dynamic tension with one another operating in conjunction with matter to produce motion and differentiation of substances. Anaximander's student Anaximenes thought that changes of density could account for observed differences between substances, with air being the most fundamental kind of matter. For all the differences among the Milesians in the specifics of their theories, they were united in groping for an explanation of the universe that invited students to rely upon observation and not imagination. This in itself was one of the most profound revolutions in the history of thought.

While the Milesians were formulating their theories, a native of the near-by island of Samos was sparking yet another intellectual revolution. Pythagoras emigrated to the city of Croton in southern Italy in 530 B.C. and set up a quasi-religious cult based on the notion that a rule of life could be derived from a systematic understanding of the world. While having a god-like figure that inspried his followers as an “:Apollo from the north” is not particularly significant for the subsequent history of philosophy, what is important is that Pythagoras had suggested a crucial link between the nature of the world and the content of wisdom. Pythagoras came to be known as a lover of wisdom, or a philosophos, from which we get our word “philosopher.” In this manner, the scientific enterprise of the Milesians was expanded into the field of ethics.

Pythagoras was also innovative in terms of trying to reduce his explanations of the world to high-level abstractions involving mathematics and geometry. While the Milesians had stressed the properties of matter as being the key to physical explanations, the Pythagoreans insisted that the form that matter took was really the crucial factor. The relationship of form to substance was to greatly vex later Greek philosophers, but the two intellectual traditions founded by Thales and Pythagoras were to define the subject matter of philosophy and, in the crucial concepts of form and matter, provide the starting point for further progress in the field.

The Eleatic Challenge

Parmenides of Elea (another Greek colony in southern Italy) initiated the next great transformation of philosophy around the end of the 6th century B.C. Having received instruction in the Milesian-oriented theories of Xenophanes and in the Pythagorean system from Ameinias, Parmenides realized that the Pythagorean numerical and geometric abstractions of form which seemed to be so fundamental to our capacity to know the world were in conflict with the theories of change and motion featured in the Milesian theories. Thus, the problem of understanding the nature of truth was added to physics and ethics as a branch of philosohpy.

The specific problem that Parmenides raised was this: if to know something is to mentally grasp its identity, then one can't claim to know a thing whose identity was always changing. Yet, we constantly observe things that do chage and form Milesian-like opinions that things change according to regular patterns. Yet, a pattern of changing identities is not an identity, so how can change be knowable? As Parmenides put it in his poem The Way of Truth:

“Come now, I shall speak, and you must hear and receive my word. These are the only roads of inquiry that exist for the thinking mind: that ‘IT IS’, and that ‘IT CANNOT NOT BE’ is the path of Persuasion, for Truth attends it. Another road, that ‘IT IS NOT’, and that ‘IT MUST BE NON-EXISTENT’ is a road that I declare to be totally indiscernable. For you could neither know what is non-existent, for that is unattainable, nor could you describe it. For it is the same thing which is for thinking and for being.”

According to this view, the IT IS must be unchanging over time in order to be comprehensible, for any stability of comprehension implies a stability of being over time—a stability that is sorely lacking in any perception of change. All motion, all transformations, all acts of creation must by this argument be a mere illusion. The actual nature of reality, Parmenides concluded, must take the form of a single unchangeable, indvisible, featureless sphere.

Parmenides' student Zeno developed a number of striking paradoxes in support of the Eleatic theory. Some of the more noteworthy ones include the problem that unlimited divisibility implies an infinite number of parts which cannot have a definite magnitude, that the existence of more than one thing would imply an infinite number of things in order to fill the universe, and that motion of an object implies rest at each moment of time if the object is to take up a space equal to itself.

If it be objected that we can directly observe that the Eleatic description of the universe is false, then the problem is to revise our understanding of the nature of the world in order to make knowledge possible. Merely observing the changing identity of things is nt enough; philosophy of the 5th century B.C. needed a theory of causality to account for man's ability to know specific patterns of change and to resolve the puzzles posed by Parmenides and Zeno.

Post-Eleatic Responses

The Eleatics marked a crucial divide in the history of philosophy, with the post-Eleatic philosophers being obliged to come up with precise world-views that formed the basis of comprehensive philosophical systems. The problem of causality and accounting for change and knowledge became a pressing issue for the successors of the Milesians and the Pythagoreans.

The first answer to the Eleatics was offered by a contemporary of Parmenides, Heraclitus. Like Parmenides, Heraclitus had also received instruction at the hands of Xenophanes, but there the similarity ended. Heraclitus basically took the systems of Anaximander and Anaximenes and added a crucially important element: he argued that there was a cosmic fire pervading the universe that was intelligently directing all change. As he put it:

“The cosmic order, which is the same for all, no god nor man has made it, but it has always existed, does exist, and will exist; ever-living fire, being kindled in measures and being quenched in measures.”

This fire was similar to Anaximenes' air, or pneuma, in some respects, but is a separate kind of element from the matter it is directing and not the sole kind of matter as was typical of earlier Milesian theories. Later, followers of Heraclitus substituted air for fire in his system, but in Heraclitus we can see the beginnings of the basic pneumatic response to the Eleatics. In brief, the Pneumatic world-view is that causality is strictly determinate, associated with an intelligent substance found throughout the universe. Forms are therefore a product of consciousness, being imposed on matter by an omnipresent, intelligent kind of matter. Our comprehension of the world is basically a recognition of this cosmic ordering principle inherent in the pneuma and not of the specific identities of particular things as such. The most famous saying attributed to Heraclitus is that “everything flows,” which seems to flatly contradict the conditions of knowledge that Parmenides insisted on.

The second answer to the Eleatics was made in the early 5th century B.C. by Anaxagoras. Unlike the pneumatic claim that an intelligent substance permeated the universe, Anaxagoras instead argued that the cosmic mind, or nous, that ordered the universe was immaterial. This mind transcended the material world, but directed everything within it. As Anaxagoras explained his Noetic system:

“Other things share in a portion of all things, but Mind is boundless and rules itself, and is mingled with no other thing, but remains apart by itself. For if it were not apart but had been mised with any other thing, it would have shared in everything if it had been mixed with anything. For, as I have said above, there is a portion of everything in everything. And if other things had been mixed with Mind, they would have prevented it from exercising the rule which it does when apart by itself. For Mind is the slenderest and purest of all things. Mind is the ruling force in all things that have life whether greater or smaller.”

A Noetic system also demands some mechanism by which the immaterial mind orders matter. Anaxagoras attempted to solve this problem by describing the universe as a mixture of different kinds of infinitely divisbile components, with the cosmic mind regulating the distribution of each component over space. Local concentrations of a given kind of component would give rise to a macroscopic thing with properties similar to that of its preponderant component (a doctrine called the homoeomerous theory of matter).

The third answer to the Eleatics came later in the 5th century B.C. by Leucippus and Democritus. These philosophers realized that the Eleatic dilemma of identity and change could be resolved without invoking a cosmic intelligence of any kind, whether material or immaterial. In their theory, the universe consisted of unchanging indivisble particles, the atomoi or atoms, moving within an empty void.

Since the identiy of the microscopic atoms is unchanging and the interactions between atoms is in accord with definite causal laws, it is possible to reduce macroscopic identities to a combination of fixed microscopic identities and fixed causal relationships among these atomic identities. In effect, each atom is like an Eleatic universe as far as the conservation of its identity over time is concerned, but the Atomists expanded their notion of identity to include causal interactions among fixed identities which can lead to changing interrelationships between the atoms.

Further Developments in Noetic Philosophy: the Socratics

Greek philosophy in the mid to late 5th century B.C. underwent rapid development, as an informal educational system grew up around private tutors known as sophists. These sophists continued and amplified the Eleatic tradition of challenging conventional ideas and common sense at every turn, forcing the various post-Eleatic schools of thought to greatly refine their teachings.

A student of Anaxagoras, Archelaus, transmitted the Noetic system to Athens, where it was taught to Socrates. Socrates shifted the focus of Noetic thought to ethics, suggesting that humans too were regulated by the cosmic mind and only human ignorance stood in the way of adherence to the proper art of living. In contrast to the amoral tendencies of the sophists, Socrates gained great fame portraying virtue as a given for the knowledgable wise man, and vice as a product of ignorance. Socrates was too famous for his own good, as his incessant moralizing (often coupled with a disdain for social convention), association with disreputable politicians, and condescending attitude towards the more tradition-minded masses made him an easy target for popular scorn. Convicted of atheism and corruption of the youth, Socrates was sentenced to death and, by willingly drinking a cup of hemlock, became the most famous philosophical martyr of all times.

Plato, one the aristocratic students of Socrates, built on Socratic teachings as well as his subsequent studies of Pythagoreanism and his personal experiences as a courtier in Sicily. Amending the Anaxagorean model of form-matter relationships, Plato argued that there had to be a separate world of forms that provided the templates from which the cosmic mind (characterized as a demiurge or craftsman) ordered the world of matter. Since the demiurge couldn't make perfect copies of the original forms from base matter, Plato took the radical step of suggesting that our insight into ideal forms provides more certain knowledge than empirical observations of material objects. Plato, perhaps inspired by Pythagorean cults, also developed the view that the state ought to take the central role in promoting wisdom, using rigid social stratification, indoctrination, and coercion to closely govern every aspect of a citizen's life.

A student of Plato's, Aristotle, ultimately came to reject the Platonic emphasis on the imperfections of matter and the perfection of an other-worldly realm. Instead of displacing forms off in their own separate world, Aristotle saw forms as being embodied in material objects via some external agency. While there is still an immaterial cosmic intelligence that is the “unmoved mover” of the entire universe (and also 55 immaterial celestial intelligences to account for specific planetary motions), material objects can act as secondary movers of other things, implanting forms into them. By observing such objects, one can discern via empirical observation the forms that govern motion and development as well as the imperfections of matter. Generally speaking, Aristotle required fewer transcendent props to explain how the world works.

Further Developments in Pneumatic Philosophy: the Stoics

Another major step in the development in Greek philosophy took place at the beginning of the 3rd century B.C. While Plato and Aristotle left established schools to carry on their teachings, the non-Noetic traditions underwent a resurgence at this time, a period known as the Hellenistic era. The Eleatic and Sophist tradition of disputatious criticism was carried on by the Skeptics, while Atomism, as we shall see below, was being transformed by Epicurus. Pneumatic teachings also underwent a revival, beginning with Zeno of Citium, a city in Cyprus. Zeno taught at the painted colonnade, or stoa poikile in Athens, hence the name “Stoic” for his school. Zeno and his successors, notably Cleanthes and Chrysippus, combined the physical teachings of Heraclitus with a severe version of Socratic ethics (associated with a group known as the “Cynics”). Stoicism later became very influential among the upper classes of Rome, especially under the influence of Epictetus and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

The Stoic system puts a strong emphasis on working out the logical implications of a universe ordered by the pneuma, exploring the pneuma's role as a manifestion of rational intelligence, as a unifying principle of nature, and even as a supreme divinity. Ethics was portrayed as conformnity with this cosmic natural reason, understood by humans as virtues that serve as a detailed script for how one should behave. This duty to live in accordance with natural dictates transcended all other values, including one's own survival and happiness.

This conception of nature was not without its ambiguities, however. Stoicism is perfectionist in its treatment of the virtues—the virtuous life being an all-or-nothing proposition—thus requiring that one supress all passions that stand in the way of virtue, confronting one with a fundamental conflict between reason and desire. Moreover, there is a tension in Stoic ethics between the organic unity of nature provided by the pneuma, which prompts one to subordinate private interests to the common good of society; and the rationality of the pneuma, which prompts one to think and act independently of social conventions and constraints.

Notwithstanding the practical difficulties posed by Stoic ethics, Stoicism came to define a kind of logical culmination of the pneumatic (and even in some respects the noetic) view that causality in nature requires an external intelligence, imposing strict moral duties on the wise man that are known through reason. Where the Skeptics doubted the ability of rational mind even to know anything, the Stoics tended towards the opposite extreme of elevating reason to being the master of everything. It is amid these sharply contrasting views about the nature of reason that fluorished in the Hellenistic age that Epicureanism was born.

Further Developments in Atomistic Philosophy: Epicurus

The history and beliefs of Epicurus and his school are recounted elsewhere on this webstite, but the story of how Greek philosophy developed up through the Hellenistic age provides crucial insights into development of Epicureanism.

Epicurean physics was rooted in the atomistic tradition, with one significant innovation by Epicurus. Epicurus realized that the deterministic character of Democritus's system was fatal to the notion of a freedom of choice that is inherent in any sensible conception of ethics, and that it was also problematic for explaining how inhomogeneities arise in nature. Epicurus therefore introduced the notion of the atomic swerve, where the path of an atom is no longer simply a function of the other atoms it interacts with, but also subject to some random variation. This leads to a strikingly modern conception of physics, where the traditional atomistic conception of particles with fixed identities and variable interrelationships is supplemented by what modern scientists would classify as a quantum indeterminacy.

Given the Skeptic assault on reason, Epicurus's reaction was to formulate canonics as a separate branch of his philosophy, a kind of epistemology that highlights an unconditional acceptance of sensations and thus firmly anchors human knowledge in reality. While other schools stressed subjects like classification and deductive logic, Epicurus realized that the mechanics of reasoning were less important to the philosophical enterprise than comprehending the link between nature and human understanding. Canonics thus became an essential preliminary to the modified atomistic physics.

The capstone of the Epicurean system was its ethics. Certain Sophists from Libya, known as the Cyrenaics, had taken the controversial position that pleasure was the ultimate purpose of life. The various advocates of rational virtues, including Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics had all denounced pleasure-seeking as a threat to virtuous conduct and something fit only for animals, though some like Aristotle and the Stoics were careful to portray the virtuous wise man as being happy in some sense. One of Epicurus's greatest achievements was to refute the false dichotomies of reason versus passion and of virtue versus pleasure-seeking, affirming instead that reason and virtue are highly instrumental to the pleasurable life.

With a number of profound insights about human psychology, Epicurus set aside the naive hedonism of the Cyrenaics and instead undertook a serious examination of what attitudes and patterns of behavior were necessary for optimizing the pursuit of happiness. Using this approach, Epicurus demonstrated that the virtues, understood as broadly-defined constraints on conduct rather than as a script for living the good life, were actually instrumental to optimizing one's pursuit of happiness. Pleasure is indeed the highest good for humans, but the fullest possible appreciation of pleasure creates a need for the prudent management of the flow of pleasures over time and for a mental grasp of the art of living. In short, our best hope for happiness is for reason and pleasure to work together.

Epicurus's empiricism, atomistic materialism, and rational hedonism thus emerged as a powerful counterpoint to the demoralizing retreat from philosophy preached by the Skeptics, and to the philosophical deification of the cosmos and self-abnegation preached by the Stoics.

The Legacy of Classical Greek Philosophy

The Hellenistic age was the high point of Greek philosophy. Like the followers of Plato and Aristotle, the Stoics and the Epicureans were organized into formal educational institutions in Athens, perpetuating their teachings long after the founders had died. However, the social conditions that had promoted the fluorishing of intellectual competition were gradually eroded in the following centuries, as political and later religious centralization under the Hellenistic monarchs and later under Roman rule increasingly marginalized philosophical activity. Both Epicureans and Stoics had their moments of relative popularity when they were introduced into the Latin-speaking world, but for the most part it was a religious reaction against philosophy that ultimately came to prevail in the Roman Empire. Only one significant new philosophical school, the Neoplatonists (the most famous member being Plotinus) emerged during this period, but even this movement reflected the broader trend towards supernaturalism and the restoration of authoritarianism. Eventually, even the four schools in Athens were shut down in the 6th century A.D.

The truly astonishing aspect of this decline, however, was that ancient Greek philosophy did not disappear altogether during the Dark Ages, but instead arose Phoenix-like to become the essential substrate of secular thought in the modern world. Ironically, the religious opponents of philosophy conserved some of it and even embedded the old philosophies into their theologies. In Europe, Aristotle became enormously influential as the progenitor of the Scholastic philosophers, followed by the rediscovery of the other surviving works of ancient Greek philosophy during the 15th and 16th centuries A.D. Thus, the bold speculations of Thales and Pythagoras, the struggle to put knowledge on a systematic basis began by Parmenides, and the still familiar outlines of the systems developed by the various Socratic and Hellenistic schools, continue to shape our thinking today.