We begin with a few key points from Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus. The translation I am using is Russel M. Geel’s:
- There are gods, who exemplify “blessed immortality.” But all opinions about them are wrong, including the opinions where they hate injustice and love justice.
- Since death is the end of sensation, it ought not be feared. Sensation is all there ever is, and one’s concern should be sensation now.
- From #2: “pleasure is the beginning and end of the blessed life” – pleasure is the good, and it moves us. Because of it, we avoid pains and fears.
- There are natural pleasures, and with those recognized and one devoted to them, “simple and plain living” makes us fearless against movements of life.
- Prudence is the highest wisdom, there is nothing higher.
The question for us is how all these teachings stem from the atomistic conception of the universe posited in the Letter to Herodotus. They must relate somehow, for Epicurus was emphatic there that knowing “science” would lead to happiness, and that he wasn’t too concerned with details as much as general principles.
I think what one has to see, in order to link the atomism directly with the above, is that pleasure isn’t a good above and beyond what one has. In other words, for Epicurus, pleasure is merely the absence of pain.
So that means pleasure inherently is a sort of motion away from pain. Atoms reflect this in that they find “ways” of entangling. Yes, there are atoms which collide against each other and separate, but the separation that results is proportional to what was involved before the collision, i.e. the attempt at togetherness.
What atoms show us is that there are natural goods – otherwise, there would be no society, no attempt at fraternity or love. We would not even have speech if it were not for the materialist basis of things. So with natural goods so apparent that all that is proper speech is matching words to the right thing, there is nothing to fear. Life is simple: why are we making it so complex?
Much of the Letter to Herodotus that I didn’t comment on involves using the atomistic metaphor to refute other views of the universe or matter. One of those views involves a “fire” being “blessed” that might be far above us, and also might be within us.
The trouble with Epicurus is that life may not be so simple – it may be really complex, and therefore complex opinions are offered about it. Prudence does not seem to me to be the highest sort of wisdom, for I give Epicurus respect about his discussion about the “first causes” (atoms) precisely because he isn’t being prudential. He’s trying to be wise in terms of making sense of the whole, and that makes the strongest part of his philosophy a part which he almost backs away from: atoms do get entangled, and perhaps it is precisely how people get entangled (this might happen through speech, wouldn’t you know) that should be the point of origin about where happiness in life might come from.
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