Philosophy One Needs To Know, But Isn’t Worth Teaching: The Principal Doctrines of Epicurus

The Principal Doctrines: they aren’t terribly long, and are most certainly worth a read. Everything below is subject to change, I’m slowly working through one of Epicurus’ letters now.



We should note that the “Principal Doctrines” are merely a collection of quotes by Epicurus, and that fanatics and devotees usually have a tendency to reduce what makes a thinker great to what they think makes a thinker great. So the quotes could be entirely out of context, and might be treated with a subtlety that this blog post cannot possibly account for.



Nonetheless, Diogenes Laertius does us a favor by discussing Epicurus’ physics and the relation between it and his ethics. In Russel M. Geer’s translation:

The Epicurieans usually treat the methods of proof along with physics, saying that they deal with the determination of truth and with the first principle, and that this study is basic. They say that the subject matter of physics is generation, dissolution, and the natural world; and that ethics deals with things to be chosen and those to be rejected, with the manner of life, and with the purposes of living.

The Epicureans go on to reject theoretical logic in favor of something far, far more materialist. Sensations are primary: concepts are aggregations of similar sensations, opinions are attempts to make “sense” of things that give less vivid sensations. To this end, the problem that explains the idea behind Epicurean physics is that of seeing a tower from a distance: we can tell it is a tower, but we need to be up close to contemplate the shape.



Now again, it is conceivable that Epicurus is far, far more advanced than his followers or Laertius is making him out to be. The letters seem to be far more subtle than Laertius’ Cliffs Notes-esque summary. My argument really picks up with these awful, awful quotes from the Principal Doctrines, such as:

X. If the things that produce the pleasures of the dissolute were able to drive away from their minds their fears about what is above them and about death and pain, and to teach them the limit of desires, we would have no reason to find fault with the dissolute; for they would fill themselves with pleasure from every source and would be free from pain and sorrow, which are evil.

This is an excellent candidate for the title “dumbest thing ever written.” I’ll never be Plato, but I pwn Epicurus. Since all is sensation, the thought of the dissolute is not an issue, for we can only opine when they present us with a problem. They only present us with problems, Epicurus says, when they are “fearful” and unknowing of “limit.”



The idea someone could be an insane, murderous thug is not here, neither is the notion that people are more than sensation, that they are more responsible perhaps for what they think than what they do. I get angry when I see bad ideas being peddled not because I’m worried about some “dissolute” person that couldn’t even articulate his own position, but because there is a far greater “dissolution” that physical abuse of one’s life is a metaphor for. Motives and reasoning very rightly make other people angry, and to take seriously the possibility of evil and not just ascribe it entirely to the realm of “pain and sorrow” is the mark of the serious.



This crap gets worse, with overemphasis on the obvious – “XVII. The just man is least disturbed; the unjust man is filled with the greatest turmoil” – and things that are just plain false: “XV. Natural wealth is limited and easily obtained; the wealth defined by vain fancies is always beyond reach.” Right, which is why vain fancies came about in the first place, because nature was perfect.



Classical materialism and atomism has a far more subtle exponent in Lucretius: when I’m complaining about Epicurus, it isn’t because he’s “wrong” so much, as much as he “doesn’t encourage one to think well.” A philosopher who dictates as opposed to introducing problems is no philosopher at all strictly speaking.





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