A Friendly Salvo against Modern Epicureans

Zeno vs. Epicurus

By Dr. Massimo Pigliucci / 11.03.2017
Professor of Philosophy
City University of New York

“The thought for today is one which I discovered in Epicurus; for I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp — not as a deserter, but as a scout,” says Seneca to Lucilius in Letter II, On Discursiveness in Reading, 5. He writes this because he had made a habit, for a while, of closing his letters to his friend with a “present,” a quote from another philosopher, usually Epicurus.

I don’t think of Epicureans, or Buddhists, or Christians, as “enemies.” My take is that it is useful to develop and adapt a philosophy of life — because it provides us with a moral compass and a framework to distinguish important from unimportant things in life — but that which philosophy one chooses is less important. Your specific choice may have to do with your cultural background, your personal history, your character and personality, or your stage in life. If it works, go for it (so long as it isn’t a destructive philosophy, like, you know, fascism). I write this blog, now in its third year and counting 348 posts, to help others for whom Stoicism resonates, but I’m certainly not here to make converts.

That said, the blog also has a special category of entries termed “critics of Stoicism,” where I respond to the surprisingly many, and often surprisingly vicious, attacks on our philosophy. You are about to read yet another of these responses, this time to “The seductive dead-end of Stoicism,” written by one Cassius Amicus (obviously a pseudonym) over at newepicurean.com.

“Cassius” is, apparently, moved by a concern for his many Stoic friends, especially because they have a high regard for Marcus Aurelius, who he does not trust after “spending much of a weekend reviewing” the Meditations. He adds: “As one generation passes and new students of philosophy arise, the old errors constantly attract new converts. It is regularly necessary for Epicureans to recalibrate their guns and fire again on Stoicism, lest it infect new generations. For the truth is, those who espouse the Stoic platitudes — which I regret to say includes both Marcus Aurelius and Cicero — are like philosophical vampires, always lurking in the shadows to steal the life from the unsuspecting; always in the service of the oldest dead-head vampire of them all — Plato.”

Strong words! Fighting words! But, wait, Plato?? If there is anything that is far removed from Plato — apart from Epicureanism itself — is precisely Stoicism, and perhaps even more its cousin, Cynicism. Don’t forget that Plato himself referred to Diogenes the Cynic as “Socrates gone mad.”

So what’s Cassius’ issue with Marcus? He thinks that the Meditations reek of religionism, fatalism, and passivism, which he maintains are attitudes utterly incompatible with Epicureanism.

Well, he is right on the latter, though the Epicureans themselves — contra modern lore — where not atheists, they were what we would today call deists. It is also true that their metaphysics was very different from that of the Stoics: atoms swirling in the void in the first case, cause-effect determinism in the latter. The Stoics did believe in “providence” of some sort, though they did not mean the Christian variety at all, but rather a consequence of what they saw as a universe being alive and doing its thing. Since we are bits and pieces of that universe, there is a sense in what happens to us, and that sense is precisely analogous to the role of a foot stepping in the mud, if the whole body to which that foot belongs has to get home and there is a puddle of mud in its way. (That is, in fact, an analogy used by Epictetus, in Discourses II.6.9-10.)

Sure, modern science — as Larry Becker maintains in A New Stoicism — has discarded the organismal view of the cosmos in favor of a mechanistic one. But this should be of little comfort to the Epicureans. Not only the “atoms” they were talking about have precious little to do with the atoms of modern science, but they made a special plead to save human free will by arbitrarily introducing their concept of the “swerve,” an idea that looks pretty close to magic from a modern scientific perspective.

As for “religionism,” indeed Marcus sounds very pious when he is talking to himself (and even so, he constantly repeats the “providence or atoms” mantra, more than hinting at the idea that whatever metaphysical theory one subscribes to simply doesn’t matter in terms of the crucial thing: ethics). Perhaps he really was pious, it’s hard to say. But a fair reading of the Stoics always has to keep in mind that for them “god” was made of matter, and coincided with the universe itself. Not to mention that, despite the oft-brought up example of Cleanthes’ “prayer” to Zeus, we know from Diogenes Laertius (VII.33) that Zeno of Citium, the founder of the philosophy, clearly stated that in an ideal Stoic republic there would be no temples, i.e., no organized religion or worship.

Regarding fatalism, the concept itself is muddled, and again Becker makes a good case for why the Stoics were not fatalists, but determinists, there is a difference, and modern science, and much of modern metaphysics, lean toward the Stoic, not the Epicurean, position.

To accuse the Stoics, and especially Marcus, of passivism is, of course, ridiculous on the face of it, though a common sport amongst our critics. A fundamental tenet of Stoic philosophy, and one often repeated by Marcus, is that we ought to work on our faculty of judgment, to arrive at better decisions about what to do, and especially how to be helpful to others (something the Epicureans infamously shied away from, uninterested as they were in politics and social issues, on the ground that to engage in those areas causes pain, a no-no for them). And anyone picking up a biography of Marcus, or of Cato the Younger, or even Seneca, or Epictetus, will certainly realize that these were not people who passively accepted their “fate.” They thought hard, sometimes literally, for what they believed, in order to make the world a better place. Nothing of the sort can be said of any Epicurean I’m aware of.

Next, our friend Cassius takes aim at the Stoic doctrine of “living according to nature,” where he says: “for the constant Stoic incantation of ‘Nature’ is nothing but illusion. Stoicism fails to define or ground the guidance of Nature in anything real — unlike Epicureanism, which grounds Nature’s guidance in pleasure.”

Au contraire, Stoicism grounds its philosophy in the empirically tenable idea that human nature is that of a fundamentally social being who is capable of reason, from which it follows that the natural way of living for us is to deploy reason in order to improve social living. As Marcus puts it: “Do you have reason? I have. Why then do you not use it?” (IV.13) And: “So long as nothing … drives me out, I remain, am free, and no man shall hinder me from doing what I choose; and I choose to do what is according to the nature of the rational and social animal.” (V.29)

Moreover, it is the Epicureans who clearly get human nature wrong, as Cicero has Cato the Younger explain in book III of De Finibus: “Infants desire things conducive to their health and reject things that are the opposite before they have ever felt pleasure or pain; this would not be the case, unless they felt an affection for their own constitution and were afraid of destruction.” (III.16) One of those things that infants strive for because it is good for them is learning how to walk. Which is painful, not pleasurable.

Cassius then invokes a namesake, Cassius Longinus, who in 45 BCE told Cicero that the Stoic idea that one chooses good for its own sake is nonsense: “For it is hard to convince men that ‘the good is to be chosen for its own sake’; but it is both true and demonstrable that pleasure and tranquility of mind is acquired by virtue, justice, and the good. Why, Epicurus himself, from whom all the Catiuses and Amafiniuses in the world, incompetent translators of terms as they are, derive their origin, lays it down that ‘to live a life of pleasure is impossible without living a life of virtue and justice.’”

Okay, to begin with, where on earth does Epicurus get the strange idea that it is impossible to live a life of pleasure without being virtuous and just? Do the Epicureans not read the newspapers? Or watch Real Housewives of New Jersey? More to the point, the Stoics do not argue that one ought to do good for its own sake, they argue that to be helpful to others is good because we are all deeply interconnected in a web of cause and effect, not just with the universe as a whole, but specifically as a species of highly social beings. In this sense, for the Stoics — and contra much modern moral philosophy — there is no sharp distinction between selfishness and altruism: every time I do something for myself I improve the wellbeing of humanity, and vice versa, every time I do something for others I indirectly improve things for myself.

Even more to the point, the Stoics — following Socrates in the Euthydemus — think that virtue is the chief good. “Chief” doesn’t mean “only,” hence the further category of preferred indifferents. But why would virtue be the chief good, and not, say, money, or health, or education? Because virtue is the single thing (and those others are not) that can always and only be used for good. It makes no logical sense to say that one commits a virtuous crime, for instance. But it does make perfect sense to say that wealth can be used for good or for evil (i.e., it is morally neutral, hence an “indifferent”).

Epicurus, again quoted by Cassius was right on one thing though: “We must also recollect that which principally contributes to trouble the spirit of men is the persuasion which they cherish that the stars are beings imperishable and perfectly happy, and that then one’s thoughts and actions are in contradiction to the will of these superior beings. They also being deluded by these fables, apprehend an eternity of evils, and they fear the insensibility of death, as if that could affect them.” (From the Letter to Herodotus)

But the Stoics wouldn’t disagree here, as it is made abundantly clear by Seneca in this passage: “Reflect that the dead suffer no evils, that all those stories which make us dread the nether world are mere fables, that he who dies need fear no darkness, no prison, no blazing streams of fire, no river of Lethe, no judgment seat before which he must appear, and that Death is such utter freedom that he need fear no more despots. All that is a phantasy of the poets, who have terrified us without a cause.” (To Marcia, On Consolation, XIX)

Cassius goes on quoting Epicurus’ Letter to Menoceus: “The wise man sees that Fate or Necessity cannot exist if men are truly free, and he also sees that Fortune is not in constant control of the lives of men. But the wise man sees that our actions are free, and because they are free, our actions are our own responsibility, and we deserve either blame or praise for them.”

Well, the wise man in question just turned out to be wrong, didn’t he? Epicurus here is espousing a species of hard incompatibilism, according to which the ability to make decisions, and the moral responsibility that accompanies those decisions, are impossible in a deterministic universe. But, as the Stoics already surmised, and both modern science and much modern philosophy confirm, we do live in a deterministic universe, at least in the sense of a universe governed by cause and effect. The Stoics also figured out, just like modern day compatibilists, that there is an important sense in which our decisions are truly ours, a topic for which I refer the reader to my essay on Chrysippus’ analogy of the rolling cylinder, as well as to part of my commentary on Larry Becker’s A New Stoicism.

Cassius proceeds with a bizarre, and largely irrelevant, further attack based on Thomas Jefferson’s criticism of the Stoics. But, to begin with, Jefferson was an amateur philosopher whose opinions on the matter are no more weighty than those of someone who picked up the Meditations for an entire weekend; moreover, Cassius quotes Jefferson at length, railing against Plato! Once again: Platonic philosophy has precious little to do with Stoicism, so criticism of the first says nothing at all about the second.

The last bit of Cassius’ rant is a simple series of selected quotations from the Meditations, each bit of which is accompanied by entirely unsubstantiated and unhelpful comments, usually along the lines of “Epicurus held that…” Insofar this list is meant to convince readers that Stoicism and Epicureanism are different, and often at odds with each other, well yes, though we knew that. If it is meant to show the alleged superiority of Epicureanism, however, a hell of a lot more work needs to be done.

One final comment about the “truth” of philosophical doctrines (something I also recently brought up in response to my friend Dan Kaufman’s criticism of Stoicism from an Aristotelian perspective): certain aspects of a given philosophy, like the metaphysical claim that we live in a deterministic universe (or not) are either true or false, though it is often highly contentious whether we have satisfactorily arrived at one conclusion or the other. But a philosophy of life, such as Stoicism or Epicureanism (or Aristotelianism, Buddhism, Christianity) cannot be true of false. That is a category mistake. Philosophies of life are more or less coherent, and more or less useful to individuals and society. In those respects, both Stoicism and Epicureanism are coherent philosophies; and they can both be useful to individual practitioners. Though I would argue that Stoicism is far more useful to society than Epicureanism is, simply because the Epicureans pointedly withdraw, as I mentioned above, from social-political life, while the Stoics embrace it.

So, my Epicurean friends, no need to hurl insults at us (they wouldn’t take anyway, see Discourses I, 25.28-29), or waste much time to try to show that we are “wrong.” Incidentally, isn’t so much passion about philosophical discourse with strangers a precisely non-Epicurean thing to do, since it likely brings pain and no pleasure? Here is what our own Epictetus had to say about it: “What was it, then, that awakened Epicurus from his slumbers and impelled him to write what he did? What else than what is most powerful of all in human beings, nature, who constrains everyone to her will, groan and resist though he may. ‘For since you hold these antisocial views,’ she says, ‘write them down and hand them on to others, and stay awake at night because of them, and so become, through your own practice, the denunciator of your own doctrines.’” (Discourses II.20.15-16) Oops!