#Epicurus and Atomic Moderation

#Epicurus and Atomic Moderation August 3, 2017

Working out the implications of what it means that “mind” is a function of the brain is perhaps the greatest challenge—both medically and philosophically—of the twenty-first century.

People are working on it. For example, the work of philosopher Martha Nussbaum builds a complex understanding of moral value for naturalists. Her realization that every emotion has a history reveals much about human emotion and how we can cope with emotions we prefer to ignore or rid ourselves of. Our every thought has a history and is the product of our bodies. This includes “reason.”

One of the basic implications of a materialist, naturalistic, non-dual viewpoint is that “spirt” and “soul” are very much part of—and functions of—the body. (Notice that I’m not saying “merely” or “just” in front of “functions of the body.” No. The human spirit or soul—what naturalists tend to call “consciousness”—are wondrous and miraculous features of the human experience.)

We are not the first people to consider the implications of a non-dual reality. The philosopher Epicurus—who died in 270 BCE—got there well before us, as is ably underlined by Stephen Greenblatt in his book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.

Epicurus is the victim of an ancient hatchet job. “Epicurean” has come to mean gluttony. But his teachings were far from hedonistic or nihilistic. In other words, Epicurus was not an Epicurean.

Like many Humanists today, Epicurus was a strict materialist: he thought that only nature and its laws exist and shape our lives. Following the atomic theory of Democritus, Epicurus believed that all reality is only atoms and the spaces between them.

In a material universe without intruding gods, what is the basis for determining moral human action? Why do we know what we should do and how do we know what we shouldn’t do? Epicurus proposed that human motivation is based on pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain.

Yes, at first glance, this appears to be a completely hedonistic proposal. But the pleasure in the pleasure/pain dichotomy that Epicurus believed drives human action isn’t what we commonly consider pleasure. Pleasure is moderation. After all, the pleasure of wine intake can lead to the pain of a hangover. The pleasure of eating cheesecake can lead to the pain of a bellyache and weight gain. Hence an Epicurean  precept:

Of our desires, some are natural and necessary; others are natural but not necessary; others, again, are neither natural nor necessary but are due to baseless opinion. (Precepts 29)

True, reasoned, pleasure comes from seeking and acquiring the natural and necessary pleasures . . . in moderation.

Rather than teaching all-out consumption, Epicurus taught:

The wealth of nature is limited and easy to attain, but the wealth of vanity keeps growing larger and moving farther away.  (15)

So, the desire for food is natural; the desire for a particular food is natural but not necessary; and the desire for an expensive, trendy food is neither natural nor necessary. That’s a manufactured need—“due to baseless opinion.”

Central to true Epicureanism was simplicity in living and in diet. Added to this simplicity is friendship. Epicurus said,

Of all the ways that wisdom finds to acquire happiness in life, by far the most important is making friends. (27)

Epicurus sounds like a nice guy, so why did other schools of philosophy and religion hate his thought so much? That materialism thing. Here’s a summary of Epicurean philosophy known as the Tetrapharmakos, or “four part remedy.” (Pharmakos is where we get the English term pharmacy.)  A short summary of the Tetrapharmakos was found at Herculaneum, one of the cities buried by Mt. Vesuvius long ago:

Don’t fear god,

Don’t worry about death;

What is good is easy to get,

What is terrible is easy to endure.

“Don’t fear god”? Even today, many if not most people believe that we can’t be good without a god. The battle against this myopic—and just plain wrong—view ties the ancients such as Epicurus directly into the thinking or our contemporary ethicists.

Don’t worry about death? Allow me to end with one of the sayings of Epicurus that has come down to us in Latin. It goes like this:

Non fui, 


non sum, 

non curo.

Translated, that is:

I did not exist.

Then, I existed.

Now I don’t.

I don’t care.


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