The Epicurean revival

Hiram Crespo writes for HumanistLife about the philosophy of Epicureanism, and argues that is has made a resurgence in modern works of positive psychology. 

Stumbling upon happiness in the garden of Epicurus? Flowers: Tim Daniels.

Stumbling upon happiness in the garden of Epicurus? Flowers: Tim Daniels.

As the annals of history have it, in the sixth century Emperor Justinian had all the schools of philosophy that competed with Christianity finally closed. This was the last we heard of the Epicurean School, whose tradition had remained culturally vibrant for seven centuries. Epicurus had been among the first to propose the atom—2,300 years ago—the social contract as a foundation for the rule of law, and the possibility of an empirical process of pursuit of happiness: a science of happiness. These progressive schools were oases of tranquility, reason and pleasure known as Gardens, where the ideals of civilized friendship flourished and men, women and even slaves engaged in philosophical discourse as equals.

If any set of doctrines can be considered the foundation of the Epicurean philosophy, it would be the Tetrapharmakon: the Four Remedies. For didactic purposes, the teachings were imparted in the form of short, easy to memorize adages. There are, to be fair, many more than four remedies in Epicureanism. However, these are known to be the core of the teaching out of which the rest of the philosophy flows:

Do not fear the gods
Do not fear death
What is pleasant is easy to attain
What is painful is easy to endure

In his Principal Doctrines 11-12, Epicurus argued for the study of science as a way to emancipate ourselves from irrational fears. For naturalists who don’t believe in gods or spirits, the first two negative statements may be translated as ‘Do not fear chance or blind luck, for it is pointless to battle that which we have no control over. It generates unnecessary suffering’.

Roman Epicurean poet Lucretius, in his De Rerum Natura, dedicates long portions of the philosophical poem to explaining how natural phenomena such as lightning and the movements of heavenly bodies are not the work of the Gods and that fear of the Gods is inconsistent with civilized life. Since he was unable in those days to produce a fully scientific theory to explain all these phenomena, he provided several possible theories for many of them without officially endorsing one, and humbly acknowledged that future thinkers would prove the main points of his naturalist and scientific cosmology, which they eventually did. And so we can say that his basic attitude was a sound one, and also that he respected our intelligence enough to not exhibit arrogance and certainty where he did not have conclusive theories. He allowed time to prove him right … and sincere.

That the prohibition against fearing the Gods, and against fear-based religion in general, is the first and main taboo in Epicurean philosophy, remains refreshing to this day.

The second remedy is elaborated in a series of teachings and aphorisms which serve as a form of cognitive therapy to deal with the trauma of death. Among them, the most memorable is the purely hedonistic one. It is summed up thusly:

Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not

There is also the symmetry argument, which compares the time after our death to the time before our birth of which we have no memory. Since there is nothing there, why fear it? It is as unintelligent to be needlessly tormented about the afterlife as it is to be tormented about the state prior to birth. I frequently argue that it wasn’t just the teachings, but the manner in which they were imparted –within the context of a loving community of philosopher friends– that served as a consolation and that it is impossible to replicate the peace and conviction that Epicurus gave humanity without this sense of community.

The latter two positive statements in the Tetrapharmakon lead to Epicurean teachings on how we should evaluate our desires and discern which ones are unnecessary versus which ones are necessary, which ones carry pain when satisfied or ignored versus which ones don’t. By this analytic process, one learns to be content with the simple pleasures in life, those easiest to attain and which carry little to no pain. It is here that the real fruits of Epicurean insight begin to be reaped. The best things in life are free.

One of the first psychological tasks of every Epicurean is to become mindful of his/her desires and whatever pain or anxiety they may be generating. Another task is to learn to relish and appreciate the simple things when they’re in front of us. The good friends, the good foods and the refreshing beverages, the family, the good music, our proximity to nature, even our view of the sky which (as Carl Sagan advised us) should always humble us.

The good news, according to Epicurus, is that happiness is easily attained if we cultivate philosophy. He cites the need for thankfulness and for robust friendships as fundamental ingredients for the good life, and not only categorizes desires but also discerns between kinetic (active) pleasures that happen when we satisfy a desire, and katastemic (inert) pleasures that happen when we have no desires to satisfy, which he labeled as superior.

Harvard psychologist and happiness researcher Dan Gilbert confirms Epicurus’ insights, including how meaningful relations significantly increase the amount of pleasure and of memorable experiences that we gather throughout our lifetime. He uses different verbiage: natural happiness is that attained when we satisfy a desire (kinetic pleasure, in Epicurean parlance) whereas synthetic happiness is that which we enjoy regardless of attaining desires (katastemic pleasure).

Because synthetic happiness requires no externals, it is therefore superior, it is a sign of a liberated being. He argues the case for synthetic happiness by citing the example of the lottery winner and the paraplegic who exhibit similar levels of happiness one year after winning the lottery and losing the lower limbs, respectively. These cases had been studied by happiness researchers Brickman et al.

This, in positive psychology, is being called the hedonic treadmill or hedonic adaptation: the habitual happy state that we always return to. Methods are being researched to increase the heights that are normal for each individual.

Gilbert’s theories, as far as I’m concerned, are Epicureanism by another name. One of the elements of Epicurean teaching that philosophers have struggled with the most throughout history is the idea of katastemic pleasure. It is often argued that lack of pain is not a definition of pleasure, but this is the art of happiness that Epicurus taught: that we must learn to be happy regardless of external factors and that it’s possible and desirable to cultivate katastemic pleasures via the philosophical disciplines. In fact, Epicurus argues that the very purpose of philosophy is to ensure an end to suffering and to create a beautiful, happy, pleasant life.

Gilbert’s research upholds katastemic pleasure as a necessary ingredient in human happiness and is beginning to reinvigorate the discourse on the philosophy of happiness that Epicurus had begun, and which was interrupted by Justinian 1,500 years ago. He also adds new concepts to our science of happiness and even proposes that we have a psychological immune system that fights unhappy moods.

Gilbert’s findings, along with research dealing with wellbeing in fields such as neuroscience and diet, point modern Epicureans in the direction of an interdisciplinary, practical reinvention of philosophy, which is just what we need if philosophy is to become once again the revolutionary, emancipatory cultural engine that it once was.

As to the Fourth Remedy, Epicurus reminded us of the temporal nature of bodily pain. We may get a fever, or a stomach ache, but within days our immune system fights it. In the case of more chronic pains, one gets used to them after some time. In nature, no condition lasts forever. The impermanence of all conditions is a consolation when we consider whatever pain they generate. A dismissive attitude towards pain takes discipline but it can be cultivated if we are mindful, disciplined, and develop a resolve to protect our minds.

Then there are mental pains and anxiety. These are systematically worked through via cognitive therapy. The resolution to follow Epicurus is a resolution to protect one’s mind. It’s impossible to be happy if we can’t control our anger and other strong emotions: we will go from one perturbed state to the next and never taste the stability of ataraxia, which translates as imperturbability and is the ultimate maturity that a philosopher can reach.

We live in a dysfunctional consumerist society filled with anxiety and neuroses, where few people analyse their life, most have a short attention span and are usually uninterested in disciplining their minds and curbing mindless desires. If philosophy is understood as the Epicureans understand it, then it becomes evident that people desperately need philosophy today.

Many more things could be said about the consolations of Epicurean philosophy. I leave my readers with an invitation to study Epicurus and engage themselves and others in philosophical discourse. I promise that your life will be enriched.

Hiram Crespo is the founder of and the author of Tending the Epicurean Garden (Humanist Press, 2014).

Defending morality undermines your values

Sean Spain responds to a recent article on HumanistLife with a novel solution to the ‘is-ought’ problem.

'We will act compassionately towards one another. We will act fairly towards one another. We will be kind to one another.' Photo: Jesslee Culzon.

‘We will act compassionately towards one another. We will act fairly towards one another. We will be kind to one another.’ Photo: Jesslee Culzon.

I recently read an article by George Keeling, mounting a defence for humanist morality. The crux of the argument is that morality is the natural expression of advantageous evolutionary activities – ‘[That] moral passions exist to ensure co-operation and ultimately the perpetuation of our genes’.  Social co-operation is the grounding of this morality, and can be seen to be advantageous to species across the animal kingdom. Man, it is argued, is a naturally social animal whose co-operative instinct has flourished into empathy which is unique to higher-functioning cognitive abilities. Thus the humanist morality stems from an inherent drive to treat others as they would be treated, and the humanist acknowledges this drive as his moral compass. Of course we can’t just rely on this drive to steer us all on the course to ethical action; instead we simply acknowledge the roots of our ‘disposition towards compassion, fairness and kindness’ and in doing so affirm the grounds upon which our value judgements stand.

I admire this value-compass for human action. In the reality around here, the humanist finds truth. In the world around her, she finds wonder; in the society around her, she is optimistic; in her intuition, and the knowledge of its emergence, she finds an ethical grounding.

But Ethics demands more from us than this. Co-operation may be advantageous to my survival, but that doesn’t necessarily make it ethically good. I may feel compassion towards the members of my group, but that won’t suffice to justify my command for others to not harm them.  It can’t be good because it is: a statement which outlines what is can’t be used to logically deduce what ought to be. The two are different statements in kind and as such need a mediating principal as justification. Once this mediating principal is introduced (e.g. a utilitarian framework) then the ethical discourse becomes one of choosing X over why; and the mediating principal props up the ought – the is becomes redundant.

Hume realized this:

‘I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.’[1]

Translated, Hume observed that there is a jump in reason when one presents phenomena which is the case (i.e. co-operation, and empathy, are evolutionarily advantageous- and may even perhaps be argued to be the etymological roots of our notions of morality) and then deduces from it that what is the case ought to be. The justification of a moral proscription must be grounded in reasoning beyond just the description of events.

The burden of an ethical framework demands an external justification for the Ought. Plato grounded his idea of the ‘Good’ in a plane of the forms; religion finds good in ‘God’. Even philosophers like Kant, who have attempted to reposition the notion of what is good, systematically ground its value beyond themselves- in something absolute, and metaphysical.  What is often forgotten in these ethical systems is the appeal to a position of value as something which is beyond the world as it is. They do this because they have to. Ethics demands a firm ground for value which must be more than a description of events, or relative in a mechanistic world-view.

But there is an alternative approach.

Wittgenstein realised this problem of value, and the implications which the value problem had for ethics and more fundamentally aesthetics.

In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein notes:

6.4 ‘All Propositions are of equal value.’[2] ( clarification: Truth propositions)

6.41 ‘…In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value – and if there were, it would be of no value.’[3]

6.42 ‘Hence there can be no ethical propositions.’[4]

A fact, what is, can’t have a value in itself. The values around us are valuable to us, not outside of us. The value of co-operation might be found in the benefits of an improved feeling of safety among each other; a personal satisfaction may be felt when an empathetic urge is fulfilled; we feel relief when our compassion for an individual in danger is rewarded with their safety. The value is a feeling. But ethics demands an external ground for this value to meet the requirements of absolutism. Thus throughout history we have tried to establish this value and in doing so have had to ground it in metaphysical postulations, or religious gods.

The problem is the ethical discourse itself.

The solution? Don’t try to defend morality. It’ll undermine your value system, and the values of your actions. Reject the discussion of ethics because it is misleading. We don’t need to rationally defend what is good. We feel it is good. It shows itself to be good. But the good we make use of isn’t some ethereal absolute – it is a dependent evaluation which is justified by our empathetic intuition and intellectual reasoning.

And the same purposes can be fulfilled. We will act compassionately towards one another. We will act fairly towards one another. We will be kind to one another.

And if you are asked to defend what someone else deems your morality, you can respond in the infamous words of Wittgenstein:

  1. ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’.[5]

Sean Spain is an undergraduate student of Easter & Western Philosophy. He is primarily interested in the Philosophy of Language & Value- particularly in their application to ‘real-world’ events



[1] Hume, David ‘Treatise of Human Understanding’, end of section 3.1.1.

[2] Wittgenstein, Ludwig ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosohicus’, pp. 29-31.

[3] Ibid Wittgenstein, Ludwig

[4] Ibid Wittgenstein, Ludwig

[5] Ibid Wittgenstein, Ludwig

In defence of humanist morality

Geoff Keeling contemplates the biological origins of morality and ethics in humans.

Something about Hobbes

Thinkers like Thomas Hobbes believed that, short of the social contract, human nature only afforded humans a life that is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. 

I recently watched a conversation between WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek and the American conservative David Horowitz. In the heat of the argument Horowitz made the following claim:

‘War is the natural condition of mankind. There’s always been wars – right? From the beginning – and many of them. Peace occurs when there’s a concert of powers or a single power that could intimidate would-be aggressors.’

I couldn’t help biting my tongue here. As a humanist I believe in the inherent goodness of human beings. That we can be good – and that we are good – for the sake of goodness itself. Religious people sometimes ask sceptical questions about my ‘humanistic morality’. The idea is foreign to them because their thinking is grounded in the idea that ‘War is the natural condition of mankind’. In this article I want to defend the humanistic idea of natural morality. I hope it will be useful for other humanists facing the same questions.

Horowtiz’s thinking is based on the work of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes’ basic idea can be summarised as follows:

‘There must be some coercive power to compel men equally to the performance of their covenants by the terror of some punishment greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their covenant’[1].

Thinkers like Hobbes and Horowitz believe that humans existed in a state of nature before political society. It’s only through a social contract that we liberate ourselves from barbarism. In the Hobbesian state of nature life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Modern human morality is a veneer: the Freudian superego that struggles to restrain our savagery. But as any social anthropologist will explain: there has been no period where humans lived outside of political society. This is also true of bonobos and chimps – our nearest evolutionary cousins – who have complex matriarchal and patriarchal societies respectively. The first step to refuting the idea of a ‘moral veneer’ is to show that humans never existed in the warlike state of nature.

The next step is to refute a common misunderstanding about evolution. The phrase survival of the fittest doesn’t lend itself to images of altruism and fairness. But in many cases organisms with genetic pre-dispositions towards co-operation have the upper hand when it comes to natural selection. A popular example is the ‘insurance policy’ that vampire bats have developed over food-allocation. It doesn’t take long for a bat to starve to death. But on any given night, it’s likely that a non-trivial percentage of the colony will come back on empty stomachs. In this instance the unsuccessful bats beg their peers to regurgitate some blood and feed them. And their peers usually do.

This may seem counter-intuitive. Surely, natural selection ought to preserve the best hunters? But think about it this way. Two randomly selected bats in the colony have a reasonable chance of sharing some DNA. Siblings share 1/2 of their genes and cousins 1/8. The bats need not know which of their fellow-bats is related to them. Do not let fellow bats die will increase the probability that their genes stored in other bats (including genes that code for co-operation) will be passed on to the next generation. This is because the set of related bats is a large subset of the colony, so there is no hard selection pressure for a more specific rule. There is also a second benefit. In the near future the regurgitator herself might be close to starvation. In sharing now she is more likely to receive blood when she needs it most[2].

Robert Trivers outlines the extent of natural co-operation in his paper The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism[3]. Co-operation ranges from the symbiotic relationships of cleaner fish and their hosts, to birds warning their flocks when predators are near. But morality is more complex than simple co-operation. The distinction is that the co-operative instinct in higher primates is grounded in empathy: the ability to stand in another’s shoes. And our empathy is not just towards each other. Frans de Waal recalls a bonobo who nursed an injured bird back to health[4]. Humans often put themselves at substantial risk to save animals and other humans.

The brilliant thing about evolution is its use of general rules. Be nice to those you meet is much easier to code for than Be nice to close relatives – the latter of which is largely unnecessary as primates tend to grow up in the company of relatives. It’s these general rules that enable us to develop elaborate social constructs that underpin human morality. Evolution has programmed us to see empathy as a reward in itself. Evolution is indifferent to whether the biochemical reward comes via a religious framework or secular principles. What remains universal is the human propensity towards goodness. The Scottish philosopher David Hume observed:

‘How great soever the variety of municipal laws, it must be confessed, that their chief out-lines pretty regularly concur; because the purposes, to which they tend, are everywhere exactly similar.’ [5]

Though social anthropologists have observed huge variation in cultural traditions, the human moral passions exist to ensure co-operation and ultimately the perpetuation of our genes. But it’s so important to appreciate that this series of mutations – which has led to genuine compassion for others, is a real force that exists in each and every one of us. The fact that evolution has preserved this disposition doesn’t mean that kindness is just an evolutionary mechanism. With the constant barrage of ISIS atrocities and stories of lavish-bonuses in the finance sector, it’s easy to forget that although humans are capable of great wrongdoing, our natural stat is not one of war but of understanding. At the core of human nature – whether religious, secular or spiritual, is a profound evolutionary disposition towards compassion, fairness and kindness.

Geoff Keeling studies in the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics. He is a humanist interested in philosophy of biology and cognitive science. He can be reached at



[1] Thomas Hobbes (1651) Leviathan

[2] See O Curry (2005) Morality as Natural History or R Dawkins (1976) The Selfish Gene for a good explanation of this. For the original paper see GS Wilkinson (1988) Reciprocal Altruism in Bats and Other Mammals Ethology and Sociobiology pp85 – 100

[3] R Trivers (1972) The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism Quarterly Review of Biology pp35-57

[4] F de Waal (2005) Our Inner Ape Granta Books p2

[5] David Hume (1989/ 1777) Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals Oxford University Press p202