The philosophy of Epicurus

The philosophy of Nature

By Haris Dimitriadis

The Natural Philosophy was founded by Thales, the first ever philosopher to seek for natural causes behind the natural phenomena and the functioning of human beings. The second pillar of Natural Philosophy was Democritus who established the atomic theory and the last and foremost Epicurus who emphasized the implications of the natural processes in the pursuit of human happiness. This claim of the Natural essence and functioning of the world was based on two simple observations: (1) We see that there are bodies in motion, and (2) that nothing comes into existence from what does not exist.

The above experiences form the basis of the atomistic materialism by which Epicurus explained the meteorological occurrences like earthquakes and lightning away from the will of the gods. Epicurus was also against the intrinsic teleology of philosophers like Aristotle who thought that there is apparent purposiveness in nature, that is the functioning of organisms must be explained by their contribution to the operation of a greater whole. Other philosophers, such as the Stoics, took this as evidence for the intelligence and benevolence of God. Epicurus and Natural Philosophy however tries to explain the natural phenomena with natural mechanistic laws and provides a naturalistic account for the formation of the world and the human beings. The human beings are envisaged as have being created in a proto-Darwinian way, as the result of a process of natural selection.

The Natural philosophy and Epicurus support also the corporeal nature of human beings. The mind is an organ in the body, and any mental process is identified with atomic processes. These conclusions are established by the fact that the mind is affected by the body, as vision, drunkenness, and disease show. Likewise, the mind affects the body, as our ability to move our limbs when we want to and the physiological effects of emotional states show. Only bodies can interact with other bodies, so the mind must be a body. Epicurus says that the mind cannot be something incorporeal, as Plato thinks, since the only thing that is not a body is void, which is simply empty space and cannot act or be acted upon.

The corporeal nature of the soul had two crucial consequences. First, it was the basis of demonstration that the soul does not survive the death of the body and so there can be neither punishment after death, nor any regrets for the life that has been lost. Second, that there are no phenomena purely mental, objects of pure consciousness conceived as separate from embodiment. The elementary sensations of pleasure and pain, accordingly, rather than abstract moral principles or abstract concepts of goodness or badness, are the fundamental guides to what is good and bad, since all sentient creatures are naturally attracted to the one and repelled by the other. The function of the human logic is not to seek higher things than those that our feelings reveal; the serious risk that logic runs claims Epicurus is that it may not rely in its judgments on the feelings of pleasure but rather on conceptions and ideas formed under the influence of the social culture.

Epicurus says that the true nature of human beings is revealed through three physical criteria: sensations, emotions and “preconceptions,”(instincts,  talents, deficiencies, experiences). All these criteria are manifested on our body through the emotions they trigger and constitute the true indicators of how we feel. Besides they areeasily recognized due to their dualistic nature. They are either pleasurable or painful and so they form the basic criteria for what is to be sought or avoided.

The causes of unhappiness to Epicurus are the groundless opinions and perceptions on what are the natural desires of human beings. Epicurus offers a classification of desires into three types: (1) The natural and necessary; those that we cannot do without to live happily, (2) the natural and unnecessary; those that give a variety to happiness but do not increase the overall happiness, like sweet odors and good-tasting food and drinks, and (3) the neither natural nor necessary desires, those that are groundless, such as the desire for great wealth or for marks of fame, or for immortality, which cannot exist for human beings and do not correspond to any genuine need. Such desires, accordingly, can never be satisfied, any more than the corresponding fears, e.g., the fear of death can ever be alleviated, since neither has a genuine referent, i.e., death as something harmful (when it is present, we do not exist) or wealth and power as salves for anxiety.

Such empty fears and desires, based on what Epicurus calls kenodoxia or empty belief, are themselves the main source of perturbation and pain in civilized life, where more elementary dangers have been brought under control, since they are the reason why people are driven to strive for limitless wealth and power, subjecting themselves to the very dangers they imagine they are avoiding.

A person who understands what is desirable and what is to be feared would not be motivated to acquire inordinate wealth or power, but would lead a peaceful life to the extent possible, avoiding politics and the general fray. An Epicurean sage, accordingly, would have no motive to violate the rights of others. Whether the sage would be virtuous is perhaps moot; what Epicurus says is that he would live virtuously, that is prudently, honorably, and justly. He would do so not because of an acquired disposition or hexis, as Aristotle had it, but because he knows how to reason correctly about his needs. Hence his desires would be limited to those that are natural (not empty), and so easily satisfied, or at least not a source of disturbance if sometimes unsatisfied.