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Aristotle: Happiness is an Activity

by July 14, 2020

Written by Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

“For contemplation is both the highest form of activity (since the intellect is the highest thing in us, and the objects that it apprehends are the highest things that can be known), and also it is the most continuous because we are more capable of continuous contemplation than we are of any practical activity.” ~ Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Our five-week-long inquiry into ancient moral philosophy naturally culminates with Aristotle and his philosophical text known as the Nicomachean Ethics. As we will see, Aristotle asserts ideas that are reminiscent of the Stoics, putting emphasis on attainment of virtue within our lives. However, unlike the Stoics, Aristotle does not rely on a divine cosmology to make his case. Instead, he leans heavily on formalized logic (something he is credited with discovering) and what might be considered a rudimentary form of the scientific method.
At the opening of Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle asks us “…what kind of thing is pleasure?” A notion that we might take for granted, it is very essential to Aristotle’s moral philosophy that we adequately answer this question.
Aristotle at Freiburg

Bronze statue, University of Freiburg, Germany, 1915

Aristotle concludes that pleasure is not a process or a state of being. Instead, he asserts that pleasure is an activity, something that we do. More precisely, pleasure is the thing that completes an activity. The philosopher makes a point to say that pleasure completes an activity so long as the subject and the object of the activity are in a suitable condition.
If we were to examine a shipbuilder, for example, we would first have to conclude that the shipbuilder is appropriately healthy and suitably prepared to partake in the activity of shipbuilding. Also, we would have to be sure that the object of the activity (the ship) is constructed from appropriate materials that are in good condition. If we can conclude both of these things, then we can safely assume that the shipbuilder will be capable of building his ship; at the completion of this activity, there will be pleasure. A shipbuilder, insofar as he is a shipbuilder, will inevitably find pleasure in building ships.
So we have seen that pleasure is the natural end of an activity. Different people will certainly enjoy different activities more than others. The lover of philosophy will find the activity of philosophizing pleasurable, the lover of music will find music to be pleasurable, and so on.
flute player

Youth playing the flute and riding a dolphin. Red-figure stamnos, 360–340 BC. From Etruria. According to Aristotle, the lover of music can even find pleasure playing the flute on the back of a dolphin!

Aristotle then tells us that life is an activity and, as is true with all activities, pleasure should be the natural end for life. Finding the appropriate pleasure for our lives means arriving at a happy life, which Aristotle believed was synonymous with a good life.
And so we seem to have concluded that finding the appropriate pleasure within our lives as human beings will lead us to happiness, which will lead us to a good life. But this, rather obviously, leads us to another question: What is the appropriate pleasure?
Recall that the hedonists believed bodily pleasures were our ticket to a happy life. Aristotle considers this but ultimately rejects the notion. Does it seem rational to say that all of our struggles, our fears, our hardships, and our miseries are suffered only so that we may eat and drink as much as we please? Aristotle thought such an idea implausible.
Aristotle also did not agree with the Ethical Egoists, who declared that a pleasurable life is one where we conquer our fellow man and assert ourselves above society. While some might find pleasure in this, Aristotle believed that certain pleasures were better than others. We should make a point to find these most perfect pleasures.

Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC; the alabaster mantle is a modern addition.

To do this, Aristotle asks us to imagine a hypothetical man who is perfect in every way imaginable. This ideal human would find pleasure in that which is most perfect. What is this pleasure that is most noble and honorable? Aristotle tells us that it is the active expression of virtue.
A happy life and a good life are synonymous. We only find a happy life if we find our most appropriate pleasure as rational beings. Our most appropriate pleasure is the active expression of virtue. Finally, we must ask, which virtue is the truest, the most honorable, and the noblest? Believe it or not, not all virtues are created equal.
Aristotle makes a point that some virtues are self-sufficient while other virtues require external things in order for that virtue to be realized. For instance, generosity is only possible if we have an excess of resources and other citizens to receive our generosity. Justice, although important, requires other citizens to receive our just acts. Virtues such as these are not self-sufficient.
Then we arrive at wisdom, which requires nothing external to be realized. We may pursue wisdom for our own pleasure and we require nobody else to have this virtue realized. Additionally, learning is the one activity that we may consistently do throughout our lives. While variables may interfere with our abilities to be generous or just, there is no reason why we should ever stop pursuing wisdom.
plato and aristotle

The School of Athens by Raphael (1509–1510), fresco at the Apostolic Palace, Vatican City.

Aristotle also appeals to the gods to make his case for a life in pursuit of wisdom. He states that the gods are most assuredly all-knowing, and so by pursuing a life of wisdom we come closer to the divine.
Aristotle does note that some may disagree with this, saying that we are mortal and should, therefore, think mortal thoughts; he dismisses these notions. Instead, the philosopher urges us not to settle for mediocrity. We ought to pursue that which is most important, most pleasurable, and most divine.
We must not listen to those who urge us to think human thoughts since we are human, and mortal thoughts since we are mortal; rather, we should as far as possible immortalize ourselves and do all we can to live according to the finest element within us—for if it is small in bulk, it is far greater than anything else in power and worth. ~ Nicomachean Ethics
You may now be realizing that Aristotle and the Stoics arrived at similar conclusions. Both tell us that a life in pursuit of wisdom is the best type of life. However, the Stoics believed that we ought to pursue wisdom for the sake of duty. Aristotle, rather simply, tells us that we ought to pursue wisdom because it will make us happiest. We need no other reason than this. Additionally, we need not accept the divine cosmology of the Stoics in order to live a good life. Aristotle’s philosophy is based upon systematic logic and empirical observations that many would agree with.
Aristotle and Seneca

Aristotle (above) and Seneca (below).

Therefore, it can be concluded that the Nicomachean Ethics is the most accessible and the most all-encompassing of the moral philosophies presented in this series. It remains a cornerstone of ancient ethical philosophy, leading those who might seek happiness toward enlightenment and a life well-lived.

Pyrrho: The Greek Buddha

by July 10, 2020

Written by Doug Bates, Founder of the Modern Pyrrhonism Movement and Author of Pyrrho’s Way: The Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism 
Even in antiquity Westerners looked to India for wisdom. The Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus tried to go there but had to turn back. Some people claim – on scant evidence – that Jesus went there. But there’s only one Westerner from antiquity that we know went to India and brought back something that profoundly influences Western thought to this day. His name was Pyrrho. He was a priest at the Temple of Zeus at Olympia and a philosopher in the tradition of Democritus. Upon his return to Greece, he became the founder of the philosophy of Pyrrhonism.
Pyrrho successfully made the trip because he was a member of Alexander the Great’s court during Alexander’s conquest of everything from Greece to India. Alexander had assigned the philosophers in his court to learn everything they could about the philosophies of his newly conquered lands. Pyrrho spent a year and a half in India doing exactly that.
In the 19th Century, when Buddhist texts were starting to become available in European languages, scholars began noticing uncanny similarities between Pyrrhonism and Buddhism. Nietzsche even called Pyrrho “a Buddha.” Eventually, Christopher Beckwith, a philologist specializing in the ancient languages used on the Silk Road connecting trade between the ancient civilizations of the East and the West, proved that Pyrrho had borrowed key ideas from Buddhism.
The most identifiable Buddhist ideas that influenced Pyrrho were nirvana, the Three Marks of Existence, the Three Poisons and their Antidotes, and the idea that the root cause of our mental suffering is delusion – all of which he reshaped to make them compatible with Greek thought.

Pyrrho, ancient Greek philosopher. From Thomas Stanley, (1655), The history of philosophy: containing the lives, opinions, actions and Discourses of the Philosophers of every Sect, illustrated with effigies of divers of them.

On top of this Buddhist philosophical foundation, Pyrrho built an innovative technique. For reasons we can only speculate about, he did not bring back to Greece the Buddhist technique of meditation. Instead, he took techniques that already existed in Greek thought – principally from Democritus, Protagoras, Gorgias, and the Megarians – synthesizing them and repurposing them to achieve ends that meditation achieves.
Nearly all of Western philosophy serves the end of building up the ego. Look at how clever we humans are for figuring all this stuff out! We are as gods! Pyrrhonism, like Buddhism, is an assault on the ego. To be successful in that assault, Pyrrhonism was built to breach the philosophical conceits of the Western ego.
Pyrrhonism turns rationality against itself. It employs the same tools we use to build up our sense of who we are and what our world is to dismantle those constructions, leaving each of us with what is known in the metaphorical language of Zen as our original face: the face we had before our parents were born.
As a consequence, Pyrrhonism has induced viscerally negative reactions from other philosophers, from antiquity to modernity. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus – famous for urging people to “bear and forbear” – was so riled by Pyrrhonism that he thought Pyrrhonists should be tortured (Discourses Book 2 Chapter 20).

Imaginary engraving of the philosopher Pyrrho of Elis. From the 1580 book Illustrium philosophorum et sapientum effigies ab eorum numistatibus extractae, by Girolamo Olgiati. Reprinted 1583.

In his book, Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia, Christopher Beckwith demonstrated that Pyrrho translated the Buddhist Three Marks of Existence into ancient Greek and made them the foundation for his teachings.
In Pali, the three marks are known as anicca, dukkha, and anatta. This can be translated into English as saying all conditioned things are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and without self; although how dukkha and anatta should be properly understood and translated is a subject of much debate.
The Greeks were already well familiar with impermanence. Heraclitus, one of the earliest Greek philosophers, described impermanence with his famous saying: “one cannot step into the same river twice.” Pyrrho chose the Greek word anepikrita to represent this concept and made it the last in his list of terms. This Greek word not only means “unfixed,” but also means “undecidable” and “unjudgeable,” which point to Pyrrho’s conclusions about the nature of things.
For dukkha, Pyrrho chose the Greek term, astathmēta. Dukkha is commonly translated into English as “suffering,” but the term also points out the nature and origins of this suffering. Dukkha originally referred to the unsatisfactory and unpleasant wheel rotation caused by a faulty axle or axle hole. The term then became applied to the cyclical and unsatisfactory nature of human existence.
Astathmēta reflects this meaning, as it means “unstable” and “unbalanced.” The Greek term felicitously adds the connotation of “unmeasurable” as it was commonly applied with respect to weighing things on balance scales – an object that would become the very symbol of Pyrrhonism – and it points to one of the key concerns of Pyrrhonism: that there is no criterion of truth providing any stable basis for judgment.

Bronze balance pans and lead weights, Vapheio tholos tomb, Laconia. Late Helladic (LH) II (15th c. BCE) National Museum, Athens. Source: InstMC

Pyrrho put his translation of anatta first in his list, perhaps because it so well countered Aristotle’s arguments against Democritus. Buddhist teachings commonly emphasize the personal implications of anatta – that we have no real selves, no soul, nothing that is essentially us. Humans, however, are no special case. No physical thing has those attributes.
Democritus had already pointed to this in his famous saying “by convention sweet and by convention bitter, by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention color; but in reality atoms and void.” In other words, we have no firm basis for knowing that the attributes we agree that objects have are really there. All we really know is that the objects are conditioned things, just as the Buddha pointed out.
Aristotle disagreed with Democritus. He claimed that things do have essences, known now as Aristotelian “substances.” And because things have essences, things can be logically distinguished through what is now known as Aristotelian “differentia” – Latin for the Greek term Aristotle used – diaphora – differences in the essences. Pyrrho translated anatta as adiaphora to negate Aristotle’s claim. There are no diaphora. Things have no metaphysical substance or essence that allows the kind of neat, logical categorizing that Aristotle claims.
Buddhists call this “dependent origination.” The ancient writer, Aulus Gellius, described the same idea in Pyrrhonism, saying “…there is nothing at all that is self-dependent or which has its own power and nature, but that absolutely all things have reference to something else….” (Attic Nights XI, 5, 6-7)
Aulus Gellius

Frontispiece to a 1706 Latin edition of the Attic Nights by Jakob Gronovius

In the Classical era, the Pyrrhonists were always a minority. In the Medieval era, Aristotle’s views would so come to dominate that he would become known simply as “the philosopher.” Indeed, we wouldn’t even have known that Pyrrho based his teachings on the Three Marks of Existence were it not for Eusebius, a Christian apologist who copied Aristotelian arguments against Pyrrhonism from a book by the Peripatetic philosopher, Aristocles of Messene.
Pyrrhonism made a come-back in the Renaissance with the publishing of the works of the ancient Pyrrhonist philosopher, Sextus Empiricus. This created what was known as the Crise Pyrrhonienne – the Pyrrhonian Crisis – which put all of existing philosophy into doubt. This attracted many converts to Pyrrhonism, most famously Michel de Montaigne. Afterward, Pyrrhonism fell again into obscurity.
In 1974 the best-selling philosophy book of all time was published: Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In that book the author’s alter-ego, Phaedrus, sides with the Sophists and rails against Aristotle, making a point similar to that which Pyrrho made long ago.
Phaedrus saw Aristotle as tremendously satisfied with this neat little stunt of naming and classifying everything. His world began and ended with this stunt. The reason why, if he were not more than two thousand years dead, he would have gladly rubbed him out is that he saw him as a prototype for the many millions of self-satisfied and truly ignorant teachers throughout history who have smugly and callously killed the creative spirit of their students with this dumb ritual of analysis, this blind, rote, eternal naming of things…the desiccating lifeless voice of dualistic reason.

Depiction of Sextus Empiricus.

Pirsig also pointed out that universities hardly bother to teach ethics today, unlike when he was a student. Yet, people continue to be interested in the pursuit of eudaimonia. Stoicism has come to enjoy a remarkable modern revival. Epicureanism, too, now has many modern adherents. Pyrrhonism seems poised for a similar resurgence, as it represents a reformulation of Buddhist ideas to make them more understandable to Westerners.

Stoicism: A Life In Accordance With Nature

by July 7, 2020

Written by Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

“That which exercises reason is more excellent than that which does not exercise reason; there is nothing more excellent than the universe, therefore the universe exercises reason.”

~ Zeno of Citium

Stoicism departs rather dramatically from the previous schools of thought we’ve been covering. With an emphasis on suppressing our desires for materialistic pleasures and promoting the pursuit of virtue for the sake of duty, Stoicism takes a different route to arrive at a good life.
Stoicism and Epicureanism are often contrasted with each other, and that is rather fair. Both schools of philosophy arose during the Hellenistic age of Greece when the political revolution of Alexander the Great had stripped the individual from his insulation within a city-state and thrust him into an interconnected and vastly expanded society.

Zeno of Citium.

New schools of thought emerged to compensate for the small individual lost in a big world. Epicurus believed that the universe, the soul, and whatever gods may exist were all composed of atoms. There is no system, no grand design outside of the life of a man. Death is merely the dispersion of atoms and is rather inconsequential. Man is, therefore, his own guide to a satisfactory life, and should spend his time pursuing modest pleasures and avoiding pain and fear.
Stoicism, founded by Zeno of Citium, took the complete opposite view of the universe. Rather than viewing the universe as inconsequential, the Stoics attributed great importance to nature and the structure of our world. As a result, their moral philosophy stood in stark contrast to that of the Cyrenaics or the Epicureans.
However, before we explain the Stoic’s moral philosophy, we must first examine their cosmology, their philosophy of the universe. You simply can not grasp the former without understanding the latter.
Dance to time

A Dance to the Music of Time, Nicolas Poussin (1640). The Wallace Collection, London.

The Stoics believed that the universe was expertly designed and operated in a way that was perfectly logical. Taking a page from the pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, the Stoics saw the universe as being governed by a divine, logical force that touched all things and admitted no exceptions.
To the Stoics, nature is the guiding principle. Interestingly, nature was also synonymous with God. Since nature (or God, if you prefer) is the highest form of goodness, a good life is one in accordance with nature.
To achieve this we must recognize the unimportance of non-essentials like luxury, wealth, and bodily pleasure. The potentiality for reason that exists within humans is the one thing that separates us from all other natural creations.
And so we see that “live according to nature” takes on two meanings. We ought to live by recognizing and consciously accepting the grand design of the universe. Also, we should live according to our human nature, which the Stoics believed was the cultivation of absolute reason.
marcus aurelius

Piazza del Campidoglio (Rome, Italy). Statue of Marcus Aurelius, perhaps the only person worth the name of “philosopher-king.”

Man’s goal in life is, therefore, attainment of perfect reason. A peasant can be happy so long as he is a sage, but a king will be miserable unless he is also a sage.
Additionally, the peasant ought not to languish about his lot in life, for his place within the world is part of the grand design and therefore is perfectly logical. This can be said about all conventional evils that man suffers. War, death, disease, and poverty are all parts of an expertly crafted universe. We should not spend our days fretting over such woes, but accept them as all part of the plan.
These ideas are often difficult to accept for modern readers. How could it be that a peasant could be happier than a king, given the disparity of wealth?
The Stoics did acknowledge that certain individuals were given more counters than others within the game of life. However, these treasures do not speak to your true self, your inner virtuousness, and so they are of little consequence. Also, while having more poker chips might make it easier to win, the Stoics believed that the goal of life was not to triumph over your fellow man. The goal was to play well, a task that was possible whether you possessed all the riches or none.

Artistic impression of Epictetus.

Objections to Stoicism
The philosophy of Stoicism seems appealing, but we tend to run into a few roadblocks when trying to live according to its teachings.
The Stoics believed that virtue alone is good, vice alone evil, and everything else should be treated with absolute indifference. Suffering, fear, and death are all things of no consequence to us. The Stoics aimed at ethical perfection, but nothing short of perfection will do.
We must ask, is it even possible to completely disregard our own sufferings for the sake of appealing to a divine universal force? Because if we fall short of this, then we also fall short of the perfect life described by the early Stoics. Whether we lose by an inch or a mile, losing is still losing.
Death of Seneca

The Death of Seneca by Domínguez Sánchez, Manuel.

The attainment of ethical perfection according to Stoicism is so difficult in fact, that we might be hard-pressed to find a philosopher who was able to live up to the lofty standards. If asked for an example of a person who exercised perfect reason, the Stoics might point uncertainly to Socrates or Diogenes of Sinope. Other than that, it would be difficult to say for certain.
Therefore, Stoicism requires us to accept a divine cosmology, disregard all of our sufferings, and cultivate ourselves toward absolute reason. If we stumble on any one of these, the entire pursuit is lost. That seems rather difficult, and perhaps there is a more forgiving philosophy that we could subscribe to instead.

Epicureanism: Death Does Not Concern Us

by June 30, 2020

Written by Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

“It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly.

And it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life.”

~ Epicurus, The Principal Doctrines

The philosophy of the hedonists, as discussed last week, seems appealing, so long as we don’t examine it too closely. Still, that does not mean that we must disregard all of hedonism. Certainly, a life of pleasure is not the worst thing we could think of when asking “how should I live?” Perhaps if we could amend the philosophy so that it more accurately reflects the capabilities and limitations of human life, then we might find a workable moral philosophy.
Epicureanism attempts to do just that. Named for the philosopher Epicurus of Samos, Epicureanism grew in popularity as an ethical philosophy after the death of Aristotle during the Hellenistic age of Greece. It is often unfairly lumped in with the teachings of Aristippus and the Cyrenaics. While Epicurus did promote life in pursuit of pleasure, there was a rather crucial difference between the Epicureans and the Cyrenaics.

Portrait of Epicurus, founder of the Epicurean school. Roman copy after a lost Hellenistic original.

While Aristippus tells us that the best life is one in pursuit of pleasures, often to excess, Epicurus’ philosophy tends to be more realistic. Rather than indulging in an excess of pleasure, Epicurus teaches us to find contentment and tranquility by avoiding pain and fear while seeking out modest pleasures. Rather than going to the bar and drinking half a dozen beers, we ought to enjoy two glasses of fine wine over dinner. Instead of consuming a dozen doughnuts in one sitting, we ought to take pleasure in a simple, suitably sized meal.
So when we say that pleasure is the goal we do not mean the pleasures of the profligate or the pleasures of consumption… but rather the lack of pain in the body and disturbance in the soul. For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men’s souls. ~ Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus
An old philosophy professor once told me that if Cyrenaic hedonism were a genre of music, it would be heavy metal. Epicureanism, on the other hand, would be classical piano or slow jazz.
That comparison is rather apt. Both philosophies propose a life in pursuit of pleasure. The difference being that strict hedonism often encourages excess, while Epicureanism consciously avoids it. It can be said that the final end of a life devoted to Epicureanism is a sense of tranquility, peacefulness, and contentment from the occasional enjoyment of simple pleasures—both of the body and the mind.
I recommend constant activity in the study of nature; and with this sort of activity more than any other I bring calm to my life. ~ Epicurus, Letter to Herodotus
Epicurus 2

Marble sculpture depicting Epicurus enthroned

An interesting aspect of Epicurus’ philosophy is his view on death and the impact it ought to have on life. Epicurus subscribed to the atomist’s theory of the soul. This simply means that Epicurus believed that the soul was a physical part of the body. Upon our deaths, the soul simply fades into nonexistence, into nothingness.
This would imply that the soul does not move on to another realm of existence (heaven or hell). Death marks an end of being, a cessation of any sensory or emotional stimulation. Upon our death, we feel no pain or fear. In fact, we feel nothing at all, because our consciousness has ceased to exist.
So death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us; since when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist. ~ Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus
Epicurus believed that the majority of human suffering was caused by our irrational fear of death. This fear often prevents us from enjoying our lives; it denies us our tranquility and calm. If we could accept that death is neither frightening nor painful, but simply the natural conclusion to life, then we would live a fuller, more enjoyable existence.

Marble relief from the first or second century showing the mythical transgressor Ixion being tortured on a spinning fiery wheel in Tartarus. Epicurus taught that stories of such punishment in the afterlife are ridiculous superstitions and that believing in them prevents people from attaining ataraxia.

Objections to Epicureanism:
Epicurus certainly faced criticism during his own life. His insistence that the human soul is nothing more than a collection of atoms, and that sense-perception ends with death, caused others to believe that Epicurus was an atheist—a rather serious accusation during the times of Hellenistic Greece. Epicureanism as a philosophy suffered due to Epicurus’ reputation as a blasphemer. 
Therefore, so long as the soul remains in the body, even though some other part of the body be lost, it will never lose sensation… On the other hand the rest of the structure, though it continues to exist either as a whole or in part, does not retain sensation, if it has once lost that sum of atoms, however small it be, which together goes to produce the nature of the soul. Moreover, if the whole structure is dissolved, the soul is dispersed and no longer has the same powers nor performs its movements, so that it does not possess sensation either. ~ Epicurus, Letter to Herodotus
So, when shall be no more – when the union of body and spirit that engenders us has been disrupted – to us, who shall then be nothing, nothing by any hazard will happen any more at all. Nothing will have power to stir our senses, not though earth be fused with sea and sea with sky. ~ Lucretius, De Rerum Natura
Epicurus’s philosophy leaves little, if any, room for divinity or faith. The universe consists of only atoms and empty space. If there is a God, then he has no sway over our lives. We are the sole authors of our story.
First of all believe that god is a being immortal and blessed, even as the common idea of a god is engraved on men’s minds, and do not assign to him anything alien to his immortality or ill-suited to his blessedness: but believe about him everything that can uphold his blessedness and immortality. For gods there are, since the knowledge of them is by clear vision. But they are not such as the many believe them to be: for indeed they do not consistently represent them as they believe them to be. And the impious man is not he who denies the gods of the many, but he who attaches to the gods the beliefs of the many. For the statements of the many about the gods are not conceptions derived from sensation, but false suppositions, according to which the greatest misfortunes befall the wicked and the greatest blessings the good by the gift of the gods. For men being accustomed always to their own virtues welcome those like themselves, but regard all that is not of their nature as alien. ~ Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus
In order to live happily, according to Epicurus, we must purge ourselves of pain and fear. We can only do this by accepting that death is of no real significance. However, the argument for the unimportance of death calls for a rejection of divinity and, by extension, God.

First-century AD Roman fresco from Pompeii, showing the mythical human sacrifice of Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon. Epicurus’s devoted follower, the Roman poet Lucretius, cited this myth as an example of the evils of popular religion, in contrast to the more wholesome theology advocated by Epicurus.

For many people, this would appear a drastic step. The nonexistence, or at least the insignificance, of God, is something that many people will not concede.
Here we see that Epicureanism begins to alienate those who would seek a happy life, but do not wish to abandon their faith. In this way, the philosophy of Epicurus can be a bit polarizing. It can be argued then that Epicureanism lacks the breadth that we might hope to find in moral philosophy.

Cyrenaic Hedonism: A Life in Pursuit of Pleasure

by June 25, 2020

Written by Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom 

“If it were wrong to be extravagant, it would not be in vogue at the festivals of the gods.”

~ Aristippus (Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers)

We have seen, through our examination of ethical egoism last week, that some philosophers believed that the best life consisted of getting whatever we want, so long as whatever we want is admirable or good. That then leaves us with a tricky question: what types of things are considered admirable and good? The ancient philosopher Aristippus had a rather controversial answer. 
Aristippus was an ancient hedonistic philosopher born in the city of Cyrene, in what is now Libya. Due to his birthplace, the particular school of hedonism that he developed would come to be known as “Cyrenaic Hedonism.” 
According to this branch of hedonism, pleasure is universally accepted as being ‘good’, and pain is universally accepted as being ‘bad’. Because of this, we can conclude that the best life, or the good life, consists of seeking out pleasure and avoiding any form of pain. Cyrenaic hedonism holds, then, that the only good in life is that which is pleasurable, and that the best life is one which is most pleasurable. 

Aristippus of Cyrene. Engraving by J.W. Cook, 1825.

When the Cyrenaics used the word ‘pleasure’ they were not talking about the virtuous pleasures described in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Instead, they focused on the hedonistic pleasures of the body. 
Luxury, food, sex, and wine are all fair game according to the Cyrenaics. Indulging is not a selfish activity. Indulgence is a way of life—a way to the best life, to be more specific. 
It is rather important to remember that the hedonists were not attempting to say that pleasure, in general, is good and that we should attempt to produce as much pleasure within this world as possible. Rather, our pleasure is what is of most value. We should pursue this pleasure for no other reason than for our happiness. This is rather crucial for our understanding of hedonism as a way of life for the individual and not as a design for universal flourishing. 
The comparison between ethical egoism and Cyrenaic hedonism is unavoidable. Certainly, the ideas of Aristippus and the sophist, Callicles, overlap in many ways. Both recommend a life in pursuit of pleasures as the best one, while disregarding the conventional ideas of justice, humility, and temperance. 

Ruins of Cyrene (Shahhat), Libya.

The difference is that while Callicles seemed a bit unsure about what it is we should exactly pursue, Aristippus has no doubts: We ought to pursue pleasure—end of story. However, there are a few problems with this idea. 
Objections to Cyrenaic Hedonism: 
The hedonists believed that pleasure was fundamentally good, and that pain was fundamentally bad. Therefore, we should live a life in pursuit of the former while avoiding the latter. The problem that arises is that pain and pleasure often complement one another. 
While we might find pleasure in getting ridiculously drunk, such activity is undeniably followed by the pains of nausea and headaches. We might believe that dining on delicious cuisines is pleasurable, but it is only through suffering through the pangs of hunger that we appreciate the taste of food. It is impossible to consider pleasure and pain as being mutually exclusive. You simply cannot have one without the other. 
If we cannot enjoy pleasure without pain, then it seems difficult to imagine how a life could be lived in pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, since to pursue pleasure is to experience pain. 

Erotic fresco from the lupanar, Pompeii, first century AD. Photo by Frédéric Soltan © Getty Images. Source: History Today.

It seems, then, that Cyrenaic hedonism is impracticable and therefore more attractive (if it is attractive at all, for that matter) as a theory than as a way of life. This is important to keep in mind since it is believed by the Cyrenaics that if our society were to do away with the conventional ideas of temperance and moderation, human beings would naturally gravitate towards a life of bodily pleasure. Whether that is the case or not remains uncertain, but the idea that the best life consists of pursuing bodily pleasures remains popular to this day.

Broken Down by Force: On Seneca and the Power of His Word

by June 19, 2020

Written by Mariami Shanshashvili, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Not many historical events in the annals of our civilization are so universally well-known that they need no introduction. The death of Socrates is one such momentous event.
An unfading scene firmly entrenched in all our minds; for most of us, dictated by the iconic painting of Jacques-Louis David: grey-haired, bolt upright Socrates, ringed round with a circle of his closest disciples and friends, adamantly holding up the fatal Hemlock cup, and having his last words uttered, readily facing his death with phenomenal equanimity.
However, the Ancient World was witness to the suicide sentence of another great philosopher: a scene no less soul-stirring, but far less fixed in memory. 456 years after Socrates’ death, Emperor Nero ordered his aged tutor and advisor, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, to take his own life.
Nero and Seneca

Nero and Seneca, by Eduardo Barrón (1904). Museo del Prado

Seneca had been accused of complicity in the Pisonian conspiracy to assassinate Nero, though he was most likely innocent. According to Tacitus’s account (Annals 15.61), when the news of the Emperor’s orders reached Seneca, he,
nothing daunted, asked for the tablets containing his will. The centurion refusing, he turned to his friends, and called them to witness that “as he was prevented from showing his gratitude for their services, he left them his sole but fairest possession — the image of his life [imago vitae suae]. If they bore it in mind, they would reap the reward of their loyal friendship in the credit accorded to virtuous accomplishments.” At the same time, he recalled them from tears to fortitude, sometimes conversationally, sometimes in sterner, almost coercive tones. “Where,” he asked, “were the maxims of your philosophy? Where that reasoned attitude towards impending evils which they had studied through so many years? For to whom had Nero’s cruelty been unknown? Nor was anything left him, after the killing of his mother and his brother, but to add the murder of his guardian and preceptor.
After these and some similar remarks, Seneca embraced his wife, relieved her sorrows, and asked her not to grieve excessively. But Pompeia Paulina, determined to share her husband’s fate, had already resolved to die by his side.
Seneca's Death

Woodcut illustration of the suicide of Seneca and the attempted suicide of his wife Pompeia Paulina

They severed the veins on their arms, but Seneca’s aged body, emaciated further by his frugal diet, bled too slowly. He then cut the arteries in his legs and knees, hoping this would give escape to the stiffened blood. With all his attempts unsuccessful, Seneca asked his wife to withdraw into another room, for she was already tormented enough by her wounds to witness the agonizing struggles of her exhausted husband. However, with or without her knowledge, Pompeia was saved on Nero’s orders, and she made no more efforts to take her life.
Seneca, in the meantime, dictated his last discourse to the scribes and asked his close friend to prepare the poison – a method provided in the old days of Athens. When even the poison did not aid his protracted death, Seneca submerged himself in a bath filled with heated water and at last, departed this life. “Whenever his last day comes, the sage will not hesitate to go to his death with a sure step” (De Brevitate Vitae, 11.2) – these are the words he wrote and lived by to the very end.
This episode of Seneca’s life is significant not only by its impressive and memorable acts but also because it is an illustrious manifestation of his philosophical convictions and fundamental values. Judge it for yourself.
Death of Seneca

Manuel Domínguez Sánchez, The suicide of Seneca (1871), Museo del Prado

Out of the three main philosophers of Roman Stoicism – Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius – Seneca was the only one who wrote in Latin. And, what is more, he could be justifiably regarded as the single most important figure of the Stoic tradition.
Seneca’s works encompass both the foundational principles of early Stoicism and the intense ethical focus of the later Roman Stoicism. However, it would not be a surprise to note that his thought reaches its true zenith when he grapples with the question of how to live. Let us take a closer look.
The central paradigm of Stoic philosophy lies in its view of Nature. Nature, which, for the Stoics, is roughly equivalent to God, is not only organized most rationally and fittingly, but it steers the totality of things to the best and the most harmonious end.
Nature is infused with the divine principle, which is essentially just and rational. Therefore, Seneca often remarks in various ways that the highest good is to live according to Nature. Disregarding the laws of Nature, let alone opposing them, is a blind and vain act only of a mindless man. And that single law of Nature that must never slip out of sight is death.
Seneca by Vorsterman

Seneca by Vorsterman, Lucas. Datierung: 1610 / 1675

Everything that happens originates from necessity and is an inviolable component of the order woven into the chain of causes. Seneca believed that the dread of the imminent end should be surmounted through the practice of “Memento Mori” – consistent meditation on death.
Death looms all the while, and like it or not, you have to accommodate it” (De Brevitate Vitae, 8.5)
Reflecting on our mortality and anticipating the soul’s release from bodily captivity liberates us from the fear of death. And what other fears could take hold of one who was overcome the dread of death itself?
In his work De Tranquillitate Animi, Seneca illustrates his reasoning with a memorable story: Julius Canus – held in high esteem by Seneca – was condemned to death by Caligula. He was playing chess when the centurion arrived to drag him off to execution. Hearing the order, he nodded to the centurion and said: “You will bear witness that I am one pawn ahead.”
Death of Seneca

In deep water… a detail from the Death of Seneca by Rubens. Photograph: Gianni Dagli Orti/ Gianni Dagli Orti/Corbis. Source: The Guardian.

With all this in mind, it should come as no surprise that Seneca attempted to relieve a grieving mother who lost her son not by offering traditional consolations, but by prompting her to reflect on the nature of death:
Let others use soft measures and caresses; I have determined to do battle with your grief; I cannot now influence so strong a grief by polite and mild measures: it must be broken down by force” (De Consolatione ad Marciam, I)
To lose a son is surely a tragedy beyond the grasp of words, but in a world laden with unforeseen catastrophes and premature deaths, is it wise to count ourselves among the safe and invulnerable? Yet we cling onto this shortsighted mindset, “because we never expect that any evil will befall ourselves before it comes, we will not be taught by seeing the misfortunes of others that they are the common inheritance of all men, but imagine that the path which we have begun to tread is free from them and less beset by dangers than that of other people” (De Consolatione ad Marciam, IX).
Death of Seneca

La morte di Seneca, olio su tela, Musée du Petit-Palais, Parigi

Always expect the worst, Seneca tells us, for if Fortune determines it to be, so it will, and when the misery finally befalls us, it will not catch us heedless and unaware.
“We are deceived and weakened by this delusion, when we suffer what we never foresaw that we possibly could suffer: but by looking forward to the coming of our sorrows we take the sting out of them when they come” (De Consolatione ad Marciam, IX)
We cannot control the necessity-stirred network of events, say the Stoics, since we are bound to come to naught against the reign of Fortune. Yet, we can, and we ought to, become the masters of ourselves.
Our minds are constituted by the same rational principle that governs the universe; therefore, we are rational beings in essence, and with the power of rational judgment – the only power we truly possess – we can take control over our emotional responses and state of mind. In a word, not the course of events, but our relation and approach to these events are up to us to choose.

Portrait of Seneca The Younger. Source: Getty Images.

Once you acknowledge calmly that fate is out of your reach and focus instead on making the best use of what is within your control, you are no longer a desperate pawn but a willful participant of this superior game of Fortune. By understanding the limits of our power, we become free, and by practicing the rational restraints of self-discipline, we become masters of ourselves: “For what can there be above the man who rises above Fortune?” (De Brevitate Vitae, 5.3)
Lucius Annaeus Seneca is not a philosopher one should only read to discover sophisticated answers or to be intellectually stimulated. Among other things, what makes his texts of undying value is the flame of solace and encouragement they ignite. But not a single word of his appeases us or fills our hearts with relief: his solace is bitter; his encouragement warns the worst is yet to come.
If so, how do they still give us strength? They do so because we know, we no longer roam blindfolded. We stand firm, in harmony with ourselves and the universe. Seneca’s words do not soothe – they arm. Picture your greatest fears – he says – picture, and make yourself home with them, so you know that if the ordeal comes, you will survive it. And this is exactly what we need to understand: the worst is endurable if we are ready for it from the beginning. The key is to realize this before it is too late.