Discussions on the History of Conscience and Ethics
Jefferson on Epicurus
"I wish I could subjoin [to the Philosophy of Jesus (i.e., The Jefferson Bible)] a translation of Gosindi's Syntagma of the doctrines of Epicurus, which, notwithstanding the calumnies of the Stoics and caricature of Cicero, is the most rational system remaining of the philosophy of the ancients, as frugal of vicious indulgence, and fruitful of virtue as the hyperbolical extravagances of his rival sects." --Thomas Jefferson to Charles Thompson, 1816.
"I take the liberty of observing that you are not a true disciple of our master Epicurus, in indulging the indolence to which you say you are yielding. One of his canons, you know, was that 'the indulgence which prevents a greater pleasure, or produces a greater pain, is to be avoided.' Your love of repose will lead, in its progress, to a suspension of healthy exercise, a relaxation of mind, an indifference to everything around you, and finally to a debility of body, and hebetude of mind, the farthest of all things from the happiness which the well-regulated indulgences of Epicurus ensure; fortitude, you know, is one of his four cardinal virtues. That teaches us to meet and surmount difficulties; not to fly from them, like cowards; and to fly, too, in vain, for they will meet and arrest us at every turn of our road." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1819.
Syllabus of the Doctrines of Epicurus
- The Universe eternal.
Its parts, great and small, interchangeable.
Matter and Void alone.
Motion inherent in matter which is weighty and declining.
Eternal circulation of the elements of bodies.
Gods, an order of beings next superior to man, enjoying in their sphere, their own felicities; but not meddling with the concerns of the scale of beings below them.
- Happiness the aim of life.
Virtue the foundation of happiness.
Utility the test of virtue.
Pleasure active and In-do-lent.
In-do-lence is the absence of pain, the true felicity.
Active, consists in agreeable motion; it is not happiness but the means to produce it.
Thus the absence of hunger is an article of felicity; eating the means to obtain it.
- The summum bonum is to be not pained in body, not troubled in mind.
- i.e., In-do-lence of body, tranquility of mind.
To procure tranquillity of mind we must avoid desire and fear, the two principal diseases of the mind.
Man is a free agent.
Virtue consists in 1. Prudence. 2. Temperance. 3. Fortitude. 4. Justice.
To which are opposed, 1. Folly. 2. Desire. 3. Fear. 4. Deceit.
It's interesting that, for those few atheists (and those areligionists like Epicurus who still believe in certain strictly irrelevant and unimportant deities while poohpoohing any worship) of the B.C. era openly professing their skepticism, their beliefs on the nature of the universe frequently run counter to the very notion of there ever having been a beginning to the universe at all. In modern terms, the dichotomy of the Steady State versus Big Bang theory was reflected in the acceptance of a discrete moment of creation (i.e. a Big Bang) by most B.C. orthodox believers and the belief in an eternal (i.e. Steady State) universe by B.C. skeptics. This is also reflected to an extent in the apparent belief in a Steady State by a few atheists of the A.D. era. Many 18th-century freethinkers of the Baron d'Holbach circle apparently subscribed to the Steady State concept as well.
The Epicurean beliefs in deities, albeit in their non-importance, is reflected to a lesser extent in the beliefs of the 18th-century Deists who were skeptical of organized religion but who perhaps regarded deity as of somewhat greater relevance to the affairs of men than either Epicurus or his disciple Lucretius would have conceded. As a Deist, Jefferson was clearly more in sympathy, though, with the "irrelevance" of Deity as espoused by Epicurus than were some of the French Deists such as Voltaire or Rousseau.
Of course, the Epicurean formulation of happiness as the aim of life has begged the question of how one measures happiness in the first place. This has dogged Utopianists throughout the ages. A mathematical approach, conceiving happiness as the greatest contentment of the greatest number, has led to the concept of Utilitarianism, which, unfortunately, could be made to sanction slavery, since, clearly, a minority of persons in the most unhappy bondage could end up ministering to the universal contentment of a whopping majority. The importance of preventing self-evident evil as a critical priority is thus ignored. Epicurus' invoking the concept of utility as the test of virtue was probably not meant to sanction the abject suffering of a few, but it has had that effect. It would be interesting to know whether Thomas Jefferson ever gave any thought to the writings of Jeremy Bentham, the apostle of Utilitarianism and a contemporary of Jefferson's. [Ed. note: Apparently not.]
Epicurus' adjurations against desire and fear are reminiscent of the Buddhist warning that it is desire and fear that encourage the least salutary attachments to the pettiest concerns of self. It remains a source of fascination that so many pioneering thinkers with a groundbreaking concern for wrenching free of petty, selfish wants all lived within a few centuries of Buddha, Confucius, and so on. Socrates, Epicurus, Lao-tze... these are only a few of the pioneers who lived during the middle centuries of the first millenium B.C.
Epicurus and the Big Bang TheoryClifford Sharp
In Jefferson on Epicurus the problem of the Origin of the Universe is raised and the unanswerable question of Why it exists is touched upon. I go along with the view that either the Universe is a Cosmic Jest or it is not-- it may well appear so from humanity’s point of view now, but we cannot foresee what humans will be thinking about it in the future. Meanwhile each culture has evolved myths to explain why it came into being and in particular why conscious life has evolved on this microscopic speck of matter in the immensity of the Universe.
Western science has currently developed the myth of the Big Bang and this seems to serve our current scientific purpose but it has no relevance, to my mind, on the issues involved in morality. Why the Universe exists? and Why conscious life exists on the planet Earth? would be relevant but that is for us, at the moment at any rate, unknowable. Meanwhile we have to say "J'y suis, j'y reste" and look to ourselves for guidance on moral matters which, to my mind, must lead us back to what ‘values’ we should seek to encourage our children, our children’s children and their children to ‘catch.’
Big Bang or not, isn't it true that the universe is eternal? Will the universe die if the Big Bang reverses itself and sucks all matter into a black hole? Was there no universe before the Big Bang occurred? Was there just a void? If there was a void, didn't that constitute its own form of universe -- a predecessor to its own?
Both Epicurus and Jefferson avoided such trivialities. For them, the important thing was that the origin of the universe lacked importance. What was important was how we conduct ourselves on earth. Both philosophers thought we should concentrate on doing good to each other instead of pleasing an unseen and largely uninvolved god or family of gods. Happiness. Virtue. Usefulness. Pleasure. Those are the qualities that define a well-lived life, not toiling over the question of a Big Bang or a Creation by unseen gods. Was it from Epicurus that Jefferson got the idea of including "the pursuit of happiness" as one of our inalienable rights?
Table of Contents for "The Jefferson Bible"