Transcript: 59 - James Warren on Epicureanism

James Warren of Cambridge University talks to Peter about Epicurus, his atomism, his hedonism and the Epicurean arguments against the fear of death.
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Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: Can you just start by reminding the listeners who Epicurus was and maybe what his primary philosophical views were?

James Warren: Epicurus is one of the first philosophers of what tends to be called the Hellenistic period. So in philosophical terms that's the period of philosophers immediately after Aristotle, up until the first century BC. But he's there right at the beginning. So we're talking about the end of the fourth, the beginning of the third century BC. He was born on the island of Samos to Athenian parents. So he was an Athenian citizen. And he spent some time in Athens in his youth, did quite a bit of travelling and perhaps picked up various philosophical ideas as he travelled around. But we know that by around 306-307 BC he'd settled again in Athens. He'd bought himself a plot of land, the Garden, we call it, and he set up a philosophical school there and attracted various people who would come and spend time and think and talk philosophy there. Those philosophical ideas that they were talking about were centered on, I suppose, two main claims. His first claim was an ethical claim which said that the good life is the life of the greatest pleasure, which sounds like a great idea, but he had a very unusual idea of what the greatest pleasure involves. His second idea, for which he's perhaps famous, is the idea that the world and all of its workings can be explained by reference to it being composed out of atoms moving in the void, which wasn't a new idea by Epicurus' time, but he had various refinements that he would offer to what had been the atomist thesis of his pre-Socratic predecessors, and also tried to systematise the methodology in which you go about working out claims about natural processes.

Peter Adamson: Can I ask you about that, actually? These are quite bold claims, especially the claim about everything being made of atoms moving around in the void. How does he think that we could know this because you don't see it happening?

James Warren: No. No, of course. And he also is a staunch empiricist. So he says, for example, all information you get from the senses is true. So there is, you're quite right, some gap between the way the world appears to us through our senses and this idea that really the world is composed out of these tiny pieces of indivisible matter whirling around. Well, we're fortunate, actually, in that from the Epicurean school we do have various complete texts, like the first book of Lucretius's great poem on nature, Epicurus's own works, and summaries of them, which set out what we can imagine to be their own systematic way of moving from what they took to be pretty obvious claims about how the world is to these more interesting claims about what the world is 'at base,' if you like. So they start off with the idea that our senses immediately declare to us that there are bodies. We bump into them all the time. It's pretty difficult to avoid the idea that there are things around us that resist us. So that's the one claim. Tie that to the idea also that they think must be the case that nothing really ever just pops into existence out of nothing. Nothing disappears out of existence into nothing. Now, again, this isn't news by their time. It's been around for a good 200 years or so.

Peter Adamson: Sounds a bit like Parmenides.

James Warren: Absolutely. So that's one of the first explicit arguments for this thesis. So if you put that together, plus the idea that these bodies that we do bump into around us, they do seem to be able to change. Sometimes they disappear and they might grow. So you might see a tree growing out of the ground. That tree might get chopped down. You put it on the fire and in a way it seems to disappear. So the claim must be given that we agree that nothing really does ever come into existence after nothing or disappear out of existence into nothing, but there are bodies, well, the idea must be that those things that we do perceive around us aren't the fundamental bodies. So these perceived cases of coming to be and passing away must in fact be some kind of rearrangement of some other sorts of things that we don't directly perceive. And these things can't themselves be subject to the kinds of changes and comings to be and passing away that the perceptible bodies are. Otherwise you get a regress and eventually everything gets worn away into nothingness again which we've agreed we can't have.

Peter Adamson: Do you think that that is really very much different from the kind of atomism that you got in the wake of Parmenides and the Eliatics?

James Warren: Good question. We do know, because our sources tell us and Epicurus makes this clear at various times, that he certainly introduced some things that he claimed were innovative in comparison with his atomist predecessors. A lot depends, I suppose, on what you take those predecessors' reasons for holding their atomism to be. So if we're confident that in Epicurus' case the atomism is grounded in a kind of empirical consideration of how best to explain the phenomena that we observe around us, that might well be different from the reasons for which Democritus and Leucippus espouse their atomism. They may well have been thinking more in terms of a reaction to Parmenides or to various Eliatic thinkers. So it wasn't so much a concern to explain the observed phenomenal world in their part as a way of dealing as best they could with this Eliatic challenge in a way that didn't require them to give up on the idea of natural science entirely.

Peter Adamson: In which case original atomism might be here's how there could be many things. The only thing they'd be trying to preserve about our experience is the observation that there are many things.

James Warren: And that there is some degree of change because we often focus on atoms, of course, but I think the void is equally important. That's perhaps as surprising a claim as the idea that there are atoms.

Peter Adamson: That's the really surprising thing, right? There's non-being all around you.

James Warren: Absolutely. And that was a very radical claim, but the Epicureans we know support it by the idea that if there weren't something like the void then nothing could move because everything would be full and squashed together and there'd be no, as it were, no elbow room for any movement to happen. But we do perceive motion, say the Epicureans. That's another one of their ideas that you just have to rely on the truth of that kind of sense impression.

Peter Adamson: Okay, so that's one of the two claims you mentioned at the beginning. That's the atomism. What about the other claim, the hedonism?

James Warren: Hedonism, yes. So hedonism covers quite a variety of different approaches to the good life, but what they all have in common is the idea that ultimately we should pursue the most pleasant life possible, and the most pleasant life possible is the best life possible.

Peter Adamson: And does their hedonism relate to their atomism, or are these just two separate parts of their philosophy such that you could have one without the other?

James Warren: Well, you certainly can have one without the other. There were hedonists, ancient hedonists who weren't atomists.

Peter Adamson: And ancient atomists who weren't hedonists.

James Warren: Absolutely, and I think atomism's got some truth to it, and I'm not sure I'm committed to hedonism because of it. So I don't think they directly follow from one another. On the other hand, you might say that there's a sort of association in the following way. The dependant upon the idea that the world is basically composed out of these atoms and void, the Epicureans also think that that's all you need to explain how the world is the way it is, in the sense both of how it came to be the way that we see it, with such a multitude of various things in it, and colours and shapes and all the rest of it, but also that's all you need to explain how it continues to function in the way that we see it functioning - natural regularities and so on. So they don't feel they need also to suggest that there is, for example, any interventionist divine creator or regulator of the world. They also don't feel the need to posit the existence of transcendent universals or objective moral values of the kind that Plato introduces. So if you have a world view like that, where do you start looking for value in the world? You start by considering what human nature is as you find it. And I think that's really where their hedonism springs from. They have a view that says humans naturally are averse to pain and attracted to pleasure.

Peter Adamson: Is it also connected to this epistemological stance you mentioned earlier that you should trust in the senses, what the senses tell you is true, and presumably the senses tell you that pleasurable things are good things and painful things are bad things? Or is that too simplistic?

James Warren: Well, that's more or less what they do say, in fact, that there are, just as your sense impressions - what your senses tell you, are truthful about the way the world appears, how the world looks or sounds and so on. Also, your reactions of pleasure and pain are, in fact, reliable indicators of what's to be avoided and what's to be pursued. So if something generates pain in you, that's an undeniable sign that it is in some way a bad thing. Now they then have rather sophisticated ideas about the fact that sometimes something that causes you pain could in the long run produce greater pleasure.

Peter Adamson: And something pleasurable could produce pain in the long run, like over-eating.

James Warren: Absolutely. But, of course, that's just an analogue for their idea that just because your senses are reliably reporting the way the world appears to them at the time, you shouldn't necessarily form the opinion that that's just how the world is.

Peter Adamson: The fact that their hedonism is supposed to go along with this kind of empiricist attitude seems to me like it might be in some tension with one of the things Epicurus is most notorious for saying, which is that the greatest pleasure would just be the absence of pain. Because you would think the absence of pain is not something that you could sense, right? In which case, how could it be the greatest pleasure?

James Warren: Well, I think there are two claims there. One is the idea: 'can I sense the absence of pain?' Well, maybe I do have a constant awareness of what kind of state I'm in. If you just assume that you have something that you might call proprioception, you can feel how your body is, you can feel whether you're sick or whether you're doing okay. Then perhaps indeed we do have some constant awareness of how we are. Where you might think it contravenes their empiricist stance is the following: 'I'm sitting here, I don't feel like I'm in any particular pain right now. And although I have various things I ought to be doing, I don't feel I'm in any kind of mental distress either, really. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure I can imagine things that could be happening right now that would make how I'm feeling right now more pleasant than I am currently in. But I can imagine things that might just improve that just a little bit.' So if that's a plausible empirical thought, then indeed they do have some work to do persuading me that the state of being pain free really is as good as it gets.

Peter Adamson: And how would they do that?

James Warren: Well, I suppose they might say that I'm not really as pain free as I think I am right now. If I were to think about, well, aren't I sort of worried that I've got that paper I should have finished by now and I should have paid that bill that's waiting for me at home and so on. There are various mental anxieties that are there if I think about it, that suggest that I'm not as pain free as I thought, in fact. They also might run an argument that says something like the following, and I'm not sure it's a very plausible argument. What is pain? Well, pain's a kind of deficiency or lack. That seems to be a regular ancient thought that you can find that already back in Plato. So what's pleasure? Well, pleasure is the removal of that lack. Now, when you say the removal of a lack, you can mean two things. You can mean the process of removing that. So, for example, if I'm thirsty, why is it nice to have a cold drink? Well, for example, that might be removing the lack that is my thirst, the painful lack that is my thirst. Well, why is it nice to remove that pain of thirst? Well, perhaps it's because being free from thirst is, in fact, what's really nice. So I feel good as I'm removing that pain because the state of being free from pain is indeed pleasant.

Peter Adamson: You could almost say that's the point of pleasurable processes is to get to this state where you're not in pain.

James Warren: Right. But of course, there are pretty familiar claims that say pleasure indeed looks towards that state, but it finishes as soon as that state is intact. And then it's over.

Peter Adamson: That's what Plato thought. Can I ask you one other thing about their hedonism, which is that it always strikes me that these guys being ancient Greeks and Romans should believe in things like the value of heroism in both Greek and Roman society, fighting bravely on a battlefield, for example, or the example of, say, Achilles would be really ethically important. And it's not clear to me how an Epicurean could say that someone who goes off and fights bravely in battle is trying to maximize their pleasure at all, never mind if the ultimate pleasure would be achieving this state of the absence of pain. So is there anything that they could say to encourage us to, for example, be political leaders or great warriors or any of the other things that were so valued in the ancient world?

James Warren: Not really. And I don't think they would even try, in fact.

Peter Adamson: That's why they just sat around in their garden?

James Warren: They sat around in their garden because, well, why would anyone want to be a political leader? What would the point of that be? Well, perhaps it's because you want to wield power. Why would you want to wield power? Perhaps you think wielding power is a good thing. Does wielding power mean you live a pain-free life? Surely not. In fact, the pursuit and the possession of power can cause all sorts of anxieties and so on. Similarly, military valor, something like that. Why would anyone prize that, as it were, for itself? Once you've bought the Epicurean idea that human nature strives to be free from pain, free from distress, anything that gets in the way of you, at least in the way of you achieving that, is indeed not worth pursuing. So they counsel people just to give up desiring political ambitions, to give up desiring those kinds of honors.

Peter Adamson: Do you think then that there's a contrast between Epicurus and philosophers like, say, Aristotle, in that the Epicureans seem to be perfectly happy to just subvert the ethical norms of their culture, whereas Aristotle, at least most of the time, seems to be trying to explain to you in a more rigorous way why the ethical things you think are basically true?

James Warren: Yes. I think in one way the Epicureans are pessimistic about the chances of common cultural norms having got their values correct. So they often talk about the values and beliefs that people acquire just by knocking around in society as a kind of illness, that they cause pain and they infect others. So I watch an advert and it tells me that I should aspire to buy a new gadget or something. This makes me anxious because I don't yet have this gadget, and it means I need to save up to buy this gadget. But the Epicureans say, look, would that really make your life pain free? Better, and the more efficient and clearly the sensible thing to do, is not to try and remove the pain of that desire by desperately striving to achieve and acquire the thing, but just to stop wanting it in the first place. It's much cheaper overall.

Peter Adamson: Speaking of sources of distress, I wanted to move on to asking you about something you've written quite a bit about, which is the fear of death, which apparently is the biggest fear that you can have and thus the biggest source of distress. And the Epicureans are notorious for thinking that death is nothing to fear. And they have several arguments for this, but could you maybe tell us at least one of the arguments they give and talk about whether it's a good argument or not?

James Warren: They think that the fear of death is something that affects a large majority of people. And they think it's a painful fear, like other kinds of fears. It causes you distress directly. And also, the fear of death indirectly causes you to strive to be recognized after your death for your achievements and things like that. It's all these things that get in the way of you living the proper Epicurean life. But fortunately, death isn't something we should worry about. Why not? Well, we, like the rest of the world, are composed out of atoms moving in the void. So when we die, there isn't such a thing as a non-physical immortal soul that hangs around somewhere. So our death is the absolute end of our existence.

Peter Adamson: That seems like it should make me more worried, not less worried.

James Warren: But why? What would you be worried about? Are you worried, they say. They ask, are you worried that after your death you might experience pain? You might experience the loss of various things.

Peter Adamson: And presumably not if I'm going to cease existing.

James Warren: Absolutely. So partly because they think the only bad thing is pain, given that you can't experience any pain after you've died - because there's no you to do any experiencing of pain, then the period after your death can't be something that's bad for you. Now, some people might say, 'that's not really what I fear when I fear death.' That the Epicureans have misunderstood what it is to fear death if they think that someone fears death because they think the period after the end of their life is going to be bad for them. Instead, you might say, people fear death because they are worried about their life being finite. They're worried that their life is going to come to an end. Well, the Epicureans have a reason for thinking that's not something to worry about either, because they think that there's no reason to want your life to go on forever and ever and ever. Why would you think a longer life is a better life? Certainly an infinitely long life. Why would that be better than a finitely long life?

Peter Adamson: Wouldn't it be because I could have more pleasure? Maybe infinitely a large amount of pleasure.

James Warren: Yes, that's one thing you might say, but by more pleasure what do you mean? Do you mean more pleasurable experiences?

Peter Adamson: What if it just meant I get to spend more minutes and hours in this state of pain-free bliss?

James Warren: Good question. Well, the answer they try here is that this state of pain-free bliss isn't made any more pain-free the longer it lasts. And the only way a state can be better is by being less painful. And given that ten years of being pain-free is no more pain-free than five years of being pain-free, those ten years of being pain-free aren't better than five years of being pain-free.

Peter Adamson: And in fact ten years of being pain-free isn't even better than ten seconds of being pain-free.

James Warren: Well, that would seem to follow too.

Peter Adamson: Doesn't it seem like that's just wrong, and so there must be something wrong with their analysis of that blissful state in the first place? Because at least it looks like you'd want to say that there are two things that make this state good, one being the absence of pain and the other the duration. And then the longer it would last the better it would be.

James Warren: I think you would want to say that actually, and I think here they begin to look like they're on pretty shaky ground.

Peter Adamson: One other thing I guess you could say against this argument that I won't exist after death, so it's nothing to me, is that I'm not so much worried about what will happen to me after I die, and maybe I'm also not even worried about my life being finite. What if what I'm worried about is leaving my loved ones? And that seems like it should be something Epicurus should take really seriously because famously he was very emphatic about the value of friendship.

James Warren: Yes, so the question now is what does that mean if you're worried about leaving your loved ones? Lucretius for example imagines someone saying, well it's as if when I've died I'll be hanging around watching them get on with their lives without me around. And he thinks there's something sort of self-contradictory about that thought. You're imagining yourself being there but being absent. If that's the sense in which you think you're going to fear death because you're going to miss your loved ones, then he thinks you've failed to grasp really what it means to be dead.

Peter Adamson: Maybe a better way of putting the objection then would be similar to what I just said about the blissful state lasting longer, that I put a value on all the hours and days and months that I get to spend with my loved ones, and so the loss of even a single day that I could spend, say, with my wife or my daughters would be a significant loss to me and something that I should genuinely regret. Is there anything they can say against that thought?

James Warren: They would try certainly to say that we shouldn't be worried about these sorts of things, perhaps returning again to their claim that these sorts of things just aren't made better by their lasting longer.

Peter Adamson: Just like they said about the state of being pain free.

James Warren: That's right. Because what we're not comparing is five years of you living with your family and enjoying family life and then five years of you continuing to live but being absent versus ten years of you living happily with your family. We're imagining five years of happy family life and then that's it, full stop, versus ten years and then that's it, full stop. So there isn't as it were this five year of deprivation between those two possibilities.

Peter Adamson: Can I have one last go? Since it would be great if the argument was right! So we should be really clear about whether it works. One other thing that I think might be a problem for them is that Epicurus puts a lot of emphasis on the benefit of remembering and also expecting pleasures. And it seems like if we're thinking about expecting pleasures and if I can really make my life better by hoping for or expecting a pleasure then surely it could be a matter of regret to me to know or expect the absence of pleasures. Doesn't that seem to make sense?

James Warren: Well it depends again what you mean by expecting the absence of pleasure. If what you mean is imagining the world after your death when you're not there, is that what you mean by expecting an absence of pleasure?

Peter Adamson: Well I guess what I mean is that if suppose that I imagine that thirty years from now I'll be having a pleasure, as long as I don't die. The expectation of the pleasure that I'm having now is supposed to make my life a little better according to Epicurus, right? Thus if the pleasure isn't going to happen because I do die, then wouldn't finding out the fact that I'm not going to get that pleasure make my life worse?

James Warren: Worse now when you're expecting it?

Peter Adamson: Yeah. Or would he just say well if you find yourself thinking that way then don't think about it, because it would make your life more painful?

James Warren: Well he would probably say that. What he doesn't have is - what I think what you're pointing towards, is the sort of claim that Plato gets into some hot water with in the Philebus by claiming that some of these kinds of pleasures of expectation should be thought of as false if they turn out not really to be grounded. Epicurus doesn't go there. Of course he doesn't say you should be reckless with your life. Now you realise that death isn't going to be bad for you. It doesn't mean you can take up all sorts of extraordinarily dangerous sports, and so on, because 'hey, if I hit a wall that's fine.' He says the wise man will take care of his health, and so on. It's just he recognises that there is an inevitability to the fact that he is a mortal and that's okay. That doesn't of itself rob the positive experience that he does have of allowing him to be living a good life at this time. 


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