A Few Words By Cassius Amicus, editor of www.NewEpicurean.com:
Frances Wright was born in Dundee, Scotland, on September 6, 1795, one of three children of a wealthy linen manufacturer. She became an orphan at age three, and was raised by an aunt in England. At age sixteen, she returned to Scotland to live with her great-uncle, a professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow.
In 1818, Wright traveled to the United States, where she published and produced a play on the subject of Switzerland’s struggle for independence. After returning to Scotland in 1821, she published the work for which she became well known, a story about her travels entitled Views of Society and Manners in America.
In 1821, Wright published A Few Days in Athens, supposedly at the insistence of the Marquis de Lafayette, who later became her travel companion when she returned to America. Lafayette forwarded a copy of this work to Thomas Jefferson, who replied to him in 1823, with the following:
I thank you much for the two books you were so kind as to send me by Mr. Gallatin. Miss Wright had before favored me with the 1st edition of her American work: but her ‘Few Days in Athens’ was entirely new, and has been a treat to me of the highest order. The matter and manner of the dialogue is strictly antient; the principles of the sects are beautifully and candidly explained and contrasted; and the scenery and portraiture of the Interlocutors are of higher finish than any thing in that line left us by the antients; and, like Ossian, if not antient, it is equal to the best morsels of antiquity. I auger, from this instance, that Herculaneum is likely to furnish better specimens of modern, than of antient genius; and may we not hope more from the same pen?
Wright gave A Few Days In Athens the subtitle “Being the translation of a Greek manuscript discovered in Herculaneum,” and she referred to herself in the introduction as “translator.” This was but a literary device, however, as the work was entirely modern.
A Few Days In Athens is composed in the style of an ancient dialogue by a Plato or a Lucian. As Thomas Jefferson stated, the story is “beautifully and candidly explained,” but the text is deep with allusions to the views of competing schools of philosophy. These allusions give the work much of its charm, but will be unfamiliar to many modern readers. It is therefore worth spending a few moments to review the general background and nature of the disputes between the major schools of philosophy – disputes that continue little changed to this very day.
The setting of Wright’s story is ancient Athens, and the main character is Theon, a young man from Corinth, whose father has sent him there for an education. Theon’s father favored the school of Plato, known as “the Academy,” but after arriving in Athens, Theon’s loyalty has been won by the school of Zeno, known as “the Stoics,” and also referred to by its nickname of “the Porch” or “the Portico.” Also mentioned are the school of Aristotle and Theophrastus, known as the “Peripatetic” or “the Lyceum,” and the schools of Pythagoras and of the Cynics. Each school has unique characteristics, but they are united in their common contempt for Epicurus, the son of Neocles, also referred to as “the Gargettian,” and whose school was known as “the Garden.”
A truly satisfactory review of the disputes between these schools is beyond the scope of this introduction, but readers should be aware that, in general, and to a greater or lesser degree, each of the non-Epicurean schools held the following:
- The universe was created by god(s) or forces which control all things, including the affairs of men, and men are “fated” to their peculiar destinies.
- Men have eternal souls and should expect a future life after death, including reward or punishment for acts committed during their lifetimes.
- Men should guide their lives by looking for a “greatest good,” which is generally to be found in some combination of “virtue” and “the will of the gods.”
- Men should look upon pleasure as unvirtuous, unreasonable, and sinful.
- Men should look upon pain as virtuous, instructive of the will of the gods, and something to be suffered without resistance or complaint.
- The “senses,” understood to be the abilities of seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting, are neither reliable nor sufficient for discovering truth or determining how men should live.
- “Reason” supplemented by revelation, where available, is the primary tool for discovering truth and determining how men should live.
Epicurus disputed each of the above points with vigor, but often with subtlety, in a way readers both ancient and modern find to be unfamiliar and challenging. For example, in regard to the existence of gods and fate, Epicurus did not simply deny that these existed. Instead, Epicurus determined that the “rules of evidence” that men were following were incorrect, and that the evidence in fact pointed in another direction. He concluded that words such as “gods” and “fate” and “virtue” need not be discarded, but should rather be cleansed of their inaccuracies, while the elements of truth that they held should be retained and described with greater accuracy. This process led him to the following conclusions:
Neither “gods” nor “fate” exist in the way that these words are commonly defined. In regard to gods, the evidence establishes that the elements can neither be created nor destroyed, and therefore the universe as a whole is eternal, not created at any point in time by any supernatural god. But reliable evidence that is not pure speculation does exist to support the view that orders of life superior to our own exist elsewhere in the universe, and that among these are higher beings which have attained a state of immortal and self-sufficient blissfulness. These higher beings have a material existence, like all else that exists, but because they are self-sufficient they do not intervene in the lives of men. Gods play no role in determining the lives of men, but, under certain conditions, men may glimpse faint images of the higher state of blissfulness which the gods have attained. From these images, men can gain a sense of perfection that can serve as a model for what we should seek to attain in our own lives. In regard to fate, although purely mechanical laws do govern the operation of non-living matter, neither men nor gods are machines whose actions are pre-determined. Living beings have free will, and are not subject to mechanical laws or fate of any kind. As a result, men are responsible for using their free will to live without assistance from the gods.
Men do indeed have souls, but that these souls are neither eternal nor supernatural. Instead, souls are composed of material that has a real existence, and they are as much a real part of this universe as anything else that exists. Whether the soul be referred to as consciousness, mind, or by some other term, the continuity of soul ends at death, after which there is no afterlife of reward or punishment. From the perspective of each man, the state of things after his death is the same as before his birth. We have no more reason to fear or regret our nonexistence after death than we fear or regret our state of nonexistence before birth. There is no reward in heaven to encourage our postponement of the enjoyment of life, nor an afterlife of punishment in hell to cause us fear. The focus of our existence must be on this lifetime, as we have but one life to live.
There exists in the universe neither a “will of god” nor a “virtue” by which men can steer their lives. Such higher beings as may exist issue no orders, reward no friends, and punish no enemies. They are of concern to us only to the extent that they may provide models of blissfulness. Likewise, the word “virtue” as used by most men is empty of real meaning. There is no “virtue” in this or any other universe to serve as a reference point for our actions. When most men refer to “virtue,” they are simply dreaming rather than referring to anything real. Only if “virtue” is redefined and grounded in the reality of Nature’s guidance does the word carry any real and useful meaning.
Pleasure is not evil or wrong, but is in fact an immeasurably blessed tool that Nature gives men for finding the proper path through life. Men who point to “the will of the gods,” or to empty words like “virtue,” are wishing, hoping, or dreaming. The reality is that Nature gives pleasure (and pain) as one of three faculties for sensing the world around us. The “five senses” bring us into direct physical contact with the world, and the sense of anticipations allows us to perceive abstract relationships, but it is only the sense of pleasure and pain that can tell us whether every experience is pleasing or displeasing.
Pain is not good, nor is it a thing to which men should submit and bear stoically. Pain is Nature’s signal that a thing is to be avoided, or engaged in only with caution, and for the sake of gaining or maintaining pleasure. Correctly viewed, the experience of being alive is itself a pleasure. Ask yourself, at any moment, whether you would find it pleasurable to be dead. To be dead is not painful, but neither is it pleasurable, and it is a false opinion to think that happiness in life requires external stimulation. The truth is that joy is inherent in simply being alive, and the greatest joy that it is possible to experience is simply the joy with which we were born, uncorrupted by false opinions, and freed from all mental and bodily pains, anxieties, and unmet needs. But be clear: this state of highest happiness is not a state of nothingness, not a state of detachment; not a state of apathy, not state of indolence. It is the very opposite – a state of positive joy, a state of engagement within our own spheres, a state of positive attention to those things that support this state of enjoyment, and a state of action to sustain this blissful experience.
The senses, properly understood, are both reliable and sufficient for our needs. The error most men make is to believe that the senses consist only in seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling. In fact, the term “senses” must be understood to include the sense of pain and pleasure and the sense of anticipations. The sense of pain and pleasure is as familiar to us as the sense of sight and sound, and is active at birth. The sense of anticipations, however, is not developed at birth, and requires time and use to mature, but it is by this faculty that men recognize abstract relationships. Examples of such relationships are “friendship” and “justice.” These can be neither seen, heard, or touched, but they can be perceived through the sense of anticipations. It is only because of the operation of the sense of anticipations that we perceive can perceive friendship and justice at all. Absent anticipations, our sense of pleasure would recognize nothing in justice or friendship to find pleasurable, and nothing in injustice or enmity to find painful. All sensations, from all three of these categories, are trustworthy in themselves, in that the senses simply report to us what they observe. The senses do not evaluate what they perceive. It is the mind that evaluates, and any errors are the fault of the evaluating mind, not the reporting senses.
“Reason,” as defined by most men, is a mirage and as false as any false god. Reason does not exist in the abstract, any more than does virtue or the will of the gods. What we think of as the process of “reason” is of no assistance to us whatsoever unless that process is tied directly, closely, and without exception to facts of reality which are verified through the senses. This means that, as important as it is, reason takes a secondary role to the senses. Thus the senses are primary and must never be disregarded, and morality is no more discernable by abstract reasoning than by listening for the will of non-existent gods. Just as men are so constituted as to perceive sugar to be sweet and lemons to be sour, men are also constituted, through the faculty of anticipations, to perceive that the greatest happiness in life is experienced through friendship, and that perfect beings do not punish enemies, reward friends, or meddle in the affairs of men.
With this brief comparison as background, it is now necessary to point out that the words spoken by the Epicureans in A Few Days In Athens are Wright’s own compositions. The dialogue method enlivens the subject and makes the subject more interesting, but in truth the dialogue form was not favored by Epicurus, and one of its dangers is that the dialogue form may not accurately convey Epicurus’ views.
On most important points of doctrine, A Few Days In Athens provides an excellent statement and defense of Epicurus’ views. In a number of areas, however, passages can appear to deviate from the lessons found in the ancient texts.
Most of these deviations appear to stem from a single fundamental problem: omission of reference to the faculty of anticipations. This leads to a series of deviations, the most significant of which are as follows:
First, in regard to the existence and nature of gods, A Few Days In Athens contains a number of passages that can be read as a statement of agnosticism. For example, in chapter fourteen, Wright causes Epicurus to say: “To deny the existence of the gods would indeed be presumption in a philosopher; a presumption equaled only by that of him who should assert their existence.”
Epicurus was emphatically not an atheist, but neither was he an agnostic. The surviving texts are clear: rather than reject in full the existence of “gods,” Epicurus redefined the term, holding that the evidence supports the existence of higher beings, but that these higher beings are not omnipotent, nor did they create the universe. Wright omits the role of anticipations, but does, at least, have Epicurus deliver a part of the argument for the existence of gods:
I know of no other existence, and can therefore believe in no other: although, reasoning from analogy, I may imagine other existences to be. This, for in stance, I do as respects the gods. I see around me, in the world I inhabit, an infinite variety in the arrangement of matter; — a multitude of sentient beings, possessing different kinds, and varying grades of power and intelligence, — from the worm that crawls in the dust, to the eagle that soars to the sun, and man who marks to the sun its course. It is possible, it is moreover probable, that, in the worlds which I see not, — in the boundless infinitude and eternal duration of matter, beings may exist, of every countless variety, and varying grades of intelligence inferior and superior to our own, until we descend to a minimum, and rise to a maximum, to which the range of our observation affords no parallel, and of which our senses are inadequate to the conception.
If Cicero’s reports are correct, and they appear to be validated by Epicurus’ letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus’ full argument was something as follows: Men, like all animals, are born with a sense of anticipations. Through the use of these anticipations, men recognize that there exists a relationship among living beings in the form of a progression of abilities from lowest to highest, and pointing even further upward than we observe here on Earth, toward a state of eventual “perfection.” This state of perfection implies characteristics such as bliss (a total absence of pain of mind and body), self-sufficiency, and strength to continue in existence indefinitely (immortality). It also implies a disposition to be indifferent to affairs outside their own sphere, which means that these higher beings do not concern themelves with rewarding humans who please them, nor punishing humans who displease them.
This relationship of progression toward perfection is recognized through the sense of anticipations. The fact that some men do not recognize this relationship is no more an objection to its existence than the fact that the sky is blue, even though men who are born blind cannot see it, or the fact that atoms exist, even though they are too small to be observed by the unaided eye. This anticipation is not a pure abstraction – it is supported by evidence that men can see and hear and touch. This evidence is directly before us, in verifiable form, in the observation of numberless forms of life produced here on Earth by Nature, from the lowest worm up to the most magnificent human being.
The second deviation also follows from the loss of reference to anticipations. Some passages have an unfortunate tendency, perhaps in parallel with the tendency toward agnosticism, to convey that Epicurus was something of a skeptic.
In chapter fifteen, Wright has Leontium say, in regard to philosophy, “Above all, she advances no dogmas, — is slow to assert what is, — and calls nothing impossible.”
In contrast, Diogenes Laertius’ biography of Epicurus has recorded exactly the opposite. There, Epicurus is recorded to hae held that “the wise man .. will be a dogmatist but not a mere skeptic…” Here again, the meaning of words such as “dogma” and “dogmatist” must be scrutinized. The modern tendency is to define dogmatism as an inherently negative term, but dogmatism on certain subjects and at certain times and places is an obvious implication of Epicurus’ affirmation of the reliability of the senses. The evidence provided by the senses may not always be sufficient to establish the truth of a matter, but the evidence of the senses is very definitely able to establish truth in some matters, including those matters that are important and indeed essential for men to live happy lives.
It is particularly important to avoid the inference that Epicurus held there to be no reliable guide for judgment in the field of morality. In a particularly hazardous passage, Wright’s Epicurean character is asked whether there are not certain moral truths that are “self-evident.” Her Epicurean character replies:
I am not aware of any. Moral truth, resting entirely upon the ascertained consequences of actions, presupposes a process of observation and reasoning.
If this passage is read with an Epicurean vocabulary in mind, with “observation” including all three categories of senses, and “reasoning” referring to “true reason” in the secondary role, as Epicurus has defined it, then the passage works well. But most readers will not have this context, and they must avoid drawing the wrong conclusion here. The point to observe is that moral truth of a type does exist, but it is not the moral truth of a floating abstraction detached from reality; it exists only in a particular context, and in evaluating that context, the role of “reasoning” is secondary.
This subject is addressed at greater length in Appendix I, but important additional assistance is available elsewhere. For the proposition that Epicurus held anticipations, rather than reason, to be the primary mechanism of perception in moral fields, see chapters seven and eight of Norman W. DeWitt’s Epicurus and His Philosophy. For an inspired development of the argument that men have a faculty of perceiving innate moral principles (which is entirely different from possessing innate moral ideas), see Jackson Barwis’s Dialogues Concerning Innate Principles.
But for the present we can cite an even more interesting commentator on the secondary role of reason in moral evaluation. On August 10, 1787, no less an Epicurean enthusiast than Thomas Jefferson himself wrote the following, in a letter to Peter Carr:
Moral Philosophy. I think it lost time to attend lectures on this branch. He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler, if he had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science. For one man of science, there are thousands who are not. What would have become of them? Man was destined for society. His morality, therefore, was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong, merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his Nature, as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality, and not the [beautiful], truth, &c., as fanciful writers have imagined. The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. This sense is submitted, indeed, in some degree, to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call common sense. State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, & often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.
The last point of deviation to be discussed here comes in a number of passages that appear to endorse a sort of “determinism” or “necessity.” In chapter fourteen, Wright has Epicurus ask of Theon, “Does the human mind possess the power to believe or disbelieve, at pleasure, any truths whatsoever?” Theon (at this stage still uneducated in Epicurean doctrine) replies, “I am not prepared to answer: but I think it does, since it possesses always the power of investigation.” Wright has Epicurus state, “But, possibly, not the will to exercise the power…” The discussion then proceeds in another direction, but the implication was clear even to Theon, and he returned to the subject:
“But would not the doctrine be dangerous that should establish our inability to help our belief; and might we not stretch the principle, until we asserted our inability to help our actions?” Wright has Epicurus answer, “We might, and with reason. But we will not now traverse the ethical pons asinorum of necessity — the most simple and evident of moral truths, and the most darkened, tortured, and belabored by moral teachers.”
Later on, Wright another troubling reference to determinist views, in the following passage spoken by Leontium:
That an analogous course of events, or chain of causes and effects, takes place in morals as in physics; that is to say, in examining those qualities, of the matter composing our own bodies, which we call mind, we can only trace a train of occurrences, in like manner as we do in the external world that our sensations, thoughts, and emotions, are simply effects following causes, a series of consecutive phenomena, mutually producing and produced.
Epicurus was a champion of moral “free will,” and these passages may be too subtle for many readers to reconcile, especially since Wright omits any reference to the doctrine of the “atomic swerve,” which Lucretius described as the foundation of free will.
The explanation for Wright’s deviation on free will, and the reconciliation these passages with Epicurus’ views, is likely to be found in the theories of materialism popular in Wright’s time, especially as promoted by men such as Joseph Priestley and Thomas Cooper, MD. Discussion of these theories cannot be pursued here, but once again, definitions are critical. Priestley and others, in order to point out the oppressive injustice of religions in which gods send men to hell for wrong decisions, argued that “free will” should not be understood to mean that men have the power to reject clear and direct sensations. The question “Does the human mind possess the power to believe or disbelieve, at pleasure, any truths whatsoever?” hints strongly at Priestley’s theories.
While there may be great merit in parsing the term “free will” as Priestley argued, readers should know that, from the broader perspective in which they probably understand the term “free will,” Epicurus’ position was very clear:
Fate, which some introduce as sovereign over all things, he [the wise man] scorns, affirming rather that some things happen of necessity, others by chance, others through our own agency. For he sees that necessity destroys responsibility and that chance is inconstant; whereas our own actions are autonomous, and it is to them that praise and blame naturally attach. It were better, indeed, to accept the legends of the gods than to bow beneath that yoke of destiny which the natural philosophers have imposed. The one holds out some faint hope that we may escape if we honor the gods, while the necessity of the naturalists is deaf to all entreaties. Nor does he hold chance to be a god, as the world in general does, for in the acts of a god there is no disorder; nor to be a cause, though an uncertain one, for he believes that no good or evil is dispensed by chance to men so as to make life blessed, though it supplies the starting-point of great good and great evil. He believes that the misfortune of the wise is better than the prosperity of the fool. It is better, in short, that what is well judged in action should not owe its successful issue to the aid of chance.
The important point to remember is that nothing in A Few Days In Athens should be interpreted to mean that Epicurus believed that men do not have free will. In fact, Epicurus’ emphasized the opposite: men not only have free will, they must understand and use that free will if they are to live happily.
As we begin to close this introduction, note that this edition includes two Appendices which may be of assistance to the reader. The first is a “restatement” of general principles of Epicureanism drawn from the ancient texts. The second is a selection of illustrations which may be helpful as visual background.
The appendix entitled “Elemental Epicureanism” is essentially a compendium of selections from the ancient texts, starting with background passages from Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, and combining extracts from Epicurus’ letters, Diogenes Laertius’ biography, and Cicero’s extensive “Defense of Epicurus” from On Ends. The result is intended to provide an order of presentation that an ancient Epicurean might employ if he could address a reader of today.
Another goal of “Elemental Epicureanism” is to present the foundation of “how we know what we know” (epistemology), and “what we hold to be true about the universe” (metaphysics) that is often neglected. This foundation will assist the reader in understanding why Epicurus recommended living simply, but why he also held that living too simply is as much of an error as giving in to pursuit of luxury.
The casual reader of Epicurus can certainly profit from picking and choosing from among his aphorisms, flitting like a bee from flower to flow. But if he fails to dig deeper to examine the foundation on which the aphorisms are built, much is lost.
There is a great “practical” reason why it is important to know “how we know what we know” and “what we hold to be true about the universe.” Let Frances Wright explain the point in two passages from A Few Days In Athens.
In the first passage, Epicurus has praised Theon’s enthusiasm for philosophy. Theon responds that such praise would make him vain, but Epicurus says that his praise for Theon’s study has another purpose:
“No; but I would make you confident. Without confidence Homer had never written his Iliad. No, nor would Zeno now be worshiped in his portico.”
“Do you then think confidence would make all men Homers and Zenos!”
“Not all; but a good many. I believe thousands to have the seeds of excellence in them, who never discover the possession. But we were not speaking of poetry and philosophy, only of virtue — all men certainly cannot be poets or philosophers, but all men may be virtuous.”
Then, in a second passage, Wright has Epicurus say:
He who but admires virtue, yields her but half her due. She asks to be approached, to be embraced — not with fear, but with confidence —not with awe, but with rapture.
The point is that, unless you first understand Epicurean doctrine as to how we know what we know and what we hold to be true about the universe, you can have no confidence in his aphorisms about simple living, happiness, pleasure, or anything else.
As a final word, I should not fail to point out that Wright’s dialogue stops at a critical point. In the final chapter, Epicurus delivers a scorching denunciation of the evil of conventional religion. He then points out that the fabric of the secular morality erected by establishment philosophers is just as false, just as damaging, and just as worthy of denunciation, as religion. Unhappily, Epicurus’ speech comes to an abrupt end, and Wright leaves that important subject for another day.
Why did Wright end the dialogue at this point? Why did she not return in later years to complete the argument of Epicurus on this vitally important topic?
More broadly, why did Wright’s work not ignite in her, and in her readers, an eruption of interest in Epicurus and its renaissance in her own day? Why did Epicureanism fade as a leading force in the first place? Are the forces of false religion and false philosophy really so strong that their continued oppression of men is inevitable?
Epicurus would say, “Of course the oppression of religion and false philosophy is not inevitable. We know instinctively, through our anticipations, in a good-natured cliché that survives from our Epicurean heritage, that nothing is inevitable except death and taxes. Thomas Jefferson recognized that “the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus … contain[ed] everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.” Frances Wright’s A Few Days in Athens was a brilliant step toward reclaiming that heritage. I trust that like Jefferson, you will find her work to be “a treat of the highest order,” and that it will motivate you to join in that task of reclaiming the wisdom of Epicurus.
Peace and Safety!
Note: I want to note my particular thanks to a friend, Ed Lee, for first making me aware of the existence of A Few Days In Athens.
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