Epicurus and Politics: why I think he was wrong
by Robert Hanrott, July 2016
During Epicurus’s childhood Alexander made his remarkable conquest of Greece, the Persian Empire, and Egypt. Greek culture spread as far east as Afghanistan and Pakistan. While Alexander’s empire didn’t survive his death in 323 B.C., the successor states that eventually emerged out of the wars among Alexander’s generals – the Seleucid Empire of Persia, the Ptolemaic Empire of Egypt, and the Antigonid Empire of Macedonia and Greece – were bigger and more centralized than the old Greek city-states, with the consequence that the relationship between the typical Greek individual and the state he lived in underwent a radical change, away from democracy and towards one-man rule, if not tyranny.
Epicurus was serving in the Athenian army when Alexander’s death threw Greece into turmoil, with Athenian politicians meeting a lethal end with disturbing regularity. Along with political instability there was also intellectual ferment as various philosophers and their schools attempted to win the hearts and minds of the ruling classes and the citizens, but philosophers were also routinely executed or exiled for impiety.
Prior to going to Athens Epicurus had received a basic education and had been exposed to the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, but by 311 B.C he was developing his own ideas. He moved to Lesbos to teach in the Gymnasium which was full of Platonists and Aristotelians who espoused the role of philosopher-king (or at least the role of favored advisor to the king, as Aristotle was to Alexander) and were not kindly disposed towards philosophers of rival schools spreading new ideas on their turf. He was threatened with the charge of heresy and other thought-crimes that placed his life in grave danger. Epicurus escaped in a dangerous mid-winter sea-voyage to the relatively liberal city of Lampsacus on the Hellespont, almost losing his life in a storm. Here he attracted a number of followers, the most famous being Metrodorus, an effective popularizer of Epicureanism,
By 306 B.C continued political turmoil in Athens had discredited the ambitious Aristotelians and Platonists, and the politicization of philosophy and the attendant intolerance had become passé. With Athens under a more tolerant regime Epicurus was able to move there and to buy a small house and a garden to house his circle of friends. His school came to be known as “the Garden” because of their instructional sessions in the garden. The main work of the Garden, however, was carried on at Epicurus’s house, where manuscripts and letters were produced and sent to the growing circle of converts throughout the Greek world.
It was in Athens that Epicurus’s philosophy reached its mature form and Epicureanism was systematically propagated throughout the Hellensitic world. In carrying on this activity, Epicurus’s previous clashes with authority convinced him that it was best to stay out of politics and avoid playing to popular prejudices. Instead of trying to win over whole cities and nations as had previous philosophers, Epicurus aimed instead at attracting individuals to the Epicurean culture while observing the religious and legal forms of the larger society, and developing an attitude of tolerance towards non-Epicureans.
Another unique aspect of the Garden, that was in direct opposition to the culture of the time, was its avoidance of corporate and communal forms of organization. Legally speaking, the Garden itself was an unincorporated association of teachers and manuscript copyists who worked in Epicurus’s household, supported by teaching and manuscript fees and voluntary donations. There was no communal sharing of property among Epicureans or mandatory financial assessment of the followers to support Epicurean leaders. This had the welcome effect of making the leaders accountable to the followers and forestalling factional conflicts over money. The long-term stability of the Epicurean movement in ancient times owes a great deal to Epicurus’s organizational talent in removing the incentives for authoritarianism and internal conflict among Epicureans and finding a workable modus vivendi for dealing with non-Epicureans.
In other words, Epicurus had learned the lessons of political chaos, dictatorship and intolerance and had grown to heartily dislike politics and politicians – – along with hierarchies, personal ambition, and lying – – in order to manipulate and control others. All this is understandable in a time of violent political upheaval. Epicurus sought to set up a system where conflict was minimized, where everyone was equal, and where there was a primus inter pares (that was Epicurus himself). The emphasis was on cooperation, listening to others, consideration, and the enhancement of peace of mind. These policies were provoked by the gross intolerance of other philosophical views (paralleling the intolerance of some religions) and the dictatorial tendencies of the new regimes left by Alexander.
The fact is that in those days, if your views were not tolerated in one city state, you could move fairly freely from the territory of one local tyrant to a more easy-going city state (allowing for the dangers of travel and shipwrecks), and be welcomed. That is very different to today, when bureaucrats dictate whether a visitor can stay in the country for three months or 4, and where we are all electronically and intrusively watched. In those days you could escape disagreeable politics because you had alternatives.
Today we also have political upheaval. Hopefully it will not prove violent and will not result in any kind of fascist, authoritarian order. But what events are proving is that standing back and watching while things go politically wrong is likely to be a very bad option. For example, large numbers of young people couldn’t be bothered to vote in the British referendum, even though they will have to live with the results of their indifference and inertia for the rest of their lives; unknown to them they were following the teachings of Epicurus. Meanwhile, scores of old people, some of whom had never voted before, turned out to vote for Brexit. Remain advocates did a dismal job at selling the positive benefits of membership of the EU, opening themselves to the charge of scaremongering, while it is now clear that the Leave advocates had not thought through what they would do if they won. Three chief Leavers ran away, abandoning the Leave voters (who wanted to halt immigration and get rid of EU regulation). This recent example of a political crisis is confined to the United (disunited?) Kingdom. Elsewhere countries are embroiled in war, terrorism, and uncontrolled corruption, ruled by megalomaniacs.
So the question is: can you have peace of mind when your society is threatened with a long period of uncertainty, when the economy might or might not go into prolonged recession, when the political system is on its knees and parties split down the middle, and the elite can’t or won’t listen or do anything to put matters on an even keel? Can you responsibly walk away and just hope for the best? Is that going to give you Epicurean ataraxia?
My answer is “no”. I think Epicurus made a wise decision in his time and given the conditions he faced. He decided not to fight the establishment (political or philosophical), but instead to build a following, one adherent at a time, in a democratic manner. We, on the other hand, don’t have another city state to move to. We live in a completely different world, global and inter-connected, and freedom of movement is much more circumscribed that it was 2,300 years ago.
What we should be doing is trying to recover our lost freedoms and democratic rights before the effects of over-population and global climate change overwhelm us and the world descends into roaming masses looking for food, water and security. To achieve this we cannot subscribe to the Epicurean principle of standing aside from politics. If we do we will have a long time to regret it. How we fight the huge wealth gap, the behavior of large corporations, the seeming universal corruption and the disillusionment of the man in the street is a problem. I choose to do it on my blog; others demonstrate, give money to enlightened candidates, write letters, or join radical political parties. But whatever it is, we need to engage at some level. If we do nothing the pathetic shreds of democracy will wither further, and we will all have nowhere to hide from corrupt authoritarianism.
(Historical facts were derived from Wikipedia. Interpretation is my own)
On July 31st 2016 I posted the above paper, “Epicurus and politics: why I think he was wrong”. Regular reader Owen Bell, a student of Politics and Journalism at Exeter University, England, has written back in reply. I think what he has to say is thoughtful and well-informed and deserves to be posted in full. Thank you, Owen”
“I agree with you that Epicurus acted wisely given the circumstances of his time. Had he chosen to become politically involved, the authorities would’ve probably had him executed. His ideas would not have become as widespread, nor would the culture and way of life he promoted have been as popularised. Amongst other things, what distinguished Epicurus from many of his contemporaries was his lack of ego. He wasn’t interested in fame or popular approval. Rather, his priority was leading by example – creating a model way of acting morally and happily that others could follow. For Epicurus, politics meant the imposition of force, something which was likely to cause pain. This was antithetical to his utilitarian ethics, that the most moral course of action was the one that resulted in the least pain.
“The other matter that I strongly agree with you about is the nature of the state being fundamentally different in the contemporary world from the classical world. Due to the complex nature of modern institutions (welfare provision, security services, infrastructure etc…), government needs to be more involved in the running of society, in order to prevent injustices from occurring. Take for instance, the issue of financial regulation. In Epicurus’ time, such regulation would’ve been regularly straightforward- a ban on counterfeit coins, enforcement of debt repayments and maybe controls on interest rates. Nowadays, the issue is almost infinitely complex, requiring sometimes multiple regulatory bodies to constantly oversee the industry and make adjustments. And as you well know, these bodies often get things horribly wrong. Because of the necessarily more comprehensive governments we now live under, we can no longer truly isolate ourselves from their decisions the way Epicurus was able to do so.
“I have a slight issue with your view of globalisation. I think the ancient world was more globalised than you give it credit for. International trade was extremely commonplace, especially in the Mediterranean. During the Roman Empire, Latin was more universal than English is today. Vast international empires such as the Macedonian or Persian Empire gave vast swathes of territory a common system of governance. In contrast, the contemporary world actually allows for isolation. For instance, improvements in food production mean that countries don’t rely on each other as much to feed their people. Food imports are almost entirely luxuries, not necessities. The internet means we can communicate effectively with each other and buy a huge array of products and services without leaving our homes. We are now more informed about events abroad; in a way, this has given us a stronger sense of regional and local identity, by giving us something to contrast ourselves against. In England, Northern accents are increasing in popularity because Northerners are more aware of the South, and don’t want to sound like it.
“You mention young people who didn’t turn out to vote during the EU referendum. I actually very much agree with the phrase, ‘couldn’t be bothered.’ There were very few people who didn’t vote as a matter of principle. A week after the referendum, I went home to my parents house in Crawley – a borough in which 58% of people voted to Leave. That Sunday, they had two young men from their church round for lunch. One of them justified the fact that he didn’t vote on the basis that to do so would be ‘effort’, and that effort wasn’t worth putting in. I understand he is an exceptionally lazy man, having dropped out of Oxford because he didn’t revise for an exam. But I think he was more representative of an increasingly prevalent attitude than he would care to admit. My parents (I suspect) had them round to demonstrate to me how wonderful young Christian men could be, but if they did, their efforts backfired spectacularly!
“Overall, I agree that we should be involved in politics; after all, learning about it constitutes half of my degree. I would simply concede that in a world as complex and divided as ours, there is very little we can do to change things. Part of the reason for the rise in authoritarian demagoguery is that people feel as if our governments are powerless. And to an extent, they are right. The political class hails globalisation as the guarantor of peace and prosperity. We are told to put our faith in international institutions such as the UN, the EU, the IMF and the WTO because international co-operation allows for peaceful resolutions to interstate disputes. But to much of the working class, the increasingly international basis for policymaking represents a loss of ‘national sovereignty.’ Now I actually think this is a good thing – international institutionalism is an important check on the potential for nation states to abuse their power; the European Convention on Human Rights is an excellent example of this. But I accept that this is a very upper/upper middle class view. For the largely disillusioned Leave voters, the solution for our national problems is for the nation state to resume its absolute sovereignty. Trump talks about putting ‘America First,’ Le Pen talks about strengthening the French nation- it is all fundamentally the same.
“This is the dilemma of our age. The proletariat are no longer left wing, if they ever were. Everyone on the Left seems to talk about disillusionment, and the need to mitigate the consequences of globalisation, largely through increased wealth redistribution. Such efforts are bound to fail. There is now a fundamental and irreconcilable difference between the views of the Leftist intelligentsia and the vast majority of the working poor. The former wants social and cultural globalisation, mass immigration, free trade (though not necessarily free trade deals) and a welfare state that doesn’t distinguish between immigrants and the native born. The latter wants the reintroduction of industries that were rendered uncompetitive decades ago, jobs that are impossible to bring back, a large degree of protectionism, heavy restrictions on immigration, ‘law and order’, a patriotic and homogeneous culture, and a welfare system that is ludicrously generous for the native born but punitive for the immigrant.
“I’m sorry for such as long email. I’m also sorry for being so pessimistic. But no one on the Left acknowledges this, its important it’s said”.