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Reading about Epicurus

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Clayton Posted: Mon, Nov 28 2011 12:45 PM

I think he is the one ancient Greek philosopher whose ideas most closely correlate with liberalism. The more I read, the more amazed I am.

http://www.epicurus.net/en/principal.html

I'm working on ethical theory right now and I think Epicurus basically nailed it. The rest is just window-dressing.

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While I have about as low of an opinion on ethics in general here are some off the top of my head specific thoughts on Epicurius:

1) He is ascetic, and hence useless.  If there is anything to asceticism it is merely using one's comparative advantage within one's time preference.  Why can't that little rule be good enough?

2) He seems to lead to some conservative agrarian changless and overly content society.  If this is the case that makes him anathema to cosmoplitan capitalism, and hence civilization.  In the end he seems to be a slightly more secular Buddha telling one to "think about now" and/or "don't worry" (at least he doesn't appeal to hokey quasi-mystic meditation tactics), which is a mere common sense psychologism that can help an individual achieve his ends at best

Pleasure-Pain and Egoism are useful, and correct concepts - and he may be a pre-cursor to more evolved men, ideas, and times, but that's it.  Mises is already a type of advanced and more relevant Epicurean in a way.

"As in a kaleidoscope, the constellation of forces operating in the system as a whole is ever changing." - Ludwig Lachmann

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Clayton replied on Mon, Nov 28 2011 1:50 PM

Mises is already a type of advanced and more relevant Epicurean in a way.

That's precisely my point.

He seems to lead to some conservative agrarian changless and overly content society.  If this is the case that makes him anathema to cosmoplitan capitalism, and hence civilization.

I think you're misinterpreting his asceticism. His asceticism was merely a means to an end, it was not asceticism for its own sake. Epicurus' idea was to deflate one's wants in a calculated manner so as to minimize disappointment and the experience of dissatisfaction. But since Epicurus took pleasure to be the highest good (the ultimate end), the purpose of deflating one's wants is not to avoid pleasure but to make pleasure the most easily attainable.

I think there is an antagonism here with big-box consumerism but I strongly disagree that this antagonism is opposed to "capitalism, and hence civilization." In fact, based on what I've read so far, I think Epicurus has struck the perfect balance between controlling one's palate of wants and expansion of the means for satisfying them, given that productivity and diligence are virtues and Epicurus believed that living virtuously was the only way to attain pleasure.

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If that's how you read it, that's fine I guess.  It must be admitted that Epicurius has always been amongst the least objectional of "Ethicists" (probably because he does the least amount of ethics) - and for me to attack his general concepts is probably not choosing one's fights well.

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Clayton replied on Mon, Nov 28 2011 2:05 PM

Why are you antagonistic to ethics? It seems to me that ethics is the "missing link" in Misesean theory and Rothbard and Hoppe did not succeed in putting Misesean theory on ethical foundations or even giving it an ethical wing.

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Clayton replied on Mon, Nov 28 2011 9:18 PM

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This guy sounds very interesting.  Although I approach voluntary simplicity from a more Oriental background, the conclusion seems much the same.

"What Stirner says is a word, a thought, a concept; what he means is no word, no thought, no concept. What he says is not what is meant, and what he means is unsayable." - Max Stirner, Stirner's Critics
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Joe replied on Mon, Nov 28 2011 10:54 PM

I was a big time Epicurean in high school.  Signed up for the mailling list and everything.  Definately jives with libertarianism a lot.  I think he had a quote about how it was better and safer for the health of your mind to just stay out of politics.  Also, like libertarians, his views are commonly mistaken for a much more simplisitic and vulgar lifestyle.  The word, Epicure has to deal with living a worldly, refined and lavish lifestyle.  Which is a complete bastardization of Epicurus' philosophy.

 

I guess I would say that I am still an Epicurean although I don't read much about it anymore.  Sadly, a lot of his stuff did not survive to our time

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Clayton replied on Tue, Nov 29 2011 12:58 AM

Well, he's clearly deficient on the economics side of things but how can he be blamed, most of the concepts of economics would not come for another 1500-2000 years after his time.

Based on what I'm reading so far, I think that Misesean philosophy is implicitly Epicurean at least as far as it concerns the criteria of human action. We act because we shun pain and want and because we desire to be in a pleasureable state. Mises says:

We call contentment or satisfaction that state of a human being which does not and cannot result in any action. Acting man is eager to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory. His mind imagines conditions which suit him better, and his action aims at bringing about this desired state. The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness. A man perfectly content with the state of his affairs would have no incentive to change things. He would have neither wishes nor desires; he would be perfectly happy. He would not act; he would simply live free from care.

Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (Chapter 1 Section 2)

I think this is not far from the Epicurean concept of ataraxia. The human being is not actually striving to be in a constant, writhing state of orgasmic bliss; this would be exhausting and, by virtue of our tendency to quickly acclimate to any level of pleasure, would soon become onerous. Rather, I think ataraxia is somewhat the psychic equivalent of the physiological concept of homeostasis and it is this balance or level that the urge to act is constantly striving towards.

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Clayton replied on Tue, Nov 29 2011 2:08 AM

Ooh, just found a juicy tidbit in HA:

The idea that the incentive of human activity is always some uneasiness and
its aim always to remove such uneasiness as far as possible, that is, to make the
acting men feel happier, is the essence of the teachings of Eudaemonism and
Hedonism. Epicurean ataraxia is that state of perfect happiness and contentment
at which all human activity aims without ever wholly attaining it. In the face of
the grandeur of this cognition it is of little avail only that many representatives
of this philosophy failed to recognize the purely formal character of the notions
pain and pleasure and gave them a material and carnal meaning. The theological,
mystical, and other schools of a heteronomous ethic did not shake the core of
Epicureanism because they could not raise any other objection than its neglect
of the “higher” and “nobler” pleasures. It is true that the writings of many earlier
champions of Eudaemonism, Hedonism, and Utilitarianism are in some points
open to misinterpretation. But the language of modern philosophers and still
more that of the modern economists is so precise and straightforward that no
misinterpretation can possibly occur.

Human Action, Chapter 1 Section 2

This is a pretty straightforward statement that ataraxia is, in fact, the "ultimate end" of human action even though Mises is careful to note that he means it in a more formal sense than the ancients used it.

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Gotta read this guy:

Wiki:
ataraxia was synonymous with the only true happiness possible for a person.

Wiki:
The Buddha described nirvāna as the perfect peace of the state of mind that is free from craving, anger, and other afflicting states

A bit on the nose, no?

"What Stirner says is a word, a thought, a concept; what he means is no word, no thought, no concept. What he says is not what is meant, and what he means is unsayable." - Max Stirner, Stirner's Critics
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Clayton replied on Tue, Nov 29 2011 11:03 AM

Yeah, it seems that ataraxia is a less literal version of nirvana. Whereas ataraxia is a state that we can merely get closer to, nirvana is a state we're supposed to really achieve.

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Clayton replied on Tue, Nov 29 2011 11:08 AM

Reading guide:

Principal Doctrines

Letter to Menoeceus (spells out his ethical theory)

Excerpt from Cicero's On Ends, further describing Epicurus' ethical theory

DS Hutchison's overview of Epicureanism

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Why are you antagonistic to ethics? It seems to me that ethics is the "missing link" in Misesean theory and Rothbard and Hoppe did not succeed in putting Misesean theory on ethical foundations or even giving it an ethical wing.

I don't think the concept makes much sense.  I think things like consequentialism, utilitarianism, and Epicurianism are attempts to be amoral and filter out gibberish- which is good.  The problem is they tend to lead to more confusion, by somehow leading people to believe they are playing the game of "ethics" when they are really trying to show how relevant people behave by neccessity. 

Either way you should write your article / views on this - I'm sure they will be much better than Hoppe's or most peoples attempt to explain the human phenomena of inter subjective behavior and will be a profitable read for most people who are wanting to learn sociology and economics.

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Clayton replied on Wed, Nov 30 2011 6:07 PM

Here's the article.

http://mises.org/Community/forums/t/27167.aspx

You're right about the confusion that stems from much of the discussion surrounding ethics and morality.

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Yes. I was reminded of Epicurus as I was reading Human Action. Actually, Schopenhauer came to mind first, but they're closely related. I hope to explore this connection in my upcoming response to the book.

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." ~ Ludwig Wittgenstein
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