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Aristotle’s Ale vs. Epicurus’ Kool-Aid

by on February 27, 2011

            One will find a similar theme in many of my philosophy-based writings condemning any sort of absolutist system from the staunch position of existentialism and subjectivity. As argued before, the eligibility requirements to enter the Epicurean Garden is conducive to the medical analogy used in philosophy back then; namely, healing any and all sick souls. Aristotle’s ‘Finishing School’ didn’t really seem to offer much for many due to his insistence on his male, aristocratic students needing a liberal education before entering his Lyceum. In response to this, the Epicurean ‘Internet Connection’ required nothing but a sick soul to which one would be admitted to the school for healing. However, as hinted in ‘Aristotle’s Finishing School vs. Epicurus’ Internet Connection,’ the ethics themselves require a synthesis of the two competing schools.

            Aristotle saw each of his aristocratic male, educated students as holding on to some truth and it was through dialectical scrutiny that the excess would be stripped away and a clearer truth would emerge. Based off of Aristotle’s requirements of eligibility this makes perfect sense. Unlike Aristotle, however, Epicurus’ Garden seems a bit reminiscent of a Pythagorean-like cult. Epicurus was in fact seen as like a god, his community severed ties with the majority, and the dialectical scrutiny and exchange of ideas of Aristotle are replaced with monotonous memorization and blind obedience to the divine Epicurus. From the eligibility requirements of the Epicurean Garden- this seems somewhat practical as well. If one is admitting lay persons, slaves, women, etc. many of whom are uneducated and only corrupted by the societal aims of illusion, an ‘exchange’ of ideas aren’t going to be too helpful when a student is sick. So in a way, the capacity of reform and knowledge is seen directly in the infrastructure of the school itself. To summarize quickly the foundations that lead to this stark difference, let me quickly reiterate the fundamental claim of each.

            Aristotle, who studied different constitutions, performed various experiments, read wide array of texts, found such things as useful and only really when synthesized, reinterpreted, and placed under scrutiny, the results of moderation and practicality would come out. These things, along with others, is what Epicurus claims is the source of the ill of mans’ soul. It is society and its emphasis on pursuits of illusory importance that causes the disappointment and helpless feeling in man.

            Epicurus, was not only seen as divine, but in fact praised continuously as such. The pupils of Epicureanism, such as Lucretius proudly claim and celebrate Epicurus as the savior of humanity. Martha Nussbaum explains this level of devotion with the following example:

‘Plutarch reports that one day, while Epicurus was lecturing about nature, Colotes fell at his feet, seized him by the knees, and performed a prokunesis- an act of obeisance appropriate to a divinity or a self-deifying monarch.’ (‘Therapy of Desire,’ pg. 130)

There are many more examples of such staunch admiration and praise for Epicurus that simply isn’t found at all in Aristotle. Perhaps, one could argue, the absolute power of knowledge found in Epicurus is the equivalent to Aristotle’s eligibility requirements. With Aristotle, you could disagree with him; study such disciplines as metaphysics and logic for the mere sake of studying such disciplines. With Epicurus, you merely listened, obeyed, and memorized. It is this absolution that deserves heavy critique.

            For an ethical system of any value to have effect, it needs to have the ability to help any and all as the Epicurean system allows, yet, it must have the ability to seek practical solutions to ethical dilemmas and that age old fundamental question in philosophy: ‘How should we live?’ The fact that the solution found by Epicurus and his followers to the corrupting nature of society was to build a little community outside of the main hustle and bustle of the town does little to actually address societal problems- it is merely providing an alternative. The alternative to the corrupting nature of the town’s religion was merely replaced with an alternative religion and the fame and power that Epicurus fought against was merely placed at his feet.

            The difference between a successful ethics and a failing ethics is that the former takes the human condition into account and realizes that issues must be dealt with through the exchange of perspectives, histories, experiences, ideals, etc. The latter merely instructs, lists its prohibitions, lists the focal point of the campaign and offers a substitutive environment. For I firmly agree with Aristotle when he says that one must deal with the particular in ethics and that each person (in the Epicurean eligibility sense) carries with him/her self portions of truth. It is only when the value of each person is considered alongside the perspective from which he/she is arguing from, that an ethics based on the world we live can flourish.

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