Epicureanism in Antiquity and Modernity

[§5] Epicureanism was defeated; however, it was not destroyed. After several centuries, when the enthusiasm for this new religion faded, when believers dwindled and its thinkers became less numerous, it was discovered that earthly interests walked hand in hand with celestial ones. The earth was found to have value and to be worth taking seriously. As the centuries passed, human beings became tired of having their eyes restlessly turned to heaven [le ciel]; the earth [la terre] assumed a greater importance for everyone. Montaigne clearly represents this transition. He was not an Epicurean, but a Pyrrhonian. What is convenient about Pyrrhonism is that one can be Pyrrhonian while simultaneously being many other things. Scepticism does not exclude anything, precisely because it rejects everything. But it only rejects everything in theory. In practice it acknowledges something, and Pyrrhonism acknowledged only that which it wished to acknowledge. A Sceptic may get along with everyone by following all dominant beliefs and, nevertheless, he can be free with everyone [avec tout le monde]. An Epicurean, on the contrary, cannot be other than Epicurean – and he is an enemy to everyone who is not. Thus Montaigne would push this despised [peu aimé]  sobriquet [‘Epicurean’] away from him. But in fact he will not be any less an Epicurean disciple than a Pyrrhonian one. How many Epicurean thoughts are reborn in Montaigne, infiltrating his wavering [ondoyant] book, The Essays! After one hundred years, Montaigne’s century was nourished by his writings and generations meditated on his book. This “handbook of the honest” – as it was called by a priest – it is not the scepticism of Pyrrho that will come out of this meditation, but rather the ethics [morale] of Epicurus.

[§6] Around the first half of the seventeenth century saw

the resurrection in both France and England of the complete system of Epicureanism. In France, it was reawakened by the cautious erudition of Gassendi; in England, it was reawakened by the rigorous genius of Hobbes. From this moment onwards, Epicurean ideas recovered their place in history, and their supporters become as numerous as they once were. Even such a misanthropic and dark thinker as La Rochefoucauld – a thinker who only seems to care for the finesses and curiosities of psychological analysis – is lead towards Epicurus unwittingly. Combined with Spinozist naturalism, it is Epicureanism that is born again with Helvétius, d’Holbach, Saint-Lambert. It is Epicureanism that inspires all the French writers of the eighteenth century (excluding Montesquieu, Turgot and Rousseau). Then Epicureanism returns in England, gathering in Hobbes’ homeland ever more numerous partisans. With Bentham and Mill it assumes its definitive form which, as we will see, does not differ much from its original source. Finally, with Spencer and Darwin it grows anew. To the more or less transformed moral system of Epicurus is added a wide cosmological system: new Democritians provide modern Epicureans with the means to ground their ethics in the laws of the whole universe, encompassing man and the universe in the same conception.

[§7] To summarise, Epicureanism, so powerful in antiquity, has returned to dominate two of the greatest nations of Europe. In France, it is crucial for Helvétius and almost all eighteenth-century French philosophers; in England, it is crucial for Bentham and the contemporary English school. Today almost all English thinkers are Epicurean. Furthermore, Epicurus’ influence in our country [France], which has remained considerable since the last century, is increasing despite the new Stoicism of Kant and his school. Everywhere, in theory and in practice,

we find two moralities [morales], which assume two opposing understandings [conceptions] of the visible and invisible world. These two doctrines split philosophical thought and divide human beings. We could say that today the fierce half-a-millennium struggle between the Epicureans and Stoics has rekindled and is burning anew.

[§8] This battle between moral doctrines, which follows the laws of thought, tends to increasingly occupy our minds. Indeed, if there is something that interests the whole of humanity, if there is something that makes us passionate, it is the problem of morality [le problème moral]. No human being’s attention fails to be captured when they hear of ‘duty’, ‘justice’, or ‘rights’. Only one thing could have diverted attention from moral and social issues during a whole historical epoch: religious enthusiasm. Religious faith satisfies both human tendencies: to be disinterested and to be utilitarian.[10] The tendency to be disinterested takes divine love as its object and suffuses this with human love. The utilitarian tendency [l’intérêt] [viz. the tendency to be self-interested] defers its satisfaction by anticipating a future [l’attente] in which all believed. To a certain extent, the self-interested could defer their satisfaction of the good things of the earth by anticipating the joy of heaven. Each time a religion triumphs it flattens philosophical and moral discussions, spreading indifference to worldly duties and rights. When religious enthusiasm burns itself out, when mysteries (accepted until then and projected as immense shadows upon the human mind)[11] no longer obfuscate problems, when faith cannot restrain the strongest minds, then moral and metaphysical questions can be posed again. Only when attention turns from temples and heaven to moral and political philosophy, only when prophets and soothsayers are forgotten, do the people gather around thinkers who strive to show them what is present and real.

Pages ( 2 of 4 ): « Previous1 2 34Next »