Epicureanism in Antiquity and Modernity

Nevertheless, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries manifest this kind of crisis. Those with a strong faith appear to be decreasing, and even those who still have enthusiasm in faith no longer have it with the same intensity. This occurs in all nations, although it is especially widespread in France, which was shown by the French Revolution. We could say that the strength of moral sentiment that produced the Revolution shows how religious feeling was too weak to prevent it. It is a unique historical example of a great movement in which religious feeling did not play a role. The crowd was driven by a purely moral and social idea. This will undoubtedly happen again. Humanity is always the same, which is to say easy to impassion. It was dragged forward by an idea. When religious beliefs are no longer strong enough to move people, they will increasingly turn to moral and then to the social ideas, which will eventually predominate and absorb everything including morals.

[§9] We can say, therefore, that moral and social issues will become alive [vivantes]. They will not be limited to the abstract domain of philosophical thought, but will pass into the realm of fact and action. They will become matters of life and death for us. Those nations that had too viciously tackled religious problems were often outdated and surpassed [effaces] by those who offered a less imperfect solution. Religious sentiment always gave the nations in which it manifested at a high level the force to expand. This will happen in the future with moral or social feelings. Those who understand sociality more accurately will have an irresistible power far ahead of others.

The best solution to moral and social problems will be the strength of the people who find this solution.

[§10] Now, what is the people and who is the person who will get closest to finding the solution, or that will at least be able to approach it? If it was possible to predict the future, to determine how events will unfold, then the one who knew these moral and social truths could impose a direction on history, just as one can set the course of a ship when one knows where it is heading. But we no longer live in times in which one affirmed with priestly certainty where the truth lies. Absolute certainty in the correctness of one’s own thought is [one idea] of the same variety as religious ideas, and it is doomed to become weak like they do.

We are now less willing to believe, more willing to search. We defy our own thinking. We saw so many ideas crumble around us, and sometimes even our own, so we no longer dare to rely on ourselves with complete confidence. Whatever we assert we are always still doubtful, and are ready to restrict our assertions. Is this bad? No, because circumspection does not prevent the fierce drive to research. If we are to discover the truth, we must be tireless in our pursuit of it.

[§11] If this fierce drive to pursue the truth possesses us, it is especially when it pertains to problems that are connected to the behaviour of individuals and societies. It is a kind of duty to research whose side duty is on and on whose side humanity must go. The whole moral and social debate, which we have seen growing in importance, can be reduced to the debate between the partisans of [self]interestedness [l’intérêt] or the partisans of meritorious virtue [vertu meritoire], between the Epicureans and their detractors. Does duty exist? Does morality exist? Are we worthy to do what we think is good? Or rather, “duty”, “morality”, “worthiness”, are these just

(as there are many reasons to believe) figurative expressions that humanity has taken too literally? Must we replace “duty” by “common interest”, “morality” by “instinct” or by “hereditary habit” or “calculation”? Must we replace “merit” in action by the “enjoyment” [jouissance] of acting? Essentially, this is the very same issue broached by Epicurus, whose thought now echoes in today’s greatest minds and which answers our questions. We already know enough about Epicurean morality, and its subsequent development in history, to understand the strength of his system. Most often, the strength or weakness of a philosophical doctrine can be measured by its duration, its persistence. Part of humanity has believed that life’s sole purpose was [self]interest. Part of humanity believed this and still supports it. If this is not the whole truth, at least it is a large part of the whole truth. Such a doctrine therefore deserves the most careful consideration.

[§12] Doctrines have their own life, like individuals. They are born, they grow, they flourish. They blossom in their youth and they mature with virile vigour. They also decline sometimes – but not always – and there are some that are immortal. In order to know a doctrine is good to have somehow followed in its path, seen its progress, to have lived by it. How could we expect to know those [doctrines] which we only see en passant, fleetingly, in only one aspect? When we see Epicureanism unwound before us in its entirety, in all its many guises, only then can we know, or even hope to know, what is true or false in it. Only then we can also try to judge it – judgment will never be without appeal – because a doctrine has always the future in front of it to rise up if necessary, and neither the history nor the critique of systems are ever finished.

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