philosophy Discussion Post 2

Epicurus Commentary

Chapter 4 Materials

Section 1:

Epicurus begins his exposition of hedonism with a particular cosmology—that is, with a comprehensive and rational account of the ultimate nature of the cosmos, or universe. The cosmology we speak of is called atomism, which comes from the ancient Greek word atomos, meaning “uncuttable” or “indivisible.” According to atomism, the universe (and everything in it) is composed of an infinite number of atoms combining and separating in the infinite void. Atoms are the most basic building blocks of reality. They are eternal—they are neither created nor can they ever be destroyed. Thus it makes no sense to ask “where did the atoms come from?” or “why does anything exist at all?” Atoms do not come from anywhere, since they have always existed and always will exist.


Epicurus believes that atomism is the most common-sense approach to understanding reality. The fact that there are only material things, or bodies, is confirmed by the experience of all men. It impossible, he says, to even conceive of anything besides bodies and the empty space (void) through which those bodies move. Now it is true that many people believe in incorporeal (i.e., non-bodily) souls, not to mention angels and gods. But Epicurus finds this belief rather silly, since our senses do not allow us to perceive anything that is not a body. In fact, even when we try to imagine angels and gods, we invest them with a human shape or form, as if they were some kind of spiritual body, which is a contradiction in terms (because to be a real, existing being, it must have the power of acting and being acted upon, and only corporeal beings are capable of this). No, says Epicurus, the only real beings are material things. (From this observation he makes the logical deduction that if you divide bodies into halves you will at some point reach a body that is so simple that it can no longer be divided into anything smaller—this is the atom.) Everything else (immaterial gods, souls, angels, demons, spirits, etc.) is the product of our vivid imaginations. The sooner we realize this, the better off we will all be.


There are two types of bodies: compounds, which are clusters of two or more atoms, and then the actual atoms out of which those compounds are formed. As we pointed out already, the atoms are indestructible. The constellations of atoms, or compounds, on the other hand, are not indestructible: at some point they will cease to exist as particular compounds. Let us use you as an example: You, as a human being, are a highly complex bundle of perhaps trillions of atoms arranged in a particular configuration. But you have not always been such as you are now. At some point you did not exist: the atoms that now make up your body existed somewhere else in nature (perhaps in the plants and animals your parents used for food around the time of your conception). Then you were born. You went through childhood and adolescence, and now you are in adulthood. Eventually you will grow old, whither, and die, at which point the atoms that make up your body will disperse back into nature (worms will nibble away at your rotting corpse, then birds will consume the worms, and scavengers will consume the birds when they die, and so on). But what remains constant throughout this perpetual cycle of life and death is the eternal, indestructible atoms which make up the multiplicity of compound bodies inhabiting the natural world.


According to atomism, compounds are formed when atoms collide against one another and become hooked with one or more atoms to form a cluster. Those same clusters then combine with others to produce the enormous variety of substances we encounter in the world—from inanimate objects, such as rocks and minerals, all the way up to the wide gamut of animal species, including human beings. Ultimately, the many worlds that make up the cosmos, and even the cosmos itself, owe their existence to the chance collisions of an infinite number of atoms.



Section 2:

Because Epicurus is an atomist, he regards every aspect of the human being, including the soul, as having a corporeal (or bodily) nature. Now what precisely, you might ask, is the human soul? According to Epicurus, the soul is the power or faculty in us that makes possible not only sensation (hearing, sight, touch, smell, taste), but also thought itself, or reason. More generally, the soul is a kind of “life force” that “animates” (from the Latin anima, meaning soul) otherwise lifeless bodies. In other words, it is the soul that distinguishes living from non-living things. If your soul were to vanish all of a sudden, you would be reduced to a lifeless corpse. 


Epicurus claims that the soul, just like the body, is composed of atoms. But whereas the human body is composed of densely packed clusters of relatively large, rough atoms, the soul is composed of exceedingly fine and smooth atoms, “resembling wind with a certain admixture of heat.” The soul atoms suffuse the entire bodily structure, from the top of the head to the tips of the toes and everything in between. Think of the human being as a wet sponge: the sponge itself is the bodily structure (bones, tendons, tissues, organs, etc.) and the water within the sponge would be the soul atoms diffused throughout the body. Although the soul may be the organ of all perception and thought, it is important to recognize that the soul atoms can only make sensation possible when working in and through the rest of the body. In other words, the body by itself is incapable of producing sensation. The same holds true with respect to the soul atoms: both soul and body need to be working together if there is to be sensation.


This has major implications for Epicurus: for if death means the dissolution of the human body, which in turn involves the dispersal of the soul atoms, then there is no possibility of sensation post mortem. If Epicurus is right, then there is no afterlife, because when we die we lose consciousness forever. Death is deprivation of sensation, and nothing more. We no longer have to worry about going to Hell (nor can we anticipate going to Heaven, for that matter). For Epicurus, as we will see, this realization becomes the cornerstone of the highest state of being of which humans are capable: tranquility of soul.

Chapter 5

St. Thomas Aquinas

Treatise on Law

According to St. Thomas, the definition of law may be rendered thus: “It is nothing else than an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated.” Let us briefly explore each of these four aspects of law.



1. Law is an ordinance of reason.

 For St. Thomas, it is the role of reason, first, to apprehend the good and, second, to determine the most appropriate means to secure the good. Law is that which induces man to act or refrain from acting in such a way as to achieve the practical reason’s primary object, namely the good.



2. The law is always something directed to the common good.

The ultimate end or goal of human life is happiness, and consequently the law must pertain first and foremost to the attainment of this end. The purpose of law, therefore, is to make human beings virtuous and good, and this it accomplishes by directing human actions in such a way as to conduce to virtue as well as by incentivizing law abidingness through the fear of punishment. With respect to this latter, St. Thomas makes the following psychological insight: “From becoming accustomed to avoid evil and fulfill what is good, through fear of punishment, one is sometimes led on to do so likewise, with delight and of one's own accord. Accordingly, law, even by punishing, leads men on to being good.” Thus the threat of punishment or punishment itself seeks not merely to deter evil acts but also to help habituate human beings to virtue.


Further, it is absolutely crucial to recognize that law is not the practical reason ordering what the individual must do with a view to his own private good simply, but rather it is the practical reason ordering what the individual must do with a view to the good of the whole community of which he is but a member: “since every part is ordained to the whole, as imperfect to perfect; and since one man is a part of the perfect community,2 the law must needs regard properly the relationship to universal happiness.”  



3. The law is made by him who has care of the community.

The point here is simply that the making of a law, which by definition exists for the sake of the common good, belongs to whoever is entrusted with the care of the whole people (i.e., a monarch, or a democratic assembly, etc.). For this reason it is absolutely essential that the leader(s) of a community be virtuous, for otherwise their edicts will not be ordinances of reason but of sin and error, not aimed at the common good, and thus they will not have the status of binding law, but rather of legislative tyranny.



4. The law must be promulgated.

In order for a law to be binding and legitimate, it must be promulgated, or made known to those for whom it is intended. This is so for the obvious reason that one cannot willfully obey a law if one is unaware of its existence.



The four kinds of law

St. Thomas enumerates four distinct types of law. Let us briefly discuss each one, going from highest to lowest.



1. Eternal law.

The eternal law is for St. Thomas synonymous with the Divine Reason, or God’s providential[1] governance of the universe, which moves all beings according to their several ends in subordination to the end or goal of the entire universe. Consider here St. Thomas’ “fifth way” of demonstrating God’s existence, known to modern scholars as the “argument from design”:


“We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God” (Summa Theologiae Ia, q. 2, a. 3).


In other words, inanimate bodies participate in the eternal law by acting in certain ways by natural necessity, that is, because they cannot act contrary to their God-give nature according to which they are directed to their appropriate end (this would encompass all of the scientific laws which govern the whole of the physical/natural world). Animals, on the other hand, participate (however unconsciously) in the eternal law by being governed by instinct. Human beings, however, because they are endowed with intelligence, participate in the eternal law through the natural law (about which more below).



2. Divine Law.

According to St. Thomas, man is directed toward an end (salvation and eternal life) the knowledge of which surpasses the grasp of his reason. That is, knowledge of man’s highest good lies beyond the capacity of imperfect human reason. For this reason, St. Thomas argues, God saw fit to reveal this truth to us via sacred scripture (i.e., the Biblical revelation). Divine law is therefore needed to teach things that human reason insufficiently understands. In addition, whereas human law only addresses actions, not intent, and since human law is incapable of judging intent (the “interior movements” of the soul, which constitute sin), Divine law is therefore necessary—“all is under the watchful eye of God…”



3. Natural law.

God has endowed mankind with a determinate nature by virtue of which human beings exhibit certain basic inclinations that, taken together, not only constitute our “humanity” and thereby distinguish us from all other creatures, but also direct us toward those objects that, in accordance with God’s design, are good for us. Morality is thus founded on these natural inclinations as well as on the ability of reason to determine what moral prescriptions ought to be followed based on these inclinations. The first and most universal moral prescription is to “do good and avoid evil,” which is identical to “seek out and acquire those goods toward which you are naturally inclined, and avoid anything that is destructive thereof.” This, in brief, is the recipe for the good life, according to St. Thomas.



Let us quickly go through each of the four[2] natural inclinations, from lowest to highest.


a. Self-preservation.

Like all living things, the human being endeavors—and ought to endeavor—with all his might to preserve his life. Suicide, as a direct violation of this inclination, is therefore evil.


1. Procreation and rearing of offspring.

Like other animals, human beings are naturally inclined to mate and care for their young. The family unit is thus the natural expression of this basic inclination. Any activity or manner of living that actively thwarts these desires would be deemed evil, or contrary to nature (which amount to the same thing for St. Thomas).


1. To live in society.

St. Thomas (following Aristotle) argues that man is by nature a political being, i.e., that he cannot attain virtue and happiness in isolation from a political community. Because human beings cannot thrive absent mutually beneficial or collaborative associations, it is imperative that men refrain from injuring those with whom they are called to live. 


1. To know the truth about God.

The human being is by nature a creature endowed with intelligence, and thus he is inclined to desire knowledge, particularly about those things that are necessary for the right ordering of his life (i.e., God). As Aristotle said over sixteen centuries earlier, “All men by nature desire to know.” Correlatively, one must avoid ignorance and do what one can to dispel it.



4. Human law.

Human law has specifically to do with determining ways of applying natural law. Whereas the precepts of the natural law may not vary, their implementation certainly does. Because there is in the world such a multiplicity of social customs, institutions, mores, climates, histories, topographies, and cultures, St. Thomas believes that different societies will frame different codes of law.


Human law is supposed to proceed from natural law, that is, it should be rational, and it should further fulfill the other three requirements of law (i.e., it must be for the sake of the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated). Any man made law that deviates from these requirements is not strictly speaking a valid law.[3]


[1] Providence refers to a rational plan according to which things are directed toward an end.

[2] Many commentators list them as three (collapsing C and D into one), but for the sake of clarity I will list them as four.

[3] Consider how The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. drew on the logical consequences of Thomistic natural law theory in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which he criticizes segregation laws on the grounds that they degrade human personality by creating a false sense of superiority in the segregator no less than a false sense of inferiority in the segregated.

Chapter 6

Thomas Hobbes

Section 1:

Among animals there are two basic types of motions: vital and animal. The former involve basic functions of which we are normally not aware, such as breathing and the circulation of the blood. The animal or voluntary motions, on the other hand, involve actions such as walking, speaking, and striking. These motions originate in the imagination, or what Hobbes calls “endeavor.”


There are two types of endeavor: 1) appetite or desire causes us to gravitate toward an object that we find pleasing, whereas 2) aversion forces us to withdraw from something which may give us pain. For Hobbes, love refers to the objects of appetite or desire, whereas we are said to hate those things to which we are averse.


Regarding appetites and aversions, some are natural, such as hunger and the impulse to avoid of pain, while others are acquired from experience. But because man’s constitution is constantly changing, Hobbes argues, “it is impossible that all the same things should always cause in him the same appetites, and aversions: much less can all men consent, in the desire of almost any one and the same object.”



Section 2:

According to Hobbes, our use of the terms “Good” and “Evil” simply reflects our desire for (good) or aversion to (evil) a given object. Good and evil, in other words, have no significance independent of our subjective valuations, “there being nothing simply and absolutely so; nor any common rule of good and evil, to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves.” Good and evil are therefore relative (to the individual), not absolute. Since not all men will desire, or have an aversion to, the same object (because not all men are pleased or displeased by the exact same things), it stands to reason that not everyone will agree that the same object is “good” or “evil”—with the following exceptions: according to Hobbes we can all agree that self-preservation and pleasure are good, and that death (in particular, violent death) is bad.  



Section 3:

Hobbes was one of the first thinkers to argue in favor of natural equality: while some men are manifestly of quicker mind or stronger body than others, “yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man and man is not so considerable” such that one man may claim a natural superiority over others. When it comes to the faculties of the mind, Hobbes finds “yet a greater equality amongst men, than that of strength.” Prudence, for example, “is but experience; which equal time, equally bestows on all men, in those things they equally apply themselves unto.” Vanity is the source of our mistaken belief in our own superior wisdom.


 “From this equality of ability, arises equality of hope in the attaining of our ends.” It is this equality of hope which gives rise to all the violence and instability of the state of nature, which is mankind’s natural condition. Scarcity is one of the defining features of the state of nature: because there are not enough resources available to satisfy human needs, men enter into violent competition in order to acquire those scarce goods. Even if an invader comes “prepared with forces united, to dispossess, and deprive” someone “not only of the fruit of his labor, but also of his life, or liberty,” he in turn will be “in the like danger of another.” There is no security in the state of nature because there are no private property rights, to say nothing of a governing body to defend such rights.


The surest means of securing oneself (short of erecting a commonwealth), Hobbes remarks, is “for force, or wiles, to master the persons of all men he can, so long, till he see no other power great enough to endanger him…” In other words, one would have to either kill or otherwise enslave everybody else. Clearly that is not exactly a viable option. As Hobbes will point out in subsequent sections, the only escape from the horrors of our natural condition is to leave the state of nature entirely by the establishment of a civil society.



Section 4:

Hobbes identifies three principal sources of human conflict: 1) competition for scarce goods 2) diffidence, or the mutual sense of insecurity or vulnerability to attack which impels us to strike preemptively in order to gain the upper hand in the struggle for survival, and lastly 3) glory, the quest for immortal fame, perhaps the scarcest of goods and hence an object of bloodthirsty competition.


Whenever men live outside the bounds of civil society, and thus without the restraints of law and order, they are in a condition of war in which “every man is enemy to every man.” In such unstable condition, all the appurtenances of civilized life are conspicuously absent: there is no place for industry, as property rights are non-existent; no agriculture; no navigation or international trade; no spacious and convenient dwellings; no technology or labor-saving devices; no knowledge of the earth; no account of time; no fine arts and letters; no agreeable social relations; “and, which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Life in Hobbes’ state of nature, to put it bluntly, is hell on earth. 



Section 5:

According to Hobbes, human beings enter into society not out of mutual goodwill or fellow feeling, but out of the mutual fear they have of each other, a fear consisting “partly in the natural equality of men, partly in their mutual will of hurting.” What makes us all equals in the final analysis is our equal susceptibility to violent death; Self-preservation thus becomes the individual’s highest priority. But is not the selfish desire to preserve one’s life at all costs a thing to be discouraged? Far from it, says Hobbes:


[T]o have a care of one’s self is so far from being a matter scornfully to be looked upon, that one has neither the power nor wish to have done otherwise. For every man is desirous of what is good for him, and shuns what is evil, but chiefly the chiefest of natural evils, which is death; and this he doth by a certain impulsion of nature, no less than that whereby a stone moves downward.


Hobbes here lays the groundwork for his theory of natural rights, foremost among which is the right to self-preservation by any means necessary: “since every man hath a right to preserve himself, he must also be allowed a right to use all the means, and do all the actions, without which he cannot preserve himself.” Thus “in the state of nature, to have all, and do all, is lawful for all,” meaning that men are entirely free to do whatever reason requires (killing, stealing, enslaving, pillaging, etc.,) for the purposes of survival and avoidance of pain: “profit is the measure of right.”



Sections 6 and 7:

Anticipating the objections against selfish and exploitative action in the state of nature, Hobbes challenges us to reflect for a moment on our own experience: When we go on a journey, do we not arm ourselves and bring companions for safety? When going to sleep, do we not lock our doors and secure our valuables (and this when we know that laws are in place to punish criminals)? What opinion do we have of our fellow citizens, of our servants, and even of our own children, when we behave in such suspicious ways? Do we not there as much accuse mankind by our actions as Hobbes does by his words? So it is, then, that the “desires, and other passions of man, are in themselves no sin”—they are unalterable aspects of human nature. Likewise, the actions (rape, theft, murder, etc.,) that proceed from those passions “are in themselves no sin” until a law is made that forbids them, and in the bare state of nature there are no such laws, since there is no governing body to enact and enforce them. This being the case, the “notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law: where no law, no injustice.” For Hobbes, justice is equated strictly with positive, or man-made, law (as he says in section 12: “no law can be unjust”). Unlike St. Thomas Aquinas’ natural law theory, for Hobbes there is no standard of justice that goes beyond the human law.


So how, according to Hobbes, do human beings escape the violence and instability of their natural state? The solution lies partly in the passions, partly in our reason:


The passions that incline men to peace, are fear of death; desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a hope by their industry to obtain them. And reason suggesteth convenient articles of peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement. These articles…are called the Laws of Nature.


Mankind’s motivation to find a way out of their misery originates in 1) fear of the greatest of evils that can ever befall us, namely violent death, combined with 2) the desire to live comfortably. These two passions impel our reason to discover the law of nature (“to seek peace, and follow it”), from which Hobbes derives the social contract:


[T]hat a man be willing, when others are so too [for the sake of peace] to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself.


In order to secure ourselves from violent death in the state of nature, we must first join together, mutually divesting ourselves of our right to harm one another, which is nicely captured in the modern saying, “your right to punch me ends where my nose begins.”