Why We Honor Epicurus
1.1[i] Look around you and you will see, with your own eyes, that human life has long lay crushed under the weight of false religions and philosophies. What you are about to read is the wisdom left to us by Epicurus, a wise man of ancient Greece, who was the first who dared to stand up against this oppression. Epicurus’ mind was strong, and he could not be held back by false legends about the gods or false philosophies about the universe. These falsehoods, rather than discourage him, only spurred him on to burst through the gates that had been erected across the road of Nature’s truths. By force of spirit, Epicurus overcame these obstacles – he traversed the universe with his mind, and returned to us as a conqueror. He then showed us the principles which he had discovered – the laws of Nature – which alone determine what can and cannot be. By means of the wisdom Epicurus left to us, we now have the power to throw down the false religions and philosophies which oppress us, and by learning from Epicurus’ victory we can learn to lift ourselves to the stars.
1.2[ii] It is to be expected that you come to the study of Epicurus confused and frightened by the oppressive tales of false priests and philosophers. How many illusions these men have presented to you as real! How much they have tried to convince you to accept some false guide, and how diligently they have urged you to give up all hope of happiness!
1.3 These false priests and philosophers have woven their lies for a reason: they seek to prevent you from finding out that Nature has laid out a straightforward path to happiness, and that she has set definite limits to pain and to suffering. They seek to hide these truths because, once you see and embrace them, you are then armed with the courage and the power to resist their oppression.
1.4 But so long as false priests and philosophers succeed in destroying your confidence in the faculties that Nature has provided to you – so long as they can continue to blind you to the true principles of Nature – they have you in their power, and you have no means to resist their false ideas. Confused as you are by their false arguments, you go on fearing punishment and hoping for reward after death; you go on relying on their false promises about a heaven and a hell that do not exist; you give up all hope of happiness in the one world that does exist.
1.5 Do not blame yourself too harshly for your confusion. At birth, no man knows whether he has a soul, and if he has one, he does not know whether the soul was born with the body, or whether it existed beforehand. No man knows at birth whether his soul perishes when his body dies, or whether his soul lives on after death, to be rewarded in Heaven or punished in Hell. No, you are not born with this or any other knowledge, and after you have wasted much of your youth in the hands of false preachers and false philosophers, your confusion has no doubt grown even deeper.
1.6 Confusion on issues as deep as these can only be resolved through the study of Nature. This study requires us to chase from our minds the illusions of false religion and false philosophy which are accepted and held to be true by the majority of men. These false ideas constitute a darkness in which terrors and uncertainty multiply. For the work of dispelling this darkness, neither “reason” alone nor rays of sunlight are sufficient. No, neither reason nor sunlight can banish false fears, conquer oppression, or chase away anxieties. These are victories which can be won only by following a path in which you constantly seek out and follow the guidance of Nature.
1.7 Epicurus showed us that we can follow the path of happy living only after we have mastered three separate strengths, each of which must be mastered in turn.
1.8 The first strength is that of trusting the faculties of sense that Nature has given to us. We must come to understand that these faculties include not only the senses of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling, but also the sense of pain and pleasure, and the sense of anticipations. We must learn that it is not evil to follow the guidance of pleasure, and that it is not wrong to trust our anticipations. We must have confidence in all these faculties, for only in using them properly can we find truth. We must learn how we know what we hold to be true. This is the study of “Canonics.”
1.9 The second strength is that of seeking out and discovering the nature of the universe by applying the rules of Canonics. We must learn for ourselves that the elements of the universe are eternal; that the elements were not created by any god and are not under the power of any god; that the numberless elements move ceaselessly through boundless void, but that even while moving the elements remain true to themselves, and that through these unchanging elements Nature has set limits and boundaries for all things. We must learn what we hold to be true about the universe. This is the study of “Physics.”
1.10 The third strength is that of living our lives according to the lessons learned in Canonics and Physics. We must see for ourselves that, in an eternal and boundless universe, our lives are short and that we must treasure each moment. We must see that even though our souls die with our bodies, it is an illusion to believe that we need unlimited time in order to live a complete life. We must see that completeness has a beginning and a path and end, and that, if we follow that path by the light of the laws of Nature, we can live a life that is not only complete, but worthy of the blessedness men attribute to the immortal gods. We must see that we cannot choose our path based on standards that have no reality, and that words such as “virtue” and “evil,” and “good” and “bad,” and especially “the will of god” have no meaning at all. We must see that these words are useless and empty unless we redefine them to assign a meaning based on the guidance of the pleasure and pain which Nature makes real to us. We must learn how men should live. This is the study of “Ethics.”
1.11 There is no shortcut along this path; every step must be taken with confidence earned from the strength gained through earlier steps. Effort and ability are required, and those who refuse to make the effort, or are not capable of sustaining it, will not achieve a happy life. But the good news is that we have every reason to be grateful to Nature, for she has made life itself an experience of the greatest happiness. If we but work to understand her, we will see that Nature has made happy living readily achievable and unbearable pain readily avoidable.
1.12 The system of Epicurus will equip you with a nose like a hunting dog, able to sniff out the truth no matter how deeply it might be hidden by false religions and false philosophies. The Epicurean way is the way of escape from darkness, and by pursuing this path – by developing your strength in each of these areas – you will find that each new discovery illuminates the path to the next.
Him neither story of gods nor thunderbolts nor heaven with threatening roar could quell: they only chafed the more the eager courage of his soul, filling him with desire to be the first to burst the fast bars of nature’s portals. When human life to view lay foully prostrate upon earth crushed down under the weight of religion, who showed her head from the quarters of heaven with hideous aspect lowering upon mortals, a man of Greece ventured first to lift up his mortal eyes to her face and first to withstand her to her face. Therefore the living force of his soul gained the day: on he passed far beyond the flaming walls of the world and traversed throughout in mind and spirit the immeasurable universe; whence he returns a conqueror to tell us what can, what cannot come into being; in short on what principle each thing has its powers defined, its deep-set boundary mark. Therefore religion is put underfoot and trampled upon in turn; us his victory brings level with heaven.
You yourself some time or other overcome by the terror-speaking tales of the seers will seek to fall away from us. Ay indeed for how many dreams may they now imagine for you, enough to upset the calculations of life and trouble all your fortunes with fear! And with good cause; for if men saw that there was a fixed limit to their woes, they would be able in some way to withstand the religious scruples and threatenings of the seers. As it is, there is noway, no means of resisting, since they must fear after death everlasting pains. For they cannot tell what is the nature of the soul, whether it be born or on the contrary find its way into men at their birth, and whether it perish together with us when severed from us by death or visit the gloom of Orcus and wasteful pools or by divine decree find its way into brutes in our stead, as sang our Ennius who first brought down from delightful Helicon a crown of unfading leaf, destined to bright renown throughout Italian clans of men. And yet with all this Ennius sets forth that there are Acherusian quarters, publishing it in immortal verses; though in our passage thither neither our souls nor bodies hold together, but only certain idols pale in wondrous wise. From these places he tells us the ghost of everliving Homer uprose before him and began to shed salt tears and to unfold in words the nature of things. Wherefore we must well grasp the principle of things above, the principle by which the courses of the sun and moon go on, the force by which every thing on earth proceeds, but above all we must find out by keen reason what the soul and the nature of the mind consist of, and what thing it is-which meets us when awake and frightens our minds, if we are under the influence of disease; meets and frightens us too when we are buried in sleep; so that we seem to ‘see and hear speaking to us face to face them who are dead, whose bones earth holds in its embrace.