Sunday, May 10, 2009

AtF: Ignorance is Bliss

Back when I was taking History 320: Ancient Greece we had to do a project. We were supposed to figure out who was buried in a particular tomb at Vergina. The possible residents were Philip the Great, Philip III Arrideus (a mentally challenged half-brother of Alexander the Great) or Alexander IV, A the G’s son. Not only were we supposed to make an effective argument, we were supposed to try to make a case for why the issue matters. We got extra credit on the paper if we figured out why it matters. I totally missed the point, mostly because I don’t keep up on current events in Macedonia. The argument was about a thoroughly modern issue of heritage. I, instead, argued that the largest and greatest tumulus at Vergina would have to belong to Philip the Great. That is, quite simply, the Greek way. I didn’t receive the full extra credit for my argument, but my professor did confer arête upon me. Although that may well have been because of the title of my paper: “The Vergina Monologues.” I don’t fully recall. I wouldn’t be fully surprised to learn I got the arête based on the title, though. It was pretty awesome. I suppose I should back up here and explain arête. It’s a Greek word that indicates goodness or virtue. To be bestowed with arête meant that a Greek had fulfilled his purpose and brought honor to himself, his house, and his polis. Among the Greeks the fulfillment of purpose meant achieving greatness in the public sphere. Aristotle, after all, famously said that man is a creature of the polis. This has often been mis-translated as “man is a creature of politics,” but it means man is a creature of the city-state. The entire Greek life was lived in the public sphere. Greatness was achieved in the games, wars, and politics out in front of the world. The great philosophical schools were built around dialog in the public sphere and at the various philosophical schools, not the common image of bearded men with quill pens, parchment, and sputtering candlelight. It was, therefore, a shock to the establishment when Epicurus formulated the philosophy that would be come to be known as Epicureanism. To Epicurus the main goal in life was pleasure and invisibility. The former was not necessarily an unrestrained hedonism, but an avoidance of pain. The latter was, quite simply, anti-Greek. To live invisibly in the polis was to avoid the laurels of arête, to reject the entire public nature of the Hellenic drive towards greatness. Epicurus was also a materialist. He followed Democritus’s belief that the universe was formulated by little bits of indivisible matter called atoms. Epicurus believed that if there were gods they resided in the atom and were indifferent to the trials, tribulations, and struggles of the universe they created. This was a further affront to Greek sensibilities. The public worship of the gods was a time-honored tradition among, well, all ancient peoples. To not worship the gods was to bring ruin upon the world, which was only held together at their pleasure. It was also sometimes an issue of political expedience, as with the trial of Socrates. Still, it was Epicurus who formulated one of the all-time great anti-theistic apologies (or, at least, according to David Hume):
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
He may well have said no such thing. As best I can tell the only source is David Hume. Very few of Epicurus’s writings survive and we only have a few later works that reference and discuss his words. Still, Epicurus stands astride the debate over the nature of the universe as a giant and, as such, poor Bill Cooper finds it necessary to challenge him. In doing so he resorts to his single trick: intellectual dishonesty. This time he resorts to a new low. I strongly suspect this will not be the lowest. I’ve decided I need to start doing these posts after taking a hefty dose of valium in order to save myself the trouble of working up a good dose of indignation. I’ve got a family history of high blood pressure working against me, here. Anyway, there’s a bit of sophistry in which he pits Plato and Epicurus as opponents on the field of philosophy, which is a neat trick considering that the latter was born in Samos about a decade after the former died in Athens. Cooper then goes for what I’m guessing he thinks is the jugular.
The challenge issued by Plato's model of origins was met by Epicurus at every point, even on those more mundane matters that had merely to do with the city-state and jurisprudence. But in particular, Epicurus argued that it was insufficient to contend for the divine creation of the universe, as Plato did, from the assumption of a well-ordered cosmos, simply because the cosmos, in Epicurus' eyes, was not well-ordered.
First off, as I mentioned last week, the polis and jurisprudence were pretty much the opposite of mundane to the Greeks. There may be major gaps in my knowledge of the Greek philosophers, but that’s because I was busy taking history courses. I can, therefore, tell you plenty about the general Greek mindset. They were obsessed with the polis. Flat-out obsessed. Second, that thing about the well-ordered cosmos seems to be a red herring to me. I think I understand the argument Cooper is trying to make. I’m pretty sure that it’s a basically accurate interpretation of a summation of the respective cosmologies of Plato and Epicurus. But it seems like yet another round of attempting to frame the arguments of ancient Greeks to the modern day creation/evolution debate. But the true sophistry comes when Cooper drags the stoics and Cicero in to the conversation. I find it ironic, in fact, that when he drags poor Cicero in to the equation he does so thusly: “[s]uch sophistry, of course, was entirely in keeping with the character of Epicurus who was roundly criticised for it on more than one occasion,” and then follows it with this quote:
Epicurus himself used to do the same thing. For instance, he saw that if those atoms of his were always falling downwards by their own weight, their motion would be fixed and predetermined, and there would be no room for free will in the world. So casting about for a way to avoid this determinism, which Democritus had apparently overlooked, he said that the atoms, as they fell, just swerved a little!
This quotation supposedly comes from Cicero’s De Natura Deorum. Further, although Cooper doesn’t even give us a page number in the Penguin Classics version he apparently read (seriously, I am really close to seeing if I can get Gavin Menzies to go over to Cooper’s house and explain to him how to properly cite a source. I could not be more pissed about the fact that I’ve looked through three different versions of De Natura Deorum this afternoon), I can tell you that it probably came from Book I. Oh, and I’m guessing that stress on “swerved” was Cooper’s, but I have no friggin’ clue. Now, Cicero’s De Natura Deorum was a defense of stoicism. Kind of. Mostly when we think of stoicism today we think of it in the classic Roman sense of Marcus Aurelius. The image Aurelius presented was of the rocks on a shoreline, forever pounded by the waves and forever unmoved by their rage. That’s why the word “stoic” in English means someone who is apparently indifferent to suffering or joy. However, De Natura Deorum was an attack by Cicero on both the Greek Stoics and Epicureans. It takes the form of a dialogue between Cotta, a Stoic, and Vellius, an Epicurean. Cotta and Vellius alternately praise their philosophy and attack their opponents. In all of this, Cicero’s goal is to support his own, Romanized version of Stoicism. It takes its name from the Greek philosophy, but that’s about it. In fact, Roman Stoicism, at its core, is remarkably similar to Epicureanism. The idea of standing against the tides of an impersonal, uncaring universe probably would have appealed to Epicurus. All in all, though, Cooper has made a deeply fundamental mistake in his arguments. What he’s done in his attempt to recruit Cicero to his side is the equivalent of citing Gordon Gecko in an argument on capitalism. If a fictional character says, “Greed is good,” you’d better make sure that character is actually set up as a mouthpiece for the creator of the fictional work. Either way, Cooper makes a big deal about the fact that Epicurus was a materialist atheist. This, again, is one of those things that (I’d assume intentionally) obfuscates the philosophies of the ancient Greeks. Epicurus, in fact, shared a similar idea of the nature of the “gods” to, say, Zeno, or even Lao-Tzu. For Epicurus the gods were in the atoms. So the fundamental material that comprised the universe was, in fact, that which created it. Zeno believed in a more Taoist concept that there was a “universe” that had its own agency. The prime point of departure was the Zeno believed that the universe wanted everyone to be happy and would reward or punish its residents upon their death. Meanwhile, and I suppose this is why Stoicism would be so appealing to Bill Cooper, the Stoic determination of good and evil was in following the secret order of the universe. See, Stoics believed that the chaos of the universe was only because humans couldn’t see the order that ruled all. The goal, then, was to shed observation based on emotion and look at the universe with reason and logic. In doing so it was – theoretically – possible to discern the underlying harmony of the universe and live accordingly. In seeing the universe as a mass of disparate atoms, however, Epicurus saw chaos. Cooper, in a fit of irony, sees this as intellectual dishonesty.
However, the acknowledgement the existence of the gods did have the virtue of imparting to Epicurus control of the field and the ability to state the terms under which the ensuing controversy was to be fought. Or so he vainly hoped, for far from seeing creationism off the proverbial field, Epicureanism merely served to rally the creationist camp towards a better definition of its views, and the school of thought which raised itself to meet the challenge of Epicurean materialism was the Stoic school, founded by Zeno in ca 308 BC.
This echoes one of the most popular arguments made now against atheists by fundamentalist Christians. “You atheists know god exists,” they say, “You just choose to say you don’t.” Those who believe in no god, then, are accused of intellectual dishonesty by people who seem to possess none whatsoever. Either way, we shall pause here for now. There’s still a bit more to go on the issue of Stoicism. After that he makes up some random shit about the earliest contact between Jews and Greeks. And if we’re lucky we’ll get to see the earliest incarnation of the “Watchmaker God” argument. I hope you’re as excited as I am… EDIT: Took out a "(sic)." Apparently "acknowledgement is an accepted spelling of the word in some places. Perhaps that's how it works in Britain, where Cooper lives. Oh, and for the record, I thought the Brits didn't have kooks like this. Someone might want to look in to that...


PersonalFailure said...

Is it possible then, O Epicurus, that thoust believest that the hourglass came together of its own accord, sand leaping into glass to form the exact hour? O how foolish art thou!

Is that the earliest watchmaker argument? (I'm not sure why, but ancient Greeks and Romans arguing in pseudoShakespearean english amuses me.)

Sniffnoy said...

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?
...who would this have been arguing against, had Epicurus actually said it? Offhand this seems like more anachronism.

Geds said...

PF: Sadly, Cicero did make a Watchmaker argument in De Natura Deorum. Equally sadly, Cooper seems to have found it. And, not surprisingly, he doesn't seem to notice that a random ancient Roman philosopher might have actually known less about science than Paley.

I mean, consider that he thinks the scribes who wrote the Bible know more about science than your average scientist...

Sniffnoy: That's exactly my problem with the quote, too. It actually does sound kind of like something that would come out of Epicurus. But I've searched for it repeatedly and the only place I can actually find a solid source is from David Hume, who wasn't exactly a contemporary.

And, again, unless we know the context of the supposed quote, we can't necessarily use it for its apparent purpose. I certainly couldn't do so in the same post where I took Cooper to task for misinterpreting and quote mining Cicero...

Meanwhile, apropos of nothing, it's been nearly 24 hours and I still find the assertion that Epicurus was being intellectually dishonest in acknowledging the possible existence of the gods hilarious.