We have finally reached the eight, and last part in the series that presents the 40 Epicurean Principal Doctrines. It is an appropriate moment to wonder how Epicurean thinking is so strikingly modern in so surprisingly many cases.
This feeling of currency comes from the fact that he did not concern himself at all with mystical or supernatural explanations of the world. This kind of approach feels familiar to any person who lives in a modern science-based society. They are more and more based on findings of science and on trying to find rational ways to solve our problems.
A few centuries after Epicurus the mystical and supernatural thinking took over in Europe with the advent of Christianity. Texts from the that millennium seem very often much more dated, foreign and ancient to our ears than the sayings of Epicurus, who preceded the birth of whole Christian faith by several centuries.
Epicurus based his thinking wholly on rational analysis of the things he really saw around him in the psychical world and the human society. He could not go very wrong, as the basic methods of how our species thinks and acts have not changed very much during the last 2400 years after his times.
However, the fact is that the Greek society was 2400 years very much like our own. Epicurus did live in a prosperous merchant nation which was also a producer of quality exports. It did achieve its status and influencethrough peaceful commerce and not through conquests and war.
The rise of the feudal and dictatorially led state of Macedonia did bring an end to this phase, but that is another story. Now it is time to present the 36th to 40th doctrines.
36. In general justice is the same for all, for it is something found mutually beneficial in men's dealings, but in its application to particular places or other circumstances the same thing is not necessarily just for everyone.
This doctrine is a call to remember the relativity of justice. It is a call to remember that there is no such thing as an absolute justice, as justice is a result of agreement between men. Justice is subject to change as is everything else in human societies. When circumstances change, so does our vision of what can be considered as just and what not.
There are scientists who say that the very basic rules of right and wrong are strongly fixed in our minds. They are produced by the evolution of human species. However, the individual actions that are seen as moral or immoral do change and are very much culture-dependant.
37. Among the things held to be just by law, whatever is proved to be of advantage in men's dealings has the stamp of justice, whether or not it be the same for all; but if a man makes a law and it does not prove to be mutually advantageous then this is no longer just. And if what is mutually advantageous varies and only for a time corresponds to our concept of justice, nevertheless for that time it is just for those who do not trouble themselves about empty words, but look simply at the facts.
The discussion of relativity of justice continues in this doctrine, but with a new edge. Epicureans say that laws which create or forward greater common good are just and should be held as such, but if a law is seen to have more negative effects than positive in a society, it should be possible to change it also if changes in a society make a law obsolete.
This is naturally a very obvious thing for any person living in a modern democracy. However, in the time of Epicurus there were people who really believed laws to be of some kind of divine origin and as such something that should not be touched upon at all.
Epicureans think that the net results that laws do produce for the society and the good of its members should be the guiding idea in lawmaking also. This is a natural thing for us, but a radical idea 2400 years ago.
38. Where without any change in circumstances the things held to be just by law are seen not to correspond with the concept of justice in actual practice, such laws are not really just; but wherever the laws have ceased to be advantageous because of a change in circumstances.
Epicureanism is an extremely practical and down-to-earth school of philosophy, where all things in society are valued just by their own real world merits. Laws are seen just as a way to secure the maximum level of common good in a society.
Laws are seen as on important and necessary vehicle for creating a just society. However, Epicureans do stress out that things change, and laws should change too, when new situations do arise.
39. The man who best knows how to meet external threats makes into one family all the creatures he can; and those he can not, he at any rate does not treat as aliens; and where he finds even this impossible, he avoids all dealings, and, so far as is advantageous, excludes them from his life.
Epicurus did go through most of aspects of building a good life in his thinking. One's relationships with other people is of course of utmost importance to social animals like humans. Building relationships based on trust and friendship with as many people as possible is of course a very natural thing. Epicurus points out that treating also all other people well and justly is as an important base for a good life.
However, Epicurus does suggest that one should just avoid those people who one really cannot get along with. There simply will always be people who we will find difficult to deal with. This is a very simple piece of practical advice. Avoiding difficult people as much as one can will diminishe the mental stress that they do cause.
40. Those who possess the power to defend themselves against threats by their neighbors, being thus in possession of the surest guarantee of security, live the most pleasant life with one another; and their enjoyment of the fullest intimacy is such that if one of them dies prematurely, the others do not lament his death as though it called for pity.
We have finally reached the last of the 40 Epicurean Principal Doctrines. One gets the definite feeling that the lesser doctrines ones are left at the bottom, as for a modern man living in western society at least this doctrine has little to say on a personal level at least. We do have little need to defend ourselves physically in a modern industrialized society, as the society has to so large an extent got the monopoly of violence and the violence left is quite unpredictable and haphazard in nature.
On the other hand, when one takes the idea it to level of states it starts to make more sense. To be left in peace a state must be able to defend itself. Weakness may incite attacks by opportunistic neighbors. Happily of course in EU-Europe at least even this threat is greatly diminished.
(This piece was rewritten on 9th of July, 2012)