Taking Ancient Texts Literally

The controversy between creationism and evolution is a good example of the absurdity of taking texts literally, in spite of having been written thousands of years ago.
Discarding the entire bible as obsolete is easy.   There are other texts written in other times, cultures and circumstances, which still has some value, but need to be adapted.    This is more difficult.   It needs an understanding of the essence and gist of the writer's meaning.

The writing of the Greek philosopher Epicurus is a good example.   The core of his philosophy suits the inclinations of atheists and apistics like me very well.   One of his core principles is not to harm and not to be harmed, and to live a good life before death, because there is not afterlife in which to be compensated for suffering.

But he developed his ideas 2300 years ago, and any attempt to take his teachings literally is a distortion of what he really meant.   His philosophy needs to be adapted to the very different life situation today.

The following text (copied from my ERCP blog) is my reaction to some Epicureans' attempt to follow every word of his in veneration. 


Epicurus And Inequality

To understand the definition of goals by a specific philosopher, it is important to understand the sociological and psychological background, which influenced his thinking.

A philosopher, who lived 2300 years ago, can only be evaluated by understanding his historical context.

Epicurus omitted to include any concept concerning equality into his philosophy. He also seems completely void of either mentioning or noticing the harm caused by inequality.
To find an explanation for this omission, I googled about the social situation in Athens in Epicurus' times. A boy like Epicurus grew up into a world, where there were three different categories of people: Free men, free women and slaves. He grew up to take this for granted, as if there was no alternative available to get aware of. It was a natural and normal condition of life.
He also grew up by seeing the outward behavior of women and slaves, who had submitted externally to their plight. How much they suffered harm, was most probably not directly visible, especially not to a child.

Free men were the only people, who had the choice, how to live. They were the only persons, who were free to decide over their own lives and which philosophy to follow. Schools admitted only boys, who thus had the option to read books and make choices.

Women were excluded from public live, they were considered to exist for the purpose of procreation or as a utility for male use. They were denied public functions and the access to many public buildings and events. They were excluded from education but taught to do household chores. Women from rich families, who did get education, were an exception. Women were impeded from developing their potential and excluded from where they could give evidence of their abilities. Then they were considered as not equal, based upon having been made so.

I read an estimation that about 30% of the population of Athens were slaves. The life of a slave in the Roman empire is well illustrated in the move Spartacus. I have no doubt, that a slave's life about 200 years earlier in Athens was not much different. Those beautiful Greek temples were certainly built by slaves, and most probably also the people's houses, including the one, in which lived Epicurus and his community. Even if a slave did not physically suffer from hard toil, the lost dignity of being owned like an object is certainly a form of emotional harm.

The admittance of women and slaves into Epicurus' garden is used as an evidence of his progressive thinking. Obviously, Epicurus did not hesitate to own slaves or accept his community members to do so. Without first owning someone as a slave, nobody could have ever brought a slave into the garden community.

In the absence of any expression of his disagreement with such blatant and brutal inequality, I consider his merely making exceptions as inconsistent and a contradiction to his principle of not harming nor being harmed. Allowing women and slaves into the garden was a humiliating act of mercy, of generosity and a condescension, as long as he did not doubt their ascribed general inferiority as justifiable.

Making exceptions without vehemently condemning inequality was obviously the limit of how progressive and humane Epicurus was able to be as a product of his social environment.
But I am convinced, that would Epicurus live today, he would include equality in his philosophy.





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