Epicurus has a bad rap, in that he is usually associated with excesses at table and bed. In fact, Epicurus believed that true happiness was bound to virtue and he kept a garden. He couldn’t have been all bad.
However, he approached the philosophical questions with blinders and as a result what he didn’t practice himself became associated with his name because it flowed from the same philosophical source.
In Gregory of Nyssa‘s Dialogue On the Soul and the Resurrection, Gregory is speaking with St. Macrinaabout her brother and his best friend, Basil the Great, who has just died. He is overwhelmed by grief and has come to seek her godly counsel, only to find that she is near death herself.
Nevertheless, she engages him over his anxieties.
“She gave in to me for a little while,” he says, “like a skilful driver, in the ungovernable violence of my grief; and then she tried to check me by speaking, and to correct with the curb of her reasoning the disorder of my soul.”
When he complains that he is commanded to believe that the soul lasts forever but is not given any reasons for it, she retorts, “Away with that pagan nonsense!… Observe this and nothing else; that such a view about the soul amounts to nothing less than the abandoning of virtue.”
What I find compelling about her answer is that she makes virtue ultimate. The fact that such a belief (that the soul is not eternal) would leave virtue abandoned is reason enough not to believe it.
How very different from the modern approach that is perfectly eager to accept teachings that remove the challenges of virtue.
Another way to say that is that modern thought is perfectly happy to destroy the human soul if their theories lead that way.
Over at Makrothumia, an amazing blog developed by Kimberly Jahn, you can find a post quoting Richard Weaver on the three ways humans have been degraded by conventional thinking. If you compare what is written there with what Macrina said above, I think you can begin to see the profundity of her insight in what at first may have appeared to be a mere reactive outcry.
In fact, it seems to have come from her “thumos” or what Lewis called the “chest” in his Abolition of Man. In Gregory’s dialogue, he takes the part of the pagan and Macrina of the Christian and they seek “where we may get a beginning for our discussion upon this point.”
Gregory argues that the soul either does not exist or else it exists in the elements of the body, thus presenting the view of the pop-neuro-scientist who writes for the popular science journals, like Scientific American Mind, Discover, National Geographic, etc.
Macrina’s response is long for a blog post, but well worth the trouble of reading, so I will quote it at some length:
The teacher sighed gently at these words of mine, and then said; Maybe these were the objections, or such as these, that the Stoics and Epicureans collected at Athens made in answer to the Apostle. I hear that Epicurus carried his theories in this very direction. The framework of things was to his mind a fortuitous and mechanical affair, without a Providence penetrating its operations; and, as a piece with this, he thought that human life was like a bubble, existing only as long as the breath within was held in by the enveloping substance, inasmuch as our body was a mere membrane, as it were, encompassing a breath; and that on the collapse of the inflation the imprisoned essence was extinguished. To him the visible was the limit of existence; he made our senses the only means of our apprehension of things; he completely closed the eyes of his soul, and was incapable of seeing anything in the intelligible and immaterial world, just as a man, who is imprisoned in a cabin whose walls and roof obstruct the view outside, remains without a glimpse of all the wonders of the sky.
As Solomon so well said, there is nothing new under the sun. Macrina’s description of Epicureanism seems to me a very sound description of the philosophy behind what the “establishment” accepts as viable and scientific. “The framework of things” is “fortuitous and mechanical” and “the visible was the limit of existence.” We have expanded on the visible to include the calculable, but in the end it all comes down to what the senses can perceive and the calculating mind can verify. Consequently, contemporary man is compelled to remain “without a glimpse of the wonders of the sky.” There is a further consequence as well:
Verily, everything in the universe that is seen to be an object of sense is an earthen wall, forming in itself a barrier between the narrower souls and that intelligible world which is ready for their contemplation…
In other words, what ought to be a window has become a wall blocking their vision.
And it is the earth and water and fire alone that such behold; whence comes each of these elements, in what and by what they are encompassed, such souls because of their narrowness cannot detect…. These little souls gaze upon the world, but their eyes are blind to Him whom all this that we see around us makes manifest; and so they propound their clever and pungent doctrines about the soul’s evanishment;–body from elements, and elements from body, and, besides, the impossibility of the soul’s self-existence (if it is not to be one of these elements, or lodged in one)…
Great have been the scientific advances since Gregory of Nyssa’s 4th century, and correspondingly great has grown the naive confidence in the natural sciences to discover all that can be known.
But Macrina’s caution remains valid. When the cosmos is all there is, ever was, or will be, it is the human soul that shrinks to nothingness, it is human virtue that is eliminated, and it is man that is abolished. We today live in an Epicurean age, but there is no reason why the words of National Geographic telling us that love is a chemical reaction should carry more weight in our eternal souls (which they don’t believe in) than the words of our Lord who told us that all men will know that we are His disciples by our love.
May the curb of her reasoning correct the disorder in our souls.