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Epicureanism, Early Mods and The Moral Animal

Interview by Richard Marshall.


The life-world of human and animal experience, with colours, tastes, solid objects, is a perceptual effect of massed atoms. The (atomic) soul is mortal, and the best life is the one with the least pain and the most pleasure. These positions were defended with subtlety and elegance, but they did not please their contemporaries, the Stoic, Platonist, and Aristotelian philosophers, or the Christian theologians.

I think we do have a better understanding now of how moral thought and discourse function. Outside of mathematics and logic, there are common sense truths, such as that it is snowing that normal observers, in a specified context can agree on, subject to vagueness considerations, and theoretical truths, such as that snow is crystallised water vapour, and maybe in-between truths. Claims like ‘Slavery is wrong’ are not fully common-sensical, so they must be at least partly theoretical.

In the academic setting, you take (typically) lonely, interesting middle-aged men and beautiful, intelligent young women, and everybody’s motivations for display and conquest are engaged to the max. Sublimated, this can be a powerful force for the good—Plato had a lot to say about that– but acted upon it can bring evils without end.’

Catherine Wilson studied logic, philosophy of language and linguistics at Oxford in the 1970s then turned through a series of accidents to the fields that have occupied her since then: philosophy of perception and visual experience; metaphysics and the philosophy of science; empirical approaches to ethics and aesthetics, and issues of equality and social justice. Recently, she has become interested in alternatives to militarism and the somewhat obscure history of nonreligious pacifism in Europe. Here she discusses the link between Epicureanism and modernity, the seventeenth century’s ontological commitments, Leibniz, contractualism and utilitarianism, the politics of the time, Cavendish, morality, moral animals and the idea of morality as ‘advantage reduction’, egalitarianism, art emotions, and women philosophers in the Academy. As Autumn begins, and the nights draw in, here’s something to fill the darkness…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Catherine Wilson: I was an adolescent dabbler in lots of subjects—languages, art, poetry, etc. At the time I had the idea that there were secret laws of the universe that could explain the baffling human reality around me, and that philosophers maybe had the key to them. Something suggested to me that Hegel’s Phenomenology was just such a masterpiece, so I checked it out of the library, but I did not get far with it at 16 and gave up. Later at university though I specialised in philosophy because I liked the way it gave you a problem to figure out in your own head. There was no need to go to the lab or memorise facts, as opposed to actively trying to see patterns, understand relations between things, and trying to work out arguments and proofs.

Oddly, since by now I’ve written quite a lot on early modern philosophers, I didn’t care for the history of philosophy, which I thought dull and obscure, until I got a minor job writing articles for a children’s encyclopedia in the history of science and began to make connections between science and philosophy. I came across the historian of medicine Walter Pagel’s book about the physician and alchemist Theophrastus Paracelsus. This showed me how you could get into the strange, alien mind of your subject, and appreciate the beauty of their prose, and then I started to fall in love with some of the old texts, starting with Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle, and moving on to Descartes, Leibniz and Kant. About 70% of what I’ve written about is centered on the clashes and conformities between the emerging life and physical sciences and older metaphysical frameworks in the 17th and 18th centuries. The other 30% consists of one-off essays or researches into other intriguing contemporary topics such as visual experience, aesthetics, social justice issues, and the epistemology of moral knowledge.


3:AM: You’ve written about the link between Epicureanism and modernity in the seventeenth century. This is a rich subject with several strands. Could you begin by sketching the central tenets of the ancient atomism of Epicurus and Lucretius which became so influential on the evolution of natural science, moral and political philosophy and why Cicero and the early Church fathers saw it as a threat. What did it threaten?

CW: The Epicureans denied that the gods had created the world and also denied that they played any role in it. And even if the gods did exist, the Epicureans argued, they didn’t care about us. Rather, everything comes from nature, and all that really exists are atoms and void, moving and congregating. The life-world of human and animal experience, with colours, tastes, solid objects, is a perceptual effect of massed atoms. The (atomic) soul is mortal, and the best life is the one with the least pain and the most pleasure. These positions were defended with subtlety and elegance, but they did not please their contemporaries, the Stoic, Platonist, and Aristotelian philosophers, or the Christian theologians.

Some critics thought the ontology and theory of qualities absurd. No one had ever seen these little atoms, and furthermore, how could their mere arrangement produce a noisy, colourful, world in which day followed night and animals generated their own kind? Instead of a world created, cared, for and supervised by supernatural persons, the Epicureans appeared to the theologians to be assigning everything to chance. The latter were appalled by Lucretius’s view of religion as cruel and oppressive and by the Epicurean insistence that death is the end of all experience. How could morality be reduced to pain-avoidance? If the soul was mortal, what could deter the clever criminal who was clever enough to escape human detection and punishment? What reward was there for the martyrs and all who suffered patiently at the hands of tyrants?

3:AM: The seventeenth century Renaissance and scientific revolution is often characterized as the time when Aristotelianism was displaced. What did this revised Epicureanism bring to the time that suddenly was so compelling for the thinkers of the time? Was it that discoveries in natural science were putting a strain on the Aristotelianism, or was it rather that it was already seductive and helped thinkers move in new directions?

CW: It was both. For seventeenth-century astronomers, the Epicurean doctrine of multiple worlds separated by void space was seen to fit with the new Copernican system in which every star was a sun, and the universe was a vast place with no centre. For the chemists, who wanted to manufacture new medicines and elixirs and transform base substances into noble ones, the notion that there was no metaphysical barrier to doing so—it was just a matter of getting the particles into new arrangements—was encouraging. That was the Baconian programme. Aristotle saw nature as intelligent and purposive, whereas for the Epicureans, and the 17th century ‘mechanical’ philosophers, there is no intentionality in nature except where there are animal minds and bodies. Order can arise from chaos without anyone or anything directing the process when unstable combinations of atoms perish and others persist. In the 17th century, Descartes applied this insight to cosmology, and long before Darwin presented his more rigorous ideas about variation and selection, people began to speculate more openly about the origins of life and the species in Epicurean terms.

3:AM: How best should we understand the shifting ontological commitments that came with the seventeenth century shift – is the metaphysics of Leibniz with its plenitude and compossibility and perfect world algorithm an example of a metaphysics and ontology that couldn’t survive the shift to modernity?

CW: Leibniz accepted the argument that there must be indestructible simple entities if there is to be a complex world, but Epicurean morals and politics and anti-theology dismayed him. His ‘monadology’ which said that the true atoms of nature were unextended ‘living mirrors,’ was an imaginative and beautiful system, and even in many ways more modern than Epicurean atomism, than Epicurean atomism, but there was a reactionary aspect to it.


3:AM: Why did contractualism and utilitarianism arise from Epicureanism? You look at these models of morality as being pretty responsible and grown-up, but the materialist atomism of Epicureanism might have just as easily lent itself to a kind of hippy ethic where you just freak out with the buzzing sensations. I guess I’m wondering whether it took a certain type of person to go from Epicurean materialist atomism to utilitarianism; there’s nothing straightforwardly implied in Epicureanism itself that goes to utilitarianism is there?

CW: Epicureanism did inspire libertine culture in isolated sects, but Epicurus himself rejected an ethics of sensory indulgence, and he would have disowned latter-day ‘Epicureanism’ as a fussy, expensive, unphilosophical approach to eating and drinking. He recommends bread and cheese as the staple, and his emphasis is more on avoiding pain than on seeking pleasure, insofar as pleasure-seeking tends to be followed by painful after-effects. He thought that friendship and conviviality, which require present attention rather than being in an alcoholic stupor, as well as trying to understand and explain things, were the greatest sources of satisfaction in life, so there go most drugs. But he was not at all interested in what we would call the problems of mass society, and he thought civic politics was just trouble and to be avoided by the wise. He was in favour of friendly sex but not of grand passions or marriage and children, viewing them as sources of trouble and vexation. I have to say that some philosophers such as the late Bernard Williams, and I would include myself in this group, would say that tranquillity is overrated as the goal of life. We have to gamble, and sometimes lose as George Ainslie argues; this keeps the appetite for life sharp.

You are right that the moves to contractualism and utilitarianism required some extra ingredients besides mortalism, the denial that God is in charge of the world, and the doctrine that physical and psychological pain are the greatest evils. Henry Maine argued insightfully that ‘contract’ succeeded ‘status’ as the basic organising principle in modern political vs. ancient society. In the old systems, hierarchies emanate power from above to below through forms of line management and are ideologically supported by cosmologies and theologies featuring celestial rulers and their deputies—the ‘rule of the best.’ Atomism had no absolute ‘above’ and ‘below’ and no such rulers, so favoured the undersranding of justice as an agreement amongst equals.

Epicurus thought of justice as an agreement to prevent people harming and being harmed. But we use and need to use both systems in complex political societies, and we oscillate in our commitments, because both oligarchy and rule by the will of masses have their bad points, as the ancient philosophers all knew.

3:AM: And what politics was made possible by its ideas?

CW: There’s Hobbes, who understood in the 1640s that the sovereign is not an appointee of God, or even a figure of superior virtue and wisdom, but just a functional device whose role is to keep people from hurting and killing each other. There are Bentham and Mill, the 19th century Utilitarians, and the whole tradition of secular, political welfarism separated from Christian charity, and then Marx, who, although his thesis on Epicurus and Democritus was not at all political, distinguished the ideological level –the imaginary—from the material level—the forces of production– in a way parallel to the Epicurean distinction between appearance and reality.


3:AM: It wasn’t all plain sailing for this atomistic materialism was it – you’ve written about Margaret Cavendish and Leibniz as two major figures – although Cavendish is probably not as well known outside the profession as Leibniz is she – who argued against it? What was the nature of their attacks, and Cavendish’s in particular, given her relative obscurity – and was it typical of the push back?

CW: Cavendish was a dazzling but undisciplined playwright and philosopher active in the 1650s and 1660s who was rather taken with atomism at first. Later she found it too abstract and sterile and replaced it with her own scheme of different grades of active matter, borrowing from Hobbes’s ideas about perception as ‘patterning.’ I think she enjoyed leaving God out of the picture, though, in favour of an active Nature. Leibniz went about his critique more systematically. He attacked on many levels, showing that the notion of an extended, but otherwise denuded material atom as the foundation of everything was inadequate for physical science, and taking what were essentially tiny active minds or tiny living animals, or both, as the fundamental units, and fitting this into a kingdom-of-God scheme in which everything was immortal, autonomous, yet resonating in tune with everything else. The world of experience contained only hints, echoes, sketches, pointers towards this.


3:AM: Do you think of the morality of the seventeenth century and the modern era subsequently as an advance? Is ethics a place where philosophers can answer positively the question as to whether philosophy makes progress?

CW: Moral theory develops from the divine command theory of medieval Christian philosophy, mixed up with a bit of ancient pagan virtue theory, to the purely secular moral sentiment and interpersonal reaction theories of Smith and Hume, to Kant’s attempt to restore command theory but with something supersensible in the individual rather than God as the source of authority. We are now returning to the 18th century empirical approach with the new interest in the evolutionary basis of ethics, with ‘experimental’ moral philosophy and moral psychology. As a result, we understand better why moral formulas are experienced as ineluctable commands, even if there is no commander and even if the notion of an inescapable obligation is just superstition. So moral philosophy has made huge progress.

But are we more moral as a result of theoretical progress? In Western Europe and North America some things are better than they were—at least relative to their moral nadirs– such as labour legislation, the opening of the professions to women, intolerance for domestic violence, but so much is still morally unacceptable—the weapons trade, cruel and unusual punishment, economic parasitism.

3:AM: And is anti-realism part of this progress? Is your view that we can throw out bivalence when it comes to morality – is this what you mean when you say that some moral claims may correspond to ‘bi-directional narratives that are likely neither true nor false’?

CW: I think we do have a better understanding now of how moral thought and discourse function. Outside of mathematics and logic, there are common sense truths, such as that it is snowing that normal observers, in a specified context can agree on, subject to vagueness considerations, and theoretical truths, such as that snow is crystallised water vapour, and maybe in-between truths. Claims like ‘Slavery is wrong’ are not fully common-sensical, so they must be at least partly theoretical. They are also vague—what is the extension of the vernacular term ‘slavery?’—does it extend to the garment industry or call centres, for example? We call ‘Slavery is wrong’ a moral truth because there is a specific history of theoretical investigation of a particular kind of slavery. We discussed it for centuries in metaphysical, economic, biological, and philosophical terms; we listened to all the arguments pro and con, we read all the testimonies of slaves and witnesses, and we decided. Though this ‘we” is not everybody on earth, or even most people, who’ve never thought about slavery much.

Maybe we will get to this point and reach a decision one way or the other with ‘Human cloning is acceptable,’ but I doubt that it is ever going to happen for ‘It is morally permissible to eat shrimp’ or with the general formula ‘Adultery is wrong,’ whose intended extension is again very unclear. So moral claims aren’t, as a class, truth-value apt or not. You can reasonably make the intellectual journey from thinking it’s permissible to eat shrimp to thinking it’s not permissible, or vice versa, whereas our slavery journey was uni-directional. We are as certain we are not going back to that old kind of slavery as we are that we aren’t going back to the geocentric universe.

3:AM: Your own vision of us as moral animals speaks to a pressing concern, that of inequalities in all their various manifestations – social justice and global disparities, conditions of women compared to men and so on. Your theory is based on two central premises isn’t it – could you sketch them for us?

CW: The central insight claimed in Moral Animals was that a moral rule is essentially ‘advantage-reducing.’ It prohibits you doing something you could do that would serve your interests at someone else’s expense. So the basic moral principle is neminem laede—do not hurt anyone. However—second premise– everything is a trade-off. If neminem laede were applied in the fullest and widest possible sense, with ‘neminem’ equivalent to ‘nothing,’ we would eat only fruit fallen from the tree, and nobody could drive a car so as to stop people being run over. Jain Buddhists try very hard to apply this rule to the foot of the letter, but most of us seek a more balanced yet still responsible approach. Who and what is included in those we aren’t supposed to harm? And what about harms done to one person for their own good or to bring about about a better overall situation for others?


Morality has in the past made progress when we broadened the category of things we weren’t permitted to harm (animals, ‘infidels’); saw through some delusions and rationalisations about what harms are good for people themselves (prison punishment, hysterectomies for unhappy 1950s wives); and readjusted our for-the-good of others criteria so as to demand only reasonable sacrifices (ceasing to use children as handy chimney sweeps). There is no single test or formula for producing moral progress anymore than there is for generating scientific truths. It is a process involving theoreticians, fact-gatherers, protestors, martyrs for the cause, authors of first- person narratives who change the way we see and evaluate the distribution of harms and benefits.

3:AM: How does this foundation help argue for a species of egalitarianism?

CW: There’s nothing a priori good about equality. One person has three televisions, the other has two, so what? But there are two reasons to desire greater equality across various reference groups. The first is that the higher the coefficient of inequality (Gini coefficient) in a society, the worse things tend to be for those at the bottom. The second is that, in accord with the Sen-Nussbaum capability theory, people should be able to develop their abilities and interests and have access to such goods as friendship, artistry, and nature and a political voice. It’s possible to be poor and yet have all this, but in a polarized society, and one where culture and adventure have been thoroughly monetised, it is a lot more difficult. Even if you just want to make a simple clothing item for yourself or go for a long hike in the forest—something we imagine requires absolutely no resources—you have to go to the store and buy a lot of stuff, and probably use a car.

Highly unequal societies are morally defective because they get to be that way through the exploitation by the clever and well-positioned ones of the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of others. The well-off then use their acquired political power to refuse to make sacrifices for others. This system brings us a wonderful range of products and experiences for consumers at the top of the privilege scale, but it also degrades and benumbs the workers at the lower end, as Adam Smith and Marx both said.

3:AM: The egalitarian is often faced with the push back: we are animals that like to be acquisitive, it’s natural to want cars and houses and good food etc. etc.? We are naturally not wanting to be equal! How does your position answer back?

CW: People’s wants are not fixed; they generally want what others in their chosen comparison class appear to be enjoying and what advertising presents to them as attainable for them and as bringing happiness. If you live in an acquisitive society you are likely to be acquisitive, but it isn’t deeply rooted in human nature, except in the sense that it’s deeply rooted to be psychologically receptive to your peers and to advertising. The problem is how can you redirect the effort of producing, buying and disposing of unnecessary consumer items to fixing ugly, decrepit infrastructure, cleaning up and preserving the planet, and alleviating poverty and deprivation without wrecking people’s existing livelihoods? I’m not an economist, but I’ll bet the answer is out there.

3:AM: And another argument against the egalitarian is: we’re meritocratic – some people just deserve more than others because they have talents others don’t have that are valuable. How does merit figure in your view of distributive justice?

This is an area I’ve thought quite a bit about and wrote about in Moral Animals because I see a value in meritocratic games, which are central to human life and are one of the many areas in which we make justified exceptions to the basic neminem laede principle. Samantha wins the school spelling bee, and Johnny goes home in tears, but the audience has a good time. Samantha could have let Johnny win, but morality does not require this. That’s how careers are generally. There are people who organise the contest, winners, losers, and people who benefit from the contest taking place.
The point is we need to put a floor under the misery of losing–Johnny’s life is not really ruined after all–and a ceiling on the rewards of winning—Samantha doesn’t get to dictate the school curriculum. I don’t see how being a faster runner, or a better mathematician makes you ‘deserve’ access to a better life, or more influence on policy, in the absence of a social decision to play that game in the way it’s proposed to be organised for some set of benefits. Robert Nozick famously thought the game of occupations should be such that you are entitled to whatever the system—which reflects the preferences of millions of people effectively putting in or withholding their coins—is willing to give you. That’s the libertarian position, but it is naïve in not considering the complex, layered, often irrational or corrupt nature of social reward systems, the global and knock-on effects of accumulated small donations, or the absence of information by donors.

3:AM: Do you think that our epistemological understanding of art emotions is being enhanced by our growing scientific understanding of emotions in animals that again reaches back to hedonistic economies of certain kinds – you recently wrote about grief and the poet and of literary works to sort out what counts as ‘real’ and the role of literature in memorializing experiences of loss. Could you unpack this for us?

CW: You can find many philosophy papers on the themes of ‘love’ and ‘friendship,’ most of which are cheerful and somewhat anodyne; you don’t find many on the loss of friends, relatives, and lovers from death or alienation, though it happens all the time. I thought someone should be looking into this. In the essay you’re referring to, ‘Grief and the Poet,’ I wanted to break down two dichotomies: between animal emotions and human emotions and between experiences produced by ‘solid objects,’ as the ancient philosophers called them, and those produced by fictions, verbal reports, and our own imaginations. I also wanted to explore the idea I derived from Ainslie’s work that we need grief as a precursor to emotional refreshment, and so consume it vicariously in somewhat titrated but powerful enough form through engagement with the arts.


3:AM: And as a leading philosopher, how do you look at the place of women in the Academy at the moment – it seems each year I’ve been asking questions some eminent male philosopher gets caught doing something dastardly to some woman philosopher. What’s your take on this and are there remedial actions that still need to be taken – or are things getting to be on the right track?

CW: First, as to the place of women in the Academy, the progress has been incredible and heartening, especially in the way in which, just recently, women’s contributions have started not only to be out there, but to get respect, to garner citations and invitations, and to stimulate controversy. It used to be that nobody would really argue with a woman, because what she thought (unless it was by way of providing helpful comments about one’s own work) just didn’t matter. People formerly seemed unable to evaluate a woman’s c.v. or to accept a range of personal and communicative styles from the exuberant and confident to the sober and pedantic. It’s much better than it was, and a number of male philosophers have been extraordinarily helpful in detecting and criticising everyday sexism in the profession. Still, the equity ‘training’ I have experienced from HR departments on campuses is legalistic –how to do a job interview so the University doesn’t get sued–and doesn’t deal with the most important intellectual and administrative issues, which are implicit bias and discrimination in salaries and promotions.

At the same time as there has been this kind of progress, the field—all of academia in fact—seems to be embroiled as you say in sex scandals. We need to get more sophisticated about this. Human courtship has some wild extremes. At one end of the spectrum, there is harassment, pestering, blackmail, and an abuse of institutional power, which its targets rightly fear and loathe. At the other end is love, which as Nietzsche said, is beyond good and evil and always deserves our respect and compassion even when it is doomed or destructive. In the wide middle of the spectrum are all the ambiguous and tragi-comic goings-on of our species.

In the academic setting, you take (typically) lonely, interesting middle-aged men and beautiful, intelligent young women, and everybody’s motivations for display and conquest are engaged to the max. Sublimated, this can be a powerful force for the good—Plato had a lot to say about that– but acted upon it can bring evils without end. There needs to be a better understanding about why even consensual affairs harm (they rarely help) women’s status and prospects and disrupt the meritocracy. This understanding requires more by way of first-person testimony, anonymous or authored, which as I mentioned, is a very important force in social change. Gentlemanly, principled, helpful behaviour by older men vis-a-vis young women goes unnoticed, but it deserves real moral credit, and we could use more first-person testimony from the beneficiaries and practitioners about that too.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books you could recommend to the readers here at 3:AM that will take them further into your philosophical world?

CW: Only five allowed?!

I’ll take them in chronological order– Lucretius, The Nature of Things—Epicurean philosophy set in (originally Latin) verse. It deals with atoms, cosmology, colour and sensory experience, the origins of human society, love, reproduction, and mortality.


G.W. Leibniz, The Monadology. A metaphysics of two levels, on one a visible world teeming with living forms striving to exist and experience, on the other a community of incorporeal minds existing outside of space and time, yet feeling, representing and reacting to everything that happens everywhere.


Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities. Incredible depth of psychological analysis, introspection, and social satire in beautiful German prose and expertly translated into English in the older version by Wilkins and Kaiser.


Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex. Like Marx, Beauvoir first did her homework: she read everything she could find from mythology to biology, to psychology and the history of institutions and synthesised it. From gathered fact and her interpretation came this other revolution.


Richard Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype. This is a biology book with rich and largely unexplored significance not only for how we think of ‘the organism,’ its internal components, its reach into the environment and vice-versa, but for extrapolating to society. The chapters on parasitism, manipulation, and symbiosis are especially stimulating.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 23rd, 2016.