I Spit Upon the Noble: The Epicurean Critique of Love of Honor and the Origins of Modernity
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CitationMcNulty, John James. 2013. I Spit Upon the Noble: The Epicurean Critique of Love of Honor and the Origins of Modernity. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
AbstractModern liberal democracies regard "pursuit of happiness" as one of the fundamental rights that governments are instituted to protect - but modern political thought has comparatively little to say about happiness itself. The modern view seems to suggest that happiness is something we ought to pursue in private, which would demote politics to an instrumental role. To understand and critique this view, I study one alternative - the philosophy of Epicurus, the ancient theorist of happiness in private life. Epicurus taught that the life of hedone or "pleasure" was the life of eudaimonia or "happiness." He advised his followers to "live unnoticed" - that is, to shun political participation on account of its coercive, unpleasant character. Epicurus' philosophy is often thought to be plainly anti-political. I argue - based on my study of Epicurean fragments and of the poem of Lucretius - that Epicureanism is, in fact, intensely political. Its hedonistic theory of the good is designed so as to deprecate love of honor and desire for public recognition: "I spit upon the noble," Epicurus declares, "when it provides no pleasure." Similarly, his physical theory describes a universe offering no support and no guidance for human politics. "Justice" has no intrinsic connection to the human end; it is a word we use to describe agreements for the sake of mutual advantage. Gone is the splendor of moral virtue, as depicted in Plato and Aristotle. I argue that early modern thought is in constant dialogue with Epicurean political philosophy. The moderns can, in general, be said to share Epicurus' hostility to "the noble" - which they disparage as "pride" or "vainglory." The more radical among them entertain Epicurus' notion of an indifferent universe, and his account of human political origins. This is not, however, in order to advocate a return to an Epicurean policy of philosophic withdrawal. The modern strategy, as epitomized by Hobbes, is to attempt to solve the problems associated with political justice by advocating for the general adoption of a democratized form of hedonism.
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