Category Archives: The Roots of Epicurean Humanism

The Roots of Epicurean Humanism: IV – Albert Ellis

Albert Ellis was born of Jewish parents on September 17, 1913, in Pittsburgh. He trained as a psychotherapist at Columbia University, where he completed his PhD.

By the late 1940s  Ellis was developing what he called “rational therapy”,  an active and directive type of psychotherapy, and by January 1953, his break with psychoanalysis was complete. In Rational Therapy, the therapist aimed to help the client understand  that it was their personal philosophy that created unhealthy emotional states. This new approach stressed actively working to change a client’s self-defeating beliefs and behaviour by demonstrating their irrationality, self-defeatism and rigidity. Ellis believed that through rational analysis and cognitive reconstruction, people could understand their self-defeatingness in light of their core irrational beliefs and then develop more rational constructs.

Ellis has explicitly said that Stoicism is one of his influences, and he has frequently quoted with approval the line (From Epictetus, “The Enchiridion” sec 5) “folk are not disturbed by events, but by their beliefs about those events”.

Here is a short video from in which Ellis explains the core of his theory.

The approach taken by Epicurean Humanism to this is substantially the same, but tends to be couched in terms of “habits of thought” rather than personal philosophy. So we say that certain habits of thought – called “absolute value judgements” – are the cause of unhealthiness in our emotions, and that retraining those habits is the cure. This requires, not that the person should persuade themselves out of factual beliefs, but that they should inculcate the habit of viewing things from a relative perspective.


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The Roots of Epicurean Humanism: III – David Hume

Hume was an 18th-century Scottish philosopher, part of the so-called “Scottish Enlightenment”.

In his first work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), he aimed to provide a naturalistic “science of man” that described the psychological basis of human nature. In contrast to the rationalists who preceded him he argued that not reason but desire explained human behavior. “Reason is,” he said, “and ought only to be the slave of the passions”.

He is generally thought of as being in the skeptical philosophical tradition and a strong empiricist. He denied the existence of innate ideas, saying rather that people can know only those things that they have experienced. He therefore divides perceptions between strong and lively “impressions” or direct sensations and fainter “ideas”, which are copied from impressions.

He developed the position that mental behaviour is governed by “custom”, that is habit or learned behaviour. Lacking direct impressions of a metaphysical “self”, he reasoned that people have no actual conception of the self, only of a bundle of sensations associated with the self.

Hume advocated a compatibilist theory of free will that proved extremely influential on subsequent moral philosophy. He was also a Sentimentalist, teaching that ethics are based on feelings rather than abstract moral principles. Hume also examined the normative is–ought problem. He held notoriously ambiguous views of Christianity, but famously challenged the argument from design in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1777).

Kant credited Hume with waking him up from his “dogmatic slumbers” and Hume has proved extremely influential on subsequent philosophy, especially on utilitarianism, logical positivism, William James, philosophy of science, early analytic philosophy, cognitive philosophy, and other movements and thinkers. The philosopher Jerry Fodor proclaimed Hume’s Treatise “the founding document of cognitive science”.

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The Roots of Epicurean Humanism: II – Epictetus and Stoicism.

Epictetus was born around. 55 AD, possibly at Hierapolis, Phrygia. The name his parents gave him is unknown; the word epíktetos (επίκτητος) in Greek simply means “acquired.” He spent his youth as a slave in Rome to Epaphroditos, a wealthy freedman and secretary to Nero.

Early in life, Epictetus developed a passion for philosophy. With the permission of his owner he studied Stoic philosophy. When he obtained his freedom, (in the year 68 CE) he began to teach philosophy in Rome. About 93 AD Emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from the city, and Epictetus fled to Nicopolis, where he founded a school.

Epictetus’s philosophy holds that the basis of any philosophy is self-knowledge; that is, how we commonly fool ourselves ought to be the first subject of our study. Logic provides valid reasoning and certainty in judgment, but it is subordinate to practical needs. The first and most necessary part of philosophy concerns the application of doctrine, for example, that people should not lie; the second concerns reasons, e.g. why people should not lie; while the third, lastly, examines and establishes the reasons. This is the logical part, which finds reasons, shows what is a reason, and that a given reason is a right one. This last part is necessary, but only on account of the second, which again is rendered necessary by the first.

Both the Discourses and the Enchiridion begin by distinguishing between those things in our power and those things not in our power. Only our actions are in our power, and ‘actions’ here includes our opinions, impulses, desires, and aversions. What, on the other hand, is not in our power, are our bodies, possessions, glory, and power. Any delusion on this point leads to the greatest errors, misfortunes, and troubles, and to the slavery of the soul.

We have no power over external things. The good that ought to be the aim of our efforts is to be found only within ourselves. The distinction between what is good and what is not good is made by the capacity for choice. This allows us to act, and gives us the kind of freedom that only rational animals have. The right use of the impressions (phantasia) that bombard the mind is in our power.

Not actually about Epictetus himself, but about his near-contemporary and fellow Stoic, Seneca:

Alain de Botton: Seneca on Anger

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The Roots of Epicurean Humanism: I – Epicurus and Epicureanism

Epicurus (341–270 B.C.) founded one of the major philosophies of ancient Greece, helping to lay the intellectual foundations for modern science and for secular individualism. Many aspects of his thought are still highly relevant some twenty-three centuries after they were first taught in his school in Athens, called “the Garden.”

Epicurus’s philosophy combines a physics based on an atomistic materialism with a rational hedonistic ethics that emphasizes moderation of desires and cultivation of friendships. His world-view is an optimistic one that stresses that philosophy can liberate one from fears of death and the supernatural, and can teach us how to find happiness in almost any situation. His practical insights into human psychology, as well as his science-friendly world-view, gives Epicureanism great contemporary signficance as well as a venerable role in the intellectual development of Western Civilization.

Alain de Botton: “Epicurus on Happiness”

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