Epicurus as Liberator

2012-08-18

One of these years I really must re-read the works of the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. I say re-read, but I originally read them so long ago -- as a teenager, when I had no knowledge of the world or its workings -- that I'm sure it would be as if reading them for the first time. My most recent interest in reacquainting myself with Mises comes from reading two essays on Epicurus by libertarian writers: the first by Martin Masse of Quebec and the second by Sean Gabb of England. Both writers draw attention to a fascinating passage from Chapter 7, Section 2, of his magnum opus Human Action:

The historical role of the theory of the division of labor as elaborated by British political economy from Hume to Ricardo consisted in the complete demolition of all metaphysical doctrines concerning the origin and the operation of social cooperation. It consummated the spiritual, moral and intellectual emancipation of mankind inaugurated by the philosophy of Epicureanism.

The last sentence claims a great deal for Epicurus: that he laid the foundations for the liberation of mankind in matters of religion, ethics, and thought more generally. In matters of religion, this emancipation consists in removing the gods from a direct role in human life, and thus in showing that human beings are not the plaything of outside forces but are responsible for their own actions. In matters of ethics, this emancipation consists in making the individual the fit subject of moral concern and in establishing human nature as the basis for ethical standards. In matters of thought more generally, this emancipation consists in accepting the evidence of the senses as the only firm foundation for knowledge, and admitting theoretical conjectures beyond such evidence only provisionally and only to the extent that theory is consistent with such evidence.

It appears that for Mises, as for Pierre Gassendi in the 17th century and Thomas Jefferson in the 18th century, Epicureanism was to be considered "as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us" (as Jefferson put it in his letter to William Short). High praise, indeed. The implications for human liberty, and human liberation, are still only beginning to be understood.


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