Principal Doctrine 11

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If we were never troubled by how phenomena in the sky or death might concern us, or by our failures to grasp the limits of pains and desires, we would have no need to study nature.


In this Doctrine, Epicurus establishes his philosophical system's foundational correlation between physics and ethics: the former, he states quite plainly, is instrumental to the latter. Phrased as a negative hypothesis, the Doctrine argues that, if we did not suspect that celestial phenomena were somehow directed "at" us, or somehow meaningful "for" or "about" us, and if we did not fear that death matters to us, we simply would not need to study nature.

Yet, as the implication can be inferred, people -- ancient ones more so than modern ones, of course -- do worry whether e.g. thunder, lightning, or earthquakes are perhaps expressions of divine displeasure with their behavior, or portents of impending punishment; furthermore (and more relevantly to us), regardless of era, people harbor all sorts of apprehensions about their own death, as if it will somehow harm or hurt them. For these reasons, the study of nature is not only justified, but indeed indispensable in dispelling the above misconceptions.

As regards the refutation of death, this Doctrine builds on the principle of death's irrelevance, as expounded in Principal Doctrine 2. A more extensive discussion on Epicurus' views on celestial phenomena is his Letter to Pythocles. Epicurus, however, distances himself from all the (mostly Ionian) natural scientists predating him, in that their inquiries treated scientific knowledge as an end in itself; the Epicurean application of the knowledge gleaned from the study of nature is significantly different from theirs, in that it is instrumental to attaining the ethical goal of ataraxia.

The annexed mention of "the limit of pains and desires" is seemingly incongruous; yet, while certainly no celestial phenomenon, it is clearly related to the ethical goal Epicurus sets outs to describe. It may be speculated that here, either Epicurus (or Diogenes Laertius) conflated two lines of philosophical argumentation into one: while we may be "bothered" by fears of celestial phenomena and of death (as if it mattered to us, argues Epicurus), we are not similarly "bothered" but rather misled into wrong choices by our ignorance of the natural limits of pains and desires. The detrimental effect of fear and that of excess is of a different kind.

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