The Wisdom of Hypatia

Ancient Spiritual Practices
for a More Meaningful Life
Quotations from Hypatia

If you search for “Hypatia” on the Internet, it won’t take you long to encounter this inspiring quotation attributed to her:

Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child-mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after-years relieved of them. In fact, men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth—often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you can not get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.

The only problem is that she never said any such thing, so far as we know. Indeed, it seems highly unlikely to me that Hypatia would ever say, “truth is a point of view, and so is changeable,” since the objective and invariable nature of truth is fundamental to Platonism. The quotation comes from the chapter on Hypatia in Elbert Hubbard's Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers, in which he tells their stories supplemented by imaginative detail, including invented dialog. He uses this vehicle to promote his own philosophical/social agenda. 

Like Hubbard, in my book I have put words in Hypatia’s mouth, but I’ve endeavored to make them consistent with her actual philosophy, so far as we can infer it. I trust that no one will mistake my inventions for the actual words of Hypatia. 

So what, in fact, did Hypatia say? In her book Hypatia of Alexandria (p. 50), Maria Dzielska remarks that the only authentic quotation may stem from the “menstrual napkin incident” (dramatized in The Wisdom of Hypatia, pp. 222–4). Hypatia said, “In truth, this is what you love, young man, but it is nothing beautiful” (τούτου μέντοι ἐρᾷς, ὦ νεανίσκε, καλοῦ δὲ οὐδενός). She is quoted by Damascius, who lived a century after her death. 

Of her writings, little has survived. In the Commentary on Ptolemy's Almagest by Theon, her father, some of the writing is attributed to Hypatia. Her contribution is technical (e.g., an improved long-division algorithm) and tells us nothing about her philosophy. Some other snippets of mathematical text are doubtfully attributed to her. For more on her writings, see Michael Deakin’s Hypatia of Alexandria, chs. 4, 9, and App. A. 

If we wonder what Hypatia might have said about philosophy, we can look to her predecessors Iamblichus and Porphyry (e.g., his Letter to Marcella, his wife) and to her junior contemporaries Hierocles and Synesius. 

Platonic Mathematics

This blog entry is about the philosophy of mathematics, so if you are not very interested in mathematics, you might want to skip it, since it is not especially relevant to the practice of Hypatia’s philosophy. Platonism is perhaps the first philosophy of mathematics, but it has been unpopular since the late nineteenth century. However, Balaguer’s Platonism and Anti-Platonism in Mathematics (Oxford, 1998) has done much to bring the debate up to date. Roughly speaking, the Platonic philosophy of mathematics asserts that mathematical objects (numbers, geometrical forms, sets, etc.) exist independently of us in the realm of Platonic Forms or Ideas, and that mathematics is the study of such objects. (Specialists will know that Platonists disagreed about whether the “mathematicals” are ontologically posterior, equal, or prior to the Ideas, but we can ignore that issue here.) 

Do mathematical objects exist? Are they real? When we ask such questions we are usually interested in distinguishing objectively real existents, potentially relevant to all people, from personal, subjective, ephemeral experiences and thoughts, which may be very important to us as individuals, but less so to others. We expect the objects of science to be public in that independent, suitably trained observers will reach the same conclusions about them, and we expect them to be stable (if not eternal) so that the scientific knowledge we acquired yesterday will still be true tomorrow. Now, mathematical objects are both public and stable (eternal, in fact), which is what makes a science of mathematics possible. For example, the Pythagorean Theorem has been discovered independently by several cultures, and the theorems proved by Euclid are still true today. Right triangles exist. They are objectively real. Not physically, of course, but Platonically. 

What about non-Euclidean geometries? The answer, I think, is what Balaguer calls “full-blooded Platonism.” In this view, any self-consistent domain of mathematical objects exists (i.e., is public and eternal). In particular, any domain that can be described by a consistent set of axioms exists. Such axiom systems should be considered theoretical explications of an independently existing domain of objects, akin to other scientific theories, and so we can have several axiom systems for the same mathematical domain. If two axiom systems lead to different conclusions about the existence, identity, or properties of their objects, then they are describing different mathematical domains. (Often, however, one can be subsumed under the other, or both of them can be subsumed under a third, more general set of axioms.) 

Ah, consistency! There’s the rub! We cannot prove the consistency of any but the simplest axiom systems. While this is an important theoretical result, in practice I do not think it is so important. In an inconsistent system we can prove every proposition. Therefore, if for any theorem P that we have proved, we are persistently unable to prove not-P, then we can be confident the system is consistent. 

Now, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem tells us that any consistent axiom system that is powerful enough to express arithmetic must be incomplete, that is, that there are propositions P expressible in the language for which neither P nor not-P is provable. While this is a very important theoretical result, I think its practical import is that mathematical theories, like other scientific theories, are always subject to revision and extension. Different extensions may describe different mathematical domains. This also implies that the unextended axioms described multiple domains, but this is in fact the norm. In fact, any theory that describes an infinite domain will equally well describe an infinite number of other domains. In this sense our mathematical theories cannot in general pick out a unique domain from all those that exist. But because they are all described by the same axioms, it’s not a serious problem. 

Finally, I do not think it matters much which kind of logic we use (first-order, higher-order, with or without equality, intuitionistic, etc.). These are just different vehicles for expressing a theory of the domain, with differing advantages and disadvantages, analogous to the wave and matrix formulations of quantum mechanics. If the theories lead to inconsistent theorems, however, then they are describing different domains. 

The Reborn Sun

Since the date of Jesus' birth is unknown, in the fourth century Christmas was placed on December 25, the winter solstice in the old Roman calendar, either because it's nine months after His supposed conception on the Spring Equinox (March 25), or because Dec. 25 was celebrated already as the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun (Dies Natalis Solis Invicti). Therefore I think it would be worthwhile to say a little about the symbol of the Reborn Sun, drawing from the emperor Julian's Hymn to King Helios (362 CE), which is actually more of a Neoplatonic philosophical essay than what we usually think of as a hymn. (Although it's probably redundant, it's worth remarking that Helios and Sol are the Greek and Latin words, respectively, for the sun.)
Byzantine mosaic of Helios in a Zodiac Wheel from the 6th century ancient Beth Alpha synagogue. [wikipedia commons]
In order to understand the symbol of the Sun, it's necessary to make a distinction that I omitted from The Wisdom of Hypatia for the sake of simplicity. The emperor discusses three realms: the Noetic, the Noeric, and the Visible (the material universe). The noetic and noeric realms are the higher and lower parts of the Cosmic Nous, or World Mind, which is the realm of the eternal, universal (transpersonal) archetypal Ideas, the Jungian collective unconscious. At the noetic level, the Ideas (the noeta) exist in a state of mutual interpenetration, each containing all the others. At the noeric level, the Ideas (called noera) are still universal, eternal, and timeless, but articulated as distinct archetypal personalities, i.e., the gods. (I am avoiding the conventional, but misleading translations "intelligible" for "noetic" and "intellectual" for "noeric.")

Each of the three worlds (noetic, noeric, visible) has a "sun" at its conceptual center, which is its unifying, harmonizing, organizing, and creative principle, which also illuminates the level below with its (metaphorical) "light." At the noetic level Neoplatonists call this principle "The Ineffable One" because, as the ultimate principle of unity, it is beyond all duality and, therefore its nature is inexpressible in words. It is described metaphorically as the Good, the Idea of Being, and the source of existence, truth, perfection, and beauty. At the noeric level, which is the level of the archetypal gods, the image of The One is Helios (or Sol), the sun god, about which I'll have more to say. Finally, in the visible world we have the physical sun, which is a symbol of the higher suns (Helios and The One).

Helios is central in two respects. First, he is the governor of the community of gods. Second, he stands between The One above and the physical sun below. Therefore he is the principal mediator between the noetic and the visible realms, which is why he is important for our psychospiritual development. Platonists call him Logos (articulated thought) because he articulates the unified Ideas (noeta) into distinct archetypal Ideas (noera), and the Demiurge (Craftsman) because these ideas govern orderly change in the physical world (embodying being in becoming). He transmits the blessings of the Good into the visible world and provides the way by which we may ascend to union with The One. 

Plato says that the sky is our teacher in wisdom. It teaches us mathematics through the cycles of the sun and moon (which give us the day and month). Moreover, as a symbol of the higher realms, the sky teaches us about them. For example, we see that the sun governs the motion of the planets, which as a consequence is orderly and harmonious, though each planet has its own characteristic motion. Likewise, at the noeric level, King Helios governs all the other gods, who are aspects of him, but have their own offices. This governing role might seem more appropriate to Zeus, the chief god, but Julian equates the two.

For example Apollo, who was often equated with Helios, is specifically his unifying power and single-mindedness ("Apollo" was derived from a-pollon = not-many). Conversely, Dionysos is the power to separate forms, for in myth he was torn apart and became the divine substance of our bodies. Because Venus is always close to the sun, Aphrodite, goddess of love and sex, assists Helios in the work of generation. Most relevant for us is Athena Pronoia (Foresight), sprung from the mind of the King (Zeus in myth, but equated to Helios) and representing his intelligence in its most perfect form. Her wisdom unifies the gods and guides them in their common purpose. She shows the way to individuation, which I'll explain next.

Psychologically, the noeric level is the level of the unconscious where the archetypes reside, and therefore Helios corresponds to what Jung called the "Self," which is the totality and also the central principle of all the archetypes. (Jungians sometimes call the Self "the God image within.") The unconscious Self (and not the conscious ego) is the root of a person's authentic individuality, and the ultimate governor of his or her psychological development. Jung's "Copernican revolution" was to discover that the ego revolves around the Self and not vice versa, as commonly supposed. The conscious integration of the Self is the goal of the lifelong process that Jung called individuation (the process of becoming individuus = undivided, integrated). In mythological terms, this is the process of coming to know Helios (the source of enlightenment, we might say) and of following him.

For a god, will, ability, and activity coincide, "because," as Julian says, "all that he wills he is, and can do, and puts into action." Not so for most mortals, but the goal of ancient Neoplatonic spiritual practice was to become godlike so far as possible for humans, which is essentially the process of individuation. Therefore, it seems reasonable that for the ideal sage — for the god-man (theios anêr) as he was called — there might also be a coincidence of will, ability, and action (boulê/voluntas, dynamis/potentia, energeia/actio). This is a worthwhile goal for all philosophers (lovers of wisdom). (The three degrees of wisdom, taught in The Wisdom of Hypatia, aim for it.)

In each of the three realms the sun is the source of (metaphorical) light, which is the substance of that realm. Thus The One is the source of truth, the light of the noetic realm; it illuminates the Ideas in their undifferentiated unity. In the visible world, the sun illuminates the planets and is the origin of the faculty of vision and of the visibility of objects. Likewise, at the noeric level, Helios radiates the substance of the gods, which is nous, the faculty of intuitive understanding, which the gods and we possess, and also the potential to be comprehended by nous. Thus the sun in each realm is the creative source of that realm.

In the case of the physical world, the earth, this statement is not entirely metaphorical, for the sun is the generator of most of the order, and specifically of the life, on earth, for the sun is the principal source of free energy (the other is geothermal). This energy is reradiated into space in a lower grade (higher entropy) form, which drives the increase in order (decrease in entropy) on earth: the origin and evolution of life, from bacteria to ecosystems. So in a real sense, the sun's light does create the visible world (the world of organized matter and energy).

According to the emperor, the sun governs change in the material world, keeping it in definite limits, orderly, balanced. The sun creates, and therefore must also destroy to keep the world in finite bounds (for its substance is limited and must be recycled). Thus, Julian observes, the sun approaches, granting his gifts, revivifyng the earth, stimulating new life and growth, but then withdraws again so that, with justice, he can bestow his blessings on the other hemisphere. He gives to some and takes away from others in order to maintain balance.

The sun defines the year and its four cardinal points (the solstices and equinoxes) and thereby is the mythological father of the Seasons (Horai). (Some say Zeus is their father, but it amounts to the same thing.) In ancient Rome the winter solstice occurred at the end of the Saturnalia (Dec. 17-23), the joyous festival of annual renewal that gave us many of our Christmas traditions (gift-giving, decorated pine trees, etc.). The solstice was celebrated in games, the Heliaia (Solis Agon), for the Unconquered Sun on Dec. 25. However, the emperor observes, the New Year was celebrated when the lengthening days became visible to ordinary people (non-astronomers), that is, January 1.

The sky is our teacher in wisdom. The sun is the symbol of Helios, the integrating and coordinating principle of the archetypal realm, that is, a symbol of the Self. The Self is sometimes more visible, sometimes less, but always present, coordinating the archetypes to fulfill our destinies. The sun in each realm generates its realm, but also unites it and guides it toward its own perfection. Thus Helios, king of the archetypal gods, guides our psyches toward individuation.

When Helios illuminates our lives, we should rejoice and plant our seeds; when he withdraws, we should harvest the fruits and prepare for his return. Therefore, the winter solstice symbolizes the return of illumination by the archetypal wisdom of the unconscious and the consequent revivification of our souls, if we cultivate what we have planted. It's a time to welcome enlightenment.

Epicureanism and Natural Desires

I mentioned in my previous blog entry that Epicurean philosophia (love of wisdom) is an example of what I called the first degree of wisdom, implying, of course, that there are higher degrees — as there are. It might seem inefficient to waste time on lower degrees of wisdom; why not focus on the highest wisdom? The reason is that ancient philosophia understood that the pursuit of wisdom is a process, which should go through stages, so that each stage can build on the solid foundation of the preceding stages. 

The first degree of wisdom can be characterized as egoistic materialism, which perhaps doesn't sound very enlightened, but the fact is that most people do not enjoy even this degree of wisdom. For if we take the goal of philosophia to be to live with joy and equanimity in accord with nature, then we cannot fail to see that many people are not doing so; therefore this first step is worthwhile. The first degree of wisdom depends on a first approximation to human nature: that we are biological beings with biological needs and desires. We look to them to understand how we, as individual humans, can live well. 

The Epicurean answer is that we should seek pleasure and avoid pain (mental as well as physical), but do so wisely (i.e., according to the Epicurean calculation). This is, in fact, living in accord with nature, for pleasures and pains are biology's fundamental signals that an organism is doing something right or wrong; that is, pain is a signal we should stop doing something or not do it again, and pleasure is a signal we should continue doing something or do it again. This is what nature tells us, but by virtue of our human nature we can perform the Epicurean calculation and, for example, forego a current pleasure in favor of greater future pleasure or to avoid future pain. If we do this calculation correctly, according to Epicurus, we often find that the maximum pleasure is achieved from the elimination of pain, resulting in a state of tranquility that is relatively easy to maintain (thus avoiding the pain of effort). Positive pleasures must be actively pursued and often have no natural limit, which can lead to pain-inducing excess. 

The ancient Epicureans used a common-sense understanding of human nature supplemented by a materialistic atomic theory of physical reality, qualitatively very similar to the dominant modern scientific worldview. This is still quite relevant to us today, as contemporary Epicureans have discovered. Nevertheless, biology has made enormous progress since Epicurus' time, 2300 years ago, and in particular evolutionary psychology is expanding our understanding of the biological bases of human psychology. This field is new, and research is ongoing, so we must be careful not to draw conclusions prematurely, but current research does suggest some revision of Epicureanism into a contemporary first degree of wisdom.

For example, Epicurus argues that the desires for fame and power are non-natural (and hence "vain"), and therefore that the wise Epicurean will not pursue them, for they are overall more likely to produce pain than pleasure. "Live hidden," Epicurus recommends. 

However, if we look at our close primate relatives, we find innate behaviors that establish status and dominance hierarchies, as we also find in many other social animals. "What's the point?" we may ask, in agreement with Epicurus, but they have an adaptive function, for they establish social structures that help groups to function more effectively. In effect, if individuals "know their place," so to speak, at least for the time being, then energy can be spent on cooperative action rather than on negotiating social relations. Furthermore, stable social relations eliminate energy-wasting anxiety and uncertainty (you may be low rank, but at least you know you are low rank). Of course, individuals' status and dominance can be challenged and are not inviolable, but there is overall stability. 

"Know your place" may seem to be a highly reactionary prescription, especially from a perspective of egalitarianism, freedom, and social mobility, but we should not forget to apply the Epicurean calculation. Based on evolutionary psychology, we may conjecture that the desire for status and dominance is natural, but is it (in Epicurus' terms) necessary or unnecessary? It certainly seems that feelings of self-worth and self-esteem are necessary for mental health. However, what engenders these feelings is rooted in personal and societal norms. Here, philosophia provides practices for adjusting our personal norms and for modifying our responses to societal norms so that these desires are more easily satisfied. Thus we can tease apart the necessary and unnecessary components of the natural desire for self-worth and respect.

More generally, I suspect that a desire for some degree of security in social position is necessary and natural, but that a desire for increased status and dominance is unnecessary, though probably natural. Perhaps this was Epicurus' point when he stressed the importance of friendship and the unimportance of the pursuit of fame and power.

Epicurus doesn't seem to think that the rewards of marriage and child rearing are worth the inconvenience; he would rather hang out with his friends. His attitude is probably conditioned in part by the structure of the family and the institution of marriage in ancient Athens. From an evolutionary perspective, there are few desires more natural than the desire to procreate. However, although it is certainly necessary for the species, it is not necessary for the individual in the same sense that food, drink, and shelter are necessary. These desires reflect a lack of some natural necessity, and the maximum pleasure is achieved when the lack is eliminated (as explained in my previous blog entry). The desire to procreate has more the character of unnecessary natural desires, which have no inherent limits (perhaps due to high infant mortality in our environment of evolutionary adaptedness). For unnecessary natural desires, such as these, we must apply the Epicurean calculation and balance the pains against the pleasures. (It's certainly easy to find examples of unrestrained procreation leading to unpleasant consequences.)

Nevertheless, procreation is surrounded by a constellation of natural desires. There is sex (of course), but also the many joys of child rearing, familial affection, mutual support, etc. These desires are well grounded in our evolutionary history and are found in many of our primate relatives. As evolutionary psychology continues to progress, we can anticipate a better understanding of this constellation of desires, which we can use in our Epicurean calculations, but the overall parameters are pretty obvious. 

Other natural desires and aversions fall in the domain of biophilia, a term introduced by E. O. Wilson in a book by that name. It refers to our innate responses to the natural world (or, more accurately, to our genetic predispositions, which lead to learned responses). The familiar example is an aversion to snakes and spiders, which is innate but must be activated by an individual's environment. On the other side we seem to have a natural attraction to flourishing plants and healthy animals. It is easy to see the adaptive advantage of these predispositions back on the savanna, but this is not the place to summarize the arguments of evolutionary psychology. 

In any case, there is significant evidence that we have an innate psychological need for a healthy, thriving natural environment, which goes beyond our material needs for clean water, clean air, and nourishing, toxin-free food; thus, the psychological benefits of a healthy environment must be part of the calculation. Nature is an innate source of pleasure (although some aspects of it can be threatening too). The desire is natural, but unnecessary; therefore, it can be pursued to excess, and its satisfaction may be difficult to achieve (as is apparent to industrialized, urbanized people). 

The Epicurean Garden is proverbial, for that is where Epicurus and his successors taught and discussed philosophy. We may imagine them enjoying their friendly conversations and simple meals surrounded by fruit trees, fragrant herbs, and beautiful flowers. Although they might not have been doing it consciously, they were satisfying their natural biophilic desires, and they show that it is often relatively easy to do.

Epicurean friendship was also proverbial, and Epicurus held friendship above all other goods. Evolutionary psychology agrees that humans are innately social and adapted to live and cooperate in groups of moderate size (a few dozen). This desire is natural and arguably necessary for human well-being; "To live alone one must be a beast or a god," as Nietzsche quotes Aristotle (and I think that Epicurus would deny the third possibility added by Nietzsche: that one may be both, i.e., a philosopher).

Considering both friendship and biophilia, I suspect that animal companionship is another natural desire (not mentioned by Epicureans, so far as I'm aware). Companion animals have been a part of human life for a very long time (tens of thousands of years in the case of dogs). Therefore, I think that animal companionship can be classified as an unnecessary natural desire (it seems to have no natural limit, as evidenced by animal hoarding). Here again the Epicurean calculation must be applied. 

In summary, in the first degree of wisdom, we apply common sense and contemporary scientific investigations of human biology so that we can live with joy and equanimity. The perspective is materialistic and egoistic, which is certainly a limited perspective, but it's a first step on the path.

Epicurean Thanksgiving

The Thanksgiving holiday is an opportunity to make a few remarks on the ancient philosophia (love of wisdom) of Epicurus, who lived in Athens in the third century BCE. His name, of course, gives us the adjective "epicurean," which is appropriate to this holiday's central feature; also, Epicureans were known for their friendship, and pleasure is the principal good in Epicurean philosophia. However, Thanksgiving is also a harvest festival expressing gratitude for the bounty of Nature, and so we may consider Epicurus' saying:


Thanks be to blessed Nature that she has made

what is necessary easy to obtain,

and what is not easy unnecessary.


In modern terms, Epicurus is saying that humans are adapted to nature, for which we're grateful. But the credibility of this saying depends on what things we consider to be necessary or unnecessary. Therefore Epicurus gives us the following classification of desires:


Among desires, some are natural and necessary,

some are natural and unnecessary,

and some are unnatural and unnecessary,

arising instead from groundless opinion.


Natural desires are those that arise from our nature as human beings. Of these natural desires, some are necessary, such as food, water, air, and shelter. One of the characteristics of necessary desires is that they have a natural limit. If we are thirsty, then that limit is reached when our thirst is quenched; if we are hungry, then it's reached when our hunger is gone. That is, necessary desires arise from the lack of some natural necessity (water, food, warmth, etc.), and they are satisfied when that lack is eliminated. Since necessary desires represent a lack, the maximum satisfaction — the maximum pleasure — comes when the lack is eliminated.


This is what justifies Epicurus' claim that what is necessary is easy to obtain. He is saying that it doesn't take much effort to procure the bare necessities of life. This was perhaps truer in the ancient world than in ours, when a person might hunt or gather in virgin forests without concern for laws restricting these activities. Nowadays, homeless people may come closest to living at the level of bare necessity.


Be that as it may, this is not an attractive way of life for most of us, and Epicurus is not recommending that we live this way. Rather, he is trying to jerk us back from our customary desires to a recognition of what we really need in order to live with equanimity. We so often say, "I need this" or "I need that," so a first step in wisdom is to understand our needs and desires, and their causes and consequences. The necessary desires arise from our nature as human beings, and the consequences of satisfying them are the pleasure of eliminating the discomfort of their lack. Epicurus argues that this level of happiness is relatively easy to achieve.


It is interesting, however, that this basic level of happiness is harder to achieve in our society than in ancient times. If one aspires to live above the level of a homeless person, then you are immediately faced with the complications of earning money, paying taxes, etc. Even homeless people are under constant pressure to conform to social norms and join the rat race.


However, it would seem to be an odd sort of Epicureanism that would advocate living as ascetics or beggars, and Epicurus does not do so. Rather, he argues that we should understand and govern our desires, which is still a useful lesson for us today. Therefore let's return to his classification of desires.


As we've seen, Epicurus divides natural desires — those arising from our human nature — into those that are necessary and those that are unnecessary. Examples of unnecessary natural desires include food and drink beyond what is necessary to eliminate hunger and thirst, and shelter and clothing beyond what is necessary for safety and health. Other examples include gourmet food and drink, which are unnecessary variations on natural desires. There is nothing inherently wrong with these pleasures, for according to Epicureanism all pleasures are inherently good, but they have downsides, of which the wise person should be aware. Thus Epicurus says,


I spit upon luxurious pleasures not for their own sake,

but because of the inconveniences that follow them.


Some of these inconveniences are obvious, such as the indigestion or hangover that can follow on overindulgent eating and drinking. Others are less direct, such as debt from spending too much money on clothing or a fancy house, and the consequent necessity to work harder to pay it off. In spite of the foregoing statement, Epicurus does not recommend that we eschew all unnecessary natural desires, but that we should perform the "Epicurean calculation" and assess the pleasures against their unpleasant costs. As our philosopher says,


There is also a limit in simple living.

He who fails to heed this limit falls into an error as great

as that of the man who gives way to extravagance.


Given the foregoing, you can probably guess what Epicurus has to say about unnatural desires, by which he means desires that do not arise from our nature as human beings. Examples include desire for fame, political or economic power, fine art, vacation houses, yachts, personal planes, and exotic vacations. Epicurus says these are due to "groundless opinion" because they are irrational if we understand Epicurean philosophia correctly. Satisfaction of such desires may be very pleasurable, but they are not worth the effort, discomfort, costs, and consequences of satisfying them, according to Epicurus.


The crown of tranquility is incomparably superior

to the crown of the greatest political power.


We should not take any of these examples uncritically, and there is room for disagreement among reasonable people. For example, sex is certainly a natural desire, but we may differ about whether it is necessary or not. Epicurus' judgments were also based on a prescientific understanding of nature, and so some of them need to be reevaluated. For example, a desire for a certain degree of status or self-respect seems to be a characteristic of many primate species, and probably of Homo sapiens, and so we might reclassify it as a natural (if not necessary) desire. Further, we now know that emotional attachment to others is a natural desire, grounded in our evolutionary history, and it is a necessity prerequisite for normal emotional development. I expect Epicurus would agree, since he considered friendship to be fundamental to human happiness:


Of all things that wisdom acquires for living one’s entire life in happiness,

the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.


Let's turn now to the question of how (or even if) we should apply Epicurus' insights to our contemporary desire to live wisely. Certainly, I think it is worthwhile to classify our desires (necessary-natural, unnecessary-natural, unnatural) so that we are clear about their sources. In this we may be guided by discoveries in evolutionary psychology, but in most cases a little common sense and insight will be all we need. Then we should apply the Epicurean calculation. For the unnecessary natural and the unnatural desires we have to weigh the potential pleasure against the costs, both before satisfaction and after. This is very important nowadays because many of us live stressful lives with limited economic means in a society that values consumption -- especially conspicuous consumption -- for its own sake. (Indeed the day after Thanksgiving we celebrate Consumerism in the orgiastic rites known as Black Friday.)


Obviously I could not be writing this blog without a computer, Internet access, and many other benefits of our contemporary, technological society. These are powerful means toward pleasure and productivity, which allow me to achieve my aims better. Nevertheless, I try to keep their costs in mind. Beyond the obvious monetary expense, there are the costs of time and frustration battling recalcitrant software, dealing with technical issues, wandering into pointless web browsing, etc. For another example, social networking services such as Facebook can be used to satisfy the necessary natural desire for human contact, but they easily seduce us into the pursuit of unnecessary and non-natural desires (such as accumulating "friends"). As in so many things, wisdom consists in being conscious of the choices we make.


Epicurus' philosophia is very practical and, some would complain, materialistic. No difficult or complex spiritual practices are required to achieve its highest aspiration, which is simply pleasure. We could all do much worse than to live by its precepts. However, the desire for wisdom (philo-sophia) does strive higher, and so I call Epicurean philosophia "the first degree of wisdom." It is a practical background for everyday life, but we can go beyond it, as I'll discuss another time.


By the way, this blog entry illustrates another feature of ancient philosophia, which was especially important to Epicurus: the use of aphorisms or slogans. These pithy statements or maxims are a practical tool for remembering the essence of a philosophia and for calling it to mind in everyday life. (The familiar Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is his journal, mostly recording aphorisms he had learned from others or formulated himself.) Thus Epicurus' last words were:


Farewell, and bear my doctrines in your minds.

Learning Hypatia's Philosophia

    By using the ancient Greek word philosophia, rather than the English word philosophy, I intend to refer to the ancient practice — the desire for wisdom as a way of life — rather than to the often technical, academic discipline called philosophy today. Therefore, my purpose in blogging here is to discuss a system of practices to help one to live wisely. It is rooted in the ancient philosophia and wisdom traditions of the West, but it has much in common with those of the East, as I'll mention from time to time. Further, although it is rooted in these ancient traditions, it is perfectly compatible with our contemporary scientific worldview, as I will explain. I dont intend to present Hypatia's Neoplatonic philosophia as a complete and closed system of practice; that is not my purpose. Rather, I plan this blog as the continuation of a living 2500-year old wisdom tradition, which must be verified and validated in our own experience. It evolves in order to adapt and survive.

    The goal of ancient philosophia was to learn and to practice a better way of life, which usually meant to live with joy and equanimity by living in accord with nature. Still a worthwhile aim! Of course there are many ways to interpret these words, and that is what distinguished these philosophies. Nevertheless, the important point is that they were not so much intellectual systems as methods of mental and moral training. (The late Pierre Hadot has done much in recent years to explain the true nature of ancient philosophia.) 

    Instruction in ancient philosophia focused on the practice of daily living, and the intellectual system was intended to support the practice, maintaining motivation by providing intellectual justification for the practices.

    Therefore ancient instruction in philosophia was not so much a lecture as counseling. It was more akin to spiritual instruction by a guru or other spiritual teacher, or to modern psychotherapy, counseling, or "life coaching." A small number of students would meet with the teacher. They might discuss a text from the sect's founder or another philosopher, exploring its meaning and application to everyday life. The students might ask the teacher about their practical problems in living philosophically. The support of the group was essential, for the students would encourage each other, praising progress and discussing ways to overcome difficulties. Later, the teacher might meet with the students individually to discuss their individual progress or difficulties. Students also kept journals as a way of judging their progress and analyzing their own thoughts. In this way, through individual effort, the guidance of a teacher, and group support, the students grew in their ability to live philosophically.

    I think this is still the "gold standard" of philosophical instruction, since it permits the teacher's and students' familiarity and engagement in one another's lives to make true progress in a mutually supportive environment. The prerequisite is long-term interaction among a small number of practitioners (perhaps a dozen). Traditional large lectures are not as effective, nor are weekend workshops, both of which lack long-term intimacy. Nevertheless, although it is more difficult, you can learn and practice Hypatia's philosophia on your own.

Purpose of this blog

    It seems appropriate to inaugurate this blog by saying a little about my goals for it. They relate primarily to my book The Wisdom of Hypatia: Ancient Spiritual Practices for a More Meaningful Life (Llewellyn, 2013).
    This book is primarily about practice, and there is always more to say about practice (although the last word is always the practice itself). Therefore I plan on describing alternatives and variations to the practices I've presented in the book. Problems can arise as well, and so I will discuss typical problems and how to surmount them. I will also answer questions posed by readers, to the best of my ability, and resolve any misunderstandings.
    I also plan to explore in more depth the connections between Neoplatonism, Jungian psychology, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and other topics in contemporary science. Some suppose that Neoplatonism and science are incompatible world views, but they're not.
    There are many interesting similarities between Neoplatonic practice and other spiritual systems, such as Tibetan Buddhism, which were outside the scope of the book. I will address these from time to time.
    These are the sorts of things I anticipate discussing, but I'm open to addressing anything relevant to the practice of Neoplatonism as a living philosophy.