Defining terms shapes debate


RALEIGH – Are you an epicurean? The answer to this question reveals something about you, something about the English language, and something about the power of propaganda.

Next year, North Carolina and the nation will enter a momentous election year. Print, broadcast, and online media will be replete with messages designed to attract to a candidate, repel us from his opponent, and shape our perception of issues ranging from tax reform and education spending at the state level to trade, immigration, economic policy, and foreign affairs in races for Congress and the White House.

To the extent you can define the terms of a debate, you can influence the outcome of that debate. The story of Epicurus illustrates the point. A Greek sage and teacher of the Hellenistic Age, Epicurus urged his followers to focus on the basic issue of how to live a good and contented life. Reacting to the turbulent times within the Greek world after the death of Alexander the Great, and to what he considered to be the wrongheaded and unfounded teachings of Platonists and Aristotelians, Epicurus developed both a natural philosophy that grappled with issues of existence and cosmology as well as an ethical philosophy that taught his followers how to find contentment in the midst of strife and disorder.

The main lesson of Epicureanism was that human beings need not be unhappy. There was no need to fear the gods, because they were found in a perfect, higher plane of existence and did not interfere with human affairs. There was no need to fear death, Epicurus taught, because it is no more than the cessation of life and thus could not be experienced in pain or regret. And far from being beyond their grasp, human beings could indeed find contentment. It did not lie in material wealth or sensual pleasures, Epicurus taught, but in contemplation, friendship, benevolence, and self-control.

It did not take long for Epicurus and his school to make powerful enemies. Rival philosophical schools and nervous government officials scorned the teacher’s reclusive ways and subversive ideas. For example, Epicurus took the radical step of inviting women and slaves into his company, which shocked the larger society. Surely there was something nefarious going on, his critics said, and they spread unfounded rumors about the Epicureans’ atheism, debauchery, and excess. In actuality, Epicurus urged his followers not to consume strong drink, not to value fine clothes or great feasts, and to practice sexual modesty. But the rumors grew into extended philosophical and religious arguments, and then into anti-Epicurus propaganda in the following centuries.

It worked. Let’s go back to my initial question. Are you an epicurean? The name of Epicurus survived into the Latin and Germanic languages, and eventually into English in the form of this term. But its primary definition bears a meaning that is wholly opposite to what the philosopher once taught. Used as a noun, as either “epicurean” or “epicure,” it means “a person devoted to sensuous pleasure.” Used as an adjective, it means “devoted to pleasure” or “furnishing gratification of the senses.” But for Epicurus, pleasure was about avoiding painful ideas and resisting wanton lusts and worldly temptations. So over time, the propagandists who disagreed with him transformed his very name into something he would have viewed as an epithet.

Don’t believe claims that language doesn’t matter, that words cannot do harm, that they are “just words.” Politics is replete with “facts” that are not so, but that frame the debate on consequential matters, such as the assertion that tax cuts have no effect on economic growth (or the contrary claim that tax-rate cuts often “pay for themselves” in future economic growth, which is true only in rare circumstances).

Repeat errors or lies often enough and they become “true” to future generations. That is why it is so important to confront them, repeatedly, from the very beginning. Oh, and don’t try to look up Epicurean.com on the Internet to find out more about his philosophy. The site is an “online magazine for food and wine lovers.”

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation. Follow him @JohnHoodNC.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation. Follow him @JohnHoodNC.

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