Did any Greek political philosophy (500 BC – 500 AD) align with American libertarianism?

…as answered on Quora….

Elements of liberal-libertarian individualism can be found in most schools of ancient philosophy.

Plato’s admonition to favor persuasion over force — seeing civilization as the triumph of persuasion over force* — could ably serve as a libertarian motto.

The idea of natural law, especially as developed by the Stoics, provided an important perspective for the growth of the rule-of-law idea so vital to classical liberalism, and, more narrowly, the tool that is “rights,” from which libertarianism grounds its limited and limiting conception of justice.

But it is in Epicureanism we might see the greatest libertarian foreshadowing among the Greeks. Epicurus, I think, offered a number of important concepts that spurred the growth of the libertarian idea.** Chief among these is a stripped-down conception of justice as the rules that allow people to form compacts for mutual protection. Both utilitarianism and contractarianism find early formulations in Epicurean writings — most of which are, alas, lost.***

And there is something in Epicureanism that is not to be found in Platonism, Aristotelianism, or Stoicism: absolutely no aggrandizement of the State, no conception, even, of its moral legitimacy. The State of Epicurus’ day, and all the associated politics surrounding its warfare and plunder and busybodyism, was something Epicurus advised his followers to avoid. He imagined a better system, in his simpler, non-lofty idea of mutual protection compacts. But they could not be put in place generally in ancient times, so Epicurus advised avoidance of the State. He was a social schismatic, if not a utopian.

In his attitude towards the State Epicurus was, in effect, applying the same approach that he applied to religion: debunking.

The four-fold cure serves, I think, as a good summary of Epicureanism:

  1. Do not fear death;
  2. do not fear the gods;
  3. good things are easy to get;
  4. suffering is easy to endure.

Epicureans argued that much of our phobias about life derive from superstitious myth and religious hectoring about afterlife punishment by vengeful and mercurial deities. Epicurus himself developed a scientific viewpoint to show that there is no afterlife, and thus nothing to fear in that regard, and that the gods, if any there be, would be uninterested in human affairs, so they were no threat. He saw the cosmos as complex but not conspiratorial. The social world, on the other hand, did have malign conspiracies everywhere, and, though one could fear them, the best recourse is pain- and threat-avoidance, for the thing most needful for a happy life was a baseline cheerfulness and a resistance to fear.

A friend of mine told me, recently, that he sees Epicureanism as being all about fear — fear of pain. I think this is exactly backwards. Fear exacerbates pains. One should try to avoid complex habits of life that conjure up more pain than they are worth, that is the Epicurean strategy. But with what pains one is inevitably delivered in life, we had best use philosophy and the therapies of desire to deal with them. I beseech thee: do not get caught up in fear.

Indeed, decades ago I reformulated the four-fold cure as an anti-phobic discipline:

  1. Do not fear death;
  2. do not fear the gods;
  3. do not fear boredom;
  4. do not fear suffering.

And once you have mastered these attitudes, apply them against politics, which is filled with what Max Stirner called “wheels in the head” — made-up and reified notions of State Sovereignty, moral authority, and Divine Justice as imposed via the State. All that is just nonsense that some people use to get you to conform to their outrageous demands. These notions are carried over from religious superstition. They mask what is really going on in the political realm.

De-mystify all that.

There is a pipeline from Epicureanism to libertarianism. It is not for nothing that one perceptive Christian author quoted nearly five full pages from the Data of Ethics by the great libertarian theorist of the 19th century, Herbert Spencer, as exemplary of Epicureanism in modern times.**** The affinity is quite striking.

What is even more striking, though, is how little explored it is.

* “From Force to Persuasion,” in Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures in Ideas (The MacMillan Company, 1954), pp. 87–109.

** See Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (W. W. Norton and Company, 2011), for a discussion of the historical importance for the Renaissance and the Enlightenment of the unearthing of the great Epicurean poem by Titus Lucretius Carus.

*** But see James H. Nichols, Jr., Epicurean Political Philosophy: The De rerum natura of Lucretius (Cornell University Press, 1976).

**** William DeWitt Hyde, From Epicurus to Christ (The MacMillan Company, 1904), pp. 10–15.

About the image, above: Harry Browne and a statue of Epicurus. Harry Browne’s How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World was reviewed by philosopher John Hospers in Reason magazine, under the title “The New Epicureans” (March 1974).