Epicureanism is a system of philosophy based upon the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (342?-270 B.C.), who proposed that the world is infinite and there are other worlds. Epicurus is best known for the doctrine that the goal of life is pleasure and proposing the idea that the world is made of atoms—the atomos (indivisible) elements of matter. “Epicurus says we are in an atomistic system,” French Epicurean expert Daniel Delattre told The New Yorker. “Everything that occurs is the result of the atoms colliding, rebounding, and becoming entangled with one another, with no purpose or plan behind their motions.” [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker , November 16, 2015 \=/]
The Epicureans regarded reality as a random arrangement of atoms and maintained that pleasure was the primary guiding force in life. They tried to build lives around the attainment of moderate pleasure without political or emotional involvement. The Epicureans gave us the word epicurean, meaning: devoted to the pursuit of sensual pleasure, especially to the enjoyment of good food and comfort.
Tim O'Keefe of Georgia State University wrote in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Epicurus is one of the major philosophers in the Hellenistic period, the three centuries following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E. (and of Aristotle in 322 B.C.E.). Epicurus developed an unsparingly materialistic metaphysics, empiricist epistemology, and hedonistic ethics. Epicurus taught that the basic constituents of the world are atoms, uncuttable bits of matter, flying through empty space, and he tried to explain all natural phenomena in atomic terms. Epicurus rejected the existence of Platonic forms and an immaterial soul, and he said that the gods have no influence on our lives. Epicurus also thought skepticism was untenable, and that we could gain knowledge of the world relying upon the senses. He taught that the point of all one's actions was to attain pleasure (conceived of as tranquility) for oneself, and that this could be done by limiting one's desires and by banishing the fear of the gods and of death. Epicurus' gospel of freedom from fear proved to be quite popular, and communities of Epicureans flourished for centuries after his death. [Source: Tim O'Keefe, Georgia State University, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) <^>]
“After Epicurus' death, Epicureanism continued to flourish as a philosophical movement. Communities of Epicureans sprang up throughout the Hellenistic world; along with Stoicism, it was one of the major philosophical schools competing for people's allegiances. Epicureanism went into decline with the rise of Christianity. Certain aspects of Epicurus' thought were revived during the Renaissance and early modern periods, when reaction against scholastic neo-Aristotelianism led thinkers to turn to mechanistic explanations of natural phenomena.
John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: “For Delattre, Epicureanism encompasses physics and ethics, a complete world view that he both studies and emulates. As he gets older, he told me, he finds it comforting to think that “when we die there is a dissolution of the aggregate, and the atoms come together to make a new thing. And so we have nothing to fear from death; there is no punishment, no Hell—we simply cease to exist.” There are gods, “but they are very quiet and very happy and don’t interfere with human activities.” Epicurus influenced the first-century- B.C. Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, who wrote “On the Nature of Things,” the epic poem that was rediscovered in a monastic library in 1417 by Poggio Bracciolini, a find that Stephen Greenblatt, in his 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,” credits as being a founding document of the Renaissance.
“Then comes the swerve—a central concept in Epicurean physics. If all matter is made of atoms, and if atoms move through the void according to their own fixed laws, then everything that happens to us is predestined. But, Delattre explained, “There would be no freedom, and for Epicurus we are free, so he wanted to introduce the possibility of this slight deviation.” Sometimes the atoms swerve slightly out of their natural trajectory, causing unplanned collisions with unpredictable consequences—not unlike what particles actually do in a synchrotron. (The particle accelerator is an Epicurean invention.) “Lucretius calls this the clinamen, which means ‘deviation’ in Latin—the atoms’ tendency to change direction slightly,” Delattre added. On a vast scale, this creates an inherently unpredictable universe in which man freely chooses his own path. \=/
Websites on Ancient Greece and Rome: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia hsc.edu/drjclassics ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization pbs.org/empires/thegreeks ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Ancient-Greek.org ancientgreece.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Ancient City of Athens stoa.org/athens; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans; The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com
Tim O'Keefe of Georgia State University wrote in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Epicurus was born around 341 B.C.E., seven years after Plato's death, and grew up in the Athenian colony of Samos, an island in the Mediterranean Sea. He was about 19 when Aristotle died, and he studied philosophy under followers of Democritus and Plato. Epicurus founded his first philosophical schools in Mytilene and Lampsacus, before moving to Athens around 306 B.C.E. There Epicurus founded the Garden, a combination of philosophical community and school. The residents of the Garden put Epicurus' teachings into practice. Epicurus died from kidney stones around 271 or 270 B.C.E. [Source: Tim O'Keefe, Georgia State University, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) <^>]
“Epicurus was a voluminous writer, but almost none of his own work survives. A likely reason for this is that Christian authorities found his ideas ungodly. Diogenes Laertius, who probably lived in the third century CE , wrote a 10-book Lives of the Philosophers, which includes three of Epicurus' letters in its recounting of the life and teachings of Epicurus. These three letters are brief summaries of major areas of Epicurus' philosophy: the Letter to Herodotus, which summarizes his metaphysics, the Letter to Pythocles, which gives atomic explanations for meteorological phenomena, and the Letter to Menoeceus, which summarizes his ethics. It also includes the Principal Doctrines, 40 sayings which deal mainly with ethical matters. <^>
“Because of the absence of Epicurus' own writings, we have to rely on later writers to reconstruct Epicurus' thought. Two of our most important sources are the Roman poet Lucretius (c. 94-55 B.C.E.) and the Roman politician Cicero (106-43 B.C.E.). Lucretius was an Epicurean who wrote De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), a six-book poem expounding Epicurus' metaphysics. Cicero was an adherent of the skeptical academy, who wrote a series of works setting forth the major philosophical systems of his day, including Epicureanism. Another major source is the essayist Plutarch (c. 50-120 CE), a Platonist. However, both Cicero and Plutarch were very hostile toward Epicureanism, so they must be used with care, since they often are less than charitable toward Epicurus, and may skew his views to serve their own purposes. Although the major outlines of Epicurus' thought are clear enough, the lack of sources means many of the details of his philosophy are still open to dispute.” <^>
John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: “Not a single one of Epicurus’ philosophical texts has survived; aside from a few fragments, his only preserved words come from two collections of sayings and three letters known only from secondary sources. One letter, as reproduced by Diogenes Laertius, an early biographer of the Greek philosophers, reads, “I have written this letter to you on a happy day to me, which is also the last day of my life. For I have been attacked by a painful inability to urinate, and also dysentery, so violent that nothing can be added to the violence of my sufferings. But the cheerfulness of my mind, which comes from the recollection of all my philosophical contemplation, counterbalances all these afflictions.” [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker , November 16, 2015]
The biographer Diogenes Laertius (A.D. 180-240) is the primary source for the surviving complete letters of Epicurus and for biographical and other pertinent information about him, a lot of which is dubious and hard to substantiate In his book “The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers,” he wrote: ““Epicurus, son of Neocles and Chaerestrate, was an Athenian of the Gargettus ward and the Philaidae clan, as Metrodorus says in his book On Noble Birth. He is said by Heraclides (in his Epitome of Sotion) as well as by others, to have been brought up at Samos after the Athenians had sent colonists there and to have come to Athens at the age of eighteen, at the time when Xenocrates was head of the Academy and Aristotle was in Chalcis. After the death of Alexander of Macedon and the expulsion of the Athenian colonists from Samos by Perdiccas, Epicurus left Athens to join his father in Colophon; for some time he stayed there and gathered students around him, then returned to Athens again during the archonship of Anaxicrates [307–306 B.C.]. [Source: Diogenes Laërtius: “The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers Book X; Epicurus”, A.D. early 3rd century, translated by C.D. Yonge (London: George Bell & Sons, 1895)]
“For a while, it is said, he pursued his studies in common with other philosophers, but afterwards put forward independent views by founding the school named after him. He says himself that he first came to study philosophy at the age of fourteen, Apollodorus the Epicurean (in the first book of his Life of Epicurus says that he turned to philosophy in contempt of the school-teachers who could not tell him the meaning of “chaos” in Hesiod. According to Hermippus, however, he started as a school-teacher, but on coming across the works of Democritus turned eagerly to philosophy, which accounts for Timon's allusion in the lines:
““Again there is the latest and most shameless of the natural philosophers, the school-teacher's son from Samos, himself the most ill-bred and undisciplined of mankind.” At his encouragement his three brothers, Neocles, Chaeredemus, and Aristobulus, joined in his studies, as Philodemus the Epicurean relates in the tenth book of his comprehensive work On Philosophers; as did his slave named Mys, as stated by Myronianus in Historical Parallels. Diotimus the Stoic, who was very hostile to him, assailed him with bitter slanders, attributing fifty obscene letters as being written by Epicurus; and so too did the author who ascribed to Epicurus the letters commonly attributed to Chrysippus [the Stoic].
“He spent all his life in Greece, notwithstanding the calamities which had befallen her in that era; when he did once or twice take a trip to Ionia, it was to visit his friends there. Friends indeed came to him from all parts and lived with him in his garden. This is stated by Apollodorus, who also says that he purchased the garden for eighty minae . And to the same effect Diocles in the third book of his Epitome speaks of them as living a very simple and frugal life; at all events they were content with a cup of thin wine and were, for the rest, thoroughgoing water-drinkers. He further says that Epicurus did not think it right that their property should be held in common, as required by the maxim of Pythagoras about the goods of friends; such a practice in his opinion implied mistrust, and without confidence there is no friendship.
“In his correspondence he himself mentions that he was content with plain bread and water. And again: “Send me a little pot of cheese, that, when I like, I may fare sumptuously.” Such was the man who laid down that pleasure was the end of life. And here is the epigram in which Athenaeus eulogizes him: “You toil, 0 men, for paltry things and incessantly begin strife and war for gain; but nature's wealth extends to a moderate bound, whereas vain judgments have a limitless range. This lesson Neocles' wise son heard from the Muses or from the sacred tripod at Delphi.”
“Among the early philosophers, says Diocles, his favorite was Anaxagoras, although he occasionally disagreed with him, and Archelaus the teacher of Socrates. Diocles adds that he used to train his friends in committing his treatises to memory, Apollodorus in his Chronology tells us that our philosopher was a pupil of Nausiphanes and Praxiplianes; but in his letter to Eurylochus, Epicurus himself denies it and says that he was self-taught. Both Epicurus and Hermarcbus deny the very existence of I,eucippus the philosopher, though by some and by Apollodorus the Epicurean he is said to have been the teacher of Democritus. Demetrius the Magnesian affirms that Epicurus also attended the lectures of Xenocrates.
“Ariston says in his Life of Epicurus that he derived his work entitled The Canon from the Tripod of Nausiphanes, adding that Epicurus had been a pupil of this man as well as of the Platonist Pamphilus in Samos. Further, that he began to study philosophy when he was twelve years old, and started his own school at thirty-two.
“He was born, according to Apollodorus in his Chronology, in the third year of the 109th Olympiad, in the archonship of Sosigenes, on the seventh day of the month Gamelion, in the seventh year after the death of Plato [February 4th, 341 B.C.]. When he was thirty-two he founded a school of philosophy, first in Mitylene and Lampsacus, and then five years later removed to Athens, where he died in the second year of the 127th Olympiad, in the archonship of Pytharatus, at the age of seventy-two [270 B.C,]; and Hermarchus the son of Agemortus, a Mitylenaean, took over the Garden. Epicurus died of renal calculus after an illness which lasted a fortnight; so Hermarchus tells us in his letters. Hermippus relates that he entered a bronze bath of lukewarm water and asked for unmixed wine, which he swallowed, and then, having bidden his friends remember his doctrines, breathed his last.
Stoics Claim Epicurus Hung Out with Courtesans and His Brother was a Pimp
Diogenes Laertius (A.D. 180-240 )wrote in “The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers”: “Posidonius the Stoic and his school, and Nicolaus and Sotion in the twelfth of twenty-four books of his work entitled Dioclean Refutations, also by Dionysius of Halicarnassus... allege that he used to go round with his mother to small cottages to perform purification rites and read charms, and assist his father in his school for a pitiful fee; further, that one of his brothers was a pimp and lived with the courtesan Leontion [“Lioness”]; that he put forward as his own the doctrines of Democritus about atoms and of Aristippus about pleasure; that he was not a genuine Athenian, a charge brought by Timocrates and by Herodotus in a book On the Training of Epicurus as a Cadet, that he basely flattered Mithras, the viceroy of Lysimachus, bestowing on him in his letters Apollo's titles of “Healer” and “Lord.” [Source: Diogenes Laërtius: “The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers Book X; Epicurus”, A.D. early 3rd century, translated by C.D. Yonge (London: George Bell & Sons, 1895)]
“They further charged that he extolled Idomeneus, Herodotus, and Timocrates, who had published his esoteric doctrines, and flattered them for that very reason. Also that in his letters he wrote to Leontion: “0 Lord Apollo, my dear little Leontion, with what tumultuous applause we were inspired as we read your letter.” Then again to Themista, the wife of Leonteus: “I am quite ready, if you do not come to see me, to roll around three times on my own axis and be propelled to any place that you, including Themista, agree upon”; and to the beautiful Pythocles he wrote: “I will sit quiet and await with desire your god-like coming” and, as Theodorus says in the fourth book of his work, Against Epicurus, in another letter to Themista he thinks he preaches to her.
“It is added that he corresponded with many courtesans, and especially with Leontion, of whom Metrodorus also was enamored. It is observed too that in his treatise On the Ethical End he writes in these terms : “I know not how to conceive the good, apart from the pleasures of taste, of sex, of sound, and the pleasures of beautiful form.” and in his letter to Pythocles: “Hoist all sail, my dear boy, and steer clear of all indoctrination.”. Epictetus calls him preacher of effeminacy and showers abuse on him.
“Again there was Timocrates, the brother of Metrodorus, who was his student and then left the school. In the book Merry Guests he asserts that Epicurus vomited twice a day from over-indulgence, and goes on to say that he himself had great difficulty in escaping from those notorious midnight philosophizings and the confraternity with all its secrets; further, that Epicurus's understanding of philosophy was small and his understanding of life even smaller; that his bodily health was pitiful, so much so that for many years he was unable to rise from his chair; and that he spent a whole mina daily on his meals, as he himself says in his letter to Leontion and in that to the philosophers at Mitylene.
“Also that among other courtesans who consorted with him and Metrodorus were Mammarion and Hedia and Erotion and Nikidion. He alleges too that in his thirty-seven books On Nature Epicurus says the same things over and over again and writes largely in sheer opposition to others, especially against Nausiphanes.
“Here are his own words: “Nay, let them go hang: for, when laboring with an idea, he too had the sophist's off-hand boastfulness like many another servile soul.” Besides, he himself in his letters says of Nausiphanes: “This so maddened him that he abused me and called me pedagogue.” Epicurus used to call this Nausiphanes jellyfish, an illiterate, a fraud, and a trollop; Plato's school he called “the toadies of Dionysius,” their master himself the “golden” Plato, and Aristotle a profligate, who after devouring his patrimony took to soldiering and selling drugs; Protagoras a porter and the secretary of Democritus and village school-teacher; Heraclitus a muddler; Democritus Lerocritus [“trifler”]; and Antidorus Sannidorus [“flattering gift-bearer”]; the Cynics enemies of Greece; the Dialecticians consumed with envy; and Pyrrho [the Skeptic] an ignorant boor.
“But these people are stark mad. For our philosopher has numerous witnesses to attest his unsurpassed goodwill to all men—his native land, which honored him with statues in bronze; his friends, so many in number that they could hardly be counted by whole cities, and indeed all who knew him, held fast as they were by the siren-charms of his doctrine, save Metrodorus of Stratonicea, who went over to Carneades, being perhaps burdened by his master's excessive goodness; the Garden itself which, while nearly all the others have died out, continues for ever without interruption through numberless successions of one director after another; his gratitude to his parents, his generosity to his brothers, his gentleness to his servants, as evidenced by the terms of his will and by the fact that they were members of the Garden, the most eminent of them being the aforesaid Mys; and in general, his benevolence to all mankind. His piety towards the gods and his affection for his country no words can describe. He carried his modesty to such an excess that he did not even enter public life.”
Diogenes Laërtius wrote: “Among his disciples, of whom there were many, the following were eminent: Metrodorus, the son of Athenaeus (or of Timocrates) and of Sande, a citizen of Lampsacus, who from his first acquaintance with Epicurus never left him except once for six months spent on a visit to his native place, from which he returned to him again. His goodness was proved in all ways, as Epicurus testifies in the introductions to his works and in the third book of the Timocrates. Such he was: he gave his sister Batis to Idomeneus to wife, and himself took Leontion the Athenian courtesan as his concubine. He showed dauntless courage in meeting troubles and death, as Epicurus declares in the first book of his memoir. [Source: Diogenes Laërtius: “The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers Book X; Epicurus”, A.D. early 3rd century, translated by C.D. Yonge (London: George Bell & Sons, 1895)]
“He died, we learn, seven years before Epicurus in his fifty-third year, and Epicurus himself in his will already cited clearly speaks of him as departed, and enjoins upon his executors to make provision for Metrodorus's children. The above-mentioned Timocrates also, the brother of Metrodorus and a giddy fellow, was another of his pupils. Metrodorus wrote the following works: “Against the Physicians”, “in three books”, “Of Sensations”, “Against Timocrates”, “Of Magnanimity”, “Of Epicurus's Weak Health”, “Against the Dialecticians”, “Against the Sophists”, “in nine books”, “The Way to Wisdom”, “Of Change”, “Of Wealth”, “In Criticism of Democritus”, “Of Noble Birth”.
“Next came Polyaenus, son of Athenodorus, a citizen of Lampsacus, a just and kindly man, as Philodemus and his pupils affirm. Next came Epicurus's successor Hermarchus, son of Agemortus, a citizen of Mitylene, the son of a poor man and at the outset a student of rhetoric. There are in circulation the following excellent works by him:“Correspondence concerning Empedocles, in twenty-two books”, “Of Mathematics”, “Against Plato”, “Against Aristotle”. He died of paralysis, but not till he had given full proof of his ability.
“And then there is Leonteus of Lampsacus and his wife Themista, to whom Epicurus wrote letters; further, Colotes and Idomeneus, who were also natives of Lampsacus. All these were distinguished, and with them Polystratus, the successor of Hermarchus; he was succeeded by Dionysius, and he by Basilides. Apollodorus, known as the tyrant of the garden, who wrote over four hundred books, is also famous; and the two Ptolemaei of Alexandria, the one black and the other white; and Zeno of Sidon, the pupil of Apollodorus, a voluminous author; and Demetrius, who was called the Laconian; and Diogenes of Tarsus, who compiled the select lectures; and Orion, and others whom the genuine Epicureans call Sophists.
“There were three other men who bore the name of Epicurus: one the son of Leonteus and Themista; another a Magnesian by birth; and a third, a drill-sergeant.
Diogenes Laërtius wrote: ““Epicurus was a most prolific author and eclipsed all before him in the number of his writings: for they amount to about three hundred rolls, and contain not a single citation from other authors; it is Epicurus himself who speaks throughout. Chrysippus [the Stoic] tried to outdo him in authorship according to Carneades, who therefore calls him the literarv parasite of Epicurus: “For every subject treated by Epicurus, Cbrysippus in his contentiousness must treat at equal length; hence he has frequently repeated himself and set down the first thought that occurred to him, and in his haste has left things unrevised, and he has so many citations that they alone fill his books nor is this unexampled in Zeno and Aristotle.”[Source: Diogenes Laërtius: “The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers Book X; Epicurus”, A.D. early 3rd century, translated by C.D. Yonge (London: George Bell & Sons, 1895)]
“Such, then, in number and character are the writings of Epicurus, the best of which are the following: “Of Nature, thirty-seven books”, “Of Atoms and Void”, “Of Love”, “Epitome of Objections to the Physicists”, “Against the Megarians”, “Problems”, “Principal Doctrines”, “Of Choice and Avoidance”, “Of the End”, “Of the Standard”, “or Canon”, “Chaeredemus”, “Of the Gods”, “Of Piety”, “Hegesianax”, “Of Human Life”, “four books”, “Of Just Dealing”, “Neocles—dedicated to Themista”, “Symposium”, “Eurylochus—dedicated to Metrodorus”, “Of Vision”, “Of the Angle in the Atom”, “Of Touch”, “Of Fate”, “Theories of the Feelings—against Timocrates”, “Discovery of the Future”, “Introduction to Philosophy”, “Of Images”, “Of Presentation”, “Aristobulus”, “Of Music”, “Of Justice and the other Virtues”, “Of Benefits and Gratitude”, “Polymedes”, “Timocrates”, “three books”, “Metrodorus”, “five books”, “Antidorus”, “two books”, “Theories about Diseases
Tim O'Keefe of Georgia State University wrote in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Epicurus believes that the basic constituents of the world are atoms (which are uncuttable, microscopic bits of matter) moving in the void (which is simply empty space). Ordinary objects are conglomerations of atoms. Furthermore, the properties of macroscopic bodies and all of the events we see occurring can be explained in terms of the collisions, reboundings, and entanglements of atoms. [Source: Tim O'Keefe, Georgia State University, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) <^>]
“Epicurus' metaphysics starts from two simple points: (1) we see that there are bodies in motion, and (2) nothing comes into existence from what does not exist. Epicurus takes the first point to be simply a datum of experience. The second point is a commonplace of ancient Greek philosophy, derived from the Principle of Sufficient Reason (the principle that for everything which occurs there is a reason or explanation for why it occurs, and why this way rather than that). <^>
“First, because bodies move, there must be empty space for them to move in, and Epicurus calls this empty space 'void.' Second, the ordinary bodies that we see are compound bodies--that is, bodies which are made up of further bodies, which is shown by the fact that they can be broken down into smaller pieces. However, Epicurus thinks that this process of division cannot go on indefinitely, because otherwise bodies would dissolve away into nothing. Also, there must be basic and unchangeable building blocks of matter in order to explain the regularities in nature. These non-compound bodies are atoms--literally, 'uncuttables.' Only bodies and void exist per se, that is, exist without depending for their existence on something else. Other things--such as colors, time, and justice--are ultimately explicable as attributes of bodies. <^>
“Because Epicurus believes that nothing comes into existence from nothing, he thinks that the universe has no beginning, but has always existed, and will always exist. Atoms, too, as the basic building blocks of all else, cannot come into existence, but have always existed. Our particular cosmos, however, is only a temporary agglomeration of atoms, and it is only one of an infinite number of such cosmoi, which come into existence and then dissolve away. Against Aristotle, Epicurus argues that the universe is unlimited in size. If the universe were limited in size, says Epicurus, you could go to the end of it, stick your fist out, and where your fist was located would be the new 'limit' of the universe. Of course, this process could be reiterated an endless number of times. Since the universe is unlimited in size, there must also be an unlimited number of atoms and an infinite amount of void. If the number of atoms were limited, then the 'density' of atoms in any region would effectively be zero, and there would be no macroscopic bodies, as there evidently are. And there must be an unlimited amount of void, since without a limitless amount of void, the infinite number of atoms would be unable to move. <^>
Diogenes Laërtius wrote: “Now in The Canon Epicurus affirms that our sensations and preconceptions and our feelings are the standards of truth; the Epicureans generally make perceptions of mental presentations to be also standards. His own statements are also to be found in the Summary addressed to Herodotus and in the Principal Doctrines. Every sensation, he says, is devoid of reason and incapable of memory; for neither is it self-caused nor, regarded as having an external cause, can it add anything thereto or take anything therefrom. [Source: Diogenes Laërtius: “The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers Book X; Epicurus”, A.D. early 3rd century, translated by C.D. Yonge (London: George Bell & Sons, 1895)]
“Nor is there anything which can refute sensations or convict them of error: one sensation cannot convict another and kindred sensation, for they are equally valid; nor can one sensation refute another which is not kindred but heterogeneous, for the objects which the two senses judge are not the same; nor again can reason refute them, for reason is wholly dependent on sensation; nor can one sense refute another, since we pay equal heed to all. And the reality of separate perceptions guarantees the truth of our senses. But seeing and hearing are just as real as feeling pain.
“Hence it is from plain facts that we must start when we draw inferences about the unknown. For all our notions are derived from perceptions, either by actual contact or by analogy, or resemblance, or composition, with some slight aid from reasoning. Even the objects presented to madmen and to people in dreams are true, for they produce effects—i.e. movements in the mind—which that which is unreal never does.
“By preconception they mean a sort of apprehension or a right opinion or notion, or universal idea stored in the mind; that is, a recollection of an external object often presented, e.g. Such and such a thing is a man: for no sooner is the word “man” uttered than we think of his shape by an act of preconception, in which the senses take the lead. Thus, the object primarily denoted by every term is then plain and clear. And we should never have started an investigation, unless we had known what it was that we were in search of.
“For example: The object standing yonder is a horse or a cow. Before making this judgment, we must at some time or other have known by preconception the shape of a horse or a cow. We should not have given anything a name, if we had not first learnt its form by way of preconception. It follows, then, that preconceptions are clear.
“The object of a judgment is derived from something previously clear, by reference to which we frame the proposition, e.g. “How do we know that this is a man?” Opinion they also call conception or assumption, and declare it to be true and false; for it is true if it is subsequently confirmed or if it is not contradicted by evidence, and false if it is not subsequently confirmed or is contradicted by evidence. Hence the introduction of the phrase, “that which awaits” confirmation, e.g. to wait and get close to the tower and then learn what it looks like at close quarters.
“They affirm that there are two states of feeling, pleasure and pain, which arise in every animate being, and that the one is favorable and the other hostile to that being, and by their means choice and avoidance are determined; and that there are two kinds of inquiry, the one concerned with things, the other with nothing but words. So much, then, for his division and criterion in their main outline.
Physics in Epicureanism
According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “One of the great achievements of the scientific imagination, the Epicurean cosmos is based on three fundamental principles: materialism, mechanism, and atomism. According to Epicurus the universe covers an infinitude of space and consists entirely of matter and void. For the most part the philosopher upholds Democritus' theory that all matter is composed of imperishable atoms, tiny indivisible particles that can neither be created or destroyed. He also shares Democritus' view that the atoms are infinite in number and homogenous in substance, while differing in shape and size. However, whereas Democritus held that the number of atomic sizes and shapes is infinite, Epicurus argued that their number, while large, is nevertheless finite. (As Lucretius notes, if atoms could be any size, some would be visible, and possibly even immense.) As for atomic motion, Democritus had claimed that the atoms move in straight lines in all directions and always in accordance with the iron laws of "necessity" (anangke). Epicurus, on the other hand, contends that their natural motion is to travel straight downwards at a uniform high velocity. At random and unpredictable moments, moreover, they deviate ever so slightly from their regular course, their resulting collisions thus occurring not by strict necessity but always with some element of chance. This theory of atomic "swerve" or clinamen is a crucial feature of the Epicurean world-view, providing (so Lucretius and other adherents believed) a firm physical foundation supporting the existence of free will. <^>
“Armed with these basic principles, Epicurus is able to explain the universe as an ongoing cosmic event - a never-ending binding and unbinding of atoms resulting in the gradual emergence of entire new worlds and the gradual disintegration of old ones. Our world, our bodies, our minds are but atoms in motion. They did not occur because of some purpose or final cause. Nor were they created by some god for our special use and benefit. They simply happened, more or less randomly and entirely naturally, through the effective operation of immutable and eternal physical laws. <^>
“Here it should be noted that Epicurus is a materialist, not an atheist. Although he argues that not only our earth and all its life forms, but also all human civilizations and arts came into being and evolved without any aid or sponsorship from the gods, he does not deny their existence. He merely denies that they have any knowledge of or interest in human affairs. They live on immune to destruction in their perfectly compounded material bodies in the serene and cloudless spaces between the worlds (intermundia), perfectly oblivious of human anxieties and cares. Lucretius imagines that Epicurus rivaled them in their divine tranquility.
Swerve and Sensible Qualities: How Epicureanism Differs From Democritus’s Atomism
The swerve is a central concept in Epicurean physics. John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: If all matter is made of atoms, and if atoms move through the void according to their own fixed laws, then everything that happens to us is predestined. But, Delattre explained, “There would be no freedom, and for Epicurus we are free, so he wanted to introduce the possibility of this slight deviation.” Sometimes the atoms swerve slightly out of their natural trajectory, causing unplanned collisions with unpredictable consequences—not unlike what particles actually do in a synchrotron. (The particle accelerator is an Epicurean invention.) “Lucretius calls this the clinamen, which means ‘deviation’ in Latin—the atoms’ tendency to change direction slightly,” Delattre added. On a vast scale, this creates an inherently unpredictable universe in which man freely chooses his own path. [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker , November 16, 2015 \=/]
Tim O'Keefe of Georgia State University wrote in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Up to this point, Epicurus is largely following the thought of Democritus, a pre-Socratic philosopher and one of the inventors of atomism. However, he modifies Democritus' atomism in at least three important ways. The first is that Epicurus thinks that atoms have weight. Like Democritus, Epicurus believes that atoms have the properties of size, shape, and resistance. Democritus explains all atomic motion as the result of previous atomic collisions, plus the inertia of atoms. Aristotle, however, criticizes Democritus on this point, saying that Democritus has not explained why it is that atoms move at all, rather than simply standing still. Epicurus seems to be answering this criticism when he says that atoms do have a natural motion of direction--'downward'--even though there is no bottom to the universe. This natural motion is supposed to give an explanation for why atoms move in the first place. Also, Epicurus thinks that it is evident that bodies do tend to travel down, all else being equal, and he thinks that positing weight as an atomic property accounts for this better than thinking all atomic motion is the result of past collisions and inertia. <^> [Source: Tim O'Keefe, Georgia State University, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) <^>]
“The second modification of Democritus' views is the addition of the 'swerve.' In addition to the regular tendency of atoms to move downward, Epicurus thinks that occasionally, and at random times, the atoms swerve to the side. One reason for this swerve is that it is needed to explain why there are atomic collisions. The natural tendency of atoms is to fall straight downward, at uniform velocity. If this were the only natural atomic motion, the atoms never would have collided with one another, forming macroscopic bodies. As Lucretius puts it, they would 'fall downward, like drops of rain, through the deep void.' The second reason for thinking that atoms swerve is that a random atomic motion is needed to preserve human freedom and 'break the bonds of fate,' as Lucretius says. If the laws of atomic motion are deterministic, then the past positions of the atoms in the universe, plus these laws, determine everything that will occur, including human action. Cicero reports that Epicurus worries that, if it has been true from eternity that, e.g., "Milo will wrestle tomorrow," then presently deliberating about whether to make it true or false would be idle. <^>
“The third difference between Epicurus and Democritus has to do with their attitudes toward the reality of sensible properties. Democritus thinks that, in reality, only atoms and the void exist, and that sensible qualities such as sweetness, whiteness, and the like exist only 'by convention.' It is controversial exactly how to understand Democritus' position, but most likely he is asserting that atoms themselves have no sensible qualities--they are simply extended bits of stuff. The sensible qualities that we think bodies have, like sweetness, are not really in the object at all, but are simply subjective states of the percipient's awareness produced by the interaction of bodies with our sense-organs. This is shown, thinks Democritus, by the fact that the same body appears differently to different percipients depending on their bodily constitution, e.g., that a 'white' body appears yellow to somebody with jaundice, or that honey tastes bitter to an ill person. From this, Democritus derives skeptical conclusions. He is pessimistic about our ability to gain any knowledge about the world on the basis of our senses, since they systematically deceive us about the way the world is. <^>
“Epicurus wants to resist these pessimistic conclusions. He argues that properties like sweetness, whiteness, and such do not exist at the atomic level--individual atoms are not sweet or white--but that these properties are nonetheless real. These are properties of macroscopic bodies, but the possession of these properties by macroscopic bodies are explicable in terms of the properties of and relations amongst the individual atoms that make up bodies. Epicurus thinks that bodies have the capability to cause us to have certain types of experiences because of their atomic structure, and that such capabilities are real properties of the bodies. Similar considerations apply for properties like "being healthy," "being deadly," and "being enslaved." They are real, but can only apply to groups of atoms (like people), not individual atoms. And these sorts of properties are also relational properties, not intrinsic ones. For example, cyanide is deadly--not deadly per se, but deadly for human beings (and perhaps for other types of organisms). Nonetheless, its deadliness for us is still a real property of the cyanide, albeit a relational one.
Epicurus’s Philosophy of Mind
Tim O'Keefe of Georgia State University wrote in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Epicurus is one of the first philosophers to put forward an Identity Theory of Mind. In modern versions of the identity theory, the mind is identified with the brain, and mental processes are identified with neural processes. Epicurus' physiology is quite different; the mind is identified as an organ that resides in the chest, since the common Greek view was that the chest, not the head, is the seat of the emotions. However, the underlying idea is quite similar. (Note: not all commentators accept that Epicurus' theory is actually an Identity Theory.) [Source: Tim O'Keefe, Georgia State University, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) <^>]
“The main point that Epicurus wants to establish is that the mind is something bodily. The mind must be a body, thinks Epicurus, because of its ability to interact with the body. The mind is affected by the body, as vision, drunkenness, and disease show. Likewise, the mind affects the body, as our ability to move our limbs when we want to and the physiological effects of emotional states show. Only bodies can interact with other bodies, so the mind must be a body. Epicurus says that the mind cannot be something incorporeal, as Plato thinks, since the only thing that is not a body is void, which is simply empty space and cannot act or be acted upon. <^>
“The mind, then, is an organ in the body, and mental processes are identified with atomic processes. The mind is composed of four different types of particles--fire, air, wind, and the "nameless element," which surpasses the other particles in its fineness. Although Epicurus is reticent about the details, some features of the mind are accounted for in terms of the features of these atoms--for instance, the mind is able to be moved a great deal by the impact of an image (which is something quite flimsy), because of the smallness of the particles that make up the mind. The mind proper, which is primarily responsible for sensation and thought, is located in the chest, but Epicurus thinks that there is also a 'spirit,' spread throughout the rest of the body, which allows the mind to communicate with it. The mind and spirit play roles very similar to those of the central and peripheral nervous systems in modern theory. <^>
“One important result of Epicurus' philosophy of mind is that death is annihilation. The mind is able to engage in the motions of sensation and thought only when it is housed in the body and the atoms that make it up are properly arranged. Upon death, says Epicurus, the container of the body shatters, and the atoms disperse in the air. The atoms are eternal, but the mind made up of these atoms is not, just as other compound bodies cease to exist when the atoms that make them up disperse.
Tim O'Keefe of Georgia State University wrote in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Epicurus' ethics is a form of egoistic hedonism; i.e., he says that the only thing that is intrinsically valuable is one's own pleasure; anything else that has value is valuable merely as a means to securing pleasure for oneself. However, Epicurus has a sophisticated and idiosyncratic view of the nature of pleasure, which leads him to recommend a virtuous, moderately ascetic life as the best means to securing pleasure. This contrasts Epicurus strongly with the Cyrenaics, a group of ancient hedonists who better fit the stereotype of hedonists as recommending a policy of "eat, drink, and be merry." [Source: Tim O'Keefe, Georgia State University, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) <^>]
“Epicurus' ethics starts from the Aristotelian commonplace that the highest good is what is valued for its own sake, and not for the sake of anything else, and Epicurus agrees with Aristotle that happiness is the highest good. However, he disagrees with Aristotle by identifying happiness with pleasure. Epicurus gives two reasons for this. The main reason is that pleasure is the only thing that people do, as a matter of fact, value for its own sake; that is, Epicurus' ethical hedonism is based upon his psychological hedonism. Everything we do, claims Epicurus, we do for the sake ultimately of gaining pleasure for ourselves. This is supposedly confirmed by observing the behavior of infants, who, it is claimed, instinctively pursue pleasure and shun pain. This is also true of adults, thinks Epicurus, but in adults it is more difficult to see that this is true, since adults have much more complicated beliefs about what will bring them pleasure. But the Epicureans did spend a great deal of energy trying to make plausible the contention that all activity, even apparently self-sacrificing activity or activity done solely for the sake of virtue or what is noble, is in fact directed toward obtaining pleasure for oneself. <^>
“The second proof, which fits in well with Epicurus' empiricism, supposedly lies in one's introspective experience. One immediately perceives that pleasure is good and that pain is bad, in the same way that one immediately perceives that fire is hot; no further argument is needed to show the goodness of pleasure or the badness of pain. (Of course, this does not establish Epicurus' further contention that only pleasure is intrinsically valuable and only pain is intrinsically bad.) <^>
“Although all pleasures are good and all pains evil, Epicurus says that not all pleasures are choiceworthy or all pains to be avoided. Instead, one should calculate what is in one's long-term self-interest, and forgo what will bring pleasure in the short-term if doing so will ultimately lead to greater pleasure in the long-term.” <^>
Epicurean View of the Wise Man
Diogenes Laërtius wrote: “Let me go into the views of Epicurus himself and his school concerning the wise man. There are three motives to injurious acts among men—hatred, envy, and contempt; and these the wise man overcomes by reason. Moreover, he who has once become wise never more assumes the opposite habit, not even in semblance, if he can help it. He will be more susceptible of emotion than other men: that will be no hindrance to his wisdom. However, not every bodily constitution nor every nationality would permit a man to become wise. Even on the rack the wise man is happy. He alone will feel gratitude towards friends, present and absent alike, and show it by word and deed. When on the rack, however, he will give vent to cries and groans. As regards women he will submit to the restrictions imposed by the law, as Diogenes says in his epitome of Epicurus' ethical doctrines. Nor will he punish his servants; rather he will pity them and make allowance on occasion for those who are of good character. [Source: Diogenes Laërtius: “The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers Book X; Epicurus”, A.D. early 3rd century, translated by C.D. Yonge (London: George Bell & Sons, 1895)]
“Epicureans do not suffer the wise man to fall in love; nor will he trouble himself about funeral rites; according to them love does not come by divine inspiration: so Diogenes in his twelfth book. The wise man will not make fine speeches. No one was ever the better for sexual indulgence, and it is well if he be not the worse. Nor, again, will the wise man marry and rear a family—so Epicurus says in the Problems and in the On Nature. Occasionally he may marry owing to special circumstances in his life. Some too will turn aside from their purpose. Nor will he drivel, when drunken: so Epicurus says in the Symposium. Nor will he take part in politics, as is stated in the first book On Life; nor will he make himself a tyrant; nor will he turn Cynic (so the second book On Life tells us); nor will he be a mendicant.
“But even when he has lost his sight, he will not withdraw himself from life: this is stated in the same book. The wise man will also feel grief, according to Diogenes in the fifth book of his Epilecta. And be will take a suit into court. He will leave written words behind him, but will not compose panegyric. He will have regard to his property and to the future. He will be fond of the country. He will be armed against fortune and will never give up a friend. He will pay just so much regard to his reputation as not to be looked down upon. He will take more delight than other men in public festivals.
“The wise man will set up votive images. Whether he is well off or not will be matter of indifference to him. Only the wise man will be able to converse correctly about music and poetry, without however actually writing poems himself. One wise man does not move more wisely than another. And he will make money, but only by his wisdom, if he should be in poverty, and he will pay court to a king, if need be. He will be grateful to anyone when he is corrected.
“He will found a school, but not in such a manner as to draw the crowd after him; and will give readings in public, but only by request. He will be a dogmatist but not a mere skeptic; and he will be like himself even when asleep. And he will on occasion die for a friend. The school holds that sins are not all equal; that health is in some cases a good, in others a thing indifferent; that courage is not a natural gift but comes from calculation of expediency; and that friendship is prompted by our needs. One of the friends, however, must make the first advances (just as we have to cast seed into the earth), but it is maintained by a partnership in the enjoyment of life's pleasures. Two sorts of happiness can be conceived, the one the highest possible, such as the gods enjoy, which cannot be augmented, the other admitting addition and subtraction of pleasures.
Epicurus on Pleasure and Desire
Tim O'Keefe of Georgia State University wrote in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “For Epicurus, pleasure is tied closely to satisfying one's desires. He distinguishes between two different types of pleasure: 'moving' pleasures and 'static' pleasures. 'Moving' pleasures occur when one is in the process of satisfying a desire, e.g., eating a hamburger when one is hungry. These pleasures involve an active titillation of the senses, and these feelings are what most people call 'pleasure.' However, Epicurus says that after one's desires have been satisfied, (e.g., when one is full after eating), the state of satiety, of no longer being in need or want, is itself pleasurable. Epicurus calls this a 'static' pleasure, and says that these static pleasures are the best pleasures. [Source: Tim O'Keefe, Georgia State University, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) <^>]
“Because of this, Epicurus denies that there is any intermediate state between pleasure and pain. When one has unfulfilled desires, this is painful, and when one no longer has unfulfilled desires, this steady state is the most pleasurable of all, not merely some intermediate state between pleasure and pain. <^>
“Epicurus also distinguishes between physical and mental pleasures and pains. Physical pleasures and pains concern only the present, whereas mental pleasures and pains also encompass the past (fond memories of past pleasure or regret over past pain or mistakes) and the future (confidence or fear about what will occur). The greatest destroyer of happiness, thinks Epicurus, is anxiety about the future, especially fear of the gods and fear of death. If one can banish fear about the future, and face the future with confidence that one's desires will be satisfied, then one will attain tranquility (ataraxia), the most exalted state. In fact, given Epicurus' conception of pleasure, it might be less misleading to call him a 'tranquillist' instead of a 'hedonist.'
“Because of the close connection of pleasure with desire-satisfaction, Epicurus devotes a considerable part of his ethics to analyzing different kinds of desires. If pleasure results from getting what you want (desire-satisfaction) and pain from not getting what you want (desire-frustration), then there are two strategies you can pursue with respect to any given desire: you can either strive to fulfill the desire, or you can try to eliminate the desire. For the most part Epicurus advocates the second strategy, that of paring your desires down to a minimum core, which are then easily satisfied. <^>
“Epicurus distinguishes between three types of desires: natural and necessary desires, natural but non-necessary desires, and "vain and empty" desires. Examples of natural and necessary desires include the desires for food, shelter, and the like. Epicurus thinks that these desires are easy to satisfy, difficult to eliminate (they are 'hard-wired' into human beings naturally), and bring great pleasure when satisfied. Furthermore, they are necessary for life, and they are naturally limited: that is, if one is hungry, it only takes a limited amount of food to fill the stomach, after which the desire is satisfied. Epicurus says that one should try to fulfill these desires. <^>
“Vain desires include desires for power, wealth, fame, and the like. They are difficult to satisfy, in part because they have no natural limit. If one desires wealth or power, no matter how much one gets, it is always possible to get more, and the more one gets, the more one wants. These desires are not natural to human beings, but inculcated by society and by false beliefs about what we need; e.g., believing that having power will bring us security from others. Epicurus thinks that these desires should be eliminated. <^>
“An example of a natural but non-necessary desire is the desire for luxury food. Although food is needed for survival, one does not need a particular type of food to survive. Thus, despite his hedonism, Epicurus advocates a surprisingly ascetic way of life. Although one shouldn't spurn extravagant foods if they happen to be available, becoming dependent on such goods ultimately leads to unhappiness. As Epicurus puts it, "If you wish to make Pythocles wealthy, don't give him more money; rather, reduce his desires." By eliminating the pain caused by unfulfilled desires, and the anxiety that occurs because of the fear that one's desires will not be fulfilled in the future, the wise Epicurean attains tranquility, and thus happiness.
Epicurus on Virtues, Friendship and Justice
Tim O'Keefe of Georgia State University wrote in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Epicurus' hedonism was widely denounced in the ancient world as undermining traditional morality. Epicurus, however, insists that courage, moderation, and the other virtues are needed in order to attain happiness. However, the virtues for Epicurus are all purely instrumental goods--that is, they are valuable solely for the sake of the happiness that they can bring oneself, not for their own sake. Epicurus says that all of the virtues are ultimately forms of prudence, of calculating what is in one's own best interest. In this, Epicurus goes against the majority of Greek ethical theorists, such as the Stoics, who identify happiness with virtue, and Aristotle, who identifies happiness with a life of virtuous activity. Epicurus thinks that natural science and philosophy itself also are instrumental goods. Natural science is needed in order to give mechanistic explanations of natural phenomena and thus dispel the fear of the gods, while philosophy helps to show us the natural limits of our desires and to dispel the fear of death. [Source: Tim O'Keefe, Georgia State University, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) <^>]
“Epicurus is one of the first philosophers to give a well-developed contractarian theory of justice. Epicurus says that justice is an agreement "neither to harm nor be harmed," and that we have a preconception of justice as "what is useful in mutual associations." People enter into communities in order to gain protection from the dangers of the wild, and agreements concerning the behavior of the members of the community are needed in order for these communities to function, e.g., prohibitions of murder, regulations concerning the killing and eating of animals, and so on. Justice exists only where there are such agreements. <^>
“Like the virtues, justice is valued entirely on instrumental grounds, because of its utility for each of the members of society. Epicurus says that the main reason not to be unjust is that one will be punished if one gets caught, and that even if one does not get caught, the fear of being caught will still cause pain. However, he adds that the fear of punishment is needed mainly to keep fools in line, who otherwise would kill, steal, etc. The Epicurean wise man recognizes the usefulness of the laws, and since he does not desire great wealth, luxury goods, political power, or the like, he sees that he has no reason to engage in the conduct prohibited by the laws in any case. <^>
“Although justice only exists where there is an agreement about how to behave, that does not make justice entirely 'conventional,' if by 'conventional' we mean that any behavior dictated by the laws of a particular society is thereby just, and that the laws of a particular society are just for that society. Since the 'justice contract' is entered into for the purpose of securing what is useful for the members of the society, only laws that are actually useful are just. Thus, a prohibition of murder would be just, but antimiscegenation laws would not. Since what is useful can vary from place to place and time to time, what laws are just can likewise vary.
“Epicurus values friendship highly and praises it in quite extravagant terms. He says that friendship "dances around the world" telling us that we must "wake to blessedness." He also says that the wise man is sometimes willing to die for a friend. Because of this, some scholars have thought that in this area, at least, Epicurus abandons his egoistic hedonism and advocates altruism toward friends. This is not clear, however. Epicurus consistently maintains that friendship is valuable because it is one of the greatest means of attaining pleasure. Friends, he says, are able to provide one another the greatest security, whereas a life without friends is solitary and beset with perils. In order for there to be friendship, Epicurus says, there must be trust between friends, and friends have to treat each other as well as they treat themselves. The communities of Epicureans can be seen as embodying these ideals, and these are ideals that ultimately promote ataraxia.
Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus
In “Letter to Menoeceus,” Epicurus summarizes his ethical doctrines: It reads: “Greeting, Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young nor weary in the search thereof when he is grown old. For no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul. And to say that the season for studying philosophy has not yet come, or that it is past and gone, is like saying that the season for happiness is not yet or that it is now no more. Therefore, both old and young ought to seek wisdom, the former in order that, as age comes over him, he may be young in good things because of the grace of what has been, and the latter in order that, while he is young, he may at the same time be old, because he has no fear of the things which are to come. So we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed toward attaining it. [Source: James Fieser, University of Tennessee at Martin, 1996, based on a Robert Drew Hicks's 1925 translation]
“Those things which without ceasing I have declared to you, those do, and exercise yourself in those, holding them to be the elements of right life. First believe that God is a living being immortal and happy, according to the notion of a god indicated by the common sense of humankind; and so of him anything that is at agrees not with about him whatever may uphold both his happyness and his immortality. For truly there are gods, and knowledge of them is evident; but they are not such as the multitude believe, seeing that people do not steadfastly maintain the notions they form respecting them. Not the person who denies the gods worshipped by the multitude, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them is truly impious. For the utterances of the multitude about the gods are not true preconceptions but false assumptions; hence it is that the greatest evils happen to the wicked and the greatest blessings happen to the good from the hand of the gods, seeing that they are always favorable to their own good qualities and take pleasure in people like to themselves, but reject as alien whatever is not of their kind.
“Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation of all awareness; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an unlimited time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terror; for those who thoroughly apprehend that there are no terrors for them in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the person who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer. But in the world, at one time people shun death as the greatest of all evils, and at another time choose it as a respite from the evils in life. The wise person does not deprecate life nor does he fear the cessation of life. The thought of life is no offense to him, nor is the cessation of life regarded as an evil. And even as people choose of food not merely and simply the larger portion, but the more pleasant, so the wise seek to enjoy the time which is most pleasant and not merely that which is longest. And he who admonishes the young to live well and the old to make a good end speaks foolishly, not merely because of the desirability of life, but because the same exercise at once teaches to live well and to die well. Much worse is he who says that it were good not to be born, but when once one is born to pass with all speed through the gates of Hades. For if he truly believes this, why does he not depart from life? It were easy for him to do so, if once he were firmly convinced. If he speaks only in mockery, his words are foolishness, for those who hear believe him not.
“We must remember that the future is neither wholly ours nor wholly not ours, so that neither must we count upon it as quite certain to come nor despair of it as quite certain not to come. We must also reflect that of desires some are natural, others are groundless; and that of the natural some are necessary as well as natural, and some natural only. And of the necessary desires some are necessary if we are to be happy, some if the body is to be rid of uneasiness, some if we are even to live. He who has a clear and certain understanding of these things will direct every preference and aversion toward securing health of body and tranquillity of mind, seeing that this is the sum and end of a happy life. For the end of all our actions is to be free from pain and fear, and, when once we have attained all this, the tempest of the soul is laid; seeing that the living creature has no need to go in search of something that is lacking, nor to look anything else by which the good of the soul and of the body will be fulfilled. When we are pained pleasure, then, and then only, do we feel the need of pleasure. For this reason we call pleasure the alpha and omega of a happy life. Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting-point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing. And since pleasure is our first and native good, for that reason we do not choose every pleasure whatever, but often pass over many pleasures when a greater annoyance ensues from them. And often we consider pains superior to pleasures when submission to the pains for a long time brings us as a consequence a greater pleasure. While therefore all pleasure because it is naturally akin to us is good, not all pleasure is worthy of choice, just as all pain is an evil and yet not all pain is to be shunned. It is, however, by measuring one against another, and by looking at the conveniences and inconveniences, teat all these matters must be judged. Sometimes we treat the good as an evil, and the evil, on the contrary, as a good. Again, we regard. independence of outward things as a great good, not so as in all cases to use little, but so as to be contented with little if we have not much, being honestly persuaded that they have the sweetest enjoyment of luxury who stand least in need of it, and that whatever is natural is easily procured and only the vain and worthless hard to win. Plain fare gives as much pleasure as a costly diet, when one the pain of want has been removed, while bread an water confer the highest possible pleasure when they are brought to hungry lips. To habituate one's se therefore, to simple and inexpensive diet supplies al that is needful for health, and enables a person to meet the necessary requirements of life without shrinking and it places us in a better condition when we approach at intervals a costly fare and renders us fearless of fortune.
“When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of merrymaking, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest disturbances take possession of the soul. Of all this the d is prudence. For this reason prudence is a more precious thing even than the other virtues, for ad a life of pleasure which is not also a life of prudence, honor, and justice; nor lead a life of prudence, honor, and justice, which is not also a life of pleasure. For the virtues have grown into one with a pleasant life, and a pleasant life is inseparable from them.
“Who, then, is superior in your judgment to such a person? He holds a holy belief concerning the gods, and is altogether free from the fear of death. He has diligently considered the end fixed by nature, and understands how easily the limit of good things can be reached and attained, and how either the duration or the intensity of evils is but slight. Destiny which some introduce as sovereign over all things, he laughs to scorn, affirming rather that some things happen of necessity, others by chance, others through our own agency. For he sees that necessity destroys responsibility and that chance or fortune is inconstant; whereas our own actions are free, and it is to them that praise and blame naturally attach. It were better, indeed, to accept the legends of the gods than to bow beneath destiny which the natural philosophers have imposed. The one holds out some faint hope that we may escape if we honor the gods, while the necessity of the naturalists is deaf to all entreaties. Nor does he hold chance to be a god, as the world in general does, for in the acts of a god there is no disorder; nor to be a cause, though an uncertain one, for he believes that no good or evil is dispensed by chance to people so as to make life happy, though it supplies the starting-point of great good and great evil. He believes that the misfortune of the wise is better than the prosperity of the fool. It is better, in short, that what is well judged in action should not owe its successful issue to the aid of chance.
“Exercise yourself in these and kindred precepts day and night, both by yourself and with him who is like to you; then never, either in waking or in dream, will you be disturbed, but will live as a god among people. For people lose all appearance of mortality by living in the midst of immortal blessings.
The following collection of maxims comes from “The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers” by Diogenes Laërtius, written c. A.D. 230. “1) That which is happy and imperishable, neither has trouble itself, nor does it cause it to anything; so that it is not subject to feelings of either anger or gratitude; for these feelings only exist in what is weak. 2) Death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved is devoid of sensation, and that which is devoid of sensation is nothing to us. 3) The limit of the greatness of the pleasures is the removal of everything which can give pain. And where pleasure is, as long as it lasts, that which gives pain, or that which feels pain, or both of them, are absent. 4) Pain does not abide continuously in the flesh, but its extremity. It is present only a very short time. That pain which only just exceeds the pleasure in the flesh, does not last many days. But long diseases have in them more that is pleasant than painful to the flesh. 5) It is not possible to live pleasantly without living prudently, and honorably, and justly; nor to live prudently, and honorably, and justly, without living pleasantly. But to whom it does not happen to live prudently, honorably, and justly cannot possibly live pleasantly. [Source: Then Again]
6 and 7) "For the sake of feeling confidence and security with regard to men, and not with reference to the nature of government and kingly power being a good, some men have wished to be eminent and powerful, in order that others might attain this feeling by their means; thinking that so they would secure safety as far as men are concerned. So that if the life of such men is safe, they have attained to the nature of good; but if it is not safe, then they have failed in obtaining that for the sake of which they originally desired power according to the order of nature. 13) Irresistible power and great wealth may, up to a certain point, give us security as far as men are concerned; the security of men in general depends upon both the tranquility of their souls, and their freedom from ambition. 15) The wise man is but little favored by fortune; but his reason procures him the greatest and most valuable goods, and these he does enjoy, and will enjoy the whole of his life.
“21) But reason, enabling us to conceive the end and dissolution of the body, and liberating us from the fears relative to eternity, procures for us all the happiness of which life is capable, so completely that we have no further occasion to include eternity in our desires. In this disposition of mind, man is happy even when his troubles engage him to quit life; and to die thus, is for him only to interrupt a life of happiness. 26) If you allow equal authority to the ideas which, being only inductive, require to be verified, and to those which bear about them an immediate certainty, you will not escape error; for you will be confounding doubtful opinions with those which are not doubtful, and true judgments with those of a different character. 28) Of all the things which wisdom provides for the happiness of the whole life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friendship. 29) The same opinion encourages man to trust that no evil will be everlasting, or even of long duration; as it sees that, in the space of life allotted to us, the protection of friendship is most sure and trustworthy.
“31) Those desires which do not lead to pain, if they are not satisfied, are not necessary. It is easy to impose silence on them when they appear difficult to gratify, or likely to produce injury. 33) Natural justice is a covenant of what is suitable, leading men to avoid injuring on another, and being injured. 34) Those animals which are unable to enter into an argument of this nature, or the guard against doing or sustaining mutual injury, have no such thing as justice or injustice. And the case is the same with those nations, the members of which are either unwilling or unable to enter into a covenant to respect their mutual interests. 35) Justice has no independent existence; it results from mutual contracts and establishes itself wherever there is a mutual engagement to guard against doing or sustaining mutual injury. 36) Injustice is not intrinsically bad; it has this character only because there is joined with it a fear of not escaping those who are appointed to punish actions marked with the character. 37) It is not possible for a man who secretly does anything in contravention of the agreement which men have made with one another, to guard against doing, or sustaining mutual injury, to believe that he shall always escape notice, even if he has escaped notices already then thousand times; for 'till his death, it is uncertain whether he will not be detected.
“38) In a general point of view, justice is the same thing to everyone; for there is something advantageous in mutual society. Nevertheless, the difference of place, and diverse other circumstances, make justice vary. 39) From the moment that a thing declared just by the law is generally recognized as useful for the mutual relations of men, it becomes really just, whether it is universally regarded as such or not. 40) But if, on the contrary, a thing established by law is not really useful for the social relations, then it is not just; and if that which was just, inasmuch as it was useful, loses this character, after having been for some time considered so, it is not less true that during that time, it was really just, at least for those who do not perplex themselves about vain words, but who prefer in every case, examining and judging for themselves.
“41) When, without any fresh circumstances arising, a thing which has been declared just in practice does not agree with the impressions of reason, that is a proof that the thing was not really just. In the same way, when in consequence of new circumstances, a thing which has been pronounced just does not any longer appear to agree with utility, the thing which was just, inasmuch as it was useful to the social relations and intercourse of mankind, ceases to be just the moment when it ceases to be useful. 42) He who desires to live tranquilly without having anything to fear from other men, ought to make himself friends; those whom he cannot make friends of, he should, at least avoid rendering enemies; and if that is not in his power, he should, as far as possible, avoid all intercourse with them, and keep them aloof, as far as it is for his interest to do so. 43) The happiest men are they who have arrived at the point of having nothing to fear from those who surround them. Such men live with one another most agreeable, having the firmest grounds of confidence in one another, enjoying the advantages of friendship in all their fullness, and not lamenting as a pitiable circumstance the premature death of their friends.
Epicurus on Death
Tim O'Keefe of Georgia State University wrote in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “One of the greatest fears that Epicurus tries to combat is the fear of death. Epicurus thinks that this fear is often based upon anxiety about having an unpleasant afterlife; this anxiety, he thinks, should be dispelled once one realizes that death is annihilation, because the mind is a group of atoms that disperses upon death....Epicurus adds that if death causes you no pain when you're dead, it's foolish to allow the fear of it to cause you pain now. [Source: Tim O'Keefe, Georgia State University, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) <^>]
“If death is annihilation, says Epicurus, then it is 'nothing to us.' Epicurus' main argument for why death is not bad is contained in the Letter to Menoeceus and can be dubbed the 'no subject of harm' argument. If death is bad, for whom is it bad? Not for the living, since they're not dead, and not for the dead, since they don't exist. His argument can be set out as follows:
“Death is annihilation.
The living have not yet been annihilated (otherwise they wouldn't be alive).
Death does not affect the living. (from 1 and 2)
So, death is not bad for the living. (from 3)
For something to be bad for somebody, that person has to exist, at least.
The dead do not exist. (from 1)
Therefore, death is not bad for the dead. (from 5 and 6)
Therefore death is bad for neither the living nor the dead. (from 4 and 7) <^>
Lucretius: Articulator of Epicurianism
Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus, c. 99—c. 55 B.C.) was a Roman poet and the author of the philosophical epic De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of the Universe), a comprehensive exposition of the Epicurean world-view. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Very little is known of the poet’s life, though a sense of his character and personality emerges vividly from his poem. The stress and tumult of his times stands in the background of his work and partly explains his personal attraction and commitment to Epicureanism, with its elevation of intellectual pleasure and tranquility of mind and its dim view of the world of social strife and political violence. His epic is presented in six books and undertakes a full and completely naturalistic explanation of the physical origin, structure, and destiny of the universe. Included in this presentation are theories of the atomic structure of matter and the emergence and evolution of life forms – ideas that would eventually form a crucial foundation and background for the development of western science. In addition to his literary and scientific influence, Lucretius has been a major source of inspiration for a wide range of modern philosophers, including Gassendi, Bergson, Spencer, Whitehead, and Teilhard de Chardin.” [Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) <^>]
Lucretius' “was an accomplished poet; he lived during the first century B.C. ; he was devoted to the teachings of Epicurus; and he apparently died before his magnum opus, De Rerum Natura, was completed. Almost everything else we know (or think we know) about this elusive figure is a matter of conjecture, rumor, legend, or gossip. Some scholars have imagined that this lack of information is the result of a sinister plot - a conspiracy of silence supposedly conducted by pious Roman and early Christian writers bent on suppressing the poet's anti-religious sentiments and materialist blasphemies. Yet perhaps more vexing for our understanding of Lucretius than any conspiracy of silence has been the single lurid item about his death that appears in a fourth century chronicle history by St. Jerome: ‘The poet Titus Lucretius is born. He was later driven mad by a love philtre and, having composed between bouts of insanity several books (which Cicero afterwards corrected), committed suicide at the age of 44.’ <^>
“Certainly the possibility that Lucretius (whose blistering, two hundred line denunciation of sexual love comprises one of the memorable highlights of the poem) may himself have fallen victim to a love potion is a superb irony. Unfortunately, there is not a shred of evidence to support the claim. Nor is it highly likely that Cicero (a skeptical-minded thinker with sympathies toward Stoicism) would have assisted to any large degree in the publication of an epic celebrating the Epicurean creed. As for the suggestion that Lucretius produced De Rerum Natura in lucid periods between intervals of raging insanity, the poem itself stands as a strong argument to the contrary. At the very least it must be considered improbable that a work of such scope and complexity, of such intellectual depth and sustained reasoning power, could have been the product of fitful composition and a diseased mind. <^>
“Fortunately, even if we dismiss Jerome's account as little more than an edifying fable and resign ourselves to the absence of even a scrap of reliable biographical information on Lucretius, there is still one source we can turn to for valuable insights into the poet's character, personality, and habits of mind, and that is De Rerum Natura itself. For although the poem tells us almost nothing about the day to day affairs of Lucretius the man, it nevertheless furnishes a large and revealing portrait of Lucretius the poet, philosopher, social commentator, critic of religion, and observer of the world. <^>
“Indeed one does not have to read very far into the poem to discover that not only is Lucretius a serious student of philosophy and science, but that above all he is a great poet of nature. He reveals himself as a lover of woods, fields, streams, and open spaces, acutely sensitive to the beauties of landscape and the march of seasons. He proves a keen observer of plants and animals and at least as knowledgeable and interested in crops, weather, soil, and horticulture as in the existence of gods or the motion of atoms. The preponderance of natural descriptions and images in the poem has led some readers to suppose that the author must have led some form of rural existence, perhaps as the owner of a country estate. True or not, it is clearly not the city, with its hurly-burly of commerce, money grubbing, social climbing, and political strife, but the quiet countryside with its contemplative retreats, solitude, and simple pleasures that inspires his poetry and (as was the case with his master Epicurus in his garden at Athens) his philosophical reveries. <^>
“It is generally assumed that the poet, as his name implies, was a member of the aristocratic clan of the Lucretii. On the other hand, it is also possible that he was a former slave and freedman of that same noble family. Support for the idea of his nobility comes in part from his suave command of learning and the polished mastery of his style, but mostly from the easy and natural way (friend to friend, rather than subordinate to superior) in which he addresses Memmius, his literary patron and the addressee of the poem. <^>
“Gaius Memmius was a Roman patrician who was at one time married to Sulla's daughter, Fausta. In 54 B.C. (one year after Lucretius' death), he stood for consul, but was defeated owing to an electoral violation, which he himself revealed but was afterwards condemned for. In 52 B.C. he went into exile at Athens, and it is unknown whether he ever returned to Rome. Lucretius dedicated his poem to him, and throughout the epic the poet is at pains to remind Memmius of the sweet rewards of the Epicurean lifestyle and the bitter tribulations of public life. No doubt it would have distressed the poet deeply to know that his chief literary sponsor, instead of following the lofty path to Epicurean tranquilitas, ended his career with a vain descent into the tarnishing world of power politics and personal ambition. <^>
“Literary tradition has supplied Lucretius with a wife, Lucilla. However, except for a line or two in the poem suggesting the author's personal familiarity with marital discord and the bedroom practices of "our Roman wives" (4. 1277), there is no evidence that he himself was ever married.
Italy during the First Century B.C.
According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “For the most part, the forty-four years of Lucretius' lifetime was a period of nearly non-stop violence: a time of civil wars, grueling overseas campaigns, political assassinations, massacres, revolts, conspiracies, mass executions, and social and economic chaos. Even a brief chronology of the times paints a grim picture of devastation, with each decade bearing witness to some new disturbance or uprising: [Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) <^>]
“100 B.C. : riots erupt in the streets of Rome; two public officials, the tribune L. Appuleius Saturninus and praetor C. Servilius Glaucia, are murdered. 91 B.C. : the so-called Social War (between Rome and her Italian allies) breaks out. No sooner is this bitter struggle ended (88 B.C.) than Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a ruthless politician and renegade army commander, marches on Rome, and an even more convulsive and bloody Civil War begins. 82 B.C. : Sulla becomes dictator. His infamous proscription results in the arrest and execution of more than 4000 leading citizens, including 40 senators. 71 B.C. : Spartacus' massive slave revolt (involving an army of 90,000 former slaves and outlaws) is finally put down by Cassius and Pompey. More than 6000 of the captured rebels are crucified and their bodies left for display along the Appian Way. 62 B.C. : Defeat and death of Catiline. By this point in his career this former lieutenant of Sulla had become a living plague upon Roman politics and a virtual byword for scandal, intrigue, conspiracy, demagoguery, and vain ambition.
“Such was Rome from the rise of Sulla to the fall of Catiline, a period of seemingly endless bloodshed and civil unrest. With such a background, it is little wonder that the precepts of Epicurus - with their emphasis on contemplative pursuits and quiet pleasures and severe strictures against ambition, fame, and the world of politics - struck a responsive chord in the heart of a young Roman poet. To a sensitive intellectual like Lucretius, the teachings of Epicurus must have had the force of a philosophical revelation. In this respect, it is noteworthy (and ironic) that throughout De Rerum Natura whenever the poet writes about Epicurus he praises him not simply as a great teacher and brilliant philosopher, but virtually as a kind of oracle and even a god. Meanwhile, he seems to have viewed his own role as that of an Epicurean evangelist: he is a poetic apostle dedicated to spreading the master's gospel of liberation from the bondage of superstition and error, of inner peace attained through the study of philosophy and the enjoyment of modest pleasures.
Lucretius' Personality and Outlook
According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Unlike his hero Epicurus, who had a reputation for being gentle and self-effacing, Lucretius' excitable personality springs vividly from his pages. Though naturally passionate and intellectually contentious, he also reveals himself as reflective and prone to melancholy. Like his master, he detests war, strife, and social tumult and favors a life quietly devoted to sweet friendship (suavis amicitia) and intellectual pleasures. [Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) <^>]
“At the beginning of Book 2 of his poem, the poet compares the prospect of a person armed with the insights of Epicurus to that of a secure spectator looking down upon a scene of strife:
Pleasant it is, when over the great sea the winds shake the waters,
To gaze down from shore on the trials of others;
Not because seeing other people struggle is sweet to us,
But because the fact that we ourselves are free from such ills strikes us as pleasant.
Pleasant it is also to behold great armies battling on a plain,
When we ourselves have no part in their peril.
But nothing is sweeter than to occupy a lofty sanctuary of the mind,
Well fortified with the teachings of the wise,
Where we may look down on others as they stumble along,
Vainly searching for the true path of life. . . . (2. 1-10) <^>
“This idea of philosophy as a private citadel or quiet refuge in a world of anxiety and turmoil, or of some form of contemplation as the true path to enlightenment, has been a recurrent theme in world literature from the Buddha to Boethius, from Socrates to Schopenhauer. The idea is a central component of Epicurean doctrine and a favorite theme and image of Lucretius, whose characteristic vantage point throughout the poem is that of a critical observer above the fray. As narrator, he stands aloof, a scornful yet at the same time sympathetic witness to mankind's dark strivings and tribulations:
Lo, see them: contending with their wits, fighting for precedence,
Struggling night and day with unending effort,Climbing, clawing their way up the pinnacles of wealth and power.
O miserable minds of men! O blind hearts!
In what darkness, among how many perils,
You pass your short lives! Do you not see
That our nature requires only this:
A body free from pain, and a mind, released from worry and fear,
Free to enjoy feelings of delight? (2. 11-19.) <^>
“Like his master, Lucretius obviously feels that the true purpose of moral philosophy is not merely to diagnose human miseries; but to heal them.
Lucretius on Epicurus
According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “From the very start of the poem, and especially in the opening lines of Book 3 (a ringing tribute to Epicurus), Lucretius makes it clear that his main purpose is not so much to display his own talents as to render accurately in a suitably sublime style the glorious philosophy of his master: <^>
O you who out of the vast darkness were the first to raise
A shining light, illuminating the blessings of life,
O glory of the Grecian race, it is you I follow,
Tracing in your clearly marked footprints my own firm steps,
Not as a contending rival, but out of love, for I yearn to imitate you.
For why should the swallow vie with the swan?
Why should a young kid on spindly limbs
Dare to match strides with a mighty steed? (3. 1-8.) <^>
“The poetry, Lucretius keeps reminding his readers, is secondary, a sugar coating to sweeten Epicurus' healing medicine. The Epicurean system is what is important, and the poet pledges all his skill to presenting it as clearly, as faithfully, and as persuasively as possible. In his view nothing less than universal enlightenment and the liberation of mankind is at stake. <^>
“Reduced to its simplest level, the goal of Epicurus’ teaching was to free humanity from needless cares and anxieties (especially the fear of death) . By furnishing a complete explanation of the origin and structure of the universe, he sought to open men's eyes to a true understanding of their condition and liberate them from ignorant fears and superstitions. Though by all accounts he was a voluminous writer, only a tiny fraction of his original output has survived, with the result that Lucretius' poem has served as one of the primary vehicles for conveying his thought.
“The Epicurean system consists of three linked components: Physics, Ethics, and Canonic. These three elements are designed to be interdependent, each one supposedly uniting with and reinforcing the other two. (To cite just one example, Epicurus' physics supposedly validates both the existence of free will and the fact that the soul disintegrates with the body, ideas that are crucial to Epicurean ethics. The canonic claims to validate the authority and reliability of sensation, which in turn serves as a basis for Epicurean physical theories and ethical views relating to pleasure and pain.) In actual fact, however, the three components are quite separable, and it is certainly possible, for example, to accept Epicurus' ethical doctrines while entirely denying his canonic teachings and physics. [Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) <^>]
Diogenes Laërtius wrote: Epicurus’ philosophy “is divided into three parts—Canonics, Physics, Ethics. Canonics [canon=“measure”, hence canonics as the measure or standard of truth, or what is now called epistemology] forms the introduction to the system and is contained in a single work entitled The Canon. The physical part includes the entire theory of nature; it is contained in the thirty-seven books Of Nature and, in a summary form, in the letters. The ethical part deals with the facts of choice and aversion: this may be found in the books On Human Life, in the letters, and in his treatise Of the End. [Source: Diogenes Laërtius: “The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers Book X; Epicurus”, A.D. early 3rd century, translated by C.D. Yonge (London: George Bell & Sons, 1895)]
“The usual arrangement, however, is to conjoin canonics with physics, and the former they call the science which deals with the standard and the first principle, or the elementary part of philosophy, while physics proper, they say, deals with becoming and perishing and with nature; ethics, on the other hand, deals with things to be sought and avoided, with human life and with the ultimate end. They reject dialectic as superfluous; holding that in their inquiries the physicists should be content to employ the ordinary terms for things.”
According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “The so-called canonic teachings of Epicurus (from the Greek kanon, "rule") include his epistemological theories and especially his theories of sensation and perception. In certain respects, these theories represent Epicurus' thought at its most original and prescient - and in one or two instances at its most fanciful and absurd. [Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) <^>]
“The central principle of the canonic is that our sense data provide a true and accurate picture of external reality. Sensation is the ultimate source and criterion of truth, and its testimony is incontrovertible. Epicurus considered the reliability of the senses a bulwark of his philosophy, and Lucretius refers to trust in sensation as a "holdfast," describing it as the only thing preventing our slide into the abyss of skepticism (4. 502-512). <^>
“But if our sensory input is always true and dependable, how are we to account for hallucinations, fantasies, dreams, delusions, and other forms of perceptual error? According to Epicurus, such errors are always due to some higher mental process. They arise, for example, when we apply judgment or reasoning or some confused product of memory to the actual data presented to us by sensation. As Lucretius remarks, we deceive ourselves because we tend to "see some things with our mind that have not been seen by the senses": <^>
“For nothing is harder than to distinguish the real things of sense From those doubtful versions of them that the mind readily supplies. (4. 466-468.) <^>
“Epicurus' theory of sensory perception is consistent with and follows from his materialism and atomism. Like Democritus, he postulates that external objects send off emanations or "idols" (eidola) of themselves that travel through the air and impinge upon our senses. In effect, these subtle atomic images or films imprint themselves on the senses, leaving behind trace versions of the external world (auditory and olfactory as well as visual) that can be apprehended and stored in memory. Once again, perceptual errors can occur in this process, but not because of any inherent problem with sensation itself. Instead, mistakes arise due either to the contamination of the "idols" by other atoms or because of the "false opinions" that we ourselves, through defects in our higher mental operations, introduce. <^>
“In short, unless it is distorted by some form of external "noise" or by some processing error attributable to reason, all information conveyed through the senses is true. This is Epicurus' core canonic teaching. Unfortunately, this belief in the infallibility of sense perception and the unreliability of logic and reason led him and his followers (including Lucretius) into a number of strange conclusions - such as the absurd claim that the sun, moon, and stars are exactly the size and shape that they appear to be to our naked eye. Thus (as strict Epicurean doctrine would have it) the moon truly is a small, silver disc, the sun is a slightly larger golden fire, and the stars are but tiny points of light.
According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Epicurus' ethics represents the true goal and raison d’etre of his philosophical mission, the capstone atop the impressive (though hardly flawless) pillars of his physics and epistemology. Like Socrates, he considered moral questions (What is virtue? What is happiness?) rather than cosmological speculations to be the ultimate concerns of philosophical inquiry. [Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) <^>]
“As mentioned earlier, it is possible to accept one component of the Epicurean system without necessarily subscribing to the others. But from Epicurus' (and Lucretius’) point of view, it is the ethical component that is of vital importance. <^>
“As many commentators have noted, the term "Epicure" (in the sense of a self-indulgent bon vivant or luxurious pleasure-seeker) is entirely out of place when applied to Epicureanism in general and to its founder in particular. By all accounts, Epicurus' own living habits were virtually Spartan, and it is said that he attracted many of his disciples more by his solid character and agreeable temper than by his philosophical arguments. His moral philosophy is a form of hedonism, meaning that it is a system based on the pursuit of pleasure (Gr. 'ēdone which it identifies as the greatest good. But Epicurean hedonism is hardly synonymous with sensual extravagance; nor is it a matter (in St. Paul's disparaging terms) of "let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die." It is instead a system that requires severe self-denial and moral discipline. For Epicurus places a much greater emphasis on the avoidance of pain than on the pursuit of pleasure, and he favors intellectual pleasures (which are long-lasting and never cloying) over physical ones (which are short-lived and lead to excess). As for self-indulgence, he argued that it is better to abstain from coarse or trivial pleasures if they prevent our enjoyment of richer, more satisfying ones. <^>
“In Epicurean ethics physical pain is the great enemy of happiness and is to be avoided in almost all cases. Mental anguish is even more threatening and potentially debilitating. It follows that the fear of death - and especially the superstitious belief in an after-life of eternal torment - can be particularly devastating source of anxiety and take a terrible toll on humanity, which is why Epicurus sets out so determinedly to crush it.
Lucretius as a Philosopher
According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Critics universally recognize Lucretius as a major poet and the author of one of the great classics of world literature. But in part because of his accepted role as a spokesperson for Epicureanism rather than an originator, it has been more difficult to assess his merit as a philosopher. <^>
“In this respect, it is noteworthy that at least two important philosophers have voiced strong support for Lucretius' status as a philosophical innovator and original thinker. In 1884, while still a young faculty member at the Blaise Pascal Lycee in Paris, the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) published an edition of De Rerum Natura with notes, commentary, and an accompanying critical essay. Throughout this work, Bergson commends Lucretius not only as a poet of genius, but also as an inspired and "singularly original" thinker. In particular, he points out that in his view the poet's instinctive grasp of the physical operations of nature and his comprehensive, truly scientific world-view exceed anything found in the theories of Democritus and Epicurus. [Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) <^>]
“The Spanish poet and Harvard philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) held a similarly high opinion of Lucretius' power as a scientific thinker. Democritus and Epicurus, he argues, are mere sketch artists who offer no more than bare hints and vague outlines of a thoroughly imagined and truly scientifically conceived universe. It thus remained for the deeper, more visionary poet not just to flesh out their rough drafts in fine words, but in essence to actually create and give body to the entire Epicurean system. In Santayana's view, Epicurus was but a supplier of half-baked ideas; it was Lucretius who was the true creator of scientific materialism and the real founder of Epicureanism. <^>
“Hyperbole aside, what both Bergson and Santayana are pointing to is the frequently underrated and misunderstood role of imagination in the production of almost all major systems of philosophy. Great philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Kant and Nietzsche (and Bergson himself) have never been simply logic mills or thinking machines, but bold thinkers with an imaginative "feel" for abstract reality. In this respect, even if we dismiss the assessments of Bergson and Santayana as extravagant, we can still accept Lucretius as a bona fide philosopher and not just as a poetical embellisher and interpreter. <^>
“Of all Lucretius' intellectual strengths, perhaps none is more characteristic or stands out more impressively than his hard, clear commitment to naturalism. Throughout the poem he consistently attacks supernatural explanations of phenomena and resists the temptation to give in to some form of natural religion or "scientific" supernaturalism. The world, he argues, was not created by divine intelligence, nor is it imbued with any form of mind or purpose. Instead, it must be understood as an entirely natural phenomenon, the outcome of a random (though statistically inevitable and lawful) process. In short, whatever happens in the universe is not the product of design, but part of an ongoing sequence of purely physical events. <^>
“Lucretius' principal philosophical shortcoming is that not only will he occasionally follow Epicurean doctrine to the point of absurdity (e.g., the supposedly tiny size of the sun and moon) but he will also introduce logical fallacies or scientific errors of his own (such as his claim that the atoms travel faster than light - 2. 144ff.). As Bergson points out, these howlers can usually be attributed to the defective method of ancient science, which, because it did not require that hypotheses be confirmed by experimentation, allowed even the wildest conjectures to pass as plausible truths. One further problem is that, for all his reliance on naturalistic explanations and his attempted reduction of metaphysics to physics, Lucretius at times seems to back away, if only ever so slightly, from a purely materialist world view. Indeed in his effusive descriptions of the creative power of nature, effectively symbolized by the figure of Venus, he seems almost (like Bergson) to postulate an immaterial life-force surging through the universe and operating above or beyond raw nature. To read this romantic streak into him is clearly a mistake. Lucretius remains a thorough-going naturalist. Yet when his verse is in high gear, one almost gets the impression that somewhere inside this staunchly scientific, fiercely anti-religious poet there is a romantic nature-worshipper screaming to get out.
On superstition: "So powerful is religion at persuading to evil." 1. 101. <^>
“On luxuries: "Hot fevers do not depart your body more quickly
If you toss about on pictured tapestries or rich purple coverlets
Than if you lie sick under a poor man's blanket." 2. 34-36. <^>
On life without philosophy: "All life is a struggle in the dark." 2. 54.
"After a while the life of a fool is hell on earth." 3. 1023. <^>
On new truths: "No fact is so obvious that it does not at first produce wonder,
Nor so wonderful that it does not eventually yield to belief." 2. 1026-27. <^>
On reason: "Such is the power of reason to overcome inborn vices
That nothing prevents our living a life worthy of gods." 3. 321-22. <^>
“On the language of love:
"We say a foul, dirty woman is 'sweetly disordered,'
If she is green-eyed, we call her 'my little Pallas';
If she's flighty and tightly strung, she’s 'a gazelle’;
A squat, dumpy dwarf is 'a little sprite,'
While a hulking giantess is 'divinely statuesque.'
If she stutters or lisps, she speaks 'musically.'
If she's dumb, she’s 'modest’; and if she’s hot-tempered
And a chatterbox, she's 'a ball of fire.’
When she's too skinny to live, she’s 'svelte,’
And she's 'delicate’ when she’s dying of consumption. . .
It would be wearisome to run through the whole list." 4. 1159-1171. <^>
Lucretius’s Influence and Legacy
According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Lucretius' literary influence has been long-lasting and widespread, especially among poets with epic ambitions or cosmological interests, from Virgil and Milton to Whitman and Wordsworth. Not surprisingly, as one of the main proponents and principal sources of Epicurean thought, his philosophical influence has also been considerable. The extent of his communication with and influence on his contemporaries, including other Epicurean writers, is not known. What is known is that by the end of the first century A.D. De Rerum Natura was hardly read and its author had already begun a long, slow descent into philosophical oblivion. It was not until the Renaissance, with the recovery of lost Lucretian manuscripts, that a true revival of the poet became possible. <^>
“It is probably an exaggeration to say that the restoration and study of Lucretius' poem was crucial to the rise of Renaissance "new philosophy" and the birth of modern science. On the other hand, one must not ignore its importance as a spur to innovative sixteenth- and seventeenth-century scientific thought and cosmological speculation. Greek atomism and Lucretius' account of the universe as an infinite, lawfully integrated whole provided an important background stimulus not only for Newtonian science, but also (if only in a negative or contrary way) for Spinoza's pantheism and Leibniz’s monadology. <^>
“Lucretius' influence on early modern thought is most directly visible in the work of the French scientist and neo-Epicurean philosopher Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655). In 1649 Gassendi published his Syntagma Philosophiae Epicuri, a theoretical refinement and elaboration of Epicurean science. A Catholic priest with a remarkably independent mind, Gassendi seemingly had no problem reconciling his personal philosophical commitment to atomism and materialism with his Christian beliefs in the immortality of the soul and the doctrine of divine providence. <^>
“Every modern reader of De Rerum Natura has been struck by the extent to which Lucretius seems to have anticipated modern evolutionary theories in the fields of geology, biology, and sociology. However, to acknowledge this connection is not to say that the poet deserves accredited status as some kind of scientific "evolutionist" or pre-Darwinian precursor. It is merely to point out that, however we choose to define and evaluate its influence, De Rerum Natura was from the 17th century onward a massive cultural presence and hence a ready source of evolutionary ideas. The poem formed part of the cultural heritage and intellectual background of virtually every evolutionary theorist in Europe from Lamarck to Herbert Spencer (whose hedonistic ethics also owed a debt to the poet) - including (though he claimed never to have read Lucretius' epic) Darwin himself. <^>
“Bergson's early study of Lucretius obviously played an important role in the foundation and development of his own philosophy. In 1907 Bergson published Creative Evolution, outlining his bold, new vitalistic theory of evolution, in opposition to both the earlier vitalism of Lamarck and the naturalism of Darwin, and Spencer. It is hard not to see in the French philosophers' concept of the élan vital a powerful life force akin to and strongly influenced by the immortal Venus of his great Latin predecessor. Bergson's evolutionary philosophy influenced the later "process" philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) and the teleological scientific theories of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), with the interesting result that it is possible to trace out a fairly direct, if unlikely, line of descent from Greek atomism through the pagan anti-spiritualist Lucretius to the Catholic naturalist Gassendi and then on, via the Jewish-Catholic Bergson, to the highly abstract theism of Whitehead and the "spiritualized" evolutionism of Father Teilhard. That Lucretius' ideas wound up two thousand years after his death influencing those of a godly British mathematical theorist and a highly original and even eccentric French scientist-priest is remarkable testimony to their durability, adaptability, and persuasive power.
Lucretius Great Poem: De Rerum Natura
According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “De Rerum Natura is an epic in six books and is expertly organized to provide both expository clarity as well as powerful narrative and lyric effects. In one respect, the poem represents the unfolding of a complex philosophical argument, and in many places the poet is challenged to explain abstract and often extremely prosaic technical material in a lucid and lively way. (At times during the poem he complains about the relative poverty of Latin as a philosophical medium compared to the technical richness of Greek.) At the same time, he must be careful not to overwhelm or upstage his philosophical presentation with a surplus of brilliant literary devices and gaudy stylistic displays. [Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) <^>]
“The basic organization is as follows: Book 1: The poem begins with a justly famous invocation to Venus (the poet's symbol for the forces of cohesion, integration, and creative energy in the universe). Presented as a kind of life principle, the Lucretian Venus is associated with the figure of Love (Gr. philia , the unifying or binding force in the philosophy of Empedocles, and also identified with her mythical role as Venus Genetrix, the patron goddess and mother of the Roman people. In the remainder of the book the poet begins the work of explaining the Epicurean system and refuting the systems of other philosophers. He starts by setting forth the major principles of Epicurean physics and cosmology, including atomism, the infinity of the universe, and the existence of matter and void. <^>
“Book 2. This book begins with a lyric passage celebrating the "serene sanctuaries" of philosophy and lamenting the condition of those poor human beings who struggle vainly outside its protective walls. The poet explains atomic motion and shapes and argues that the atoms do not have secondary qualities (color, smell, heat, moisture, etc.). <^>
“Book 3. After a glowing opening apostrophe to Epicurus ("O glory of the Greeks!"), the poet proceeds with an extended explanation and proof of the materiality - and mortality – of the mind and soul. This explanation culminates in the climactic declaration, "Nil igitur mors est ad nos. . ." ("Therefore death is nothing to us."), a stark, simple statement which effectively epitomizes the main message and central doctrine of Epicureanism. <^>
“Book 4. Following introductory verses on the art of didactic poetry, this book begins with a full account of Epicurus' theory of vision and sensation. It concludes with one of Lucretius' greatest passages of verse, his famous (and caustic) analysis of the biology and psychology of sexual love. <^>
“Book 5. Lucretius begins this book with another tribute to the genius of Epicurus, whose heroic intellectual achievements, it is argued, exceed even the twelve labors of Hercules. The remainder of the book is devoted to a full account of Epicurean cosmology and sociology, with the poet explaining the stages of life on earth and the origin and development of civilization. This book includes the remarkable passage (837-886) in which the poet offers his own evolutionary hypothesis on the proliferation and extinction of life forms. <^>
“Book 6. Though partly unfinished, this book contains some of Lucretius' greatest poetry, with effective technical explanations of meteorological and geologic phenomena and vivid descriptions of thunderstorms, lightning, and volcanic eruptions. The poem closes with a horrifying account of the great plague of Athens (430 B.C.), a grim reminder of universal mortality.
Lucretius: On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura)
Lucretius “On the Nature of Things” begins:
“Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,
Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars
Makest to teem the many-voyaged main
And fruitful lands- for all of living things
Through thee alone are evermore conceived,
Through thee are risen to visit the great sun-
Before thee, Goddess, and thy coming on,
Flee stormy wind and massy cloud away,
For thee the daedal Earth bears scented flowers,
For thee waters of the unvexed deep
Smile, and the hollows of the serene sky
Glow with diffused radiance for thee!
For soon as comes the springtime face of day,
And procreant gales blow from the West unbarred,
First fowls of air, smit to the heart by thee,
Foretoken thy approach, O thou Divine,
And leap the wild herds round the happy fields
Or swim the bounding torrents. Thus amain,
Seized with the spell, all creatures follow thee
Whithersoever thou walkest forth to lead,
And thence through seas and mountains and swift streams,
Through leafy homes of birds and greening plains,
Kindling the lure of love in every breast, [Source: Lucretius “On the Nature of Things”, 50 B.C., translated by William Ellery Leonard, MIT]
Thou bringest the eternal generations forth,
Kind after kind. And since 'tis thou alone
Guidest the Cosmos, and without thee naught
Is risen to reach the shining shores of light,
Nor aught of joyful or of lovely born,
Thee do I crave co-partner in that verse
Which I presume on Nature to compose
For Memmius mine, whom thou hast willed to be
Peerless in every grace at every hour-
Wherefore indeed, Divine one, give my words
Immortal charm. Lull to a timely rest
O'er sea and land the savage works of war,
For thou alone hast power with public peace
To aid mortality; since he who rules
The savage works of battle, puissant Mars,
How often to thy bosom flings his strength
O'ermastered by the eternal wound of love-
And there, with eyes and full throat backward thrown,
Gazing, my Goddess, open-mouthed at thee,
Pastures on love his greedy sight, his breath
Hanging upon thy lips. Him thus reclined
Fill with thy holy body, round, above!
Pour from those lips soft syllables to win
Peace for the Romans, glorious Lady, peace!
“For in a season troublous to the state
Neither may I attend this task of mine
With thought untroubled, nor mid such events
The illustrious scion of the Memmian house
Neglect the civic cause.
Whilst human kind
Throughout the lands lay miserably crushed
Before all eyes beneath Religion- who
Would show her head along the region skies,
Glowering on mortals with her hideous face-
A Greek it was who first opposing dared
Raise mortal eyes that terror to withstand,
Whom nor the fame of Gods nor lightning's stroke
Nor threatening thunder of the ominous sky
Abashed; but rather chafed to angry zest
His dauntless heart to be the first to rend
The crossbars at the gates of Nature old.
And thus his will and hardy wisdom won;
And forward thus he fared afar, beyond
The flaming ramparts of the world, until
He wandered the unmeasurable All.
“Whence he to us, a conqueror, reports
What things can rise to being, what cannot,
And by what law to each its scope prescribed,
Its boundary stone that clings so deep in Time.
Wherefore Religion now is under foot,
And us his victory now exalts to heaven.
I know how hard it is in Latian verse
To tell the dark discoveries of the Greeks,
Chiefly because our pauper-speech must find
Strange terms to fit the strangeness of the thing;
Yet worth of thine and the expected joy
Of thy sweet friendship do persuade me on
To bear all toil and wake the clear nights through,
Seeking with what of words and what of song
I may at last most gloriously uncloud
For thee the light beyond, wherewith to view
The core of being at the centre hid.
And for the rest, summon to judgments true,
Unbusied ears and singleness of mind
Withdrawn from cares; lest these my gifts, arranged
For thee with eager service, thou disdain
Before thou comprehendest: since for thee
I prove the supreme law of Gods and sky,
And the primordial germs of things unfold,
Whence Nature all creates, and multiplies
And fosters all, and whither she resolves
Each in the end when each is overthrown.
This ultimate stock we have devised to name
Procreant atoms, matter, seeds of things,
Or primal bodies, as primal to the world.
Lucretius: On the Nature of Things: Substance Is Eternal
In a section called “Substance Is Eternal,” Lucretius writes:
“This terror, then, this darkness of the mind,
Not sunrise with its flaring spokes of light,
Nor glittering arrows of morning can disperse,
But only Nature's aspect and her law,
Which, teaching us, hath this exordium:
Nothing from nothing ever yet was born.
Fear holds dominion over mortality
Only because, seeing in land and sky
So much the cause whereof no wise they know,
Men think Divinities are working there.
Meantime, when once we know from nothing still
Nothing can be create, we shall divine
More clearly what we seek: those elements
From which alone all things created are,
And how accomplished by no tool of Gods.
Suppose all sprang from all things: any kind
Might take its origin from any thing,
No fixed seed required. Men from the sea
Might rise, and from the land the scaly breed,
And, fowl full fledged come bursting from the sky;
The horned cattle, the herds and all the wild
Would haunt with varying offspring tilth and waste;
Nor would the same fruits keep their olden trees,
But each might grow from any stock or limb
By chance and change. Indeed, and were there not [Source: Lucretius “On the Nature of Things”, 50 B.C., translated by William Ellery Leonard, MIT]
“For each its procreant atoms, could things have
Each its unalterable mother old?
But, since produced from fixed seeds are all,
Each birth goes forth upon the shores of light
From its own stuff, from its own primal bodies.
And all from all cannot become, because
In each resides a secret power its own.
Again, why see we lavished o'er the lands
At spring the rose, at summer heat the corn,
The vines that mellow when the autumn lures,
If not because the fixed seeds of things
At their own season must together stream,
And new creations only be revealed
When the due times arrive and pregnant earth
Safely may give unto the shores of light
Her tender progenies? But if from naught
Were their becoming, they would spring abroad
Suddenly, unforeseen, in alien months,
With no primordial germs, to be preserved
From procreant unions at an adverse hour.
Nor on the mingling of the living seeds
Would space be needed for the growth of things
Were life an increment of nothing: then
The tiny babe forthwith would walk a man,
And from the turf would leap a branching tree-
Wonders unheard of; for, by Nature, each
Slowly increases from its lawful seed,
And through that increase shall conserve its kind.
“Whence take the proof that things enlarge and feed
From out their proper matter. Thus it comes
That earth, without her seasons of fixed rains,
Could bear no produce such as makes us glad,
And whatsoever lives, if shut from food,
Prolongs its kind and guards its life no more.
Thus easier 'tis to hold that many things
Have primal bodies in common (as we see
The single letters common to many words)
Than aught exists without its origins.
Moreover, why should Nature not prepare
Men of a bulk to ford the seas afoot,
Or rend the mighty mountains with their hands,
Or conquer Time with length of days, if not
Because for all begotten things abides
The changeless stuff, and what from that may spring
Is fixed forevermore? Lastly we see
How far the tilled surpass the fields untilled
And to the labour of our hands return
Their more abounding crops; there are indeed
Within the earth primordial germs of things,
Which, as the ploughshare turns the fruitful clods
And kneads the mould, we quicken into birth.
Else would ye mark, without all toil of ours,
Spontaneous generations, fairer forms.
“Confess then, naught from nothing can become,
Since all must have their seeds, wherefrom to grow,
Wherefrom to reach the gentle fields of air.
Hence too it comes that Nature all dissolves
Into their primal bodies again, and naught
Perishes ever to annihilation.
For, were aught mortal in its every part,
Before our eyes it might be snatched away
Unto destruction; since no force were needed
To sunder its members and undo its bands.
Whereas, of truth, because all things exist,
With seed imperishable, Nature allows
Destruction nor collapse of aught, until
Some outward force may shatter by a blow,
Or inward craft, entering its hollow cells,
Dissolve it down. And more than this, if Time,
That wastes with eld the works along the world,
Destroy entire, consuming matter all,
Whence then may Venus back to light of life
Restore the generations kind by kind?
Or how, when thus restored, may daedal Earth
Foster and plenish with her ancient food,
Which, kind by kind, she offers unto each?
Whence may the water-springs, beneath the sea,
Or inland rivers, far and wide away,
Keep the unfathomable ocean full?
And out of what does Ether feed the stars?
For lapsed years and infinite age must else
Have eat all shapes of mortal stock away:
But be it the Long Ago contained those germs,
By which this sum of things recruited lives,
Those same infallibly can never die,
Nor nothing to nothing evermore return.
And, too, the selfsame power might end alike
All things, were they not still together held
By matter eternal, shackled through its parts,
Now more, now less. A touch might be enough
To cause destruction. For the slightest force
Would loose the weft of things wherein no part
Were of imperishable stock. But now
Because the fastenings of primordial parts
Are put together diversely and stuff
Is everlasting, things abide the same
Unhurt and sure, until some power comes on
Strong to destroy the warp and woof of each:
Nothing returns to naught; but all return
At their collapse to primal forms of stuff.
Lo, the rains perish which Ether-father throws
Down to the bosom of Earth-mother; but then
Upsprings the shining grain, and boughs are green
Amid the trees, and trees themselves wax big
And lade themselves with fruits; and hence in turn
The race of man and all the wild are fed;
Hence joyful cities thrive with boys and girls;
And leafy woodlands echo with new birds;
Hence cattle, fat and drowsy, lay their bulk
Along the joyous pastures whilst the drops
Of white ooze trickle from distended bags;
Hence the young scamper on their weakling joints
Along the tender herbs, fresh hearts afrisk
With warm new milk. Thus naught of what so seems
Perishes utterly, since Nature ever
Upbuilds one thing from other, suffering naught
To come to birth but through some other's death.”
Thomas Jefferson: “I am an Epicurean”
In a letter to his friend William Short, who had been his private secretary when he was Minister in Paris, 1786-1789. U.S. President Thomas Jefferson wrote in: “As you say of yourself, I TOO AM AN EPICUREAN. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing every thing rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us. Epictetus, indeed, has given us what was good of the Stoics; all beyond, of their [doctrines] dogmas, being hypocrisy and grimace. Their great crime was in their calumnies of Epicurus and misrepresentations of his doctrines; in which we lament to see the candid character of Cicero engaging as an accomplice. The merit of his philosophy is in the beauties of his style. Diffuse, vapid, rhetorical, but enchanting. His prototype Plato, eloquent as himself, dealing out mysticisms incomprehensible to the human mind, has been deified by certain sects usurping the name of Christians; because, in his foggy conceptions, they found a basis of impenetrable darkness whereon to rear fabrications as delirious of their own invention. These they fathered blasphemously on Him whom they claimed as their Founder, but who would disclaim them with the indignation which their caricatures of His religion so justly excite. Of Socrates we have nothing genuine but in the Memorabilia of Xenophon; for Plato makes him one of his Collocutors merely to cover his own whimsies under the mantle of his name; a liberty of which we are told Socrates honestly complained. [Source: CSUN]
Seneca is indeed a fine moralist, disfiguring his work at times with some Stoicisms, and affecting too much antithesis and point, yet giving us on the whole a great deal of sound and practical morality. But the greatest of all the reformers of the depraved religion of His own country was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really Huis from the rubbish in which he is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of His biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill, we have the outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man; outlines which it is lamentable He did not live to fill up. Epictetus and Epicurus give laws for governing ourselves, Jesus a supplement of the duties and charities we owe to others The establishment of the innocent and genuine character of this benevolent Moralist, and the rescuing it from the imputation of imposture which has resulted from [misconstructions of his words by his pretended votaries] artificial systems*, invented by ultra-Christian sects, unauthorized by a single word ever uttered by Him, is a most desirable object, and one to which Priestley has successfully devoted his labors and learning It would in time, it is to be hoped, effect a quiet euthanasia of the heresies of bigotry and fanaticism which have so long triumphed over human reason, and so generally and deeply afflicted mankind; but this work is to be begun by winnowing the grain from the chaff of the historians of His life I have sometimes thought of translating Epictetus (for he has never been tolerably translated into English) by adding the genuine doctrines of Epicurus from the Syntagma of Gassendi, and an abstract from the Evangelists of whatever has the stamp of the eloquence and fine imagination of Jesus. The last I attempted too hastily some twelve or fifteen years ago. It was the work of two or three nights only, at Washington, after getting through the evening task of reading the letters and papers of the day. But with one foot in the grave, these are now idle projects for me. My business is to beguile the wearisomeness of declining life, as I endeavor to do, by the delights of classical reading and of mathematical truths, and by the consolations of a sound philosophy, equally indifferent to hope and fear.
“I take the liberty of observing that you are not a true disciple of our master Epicurus, in indulging the indolence to which you say you are yielding. One of his canons, you know, was that "that indulgence which presents a greater pleasure, or produces a greater pain, is to be avoided." Your love of repose will lead, in its progress, to a suspension of healthy exercise, a relaxation of mind, an indifference to everything around you, and finally to a debility of body, and hebetude of mind, the farthest of all things from the happiness which the well-regulated indulgences of Epicurus ensure; fortitude, you know, is one of his four cardinal virtues. That teaches us to meet and surmount difficulties; not to fly from them, like cowards; and to fly, too, in vain, for they will meet and arrest us at every turn of our road.”
Daniel Delattre: Papyrologist and Epicurus Expert
John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: “Daniel Delattre learned Latin by the age of eleven and ancient Greek a few years after that. “Those were the two subjects I preferred,” he told me. He met his wife, Joëlle Delattre-Biencourt, in high school, and they fell in love with antiquity and with each other. After attending the University of Lille, Delattre taught high-school classics and began working on his doctoral thesis, on the theology of Epicurus, who is best known for the doctrine that the goal of life is pleasure. [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker , November 16, 2015 \=/]
“Delattre didn’t plan to become a papyrologist, but one of the Philodemus scrolls unwrapped by Father Piaggio in the eighteenth century was on the subject of Epicurus and the gods, and he wanted to read it. He went to the National Library in Naples. “When I saw the opened sheets of carbonized papyrus for the first time, it was very impressive. For me, the writing was very vivid. I felt I was in direct contact with that time. And when I read the name Plato for the first time in the text it made me very emotional. I became a papyrologist at that moment.” \=/
“Delattre spent a year in the National Library, where, in addition to his thesis research, he started working on a new edition of part of Philodemus’ “On Music, Book 4,” the first of the scrolls opened with Piaggio’s machine. That was in 1985. He finished two decades later. Along the way, he made a stunning discovery: previous editions of “On Music” had the sequence of some of the detached leaves of the scroll backward. Delattre’s edition, published in 2007, corrected the problem and has caused papyrologists to reëvaluate the entire Philodemus canon. Richard Janko, in a review in the Journal of Hellenic Studies, called it “pioneering work of the first order.” \=/
“Delattre became the official editor of the six scrolls in the Institut de France in 2003, a year after the two damaged scrolls returned from Naples. Working at the Sorbonne and at the Institut de France, he has been preparing an edition of one of them, assisted by various students and colleagues; his wife, a retired philosophy professor, is also part of the team. Delattre has been trying to figure out the correct order of the pieces, read them, and publish an edition before he dies, a goal that he says is impossible, because the project “takes an infinite time. Our human scale is not the scale of the scrolls.” He is far enough along in the book to be sure that it is yet another work by Philodemus: “On Slander.” \=/
“Delattre’s dream has been to recover something of the lost works of Epicurus (341-270 B.C.), the Greek philosopher whose thought has been the focus of his life’s study, and whose writings are known only through secondary sources. \=/
“It was a warm day in Paris, and the library of the Institut de France was stuffy and hot. Daniel Delattre, a distinguished French papyrologist, did not remove his suit jacket. The institute, which includes the Académie Française, is a jacket-and-tie sort of place. \=/
“Delattre, who is sixty-eight years old and has a dreamy, lost-in-the-vale-of-academe manner, was contemplating a small wooden box on the table in front of him which was labelled “Objet Un.” There are thousands of rare objects in the institute’s library; the fact that whatever was inside the box was Object One suggested that it was of some importance. An ornately hand-lettered card was taped to the outside. It said, in French, “Box containing the remains of papyrus from Herculaneum”—the Roman town destroyed, along with its larger neighbor, Pompeii, in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79. \=/
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Pinterest, Quora.com
Text Sources: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy /plato.stanford.edu, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2018