For New Students of Epicurus

When I first started this web page, my goal was as stated in the page banner, to “promote the study of the philosophy of Epicurus.”  I phrased the goal in this way because there seemed to be such a wide variety of interpretations of Epicurus that I saw no way to know which was correct, and therefore I had no way to be sure whether I agreed with him or not.   Many passing references I see to his views on the internet seem to be the result of picking and choosing one or more of the Principle Doctrines, completely out of context, and combining it with other views that might just as well have been spoken by Plato as by Epicurus.

Thus I decided that I wanted to know to the best of my ability what Epicurus really said, and more importantly, what he meant.  Quite possibly I wasted a lot of time because perhaps there are recent books that lay this out with clarity, but I chose to start with the many free resources that are available on the internet.  I saw no harm in that, because the level of scholarship in the early 1900’s and even before that seems to have been just as good, if not better, than today.

I soon found, however, that the many of these resources, including the standard texts available on Google Docs, were close to unintelligible!  For some reason many people seem to be more fascinated with atoms, swerving, and the void than anything else.  They jump right into the particle physics as if the only remaining value of Epicurus is to laugh at (or begrudingly admire) his ancient efforts at atomic theory.  On ethical matters, most of the texts consider him embarrassingly quaint or wrong, and they make little effort to present Epicurus’ ideas in the way he himself might have explained them to a student.  The last straw was when I compared two of the standard translations of Diogenes Laertius on what I thought was a simple issue that should be clear:   “Should one marry?”

CD Yonge’s 1853 translation reports that Epicurus thought marriage to be a bad idea:  “Marriage, they say, is never any good to a man, and we must be quite content if it does no harm; and the wise man will never marry or beget children, as Epicurus himself lays down in his Doubts and in his treatises on Nature.  Still, under certain circumstances in his life he will forsake these rules and marry.”

The Loeb Classical Library version of the R.D. Hicks translation, which appears to date from 1931, concurs:  “Nor, again, will the wise man marry and rear a family:  so Epicurus says in the Problems and in the De Natura. Occasionally he may marry due to special circumstances in his life.”

But Cyril Bailey in his1926 translation says the opposite: “Moreover, the wise man will marry and have children, as Epicurus says in the Problems and in the work On Nature.  But he will marry according to the circumstances of his life.”

The more modern Epicurus Reader translation by Inwood and Gerson agrees with Bailey:  “And indeed the wise man will marry and father children…”

And the 1963 text by George Strodach continues the modern view:  “In addition, the wise man will marry and beget children….  but he will marry according to his station in life, whatever it may be.”

Was some new text found in the early 1900’s to explain these discrepancies?  If the translations of the basic texts cannot be trusted to be consistent on such a basic position as the wisdom of marriage, when can they be trusted?  (By the way, I think this question is best answered by the observation that Epicurus himself provides in his Will for a marriage gift to the child of an Epicurean student, so he must have viewed marriage favorably.)

Thus I decided to start my own review of the remaining works of Epicurus.  I do not know a word of Greek, and I know only a little Latin, so my only points of reference were to collect as many different translations as I could find and then compare them to each other.  Also, on any issue where Lucretius weighed in, I am able to check the Loeb version of the Latin text to take a stab at verifying what he had to say on the subject.  Then, to aid myself in the study, I prepared a single paraphrase from the various translations so I could bring together in my own mind what Epicurus most likely was saying.

I started with an effort to make an overall outline, which turned into my essay “The Evidence-Based Life.”  As part of that, I accumulated public domain versions of the translations of the main texts, and posted them as an appendix to that essay.  My next step was to double back to take a closer look at the what appear to me to be the most crucial and clear of the core texts.  Although I am partial to Lucretius, his level of detail is so deep that this did not seem to be the place to start.  Likewise, the Principle Doctrines did not appeal to me as a starting point, because each doctrine is terse that, without more context, the new student of Lucretius might tend to be misled by imputing modern associations that were not intended.

My own view has evolved to the point where I suggest that anyone wishing to expand his or her knowledge of Epicurus should start with these three specific texts:   First, the “Letter to Menoeceus,” which sets forth the importance of philosophy and provides a general statement of Epicurus’ ethical ideas, which are probably of greatest interest to new readers.  Following that, I then recommend  Cicero’s “Defense of Epicurus” essay delivered by Torquatus, because this builds on the ideas in the first letter, and relates them to the overall framework of the philosophy, clearly identifying how and why Epicurus stood so firmly against the Platonic schools.   In turn, this excerpt from Cicero gives fascinating hints to the more basic foundation which Epicurus laid for his philosophy in his Canon of Truth.  Of course no copies of the Canon of Truth are known to exist, so the best I can do with that subject is my “Introduction to the Canon of Truth,” which I prepared based on excerpts from Cicero, Diogenes Laertius, and the letters to Herodotus and Pythocles.  This work apparently served as the underlying framework by which Epicurus instructed his students on the proper method of thinking, and then applied those rules to derive observations about the nature of the universe.  If the student proceeds in this or a similar order, it seems to me he will be much more prepared to understand the importance that Epicurus placed on the matter of atoms and the void, and to understand the deeper meaning of the Principle Doctrines.

Let me repeat and emphasize my warning to scholars and advanced students alike:   These presentations are not translations, but paraphrases, and I am sure that my attempts to clarify the ideas behind the translations have led me to introduce significant errors in both fact and interpretation.  I am not a professional philosopher, and I make no representation that these presentations are authoritative, but I have tried to be as faithful to the meaning of the originals as possible given my understanding of them through the translations I have reviewed.  I welcome criticisms and suggestions, and I will make appropriate changes and updates to these presentations as my time allows.  I hope these presentations on this web site will prove to be of benefit to someone, but let me emphasize that there is no substitute for one’s own study of the original source material.

My main purpose here, aside from improving my own understanding, is to be of assistance to those who are interested enough in the subject to seek out a web page such as this, but not so interested or equipped to pore over the texts as I have (or as I would like to).  Such a person may find my paraphrases helpful in understanding a subject that is difficult to approach due to the many language and historical barriers.  In addition to those barriers, I hardly even mention the difficulties of understanding those texts of Lucretius that attempt to render De Rerum Natura in a poetic style.   The only such work I have found to be intelligible is “The Way Things Are” by Rolfe Humphries, and even that I would not have been able to follow were it not for the outstanding audiobook version by Charlton Griffin.

I have posted the full paraphrased texts that I prepared, and I also have also chosen to prepare media presentations because I quickly saw that reading the passages aloud deepened my understanding of the thoughts being expressed.  I apologize that these media versions are so rough and so far from being professional.  Perhaps one day I will be able to remedy that by employing a professional reader.  Unfortunately, what has been produced is all that my current time and resources will allow.  I am posting both MP3 audio versions, and to the extent I have the time and ability to understand my video software, I am preparing Youtube versions where the viewer can follow along in the text on the screen.

I should also freely acknowledge that some of my interpretations on this web site do not conform to what I understand to be the standard scholarly view.  I have found the work of Norman W. DeWitt, author of Epicurus and His Philosophy, to be the most helpful and reasonable commentator, and although I probably have not done justice to his views even when I seek to repeat them, the new student should know that DeWitt’s views on several topics are apparently not the mainstream.  I do not consider that I have the ability to wade into those controversies myself, so it is my diligent desire to remain cordial and appreciative of all those who find Epicurus of value, without choosing sides or personalities in ongoing academic disputes.  I can only say that Professor DeWitt’s views make a great deal of sense to me, and his work seems to me to contain clues to future work in the study of Epicurus that will allow us to reconstruct his views in ever-greater detail.  Whether or not Epicurus was the true “Prince of the Power of the Air” condemned in the book of Ephesians, as DeWitt believed him to be, I am sure of this:  Epicurus intended his work to be read and understood by anyone of even moderate intelligence.  It is long past time that the remaining texts become widely available in an understandable form, so we today begin to see why so many people over so many years found his ideas to be so powerful and effective toward the goal of living happily.

Cassius Amicus

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