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Promoting the Study of the Philosophy of Epicurus


Mr. Spock Was Not An Epicurean God

There an important passage in Book II of Lucretius that is frequently translated in a way I find questionable.  Rolfe Humphries, one of my favorite translators, renders it as follows:   “Why do you hesitate, why doubt that reason alone has absolute power?”

To what extent should students of Epicurus consider “reason” to have “absolute power,” or to be our ultimate standard for determining how to live?  Just for the sake of the exercise, I have collected here a number of the most well-known translations of this passage of Lucretius.  I think it is worth reflecting on each of them, considering the question:  Does “reason alone” have the power to dispel our deepest fears?  To what extent would it be correct for us to follow this translation and in effect erect Mr. Spock as our role model?

Loeb Edition (Rouse / Smith) (1992):

Therefore since treasures profit nothing for our body, nor noble birth nor the glory of royalty, we must further think that for the mind also they are unprofitable; unless by any chance, when you behold your legions seething over the spacious Plain, as they evoke war in mimicry, established firm with might supports and a mass of cavalry, marshalled all in arms cap-a-pie and all full of one spirit, then these things scare your superstitious fears and drive them in panic flight from your mind, and death’s terrors then leave your heart unpossessed and free from care.  But if we see these things to be ridiculous and a mere mockery, if in truth men’s fears and haunting cares fear neither the clang of arms nor wild weapons, if they boldly mingle with kings and sovereigns of the world, if they respect not the sheen of gold nor the glowing light of crimson raiment, why doubt you that this power wholly belongs to reason, especially since life is one long struggle in the dark?  For just as children tremble and fear all things in blind darkness, so we in the light fear, at times, things that are no more to be feared than what children shiver at  in the dark and imagine to be at hand.

Rolfe Humphries (1968):

So, since our bodies find in wealth no profit,
And none in rank or power, it must be mind
Is no more profited. You may see your hosts
Make mimic wars, surging across the drill-ground,
Flanked by their cavalry and well-supported
By strong reserves, high in morale.  You may
Behold your fleet churn wide across great seas –
And does all this frighten religious terror
In panic from your heart?  Does the great fear
Of death depart, and leave you comforted?
What vanity, what nonsense!  If men’s fears,
Anxieties, pursuing horrors, move,
Indifferent to any clash of arms,
Untroubled among lords and monarchs, bow
Before no gleam of gold, no crimson robe,
Why do you hesitate, why doubt that reason
Alone has absolute power? Our life is spent
In shadows, and it suffers in the dark.
As children tremble and fear everything
In their dark shadows, we, in the full light,
Fear things that really are not one bit more awful
Than what poor babies shudder at in darkness,
The horrors they imagine to be coming.
Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled, then, not by sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation.

Sir Robert Allison (1919):

Unless perchance when you behold your troops
Rage o’er the plain in mimicry of war,
Strengthened with strong reserves and heavy horse,
See them full armed all eager for the fight,
Mid these things, if religious scruples fly
In terror from your mind, and fears of death
Then leave your breast at ease and free from cares
When that your fleet commands the seas afar:
Yet if we see that these things after all
Are mockeries, and food for laughter still,
And if the fears of men, their haunting cares,
Fly not the sounds of war nor clash of arms,
But boldly seize on kings and potentates,
Respect not flashing gold nor purple robes,
In splendor bright, how can you ever doubt
The power of mighty reason, all the more
Since life is but a struggle in the dark?
For just as children tremble in the night,
And fear whatever comes, so we at times
In daylight dread things no more to be feared
Than those which fright the children, which they
think are sure to come.  This terror  surely then,
This darkness of  the mind,’tis not the sun’s
Bright rays, nor glittering shafts of light expel,
But Nature’s face and knowledge of her laws.

Cyril Bailey  (1910):

Wherefore since in our body riches are of no profit, nor high birth nor the glories of kingship, for the rest, we must believe that they avail nothing for the mind as well, unless perchance, when you see your legions swarming over the spaces of the Campus, and provoking a mimic war,  strengthened with hosts in reserve and forces of cavalry, when you draw them up equipped with arms, all alike eager for the fray, when you see the army wandering far and wide in busy haste, then alarmed by all this the scruples of religion fly in panic from your mind, or that the dread of death leaves your heart empty and free from care.  But if we see that these thoughts are mere mirth and mockery, and in very truth the fears of men and the cares that dog them fear not the clash of arms nor the weapons of war, but pass boldly among kings and lords of the world, nor dread the glitter that comes from gold nor the bright sheen of the purple robe, can you doubt that all such power belongs to reason alone, above all when the whole of life is but a struggle in darkness?  For even as children tremble and fear everything in blinding darkness, so we sometimes dread in the light things that are no whit more to be feared than what children shudder at in the dark, and imagine will come to pass. This terror then, this darkness of the mind, must needs be scattered not by the rays of the sun and the gleaming shafts of day, but by the outer view and the inner law of nature.

HAJ Munro (1893):

Wherefore since treasures avail nothing in respect of our body nor birth nor the glory of kingly power, advancing farther you must hold that they are of no service to the mind as well; unless may be when you see your legions swarm over the ground of the campus waging the mimicry of war, strengthened flank and rear by powerful reserves and great force of cavalry, and you marshal them equipped in arms and animated with one spirit, thereupon you find that religious scruples scared by these things fly panic-stricken from the mind; and that then fears of death leave the breast unembarrassed and free from care, when you see your fleet swarm forth and spread itself far and wide. But if we see that these things are food for laughter and mere mockeries, and in good truth the fears of men and dogging cares dread not the clash of arms and cruel weapons, if unabashed they mix among kings and caesars and stand not in awe of the glitter from gold nor the brilliant sheen of the purple robe, how can you doubt that this is wholly the prerogative of reason, when the whole of life withal is a struggle in the dark? For even as children are flurried and dread all things in the thick darkness, thus we in the daylight fear at times things not a whit more to be dreaded than those which children shudder at in the dark and fancy sure to be.

John Selby Watson (1851):

For which reason, since neither riches, nor nobility, nor the glory of a kingdom, are of any profit as to our body, we must further suppose that they are of no profit to the mind; unless, perchance, when you see your legions moving with energy over the surface of the plain, stirring up the images of war, when you see your fleet sailing with animation, and spreading far abroad upon the waters, religious fears, alarmed at these things, flee affrighted from your mind, and the dread of death then leaves your time undisturbed and free from care. But if we see that such suppositions and expectations are ridiculous and merely objects of derision, and that in reality the fears and pursuing cares of men dread neither the sound of arms nor cruel weapons, and mingle boldly among kings and rulers of affairs, nor shrink before the brightness gleaming from gold, or the shining splendour of a purple garment, why do you doubt but that to produce these effects is wholly the office of reason, especially when all our life labors under the darkness of ignorance? For as children tremble and fear every thing in thick darkness, so we, in the light, fear sometimes things which are not more to be feared than those which children dread, and imagine about to happen, in the dark. This terror of the mind, therefore, it is not the rays of the sun or the bright arrows of day that must dispel, but the contemplation of nature, and the exercise of reason.

I suggest to you that these renderings give us a false impression of Epicureanism.  We know from Cicero and Diogenes Laertius that Epicurus did NOT hold “reason” to be one of the three legs of his canon of truth, and that he considered “logic” to be strictly a secondary tool — a tool as apt to lead one astray as to lead one to truth, if the premises on which it starts are false.  Here is a part of the argument, from Cicero’s defense of Epicurus in De Finibus:

Theoretical logic, on which your Platonic school lays such stress, Epicurus held to be of no assistance either as a guide to conduct or as an aid to thought. In contrast, he deemed Natural Philosophy to be all-important. Natural Philosophy explains to us the meaning of terms, the nature of cause and effect, and the laws of consistency and contradiction. A thorough knowledge of the facts of Nature relieves us of the burden of superstition, frees us from fear of death, and shields us against the disturbing effects of ignorance, which is often in itself a cause of terrifying fears. A knowledge of those things that Nature truly requires improves the moral character as well. It is only by firmly grasping a well-reasoned scientific study of Nature, and observing Epicurus’ Canon of truth that has fallen, as it were, from heaven, which affords us a knowledge of the universe. Only by making that Canon the test of all our judgments can we hope always to stand fast in our convictions, undeterred and unshaken by the eloquence of any man.

On the other hand, without a firm understanding of the world of Nature, it is impossible to maintain the validity of the perceptions of our senses. Every mental presentation has its origin in sensation, and no knowledge or perception is possible unless the sensations are reliable, as the theory of Epicurus teaches us that they are. Those who deny the reliability of sensation and say that nothing can be known, having excluded the evidence of the senses, are unable even to make their own argument. By abolishing knowledge and science, they abolish all possibility of rational life and action. Thus Natural Philosophy supplies courage to face the fear of death; and resolution to resist the terrors of religion. Natural Philosophy provides peace of mind by removing all ignorance of the mysteries of Nature, and provides self-control, by explaining the Nature of the desires and allowing us to distinguish their different kinds. In addition, the Canon or Criterion of Knowledge which Epicurus established shows us the method by which we evaluate the evidence of the senses and discern truth from falsehood.

Here is a rendering of the passage from Book II of Lucretius that avoids this implication, but seems unnecessarily vague (likely due to Good’s effort to render in a poetic form):

John Mason Good (1805)

Since, then, nor wealth, nor splendour, nor the boast
Of birth illustrious,  nor e’en regal state
Avails the body, so the free-born mind
Their aid as little asks.   Unless, perchance,
The warlike host, thou deem, for thee array’d
In martial pomp, and o’er the fiery field
Panting for glory ; and the gorgeous fleet,
For thee unmoor’d, and ardent, — can dispel
Each superstitious terror ; from the breast
Root out the dread of death, and lull to peace
The cares, the tumults that distract thy soul.
But if all this be idle, if the cares,
The TERRORS still that haunt, and harass man.
Dread not the din of arms, — o’er kings and chiefs,
Press unabash’d, unaw’d by glittering pomp,
The purple robe unheeding — canst thou doubt
Man pants for these from poverty of mind,
Wand’ring in darkness, and through life misled?
For as the boy, when midnight veils the skies,
Trembles, and starts at all things, so, full oft,
E’en in the noon men start at forms as void
Of real danger as the phantoms false
By darkness conjur’d, and the school-boy’s dread.
A terror this the radiant darts of day
Can ne’er disperse : to truth’s pure light alone,
And wisdom yielding, intellectual suns.

I suggest to you that the best rendering I have found of this passage is by Martin Ferguson Smith, in his 2001 Hackett edition, as follows:

Martin Ferguson Smith, (2001)

Therefore, since neither riches nor rank nor the pomp of power have any beneficial effect upon our bodies, we must assume that they are equally useless to our minds. Or when you watch your legions swarming over the spacious Plain in vigorous imitation of war, reinforced with numerous reserves and powerful cavalry, uniform in their armor, uniform in their spirit, can it be that these experiences strike terror into your irrational notions, causing them to flee in panic from your mind? Can it be that the fears of death leave your breast disburdened and eased of care?  But if we recognize that these suppositions are absurd and ridiculous, because in reality people’s fears and the cares at their back dread neither the din of arms nor cruel darts, and strut boldly among kings and potentates, respecting neither the glitter of gold nor the brilliant luster of purple raiment, how can you doubt that philosophy alone possesses the power to resist them? All the more so, because life is one long struggle in the gloom. For, just as children tremble and fear everything in blinding darkness, so we even in daylight sometimes dread things that are no more terrible than the imaginary dangers that cause children to quake in the dark.  This terrifying darkness that enshrouds the mind must be dispelled not by the sun’s rays and the dazzling darts of day, but by study of the superficial aspect and underlying principle of nature.

I do not see a note which describes Smith’s decision to render the word “philosophy” rather than “reason,” but I suspect he shares the same concern I am discussing.  The philosophy of Epicurus is not primarily an enshrinement of “reason” as is that of Platonism.  Indeed, while “philosophy” is a definite improvement, even this rendering needs to considered in context with the phrase that follows, “because life is one long struggle in the gloom.”  No where, no time, and no way does “reason” in the sense of “logic” allow us to navigate in the dark, or in the gloom.  It is Epicurean philosophy, based on the canon of the five senses, the plain/pleasure mechanism, and the anticipations, that alone provides a coherent model for navigating through the darkness of life, overcoming irrational fears, and achieving the happy life that is possible to us.

Referring again to Cicero’s defense of Epicurus in De Finibus, it appears to me that the challenge is not to erect “reason” as our model, but to gain a deeper understanding of what Epicurus meant by wisdom – the art of living:

You amuse yourself by thinking that Epicurus was uneducated. The truth is that Epicurus refused to consider any education to be worthy of the name if it did not teach us the means to live happily. Was Epicurus to spend his time, as you encourage Triarius and me to do, perusing the poets, who give us nothing solid and useful, but only childish amusement? Was Epicurus to occupy himself like Plato, with music and geometry, arithmetic and astronomy, which are at best mere tools, and which, if they start from false premises, can never reveal truth or contribute anything to make our lives happier and therefore better?

Was Epicurus to study the limited arts such as these, and neglect the master art, so difficult but correspondingly so fruitful, the art of living? No! It was not Epicurus who was uninformed. The truly uneducated are those who ask us to go on studying until old age the subjects that we ought to be ashamed not to have learned when we were children!


Update 03/06/12:  Going through and evaluating every use of “rationis” would be fascinating if I could find the time to do it. In the meantime, here’s another interesting example from the beginning of Book V:  “qui princeps vitae rationem invenit eam quae nunc appellatur sapientia.” This is part of the sentence translated by M.F. Smith without use of the word “reason as: “For if we are to speak as the majesty of his revelations demands, a god he was, a god, Memmius, who first discovered that principle of life which is now identified with wisdom….” Bailey renders it: “who first found out that principle of life which now is called wisdom…” and Munro translates: “who first found out that plan of life which is now termed wisdom.”  Even the Loeb edition, which does include the term: “a god he was, who first discovered that reasoned plan of life which is now called Wisdom,”  translates it in a way that does not imply that “reason” is the sole focus of Wisdom.