[Latest Updated Version in MP3 here.] [Vimeo Edition] Of all the original texts that are available from the ancient world, Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus preserved by Diogenes Laertius is our most important source for accurate information about Epicurean philosophy.
In my study of Epicurus I have found it very helpful not only to read, but also to listen, to the material. I found this most helpful in the case of Lucretius, using the very good audio edition prepared from the translation by Rolfe Humphries and read professionally by Charlton Griffin.
Unfortunately I have been less successful in studying the letters of Epicurus in this way. The translation of Cyril Bailey is among the best that is available, but Bailey has rightly preserved all the detail in the original, and Epicurus’ writing style does not translate into English that is readily readable. For that reason I have prepared a text from the Bailey edition that essentially unwinds the syntax. Equally important, I have removed much of the duplication that Epicurus included to ensure that his meaning was understood, but which also makes the text difficult to follow in English.
The version I have prepared for audio use is not suited for the advanced researcher, who will always want to consult one of the literal translations or the original Greek. Nevertheless I find it helpful to listen to the outline of the argument as preparation for further study, and for those who might find it helpful I am releasing it publicly.
My hope is that this “elemental” version helps bring out the truth about “atoms and void” – that Epicurus was not just some kind of perverse science teacher who relished batting around arcane terminology and concepts just because he thought it was fun. If you dig into this, I think you’ll see that what he was talking about was in fact very clear, and that atoms and void are not arcane science to be ignored, but key foundations of proper thinking. Building on the commitment to reason based on clear evidence, rather than on speculation, one can – step by step – start with what is clearly in front of us and reach compelling conclusions about the nature of the universe. Those conclusions are deceptively simple, but if the universe IS made of elements that are eternal (and that remains to this day what we see for ourselves), then in fact it becomes compellingly simple to understand that the universe itself is eternal, and was not created by any god. And once it becomes clear to you that ALL that exists is particles and space, then it becomes compellingly simple to understand that there are by definition no other dimensions, and therefore no “heaven” and no “hell.” And once it becomes clear to you that there are no other dimensions, and that your soul – your consciousness – exists only so long as it remains in your one single body, then it becomes compellingly clear that your goal must be to live productively now, while you still exist. And once you commit your mind to following only those guides that are real, and you understand that Nature has presented only Pleasure to you as a real guide, then it becomes compellingly clear that Epicurus was not devoted to pleasure for the sake of riotous living, but for the very serious, very real, very intense commitment to follow reality rather than speculation about how to live.
I invite and in fact request that anyone who listens to this, and believes that the thoughts have been transcribed inaccurately, contact me with suggestions for revisions or corrections. I will appreciate that very much, and will update this version as appropriate.
The letter to Herodotus, by Epicurus – Elemental Edition.
This presentation of the letter to Herodotus is a project of New Epicurean.com, based on the translation of Cyril Bailey. What you are about to hear is not a literal reading of Bailey’s translation, but a version rendered into modern American English and organized into sections for audio presentation. The listener should consult literal translations for comparison, and ultimately refer to the letter in its original Greek as preserved by Diogenes Laertius.
The letter to Herodotus was addressed to a student who was already familiar with the methods and conclusions of Epicurean thought. Epicurus wrote this letter as an outline, to provide an aid to memory in recalling the main points of his philosophy, not as an argument with which to approach someone new to the ideas.
This letter is particularly valuable to us today because it reveals the method of thinking by which Epicurus derived and proved the truth of his philosophy. In order to highlight that method, in this audio presentation ancient scientific terminology has been generalized. In particular, the word “atom,” which has a meaning to us today that is different from that which was intended by Epicurus, is rendered here as “particle.” This term conveys Epicurus’ central point, that, at some supremely small level, the universe is composed of eternal Naturally-occurring particles which cannot themselves be divided, created, or destroyed. Every conclusion of Epicurean philosophy is ultimately tested by asking whether it is consistent with the properties of the elemental particles. For it is in the properties of these elemental particles, and not in the will of any divinity, where the laws of Nature are to be found.
In order to determine the nature of the elemental particles, we must first discuss how we determine that any opinion is true, and how we recall truth to our minds, and thus begins the letter to Herodotus.
Section 1. Truth Can Only Be Established By Studying The Evidence Nature Provides To Us, And Organizing That Evidence In Our Minds.
Epicurus to Herodotus, wishing he may do well.
Many students who devote themselves to the study of Nature are unable, Herodotus, to work through in detail all the many volumes that I have written on the subject. For these students, I have previously prepared a lengthy summary of the whole system for their use in keeping in mind the most general principles and understanding the most important points.
Even those who have made considerable progress in understanding the main principles must keep in mind an outline of the essentials of the whole system. For we frequently have need of the general view, but less often do we need the details. And it is necessary to focus on the main principles, and commit them firmly to memory, if we are to gain the most essential comprehension of truth. This is because an accurate knowledge of details can be obtained only if the general principles in the various departments are thoroughly grasped. Even for those who are well educated, the most essential feature of all accurate knowledge is the capacity to make a rapid use of that knowledge, and this can only be done if the details are summed up in elementary principles and formulas.
For it is not possible to grasp the complete course through the whole system unless one can embrace in one’s own mind short formulas that set forth the principles that control the details.
Since this method I have described is essential to the proper investigation of Nature, and since I myself urge others to study Nature constantly, and I find my own peace of mind chiefly in a life devoted to that study, I have composed for you a shorter summary of the principles of the whole doctrine, which I will relate to you now.
But first of all, Herodotus, before we begin the investigation of our opinions, we must firmly grasp the ideas that are attached to our words, so that we can refer to them as we proceed. Unless we have a firm grasp of the meaning of each word, we leave everything uncertain, and we go on to infinity using empty words that are devoid of meaning. Thus it is essential that we rely on the first mental image associated with each word, without need of explanation, if we are to have a firm standard to which to refer as we proceed in our study.
Most of all, we must keep our investigations strictly in accord with the evidence of the senses. We must ensure that we keep our conclusions consistent with those things we have already clearly grasped through our sensations, and through our feelings of pain and pleasure, and through those mental apprehensions that we receive through anticipations. We must always take as true those things that have already been clearly established, and refer back to them as foundations for our new judgments. This is the method we employ in investigating all new questions, regardless of whether the object of the question can be perceived directly by the senses, or whether it can only be understood by reasoning from that which has already been perceived.
Section 2. The Evidence That Nature Places Clearly Before Us Reveals That The Universe Is Eternal and Operates On Natural Principles.
We always must first determine with clarity those things that are perceptible to the senses, and when we turn to those matters beyond the reach of the senses, we must judge them by what we already have grasped to be true. We use this process to reach several conclusions of particular importance:
First, nothing can be created out of that which does not exist. We conclude this to be true because if things could be created out of that which did not exist, we would see all things being created out of everything, with no need of seeds, and our experience shows us that this is not true.
Second, nothing is ever completely destroyed to non-existence. We conclude this because if those things which dissolve from our sight completely ceased to exist, all things would have perished to nothing long ago. If all things had dissolved to non-existence, nothing would exist for the creation of new things, and we have already seen that nothing can come from that which does not exist.
Third, the universe as a whole has always been as it is now, and always will be the same. We conclude this because the universe as a whole is everything that exists, and there is nothing outside the universe into which the universe can change, or which can come into the universe from outside it to bring about change.
Fourth, Nothing exists in the universe except bodies and space. We conclude that bodies exist because it is the experience of all men, through our senses, that bodies exist. As I have already said, we must necessarily judge all things, even those things that the senses cannot perceive, by reasoning that is fully in accord with the evidence that the senses do perceive. And we conclude that space exists because, if it did not, bodies would have nowhere to exist and nothing through which to move, as we see that bodies do move. Besides these two, bodies and space, and properties that are incidental to combinations of bodies and space, nothing else whatsoever exists, nor is there any evidence on which to speculate that anything else exists that does not have a foundation in bodies and space.
Fifth, the bodies that we have described are either ultimate particles or compounds of those particles. And we conclude that these particles must be indivisible and unalterable, because if they were not, all things would have been destroyed into the non-existent. But we see that something permanent remains behind when all compounds are dissolved. These particles must be completely solid in nature, and undividable, in order for them to constitute the first beginnings of the universe.
Sixth, the universe as a whole is boundless. We conclude this because anything that is bounded has an extreme point, and this extreme point can be seen against something else. But the universe, as a whole, cannot have an extreme point, and can therefore have no limit. There can be nothing outside the term we use for all that exists, and so we must conclude that the universe, as a whole, has no limit and is unbounded.
Seventh, the universe is infinite both in the number of bodies and in the amount of empty space. We conclude this because, if the empty space were infinite, but the number of bodies were limited, the bodies would be carried about and scattered through infinite void, and have no other bodies to support them and keep them in place. On the other hand, if space were limited but the number of bodies were infinite, the bodies would fill up the universe, and have no room to move or take their own place.
Eighth, the ultimate particles of the universe have an innumerable, but not an infinite, number of shapes. We conclude this because it is not possible that the great varieties of things that we see should arise from particles with only a few shapes. On the other hand, though the number of shapes are beyond our ability to count, the number of shapes are not infinite. We conclude this because we see that none are so large that they are visible to our eyes.
Ninth, the ultimate particles of the universe are in continual motion through all eternity. Some travel for long distances, while others bound and rebound in their movements because they are interlaced with others around them. We conclude this because the space around the particles offers them no resistance. On the other hand, the particles themselves are solid, so they resist each other, and they must recoil after colliding to as great a distance as their interlacing permits.
Tenth, the motions of the ultimate particles had no beginning point in time. We conclude this because both particles and space have existed from eternity, since nothing can be, or has ever been, created from nothing.
Section 3. The Evidence That Nature Places At A Distance From Us Requires Consideration Of How Particles Move And The Possibility of Error.
And now, resting on the truth of what we have proved so far, and always bearing in mind what has already been proved as a test of our next conclusions, let us consider the movement of the ultimate particles.
First, an infinite number of worlds exists in the universe, some of which worlds are like and some of which are unlike our own. We conclude this because the ultimate particles are infinite in number, as was proved already. No matter how far they move out into space, it is not possible that the number of particles has been used up in the formation of any number of worlds. Thus there is no obstacle to the existence of an infinite number of worlds, and we conclude that there are innumerable worlds in the universe, including those, like our own, which contain living beings.
Second, it is the nature of all bodies, as they have been formed by the coming together of particles, that those same bodies also give off particles. These particles are emitted in the shape of the objects from which they come, and thus we call them “images.” These images are far too fine too be perceptible in themselves, but the evidence supports the conclusion that these images exist, and that as they move they preserve, in some degree, their respective positions that they held in the solid bodies from which they came.
Third, these images move with unsurpassable speed. We conclude this because the movement of all particles is uniform in speed, and for a substance as fine as images there are few collisions to hinder their progress, as would be the case if their number were larger. Here again our conclusion is consistent with our first principles, and no evidence contradicts the conclusion that these images are incredibly fine.
Fourth, the creation of images takes place instantly, as quickly as our own thoughts. For the flow of particles from the surface of bodies appears to be continuous, yet we cannot detect any lessening in the size of the object, because what is lost is constantly filled up. This continuous flow of images preserves for a time the position and order of the particles as they existed in the solid body, but as they travel further the images eventually become distorted.
Fifth, images may sometimes be formed in the air without having originated in a solid body. We conclude this because our senses provide clear evidence that such images do form under certain conditions. As always, we reach this conclusion based on the evidence of our senses, which allows us to judge the continuity of the flow of all particles that we observe, and we find that there is nothing in this conclusion that is contradicted by sensations or by our first principles.
Section 4. Judge Things That Are Obscure By Classifying As True Only That Which Is Clear.
Here let us step back for a moment. We conclude from experience that when particles that originate in other bodies as images collide with us, we perceive the shapes of these other bodies in our minds. And we conclude that images must exist, for we could not perceive the color or shape of external objects by means of the air which lies between us and them, or by means of images or particles of any sort which pass from us to them.
We must conclude that the impressions we perceive in our minds arise from these images, which are similar in color and shape to the objects they have left. And these images move along swiftly, continuously emitted by the vibration of the particles of the solid body from which they came. And from those images that reach us, our minds reproduce a view of a single continuous thing, preserving the corresponding sequence of qualities and movements of the original object. This is the case with every act of apprehension of the mind or of any sense-organ. Our act of perception is that of perceiving the shape and other properties conveyed to us by the image.
Understanding this process allows us to account for the origination of falsehood and misunderstanding. For we perceive only what the images convey to us, but our reasoning minds add opinion to what is received, and the opinion we add is not always confirmed. Sometimes additional images do not confirm our opinion, or in fact may contradict it.
We must therefore always understand that the mental images we perceive while sleeping, or through any activity of our sense-organs, may be untrue to the facts. We must not label a matter as true and real unless it is confirmed over time by repeated observation.
And so error would not exist if our reasoning minds did not add opinion to those things which our sense-organs perceive. For error occurs when we originate a motion within our minds that, while linked to the object, differs from it in a way that is not confirmed, or is contradicted by, other observation of the same object.
Understanding this process is important because we must always strive to preserve our standard of judgment, and to do so we must realize that our judgment depends on clear vision. We must never let our determination to rely on clear vision be undermined. If we always rest our judgments on clear vision, no error can become as firmly established as truth, but if we follow opinion that is not based on clear vision, all will be thrown into confusion.
Let us review this process as it applies to hearing, which results when a flow of particles is carried off from an object which makes a noise. This flow of particles, each reflecting the whole, preserves for a time a correspondence of qualities with one another which stretches back to the object which emitted the sound. It is this correspondence which produces awareness or comprehension in the recipient.
If this transfer of correspondence of qualities from the object did not occur, we would have no means to comprehend the sound. We therefore must not suppose that air is molded into a shape by the voice which is speaking. It is rather the case that, when we speak, we emit particles, which produces a flow of such character as to afford us the sensation of hearing.
The same process operates in regard to the sense of smell. We would never be able to smell anything unless the object being smelled cast off particles of suitable size, which then stir our noses in ways that are sometimes orderly and sometimes disorderly.
Section 5. Conform Your Judgments To The Eternal Properties of the Particles, But Remember That The Properties Do Not Exist Separately.
Now let us discuss the particles that make up images and all other bodies.
Recall from our first principles that the ultimate particles do not possess any of the qualities of perceptible things except weight, size, shape, and those things that necessarily go with shape. For while the qualities of things that are perceptible to us are seen to change, the ultimate particles do not change at all, as there must be something which remains eternally the same. These ultimate particles can cause changes in the bodies they form by shifting positions and combinations, but they cannot themselves be changed or created or destroyed. This we see from the fact that things that are perceptible to us, and which diminish before our eyes, nevertheless retain a shape of some kind as long as they are perceptible, even as all other qualities about the object are changed. It is these ultimate particles, that are left behind when an object erodes, that account for the differences in compound bodies, and which are never destroyed so as to become non-existent.
And I remind you of another principle. We conclude that ultimate particles can exist in many variations of size, as this is consistent with what we perceive in our sensations. However, we must not suppose that ultimate particles can exist in every possible size whatsoever. This is because no particles are so large as to be seen with our eyes, and indeed, it would not be possible to conceive of a visible particle.
Thus we have established that ultimate particles can be only so large, and no larger. But it is equally important to observe that ultimate particles can only be so small, and no smaller. We conclude this because we must not suppose that a body of finite size can be composed of an infinite number of parts. We must dismiss the idea that a thing can be divided into smaller and smaller parts to infinity, for if that were the case, all things would be weak and eventually erode into non-existence.
If we were to say that there are an infinity of small parts in a body, how could that body be limited in size, for it is obvious that these infinite particles must be of some size or other. However small you might speculate those particles to be, the size of a body composed of an infinite number of particles would also be infinite.
We also observe that every finite body has an extreme point which is distinguishable, even though the ultimate particles which compose it are not themselves distinguishable. Thus it is not in accord with the facts to suppose that you could divide any object in the direction of its extreme point an infinite number of times.
We also observe that the smallest particle perceptible to our senses is neither exactly like the thing from which it came, nor is it unlike it in every respect, yet it cannot itself be divided into parts. But when we attempt to reason that we can extend this analogy down, past the level of perception, to ever smaller divisions, it is necessary for us to reason that another point like the first meets our view. When we reason about these points in succession, separating one particle from another that yet possesses a size of its own, we find more such particles in a larger body and fewer such particles in a smaller body, by which we conclude that at some point further division must become impossible.
Further, we must consider these least indivisible points as boundary-marks, providing in themselves primary units by which we may measure the size of particles. We may then use these units to compare smaller and larger particles as we reason about them, and as we consider them as unchangeable and yet always in motion.
In regard to the motions of the ultimate particles, we must not speak of “up” or “down” as though we are referring to absolute highest or lowest points. It is possible to proceed infinitely far in any direction, so we will never reach a highest or lowest point while traveling in that direction. “Up” and “down” are merely terms that apply from the point of view of an observer.
And in their motions, the particles move with equal speed as they proceed through space so long as nothing collides with them. The large and heavy particles move no faster than the small and light particles, for what we perceive as faster or slower arises only because particles in their movement collide with other particles.
As for their speed, the particles travel every distance that is perceptible to us in an inconceivably short time. It is only collision, or absence of collision, with other particles which provides for us the outward appearance of slowness or quickness.
So do not be confused into believing that, when we perceive a body to be moving, the particles in that moving body are traveling faster than particles in a body that we perceive to be motionless. If we consider the constant jostling motion of the particles themselves, rather than the outward appearance of the bodies they compose, we will understand that the speed of the jostling of the particles remains equal within both bodies.
This is an example of how the addition of opinion in our reasoning can lead us to error. For just as the particles which comprise an object do not share in the color of the object as we perceive it to be colored, it is not correct to presume that particles at the level below our perception take on the motion of the object as we perceive it to move.
Here again, as we determine what is true, we must restrain our opinions to conform to the facts which we have previously grasped. For it must not be supposed that the motions of a body, as a whole, are the same as the motions of its component particles. The truth is that the particles comprising the body move in one direction, and then another direction after collision, only in time that is appreciable by our thought, and not by our senses. The motion of the whole body is all that is apparent to us, and this does not reflect the internal collisions of its particles. It is an error of added opinion for us to assume that the movement of particles, at speeds we can understand only through thought, will appear to our senses as continuous motion. We must recall, here as always, the rule of our canon of truth. Only when a matter is confirmed, after repeated direct observation of our senses and direct apprehension of our mind, can we consider it to be true.
Section 6. The Human Soul Is Composed of Eternal Particles Which Experience Sensation Only While United With The Body.
Now let us take what we have concluded to be true about the nature of the elemental particles, and apply these lessons to what we call our soul.
Here again, we refer back to our sensations, to our feelings of pain and pleasure, and to our mental apprehensions through the anticipations, as these provide us the only trustworthy ground for belief. Based on our principles so far, and knowing that the soul exists, because it acts and is acted on, we conclude that the soul is composed of very fine particles, similar to air mixed with heat, and distributed throughout the whole structure of the body. These particles of the soul must be more advanced in fineness even than the wind, for we see that it is capable of providing feeling throughout the whole structure of the body. We conclude these observations to be true because of what we observe about the actions of the soul, and about its feelings, and about the quickness of its movements, and about its processes of thought, and about what we observe is lost at the moment of death.
From these, we conclude that the soul possesses the chief cause of sensation. Yet the soul could not have acquired sensation unless it were enclosed within the body. And by the fact of its enclosing the soul, the body in turn acquires a share in the soul’s capacities. Yet the body does not acquire all the capacities which the soul possesses, and when the soul is separated from the body, the body no longer has sensation. And thus we see that the body never possesses the power of sensation in itself, but affords to the soul only the opportunity to experience sensation. From this we see that the body and soul were brought into being at the same time, and that by means of the motions of the soul and its interconnections with the body, the soul imparts consciousness to the body.
And we see also that, so long as the soul remains in the body, it does not lose sensation, even though some parts of the body may be lost. This is the case even though parts of the soul were enclosed within those parts of the body that have been removed. On the other hand, the rest of the body, even though it may continue to exist, does not retain sensation once it has lost that sum of particles, however small it may be, which come together to produce the soul.
Once the whole structure is dissolved, however, the soul is dispersed and no longer has the power to perform its movements, and thus it does not possess sensation either. It is impossible to imagine that the soul can experience sensation outside the organism in which it arose, and in which alone it is capable of its powers and movements.
Having observed these things, surely we must understand that the general idea of the soul being “incorporeal,” and independent of the body, is wrong. For it is impossible to conceive of anything being incorporeal except the void, and the void can neither act nor be acted upon. The only attribute of the void is that it allows bodies to move through its empty space.
Those who say that the soul is incorporeal are talking idly, for the soul would not be able to act or be acted upon, in any respect, if its only characteristic were that of providing empty space. But we see that the soul is something that both acts, and is acted upon, and as such it is clearly composed of particles, as are all other things that exist.
And so here we have provided the principles by which we can refer all of our reasonings about the soul. Thus we may here, as in all other things, bring our opinions in line with our sensations, with our feelings of pain and pleasure, and with our mental apprehensions received through the anticipations.
Section 7. Conform Your Judgments Also To The Incidental Qualities of Bodies, But Remember That The Qualities Do Not Exist Separately.
Let us now move forward to distinguish those things which are eternal properties of particles from those things which are incidental to the arrangement of combinations of particles into bodies at any moment in time.
In regard to shape and color and size and weight, and all other things that are associated with bodies, we must not suppose that these qualities are independent existences with their own material parts or nature. But it is equally wrong to consider these qualities as not having any existence at all, or that they have some kind of incorporeal existence. The truth is that these qualities are characteristic of bodies under certain conditions, but they are not separate existences which have been brought together from outside to form the body. It is through qualities such as these that a body has its identity.
We must distinguish particles, which have eternal and essential properties, from bodies, which are combinations of particles and void, and which have qualities that are merely transitory while they are so combined. These temporary qualities we call “incidental” to the bodies with which they are associated. As with the permanent properties of particles, transitory incidental qualities of bodies do not have material existences of their own, nor can they be classified as incorporeal. When we refer to some quality as “incidental,” we must make clear that this incidental quality is neither essential to the body, nor a permanent property of the body, nor something without which we could not conceive the body as existing. Instead, the incidental qualities of a body are the result of our apprehending that they accompany the body only for a time.
Although those qualities which are incidental are not eternal, or even essential, we must not banish incidental matters from our minds. Incidental qualities do not have a material existence, nor do they exist independently in some reality that is beyond our comprehension. We must, instead, consider the incidental qualities of bodies as having exactly the character that our sensations reveal them to possess.
For example, it is important to grasp firmly that “time” neither has a material existence, nor does it exist independently, apart from bodies. Nor must we think of “time” as a general conception, such as those conceptions which are formed by reasoning in our minds. Instead, we must think of time by referring to our intuitions, our mental apprehensions formed by anticipations, and it is in this context that we speak of a “long time,” or a “short time,” applying our intuitions to time as we do to other incidental qualities.
In evaluating time as an incidental quality, we must not search for expressions that we may think are better than those which are in common use, and we must not believe that time has any properties other than being an incident to bodies. We must evaluate time only in accord with our intuitions or anticipations.
For indeed, we need no demonstration, but only to reflect, to see that we associate time with days and nights, and with our internal feelings, and with our state of rest. These perceptions of incidental qualities are the root of what we call “time.”
Section 8. Incidental Qualities Of Bodies Are Not Supernaturally Created Or Governed, But Neither Are All Combinations And Qualities Possible. The Incidental Qualities Of Bodies Are Governed By The Eternal Properties Of The Particles Of Which They Are Composed.
And now, applying our principles to the universe once again, we conclude that, from the smallest body we see up to the world itself, all were formed from eternal particles. Some bodies came together at a particular time, some faster and some slower, and then later dissolved, some from one cause, and some from another cause.
We must also see that not all worlds are created in the same configuration, but neither is it true that every kind of configuration is possible. The only bodies and worlds that exist, and are possible, are those which are in accord with the properties of the eternal elemental particles.
This means that in the innumerable worlds that exist, there are living creatures and plants, some of which are similar, and some of which are dissimilar, to our own. For indeed the evidence supports the conclusion that some worlds have seeds that are similar to, and some different from, those seeds which exist in our own world.
And we must conclude that human nature itself has been taught and constrained to do many things by Nature, according to circumstances. Only later on did men, by reasoning, elaborate on what had previously been suggested by Nature so as to make further inventions. In some matters these inventions occurred quickly, in some matters slowly, and at different places and times to a greater or lesser degree.
And it was in this very way that language developed, not from words given to things deliberately, but by men’s natures, according to their different nationalities and their own peculiar impressions, each man emitting sounds according to his own feelings and impressions. Only afterwards, by common consent in each nation, were special names given to make meanings less ambiguous and easier to demonstrate. In some cases, men of a nation brought among them new things hitherto unknown to them, assigning sounds in some cases according to the promptings of nature, and in other cases, choosing sounds by reason, in accord with prevailing custom.
Another category of incidental qualities that is of particular importance is that of the motions of the heavenly bodies. These risings and settings and eclipses must not be thought to be caused by any supernatural being, which is somehow ordaining and controlling these movements, while, at the same time, experiencing perfect bliss and immortality. The ordaining and controlling of heavenly phenomena are not consistent with perfect blissfulness. Matters of trouble and care, and of anger and kindness, occur only where there is weakness and fear, and dependence on neighbors.
Indeed, the bright heavenly bodies are nothing but masses of fire, and we must never believe that these masses possess divinity, or that they take their movements upon themselves voluntarily. We must preserve the full majestic significance of all our anticipations of the nature of divinity. Above all, we must never allow ourselves to entertain opinions about divine natures that are inconsistent with this majesty, for opinions which contradict our clear anticipations about divinity cause the greatest of disturbances in men’s souls.
And so we must not attribute the heavenly movements to the gods. Instead, the evidence leads us to conclude that the regular succession of risings and settings has come about due to the properties of those particles which joined to compose the stars when they first were formed.
Section 9. The Eternal Properties of Particles, Together With The Incidental Qualities Of Bodies, Constitute The Principles of Nature Which Govern All Things. In Order To Live Happily, You Must Study And Live In Accord With These Principles.
The function of the science of Nature is to discover the properties and causes of those things that are essential to us, for our happiness depends on knowledge of essential matters, such as the fact that heavenly bodies are not divinities. On these essential points we cannot be satisfied with multiple possibilities, for we must dismiss all theories that the movements of the heavens are caused by the gods. Such theories are totally incompatible with our anticipations of divinity, and the mind is fully capable of grasping this truth with certainty.
But such things as risings and settings and eclipses are incidental qualities, and precise knowledge of how they occur is not essential to happiness. In fact, people who study risings and settings and eclipses enough to learn that they occur, but not enough to learn their true nature and essential causes, find themselves just as much in fear as if they knew nothing about these things at all. Indeed, the fear that haunts such people may be even greater, since their observation inspires wonder, but their minds fail to find any solution for how these phenomena naturally occur.
We have determined with certainty that risings and settings derive from the properties of the particles involved, and that they are not caused by divinities, and that risings and settings are only incidental qualities. We should therefore be satisfied if we are able to determine several possible causes for these phenomena. We have reached a level of accuracy sufficient to secure our happiness once we have confirmed that these events are not produced by gods, and once we have dismissed the idea that their movements constitute evidence that contradicts our anticipations of the divine nature. As we investigate how risings and settings and eclipses occur, we should consider how similar appearances occur here on earth, and this will lead us toward possible theories to explain these phenomena in the sky.
Keep firmly in mind that you will encounter people who will refuse to admit that there is more than one way in which a thing may occur, even in matters where the evidence can only be observed at a distance, and the evidence is necessarily incomplete. People who take this position are ignorant of the conditions that render peace of mind possible, and attitudes such as this you should hold in contempt.
As for us, if we are able to determine that there are several possible ways in which a phenomena may occur, and all of those ways are natural and undisturbing to our peace of mind, then we are just as well off as if we knew with certainty the exact way it occurs.
Again, some men think that the celestial bodies are gods, and that these gods display wills and actions that are inconsistent with our anticipations of divinity. Such men are always expecting or imagining the type of everlasting misery that is depicted in legends, or they fear the loss of feeling in death, as though it should concern them now, while they live. Some men are not even brought to this pass by false religious opinion, but simply by irrational ideas. Because these men do not understand the limits of pain, they suffer a disturbance as great or greater than if they had reached this belief through religion.
But peace of mind requires that we deliver ourselves from all this confusion, by keeping constantly in our minds a summary of the essential principles of Nature.
For the reasons I have stated, we must always pay close attention to our perceptions from the senses, to our feelings of pain and pleasure, and to our mental apprehensions from the anticipations, both those we receive ourselves, and those received by other men. For we must conform our judgments to the clear evidence that is available to us through each of the standards of truth. If we always remain true to these, we can rightly trace the causes of our disturbances and fears. By seeking out the true causes of incidental qualities, such as those we observe from time to time in the sky, we shall free ourselves from that doubt which produces the worst fears in other men.
Here then, Herodotus, we have completed our summary of the fundamental Principles of Nature, abridged so that it may be committed to memory with accuracy.
If this summary is retained and applied consistently, even those who are unable to proceed to the study of the details can obtain an unrivaled strength compared with other men. Indeed, by simply storing up the summary in one’s mind and referring to it constantly for assistance, a man can clear up for himself many of the details. For such is the nature of this summary that, no matter the extent of his progress, a student of nature will find it of great value for organizing his researches.
And even those who are not far advanced in their knowledge of Nature can use this summary, and survey in their own minds, in silent fashion and quick as thought, the doctrines most important to their happiness.
And thus ended the Letter to Herodotus, by Epicurus.
This presentation of Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus has been based on the 1926 translation by Cyril Bailey, adapted into modern American English. The student of Epicurus should consult for comparison other translations, as well as the ultimate authority, the letter in its original Greek as preserved by Diogenes Laertius.
For further information about this presentation please visit NewEpicurean.com.