Epicurus and His Philosophy – Chapter VIII – Sensations, Anticipations, and Feelings


THE criteria are three, but the prevailing custom is to reduce them to one by merging the Anticipations and the Feelings with the Sensations. This error arises from classifying Epicurus as an empiricist, ascribing to him belief in the infallibility of sensation, and then employing this false assumption as a major premise.

The three criteria are neither three aspects of a single capacity nor yet three discrete capacities which function separately from one another. To Epicurus body and soul are alike corporeal; they are also coterminous. Consequently all reactions of the individual to his environment are total or psychosomatic. Thus in the case of every reaction Nature is on the alert to register approval or disapproval by the signals of pleasure and pain. This is the function of the Feelings in the meaning of the Canon.

It is true that in the Greek language all three criteria may be called pathe, in modern parlance “reactions,” but they are not identical. It is true also that all three may be components of a given reaction but still they occur in sequence. Sensation is irrational and merely registers a quality, for example, sweetness. It is the intelligence that says, “This is honey,” and it is the Feelings that report, “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” Again, it is positively known that Epicurus postulated the existence of an innate sense of justice and called this an Anticipation. Now injustice hurts and it is the Feelings that register this fact. If a man is condemned to pay an unjust penalty, the pain is a reaction distinct from the aural sensation of hearing the verdict.

When once the criteria have been recognized as three distinct reactions occurring in close sequence, the next point is to recognize the general approach of Epicurus to the problem of the Canon as being biological or, more precisely, genetic. This attitude reflects the contemporary increase of interest in the study of biology, which included animal behavior. The starting point is the behavior of the newly born, whether brute or human, which reach out for pleasure and shrink from pain.

When once this genetic approach has been recognized it becomes easy to discern that the three criteria correspond to three levels of experience, which may be styled somatic, social, and emotional.

It is proposed to call the first level somatic because at this stage the bodily sensations are of paramount importance. At this level the Feelings denote physical pains and pleasures. The innate ideas, that is, the Anticipations, are still latent or barely emergent, awaiting their due call to activity.

The second level may be called social because the child is becoming an active member of the family, the neighborhood, and society. The Feelings extend their function so as to operate in the sphere of justice and injustice. At the same time the child begins to participate in the religious life. In these two spheres, those of justice and injustice and of religion, we know positively from our texts that the criteria called Anticipations were thought to be operative.

The third level may be called emotional because physical pains and pleasures have been superseded in importance by fears and hopes, suspicions, hatreds, envies, ambitions, and the like. At this level the Feelings reach their peak of importance as criteria. For instance, if the individual is tortured by fear of death and divine vengeance, it is a sure indication of false opinions concerning death and gods. On the contrary, if the individual enjoys peace of mind, it is a sure indication of right opinion.

On this third level the telos attains importance and functions as a criterion. On the level of infancy pleasure was pursued by instinct and without thought. On the third level the intelligence has at length identified pleasure as the goal of living and the telos is purposively pursued. It also becomes an incentive.


The Sensations in the meaning of the Canon denote the five senses, vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, and nothing else. They qualify as criteria because they are direct physical contacts between the living being and the external physical reality. They also qualify as criteria because they are irrational, are incapable of memory, and pronounce no judgments. Sensation is incapable of memory. It can no more recall a given stimulus than a house can recall the impact of a ball thrown against its wall. The sensation merely registers a stimulus, a melody, for example; it is the memory that says, “I have heard this before”; it is the intelligence that says, “Home Sweet Home.”

Unfortunately the discussion of the Sensations has become clouded because of prejudice, negligence, confusions, and ambiguities.

The prejudice consists in classifying Epicurus as an empiricist and the negligence in not putting this assumption to the full test of the evidences and in failing to define the precise meanings of all the terms employed.

The confusions are two in number. The first is between concepts of “truth” and concepts of “value.” It is quite possible for a sensation to be true and yet valueless as a criterion. A square tower, for example, appears at a distance to be round; the sensation is true, relative to the distance, but false to the facts. The second confusion is between primary and accessory or derivative notions. This is to say that the ideas represented by the Twelve Elementary Principles of Physics are primary while all other ideas are derivative. The former are ennoiai, the latter epinoiai.

The chief ambiguities are also two in number. In the dictum of Epicurus that “all sensations are true” both terms are ambiguous. The English word sensation, like the Latin sensus, is employed to render various words and phrases in Greek, while the word true, like its Latin and Greek equivalents, may have any one of three meanings: first, absolutely true, as the statement that two and two make four is true, or second, relatively true, as the distant view of the tower is true, though false in detail, or third, real, in the sense that the sensation corresponds to a real object, such as an ox.


In the chapter on the New Physics it will be shown that Epicurus set up Twelve Elementary Principles, which he demonstrated like theorems of geometry, thus classifying himself as a deductive reasoner. The presumption that he was an empiricist has been based in large part upon the zest with which he brandished certain arguments in refutation of the skeptics, who denied the validity of sensation. These arguments are succinctly recorded by Laertius and more amply by Lucretius. The succinct account begins: “Nor does anything exist that can refute the sensations, for neither can a sensation in a given class refute the sensation in the same class, because they are of equal validity, nor can the sensation in a given class refute the sensation in another class, because they are not criteria of the same phenomena.” 1The first limb of this statement has reference to the objection urged by the skeptics that one drinker reports the wine to be sour and another sweet or one bather reports the water to be warm and another cold. The answer of Epicurus was sensible, that the difference was in the observers.2 Neither does the one judgment cancel the other, because each has validity for the observer, nor does the contradiction prove the fallibility of sensation, because the sensation in each instance performs its function as a criterion.

The second limb of the statement means that the ears cannot contradict the nose if the latter registers the smell of peppermint, which calls for no comment.

A subsequent item in the list of Laertius may seem to support the advocates of empiricism: “nor again can reason refute the sensations, because it depends upon them entirely.” However, to interpret this as meaning that the whole content of consciousness is derived from the sensations would be in violation of the Canon, which makes no mention of reason, and would also be contrary to the belief in Anticipations, that is, innate ideas, which is a kind of intuitionism and incompatible with empiricism. The meaning is rather that bereft of the sensations a human being is virtually dead, which, as already mentioned, we know to have been an argument of Epicurus.8

There is still another item in the list of Laertius that has been so translated as to lend plausibility to the charge of empiricism. One version runs, “For all thoughts have their origin in sensations,” and another, “For all our notions are derived from perceptions.” 4 The source of the error is an imprecision. The Greek noun translated above as “thoughts” or “notions” is epinoiai, which by virtue of its prefix signifies accessory, derivative or inferential ideas. These secondary ideas are not to be confused with others which to them are primary, ennoiai or ennoemata. For instance, Epicurus in the Little Epitome outlines seven of his Twelve Elementary Principles and then adds: “Even this brief statement affords an outline of the nature of the real existences sufficient for inferential ideas (epinoiais).” 5 To illustrate: the principle that the universe consists of atoms and void is a primary idea; the knowledge that the soul is distributed over the whole organism is secondary; it is inferred from the sensation of touch and other phenomena. 6

Other plausible reasons for ascribing empiricism and belief in the infallibility of sensation to Epicurus will disappear if the ambiguities be cleared up that inhere in the statement “all sensations are true.” If “sensation” and sensus be a rendering ofaisthesis, which means the perception of particulars such as color and shape, then it was idle for Cicero to be arguing against Epicurus, because Aristotle often enough declared the perception of particulars to be always true.7

It consequently follows that sensus must correspond to “phantasia,” an inference confirmed by the evidence of Plutarch and Sextus Empiricus.8 This term was employed in the same sense by Aristotle and Epicurus; it signifies the composite image of particulars. Both recognized the possibility of error, but Epicurus was more keenly interested in this factor because by his time the vogue of skepticism had made the erection of criteria a vital necessity. He was consequently at pains to locate the source of error, and he found it in the hasty action of the automatic mind. For example, the boat on which the observer is a passenger is standing still but it seems to be moving when a second boat is passing by. In such an instance the eyes are not playing the observer false; it is the hasty judgment of the automatic mind that is in error. However odd it seems in English, Epicurus called this “the addition of opinion.” In explanation of this the statement should be recalled, that “sensation is irrational and incapable of adding or subtracting anything.” It is the automatic mind that adds motion to the standing ship and subtracts it from the moving ship. Lucretius cites several examples of similar errors.9

In order to follow this topic through it is necessary to elucidate a point of terminology and semantic development. In all ages of the Greek language terminology was plastic. Thus Artistotle could employ phantasia to denote the imaginative faculty while using phantasm of the individual appearance, whether true or false.10 Epicurus, having a different concern, truth and error, restricted phantasiato true and real appearances, using phantasm only of the false visions of the insane or of dreamers and also of the phenomena of the heavens, which he declared too remote for clear observation.11 He even urged his disciple to scorn “those who concede dependable vision (phantasia) from distances,” where the best scholars emend with misplaced ingenuity.12

Yet this is only part of the story. With Aristotle the term phantasia, not being restricted to true presentations, readily serves to denote visions o£ the imagination as a faculty. It is from this use that the English language has been enriched by the derivatives fancy and fantasy, which denote the absolutely unreal. From this same drift of semantic change we have the word fantastic. Epicurus, on the contrary, having chosen phantasia to denote a true presentation, employed fantastic to describe the objectively true or real. It becomes a synonym of immediate and opposed to the remote. For instance, it makes no difference whether he writes “the immediate perceptions” or “the fantastic perceptions.” Both alike pertain to the joint activity of the senses and the mind, by which it is recognized that the animal standing over there is an ox or that the man approaching is Plato. These perceptions are “fantastic,” strange as the usage seems, because they result in recognitions. The imagination is not involved.

While Epicurus was adamant in his determination to defend the validity of the sensations as being the means of direct contact between man and reality and as possessing precedence over reason, he exhibits no desire to defend the individual sensation. The fallacies of those who impute to him belief in the infallibility of sensation lie partly in their failure to observe the ambiguity of the word true and in their confusion of “truth” with “value.”

It is not difficult to differentiate the various meanings of true and it is essential to right understanding. For example, when Epicurus declared that “the phantasms seen by the insane and in dreams are true,” he meant that they were “real” and existed independently of the madman or the dreamer, because “they act as a stimulus and that which does not exist does not deliver a stimulus.” 13 These phantasms, however, are not “true” in the sense that a sensation experienced by the waking observer is true. The dreamer may have a vision of a centaur but no centaurs exist in real life. If the waking man sees an ox, then the sensation is true because the stimulus is delivered by a living ox.

A still different meaning of true may be discerned when Epicurus denominates his system as “true philosophy.” He means it is true in the sense that his Twelve Elementary Principles are true or in the sense that the modern scientist believes the accepted calculation of the speed of light to be true. This may be called absolute truth, if there is such a thing.

It remains to speak of the relatively true. The views of a tower at various distances may be cited as examples. Each is true relative to the distance; its value as evidence of the facts is another matter. This distinction was no novelty to the ancients; Sextus Empiricus sets it forth at some length in a discussion of Epicureanism.14

Also worthy of mention is the sensation which is optically true but false to the facts. An example much brandished by the skeptics was the bent image of the oar immersed in the water.18 Epicurus made logical provision for this difficulty: “Of two sensations the one cannot refute the other,16 because we give attention to all sensations.” This statement alone would acquit him of belief in the infallibility of sensation, because it is distinctly implied that some sensations are employed to correct others.

The example of the tower will serve as a transition from the topic of ambiguity to that of confusion. When modern scholars seize upon the saying “all sensations are true,” which appears nowhere in the extant writings of Epicurus, and stretch it to mean that all sensations are reliable or trustworthy or “that the senses cannot be deceived,” they are confusing the concept of truth with the concept of value.17 They overlook the fact that even a truthful witness may fall short of delivering the whole truth or may even give false evidence. The distant view of the square tower is quite true relative to the distance but it fails to reveal the whole truth about the tower.

To assume that Epicurus was unaware of these plain truths, as one must if belief in the infallibility of sensation is imputed to him, is absurd. It is because he was aware that the value of sensations, apart from their truth, varied all the way from totality to zero, that he exhorted beginners “under all circumstances to watch the sensations and especially the immediate perceptions whether of the intellect or any of the criteria whatsoever.” 18 Obviously, so far from thinking the sensations infallible, he was keenly aware of the possibility of error and drew sharp attention to the superior values of immediate sensations.

When once these ambiguities and confusions have been discerned and eliminated, it is possible to state the teaching of Epicurus with some of that precision by which he set high store. In the meaning of the Canon, then, a sensation is an aisthesis. All such sensations may possess value; otherwise there would be no sense in saying, “We pay attention to all sensations.” Their values, however, range all the way from totality to zero. The value is total only when the sensation is immediate. Forexample, when Aristotle says, “The sense of sight is not deceived as to color,” this is true only of the close view, because colors fade in more distant views.

Sensations, however, usually present themselves in combinations of color, shape, size, smell, and so on. An immediate presentation of such a composite unit is aphantasia. All such presentations are true, but they do not rank as criteria in the meaning of the Canon, for the reason that the intelligence has come into play. An act of recognition (epaisthesis) has taken place in the mind of the observer, which is secondary to the primary reaction that registered color, shape, size, smell, and so forth.

That Epicurus did not regard these composite sensations as criteria is made clear by a statement of his own: “The fidelity of the recognitions guarantees the truth of the sensations.” 19 For example, the animal standing yonder is recognized as a dun-colored ox. This is a secondary reaction. Only the primary perceptions of color, shape, size, and so on constitute a direct contact between man and the physical environment. The truth of these perceptions is confirmed by the fidelity of the recognition.

Again, let it be assumed that the quality of sweetness is registered by sensation. It is not, however, sensation that says, “This is honey”; a secondary reaction in the form of a recognition involving intelligence has taken place. This, in the terminology of Epicurus, is “a fantastic perception of the intelligence.” These were not given the rank of criteria by Epicurus for the reason already cited. It is on record, however, that later Epicureans did so.20

So far is Epicurus from believing all sensations to be true in the meaning of the Canon that he guards against error in various ways. In the first place, attention must be paid to all sensations, as already mentioned. Next, the sensations of the individual must be checked by those of others: “Consequently attention must be paid to the immediate feelings and to the sensations, in common with others in matters of common concern and individually in matters of private concern and to all clear presentations of every one of the criteria.” 21 This guardedness was imperative, because contemporary skepticism was flourishing.

The problem of skepticism is attacked disjunctively in the Authorized Doctrines: either all sensations are rejected as valid evidence or some are admitted and some rejected. The former procedure is dealt with in Doctrine 23: “If you are going to make war on all the sensations, you will not even have a standard by reference to which you shall judge those of them which you say are deceptive.” This makes it plain once more that not all sensations are true but the validity of some must be checked by the evidence of others.

The Doctrine above is directed at the outright skeptics. The second limb of the disjunctive approach deals with the Platonists, who rejected terrestrial phenomena as deceptive while accepting the evidences of celestial phenomena. Epicurus denied “clear vision (phantasia) from distances,” if only the text be not emended.22 He wrongly insisted that heavenly phenomena could be explained from the terrestrial. This betrayed him into committing his most notorious blunder; for the reason that the magnitude of a fire does not seem to diminish with distance as does that of concrete objects he declared the sun to be no larger or only a little larger than it appears to be.23 This ridiculous judgment calls for no comment, but it may be mentioned that Plato’s belief in astral gods, however grandiose, is no more acceptable. Epicurus not only censured Plato for accepting the evidence of celestial phenomena while rejecting that of terrestrial phenomena but also condemns him as a mythologer: “Whenever a man admits one phenomenon and rejects another equally compatible with the phenomenon in question, it is manifest that he takes leave of all scientific study of nature and takes refuge in mythology.” 2i Hostility to Plato was combined in this case with contempt of mythology.

Nevertheless Doctrine 23 throws light upon the working of the mind in respect of the criteria. Mental activity may be automatic or volitional. It is the automatic mind that errs; it may judge the distant tower to be round; this is the error of “opinion.” The discreet observer knows the distant view to be deceptive and suspends judgment until the tower is observed at close hand. A tentative judgment is then confirmed or disproved.25 In the case of the size of the sun, which is visible but never at close hand, the judgment held good, as Epicurus believed, because not contradicted.

The sensations are consistently regarded as witnesses in court.28 Their evidence may be false, as in the case of the oar half-immersed in the water, which appears to be bent. False evidence is to be corrected by that of other sensations. The evidence of all witnesses must receive attention. The volitional mind, as opposed to the automatic mind, which errs, functions as judge.

By way of concluding this account of the Sensations as criteria it is well to present a synoptic view of the evidence. Nowhere in our extant Little Epitome or the Authorized Doctrines do we find the statement “that all sensations are true.” On the contrary, the Epitome begins by urging the student “to give heed to the sensations under all circumstances and especially the immediate perceptions whether of the intelligence or of any criterion whatsoever,” which manifestly allows some value to all sensations and special value to immediate sensations.27 At the end of the Epitome the student is warned to check his own observations by those of others.28 These authentic statements are incompatible with belief in the infallibility of sensation. They presume belief in gradations of value among sensations and also the need of perpetual caution against error.

Of three Authorized Doctrines devoted to the topic, 23, 24, and 25, the first urges attention to “all the clear evidence”; the second warns that the rejection of all the sensations leaves the observer without the means of checking sensation by sensation; the third warns of the confusion resulting from rejecting any particular sensation. All of these are of the nature of warnings and completely belie the reckless verdict of an otherwise meticulous scholar “that the Epicureans boldly said that every impression of sense is true and trustworthy.” 29

Lastly, in every instance above mentioned the word for sensation is aisthesis and not phantasia. That somewhere Epicurus had actually written “all phantasias are true” seems certain; in which of his writings it is unknown, but the evidence is sufficient.30 This statement, as being assailable, was pounced upon by his detractors and zealously ventilated. If, however, the extant texts of Epicurus be taken as a guide, the phantasia or “fantastic” perception is merely the highest grade of evidence; the aisthesis, the perception of particulars, is the criterion.


The second criterion of truth is the Prolepsis or Anticipation, such as the innate sense of justice. Between Sensation and Anticipation there is an obvious bridge of connection. The innate capacity to distinguish colors is an anticipation of experience no less than the innate capacity to distinguish between justice and injustice. The difference is that the color-sense is part of the individual’s preconditioning for life in his physical environment and emerges in early childhood, while the sense of justice is part of the preconditioning for life in the social environment and emerges later, developing in pace with experience, instruction, and reflection. How the Anticipation functions as a criterion may be seen in the case of the gods: it is impossible to think of them as in need of anything, for example, because according to the idea universal among men their happiness is perfect.

Unfortunately the traditional accounts of the Anticipations have gone far astray. Three excellent reasons can be cited for these aberrations: first, in the graded textbooks of Epicurus the topic was reserved for advanced students and entirely omitted from both the Little and the Big Epitome; consequently Lucretius has no help to offer; second, already in antiquity the concepts of such abstract things as justice had become confused with the general concepts of such concrete things as horses and oxen; third, modern scholars have become victims of the confusion of the ancients and on their own account have committed the error of merging the Anticipations with the Sensations.

It is highly probable that Epicurus allowed even to certain animals, especially elephants, the possession of these embryonic anticipations of social virtues. The tendency of the day was to have recourse to the study of irrational creatures in order to learn the teachings of Nature. It should be recalled too that not only was Epicurus very eager to have information of Pyrrho, who had been in India, but also that the writings of Alexander’s associates, Aristobulus, Nearchus, and Onesicritus concerning India were available in his youth, and the same is true of the description of India by Megasthenes of the time of Seleucus. The elder Pliny, who quotes three of the above writers, ascribed to elephants “a sort of divination of justice,” 31 an excellent equivalent of the Epicurean Anticipation. Pliny also ascribes to elephants the possession of pride, honesty, prudence, equity, and even religion.32 All of these fall squarely into the category of abstract notions, where the Anticipations belong.

The term prolepsis was correctly rendered by Cicero as anticipatio orpraenotio 33 and less precisely, though intelligently, by the elder Pliny as divinatio.It is wrongly rendered as “concept” by those who confuse the general concept of such a thing as an ox with the abstract idea of justice. One scholar prefers “preconception,” but perhaps “preconcept” would be preferable. It seems most advantageous, however, to adhere to “Anticipation” because this is the meaning of the Greek word prolepsis.

Two explicit accounts of the term have fortunately survived from antiquity, the first from Cicero and the second from Diogenes Laertius. Unfortunately there is virtual unanimity among modern scholars that the authority of Cicero is to be rejected and that of Laertius accepted. This would mean that the word of a stodgy compiler weighs more with us than that of the gifted Cicero. It means also that we, who possess about seventy pages of the text of Epicurus, are in a better position to form a judgment than Cicero himself, who knew all the outstanding Epicureans of his time, whether Greek or Roman, and enjoyed access to all the original texts.


The account of Laertius would not deserve more than brief mention were it not approved by eminent scholars. It is a hodgepodge of Epicurean and Stoic terminology and doctrine. The essential part of the text may be rendered as follows: “By a prolepsis they mean, so to say, an apprehension or right opinion or notion or general idea stored away in the mind, that is, a recollection of something that has often been presented from without.” 3i In his exposition he mentions general concepts of a man, a horse, or an ox.

The objections to this are both numerous and cogent. In the first place, the statement is false to the facts. General concepts are formed instantly, as is well known.35 A little child who has only once seen an elephant will be able to recognize an elephant under any circumstances. In the second place, we know from Epicurus himself that the term prolepsis was applied to the concept of the divine nature.38Does it not follow, then, if the general concept of a horse is the result of having seen many horses, that the concept of the divine nature must be the result of having seen many gods? This is absurd.

Again, we learn from the text of Epicurus himself that the term prolepsis applies to the general concept of justice.37 If, then, the definition of Laertius be adopted, it follows that the general concepts of such brute things as horses and oxen are to be placed in the same logical category with that of justice.

The following objections may also occur to the mind of the reader: if the formation of the general concept ensues upon acts of sensation, then all elements of anticipation are removed; again, if it is formed as the residuum of acts of sensation, this is a sort of inductive process and no result of a rational process can itself be a primary criterion of truth, which Epicurus declared the prolepsis to be; still again, if the general concept is the sum of a series of sensations, then the prolepsis is merged with sensation, and the second criterion of Epicurus disappears. This, in turn, would mean that Epicurus possessed no criterion of truth on the abstract levels of thought. Such a conclusion is hardly to be tolerated.


The core of the problem is to be recognized in the element of anticipation. It is positively stated by Cicero that the use of the term prolepsis was an innovation on the part of Epicurus.38 It is agreed that this term prolepsis also denotes some sort of concept or idea. No one denies that its proper signification is “anticipation.” Therefore, if an idea precedes or anticipates something, this can hardly be anything but experience. The said idea must therefore be innate. Quite correctly, therefore, Cicero wrote with studied precision when reporting on the gods of Epicurus,39“implanted or rather inborn conceptions of them.” Nevertheless it has been deemed unnecessary to believe that Epicurus held such an opinion and it is even declared that “the notion of ‘innate ideas’ would be wholly repugnant to Epicureanism.” 40 Yet there is compelling evidence for believing the precise opposite, that he thought of all infant behavior as anticipatory of later experience.

Let the faithful Lucretius be called to the witness stand. Among his more striking and better remembered passages is one that emphasizes the proleptic or anticipatory behavior of all living creatures, including animals.41 Their first gestures anticipate the activities of their adult state. Children point with the finger before they can talk. Calves butt before they have horns. The cubs of lions and panthers fight with tooth and claw almost before they have teeth and claws. Young birds go through the motions of flying before their wings are fit for flight. Obviously all living things are preconditioned for life in their terrestrial environment. Is it, then, inconsistent with this observed fact to assume that human beings are preconditioned for life in their social environment?

Let Epicurus himself be allowed to testify. Basic to his hedonism is the observed fact that all living creatures, brute or human, however young and helpless, reach out for pleasure and shrink from pain. Even before the five senses have begun to perform their parts, long before the dawn of conscious motivation, and long before the development of understanding, pleasure seems to be a good and pain an evil thing.42 This initial behavior, like the subsequent gestures of play, is at one and the same time prompted by inborn propensities and anticipatory of adult experience. In the growth of the living being and the unfolding of the faculties the attention of Epicurus is manifestly focused upon this principle, the priority of Nature over reason.

Another aspect of this priority is the speed of learning, especially as displayed by gifted children. This topic had received attention before the time of Epicurus. Plato, who believed in the immortality of the soul and in its transmigrations, expressed his judgment of it by the term anamnesis, or “recollection.” To him the process of learning was one of reviving prenatal memories, while the function of dialectic was to bring this dimly remembered knowledge once more to consciousness.43 Epicurus, on the contrary, since he denied both the pre-existence and the survival of the soul, found his explanation in the preconditioning of man by Nature for life in the prospective environment. His word for this phenomenon, Prolepsis or Anticipation, is thus the philosophical antonym of Plato’s anamnesis or recollection, and so far is it from being true that “the notion of ‘innate ideas’ would be wholly repugnant to Epicureanism” that it is part of the marrow of his doctrine. His materialism, on this point, is idealistic Platonism in reverse.


In the extant texts of Epicurus the term prolepsis occurs four times in a specific context. The first has reference to the divine nature and the second and third to justice; the fourth applies to the concept of time. These are sufficient to indicate that the area of semantic reference falls in the domain of the abstract. To deny this would mean that the concepts of justice and the divine nature are on the same level with the general concepts of a horse or an ox.

The discussion of the divine nature is found in the letter to the youthful Menoeceus.44 It is there declared “that the pronouncements of the multitude concerning the gods are not anticipations (prolepseis) but false assumptions.” What the correct assumption is may be gleaned beyond doubt from the antecedent context: first, the divine nature is imperishable, which means that the bodies of the gods are “incorruptible”; second, the happiness of the gods is unalloyed, falling in no way short of perfection. This idea of godhead is styled a noesis koine, a notion common to mankind, a “universal idea.”

This universal idea of god is said by Epicurus “to be sketched in outline,” the verb being hypogmpho. This compound word exhibits a prefix known to semanticists as “imperfective,” implying that the action stops short of its utmost limit. The lexicon cites the verb as signifying “to trace letters for children to write over” or “to trace in outline, sketch out,” as painters sketch figures to be filled in later with colors. Even more illuminating, however, is a usage to be found in Aristotle’s Generation of Animals,45 where the network of veins in the embryo is described as prefiguring the adult organism. Here is plainly discernible that element of anticipation or prolepsis which conditions the thinking of Epicurus. These innate ideas, which Cicero categorically ascribed to him, stood in the same relation to later and fuller understanding as the venous structure of the embryo to the developed organism. Incidentally, it should be again recalled that the study of biology gained sudden vogue in the interval between Plato and Epicurus.

The second and third examples of the term prolepsis are found in Authorized Doctrines 37 and 38; the topic is justice. Just as in the case of the divine nature, the first requisite is to discern the essential attribute or attributes. It is Nature that furnishes the norm and implants in men the embryonic notion or prolepsis of justice in advance of all experience. Hence it is called “the justice of Nature,” as in Doctrine 31: “The justice of Nature is a covenant of advantage to the end that men shall not injure one another nor be injured.” Setting aside the idea of the covenant, which is a separate topic, it will be noted that the essential requirement of justice is to protect citizens against injury. Thus “safety” becomes a catchword of Epicureanism. Since the laws are the instruments of justice, it is they that must be tested by this criterion. Like other observers of his time, Epicurus was aware of the diversity of laws from age to age, from city to city and race to race. If a given law serves to protect the individual, it is just; if after a time it ceases to perform this function, it loses the attribute of justice. This is the gist of Doctrines 36, 37, and 38.

The fourth occurrence of prolepsis, although negative in its bearing, is particularly illuminating. It deals with the nature of time. The prolepsis, as has been indicated, reveals the attributes of a thing at their minimum definition. Therefore, Epicurus virtually says that a prolepsis of time is a contradiction in terms, since time has no attributes. His finding is that time is “an accident of accidents,” and, if his reasoning be closely scrutinized, time seems to be even less than this.46 The line of reasoning may be sketched as follows: a human being is susceptible of sickness but sickness is not a permanent attribute, only a temporary condition, that is, an accident. Sickness in its turn may be long or short, but this quality of length or brevity is not a permanent attribute but an accident. Therefore it is an accident of an accident. Next, by analogy, since we associate time with states of health or sickness, the time of their duration is said to be long or short. Thus long and short become predicates of time while in reality they apply only to states of health or sickness. This amounts to saying that in the phrases “a long time” or “a short time” the adjectives are transferred epithets.

Incidentally, in the text of Epicurus this paragraph on the topic of time follows immediately upon the discussion of attributes and accidents. This juxtaposition confirms the assumption that the prolepsis is rightly interpreted as an anticipatory notion of the essential attributes of the subject of examination.


The word prolepsis, once launched by Epicurus as a technical term, was taken over by the Stoics,47 who cribbed freely from the sect they vilified. It still enjoyed vogue in Cicero’s time but the sharp edges of the original idea had suffered detrition through careless handling. The Stoics had developed the study of formal logic and one ingredient of this was the general concept. This denotes the essential attributes of the subject under examination and, if the thinker be not too meticulous about his categories, it is permissible to speak of the general concept of either justice or an ox. Then by a familiar type of semantic shift it became possible to speak of “the prolepsis of an ox,” just as people call a lighting fixture a chandelier even if candles have been replaced by gas or electricity. As Epicurus employed the term, however, it was no more possible to have a prolepsis of an ox than of a duck-billed platypus or a caterpillar tractor; the pre-existence of the idea in advance of the experience was essential.

Even within Epicurean circles the term prolepsis underwent unjustified extensions. For instance, Epicurus, recognizing Nature as the canon or norm, had asserted that, just as we observe fire to be hot, snow to be cold, and honey to be sweet, so, from the behavior of newborn creatures, we observe pleasure to be the telos or end. Certain of his followers, however, shaken no doubt by Stoic criticism, took the position that the doctrine was an innate idea, that is, a prolepsis.48 In strict logic this error was a confusion between quid and quale. The problem was not to decide what could be predicated of the end or telos but what was the identity of the end. Was it pleasure or was it something else?

Several examples of the word prolepsis occur in the writings of Philodemus, all of them falling in the domain of the abstract.49 One of these is worthy of special mention. It is found in the essay entitled On the Management of an Estate. Other writers are there criticized for not describing the good manager in conformity with a prolepsis; they concern themselves instead with popular ideas on the subject and then endeavor to hitch the resulting description to the wise man. What they ought to do is to ask themselves what kind of business and what size of business and what sort of management are compatible with a philosophic life and intellectual companionship.50 This may be a sound procedure to follow in writing an essay of this kind, but it is very questionable whether Epicurus ever thought of ascribing to the human being an innate idea of what a good landlord should be.

As a technique of invention in the practice of writing, this Epicurean doctrine of the prolepsis came to enjoy a vogue. Cicero employed it rather charmingly. For example, in his book entitled On Duties he was endeavoring to arrive at a description of the virtuous man, vir bonus, a popular topic of the day.51 The procedure is to assume that the interlocutor already possesses a proper preconcept of the object of the quest, folded up in the mind like the leaves in a bud, or wrapped up in a sheet, which was an ancient method of carrying luggage. With such assumptions in mind Cicero wrote: “Unfold your intelligence and shake it out that you may see the shape and preconcept (prolepsis) of the virtuous man that is found within.” 52 In the same context the reader finds the following: “But once a man has consented to unroll the preconcept that is folded up in his own mind he can readily teach himself that the virtuous man is he who will do a good turn to whom he can and will injure no one unless attacked.” 53

In these passages the comparison of the prolepsis to the leaves folded in the bud or to an article of value rolled up in a parcel was probably a refinement of Stoic teachers. It is not known from Epicurean texts and has the appearance of a pedagogical invention. Another comparison that attached itself to the concept of the prolepsis was Platonic in origin: according to this, for example, every notion of the divine nature should match the prolepsis in the mind as a foot matches its own footprint.54 Hence Cicero, with his usual genius for adaptation, spoke of a mold or matrix resident in the mind into which the perfect orator or perfect oration should be capable of being fitted.55

While these refinements bear witness to the utility of the Epicurean prolepsis as a device of exposition, they are false to the original idea, which adhered to a vocabulary of its own. The practice was to speak of the prolepsis as something that could be looked to or envisaged, as a builder looks to a model. Philodemus, for instance, allows that the Epicureans agree with the multitude in what they believe to be just and honorable “according to the prolepseis envisaged by them,” but he declares they differ from the multitude as to the actions that “square with theprolepseis.” 56 In this he is speaking by the card; the same vocabulary, applied to the same topic, justice, is found in Authorized Doctrines 37 and 38. The comparison implicit in the Canon is that between the thinker and the builder. To the informed reader a certain analogy with Aristotle’s formal cause may suggest itself; if it is a temple that the architect is building, this fact controls all his work.

Lucretius affords the student no assistance whatever. He makes no attempt to translate the word prolepsis either by periphrase or coinage. He might well have preceded Cicero in the use of praenotio and anticipatio, which, at least in the nominative case, would have fitted into hexameters. His notities translates onlyennoia or ennoema. The two passages in which it is alleged to denote prolepsis exemplify an entirely different doctrine, that nonpurposive Nature is the sole creatrix. Human intelligence can only improve upon Nature’s beginnings; man could not invent language before Nature had furnished a model in involuntary cries.57 To this restriction even the gods were subject; they could not have created a universe before Nature had furnished a model.58 It is unlikely that Lucretius even understood the workings of the Anticipations and Feelings as criteria.


“The Feelings are two,” wrote Laertius, “pleasure and pain, characterizing every living creature, the one being akin, the other alien, through which the decisions are made to choose or avoid.” B9

This means that pleasures and pains are Nature’s Go and Stop signals on all levels of existence, that of the lower animals included. They are distinct from the Sensations by two removes: in the meaning of the Canon sensation is restricted to the sensory stimulus; it is the intelligence that registers recognition or nonrecognition; it is the Feelings that register pleasure or pain. These are accompaniments of sensation, as Aristotle observed in advance of Epicurus.60

The prevailing belief that Epicurus was an empiricist has led scholars to merge the Feelings with the Sensations. It is true that both may be called by the Greek wordpathe, but this coincidence of predicate is offset by logical absurdities. Since the Sensations are confined to the five senses, the merging of the Feelings with the Sensations would exclude fears and hopes and all the higher emotions. Again, since Epicurus reduces all sensation to touch, the merging of the Feelings would confine these also to touch. Still again, according to Epicurus the higher emotions, which are included in the Feelings, have a different seat from the Sensations, deep in the breast.61 How then could they be one with the Sensations? Lastly, unless the Feelings are something distinct from both Sensations and Anticipations, Epicurus would lack a criterion on the level of the higher emotions, where the issue of happiness and unhappiness is ultimately decided.

It would also be obligatory, should the Feelings be merged with the Sensations, to ignore all gradations in pleasures, which Epicurus did not. Like Plato and Aristotle, he recognized the existence of higher and lower pleasures and he employed the same terminology. The pleasures of the flesh are denoted by the noun hedone and the verb hedomai, the higher pleasures by the noun euphrosune and the vergeuphrainomai. For instance, it is the latter verb he employs when he speaks of the “higher enjoyment” experienced by the wise man in attendance upon public spectacles and also when he speaks of the “serene joy” with which the wise man approaches the end of life.62 He has still another synonym to employ, chara, when he denies that unlimited wealth can bring any “worthwhile happiness,” 6S and he uses the same word of that “peak of happiness” that comes of the confident expectation of health of body and peace of mind.64 These are Feelings but not Sensations in the meaning of the Canon.

It is true, of course, that Epicurus sponsored a doctrine of the unity of all pleasures on the ground that body and soul are coterminous and cosensitive and both corporeal,65 but this does not mean that the pleasures and pains of the flesh are on a level with the pleasures and pains of the mind. In the meaning of the Canon there are two classes of Feelings, the one class accompanying the activity of the senses, the other accompanying the social and intellectual activities of the individual and specifically located in the breast.66 Neither class of Feelings is identical with Sensations.

The Feelings operate as criteria on all levels of life, somatic, social, and, if a term may be borrowed from religion to denote the higher emotions, spiritual.

On the somatic level the cub of the wolf no less than the child must learn by trial and error to choose the pleasant and avoid the painful. As the child begins to participate in the life of the family and society the usefulness of lessons learned from burns and bruises shrinks in importance as compared with the edifying approval and disapproval of parents, elders, and teachers.

This sequence of experience was aptly condensed by Epicurus into an oracular statement: “Pleasure is the beginning and the end of the happy life.” 6T By this he meant that pleasure was both the starting point and the goal. The approach was genetic. On the level of infancy activity is merely instinctive; there is as yet no intelligence to take cognizance of sensation. On the level of adolescence the young man is apt to exult in his strength and drift at the mercy of chance.68 On the level of maturity, however, if wisdom is attained, pleasure, that is happiness, becomes a conscious objective and also an incentive. In other words, pleasure or happiness becomes the telos or end and thus on this last level the telos itself becomes a criterion, by which the decision is made to choose or to avoid.

This recognition of the telos as attaining the rank of a criterion on the level of the mature man was deemed by Epicurus of sufficient importance to be included in the Authorized Doctrines, No. 22: “We must take into our reckoning the established telos and all manifest evidence, to which we refer our judgments; otherwise all life will be filled with indecision and unrest.” This pronouncement was directed against the Platonists, who, as astronomers, were bound to place dependence upon celestial phenomena and, as accepting the theory of the ideas, were bound to distrust terrestrial phenomena. Hence Epicurus insists upon taking into account “all the manifest evidence,” terrestrial as well as celestial. If the latter alone is studied, there will be an increase of wonderment and an end to peace of mind.69 He also insists that the sole reason for studying the heavenly bodies is “peace of mind and an abiding faith.” 70 Thus the telos, happiness, becomes the criterion.

It is chiefly with reference to the gods and death that the Feelings operate as criteria, as may be inferred from the first two of the Authorized Doctrines. If the individual is rendered miserable by the fear of death and of the possible punishment after death, this misery is a Feeling in the meaning of the Canon and a sure evidence of “false opinion.” He must habituate himself to the thought “that death is nothing to us,” that death is incidental to life, and that “the fulness of pleasure” may be attained within the narrow limits of mortal life.

The case is similar with respect to the gods. If the individual is rendered miserable through fear of the gods, if he feels that he must perform sacrifices to avert their hostility and win their favor, if he feels that at every mischance he must consult a soothsayer to discover which god must be appeased, this is Feeling in the meaning of the Canon.71 He must learn to believe “that the blessed and incorruptible being is neither susceptible of trouble itself nor occasions it to another.”

The Feelings operate as criteria also in the sphere of justice and injustice. The Pauline doctrine “The power of sin is the law” is straight Epicureanism. Among sayings of Epicurus covering the point is the following, Authorized Doctrine 34: “Wrong-doing is not an evil in and by itself; the evil lies in the uneasy feeling, amounting to fear, that he will not escape detection by those appointed for the punishment of such offenses.” 72 This fear is a Feeling in the meaning of the Canon; it differs from the child’s fear of the fire only by being operative on a higher level of understanding. Adverse criticism of such utilitarian teaching was inevitable.73 On the side of Epicurus it may be said that, while arguing within the scheme of his premises, he was also discerning the dependence of happiness upon a clear conscience. The concept of conscience, slow to crystallize, is here seen in the nascent state.

The Feelings also serve as a criterion in the choice of a proper attitude or diathesis toward competitive careers. For instance, Diogenes of Oenoanda points out “that the career of the orator allows a man no rest and fills him with anxiety for the success of his plea.” 74 The extant sayings of Epicurus himself abound in references to the deceitfulness of the quest for riches, power, or fame.75 On this level the telos and the Feelings coincide as criteria of choice. The individual must bear in mind that the goal of living is happiness and submit every decision to the test of the Feelings that will ensue upon that decision. As Epicurus himself expressed it: “What will be the result for me if the object of the desire is attained and what if it is not attained?” 7S

As a criterion the Feelings may take precedence over reason. Plato, for example, argued endlessly about the meaning of “good.” Epicurus scorned this dialectic and arrived at a simple solution. His line of attack is as follows: the greatest good must be associated with the greatest pleasure. This greatest pleasure is easily identified: “What causes the unsurpassable joy is the bare escape from some terrible calamity.”7T This joy arises from the saving of life, the escape from shipwreck, for instance. Therefore life itself is the greatest good. To think of pleasure as the greatest good is an error; pleasure is the telos and is not to be confused with the greatest good. The testimony of the Feeling functioning as a criterion is decisive. More will be said of this in the chapter on the New Hedonism.