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The Example of Cassius The Liberator Shows The Way

Coin struck by Cassius; face is presumably that of “Libertas” rather than of Cassius himself.

What do we know about the life of Gaius Cassius Longinus, the Liberator, that might be relevant in the study of Epicureanism? (“Liberator” is so much nicer a term than “murderer,” as Cyril Bailey refers to him.)  Specifically, what facts about his life might shed light on how Epicureans themselves understood and responded to their detractors, who accused them of (1) believing all sensations are “true,” (2) worshiping Pleasure as if it were an alternate god, and (3) refusing to participate in public life and preferring to live as hermits?

Wikipedia tells us that Cassius was born in 85 BC and died in 42 BC.   He studied philosophy at Rhodes under Archelaus and became fluent in Greek.  He was married to Junia Tertia, half-sister of Brutus, and had one son.  He attempted to persuade Crassus against undertaking his disastrous plan to attack the Parthians, and he helped pick up the pieces after his advice was ignored.  During the civil war in 49 BC, Cassius joined the party which was attempting to preserve the free republic, and allied himself with Pompey, who made him commander of his fleet in Greece.

After Pompey was defeated, Caesar forced Cassius to surrender.  Cassius then assisted Caesar against the king of Pontus, but he refused to fight against Cato and Scipio, the last holdouts of the freedom party.  Cassius then became the “moving spirit” behind the effort to overthrow the tyrannical Caesar, and led the effort to depose him that culminated on March 15, 44 BC.  When Mark Anthony turned the Roman mob against them, he retreated with Brutus to Greece, where they marshaled their military forces but were defeated at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC.  Of greatest interest to us for the moment is that some five years before his death, between 48 and 45 BC, Cassius ” famously converted to the school of thought founded by Epicurus.”

Fortunately, we have several direct sources of specific information about this conversion, including testimony directly from Cassius himself. Let us first refer to Cassius’ correspondence with Cicero prior to Philippi, and then turn to Plutarch’s account of the days leading up to the final battle.  [Note in reviewing the tone of these letters that Cicero was twenty years older than Cassius.] First, we will see from Cassius’ letters (collected here) that he was actively involved in the management of the Senate’s military affairs despite his conversion to Epicureanism:

CASSIUS LONGINUS TO CICERO (AT ROME) Syria, 7 May, 46 BC, in camp.

If you are well, I am glad. I also am well. I have read your letter in which I recognized your uncommon affection for me. For you seemed not merely to wish me well — as you always have done on private and public grounds alike— but to have involved yourself in very grave responsibility and to be exceedingly anxious about us. Therefore, because in the first place I thought that you would believe that we could not remain inactive when the Republic was crushed: and in the second place because, as you suspected that we were moving, I thought you would be anxious as to our safety and the result of the operations, as soon as I received the legions brought by Aulus Allienus from Egypt, I wrote to you and sent a number of messengers to Rome. I also wrote a dispatch to the senate, which I said was not to be delivered until it had been read to you—if by any chance my messengers have chosen to obey me. If these letters have not reached you, I have no doubt that Dolabella, who seized the government of Asia after the abominable murder of Trebonius, has caught my letter-carriers and intercepted the dispatches.

I have now under me all the Roman forces in Syria. I have been delayed for a short time whilst providing the promised pay for the soldiers. I am only just free from that difficulty. I beg you to consider that the defense of my position is committed to you, as you know full well that I have declined no danger and no labor in the service of my country: as on your suggestion and advice I have taken up arms against the most unscrupulous outlaws: as I have not only collected armies to defend the Republic and liberty, but have also rescued them from the most bloodthirsty tyrants. If Dolabella had anticipated me in getting hold of these armies, he would have strengthened Antony’s hands, not only by their actual arrival, but also by giving him reason to think and expect that they were coming. For which achievements defend my soldiers, since you understand that they have done wonderfully good service to the state, and secure that they do not regret having preferred to make the Republic the object of their labors rather than the hope of booty and plunder.

Maintain also the position of the imperators Murcus and Crispus as far as lies in your power. For Bassus was desperately unwilling to hand over his legion to me. Had not his soldiers in spite of him sent agents to me, he would have kept Apamea closed until it had been stormed. I make these remarks to you not only in the name of the Republic, which has always been the object of your deepest affection, but also in the name of our friendship, which I feel sure has the greatest weight with you. Believe me that this army is at the service of the senate and all the most loyal citizens, and above all of yourself. For from continually being told of your patriotism they regard you with wonderful devotion and affection. And if they come to understand that their interests engage your attention, they will also regard themselves as owing you everything.

Since writing this letter I have been informed that Dolabella has arrived in Cilicia with his forces. I shall start for Cilicia. Whatever I succeed in doing I will take care to let you know promptly. I can only hope that we may be as fortunate as our services to the state deserve. Keep well, and love me.

In this remarkable subsequent letter from Cicero to Cassius, we see definite proof that Cassius’ conversion to Epicureanism is complete, with Cicero joking with Cassius about his new philosophy:

CICERO TO C. CASSIUS LONGINUS (AT BRUNDISIUM), January 45 BC

I think you must be a little ashamed at this being the third letter inflicted on you before I have a page or a syllable from you. But I will not press you: I shall expect, or rather exact, a longer letter. For my part, if I had a messenger always at hand, I should write even three an hour. For somehow it makes you seem almost present when I write anything to you, and that not “by way of phantoms of images,” as your new friends express it, who hold that “mental pictures” are caused by what Catius called “spectres”—for I must remind you that Catius Insuber the Epicurean, lately dead, calls “spectres” what the famous Gargettius, and before him Democritus, used to call “images.”

Well, even if my eyes were capable of being struck by these “spectres,” because they spontaneously run in upon them at your will, I do not see how the mind can be struck. You will be obliged to explain it to me, when you return safe and sound, whether the “spectre” of you is at my command, so as to occur to me as soon as I have taken the fancy to think about you; and not only about you, who are in my heart’s core, but supposing I begin thinking about the island of Britain—will its image fly at once into my mind? But of this later on.

I am just sounding you now to see how you take it. For if you are angry and annoyed, I shall say more and demand that you be restored to the sect from which you have been ejected by “violence and armed force.” In an injunction of this sort the words “within this year” are not usually added. Therefore, even if it is now two or three years since you divorced Virtue, seduced by the charms of Pleasure, it will still be open for me to do so. And yet to whom am I speaking? It is to you, the most gallant of men, who ever since you entered public life have done nothing that was not imbued to the utmost with the highest principle. In that very sect of yours I have a misgiving that there must be more stuff than I thought, if only because you accept it. “How did that come into your head?” you will say. Because I had nothing else to say. About politics I can write nothing: for I don’t choose to write down my real opinions.

In another remarkable letter, we see Cassius responding in kind to Cicero’s good-natured sparring and affirming his firm understanding of Epicureanism:

CASSIUS TO CICERO (FROM BRUNDISIUM), January, 45 B.C.  (Ad Familiares 15.19)

I hope that you are well. I assure you that on this tour of mine there is nothing that gives me more pleasure to do than to write to you; for I seem to be talking and joking with you face to face. And yet that does not come to pass because of those spectres; and, by way of retaliation for that, in my next letter I shall let loose upon you such a rabble of Stoic boors that you will proclaim Catius a true-born Athenian.

I am glad that our friend Pansa was sped on his way by universal goodwill when he left the city in military uniform, and that not only on my own account, but also, most assuredly, on that of all our friends. For I hope that men generally will come to understand how much all the world hates cruelty, and how much it loves integrity and clemency, and that the blessings most eagerly sought and coveted by the bad ultimately find their way to the good. For it is hard to convince men that “the good is to be chosen for its own sake”; but that pleasure and tranquility of mind is acquired by virtue, justice, and the good is both true and demonstrable. Why, Epicurus himself, from whom all the Catiuses and Amafiniuses in the world, incompetent translators of terms as they are, derive their origin, lays it down that “to live a life of pleasure is impossible without living a life of virtue and justice”.

Consequently Pansa, who follows pleasure, keeps his hold on virtue, and those also whom you call pleasure-lovers are lovers of what is good and lovers of justice, and cultivate and keep all the virtues. And so Sulla, whose judgment we ought to accept, when he saw that the philosophers were at sixes and sevens, did not investigate the Nature of the good, but bought up all the goods there were; and I frankly confess that I bore his death without flinching. Caesar, however, will not let us feel his loss too long; for he has a lot of condemned men to restore to us in his stead, nor will he himself feel the lack of someone to bid at his auctions when once he has cast his eye on Sulla junior.

And now to return to politics; please write back and tell me what is being done in the two Spains. I am terribly full of anxiety, and I would sooner have the old and lenient master [Caesar], than make trial of a new and cruel one. You know what an idiot Gnaeus is; you know how he deems cruelty a virtue; you know how he thinks that we have always scoffed at him. I fear that in his boorish way he will be inclined to reply by wiping our turned-up noses with the sword. Write back as you love me, and tell me what is doing. Ah! how I should like to know whether you read all this with an anxious mind or a mind at ease! For I should know at the same time what it is my duty to do. Not to be too long-winded, I bid you farewell. Continue to love me as you do. If Caesar has conquered, expect me to return quickly.

Note:  The wording of this letter can be studied in the Latin and Greek original form at this link.  It would be profitable to compare Cassius’ choice of words with that of Lucretius in De Rerum Natura, especially in regard to the term “pleasure.”  Cassius uses the Greek in this letter, while Lucretius employs “voluptas” (but this point needs further study).

Our final fragment of direct evidence comes from a strong anti-Epicurean, Plutarch, who records the following discussion about the reliability of the senses as occurring during the period leading up to the Battle of Philippi:

EXCERPT FROM PLUTARCH’S LIFE OF BRUTUS

About the time that they were going to pass out of Asia into Europe, it is said that a wonderful sign was seen by Brutus. He was naturally given to much watching, and by practice and moderation in his diet had reduced his allowance of sleep to a very small amount of time. He never slept in the daytime, and in the night then only when all his business was finished, and when, every one else being gone to rest, he had nobody to discourse with him. But at this time, the war being begun, having the whole state of it to consider, and being solicitous of the event, after his first sleep, which he let himself take after his supper, he spent all the rest of the night in settling his most urgent affairs; which if he could despatch early and so make a saving of any leisure, he employed himself in reading until the third watch, at which time the centurions and tribunes were used to come to him for orders. Thus one night before he passed out of Asia, he was very late all alone in his tent, with a dim light burning by him, all the rest of the camp being bushed and silent; and reasoning about something with himself and very thoughtful, he fancied some one came in, and, looking up towards the door, he saw a terrible and strange appearance of an unnatural and frightful body standing by him without speaking. Brutus boldly asked it, “What are you, of men or gods, and upon what business come to me?” The figure answered “I am your evil genius, Brutus; you shall see me at Philippi.” To which Brutus, not at all disturbed, replied, “Then I shall see you.”

As soon as the apparition vanished, he called his servants to him, who all told him that they had neither heard any voice nor seen any vision. So then he continued watching till the morning, when he went to Cassius, and told him of what he had seen. He, who followed the principles of Epicurus’s philosophy, and often used to dispute with Brutus concerning matters of this nature, spoke to him thus upon this occasion:

“It is the opinion of our sect, Brutus, that not all that we feel or see is real and true; but that the sense is a most slippery and deceitful thing, and the mind yet more quick and subtle to put the sense in motion and affect it with every kind of change upon no real occasion of fact; just as an impression is made upon wax; and the soul of man, which has in itself both what imprints, and what is imprinted on, may most easily, by its own operations, produce and assume every variety of shape and figure. This is evident from the sudden changes of our dreams; in which the imaginative principle, once started by any trifling matter, goes through a whole series of most diverse emotions and appearances. It is its nature to be ever in motion, and its motion is fantasy or conception. But besides all this, in your case, the body, being tired and distressed with continual toil, naturally works upon the mind and keeps it in an excited and unusual condition. But that there should be any such thing as supernatural beings, or, if there were, that they should have human shape or voice or power that can reach to us, there is no reason for believing; though I confess I could wish that there were such beings, that we might not rely upon our arms only, and our horses and our navy, all which are so numerous and powerful, but might be confident of the assistance of gods also, in this our most sacred and honourable attempt.”

With such discourses as these Cassius soothed the mind of Brutus.

So let us return to our topic for today. What do these fragments tell us about how Epicureans themselves understood and responded to their detractors, who accused them of (1) believing all sensations are true, (2) worshiping Pleasure as if it were an alternate god, and (3) refusing to participate in public life and preferring to live as hermits?

Consider first that we have every reason to believe that Cassius was much more knowledgeable about the true tenets of Epicureanism than are we today. He was apparently fluent in Greek, well-learned in philosophy, and he would have had access to a thriving community of Epicurean scholars who were producing such monumental works as Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. We can therefore safely presume that he knew much more about the details of Epicureanism than do we.

Does it appear that Cassius believed that all sensations are reliable? Certainly not. If he had believed that Brutus’ visions of Caesar were reliable, would he have said anything remotely like this:   It is the opinion of our sect, Brutus, that not all that we feel or see is real and true; but that the sense is a most slippery and deceitful thing, and the mind yet more quick and subtle to put the sense in motion and affect it with every kind of change upon no real occasion of fact; just as an impression is made upon wax; and the soul of man, which has in itself both what imprints, and what is imprinted on, may most easily, by its own operations, produce and assume every variety of shape and figure.

Does it appear that Cassius worshiped Pleasure as some kind of god, placing above all else the momentary pleasures of his body? Again, certainly not. Cassius had reached the pinnacle of wealth and power of the Roman world. He could at any moment have retired from military service to lead a life of pampered luxury. But he did not. Read Cassius’ words again, and consider how ridiculous it is to argue that he was choosing to follow the pleasures of the stomach rather than Nature herself: For I hope that men generally will come to understand how much all the world hates cruelty, and how much it loves integrity and clemency, and that the blessings most eagerly sought and coveted by the bad ultimately find their way to the good. For it is hard to convince men that “the good is to be chosen for its own sake”; but that pleasure and tranquility of mind is acquired by virtue, justice, and the good is both true and demonstrable. Why, Epicurus himself, from whom all the Catiuses and Amafiniuses in the world, incompetent translators of terms as they are, derive their origin, lays it down that “to live a life of pleasure is impossible without living a life of virtue and justice.”

And does it appear that Cassius refused to participate in public life in preference to living “unknown” or as a hermit? Hardly. If anything, he chose the exact opposite course in every major decision of his life after his conversion to Epicureanism:  “I beg you to consider that the defense of my position is committed to you, as you know full well that I have declined no danger and no labor in the service of my country: as on your suggestion and advice I have taken up arms against the most unscrupulous outlaws: as I have not only collected armies to defend the Republic and liberty, but have also rescued them from the most bloodthirsty tyrants.”

Today the common view of a proper Epicurean life is that summarized so disdainfully by Cyril Bailey, who so carefully enclosed Epicurus’ term wise man in quotation marks, lest he be accused of sanctioning even for a second what Epicurus had taught:

In the detailed working out of his system Epicurus from time to time makes inferences which most other philosophies, and indeed the normal outlook of the plain man, would find hard to accept.  This is especially the case with regard to man’s social activities: the guiding motives which rule the ‘wise man’ in his conduct to others frequently revolt us, and sometimes the resultant course of action no less than the motives.  Here of course is a difficulty which inevitably attaches to any system of egoistic hedonism:  the man who professes it can have no care for others except for his own profit.  He is thus at one brought into conflict with the normally accepted notions of justice and altruism in general.  It is possible to circumvent this difficulty, and Epicurus shows an inclination to make the attempt in dealing with friendship by the paradox that altruism is after all only a higher form of egoism, but most modern hedonistic systems have preferred to abandon egoism in favour of a social utilitarianism aiming at the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number.’  Epicurus however is prepared to stand by his principles and take their consequences.  He does not flinch from the ugly sound and evil reputation of certain forms of selfishness, which are the natural outcome of his main position.  The picture of the ‘wise man’ who would count justice as nought, if only he could be sure of escaping detection in injustice, spurning alike the life of the family and all notion of service to the State, can have been no more pleasing to Epicurus’ contemporaries than it is to the modern reader.

How do we reconcile Bailey’s opinion with the recorded history of Cassius’ words and deeds? Was Cassius a poor Epicurean, or was Bailey a poor interpreter of Epicurus?

When we reflect on how little of Epicurus’ texts have survived, when we reflect on how those that do survive are often difficult, and have been the targets of defamation for thousands of years, and when we reflect that Cassius had access to both the full textual foundation and the enthusiastic affirmation of a devoted Epicurean community, I submit only one reasonable conclusion is possible.  The example of Cassius, not the distortions of so many members of the scholarly elite, stands for us today as the reliable and eloquent witness to the true principles of Epicurean philosophy.  Contrary to the distortions of Epicurus’ detractors, there is no paradox or contradiction implied in the life of Cassius.  Each person, Cassius included, has a context within which true philosophy must be applied. If we are disadvantaged due to health, civil limitations, or other reason beyond our control, then Epicurus shows us how to live happy lives even under meager circumstances.    If we bear the advantages of wealth or some degree of power, as did Cassius, then even in that context – and to no lesser degree – does Epicureanism equally apply.

Epicurus did not call us call us to worship “Pleasure” as a kind of god; Epicurus did not call us to ignore the limits of our senses in favor of some alleged higher reality; Epicurus did not encourage us to live as hermits in isolation and fear of other men.

The truth is that Epicurus called us to reverence Nature as the force that has set before us all possibilities and limitations, and which has given us pleasure as a guide to life, just as she gave us pain to lead us away from the things we should avoid.  Epicurus held pleasure to be a guide, not a god.

Epicurus called us to acknowledge the limits of our senses by testing them to determine their truthfulness.  Then, following the clear view that we thereby determine, he calls us to act on the knowledge that we  have reasonably obtained, rather than relying on idle and unprovable speculations.

And Epicurus called us to live lives of happiness, in which the surest and greatest depths of pleasure are found in our mutually beneficial friendly relationships with other men.

These are the lessons of Cassius the Liberator, and we should be grateful to him for following the path of Epicurus to the plains of Philippi.  The world might have turned out very differently had Cassius’s forces prevailed in his final battle for Rome, but in his own way he won a victory that has outlived both Rome and many generations of detractors of Epicureanism.  By courageously following the wisdom of Epicurus to the end, Cassius left to us a towering testament to Epicurus that shows us the true path to understanding his philosophy.