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Promoting the Study of the Philosophy of Epicurus

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The “Yea-Sayers” and the “Nay-Sayers”

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What follows is a collection of commentary illustrating (1) that there is a great contest over the much-disputed legacy of Epicurus, and (2) the nature of that contest.  Suggestions for additions to this list will be appreciated.

Here’s one example (which will help with formatting this page!):

D.S. Hutchinson:  Epicurus developed a system of philosophy and a way of living that deserve our respect and understanding, perhaps even our allegiance. This way of living claimed many thousands of committed followers, all over the ancient Mediterranean world, in cooperative communities that lasted for hundreds of years. But from the very beginning of his teaching mission, his message was opposed and distorted, first by academic philosophers and political authorities, and later by Christians. Epicureans apparently almost never switched their allegiance to other philosophical systems, whereas other schools regularly lost students to the Epicureans. Why? Perhaps because the Epicureans found that their system made excellent sense. But the explanation offered by Arcesilaus, Epicurus’ rival, is typically dismissive: “You can turn a man into a eunuch, but you can’t turn a eunuch into a man.” 

 The slanders and fallacies of a long and unfriendly tradition have been enjoying modern sanction ever since Eduard Zeller expounded them with seeming reasonableness and undeniable tidiness a century ago in his Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics. This sanction was confirmed in 1887 by the suave erudition of Hermann Usener in his Epicurea. This indispensable work, which ought to have inaugurated a fresh scrutiny of the texts, was unfortunately accepted as authoritative, and after its publication the attention of scholars was diverted to the minor Epicureans, especially Philodemus. In this field an imposing corpus of meritorious studies has long been accumulating, chiefly through the industry of German and Italian researchers, though the hope of making great additions to our knowledge of Epicurus himself has fallen short of expectations.

In England the ignominy to which Epicureanism had been relegated by Puritanism after flourishing briefly under the Restoration, though long enough to administer a smart stimulus to philosophical thought, was terminated at last in 1910 by R. D. Hicks in his Stoic and Epicurean, followed in 1925 by his translation of Diogenes Laertius, the chief ancient authority, in the Loeb Library; but in the former he merely enlarged with lucidity upon Zeller’s mistakes while in the latter he confirmed tradition by the benedictory correxit Usener. A new text and translation was made available in 1925 by Cyril Bailey, soon followed in 1928 by The Greek Atomists and Epicurus, the old errors and fallacies being repeated in both books and amplified in the second one with such urbanity that to dissent seems like discourtesy….

The feat of rescuing Epicurus from the injustice of centuries will not be accomplished at a blow nor by the efforts of any single researcher. To have made a breach in the wall of false opinion will seem to have been a sufficient advance.

At the very outset the reader should be prepared to think of him [Epicurus] at one and the same time as the most revered and the most reviled of all founders of thought in the Graeco-Roman world.

Throughout these same seven centuries no man was more ceaselessly reviled. At his first appearance as a public teacher he was threatened with the fate of Socrates. In Athens he never dared to offer instruction in a public place but confined himself to his own house and garden. His character and his doctrines became the special target of abuse for each successive school and sect, first for Platonists, next for Stoics, and finally for Christians. His name became an abomination to orthodox Jews. The Christians, though by no means blind to the merit of his ethics, abhorred him for his denial of divine providence and immortality.
[Norman DeWitt, Epicurus and His Philosophy]

________

Even in modern times, the critics of Epicureanism continue to misrepresent it as a lazy-minded, shallow, pleasure-loving, immoral, or godless travesty of real philosophy. In our day the word ‘epicureanism’ has come to mean its opposite-a pretentious enthusiasm for rare and expensive food and drink. Please have the courage to ignore two thousand years of negative prejudice, and assess this philosophy on its own considerable merits.
[D. S. Hutchinson,  (Introduction to “The Epicurus Reader” )]

Yea-Sayers Nay-Sayers
Thomas Jefferson:  As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us. Epictetus indeed, has given us what was good of the stoics; all beyond, of their dogmas, being hypocrisy and grimace. Their great crime was in their calumnies of Epicurus and misrepresentations of his doctrines; in which we lament to see the candid character of Cicero engaging as an accomplice. Diffuse, vapid, rhetorical, but enchanting. His prototype Plato, eloquent as himself, dealing out mysticisms incomprehensible to the human mind, has been deified by certain sects usurping the name of Christians; because, in his foggy conceptions, they found a basis of impenetrable darkness whereon to rear fabrications as delirious, of their own invention. … I take the liberty of observing that you are not a true disciple of our master Epicurus, in indulging the indolence to which you say you are yielding.  One of his canons, you know, was that “that indulgence which prevents a greater pleasure, or produces a greater pain, is to be avoided.”  Your love of repose will lead, in its progress, to a suspension of healthy exercise, a relaxation of mind, an indifference to everything around you, and finally to a debility of body, and hebetude of mind, the farthest of all things from the happiness which the well-regulated indulgences of Epicurus ensure; fortitude, you know is one of his four cardinal virtues.  That teaches us to meet and surmount difficulties; not to fly from them, like cowards; and to fly, too, in vain, for they will meet and arrest us at every turn of our road.  Weigh this matter well; brace yourself up;   (Letter to William Short, October 31, 1819)

 

D.S. Hutchinson:  Epicurus developed a system of philosophy and a way of living that deserve our respect and understanding, perhaps even our allegiance. This way of living claimed many thousands of committed followers, all over the ancient Mediterranean world, in cooperative communities that lasted for hundreds of years. But from the very beginning of his teaching mission, his message was opposed and distorted, first by academic philosophers and political authorities, and later by Christians. Epicureans apparently almost never switched their allegiance to other philosophical systems, whereas other schools regularly lost students to the Epicureans. Why? Perhaps because the Epicureans found that their system made excellent sense. But the explanation offered by Arcesilaus, Epicurus’ rival, is typically dismissive: “You can turn a man into a eunuch, but you can’t turn a eunuch into a man.” Even in modern times, the critics of Epicureanism continue to misrepresent it as a lazy-minded, shallow, pleasure-loving, immoral, or godless travesty of real philosophy. In our day the word ‘epicureanism’ has come to mean its opposite-a pretentious enthusiasm for rare and expensive food and drink. Please have the courage to ignore two thousand years of negative prejudice, and assess this philosophy on its own considerable merits. This book gives you the evidence you need.   (Introduction to “The Epicurus Reader” )

 

Friedrich Nietzsche:  Epicurus –  Yes, I am proud of the fact that I experience the character of Epicurus quite differently from perhaps everybody else. Whatever I hear or read of him, I enjoy the happiness of the afternoon of antiquity. I see his eyes gaze upon a wide, white sea, across rocks at the shore that are bathed in sunlight, while large and small animals are playing in this light, as secure and calm as the light and his eyes. Such happiness could be invented only by a man who was suffering continually. It is the happiness of eyes that have seen the sea of existence become calm, and now they can never weary of the surface and of the many hues of this tender, shuddering skin of the sea. Never before has voluptuousness been so modest.  (From The Gay Science)Friedrich Nietzsche:  The sneakishness of hypocrisy, the secrecy of the conventicle, concepts as black as hell, such as the sacrifice of the innocent, the unio mystica in the drinking of blood, above all, the slowly rekindled fire of revenge, of Chandala revenge–all that sort of thing became master of Rome: the same kind of religion which, in a pre-existent form, Epicurus had combatted. One has but to read Lucretius to know what Epicurus made war upon — not paganism, but “Christianity,” which is to say, the corruption of souls by means of the concepts of guilt, punishment and immortality. — He combatted the subterranean cults, the whole of latent Christianity–to deny immortality was already a form of genuine salvation.  Epicurus had triumphed, and every respectable intellect in Rome was Epicurean–when Paul appeared. . . Paul, the Chandala hatred of Rome, of “the world”….  (From AntiChrist)

Friedrich Nietzsche: `Eternal Epicurus.’ — Epicurus has always lived and still lives today, unknown to those who called and call themselves Epicureans, and of no renown among philosophers. He has his own name forgotten: that was the heaviest burden that he has ever thrown away. (The Wanderer W, II, 227)

Friedrich Nietzsche:   {Note 37 From Kaufman edition of the Gay Science} There are also many interesting references to Epicurus in Nietzsche’s letters to Peter Gast, who was very much interested in Epicurus.  All of these references express admiration and a sense of affinity, although it has often been suggested, falsely, that Nietzsche admired only the pre-Socratic philosophers.

Friedrich Nietzsche: “My health is disgustingly rich in pain, as formerly; my life much more severe and lonesome; I myself live on the whole almost like a complete saint, but almost with the outlook of the complete, genuine Epicurus [genuine, as opposed to the popular misconceptions that find expression in the general use of “epicurean”]—with my soul very calm and patient and yet contemplating life with joy” (January 22, 1879)

Friedrich Nietzsche:   “I have once again contemplated Epicurus’ bust: strength of will and spirituality are expressed in the head to the highest degree.” (July 1, 1883). —

Friedrich Nietzsche: “Epicurus … so far all the world has paid him back, beginning in his own time, for allowing himself to be taken for someone else and for taking a light, divinely light view of opinions about himself. Already during the last period of his fame [while he was still living] the pigs crowded into his gardens …” (August 3, 1883; the image of the pigs is derived from Horace, Epistles I 4 16).

Norman DeWitt:  “The need for a reinterpretation of the work and influence of this truly unknown philosopher can hardly be over estimated, for he belongs to that other classical tradition which was overshadowed by Platonism and Stoicism. Unobserved by humanists, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there was a renaissance of science which took men back to Hippocrates and Democritus – and upon this renaissance the modern world was built.”  (From “Philosophy For The Millions”)

Lucian of Samosata:  In this connection Alexander once made himself supremely ridiculous. Coming across Epicurus’s Principal Doctrines, the most admirable of his books, as you know, with its terse presentment of his wise conclusions, he brought it into the middle of the marketplace, there burned it on a figwood fire for the sins of its author, and cast its ashes into the sea. He issued an oracle on the occasion:  “The dotard’s doctrines to the flames be given.” The fellow had no conception of the blessings conferred by that book upon its readers, of the peace, tranquility, and independence of mind it produces, of the protection it gives against terrors, phantoms, and marvels, vain hopes and insubordinate desires, of the judgment and candor that it fosters, or of its true purging of the spirit, not with torches and squills and such rubbish, but with right reason, truth, and frankness.  …..  My object, dear friend, in making this small selection from a great mass of material has been twofold. First, I was willing to oblige a friend and comrade who is for me the pattern of wisdom, sincerity, good humor, justice, tranquility, and geniality. But secondly I was still more concerned (a preference which you may be far from resenting) to strike a blow for Epicurus, that great man whose holiness and divinity of nature were not shams, who alone had and imparted true insight into the good, and who brought deliverance to all that consorted with him. (From “Alexander the Oracle-Monger”)

 

Note:  By their inclusion here it is not to be inferred that the following “Nay-sayers” do not have valuable scholarly information to offer.  Rather, the point of these citations is that the student of Epicurus should not look to these authors for the most sympathetic or even the most accurate portrayals of Epicurus’ views, given these authors’ personal conclusions as to the demerits of Epicurus’ work.George Strodach:  “Though based on the pleasure-pain principle, it [the life of the sectarian Epicurean] was not what we would ordinarily call a pleasant life. In Nietzche’s terms, it did not say YEA to life but NAY. It was largely negative, escapist, self-protective, and therapeutic. By withdrawing from the active concerns and responsibilities of the citizen, it remained socially and politically immature. These are the traits summed up by Gilbert Murray in his brilliant phrase “the failure of nerve.””  Introduction to “The Philosophy of Epicurus” / “The Art of Happiness.”Cyril Bailey:  However near his system skepticism may be  hovering, if its principles be logically carried out, Epicurus will have no truck with it; he is satisfied that he has sufficiently dealt with such difficulties as are involved in the infallibility of sensation.  Yet even if we shut our eyes to the incidental difficulties of the theory, there remains the one weakness which haunts the system of Epicurus, as it must necessarily any sensationalist philosophy – the supreme difficulty both in the field of knowledge and in the field of ethics, of obtaining objective truth and an objective standard.  Truth and goodness must be universal, yet the sensations by which they are to be known are the sensations of the individual. What guarantee is there that his sensations are identical with his neighbor’s or even with his own on some previous or future occasion? That Epicurus and his followers were conscious of this weak spot we may infer from their eagerness, when occasion offered, to appeal to the universality of sensations and beliefs, as, for instance, in support of the existence of matter or the existence of divine beings.  But in reality the Gospel of sensation, for all its attractive simplicity and apparent certainty must lead to an individualism, such as that of Protagoras: the individual man must become the measure of all things’. He is left isolated with his own sensations and his own criteria, and it is a mere chance whether his neighbor will be given similar data and therefore reach similar conclusions. The Epicurean consciously shut himself off from public life and took no part in the common activities of the state; but he did not realize that the very foundation of his system in reality cut him off in thought and conduct from his fellow-men and left him a philosopher stranded to all intents and purposes on a desert island. (The Greek Atomists and Epicurus, p 273)

 

Cyril Bailey:  “It may indeed be said without exaggeration that Epicurean physics and ethics are but the elaboration in many different fields of the supreme principle of the infallibility of sensation.”  (The Greek Atomists and Epicurus, p 274)  [Ed note:  Infallibility!!!!???!!!!]

Cyril Bailey:  “The cosmology of Epicurus, though weakened perhaps by the logical insistence on the principles of the Canonice, was the stronger and more vigorous for being based on an atomic foundation. ”  (The Greek Atomists and Epicurus, p 383) [emphasis added]

Cyril Bailey:  “And if it is impossible to accept his account of the nature of the soul and its workings, so the inference from it cannot be admitted. If the soul is a mere atomic complex, a body, then no doubt like the body it perishes and cannot have any sort of existence after death. But if that account be unsatisfactory, then the problem of survival remains open: the soul mayor may not survive bodily death) but the question cannot be decided on the basis of a purely material analysts.  It is impossible in dealing with a material system to refrain from pointing out its fundamental weakness….” (The Greek Atomists and Epicurus, p 437)z

Cyril Bailey:  “The weakness of the Epicurean morality begins to show itself, as that of any form of egoistic hedonism necessarily must, as soon as the individual is set in relation with his fellow men. Nor does the picture become brighter if the virtues are left and certain other means are considered which the ‘wise men’ will pursue to secure ‘immunity’ from his fellows.”  (The Greek Atomists and Epicurus, p 515)

Cyril Bailey:  “These are some of the more obvious criticisms and problems which the examination of Epicurus’ moral theory must inevitably suggest.  When tried by the standard of the best moral systems, ancient or modern, it is no doubt found to be inferior; even taking it, as its author would most have preferred to represent it, as a practical method of conduct based on the observation of what is, it is insufficient, as it does not account for some of the most natural impulses of the normal human being.”  (The Greek Atomists and Epicurus, p 528)

Cyril Bailey:  “These are some of the more obvious criticisms and problems which the examination of Epicurus’ moral theory must inevitably suggest.  When tried by the standard of the best moral systems, ancient or modern, it is no doubt found to be inferior; even taking it, as its author would most have preferred to represent it, as a practical method of conduct based on the observation of what is, it is insufficient, as it does not account for some of the most natural impulses of the normal human being.”  (The Greek Atomists and Epicurus, p 528)

Cyril Bailey:  “To the modern mind on the other hand it is probably the physical side ofEpicurus’ speculations-the Atomism whose history it has been the purpose of this book to trace-which will make the strongest appeal. The moral theory, even in the days of the Utilitarian school, would have seemed crude and possibly narrow-it made no provision for that false but popular offshoot of a ‘pleasure-theory’, Collective Hedonism and to-day, as one contemplates it, apart from gleams of suggestive thought here and there, it appears ‘stale and unprofitable‘. (The Greek Atomists and Epicurus, p 533) [emphasis added]

Cyril Bailey:  “But just because he was so rigid in the application of his principles and refused ever to cross the bridge and to seek the aid which might have been given him by rationalism or a spiritual view of the world, his system attains a completeness and consistency which proves it to be the work of a great thinker. Taking his stand on a single fundamental idea he has raised on it an edifice of thought which, for its penetration sometimes, and always for its fearlessness and for its coherence, is deserving of more study and consideration than the modern histories of philosophy have often given to it.   (The Greek Atomists and Epicurus, p 534) [emphasis added]