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Promoting the Study of the Philosophy of Epicurus

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Where Is the Misunderstanding / Misrepresentation More Likely?

Here is a passage from Francois Bernier, a friend of Gassendi, which I have never read before, but exists at Epicurus.info. It seems to me it illustrates exactly the problem that anyone who wants to construe Epicurus as a Epicurean, rather than a Stoic-lite, is up against. Note how Bernier confidently states that the chief good of Epicurus is NOT in “motion and stimulation” but in “rest and release.” But more importantly, look who he cites as authority for that conclusion – every church father he can find. Exactly how “fair and balanced” were they? And last, and even more importantly, look what he says about the Stoics. He takes the position that the Stoics – who were right there on the spot with all the texts, all the Epicurean teachers, and everything they could hope for as evidence — the STOICS misunderstood Epicurus and should never have attacked him!!!

Now as people here know I have little good to say about Stoics, but I will give them this — the Stoics knew their own doctrine, and they were smart enough to see who their real enemies were.

Bernier would have us believe that the most educated and eloquent Stoics of the ancient world “misunderstood” Epicurus and attacked him unjustly?  And we are to understand that the “church fathers,” who would stop at nothing  to promote their own doctrine, including murder and mahem against “non-believers,”are to be believed as the more accurate?

Hogwash.

Here’s the passage from Bernier:

“Thus, it is quite obvious that the chief good of Epicurus is not the pleasure which is in motion and in stimulation, but rather that which is in rest, and in the release from trouble.

We could add the testimonies of Tertullian here, St. Gregory of Nazianzen, Ammonius, Stobeus, Suidas, Lactantius, and several others among the ancients, who, though not being particularly fond of Epicurus, did nevertheless say, that the pleasure Epicurus endorsed “was nothing other than a quiet natural state, and not a base and sordid pleasure.” Others have said that “between Epicurus and Aristippus, there was this difference: that Aristippus placed the chief happiness in the pleasure of the body, but Epicurus in that of the mind.” Others, “that the pleasure which disciples of Epicurus propose to themselves for their end, certainly is not a sensual and a bodily pleasure, but a quiet temper of the soul, which is inseparable from a virtuous and an honest life.” Others, like Lactantius, after he had abated from the ardor of his style, said that “Epicurus maintains the chief happiness to be in the pleasures of the mind, and Aristippus in that of the body.”

I have said, “among the ancients,” because after two hundred years, at the end of this barbaric era, we have among others, John Gerson, and Gemistus Pletho, of whom the former, after having brought back various opinions on happiness, said that there are some who holding that “the happiness of man consists in the pleasure of the mind, or in a peaceful tranquility of spirit, such as was that of Epicurus, mentioned often by Seneca, in his epistles, with very much respect. But as to the other Epicurus, Aristippus, Sardanapalus, and Mahomet, who placed it in the pleasure of the body, they were no philosophers.”

Here it is necessary to pardon the ignorance of that age, and the common vogue, if he suspected that there were two Epicuruses.

The latter, Gemistus Pletho, took up the pleasure of contemplation, shows “that Aristotle taught no other position than that of Epicurus, who established the chief good in the pleasure of the mind.” However, it is not without reason that I insinuate that there has since come a happier age, which brought back the good letters that had been nearly lost. For then came an endless number of knowledgeable people who had better thoughts about this philosopher, like Philelphus, Alexander Ab Alexandro, Volateranus, Johannes Franciscus Picus, and many others.

But what shall we say to those who charge Epicurus with holding an entirely opposite opinion? Nothing else than that which has been spoken in the defense of his life – to recognize that the Stoics, among others, who in portraying him as deathly evil for reasons which are expressed at large, not only wrongly interpreted his opinion, but having believed in their own misunderstanding, published on his behalf scandalous books of which they themselves were the authors in order to vindicate their bad interpretation, and to be able to elicit gossip against him with impunity.”

So who is committing the fraud, misrepresentation, or gross negligence? The Stoics who had firsthand access and swore on the alter of virtue to be honest?  Or the later commentators like Bernier, whose own self-interest was to make Epicurus look more ascetic than a Presbyterian elder?

It’s going to be a long road to cut out the stoicisms and religious notions that have taken over the world’s understanding of Epicurus. But for the sake of recovering Epicurus, and our own philosophy of happiness, it has to be done. The material is there. The evidence of contradiction, and either fraud or negligence, including passages such as this one from Bernier, is clear.

The error and fraud is incredibly well entrenched. But if we look to the core Epicurean texts, and if we look to the interests of the later commentators who absurdly claim to know Epicurus’ mind better than the ancient Stoics themselves, it is a task that is very doable.

It is long past time to get started.

 

UPDATE:

Just in case my point here is not clear enough, let me emphasize it. SOMEONE IS LYING. Either the ancient Stoics misrepresented Epicurus’ doctrine in attacking him, or the later commentators, as listed in this post, primarily Christians who wanted to reconcile Epicurus with their hatred of pleasure. There is no having it both ways. The tradition is not unanimous on this -it is clearly contradictory – either the stoics or the later commentators are wrong to a degree that indicates lying and not just negligence. And though I rarely have anything good to say about the ancient Stoics, they knew their own doctrine. The Stoics had the best access to the data, and they were right. These second-hand religious reconcilers / homogenizers were wrong. Epicurus stood for pleasure as we understand the meaning of the word, It was not Epicurus playing games, and the Stoics were not stupid (at least on this point). It is the later commentators who have warped Epicurean philosophy beyond what an ancient Epicurean would have recognized.

And the argument can be extended even further: Not only would the Stoics not have attacked Epicurean ethics, they would have EMBRACED Epicurean ethics as leading to exactly the kind of “austere life / simplicity” that they themselves taught! And does anyone think for a second that that Stoics would not have availed themselves, in 300 years after the death of Epicurus, of the argument that – “You Epicureans don’t even know what your teacher taught, because he taught austere living, and you teach pleasure!”

That is EXACTLY what they would have argued and it would have been one of their *main themes* — just as today it is the main theme of those who want to drum into the head of every fan of Epicurus that he taught a semi-mystlcal “painlessness” and “tranquility” more suitable to a corpse than to living person who wants to follow pleasure to pleasurable living.