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Who Will Choose To Seek What He Can Never Find? – An Exercise in Summarizing the Epicurean Inscription by Diogenes of Oinoanda

The Epicurean Inscription of Oinoanda is one of the most fascinating relics of the ancient world, and to the extent that it has been preserved it is an excellent authority on Epicurean doctrine.  The research of Martin Ferguson Smith is outstanding, but hard to find other than in excerpts on the internet at   For today’s blog entry I have made an effort to summarize the basic points that Diogenes was making in the fragments that survive.  What follows is an exercise in summarizing the parts that are best preserved; it is not a translation, and I have added transition material in brackets to make the result more of a unified whole.  The majority is simply a paraphrase of a portion of Mr. Smith’s work, as an exercise in distilling the message down to a modern presentation.   I hope readers of this blog find it useful:

An Exercise in Summarizing the Epicurean Inscription of Diogenes of Oinoanda

We observe that most people suffer from false notions about the nature of things, and do not listen to the body when it brings the just accusation that the soul drags it to things which are not necessary, given that the wants of the body are small and easy to obtain. For the soul too can live well by sharing in the enjoyment of the body, while the wants of the soul are often both great and difficult to obtain, such wants being of no benefit to our nature, and actually involving danger.

And so observing that many people are in this predicament, I have mourned for their behavior and wept over their wasted lives.  [And I have composed this inscription because] I consider it the responsibility of a good man to give benevolent assistance, to the utmost of one’s ability, to those men who are capable of receiving it.

Vain fears of death and of the gods grip many men, who do not see that true pleasure does not come from the approval of the crowd, or from perfumes or ointments, but from the study of nature.

And I write to refute those who say that the study of nature is of no benefit to us. For by presenting this inscription to you, even though I am not engaging in public affairs, it is just as if I were taking action to prove to you that what truly benefits our nature — freedom from disturbance — is identical for one and all.

I have now reached the sunset of my life, and I am on the verge of departing from it due to old age, but before I die I wish to compose this anthem to celebrate the fullness of happiness and to help those who are benevolent and capable of receiving it. If only a few people were in this predicament, I would address them individually, and do all in my power to give them my best advice.  But as I have said, the great multitude of people suffer from the same disease, as in a plague, suffering from their false notions about the nature of things, and the number of the suffering is increasing, for in mutual emulation they catch the disease from one another like sheep.  Moreover, it is right that I seek to help the generations to come, for they too belong to us, though they are still unborn, and it is also right that I help those foreigners who may come here.

Since this inscription will reach a large number of people, I will use this stonework to advertise publicly the medicines that bring salvation.  These medicines we have fully tested, for we ourselves have dispelled the fears that grip men without justification.  We have completely cut away those pains that are groundless, while those that are natural we have reduced to an absolute minimum, making their magnitude minute.

I must warn you against other philosophers, especially the Socratics, who say that pursing natural science and busying yourself with investigation of celestial phenomena is a waste of time.  I must warn you also against others who do not explicitly tell you that natural science is unnecessary (as they are ashamed to take that position) but use another means of telling you that it is not necessary.  When such philosophers assert that the nature of things is impossible to apprehend, what else are they saying than that there is no need for us to pursue natural science?  After all, who will choose to seek what he can never find?

I warn you also against Aristotle, and those who hold the same Peripatetic views as Aristotle, who say that nothing is knowable by science because all things are continually in “flux,” and because that flux is so rapid that all things evade our true apprehension.  We Epicureans, on the other hand, acknowledge their flux, but we deny that it is so rapid that the nature of things cannot be apprehended by the senses.  And indeed, the Aristotelians would never be able to say that some things are white and some are black, while at another time other things are neither white nor black, if they did not in fact have knowledge of the nature of both white and black.

It is our position that the nature of things is composed of first bodies called “elements,” which have subsisted from the beginning of infinite time and are indestructible, and that these elements generate all things.  Since these elements can be destroyed by no one, neither god or man, we conclude that these elements are forever indestructible, and beyond the reach of “necessity.”  For if these elements could be destroyed in accord with “fate” or “necessity,” all things would have long ago perished, since infinite time has already passed.

We also maintain that the things we see are real entities [and not given to us by the gods], and for this point I will use as my witness the phenomena of mirrors, for what I say here will be confirmed by the supporting evidence we see when we look in a mirror.  We would not see ourselves when we look in mirrors, nor would we see any reflection at all, if there were not a continual flow of elements flowing from us to the mirrors and returning back to us.  And this is convincing proof of the flow of the elements, as we see that each of the parts of the thing we see is carried to a point straight ahead.

These images that flow from objects, by impinging on our eyes, cause us to see external realities and to have those impressions enter our minds.  It is in this way that the mind receives those things which are seen by the eyes, and once seen, our nature is rendered susceptible to receiving these images in the future, for even if the object is no longer present, images similar to the first may again be received in the mind.

And this happens even when we are asleep, for images flow to us in the same way at that time too.  How so?  When we are asleep, with all senses as it were paralyzed and extinguished in sleep, the mind, which is still awake and yet unable to test what it receives against the evidence of the senses, conceives a false opinion of what it receives from these images.  At such times the mind thinks that it apprehends the solid nature of true realities, since the means of testing its opinion of what it has received is asleep.  Such errors arise because our senses (which are asleep) provide the rule and standard by which we must judge the truth.

Let us also discuss risings and settings and related phenomena of the sky, but let us first emphasize this preliminary point [which we must always keep in mind]: If one is investigating things that are not directly perceptible, and if one sees evidence that several different explanations are possible, it is reckless to make a dogmatic pronouncement that any single one is correct — such a procedure is more characteristic of a fortune-teller or a priest than of a wise man.  The proper procedure is to say that while any explanation which is supported by evidence is possible, one explanation is more plausible than another.

[The important point to take from these physical discussions is that the universe was not created nor is it controlled by any gods.  But do not take from this that we are impious about such gods as do exist, nor do we fail to have sympathy for those who have false opinions about the gods.  For men who experience visions of various kinds], but who are unable to discover how these are produced, understandably are involved in apprehensions, and they convince themselves that there was a creator of the universe.  Such men vehemently denounce the most pious people as atheists, but as we proceed it will become evident that it is not we Epicureans who deny the true gods, but those who hold false opinions about the gods.  For we are not like those who categorically assert that the gods do not exist, and attack those who hold otherwise. [Nor or we like] Protagoras of Abdera, who said that he did not know whether gods exist, which is the same as saying that he knew that they do not exist.  Nor do we agree with Homer, who portrayed the gods as adulterers, or as angry with those who are prosperous; for we hold that the statues of the gods should be made genial and smiling, so that we may smile back at them rather than be afraid of them.

Let us reverence the gods and observe the custom of our fathers, but let us not impute to the gods any concepts that are not worthy of them. For it is false to believe that gods created this world, because — in their perfection — the gods had no need of a city or fellow-citizens.  Nor did the gods create the world because they needed a place to live, and to one who says such a thing I ask in turn:  “Where were the gods living beforehand?”  There is no answer to that question, at least no answer which can be squared with those who declare that this world is unique.  The god of such people would by their view have been destitute and roaming about at random for an infinite time before the creation of the world, like an unfortunate man — I do not say “god” — who had neither city nor fellow citizens.  It is therefore absurd to argue that a divine nature created the world for its own sake, and it is even more absurd to argue that the gods created men for the gods’ own sake.  There are too many things wrong with both the world and with men!

Many men pursue philosophy for the sake of wealth and power, with the aim of procuring these either from private individuals or from kings, by whom philosophy is deemed to be a great and precious possession.  Well, it is not in order to gain wealth or power that we have embarked upon the same undertaking, but so that we may enjoy happiness through attainment of the goal craved by Nature.   We shall now explain to you the identity of this goal, and how neither wealth can furnish it, nor political fame, nor royal office, nor a life of luxury and sumptuous banquets, nor pleasures of choice love-affairs. Nothing else than philosophy can secure it, and we shall set the whole question before you.  For we have erected this inscription in public, not for ourselves, but for you, citizens, so that we might render it available to you all in an easily accessible form.

But you should know that we bring these truths, not to all people indeed, but only to those people who are benevolent and capable of receiving it.  And this includes those who are called “foreigners” though they are not really so, for the compass of the world gives all people a single country and home, our earth and world.

And I am not pressuring any of you into testifying thoughtlessly and unreflectively in favor of those who say that “this is true.” For I have not spoken with certainty on any matter, not even on matters concerning the gods, without providing you evidence and proper reasoning for what I say.

But I ask of each of you:  even if you are somewhat indifferent and listless, do not be like passers-by in your approach to this inscription, consulting it in a patchy fashion and failing to take the time to understand the overall pattern.

If, gentlemen, the point at issue between the other philosophers and we Epicureans involved inquiry into “what is the means of happiness?” and the others wanted to say “the virtues” (which would actually be true), it would not be necessary to take any other step than to agree with them, without more ado.  But the issue is not “what is the means of happiness?” but “what is happiness and what is the ultimate goal of our nature?”  I say both now and always, shouting out loudly to all Greeks and non-Greeks, that pleasure is the end of the best mode of life, while the virtues (which are inopportunely messed about by these other people, who transfer the virtues from the “the means” to “the end”) are in no way the end in themselves, but the means to an end.

This we affirm to be true, and we take as our starting point.

From here, let us suppose that someone asks the naive question: “Who is it whom these virtues benefit?”  Obviously the answer is “man.”  The virtues do not make provision for the birds flying past, enabling them to fly well, or for any other animal.  The virtues do not desert the nature in which they live and by which they have been born; rather it is for the sake of this nature that the virtues exist and exert their actions.

I must now address the error that many of you hold concerning the causes of things, [at least those of you who hold that virtue is worthwhile for any reason other than the pleasures that it brings.]  For I tell you that not all causes precede their effects.  The majority may do so, but some causes precede their effects, others coincide with their effects, and others follow their effects.

An example of a cause that precedes its effect is surgery and the saving of life. In such a case extreme pain must be endured, and then pleasure quickly follows.

Examples of causes that coincide with their effects are food and water and love-making.  We do not eat food or drink wine or make love and experience pleasure afterward; rather the action brings about the resulting pleasures for us immediately, without awaiting the future.

Examples of causes which follow their effects are the expectation of winning praise after death; men experience pleasure now because they know there will be a favorable memory of them after they have gone.  In such cases the pleasure occurs now, but the cause of the pleasure occurs later.

This is the error of those of you who are unable to understand these distinctions:  you hold that virtue is a result of its own which is caused by living in a certain way, and you do not understand that the virtues have their place among the causes that coincide with their effects, for the virtues are born at the same time as the pleasure of happy living which they bring.

[Those of you who do not understand the philosophy of Epicurus, or those who choose to misrepresent it, go completely astray when you fail to understand Epicurus when he taught us that pleasure or happy living is the end of life. For Epicurus did not hold back from teaching that if a lifestyle of debauchery were sufficient to bring about a happy life, we would have no reason to blame those who engage in debauchery.  This is a dangerous teaching for those who fail or refuse to understand it, or for those who misuse the teaching to indulge in debauchery or the pleasures of the moment.]

But where the danger is great, so also is the fruit.  We must turn aside fallacious arguments on the grounds that they are insidious and insulting and contrived by means of technical ambiguity to lead pitiful human beings astray.  [For the truth is that pleasure is the beginning and end of living happily, and happiness is the first good that is innate within us.  To this view of pleasure as our starting point and as our goal we refer every question of what to choose and what to avoid.  And to this same goal of pleasurable living we again and again return, because whether a thing brings happiness is the rule by which we judge every good.  But although happiness is the first and a natural good, for this same reason we do not choose every pleasure whatsoever, but at many times we pass over certain pleasures when difficulty is likely to ensue from choosing them.  Likewise, we think that certain pains are better than some pleasures, when a greater pleasure will follow them, even if we first endure pain for time.

Every pleasure is therefore by its own nature a good, but it does not follow that every pleasure is worthy of being chosen, just as every pain is an evil, and yet every pain must not be avoided. Nature requires that we resolve all these matters by measuring and reasoning whether the ultimate result is suitable or unsuitable to bringing about a happy life; for at times we may determine that what appears to be good is in fact an evil, and at other times we may determine that what appears to be evil is in fact a good. (Note:  these two paragraphs were inserted here from the Letter to Menoeceus, and are not in the inscription.]

Let us now discuss how life is to be made pleasant in both state of mind and in action.

Let us first discuss state of mind, keeping our eye on the point that when emotions which disturb the soul are removed, those emotions which produce pleasure enter in and take their place, [for there is no neutral state between pleasure and pain where one or the other is not present.]

What are the foremost disturbing emotions?  Fears of the gods, of death, and of pain, and also desires which exceed the limits fixed by nature.  These disturbing emotions are the roots of all evil, and unless we defeat them a multitude of evils will grow and consume us.

[In a like manner as fear of the gods, there is also fear that our lives are controlled by “Necessity” or “Fate” or “Fortune.”  This fear must also be shown to be false, even though as great a thinker as Democritus thought that the atoms were ruled by necessity.]

If anyone adopts Democritus’ theory and asserts that because of their collisions with one another the atoms have no free movement, and that consequently all motions are determined by necessity, we Epicureans shall say to him:  “Do you not know that there is actually a free movement in the atoms which Democritus failed to discover, but which Epicurus brought to light — a swerving movement, as he proves from phenomena?”  The most important thing to remember is this:  if Fate is held to exist, then all admonition and censure are nullified, and not even the wicked can be justly punished, since they are not responsible for their sins.

[And to those who argue that absent the restraint of fear of the gods, or of fate, to keep men from evil, wickedness would have no limit, we maintain that] wrong-doers are manifestly not afraid of the gods or of penalties, else they would not do wrong.  And those who are wise and choose not to do wrong, are not wise on account of the gods, but on account of thinking correctly about certain things, such as about pain and death, for indeed without exception men do wrong either on account of fear or on account of the lure of pleasure.  Ordinary people, on the other hand, are righteous, insofar as they are, on account of the laws and penalties hanging over them.  And the number of those who are conscientious on account of the gods, and not on account of the laws, is few, only two or three among multitudes, and not even they are steadfast in acting righteously, for they are not soundly persuaded about providence.  A clear indication of the complete inability of the gods to prevent wrong-doing is provided by the nations of the Jews and the Egyptians, who, while being the most superstitious of all peoples, are the vilest of peoples.

So on account of what kind of gods will men act righteously?  For they are not righteous on account of the real gods, or on account of Plato’s and Socrates’ judges in Hades.  We are left with this conclusion, because why would not those who disregard the laws scorn fables even more?

So in regard to righteousness, our Epicurean doctrine does no harm, nor do the religions that teach fear of the gods do any good.  On the contrary, those false religions do harm, whereas our doctrine not only does no harm, but also helps.  For our doctrine removes disturbances of mind, while the others add to them.

Do not believe that all men may achieve wisdom, because not all men are capable of it.  But for those men for whom wisdom is possible, such men may truly live as gods.  For such men all things will be full of justice and mutual love, and for such men there will come to be no need of fortifications or laws or all the other things we contrive on account of one another.  Such men will be capable of deriving all their necessities from agriculture, without need of slaves, for indeed we ourselves shall plow and dig and tend the plants and divert rivers and watch over the crops.  Neither fear of the gods, nor of death, nor of pain, nor slavery to those desires which are neither natural nor necessary, shall interrupt the continuity of our friendships and our shared study of philosophy, for our farming operations in a life close to Nature will provide for us all that our nature wants.