A favorite topic of fans of Epicurus today is that of discussing to what extent we should “live unknown” or participate in political affairs. Aside from the more modern example of Thomas Jefferson, and the well-known example of Cassius Longinus from the Roman period, we have from the ancient texts direct information on this from Epicurus himself.
In Chapter Four of Epicurus and His Philosophy, Norman DeWitt points out that Epicurus placed an important limit on the doctrine of “living unknown”:
[I]t is possible to discern an important phase of the character of Epicurus in true focus. It is plain to see that his emotional reflexes had been conditioned to a pattern usual among his countrymen, of loving friends and hating enemies, because it was no foreign ideal described by Xenophon when he recorded of the younger Cyrus that he once prayed to live long enough to outdo both friend and foe in benefit and injury, returning like for like. The wisdom that Epicurus had not yet acquired when he recklessly threw down the gauntlet to the philosophers in Mytilene was that of a kindred spirit, Ecclesiastes, who advised, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. . . a time to love and a time to hate.” The error of Epicurus had been one of timing, and an error of timing is an error of judgment, an insufficiency of reason.
The desirability of being a living dog rather than a dead lion is indicated by no fewer than nine references to safety, either by specific mention or implication, in the Authorized Doctrines. Two of these have reference to the protection afforded by princes. The safety thus to be obtained ranked low in the judgment of Epicurus, which was not warped by the protection of Lysimachus. In his own day, when the several Macedonian rulers were in the first flush of power, the question whether the philosopher should seek or accept their patronage became a pressing one. Epicurus did not share the monarchical sympathies of the competing political philosophers, the Platonists and Aristotelians. His verdict was a grudging one: “The wise man on occasion will pay court to a monarch.” In Doctrine 39, listing the expedients for assuring personal safety, he mentions dynastic protection last, as if a final resort. In Doctrine 14, while allowing that dynastic protection, like abundance of means, is effective up to a certain limit, he asserts: “… the security that arises from the retired life and withdrawal from the multitude is the most unalloyed.” The “withdrawal from the multitude,” it may be remarked, signifies the aversion from democratic political life.
This distrustful attitude toward the life of royal courts involved important consequences. It marked Epicureanism as a nonconformist creed, as it were, and tended to confine its membership to the bourgeois stratum of society. The court posts were left to the Platonists and Peripatetics, as also to the Stoics, whose exaltation of virtue qualified them peculiarly for the role of chaplain. As the Epicurean Horace perceived, Stoicism was especially comforting to the “silk cushion” class; a moral front makes the best counterpoise to moral laxity. It was this use of Stoicism as a moral front for the nobility that aroused the scorn of Juvenal, whose best satire, the tenth, is distinctly Epicurean.
A caution is nevertheless in order in respect of this Epicurean attitude. The avoidance of courts is a recommendation, not an imperative, as is also the avoidance of democratic political life. The eminent Epicurean mathematician Philonides was court philosopher to the notorious Antiochus Epiphanes in the second century B.C. It is made clear by his biographer, however, that his independence was not sacrificed and his influence was used for good. It may be noted also in the case of the poet Horace that his determined maintenance of his own self respect as the client of Maecenas is apparent even to those who know nothing of the Epicurean teaching. He was drawing upon Epicurus for his argument when he asserted his rights as a client.
It is worth while also to have the exact truth concerning the attitude of Epicurus toward the democratic political life. The Platonists, as champions of a political philosophy, misrepresented his teaching, but Plutarch, though usually a scornful critic and often an unfair one, has done posterity the favor of recording a covering statement from the master’s pen verbatim: “We must explain how best he will guard the end as established by Nature and how a man will not deliberately from the outset proceed to obtain the offices in the gift of the multitudes.”
Thus Epicurus did not unconditionally condemn the holding of public office; what he did condemn was making a career of it, which meant studying rhetoric and “deliberately” placing one’s happiness “from the outset” at the mercy of others.
I entitled this post in part “Incidental” participation in public life, but I am not sure “incidental” is exactly the right word. I don’t think “accidental” is better, and I always am reluctant to use that word due to its connotation of “randomness,” which is surely incorrect. Anyone have a suggestion for the best word to describe someone who does not set out deliberately to pursue a political career, but nevertheless undertakes public office rationally and deliberately when the circumstances require it for his peace and safety? This might seem to be a close kin to the “Cincinnatus” farmer/soldier example from Roman history, but is there a better term for it? Suggestions are welcome!