Caveat Emptor: Pick Your Texts and Commentaries Carefully!

The student of Epicurus would do well to remember that misrepresentations of Epicurus’ views, whether intentional or innocent, did not end with Cicero in ancient times.  As DeWitt suggested, even modern biographers and commentators cannot always be trusted to portray Epicurus’ views objectively, much less sympathetically.  For that reason, this blogger uniformly recommends DeWitt’s Epicurus and His Philosophy as the best introduction to the subject.

Unfortunately, DeWitt did not publish his own translations of the Epicurean texts, and for that we must rely on scholars who do not always share DeWitt’s insights.  The most complete body of Epicurean texts available is apparently Epicurea produced by Hermann Usener in 1887, but this work is seemly unavailable today in English, except in excerpts posted at  It appears that the most comprehensive twentieth century English translations were produced by Cyril Bailey, who published Epicurus, the Extant Remains in 1926 and The Greek Atomists and Epicurus in 1928.

Modern readers are thus largely dependent on Bailey’s works if they wish to consult a comprehensive study of all the Epicurean literature.   I write today’s blog entry after completing Bailey’s The Greek Atomists and Epicurus.  It is far beyond the scope of this entry to dissect or even provide a list of the disagreements between Bailey and Dewitt.  The point today is rather that before he consults Bailey’s works, the student of Epicurus should be warned that Bailey follows the Ciceronian tradition of criticism of central aspects of Epicureanism.  Especially in ethics, he is certainly no friend of Epicurus.

I have lost count of the number of times Bailey labeled an Epicurean viewpoint “naive,” but in his final chapters, especially “Ethics,” Bailey leaves behind condescension and moves on to condemnation.  As the book ends Bailey makes no effort to hide his sense of superiority, condescension, and even contempt for Epicurus’ views.  Read Bailey’s commentary if you wish as an academic exercise, but if you are looking to discover what Epicurus actually thought about the way men should live, from sources that are sympathetic and yet thoroughly-researched, DeWitt is the place to start.

If I have time later, I will develop this blog entry with responses to Bailey’s unfair, inaccurate, or simply disagreeable remarks.  For now, I hope it will be of service to simply highlight several passages from Bailey’s final chapters that illustrate his (and to a large degree, the world’s) anti-Epicurean prejudices most clearly.  These prejudices and misconceptions call out for correction, and I hope the proper Epicurean responses will be readily obvious to you.  If not, the place to start looking for the truth is DeWitt’s Epicurus and His Philosophy:

“It would be natural to pause at this point and attempt some estimate of the Epicurean moral theory in general, but it is necessary first to deal with the philosopher’s attitude to virtue, in particular to those virtues which involve dealings with other men:  egoistic hedonism’ will not then perhaps shine so brightly.”  TGAAE page 508

‘But this very concern for himself makes it necessary for the philosopher to determine his attitude toward other men:  for they may be either a very serious hindrance to his pleasure or possibly be made to subserve it.  The motive of fear is in this case stronger than the motive of hope. TGAAE page 511

What then is its [Justice] nature from the Epicurean point of view?  It would clearly be most to the advantage of the individual to have perfect freedom of action, which in life among other men means complete disregard for them, their property and their interests. TGAAE page 511.

“It therefore becomes to his advantage to forego the pleasures of aggression, on condition that he is guaranteed freedom from attack….”  TGAAE page 511.

“More conspicuously than either of the two former virtues is justice a pis aller, a painful thing in itself and only to be tolerated because it contributes to tranquility of the mind, which it relieves from fear of worse pains.  TGAAE page 512.

“The ideal from the individual’s point of view is really injustice:  if only he could commit injustice consistently without ever being discovered, that would be best, but unfortunately not only is there the danger of detection, but what is still worse, because it is a permanent disturbance of mental peace, there is always the dread of detection.” TGAAE page 512

“The life of justice so conceived is a disagreeable necessity, but it saves a man in every way from great pains and it helps to the supreme end of true pleasure, for ‘the greatest fruit of justice is freedom from trouble.’  TGAAE page 513.

“Unless there is the deliberate understanding there is no obligation to refrain from acts of aggression and no security against them:  it is incidentally interesting to see this doctrine applied to nations, for the modern attitude to weaker and less civilized races has often been based on much the same principle:  if a nation is not strong enough to enforce justice, it has no international rights.”  TGAAE page 514.

Temperance and courage the wise Epicurean will cultivate assiduously with a strong belief in their value, because they contribute immediately and necessarily to the increase of his pleasure and the diminution of his pains.  But justice is a makeshift:  the ‘wise man’ accepts it with a view of getting what he can out of it: but he would gladly evade it, if only he could be certain that he would not be detected in the breaking of his tacit compact. It is not a very pleasant picture to contemplate and one does not like to think of the possible decisions of an Epicurean casuist on this basis.  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 to his fellow men. TGAAE page 514.

“There is a marked churlishness and a depressing timidity about the ‘wise man’s’ action, but if he is to be consistent with his beliefs, this is the only course he can take. TGAAE page 517

In his attitude to friendship the ‘wise man’ seems at first sight to present a more human and attractive side of his nature. TGAEE page 517

“But, though friendship is without doubt the brightest spot in Epicurean life, there is another side to the picture.  For when its motives are examined, it is found that this suggestion of self-forgetfulness and devotion is something of a delusion, and that friendship like every other interest and action in the ‘wise man’s’ life is based on the primary consideration of personal pleasure:  ‘friendship has practical needs as its motive,’ ‘Epicurus says that there is no one who cares for another except for his own advantage.'”  TGAEE, p. 518.

Secondly friendship is valuable because it enhances the pleasure of one’s own life without introducing a disturbing element of desire and passion such as attaches to love, which Epicurus wholly condemned. TGAEE, p. 519.

The contrast is strongly marked and it does not seem easy to reconcile the two pictures of friendship derived from the contemplation of its practice on the one hand and its motives on the other, nor to acquit Epicurus altogether of inconsistency.  A link of connexion might seem to lie in the idea that ‘it is more pleasant to give than to receive;’ if this were really Epicurus belief, then it might follow that altruism is in reality the highest egoism and the greatest joys of friendship would be found in the opportunities which it affords of giving happiness to others.  But the statement, as we have it, is not supported by argument or parallel and in view of the directly egoistic attitude which prevails throughout the discussion of pleasure, it does not ring quite true:  it ought, for instance, to carry with it a willingness to perform public service. TGAAE, p. 519.

If there is inconsistency, this single relaxation of an austere and almost cynical devotion to self-interest may well be pardoned:  the true-hearted man emerges for once over the stern philosopher, and the account of friendship remains as an oasis in the rather arid desert of Epicureanism on its social side.  TGAAE, p. 520.

“Just as friendship is the highest blessing, so the passion of love is wholly a curse.”  TGAAE, p. 520

“It is possible that Lucretius’ famous attack upon love may have been heightened, as the traditional story of his life suggests, by personal experience and suffering, but there can be no doubt of its virulence and deep sincerity; and even if the violence of the onslaught is his own, it is certain that he was following correct Epicurean tradition: ‘ the wise man will not fall in love, nor is it true that love is heaven-sent.”  Bailey cites the slander against Lucretius without comment as to the absence of similar comment by Cicero or other contemporary writers, or any other disclaimer, in this footnote:  “It is said that he was poisoned by a love-philtre, wrote his poems in his lucid intervals of the resultant madness, and finally committed suicide: see Jerome’s Fasti, Chron. Euseb.”  TGAAE, p. 520

Apart from passionate love, Epicurus did not look kindly on marriage or family life. TGAAE, p. 521  (Note:  Bailey fails to reconcile this opinion with the Will of Epicurus, where he explicitly endorses marriage between the daughter of Metrodorus and a fellow Epicurean:   “In the same way also, they shall be the guardians of the daughter of Metrodorus, and when she is of marriageable age, they shall give her to whomsoever Hermarchus shall select of his companions in philosophy, provided she is well behaved and obedient to Hermarchus.”)

In his attitude then to public affairs and to family life the ‘wise man’ is consistently egoistic, and though in the matter of friendship there seems to be a momentary wavering towards altruism, it is not enough to disturb the general idea that has been formed.” TGAAE, p. 522.

“There are details too in which similarity may be traced [to Democritus], such as the general notions of temperance and and bravery and the rejection of family life. TGAAE, p.523.

“The system which is thus built up cannot but affect us strangely, for it has such strongly marked heights and depths.  At times, as for instance, in the general idea of the tranquil mind and especially in its endurance of pain, Epicureanism seems a broad and even a noble conception; at other moments, especially in the discussion of the ‘wise man’s’ relation to other men, it appears narrow and almost degrading to human nature. TGAAE 523.

“These vulgar charges might with more justification be brought against the doctrine of Aristeppus and the Cyenaics, but Epicurus had made them wholly inapplicable to his system, first by the introduction of the conception of the ‘blessed life’ as a whole with its consequent continuous balance of pleasures and pain, and secondly by the distinction of the pleasure of movement and the pleasure of rest, and the selection of the latter as the true, because the only pure, form.”  TGAAE 524.

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. But it is the direct result of a fearless pursuit of the main principles of his creed to whatever conclusion it may lead him. TGAAE p 527.

“When tried by the standard of the best moral systems, ancient or modern, it is no doubt found 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.” TGAAE p527.

For the student of Epicurus, Bailey’s works are a great source of information.  DeWitt’s works are a better source of understanding.

Previous Article
Next Article