Included in item 15 of the “indictment of Epicureanism” that I recently posted is the charge “The true Epicurean lives inside his walls with a few close friends and let the world outside the garden go to hell.” Is that true, or the worst kind of distortion? Keeping in mind that these opinions are Gassendi’s own, not part of the ancient texts, and no doubt only part of the answer; let’s consider how Gassendi construed the proper Epicurean attitude towards others. From page 273 of the Stanley translation:
We come next to the Vertues which we said were allied to Justice, for that they have regard to other persons, and though they are not (as Justice is) prescribed by Laws and Covenants, yet they import, out of decency, a certain obligation like that of Justice.
The first is Beneficence, or the doing good to others, whereunto those are obliged, who are able to assist or relieve others, either with their hand or purse. If they deny the assistance of their hands, they are censured as barbarous, cruell, inhuman; if that of their purse, they are thought the same, as also, sordid, tenacious, covetous, and the like. But if they assist others, they are accounted courteous, civill, kind, as also liberall, munificent, magnificent, &c. So that they are obliged for their own sakes to do good to others, so far as may be without prodigality.
For those who prosecute this vertue procure to themselves good will, and (what most of all conduces to quiet living) and dearness or tender estimation from others: they who use it not, ill will, and (what most occasions troublesome life) contempt and hatred. Take heed therefore you omit not to be beneficent, at least in small matters, that so you lose not the advantage of being accounted ready to gratifie others, even in great.
Not without reason did I say formerly, It is not only more honourable, but also more delightful, to give, than to receive a benefit; because the giver thereby makes himself superior to the receiver, and reaps more over the interest of Thanks; and there is no any thing that joyes a man more than thanks. A beneficent person is like a fountain, which if you should suppose it to have a reasonable soul, what joy it would not have a the sight of so many corn-fields, and pastures, which flourish and smile as it were with plenty and verdure, and all by the dissolution of its streams upon them?
The second is gratitude, to which every man that receives a benefit, is reciprocally obliged, unlesse he would incurre the greatest hatred and ignominy. For ingratitude is worthily hatefull to all men; because seeing nothing is more suitable to nature than to propense to receive a good, it is highly contrary to nature not to be readily gratefull toward the author of that good.
Now since, no man is more gratefully affected towards his benefactors than the wise man, we may justly affirm, that only the wise man knows how to fulfill the duty of gratitude, because he alone is ready upon all occasions to express his thankfulness to his friends, both present and absent, even to those that are dead.
Others pay thanks only to present friends, when present, and this perhaps for their own farther ends, to encourage them in some new favour; but how few are there, who gratefully commemorate their absent benefactors? Who requite the good they did them upon their Children or other relations? How few who honour their memory after death; who rejoyce not rather, as if their obligations were canceled? Who love those that were dear to them, respect them, and as far as in them lyes, do good to them?
The third is Piety, the most sacred species of gratitude. It looks upon our parents in the first place, to whom every man is more obliged than to all the World besides; for to others he may ow other things; but to his parents he owes himself. Therefore if ingratitude to others be hatefull, that which is shewn to parents must certainly be the most horrid and detestable.
We say, in the first place, because piety in the second place extends to kindred, and chiefly to our Brothers and Sisters, to whom we are obliged by the interest of our parents; in such manner as that we cannot shew ourselves disrespectful and unkind to them, but we must be at the same time highly ungratefull to our parents, and all our progenitors, who in the circle of their love and experience comprehended all that were, and should afterwards be derived from them.
Nor is this piety distinct from that dearnesse we are to bear toward our native Country, which comprehends our Parents and all our kindred, and receives us at our birth, brings us up and protects us. And as by the interest of our parents we are obliged to our kindred, so by the interest of our Country we are obliged to respect all our Country-men; but more especially the Magistrates and Princes who defend the Country itself, and the laws of it, and give us this benefit in particular, that under their protection we may live securely and peaceably.
The fourth is observance, or that reverence which we ow to all persons of eminence of any kind. This is accompany’d partly with gratitude and piety (for we cannot any way better express the gratefulnesse of our minds than by giving due reverence and worship to our Benefactors, Parents, Governours, Princes, and all men of dignity and power) and partly with honour and respect, as it is the best testimony we can give of our internall sentiments of their deservings, who excell in Age, Wisdom, Learning, and Vertue, the most honourable of all things.
To this observance belongs that which men call Religion and Sanctity toward the Gods, whom we are bound to reverence and honor no otherwise than our parents, not through any hope of reward, but (as I said before) for their transcendant majesty and the supremacy of their nature. Because, whatever is excellent deserves a just veneration, and no excellency is greater than that of the divine Nature, for it is immortall and most blessed.
Thus understanding that the Gods neither create troubles to themselves nor give to others, we piously and holily reverence their most excellent nature.
But on the other hand Epicureanism does not with rose-colored-glasses command us to love all men equally. As Gassendi says in the following excerpt, friendship applies to the wise, among whom there is a sort of league, and “What are the vulgar to us??” (page 274)
Friendship, I grant, consists in, and is kept alive by, the mutuall participation of pleasures or goods which we may enjoy whilst we live; yet is it not necessary that the goods of friends should be put into one common stock, as he conceived who said: Amongst Friends all things are common. This implies a diffidence (that all their wills may not continue constant) and they who are diffident are not friends; such only are friends who can with full confidence and freedome take and use so much of their friends goods or estate as they need, although kept in severall not in one joynt-stock, no otherwise than as if it were their own, esteeming them to be no lesse their own than if they had them in their own possession and keeping.
This sounds strange in the ears of the vulgar: but what are they to us? There is no faith or constancy in their kindnesse and friendship, they being incapable of these things and of the least part of commendable Wisdome. Moreoever, he that is one of the vulgar understands not what is profitable in private or publick, nor can distinguish between good manners and bad.