Common Fallacies About Epicurus (#1): Epicurus maintained that all sensations are “true.”

Readers of this blog will notice the deep respect paid here to the work of Norman W. DeWitt, the late professor of classics from the University of Toronto who devoted much of his life to the study of Epicurus.   DeWitt’s book “Epicurus and His Philosophy” is perhaps the single best reference for the modern student seeking to increase his understanding of Epicureanism.  The purpose of today’s post is simply to call attention to one of DeWitt’s most critical insights.  In his 1943 article Epicurus: All Sensations Are True,” Dewitt demonstrated convincingly that the sentiment stated in the article’s title, if considered only superficially, gives a totally misleading impression about Epicurus’ position.

As DeWitt wrote:

The aim of this article is to show reasons for believing that the statement in the heading is false as usually understood. It is absurd; the documentation is deficient, misleading, and from prejudiced sources; advocates of its validity go beyond their authorities. It is inconsistent with Epicurus’ theory of perception, his terminology, his account of vision, his classifications, his treatment of the criteria in his Principal Doctrines, his account of heavenly phenomena in the letter to Pythocles, and his recommendations to students. Ancient proofs of it are polemical sophistries. Modern misinterpretations have arisen from the ambiguity of xxxxx, which has three meanings in Epicureanism: 1. real or self-existent; 2. relatively true; 3. absolutely true. Sensations have been confused with judgments.

The significance of this point can hardly be overestimated. Epicurus espoused a three-legged canon of truth of which the sensations were only one of the three legs.  The “pain/pleasure mechanism” and the “anticipations” were the other two legs of the triad.  All three were provided by Nature to reinforce each other as necessary tools for determining truth.

Epicurus’ true position was that  sensations must be evaluated against the evidence provided by the remainder of the canon, and tested (in a reasoning process) against multiple other observations from the same senses before a particular observation be concluded to be “absolutely true.”  It is most assuredly this process that Epicurus held to be competent to determine truth, and to be proof that the skeptics and other deniers of the possibility of knowledge were wrong.  Unless we understand this point, we cannot appreciate the strength of Epicurus’ argument against the determinists and the religionists — and no doubt that is one reason why their unfriendly historians distorted his position beyond all recognition.

DeWitt has shown us that it is absurd to contend that Epicurus considered all sensations to be self-evidently true.  Unfortunately this absurdity is widely held, and constitutes perhaps the most malicious (or most negligent) of the the misrepresentations of Epicurus’ enemies over the centuries.  It is therefore critical that the student of Epicurus identify this fallacy and dismiss it early in his studies.