For my final post of 2011, I would like to end by thanking all those who have added so much to my understanding of Epicureanism over the past year. When I started this blog I had no idea I would have the opportunity to interact with such good people from such exotic (to me) places as England, Finland, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and others, including even Greece, the homeland of Epicurus himself. One of my goals in writing this blog was to record my experiences as I proceeded in my study, and I want to assure anyone else who undertakes a similar study that there are a world of people out there who share our admiration of Epicurus, and who are enthusiastic about sharing their own insights into Epicureanism.
I know I have very far to go before I begin to scratch the surface of what there is to know about Epicurus. As I proceed, I want to pledge that I will always seek to follow two of Epicurus’ admonitions in particular. I will always seek to “wait” before concluding prematurely that something is clear when it is not, and I will always seek to conduct myself as graciously as possible in any disagreements of opinion.
For example, I am not much closer than ever to coming to a conclusion about Epicurus’ true views of the nature of “Anticipations” and the nature of “the gods.” Even as I was preparing this post, I have had recommended to me much interesting new reading that I need to study and absorb. I intend to blog further about all these materials that are new to me, but I want to mention in particular that I now have a copy of the recently published “Epicurus and the Epicurean Tradition” edited by Jeffrey Fish and Kirk Sanders. This book contains articles by David Sedley advocating the “idealist” argument (that Epicurus did not really believe that gods exist except as mere “mental constructs,” and that these constructs have no reality external to the human mind) and by David Konstan responding with the “realist” argument (that Epicurus was serious that gods do have an external objective reality). Both articles are beautifully written and well argued, but both are grounded in the empiricist view that “anticipations” are the result of external stimuli. While I “wait” for enlightenment on this subject, I will repeat my personal prejudice to keep it out in the open: I find both “realist” and “idealist” arguments to be profoundly unsatisfying. I remain firmly disposed toward the views of Norman DeWitt, who held that Epicurus sincerely believed both (1) that “the gods” are real, and (2) that “anticipations” are “innate,” to the extent that Epicurus is properly classified as an “intuitionist” rather than a pure “empiricist” as that term is used today. Perhaps the truth is some mixture of these views, and in fact I find myself drawn to Sedley’s use of the phrase “innate disposition” since I think it conveys much of what DeWitt advocated, and what I believe Thomas Jefferson and Jackson Barwis advocated in their own writings.
Oh well, if such good minds as Sedley, Konstan, and DeWitt can disagree so profoundly on such basic issues, I will not be surprised if it takes me at least another year of “waiting” to make up my own mind on this subject!
Regardless of the ambiguities that remain to be resolved, I am more convinced than ever that the study of Epicurus is tremendously worthwhile in today’s world. Archaeologists and other professionals continue to make new discoveries every year, and there is an almost limitless amount of new — and old — material that remains to be assimilated into mainstream Epicurean studies. In my own case, a kind friend of Epicurus just this weekend made me aware of another ancient Epicurean of whom I had never heard — Asclepiades of Bithynia. I intend to post much further about this, but in the meantime you can refer to this outstanding article on Asclepiades here.
To close on somewhat somber note: Every day it seems that new evidence accumulates that our world is descending into a new dark ages such as that which overtook the ancient Epicureans in the second and third centuries. In particular, I recently finished reading Josephus’ “The Jewish War,” and I am overwhelmed by the parallels between the challenges of our own times and those that faced Vespasian and Titus. The religious zealotry of that time and place are eerily similar to attitudes that exist in our world today, and it is going to take tremendous effort to live happily while dealing with those challenges. I am more convinced than ever that Epicureanism has an important role to play in that effort.
I thank those who have been of assistance to me the pursuing the role of Epicureanism in the past year, and I look forward to another productive year ahead.