Illustrating Epicureanism Through A Pompeian Mosaic

Short of some future scholar uncovering an inscription confirming the purpose of the mosaic found in the house of Marcus Vesonius Primus in Pompeii, there is no way for us to be sure of his intended meaning.  Nevertheless, we can readily make use of this mosaic to illustrate some of the most fundamental points of Epicurean philosophy.  The following graphic has been prepared for this purpose (click on image for larger copy):

To repeat for emphasis, it is not suggested that all these themes were in the mind of the artist.  Rather, what the artist produced lends itself as a device for illustrating many of the principles of Epicurean philosophy, and that is the purpose of this graphic.  A number of references for each point are included below.  Remember to click on the above graphic for a larger version with more readable text.

1.  Nature revolves in a cycle like a wheel, within limits that are firmly established and unchanging, just as the motion of the rim of a wheel is determined by its spokes and its center. It is neither Gods, nor Fortune, nor Fate, but Nature which provides the foundation and laws by which the universe revolves and on which all of Life and Death rest. Just as the spokes of the wheel alternate with empty space, all that exists is made up of Matter possessing a distinct existence that is fixed by Nature, and Void, or empty space, in which Matter exists and through which it travels. Nothing exists anywhere except Natural combinations of empty space and elemental things with a distinct existence fixed by Nature. The “Wheel of Nature”  DRN Book V:  (Now let us sing what is the cause of the motions of the stars. First of all, if the great globe of the sky turns round, we must say that the air presses on the pole at either end, and holds it outside and closes it in at both ends; and that then another current of air flows above. If the whole sky moves round, it must be driven either by a current above or by a current below, straining on to the same goal, towards which the twinkling stars of the everlasting world roll on; or else that there is another current beneath, to drive up the sphere reversely, as we see streams moving round wheels with their scoops.)  In regard to the use of the phrase “wheel of nature” in the ancient world, see James 3:6 American Standard Version:  “And the tongue is a fire: the world of iniquity among our members is the tongue, which defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the wheel of nature, and is set on fire by hell.” ( From Bible History Online:  The phrase “wheel of nature” (trochos tes geneseos) is used here for “the world in progress.” It is not a very natural figure and has given rise to much discussion. The King James Version accents trochos (“course”) instead of trochos (” wheel”). but the language throughout is metaphorical and “course” is not a sufficiently metaphorical word. The translation “birth” for geneseos (so the Revised Version margin). i.e. “a wheel set in motion by birth.” is out of the question. as the argument turns on results wider than any individual’s existence. “Wheel of nature” is certainly right. But a comparison of life to a wheel in some sense or other (chiefly that of “Fortune’s wheel”) is common enough in Greek and Latin writers, and, indeed the exact combination trochos geneseos is found in at least one (Orphic) writer (full references in the commentaries of Mayor and W. Bauer). It would seem, then, that James had heard the phrase, and he used it as a striking figure, with entire indifference to any technical significance it might have. This supposition is preferable to that of an awkward translation from the Aramaic.)  DRN Book I; (We shall begin with this first principle: nothing ever comes from nothing by divine power. In truth, fear holds all men in check, because they see many things go on in earth and in the sky, and they fail to understand the cause, believing those things to be done by divine power. Once we shall have seen that nothing can be produced from nothing, we shall then ascertain the explanation of these things, both the elements out of which every thing can be produced and the manner in which all things are done — without the hand of the gods.)  DRN Book I: (Lastly, rains die, when father ether has tumbled them into the lap of mother earth; but then goodly crops spring up and boughs are green with leaves upon the trees, trees themselves grow and are laden with fruit; by them in turn our race and the race of wild beasts are fed, by them we see glad towns teem with children and the leafy forests ring on all sides with the song of new birds; through them cattle wearied with their load of fat lay their bodies down about the glad pastures and the white milky stream pours from the distended udders; through them a new brood with weakly limbs frisks and gambols over the soft grass, rapt in their young hearts with the pure new milk. None of the things therefore which seem to be lost is utterly lost, since nature replenishes one thing out of another and does not suffer any thing to be begotten before she has been recruited by the death of some other.) DRN Book VLetter to Menoeceus
2.  From Nature springs Life, like a butterfly, beautiful and fleeting. Life is by Nature happy so long as we are without pain, and we achieve happiness and avoid pain by living wisely, honestly, and justly. Living wisely requires that we study, learn, and follow the eternal laws of Nature which govern the universe. Among those laws it is urgent to remember that life is temporary and will one day end in Death. Psyche:  (In Greek mythology, Psyche was the deification of the human soul. She was portrayed in ancient mosaics as a goddess with butterfly wings. The Greek word psyche literally means “spirit, breath, life or animating force.)   DRN Book  III:  (Wherefore once and again you may know that the nature of the understanding and the soul is formed of exceeding tiny seeds, since when it flees away it carries with it no jot of weight. Nevertheless we must not think that this nature is simple. For it is a certain thin breath that deserts the dying, mingled with heat, and heat moreover draws air with it; nor indeed is there any heat, that has not air too mixed with it. For because its nature is rare, it must needs be that many first-beginnings of air move about in it. Already then we have found the nature of the soul to be triple; and yet all these things are not enough to create sensation, since the mind does not admit that any of these can create the motions that bring sensation.  It must be then that some fourth nature too be added to these. But it is altogether without name; than it there exists nothing more nimble, nothing more fine, nor made of smaller or smoother particles.  It first sends abroad the motions that bring sensation among the limbs: for it is first stirred, being made up of small shapes; then heat receives the motions and the hidden power of wind, and then air; then all things are set moving, the blood receives the shock and all the flesh feels the thrill; last of all it passes to the bones and marrow, be it pleasure or the heat of opposite kind.) Principle Doctrine 3 (In life we experience continuous pleasure so long as nothing is present to cause us to feel pain. The highest possible state of pleasure that can be achieved is experienced at the removal of every cause of pain); Principle Doctrine 5; (In life we experience continuous pleasure so long as nothing is present to cause us to feel pain. The highest possible state of pleasure that can be achieved is experienced at the removal of every cause of pain); Letter to Menoeceus (For you see when we lack pleasure and we grieve, we have need of pleasure, because pleasure is not present. But so long as we do not grieve, life affords us no lack of pleasure. On this account we affirm that Nature has provided that Pleasure is the beginning and end of living happily; for we have recognized that Nature has provided that happiness is the first good that is innate within us.)
3.  Death marks the end of Life, but brings no pain, and its face smiles at us as the end of all our troubles. Life is short in comparison to Death, but Death is not to be feared because Death is established by Nature just as is Life. Death is the end of all our awareness, and the infinity of time after our death concerns us no more than does the infinity of time that passed before our birth. DRN Book  III (Death is nothing nothing to us, concerning us not at all, since the nature of the mind is mortal. Think how in times gone by we felt no distress when the Carthaginians from all sides came together to do battle, and all things were shaken by war’s troubling uproar, shuddering and quaking beneath high heaven, and mortal men were in doubt which of the two peoples it would be whose empire would fall by land and sea. So the same applies when we ourselves shall be no more, when our body and soul are separated, out of the both of which we are formed into a single being. You may be sure that for us, who shall then be no more, nothing whatever can happen to excite sensation, not if earth itself should be overturned to mingle with the sea and the sea with heaven.); Principle Doctrine 2 (Death is nothing to us, because that which is dead has no sensations, and that which cannot be sensed is nothing to us.); Principle Doctrine 20 (We assume that physical pleasure is unlimited, and that unlimited time is required to procure it. But through understanding the natural goals and limits of the body, and by dissolving the fear of eternity, we produce a complete life that has no need of infinite time. The wise man neither flees enjoyment, nor, when events cause him to exit from life, does he look back as if he has missed any essential aspect of life.)
4.  The Architect’s Level is a tool by which we compare one thing against another and evaluate whether those things are true. We establish all knowledge by comparing those things which are unclear against those things for which we already have a clear view. Nature equips us with a competent tool by which to evaluate reality. The three corners of that tool are the Five Bodily Senses, the Sense of Pain and Pleasure, and the Sense of Anticipations. All sensations provide true information, but only if each corner is employed together and in accord with Nature are our conclusions correct. DRN Book IV;(As in a building, if the rule first applied by the builder is awry, and the square is untrue and swerves from its straight lines, and if there is the slightest hitch in any part of the level, all the construction must be faulty, all must be awry, crooked, sloping, leaning forwards, leaning backwards, without symmetry, so that some parts seem ready to fall, and others do fall, all ruined by the first erroneous measurements. So too, all reasoning of things which is founded on false interpretations of the senses will prove to be distorted and false.)   Principle Doctrine 22; Principle Doctrine 24
5,6.  The spear, the purple robe, and the insignia of wealth and power are seen to be of equal stature – no greater and no lesser – than the poor man’s staff, blanket, and rope. The Architect’s level provides a clear view of this reality because its weight points to Nature, Life, and Death. In this manner we evaluate all that is relevant to us so that we may view it clearly in the light of the law of Nature. DRN  Book II (We see that by nature the body needs but little — only such things as take away pain. Although at times luxuries can provide us many choice delights, Nature for her part does not need them, and never misses it when there are no golden images of youths throughout the house, holding in their right hands flaming lamps to light the nightly banquet. Nature cares not a bit when the house does not shine with silver or glitter with gold, or when there are no paneled and gilded roofs to echo the sound of harp. Men who lack such things are just as happy when they spread themselves in groups on soft grass beside a stream of water under the limbs of a high tree, and at no great cost pleasantly refresh their bodies, especially when the weather smiles and the seasons sprinkle the green grass with flowers. Nor does fever leave the body any sooner if you toss about under an elegant bedspread amid bright purple linens than if you must lay under a poor man’s blanket.)  Principle Doctrine 26
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