Recent events in Oslo call for reflection on how Epicureans should react to the malicious and aggressive frauds who all too frequently populate the world. A first thought is to remember that the nature of man has not changed, and the ancient Epicureans faced many of the same dangers that we face today. There are few better examples in the ancient texts of how the task of resisting fraud and manipulation falls to Epicureans than Lucian’s Alexander the Oracle-Monger. I have dedicated a page of this website to that essay, and I highly recommend reading it for the first time, or rereading it again. In times like these, when it is so discouraging to watch the world’s “authorities” willingly obscure the truth for their own purposes, it is essential to remember that there is an antidote.
Lucian’s entire essay is well worth reading, but the following excerpts stand on their own for their inspirational value.
First, Lucian set the stage on which Alexander, the would-be oracle-for-hire, foisted his fraudulent religious claims on the credulous commonfolk:
The city was filled to overflowing with persons who had neither brains nor individuality, who bore no resemblance to men that live by bread, and had only their outward shape to distinguish them from sheep.
Populations of sheep — not so different from today? — call for Epicurean perception and leadership:
It was an occasion for a Democritus, nay, for an Epicurus or a Metrodorus, perhaps, a man whose intelligence was steeled against such assaults by skepticism and insight, one who, if he could not detect the precise imposture, would at any rate have been perfectly certain that, though this escaped him, the whole thing was a lie and an impossibility.
A time came when a number of sensible people began to shake off their intoxication and combine against him, chief among them the numerous Epicureans; in the cities, the imposture with all its theatrical accessories began to be seen through. It was now that he resorted to a measure of intimidation; he proclaimed that Pontus was overrun with atheists and Christians, who presumed to spread the most scandalous reports concerning him. He exhorted Pontus, as it valued the God’s favor, to stone these men. Touching Epicurus, he gave the following response. An inquirer had asked how Epicurus fared in Hades, and was told: ‘Of slime is his bed, And his fetters of lead.’
“Chief among them the numerous Epicureans!” And among such a population of sheep, being sheared by the fraud of religion, where do we find the Platonists, the Stoics, and the other religionists who have no quarrel with supernatural quackery?
Well, it was war to the knife between him [Alexander] and Epicurus, and no wonder. What fitter enemy for a charlatan who patronized miracles and hated truth, than the thinker who had grasped the nature of things and was in solitary possession of that truth? As for the Platonists, Stoics, Pythagoreans, they were his good friends; he had no quarrel with them. But the unmitigated Epicurus, as he used to call him, could not but be hateful to him, treating all such pretensions as absurd and puerile.
If we as Epicureans hope to wait for reinforcements from the Platonists or other religionists, we will likely find ourselves very lonely, and we must be prepared to confront the reality that we may be alone in a crowd of madmen:
As I have said, Alexander was much afraid of Epicurus, and the solvent action of his logic on imposture. On one occasion, indeed, an Epicurean got himself into great trouble by daring to expose him before a great gathering. He came up and addressed him in a loud voice:
‘Alexander, it was you who induced So-and-so the Paphlagonian to bring his slaves before the governor of Galatia, charged with the murder of his son who was being educated in Alexandria. Well, the young man is alive, and has come back, to find that the slaves had been cast to the beasts by your machinations.’ All this the Epicurean recounted. Alexander was much annoyed by the exposure, and could not stomach so well deserved an affront. He directed the company to stone the man, on pain of being involved in his impiety and called Epicureans. However, when they set to work, a distinguished Pontic called Demostratus, who was staying there, rescued him by interposing his own body. The man had the narrowest possible escape from being stoned to death—as he richly deserved to be; what business had he to be the only sane man in a crowd of madmen, and needlessly make himself the butt of Paphlagonian infatuation?
Just as Epicureans must expect to find ourselves frequently the only sane members in crowds of madmen, we must expect and be prepared for the persecution of our Epicurean ideas:
Coming across Epicurus’s Accepted Maxims, the most admirable of his books, as you know, with its terse presentment of his wise conclusions, he brought it into the middle of the market-place, there burned it on a fig-wood fire for the sins of its author, and cast its ashes into the sea. He issued an oracle on the occasion: The dotard’s maxims to the flames be given.
The fellow had no conception of the blessings conferred by that book upon its readers, of the peace, tranquillity, and independence of mind it produces, of the protection it gives against terrors, phantoms, and marvels, vain hopes and inordinate desires, of the judgment and candor that it fosters, or of its true purging of the spirit, not with torches and squills and such rubbish, but with right reason, truth, and frankness.
We cannot expect to convert the entire world to Epicureanism. We do not have within our control anything but the ability to learn and preserve for ourselves the wisdom of Epicurus. It is within our control only to follow the example of the ancient Epicureans, and learn that it IS possible to live happily in this world, regardless of our circumstances. By studying the wisdom of Epicurus, by applying it in our own lives, and by sharing it with others when we can, we too can “strike a blow for Epicurus, that great man whose holiness and divinity were not shams, who alone had and imparted true insight into the good, and who brought deliverance to all that consorted with him.” These words from Lucian ring as true today as they did two thousand years ago:
My object, dear friend, in making this small selection from a great mass of material has been twofold. First, I was willing to oblige a friend and comrade who is for me the pattern of wisdom, sincerity, good humor, justice, tranquility, and geniality. But secondly I was still more concerned (a preference which you will be very far from resenting) to strike a blow for Epicurus, that great man whose holiness and divinity of nature were not shams, who alone had and imparted true insight into the good, and who brought deliverance to all that consorted with him.