The mother is always an important shaper of the character of a child, usually the most important instructor and moral exemplary. Frequently, contemplations of the moral character of personalities like Jesus and Krishna have focused on their upbringing and pasttimes as children of Mary and Devaki, or hinged on the virtuous character of their mothers. If a mother is virtuous, the child is likely to be also and, on the other hand, if she’s not, the child is unlikely to be virtuous. Hence, we see that among the most frequent insults that men face we can find accusations of being a bastard (a son whose father is unknown or doesn’t recognize him) and son of a bitch (one whose mother is a whore). While there are sexist tones to these insults (children of fathers who are promiscuous are never insulted in this manner) and classist tones as well (single mothers are far more likely to raise their children in poverty), it is generally true that parents of good character influence their children to have good character.
It is also frequently true that children who rebel against their parents who have had either false views or bad character, develop intellectual or moral stamina much greater than their ancestors, and that children raised in good homes can and do go astray frequently. But in the end, we can not change our lineage: we are all descendants of our particular ancestors and must contend with and react to a certain cultural, intellectual, and moral legacy that is outside of our control.
Which brings me to Epicurus. For some time, I’ve been wanting to write about his parents and, in particular, his mother and the influence that she had on him. It is my view and that of others in the Epicurean movement that in order to understand Epicurus, one must understand his milieu and that the better we understand his milieu, the better we can understand him and the evolution of his ideas because, like most or all philosophers, he was reacting to the ideas and the cultural baggage of those that came before.
The Schoolteacher’s Son
Of Neocles, Epicurus’ father, we know that he was a schoolteacher and that Epicurus was frequently insulted by being called “the schoolteacher’s son”, which was (to some people, anyway) indicative of lower societal standing.
The only other major reference to a schoolteacher in Epicurus’ biography is his own first teacher, Pamphilus, who was a Platonist and against whom he rebelled. Pamphilus was teaching the Greek myth of creation out of initial chaos when one of his student, the little Epicurus, challenged him to explain what this primal chaos actually consisted of, as he found it impossible to conceive of, or to conceive of something coming out of nothing. At the insistence of the young pupil, Pamphilus was unable to produce a cogent explanation of primal chaos and little Epicurus dismissed the Greek creation myth as a superstition. Henceforward, he would dedicate his entire life to proving that it was possible to construct a scientific, naturalist cosmology based on empirical evidence.
He would later be fortunate enough to study under Nausiphanes, who had himself been a pupil of Democritus, the father of modern science and inventor of the theory of the atom. And so we see that the resistance met in the classroom by the teacher of Epicurus is no different from the resistance that must exist today in classrooms and madrasas all over the world where the oppression of religion and superstition is imposed on children. Over 2,000 years prior to Malala almost losing her life for being an activist in favor of equal education for Pakistani girls, Epicurus had a strong and perceptive mind from a very young age and was one of the pioneers of the resistance against schoolteachers hypnotized by religious insinuations, one of the first ones to stand up and say: “Prove it! Convince me!”.
Purifications and Charms
If his father was of lowly origins, his mother was even lowlier for different reasons. At least Neocles loved knowledge and understood the importance of an education. Chaerestrate’s prevalent tendency to accept irrational and superstitious views inspired compassion in Epicurus, and yet the sincerity of her piety had a hint of innocence that Epicurus also loved. Epicurus would later, as a Scholarch, defend piety as a virtuous way of self-expression (a fact which is attested with insistent by Philodemus of Gadara in the Herculaneum scrolls), so long as it didn’t degenerate into superstition and belief in the suspension of nature’s laws.
To pray is natural. – Epicurus, in On Lifecourses
This is what Diogenes Laertius wrote about Epicurus’ childhood in the tenth chapter of his Lives of Eminent Philosophers:
They allege that he used to go round with his mother to small cottages to perform purification rites and read charms, and assist his father in his school for a pitiful fee; further, that one of his brothers was a pimp and lived with the courtesan Leontion [“Lioness”]; that he put forward as his own the doctrines of Democritus about atoms and of Aristippus about pleasure; that he was not a genuine Athenian, a charge brought by Timocrates and by Herodotus in a book On the Training of Epicurus as a Cadet, that he basely flattered Mithras, the viceroy of Lysimachus, bestowing on him in his letters Apollo’s titles of “Healer” and “Lord.”
These are all reports, many of them concocted by enemies who hated the idea of pleasure as the end of a good life, and to be taken with a grain of salt. However, notice the portion on Chaerestrate, Epicurus’ mother, who was said to be a faith healer who visited common people and gave them “purification rites and read charms”, the sacraments appropriate for a sort of witch or faith healer … or perhaps this was not too different from the way Catholic mothers in Latin America pray novenas (nine-day rounds of rosaries) together from home to home.
It’s not difficult to see, when we understand Epicurus’ teachings, that he was reacting as much to his mother as to Pamphilus, to Plato, to Democritus and the Cyrenaics. His emphasis on the importance of having a clear and lucid (enargeia) understanding of the nature of things (scientific worldview) and his animosity against the perturbances incited by every form of superstition and irrational fear, comes from here. He must have seen “faith healing” in his childhood and realized it was quackery, and naturally made attempts to turn people away from its dangers.
“Turn Away from the Speeches of Rhetoricians”
His mother remained superstitious well into old age. In ancient Greece, most people had deep and sincere faith in dreams, visions, and oracles. Later in life when Epicurus had established his school, we learn of a letter sent by his mother apparently saying that she had seen him in a dream and that she was worried, thinking the dream to be a bad omen. He replies, encouraging her not to worry and to study natural philosophy so that she too can become happy and imperturbable. In the letter, he mentions that she has rejected naturalism in favor of “the speeches of rhetors”, philosophers who do not commit philosophy to therapeutic ends as the Epicureans did. We find fragments of his Epistle to Chaerestrate in the Epicurean Inscription at Oenoanda:
[… you must carry out a careful and] sure [inquiry] into them. [For when images] of persons who are far away [from our sight invade our mind, they cause the greatest disturbance …
Therefore, with regard to these matters, mother, [be of good heart: do not reckon] the visions [of us to be bad]; rather, [when you see them], think of us daily [acquiring] something [good] and advancing [further in happiness]. For not small [or ineffectual] are these gains for us which make our disposition godlike and show that not even our mortality makes us inferior to the imperishable and blessed nature; for when we are alive, we are as joyful as the gods, [knowing that death is nothing to us; and when we dead, we are without sensation ….]
[Some fear death because it involves loss of the good things of life. But this fear is vain: each man, when he has been deprived of the good things will be] equally [distressed if] he perceives his loss; but if he does not perceive it, how does he suffer loss?
Think of us then, mother, as always joyful in the midst of such good things and show enthusiasm for what we are doing. But in heaven’s name, do not be so generous with the contributions which you are constantly sending us. For … I should rather go without so that you may not, although in fact I am living in plenty in all respects, because of our friends and because of father constantly sending us money, and recently also through Cleon sending nine minas. Therefore neither of you should be distressed individually on our account, but you should make use of one another … [At present you reject our philosophy; but later you will wish, when your hostility has been banished,] to open the congenial entrances to our community, and you will turn away from the speeches of rhetoricians, in order that you may hear something of our tenets. After that we confidently hope that you will knock very soon at the doors of philosophy … – Diogenes’ Wall Inscription, Fragments 125-127
The Nostradamus Effect
But rhetors and dialectitians were not the only ones who encouraged religious perturbances to go unattended. Later in the Oenoanda Inscription, we find further arguments against oracles in the fragment concerning Antiphon.
In this case a natural philosopher used arguments of a dialectician, attempting the art of divination concerning dreams and wholly trusting them. For … Antiphon, he says, predicted, when he was consulted by a runner who was just about to compete for a prize at Olympia, that he would be beaten. For the runner, he says, said, when consulting Antiphon, that he thought that an eagle was giving chase in his dreams. And Antiphon at once told him to remember that an eagle always drives other birds before it and is itself last. However, he says that another interpreter declared, when he was consulted, that the god did not say at all to the runner “you will be beaten,” and that the eagle is no cause for anxiety. If, thanks to Antiphon, he (the runner) had not shown him (the interpreter) up, so that he was able to see that the dream could be interpreted in entirely different ways, he would not have suspected that he was receiving unreliable advice … – Diogenes’ Wall Inscription, Fragment 24 of the Martin Ferguson Smith translation
This episode, where an obscure prophecy is taken as sacred truth and interpreted in enough contradictory ways as to render it demonstrably and completely useless and irrelevant, is not too different from Christian and Islamic prophecies from scripture and tradition. People today use scripture in ways no different from how Pagans treated the oracles of their Gods in antiquity.
But let’s reason based on the canon and look at recent empirical evidence concerning prophecies and how they easily get out of hand. The Antinous Prophecies was an experiment conducted by a skeptic to prove the existence of the so-called Nostradamus Effect, which is basically the idea that gullible people will always concoct meaning when they come upon an obscure, unclear oracle. The experiment consisted on creating an imaginary quatrain (a stanza of prophecy) and telling a group of people that it was written by Nostradamus, then asking them to interpret the quatrain in light of historical events. The majority of the participants in the study immediately tied the quatrain to real events and many were positively convinced that Nostradamus’ prophecy had come true, and that he must be a genious. The supposedly Nostradamian quatrain had been authored by the researcher for purposes of his experiment.
The demonstration of the Nostradamus Effect should worry us all and imprint upon us the importance of protecting our minds from the insinuations of oracles and religious leaders. We see millions who base their entire lives on concoctions no different from the Antinous prophecies and end up living lives of self-abnegation, renouncing their own happiness, impeding the happiness of others, and even committing atrocities for the sake of these unscrupulous inventions.
Having considered these, which are the most prominent features of Epicurus’ mother and of his relationship with her, we can read the concern and love in his letter and we can relate to it. Many of us have loved ones who are deeply, sincerely, even virtuously religious. Some of us at times do not wish to interrupt the blissful surrender that our loved ones of faith seem to enjoy, but if we understand that a naturalist philosophy can produce a much more stable bliss, or if we see that the faith of our loved ones is leading them to unwholesome and perturbed beliefs, then we may feel compelled to at least tell one person to consider naturalism or Epicureanism for their spiritual needs.
In a way, it can be a good thing to have deeply religious family members. I’m convinced that it was his love for his mother that kept Epicurus from demeaning and demoralizing people of faith, and that made him want to tend to religious fear through therapeutic philosophy. I, for one, can’t think of a better way to rebel against the false views of those that came before us.