The Epicurean adage lathe biosas, which is translated usually as “Live Unknown”, is an invitation to live life away from politics, to not cater to the mobs and instead to be distinct and separate from them. This is a pre-requisite for a life of ataraxia.
The members of the Las Indias coop, in their strongly libertarian ruminations on community, argue that in addition to preserving ataraxia, lathe biosas had the effect of helping small communities to formulate their communitarian identities without input from the official narratives promoted by the state. In this sense, a stateless Epicurean cosmopolitan identity was affirmed against a backdrop where the mobs were programmed to be citizens of the polis and to serve its interests. But Epicurean Gardens were not anarchic communes: their brand of resistance against politics produced confident indifference towards the polis/state, not the desire to violently overthrow it.
It’s in Book V of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura that we get a glimpse of the reasoning behind the lathe biosas attitude. Epicurean communities had evolved for over 200 years by the time Lucretius took to the pen, so that the DRN verses were the ripened fruit of at least ten generations of initial and uninterrupted Epicurean discourse around these matters. In verse 1440-1 we read that some of the underlying issues behind the need for the stability of a state had to do with security and with the emergence of capitalism and private property. As societies got urbanized and more complex, and as private property and land created communities where families were increasingly more isolated from their neighbors,
soon men were living their lives behind strong walls,
and land was divided in private plots for farming.
Private property lead to theft and fiercer fights for resources, but some “men made treaties of mutual aid and friendship” (verse 1443). Some people took refuge under strong kings and warlords to gain protection, but of course power invites envy and scorn, and these were easily overthrown.
Then kings were killed; the ancient majesty
and pride of sceptre and throne fell, overturned;
the bright ensign of royalty lay bloodied
under the feet of the mob, mourning lost glory:
men lustily trampled what they had vastly feared.
Life sank to the depths, the dregs, back to confusion,
with everyone wanting top rank and highest power.
Then, here and there, men learned to choose officials,
establish constitutions, and live by law.
For man grew weary: the life of violence
and hatred left him sick, and more disposed
freely to choose the yoke of law and statute.
For angered men kept calling for revenge
more savage than just law will now permit;
this made man sicken of life by violence. (DRN V.1136-1150)
… Better by far be subject, and at peace,
than will to govern the world and hold a throne! (DRN V.1129-1130)
This is not to say that all involvement in politics is to be shunned. A strong case can be made that a responsible citizen should at least be somewhat involved in his communal and national politics. What we have to keep in mind is that when Epicurus preached his gospel, Alexander the Great had recently been killed, his empire had been divided among his heirs, and the Greek states were experiencing an expansion into foreign realms together with great political intrigue, in-fighting over power and wealth, and frequent back-stabbing. Politics in antiquity were even dirtier than today. Therefore, it is not difficult to understand why an apolitical life was recommended, and we should use our discretion to determine to what extent we wish to be political, always keeping in mind that our goal is not empty and vain pursuits, but a life of steady pleasure and happiness.