Happy 20th! On Lucretius and Kingship

Recently, Aaron Alexander Zubia published Jefferson’s ‘Master Epicurus’ and the nature of the American regime in MercatorNet, and a new book titled Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion (Edinburgh University Press, 2018) was recently published, and is partially available on academia. According to Oxford University Press, the book represents:

  • A new materialist, quantum and feminist interpretation of Lucretius
  • Argues the thesis that Lucretius was not an atomist but rather the first philosopher of motion
  • The most profound revision of how we read Lucretius since Michel Serres’ The Birth of Physics (1977)

The argument that Lucretius departed significantly from Epicurus is questionable and controversial, and perhaps a matter of projecting and imposing contemporary labels on the ancients. Lucretius clearly saw himself primarily as an atomist and a committed teacher of Epicurean philosophy. However, the book might be a welcome and provocative addition to the available corpus of Epicurean academic literature.

Speaking of Lucretius, New Epicurean has a Lucretius page that includes an introduction and table of ideas (useful as a study guide), and a professor from University of Louisiana published a document with scholarly notes on Lucretius’ “On the Nature of Things” that may be of use to students.

Another work that recently came to our attention is titled Epicureans on Kingship. In it we are presented with a fairly accurate explanation of what Epicurean tradition has to say about monarchies and kingship, and also this:

The Epicureans in all likelihood made an ethical distinction between two sorts of people—those ‘normal’ people with a disposition suited to be Epicureans and those of such a nature that they could not follow fully Epicurean tenets but who could be of use ruling—and developed their views on how kingship could be implemented successfully in the present socio-political conditions around this fundamental difference, something perhaps best evident in Philodemus’ On the Good King according to Homer.

There’s mention of a Philodeman scroll that is not extant in its entirety titled On the Good King, a summary of which is credited with the following teachings:

Here it seems the king should avoid a spiteful and harsh character and instead provide gentleness, fairness, and ‘kingly civility’, so as to move towards ‘stable monarchy’ and avoid rule by fear.

… the good king must be a ‘lover of victory’. The good king should not, however, be a ‘lover of war’ nor ‘a lover of battle’ (col. 27.17-18), which suggests he is never an aggressor but exercises his military prowess only as necessary in self-defence.

… this may indicate that the good king is both provider and protector of basic necessities of life for his subjects.

… the king should not become preoccupied with his own security (a natural Epicurean care) and seek to cause civil unrest amongst his subjects; such a tactic leads only to downfall (col. 28). It also seems the king should be open to wise counsel

The gist of Epicureans on Kingship is that there is no absolute doctrine on whether kingship is desirable, or the best political system, but that it might be depending on the circumstances. This is consistent with Principal Doctrines 6 and 7. Just as importantly, the work rejects as oversimplification the widespread view that Epicureans were categorically apolitical. All choices and avoidances, including those related to politics, must be subjected to hedonic calculus and the pursuit of the greatest advantage, and the avoidance of disadvantage, with priority given to the natural and necessary desires, among which security is prominent. If it so happens that kingship and some measure of political involvement is the means to attain safety, then it is a natural good.

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About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' and founder of societyofepicurus.com. He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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