Happy Twentieth to all the students of Epicurean philosophy! We received a report on the 10th Symposium of Epicurean Philosophy, which takes place annually in the neighborhood of Pallini in Athens, which in ancient times was known as Gargettos. This is the neighborhood where Epicurus had his Garden. This year’s symposium–which focused on exoplanetary science–broke attendance records.
As some of you may already be aware, the blog Caute is authored by a Unitarian Church minister from Cambridge, UK, who identifies both with Christian atheism and with the Epicurean tradition. He has written about Lucretius more than once, and from time to time incorporates Epicureanism into his liturgy and even holds Epicurean gatherings in his church. His last piece is titled Learning from Lucretius in the Shadow of Coronavirus. There, he warns us against allowing peddlers of religious fear to exploit our existential vulnerabilities, and accentuates the importance of accepting the Epicurean doctrines on how death is nothing to us, rather than remaining neutral to the dangers of organized religion.
I recently came upon this quote by an enemy of Epicurean philosophy, which stirred curiosity about the various things that this fragment says. I enjoy a good intellectual challenge, so decided to evaluate what the controversy may have entailed.
“So too Epicurus, when he wishes to get rid of the natural fellowship of men with one another, makes use of the very principle of which he is getting rid. For what does he say? ‘Men, be not deceived, be not misled or deluded. There is no natural fellowship of rational beings with one another: believe me. Those who state the contrary deceive you and mislead your reason.’ What concern, then, is it of yours? … Man, why do you take thought for our sake, why do you keep awake for us, why do you light your lamp, why do you rise early, why do you write such big books? … for this is the life of which you pronounce yourself worthy: eating, drinking, copulation, evacuation, and snoring. What does it matter to you, what opinions others will hold on these matters, or whether they are right or wrong? … What, then, was it that roused Epicurus from his slumbers and compelled him to write what he wrote?” – Epictetus
We must first acknowledge that it’s entirely possible that Epicurus did not say this, as many enemies of the School have purposefully misrepresented the teachings throughout history. To make things worse, things said by contending philosophers can easily be taken out of context and misconstrued. Having said that, and even if we concede that there is some ill-will here, I’d like to give Epictetus the benefit of the doubt and assume that Epicurus DID say this.
Secondly, Epictetus claims that Epicurus “wishes to get rid of the natural fellowship of men“, and yet in his own critique he admits that in practice Epicurus acts in fellowship with men. I suspect that the original statement by Epicurus involved the view that universal, impersonal philanthropy is either impossible or unnatural (because it is not natural to love an abstraction or an impersonal token of beings; one only naturally loves other concrete, real, individual beings). And yet, Principal Doctrine 39 says that we should “try to make all beings into one family“, and Epicureanism is the first and only missionary humanistic philosophy that antiquity produced, and it is clear that Epicurus had devoted himself to teaching others how to be happy while studying nature, which seems to imply some level of philanthropy.
In a reality-based materialist philosophy, the idea of universal love for all beings is difficult to argue, or even imagine or justify. It’s unnatural, and no individual has the time, or the attention span, needed to attend to all beings, even if that individual is pleasantly disposed towards people in general.
From the passage we must infer that, in the context of a discussion between Stoics and Epicureans, the Stoics were arguing their cosmopolitan idea that there is “a natural fellowship of rational beings” that includes all of humankind. The cosmopolitanism of the Epicureans, however, is quite different from the Stoics’ cosmopolitanism. It has a distinct anarchic, apolitical flavor. It differentiates between doing philosophy for ourselves as individuals and doing philosophy for Greece, for the nation, or the polis, or any other political, Platonic, or imagined community. It refuses to be appropriated in the service of an impersonal entity. And it sees individuals as natural beings–not just rational animals, CERTAINLY not political animals–with the drives, feelings, and instincts of the individual as an important component of any real, natural community of friends.
That Epicurus sent missionaries to Asia proves that this community of friends WAS cosmopolitan and diverse. But it’s also true that not everyone was receptive, welcoming, or able to profit from Epicurean teachings.
We must always orient our discourse for the benefit of those who are solidly armed for happiness: our disciples. – Epicurus of Samos, On Nature 28
In investigating nature I would prefer to speak openly and like an oracle to give answers serviceable to all mankind, even though no one should understand me, rather than to conform to popular opinions and so win the praise freely scattered by the mob. – Vatican Saying 29
Therefore, it should be understood that Epicurus wrote for and taught philosophy to selected individuals. In addition, the manner of passing down of Epicurean tradition seems to have been highly personal and inter-subjective. I have often argued that Epicureanism is, among other things, (meant to be experienced as) a conversation among friends that has taken place over centuries. In his Epistle to Menoeceus, Epicurus invites the reader to study both alone and with others–friends are able to check on our development, offer frank criticism, challenge our biases, and offer perspectives that a lone student may not be able to come up with.
It must be emphasized that, rather than speaking to “the public”, Epicurus directs his attention to concrete individuals, to subjects, and avoids being impersonal. All his epistles are directed to specific individuals.
So greatly blessed were Metrodorus and I that it has been no harm to us to be unknown, and almost unheard of, in this well-known land of Greece. – Epicurus
Here is a nice expression by Epicurus, written to one of the partners of his studies: “I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.” – Seneca, Letters to Lucilius
This attitude likely originated in Epicurus’ negative experience at the gymnasium in Mytilene. We know that he began his career teaching philosophy there, but was expulsed from Lesbos violently by the Platonists, shipwrecked and nearly died. When he did set up a School, he avoided preaching in public and set up a private Garden, instead. Later on, one of the controversies between the School and Timocrates had to do with opinions on the public life, and as late as the Second Century, Diogenes of Oenoanda, in Fragment 112 of his Wall Inscription, was still critical of a career in public speaking. Part of the pleasure of studying philosophy appears to involve the privacy and the intimacy of a conversation among friends, the dedicated attention, and the friendship itself.
Having said this, even if loving an impersonal, universal “humanity” or some other abstraction is unnatural, the Epicurean tradition does teach that it is natural to care for our neighbors–particularly those whom we know face-to-face, and particularly those who are weaker than we are. The origin of compassion for our neighbors is discussed in On the nature of things:
And when they saw an offspring born
From out themselves, then first the human race
Began to soften. …
And Love reduced their shaggy hardiness;
And children, with the prattle and the kiss,
Soon broke the parents’ haughty temper down.
Then, too, did neighbours ‘gin to league as friends,
Eager to wrong no more or suffer wrong,
And urged for children and the womankind
Mercy, of fathers, whilst with cries and gestures
They stammered hints how meet it was that all
Should have compassion on the weak. And still,
Though concord not in every wise could then
Begotten be, a good, a goodly part
Kept faith inviolate- or else mankind
Long since had been unutterably cut off,
And propagation never could have brought
The species down the ages.
Lucretius, in De Rerum Natura 5:1015-27
It’s believed that Lucretius based DRN on Epicurus’ more than 30 books On Nature, and Book V of DRN in particular is the most fascinating and complete treatment of Epicurean anthropology that we have. Here, Lucretius says several things: he tells us that humans got softer as they got civilized (“love reduced their shaggy hardiness“), that friendship arose as a result of a shared pursuit of mutual benefit, that as a result of these friendships between neighbors mercy was urged upon the children, the women and the weak, and finally it ends with “how meet it was that all should have compassion on the weak“. It even goes as far as saying that without this compassion, “propagation never could have brought the species down the ages“. This doctrine was shockingly demonstrated by recent discovery of evidence that Neanderthals–who died out and were replaced by our own ancestors–cannibalized each other.
One final word on Epictetus’ question–“What, then, was it that roused Epicurus from his slumbers and compelled him to write what he wrote?”: The pleasure of leaving a legacy renders life meaningful and pleasant, particularly as we reach the end of our lives. Diogenes, in his Wall Inscription, mentions that at the end of his life, he wanted to leave Epicurean teachings for the benefit of the future generations of residents of Oenoanda. Epicurus, at the hour of his death, also uttered the final words “Never forget my teachings!” It’s almost like they wanted to extend to others the pleasure that they found in philosophy during their lives one final time, because they felt that philosophy was the thing of greatest value, the one thing that helped them make their own lives worth living.
There seems to be a natural philanthropic inclination in the Epicurean teaching mission, even if it’s not entirely untinged by pride. Clearly, the ruins of Diogenes’ Wall still bear his name. But a healthy sense of pride has frequently stimulated wholesome behavior, and this pride is well-earned, in my esteem, by those who are solidly armed for happiness. The question is, what worthy outlet will we find for this Epicurean philanthropy that wishes to spread happiness? Like Epicurus and his companions who grew old together in philosophy, we all have our select individuals, our friends, our chosen ones.