Happy Twentieth! “The Covenant of the Sacred Festival Table”

Happy Twentieth to all students of Epicurean philosophy! Some years ago, I wrote a book review of Lampe’s highly-recommended book on the Cyrenaics. This month, I published a book review of Cyreniacs Handbook: Handbook of Source Material for Cyrenaic Philosophy, which is a compilation of all that can be found in the available ancient sources about the Cyrenaics. The ideas are not explained or systematically explored. This is up to the reader. I explore them from an Epicurean perspective here:

The Cyrenaics

The Annicerians


The Aeon essay Laughter is vital coincides with our re-visiting Aristipus and provides and interesting commentary on his virtue of adaptability, which it contrasts with “mechanical inelasticity”. It cites Henri Bergson’s philosophical musings concerning laughter, where he speculates that laughter evolved as a social instinct.

Social life, wrote Bergson, requires a ‘delicate adjustment of wills’ and constant ‘reciprocal adaptation’ between the members of the group. Society therefore needs its members to display ‘the greatest possible degree of elasticity and sociability’, and needs to guard itself against ‘a certain rigidity of body, mind and character’. These ossified expressions of human life are, according to Bergson, at the source of the comical, because this is precisely what laughter seeks to correct.

We recently came across Making Sense of Epicurean Friendship: the Intended Audience Approach, which argues that Epicurus gave different teachings to students according to their maturity and advancement. This resonates with Seneca’s report that Epicurus classified his students into three groups: those who were able to find truth on their own (like himself), those who were able to find it but needed kind encouragement and were open to it (like Metrodorus), and those who needed more forceful encouragement (like Hermarchus)–but are not to be reproached, because if they advance, it’s by working harder than others.

The Covenant of the Sacred Festival Table

Philodemus, in his scroll On Piety, mentions that Epicurus is said to have warned against “violating the covenant of the sacred festival table”. Today, I’d like to dissect these interesting words. Most modern Epicureans have come together mainly online, and we celebrate the Twentieth by writing blogs and greeting each other online with some measure of informal conviviality. But the celebration of the Twentieth was originally a holy affair. It was festive, but at some moment during the festivities there would have been a moment of solemnity in memory of the Epicureans who had gone before. The festival was conceived as a memorial service in honor of Metrodorus, and was religiously celebrated every month by the time Epicurus penned his final will and testament:

And from the revenues made over by me to Amynomachus and Timocrates let them to the best of their power in consultation with Hermarchus make separate provision … for the meeting of all my School held every month on the twentieth day to commemorate Metrodorus and myself according to the rules now in force– Epicurus’ will

Epicurus would sometimes feed large groups of people in his Garden. It’s likely that the sacramental slaughter of animals would have taken place on special occasions (for instance, on the Twentieth), in which case the actual ceremonies would have begun early in the day, perhaps in the morning of the Twentieth. If a larger animal was slaughtered, this may have been done the previous day and allowed to cook overnight. The animal would have had to be dispatched, cleaned and seasoned prior to cooking, and this takes time.

The feasts on the Twentieth are in line with these doctrines:

We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink, for dining alone is leading the life of a lion or wolf.

Honoring a sage is a huge benefit to he who does the honoring.

We honor our friends who have passed not by lamenting, but by pleasant remembrance.

In Epicurean piety, there is no deity or spirit receiving the sacrifice. Instead, the act is about creative self-expression, about articulating one’s values, and–most importantly–it’s meant to benefit and help to form our character, and produce pleasure. Some enemies of Epicurus have accused him of insincerity (since, after all, the Epicurean gods are live in outer space and do not enjoy the sacrifices), but we see numerous indications of sincerity in the sources. Philodemus’ scroll On Piety stresses the reverence of Epicurus and his disciples, particularly on the Twentieth, when Epicurus’ “house was decorated piously” for the occasion. The oaths and invocations taken by the Epicureans were always religious in nature. Epicurus gave instructions to take these oaths seriously and not to swear on anything other than the holy gods. Finally, there’s the passage from Epicurus’ non-extant Epistle to Diotimus, cited by Philodemus, where he warned against “violating the covenant of the sacred festival table”. It’s these curious words that I’d like to focus on today.

The warning against violating “a covenant” implies that (at least some of) the disciples of Epicurus had sworn a sacred oath (perhaps to Zeus or Aphrodite Urania, who is believed to have been the patroness of the Garden) to celebrate this festival religiously every Twentieth. Also, Epicurus stresses the sacredness of the feast, a fact which strengthens the intuition that some modern Epicureans have that Epicureanism is a type of religious identity, in addition to a philosophy.

Furthermore, the use of the word “covenant” naturally reminds us of the Abrahamic religions, and of the eucharist. It’s not unlikely that the Christian eucharist drew inspiration, at least in part, from the Twentieth–Norman DeWitt argues in St. Paul and Epicurus that in fact many things were borrowed by the Christians from the Epicurean communities. Certainly, if we consider that Epicurus precedes Christianity by more than a couple of centuries, the Christian celebration of a communal feast to commemorate a covenant that binds a community together sounds like a “borrowed” or appropriated tradition. But this “covenant” was initially rooted in Epicurean doctrines on natural justice, and the observation of the Twentieth would have been an occasion to put into practice the theories of Epicurean contractarianism that we find in the last ten of the Principal Doctrines. In PDs 36-38, we see that the things that are found “useful in mutual association” (even if for a time) are what make laws or contracts “just“.

If Epicurus had his disciples bound by an oath and by a covenant (which means “an agreement, a legally-binding contract”) to celebrate the Twentieth, this means that he found this practice useful in mutual association. And he was right. The feast was carried out for many generations, and it cemented the loyalty of the School to such an extent, that the Epicureans within a few generations were known as “the Twentiers“. I’ve argued in the past that these celebrations are what helped Epicureanism to persist for seven centuries as a living tradition.

It was also a sign of self-respect on the part of the small community of friends: it means that they held their friendships with each other in such high esteem, that they considered them worthy of celebration in the most solemn manner. We do not bind ourselves to others in these kinds of fraternal arrangements except when there’s great trust and love among us, and these are deemed worth preserving.

The Twentieth is a memorial service. It’s about continuity and about preserving the memories we have created with our friends, and those of the Epicureans of the past. It was originally religious in nature, but not meant as a sacrifice in the crude sense, as understood by people who entertain the common superstitions. It’s meant to benefit the living (because death is no-thing, it’s non-being), who should approach it with a grateful disposition towards those being remembered and conviviality towards the other participants.

Read more:

 Happy Twentieth!

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014), 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and Epicurus of Samos – His Philosophy and Life: All the principal Classical texts Compiled and Introduced by Hiram Crespo (Ukemi Audiobooks, 2020). He's the founder of societyofepicurus.com, and has written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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