Epicurus in Rome


The Epicurean mantra was “avoid engaging in politics,’ which is good advice now as it was some 2,000 years ago.

This book on how the philosophy of Epicurus was received and either accepted or rejected in the Roman Republic is the combined effort nine eminent scholars. In addition to them, the book is edited by Sergio Yona (assistant professor of classics at the University of Missouri) and Gregson Davis (Duke University). The 8-page Introduction was written by Yona alone, with Davis not included in the list of contributors. A list of authors and chapter titles can be found at the conclusion of this review, in which I can only touch on some important elements.

The chapter by Roskam deals in part with the translation of Epicurus from Greek to Latin. “Cicero,” he writes, “present Epicurean philosophy, including its technical terms, in a new linguistic context, which sometimes requires quite a lot of creativity.” His discussion is heavily reliant on what Torquatus wrote, but for anyone not familiar with all the personages of Republican Rome, this is a problem as the author does not us who this person is. He was portrayed by Cicero in On Ends as the spokesman advocating Epicurean ethics in Rome; he was elected consul in 65 BCE and died in the civil war in 47 BCE.

With this knowledge, his argument becomes clear. Roskam states that scholarly opinion was, for many years, believed that “the Epicurean school was one monolithic tradition.” While Torquatus was held up to support this view, “we now see that this admiration  for and loyalty towards his master is not uncritical and that he sometimes even defends positions that run counter to those of Epicurus.” Cicero is seen in this argument to follow Torquatus. Rather than parroting Epicurus, they both deal with his philosophy “from the perspective of their own philosophical convictions.” As an example, Roskam writes this: “Whereas for Epicurus, justice fundamentally rests on fear of detection, Cicero objects that real life proves Epicurus wrong, for shrewd criminals are not stopped by this fear.” We can see here that human nature has not changed in 2,000 years as a certain recent America president is such a shrewd criminal that this fear has never stopped him from crimes ranging from larceny to treason.

In his essay, Hanchey notes that “as an orator, Cicero claimed no benefit could be derived from the Epicureans…Cicero was developing a socio-political system, whereas the Epicureans were developing a philosophical one.” Thus, they “were not playing on the same field, so to speak; this, however, never stopped Cicero from criticizing Epicureans as if they were supposed to be on his field and playing his game.” How perverse! It must, however, constantly be kept in mind as Cicero is also our best-preserved source of Epicurean thought.

Hanchey identifies the three basic qualities of Epicurean thought Cicero often mentions (physics, logic and ethics). These are expressed by Cicero in terms of the mortality of the soul; an animal-like failure to employ oratory and rational thinking; and a penchant for quantifying ethical decisions.

To see how the third of these plays out, Hanchey gives a lot of fascinating detail. “Cicero excludes the Epicureans from a discussion of the Republic by placing emphasis on their wont to ‘weigh on a scale of pleasure and pain.’” Cicero goes even further, saying they are a direct threat to the existing laws and their foundations! On quantification, Cicero says for Epicureans, “friends are merely another commodity,” which is certainly not the way Romans viewed friendship. Hanchey sums it up best when he writes “The Epicureans are Cicero’s stock foil for correct social behavior.”

In his chapter, Gilbert asks the pregnant question, Was Atticus an Epicurean? T. Pomponius Atticus is featured in Cicero’s On Ends, in which he writes a vivid scene of himself and his friends (including Atticus) during their student days in Athens in 79 BCE. This chapter is so delightful, that it alone justifies getting the book. It exemplifies just the kind of scholarship I admire most: the kind that demolishes previous scholarship as so much nonsense. Gilbert writes, with barely restrained prose, that his “review of scholarship underlines powerfully that dismissive readings of Atticus’ Epicureanism have become commonplace…This study will challenge this dismissive consensus.” In essence, Gilbert finds the depictions of Atticus are based on reading that is entirely too literal, “with the result that his Epicurean beliefs and Cicero’s ironic engagement with them have been obscured.” In this new (and correct) interpretation, Atticus “emerges as a textbook example of an Epicurean intellectual avoiding public office with cultivating friendship.”

The chapter by Volk about the degree of Epicureanism exhibited by Caesar is most enlightening. One of its main lynchpins is Julius Caesar’s view against the death penalty. He was quoted by Sallust as saying “death is a relief from grief, not a torture.” Volk believes Caesar “held certain ideas about life and death that were informed by Epicurean doctrine.” The following chapter by Gale engages with this in a different way. She says that Catullus “treats human degeneracy as a tragic inevitability, leaving no room for Lucretius’ more optimistic suggestion that escape from this bleak prospect to a life of serenity is a genuine possibility.” Asmis also treats with Lucretius, who credited Epicurus with discovering “a limited power for each thing.” It was Lucretius, Asmis states, who discerned a key similarity between the gods and humans. “Just as the gods enjoy to the fullest the infinitely extended sameness of their lives, so it is possible for humans to enjoy fully the finite sameness of their lives.” The Epicureans claim that our view of death as an evil (the subjective view) vs viewing ourselves as contingent (the objective view) can be “resolved by the victory of reason, which takes an objective view, over desires that are merely subjective.” The followers of Lucretius condensed all this in what Gordon calls a “four-fold remedy for human suffering: “The gods do not concern us; death is nothing to us; what is good can easily be obtained; what is bad can be avoided.”

There is much more in this fascinating look at the reception of the philosophy of Epicurus in Republican Rome. Even though the Index is deficient, suffice to say it deserves a place on any bookshelf dealing with ancient thought. A real gem.

 

Epicurus in Rome: Philosophical Perspectives in the Ciceronian Age is by Cambridge University Press. It lists for $99.99.

 

Authors and Titles

Sergio Yona, Introduction

PART I: Epicurus and Roman Identities
Gert Roskam, Sint ista Graecorum: How to be an Epicurean in Late Republican Rome – Evidence from Cicero’s On Ends 1-2
Daniel P. Hanchey, Cicero’s Rhetoric of Anti-Epicureanism: Anonymity as Critique
Nathan Gilbert, Was Atticus an Epicurean?
Katharina Volk, Caesar the Epicurean? A Matter of Life and Death
Monica R Gale, Otium and Voluptas: Catullus and Roman Epicureanism

PART II: Epicurus and Lucretian Postures
Elizabeth Asmis, “Love it or Leave it”: Nature’s Ultimatum in Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (3.931–962)
Pamela Gordon, Kitsch, Death and the Epicurean
Mathias Hanses, Page, Stage, Image: Confronting Ennius with Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things
T.H.M. Gellar-Goad, Lucretius on the Size of the Sun

 

 

Epicurus, born 341 BCE