27

THE EPICUREANS

The two great new schools of the Hellenistic period, the Stoics and Epicureans, were contemporaneous in their foundation. Their founders, Zeno and Epicurus, were born at about the same time, and settled in Athens as heads of their respective sects within a few years of each other. It is therefore a matter of taste which to consider first. I shall begin with the Epicureans, because their doctrines were fixed once for all by their founder, whereas Stoicism had a long development, extending as far as the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who died in A.D. 180.

The main authority for the life of Epicurus is Diogenes Laertius, who lived in the third century A.D. There are, however, two difficulties: first, Diogenes Laertius is himself ready to accept legends of little or no historical value; second, part of his Life consists in reporting the scandalous accusations brought against Epicurus by the Stoics, and it is not always clear whether he is asserting something himself or merely mentioning a libel. The scandals invented by the Stoics are facts about them, to be remembered when their lofty morality is praised; but they are not facts about Epicurus. For instance, there was a legend that his mother was a quack priestess, as to which Diogenes says:

'They (apparently the Stoics) say that he used to go round from house to house with his mother reading out the purification prayers, and assisted his father in elementary teaching for a miserable pittance.'

On this Bailey comments:1 'If there is any truth in the story that he went about with his mother as an acolyte, reciting the formulae of her incanta

tions, he may well have been inspired in quite early years with the hatred of superstition, which was afterwards so prominent a feature in his teaching.' This theory is attractive, but, in view of the extreme unscrupulousness of later antiquity in inventing a scandal, I do not think it can be accepted as having any foundation.2 There is against it the fact that he had an unusually strong affection for his mother.3

The main facts of the life of Epicurus seem, however, fairly certain. His father was a poor Athenian colonist in Samos; Epicurus was born in 342–1 B.C., but whether in Samos or in Attica is not known. In any case, his boyhood was passed in Samos. He states that he took to the study of philosophy at the age of fourteen. At the age of eighteen, about the time of Alexander's death, he went to Athens, apparently to establish his citizenship, but while he was there the Athenian colonists were turned out of Samos (322 B.C.). The family of Epicurus became refugees in Asia Minor, where he rejoined them. At Taos, either at this time, or perhaps earlier, he was taught philosophy by a certain Nausiphanes, apparently a follower of Democritus. Although his mature philosophy owes more to Democritus than to any other philosopher, he never expressed anything but contempt for Nausiphanes, whom he alluded to as 'The Mollusc'.

In the year 311 he founded his school, which was first in Mitylene, then in Lampsacus, and, from 307 onwards, in Athens where he died in 270–1 B.C.

After the hard years of his youth, his life in Athens was placid, and was only troubled by his ill health. He had a house and a garden (apparently separate from the house), and it was in the garden that he taught. His three brothers, and some others had been members of his school from the first, but in Athens his community was increased, not only by philosophic disciples, but by friends and their children, slaves and hetaerae. These last were made an occasion of scandal by his enemies, but apparently quite unjustly. He had a very exceptional capacity for purely human friendship, and wrote pleasant letters to the young children of members of the community. He did not practise that dignity and reserve in the expression of the emotions that was expected of ancient philosophers; his letters are amazingly natural and unaffected.

The life of the community was very simple, partly on principle, and partly (no doubt) for lack of money. Their food and drink was mainly bread and water, which Epicurus found quite satisfying. 'I am thrilled with pleasure in the body,' he says, 'when I live on bread and water, and I spit on luxurious

pleasures, not for their own sake, but because of the inconveniences that follow them.' The community depended financially, at least in part, on voluntary contributions. 'Send me some preserved cheese,' he writes, 'that when I like, I may have a feast.' To another friend: 'Send us offerings for the sustenance of our holy body on behalf of yourself and your children.' And again: 'The only contribution I require is that which—ordered the disciples to send me, even if they be among the Hyperboreans. I wish to receive from each of you two hundred and twenty drachmae4 a year and no more.'

Epicurus suffered all his life from bad health, but learnt to endure it with great fortitude. It was he, not a Stoic, who first maintained that a man could be happy on the rack. Two letters written, one a few days before his death, the other on the day of his death, show that he had some right to this opinion. The first says: 'Seven days before writing this the stoppage became complete and I suffered pains such as bring men to their last day. If anything happens to me, do you look after the children of Metrodorus for four or five years, but do not spend any more on them than you now spend on me.' The second says: 'On this truly happy day of my life, as I am at the point of death, I write this to you. The diseases in my bladder and stomach are pursuing their course, lacking nothing of their usual severity: but against all this is the joy in my heart at the recollection of my conversations with you. Do you, as I might expect from your devotion from boyhood to me and to philosophy, take good care of the children of Metrodorus.' Metrodorus, who had been one of his first disciples, was dead; Epicurus provided for his children in his will.

Although Epicurus was gentle and kindly towards most people, a different side of his character appeared in his relations to philosophers, especially those to whom he might be considered indebted. 'I suppose,' he says, 'that these grumblers will believe me to be a disciple of The Mollusc (Nausiphanes) and to have listened to his teaching in company with a few bibulous youths. For indeed the fellow was a bad man and his habits such as could never lead to wisdom.'5 He never acknowledged the extent of his indebtedness to Democritus, and as for Leucippus, he asserted that there was no such philosopher—meaning, no doubt, not that there was no such man, but that the man was not a philosopher. Diogenes Laertius gives a whole list of abusive epithets that he is supposed to have applied to the most eminent of his predecessors. With this lack of generosity towards other philosophers goes another grave fault, that of dictatorial dogmatism. His followers had to learn a kind of creed embodying his doctrines, which they were not allowed to question. To the end, none of them added or modified anything. When

Lucretius, two hundred years later, turned the philosophy of Epicurus into poetry, he added, so far as can be judged, nothing theoretical to the master's teaching. Wherever comparison is possible, Lucretius is found to agree closely with the original, and it is generally held that, elsewhere, he may be used to fill in the gaps in our knowledge caused by the loss of all of Epicurus's three hundred books. Of his writings, nothing remains except a few letters, some fragments, and a statement of 'Principal Doctrines'.

The philosophy of Epicurus, like all those of his age (with the partial exception of Scepticism), was primarily designed to secure tranquillity. He considered pleasure to be the good, and adhered, with remarkable consistency, to all the consequences of this view. 'Pleasure,' he said, 'is the beginning and end of the blessed life.' Diogenes Laertius quotes him as saying, in a book on The End of Life, 'I know not how I can conceive the good, if I withdraw the pleasures of taste and withdraw the pleasures of love and those of hearing and sight.' Again: 'The beginning and the root of all good is the pleasure of the stomach; even wisdom and culture must be referred to this.' The pleasure of the mind, we are told, is the contemplation of pleasures of the body. Its only advantage over bodily pleasures is that we can learn to contemplate pleasure rather than pain, and thus have more control over mental than over physical pleasures. 'Virtue', unless it means 'prudence in the pursuit of pleasure', is an empty name. Justice, for example, consists in so acting as not to have occasion to fear other men's resentment—a view which leads to a doctrine of the origin of society not unlike the theory of the Social Contract.

Epicurus disagrees with some of his hedonist predecessors in distinguishing between active and passive pleasures, or dynamic and static pleasures. Dynamic pleasures consist in the attainment of a desired end, the previous desire having been accompanied by pain. Static pleasures consist in a state of equilibrium, which results from the existence of the kind of state of affairs that would be desired if it were absent. I think one may say that the satisfying of hunger, while it is in progress, is a dynamic pleasure, but the state of quiescence which supervenes when hunger is completely satisfied is a static pleasure. Of these two kinds, Epicurus holds it more prudent to pursue the second, since it is unalloyed, and does not depend upon the existence of pain as a stimulus to desire. When the body is in a state of equilibrium, there is no pain, we should, therefore, aim at equilibrium and the quiet pleasures rather than at more violent joys. Epicurus, it seems, would wish, if it were possible, to be always in the state of having eaten moderately, never in that of voracious desire to eat.

He is thus led, in practice, to regarding absence of pain, rather than presence of pleasure, as the wise man's goal.6 The stomach may be at the root of

things, but the pains of stomach-ache outweigh the pleasures of gluttony; accordingly Epicurus lived on bread, with a little cheese on feast days. Such desires as those for wealth and honour are futile, because they make a man restless when he might be contented. 'The greatest good of all is prudence; it is a more precious thing even than philosophy.' Philosophy, as he understood it, was a practical system designed to secure a happy life; it required only common sense, not logic or mathematics or any of the elaborate training prescribed by Plato. He urges his young disciple and friend Pythocles to 'flee from every form of culture'. It was a natural consequence of his principles that he advised abstinence from public life, for in proportion as a man achieves power he increases the number of those who envy him and therefore wish to do him injury. Even if he escapes outward misfortune, peace of mind is impossible in such a situation. The wise man will try to live unnoticed, so as to have no enemies.

Sexual love, as one of the most 'dynamic' of pleasures, naturally comes under the ban. 'Sexual intercourse,' the philosopher declares, 'has never done a man good and he is lucky if it has not harmed him.' He was fond of children (other people's), but for the gratification of this taste he seems to have relied upon other people not to follow his advice. He seems, in fact, to have liked children against his better judgment; for he considered marriage and children a distraction from more serious pursuits. Lucretius, who follows him in denouncing love, sees no harm in sexual intercourse provided it is divorced from passion.

The safest of social pleasures, in the opinion of Epicurus, is friendship. Epicurus, like Bentham, is a man who considers that all men, at all times, pursue only their own pleasure, sometimes wisely, sometimes unwisely; but, again like Bentham, he is constantly seduced by his own kindly and affectionate nature into admirable behaviour from which, on his own theories, he ought to have refrained. He obviously liked his friends without regard to what he got out of them, but he persuaded himself that he was as selfish as his philosophy held all men to be. According to Cicero, he held that 'friendship cannot be divorced from pleasure, and for that reason must be cultivated, because without it neither can we live in safety and without fear, nor even pleasantly'. Occasionally, however, he forgets his theories more or less: 'all friendship is desirable in itself,' he says, adding 'though it starts from the need of help.'7

Epicurus, though his ethic seemed to others swinish and lacking in moral exaltation, was very much in earnest. As we have seen, he speaks of the community in the garden as 'our holy body'; he wrote a book On Holiness; he

had all the fervour of a religious reformer. He must have had a strong emotion of pity for the sufferings of mankind, and an unshakeable conviction that they would be greatly lessened if men would adopt his philosophy. It was a valetudinarian's philosophy, designed to suit a world in which adventurous happiness had become scarcely possible. Eat little, for fear of indigestion; drink little, for fear of next morning; eschew politics and love and all violently passionate activities; do not give hostages to fortune by marrying and having children; in your mental life, teach yourself to contemplate pleasures rather than pains. Physical pain is certainly a great evil, but if severe, it is brief, and if prolonged, it can be endured by means of mental discipline and the habit of thinking of happy things in spite of it. Above all, live so as to avoid fear.

It was through the problem of avoiding fear that Epicurus was led into theoretical philosophy. He held that two of the greatest sources of fear were religion and the dread of death, which were connected, since religion encouraged the view that the dead are unhappy. He therefore sought a metaphysic which would prove that the gods do not interfere in human affairs, and that the soul perishes with the body. Most modern people think of religion as a consolation, but to Epicurus it was the opposite. Supernatural interference with the course of nature seemed to him a source of terror, and immortality fatal to the hope of release from pain. Accordingly he constructed an elaborate doctrine designed to cure men of the beliefs that inspire fear.

Epicurus was a materialist, but not a determinist. He followed Democritus in believing that the world consists of atoms and the void; but he did not believe, as Democritus did, that the atoms are at all times completely controlled by natural laws. The conception of necessity in Greece was, as we have seen, religious in origin, and perhaps he was right in considering that an attack on religion would be incomplete if it allowed necessity to survive. His atoms had weight, and were continually falling; not towards the centre of the earth, but downwards in some absolute sense. Every now and then, however, an atom, actuated by something like free will, would swerve slightly from the direct downward path,8 and so would come into collision with some other atom. From this point onwards, the development of vortices, etc., proceeded in much the same way as in Democritus. The soul is material, and is composed of particles like those of breath and heat. (Epicurus thought breath and wind different in substance from air; they were not merely air in motion.) Soul-atoms are distributed throughout the body. Sensation is due to thin films thrown off by bodies and travelling on until they touch soul-atoms.

These films may still exist when the bodies from which they originally proceeded have been dissolved; this accounts for dreams. At death, the soul is dispersed, and its atoms, which of course survive, are no longer capable of sensation, because they are no longer connected with the body. It follows, in the words of Epicurus, that 'Death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved, is without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us.'

As for the gods, Epicurus firmly believes in their existence, since he cannot otherwise account for the widespread existence of the idea of gods. But he is persuaded that they do not trouble themselves with the affairs of our human world. They are rational hedonists, who follow his precepts, and abstain from public life; government would be an unnecessary labour, to which, in their life of complete blessedness, they feel no temptation. Of course, divination and augury and all such practices are purely superstitious, and so is the belief in Providence.

There is therefore no ground for the fear that we may incur the anger of the gods, or that we may suffer in Hades after death. Though subject to the powers of nature, which can be studied scientifically, we yet have free will, and are, within limits, the masters of our fate. We cannot escape death, but death, rightly understood, is no evil. If we live prudently, according to the maxims of Epicurus, we shall probably achieve a measure of freedom from pain. This is a moderate gospel, but to a man impressed with human misery it sufficed to inspire enthusiasm.

Epicurus has no interest in science on its own account; he values it solely as providing naturalistic explanations of phenomena which superstition attributes to the agency of the gods. When there are several possible naturalistic explanations, he holds that there is no point in trying to decide between them. The phases of the moon, for example, have been explained in many different ways; any one of these, so long as it does not bring in the gods, is as good as any other, and it would be idle curiosity to attempt to determine which of them is true. It is no wonder that the Epicureans contributed practically nothing to natural knowledge. They served a useful purpose by their protest against the increasing devotion of the later pagans to magic, astrology, and divination; but they remained, like their founder, dogmatic, limited, and without genuine interest in anything, outside individual happiness. They learnt by heart the creed of Epicurus, and added nothing to it throughout the centuries during which the school survived.

The only eminent disciple of Epicurus is the poet Lucretius (99–55 B.C.), who was a contemporary of Julius Caesar. In the last days of the Roman Republic, free thought was the fashion, and the doctrines of Epicurus were popular among educated people. The Emperor Augustus introduced an archaistic revival of ancient virtue and ancient religion, which caused the poem of Lucretius On the Nature of Things to become unpopular, and it remained so until the Renaissance. Only one manuscript of it survived the Middle Ages, and that narrowly escaped destruction by bigots. Hardly any great poet has had to wait so long for recognition, but in modern times his merits have been almost universally acknowledged. For example, he and Benjamin Franklin were Shelley's favourite authors.

His poem sets forth in verse the philosophy of Epicurus. Although the two men have the same doctrine, their temperaments are very different. Lucretius was passionate, and much more in need of exhortations to prudence than Epicurus was. He committed suicide, and appears to have suffered from periodic insanity—brought on, so some averred, by the pains of love or the unintended effects of a love philtre. He feels towards Epicurus as towards a saviour, and applies language of religious intensity to the man whom he regards as the destroyer of religion:9

When prostrate upon earth lay human life

Visibly trampled down and foully crushed

Beneath Religion's cruelty, who meanwhile

Out of the regions of the heavens above

Showed forth her face, lowering on mortal men

With horrible aspect, first did a man of Greece

Dare to lift up his mortal eyes against her;

The first was he to stand up and defy her.

Him neither stories of the gods, nor lightnings,

Nor heaven with muttering menaces could quell,

But all the more did they arouse his soul's

Keen valour, till he longed to be the first

To break through the fast-bolted doors of Nature.

Therefore his fervent energy of mind

Prevailed, and he passed onward, voyaging far

Beyond the flaming ramparts of the world,

Ranging in mind and spirit far and wide

Throughout the unmeasured universe; and thence

A conqueror he returns to us, bringing back

Knowledge both of what can and what cannot

Rise into being, teaching us in fine

Upon what principle each thing has its powers

Limited, and its deep-set boundary stone.

Therefore now has Religion been cast down

Beneath men's feet, and trampled on in turn:

Ourselves heaven-high his victory exalts

The hatred of religion expressed by Epicurus and Lucretius is not altogether easy to understand, if one accepts the conventional accounts of the cheerfulness of Greek religion and ritual. Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn, for instance, celebrates a religious ceremony, but not one which could fill men's minds with dark and gloomy terrors. I think popular beliefs were very largely not of this cheerful kind. The worship of the Olympians had less of superstitious cruelty than the other forms of Greek religion, but even the Olympian gods had demanded occasional human sacrifice until the seventh or sixth century B.C., and this practice was recorded in myth and drama.10 Throughout the barbarian world, human sacrifice was still recognized in the time of Epicurus; until the Roman conquest, it was practised in times of crisis, such as the Punic Wars, by even the most civilized of barbarian populations.

As was shown most convincingly by Jane Harrison, the Greeks had, in addition to the official cults of Zeus and his family, other more primitive beliefs associated with more or less barbarous rites. These were to some extent incorporated in Orphism, which became the prevalent belief among men of religious temperament. It is sometimes supposed that Hell was a Christian invention, but this is a mistake. What Christianity did in this respect was only to systematize earlier popular beliefs. From the beginning of Plato's Republic it is clear that the fear of punishment after death was common in fifth-century Athens, and it is not likely that it grew less in the interval between Socrates and Epicurus. (I am thinking not of the educated minority, but of the general population.) Certainly, also, it was common to attribute plagues, earthquakes, defeats in war, and such calamities, to divine displeasure or to failure to respect the omens. I think that Greek literature and art are probably very misleading as regards popular beliefs. What should we know of Methodism in the late eighteenth century if no record of the period survived except its aristocratic books and paintings? The influence of Methodism, like that of religiosity in the Hellenistic age, rose from below; it was already powerful in the time of Boswell and Sir Joshua Reynolds, although from their allusions to it the strength of its influence is not apparent. We must not, therefore, judge of popular religion in Greece by the pictures on 'Grecian Urns' or by the works of poets and aristocratic philosophers. Epicurus was not aristocratic, either by birth or through his associates; perhaps this explains his exceptional hostility to religion.

It is through the poem of Lucretius that the philosophy of Epicurus has chiefly become known to readers since the Renaissance. What has most impressed them, when they were not professional philosophers, is the contrast with Christian belief in such matters as materialism, denial of

Providence, and rejection of immortality. What is especially striking to a modern reader is to have these views—which, nowadays, are generally regarded as gloomy and depressing—presented as a gospel of liberation from the burden of fear. Lucretius is as firmly persuaded as any Christian of the importance of true belief in matters of religion. After describing how men seek escape from themselves when they are the victims of an inner conflict, and vainly seek relief in change of place, he says:11

Each man flies from his own self;

Yet from that self in fact he has no power

To escape: he clings to it in his own despite,

And loathes it too, because, though he is sick,

He perceives not the cause of his disease.

Which if he could but comprehend aright,

Each would put all things else aside and first

Study to learn the nature of the world,

Since 'tis our state during eternal time,

Not for one hour merely, that is in doubt,

That state wherein mortals will have to pass.

The whole time that awaits them after death.

The age of Epicurus was a weary age, and extinction could appear as a welcome rest from travail of spirit. The last age of the Republic, on the contrary, was not, to most Romans, a time of disillusionment: men of titanic energy were creating out of chaos a new order, which the Macedonians had failed to do. But to the Roman aristocrat who stood aside from politics, and cared nothing for the scramble for power and plunder, the course of events must have been profoundly discouraging. When to this was added the affliction of recurrent insanity, it is not to be wondered at that Lucretius accepted the hope of non-existence as a deliverance.

But the fear of death is so deeply rooted in instinct that the gospel of Epicurus could not, at any time, make a wide popular appeal; it remained always the creed of a cultivated minority. Even among philosophers, after the time of Augustus, it was, as a rule, rejected in favour of Stoicism. It survived, it is true, though with diminishing vigour, for six hundred years after the death of Epicurus; but as men became increasingly oppressed by the miseries of our terrestrial existence, they demanded continually stronger medicine from philosophy or religion. The philosophers took refuge, with few exceptions, in Neoplatonism; the uneducated turned to various Eastern superstitions, and then, in continually increasing numbers, to Christianity, which, in

its early form, placed all good in the life beyond the grave, thus offering men a gospel which was the exact opposite of that of Epicurus. Doctrines very similar to his, however, were revived by the French philosophes at the end of the eighteenth century, and brought to England by Bentham and his followers; this was done in conscious opposition to Christianity, which these men regarded as hostilely as Epicurus regarded the religions of his day.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!