Tag Archives: Diogenes Laertius

Out of the mainstream

Epicurus received some sort of conventional education and so was in a position to comment on its strengths and weaknesses. We are told that as a schoolboy he was upset with his teachers because they could not explain a passage about Chaos in the poet Hesiod (see Theogony 116, 123), and this prompted him to turn to philosophy for answers. For this anecdote Diogenes Laertius cites the philosopher Apollodorus, a head of the Epicurean school in the second century BC, presumably a credible source.

According to Hesiod, ‘first there was Chaos’ (116). Next came Earth, Tartarus (the underworld) and Eros. ‘From Chaos came Erebus and black Night’ (123). Night united with Erebus (nether darkness) to produce Aether (the upper atmosphere) and Day. Earth of herself produced Heaven and Pontus (sea), and then united with Heaven to produce Ocean and a number of other deities, including Cronus, who was hostile to his father Heaven. Thus Hesiod uses myth and genealogy to explain the origins of the world – an unsatisfactory procedure from a scientific point of view, though informative for traditional attitudes and beliefs.

The use of Hesiod in early education, and popular familiarity with his poetry, are illustrated by a passage in a speech of the Athenian orator Aeschines delivered in 330 BC (Against Ctesiphon 135). In making a point against his opponent Demosthenes, Aeschines quotes seven lines from Hesiod’s Works and Days (240-244, 246-247), and says this is why we memorize the sentiments of the poets when we are children – so that we can make use of them when we are men. He also quotes the first two of these lines in another speech (On the Embassy 158).

For Epicurus, this culturally conditioned approach to education was not only inadequate but misleading. It was necessary to strike out in a new direction if people were to understand the universe on a scientific basis and adjust their lives successfully to the demands of reality. The old ideas did not provide a reliable guide for understanding the world or for understanding how to live a happy life.

In Epicurus’ view the habits and values of politics were similarly misguided and misleading. In fact, according to Vatican Saying 58, conventional education and politics together form a ‘prison’ from which people have to escape in order to live happy and successful lives.

Thoughts for the Day, September 13: ‘We must release ourselves from the prison of conventional education and political activity.’ (Vatican Sayings 58.)

Old age as a time of birth and death

Ancient texts handed down in manuscript form inevitably contain transmissional errors. It is necessary, therefore, from time to time to correct details in a text in order to restore as far as possible the original wording and meaning. However, it is important in the first instance to be reasonably sure that a text actually needs correction. The fact that a meaning may not be readily apparent could be a result not of a faulty text but of faulty understanding of the text.

These issues are relevant for understanding Vatican Saying 42. The Vatican manuscript reads (according to Wotke’s text and apparatus):

ὁ αὐτὸς χρόνος καὶ γενέσεως τοῦ μεγίστου ἀγαθοῦ καὶ ἀπολύσεως.

The expression ὁ αὐτὸς χρόνος (‘the same time’) and the word γενέσεως (‘beginning’, ‘birth’, ‘production’ and so on) are capable of a range of meanings, adding to the interpretative uncertainty. Much depends on the last word, ἀπολύσεως, but this word also can bear a number of senses (e.g. ‘release’, ‘separation’, ‘departure’, ‘death’) and moreover was corrected in the first edition to ἀπολαύσεως, ‘enjoyment’.

With that correction accepted, one finds for example the translation, ‘The time of the beginning and enjoyment of the greatest good is the same’ (O’Connor, Essential Epicurus, p. 81). Quite different is the translation by Inwood and Gerson, which retains ἀπολύσεως but introduces (cf. the edition of Arrighetti) an explanatory insertion, τοῦ κακοῦ: ‘In the same period of time both the greatest good and the dissolution <of bad> are produced’ (Epicurus Reader, p. 38).

Both these translations correct the text on the assumption that a satisfactory meaning cannot be obtained otherwise, but they make different corrections with entirely different results – a great hazard of correcting a text at all. Is it possible to interpret the text satisfactorily without changing it?

The version in the Epicurus Reader appears to refer to the point at which pleasure increases to its greatest extent and pain which pleasure is replacing disappears (as in eating to sufficiency and overcoming hunger). This interpretation frames the saying in terms of the Epicurean theory of pleasure and the notion of limits. O’Connor’s version also seems to refer to the process of enjoying pleasure as a good.

I suggest that a more coherent interpretation can be achieved by framing the saying in terms of the Epicurean theory of old age. A number of Epicurean sayings show that Epicurus was fond of ironical contrasts, and we may see him using one here in the proposition that old age, while naturally associated with death (a possible meaning of ἀπόλυσις), can also be a time of birth (γένεσις), not physically but morally. As Vatican Saying 17 indicates, when a person who has lived a good life comes to old age, experience and gratitude can combine to produce a new stage of moral experience:

A young person is not the one to be pronounced happy but an old person who has lived a good life. For the young person in the flower of youth roves about distracted by chance events; but the old person has come to anchor in old age as in a harbour, having locked in by a firm sense of gratitude good things (τῶν ἀγαθῶν) which one could scarcely hope for previously.

The word ἀπόλυσις occurs with the sense of ‘decease’ in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 5.71, where the Peripatetic philosopher Lyco specifies in his will that certain things are to be done ‘after my decease’, μετὰ τὴν ἐμὴν ἀπόλυσιν.

Thoughts for the Day, September 2: ‘The same time of life is a time both of birth – of the greatest good – and of decease’ (Vatican Sayings 42).

C. [also K.] Wotke and H. Usener, ‘Epikurische Spruchsammlung’, Wiener Studien 10(2), 1888, 175-201, at p. 194.

Better to be misunderstood than to dilute the message

The ancient Greek philosophical tradition made remarkable progress, largely lost to sight when church and state conspired to impose a doctrinaire view of the world. With the re-emergence of neglected texts and ideas in the post-medieval period, there were fresh opportunities to clarify long-standing intellectual challenges and to make further progress. However, such was the hold that institutionalized beliefs had over minds and customs that, whether through failure of insight or through fear of consequences, all too often understanding was accommodated to acceptability.

We see this in the work of Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), who did a great deal to revive interest in Epicurean philosophy, but with an admixture of ideas more congenial to church tradition. The result was, in his and other cases, that opportunities were missed to bring to bear the full force of an honest and open critique.

Gassendi’s Latin version with commentary of Book X of Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers was translated into English and expanded by Walter Charleton (1619-1707) in his Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charltoniana, or, A fabrick of science natural, upon the hypothesis of atoms (London, 1654). Charleton considered himself

… strictly obliged, to præfer the interest of Truth, infinitely above that of Opinion, how plausible and splendid soever, and by whomsoever conceived and asserted.

This was the necessary principle which had to survive, in the midst of eclecticism, harmonization, accommodation and reaction, to ensure that clear-eyed observation and sound reasoning could ultimately triumph.

Thoughts for the Day, August 21: ‘To be frank, in explaining nature I would rather deliver oracles about what is to everyone’s advantage, even if no one were to understand, than agree with popular opinions and enjoy receiving the constant praise of the majority’ (Vatican Sayings 29).

Walter Charleton, Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charltoniana, or, A fabrick of science natural, upon the hypothesis of atoms, founded by Epicurus, repaired [by] Petrus Gassendus, augmented [by] Walter Charleton, London, 1654, p. 382, quoted in Emily Booth, A Subtle and Mysterious Machine: The Medical World of Walter Charleton (1619-1707) (Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 18), Dordrecht, Springer, 2005, p. 15.

Long and short explanations

In his Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius describes Epicurus as πολυγραφώτατος (polygraphōtatos), ‘a most prolific author’ (10.26). Writing was a key part of the Greek philosophical tradition, and Epicurus evidently felt comfortable using his writing skills for this purpose, even though he was critical (as we learn from Vatican Saying 58) of other areas of traditional education.

Epicurus’ works fall into three main categories: treatises, which are necessarily of some length; letters of a literary character, where the letter form is used as a vehicle for giving a succinct outline of ideas dealt with at greater length in treatises; and short statements, such as we have in the Principal Doctrines and Vatican Sayings.

This three-fold approach represents a deliberate endeavour on Epicurus’ part to craft materials that will enable readers to understand and remember his philosophical system. Clear and effective communication was a matter of vital importance, and from time to time Epicurus reflects on the issue, discussing aspects of format and contents in relation to method and purpose.

These reflections themselves form part of his efforts to explain and persuade through written materials, as at the beginning of the Letter to Herodotus (§§ 35-37), where he explains the respective roles of books and letters, and more briefly at the beginning of the Letter to Pythocles (§ 84).

Short statements, mostly in one or two sentences, could be composed separately or drawn from longer writings. Sometimes a statement comes from another writer, mostly it seems Metrodorus, but such was the admiration for Epicurus and his writings that this material also probably goes back mostly to the Master’s works.

Vatican Saying 26 uses the term λόγος (logos), ‘discourse’, ‘statement’, ‘explanation’ and the like, to denote both the long discourse and the short statement (ὁ πολὺς λόγος καὶ ὁ βραχύς). This saying makes the point that the intention is the same in each case. That is, however the matter is expressed, the purpose of the writing is to provide the guidance necessary for happiness.

Thoughts for the Day, August 18: ‘It must be understood that both the long discourse and the short statement have the same intention’ (Vatican Sayings 26).

Friendship and self-interest

Diogenes Laertius, in Book X of his Lives of Eminent Philosophers, reproduces the three letters to Herodotus, Pythocles and Menoeceus, in which Epicurus explains aspects of his philosophy. The letter principally concerned with matters of conduct is the third, the Letter to Menoeceus. Before presenting the text of this letter, Diogenes gives a summary of the views of the Epicureans concerning a wise man’s outlook and behaviour (§§ 117-121). This summary includes remarks on the Epicurean theory of friendship (§ 120):

They hold … that friendship takes place on account of needs (διὰ τὰς χρείας); however, there must be a preliminary start made (‘for we also sow the ground’), and then it is continued through a partnership in the enjoyment of pleasures.

The idea that friendship occurs through need is expressed in Vatican Saying 23 with reference to the initial usefulness of the connection: friendship takes its beginning from utility (ἀπὸ τῆς ὠφελείας). While this may seem to under-emphasize the element of altruism in genuine friendship, it is no more than a realistic statement of fact. We might also argue that altruism itself is among the needs: everyone needs empathetic understanding and altruistic help from others.

Aristotle in the Nicomachaean Ethics considered friendship based on utility or pleasure to be inferior to friendship based on similarity in goodness (Book VIII, 1156a-b). In his view, the first two types of friendship must be impermanent, as considerations of utility change with circumstances and attitudes to pleasure are affected by changing tastes and feelings. Goodness, however, provides a permanent basis because each appreciates the good in the other and is devoted to the other for what that person is; utility and pleasure are still there but they arise from goodness.

Epicurus interprets the good in terms of pleasure, and so would not elevate goodness above pleasure. Instead he sees friendship itself as an aretē (if that is the correct reading in Vatican Saying 23). The word is often translated ‘virtue’; but Epicurus does not construct a system of virtues in the usual way. We may take it here as meaning ‘a good thing’. It is surely not unexpected to find Epicurus referring to friendship as a good thing ‘in itself’. He places so much emphasis on the importance of friendship that the concept functions as a fundamental principle in his ethical system, an integral part of his theory of nature and pleasure.

It has been conjectured that ἀρετή (aretē) should be emended to αἱρετή (hairetē), ‘chosen’ or ‘to be chosen’ and hence ‘desirable’; we might translate, ‘Every friendship is (to be) chosen (or, desirable) for its own sake.’ The word occurs in the Nicomachaean Ethics 1170b, where Aristotle discusses the idea that individuals find their own existence desirable and likewise find the existence of a friend desirable. The consciousness of oneself (or of life, or of oneself as living?) as good makes living desirable, and that consciousness is itself pleasant. A friend has the same consciousness; being together as friends involves sharing these senses of consciousness. Since existence is desirable in itself (being good and pleasant, at least for a happy person), and since one also finds desirable the friend’s existence, then ‘a friend is one of the desirable things.’

If we are to read αἱρετή in Vatican Saying 23, Epicurus’ approach in effect cuts through Aristotle’s sequence by stating that friendship is desirable for itself. This again gives friendship the status of a fundamental principle. In neither case – that is, whether we read ἀρετή or αἱρετή – is friendship quite so fundamental as pleasure, which is related to need and desire. Given the pleasure principle, it is a straightforward argument that human need and desire stand at the beginning of the development of friendship.

Thoughts for the Day, August 15: ‘All friendship is a good thing in itself, but it has its origin in utility’ (Vatican Sayings 23).

Recognizing the limits of pain

The forty Epicurean sayings known as the ‘Principal Doctrines’ are found in Book X of Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers, a work in ten books composed perhaps in the early third century AD. Another collection of eighty-one Epicurean sayings is preserved in a fourteenth-century manuscript in the Vatican Library; this collection, known as the ‘Vatican Sayings’, was published in 1888 in the journal Wiener Studien.

Variant readings in the manuscripts of Diogenes Laertius have to be taken into account in establishing the text of the Principal Doctrines. Similarities and differences between the Principal Doctrines and the Vatican Sayings throw light on the nature of the transmission. Some of the Vatican Sayings are the same as or similar to some of the Principal Doctrines. The texts of sayings are also illuminated by other evidence, including sayings in the inscription of Diogenes of Oenoanda (dated to the second century AD).

Topics dealt with in the sayings were explored at greater length in longer works of Epicurus, and the sayings are for the most part no doubt drawn from or based on discussion in these longer works.

The first five Vatican Sayings are similar to four of the first five Principal Doctrines. Vatican Sayings 1 and 2 correspond to Principal Doctrines 1 and 2. Vatican Saying 3 corresponds to Principal Doctrine 4 and Vatican Saying 4 is similar to part of Principal Doctrine 4. Vatican Saying 5 corresponds to Principal Doctrine 5.

Other correspondences are: Vatican Sayings 6, 8, 12, 13, 20, 22, 49, 50 and 72 = Principal Doctrines 35, 15, 17, 27, 29, 19, 12, 8 and 13. Altogether there are correspondences between fourteen of the Vatican Sayings (about 17% of the total) with thirteen of the Principal Doctrines (about 33% of the total).

A comparison of a passage in the Letter to Menoeceus with Principal Doctrine 4 and Vatican Saying 4, on the subject of the natural limits of pain, illustrates some of the similarities and differences among texts which sum up the same teaching:

Letter to Menoeceus 133: … good and evil have natural limits such that good things are easy to attain and acquire and bad things do not last long or are not very painful…

Principal Doctrine 4: The feeling of pain does not last continuously in the body. The greatest pain is present for the shortest time. Pain which is just more than the bodily pleasure we feel does not go on for many days. If we are unwell for a very long time, the condition even allows bodily pleasure to rise above the pain.

Vatican Saying 4 – see below.

For a discussion of this theme with reference to Principal Doctrine 4 see the entry entitled ‘Degrees of Pain’.

Thoughts for the Day, August 3: ‘Every physical pain can readily be regarded as being of limited consequence. For one that is intensely painful lasts a short time, and one that affects the body for a long time is mildly painful’ (Vatican Sayings 4).

First edition of the Vatican Sayings: Wotke, C. [K.], and H. Usener, ‘Epikurische Spruchsammlung’, Wiener Studien 10(2), 1888, 175-201.

Bertrand Russell on Epicurus

This is a revised version of some notes recently prepared for discussion purposes on several aspects of Bertrand Russell’s chapter concerning ‘The Epicureans’ in his History of Western Philosophy.[1]

1.  General.  Russell’s description and assessment of Epicureanism in this chapter are interesting but need correction. There are both useful insights and unfortunate inaccuracies. His understanding of Epicurean­ism is in places somewhat superficial, and is not based on a wide enough reading of the literature.

2.  Bailey.  Some of the problems in Russell’s views may be traced back to Cyril Bailey,[2] whose book The Greek Atomists and Epicurus Russell describes as ‘invaluable to the student’.[3] Bailey, although a special­ist on Epicurean texts and willing to praise Epicurus as ‘a serious and consistent thinker’ (The Greek Atomists, p. 528), was misled in his overall assess­ment by his own misinterpretations of the evidence. His work cannot be taken as a sound basis for forming an accurate under­standing of the character and significance of Epicurean philosophy.

3.  List of extant sources.  An indication of Russell’s superficiality is his enumeration of the surviving writings of Epicurus, which he says are limited to ‘a few letters, some fragments, and a statement of ‘Principal Doctrines’’ (p. 252). This summary omits reference to the Vatican Say­ings (some of which admittedly overlap with the Principal Doctrines), fails to do justice to the extent of material in papyri from Herculaneum and elsewhere, is silent on the inscription of Diogenes of Oenoanda, and does not clarify the extent of quotations in ancient writers or the con­tribution to our knowledge via the Latin of Lucretius. Russell’s list reads like a brief mention of the most easily accessible items.

4.  The diet of the Epicurean community.  Russell claims that the diet of the Epicurean community was ‘mainly bread and water’ (p. 250). This is highly unlikely. Epicurus recommends a simple diet, represented by an appreciation of barley cake and water, but the garden in Athens worked by the Epicurean community no doubt provided a range of vegetables, fruits and herbs. There is a reference in Plutarch to Epicurus and his community having beans to eat during a famine (Parallel Lives, Life of Demetrius 34.1-3). A diet of bread and water would be mani­festly inadequate for a healthy lifestyle. It is unnecessary to take the view that Epicurus and his followers led an ascetic existence or that we should do so today. His teaching emphasized the need to be satisfied with and grateful for enough and not to want too much.

5.  Sexuality.  Russell leaves the reader with the impression that Epi­curus denounced sexual love as useless and potentially harmful, while nevertheless being fond of children (p. 253). This topic requires careful study of the full range of evidence in the surviving sources. Certainly there is reference to the anxiety and distress that can arise from sexual relationships, and since Epicurus emphasizes generally the need to deal with anxiety and distress it is not surprising that he notes this aspect of sexual relationships. This at least means that one should not look to sexual enjoyment as the main solution to one’s problems. Such an attitude, Epicurus warns, will not work out in practice; one must take other factors into account in the search for happiness; the very activity that one might think of as the source of the highest pleasure can turn out to be the opposite. Lucretius took a similar view – perhaps he was surrounded by people who knew the pain of failed relationships and the difficulties and emptiness of life in an over-sexualized society.

6.  Some passages. The following are some passages which indicate a need for care and restraint in relationships.[4] Interpretation needs to take into account the reliability of the ancient sources and the adequacy of available texts and translations. Pleasure does not consist in ‘enjoying boys and women’ (Letter to Menoeceus 132). A sexual relationship requires spending time with the beloved (Vatican Sayings 18; does this mean that a couple should be careful to spend time together, or that keeping apart may be in the best interests of both?). According to Epi­cureans, love is not sent by the gods; a wise person will not fall in love; and a wise person will not transgress the law in sexual matters (Dio­genes Laertius, Lives 10.118). According to Epicurus, a wise person will marry when circum­stances are right (but not all will marry), and will produce children (Lives 10.119). In Cicero’s explanation of the matter, Epicureans do not condemn sexual pleasure, as long as it is harmless, but they do not encourage it as positively beneficial (Tusculan Disputations 5.94). Epicurus said that he would not be able to conceive of what is good if one took from life the pleasures of taste, sex, listening and vision (Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 12.546ef; these are no doubt intended as examples of the five senses and the pleasures they afford, without which life would be meaningless).

7.  Science.  According to Russell, ‘Epicurus has no interest in science on its own account… Epicureans contributed practically nothing to natural knowledge… they remained, like their founder, dogmatic, limited, and without genuine interest in anything outside individual hap­piness’ (p. 255). This is an odd assessment of a movement which em­phasized the need for study of the natural world, stressed the importance of rational enquiry, and supported the atomist view of matter which in the modern period has been shown to be vitally important for our under­standing of the world.[5] We certainly need to ask whether Epicureans in antiquity were associated with particular scien­tific discoveries; this requires a search of the evidence.[6] However, there can be no doubt that Epicurean interest in critical method is a significant aspect of the history of scientific investigation. If the evid­ence prevents us from pointing to any particular discoveries in antiquity, we can at least draw connections with scientific advances in the period of the Enlightenment and after. For example, Isaac Newton in his Opticks (2nd ed., 1718) paraphrased arguments in Lucretius. Epicurus does argue that if we did not need science for happiness we would not study it (cf. Principal Doctrines 11-13); but this is an argument that serves to reinforce the importance to us of an accurate understanding of reality. As for his dogmatism, Epicurus was emphatic about the need to retain philosophical gains which in his view had proved indispensable, and his followers agreed with him; at the same time, he was encouraging the study of philosophy and science, not the uncritical perpetuation of a sect or cult.

It is particularly unfair of Russell to criticize Epicurus for offering a number of different explanations for natural phenomena (such as the phases of the moon) as if it did not matter which was true ‘so long as it does not bring in the gods’ (p. 255). The point of Epicurus’ multiple explanations lies in the need for humility before the evidence: if we do not know a thing for certain, we are not entitled to act as if we did; we have to speculate on and explore possible solutions, a procedure not helped by using theological explanations as a substitute for enquiry.

Stuart Pickering
24/7/2012


[1] Bertrand Russell, ‘The Epicureans’, in his A History of Western Philosophy, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1945; London, Allen & Unwin, 1946, 2nd ed., 1961; repr. London, Routledge, 1991, chapter XXVII (pp. 249-259). [Apologies that in this blog entry footnote numbers do not currently link back to footnote references in the text.]

[2] Cyril Bailey (ed.), Epicurus: The Extant Remains, Oxford, Clarendon, 1926; The Greek Atomists and Epicurus: A Study, Oxford, Clarendon, 1928.

[3] Russell, p. 249 n. 1.

[4] The passages mentioned are translated in Inwood and Gerson, The Epicurus Reader (1994).

[5] The literature includes Elizabeth Asmis, Epicurus’ Scientific Method (Cornell Studies in Classical Philology, 42), Ithaca NY – London, Cornell University Press, 1984.

[6] In the tradition of Aristotle, Peripatetic interest in an active life of scientific investi­gation is clear: note for example Epicurus’ near-contemporary Dicaearchus.

Classifying desires

Principal Doctrine 29 sums up a key distinction in Epicurean ethics between three types of desires, classified as natural and necessary, natural but not necessary, and neither natural nor necessary. An explanation of the differences between the types is given in a marginal note against Principal Doctrine 29 in a manuscript of Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers. According to the note:

Epicurus holds as natural and necessary those that give relief from pain, such as drinking to relieve thirst; natural but not necessary those that only vary pleasure but do not remove a feeling of pain, such as expensive foods; and neither natural nor necessary things like crowns and the setting up of statues.

Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus (127) gives further information on desires that are natural and necessary: ‘some are necessary for happiness, some for dealing with bodily troubles, and some for life itself’. Not all natural desires are necessary. Desires which are not natural are ‘baseless’ or ‘empty’ (κεναί). Not being natural, they are not necessary either, but this is not explicitly stated in the letter.

Julia Annas discusses Epicurus’ distinctions in a chapter on ‘The Epicureans: Rethinking What Is Natural’ in her Morality of Happiness (1993). She explains (p. 190) that ‘empty’ desires are those based on an empty belief, which means a belief that is not only false but futile or pointless, producing harm and dysfunction. She compares for the meaning Sophocles, Electra 330-331 (which speaks of gratifying ‘empty things’ (of an emotional kind) in ‘futile anger’). Natural desires are not merely true but based in human nature. Necessary desires are for things that we need rather than simply want; we can also have natural desires that will not result in pain if they are not fulfilled, and so are not necessary (p. 192). Annas sees some difficulties in Epicurus’ distinctions; these can be considered shortly in discussing Principal Doctrine 30.

Marginal note (scholion): cf. Hermann Usener (ed.), Epicurea, Leipzig, Teubner, 1887, p. 78. ‘Crowns’ refers to wreaths or garlands as public awards or symbols of civic status; Annas translates ‘garlands of honour’ (p. 190). Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness, Oxford – New York, Oxford University Press, 1993.

Thoughts for the Day, July 22: ‘Some of our desires are natural and necessary, some are natural but unnecessary, and some are neither natural nor necessary but arise through false expectations’ (Principal Doctrines 29).

Tantalus aloft

Both myth and science were evolving in fifth-century BC Athens, and coming into collision. The death of Socrates in 399 is perhaps the best known instance from that general period of public animosity towards a disturber of orthodox beliefs. A case with more specific scientific content was that of Anaxagoras, apparently around 450; according to one source his claim that the sun was a red-hot mass of metal was treated as grounds for a charge of impiety (Sotion, Succession of the Philosophers, cited in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 2.12).

The concept of the sun as a whirling mass, and not a god, is consistent with Anaxagoras’ theory of the universe as matter set in motion by mind. In his view, there was an original uniform mixture containing the materials of all things in minute quantities infinitely divisible (hence not atoms) and evenly distributed. Mind set matter in rotation and by physical principles small quantities were progressively aggregated to form the world as we know it. Every object contains portions of everything else, so that bread contains flesh and wood contains fire, each thing being distinguished by the proportions which it contains. In the rotation denser things congregate at the centre – hence the formation of the earth – and less dense things are further out, including air and aether (fire), although these are within the denser things as well. The heavenly bodies are fiery stones suspended by rotation of the aether (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 1).

Could such a view, based on observation and physical theory, be regarded as compatible with reliance on myth?

If we examine the fifth-century Athenian tragedians, we find that the stories of myth are laden with ethical theory. In Euripides’ Electra, for example, in which a son and daughter feel justified in killing their mother to avenge the death of their father but are overwhelmed by a sense of guilt, issues of right and wrong, guilt and punishment, fate and destiny, are explored with reference to the will of the gods and traditional tales. Electra and her brother Orestes are themselves part of myth, descendants of a family in which patterns of guilt and punishment have been repeated down the generations, since the time of their great-great-grandfather Tantalus, son of Zeus.

It was said that Tantalus, having offended the gods, was condemned to suffer everlasting hunger and thirst, ‘tantalised’ by disappearing water and unreachable fruit. According to another version, a rock hung above his head, constantly threatening to fall (a fate like that of Damocles). In Euripides’ Orestes, a sequel to the Electra, Tantalus is imagined as hanging high in the air with the rock above him, and Electra wishes that she could ascend to her ancestor and find consolation in telling him of her plight (lines 4 ff., 982 ff.). Ancient scholia connect Euripides’ description of the stone mid-way between earth and heaven with the system of Anaxagoras, and interpret the stone as the sun. Ruth Scodel agrees that the concept and terminology reflect Anaxagoras’ explanation of heavenly bodies, but argues that the stone above Tantalus is analogous with a meteorite above the earth, meteorites having a distinctive place in Anaxagoras’ astronomical views.

On this reading, Euripides’ treatment integrates science and myth. The family of the Tantalids are made part of the reinterpreted cosmic order; mythical concepts are relocated in a world-view influenced by scientific theory. When science reinterprets the observed world, myth survives by inhabiting the new world afresh.

It could be said that this was always the case in Greek myth: real-world observation and imaginative fancies go together. Mount Olympus is a real mountain, but also the home of the gods; a mountaineer might discover no signs of divinities on the mountain-top, but somehow this would not disturb the myth. Elemental forces and human personalities can be combined: Castor and Polydeuces are powers in the air that calm storms at sea, but also participants in the drama at the conclusion of Euripides’ Electra. Tantalus is the reputed ancestor of a cursed family, but can just as easily be imagined as a figure beneath the sun, or in company with a threatening meteorite.

Epicurean explanations of the universe cut through this combination of fact and fancy by denying that supernatural powers exist. Lucretius is forthright in responding to the myth of Tantalus: there is no Tantalus fearful of the boulder in the air; but there are people in this life fearful – without any justification – of the gods and impending doom (On the Nature of Things 3. 980-983).

Ruth Scodel, ‘Tantalus and Anaxagoras’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 88, 1984, 13-24.

Euclides and notions of the good

The philosopher Euclides of Megara (also spelled Eucleides; also called Euclid) appears at the beginning of Plato’s Theaetetus, in conversation with Terpsion. He tells Terpsion that Socrates, a little before his death, had spent time talking with the young Theaetetus, and had recounted to Euclides the arguments discussed. Euclides went home and wrote down what he could remember of Socrates’ account, and since then had gradually improved the manuscript. He had the book with him now, and proposes that a slave boy read it out while he and Terpsion sit down and have a rest. The dialogue, as fictionally reconstructed by Euclides, follows.

Euclides and his philosophy are briefly described by Diogenes Laertius in Book II of his Lives of Eminent Philosophers. We learn that Euclides was born at Megara, a town on the isthmus between Athens and Corinth, or else (according to some writers) at Gela in Sicily. He was interested in Parmenides, and originated a school of philosophy which became known as the Megarian school. After Socrates’ death, Plato and others went to stay with Euclides, fearful of remaining in Athens. His philosophy was distinguished by his notion of the good and his methods of argument.

A characteristic feature of his idea of the good was that there is no opposite to it: good is a unity (it goes by other names, such as wisdom, God or intellect) and the contrary of good does not exist. A similar explanation occurs in Cicero’s treatise Lucullus: according to Euclides and his school, the good is always one, alike and identical (unum et simile et idem semper). But Cicero neglects Euclides’ point that the good has no opposite; in surveying the different notions of good among philosophers, he states that the chief good in each system also has a chief evil contrary to it (Lucullus 129-132 Teubner; or Academica 2.42-43).

We have from the philosopher Timon a piece of satirical poetry, quoted by Diogenes Laertius, which mocks Euclides’ method of argument: he was quarrelsome and ‘bit the Megarians’ in his contentiousness. Timon was a younger contemporary of Epicurus, and is no more sparing in his description of what he sees as Epicurus’ principal fault: an emphasis on the pleasures of the stomach (quoted in Athenaeus, Deipnosophists, Book VII).

Euclides, with his (reported) Parmenidean interests and concept of the good, and Epicurus, with his notion of pleasure as the highest good (though not in the sense alleged by Timon), are poles apart in their philosophical positions. Cicero, in the passage mentioned, notes a range of other concepts of the good among philosophers from the time of Xenophanes onwards. Which of these notions of the good should Cicero choose? As Cicero himself says (§132), don’t let anyone tell me that it doesn’t matter which I choose (quemlubet, modo aliquem).

3/11/11. The statement that the philosophical positions of Euclides and Epicurus are poles apart involves, perhaps in Euclidean style, affirming a conclusion without adequate attention to assumptions. With Euclides’ reported assertion that the good has no opposite we may compare the atomist view that the functioning of the universe is not based on opposition between good and evil; and in this connection it is noteworthy that Epicureanism, while allowing for deities of a benign kind, gives no comparable emphasis (as far as I know) to complementary sets of devils. Euclides and Epicurus in debate would presumably have been highly critical of one another, and might even have been inclined to bite, but the polarisation in their theories was perhaps not as complete as it might at first seem to be.     4/11/11. The spelling Euclides is now used in this entry in place of Eucleides.

Cicero, Lucullus: Bibliotheca Augustana; Perseus; Charles Brittain (trans.), Cicero: On Academic Scepticism, Indianapolis IN, Hackett, 2006.