Tag Archives: Method

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.)

Professors and doctors

In the Epicurean way of thinking, philosophy is something that we all need to be engaged in. As Epicurus puts it in the Letter to Menoeceus, ‘young and old ought to philosophize’ because this is the way to happiness (122). At the end of the letter he says, ‘Study these and related matters day and night, alone and with a like-minded companion, and awake or asleep you will never be in turmoil’ (135).

If we do not study philosophy and apply its lessons, turmoil, or inner disturbance (ταραχή), is inevitable. This is because philosophy teaches us about reality and about the choices that we need to make to overcome difficulties and achieve happiness.

If this is what philosophy can do, it is clearly silly to treat philosophy as a pursuit detached from everyday needs. To profess to be philosophical without attention to philosophy’s practical role is not to be a real philosopher at all. Everyone needs insights that philosophy provides, and this means that those who can explain the helpfulness of philosophy have a duty to do so.

Vatican Saying 54 (quoted below) compares the need for philosophy with the need for health, and links the two concepts: we need philosophy for its health-giving abilities, and just as we need real health we need real philosophy. Epicurus makes the point more specifically in another passage (quoted in Porphyry, Letter to Marcella 31; Usener 221):

Empty is the message of that philosopher by which no human suffering is cured. For just as the art of medicine is of no use if it does not drive out diseases of the body, nor is philosophy of any use if it does not drive out suffering of the soul.

The ‘suffering of the soul’ (πάθος τῆς ψυχῆς) involves the ‘turmoil’ referred to in the Letter to Menoeceus. What is ‘bad’ in life takes two forms – bodily pain and distress of mind (τὸ ἀλγοῦν, τὸ λυπούμενον, Principal Doctrine 10). For complete health and happiness, we need to deal not only with bodily pain but with mental and emotional distress.

Bodily health is important, but the body can want too much and needs the mind to provide discipline. Thus we read in Principal Doctrine 20:

The body takes the limits of pleasure to be infinite – and infinite time could provide it. The mind takes account of the end and limit of bodily existence, dispels fears about eternity, and provides for a full and complete life…

The need to observe limits and the need to quell unnecessary fears are key reasons for philosophizing. Hence Epicureanism offers us the ‘four-part cure’ as part of our therapy, to dispel fears of gods and death and to explain limits in relation to pleasure and pain. Another important idea with curative power is gratitude. We cannot become easy about misfortunes unless we have gratitude (Vatican Saying 55):

The cure for misfortunes lies in gratitude for what has been lost and the realization that it is impossible to undo what has been done.

In these and other ways, the benefits of philosophy are intensely and profoundly practical. If we can develop into more knowledgeable and better people through philosophy, that is all well and good, but the purpose is not to receive acclaim for doing so. As Epicurus puts it (Vatican Saying 64):

Praise from others must follow spontaneously, while we attend to curing ourselves.

And we cannot promote well-being in the wider world without curing ourselves.

Thoughts for the Day, September 11: ‘We must not pretend to philosophize, but really philosophize. For we do not need to seem healthy, but to be healthy in reality.’ (Vatican Sayings 54).

Investigating nature improves the investigator

Epicureanism encourages scientific investigation – the investigation of nature – because we need a clear understanding of the universe and our place in it in order to form a soundly based system of ethics. Without an adequately worked out ethical system we could not be sure how to put our needs and desires in proper perspective.

Epicurus argues that understanding the world and life shows us the centrality of pleasure in the behaviour of living things. This gives us a guide to regulating human behaviour. If pleasure (carefully defined) is the guiding principle in the life of evolved organisms (the ‘goal of nature’), the principle which explains the way to well-being and happiness, then we need to consider the best way to live pleasantly in the light of our knowledge of how the universe is constructed and how we are constructed.

This gives philosophy a therapeutic value, and indeed makes the therapeutic value of philosophy its chief purpose. Philosophy is not simply an intellectual exercise or an opportunity for point-scoring. Nor is it a field for endlessly asking questions without answering them. It has a definite practical purpose. The investigator is obliged to approach the subject in an honest and critical way and work towards clear, honest and effective answers.

This approach affects one’s view of the purpose of discovery and debate, and of the role of knowledge and education. It is vital for the well-being of individuals and of the wider community to have a clear understanding of nature and of the implications for human conduct. Fine talk, showing off, impressive rhetoric, an educational curriculum that fails to provide necessary insights into the universe, life and human behaviour – these are not the way to promote well-being and happiness.

Genuine scientific enquiry, philosophically pursued by the individual researcher, inevitably leads to a deepening appreciation of the place of humanity in the scheme of things. In Epicurean terms, understanding nature throws light on the wealth that nature provides and the options and natural limits which ought to guide our decision-making and actions, whatever the circumstances of our life may be.

Thoughts for the Day, September 5: ‘The investigation of nature does not produce people who are skilled in grandiose talk or bragging or who display the sort of education greatly prized by the majority, but people who are self-confident and self-sufficient and who focus on their personal well-being, not on how good their circumstances are’ (Vatican Sayings 45).

It is good to show respect for wisdom

Epicurus was one of those people whose talents command special respect. He was an exceptionally capable thinker, teacher and leader. In the philosophical groups which he founded he was necessarily looked up to, and indeed revered, for his personal qualities and abilities. The evidence suggests that he himself was comfortable with his leadership position. He was confident in the principles and practices which he taught and exemplified, and the dynamics of mentorship gave him the opportunity to encourage understanding and adherence in those who supported his philosophical approach.

No doubt he had cause to reflect on the responsibilities that went with such levels of authority and influence, and no doubt it may have been from time to time a source of concern for him and others as to whether his role involved too much of a focus on a single individual, when the aim was to promote interest in philosophical thought. It seems likely that Vatican Saying 32 reflects a conviction that reverence for a person in his position was necessary, appropriate and beneficial. Exceptional wisdom deserves admiration and deference; others too may rise to eminence through demonstrated wisdom; and – although the wise person unavoidably becomes a focus of attention – benefits flow to those who hold such individuals and their wisdom in high esteem.

The text of the Epicurean sayings in the Vatican manuscript is at various points defective owing to the usual problems of handwritten transmission. Vatican Saying 32 presents a number of difficulties; the translation below represents an attempt to correct the text as lightly as possible in an effort to arrive at a grammatically acceptable form of wording.

Thoughts for the Day, August 24: ‘Those who revere a wise person are beneficiaries of this reverence’ (Vatican Sayings 32).

According to the edition of the text by Wotke (and Usener), the manuscript reads: ὁ τοῦ σοφοῦ σεβαστὸς ἀγαθῶν μετὰ τῶν σεβομένων ἐστί. I suggest provisionally (and translate accordingly): ὁ τοῦ σοφοῦ σεβασμὸς ἀγαθὸν μετὰ τῶν σεβομένων ἐστί. This involves accepting Usener’s correction to σεβασμός, although other attested instances of the word are of later date.

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.

Philosophy: rewarding and enjoyable

Epicurus in his Letter to Menoeceus writes that everyone should philosophize, whether young or old: ‘A person should not delay philosophizing when young or weary of it when old. For no one is too young or old to attend to the well-being of their soul’ (§ 122).

Once we have begun to philosophize, how long does it take to reap the rewards? Vatican Saying 27 gives an encouraging response: learning philosophy and enjoying the fruits of philosophy go hand in hand. We are not likely to develop the greatest depths of insight until an advanced age (see Vatican Saying 17, discussed in ‘Age and happiness’), but we can grow in knowledge and practical wisdom all along the way.

With reference to the processes of philosophical enquiry, Vatican Saying 27 uses the terms γνῶσις (translated below ‘investigation’) and μάθησις (‘learning’). The word γνῶσις may also mean ‘knowledge’, but ‘investigation’ suits the context and is clearly the meaning in a passage in Plutarch where γνῶσις and μάθησις occur in similar combination.

In How the Young Should Study Poetry (Quomodo adolescens poetas audire debeat), Plutarch distinguishes between philosophical truth and what he regards as the lies of the poets, and emphasizes the difficulty of establishing the truth: ‘the truth, even for those who have made it their sole business to search out and understand the verities, is exceedingly hard to track down and hard to get hold of’, … γνῶσιν καὶ μάθησιν τοῦ ὄντος εὖ μάλα δυσθήρατός ἐστι καὶ δύσληπτος (1.2, trans. F.C. Babbitt).

Thoughts for the Day, August 19: ‘With other pursuits the fruit comes when after much effort they have been completed, but with philosophy the pleasure accompanies the investigation; for enjoyment does not come after learning but learning and enjoyment occur together’ (Vatican Sayings 27).

The word μόλις, translated here ‘after much effort’, might be interpreted from the point of view of time ‘at last’, ‘eventually’. However, effort is surely indicated. We may compare Sophocles, Electra 1508-1510. In that passage also μόλις occurs in conjunction with τελέω (Vatican Saying 27 uses τελείω): ὦ σπέρμ’ Ἀτρέως, ὡς πολλὰ παθὸν | δι’ ἐλευθερίας μόλις ἐξῆλθες | τῇ νῦν ὁρμῇ τελεωθέν. These words were translated by R.C. Jebb, ‘O seed of Atreus, through how many sufferings have you sprouted up at last in freedom, fulfilled by this day’s enterprise!’; ‘at last’ indicates an enormous amount of difficulty and suffering.

R.C. Jebb (ed.), Sophocles: The Plays and Fragments, Part VI: The Electra, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1894. James Warren, ‘Why knowing things is good’, kenodoxia [blog], 25/6/2012, comment.

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).

Justice and marriage

According to the Epicurean view of justice, we need a ‘basic conception’ of justice, and we formulate justice in the course of agreements with one another not to cause or suffer harm. (These ideas have been discussed in a number of recent entries.)

This approach to justice provides a framework for examining a wide range of human relationships. It is in associating with one another that we find the need for mutual agreement. An agreement to be just must deliver justice; otherwise the terms of the agreement must be reconsidered.

Marriage as an agreement between two people clearly involves issues of justice. Concepts of marriage vary, but it is surely essential that each party to the marriage should not cause harm to the other party nor be harmed by the other party.

In fact, given the perverse nature of the human being, marriages often involve harm to one or both parties. This is a typical problem with human relationships generally, but is especially so in marriage and family settings where daily contact is constant and harmony is easily upset by the pressures and perplexities of life.

Customs have developed around marriage which influence people’s understanding of what marriage is and how married couples should co-operate. In the Western tradition, the development of institutional Christianity has led to a view that marriage should be solemnized in a church setting and agreed to in the light of church principles.

There is obviously room for controversy where the norms which a church requires in marriage come into conflict with belief and value systems in the community. This is not an unusual state of affairs: churches guard a tradition which they see as an important corrective to other views.

It is unavoidable that church beliefs and values should be scrutinized for their validity and for the extent to which they render justice. The need for scrutiny of ideas and ideals is a matter of constant concern from the philosophical point of view.

Philosophy takes a wider view than religion because it goes beyond the narrow and narrowing effects of tradition and dogma. Philosophy is open to subjecting its own methods and conclusions to thoroughgoing scrutiny, whereas religion typically closes in on preferred positions.

Recently in Australia, and perhaps further afield, controversy concerning marriage vows has been stirred up by reports of a proposed optional form of wording, to be considered at a synod of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, which would have a bride promise to ‘submit’ to her husband. The concept of submission to one another, and in particular of a woman to her husband, is found in the New Testament Epistle to the Ephesians 5:21-24 (see also verse 33). Another relevant passage is 1 Peter 3:1-7.

Translations of these passages vary. The relevant word in Greek is found in the masculine (which can include male and female) in Ephesians 5:21 (ὑποτασσόμενοι; the word may be assumed in verse 22, though most witnesses repeat it in another grammatical form), and in the feminine in 1 Peter 3:1 (ὑποτασσόμεναι). English translations use a variety of expressions such as ‘submit’, ‘submitting’, ‘submissive’, ‘be subject to’, ‘accept the authority of’.

The idea that a woman should be submissive to her husband is found outside the New Testament as well, and was no doubt an expectation in the wider community at the time. In that respect it may be taken not as a church principle specifically or exclusively but as a traditional norm with which the church agreed and to which the church gave its own interpretation.

Against this historical and literary background, a modern bride-to-be would have to decide not only whether to accept a church-approved idea but whether the idea is in itself worthy of acceptance. Whether the idea is acceptable in itself is a question that calls for a clear definition of ‘submit’.

According to Ephesians 5:20, Christians should be ‘subject to one another out of reverence for Christ’ (RSV, NRSV). This presumably means that where both parties to a marriage are Christian the husband must recognize a duty to submit to the wife as well as vice versa. This responsibility is reinforced by the requirement that a husband should ‘love his wife as himself’ (5:33).

Problems could arise if the wife were Christian but the husband unsympathetic to the idea of behaving according to similar principles. This circumstance is addressed in 1 Peter 3:1, where wives are encouraged to be submissive to their husbands so that their husbands ‘may be won without a word’, that is persuaded to become Christians themselves.

From a philosophical point of view, the Bible cannot function as an ultimate guide to ethical norms because it does not investigate ethical questions in a systematic way or report the results of such an investigation. In general it could only be on the basis of human tradition that ideas in the Bible could be taken as normative. If there are ideas which have a more fundamental claim to acceptance, the concern must be to recognize these and to consider how relevant and just their implementation may be.

‘Basic conception’ of justice: see ‘Laws judged by their effectiveness and usefulness’. Kelly Burke, ‘To love and to submit: a marriage made in 2012’, Sydney Morning Herald 25/8/2012. Cf. Julia Baird, ‘No place for spirited women’, ibid. 27/8/2012. There have been many letters to the editor and online comments on the topic, and further reports and articles.

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.

Some bibliography at Easter

The traditional Easter story is dramatic, and for many inspiring. It illustrates in a striking way the fact that religion combines morality and story. Some of the moral lessons may be regarded as universal and in that sense ‘truths’; but to what degree is the story ‘true’?

Matters of historical accuracy require historical analysis. In this case, as we are dealing with literary writings, historical analysis must include literary analysis. Even if it is argued that there are dimensions to the Easter story not accessible to reasoned enquiry, the historical and literary evidence can only be adequately analysed by rational means.

Literary and textual investigation makes clear that in the Gospel story (or rather set of stories, partly complementary and partly contradictory) we are dealing with layers of tradition built up over many years under a range of influences. The layered story cannot be safely taken at face value, because to do so would be to ignore the components and stages of development that enable us to explain the story.

Every Easter we are presented with fresh claims as to the significance of the story, but the hard work of analysing the story cannot be carried out by an emotional response to emotive claims. Instead, we have to look back to decades and centuries of laborious analysis of scattered and complex evidence, and continue the process of careful and thorough research.

Two relevant works which provide important and helpful insights into matters of historical and literary assessment are:

Geza Vermes [Géza Vermès], The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, London, Allen Lane, 2003; London, Penguin, 2004.

Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible, London, Viking, 1991; London, Penguin, 1992, repr., 2006.

Such works deserve to command widespread attention at Easter time.