Tag Archives: Politics

When parents get angry

Vatican Saying 62 (quoted below) illustrates the fact that Epicurus was interested in addressing not only general philosophical questions but practical problems of everyday life and personal relationships. A number of Vatican Sayings show him bringing observation and reason to bear in advising on standards and practices for personal and family life.

It is easy to imagine that specific incidents in the life of the Garden community may have led Epicurus to comment on such matters as: staying calm (Vatican Saying 79); making and keeping friends (28, 34, 39); the effect of separation on the affections (18); thinking philosophical thoughts during the daily round (41); having a philosophical argument (74); showing respect to a wise leader (32); being young and wild (80); impatience for variety (69); living on meagre resources (63); having or not having money (67); harbouring envy (53); and expressing condolence (66).

Vatican Saying 61, discussed yesterday (‘Harmony is beautiful’), is very specific in dealing with Epicurus’ own family (if that is the correct interpretation). The next saying, Vatican Saying 62, is also very specific, dealing with relationships between parents and children, and in particular the attitude of children to parents who are difficult to deal with. Epicurus counsels reason and diplomacy, on the grounds that thoughtful and conciliatory responses are likely to be the most effective way of handling parents who are (justifiably or unjustifiably) angry with their children.

The Greeks had long experience in living with conflict and in the bitter results of hostility and intransigence. No doubt Epicurus was keenly aware of historical examples, as well as ethical principles, relevant for dealing with personal friction. Plutarch later used the example of the Greeks when discussing a Roman willingness to end disputes by conference: ‘For the Greeks call it peace when two parties settle their quarrels by mutual conference, and not by violence’ (λόγῳ, μὴ βίᾳ, Numa 12.4, trans. B. Perrin).

In the next sentence Plutarch uses the word εὐγνωμονεῖν, to show goodwill, fairness, reasonableness, kindness. In Vatican Saying 62 Epicurus uses the same word, translated below ‘being conciliatory’. Surely with similar ideas in mind Epicurus advised against participating in the cut and thrust of politics. Gentle reason and diplomacy were preferable, and more effective.

Thoughts for the Day, September 17: ‘If parents are rightly angry with their children, it is surely pointless to retaliate and not to ask for forgiveness. If the anger is not justifiable but quite unreasonable, it is absurd – bearing in mind that unreasonableness generally tends to refusal – not to seek to deflect it by being conciliatory’ (Vatican Sayings 62).

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.)