Tag Archives: Vatican Saying 58

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.)

The delicate art of making friends

Around 500 BC the Persian empire stretched from the Indus Valley to the northern borders of mainland Greece. In the first decades of the fifth century, Persian forces invaded the Greek mainland (492-490 and 480-479) but were driven off in land and sea battles. The Persian kings at this time were Darius I (ruled 522-486) and Xerxes I (486-465).

In describing the second invasion under King Xerxes, A.R. Burn wrote in The Pelican History of Greece (1974):

Greece was indeed in no happy condition. The hardness and lack of chivalry (essentially a Christian virtue) which were characteristic of Greek life – poisoning relations even between rivals in sport, and almost always in politics – meant that everywhere defeated factions and defeated states were liable to prefer a remoter overlord to a nearer, victorious enemy.

The faction-ridden character of Greek political life was a grave weakness for small city-states seeking to defend themselves effectively against a powerful foreign enemy. It was remarkable that, with such widespread disunity and instability within Greece itself, Athens and other city-states were able eventually to compel the Persians to leave.

Their success would have been impossible without previous experience in warfare and the maintenance of fighting skills and capabilities. Ironically these attributes were in large part a result of fighting among themselves. Hence it is not altogether surprising to read Burn’s portrayal of Greek life as characteristically hard and unchivalrous; but did the Hellenic tradition really have to wait until the coming of Christianity, as Burn implies, to discover the virtue of chivalry, and perhaps other gentle virtues as well?

Nor is it surprising, against a background of a history of political and military conflicts, to find Epicurus (around 300 BC) encouraging detachment from political activity, as in Vatican Saying 58 and elsewhere. A willingness to repeat age-old patterns of bitter rivalry could hardly be constructive. The idea of escape via quiet living and philosophical enquiry was powerfully counter-cultural and offered the prospect of cultural transformation if it could be proven to be workable.

A key feature of Epicurus’ message was his emphasis on the importance of friendship. There are many references to friendship in his writings – see for example Vatican Sayings 23, 28, 34, 39 and 52 – and these give evidence of a fineness of feeling which makes one think that the springs of Hellenic wisdom and sensibility were not everywhere contaminated with the hardness that Burn attributed to Greeks of the early fifth century.

Had characteristic attitudes softened by Epicurus’ time? Is the earlier existence of a philosophical tradition evidence that there were always depths of intellectual and psychological sensitivity which the harshness of war and conflict obscured from view? Did Epicurean philosophy in particular manage to channel into a firm and steady stream of pacific wisdom a number of lesser rivulets that had meandered more weakly and uncertainly across the landscape?

Or did Epicurus identify a new and more hopeful radicalism in the simple attainments of quietness and restraint, respect and friendship?

Thoughts for the Day, August 20: ‘We should not approve of those who are quick to enter into friendship, nor of those who are reluctant; but one does need to venture favour for the favour of friendship’ (Vatican Sayings 28).

A.R. Burn, The Pelican History of Greece, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1966, repr. with revisions, 1974, chap. 8 (pp. 167-192), at p. 170. [Further reprints, 1982, 1990.]

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).