Influential Teachers and the Meaning of the Good: Two Anecdotes Concerning Epicurus

Diogenes Laertius 10.2

“Apollodorus the Epicurian writes in his first book of On the Life of Epicurus that the philosopher turned to the study of philosophy when he noted that his teachers could not explain to him the meaning of Chaos in Hesiod.”

᾿Απολλόδωρος δ’ ὁ ᾿Επικούρειος ἐν τῷ πρώτῳ περὶ τοῦ ᾿Επικούρου βίου φησὶν ἐλθεῖν αὐτὸν ἐπὶ φιλοσοφίαν καταγνόντα τῶν γραμματιστῶν ἐπειδὴ μὴ ἐδυνήθησαν ἑρμηνεῦσαι αὐτῷ τὰ περὶ τοῦ παρ’ ῾Ησιόδῳ χάους.

10.6

“I cannot conceive what the good is if I separate it from the pleasures of taste, from the pleasures of sex, from the pleasures of sound, or those of beautiful bodies.”

Οὐ γὰρ ἔγωγε ἔχω τί νοήσω τἀγαθόν, ἀφαιρῶν μὲν τὰς διὰ χυλῶν ἡδονάς, ἀφαιρῶν δὲ τὰς δι᾽ ἀφροδισίων καὶ τὰς δι᾽ ἀκροαμάτων καὶ τὰς διὰ μορφῆς.

 

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A few maxims to round things out

 

 

  1. “If fear of the skies or about death had never afflicted us—along with the ignoring of the limits of pain and desires—we never would have needed natural science”

Εἰ μηθὲν ἡμᾶς αἱ τῶν μετεώρων ὑποψίαι ἠνώχλουν καὶ αἱ περὶ θανάτου, μή ποτε πρὸς ἡμᾶς ᾖ τι, ἔτι τε τὸ μὴ κατανοεῖν τοὺς ὅρους τῶν ἀλγηδόνων καὶ τῶν ἐπιθυμιῶν, οὐκ ἂν προσεδεόμεθα φυσιολογίας.

  1. “It is not possible to eliminate fear about the most important things unless one understands the nature of everything—otherwise, we live fearing things we heard from myths. Therefore, it is not possible to enjoy unmixed pleasures without natural science.”

XII. Οὐκ ἦν τὸ φοβούμενον λύειν ὑπὲρ τῶν κυριωτάτων μὴ κατειδότα τίς ἡ τοῦ σύμπαντος φύσις, ἀλλ’ ὑποπτευόμενόν τι τῶν κατὰ τοὺς μύθους· ὥστε οὐκ ἦν ἄνευ φυσιολογίας ἀκεραίους τὰς ἡδονὰς ἀπολαμβάνειν.

Chance, Wealth and the Wise Man: More Maxims

More of Epicurus’ Maxims from Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers

“Chance only briefly impedes the wise man—reason has selected for him what is most important, it guides him throughout his life and will guide him.”

XVI. Βραχέα σοφῷ τύχη παρεμπίπτει, τὰ δὲ μέγιστα καὶ κυριώτατα ὁ λογισμὸς διῴκηκε καὶ κατὰ τὸν συνεχῆ χρόνον τοῦ βίου διοικεῖ καὶ διοικήσει.

“The just man is the least agitated; the unjust full of the most trouble.”

XVII. ῾Ο δίκαιος ἀταρακτότατος, ὁ δ’ ἄδικος πλείστης ταραχῆς γέμων.

“Pleasure for the flesh will not increase once pain from want has been removed, but it can only be varied. The contemplation of these things [which bring pleasure] and their concomitants, however, produces the limit of pleasure for the mind, insofar as it is those very things that also bring the mind the greatest fears.”

XVIII. Οὐκ ἐπαύξεται ἐν τῇ σαρκὶ ἡ ἡδονὴ ἐπειδὰν ἅπαξ τὸ κατ’ ἔνδειαν ἀλγοῦν ἐξαιρεθῇ, ἀλλὰ μόνον ποικίλλεται. τῆς δὲ διανοίας τὸ πέρας τὸ κατὰ τὴν ἡδονὴν ἀπεγέννησεν ἥ τε τούτων αὐτῶν ἐκλόγισις καὶ τῶν ὁμογενῶν τούτοις ὅσα τοὺς μεγίστους φόβους παρεσκεύαζε τῇ διανοίᾳ.

“It is not possible that the man who has transgressed one of the laws we have in common—not harming or being harmed—to believe that he will get away with it, even if he already has ten thousand times to the present day. It will be unclear whether or not he will escape right up until he dies.”

XXXV. Οὐκ ἔστι τὸν λάθρᾳ τι ποιοῦντα ὧν συνέθεντο πρὸς ἀλλήλους εἰς τὸ μὴ βλάπτειν μηδὲ βλάπτεσθαι πιστεύειν ὅτι λήσει, κἂν μυριάκις ἐπὶ τοῦ παρόντος λανθάνῃ. μέχρι μὲν καταστροφῆς ἄδηλον εἰ καὶ λήσει.

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Diogenes Laertius 10.2

“Apollodorus the Epicurian writes in his first book of On the Life of Epicurus that the philosopher turned to the study of philosophy when he noted that his teachers could not explain to him the meaning of Chaos in Hesiod.”

᾿Απολλόδωρος δ’ ὁ ᾿Επικούρειος ἐν τῷ πρώτῳ περὶ τοῦ ᾿Επικούρου βίου φησὶν ἐλθεῖν αὐτὸν ἐπὶ φιλοσοφίαν καταγνόντα τῶν γραμματιστῶν ἐπειδὴ μὴ ἐδυνήθησαν ἑρμηνεῦσαι αὐτῷ τὰ περὶ τοῦ παρ’ ῾Ησιόδῳ χάους.

10.6

“I cannot conceive what the good is if I separate it from the pleasures of taste, from the pleasures of sex, from the pleasures of sound, or those of beautiful bodies.”

Οὐ γὰρ ἔγωγε ἔχω τί νοήσω τἀγαθόν, ἀφαιρῶν μὲν τὰς διὰ χυλῶν ἡδονάς, ἀφαιρῶν δὲ τὰς δι᾽ ἀφροδισίων καὶ τὰς δι᾽ ἀκροαμάτων καὶ τὰς διὰ μορφῆς.

Some Useful Principles On Science and Fear

Some of Epicurus’ Maxims (taken from Diogenes Laertius‘ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers)

  1. “If fear of the skies or about death had never afflicted us—along with the ignoring of the limits of pain and desires—we never would have needed natural science”

Εἰ μηθὲν ἡμᾶς αἱ τῶν μετεώρων ὑποψίαι ἠνώχλουν καὶ αἱ περὶ θανάτου, μή ποτε πρὸς ἡμᾶς ᾖ τι, ἔτι τε τὸ μὴ κατανοεῖν τοὺς ὅρους τῶν ἀλγηδόνων καὶ τῶν ἐπιθυμιῶν, οὐκ ἂν προσεδεόμεθα φυσιολογίας.

  1. “It is not possible to eliminate fear about the most important things unless one understands the nature of everything—otherwise, we live fearing things we heard from myths. Therefore, it is not possible to enjoy unmixed pleasures without natural science.”

XII. Οὐκ ἦν τὸ φοβούμενον λύειν ὑπὲρ τῶν κυριωτάτων μὴ κατειδότα τίς ἡ τοῦ σύμπαντος φύσις, ἀλλ’ ὑποπτευόμενόν τι τῶν κατὰ τοὺς μύθους· ὥστε οὐκ ἦν ἄνευ φυσιολογίας ἀκεραίους τὰς ἡδονὰς ἀπολαμβάνειν.

  1. “There is no profit in making yourself secure against other people as long as you fear what happens above and below the earth or elsewhere in the endless universe.”

XIII. Οὐθὲν ὄφελος ἦν τὴν κατ’ ἀνθρώπους ἀσφάλειαν κατασκευάζεσθαι τῶν ἄνωθεν ὑπόπτων καθεστώτων καὶ τῶν ὑπὸ γῆς καὶ ἁπλῶς τῶν ἐν τῷ ἀπείρῳ.

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The Banqueter’s Life: How to Live from Athenaeus and Ashurbanipal

In the midst of a nearly endless discussion of fish in the 8th book of his Deipnosophistai, Athenaeus has his banqueters bandy about epigrammatic advice about the nature of human life. One of his speakers quotes Chrysippus who alleges that Sardanapallus (the Greek name for the Syrian king Ashurbanipal) had the following as an epitaph:

“Know well that you are mortal: fill your heart
By delighting in the feasts: nothing is useful to you when you’re dead.
I am ash, though I ruled great Ninevah as king.
I keep whatever I ate, the insults I made, and the joy
I took from sex. My wealth and many blessings are gone.
[This is wise advice for life: I will never forget it.
Let anyone who wants to accumulate limitless gold.]

εὖ εἰδὼς ὅτι θνητὸς ἔφυς σὸν θυμὸν ἄεξε,
τερπόμενος θαλίῃσι· θανόντι σοι οὔτις ὄνησις.
καὶ γὰρ ἐγὼ σποδός εἰμι, Νίνου μεγάλης βασιλεύσας·
κεῖν’ ἔχω ὅσσ’ ἔφαγον καὶ ἐφύβρισα καὶ σὺν ἔρωτι
τέρπν’ ἔπαθον· τὰ δὲ πολλὰ καὶ ὄλβια πάντα λέλυνται.
[ἥδε σοφὴ βιότοιο παραίνεσις, οὐδέ ποτ’ αὐτῆς
λήσομαι· ἐκτήσθω δ’ ὁ θέλων τὸν ἀπείρονα χρυσόν.]

The speakers critique the dead king’s sentiments and propose that the epitaph could be emended with more elevated aims.

“Know well that you are mortal: fill your heart
By delighting in words: nothing is useful once eaten.
For even I am now but rages though I ate and took as much pleasure as possible.
I keep whatever I learned and the thoughts I had and the fine things
I experienced with them. Everything else, however pleasing, is gone.”

εὖ εἰδὼς ὅτι θνητὸς ἔφυς σὸν θυμὸν ἄεξε,
τερπόμενος μύθοισι· φαγόντι σοι οὔτις ὄνησις.
καὶ γὰρ ἐγὼ ῥάκος εἰμί, φαγὼν ὡς πλεῖστα καὶ ἡσθείς.
ταῦτ’ ἔχω ὅσσ’ ἔμαθον καὶ ἐφρόντισα καὶ μετὰ τούτων
ἔσθλ’ ἔπαθον· τὰ δὲ λοιπὰ καὶ ἡδέα πάντα λέλειπται.

Some other epitaphs (fictional or not) are included:

“Drink. Play. Your life is mortal and time on earth is but short.
Death itself is everlasting once a man has died.”

πῖνε, παῖζε· θνητὸς ὁ βίος, ὀλίγος οὑπὶ γῇ χρόνος·
ὁ θάνατος δ’ ἀθάνατός ἐστιν, ἂν ἅπαξ τις ἀποθάνῃ.

“Drink. Eat. Yield everything to your soul.
For I am the stone that stands in place of Bachidas.”

πιέν, φαγὲν καὶ πάντα τᾷ ψυχᾷ δόμεν·
κἠγὼ γὰρ ἕστακ’ ἀντὶ Βακχίδα λίθος.

Ashurbanipal
The Man. The Myth.

Among certain Greek writers (starting as early as Aristophanes: Birds 1021) Sardanapallus was proverbially a glutton:

 

Hesychius

“Sardanapallos: Nearly everyone writes that this guy was a slave to every kind of excess and delicacy. They say that this is recorded on his on monument in Assyrian letters in Ninevah, Assyria.”

Σαρδανάπαλ(λ)ος· πάντες σχεδὸν ἁπάσης ἀκολασίας καὶ τρυφῆς
δοῦλον τοῦτον ἀναγράφουσι γεγονέναι. καὶ ἐπὶ τῷ μνήματι αὐτοῦ ἐν
τῇ ᾿Ασσυρίᾳ ἐν Νίνῳ φασὶν ἐπιγεγράφθαι ᾿Ασσυρίοις γράμμασι·

 

Perhaps someone should write a song about him….

It’s Wednesday: An Eternal Death Awaits, No Matter What

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 3.1076-1094

 

“Finally, what great and vile desire for life compels us
To quake so much amidst doubts and dangers?
Mortals have an absolute end to our lives:
Death cannot be evaded—we must leave.
Nevertheless, we move again and still persist—
No new pleasure is procured by living;
But while what we desire is absent, that seems to overcome
All other things; but later, when we have gained it, we want something else—
An endless thirst for life grips us as we gasp for it.
It remains unclear what fortune life will offer,
What chance may bring us and what end awaits.
But by extending life we do not subtract a moment
Of time from death nor can we shorten it
So that we may somehow have less time after our ends.
Therefore, you may continue as living as many generations as you want,
But that everlasting death will wait for you still,
And he will be there for no less a long time, the man who
Has found the end of life with today’s light, than the man who died
Many months and many years before.”

Denique tanto opere in dubiis trepidare periclis
quae mala nos subigit vitai tanta cupido?
certe equidem finis vitae mortalibus adstat
nec devitari letum pote, quin obeamus.
praeterea versamur ibidem atque insumus usque
nec nova vivendo procuditur ulla voluptas;
sed dum abest quod avemus, id exsuperare videtur
cetera; post aliud, cum contigit illud, avemus
et sitis aequa tenet vitai semper hiantis.
posteraque in dubiost fortunam quam vehat aetas,
quidve ferat nobis casus quive exitus instet.
nec prorsum vitam ducendo demimus hilum
tempore de mortis nec delibare valemus,
quo minus esse diu possimus forte perempti.
proinde licet quod vis vivendo condere saecla,
mors aeterna tamen nihilo minus illa manebit,
nec minus ille diu iam non erit, ex hodierno
lumine qui finem vitai fecit, et ille,
mensibus atque annis qui multis occidit ante.

There Must Be Other Worlds, Apart from Ours

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 4.1048-1066

“To begin: in all directions around us—
Including both sides, above and below, everywhere,
There is no end; as I have explained and as the truth itself
declares on its own and the nature of this depth shines through.
There is then no way it can be considered probable—
When there is empty space without limit to all sides
And where the seeds of creation spread in uncountable numbers
In every direction speeding in a timeless motion—
That ours is the only round earth and sky that has been made,
That so many bodies of material in space do nothing.
This is especially true since this world was made by nature,
Since the seeds of everything by their own will came together
Driven in many different ways, in vain, in frustration,
Until that point when some gathered together which, when connected,
Will always form the core of magnificent things,
Of the earth, sea, the sky and the species of life.
Therefore, I say again and again that you must admit
That there are other collocations of life elsewhere,
Such as this of ours which the hungry sky holds in place.”

Principio nobis in cunctas undique partis
et latere ex utroque supterque per omne
nulla est finis; uti docui, res ipsaque per se 1050
vociferatur, et elucet natura profundi.
nullo iam pacto veri simile esse putandumst,
undique cum vorsum spatium vacet infinitum
seminaque innumero numero summaque profunda
multimodis volitent aeterno percita motu, 1055
hunc unum terrarum orbem caelumque creatum,
nil agere illa foris tot corpora materiai;
cum praesertim hic sit natura factus et ipsa
sponte sua forte offensando semina rerum
multimodis temere in cassum frustraque coacta 1060
tandem coluerunt ea quae coniecta repente
magnarum rerum fierent exordia semper,
terrai maris et caeli generisque animantum.
quare etiam atque etiam talis fateare necesse est
esse alios alibi congressus materiai, 1065
qualis hic est, avido complexu quem tenet aether.

Far Better People than You Have Died (Lucretius and Homer)

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 3.1034-1053

“You may on occasion say this to yourself:
Noble Ancus* loosed the light from his eyes,
A man who was better than imperfect you in many ways.
And from there, many other kings and luminaries
Died too, men who ruled over great nations.
That very man* who once laid a great road across a vast sea
To provide a path for his armies upon the deep
And taught them to dance across the crescent salt
As he pranced with his horses and dismissed the sea’s roar—
He poured out his soul when his body died and he was robbed of the light.
Clan Scipio’s son, the bolt of war, the scourge of Carthage,
Gave his bones to the earth just as a humble servant would.
Add to these men the inventors of theories and beauty,
Add as well the friends of the Muses whose single Homer,
the sceptered lord, has been quieted in sleep like the rest.
Democritus, too, when advanced age finally warned him
That the moving memories of his mind were fading,
He freely offered his own head to his end.
Epicurus as well departed when the light of his life ran its course,
He surpassed the race of man with his genius, who overshown
The light of all men the way the sun washes out the stars—
And now you will hesitate and be angry to die?
You whose life is already nearly dead, though you live and see,
You who squander the greater part of life in sleep
And snore wide-awake, never breaking from seeing dreams,
As you carry a mind tortured by empty fear.
You can’t figure out what ails you, you poor drunk,
When you are oppressed by so many anxieties everywhere
As you wander adrift on the uncertain compulsions of your mind.”

Hoc etiam tibi tute interdum dicere possis.
‘lumina sis oculis etiam bonus Ancus reliquit,
qui melior multis quam tu fuit, improbe, rebus.
inde alii multi reges rerumque potentes
occiderunt, magnis qui gentibus imperitarunt.
ille quoque ipse, viam qui quondam per mare magnum
stravit iterque dedit legionibus ire per altum
ac pedibus salsas docuit super ire lucunas
et contempsit equis insultans murmura ponti,
lumine adempto animam moribundo corpore fudit.
Scipiadas, belli fulmen, Carthaginis horror,
ossa dedit terrae proinde ac famul infimus esset.
adde repertores doctrinarum atque leporum,
adde Heliconiadum comites; quorum unus Homerus
sceptra potitus eadem aliis sopitus quietest.
denique Democritum post quam matura vetustas
admonuit memores motus languescere mentis,
sponte sua leto caput obvius optulit ipse.
ipse Epicurus obit decurso lumine vitae,
qui genus humanum ingenio superavit et omnis
restinxit stellas exortus ut aetherius sol.
tu vero dubitabis et indignabere obire?
mortua cui vita est prope iam vivo atque videnti,
qui somno partem maiorem conteris aevi,
et viligans stertis nec somnia cernere cessas
sollicitamque geris cassa formidine mentem
nec reperire potes tibi quid sit saepe mali, cum
ebrius urgeris multis miser undique curis
atque animo incerto fluitans errore vagaris.’

This passage reminds me in part of Achilles’ famous vaunt to Lykaon (a man he had previously ransomed) in the Iliad (21.106-113)

“But you die too, friend. Really, why are you grieving thus?
Patroklos also died, and he was much better than you.
Don’t you see how handsome and large I am?
I come from a noble father and a goddess mother bore me—
But, even now, death and compelling fate await me.
The time will come at dawn, dusk, or the middle of the day
When someone rips the life even from me with Ares’ power
As he strikes with a spear or an arrow from its string.”

ἀλλὰ φίλος θάνε καὶ σύ· τί ἦ ὀλοφύρεαι οὕτως;
κάτθανε καὶ Πάτροκλος, ὅ περ σέο πολλὸν ἀμείνων.
οὐχ ὁράᾳς οἷος καὶ ἐγὼ καλός τε μέγας τε;
πατρὸς δ’ εἴμ’ ἀγαθοῖο, θεὰ δέ με γείνατο μήτηρ·
ἀλλ’ ἔπι τοι καὶ ἐμοὶ θάνατος καὶ μοῖρα κραταιή·
ἔσσεται ἢ ἠὼς ἢ δείλη ἢ μέσον ἦμαρ
ὁππότε τις καὶ ἐμεῖο ῎Αρῃ ἐκ θυμὸν ἕληται
ἢ ὅ γε δουρὶ βαλὼν ἢ ἀπὸ νευρῆφιν ὀϊστῷ.

 

*Ancus was the fourth king of Rome

*Xerxes (who built pontoon bridge across the Hellespont to bring an army into Greece c. 480 BCE)

 

Post-Script: I can’t really say that either passages offer much solace to me. It is a given that everyone dies, true, but however unimpressive I am, it still seems absurd at all to exist rather than not exist. To close the circle by ending it seems, even if appropriate, equally absurd.  I’m with Dylan Thomas, I fear, raging….

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 2.1023-1039: Simplicity and Satiey in Wonder

“Listen, put your mind now on true reason.
For a new matter rises fiercely to meet your ears
and a new image of the universe strives to show itself.
Nothing is so simple that at first sight
it is not rather difficult to believe;
and in the same way nothing is so great or miraculous
that over time we don’t slowly fail to behold it with wonder.
Consider first the clear and pure color of the sky
and everything it holds, the wandering stars
the moon and the gleam of the sun with its bright light;
If suddenly mortals now saw all these things
for the first time with no prior experience of them,
could anything possibly be said to be more wondrous
or would the races of men have dared to believe they existed?
Nothing, I believe, that is how striking the sight would be.
But now, since we are so used to seeing them,
no one thinks it worthwhile to gaze at heaven’s bright splendor.”

Nunc animum nobis adhibe veram ad rationem.
nam tibi vehementer nova res molitur ad auris
accedere et nova se species ostendere rerum. 1025
sed neque tam facilis res ulla est, quin ea primum
difficilis magis ad credendum constet, itemque
nil adeo magnum neque tam mirabile quicquam,
quod non paulatim minuant mirarier omnes,
principio caeli clarum purumque colorem 1030
quaeque in se cohibet, palantia sidera passim,
lunamque et solis praeclara luce nitorem;
omnia quae nunc si primum mortalibus essent
ex improviso si sint obiecta repente,
quid magis his rebus poterat mirabile dici, 1035
aut minus ante quod auderent fore credere gentes?
nil, ut opinor; ita haec species miranda fuisset.
quam tibi iam nemo fessus satiate videndi,
suspicere in caeli dignatur lucida templa.

 

[One of the greatest gifts my children have given me is the ability to see the world anew through their eyes…]

Before You Shop for Christmas, Read Some More Lucretius

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 5.1430-1439

“The race of man, then, labors uselessly and in vain
as we always consume our time in empty concerns
because we don’t understand that there’s a limit to having—
and there’s an end to how far true pleasure can grow.
This has dragged life bit by bit into the deep sea
and has stirred at its bottom great blasts of war.
But the guardian of the earth turns around the great sky
and teaches men truly that the year’s seasons come full circle
and that all must be endured with a sure reason and order.”

Ergo hominum genus in cassum frustraque laborat
semper et [in] curis consumit inanibus aevom,
ni mirum quia non cognovit quae sit habendi
finis et omnino quoad crescat vera voluptas;
idque minutatim vitam provexit in altum
et belli magnos commovit funditus aestus.
at vigiles mundi magnum versatile templum
sol et luna suo lustrantes lumine circum
perdocuere homines annorum tempora verti
et certa ratione geri rem atque ordine certo.

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 5.218-227: Children, Shipwrecked into Life

“Why does nature nourish and increase the races
of horrible beasts, enemies to humankind on land and sea?
Why do the seasons of the year bring diseases?
Why does an early death come suddenly?
So a child, just like a shipwrecked man tossed by savage waves,
lies naked and speechless on the ground needing everything required
to support life at the very moment when nature pours him
from his mother’s womb into the world of light,
he fills the room with a sorrowful wail, as if he knows
the measure of troubles that still remain for him to endure in life.”

praeterea genus horriferum natura ferarum
humanae genti infestum terraque marique
cur alit atque auget? cur anni tempora morbos
adportant? quare mors inmatura vagatur?
tum porro puer, ut saevis proiectus ab undis
navita, nudus humi iacet infans indigus omni
vitali auxilio, cum primum in luminis oras
nixibus ex alvo matris natura profudit,
vagituque locum lugubri complet, ut aequumst
cui tantum in vita restet transire malorum.