What "Live Unknown" means to me

  • Fragment 551 famously reads λάθε βιώσας and is usually translated as "Live unknown." It could also be translated as "Live hidden," "Live unnoticed," or "Live while escaping notice."

    But how do we square this coming from Epicurus who is known two thousand years after he died. Did he live by this maxim? We can't say Epicurus was even unknown during his life. So how are we to understand láthe biōsas as it pertains to him and ourselves?

    Epicurus encouraged people to shun the world of politics and the public life. Attracting notice to yourself in politics or in pursuit of power was a dangerous path and didn't lead to pleasure, nor aponia, nor ataraxia. This appears to have direct applicability to Epicureans in general.

    "Keep your head down!" might be a more appropriate way of paraphrasing this Fragment. Or even better maybe "Don't be obtrusive" or "Don't get in people's faces."

    Epicurus certainly advocated helping people find their way to ataraxia. Why else would he have written letters and epitomes, have founded the Garden, and have insisted that we cultivate friendships one-on-one. Epicurus didn't say "live unknown to all of existence." He didn't say "go live as a hermit." He was known to close friends and those who had an interest in listening to his philosophy and deciding which pleasures to choose and which to reject. He even made a point of arguing his case against his detractors and those he found espousing unsound doctrine. He didn't "live unknown." You could find him *if* you wanted to. He just didn't teach in the agora or in the stoas. You came to him. "Hey, you know where to find me. It's not hard. But I'm not going to get in your face or make you listen to me if you don't want to. But you could really use my help."

    Look at Diogenes of Oenoanda. He put up a solid stone wall that's stood the test of time, albeit in a ruined state. He made Epicureanism available to the masses, but you could walk by his wall and not read it if you wanted to. He lived unknown again in the sense that "I'm going to undertake building this wall, but I can't make you read it. But you could really use my help."

    We need to be *willing* to live unknown to the masses, not to go looking for celebrity, but to be available to our friends and those who may seek our advice. Don't go looking for your name in lights or your face on the cover of TIME magazine. If it *happens,* roll with it. But don't seek it out. However, you can have meaningful conversations. You can form the bonds of friendship. You can even make plans for your funerals and write your wills just as Epicurus did! Just know that there are no guarantees once you die that you'll be known… and learn to be okay with that. It's nothing to us. We can make ourselves available to the curious, but we don't need to stand on the street corner like some itinerant preacher handing out tracts and screaming at passers-by.


    To get a more nuanced idea of λάθε, consider VS 7: It is easy to commit an injustice undetected, but impossible to be sure that you have escaped detection. ἀδικοῦντα λαθεῖν μὲν δύσκολον, πίστιν δὲ λαβεῖν ὑπὲρ τοῦ λαθεῖν ἀδύνατον. This "undetected" connotation sheds another light on λαθε βιωσας. It appears to be saying that we can think we're "undetected" or unnoticed, but chances are that somehow we're going to be found out sooner or later. If we take Fragment 551 and VS 7 in tandem, both can seem to inform the other. Consider if we would say "It is easy to attempt to live undetected, but impossible to be sure that you have escaped detection." I'm not saying that's entirely legitimate but indulge it as a thought experiment and it expands the meaning of both.

    This is how I'm beginning to understand the meaning of λάθε βιώσας.

    I'm curious to read how others interpret this well-known fragment and how they believe it may be applicable (or not) to an Epicurean practice.

  • I largely agree with your conclusions here but in regard to this fragment I always caution against reading too much into it (beyond what you are doing here) because it comes to us with absolutely zero context. To my understanding we have zero knowledge about when or where or how or in what situation this was stated, or even for sure that it was Epicurus himself. And given as a premise that ALL rules of conduct are contextual, we would need to know much more than we do to conclude how much emphasis Epicurus and the key Epicureans placed on such views, since as you say they did not exactly "live unknown" themselves.


    As I see it the phrase can be helpful for discussion, just like the "tetrapharmakon" but overemphasis on it creates many of the same problems that overemphasis of the tetrapharmakon does.


    We simply dont have enough surrounding context to know the use cases that were referenced, or who said these things and why.


    People who don't understand the full depth of Epicurus can easily misinterpret both, so its important to provide the background first (as you've done here) so these phrases don't get misused, as they probably often are in the hands of those who want to keep Epicurus safely confined in the hermit-like box they have created for him.

  • EXCELLENT points, Cassius ! Fragments are just that: fragments devoid of context, tantalizing though they may be. And I firmly agree we shouldn't get too hung up on them. They're so tempting, though, since we have so little of Epicurus' texts to dig into. Alas!

    I had also forgotten before writing this that the source for this fragment is Plutarch's diatribe against this very Fragment itself. So, already in that respect, we're at a disadvantage! The very source of the (let's say) "infamous" saying of Epicurus is a polemic against that very "infamous" saying of Epicurus taken out of context to attack him! That's a vicious circle if I ever saw one. ^^

    And these lines from Plutarch lead me to believe I *may* be on the right track (or I have enough to cover myself), emphasis added:

    And in fine, to what purpose, Epicurus, did you keep a public table? Why that concourse of friends, that resort of fair young men, at your doors? Why so many thousand lines so elaborately composed and writ upon Metrodorus, Aristobulus, and Chaeredemus, that death itself might not rob us of them; if virtue must be doomed to oblivion, art to idleness and inactivity, philosophy to silence, and all a man's happiness must be forgotten?

    Again, I freely admit we do not have Epicurus' context, merely the disgruntled ramblings of a fierce critic. But from my perspective as an aspiring Epicurean, I see that Epicurus invited people in to his public table. He greeted people at his door. He wrote but didn't see the need to pontificate in the agora. One may say he lived, let's say at most, unobtrusively but was NOT disengaged from society, his friends, and those that sought him out. He most likely said/wrote the words láthe biōsas since Plutarch is so worked up about it in ancient times, but we have no surviving text of his. Plutarch simply takes láthe biōsas out of context and runs with it... And HE gets to be the last word on it for posterity! That's aggravating.

    [Note: I've also found Attalus' website helpful for the sources, U551 in our current case here.]

  • I had also forgotten before writing this that the source for this fragment is Plutarch's diatribe against this very Fragment itself. So, already in that respect, we're at a disadvantage! The very source of the (let's say) "infamous" saying of Epicurus is a polemic against that very "infamous" saying of Epicurus taken out of context to attack him! That's a vicious circle if I ever saw one. ^^

    Thank you for looking that up Eugenios, when I wrote I failed to take the time to do that - but you are exactly right from my perspective.



    but was NOT disengaged from society, his friends, and those that sought him out.

    Yes that's the key from my perspective. Unfortunately the "live unknown" is used primarily (in my experience) to imply the opposite, and that Epicurus was essentially a hermit. Used properly the phrase gives us lots of good warning about things to avoid, but improperly it reinforces one of the worst and most untrue stereotypes by Epicurus' enemies.

  • I did find another source for this from the Emperor Julian in his letter to Themistius the Philosopher. From this, it appears Julian is saying the context of Epicurus' láthe biōsas was simply "Don't get involved in politics" plain and simple. Julian was writing 200+ years after Plutarch but could still easily have had access to far more primary Epicurean sources than we do. If that's the case, it would seem Plutarch was purposefully mischaracterizing the saying and taking it out of context, blowing it all out of proportion to its original intent. I know... Hard to believe he'd do that! ;)

  • As much as I've always wanted to like Julian, isn't he the one who said that he was happy to see that Epicurus' texts were hard to find? So again an enemy of Epicurus even to mention it, but you're right he does not seem as bad here since he seems to be limiting the impact and stating a way it can be applied correctly, which is what I think we agree Epicurus would have said:


    Quote

    And this indeed may happen, but you will not be sure of it until that final day." Do you think that such a man after being told all this would choose even to live in a sea-port town? Would he not bid adieu to money-making and all the advantages of commerce, and caring little for troops of friends and acquaintances abroad, and all that he might learn about nations and cities, would he not approve the wisdom of the son of Neocles[10] who bids us "Live in obscurity"? Indeed, you apparently perceived this, and by your abuse of Epicurus you tried to forestall me and to eradicate beforehand any such purpose. For you go on to say that it was to be expected that so idle a man as he should commend leisure and conversations during walks. Now for my part I have long been firmly convinced that Epicurus was mistaken in that view of his, but whether it be proper to urge into public life any and every man, both him who lacks natural abilities and him who is not yet completely equipped, is a point that deserves the most careful consideration.

  • Quote

    "Now for my part I have long been firmly convinced that Epicurus was mistaken in that view of his, but whether it be proper to urge into public life any and every man, both him who lacks natural abilities and him who is not yet completely equipped, is a point that deserves the most careful consideration." Julian

    I hear you! Julian was the last gasp of pagan learning, but he wasn't an Epicurean advocate for sure. That emphasis I added above to his quote is what's making me think that Epicurus was just talking about "urg[ing] into public life any and every man." Romans were VERY big into getting involved in politics, so any suggestion that this wasn't laudatory would have been jumped on.

  • Right. Plus apparently Julian was properly concerned about getting "good" Greco-Romans to participate in public life so as to offset the nefarious influence of the Christians. I can't help but think that in those circumstances, Epicurus would have urged exactly the same thing as Julian, since the very survival of the Greco-Roman-Epicurean way of life that they valued was at stake and was about to be overwhelmed. .

  • Exactly! I hadn't thought of that, but I would agree with you. That makes sense!

    And what are left with from most people?

    Λάθε βιώσας = (In a stuffy, stereotypical academic accent) "Oh, yes. From these two words taken out of context, we can *clearly* see that Epicurus advocated being a hermit." LOL :D

  • From what else we know of EP, I think the context here is that fame, the public life, is neither a natural nor necessary desire. This is in the category of the empty desires.

    "Please always remember my doctrines!" - Epicurus' last words

  • I would be very careful there. Fame is one thing, but "public life" is a broad term, and to the extent that times require public action - an appropriate day to comment on this, given coronavirus panic - then public life may be required, as i think there are hints if not explicit record of Epicurus saying. "Fame" on the other hand, might be something that is a byproduct and never really a sound goal in the first place, nor would it seem likely to be required in the same way that public action might be required.

  • I would be very careful there. Fame is one thing, but "public life" is a broad term,...

    Now that you put it that way, I would agree. Epicurus was arguably a public figure in the sense that he was a known figure. Did he seek out the publicity/fame? Arguably not, but he didn't shrink from a public fight in his works that were circulated. And we know people tried to malign him during and after his life.

    To paraphrase: Some people seek fame; others have fame thrust upon them. It's also a matter of what they do with that fame once it is there.

  • Yes I think that's exactly right. And in case I haven't said so recently, I see no reason to discount Cassius Longinus' understanding of Epicurean philosophy, as he was willing to debate it even with Cicero, and he (and others he cites in his letters) were both devoted Epicureans and also leaders in Roman public affairs.


    If we have to choose between what the commentators today, and the enemies of Epicurus, tell us, vs what we can observe for ourselves as to what leading Epicureans actually did, i will take "what the leading Epicureans actually did" every time!