References to Epicurus' Attitude Toward The "Place of the Sciences And Liberal Arts"

  • This is an effort to collect in a single place the references that are available to the Epicurean attitude toward the place of "the sciences and the liberal arts" (to borrow the phrase from Frances Wright).

    Epicurus was criticized both in the ancient world and by today's commentators for this attitude, which on its face would conflict with Epicurus' focus on physics and observation as the foundation of his philosophy. There is an issue here which needs to be understood in order to understand Epicurus' perspective.

    Here is an example of the issue from Cicero's On Ends:


    "You are pleased to think him uneducated. The reason is that he refused to consider any education worth the name that did not help to school us in happiness. Was he to spend his time, as you encourage Triarius and me to do, in perusing poets, who give us nothing solid and useful, but merely childish amusement? Was he to occupy himself like Plato with music and geometry, arithmetic and astronomy, which starting from false premises cannot be true, and which moreover if they were true would contribute nothing to make our lives pleasanter and therefore better? Was he, I say, to study arts like these, and neglect the master art, so difficult and correspondingly so fruitful, the art of living? No! Epicurus was not uneducated: the real philistines are those who ask us to go on studying till old age the subjects that we ought to be ashamed not to have learnt in boyhood."

    Here is another, that while not mentioning Epicurus in this passage, is from Lucian, who can be argued to have held many Epicurean viewpoints:

    Lucian’s Dialog “Icaromenippus, An Aerial Expedition:”


    “Menippus. Ah, but keep your laughter till you have heard something of their pretentious mystifications. To begin with, their feet are on the ground; they are no taller than the rest of us ‘men that walk the earth’; they are no sharper-sighted than their neighbors, some of them purblind, indeed, with age or indolence. And yet they say they can distinguish the limits of the sky, they measure the sun’s circumference, take their walks in the supra-lunar regions, and specify the sizes and shapes of the stars as though they had fallen from them. Often one of them could not tell you correctly the number of miles from Megara to Athens, but has no hesitation about the distance in feet from the sun to the moon. How high the atmosphere is, how deep the sea, how far it is round the earth— they have the figures for all that. Moreover, they have only to draw some circles, arrange a few triangles and squares, add certain complicated spheres, and lo, they have the cubic contents of Heaven.

    Then, how reasonable and modest of them, dealing with subjects so debatable, to issue their views without a hint of uncertainty; thus it must be and it shall be; contra gentes they will have it so. They will tell you on oath the sun is a molten mass, the moon inhabited, and the stars water-drinkers, moisture being drawn up by the sun’s rope and bucket and equitably distributed among them.”

    Although this does not qualify as an ancient text, Frances Wright comments at length on this issue in A Few Days In Athens Chapter 9:

    There are other examples that discuss this issue, especially in regard to Polyoenus. If you know of others that should be added here, please post.

  • Cassius

    Changed the title of the thread from “References to Epicurus' Attitude Toward The Claims Of "Science"” to “References to Epicurus' Attitude Toward The "Place of the Sciences And Liberal Arts"”.
  • I'm glad you started this, Cassius . This has been a hang-up for me with regards to Epicurus' teachings.

    On the one hand, one would think Epicurus would want to get the most accurate view of the universe - το παν - available through the senses with regard to the "sciences."

    On the other, I get the impression from some readings that once you get a "good enough" explanation of, say, meteorological phenomena (ex., DRN VI:96-160, different possible causes of thunder), you accept one and move on. That part makes it sound like Epicurus or Lucretius were not advocates of any kind of deep "research" for lack of a better word right now.

    I find it hard to reconcile these two so I'm looking forward to more in this thread.

  • Thanks Eugenios. I think this is really the topic of Philodemus' "On Methods of Interfence" and does not in any way contradict your statement "one would think Epicurus would want to get the most accurate view of the universe." I completely agree with you.

    The issue as I see it is sort of a preliminary rule of evidence, like a judge ruling on what comes into court. As you probably know there are elaborate rules of evidence about things such as hearsay that have evolved over time so that certain kinds of out-of-court statements are allowed in fully, or allowed in for limited purposes, or are kept out entirely.

    And there is also a court parallel in regard to expert testimony as a whole, with very elaborate rules about when and how experts are allowed to testify, so that the expert does not do things such as "invade the province of a jury."

    Another consideration that these rules of court apply to is to prevent "speculation" by the jury, in order to ensure that all decisions of a jury are based on evidence, and not left to simple speculation without evidence on which to ground it.

    As I see it, it will never be possible to develop exact rules of "what comes in" and "what doesn't come in" and so in court, judges have to examine the facts of each case and take testimony and hear both sides and then evaluate whether to let the jury hear the testimony at all, which serves as a sort of "gatekeeper" function.

    That's where I think Epicurus was going. He was saying that we all need "rules of evidence" so as to decide what kind of evidence is open to any kind of consideration at all, and what kinds of "evidence" should be thrown out of court and not even considered. Issues of claims of divine revelation would probably fit the type to throw out entirely - unless there is some other proof of the communication being claimed, someone saying "God told me to" is not even going to be listened to as evidence, other than perhaps evidence of insanity.

    It will take a long thread and discussion to go through all of the examples, but as I understand part of the crux of the problem was that unlike our mathematicians and geometers of today, those "scientists" of that period were using math and "science" to argue that the supposed "order" they were finding was proof that the world was governed by divine commandment. They were arguing that the alleged hugeness of the stars was evidence of their divinity, and that the earth's place in the center of the universe was proof that it was specially ordained by god.

    As such, Epicurus might not have been concerned with their calculations as such, but he was concerned with OVERREACH of their calculations to support theories that were not in fact supported by their contentions. I think that excerpt from Lucian maybe illustrates this as much as anything other.

    I realize so far that we've barely introduced the topic, much less made any headway in discussing it, but it's my understanding that this probably lies behind the ejection of "reason" from the canon, and many other attitudes by Epicurus. Again, the best text I have found so far to discuss this is "On Methods of Inference" and the DeLacy commentary at the end of this edition.

  • In regard to expert testimony in court, here is a summary as to the current state of federal law, applying the well known "Daubert" case and criteria:…nce-and-expert-witnesses/

    These are all "threshold" issues on which the judge has to pass before the expert is even allowed to testify at all to the jury, and I think there is a strong analogy here that applies to Epicurus' view of what kind of evidence should be considered. Then as a second step there are going to be issues about what happens if the evidence does meet this criteria, but seems to conflict with other evidence (presumably evidence of the senses), and how we then choose to weigh and balance which to believe. Because of course "admissible" does not mean that the jury has to believe and follow the testimony of the expert.

    Rule 702 – Testimony By Expert Witnesses

    Rule 702 is arguably the crux of Article VII, as it guides the court’s analysis in determining the admissibility of expert testimony. It states that an expert’s opinion is admissible if:

    1. the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue
    2. the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data
    3. the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods
    4. the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case

    The overarching aim of Rule 702 is to establish the relevance and reliability of the expert’s opinion. Rule 702 was amended in response to the seminal Supreme Court decision, Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993), which outlines a non-exhaustive list of factors for the courts to consider when determining the expert testimony admissibility.