Epicurus' Favorite Insults

  • The list of insults used by Epicurus against his opponents, as listed by Diogenes Laertius, is colorful, but there is also a lot to learn from taking them apart and dissecting them. That's a task that probably can't be handled in one thread, but this is a place to start. If you've seen commentators give explanations for these, please add them to the thread . In each case we ought to explore who the opponent is, why he was an opponent, and the basis in truth for why Epicurus' insult is biting.


    Here's the list:

    1. Nausiphanes: ‘The mollusk,’ ‘The illiterate,’ ‘The cheat,’ ‘The harlot.’
    2. The followers of Plato: ‘Flatterers of Dionysus,’
    3. Plato: ‘The golden man,’
    4. Aristotle: ‘The debauchee,' saying that he devoured his inheritance and then enlisted and sold drugs.
    5. Protagoras: ‘Porter’ or ‘Copier of Democritus,’ saying that he taught in the village schools.
    6. Heraclitus: ‘The Muddler,’
    7. Democritus: Lerocritus (‘judge of nonsense’),
    8. Antidorus: Sannidorus (‘Maniac’),
    9. the Cynics: ‘Enemies of Hellas,’
    10. the Logicians: ‘The destroyers,’
    11. Pyrrho: ‘The uneducated fool.’


    Anyone who can help, please add a post below and we can compile the result either here in this first post of the thread, or in the lexicon, or some other logical place, over time.

  • As to Nausiphanes ‘The mollusk,’ ‘The illiterate,’ ‘The cheat,’ ‘The harlot,' we have the following from DeWitt's EAHP chapter three:


    How long Epicurus sojourned with Nausiphanes it is impossible to say, but the duration of the discipleship was certainly long enough to engender exceptional bitterness of feeling. Cicero records in a malicious moment that being "on the spot," as it were, and unable to deny obligation, Epicurus assailed his teacher with all sorts of insulting epithets. This statement can be documented, thanks to the researches of later Platonistic adversaries, who rummaged the records for damaging items of evidence. From a single list we learn that among the opprobrious epithets were "lung-fish," "dumb animal," "imposter," and "prostitute." These insults call for comment. Of the four words the first two and the second two constitute pairs.


    The word here rendered "lung-fish" has been erroneously translated "mollusc" and "jelly-fish." The Greek is pleumon, "lung," and Pliny describes the creature as having no more sensation than a block of wood, while Sextus Empiricus explains the word as equivalent to "insensate." 30 The word rendered "dumb animal" above is usually translated "illiterate." To so describe Nausiphanes would be absurd. The Greek is agrammatos and when used of animals it signifies "dumb," just as the psalmist speaks of the horse and the mule "which have no understanding." Just what justification Epicurus may have had for so characterizing his teacher can only be surmised. In their opposition to skepticism and acceptance of dogmatism they were agreed. It is conceivable therefore that the bitterness of Epicurus arose from his inability to bring his teacher around to his own views on the topics of free will and determinism and the function of philosophy, which were the chief grounds of his rupture with the teachings of Democritus. At this stage of his career he was litigious and shunned no controversy.


    This is not the whole story, however. The imperturbability of Pyrrho was indifference and a sort of resignation to belief in the impossibility of knowledge. With this sort of resignation it is clear that neither Nausiphanes nor Epicurus had any patience. The distinction of becoming the first dogmatists may perhaps be claimed for them. Nausiphanes admired only the disposition of Pyrrho and rejected his skepticism. He erected a canon of knowledge, which means that he asserted the possibility of knowledge. He called his canon the Tripod, though information is lacking us concerning the three legs of this triad. The astute Epicurus did not take over this name, but he did set up three criteria of knowledge, the Sensations, Anticipations, and Feelings. These he chose to call his Canon. That it was in reality filched from Nausiphanes is expressly stated by a reliable writer.31 If there be truth in this report — and such charges were often made with little justification — the achievement of Epicurus was to bring the idea to universal knowledge; his gifts as a publicist were of a high order.


    There remain the epithets "imposter" and "prostitute." For these it is the most plausible explanation that Epicurus discovered his teacher to be living a double life, preaching virtue, as all philosophers did, and at the same time practicing vice. Cicero informs us that most philosophers condoned the practice of homosexuality, and for once he agreed emphatically with Epicurus in condemning it as against Plato.32 The latter, as is well known, had essayed in his Symposium to sublimate this passion into a passion for knowledge. Epicurus also wrote a Symposium, in which he retorted: "Intercourse never was the cause of any good and it is fortunate if it does no harm." 83 In the case of Nausiphanes there is another item of evidence from the pen of Epicurus: "As for my own opinion, I presume that the high-steppers (Platonists) will think me really a pupil of the 'lung-fish' and that I listened to his lectures in the company of certain lads who were stupid from the night's carousing. For he was both an immoral man and addicted to such practices as made it impossible for him to arrive at wisdom." 34 The practices here referred to have been interpreted as the study of mathematics,35 but the mention of adolescent lads, of drinking, and of immorality make the true reference unmistakable to any reader conversant with the shadier side of student life among the Greeks.


    As for Epicurus himself, even if strict in his views about chastity, there is no doubt that he was an irritating pupil. It will be recalled how he put his early instructor in a corner over the topic of chaos. The following extract reveals no more the irritable teacher than the irritating pupil; the reference is to Nausiphanes: "Well, good riddance to the braggart, for that rotter, when in a temper, would have a torrent of the sophistic bluster at the tip of his tongue, like many another of the servile creatures." 3e It may be mentioned that Epicurus classified all men as slaves who, like the physicists, believed in Necessity, or, like the poets, in Fate, or, like Theophrastus, in Fortune, or, like the people, in divine interference, or like the Platonists, in astral deities, or those who, by pursuing the conventional education, surrendered their freedom for the pursuit of power, fame, or wealth.

  • As to the followers of Plato being 'Flatterers of Dionysus,’ we have this from DeWitt's EAHP chapter fourteen:

    Outside of the popular assembly parresia signified the expression of the speaker's opinion without regard for the feelings of others, and it might mean defiance. Epicurus was exemplifying it when he publicly assailed the Platonists, who in his youth were enjoying a monopoly of favor. He called them "flatterers of Dionysus," and the "deep-voiced." 20 The latter was a term of derision similar to "would-be Hamlets"; it was applied to second-rate actors who pitched their voices absurdly low in the performance of kingly roles. Insofar as they hung around hoping for such parts, they were "flatterers of Dionysus," the god of the theater, comparable to the flatterers of Alexander and his successors. The reference is rendered specific by the derisive language of Metrodorus, who dubbed the young Platonists would-be Lycurguses and Solons.21 There was a temporary revival of law-giving because of Plato's dream of
    a philosopher-king, which opened court posts for graduates of the Academy.

  • As to Plato being "the Golden man" we have this from EAHP chapter five:


    "The Platonists, however, could not boast of innocence themselves, because their own Arcesilaus was on record as hailing the founders of the school as "almost gods or relics of the race of gold." 46 Thus Epicurus, when dubbing Plato "the Golden," was possibly mocking his followers and not merely deriding his division of mankind on the basis of iron, silver, and gold."

  • You know I'm going to post the original Greek for all these at some point, right?

    I would expect nothing less, and I am looking forward to it! When we are insulting people we want to do it as precisely as possible! :)

  • More seriously, I really would like to see what we can develop as to the details on each of these, as I think it's a really helpful way to triangulate on exactly where Epicurus was coming from and what flaws he saw in opposing philosophies. I know for example that by now we're pretty used to seeing Epicurus worked up to oppose Plato, but I think a lot of us are surprised to see the same kind of opposition (or even worse?) to Aristotle. Same goes with Pyrrho, because many people consider Epicurus to be similar to Pyrrho in many respects (and in some respects he probably was). So I think this topic has lots to be gained from pursuing it in addition to helping us make our language more colorful!

  • One source of analysis of this list is David Sedley's "Epicurus and His Professional Rivals" in which Sedley argues that these statements are in the most part not disaparaging at all, but indeed can be seen in some cases as praise!


    This appears to be in contradiction of the position of Bignone, who unfortunately I don't think we have in English.


    My view is that Diogenes Laertius can hardly fail to have realized that the way he was recounting the story implied that he expected the reader to take his statements at face value and correct, and that the "but these are all mad" distinguished Epicurus' treatment to his living acquaintances and not necessarily his "professional rivals."


    One again we have a dispute with not much to go on to decide who is right, so the best and only way to proceed is to look into all sides and judge for ourselves. Whichever side you come down on I think the exercise is useful for highlighting at least the potential areas of dispute.


    [ADMIN EDIT: I have censored Cassius and removed several posts which were simply clipped Sedley sections. I reminded Cassius that the major point of this thread should not be to show how good we are at quoting commentators, but to be sure we understand what possible differences Epicurus had with these people philosophically. Sedley's article contains much good material but the overall impression it leaves is probably "don't worry too much about this because these comments either aren't to be trusted or probably weren't as mean as they sound to us today." That may be true to some extent, but our purpose out to be first to understand what philosophical issues Epicurus took with these people, so let's focus on that aspect.]