Posts by JJElbert

    Stott (a painter who until now was completely obscure to me) has another work of interest. His "Venus Born of the Sea Foam" begs comparison to "The Birth of Venus" by Sandro Botticelli. In Botticelli's scene the erotic energy of Venus is tempered by Classical order; the demurring and discrete goddess doted upon by the personifications of nature on the shore of a calm sea.

    In Stott's vision, Venus emerges from restless, turbulent waters with a naked, wild and celtic air. As described by Lucretius, a "bird of the air" is first to proclaim her. Almost the only nod to Classical order in this painting is the empty shell of a chambered nautilus covering her breast in reflection, and lying nearly out of scene.

    Two more excellent finds, Charles. I thought the dialogue was new to me, but I found that the first portion was familiar. I don't know where I might have encountered it.

    Having now read the whole of it, I found it a trifle frivolous; but there are passages in it of a higher calibre.


    By indifference to all who are indifferent to us; by taking joyfully the benefit that comes spontaneously; by wishing no more intensely for what is a hair’s-breadth beyond our reach than for a draught of water from the Ganges; and by fearing nothing in another life.


    There is no easy path leading out of life, and few are the easy ones that lie within it. I would adorn and smoothen the declivity, and make my residence as commodious as its situation and dimensions may allow; but principally I would cast under-foot the empty fear of death.

    Excellent topic, Nate! He is of course using "cult" as a Classicist here, free of its modern sinister connotations.

    To my mind there are two questions here. Could the Epicurean system of thought have developed independent of Epicurus? I should think the answer to that—at least in broad strokes—would be, "Of course!" Already in Greece, prior to Epicurus, there was atomism (Democritus), indeterminism (Aristotle), hedonism (Aristippus), and cosmic pluralism (Anaximander). There's no "secret sauce"; most of what Epicurus taught is self-evident, or else arrived at through very simple argumentation. He was merely, as DeWitt writes elsewhere, "the first to survey the whole field"; and to synthesize from it a universal world-philosophy.

    And, is there any value for the student of a system in giving honor to the founder? Again I should answer "yes"; indeed that is Epicurus' own position, given in the Vatican Sayings;

    "Honoring a sage is itself a great good to the one who honors." VS 32

    But I think that position is another we could have arrived at without him. There is pleasure in the honest emotion of gratitude, if nothing else; and there is fellowship in belonging to a "school". With the Epicureans in particular, we are told that they called him Soter (saviour), carved him in statuary, and bore his likeness on signet rings. If Lucretius and Diogenes had not felt this kind of devotion, the fragments surviving from the Epicurean tradition would be paltry indeed.

    This begins to look like two interconnected paths to the same summit; analytical thinkers like Polyaenus and Thomas Jefferson would be happy to throw themselves into the work of studying the system. Passionate missionaries like Diogenes of Oenoanda and Frances Wright, into studying the man who wrought it. And in Lucretius, the two streams blend into something like perfection.

    But here's an important point; with a religion like Christianity, devotion is the main thing and good practice is insufficient. In the system devised by Epicurus, practice is the essential key. Devotion is useful primarily for sustaining interest and emotional engagement in the practice.

    Regarding the wellness of Primitive versus Civilized Man, the relevant passage in Lucretius is V:988-1010. He contrasts the two using three specific examples. To summarize:

    1. Primitive humans were on balance more likely to die by predation or festering wounds. Civilized humans are seldom devoured by beasts, but often die in droves at sea or on the battlefield.

    2. Primitive humans suffered from a lack of food. Civilized humans, from overabundance ("penuria" vs "copia"). What the disease is that results from rerum copia is not specified; gout has long been thought of as a 'rich man's disease'.

    3. Primitive humans unwittingly poisoned themselves. Civilized humans kill themselves [and, it is implied, each other] with deliberate skill.

    There's no question that civilized humans today are much healthier than their primitive ancestors. But for a 1st century Roman the arithmetic was quite different. There's an amusing story in Caesar's De Bello Gallico about a Gallic chief who forbade the import of goods, especially wine, from Rome. He didn't want his hardy frontier tribe to succumb to the ills of Roman culture and civilization.

    Desiderius Erasmus; "The Epicurean"; 1545; Dialogue by the famous Dutch Christian Humanist, arguing that Christianity is the only way to a life of real pleasure.

    Robert Burns; "Contented wi' Little and Cantie wi' Mair"; 1795; Poem in Scottish dialect blending Epicurean and Stoic themes.

    Robert Frost; "Lucretius Versus the Lake Poets"; 1947; A poem on the meaning of the word nature, contrasting Lucretius with the British Romantics

    Rome is a crime scene.

    This is the feeling that was building in me by degrees, as I was led from one crumbling monument to another. To the Forum, laid in ruins; to the Colloseum, quarried for stone or stripped of marble to make lime; to the Pantheon, where the bronze ceiling of the portico was pillaged to be melted down for cannon by a warlike imperialist pope. And in the Sistine Chapel, where a guide explained that a fervor over nudity arising from the Council of Trent resulted in a commission for the painter Daniele da Volterra, who in 1565 scraped away the work of Michelangelo and painted loincloths where there had been genitals.

    I have not been to Rome in years; but I thought of da Volterra again today, as I was reading a dialogue by the Dutch Humanist Erasmus called "The Epicurean".


    [...] If they are Epicureans that live pleasantly, none are more truly Epicureans, than those that live holily and religiously. And if we are taken with Names, no Body more deserves the Name of an Epicurean, than that adorable Prince of Christian Philosophers; for Ἐπίκουρος in Greek signifies as much as an Helper. Therefor when the Law of Nature was almost erased by Vice; and the Law of Moses rather incited than than cured Lusts, when the Tyrant Satan ruled without Controul in the World, he alone afforded present Help to perishing Mankind. So that they are mightily mistaken that foolishly represent Christ, as by Nature, to be a rigid melancholick Person, and that he invited us to an unpleasant Life; when he alone show'd the Way to the most comfortable Life in the World [...].

    You can almost hear the paint-scraper as you read. It is Epicurean philosophy neutered of its physics. Gouged of its decisive rejection of religion and fear of death. Excised, and painted over again with an implausible and alien veneer of "Natural Law" and ridiculous, childish fable.

    And yet for all that, Erasmus and the learned men like him were essential to the birth of modernity. He argued against the death penalty for heretics. He subtly questioned many Catholic traditions that had no basis in scripture. He and his fellow Humanists were scholars of the antiquities, and provided a crucial link in the chain of textual preservation and criticism that allowed these books to survive.

    In our ongoing project of fostering an authentic Epicurean tradition, we're going to continue to encounter these scholars. I don't have any feelings about them that aren't mixed; all I can do is remain wary of the paint-scraper.

    I hadn't seen this post when I wrote that, Cassius, so I didn't realize you had already delved into the etymology.

    I wouldn't have recognized the Greek term in the first place if Greenblatt had not discussed it in the Getty lecture, at the 15:00 mark in this video. So that's a good place to start.

    I notice from your post that it was used in that sense in the book of Ecclesiastes. That's earlier than I would have supposed.

    Very good! George Santayana put it this way;


    This double experience of mutation and recurrence, an experience at once sentimental and scientific, soon brought with it a very great thought, perhaps the greatest thought that mankind has ever hit upon, and which was the chief inspiration of Lucretius. It is that all we observe about us, and ourselves also, may be so many passing forms of a permanent substance.

    "The greatest thought mankind has ever hit upon."

    It can be difficult to appreciate from this distance what a revolution in human thought this was.

    DeWitt on page 12 holds up the letter to Menoeceus as (alone of the extant letters) "composed according to the rules of rhythmical prose". Epicurus in this one letter is writing artfully. Perhaps that includes eschewing his customary synoptic introduction?

    Regarding the same letter on page 46-47 he says this;

    "Were it not for the survival of this piece we could not be so sure of his ability to write artfully, but possessing this we are justified in believing that other writings of similar merit existed."

    So there's something about this letter in Greek that sets it apart stylistically, though if course it surpasses my power to say what that is exactly.

    No, I haven't. I was reading about Byron for reasons mentioned in the other thread, and this one turned up. He was Byron's literary executor. Apparently he is regarded as the National Bard of Ireland, so it's somewhat surprising that he's never crossed my radar (possibly his memory is eclipsed by James Joyce).

    I came across something that might interest you, Charles; although it's likely you've already found it yourself.

    In a footnote to the Loeb edition of Lucretius there was mention of an influence upon Byron's Childe Harold, which I went to read. (We read passages from this work in college, but I could remember nothing). Byron adapts Lucretius' description of Mars vanquished by Venus (IV:LI), and then goes on to panegyrize several Italian renaissance figures—Angelo, Alfieri, Galileo, Machiavelli, Dante, and Petrarch. He then praises the "bard of prose...he of the Hundred Tales of Love".

    This turns out to have been a reference to Boccaccio and his Decameron. I knew the title but had never read it. Upon reading the wikipedia article I found reference to your Guido Cavalcanti!

    This is a roundabout way of saying that the ninth story of the Decameron touches on Cavalcanti, and is worth a look.

    Snow in Montana

    What Ms. Hutchinson would think of me now, I do not care to know;

    Seated at my ease, sipping coffee from Colombia,

    Attended by a thousand swirling doting motes of snow

    Outside the truck stop window,

    Caught in the beam of a Ford headlight.

    Oh, unhappy dispensation from honest toil!

    To spend a vain and idle wintry day in

    Wanton dalliance with impious books;

    To speak with Lucretius in pagan oracles of the soft

    Fallen snow—of the atoms at the heart of every flake—

    Of the pinnacles and drifts that build up

    Slowly, accumulating like a Puritan's holy scorn

    On pickups and diesel pumps and the soft

    Blushing cheeks of laughing people.

    Ah, the shame of it! Methinks I ought to

    Hide my face, and glower in the darkness

    Of that Casino in the back.

    Mr. Hogg was lifelong friends with one of the pre-eminent English poets of the Romantic Period, and must have moved in circles that included Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) and Lord Byron. We know for certain that Percy Shelley read Lucretius, and that may be the materialist author Hogg is referring to.

    I think it's clear from the broader context of the passage that he regards materialists, atheists, and Epicureans as ultimately benign, but also selfish, insensible, and out of touch. The last sentence is meant to be read as a summation of legacy; Plato and Aristotle didn't literally feed thousands, but their intellectual legacy was taken up by Christians, Deists, Spinozoans, etc. And the idea is that while adherents of these sects held charity to be a virtue and a duty, the heirs of Epicurus cared only for themselves.


    Their narrow sect cannot possibly flourish; we cannot live upon this world alone.

    But this is the stand-out sentiment for me. What does the second "cannot" mean? Does it mean that it cannot be possible that we live alone? Or that we cannot possibly tolerate the truth of living alone, and that's why we need comforting lies about Providence or Godhead? Hard to say.

    Later in the book he has this (and much else) to say about medical doctors of his time;


    [They are] too frequently epicureans, obtruding and thrusting in men's faces a

    low, offensive, and shallow materialism.

    These excursions are amazingly common in the text. It's as if he wrote a biography about his more-famous friend just so that he could fill up the pages by getting his own ideas into circulation under the name.

    I've had rather enough of Mr. T. J. Hogg, and will be happy to leave this selection here and never revisit his book! What Epicurus taught was never shallow; but it was clear, so that you could see right down to the bottom. Plato by contrast is so muddled and murky you can't see an inch into him. They see this obscurantism, and foolishly call it depth.


    The world is deeply indebted also to epicureans and materialists; it is a great benefit to mankind, that in every generation a small body of innocent, estimable, and apathetical men should be found ready to demonstrate practically, that their narrow sect cannot possibly flourish; that we cannot live upon this world alone.

    Plato and Aristotle have fed thousands, but to whom did Epicurus ever give a morsel of bread?

    I wasn't sure where to put this one, but I found it interesting. This is Thomas Jefferson Hogg, an English barrister, writing in his biography of lifelong friend Percy Bysshe Shelley. He had mentioned Shelley's reading of materialist authors, and then tossed out this gem.

    The really interesting thing is that Shelley and Hogg were both expelled from Oxford for their joint authorship of a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism, a text that argued against special creation while at the same time allowing Spinozoan Pantheism.

    There's a book out by Michael Vicario on Shelley's Intellectual System and its Epicurean Background. I don't have it, but I think I'll try to get a copy.

    [I should just note that Shelley's family were outraged by Hogg's biography, so we should keep that in mind. The above quote appears to be all Hogg.]

    They were all taken with a smartphone, Cassius. All but one—the high mountain lake at Quandary Peak in Colorado—were taken with my current phone, a Samsung Galaxy s9+. I have been thinking about getting something like a go-pro to mount at the passenger-side window for especially scenic drives.

    (The shot of the road with a faint rainbow was taken while I was still in training. No photography while driving!)

    Road trips are great, Godfrey! My main complaint is that I get so close to places I want to see, but not close enough to actually see them. I need about 8 daylight hours to spare in a city before I can justify the Uber!

    I still have three states I've never been to; Rhode Island, Vermont, and Alaska. I'll be meeting my family in Nashville in June. Finally going to go check out that Parthenon. But first I'm looking forward to a lazy 8 days off in Florida come January!