Threads of Epicureanism in Art and Literature

  • Ok Will do. I did already set up a separate thread on John Tyndall.

    EDIT: Rather than move to a new thread I just deleted most of my comments, which were the ones that were really over the line. It's highly unlikely we need to discuss the War Between The States here any further than we already have, or might in the future, other than as Frances Wright's pre-war comments might be of interest. Too little to be gained and too much danger to go into that unless we find some figure who specifically discusses Epicurus.

    As for Caldwell let's just focus on Caldwell's philosophical views and if we find enough there to talk about we can create a separate thread just on him.

    The point of this thread is to "identify Epicurean figures of the past," and that's another limitation as to Caldwell -- if he was just commenting briefly he probably merits more the "general discussion" group anyway.

  • This strikes me as hugely important—is there something about the Epicurean conception of justice (as not morally absolute) that appeals to the slaveholder, but repulses the abolitionist?

    I think that comment deserves a reply, just not the one I gave it before I moderated myself :)

    I think that regardless of the specifics of the context in which Caldwell was involved, the American Civil War, it is widely true is that the Epicurean concept of justice is always going to appeal to the minority, to the dissenter, to the rebel --- to basically everyone who finds himself or herself in a minority position.

    If we happen to find ourselves part of the majority and the establishment, then we like to think that such is the natural order of things, and we tend toward Platonism or Stoicism.

    People who find themselves "on the outs" from society are always going to be searching for answers to questions about whether the views of the majority are "right" and "just" for some cosmic reason, or simply because the majority is numerically stronger.

    Every time we get tempted to let our emotions pull us in the direction of thinking that one moral position or another is so compelling that it "ought" to be universally received, we've got to remember - I think - that the nature of the cosmos in the Epicurean worldview is that such absolute standards of authority don't exist. We can and we should act as vigorously as possible to see that we surround ourselves with things and relationships that please us, and we separate ourselves from things and relationships that cause us pain, so we get involved where it is reasonable to do so and we fight to defend what we think is just. But we shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that there is any absolute universal law or absolute justice that is behind our decision. Presumably across the species pain and pleasure does spring from a common background and we can expect that we aren't the only ones who measure pain and pleasure as we do, but I think it's fair to say that human experience is very wide on that score, and we have to expect that there are lots of people who disagree with us in most facets of life.

    I think the bottom line is that no matter how much we may want there to be some cosmic force that writes our conception of justice and enforces it, Epicurus would say that such a cosmic force doesn't exist. That's true in the case of your question for both the slaveholders who thought god was on their side and the abolitionists who thought god was on their side. But we could also pick any other age and context and dispute, no matter how hotly contested, and analyze it in the same way.

    I think something like that is the ultimate philosophic lesson. Whether we are part of the "in crowd" or the "out crowd" is not the determining factor - there's no fate and no human necessity. But that circumstance likely influences who it is who finds themselves motivated to study Epicurus and other views that justify "outsiders" and non-conformists, and who it is who stays closer to home and to "establishment" views like for example the Stoics.

  • The Epicurean view of justice is still something I wrestle with (and I mean to get back to our previous thread... at some point in the future). Probably because we are inculcated from culture, tradition, etc., that there IS some over-arching, absolute authority from which our "rights" come - whether that be from a conservative/right view or a liberal/left view. Even the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights - lofty as it is - one has to ask by what authority these rights are imposed, protected, and enforced. Grappling with Epicurus's contractual nature of justice is not easy. Intellectually, it makes sense. Accepting it... that's another kettle of fish.

  • Grappling with Epicurus's contractual nature of justice is not easy. Intellectually, it makes sense.

    And I am not even sure that "contractual nature of justice" really conveys his views accurately either. I can see how it can be interpreted that way, and he does talk about agreement being involved. But when a particular agreement can at one moment be just but another moment become unjust (due to a change in circumstances) then it isn't just a simple question of "Did you make the agreement?" And "Did you break it?" (which I think is the way we tend to think of contract law.)

    Justice is definitely one of the more difficult doctrines for us to understand, but I agree with Don that the problem is that our cultural attachment to contract and the idea of absolute right and wrong is so great today. Quite possibly if we looked at this from the perspective of a "family," (or at least friends) where we don't view agreements so formally and we release people from agreements easily, we might find it easier to understand Epicurus.

    Because remembering PD39 he is saying that we try to make people into one family (or friends? Depending on the Greek) and for those who can't be made that successfully we to an extent separate from them. Maybe this is another situation like gods where he is stating that the common definition of the word needs to be understood differently.

    So maybe we ought to be thinking about PD39 when we discuss the justice doctrines.

  • Because remembering PD39 he is saying that we try to make people into one family (or friends? Depending on the Greek)

    It doesn't appear PD39 is even that clear cut. Several translators have taken the "things" approach and talk more about circumstances:

    “The man who has made the best arrangements for the confdence about external

    threats is he who has made the manageable things akin to himself, and has at least

    made the unmanageable things not alien to himself. But he avoided all contact with

    things for which not even this could be managed and he drove out of his life everything

    which it profted him to drive out.” Inwood & Gerson (1994)

    “The person who has put together the best means for confdence about external

    threats is one who has become familiar with what is possible and at least not unfamiliar

    with what is not possible, but who has not mixed with things where even this could not

    be managed and who has driven away anything that is not advantageous.” Saint-Andre


    “The person who is the most successful in controlling the disturbing elements that

    come from the outside world has assimilated to himself what he could, and what he

    could not assimilate he has at least not alienated. Where he could not do even this, he

    has dissociated himself or eliminated all that it was expedient to treat in this way.”

    Strodach (2012)

    Thanks again to Nathan for his list!!

  • Very interesting - I was not aware of those takes. This is probably going to be one of those situations then where I think it is best to read everything together as if the doctrine numbers did not exist. A "things" approach would make sense too but I am going to bet that the closing paragraphs of the document were probably directed at relationships to other "people" for lots of reasons.

  • HA -- I want to say this for the record. Lately I am getting worried about saying "I was not aware." I am mostly joking and I don't think there is really anything wrong with my memory but with the forum software available I am getting to think I need to do a search here every time I get ready to write "I am not aware" or anything like that, because I bet in a good number of cases i I did the search I would find myself talking about the very subject a few years ago! ;) I am sure no one else has that problem but we're going to need to be tolerant of each other on that score.

  • It happens at any age but more often the older we get. Upon discussing a specific topic with a fellow student in 1989, we noticed only at the end of the discussion that we already had a similar discussion a year before.

  • Charles Lamb; Motes in the Sunbeams; 1775-1834; a poem referencing a well-known passage in Lucretius.

    I am doggedly pursuing a poem that I remember from college but cannot find; during the chase I stumbled on this, which is mildly interesting:

    There's a long-standing tradition in British literature on the comparison of value between 'use' and 'beauty'. This seems to me a very muddled take on the matter.

    Now, back into the salt mine!

  • Maybe! The problem is I remember so little--only the rough outline of a passing vignette...

    I think;

    -That it was a poem (rough start, I know!)

    -The poem was written by a British man.

    -And was written in the Victorian period or earlier.

    -The speaker of the poem is intoxicated, possibly by opium or laudanum, or maybe by absinthe or wine. In any case, there's delirium.

    -The speaker meets an 'exotic' man, and tries to speak to him.

    -When English fails, the speaker switches to ancient Greek, possibly by recitating a few lines from Homer.

    That's all I've got! I thought it was Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859), who wrote Confessions of an English Opium Eater, but he was an essayist. His Greek, however, was very good.


    [I] was very early distinguished for my classical attainments, especially for my knowledge of Greek. At thirteen, I wrote Greek with ease; and at fifteen my command of that language was so great, that I not only composed Greek verses in lyric metres, but could converse in Greek fluently, and without embarrassment-- an accomplishment which I have not since met with in any scholar of my times, and which, in my case, was owing to the practice of daily reading off the newspapers into the best Greek I could furnish extempore: for the necessity of ransacking my memory and invention, for all sorts and combinations of periphrastic expressions, as equivalents for modern ideas, images, relations of thing, &c. gave me a compass of diction which would never have been called out by a dull translation of moral essays, &c. "That boy," said one of my masters*, pointing the attention of a stranger to me, "that boy could harangue an Athenian mob, better than you or I could address an English one."

  • Robert Botine Cunninghame Graham; Mogreb-el-Acksa: A Journey in Morocco; 1898; a travelogue describing the conditions that gave rise to the Greek->Arabic loan-word bikouros, a pernicious title given to lazy Christian missionaries by reference to the name of Epicurus.

  • (RE-POST): I wanted to include a few classical references (or direct theft) of Epicurus. We'll start with Virgil's ode:

    "He sung the secret seeds of Nature's frame –

    How seas, and earth, and air, and active flame

    Fell through the mighty void, and in their fall

    Were blindly gathered in this goodly ball.

    The tender soil then stiffening by degrees

    Shut from the bounding Earth the bounding seas.

    Then earth and ocean various forms disclose,

    And a new sun to a new world arose.

    And mists condensed to cloud obscure the sky:

    And clouds dissolved the thirsty ground supply.

    The rising trees the lofty mountains grace,

    The lofty mountains feed the savage race,

    Yet few, and strangers in the unpeople place.

    From hence the birth of man the song pursued,

    And how the world was lost and how renewed." (Virgil, Eclogues, vi.31)

    Following this (much, much later), Edmond Halley wrote an ode to Newton in the forward of Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Matematica (1687). While it is not necessarily Epicurean, the historical link is interesting:

    "...Then ye who now on heavenly nectar fare,

    Come celebrate with me in song the name

    Of Newton, to the Muses dear; for he

    Unlocked the hidden treasuries of Truth:

    So richly through his mind had Phoebus cast

    The radiance of his own divinity.

    Nearer the gods no mortal may approach." (Edmund Halley, Ode To Isaac Newton)

    And I may as mention Horace, since Virgil made the list:

    "Treat every day that dawns for you as the last.

    The unhoped-for hours' ever welcome when it comes.

    When you want to smile then visit me: sleek, and fat

    I'm a hog, well cared-for, one of Epicurus' herd." (Horace, The Epistles 1.4.13-16)

    Next, Edmund Spenser steals Lucretius' invocation to Venus from the beginning of Book I, and then, later, in the same poem, makes an allusion to DRN V:747.

    "Great Venus, Queene of beautie and of grace,

    The ioy of the Gods and men, that vnder skie

    Doest fayrest shrine, and most adorne thy place,

    That with they smyling looke doest pacifie

    The raging seas, and makst the stormes to flie;

    Thee goddesse, thee the winds, the clouds doe feare,

    And when though spreadst thy mantle forth on hie,

    The waters play and pleasant lands appeare,

    And heauens laugh, & al the world shrews ioyous cheare." (Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene 4.10.44)

    "Lastly, came Winter cloathed in all frize,

    Chattering his teeth for cold that did him chill." (Spenser, The Faerie Queene

    The following is Lord Byron's rendering of DRN I-33-41:

    "In all thy perfect goddess-ship, when lies

    Before thee thy own vanquished Lord of War?

    And gazing in thy face as toward a star,

    Laid on thy lap, his eyes to thee upturn,

    Feeding on thy sweet cheek! while thy lips are

    With lava kisses melting while they burn,

    Showered on his eyelids, brow, and mouth, as from an urn!" (Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage 4.51)

    I am now convinced that Shakespeare was quite familiar with ancient Greek philosophy:

    "LEAR: Why, no, boy: nothing can be made out of nothing." (King Lear 1:4.106)

    "MERCUTIO: She is the faeries' midwife, and she comes

    In shape no bigger than agate-stone

    On the forefinger of an alderman,

    Drawn with a team of little atomi

    Over men's noses as they lie asleep." (Romeo and Juliet 1.4.52-56)

    "CELIA: It is as easy to count atomies as to resolve the

    propositions of a lover. But take a taste of my

    finding him, and relish it with good observance. I

    found him under a tree like a dropped acorn." (As You Like It 3.2.1332-1335)

    "OTHELLO: to the Pontick Sea,

    Whose icy current and compulsive course

    Ne'er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on

    To the Propontick at Hellesport." Othello 3.3.453-456; allusion to DRN V:506-508)

    There are a number of contemporary thinkers who have translated parts of DRN into English prose. For example, the French metaphysician Gilles Deleuze translates lines 633-634 from De Rerum Natura:

    "...out of connections, densities, shocks, encounters, occurrences, and motions." (Deleuze [1990a] 267)

    In The Advancement of Education the English philosopher Francis Bacon translated DRN II:1-10:

    "In is a view of delight ... to stand of walke vpon the shoare side, and to see a shippe tossed with tempest vpon the sea; or to bee in a fortified Tower, and to see two Battailes ioyie vppon a plaine. But is a pleasure incomparable for the minde of man to be setled, landed, and fortified in the certaintie of truth; and from thence to descrie and behould the errours, perterbations, labours, and wanderings up and downe of other men." (1605)

    Of special note, French philosophy Denis Diderot invoked a line from De Rerum Natura as his personal motto. He paraphrases DRN IV:338 as an emblematic, rallying cry for the entire Enlightenment period:

    "Now we see out of the dark what is in the light." (Philosophical Thoughts 1746)

    While they do not provide direct translation, we have notable reflections on Lucretian evolution from Erasmus Darwin (the less-famous grandfather of Charles) in The Temple of Nature, or the Origin of Society (1803) as well as David Hume in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), regarding the poetry of DRN V:772-878.

    Even one of my personal heroes, Carl Sagan makes commentary on DRN II:1090-1092.

    "As Lucertius summarize [the Ionian philosophers'] views, 'Nature free at once and rid of her haughty lords is seen to do all things spontaneously of herself without the meddling of the gods." (Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World)

    The English poet George Sandys offers a translation of DRN II:14-19.

    "O wretched minds of men! Depriued of light!

    Through what great dangers, o[n] hou dark a night,

    Force you your weary lives! and cannot see

    How Nature onely craues a body free

    From hated paine; a chearefulle Mind possest

    Of safe delights, by care not feare opprest." (1632)

    Of the beginning Book III, Frederick II is posthumously recorded as having said that "There are no better remedies for maladies of the mind." We then note that Lord Tennyson translated DRN III:18-24.

    "...The Gods, who haunt

    The lucid interspace of world and world,

    Where never creeps a cloud, or moves a wind,

    Nor ever falls the least white star of snow,

    Nor ever lowest roll of thunder moans,

    Nor sound of human sorrow mounts to mar

    Their sacred, everlasting calm!" (Lord Tennyson, Lucretius 104-110)

    England's first Poet Laureate, John Dryden provides a brief reflection of DRN III:831.

    "What has this Bugbear death to frighten Man,

    If Souls can die, as well as Bodies can?"

    The poet Thomas Grey seems to appropriate the tone and imagery of DRN III:895-897.

    "For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,

    Or busy housewife ply her evening care:

    No children run to lisp their sire's return,

    Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share." (Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard 21-24)

    The poet Percy Shelley provides a beautiful rendition of DRN IV:415-420.

    "We paused beside the pools that lie

    Under the forest bough,

    Each seemed as 'twere a little sky

    Gulfed in a world below;

    A firmament of purple light

    Which in the dark earth lay." (Shelley, To Jane: The Recollections 53-58)

    William Wordsworth provides us with a version of DRN V:222-227.

    "Like a shipwrecked Sailor tost

    By rough waves on a perilous coast

    Lies the babe, in helplessness

    And in tenderest nakedness

    Flung by laboring Nature forth

    Upon the mercies of the earth

    Can its eye beseech? No more

    Than the hands are free to implore:

    Voice but serves for one brief cry;

    Plaint was it? or prophesy

    Of sorrow that will surely come?

    Omen of man's grievous doom!" (William Wordsworth, To-Upon the Birthday of Her First-Born Child 1-12)

    In Book VII of Paradise Lost, John Milton elaborates on Lucretian evolution from DRN V:772-878. I recommend reading further in Book VII because Milton (to my surprise) appropriates a significant amount of Lucretian imagery.

    "Then Herbs of every leaf, that sudden flour'd

    Op'ning thir various colours, and made gay

    Her bosom smelling sweet..." (Paradise Lost, Book VII)

    Diogenes of Oinoanda borrows heavily, directly from Lucretius. While he does not write in verse, the fact that he cites lines from DRN justify to me that he should be included in this list.I will just list the connections:

    - Diogenes' fr. 47.III.10-IV.2 corresponds with Lucretius' DRN III:953-955

    - Diogenes' NF 126-127.VI-IX, fr. 20 corresponds with DRN V:156-173

    - Diogenes' fr. 12.II.11-V.14 corresponds with DRN V around line 1040.

    This is what I have compiled in terms of Lucretian references in my most recent read-through.

    There was one other discovery I wanted to share (somewhat off-topic, but just humor me...). In Book VI, Lucretius alludes to the largest seismic event in Antiquity (besides the earlier eruption of Mt. Etna and the later eruption of Mt. Vesuvius). This event occurred on the North side of the Peloponnesian peninsula, almost directly West of Athens. Presumably, a number of Athenians would have experienced this event ... Athenians like Plato. This occured in c. 373 BCE, and lead to the complete destruction of the ancient city of Helike as well as all of its inhabitants. So what exactly happened? From records, ancient authors describe what we might call as a "collapse" of a plate. In this instance, such an event would lead to the complete collapse of land above the event. Uniquely, it would have appeared that an entire mass of land fell straight downward, dozens of feet over the duration of only a few seconds. As I mentioned, we would have expected Athenians (like Plato), who were just East of this event, to have been very aware of it. Exactly 13 years later, Plato published his dialogue Timaeus in which he (and he alone) describes the fabled allegory of Atlantis, which collapses into the sea.

    Coincidence? I propose that the destruction of the fictional city of Atlantis was inspired by the collapse of Helike.