Philodemus On Piety

  • Yes I think we are together. I can easily see the Epicureans criticizing attitudes that are excessively or improperly "virtue hating" and "all-harassing" while still agreeing with the criticism of Socrates, since the Epicureans considered Socrates to have been very defective in his teaching and therefore probably worthy of the ridicule he received.

    I'm still not sure we're together. Philodemus is describing the comedy playwrights themselves as hating virtue and harassing everybody. Philodemus's tone "momentarily rises in vehemence" (as Obbink notes). The Epicureans are in no way taking a share in this description. Philodemus is disgusted with the comedy writers (whether in reality or just to make a point isn't clear). In some ways Philodemus is equating the political persecution of philosophers and intellectuals with their derision in comedy.

    Obbink notes the Epicureans didn't escape completely unscathed by the comic playwrights.

    "Epicureans" appear in Hellenistic comedy stereotyped as μάγειροι "the cooks in charge of preparation of private sacrifices" and satirized as pandering to delicacies and fancy tastes.

    Obbink notes that there is no clear evidence or instances of "Epicureans" being satirized for their theological views "but rather their attitude towards sacrifice and religious feasting (in the context of Epicurus's stereotyped doctrine of pleasure)."

    Obbink notes that Philodemus is claiming that "Epicurus *never* fell prey to comic derision," and Philodemus doesn't "retreat" from that position. "Yet he could have safely argued that comic portrayals never led in Epicurus's case to exile/execution, as he, like many others, believed about Socrates."

  • Column 71 has some interesting points:

    “They [i.e., people manipulated by philosophers ro rulers by means of the poets’ false tales about the gods] will suppose that the gods are terrifying tyrants, and most of all because of their own bad consciences they will expect great misfortunes from them. Thus, as far as we are concerned, on account of the belief which they do no have, they would accomplish nothing [i.e., no proper conception of the gods]. But those who believe our oracles about the gods will first wish to imitate their blessedness in so far as mortals can, so that, since it [i.e., the gods’ happiness] was seen [i.e., in the past experience of humans in cultural history] to come from doing no harm to anyone, they [i.e., readers of the present work] will endeavor most of all to make themselves harmless to everyone as far as is within their power; and second to make themselves so noble… [most of a column missing, ~60 words, continues at bottom of next column]... to change sides and, not having learnt to be grateful for past goods and to bear up against natural pains and of death [probably continues as not to fear death]...

    A few points of interest to discuss here. It appears again to show the gods’ existence in an ambiguous light. We are asked by the author to “imitate” the “blessedness” of the gods “in so far as mortals can.” The word used is μιμεισθαι (mimeisthai) which does indeed mean “to mimic, imitate, represent, portray” but also “of the fine arts, to represent, express by means of imitation, of an actor (or painting, music, sculpture).” I might think of it as “Fake it till you make it”.

    The word used for “blessedness” in the original Greek in column 71 is none other than our old friend ευδιμονιαν (eudaimonian)! I would have expected something like μακαριοσ (makarios) as used in KD 1 and elsewhere in Epicurus’s writings, since markios and related words lile markariotes are used in the text of On Piety. For example, in column 24, the author says:

    “Therefore they [the kathegemones] simply and necessarily supposed that he [Epicurus] left unquestioned [or “posited” or “allowed the existence of”] the existence of blessed and eternal beings.”

    The words translated here as “blessed and eternal beings” are ζωια μακαρια και διαιωνια (beings blessed and everlasting).

    The word makarion appears again in a phrase in a fragmented column 43 along with και αφθαρ[τον] (blessed and imperishable). Column 44/45 uses variations on makarios:

    “... and to dispel what is foreign to its nature [i.e., a god’s], and to marshal all its overpowering strength, nor in On Gods does he [Epicurus] say anything conflicting withone’s doing these things. And in On Holiness he calls the life of perfection [or ‘completeness’] the most pleasant and most blessed, and instructs us to guard against all defilements, with our intellect comprehensively viewing the best psychosomatic dispositions, for the sake of fitting al that happens to us to blessedness and especially having it in good order…” [more of column 45, I’ve included in previous posts]

    The “life of perfection the most pleasant and most blessed” translates “τον τελειοτητος βιον ‘ηδιστον και μακαριωτατον” ton teleiotetos bion hediston kai makariotaton. “Teleiotetos” is related to “telos”, something’s goal/completion/etc., so I can understand the ambiguous translation. Hediston is related to hedone “pleasure”! And finally we have makariotaton “most blessed.” The last mention of blessedness right before the end is also makariote--.

    To return to column 71, the echoes of the Principle Doctrines and other familiar precepts of Epicurus are striking at the end:

    - to be grateful for past goods

    - to bear up against natural pains

    - [to have no fear] of death

    - to do no harm

    I also expected something like kalos when column 71 says “to make themselves so noble…”; however, the word is “μεγαλοπρεπεις.” “to make oneself a great man, magnificent.; grand, elegant, or splendid in appearance; full of majesty; majestic.” So there’s a lot more going on there than simply “noble.”

    I plan to go back to investigate that translation of "psychosomatic dispositions" tomorrow.

  • Don -- how do you think Philodemus' apparent irritation at the comedians intersects with Epicurus using comedic insults against other philosophers? And with the multiple instances of pointed humorous snarkiness against multiple folks in Lucretius?

    I wonder if Philodemus just didn't have much of a sense of humor, or if there was something particular about those specific comedians. Humans haven't changed that much-- I'm sure SNL/Colbert Show type humor was just as much fun then as now... and there are always a few humorless types too. "Punching up" humor also has a long history of political use. Court jesters, etc. Often seen as a safer way to let those in power know they are crossing lines that might lead to revolt.

  • That's a good question. One point is that he seems to be equating the political charges and comedic portrayals of philosophers, especially Socrates (as the extreme case) but also others that were exiled or punished. My take is that Philodemus seems to feel that comedy playwrights shouldn't be "slandering" philosophers as if philosophers should be respected and immune from lampoon. It seems that he's also implying that Socrates may have brought this on himself by being so public in his questioning and gadflying of the people. He made enemies. Socrates basically made a nuisance of himself, and Philodemus is saying, "See what it got him?!" It also seems like he's saying that "we know what those comedic playwrights are like! Don't play into their hands." So Philodemus is saying that Epicurus was such an upstanding and civic-minded philosopher that he was not subject to comedic ridicule, and we should emulate his example.
    On the other hand, Epicurus's insults and name-calling were against rival philosophers and not political figures. So maybe Philodemus felt those kinds of activities were acceptable in defending Epicurus's philosophy against rivals. More of an in-house debate instead of a public "airing of grievances."

    As for the comedy, I greatly enjoy Aristophanes. I understand his plays are FULL of contemporary satire directed against "celebrities" of the day, especially Cleon whom Aristophanes despised. I also find it interesting that Socrates himself is supposed to have stood up and taken a bow during performance of The Clouds. Evidently, he enjoyed the notoriety.

  • This bit on the comic playwrights is interesting. One thing that Epicurus certainly had going for him in this respect was that he had Menander in his corner, as a boyhood friend who was sympathetic to the philosophy.

    Another thing to consider is this; the comic playwrights were having a go at the "sacred cows" of Athenian high culture. Epicurus doesn't really fit into that category.

  • I plan to go back to investigate that translation of "psychosomatic dispositions" tomorrow.

    As I promised myself, I found that "psychosomatic dispositions" in Column 44 translates the word διαθέσεις (diatheseis).…D33%3Aentry%3Ddia%2Fqesis

    So, yes, it does just mean someone's bodily or mental "disposition" so there's no word that's being translated "psychsomatic". Obbink just included that as a modifier to clarify the translation of διαθέσεις.

    Interestingly, it does include the sense of arranging things in order. So, column 44 encourages us to guard against all "defilements" (μιαρον miaron…%3D66%3Aentry%3Dmiaro%2Fs ) and to use our intellect to "comprehensively" view the best disposition to "fit all that happens to us to blessedness (makariotē-)"

  • To get a little better insight into Obbink's translation, I looked in my copy of Tsouna's The Ethics of Philodemus to see where it might be quoted. Surprisingly, I found something helpful both in itself and in making me dive back into specific servings of On Piety one being col 25.

    First, Obbink references two other works in regards to column 25: P. Oxy. II 215 col 1,4-24.…yrhynchus_215?wprov=sfla1

    [The first part talks about those people who sacrifice only because they fear the gods. The author thinks "in this there is still no firm basis for piety." Then continues.] But you, sir, consider it a thing of the greatest blessedness to discern properly that which we can conceive as the one best thing among existing things. Marvel at this notion and revere it in freedom from fear."…grenuoft/page/30/mode/2up

    That sounds and awful lot like Sedley's idealist view of the Epicurean gods. Whether they exist or not seems to miss the point. "Marvel at the notion" this papyrus says.

    There's also Philodemus's own De mus. col. 4,6 (fr. 386 Usener) Philodemus, On Music, Vol. Herc. 1, I c.4,6: (Obbink) "Let it suffice to say now that the divine needs no mark of honour, but that it is natural to honour it, in particular by forming pious notions of it, and secondly by offering with each individual usage (to each of the gods in turn) theit traditional sacrifices."

    Attalus's site gives this translation:

    "Now, these very important things may still be said at the present: that the divine does not need any honor; for us, nevertheless, it’s natural to honor it, above all, with pious convictions, even through the rites of national tradition, each according to his proper part."

    I see the "notion" has turned to "conviction" in the second but I can see similarities in those two words. Again, this still seems to echo Sedley's idealist argument to me. The word used in P. Oxy. 215 is διαληψις. This is also used in On Piety in Column 10 and translated as "understanding" specifically as "an understanding according to similarity" when talking about the nature of the gods. I'm okay with any of those translations in context. And that similarity, in some cases, is the formation of the idea of the gods through similar "images" or eidola perceived by the mind.

    But to return to Tsouna (finally), she references col 38 of On Piety and says in a note, after admitting that Philodemus's argument can be difficult to understand given the condition of the papyrus and textual difficulties, she notes the main thrust of his argument appears to be:

    Epicurus and the founders DO assert that the gods do have harmful or beneficial influences on us; BUT genuine piety not fear is what makes people just (NOT as the theologians who tell scary stories about the gods contend). Also, the gods do not actually "do" or "give" goods and evils to men, nonetheless, they are responsible (αίτιοι) "in a way" and only partially, not wholly. Col. 38 says " Those who keep their oaths and are just are moved by the most virtuous influences both from their own selves and from those (gods)."

    Tsouna also summarizes Obbink in that he outlines interpretations: the gods are responsible for harms/benefits by being implemented in various physical processes of causation; or that our *ideas* of the gods function as direct causes of harm/benefit for people.

    So, again, to me, it seems to come back to the physical existence of the gods doesn't really matter. It is our notion or understanding or conviction of the gods' blessedness etc. that can cause us benefits and an incorrect view of piety that can cause fear and harm.

    Still digging in but I felt this was important to get down.

  • The following are excerpts and notes from columns 27-36 of Obbink's Philodemus On Piety which outline the participation of Epicurus himself and the early Epicureans in religious festivals and other rites and practices. Obbink also shared more detailed notes in his book, so I may try and share some of those pages in later posts. For now, the material below has proved quite interesting...

    Quoted in col. 27, On Piety: Epicurus, On Gods (Περί θεών): as being both the greatest thing and that which excels in sovereignty possesses everything; for every wise man holds pure and holy beliefs (καθαράς και 'αγιους δόξας) about the divine (του θείου) and had understood that this nature [or 'this entity'] is great and august (και μεγάλην τε και σεμνην). And it is particularly at festivals (εορτή) that he, progressing to an understanding of it [ i.e. divine nature], through having its name the whole time on his lips, embraces it with conviction more seriously..."


    σεμνός (< σεμνην)…999.04.0057:entry=semno/s

    revered, august, holy

    Col. 28/9: Epicurus wrote to Phyrson during the archonship of Aristonymus (289/8 BCE) about Physon's countryman from Colophon, Theodotus, Epicurus says that he (Epicurus) shared in all the festivals... Epicurus celebrated the festival of the Choes and the urban mysteries and the other festivals at a meagre dinner, and that it was necessary for him (prob. Theodotus) to celebrate this feast of the Twentieth for distinguished revelers, while those in the house decorated it most piously ('ολως) and after making invitations to host a feast for all of them.


    For festivals, see

    The Choes were part of this festival dedicated to Dionysus

    The "urban mysteries" refer to the Attic Dionysia, either the Lenaea (in the month of Gamelion, Epicurus's birth month) or Lesser Mysteries during 20-6 Anthesteria, both in honor of Dionysus.

    I find it interesting that the festivals mentioned were dedicated to Dionysus. It could just be coincidence that those are mentioned; or Athens had a lot of Dionysian festivals; or Epicurus had an affinity for Dionysian festivals or the god. No way to tell from what I've read so far.

    Col. 29: Epicurus advised them to retain asservations made by means of these and similar expressions, and above all to preserve those made by Zeus himself (maintain the practice of swearing by Zeus by name νή Δία!)... Not merely "it must be so!"


    So, Epicureans, feel free to pepper your writing and conversation with νή Δία! "By Zeus!" ;)

    Col. 30: during the archonship of Charinus (291/0 BCE) and that of Diotimus (285/4 BCE), Epicurus wrote letters warning against violating the covenant of the sacred festival table.


    Much of these lines is reconstructed. Extant:

    δε Χάρι...


    την κα[θ' ιεράς τρα-

    πεζης [συνθήκην μη

    παραβαί[νειν· καί

    Col.31: Epicurus, in a letter to Polyaenus, writes: "(It is necessary for us) to conceive of their nature as accurately constituting the notion of benefit according to the epistemological standard (kriterion). Let us sacrifice to that gods devoutly and fittingly on that proper days, and let us fittingly perform all the acts of worship in accordance with the laws, in no way disturbing ourselves with opinions on matters concerning the most excellent and august of beings. Moreover, let us sacrifice justly, on the view that I was giving. For in this way it is possible for mortal nature, by Zeus, to live like Zeus, as it seems. And concerning obeisance (προσκυνήσεις) in [Epicurus's] On Lifecourses [Περί βίων]"


    - devoutly and fittingly 'οσιως και καλως

    - "in accordance with the laws (νόμους)" can also be translated as in accordance to custom"…9.04.0057:entry=no%2Fmos2

    - obeisance (προσκυνήσεις) refers to "the custom of kneeling, prostration, or throwing kisses before statues of them gods or as marks of honor to important humans." Obbink recounts in the notes the story of Colotes embracing Epicurus's knees during a teaching session when Colotes was overcome with reverence toward his teacher.

    Col. 32: Philodemus writes "statues of the gods Epicurus says that he reveres... ... he says that he employs observance in every natural conception of god taking up [one word missing] divinely [one word] to speak auspiciously."


    - reveres = σέβομαι "to feel awe or fear before God, especially when about to do something disgraceful; to feel shame, religious awe"

    - observance

    - "natural conception of god" (της του δαιμονος επινοιας) Note we're using daimonos instead of theos here. Not sure why.

    Col.33: Epicurus in a letter to Herodotus: "Even if there should be war, it would not be terrible, if the gods are propitious.

    In a letter to Polyaenus: [Epicurus says he] has "lived and would continue to live a pure life with Matro himself, if the gods are propitious (same word as above)

    Epicurus's brother and advanced student, Neocles, is quoted as saying: "it's is necessary to distribute piously assistance from our money for the gods" in writing to Phyrson (Phyrson decould be "a man second to none in political affairs.").


    propitious (ἵλεων < ἵλαος propitious, gracious, merciful; kind, mild, gentle)

    Matro: "i.e., Epicurus said that, if the gods were propitious, he would continue to live a pure life, Matro and all" Obbink has an extensive note on Matro. He was a παιδαγωγός paidagogos a slave-chaperone for students.

    Neocles is literally said to have "achieved miraculous or marvelous (δαιμόνιον) advancement in his (Epicurus's) teachings") δαιμόνιον is the divine power, Deity, or in-dwelling spirit that also gives us the word eudaimonia and kakodaimonia. See also above in Column 32.

    Columns 34 and 35 are very fragmentary, and I've commented on col. 36 previously.

  • Lots of good stuff there. In addition to the main point on divinity, there are peripheral points of interest such as:

    • Metrodorus having a child, which bears on the marriage / children issues.
    • The advice to be obedient to parents, which might be relevant to issues of reverence / respect for teachers.
    • The reference to slaves, which bears on attitudes towards individual slaves as well as slavery itself (probably one of the best examples for remembering how morality is relative to circumstances)
    • I gather at least part of one letter is directed to a young person (?) which would bear on how Epicurean philosophy is something to teach young people and not just for adults.
  • - "natural conception of god" (της του δαιμονος επινοιας) Note we're using daimonos instead of theos here. Not sure why.

    Don, do we have any other instances of rhetorical symmetry between daimonos and theos?

  • - "natural conception of god" (της του δαιμονος επινοιας) Note we're using daimonos instead of theos here. Not sure why.

    Don, do we have any other instances of rhetorical symmetry between daimonos and theos?

    Excellent question. I'm not *aware* of any but that doesn't mean there isn't, of course. I often wonder if eudaimonia connotes a connection and what the ancient Greeks understood by using that term.

  • I just remembered that that was one of the charges against Socrates: that he was creating new gods when he talked about listening to his daimon.

    Maybe that's one of the reasons why Epicurus and the Epicureans worked within the existing symbols and why Lucretius could say it's okay to say Bacchus and Mother Earth as long as we remember they're metaphors and that we're actually talking about wine and ability of the earth to bring forth life.

  • I'm getting more comfortable getting away from the "specially-privileged extra-terrestrials" idea of "the gods" and beginning to see how "god" works as "each person's individualized concept of the best version of the ideal person".

    I propose that the Epicurean framework recognizes that (a) extra-terrestrials must exist in an infinite universe, (b) some of those extra-terrestrials would be human-like, (c) some of those human-like extra-terrestrials would be awesome, (d) some of those awesome, human-like extra-terrestrials could have already been accurately envisioned by at least one person, (e) all such deities can, and, perhaps, do, exist (so long as they are not assigned supernatural qualities).

    At the same time, even in a conceptually finite universe with limited beings, it would not invalidate each human's "god" as their "ideal character", a useful tool for human moral development. However, the Epicurean universe is infinite.

    I am not as comfortable with the suggestion (what I'm going to call the "Radio Analogy") that knowledge of the gods is being inadvertently transmitted from the gods to the receiver that is the human mind in the form of weird particles. Humans would idealize regardless of whether or not the subjects of their ideals exist outside of the mind, and those idealizations (given that they do not contradict the reality of nature) can be used for moral development.

    Perhaps that might be a grounding qualification, sort of a blanket generalization for all religious traditions: we might say, "their deity is real if it can be conceptualized as a distant, yet specially-privileged extraterrestrial". "God" can be assumed to be real as long as "God" is not supposed to have created the universe nor act in the human drama.

    I've been looking through a biased lens, as a critic to my dominant culture. Our Abrahamic religions, at least, support creationism and immanence, and as a critic, my orientation, relative to our language, is, theologically, a-, or anti-. Ancient theology is difficult to understand through this lens. "God" begins to make a lot more sense to me if I accept that we all have our own, internalized idealizations of perfect character, and that The Creator is mistaken epitaph of god.