"Setting Before the Eyes"

  • I've recently become interested in researching the Epicurean practice of "setting before the eyes" which I learned about via Dr. Voula Tsouna's book, The Ethics of Philodemus. According to her, it was a rhetorical technique employed by teachers within the Epicurean school to correct students behaviors, especially when it came to anger. The teacher would "place before the eyes" of the student what they look like when they are angry or what the consequences would be of their anger. I'm just using that as an example. From her writing it appears to have had wider application.

    I'm starting this thread to engage in discussion with forum members on this topic, but I also want to provide a placeholder for posting further documentation, both ancient and modern, for this practice/method/technique.

    Up front, I need to emphasize that his does *not* appear to be some form of esoteric meditation practice or visualization like Tibetan Buddhist meditation. That being said, as Dr. Tsouna explains it, it does strike me as some form of vivid, imaginative technique to really drive home the error of engaging in certain behaviors during a session of frank speech directed to the student. Frank speech is also used to correct teachers, but usually that's a peer to peer situation and not students correcting teachers (according to Tsouna's book). This vivid picture is "set before the eyes" of the student so they "see" themselves red-faced, scowling, heart racing in anger and then also the consequences of carrying through on that anger without making rational choices and rejections.

    That's my current interpretation.

    The phrase "setting before the eyes" is evocative to me, and that's why I'm intrigued enough to delve deeper on this topic.

    For now, my sources are the book itself and these several papers that are cited or that I found online:

    Tsouna, Voula. "Portare davanti agli occhi: Una tecnica retorica nelle opera morali di Filodemo ('Setting-before-the-eyes')", Cronache Ercolanesi, 33, 2003, pp. 243-247 (cited in the book)

    Sean McConnell. "Epicurean education and the rhetoric of concern." Acta Classica, 2015. https://www.academia.edu/16006…d_the_rhetoric_of_concern

    Tsouna, Voula. Philodemus on Emotions. Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies. Supplement No. 94, GREEK AND ROMAN PHILOSOPHY 100 BC – 200 AD: VOLUME I (2007), pp. 213-241 (29 pages) (Available on JSTOR)


    I hope to delve into these sources and share excerpts and/or thoughts on them on this intriguing topic.

  • Thanks Don for starting this. I will try to edit and reconstruct some of my comments that we made in private. I apologize that in pasting them here there is not an entirely logical flow between them, but I think the points are relevant to the conversation, which I hope will go on much further into the details:

    OK I see that I need to add Tsouna's book to my reading list, and I see why it is so attractive to Hiram (and no doubt many people) because it has a section on Therapeutic exercises. It says clearly that Philodemus was purposely going outside Epicurean doctrine. I think we can add this to the list of examples where the later Epicureans were not uniform in their views and that there were controversies as to who was or was not straying outside of Epicurean doctrine -- for good or for bad effect will be an individual contextual issue.


    As to "setting before the eyes" I see she refers to this as the "so-called technique" of bringing-before-the-eyes. I wonder if anyone else in the world prior to or other than Tsouna herself identified this with specificity or called it that. I do think that in the syncretic approach there is a tendency to pull things out of context and make something different of them than existed in the original context. Maybe this is important, maybe it is not, but I generally like to see the issue stressed by the founding authorities before I accept that it was important to them (much like the issue of katastematic/kinetic distinctions).


    Looks like there is another reference too, Don --- Tsouna 2003



    As to Philodemus in general and his reliability:

    In my opinion Philodemus is in a gray area and he's definitely not a "Founding Authority" in the sense of Epicurus or Metrodorus or Hermarchus. By the time he was writing it's likely that there were significant divisions (and Philodemus reports on them) including those issues documented by Cicero/Torquatus such as:

    - How much logical exposition is appropriate to establish that pleasure is the good

    - How to look at "friendship."

    And I bet by this point there was probably the division too noted by Diogenes Laertius as to a "fourth leg of the canon." Since we're talking here about visualization it's interesting to think about whether that could be related to the "fourth leg" controversy.

    I'm not trying to be argumentative (against Philodemus or anyone else! ;) ). I think these are fascinating issues on which we have to keep an open mind. I do generally think that when we have a reliable text of Philodemus saying something we have a very high value source that is entitled to a lot of respect. However it's hard to say whether what is being reported has some overlay of Philodemus' own view vs that of Epicurus himself, and I think we always need to be alert to that.

    I think we today have an incentive to see things that might not really be there, like Dewitt with Christianity. We're all doing the best we can to reconstruct the wider positions from narrow evidence, and it's easy to make mistakes and go too far. If the person doing the writing isn't rigorously protecting their views from outside "pollution" from their own viewpoints, then it's easy to see what we're looking for. I don't really have a grip on Tsouna's personal perspective other than to observe that she seems to rather frequently disagree with Sedley, whose instincts I personally find more likely to be similar to Epicurus.

    Also keep in mind that being a lawyer I do like to constantly pit testimonies and opinions against each other, and in doing so I am not necessarily questioning the good faith of any of them, just trying to test their accuracy from different perspectives.

    It's interesting to compare perspectives on how to judge Philodemus vs Lucretius. Philodemus might well have been the smarter person and a major thinker in his own right. Lucretius might have been "just" a poet. But if Lucretius was rigorously following the original texts of Epicurus, that makes him possibly a better source.

    Which is a way to bring us around to the fact that the very first words of that section on Epicurus in Book One are "Ante oculos." I didn't have time to search Tsouna to see if she incorporates that in her analysis of the technique.

    Note: I mean how much is there that Tsouna is able to cite? Is it a clear section that states "We have an very important Epicurean tecnhique called 'setting before the eyes' or is it just a phrase that appears several times as a natural result of thinking that it is important to visualize what we are talking about? I just haven't read enough to be sure.


    I just finished reading Tsouna's introduction to Ethics of Philodemus. She is very clear as to the very great difficulties in the reconstructions, and that there is a lot of room for reasonable people to differ in interpretations of what she is writing about.

    I think it's critical to keep those caveats in mind, and that's one of the concerns I have about the article(s) we are talking about. Frequently I don't see any reference at all to the textual uncertainties, and Tsouna's conclusions are presented (and again I am referring to these articles,and not to her) as if they are certain and that we should accept them without question as equal to the best documented texts. And I think that's a very dangerous approach apt to create conflation and improper syncretism (the words of the week!)

  • I tracked down "set before the eyes" in both Philodemus's On Frank Criticism and in his On Anger. I found the first two mentions but haven't had a chance to read all the columns yet. But Tsouna is absolutely correct in using that phrase. It is a literal translation of τιθῶμεν πρὸ ὀμμάτων:

    On Frank Criticism/Peri parressias Column 26.4-5

    τιθῶμεν πρὸ ὀμμάτων

    On Anger/Peri orges (De ira (Latin)) Column 1.23

    τιθέναι πρὸ ὀμμάτων

    τίθημι - Wiktionary

    τιθῶμεν/τιθέναι < τίθημι "place or put"

    (with ἐν ὄμμασι (en ómmasi)) I set before one's eyes

    522 BCE – 443 BCE, Pindar, Nemean Ode 8.43:

    μαστεύει δὲ καὶ τέρψις ἐν ὄμμασι θέσθαι πιστόν

    "yet delight also seeks to set a trustworthy pledge before the eyes"

    (Full ode: https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/…62%3Abook%3DN.%3Apoem%3D8 )

    LSJ entry for τίθημι: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/h…999.04.0057:entry=ti/qhmi

    ὀμμάτων = poetic word for "eye" (very popular! See quotations at Wiktionary entry: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki…CE%BC%CE%B1#Ancient_Greek )

    LSJ entry: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/h…1999.04.0057:entry=o)/mma

    I think Pindar's use of the phrase is instructive since the whole context seems to point toward a vivid picture in the mind:

    Pindar, Nemean, Nemean 8 For Deinias of Aegina Double Foot Race ?459 B. C.

    Excellence grows among skillful and just men up to the liquid air,

    as a tree shoots up fed by fresh dew.

    The uses of friends are of all kinds;

    those in times of toil are the highest,

    yet delight also seeks to set a trustworthy pledge before the eyes.

  • So are there intact sentences which give context to the usage?

    Yes. Both On Anger and On Frank Criticism have much of their papyri intact. Here's a better link to Column 1 of On Anger:

    Philodemi epicurei De ira liber : Philodemus : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive
    Book digitized by Google from the library of the University of Michigan and uploaded to the Internet Archive by user tpb.

  • I think what I am really looking for is at least a couple of reliably-sourced English sentences (without major reconstructions of missing text) that make clear what is being discussed and how the term is being used.

    Otherwise I would presume that something as simple could be going on as we might regularly say in discussing, for example, how to fish:

    "Imagine you are in a boat on a pond getting ready to throw your line...."

    "Imagine you are on the shore of a lake and you are about to cast a net...."

    I could imagine all sorts of uses of words like "imagine" or "visualize" that would have very little significance as a technique beyond what is used in common conversation to set the stage for a discussion.

    Now if there are lines like "Epicurus recommended as a method of thinking clearly that you intensely visualize what it is you are thinking about. Close your eyes and visualize all the colors, the shapes, the textures, and let your eyes wander all over them.... etc etc etc."

    Are you seeing clear statements like that which indicate that Philodemus was emphasizing a particular method of pursuing thought about something?

    If so can you point us to them? I apologize if they are in those links and I just didn't see them.

  • Ok finally I remember for this thread one of the main points I want to raise:

    What I interpret to be the most important reference to "ante oculos" is the reference early in book one of Lucretius:

    "Humana ante oculos foede cum vita....."

    The translators seem to view that as an interjection on the order of:

    "all too conspicuous" - Humphrey

    (I will get some more to add here)

    But I interpret them to be saying, and it makes sense in the translation, that this is just some kind of idiom or expression for what we might say as:

    • "right in front of you"
    • "right before your eyes"
    • "apparently"
    • "obviously"
    • "plain to see"
    • "unmistakeably"

    All of which would be normal ways of expressing something that is "right in front of you to be seen." And that's a point that is echoed later in book one, in the passage about if you can't have confidence in your senses as to what is right in front of you, you certainly can't have confidence in your opinions about anything that is hidden.

    (And I need to look to see if there are other instances of ante oculos in Lucretius)

    But the point of this being that if "ante oculos" is just an idiom or expression about things that are clearly right in front of you, that in itself has significance, without turning the issue into a "technique" so we can match the Stoics or some others who are really into "procedures."

    Again this is not a criticism of you personally or anyone in particular who wants to search for such techniques, it's just a matter of wanting to document them very clearly before we accept something that Tsouna in the last several decades thinks she has discovered, when there doesn't seem to be any significant record of it in the rest of 2000 years of Epicurean texts.

    Kind of like that other Lucretius line -- If it's true let's embrace it, if it's not true let's fight against it, but whatever, let's work to be as accurate as we can possibly be.

  • I haven't read your last post yet but:

    What is that section in Lucretius with "bring into the light" or something like it? I can't remember the context to determine if it's relevant here or not.

  • I am just writing notes now as they come to mind:

    I also want to say that if we can find good documentation for something special, Cassius will be the first to call a series of "Visualization Parties" so we can all talk about and work on the technique together! ;)

    But what I am afraid of is something that Don and I both note in DeWitt: It's kind of embarrassing, and undermines his credibility somewhat, to find connections to Christianity hiding almost under every rock. I do think he's right to draw many of his connections, but he probably goes overboard and ends up turning off readers who aren't really interested in drawing out every possible connection.

    That's what I am afraid of here - that if indeed there is nothing more going on here than an idiom for "examine closely" or "look closely" or "look at what's right in front of you" then to imply that there was a special and well developed Epicurean technique that goes far beyond what is obvious (sort of a pun there) could tend to be an embarassing contention to make if people go looking for the documentation, find it very meagre and too speculative and ambiguous to be of any use, and get disappointed in studying Epicurus as a result.

  • What is that section in Lucretius with "bring into the light" or something like it? I can't remember the context to determine if it's relevant here or not.

    I am not in a place where I can find quotes immediately but I think at least Munro translates it as "shores of light" and it's usually (if I recall) in those sections where we are talking about the need for a comprehensive philosophy, and the cup of wormwood for its healing properties (I think). Let me see what I can find and I will paste here:

  • I must be hallucinating as to "shores." I was sure it was there (maybe Humphries) but what I am finding is "borders":


    [159] If things came from nothing, any kind might be born of any thing, nothing would require seed. Men for instance might rise out of the sea, the scaly race out of the earth, and birds might burst out of the sky; horned and other herds, every kind of wild beasts would haunt with changing broad tilth and wilderness alike. Nor would the same fruits keep constant to trees, but would change; any tree might bear any fruit. For if there were not begetting bodies for each, how could things have a fixed unvarying mother? But in fact because things are all produced from fixed seeds, each thing is born and goes forth into the borders of light out of that in which resides its matter and first bodies; and for this reason all things cannot be gotten out of all things, because in particular things resides a distinct power.

  • Yes the "shores" is from Humphries, which means it's the text that Charlton Griffin reads, which is why that is burned into my mind:

    [159] Now, if things come from nothing, all things could
    Produce all kinds of things; nothing would need
    Seed of its own. Men would burst out of the sea,
    And fish and birds from earth, and, wild or tame,
    All kinds of beasts, of dubious origin,
    Inhabit deserts and the greener fields,
    Nor would the same trees bear, in constancy,
    The same fruit always, but, as like as not,
    Oranges would appear on apple-boughs.
    If things were not produced after their kind,
    Each from its own determined particles,
    How could we trace the substance to the source?
    But now, since all created things have come
    From their own definite kinds of seed, they move
    From their beginnings toward the shores of light.

  • Ah, maybe not relevant then (the light thing). Thanks for the cites!

    I'm reading quickly through your posts, but you might be expecting something more than I'm expecting out of all this research. I think the words "technique" or "practice" may imbue this way of counteracting behaviors in a formal teacher/student interaction with more of a "mystical" flavor than either Philodemus or I intended. That's all I'll say for now. Heading out to work. I find this fascinating and an enjoying digging into the texts. More later.

  • Quote from Don

    I think the words "technique" or "practice" may imbue this way of counteracting behaviors in a formal teacher/student interaction with more of a "mystical" flavor than either Philodemus or I intended.

    That's my impression as well and you've said it quite succinctly.

    When I reviewed my highlights from the book I ended up with nine pages of text. So it's going to take a while to see if I can make something useful of it all. That might indicate that the book is worth reading ^^

  • Here is another analogy:

    In the letter to Herodotus Epicurus is quite clear in advocating the use of outlining.

    In the letter to Menoeceus Epicurus is quite clear in advocating the study of nature, and the discussion of issues such as infinity.

    It's that level of clarity that I think we should look for in embracing any advice as to "techniques.". Because those are so clear and from Epicurus, those should be at the top of the list of any list of "techniques."

    It's probable also that there are clear instructions to try to it some or all of the central doctrines to memory. That also deserves a highest priority.

    If there are other "techniques" that deserve similar status to those, we should add them to the list, while also documenting their level of authority. I suspect there are others that can be added to this list just from the letters to Epicurus or Lucretius.

    There is also the "do all things as if Epicurus we're watching" - from Seneca if I remember correctly?

    Likewise "Meditate Mortem" - also from Seneca?

    And so for basic programs of this forum we ought to stress and focus on those that are clearly documented, and only when those are tended to supplement the list.

    It would be really good to make this into an explicit numbered list in terms of level of authority of the source, and then as we go forward decide where to put the visualization issue on that list.

    And as for newer students, probably the soundest advise is to take Epicurus to heart and follow the list in the order Epicurus himself seemed to stress it, and only then, and afterwards, begin to experiment with other possibilities.

  • I realized I could get online access to Philodemus's On Anger (Philodemus, On anger / by David Armstrong and Michael McOsker. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2020) through one of the university libraries. What I've done is copy Columns 1-5 and then highlight where the phrase in question shows up. I apologize for the disjointed text. There are lengthy passages of each papyrus leaf that are intact for the most part, allowing long texts, but they are broken up at the top of the rolls. So, here is what I have so far. All text is copied. I haven't included any commentary of my own. There are also mentions of the therapeutic technique in On Frank Criticism but I don't have an English translation for that one, so I may have to puzzle through the Greek on my own. For now, here are the passages mentioning the "setting before the eyes" explicitly in On Anger, keeping in mind the book goes on for 357 pages with only a small introduction. Most of it is Greek on one page, English translation on the other. There are a lot of details in dealing with the patient/student that I haven't included here which could flesh out the technique but simply do not use that phrase:

    From Column 1: From this point on, the papyrus unrolled very cleanly, and there are no major problems with stratigraphy or order, except for the fragments of tops pasted in above the columns (frags. A– H), some of which cannot be securely placed.

    Column 1

    [ circa seventeen lines missing or untranslatable ]

    “…[nor do] I [deny?] this. For it is obvious to all that, just as that is an evil, so is this.” [7] By such arguments, indeed, he (sc. Timasagoras) undertook (to prove) that “blaming (anger) is ridiculous,” but idly, as is his custom. [12] Now, if he were rebuking those who only blame (anger) and do little or nothing else about it, like Bion in his On Anger and Chrysippus in the Therapeutikos Logos of his On Emotions , he would be taking a reasonable position. [20] As it is, in supposing that the general idea, (i.e.,) putting the consequent evils before one’s eyes, is ridiculous and raving, he him[self is rav]ing and ri[diculous].…

    Column 2

    [ circa sixteen lines missing ]

    … natural (angers?) … by feeling com[es about (?)] … of his reasonings. [6] [When]ever he (sc. the philosopher censuring anger) inf[ers] what is hidden from him —what is external is obvious, especially to a person who can reason about emotions —he has not m[isled] us, and it is “obvious to all” (66*) that things [are] as he has said. [15] And that element of their disposition, from which they (angry people) become distraught, through which (they are) afflicted by numberless evils, we know begets new evils all over again, in most cases. [21] … philosophical reasoning … [from belief?] (can change this disposition?),

    66*. Philodemus sarcastically paraphrases Timasagoras’s words πᾶϲι … φα | νερόν (see 1.5– 6 above), as he will do yet again in 5.22 and in lines 9– 10 of this column (and see n. 70).

    Column 3

    [ circa seventeen lines missing or untranslatable ]

    … [5] for which reason, [by describ]ing some things that are completely unknown (sc. to the patient), some that have been forgotten, others that are being left unappraised— at least with respect to their seriousness, if in no other regard—[11] and others that he never contemplated as a whole, and by putting all this in his sight, he (sc. the therapist) creates a great fright, so that (the patient), now that he has also been reminded that it is up to him, can escape it with ease. [18] For this is what even ordinary philosophers present to him, but the really good ones also sketch out the behaviors by which we might fall prey to angry passions as little as possible. [25] That is, in fact, why, in saying that it is quite “obvious” to everyone … (sc. that Timasagoras is mistaken?) …

    Column 4

    [ circa nineteen lines missing or untranslatable ]

    … [4] although some?] of the doctors (sc. point out?) the seriousness of the disease, the sufferings that happen because of it, and its other difficulties, and sometimes also its dangers, these things escape the sick men’s notice— some generally, others by (failure of) rational appraisal, [12] which is why they become too careless of their escape (sc. from these dangers), as if moderate (evils) were afflicting them, but these (evils), once put before their eyes,*74 render them attentive to their treatment. [19] In fact, in this case (i.e., philosophical therapy), because they do not consider some of these at all and others not clearly, they do not even want to commit themselves to therapy, but once they have learned … according to (?) …

    *74. Putting the consequences of evildoing before one’s eyes for rational appraisal ( τιθέναι πρὸ ὀμμάτων ; cf. 1.21– 23 and 3.13– 14), is key to Epicurean therapy; it also appears at Lib. [On Frank Criticism] frag. 26.4– 5; cf. frag. 78Ν.1– 3 ( ἐπιδεικνύναι πρὸ ὀμμάτων ) and col. 17a.4– 14. Here it is defended as a paramedical virtue of the right kind of diatribe. See further Tsouna 2003.

    Column 5

    [ circa sixteen lines missing or untranslatable ]

    … [7] and others call (on them) to pay attention more carefully to this therapy and not to pass over lightly the seriousness and the evils attached to their diseases and to their fits of anger, since the reasons why it is indispensable for doctors to use blame are no less unknown (to Timasagoras?), or at any rate equally as unknown. [17] So the misfortunes that were going to follow from his anger toward Basilides and Thespis were not “obvious” (sc. to him), even though, as he thought, he had s[e]t limits to his bitterness. [25] He is so blind that, though it is much more profitable … (to pay attention to?) reputable [sages] … easi[ly] …

  • Thanks for that work! Sounds in most cases like the meaning is essentially "Think about the consequences..." Or "imagine for a moment the consequences..." Of s particular course of action?

  • Thanks for that work! Sounds in most cases like the meaning is essentially "Think about the consequences..." Or "imagine for a moment the consequences..." Of s particular course of action?

    That's part of it, but I'm getting the impression that it's not just "think about.." and is more "imagine.." Really "see" it, *not* in a "mystical, visualization" way but see it vividly. In other parts of On Anger, (and I think Tsouna writes about this) Philodemus vividly describes the bulging eyes etc. of someone consumed with rage. He makes it, literally, not a pretty sight.

  • It seems too like a key part of it is a teacher or friend describing or illustrating to the one receiving therapy. It doesn't seem to be a technique for solitary meditation. Setting before the eyes would then be the act of describing or illustrating, right?

  • It seems too like a key part of it is a teacher or friend describing or illustrating to the one receiving therapy. It doesn't seem to be a technique for solitary meditation. Setting before the eyes would then be the act of describing or illustrating, right?

    I'm not entirely sure about the solitary possibility. I could see reading (the works of Philodemus like On Anger for example) to "put before your eyes" a situation the individual is dealing with. But that teacher/student (doctor/patient) relationship within the community does seem to be a BIG component of where this is coming from. This also seems to me to be an important way in which Epicurus's philosophy was practiced within the school.