"Lucretius on the Size of the Sun", by T.H.M. Gellar-Goad

  • I've just received this collection of essays, published in February, with an excellent paper concerning the size of the sun by one T.H.M. Gellar-Goad.

    I may attempt an outline; in the meantime, here's a good bit toward the end;


    By staking out a stance of aporia conditioned by sense-perception and reasoning thereupon, the Epicureans did in fact prove to be less wrong than everyone else [...] Epicurus and his school, in avoiding a concrete statement of the sun's size, avoided being concretely wrong, in contrast to Eudoxus and all the rest.

    aporia; doubt, or a difficulty in resolving the available data into established truth.

    The author is thoroughly familiar with Epicurean epistemology, and explores the question not on its face, but based on a careful understanding of the whole philosophy. I thought it was very well done.

    If you can find a library copy, or get online access through an institution, you'll save a bit of coin--but it will be good to have read this as we move into the Letter to Pythocles on the podcast.

  • In Greek, the word occurs in On Nature, Book 14, column 16 :

    column 26

    P.Herc. 1148 fr. 5

    Engraved 1804-1864 by Salvatore Ventrella

    ἀπορίαν̣ σ̣υνε[χῶς οὐκ ἂν]

    προφέροι, κ̣α[ὶ παρασκευά-]

    ζοι κούφισιν ὁ [λόγος ἡμῶν],

    ὡς ἔοικε̣[ν] ἀνθρ[ώποις ̣ ̣ ̣]

    5θηι [ ̣ ̣]ατα οὐκ ἂ̣[ν παρασκευ-]

    άζο̣[ι ̣]ε̣ιδ[ ̣] δ̣ὴ̣ [⁦ -ca.?- ⁩]

    [ ̣ ̣] ε[ ̣]φο[ ̣]εσ̣[⁦ -ca.?- ⁩]

    [ ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣]τη̣[⁦ -ca.?- ⁩]

    [ ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣τ]αρ̣αχ[⁦ -ca.?- ⁩]

    10[ ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣]ρας δ[⁦ -ca.?- ⁩]

    [ ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣]ε[⁦ -ca.?- ⁩]

    Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, ἀπορία

    IV. in Dialectic, question for discussion, difficulty, puzzle

    Not related to aponia.

    Aporia is related to a "not" + poros "means of passing a river, ford, ferry"

  • Joshua, I am particular curious about the article of the size of the Sun.

    I understand that Epicurus is only interested in astronomy to the point to obtain just enough knowledge to demonstrate that above the moon physics are as below the moon: atoms and void. Scientific knowledge is not an objective rather a methodology to reject superstition (and suffering from fear). A few 'reasonable' explanations are enough, and they are not (much) interested in making the science advance.

    Is this confirmed in the article of T.H.M. Gellar-Goad?

  • A few 'reasonable' explanations are enough, and they are not (much) interested in making the science advance.

    I too need to read that article, but I will go ahead and state my view of this issue:

    As to the first part of the sentence, yes one or a few "reasonable" explanations are sufficient to satisfy our most pressing need, which is to banish the allegations of the religionists that the Sun was divine, or part of a divine order.

    But as to the second part of the sentence, when I see that sentiment stated in that way (and we see it often) I think that the wording is too negative and arises from modern prejudices against Epicurus. I see Epicurus as being strictly logical in his approach, which is that once he has determined (through science!) that the end of life is happiness/pleasure, then he is logically consistent and holds the tests of ALL actions in life, including the study of science, to the test: "Does it advance our happiness?" Once you conclude that there are no criteria given us in life by nature other than pleasure and pain, then you apply that conclusion rigorously and without exception.

    The negative presumption that is conveyed in "not much interested in making the science advance" is the anti-Epicurean conception that there are ends in Nature which are justified IN THEMSELVES apart from whether they bring pleasure or avoid pain. Such a conclusion is logically ruled out by Epicurean philosophy.

    On the other hand, Epicurean philosophy also asserts that since there is only one reason to do anything in life (pleasure/pain) you are going to do everything in life that is practical for you to pursue pleasure. And MOST CERTAINLY the advancement of science is a tremendously useful tool for advancing pleasure and avoiding pain, so MOST CERTAINLY an Epicurean is going to appreciate and pursue the advancement of science as a tool for better living.

    So in my view the many times that we see statements like "Epicurus wasn't much interested in science" we are really seeing the complaint that "Epicurus wasn't interested in XXXX for the sake of XXXX itself." That argument makes no sense without realizing that the impetus behind it is the assertion that Epicurus was wrong and that he should have valued "XXXX in itself" (most generally, they are asserting "virtue" or "piety" as goals in themselves).

    Therefore I think we ought not be afraid of or concerned about that "Epicurus didn't value science" argument, and instead turn the issue around and use it as a teaching opportunity for explaining why Epicurus taught what he taught.

    End of rant! ;)

  • A brief caveat: I'd be cautious about using the word "science" to describe what was going on in ancient Greece and Rome. Science as a discipline is akin - but not necessarily identical - to the "natural philosophy" practiced by the ancient Greeks. Foundations were being laid, observations were being made, and the material world was beginning to be understood. However, we have to be careful of projecting a modern understanding of the word "science" et al. onto the ancient mindset.

  • I'll try to summarize what I recall to be the main points of the essay;


    -Epicurus' primary interest in the size of the sun is to rule out the supernatural.

    -A superficial reading of the passage will always be plagued with error.

    -The author stresses the importance of considering the question in light of the whole philosophy.

    -And that includes offering a few explanations, not just asserting one.

    -Epicurus draws a distinction between how we interpret things that appear to our senses, and how those things actually are.

    -The senses themselves are to Epicurus never wrong. Merely the judgment we make about sense-perception can be wrong, or not.

    -The sun may be bigger or smaller than it appears, but it's not possible to know which (in the fourth century B.C) because we can never change our perspective by getting closer or going further away.

    -The passages in both Pythocles and Lucretius are very noncommittal in their grammar and diction. Something like 8 subordinate clauses in five lines. So there's a resistance to speaking certainly about it. Nowhere does any Epicurean actually make a definite claim about the size of the sun.

    -In the discussion on eclipses, the ancient sources seem to imply or suggest that the sun may be larger than the Earth. One of the explanations offered for eclipses is the interposition of the Earth between the sun and the moon.

    -The author suggests that the sun-size issue is a didactic challenge to students and readers; like the plague at the end of Lucretius, it sets up a test to see how well you've grasped Epicurean method. The reader will come to that passage, and then feel compelled to review the other material to make sure they haven't missed something.

    -The final suggestion the author makes is that the sun-size issue became a shibboleth for ancient Epicureans. That it became a way of 'sounding out' the Epicurean knowledge-base of the interlocutor. Cassius often says that hard cases make bad law. But the argument being made here is that this hard case is useful for determining how well other people really understand this. Useful for teachers with their students, or for scholarchs with their scholars.


    The essay does not make the following point, which I think is nevertheless important; namely, how stupid do people think Epicurus was to say that he thought the sun was the size of an orange!?

    Certainly the sun is, at minimum, bigger than the biggest object that crosses it but fails to entirely eclipse it. A lifetime's accumulated experience would surely have been sufficient for Epicurus to know that the sun was bigger than a bird. Bigger than a horse, a house, a tree, a trireme--bigger than the better part of a mountain. Bigger than the moon.

  • Cassius ;)

    I was in fact referring only to the case of astronomy. As far as I perceive Epicureans were not that that much interested in astronomy, maybe because it was very speculative, and that was a wise position, because there was very little that could be known about the nature of stars and planets without a telescope, etc.. Of course there were astronomical calculations of positions but they don't make us any wiser about celestial materials. The Epicureans don't seem to be very interested in calculations of celestal positions neither. I understand that for Epicurus the Earth was a flat disc and the centre of this cosmos, one amidst an infinite number of others.
    When we dig a bit in the Letter to Pithocles, we observe that Epicurus stresses that for the things above us we "

    admit of more than one cause of coming into being and more than one account of their nature which harmonizes with our sensations."

    In the letter indeed appears for each phenomena multiple explanations, that seems not very precise, and the main objective seems to be the demonstration that we can imagine for each phenomena numerous physical explanations that don't need any mythological input, and thus also the things above us follow 'normal earthly physics'. I hope to have explained myself better now.

    First of all then we must not suppose that any other object is to be gained from the knowledge of the phenomena of the sky, whether they are dealt with in connection with other doctrines or independently, than peace of mind and a sure confidence, just as in all other branches of study.

    [86] We must not try to force an impossible explanation, nor employ a method of inquiry like our reasoning either about the modes of life or with respect to the solution of other physical problems: witness such propositions as that ‘the universe consists of bodies and the intangible,’ or that ‘the elements are indivisible,' and all such statements in circumstances where there is only one explanation which harmonizes with phenomena. For this is not so with the things above us: they admit of more than one cause of coming into being and more than one account of their nature which harmonizes with our sensations.

  • Ok as I write this I will try to restrain my enthusiasm:

    This is an OUTSTANDING article. I completely agree with the author's analysis and direction, and if this is an example of the very latest Epicurean scholarship then we are definitely moving in the right direction.

    The writer builds IMHO a very strong case that the summary viewpoint "The sun is the size that it appears to be" is an Epicurean "litmus test" of a proper understanding of the philosophy, akin to "Death is nothing to us" or "nothing can be created from nothing."

    As we are currently discussing in the podcast, reaching conclusions about things we see in the sky presents a difficult issue of limited evidence, and the worst thing we can do is to affix ourselves to a single position when multiple options are possible.

    The statement that the size of the sun is what it appears to be does not give a single answer, but emphasizes that any or all answers must be based on "appearance" (the senses) which is what EVERY conclusion in life must also be based upon.

    The concluding section of the essay goes into this in much more detail and I highly recommend it. I think the position he advocates is where many of us are already on this topic, but this article goes further than Bailey or even Sedley and really nails down a position that I think will serve most of us very well going on into the future. It will also nail us more firmly into the position that the senses are the foundation for all our conclusions about reality, and in fact that is very likely the intended purpose of the formulation.

    We may have to designate someone every Twentieth to start the session saying:

    "The Size Of The Sun Is As It Appears To Be!"


  • Something else I want to check:. I believe this article is one of those situations where we can point out that Dewitt did not defend Epicurus strongly enough! I seem to remember but need to check that Dewitt hints at this analysis but in the end considera Epircurus to have been wrong on this issue. If so then this current article will definitely supercede Dewitt's analysis on this issue.

  • This post and the next are the two final sections of this article, for those who don't have access to the full thing. I consider this to be little short of a brilliant summary of the issue:

  • Equally or more important:

  • From the above:

    "In this matter as almost everywhere else, the Epicureans appealed to the truth of sense-perception – with the important caution that discerning reality from appearance requires perception-based judgment, which itself is not guaranteed to be true."

    My reason for posting this:

    1. I think it's an extremely perceptive sentence.
    2. I wonder if Gellar-Goad was correct in including the "almost"(?) Would the sentence be equally or more accurate without the "almost?" Is there any issue in which Epicurus does NOT appeal to the truth of sense-perception with the caution that discerning reality from appearance requires perception-based judgment, which is itself not guaranteed to be true?
      1. This question might take us into the question of whether "anticipations" and "feelings" (the other two legs of the cannon) should be considered to be "perceptions." It tend to think that the answer to that is "yes," but I can see how it would be argued "no." For purposes of this question, however, I do tend to think that we "perceive" anticipations and feelings.
      2. I really like the qualifier "perception based judgement" as a way of emphasizing that Epicurus warned against relying on logic divorced from real evidence.
      3. I also really like that qualifier "which itself is not guaranteed to be true!" That's an important reminder that while Epicurean philosophy is the best philosophy we have, using it doesn't make us ominiscient or omnipotent. It's very possible even through rigorous application of Epicurean reasoning to be mistaken, especially when we simply don't have access to the raw data we want and need to be correct. The claim "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven!" would become something more like "Epicureans aren't perfect, just doing the best it's possible for humans to do!"
  • we can point out that Dewitt did not defend Epicurus strongly enough

    An author that very strongly defends Epicurus through his historical analysis of Ancient Greek philosophy is Benjamin Farrinton e.g. in "The Faith of Epicurus" or in "Science and Politics in the Ancient World". For me he is the best author that I have read so far about the historical and economic backgrounds of Greek Philosophy/"Science". He is marginalised but often cited. The effect of the slavery economy is according to him a very important factor. I think that his books are worth reading although they are mostly from around the 1950's. The knowledge of economic backgrounds to interpret the work of a philosopher is maybe key in understanding his work.