Episode One Hundred Thirty-Seven - The Letter to Menoeceus 04 - On Death (Part Two)

  • I have already forgotten when we said in the podcast to some extent, but what I meant by respectable was that I got the impression what Joshua was saying was that the statement might have been put in the mouth of a character in a play, rather than made as a direct statement by the playwright.... With the implication that if so the statement might have been made by a character in a context which the playwright was clearly not advocating the comment himself.

    So if Theogonis is the author (and we did not cite him) then we need to explicitly clean up what we said - maybe in this week's episode.

  • I can't remember which translation I saw Theognis footnoted for that line, but it was legit.

    I certainly didn't uncover that as the source on my own ^^ and the word for word seems like a solid reason to accept it.

    As for advocating that position, here's the context with his poem and an excerpt from the Wikipedia article:

    He was capable of arresting imagery and memorable statements in the form of terse epigrams. Some of these qualities are evident in the following lines [425-8], considered to be "the classic formulation of Greek pessimism":

    Πάντων μὲν μὴ φῦναι ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἄριστον,

    μηδ᾽ ἐσιδεῖν αὐγὰς ὀξέος ἠελίου.

    φύντα δ᾽ ὅπως ὤκιστα πύλας Ἀΐδαο περῆσαι

    καὶ κεῖσθαι πολλὴν γῆν ἐπαμησάμενον.

    Best of all for mortal beings is never to have been born at all

    Nor ever to have set eyes on the bright light of the sun

    But, since he is born, a man should make utmost haste through the gates of Death

    And then repose, the earth piled into a mound round himself.

    The lines were much quoted in antiquity, as for example by Stobaeus and Sextus Empiricus, and it was imitated by later poets, such as Sophocles and Bacchylides. Theognis himself might be imitating others: each of the longer hexameter lines is loosely paraphrased in the shorter pentameter lines, as if he borrowed the longer lines from some unknown source(s) and added the shorter lines to create an elegiac version. Moreover, the last line could be imitating an image from Homer's Odyssey (5.482), where Odysseus covers himself with leaves though some scholars think the key word ἐπαμησάμενον might be corrupted. The smothering accumulation of eta (η) sounds in the last line of the Greek is imitated here in the English by mound round.

  • considered to be "the classic formulation of Greek pessimism":

    That's an interesting topic in itself. To what extent were the Greeks "pessimists"? Was that an integral part of mainstream (Socrates / Plato / Aristotle) Greek philosophy, or was it a minority viewpoint, and if so held by who?

    I don't consider the Romans to have been pessimists -- were the Greeks more so than the Romans? I gather the Romans didn't always have a high opinion about all aspects of Greek civilization and i wonder if this was part of it.

  • "Greek poetic pessimism" -- Maybe that was part of why Epicurus was hostile to at least some aspects of poetry?


    The aim of this thesis is twofold: it explores Giacomo Leopardi’s (1798-1837) interpretation of, and engagement with, Greek pessimistic thought and, through him, it investigates the complex and elusive phenomenon of Greek pessimistic thought itself. This thesis contends that Greek pessimistic thought – epitomised by but not limited to the famous wisdom of Silenus, the µὴ φῦναι topos – is an important element of Greek thought, a fundamental part of some of Greece’s greatest literary works, and a vital element in the understanding of Greek culture in general. Yet this aspect of ancient thought has not yet received the attention it deserves, and in the history of its interpretation it has often been forgotten, denied, or purposefully obliterated. Furthermore, the pessimistic side of Greek thought plays a crucial role in both the modern history of the interpretation of antiquity and the intellectual history of Europe; I argue that this history is fundamentally incomplete without the appreciation of Leopardi’s role in it. By his study of and engagement with ancient sources Leopardi contributed to the 19th century rediscovery of Greek pessimistic wisdom, alongside, though chronologically before, the likes of Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jacob Burckhardt. Having outlined some fundamental steps in the history of the reception of Greek pessimism, this thesis examines the cardinal components of Leopardi’s reception of it: his use of Greek conceptions of humanity to undermine modernity’s anthropocentric fallacy, his reinterpretation of the Homeric simile of the leaves and its pessimistic undertones, and his views on the idea that it would be best for man not to be born.

  • Maybe that was part of why Epicurus was hostile to at least some aspects of poetry?

    Do you know where that sentiment is in the texts? I'd be curious to see what word is used for poetry. Epic? Lyric? I could understand if it's specifically epic poetry since it dealt with the gods and their messing with humans.

  • Okay, so it is the word "poetry" writ large:

    Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, ποι-ητικός

    But is that it? That's what everybody pegs Epicurus's dislike and distrust of poetry to?

    Here's my take on that verse from my site:

    Epicurean Sage - Living Unknown
    The Epicureans are said to have encouraged lathe biosas, living unknown or not calling attention to oneself. This is a controversial fragment, but Diogenes…

    Only the wise man will be competent to discuss music and poetry without writing poems of their own. (120)

    Hicks: Only the wise man will be able to converse correctly about music and poetry, without however actually writing poems himself.

    Yonge: The wise man is the only person who can converse correctly about music and poetry; and he can realise poems, but not become a poet.

    Mensch: Only the wise man will be competent to discuss music and poetry, though he will not write poems himself.

    This is apparently due to the wise one’s study in multiple subjects connected with music and poetry. So, they have enough knowledge to talk intelligently about music and poetry but find no need to compose works themselves. Consider too that poetry and music would be performed in front of others, most likely in gatherings. This is then akin to the lathe biosas characteristics elsewhere in the list!

  • I rather think that Epicurus dismissed poetry as a great source of lies, as Lucian expresses in his True History:


    This attraction is in the veiled reference underlying all the details of my narrative; they parody the cock-and-bull stories of ancient poets, historians, and philosophers; I have only refrained from adding a key because I could rely upon you to recognize as you read...as I have no truth to put on record, having lived a very humdrum life, I fall back on falsehood — but falsehood of a more consistent variety; for I now make the only true statement you are to expect — that I am a liar. This confession is, I consider, a full defense against all imputations. My subject is, then, what I have neither seen, experienced, nor been told, what neither exists nor could conceivably do so. I humbly solicit my readers’ incredulity.

    Lucretius acknowledges this as well. The bitter wormwood of philosophy needs honey, or the people who need it won't accept it--they must be "charmed", not to say deceived, into taking their medicine.

  • But is that it? That's what everybody pegs Epicurus's dislike and distrust of poetry to?

    Joshua's supplemental cites are good to add to the pot.. I think the Diogenes Laertius statement is the main cite as to Epicurus, and yes that is probably the main basis for the allegation, but there's definitely supportive commentary in Lucretius (and maybe others, but I can't recall specific cites).

    It's almost as if they are including the poets as purveyors of supernatural religion, but that doesn't seem to be the exclusive basis.

  • Lucretius, part 9: the calculating poet | Emma Woolerton
    Emma Woolerton: How to believe: Why did Lucretius choose to write in poetry? The answer lies in his evangelism for both Epicureanism and his own legacy

    Just found that from 2013. Oh, it seems Woolerton wrote a whole series on Lucretius:

    Emma Woolerton | The Guardian
    Emma Woolerton wrote her PhD on Lucretius at Cambridge, where shetaught for several years. She now works in London

  • Looks like there's also Usener Fragment 228

    [ U228 ]

    Plutarch, That Epicurus actually makes a pleasant life impossible, 2, p. 1086F-: Heraclides then, a student of literature, is repaying his debt to Epicurus for such favors of theirs "as rabble of poets" and "Homer’s idiocies" and the verity of abuse that Metrodorus has in so many writings heaped upon the poet.

    Clement of Alexandria, Miscellenies, V.14, p. 257.52: Homer, while representing the gods as subject to human passions, appears to know the Divine Being, whom Epicurus does not so revere.

    Epicurus: Fragments - translation (2)

    So, from that it does appear - to me - that Epicurus (and Metrodorus) were most concerned with Homer and the depiction of the gods in poetry.

    There's also U227:

    Cicero, On End-Goals, Good and Bad, II.4.12: Your school {Epicureanism} argues decisively that there is no need for the aspirant to philosophy to study literature at all.

    Cf., Ibid., I.21, 71-72 (Torquatus to Cicero): You are disposed to think him uneducated. The reason is that he refused to consider any education worth the name that did not help to school us in happiness. Was he to spend his time, as you encourage Triarius and me to do, in perusing poets, who give us nothing solid and useful, but merely childish amusement?

    And U341:

    Lactantius, Divine Institutes, VII.7.13: Zeno, the Stoic, taught that there was a hell, and that the abodes of the virtuous were separated from the wicked, and that the former inhabited quiet and delightful regions, while the latter paid their penalty in dark places and horrible caverns of mud. The prophets made the same thing clear to us. Therefore, Epicurus was in error who thought that this was a figment of the poet’s imagination, and took those punishments of hell to be those which are borne in this life.

    And U364:

    Dionysius the Episcopalian, On Nature, by way of Eusebius of Caesarea, Preparation for the Gospel, XIV 27, 8 p. 782C: As for the gods of whom their poets sing as "Givers of good things," {Homer, Od. viii. 325} these philosophers with mocking reverence say, The gods are neither givers nor partakers of any good things. In what way then do they show evidence of the existence of gods, if they neither see them present and doing something, as those who in admiration of the sun and moon and stars said that they were called gods (θεούς) because of their running (θεειν), nor assign to them any work of creation or arrangement, that they might call them gods from setting (θεῖναι), that is making (for in this respect in truth the Creator and Artificer of the universe alone is God), nor exhibit any administration, or judgment, or favor of theirs towards mankind, that we should owe them fear or honor, and therefore worship them? Or did Epicurus peep out from the world, and pass beyond the compass of the heavens, or go out through some secret gates known only to himself, and behold the gods dwelling in the void, and deem them and their abundant luxury blessed? And did he thence become a devotee of pleasure, and an admirer of their life in the void, and so exhort all who are to be made like unto those gods to participate in this blessing, [etc.]