Episode 45: The Uncuttables

Lucretius (c. 94-53 BCE) is our most important source for Epicurean philosophy, perhaps the most misunderstood school of thought from the ancient world.

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Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things and Epicurean Philosophy

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 45: The Uncuttables. This show is on the Roman author Lucretius, who lived from about 94-53 BCE, and his poem, On the Nature of Things. When we talk about the Renaissance and Enlightenment, we talk about how knowledge from the classical world started circulating again. Mehmed the Conqueror took Constantinople in 1453, and suddenly the city, now named Istanbul, proved amenable to all sorts of new trade with the Middle and Far East. The Bosphorus was no longer clogged up with competing civilizations – with the ancient Byzantine seat of Christianity out of the picture, the Ottomans and their commercial partners throughout the Black Sea and Adriatic could suddenly start scooting goods all over the eastern Mediterranean world. Thus began the early part of the Italian Renaissance, when a small handful of opportunistic merchant families and financiers in Italy took advantage of the Ottoman conquest of Asia Minor, became rich, bankrolled some of the greatest art ever to be produced, developed tastes for exotic and esoteric manuscripts, and in doing so changed the course of human history. In any case, as I said before, when we talk about the Renaissance and Enlightenment, we talk about how knowledge from the classical world started circulating again. This show is about one especially important figure whose work began to be read and studied during the Enlightenment.

Lucretius, De rerum natura

A 1483 manuscript of Lucretius’ De rerum natura.

John Dryden and Michel de Montaigne admired his ideology. Charles Darwin found his eminently scientific view of the universe persuasive. Karl Marx and Percy Shelly praised his religious iconoclasm. Tennyson and Matthew Arnold shared his unsentimental view of man in the cosmos. And his name, again, was Lucretius.

Lucretius’ fame rests on his work On the Nature of Things, which lays out the writer’s theological, scientific and ethical views. When this book came back into print during the Scientific Revolution, its materialist view of humankind and the cosmos, its extensive discussion of atomic theory, and the ethical values that it promoted were all generally at loggerheads with Catholic orthodoxy. The church taught that the universe was ministered by a deity actively interested in human affairs, and that humanity walked a tightrope between eternal salvation and damnation. Lucretius taught that only matter existed, that there was no life after death, and that the best one could do was to live a moderate, somewhat private life, cultivate deep friendships, and when the time came, have no fear of death. The ancient Roman writer’s view of human existence was 1,500 years removed from the somewhat decadent period of Catholicism into which it reemerged – a period in which the church was about to be rocked by the Protestant Reformation. Lucretius’ atomism, his empiricist epistemology, and his denial of posthumous existence made his work a particularly fascinating find for the European intellectuals who collected and reprinted it. Men and women dissatisfied with the church’s selling of indulgences and the financial corruption of some of its highest officials suddenly had access to a scientifically minded, wildly unorthodox, beautifully elucidated school of thought that was older than Catholicism itself.

Atomic theory in the Greco-Roman world took a curious path. Atomic theory began in earnest in Athens in the 400s BCE, during the same years, and on the same streets where Socrates and the sophists were teaching rhetoric, where Sophocles and Euripides were getting their plays ready for production, where a single opulent city state controlled, for a few glorious decades, the Aegean Sea. During the next century, the name of atomism’s most famous proponent might surprise you. He was a Greek, and he was the hero of our writer for today, Lucretius. He lived from about 340-270 BCE, and his name was Epicurus. And, just to be clear at the outset here, the Roman writer Lucretius lived from about 94-53 BCE, being born about 250 years after the Greek writer Epicurus, the philosopher whose work Lucretius promoted throughout his life.

Now, those of us who are not classicists generally have an association with the name Epicurus. We picture a gluttonous figure, a philosopher who made his whole career promoting a lifestyle of unending indulgence, a sort of watered down Dionysus, with the same flab and gin blossoms but without the divine powers. This stereotype isn’t helped by the modern noun “epicure,” which means a person who relishes fine food and drink. And this stereotype is almost entirely false. Today, we’re going to talk about what Epicureanism really was – a scientific as well as an ethical school of thought, and one that promoted moderate, nonpublic lives removed from the rough and tumble of politics and economic ambition. We will also explore why Epicureanism in Classical and Catholic history acquired the reputation of being a cult devoted to mere hedonism.

But more than anything, we will consider the main idea of this show, which is in its title – Episode 46: The Uncuttables. The word atom, coming from the Greek roots a-, for “not” and –tomos, for “to cut” means “indivisible” or “uncuttable.” This is a show on the Roman writer Lucretius and his poem On the Nature of Things, but to get to this poem, we will need to take a brief journey through Presocratic philosophy and some of the early history of atomism itself. Although these subjects is slightly outside the purview of literature proper, atomism, and materialism – or the belief that all is matter and no extrasensory spiritual forces exist – atomism and materialism were alive and well and living in Eurasia throughout the Classical and Hellenistic periods. And eventually, as Lucretius and his fellow Epicureans did, European intellectuals of the sixteenth century and afterward began their own radically materialist challenges to the religious orthodoxies around them. So although we’ll range broadly in this show, culminating in the 60s or 50s BCE when Lucretius wrote his famous poem, one topic will ground us from end to end – the notion of atoms – when they first came into discussion in the classical world, how they were first imagined, and how they were central to the popular school of Epicurean thought in the late Republican world of Lucretius. [music]

The Milesian and Eleatic Schools and the Roots of Atomism

The main course of this episode is going to be the Roman poet Lucretius’ text On the Nature of Things, written some time in the 60s or 50s BCE. To understand this most famous exposition of Epicurean philosophy, however, we need to go back in time a bit. Atomism – that notion that the universe is made of uncuttable particles – is a very old idea, and by the time Epicurus himself inherited it in the 300s BCE, it had already been banged around for over a century in the Mediterranean world. So to get us ready for Lucretius – for that moment in the 60s or 50s when the Roman writer created his treatise on Epicurus, let’s spend a moment talking about the evolution of atomic theory, or maybe what we should call proto-atomic theory, in the Greco-Roman world.

Map of Archaic Ancient Greece (750-490 BC) pre-lucretius

The Aegean during the Archaic period. Note the location of Miletus on the lower right. Graphic by MaryroseB54.

I don’t think there’s a known beginning to Ancient Greek physics. Usually, Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes get the credit, being members of the so-called Milesian school of Greek philosophy, a school that we only know through quotations and later discussions by Aristotle and other philosophers. The Milesian philosophers lived at the trade crossroads of the settlement of Miletus from about 625 until 525, Thales being a contemporary of Sappho, and all there of them being roughly the contemporaries of the Judahites who endured the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and captivity. Miletus, where the three philosophers lived in the extreme southwest of modern day Turkey, was an axis between east and west, where Mesopotamian trade routes and Phoenician ships brought goods and ideas into the Aegean world. These philosophers were thus part of a long lineage of ideas that stretched back to the mostly lost science of Bronze Age Egypt and Mesopotamia. They’re worth extensive study in their own right, but for our purposes, the third of them, Anaximenes, might the most important step on the path that would lead, 500 years later, to the Roman writer Lucretius.

Anaximenes was a very early proponent of something like atomism. While Anaximenes didn’t propose an imperceptible, indivisible substance, he did propose that all matter was made of just one primal element or thing. The thing for Anaximenes was air – air coalesced and dispersed. It fused and thickened visibly into clouds, further into water and hail, and further still into land forms, trees, humans, and all the other stuff in the material world.1 This is a coherent theory in its own way, and by the time of Anaximenes, evidently, the belief that a single substance formed the foundation of the universe was commonplace. As Aristotle summarizes it in Physics,
The physicists. . .have two modes of explanation. The first set make the underlying body one. . . either one of the three [water, air, or fire,] or something else which is denser than fire and rarer than air then generate everything else from this, and obtain multiplicity by condensation and rarefaction. . .The second set assert that the contrarieties are contained in the one and emerge from it by segregation.2

In other words, Aristotle says, physicists either assert that everything is made of black marbles that turn into different colors as they recombine into larger multicolored things, or everything is made of multicolored marbles that recombine into larger multicolored things. Philosophers had, by the time of Aristotle, churned out a whole host of theories – the universe was made of water – no, it was all made of air – no, no, it was fire– and although these theories sound clunky and unsophisticated when we encounter them in summaries of summaries, it’s safe to say that by the 300s BCE, two and a half centuries after the birth of the Milesian school of philosophy, all sorts of proto-physicists had advanced various speculations about the building blocks of the universe.

Epicurus was born a generation after Aristotle, and Epicurus probably had access to the same array of scientific and philosophical texts that Aristotle did. Let’s talk about some of these texts. First of all, we have almost no primary sources from Presocratic philosophy. We have various synopses, and glosses, criticisms, and that kind of thing – a summary by Aristotle here, a commentary on a summary by Aristotle there, a second-century CE Alexandrine doctor’s exposition here, and then a third century CE biographer there, the latter of whom is clearly using the former three as sources, and the lot of whom all have their intellectual agendas. These are complexities familiar to any classicist, but they’re important to convey up front.

So the longest fragment of Presocratic philosophy that we possess is a piece of a poem, by the philosopher Parmenides, who seems to have been a contemporary of Aeschylus. I wanted to introduce you to Parmenides first in this brief history of atomism because, frankly, Parmenides is a lot of fun, and second, more importantly, Parmenides helps us understand where atomism came from. Atomism arose in the Greek world before the invention of microscopes, so at its inception, atomism was not an empirical science based on observation and documentation of perceptible phenomena – atomism was instead a series of propositions and deductions in response to previous schools of philosophy. One of these seems to have been the school of Parmenides. Parmenides lived in the city of Elea in Magna Graecia around the end of the 500s and beginning of the 400s BCE – about 200 miles southeast of Rome along the front of the Italian boot, and thus Parmenides might have known some of the first Romans and observed the beginning of the Roman republic. Whomever he knew, and however he came to believe it, Parmenides’ poem On Nature is an important counterpoint to atomism.

Reading On Nature even in the fragmentary form in which it survives is a bit like lying on the grass on a summer night, looking up at the stars with two or three extremely stoned people, and listening to them talk. The bedrock of Parmenides’ philosophy is an idea called monism – monism the notion that there is only one unchanging thing in the universe. Let’s hear some of Parmenides’ On Nature as Robin Waterfield has translated it in his standard anthology The First Philosophers, first published by Oxford University Press in 2000.
[D]o not let habit compel you, [writes Parmenides
To wield the aimless eye and noise-filled ear and tongue,
But use reason to come to a decision. . .
Now only the one tale remains
Of the way that it is. On this way there are very many signs
Indicating that what-is is unborn and imperishable
Entire, alone of its kind, unshaken, and complete. . .all together,
Single, and continuous. For what birth could you seek for [the universe]?
How and from what did it grow?
Neither will I allow you to say
Or to think that it grew from what-is-not, for that it is not
Cannot be spoken or thought. Also, what need could have impelled it
To arise later or sooner, if it sprang from an origin in nothing?. . .
If it came to be, it is not, and likewise if it will be some time in the future. . .
Nor can it be divided, since all alike it is. Nor is there
More of it here and an inferior amount of it elsewhere,
Which would restrain it from cohering, but it is all full of what-is.
And so it is all coherent, for what-is is in contact with what-is.3

That was again Parmenides, a precursor to the atomists, who lived toward the end of the 500s or the beginning of the 400s BCE on the southwest coast of the Italian Peninsula. While Parmenides sounds from time to time like a guy taking some bong hits while he looks up at the Milky Way, his ideas constitute an important counterpart to everyone else we’ll talk about in this episode. Parmenides is again what philosophy students call a monist. At the core of his philosophy is the notion that everything is one thing – divine and human, mind and matter, a continuum of entirely interconnected phenomena without any gulfs or gaps. By extension, Parmenides emphasizes that when we invest too much energy in particulars, especially in the false world of the senses, we’re missing the point – the universe is eternal, uncreated, and interconnected, and if we feel perturbed about its particulars, we’re fretting about the parts and not revering the whole. What survives of Parmenides’ philosophy is a series of meditations on the universe as an integrated totality – a totality with no internal chinks or gaps.

It was out of the climate of the Milesian school and Parimenides’ philosophy that what we now call atomism was born – born not, as I said earlier, through laboratory science but instead through debate and propositional logic. By the time of fifth-century BCE or Golden Age Athens, earlier philosophers had postulated that the universe was made of water, or air, or fire, and in Parmenides’ case that the universe wasn’t made from any subcomponents at all – but that it was just one interfused thing. Into this discussion came Leucippus and Democritus, colleagues and contemporaries widely associated with generating the first atomic theory. I think we should discuss these two in detail a bit before moving onto Epicurus and the later Roman writer Lucretius. While their atomic theory is easy to understand, some of its implications, even way back in the 400s BCE, proved difficult to swallow for their contemporaries. [music]

Leucippus, Democritus, and the Birth of Atomism Proper

Leucippus and Democritus worked in the late 400s BCE, Democritus perhaps making it well into the 300s. They were from the northern or eastern Aegean – Miletus or Thrace, and seem to have been near contemporaries in Athens around the time of the Peloponnesian War. Considering their backgrounds and the place where they ended up, Democritus, particularly, would have been exposed to a very diverse set of philosophies and theologies – the traditional Greek polytheism that drove the city’s holidays and rituals, the theological schisms unfolding during the generation of Euripides, the radical skepticism of Protagoras and the sophists, the salty self-reliance and ethical preoccupations of Socrates and Plato, and the philosophy of earlier Greek physicists whom we’ve just discussed – Parmenides, Anaximenes, Thales, and company. Leucippus and Democritus, in other words, were born into a curious world largely unregulated by any institutionalized dogma. If history had gone differently, and more of their works had survived, we might be reading Democritus instead of Plato.

Democritus, by Diego Velázquez, Lucretius' idol

Diego Velázquez’s Democritus (c. 1630) is playfully skeptical.

In any case, let’s talk a bit about some of the summations and glosses that have come down to us on, especially, Democritus. I am going to read you a description of his philosophy from antiquity. It is a fascinating description, and a concise outline of Democritus’ scientific theories, but it was written almost a thousand years after Democritus lived. It was written by Simplicius of Cilicia, some time in the early 500s CE, a very late pagan philosopher who was analyzing Aristotle’s cosmological treatise, On the Heavens. Put simply, the quote I am about to read you is a summary of Aristotle’s summary of Democritus, written eight hundred years after Aristotle lived, and nine hundred years after Democritus lived. Here it is. This is Simplicius on Democritus.
Democritus thinks [, Simplicius summarizes,] that the nature of the eternal existents consists in minute substances, infinite in number. To accommodate them, [Democritus] assumes that there is an infinitely large place, different from them. He calls this place “void” and “no-thing” and “infinite,” and he calls each of the substances “thing,” “solid,” and “being.” [Democritus] thinks that these substances are too small to be perceived by us, that they have all kinds of forms and shapes, and are variously sized. Treating these things as elements, [Democritus] generates and compounds out of them things which are large enough to be visible and perceptible. These substances are moving in the void in a chaotic state. As a result of their dissimilarities and the differences I have just mentioned, as they move they collide and become entangled with the kind of entanglement that makes them in contact with and adjacent to one another, but fails to generate anything whatsoever with a truly single nature out of them, since it is perfectly stupid, according to Democritus, to think that something which was two or more could ever become one. [Democritus] attributes the ability of the substances to stay together to the extent that they do to the ways in which they fit together and seize hold of one another. For they have countless differences— they may be crooked, for instance, or hooked or concave or convex. So [Democritus] thinks that they hold on to one another and stay together for a certain amount of time, until some stronger force from around them comes along and shakes them and breaks them up. The creation [Democritus] speaks of, as well as its contrary, dissolution, happens not only to living creatures, but also to plants, worlds, and in short to all perceptible bodies. So if creation is the combination of atoms, destruction is their dissolution, and according to Democritus creation is just modification.4

And that again was the philosopher Simplicius, who lived after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, summarizing Aristotle’s summary of Democritus, and the quote came from Robin Waterfield’s anthology, The First Philosophers. If Simplicius’ text is accurate – and indeed it seems to be, based on other glosses and summaries that we’ve inherited – Democritus was jaw-droppingly modern in comparison to his contemporaries in the fifth-century Aegean world. While his contemporaries were dropping piglets into chasms to celebrate the Thesmophoria, and parading around with giant penis sculptures to ingratiate the god of wine at the kickoff parade for the City Dionysia, Democritus was sitting in his house and hammering out atomic theory at his desk.

Much of what he came up with has been corroborated by modern science. Atoms, Democritus believed, were too small to be perceived by the human eye. They were not all the same – they were constituted very differently. They were neither created nor destroyed, and all observable phenomena, including people, were temporary amalgamations of atoms. Elsewhere, Democritus argues that the gods themselves are also made of atoms, and like anything made of atoms, they were not immortal, but could be dissolved in time.

Democritus’ contemporaries in Athens – sophists like Protagoras – believed that human perception was infinitely fallible, and that was impossible to know anything for certain. Democritus shared their skepticism up to a point. To quote another summary of Democritus’ philosophy, he’s said to have believed that “Sweet exists by convention, and so does bitter, warm, cold and colour. . .In actual fact we have no certain understanding, but our grasp of things changes depending on the condition of our bodies, of the things that enter into it, and of the things that impinge upon it.”5 Like the sophists, Democritus understood well enough that what is sweet and bitter differs from individual to individual, that cold rain could feel wonderful on an overheated body and dreadful to the sick and feeble, and moreover that sensory perceptions were colored by each individual’s subjectivity. But unlike the sophists, Democritus had confidence in a single governing scientific principle: “[I]n reality,” Democritus wrote, “there are atoms and void.”6

Democritus used this first principle to help explain the arbitrariness of individual perception. A slightly later Greek philosopher, Theophastrus, summarized Democritus’ theory of vision as follows:
[Democritus] says that [vision] does not occur immediately in the pupil, but that the air between the organ of sight and the seen object is compressed by the seen object and the seeing eye (for according to him everything is constantly giving off an emanation) and so gains an imprint of the object, and then, since the air is solid and is of a different colour to the pupil, it manifests in the eyes, which are moist. . .A firm object cannot receive any such imprints, but a moist one lets them through, and that is why moist eyes have better sight than hard eyes.7

And that again was Democritus’ theory of vision, according to the philosopher Theophastrus, who lived a couple generations after Democritus. It is a remarkable leap forward. Democritus didn’t have access to tools that would have taught him about photons, and his theory of vision would more accurately describe how sound waves move through air, but it’s nonetheless an energetic and logical attempt to explain how visual perception works at an atomic level.

So that is a very quick introduction to Democritus’ atomic theory. When we as moderns study Democritus, I think our first instinct is to compare Democritus’ ideas with what we know about atoms today and try to gauge how accurate he was. We usually come to the similar conclusions – although Democritus didn’t have an electron microscope or any tools to observe quantum mechanics, he and his colleague Leucippus went remarkably far along the path of atomic theory.

Their ideas came in part from engagement with earlier philosophers. From Parmenides, perhaps, they accepted the notion that the universe had had no moment of creation. While Democritus appreciated Parmenides’ notion that matter was not created or destroyed, at the same time Democritus rejected Parmenides’ monism. To Parmenides, the universe was one wholly interconnected thing. To Democritus, the universe was a vast void in which all sorts of atoms were zipping around, latching onto one another, and unlatching – it was not an interknit whole but instead a large gulf populated with a flurry of busy little particles.8

Salvator Rosa - Democritus and Protagoras lucretius background

Salvator Rosa’s portrait of Democritus and Protagoras (c. 1663) shows the extent to which these rather different philosophers have been yoked together over the centuries due to their mutual skepticism and religious iconoclasm.

Leucippus and Democritus were also clearly products of sophist philosophy. They shared sophism’s iconoclasm – the notions that we can’t know anything about gods, that sensory perception is unreliable, that truth is malleable to the individual human mind. Yet while sophism essentially culminates in a thoroughgoing but playful skepticism, Democritus was confident enough in the grounding principle of his philosophy – those central notions of atoms and void – that he posited these in place of everything else.

It is evident from the sources that, even in the century after he lived, not everyone was crazy about Democritus’ unsentimental view of man’s place in the universe. People, according to Democritus, were nothing more than congregations of atoms. The gods were not immortal – they were also assemblies of small, eternal, interlocking particles. Neither people nor beings had agency over this vast vortex, which spun of its own accord, and individual and divine volition were alike impotent amidst the great dust storm of the cosmos.

It’s little wonder that nothing original survived from Democritus during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. While much of Plato and some Aristotle could be intermixed with Christianity, Democritus’ central principles contradict the underpinnings of the later religion. Christianity postulated various dichotomies – matter and spirit, life and afterlife, good and evil, but to Democritus, only atoms and void existed, and there was accordingly no afterlife. Christianity, from the beginning and through the Arian controversy, worked out various theories about how Christ was differently constituted from human beings, whereas Democritus held that the gods were made out of the same stuff as the rest of us. Christianity grew fond of the notion of free will, but Democritus’ philosophy seems to have been deterministic. In the midst of the universe’s tidal waves of atoms, in Democritus’ philosophy, human agency is nil. The garden variety medieval monastery had plenty of cause to copy and retain the texts of Plato and the later Neo-Platonists, and far fewer reasons to preserve the writings of Democritus.

One aspect of Democritus that seems to have occasioned immediate criticism was the philosopher’s anti-creationism. The standard ancient creation narrative of the Mediterranean world was that there was some sort of watery darkness, and then some or other form of anthropomorphic deity or deities showed up and began to propagate and/or create landforms and creatures. We’ve read the Enuma Elish, the Atrahasis, the Theogony, Genesis, and in a bonus episode the Epic of Ishtar and Tammuz together if you’ve listened to this whole show, and so it’s all a familiar story. Democritus wasn’t the first to do away with the notion of a moment of creation or inception – Parmenides did so a couple of generations before him. But Democritus’ dismissal of the moment of creation spurred a very clear criticism by Aristotle, and, as we’ll see, encouraged Epicurus to make some modifications to the atomic theory that came before him.

In Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Aristotle takes issue with one particular aspect of Democritus’ philosophy. Democritus wrote widely of atoms fluttering all over the place and conjoining with and divorcing one another, but Democritus seems to have never bothered to write about the origin of all this motion. Now, it is easy enough to say that he probably just assumed that immortal, indestructible atoms always had motion as one of their characteristics, but Aristotle wondered where all this motion had come from. “Leucippus and Democritus,” Aristotle wrote, “carelessly said nothing about the origin of movement and how things have movement.”9 Again, we can perhaps presume that movement was one of the eternal and uncreated qualities of Democritus’ atoms, but to Aristotle, this was a significant structural weakness in Democritus’ theories. And into this moment in the history of atomism, when Aristotle was poking and prodding at Democritus’ theories, the philosopher Epicurus was born.

Epicurus was a generation younger than Aristotle, and he was born into the same Aegean world of philosophical and scientific curiosity. He lived, again, from about 341 until 271 BCE, a witness to the rise of Macedon and Alexandrian conquests in his childhood, and the wars of Alexander’s successors for the remainder of his life. And while Democritus also wrote about ethics and politics, Epicurus’ significance in the 3nd century BCE seems to have been that he took Democritus’ atomistic view of the universe, made some adjustments to his predecessor’s physics, and then fused Democritus’ scientific philosophy with a system of ethical philosophy that pervaded the Greco-Roman world for hundreds of years afterwards.10 [music]

Epicurus and the Swerve

Epicurus. It’s time to talk about what he actually taught, why the Hellenistic world embraced his teachings, and how the modern association of his name with little more than gustatory pleasure is wildly inaccurate.

Raphael's Epicurus, lucretius' philosophical idol

A detail of Epicurus in Raphael’s The School of Athens. A print of this same painting hangs in the room where I record L&H!

First of all, in antiquity, branches of knowledge were not so departmentalized as they are now. Physicists wrote on ethics, ethical philosophers on science, biologists on music, and so on, so that the corpuses of work we have from Plato and Aristotle are prodigiously diverse, and those of other philosophers must have been equally so. If we imagine Stephen Hawking coming out with a new book with two chapters on physics and three chapters of psychology and self help – a sort of Chicken Soup for the Black Hole – we might have something like Epicurus – part physicist, part ethicist, a bit odd at times but marvellously well educated.

I want to start with Epicurus’ central, and maybe strangest contribution to atomic theory. A minute ago, we were talking about how Democritus never bothered explaining how atomic motion began in the first place. We talked about how Aristotle saw this as a weak point in Democritus’ philosophy. When Epicurus came along, working around a hundred years after Democritus, Epicurus took it upon himself to explain how all those atoms out there in the universe got to playing bumper cars, rather than just sitting around. Epicurus’ explanation, which we call “the swerve,” is one of the more complex parts of his physics, but it’s not that complex. Let me lay it out for you.

Epicurus’ predecessor Democritus wrote that atoms have three different properties – “shape, arrangement, and position.”11 A hundred years later, Epicurus added a fourth, and this fourth quality was weight. Now here’s where it gets interesting – this is Epicurus’ explanation for why atoms conjoin and sever with one another, rather than just sitting there existing. Epicurus believed that all atoms have weight. At a certain point in the distant past, they were all moving downward in straight lines. Now, this is a weird proposition, but imagine this: imagine that you didn’t understand gravity and you thought that the world was flat, and the universe was utterly empty, but for atoms. This is what Epicurus believed – he pictured a giant void with all atoms sinking downward according to their weight. This picture – a gulf of atoms sinking in straight lines through empty space – this was how atoms generally behaved. The question Epicurus sought to answer was that if the default behavior of atoms was to just sink like falling stars through empty space – if this were the case – then how did all their collisions and fusions and dissolutions and recombinations begin? What caused atoms to conjoin and rupture with one another, anyway?

Epicurus’ answer was something called “the swerve.” Epicurus hypothesized that occasionally, and unpredictably, an atom might jerk to the side. And I want to quote scholar Tim O’Keefe’s explanation on the Epicurean swerve, because I think it’s difficult to imagine a clearer way of explaining this ancient scientific premise. O’Keefe writes that the Epicurean swerve is an
additional cause of atomic motion [which] is needed for the atoms ever to have collided and produced the bodies we see: without the swerve, the atoms would be like cars being driven along a multi-lane highway at equal speed, staying in their lanes. An occasional swerve to the side, however, is enough not only to cause a collision, but to start a chain reaction of additional collisions as a result of the blow started by the sideways swerve.12

And that’s a quote from Tim O’Keefe’s book Epicureanism, published 2014. So, this “swerve,” this random lane change was Epicurus’ explanation for why atoms combined and disintegrated into greater substances and lesser substances. Atoms might all just sink straight down all the time, but swerves took place, and thus the universe isn’t a bunch of cars driving adjacent to one another in separate lanes, but instead a monster truck rally of atoms smashing together and then parting company, only to rejoin again later, and on and on and on.

CarinaArc lucretius ideology

The “swerve” reserved a space in the Epicurean worldview for a small sparkle of chance and human agency. Photo by By LOL (Own work) [GPL (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl.html), via Wikimedia Commons.

Epicurus’ notion of the swerve helped give Democritus’ atomism a theory of motion, or a very early version of collision theory. That atoms moved according to weight, and in reaction to their own swerves or the swerves of atoms around them, explained all the phenomena around us. To Epicurus, the world had not come from Gaia and Ouranos, as Hesiod had said, nor did was the world supervised by the wisdom and justice of Zeus. There was no realm of ideas, contra Plato, no absolute morals, and no humanoid deity figure was in control of the massive slurry of atoms in the universe. The atomic disco had always been going on, and that was it.

Other than simply answering the question of how atoms coalesced and dispersed into greater particles and substances, Epicurus’ notion of the swerve accomplished something else. Epicurus, and his devotee Lucretius, had another slight problem with the earlier philosopher Democritus. Democritus’ view of the universe, in their estimation, was depressingly mechanistic. Epicurus could accept the proposition that human beings are nothing more than temporary bundles of atoms. But Epicurus seems to have had some trouble with the extent to which Democritus’ philosophy took away personal agency. Democritus was happy enough to toss free will into the waste bin; Epicurus, a hundred years or so later, was a bit more reluctant to do so. Both philosophers believed that if all atoms have perpetually been in motion and no atom could move beyond its natural propensities for attraction and repulsion, then by extension we are all enmeshed in an eternal process of collisions and separations, and, like rain drops on a windowpane, we’ll spatter, sink, glob together, and come apart, our own existences a chance byproduct of blind and impersonal forces. This cosmic determinism was one of the major implications of Democritus’ philosophy, and part of the reason Epicurus generated the notion of the swerve was to assert that there was something – some sparkle or glitch of pure randomness amidst the otherwise well oiled machinery of the universe. If an atom could pop out of its groove and smack into an adjacent atom, Epicurus seems to have thought, then maybe humans could swerve off the rails and do something similarly consequential.13

Thus far, we’ve only talked about Epicurus’ physics. His physics, as we’ve seen, came from figures like Democritus and Leucippus with some small adjustments, who, a hundred years before Epicurus, developed their own atomic theories in the climate of sophism and earlier thinkers like Parmenides and the Milesian school of philosophers. Now it’s time to change topics slightly, and talk about Epicurus’ ethical ideas. This will bring us, finally, to the reason why Epicurean philosophy is often mistakenly thought to mean mere sensualism or hedonism. In order to talk about Epicurean ethics, we’ll need to bring in our writer for today, Lucretius, because much of what we know about Epicurus comes from Lucretius. To run these dates by you again, Epicurus lived from about 341 until 271, founding a school in Athens in 306 BCE. His proponent Lucretius lived from about 94-55, or about a hundred and fifty years later.

We don’t know much about Lucretius. His earliest years saw the Roman world rocked by the Social War and dictatorship of Sulla, and at the time of his death in 55 BCE the First Triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus was operating and Caesar was campaigning up in Gaul. It was not a very stable period of Roman history, but we know from the dedication of Lucretius’ surviving poem that he at least had a patron – a writer named Gaius Memmius – whose career was stymied by the feud between Pompey and Caesar. We’ll talk a bit more about the period in which Lucretius lived later. For now, let’s finish our exploration of Epicurean philosophy with a look at Lucretius, again our most important source on it. [music]

De Rerum Natura and Didactic Poetry

Lucretius belongs to a genre of writing that is no longer in use – a genre called didactic poetry. Didactic poetry, as the name implies, is poetry that aims to teach something. In ancient Greece and Rome, didactic poetry was used to instruct readers on a variety of subjects. Ovid’s Art of Love, for instance, taught men and women how to behave properly according to their gender, how to interact with one another, and how to assume a romantic role in a relationship. Horace’s Art of Poetry instructed its audience on literature and what a poet should do. While these didactic poems don’t seem too outlandish to modern tastes – I mean we might expect poetry to teach poetry, and poetry to teach the means of courtship and wooing – the surviving corpus of Greco-Roman didactic poetry covered a wide span of subjects, many highly technical and scientific.

Galen detail

The ancient medical researcher Galen of Pergamon (c. 129-200 CE) grounded his studies in scientific and technical poetry.

The third century BCE Greek writer Aratus’ poem Phenomena is a poem about constellations and climatology. The second century BCE Greek writer Nicander created a nearly thousand line poem instructing the reader about venomous animals, and another six hundred line poem detailing a variety of poisons and antidotes to them. Over 300 lines of a poem from the third century CE survive that instruct the reader on how to hunt, how to breed and train hunting dogs, which horses are best for which purposes, and how to create various kinds of hunting gear. These poems were not written for diversion, nor were they pseudoscientific oddities – hexameter verse in Greek and Latin was a standard medium for recording technical information during the Hellenistic period and much of the Principate. The famous Greek physician Galen, in the decades around 200 CE, wrote that didactic poems on pharmaceuticals were essential to his work. “I have often said,” Galen wrote, “that works in verse are more useful than those in prose not just because they help us to remember details, but also because they ensure accuracy in the mixing of the ingredients.”14 It’s difficult to imagine today’s physicians mixing anesthetics while mumbling poetry under their breath, or scientists at the poison control center mumbling the names of symptoms and cobras and cottonmouths before giving out treatments. It must have been like, “If eyes are red and don’t dilate right / It’s likely a dangerous cobra bite / So hurry, on the bitten place you / Apply a bit of Echinacea.” Anyway, in the Greco-Roman world, poetry was, as it had been from the beginning of recorded history, a mechanism for storing information – even very technical information, its predictable meter serving mnemonic purposes, just as it had throughout the Bronze Age thousands of years before.

So Lucretius’ poem, De rerum natura, or On the Nature of Things, belongs to the genre of didactic poetry. This poem, in addition to influencing atomists during the scientific revolution, was read by Cicero, Virgil, and, we can probably assume, many other Latin literati over the course of Roman history after the fall of the Republic. On the Nature of Things is structured into six books, books which first lay out atomic theory, then humanity’s place in the cosmos, and finally the workings of the universe itself, the organization of the poem going from the smallest particles around us to the cosmos.

So, let’s open up this 2,100 year old poem and take a look at what it says. I’ll be quoting from time to time from a translation of Lucretius in The Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature, edited by Peter Knox and J.C. McKeown and published by Oxford University Press in 2013. [music]

Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things

As you leaf through the first few pages of the proem or introductory part of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, it is immediately clear that you’re reading the work of a devotee of Epicurean philosophy. In other words, the title of On the Nature of Thingsi> might lead you to believe that the poem is an essay that uses some combination of induction and deduction in order to prove its points. While there is plenty of cogent reasoning throughout On the Nature of Things, Lucretius takes it as a given that his hero Epicurus was a great genius – in fact, a sort of messiah who took the first steps in leading mankind toward enlightenment. The following quote amply illustrates Lucretius’ reverence for Epicurus, and this is near the beginning of On the Nature of Things.
When human life lay foul for all to see [Lucretius writes near the beginning of his poem]
Upon the earth, crushed by the burden of religion
Religion which from heaven’s firmament
Displayed its face, its ghastly countenance,
Lowering above mankind, the first who dared
Raise mortal eyes against it, first to take
His stand against it, was a man of Greece.
[And Lucretius writes a moment later that]
[U]s his victory has made peers of heaven. (DRN 1.61-7,79)15

In other words, we were all benighted and destitute beneath the oppression of religion, and then, presumably around the time Epicurus founded his school in Athens in 306 BCE, we were fortunate enough to have a savior appear and dispel the suffocating vapors of superstition henceforth and forever after. It is a bold statement. If you happen to know Percy Shelly’s work, then you can readily understand why the English romantic poet prized Lucretius’ plucky dismissal of organized religion. You can also understand why Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things wasn’t a tremendously high priority for copying and circulation in scriptoriums throughout the Middle Ages. Here was a brazen pagan, who, 61 lines into his poem, called religion a ghastly mistake. No need to copy that one – that bit in Plato’s Timaeus in which he talks about a creator deity – copy that one instead, or maybe that part of Aristotle’s Metaphysics when he talks about teleology and inherent purposefulness of the universe! Lucretius, in short, did not prove a prime candidate for mass circulation during late antiquity and the Middle Ages.

Lucretius drawn by Michael Burghers

An illustration of Lucretius by the Dutch artist Michael Burghers, c. 1682.

Lucretius, however, wasn’t taking a stance against Christianity – he was born almost two centuries before Christianity began to take on its recognizable form. Lucretius’ misgivings were with the pagan polytheism of the Greco-Roman world, and he sought to replace this religion with reverence for the courageous rationalism of his hero Epicurus. Lucretius writes that Epicurus “was not cowed by fables of the gods / Or thunderbolts or heaven’s threatening roar. . .Therefore his lively intellect prevailed / And. . .he marched, advancing onwards far / Beyond the flaming ramparts of the world” (DRN 1.68-73).

Well, the rhetoric is a bit grandiloquent and Lucretius’ dismissal of organized religion may have been somewhat preemptive, considering the 2,000 years of history that have unfolded since he wrote his poem, but nonetheless the statements at the beginning of The Nature of Things are familiar to those of us who have encountered thinkers like Hobbes, Schopenhauer, Marx, Nietzsche and company, who variously announce that this or that state structure or theory will do away with organized religion. In Lucretius’ case, and before him, probably, Epicurus, the enemy was again not Christianity, but instead the polytheistic rituals and cult religions of the Hellenistic world. A few lines after the ones we just read, Lucretius recalls an episode from the Iliad as evidence for the invidiousness of religion. This episode from the Iliad was Agamemnon’s blood sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia, an event variously covered by Homer, Aeschylus and Euripides and others. Iphigenia, Agamemnon believed, needed to be sacrificed to Artemis so that the Greeks could get favorable winds to blow them over to Troy to begin the Trojan War. Writers during the fifth century BCE, particularly Euripides, wondered whether this sacrifice had been necessary, and Lucretius cites it as an example of a bloody brutality committed in the name of religious faith.

To Epicurus and Lucretius, religion could lead to gruesome acts like a father sacrificing his daughter, but much more commonly, religion led to a condition of fear and powerlessness in the general population. Lucretius writes that “if men could but see / A sure end to their woes, somehow they’d find the strength / To defy the priests and all their dark religion. / But as it is, men have no way, no power / To stand against them, since they needs must fear / In death a never-ending punishment” (DRN 1.107-12). Now, while these ideas may sound surprising, coming as they do from a period dominated by animal sacrifices and rituals to Hellenistic cult deities, they are not very complicated ideas. Lucretius understood the universe to be an unending swarm of atoms, occasionally swerving quite unexpectedly, but a swarm of atoms nonetheless, and argued that the fear of death was based on various fraudulent myths about the afterlife. People were simply material, Lucretius believed, and physical death was thus annihilation. “[A]t its dissolution,” Lucretius writes, “everything / Returns to matter’s primal particles” (DRN 1.248-9). Death, to Epicureans, was a redistribution of atoms, and nothing more.

Alright. Let’s review for a second. Other than the swerve, a lot of what we’ve heard about Lucretius, and before him Epicurus, seems to be either atomic theories inherited from earlier philosophers, or criticisms of organized religion based on these theories. And indeed, the Epicureans were hardcore materialists, and one of their core tenets was a radical dismissal of the notion of immortal, otherworldly deities. But there is more to the Epicurean school of thought than atomism and religious iconoclasm. With all the talk of Epicurus advancing beyond flaming ramparts, and men being freed from the manacles of superstition, even in just the couple quotes you’ve heard in this show so far you probably have a sense of Lucretius’ bombast and bluster. Before we move on to talk about Epicurean ethics as Lucretius lays them out, I also want to give you an idea of the incredible beauty of Lucretius’ style.

The great orator Cicero, who was born a bit before Lucretius and died a decade after Lucretius, read the Epicurean philosopher’s work. In a letter to his brother composed in February of 54 BCE, Cicero writes, “The poetry of Lucretius. . .is as you say. . .rich in brilliant genius, yet highly artistic.”16 Cicero, who overall thought that Epicureanism was a misguided and destructive philosophy, nonetheless recognized that Lucretius, with his science and physics alone, conveyed a beautiful worldview in the lines of On the Nature of Things. It might be a worldview in which there are no immortal gods, and in which there is no expectation of life after death. But in casting aside these orthodoxies, Lucretius turned with deep reverence toward the minutiae of the physical world, often building his arguments on the nuances of things like water droplets, the pores of stones, and the slow fatigue of forged metal. Here’s an example of how Lucretius argues his atomic worldview with reverence and beauty, quoted in The Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature.
[C]lothes hung up beside a wave-tossed shore
Grow damp, but spread out in the sun they dry.
But how the moisture first pervaded them
And how it fled the heat, we do not see.
The moisture therefore is split up into tiny parts
That eyes cannot perceive in any way. (DRN 1.305-10)
[And he writes a little later. . .]
A ring on a finger wears thin underneath,
And dripping water hollows out a stone,
And in the fields the curving iron ploughshare
Thins imperceptibly, and by men’s feet
We see the highways’ pavements worn away
Again, bronze statues by the city gates
Show right hands polished thin by frequent touch
Of travelers who have greeted them in passing.
Thus all these things we see grow less by rubbing,
But at each time what particles drop off
The grudging nature of our vision stops us seeing. (DRN 1.312-21)

And that’s again Lucretius, in the first book of On the Nature of Things, laying out his argument for atomic theory. The details here are rich and vividly described, even in translation from their original Latin hexameters. Everyday features of the world around us like garments on a clothesline, water dribbling on stones, feet on pavement, the blade of a plow and a ring on a finger – all of these are brought forth to show the hidden magic of the atomic world. Even stone and metal, Lucretius suggests, as permanent as we think they may be – these things flow and meld with time. Around us on every side is evidence of the radiant impermanence of the physical world, and there is no reason to suspect that we, or any being in the universe, is exempt from this impermanence.

Epicurus and his successors had worked to tear down orthodox Greco-Roman polytheism, but they didn’t just want to leave scorched earth behind. Their materialism was charged with love and veneration, as well as iconoclasm. Disbelieving in the afterlife meant that the great convolution of the universe’s atoms had to be sufficient for human happiness, and if Lucretius’ poem is any indication, Epicureans took all the awe and love often bestowed on Zeus and Apollo and bestowed it on the world around them instead. But there’s more to Epicurean ethics than the dismissal of immortal gods and the veneration of the physical world in their place. Epicureans had a carefully prescribed personal code of conduct that we should talk about in detail now. [music]

Epicurean Ethics and the Types of Pleasure

Ethics, as one of philosophy’s main branches, asks what is right and wrong, and what constitutes good conduct. Epicurus and Lucretius sought to try and hammer out how one ought to live in a universe with no immortal gods, and no life after death. Epicurus might have, to quote Lucretius “[marched forth,] advancing onwards far / Beyond the flaming ramparts of the world,” but what exactly did Epicurus suggest that we ought to do, other than reflecting on the somewhat sobering hypothesis that we’re nothing more than short-lived clumps of atoms?

The answer that Epicurus and Lucretius advanced is that aim of existence ought to be the pursuit of tranquility. Since, in their estimation, life is exclusively material, and since no divine justice will be meted out when we kick the bucket, the best thing that we can do is to accept our lot and try and have a nice time of it while we’re here. The aim of life, then, to the Epicureans, is to find tranquility and pleasure.

Pleasure is not a simple experience, and Epicurean philosophy understands its complexity. To Epicureans, there are different sorts of pleasures. Some pleasures, known as “kinetic” pleasures, are fleeting. Ice cream, a swim in the river, cold wine in the summer – these are all undoubtedly pleasurable, but they belong to a lower order of pleasures than those which the Epicureans sought. In contrast to “kinetic” or transitory, sensory pleasures, Epicureans wrote about something called “katastematic” pleasures. Katastematic pleasures are characterized not by a rush of sensory pleasure, but instead by having one’s needs met. On your birthday, you might receive kinetic pleasure from a piece of birthday cake, but your greater, or katastematic pleasure, would come from reflecting on the year that’s just passed and concluding that your life is going tolerably well and your relationships are in working order.

Now, when we hear the name Epicurus, we think of a chubby guy propounding the consumption of artisanal cheese and rare truffles. This is, as I said before, a miscategorization. Epicurus promoted the pursuit of something called ataraxia, which scholar Tim O’Keefe describes as “the mental. . .pleasure of being free from regret, fear and anxiety,” often translated as “tranquility.”17 O’Keefe continues a moment later, “Epicurus is properly called a hedonist, since he avows that pleasure is the sole intrinsic good. But given his idiosyncratic understanding of pleasure, with ataraxia being the primary constituent of the happy life, it may be less misleading to call him a ‘tranquilist.’” To Epicurus and Lucretius, scarfing down a dozen cupcakes might offer a burst of ephemeral gratification, or kinetic pleasure, but much more pleasure would be gleaned from sharing cupcakes with friends, and engaging in stimulating dialogue, and experiencing the longer lasting pleasure of discussing shared experiences together.

In fact, friendship itself is one of the core components of Epicurean ethics. Friendships not only provide longer lasting pleasures than food and drink, friendships also help the Epicurean pursue his ultimate goal of tranquility, or ataraxia. If you are alone and friendless, you are far more vulnerable to misfortune than someone with a circle of close companions. The Epicurean, who ideally has strong personal relationships, can know that he’ll get by with a little help from his Epicurean friends, and his sense of stability and serenity is heightened because of this. Epicurus and Lucretius, who did not think that any solicitous gods were watching over humanity, believed that friendship offered a tempered sense of security and hope for the future. [music]

Remnants of an Epicurean’s Estate: The Villa of the Papyri

So that is a very brief overview of Epicurean ethics, which promote the pursuit of a tranquil, untroubled psychology and the cultivation of rich friendships as a means to achieve this. Epicurus himself, unfortunately, like the Milesian school of philosophers and many others from the ancient Greco-Roman world, was a very influential figure from whom we have no reliable source texts. One of the more tantalizing discoveries in literary history was a library excavated during the eighteenth century, the library of a large house in the Roman city of Herculaneum. Herculaneum, along with Pompeii and several smaller settlements along the Gulf of Naples, was buried beneath volcanic ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in the summer or autumn of 79 CE. The disaster was a well-documented catastrophe, claiming thousands of lives, but it also preserved a number of archaeological sites, including entire villas. One of these, which archaeologists have nicknamed Villa of the Papyrii, contained around a thousand papyrus scrolls stowed into cases. These scrolls held a large quantity of work from Lucretius’ contemporary Epicurean philosopher, Philodemus, and also fragments of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. Having survived a pyroclastic flow following an exploding volcano, the Villa of the Papyrii manuscripts aren’t exactly in very good shape, at this point being little more than carbonized scraps that slept underneath ash flow for about 1,700 years.

Maison des Papyrus lucretius ideology

An early map of the vast Villa of the Papyrii, near modern day Naples, probably an estate, during Lucretius’ lifetime, owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso.

Still, these scraps tell us a bit more about Epicurean philosophy, and the lifestyles of some of the people who practiced it. We’re not entirely sure who owned the Villa of the Papyri, but compelling evidence exists suggesting that during the lifetime of Lucretius it was owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso, a patriarch in prominent patrician family, roughly a contemporary of Lucretius and also the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. A note written to the patrician Lucius Calpurnius Piso, composed by the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus, was discovered in one of Philodemus’ books at the Villa of the Papyri, which seems to have been an invitation to Philodemus’ house. “Tomorrow, friend Piso,” the note reads, “your musical comrade drags you to his modest [home] at three in the afternoon, feeding you at your annual [holiday] visit. . .If you will miss [fine wine]. . .yet you will see faithful comrades, [and] hear [beautiful] things.”18 It’s a fascinating little note – this little scrap of correspondence between philosopher and devotee, lost for almost two thousand years. And it sounds like an invitation to a pleasant, tipsy afternoon, more than a studious philosophical conversation.

Indeed, the overall scope and opulence of the Villa of the Papyrii doesn’t exactly suggest an atmosphere of austere intellectualism. It was a private oceanfront resort, an 800 foot or 250 meter long complex of linked structures facing the ocean. In the large patrician villa were broad colonnaded corridors, housing a huge swimming pool, an atrium, and four terraced stories beneath the main one, all looking out on the Gulf of Naples. While the gigantic scope of the villa, the honeycomb of guest rooms, and the thousand plus papyrus scrolls discovered there all suggest the owner’s great wealth, the complex was also home to a fine collection of sculptures – dancers, athletes, deities, busts of prominent Romans, lifelike animals, a bizarre and graphic statue of Pan having sex with a goat, and, of course, a likeness of Epicurus himself. Excavators of Herculaneum, chipping volcanic rock off of various cases of papyrus scrolls, gradually realized that they were uncovering a library. But it was a library in which reading might be interspersed with baths, seaside strolls, music, food, wine, and the perusal of fine art. It all sounds like a pleasant atmosphere for residence and education, and in the 1950s, when the oil magnate Paul Getty planned a public gallery to house his own collection of Greco-Roman sculptures, the Getty Villa opened in the Pacific Palisades north of Los Angeles, its design carefully modeled on that of the Villa of the Papyrii.

Getty villa, peristilio esterno 15 lucretius world

The Getty Villa, inspired by a home in the ancient resort town of Herculaneum destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in late 79 BCE. Photo by Sailko.

As I said a moment ago, scraps of Lucretius’ poem On the Nature of Things have been discovered at the real Villa of the Papyrii just a few miles southeast of modern day Naples. And since the other Epicurean philosopher Philodemus was also hanging around the Villa of the Papyri, and also since the villa’s owner in the early first century BCE was without a doubt an Epicurean, it’s likely that Lucretius himself visited this villa, read his works there, shared ideas with the villa’s owner and guests, and, I have to think, gawked at the grotesque sculpture of the god Pan copulating with a goat.

The atmosphere evident at the Villa of the Papyrii – well-heeled Romans, their slaves, and their philosopher guests – this atmosphere helps explain why Epicurean philosophy has been maligned as one of mere hedonism. We don’t know the extent to which Epicureanism pervaded the lower classes of ancient Mediterranean society, but we do have concrete evidence that this materialist philosophy, which encouraged its adherents to engage in deep friendships, moderate pleasures, and the overall pursuit of tranquility – we know that Epicureanism could appeal to Roman elites.

Now we’ve talked a lot about Hellenistic cult religions in this show – the cult of Dionysus, which made Euripides grimace and the Maccabee brothers start a war; the cults of Isis, Cybele, and Mithras, which began to crisscross the Mediterranean after the campaigns of Alexander the Great. We’ve talked about how these cult religions often appealed to their devotees because they offered posthumous salvation and the promise of divine justice, a closer relationship with a deity and a hope that slaves and laborers and the impoverished and unemployed might expect something other than unending misery and oppression. Through these cults, and later of course early Christianity, a wide variety of assurances were available to the masses of the Mediterranean world. But Epicureanism offered them comparably little. If you imagine a ploughman, laboring away in the hot valley on the landward side of Vesuvius, month after month and year after, and this ploughman actually seeing the iron of his tools diminishing season after season – if you imagine this guy, you get a pretty clear sense of why Epicureanism didn’t acquire the broad base of support that Christianity eventually did. Epicurus would tell our hypothetical plowman that the universe was nothing but atoms, that death was the end, and that in order to pass the time he should seek out tranquility and friendships. Jesus, not too long afterward, would tell our hypothetical ploughman that yes, indeed, life was quite difficult, but that the architect of the universe loved the poor ploughman and if this farmer was willing, he could have all the happiness and tranquility that had been denied to him in life, after he died. Epicureanism, on the other hand, told ancient Mediterranean plowmen to pursue a tranquility that was unavailable to their social class, nurture friendships in the leisure time that they did not possess, and abandon the spiritual expectations which were often their only source of optimism. Christianity told them that their fate was in their own hands, that an ageless and beautiful being loved them deeply, and that everything was going to be okay. Whatever your own personal beliefs on these subjects, you can easily see why salvation based cult religions outstripped Epicureanism at the grassroots level.

While Epicureanism’s offerings to Roman commoners ultimately proved less persuasive than Christianity’s, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that Epicurus himself was a moneyed elitist unconcerned with the lives of commoners. Epicurus was famous for having women and slaves admitted into his school. The core of his ethical philosophy was an emphasis on limiting one’s desires, and the notion that any person, whether rich or poor, could attain tranquility. Epicurus may indeed have had a following in the ranks of Rome’s lower classes, who left far fewer written records behind. But history does indicate that the complex materialism and denial of afterlife central to Epicureanism ultimately had less appeal in the Ancient Mediterranean than salvation based faiths like Christianity.

So now we’ve talked about Epicurean physics, and how they piggy backed on the atomism of Democritus and Leucippus and added the concept of the swerve as an explanation for the origin of atomic motion. And we’ve talked about Epicurean ethics – how the pursuit of ataraxia, or tranquility, was the goal of the Epicurean practitioner, and how a closely knit circle of friends was thought to be the key to this tranquility. We discussed the Villa of the Papyri, our primary archaeological source on those who actually practiced Epicureanism, and explored why Epicureanism might appeal to some social classes more than others. What I want to do now is to look at some ancient responses to Epicureanism, both in the writings of contemporary Stoic philosophers, as well as in the Bible itself. [music]

Ancient Responses to Epicureanism

From what we’ve seen so far, it’s obvious why Christianity was directly doctrinally opposed to Epicureanism. A secular philosophy that denied the immortality of the soul and said that the gods had nothing to do with the workings of the world, Epicureanism was from the beginning maligned as a piece of rank paganism, best forgotten. But even before Christianity, Jews were at odds with philosophers like Lucretius. The Apocryphal book The Wisdom of Solomon, produced in Alexandria during the end of the first century BCE, was bashing Epicureanism a generation after Lucretius had defended it. The Wisdom of Solomon wastes no time targeting the followers of Epicurus, the book’s second chapter immediately laying into thinkers like Lucretius. “[T]hey reasoned unsoundly,” says the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon,
saying to themselves. . .
‘[W]e were born by mere chance,
and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been
for the breath in our nostrils is smoke,
and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts;
when it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes,
and the spirit will dissolve like empty air.
Our name will be forgotten in time,
and no one will remember our works. . .
‘Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist. . .
Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes,
and let no flower of spring pass us by. . .
Let none of us fail to share in our revelry;
everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment,
because this is our portion, and this our lot.
Let us oppress the righteous poor man;
let us not spare the widow
or regard the gray hairs of the aged.
But let our might be our law of right,
for what is weak proves itself to be useless.’
[And the speaker of The Wisdom of Solomon concludes later:]
Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray,
for their wickedness blinded them.19

Now this quote, again from the apocryphal book The Wisdom of Solomon, has a lot of interesting stuff in it. The Wisdom of Solomon, quite wise at times although certainly not written by Solomon, was a source of knowledge in Christian monasteries for centuries, and in these centuries, generations of monks would have taken the book’s summary of Epicureanism at face value. The book depicts Epicureans as a flock of perfumed aristocrats, intoxicated enough to distract themselves from the depressing materialism of their own doctrines. Amusingly, this passage’s disparaging account of Epicurean philosophy sounds exactly like the views espoused by the canonical Book of Ecclesiastes – I mean we’ve actually heard this “life is a breath of air, enjoy the material pleasures of existence, there is no afterlife” type stuff before in the Bible itself and the speaker of Ecclesiastes probably would have had a blast at the Villa of the Papyri! – but anyway, that’s a side track. The main point here is that The Wisdom of Solomon adopts the standard Judeo-Christian critique of Epicurean philosophy – that it is boozy, self-indulgent, and defeatist, and at the same time, that it is aristocratic.

I think that The Wisdom of Solomon’s link between wealth and Epicureanism is just as devastating – maybe even more devastating – than the fact that it maligns Epicureanism as sacrilegious. The Wisdom of Solomon explicitly says that the Epicurean “oppress[es] the righteous poor man,” and lets his “might be [his] law of right.” Those are harsh accusations. And although we have little evidence within Lucretius himself that Epicureanism was tailored to literate aristocrats, the Villa of the Papyri suggests that the philosophy was more at home in the villas of affluent bibliophiles than the huts of poor commoners. According to the New Testament, Christianity, which has always prided itself on its egalitarian appeal, evidently didn’t have much trouble steamrolling over Epicureanism’s lumps and bumps. The seventeenth chapter of the Book of Acts tells us that some Epicureans debated with Paul in the city of Athens, but after Paul delivered a punchy sermon atop the Areopagus on the subject of Christian dualism, no one had any counterarguments, and a few Epicureans joined him straightaway.20 We don’t know if this public trouncing of Epicurean philosophy took place, but we do know that Acts, and before it the Wisdom of Solomon, accurately display Christianity’s opposition to Epicurean doctrines.

Just as we today often misunderstand Epicureanism as carpe diem hedonism, then, Jews and Christians during the early Roman Empire saw it as a philosophy of oppressive and deluded aristocrats. Both interpretations of the philosophy are distortive. Epicurus himself promoted a pledge “neither to harm nor be harmed” that was part of a general “justice of nature.”21 Epicurus believed that part of the pursuit of tranquility was acting in accordance with this justice, and this was what he actually was teaching his own commingled classrooms of aristocrats, women and slaves centuries before Epicureanism was maligned in Judeo-Christian scriptures. To Epicurus, stealing from someone, or cheating them, had a devastating effect on one’s tranquility, as it plagued one with guilt and the fear of retribution. The original Epicureans, then, the ones listening to Epicurus talk in 300 BCE, would never dream of oppressing righteous poor men, as the Wisdom of Solomon claims.


Peter Paul Rubens’ drawing of Seneca the Younger.

So, those passages from the Wisdom of Solomon and Acts should give you a sense of how what would later become the dominant European religion disparaged Epicureanism. And Epicureanism had other critics during antiquity. Alongside Epicureanism, a comparably unorthodox philosophy pervaded the Greco-Roman world after the 300s BCE. This philosophy, which we’ll soon see a lot of, was Stoicism. Stoicism came from the same time and place as Epicureanism – the turn of the 300s to the 200s in Athens. The differences between the two schools are complex and often subtler than you might expect. I mean stereotypically, we might expect the stoics to depict themselves as manly men, and Epicureans as a bunch of pansies eating figs at the pool. This isn’t quite the case, though. Let’s hear a stoic philosopher’s take on the difference between the Epicureanism and Stoicism. This is Seneca the Younger, the Stoic philosopher who was a contemporary of Jesus Christ but outlived him by about thirty years. Seneca the Younger writes,
There is a difference between [Stoics] and [Epicureans]: our ideal wise man feels his troubles, but overcomes them; their wise man does not even feel them. But we and they alike hold this idea, – that the wise man is self-sufficient. Nevertheless, he desires friends, neighbors, and associates, no matter how much he is sufficient unto himself. And mark how self-sufficient he is; for on occasion [the wise man] can be content with a part of himself. If he loses a hand through disease or war, or if some accident puts out one or both of his eyes, he will be satisfied with what is left, taking as much pleasure in his impaired and maimed body as he took when it was sound. But while he does not pine for these parts if they are missing, he prefers not to lose them. In this sense the wise man is self-sufficient, that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them.22

So, according to this quote by the undoubtedly learned philosopher and playwright Seneca the Younger, the differences between Epicureanism and Stoicism lay somewhat in how an Epicurean or Stoic dealt with hardship. The Epicurean, whose aim is to maximize tranquility, will – according to Seneca at least – do anything in order to pursue this goal, even if it means lying to himself about his own emotions. The Stoic, on the other hand, will be dead honest with himself, and feel his own sufferings keenly, even if these sufferings involve the loss of parts of his physical body.

Now, there are other doctrinal differences between Epicureanism and Stoicism which we’ll get to when we reach Seneca the Younger himself and Marcus Aurelius. But in looking at the Wisdom of Solomon, and the Book of Acts, and the letters of Seneca, we can see some general trends in attitudes toward Epicureanism. Prevalent religious and philosophical schools around the time of the birth of Christ did not like Epicureanism’s central ethical doctrine. Living for the pursuit of tranquility and friendship, although for different reasons, was a delusional exercise for the Stoic or Christian. And, far worse – especially for Christianity, the cloistered Epicurean lifestyle was the privilege of an oppressive elite.

Unfortunately for Epicurus, and equally Lucretius, subsequent philosophical and religious history latched onto one aspect of Epicurean philosophy – Epicurean ethics – and ignored the much more interesting part of Epicurean philosophy – Epicurean physics. The curators of Benedictine and other libraries during the Middle Ages, monks and abbots mandated to keep an ascetic and bookish regimen, seem to have never made it past the classist stereotypes about Epicureans.23 It was bad enough that these ancients denied the afterlife and immortality of divine beings – that they did so while sipping wine and doing cannonballs into the pools of their rich estates, in contrast to the clammy scriptoriums of medieval monasteries, ensured that Epicurean texts had limited shelf lives.

While Epicureanism has been under fire all along from Stoicism, and for much of its lifespan by Christianity, one final aspect of Epicureanism has mandated recent criticism. That is perhaps what we can call Epicureanism’s aversion to public life. As Tim O’Keefe puts it, to Epicureans, “engagement with the hurly-burly of politics is risky and a bad strategy for achieving tranquility.”24 O’Keefe continues a moment later, “it may seem that the Epicurean is, after all, a sort of free-rider. While it is necessary to have people engage in civic life, to craft laws well for the sake of ensuring the smooth functioning of society, the wise Epicurean is content to leave that hard and troublesome work to others while reaping the rewards” (146).

So a more modern criticism of Epicureanism is, in a word, that Epicureans were pursuing tranquility in their walled villas while the world burned. At worst, we can see Epicureanism as a doctrine that enabled the cronyism and opulence of Rome’s one percent – one which invited them to turn away from the social problems of their time and discuss atomic theory in their private breezeways. If Lucius Calpurnius Piso, the probable owner of the Villa of the Papyri, had spent less time with his philosopher buddy Philodemus, caviling about how to achieve tranquility, and more time with his nuclear warhead of a son-in-law, Julius Caesar, perhaps Caesar himself would have been drawn toward the elegant moderatism of Epicurean philosophy, not claimed the title of Dictator for Life in the awful early spring of 44 BCE, and instead tried to preserve the old checks and balances system of the Republic. It’s a silly scenario in some ways, but it illustrates a modern criticism of Epicureanism. A philosophy that encourages the sequestered pursuit of tranquility is of limited use in an age in which tranquility is increasingly impossible for the common person.

Still, let’s stay in that month – mid-February of 44 BCE, actually, because I want to give Epicureanism its due. I want to go back in time to before our modern academic criticisms of it, before the eruption of Vesuvius, before hundreds of monks wrinkled their noses at Epicureanism’s ideas and refused to copy them, and before even Christianity, and try to imagine the world into which it first spread and proliferated. [music]

Lupercalia, Rome, February of 44 BCE


Mark Antony offers Caesar a crown at Lupercalia in this 1894 illustration.

Ancient Rome was notorious for its many holidays. One of them – Lupercalia – is at the center of one of the most famous episodes in Roman history. As the historian Plutarch tells it, the month before Julius Caesar was assassinated, he had been walking a fine line between pursuing a sole dictatorship and maintaining an outward appearance of humility, somehow managing to aggrandize himself by means of an extravagant and performative modesty. Caesar had refused the title of king when arriving back in Rome, much to the dismay of the public. And yet although he refused coronation, while sitting in the Senate not long afterwards, Caesar also would not rise to greet an incoming assembly of praetors and consuls. Caesar remained sitting, leaving the political body of Rome wondering what to do with the recently returned celebrity general, who, although he would not claim a crown outright, nonetheless declined to pay deference to the Republic’s traditional leadership structure.

This uncomfortable balance continued up to the holiday of Lupercalia in mid-February of 44. During this celebration, Caesar did something that epitomized his peculiar and dangerous political position. Now, the Lupercalia was an old pagan holiday, dating perhaps to before the Republic. And to quote Plutarch’s narration of this pivotal moment in Roman history,
It was, namely, the festival of Lupercalia, of which many write that it was anciently celebrated by shepherds. . .At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped to an easy delivery, and the barren to pregnancy. These ceremonies Caesar was witnessing, seated upon the rostra on a golden throne, arrayed in triumphal attire. And [Mark] Antony was one of the runners in the sacred [Lupercalia] race; for he was consul. Accordingly, after he had dashed into the forum and the crowd had made way for him, [Mark Antony] carried a diadem, round which a wreath of laurel was tied, and held it out to Caesar. Then there was applause, not loud, but slight and [prearranged]. But when Caesar pushed away the diadem, all the people applauded; and when Antony offered it again, few, and when Caesar declined it again, all, applauded. The experiment having thus failed, Caesar rose from his seat, after ordering the wreath to be carried up to the Capitol; but then his statues were seen to have been decked with royal diadems. So two of the tribunes, Flavius and Maryllus, went up to them and pulled off the diadems, and after discovering those who had first hailed Caesar as king, led them off to prison.25

Plutarch’s portrait of Caesar at Lupercalia is vivid – a month before his assassination, the populist general first refuses to rise for the Senate, and then, in the midst of an ancient purification and fertility ritual, basks in the adoring glow of the public while making a great show of not seeking kingship for himself. This scene of Caesar on a golden throne, thronged by celebrants, has a special significance in literary history. Shakespeare, who consulted and occasionally plagiarized a 1579 translation of Plutarch, used this episode to begin his own play Julius Caesar. The two tribunes mentioned by Plutarch, Flavius and Maryllus, appear with the same names in Act 1, Scene 1, incensed that the demagogue Caesar is publically flirting with the role of monarch. Amidst the revelry and pagan excesses of Lupercalia, Shakespeare’s tribunes criticize the fecklessness of plebeian tastes and the general idiocy of the holiday.

Epicurus Lucretius idol

Epicureanism, like stoicism and the salvation based cult religions of the Hellenistic period, was an antidote for the chaos and civil unrest of daily life.

Plutarch and Shakespeare seem to have both found the Lupercalia festival amusing. Plutarch’s description of women waiting to be whipped by nude men, women who again “like children at school present their hands to be struck” so that their fertility might be increased – this description is not of a sacred and respectable religious rite, but instead a hokey and undignified jubilee. Although Christianity had not yet taken hold in February of 44 BCE, the old Greco-Roman polytheism had already been substantially undercut by salvation-based cult religions – the cults of Cybele, Isis, Dionysus Zagreus, and Mithras. Rome had been sopping up religions from provincial territories for generations already, and so, as Roman youths emerged, nude, from the Lupercal cave on the base of the Palatine Hill – that same cave where Romulus and Remus had supposedly once suckled a she-wolf – as Roman youths emerged from this cave with leather thongs and began dashing around the city, observing audiences would have understood that they were watching a religious ritual in a diverse, pluralistic world in which many religions, and many religious rituals existed. To quote historian Mary Beard, Roman religion “was a religion of doing, not believing,” and so needless to say, the entertaining spectacle of naked people running around with makeshift whips amidst holiday decorations probably drove the perpetuation of Lupercalia far more than whatever sketchy theological ideas lay behind it.26

This was the world in which Epicureanism had been spreading, and would continue to spread. A puffed up demagogue was unmistakably steering Rome back in the direction of monarchy. The vast populace believed that either their new dictator or one of half a dozen cult deities would finally and conclusively deliver them from their ancestral woes. The Senate, some of whom knew exactly what was going on, wanted to guard their old order of wealth and privilege. Meanwhile, a weekly carnival of clownish polytheistic rituals was deployed, some genuinely sacred, others, we can assume, collectively understood as relics from the ancient past. If you imagine yourself on the ground during the Lupercalia of mid-February of 44 BCE, a month before the assassination of Julius Caesar, then I think you can understand why some people – people like Epicurus, Philodemus, Lucretius, and Lucius Calpurnius Piso, looked around at the chaos of their respective periods of history, sighed, and retired to the literary and philosophical pursuits of their homes. Maybe their retreats from political and military conflicts were marked by faintheartedness. If so, it’s difficult to blame them. The civil wars and triumvirates of the first century BCE, which Lucretius’ generation endured, and, for that matter, the apocalypse of warfare that followed Alexander’s death, that Epicurus himself lived through – these were periods in which individual volition was especially vulnerable unpredictable turns of fortune’s wheel. If you’re almost two hours into an educational podcast episode on Lucretius and ancient atomism, and chose not to listen to the news today instead, I don’t think I need to explain to you the nature of what Epicureans did, or why they did it. [music]

A Therapeutic Meditation on the Fear of Death

You can’t discuss Epicurean philosophy without dealing with their ethics, and how these ethics ended up coloring their subsequent reputation. However, at the center of Epicurean philosophy is the main idea and title of today’s show – Episode 45: The Uncuttables. Epicureans took the decaying polytheism of the Greco-Roman world and put in its place atomism, an old and graceful doctrine that never needed to explain injustice or the problem of evil, as it saw all of human existence as the result of the random pulsations of the universe.

One of literature’s great modern scholars recently came out with a book on Lucretius and the astonishing chance rediscovery of Lucretius’ work in 1417 by a former apostolic secretary named Poggio Bracciolini. The scholar in question is Stephen Greenblatt, and the book is called The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, and it won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. Greenblatt’s book is a essentially a gripping case study of how one unlikely volume was resurrected after centuries of neglect, and how the ideas in this book directly contributed to the scientific revolution – so in it, you get to learn about the world of Lucretius himself as well as the literary culture of the Late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Greenblatt is never afraid to offer up autobiographical information about when and where he first read this or that book, and he recollects buying a translation of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things in a bargain bin for a dime, just before summer vacation, partly because it had a nice picture on the cover. And, as Greenblatt relates in the Preface to The Swerve, he was surprised that Lucretius’ great book immediately, and personally appealed to him. “The core of Lucretius’ poem,” Greenblatt writes, “is a profound, therapeutic meditation on the fear of death, and that fear dominated my entire childhood.”27 Greenblatt goes on to talk about why this was the case, and you can read The Swerve or On the Nature of Things yourself for the full story, of course, but let’s have one final thought on Lucretius.

Opponents of the Epicureans have accused them of being rich and out of touch, being sacrilegious, and most often, being mere hedonists. All Epicureans were some of these things, and surely some Epicureans were all of these things. But at the same time, Epicureans were among the first in recorded philosophical history to unabashedly embrace pure materialism. They prized learning, philosophical discussion, and the collective pursuit of the truth over divine revelation, and if their collective pursuit of the truth tended to take place in private enclaves, maybe they believed that such enclaves could spread and proliferate and proselytize, making the world a better place by the examples they were setting.28 It is possible that in the greatest Epicureans, the disbelief in a watchful deity or deities created a sense of accountability, for if Zeus and Apollo were also just decaying parts of the atomic slush pile, then mankind had a greater responsibility to sort out its own affairs. But after spending a fair amount of time with atomism and Epicurean philosophy, I find myself agreeing with Greenblatt that “The core of Lucretius’ poem is a profound, therapeutic meditation on the fear of death.”

In our own past episodes of this podcast, we’ve seen a Mesopotamian scribe fearfully writing about the dark underworld that claimed first Enkidu and after him Gilgamesh, whose greatest and only fear is his own mortality. We have read the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, and seen a culture that endured for three thousand years that at various points seemed to think little else than death. We’ve heard the grim words of Achilles in Book 11 of the Odyssey, in which the dead warrior reveals that Hades is indeed lightless and awful. In the Prophetic Books we have seen Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel predict posthumous horrors for the Israelites and their enemies alike. So when Greenblatt calls On the Nature of Things “a profound, therapeutic meditation on the fear of death,” he’s right to do so. Two thousand years before Lucretius, in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the tale of Ishtar and Tammuz, Mesopotamians told stories about the darkness and horror of the afterlife, and up until Epicurus, with the exceptions of perhaps Ecclesiastes and the Book of Job, the literature of the Bronze and Iron Ages seethes with anxiety about what happens to us after we die. Epicurus proposed there was no need for such anxiety, and Lucretius, two and a half centuries later, wrote a poem that actually celebrates the transience of mortality. The Akkadian title of the Epic of Gilgamesh is sha naqba imuru, or “He Who Saw the Deep,” which refers to the depths that the story’s hero faced when contemplating his own mortality. If we had to adapt this title to describe the work of Lucretius, it might be, “He Who Saw the Deep, and Smiled.” [music]

Moving on to Cicero

I’d like to thank Professor Tim O’Keefe of Georgia State University for reading over a transcription of this show before I recorded it. When I was looking for a great single-volume source on Epicureanism a couple of years ago, I found his book, titled Epicureanism, and published by Routledge in 2014. Now, my degrees are in literature, but I do enjoy reading philosophical history, too. And I have a special penchant for historians of philosophy who have the ability to write a thorough, well researched book with both academic verve and also the occasional wisecrack or amusing anecdote. O’Keefe’s book is just this kind of volume – it will give you a lot more depth about the history and intricacies of Epicurean philosophy, and it will also make you smile and laugh from time to time at some of the oddities of this philosophy and the examples he musters to explain them. The book is currently featured in our book store, and I hope some of you guys will pick up Tim O’Keefe’s Epicureanism and learn more about Epicurus, Lucretius, and their worlds. Tim, thanks again for trekking over from the world of philosophy helping with our literature podcast.

In the next show, we’re going to meet one of Rome’s most famous writers, and one who has, unlike Lucretius, always been popular. He was born in 106 BCE, and died in 43. His book De Officiis was the second volume printed in Europe, after the Gutenberg printing press was used in the mid-1450s to print the first mechanically reproduced Bible. He was a lawyer, a consul, an orator, a philosopher, a translator, a historian, a senator, a great friend and father, and a bold champion of the old Republican order. His name was Marcus Tullius Cicero, and he was so central to Roman history, and the history of Roman literature, that we’re going to do three episodes on him. So next time, in Episode 46: The Republic at Twilight, we’re going to learn about Cicero’s early career and first thirty years of life – the terrifying events that he lived through, the talents and the resilience that he showed early on, and the complex and corrupt world of Roman politics in the 70s and 60s BCE. The sheer size of Cicero’s gamut of work, and the extent to which it’s interwoven with one of the more convoluted periods of Roman history, makes him an intimidating person to approach. Further, for students of literature proper, Cicero isn’t quite a Roman author in the way that, say, Virgil and Ovid are. However, I think that knowing Cicero’s full story, from his inauspicious birth to his world famous death, is essential for understanding Roman culture and society just before the birth of the empire. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and Cicero and I will see you next time.


1.^ See Waterfield, Robin. The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and the Sophists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 17-20.

2.^ Aristotle. Physics. Quoted in Complete Works. United Kingdom, 2013. Kindle Edition, Location 8776.

3.^ Waterfield (2000), p. 59.

4.^ Waterfield,(2000), pp. 172-3.

5.^ A quote from Aëtius’ Opinions, in Waterfield (2000) p. 175-6.

6.^ Ibid, p. 175.

7.^ Ibid, p. 177.

8.^ Another influence may have been their near contemporary Zeno of Elea, who generated the Race Course paradox, or the paradox about Achilles and the turtle. The puzzle suggests infinite subtasks go into any task, and against the notion of infinite subunits forming any larger unit, Democritus and Leucippus provide the atom as a basic indivisible unit, thus solving the Race Course paradox on a material level.

9.^ Waterfield (2000), p. 172.

10.^ The 5th-century CE compiler Stobaeus wrote that for Democritus and Leucippus, “The guides to what is good and bad for people are pleasure and pain,” and additionally, “Moderation increases pleasure and exaggerates enjoyment” (Waterfield p. 191). These and other quotes from Stobaeus indicate that the cardinal Epicurean principle of living for moderate pleasure probably had roots in the philosophies of earlier atomists.

11.^ Aristotle, Metaphysics 985b4-20. Quoted in Waterfield, p. 172.

12.^ O’Keefe, Tim. Epicureanism. London and New York: Routledge, 2014, p. 26.

13.^ For a much more detailed discussion, I recommend Chapter 8, “Freedom and Determinism” of Tim O’Keefe’s Epicureanism (pp. 73-83).

14.^ Knox, Peter E. and McKeown, J.C. The Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 72.

15.^ Knox, Peter E. and McKeown, J.C. The Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 73-4. Further references to this book will be noted parenthetically.

16.^ Quoted in Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011. Kindle Edition, Location 720.

17.^ O’Keefe, p. 120. For a full account of pleasure and desire in Epicurean philosophy, see “Varieties of Pleasure” and “Varieties of Desire” in Epicureanism, pp. 117-127.

18.^ Quoted in Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011. Kindle Edition, Location 928.

19.^ Wisdom of Solomon, 2:1-4, 6-7, 9-11, 21. Quoted in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Fourth Edition, ed. Michael D. Coogan et. al. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, pp.1429-30.

20.^ See Acts 17:18-19, 29-31.

21.^ The first quote comes from O’Keefe, Tim. Epicurus on Freedom. Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 134. The second is from O’Keefe’s Epicureanism (2014), p. 142.

22.^ Seneca. Letters from a Stoic. Translated and with notes by Richard Gummere. Lexicos Publishing, 2011, p. 11. Note that in contrast to our modern definition of stoicism as a state of unfeeling or insensitivity, Seneca explicitly states that the wise stoic keenly feels his tribulations, in contrast to the Epicurean, who seeks not to feel.

23.^ Greenblatt’s portrait of European monastic culture in 1417 is characteristically vivid. See Chapter 2 of The Swerve.

24.^ O’Keefe, Tim. Epicureanism. London and New York: Routledge, 2014, p. 145.

25.^ Plutarch. The Complete Works of Plutarch. Hastings: East Sussex: Delphi Publishing Ltd, 2013. Kindle edition, Locations 22380-22391.

26.^ Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. New York and London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016, p. 103.

27.^ Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011.

28.^ As Tim O’Keefe puts it, “By providing a model of rational and tranquil community life, and by engaging in the activity of proselytizing others to join this community, Epicureans can serve as a catalyst for social reform even without engaging directly in the irksome business of politics” (146).