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Topic #F52

Epicurus and Lucretius: love and death

4 February 2002
Scribe: Jacqueline Tsai


These minutes were spoken on 6 February; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes



                  Monday’s lecture began with an announcement concerning the return of minutes, which will hopefully occur prior to Reading Week.


                  In the readings there were many arguments about the materiality of the soul (which we only briefly mentioned) and our death as total annihilation.  There are at least 28 separate arguments as Epicurus and Lucretius were not satisfied with one vague explanation.  Some of the arguments are indeed correct including present known facts about biochemical and physiological mixes of the body having measurable effects on awareness; how and what we think, etc.  There is a high integration between mind and body, but whether there is room for explanation of self-awareness and freedom remains enduring philosophical questions.  According to Epicureans, the mind does not consist of substance of a different order.  Heraclitus, on the other hand, thought that it was warm, firey stuff that lived in the bright heavens, from where, according to Plato and Aristotle, we are colonists, so our ancestry is of a celestial substance.  The Stoics didn’t go as far in this direction, but they had their own fancy explanation of the soul.  So, the Epicurean theory is a radical break in tradition.


                  Book IV of Lucretius possesses content of sexual desire and the mania of love.  If we read backwards from the assigned section, we discover that Book IV is about the philosophy of mind; motivation, dreams, and images.  There is an explanation of dreams and sleep, and how we can sketch a mechanical explanation of dreaming.  Lucretius states that dreams are not sent to individual dreamers from the gods (there are no cell phone connections to individuals), but instead broadcast promiscuously.  A student then asked, “Isn’t it obvious that dreams are made from images we have when we are conscious during the day?”  Although it is correct that dreams can be based on images we have while conscious, this doesn’t explain prophetic dreams about the future.  Any theory of dreams has to do with experience, but is not experience-based.  Aristotle also rejected the idea that dreams were messages from the gods leaving himself and the Epicureans as the only skeptics of the period.  Yet, entire manuals were written in later times on how to interpret dreams, e.g. The Book of Dreams by a certain Artemisodorus.  The dominant cultural environment took prophetic dreams as a given from which our explanations need to start; the Epicureans explain them in terms of a sort of theory of nighttime perception.


                  At line 1030 there is a shift from the topic of dreams to that of sexual desire:


Then too a boy through whose adolescent body the seed is just beginning to surge, when the ripeness of time has created it in his limbs, is visited by images from some body or other, introducing an exquisitely fair face and a beautiful complexion.  These visions excite and stimulate the parts that are turgid with an abundance of seed, often causing him, as though in consummation of the act, to ejaculate great waves of fluid and stain his night clothes.  (4.1030-1037)


This transition comes very suddenly and very surprisingly, like the phenomenon itself.  At line 1038 there is a hydraulic explanation of the male libido.  At line 1044 there is a deconstruction of confusion:


These parts are stimulated and swell with seed, and the desire arises to emit the seed toward the object of our dire craving.  The body seeks the object that has wounded the mind with love.  For, as a general rule, all fall toward their wound: out gushes the blood in the direction from which the blow has been dealt, and, if the assailant is at close quarters, he is stained by the crimson jet.  The same is true of the man who is wounded by the darts of Venus: whether they are launched by a boy with effeminate limbs or by a woman whose whole body radiates love, he moves towards the source of the blow, yearning to copulate and ejaculate the accumulated fluid from body to body; for his speechless desire augurs the pleasure to come. 

                  This is what we call Venus.  This is also what gives us our name for love; this is the source of that honeyed drop of Venus’ sweetness that is first distilled into our heart, to be followed by chilling care.  (4.1044-1060)


Sexual desire is an injury coming from an object that has struck it.  Lucretius routinely juxtaposes mention of pleasures with an immediate cold shower of regret and absurdity.  There is a purification of catharsis for its readers.  The passage starting at line 1142 is a description of euphemisms men have for women.  This is a derivation from a passage in Plato’s Republic (474d+) where people are spoken of as inventing names for their beloved.


                  Two other famous passages were discussed.  The first heightens the metaphor between desire and injury:


So far as this one thing is concerned, the more of it we have, the more fiercely our breast burns with dire craving.  Food and drink are taken in to our body and, since they are able to occupy fixed parts, easily assuage our hunger and thirst.  But from the fair face and complexion of a human being nothing passes into the body for enjoyment except impalpable images, a sorry hope often snatched away by the wind.  Just like thirsty people who in dreams desire to drink and, instead of obtaining water to quench the fire that consumes their limbs, with vain effort pursue images of water and remain thirsty, though they drink in the midst of a torrent stream, so, in love, lovers are deluded by Venus with images: no matter how intently they gaze at the beloved body, they cannot sate their eyes; nor can they remove anything from the velvety limbs that they explore with roving, uncertain hands.  At last, with limbs interlocked, they enjoy the flower of youth: they body has a presentiment of ecstasy, and Venus is on the point of sowing the woman’s fields; they greedily press body to body and intermingle the salivas of their mouths, drawing deep breaths and crushing lips with teeth.  But it is all in vain, since they cannot take away anything from their lover’s body or wholly penetrate it and merge into it.  At times they do indeed seem to be striving and struggling to do this: so eagerly do they remain fettered in the bonds of Venus, while their limbs are slackened and liquefied by the force of the ecstasy.  At length, when the accumulated desire has burst from their genitals, there is a brief respite in their raging passion.  Then the same madness returns, and they have another fit of frenzy: they seek to attain what they desire, but fail to find an effective antidote to their suffering: in such deep doubt do they pine away with an invisible wound.  (4.1089-1121)


There is a simple mechanical point that food, drink, and sex are obviously great temptations to self-control.  Food is natural and pleasurable for us to have, and eating is an immensely profound pleasure that is often taken for granted.  Sex, on the other hand, is a less urgent need than food.  The asymmetry between the two is that there is something that will satisfy hunger, but nothing satisfies when making love.  There is an addictive quality to sexual love, and it can be a dangerous trap, especially since you can’t get anything out of the person.  This suggests deep confusion for the after sex state.  But, Lucretius does not think that humans are ridiculous for making love because the real problem is in the love not the sex.  Love causes irrationality to set in.  The prophylactic for irrationality is to be cured of your excessive desire, by means of a cold shower of disillusionment:


But even supposing the beauty of her face is all that could be desired, and the power of Venus radiates from all her limbs, what of it?  There are others like her; we have lived without her until now; and her behavior is, as we know, just the same as that of an ugly woman.  The wretched creature fumigates herself with such foul perfumes that her maids give her a wide berth and giggle behind her back.  (4.1172-1177) 



Friendship is the most important asset in life, and should be separated from love at all costs.  One should only indulge appetite for sexual pleasure when it is risk free as there is a limit to how urgent this need is.  No one has died from not fulfilling his sexual urges.  The decision about whether one should indulge sexual appetite depends primarily on the downside risk and not the upside potential.  Therefore, daughters of prominent people, women who will blow the whistle on you or are troublesome to make love to are off limits.  So, sex is permissable as long as the woman is willing and keen, it is risk free, and doesn’t involve falling in love.  Prof. Hutchinson had previously asked a group of students of sex, love, and friendship, which they would be least willing to live without if they were only allowed two options.  Most students were least willing to live without love, and so Lucretius’ sentiments on the matter do not seem to fall well even now.  One must then wonder where this leaves the concept of family if men are meant to be in the company of willing women.  According to Epicureans, marriage should be avoided and occur if and only if individuals are willing to handle the challenge of responsibility.  They would also have agreed with birth control.  This is the source of the notion that there existed mass orgys in these schools.  Experience shows that in any continuing community, sexual relations will follow.  So, there is room for interesting speculation about this side of the teaching.


                  We then moved on to discuss the second of the ‘Woody Allen’ themes: love and death.  The Epicurean view on death was the enemy idea.  If you were a religious thinker about the soul, then it was not well perceived.  L. Hutchinson’s manuscript couldn’t be published in the 17th century when it was written and in fact was only published about 5 years ago.  In the mid 18th century it was dangerous to have sympathy toward Epicureanism.  David Hume covered up the fact that he took on Epicurean ideas.  His essays “On Suicide” and “Of the Immortality of the Soul” were not published until later in life.  His book, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, was left to Adam Smith to publish after Hume’s death, but even he would not take on the task and passed the work to another person. 


                  When Hume took sick with cancer of the lower intestine, he aroused a lot of interest as he was known not to believe in the afterlife of the soul.  His friend, Boswell, visited him in Edinburgh where he witnessed Hume dying in complete cheerfulness (Boswell’s account can be found in Mossner’s The Life of David Hume).  Boswell began having nightmares after Hume’s death that persisted until he dreamed one night that Hume was greeted by St. Peter at the pearly gates.  We have come a long way from this. 


                  The program of a memorial meeting for Don Paul Fowler, a friend of Prof. Hutchinson’s who died in 1999, is an example of an Epicurean death.  As Fowler was an Epicurean, one doesn’t grieve or mourn for deadly sensations.  There should be no pity for the deceased, but we feel sorry for the disagreeable sensation that those still alive experience.  These are Fowler’s words written shortly before his death:


I have thought a little about why I am preparing a document on my memorial meeting when as a good Epicurean I believe that I can have no rational concern for what happens after my death.  I think I am motivated by two concerns.  First, I should like it to be an expression of how I feel myself about my life and my death: what I want to say about what has happened to me.  Second, I want to be able to say thank you to all the people who have made that life and death happy, in large ways and small.  The meeting will obviously have other purposes, but I hope that this latter purpose, especially, will be among them.


Undergraduate teaching has been my main occupation for nearly twenty years and, for all the pressures and frustrations, it has brought me enormous pleasure to have had the privilege to teach at Jesus such a splendid collection of young men and women, many of whom have become close friends.


I have been a fortunate man, and I have died happy.  I know that my death does not bring happiness to others, but grief and trouble, but I should like any memorial to me to end on a note of happy defiance of the grim reaper.


(from the program of the Memorial Meeting for Don Paul Fowler, 2000 May 6, Oxford)


The memorial did end on a happy note with a congregational singing of  “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”.  It seems we have come a long way from 1776 even though this service might appear odd, perhaps even weird, but it is at least comprehensible and understandable.