back to PHL200Y home page

back to course outline


Topic #F49

Epicurus, Principal Doctrines and Vatican Sayings


28 January 2002
Scribe: Lukas Tagalakis


These minutes were spoken on 30 January; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes



                  The focus of the lecture was the slogans of Epicurus. We began by looking at a quote from Lucretius, from “On the Nature of Things” in book three, which exemplifies great rhetoric:


You, who out of such deep darkness first found a way to raise such brilliant light and illumine life’s comforts, you, glory of the Greek people, I follow, and in your footsteps I now tread boldly-less from a desire to rival you than because of love, which inspires me to imitate you. In any case, how could a swallow compete with a swan? Or how could an unsteady-legged kid match in a race the strength of a mettlesome horse? You are our father and the discoverer of truth: you supply us with fatherly precepts; and from your pages, illustrious master, like the bees which in flowerful vales sip each bloom, we feed on each golden saying-golden and ever most worthy of eternal life. As soon as your philosophy begins to proclaim the true nature of things revealed by your divine mind, the terrors of the mind are dispelled, the walls of the world dispart, and I see what happens throughout the whole void. Plainly visible are the gods in their majesty, and their calm realms which, buffeted by no wind, sprinkled by no storm cloud’s shower, sullied with no white fall of snow crystallized by biting frost, are ever pavilioned by a cloudless ether that smiles with widespread flood of radiance. All the needs of the gods are supplied by nature, and nothing at any time detracts from their peace of mind. On the other hand, nowhere are the precincts of Acheron visible, even though the earth does not prevent me from discerning all that happens down in the expanse of space beneath our feet. At this experience, at this realization that by your power nature has been so completely exposed and unveiled on every side, I am thrilled by a kind of divine ecstasy and quaking awe.


Lucretius describes the Epicurean tradition with religious fervor. In this passage he exhibits his love and respect for the tradition and thought, as well as pays homage to Epicurus. In this tradition there is a heaven but no hell for gods, as well as for humans. Every human and godly need is supplied by nature. Hell is non-existent for our race in the afterlife but rather only exists in its earthly form; the one we create ourselves. That is the hell sprouting from human anxieties, fear, insecurity, etc.. Humans under Epicurean doctrine felt a kinship with their gods as their realities intertwined. The effect of the Epicurean conception of the cosmos was one of great excitement and intrigue.


Prof. Hutchinson commented that in previous years the Epicurean slogans have inspired many negative comments. These slogans seem at best as fragments of arguments. They are like canned philosophy, a handing out of pre-packaged pharmaceuticals. They are short, without argumentation, and have a “take it or leave it” character that may make readers irritated and skeptical. Prof. Hutchinson assured us that just because the Principal Doctrines and the Vatican Sayings are what survived, it does not automatically follow that this was all Epicurus was doing. Epicurus has also contributed long arguments, which exhibit completeness and complexity. For these arguments we have to consult the big book, where these slogans we should keep in our back pocket. Mirrors have been found with Epicurean slogans carved in them that served to remind the faithful of their convictions as they started their day. It kept their beliefs fresh in their minds. In Epicurus’ time diffused wisdom was prevalent. Epicurus wanted to replace that system of thought and teaching with longer and more philosophically sound argumentation. The point is that there were arguments behind each slogan we have today, but we simply lost the argumentation.


Prof. Hutchinson then remembered one of his favourite quotes: “Nothing is enough to someone for whom enough is little”(Vatican #68). If what is enough for most people is not enough for you, then nothing will be, there is no limit to you greed, there is a kind of dependency and weakness of character. Another favourite is “Friendship dances around the world announcing to all of us that we must wake-up to blessedness”(Vatican #52). This one is effective, first, because it is a universal idea, and secondly it expresses that those who lack connections with others live in isolation and in a state of pitiful unconsciousness.


The Principal Doctrines are all attributed to Epicurus, however, of the Vatican Sayings most are attributed to Epicurus, and the others to Metrodorus. They are called the Vatican Sayings because the one surviving manuscript is housed in the Vatican. The church deemed Epicurean philosophy atheistic and a threat to religious ideals. They set out to erase the Epicurean teachings by burning heaps of manuscripts of the poem of Lucretius, almost stamping out every copy. Luckily a 4th century copy survived, and even though its wormholes have left gaps in the text, it survived to produce copies which preserved the text to modern times.


                  Prof. Hutchinson then read a passage from Lucretius in Bk. 6 of “On the nature of Things” which helps us to see the historical connection between Epicurus and Aristippus:


It was Athens of glorious name that in former days first imparted the knowledge of corn-producing crops to suffering mortals and remodeled their lives and established laws; and it was Athens that first bestowed soothing solaces when she gave birth to a man endowed with such great genius, whose lips once gave utterance to true pronouncements on every subject. And even now, though his life’s light is extinguished, the godlike nature of his discoveries ensures that his fame, spread far and wide long ago, and is raised to the skies. He saw that almost everything that necessity demands for subsistence had been already provided for mortals, and that their life was so far as possible, established in security; he saw too the they possessed power, with wealth, honor, and glory, and took pride in the good reputation of their children; and yet they found that, notwithstanding this prosperity, all of them privately had hearts racked with anxiety which, contrary to their wish, tormented their lives without a pause, causing them to chafe and fret. Then he realized that the cause of the flaw was the vessel itself, which by its own flaw corrupted within it all things, even good things, that entered it from without. He became convinced of this, partly because he saw that the vessel was leaky and riddled, so that it could never possibly be filled, and partly because he observed that it contaminated with a foul flavor everything it had taken in. Therefore with words of truth he purged people’s minds by laying down limits to desire and fear, he explained the nature of the supreme good that is our universal goal, and indicated the way, the short and straight path, by which we might reach it.


The vessel reference is an obvious adaptation of the jar analogy in Plato’s Gorgias. This analogy is relayed by Socrates to Callicles, the moral being that the young Callicles has a leaky jar and needs an intake of constant pleasure for refilling, where Socrates’ jar does not leak and he remains tranquil and content. Epicurus, the hedonist, takes this analogy over and agrees with Plato, the anti-hedonist. Aristippus however, clearly did not accept the jar analogy nor did he agree fully with Epicurus, as he had no desire to place limits on our intake of pleasure. Epicurus followed Aristippus in the rejection of the public life. Pottery has been found with slogans on them like: “live life as if you are unlisted” (live a secret life). Epicurus would not vote in any regional elections for he considered himself a citizen of the world and was against jurisdictions.


A student then asked what Epicurus’ views were on friendship, did he make friends with people not following his philosophy, how important was the concept of friendship to him etc.? To answer this Prof. Hutchinson referred us to Slogan #27 of the Principal Doctrines which says: “Of the things which wisdom provides for the blessedness of one’s whole life, by far the greatest is the possession of friendship”. Furthermore “The noble man is most involved with wisdom and friendship, of which one is a mortal good, the other immortal” (Vatican #78 - wisdom is mortal and friendship immortal). Epicurus was interested in the paradoxical nature of friendship. Something inside us yearns to create friendships, to do good for another human being. Friends have claims on us which may sometimes conflict with our immediate wants.  It is this relationship, which is not based on direct self-interest, even though we do gain from embarking on them, where the paradox and great debate lies. Epicurus did not limit whom he befriended to followers of his philosophy, statesmen, etc.


Then a student referred us to Principal Doctrines 20 and 21 that state: “The flesh took the limits of pleasure to be unlimited, and [only] an unlimited time would have provided it. But the intellect, reasoning out the goal and limit of the flesh and dissolving the fears of eternity, provided us with the perfect way of life and had no further need of unlimited time. But it [the intellect] did not flee pleasure, and even when circumstances caused an exit from life it did not die as though it were lacking any aspect of the best life”(20). Also, “He who has learned the limits of life knows that it is easy to provide that which removes the feeling of pain owing to want and make one’s whole life perfect. So there is no need for things which involve struggle”(21). With these slogans in mind Prof. Hutchinson responded to the popular question of why a longer life would not be ideal since more years would seem to imply more pleasure? Epicurus believed that if you lived even one month, and every day was spent in contentment, then that is a perfect life and that nothing could be added to perfection to augment it. Only if there is pain in our lives can we add more pleasure to it. For example, if we are all happy with this reading of the minutes today, then there is nothing that can be added to them to make them better, not another take on them nor more of them; same with a life. We concluded the lecture first, by touching on the Epicurean mathematics of discontinuity; i.e. Quantum limits in nature etc.


We then touched on a fragment where Epicurus says “give me cheese and barley meal, and I will compete with Zeus for happiness”(see Vatican #33). It was this zeal and optimism for life that made the Epicurean doctrine so attractive but at the same time appeared atheistic in a time where even approximating oneself to the god(s) was an offense. Epicurus believed that we could be and live like gods but that we tragically confuse things and allow this utopia to slip through our fingers.