back to PHL200Y home page

back to course outline


Topic #F49

Epicurus, Principal Doctrines and Vatican Sayings


28 January 2002

Scribe: Sarah Minchom


These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes



                  Before beginning on the topic of the slogans of Epicurus, Professor Hutchinson spoke briefly on a subject related to Friday's lecture, wanting to show the character of some of Lucretius' prologues as rhetorical pieces and proems.  Quoting Lucretius' On The Nature Of Things, Book Three: lines 1-13,


                  You, who out of such deep darkness first found a way to raise such a brilliant light and illumine life's comforts, you, 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.


which, mentioning "golden sayings" and "fatherly precepts", is a prayer to Epicurus, he continued to quote from the same passage, lines 14-31,


                  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 through 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 crystallised 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 between our feet.  At this experience, at this realisation 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.


The passage gives a sense of the religious fervour felt by the Epicurean philosophers. 


                  That they felt such a passion is quite paradoxical considering that Epicurus himself did not believe in conventional religion.  His beliefs included the idea that the gods had everything supplied by nature (an idea held true for humans as well); and the existence of a heaven, but not hell, except perhaps the one we create for ourselves in this world, with unnecessary toils and strife.  Believing that what is true for the gods is true for the self, the idea that we are in a heaven, and that hell does not exist, is both comforting and thrilling.


                  Professor Hutchinson next began to discuss the slogans of Epicurus, saying they have inspired many negative responses from undergraduate students, due to their seeming lack of argument, target or specificity, and connection to philosophical ideas and reasoning.  Professor Hutchinson unflatteringly titled it "canned philosophy", each slogan being a bite sized bit.  His response to this negativity is that while these two surviving collections, Principal Doctrines and Vatican Sayings (HP, pp.32-40), are canned wisdom, Epicurus gave many arguments, explanations, etc., in every degree of presentation imaginable, so if you want more, go to the big books.


                  There have been many ancient mirrors, as well as rings, found with Epicurean slogans on them, i.e. "death is nothing", which, Professor Hutchinson speculates, were to help people stay true to their convictions.  The slogan format was the most effective strategy to keep people in line.  As they serve a different function, it is wrong to criticise them for their lack of argument.  Professor Hutchinson quoted his own translation of his two favourite Vatican Sayings, #68 (a similar translation can be found in HP p.39), "if enough isn’t enough for you, then nothing will be enough for you", which presents the importance of limits, and #52 (similar to HP p.38), "friendship dances around the world announcing to all of us that we should wake up to happiness", which presents a very universal idea, which is also very truthful, for people who lack significant connections with others are in a state of unconsciousness, and not thriving in the happy state of those who are with friends.


                  It should be noted that all of the sayings found in Principal Doctrines are attributed to Epicurus, whereas this is not the case with those found in Vatican Sayings.  Many of the latter are identical to those of Metrodorus, thus it is more accurate to attribute Vatican Sayings to Epicurus as well as other early Epicurean masters.


                  In many respects early Christian communities were similar to the Epicurean communities, the result of which was a cult-like competitiveness.  The Christians attempted to eliminate Epicurean philosophy, and the threat it posed, with numerous bannings and book burnings, which were almost successful.  However, one copy of a work by Lucretius survived, in a slightly battered state. The wormholes that wove through the pages had the pattern of appearing every 28th line, thus allowing it to be deduced that there were 28 lines on each page. 


                  Professor Hutchinson pointed out a connection between Epicurus' proem, found in Book Six of On The Nature Of Things, lines 1-29, and its reference to a "leaky and riddled" vessel, and the image in Plato's Gorgias of the leaky jar, which always needs filling, and the position of Callicles.  The best position to be in is to have the jar full, not to be filling it, which Epicurus agrees with (a very odd occurrence), but adds to his image that the vessel is smeared inside with some foul substance, so that even to fill would not bring pleasure, but rather would spoil anything which was added.  Professor Hutchinson then went further to show the contrasting views of Aristippus, a moderate Hedonist, who did not accept the jar model, but was rather interested in the pleasure of the moment.  Yet Aristippus did agree with Epicurus that one should limit one's desires, and they both held a common view that the public life was to be rejected as a life of toil and unnecessary slavery.  One of Epicurus' sayings, found written on a ring, can be translated roughly as "live life as if you were concealed".  Also, he did not believe in jurisdictions, but rather held that we are all citizens of the world. 


                  Turning the rest of the session over to discussion, Professor Hutchinson addressed a students' question of Epicurus' views on friendship.  Since Epicurus mentions friendship a number of times, it is clear that he finds it to be important, and, in fact, he considers it, along with wisdom, to be the most important things in life, as is apparent from Principal Doctrines #27, "Of the things which wisdom provides for the blessedness of one's whole life, by far the greatest is the possession of friendship" (HP p.34).  In Vatican Sayings, #78 (HP p.40), he claims friendship to be immortal, but wisdom mortal.  Epicurus insisted that the fundamental root of friendship lay in ourselves, and that friendships were not entirely formed out of self-interest, for there are times when one does something for a friend that one would not do for oneself, but that it is on one's best interest to be in these relationships, and that friendship fulfills one of our fundamental needs, protection, thus giving a slightly paradoxical view on the subject.


                  A student next asked a question, referring to Principal Doctrines #20 and 21, relating to the question as to why we would not want to live longer.  Epicurus rejected this idea, saying that if this day is full of pleasure, and your entire life is made up of days like this, then what more could you ask for?  This idea of limits appears in all aspects of Epicurean philosophy, and is seen in many contexts, including mathematics and quantum physics (i.e. discontinuities and the idea of a smallest particle).  Specifically, doctrine #21 claims there is no need for struggle. 


Lastly, Professor Hutchinson made reference to Vatican Sayings #33 " (HP p. 37), "The cry of the flesh: not to be hungry, not to be thirsty, not to be cold.  For if someone has these things and is confident of having them in the future, he might contend with Zeus for happiness", meaning: supply that which I cannot get myself and I will be content.  That it should be so easy to live as contented as a god shows the equality that the Epicureans placed between gods and humanity.