Friday, August 8, 2008


Version at BMCR home site
Geert Roskam, Live Unnoticed (Lathe biosas): On the Vicissitudes of an Epicurean Doctrine. Philosophia Antiqua, v. 111. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2007. Pp. x, 233. ISBN 9789004161719. $125.00.
Reviewed by James Jope

Questions have been raised regarding the fidelity of leading Epicureans to the ideal of a sequestered life aloof from politics and the pursuit of fame, but the issue is usually discussed ad hominem for each thinker. Roskam's diachronic study of the entire school may be a better approach. His findings suggest a consistent core of orthodoxy with different authors "interacting in a meaningful way with the social reality of their own time" (151).

The "introduction" is actually a survey of possible precursors of the Epicurean doctrine, with separate, more detailed consideration of Democritus, the only predecessor who, in Roskam's view, may have influenced Epicurus in this connection. It is followed, first, by the study of Epicurus himself, and then, after brief discussions of Metrodorus, Hermarchus, and Colotes, by chapters on Lucretius, Philodemus, and Diogenes of Oenoanda. The book concludes with an "appendix" on supposed allusions to the doctrine in Virgil, Horace and Ovid.

Roskam generally offers a cautious and reasonable assessment of the evidence, always striving to take into account the context and purpose of the Epicureans' own statements as well as their rivals'. His style is lucid and his meaning is clear, and I am grateful that he chose to write in English. Nevertheless, occasional unidiomatic expressions can be jarring (e.g., "Epicurus gave precepts in order to avoid hatred and envy", 46, where the purpose is that of the precepts themselves, not of giving them).

Roskam's view of Epicurus stresses his psychotherapeutic bent and the flexibility of his doctrines. His principles are "nuanced" and qualified, unlike the "apodictic" statements of some of his followers and especially doxographers. Seneca's statement that Epicureans would refrain from politics nisi si quid intervenerit (Usener fr. 9) is taken to refer to opportunism rather than emergencies. And the Epicurean goal of "ἀσφαλεία ἐξ ἀνθρώπων is security coming from men, not against them-- which is indeed, as Roskam argues, a more natural translation of ἐκ-- referring to the (limited) usefulness of reputation and laws. These interpretations entail sufficient flexibility to explain Epicureans' apparent lapses. At the same time, Roskam insists that anything comparable to the Epicurean withdrawal from society must rest on Epicurus' philosophical framework; it must be a rational decision based on a hedonistic calculus. This rigid criterion practically assures that claims to find Epicurean values in either the precursors studied in the introduction or the Augustan poets in the appendix will be rejected.

That does not mean that these sections are uninteresting. Roskam creates an interesting narrative in the introduction by linking, via Euripides, discussions by Plato and Aristotle with the aristocrats who dropped out of Athenian politics in the late fifth century. The new interest in Epicureanism in the Augustan poets sparked by the burgeoning knowledge of Philodemus has led to a controversy1 which makes Roskam's appendix possibly the most relevant part of his book for a wider audience. Predictably, Roskam rejects supposed Epicurean models such as the farmer and the old man in the Georgics and Ovid in exile because their withdrawal is not based on a hedonistic calculus; but once again Roskam seasons his negative position with an intriguing analysis of Ovid's supposed Epicureanism as a polemical response to Horace. Roskam also seems to share the evolving consensus that although the Roman poets were eclectic rather than strictly Epicurean, Epicureanism was a significant element of their cultural context.

Turning to the later Epicureans: The best of Roskam's treatment of Lucretius is a keen but balanced awareness of the relevance of Roman society and politics for the poet. Overall, however, Roskam's treatment of Lucretius is disappointing. Lucretius' texts relating greed and ambition to the fear of death have challenged other scholars to try to understand them poetically and psychologically, but Roskam quickly dismisses such efforts and reduces Lucretius' argument to its syllogistic skeleton, which, of course, proves to be faulty. I may be biased, because Roskam completely ignores my own exhaustive analysis of these texts.2 Nonetheless, Lucretius can be provocatively "apodictic", and that may be why Roskam seems reluctant to extend to him the same flexibility (e.g., to write poetry) which he grants Philodemus.

Philodemus receives longer treatment, as is appropriate given the recent papyrological progress on his works. Roskam reconstructs his views from his Rhetorica, de bono rege, de oeconomia and de morte. Although Roskam does concede that Philodemus' recognition of politics as an autonomous activity accommodated his relationship with his Roman patron, he argues that it was balanced by a clear preference for a sequestered life. The economic opus provides interesting information about the financing of the Garden: Work is not pleasant; ownership of land or artisans is a good source of income, but public lecturing is the best. Roskam considers Philodemus' positions "nuanced" and "always based on rational arguments" (129).

Diogenes of Oenoanda erected a stoa inscribed with Epicurean teachings, an action which might be regarded as conflicting with an apolitical, sequestered life. Roskam subscribes to the view which resolves the conflict by referring to the euergetic system, which obliged the rich to make public donations; but he goes a step further. Comparing criticism of euergetism from rival philosophical schools (especially Plutarch), he neatly demonstrates how Diogenes met and even surpassed the ethical requirements which his opponents stipulated for honorable benefactions, while at the same time staying out of active political engagement.

This book can be recommended for anyone interested in the vicissitudes of the doctrine of living unnoticed in either the Epicurean thinkers or the Augustan poets, albeit with reservations regarding Lucretius.


1. Since Roskam rightly insists that λάθε βιώσας must refer to one's present life, and not to one's reputation after dying, he must explain why it is aorist. Citing other mottos such as γνῶθι σεαυτόν, he argues that the pointed λάθε had mnemonic and therapeutic advantages. But why is βιώσας aorist? I believe that the motto does refer to the present life, but considered as a whole, as in Aristotle's dictum that one should not call a man happy until he is dead.

2. It is true almost by definition that Epicurus' theoretical framework differentiates his advocacy of a sequestered life from its apparent precursors; but the community of friends was an equally important factor. If anyone did make a rational decision, based on hedonistic calculus, to live unnoticed as an individual, he could have done precisely that. It was the collectivist aspect of Epicurus' approach, and the consequent necessity of recruiting (however it was done and by whatever name it was called), that motivated him to teach and his followers to engage in whatever public behavior (poetry, inscriptions) seemed to conflict with their withdrawal.

3. Philodemus' position that a type of death that exposes the corpse to birds and dogs is undesirable, whatever therapeutic value it may have had, was far less rational than Lucretius' insistence that this would mean nothing to the dead person.


1.   See Quartarone's review of David Armstong, Jeffrey Fish, Patricia A. Johnston and Marilyn B. Skinner, Vergil, Philodemus and the Augustans, BMCR 2005.04.64 and the authors' response BMCR 2005.05.47.
2.   "Lucretius' Psychoanalytic Insight: His Notion of Unconscious Motivation", Phoenix 37 (1983) 224-238. This paper can also be read online at (accessed 5 August, 2008).

1 comment:

  1. James Pope, in a footnote, asks:

    "But why is βιώσας aorist?"

    and answers:

    "I believe that the motto does refer to the present life, but considered as a whole, as in Aristotle's dictum that one should not call a man happy until he is dead."

    Yes; perhaps. But there is another possibility, as well. The option to using the aorist is to use the present, which would be 'lathe biôn'. The form 'biôn' is multiply ambiguous (escape the notice of bows! escape notice while applying violent force!), where as the form 'biôsas' is immediately comprehensible.