Friday, June 30, 2017


Dino De Sanctis, Emidio Spinelli, Mauro Tulli, Francesco Verde (ed.), Questioni epicuree. Sankt Augustin: Academia Verlag, 2015. Pp. 262. ISBN 9783896656810. $30.52.

Reviewed by Sergio Yona, University of Missouri (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This volume, which exemplifies the spirit of Epicurean camaraderie within the context of philosophical examination, showcases studies by both senior and junior scholars whose research is centered on Epicurus' works. To be more exact, it includes essays on these texts' complicated transmission (Dorandi) and style or contents (De Sanctis, Erbì, Heßler and Erler), as well as considerations of their scientific (Morel) and physiological (Konstan, Leone and Verde) implications, not to mention their engagement with ethics (Hammerstaedt and Spinelli). The editors have organized the volume around these five aspects in such a way that each chapter expands upon or takes its cue from the previous study, proceeding in more or less chronological order. The text of the volume itself is clear, well annotated and supplemented by various indices.

In the opening chapter, Dorandi offers a detailed consideration of the circulation, transmission and current state of the existing fragments of Epicurus' masterpiece On Nature. After an overview of sources of information (pp. 23-4), the discussion turns to the question of how popular this work was at Herculaneum. There are at least three books of On Nature that were present in multiple copies at the Villa dei Papiri: Books 2, 11 and 25. Emphasizing the impossibility of creating a proper stemma due to lack of evidence, Dorandi introduces three copies of Book 25 and provides a brief examination of their relationship to one another (pp. 35-7). Perhaps, he hypothesizes, there was a "modello virtuale" (called α), which may also help to explain the many textual variants of two copies of Book 2 in the sense that, since one does not appear to have been copied from the other but rather subjected to a "lavorio critico," they might have had a common origin (pp. 37-8). The chapter concludes with an explanation of scholars' conflicting considerations about the nature of an "official" text, which, following the tradition of other philosophical sects, might have been safeguarded by certain Epicureans residing in the Garden (pp. 38-42). The question is left open as to the details of the transmission of On Nature, the original copying center's exact location and the extent to which critical editions were produced by scholars like Demetrius of Laco (pp. 42-3).

The next section begins with a chapter by De Sanctis on language and communication in the epitomes addressed to Herodotus, Pythocles and Menoeceus. Epicurus sets out to provide his followers with an explanation or rationale for the nature of the universe, which depends on clear communication and the avoidance of ambiguity (pp. 58-60). De Sanctis considers the philosophers' explanation in his Letter to Herodotus of how words must immediately reveal their relationship to the things they indicate. The same work highlights Epicurus' concern for clarity through his careful definitions of key terms and his assertion that only the void (as opposed to the soul, which is made up of atoms) is asōmaton in the true sense of the word (pp. 62-4). Finally, De Sanctis shows how in the Letter to Menoeceus Epicurus emphasizes the necessity of having a correct understanding of the nature of things, which he imparts through sayings that express basic elements of his teaching (pp. 67-8). Erbì's chapter continues this discussion by examining the fragmentary evidence of Epicurus' correspondence with friends and individuals associated with the Garden. These letters, which were intended for wide circulation, touch on many subjects and provide, as Erbì notes, "una fotografia preziosa" of daily life among members of the community (p. 78 n. 10). Epicurus' correspondence with two friends in particular illustrates the genuine nature of his concern: he does not condemn Idomeneus for his involvement in politics but offers helpful reflections and a warm invitation to a more contemplative and happier way of life; and he does not criticize Mithres for his wealth but encourages him to bear its loss with philosophical equanimity (pp. 79-86). The chapter ends with two touching passages from Epicurus in which he communicates to each of these individuals, just before his death, the pleasure derived from past conversations and his concern for the well-being of members of the Garden (pp. 88-9).

Heßler's essay continues this line of thought by offering a consideration of the Epicurean view of the commemoration of past pleasures in connection with deceased members of the sect and its place in a long tradition of literature. The correspondence with Idomeneus quoted in the previous essay reappears, and segues into another passage, in which Plutarch observes that the Epicureans did not condemn grief and sorrow in response to the death of a friend (pp. 95-6). As Heßler explains, Epicurus emphasizes elsewhere that fond memories of past interactions with these friends is sweet and can produce pleasure even in the midst of suffering (pp. 96-8). The sentiment is illustrated by parallels from Plato and from funeral speeches, conveying Epicurus' theme of strength in the face of tragedy, whether among members of the polis in times of war or among members of the Garden as concerns life in general (pp. 98-102). Heßler closes with an examination of Hyperides' funeral speech for the victims of the Lamian War, which underscores the pleasure of remembering fallen soldiers, the benefits of such commemoration for the entire population and the importance of not fearing death (pp. 102-7). Plato provides a link to the next essay, in which Erler explores the rhetorical background of the technique of "taking up a starting point" (aphormēn labein) in the works of Colotes, Philodemus of Gadara and Sextus Empiricus. After Colotes, Erler introduces an example of "taking up a starting point" from Callimachus vis-à-vis Plato before turning his attention to Philodemus, who similarly takes Homer out of context in On the Good King according to Homer for the purpose of offering moral and political advice that is consistent with Epicurean ethics (pp. 118-21). After more examples from Sextus, who underscores philosophers' use of the technique for exegesis and therapy (Erler uses the phrase interpretatio medicans), the chapter ends with a consideration of the rhetorical origins of "starting points" (aphormai) based on key passages from Euripides (pp. 121-4).

Morel's essay offers two considerations regarding experience and demonstration in Epicurean "canonic." The first is that Epicurus' rejection of the necessity of demonstration in seeking out the truth should be interpreted in its proper context: for Epicurus, empirical observation and words used in accordance with their obvious meanings reveal truth more clearly than do fancy definitions or dialectical reasoning (pp. 132-3). Morel then moves on to Philodemus' methodological treatise On Signs, which adds to what we know about Epicurean empiricism and epistemology within the context of logical debates with the Stoics. He argues that, through the observations of similar events in nature (e.g., motion), one may infer something through analogy about what is not manifest (e.g., the void), the truth of which is necessary and is guaranteed by the reliability of clear sense perceptions rather than by formal propositions (pp. 134-8). Morel ends with a consideration of the differences of approach between Epicurean and Aristotelian apodeixis of invisible realities (pp. 138-45). Konstan's short contribution explores the issue of where in the psyche mental pleasures are experienced. Having discussed the difference between the rational part of the soul (animus) and the non-rational part (anima), and having distinguished between katastematic and kinetic pleasures (pp. 151-5), he identifies mental pleasures as ataraxia, which is katastematic, and chara, which is kinetic (pp. 155-6). Introducing an analogy by way of explanation, he concludes that these mental pleasures are experienced or perceived by the non-rational part of the soul (pp. 157-8).

Leone's chapter looks at the different influences on Epicurus' view of the nature of winds, and how these contribute, through analogy or similarity, to the development of certain doctrines. A brief overview of the role of winds in the works of poets like Homer and Hesiod, as well as in the more "scientific" treatises of pre-Socratic thinkers, illustrates the context in which Epicurus adapts and challenges such views, but with an important difference regarding intent: for the Master, the study of celestial phenomena is essential only because it leads to the elimination of false fear and the attainment of ataraxia (pp. 160-4). Leone then identifies a treatise of Theophrastus dealing with the origins and dynamics of meteorological phenomena as another important source for Epicurus (pp. 166-8). The study concludes by looking at how Epicurus and Lucretius employ various analogies involving everyday experiences in order to elucidate invisible realities like wind, which conceptually resembles the approach of Empedocles (pp. 169-73). Following this is Verde's examination of a late antique commentary on Aristotle's Physics and how it contributes to our understanding of the development of Epicurean doctrine. The evidence from Simplicius deals with a series of interconnected refutations of atomistic theory, such as the notion that division ad infinitum is impossible because atoms are "partless" (amerē). In the case of this first example, Aristotle's criticism led Epicurus to state (like Democritus) that such division is impossible, but (unlike Democritus) not because atoms are partless; rather, it is impossible because they are "impassive" or apathē (pp. 180-3). The second case involves Aristotle's convictions regarding the divisibility of space and time, which threatened the indivisibility of atoms; this resulted in the Epicurean assertion that atoms move through indivisible units of space and at the same speed (pp. 183-5). The final case Verde introduces is the observation of Simplicius and Themistius concerning the troubling consequences for movement of this very assertion, which Epicurus addresses by introducing a concept that is rather obscure and does not appear in his surviving works, namely, the "granularization" of space, movement and time (pp. 185-91).

Hammerstaedt next introduces evidence from Diogenes of Oenoanda's famous inscription, on which a treatise concerning old age is partly preserved. Drawing from different sources on the same topic, Hammerstaedt explores Diogenes' convictions regarding the benefits and advantages of being old, beginning with his criticism of the negative descriptions of old age (pp. 200-2). Other fragments reveal quotations from Homer's epics concerning Laertes and Nestor, whom later authors like Cicero and Plutarch defend as examples of the peace and wisdom that accompany old age. Of particular interest is a damaged fragment referring to a passage from the Iliad, which is a description either of Nestor's voice (1.247-9) or Achilles' anger (18.107-11) as "sweeter than honey" (pp. 202-5). This leads to a consideration of the differences between the temperaments of young and old men, which, according to Cicero, explains why senior citizens make the best leaders. Diogenes supports the idea of such men governing the state and denies that defects like dementia are necessarily the byproducts of old age (pp. 204-7). Hammerstaedt concludes with a fragment that perhaps relates to the folly of desiring lavish funeral rites (pp. 208-9). Spinelli's essay closes the volume with an examination of the relationship between Epicurean and Skeptic arguments against divine providence. After explaining Epicurus' description of the nature of the gods as undying, perfectly blessed and completely removed from all human affairs (pp. 214-23), Spinelli considers the evidence from Lactantius regarding arguments in support of Epicurus' apronoēsia (pp. 223-5). At this point the focus shifts from Lactantius to Sextus, whose Outlines of Pyrrhonism shows some engagement with Epicurean criticism of providence as a doctrine, particularly in response to the Stoics. As Spinelli says, however, the "Santa Alleanza" between these two philosophical traditions is not perfect: unlike Epicurus, the Skeptics hold no beliefs about the nature of the gods (instead, they have a "teologia elementare della consuetudine"), but like him they subject everything to empirical observation in investigating the "disegno razionale che governa la realtà" (pp. 225-9).

This volume raises important questions for the study of Epicureanism throughout the centuries and offers many intriguing observations along the way. Mistakes are inevitable, but they are few and never present the reader with obstacles to comprehension. Overall, these essays clarify key doctrines of Epicurus that are often misunderstood and explore them in various contexts, hence contributing to a better understanding of life within the Garden.

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