Reading list intro & short review of Epicurus’ letters

For the past year or so, due to a realization that work and the arrangement of a working life had obscured the life of reading and writing I had before the maturation of a “professional” career, I’ve been filling in the gaps in my education by constructing a historical reading list and working my way through, book by book, supplementing the material with what course lectures and essays can be found online and in local libraries. The list is by no means comprehensive; it revolves around my political, philosophical, historical and scientific personal interests.

I started in Ancient Greece as most liberal arts programs seem to do, and read through the majority of Plato and Aristotle, the great tragedians and poets, the histories written by Thucydides and Herodotus and the like. I’ve finished much of the Old Testament, which became a sort of review of the material as an adult, and I’m currently beginning some major works by Roman thinkers. I have an enormous backlog of notes which I should have been writing about during the entire process, and perhaps I can return in a few years when I have more or less completed my project, at least in the major sense, to wrap up and plow through again.

I’m writing for memory’s sake. These posts will be musings on snippets in the main, not a series of introductory descriptions or summaries. If these posts become useful for others, or a source of conversation, I welcome that opportunity to share and learn.

Epicurus’ Letters

The empiricism of the Epicureans like Lucretius is immediately appealing. The desire to seek out the world as it is using our senses and hold away notions of “superstition” resonates with our modern ideals of reason supplemented by observation, a concept that Plato had Socrates call “looking down” instead of up, if I remember correctly.

In his letter to Pythocles, Epicurus seems to embrace constructing hypotheses based on what the senses can perceive as important steps toward understanding:

…one must not be so much in love with the explanation by a single way as wrongly to reject all the others from ignorance of what can, and what cannot, be within human knowledge, and consequent longing to discover the undiscoverable.

He then proposes a series of possible explanations for phenomena, some that were (and still are) attributed to divine interventions, such as lightning:

Lightning precedes thunder, when the clouds are constituted as mentioned above and the configuration which produces lightning is expelled at the moment when the wind falls upon the cloud, and the wind being rolled up afterwards produces the roar of thunder; or, if both are simultaneous, the lightning moves with a greater velocity towards its and the thunder lags behind, exactly as when persons who are striking blows are observed from a distance.

Epicurus is, of course, essentially correct about the velocities of the elements that compose thunder and lightning. As an atomist, he believed these phenomena were both composed of particular fundamental particles of the same nature as the rest of sensible matter, the “films” – as Lucretius calls the constantly shedding outer layers of objects – of which interact with our sense organs to produce a sense of the thing and its attributes.

Similar to Aristotle’s conceptions of matter, but not identical, since Aristotle was critical of the atomists, Epicurus considers these attributes (heat, size, color, etc.) incidental to bodies (sensible objects in the world), indicative of its composition, its nature. From his letter to Herodotus (not the historian):

…shapes and colors, magnitudes and weights, and in short all those qualities which are predicated of body, in so far as they are perpetual properties either of all bodies or of visible bodies, are knowable by sensation of these very properties: these, I say, must not be supposed to exist independently by themselves (for that is inconceivable), nor yet to be non-existent, nor to be some other and incorporeal entities cleaving to body, nor again to be parts of body. We must consider the whole body in a general way to derive its permanent nature from all of them, though it is not, as it were, formed by grouping them together in the same way as when from the particles themselves a larger aggregate is made up, whether these particles be primary or any magnitudes whatsoever less than the particular whole.

This idea of incidental attributes is a departure from Plato’s forms, where bodies derived attributes from ephemeral absolutes, ideals of hot or cold or beauty, and much more in line with modern processes of understanding through analysis. Epicurus stops just short of refuting the existence of the divine entirely; he rejects intervention, claiming that if the gods are perfect and without fear of death, which is the main reason why human beings are so miserable, then they are perfectly happy, and why would such a creature seek to condescend, to meddle in human affairs? I suppose this makes him a sort of deist, acknowledging their existence, but rejecting the notion of intervention.

There’s a purpose to his methods of understanding the world: complete peace of mind. The Epicurean devotion to empiricism serves to unbind human beings from the fear and worry that comes from believing that life and death depended on the fickle desires of a pantheon of petulant deities. This belief (or disbelief, perhaps) extends to the afterlife; death is nothing to Epicurus: literally nothing.

If the following is true…

  • the infinite universe is only matter and void (space for matter to be)
  • matter can only interact with matter
  • the atoms (matter) of the spirit dissipate at the moment of death
  • the atoms of the spirit are utterly dependent on the body
  • only through the body can the spirit interact with the world

…then death is not to be feared, since a life has no senses to cause it stress after it is extinguished. If it is possible to conceive of life in this way, Epicurus asks Menoeceus,

Who, then, is superior in your judgment to such a man? He holds a holy belief concerning the gods, and is altogether free from the fear of death. He has diligently considered the end fixed by nature, and understands how easily the limit of good things can be reached and attained, and how either the duration or the intensity of evils is but slight. Fate, which some introduce as sovereign over all things, he scorns, affirming rather that some things happen of necessity, others by chance, others through our own agency. For he sees that necessity destroys responsibility and that chance is inconstant; whereas our own actions are autonomous, and it is to them that praise and blame naturally attach. It were better, indeed, to accept the legends of the gods than to bow beneath that yoke of destiny which the natural philosophers have imposed. The one holds out some faint hope that we may escape if we honor the gods, while the necessity of the naturalists is deaf to all entreaties.

This is also a further affirmation of his insistence that it is problematic to “be so much in love with the explanation by a single way” that one clings to a solely deterministic view of the universe. As an aside, I appreciate his resistance to necessity in the context of Greek “naturalists” of the time. Western Civilization seems to become increasingly convinced that, even if the truth of the source of choice is “undiscoverable,” institutions should act as if life itself unfolds by necessity anyway.

Reading through Lucretius at the moment. More on that later.

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