Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.11.14

Diskin Clay, Paradosis and Survival: Three Chapters in the Epicurean Philosophy.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 1998.  Pp. xiv, 284.  ISBN 0-472-10896-4.  $47.50.  

Reviewed by Pamela Gordon, University of Kansas (
Word count: 1747 words

This book is a collection of fifteen reprinted articles (one appearing here ahead of its scheduled publication elsewhere), many of which are difficult to find in college libraries, and all of which are essential reading for scholars working on Lucretius or the Epicurean tradition. The approach throughout is refreshingly appreciative, as Clay takes the philosophy of Epicurus seriously as "a potent revival of pre-Socratic philosophy in an age of teleology and theology" (Preface, p. vii).

Chapter 1, "Athens," deals not so much with Epicurus' life in Athens as with his legacy. The central concerns here are the formation of a canon of Epicurean texts and the establishment of the hero cults of Epicurus; two related processes that Clay views as the careful and deliberate work of Epicurus himself. Although some readers (including the present writer) may prefer to view the establishment of Epicurean texts and traditions as an extended organic process, no serious scholar of Epicureanism can ignore Clay's coherent description of Epicurus' vision for the future of the Garden. To begin with the cults of Epicurus: Clay's account of the Epicurean "hero cult" (68, 75, etc.) is unusual -- and welcome -- in that it acknowledges the "religious" aspects of the Garden without disparaging Epicureanism as a philosophy. Clay views the Epicurean celebration of Epicurus' birthday and other commemorative festivals not as the contradiction Pliny derides ("they of all people, who do not want to be known even when they are alive!" Pliny, NH 35.5, quoted by Clay, p. 78), but as a way to provide newcomers with "a model in the lives and deaths of the philosophers who had come before them to show them the way" (101). Clay catalogues the testimonia for Epicurean cult, and is especially good at integrating information from well known sources (Cicero, Diogenes Laertius, Pliny, Plutarch) with the scattered bits of information that continue to emerge from the papyri discovered at the Epicurean library at Herculaneum (see esp. pp. 75-102).

The will of Epicurus (a text preserved in book 10 of Diogenes Laertius), in which Epicurus provides for the continuation of the community/school in his garden, makes frequent appearance in these articles. For Clay the will is both an authentic historical document and "a philosophical document of great importance, if ancient philosophy is to be conceived of as a manner of living as well as a system of doctrines" (69). The text of the will mentions that Epicurus' bequest is recorded in the Metroon (D.L. 10.16-17), the Athenian repository for archives that took its name from the statue of its protecting deity, the Mother of the Gods. This curious detail -- of a document not related to Athenian governance being deposited in a state archive -- contributes to Clay's conjecture that Epicurus' custom was to deposit all of his important writings in the public archive. Clay's main evidence for this procedure (which would be entirely unprecedented, as far as we know) is the peculiar fact that the first-century Epicurean Philodemus regularly lists the writings of Epicurus by Athenian archon year (as does the author of P.Herc. 176, and Seneca in Ep. 18.9). This makes Epicurus the only Greek philosopher whose works bear the dates of the eponymous Athenian archon. For Clay, these thirty or so dates we have for the texts of Epicurus are a vestige of the chronological filing system at the Athenian archive, and thus attest to Epicurus' systematic and frequent filing of his own works as official documents "to preserve his writing in an authoritative and inalterable form and on the same footing as the laws and decrees ... of the state of Athens" (43). Since anagraphein is the usual verb used in reference to the depositing of texts in an archive, Epicurus' references to his "recorded" (anagegrammenon) writings would seem to corroborate this thesis (see page 48, with note 27).

The idea that Epicurus entrusted his texts to the Mother of the Gods strikes me as an attractive parallel to Lucretius' opening proem to Venus. But our lack of detailed information on the procedures and functions of the Metroon make it difficult to judge Clay's hypothesis that Epicurus deposited his writings there. It seems clear from references in Demosthenes and Aeschines that the archive was accessible to the public and that decrees were stored in a straightforward matter with chronological prescripts (see William West, "The Public Archives in Fourth-Century Athens", GRBS 30 [1989]: 529-543). But would the state archive in third-century Athens also have accepted philosophic texts and a philosopher's private correspondence and will? The only parallels Clay is able to cite (in addition to a whimsical reference to the story that Diogenes the Cynic lived in a pithos in the Metroon, p. 49) are the law of Lykourgos that stipulated the public archiving of the texts of the three tragedians; and the story that Herakleitos deposited his writings in the temple of Artemis at Ephesus (pp. 47-48 n 25). Although these parallels are imprecise, they may be significant. And yet, the theory that Epicurus stored his texts in the Metroon seems a long route to go to explain the dates Philodemus records for the texts. Scholars who agree with Clay that the dates cannot have been affixed by Epicurus (see pp. 43-44) might reasonably assume that archon dates were assigned to each text by an energetic Epicurean scholar. As Clay is well aware, many generations of Epicureans had an intense interest in the maintenance of the Epicurean canon.

Epicurus' will leaves Hermarchus in charge of the Garden, but Clay tells us early on in this collection that "it is proper to see Lucretius, and not Hermarchus, as his principal beneficiary" (11). This points ahead to Chapter 2, "Italy," which gives us five articles on the Epicurean philosopher-poets of the first century BCE; one on Philodemus, and four on Lucretius, "one of the loneliest figures in the history of Latin literature" (ix). Clay is an appreciative and subtle reader of Lucretius, whom he sees as "a Roman poet and apostle of Epicurean philosophy, who re-created the worldview of Epicurus for his own age" (viii). For Clay this re-creation bears no signs of any developments in Hellenistic philosophy after Epicurus, nor of any communication Lucretius may have had with contemporary Epicurean communities in Rome or Campania.

This is not to say that Lucretius can be read as a pristine poetic translation of Epicurus. As Clay remarks: "In our eagerness to recover the early Aristotle, the Physical Opinions of Theophrastus, and books 10-12 of Epicurus' On Nature, we are tempted to treat Lucretius as if he were a transparent medium and to look through his De Rerum Natura to glimpse the distant figures just visible in its background" (182). But Lucretius' reading is too broad, and his handling of his predecessors is too complex for that. Instead of taking inspiration from his contemporaries, Lucretius has reached back, for example, to the pre-Socratics, re-infusing Epicureanism with Empedoclean poetics and science. This prominence of Empedocles in Lucretius is also now explored in detail by Richard Jenkyns in his chapters on Lucretius in Virgil's Experience (Oxford 1998), and by David Sedley in Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom (Cambridge 1998), especially in chapter 1, "The Empedoclean Opening," which includes frequent footnotes to Clay's earlier Lucretius and Epicurus (Ithaca 1983).

Although Lucretius' fellow Romans are largely silent in the De Rerum Natura, Clay sees a strong Lucretian presence in Cicero, especially in Balbus' (or Cicero's) characterization of the Garden's anti-teleological view in the De Natura Deorum. It is well known that Cicero names Lucretius only once (in a letter to his brother Quintus, Ad Q. Fr. 2.9.3), but Clay suggests that "Lucretius and not the bad company of Velleius' fellow Epicureans is the object of Cicero's indignation" (178).

The third and last chapter presents five articles on the Epicurean inscription of Diogenes of Oenoanda. Clay's commentary on the various fragments is shrewd and original, and although these pages are sometimes difficult to follow, their wry and circuitous style seems appropriate to a discussion of a philosopher whose writing is lapidary only in the most literal sense. The first of these articles, "Sailing to Lampsacus: Diogenes of Oenoanda, New Fragment 7" illustrates both the difficulties of Diogenes' fragmentary texts, and Clay's creative response. At issue is Diogenes' vivid description of a shipwreck, which the twentieth-century discoverer of this stone first took as a metaphorical description of the formation of the cosmos. Adducing a neglected allusion in Plutarch to an actual shipwreck suffered by Epicurus, Clay suggests that Diogenes' more likely purpose here is to present an event from the life of Epicurus as a model for the appropriate Epicurean response to calamity. Although Plutarch's sardonic attitude toward the Garden makes him a treacherous source for a lost text of Epicurus, Clay's hypothesis is appealing. Clay also draws attention to an apparent Odyssean intertext in Diogenes' (and in Plutarch's and Epicurus') description of the shipwreck (191, 204). Although Plutarch liked to portray the Epicureans as anti-intellectual degenerates who were ignorant of Greek culture, Homeric allusions are frequent in Epicurean discourse (see now my own "Phaeacian Dido: Lost Pleasures of an Epicurean Intertext" Classical Antiquity 17, 1998: 188-211).

Despite Luciano Canfora's hypothesis that Diogenes noster (as Clay sometimes calls him) was a contemporary of Lucretius, Clay agrees with the scholarly consensus that Diogenes belongs to the second century C.E. The more specific date Clay suggests is the era of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 C.E.). Although I would situate Diogenes several decades earlier, Clay's suggested date is attractive because it would make Diogenes a contemporary of Lucian, who projects the voice of a passionate and forthright Epicurean so memorably in his Alexander the False Prophet.

The book includes consolidated bibliographies, a list of passages cited, and a general index. But what is especially welcome are the annotations Clay has appended to the beginnings of the earlier articles. These notes bring readers up to date by directing us to more recent work by a variety of scholars (writing mostly in English and Italian), including those who have developed Clay's ideas during the past three decades as well as those who have expressed disagreement. Scholars of Epicureanism and Lucretius are sure to disagree with some of Clay's suggestions and arguments, and college students are likely to agree that Clay's work takes us across much "very difficult terrain" (vii), but all serious students of the Garden should be pleased to find these important articles available in a single volume.

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