Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.10.39

David Konstan, A Life Worthy of the Gods: The Materialist Psychology of Epicurus (revised and expanded edition, in part originally published in 1973 as Some Aspects of Epicurean Psychology by E. J. Brill, Leiden).   Las Vegas:  Parmenides Publishing, 2008.  Pp. xx, 176.  ISBN 9781930972285.  $34.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Wilson H. Shearin, Stanford University (
Word count: 2248 words

This volume is the English version of Konstan's 2007 Italian publication, Lucrezio e la psicologia epicurea, which was itself based in part upon his 1973 work, Some Aspects of Epicurean Psychology. Compared with the 1973 publication, the current one manifests a number of changes, most notably the addition of a new first chapter on Epicurean "passions" and the thorough updating of scholarly references and arguments throughout. Konstan also has provided translations for the majority of Greek and Latin texts and non-English scholarship he cites.1 Despite these changes, readers of Some Aspects will find a familiar volume. The core arguments remain, if differently nuanced, largely similar. Now up-to-date, this book is still what it always has been -- a rich, original work, with a broad vision of its subject and a careful treatment of its sources.

While the volume retains its original core, the first chapter is entirely new, and it provides a new lens through which to view the larger work. This chapter -- on Epicurean "passions" -- argues for a specific, limited usage of πάθος, the normal Greek term for emotion, in Epicurus' writing: by contrast with Aristotle, who in his Rhetoric discusses as πάθη many emotions such as anger, love and hate, shame, and gratitude, Epicurus confines πάθος to "the non-rational sensations of pleasure and pain" (p. 22). Emotions such as fear and joy are, on the other hand, "experienced in the rational part of the soul" (p. 18). On Konstan's analysis, then, πάθη are not equivalent to English "passions"; rather, their primary function is to provide affective information about things in the world -- i.e. whether those things are to be pursued or shunned -- to supplement the information sensations (αἰσθήσεις) provide about physical appearance.2 This new chapter nicely introduces the remaining, revised work, for, if correct, it suggests a key point about Epicurean psychology: since Epicureanism is a fundamentally therapeutic philosophy, much of its weight falls on correcting false beliefs lodged in (or at least caused by the participation of) the rational part of the soul.

From "passions," Konstan turns in chapter 2 (the first of his three original chapters) to the functioning of irrational fears and desires.3 Chiefly through analysis of Lucretius, he describes how irrational fear -- that is, anxiety or fear with no real object -- leads to irrational desire (e.g. greed and ambition), and how irrational desire, in turn, reinforces anxiety. The basic idea here is that, in the first instance, the fear of death "nourishes" (cf. Lucretius 3.64) such desires as greed or blind desire for political office. Irrational desires, Konstan suggests, are "extrapolations upon the natural and elementary human needs for sustenance and safety" (p. 52). These desires are motivated by a confusion: fear of death drives the desire for security, yet those who seek out wealth or political office mistakenly seek physical security rather than the proper, spiritual security provided by Epicurean wisdom. In a vicious cycle, irrational desire also feeds back into anxiety: fear of death, that is, is an "allegorical" projection of irrational desires onto the afterlife.4 We fear death because we fear punishment for our excessive desires in this life. And both our irrational fears and desires are underwritten by simulacra, the thin films that flitter about our world, providing us with the images of pain and pleasure to pursue or flee in vain.

Having explained the functioning of irrational fears and desires, in chapter 3 (the revision of his original second chapter) Konstan explores the origins of these fears and desires, largely through a reading of Lucretius' anthropology supplemented by other Epicurean texts. The question that prompts Konstan's analysis is this: if fear of death has been present from the beginning and greed and ambition are symptoms of the fear of death, how was there, even temporarily, a first human society, stable and free of irrational desire? In response to this query, Konstan traces the details of early man's development of society, language, superstition, and legal justice, showing where irrational fear and desire arise. Following (with some modifications) the work of Benjamin Farrington, he shows effectively how technological advances and fearlessness (ἀφοβία) undermine the first society, the vita prior, and in particular how the invention of language contributes to its demise by eroding trust in direct sensation.5 In tracing this development, Konstan emphasizes that the vita prior is not a perfect community, that its demise is inevitable, and that -- while its study grants insight into the origins of irrational fears and desires -- this life is not an ideal Epicureans seek to recreate.

An ideal that Epicureans do cultivate -- the "life worthy of the gods" of Konstan's title -- is the subject of the final chapter, which considers the "god-like invulnerability that...holds out the promise of an immortal and unshakable happiness" (p. 127). This divine image of security forms a positive contrast to the false security sought by those driven by irrational desire, those who, as we saw earlier, seek wealth and political office. In this chapter Konstan examines the available Epicurean evidence to see how physics and psychology lie at the base of this image of the divine sage -- including evidence suggesting that the stability of the sage is linked to the atomic stability of his soul and that his divinity is connected to his ability to "comprehend mentally all spaces of the universe" (p. 137). He concludes by returning to his main theme, showing how the image of divine, immortal pleasure at the core of Epicurean philosophy can also be misunderstood and confused with sexual pleasure, which leads in turn to irrational desire.

As indicated at the outset, this book remains a rich, original treatment of Epicurean psychology. While few will accept its every argument, the book provides a well-founded outline of the generation and functioning of irrational fears and desires in Epicureanism, while also touching on the structure of the soul and the ideal of the godlike sage. It possesses a broad, synthetic vision, skillfully connecting Epicurean psychology to later, twentieth-century notions such as unconscious desire, without outstripping its evidence. Furthermore, literary students of Lucretius will appreciate that Konstan values, and values philosophically, the linguistic texture of De rerum natura: "...Lucretius' accounts, not despite but just because of the imagery in which they are cast, provide the only analysis that survives of how these psychological processes [sc. irrational fear and desire] operate" (p. xiv). I now offer a few reservations, but I do so only with a sense of admiration for the impressive larger edifice that Konstan has built.

One concern is Konstan's occasional neglect of Ciceronian evidence. As the Italian title of the book indicates (Lucrezio e la psicologia epicurea), it is at its core a work about Lucretius, whom Konstan views as consistently offering "important evidence of Epicurus' own approach" (p. xiii).6 But while Cicero is hardly a proponent of Epicureanism, he nonetheless offers much important material for the modern student of Epicurus, and, at least occasionally, his work can help us read Lucretius.7 It would be unfair to say that Konstan's treatment includes no Ciceronian material, but his index lists only six entries, three of them in notes.8 It is thus not inconceivable that a greater engagement with Cicero's philosophica would have nuanced the positions Konstan presents. For example, when Konstan considers the first community of human beings, the vita prior, in his third chapter, he focuses (pp. 88-93) on how "association in the family" results in "a desire for amicities" ("friendship"). This scene from Lucretius 5.1014-23, which describes the softening (mollescere) of the human race, is then supplemented by a turn to the evidence of Epicurus himself on friendship and social pacts (chiefly Principal Doctrines 31, 32, 33, 35); yet there is no parallel examination of the extensive Ciceronian evidence on friendship (amicitia) at De finibus 1.20-21 [65-72]. Even if Konstan finds this evidence redundant or less than purely Epicurean, it would make sense to discuss it, at least in a note, for it offers such a substantial account of possible Epicurean positions on friendship.9

There is also at least one papyrus fragment of Philodemus that may have nuanced Konstan's story. PHerc. 403 fr. 5, which seems to discuss the origins of "the strange language of poetry" (ἡ ποητικὴ ξενοφωνία), may provide a supplement to the three-stage language theory that Konstan outlines in his third chapter -- a supplement precisely at the moment where language seems to become most metaphorically dangerous and apt to draw us away from direct sense perception.10 This fragment is largely in line with Epicurean theory as Konstan understands it, but it thickens a relatively limited set of texts on abstraction and metaphor in Epicureanism.

In addition to these pieces of evidence, there is one key point in Konstan's treatment where I would suggest a slight addition. In telling his story of the vicious cycle of irrational fears and desires, Konstan traces well the ways in which language can draw one away from a reliance on the senses, the ways, that is, in which "empty sounds" (κενοὶ φθόγγοι) may mistakenly be taken to refer to "a kind of reality" (p. 106). "Empty" (κενός), which is a frequent descriptor of sounds and language in Epicureanism, is here understood to designate language that either does not refer or does not refer correctly. At one point (p. 109), Konstan contrasts this empty language with a truer one. Citing Lucretius (6.24-25: veridicis igitur purgavit pectora dictis/ et finem statuit cuppedinis atque timoris. "Therefore with words of truth he purged people's minds and laid down limits to desire and fear." [trans. Smith]), he comments that veridicis dictis ("words of truth") are "not only the true teaching of Epicurus but also words that have a true referent, and are not rendered empty by virtue of vain beliefs." While I agree with Konstan that failed or mistaken reference is very much at the heart of Epicurean thinking about language, I would suggest that there are other ways in which language may be "empty." We find, for example, an Epicurean statement preserved in Porphyry (Ad Marcellam 31; Usener 221, part) which states: "empty (κενός) is the word of that philosopher by which no human suffering is ameliorated." As in the passage from Lucretius above, the emphasis here is on the therapeutic effects of language. "Empty" language is, then, not just language that fails to refer, but language that fails to heal. Konstan's emphasis on the pains -- the mistaken beliefs, fears, and desires -- that language can cause sometimes overshadows its salvific powers.

None of these criticisms, though, should be overstated. They offer only a few small ways to improve a stimulating book, a book that all scholars of Epicureanism and Lucretius will be happy to have in its revised form on their shelves.

Errors, listed here below, are not absent, but they are generally trivial.


p. 13: In the last line of the main text, "Cambridge" should be italicized.

p. 22n31: In the second passage cited from Philodemus' De ira (VI 13), ἐν lacks its smooth breathing, and the accent after διὰ should be τὴν (i.e. a grave rather than a circumflex). Similarly, the third citation (XV 17) should begin οὕτω, and the fifth (XL 36) should read λαβὼν rather than λαβῶν.

p. 24: In the passage from Aristotle's De anima, it is unclear why there is a hyphen in the middle of συμβαίνοντος.

p. 37n28: ingenia should, it seems, be ingenium. (The word appears in the singular in Lucretius.)

p. 43: For line 43, Smith renders "uniform in their armor, uniform in their manner," appearing to translate ornatas armis pariter pariterque animatas (i.e. accepting Bernays' emendation) rather than ornatas[que] armis +itastuas+ pariterque animatas, which appears in Konstan's text.

p. 44n41: In the last sentence of this note, "military exercizes" should be "military exercises."

p. 46n44: The passage quoted from Heinze prints "Kürtze" for the correct "Kürze."

p. 48: In Smith's version of the inscription fragment on this page, several letters appear with a dot beneath them, indicating imperfect preservation; the version printed here only preserves one such dot.

p. 50n51: There is an extraneous space in the middle of the word ἐσομένου, which appears in the passage cited from the Axiochus.

p. 52: The line number for rationi' potestas should be 2.53 instead of 53, as it is not clear from the preceding context what book is under discussion.

p. 70: The parenthetical citation simulacra fruendum tenuia is a bit misleading since it is not itself a grammatical or semantic unit. simulacra...tenuia is the object of praeter and fruendum agrees with nil.

p. 75: In the middle of the page, add "with" between "bound up" and "the painfulness of the condition."

p. 79: Line 989 should read vitae rather than vita.

p. 87n10: The punctuation of this note is strange: perhaps the parenthesis should begin before "for Epicureanism"? p. 88n10: "anxietiey" should be "anxiety."

p. 95: Passages quoted in Greek and Latin generally appear before their English translations; here the English precedes the Greek.

p. 117n53: "In 1124" should be "In 1224."

p. 137: The first line of the Theaetetus passage omits an iota-subscript in τῇ; the third line omits the accent on πᾶν.

p. 164: The title of Pigeaud's study is La maladie de l'âme not La malade de l'âme.

p. 164: In the bibliographical entry for Pio, "T." should be italicized with rest of the title.

p. 174: The index entry for "pleasure" has been incorrectly attached to the entry for "Plato".


1.   The original Some Aspects contains, generally speaking, no translations of non-English sources, whether ancient or modern. In the new A Life, the translations of ancient sources, even where modified, regularly stem from available published translations rather than from Konstan himself. (Versions of Lucretius, for example, most often come from M. F. Smith's 2001 rendering, published with Hackett.) For modern scholarship, in his main text, if not in his notes, Konstan now generally offers English versions, but passages occasionally remain in their original tongue. On p. 65, for instance, the comment from Boyancé remains in French (cf. the passage from Robin on p. 80). Occasional untranslated bits in an array of languages from French, Italian, and German to Dutch should pose little trouble for scholars or even many European students, but they may limit the accessibility of the work for typical Americans undergraduates or less-seasoned graduate students.
2.   πάθη and αἰσθήσεις are two of the Epicurean criteria of truth, the basic capacities that provide us knowledge of the world. προλήπσεις, preconceptions (an Epicurean term for general concepts, at least on one interpretation), and ἐπιβολὰς τῆς διανοίας, projections of thought, are often added to this list. Cf. Diogenes Laertius 10.31.
3.   A terminological clarification: given the discussion in the first chapter of the rational and irrational parts of the soul, the terms "irrational fear" and "irrational desire" may seem to describe phenomena connected primarily with the second, irrational part. The account in that first chapter, though, precludes this interpretation: as Konstan writes, "...the Epicureans were concerned with emotions that appear to have no reasonable object in the world: emotions, that is, and above all fear, that are elicited by false beliefs about the nature of an ostensibly threatening or harmful event." (p. 24) My summary of Konstan's first chapter (above) should make clear that "emotions" and "false belief" are associated with the rational rather than the irrational part of the soul. Hence, I take it that the terms "irrational fear" and "irrational desire" mean only "unreasonable fear" and "unreasonable desire" in the sense that, on the Epicurean account, these fears and desires are empty, "with no reasonable object in the world". Despite their name, then, they suggest no primary connection with the πάθη or the irrational soul.
4.   Konstan considers at length the place of allegory in Epicureanism, as it is sometimes suggested that Epicureanism avoided or condemned allegory. But the "allegory" Konstan sees here -- the projection of torments of this life onto Hades -- is an explanation of how mistaken beliefs about the world arise and not an endorsement of (e.g.) allegorical readings of literature. Cf. e.g. p. 64n69, where Konstan makes clear his position on Epicurean allegory.
5.   There are four studies of Benjamin Farrington that underlie Konstan's chapter: B. Farrington. 1953a. "Vita Prior in Lucretius." Hermathena 81: 59-62; B. Farrington. 1953b. "Second Thoughts on Epicurus." Science and Society 17: 326-39; B. Farrington. 1954. "Lucretius and Manilius on Friendship." Hermathena 83: 10-16; and B. Farrington. 1955. "The Meaning of Persona in De Rerum Natura III.58." Hermathena 85: 3-12. While all of these studies were considered in Konstan's original Some Aspects, it should be noted that, in a bibliographical sense, this chapter has received perhaps the most substantial revisions of the original three. Since 1973 there has been extensive writing on Lucretius' fifth book (and the origins of language in particular); Konstan has taken much of this work into account.
6.   For a discussion by Konstan of Lucretius' own contribution to Epicureanism, cf. D. Konstan. 2006. "Lucretius" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Second Edition, New York. His "Preface to the Revised Edition" in the volume under review is also illuminating with regard to his position on this matter.
7.   Cicero's relationship with Epicureanism is also increasingly an object of direct scholarly concern; see e.g. S. Maso. 2008. Capire e Dissentire. Cicerone e La Filosofia di Epicuro. Naples. (This work is not cited by Konstan, but it is likely too recent to have been included in his revisions.)
8.   The index, though, is certainly incomplete. References to Cicero appear on (e.g.) p. 122 without any notice in the index.
9.   It is worth noting that when Konstan does mention Cicero (e.g. p. 15n22), he cites him to good effect. I simply wish he had turned to him more often.
10.   B. Holmes. 2005. "Daedala Lingua: Crafted Speech in De Rerum Natura." American Journal of Philology 126: 567-68 discusses this fragment to good effect. Neither her piece nor the relevant works she cites appear in Konstan's bibliography. Jake Mackey, who produced an edition (cited in Holmes) of this fragment for his 2003 Oxford M.St. Thesis, generously first introduced me to it.

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