Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.11.43

Jeffrey Fish, Kirk R. Sanders (ed.), Epicurus and the Epicurean Tradition.   Cambridge;New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2011.  Pp. xi, 267.  ISBN 9780521194785.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by Sean McConnell, University of East Anglia (


Epicureanism has been depicted routinely as a dogmatic philosophy that is rigidly committed to the authoritative canonical views of Epicurus and the school’s other founding figures. For later Epicureans such as Lucretius, the necessary philosophical work has already been done, and spreading the word to convince others is now all that is required. This collection of papers aims to challenge these long-held assumptions by examining the ways in which the Epicurean school was receptive to outside influences and adapted its philosophical message in the light of changing cultural and historical circumstances while retaining its autonomy and distinctive identity. The core target audience are those interested in Epicureanism in particular and the development of the Greek philosophical tradition more generally.

There are nine separate papers in the collection, with a short introduction (chapter 1) that outlines the motivation for the edited volume and the scope of the various studies (chapters 2-10). The papers are orientated around three main subject areas – theology, politics, and the emotions – and are allowed to pursue their own agenda and critical approach (indeed, the various studies showcase a wide range of literary, historical, and philosophical approaches), while at the same time shedding light on the general themes of openness and innovation.

In the second chapter, ‘Autodidact and student: on the relationship of authority and autonomy in Epicurus and the Epicurean tradition’, Michael Erler offers an engaging and informative discussion of the general attitudes towards innovation and authority in the Epicurean school. Erler highlights the extent of Epicurus’ debt to earlier figures, and the ways in which he acknowledged this openly while also claiming to be innovative and independent, offering something quite new with his own philosophy. Erler then argues persuasively that innovation in the Epicurean school was permitted in an identifiable framework: there were limits as everything had to accord with the core doctrines, which were authoritative, but one was free to explore new modes of conveying the philosophical message and could tailor the material significantly in the light of new developments so as to meet the expectations and challenges of a particular culture or target audience. The following papers all illustrate this in different ways.

The third and fourth chapters operate as a pair. In the third chapter, ‘Epicurus’ theological innatism’, David Sedley brings us into a long established debate about the nature of the gods in Epicurean theological thought. The case for idealism is restated forcefully: the gods are ‘our own graphic idealisation of the life to which we aspire’ (29). In the fourth chapter, ‘Epicurus on the gods’, David Konstan restates the case for realism: the gods are ‘atomic compounds and possess the properties that pertain to the concept, or prolêpsis, that people have of them’ (53). Although the debate remains unresolved, it is important in itself that compelling cases can be made on either side. In particular, both papers demonstrate how internal debates of the kind more familiar amongst, say, the Peripatetics could take place in the Epicurean school owing to ambiguous modes of expression in the founder's discussion of the gods, which were—Sedley suggests intriguingly—perhaps a result of pressures to conform to prevailing negative attitudes towards atheism.

In the fifth chapter, ‘Not all politicians are Sisyphus: what Roman Epicureans were taught about politics’, Jeffrey Fish confronts one of the most pervasive commonplaces about the Epicureans, namely that they advocate abstention from politics since it is intrinsically inimical to the end, ataraxia. This attitude has been challenged in recent years, and this paper is another contribution to overhauling the dogmatic view of Epicurean attitudes. The Epicurean position is in fact nuanced and qualified, and Fish highlights the ways in which Epicureans in both Greek and Roman contexts clearly and understandably tailored their advice in the light of particular social and political realities. In particular, the expectations and pressures of Roman aristocratic life could be and were taken into account by Lucretius and Philodemus. On this issue, we await eagerly Fish’s forthcoming new edition of Philodemus’ On the Good King according to Homer.

In the sixth chapter, ‘Epicurean virtues, Epicurean friendship: Cicero vs the Herculaneum papyri’, David Armstrong seeks to show how Cicero’s account of Epicurean friendship and virtue in the first book of De finibus is incomplete and misleading. Rather than being focused on the case of the sage and neglectful of ordinary Roman virtues and cultural norms, Epicureans such as Philodemus were sensitive to them and sought to demonstrate that there was no conflict with the core tenets of their ethical theory. Armstrong’s focus on Cicero’s epistolary conversations with Roman aristocrats who were professed Epicureans is apt. However, it seems to be a missed opportunity in some ways. In particular, more could be said about Cicero’s exchange with Cassius and the special virtue of gloria that figures prominently in Cicero’s letter about Pansa.1 Also, it is somewhat surprising to see no detailed discussion about Cicero’s close friend Atticus, an Epicurean whom Cicero thought exhibited many virtues and with whom he had numerous explicit philosophical conversations via letter.

In the seventh chapter, ‘Cicero’s use and abuse of Epicurean theology’, Holger Essler focuses attention on the sources for the first book of Cicero’s De natura deorum. Essler argues that Philodemus’ On the Gods is a likely source for many of Cicero’s anti-Epicurean polemics. Essler builds his case by listing parallels between the two texts. The case cannot be declared conclusive but this paper is informative in other ways. For instance, the number of different Epicurean figures writing on the gods and engaging with other hostile traditions suggests a constant readjusting and re-tailoring of their theological message in the first century BC.

In the eighth chapter, ‘The necessity of anger in Philodemus’ On Anger’, Elizabeth Asmis examines some tensions in Philodemus’ treatise, in particular the question of how can we explain or justify the anger of the wise man. Asmis suggests the answer lies in the familiar distinction between natural and necessary, natural and unnecessary, and unnatural and unnecessary (empty) desires. In certain well-defined instances the wise man will naturally get angry and be completely justified in acting on that anger. Asmis’ argument is supported by a detailed reading of the text and seems highly plausible.

In the ninth chapter, ‘Philodemus, Seneca, and Plutarch on anger’, Voula Tsouna looks at the influence of Philodemus’ On Anger on two prominent later writers on the same subject. Philodemus’ treatise is the first surviving example of a philosophical treatise dedicated to the topic of anger, and given Seneca’s and Plutarch’s engagement with the Epicurean tradition one might suspect signs of intertextuality. Tsouna finds no real evidence for direct influence and suggests that there might be some mitigating factors to explain this. However, the exercise poses one very major question – were Philodemus’ works such as On Anger ever disseminated widely at all?

In the tenth chapter, ‘Philodemus and the fear of premature death’, Kirk R. Sanders appeals to Philodemus’ fragmentary On Death to argue that the Epicureans did not deny that death was nothing to us in an unqualified sense. To be sure, for the Epicureans many of the fears surrounding death are demonstrably empty and unnatural; but on the other hand certain forms of the fear of death might be natural and reasonable to hold; Sanders argues that the fear of premature death is one such case. That the Epicureans were sensitive and accommodating to reasonable fears of death is perhaps understandable, particularly given their educational and therapeutic aims, but it is not clear why they should be comfortable supporting them indefinitely – they do seem to pose a barrier to successful achievement of the end, freedom from anxiety. Sanders’ suggestion that the Epicureans developed a weaker account of the good life, open to those who could not fully overcome certain natural fears, is intriguing, but I feel a more developed discussion would be needed to produce conviction .

The supporting index and index locorum are useful and well presented, the book itself attractive, the editing thorough with very few typographical errors.

Looking at the collection as a whole, I have three criticisms to make. First, many of the chapters make use of various works of Philodemus and quote extracts of varying length. In certain cases the Greek is provided and in others not. It would have been useful to have the Greek provided in all cases (even in the notes alone), owing to the uncertainties in reconstructing these texts and the difficulty many have in sourcing this material. Having said this, on the whole the manner in which these difficult texts are presented and discussed is laudable – there is very rarely if ever a jarring interruption in the flow of the argument owing to technical and rebarbative textual problems. Second, there is sometimes significant repetition between chapters. To some extent, this is unavoidable given the scope of the collection and the desire for each of the chapters to work as stand-alone pieces; but perhaps it could have been avoided, particularly when there was the opportunity to widen the scope of the subject matter covered, which brings me to my main criticism of the volume.

The book is dedicated to the Epicurean tradition, but it is striking how much of the collection is dedicated to the works of Philodemus and the period of the first century BC in particular. To be sure, this is understandable given the philosophical vibrancy of the period, the importance of Philodemus, the amount of his work that survives, its impressive scope and sophistication, and the significant improvement in the texts of the Herculaneum papyri in recent years. However, other major figures in the Epicurean tradition do seem rather neglected. For example, there is little comment made about Demetrius Laco, an Epicurean from the generation before Philodemus, some of whose work survives in fragments from Herculaneum; Diogenes of Oinoanda barely figures, despite the detailed legacy of his remarkable wall. The Epicurean tradition both pre- and post-Philodemus could have been explored in more detail. Also, the choice to focus attention on the topics of theology, the emotions, and politics might risk implying that significant innovation after Epicurus is limited to a few subject areas only. Perhaps more could have been said about interesting developments and interactions with other schools in the realms of social philosophy and philosophical method, for instance. Despite these criticisms about the scope of the volume, however, the chosen topics and texts do serve as effective illustrating cases of the general themes of autonomy and openness; and the limited scope also allows opportunities for others to look more keenly into other aspects of the Epicurean tradition, which is something the editors actively encourage.

Overall, while there is not much radically new in the individual chapters, with many covering increasingly familiar and well-worn territory, viewed as a whole this collection of papers does succeed in showing the vitality and sophistication of the Epicurean school after the death of its founding figures. It leaves us with a clear and compelling picture of a philosophical tradition that was sensitive to changing cultural and political circumstances and prepared and able to adapt its core message effectively in a variety of ways, while still maintaining continuity with the authoritative texts and doctrines of the school’s founders. It is apparent that the commonplace assumptions about the dogmatic, rigid, and uncreative Epicurean school, which still resonate amongst classicists and philosophers, must be revised in the light of recent scholarship.


1.   See M. Griffin, ‘Philosophical badinage in Cicero’s letters to his friends’, in J. G. F. Powell (ed.), Cicero the Philosopher (Oxford, 1995), pp. 325-346, at 342-346.

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