Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.07.35 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.07.35

Attila Németh, Epicurus on the Self. Issues in ancient philosophy.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2017.  Pp. xix, 205.  ISBN 9781138633858.  $140.00.  

Reviewed by David Merry, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (


Németh’s Epicurus on the Self offers an original and engaging study of self-constitution, self-knowledge and agency in Epicurus. Németh finds in Epicurus a notion of a self that is holistic, physical, constituted by narratives constructed in a social context, and in possession of causal powers. Through their commemorative practices, Epicureans would come to relate to Epicurus as a second self.

The first chapter reconstructs Epicurus’ theory of how we come to know the self, primarily drawing on fragments from On Nature XXV. Németh’s discussion fills out a closing fragment of this work, in which Epicurus claims that self-knowledge is achieved through the pathologikos tropos and the aitiologikos tropos. Németh plausibly finds brief descriptions of these two tropoi in an earlier fragment. He suggests that the pathologikos tropos involves direct awareness of our self through the pathē, under which he includes experiences of sensory perception. The aitiologikos tropos involves recognition of ourselves through a prolēpsis developed by observing other responsible agents, which allows us to recognise ourselves as such. This reading depends on Németh’s plausible construal of prolēpsis as a capacity for recognition of the different things there are, which he offers a strong case for in the limited space available. In this chapter, Németh puts his attention to detail and perceptiveness as a reader of fragmentary texts to excellent use, and he succeeds in grounding his attractively empiricist reading of self-knowledge in Epicurus firmly in the extant evidence.

The second chapter revisits the question of agency in Epicurus. Németh opts for a position that falls between Sedley’s attribution of emergentism to Epicurus and O’Keefe’s attribution of reductionism. (It would have been desirable to situate his position also relative to Julia Annas’ view.1) According to Németh, Epicurus held a version of non-reductive physicalism: agents are entirely physical, being made up of atoms, but they have the power to act as a cause. Németh locates this causal power in the products (apogegennēmena), which he interprets as being occurrent mental states. This differs from O’Keefe’s position, in that it offers a more radical notion of agent-causation, and from Sedley’s, in that it denies that this agent- causation is non-physical. The self’s ability to act as a cause just is a physical property that some arrangements of atoms happen to have. Németh’s reading of the texts, so far as this goes, is defensible. Németh attempts, however, to elucidate this position in terms drawn from the contemporary philosophy of mind, putting particular weight on the claim that Epicurus was a type-dualist. Here, Németh is insufficiently careful: it is not clear to me from his argument that Epicurus was a type-dualist in any pertinent sense. A particular concern is Németh’s reliance on the claim that the same mental states can be realized in (subtly) different atomic configurations. Epicurus probably did make that claim. But it is hard to see how this helps make room for independent agent causation. The same value of money in my wallet can be realised by different patterns of coins and notes, but this does not give the value the kind of causal independence from the notes and coins that Németh thinks Epicurus attributes to the self. Nevertheless, even if Németh’s philosophical analysis of Epicurus’ position is at times lacking, Németh’s strongest arguments against rival positions are based on close readings of the texts. The core of Németh’s position is that the texts give reason to believe Epicurus attributed a strong, independent, causal power to the self, but not that he saw this causal power as somehow non-physical. The causal power of the self must then somehow be a physical property. Showing how strongly the texts point in this direction brings us already some way forward.

The most central and interesting point of Chapter Three is Németh’s claim that Epicurus adopted a narrative theory of selfhood, in which the self is actively created by weaving together different components of the self. As Németh himself recognises, the evidence for this thesis is scanty. He draws on De Tranq. Anim. 473B-474B, in which Plutarch does describe something that looks like a narrative theory of the self, according to which we weave ourselves out of memories, actively choosing to give positive memories a more prominent role in the tapestry. This passage will provide the frame through which Németh reads a fragment of On Nature in which Epicurus explains that we do not hold animals responsible, as we weave together the products with their original constitutions (understood as: their instinctive behavioural dispositions). Németh takes this as suggesting that responsibility depends on the narratives that we tell about the constitution of the self. I was not convinced: our theories about the agency of other animals are indeed what explains our practices towards them, but that does not show that the selves of other animals are constituted by our theory. The resonance of the metaphors of weaving in the two texts is unconvincing, mostly because of the difference in perspectives: Plutarch’s is a case of first-person weaving, while Epicurus’ is a case of third-person weaving. I am therefore skeptical about Németh’s conclusions in this chapter. In fairness to Németh, he makes the shortcomings of his case clear.

The fourth chapter considers the theory of agency developed in the second chapter in light of Lucretius’ discussion of the swerve. Németh’s main goal in this chapter is to argue that, although in Lucretius the swerve is inferred from agency, the swerve nevertheless plays no causal role in agency. Where Sedley argued that we act by causing atomic swerves, Németh argues that the swerve is simply a precondition for our agency. Epicurus, according to Németh, held that our agency requires a causally indeterminate cosmos, and the swerve is what provides such indeterminism. Németh emphasises that the swerve is not mentioned in Lucretius’ depictions of agent causation. On Németh’s reading, however, it is difficult to see how Epicurus might respond to Carneades’ objection, that the swerve seems to be an extra, gratuitous form of indeterminism, over and above that introduced already by the assumption of the undetermined causal power of the self. I was unable to extract a satisfying response from Németh’s discussion of this objection.

The fifth chapter engages with Epicurus’ theory of friendship. Németh’s discussion starts from his reconstruction of an Epicurean argument that the virtues are inseparable from pleasure. He then argues, in a similar vein, that caring for one’s friend is inseparable from caring for oneself, as both occur through participating in self-improving conversations in an Epicurean community. Németh argues, convincingly enough, that this involves seeing the Epicureans with whom one is in discussion as other selves, along similar lines to Aristotle’s theory. This has the particularly intriguing upshot that, because friendship with Epicurus (and other luminaries of the school) is maintained through commemorative rituals in a similar way to maintaining friendship when a friend is absent, Epicurus will ultimately wind up being a second self to all his disciples.

Epicurus on the Self is a step forward in our understanding of Epicurus’ moral psychology. It is unfortunately very densely written and the more philosophical side of the argument is sometimes disappointing. For scholars of Epicurus interested in his moral psychology, it is worth looking past these faults: Németh’s book has a lot to offer and he is a relentlessly astute and honest reader of the texts. It is a virtue of the book that it leaves in place many of the uncomfortable tensions in Epicureanism.


1.   D. N. Sedley, “Epicurus’ Refutation of Determinism” in ΣΥΖΗΤΗΣΙΣ: studi sull’ epicureismo greco e romano offerti a Marcello Gigante (Naples, 1983), 11-51 and “Epicurean Anti-Reductionism” in J. Barnes, M. Mignucci (ed.) Matter and Metaphysics (Naples, 1988), 295-327; T. O’Keefe, Epicurus on Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 2005); J. Annas, “Epicurus on Agency” in J. Brunschwig and M. Nussbaum (eds.) Passions and Perceptions (Cambridge University Press 1993), 53-71.

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