BMCR 1995.01.06

1995.01.06, Inwood and Gerson, The Epicurus Reader

, , , The Epicurus reader : selected writings and testimonia. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994. xvi, 111 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780872202429 $5.95 paper.

This slender volume offers what many teachers of Hellenistic philosophy have long sought: an inexpensive and readable translation of the best known Epicurean texts, along with extended quotations of Cicero (18 pages) and Plutarch (6 pages). In addition to the Principal Doctrines, the Vatican Collection of Sayings, the Epicurean epistles preserved in Diogenes Laertius, and a selection of the fragmentary works of Epicurus, the translators have included excerpts from Diogenes Laertius’Life of Epicurus and the ancient doxographical reports, as well as the more useful comments of the scholiasts. Also included are several pages of relevant quotations from Aetius, Clement of Alexandria, Philodemus, Porphyry, Seneca, Sextus Empiricus, and others. Lucretius is omitted (except for two pages of excerpts) but the editors urge readers to consult the whole poem.

The introductory essay by D.S. Hutchinson, with its exposition of the tetrapharmakos (“four-part remedy”) will be useful to students who have no prior knowledge of Epicureanism. The essay supplies almost no historical context, but the survey of the ancient sources (xiii-xiv) is especially informative. Throughout the essay Hutchinson combats the hackneyed portrayal (ancient and modern) of the Epicureans as ignorant hedonists and closes his essay by asking readers to have “the courage to ignore two thousand years of negative prejudice” (xv). Unfortunately Hutchinson’s essay itself contributes to the stereotype of the anti-intellectual and dogmatic Epicurean. Instead of opening with a fictional Epicurean preacher hawking easy answers in the agora, he would have done better to quote a real (and more dignified) Epicurean proselytizer: the second-century C.E. Diogenes of Oenoanda.

In fact, Diogenes’ inscription, which proclaims Epicurean wisdom “to all Greeks and barbarians,” is the most noticeable omission from The Epicurus Reader. Also absent is Lucian’s Alexander the False Prophet and Plutarch’s On Living the Inconspicuous Life (which is quoted once, however). While these texts are not rich sources for the details of Epicurean doctrine, they tell us much about the social and cultural location of Epicureanism—and its adversaries—in the Roman empire. Diogenes Laertius’Life of Epicurus is fascinating for similar reasons, and this edition would be more useful if the Life were printed in full. As it is, the editors have omitted all the references to Epicurean women and most of the references to the Epicurean slaves (the slave Mus appears only as “the aforementioned Mus” on p. 3). Also missing are Diogenes’ lists of the titles of (now lost) Epicurean books, parts of Diogenes’ own ardent praise of Epicurus, and the intriguing references to such enemies of Epicurus as Timocrates and Diotimus the Stoic.

Concise biographical notes are given for Cicero, Lucretius, and Plutarch, but not for the other sources. As many of the fragments and testimonia are difficult to find in English, their inclusion here is the strong point of this edition, and a few words about the scattered sources for the testimonia would be useful. Aetius, Clement of Alexandria, and the other sources are also omitted from the index of topics and names, but the index will be quite useful despite this shortcoming, especially for the Greekless reader who cannot make use of the index of principal terms in Bailey’s edition. The translations themselves are reliable, but those hoping for a lucid translation of the Principal Doctrines will be disappointed. To my ear, the Principal Doctrines in Cyril Bailey’s rendering ( Epicurus: The Extant Remains, Oxford 1926) are both more elegant and more intelligible.