BMCR 2002.10.01

Epicurus and Democritean Ethics: An Archaeology of Ataraxia

, Epicurus and Democritean Ethics: An Archaeology of Ataraxia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. ix-xiv + 241. $55.00.

According to Epicurus, the ideal state of the soul is “tranquillity” ( ataraxia). Where did he get this idea? Warren’s thesis is that it grew out of the tradition in ethics that begins with Democritus of Abdera and is continued by such figures as Anaxarchus of Abdera (“the Eudaimonikos“), Pyrrho of Elis (who anticipated Epicurus in championing ataraxia), and Epicurus’ teacher Nausiphanes (a Democritean student of Pyrrho). The layers of this tradition are like the layers of soil through which archaeologists must dig to get to the bottom of things. So Warren digs beneath Epicurus’ view to uncover the views of Democritus and his successors on the telos.

Is Warren’s “archaeology” successful? I have a number of reservations. My main criticism is that Warren ends up saying surprisingly little about how Epicurus’ own distinctive view of the telos grew out of Democritean ethics. He offers only a bried and imprecise account of Epicurus’ view on pp. 3-5 of his introduction, then announces that his concern is not to reconstruct Epicurus’ view but “to offer a story which might explain how he came to advocate the position that he did”. But I do not see how one can explain that without giving a precise account of the position that Epicurus advocated.

In Chapter 1 (“Introducing the Democriteans”), Warren introduces the characters of his story via a discussion of Diogenes Laertius’ account of the teacher-student relations among the Democriteans and Clement of Alexandria’s account of the views of “the Abderites” on the telos. According to Clement, “Democritus … identifies the telos as euthymia, which he also terms euestô… . Hecateus says that it is autarkeia, Apollodotus of Cyzicus psychagôgia — and similarly Nausiphanes says akataplêxia, which he claims is the same as what Democritus called athambia. Further, Diotimus [takes as the goal] the completeness of goods, which he said is termed euestô.” Are these all names for the same thing? Eventually Warren will argue that they are not.

In Chapter 2 (“Democritus’ ethics and atomist psychologies”), Warren discusses the doxographical evidence for Democritus’ view of the telos, beginning with Diogenes Laertius 9.45: “He says that euthymia is the goal of life — which is not identical to pleasure as some have mistakenly understood, but is the state in which the soul proceeds peacefully and well settled, disturbed by no fear or superstition or any other passion. He also calls this euestô and many other names.” Warren notes that this suggests that Democritus had no single term for the telos, and that later Democriteans chose their terms for the telos depending on what aspect of his view they wished to emphasize. Diotimus, for instance, picks euestô, according to Warren, because he wants to emphasize “the well-being of one’s household,” i.e., a complete collection of external goods. I myself doubt that Diotimus had only external goods in mind in identifying the telos as “the completeness of goods,” and would argue that euestô simply means ‘well-being’ quite generally. But the idea that, in choosing their terms for the telos, different Democriteans were emphasizing different aspects of Democritus’ view seems plausible enough.

The rest of chapter 2 is an analysis of the longest surviving fragment of Democritus, B191. It begins, ” Euthymia arises in men through a moderation of joy and a good balance of life.” This confirms, says Warren, “that Democritus is no full-blooded hedonist,” since it advises that we pursue, not “the maximum amount of pleasure,” but only “a moderate amount of terpsis” And what is terpsis ? Warren translates it “joy,” and distinguishes it from “pleasure” ( hêdonê) as follows: whereas a feeling of pleasure “might or might not be beneficial,” terpsis“is a feeling we can accept as objectively good.” I find this implausible and would urge instead that Democritus’ distinction between terpsis and hêdonê anticipates Epicurus’ distinction between “joy” ( chara) and “pleasure”: joy is the mental state that has pleasure as its intentional object. (On this, see my article “Epicurus on the telos“, Phronesis 38 [1993] 281-321.)Warren cites B4: “Joy ( terpsis) and lack of joy are boundary-markers of what is and is not beneficial.” But Democritus is not saying here that joy is the feeling of pleasure that we get from what, being truly beneficial, is objectively good. He is saying that what is good (i.e., beneficial) must be measured in terms of what causes joy. And that sounds to me a lot like the moderate hedonism of Epicurus.

B191 continues, “Deficiencies and excesses tend to change into one another and set up great motions in the soul. Souls moved out of large intervals are neither well settled nor euthymoi.” Warren reads this as saying that psychological disturbance arises when the constituent atoms of a tranquil soul are moved “out of” ( ek) the large intervals that separate them. I find this implausible too and continue to believe that the translation given by Kirk, Raven, and Schofield, though not so literal, correctly captures the sense: “Such souls as are in large-scale motion are neither in good balance, nor in good spirits.” Warren uses his reading to settle the question of “whether the disturbance here described is meant to be understood as a physical and atomic, or merely metaphorical, movement away from the mean” in favor of the “physical and atomic” alternative. I agree that Democritus meant “physical” motions and intervals. But “atomic”? Atomists do not always have atoms in mind when they speak of something physical, and I doubt that Democritus did here.

In chapter 3 (“Anaxarchus’ Moral Stage”), Warren discusses what little we know about the apathetic “Happy Man” ( Eudaimonikos) Anaxarchus of Abdera. Sextus Empiricus reports that Anaxarchus “likened what is to a scene-painting and held it to resemble dreams and manic delusions.” This invites the interpretation (which I endorse) that Anaxarchus, who was probably an atomist, wished to deny the reality of all macroscopic phenomena. But Warren is wary of attributing “full eliminativist atomism” to Anaxarchus, preferring to see him as denying only moral realism. In Anaxarchus’ advice to Alexander the Great not to fear men’s judgment that the murder of Cleitus was unjust but to consider himself, like Zeus, the arbiter of justice, Warren sees an application of this moral anti-realism. But to see Alexander as “Anaxarchus’ indifferent man writ large,” forced by the absence of any “external criterion” of good and bad to “construct” them from an “internal criterion,” is to overlook, I think, how different Alexander is from other men: as autocrat, he can (re)define what justice is.

In chapter 4 (“Pyrrho and Timon: inhuman indifference”), Warren turns to the Pyrrhonists’ hero Pyrrho of Elis, who “was not a Pyrrhonist” himself. The best window on Pyrrho (who wrote nothing) is Praeparatio Evangelica 14.18.1-4, where (as Warren translates) Eusebius cites Aristocles’ report that Pyrrho’s student Timon “says that Pyrrho declared all things to be equally indifferent, indeterminate, and unjudged, and [Timon says] that for that reason ( dia touto) neither our senses nor our opinions are reliably true or false.” Like many recent scholars, Warren rejects Zeller’s reasonable emendation of dia touto to dia to, which would make Pyrrho a skeptic arguing that, because our criteria of judgment are unreliable, things are undifferentiable. In place of this “subjective” reading of adiaphora, Warren prefers an “objective” reading according to which things “are ‘indifferent’ not (at least in Pyrrho’s original formulation) in the sense of being metaphysically indistinct, but in the moral sense of having no intrinsic value.” He cites DL 9.61 (“[Pyrrho] said that nothing was fine or foul or just or unjust, and generally for all things that nothing is in truth, but that men do everything through custom and habit”) in support of his thesis that Pyrrho, following his teacher Anaxarchus, was not a general skeptic but a moral anti-realist who derived tranquillity from his dogma that nothing is good or bad by nature. Why, then, does Aristocles present Pyrrho as a skeptic about things quite generally? According to Warren, it is because Timon turned “Pyrrho’s claim of ethical anti-realism into a general metaphysical thesis” upon arriving in Athens in the 260’s B.C., “perhaps claiming Pyrrho as the originator of his own brand of scepticism in a move designed to undercut the Academy’s claim to the mantle of ‘original sceptics’.” Warren proceeds to discuss the “biodoxography” in this light, arguing, e.g., that the reason why Pyrrho did not avoid cliffs is not because he distrusted his senses (as the later “epistemological spin” would have it), but because he did not believe walking off a cliff to be bad. Warren’s ruminations on Pyrrho’s exhortation “to strip away the human” (DL 9.66) and live like a pig (DL 9.68) are interesting, but I remain skeptical of his general thesis that Pyrrho was not a general skeptic.

In Chapter 5 (“Polystratus and Epicurean pigs”), Warren ingeniously notes that there is a clever pun in Timon’s description of Epicurus as the “most recent” ( hustatos) and “most doggish” ( kuntatos) nature-philosopher. For hustatos can also mean “most piggish.” Warren plausibly argues that neither adjective is “univocally critical,” noting that pigs were seen by Pyrrho as a positive symbol of ataraxia. Like Pyrrho, says Warren, “Epicurus admires the disposition … of the happy pig, but — unlike Pyrrho — recognises that it is not desirable to rid oneself” of one’s distinctively human rational capacities and “live entirely according to instinct and habit.” In support of this, he cites Polystratus’ On irrational contempt for common conceptions and Philodemus’ On the gods I, where these Epicureans argue that animals’ lack of reason counts against their happiness. Pyrrho, suggests Warren, may be one of Polystratus’ targets here, and Plutarch’s Gryllus, in which a pig and Odysseus discuss happiness, can be seen as dramatizing “the distinction between Epicurean ‘rational’ tranquillity and Pyrrhonian ‘instinctive’ tranquillity.” The chapter then concludes with a discussion of Polystratus’ refutation of those, like Pyrrho, who reject moral realism.

In Chapter 6 (“Hecateus of Abdera’s instructive ethnography”), Warren discusses what little we know about Pyrrho’s student Hecateus, the “Abderite” who claimed that the telos is “self-sufficiency.” Hecateus wrote On the Hyperboreans and On the Egyptians, but Warren is pessimistic about the prospects for reconstructing these works and concludes that we can say only that “as a court ethnographer he belongs firmly in a tradition of writing for and about Hellenistic monarchies, a tradition to which the Epicureans later contributed.”

In Chapter 7 (“Nausiphanes’ Compelling Rhetoric”), Warren turns to Nausiphanes of Teos. In his life of Pyrrho, Diogenes Laertius says, “Nausiphanes, a youth at the time, was captivated by him”. At any rate, he used to say that one ought to cultivate Pyrrho’s disposition, but his own arguments. He also often said that Epicurus was amazed at Pyrrho’s behaviour and constantly pestered him about it” (DL 9.64). Warren plausibly argues that this picture of Nausiphanes at about age 20 being “captivated” by Pyrrho is a homoerotic fiction made up by Antigonus of Carystus and hence need not be fit into the chronology of teacher-student relations between Pyrrho, Nausiphanes, and Epicurus. Clement tells us that Nausiphanes said that the telos is “imperturbability” ( akataplêxia), which he identified with what Democritus called athambia (which Cicero glossed as animum terrore liberum). In Epicurean texts, Warren claims, the term akataplêxia and its cognates is restricted to an unperturbed attitude toward death and the gods, and hence is a necessary but not sufficient condition for ataraxia. But the texts Warren cites are not sufficient to establish this. And, even if they were, that would not establish that Nausiphanes so restricted the meaning of the term.

Next Warren turns “to the most promising source of information about Nausiphanes,” Philodemus’ On Rhetoric, which contains a polemic against Nausiphanes’ view that the natural philosopher is the best orator. According to Epicurus, “natural philosophy does not make people clever or good at speaking,” and rhetoric is not a technê, but a knack acquired through experience and practice. What might have made Nausiphanes think otherwise? Warren suggests that Nausiphanes, a “Democritean,” was a “reductive atomist” who thought that knowing “about the tiny building blocks of the universe” would “provide knowledge of the physics of human nature which can be harnessed in political thinking and persuasion.” I grant that Nausiphanes probably was an atomist, and probably did endorse ‘E/Ph,’ the thesis that the ideal emotional state is identical with a certain physical state. But I doubt that Nausiphanes had atoms in mind when he said that the physiologos, knowing “what nature desires,” is a master of oratory.

“Ariston says … that Epicurus wrote his Canon on the basis of Nausiphanes’ Tripod” (DL 10.14). This suggests that Nausiphanes posited the same three criteria of truth in his Tripod that Epicurus did in his Canon, and this, Warren concedes in passing, is “not unthinkable.” But he prefers to focus on the associations of tripods with wisdom and Delphic oracles, fancifully suggesting that Ariston might be implying that Epicurus copied from Nausiphanes “as a scribe might copy the Pythia’s oracles pronounced ‘from the Tripod’.” Finally, Warren discusses Epicurus’ vitriolic abuse of Nausiphanes, reading Epicurus’ claim not to have been taught by Nausiphanes as saying “Nausiphanes has no technê, no systematic body of knowledge which can be imparted.”

In his short concluding chapter (“Epicurus and Democriteanism: Determinism, Scepticism, and Ethics”), Warren discusses Democritus B9: “By convention sweet, by convention bitter, by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention coloured, but in truth atoms and void.” Colotes, who adds “by convention compound” in his citation of B9, interprets this as eliminativism, and Warren relates this to Epicurus’ anti-determinism and anti-scepticism. “The thought which originated in phrases such as B9,” says Warren, “was extended first by Anaxarchus and Pyrrho into a vision of a blank moral canvas, and later by Timon and Nausiphanes into a broad metaphysical thesis. Epicurus rejected all of these conclusions, and saw Democritus himself as the source of the general malaise.” For Epicurus, ataraxia, as the goal of human life, comes first, and anything that conflicts with this, including Democritus’ eliminativism and Pyrrho’s attempt to strip away “the human” and be totally apathetic, must be rejected.

That Epicurus rejected these things, I reply, is true enough. But — to restate my main criticism of Warren’s work — this does not tell us how Epicurus’ own distinctive view of the telos grew out of Democritean ethics. Is Epicurus’ ataraxia just another name for Democritus’ euthymia ? More generally, is Epicurus’ view of the telos just a more refined version of Democritus’ view, as I would argue, or is it somehow fundamentally different? If there are answers to these questions in Warren’s book, I could not find them.