BMCR 2008.07.17

The Ethics of Philodemus

, The ethics of Philodemus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. xiii, 350 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780199292172 $72.00.

There has been continual progress in our ability to read the charred papyrus rolls discovered at Herculaneum more than 250 years ago. One thing, however, hasn’t changed: widespread disappointment that the author who came chiefly to light was an Epicurean named Philodemus. Mention Philodemus at a gathering of classicists, and you are likely to provoke, above all, a sense of frustration. Is he really worth all the fuss that’s been made about him? Even if he is a worthy subject of study, what can we really know from the fragmentary remains whose meaning is often highly controversial?

Philodemus was a student of Zeno of Sidon, the Epicurean head of school about the end of the second century B.C.E. Zeno had a reputation, even among his opponents, for brilliance. Philodemus was a loyal follower of Zeno, as well as an ardent defender of Epicurus. A large part of Philodemus’ preserved writings consists of reports of Zeno’s teachings. A large part, too, consists of attacks on opponents of the Epicureans. These attacks are often barbed and sometimes seem downright silly, raising the suspicion that Philodemus was more interested in ridiculing his opponents than in understanding the issue. How important, then, were Philodemus’ contributions to Epicurean philosophy? Was he an original thinker? Even if he was outshone by his teacher Zeno, did he nonetheless explore some topics in new depth?

In The Ethics of Philodemus, Voula Tsouna (henceforth ‘T.’) makes a strong case that Philodemus did exercise considerable originality in his treatment of Epicurean ethics. Her case rests on a detailed analysis of Philodemus’ ethical writings, with correspondingly greater emphasis on the better preserved texts, culminating in an especially illuminating discussion of Philodemus’ On Death. This is a book of some daring. Improvements continue to be made in the reading of the texts, and there is a great deal of controversy about the interpretation of particular passages. Still, there is much in the papyrus texts that has a clear meaning and does not admit of an improved reading. T. suggests that it is “unlikely” that the main lines of her interpretation “will be shown to be substantially incorrect” (p. 3). I am inclined to agree. T’s interpretations are supported by a thorough familiarity with the scholarship, careful attention to the text, and a meticulous grasp of the philosophical issues.

T’s book raises the level of understanding of Philodemus’ ethical contributions far above what we previously surmised. T. tackles the issues not just with scholarly acumen but with fine philosophical sensitivity. By gathering the textual material into philosophically interesting categories, she invites the reader to reflect in depth about the philosophical value of Philodemus’ arguments. All this is done in a lively, engaging style, which moves the reader beyond the brambles of textual interpretation to a consideration of the broader meaning. There are no extravagant flights of fancy; the discussion is carefully controlled by reference to the text. Both sensible and innovative, T’s book is the indispensable starting-point of future investigations of Philodemus’ ethics.

In what follows, I shall suggest some paths that future research might take. Although some of my comments will be critical, they should not be taken to detract from the enormous value of T’s book. T. herself indicates what more needs to be done; and the reader can rely on her own judgment to receive guidance on what to probe further. The chief strength of T’s study lies in the analysis of individual treatises in the second part of the book. The six chapters of Part II treat the major surviving ethical writings of Philodemus: On Arrogance, On Flattery, On Property Management, On Anger, and On Death. There is also some ancillary discussion of very poorly preserved texts. The second part is prefaced by a much shorter first part, which deals with general issues. Part I consists of four chapters: an outline of Philodemus’ ethics (“First things”), a second chapter on “Vices, Emotions, and ‘Bites'”, a third chapter on methodology (entitled “Analysis and Treatment: Methodological and Epistemological Prolegomena”), and a fourth chapter on therapy (“Therapeutic Tactics”).

The introductory topics are well chosen, and their treatment shows a unique insight into what makes Philodemus important. In my view, the best of the four chapters is the second, which focuses on vices and harmful emotions and sets straight the question of ‘bites’, pangs that are felt even by the wise person. The third chapter contains a very useful discussion of two features of Epicurean epistemology that are prominent in Philodemus’ writings: epilogismos (the comparative assessment of empirical data) and prolêpsis (initial concept). The fourth chapter draws on Hadot and Sorabji to show what is distinctive about Philodemus’ therapeutic method. The first chapter is, in T’s own words, “sketchy and selective” (p. 31). T. presupposes a basic familiarity with Epicurus’ ethics. What is missing here is an overall assessment of Philodemus’ place in the development of Epicurean ethics. Such an overview would require not only a systematic discussion of the relationship of Philodemus to Epicurus, but also a survey of relevant developments in Stoic, Peripatetic, and Academic philosophy. Much of the philosophical fervor of Zeno and his circle of Epicureans was prompted by the desire to defend Epicureanism against competing theories. T. duly notes particular controversies in the course of analyzing particular texts; but it would have been useful to have an introductory discussion that sets the philosophical scene in a more comprehensive way than is attempted in the book. T’s own detailed analyses in the second part of the book provide a basis for such an assessment.

Like the rest of the book, the first four chapters are permeated by a refreshingly novel understanding of the issues. T. approaches her author with an easy familiarity that signifies a sure understanding; the arguments are both astute and unforced; and the attentive reader will receive much illumination. There are a few blemishes; but in these cases, T. usually provides aid that will allow the reader to correct any misconceptions. The first chapter draws in part on a previous study, T’s commentary of [ On Choices and Avoidances ], an untitled papyrus text that is generally attributed to Philodemus.1 T’s abbreviation of her own commentary has resulted in some confusion: it’s not at all clear what virtues Epicurus endorsed—in particular, whether he embraced the “four traditional virtues” (as claimed on p. 27)—or what Philodemus added. Checking the original commentary will help the reader to sort out the confusion. Another problem is that T. assigns a tripartite division of the desires to Epicurus, in opposition to a bipartite division, which she credits to Philodemus (pp. 20-21). Epicurus himself offers the same bipartite division (into natural and empty desires, with a further subdivision of natural into necessary and unnecessary) in Letter to Menoeceus 127.

In the second chapter. T. provides a little background on the Stoic theory of passions ( pathê). Most of the time, she uses the term “emotions” to designate these irrational emotions. This is a source of some confusion since the Epicureans divided the emotions ( pathê) into both rational (natural) and irrational (unnatural or empty). T. explains in a footnote that by “emotions” she means harmful emotions unless otherwise noted (p. 38, n. 9). But this does not warn the reader sufficiently against the appearance of a contradiction in the body of her text. Thus, T. writes at one point (p. 40) that, according to Philodemus, “all emotions, including anger” follow on false opinions. On the next page (p. 41), she notes that “technically speaking…anger involving true beliefs is natural.” On the following page (p. 42), we read once more that, according to Philodemus, “the emotions of the soul are consequent upon false opinion.” The same confusion appears even more prominently in chapter 9 (on anger), where an entire section attributes to Philodemus the view that anger is irrational. The very attentive reader, reading so to speak beneath the lines, can figure out what is really being said. Still, there is a pervasive tendency throughout the book to address very briefly in the footnotes an objection or confusion that deserves to be sorted out in the main text.

The discussion of the emotions points to another desideratum: along with more philosophical background, it would have been useful for the reader to have further guidance on Epicurean philosophical distinctions. What did the Epicureans or Philodemus mean by pathê ? T. addresses this question only indirectly. Similarly, T. makes uses the Stoic distinction between “sage” and “fool” to discuss Epicurean doctrine; but the Epicurean conception of a “fool” is much more restricted than that of the Stoics. The Epicureans were considerably more flexible in their division of humanity into sages and the rest of mankind. Along the same lines, the term “philosopher” appears prominently in Philodemus’ discussion of wealth. Here again one would like to have some further explanation of the Epicurean conception. Who is a “philosopher”? A professional teacher? Someone who knows Epicurean doctrine in detail? Someone who has mastered just the basic teachings? Throughout her book, T. provides much material for the construction of answers to these questions, so it is perhaps churlish to ask her to do the job herself, especially since an enormous amount of ground-breaking work went into her study. It is to T’s credit that her discussions stimulate questions that her work goes a very long way to answering.

Along with numerous persuasive insights, the introductory chapters contain some controversial claims derived from the more detailed analyses that follow. Thus, T. claims that Philodemus held that therapy, such as the treatment of anger, “should always be corrective rather than preventive (chapter 3, p. 65), and that he “rejects preventive therapy” (chapter 4, p. 75). This claim is developed in the chapter on anger (chapter 9, pp. 207-8). T. of course recognizes that Epicurean education seeks to prevent unhappiness as much as to cure it. Clearly, T. has something different in mind. In chapter 9, she attributes to Philodemus the view that anger must be treated after it occurs; and she cites On Anger col. 7.5-6, translated as “there is no need to use these (therapies) before one actually gets angry” (p. 208). T. takes Philodemus to differ from Timasagoras on this point (pp. 65 and 207). However, “there is no need” is not in the preserved text, and it should have been put in square brackets; nor is at all clear that this is the point of dispute between Philodemus and Timasagoras. I should add immediately that the omission of brackets is a rare lapse. T’s translations are usually very reliable as well as remarkably lucid; they capture the meaning of the Greek with a rare sensitivity to shades of meaning.

Each of the chapters that make up Part II is clearly organized into topics that highlight issues that interest Philodemus. T. has a flair for making the topics interesting while respecting the text. She moves deftly from one point to another, continually surprising the reader with new insights. Chapter 5 on “Frank Speech”, for example, contains a sophisticated analysis of the character and reactions of students who are being subjected to parrhêsia, as well as a refreshing dissection of what distinguishes a good teacher from a bad one. Another treat for the reader is the lucid discussion of complex vices in chapter 7 (“On Arrogance and Related Vices”). Chapter 9 (“On Anger and the Desire for Revenge”) sorts out numerous complications in the course of offering a panoramic view of excess anger, then settles down to an analysis of natural anger. The highlight of the entire book, in my view, is chapter 10 on “The Fear of Death”, the final and longest chapter of the book. With exemplary clarity, T. distinguishes two main arguments, which she calls the non-perception and non-identity arguments (that death is a deprivation of perception and that the person no longer exists upon death). On this foundation, she builds a complex and intriguing structure of additional reflections. Here Philodemus helps out the scholar by the subtlety of his own arguments and observations, presented in an exceptionally well preserved text. Throughout Part II, T. stakes out measured positions of her own, adjudicating numerous controversies with good sense and much grace. T. knows the controversies very well, and most of them will persist. Inevitably, uncertainties of interpretation are multiplied many times over by the defective text. It is T’s great achievement that she is able to show that there is enough textual material to allow us to rank Philodemus as a major contributor to ancient ethical discourse. For her fundamental study, T. has wisely chosen to focus on individual writings. Future researchers will find in her study ample material for treating Philodemus’ ethics by topic. In particular, T. has uncovered a wealth of material on friendship and the emotions, which deserve full-length studies.

Amid the profusion of sound and fruitful interpretations, there are a few things to watch out for. Occasionally, the interpretation rests on a doubtfully restored text. T. usually indicates, even if only in a footnote, that she is following a supplemented text. In a few of these cases, it seems to me, the preserved remnants offer no support whatsoever for the interpretation that is offered. A conspicuous example is a series of supplements proposed by Marcello Gigante for the initial columns of On Death. These supplements suggest an elaborate theory on the occurrence of pain at the time of death; and all of it is highly speculative. In her own discussion of these columns (pp. 265-69), T. provides far too little indication that she is following an edition that contains extensive supplements. Although T. signals “the poor condition” of the text (p. 266), the preserved text falls far short of supporting most of the suggestions that are made about it. The reader is well advised to check the preserved text, a task that would have been made easier if the book had included a bibliography listing the major editions for each treatise, together with papyrus numbers and the various titles (Greek, Latin, and English) of each work.

One controversy that I expect will continue concerns Philodemus’ relationship to Aristo. In the chapter 7 on “Arrogance and Related Vices”, T. assumes that Philodemus is mainly in agreement with Aristo of Ceos, a Peripatetic whose views he summarizes at length in On Arrogance. T. claims that Philodemus “acknowledges the usefulness of Aristo’s book” in his introduction to Aristo in col. 10 (p. 154). What Philodemus says in the preserved text is that he will summarize the gist of Aristo’s arguments “in case he [Aristo] will persuade someone [as] he might very likely persuade someone of what he said in brief” (col. 10.27-30). This motive is consistent with Philodemus’ very prominent habit of summarizing an opponent’s teachings in order to refute them subsequently. Does Philodemus, then, cite Aristo in order to attack him later? T. mentions this possibility in a foot-note, but offers no argument for her overall interpretation of Aristo as a source of Philodemus’ own ethics. Of course, this objection does not invalidate T.’s fine analysis of Aristo’s teachings.

More than other authors, Philodemus seems to invite the charge of contradicting himself. In part, this is due to the difficulties of making sense of a defective text. One place in which the text itself seems to save Philodemus from this charge is On Anger cols. 41-42. Here Philodemus considers the objection: Won’t the wise person “have great anger” if he is voluntarily harmed to the greatest extent? His answer is that the wise person will be “extremely alienated” ( prosallotrioutai…akrôs, col. 42.2-3) but won’t be greatly disturbed. T’s takes this to mean that “the wise man may feel very great anger” even though within natural bounds (p. 227). It is not at all clear, however, that great anger is compatible with the natural anger that even the sage feels. In fact, Philodemus makes clear that the sage will never have great anger (col. 42.24), as T. acknowledges (p. 230). Instead of imputing a contradiction to Philodemus, it is possible to make sense of the text by drawing a distinction between alienation and anger; extreme alienation need not lead to great anger.

Philodemus’ book On Death 4 provides T. with an abundance of material that allows her to display her gifts of interpretation to the fullest. Large sections of very well preserved text show Philodemus at his best. We see Philodemus giving sympathetic concern to people struggling with the prospect of death in many different kinds of situations. Philodemus keeps reiterating the basic remedy—that death is nothing to us because we are no longer there to perceive anything; but he is anything but doctrinaire. He enters imaginatively into the feelings of individuals and tries to allay their fears. This is Epicurean parrhêsia at its best. The same topic inspired Lucretius to deploy all his persuasive powers in his poem On the nature of things, although he adopts a more severe tone. T. shows us, with great delicacy, the humanism of Philodemus. Among other topics, she illuminates Philodemus’ sensitive response to the pain of leaving behind children and other loved ones. In the final section of the chapter, T. marshals a powerful array of evidence to show that Philodemus advocated a continual meditatio mortis.

In sum, T. succeeds in showing that Philodemus is worth serious attention as a contributor to ancient Greek ethical thought. By offering reliable and stimulating interpretations of Philodemus’ thought, her book provides an immensely valuable basis for further work on Philodemus. T’s restraint and insight should do much to dispel the tinge of Philodemo-phobia among classicists. If and when the excavations of the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum resume, let’s hope for the lost tragedies of Aeschylus or the lost books of Livy. But one could do worse than to find more texts by Philodemus.


1. G. Indelli and V. Tsouna-Kirahan, [Philodemus] [On choices and avoidances]. Edited with translation and commentary, Naples 1995.