BMCR 2012.12.23

The Invention and Gendering of Epicurus

Pamela Gordon, The Invention and Gendering of Epicurus. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012. viii, 222. ISBN 9780472118083 $70.00.


This work is a clear, focused, and engaging discussion of the role of gender discourse as part of anti-Epicurean polemic from the origins of Epicureanism to the early third century. It is also about Epicurean responses to the narrative. Gordon draws on a wide range of philosophical and literary texts, papyri, and material sources. Although gender is the major focus, there are also extensive discussions of issues such as food, luxury, sex, physiognomy, and political involvement. Gender is presented as a theme that brings together the various other discourses of invective waged against the men and women of the Garden.

The following is a brief summary of the book, chapter by chapter. I will conclude with a brief assessment of the book.

In the introduction, the author identifies the key problems and articulates the project. This is not going to be a book on Epicurean philosophy per se but rather an examination of rhetoric, perception, and reception. Unlike other works that deal with the history and reception of the Epicurean tradition, such as Howard Johnson’s The Epicurean Tradition (which for some reason does not appear in the bibliography), there is no introductory summary of the main tenets of the school. The work presumes a basic knowledge of Epicureanism and encourages readers not familiar with Epicurean philosophy to consult standard summaries. Though not a monograph about Epicurean philosophy, the analysis is identified as being friendly to the philosophy of the Garden. Gordon concludes the introduction by discussing what she means by “discourse” and acknowledging her debt to work done in vituperative rhetoric, intertextual studies, linguistic theory, and critical discourse analysis.

Chapter One examines the earliest testimonies regarding Epicureans in surviving literary source: attacks, epistles, lampoons, and comedy. Early evidence of hostility toward the Garden appears in an exposé of the moral laxity and effeminacy of the school allegedly by written by Metrodorus’ renegade brother Timocrates, and letters that are presented as intercepted. Most of the sources seem to be deliberate forgeries but effectively illustrate the nature and content of the early polemic. Gordon next turns to the fragmentary evidence of New Comedy. Epicureans were frequently portrayed as cooks or otherwise associated with food and banquets, but for the most part the representations were “playful, rather than venomous” (21). The association of Epicureans with food and banquets however was established and was to remain attached to the school to the present day. Some of the puns and dialogues associated with cuisine and cooking seem to come from technical philosophical language and may show some intimacy with the school.

In the second chapter, Gordon examines the association between Epicureans and the epic tradition. The Epicureans were frequently identified with the Phaeacians of Homer’s Odyssey, to various effects. The analogy when used by friends could emphasize the pleasant life which Epicurean philosophy offers; when used by critics, it draws attention to luxury and effeminacy. Turning from Homer to Virgil, Gordon argues that Dido provides a strong example of a Phaeacian/Epicurean intertext.

Chapter Three looks at references in literature, papyri, and material culture that suggest an active participation of women in the Garden. Beginning with speculations that the statue of Saint Hippolytus at the entrance to the Vatican Library at Rome may have originally portrayed a woman philosopher from the Garden, Gordon turns to literary sources (hostile and friendly) that seem to be as ambiguous and contradictory as the Hippolytus statue with its male head and feminine chiton and sandals. Various women’s names are associated with the Garden, many being identified as hetaerae, or sexual companions, by critics. The significance of the names and the ramifications of being called hetaerae are discussed. Other evidence includes formulaic expressions in epistles to “every man and woman”, references to paintings of Leontion and Themista in Pliny, and finally an important fragment from Philodemus’ On Frank Speech that discusses pedagogical strategies for teaching men in contrast to women. In the end, Gordon leaves the reader with various options, though it seems that the cumulative weight of the chapter favors the view that women played an active role in the Garden as philosophical participants and were not mere sexual partners.

The following chapter seeks to show how pleasure is not merely an abstract philosophical issue, but is closely tied to traditional Roman conceptions of femininity and masculinity. Gordon argues that the Epicurean view of pleasure “threatened to disrupt a requisite component of Roman public life: the vigilant maintenance of the masculine self” (109). Gordon begins by drawing attention to the contrast or opposition between virtus (virtue or manliness) and voluptas (pleasure) in Roman rhetorical and philosophical texts. The alliteration made it an especially convenient juxtaposition. Virtus is manly, moral, and patriotic; voluptas is effeminate, weak, and Eastern. But is the Roman view of voluptas so monolithic and unambiguously negative? One may object that it is primarily when pleasure interferes with or obstructs domestic or civic duties, or when they are in competition with virtus or the honestum, that it merits reproach. In other words, it is when voluptas intrudes into negotium, leaving its proper sphere of otium, that it is of real concern. That voluptas does not always have negative connotations in normal discourse emerges very briefly in the final section of the chapter where Gordon discusses Cicero’s neutral use of voluptas in his epistles.

The discussion of voluptas and virtus could also have benefited from a more direct discussion of the Stoic analysis of pleasure. The Stoics identify pleasure (along with pain) as a prime example of something morally indifferent [ adiaphoron ]. However, pleasure is also one of the four basic forms of passion [ pathos ] and passions are morally problematic in Stoic ethics. Pleasure is a passion when it is an excessive impulse or connected to a false judgment, such as the Epicurean view that it is intrinsically good. (Pleasure correctly valued as an indifferent, albeit “preferred”, is called “joy” in the Stoic handbooks and was not classified a passion but enjoyed as an eupatheia.)

The question, “What does an Epicurean look like?” governs the fifth chapter of the book. Acknowledging that no specific literary or material representations of Epicurean women have survived, Gordon turns to the rich sculptural legacy of the Garden. Several features of Epicurean statues seem especially significant: the uniformity of appearance in the representations of early Epicurean leaders, perhaps alluding to the philosophical conformity of the early scholarchs to the founder; the conservative posture, dress, and beards of the representations, suggesting intentional or reactive self-fashioning; finally, the apparently sickliness of some of the statues of Epicurus himself, probably intended to emphasize Epicurus celebrated moral resilience in the face of the illness which led to his painful death. This latter feature was used by opponents to attack the school, suggesting that Epicurus’ illness was the natural product of a dissolute and morally lax lifestyle (possibly sexually transmitted disease). The chapter closes with an examination of Cicero’s attack on L. Calpurnius Piso. Cicero contrasts Piso, who identifies himself an Epicurean and secretly lives a wanton and licentious life, but appears excessively masculine on the exterior, with his associate Gabinius, who is not Epicurean but appears hedonistic and effeminate. Gordon argues that Cicero attacks Piso for not appearing as his true self and hiding his true nature and value-system. Somehow this tells us “What an Epicurean looks like”. Presumably an Epicurean looks like the non-Epicurean Gabinius and acts like the hypocritical Piso. This argument however is weakened by Cicero’s frequent disclaimer that Piso does not really understand Epicurean philosophy. The book concludes with an examination of Cleomedes’ hyperbolic and almost comical attack on Epicurean philosophy, and Lucian’s attempt “to avenge Epicurus” in his satirical work Alexander the False Prophet, thereby giving the Epicureans the last word.

In conclusion, Pamela Gordon’s The invention and gendering of Epicurus is a carefully argued, well researched, and intelligent look at gender and rhetoric in the Epicurean tradition. The argument is well organized and accessible to general readers and scholars alike. Primary texts are presented in Greek and Latin along with clear translations. Gordon’s more speculative claims tend to be carefully qualified and identified as such. Christian invective against the Garden is almost totally absent, except for a few references from Lactantius and Clement of Alexandria regarding the existence of Epicurean women. Hence there is no mention of Lucretius’ reported suicide and minimal discussion of alleged Epicurean atheism. Although Gordon does not explain why she did not draw more from Christian sources, it is fair to assume that this was to keep the argument focused and keep the monograph to a manageable length. And the book is better thanks to this restraint. In short, the book is successful in its aims and effectively illuminates the topic. The book should be of great value to researchers and students alike.