BMCR 2013.10.10

Machiavelli and Epicureanism: An Investigation into the Origins of Early Modern Political Thought

, Machiavelli and Epicureanism: An Investigation into the Origins of Early Modern Political Thought. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012. xi, 213. ISBN 9780739177105. $70.00.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

In recent years we have seen an increasing interest in Hellenistic philosophy. It is therefore only natural that the impact of Hellenistic philosophy on early modern philosophers attracts more and more scholarly attention. After Spinoza, Hobbes, and Gassendi, it is now Machiavelli who attracts focus.1 While it is still common among interpreters to account for Machiavelli’s major doctrines along the lines of scholastic Aristotelianism, which, for instance, is allegedly reflected in his excessive usage of Aristotelian terminology, Roecklein rejects this assumption (126-7). On Roecklein’s view, the influence of Epicurus and the Epicurean tradition on Machiavelli surpasses by far the Aristotelian influence. If this were true, however, it would follow, as Roecklein wants to show, that some prominent positions held in the literature can be proven wrong.2

Roecklein’s investigation is divided into five chapters. The first is devoted to Plato’s refutation of Eleatic atomism, provided in the Parmenides. In order to understand this astonishing starting point, one must take into account that Roecklein sharply distinguishes between two philosophical traditions. On one side he sees Plato and Aristotle, who, on his view, both held that perception is fundamental for understanding forms, and both appreciated the epistemic status of common sense. On the other side, according to Roecklein, is the Eleatic tradition, to which he also assigns both Epicurus and Lucretius and thus those of the early modern philosophers who draw on Epicurean ideas. Even though both assumptions are more than problematic and deserve a more thorough argument than Roecklein in fact provides, one must admit that current literature, being mostly disinterested in greater philosophical developments, has a tendency to emphasize too much the differences between Plato and Aristotle. Moreover, Roecklein’s additional assumptions that Plato’s theory of ideas bears on perception and that Plato thus did not completely reject perception as a means of cognition, are noteworthy and surely deserve a further investigation, which, unfortunately, is not carried out by Roecklein. Moreover, the traces of evidence he puts forward for his second fundamental presumption, that there is an underlying tradition which includes Epicurus and the Eleatic philosophers, are too thin to bear the whole weight attributed to this claim in the overall argument. Epicurus and Parmenides do share with other ancient philosophers the view that there is something invisible underlying every visible change, and that this is the real ground of the perceptible world. But this is a rather broad view, and the question arises as to why Roecklein picks out Epicurus and not, for example, the Stoics. For the Stoics not only maintain that there is some invisible substance, which underlies the sensible world;3 they also claim that this substance is a unity, what at least at first sight seems to put them closer to Parmenides than Epicurus with his multitude of atoms and worlds.

The second chapter, which focuses on Epicurus, lays the ground for Roecklein’s project of pointing out Machiavelli’s supposedly Epicurean heritage. However, Roecklein starts from a set of questionable assumptions concerning Epicurus which are even more difficult than those concerning Plato and his alleged followers. First of all, Roecklein takes Epicurus’ philosophy to be a rebirth of the philosophy of Parmenides (58). For Epicurus is taken to be the only one to have understood Plato’s fundamental criticism of Parmenides, and thus considered this criticism in his revisions of Democritus’ atomism (57). In the light of recent findings in literature on Epicurus, however, this assumption is at least disputable, since it seems more likely that the criticism Epicurus has in mind is Aristotle’s, as all his modifications on Democritean atomism seem to answer those points put forward by Aristotle in his Physics in the course of his discussion of his predecessor’s views on motion.4 Secondly, Roecklein rejects Epicurus’ claim to have grounded his whole philosophy on experience. According to Roecklein, this claim must be taken as a brilliant move to deceive his critics and thus completely overcome Platonic criticism. Even though Roecklein’s explanation is rather dubious, one could probably share his doubts concerning the justification of the major principles provided by Epicurus. For if one takes into account that Epicurus’ fundamental principles, such as that nothing can come into existence from nothing or perish to nothing, could hardly be proven by experience, the question arises as to how Epicurus could reconcile this with his ostensible empiricism. Thirdly, and obviously the most important for Roecklein, who reiterates this claim numerous times, Epicurus is essentially a political writer. His alleged disinterest in politics thus must be taken as mere rhetoric. Roecklein puts a lot of emphasis on this claim, since it is supposed to support the direct line from Epicurus to Machiavelli by maintaining that Epicurus’ real intention is to gain power by assuming control over human passions. As it stands, however, this claim is a mere presumption and could hardly provide the basis of an argument that goes as far as Roecklein wants to take it. Even more puzzling, however, is Roecklein’s final assumption, closely related to the preceding one, according to which Epicurus and the entire Epicurean tradition did not believe in atoms themselves and thus that they did not consider their own death to be insignificant, as Epicurus famously maintains in order to dispel fear and reach mental imperturbability (97).

The third chapter focuses on Lucretius’ Epicurean account of accidents. Roecklein argues that by appealing to his ontological revisions that are ultimately based on Epicurus’ philosophy of perception, Lucretius intends to re-evaluates those things that are ordinarily taken to be significant (98). However, for Epicurus and his followers, in reality there are only atoms and void; everything else is merely a secondary quality and thus accidental in terms of its ontological status. According to Roecklein, this radical reinterpretation of ontology is meant to achieve a psychological transformation that finally results in a transformation of social life itself. This way, the Epicurean view can maintain supreme authority in all questions concerning the value of things by controlling language. One must note that the claim that Epicurus reduces perceptible bodies to mere accidents is central to Roecklein’s whole argument, since his thesis that Machiavelli draws on Epicurean ideas bears on this idea. Despite the importance laid on the conception of accident and its specific ontological status, it does not become entirely clear what Roecklein finally means when he attributes this opinion to Epicurus or Lucretius. For, admittedly Epicurus takes perceptible bodies to be accidents; nevertheless he claims that these accidents are real, since they are really constituted from atoms.5 Moreover, the supposedly fundamental relation which Roecklein sees between perception, language and politics is far from being spelled out sufficiently, which renders his argument unconvincing.

The fourth chapter of the book is concerned with Machiavelli’s endorsement of the terminology provided by Epicurus and Lucretius. As I have already mentioned, this important claim draws mainly on Roecklein’s understanding of accident and how this conception was applied in the Epicurean tradition. Roecklein’s argument is that Machiavelli took the term ‘accident’ from an Epicurean background rather than from an Aristotelian tradition. Roecklein maintains that with the help of this Epicurean terminology Machiavelli was able to make the hedonistic calculus the founding principle of modern society and thus political legislation. What, according to Roecklein, furthermore distinguishes Machiavelli from the Aristotelian and Platonic tradition is that, contrary to Plato and Aristotle, for Machiavelli the prince furnishes the form of the commonwealth. The prince is therefore not united with his people in a shared neediness. He is, rather, superior to the people because of his power. From this, Roecklein correctly infers, mutual interest cannot be taken as the founding principle of society; instead, the founding principle is the power of the prince.

The fifth and final chapter addresses Machiavelli’s political science, which, at its core, is taken to be anti-political (167). For Machiavelli intends to replace deliberation with passions. According to Roecklein, it is Machiavelli’s goal to make considered and thus political deliberation impossible. On Machiavelli’s view, the mere possibility of deliberation in a political culture must be taken as a sign of vice and therefore as evidence of corruption. This is why Machiavelli wants to abolish deliberation. In order to accomplish this, he addresses human passions as the major subject of modern political science (169). Contrary to Plato and Aristotle, who both, according to Roecklein, endorse common sense and take it as their starting point in their political considerations, thus making common sense the foundation of their political principles and political science, Machiavelli’s political science can only work in a climate of distrust and passion (178). In the light of the foregoing considerations, Roecklein concludes that both the reduction of politics to passion and the terminology with which Machiavelli pursues this project is strikingly un-Aristotelian, and must have originated from Lucretius and hence from Epicurus.

Even though Roecklein is right to emphasize that this appears to be un-Aristotelian and hence strongly suggests another ancient source, his argument is not really persuasive in the end, since none of Roecklein’s fundamental premises are very convincing. In particular, his basic assumption, that there are two fundamentally distinct philosophical traditions, remains fairly unclear. Above all, the relationship between Plato and Aristotle, on one side, and Epicurus and Parmenides, on the other, needs more careful consideration. Clearly, it cannot not be enough to pick out some arbitrary features, such as their alleged appealing to common sense, to argue for fundamentally shared grounds in their philosophic positions, particularly in their political views. Especially with regard to the latter, it seems more than odd to take Plato as a proponent of common sense if one takes into account all the claims put forward by Plato in his Republic. Roecklein notes that common sense and perception in fact seem to play a major role in the Republic, in order to motivate Plato’s theory of the soul, which is fundamental for his ethical claims. But these assumptions need much more attention and should be integrated more carefully in the overall argument.

Roecklein’s unconventional theses and his bold attempt to take a fresh look at many things that are too often taken as granted in current literature are problematic, but can also be regarded as the major value of this book. It is well worth asking how far the Epicurean influence on Machiavelli went, why early modern philosophers were so attracted to Hellenistic authors in general, or whether there was a fundamental split between two distinct philosophical traditions along the lines Roecklein sketches, even if the answers Roecklein provides are not completely satisfactory.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements ix
Introduction: Machiavelli and Epicureanism: An Investigation into the Origins of Early Modern Political Thought 1
1. Plato’s Refutations of Eleatic Atomism in the Parmenides 19
2. Epicurus, Political Philosopher 57
3. Lucretius’ Aggressive Rhetoric 91
4. Machiavelli’s Discourses : The Birth of Neo-Epicureanism 115
5. The Life of the Spirit in Machiavelli’s Republic 167
Bibliography 201
Index 209


1. See for instance Jon Miller, Brad Inwood (ed.), Hellenistic and Early Modern Philosophy, Cambridge 2003.

2. Roecklein mentions e.g. Quentin Skinner (2) and J. G. A. Pocock (7).

3. Roecklein could have even pointed to Plotinus Ennead., VI .28 = SVF II 319 who objected against the Stoics that they made that what is not sensible the ground of the sensible world.

4. See, in particular, Andrew Pyle, Atomism and its Critics. From Democritus to Newton, Bristol 1997, 19-40.

5. Andrew Pyle, Atomism and its Critics. From Democritus to Newton, Bristol 1997, 128-141.