BMCR 2020.08.06

L’épicurisme antique

, , , L'épicurisme antique. Philosophie antique. Problèmes, renaissances, usages, 19. Paris: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2019. 217 p.. ISBN 9782757425343 €22,00 (pb).

The volume under review is a special issue of Philosophie antique dedicated to Epicureanism. It contains six contributions (three in English, three in French). The papers cover a wide range of topics, from ethics and politics to metaphysics and epistemology. It will be of interest primarily to specialists in Epicureanism and Hellenistic philosophy; for these scholars, the volume will be an insightful read.

The first paper of the volume is dedicated to Epicurean epistemology. The Epicureans famously insist that all perceptions are true. If this is so, James Warren asks how, for the Epicureans, the false belief that perceptions may conflict can come about. In making his case, Warren revisits the problem of perceptual conflict and optical illusions as well as ideas on conception and belief-formation more generally.

In the second article, Julie Giovacchini turns to the Four-Fold Remedy (tetrapharmakos), a set of four ethical doctrines that stand at the beginning of the Principal Doctrines. In short, these state that agents should not fear the gods and death and that pleasure is easy to obtain and pain will not last long. While there is no evidence for the term ‘tetrapharmakos’ in Epicurus’ own writings, Giovacchini nevertheless shows that we should ascribe the Four-Fold Remedy to the school founder himself. Furthermore, she argues that the purpose of having the Four-Fold Remedy as a part of Epicurean philosophy is to help agents in their choices and avoidances. Giovacchini judiciously works through the textual evidence, making this paper a one-stop source for everything one ever wanted to know about the Epicurean tetrapharmakos.

Pierre-Marie Morel takes up the relationship of love and politics in Lucretius in the third contribution of the volume. Focusing on On the Nature of Things IV and V (= Lucretius’ account of love from a physiological perspective as well as his retelling of how society comes to be from atomic principles), Morel argues that, for Lucretius, passionate, erotic love is a pre-political phenomenon and as such corrupting and opposed to the common good needed to found society. By contrast, the Epicureans also admit a kind of free love that can help create societal unity. While Morel’s ideas are completely in line with current scholarship on the political dimensions of Lucretius’ culture story,[1] the connection of love and politics that he draws is interesting and novel. In fact, it seems that Morel’s proposal could even be easily expanded to include evidence in other Epicureans, for instance, on the importance of virtues in relation to friendship at PHerc 1251, col. XIV.1-8 (which is now usually identified as Philodemus’ On Choices and Avoidances) as well as in Diogenes of Oenoanda who stresses the importance of philanthropia (frr. 3.V.5 and 119.III.4 Smith).

The relationship between the Epicurean Garden and the Aristotelian Peripatos is at the center of the fourth text of the volume. This topic is of course at least as old as Ettore Bignone’s monumental 1936 study L’Aristotele perduto e la formazione filosofica di Epicuro. In her paper, Giulia Scalas focuses on a chapter or footnote in the story: the source for the fourth, nameless element that makes up the Epicurean soul according to Lucretius. Scalas suggests the Aristotelian doctrine of a fifth element as a likely candidate, pointing out some similarities between the Aristotelian and Lucretian conceptions. Scalas then considers two alternative possible routes of transmission. First, Lucretius could have independently developed this doctrine in response to second century Peripatic philosophers or, alternatively, Epicurus himself could have already defended this view. Because arguments similar to the ones in Lucretius are already found in Aristotle’s On the Heavens and On the Generation of Animals, Scalas favors the latter reading.

The next (fifth) essay of the volume investigates Epicurean poetics. While it has been well established that the Epicureans do not banish all poetry, but allow some forms of it, what would they say of cathartic poetry? Enrico Piergiacomi focuses on this question in his well-researched and carefully argued contribution. After giving a preliminary account of catharsis in Aristotle and examining Philodemus’ critique of Aristotle in On Poems, he suggests that there is room only for one kind of Epicurean cathartic poetry, namely, the kind that is in the service of pleasure, a prime example of which is Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things.

The last paper of the volume concerns certain similarities between Epicurean and late antique Platonist biographies, in the wake of recent scholarship on the relationship between Epicurean and Neoplatonic ideas.[2] Dominic O’Meara explores Iamblichus’ use of Epicurean terms to describe Pythagoras’ life, showing how Neoplatonic authors could seamlessly appropriate at least some of Epicurus’ ideas. While O’Meara does not mention this explicitly, it may be important to note that this appropriation may have been especially easy in areas where the Epicureans were already appropriating and spelling out originally Platonic ideas such as that of the homoiōsis theōi.[3] Be this as it may, O’Meara’s short paper contains useful observations that lay the groundwork for further research into the relationship between Epicurean and Neoplatonist philosophy.

In conclusion, the editors Thomas Bénatouïl, Jean-Baptiste Gourinat, and Michel Narcy are to be commended for having put together an interesting collection of papers. It is a welcome addition to the already existing literature, furthering our understanding of Epicurean philosophy.


[1] For a recent overview, see Jan Maximilian Robitzsch, “The Epicureans on Human Nature and its Social and Political Consequences,” Polis 34 (2017), 1-19.

[2] Angela Longo and Daniela Patrizia Taormina (eds.), Plotinus and Epicurus: Matter, Perception, Pleasure (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016). However, see already: Dominic O’Meara, “Epicurus Neoplatonicus” in Therese Fuhrer and Michael Erler (eds.), Zur Rezeption der hellenistischen Philosophie in der Spätantike (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1999), 83-91.

[3] Andree Hahmann and Jan Maximilian Robitzsch, “Epicurus’ Divine Hedonism,” Mnemosyne forthcoming.