BMCR 2022.09.26

“Vedere” l’invisibile: rileggendo il XXXIV libro Sulla natura di Epicuro (PHerc. 1431)

, , , "Vedere" l'invisibile: rileggendo il XXXIV libro Sulla natura di Epicuro (PHerc. 1431). Supplemento a "Cronache ercolanesi," 60. Naples: Editore Centro Internazionale per lo Studio dei Papiri Ercolanesi "Marcello Gigante", 2020. Pp. 163. ISBN 9788890764440 €120,00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

This volume is devoted to the study of PHerc. 1431, the papyrological remains of Book 34 of Epicurus’ sprawling magnum opus, the thirty-seven-volume On Nature. The text, alas, is more scrappy than complete, yet offers enough secure content to show that its final sections —often the best preserved because at the innermost end of the roll— invoked Epicurean ‘scientific’ methodology for dealing with ‘ta adēla’, ‘the non-evident’, most typically the world beneath the threshold of perception, in order to use it for the analysis and therapy of dreams. The bulk of the volume consists of individual studies on aspects of the text, nine of them in Italian, one in English, one in French, all with English abstracts. (Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.) Helpfully, the editors have included the Greek text of PHerc. 1431 in an appendix.

Before considering these studies, it will be helpful to start by giving a brief account of the text and its subject-matter. As has long been noted, the contents of the carbonised papyrus rolls from the Villa dei papyri near Herculaneum suggest that the books formed the working library of the first-century BCE Epicurean philosopher and poet Philodemus of Gadara. Beyond works and lecture-notes from Philodemus, the collection includes works from other Epicureans, in a few cases works from other schools, and, most tantalising of all, the works of the master himself. The most recent edition of On Nature 34 was by Giuliana Leone (‘Epicuro, Della natura, libro XXXIV (PHerc. 1431),’ Cronache ercolanesi 32, 2002: 7-135). Leone, to whom all students of these texts owe so much, has here produced a revised and simplified edition of her text. The extant text consists of some 25 consecutive column-tops (the bottom half of the roll is missing), about 15-17 letters across when fully preserved, and anywhere from a few isolated letters to 12 or so complete lines, all from the final, inner sections of the roll, including the subscriptio identifying the author, work, and book number.

As best we can tell, the volume offered, more likely recapitulated, the Epicurean theory of dream-generation and a methodologically-supported analysis of the nature of dreams to disarm any threat they may have presented to peace of mind. Most interestingly of all, in On Nature 34 Epicurus avails himself of his scientific method or canonic to support his analysis, so that the text helps us refine our understanding of the method. In short, dreams are produced during sleep by the impact of extra-fine ‘images’ or eidola, perceptible only to the mind, directly onto the mind. These eidola are constantly being shed by all perceptible objects; the multiple impacts of eidola of ordinary fineness are what our eyes perceive, while the finer ones only register in our psyche, which Epicurus located in the chest. Dreams are not wholly random, however, since our waking habits and preoccupations shape our minds to pick out specific eidola during sleep from among the superabundant store of them available to us at all times. Hence we mostly dream about matters of concern to us. Otherwise, as one would expect, and as Vatican Sentence 24 confirms, Epicurus did not consider dreams divine or prophetic.

Francesco Verde opens the volume by situating the papyrus within the field of Herculaneum papyri, including a possible reference in the life of Philonides (PHerc 1044) to a work by another Epicurean, Artemon, in the form of a commentary on thirty-three volumes of a unknown work, conceivably the On Nature despite the missing four last books. He then proceeds to a survey of the whole text, column by column, completed by a historical-philosophical contextualisation of Book 34, including possible polemical targets, and some thoughts on its aim: was it meant to show the viability of Epicurean explanations against rival Peripatetic dream theories?

Elizabeth Asmis, in ‘Epicurus’ Divided Line’ starts with an expert account of Epicurean methodology. As her way in, she flips Plato’s image of the divided line, with the phenomena corresponding to the top and most ‘knowable’ sections, and the realm of the ‘the non-evident’ below it. She then subdivides the phenomenal between inner impressions and external perceptions, and the ‘non-evident’ between those things accountable for by single explanations and the domain of multiple explanations (especially things in up the heavens), and shows how Epicurus advances through these step by step. The theory of eidola serves to justify, retroactively, the initial reliance on perception, while also allowing us to differentiate the imprint within us from its transmission (p. 37). Asmis next gives us a close analysis of the relation between two technical terms, ὀξυδέρκεια in column XII, and φλεβοπαλία in XXI, and suggests that the latter is an attempt at a physical explanation of fear provoked by bad dreams. Lastly, she proposes that the reference in column XI to ‘acts of attention… into what is unseen’ may be connected to the use of multiple explanations about the heavens.

Alain Gigandet explores the pore-mechanism advanced by Epicurus as the means by which we make ourselves receptive to specific kinds of dream-eidola. To do so, he calls on material from the papyrus remains of Epicurus, On Nature 25 and shows how habit or intense experiences can open up privileged ‘passageways’ to dream-visions, which thereby raises the possibility that we have some control over that content and thus some individual responsibility in ensuring these do not trouble our happiness.

On the same theme, Francesca Guadalupe Masi zeroes in on column XV of the text, and what Epicurus there calls the ‘inner conjunctive motion from ourselves’. This faculty, as she shows, calling upon Letter to Herodotus 50-51, Lucretius IV.757-61, Diognes of Oenoanda fr. 9 Smith and the Letter to Mother, is related to our volitional inner ‘focusings’ of the mind, and is the part of us that is beguiled during dreams, since it is lacking the ‘test’ of the senses. Further, she suggests that Epicurus thought that dreams were the root of ‘irrational opinions’.

Giulia Leone, in ‘Epicuro e ‘Le voci delle cose’, revisits her 2002 text and commentary of columns XV and XXV to throw some new light on the Epicurean expression ‘the voices of things’. The term is used by Epicurus in column XV to designate the reality of irrational images as genuine phenomena and an indication of the presence within us of a source of error by which we add to or distort the pure voice of nature, while in XXV it connotes the home truths that announce our true ends, provided we keep to the proper method of examining ‘things unclear.’

Pierre Marie Morel, next, considers the expression φλεβοπαλία, ‘beating of the pulse’ which Epicurus designates as the term used by ‘older students of nature’ for what he calls δ̣[ι]ανο̣ί[ας] τι δ̣εῖγμα̣ or ‘a manifestation of the understanding’,which here may designate the broader class of all internal reactions to mental images (the text is lacunose). The only attestation of the word before Epicurus is from Democritus, which suggests an allusion. Morel argues that the reference is not polemical, but singles out a predecessor who also sought naturalistic explanations for dream images.

Emidio Spinelli’s essay is an admittedly speculative ‘hunt’ for sceptical adversaries in Book 34. Spinelli reviews and dismisses Pyrrho and Arcesilaus before settling on Timon as the likeliest target, who did have hostile views of those who thought reason could confirm the validity of the senses. Spinelli suggests that some of the methodological comments in Book 34 are best understood as an implicit reply to Timon’s challenge. But the case remains at best circumstantial.

Mario Regali explores Plato on dreams as a background for Epicurus. The first section reviews Epicurean critiques of Socrates, difficult to control because of the diversity of fourth-century appropriations of Socrates and, later on, of Stoic investment in the Xenophontic Socrates.[1] The second part examines Plato’s more open attitude towards dreams, especially in the Timaeus and the opening of the Phaedo, where Socrates ponders a recurring dream in which he was told to ‘practice music/the arts’. Famously, the Socrates of the Phaedo is the Platonic high-water mark of hostility to the body and perception, as mere impediments to the soul’s quest for truth. Although Regali is right to discern here some systematic contrasts with Epicurean attitudes, it is hard to see how the text of Book 34 takes specific aim at the Phaedo.

Dino de Sanctis gives a close stylistic analysis of certain passages from Book 34. While Epicurus’ syntax is often contorted, the meticulous piling-on of qualifications and saving clauses is always in the service of making his message clearer and forestalling misunderstandings. In other instances, striking terms or contrasts are chosen for various effects, and de Sanctis documents how carefully wrought these can be, proving that Epicurus was anything but a careless writer.

Giovanni Indelli studies the reception of On Nature 34 within Epicureanism. Polystratus, the third head of the Garden, published a polemical pamphlet, Irrational Contempt, extant as PHerc. 336/1150, devoted to the critique of philosophical adversaries who reject conventional ideas and values that Epicureans were willing to retain, not of course at face value, but as part of a reformed understanding of nature. Indelli nicely juxtaposes various passages from both works and succeeds in showing not only the orthodoxy of the later piece, but what appear to be conscious borrowings of formulations in Polystratus’ treatment. Book 34 was not forgotten by later Epicureans.

Lastly, Jürgen Hammerstaedt examines thematic overlaps between Book 34 and the monumental Epicurean inscription of Oenoanda, esp. fragments 9-10 (Physics) and fr. 43 of the (Ethics). The two are mutually illuminating, which allows Hammerstaedt to suggest a number of new readings for the inscription and in one case to reinforce a new proposal for the papyrus. Despite these convincing connections, Hammerstaedt does not see any direct dependency between the two texts. The inscription was meant for the public education of non-philosophers.

It is time to sum up. Though it will not replace the 2002 edition, this companion volume (of a sort) is a very welcome addition to the study of Epicureanism. Each of these studies either refines our philological understanding of the text of Book 34 or strengthens various connections to other facets of Epicureanism, canonic especially. The studies whet our appetite for further exploration and encourage one to think that more insights might yet be extracted from these frustratingly bitty remains. All research libraries invested in Epicurean studies and all ancient philosophers who want access to the cutting edge of research in Epicureanism will definitely want to exploit the latest findings and insights brought together here.

Authors and titles

Francesco Verde, ‘Rileggendo il XXXIV Libro Sulla Natura di Epicuro’
Elizabeth Asmis, ‘Epicurus’ Divided Line: Proceeding from the Visible to the Invisible’
Alain Gigandet, ‘Images oniriques et contrôle éthique des representations dans Epicure, Nat. XXXIV’
Francesca Guadalupe Masi, ‘L’Origine dell’errore e del turbamento emotivo nei sogni’
Giulia Leone, ‘Epicuro e “Le voci delle cose”’
Pierre Marie Morel, ‘L’Ombra di Demeocrito sul Libro XXXIV (coll. XX-XXI) del Περὶ φύσεως di Epicuro’
Emidio Spinelli, ‘Un ginepraio scettico nel XXXIV libro Sulla Natura di Epicuro? Fra ipotesi exegetiche e polemica filosofica’
Mario Regali, ‘Platone nel Κῆπος: I sogni di Socrate nella polemica di Epicuro’
Dino de Sanctis, ‘Exprimere l’invisible: terminologia e stile nel XXXIX libro Sulla Natura di Epicuro’
Giovanni Indelli, ‘Epicuro, La Natura XXXIV e Polistrato, Il Disprezzo irrazionale delle opinion popolari
Jürgen Hammerstaedt, ‘Epicuro e Diogene di Enoanda tra sogno, visioni e realtà. Riscontri dell’opera Sulla Natura di Epicuro nell’ iscrizione epicurea?’


[1] See A. A. Long, ‘Socrates in Hellenistic Philosophy,’ Classical Quarterly 38, 1988:150-71 (reprinted in his Stoic Studies, Berkeley 1996: 1-34).