Epicurus & The Golden Age of Greece

A few personal Impressions

An ‘Introduction’ is included, to provide an historical context, albeit with a personal bias, to the novel tale of ‘The Epicuriana’.

While this ancillary information may be of interest to readers, it is by no means essential to understanding, and hopefully, enjoying Epicuris’ many adventures.

The Golden Age of Classical Greece, from 500 BC to 300 BC, comprised a unique flowering of civilization, across literature, sculpture, architecture, philosophy, even sports (think The Olympics). The cultural origins of Western identity can arguably be traced to these times, at once turbulent but also extraordinarily creative, drawing upon the great philosophical schools of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and notwithstanding, Epicurus.

There is unfortunately, a certain conceit on the part of us moderns to ignore these ancient Greek thinkers as irrelevant in today’s nanosecond digital world.

Otherwise, we look upon them as ethereal beings descended from a higher plane of human existence, living arcane, detached lives of abstraction and meditation: Plato busy musing on the infinite, remote in his Academy, or Aristotle deftly managing a dialectic with his students in the sacred grove of his Lyceum.

Before we dismiss the ancients, as if they were past their “use-by date”, rickety old curmudgeons with grey beards, whose stern marble heads fill our museums, we should step back far enough to rest our eyes upon the Acropolis of Athens. Behold the enduring majesty of that perennial icon of civilization, the Parthenon, Athena’s temple, built by the statesman Pericles (as well as Socrates’ father, who was a humble but skilled stone-mason) in 438 BC.

It is not well known however, that its construction was funded from ‘protection money’ levied by Athens on the other 300 member cities of the Delian League, a scandal which in turn, led to the devastating Peloponnesian war. The money was intended as a reserve to build fortifications against another invasion by the Persians, who having failed twice before, never returned.

There’s a certain irony in this grand monument to democracy, made possible by fraudulent embezzlement, that strikes a contemporary chord: how little politics and human nature have changed in almost 2,500 years! A cynical twist perhaps, on the old truism that ‘ancient does not mean obsolete’.

Considered collectively, the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus can be framed in many respects as post-traumatic responses to the Athenian cataclysm of losing the final Peloponnesian War in 404 BC waged by Sparta, the traditional enemy of Athens.

These extraordinary thinkers struggled with the ultimate absurdity, of trying to make sense of existence in the shattered world that was left to them. The defeat was made total by the monstrous civilian death-toll, mostly from plague (likely, smallpox), arising from the long Spartan siege of Athens. I think of Pericles, gasping in his death throes, gazing up at the Parthenon one last time: such magnificence at such a cost. The civil war however, grossly impacted all the Greek city-states, including Sparta itself, for another century.

Plato was 24 years old at the time of Athens’ final defeat; he had served in the military as a hoplite, and was likely involved in several bloody campaigns, not our customary image of the eminent philosopher. Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, was born 20 years later; and Epicurus, 63 years following the war.

An Athenian expeditionary force had previously defeated the Aegean island of Samos in 440 BC, and invaded again in 366 BC. In 341 BC, Epicurus was born on Samos to Athenian colonists. At the age of 18, he was conscripted to Athens, to serve two years in the military. He would never see his homeland again.

Meanwhile, all Athenians on Samos, including Epicurus’ father, were forcibly evicted by the Macedonians (yet another invasion!), eventually finding refuge in the Ionian mainland city of Colophon, to which Epicurus returned after completing his military conscription. Epicurus’ family history was hemmed by these several disastrous events, at home and abroad.

What matters ‘philosophy’, it could be asked, in the aftermath of such carnage? Faced with several defeats, massacres, and exile, not to mention an invisible epidemic stalking the streets, the consolation of philosophy was needed as never before, in which reasoning offered a kind of moral redemption.

Little wonder that Epicurus adopted hedonism as a response to the post-war chaos, albeit a conservative variant of hedonism he called ‘ataraxia’. While this included an emphasis on pleasure, it was balanced with other notions of tranquility, and goodwill. The mature Epicurus was probably celibate.

Most classicists and modern philosophers seem to have gone separate ways in not recognizing the full significance of this post-traumatic context. The series of catastrophes shaped the works of these pioneering thinkers, and arguably, the efflorescence, or “golden” blooming of philosophy that flourished in the wake of such upheavals. In particular, the millennia-old Peloponnesian War, spanning almost thirty years, has had an oblique but seminal role in contributing to the western ethos via its psychosocial influence on these war-weary thinkers and their philosophical works.

To be a philo / sophia, was to take a divergent position as a “lover of wisdom”, rather than following the traditional cultural response of yet another cycle of vengeful war. To understand the reactionary circumstances of the times, we need look no further than the institutional execution of Socrates, the template of the heroic, questioning philosopher that so inspired Epicurus.

It is patently true that technology, science, medicine, and human exploration, to the moon, Mars, and beyond to the stars, has progressed remarkably, with a veritable explosion of innovation and inventions in the last few centuries. However, the emotional substrate of what it means to be human, philosopher or otherwise, has changed very little over the millennia. Watch the spectrum of emotional life on display in the works of the classical tragedians, Aeschylus, Euripides, or Aristophanes; plays that continue to attract large theatre audiences in this digitized age.

Long ago, Athenian hearts once beat to these same human dilemmas and comedies that we instantly recognize today. Rather than colorful speculation, the classical plays of the ‘Golden Age’ of Greece provide an authentic context for what it was like to live and work in these faraway ages. While separated by time and technology, we are not separated emotionally, or perhaps, only superficially. Freud transposed his Oedipus Complex directly from his favorite tragedy of Sophocles, to human jealousy and familial psychopathology acted out in the early 20th century.

We can use these plays interestingly, as primary source material, in a kind of psychosocial archeology. It then becomes apparent that these classical thinkers, whom we have so reified into abstractions, struggled with the same basic drives, everyday fears, fervent loves, dread melancholias, and consuming ambitions as ourselves. Our reification does them a grave disservice, separating them from us, so that they are reduced to remote ‘objects’ of curiosity.

When we imagine Socrates, for example, that image is usually not one of a tough, muscular, hoplite warrior, a veteran of many battles, celebrated for his bravery. If we give a close reading to Plato’s ‘Symposium’ however, we encounter Socrates not only as the avuncular inquisitor of the agora, a familiar stereotype, but also as a seasoned warrior-hero.

Stripped down to our elemental selves, individual differences of class, race, gender, language, and culture cease to have any substantive meaning. COVID-19 shows us that, if nothing else. The same can be said of the era, or millennium, in which by happenstance we are born, as the collected works of the Golden Age playwrights amply demonstrate. We are all made of the same stuff, Shakespeare’s ‘mortal coil’, mind and body, not always likeable, as Nietzsche loved to point out in his misanthropic tirades: that our checkered history is mired by ‘eternal recurrence’. While the classical tragedians bear witness to that sobering truth, they upended Nietzsche however, by giving equal measure to the resilience and virtue of humankind.

We need to bring these ancient Greek thinkers, tragedians and venerable philosophers, back down to the common ground of humanity again, to let go of schoolbook preconceptions, and include them amongst us. Such an inclusion would demonstrate more than ever, their personal struggles, yet also, their plodding achievements at the very birth of Western civilization.

With the dawn of western civilization, came the beginnings of a wider culture with a unique set of values, aesthetics, ethical codes of behavior, and the rule of law. Though intangible, this rudimentary culture connected everyone with its invisible threads, in a kind of original internet, shaping behavior and communication. Something entirely new had happened: a subtle, yet nonetheless seismic shift in how people perceived themselves and others.

Along with the advent of widespread culture, came the nascent sense of a modern personal identity, the “I, my own Self”, which we now take for granted as a needless statement of the obvious. We can follow this evolution, reflected in the literary works of the ancient Greek playwrights: for the first time, the Self became an object of its own subjectivity, as in the tragic monologues of Euripides’ Medea, with its strong female lead character, first performed in 431 BC. Such monologues, played to ancient audiences, demonstrate the ability to look at one’s archaic Self and regulate its impulsive drives, such as aggression and lust, thereby creating a civilized ‘persona’ that acts in the outside world. In this way, individuality is inextricably tied to civilization, which in turn, can only exist with the cooperation of individuals for the greater good of all, the so-called ‘social contract’. Even now, in this new Anthropocene epoch, the ability to regulate such archaic drives continues to be a ‘work-in-progress’, as all too often, the archaic Self breaks through, with disastrous results for civilization as witnessed by individual acts of violence and the hideous spectacle of world wars.

We just don’t think about the fact that our most precious possession is a cultivated construction, a subjectivity that is internalized from birth onwards and very different from the tribal, survivalist mentality lost in the primordial shadows of antiquity. This is the time and place, the Golden Age of Greece, during which ‘The Individual’ begins to clearly separate from the herd, a primitive period when the human lifespan was “short, nasty, and brutish”.

Personalized identity, drawing down from the culture in which it is embedded, now comprises the very basis for proactive engagement in the global melting-pot of the 21st century. The individuation of the Self, equal for all, as the fountainhead of modern democratic civilization, finds its great advocate in the works of Epicurus, and provides the focus of this present book.

For Epicurus, civilization and its boon companion, culture, ranked as the greatest of all human “inventions”, ennobling who we are, and enabling all that we create. Despite wars and pandemics, humanity continues unabated its greatest project of civilization, the re-invention of itself.

Unique in antiquity, Epicurus was carefully guarded, even evasive, in his references to the Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses. His concern was not groundless, following the state-sponsored execution of Socrates. On the other hand, Epicurus was openly critical of self-serving superstition, and especially dismissive of any kind of afterlife, or divine intercession in human affairs.

It therefore comes as no surprise that Epicurus fell into later disrepute, when the once outlawed christian sect became the sanctioned Holy Roman Catholic Church during the 5th century AD. Since their works did not decry the possibility of life after death, Plato and Aristotle were favored by medieval monasteries and theologians, while Epicurus’ works were not considered fit for posterity. He was worse than a pagan: the consummate atheist.

The teachings of Epicurus, were only infrequently copied in the abbey scriptoriums of Cluny, Lindisfarne, Jarrow, or the remote Aran Islands off western Ireland, outliers of western civilization during the so-called Dark Ages.

For the abbeys, it was less a case of active censure and suppression, but rather, one of simple neglect. Copying by hand was a laborious task, largely reserved for important works that glorified a monotheistic God, or at least the prospect of an afterlife. Moreover, vellum parchment was expensive, not to be wasted on inferior writings. Of course, fewer copies increased the risk that the ideas of Epicurus would be lost forever and forgotten.

This was long feared to be the case until fortuitously, a single Latin manuscript of the Roman poet Lucretius, De rerum natura (“On the Nature of Things”, 1st century BC), was discovered in 1417. An obsessive antiquarian book dealer, after a long search, had finally located the lost manuscript in the medieval library of the Benedictine abbey of Fulda, deep in the remote Vogelsberg Mountains of Germany, near Lake Constance. Lucretius’ writings amply rewarded the long search — a veritable ‘treasure’ containing a lucid exposition of Epicurean ideas and teachings, set in charming Latinate hexameters.

It is surely an irony that Epicurus, with his fine sense of the ridiculous, would have savored, had he known that the finder, Poggio Bracciolini, was previously employed as a papal secretary by the Roman church.

Following Lucretius, a great deal is known about the ideas and teachings of Epicurus. Moreover, the dry chronology of facts, when and where he went, who he met, his friends and acquaintances, is more thoroughly documented than many of his peers. On the other hand, the personality of the man behind Epicureanism remains sketchy and fragmented.

Several intriguing anecdotes point to his love of gardens, as well as his simple palate of lentils and barley bread, far from the modern understanding of epicurean cuisine. There are also many gaps and contradictions in relation to his personal life. His rival Platonists smeared him with salacious rumors, imputing that he was a ravenous sex addict.

Such internecine propaganda ‘wars’ between the various schools of philosophy were rife during the Golden Age of classicism. Surprisingly, it was a competitive profession with much in-fighting for pupils and patrons who represented a major source of income. Partisan conflict often involved vehement personal attacks, insults, and scurrilous innuendo, in which Epicurus was no exception, both as victim and perpetrator.

Despite the florid accusations of the Platonists, there is no corroborating evidence of Epicurus’ alleged sexual deviancy. Nor any veiled insinuations, in the scattered writings of his friends and followers, as one might expect if the allegations had a grain of truth. On the other hand, it is difficult to rescind malicious gossip that continues to circulate after several thousand years.

While he is no more than dust, poor Epicurus still has enemies, which surely is a variety of posthumous compliment. At the same time, his followers make copious references to the charisma of the man behind the philosophy, who could inspire such devoted and faithful followers.

It is timely that the enigmatic character of Epicurus, replete with endearing traits and annoying weaknesses, should be recreated albeit in this attempt at a storyline, human narrative.

Paul Donovan

Santa Fe, New Mexico 2019