“Not what we Have, But what we Enjoy, Constitutes our Abundance”
– Epicurus 285 BC
THE INTRODUCTION gives a brief, if somewhat contentious, account of the key players and turbulent, epochal times in which Epicurus lived, as a backdrop to the present novel.
THE PREFACE shifts the focus to the man himself, what we know of his personality, his deceptively simple yet profound ideas, and the movement he fostered that continues to the present day, rebooted into the techno-21st century.
By his humble birth as well as his natural inclination, Epicurus was always a ‘people-person’; never one of the Athenian elite, comprising the other leading schools. He remained simple and much-loved, like the bucolic poet Horace was to urban Romans at a later era.
No one was ever turned away from the ‘School of the Garden’. A sign over the door invited all to enter and join the lively symposium under the olive trees, beside the rosemary, lavender, and purple lilac flowers, everyone sharing their simple food, mostly vegetarian. It is not unreasonable to regard this intimate gathering as history’s first documented commune.
Unlike the other major schools, the emphasis was less on rote philosophy, and more on freewheeling discussion, friendship, and an open, shared lifestyle. The School of the Garden also occupied a privately-owed space away from urban Athens. This set it apart from other philosophy schools which utilized public areas such as the agora, temples, or forums for their teaching.
Following the daring-heroic lead of Socrates, mentor to Plato, this was a time when many thinkers were applying rigorous methods to moral and ethical dilemmas, the so-called ‘Golden Age’. They sought to reconstruct society and even the sense of personal identity along humanistic principles.
Women were especially welcome at the Garden, regardless of their social station, which accelerated the predatory rumor-mill into lurid overdrive. Such ‘openness to all’ was another major point of departure since women were largely excluded from the other philosophical schools, unless they donated generously. Aristotle’s students were almost exclusively male, mostly wealthy and aristocratic. It is not surprising that the Romans, while great engineers and empire-builders, coopted so much else from the Greek civitates, sending their sons to study there.
Scattered throughout the present novel, I return time and again to the philosophies of Epicurus, since the life of the man is inseparable from the life of the mind. The external must be a reflection of the internal, albeit one that is subject to the filters of personality. The Man and his Message come as a package.
Ahead of his time, he extended Democritus’ original idea that the immensity of the universe was comprised of infinitesimally small ‘atoms’ (an ancient Greek word); that we are all made of “star-dust”. During long discussions with his boyhood friend Aristarchus on his home island of Samos, Epicurus concluded that the earth must rotate around the sun, eighteen centuries before Copernicus’ mathematical proof.
The prescient idea of the Swerve, by which life-forms could change and adapt spontaneously at the atomic level, anticipates the evolution of species and modern Chaos Theory. For the epicurean philosophers, it grounded the abstract notion of ‘free will’ by giving it a biological basis. When the ubiquitous principle of spontaneous change is extrapolated to clinical psychology, it becomes a variant of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. This seminal idea may also have played a transformative role in the private life of Epicurus himself, a belief that is given prominence in the present work.
All these revolutionary ideas of Epicurus, while self-evident to us conceited moderns, were alien to many of his fellow citizens. Such radical concepts added to his growing reputation as an unorthodox, even crazy eccentric, while for other listeners, he was an exciting and audacious free-thinker. Regardless, his School of the Garden continued to flourish, long after his death, with a dedicated following in the Roman Republic and a blossoming throughout the many lands of the Empire.
In broad terms, Epicurus’ philosophies took a very different direction as compared with the ratiocination of Aristotle or the abstract, politico-mysticism of Plato, each of which could be considered as comprising a “corpus” of work. On the other hand, Epicurus’ ideas, while less unified as a whole and more disparate, are also more reality-based and pragmatic, lending them an inclusive, ecumenical appeal.
In his open demeanor and teachings, on how to live a genuine and balanced life beyond self-interest and appetitive passions, Epicurus can be regarded as a protean humanist, the like of which was not encountered again until the Renaissance. Sadly, this was not always the case, as portrayed in the present work, sometimes shockingly. The young Epicurus, while a burgeoning philosopher, struggled mightily with his wild impulses and heart-rending inner conflicts. These early formative years were often chaotic, as they needed to be: personified in this present work of historical fiction, by his lifelong relationship with Servilia, his first and only great love.
Great benefactors of humankind don’t suddenly emerge fully formed, like Botticelli’s Venus arising from the sea as a grown-up (and sensuous) adult, but develop fitfully out of their various life crises. Buddha relinquished his throne and wealthy family, greatly conflicted, as he couldn’t reconcile his aristocratic inheritance with the poverty and suffering that lay beyond the palace gates.
In a similar manner, Epicurus’ crises enlarged his sense of the commonality of humanity, as a lived life with all its drama and drollery, rather than as an aloof, ascetic philosopher. His ‘rite of passage’ at Mytilene on the Aegean island of Lesbos was as traumatic as it was also life-changing: his angst and bitter resentments are strikingly obvious in one of his few intact works to come down to us, “Against the Philosophers in Mytilene”.
Within the context of the present novel, Epicurus’ sometimes supportive, often volatile, relationship with his beloved Servilia is that vital catalyst which spurs on his early thinking. His emerging ideas are developed through the dialogues that occur naturally within this intimate relationship, in which the feisty Servilia plays a vital debating role. Such exchanges come at a critical time in Epicurus’ development as the humanist, psychologically-oriented philosopher which his many aphorisms reveal him to be.
It is not only his intellectual legacy, but also his ardent love, early career steps, and bitter disappointments, all of which shaped the budding Hellenistic philosopher. Epicurus’ founding of the School of the Garden on the outskirts of Athens, close to the irrigation canal of the Eridanus River, at the midpoint in his life, marks the beginning of his time as a mature teacher as well as the conclusion of this present work.
Save for a few letters, lists of aphorisms and other fragments, most of the original treatises of Epicurus on happiness, ethics, friendship and numerous other topics, estimated to be over three hundred works from this prolific author, have been lost to us over the millennia that separate us from him. It is indeed gratifying that there is now something of a literary resurrection of this seminal thinker of the classical age.
While the life and works of Epicurus have justly become an object of empirical research, much needed, there is also a case to be made for a benevolent iconoclasm. This is where the present work, using the creative medium of a novel, may provide a somewhat supplementary, if earthy, contribution. To do so, we need to shift gears, and focus on the private narrative in which the man is considered (and imagined) as the dynamic subject of his own life choices, in his emphasis on a consciousness of ‘free will’ and authenticity, an existentialist before his time. One wonders what Sartre and Kierkegaard, doyens of contemporary existentialism, would have made of him?
On a practical note, I have used the modern equivalent of archaic place names to avoid confusion, as well as maintaining contemporary idiom in the use of grammar and phraseology. In a few cases, I have resorted to that last refuge of perplexed authors, “poetic license”, in order to overlap time-lines and personalities to fit the unfolding narrative, otherwise I have maintained the chronology. Any plain mistakes, florid excesses, or cloying sentimentality, remain mine alone.
Some may recoil at this imposition of 21st century values and exchanges on to a life lived before the Christian Era. While such blatant anachronisms have been avoided where possible, it is inevitable that they will they will creep into a text with historical pretensions, leaving the fervent hope for an informed but tolerant reader.
In so many ways, Epicurus’ ideas for living a tranquil life in harmony with the natural world are more salient than ever, in this anthropocene era of climate change. That his teachings were conducted in a lush garden setting, surrounded by the environment of Nature (as compared with the usual formality of a marble temple), is no mere coincidence: to borrow a cliché from the world of consumer advertising, the medium is the message!
In following Epicurus’ many adventures, this work seeks to redeem him from a dusty, distant past and bring him back to us, vibrant and alive. It is concerned with the essential human experience of an exuberant young life lived fully in an exciting age of intellectual curiosity and momentous events.
Sunshine Coast, Australia 2020