Epicurus the savior

(photo credit: Wikipedia)

The philosophers of ancient Greece make up a formidable group of individuals as they debate the nature of truth and seek knowledge of first causes in an architectural setting that resembles the interior of the Basilica of St. Peter. The School of Athens by Raphael is a masterpiece of the Renaissance and a fresco that assembles practically every important philosopher of classical antiquity. Plato and Aristotle each holds one of their major works, Pythagoras is writing a treatise, Euclid is engaged in a geometrical demonstration, and Diogenes the Cynic ignores everyone else. It is an idyllic rendering of the eminent thinkers who laid the foundation of western philosophical tradition.

But these sages were no angels; they were mortal men with their fair share of desires, ambition, affinities and dislikes. Sometimes, therefore, polite and dispassionate discourse on eudaimonia, diairesis, or the demiurge went out the window and words were marshalled to deliver devastating blows bordering on character assassination.

The race is on

The popular image of classical Athens as a city full of philosophers is not too far off the mark. In the middle of the 4th century BCE there were two well-established philosophical schools, Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum. The former was established in 369 BCE and its founder hoped to create a group of educated young men who would assume leading roles in public life. The Lyceum was a verdant grove on the outskirts of the city; Aristotle taught there when he came back from Macedonia, but it was Theophrastus, his successor, who turned the Lyceum into a proper school.

There were also many minor but popular philosophers who claimed descent from Socrates, even though the majority of their work is lost. Diogenes the Cynic, Aristippus of Cyrene, and Eucleides of Megara had many students of their own, while Stilpo of Megara was trendy enough to “steal” followers from Aristotle. The Epicureans and the Stoics made considerable efforts to win supporters and expand the market for philosophy students. They were keen to popularize their teaching, while the Academy and the Lyceum refused to make their ideas more easily accessible to the people and suffered the consequences.

The newcomer

Epicurus was born on the island of Samos in 341 BCE. He was an Athenian citizen, so at the age of eighteen he came to Athens to do his two years of military service. With this obligation behind him, he settled in Mytilene where he established his own philosophical circle, but in 307/6 BCE he returned to Athens and bought a house with a garden; there he founded a community of friends (women and slaves were welcome) who lived according to common principles in retreat from civic life. There was no formal curriculum; the members of Epicurus’ garden spent their time reading and discussing his books. And there was no shortage of them, since the philosopher is credited with writing 41 important works and countless letters.

The delightful people

Friendship was a cornerstone of Epicureanism and Epicurus inspired a strong regard in his followers, who were invited to act as if he was always watching. Some of them spent their lives serving their teacher and his ideas, while others proved far less enthralled by him. Timocrates was the brother of Metrodorus, who was the most distinguished of Epicurus’ disciples and was viewed as his possible successor. Timocrates claimed to love his brother as nobody else could, while hating him as nobody else could. He considered himself the wiser person and defected from Epicurus’ “mystery cult”, at which point he wrote a treatise called Delightful People where his proceeded to savage his former teacher.

According to Timocrates, Epicurus vomited twice a day from overeating and spent a fortune on delectable delicacies (despite his claims that he was perfectly satisfied with bread, water, and the occasional small piece of cheese). His health was poor and for many years he was unable to rise from his chair. He spent his time with four prostitutes, whom he shared with Metrodorus, his student. He knew nothing of philosophy and even less about life, while his books were full of repetitions and obstinate opposition to other philosophers.

Nor was Timocrates the only philosopher to attack Epicurus. The Pyrrhonist Timon claimed that Epicurus was a shameless (or doglike) natural philosopher who was most ignorant of living things. Arcesilaus, the sixth head of the Academy, claimed that nobody ever crossed over from the Epicureans to other philosophical schools because “men can become eunuchs, but eunuchs never become men.”

Aristotle sells drugs

But Epicurus is also claimed to have had strong opinions on other philosophers. Nausiphanes of Teos was a famous rhetorician with a large number of pupils, including at one point Epicurus himself. But the latter did not have a very high opinion of Nausiphanes. He called him a jelly-fish, a fraud, an illiterate and a prostitute. Aristotle was a profligate who devoured his patrimony and turned to selling drugs. Protagoras was a village schoolmaster, Heraclitus was a blockhead, and Democritus was a dealer in nonsense. the Cynics were enemies of Greece, while Plato’s students were little more that the ass-kissers of Dionysius II of Syracuse.

Plato, Aristotle and the Hellenistic philosophers dedicated their lives to the search for truth. They sought a solution to the question “what is happiness and how can a man achieve it?”, but along the way they did not hesitate to express their opinion on each other. And it is these innuendos and defamations that turn these august sages into fascinating human beings.

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Ancient Greek philosophy was born in the 6th century BCE, as philosophers strove to comprehend the world in a non-religious way.

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