THE LIFE OF EPICURUS
FROM BOOK X of
THE LIVES & OPINIONS OF EMINENT PHILOSOPHERS
TRANSLATED BY C.D. YONGE.
BIOGRAPHY OF EPICURUS
Epicurus, son of Neocles and Chaerestrate, was an Athenian of the Gargettus ward and the Philaidae clan, as Metrodorus says in his book On Noble Birth. He is said by Heraclides (in his Epitome of Sotion) as well as by others, to have been brought up at Samos after the Athenians had sent colonists there and to have come to Athens at the age of eighteen, at the time when Xenocrates was head of the Academy and Aristotle was in Chalcis. After the death of Alexander of Macedon and the expulsion of the Athenian colonists from Samos by Perdiccas, Epicurus left Athens to join his father in Colophon; for some time he stayed there and gathered students around him, then returned to Athens again during the archonship of Anaxicrates [307–306 B.C.].
For a while, it is said, he pursued his studies in common with other philosophers, but afterwards put forward independent views by founding the school named after him.
He says himself that he first came to study philosophy at the age of fourteen, Apollodorus the Epicurean (in the first book of his Life of Epicurus says that he turned to philosophy in contempt of the school-teachers who could not tell him the meaning of “chaos” in Hesiod. According to Hermippus, however, he started as a school-teacher, but on coming across the works of Democritus turned eagerly to philosophy, which accounts for Timon's allusion in the lines:
“Again there is the latest and most shameless of the natural philosophers, the school-teacher's son from Samos, himself the most ill-bred and undisciplined of mankind.”
At his encouragement his three brothers, Neocles, Chaeredemus, and Aristobulus, joined in his studies, as Philodemus the Epicurean relates in the tenth book of his comprehensive work On Philosophers; as did his slave named Mys, as stated by Myronianus in Historical Parallels. Diotimus the Stoic, who was very hostile to him, assailed him with bitter slanders, attributing fifty obscene letters as being written by Epicurus; and so too did the author who ascribed to Epicurus the letters commonly attributed to Chrysippus [the Stoic].
They are followed in this by Posidonius the Stoic and his school, and Nicolaus and Sotion in the twelfth of twenty-four books of his work entitled Dioclean Refutations, also by Dionysius of Halicarnassus.
They allege that he used to go round with his mother to small cottages to perform purification rites and read charms, and assist his father in his school for a pitiful fee; further, that one of his brothers was a pimp and lived with the courtesan Leontion [“Lioness”]; that he put forward as his own the doctrines of Democritus about atoms and of Aristippus about pleasure; that he was not a genuine Athenian, a charge brought by Timocrates and by Herodotus in a book On the Training of Epicurus as a Cadet, that he basely flattered Mithras, the viceroy of Lysimachus, bestowing on him in his letters Apollo's titles of “Healer” and “Lord.”
They further charged that he extolled Idomeneus, Herodotus, and Timocrates, who had published his esoteric doctrines, and flattered them for that very reason. Also that in his letters he wrote to Leontion: “0 Lord Apollo, my dear little Leontion, with what tumultuous applause we were inspired as we read your letter.” Then again to Themista, the wife of Leonteus: “I am quite ready, if you do not come to see me, to roll around three times on my own axis and be propelled to any place that you, including Themista, agree upon”; and to the beautiful Pythocles he wrote: “I will sit quiet and await with desire your god-like coming” and, as Theodorus says in the fourth book of his work, Against Epicurus, in another letter to Themista he thinks he preaches to her.
It is added that he corresponded with many courtesans, and especially with Leontion, of whom Metrodorus also was enamored. It is observed too that in his treatise On the Ethical End he writes in these terms : “I know not how to conceive the good, apart from the pleasures of taste, of sex, of sound, and the pleasures of beautiful form.” and in his letter to Pythocles: “Hoist all sail, my dear boy, and steer clear of all indoctrination.”. Epictetus calls him preacher of effeminacy and showers abuse on him.
Again there was Timocrates, the brother of Metrodorus, who was his student and then left the school. In the book Merry Guests he asserts that Epicurus vomited twice a day from over-indulgence, and goes on to say that he himself had great difficulty in escaping from those notorious midnight philosophizings and the confraternity with all its secrets; further, that Epicurus's understanding of philosophy was small and his understanding of life even smaller; that his bodily health was pitiful, so much so that for many years he was unable to rise from his chair; and that he spent a whole mina daily on his meals, as he himself says in his letter to Leontion and in that to the philosophers at Mitylene.
Also that among other courtesans who consorted with him and Metrodorus were Mammarion and Hedia and Erotion and Nikidion. He alleges too that in his thirty-seven books On Nature Epicurus says the same things over and over again and writes largely in sheer opposition to others, especially against Nausiphanes.
Here are his own words: “Nay, let them go hang: for, when laboring with an idea, he too had the sophist's off-hand boastfulness like many another servile soul.” Besides, he himself in his letters says of Nausiphanes: “This so maddened him that he abused me and called me pedagogue.” Epicurus used to call this Nausiphanes jellyfish, an illiterate, a fraud, and a trollop; Plato's school he called “the toadies of Dionysius,” their master himself the “golden” Plato, and Aristotle a profligate, who after devouring his patrimony took to soldiering and selling drugs; Protagoras a porter and the secretary of Democritus and village school-teacher; Heraclitus a muddler; Democritus Lerocritus [“trifler”]; and Antidorus Sannidorus [“flattering gift-bearer”]; the Cynics enemies of Greece; the Dialecticians consumed with envy; and Pyrrho [the Skeptic] an ignorant boor.
But these people are stark mad. For our philosopher has numerous witnesses to attest his unsurpassed goodwill to all menhis native land, which honored him with statues in bronze; his friends, so many in number that they could hardly be counted by whole cities, and indeed all who knew him, held fast as they were by the siren-charms of his doctrine, save Metrodorus of Stratonicea, who went over to Carneades, being perhaps burdened by his master's excessive goodness; the Garden itself which, while nearly all the others have died out, continues for ever without interruption through numberless successions of one director after another; his gratitude to his parents, his generosity to his brothers, his gentleness to his servants, as evidenced by the terms of his will and by the fact that they were members of the Garden, the most eminent of them being the aforesaid Mys; and in general, his benevolence to all mankind. His piety towards the gods and his affection for his country no words can describe. He carried his modesty to such an excess that he did not even enter public life.
He spent all his life in Greece, notwithstanding the calamities which had befallen her in that era; when he did once or twice take a trip to Ionia, it was to visit his friends there. Friends indeed came to him from all parts and lived with him in his garden. This is stated by Apollodorus, who also says that he purchased the garden for eighty minae . And to the same effect Diocles in the third book of his Epitome speaks of them as living a very simple and frugal life; at all events they were content with a cup of thin wine and were, for the rest, thoroughgoing water-drinkers. He further says that Epicurus did not think it right that their property should be held in common, as required by the maxim of Pythagoras about the goods of friends; such a practice in his opinion implied mistrust, and without confidence there is no friendship.
In his correspondence he himself mentions that he was content with plain bread and water. And again: “Send me a little pot of cheese, that, when I like, I may fare sumptuously.” Such was the man who laid down that pleasure was the end of life. And here is the epigram in which Athenaeus eulogizes him:
“You toil, 0 men, for paltry things and incessantly begin strife and war for gain; but nature's wealth extends to a moderate bound, whereas vain judgments have a limitless range. This lesson Neocles' wise son heard from the Muses or from the sacred tripod at Delphi.”
And, as we go on, we shall know this better from his doctrines and his sayings.
Among the early philosophers, says Diocles, his favorite was Anaxagoras, although he occasionally disagreed with him, and Archelaus the teacher of Socrates. Diocles adds that he used to train his friends in committing his treatises to memory, Apollodorus in his Chronology tells us that our philosopher was a pupil of Nausiphanes and Praxiplianes; but in his letter to Eurylochus, Epicurus himself denies it and says that he was self-taught. Both Epicurus and Hermarcbus deny the very existence of I,eucippus the philosopher, though by some and by Apollodorus the Epicurean he is said to have been the teacher of Democritus. Demetrius the Magnesian affirms that Epicurus also attended the lectures of Xenocrates.
The terms he used for things were the ordinary terms, and Aristophanes the grammarian credits him with a very characteristic style. He was so lucid a writer that in the work On Rhetoric he makes clearness the sole requisite. And in his correspondence he replaces the usual greeting “I wish you joy” by wishes for welfare and right living, “May you do well,” and “Live well.”
Ariston says in his Life of Epicurus that he derived his work entitled The Canon from the Tripod of Nausiphanes, adding that Epicurus had been a pupil of this man as well as of the Platonist Pamphilus in Samos. Further, that he began to study philosophy when he was twelve years old, and started his own school at thirty-two.
He was born, according to Apollodorus in his Chronology, in the third year of the 109th Olympiad, in the archonship of Sosigenes, on the seventh day of the month Gamelion, in the seventh year after the death of Plato [February 4th, 341 B.C.]. When he was thirty-two he founded a school of philosophy, first in Mitylene and Lampsacus, and then five years later removed to Athens, where he died in the second year of the 127th Olympiad, in the archonship of Pytharatus, at the age of seventy-two [270 B.C,]; and Hermarchus the son of Agemortus, a Mitylenaean, took over the Garden. Epicurus died of renal calculus after an illness which lasted a fortnight; so Hermarchus tells us in his letters. Hermippus relates that he entered a bronze bath of lukewarm water and asked for unmixed wine, which he swallowed, and then, having bidden his friends remember his doctrines, breathed his last.
Here is something of my own about him:
“Farewell, my friends; the truths I taught hold fast,
thus Epicurus spake, and breathed his last.
He sat in a warm bath and neat wine quaff'd,
and straightway found chill death in that same draught.”
Such was the life of the sage and such his end
His last will was as follows:
And when near his end he wrote the following letter to Idomeneus :
On this blissful day, which is also the last of my life, I write this to you. My continual sufferings from strangury and dysentery are so great that nothing could increase them; but I set above them all the gladness of mind at the memory of our past conversations. But I would have you, as becomes your lifelong attitude to me and to philosophy, watch over the children of Metrodorus.
Such were the terms of his will.