Tuesday, 20 October 2009

A fan letter to the Epicureans

Unreal Nature featured a recent interesting post, Gastrosophy, mentioning various philosophical takes on food - such as Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's thoughts that there should be a tenth Muse, Gasterea - which made a couple of references to "epicurism".

It's a pity that "epicure" and "epicurean" have become more or less synonyms for gourmet - elite ostentatious foodyism - as this is a disservice to Epicurus (341-270BC). Of ancient Greek philosophies, Epicureanism is the one I most rate. It viewed the goal of life as happiness through the absence of pain and anxiety. It was based in a radical materialism - not in a consumerist sense but in a belief that the material world is all there is. There are gods, but they don't interact with human existence, nor is there an afterlife; so we have no need to fear posthumous punishment nor indulge in irrational activities to prevent it. It believed that the world and society had evolved from earlier forms. In many respects it strongly resembles a modern secular world-view.

A couple of millennia of bad press give Epicureanism the reputation of being mere hedonism and selfishness. The description at the Catholic Encyclopedia is typical of such critique (one might strongly suspect Epicureanism's lack of interests in gods and suffering-as-a-virtue are especially downers to a Christian mindset). Criticisms were even more robust in Epicurus' own time: Idle Idols: Epicurus at the Idler tells how contemporaries spread stories that Epicurus was a drunken debauched glutton. However, Epicureanism promoted moderation - because excess could equally give rise to suffering - and although it wasn't keen on political involvement (seeking a quiet life rather than the drama that's sometimes needed to stand up against injustice) it strongly supported altruism.

Very little survives of Epicurus' own words, but his beliefs are known through a number of secondary sources, particularly via the biographer Diogenes Laƫrtius, the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus and Titus Lucretius Carus (aka Lucretius) whose poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of the Universe) is probably the best-known exposition of the scientific and cosmological side of Epicureanism. This is extremely worth reading: see the commentary at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the text itself: Project Gutenberg EText-No. 785. Epicureanism's interest purely in the material and what is perceivable might be viewed as potentially shallow, but far from it: it's an acute and wide-ranging exploration, and attempted explanation, of how everything in the natural world functions and interacts.

As such, it frequently comes up with stunning insights. For example:

Let me now explain why one man's meat is not another's, and what is bitter and unpalatable to one may strike another as delicious
In order to understand how this happens, the first point to remember is .. the diversity of atoms that are commingled in objects. With the outward differences between the various types of animal that take food ... there go corresponding differences in the shapes of their component atoms. These in turn entail differences in the chinks and channels - the pores as we call them - in all parts of the body, including the mouth and palate itself. In some species these are naturally smaller, in others larger; in some triangular, in others square; while many are round, others are of various polygonal shapes. In short, the shapes and motions of the atoms rigidly determine the shapes of the pores: the atomic structure defines the interatomic channels. When something sweet to one is bitter to another, it must be because its smoothest particles caressingly penetrate the palate of the former, whereas the latter's gullet is evidently invaded by particles that are rough and jagged.
- On the Nature of the Universe, Book 4

With the proviso that "atoms" can't be taken to mean anything like the modern term, this insight that taste is to do with shape interactions is staggeringly close to the modern understanding of chemicals and receptors that interact by molecule shape, and how things taste different to different people because of genetic differences in the shape of the receptors (see Bitter Taste Gene). I so love the rightness of his explanation that if post worked backward in time, I'd send Lucretius a fan letter about this.

Of course, one can cherry pick, and many of Lucretius' other explanations are distinctly off-the-wall. He argues, quite reasonably, that we see things because our eyes encounter "films" (a modern equivalent might be "wavefronts") emitted by objects; but he extends this to ideas too. Our thoughts are merely a swirl of interaction between such films; so, for instance, if we think of a centaur, it's because we've picked up the interaction between the films emitted by a horse and by a human. He believed that large animals had become extinct in the past: not bad. But he also believed that they had been spontaneously generated by the earth. He gets seriously weird in the section on sex, having a particular downer on passionate erotic love as a kind of madness; and the book ends abruptly after a depressing rant about pestilence and death. The latter rather played into the hands of his critics, who claimed that he had been driven mad by a love potion. But this shouldn't detract from the generally calm and rational tone.

There's a very nice Penguin Classics edition of On the Nature of the Universe translated by Ronald Latham. From the cover notes:

Lucretius (c. 100 - c. 55 BC) remains one of the very few in any age able to accept unflinchingly the evidence of the senses, to dismiss metaphysical abstractions, Providence and immortality as vain illusions and yet continue to find wonder and pleasure in the perceptible world and the processes of natural law. His poem is a working out of that philosophy, a rigorous exposition of the scientific attitudes of his time towards matter, space, atoms, life, mind, sensation, sex, cosmology, meteorology and geology, all rendered beautiful and palatable through what he called 'the sweet honey of the muses'. It can be consulted now, as it was two thousand years ago, as a source of wisdom and comfort in an age of disillusionment.

I definitely find it so: "dismiss metaphysical abstractions ... and yet continue to find wonder and pleasure in the perceptible world and the processes of natural law" describes my world-view so closely, it's spooky. Epicurus and Lucretius were cool.

An associated recommendation: Ian Watson's SF anthology Slow Birds and Other Stories (Gollancz, 1985). Lucretius makes an appearance in the story Ghost Lecturer, in which academics devise a means to temporarily resurrect historical figures. The unfortunate side-effect is that their world-view becomes literally true, and after initial culture shock

Lucretius eyed Jim with a pained expression. "DO you still believe in gods?"

things take a turn for the worse with the appearance of bizarre manifestations of clouds and nature, and when the main characters become victim to love-frenzy.
- Ray


  1. The rot starts early.

    I first heard of Epicureanism, in early teens, through following up notes in the back of an old copy of Jonson's The alchemist. I thus, sadly, for years saw Sir Epicure Mammon as somehow an exemplar of Epicureanism.

  2. Oh, yes, and there's the Epicure epigram (see addendum).

  3. I can't think of anything clever to say other than that I am in total agreement with Ray on this one. I've only read about Epicureanism in more general histories of philosophy, but even on such shallow fly-bys, it seemed much more interesting than the others of that time.

  4. Julie: definitely. Reading Lucretius, my impressions split between: a) "Wow! Amazingly prescient!" and b) "Weird - but you can't blame him given what forms of investigation were available at the time." Never: "That's crap, he's seeing it through some weird religious filter."

    Reading De rerum natura gives me scalp tingles at the neat conclusions you can come up with just by solid thinking about what you perceive, without equipment. As I said, if I could, I'd send Lucretius a fan letter.