The book is dedicated to the Epicurean tradition, but it is striking how much of the collection is dedicated to the works of Philodemus and the period of the first century BC in particular. To be sure, this is understandable given the philosophical vibrancy of the period, the importance of Philodemus, the amount of his work that survives, its impressive scope and sophistication, and the significant improvement in the texts of the Herculaneum papyri in recent years. However, other major figures in the Epicurean tradition do seem rather neglected. For example, there is little comment made about Demetrius Laco, an Epicurean from the generation before Philodemus, some of whose work survives in fragments from Herculaneum; Diogenes of Oinoanda barely figures, despite the detailed legacy of his remarkable wall. The Epicurean tradition both pre- and post-Philodemus could have been explored in more detail. Also, the choice to focus attention on the topics of theology, the emotions, and politics might risk implying that significant innovation after Epicurus is limited to a few subject areas only. Perhaps more could have been said about interesting developments and interactions with other schools in the realms of social philosophy and philosophical method, for instance. Despite these criticisms about the scope of the volume, however, the chosen topics and texts do serve as effective illustrating cases of the general themes of autonomy and openness; and the limited scope also allows opportunities for others to look more keenly into other aspects of the Epicurean tradition, which is something the editors actively encourage.
Epicurean ideas on politics disagree with other philosophical traditions, namely the Stoic, Platonist and Aristotelian traditions. To Epicureans all our social relations are a matter of how we perceive each other, of customs and traditions. No one is inherently of higher value or meant to dominate another. That is because there is no metaphysical basis for the superiority of one kind of person, all people are made of the same atomic material and are thus naturally equal. Epicureans also discourage political participation and other involvement in politics. However Epicureans are not apolitical, it is possible that some political association could be seen as beneficial by some Epicureans. Some political associations could lead to certain benefits to the individual that would help to maximize pleasure and avoid physical or mental distress.
Epicurus laid great emphasis on developing friendships as the basis of a satisfying life. The avoidance or freedom from hardship and fear is ideal to the Epicureans. While this avoidance or freedom could conceivably be achieved through political means it was insisted by Epicurus that involvement in politics would not release one from fear and he advised against a life of politics. Epicurus also discouraged contributing to political society by starting a family, as the benefits of a wife and children are outweighed by the trouble brought about by having a family. Instead Epicurus encouraged a formation of a community of friends outside the traditional political state. This community of virtuous friends would focus on internal affairs and justice. However, Epicureanism is adaptable to circumstance as is the Epicurean approach to politics. The same approaches will not always work in protection from pain and fear. In some situations it will be more beneficial to have a family and in other situations it will be more beneficial to participate in politics. It is ultimately up to the Epicurean to analyse their circumstance and take whatever action befits the situation.
Because Epicureanism posits that pleasure is the ultimate good (telos), it has been commonly misunderstood since ancient times as a doctrine that advocates the partaking in fleeting pleasures such as sexual excess and decadent food. This is not the case. Epicurus regarded ataraxia (tranquility, freedom from fear) and aponia (absence of pain) as the height of happiness. He also considered prudence an important virtue and perceived excess and overindulgence to be contrary to the attainment of ataraxia and aponia. Epicurus preferred "the good", and "even wisdom and culture", to the "pleasure of the stomach". While 20th-century commentary has generally sought to diminish this and related quotations, the consistency of the lower-case epicureanism of meals with Epicurean materialism overall has more recently been explained.[clarification needed]
Pythagoras was also innovative in terms of trying to reduce his explanations of the world to high-level abstractions involving mathematics and geometry. While the Milesians had stressed the properties of matter as being the key to physical explanations, the Pythagoreans insisted that the form that matter took was really the crucial factor. The relationship of form to substance was to greatly vex later Greek philosophers, but the two intellectual traditions founded by Thales and Pythagoras were to define the subject matter of philosophy and, in the crucial concepts of form and matter, provide the starting point for further progress in the field.
Greek philosophy in the mid to late 5th century B.C. underwent rapid development, as an informal educational system grew up around private tutors known as sophists. These sophists continued and amplified the Eleatic tradition of challenging conventional ideas and common sense at every turn, forcing the various post-Eleatic schools of thought to greatly refine their teachings.
A student of Anaxagoras, Archelaus, transmitted the Noetic system to Athens, where it was taught to Socrates. Socrates shifted the focus of Noetic thought to ethics, suggesting that humans too were regulated by the cosmic mind and only human ignorance stood in the way of adherence to the proper art of living. In contrast to the amoral tendencies of the sophists, Socrates gained great fame portraying virtue as a given for the knowledgable wise man, and vice as a product of ignorance. Socrates was too famous for his own good, as his incessant moralizing (often coupled with a disdain for social convention), association with disreputable politicians, and condescending attitude towards the more tradition-minded masses made him an easy target for popular scorn. Convicted of atheism and corruption of the youth, Socrates was sentenced to death and, by willingly drinking a cup of hemlock, became the most famous philosophical martyr of all times.
Epicurean physics was rooted in the atomistic tradition, with one significant innovation by Epicurus. Epicurus realized that the deterministic character of Democritus's system was fatal to the notion of a freedom of choice that is inherent in any sensible conception of ethics, and that it was also problematic for explaining how inhomogeneities arise in nature. Epicurus therefore introduced the notion of the atomic swerve, where the path of an atom is no longer simply a function of the other atoms it interacts with, but also subject to some random variation. This leads to a strikingly modern conception of physics, where the traditional atomistic conception of particles with fixed identities and variable interrelationships is supplemented by what modern scientists would classify as a quantum indeterminacy.
This contrasts with the Ionian tradition, which Diogenes Laertius identified with Socrates, and which lead, through him, to the Platonic and Cynic-Stoic successions. The Epicurean tradition did not descend from Socrates, and was apparently more aligned with other, pre-Socratic, philosophers.
The restoration of Epicurean atomism and hedonism was an important feature of philosophy in the seventeenth century. Epicurean atomism was one of several traditions that influenced the development of the mechanical philosophy, and its hedonism contributed to the development of political philosophies incorporating theories of social contract. In her new book, constructed from a number of previously-published articles, Catherine Wilson wants to demonstrate "how the theory of atoms, and the political contractualism and ethical hedonism that were conceptually bound to it, were addressed, adopted, and battled against by the canonical philosophers of the period." (v) She wants further "to establish that an intellectually compelling and robust tradition took materialism as the only valid frame of reference, not only for scientific inquiry but for the deepest problems of ethics and politics." (v) She adopts De rerum natura, the Roman poet Lucretius' (94-55 BC) poetic exposition of the philosophy of Epicurus (341-270 BC), as the framework for her argument. Accordingly, she deals with the role key Epicurean doctrines, such as an atomic theory of matter, the absence of gods and providence from the world, the mortality of the soul, and ethical hedonism, played in the thinking and writing of several key seventeenth-century philosophers. She devotes her longest discussions to Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), René Descartes (1596-1650), Robert Boyle (1627-1691), and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716). Although she never says exactly what she means by 'modernity' -- the currently ubiquitous term that eludes definition and should be gone with the wind like the vexed, essentialist terms 'Renaissance' and 'Enlightenment' -- the book's thesis seems to be that modernity arose from the Epicurean preoccupations of seventeenth-century philosophers, notably their godless materialism and their endorsement of empirical and experimental knowledge, and their articulation of a totally secular political philosophy based on the notion of the social contract, developments that Wilson cheers.
A good history of Epicureanism in early modern thought would be a welcome addition to the existing literature. Unfortunately, this is a gap that Wilson's book does not fill. It suffers from a number of problems -- some systemic and some detailed -- that undermine its reliability. Her view of seventeenth-century issues is blinkered because she restricts her analysis to an account of philosophers who hold a place in the modern canon of the history of philosophy. This limitation coupled with a tendency to make anachronistic judgments prevents her from examining the abundance of alternatives that competed with Epicureanism in seventeenth-century philosophy. Further, she neglects to consider other traditions -- such as late Scholasticism, alchemy, Renaissance humanism, Copernican astronomy, and Galileo's new science of motion -- that contributed directly to the development of a corpuscularian philosophy and an empirical and experimental approach to natural knowledge. Her own patently intolerant attitude towards theology prevents her from understanding that theological presuppositions were virtually axiomatic for most of the philosophers of the period. Their lengthy arguments for the immortality of the soul, for example, were aimed at correcting the errors they found in the writings of Pietro Pompanazzi (1462-1525) as well as in Epicureanism, even if those arguments are not convincing by modern standards. They were not, as she claims time after time, acts of subterfuge created to avoid official condemnation. Equally, Wilson's uncritical endorsement of a materialistic account of the natural world prevents her from seeking a genuinely historical explanation for the appeal of the mechanical philosophy to seventeenth-century thinkers. Her account reads almost like the old histories of science that explained the development of the sciences in terms of the unrolling of their internal logic. What this approach lacks is an understanding of the role of historical contingencies, interests, and assumptions, often ones that we no longer find acceptable, in leading thinkers to adopt the positions they did and which also have influenced our own views. Even if we could know that our present theories are correct, seventeenth-century philosophers could not possibly have known that they were creating modernity. 781b155fdc