Friday, 24 May 2013

Stoic Junkyard Sources - Names

Stoics, rummage, rummage ahh here we are..first lets look at the names..

The Stoics first proponents including the founding father Zeno of Elea (490-430 BCE-?) are :-


The above could be affixed with the tentative label of the Originals. I suspect that a lot of these names are sadly, just that, names from Diogenes Laertius' Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, which you will be delighted to know, is available to read as a wikisource here .

Then we have:

Diogenes Laertius (see above)
Pyrrhonist Critiques (various)
Musonius Rufus

Some of these in the secondary group..perhaps to be labelled as The Later Guys, we do have some writings, most notably in the case of Cicero, The Tusculan Disputations, On the Nature of the Gods etc available here  . and Seneca. We could add to this list Marcus Aurelius as influenced by Stoic thought and Plutarch who seemed to be an out and out anti-Stoicist.

More soon about some of the core tenets and comparisons with Epicurean thought.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Lucretius' World

We don't know too much about Lucretius (c.90BCE-54BCE) the man himself and so we are forced to build up a more detailed picture from other sources in order to flesh out the background context to this masterpiece of Latin poetry in the epic style. What was it's reception and significance in its own time, let alone in later eras?

I have therefore been looking into the times in which Lucretius lived as well as some of the other philosophies on offer during his era. One of the main contenders for Epicurean thought must surely be Stoicism. I am reading the relevant chapter in the Blackwell Guide to Ancient Philosophy and will be posting regarding that soon. I wanted to look at how the two differ and what they had to offer a potential convert.

In terms of milieu and background events, there are references at the start of the poem to difficult and troubled times. It might be interesting to look at some of the candidates he is referring to, the rise of the Dictators, Sulla and Marius..the Social War and its aftermath and various constitutional crises, culminating in Sulla marching on Rome itself. In short the writing was on the wall for the Roman republic and there was to be more chaos and instability until the arrival on the scene of Octavian/Augustus, the first Emperor.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Atom Heart Brothers

Atom Heart Brothers – The founders of Epicurean Atomic Theory
The Brothers
One of the the key ideas of Epicurean Philosophy is that of the theory of atoms (‘physical theory’ Konstans 2003 (See Footnote 1.) describing matter as composed of finite but very small particles, which combine in multifarious ways to form the reality in which we find ourselves.
This theory was initially formulated by Democritus a Greek thinker working at the end of the 5th century BCE/first part of the 4th Century BCE, although I suppose we should mention that Democritus was probably inspired by a contemporary named Leucippus. The theory was quite influential and although not explicitly attributed to Democritus, it appears in the later works of both Plato and Aristotle. The latter thinker subjected atomism to the most rigorous and searching critique –resulting in several conundrums which are not fully addressed by Epicurus or his followers and so remain controversial. Lucretius does not add anything to the debate since he is merely expounding Epicurus dicta in poetical form rather than subjecting to any serious non-partisan critique.
Epicurus (341-271 or 270 BCE) further refined these atomic theories as well as introducing his famous ethical proposition as ‘pleasure as the highest good’, to an extent a moral extension of the materialist atomic theory. In addition to these two tranches (Physical, Moral or Ethical) there is a third, that of epistemology/perception. All three appear throughout the body of Lucretius’ work the De Rerum Natura (DRN for short when referred to hence).
The Theory
The atomic theory as initially hammered out by Democritus propounds the following:-
1. Atoms are particles of different shape and size.
2. They are infinite in number
3. They move freely in the Void until caught up in vortical currents.
4. These vortical currents and the atoms coagulate into ‘local cosmoi or universes’
5. The atoms in these local events form more regular patterns and give rise to such phenomena as gravity, matter etc.
6. Atoms have protruding hooks and cavities which enable them to create complex arrangements.
7. These complex coagulations can integrate and can also disintegrate but only back into their constituent atoms, no smaller. (atomos in Greek = a-(not) tom- (root meaning cut).
The problems
There were according to Aristotle, some serious problems with the theory (he deals with it in Book 6 of his Physics) and it seems that in reaction to this Epicurus refined the theory in several ways, such as giving the atoms the property of weight, whereas Democritus held that such properties came about as a result of the coagulative processes once the atoms had mixed in the vortical currents.
 It seems to me that both thinkers (Democritus and later Epicurus) were trying to emphasize the immutability/inviolability of the atom as a unit. This explains another change that Epicurus made to the atoms in that he added the concept of minima, tiny particles not separate in themselves but which formed the hook parts in order to join the atoms together.
The underlying rationale for this sort of compromising is hard to understand since we just don’t have much of Epicurus’ original output in order to fully examine the reasons. Later thinkers continued to identify problems even with this refined theory, in particular Sextus Empiricus using Zeno’s Paradox to point out that a pair of minima approaching each other with no obstacles in between could not meet/combine if one assumed as Epicurus does that atoms and their minima move at a uniform velocity.
From all of this perhaps we can safely assume that the theory was on the whole speculative and used as a basis upon which to argue against Providence or any guiding principle in the universe and no afterlife, since all atoms disintegrated after a temporary coagulation.

This materialist atomic theory as applied to the early forms of life on earth; randomly appearing, collapsing, some survivng and others not on and on until the present day (from the ancient's viewpoint) could be described as a precursor to the theory of Natural Selection, although the theory lacks any concept of mutation to allow it be described as a true form of evolutionary theory.

Nonetheless, quite incredible ideas for such a long time ago. However there is a potential flaw here in that surely, if one accepts that such atomic events are truly random and endless, then at some point Gods or divine beings or fantastic creatures would arise. I suppose that these can be explained away by Epicurus as 'unstable coagulations' and examples of the lifeforms that, if they did exist at all in the earlier so-called Arcadian or Golden Age, did not survive to the present. But as to why they do not appear today remains unexplained....

No Gods?
On a bizarre endnote, Epicurus tells us that in such an atomic materialist universe, the gods still probably exist. Why should this be? It is never clearly explained in the theory and the reason for its inclusion in an overtly atheistic worldview remains quite obscure. Perhaps he felt that it was best to give them a bit part so as not to arouse the wrath of the thought police of the time? Or was he trying something later perfected by Lucretius in DRN , that of ‘honeying the cup of wormwood ‘and throwing a reassuring sop to those who could not contemplate a universe devoid of divine beings.

[1] Shields: The Blackwell Guide to Ancient Philosophy (2003) Chapter on Epicurus by David Konstans p 237

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Lucretius 1 and 2 highlights

I am going through the first two books with an eye to highlighting some particularly striking passages. It might be interesting to read them out together and share reactions. The criteria for selection will be a subject matter of note relating to Epicurean thought or possibly just the language itself.

If anyone has a particular section that stands out for them for whatever reason, make a note of it.

The Thinkers - Horrible Histories

And on a lighter note...if you haven't seen this, it might raise a smile.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Dedication to Venus - Why?

Just a thought. I have started reading the De Rerum and there is a dedication to Venus, Goddess of the pro/creative principal amongst other things. Although its customary to have such dedications at the start of long poems, I wonder if something else might not be going on here.

One of Epicurus' main tenets is that the Gods may exist but are in no way connected to our world and pay no attention to our entreaties and cannot harm or heal us, so there is no logical reason to fear them. However, here we have Lucretius at the start of a poem the purpose of which is ostensibly to dispel 'irrational fear of the gods' with a dedication to Venus. Why dedicate a poem to something Epicurus tells us' even if it exists is not at all contingent upon the world of humans and does not pay any attention to us' ?

Perhaps its just literary convention of the day, or is he doing something like 'sweetening the medicine of philosophy'? The dedicatee is one Gaius Memmius and perhaps, Lucretius is trying to win over a sceptical patron, who has professed his fear of or trust in the gods.

There is an article by Gordon Campbell, 'Lucretius and the Memes of Prehistory' (in the External Links at the bottom of this wiki page: ) which throws up the idea that Lucretius is consciously using the conventions of the time in a subtly subversive way. Worth discussing perhaps.

Monday, 13 May 2013

First Meeting at Kassa

Welcome to Legendum - The Greek and Roman Classics Reading Group

We held the first historic meeting of the Classics Reading Group aka 'Legendum' at Kassa cafe/opticians! on the seafront last Sunday. A warm welcome to all of us.

Frankly, I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to find several members, get together and set this group up so quickly! I should have done this sooner, it was sort of running around my brain for a while and whilst thinking/chatting aloud over a roaring bonfire in the wilds of St.Leonard's with Simone, decided to take the plunge and go for it. I am glad we did.

We had a round table session and managed to hammer out some basics of what, where, how and why and our next meet. the next meetings is at Simone's house and will take place on June 9th, at 4.00 p.m. We are planning to talk about our impressions etc gleaned from a reading of the first 2 books of De Rerum Natura by Lucretius.

Latin and Greek texts can be found at :

Translations (of varying quality) can be found at project Gutenburg:

The Penguin Translations available from Libraries or Bookshops are by R.E Latham (This is the version I used as a crib when doing it for A Level at School) or a more recent version in Penguin by Alicia Stallings.

There are some good general intoductory articles on Lucretius and the De Rerum on Wikipedia and some of the links at the bottom of those articles also look interesting, particularly the argument for Lucretius as a source for the pro-evolutionist/anti-creationist argument.

The book mentioned by Liz was The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began by Stephen Greenblatt

I mentioned a interesting blog which is Kenodoxia a blog on Ancient Greek Philosophy and other things by Dr. James Warren of Cambridge University, who seems to be quite an authority on Epicurean thought.

See you all soon,

PS: Please leave a comment to say hello and add any suggestions to the blog - its the group's i.e. Your!! blog so please add suggestions and I will add them in, such as links, book suggestions, requests etc.