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(c. 341-270 B. C.)
IF The three hundred volumes of treatises and essays attrib
uted to Epicurus, only fragments remain; but these, while Gre insufficient to define his philosophy as fully as Stoicism has been defined by its great authorities, show that he was a man of genius, capable of giving fitting expression to his ideas. What these ideas were we know not only from the fragments of his books, but from his disciples among whom were some of the most celebrated writers of the Greek and Roman decadence. While it is not true that Epicurus taught sensuality; while, indeed, he insisted on a moral life as the only means of attaining tranquillity, he made intellectual comfort the object of existence, and the mind's own sensations the sole test of truth and the only guide of action. He believed in gods, who, however, had no concern in the government of the world and ought not to be appealed to as arbiters of events. He was opposed to those who attributed such natural phenomena as the noise of thunder to the acts of the gods, but he was not less opposed to the attempt to find a scientific explanation for them. He is thus separated from modern materialism, though it has been largely stimulated by the writings of his disciples. His philosophy is now called «Hedonism," and while it may be inaccurate to define it as a system in which the attainment of pleasure is made the object of life, it is not unjust to him to say that he makes self-satisfaction his supreme good rather than achievement.
«Questi sciaurati che mai non fur vivi » «Wretches who never were alive,) Dante calls those who live merely to gratify themselves and make through vulgarity the great renunciation.” In hell, he saw them in a vast multitude stung by wasps and weeping for lost opportunities, with tears which fell at their feet and bred loathsome worms. This metaphor, terrible as it is, does not adequately express the fierceness of the great Florentine's contempt for those who withdraw from the world's struggle and live out the rule of Epicurus as Horace Latinizes it :
« Nec vixit male qui natus moriensque fefellit.”
(“Nor has he badly lived, whate'er his lot,
Another class of those who follow "Hedonism,” Dante will not let into hell at all, «lest the damned should be made to seem respectable by them” (chè alcuna gloria i rei avrebber d'elli.) But while Dante's view is never likely to fail of sympathizers, among moralists, it ought to be remembered that Epicurus was struggling to find some escape from follies of popular superstition without accepting either cynicism or the scarcely more attractive theory of the Stoics, that the supreme object in life is the cultivation of fortitude, endurance, and of whatever else goes to make up perfect ability to suppress emotion.
Epicurus was born in Samos, c. 341 B. C., from an Athenian father. Xenocrates is mentioned as one of his masters in philosophy. In the year 306 B. C. he himself began the life of a professional philosopher by opening a school in a garden at Athens, where he taught until his death in 270 B. C., gathering around him a coterie of friends and admirers of both sexes. To these he taught the theory of Democritus and Leucippus, that life and created matter in all its forms depend on a fortuitous or fated concourse of atoms. As Democritus also invented the famous canon of agnosticism:-“We know nothing, not even if there is anything to know,” it is evident that his philosophy, as Epicurus defined and supplemented it, was not less at home in the nineteenth century A. D. than in the fourth and third B. C.
W. V. B.
OF MODESTY, OPPOSED TO AMBITION
NONCERNING this great virtue, which is the fourth branch of U temperance, there is very little need of saying more than
what we have formerly intimated, when we declared it not to be the part of a wise man to affect greatness, or power, or honors in a commonwealth; but so to contain himself as rather to live not only privately, but even obscurely and concealed in some secure corner. And therefore the advice we shall chiefly inculcate in this place shall be the very same we usually give to our best friends. Live private and concealed (unless some circumstance of state call you forth to the assistance of the public), insomuch as experience frequently confirms the truth of that proverbial saying, “He hath well lived who hath well concealed himself."
Certainly, it hath been too familiarly observed that many who had mounted up to the highest pinnacle of honor have been on a sudden, and, as it were, with a thunderbolt, thrown down to
the bottom of misery and contempt; and so been brought, though too late, to acknowledge that it is much better for a man quietly and peaceably to obey, than by laborious climbing up the craggy rocks of ambition to aspire to command and sovereignty; and to set his foot rather upon the plain and humble ground than upon that slippery height, from which all that can be with reason expected is a precipitous and ruinous downfall. Besides, are not those grandees, upon whom the admiring multitude gaze, as upon refulgent comets, and prodigies of glory and honor; are they not, we say, of all men the most unhappy, in this one respect, that their breasts swarm with most weighty and troublesome cares that incessantly gall and corrode their very hearts ? Beware, therefore, how you believe that such live securely and tranquilly; since it is impossible but those who are feared by many should themselves be in continual fear of some.
Though you see them to be in a manner environed with power, to have navies numerous enough to send abroad into all seas, to be in the heads of mighty and victorious armies, to be guarded with well-armed and faithful legions; yet, for all this, take heed you do not conceive them to be the only happy men, nay, that they partake so much as of one sincere pleasure; for all these things are mere pageantry, shadows gilded, and ridiculous dreams, insomuch as fear and care are not things that are afraid of the noise of arms, or regard the brightness of gold, or the splendor of purple, but boldly intrude themselves even into the hearts of princes and potentates, and, like the poet's vulture, daily gnaw and consume them.
Beware likewise, that you do not conceive that the body is made one whit the more strong, or healthy, by the glory, greatness, and treasures of monarchy, especially when you may daily observe that a fever doth as violently and long hold him who lies upon a bed of tissue, under a covering of Tyrian scarlet, as him that lies upon a mattress, and hath no covering but rags; and that we have no reason to complain of the want of scarlet robes, of golden embroideries, jewels, and ropes of pearl, while we have a coarse and easy garment to keep away the cold. And what if you, lying cheerfully and serenely upon a truss of clean straw, covered with rags, should gravely instruct men how vain those are who, with astonished and turbulent minds, gape and thirst after the trifles of magnificence, not understanding how few and small those things are which are requisite to a happy life? Believe me, your discourse would be truly magnificent and high, because delivered by one whose own happy experience confirms it.
What though your house do not shine with silver and gold hatchments; nor your arched roofs resound with the multiplied echoes of loud music; nor your walls be not thickly beset with golden figures of beautiful youths, holding great lamps in their extended arms, to give light to your nightly revels and sumptuous banquets; why yet, truly, it is not a whit less (if not much more) pleasant to repose your wearied limbs upon the green grass, to sit by some cleanly and purling stream, under the refreshing shade of some well-branched tree, especially in the springtime, when the head of every plant is crowned with beautiful and fragrant flowers, the merry birds entertaining you with the music of their wild notes, the fresh western winds continually fanning your heats, and all nature smiling upon you.
Wherefore, when any man may, if he please, thus live at peace and liberty abroad in the open fields, or his own gardens, what reason is there why he should affect and pursue honors, and not rather modestly bound his desires with the calmness and security of that condition ? For, to hunt after glory by the ostentation of virtue, of science, of eloquence, of nobility, of wealth, of attendants, of rich clothes, of beauty, of garb, and the like, seriously, it is altogether the fame of ridiculous vanity; and in all things modesty exacts no more than this, that we do not, through rusticity, want of a decent garb, or too much negligence, do anything that doth not correspond with civility and decorum. For it is equally vile, and doth as much denote a base or abject mind, to grow insolent and lofty upon the possession of these adjuncts of magnificence as to become dejected, or sink in spirit, at the loss or want of them.
Now, according to this rule, if a wise man chance to have the statues or images of his ancestors, or other renowned persons of former ages, he will be very far from being proud of them, from showing them as badges of honor, from affecting a glory from the generosity of their actions and achievements; and as far from wholly neglecting them, but will place them (as memorials of virtue) indifferently either in his porch or gallery, or elsewhere.
Nor will he be solicitous about the manner or place of his sepulchre, or command his executors to bestow any great cost, or pomp and ceremony, at his funeral. The chief subject of his care will be, what may be beneficial and pleasant to his successors; being well assured that, as for his dead corpse, it will little concern him what becomes of it. For to propagate vanity even beyond death is the highest madness; and not much inferior thereto is the fancy of some, who in their lives are afraid to have their carcasses torn by the teeth of wild beasts after their death. For if that be an evil, why is it not likewise an evil to have the corpse burned, embalmed, and immersed in honey, to grow cold and stiff under a ponderous marble, to be pressed down by the weight of earth and passengers ?