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Aristotle: Bad Writer, but Good Philosopher?

by May 1, 2020

Of Aristotle’s writing, some readers were struck by the accuracy, some by the tone, others by the diligence, incision and insight of Aristotle’s words. Marcus Tulius Cicero, the most prominent man of letters of the late Roman Republic, even referred to Aristotle’s literary style as an ‘aureum flumen’, a ‘river of gold’.
However, Cicero was in the minority.
A great thinker, innovator, teacher, researcher, chronicler and international icon Aristotle may well have been, but there were very few who considered him to be a great writer.
The influential 5th century AD philosopher and critic Ammonius Hermiae did his best not only to excuse this shortcoming, but to turn it into a positive. He claimed that Aristotle deliberately withheld information in order to make it difficult to pierce through his prose so that “good people may for that reason stretch their mind even more, whereas empty minds that are lost through carelessness will be put to flight by the obscurity”.
So, he’s not a bad writer – he’s just too good for the likes of us to understand!
Rembrandt's Aristotle

Aristotle with a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt. Oil on canvas, 1653

However, another ancient critic surmised the more commonly held view when he said that Aristotle “surrounds the difficulty of his subject with the obscurity of his language, and thus avoids refutation – producing darkness, like a squid, in order to make himself hard to capture”.
In Aristotle’s defense, he was following the hardest of hard acts by taking up the gauntlet thrown down by Plato; the rarely-disputed master of elegantly-written philosophy. It has been said that “Plato’s dialogues are polished literary works, the brilliance of their thought matched by the elegance of their language. Aristotle’s surviving writings for the most part are terse. His arguments are concise. There are abrupt transitions, inelegant repetitions, careless allusions. Paragraphs of continuous exposition are set among staccato jottings. The language is spare and sinewy”.
Another important caveat is added by Dr Jonathan Barnes’ in his seminal work on Aristotle: “fine words butter no parsnips, and fine language yields no scientific profit”.
So perhaps Aristotle is immediately off-putting and then suddenly, brutally irresistible? He is to philosophy what smoking is to recreation, though infinitely better for your health.
Aristotle at Freiburg

Bronze statue, University of Freiburg, Germany, 1915

It should also be noted that the Aristotle read in antiquity was not the same man we read today. His early work, that which made him famous, is now lost to us, presumably for evermore. What survives is what he wrote during his second spell in Athens from 335 to 322 BC.
And these works were intended merely as lecture notes, as a teachers’ book; designed to be read, reread, annotated, experimented with, and improved upon by Aristotle and his colleagues. Little wonder then that Aristotle’s work can at times come across as disjointed and self­-contradictory.
Regardless, he had a profound influence on the European mind, and by extension the minds of the Americas and Antipodes. He was also respected by Jewish scholars of the middle­ ages and their Islamic counterparts referred to him as ‘the first teacher’. Dante dubbed him ‘the master of those that know’, whilst Thomas Aquinas simply called him ‘the philosopher’.
aristotle and alexander

Aristotle tutoring Alexander, illustration by Charles Laplante, 1866.

He is said to have had a mind which was ‘ordered, balanced and stunningly capacious’. Indeed, some suspect that he may have been the last man in existence who knew all that it was possible to learn.
Aristotle was a lecturer far more than he was a writer, and as such his words should ideally be heard and not read. Thus, we shall finish with some inspirational thoughts of a man who was limitless in his own ability to think:
“We must not listen to those who urge us to think human thoughts since we are human, and mortal thoughts since we are mortal; rather, we should as far as possible immortalize ourselves and do all we can to live by the finest element in us – for if it is small in bulk, it is far greater than anything else in power and worth.”

The Life of Marcus Aurelius: Part I

by March 4, 2020

Written by Katherine Smyth Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
A Man of Many Names
Marcus was born on the 26th of April, in Rome, in the year 121 A.D.. He bore many different versions of his name whilst growing up; these changed as his familial status was altered first by the death of his father, then his unofficial adoption by his grandfather, and finally his legal coming of age. Some of the names he was known by include Marcus Annis Verus, Marcus Annis Catilius Severus, or Marcus Catilius Severus Annius Verus.
But, when Antoninus Pius formally adopted him, as Hadrian’s successor, Marcus became heir to the empire, and his name was changed to Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus Caesar. This name would only change once more; when he became emperor. His final, and full name—Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus—would last until his death.
Roman: Flesh and Blood
Marcus’ family background was as noble as they came. He was of Italo-Hispanic descent on his father’s side and, as such, was a member of the Aurelii, who were based in Roman Spain. The Annia gens is also of Italian descent, with the Annii Veri having risen through the Roman ranks from the 1st century AD. Marcus was related directly to Marcus Annius Verus (I), his great-grandfather, an ex-praetor, and Marcus Annius Verus (II), his grandfather and unofficial adoptive father, who was a patrician.
However, Marcus was also a member of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty courtesy of his grandmother, Rupilia. As such, Marcus was also connected directly to Emperors Trajan and Hadrian through Hadrian’s wife Sabina. She was his grandmother’s half sister, with Sabina and Rupilia being daughters of Trajan’s sororal niece, Salonia Matidia.

Domitia Lucilla from “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum”

Marcus’ mother, Domitia Lucilla, was notable historically, as she was immensely wealthy due to her inherited fortune. As the daughter of a Roman patrician, P. Calvisius Tullus, her wealth was so great that it included brickworks on the outskirts of Rome – which was a boon in an age of rapid expansion – and Horti Domitia Calvillae/Lucillae, the villa on the Caelian hill of Rome, one of the famous Seven Hills of Rome. Marcus would later refer to this villa as ‘My Caelian’, as he was born and raised there, and always remembered it fondly.
Finally, Marcus adopted the gen. name Aurelia when he was chosen as an heir to Antoninus Pius; not just the Emperor, but his adoptive father, and part of the Aurelii Fulvi, who stemmed from the Sabine and were of Italo-Gallic origin. But genes and family names do not an Emperor make. Though Marcus Aurelius was born into noble families, it was his education that would shape the born-leader’s mind and harness his abilities.
Educating an Emperor
Marcus’ formal education was instilled through several private tutors as befits his aristocratic standing; his adoptive father, Marcus Annius Verus (II), through patria potestas authority when Marcus Annius Verus (III) died around 124, oversaw his grandson’s upbringing. Marcus’ education taught him to be of good character and to avoid bad temper, something he recognized as being of great value, and he thanked his grandfather for his wisdom.
“From my grandfather Verus I learned to relish the beauty of manners, and to restrain all anger.” Meditations, I.1
Diogenetus, a painting master, also had great impact on Marcus; as it appears it is he who introduced the young man to philosophy and a philosophic way of life. This extended to Marcus taking up the robes and habits of a philosopher in the year 132. This involved wearing a rough Greek cloak whilst studying, and he would sleep on the ground for a period, although the latter part he would give away after a time, due to the many frequent and vocal concerns of his mother.
Marcus Annius Verus

Marcus Annius Verus from “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum”

Amongst his other tutors were the Homeric teachers Alexander of Cotiaeum, Trosius Aper, and Tuticius Proculus, all who taught him Latin, with Marcus thanking Alexander for teaching him literary styling, which can be seen in Marcus’ Meditations. From AD 136, Marcus had three Greek tutors, Aninus Macer, Caninius Celer, and Herodes Atticus, along with Marcus Cornelius Fronto for Latin.
Late in 136 Marcus’ life changed dramatically; he took the toga virilis and began his training in oratory. After nearly dying, Emperor Hadrian, whilst convalescent in Tivoli, chose Marcus’ intended father-in-law, Lucius Ceionius Commodus, as his successor. Lucius took the name Lucius Aelius Caesar, making Marcus as Lucius’ adoptive son, a direct successor to the throne.
However, Lucius did not live long enough for this to happen; Instead, Lucius died the night before delivering his speech to the senate, in 138. Hadrian then selected a new heir; Aurelius Antoninus, the husband of Marcus’ aunt, Faustina the Elder. In a bold move, and as part of the terms of this agreement between Hadrian and Antoninus, Antoninus was to adopt Marcus and Lucius’ son Lucius Verus. This once again implied that Emperor Hadrian had always kept Marcus in mind for the role of Emperor, eventually.
Upon the death of Hadrian, Antoninus was made Emperor, and Marcus’ previous betrothal was annulled; Marcus would instead marry Antoninus’ daughter, Faustina the Younger. In 140 Marcus was made consul, he was then appointed as a seviri and became the head of the equestrian order with the title princeps iuventutis. As the heir apparent to the Empire, he also took the name Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus Caesar; a title he would remind himself not to take too seriously with the following admonition:
“Take care that thou art not made into a Caesar, that thou art not dyed with this dye; for such things happen. Keep thyself then simple, good, pure, serious, free from affectation, a friend of justice, a worshipper of the gods, kind, affectionate, strenuous in all proper acts. Strive to continue to be such as philosophy wished to make thee. Reverence the gods, and help men. Short is life. There is only one fruit of this earthly life, a pious disposition and social acts. Do everything as a disciple of Antoninus.” Meditations, VI.30

Faustina the Younger (130–175 AD). Marble, ca. 161 AD. From the area of Tivoli.

Life and service under Antoninus saw Marcus rise through the ranks, and at the senate’s request he joined all the priestly colleges, although there is only direct evidence of him joining the Arval Brethren. Despite Marcus’s objections, he was also required to adopt the habits of his position, the aulicum fastigium or ‘pomp of the court’. As such, he was also made to relocate his home to the House of Tiberius, the imperial palace on the Palatine, something he was loathed to do and which caused him some sadness.
The trappings of his position did not sit well with his philosopher’s mind, and he would struggle to reconcile the two for the remainder or his life. However, through the words ‘Where life is possible, then it is possible to live the right life; life is possible in a palace, so it is possible to live the right life in a palace’, he was convinced the two could work together.
As quaestor, and under the tutelage of Fronto, Marcus received training for ruling the state. He gained practice by dictating dozens of letters, receiving oratory training giving speeches to the senators, and being educated in matters of State. In 145 he was made consul for the second time, with Fronto urging him to rest well before his appointment as Marcus had complained of an illness previously. This ongoing illness would haunt him for many years, especially as he had never been particularly healthy or strong.
Around 146-147, Marcus’s health took a downward turn, historically it is unclear if this was physical, mental, or a combination of both, as he drifted away from his studies in jurisprudence, and he tired from his exercises in imaginary debates. At this point, Marcus’ formal education was ended, and his philosophic tendencies began to return to the fore.
Meditations title page

Titlepage of an 1811 edition of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, translated by R. Graves.

Fronto had warned Marcus against philosophical studies, as he disdained both philosophy and philosophers. He had contempt for  Marcus’ sessions with Apollonius of Chalcedon, as it is probably he who introduced Marcus to Stoicism. Fronto’s attitude would lead to a distance growing between master and student that would never be bridged. Marcus would keep in touch with Fronto, but from here on he chose to ignore Fronto’s opinions.
Domestic Joys and Heartbreak
In April of 145, Marcus and Faustina finally married, having been betrothed since 138. During their marriage they would have at least 14 children over a 23-year period; including two sets of twins, and only one son and four daughters outliving their parents. The first child, Domitia Faustina, was born in 147, and the next day Marcus received tribunician power and the imperium from Emperor Antoninus.
Although many of his children would not live past early childhood, Marcus’ joy at each birth was celebrated with the minting of Imperial coins, many of which can be seen in museums today. Sadly, this period also marked the deaths of his beloved mother, Domitia Lucilla, and Cornificia, his sister. This period of emotional upheaval may have contributed to Marcus’ downward spiralling health, and cemented his Stoic beliefs: that Nature will always rule men.
Rise to Power
At this time, Lucius Verus began his political career, first as consul in 154, and again in 161, this time with Marcus. Antoninus turned 70 in AD 156, and had grown physically weak; needing stays to keep him upright and nibbling dried bread to stay awake through morning receptions. During this time, Marcus took on more and more administrative duties, including those of praetorian prefect when Gavius Maximus died in 156 or 157. Marcus and Lucius were both designated as joint consuls for the coming year in 160, as Antoninus was quite ill by this time.
Antonius Pius

Statue of Antoninus Pius, Palazzo Altemps, Rome

On 7th March, 161, Emperor Antoninus Pius died at his ancestral estate of Lorium, in Eturia. Having summoned the imperial council, and having handed over the state and his daughter to Marcus, as evening fell and the night-watch came to ask the password, he uttered it before turning over as if to sleep – aequanimitas (equanimity). So ended the rule of Anotnius Pius and began that of Marcus Aurelius.

Epictetus: Philosophy as a Guide to Life

by December 6, 2019

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Stoicism was one of the most popular and influential schools of philosophy in the Ancient World. Indeed, it is still popular to this day and is studied in Universities. One of the greatest of all Stoic philosophers was Epictetus (55-135 AD), a man who, despite being subjected to slavery, was one of the greatest and penetrating minds of his time.
His Life
Epictetus was born in c. 55 A.D. in Phrygia (what is now Southern Turkey). Epictetus was either born into slavery or was, at some point, enslaved. There are records that show that he was owned by a powerful former slave called Epaphroditos,  who served in the administration of  Nero, and who, despite his lowly social status, would have been a man of considerable influence and power.
According to one story, Epictetus had been crippled by a cruel master, but others claim that he had been lame since birth (this is why he is often depicted as having crutches). Epaphroditos was by all accounts a kind master and even supported Epictetus in his studies. It was not uncommon for masters to arrange that their slaves be freed after their death, and so when his master died, it appears that Epictetus finally gained his freedom.
At this point, Epictetus became a teacher of philosophy. However, in 93 AD, Domitian expelled all the philosophers from the city of Rome. Epictetus was thus forced to go into exile, and it appears that he made his way to Epirus in Greece, where he would go on to establish a school of philosophy. Soon his school became famous throughout the Roman Empire.

Artistic impression of Epictetus, including his crutch.

Epictetus was a member of the Stoic school, which had been founded three centuries earlier by Zeno of Citium and which was very popular among members of the elite. The little we know about the life of Epictetus comes from the biography written by his pupil, the historian Arrian. It is claimed that several Emperors visited the former slave-turned-philosopher to listen to his words of wisdom. Despite being praised and admired by the elite, Epictetus himself lived a life of great simplicity and generally lived alone.
Epictetus’ Thought
Epictetus was a Stoic and he held that only through self-mastery could we live in accordance with nature. Self-mastery consists of the use of reason and living virtuously. Above all else, the philosophy of Epictetus was a practical one that sought to help people live a good and meaningful life.
Epictetus believed that philosophy depended on self-knowledge. In his works, the  Discourses and the Enchiridion, he emphasized that there are things that we can control—that which is in our power— and those we cannot—that which is not in our power. Self-knowledge means learning to discern just what those things are.

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”          ~ Epictetus, Enchiridion


Zeno Of Citium 336-264. Engraved By J.W.Cook.

According to Epictetus, we should only concern ourselves with those things that are in our power, and these include our  own thoughts and actions.  The ultimate aim of every man and woman is to live in accordance with the ‘Universal Harmony’ of nature. Epictetus believed that we have all been allotted a role in life, and so we must play our part. We cannot control the role we’re assigned or what is thrust upon us by fate, but we can control how we choose to react.

“You may be unconquerable, if you enter into no combat in which it is not in your own control to conquer.”

He argued that we should submit to our fate and be thankful that we are alive. Being happy depends on how closely we follow the way that the gods have ordained for us. Epictetus argued that human reason is something that makes us akin to the Gods, who are rational. When humans are rational they are not only following the path ordained by the divine, but come as close as humanly possible to emulating the deities themselves.
Reason also plays another important role for Epictetus, namely in being the source of human freedom. We have the ability to make meaningful choices and we are responsible for our actions. Humans have the ability to develop the right opinions and to reject bad ones. This enables them to master their mind and emotions and live a happy and fulfilled life. Indeed, an individual is free only to the extent that they cultivated self-control and live according to reason. Only by mastering our emotions and examining our thoughts can we take control of our lives.
His Legacy
The philosophy of the former slave was enormously influential. Many believe that he formulated the most coherent and rational version of stoicism, one that offers real practical advice on the ethical life. He decisively influenced the great Philosopher-Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Chapter 1, page 1, of the Enchiridion of Epictetus, from the 1683 edition in Greek and Latin by Abrahamus Berkelius (Abraham van Berkel).

The Enchiridion was translated into Latin in the 15th century and became very popular. Many Christian humanists believed that the philosophy of Epictetus was compatible with the teachings of Christ, and both Pascal and Descartes were fascinated by his arguments.
The former slave’s thought played a role in shaping early Christian moral thought, it has been influential amongst those in the military and other armed services (as far back as Marcus Aurelius, whose Stoic reflections gave him peace of mind during moments of adversity), and, more recently, it has gained traction in psychology, with effective approaches to treatment such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy becoming increasingly popular.
A full list of his legacy could go on and on. What stands out most, I think, is the way in which a former slave, freed as he was from his physical chains, sought to teach others that true freedom ultimately belongs to the rational mind, and that to have control over oneself is to be unconquerable.

“But, for your part, don’t wish to be a general, or a senator, or a consul, but to be free; and the only way to this is a contempt of things not in our own control.”

Apollonius of Tyana: The Pagan Jesus Christ?

by August 7, 2019

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Apollonius of Tyana was a remarkable and complex person. In the Ancient World he was called a magician, a fraud, a scientist and many even believed that he was a divine figure who could save humanity. Many saw him as a pagan messiah and indeed, he was more popular than Jesus for a time in the Roman Empire.
We know quite a lot about this fascinating man, but much of it is unfortunately unreliable. It appears that he lived in the first century A.D, though some believe that he lived much later. He was almost certainly a Greek born in Tyana, Roman Cappadocia, which is now in the modern nation of Turkey. Apollonius was educated in a local temple and became a religious teacher. He later became a follower of the religious teacher and mathematician Pythagoras and was heavily influenced by his philosophies.
Apollonius of Tyana

A probable statue of Apollonius of Tyana

Apollonius advocated that people should live a simple and ascetic life, and did so himself. He lived a very Spartan existence and once did not speak for five years. He also preached chastity and condemned the drinking of alcohol.
Interestingly, Apollonius believed in one supreme God, but that prayers, rituals, and sacrifices were not required by this God. Instead, he argued that with meditation we could achieve a mystical union with the Supreme being. He also believed that reason could be used to achieve unity with God. It’s clear that Apollonius’ religious ideas were as revolutionary as anything taught by Jesus and St Paul.
Remarkably, Apollonius was interested in science and was a supporter of the view that the earth rotated around the sun. He was both a mystic and a scientist.
A mosaic with Apollonius

A mosaic with Apollonius

It seems that he traveled throughout the ancient Mediterranean world and even reached Ethiopia. Apollonius of Tyana, along with his first disciple, Damis, may have also journeyed to India. Many believe that his teachings were influenced by Indian religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism. It appears that unlike other Greeks at the time, he was interested in other cultures and discussed religion and philosophy with Persian priests and others.
Among the miracles that were attributed to the Greek, was saving the city of Ephesus from a plague. It is also claimed that he brought the daughter of a Roman Senator or Consul back to life. In one case he stopped a follower from marrying a woman who turned out to be a vampire, and in doing so saved his life. However, a later biographer argued that these were not a result of any miraculous powers but of his scientific knowledge.
The Vampire

The Vampire (1897) by Philip Burne-Jones

There are several accounts of the death of Apollonius. In one, he was arrested by Septimius Severus but disappeared from his cell and was never seen again. In another version, he rose into heaven from a temple in Asia Minor. In most stories, it is claimed that he disappeared about the age of 100 and was still youthful.
Damis, his earliest disciple, collected a series of notes on the life of his teacher. These were used by the 2nd century AD Athenian Sophist Philostratus to compose his biography of the Greek. Unfortunately, this biography is not considered to be very reliable. Many researchers believe that it was written on the instructions of the Empress Julia Domna, the wife of the Emperor Septimius Severus and the mother of the bloody tyrant Caracalla.
Empress Julia Domna

Empress Julia Domna

Some historians believe that the Empress commissioned the biography by Philostratus in order to counteract the popularity of Christianity. She wanted to strengthen paganism in the Empire and was worried about the threat from the Christians.
This means that the real figure of Apollonius may have been lost. Philostratus may have misrepresented him in order to turn him into a pagan alternative to Jesus Christ. This appears to have been successful and Apollonius was honored by many, including the Emperors Julian and Aurelian and his image was worshipped in many temples for centuries after his disappearance.
Philostratus biography

Cover of Philostratus biography of Apollonius of Tyna Source:

This was not enough to stop the growth in the Christian Church. The worship of Apollonius declined after Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire.
Philostratus’ biography may have distorted Apollonius, so today we do not know who he actually was. Was he a fraud, a religious prophet or a serious religious philosopher? We will never be sure. What can be said with certainty is that Apollonius of Tyana was an extraordinary figure in the ancient world.

Empedocles, the Eccentric Philosopher

by February 12, 2019

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Empedocles, born c. 490 BCE in Akragas, Sicily, is perhaps one of the more eccentric pre-Socratic philosophers. He himself claimed other-worldly powers, is credited by Aristotle as the inventor of rhetoric, and is thought to have originated the cosmogonic theory of the four elements: fire, air, water, and earth.
Temple in Akragas

The temple of Hera at Akragas, built when Empedocles was a young man, c. 470 BC.

Empedocles’ Personal Life
While relatively little is known about Empedocles’ personal life, we do know he was born to a wealthy family who was involved in the overthrow of the Akragas tyrant in 470 BC.
Diogenes relates the ambiguity regarding exactly of whom Empedocles was a student. He offered the following options: that he was a student of Pythagoras himself, that he was a student of the Pythagorean school under the instruction of Huppasus and Brontinus, or that he could have originally been under the influence of Xenophanes and later “fell in with the Pythagoreans.” All of this confusion is due to the fact that Empedocles promoted his poetry at the start and the Pythagorean school had a law to admit no Epic poet. Indeed, he is generally considered the last Greek philosopher to have recorded his ideas in verse.
Papyrus fragment

A piece of the Strasbourg Empedocles papyrus in the Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire, Strasbourg

Empedocles himself had one pupil mentioned, Gorgias, and his travels to the Peloponnese, Attica, and Thurii were mentioned by authors such as Timaeus and Dicaearchus.
Empedocles’ Philosophy
Empedocles’ philosophy and teachings are taken from the remaining fragments of his epics ‘On Nature’ and ‘Purifications.’ The core of Empedocles’ philosophy relied on the notion that all things are transformed and manipulated between the four worldly elements of fire, air, water, and earth, and that nothing is destroyed and nothing is created new. He believed that everything in the universe was made of these four root elements and was conscious.
Illustration of Empedocles

Empedocles as portrayed in the Nuremberg Chronicle

Combined with this attempt to simplify and organize the world, Empedocles’ doctrine promoted the idea that love was the unseen force holding things together, while strife was the force by which things were pulled apart. Love and Strife, then, were the ways in which the four elements were able to interact and mix together.
Empedocles’ philosophy about the universe was in response to the contemporary Eleatic School which was founded by Parmenides in southern Italy. The Eleatic School promoted the idea that “all is one” in the universe and everything existed in a single entity. Empedocles pushed back a little by saying all is composed of the same four elements. While this concept is similar at the root of the argument, it did differ enough to constitute a separate philosophical school.
Empedocles' philosophy

Empedocles cosmic cycle is based on the conflict between love and strife

Empedocles’ Science
Even though the line between Empedocles’ philosophy and Empedocles’ science is blurred to say the least, he did undertake what we would even recognize today as “scientific testing.”
Empedocles was (unsurprisingly) not very thorough. He did, though, prove that air was not empty space by using a clepsydra, which is a water clock or any timepiece by which time is measured by the regulated flow of liquid into or out from a vessel, and where the amount is then measured. He did this by filling the clepsydra with water while covering the hole at the top. This allowed for his element of air to be an active ‘ingredient’ in comparison with earth, water, and fire – all tangible and manipulative elements.
Water clock

Illustration of a water clock (clepsydra)

Another theory of Empedocles comes down to us through Aristotle in De Sensu. Empedocles thought that the light from the sun passed through intermediary space before being processed by our eyes, moving through space by whatever force. Indeed, Empedocles is credited with the first comprehensive theory of light and vision.
But perhaps one of the more advanced undertakings of Empedocles gives us what is thought to be the earliest extant attempt to discern the origin of species. He introduces zoogony, or generations of animals, in his attempts to explain the origin and development of biological life as a coming together and unfolding of birth. He uses examples of wild animals, humans, and plants as his proofs. This theory is strongly in line with his overarching philosophy of things in strife and things in love. Indeed, we see what Empedocles thought was the practical application of such rules.
Illustration of the Philosopher

Empedocles (of Acagras in Sicily) was a philosopher and poet: one of the most important of the philosophers working before Socrates (the Presocratics)

Empedocles’ Death and Legacy
Empedocles’ death is the stuff of legends, as he was mythologized by ancient writers. One story of which is where he died by throwing himself into Mount Etna, allowing him to turn into an immortal god. Another includes Empedocles being removed from the earth and his exact age at death is disputed anywhere between age 60 and age 109.
Painting of Empedocles' death

The Death of Empedocles by Salvator Rosa (1615 – 1673), depicting the legendary alleged suicide of Empedocles jumping into Mount Etna in Sicily

Further descriptions of Empedocles and his ideas are recorded by Aristotle, Diogenes, Pliny, and Horace’s Ars Poetica. Aristotle called him the father of rhetoric and Lucretius speaks of him with enthusiasm, and evidently viewed him as his model. Much later his death is at the center of a 1826 play by Friedrich Holderlin, ‘Tod des Empedokles,’ and Matthew Arnold’s 1852 poem titled ‘Empedocles on Etna.’ While this eccentric philosopher may not be a household name today, he was clearly very influential in the ancient world and thus deserves our attention.

Epicurus – Proto-Scientist, Secular-Saint, and Sophisticated Hedonist

by January 18, 2019

By Jacob Bell, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
There is probably no other ancient Greek philosopher who has been so misunderstood in our modern era. Nowadays his philosophy is associated with excess and drinking and food apps… but the reality is, he preached the exact opposite. Indeed, his name should connote moderation, science, atheism, death…and happiness?
Who are we talking about? None other than Epicurus.
Epicurus Bust

Bust of Epicurus

A radical thinker of his time, Epicurus was a philosopher of the Hellenistic period, living from 341-271 BCE. Living in accordance with his philosophy, which came to be known as Epicureanism, he lived a rather simple, peaceful, and relaxing life. He utilized his garden as a classroom, and relied heavily on donations to survive. Aside from the occasional college party, Epicurus and his students lived mostly on bread and water.
The Epicureans adopted empiricism as their theory of knowledge and atomistic materialism as their theory of the cosmos. They developed an egoistic hedonism as their theory of ethical values, and aside from specific cases, the Epicureans ignored politics and valued friendship above all other human relations, even familial ones. If you ever thought that friends were god’s apology for family, then you might actually be a follower of Epicurus.
Epicurus developed his philosophy with a practical aim in mind, and so employed the use of logic and rationality as a means to happiness, rather than as tools for uncovering the truth for truth’s sake. Rejecting the importance of mathematics and purely scientific pursuits, he was interested in logic insofar as it served physics, and interested in physics insofar as it served ethics. Epicurus viewed many philosophers with a feeling of antipathy, denounced religious dogmatism, railed against the skeptics, and argued for a secular world. In sum, it’s surprising that he didn’t meet the same ending as Socrates!
Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787

For the Epicureans, the senses are fundamental and at the basis of our knowledge. Senses have dominion over reason, because reason relies first on sense perception. We can only reason about something once we have gathered data from our senses about the thing in question. According to Epicurean theory, we should then judge this information according to our feelings or passion, and we should choose that which gives us pleasure, and avoid that which gives us pain.
Does this mean that we have a justified theory of excessive drinking and eating? Don’t grab for that second bottle of wine just yet. Although Epicurus outlines a hedonistic ethic, it is a sophisticated theory that encourages moderation. After all, we won’t be happy tomorrow when we wake up to a throbbing head, sour stomach, and purple lips… especially if there is photographic evidence.
First identifying with Aristotle’s notion that happiness is the highest good, Epicurus then couples this with the idea of pleasure, concluding that pleasure is the only manner from which to obtain happiness. Epicurus’ view of choosing the best pleasure consists in contemplating the future and choosing the option that will provide sustaining contentment and absence of pain. We must look to the future to determine what will be the cause of more pleasure and less pain. With this in mind, in the final analysis, we will gain more pleasure from moderating our intake of wine, and we will endure less pain by going to the dentist and getting that toothache taken care of… you know, before you need that root canal.
Epicurus qupte
Just as important to the Epicurean ethic is a reduction of desires. If we want less, we will be happy with less. The Epicurean path to happiness is not a result of an excess of external pleasures or material goods. Live simply, and without an excess of wealth or luxury, says Epicurus, and with that proclamation he very well may lay claim to the title of “first western minimalist!” Moderation, temperance, and cheerfulness are Epicurean virtues; unbridled luxury and feverish desire Epicurean vices.
In a seeming contradiction to a hedonistic ethic, Epicurus believed that it was more pleasurable to do a kindness for someone rather than receive one. He also held that we should attempt friendship with all of mankind, and if this is not possible, at least don’t make enemies, and if this fails, and we make an enemy, avoid interacting with them.
Friendship was the highest human relationship for Epicurus because it provided security, tranquility, and pleasure. He also urged against the rat race, because a race for wealth, fame, or power would destroy tranquility and peace by placing the contestant at the mercy of chance, public opinion, and disrupt the enjoyment of friendship. For similar reasons, a man who seeks to be happy should stay out of politics unless he has such an urge to a political career that he couldn’t be happy without it… and let’s be honest… those people probably shouldn’t be politicians in the first place.

To Epicurus, as well as Aristotle, Friendship is an important key to happiness

Being concerned with the pragmatic value of philosophy, and against truth for truth’s sake, it may again seem contradicting that Epicurus held so many proto-scientific views. He adopted, with a few changes, Democritus’ atomistic theory of the cosmos. Epicurus believed that the universe was made up of the void (empty space) and an infinite number of small indivisible bits of matter in motion called atoms. These bits of matter make up the world by coming together to form the objects of the world, including us. Because of this, Epicurus also believed that the mind could be found in the body, and he argued against the idea of an immaterial soul that might live on once our body has died.
He sought to discredit the mythological concepts of the world and its creation, and so proposed a purely mechanical explanation for our world coming into existence. Through the use of mechanical and atomic explanations of the natural world, he denied any interference of gods within human affairs. He also claimed that our world is just one of an infinite number of worlds, and that worlds come into existence, grow for awhile, decline, and eventually perish. With this, Epicurus became one of the first proponents of the multi-verse theory!
Now, you might be wondering, how do these theories align with the idea of happiness being the highest good man can achieve? How can these theories help us live a better, happier life? After all, Epicurus has seemed to abandon the idea of god as a creator, the immaterial-eternal soul, and the idea of an afterlife.
Epicurus quote death
Well, for Epicurus, the existence of gods interfering in our world, and the possibility of punishment after death, was a great source of anxiety. Therefore, by justifying the world without need of a god, soul, or afterlife, he believed that he would relieve himself and others of this anxiety. Furthermore, he argued that death is nothing to be fearful about, because it does not concern us. Defending this notion, Epicurus stated that, “death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved is devoid of sensation, and that which is devoid of sensation is nothing to us”.
Imagine the eternity before your birth… the eternity of nothingness. That doesn’t seem scary; you didn’t experience that nothingness. That same kind of eternity is what comes after death, according to Epicurus, and so we shouldn’t be afraid of that either.
In addressing his peers, Epicurus announces the benefits of his secular system of philosophy: “…They anticipate or have forebodings of the eternal terror related in the myths, or even fear the absence of sensation in death as if it concerned them… But tranquility belongs to him who frees himself of all these misconceptions and has a continuous remembrance of the whole and the most important truths.”
And here, as I address you all, these most important truths, more than any food app or extra bottle of wine, can give us true happiness.