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Code-switching for Epicurus in the Late Republic

Pamela Gordon

Panelist #2

Focusing on Cicero’s Epistulae Ad Familiares, this paper examines two divergent strategies in Roman discourse about Epicureanism: the use of Latin translation versus the use of embedded Greek. My purpose is to demonstrate how manipulation of the Epicurean lexicon furthers anti-Epicurean polemic and Epicurean counterstrategy.

Several studies have examined Cicero’s recourse to Greek, particularly in his Epistulae ad Atticum (e.g. Adams, Baldwin, Dunkel, Swain). This paper reassesses the meaningful juxtaposition of Latin to Greek as it pertains to Epicureanism in particular, but extends the analysis to Cicero’s emphatic and frequent refusal to code-switch. Like Adams and Swain, I borrow the term “code-switching” from the field of sociolinguistics. Neither a display of bilingualism nor an indication of the poverty of the Latin language, code-switching between Latin and Greek is a powerful “discourse strategy” (Gumperz).

Cicero opportunistically uses Greek terms associated with Epicurus to spoof idiosyncratic Epicurean language or to document negative assessments.  For example, when ribbing his friend Atticus about Epicurus’ theory of vision, Cicero refers in Greek to εἰδώλων ἐμπτώσεις (“impacts of films” that explain vision). The topic is the vista from Cicero’s house, and his joke is that the “films”—if they existed—would get tangled up in narrow windows (Att. 23, Shackleton Bailey). A prime example of Cicero’s use of genuine quotations to denigrate Epicurus appears in a letter to Marcus Fadius Gallus: ego autem quom omnis morbos reformido tum in quo Epicurum tuum Stoici male accipiunt, quia dicat στραγγουρικὰ καὶ δυσεντερικὰ πάθη sibi molesta esse; quorum alterum morbum edacitatis esse putant, alterum etiam turpioris intemperantiae. (“Though I dread all diseases, I especially dread that for which the Stoics attack your friend Epicurus, since he said that he suffered from “agonies associated with strangury and dysentery”—one of which they attribute to gluttony, the other to a more indecent lack of self-control” (Fam. 210, Shackleton Bailey). Momentary code-switching from Latin to Epicurus’ description of his own disease in Greek serves to authenticate Cicero’s tacit claim about the sexual and dietary habits of Epicurus (strangury being a sexually transmitted disease according to Hippocrates and Galen). Then, toggling back to Latin, Cicero adds an interpretation not implied by Epicurus.

On the other hand, Cicero exploits Latin vocabulary to produce thin, overly fixed translations that de-contexualize Epicurean ideals (cf. the coinage of “thick translation” in Appiah). For example, while alluding to Epicurean gatherings, he translates συμπόσια hyper-literally as compotantiones (“drinkings together”) to assert a contrast with respectable Roman convivia (“living” rather than drinking together)(Fam. 362, Shackleton Bailey). But most telling is Cicero’s use of a particular Latin word for pleasure (voluptas) to translate Epicurus’ word for pleasure: ἡδονή. Epicurus specifies that Epicurean ἡδονή consists not of exquisite carnal pleasures, but of the absence of pain and turmoil (Men. 131). But the Latin word voluptas has less ambiguous associations with the bodily pleasures that many Roman texts revile. Thus Cicero uses Latin to great rhetorical effect in his frequent assertions that Epicurean voluptas is the opposite of Roman virtus (both “virtue” and “manliness”; Gordon).

When Gaius Cassius Longinus responds to Cicero’s numerous references to the supposedly irreconcilable qualities of virtus and voluptas, Cassius code-switches in a particularly pointed way. Cicero had described Cassius’ turn toward Epicureanism as his “divorce” from virtus in favor of inglorious voluptas. In a trenchant rejoinder that quotes Epicurus, Cassius declines to translate ἡδονή, splicing Latin with Greek when he mentions “pleasure” and virtus: ἡδονὴν vero et ἀταραξίαν virtute, iustitia, τῷ καλῷ parari et verum et probabile est (“but it is both demonstrable and true that ἡδονή and ataraxia [tranquility] are to be obtained through virtus, justice, and “the good;” Fam. 15.19.2).

To conclude: In discussing Epicureanism, Latin authors frequently code-switch—or decline to code-switch—to accomplish specific rhetorical purposes.  The adroit interweaving of translation and non-translation has a serious agenda, whether the context is mere banter or heated intellectual debate. 

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New Frontiers in the Study of Roman Epicureanism

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