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Reason in Philodemus's De dis 1

Sonya Wurster

This paper contends firstly that, although both Philodemus and Lucretius are empiricists, they diverge on the role of reason in knowledge. Lucretius subordinates reason to the senses (DRN 4.483-485), while Philodemus views practical reason as an essential part of the constant process to decide in favor of Epicurean doctrine over traditional thinking. This is especially the case for those who have recently come to Epicurean philosophy, and they must actively use reason to override volitional thinking learnt prior to becoming a follower of Epicurus.

Secondly, it argues that in this respect Philodemus’ view of knowledge is much closer to Epicurus’. This paper will examine Philodemus’ view of reason with particular reference to De dis 1, in which he shows that traditional views of the gods as wanting to punish us are false. Instead, Philodemus demonstrates that the true nature of the gods is blessed and immortal, which means that they neither harm nor benefit us. He uses the argument that we can learn the true disposition of the gods by studying nature. However, having used empirical means to discern their true character, Philodemus shows that we must employ reason to constantly force our minds to override the commonly held belief that the gods interfere in the lives of humans (De dis 15.28-34). As a result, we will cease to feel misplaced fear, which harms tranquility. In this way, reason, and not just empirical observation, is essential for emotional self-control.

As DeWitt (1954, 125) notes, Epicurus did minimize the usefulness of reason in comparison to the senses. However, as DeWitt also notes, Epicurus did not exclude it entirely (Diog. Laert. 10.32), and the internalization of εὐδαιμονία ("happiness") in Epicurus’ philosophies requires a rational prudence akin to reason (Annas 1993a; Annas 1993b, 349). Moreover, a process of reasoning, as Strozier (1985, 71) argues, “results in choices from among the multitude of potential pleasures”. The role of reason in inferring what is unobserved is well attested, particularly in relation to Epicurean arguments for the existence of gods (for example see Asmis 2009; DeWitt 1954; Konstan 2011; Long and Sedley 1987; Sedley 2011; Strozier 1985; Wigodsky 2004). This paper builds on this body of scholarship that examines the intersection of empirical observation through the αἴσθησις ("the senses"), προλήψις ("preconception") and πάθη ("feeling") with reason. In particular it shows how Philodemus builds on Epicurus’ views of reason and argues that he assigns it a much greater role in Epicurean ethics than previously understood.

The paper will begin by briefly summarizing Epicurean views of knowledge before presenting the evidence for Epicurus’ and Lucretius’ views on reason. In greater detail, it will then examine the evidence from De dis 1 to show Philodemus’ view that each time you encounter an event you must employ reason to supplant traditional thinking with Epicurean teachings based on empiricism. Through this means he tells us that we will achieve freedom of fear from the gods, which is essential for tranquility.

The central piece of evidence for the argument that Philodemus regards reason as an essential part of ethics is Philodemus De dis 15.28-34. At column 15, Philodemus distinguishes humans from animals, saying that, although humans and animals feel analogous fear, the fear of humans is lesser because they have the power to reason. Owing to reason, Philodemus goes on to argue that it is possible to control emotion. In the case of the gods, we can control the commonly held fear that they will harm us. In short, this paper will argue that for Philodemus reason together with empiricism is fundamental for gaining happiness because it gives us the tools to consistently substitute traditional thinking with Epicurean teachings.

Session/Panel Title

Problems in Ancient Ethical Philosophy

Session/Paper Number

48.5

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