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Philodemus’ De dis 1 and Understanding Epicurean πρόληψις

Sonya Wurster

Using the multispectral images, the Oxford (O) and Naples (N) disegni, alongside the original papyri, this paper presents a more detailed analysis of Philodemus’ De dis 1 (PHerc. 26). In particular it focuses on columns 12 to 15, arguing that these columns provide further insight into the Epicurean concept of πρόληψις (‘preconception’), a kind of mental image or sketch of a concept. In particular it addresses the question of whether προλήψεις are innate or whether they are gained over time. Based on evidence from De dis 1 and using as an example the πρόληψις of the gods as immortal and blessed beings, who do not interfere in the affairs of humans, this paper will argue that προλήψεις are acquired over time rather than being innate.

The definition of Epicurean πρόληψις is disputed (Warren 2009, 7), and the term is usually defined in one of three ways: 1) as a mental image, 2) as a movement of thought 3) and sometimes as both (Asmis 2009, Atherton 2009, Morel 2008). Aside from the issue of how to define the concept, a further question exists as to whether or not a πρόληψις is innate as Sedley (2011) has argued. An alternative explanation is that it is the consequence of a ‘repeated sensory (or mental)’ impression, which is manifest not at infancy but at adulthood having been acquired through repeated experience, as Konstan (2011, 67) has suggested. This paper draws on this existing body of scholarship to show that in De dis 1 Philodemus presents the πρόληψις of the gods as blessed and immortal beings, uninvolved in the lives of humans as confirmed in adulthood through the application of reason together with empirical observation.

This paper will begin with a brief summary of De dis 1’s main arguments. It will then examine the evidence for whether or not the Epicurean πρόληψις of the gods is innate. It will lastly explore material found in De dis 1 columns 12 to 15 to show that, according to Philodemus, the πρόληψις of a god is not innate and is gained as an adult.

Three passages from De dis 1 will be used to support the argument that Philodemus does not present the πρόληψις of the gods as innate. Firstly, Philodemus argues (De dis 1 14.2-6) that children, like animals, cannot hold a πρόληψις of the gods because they lack the capacity to reason. If the premise that children do not hold a πρόληψις of the gods is accepted, then it follows that the πρόληψις of the gods as immortal and blessed beings is not innate. Secondly, having established that children do not hold an innate view of the gods, Philodemus goes on to show that adults (τέλειοι) often hold the ὑπόληψις (‘assumption’) that the gods are to be feared (De dis 1 14.8-11). So, while animals and pre-rational humans cannot have a πρόληψις of the gods, adult humans can, although they frequently hold incorrect beliefs about them. Philodemus’ view that humans grow into knowledge of the gods, even if this knowledge is based on empty beliefs, suggests once again that a πρόληψις is formed over time. Finally, the idea that a πρόληψις is not innate and is formed over time is further evidenced by Philodemus’ statement (De dis 1 15.28-36) that one constantly needs to apply reason to overcome misguided views of the gods and to verify a πρόληψις of the gods as blessed and immortal beings. Once again the implication of Philodemus’ argument is that this πρόληψις is not inborn but accrued over a period of time until it becomes confirmed. Once verified, it can be used as a criterion of truth alongside αἴσθησις (‘the senses’) and πάθη (‘feelings’).

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Herculaneum in Word and Text

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