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Look Who’s Talking: Epicurus and Idomeneus on both sides of an Epicurean debate

David Blank


In his first two books On Rhetoric, preparing for his later demonstration that those who say that rhetoric and political science can be derived from the philosophy of nature—particularly the Stoic Diogenes of Babylon and the Democritean Nausiphanes —are wrong, Philodemus explains the Epicurean position. He insists that for Epicurus political oratory and epideictic rhetoric were quite different things, not ‘parts’ of one discipline, and that the ‘sophistic’ rhetorical schools taught only epideictic, which was an techne giving rules for composing display speeches and writing, but did not teach politics, which could not be an art and depended rather on practice and historical research into a city’s affairs. Philodemus insists on this, because it was challenged by Epicureans from Rhodes and Cos, who argued that Epicurus said that no part of rhetoric was a technê. Philodemus virtually calls these men parricides.

In the second book, Philodemus gets down to cases. The arguments he uses are interpretations of the words of the most authoritative Epicureans: Epicurus, Metrodorus, and Hermarchus. Philodemus cites the passages adduced by Zeno to show that Epicurus recognized that sophistic rhetoric was an art, while politics was not. Then he moves on to the passages cited by one of his opponents. The first of these comes from a work of Epicurus, who portrayed his young friend Idomeneus in conversation, where someone is told that it is odd for him to think he is not prevented by his youth from surpassing his elders ‘in rhetorical ability, which seems to depend on a great deal of practice and habituation, while it is possible to be prevented because of age from worldly understanding, whose cause would seem to be knowledge rather than practice and habituation’ (Rhet. IIb PHerc. 1672.10.34-11.13 ). Philodemus analyzes this passage, which his opponent claimed shows that Epicurus thought that all of rhetoric depended wholly on practice and habituation and not at all on knowledge and rules.

Rhetoric II is preserved in two of the first papyri unrolled by Piaggio’s method in 1756-7. PHerc. 1674 leaves off just before the quotation from Epicurus, while PHerc.1672 does not stop but continues on until the end of the book. PHerc. 1672 is the only papyrus unrolled, but not cut into manageable pieces: what remains of its original ca. 16 meters is now stored as a single piece 3.34 meters in length, impressed with glue into a canvas backing. The glue used to fix the papyrus on its canvas support has darkened considerably with time, and the papyrus itself has become oncorporated into the canvas, making very difficult to read, where it isn’t entirely gone. G.-B. Malesci, when he made the earliest copy of the papyrus, was able to see more, but not everything, and not always correctly. The best edition of the papyrus, understandably, has many holes and places where only isolated letters could be read.

Current understanding of the text has it that Epicurus’ ‘young’ speaker was Idomeneus, who rebuked another youngster for saying that there was only one art of rhetoric and politics and that he, though still young, had mastered it in the rhetorical school. A new study of the text shows, I think, that the speaker is Epicurus himself, who rebukes the young Idomeneus for making this claim. We know from Seneca (Epp. 21.3-5, 22.5-6) that Epicurus wrote to Idomeneus persuading him to abandon his political career and come to philosophy, and the new reading of Rhetoric II fits well with this fact.

My paper goes on to analyze the interpretative methods used by Philodemus to turn the meaning of the passage around against his Rhodian opponent. Finally, I consider the philosophical significance of this method of fighting for philosophical truth by arguing over words taken out of their dialectical context.

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The Villa dei Papiri: Then and Now (organized by the American Friends of Herculaneum)

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