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Epicurus and the Kriterion: New Evidence from Metrodorus, Opus Incertum

Michael McOsker

Ohio Wesleyan University

Scholarship on Epicureanism has typically focused on Epicurus himself or his Roman follower, Lucretius; Epicurus’ friends, the so-called “great men,” receive much less attention. This is especially true for Epicurus’ chief disciple, Metrodorus of Lampsacus, who in antiquity was an authoritative doctrinal reference point and was even deemed ‘nearly another Epicurus’ (paene alter Epicurus: Cic. Fin. 2.28 = Metrod. Fr. 33 Koerte). Because of this disparity of scholarly treatment, we argue that a fresh look at Metrodorus’ writings can provide insight into the development of Epicurean philosophy and the establishment of Epicurean orthodoxy. In this paper, we present new readings of a work of Metrodorus which engages with epistemology and the history of philosophy. This opus incertum of Metrodorus is one of the oldest rolls in Herculaneum, and it has never been completely edited. Part of it, PHerc. 1084 fr. 5, offers new evidence for the importance of Epicurus in developing the idea of the kriterion—that is, the tool by which ancient philosophers justified the reliability of their claims about  the external world, and which took on a critical role in later Hellenistic debates. This fragment is also evidence of Metrodorus’ efforts to highlight Epicurus’ role in the history of philosophy.

In this fragment, Metrodorus says ὺ ὁ εὑρ[έ|τ]η, ὡ φῆι, τῶν κριτηρίω[ν (“you are the inventor, as you say, of the kriteria…”). Previously, Gisela Striker, in her investigation of the development of epistemological controversies around the existence and nature of the kriterion, argued that despite a few metaphors and references in earlier thinkers, Epicurus first used the term in his epistemology (Striker 1977). Our fragment offers intriguing corroboration for this view: Metrodorus, at least, explicitly made this claim. Of course, Epicurus and his followers were inclined to credit a wide range of discoveries onto the Garden’s founder, and so one could argue that Metrodorus offers a revisionist history to increase Epicurus’ reputation. Even if this were true, there are still intriguing conclusions to be drawn. Other fragments of this work mention various historical figures—the Megarians, Plato, as well as, curiously, Spartan kings; there are also references to philosophy itself and observations on language and beliefs (e.g. ϲυνήθεια and κενοδοξία). What we see here, perhaps, is a history of philosophy written as a dialogue between Epicurus and Metrodorus. Even if one doubts the historicity of Metrodorus’ claim about the kriterion, our evidence from this work suggests an effort to survey the development of philosophy and assign Epicurus a crucial role in this process. In other words, we see here signs of an attempt to crystallize Epicurus’ achievements and establish an orthodox Epicurean history of philosophy. As for whether Epicurus really was the ὁ εὑρετη of the kriterion, a more nuanced conclusion can be reached between the extremes of denial and acceptance: Metrodorus is attempting to highlight, perhaps with some exaggeration, Epicurus’ role in developing metaphors and passing references into a fundamental topic of epistemological debate that would become critical in the future.

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Vesuvius: Texts Objects and Images

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