Category Archives: Philodemus

Happy Herculaneum Day!

On August 24 of the year 79 of Common Era, the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried in the ash and pyroclastic material produced by the Mt Vesuvius eruption. The 79 eruption is the most famous volcanic eruption in ancient history, and recent comparable eruption events–like the one that wiped out the town of Plymouth, on the island of Montserrat–have been compared to it.

The town of Herculaneum contained the villa of the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, of the Piso clan, a patrician family. The villa was a wealthy enclave that overlooked the Mediterranean Sea, and contained a large ancient library of Epicurean texts, many of which have now been deciphered and translated into English with commentary. Commentaries on these texts can be found in the Philodemus Series on the Society of Epicurus page.

In addition to the scrolls preserving the wisdom of the original Scholarchs–many of which are actual notes that Philodemus took while studying philosophy under Zeno of Sidon–there are poems and other works of literature. In one epigram, Philodemus invites his benefactor of the Piso family to celebrate the Twentieth, the traditional feast of reason that was held monthly by the Epicureans.

Philodemus is not the only great Epicurean in history who catered to the Piso family. The poet Horace also frequented the villa, and Horace’s Epistle to the Pisos shows the highly cultured and refined nature of the exchange between them. Herculaneum was a major center of culture, philosophy, and the arts.

August 24th has been declared Herculaneum Day by the Society of Epicurus, as part of the Epicurean Year initiative. Please enjoy it by sharing the wisdom of the Library of Herculaneum with others!

Further Reading:

The Epicurean Nag Hammadi

The Philodemus Series

About Philodemus’ The Poems

Like almost every other scroll written by Philodemus, this one was a reaction, summary and commentary on Crates of Mallus, who was himself commenting on theories by other thinkers. The book is mainly written in the negative, contradicting the theories on literary critique posited by other thinkers, but never really proposing a theory of the Epicurean School. The critiques focus mainly on the lack of clear definition of the terms used, and the ideals expressed, by other schools.

The conversation focuses on what is a poet, what is his role, and what constitutes a good poem, poetic excellence, and a good poet.

Among the arguments presented by other thinkers, we find the issue of whether poetry should have educational or character-building content, whether it should give poetic form to traditional content. Is good poetry charming to the ear and useless, as some argue? Or must the words be useful or have educational value? Philodemus argues that nothing prohibits the poet from creating useful content.

Another opponent says that a poet must use current idioms and possess the art of melody, but Philodemus uses the same critique that he uses for most other arguments throughout the text: these ideals are arbitrary. How are these ideals determined, and how are they judged?

Another opponent argues that poetry must be brief and contain evidence whereas for thought, it must have force of conviction and evidence also. He says this last is the art of the poet, but again Philodemus raises the same critique as he did with the previous one; adding that these criteria can also be applied to prose and are not exclusive to poetry.

Other arbitrary criteria are presented: poems must have vigor, richness, gravity, simplicity, refined conception, elaboration of style, and proper words. Philodemus questions what gravity consists of, and how poems that lack intensite are different from the pompous ones; he questions what is precisely meant by many of these criteria, and what Neoptolemus means by “posessing poetic art and power”, or what is meant elsewhere when it is said that poems must be “serious” and where no examples are provided of what this means, although it may be construed that they should contain wise thoughts and be meant to educate. A long portion of the scroll deals with whether poetry should be without value or serious–in other words, whether it’s purely aesthetic, or also didactic.

One Stoic presents the idea of “the principle of the art”, which again is not clearly defined and is derived from Stoic beliefs in how art is a gift of Divine Reason.

One point of controversy deals with how Philodemus differentiates between the faculties of hearing and of reason. He says it’s ridiculous to say that “a serious composition can’t be grasped by reason, only by ear”, as if the ear had judgement powers.

One argument where Philodemus coincides with other thinkers has to do with how there is a difference between a poet and one who creates great works; in other words, just as some musicians create bad music, so with poets. Another agreement has to do with how a vicious composition can damage a poem, even if it’s refined.

In coinciding regarding these points, Philodemus is conceding that “believe it or not” there are no arbitrary rules to judge poetry, yet rules do exist; he later states that only rhythm charms the ear and that only reason can judge composition.

… which brings us to the Canon. Although the scroll does not produce a literary theory that can be applied to judging poetry, based on the Canon it seems like it would be undeniable that a good poem should produce pleasure in the ear and be enjoyable (therefore appealing to the pleasure faculty within the Canon), and that it may or may not have usefulness. By this, we may be referring to educational value (poetry may help to memorize adages and teachings), or therapeutic benefit depending on the content, as we saw in our discussions on music.

Based on the French translation in Les Epicuriens of the original scroll from Herculaneum titled Les Poèmes V.

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On Epicurean Virtue

A discussion of Epicurean virtue is needed as a result of our constant encounters with students of philosophy who have been exposed to Stoic and Platonic notions about virtue devoid of context and of telos, as we understand it.

Clarifying some of the Problematic Issues

Concerning the end that nature has established for natural beings, our teachers insist that the end is pleasure, and Polystratus goes as far as saying that not having a clear understanding of how pleasure is the end is the architect of all evils. This is because of the confusion of values problem: people fail to attach accurate value to things and develop artificial systems of value that are not aligned with the nature of things. For the sake of the virtue of courage they may fight needless wars that generate more suffering than pleasure in the end; for the sake of the so-called “virtue” of duty they commit attrocities and accept authoritarian models of ethics that are dehumanizing. Virtue, to us, has no value if it does not lead to net pleasure after we subject our choices and avoidances to hedonic calculus.

Virtues in Epicurean doctrine are, therefore, downgraded to the status of means to pleasure whereas the Stoics see “Virtue” as the end … “Virtue” here in the singular, which is usually a symptom that we are being presented with a Platonized concept divorced from context in nature. Perhaps a good comparison to Epicurean virtues is the very practical conception of Buddhist upayas, which translate as efficient means, and incorporate not just virtues as they are frequently understood, but also specific techniques and practices.

Another crucial issue, which was discussed already in our Reasonings About Philodemus’ scroll On the Stoics, had to do with how when words are not clearly defined, they become useless.

A third issue emerged in our Reasonings About Philodemus’ scroll On Anger which puts our School in direct opposition with Stoic notions about virtue: it’s the compassionate recognition of anger and indignation as potentially having both a virtuous disposition and usefulness.

Our insistence in dethroning virtue in favor of pleasure, and others’ confusion of the means with the end, has produced discussions where we have been accused of being haters of “Virtue”, again in the singular. As a result of these controversies, and also as a way of extending the olive branch to our Stoic brethren, these reasonings on the Epicurean virtues attempt to rescue them from Platonized, dis-embodied oblivion, to capture them from the heavenly realms and to find where in nature the virtues can be observed and in what way they may lead to maximizing pleasure and avoiding pain.

Ancient Epicureans did not frequently address the virtues as points of reference, preferring instead to speak in clear and concise terms and to avoid words that were not clearly defined, but Frances Wright in her work A Few Days in Athens did incorporate a sermon on the virtues that might be a good starting point to explore them.

The Practical Means to Long-Term Pleasure Can Work in Unison

Epicurus stood in the midst of the expectant scholars. “My sons,” he said, “why do you enter the gardens? Is it to seek happiness, or to seek virtue and knowledge? Attend, and I will show you that in finding one, you shall find the three. To be happy, we must be virtuous; and when we are virtuous, we are wise. – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X

The problems generated from seeking virtue without knowledge are explored by Polystratus in his Irrational Contempt. They mostly deal with degenerating into degrading superstition. The above may have been a paraphrase of the fifth Principal Doctrine, which states:

It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the man is not able to live wisely, though he lives honorably and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life.

except that, if you’ll notice, the original doctrine excludes a reference to virtue because, as I said, the founders were hesitant to use words that led to misinterpretation and favored clear speech; and, as we’ve discussed, this is one of the criticisms of virtue in our school.

It frequently seems that A Few Days in Athens was written, in part, to appease worshipers of Virtue, of whom Frances Wright says that “many worship at the altar of Virtue, but few stop to inspect the pedestal on which She stands“. That pedestal is, of course, pleasure.

The first four doctrines correlate to the Four Cures, which constitute the basic points of the ethical doctrine. The fifth doctrine must have been important enough in our ethics, that it had to follow the Tetrapharmakon, as if only the Four Cures had been more important. I believe the reason for this has to do with it relating to the accusations by the philosophers of the polis that a hedonist could not be a good citizen. Professor John Thrasher addresses how Epicurean contractarianism answers this accusation. A modern version of the same accusation is the sociopath argument, where we have been asked “What is to keep a sociopath / psychopath from being a good Epicurean?”. The reply to this is found in Epicurus’ teaching that a sage will be willing to give his life for a friend, and also in Principal Doctrines 5 (above) and 39, which says:

The man who best knows how to meet external threats makes into one family all the creatures he can; and those he can not, he at any rate does not treat as aliens; and where he finds even this impossible, he avoids all dealings, and, so far as is advantageous, excludes them from his life.

The answer to the sociopath argument seems to be that we would ostracize this person and exclude him from our lives, and in fact the modern justice and prison systems already do just that. Our friend Cassius says:

Most sociopaths do not pursue pleasure wisely, honorably, and justly, and therefore cannot live happily, because the human nature of those around him will punish him and prevent it.

Which is true: the potential repercussions of sociopathic behavior include not only imprisonment, but also isolation, loss of support from friends and family, potential loss of jobs and other opportunities and sources of income. It is impossible, or at least very difficult, to have friendship or conduct business with partners who lack the ability to establish trusting relations with others.

And so, in order to ensure a life of pleasure, we must have knowledge of nature to avoid superstitious fears, and we must have blessed friendship which excludes sociopathic behavior and requires many wholesome dispositions. Happiness, wisdom, and the virtues all lead to the natural end that nature has established for us: the pleasant life.

Frances Wright’s Survey of the Epicurean Virtues

The relevant portion begins with Epicurus inviting his followers to sit and study at the feet of Philosophy with an open disposition, without pedantry and pretension.

Let us then begin: and first, let us for a while hush our passions into slumber, forget our prejudices, and cast away our vanity and our pride. Thus patient and modest, let us come to the feet of philosophy; let us say to her, ‘Behold us scholars and children, gifted by nature with faculties, affections, and passions. Teach us their use and their guidance. Show us how to turn them to account — how best to make them conduce to our ease, and minister to our enjoyment.’ – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X

Then, just as we see in the Bible’s wisdom books, where Wisdom speaks in the first person, the same thing happens:

“Sons of earth,” says the Deity, “you have spoken wisely; you feel that you are gifted by nature with faculties, affections, and passions; and you perceive that on the right exertion and direction of these depends your well-being. It does so. Your affections both of soul and body may be shortly reduced to two, pleasure and pain; the one troublesome, and the other agreeable. It is natural and befitting, therefore, that you shun pain, and desire and follow after pleasure. Set forth then on the pursuit; but ere you start, be sure that it is in the right road, and that you have your eye on the true object. Perfect pleasure, which is happiness, you will have attained when you have brought your bodies and souls into a state of satisfied tranquillity. To arrive at this, much previous exertion is requisite; yet exertion, not violent, only constant and even. – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X

Philosophy begins by pointing the finger at our natural faculties. The study of nature must begin from where we are, from the tools that we have to apprehend her. Among these tools, the one that is most relevant to ethics is the pleasure and aversion faculty. The natural goal established by our own nature is asserted as the first thing that we must clearly understand.

Immediately, the author knows that some will equate pleasure with debauchery and mindless instant gratification. She then introduces Prudence as the mother of all the virtues and handmaiden of wisdom. Sometimes translated as practical wisdom, prudence is a shortened form of pro-videntia, or prior-seeing, that is, seeing before things happen, seeing ahead (and planning ahead). Here, with regards to control of desires, Prudence is the reasoning faculty by which we conduct hedonic calculus, the comparative measure of pain versus pleasure over the long term.

And first, the body, with, its passions and appetites, demands gratification and indulgence. But beware! for here are the hidden rocks which may shipwreck your bark on its passage, and shut you out for ever from the haven of repose. Provide yourselves then with a skilled pilot, who may steer you through the Scylla and Charybdis of your carnal affections, and point the steady helm through the deep waters of your passions. Behold her! it is Prudence, the mother of the virtues, and the handmaid of wisdom. Ask, and she will tell you, that gratification will give new edge to the hunger of your appetites, and that the storm of the passions shall kindle with indulgence. Ask, and she will tell you, that sensual pleasure is pain covered with the mask of happiness. Behold she strips it from her face, and reveals the features of disease, disquietude, and remorse. – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X

Wright then argues that prudence leads to ataraxia, which translates as equanimity. A beautiful, poetic comparison of a pleasant life of ataraxia as “neither a roaring torrent, nor a stagnant pool, but a placid and crystal stream”. Notice how she sees ataraxia in positive terms, not as mere pain relief (the common academic interpretation of Epicurean ataraxia), but as pleasant abiding, “healthy contentment”, joy.

Ask, and she will tell you, that happiness is not found in tumult, but tranquillity; and that, not the tranquillity of indolence and inaction, but of a healthy contentment of soul and body. Ask, and she will tell you, that a happy life is like neither to a roaring torrent, nor a stagnant pool, but to a placid and crystal stream, that flows gently and silently along. – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X

Mother Philosophy then presents the virtues, beginning with temperance or moderation. She contributes to hedonic calculus by protecting us from “future evil” (evil means suffering to an Epicurean), and from “all disquiet to the soul and injury to the body”.

And now Prudence shall bring to you the lovely train of the virtues. Temperance, throwing a bridle on your desires, shall gradually subdue and annihilate those whose present indulgence would only bring future evil; and others more necessary and more innocent, she shall yet bring down to such becoming moderation, as shall prevent all disquiet to the soul and injury to the body.

Fortitude or endurance is seen next. Perhaps another word for courage, she protects us from fears and from fate.

Fortitude shall strengthen you to bear those diseases which even temperance may not be efficient to prevent; those afflictions which fate may level at you; those persecutions which the folly or malice of man may invent. It shall fit you to bear all things, to conquer fear, and to meet death.

Justice and generosity follow. The first one adds to our pleasure by making us safe among our neighbors. The latter one wins us friends, which are one of the most persistent sources of intense pleasure in life. Friendship is also addressed below.

Justice shall give you security among your fellows, and satisfaction in your own breasts. Generosity shall endear you to others, and sweeten your own nature to yourselves. Gentleness shall take the sting from the malice of your enemies, and make you extract double sweet from the kindness of friends.

Then, we see gratitude and friendship among the virtues. There are many documented benefits of gratitude, but here the author mentions how it helps us to bear our obligations pleasantly. In my studies of Epicurean doctrine, I’ve come to conclude that it’s impossible to profit from it if one is ungrateful.

Gratitude shall lighten the burden of obligation, or render it even pleasant to bear. Friendship shall put the crown on your security and your joy. With these, and yet more virtues, shall prudence surround you. And, thus attended, hold on your course in confidence, and moor your barks in the haven of repose.”

Also, notice here how pleasure is a gift of nature, and the virtues have to attend to nature as the final authority. In our tradition we never rebel against nature. That is the equivalent of rebelling against reality.

But, my sons, methinks I hear you say, ‘You have shown us the virtues rather as modifiers and correctors of evil, than as the givers of actual and perfect good. Happiness, you tell us, consists in ease of body and mind; yet temperance cannot secure the former from disease, nor can all the virtues united award affliction from the latter.’ True, my children, Philosophy cannot change the laws of nature; but she may teach us to accommodate ourselves to them. She cannot annul pain; but she can arm us to bear it.

After the train of the virtues is presented and the natural limits of the virtues are addressed, another efficient means follows: that of fond rememberance of happy memories. Again, not just virtues but also certain practices can serve as means to pleasure.

Hath he not memory to bring to him past pleasures, the pleasures of a well-spent life, on which he may feed even while pain racks his members, and fever consumes his vitals?

A later portion of the tenth chapter of A Few Days in Athens then evaluates further how avoiding vices and cultivating virtues can protect us from suffering. Temperance helps to diminish suffering due to poverty; modesty helps to experience luxury in the midst of simplicity and to avoid anger, disapointment and pain; knowledge protects us from superstition. It is reminiscent to Philodemus’ instruction on how self-sufficiency (another important virtue) protects us from being too vulnerable.

What is poverty, if we have temperance, and can be satisfied with a crust, and a draught from the spring? If we have modesty, and can wear a woolen garment as gladly as a tyrian robe? What is slander, if we have no vanity that it can wound, and no anger that it can kindle? What is neglect, if we have no ambition that it can disappoint, and no pride that it can mortify? What is persecution, if we have our own bosoms in which to retire, and a spot of earth to sit down and rest upon? What is death, when without superstition to clothe him with terrors, we can cover our heads, and go to sleep in his arms?

Vulnerability and Virtue

Fortitude and vulnerability are not opposed in a fluid system, whereas the philosophers of logic might invent sillogisms according to which they are mutually exclusive. In our system, just as both anger and gratitude can have virtuous dispositions, similarly vulnerability and fortitude can be virtuous.

Fear of death is then addressed, particularly the death of a friend or loved one, which is the most painful way in which we experience death. This is truly a difficult pain to bear, the author acknowledges, and she recalls the pleasures and the tenderness of friendship and of love for our close ones in one of the most moving portions of the novel.

Here, rather than feign fortitude, the author advises that we cry the necessary tears even as we engage in the pleasures of remembering our friends who have died. It should serve us as consolation that even crying and being vulnerable can be a virtue. Crying is essential to avoid depression and resolve grief, and our tears even contain toxins so that we are literally cleansed through them. There is absolutely nothing wrong with crying. It is entirely natural, and sometimes unavoidable, and we should not fear being vulnerable. Tied in with this, is the teaching that we should never avoid loving someone for fear of losing them at a later point because “happiness forbids it”. The author here presents us with the challenge of wishing that we had never met our loved ones.

And is it forbidden to us to mourn its loss? If it be, the power is not with us to obey. Should we, then, to avoid the evil, forego the good? Shall we shut love from our hearts, that we may not feel the pain of his departure? No; happiness forbids it. Experience forbids it. Let him who hath laid on the pyre the dearest of his soul, who hath washed the urn with the bitterest tears of grief — let him say if his heart hath ever formed the wish that it had never shrined within it him whom he now deplores. Let him say if the pleasures of the sweet communion of his former days doth not still live in his remembrance. If he love not to recall the image of the departed, the tones of his voice, the words of his discourse, the deeds of his kindness, the amiable virtues of his life. If, while he weeps the loss of his friend, he smiles not to think that he once possessed him. He who knows not friendship, knows not the purest pleasure of earth.

The rush of endorphins (the hormone associated with pleasure) that takes place after a good cry makes the case for crying and being vulnerable as an Epicurean virtue: it produces pleasure in the end and resolves grief. Crying, therefore, can also be an efficient means to maximizing pleasure.

This, then, my sons, is our duty, for this is our interest and our happiness; to seek our pleasures from the hands of the virtues, and for the pain which may befall us, to submit to it with patience, or bear up against it with fortitude. To walk, in short, through life innocently and tranquilly. – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X

Contrast this approach to emotions to the Stoic ideal of apathy, which deprives us of our full humanity and is sometimes an affront to our nature, as the above considerations and ethical challenges related to the death of a friend should make evident. It might even be considered cowardice to live our lives as a desperate attempt to avoid healthy and natural emotion, attachment and pain.

Our philosopher friends who are influenced by the Stoic school will notice how distinct our approaches are, and how far-reaching are the repercussions of Epicurus’ instruction that we “must not force nature”. Emotions are symptoms that we are human, and they deserve our consideration and compassion. With that, I will close these reasonings with one final quote from the novel:

Everyone may be an Epicurean, but only a philosopher may be a Stoic.


Reasonings About Philodemus’ On Music

The scroll On Music was written by Philodemus as a summary and commentary on four books written on music by various schools. The surviving fourth book comments on the theories on the physical and ethical effects of music presented by Diogenes of Babylon, a Stoic, which equated music with Platonic notions of the beautiful and the good.

Music incites to joy wherever it’s needed … to its highest point …

Diogenes even claimed that music can safeguard one’s virtue and become a constant attribute of virtuous men, and that it can initiate children into virtue and beauty. He said music serves to express courage, shame, or moderation and to imitate them in others, provoking a desired result, that it serves as an “impulse to beautiful acts” and reinforces ethical dispositions just as we believe good association does.

Melody pulls the soul from inertia when it’s at rest and leads it to awaken to such disposition that it may naturally move.

Another interesting part of Diogenes’ theory said that gymnastics is to the body what music is to the soul: it’s an exercise that moves it and constitutes a form of education, keeping it healthy and strong. He also compares them both to painting, which exercises the eye in recognizing beauty. Similarly, music exercises and moves the ear and mind in harmony, beauty, and aesthetics.

From its origins, music was linked to religion and consecrated to the gods, just as theater was. Diogenes argued that, in his day, trumpets were still used for battle and ceremony.

Different Kinds of Music

According to Diogenes, some people classify music as magnificent, as moderate, as courageous, or as disordered and shameful. Some melodies can be used for mating, other melodies incite effeminacy, and others can console the pangs of love.

Music is used to communicate values, patriotism, strength, hatred, pride, and tribal or territorial identities. As we saw in our Reasonings on Piety, Diogenes also believed that the diverse types of melodies produce attunement with the divinity that resonates with the virtues associated with each melody.

… not only do melodies share the fact of being appropriated for the veneration of deities, but also, due to the diversity of their powers, that melody is for that deity …

Following this train of thought, military songs are appropriate to worship Ares; to worship Dionysus, chaotic music is needed, and so on. This notion is accepted in many religious cultures, such as the Gnawa of Morocco, who worship jinns (although orthodox Islam forbids their worship) and classify them according to seven different colors and sets of symbols that represent archetypal forces. For each one of the color suites, a certain set of traditional rhythms are used to induce trance, and only that rhythm must be used. Notions of divine attunement via sound exist also in Hinduism, where specific mantras are used for specific deities; in Sikh faith where singing the names of God is a sacrament; and in some schools of Mahayana Buddhism. Diogenes was expressing beliefs that are still widely held.

Music is a Natural and Unnecessary Pleasure

One has not yet found relaxation or amusement more convenient for free men, certainly, than for one man to sing, for another to play the citar, and for a third one to dance.

Diogenes said that singing and dancing easily incite laughter and liberation from sorrow and tension.

Furthermore, music is also one of the common goods: everyone, in fact–both Greek and Barbarian–uses it and in every age.

Philodemus’ view is that it is clear that music is considered natural, but it is unnecessary for happiness, and unlike poetry, instrumental music can’t communicate philosophy or therapy because it does not employ the use of words and therapeutic philosophers heal through frank criticism, through arguments, through words.

The concept of music as a natural phenomenon deserves further evaluation. We may consider the uses of music in human culture and in the rest of nature. In other species, we see that sounds are employed among both animals and primitive societies to express territoriality. Many animals make calls to mark their territory and to warn potential invaders. Because this imperative protects their food-source, natural selection has favored it, and so it’s not unreasonable that music may have evolved out of this territorial instinct, among other potential reasons and benefits.

Music and its predecessors are also likely to have evoked, for the same reason, a sense of familiarity just as familiar smells and voices can awaken fond memories. Thus, we see that in human culture, patriotism and locality always find expression in music. Even without these values being transmitted, just singing along with friends with abandon can be a source of intense pleasure. Music can be transpersonal, it can create a sense of community, of participating in the collective mind of the tribe or group temporarily. The obvious protection from predators and hostility in nature gained from this must have been the reason why nature favored it by making it a source of great, easy pleasure.

In nature, sound is also used frequently as part of mating rituals and mating calls, and in human culture we also see that music is frequetly used to enhance the mating experience.

As to research on whether music is a natural phenomenon, I was alerted by a fellow Epicurean of a study that proposes that spoken language is a special type of music, and that music and language acquisition are treated as similar processes by the brain.

… newborns are sensitive to the rhythmic components of language and can distinguish between languages based on their rhythmic characteristics (whether or not the contrast includes their native language; Nazzi et al., 1998). Newborns have a preference for their native language as well (Moon et al., 1993), however this has only been explored using languages from two different rhythmic classes. Because the ability to discriminate between two languages of the same rhythmic class (e.g., English and German) does not appear until 4 months of age (Nazzi et al., 1998; Gervain and Mehler, 2010), new borns may show a preference for any language belonging to the same rhythmic class as their native language. If so, then newborns may not prefer their native language per se, but rather the rhythmic characteristics of that language (cf. Friederici et al., 2007). Indeed, infants’ early attention to rhythm (e.g., Ramus and Mehler, 1999; Ramus et al., 1999) suggest that they are absorbing the sonic structure of their native language – its rhythms of stresses, its phonemic character – much in the same way that we listen to music.

… The discrimination of consonance and dissonance has been cited as a human universal, with dissonance treated as displeasing (Fritz et al., 2009).

It’s too early to speak about the potential uses of music therapy, both in infants and adults, in neuroplasticity and in shaping the brain for this or that long-term purpose, but these studies suggest very early specialization for the speech and musical sounds of one’s native culture, which probably links music and speech to the territorial anticipations discussed earlier.

On the Origins of Dance

They enjoy song but exclude from nature that which incites us to the practice of music.

The controversy on the origins of dance reveals details about the different worldviews of the Stoics and Epicureans. Epicureans in antiquity did not only dedicate themselves to the study and defense of a natural cosmology and natural origins of things in order to challenge the fables. There was a tendency among other schools to rationalize origin stories and to assume that all of man’s acts were rational or calculated. This is what Philodemus says:

It is not true that the men of yore exercised in dance … with the purpose not only of seeing their bodies gain utility and to reach the dispositions of good people … but also to carry in their soul equally the good performance that they saw manifesting throughout their bodies, and to try to keep their soul constantly beautiful for the rest of their lives.

In fact, neither of these reasons was the origin of humanity’s first impulse to dance, or of its transmission by those who received it … It was, on the contrary, their ignorance of nature and exultation that brought them to form, in a manner that was instinctive and unthinking, as if forced, a circle in order to produce with their hands, their feet, and other parts of the bodies the organized movements …

It seems like what is being said here is that there are natural and human experiences that do not need to be rationalized, or planned. There is no need to project our calculated behavior against primitive humans … and that it’s okay that we are instinctive, natural beings. There’s almost an innocence that is implied here.

Notice that nothing is being said against dance as a practice, but what Philodemus criticizes is the lack of spontaneity that is presumed by the Stoics, the belief that man is only and always rational and never an instinctive animal with natural behaviors. There is nothing wrong with music being wild, natural, primal, a blissful act of savagery and instinct. Perhaps that’s precisely why it helps to relieve tension in the body and soul; perhaps there lies its therapeutic benefit.

And so, ultimately, the controversy on the origins of dance sheds light on how the two schools relate to nature, and on the primacy of pleasure for us versus the primacy of reason for our Stoic brethren. If nature guides an Epicurean to discover the bliss and release of dancing, then the Epicurean just dances, he or she surrenders and fully enjoys the emotion and the experience. The moment we rationalize what we’re doing, we established a distance with the experience that impedes its full enjoyment.

We must not force Nature but persuade her. We shall persuade her if we satisfy the necessary desires and also those bodily desires that do not harm us while sternly rejecting those that are harmful. – Vatican Saying 21

Primitive men may have philosophized about dancing after they had danced, but it’s not likely that they calculated the blissful trance in advance with the goals that Diogenes supposed.

Later in the work, Philodemus cites Democritus’ argument that music was a recent invention because it could have only emerged after people had time for leisure.

Philodemus’ Critique of Diogenes of Babylon

If they say that only these irrational realities provide harmony to the soul, then their error is double: it means those who can’t sing or dance, or who are unfamiliar with music, can’t be virtuous.

After summarizing Diogenes’ scroll, Philodemus argues that music (by which he means instrumental music, as he treats lyrics in a separate scroll on Poetry) is not capable of making us better or worse in character. This is one of his key points, and it’s because of the lack of words, of lyrics.

This view is consistent with the view that therapeutic philosophy heals with words, with arguments. Therefore, music can not replace philosophy in its healing role: it can not, by itself, fix the human character. It can only have therapeutic value if it incorporates the words of the healing doctrines of philosophy.

And those that say that we are sweetened by music because she softens our souls and would deprive them of their savagery, one may consider them perfect imbeciles. In fact, it is only reason–because she teaches that none of the strange things that unreason invents has been produced by nature and that, furthermore, nothing of what she produces has any importance–that can perfectly reach this result, once it has attained its perfection, and while she is still on the path to perfection, it can alleviate in proportion.

In our tradition, reason or logic is not included in the Canon, in the set of faculties used to apprehend reality directly. However, this does not mean that we do not appreciate reason, as some opponents of our school insinuate. We simply do not accept reasonings that do not derive insight from the study of nature, from evidence. Reasoning without connection to reality only leads to theology and superstition.

Reason is essential for the therapeutic process. It is through reason, based on evidence, that we produce arguments to heal the diseases of the soul. Music, being irrational, can not be considered therapeutic in the way that we understand therapy. It’s philosophy, not music, that educates. Philodemus refused to recognize musicians as philosophers.

Philodemus also denies that music can deliver us from a Bacchic trance, or a warrior’s fury for the same reason: only “adapted speech liberates from trance”. Similarly, in religious music, it’s poems that have “the beautiful part” in worship, and not the melodies, which provides only “the approval of the ear” according to Philodemus.

Diogenes had argued, by citing popular fables, that certain kinds of music would encourage temperance and chastity. Philodemus replies that music does not produce the virtue of temperance, and argues this by saying that if we were to base our views on fables, then hunting would produce temperance because Artemis is a virgin Goddess and a huntress.

Elsewhere, Philodemus also states that musical harmony has nothing to do with cosmology. Apparently some Stoics were repeating Pythagorean doctrines about the “music of the spheres” and other such beliefs. An accusation of being rustic and unsophisticated, due to their rejection of philosophical theories related to music, was presented against the Epicureans, to which Philodemus replied:

The Epicureans do not underestimate music for lack of culture; to them, only philosophy counts.

Philodemus does acknowledge that loud noise can create mental disorder and chaos, but rejects every theory of musical psychology as vain, and concludes the work by accusing music of impracticality.

The Canon’s Verdict

Let’s now take the evidence-based approach to music. While combing through my collection of music and considering the effects that songs have in my person, I found that melodies anchor memories and experiences of people and places from the past, including certain friends, a certain generation (such as, “the 80s” and “the college years”), and certain ethnicities (Afro-Cuban, African American, Spain, India). There’s also music that I associate with women, and other music that I associate with men. Then there are moods: there’s happy, devotional, playful, urban, comedic, political, and music that inspires solidarities.

There’s highly individualistic, original and creative music (Bjork, Cirque du Soleil) which did not fit any other category, some of whose lyrics did give messages about self-sufficiency, independence, and communicated or implied other values. Wherever music that I listen to transmits values or solidarities, it does so through the lyrics, not through the melody. On that basis, I coincide with Philodemus’ opinion regarding how melody without words does not seem to transmit virtue or vice.

However, I did come across several articles while doing research for and writing my book according to which mantra recitation changes the brain faster and more dramatically than previously thought, and has other proven health benefits.

Neuroscientist Marian Diamond, from the University of California, found chanting helps block the release of stress hormones and increases immune function, while another neuroscientist, Dr Alan Watkins at Imperial College London, showed that while chanting your heart rate and blood pressure will drop to its lowest of the day – Women’s Fitness Magazine

Whether it’s praying the rosary, chanting the nembutsu or the Hare Krishna mantra, the documented benefits are the same: chanting has medicinal properties. While this does not confirm the supernatural beliefs of the Catholics, Buddhists or Hare Krishnas, it does grant scientific merit to the practice of chanting and reciting mantras. So we should “Chant and Be Happy”, like the Hare Krishnas (and the Beatles) advised.

Practitioners of bhakti yoga (devotional yoga) in the Vaishnava and other Hindu traditions report that singing devotional songs is a way to channel and express love, that devotion “purifies the emotions” (helping to release negative ones and add healthy ones), that it’s like exerting a muscle, and that people can become happier and more loving as a result of this practice.

There’s a humanist alternative to these practices. Epicurus recommended the use of mnemonic devises (like repetition of short adages) to aid in memorizing his teachings and also encouraged the grateful remembrance of fond and happy memories as a spiritual practice. Repetition of adages as a meditation would not only help to memorize them but also, according to the above cited research, would produce a pleasant state of mind. Philodemus may have underestimated the potential benefits or uses of these practices, perhaps having had little or no experience with them, but he coincided with Epicurus that it’s the words and their content that heal, not the melodies or the rhythm.

Philodemus would have been proved wrong when it comes to his disputing Diogenes’ argument that music can move the body and soul. Research demonstrates that music enhances endurance during workout by about 15 percent:

Music distracts people from pain and fatigue, elevates mood, increases endurance, reduces perceived effort and may even promote metabolic efficiency. When listening to music, people run farther, bike longer and swim faster than usual—often without realizing it. In a 2012 review of the research, Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University in London, one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of exercise music, wrote that one could think of music as “a type of legal performance-enhancing drug.”

Other studies demonstrate that music leads to greater productivity, but that only works for repetitive tasks. In other instances at work, it can be a distraction. And so music may be generally helpful to control or regulate hedonic tone in our day-to-day lives, if applied correctly.

The lack of a comprehensive musical theory among ancient Epicureans does not mean that future Epicurean lovers of art may not, at some point, develop their own aesthetic theories based on the Canon and on available research.

We conclude that music is a natural and unnecessary pleasure and that, while music can not replace philosophy in its healing role or fix the human character, it can increase endurance in some instances and can have therapeutic value if it incorporates the healing words of philosophy.

Based on the French translation in Les Epicuriens of the original scroll from Herculaneum titled La Musique.

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Reasonings About Philodemus’ On the Stoics


On the Cynical Roots of Stoicism

On the Stoics is a polemic written by Philodemus where he argues that the founder of the Stoic school, Zeno, had been a pupil of the Cynics. The work starts out with historical details, and focuses on an early work by Zeno titled The Republic, which Philodemus says is full of faults and exhibits a vicious character, a kind of “disorder from the school to which he had begun to adhere”.

Among the horrors and impieties that the text says The Republic finds acceptable, there is mention of incest and cannibalism, apparently because it alludes to Greek tragedies that make these crimes part of the plot. But there is much more, and in fact a huge portion of the scroll is dedicated to the horrors defended in the text. Here are just a few:

To renounce their way of life to adopt that of dogs … to masturbate in public … to refuse to acknowledge as city or law that which we know as such …

There is also mention of evil speech, distrust and betrayal of friends, sexual exploitation of slaves, and adultery. The author also argues that Zeno never changed his mind, later in life, about the content of The Republic, which he says “proposes laws that aren’t for real people”. This book is praised by Cleanthes, and by Chrysippus while speaking of the uselessness of weapons. These are two prominent Stoics.

As to the arguments used by Stoics when confronted with these facts, Philodemus credits them with saying: “We dont’ judge Epicurus by his early writings, you shouldn’t judge our Zeno”, however Philodemus says that one can’t find anything shameful or impious in the early writings written by our Hegemon during his youth.

The Supreme End

… and it is a thing of inept people to not explain, once the supreme end has been invented, the rest (of the doctrine) in accordance! Now, what is actually coherent with the supreme end, is to admit that which is exposed throughout The Republic.

… it would have been better for Zeno not to have become a sage, that way there would be no place for indignation at his error! … but if they had had the sense of moderation, instead of loving the baseness, to the point of attaching themselves to perverse doctrines formulated in unsupportable terms …

The supreme end, to the Stoics, is virtue. Philodemus discards this doctrine as an “invention” of Zeno, to accentuate that virtue is not what nature has intended for us. In our teaching, we consider pleasure to be the end because the pleasure-aversion faculty is evident in nature. Stoic virtue, on the other hand, is an arbitrary ideal that is not clearly defined, much less in a way that is evident and observable in nature.

As to how we deal with the issue of pleasure as the end and virtues as means to pleasure, one good source to study this aspect of the Epicurean critique of Stoicism, and to clearly understand this key distinction and why it matters, can be found in the third chapter of A Few Days in Athens, where Frances Wright argues that many worship Virtue but few stop to evaluate the pedestal on which it sits.

We believe that while pleasure is real and tangible, other made-up criteria like virtue and “the good” are arbitrary and are never clearly defined. Pleasure is nature’s guide (and, therefore, transcultural), the others are cultural. Epicurus refused to even argue as to whether something was pleasant or produced aversion: this is not a matter for logic or for syllogisms to discern, it’s an immediate and real experience for a living being. Pleasure and aversion do not need to be learned. They’re innate.

Philosophers of logic can’t use word games to redefine pleasure. Instead, individuals can directly discern it with their own faculties, and so hedonism emancipates mortals from traditional authorities and can serve as a useful universal guide to anyone and everyone. In fact, the pleasure and aversion faculties are essential components of our moral compass.

We also believe that, as criteria, pleasure and pain do not lend themselves to the manipulations of rhetors which distort our moral compass in the way that other criteria do. A muslim might argue that pedophilia is virtuous because his prophet set the example, or that wife-beating and subjugation of women is virtuous because it’s in the Qur’an 4:34. A Christian might argue that killing gays is virtuous because Leviticus 20:13 establishes this practice, and a Jew might legitimize genocide in order to steal other people’s land. Authority-based, tradition-based or virtue-based moralities produce arbitrary rules that generate at times much more suffering than pleasure, whereas the goal of an Epicurean’s hedonic calculus is to produce net pleasure for the long term.

Other arbitrary criteria, like reason, can also serve ends other than human happiness and pleasure. Consider how objectivists have established the free-market as a sacred ideal that must never be toyed with or impeded, and how this led to the Bolivian water wars after all the water in that country was privatized and sold to an American company; or how deregulated financial markets led to the 2008 fiscal collapse, where Wall Street squandered over 40% of the savings that Americans had set aside for their retirement. Should we sacrifice our humanity and our happiness at the feet of the free market? Should people die on the streets fighting for access to water, and remain wage slaves until they die, even if they live to be over 90, for the sake of the free market? Should not the free market serve human life and happiness, instead?

And so there is always trouble and suffering and moral misjudgement when people set guides other than that which nature established, and which is evident in infants in the cradle: they seek pleasure and happiness and they avoid pain. Any other ideal, if it truly has a virtuous disposition, will lead to pleasure and to the avoidance or alleviation of pain. This is true ethics. This is a true and compassionate morality.


The content here is very different from what we’ve seen in all the other scrolls written by Philodemus. The tone of the controversy against the Stoics does seem out of character, and the scroll closes with the author swearing that he is telling the truth.

As for us, who have for a long time kept away from pollutions both our ears and our minds, defamation is forbidden to us as it is, in truth, the greatest source of pain, we swear.

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Reasonings About Philodemus’ on Arrogance

The practice of cataloguing the virtues is frequently seen in other traditions. Here Philodemus is summarizing and commenting on a writing by Ariston, whose identity is not entirely clear. Most of the text appears to be a summary of Ariston’s work titled On Arrogance, and the latter part appears to be Philodemus’ commentary.

The Sage Versus the Arrogant

The study of nature does not create men who are fond of boasting and chattering or who show off the culture that impresses the many, but rather men who are strong and self-sufficient, and who take pride in their own personal qualities not in those that depend on external circumstances. – Vatican Saying 45

The entire scroll appears to be a detailed elaboration of VS 45. Philosophers have throughout history been frequently accused of pedantry. This has resulted in very few people today wanting to identify as philosophers. This accusation is repeated in our own tradition, as we can see in the Pedantry of Aristotle quote from A Few Days in Athens. Because arrogance so often accompanies wisdom (or the appearance of wisdom), Philodemus had to first clearly distinguish between the person who suffers from the moral disease of arrogance and the true sage.

When we speak of virtue and vice, we are not only speaking of the habits that lead to pleasant and unpleasant existence, but also of the dispositions (diathesis) or underlying deeply-held beliefs that produce such behaviors. In our tradition, vicious dispositions that produce as symptoms the diseases of the soul, are treated with arguments and other therapeutic techniques. One technique we see frequently is the practice of “seeing before the eyes”, which was discussed in our reasonings on anger and which makes up the majority of this work.

The dispositions for the arrogant man have to do with how he despises others, feels superior, and is unwilling or unable to engage in relationships of mutual benefit and cooperation. He also frequently exaggerates and lacks moderation.

Some of the other dispositions that characterize many of the other major vices, as well as this one, have to do with ignorance about oneself and being unreasonable, so that Ariston says that the arrogant man or woman can’t be a good person, or happy.

The arrogant man seeks glory, entertains false pretensions, and hates all philosophers, even the ones undeserving of hate. He’s also inconsiderate toward others.

Having shown us all these symptoms, Philodemus then argues that the sage, on the other hand, is considerate towards others, does not give the impression of being arrogant and does not take others for fools. He does not admire himself, especially for reasons of fortune, since we should only take pride in our accomplishments and not those of fate.

In a later segment of the scroll, Philodemus compares highness versus arrogance by saying that those who have true grandeur disdain those who are arrogant by a gift of fortune, for this arrogance has nothing to do with moral greatness; therefore the arrogance of those blessed by Fortune who are morally inconsistent is laughable.

The sage shows no difference in any regard and does not avoid receiving others, does not avoid conversation or other exchanges with others. He does not proclaim others unworthy of him and he thanks those who help him.

If he does a favor to people more powerful than him, he tries to help and please them instead of seeking to obtain some benefit for himself. He expresses his own inferiority if needed and asks for forgiveness when appropriate. His friends, whom he trusts, are constantly with him.

He also takes care of his slaves, domestic workers and family members, aware that his inferiors express his will and represent him before guests and that he is ultimately responsible for how they treat his guests.

Different Mixtures of Vice

Arrogance can frequently be found together with other attributes and vices that, together, produce certain mixtures in our character. These various syndromes are treated as moral diseases of the soul.

A section of Ariston’s work dealt with the inconsiderate man, who is characterised by disdain for others, arrogance, irreflection and a feeling of one’s own value. This kind of man orders people to do things without asking politely; buys slaves without asking their names or naming them, simply choosing to call them “slave”; do not respond to favors or the hospitality of others in kind; do not employ common courtesies like “how are you doing?”, or like introducing themselves when they knock on people’s doors, or even in letters.

Another kind of moral disease is translated as l’homme suffisant, or the man who thinks he is enough. He is not entirely guilty of irreflection, but yet he won’t heed others’ advise or give it. He wants people to mind their own business and says that those who accept teachers remain as little children forever. Philodemus later adds that people disdain him because he thinks himself more intelligent and capable than everyone, and that many people are happy at his misfortunes. He ends up isolated and has difficulty succeeding.

Then there’s the know-it-all, who considers himself a genius, does everything on his own, and has many bad qualities that annoy people, including being an impostor and being disdainful toward others.

The hateful man is not always arrogant, but speaks with gravity and is condescending.

A critique of Socrates takes place under the heading the ironic man, where Philodemus characterizes his method as a kind of masked arrogance. He is described in the most detail. He is an impostor; says the opposite of what he’s really thinking and never means what he says; praises what he means to criticize; gives people aliases and uses dramatic cues to mock others, such as shaking his head, rolling his eyes, signaling to others, and so on. He also attributes his own ideas to others. Because of his theatrics, people often think the ironic man inventive and persuasive.

Finally, there is the man who treats others as imbeciles, or as nothings, as insignificant, as without merit. Like some of the other men described above, he likes to calumniate others with varying degrees of vehemence. This disposition to defamation, envy and cursing makes him hateful to others.

Treatment for Arrogance

As tools for self-correction, Philodemus offers the patient many scenarios to envision the potential negative repercussions to arrogance, as well as arguments that serve as cognitive therapy:

  • If you ever feel yourself floating in the air with arrogance, think back on your former humility and lowliness.
  • Think of how the arrogant will appear humble upon losing fortune.
  • Remember that only rhetors praise the glory that comes from fortune.
  • Consider that detachment from Fortune can free us from arrogance based on our good luck.
  • Consider the versatile, brutally-changing face of Fortune, which is compared to walking on a steep slope.
  • Consider that when Fortune turns on you, you may have to take refuge in your inferiors, the people you now see from a high vantage point. This has happened many times in history.
  • Think back about someone arrogant that you’ve met, and told yourself that you would never want to be like them. This may be other people’s reaction to us if we’re arrogant.
  • Don’t compare yourself to those poorer, but to those who are superior in all respects, whether in possession of lands or in power and ability to rule cities or other people.
  • Notice, and avoid, envy of others, for Philodemus says “how many ruins are provoked by envy, the whole world can see”.
  • Think of those who laugh at other’s misfortunes; consider the distrust they inspire.
  • Consider how it is unfair to gain prominence by humiliating others, instead of by one’s own grandeur.
  • Think of how failure frequently happens when one is isolated and how success frequently is due to the help of key allies.
  • Ask yourself what really makes you proud and arrogant.

It is frequently the case that the arrogant will not take the advise or help of others for reasons of presumption or disdain, or because they want all the glory. As a result, they only learns from their failures, and the lack of key allies also works against them in tribunals and assemblies.

In these treatments, we see that humility is an antidote to the vice of arrogance just as pride can at times be an antidote to excessive and undeserved humiliation.

Philodemus does not only use this technique of seeing before the eyes to show the harmful repercussions of vice. He also compares them versus the good repercussions of virtue. He does this by bringing to memory events from his recent history where the powerful acted as equals and won the trust and loyalty of others, versus the example of a king who had been abandoned by his army and lost its allegiance due to his arrogant speech. Another example is cited of Timocreon, an actor who suffered public mockery while on stage performing, for the same reason: his haughty speech had won him the ill-will of everyone present. These verses are reminiscent of how Confucius argued that shame played a very important role in humanist ethics.

The teaching here is that arrogance comes before the fall. It needlessly makes others our enemies and makes success in life more difficult. If we wish to maximize our chances of living a plasant life, we should treat this vice as an enemy of our souls.

Based on the French-language translation in Les Épicuriens titled L’arrogance, which itself is drawn from the tenth book of Philodemus’ work “The vices and their opposing virtues, those in whom they are found and the occasions where they are exerted”, otherwise simply The Vices


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The Philodemus Series

I learned about the papyri from the villa at Herculaneum and their importance while doing research for my book, Tending the Epicurean Garden, where I dedicate a chapter to fiscal and spiritual autarchy, and delve a bit into the need for reinventing labor and retirement in our society now that machines are replacing us, and elsewhere discuss the complexities of Epicurean friendship. Two of Philodemus’ scrolls dealt with economy and frank speech, which got me thinking about what would be the ideal professions and means of making a living for an Epicurean philosopher living in contemporary society and with modern labor conditions. The following is the fruit of these reasonings:

On Philodemus’ Art of Property Management (Part I)
On Philodemus’ Art of Property Management (Part II)

Reasonings about Philodemus’ On Frank Criticism:

(Part I) The Role of Frankness in a Philosophy of Freedom and Friendship
(Part II) The Masters as Moral Models
(Part III) Against the Charlatans

The Reasonings about Philodemus’ On Piety conclude, as in the case of On Property Management, with seven general teachings related to Piety and with an invitation to an ecumenic conversation between theists and Epicureans. His work On Death is, in my view, the greatest and most useful masterpiece in the application of personal ethics.

(Part I) Against the Accusers
(Part II) Doctrine of Harm and Benefits of the Gods, Against the Theologians
(Part III) On the Purpose of Religion and On Whether It’s Natural and Necessary
(Part IV) Socrates and the Live Unknown Maxim; Against the Atheists; Conclusion

Reasonings about On Death

Other works:

Reasonings About On Methods of Inference

Reasonings About Rhetorica

Reasonings On Anger

Reasonings about On Arrogance

Reasonings About On the Stoics

Reasonings About On Music

Reasonings About The Poems

Reasonings About Philodemus’ On Choices and Avoidances:

(Part I) Doctrine of the Principal Things

(Part II) Imaginary Evils

(Part III) Against Existing Only to Die

In addition to Philodemus’ works, the Library at Herculaneum included works by others. The works at the library were charred when Mount Vesuvius erupted in the year 79, but fragments have been rescued and deciphered over the last few centuries and recent scientific breakthroughs give us hope that more content will soon be desciphered. It’s possible that this collection of Herculaneum scrolls may continue to expand in the future.

The following is based on Polystratus, who was the third Scholarch of the Athenian Garden. Two extant scrolls by him were found at Herculaneum. Here, he expounds a doctrine of hedonist moral realism, and argues that the cultivation of virtue without the study of nature–which we frequently see in many religions–is not profitable and degenerates into superstitious fear and slavery.

Reasonings About Polystratus’ On Irrational Contempt

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