Ethics of Philodemus Book Review: On Frankness and On Conversation

Frank Criticism as a Virtue

Since Epicureanism is a philosophy of friendship, frank criticism (parrhesia) is a crucial excellence. It is one of the defining features of Epicurean friendship, and stands opposed to the practice of flattering / wanting to please others mindlessly, and of lying–which often betrays a lack of commitment with the happiness and character development of our friends.

It’s also of great importance for hedonic calculus and to have our grievances heard in all our relations, and for conflict resolution, properly understood. If we are too reserved or shy to voice our grievances, a true and mature form of friendship will not flourish.

Philodemus taught that philosophy heals the character through frank criticism, so there are medicinal powers tied to frankness.

The Histories

In page 101 of The Ethics of Philodemus, we find mention of a book or series of books, lost to us, titled istoria (The Histories). The original source for this is Philodemus’ scroll On Frank Criticism (Peri Parrhesias), fragment Vb 8-9. Here, we gain knowledge about reports that were gathered by the previous Epicureans, beginning with the founders (Metrodorus is mentioned), on their techniques used to heal the vices of philosophy students. It seems like these “Histories” detailed the symptoms and diagnoses, and the types of therapeutic techniques that were used in each case.

That these Histories were preserved must be interpreted to mean that they were meant for posterity, so that future generations of Epicureans would have a deposit of information about character development, what often works and what doesn’t, etc.

In note 56 of page 116 of The Ethics of Philodemus, we find this from Voula Tsouna:

It seems that Cleanthes and Metrodorus are figures whom professors with a tougher disposition strive to emulate. ‘Regarding their teaching both in the present and in the past, they shall not differ [in any way] from Cleanthes and Metrodorus–for it is obvious that the one in authority will use more abundant frankness. Besides, [after some more] time, when they have gained knowledge of more cases than others who haven’t, they will use more parrhesia regarding these types of cases than those other teachers’ (On frank criticism, Fragment Vb. 1-12)

Here, Philodemus says that those in authority use more frankness, and that in this they learn from Metrodorus and Cleanthes (we must surmise that this is because they are inspired in these Histories which recorded the previous treatments offered by the School).

On Conversation

The Ethics of Philodemus mentions a scroll that I have not seen elsewhere and have not had access to. It’s titled Peri Omilias (On conversations), and also known as PHerc 873.

This scroll asks: “What is inappropriate speech, and what is appropriate speech“? Right speech is found mainly among Epicurean friends, promotes its ideals, includes parrhesia (frankness), the study of nature, and acts of sight and intellect (by which I assume is meant the feast of the 20th, the enjoyment of friendship and other pleasant activities). Philodemus says that a sage’s speech is pleasant and his conversations reflect his happy and tranquil state of mind.

Bad speech occurs in bad society and cultivates vice.

Interestingly, just as with wealth, with community, and with desires, we learn that there’s a limit to conversation (omilias peras, The Ethics of Philodemus, page 122). Philodemus teaches various tactics of speech, and praises selective silence: we must know when to speak and when not to. The “silent treatment” was a thing. Silent was an efficient tool in parrhesia and friendship. We don’t have enough in our sources to know every detail of the entire context behind this, but we can imagine that silence can be a great virtue if applied in cases where gossip or empty desires are being indulged in, or when a student asks an imprudent question.

The Epicureans paid great importance to clear and concise, unadorned communication, as this is important both in philosophy and in friendship. The following are some additional sources on the subject.

Further Reading:
The Ethics of Philodemus
Reasonings About Philodemus’ Rhetorica
Philodemus: On Frank Criticism (Discussion here)
As the Ancient Greeks knew, frankness is an essential virtue