Ethics of Philodemus: Moral Portraiture and Seeing Before the Eyes

In short, whom do you consider better than someone who holds pious opinions about the gods, who is always fearless in the face of death, who has reasoned out the natural goal of life, and who has understood that the limit of good things is easy to fulfill and easy to achieve, whereas the limit of bad things is either short-lived or causes little pain? Someone who laughs at destiny, which is asserted by some to be the master of all things? – Epicurus, in his Epistle to Menoeceus

The practice of depicting the sage in detail–his attitudes, his demeanor, his opinions–is a positive version of the therapeutic practice of “seeing before the eyes”, which Philodemus uses for the treatment of vices like arrogance and anger. In those cases, he confronts the patient with visuals of the negative repercussions of continuing his behavior in order to discourage his bad behavior and encourage him on his path to moral development. In the case of depicting the sage, he is presenting him with a role model that he may emulate. In at least one of the surviving sayings, we learn that this practice of contemplating and praising the sage helps us to construct our own character and produces pleasure and other benefits in our souls.

The veneration of the wise man is a great blessing to those who venerate him. Vatican Saying 32

One way to consider this is to remember that everyone admires and praises others according to their own qualities. Frivolous people admire and praise frivolous role models. Evil or authoritarian people admire and praise evil and authoritarian leaders. Similarly, people who aspire to cultivate wisdom and pleasure, should admire and praise sages who embody those qualities. Whom we admire says a lot about our values and our character.

According to the book The Sculpted Word, the depiction of the sage in sculpture was used in the passive model of recruitment of new students. Not much has been written about Epicurean aesthetics, but we know that the patroness of the Epicurean Garden, the goddess Venus Urania, is the patroness of the arts, in addition to being the embodiment of Pleasure. If we follow the theory of recruitment found in The Sculpted Word, we find that art may at times have an important place and a therapeutic use in Epicurean philosophy. This resonates with Michel Onfray’s arguments against nihilistic art, where he calls instead for art that creates values.

In The Ethics of Philodemus, Tsouna makes an important clarification regarding the practice of seeing before the eyes. As we saw earlier in our book review, our emotions have a cognitive component, and our beliefs have causal relation with our feelings. For instance, in Principal Doctrine 29, we see that Epicurus classifies desires as natural or empty based on the kinds of beliefs they are based on: unnatural and unnecessary desires are said to be vain and empty, and to arise from groundless opinion.

For this reason, Philodemus argued that both the emotional and cognitive components of our vices need treatment, if we are to successfully overcome our vices and cultivate instead excellence of character. We need to challenge our false beliefs with arguments, but we need to also arouse the emotions. If we only attack the belief component that underlies our behavior without provoking the emotions, the learning may not be very strong in our souls, and the character may not be fully reformed. There’s also the danger that our “reform” may be insincere if we only talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. For instance, Philodemus criticizes those who censure but do little else about their bad habits.

While searching through the early Epicurean sources, I found this example of the founders encouraging us to bring forth indignation out of our emotional reserve as part of our arsenal of weapons against the vices:

Let us utterly drive from us our bad habits as if they were evil men who have long done us great harm. – Vatican Saying 46

It is clear that this is meant to encourage us not just to reform our beliefs, but also to be more fully and emotionally engaged in the project of moral reform. Like evil men who have abused us for a long time, our vices deserve our animosity and anger. They are enemies inside the gates. Therefore, this source appears to side with Philodemus (and also with Sextus Empiricus), who argued that philosophy heals and secures the happy life by means of reasoning and arguments–but that we also need to employ our feelings in the therapeutic process in order to treat both the cognitive and the emotional component.

“Seeing before the eyes” is meant to awaken and recruit our feelings against our vices and in favor of the excellences. In his scroll On anger, XXVIII, 5-40), Philodemus uses this technique to demonstrate how harmful the vice of irascibility (chronic rage) can be:

(Chronic ire compels you to) strive for victory, give pain, disparage people, and do many other unpleasant things. And when it escalates, it also becomes a cause of misanthropy and sometimes even of injustice, since neither juryman nor council member nor … any human being can every be just if governed by angry feelings. Moreover, for reasons that are easy to see, people who have it must also become despotic, suspicious of evil, liars, illiberal, sneaky, underhanded, ungrateful, and self-centered … They get no taste of goods throughout their lives, that is, the goods that derive from taking things easy in acceptable ways, as well as from mildness of manner and deep understanding.

Here, Philodemus reminds the patient who suffers from chronic ire of both the evils he may cause and of the goods he may be evading. By confronting the patient with these dangers, the technique means to incite a sincere reform of character.

Notice a few things: this exercise helps us to move from abstract theory to concrete reality. It’s also a great example of how a secular philosophy can help us in character development and virtue for sake of a life of pleasure, and not for the sake of virtue or to appease a supernatural being. This practice is also pragmatic in that it aids us in carrying out hedonic calculus. The philosopher who is imparting the medicine is saying: “Do you REALLY think you will get more pleasure if you keep acting this way?

In page 206 of The Ethics of Philodemus, Philodemus catalogues what images should be part of the “placing before the eyes” practice:

Philodemus describes them as “things that the patient is totally ignorant of, others that he has come to forget, others that he has not calculated at least in respect of their magnitude if not in respect of anything else, yet others that he has never contemplated altogether. The good philosophers depict all these evils even if with moderation emphasize that it is within the patient’s power to avoid them, and sketch the way in which we might least experience angry feelings”.

Further Reading:

The Sculpted Word: Epicureanism and Philosophical Recruitment in Ancient Greece

The Ethics of Philodemus