Timocrates of Lampsachus was both the brother of Metrodorus (one of the founders of Epicureanism), as well as an apostate of the first Epicurean community–although not a lethal enemy like the archetypal Judas. Because of their ties of blood, Timocrates was quoted as saying “that he both loved his brother as no one else did and hated him as no one else.”
Their differences were made public in epistles that they addressed to each other, which later circulated among many who either followed the teachings of the school, or were opponents interested in the gossip and the controversy. Metrodorus also wrote one work against his brother, and Timocrates a polemic against Epicurus entitled Delights.
Only fragments from third parties citing these sources survive. Here, I will cite passages from Metrodorus’ Epistle to his brother Timocrates, and will try to interpret the meager–yet essential and useful–content that is available.
The Belly Argument
It seems clear that Timocrates’ enmity with the Epicureans stemmed from not accepting that pleasure is the end that our nature seeks, although many sources cite the center of the controversy as being Metrodorus’ insistence that the belly is the “criterion” of all that contributes to the good life. Some people have argued that the attribution of this was done by enemies of Epicureanism to discredit the philosophy–and in fact they did use this to mock the Epicureans. But the “belly argument” is attested many times, and the epistles between the two brothers were circulated widely enough that it seems clear that many contemporaries and later commentators were aware of the main details of the controversy.
Let’s therefore assume that Metrodorus indeed argued that “the seat of good is the belly“, as he is credited. And let’s also assume that the first Epicureans very carefully chose their words so that they convey the intended meaning–as this is what they were known for, and we also know they criticized the unclear and flowery speech of poets and rhetors. We have no reason to suppose that Metrodorus was speaking poetically to generate confusion. What did he mean by this? One extant proverb may help to shed light on this.
What cannot be satisfied is not a man’s stomach, as most men think, but rather the false opinion that the stomach requires unlimited filling. – Vatican Saying 59
The Epicurean Inscription from Diogenes’ Wall is another source to help us interpret the belly passage. It taught that “desires that outrun the limits fixed by nature” are among the three “roots of all evils, and unless we cut them off, a multitude of evils will grow upon us“. And Principal Doctrine 20 establishes that it is up to the mind to understand the limits set by nature and to tame the flesh. It also says that “we should not force nature, but gently persuade her“.
Here, we begin to see a way in which the belly might be a “criterion” (or measuring stick) by which nature guides us. The belly teaches us that we only need so much nutrition, so much food, and no more. If we over-eat, our belly lets us know via lethargy, tiredness, fatigue, or sleepiness. If we eat too little or fail to eat, it lets us know via pangs of hunger. It literally growls like a wild beast. Similarly, we only need a natural measure of friends and community, a natural measure of wealth, etc. Not too much, not too little. And it is nature that sets these limits.
The Epicureans philosophize with our bodies, fully reconciled with nature. It is interesting that the belly was described as a “criterion” by Metrodorus–if we take this to be true and not an invention of enemies of the School. In our epistemology, the Canon (criteria of truth) includes pre-rational faculties which furnish raw data from nature with no rational input: hearing, taste, seeing, pleasure and pain, etc. I think that what Metrodorus was arguing is that we must pay attention to the pain and pleasure of the belly as guides from nature so that we may better understand the limits set by nature, and realize how easy to procure the natural and necessary pleasures are.
The belly argument also reminds us of Nietzschean and Freudian conceptions of the human animal as inhabited by a multitude of irrational drives and instincts vying for control over the chariot of our bodies and our lives. We are rational animals, but that is not all that we are.
The founders taught that we should care about our state of mind while eating. Epicurus compres eating alone to the behavior of lions and wolves, and told his followers to care as much about who they ate with as they did about what they ate.
Our opinion about our belly, and our relationship with it, helps to define how happy and satisfied we are with life overall. Many eating and health disorders are tied to people’s psychological states, philosophy of life, and sense of self-worth. But does it not make sense that healthy eating also correlates to healthy psychological states, a healthy philosophy of life, and a healthy sense of self-worth?
This may be pure coincidence, but it’s an interesting side note: we know today (although the ancients could not have known this) that it is in the belly that the “happiness hormones” like serotonin and anandamide are manufactured by our bodies, and that the bacteria in our gut play a crucial role in our habitual state of happiness or depression.
The “Need” to Save Greece
“It’s not necessary to try to save Greece or to get from her crowns of wisdom; what is needed is to eat and to drink, Timocrates, without harming the belly while we bring it joy”. – Metrodorus’ Letter to Timocrates
The above passage seems indicative of some of the objections that Timocrates presented against Epicurean doctrine. He seems to have advocated ideals like patriotism, and vain pursuits like fame or glory. Perhaps he called for the teaching of philosophy in the public sphere? Epicurus banned the practice of public sermons in favor of private ones after angry Platonists exiled him from the island of Lesbos, his ship wrecked and he nearly died. Timocrates’ points seem to be related to the “need” for acceptance and praise from common people in the city. The Timocrates affair may have inspired the following quotes:
I have never wished to cater to the crowd; for what I know they do not approve, and what they approve I do not know.
To speak frankly as I study nature I would prefer to speak in oracles that which is of advantage to all men even though it be understood by none, rather than to conform to popular opinion and thus gain the constant praise that comes from the many. – Vatican Saying 29
As you grow old you are such as I urge you to be, and you have recognized the difference between studying philosophy for yourself and studying it for Greece. I rejoice with you. – Vatican Saying 76
An anarchic and libertarian spirit sustained the early Epicurean community, which seems to have had a strict policy of separation of philosophy and state! Epicurus was not a philosopher of the polis, but of his own self-sufficient community. He did not trust public education (as we see in VS 76). One can make a strong argument that the early Epicureans raised and educated their own children in the Garden, and that modern Epicureans should also create their own educational establishments–like Michel Onfray did recently in France.
From the exchange between the two brothers, it also seems that Timocrates was making arguments in general defense of the virtues that were part of Greek cultural convention:
Besides, they would not buy for a penny the lot of all the virtues (if they’re) cut off from pleasure. – Metrodorus’ Epistle to Timocrates
On Public Life
While the “Live unknown” adage attributed to the early Epicureans is easily and often misinterpreted as a call to live a monastic life–which it was not–, the Timocrates affair may furnish some insight into the instances where Epicureans decried a life in public. Timocrates, on the other hand, seems to have defended the desire for the acceptance of common people, even of strangers. This desire is neither natural nor necessary, according to Epicurean ethics.
On this last point, Diogenes of Oenoanda in his Wall Inscription had this to say:
Diogenes states that the “sum of happiness is our disposition, of which we are masters”, by which he argues against choosing a career in military service–which produces dangers to our lives and health–or public speaking–which produces nervousness and insecurity.
From all these considerations, we may conclude that the some of the main controversies related to Timocrates’ apostasy had to do with the following points:
- Metrodorus defended the doctrine that pleasure is the end that our own nature seeks; Timocrates rejected this view, and was defending traditional Greek virtues instead, which were often considered as empty virtues by the Epicureans. Timocrates was ready to sacrifice his happiness in the altar of politics like so many people do still today.
- Metrodorus saw the need to defend the focus on natural and necessary pleasures as a path to happiness and self-sufficiency; Timocrates was arguing in favor of patriotism, fame, glory, and other vain ideals that are neither natural (although patriotism may be) nor necessary. Furthermore, these ideals may require huge sacrifices from us. The “need” for “saving Greece” seems to indicate fantasies of carrying out epic, (self-) sacrificial, and/or heroic deeds for a cause, or for fame, or for an imagined collective.
- Metrodorus’ ethical focus is on making sure that we are secure and have control over our lives, our space, and our circumstances. Because of this, the teaching of Epicurean philosophy happened in a private, intimate, safe and informal setting, among friends–not in the agora. Timocrates may have argued that desiring to have a public life (or perhaps teaching in public in order to be recognized for one’s wisdom) was natural and/or necessary.
There is one final question we should ask: Why was this controversy turned into such an important public affair? Epistolary literature was a means to promote Epicurean doctrine in the early years. I believe that the controversy between the two brothers serves as a lesson in who can be an Epicurean and who can not be one. It seems like the main doctrinal point on which even brothers can not reconcile is that pleasure is the end. But this has many ramifications for public versus private life, for our choices and avoidances, for our choice of career, and in many other areas of life.