Tag Archives: metrodorus

In Memory of “The Men”

Epicurus will immediately send us as ambassadors Metrodorus, Hermarchus and Polyaenus. – Leontion’s Epistle to Lamia

Happy Twentieth to Epicureans everywhere! In his Final Testament, Epicurus stipulated that the feasts on the 20th of every month had to continue in memory of him and his beloved friend Metrodorus as was “the established custom” before he died. This post is in celebration of “the Men”–the Founders of Epicurean Philosophy Epicurus of Samos, and his ambassadors Metrodorus of Lampsachus, Hermarchus of Mytilene, and Polyaenus of Lampsachus. Every Twentieth, it is they (as well as other Epicureans of importance who came after them) who are the reason for the season!

We must always orient our discourse for the benefit of those who are solidly armed for happiness: our disciples. – Epicurus of Samos, On Nature 28

The life of Epicurus is a lesson of wisdom. It is by example, even more than precept, that he guides his disciples. Without issuing commands, he rules despotically … We are a family of brothers, of which Epicurus is the father. Many of us have had bad habits, many of us evil propensities, violent passions. That our habits are corrected, our propensities changed, our passions restrained, lies all with Epicurus … he has made me taste the sweets of innocence, and brought me into the calm of philosophy. It is thus, by rendering us happy, that he lays us at his feet. He cannot but know his power, yet he exerts it in no other way, than to mend our lives, or to keep them innocent. Candor, as you have already remarked, is a prominent feature of his mind, the crown of his perfect character. – Metrodorus, in A Few Days in Athens

We are quite familiarized with Epicurus, but not so much with the other three. Our friend Josh wrote a poem titled Hermarchus, Seeing the Bust of Epicurus. Hermarchus was the co-founder and second Scholarch of the Garden. I recently shared the following fragment, which I found in the book Les Epicuriens and translated into English:

This is why Timeus affirms that, whenever they begin any enterprise, sages always in some way invoke divinity. But the Epicurean Hermarchus says: “How do we avoid regressing to infinity in all enterprise if, even for a minor matter, we have need to turn to prayer. Because for one prayer we will need yet another prayer, and we will never stop praying at any point.”

This is what we know from Book 10 of Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers and other sources: Hermarchus, a student of rhetoric, was the successor of Epicurus and the first convert to the teachings of Epicurus in the early days when Epicurus first began teaching. He was born in Mytilene, Lesbos in 340 BCE from a poor family and died around 250 BCE of paralysis.

Hermarchus was the only one among the founders who was there both prior to Epicurus’ teaching mission, and at the time of his death when, according to Philodemus, he assisted the Hegemon, “wrapped him in a shroud, and kept vigil beside his remains“–a testimony of the tender love that existed among the first Friends of Epicurus who had grown old together in philosophy and were as family.

Some of the extant sayings in our tradition have been attributed to him, and it is believed that he was almost exclusively vegetarian and that he considered meat-eating an unnecessary desire because it contributes not to the maintenance of life but to a variation in pleasure.

A young man that loves glory, that is precocious wickedness. – Metrodorus of Lampsacus

Bust of Metrodorus / Epicurus

Bust of Metrodorus / Epicurus

Metrodorus of Lampsachus was known as a great administrator, linguist and financier, and was recognized as a sophos (sage) by the Epicureans and as “almost another Epicurus” by Cicero.

He was born in 330 BCE in Lampsachus, and died in 277 BCE, seven or eight years before the death of Epicurus. He never left Epicurus except once for six months spent on a visit to his native land. He had a bitter dispute with his brother Timocrates, who disagreed with certain key doctrines of the School–this was recently discussed in the essay Metrodorus’ Epistle to Timocrates.

He’s the one who formulated the importance of securing our natural and necessary goods now and making sure to have the confident expectation that we will be able to secure them in the future as part of the Epicurean art of living, and is responsible for these quotes:

I have anticipated you, Fortune, and entrenched myself against all your secret attacks. And we will not give ourselves up as captives to you or to any other circumstance; but when it is time for us to go, spitting contempt on life and on those who here vainly cling to it, we will leave life crying aloud in a glorious triumph-song that we have lived well. – Vatican Saying 47

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

Philodemus reports that Metrodorus was deeply interested in delineating doctrines concerning economics. He carried out careful evaluations concerning how to acquire and preserve wealth according to the elemental principles of Epicureanism, and applying hedonic calculus.

The good man is a good financier; The bad man is also a bad financier, just as Metrodorus has demonstrated. – Philodemus of Gadara

In addition, it’s possible to resume some of Metrodorus’ theses concerning both the sources from which one may procure wealth, as well as the manner by which one may preserve it. However, he constantly accentuated as a matter of fact that to meet occasionally with perturbations, worries and troubles is much more advantageous for the best mode of life possible than the opposite choice. – Philodemus of Gadara

From these quotes, it becomes clear that Metrodorus was a huge proponent of autarchy, which translates as personal sovereignty or self-sufficiency. He believed a sage had to be self-sufficient and neither depend on external factors, nor leave anything that is essential for happiness to Fate. He teaches us that we should always aim to have mastery over the things that we can control that concern our happiness. Hence, Norman DeWitt says that while all philosophers say that the unexamined life is not worth living, the Epicureans add that “the unplanned life is not worth living“.

Polyaenus of Lampsachus was the son of Athenodorus, a mathematician, and was considered a kind and trustworthy man. He died prior to Epicurus in 286 BC. Philodemus, in On Frank Criticism, says that Metrodorus described Polyaenus as “rather sententious … often insinuating himself into conversation and quite sociable”. Here are two quotes by him that I found in the book Les Epicuriens:

The more you benefit your friend, the more you serve your own self-interest. In fact, the kindness provoked by these benefits will come back to us.

Habit is born of small things, but (bad habits) gain vigor through (our) neglect.

This last fragment reminds me of Will Durant‘s materialist conception of identity: he said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” From the description as “sententious”–whose original sense was ‘full of meaning or wisdom’–and from the fact that he dedicated a scroll to the problem of Definitions, we can imagine Polyaenus as very careful when choosing words to make his speech clear and concise. For him to have been considered an important foundational figure, we can surmise that he must have greatly influenced–and brilliantly exemplified–the Epicurean practice of parrhesia (frank criticism) softened with suavity (gentle speech). He was known for using powerful proverbs and adages. He was great at conversation, but did not speak idly. His words were useful and profitable to those who had the pleasure of his company.

So these are Epicurus’ ambassadors: Hermarchus the loyal friend, Metrodorus the administrator, and Polyaenus the eloquent social butterfly.

A big thank you to Jason and Tyler for their Patreon support.

Further Reading:

Epicurean Advice for the Modern Consumer, by Tim O’Keefe

The 17 Scholarchs and the Empress

Metrodorus’ Epistle to Timocrates

Metrodorus’ Epistle to Timocrates

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.

Summary

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Further Reading:

The 17 Scholarchs and the Empress

Natural Community Versus Polis