Category Archives: Economics

Ethics of Philodemus: Philodemus’ Economics

I wish to conclude my book review of The Ethics of Philodemus with a critical look at Philodemus. He and his teacher Zeno of Sidon, and their group, argued frequently against other schools, and against Epicureans who held different views from their own. There were several Epicurean factions. The sources mention at least two factions: the rhetors (who elaborated on the doctrine, mainly inspired by their discussions with other Schools) and the orthodox (who stuck to memorizing the sources). Philodemus claimed orthodoxy by making frequent appeals to the authority of the four founders, but also engaged in these debates.

Since Zeno of Sidon was a Scholarch of Athens of direct lineage to Epicurus and Hermarchus, he is likely to have preserved the most loyal interpretation of Epicureanism … but this is not to say that other Epicurean groups didn’t have legitimate arguments to offer which did not survive in the sources, or indirectly by being criticized in the Herculaneum scrolls. It’s also true that Zeno of Sidon was the successor of Apollodoros, the “Tyrant of the Garden”, and that much of Zeno’s work involved rebelling against the excessive authoritarianism of his predecessor (which may have been necessary in order to protect the Garden and its finances). We know that Zeno was tolerant, friendly, greatly admired, and welcomed Stoics and other non-Epicureans into the Garden to study philosophy together–this may be part of his effort to reject the authoritarianism of Apollodoros.

The subject of economics is the best place for a critical view of Philodemus.

The first criticism of Philodemus has to do with his categorical statement in his scroll On the art of property management, that “the philosopher does not toil“–which seems impractical, except in the case of the very wealthy Romans whom he was teaching. Few people have this privilege to not toil. This odd statement depicts Epicureanism as an exclusive sect for the elite, which it most certainly wasn’t at its inception. 

It’s impossible to abstain from toils. In fact, Philodemus himself cites Metrodorus’ arguments concerning how hedonic calculus must be applied (and sometimes we must go through certain disadvantages for the sake of greater advantages). Here, Metrodorus (the co-founder of Epicureanism) contradicts Philodemus’ statement that the philosopher does not toil. He says that wealth, health, and friendship involve toil, but that this toil is worth pursuing because we will suffer greatly without these goods. The philosopher will toil for the sake of greater pleasures, or to avoid great disadvantages.

One other small critique of Philodemus that I must accept, as someone who has been promoting and writing books on Epicureanism for many years, is that he says that making money from teaching philosophy is the ideal way to make a living … but how many people can really do this? I know of no one who can do this, at least in our day.

While we all agree that the best life is free from toil, the question is HOW can we achieve this? This is a great, and interesting, moral challenge.

One additional note concerning the study of Philodemus’ scroll on the art of property management comes from one of the newest members of SoFE: Marcus reminds us that it’s important to keep in mind that Philodemus’ target audience was the aristocracy of the late Roman Republic. He says:

I found this short video about the Roman patronage system which is good background to understanding Philodemus’ on wealth and property management.

Concerning the utility of wealth, Philodemus says we shouldn’t reject whatever wealth we may get as useless. A natural measure of wealth is clearly preferable to poverty–but the superiority of wealth is practical, not moral. He argues that the Epicurean philosopher does not need to be an expert in management or economics, however personal sovereignty requires that we learn this skill to some extent. Philodemus adds an ethical dimension to it. He worries about our disposition (diathesis) and about issues of hedonic calculus as they relate to the management of our estate: How do you manage your property and home while living ethically and without sacrificing your happiness?

One final critique that we must accept about Philodemus of Gadara is that he seems, to an extent greater than most people do today, okay with the selfish exploitation of others (slavery was normal in his society). However, I’ve always appreciated that Epicurean economics posits a sustainable capitalism that emphasizes the limits of our desires, and therefore it’s a capitalism that is somewhat self-critical, and against excess. This is a necessary antidote to what we see today, particularly in the US. I believe Epicurean philosophy, in this manner, represents a very healthy defense of classical liberal Western values.

This essay concludes my five-part review of The Ethics of Philodemus, by Voula Tsouna. If you’ve enjoyed this content, please consider supporting me on patreon either once or monthly. Content creation is time-consuming, so I do not yet offer any special perks to my patreon subscribers, but it boosts my morale, and it helps support both this website and the teaching mission of the Epicurean Gardens.

Further Reading:

The Ethics of Philodemus

The Epicurean Doctrines on Wealth

The Epicurean Doctrines on Wealth

At one and the same time we must philosophize, laugh, and manage our household and other business, while never ceasing to proclaim the words of true philosophy. – Vatican Saying 41

According to VS 41, the founders believed that economics is an important component of how Epicureans philosophize. Also, according to Philodemus:

We believe that the tranquil administration of one’s property does not require great subtlety and that wealth is superior to poverty. At the same time we believe that it’s necessary to hand down a tradition of the most general principles and to outline many details in the treatises concerning the care and preservation of possessions.

This means that ancient Epicureans were not only writing down outlines or epitomes of the doctrines on physics and on ethics, but also about economics. When we discuss economics here, we must not assume that the ancient Epicureans referred to what in modern English is referred to as macro-economics (monetary policy, etc.), but micro-economics (household management and business management). Again:

If someone reproaches us because we write about economy, that would be enough for us, together with Epicurus and Metrodorus, who give advice and exhortations on household management in a particularly accurate way, albeit with minimal details. – Philodemus, On Vices and Virtues

This means that these doctrines were handed down by the founders. The word used in these quotes was oikonomias (usually translated as household management). There’s also a Philodeman scroll that bears this name. This is from my commentary on Peri Oikonomias (translated as On the Art of Property Management):

Philodemus makes frequent appeals to the authority of Metrodorus, one of the founders of the School, who promoted the idea that hedonic calculus must be employed in the management of one’s household and economic affairs, making the point time and again that we must run certain risks and go through certain inconveniences in order to avoid greater ruin and gain greater advantages.

He disagreed with the destitute life of the Cynics, and appears to have made this point while arguing against them and in favor of a doctrine of the natural measure of wealth. This corresponds to that which is needed to secure the natural and necessary pleasures, and to have the confident expectation that we will be able to secure them in the future.

While many modern Epicureans are following the founders’ advice to write outlines of the doctrines concerning the physics and ethics, the study of Epicurean economics has been mostly neglected. My attempts to create an outline of the economics when I initially read Peri Oikonomias yielded “Seven Principles of Autarchy” (or, self-sufficiency) at the conclusion of my discussion of the scroll, and last year I dedicated my blog’s content at the evaluation of various aspects of the economics.

One other difficulty with dealing with these doctrines has to do with resistance from Epicureans who are critical of what they see as the so-called “minimalist interpretation”, but who do not seem to be critical of the limitless desires, consumerism, and other problems related to not being able to recognize the upper limit of the natural measure of wealth. This probably has to do with the influence of Ayn Rand and other neoliberal philosophers on many who come to the study of Epicurus, and who attempt to inject Randian conceptions of ambition and greed into Epicureanism–where they clearly do not belong, since Epicurus wanted his followers to have a mind that is content, satisfied, grateful, and capable of understanding how much is enough. For this reason, it is important to clearly understand what the original doctrines on economics were, so as to not be swayed by modern revisionism in either direction (towards extreme greed, or towards extreme minimalism).

Metrodorus Against the Cynics

As we saw above, these doctrines were in part inspired in a rejection of the destitute life of the cynics. We know from Diogenes Laertius’ biography that Epicurus also rejected the Cynic practice of begging daily because this is a wretched way of life and involves much toil and suffering (DL 10.119), and said that the sage would not be a mendicant and would “regard to his property and to his future” (DL 10.8). But Metrodorus may have taken issue with more than the Cynics’ full rejection of wealth. Cynics were known for living like dogs, in utter poverty, sleeping on the streets, not practicing hygiene, and having sex in public. The health and social problems associated with lack of hygiene and a life of squalor raise issues when we carry out hedonic calculus.

Epicurean literary tradition has one scene that shows what the exchanges between the Cynics and the Epicureans may have been like. Chapter Four of A Few Days in Athens depicts a visit made by Gryphus, who is described as a “pale, dirty, hairy cynic” whose tunic was torn, to the Garden.

Gryphus, short, square, and muscular; his tunic of the coarsest and not the cleanest woollen, in some places worn threadbare, and with one open rent of considerable magnitude, that proved the skin to be as well engrained as its covering : his girdle, a rope: his cloak, or rather rag, had the appearance of a sail taken from the wreck of an old trader: his feet bare, and thickly powdered with dust: of his face, little more might be distinguished than the nose; the lower part being obscured by a bushy and wide-spreading beard, and the upper, by a profusion of long, tangled, and grisly hair.

The chapter is meant to have comedic value, but there is of course educational value in it also.

The Natural Measure of Wealth

In arguing against the destitute life of the Cynics, the co-founder of Epicureanism Metrodorus taught the doctrine of the natural measure of wealth. What does this consist of?

The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity. – Principal Doctrine 15

Poverty, if measured by the natural end, is great wealth; but wealth, if not limited, is great poverty. – Vatican Saying 25

We see here an Epicurean distinction between wealth that is “natural” (physikos) and wealth that is empty (kenos). Seneca attributes these words to Epicurus:

There is also this saying of Epicurus: “If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if you do so according to opinion, you will never be rich.”  For nature’s wants are small; the demands of opinion are boundless.

According to the authors of Philodemus and the New Testament World,

There is for the philosopher a measure of wealth that, following the founders of the school, we have passed down in “On Wealth”, so as to render the account of the art of managing the acquisition of this and the preservation of this. – Column 12 of On the art of property management

Concerning measuring our desires by nature rather than by culture, we must remember this from Letter to Menoeceus:

We must also reflect that of desires some are natural, others are groundless; and that of the natural some are necessary as well as natural, and some natural only. And of the necessary desires some are necessary if we are to be happy, some if the body is to be rid of uneasiness, some if we are even to live. – Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus

Natural wealth will, therefore, include that wealth by which we procure health (food, water, health care), happiness (friends), and safety (warmth, shelter). But those are just the necessary natural desires. There are additional natural desires which are not necessary, and which merely add variety to our pleasure regimen.

The natural measure of wealth (ploutou metron) is not absolute (it depends on context), but it’s also not arbitrary. Concerning which unnecessary desires may be considered natural, Principal Doctrine 15 teaches that natural wealth is distinguished for being easily acquired (euporistos) while empty wealth is not. Notice that there is no absolute amount of wealth that is assigned to this. The natural measure of wealth will vary according to circumstances.

Philodemus’ On Wealth

There’s one more Philodeman source dealing with wealth. The scroll On Wealth is fragmentary, but mentions that death is nothing to us, probably meaning to explain that wealth will not protect us from death. At a later point in the scroll, Philodemus cites Epicurus offering a point-by-point refutation of Menander’s Georgos (“The Farmer”), a parody of the burdens of poverty. In this parody, the poet personifies Poverty as a hag that would not go away.

The essay On Wealth: New Fragments of Empedocles, Menander, and Epicurus by David Armstrong and Joseph Ponczoch argues that Epicurus defends Poverty in Menander’s Georgos (presumably so long as one is able to procure one’s natural desires, unlike the total destitution of the Cynics), and that

as is apparent from PHerc. 1570 as much as from the texts Balch cites, one can actually distinguish four clear degrees of wealth, with two extremes and two middle terms: immense wealth, (respectable) wealth, (respectable) poverty, and destitution. The notion that a state of poverty can still be respectable is at the heart of the content of pc. 5

Against Extreme Minimalism

In the Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus described what could be described as a minimalist lifestyle

… we regard. independence of outward things as a great good, not so as in all cases to use little, but so as to be contented with little if we have not much, being honestly persuaded that they have the sweetest enjoyment of luxury who stand least in need of it, and that whatever is natural is easily procured and only the vain and worthless hard to win. Plain fare gives as much pleasure as a costly diet, when one the pain of want has been removed, while bread an water confer the highest possible pleasure when they are brought to hungry lips. To habituate one’s se therefore, to simple and inexpensive diet supplies al that is needful for health, and enables a person to meet the necessary requirements of life without shrinking and it places us in a better condition when we approach at intervals a costly fare and renders us fearless of fortune. – Epicurus, in his Letter to Menoeceus

There seems to be a curriculum of pleasure at play here. We educate ourselves to better enjoy luxurious pleasures if we do not have them frequently. This way, we avoid the hedonic treadmill. We also easily become self-sufficient and confident of our ability to procure our needs by adopting a simple way of living. What we need to keep in mind is:

Frugality too has a limit, and the man who disregards it is like him who errs through excess. – Vatican Saying 63

It’s important to note that the goal of the Epicurean is to live a life filled with all the pleasures that nature makes easily available to us, it’s not to live minimally. As Epicurus says to Menoeceus: it’s “not so as in all cases to use little”. So if the minimalist lifestyle we have chosen generates more disadvantages than advantages, it’s time to reassess the limits of our simple lifestyle. For this reason, Metrodorus said that sometimes we accept many disadvantages for the sake of things without which we would suffer greatly.

Against Extreme Ambition

Concerning the upper limit of the natural measure of wealth, the founders submit the following concerns to our consideration in our choices and avoidances:

The love of money, if unjustly gained, is impious, and, if justly gained, is shameful; for it is unseemly to be parsimonious even with justice on one’s side. – Vatican Saying 43

People generally dislike misers. The word used here, philokrematía (love of money), is also cited by Philodemus in Peri Oikonomias as a vice that we must guard against. It may lead to legal entanglements, reduce the number of our friends, and attract the distrust of friends and business associates. At least one of the Vatican Sayings criticizes how people sometimes sacrifice their freedom for money:

Since the attainment of great wealth can scarcely be accomplished without slavery to crowds or to politicians, a free life cannot obtain much wealth; but such a life already possesses everything in unfailing supply. Should such a life happen to achieve great wealth, this too it can share so as to gain the good will of one’s neighbors. – Vatican Saying 67

Being beholden to crowds or leaders, we may sacrifice our values, or our reputation, or our privacy for money. Some people sacrifice of too much time at work for the sake of money, without the balance of being able to enjoy the fruits of their labor. We call them workaholics. It is difficult to argue that this passes hedonic calculus.

The desire for fame, together with the desire for unlimited amounts of wealth, are both criticized here:

The soul neither rids itself of disturbance nor gains a worthwhile joy through the possession of greatest wealth, nor by the honor and admiration bestowed by the crowd, or through any of the other things sought by unlimited desire. – Vatican Saying 81

We are reminded of the Princeton University study that showed that happiness correlates to wealth with an income of up to $75,000. Beyond that, happiness varies according to other factors, like health, and the amount and quality of friends.

That wealth itself, once acquired, is far from a guarantee of happiness, is attested in the Philodeman scrolls where we see a huge amount of concern with flatterers as a category of false friends. This is probably due to the fact that Philodemus was teaching Epicureanism to wealthy Romans, who attracted many kinds of flatterers, false friends, and people who were seeking their own self-interest by associating with the wealthy. Therefore, even if one is very gifted in interpersonal charm and attracts true friends with ease, it may be difficult for a wealthy person to know with certainty which friends are true ones and which ones are flatterers.

There are other problems tied to not recognizing the upper limit of the natural measure of wealth. Consumerism is tied to anxiety about status, and to false attribution of value to things rather than relations and experiences. Being ostentatious about one’s wealth and suffering from the “keeping up with the Joneses” syndrome may lead to additional problems of debt (which is a form of slavery), and constant craving for more unnecessary things. Once the things we acquire no longer “smell new”, we tire of them and want new toys.

Under what circumstances is ambition advantageous or not, useful or useless?

As we have seen with the “easily acquired” attribution of natural wealth, if the attainment of something comes with little effort and little to no disadvantages, it’s hard to argue against this type of ambition. Particularly, our ambitious efforts lead to wealth that is easily acquired if we employ our aptitude (that which we are good at), and if we enjoy doing what it takes to acquire things. In other words, the greater our aptitude, the less effort we have to put in. If we make great attempts at achieving something that we are not good at, or that we don’t like doing, the effort may not pass hedonic calculus.

Finally, one practical advice given by José Mujica, former president of Uruguay, is that we should measure the true value of things in terms of time instead of money. If we consider how many hours of work it will take to pay for our “new toys”–for instance, a new car–we will be more hesitant to buy frivolous things than if we merely think about the value we get from owning a status symbol. In reality, for as long as we earn an hourly income and have limited amounts of money available (as is the case with almost everyone), it may appear that we are buying things with cash, but we are really buying things with our time and with our lives. If we think about the money that we spend frivolously as the bond of our indentured servitude that it really is, we will become more humane towards ourselves.

Brief Dialogue on Ambition

In order to discern what other Epicureans think about ambition as a virtue or a vice, and about wealth, we had discussions in the Garden of Epicurus Facebook group. Here are a few highlights.

Hiram. What do others think about the ethics of ambition, from an Epicurean perspective? Under which circumstances is ambition advantageous / virtuous and under what conditions is it disadvantageous / a vice?

Ron. Clearly ambition can’t be inherently bad, because Epicurus was very ambitious himself.

Hiram. I don’t think anything is “inherently bad” in Epicurean philosophy, other than pain that doesn’t lead to a greater pleasure.

Doug. If you enjoy doing what you’re doing, it would seem to be fine. If you’re doing it for fame and status, there would be a problem.

Hiram. Is that because fame and status are desires that are impossible to satisfy?

Doug. That would be part of it. In the case of fame and status, there are downsides of these that are commonly not considered until they appear. I’m reminded of what Robert Pirsig did when his book became a best seller and his phone rang off the hook with people asking for interviews. He quit his job, loaded up his RV, and disappeared.

Hiram. Well, then there are people like Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson, who were clearly unhappy and didn’t live lives worth living in spite of their incredible success and fame.

Ron. Not sure about status. Low status can be a source of pain I think. But I would say there is a limit to how much is necessary for a pleasant life, beyond which striving for it is not worth it.

Mike. Let’s be honest. Fame and high status are like a double-edged sword. Yes, there is nothing wrong in desiring and enjoying them. However, that’s not always the case. In many cases, fame and status create much trouble. It is good if they provide peace of mind, bad if they produce anxiety and insecurities. Principal Doctrine 7 is clear on this: “Some people have sought to become famous and renowned, thinking that thus they would make themselves secure against their fellow-humans. If, then, the life of such persons really was secure, they attained natural good; if, however, it was insecure, they have not attained the end which by nature’s own prompting they originally sought.”

Hiram. Famous people frequently lose their privacy. Privacy is an extremely important pleasure that most people take for granted. Consider the British prince and Duchess Megan who recently moved to Canada. Even being royalty can’t make up for the difficulties.

Brief Dialogue on Wealth

Jason. It often results in unnecessary political and/or legal entanglements too. Look at Seneca for an ancient example of wealth not leading to a happy life. I’m sure we can all think of more recent examples too.

Hiram. I have an ambitious acquaintance who is workaholic. She has no children so no reason to work so hard but I have a feeling it keeps her from dealing with “stuff”. Some people avoid having an intellectual or philosophical life in order to avoid existential baggage.

Jason. I know more than one retiree who is “lost” as a result of no longer having to work for a living. I can’t imagine being so bored and incurious that I didn’t know what to do with myself.

Mike. Anxiety is not only a rich man’s disease. It is also a poor man’s problem. There are poor people who are too anxious even about little things. But the fact that Epicurus said that “Wealth, if not limited, is great poverty” implies that infinite desire is vain and therefore produces troubles in the soul such as anxiety, stress, or even paranoia.

An Outline of Oikonomias

I have carried out an investigation of Epicurean economics to the best of my ability, assured by Philodemus that it’s “necessary to hand down a tradition of the most general principles and to outline many details in the treatises concerning the care and preservation of possessions”. As a result of this, below is my outline of the doctrines concerning Epicurean micro-economics. I invite other students to develop their own outlines.

  • There is a natural measure of wealth (ploutou metron), and an Epicurean distinction between wealth that is “natural” (physikos) and wealth that is empty (kenos). The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure (euporistos); but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity and is impossible or difficult to procure.
  • In economics, as in all else, we must run certain risks and go through certain inconveniences in order to avoid greater ruin and gain greater advantages.
  • Since the attainment of great wealth can scarcely be accomplished without slavery, a free life cannot obtain much wealth; but such a life already possesses everything in unfailing supply. Should such a life happen to achieve great wealth, this too it can share so as to gain the good will of one’s neighbors.
  • Our ambitious efforts lead to wealth that is easily acquired if we employ our aptitude (that which we are good at), and if we enjoy doing what it takes to acquire things. In other words, the greater our aptitude, the less effort we have to put in. If we make great attempts at achieving something that we are not good at, or that we don’t like doing, the effort may not pass hedonic calculus.
  • When we are habituated to simple pleasures, we are in a better position to enjoy luxurious ones.
  • Frugality too has a limit, and the man who disregards it is like him who errs through excess.
  • There is social wealth in addition to the wealth of things and possessions. Philodemus, in Art of Property Management, compares our investment of time and money and efforts on our friends with “sowing seeds” that will yield fruit in the future. (all the points that follow are from that scroll)
  • Association makes labor pleasant. We must choose our company prudently.
  • Our revenue must more than meet our immediate needs: it must facilitate a dignified life of leisure.
  • It’s prudent to cultivate multiple streams of income, among which deriving fees from the Garden’s teaching mission, rental property income and business ownership, which includes gainful employment of others, have special priority.
  • It’s prudent to have fruitful possessions, such as the various forms of ownership of means of production.

Further Reading:

On Philodemus’ Art of Property Management

Philodemus, On Property Management (Writings from the Greco-Roman World)ir?t=ataraxia0c-20&l=am2&o=1&a=1589836677

Horace, Ofellus and Philodemus of Gadara in Sermones 2.2, by Sergio Yona

An Epicurean measure of wealth in Horace

 [Philodemus] On Wealth (PHerc. 1570 Cols VI-XX, PCC. 4-6A): New Fragments of Empedocles, Menander, and Epicurus

Philodemus and the New Testament World

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

Happy Twentieth! On Epicurean Economics

Happy 20th to Epicureans everywhere! This month we celebrated 10 years of the GARDEN OF ATHENS: Celebration of a Decade of Pleasure, and the PEL podcast published their follow-up to the Lucretius episode (which focused on the physics), titled Epicurus on Seeking Pleasure. This one focuses on the ethics.

Episode 208: Epicurus on Seeking Pleasure (Part One)
Episode 208: Epicurus on Seeking Pleasure (Part Two)

This month, we discovered a piece published in thesimpledollar.com–a webpage that seeks to simplify financial education–titled How Epicurean Principles Can Help You Transform Your Financial and Personal Life, by Trent Hamm. The piece relates the Epicurean curriculum of control of desires and the mathematics of hedonic calculus to simple yet pleasant living, and financial independence. It’s also a great introduction and starting point for delving into Epicurean economics. The founders of EP specifically gave instructions to philosophize around economics, as autarchy (self-sufficiency) facilitates the confident expectation that we will be able to easily secure the natural and necessary goods, which confers tranquility and pleasure.

At one and the same time we must philosophize, laugh, and manage our household and other business, while never ceasing to proclaim the words of true philosophy. – Vatican Saying 41

Some of our precursors have begun to approach and flesh out the subject from various perspectives. Philodemus of Gadara, in the First Century, compiled the Epicurean wisdom tradition up to his day concerning economics into a scroll titled On the art of property Management. Both Trent Hamm and Philodemus wrote mainly on personal finances. Later on, Thomas Jefferson wrote on the excesses of wealth and poverty, and on his concept of the social contract. An NY Mag piece cites his initial introspections:

[T]he solitude of my walk led me into a train of reflections on that unequal division of property which occasions the numberless instances of wretchedness which I had observed in this country and is to be observed all over Europe. The property of this country is absolutely concentered in a very few hands … I asked myself what could be the reason that so many should be permitted to beg who are willing to work, in a country where there is a very considerable proportion of uncultivated lands? These lands are kept idle mostly for the aske of game. It should seem then that it must be because of the enormous wealth of the proprietors which places them above attention to the increase of their revenues by permitting these lands to be laboured.

Even in his early day, Jefferson had begun to worry about and problematize the gap between the rich and the poor and the moral problems related to the over-abundance and unequal distribution of wealth that characterize American capitalism. He was no socialist, but he did exhibit social-democratic tendencies in his ideas about progressive taxation. Here is how Jefferson proposes to address the obscene coexistence of concentrated wealth and underemployed workers:

I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree is a politic measure, and a practicable one.

Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right.

The main point I wish to accentuate here is this: “to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise“–as this reminds me of Philodemus’ doctrine of the natural measure of wealth, and there seems to be the beginnings of an Epicurean theory of taxation here, one that never got fully articulated until Jefferson’s day. The quickest explanation of the doctrine of the natural measure of wealth is from my commentary on Philodemus’ scroll:

One fundamental concept in the Epicurean understanding of economics is the concept of natural wealth.  In our assessment of desires, we classify them as either natural or unnatural and as necessary or unnecessary.  Those that are neither natural nor necessary, are said to be vain and empty.  The natural measure of wealth is that which corresponds to our natural and necessary desires, as opposed to empty desires.

Elsewhere in his scroll On Choices and Avoidances, Philodemus elaborates natural wealth in his doctrine of the principal things, or the chief goods (kyriotatai). These chief goods are things that lead to life, health, and happiness and include specifics like shelter, safety, food, clothing, health, and wholesome association. Here, Philodemus is echoing and elaborating on Epicurus’ Epistle to Menoeceus, where the Master says:

We must also reflect that of desires some are natural, others are groundless; and that of the natural some are necessary as well as natural, and some natural only. And of the necessary desires some are necessary if we are to be happy, some if the body is to be rid of uneasiness, some if we are even to live.

Philodemus–in On Choices and Avoidances–further criticizes people who do not discern clearly between the chief goods and empty desires. This preoccupation is one of the central concerns of Epicurean ethics, and it’s framed here by asking what it is that our own nature needs, and inviting us to separate natural pleasures form the vain desires instilled into our minds by cultural convention.

Column V. For men suffer the worst evils for the sake of the most alien desires which they take to be most necessary–I mean desires for sovereignty and … reputation and great wealth and suchlike luxuries … they neglect the most necessary appetites as if they were the most alien to nature.

And so Jefferson’s ideas on taxation are consistent with both the first elements of Epicurean ethics and with Philodemus’ elaboration of them, and they further flesh out both. He proposes that only income beyond what is needed to secure the natural and necessary desires should be taxed. This, of course, must be measured for each community (and even for some individuals who may, for instance, suffer from certain health risks or conditions) separately, based on particulars–for example, where housing or food is expensive, a greater allowance must be provided. Notice that access to health services is advocated here.

An Epicurean model of taxation based on Jefferson’s ideas would require that the basic measure of these chief goods be quantified, so as to only tax citizens beyond this point.

I have sought to present some of the basic ideas in Epicurean economics. My hope is that they will be further elaborated and discussed. Autarchy (self-sufficiency) involves some of the most important existential tasks that we have to undertake, as well as many of the most important instances of hedonic calculus that require long-term planning and deferral of gratification. The subject of autarchy should not be neglected: it should be one of the foundations upon which we build lives of easy pleasure.

Further Reading:

Philodemus, On Property Management (Writings from the Greco-Roman World)

Commentary on Philodemus’ scroll On the art of property management (Part I, Part II)

How Epicurean Principles Can Help You Transform your Financial Life