Friday, 11 May 2018

The “Hero Cult” of Epicurus

Marble bust of Epicurus
Martha C. Nussbaum, in The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics, is full of praise for Epicurus’s ethical teachings. Her explanation makes it seem that Epicureanism is more conducive for achieving the Greek ideal of eudaimonia than the ethical teachings of Aristotle. But in the book’s Chapter 4, “Epicurean Surgery: Argument and Empty Desire,” she gives a glimpse of the “hero cult” that Epicurus had established. In Ancient Greece and during the Roman era, Epicurus was venerated as the savior of mankind by his disciples.

Here’s an excerpt from the Chapter 4 of Nussbaum’s book:  
Accordingly, all ancient accounts of Epicurus and Epicureanism agree in depicting an extraordinary degree of devotion and deferential obedience toward the master. The pupils, from Lucretius to Cicero's Torquatus, con­cur in celebrating him as the savior of humanity. He is revered as a hero, even as a god. Plutarch reports that one day, while Epicurus was lecturing about nature, Colotes fell at his feet, seized him by the knees, and per­formed a prokunesis act of obeisance appropriate to a divinity or a self-deifying monarch; he quotes a letter from master to pupil in which Epicurus recalls the incident with approval, stressing that Colotes "seized hold of (him) to the full extent of the contact that is customary in revering and supplicating certain people". Epicurus makes the vague claim that he would like to "revere and consecrate" Colotes in return—presumably a wish that Colotes should eventually attain his godlike condition. But this just further underlines the asymmetry of the give-and-take of argument: either you are a god or you are not. If you are not, your proper response to the arguments of the one who is, is acceptance and worship. In a letter to Idomeneus, Epicurus makes a request: "Send us, then, an offering of first­ fruits for the care [therapeian] of our sacred body [hierou somatos], on behalf of yourself and your children". Philodemus tells us that the student's fundamental attitude is: "We will obey the authority of Epicurus, according to whom we have chosen to live”. We have already seen evidence (supported by Diskin Clay's new work on the papyri-Clay 1986) that Epicurus established a hero cult of himself as a focus of the pupils' communal attention. Try imagining Aristotle taking this role, and you will have some measure of the distance we have traveled. Seneca tells us that the Stoics, too, reject the Epicurean conception of philosophical authority: "We are not under a king. Each one claims his own freedom. With them, whatever Hermarchus said, whatever Metro­dorus said, is ascribed to a single source. In that band, anything that anyone says is spoken under the leadership and command of one alone" 
The Epicurean normative ethics has played a positive role in the history of last 2300 years, but it seems that the school was quite dogmatic and cultist during the early years of its existence.

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