Philodemus and Poetry: Poetic Theory and Practice in Lucretius, Philodemus, and Horace

By Dirk Obbink | Go to book overview

2
Epicurean Poetics

Elizabeth Asmis

If one were to ask people to rank the contributions made by the Epicureans to philosophy, I would not be surprised if poetic theory were near the bottom of most people's lists, or altogether missing, whereas poetry itself might well be at the top. The ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry seems to have played itself out in an extreme paradox in Epicureanism. Epicurus has the reputation of being the most hostile to poetry of any Greek philosopher. But some of his later followers were clearly devoted to poetry, and one of them, Lucretius, achieved a remarkable reconciliation between philosophy and poetry.

In this paper, I propose to investigate the road between Epicurus and Lucretius. What were Epicurus' views, and to what extent did his followers adopt, modify, or jettison his views? We know that in other areas Epicurus' followers went to great lengths to show that their views were consistent with those of their leader. The more innovative they were, it seems, the more they insisted on their orthodoxy. The problem of orthodoxy became especially acute at the time when Zeno of Sidon was head of the Epicurean school at Athens, about the end of the second century to the early seventies B.C.1 The period of Zeno and his immediate followers is also a time when the Epicureans showed an especially strong interest in poetry. Zeno and his student Philodemus of Gadara both offered comprehensive criticisms of poetic theories; and while Lucretius' great poem on the nature of the universe overshadows all contemporary poetry, Philodemus' epigrams are among the most elegant examples of this genre. There are just a few, well known bits of evidence about Epicurus' views on poetry. But these testimonies, in conjunction with the much larger and partially

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1
The problem of orthodoxy is well attested in the areas of epistemology and ethics, as well as rhetoric and poetry. On epistemology, see E. Asmis, Epicurus' Scientific Method ( Ithaca 1984), esp. 220-24. When Zeno of Sidon was head of the Epicurean school there was a very acrimonious debate among Epicureans on who observed Epicurus' teaching about whether rheotic is a craft. This debate is discussed in detail by David Sedley (Sedley 1989); see also Asmis 1990a, 2400-2. In his work Περὶ παρρηϲίαϲ (fr. 45.8-11 Olivieri), Philodemus sums up the loyalty of Epicurus' followers in a statement which is virtually an oath of loyalty: καὶ τὸ ϲυέχον κα̟76 κυρι\ώτ[α]τον, Ἐπικούρωι, κα\θ+̕ ὃν ζη+̑ν ἡ〈ι〉ρήμεθα, πει\θαρχήϲοομεν ("the basic and most important [principle] is that we will obey Epicurus, according to whom we have chosen to live").

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