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

By Dirk Obbink | Go to book overview

3
Epicurean Poetics:
Response and Dialogue

David Sider

The view that Epicurus was himself impervious to the charms of poetry, and that his charge to his disciples was to avoid it absolutely, both the listening and the composing, has become standard in handbooks and histories. Not everyone of course held to this extreme statement of his position, but it was easy enough to believe that anyone who wrote prose on so stylistically plain a level as Epicurus would, almost a fortiori, be insensitive to the charms of poetry. Moreover, that the most famous piece of Epicurean literature was itself a poem could be regarded as all the more interesting if Epicurus himself abjured the writing of poetry.

Nor did this view derive e nihilo. There seemed to be sufficient ancient testimony to support it. Cicero, for example, says of Philodemus: non philosophia solum sed etiam ceteris studiis quae fere ceteros Epicureos neglegere dicunt perpolitus, "he is expert not only in philosophy but also in other skills which almost all other Epicureans are said to neglect" ( Against Piso 70). As Cicero's very next sentence makes clear, these other skills include, or are coextensive with, the writing of poems, and indeed, Cicero admits, quite elegant ones at that. Thus, for Philodemus as well as his contemporary Lucretius, although one wrote in the slightest of genres, the epigram, while the other wrote in the weightiest of genres, the didactic epic, the very idea of Epicurean poetry would seem to remain something of a challenge, which would have to be confronted before verse composition could begin.

Whereas Cicero speaks of contemporary Epicureans, Diogenes Laertius, not only our most complete ancient source for the teachings of Epicurus but also one of the most sympathetic, seems to have been an unambiguous witness to the hostility of Epicurus himself to poetry. Elisabeth Asmis, however, in the previous study shows that his prohibition was probably not intended to be absolute. She suggests that the unconstruable infinitive ἐνεργει + ̑ν at Diogenes Laertius 10.121b should either be emended as it was by Usener to ἐνεργείᾳ, but with the sense "energetically"; or understood as a gloss with this same sense on the infinitive ποιει + ̑ν. Reading the dative is preferable, as it (or some synonymous expression) would have been written presumably by Epicurus himself and thus have formed an essential part of his original statement. The infinitive as gloss would have to have come from an interpreter

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