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

By Dirk Obbink | Go to book overview

10
How to Read Poetry about Gods

Dirk Obbink


1. Epicurus' Maiden Voyage

Diogenes Laertius preserves two contrasting case studies of how Epicurus came to philosophy. While both come equipped with authoritative pedigrees (and one of these impeccable), neither version is particular compelling, especially given of the hodge-podge nature of Diogenes' biography1 and the working methods of Hellenistic biographers. To make matters worse, the two accounts appear to be mutually exclusive. Taken together, however, the two anecdotes epitomize in its complexity and ambivalence the Epicurean attitude toward traditional literature, poetry, and paideia.

On good Epicurean authority, Diogenes first relates that Epicurus turned to philosophy as a youth out of disgust at the schoolmasters because they could not tell him the meaning of Chaos in Hesiod.2 We are to think of a precocious Epicurus in his perplexity coming upon the description of Chaos in the reading of Hesiod set for him by his schoolmaster ( Theogony116 "and first there was Chaos").3 When the grammar teachers fail miserably one after another in their attempts to answer the question: "What, then, preceded Chaos?" he goes off in a huff to the philosophers. Epicurus would certainly not have been the first to query the primacy of Chaos: religious

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1
Philodemus provided Diogenes with at least some of his information about the Epicurean School: at 10.24 Philodemus is named as the authority for the encomium of the Epicurean Polyaenus, and at 10.3 a debt to Book 10 of Philodemus' Syntaxis of Philosophers is prominently acknowleged. Gigante 1995, chapter 2 with n. 13 sets out the case that Diogenes' Lives of the Philosophers in ten books is based on the structure of Philodemus' Syntaxis; see also his article "Biografia e dossografia in Diogene Laerzio," Elenchos 7 ( 1986), 25-34.
2
Diogenes Laertius 10.2: "Apollodorus the Epicurean [ second century B.C. head of the School] in the first book of his Life of Epicurus says that Epicurus turned to philosophy because he despised the schoolmasters, since they were unable to explain to him the passage about Chaos in Hesiod," Ἀπολλόδωροϲ δ᾽ Ἐπικούρειοϲ ἐν τῳ + ̑ πρώτῳ περὶ του + ̑ Ἐπικούρον βίον ϕηϲὶν ἐλθει + ̑ν αὐτὸν ἐπὶ ϕιλοϲοϕίαν καταγνόντα τω + ̑ν γραμματιϲτω + ̑ν, ἐπειδή μή ἐδυνήθηϲαν ἑρμηνευ + ̑ϲαι αὐτῳ + ̑ τU+170 περὶ του + ̑ παρ᾽ Ἡϲιόδῳ χάουϲ. I have drawn freely on the excellent commentary on the passage by Laks 1976, 36-38.
3
Theogony 116 (first line after the hymnic prooemium and beginning of the cosmogony proper) + ̑ τοι μὲν πρώτιϲτα Χάοϲ γένετο, cf. 123 ἐκ Χάεοϲ δ᾽ Ἔρεβόϲ τε μέλαινά τε Νὺξ ἐγένοντο, "from Chaos next were born Erebus and dark Night."

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