Epicurus: An Introduction [Book Review]

Review of Metaphysics 26 (3):545-546 (1973)

Hoping to overcome the deficiencies of Bailey and Dewitt, and taking into account the insights of Diano, Kleve, and Merlan, Rist presents this book as an accurate and complete doxology of Epicurus’ philosophy. The book is written in a condensed style where doctrines treated early in the book are not fully explained until the completion of later parts. In trying to pin down Epicurus, distinct from the Epicureans, he depends heavily upon Lucretius and the few extant writings of Epicurus himself, but he does range over the works of all the later students and commentators. Even so, much is left either vaguely outlined or problematic, and what is accepted from the more distant or biased sources is judiciously measured against the more accepted teachings. There are seven major chapters dealing with the canonic, physics, man and the cosmos, soul and mind and body, pleasure, friendship, and gods and religion. Certain of the teachings presented have a bearing, one upon the other, throughout the book and do much toward showing some consistency and richness to Epicurus’ philosophy: In the canonic, three types of criteria for judging as to the existence of a thing or the truth of a proposition are explained, viz., sensation, general concepts, and feeling. In the physics, a crucial topic is the role of the swerve with its logical priority. In the cosmos, there is the developmental, evolutionary character of the universe. In the soul and body of man, the animus/anima distinction is worked out. The interrelation of all these is brought to bear on the central theme of pleasure and the gods. Pleasure, as the stable condition of the flesh and confident expectation of the future on this score, with complete absence of pain and anxiety, involves the physics, friendship, the soul of man, and the canonic. Also important to his teaching on pleasure is the interplay of those pleasures based upon want and that pleasure which is a state of untroubledness. Rist makes good use of the teachings of the canonic to establish the existence of the gods. In describing their structure, he shows how the gods, as detached exemplars, fit in with the physics and canonic, and with the teaching on pleasure and friendship. He assiduously refrains from interpreting the role of the gods in Epicurus’ philosophy, but with their existence so presented future interpretations should be much enriched. This book is a superb piece of scholarship and an invaluable aid to the study of Greek philosophy.—W. A. F.
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