Philodemus (c. 110–c. 40 BCE)

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(c. 110c. 40 BCE)

Philodemus of Gadara was an Epicurean philosopher and epigrammatic poet of the first century BCE. Born in Gadara in Palestine, he was taught philosophy in Athens by the head of the Epicurean school Zeno of Sidon (c.15070s BCE) and by Demetrius Lacon, Zeno's younger contemporary. In the 80s or 70s he moved to Italy and earned the patronage of Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, father-in-law of Julius Caesar. He seems to have spent part of his life at Herculaneum in Campania, probably in Piso's villa, and to have formed around him an Epicurean community of pupils and friends. His writings constitute the largest surviving portion of the library of the villa, which was buried beneath the mud and ashes when Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE and was partly excavated in the mid-eighteenth century. Thirty-seven distinct works are known or conjectured to be his and are contained in carbonized papyrus rolls in various states of fragmentation and corruption. However, it has been possible to gain considerable knowledge of Philodemus's methods and views. He emerges as a prolific writer with a wide range of interests who advances a conception of Epicurean orthodoxy first defined by Zeno and exhibits the intellectualism characteristic of the school of Athens. He was respected in educated Roman circles: Cicero speaks well of him, and he seems acquainted with both Vergil and Horace.

About thirty of his poems are preserved in the Palatine Anthology, and additional evidence suggests that he may have written hundreds. It is controversial whether there are relations between Philodemus's poetic output, his poetic theory, and his philosophical commitments. Except for a poetic invitation to Piso to participate in a festival in Epicurus's honor, his elegant epigrams make no mention of Epicureanism. Most of them concern love, and several contain autobiographical elements. They can be read as illustrating Philodemus's thesis that poetry as such does not benefit but only entertains.

In On Poems, he develops and defends his views, arguing both against literary theorists who held that a good poem be morally useful (Heraclides of Pontus, Neoptolemus of Parium, and an unnamed Stoic philosopher) and against formalists (notably, Crates of Mallos) who judged a poem only by reference to its form and aesthetic quality. He considers poetry an imitative art appreciated by reason, which requires careful composition in order to present clearly certain thoughts and move the listener. What makes a poem good is appropriate thoughts expressed in appropriate diction; changing the arrangement of words can destroy the poetic goodness of a verse. However, On the Good King According to Homer shows how to derive benefit from the poetry of Homer, especially how to extract both warning and advice from Homer's portrayal of different rulers. On Music, too, dissociates moral profit from artistic form. Music as such has no mimetic character. It is sound, an irrational element that causes pleasure to the ear. It affects the soul only via poetry, texts, or thought, which, however, are external to the musical art. On Rhetoric suggests a comparable approach to sophistic or epideictic rhetoric. Refuting Epicurean rivals who deny that rhetoric is an art, Philodemus holds that while forensic and political rhetoric are not arts, epideictic or sophistic rhetoric is. It consists mainly in the transmissible method of using the one naturally correct language to write clear and persuasive compositions, and the criteria pertaining to it are independent of its utility.

Philodemus gained credit for his historical work as well. The Arrangement of the Philosophers, especially the two books on the Academics and the Stoics, contains biographical and doxographical material and, occasionally, summaries of philosophical doctrines. The Works on the Records of Epicurus and Some Others relates the early history of the Epicurean school whereas the treatise On Epicurus eulogizes the founder and alludes to rituals of the Epicurean communities. The polemical treatises On the Stoics and Against the should also be mentioned. Historical information about the theological doctrines of philosophers from the Presocratics to the Stoic Diogenes of Babylon is found in Philodemus's theological work On Piety, which offers a powerful defense of Epicurus's piety and reflects Zeno of Sidon's interpretation of Epicurus's views about the nature of the gods and our concepts and knowledge of them. On the Gods discusses our fear of the gods whereas On the Way of Life of the Gods treats aspects and attributes of divine existence. Both in theology and in other areas, Philodemus endorses the epistemological positions of his school, some of which may have been mentioned in a work on perception. On Signs confirms that he is also committed to the Epicurean methodology developed and defended against Stoic criticisms by Philodemus's teachers in Athensin particular, the similarity method (a method of sign-inference based on analogy and induction) and the related procedure of comparative assessment (epilogismos ). Two other works, one of which is subtitled From the Lectures of Zeno, make remarks about scientific methodology.

Philodemus engages in both theoretical and practical ethics, often in connection with moral psychology. On Choices and Avoidances rehearses canonical theses such as the cardinal principles of Epicurus's doctrine, the criteria of moral choice, the so-called fourfold medicine (tetrapharmakos ), and the relation between the virtues and pleasure. On Frank Speech is the central piece of the ensemble On Characters and Ways of Life, to which On Gratitude and On Conversation also belong. It discusses frank speech (parrhesia ), the principal educational method of late Epicurean schools and a major tool of moral and psychological therapy, and it reflects the views of Zeno on whose lectures the treatise is based.

Another major work is On Vices and the Opposite Virtues and the People in whom they occur and the Situations in which they are found. There survive the extant remains of three books that analyze and treat, respectively, the vices of flattery, arrogance, and greed, as well as other vices of professional administrators and money makers. The fragmentary contents of On Wealth are thematically related to this last topic.

The books On Folly, On Lack of Proper Measure, On Erotic Love, and, possibly, On Envy belong to the multivolume project On the Passions. We know very little about them whereas a good deal survives of On Anger, which describes the nature and consequences of anger and draws a distinction between violent rage and natural anger. Philodemus condemns the former but allows room for the latter, steering what might seem a middle course between the Peripatetic approval of rightful anger and the Stoic aim of eradicating the emotion altogether. On Death is conceptually related to the group On the Passions and may have belonged there. The surviving text addresses the question of whether the moment of death is always physically painful, and also examines cases in which death may cause great emotional pain, such as dying prematurely, ingloriously, or unjustly and leaving behind grieving friends. Philodemus's analyses and arguments, and his concession that it is sometimes natural to feel bites of sorrow, constitute significant contributions to moral psychology. Moreover, his methods of treating the emotions occupy an important place in the therapeutics of the Hellenistic era.

See also Cicero, Marcus Tullius; Epicureanism and the Epicurean School; Epistemology; Ethics; Hellenistic Thought; Peripatetics; Stoicism.


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Voula Tsouna (2005)

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Philodemus (c. 110–c. 40 BCE)

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