Ideas from 'Letter to Herodotus' by Epicurus [293 BCE], by Theme Structure

[found in 'The Epicurus Reader' by Epicurus (ed/tr Inwood,B. /Gerson,L.) [Hackett 1994,0-87220-241-0]].

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1. Philosophy / F. Analytic Philosophy / 5. Linguistic Analysis
If we are to use words in enquiry, we need their main, unambiguous and uncontested meanings
                        Full Idea: It is necessary that we look to the primary conception corresponding to each word and that it stand in no need of demonstration, if, that is, we are going to have something to which we can refer the object of search or puzzlement and opinion.
                        From: Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus [c.293 BCE], 38)
                        A reaction: This either points to definition or to consensus, and since definition seems in danger of some sort of Quinean circularity, I favour consensus. Philosophy is, after all, people discussing things, not inscriptions sent to the gods.
3. Truth / A. Truth Problems / 8. Subjective Truth
Observation and applied thought are always true
                        Full Idea: Everything that is observed or grasped by the intellect in an act of application is true.
                        From: Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus [c.293 BCE], 62)
                        A reaction: Not quite clear what he means, but Epicurus is committed to perception as the source of knowledge, with the intellect extending the findings of the senses. He might subscribe to Descartes's 'clear and distinct' perceptions.
7. Existence / A. Nature of Existence / 1. Nature of Existence
Nothing comes to be from what doesn't exist
                        Full Idea: Nothing comes into being from what is not.
                        From: Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus [c.293 BCE], 38)
                        A reaction: King Lear puts it better: Nothing will come of nothing [1.i]. There seems to be an underlying assumption that coming into being out of nothing is much weirder than just existing, but I am not convinced about that. It's all equally weird.
If disappearing things went to nothingness, nothing could return, and it would all be gone by now
                        Full Idea: If that which disappears were destroyed into what is not, all things would have been destroyed, since that into which they were dissolved does not exist.
                        From: Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus [c.293 BCE], 39)
                        A reaction: This follows on from Idea 14028. Theologians will immediately spot that this is the underlying principle cited by Aquinas in his Third Way for proving God's existence (Idea 1431).
7. Existence / B. Change in Existence / 1. Nature of Change
The totality is complete, so there is no room for it to change, and nothing extraneous to change it
                        Full Idea: The totality of things has always been just like it is now and always will be. For there is nothing for it to change into. For there exists nothing in addition to the totality, which could enter into it and produce the change.
                        From: Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus [c.293 BCE], 39)
                        A reaction: This smacks of the sort of dubious arguments that the medieval theologians fell in love with. I never thought I'd say this, but I think Epicurus needs a comprehensive course in set theory before he makes remarks like this.
7. Existence / D. Theories of Reality / 5. Physicalism
Astronomical movements are blessed, but they don't need the help of the gods
                        Full Idea: Movements, turnings, risings, settings, and related phenomena occur without any god helping out and ordaining or being about to ordain things, and at the same time have complete blessedness and indestructibility.
                        From: Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus [c.293 BCE], 76)
                        A reaction: Epicurus is sometimes accused of atheism for remarks like these, but he is always trying to show piety in his attitudes. We might now call this attitude 'deism' (see alphabetical themes).
8. Modes of Existence / B. Properties / 8. Properties as Modes
The perceived accidental properties of bodies cannot be conceived of as independent natures
                        Full Idea: The shapes, colours, sizes and weights which are predicated of body as accidents, ...and are known by sense-perception, must not be thought of as independent natures (for that is inconceivable).
                        From: Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus [c.293 BCE], 68)
                        A reaction: I take this to be an anti-platonist remark, though he is not denying that the accidental properties may have some universal character. I'm struck by how close the basic metaphysics of Epicurus is to that of Aristotle.
Accidental properties give a body its nature, but are not themselves bodies or parts of bodies
                        Full Idea: Accidental qualities are not non-existent, nor are they distinct corporeal entities inhering in the body, nor parts of it. We should think that the whole body throughout derives its permanent nature from these properties, though not as a compound of them.
                        From: Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus [c.293 BCE], 69)
                        A reaction: 'Permanent' nature sounds more like essential than accidental properties. This is uncomfortably negative in its attempt to pin down what accidental properties are. The last bit seems to deny the bundle view of objects. Would he like tropes?
9. Objects / B. Unity of Objects / 1. Unifying an Object / b. Unifying aggregates
A 'body' is a conception of an aggregate, with properties defined by application conditions
                        Full Idea: Properties are known by their peculiar forms of application and comprehension, in close accompaniment with the aggregate [of atoms], which is given the predicate 'body' by reference to the aggregate conception.
                        From: Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus [c.293 BCE], 69)
                        A reaction: There is an interesting hint here of how to think of properties (as both applying and comprehended in some distinctive way), and a suggestion that there is something conventional about bodies, depending on how we conceive them.
9. Objects / D. Essence of Objects / 9. Essence and Properties
Bodies have impermanent properties, and permanent ones which define its conceived nature
                        Full Idea: Impermanent properties do not have the nature of an entire thing, which we call a body when we grasp it in aggregate, nor the nature of permanent accompaniments without which it is not possible to conceive of a body.
                        From: Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus [c.293 BCE], 70)
                        A reaction: Epicurus doesn't discuss essences, but this seems to commit to the basic Aristotelian idea, that there there are some properties which actually bestow identity, and then others which are optional for that thing. The 'conception' is always mentioned.
10. Modality / D. Knowledge of Modality / 4. Conceivable as Possible / c. Possible but inconceivable
Above and below us will never appear to be the same, because it is inconceivable
                        Full Idea: What is over our heads ...or what is below any point which we think of ...will never appear to us as being at the same time and in the same respect both up and down. For it is impossible to conceive of this.
                        From: Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus [c.293 BCE], 60)
                        A reaction: Note that he says it will 'never appear to us' as both - not that it absolutely cannot be both. Both Aristotle and Epicurus are much more focused on how our humanity shapes our metaphysics than the modern pure metaphysicians are.
11. Knowledge Aims / A. Knowledge / 4. Belief / c. Aim of beliefs
We aim to dissolve our fears, by understanding their causes
                        Full Idea: If we give a correct and complete causal account of the source of our disturbance and fears, we will dissolve them, by accounting for the phenomena to which we are constantly exposed, and which terrify other men most severely.
                        From: Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus [c.293 BCE], 82)
                        A reaction: Notice 'other' men! This eudaimonist aim lies at the heart of Epicurus's physical account of the world. He was primarily interested in living better, rather than in physical science. He seeks 'tranquillity' and 'freedom from disturbance'.
12. Knowledge Sources / B. Perception / 2. Qualities in Perception / c. Primary qualities
Atoms only have shape, weight and size, and the properties which accompany shape
                        Full Idea: One must believe that the atoms bring with them none of the qualities of things which appear except shape, weight, and size and the properties which necessarily accompany shape.
                        From: Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus [c.293 BCE], 54)
                        A reaction: This appears to be fairly precisely a claim that atoms only have primary qualities, though that terminology only came in in the seventeenth century. I take the view to be more or less correct.
13. Knowledge Criteria / D. Scepticism / 3. Illusion Scepticism
Illusions are not false perceptions, as we accurately perceive the pattern of atoms
                        Full Idea: Epicurus says illusions are not false perceptions, because the senses accurately report the pattern of atoms; for instance, the edges are worn off the pattern produced by a square tower, so its perception as a round tower is true.
                        From: report of Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus [c.293 BCE], 47-53) by Deborah K.W. Modrak - Classical theories of Mind
                        A reaction: As so often, Epicurus got it right, because Democritus got it right, thus demonstrating that good philosophy must be preceded by good physics. However, good physics must be preceded and followed by good philosophy.
15. Nature of Minds / A. Nature of Mind / 2. Psuche
The soul is fine parts distributed through the body, resembling hot breath
                        Full Idea: The soul is a body made up of fine parts distributed throught the entire aggregate, most closely resembling breath with a certain admixture of heat, in one way resembling breath and in another resembling heat
                        From: Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus [c.293 BCE], 63)
                        A reaction: Remember that 'psuché' refers as much to the life within a creature as it does to the consciousness. The stoics seem to have held a similar view.
17. Mind and Body / E. Mind as Physical / 5. Causal Argument
The soul cannot be incorporeal, because then it could neither act nor be acted upon
                        Full Idea: Those who say that the soul is incorporeal are speaking to no point; for if it were of that character, it could neither act nor be acted upon at all.
                        From: Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus [c.293 BCE], 67)
                        A reaction: This just is the causal argument, which is espoused by Papineau and other modern physicalists. Personally I am inclined to agree with Papineau, that it is so simple and conclusive that it is hardly worth discussing further. Dualism needs a miracle.
26. Natural Theory / A. Speculations on Nature / 5. Infinite in Nature
Totality has no edge; an edge implies a contrast beyond the edge, and there can't be one
                        Full Idea: The totality is unlimited. For what is limited has an extreme; but an extreme is seen in contrast to something else, so that since it has no extreme it has no limit.
                        From: Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus [c.293 BCE], 41)
                        A reaction: I presume that the 'limit' is the edge, and the 'extreme' is what is beyond the edge. Why could not the extreme be nothingness, which then contrast dramatically with what exists?
Bodies are unlimited as well as void, since the two necessarily go together
                        Full Idea: The number of bodies and the magnitude of the void are unlimited. If void were unlimited, and bodies limited, bodies move in scattered fashion with no support of checking collisions; in limited void, unlimited bodies would not have a place to be in.
                        From: Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus [c.293 BCE], 42)
                        A reaction: Seems good. The point is that without collisions, bodies would not stop relative to one another, and combine to form the objects we perceive. Of course if the started off (anathema!) stuck together, they may not have dispersed yet.
26. Natural Theory / A. Speculations on Nature / 6. Early Matter Theories / g. Atomism
There exists an infinity of each shape of atom, but the number of shapes is beyond our knowledge
                        Full Idea: For each type of shape there is an unlimited number of similar atoms, but with respect to the differences they are not simply unlimited but ungraspable.
                        From: Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus [c.293 BCE], 42)
                        A reaction: Epicurus's view of the nature of atoms rests on his empiricism, so while he can reason from experience to how they must be, he admits (impressively) his ignorance of the full facts. He has arguments for the unlimited number.
Atoms just have shape, size and weight; colour results from their arrangement
                        Full Idea: There are not even any qualities in atoms, except shape and size and weight; their colour changes according to the arrangement of the atoms.
                        From: Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus [c.293 BCE], 44 schol)
                        A reaction: [This is quoted by a 'scholiast' - an early writer quoting from Epicurus's '12 Basic Principles'] He appears to have got this one wrong, as it is evidently the type of atom, as well as the arrangement, which contributes to the colour.
There cannot be unlimited division, because it would reduce things to non-existence
                        Full Idea: One must eliminate unlimited division into smaller pieces (to avoid making everything weak and being forced in our comprehensive grasps of compound things to exhaust the things which exist by reducing them to non-existence).
                        From: Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus [c.293 BCE], 56)
                        A reaction: A basic argument for atoms, but it seems to rest on Zenonian paradoxes about infinite subdivision. An infinite subdivision of a unit doesn't seem to turn it into zero.
26. Natural Theory / D. Laws of Nature / 8. Scientific Essentialism / a. Scientific essentialism
We aim to know the natures which are observed in natural phenomena
                        Full Idea: Blessedness lies in knowing the natures which are observed in meteorological phenomena.
                        From: Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus [c.293 BCE], 78)
                        A reaction: This pursuit of 'natures' seems to be at the heart of scientific essentialism. Epicurus demonstrates his proposal, by offering speculations about the natures of all sorts of phenomena (esp. in 'Letter to Pythocles').
27. Natural Reality / C. Space / 1. Void
The void cannot interact, but just gives the possibility of motion
                        Full Idea: The void can neither act nor be acted upon but merely provides the possibility of motion through itself for bodies.
                        From: Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus [c.293 BCE], 67)
                        A reaction: Epicurus follows this with the anti-dualist Idea 14042, but he is at least offering the notion of something which exists without powers of causal interaction. Does space undermine the causal criterion for existence?
27. Natural Reality / C. Space / 4. Substantival Space
Space must exist, since movement is obvious, and there must be somewhere to move in
                        Full Idea: If there did not exist that which we call void and space and intangible nature, bodies would not have any place to be in or move through, as they obviously do move.
                        From: Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus [c.293 BCE], 40)
                        A reaction: The observation that 'they obviously do move' must be aimed at followers of Parmenides. The idea of the void seems to contain a Newtonian commitment to absolute space.
27. Natural Reality / E. Cosmology / 10. Multiverse
There are endless cosmoi, some like and some unlike this one
                        Full Idea: There is an unlimited number of cosmoi, and some are similar to this one and some are dissimilar.
                        From: Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus [c.293 BCE], 45)