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Francesco Verde (ed.), Epicuro, Epistola a Pitocle

In collaborazione con Mauro Tulli, Dino De Sanctis, Francesca G. Masi, Baden-Baden: Academia, 2022 (Diotima. Studies in Greek Philology, volume 7), 329 p., ISBN 978-3-98572-022-4
Frederik Bakker
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Francesco Verde (ed.), Epicuro, Epistola a Pitocle. In collaborazione con Mauro Tulli, Dino De Sanctis, Francesca G. Masi, Baden-Baden: Academia, 2022 (Diotima. Studies in Greek Philology, volume 7), 329 p., ISBN 978-3-98572-022-4

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1Four complete philosophical works have been transmitted by Diogenes Laertius under Epicurus’ name: three doctrinal letters, addressed to Herodotus, to Pythocles and to Menoeceus respectively, and a collection of maxims known as the Κύριαι δόξαι (variously translated as ‘Principal Doctrines’ or ‘Sovran Maxims’). While the Maxims and the Letters to Menoeceus and to Herodotus each enjoy a certain fame, the Letter to Pythocles has long suffered neglect. Symptomatic of this neglect is, for instance, the fact that in the beautifully concise and affordable Reclam-edition of Epicurus’ works (Epikur: Briefe, Sprüche, Werkfragmente. Griechisch/Deutsch. Übers. und hrsg. von Hans-Wolfgang Krautz, Leipzig: Reclam, 1980), the Letter to Pythocles is not included, nor even mentioned. The reasons for this general neglect seem to be twofold: on the one hand the persistent doubts about the Letter’s authenticity, and on the other hand a certain prejudice against its content: its subject matter – the explanation of astronomical and meteorological phenomena – being perceived as intrinsically uninteresting and unimportant, and its philosophical method – the so-called method of multiple explanations – as ‘unscientific’. In recent decades much work has been done to correct this view of Epicurus’ Letter to Pythocles and the methods employed therein, and no small part of this work is due to the authors of the volume here discussed. The present volume can be seen as the culmination of this work, providing a complete guide to Epicurus’ Letter to Pythocles, including a new edition, translation and commentary, and offering a new and very sophisticated interpretation of Epicurus’ method of multiple explanations.

2The volume consists of five contributions: (1) an essay on the form and the style of the Letter to Pythocles, by Mauro Tulli, (2) a treatise on Epicurean meteorology and the method of multiple explanations, by Francesco Verde, (3) a critical edition with translation of the Letter to Pythocles, by Dino De Sanctis, (4) a detailed commentary on the Letter, again by Francesco Verde, and (5) an epilogue about the ontological status of multiple explanations, by Francesca Masi.

3In the first essay, Tulli undertakes to explain how the Letter’s form and style contribute to its function. Whereas for Plato the ideal form for transmitting philosophy is the (written) dialogue, whose function is not so much to convey knowledge but to actively engage the reader in the act of thinking, the goal of Epicurus’ doctrinal letters is to help the reader remember the main points of Epicurus’ philosophy, and so acquire a complete grasp of the system, which will enable one to live one’s life with serenity. Tulli argues that the style and structure of the Letter is tailored precisely to promote this step-by-step memorization. He points out that throughout the Letter nearly every new subject is clearly identified by the first word or words of the corresponding section (almost as a chapter title), and he suggests that this structure may originally have been enhanced typographically (pp.21-22) by indenting or outdenting the first line of each section, or by marking it with a παράγραφος. Although Tulli’s essay is certainly enlightening and generally convincing, it is no easy read. Its style is alternately elliptical and repetitive; it abounds in long Greek quotations which are generally left untranslated and unexplained. Nor is the information always correct or up to date. On p.15, for instance, Tulli speaks about “the decline of the [philosophical] schools in the IVth century [BC]”, as if this were an evident fact. However, as far as I know, the two major philosophical schools of the fourth century BC, Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, continued to flourish under Plato’s and Aristotle’s successors well into the third century BC. Twice, moreover, on pp.15 and 17, Tulli claims incorrectly that the subject matter of the Letter to Pythocles would have corresponded to that of books XII and XIII of Epicurus’ On nature. However, on p.82 of the volume, Verde states that the corresponding part of On nature would have been books XI-XIII of On nature.

4The second contribution to the volume (pp.27-107) is a long and erudite treatise by Francesco Verde on Epicurus’ Letter to Pythocles and Epicurean meteorology in general, in which he sketches the historical and intellectual background of the Letter, its intended readership, its ethical aim, its scientific method, its relation to the subsequent Epicurean tradition, and its relation to earlier Peripatetic views. The treatise is divided into six chapters. In the introductory chapter, Verde defends the Letter to Pythocles against the charges of being irrelevant and unscientific. In chapter 1, Verde rehearses and enforces the arguments in favour of Epicurus’ authorship. Chapter 2 paints a portrait of Pythocles, the addressee of the Letter. According to the sources, Pythocles was a bright young student of Epicureanism, in whose formation Epicurus took a special interest. With this Letter, Epicurus intends to provide Pythocles, who must already have made some progress in philosophy, with a summary of his meteorology that can be easily memorized.

5The next four chapters of Verde’s treatise provide, in my view, some of the most interesting and exciting pages of the whole book, on which I will dwell at some greater length. Chapters 3 and 4 form a slightly updated and expanded version of Verde’s seminal 2013 article, ‘Cause epicuree’ (Antiquorum Philosophia 7 (2013), pp.127-142). In chapter 3, Verde argues for an interpretation of Epicurus’ multiple explanations in which each explanation is not merely possible or probable, but actually true, in the sense that it represents a real and objective possibility. With this position Epicurus would have stricken a middle ground between the dogmatism of those who claim to have found the one true cause, and the scepticism of those who believe that truth is unattainable. Throughout the treatise as well as in the commentary, this interpretation is rigorously and consistently applied to several key passages (not just in the Letter to Pythocles but also in the relevant portion of the Letter to Herodotus), which have often eluded earlier scholars. Significant, according to Verde (p.55), is the fact that Epicurus in Letter to Herodotus 79, referring to the explanation of celestial phenomena, speaks of πλείους αἰτίας, i.e., ‘multiple causes’, not ‘multiple explanations’. The difference is explained clearly by Francesca Masi (p.264): “while an explanation operates on a linguistic-epistemological level and essentially consists in the description of a cause that is at the origin of a phenomenon under investigation, the cause operates on an ontological level and refers to a factor that produces an effect in the world.” Although Masi is less confident than Verde that αἰτία can always and unambiguously be translated as ‘cause’ rather than ‘explanation’, still they both arrive at a similar conclusion: αἰτία is a possible cause (Verde) or a causal possibility (Masi), which is real in the sense that it is really and objectively capable of producing the phenomenon under investigation. Nevertheless, although Verde’s and Masi’s interpretation is very attractive and stimulating, I feel that its validity is too readily assumed. The claim that every one of a number of alternative explanations is individually true – which is at the core of their interpretation – is not based on any explicit statement by Epicurus, nor is it self-evident, and therefore requires a strong supporting argument. Most other scholars who have argued for the individual truth of multiple explanations refer to Epicurus’ claim in Letter to Herodotus 51 (see also Diog. Laërt. 10.34; and Sext. Emp. Math. 7.211) that an opinion is true when it is not counter-witnessed (μὴ ἀντιμαρτυρηθῇ) by something evident. Given that in the Letter to Pythocles no-counter-witnessing is sometimes used to support several alternative explanations, it could be inferred that all these explanations are true. Curiously, neither Verde nor Masi makes any mention of this argument. Nor do they waste many words on competing interpretations of Epicurus’ method of multiple explanations. Many scholars reject the individual truth of multiple explanations, and not without compelling arguments of their own (see e.g. Gisela Striker, ‘Κριτήριον τῆς ἀληθείας’, in G. Striker, Essays on Hellenistic epistemology and ethics, Cambridge 1996, pp.22-76, esp. 42-49). Another problematic aspect of Verde’s interpretation is that it requires a – sometimes quite radical – redefinition of certain terms. As we saw above, αἰτία (‘cause’) would have to be redefined as ‘possible cause’ or ‘causal possibility’. Elsewhere (pp.63-64, 150-151), ἐνδέχομαι (‘to be possible’) becomes ‘to be effectively realisable’ or ‘to be objectively possible’, meaning incapable of not being the case. Another word that must be redefined is πιθανός (‘probable’ or ‘plausible’), which occurs as part of the compound τὸ πιθανολογούμενον (‘that which can be plausibly concluded’), in Letter to Pythocles 87. According to Verde (pp.66-67), this does not refer to any epistemological deficit, but to the absolute plausibility (read: ‘certainty’) that derives from an explanation’s conformity to the phenomena here with us. One wonders whether such redefinitions do not go against Epicurus’ injunction in Letter to Herodotus 37-38 that “we must grasp the concepts that underly the words” and that “it is necessary to regard the first concept that is associated with each word and to have no need at all for demonstration, if we are to have a standard to which we may refer the content of our searches, our doubts and our opinions.”

6In chapter 4, Verde goes on to discuss the method of multiple explanations in later Epicurean tradition as represented by Lucretius and Diogenes of Oinoanda. With respect to the latter, Verde argues that Diogenes’ claim (fr. 13.III.9-13 Smith) that “it is okay to say that, while all explanations are possible, this one is more plausible than that,” deviates from Epicurus’, who in the Letter to Pythocles never distinguishes between alternative explanations in terms of greater or smaller plausibility. Regarding Lucretius, Verde focuses on two passages (V 526-533 and VI 703-711) in which Lucretius reflects on the method of multiple explanations. In these passages Lucretius puts forward a view of causation that is more conventional than the one Verde ascribes to Epicurus. According to Lucretius, in our world only one explanation is true, but we don’t know which. It is only with respect to the infinity of the universe that all explanations are true, since everything that is possible must be realised somewhere, though not necessarily in the same world. Many scholars who favour a ‘realist’ interpretation of multiple explanations, have used these Lucretian passages as additional information about Epicurus’ own views on the subject, providing a plausible account of how several, sometimes incompatible explanations about the same thing can be true at the same time without infringing on the law of non-contradiction. In contrast, Verde points out (pp.77-78) that in the Letter to Pythocles there is no trace of a distinction between causes operating in our world and those operating in others, nor any indication that, according to Epicurus, only one cause would be actually productive of a certain phenomenon. Verde concludes therefore that the accounts of multiple explanations given by Lucretius and Diogenes of Oinoanda must represent later theoretical developments in Epicurean philosophy that cannot be used to reconstruct Epicurus’ original views.

7In chapter 5, Verde explores the similarities and differences between, on the one hand, Epicurus’ method of multiple explanations, and, on the other hand, the scientific methods that are described and applied by Aristotle and especially Theophrastus. He concludes that, although there are clear parallels, and although Epicurus may well have been influenced by Aristotle and Theophrastus, Epicurus’ method as a whole is a highly original contribution to scientific theory that cannot be reduced to something that came before. Finally, in chapter 6, Verde briefly discusses a text he refers to as ‘the Syriac-Arabic Meteorology’ that is traditionally attributed to Theophrastus. Pointing out the remarkable similarities with Epicurus’ meteorology, Verde suggests that it may have been falsely ascribed to Theophrastus in order to dissociate it from Epicurus, whose name had become a byword for materialism and atheism.

8Verde’s treatise is followed by Dino De Sanctis’ contribution (pp.109-144), which consists of four parts: (1) a ‘critical note’ explaining and justifying his editorial choices, (2) a synoptic table, specifying the contents of the Letter, (3) an edition of the text, and (4) an Italian translation. At the beginning of his Critical note De Sanctis explains that the note is intended “to offer a preliminary, albeit cursory, overview of the Letter to Pythocles in the light of which it will be possible to understand some of the adopted solutions with respect to, or in accordance with, the edition of Peter Von der Mühll, Epicuri Epistulae tres et Ratae Sententiae a Laertio Diogene servatae, published in Leipzig in 1922.” I am not exactly sure what this means, but since the number of editorial choices discussed in the Critical note is relatively small, I suppose that for minor editorial choices we are silently referred to Von der Mühll’s edition. Anyway, those editorial choices that are discussed offer interesting insights into De Sanctis’ editorial practice. In general, De Sanctis prefers to explain rather than emend the transmitted text, but he does not shy away from emendation when the grammar or the general sense seem to require it. His edition of the text is also clearly coordinated with Verde’s commentary: whenever an editorial decision affects the general sense, Verde will remark on it as well. In this way, De Sanctis has produced a text that, one feels, may be close – as close as one could possibly get – to Epicurus’ actual words. The text itself is printed without a critical apparatus, and although this makes the text more attractive to read, there is a certain risk to this: without a critical apparatus at the bottom of each page, one may easily forget that this text, for all its merits, is still only one editor’s approximation. The translation is readable and accurate, but I would have preferred to have the translation directly facing the text. I sense one missed opportunity: following Tulli’s suggestion in the introductory essay of the volume (pp.21-22) that every new subject in the Letter to Pythocles may have been marked typographically by indenting or outdenting the first line of the text or by placing a παράγραφος in front of the first line, the modern text could also have been enhanced typographically so as to highlight the individual subjects and make their sequence more visible. I also found one typo: in the Critical note (pp.112-113) ἐμπεπλεγμένοις (§85) is written ἐμπεπληγμένοις (with η) three times, but in the text edition it is written correctly.

9The text and translation of the Letter to Pythocles are followed by the longest contribution to the volume: Francesco Verde’s commentary (pp.145-257). This commentary seems to serve a double purpose: on the one hand it helps to deepen the argument that was developed in Verde’s essay, by further analysing passages that inform us about the method of multiple explanations (hence the title of the commentary, ‘La realtà del possibile’, which sums up the core of Verde’s interpretation of the method), on the other hand it does what any commentary needs to do: provide detailed exegesis of individual passages. In this respect Verde’s commentary does not disappoint. With great care and erudition, Verde explains every section of the Letter, summarizing the doxographical parallels, sketching the intellectual background, identifying the textual problems, and clarifying the philosophical argument. His commentary is supported by references to almost every relevant publication that I knew, and many more that I didn’t know.

10The last contribution (pp.259-275) is a paper by Francesca Masi. The paper, titled ‘L’indeterminatezza ontologica dei meteora’, is a constructive engagement with the interpretation developed by Verde in the treatise and the commentary. Mostly in agreement with Verde, Masi summarizes, corrects and expands the interpretation. While praising Verde for bringing out the ontological potential of the pleonachos tropos, Masi is remarkably modest about her own contribution to this sophisticated interpretation: Masi’s first publication on Epicurus’ method (‘The Method of Multiple Explanations: Epicurus and the Notion of Causal Possibility’, in C. Natali & C. Viano (eds.), AITIA II, Avec ou sans Aristote: Le débat sur les causes à l’âge hellénistique et imperial, Leuven: Peeters, 2014, pp.37-63) was developed at the same time and appeared almost simultaneously with Verde’s first publication on the subject (‘Cause epicuree’, Antiquorum Philosophia 7 (2013), pp.127-142).

11The contributions are followed by a general bibliography, an Index Locorum and two indices of ancient and modern names respectively. The book is beautifully designed and carefully edited: I found only one typo.

12Francesco Verde and his colleagues have produced a remarkable and admirable book. With extreme erudition and philosophical grasp, it not only offers a broad and encompassing view of the matter, but also pays meticulous attention to details, both textual and philosophical. There may be some omissions, some arguments may not be conclusive; yet, this commentary will no doubt remain the principal work of reference for the Letter to Pythocles and its method of multiple explanations for many years to come.

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Frederik Bakker, « Francesco Verde (ed.), Epicuro, Epistola a Pitocle »Philosophie antique [En ligne], Comptes rendus en pré-publication, mis en ligne le 08 septembre 2023, consulté le 12 juin 2024. URL :

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Frederik Bakker

Center for the History of Philosophy and Science – Radboud University, The Netherlands

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