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Epicureanism and sedition


Misconceptions about Epicureanism were rife during the early modern period. The most deep-rooted and persistent misconception of all was the equation of Epicureanism with hedonism. Despite the sixteenth-century ‘“rehabilitation” of Epicurus by Valla, Erasmus, Ficino, and Landino (among others)’, and the fact that ‘Montaigne and Burton among others recognized that Epicurean pleasure could involve the most austere forms of self-sacrifice’ (Reid Barbour, English Epicures and Stoics, Amherst, MA, 1998, pp. 14 and 49), the belief that Epicurus ‘was licentious in his Life, and lewd in his Opinions’, and that Epicures ‘live…in stately Palaces, abounding with sensual luxury, and all manner of riot’ (Thomas Hall, An Expositionon…the Prophecy of Amos, London, 1661, pp. 307 and 338) – perceptions largely based on the forged letters of Diotimus, and not actually connected with anything Epicurus himself ever asserted – was fairly widespread.

The supposed licentiousness of Epicurus was seen as both morally reprehensible and politically dangerous during the seventeenth century. Thomas Brown, a late seventeenth-century apologist for Epicurus, declares that ‘the greatest part of Men condemn Epicurus, and reject his Doctrine, not only as unworthy of a Philosopher, but what is more severe, as dangerous to the Common-wealth’ (Thomas Brown, ‘Reflections upon the Doctrine of Epicurus’, in Saint-Evremond, Miscellany Essays upon Philosophy, History, Poetry, Morality, Humanity, Gallantry &c., trans. from the French by Thomas Brown, London, 1694, pp. 211–80; p. 211), though Epicurus had, in fact, had his apologists all through the century; John Hall, for example, had, during the 1650s, declared that ‘each particular member, being naturally led to seek pleasure and avoid pain, may, in the pursuit hereof, (by politick designation) follow the good of the Commonwealth also’, concluding that what is necessary for the smooth functioning of society is ‘a just and seasonable moderation between Epicurism and Stoicism, between natural enjoyment and vertuous restraint’ (John Hall, Of Government and Obedience, London, 1654, pp. 99 and 413).

The main unifying principle underlying seventeenth-century humanistic and philosophical discourse on pain is the tension between the Epicurean assumption that the individual will, naturally and rightly, avoid suffering where possible and the codification of suffering in terms of civil obedience; as a sermon entitled Of Patience and Submission to Authority puts it, ‘we are bound to be not onely content, but to rejoice, when men revile us, and we suffer all manner of evil for righteousness sake’ (John Moore, Of Patience and Submission to Authority, London, 1684, pp. 6).

(Adapted from Part 1, ‘The Suffering Self’, Chapter 1, ‘Constructs of Suffering in Seventeenth-Century England’.)