Sunday, July 14, 2019


Zeno and Epicurus

Silver cup from a villa at Boscoreale
(1st century B.C.; Paris, Louvre, inv. Bj 1923)

Michael Erler and Malcolm Schofield, "Epicurean ethics," in The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 642-674 (at 642):
On a goblet found in Boscoreale two philosophers are depicted as skeletons: Zeno the Stoic, and Epicurus. According to the inscription on the goblet they are engaged in discussion as to whether pleasure is the goal of all actions (telos).2 It is clear from Zeno’s attitude that he is eagerly trying to persuade Epicurus. Epicurus is depicted in a rather more casual pose. His attention is concentrated less on the person opposite him than on a piece of cake lying on a table in front of him. This scene encapsulates the popular image of the two schools in a mixture of true insight and false understanding. The contrasting attitudes of the two philosophers in fact symbolize a fundamental distinction between Stoa and Garden: Zeno’s tense bearing is appropriate as a representation of the Stoic school, whilst the casual pose suited the Epicureans. The Epicureans believed it was folly to dwell in the mind on evils which might possibly occur or have already occurred. In their view this leads to aggravation of our distress. Alleviation will result if as well as taking our minds off what troubles us (avocatio a cogitanda molestia) we give our attention to what brings pleasure (revocatio ad contemplandas voluptates) (Cic. Tusc. III.32–3). But it is equally interesting to consider the misconception of Epicurean ethics which is suggested by the scene on the goblet. Epicurus allows himself to be distracted by a piece of cake; he is thus presented as honouring physical pleasures. As if to confirm this interpretation, at his feet a piglet is depicted, reminiscent of Horace's ironic description of himself as 'a true hog of Epicurus' herd' (Hor. Ep. i.4.16).

2 Dunbabin 1986, especially 224; Zanker 1995, 200 with plate 109.
References are to Katharine M.D. Dunbabin, "Sic erimus Cuncti ... the Skeleton in Graeco-Roman Art," Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 101 (1986) 185-255 (at 224-229, figs. 37-42, unavailable to me), and Paul Zanker, Die Maske des Sokrates: Das Bild des Intellektuellen in der antiken Kunst (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1995), or in the English translation by Alan Shapiro, The Mask of Socrates: The Image of the Intellectual in Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995 = Sather Classical Lectures, 59), pp. 209-210 with fig. 109.

See also A. Héron de Villefosse, L'argenterie et bijoux d'or du trésor de Boscoreale: Description des pièces conservées au Musée du Louvre (Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1903), pp. 41-51 (esp. pp. 47-48).

Hat tip: Eric Thomson.

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