Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Epicurus (341–270 B.C.)
Author:
Altman, Matthew C.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

A native of Samos, Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who founded a school in Athens in 306 B.C. Most of what remains of Epicurus's writings—letters to Herodotus, Pythocles, and Menoeceus; the Main Principles; and many of the fragments—appear in the tenth book of the History of the Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius.

An atomist, Epicurus professed a materialist ontology akin to that of Democritus. According to Epicurus, all that exists is composed of units of matter that fall eternally through space. Material change occurs because of the natural "swerve" of atoms and the tangential motions caused by their collision.

Known primarily for his ethical philosophy, Epicurus espoused a form of egocentric hedonism that dictated that one ought to maximize one's pleasure and minimize one's pain; pleasure is the standard by which to judge the rightness or wrongness of an action. Epicurus taught that reaching a state of blessedness requires prudence and moderate repose, fulfilling necessary and natural desires and denying unnatural ones.

Whitman was exposed to Epicureanism primarily through the writings of Frances Wright (1795–1852) and Lucretius (94–55 B.C.). Whitman's father attended lectures by Wright, a Scottish neo-Epicurean, and subscribed to her Free Inquirer. Whitman read the Inquirer and closely studied Wright's A Few Days in Athens—Being the Translation of a Greek Manuscript Discovered in Herculaneum (1822). Also, about 1851, Whitman acquired a translation of Lucretius's De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), which scholars now contend was probably based on The Major Epitome of Epicurus.

Epicurus's notion of prudence may have influenced Whitman's writing, including his definition of the American character—"because prudence is the right arm of independence" (Whitman 63)—and his "Song of Prudence" (1856). Furthermore, Epicurean atheism—its refusal to fear the actions of a fictional god—may be evident in poems such as "Song of Myself" (1855), where Whitman admires the animals because they "do not make me sick discussing their duty to God" (section 32).

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Epicurus. Epicurus: The Extant Remains. Ed. and trans. Cyril W. Bailey. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 1975.

Goodale, David. "Some of Walt Whitman's Borrowings." American Literature 10 (1938): 202–213.

Jones, W.T. The Classical Mind: A History of Western Philosophy. 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.

Strodach, George K. The Philosophy of Epicurus. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1963.

Whitman, Walt. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. Ed. Emory Holloway. Vol. 2. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1921.

Wright, Frances. A Few Days in Athens—Being the Translation of a Greek Manuscript Discovered in Herculaneum. 1822. Rev. ed. New York: Bliss and White, 1825.


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