The Community as a ‘Sacred Body’ – An Interpretation of the Garden of Epicurus

Enrico Piergiacomi

The philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC) was the author of numerous works that either did not survive or have come down to us in a very fragmentary form, such as the 37 books of his major work On Nature (Περὶ φύσεως), whose fragments can be read today in the papyri preserved in the Villa dei Papiri of Herculaneum (Italy). However, his preferred way of communication were philosophical letters. Three of them summarize almost the entire philosophical system of Epicurus and have survived in their entirety, because they were published – together with the Ratae sententiae [RS] or Principal Doctrines – by the erudite Diogenes Laertius at the end of book X of his Lives of Eminent Philosophers: the Epistle to Herodotus on physics, the Epistle to Pythocles on celestial phenomena, the Epistle to Menoeceus on ethics. All the other letters sent to other fellow Epicureans and friends survive again in fragments. It could be that Epicurus wrote them to discuss theoretical problems, invite his addresses to perform a specific action and adopt a specific line of conduct, or do both these things at once.

I would like to study in this short article an example of the third kind of letter, namely a fragment from his lost correspondence with Idomeneus that seems to explore the metaphor of the body as a sacred city. Idomeneus was an aristocrat from the city of Lampsacus, in Turkey, and he was also a former prominent politician of the city (his political activity took place around the 306-301 BC). Due to his origin and his previous political career, he was particularly rich, and therefore Epicurus’ correspondence with the man aimed to invite him to economically support the school that he had founded: the Garden or Kepos in Athens. The fragment that I analyze here not only provides evidence of this exchange, but mentions a stimulating yet mysterious message that is hard to decipher on a first reading:

Send us then the first fruits for the cult of the sacred body, on your behalf and on that of the children: for so it comes upon me to speak

Epicurus, fr. 34 Erbì; Idomeneus, fr. 17 Angeli; translation is mine

The fragment is quoted in a passage of the treatise Against Colotes of Plutarch of Chaeronea (1117D-E). The latter was a Platonist who was particularly hostile to Epicureanism. The context shows that Plutarch’s quotation was meant to refute Colotes – a close associate of Epicurus – who accused Socrates of being a shameless charlatan (ἀλαζών). If indeed Epicurus spoke as he does in the fragment of this letter to Idomeneus, where he apparently makes a trivial request (= send me money) using pompous language (= couched in religious/inspired terms), he too was a hoaxer. How could Colotes dismiss the other philosophers as charlatans, if his master was more shameless than Socrates? It follows that the Epicureans are afflicted by the vices that they attributed to others.

The fragment is quoted in a passage of the treatise Against Colotes of Plutarch of Chaeronea (1117D-E). The latter was a Platonist who was particularly hostile to Epicureanism. The context shows that Plutarch’s quotation was meant to refute Colotes – a close associate of Epicurus – who accused Socrates of being a shameless charlatan (ἀλαζών). If indeed Epicurus spoke as he does in the fragment of this letter to Idomeneus, where he apparently makes a trivial request (= send me money) using pompous language (= couched in religious/inspired terms), he too was a hoaxer. How could Colotes dismiss the other philosophers as charlatans, if his master was more shameless than Socrates? It follows that the Epicureans are afflicted by the vices that they attributed to others.

It is hard to tell when exactly this letter was sent to Idomeneus. Other fragments of Epicurus’ correspondence attest that, in the past, this Epicurean was not always capable of using his great wealth with wisdom. Epicurus invited Idomeneus to avoid giving too much money to Pythocles, the same Epicurean who received the above-mentioned letter on celestial phenomena and was inclined to spend a lot on prostitutes (cf. the papyrus edited by Dorandi 1992). His motivation is that a man becomes rich not if he amasses resources, but if he frees himself from certain desires (frr. 36a-b Erbì, frr. 19a-b Angeli) that waste wealth in vain, which in this case is intemperate lust. Moreover, when Idomeneus was still at the peak of his political and economic activity, Epicurus told him he should seek glory in his dedication to Epicureanism, rather than to the community of Lampsacus (fr. 22.1 Erbì, fr. 13 Angeli). In the long term, this Epicurean apparently started following Epicurus’ advice. For Epicurus concluded in another passage of his lost correspondence that Idomeneus was becoming a wise man: and a hint of this is precisely his greater control of wealth (fr. 26.2 Erbì). It should also be noted that another sign of his change of behavior might be seen through a quick look to what remains of his two lost historical works. Idomeneus composed the treatise On the Athenian Demagogues, where he criticized some Greek politicians or men of power of the past who administered badly their wealth, such as Hypereides and the son of Peisistratus, and praised those who were economically rewarded for their good actions, such as Aristeides (frr. 3, 5, 14a Cooper). On the other hand, he wrote a book titled On the Socratics, which approved of the Socratic Aristippus who financially helped his poor friend Aeschines, as opposed to Plato who ignored his misery (fr. 27 Angeli).

Now, the imperative that opens the fragment preserved by Plutarch (‘Send us’ = πέμπε ἡμῖν) suggests that we are in an early stage of the conversation between the two. After all, Epicurus would have not commanded Idomeneus to send money, if the latter was already a wise Epicurean and knew that a good use of wealth consists in the preservation of the Epicurean school and of its members.

If we accept an early date of composition of the letter, we would be tempted to interpret its religious language as a stylistic/psychagogic strategy. Epicurus would attempt, in other words, to give authority or ‘aura’ to his words, hence increasing the chances of persuading his reluctant addressee to give money to the school. Such an interpretation is consistent with Plutarch’s blame of Epicurus’ use of religious words that are in contrast with his non-religious request.

However, another possibility would be to take seriously the language of religion of the fragment. Epicurus might have wanted to present the beneficence toward the Garden or the Epicurean school as a sacred act, therefore implying that Idomeneus’ financial support would provide him a greater reward. A similar logic is found, after all, within the traditional cult: those who give small offers to the gods are rewarded with superior goods. This interpretation finds support in Epicurus’ claim that Idomeneus’ support is done ‘on your behalf and on that of the children’. These words suggest that helping the Garden agrees with his interests, and possibly also with those of his sons or daughters. The last point is unfortunately somewhat opaque, for it is not clear if the ‘children’ mentioned in the fragment are Idomeneus’ own ones (whose existence is not directly confirmed by other sources), or the young members of the Epicurean school – like the sons of the Epicurean Metrodorus, whom Idomeneus was supposed to support and nourish (cf. fr. 29 Erbì, fr. 23 Angeli). But if the former hypothesis is to be preferred, then the fragment of the letter will claim something stronger. The support to the Garden will have some beneficial consequences for Idomeneus’ whole family.

The seriousness of the religious language of the fragment can be further defended by looking at another text. In a moral sentence contained in the Gnomologium Vaticanum Epicureum (= a collection of aphorisms of Epicurus and other Epicureans, discovered by Karl Wotke in the 1886), we read:

It is impious to love money unjustly, and shameful to do so justly; for it is unfitting to be sordidly stingy even if one is just

GV 44; translation of Inwood-Gerson, p. 38

The bad or unjust use of money is considered ‘impious’ (ἀσεβές). Implicitly, the sentence affirms that collecting wealth and using it with justice is ‘pious’, which is exactly what Idomeneus is expected to do with his ‘sacred’ support to the Garden. But what about the beneficial impact of this form of economic piety? A good answer may be found in another sentence of the Gnomologium Vaticanum and in the conclusion of Epicurus’ Epistle to Menoeceus:

Practice these and the related precepts day and night, by yourself and with a like-minded friend, and you will never be disturbed either when awake or in sleep, and you will live as a god among men. For a man who lives among immortal goods is in no respect like a mere mortal animal

Epistle to Menoeceus, § 135; translation of Inwood-Gerson, p. 31

The noble man is most involved with wisdom and friendship, of which one is a mortal good, the other immortal

GV 78; translation of Inwood-Gerson, p. 40

These texts hint at the sacred value of the good of friendship, which is even qualified as “immortal” like the detached gods in which the Epicureans believed (cf. indeed again Epistle to Menoeceus, §§ 123-124, both of which describe their indestructibility and negate their direct intervention in human affairs). This apparently strange qualification becomes instead completely transparent, if one takes into account the following fact. For Epicurus, the gods are immortal and blessed because they have no fears, no needs, no dangers that might affect their immortality and blessedness. Now, friendship bestows (mutatis mutandis) a similar divine condition. Friends who help each other create a sense of security that removes all fears, satisfies all needs, and protects from every danger, as it is confirmed by other sources (e.g. RS XXVII-XXVIII, GV 23, 28, 52) and in the speech of the Epicurean Torquatus, who defends Epicurus’ ethics in book I of Cicero’s dialogue On the Limits of Good and Evil (§§ 66-70). Therefore, when he asks Idomeneus to financially assist the Garden, Epicurus might be saying to his addressee that his economic contribution will give him something superior to the “mortal” good of wealth, namely an entire community of friends, ready to defend him if some difficulty arises and prone to love him when life is peaceful.

This reference to the divinity of friendship could also explain why the financial offers are equated to a «cult». Idomeneus is assisting human beings who live ‘among immortal goods’, hence some demi-gods: people who externally are mortal animals, but interiorly enjoy the same indestructibility and blessedness of the detached gods. Pace Plutarch, Epicurus’ words are then not the words of a hoaxer. They express in a very dense form the notion that the Epicurean life is akin to the perfection of the gods and that the agent who helps the Garden is performing ‘rites’ for his own blessedness (for the notion, cf. fr. 128 Erbì).

It remains instead to explain the most mysterious section of the fragment: the reference to the ‘sacred body’. Again, two interpretations are here possible. The first wants that the ‘sacred body’ is a subtle reference to the body of the person who created through wisdom the divine Garden: Epicurus himself. A further confirmation can be found in another sentence of the Gnomologium Vaticanum that states that the wise agent is indeed venerated like a god (GV 32; cf. also the act of veneration of Colotes to Epicurus, criticized in Plutarch’s Against Colotes, § 1117B-C). If this interpretation is to be accepted, Idomeneus’ financial offers will be directed to the founder of the Garden, who in turn will guide the Epicureans towards friendship and to the condition of a divinity.

But a second possibility is to read the «sacred body» as something more complex. Epicurus might invite Idomeneus to support the Garden as a whole, which is then compared to a unified body, whose members are the Epicureans friends, or the demi-gods that help / love each other. Unfortunately, such a bold claim is not explicitly confirmed by other sources. However, a good starting point is found in a passage of the above-mentioned Torquatus’ exposition of Epicurus’ ethics:

It is from desire that enmity, discord, dissension, sedition and war is born. Desire not only swaggers around on the outside and hurls itself blindly at others: even when desires are shut up inside the heart they quarrel and fight amongst themselves

Cicero, On the Limits of Good and Evil, book I, § 44, translation of Annas-Woolf, p. 17

Torquatus – and by extension also Epicurus, whose thought is here defended – starts by blaming the harmful desires that induce people to start a rivalry or a strife inside the city. The idea is that human beings may not always cooperate and have friendly interactions each other, because they think that a victory in such a conflict will give them the goods that they are desiring, like preeminence, wealth and power. In the second half of the passage, instead, Torquatus (= Epicurus) alludes to the fact that these same desires may also destroy the ‘small city’ of the individual. In other words, we find an analogical comparison of the human self, therefore of the human body, to a civic community. An agent that behaves wisely and peacefully is a city that flourishes. Contrariwise, the one who is unwise, unfriendly, and aggressive is a civic community that is self-destroying itself.

If we accept this analysis as sound, then we could also read the Garden as a wise and divine urban settlement, namely as the ‘sacred body’ of the fragment of Epicurus to Idomeneus. The Epicurean school is like an agglomeration of many small peaceful cities, inhabited by friendly and blessed demi-gods. Even though both interpretations of the ‘sacred body’ could be defended, I am more inclined to embrace this second reading. And if one does so, it will also follow that Idomeneus who financially supports the Garden could be in turn compared to a bodily part that feeds with the trivial matter of money the spiritual community of the wises.

In conclusion, I hope to have shown, starting from this small fragment of Epicurus’ correspondence, an intriguing moment of the intersection between religion and urbanity. The philosopher’s reasoning was based on a theology that allowed to imagine the Epicurean school as a divine settlement (or a ‘sacred body’), as well as on a conception of the civic and economic relationship that tries to recreate in the human city the same blessedness experienced by the gods in their heavenly abode. Economy and spirituality seem to coalesce into a single, peaceful whole.

Enrico Piergiacomi is Assistant Professor in the History of Philosophy at Technion / Israel Institute of Technology. He was a fellow in the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” in the winter term 2022/23 with a project on “Theology and the Dissolution of Cities. Religious Anti-Urbanism in Early Stoicism”.

Quoted and suggested readings

Angeli, A., I frammenti di Idomeneo di Lampsaco, in «Cronache Ercolanesi», 11 (1981), pp. 41-101

Annas, J., Woolf, R. (eds.), Cicero: On Moral Ends, Cambridge 2001

Clay, D., Paradosis and Survival. Three Chapters in the History of Epicurean Philosophy, Ann Arbor 2001

Cooper, C., Idomeneus of Lampsakos (338), in Worthington, I. (ed.), Brill’s New Jacoby, consulted online on 20 March 2023: http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1873-5363_bnj_a338

Dorandi, T. (a cura di), Metrodorus Epicureus: Epistula ad Pythoclem, in AA.VV., Corpus dei papiri filosofici greci e latini. Parte I: Autori Noti, Vol. 1**, Firenze 1992, pp. 474-476

Erbì, M. (a cura di), Epicuro: Lettere, Pisa/Roma 2020

Essler, H., Glückselig und unsterblich. Epikureische Theologie bei Cicero und Philodem, mit einer Edition von Pherc. 152/157, Kol. 8-10, Basel 2011

Kechagia, E., Plutarch Against Colotes, Oxford 2011

Inwood, B., Gerson, L.P. (eds.), The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia, introduction by D.S. Hutchinson, Indianapolis-Cambridge 1994

Konstan, D., Aspects of Epicurean Psychology, Leiden 1973

Mitsis, P., Epicurus’ Ethical Theory. The Pleasures of Invulnerability, Cornell 1988

Piergiacomi, E., Storia delle antiche teologie atomiste, Roma 2017

Spinelli, E., Epicuro contro l’avidità di denaro, in Giannantoni, G., Gigante, M. (a cura di), Epicureismo greco e romano, vol. 1, Napoli 1996, pp. 409-419

Verde, F., Il saggio epicureo e il controllo delle passioni, in Veillard, C., Renaut, O., El Murr, D. (eds.), Les philosophes face au vice, de Socrate à Augustin, Leiden 2020, pp. 205-228


Piergiacomi, Enrico. “The Community as a ‘Sacred Body’ – An Interpretation of the Garden of Epicurus”. Religion and Urbanity Blog. KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” (FOR 2779). 27/03/2023. https://urbrel.hypotheses.org/4929



Cite this blog post
urbrel (2023, March 27). The Community as a ‘Sacred Body’ – An Interpretation of the Garden of Epicurus. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/v3fz

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