eternal picure

Contrary to popular belief, the Middle Ages did not ostracize Epicureanism. Many thinkers stopped dialoguing with him, even though they condemned him. And many have, discreetly, rehabilitated it.

Certain books suddenly remove the veil which, before them, covered a forgotten moment, or a neglected aspect, of the history of thought, and thus modify vast perspectives. This is the case of Aurlien Robert’s work on the presence of Epicurus in the Middle Ages. Until now, we had been made aware of the presence of Epicureanism in the Renaissance, particularly through reading authors like Lorenzo Valla or Cosimo Raimondi (mentioned by A. Robert p. 290-309), who were well informed about the presence of Epicureanism in the Renaissance. XVIIe And XVIIIe centuries by the work of Olivier Bloch on Gassendi or the more recent work of Catherine Wilson and more generally on the transition from ancient atomism to modern atomism. But we were still very far, until the publication of this book, from measuring the importance of Epicurus for the Middle Ages.

From ostracized Epicureanism to resurgent Epicureanism

Is there any philosophical movement more constantly vilified than Epicureanism? When Epicurus was alive, people were already complaining about his lodge of pleasures. In his Letter Mnce (131), yet so short, the founder of the Garden takes the time to defend himself against those who, he says, take his words in a sense that they do not mean, and claim that his philosophy justifies debauchery by identifying pleasure at the end , At telos. Cicron, however, does not have harsh enough words to denounce the doctrine, which he knows very well and which undoubtedly fascinates him, but which he claims was made for the people, like a sort of vulgar philosophical off-the-shelf, designed to flatter the senses. little cost. He thus announces Plutarch, the Stoics of the imperial era, and the Christian witnesses of the first centuries of our era. The Middle Ages inherit all this and it undoubtedly further amplifies the diatribe, to the point that we have long thought, that we still often think, that it has no other intention, concerning Epicureanism, than to ostracize it, to remove it from the philosophical scene, that it either by dogma or by pure and simple ignorance of Picurean thought.

It is in fact commonly accepted that Epicurus was forgotten at the end of Antiquity and hidden throughout the Middle Ages, only to reappear on the intellectual scene at the beginning of the XVe century, with the translations of Lucrce and Diogne Larce. This view of things was reinforced by the successful book by Stephen Greenblatt (The Swerve. How the World Became Modern, 2011; translated into French under the title Quattrocento), who sees in the discovery by Poggio Bracciolini of a manuscript by Lucretius, in 1417, one of the founding acts of Modernity.

looking for a medieval picure

The book by A. Robert offers a completely different vision of Epicurus' presence in the Middle Ages, and consequently of its transmission to Modernity. It is not only a question of saying that things are in fact more complicated, they always are when we look closely at the texts and their historical conditions of emergence, but, even more, of revealing previously unnoticed fault lines. In this sense, it is about drawing a “new intellectual landscape” (p. 14). This is not, on the part of the author, a self-promotion formula, but a real result, guaranteed by the rigor of his method. A. Robert shows, in a convincing manner, that the Middle Ages is, in reality, in constant contact with Epicureanism, even if this dialogue is most often polemical and negative. To do this, A. Robert specifies at each moment of his journey the pragmatic issues of the Picure relationship, of which he places the successive images in their “contextual function” (p. 17). Correlatively, it highlights the historical, cultural and social conditions of the use of Epicureanism in the Middle Ages and thus enriches the perception of philosophical issues through considerations relating to the history of institutions and discourses (on heresy in particular, p. 62-70). . By proceeding in this way, A. Robert in turn reveals generally neglected features of medieval culture and thought, and this beyond the Latin Middle Ages see in Part IIchapters 5 and 6, respectively devoted to the rabbinic tradition and “the Epicurean of godless cosmologies of Islam”.

picure in the Middle Ages: between condemnation and rehabilitation

For the approach to gain support, it had to be based on solid knowledge of the corpus Picurean of origin and specialized scientific literature. It's the case. The object of A. Robert was not to produce properly philological analyzes of the Greek and Latin Picurean texts, but all the guarantees are offered on this point by the use of translations and specialized commentaries, as well as by the care taken in the reconstruction of the doctrine, including by mentioning texts that medieval people could not have known, such as the Picurean inscription of Diogne dnoanda, discovered at the end of the XIXe century. The nuances of A. Robert's discussion of Epicurean “religion” (p. 25-34), in contrast with the latter's alleged impitity, clearly shows the solidity of his points of support. As he notes with a certain mischief, “if the Garden was a school, a circle of friends, it was certainly not a lay friendship” (p. 26). The Picureans, in fact, do not deny the existence of the gods; they even call them incorruptible and perfectly happy. As for Picure himself, he was renowned for his piety. But these gods are indifferent to human affairs, they exercise no providence, and Lucretius for his part equates piety with tranquility, that is to say, psychic serenity. A. Robert is therefore justified in emphasizing that this Picurean confidence in the divine was “directed towards objects other than the faith of Christians” and assuming that they may have feared that it would replace true faith (p. 29).

On a historiographical level, one could strictly estimate that the difference is not always marked enough between, on the one hand, the inheritance of the simple Epicurean “figure” and, on the other hand, the transmission of the texts themselves. However, apart from the fact thatA. Robert gives several indications on this last point, in particular with regard to Lucretius, it is undoubtedly the “figure” which is here at the heart of the problem, and the fact that it can be invoked for such or such purposes.

A. Robert absolutely does not deny the very negative image inherited from the ancient critiques of Epicure and Epicureanism, but he shows how it is renewed and nourished by new issues (notably theological and ethical) and new forms of writing. This is the case, for example, with Augustine, whose Carthage sermon (sermon 150), widely read in the Middle Ages, opens the way to anti-Picurean preaching by emphasizing the somehow original character of the heresy carried by Picure. According to the reading proposed by A. Robert, “in a certain way, the Picureans already existed before the founding of the Garden, in other forms, with other names. It is therefore now the Christian Epicurean who must be fought and convinced” (p. 140). We also see it in Dante. A. Robert notes from the outset that Epicure is not even among the number of philosophers that the poet, descended into hell, meets in Limbo, the first circle of the underworld. It is in the sixth circle, that of the heretics, definitively condemned, that we finally come across Picurus and his disciples, “they who make the souls die with the body” (quoted p. 11).

However, A. Robert also describes the emergence, from the XIIe century, of a more favorable perception of ancient Epicureanism or at least of the personal figure of Epicurean. This is for example the case at Ablard (see p. 187-194). On the one hand, he takes up the anti-Epicurean themes of the “pastoral strategy of the theologians of his time”; some monks remind him of the “Epicureus swine”. On the other hand, he recognizes, in his Dialogue of a Philosopher with a Jew and a Christian, after Seneca, the sincerity of Epicurean morality and its conformity to “Natural Law”. John of Salisbury, who followed his teaching, rejected the least acceptable aspects of the Picurean doctrine in his eyes, but he also retained from it the perspective of pure voluptuousness, in joy and peace of mind. He thus shows how to do it, in the terms of A. Robert, a “Christian rereading of Epicurean philosophy” (p. 204). We will also note the convergent observations made about Jean Gerson, at the beginning of the XVe century, or what Boccaccio said in the 1370s. We even witness, in certain cases, an unexpected form of “rehabilitation”. Gerson is one of those who identify “two picures”, one vulgar and the other historical. If the first is incomprehensible, condemning itself to hell by its scandalous apology for bodily pleasures, the second makes a legitimate contribution to the philosophical representation of the sovereign good and its doctrine can be articulated with the teachings of Aristotle in theNicomachean ethics. In a sermon from 1401, Gerson thus compares Picurus to Seneca, when he evokes those who “affirmed that the happiness of man is a pleasure or a quiet peace of the soul” (quoted p. 183). The influence of Senque, whose sympathy with Epicureanism is indeed explicit, is generally rightly underlined. A. Robert shows, however, that what appears in Gerson is in reality in seeds from the very beginning. XIIe century. This is where he locates the true Epicurean “renaissance” (see Chapter 10: “The Epicurean Renaissance in XIIe century”).

According to him, this rebirth prepares a true “return of pleasure” (title of the fifth and final part), at the end of the XIIIe century. Certain authors, by legitimizing intellectual pleasure and distinguishing it from bodily pleasures, then substantially modify the facts of the problem and the perception of the Epicurean figure. But it is not only a question of recognizing the virtues of a secular Picureanism: the body and sexuality also find a legitimate place in the concerns of the time. Let us recall this occasion, as does A. Robert, p. 265-267, that the Picureans have a fairly nuanced, sometimes even embarrassed position on sexuality. If the pleasures of sex are natural, they are not necessarily necessary and moreover they are not without risks for the tranquility of the soul. In any case, the pages on the presence of Epicureanism in the discourse of Italian doctors concerning the physiological benefits of sexuality (p. 263-289) clearly show how, on the margins of moral and religious prohibitions, we were able to reread Epicure of learned and “uninhibited” manner, and this from the XIIIe And XIVe shekels.

We are now very far away, with A's book. Robert, of the idea according to which the Middle Ages unanimously condemned Epicureanism to the point of leaving it in the shadows or wanting to plunge it into oblivion. On the one hand, even where Picure is condemned, he is omnipresent; on the other hand, he is also rehabilitated, sometimes discreetly, but always in a way that does justice to the subtlety of his thinking. In a word, to echo the last lines of this unparalleled book, both scholarly and lucid, if the Middle Ages put Picurus in hell, it was also the one who took him out of it.