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Moral responsibility and moral development in Epicurus’ philosophy

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Abstract

1. This paper argues that Epicurus had a notion of moral responsibility based on the agent’s causal responsibility, as opposed to the agent’s ability to act or choose otherwise; that Epicurus considered it a necessary condition for praising or blaming an agent for an action, that it was the agent and not something else that brought the action about. Thus, the central question of moral responsibility was whether the agent was the, or a, cause of the action, or whether the agent was forced to act by something else. Actions could be attributed to agents because it is in their actions that the agents, qua moral beings, manifest themselves. 2. As a result, the question of moral development becomes all important. The paper collects and discusses the evidence for Epicurus views on moral development, i.e. (i) on how humans become moral beings and (ii) on how humans can become morally better. It becomes clear that Epicurus envisaged a complex web of hereditary and environmental factors to shape the moral aspect of a human being. 3. In line with Epicurus’ theory of moral responsibility and moral development, Epicurus ethics does not have the function of developing or justifying a moral system that allows for the effective allocation of praise and blame. Rather, for him the function of ethics – and in fact of the whole of philosophy – is to give everyone a chance to morally improve.
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chapter 10
Moral responsibility and moral development
in Epicurus’ philosophy
Susanne Bobzien
1. moral responsibility
For the purpose of this paper, I assume that if a person is morally respon-
sible for an action, this is a necessary and sufficient condition for moral
appraisal of that person for that action. For instance, if the action is morally
wrong, moral blame is in order. Other morally relevant responses that are
sometimes connected with moral responsibility are praise, pardon, shame,
pride, reward, punishment, remorse.
I now introduce two quite different concepts of moral responsibility: one
grounded on the causal responsibility of the agent for an action, the other on
the ability of the agent to do otherwise. The one based on the agent’s causal
responsibility considers it a necessary condition for praising or blaming
an agent for an action, that it was the agent and not something else that
brought about the action. The question of moral responsibility becomes
one of whether the agent was the or a cause of the action, or whether the
agent was forced to act by something else. On this view, actions or choices
can be attributed to agents because it is in their actions and choices that
the agents, qua moral beings, manifest themselves.
The second idea of moral responsibility considers it a prerequisite for
blaming or praising an agent for an action that the agent could have done
otherwise. This idea is often connected with the agents’ sentiments or beliefs
that they could have done otherwise, as well as the agents’ feelings of guilt
or regret, or pride, for what they have done. Some philosophers consider
the causal indeterminedness of the agent’s decision to act as necessary to
warrant that the agent could have done otherwise.
Early versions of this paper have been presented at the Institute for Classical Studies in London, at
Cornell University, and at a meeting of the Cambridge Philological Society, and I am grateful to my
audiences for their stimulating discussions. Special thanks go to David Blank, Charles Brittain and
David Sedley for their most helpful comments.
206
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Moral responsibility and development in Epicurus 207
Depending on what conception of moral responsibility a philosopher
has, they will have to produce different reasons if they want to show that or
how moral responsibility is preserved or integrated in their philosophical
system.
With a concept of moral responsibility based on causal responsibility,
philosophers have to show that agents themselves (and not something else)
are the causes of their actions; and they have to determine what character-
istics an agent needs to have in order to be the sort of cause of an action to
which responsibility can be attributed.
With a concept of moral responsibility based on the agent’s ability to do
otherwise, philosophers will have to show that in their systems agents are in
fact capable of acting or of deciding and acting otherwise than they do. In
this first section I set out to show that our sources univocally suggest that
Epicurus had a concept of moral responsibility based not on the agent’s
ability to do otherwise, but on the agent’s causal responsibility.
There are only a few texts that provide information about Epicurus’
concept of moral responsibility. The most important information comes
from Epicurus’ On Nature book 25. In this book Epicurus considers three
different causal factors that are involved in human behaviour:
1.Ouroriginal constitution (h¯
eexarch¯
es sustasis; sometimes Epicurus simply
uses arch¯
e), or nature (phusis); i.e. the package of soul atoms we come
with, and which in part differs from person to person.
2. The environment (ta periechonta); most commonly, the environment
influences our behaviour via our perception of it; e.g. when I perceive
that it is starting to rain heavily, I will open up my umbrella.
3.Us ourselves, or, as Epicurus also says, ‘the cause from ourselves’ (h¯
eex
h¯
em¯
on aitia)1or ‘that through ourselves’ (to di’ h ¯
em¯
on aut¯
on), etc.2
When our initial constitution and our environment together (i.e. nature
and nurture, as it were) fully determine what we do, then our actions are the
result of necessity.3When we ourselves are causally involved in the actions,
then they are not the result of necessity.
Epicurus takes the fact that we blame each other, and try to reform each
other, as an indication that the cause of our actions lies in ourselves, or that
the actions happen through ourselves:
1Cf. also Laursen 1997:47.
2   ;  ;    ;   
;   ! <>(Laursen 1997:45;697.4). With ‘us’ or ‘we’ Epicurus
refers to human beings.
3Long and Sedley 1987 (=LS) 20 C2, Laursen 1997:28.
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208 The Virtuous Life in Greek Ethics
(2) [And we can invoke against the argument that our behaviour must be caused
by our initial constitution or by environmental factors] by which we never cease
to be affected, [the fact that] we rebuke, oppose, and reform each other as if we
have the cause also in ourselves, and not only in our initial constitution and in the
mechanical necessity of that which surrounds and penetrates us4,5(LS 20 C2)
The concept of blame presupposes that the beings that are blamed were
themselves causally responsible for their actions. It makes no sense to blame
individuals for certain events, if those events came about through necessity,
and the individuals were forced in bringing them about.6
Moreover, Epicurus thinks, we have a preconception that we are the causes
of our actions
(8) . . . using the word ‘necessity’ of that which we call ‘ . . . by ourselves’, he is
merely changing a name; but he [i.e. Epicurus’ opponent] must*7prove that we
have a preconception of a kind which has faulty delineations when we call that which
[comes] through ourselves causally responsible.8(Epicur. Nat.25,34.28 in Arrighetti
1973 (=Arr.), Laursen 1997:37)
(4)...when he blames or praises. But if he were to act in this way, he would be
leaving intact the very same behaviour [i.e. praising and blaming] which we think*
of as concerning ourselves, in accordance with* our preconception of the cause;9,10
A preconception is some kind of veridical general conception or true opin-
ion that we have acquired empirically, by having repeatedly the same sort
of perceptual experience.11 Preconceptions are self-evident.12 Epicurus, it
seems, holds that we acquire the preconception of us as causes precisely
through our observations that human beings, including ourselves, are
praised and blamed for their actions. And given that Epicurus thinks we
have such a preconception, and that all preconceptions are self-evident, we
4Namely by means of perception, cf. Epicur. Nat.25, Laursen 1997:33,LS20 C1, quoted below.
5(2)"#$,%  ...&' ()!  "),...)  &''#' $* (")
$* )+ ,  $*     $* *  -  &-  ""("
$*  -   $* " $.   &($!.
6Cf. LS 20 C3.
7I follow Laursen’s reading, Laursen 1997; ‘*’ indicates differences from the text in LS.
8(8).../   $'0  - &($! 1 "0 1 
) *  2   3 )![ " 0] '!4  
 5 $',0 ...
9I follow Laursen’s reading (cf. next footnote). However, I do not quite understand what it means. I
hope it still means the same as what Sedley 1983 suggested, viz. that our observation of blaming and
praising produces our preconception of us as causes of our actions.
10 (4)4 6  &'' 7  (, 7* 8 5! $'3 9
4  $.* -  '!:,*.
11 Cf.D.L.10.33.
12 Cf.D.L.10.33,.
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Moral responsibility and development in Epicurus 209
can surmise that he thought it to be self-evident that we are the causes of
our actions.
Two other passages from on Nature 25 suggest that what makes an action
blame- or praiseworthy or exempted from blame and praise, is not the fact
that it is a physical event of a certain kind, but that it has causal factors of a
certain kind:
And if, on account of the cause which is now already out of itself, it actually goes to
what is similar to the original constitution, and this is a bad one, then we censure
it at times even more, but rather in an admonitory way . . .13 (Epicur. Nat.25,34.25
Arr., Laursen 1997:31)
and:
(1) But many naturally capable of achieving such and such results fail to achieve
them, because of themselves, not because of one and the same causal responsibility
of the atoms and of themselves. (2) And with these we especially do battle, and
rebuke them...because they behave in accordance with their disordered original
nature, as we do with the whole range of animals. (3) For the nature of their atoms
has contributed nothing to some of their behaviour, and degrees of behaviour and
dispositions, but it is their developments which themselves possess all or most of
the causal responsibility for certain things.14 (Epicur. Nat.25,34.21 Arr., LS 20 B
13, Laursen 1997:19; tr. Long/Sedley 1987, modified)
Thus, if an action of a certain kind is caused by the initial constitution of a
person, in response to the environment, then the person is – presumably –
not to be reproached. Thus if, say, a toddler Tina throws a tantrum for
not getting a toy, she is presumably not to be morally blamed. However if
an action of the same kind is caused by Tina herself, and thus not by the
initial constitution, then the person is to be blamed for it. For example, if
Tina keeps having tantrums about trivia as an adult, presumably she is to
be blamed for them.
One last passage concerned with moral responsibility comes from the
Letter to Menoeceus:
[he says that some things happen by necessity,] others by chance, and others again
because of us, since necessity is not accountable to anyone, and chance is an unstable
13 8 7 $* ;+! .   <!    2 -  &- ""(" /0'! ="!,
 >''  $$+, )!$ ?  >'' 3@ ...
14 ''. 7 $*  $* [ /]0"  &"$. []") .  
&[]"$. ( .   []  &3 $* ), A  $* ('"
) $*  .[.]. $.   &- []B[]! /0" ,$[)(]
*  (3 + ?3.[*])7 .  "#!$     $* )! 3 $*
)"3   &3 /0" &''. . &!  >" 6  '"!
$$!   3,$ $!   &3 $#" B $,
* . [....(]3 [. 7 ][][][3 ...$  ]
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210 The Virtuous Life in Greek Ethics
thing to watch, whereas that because of us is without master, and culpability and
its opposite are naturally attached to it. (Epicur. Ep. Men.1334)15
Here we learn that Epicurus distinguished between three types of events:
those that happen by necessity, those that happen by chance, and those
that happen because of us (gignesthai par’ h¯
emas). He adds two pieces of
information about the things that come to be because of us. First, they
are said to be without master. By this I take Epicurus to mean that it is
we who bring the events about and not something else; in particular not
fate, which he called master (or rather mistress) just the sentence before.
Second, the things that happen because of us are said to have praisewor-
thiness and culpability naturally attached to them. This suggests that they
are precisely those things for which we can be held morally accountable.
Taking the two points together, it – again – appears that I can be held
morally responsible for something, when I am somehow causally respon-
sible for its occurrence. And I assume that those things that come to be
because of us (gignesthai par’ h¯
emas) are those of which we ourselves are the
causes.
There is, then, one element all these passages on moral responsibility have
in common: they connect the concept of moral responsibility with us as
causal factors of the things for which we are considered morally accountable.
We thus need to see what it is that makes us the causes of our behaviour –
as opposed to the mere combination of our initial constitution (or atoms)
and our environment. In the surviving evidence, Epicurus never directly
addresses this question, but his On Nature 25 gives some hints how he
would have answered it.
If we are the cause of an action, this involves first, that we are not forced
in bringing it about (LS 20 C10,Ep.Men.133); second, that we have an
impulse (horm¯
ema) or desire (prothumia) to perform that action; and third,
that we act in accordance with that impulse or desire (LS 20 C911). Fourth,
the most important element seems to come from Epicurus’ gloss on what
it is that something comes to be because of us (gignesthai par’ h¯
emas):
Hence at some point* it is unqualifiedly because of (para) us that the development
comes to be now of this kind or that kind; i.e. the things which on account
of the pores flow in of necessity from what surrounds us at some point come
to be [of this kind or that kind] because of (para) us, or rather because of (para)
15 [C 7 $&($! ") '], C 7 & 0!,C7>,.   7 &($!
&0) D, 7 0! E" F>, 7 > &" ?% $*  
$*   $') 4$;
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Moral responsibility and development in Epicurus 211
our beliefs from ourselves.16 (Epicur. Nat.25,34.26, Arr. LS 20 C1, Laursen 1997:
323)
It seems (if, as I suggest we should, we understand the ‘or rather’ (kai)17 in
the last sentence as epexegetic) that if something comes to be because of
us, then it does so because of our own beliefs (doxai).18 If this is so, we can
infer several things about Epicurus’ concept of moral responsibility.
First, this suggests that if we are morally responsible for something
(actions, characteristics), then we must have certain beliefs; and hence
be capable of having beliefs; these requirements preclude very little chil-
dren and some animals from being responsible for their behaviour, since
they do not have beliefs. This squares with Epicurus’ view, as else-
where attested, that wild animals are not to be held responsible for their
behaviour.19
Second, our beliefs must be somehow causally involved in bringing about
the actions and dispositions that ‘come to be because of us’. Now we
know that, for Epicurus, beliefs are indeed causally involved in most of
our behaviour.20 By beliefs (doxai) Epicurus does not intend – or at least
not primarily – that e.g. when I sit down, I probably think ‘I should sit
down’ just beforehand. Beliefs (doxai) are not (just) volatile, momentary,
thoughts of this kind, but are lasting, and firmly held by the individual;
they make up a fundamental part of our mental dispositions; they underlie
or are part of our dispositions to experience emotions, and they determine
what kinds of desires we will have, and hence what we do. For example,
if I believe that thunder is a form of divine punishment, then this will
invoke certain fears in me, which in turn will make me tend to react in
16 G" > [)’]* H'  &I! <! "),[] 6 ,$* . $
  $[]&($! . I []"[] !> [] []")
$* . [.][][]  [][ (Epicur. Nat.25, Arr. 34.26,LS20 C1,
Laursen 1997:323). * This is Laursen’s reading.
17 Laursen’s tentative reading in papyrus 1056 is <, which also supports an epexegetical interpretation.
18 Sedley has suggested to me that ‘happens (or comes to be) depending on us’ captures ") 
> better than ‘happens (or comes to be) because of us’. I disagree. I take the . in ")
> in the general sense illustrated in LSJ C III 7, with possible alternative translations
‘happens on account of us’ ‘happens through us’ or ‘happens with us being the cause’. Phrases like
‘this happened depending on me’ seem to strain the English, and generally I believe that the use of
. +acc. together with ") makes ‘depending on us’ a less desirable translation. In any
case, I believe the causal reading I give to . +acc. is justified by the fact that this is the best
reading for the grammatically parallel . [.][][]  []F[ in the
very same clause, in which, I believe, Epicurus must have used . in the same sense as in the
immediately preceding > [] []") $*.
19 Laursen 1997:31.
20 e.g. Ep. Men.132; D.L. 10.149 =Sent.30; see also Furley 1967:202 and Mitsis 1988:141.
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212 The Virtuous Life in Greek Ethics
certain ways to external factors like thunderstorms. We can thus understand
why Epicurus thought that our beliefs play an essential role for our moral
responsibility. (Switching to the level of atoms, we can describe this as
follows: the atomic structure of our mind is in part determined by the
beliefs we hold. For our beliefs are certain structures of the atoms in the
mind which make it possible that certain external influences can enter our
mind (and be thought, and reacted upon), whereas others cannot. For the
latter there will be no pathways or channels of the right shape, that is of
the shape that would be needed for it to be possible for them to enter the
mind. I picture this process analogously to that of perception, as described
by Epicurus.)
Third, it seems that the fact that Epicurus emphasizes that the beliefs
are the agents’ own beliefs ([.][][]  []´
o[),
implies at the very least that the agents must have thought the beliefs them-
selves, and that they must have accepted them in some way. However, pre-
sumably what Epicurus has in mind is something stronger. For instance,
he may have envisaged a distinction between on the one hand beliefs that a
person simply took over from others, without thinking them through, and
on the other, beliefs that the person thought through, and then adopted as
their own, on the basis of some rational grounds for the belief.21
Not all the details of Epicurus’ conception of moral responsibility are
then clear. But all passages connect the concept of moral responsibility
with us as being causally responsible for the things for which we are morally
responsible. There is no trace of a concept of moral responsibility which
takes it to be a necessary condition that we (the same persons, in the
same circumstances) are capable of deciding or acting otherwise than we
do. On the contrary, it seems that Epicurus held that when we are the
causes of our actions, then how we react to external stimuli at any given
time will depend fully on us as we are at the time when we set out to
act,22 i.e. on our overall mental disposition, including our beliefs, at that
time.23 That is, if in two situations my overall mental disposition were the
same, I would in my actions necessarily react in the same way to the same
external stimuli. There is – in this sense – no possibility for us to act ‘out of
character’.
21 Cf. the distinction between false assumptions (J'#: :) and '#: about the gods,
Ep. Men.124; see also Mitsis 1988:141,n.27; cf. further ‘if we do not grasp what the canon is, i.e.
that which judges all things that come to be through beliefs, but irrationally follow the tendencies of
the many, everything with respect to which we investigate will be lost’ (Laursen 1997:434; context
and Greek in section 3below).
22 At least nothing in the sources is incompatible with the assumption.
23 See also Phld. Ir. 32 and cf. Annas 1992:1801and Mitsis 1988:141.
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Moral responsibility and development in Epicurus 213
Let us now turn to the topic of moral development and its connection
with moral responsibility.24 I call an individual a ‘moral being’, if they can in
principle be held morally responsible for at least some of their behaviour. We
can then distinguish two different issues concerning moral development:
1. The development of someone from not being a moral being (i.e. not to
be held morally responsible for anything) to their being a moral being
(being held morally responsible – in principle – for something.) There
is thus a conceptual connection between moral responsibility and moral
development.
2. The development of a moral being from their present state to being
morally better or morally worse (in some particular respect or overall);
for Epicurus, the important case is that of becoming morally better, i.e.
of moral improvement or moral progress.
2. moral development i: how do we become
moral beings?
Our first question is ‘how do we become moral beings?’ or ‘what does
our transition from the non-moral or pre-moral stage of our lives to the
moral stage consist in?’ Following what I just said, we can also rephrase
this question as ‘how do we become beings who are morally responsi-
ble for our behaviour?’ For philosophers who think that we are morally
responsible for an action if we could have done otherwise, this question
boils down to: ‘when and how do we become capable of doing otherwise
than we do?’ For instance, such philosophers presumably do not consider
toddlers as capable of doing otherwise (in the relevant sense), but con-
sider 18-year-olds as having that capacity. (The question however, is, rarely
asked in this fashion.) By contrast, for philosophers like Epicurus, who
think that we are morally responsible for our actions when we ourselves
are the causes of our actions, the question amounts to: ‘when and how
do we ourselves become causally responsible for our actions?’25 Roughly,
Epicurus’ answer to this question appears to be this: we become causally
responsible for our actions when our mind has developed to a point at
which we are capable of consciously adopting, as our own, beliefs that do
not square with our initial constitution, and can internalize these beliefs so
24 One can talk about the moral development of individuals as well as of groups of people, such as
societies or communities. In this paper, I am interested exclusively in the moral development of
individuals.
25 There is to my knowledge no evidence that Epicurus ever considered a question like ‘when or how
do we become able to do otherwise?’ On the other hand, there is some evidence that he asked when
and how we become causes of our actions.
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214 The Virtuous Life in Greek Ethics
that they in turn causally influence our actions. But let us proceed more
slowly.
Let me first remind you of the very basics of Epicurus’ ethics. In a
nutshell, and ruthlessly simplified, it comes up to this:
The end (telos) which all human beings do and should aim at is a
life of happiness (eudaimonia), above all in the form of tranquillity
(ataraxia),26 that is freedom from mental disturbance (tarach¯
e). For
Epicurus such happiness consists in pleasure27 and the absence of pain.
It is the task of ethics to aid us in achieving happiness.
The core of Epicurean ethics is a complex theory of desires, pains and
pleasures, which enables us to grasp with our intellect which of all the
many pleasures and pains to choose, and which to shun, so that we
can attain tranquillity.28
It turns out that as a matter of fact we can reach such tranquillity only
if we are virtuous.29 However, virtue is understood strictly as a means
to the end pleasure.30
So far Epicurus’ ethics in a nutshell. Back to moral development.
First, what do we know about Epicurus’ view of the mental constitu-
tion of human beings very early on, say, at birth?31 We have at birth two
different kinds of atomic substructures in our mind: those which we all
share, and those in which we differ. Our minds are all equal, for example,
in so far as from birth we all aim at obtaining pleasure and avoiding pain.32
We do so instinctively, not as the result of deliberation, since we cannot
deliberate yet.33 Our minds differ from each other, for instance, in that
we have different emotional tendencies, different dispositions for experi-
encing certain emotions, and for behaving accordingly. Thus, in terms of
atoms, if we have more fire-like atoms in the nature of our mind, we get
angry more easily; if we have more air-like atoms in the nature of our
mind, we are more easily afraid; and if there is an abundance of breath-like
atoms, we are naturally calm.34 These tendencies are morally relevant, since
26 Ep. Men.128,131.27 e.g. Ep. Men.129.28 e.g. Ep. Men.12732.
29 Ep. Men. 132; D.L. 10.140.
30 D.L. 10.138. As we take medicine for the sake of health, so we choose the virtues on account of
pleasure and not for their own sake.
31 Lucr. 3.3447:anima and body are combined already in the mother’s womb.
32 Cf. D.L. 10.137, the so-called ‘cradle argument’.
33 Cf. D.L. 10.137, ‘naturally and without reason’ (4"$ $* 3* '); also Cic. Fin.1.30.
34 ‘(4) The mind also has that kind of heat which it takes on when it boils with anger and the eyes
shine with a fiercer flame; it has plenty of cold wind, the companion of fear, which excites fright
in the limbs and rouses the frame; and it has that state of the still air which is found in a tranquil
chest and in a calm face. But there is more heat in those with fierce hearts and angry minds which
easily boil over with anger. A prime example is the lion, which regularly bursts its chest with toaring
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Moral responsibility and development in Epicurus 215
they later co-determine how successful we will be when trying to achieve
tranquillity.
Next, how does the mind develop from birth to adulthood? Lucretius
writes:
Furthermore, we perceive that the mind is born jointly with the body, grows up
jointly with it, and ages jointly with it. For just as infants walk unsteadily with
a frail and tender body, so too their accompanying power of mental judgement
is tenuous. Then when they have matured to an age of robust strength, their
judgement is greater and their mental strength increased.35 (Lucr. 3.44550)
This passage suggests a gradual development of the mind, starting in early
childhood, leading to a more fully developed intellect and capacity for
reasoning at the onset of adulthood.
There is some evidence that Epicurus thought some of our mental devel-
opment to be necessitated by the initial constitution of our minds – both
concerning developments based on elements shared by all humans, and
developments based on elements that differ across individuals. Thus in On
Nature 25 he writes:
But if in the mind the first constitution expels something from the development,
this sort of thing not being developed from necessity all the way to these particular
things; but on the one hand to the point where it has come to be a soul, or rather
a soul which has a disposition and motion of such a size, this sort of thing being
developed from necessity from these sorts of things; and on the other hand to the
point... (34.24 Arr., Laursen 1997:28, my emphasis, text continued below)36
We may perhaps think of these necessitated developments as a kind of
genetically directed ‘maturing’ of the mind. (Thus in this way it is deter-
mined that an individual develops a soul, and that that soul has a disposition
and motion of a particular size.) We can imagine that with age our minds
unfold to greater and greater complexity (in the combination of the atoms),
and this means that we acquire more and more capacities and dispositions.
and groaning and cannot contain the billows of rage in its chest. But the cold mind of stags is more
windy, and quicker to rouse through their flesh those chilly gusts which set the limbs in trembling
motion. The nature of cattle, on the other hand, is characterized more by calm air. Neither does
ignition by the smouldering brand of anger ever over-excite it and cloud it with blind darkness, nor
is it transfixed and numbed by the icy shafts of fear. It lies midway between stags and fierce lions.
(5) Likewise the human race.’ (Lucr. 3.289307,LS14 D45)
35 Praeterea gigni pariter cum corpore et una / crescere sentimus pariterque senescere mentem. / Nam
velut infirmo pueri teneroque vagantur / corpore, sic animi sequitur sententia tenuis. / Inde ubi
robustis adolevit viribus aetas, / consilium quoque maius et auctior est animi vis.
36 K8 $. (   $;(+!  B! "0""  &!,  &($!
 3 3 ? &($! ? &3 &''.    : ")
6 $* "!* ()" $* $!" " :  &($! ? &3 $
 3, 7 . . . (text continued in n. 49 below)
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216 The Virtuous Life in Greek Ethics
For instance, we all learn how to speak (a complicated business);37 we all
develop some ‘preconceptions’ (e.g. of horses and cows);38 we all learn to
reason.39 Despite genetic pre-programming, these ongoing differentiations
of our minds still mostly require certain environmental conditions in order
to be realized: if we perceived nothing, we would not obtain any precon-
ceptions of things; and if no one around us spoke a language, nor would
we.40 The dispositions we develop will at least in part vary from person to
person, owing to the differences in our initial constitutions – and this will
be so even when the environments are similar. Moreover, all these devel-
opments take a certain time – thus we won’t learn how to speak before the
approximate age of one; and we won’t learn how to reason properly before
adolescence.41 In this context, Epicurus considers time and age as causes;42
that is – I take it – as factors we can use rightly in explanations in answer
to questions like ‘why can’t she speak yet?’ ‘she’s not yet one.’
In addition, differences in the environment will influence us in such a
way that different individuals turn out differently, even where their initial
natures do not vary significantly; thus, only when we perceive kangaroos,
will we obtain a preconception of kangaroos, and only when people around
us speak Greek, will the language we learn as a child be Greek.43 Moreover,
Epicurus is known to have recommended that one should watch over the
young, so that they do not develop maddening desires.44 Thus he thought
that different external influences on children make them develop different
desires. Thus, before reaching the age of morality, education and envi-
ronment generally are factors that will influence our chances to become
moral.
Epicurus’ recommendation to watch over the young also exemplifies
that there is one very important way in which the environment may have
an influence even on our pre-moral mental development: Once we can
speak and start having thoughts, we will be able to, and will indeed, take
in the views or beliefs of other people around us, in particular of parents,
teachers, peers. Thus we are likely to take in the views that death is bad
and to be feared, that the soul is immortal, that there is punishment in
the afterlife, and more such nonsense. We will initially take these views in
without questioning them, and will unreflectively internalize them; they
will determine our desires and fears, and how we react to new, incoming
influences, just as our preconceptions will. Thus if I have been told and
37 Inferred from Lucr. 5.1028 ff. on the origin of language.
38 Inferred from D. L. 10.33.
39 Lucr. 3.44550, quoted above, LS 19 B. 40 Again inferred from Lucr. 5.1028 ff., LS 19 B.
41 e.g. Lucr. 3.44550, quoted above. 42 Cf. Laursen 1997:289and 425.
43 Cf. Mitsis 1988:147.44 Sent. Vat. 80.
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Moral responsibility and development in Epicurus 217
now believe that thunder and lightning are a form of divine revenge, and I
have a predominantly air-like mind, this will invoke fear of thunderstorms
in me, and I will behave accordingly.
So our mental development is a rather complicated affair. But however
complex our mind becomes, before we are ourselves the causes of our actions,
for Epicurus, everything we become and do is a function of hereditary and
environmental factors. That is, we are fully determined or necessitated by
a combination of those two factors.45 And as long as this is so, we cannot
be held morally responsible for our behaviour.46
How do we have to envisage the transition from this pre-moral stage to
that of us as moral beings (i.e. as causal factors of our actions)?
We can assume that Epicurus believed that we all have the innate poten-
tial for becoming moral beings. For first he thinks that we can all morally
improve (a point I will get to later). And second, he seems to think that
one of those features of mental development that we all share is that of
becoming a cause of our actions.47 For this, as I said earlier, we need to
have ‘our own beliefs’, and these have to be causally relevant for what we
do.48
Epicurus implies also that we need to reach a certain age or stage of
maturity, a stage at which our mind has developed a sufficient complex-
ity, in order for it to be possible that we are causes ourselves (this is the
continuation of the text from On Nature 25 quoted above):
. . . on the other hand, to the point where [it has come to be] this kind of soul or
that, this sort of thing being developed not from necessity, or rather this sort of
thing being developed not by necessity whenever there is advancement in age, but
from itself being able – or [from] the cause which comes from itself – [to develop?
to become? to bring about?] something else as well . . . (34.24 Arr., Laursen
1997:28)49
In this passage internal necessitation and lack thereof do not concern
individual actions or volitions, but what a person’s soul comes to be like.
The emphasis is on the non-necessity of mental development, and in
particular on the fact that we ourselves (or the cause from ourselves) are
causally responsible for the changes in our soul, and that these changes are
not necessary.50
45 LS 20 C2; also Laursen 1997:28. Our development is necessary as long as we aren’t causes ourselves.
46 LS 20 C; and inferred from Laursen 1997:28.47 Laursen 1997:435; also 28.
48 LS 20 C1; also Laursen 1997:435;LS20 B57(Laursen 1997:22).
49 ... 7  * : 6 * $  &($!  &3 6 $ .
;-  - '$@  &3 $&($! &''   $* -
   $* E'' ...(34.24 Arr., Laursen 1997:28, text continued from n. 36 above).
50 Cf. Bobzien 2000: section 6.
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218 The Virtuous Life in Greek Ethics
One fragmentary passage from On Nature 25 seems to suggests that
we become causes ourselves at the moment when there is in us a certain
development that differs qualitatively from (what is there in) the atomic
structure of our mind, and we make this new development part of our
‘nature’ or mind, as it were.
(5) In this way whenever something is developed which takes on some dis-
tinctness from the atoms in a way that pertains to judgement51 – not in the
way as from a different distance – he receives the causal responsibility which
is from himself; (6) and then he immediately imparts this to his first natures
and somehow makes the whole of it into one. (7) That is why those who
cannot correctly make such distinctions confuse themselves about the adju-
dication of causal responsibility. (Epicur. Nat.25,34.22 Arr., LS 20 B57,
Laursen 1997:22; tr. Long and Sedley 1987, modified) 52
What exactly this means, I do not know. But it seems to me that R. W.
Sharples is right, when he says about this passage:
The obvious, indeed inevitable way of interpreting this in the atomic context is to
say that we, by thought and effort, can modify our character, and hence also the
atomic structure of our minds... thedownwards causation in the passage...
may thus relate to the process by which we modify our characters, and not to the
explanation of free choice by volition causing atomic swerves.53
Regarding the details, I believe Epicurus’ idea could have been something
like this: we ourselves become causes at the moment at which we – con-
sciously – identify with an incoming idea or thought which is not in keeping
with the beliefs we have so far taken in from our environment ‘unthink-
ingly’, as it were, and in accordance with the original nature of our mind.
More precisely, when we identify with this new thought, we incorporate it
into our mind, and thus change our mental dispositions; as a result, from
then on our actions can be caused by behavioural dispositions that are at
least partially the result of our identifying with something that was not part
of our original constitution.54 (Earlier in On Nature 25, Epicurus mentions
51 Or ‘in a discriminating way’.
52 (5)L3 . &!)-  ';( . !  &3 $(  
'!$,  , &4 "#,"(    ,(6)D &M
3" )I   B3 40"3 $*  3 N"  *. (7)2)  $*
O  ( $.  .   (+" JI *   
&/". *Laursen 1997:22.
53 Sharples 19913:186.
54 This is then a quasi-empirical proof that it is not our original nature. Another passage (LS 20 B14,
Laursen 1997:1920, in fact just before the one quoted) deals with the point that, once we are causes
ourselves, even if the behaviour is the same as that of our original nature would have been, we are
responsible, since we (not our original nature) are the cause. Generally, thus it would presumably
suffice, if we were capable of incorporating ‘alien’ elements into our mind, whether or not we actually
do so.
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Moral responsibility and development in Epicurus 219
that at some point in our life we become able to ‘think ourselves by means
of ourselves’.55 So it is tempting to assume that only when we are able to
‘think ourselves by means of ourselves’ will we be able to have beliefs that
are our own – not just absorbed ‘unthinkingly’, from others.)56 At that
point, thus, the disposition is no longer – fully – the result of internal and
external necessity, but in part the result of conscious, rational influencing.
When, then, someone acts from such a disposition, they are the cause of
the action, and no longer ‘the atoms’, i.e. those of their initial constitu-
tion. Of course nothing guarantees that the incoming thoughts we identify
with are correct – they, too, may be based on cultural prejudice. Equally,
if we rethink some of our culturally induced beliefs, nothing prevents us
from ending up retaining false beliefs, or replacing false beliefs by false
beliefs.
In another passage in On Nature 25 – which is rather badly preserved –
Epicurus may refer to the same kind of development:
And the same thing was both generated as permanent and was a kind of seed, as I
say, leading from the origin[al nature] to something else, and when this is present,
we think or form beliefs...andthere is much that [happens] with [our] nature
helping, and much [that happens] when [our] nature is not helping, and there is
something that [happens] when our nature is rearranged by us. (34.31 Arr., Laursen
1997:445; context and Greek in section 3below)
This passage – at least as I have reconstructed it following Laursen – suggests
that all human beings, at some point, reach a developmental stage at which
they start thinking and forming opinions.57
Epicurus seems to assume then that – in the normal course of events –
at some point during the process of their growing up every person reaches
this stage of development where they start ‘thinking for themselves’. Yet, it
is unclear whether the quoted passages describe a unique event in a person’s
life, or a gradual process in which a person changes or confirms their beliefs
one by one upon reflection over a longer period of time. If this is a unique
event, we may consider our becoming moral beings as instantaneous. If it
is a gradual process, Epicurus could have thought that we become moral
55 Laursen 1995:467:][] ? $.  2 $* &(/  [P]!)#" ").
56 Laursen himself suggests in Laursen 1995: when we ‘think ourselves by means of ourselves’ we have
the mental faculty of ‘subsequent reasoning’ (456); ‘this makes it possible to realize one’s real goal
(')’ (46); ‘reason is acquired by time . . . at a comparatively late stage, we acquire the capacity
for a reasoned consideration of our state as a whole’ (47), but then, strangely, continues the last
sentence thus, ‘that is, we become moral philosophers’. In my view, it is much more likely that at
that point we have become adult, rational beings.
57 The end of the passage suggests the possibility that we ourselves rearrange the atoms in our minds,
which plausibly could be our changing our dispositions as a result of our adopting new beliefs – see
also section 3on this point.
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220 The Virtuous Life in Greek Ethics
beings when we ourselves become causes of something for the first time
(since we then have the capacity for becoming causes ourselves); or else, our
becoming morally responsible could itself be a gradual process. This last
possibility seems to me the most exciting, as it seems both a very modern
idea, and to come closest to the truth.58
3. moral development ii: how can we become
morally better?
Let us assume that we are now moral beings (as opposed to pre-moral
beings). How can we then develop morally according to Epicurus? In par-
ticular, how can we become morally better?
Theories of moral responsibility based on the agent’s ability to do oth-
erwise tend to spend little time on the question of moral development.
When they deal with it, they may connect measures for moral improve-
ment with an agent’s freedom of decision in two ways: (i) Agents need to be
given a maximum of relevant information for mental storage that they can
make use of at times when they have to make a moral decision. Relevant
information here covers anything that enables them to find out what the
morally right thing to do is. (ii) Agents need to strengthen their will – or
whatever it is that decides freely – so that in a situation of choice, in which
they know what the right thing to do is, they will actually decide to do the
right thing, instead of satisfying some adverse more immediate desire.
By contrast, theories of moral responsibility that are based on the agents
qua rational agents as the cause of their behaviour tend to display substantial
interest in the question of moral development. There is one simple reason
for this: if the assumption is that how a person acts or reacts in a given
situation depends fully on that person’s mental dispositions at the time,
then moral improvement becomes a question of how one can alter one’s
mental dispositions in such a way that one will react in the morally right
way to external stimuli. This is the only possible way of getting oneself to
act differently or better than one tends to do at present. For there is no
way of ‘deciding or acting out of character’ at the very moment one has to
decide what to do: one’s decision is a function of the overall state of one’s
mind.
In line with his concept of moral responsibility, this is the approach
to moral development Epicurus took. He believed that, in order to make
moral progress, one has to change one’s mental dispositions:
58 Remember that Lucretius, in the passage quoted above, describes the development of our rationality
as if it were gradual.
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Moral responsibility and development in Epicurus 221
. . . Likewise the human race. Even though education may produce individuals
equally well turned out, it still leaves those original traces of each mind’s nature. And
we must not suppose that faults can be completely eradicated, so that one person
will not plunge too hastily into bitter anger, another not be assailed too readily by
fear, or the third type not be over-indulgent in tolerating certain things. There are
many other respects in which the various natures and consequently the behaviours of
human beings must differ, but I cannot now set out their hidden causes, nor can I
find enough names for all the shapes of primary particles from which this variety
springs. But there is one thing which I see I can state in this matter: so slight are
the traces of our natures which reason cannot expel from us, that nothing stands in
the way of our leading a life worthy of the gods.59 (Lucr. 3.30722, tr. Long and
Sedley 1987, modified, my emphasis)
The relevant points in this passage are these: the initial nature of a human
mind includes certain morally relevant dispositions, which are present in
different people in various strengths. Through education peoples’ minds
can develop in such a way that these differences are by and large evened
out. The reason is that by the use of our intellect we can modify our mental
dispositions to a large extent. This passage corroborates the assumption that
the Epicureans worked with a model of disposition-dependent agency on
several counts. First, it makes it clear that Lucretius took a person’s mind to
include that person’s character dispositions (3.309). Second, it implies that
Lucretius thinks that one’s nature determines one’s behaviour; and third,
that in order to change one’s behaviour, one has to change one’s nature,
that is, the nature of one’s mind, by the use of one’s intellect.
The last sentence of the Lucretius passage suggests that our original
nature cannot be expelled completely, but that most of it can. This expelling
can only consist in some change of the dispositions (or atomic structure)
of our mind. In support of this assumption, Diogenes Laertius’ report of
Epicurus’ view that ‘someone who has once become wise never again takes
on the opposite disposition60 implies that in order to become wise, and that
is morally good, one has to change one’s mental disposition. Accordingly,
the major part of Epicurus’ ethics is geared to the development of the
59 Sic hominum genus est. Quamvis doctrina politos / constituat pariter quosdam, tamen illa relinquit /
naturae cuiusque animi vestigia prima. / Nec radicitus evelli mala posse putandumst, / quin proclivius
hic iras decurrat ad acris, / ille metu citius paulo temptetur,at ille / tertius accipiat quaedam clementius
aequo. / Inque aliis rebus multis differre necessest / naturas hominum varias moresque sequaces; /
quorum ego nunc nequeo caecas exponere causas / nec reperire figurarum tot nomina quot sunt /
principiis, unde haec oritur variantia rerum. / Illud in his rebus video firmare potesse, / usque adeo
naturarum vestigia linqui / parvula quae nequeat ratio depellere nobis, / ut nil impediat dignam dis
degere vitam. (my emphasis).
60  N  "/ !$   ';( ()" !7 '( $; (D.L.
10.117). Cf. also the passages in Nat.25 about changing or developing one’s disposition (()").
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222 The Virtuous Life in Greek Ethics
individual’s behavioural dispositions. Since the end to which all human
behaviour should be above all directed is above all tranquillity (ataraxia), it
follows that, in order to improve one’s behaviour, one has to try to develop
one’s mind in such a way that one’s emotions, desires and actions will
become conducive to attaining tranquillity.
With regard to the opportunities for moral improvement, there is vari-
ation across individuals. Epicurus starts out with the optimistic belief that
everyone can morally improve61 and get to a life of true pleasure and tran-
quillity,62 and that it is never too late to start trying to morally improve.63
However, moral improvement will not be equally easy for everyone, nor
will the development be of the same kind. The starting situations of indi-
viduals can vary quite significantly, as is clear from the Lucretius passage
on fire-, air- and breath-like atoms.64 At the point when people have
become moral beings, some of them will be closer to a life of tranquil-
lity, others further away. This will depend (a) on the education and exter-
nal influences they have been exposed to up to then, and (b) on the fact
that their natures are different in morally relevant ways. Thus it will be
more difficult for someone with a very irascible nature to get to the right
degree of irascibility, than for someone of a calmer nature. But both can
succeed.65
A passage in a letter by Seneca confirms that Epicurus considered
the question whether humans and their natures are susceptible to moral
improvement, and shows that he distinguished three types of human beings
with respect to their moral progress:66
1. Some people’s nature is such that they can acquire tranquillity by their
own impulse and efforts. (Apparently, Epicurus was thought to fall in
this class.)
61 Ep. Men.122.62 Lucr. 3.3202.
63 ‘Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young or weary in the search of wisdom when he is old;
for no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul.’ Q#   R ''3 /'"/,
# 3 J(3 $(3 /'"/ S . E3  " S (3 
 $. : J, etc. (Ep. Men.122).
64 Lucr. 3.289307, quoted in section 2.65 Lucr. 3.30722.
66 Sen. Ep.52.34:(3) Quosdam ait Epicurus ad veritatem sine ullius adiutorio exisse, fecisse sibi ipsos
viam. Hos maxime laudat, quibus ex se impetus fuit, qui se ipsi protulerunt. Quosdam indigere ope
aliena, non ituros, si nemo praecesserit, sed bene secuturos. Ex his Metrodorum ait esse; egregium
hoc quoque, sed secundae sortis ingenium. . . . Ne hunc quidem contempseris hominem, qui alieno
beneficio esse salvus potest; et hoc multum est, velle servari. (4) Praeter haec adhuc invenies genus
aliud hominum ne ipsum quidem fasticiendum eorum, qui cogi ad rectum conpellique possunt,
quibus non duce tantum opus sit, sed adiutore, et, ut ita dicam, coactore. Si quaeris huius quoque
exemplar, Hermarchum ait Epicurus talem fuisse. Itaque alteri magis gratulatur, alterum magis
suspicit; quamfis enim ad eundem finem uterque pervenerit, tamen maior est laus idem effecisse in
difficiliore materia.
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Moral responsibility and development in Epicurus 223
2. Others (want to do the right thing – velle servari – but) need some moral
role-model, as it were, ‘to show them the way’ – which way, once they
have found it, they will follow faithfully. (Metrodorus was placed here.)
3. Others again need someone to actively encourage them and perhaps even
to force them along. (Hermarchus is an example of this case.)
Epicurus does not doubt that individuals of all three types can morally
improve.67
How then do we have to imagine the mental process of moral develop-
ment in detail? We know that the mind of adult human beings (or of moral
beings) encompasses their individual ‘initial constitution’ or nature,68 pre-
conceptions, and also a set of beliefs that are their own in the sense that
by means of them the individual can become causally responsible for their
behaviour. The mind further includes some conception of the end (telos),
namely that it consists in pleasure.69 The person’s set of beliefs will deter-
mine their emotions and desires,70 and it will ordinarily include true and
false beliefs, and among the false ones what Epicurus calls empty beliefs, i.e.
beliefs that are counterproductive to reaching tranquillity – such as beliefs
about vengeful gods.71
Moral improvement will then consist in the main in restructuring72 a
person’s system of concepts and beliefs, in the light of the end (telos), and
in strengthening the new, true beliefs, and thus aligning the accompanying
habits.73 False and empty beliefs will have to be first identified, and then
measures will have to be taken so that the person gives them up and replaces
them by true beliefs.74
Epicurus was aware of the fact that my simply pointing out to myself (or
having it pointed out to me) that a belief of mine is incorrect will not make
me abandon it. Just saying to myself: ‘the belief that death is an evil is false’
is unlikely to suffice to change that belief and the desires and emotions tied
to it. One obvious reason for this should be the fact that we do not have
67 Did Epicurus distinguish more than these three types? Possibly. Could they all morally improve at
least to some degree? Most probably yes; see Ep. Men.122 and below.
68 Cf. also Lucr. 3.289322.
69 Cic. Fin.1.55,LS21 U1; Cic. Fin.1.2939,LS21 A4. Some Epicureans hold that this preconception
of pleasure is understood by mind and reasoning.
70 Men.132.
71 D. L. 10.144 =Sent. 15;D.L.10.149 =Sent. 2930; Porph. Marc.31,34 8P=239 in Arrighetti:
1973:567.
72 $$"!, Laursen 1997:45;$"#",LS20 C10, Laursen 1997:39.
73 ")+ (accustom oneself to, make it a habit) Ep. Men.124,131;'> (train, exercise one-
self, practice) Ep. Men.122; ‘Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us’. )+
7   ? + !7  > D  )(, followed by reasons for the why we should
believe this. Ep. Men.124.
74 See e.g. Ep. Men.124.
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224 The Virtuous Life in Greek Ethics
beliefs in isolation, but that our beliefs are interconnected in complicated
ways. Changing one’s beliefs about something will thus take some time;
and it will usually involve a plurality of causal factors.
Epicurus seems to have given some thought to the question what different
causal factors can be involved in moral improvement, as (yet another)
fragmentary passage from On Nature 25 suggests (the information most
relevant here is found after the first lacuna):75
But often both [the considerations of the end itself and the origin(al natures)?] actu-
ally are equally causally responsible, even without the ones having been attracted
by the others, or without [the ones] being attracted [by the others] and forcing
many such things to happen because of time and age and other causes. Hence
both the consideration of the end itself and the origin[al nature] were causally
responsible, but we were, too. The [causal factor] from us was the perception76 of
the fact that if we do not grasp what the canon is, i.e. that which judges all things
that come to be through beliefs, but we irrationally follow the tendencies of the
many, everything with respect to which we investigate will be lost and excess . . .
(lacuna of c.3words77). And the same thing was both generated as permanent and
was a kind of seed, as I say,78 leading from the origin[al nature] to something else,
and when this is present, we think or form beliefs . . . and there is much that
[happens] with [our] nature helping, and much [that happens] when [our] nature
is not helping, and there is something that [happens] when our nature is rearranged
by us; but there is also something that [happens] when [our nature] itself leads the
way (lacuna of c.3words) [not only] matured, but also because the things which
flow in from the environment take the lead to improvement, and do not merely
follow...
79 (Laursen 1997:435)
75 I provide the context, since I refer to individual phrases from that context below.
76 For this perception to become the causal factor from us, we must somehow have adopted it, retained
it, made it our own (see above, section 2). Perhaps Epicurus’ use of ")!" instead of the simple
5")!" hints at that fact?
77 Some phrase expressing the general idea that excess will follow or will be the result or will reign
would make sense here.
78 G" '! would translate roughly as ‘as I keep ranting about’. However, I just don’t believe this
is what Epicurus intended to say at this point. Maybe, he wrote G" '3, ‘as I say’, referring
to ‘seed’, which is Epicurean terminology, in which the word is used metaphorically; or, perhaps, in
Hellenistic times the meaning of '! had been watered down, so that it sometimes simply meant
‘I say’.
79 ... ''($ 7 $*   &/ $$! 7  $*  """
. T J  3 !7 ""B $* ;+ (   ''. 
03 " $* '$ $* E'' .2) $*   '  '"
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'!:)  F $V $*  $ ( . .    &''&$')#M
" &'3   '' 4,#" ( $)C B)(  $* JM
# . . .” [lacuna of c.3words]   $* &W #)! $* " U  G" '!,
 &-  T &3, 7 0  6 (+ ...'I 7 
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," 7 $* - !!  [lacuna of c.3words]  &''. $* . . $
  " . $)!   ;'*,   . "$')#"
';( * The reading of   ;' (‘to the better’) is uncertain.
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Moral responsibility and development in Epicurus 225
First, Epicurus seems to think that in some cases of moral improvement
one’s original nature (or constitution) functions as a causal factor, in others
it does not.80 One way this nature can be influential may simply be that the
nature of a person’s mind ‘matures’, or develops further.81 Then, presum-
ably, our natural instinct to pursue pleasure may be helpful for adopting
the belief that we should pursue pleasure.82 By contrast, if someone who
is by nature very irascible wants to reduce their irascibility, that aspect, of
their nature will not be of much help.
Epicurus equally seems to acknowledge that we ourselves may restructure
our nature (and thus, I assume, some of the atoms in our mind) up to a
certain point.83 This should mean that certain of our beliefs which we
have adopted as our own, and which make up ‘us’ as causes,84 are used in
order to get rid of certain other beliefs – beliefs which we took in either
unreflectively from others, in accordance with our initial nature,85 or as the
result of inaccurate reasoning.
For example, if I have many air-like atoms in my soul, I will have readily
embraced the views that the gods use lightning to punish sinful mortals
and hence I fear thunderstorms; but now my newly acquired beliefs about
the true nature of the gods allow me to get rid of some of those views. For
this method to work, presumably I will first have to come to realize the true
nature of the gods, for example that they have better things to do than being
concerned with earthly events. Then, I have to realize that if this is so, the
gods will not waste their time hurling lightning. However, in order actually
to lose my fear of thunderstorms, I will have to thoroughly convince myself
that there are no grounds for having it.86 For this I may have to rehearse the
arguments against the existence of vengeful gods repeatedly, and as many
such arguments as possible, and especially so, when the clouds get darker. I
will also have to cultivate a replacement set of true beliefs, which, if firmly
held, will provide me with the dispositions and desires needed to reach
tranquillity.
Finally, Epicurus also acknowledges environmental impacts on our moral
development; as we have seen earlier, not many people will be able to
80 Laursen 1997:45, ‘there is much that [happens] with [our] nature helping, and much [that happens]
when [our] nature is not helping’.
81 Laursen 1997: at the end of 45, ‘matured’, ‘grown’ (). (3 also occurs at [5] VIII
8;[34.27]8;[34.31]31 Arr. Cf. also Epicurus calling times and ages ‘causes’ just before, Laursen 1997:
43.
82 Cf. ‘the consideration of the end itself’, Laursen 1997:43.
83 Laursen 1997:45, ‘and there is something that [happens] when our nature is rearranged by us’.
84 See above, section 1.
85 Cf. Laursen 1997:43, ‘we irrationally follow the tendencies of the many’.
86 ;; (‘firm’), Epicur. Ep. Hdt. 63;Ep. Pyth.85;Sent. 40; Laursen 1997:467,$, see
below.
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226 The Virtuous Life in Greek Ethics
restructure their belief system all by themselves.87 Most people need some
help from outside. They may realize that the end is a life of pleasure, which
takes the form of tranquillity,88 and that they are not in its possession, and
somehow do not succeed in getting there. In order to succeed, they have
to change their environment. For example, they could join the Epicurean
school, and receive the required guidance which will help them to shed their
empty beliefs, and replace them by a set of true beliefs; in this way they
may establish new dispositions, and come closer to a life of tranquillity.
Note that education of this kind constitutes a special way in which the
environment has an influence on us.
As we have seen earlier,89 for Epicurus, ordinarily our reactions to external
influences will be determined either by our nature or by ourselves qua
causes,90 and our overall mental dispositions will not change as a result of
our reactions to our environment. (For instance, if I have many air-like
atoms, and hear a thunderstorm coming, then I will get frightened, and
hide under a blanket, say. But my dispositions won’t change. Next time
there’s a thunderstorm I’ll be under the blanket again.)
The special case on the other hand is one in which environmental influ-
ences can also ‘take the lead to the better’, as Epicurus says.91 In particular,
we should assume from what else we know about Epicurus’ ethics that
if we are externally influenced by teaching, we can get rid of ingrained
false beliefs, and can, by thus changing our dispositions, also change our
behaviour. Thus if someone provides me with a convincing scientific expla-
nation of thunder, I may eventually stop being frightened; hence not go
into hiding any more.
Moral development, whether self-caused or triggered by others, consists
thus primarily in the change of one’s mental dispositions, in particular one’s
beliefs. There is a passage in On Nature 25 which suggests that Epicurus
may have made an attempt at explaining such a process on the atomic level
of the mind. (This passage is rather lacunose in character and its first two
sentences are fragmented, but the text is still full enough to offer some
interesting information.)
. . . of [speech] sounds and thinking and thoughts and representations of the
everlasting or non-everlasting disturbance or happiness in the soul [being/is/are?]
87 Sen. Ep.52.34.
88 Perhaps even there help is required in some cases? Remember the third category of people in the
passage from Seneca’s letter.
89 Above, in Section 1.90 LS 20 C1.
91 If the – uncertain – reading ‘to the better’ or ‘to improvement’ (  ;') is correct. Laursen
1997:45, ‘but there is also something that [happens] when [our nature] itself leads the way (lacuna
of c.3words) [not only] matured, but also because the things which flow in from the environment
take the lead to improvement’ (context and Greek above).
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Moral responsibility and development in Epicurus 227
the cause for hunting down, little by little, the principle, or canon or criterion.
For these things lead to the consideration of the criterion, and from the criterion
it[self] . . . perception . . . considera[tion] . . . to the investigation little by little
of the things I mentioned earlier. For these things furnished each other with their
cause and use92 and each thought coming in immediately pulled along in turn
the other thought, at first coming in little by little and flowing out again quickly,
then being understood more and more, in part because of the natural cause of the
growth and of loss of fluidity,93 in part because of that [cause] which comes to be
from ourselves.94 (Laursen 1997:467)
I very tentatively suggest that one idea underlying this gap-ridden passage
is as follows: when other people say something to us (i.e. something that
can be thought), very fine atomic structures enter our mind from outside
and leave it again,95 being thought by us only briefly, while they were
there; and at first they may leave hardly a trace in the mind. But this may
happen repeatedly with the same sort of thought, and thus the thought can
be understood better each time. It will be connected with other thoughts,
which ‘pull them along’ as Epicurus puts it, so that when we think one thing,
we think another also (i.e. some sort of association theory of learning). In
part owing to ourselves as causes (perhaps as focusing on it, or connecting
it with other thoughts that are our own already), the new thought is, it
seems, eventually anchored in the mind, and becomes part of it (by leaving
a durable impression, and thus having changed the atomic structure of the
mind permanently).96 The thought has thus become a belief of ours, and
at the same time our behavioural dispositions have changed.97
92 i.e. one makes use (takes advantage of) the other.
93 Or loss of flaccidity: the idea may be that when the soul gains in firmness and structure, because
more and more (hopefully correct) thoughts are being adopted and integrated as beliefs, the more
easily a new thought is interconnected with these and retained and understood.
94 ...:/3  $* #"3 $* !(3 $* 4"(3 $* - 3 $. :
1'#"3 6  6  3    )!0  & $* $ $*
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 $! ..")[±5/6]' ...  $. $ G ") D
0!".&''#' .    $*   $* ''. $( M
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$,D >'' >'' $0,. 7 .  /"$  - &#"3
$* &''(3 '!,. 7 .    ! $* ...
95 Atoms are not mentioned in so many words in the passage. However, Epicurus’ talk of thoughts
‘coming in’ (i.e. into the soul, which consists of atoms) and ‘flowing out’, and of ‘growth’ and ‘loss of
fluidity’ suggest that atomic structures are at issue (cf. also Lucr. 3.51016). This is in any case what
we would expect in line with Epicurus’ materialist view of the soul – except perhaps adherents of
Sedley’s emergentist interpretation of Epicurus’ psychology (e.g. Long/Sedley 1987: vol. 1,10911),
an interpretation to which I have provided an alternative above in section 2and, in more detail, in
Bobzien 2000.
96 Cf. also Ep. Pyth.85, ‘firm belief’ (" ;;).
97 Cf. also Lucr. 3.51016 for the possibility of change of our mind: such change involves either adding
or taking away atoms, or changing the structure of the present atoms.
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228 The Virtuous Life in Greek Ethics
It is in this light, I suggest, that one has to understand the method
of philosophizing and teaching philosophy in the Epicurean school. The
practice of memorizing the canon of Epicurean philosophy by repeating it
again and again to oneself and others,98 is on this interpretation in no
sense a ‘mindless’ enterprise. The repetition is meant to increase one’s
understanding of new beliefs (especially those that are incompatible with
the ones one has so far held) and thus to increase the firmness with which
one holds those beliefs (they have to make a ‘lasting impression’ in the mind,
quite literally).99 Similarly, the Epicurean practice of producing a number
of different arguments to prove the same point becomes comprehensible
in this way. (Recall the twenty-nine or so proofs for the mortality of the
soul in Lucretius, book 3.) For the new beliefs have to be integrated and
harmonized with one’s other beliefs – and here different arguments for them
will lead to connections with different beliefs. All this is needed, since only
if one firmly holds the new beliefs will they be able to result in a change of
ones desires and emotions, and thus lead to a change in what actions one
tends to perform.100
4. concluding remarks
Let me finally return briefly to the subject of moral responsibility. From
what we have seen about Epicurus’ ideas of moral development and moral
progress, it is clear that at any time the state of an adult human’s moral
dispositions is only in part the result of their own critical restructuring of
their mind. We are not causally responsible for the initial constitution of
our mind, but this constitution will determine, for instance, whether our
moral progress will be faster or slower, effortless or arduous. Similarly, we are
not causally responsible for the surroundings we find ourselves in initially,
nor are we ever completely causally responsible for our environment; but
this environment, too, will be a causal factor in our moral development.
Consequently, both our nature and our past and present environment will –
indirectly – co-determine what sort of actions we perform, and hence also
whether we should be blamed or praised for our actions. Thus not only will
the calm-natured offspring of a family of Epicureans growing up within
98 Cf. e.g. Epicur. Her.356.
99 The many repetitions in Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things may be intended to serve the same
purpose.
100 For the importance of reason in the process of moral improvement cf. e.g. Lucr. 3.321, ‘reason’
(ratio); Epicur. Ep. Men.1245, ‘correct understanding’ (" 1)#); 132, ‘reasoning’ ('")
and D. L., 10.117 and 120.
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Moral responsibility and development in Epicurus 229
a circle of Epicurean friends have a much smoother and shorter path to a
life of tranquillity than the fire-natured, irascible youth who grew up in a
society that indulges in luxury and fervently teaches religious superstition;
the latter will also be likely to deserve blame for a much larger proportion
of their actions.
This is a fact about which we find no sign of worry in Epicurean writ-
ings, nor, as far as I am aware, in any other philosophical writings from
antiquity.101 Epicurus simply seems to accept that blame is attached to those
actions of moral beings of which they are themselves the main causal fac-
tor, regardless of how far the overall disposition of their mind is a result of
their rational reflection and belief, and how far the result of necessitating
factors.102 The agents can be blamed for their actions, because they were
not in any sense forced to bring them about and because the actions are not
the outcome of a ‘mindless’ co-operation of nature and nurture; rather they
result from the agents’ own beliefs, which in turn determine their desires
and emotions.
What is, however, important here is the fact that, for Epicurus, ethics
does not have the function of developing or justifying a moral system that
allows for the effective allocation of praise and blame. The function of
ethics – and in fact of the whole of philosophy103 – is rather to give everyone
a chance to morally improve; that is, a chance to understand that in order
to reach true happiness, one has to learn to distinguish between pleasures
conducive to that end and pleasures distracting from it; and in the course of
this, to give up prejudicial and irrational beliefs which one has unthinkingly
absorbed from the social surroundings one lives in. Epicurean ethics is thus
exclusively forward-looking. It takes praise and blame for actions as in
principle justified, based on the rationality of the agent. But praise and
blame are not themselves a topic of ethics.104 Human failure is taken into
account only as a starting point for moral progress towards a life of happiness
and tranquillity.
101 Cf. Bobzien 1998: section 6.3.6.
102 He does, though, make the interesting distinction between ‘respect’ one should have for people
who approach tranquillity with difficult starting positions, and congratulations to those who had
it easy; cf. Sen. Ep.52.4.
103 Sext. Emp. Math.11.169; Epicur. Pyth.85;Sent. 1113.
104 The role of the swerve is not to justify moral praise and blame for individual actions, but to make
it possible that our mental constitution, and in particular our beliefs, can change in response to
environmental influences; see Bobzien 2000.
... First, there is the feeling that it was 'us ourselves' 2 rather something else that caused the action. Second, there is the feeling that we could have chosen another action (Bobzien 2006). ...
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... ('the cause from ourselves', 'that through ourselves',Bobzien 2006). 3 (Alexander of Aphrodisias, On Fate,Bobzien 1998). ...
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The book represents state-of-the-art thought about moral psychology and philosophy of action in Aristotle, considered as a prelude to or basis for ethics. Drawing not only from Aristotle's ethical writings, but also from his psychological works, the chapters discuss such issues as the nature of pleasure, the relationship between pleasure and emotion, the role of desire and imagination, deliberation about ends, weakness of will, intention and double effect, and the formation of character through education and the agent's own choices.
Article
The recovery of Epicurus' natural and moral philosophy in the Renaissance and its dissemination in the early modern period had a significant effect on the evolution of philosophy. The theses of the plurality of worlds, their self-formation, the non-existence of any god or gods concerned with the affairs of men and women, and the centrality and validity of the hedonic motive in human life, came under extended scrutiny in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although it was once customary to regard Epicureanism as a fringe movement represented in the seventeenth century almost uniquely by the enigmatic Pierre Gassendi, it is now increasingly recognized that Epicurus' letters and sayings, and his follower Lucretius' Latin poem, On the nature of things, contributed to the formation of a rival image of nature-the corpuscularian, mechanical philosophy-that replaced the scholastic synthesis of Aristotelianism and Christian doctrine, and that found special favour in the new scientific academies of Europe.
grown' (–paux»menon). –paux†nw also occurs at [5] VIII 8; [34.27] 8; [34.31] 31 Arr. Cf. also Epicurus calling times and ages 'causes' just before
  • Laursen
Laursen 1997: at the end of 45, 'matured', 'grown' (–paux»menon). –paux†nw also occurs at [5] VIII 8; [34.27] 8; [34.31] 31 Arr. Cf. also Epicurus calling times and ages 'causes' just before, Laursen 1997: 43.
Laursen 1997: 43, 'we irrationally follow the tendencies of the many
  • Cf
Cf. Laursen 1997: 43, 'we irrationally follow the tendencies of the many'.
the consideration of the end itself
  • Cf
Cf. 'the consideration of the end itself', Laursen 1997: 43.
85; Sent. 40; Laursen
bbaiov ('firm'), Epicur. Ep. Hdt. 63; Ep. Pyth. 85; Sent. 40; Laursen 1997: 46-7, katanoe©n, see below.
510-16 for the possibility of change of our mind: such change involves either adding or taking away atoms, or changing the structure of the present atoms. 0521859379c10.xml CUUK442B-Reis
  • Cf Lucr
Cf. also Lucr. 3.510-16 for the possibility of change of our mind: such change involves either adding or taking away atoms, or changing the structure of the present atoms. 0521859379c10.xml CUUK442B-Reis March 3, 2006 9:18 0521859379c10.xml CUUK442B-Reis March 3, 2006 9:18