On Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus: The Foundation of the Universe

I want to apologize to Epicurus and my readers for yesterday’s entry which abandoned my usual method of working through things – i.e. reading a primary source whose construction is not piecemeal, but deliberate. Instead I relied on a second-rate historian and the followers of the individual in question to come to conclusions which I’m not sure are entirely unjustified. Still, I don’t like yesterday’s work, and I think today’s entry will be much more satisfactory. After reading this post, you may be interested in this post on the letter to Menoeceus which tries to sum up Epicurus’ philosophy.

Our concern today is the opening of Epicurus’ letter to Herodotus which concerns the topic of the universe. I will be using Russel M. Geel’s translation.

Epicurus begins by telling Herodotus that he must learn the “general principles” of physics, and with a “comprehensive grasp,” as opposed to mere details, he will be able to get “accurate knowledge of the details.” What will happen is that “immediate use of the things he perceives” becomes a reality, and “concepts” which result from such use allow him to assign things to their proper place, and “call them by their own names.”

In other words, Epicurus begins by saying that knowledge of the whole is indispensable to understanding life in its practical and theoretical manifestations. It should be noted that we do not believe such a thing whatsoever: knowledge of the whole is not prior to any endeavors of ours, but is something we choose rather than discover. The particulars – the details – indicate to us which “whole” we find most appealing.

It is that last statement where we find some common ground with Epicurus, though. Epicurus is not Aristotle – there may be a “whole” at stake, but this is not tied to reason, or “unity in thought.” “Sensation [is] the foundation of all our investigations,” says Epicurus, and the importance of knowledge seems to lie in how we ultimately feel. I think “sensation” is far more than a foundation for investigation for Epicurus, as I read on through his work. “Sensation” is where the finite meets the infinite, where matter meets itself and relates, and is really the key to why man is in the cosmos. How we feel is everything, therefore.

To get to that conclusion, we need only see that matter itself is eternal and deduce a theory from there. Matter cannot be created or destroyed; compounds dissolve into simples and simples reassemble. The universe has never really changed, for it always is. This thought makes us wonder about how matter interacts with itself: that requires the observation that “something” can only move about in an area where there is “nothing.”

The notion that the “void” is existent – that “nothing” does truly exist in a sense – grounds Epicurus’ notion of what thought itself is:

There is nothing we can grasp in the mind, either through concepts or through analogy with concepts, that has a real existence and is not referred to merely as a property or an accident of material things or of the void.

If you look at yesterday’s entry, there it was asserted that “concepts” have an entirely material basis: the concept of a box are sensations of boxes grouped together. Now that we know invisible things have a materalist grounding, i.e. that the “void” only makes sense in relation to matter, what other items of key importance can be explained by this “science?”

Immediately we are hit with the idea that matter is infinite, and that the void itself must be infinite. Further, any given form has infinite atoms, since the form allows atoms to flow back and forth from inside to the outside and back again. What is finite are the number of composite bodies: the manifestations of matter are not infinite, but rather “inconceivably great.” Also, the number of shapes atoms have is “inconceivably great.”

Why does Epicurus insist on this “infinite”/”inconceivably great” distinction? I think the key is to notice the word that is not mentioned, “finite.” It is as if nothing is really finite, but not everything is divisible (ala modern science) however one wants to divide it. Epicurus is explicit that a finite number of parts constitutes a finite body. But I submit “inconceivable greatness” is the true source of finitude. If we really thought hard, we would need recourse to what is infinite to understand the finite, since the finite is truly contingent on the infinite: the question is whether the whole is within the realm of the human, or without. Epicurus has given us that the sciences are near inexhaustible and kept the fullness of the cosmos out of our reach, both at once.

If that is too dense, Epicurus goes on to utilize metaphor in a masterful way to explain exactly what matter being infinite means:

The atoms move without interruption through all time. Some of them fall in a straight line; some swerve from their courses; and others move back and forth as the result of collisions. These last make up the objects that our senses recognize. Some of those that move in this way after collisions separate far from each other; the others maintain a vibrating motion, either closely entangled with each other or confined by other atoms that have become entangled.

Get it now? No? When we see how the atoms move, and recognize those that might be pertinent to the heavens or Hades have nothing to do with us, nor those belonging to “other worlds” (this is what I take “swerve from their courses” to mean), but only those that “separate” or “entangle” or “entangle in such a way they entangle others,” we see that the true basis of the universe is love. Sensation is love at its fullest: pulling us away from others (love of self), pulling us towards others, pulling us in unity, forced and unforced, with others. Epicurus ends his meditations on the universe by talking about other worlds, but one wonders about how different they can be, given that a “swerving” from a course can be accounted for by the simple facts of motion, matter, and void.

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  1. I read that Epicurus lived from 341-270 B.C. and Herodotus from 484-425 B.C. If this is true, then Herodotus was dead when Epicurus wrote this letter. How is this possible and When was this letter written? I need a reply ASAP because I am doing a project on both Epicurus and Herodotus that is due SOON.

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