Saturday, April 7, 2018

Nietzsche’s Account of Epicurus’s Joke on Plato

In Beyond Good and Evil Friedrich Nietzsche mentions a joke that Epicurus is said to have made on Plato. Here’s an excerpt from Beyond Good and Evil:
How malicious philosophers can be! I know of nothing more stinging than the joke Epicurus took the liberty of making on Plato and the Platonists; he called them Dionysiokolakes. In its original sense, and on the face of it, the word signifies "Flatterers of Dionysius"—consequently, tyrants’ accessories and lick-spittles; besides this, however, it is as much as to say, "They are all ACTORS, there is nothing genuine about them” (for Dionysiokolax was a popular name for an actor). And the latter is really the malignant reproach that Epicurus cast upon Plato: he was annoyed by the grandiose manner, the mise en scene style of which Plato and his scholars were masters—of which Epicurus was not a master! He, the old school-teacher of Samos, who sat concealed in his little garden at Athens, and wrote three hundred books, perhaps out of rage and ambitious envy of Plato, who knows! Greece took a hundred years to find out who the garden-god Epicurus really was. Did she ever find out?
Nietzsche saw Epicurus as a great human being who invented “heroic-idyllic philosophizing” (The Wanderer and His Shadow). But he finds Epicurus’s joke on Plato malicious. This joke was first mentioned by Diogenes Laertius in Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (Chapter 10: “Epicurus”). Laertius’s account gives the impression that Epicurus was capable of being malicious and petty with his intellectual rivals. Here’s an excerpt from Lives of the eminent Philosophers:
Epicurus used to call this Xausiphanes jelly-fish, an illiterate, a fraud, and a trollop; Plato's school he called "the toadies of Dionysius," their master himself the "golden" Plato, and Aristotle a profligate, who after devouring his patrimony took to soldiering and selling drugs; Protagoras a pack-carrier and the scribe of Democritus and village schoolmaster; Heraclitus a muddler; Democritus Lerocritus (the nonsense-monger); and Antidorus Sannidorus (fawning gift-bearer); the Cynics foes of Greece; the Dialecticians despoilers; and Pyrrho an ignorant boor.
Epicurus was hostile to Plato. He rejected the idea of Platonic forms and an immaterial soul, and believed that skepticism is indefensible because it is possible for human beings to gain knowledge of the world by relying upon their senses. Unlike Plato, he believed that the goal of human action was to attain happiness (eudaimonia) for oneself. He scoffed at the Platonic idea of philosopher kings and preached the gospel of freedom.

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