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A Life Worthy of the Gods: The Materialist Psychology of Epicurus (review)
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Reviewed by
David Konstan. A Life Worthy of the Gods: The Materialist Psychology of Epicurus. Las Vegas-Zurich-Athens: Parmenides Publishing, 2008. Pp. xx + 176. Paper, $34.00.

In this modestly expanded edition of his 1973 book, Some Aspects of Epicurean Psychology (Brill), David Konstan attempts to flesh out the Epicurean explanation of the causes of unhappiness: “empty beliefs” (kenodoxia)—most importantly, the groundless fear of death—and the irrational desires that fuel and are fueled by them. Konstan’s central argument, preserved from the earlier edition, is deceptively simple: empty beliefs, according to Epicureans, are in large part the product of a symbolic association—a “linguistic confusion”—of the afterlife with certain real-life human ills, such as poverty and obscurity.

In the first chapter, which is new to this edition, Konstan calls on psychology to flesh out the Epicurean understanding of empty fears and irrational desires—ancient psychology, that is: a science of the soul. Konstan’s reading of the relation between sensation (aisthēseis), the passions (pathē) of pleasure and pain, and belief (doxa) in Epicurean doctrine is unorthodox but thorough. Rather than mapping pathē onto either the soul as a whole or the body, Konstan assigns pathē to the non-rational part of the soul, the seat of sensation. He locates the emotions, which “do not seem to have a special name in Epicurean theory,” in the rational part (11). Crucial to this schema is Konstan’s claim, based on Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura and Diogenes Laertius’s doxography of Epicurus, that Epicureans did not consider emotions such as fear and joy to be pathē at all, since emotions depend on memory and reasoning, whereas pathē do not. The upshot is that fear, as a rational emotion, involves belief and evaluation, and is therefore susceptible to error; whence the psychological roots of pernicious “empty beliefs.”

In chapter two, Konstan addresses the Epicurean conundrum of why humans are plagued by fears and anxieties when their needs are so basic. Konstan takes as an explanation of this phenomenon Lucretius’s analysis of irrational desires and their parasitic relationship [End Page 95] with baseless fears. Out of their fear of death—the fear to beat all fears, according to Epicureans—people irrationally desire goods such as wealth, power, and glory that they mistakenly believe will delay their descent into the underworld. Konstan contends that there was a “symbolic association between poverty and death’s antechamber” that was not merely metaphorical (45); to escape poverty is not to cheat something like death, but to cheat death itself, just as to pursue wealth is literally to pursue life. In their vain quest to waylay death, people resort to greediness, crime, deceit—in short, any behavior that could result in material gain. Unfortunately, these unsavory activities serve only to augment rather than assuage fears, since wrongdoers fear being punished for their illicit deeds. The fear of punishment in turn spurs more irrational desires, forming a vicious cycle of mutually reinforcing behavior and states of mind that are incompatible with tranquility.

In the final two chapters, Konstan combs Epicurean social theory for the roots of irrational fears and desires and shows how Epicurean epistemology enables the sage to avoid them. Konstan argues that harmful fears and desires emerged when words came to refer not only to visible sensory phenomena, but also to abstract notions whose referents might be phantoms—misleading accounts of the gods and the limits of desire that do not correspond with reality. In addition, laws served to foment fears of divine retribution and death as lawmakers attempted to regulate behavior by disseminating myths about the wrath of the gods and the afterlife. In the final chapter, Konstan is on well-trodden ground when he claims that the Epicurean sage is able to control fears and desires by understanding the nature of reality, pleasure, and human needs.

This book will primarily be of interest to scholars of Epicureanism; the sheer number of footnotes and the technical language make it rather inaccessible to the non-specialist. And the specialist may find that Konstan’s treatment of the secondary material sometimes interferes with the presentation of his own views...