The Epicurious Archaeologist

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Athens calling: Back in the day, Epicurus ran ancient Greece’s coolest academy: in the shade of a garden, cooled by trees. His Garden academy was not as cerebral as most of his competitors‘, but deeply pragmatic, focused less on eternal truths than on the good life (he loved cheese) and the good death (don’t freak out, when you’re dead you won’t be there to witness it, it’s over).

This Epicurean gym for curious minds was open to everyone, even to slaves and -gasp- WOMEN. They called that spot where they hung out: Kepos – the Garden. It was located near Dipylon Gate, not that far from today’s Parthenon.

So here is my question, dear Hive Mind: Do you know if there are any remains of the Kepos today? My guess: The philosopher of transience wouldn’t have wanted that in the first place. He might have said about my query about a more detailed place description of the Kepos today: „Nothing is sufficient for the person who finds sufficiency too little.“

Anyway. Who has pointers to that place – or to a good guide to take us on a tour of ancient and contemporary Athens, in English, German or French?

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UPDATE: Tim Whitmarsh answered my question brilliantly. He went on a quest himself to look for the Kepos, and this is what he found:

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Tim Whitmarsh writes:


„Some modern Athenians believe the site of the Garden was at the point where the Leoforos Athinon (“Athens Highway”) crosses the ancient Dromos, via a monstrous overpass. That is as may be. There is, pleasingly, a little park there, but it’s unlikely nowadays to stir Epicurean feelings of tranquility.

But the precise location doesn’t matter much. What is important is that we can now begin to think about the significance of the location in terms of its wider coordinates in the ancient city. Space is not just physical: it has emotional and cognitive associations too, and these matter deeply to its “users.”

Let’s try to reconstruct the “journey of the imagination” that might have been taken by an ancient visitor to the Epicurean Garden, walking out through the Dipylon and along the Dromos.

The most important point is that this was a world of the dead. The Ceramic Quarter (Kerameikos), where the Dipylon was located, was not just an attractive residential district, but also the city’s burial ground; many of the graves have been excavated (the €8 entry fee for the archaeological site is money well spent). But in fact the tombs were not limited to the Dipylon area; they lined the full mile-long stretch of the Dromos. The ancient road is now largely buried beneath the residential district of modern Colonus, but what archaeology remains confirms the report of the ancient travel-writer Pausanias, that the entire length of the road was “full of sanctuaries of the gods, and graves of heroes and of men” (1.29). At any point on that road, then, most of your companions were buried. What does this mean for visitors to the Epicurean Garden?

To answer this question, we have to think first about Plato’s Academy. Visitors to the Garden will surely have known that the city’s most famous philosophical school lay at the end of the Dromos; the position of the Garden earlier on the road might be read as a symbolic attempt to “hijack” the Platonic topography. The Academy was founded in the 380s, some 80 years earlier than the Garden. For Plato, the soul was more important than the body; in fact, the aim of the philosophical life was to shuck off the constraints of the material body (its appetites and desires) and focus instead on that spark of divine fire that animates us. Death actually liberates the soul from the clogging body, releasing it into a state of greater philosophical purity. The location of the Academy at the end of the Dromos, then, became a metaphor for transcendence of the material body. Death is not the end, but the route to true philosophy.“

Epicurus tried to hicjak Platonic topography. This is absolutely brilliant. Can’t wait to check it out myself.

The Archaeology of Atheism in Ancient Athens

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P.S.: This is an excerpt from the Encyclopedia Britannica:

When Epicurus and his followers came to Athens in 306, he bought a house and, in the garden, established a school, which came to be known as Ho Kepos (The Garden). At this time in Athens, cultural life was dominated by the Academy of Plato and the Lyceum of Aristotle, both of which had passed into the hands of successors. These schools attracted both the best theoretical students and those concerned with the application of philosophy to politics and public life. Therefore, any school that hoped to endure through this period had to enter into direct rivalry with the Academy and the Lyceum by establishing itself—as did the Stoa a few years later—in the city of Athens.

What Epicurus brought to Athens was more a way of life than a school or a community. Unlike both of the famous schools, it admitted women, and even one of Epicurus’ slaves, named Mouse. It taught the avoidance of political activity and of public life, although, when one follower from a school outside Athens rose to political power and then fell, he was succoured by the school. Quite different from the usual connotations borne by the term epicurean today, life in the house and garden was simple. Water was the usual drink, although a half-pint daily ration of wine was allowed, and barley bread was eaten.

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This is what the neo-Epicurean website Epicurusnet has to say:

„Epicurus therefore introduced the notion of the atomic swerve, where the path of an atom is no longer simply a function of the other atoms it interacts with, but also subject to some random variation. This leads to a strikingly modern conception of physics, where the traditional atomistic conception of particles with fixed identities and variable interrelationships is supplemented by what modern scientists would classify as a quantum indeterminacy.

Given the Skeptic assault on reason, Epicurus’s reaction was to formulate canonics as a separate branch of his philosophy, a kind of epistemology that highlights an unconditional acceptance of sensations and thus firmly anchors human knowledge in reality. While other schools stressed subjects like classification and deductive logic, Epicurus realized that the mechanics of reasoning were less important to the philosophical enterprise than comprehending the link between nature and human understanding. Canonics thus became an essential preliminary to the modified atomistic physics.

The capstone of the Epicurean system was its ethics. Certain Sophists from Libya, known as the Cyrenaics, had taken the controversial position that pleasure was the ultimate purpose of life. The various advocates of rational virtues, including Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics had all denounced pleasure-seeking as a threat to virtuous conduct and something fit only for animals, though some like Aristotle and the Stoics were careful to portray the virtuous wise man as being happy in some sense. One of Epicurus’s greatest achievements was to refute the false dichotomies of reason versus passion and of virtue versus pleasure-seeking, affirming instead that reason and virtue are highly instrumental to the pleasurable life.

With a number of profound insights about human psychology, Epicurus set aside the naive hedonism of the Cyrenaics and instead undertook a serious examination of what attitudes and patterns of behavior were necessary for optimizing the pursuit of happiness. Using this approach, Epicurus demonstrated that the virtues, understood as broadly-defined constraints on conduct rather than as a script for living the good life, were actually instrumental to optimizing one’s pursuit of happiness. Pleasure is indeed the highest good for humans, but the fullest possible appreciation of pleasure creates a need for the prudent management of the flow of pleasures over time and for a mental grasp of the art of living. In short, our best hope for happiness is for reason and pleasure to work together.

Epicurus’s empiricism, atomistic materialism, and rational hedonism thus emerged as a powerful counterpoint to the demoralizing retreat from philosophy preached by the Skeptics, and to the philosophical deification of the cosmos and self-abnegation preached by the Stoics.“

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So what happened to Epicurean thought? It resurfaced in ancient Rome, and then again in the late Middle Ages to become a foundation stone underlying much of critical, atomistic, enlightenment thinking. Stephen Greenblatt tells that story of an Epicurean Renaissance in his wonderful book „The Swerve“. From a review in the New York Times (by Dwight Garner):

„An admirer of Epicurus, Lucretius had the nerve to link pleasure with virtue. By pleasure he did not mean hedonism, exactly; he meant living a full life that included friendship and philanthropy and fundamental happiness.“

He also argued — the philosopher George Santayana would call this “the greatest thought that mankind has ever hit upon” — that all matter, including human beings, is made up of atoms that are in eternal and swerving motion.

Yeats called one passage in “On the Nature of Things” “the finest description of sexual intercourse ever written,” which is no mean praise. Montaigne’s essays contain more than 100 quotations from Lucretius’ poem.

Lucretius speaks across the millenniums because he offers “the power to stare down what had once seemed so menacing,” Mr. Greenblatt writes. Human beings, as transitory as everything else, should jettison their fears and “embrace the beauty and pleasure of the world.”

Lucretius played down the beauty of his own poetry, Mr. Greenblatt observes, comparing his verses “to honey smeared around the lip of a cup containing medicine that a sick man might otherwise refuse to drink.”

Here’s a more critical review of Greenblatt’s book in the LA Review of Books(by Jim Hinch):

The Swerve, in fact, is two books, one deserving of an award, the other not. The first book is an engaging literary detective story about an intrepid Florentine bibliophile named Poggio Braccionlini, who, in 1417, stumbled upon a 500-year-old copy of De Rerum Natura in a German monastery and set the poem free from centuries of neglect to work its intellectual magic on the world. This Swerve, brimming with vivid evocations of Renaissance papal court machinations and a fascinating exploration of Lucretius’s influence on luminaries ranging from Leonardo Da Vinci, to Galileo, to Thomas Jefferson, is wonderful.

The second Swerve is an anti-religious polemic. According to this book, the lucky fate of De Rerum Natura is a proxy for the much more consequential story of how modern western secular culture liberated itself from the deadening hand of centuries of medieval religious dogmatism. “Many of [De Rerum Natura’s] core arguments are among the foundations on which modern life has been constructed,” Greenblatt writes in The Swerve. “Almost every one of the work’s key principles was an abomination to right-thinking Christian orthodoxy.” In other words, The World Became Modern when it learned to stop believing in God and start believing in itself.“

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Be that as it may.

Where was the damn Kepos? Is it buried under a strip mall or under a Star Bucks today? The more I read, the more epicurious I am getting.