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Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Epicureanism. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - AI.




Well, after the programme I was disappointed that we had not more time to spend on the Renaissance and on the Enlightenment and the influence of Epicureanism on both those galvanic, West European, civilising turning points in our history.  But we had to spend the time on the earlier stuff in order to bring out the amazing breadth and depth of Epicurean thinking.  Marx, I was told afterwards, had written a dissertation on the differences in the philosophy between Epicureans and himself.  It's entertaining to think of the two of them in the same room - or garden.

The last few weeks have been fast motion.  I haven't even had time to chat about the Culture series, which Tom Morris and I managed to get together in autumn and put out in the very first week of this year and which gathered some tremendous comments.  By the way, Epicurus - as I speak - is tweeting away, with people saying they want to be Epicureans.  I wonder which bit they want to concentrate on.  Then there's been filming on William Tyndale and in Israel and Palestine on Mary Magdalene - documentaries for the BBC - and embroiled in a new season of the South Bank Show and Awards.

Therefore, a few notes.  I saw the pelicans being fed in St James's Park as I walked by there to the House of Lords two evenings ago.  It's extraordinary to see a fish as big as a forearm being dropped into the pouch of a pelican, which then arches its neck and, without any visible sign, presumably the fish goes right down to the cistern belly of the said bird.

On Hampstead Heath, when I was walking, I saw a swan make a crash landing on the tarmac just outside one of the ponds.  It stood up and, as it were, brushed itself down, pecked itself up and walked away from the scene of the crash.

In the Arab market in Jerusalem, young boys were taking incredibly overloaded carts of vegetables down steep streets and controlling the speed of these carts by stepping on an old car tyre, which was roped to the back of the cart, and leaning their weight back and slowing it down that way.  The place fizzed, as it is easy to imagine that it has fizzed for more than two thousand years.  Beside a washing place in the middle of one of the alleys, five women were washing their family clothes, I presume, and when we drew near with a camera, they folded their headdresses over their faces and we knocked off the cameras.

We were led to 1st-century tombs, literally carved into the rock above Jerusalem, and judging by the congestion of cobwebs, scarcely ever visited.  In Bethlehem I went to a hill which overlooked the winery and the ever-extending Wall and settlements which have an air of fortresses.  In both Jerusalem and Bethlehem, it was moving to see the passion of people in what they think to be the authentic shrines of the birth and death of Christ.  People kissing the stone on which he was laid out and putting T-shirts and photographs on that stone, somehow to be blessed by it.  It's a devotion easy to ridicule, less easy to understand, but surely important enough to think about without mockery.  I was there for two Shabbats and the sight of Orthodox families in full dress - father, mother, many children - walking through the streets in the afternoon was, again, something which flicked you back hundreds of years and is visible evidence of tradition and continuity which can't fail to be moving.

The Basilica of St Anne in Jerusalem is one of the most perfect churches I have ever seen.  It was the first time I'd been in it.  There's a place called The Tent in Bethlehem which served the sweetest lamb I've ever tasted.  It was cooked with ancient methods, in a pot with the vegetables and so on.

Back in London the sun is shining and I'm trying to make Regent's Park before I come back to the office and get on with a bit of work, and then out tonight for an Amnesty event.  I'd like to walk there.  London at twilight takes you straight back to Dickens and Conan Doyle, whatever the traffic.

A bit all over the place, then.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg


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  • Comment number 2. Posted by James Warren

    on 8 Feb 2013 09:25

    Marx's dissertation was on the differences between Epicurus' philosophy and that of Democritus. It's available to read online here:

    It's not much of a page-turner.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by John Thompson

    on 8 Feb 2013 01:34

    Epicurus’s idea of life was not like ours,his pleasure principle is relatively ascetic,withdrawn to the garden,to contemplate,rather than to actively satisfy desires.Its like Marvel’s poem The Garden:-
    Meanwhile the mind from pleasure less
    Withdraws into its happiness;
    The mind,that ocean where each kind
    Does straight its own resemblance find;
    Yet it creates transcending these,
    Far other worlds, and other seas;
    Annihilating all that’s made
    To green thought in a green shade.

    I thought Epicurus made valid objections to skeptism.If a person really were to believe that he knows nothing, then he would have no reason to engage in one course of action instead of another. Thus, the consistent skeptic would engage in no action whatsoever, and would die. If a skeptic claims that nothing can be known, then one should ask whether he knows that nothing can be known. If he says ‘yes,’ then he is contradicting himself. If he doesn’t say yes, then he isn’t making a claim, and we don’t need to listen to him. If the skeptic says that nothing can be known, or that we cannot know the truth, we can ask him where he gets his knowledge of concepts such as ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth.’ If the senses cannot be relied on, as the skeptic claims, then he is not entitled to use concepts such as ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’ in formulating his thesis, since such concepts derive from the senses.

    Pleasure,the highest good,is treated like a medicine.Pleasurable results of an action must always be weighed up against its possible side effects.Short term gains must also be weighed against long term gains.There is the idea of pleasurable calculation. Pleasure does not necessarily mean sensual pleasure:sex was bad,wealth was bad, eating more than bread and water was indulgent.Desire must be curbed. Friendship, temperance and serenity will help us endure pain.The atomic theory of Democritus was a useful cure for religious superstitions.To live the good life is to overcome the fear of death.

    ‘Death does not concern us because as long as we exist death is not here.And when it does come we no longer exist.’
    ‘The gods are not to be feared.Death is nothing to worry about..Good is easy to attain.
    The fearful is easy to endure.’(The 4 medicinal herbs).
    Excesses lead to pain and not pleasure and the best of all pleasures were mental ones.
    A materialist who accepted the atomic theory of Democritus,but not its determinism.
    He did not disbelieve in the gods but regarded religion and the fear of death as the main sources of unhappiness.

    In the Hellenic world they did not participate in politics or communal action.The Epicureans became inward individualists,eschewing politics and love and passion.Absence of pain rather than presence of pleasure is the wise man’s goal.Contentment not happiness was what he aimed at.As the Greek healthy-minded joyousness in nature expired,stoicism and Epicureanism were at the foothills of Christianity.

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