In the year 79 of the Common Era in Italy, Mount Vesuvius erupted. Its ashes famously piled over Pompeii for an entire day until the whole city was destroyed. Pompeii instantly became legendary, but its sister city Herculaneum, which was smaller, was less of a legend until recently. It did not yield the remains of people and animals who died instantly where they stood at the time of the eruption, becoming grotesque statues. Instead, it yielded the villa of the papyri, where hundreds of books were kept in a library belonging to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, father-in-law of Julius Caesar, together with exuberant statues, and other testimonies of the many comforts enjoyed by Roman patricians.
It was here that Philodemus of Gadara had taught philosophy to wealthy Romans and kept a vast library. Philodemus was a Syrian-born Epicurean philosopher who had studied in Athens under the Epicurean Scholarch Zeno of Sidon. Many of the papyri at the villa consist of notes taken by Philodemus while in class.
Of the hundreds of scrolls, many were lost forever to the ashes. Others were partially deciphered, but still more than 300 remain undeciphered due to their fragile condition. Earlier this year, scientists revealed that new laser technology will be used to slowly decipher the remaining charred scrolls without damaging them. Many of us are excited about what might be found.
Among what has been deciphered, we find what must have been the textbooks used by Philodemus for teaching philosophy. This includes his doctrines on autarchy (self-sufficiency) and economy, as recorded in his Peri Oikonomias; his advice against flatterers and on how friends must employ frank speech with each other in Peri Parrhesias; his work On Piety where he argues that the founders of the school were pious men, and defines piety in non-superstitious terms; and many other works on anger, arrogance, rhetoric, logic, and the arts. His masterpiece, however, is his papyrus On Death, which catalogs in detail the ethical repercussions of the Epicurean doctrine that death is nothing to us and produces a beautiful, life-affirming, world-loving secular philosophy of life that does not deny, mask, or run away from the reality of death. On Death helps us to develop a fully consistent, naturalist account of death that rejects superstitious and primitive fear.
My own reasonings based on Philodemus’ scrolls are gathered in the Philodemus Series. To be fair, not all the scrolls are by him. His works are peppered with quotes from the four founders of the Epicurean school, to whose authority he appealed frequently, and one of the surviving texts was written by Polystratus as a defense of moral realism. Polystratus had been the third Scholarch, and had studied philosophy from his youth directly from Epicurus of Samos himself. However, because Philodemus of Gadara wrote most of the works and furnished the library, as Philonides of Loadicea had done in Syria, I’ve named the entire series of reasonings after him.
Please enjoy the Philodemus Series.