Introduction to Philodemus’ On Frank Criticism

eftir Clarence E. Glad

Introduction to Philodemus’ On Frank Criticism1

I. Philodemus’ Life and Works


In the first century BCE, an Epicurean community existed at Naples under the leadership of the Greek teacher Siro. At nearby Herculaneum, the Syrian Epicurean Philodemus, who was associated with the influential patron Calpurnius Piso, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, was also attracting students from different walks of life. Philodemus was a former pupil of Zeno of Sidon, the scholarch of the Epicurean school in Athens, and of Demetrius the Laconian. What is more, he cultivated interests in literary and philosophical studies, thus escaping the charge traditionally leveled at Epicureans that they entertained a deliberate disregard for general learning; Cicero refers to both Siro and Philodemus as the “excellent and learned friends” of Torquatus.

Philodemus was born in Gadara in Syria c. 110 BCE and died c. 40/35 BCE. He was probably of Greek parentage and received a Greek education. The dates at which the Epicurean schools on the bay of Naples were founded are uncertain, but Philodemus may have arrived in Italy around the year 80 BCE. There is no secure evidence for the school’s existence after 50 BCE, although the fact that the Epicurean library at Herculaneum was preserved until the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE strongly suggests that it did not disappear until the early Empire. The evidence shows that the Epicurean schools in Naples and Herculaneum were important intellectual and literary centers in the first century BCE.

Philodemus’ scholarly interests are evident from the quantity of charred papyri preserved in the house in Herculaneum that may indeed have been the residence of the Piso family. There consist both of Philodemus’ transcripts of the lecture notes he took at Zeno’s classes in Athens, for example, his notes On Frank Criticism (Perì parresías, also known as De libertate dicendi), and of Philodemus’ own compositions, including writings on historical matters, on scientific method, on rhetoric, music, and poetry, on theology, including On Piety and On the Gods, and, finally, on ethics. Among the ethical writings are an introduction to ethics, a treatise in several books On Death, and a work in ten books On Vices and the Opposing Virtues, which includes one book On Household Management, one On Arrogance, and probably three books On Flattery. Finally, Philodemus wrote anEpitome on Conduct and Character, from the Lectures on Zeno, which contains a work On Anger and the above-mentioned On Frank Criticism.

The handbook Perì parresías – the only known work in antiquity with this title – is translated here for the first time into a modern language. It is of great importance for the social history of Epicuraneism, as it provides evidence for moral instruction in various Epicurean centers in Greece and Italy. The work offers hypothetical questions and answers on aspects of psychagogic theory as well as reflections on psychagogic practice. A complete description of the treatise is not possible, since the work is not extant in its entirety, but one may gain from the remaining fragments a fairly good picture of later Epicurean psychagogy and communal pedagogy. The kinds of blame that are deployed in the service of moral improvement, and the frequency of terms signifying error and correction, are significant in a work entitled Perì parresías, and indicate that parresía, when used in the context of moral reform, connotes the frank criticism of error. The most appropriate translation of Perì parresías thus appears to be On Frank Criticism. Before discussing the treatise itself, however, it is well to situate the concept of frankness of speech in its larger cultural context.

II. The Idea of Frankness in its Cultural Context


In the classical Athenian democracy, the word parresía was used in the political sphere to express the right of free speech of anyone who enjoyed full civic status in Athens. In the classical democracy, friendship had been embedded in a powerful ideology of equality and freedom from dependency. On the basis of this civic and democratic ideal, friends were imagined as constituting a network of social equals, bound by personal affection and committed to offering one another mutual assistance; their status was chosen and thus distinct from ascribed statuses, such as kinship and citizenship. In a context in which citizens derived their equality from their participation in a democratic city, the right of free speech pertained to anyone who enjoyed full civic status at Athens. The term parresía, accordingly, “represented democracy from the point of view of equality of rights.”Parresía seems to have had no special association with the idea of friendship at this time, although liberty of speech was naturally taken for granted as a principle obtaining among friends, just as it obtained among fellow-citizens in general, all of whom were equally entitled to express themselves without fear of neighbors or of those in power. From the time of Isocrates onward, however, frankness came increasingly to be perceived rather as a private virtue, and more particularly as an integral element in friendship. The conception of friendship itself, indeed, had undergone a subtle change.

With the rise of the Hellenistic kingdoms and the dependency of Athens upon foreign powers, there was a shift in the political discourse of free speech and, correspondingly, the focus of treatises on friendship underwent a palpable change: “Parresía as a private virtue replaced parresía as a political right.” As a private virtue, parresía denoted that personal candor which was prized between true friends, as opposed to the political liberty to declare openly one’s opinion in the civic space or assembly. The emphasis on social equality in the discourse of friendship that was characteristic of the popular democracy now gave way to a concern with relations between powerful figures, whether monarchs or wealthy aristocrats, and their retinues, who were conceived of as bound to their patrons by amicable ties. Attention shifted from the theme of equality to such issues as integrity and frankness, and the danger represented by self-seeking flatterers in the entourage of the rich and powerful. As the egalitarian assumptions behind the universal right to self-expression gave way to an ideology centered on rank and authority, it became necessary to insist on parresía as a duty incumbent upon friends without regard for rank or station rather than to prize it as a universal mark of citizen status.

The shift in the meaning of parresía from freedom of speech to personal candor is coordinate with the change from the egalitarian city-state to a regime of powerful rulers in a position to dispense patronage. With these changes, the figure of the flatterer became a key subject of ideological attention. Flattery was now seen as a corrupt form of participation in the entourage of grandees and emerged as the antithesis of the personal integrity and frankness expected of loyal associates. The central issue in discussions of friendship became trustworthiness among friends, especially on the part of the subordinate partner in the relationship, who was often suspected of employing flattery in the hope of personal gain. Since flatterers could simulate frankness, techniques were devised to detect such imposters and receal them as false friends and adulators.

Essays by Plutarch and Maximus of Tyre on how to distinguish flatterers from friends reveal this set of concerns in the Roman period, as do treatises dealing with flattery and related vices. In the latter portion of his treatise on how one may distinguish a true friend from a flatterer, Plutarch discusses in detail the topic of frank speech; the reason is that parresía is the primary indicator of the candor characteristic of the true friend as opposed to the deceitfulness that marks the toady.

The term parresía, then, which in the classical democracy had signified the right of all citizens to express their views unhindered, designated under the Hellenistic monarchies the virtue of frank speech, not only as practiced by a subordinate in conversation with his superior but also as employed by a philosophical teacher seeking to heal the psyche of his disciples. In the latter context, where parresíawas now part of the vocabulary of the Hellenistic philosophical schools, the concern was with frank criticism in relation to instruction, that is, the nurturing or therapeutic use of parresía. Disciples required honest and constructive correction: on e needed to administer just criticism in a temperate way, avoiding both the excessive harshness that might discourage the moral improvement of the disciple and a lenient indulgence of the aspirant’s lax ways.

Where the idea of friendship was adopted as a figure for the relationship among members of a philosophical school, the frankness encouraged between pupils was naturally associated with the language of friendship. On the basis of friendship, a disciple might have the courage to reproach other disciples boldly, being inspired by an unfeigned goodwill to use plain language without spitefulness. Not only is frank speech “akin to friendship,” it is the “language of friendship” and the “most potent medicine in friendship,” to be employed in mutual moral reform among friends.

The topic of frank speech is thus integral to the theme of moral education, or the correction of faults among friends to effect an improvement of character. Already in Isocrates, as we have seen, one finds the change in connotation of the wordparresía from the right of free speech of citizens generally to that of candor between friends in particular, in relation to various other private virtues. A high point in this development is The Pedagogue of Clement of Alexandria, who discusses the function of hortatory blame or parresía on the part of the Divine Word itself. The treatise On Frank Criticism, in which Philodemus discusses frank speech under the topic of how and when frankly to reprimand one’s friends’ failings, is a valuable instance of this tradition.

III. The Nature of parresía in Philodemus’ Perì parresías


It is abundantly clear in Philodemus’ treatise On Frank Criticismthat the topic of frank criticism in moral reform (perì parresías) is part of the topic of friendship (Perì filías). Members of the group admonish and censure each other in friendship, “for they think that it is the part of a friend to apply frank criticism and to admonish others…”; such tasks are expected of those who hold “the office of a friend”. A forthright attitude toward others is part of this ideal; or, as fr. 28 puts it: “Even if we demonstrate logically that, although many fine things result from friendship, there is nothing so grand as having one to whom one will say what is in one’s heart and who will listen when one speaks. For our nature strongly desires to reveal to some people what it thinks.”

The treatise On Frank Criticism appears together with On Anger in a larger workOn Conduct and CharactersOn Anger reveals that the Epicurean community of friends had two aims: reform of character and theoretical inquiry. Anger thwarts the progress of people both because they do not share in the good of joint inquiry and because they cannot endure the rebukes or corrections of their teachers and fellow students. Reform of character is requisite for progress in wisdom and requires the correction of errors and passions. The Epicurean ideal of fellowship and mutual aid demanded, accordingly, the active participation of friends in the education and correction of one another, and On Frank Criticism is our prime evidence for the nature of that practice.

Frankness is conceived in the treatise as the opposite pole of the vice of flattery. The virtue that Philodemus contrasts with flattery, however, is not so much frank speech as such but rather friendship. Philodemus’ discussion of flattery and friendship draws on Aristotle’s understanding of virtue as a mean between two vices: friendship, accordingly, is the mean between flattery and enmity. Just as frank speech is a sine qua non of friendship, so ready assent, speaking in order to please, and praise are characteristics of flattery. Whatever the relation between Philodemus’ classification of frank speech in light of earlier discussions of friendship, however, it is clear that frankness, flattery, and friendship constituted a distinct triad in his thought, as it did in Hellenistic discourse generally. PHerc. 1082 is pertinent here:

Let us make it clear to them that the goods of friendship are very durable and that flattery is the antagonist of friendship; let us also consider well the goods that arise from frank speech, both (the frank speech) directed towards one’s intimate associates, and (the frank speech) directed towards all men, and let us avoid as vain the company of adulators, and still more let us not mix with them but seek cohabitation with those who speak candidly.

The admonition encouraging readers to seek to live with those who speak freely and avoid those who flatter continues the contrast between flattery and honest conversation at the beginning of the section. For the Epicureans, conversation and reasoning together are indispensable. Parresía is a type of homilía, intimately connected with friendship, though it is classified neither as an art nor as a virtue; rather, frank speech is an approximate or conjectural method used by friends in the therapeutic technique for the healing of souls, comparable to the methods employed by physicians in the art of healing and by pilots in the art of navigation.

In Philodemus’ view, parresía has two aspects, one directed “toward all men” and the other “toward one’s intimate associates”. There is a good example of the former aspect in Lucian’s essay, Alexander the False Prophet, in which Lucian assumes the role of a rational Epicurean who, together with Christians, attempts to deflate the false prophet Alexander of Abonouteichos and his claim to a special standing with the divine. Frank speech was a weapon in the Epicureans’ agitation against oracle-mongers and in their program of enlightening people generally concerning the workings of the universe, with a view to combating the fear of death associated with certain kinds of beliefs concerning the gods. The latter, or more intimate aspect of frank speech served more particularly to form character and to counter psychological disturbances and fears of other people. Such fears, like the fear of the gods, of the unpredictability of the universe, and of death, were counted among the anxieties that destroy human happiness.

Philodemus’ On Frank Criticism discloses a form of psychagogy that depends upon the active participation of all members of the community in the correction of one another. Thus, frankness is not only a pedagogical strategy on the part of the teacher, but also involves openness and the revelation of personal faults among both fellow-students and leaders for the sake of the moral development of the disciples. The teacher himself may also stand in need of criticism on occasion. Frankness, then, includes both the practice of balanced criticism as undertaken by the sage and the disclosure of private sentiments for the purpose of correction.

The Epicurean friends are encouraged not to conceal their faults but to confess them and bring them out into the open for criticism and mutual correction. “Confessional practice” is a somewhat anachronistic expression but it describes this activity well. Some of the fragments refer to the reporting of errors and indeed of spying, as well as the reluctance of some members to be forthcoming about themselves. Problems connected with communal living and the conditions of collective life, together with the focus on moral therapy through mutual criticism, may in part explain the preoccupation with openness or self-disclosure and the contrary danger of concealment. But the frankness and candor was a means towards correction and improvement, as well as a barrier to dissension with the group.

V. A Thematic Overview


Throughout the epitome, the focus is on the teachers and their methods, and on different types of students and their reactions to frank criticism. Particular emphasis falls on the participation of all in a process of mutual evaluation and correction. Four aspects of Epicurean correctional practice are evident: first, self-correction; second, correction administered by others; third, members reporting errors to teachers to be corrected; and finally, the wise correcting one another. Self-disclosure between fellow-students and the wise is consistently encouraged.

The treatise also examines the different types of teachers and their personal dispositions, as well as the methods or ways of applying frank criticism appropriately in view of the various types of students. The students, for example, must learn to recognize the different types, never to give up, and not to treat everything. The teacher’s own intellectual acumen and moral disposition come under inspection, those who are envious toward others, those who can not abide frank criticism, gentle teachers, those who err, and how teachers fail or succeed in applying frank criticism appropriately.

Similarly, there are different types of students, with their several dispositions, for example, those who accept frank criticism graciously, those who cannot tolerate it, those who pretend to endure it, those who vehemently resist it, and those who respond with bitterness or become alienated intellectually when criticized. There are references to strong students, weak ones, tender ones, confused ones, those who are either too shy or too intense, sociable ones, the recalcitrant, the passionate, the obdurate, those who are puffed up or disobedient, the irascible, the incurable, those difficult to cure, pretentious ones, and those of a lesser intellectual ability. We also find reference to students who are well-disposed towards the instructors, earnest in their goodwill, and thankful, those who are improving, and those who have received different kinds of upbringing.

The epitome of On Frank Criticism further reveals a dispute among Epicureans over methods of correcting disciples in the process of moral reform within the school. This debate centered on the appropriateness of harsh treatment in the cure of moral ills and the adaptation of frank speech to different recipients. Philodemus has a positive view of the human condition and the possibility of improvement. All make progress, but some have matured more than others. He rejects an inconsiderate and abusive approach to moral ills, advocating rather a gentle kind of treatment. One should not revile, scorn, or treat those who err spitefully, but should rather sympathize with them; their natural weakness should be pitied and forgiven, and the teacher should apply frank speech opportunely and cheerfully in order to increase the goodwill between him and those who are being prepared. If the young are ridiculed or inopportunely reproved, they become downcast, accept criticism badly, and cannot endure to listen to the teacher with goodwill. Excessive harshness may cause students to disassociate themselves, psychologically or physically, from the community.

In the context of this debate, students of two distinct general dispositions are mentioned, the “weak,” obedient ones and those who are “strong” or disobedient. The former are also referred to as those who are insecure in their new philosophic way of life or those who shun philosophy, whereas the latter are the stubborn or recalcitrant pupils, who cannot tolerate frank criticism on the part of others or violently resist frank speech; they are also called irascible, incurable, and difficult to cure. Philodemus also refers to members of the community as “those in preparation” or the “young,” though the “young are beginning students of philosophy generally, irrespective of their age. He refers to the same group as students or fellow-students, neighbors, disciples, laymen, children, companions or friends. Sometimes, the pupils are simple referred to as “some” (sc., of the friends). Each of theses types needs a specific kind of treatment. The ability of the young, whatever their disposition, to bear the frank speech of the sage is a major concern of the handbook.

Besides discussing different types of pupils and the effect frank criticism has on them, Philodemus considers in the last three section headings negative reactions towards frank criticism on the part of persons of different social standing, gender, and age. Those particularly resentful of frank criticism include illustrious people, women, and old men. In the case of women, part of the problem is their greater psychological insecurity. Women believe that the “weakness of their [nature]” should be pitied and impute impure motives to those who admonish them, believing that they are being reproved out of contempt. They also feel disgraced by reproach, since they are “too impulsive and too vain and too fond of their [reputation]…”. The illustrious too believe that they are criticized out of impure motives, or out of envy or hate, because of their good fortune. They have become accustomed “to being conversed with graciously by everyone”. In the case of old men, it is noted that they tend to think they are more intelligent because of their age, and that they should be honored on account of it; they also think that some people criticize them “out of contempt for their weakness”.

Philodemus is, however primarily concerned with the effect frank speech has on pupils of different characters or dispositions. The first nine topic headings and the first fifty-two fragments all deal with this issue in one from or another. Thus, the opening fragments deal with the instruction of neophytes and their dispositions, with the instructor’s way of approaching them, and with the relationship between the two. The emphasis falls immediately on the method of criticism and its use in relation to different types of students, a topic that will recur throughout the treatise. The question raised of how to behave toward one who vehemently resists frankness receives extensive treatment.

The teacher will indeed be frank with the one who has erred “and even with him who responds with [bitter]ness,” but he reproaches “in moderation”. In view of the different types of students, he is careful and flexible, treating each appropriately by utilizing whatever means are at his disposal. The teacher “touches upon” a “sociable” person “in accord with his character” and may ascribe errors to others and even to himself as a heuristic device. He can use a mixed form of frankness involving praise and blame, or a simple form using blame alone, “believing that it must be risked [if] otherwise [the students] do not pay heed”. Towards those “stronger than the tender ones and those somewhat more in need of treatment,” the teacher intensifies his frankness and “will employ the harsh form of frankness”. The teacher will criticize “exceedingly up in the recalcitrant students but will persevere, saying to them “again and again, ‘you are doing [wrong]’…”.

If the teacher does not adapt his methods in view of different types of students, they may become disheartened and the teacher’s labor will possibly be in vain. “And surely he will always fashion his words without anger [so as] not [to wrong] [further?] those who are treated roughly [by him]”; but if a recalcitrant person maligns someone, the teacher will censure him, albeit carefully, since “the one [who talks back] does not say [sound things]” and may become “alienated intellectually”. A “vehement person” thus needs appropriate treatment, “but it is not possible [to see] the individual character even of the well disposed [if they are concealed]”. This is the first reference to the issues of openness and concealment, which will be discussed in detail.

Frs. 16-18 allude to the problem of putting up with harsher forms of frankness and to instances in which the wise are slandered, a theme that is related to the issue of the negative response of students toward frank criticism that has been in view from fr. 5 onwards. Frs. 19-22 further characterize the recalcitrant and “base person” and refer as well to maledictions and insults, and to the teacher’s harsh response to the foolish student. We encounter also the warning that one should admonish or treat disciples with “[moderate] words” and advice, this in reference to a “pardon meted out for the things in which they slipped up”. The mention of “individual traits” of “great people” indicates that sensitivity was required on the teacher’s part in respect to students of different social standing, along with the necessity of adapting his method of instruction accordingly. These fragments, then, have focused on the different types of students and the appropriate ways of addressing their specific needs and reactions.

Although some of the fragments that follow are particularly lacunose, they seem still to focus on pedagogical method. Fr. 23 may refer to play-acting on the part of the teacher; it is again noted that the teacher has to deal with different kinds of students, for example, evil people he chances to encounter. Fr. 25 focuses on negative responses, asking “how, through frankness, we shall heighten the good will towards ourselves of those who are being instructed by the very fact of speaking frankly”. Just as the students are to visualize their errors, so too the teachers are to form an image of which method may be most effective: “Let us before our eyes also the difference that exists between a caring admonishment and an irony that pleases but pretty much stings everyone”.

Fr. 28 emphasizes the intimate relationship that exists among the Epicurean friends. Fr. 29 is obscure, but fr. 30 seems to focus on the student who is still dependent in “external things” and “pays less attention to his own injury”; such a person is “vexed at other things and in particular [suffers at the reproaches]….” Fr. 31 refers to “young men” who are “…very irritated whenever [they are going to be reproached]…”; these [accept] with annoyance what is said in frankness” and “cannot possibly endure [to listen] to [a teacher?] with goodwill”. Fr. 32 appears to focus on some of the teachers, who “[proceed gradually] to admonishment … just as others have seemed to heal suddenly, and contrary to [all expectation].” It also refers to the benefits received from frank criticism as a step in the students’ progress.

Frs. 5-33 have collectively attended to the need on the part of teachers to administer their frank criticism appropriately in view of different types of students, particularly those who respond negatively to criticism. Frs. 34-52 give a more detailed account of the tension-filled social reality of a community of friends of inferior and superior station frankly criticizing each other in the reciprocal endeavor to be “saved by one another.” Philodemus recognizes that differences in social status complicate the task of the teacher: a humble Greek instructing a powerful Roman aristocrat may pose ticklish problems in a hierarchical society. Although Philodemus contents himself with offering some practical advice on how to treat students of high station, the problem surfaces in various parts of the epitome. The superior disciples should “endure admonishment graciously” and should at times, although it is acknowledged to be difficult, obey those who are “too young in condition”. Despite the fact that students themselves, and possibly teachers and students alike, are made subject to one another in turns, “the encompassing and most important thing is” that they all “obey Epicurus, according to whom [they] have chosen to live…”.

Occasionally, Philodemus speaks of the wise as “perfect”, in contrast to one who fails to understand, or who is senseless or ignorant. Nevertheless, the wise can still progress in their use of frankness and in their attitude toward others, and may themselves have to be corrected. The wise should thus not hate those who commit pardonable mistakes, “for how is he going to hate the one who errs, though not desperately, when he knows that he himself is not perfect and rem[inds himself that everyone is accustomed to err?]”. Goodwill and respect for others should govern the relationship between students and their leaders. One ought not to be “[frank in a haughty] and [contentious way], not to [say any insolent] and contemptuous or disparaging things”, nor should one remind others of their errors in anger.

In this tightly-knit social network of mutual correction, self-disclosure is paramount; “to act in secret is necessarily most unfriendly”. The section heading in fr. 53, the first of twelve to occur henceforward in the fragments and columns, expands on the topic of self-disclosure: “Whether they will declare things of their own and of one another to their fellow-students?” This topic draws attention to an important dimension of Epicurean communal psychagogy. Apparently, not only was self-disclosure expected of the students but also the reporting of the errors of others to their fellow-students for correction. This should not only be done on a one-to-one basis but also in public, “in the presence of the students”.

A new section heading in fr. 56, “…[Whether it seems to us that one will slip up in accord with] the [perfection] of reason [by means of what is preconceived]” directs attention to the teachers, their intellectual acumen and moral disposition. Although it is questionable whether the wise can fail with regard to the perfection of reason and prudence, apparently they can become angry and fail in their application of frank criticism. The possible failure of the wise in their use of frank speech is approached by way of an explication of how frank criticism is administered in various cases, and illustrated by medical imagery.

As the epitome continues to explicate the way in which the wise may apply frank criticism appropriately, different types of students figure again into the discussion. Sometimes the students accuse the wise of being angry, and sometimes they shun philosophy and hate the wise and do not benefit from frank criticism, although they submit to it, because they are either weak or incurable. Some are passionate or obdurate and disobedient and can deteriorate from a better to a worse condition. This enumeration of various types of students who respond differently to frank criticism leads naturally to the third topic, introduced in fr. 67: “Whether he will also speak frankly to those who do not endure frank criticism, and to one who is [irascible]…”. This question is indirectly answered in frs. 67-70 by describing the subtle nature of the artistry of moral guidance, with reference to the practice of doctors “who treat also one who is reasonably believed that he is not going to recover from his disease…”.

The fourth topic is introduced in fr. 70 – “How will he handle those who have become angry toward him because of his frank criticism?” – and develops further the reaction of students towards the teacher’s frank criticism. In the face of the students’ anger, the teacher “will endure what confronts [him] moderately and not as something groundless,” knowing that they were previously ashamed when admonished.

The fifth topic heading in fr. 74 presents a series of questions regarding the disciple: “whether he is well-disposed toward us; whether he is intense in his goodwill; whether he has jettisoned some of the things charged against him, even if not perfected in everything, whether toward us and toward [others] he will be [thankful]…”. These questions are not fully dealt with in frs. 75-80 before the next topic is broached. Some of the topics, though, are touched on in subsequent fragments; others, for example, the issue of goodwill and gratitude and that of the students’ progress, have already been discussed in frs. 1-52. Teachers are not the only ones who administer reproaches; students are both to report the errors of their fellow-students and to present themselves for correction to other students.

If fr. 76 has the teachers in view, it presents intriguing evidence for mutual psychagogy. The teachers hold up before the eyes of the students both their own errors and those of others. The practice is that of visualizing errors, of “putting mistakes in front of the eyes” of those at fault in order to facilitate their improvement. In addition to registering disapproval of excessive harshness and a caution against the desire to harm others, frs. 77-79 contain some harsh warnings for the practitioners of moral guidance, whether teachers or fellow-students. People should not be reproached for everything, nor ought one to criticize “continually, nor against everyone, nor every chance error, nor [errors] of those whom one should not [criticize] when they are present, nor with merriment, but rather [to take up the errors] sympathetically [and not to] scorn [or insult] on…”. Fr. 80 differentiates between those “favorably disposed” toward the teachers and those who are not. The fragment also advises that one honor those who “scrutinize one.” Presumably because one has profited on account of the teachers’ love and goodwill; the students are obliged to show their teachers goodwill.

The sixth section heading focuses exclusively on the wise, asking “whether a wise man will communicate his own [errors] to his friends with frankness”. The wise will disclose their errors but presumably only to those who are suited to know them. Such forthrightness will benefit both the wise and others and should be practiced in an appropriate manner and not, for example, in a spirit of showing off. When the wise err like “young people,” they should be “whipped,” that is, reprimanded. The next fragment picks up the issue of chastising the recalcitrant by drawing an analogy between the practice of the instructor and colt-tamers; “the [wise man], being a person-tamer, [probes] the disobedience of a young man who is [arrogant]”. A wise person will, “in the presence of many friends … practice a [very tentative] frankness”; it is not clear whether this statement is a response to the question raised in fr. 81 of whether the wise will disclose his errors to his friends. If so, the fragment indicates that when a wise man corrects the mistakes of another, he will be careful of the context.

References to students who have been “unexamined earlier,” “disregarded as untreatable” and finally “recognized” and “restored fully,” to “one who is ashamed” and addressed frankly again and again, to the “very shameful conditions” of some, and to “those who have no passion to be treated” all give evidence of the regular evaluation of a diverse body of individuals. The last fragments of this section contain reflections on the teachers’ characters and the question of moral guidance. The teachers who are “extremely cheerful and friendly [and] gentle” will “speak frankly again and again” regarding some things; they try “persistently [to] tame people into love for themselves, [subt]ly helping [through] doctors even those who have no passion to be treated”; when the teacher is “[responding to an error or reproach that is] bearable and expected to cease, he will not be angry with an anger that hates, but rather with one that blames foolishness…”, and he reproaches people with “moderate reminders”.

The seventh section heading, “How will we recognize the one who has endured frank criticism graciously and the one who is pretending [to do so]?”, signals some of the social pressures faced by the pupils and underscores the perceptiveness required of one who dispenses moral succor. The issue raised in the eighth section heading, “…[to distinguish] one who is frank from a polite disposition and one who is so from a vulgar one”, relates to an apparent problem involving the teacher’s own nature in respect to the art of moral guidance. One who administers frank criticism should be morally advanced; he should be of a “polite disposition” and not of a base one. An analysis of character follows. The initial columns examine in detail the disposition of the ideal psychagogue and its contrary. Then the differences in the miens of the teachers are noted, as well as their approaches to different types of students, for example, the confused, one who is weakened or puffed up, or too shy or too intense, or those students who have had different kinds of upbringing. The following fragments consider how various students employ frank criticism and progressively master the technique. Cols Via-VIIb again pick up the theme of different approaches on the part of the teachers toward different types of students.

With Cols. VIIa the focus shifts to mutual frankness among the wise, both in private and in public. Cols. VIIIa-XIa recognize that the wise may “reason falsely” and err and be themselves in need of correction. In cols. XIb-XIVb, the relationship between those being instructed, whether laymen or more advanced individuals, and the wise comes to the fore; sometimes the wise man will not tolerate much frankness on the part of those who are to be instructed by him, and on other occasions he will. Cols. XVa-XXb continue to focus on those being instructed and the relationship between them and their instructors. Two groups of people emerge in the discussion: those in need of advice and those whose role it is to give it. The former group is further divided into those capable of accepting advice and those who remain obdurate; the counselors, in turn, are discriminated into those who give advice effectively and those who fail to do so. Cols. XVa-XVIIIb address teachers who do not know how to manage obdurate pupils, and then those pupils who give the impression of being open to plain speaking but in fact are not: there is a danger here of mistakes in judgment on the part of the mentors.

Cols. XVIa-XXIb in part address problems of moral and intellectual acumen, and call attention to pretentious students or aspiring teachers who have a desire for reputation, believing that they are faultless and that they are “more suited to speaking frankly” because “they think that they are more intelligent that [others]…”. When they recognize that others are wiser than they, the situation becomes acute, as the ninth section heading indicates: “…how, [when they recognize] that some of their number are more intelligent, and in particular that some of them are teachers, do they not abide frank criticism?”. The answer given reveals differences of opinion among Epicureans as to who has the right frankly to criticize others; such a one must surpass others, not so much in “theoretical arguments” as in character, being able to perceive what is best in the affairs of real life.

After addressing the tensions caused by variation in intellectual ability, Philodemus turns his attention to persons of different social standing, gender, and age. Here, as in the case of the different types of students, the major concern is the fact that different people respond differently to frank criticism. The one who provides care is advised to keep this simple truth in mind, and indeed the several themes that arise in the epitome are all bound up with this one overarching issue.

VI. Medical Surgery


Although the application of the language of disease and cure to the philosophical enterprise was widespread in antiquity, the conception of philosophy as a medical art assumed in Epicurean thought a foundational significance. The pervasiveness of this conception is reflected in the epitome as well, not only through the frequent direct comparisons of philosophical activity to the healing arts, but also through the striking and repeated use of medical terms as more or less technical designations for the process of instruction within the Epicurean community of friends.

The medical analogy arises in the comparison of moral instructors to doctors, in references to diseases and medicines or to medical treatment and operations, and in references to sick people who are either incurable, undiagnosed, or untreatable. We also find references to symptoms of sickness, to people being saved, and to the restoration of well-being.

Philodemus uses medical imagery to throw light in matters of moral exhortation, on the means and methods of correct diagnosis and prognosis, the need for perseverance in difficult cases, and for patient care on the doctor’s part. In regard to medical surgery, therapy in Philodemus takes two forms, namely, medicinal and surgical, that is, cures by means of drugs or the scalpel, conforming in this to the Hippocratic norm. Pharmacy is of a mixed character in that it involves both agreeable and bitter medicines. Besides purgatives, such drugs as wormwood and hellebore are invoked. These medicines, like the surgical method itself, suggest the sharpness which is a necessary aspect of frank speech.

The medical model, then, in suggesting the mixed nature of exhortation, gives evidence of the need for good judgment on the part of Epicurean spiritual directors and underscores the legitimate use of harshness in moral exhortation, especially in the case of recalcitrant students. The point is emphasized in the analogies with hellebore, wormwood, and surgery to describe the therapeutic task. The most sustained use of medical imagery occurs just when Philodemus focuses on recalcitrant students. Their “sickness” is of such a nature that it requires more drastic measures than obedient students need.

The comparison with physicians underlines the conjectural or approximate nature of moral instruction, both in the evaluation of the students’ dilemmas and in the application of frankness in the treatment itself, and clearly indicates the need to adapt treatment to particular cases and the possibility that even a mature person may fail in the care of others. The method is conjectural in the same way as the art of the physician, the rhetor, or the pilot, that is, there are no general rules that are valid for all instances. Each situation creates a unique problem to which the pilot, rhetor or physician must adapt his skill. The art in question is thus subservient to the situation, for example, the weather at sea, the rhetor’s particular audience, or the nature of the patient.

VII. Conclusion


What general social practices may be inferred from Philodemus’ treatise On Frank Criticism as we have it, often depends on the tricky question of whether a particular fragment is alluding to teachers or students. In many cases, absolute certainty cannot be attained. But it seems clear that the care of souls among the Epicureans was communal and not restricted to a few members invested with pre-eminent authority. Philodemus is indeed concerned mainly with the candor that the teacher exhibits in relation to a student under his authority, but he also emphasizes that the teacher exhibits in relation to a student under his authority, but he also emphasizes the usefulness of frankness in general in advancing solidarity among the Epicurean friends and their mutual collaboration in moral development. Jus as some members of the entourage of the rich and powerful were expected, on the basis of friendship, to advise and correct the errors of their superiors, so too those of an inferior character and social position within the philosophical community were allowed to admonish others and to correct the errors of their moral superiors. The fragments thus reveal the connection between frank speech and the ideal of friendship as a commitment to reciprocal honesty, and invoke as well the kind of sincerity expected of an inferior in relation to a patron.

In the Epicurean communities, where friends of unequal power and status joined in mutual psychagogy for moral improvement, both symmetrical and asymmetrical forms of social relationship had their place. The system of psychagogy was rotational, and the one who provided care might next be the object of admonishment. The problems voiced in the epitome suggest that frank speech and openness among friends of unequal power and status were not a vague or abstract ideal but rather a tense social reality. Part of the purpose of the treatise is to address these tensions and present guidelines for their resolution. What is striking about this fluid system of rotational psychagogy is its collaborative nature: friends within the fellowship, whether teachers or fellow-students, are expected to participate in a process of mutual edification, admonition, and correction, all in spirit of goodwill and moral solidarity.



1. Þetta er stytt útgáfa af innganginum í: Philodemus: On Frank Criticism. Introduction, Translation, and Notes e. David Konstan, Diskin Clay, Clarence E. Glad, Johan C. Thom & James Ware. Atlanta, Georgia 1988.


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