Adversus Colotem


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Colotes, a student of Epicurus, became famous for an essay claiming that it was impossible to live according to the precepts of non-Epicurean philosophers. While the essay itself has not survived, we do have a response written by Plutarch, a 1rst Century A.D. follower of Plato. His work “Adversus Colotem” (“Against Colotes”) concludes with an argument against the Epicurean preference for private relationships and agreements over participation in public affairs and non-consensual legislation (summed up by the well-known Epicurean slogan “live inconspicuously”). This selection from Plutarch's reply to Colotes offers some important evidence regarding Epicurean views on refusing to serve the state or regarding the state's pronouncements as being more important than one's own personal happiness:

Hence, like some offender against heaven, he publicly proclaims his own misdeeds when he says as the book nears its end: “The men who appointed laws and usages and established the government of cities by kings and magistrates brought human life into a state of great security and peace and delivered it from turmoil. But if anyone takes all that away, we shall live a life of brutes, and anyone who chances upon another will all but devour him.” For this is Colotes' public declaration in his own words, and it is dishonest and untrue.…

No praise accordingly can ever do justice to the men who dealt with these brutish feelings [of pleasure] by establishing laws and with them states and governments and a system of legislation. But who are the men that nullify these things, overthrowing the state and utterly abolishing the laws? Is it not those who withdraw themselves and their disciples from participation in the state? Is it not those who say that the crown of an untroubled spirit is a prize beyond all comparison with success in some great command? Is it not those who say that to be a king is a fault and a mistake? Who write in these very words: “We must proceed to tell how a person will best uphold the purpose of his nature and how of his own free will he is not to present himself for public office at all.” They even go further, and add to these sentiments the following: “So, we are not called upon to be saviors of the Greeks or to receive from them any crown for wisdom, but to eat and drink, my dear Timocrates, in a way that will do the flesh no hurt and gratify it.”

… What is grave is not so much that among so many philosophers these alone (one might say) enjoy the advantages of civilized life without paying their share; it is that poets, both tragic and comic, are always trying to convey some useful lesson and take the side of law and government; whereas these men, if they write about such matters at all, write on government to deter us from public speaking, and about kingship to make us shun the company of kings. They mention statesmen only to deride them and belittle their fame, for instance Epameinondas, who they say had but one good thing about him, and even that “smallish” (for this is their expression), and dubbing the man himself “ironguts” and asking what possessed him to go walking across the Peloponnese and not sit at home with a nice felt cap on his head, wholly concerned (we must suppose) with the care and feeding of his belly. And Metrodorus' frivolous dismissal of the state in his work On Philosophy should not, I believe, be allowed to pass unnoticed. “Certain sages,” he says, “in their prodigality of conceit, have been so well able to detect the function of the state that in their discourse about ways of life and about virtue they go flying off after the same desires as Lycurgus and Solon.” … And to the remarks quoted Metrodorus adds this piece of abuse: “It is therefore fitting to burst into laughter of one truly free at all [other] men and more particularly at these Lycurguses and Solons.”

… That their war, moreover, was not with lawgivers but with laws we may learn from Epicurus who asks himself in Disputed Questions whether the sage who knows that he will not be found out will do certain things that the laws forbid. He answers, “the unqualified prediction is not free from difficulty”—that is, “I shall do it, but I do not wish to admit it.” Again—in a letter to Idomeneus, I believe—he calls upon him “not to live in servitude to laws and men's opinions, as long as they refrain from making trouble in the form of a blow administered by your neighbor.” If , then, to abolish laws and governments is to abolish humane living, and if Epicurus and Metrodorus do just this when they dissuade their followers from public service and quarrel with those engaged in it, and again when they speak despitefully of the earliest and wisest lawgivers and recommend contempt for law if it is not supported by the fear of a blow or punishment, I know of no false charge directed by Colotes against the others so grave as his true arraignment of Epicurus' philosophy and teaching.