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Democritus and Epicurus on Sensible Qualities in Plutarch’s Against Colotes 3-9

Les qualités sensibles selon Démocrite et Epicure dans le Contre Colotès de Plutarque (§§3-9)
Le qualità sensibili secondo Democrito ed Epicuro nel Contro Colote di Plutarco (§§3-9)
Luca Castagnoli

Résumés

À partir d’une lecture suivie des chapitres 3-9 du Contre Colotès de Plutarque, cette étude reconstruit et interprète (1) la critique épicurienne originelle de l’épistémologie et de l’ontologie démocritéennes, en particulier de la théorie démocritéenne des qualités sensibles, et (2) la double critique par Plutarque (2a) de l’épistémologie épicurienne, critique fondée sur des arguments similaires, et (2b) des manœuvres exégétiques et argumentatives discutables de l’épicurien Colotès. En procédant à l’interprétation du texte de Plutarque, (3) cet article réfléchit à la nature, aux intentions et à la vraisemblance des stratégies exégétiques et argumentatives de Plutarque lui-même. Enfin, (4) il suggère qu’une lecture attentive du Contre Colotès nous aidera à poser l’importante question de savoir si, indépendamment de leurs affirmations opposées sur la « réalité » des qualités secondaires, Démocrite et Épicure partageaient, soit une forme de relativisme radical, soit une forme d’« intersubjectivisme » de sens commun dans leurs évaluations des conditions d’attribution de ces qualités aux objets macroscopiques.

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1A first and shorter version of this paper was presented at the International Conference “Lecture du Contre Colotès de Plutarque” (École normale supérieure de Lyon, 8-9 April 2010). I am very glad to be able to thank the conference organisers, Thomas Benatouïl, Pierre-Marie Morel and Valérie Laurand, for the opportunity they gave me to work on such a stimulating text, and all those who participated in the discussion of my paper on that occasion. A later version of this paper was presented to a responsive audience in Durham; my thanks go to them too. Special thanks are due to George Boys-Stones, Phillip Horky, Eleni Kechagia-Ovseiko, Matthew Neale, Maria Michela Sassi and an anonymous referee for helpful comments upon the penultimate draft of this article.

  • 1 On Colotes, his works, and the broader tradition of Epicurean polemics to which they belong see E.  (...)

2Plutarch’s Against Colotes is an invaluable source of information on the doctrines and arguments of a variety of Greek philosophers and philosophical schools, a source which has been abundantly tapped by historians of classical philosophy. In the process of criticising the 3rd century B.C. Epicurean Colotes1 for the attacks launched upon a number of earlier and contemporary philosophers in his pamphlet On the fact that it is not even possible to live in accordance with the doctrines of the other philosophers, Plutarch provides us with a wealth of doxographical information that has significantly enriched our collections of fragments and testimonies for a variety of individuals and schools, from the Presocratics to the Cyrenaics and Arcesilaus (including, of course, Epicurus and the Epicureans).

3Unavoidably, however, some of the intrinsic interest and potential value of Plutarch’s work is lost when the text is exploited uniquely as a mine of information to be dug out, excerpted and “stored” elsewhere. Colotes’ critical strategies reported by Plutarch and the complex ways in which Plutarch himself engages with the words and arguments of Colotes and other earlier philosophers within his anti-Epicurean crusade are worth analysing in their own right; they open for us a fascinating window on distinctive styles of dialectical argument and exegesis in the Hellenistic age and later antiquity. At the same time, I believe that it is especially within such an analysis of Against Colotes as a literary and philosophical unity, and not as a mere “container” of fragments and testimonies, that some of the more interesting implications of those very fragments and testimonies will fully come to the fore.

  • 2 For an excellent recent attempt along similar lines, but with much broader scope, see E. Kechagia, (...)

4I will attempt to illustrate some dividends of reading Plutarch’s text closely as a piece of philosophical writing2 by offering a sort of running commentary on the opening Democritean part of Against Colotes (sections 3-9). This section of the text has enough substance and unity to deserve that self-contained in-depth scrutiny which it has not received so far. I hope it will emerge in the end that there is something interesting to be learnt both about Plutarch’s strategies and about Democritus’ and Epicurus’ doctrines from such a close reading.

1. Setting the stage: Colotes’ method and key error (3, 1108D5-E2)

5At the end of section 2 of Against Colotes Plutarch wraps up his introductory proem: while Colotes and the Epicureans charge the other philosophers with “destroying life” (τὸ ζῆν ἀναιροῦσιν), the other philosophers charge the Epicureans with teaching us to live “ignobly and like beasts” (ἀγεννῶς καὶ θηριωδῶς). This anti-Epicurean sentiment had been already voiced by Plutarch at 1108C: you cannot “live well” (εὖ ζῆν), i.e. “sociably [...], friendly, temperately and justly” (κοινωνικῶς […] καὶ φιλικῶς καὶ σωφρόνως καὶ δικαίως), if you endorse Epicurean views on pleasure, the soul and the gods.

  • 3 Note the plural οὗτοι at 1108D2. Hereafter I refer to the Stephanus page of the Adversus Colotem an (...)
  • 4 The more specific theme of the “feral” life to which the Epicureans are committed re-emerges in the (...)

6What we find as the main thread of Against Colotes, however, starting from the opening Democritean section, is a different, more fundamental charge. Not only, as the typical ancient anti-Epicurean motif goes, is it impossible to live a good Epicurean life, but one could not live a life at all if one adhered to Epicurean principles, this of course being the very same accusation that Colotes and his Epicurean fellows3 had the nerve to level against all the other philosophers (the title of Colotes’ book was exactly “On the fact that it is not even possible to live in accordance with the doctrines of the other philosophers”, Περὶ τοῦ ὅτι κατὰ τὰ τῶν ἄλλων φιλοσόφων δόγματα οὐδὲ ζῆν ἔστιν, 1107E3-4).4

7Section 3 opens with Plutarch’s claim that “these things” (ταῦτα), yet, permeate all the arguments and the philosophy of Epicurus (Καίτοι ταῦτα μὲν ἐγκέκραται τοῖς ᾿Επικούρου λόγοις καὶ διαπεφοίτηκεν αὐτοῦ τῆς φιλοσοφίας). The anaphoric reference of ταῦτα is not clear: are “these things”
(1) the various doctrines which make Epicurus’ own philosophy a “wisdom” that does not allow us to live well, or
(2) Epicurus’ attacks on the other philosophers (listed at 1108B), to the effect that their wisdom “destroys life”?

  • 5 See 1119F for the Stoic sense of the term πράγματα associated to σημαινόμενα.
  • 6 See also 1114C: Parmenides “has put together a book of his own, is not pulling apart the book of an (...)
  • 7 For a similar idea see also Plutarch’s dedication of Against Colotes to his (presumably Platonist) (...)

8Although the Greek is consistent with both interpretations, the first reading appears preferable, both because it would be an overstatement to claim that Epicurus’ attacks on his rivals are so all-pervasive in his philosophy and writings, and in light of what follows. But – Plutarch continues – Colotes, on his part (ὁ δὲ Κωλώτης), instead of minding his Epicurean (ethically bankrupt) business, detaches the sayings of other philosophers “without their meanings” (ἐρήμους πραγμάτων)5 and rips away fragments of their logoi from their explanatory and supporting context; his book is pieced together as the freaks displayed in the market or represented in paintings.6 This will be obvious to those who have first-hand knowledge of the texts of the ancients, like the audience to whom Plutarch’s reply to Colotes is addressed, presumably composed of Platonist students:7 Against Colotes is presented as a written record of Plutarch’s own defence of the philosophers after a public reading of Colotes’ work which had provoked Aristodemus’ irritation (1107F-1108A).

  • 8 See E. Kechagia, op. cit., p. 42.
  • 9 See 1109A, where Plutarch accuses Colotes of not having read Democritus’ works against Protagoras, (...)

9The contrast drawn here is between the serious and fair anti-Epicurean charges based on key doctrines ubiquitous in Epicurus’ own writings, and Colotes’ own charges, which are based on a disputable selection of excerpts taken out of their context and not understood, explained and supported properly. But why does Colotes operate in this objectionable way? Is the reason that he did not have direct access to the original texts8 (or did not care to gain such access), but only to summaries and fragments, unlike Plutarch’s more scholarly audience, “versed in the writings of the ancients” (1108D12-13)?9 Or is Colotes’ misleading handling of the material a conscious attempt to present his opponents in a negative light and distort their actual positions? Or, perhaps, is it the outcome of a dangerous combination of both? To be even more precise, we have two distinct questions on the table here: what is Plutarch’s view of the reasons behind the shortcomings of Colotes’ method? And what can we reconstruct about that method through the critical filter of Plutarch’s words? These are key questions which we should keep in mind in our reading of the Democritean section of Against Colotes (and should indeed be kept in mind throughout our reading of the work).

  • 10 It is difficult to assume, for chronological reasons, that in all cases Colotes is merely rehearsin (...)
  • 11 As J.P. Hershbell (“Plutarch and Epicureanism”, in W. Haase and H. Temporini (ed.), ANRW II 36.5, B (...)
  • 12 See n.  below. It is debated whether Lucretius’ text and charge derive directly from Epicurus, and (...)

10If “these things” permeating the whole work of Epicurus are not the charges that it is impossible to live in accordance with the doctrines of other philosophers, we have no reason to expect that the whole polemic by Colotes derives from Epicurus himself.10 This is not to deny, of course, that certain arguments and strategies used by Colotes had been originally devised and deployed by Epicurus,11 albeit possibly against different targets: think for example of the charge that a certain form of Democritean determinism would make us fall into “desperate calamities” in On Nature 25, and, possibly, the analogous charge against scepticism in Lucretius’ De rerum natura 4.12

  • 13 See P.H. De Lacy, “Colotes’ First Criticism of Democritus”, in J. Mau, E.G. Schmidt (ed.), Isonomia(...)
  • 14 Plutarch was familiar with Epicurus’ letters (at Non posse 1101B his fellow Platonist Aristodemus s (...)

11Another question which is prominent when we read Against Colotes, including its opening Democritean section, is whether Plutarch is innocent of the very crimes of which he accuses Colotes here. Does he always make the best possible case for Colotes’ charges and for the Epicurean views more generally, or does he misinterpret and misrepresent them, by referring to them out of their original context, glossing over their supporting explanations and arguments? Is he liable to the very same charge he levels at Colotes, that he is guilty of the very charge that he levels against others?13 And if Plutarch somehow fails to live up to the standards he sets for Colotes, is this failure the result of tendentious misrepresenting of Epicurean texts, of insufficient information about important aspects of the Epicurean position, or of both?14 This dilemma might turn out to be too restrictive: we should at least consider the possibility that Plutarch not only wants to retort against Colotes the fundamental charge he had levelled at all other philosophers, but also uses at times a sort of reductio ad absurdum of the dubious argumentative methods which Colotes had adopted to pursue his polemical aims.

  • 15 ἀναιρεῖν, the verb used by Colotes for the “destruction of life” by other philosophers, also means (...)
  • 16 See e.g. the argument concluding that no demonstrative argument exists; whoever uses such an argume (...)
  • 17 For an extremely lucid discussion of this strategy and its rhetorical and dialectical roots (see es (...)

12Having criticised Colotes’ method, Plutarch introduces his key charge (1108D): “it seems to me that he [sc. Colotes], like the Lydian, does not simply open one door [sc. to the enemy] against himself, but involves Epicurus in many and the greatest difficulties” (ταῖς πλείσταις τῶν ἀπoριῶν καὶ μεγίσταις περιβάλλειν τὸν ᾿Επίκουρον). Like the Lydian king Candaules, Colotes is the source of his own ruin; but, ironically, Colotes also causes the ruin of his own teacher Epicurus when he attempts to support him by slandering all his rivals. What is instructive in Candaules’ story, as narrated at length by Herodotus (1.8-12), is not simply that there are fools whose behaviour is responsible for their own demise. Candaules is also responsible for the precise way in which that demise comes about: his assassin, Gyges, hides in the very same spot from which Candaules himself had obliged him to peep on his naked wife (“behind the open door of the chamber in which we [sc. Candaules and his wife, the queen] sleep”, and which Candaules had left open for him). In this way not only had Candaules committed injustice against his wife, just as Colotes commits injustice against all other philosophers (and philosophy itself), but he had also given to his vengeful wife the idea of how to “destroy”15 her husband (“‘Let him be attacked,’ she answered [to Gyges], ‘on the spot where I was by him shown naked to you’”). Candaules/Colotes get well-deserved retribution for their crime against the queen/philosophy, and the way in which the punishment is administered is exactly the way in which their crime had been committed. But although the basic strategy of Plutarch’s attacks on Colotes will be the same as that marshalled by Colotes against all other philosophers, Plutarch’s strategy will be articulated in a variety of forms (“many and the greatest difficulties”, not just “one door”). It is worth noticing that Plutarch does not use the typical ancient self-refutation jargon of “reversal” or “overturning” (περιτροπή) to formulate his charge here, and quite appropriately so. Colotes is not charged with presenting theses or arguments which destroy themselves and ultimately commit their Epicurean proponents to their contradictory (i.e. that, after all, you can live following the tenets of other philosophers);16 Colotes is guilty of incorrectly and unfairly charging others of something of which, as it turns out, only he and Epicurus are in fact guilty (“only” requires some qualification in the case of Democritus, as I will explain in section 7 below).17

2. Why did Colotes commence his attack from Democritus? (1108E3-F5)

13Colotes, Plutarch reports, starts his attacks with Democritus, “who receives for his instruction a handsome and appropriate fee”, despite the fact that for a long time Epicurus had declared himself a Democritean. As hard evidence for this philosophical debt Plutarch refers to the writings of two Epicureans, Leonteus and Metrodorus:
– according to Leonteus, Epicurus himself said that Democritus was the first to reach correct knowledge (διὰ τὸ πρότερον ἅψασθαι τῆς ὀρθῆς γνώσεως), and that his whole pragmateia could be called “Democritean” because Democritus was the first to embrace the principles (διὰ τὸ περιπεσεῖν αὐτὸν πρότερον ταῖς ἀρχαῖς);
– according to Metrodorus (in On Philosophy), Democritus “led the way”, and without him Epicurus would not have advanced to wisdom (εἰ μὴ προκαθηγήσατο Δημόκριτος, οὐκ ἂν προῆλθεν ᾿Επίκουρος ἐπὶ τὴν σοφίαν).

  • 18 For the Epicurean denial of the existence of the “philosopher named Leucippus”, see D. L. 10.13.

14Plutarch is first of all criticising Colotes for his shameful display of lack of gratitude and respect towards someone, Democritus, who had been recognized early in the Epicurean tradition, and by Epicurus himself, as the originator of the atomistic system.18 From this point of view Plutarch’s moral criticism here is meant to illustrate, I suggest, the general anti-Epicurean objection made earlier at 1108C that an Epicurean cannot live well, which included ζῆν φιλικῶς καὶ δικαίως.

15But it is Plutarch’s second charge that introduces us to the key problem which Colotes must face: if the doctrines of Democritus make life impossible, as Colotes thinks, then Epicurus was ridiculous in following Democritus along a path leading to non-life (ἀλλ᾿ εἰ κατὰ τὰ Δημοκρίτου δόγματα ζῆν οὐκ ἔστιν, ὡς οἴεται Κωλώτης, γελοῖος ἦν ἐπὶ τὸ μὴ ζῆν ἄγοντι Δημοκρίτῳ κατακολουθῶν ὁ Επίκουρος). Whether Colotes’ charge against Democritus is correct or not (and I will argue that Plutarch wavers on this issue), Colotes is committing his revered teacher to the risible behaviour of gratefully following someone along the path to self-destruction, given the clearly avowed debt of Epicurus to Democritus.

  • 19 See e.g. Cic. De nat. deor. 1. 73: Epicurus was a pupil of the Democritean Nausiphanes (see D. L. 1 (...)
  • 20 See also Epicurus’ use of the nick-name Lerokritos for Democritus (D. L. 10.8) and D.N. Sedley, “Ep (...)
  • 21 For some qualifications on this ancient picture see D.N. Sedley, “Epicurus and his professional riv (...)
  • 22 See e.g. Torquatus in Cicero’s De finibus, who claims that “a great many errors committed by Democr (...)
  • 23 M.F. Smith, Diogenes of Oionoanda. The Epicurean Inscription, Naples, Bibliopolis, 1993.
  • 24 Contra J.P. Hershbell, “Plutarch and Epicureanism”, op. cit., p. 3366: “given the explicitness of t (...)
  • 25 See R. Westman, Plutarch gegen Kolotes: Seine Schrift “Adversus Colotem” als philosophiegeschichtli (...)
  • 26 In fact what Plutarch says here is that Colotes thinks that the doctrines (δόγματα) of Democritus m (...)

16Plutarch was neither the first nor the only one in antiquity to suggest that Epicurus’ philosophy was, to put it mildly, heavily inspired by Democritus, especially through the mediation of Nausiphanes’ teaching, or that Epicurus plagiarised Democritus to a large extent.19 But Epicurus was also notorious for his claim that he was self-taught (Cic. De nat. deor. 1.26.72), or at least that he had never learnt anything from his teachers (D. L. 10.13), and for his harsh criticism of predecessors and rivals,20 especially Nausiphanes (D. L. 10.6-8).21 The Epicureans constantly emphasised all the ways in which Epicurus identified and corrected Democritus’ errors,22 something illustrated very well, for example, by the late Epicurean Diogenes of Oenoanda: Democritus was wrong, among other things, on the nature of sensible qualities (fr. 7 Smith:23 see section 7 below), in not recognizing the existence of the atomic swerve (fr. 54) and in his explanation of the mechanism of dreams (fr. 9, 10, 24, 43). What is particularly interesting in Plutarch’s strategy is his reliance on Epicurean sources who acknowledged the debt that Epicurus had (and even admitted he had, according to Leonteus) towards Democritus. One thing is to stress the similarity between Democritean and Epicurean atomism; another is to be able to quote Epicurean admissions of this similarity as a debt towards Democritus. Here the question of the “integrity” of Plutarch’s source-handling first comes to the fore: is he behaving just in the same way as he accuses Colotes of doing?24 It is not difficult to imagine how in their original contexts the claims by Leonteus (and “others”: ὡς ἄλλοι τε λέγουσι καὶ Λεοντεύς, 1108E6) and Metrodorus might have been very far from being declarations of Epicurus’ commitment to the core of Democritus’ philosophy. We do not know how close Plutarch’s paraphrase is to his sources’ original phrasing, but if Leonteus himself had used the verbs ἅψασθαι and περιπεσεῖν they could have been meant in a context of limited appreciation of Democritus, within larger-scope criticism: Democritus was the first to “touch” (or, we would say, “scratch”) “the surface” of correct knowledge (without exploring it in depth), and to “stumble upon” the principles of nature (atoms), without securing proper understanding of them.25 As for Metrodorus, his claim as reported by Plutarch is compatible with an even weaker reading: “showing the way” towards wisdom by being a “precursor” does not mean getting everything, most things, or indeed many things right. Would Plato have been able to reach sophia if Pythagoras, Parmenides and Heraclitus had not “shown the way”? Probably not, an ancient Platonist might have answered; but this does not make any Platonic criticism of Pythagorean, Parmenidean or Heraclitean views ridiculous and self-defeating. We will see later (section 7) that, according to Plutarch, Epicurus and Colotes endorsed exactly the same principles as Democritus (and that Epicurus claimed to do so: 1111B4-5), and thus, if they had been consistent, they should have accepted exactly the same consequences: but Plutarch’s Epicurean sources here certainly fall short of testifying that this is something the Epicureans themselves would have admitted.26

  • 27 This is an order which Plutarch breaks on three occasions (Empedocles before Parmenides; Plato befo (...)
  • 28 See e.g. M. Gigante, Scetticismo e Epicureismo. Per l’avviamento di un discorso storiografico, Napo (...)
  • 29 On Democritus and the sceptical Academy see M.L. Gemelli Marciano, Democrito e l’Accademia: studi s (...)
  • 30 We will see that Colotes’ anti-Democritean argument, as far as we can reconstruct it through Plutar (...)
  • 31 The point is stressed by E. Kechagia, op. cit., p. 104-108.
  • 32 For a famous example of an Epicurean attack on the Democriteans which partially spares Democritus h (...)

17Plutarch begins his discussion of Colotes’ work from Democritus because this is where Colotes himself had started. But why did Colotes start from Democritus? By doing so he was not following a chronological criterion; in fact he was breaking that chronological criterion by which he was apparently abiding, on the contrary, in the rest of his writing (Parmenides, Empedocles, Melissus, Socrates, Plato, Stilpo, contemporary philosophers, i.e. Cyrenaics and Arcesilaus).27 It has been suggested that Colotes’ contemporary Arcesilaus was the main target of his attack, and all the other philosophers, including Democritus, were singled out and targeted mainly as “predecessors” who had been “appropriated” by Academic scepticism28 (according to Cicero (Luc. 14, Ac. 1.44-45), for example, the Academics claimed as ancient authorities Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Democritus,29 Parmenides, Xenophanes, Socrates and Plato). Even if this were true, however, this alone would still not explain why Colotes chose to begin with Democritus, who had never been singled out as the first or main precursor of Academic scepticism.30 The most plausible explanation seems to be that Colotes was driven by the well-attested Epicurean reflex of attacking the Democritean rivals of Epicurus whenever possible, thereby distinguishing Epicurus’ philosophy from that of Democritus and his followers and rejecting vocally the frequent charges of Epicurean plagiarism.31 In this case Colotes felt that this would best be done at the outset, and that his bold attack could be levelled directly against Democritus, rather than his lesser epigons.32

3. Colotes’ first charge: Democritus’ view that “each thing is οὐ μᾶλλον τοῖον ἢ τοῖον” throws life into confusion (4, 1108F6-1109A1)

  • 33 See P.H. De Lacy, “Colotes’ First Criticism of Democritus”, op. cit., p. 73-74, for the meaning of (...)
  • 34 For a useful overview of the ancient philosophical uses of οὐ μᾶλλον see P.H. De Lacy, “οὐ μᾶλλον a (...)

18Colotes’ first anti-Democritean charge, as reported by Plutarch, is that Democritus, “by saying that each thing is no more thus than thus (οὐ μᾶλλον τοῖον ἢ τοῖον), threw life into confusion (συγκέχυκε τὸν βίον)”.33 This charge raises two questions:
(1) in what sense did Democritus use the formula “each thing is no more thus than thus?” We know that οὐ μᾶλλον came to be used in ancient philosophical debates with a variety of meanings, and that each of these committed its users to a different position.34 I will return to this question in section 4;
(2) is “throwing life into confusion” the same as “destroying life” (1108D2: τὸ ζῆν ἀναιροῦσιν) or “it is not (even) possible to live” as per Colotes’ title (1107E4: οὐδὲ ζῆν ἔστιν)? As a matter fact, the two expressions have different meanings: I can live an extremely “confused” and chaotic life; I cannot live a life which has been destroyed, or which is impossible.

  • 35 On the apraxia charge in Hellenistic philosophy, see G. Striker, “Sceptical Strategies”, in M. Scho (...)
  • 36 See e.g. the notorious “petrifying” ‘Gorgon’s head’ used against Arcesilaus at Col. 1122A.
  • 37 See e.g. Colotes’ charge against Socrates at 1117F-1118A: “how comes it that he eats food and does (...)
  • 38 See S. E. M 11.162-166 for an anti-sceptical use of the dilemma between (1) and (3).

19Colotes’ criticism can be and has been catalogued as a form of apraxia (‘inactivity’ or ‘inaction’) charge; but what is often referred to in scholarly literature as the ancient apraxia charge should actually be conjugated as a more nuanced trilemma.35 There are certain philosophical views such that, if you claim to hold them:
(1) either will paralyse you into utter, vegetable-like inactivity, if you are fully consistent;36
(2) or will result for you in random, crazy, dangerous behaviour, again as the consequence of trying to “live” them (e.g. trying to walk through walls, eating fodder, walking over precipices, crossing high rivers on foot…);37
(3) or, more typically, will unmask your inconsistency: you claim to hold a certain view but, as a matter of fact, you behave in recognisably “normal” ways which are inconsistent with your avowed position, thus showing that you do not (and perhaps cannot) live your philosophy.38

20For example, if you need to go the market you might either (1) remain at home, e.g. because you suspend judgement on whether there is a market, or (2) try to walk out through the wall, e.g. because you do not believe that the door is a door more than it is a wall and the wall is a wall more than it is a door, as the result of radical mistrust in your senses, or (3) walk out through the door towards the market like any sane person would do, thus revealing that, whatever you say, you share the same views as all the sane people who do not belong to your “life-destroying” philosophical tribe. All these manifestations are illustrated in the locus classicus of the apraxia charge in Aristotle’ Metaphysics Γ:

  • 39 See also Arist. Metaph. K 6, 1063A28-35.

(T1) Again, is he in error who judges either that the thing is so or that it is not so, and is he right who judges both? If he is right, what can they mean by saying that the nature of existing things is of this kind? And if he is not right, but more right than he who judges in the other way, being will already be of a definite nature, and this will be true, and not at the same time also not true. But if all are alike both wrong and right, [1] one who is in this condition will not be able either to speak or to say anything intelligible; for he says at the same time both “yes” and “no”. And if he makes no judgement but “thinks” and “does not think”, indifferently, what difference will there be between him and a vegetable? – Thus, then, it is in the highest degree evident that neither any one of those who maintain this view nor any one else is really in this position. [2] For why does a man walk to Megara and not stay at home, when he thinks he ought to be walking there? Why does he not walk early some morning into a well or over a precipice, if one happens to be in his way? [3] Why do we observe him guarding against this, evidently because he does not think that falling in is alike good and not good? Evidently, then, he judges one thing to be better and another worse. And if this is so, he must also judge one thing to be a man and another to be not-a-man, one thing to be sweet and another to be not-sweet. For he does not aim at and judge all things alike, when, thinking it desirable to drink water or to see a man, he proceeds to aim at these things; yet he ought, if the same thing were alike a man and not-a-man. But, as was said, there is no one who does not obviously avoid some things and not others. (Arist. Metaph. Γ 4, 1008B2-25)39

  • 40 For other examples of the second horn of the apraxia charge later in Against Colotes, see n.  above

21I suggest that Colotes’ use of the expression “throwing life into confusion” hints that the second horn of the apraxia trilemma is the one he had in mind: earlier in the proem Plutarch had referred to Colotes’ impudent question of why Socrates “puts his food in his mouth and not in his ear” if he really does not know anything (1108B), which implies precisely the idea that Socrates’ life would have been thrown into confusion if it had not been the case that, actually, Socrates failed to uphold his disavowal of knowledge consistently.40

4. Plutarch’s first reply to Colotes’ first charge: Democritus did not think that each thing is οὐ μᾶλλον τοῖον ἢ τοῖον (4, 1109A1-10)

22Plutarch’s reaction to Colotes’ first anti-Democritean charge is straightforward: far from using the formula, Democritus was at war with Protagoras for saying that “each thing is no more thus than thus” (οὐ μᾶλλον τοῖον ἢ τοῖον) and wrote “many persuasive things” (πολλὰ καὶ πιθανά) against him. Colotes, who not even in his wildest dreams had read the relevant Democritean writings, completely misinterpreted Democritus’ famous dictum that “thing” (or “aught”) (τὸ δέν = τὸ σῶμα, “body”) is no more than “nothing” (or “naught”) (τὸ μηδέν = τὸ κενόν, “void”), which actually means that according to Democritus void too, no less than atomic bodies, has some nature and subsistence of its own (φύσιν τινὰ καὶ ὑπόστασιν ἰδίαν).

  • 41 On the question of Plutarch’s sources and access to Democritus’ writings see J.P. Hershbell, “Pluta (...)
  • 42 See Arist. Metaph. Α 4, 985b4-9 (DK67A6): “Leucippus and his companion Democritus say that the elem (...)
  • 43 See e.g. Melissus: “void is nothing, then the nothing is not” (DK30B7, 7); and Parmenides: “to be i (...)
  • 44 “‘No way more’ is also used positively, as to indicate that two things are alike, for example ‘The (...)
  • 45 The further implication is that the states of affairs expressed by p and q are true to the same deg (...)
  • 46 See P.H. De Lacy, “Colotes’ First Criticism of Democritus”, op. cit., p. 76 (if Plutarch were right (...)
  • 47 Plutarch is our only source suggesting that Protagoras used the οὐ μᾶλλον formula (see also, howeve (...)
  • 48 The anti-Protagorean self-refutation argument applies to universal relativism which goes beyond sen (...)

23According to Plutarch, then, Colotes’ first attack on Democritus rests on poor scholarship: he simply does not know what he is talking about, and he is grossly misinterpreting Democritus’ words.41 Is this diagnosis credible? This seems unlikely.
(1) Democritus did use the οὐ μᾶλλον formula to make the point that void is no less real than body,42 thus providing some status in his ontology for non-being, against the familiar Eleatic strictures.43 We could say that in this context, Democritus was using the οὐ μᾶλλον formula “positively” or “thetically” (θετικῶς), adopting here a handy distinction attested by Diogenes Laertius (9.75);44 in this use the formula turns out to be equivalent to, or better to imply, a conjunction: if p no more than q, then both p and q.45 But it is difficult to imagine that even a lazy or biased reader of Democritus such as Colotes is according to Plutarch could have transformed this into the completely different thesis that “each thing is no more thus than thus”, where τῶν πραγμάτων ἕκαστον suggests a much broader scope than two items (body and void) and “thus” (τοῖον) sounds like a place-holder for a potentially wide variety of predicates.46
(2) Democritus did attack Protagoras (most famously through the self-refutation argument: see S. E. M 7.389-390), and it is not unreasonable to conjecture that within his criticism he would have opposed the consequences of a thetic Protagorean use of the phrase οὐ μᾶλλον (if such a use was ever made by Protagoras),47 according to which each thing is “no more thus than thus”, and therefore is both thus and not thus (relative to different perceivers and/or in different contexts).48 If honey appears sweet to healthy Socrates and bitter to ill Plato, then it is no more sweet than bitter; it is both sweet, for Socrates, and bitter, for Plato, Protagoras would say. But, as I have mentioned, οὐ μᾶλλον can be used by ancient philosophers in a variety of ways, and rejecting one does not imply rejecting all.

24If Colotes’ first charge was not, despite what Plutarch claims, levelled at the (misunderstood) Democritean claim that “thing is no more than nothing”, can we conjecture what its real target might have been? We have evidence, both early and late, for a different Democritean use of οὐ μᾶλλον which an Epicurean like Colotes would have objected to. Let us start from the late piece of evidence:

(T2) For from the fact that honey appears sweet to some and bitter to others, they say that Democritus deduces that it is neither sweet nor bitter, and for this reason utters the phrase “no more”, which is sceptical. But the Sceptics and the Democriteans use the phrase “no more” in different senses. The latter assign it the sense that neither is the case, we the sense that we do not know whether some apparent thing is both or neither. (S. E. PH 1.213-214)

25According to Sextus Empiricus’ report, from the conflicting appearances of honey as sweet and bitter Democritus concluded that honey is neither sweet nor bitter, and expressed this idea through (a distinctively non-Pyrrhonian use of) the formula οὐ μᾶλλον. This is what Diogenes Laertius (D. L. 9.75) calls “anairetic” or “negative” (ἀναιρετικῶς) use of οὐ μᾶλλον: if p no more than q, then neither p nor q.

26Let us move back now to our early piece of evidence:

(T3) He [sc. Democritus] has previously said that things appear differently to those who have different dispositions, and again that one thing is no more (μηθὲν μᾶλλον) true than the other. (Theophr. Sens. 69 [DK68A135, 69])

  • 49 See also Sen. Ep. Mor. 88.43: “Nausiphanes said that of those things which appear none is any more (...)
  • 50 See M 7.369: Democritus did away with all appearances, whereas Epicurus and Protagoras posited all (...)

27About five centuries before Sextus, in his On the Senses Theophrastus had written that according to Democritus no conflicting appearance is more true than any other.49 Unlike Sextus, Theophrastus does not claim that this means, for Democritus, that honey is neither sweet nor bitter, but he connects the Democritean οὐ μᾶλλον to the unreality of all sensible qualities, which we will discuss in section 7.50

  • 51 On “indifference arguments” in ancient thought, see S. Makin, Indifference Arguments, Oxford, Black (...)
  • 52 See D.J. Furley, “Democritus and Epicurus on Sensible Qualities”, in J. Brunschwig, M.C. Nussbaum ( (...)
  • 53 Since that denial is the counterpart of Democritus’ acknowledgment of full “reality” to atoms and v (...)

28Even if we assume that Democritus criticised Protagoras’ thetic use of οὐ μᾶλλον in the writings which Plutarch mentions, then, there is no reason to exclude that Democritus himself used οὐ μᾶλλον in the different (indeed, opposite) way witnessed by Sextus and suggested by Theophrastus, and that this was the use attacked by Colotes. In fact one of Democritus’ criticisms of Protagoras might well have been that from conflicting sense-appearances and lack of grounds for privileging some over others (the οὐ μᾶλλον argument),51 we should infer not that all things are as they appear to the senses in whatever way they appear, but that in reality they are not as they appear to be in any of the ways they appear. Plutarch’s charge of gross misunderstanding against Colotes is a non sequitur, then, based on the conflation, either deliberate or inadvertent, of different ancient and Democritean uses of οὐ μᾶλλον.52 I will return later to the Democritean use which could have been the real target of Colotes, and its rationale: that objectionable use could have been related to Democritus’ denial of the reality of secondary qualities which is in fact the target of Colotes’ second criticism (see section 6 below).53 Since Plutarch will not contest the attribution of that denial to Democritus, but will limit himself to stressing its problematic consequences for the Epicureans too, it is even more striking that here he does not recognise (or pretends not to recognise) the strictly related Democritean usage of οὐ μᾶλλον which, we can conjecture, is likely to have been the focus of Colotes’ first charge.

5. Plutarch’s second reply to Colotes’ first charge: Epicurus, not Democritus, is committed to the view that each thing is οὐ μᾶλλον τοῖον ἢ τοῖον (4, 1109A12 - 7, 1110E4)

  • 54 Reading εἰ γὰρ αὖ τὸ with the MSS or εἰ γὰρ αὐτὸ τὸ with B. Einarson and P.H. De Lacy. M. Pohlenz’s (...)

29Having unmasked the (alleged) gross misinterpretation at the basis of Colotes’ first criticism of Democritus, Plutarch proceeds by explaining that, far from being something of which the Epicureans should charge Democritus, οὐ μᾶλλον is in fact something to which they themselves are unwittingly committed: “But, now, whoever thinks that ‘nothing is more thus than thus’ is using the Epicurean doctrine according to which all sense-impressions are true” (ὁ δ᾿ οὖν δόξας τ “μηδὲν μᾶλλον εἶναι τοῖον ἢ τοῖον” ᾿Επικουρείῳ δόγματι κέχρηται, τῷ “πάσας εἶναι τὰς δι᾿ αἰσθήσεως φαντασίας ἀληθεῖς”, 1109A12-B1). For, Plutarch asks, “if one of two persons says that the wine is dry, while the other says that it is sweet, and neither of them says something false in his sensation, how is the wine more dry than sweet?” (εἰ γὰρ δυοῖν λεγόντων τοῦ μὲν αὐστηρὸν εἶναι τὸν οἶνον τοῦ δὲ γλυκὺν οὐδέτερος ψεύδεται τῇ αἰσθήσει, τί μᾶλλον ὁ οἶνος αὐστηρὸς ἢ γλυκύς ἐστι; 1109B2-4). “For, again,54 if someone says that what appears is one thing to one person, and a different one to another, he has said that it is both without realising it” (1109C2-4): for an Epicurean, then, wine must be both dry and sweet.

30If (1) all sense-impressions are true (as the Epicureans say)
and (2) there are conflicting sense-impressions of X as F and as G (where F and G are opposites: e.g. wine appears both dry and sweet)
then (3) X is no more F than G, i.e. X is both F and G (e.g. wine is both dry and sweet).

  • 55 For passages illustrating this doctrine, see Usener 247-254.
  • 56 Other examples of conflicting appearances mentioned in the passage are: water in the bath appears h (...)
  • 57 The sense of οὐ μᾶλλον here confirms that, most likely, Plutarch had in mind the thetic use of οὐ μ (...)

31Plutarch is referring here to the notorious Epicurean doctrine that all sense-impressions are true55 to argue that the Epicureans are thereby committed, perhaps unwittingly (λέγων λέληθεν), to saying that things have all the sensible qualities that they appear to have, even in cases of conflicting appearances,56 and thus to use οὐ μᾶλλον (in its thetic nuance).57

  • 58 Note that the explicit point made in this passage is that there is no error in sense-impressions (a (...)
  • 59 See S. E. M 7.210; D. L. 10.31.

32At first blush, however, Plutarch seems to be misrepresenting Epicurean views: while the Epicureans would insist that both conflicting sense-appearances are true, and neither perceiver is wrong in his sensation (as Plutarch himself correctly qualifies: τῇ αἰσθήσει), they would also clarify that, of course, it is not the case that both individuals would judge truly when judging that the wine itself is dry or sweet. This counter-intuitive move is possible on the basis of the familiar distinction, made already in Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus 50-51, between sense-impression, which results from our “focussing” (ἐπιβολή) on the affection produced upon our senses from outside, and “added opinion” (ὑπόληψις), which is “a motion within ourselves that is attached [to the focusing] but has a distinction”.58 Aἴσθησις is “non-rational” (ἄλογος),59 and thus does not add or subtract anything to what it senses, thereby being true and criterial (see S. E. M 8.9); falsehood and error enter into the picture only when we make judgments and form opinions about how things are. To use a favourite Epicurean illustration, which Plutarch himself will discuss critically later in the work (1121A-C), my sense-impression, at a distance, of the tower as round is true (since the stream of atomic εἴδωλα which is currently reaching my eyes causing that impression is a stream of round-shaped εἴδωλα, and my sight passively and accurately registers it); but my judgement that the tower is round might well be incorrect (the tower might actually be square-edged, but the edges of the εἴδωλα streaming from it might have been “rounded off” by collisions with air atoms in their long travel from the tower to my eyes).

  • 60 For discussion of this key distinction, and alternative interpretations of the Epicurean tenet that (...)
  • 61 For the view that Plutarch misrepresents the Epicurean answer here see E. Asmis, “Epicurean empiric (...)
  • 62 From this point of view, Plutarch’s move against the Epicureans in the area of epistemology (they a (...)
  • 63 For detailed analysis of the Cyrenaic section of Against Colotes, see E. Kechagia, op. cit., p. 251 (...)

33But this Epicurean distinction between sense-impressions (always true) and opinions (sometimes true, sometimes false)60 is sufficient to block Plutarch’s inference from (1) and (2) to (3). Plutarch is using an argument that looks, again, difficult to salvage, and his original condemnation of Colotes’ method might come back to bite him: for we could complain that he detaches Epicurean fragments, such as “all sense-impressions are true”, from their context and unfairly distorts their meaning. Certainly this could not be attributed to inadvertent ignorance, however, since, as I have mentioned above, Plutarch shows full awareness of the actual way in which the Epicureans wanted their doctrine to be understood. In the Cyrenaic section of Against Colotes he will in fact give an interestingly different slant to his attack: the Epicureans do not want to go straightforwardly from the “true” impression of the tower (seen from a distance) as round, or of the oar (in water) as bent, to the judgement/opinion that the tower is round, or the oar is bent (1121A-C). Plutarch will charge the Epicurean position with collapsing, thereby, into the Cyrenaic one which Colotes attacks without understanding the connection between the two. Starting from 1121C, Plutarch will voice a possible Epicurean reply ( “I will get closer to the tower and feel the oar, and make my judgement about the thing, unlike the Cyrenaics, who refuse to make assertions about anything except their own affections”),61 but he will also complain that the Epicureans are indeed less consistent than the Cyrenaics because of this defensive manoeuvre:62 if, as the result of a process of “attestation” (ἐπιμαρτύρησις) or “non-attestation” (οὐκ ἐπιμαρτύρησις) (see e.g. S. E. M 7.211; D. L. 10.34), you refuse to use some impressions while you trust others to make your judgement about how the tower or the oar really are, then why do you still insist that all your sense-impressions of the tower and the oar are equally trustworthy?63

  • 64 It is quite telling that what Plutarch will criticise in the Cyrenaic section is the Epicureans’ cl (...)

34The criticism is an important one, but the Epicureans might have had further rejoinders; what I wanted to show here is that Plutarch must have been aware that, on the basis of the Epicurean distinction between impressions and opinions, Colotes would have certainly rejected an argument based on a straightforward transition from the truth of the conflicting sense-impressions of the wine as sweet and bitter to the conclusion that the wine itself is both sweet and bitter. That Plutarch will later criticise that distinction as ultimately inconsistent is quite a different matter: it is one thing to argue against a certain position, another to misrepresent it as he appears to do here.64 The fact that Plutarch does not use here his full argumentative weaponry against Colotes, but is content with scoring his point against him, apparently on the cheap, allows us a brief reflection on the nature and style of his philosophical polemic in Against Colotes, and is an interesting test case on how to best approach the reconstruction and assessment of ancient philosophical arguments. Apparently weak or elliptical arguments do not necessarily betray error or confusion on the author’s part, of course; but they need not reflect gross expository carelessness or conscious trickery either, in all those cases in which what remains tacit is, like here, doctrines and arguments which the author can reasonably expect his intended audience to share (in our case, the Platonic – and indeed commonsense – view that we call something “true” when it correctly represents objective reality, and the related arguments for the conclusion that the Epicurean distinction between the truth of impressions and that of opinions is ultimately inconsistent).

  • 65 ἄλλου δ’ ἄλλῳ πεφυκότος ἐναρμόττειν: “different things are naturally harmonised to fit different th (...)
  • 66 ἀναπεφυρμένων καὶ συμμεμιγμένων ὁμοῦ τι πάντων: “all things are jumbled and mixed up together”.
  • 67 “They are wrong when they dispute whether the thing is beneficial or harmful, white or not white, t (...)
  • 68 According to Plutarch (1109E11-13), the Epicurean canons and criteria would be eliminated if the Ep (...)

35Plutarch has other, more explicit and articulated arguments in his quiver for the same conclusion that the Epicureans are ultimately committed to the view that each thing is “no more thus and thus”. These arguments, based on the Epicurean theory of the atomic mechanism of sense-perception, are put forward in sections 5, 6 and 7 of Against Colotes. To begin with, Plutarch reminds his audience that the Epicureans aim to provide an aetiology for conflicting appearances on the basis of the “much blathered” “right sizes” (συμμετρίαι) and “harmonious fits” (ἁρμονίαι) of the pores in our sense-organs65 with relation to the “multiple mixtures of the seeds” (πολυμιξίαι τῶν σπερμάτων) dispersed in all flavours, odours and colours (1109C5-7).66 In particular, the Epicurean theory purports to explain
(a) why different persons have different sense-impressions of the same things: not everyone comes in touch with and perceives the same quality, since the object does not affect everyone in the same way with all its parts, i.e. with all its atoms (οὐκ ἔστι τῆς αὐτῆς πᾶσι ποιότητος ἐπαφὴ καὶ ἀντίληψις οὐδὲ πᾶσι τοῖς μέρεσι κινεῖ πάντας ὡσαύτως τὸ ὑποκείμενον), and different persons encounter only those sensibles to which their sense is σύμμετρον (ἐκείνοις ἕκαστοι μόνοις ἐντυγχάνοντες, πρὸς ἃ σύμμετρον ἔχουσι τὴν αἴσθησιν, 1109D3-7). This should in turn explain
(b) why no sense-impression should be challenged (δεῖ δ’ αἰσθήσει μὲν μηδεμιᾷ μάχεσθαι), against those who believe that the existence of conflicting appearances proves that αἰσθήσεις can be deceptive:67 all senses do come in touch with something real, springing from “the fountain of the multiple mixture” in the perceived object,68 something which fits and is appropriate to the atomic configuration of the sense-organ (πᾶσαι γὰρ ἅπτονταί τινος, οἷον ἐκ πηγῆς τῆς πολυμιξίας ἑκάστη λαμβάνουσα τὸ πρόσφορον καὶ οἰκεῖον, 1109D11-E2). Therefore,
(c) “we should make no assertions about the whole when our contact is with parts, nor think that the same thing should affect everyone <in the same way>, while it affects different persons in accordance with a different quality and power” (ὅλου δὲ μὴ κατηγορεῖν ἁπτομένους μερῶν, μηδὲ τὸ αὐτὸ δεῖν οἴεσθαι πάσχειν ἅπαντας, ἄλλους κατ᾿ ἄλλην ποιότητα καὶ δύναμιν αὐτοῦ πάσχοντας, 1109E2-5).

  • 69 See e.g. DRN 4.644: semina multimodis in rebus mixta; 4.671: the two kinds of atom which produce bi (...)
  • 70 See e.g. DRN 4.650: intervalla, vias, foramina.
  • 71 For a strikingly similar account of Protagoras’ position, see S. E. PH 1.217-218.

36The outline of this theory is, again, familiar: our extant Epicurean sources (see especially Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 4.617-700) preserve detailed accounts of how conflicting taste-impressions and smell-impressions are to be explained by the fact that different perceivers, with sense-organs differently structured or disposed, let different types of atoms “flow in”. These atoms have different shapes and sizes and are present and mixed together in the perceived object;69 being emanated from it, they fit (or fail to fit) the structure and pores70 of the sense-organs, which are themselves subject to diachronic change in their atomic structure (e.g. in the case of disease).71

  • 72 For an example of quasi-identification of sensible qualities with atomic properties, see Theophrast (...)
  • 73 Sextus Empiricus (M 7.205) reports that according to the Epicureans an impression is said to be tru (...)

37This familiarity, however should not lull us into exegetical complacency. I will not dwell here on the technical issue of the mechanics of colour-perception: according to Lucretius’ detailed account in DRN 2, colours, unlike smells and flavours, cannot be mapped uniquely to shapes and sizes of atoms which strike the sight organs, but are mainly the result of different positions and arrangements of atoms on the surface of bodies (and consequently in the simulacra detaching from them), as confirmed by Epicurus’ own words later in section 7. What I find problematic is the way in which from these familiar doctrines concerning the mechanics of sense-perception Plutarch infers, matter-of-factly, that the Epicureans are imposing οὐ μᾶλλον on things: “which men do more to impose ‘no more’ on things than those who assert that every sense-object is a blend of all sorts of qualities…?” (τίνες μᾶλλον ἄνθρωποι τό “μὴ μᾶλλον” ἐπάγουσι τοῖς πράγμασιν ἢ οἳ πᾶν μὲν τὸ αἰσθητὸν κρᾶμα παντοδαπῶν ποιοτήτων ἀποφαίνουσι, 1109E6-9). This inference begs the question by assuming a particular interpretation of the Epicurean theory of sensible qualities: honey contains both atoms of a certain shape and size which, by interacting with the atomic structure of certain perceivers, will produce a sensation of sweetness, and atoms of a different shape and size which, by interacting with the different atomic structure of different perceivers (or the same perceivers differently disposed at a later time), will produce a different sensation of bitterness. But this need not imply that for an Epicurean honey itself has both the qualities of sweetness and bitterness, or that honey is both sweet and bitter, or “is sweet no more than bitter”. It seems to me that Plutarch is already abandoning the terrain of what we can safely attribute to the Epicureans when he writes that “every sense-object is a blend of all sorts of qualities”: atoms are not qualities, although atomic properties and patterns determine the sensible qualities of atomic aggregates.72 For example, Epicurus could have explained that, although both sense-impressions are true,73 honey is actually sweet (rather than bitter, or “more” than bitter), and the opinion that honey is bitter is in fact a false one, just as the tower is actually square, and not round (although the sense-impression that it is round is not false, because true to the round-edged εἴδωλα causing it).

  • 74 See e.g. T. O’Keefe, “The Ontological Status of Sensible Qualities for Democritus and Epicurus”, op (...)

38But on what basis could Epicurus have made this move? Whereas in the case of the tower the “truth-maker” of the true opinion that the tower is square (and not round) is a certain objective arrangement of the atoms at the edges of the atomic aggregate (the atoms are arranged in a square pattern, and not in a circular one), in the case of honey the smooth atoms which cause a sweet sensation in healthy human beings and the rough atoms which cause a bitter sensation in sick human beings do co-exist in the aggregate. So why should we judge that honey itself is sweet more or rather than bitter? After all, Plutarch might be putting his finger on a real issue here, which I believe has not been sufficiently discussed in the modern literature on the Epicurean theory of sensible qualities. The different question of why and how Epicurus accepted the reality of sensible secondary qualities of macroscopic bodies, in stark and explicit opposition to Democritus (see section 6 below), has been subject to intense scholarly scrutiny in the last few decades. It has been conjectured that Epicurus’ position should be read in parallel with his acceptance of relative and dispositional properties as real properties of things,74 as suggested, for example, by the third scholarch of the Garden, Polystratus:

  • 75 On this passage see G. Indelli, Polistrato. Sul disprezzo irrazionale delle opinion popolari, Naple (...)

(T4) For neither are the same things healthy for everybody, nor nourishing or fatal, nor the opposites of these, but the very same things are healthy and nourishing for some yet have the opposite effects on others. Therefore either they must say that these too are false – things whose effects are plain for everyone to see – or else they must refuse to brazen it out and to battle against what is evident, and not abolish fair and foul as falsely believed in either, just because unlike stone and gold they are not the same for everybody (…). Relative predicates do not have the same status as things said not relatively but in accordance with something’s own nature. Nor does the one kind truly exist but not the other. (Polystr. De contemptu XXIV.13-XXV.11)75

  • 76 As we have seen, according to Plutarch Epicurus believes that we should make no assertions about th (...)
  • 77 As we will see, this subset could expand if we follow Plutarch’s indications in the remainder of hi (...)
  • 78 Despite the fact that “vision is made the paradigm case and receives nearly all the attention” by t (...)
  • 79 As for sizes, it also seems difficult to imagine that according to Epicurus we should judge that So (...)

39But the focus on this dimension of the disagreement between Democritus and Epicurus (the “reality” or existence of sensible secondary qualities) has led scholars to overlook certain interesting consequences of the Epicurean position for the correct predication of secondary qualities in relation to perceptible atomic aggregates. If we are entitled to say that sweetness really exists in honey, inasmuch as honey has the relational power to cause certain sweet sensations in perceivers in certain dispositions (in virtue of its and their atomic structures), then bitterness too should be a real property of honey, no more and no less than sweetness, since honey has also the power to cause certain bitter sensations in perceivers with different dispositions. Two main options seem to be open then:
(E1) Plutarch is right: at least as far as flavours and smells are concerned, Epicurus was a relativist, who would have accepted, for example, that honey is both sweet, for healthy human beings, and bitter, for sick ones (honey has both qualities at the same time, and is “no more sweet than bitter” in the thetic sense of οὐ μᾶλλον). Not only are all taste-impressions and smell-impressions true, but also, correspondingly, all judgements made on their basis are equally true (provided that predications are correctly relativised/qualified).76 Relative properties such as “being sweet (for the healthy)” and “being bitter (for the sick)” are no less real than properties such as atomic shapes or sizes, and co-exist in honey. On this reading, Epicurus would really have been committed to the idea that “everything is no more thus than thus”, where “thus” ranges over a subset of sensible qualities, including at least flavours and smells.77 There would be, however, a marked asymmetry between Epicurus’ analysis of taste and smell and that of vision, or at least vision of sizes and shapes:78 as we have seen, Epicurus would not have accepted, for example, that the tower is both round, for observers at a distance, and square, for observers nearby: the tower is square, despite what a rash distant observer might falsely judge on the basis of his (true) sense-impression of the tower as round.79
(E2) Plutarch is wrong: Epicurus certainly wanted to “save the phenomena”, so to speak, and agreed with the commonsense view that honey is sweet, and is not bitter (although the taste-impression of honey as bitter is not false, and fully explainable through his atomic theory). To do so, he should have postulated that something is F, without qualifications, when it has the dispositional property of having the power to produce an F-sensation in most perceivers in normal states in default circumstances. As I will show in sections 7-8, this might make Epicurus’ description of sweetness as a “real” property of honey identical in all but name to Democritus’ description of sweetness as a mere “conventional” property of honey. The refusal to “count heads” to decide which conflicting appearance is true could have been, according to this Aristotelian testimony, a driving factor behind Democritus’ position:

(T5) And similarly some have inferred from observation of the sensible world the truth of appearances. For they think that the truth should not be determined by the large or small number of those who hold a belief, and that the same thing is thought sweet by some when they taste it, and bitter by others, so that if all were ill or all were mad, and only two or three were well or sane, these would be thought ill and mad, and not the others. And again, they say that many of the other animals receive impressions contrary to ours; and that, even to the senses of each individual, things do not always seem the same. Which, then, of these impressions are true and which are false is not obvious; for the one set is no more true than the other, but both are alike. And this is why Democritus, at any rate, says that either there is no truth or to us at least it is not evident. (Arist. Metaph. Γ 5, 1009b2-15)

40On reading (E2), on the contrary, something similar to a “count of heads” (and as problematic as it) would be operating behind the Epicureans’ decision to call honey sweet (health is, however, not only a prevalent state, but also a natural state), in conjunction with what might be described as a quasi-Protagorean decision to consider man “the measure of all things” (honey produces sweet sensations in healthy human beings).

  • 80 It is not obvious how the option of attributing to the things themselves those sensible qualities t (...)

41Which option Epicurus and the Epicureans adopted might remain, I believe, underdetermined by the bulk of our evidence; but that two clearly distinct exegetical and philosophical options are on the table is something which Plutarch’s argument helps us to appreciate, by shifting our perspective from sense-impressions and their mechanics to sense-qualities and their predication.80 Let us examine now some additional evidence in Against Colotes relevant to our present question.

42An Epicurean passage discussed by Plutarch in section 6 might suggest that the relativistic interpretation (E1) is along the right lines. In his Symposium Epicurus argues that it is an error to assert that in general (καθόλου) wine is heating (or cooling): we should say that a certain quantity of wine is heating for someone with a certain nature and in a certain disposition, while a certain amount can be chilling for someone with a different nature (διὸ δὴ καθόλου μὲν οὐ ῥητέον τὸν οἶνον εἶναι θερμαντικόν, τῆς δὲ τοιαύτης φύσεως καὶ τῆς οὕτω διακειμένης θερμαντικὸν τὸν τοσοῦτον ἢ τῆσδε τὸν τοσοῦτον εἶναι ψυκτικόν, 1109F-1110A). This is because wine contains both atoms that can produce heat in the body and atoms that can produce coolness. Which effect comes to be actualized depends on a variety of factors, including crucially the atomic structure of the drinker: “the crowding and dispersing of atoms” and “the mixtures and alignments with others [sc. other atoms] within the body”. Often the wine does not even have a heating (or cooling) power when it enters the body, but its effect comes about through concentration in the body of heating (or cooling) atoms set in motion by the wine atoms (1109F-1110B).

43According to Plutarch, Epicurus is self-deluded if he does not realise that from these things which he says about the quality of wine it follows as a conclusion that “each thing is no more thus than thus” (1110B). For, Plutarch adds at the beginning of section 7, “it is not difficult to see that these arguments can be used against everything which is said or believed to be bitter, sweet, purgative, soporific, or bright, on the grounds that nothing has its own independent quality and power, or is active rather than passive, when it is in bodies, but rather takes on differences and mixtures in various bodies” (ὅτι δὲ τούτοις πρὸς πᾶν ἔστι χρῆσθαι τὸ καλούμενον καὶ νομιζόμενον πικρὸν γλυκὺ καθαρτικὸν ὑπνωτικὸν φωτεινόν, ὡς οὐδενὸς ἔχοντος αὐτοτελῆ ποιότητα καὶ δύναμιν οὐδὲ δρῶντος μᾶλλον ἢ πάσχοντος, ὅταν ἐγγένηται τοῖς σώμασιν, ἄλλην δ᾿ ἐν ἄλλοις διαφορὰν καὶ κρᾶσιν λαμβάνοντος, οὐκ ἄδηλόν ἐστιν, 1110B11-C4).

44In the third book of his Quaestiones Conviviales Plutarch makes exactly the same generalising move in the context of an analogous discussion of Epicurus’ stance on the heating power of wine:

(T6) And Epicurus, in his Symposium, has a long discourse, the sum of which is that wine of itself (αὐτοτελῶς) is not hot, but that it contains some atoms that cause heat, and others that cause cold; now, when it is taken into the body, it loses one sort of particles and takes the other out of the body itself, as it agrees with one’s nature and constitution; so that when they are drunk some are very hot, and others very cold. This way of talking, said Florus, leads directly to Pyrrho through Protagoras; for it is evident that, suppose we were to discourse of oil, milk, honey, or the like, we shall avoid all inquiry into their particular nature (ποῖον τῇ φύσει ἐστι) by saying that things are so and so by their mutual mixture with one another. (Plut. Quaest. conv. 3.5, 652A-B)

  • 81 See however 1120E, where the Cyrenaics include the case of people chilled by wine in a list of “min (...)

45Undeniably, Epicurus’ Symposium passage as paraphrased by Plutarch would appear to corroborate a relativistic interpretation of Epicurean smells and flavours too, since these are accounted for in virtue of an atomic mechanism similar in kind to that offered in section 5 for the heating and cooling qualities of wine. We should ask ourselves, however, whether Plutarch’s generalisation is warranted: perhaps Epicurus maintained that we cannot generalise about wine because there is no privileged, natural or “default” human condition in which wine is heating rather than cooling, unlike for example the case of honey81 (there is no indication in the Symposium excerpts, at least, that wine is cooling only for the sick, or the elderly, for example).

46However this may be, notice the shift in emphasis here from the original view that things are “no more F than G” in the sense that they are both F and G (in a relative/qualified way) to the view that they are “no more F than G” in the sense that they are neither F nor G (in themselves), facilitated by the final point of section 6 (often the wine does not even enter the body with heating or cooling properties): the stress is now placed on the fact that things in themselves have no independent or “natural” qualities or powers, rather than on the complementary idea that they have many relative qualities, which seemed to be Plutarch’s conclusion in the case of smells and flavours. This is a healthy reminder that what I have called the “thetic” and “anairetic” uses of οὐ μᾶλλον should not be understood as completely disjoined and homonymous meanings of the phrase: that X is no more F than G can imply, at the same time, that it is both F and G (in relative, qualified ways) and that it is neither F nor G (intrinsically or absolutely). The fact that typically only one of the two implications is stressed at any given time does not mean that whoever uses the formula must thereby reject the other.

  • 82 Moreover, Epicurus’ passage seems to me to be perfectly compatible with an interpretation according (...)
  • 83 For an analogous transition from quality to the related sensation-type, see Pl. Tht. 182d-e: “But s (...)
  • 84 For the Epicurean theory that objects have no colour in the dark, see Lucretius DRN 2.746-747, 795- (...)
  • 85 There is some discussion as to whether point (2) also belongs to Epicurus’ text or is Plutarch’s ow (...)

47In the remainder of section 7 Plutarch tries to support his own inferential generalisation from smells, flavours and heating power through Epicurus’ ipsissima verba about colours (remember that already at the beginning of section 5, at 1109C5-7, colours had been listed with flavours and smells among those qualities which are causally related to the πολυμιξίαι of the atoms present in a certain object). First at 1110C he claims that in the second book of his Reply to Theophrastus Epicurus had written that colours are not “connaturate to bodies” (συμφυῆ τοῖς σώμασιν), but are generated in accordance with certain arrangements and positions of atoms in relation to sight (γεννᾶσθαι κατὰ ποιάς τινας τάξεις καὶ θέσεις πρὸς τὴν ὄψιν); but then, Plutarch comments, according to this account, body is no more colourless than coloured (οὐ μᾶλλόν φησι κατὰ τοῦτον τὸν λόγον ἀχρωμάτιστον σῶμα εἶναι ἢ χρῶμα ἔχον). This inference is surprisingly strong.82 The consequence drawn so far from the mechanism of interaction between the atomic properties of the object and those of the perceiver’s sense organs had been that each thing is how it appears within a certain interaction no more than how it appears within a different one (e.g. honey is no more sweet than bitter). The idea underlying Plutarch’s move here might be that since in some cases the interaction object/perceiver fails to produce any appearance at all (or to occur at all), we should say that that the object has the kind of property which is typically generated as a result of the interaction (e.g. some colour or some flavour) no more than it has not.83 In support of the same conclusion that “each body will be said to have colour no more than it has not” (οὐ μᾶλλον οὖν ἔχειν ἢ μὴ ἔχειν χρῶμα ῥηθήσεται τῶν σωμάτων ἕκαστον, 1110D5-6), Plutarch quotes verbatim an earlier passage from Epicurus’ Reply to Theophrastus, according to which (1) objects in the dark do not have colour,84 and (2) in conditions of quasi-darkness individuals perceive objects as colourless or coloured depending on the acuteness of their eyesight and how long they had to get used to those borderline light conditions.85 The intended rationale of Epicurus’ point is not clear (Plutarch excerpts in such as way as to make it difficult to reconstruct the meaning and function of the excerpt in its original context), but Plutarch clearly wants to exploit Epicurus’ quotation from Reply to Theophrastus as if it were making a relativistic point, to confirm his own interpretation of Epicurus’ οὐ μᾶλλον view on sensible qualities.

48Plutarch’s conclusion at 1110D is in fact that if colours are relative (πρός τι), then also sweet and bitter will be, and so for every quality F we can truly predicate “is no more F than is not F”; for those affected in a certain way the thing will be F, but not for those who are not thus affected (εἰ δὲ τὸ χρῶμα πρός τι, καὶ τὸ λευκὸν ἔσται πρός τι καὶ τὸ κυανοῦν, εἰ δὲ ταῦτα, καὶ τὸ γλυκὺ καὶ τὸ πικρόν. ὥστε κατὰ πάσης ποιότητος ἀληθῶς τὸ μὴ μᾶλλον εἶναι ἢ μὴ εἶναι κατηγορεῖσθαι· τοῖς γὰρ οὕτω πάσχουσιν ἔσται τοιοῦτον, οὐκ ἔσται δὲ τοῖς μὴ πάσχουσι). We are clearly back to an emphasis on the thetic implications of οὐ μᾶλλον. In Plutarch’s hands, Epicurus has turned into a full-blown perceptual relativist, as shown by the use of the πρός τι phrase and the Theaetetus-style Protagorean relativising datives τοῖς γὰρ οὕτω πάσχουσιν and τοῖς μὴ πάσχουσι. Although Protagoras is not mentioned here, this is not a mere unconscious reflex of a knowledgeable Platonic reader: interestingly, in his own parallel discussion of the heating power of wine in Quaestiones Conviviales (T6 above), Plutarch suggests that Epicurus’ position “leads us directly to Pyrrho through Protagoras (ἄντικρυς εἰς τὸν Πύρρωνα διὰ τοῦ Πρωταγόρου φέρει ἡμᾶς).

  • 86 For a different interpretation, according to which Epicurus was a relativist about all sensible qua (...)

49Let us concede, for the sake of argument, that Plutarch’s construal of Epicurus’ relativistic stance on smells, flavours, heat and colours were right; his present generalisation to “all qualities” would still be unwarranted. Think, again, of the shape of the tower, or of the oar which appears bent in water: the Epicureans had a story to tell on how, independently of our true sense-impressions, the tower and the oar really have a certain intrinsic shape, and on how to find this out on the basis of our senses as canons of truth.86 Some distinction between what we would call primary and secondary properties or, more appropriately, in Epicurean terms, between properties which also belong to atoms (size, shape and weight) and properties which belong only to macroscopic atomic aggregates (colours, sounds, smells, flavours, heat …) might be needed to draw the line where Epicurean relativism ends, even if we accepted that Epicurus was a relativist about some sensible qualities. This notwithstanding, Plutarch’s case for an Epicurean relativistic οὐ μᾶλλον has turned out to deserve more attention than his initial argument based on the tenet that “all impressions are true” had suggested.

  • 87 Wyttenbach, Einarson and De Lacy; πηλόν: Westman.

50At the end of section 7 of Against Colotes Plutarch concludes his long second reply to Colotes’ first criticism of Democritus by returning to the apraxia theme: “So Colotes ends up pouring over himself and his leader the very mud and confusion in which he says those people wallow who utter ‘no more’ about things” (τὸν οὖν βόρβορον καὶ τὸν ταράχον,87 ἐν ᾧ φησι γίνεσθαι τοὺς τό “μηδὲν μᾶλλον” ἐπιφθεγγομένους τοῖς πράγμασιν, ἑαυτοῦ κατασκεδάννυσι καὶ τοῦ καθηγεμόνος ὁ Κωλώτης, 1110E1-4). If, as Colotes maintains, by claiming that everything is οὐ μᾶλλον you make life chaotic and impossible, then Colotes, whose Epicurean views commit him to that conclusion, is also accusing himself, and Epicurus, of making life chaotic and impossible. The charge which Colotes had levelled at Democritus actually applies to himself and his master (we are back to the original point illustrated by the Candaules simile: see section 1 above). In fact, it applies only to himself and his master, since Colotes misunderstood and misrepresented Democritus’ use of οὐ μᾶλλον.

  • 88 At the same time, it is also clearly distinct from the sceptical use of οὐ μᾶλλον (pace M. Gigante, (...)

51It is worth emphasising that there is no commitment here on Plutarch’s part to saying that the Epicurean position does really “throw life into confusion”: a careful reading of his phrasing will reveal that this is intended as a purely dialectical rejoinder. Colotes unwittingly pours over himself (and his school) “mud and confusion” in virtue of those unwelcome practical consequences that he says are involved in the use of οὐ μᾶλλον. Or so Plutarch’s argument goes: actually, as I have argued, he has not shown that everything is “no more thus than thus” for the Epicureans (not even if we restrict the scope of “everything” and “thus” to sensible objects and qualities). Moreover, the use of οὐ μᾶλλον to which the Epicureans are supposedly committed is not the same “anairetic” use of οὐ μᾶλλον because of which, presumably, Colotes had accused Democritus of “confusing life”,88 pace Plutarch, and thus Plutarch’s dialectical retort is itself unwarranted. Interestingly enough, Protagoras was not in Colotes’ black list of philosophers who make life impossible, and some implications of the Democritean οὐ μᾶλλον which would have disturbed an Epicurean like Colotes (an expression of distrust in, or at least suspicion towards, the reliability of the senses: see section 6 below) do not occur in the presence of the (thetic and relativistic) use to which, according to Plutarch, Epicurus was committed. It is difficult to imagine how a relativist about sensible qualities could be accused of being unable to live a (normal) life through the apraxia manoeuvre.

6. Colotes’ second charge: Democritus’ claim that only atoms and void are real makes life inconceivable (8, 1110E5-F3)

  • 89 Euripides, fr. 1086 Nauck.
  • 90 As E. Kechagia (Plutarch Against Colotes: A Lesson in History of Philosophy, op. cit., p. 180) rema (...)
  • 91 See G. Arrighetti, “Un passo dell’opera Sulla natura di Epicuro, Democrito e Colote”, CErc, 9, 1979 (...)
  • 92 Following R. Westman who supplies ἅπασαν; B. Einarson and P.H. De Lacy supply καὶ τὰ ἄλλα (“compoun (...)
  • 93 ἐτεῇ δὲ τὸ κενὸν καὶ was supplied by D. Wittenbach to fill a blank of 25-26 letters in the MSS E an (...)
  • 94 Following R. Westman who supplies μάχεσθαι after Δημοκρίτου; B. Einarson and P.H. De Lacy: ἀντεἰρημ (...)
  • 95 Following M. Pohlenz who supplies ἄνθρωπός to fill a blank of 10-12 letters in the MSS E and B (acc (...)

52It is not only with his first anti-Democritean charge that Colotes proves to be a “healer of others, full of sores himself” (1110E5-7),89 namely someone who claims to diagnose and cure in others faults which he himself has90 (or which, in some cases, only he has: according to Plutarch, Democritus himself, unlike Colotes, was not committed to οὐ μᾶλλον and its problematic consequences for life). Plutarch believes that it is even more with his second charge that Colotes failed to realise that he was “expelling from life” Epicurus (and, of course, himself) together with Democritus (ἀλλ’ ἔτι μᾶλλον ἐν τῷ δευτέρῳ τῶν ἐπιτιμημάτων λέληθε τῷ Δημοκρίτῳ τὸν Ἐπίκουρον ἐκ τοῦ ζῆν συνεξωθῶν). For “he [sc. Colotes] claims that what is said by Democritus, ‘by convention colour, by convention sweet, by convention all compound, but in reality void and atoms’ is opposed to the senses, and anyone who abides by this reasoning and puts it into practice could not even conceive of himself as a man or as alive”91 (τὸ γὰρ νόμῳ χροιὴν εἶναι καὶ νόμῳ γλυκὺ καὶ νόμῳ σύγκρισιν <ἅπασαν,92 ἐτεῇ δὲ τὸ κενὸν καὶ>93 τὰς ἀτόμους εἰρημένον φησὶν ὑπὸ Δημοκρίτου <μάχεσθαι>94 ταῖς αἰσθήσεσι, καὶ τὸν ἐμμένοντα τῷ λόγῳ τούτῳ καὶ χρώμενον οὐδ’ ἂν αὑτὸν ὡς <ἄνθρωπός>95 ἐστιν ἢ ζῇ διανοηθῆναι).

53Plutarch’s report of the most famous Democritean dictum is an intriguing and controversial piece of evidence, because of the inclusion of “compound” (σύγκρισις) (or “all compound”, following Westman’s supplement) in the list of items which are νόμῳ, and not ἐτεῇ. None of the three other ancient reports of Democritus’ dictum includes σύγκρισις:

(T7) By convention sweet and by convention bitter, by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention colour; but in reality atoms and void. (S. E. M 7.135 [DK68B9])

(T8) By convention hot, by convention cold, but in reality atoms and void. (D. L. 9.72 [DK68B117])

(T9) By convention colour, by convention sweet, by convention bitter, but in reality atoms and void. (Gal. Med. Exp. 15.7 [DK68B125])

  • 96 See e.g. D.J. Furley, “Democritus and Epicurus on Sensible Qualities”, op. cit., p. 76-77 n. 7.
  • 97 E.g. in place of πικρόν, λευκόν or ψυχρόν. See e.g. C.C.W. Taylor, The Atomists: Leucippus and Demo (...)
  • 98 See e.g. J. Warren, Epicurus and Democritean Ethics: An Archaeology of Ataraxia, op. cit., p. 194; (...)
  • 99 According to R.B.B. Wardy, “Eleatic Pluralism”, Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie, 70, 1988 (p. (...)
  • 100 See e.g. R. Westman, Plutarch gegen Kolotes, op. cit., p. 254; P.A. Vander Waerdt, Colotes and the (...)
  • 101 Adopting M. Pohlenz’s supplement (see n.  above); but the point would remain true, although less ex (...)
  • 102 The use of σύγκρισις in the sense of “aggregate” or “compound”, as opposed to the act of combining (...)
  • 103 See e.g. C.C.W. Taylor, The Atomists: Leucippus and Democritus, op. cit., p. 152 n. 141.
  • 104 See P.A. Vander Waerdt, Colotes and the Epicurean Refutation of Skepticism, op. cit.; P.-M. Morel (...)
  • 105 For the Democritean view that when we cognise sensible objects and we refer to them we do that via (...)

54Some scholars have suggested that σύγκρισις must be a marginal gloss which intruded in the text at some stage of the manuscript tradition of Plutarch’s Against Colotes; others that σύγκρισις is Plutarch’s own addition to,96 or misreading of, Colotes’ text; others that it is Colotes’ own misreading of Democritus’ text97 or (tendentious?) addition;98 others that in fact Democritus himself declared in his original formulation,99 or at least was implicitly committed to,100 the conventionality of atomic compounds too. The logic of Colotes’ own indictment (“could not even conceive of himself as a man or as alive”) and of Plutarch’s own later re-deployment of it against Epicurus requires that for Democritus compounds too are merely conventional,101 although the way in which Plutarch construes the charge against the Epicureans initially focuses on sensible qualities (until we get to the closing lines of section 9). But, as scholars have remarked, the term σύγκρισιν sounds anachronistic, since it is infrequent in Democritus’ fragments, where it never refers to atomic compounds anyway102 (as opposed to Epicurus’ own later technical usage, e.g. in Her. 40-42). Does this mean that Colotes foisted upon Democritus a position on the conventional character of compounds to which Democritus would not have subscribed?103 Not necessarily. If we intend “compound” not as an aggregate of atoms, but as a sensible macroscopic object in so far as it is a collection or “bundle” of sensible qualities, it is reasonable to attribute to someone who believes that those qualities are conventional and not real the view that “compounds” too are conventional and not real, whatever exactly “conventional” and “real” may mean here.104 One might object that an Epicurean like Colotes would have hardly chosen the term σύγκρισις to refer to this kind of aggregate; the rationale for this choice could have been, however, precisely that of emphasising that as a result of Democritus’ view even those entities which are ultimately atomic aggregates end up being “conventional” in the measure in which we can experience them only as collections of sensible qualities which Democritus calls “conventional”.105

7. Plutarch’s reply to Colotes’ second charge: Colotes and Epicurus are just as guilty as Democritus (8, 1110F4 - 9, 1111E12)

55Let us assume that Colotes’ account of Democritus’ position is correct, independently on whether it is a verbatim quotation; unlike the case of Colotes’ first charge, Plutarch’s shows no reservations here about Colotes’ scholarship. How does it follow that Democritus throws life into confusion? Whereas, as I have emphasised above, in the context of his reply to Colotes’ first charge Plutarch had not committed himself in propria persona to the connection between οὐ μᾶλλον and the “confusion” of life, he seems perfectly happy to endorse Colotes’ inference from the νόμῳ/ἐτεῇ fragment here: “I have nothing to object to this argument” (1110F4). His strategy in section 9 will not consist in a defence of Democritus (unlike in section 4), then, but in the attribution of the very same error to Epicurus: “I can say that these things are as inseparable from Epicurus’ doctrines as they say that shape and weight are inseparable from atoms” (1110F5-7).

56But Plutarch does not explain why, according to Colotes, someone who says “in reality atoms and void” is destroying life. A passage from another, later Epicurean, Diogenes of Oenoanda, can help us to understand Colotes’ (and Plutarch’s) qualm:

(T10) Even Democritus made a mistake unworthy of himself when he said that only atoms truly (κατ᾿ ἀλήθειαν) exist in objects, while all the rest exists by convention (νομιστεί). For according to your account, Democritus, far from discovering the truth we shall not even be able to live (οὐδὲ ζῆν δυνησόμεθα), being unable to guard ourselves either against fire or slaughter or… (Diog. Oen. fr. 7, II 2 - III 1 Smith)

  • 106 Notice how “all the rest by convention” (τὰ δὲ λοιπὰ νομιστεὶ ἅπαντα) is general enough to make als (...)
  • 107 See the locus classicus for the apraxia charge, Arist. Metaph. Γ 4, 1008b2-25 (T1 above). Notice, i (...)
  • 108 R.B.B. Wardy (“Eleatic Pluralism”, op. cit.) and D.J. Furley (“Democritus and Epicurus on Sensible (...)
  • 109 See e.g. J. Barnes, The Presocratic Philosophers, London and New York, Routledge, 19822, p. 375-376 (...)
  • 110 For criticism of the standard view that the former set corresponds to our secondary qualities and t (...)
  • 111 See e.g. D.N. Sedley’s (“Epicurean Anti-Reductionism, in J. Barnes, M. Mignucci (ed.), Matter and (...)
  • 112 As P.-M. Morel (Démocrite et la recherche des causes, op. cit., p. 334-335) remarks, Democritus giv (...)
  • 113 For a brief status quaestionis on the issue of the scope and nature of Democritean eliminativism, s (...)
  • 114 The normative claim requires qualifications if we approach the issue from the point of philosophers (...)
  • 115 See Theophrastus’ detailed account of Democritus on sense-perception in On the Senses 49-83 (DK68A1 (...)

57The rationale of this argument appears to be the following: if we accepted, with Democritus, that, for example, what is in front of us is not fire (and is not burning hot) “in reality” (or “truly”, as Diogenes has it), we should have no reason to expect that it will burn us, and thus to avoid putting our hand on the fire, or walking into it.106 Such a case (just as Diogenes’ second example, “slaughter”) would fall under the “dangerous behaviour” heading of the apraxia charge (see section 2 above): if you have no trust in your senses (see Plutarch’s comment that Democritus’ dictum “is opposed to the senses”), you will soon end up at the bottom of a precipice, drowned in a river, or burnt or stabbed to death.107 However, whatever exact interpretation we adopt for the Democritean νόμῳ/ἐτεῇ distinction (changeable,108 relative, perceiver-dependent109 (objects and) properties vs. stable, objective principles and their properties?)110 and for its underlying motivations,111 it is clear that what is “by convention” is not thereby absolutely non-existent or purely illusory or arbitrary.112 Someone who accepts the Democritean distinction must not thereby “reject” all sensible appearances in the same way as he would “reject” a mirage or a dream. Thus Colotes and Diogenes fall short of establishing their purported conclusion. First of all, it seems uncharitable to use what was an ontological distinction to draw radical consequences about human behaviour and life. But this is not a mere matter of insulation of philosophical doctrine (Democritean “eliminativism” or “anti-realism” about the objects of the senses)113 from everyday life: leaving aside here the complex network of ontological and epistemological considerations connected to the Democritean dictum, the very term νόμῳ is sufficient to suggest what Democritus’ defence could have been. A “convention” (or “belief”) is, in its essence, something on the basis of which you can, do, and sometimes ought to, shape your behaviour, even if you think it has no stable, absolute, natural basis “in reality”.114 Democritus will admit that fire is typically heating and (in a certain quantity, at a certain distance, and for a certain duration of exposure) burning for human beings, or that honey typically produces sense-impressions of sweetness (in normal, healthy human beings); these effects can be explained in terms of interactions of atomic components and structures present in fire and honey and in the perceiver’s sense-organs, similarly to what we have seen for Epicurus.115 Democritus of course will clarify (just like Epicurus) that the atoms themselves are neither hot nor cold, neither sweet nor bitter, and will also insist (unlike Epicurus) that “in reality” fire is not hot and honey is not sweet (and perhaps even that no such things as fire and honey exist “in reality”). By following “convention”, however, he will still be able to escape fire when it gets too close and to eat honey when he desires to pamper his sweet tooth. This is in fact the kind of defence which later in Against Colotes Plutarch himself will lend to some of the philosophers unfairly attacked by the Epicurean philosopher, a distinction which he presents openly at 1118B and which we might call the distinction between criteria of action and criteria of truth, adopting a Pyrrhonian jargon (see e.g. S. E. PH 1.21). But on the present occasion Plutarch is uncharitable in not allowing Democritus to use that defence which he volunteers for other philosophers.

  • 116 We have seen that in that part of Against Colotes Plutarch seems to interpret οὐ μᾶλλον thetically (...)

58That Plutarch is so trigger-happy with Democritus here, when Colotes’ charge clearly requires an uncharitably extreme interpretation of the νόμῳ/ἐτεῇ fragment and its implications, is even more surprising when we recall that Plutarch wanted to leave Democritus innocent of any commitment to οὐ μᾶλλον in section 4, against Colotes’ suggestion. We can now appreciate how the present idea that honey is neither sweet nor bitter “in reality” is precisely what could have been conveyed through the Democritean use of “honey is no more sweet than bitter”, attested by Sextus (PH 1.213-214, [T2]) and suggested by Theophrastus (DK68A135, 69 [T3]; see section 4 above).116 I suggest that the primary anti-Epicurean polemical aim is what drives Plutarch here: what he is interested in is turning Colotes’ anti-Democritean apraxia gambit back against the Epicureans, however weak that gambit might have been. Unlike in section 4, defending Democritus is not a priority here, since there is no clear way here in which a defence of Democritus against Colotes’ charge could be used to score an extra anti-Epicurean point without at the same time blocking Plutarch’s main strategy. In other words, by showing that Democritus’ νόμῳ/ἐτεῇ doctrine does not destroy life, pace Colotes, Plutarch would show the weakness of the Epicurean’s argument, but would deprive himself of the possibility of charging Colotes with the more deadly sin of making life impossible.

  • 117 For in-depth discussion of the use of φύσις here, see E. Kechagia, Plutarch Against Colotes: A Less (...)

59Let us move on now to Plutarch’s main contention that Epicurus is committed to the same position as Democritus concerning the unreality of sensible qualities and compounds. That position follows from Democritus’ fundamental principles (ἀρχαί): there are entities infinite in number, indivisible and indestructible, unchangeable and without qualities, and that cannot be affected (the atoms); these move in the void, and when they collide and get entangled the resulting aggregate appears (φαίνεσθαι) in one case as water, in others as fire, in others as plant, in others as man; but everything is (in reality) the so-called indivisible “forms” (ἰδέας), i.e. atoms. No colour can come into being from colourless and changeless atoms, nor nature117 or soul from things which have no quality and are soulless (ὅθεν οὔτε χρόαν ἐξ ἀχρώστων οὔτε φύσιν ἢ ψυχὴν ἐξ ἀποίων καὶ ἀψύχων ὑπάρχειν, 1110F-1111A).

  • 118 See Non posse 1100A: Epicurus quarrelled with Democritus whose doctrines he filched word by word (s (...)
  • 119 On Plutarch’s understanding of the Epicurean notion of friendship (φιλία), see J. Boulogne, Plutarq (...)
  • 120 It is not difficult to see what the tacit implications of (1) and (2) are: unlike Epicurus, Democri (...)

60Plutarch’s diagnosis is that Democritus’ mistake lies in his disastrous choice of bad principles, and not in his consistent acceptance of what follows from them (ἐγκλητέος οὖν ὁ Δημόκριτος οὐχὶ τὰ συμβαίνοντα ταῖς ἀρχαῖς ὁμολογῶν ἀλλὰ λαμβάνων ἀρχὰς αἷς ταῦτα συμβέβηκεν, 1111A9-11). But Epicurus is shameless: he sees the absurdity of the Democritean conclusions but denies (and indeed denounces) them, while claiming to assume the same ἀρχαί (see Plutarch’s use of Leonteus’ testimony at 1108E, discussed above in section 2). In other words, Epicurus accepts (or, more precisely, filches from Democritus)118 the principles of atomism without admitting their consequences (1111B), as he does in a number of other occasions. For example,
(1) he eliminates providence but says that he has left us with piety (see 1112C: “oath”, “prayer” and “sacrifice” are mere words for things which Epicurean principles and doctrines actually eliminate);
(2) he chooses friendship for the sake of pleasure, but he says that he will bear the greatest pains for the sake of friends;119
(3) he assumes that the universe is infinite, but he says that he does not eliminate “up” and “down” (see e.g. Her. 60-61). We know from Cicero (Fin. 1.6.17 [DK68A56]) that Democritus, on the contrary, denied the existence of “up” and “down” in his infinite universe; this is thus a case clearly parallel to that currently discussed by Plutarch, in which Democritus is supposedly superior to Epicurus for his consistency.120

  • 121 See 1127D6: “I shall do it, but I do not wish to admit it”.
  • 122 See Plutarch’s symposium simile at 1111C: not even in a symposium when you accept a cup it is prope (...)

61Epicurus is depicted as an impenitent practitioner of hypocritical philosophical inconsistency.121 But “where the principles are not necessary, the conclusions are necessary” (ὧν αἱ ἀρχαὶ οὐκ ἀναγκαῖαι, τὰ τέλη ἀναγκαῖα, 1111C4-5), Plutarch comments, so Epicurus ought to swallow up122 the difficulties which follow for him from his “first plausibilities” (πρώταις πιθανότησιν, 1111C8) in the same way as they follow for Democritus, “or else he must show how bodies without qualities have produced qualities of every kind simply by coming together” (1111C9-11: ἢ δεικτέον ὅπως ἄποια σώματα παντοδαπὰς ποιότητας αὐτῷ μόνῳ τῷ συνελθεῖν παρέσχεν). For example, in the case of heat (“so-called heat”), from where has it come, and how has it supervened atoms which neither had heat before coming together nor became hot by coming together, since atoms are, as we have seen, without qualities and changeless (1111C11-D5)?

  • 123 For Epicurus (see Her. 40), only atoms, void and atomic bodies have “complete natures” (ὅλας φύσεις (...)
  • 124 See D.N. Sedley, “Epicurean Anti-Reductionism, op. cit., p. 312. Unfortunately the examples of per (...)
  • 125 I do not discuss here the issue of whether at the higher levels we can even find emergent propertie (...)

62We know that, whatever Democritus might have thought and written about this (see section 6 above), Epicurus did not think that sensible atomic aggregates, i.e. macroscopic bodies, are just conventional, or less real than atoms. Consider, for example, Her. 39-40, where Epicurus writes that only bodies and void exist per se, justifying the existence of bodies on the grounds that they are witnessed by αἴσθησις, which shows that he must be thinking of macroscopic bodies;123 or, again, think of the list of properties – which by definition must belong to some per se existent – at Lucr. DRN 1.449-458: stones, fire, water, men are those per se existents to which various properties listed belong, either permanently or accidentally.124 It is also well-known that Epicurus was vocal in making the point, against Democritus’ eliminativism, that properties (even accidental ones) are real (see e.g. Her. 68-69: “we must not hold that they are per se natures (καθ΄ ἑαυτάς ... φύσεις): that is inconceivable. Nor, at all, that they are non-existent”). But of course Plutarch is not suggesting that Epicurus maintained that sensible properties and atomic aggregates are unreal: Plutarch is challenging him to explain how it is possible that they are real if he starts, as he does, from Democritean atomic principles, which lead to the unreality of those properties and aggregates. First of all, he challenges Epicurus to show how atoms without qualities (with the exception, of course, of shape, size, weight and solidity) “have produced qualities of every kind simply by coming together”, i.e. to provide a philosophical account for the coming-into-being of the secondary qualities of atomic compounds. As I have mentioned above, Epicurus did try to provide such an account in terms of dispositional properties which supervene upon atomic shapes, sizes (flavours and smells) and configurations (colours) of groups of atoms in the objects (and relative to certain perceivers). From this point of view, Plutarch’s insistence that atomic bodies are completely without qualities, reiterated in section 9 to mark the distinction between Epicurus’ present impasse and Plato’s, Xenocrates’ and Aristotle’s physics of sensible properties, in which the first principles contribute their own basic qualities (wet, dry, cold, hot, hard, soft) to the mixture (κρᾶσις), is tendentious: not even in atomism does the generation of sensible qualities occur mysteriously ex nihilo, but the atoms’ size and shape, together with their position and arrangement, underlie supervening properties of macroscopic bodies, from colours and flavours (see section 5 above) up to life and intelligence (see ψυχήν at 1111A8).125 Any such account in an atomistic framework will need to reject Plutarch’s assumption that the atoms themselves would need to acquire the supervenient qualities generated by their coming together, which is impossible given their changeless nature. Such a rejection is reasonable (each soldier is not vast, even if the army is!), but it is only a necessary, and not a sufficient condition for offering a convincing account of sensible qualities; the philosophical question which Plutarch poses is, of course, a genuine and perennial one. But Plutarch seems to prejudge whether a satisfactory answer could ever be given by assuming that the quality F could never come into existence from principles which are not F and are themselves changeless. Needless to say, that prejudgement is deeply rooted in Platonist doctrine and in the non-atomistic tradition of the physics of sensible properties mentioned above. It remains true, however, that no support is given to that doctrine and that tradition here: Plutarch seems to presuppose, again, a sympathetic and knowledgeable audience who will be ready to fill the gaps in his argument.

  • 126 See the typical Pyrrhonian argumentative strategy, especially as illustrated in Sextus Empiricus’ w (...)

63It is also worth noticing that Plutarch is forcing upon the Epicureans a position (the inexistence of all sensible qualities) which is distinct from, and in fact incompatible with, the position for which he had charged them earlier in his second reply to Colotes’ first criticism of Democritus, i.e. the οὐ μᾶλλον relativity of all sensible qualities (see section 5 above), which is compatible, on the contrary, with the idea that sensible qualities are not intrinsic or objective qualities of things. Of course there is nothing objectionable in charging someone, say X, with the unacceptable consequences of holding p, and then go on to charge X with similarly unacceptable consequences of being committed to q, where p and q are inconsistent propositions or theories; for it might well be the case that it is X who in the first place holds inconsistent views and is thus doubly guilty. The fact that Plutarch gives no hint of caring for this inconsistency suggests that, in a quasi-sceptical vein, he is more interested in collecting as many arguments as possible against Colotes126 and the Epicureans than in providing a full and systematic reconstruction of their system to be submitted to sustained philosophical scrutiny.

  • 127 Contra Lucretius DRN 2.865-70.
  • 128 For a similar idea, see Simpl. in Arist. De cael. 295.12-14.
  • 129 For a closer analysis of Plutarch’s views and arguments here, see E. Kechagia, Plutarch Against Col (...)

64At the end of section 9 (1111E5-12) Plutarch returns to the question of how it is possible that complex aggregates can ever come into existence from individual atoms: an atom, itself by itself, is bare of any generative power; when two atoms collide they rebound, because of their hardness and resistance, but neither of them produces or suffers any effect. Atoms are so far from being able to generate something as complex as a living being, a soul or a nature (ζῷον ἢ ψυχὴν ἢ φύσιν)127 that they cannot even form a common plurality or one single heap (πλῆθος ἐξ ἑαυτῶν κοινὸν οὐδὲ σωρὸν ἕνα) because of their constant vibration and scattering. Plutarch’s criticism clearly picks up, magnifies and sends back to Colotes the second charge that, for Democritus, “compounds” do not exist “in reality”: in fact, Plutarch argues, in an atomistic world, whether Democritean or Epicurean (they amount to the same!), compounds cannot come into existence.128 Once again, this is, of course, an extremely partial reading of atomistic physics: as Plutarch himself had previously reported in his brief compendium of Democritean atomism at 1110F-1111A, atoms can get entangled with each other (we know that this is a function of their shapes and the trajectories of their collisions) and form aggregates of increasing complexity, up to (what appear to be) macroscopic objects. Now Plutarch simply rejects, matter-of-factly, this part of the theory, without arguing for that rejection; he will return to the same point and articulate it in some more detail later, in the Empedoclean part of Against Colotes at 1112B-C, but, again, without offering much by way of an in-depth argument. The same kind of tacit doctrinal presuppositions which I have identified above for the issue of the possibility of the existence of sensible qualities are of course operative in the background here, and the same kind of interesting lesson on Plutarch’s style of philosophical polemic, and on his intended audience, can be learnt from the ostensible weakness which his strategy displays if we try to take it as a self-standing piece of philosophical argument.129

  • 130 We have seen above how this problem is formulated in Diogenes of Oenoanda’s version of the apraxia (...)
  • 131 The same problem seems to be expressed in Colotes’ later attack on Empedocles at 1112D4-8: “Why do (...)

65I suggest that, after his discussion of sensible qualities, with his new focus upon atomic compounds Plutarch is now pressing the point that, if atomism were true, life would be “destroyed” or “impossible” in a more fundamental sense than the one we have seen so far. The problem is not “simply” that a consistent Epicurean could not negotiate his life in a chaotic, “confused” world of illusory appearances of sensible qualities which he claims to be unreal;130 more fundamentally, no life could even begin to exist in such a world (a confirmation of the fluidity of the concepts of “destruction” and “confusion” of life in these ancient debates). Let us forget that you would die young if you really believed and tried to live your atomism; if atomism were true, you could not even have been born. This is confirmed by what Plutarch will argue later at 1112C: since atoms by colliding cannot mix or fuse and thus form compound bodies, not even inanimate ones, let alone “sensation, soul, intelligence and wisdom”, by their doctrines the Epicureans “destroy life and what is alive” (ὥστε τοῖς τούτων δόγμασι τὸ ζῆν ἀναιρεῖται καὶ τὸ ζῷον εἶναι). This brings us back to the phrasing of Colotes’ second charge: someone who endorses Democritus’ position “could not even conceive of himself as a man or as alive”. After all, what Colotes himself had presented as the problem for Democritus’ atomism is that it does not allow for the very existence of things and people;131 that problem is, according to Plutarch, a genuine one, but what Colotes could not see, or pretended not to see, is that it is Epicurus’ problem too. With the highlighting of this problem Plutarch brings to an end his discussion of Colotes’ self-defeating anti-Democritean criticisms.

8. Conclusion

66Whatever assessment we give of the relative strengths and shortcomings of Plutarch’s anti-Epicurean polemic in the Democritean part of Against Colotes, it is clear that some of the shortcomings mirror analogous ones which were on display in Colotes’ original anti-Democritean arguments. I have suggested that the mirroring could be construed, in some cases, as a form of Plutarchean “irony”: he mimicked Colotes’ weak argumentative manoeuvres in the dialectical process of retorting them, and their conclusions, against Colotes himself and the whole Epicurean school. Other apparent weaknesses of Plutarch’s argumentative strategies should be explained, as I have argued, as the reflection of a style of doing and writing philosophy in which one’s philosophical allegiances and those of one’s intended readership determine the delicate dynamic between the explicit and the implicit, and shape the boundaries of what is accepted as “fair” exegesis and argument. From the point of view of Plutarch’s complex and problematic methodology reflected in its argumentative fabric, the opening Democritean section sets the “tone” for Against Colotes as a whole, and a possible agenda for how to read it.

  • 132 A good example of this complexity is the surprising way in which Plutarch first divorces Epicurus f (...)
  • 133 On the nature and “lessons” of Plutarch’s “history of philosophy”, see E. Kechagia, Plutarch Agains (...)
  • 134 For judicious discussion of how to read Plutarch as a “historian of philosophy”, see E. Kechagia, P (...)

67But a close analysis of the text does not only offer a fascinating window on the kinds of argumentative strategies which came to be used (and sometimes abused) within ancient philosophical debates (with the double layer of the Colotean polemic against Democritus, and the Plutarchean polemic against Colotes himself).132 Plutarch’s own “history of philosophy”133 provides modern interpreters with invaluable evidence about both Democritus and Epicurus; it is our task to use it judiciously as part of any broader attempts to reconstruct the original Democritean and Epicurean positions, especially, as I have emphasised, on the status of sensible qualities as properties of objects. Needless to say, the task is far from easy: there is no straightforward method for sifting and extracting what can be considered reliable doxographical information from the incrustations of dialectical polemic, and the most valuable nuggets can only be identified and appreciated as the result of careful inspection of the broad landscape in which Plutarch has disseminated them.134

68In the light of Plutarch’s complex strategy, I suggest in particular that we should approach with fresh eyes the question of what was really at stake in the well-known Epicurean rejection of the Democritean “conventionality” of sensible qualities (and, possibly, if we follow Plutarch’s testimony, sensible objects). It is difficult to imagine that any clear-headed philosopher could have been led to that rejection uniquely by the desire to avoid a Colotes-style apraxia charge, which can be addressed satisfactorily, I have argued, within the “convention”/“reality” dichotomy. Clearly Epicurus’ rejection must have been connected to his epistemological doctrine that no sense-impression is false and the senses are thus “canonic”, and to the corresponding rejection of that form of “scepticism” about the senses which many ancient readers thought could be read off the νόμῳ/ἐτεῇ fragment and other sceptical-looking Democritean pronouncements. However, until we establish the real nature and boundaries of “Democritean scepticism”, it will remain unclear just how needed Epicurus’ innovation was, and whether it represented more a change in language and “rhetoric” than a substantial doctrinal shift.

  • 135 For a reconstruction of Protagoras’ epistemology broadly along these lines, see P. Curd, Why Democ (...)
  • 136 Interpreters normally accept at face value that, to use E. Kechagia’s (Plutarch Against Colotes: A (...)

69A credible (albeit necessarily conjectural) case can be made for an overall reconstruction of Democritus’ epistemology which reduces Democritus’ so-called “scepticism about the senses” to the recognition that sense-impressions cannot provide us with any direct information about the ontologically fundamental ingredients of reality, atoms and void, but will only register the affections caused upon our senses by those ingredients within their complex structures. To accept unreflectively that our sense-impressions inform us of how things are “in reality” and that by them we can attain knowledge is thus a mistake: for example, no single atom in that compound that we call “honey” is sweet, and honey itself is not sweet “in reality”, despite what my tongue tells me. But the senses still offer us cognition of how things are “by convention”, and that cognition offers material through which reason can construct some understanding (however partial and fallible) of reality itself.135 It is not difficult to see how close this mild form of Democritean “scepticism” is to Epicurus’ own optimistic dogmatism about the truth of the senses and their criterial role in our exploration and understanding of reality.136

  • 137 See e.g. S. Makin, Indifference Arguments, op. cit., p. 72: “something is to be said about what has (...)
  • 138 See e.g. M.-K. Lee, Epistemology After Protagoras, op. cit., p. 216: “Democritus held a radically s (...)
  • 139 On this reading, the ancient testimony according to which for Democritus all sense-impressions are (...)

70In the framework of such a reading of Democritus’ epistemology, the same question which I have raised for Epicurus in section 5 above (“Did Epicurus believe that honey is sweet?”) can be proposed, mutatis mutandis, for Democritus too. Granted, honey is neither sweet nor bitter ἐτεῇ, a truth that, pace Plutarch, Democritus could have expressed pithily through the οὐ μᾶλλον formula in its anairetic nuance (“in reality, honey is no more sweet than bitter”). But is honey sweet (and not bitter) νόμῳ? Or rather honey is, “by convention”, both sweet and bitter’? If (D2) “convention” were determined inter-subjectively, by the way in which the majority of normal, healthy human beings are affected perceptually in certain standard conditions, then Democritus should have answered that honey is sweet “by convention”, and that sweetness is a “conventional” quality of honey (a kind of dispositional property), whereas bitterness is not.137 If, on the contrary, (D1) “convention” were taken, narrowly, as the purely subjective way in which things appear to a certain perceiver (or type of perceiver), relative to his/her (present) bodily atomic disposition and in certain circumstances, then Democritus would have claimed that honey is both sweet (by my present “convention” of healthy human being) and bitter (by your present “convention” of ill human being).138 On this reading, Democritus could still have used οὐ μᾶλλον to describe how things are νόμῳ, but this time in its thetic nuance.139 Just as in the case of Epicurus, this distinction is rarely acknowledged in the literature, or one of two sides is unreflectively taken for granted.

  • 140 I have argued in section 5 that Epicurus’ theory might include an interesting and largely unnoticed (...)
  • 141 For a detailed reconstruction of Democritus’ theory of perception, see M.M. Sassi, Le teorie della (...)
  • 142 For the suggestion that the shift is the result of the disappearance of those Eleatic strictures th (...)

71Now, take away the qualification “by convention” from (D2) and (D1) and these Democritean options correspond exactly to the two basic options (E2) and (E1) which in section 5 I have identified in my reconstruction of Epicurus’ own treatment of the predication of “real” sensible qualities (at least as far as smells, flavours and colours are concerned).140 If we choose the intersubjective dispositional option (E2) and (D2) for both, then Democritus’ claim that “honey is sweet by convention” and Epicurus’ claim that “honey is (really) sweet” will appear to be ultimately equivalent in the light of the similarity in the principles and mechanics of tasting for the two philosophers141 and of the identical state of affairs which the two claims express (honey has such an atomic composition that it engenders a sweet taste-sensation in human beings in healthy physical conditions and in normal circumstances). The same kind of equivalence will result if we subscribe for both Epicurus and Democritus to the relativistic or subjectivist readings (E1) and (D1), according to which honey is both sweet and bitter, relative to different individual dispositions or circumstances. But, then, again, one could protest that the Epicurean choice of attacking Democritus’ position and granting ontological status to sensible qualities is, after all, mere quibbling over words, at least until the Epicureans can explain what else their different ontology “does for them”.142 If, finally, following Plutarch’s cues, we interpreted Epicurus’ position on (some) sensible qualities along fully relativistic lines (E1), while allowing for the intersubjective dispositional nature of the corresponding Democritean conventional qualities (D2), as possibly suggested by the very term “convention” and by Democritus’ anti-Protagorean quarrel, the question will arise why, the different vocabulary notwithstanding, we should not say that Democritus was indeed more realist than Epicurus about (some) sensible qualities of macroscopic objects.

72It might be argued that this is sufficient reason not to adopt that “mild” reading of Democritus’ epistemology (and of the νόμῳ/ἐτεῇ fragment) to which I have alluded, and to reject Plutarch’s suggestion that Epicurus’ original position was a form of radical relativism of sensible qualities. To offer a plausible answer to my question in the light of our full body of evidence on ancient atomism is something that goes beyond the aims of this study. But that there is an interesting question to be answered, and which has not even been articulated with sufficient clarity so far, is something which Plutarch helps us to realise.

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Notes

1 On Colotes, his works, and the broader tradition of Epicurean polemics to which they belong see E. Kechagia, Plutarch Against Colotes. A Lesson in History of Philosophy, Oxford, OUP, 2011, p. 47-80.

2 For an excellent recent attempt along similar lines, but with much broader scope, see E. Kechagia, op. cit. Although I could gain access to E. Kechagia’s work only at the final stages of preparation for this article and could therefore take only into partial account her results, we share a similar approach in our readings of Against Colotes, albeit in some cases with different assessments of the quality of Plutarch’s argument and “history of philosophy”.

3 Note the plural οὗτοι at 1108D2. Hereafter I refer to the Stephanus page of the Adversus Colotem and line numbers as they appear in P.H. De Lacy’s and B. Einarson’s LOEB edition (Plutarch. Moralia, Volume XIV, Cambridge (Mass.) and London, Harvard University Press, 1967).

4 The more specific theme of the “feral” life to which the Epicureans are committed re-emerges in the work, however, especially in the final ethical section.

5 See 1119F for the Stoic sense of the term πράγματα associated to σημαινόμενα.

6 See also 1114C: Parmenides “has put together a book of his own, is not pulling apart the book of another”. See also De sera num. vind. 548C for Plutarch’s similar criticism of Epicurus’ own attack on providence.

7 For a similar idea see also Plutarch’s dedication of Against Colotes to his (presumably Platonist) friend Saturninus, a “lover of beauty and antiquity” who considered it “a most royal occupation to recall and have in hand, as much as possible, the arguments of the ancients” (1107E).

8 See E. Kechagia, op. cit., p. 42.

9 See 1109A, where Plutarch accuses Colotes of not having read Democritus’ works against Protagoras, and thus of incorrectly attributing to him a Protagorean position (see section 4 below); 1115A, where Plutarch accuses Colotes of lacking first-hand knowledge of the texts of Aristotle, Xenocrates, Theophrastus and the Peripatetics, and thus of incorrectly treating them as Platonists; 1121F3-4.

10 It is difficult to assume, for chronological reasons, that in all cases Colotes is merely rehearsing Epicurus’ own arguments, especially with reference with Arcesilaus.

11 As J.P. Hershbell (“Plutarch and Epicureanism”, in W. Haase and H. Temporini (ed.), ANRW II 36.5, Berlin and New York, De Gruyter, 1992, p. 3353-3383) explains, “Epicurus’ quarrel with Democritus, from whom Teon claims Epicurus plagiarizes, is mentioned at Non posse 1100A, and the source is most likely either Epicurus’ ‘Reply to Democritus’ (D. L. X, 24) or his ‘Epitome of Objections to the Physicists’ (D. L. X, 27)” (p. 3360).

12 See n.  below. It is debated whether Lucretius’ text and charge derive directly from Epicurus, and whether the scepticism in the dock is Academic or Democritean.

13 See P.H. De Lacy, “Colotes’ First Criticism of Democritus”, in J. Mau, E.G. Schmidt (ed.), Isonomia. Studien zur Gleichheitsvorstellung im griechischen Denken, Berlin, Akademie Verlag, 1964 (p. 67-77), p. 77: “ironically, Plutarch in his reply is at times guilty of the same faults he complains of in Colotes: he does not give careful consideration to the Epicurean explanation of their views but rather draws his own inferences from them and on the basis of these inferences undertakes to demolish the school”.

14 Plutarch was familiar with Epicurus’ letters (at Non posse 1101B his fellow Platonist Aristodemus says “I recently happened to have gone though his letters”), many of which he mentions, and Symposium and Principal Doctrines (with some references also to On Nature) (see J.P. Hershbell, “Plutarch and Epicureanism”, op. cit., p. 3356-3361). For Plutarch’s knowledge and treatment of, and attitude towards, Epicurean philosophy, see J.P. Hershbell, op. cit.; J. Boulogne, Plutarque dans le miroir d’Épicure. Analyse d’une critique systématique de l’épicurisme, Villeneuve d’Ascq, Presses du Septentrion, 2003.

15 ἀναιρεῖν, the verb used by Colotes for the “destruction of life” by other philosophers, also means “to kill”.

16 See e.g. the argument concluding that no demonstrative argument exists; whoever uses such an argument as if it were demonstrative commits himself to the contradictory of the conclusion he purports to establish, i.e. to the admission that there are demonstrative arguments (for a περιτροπή argument along these lines see S. E. M 8.463-467). Nor is Colotes forced to withdraw his charge because that charge is self-eliminating, as in the alleged demonstration that no demonstration exists: his proponent can be forced to withdraw his allegedly demonstrative argument because it concludes that it itself is not a demonstration (for an argument along these lines see S. E. M 8.479). On the various patterns of ancient self-refutation see L. Castagnoli, Ancient Self-Refutation: The Logic and History of the Self-Refutation Argument from Democritus to Augustine, Cambridge, CUP, 2010.

17 For an extremely lucid discussion of this strategy and its rhetorical and dialectical roots (see especially Arist. Rhet. 2.23, 1398a) see E. Kechagia, op. cit., p. 174-178. E. Kechagia adopts the label “overturning arguments”, but is careful in distinguishing Plutarch’s manoeuvre from περιτροπή and self-refutation charges.

18 For the Epicurean denial of the existence of the “philosopher named Leucippus”, see D. L. 10.13.

19 See e.g. Cic. De nat. deor. 1. 73: Epicurus was a pupil of the Democritean Nausiphanes (see D. L. 1.15) and most of what he says is lifted from Democritus; D. L. 10.2: Epicurus was inspired to devote himself to philosophy after reading Democritus’ books.

20 See also Epicurus’ use of the nick-name Lerokritos for Democritus (D. L. 10.8) and D.N. Sedley, “Epicurus and his professional rivals”, in J. Bollack, A. Laks (ed.), Études sur l’épicurisme antique, Lille, de Lille III (Cahiers de philologie, 1), 1976 (p. 119-159), p. 135.

21 For some qualifications on this ancient picture see D.N. Sedley, “Epicurus and his professional rivals”, op. cit.; P.M. Huby, “Epicurus’ Attitude to Democritus”, Phronesis, 23, 1978, p. 80-86.

22 See e.g. Torquatus in Cicero’s De finibus, who claims that “a great many errors committed by Democritus were criticised and corrected by Epicurus” (Fin. 1.28). See also Cic. De nat. deor. 1.33; Tusc. 1.34; Fin. 1.6, 1.8; Plut. Non posse 1100a.

23 M.F. Smith, Diogenes of Oionoanda. The Epicurean Inscription, Naples, Bibliopolis, 1993.

24 Contra J.P. Hershbell, “Plutarch and Epicureanism”, op. cit., p. 3366: “given the explicitness of these charges of Plutarch against two Epicureans, it seems unlikely that he would readily expose himself to the same accusations”.

25 See R. Westman, Plutarch gegen Kolotes: Seine Schrift “Adversus Colotem” als philosophiegeschichtliche Quelle, Helsingfors, Finnische Literaturgesellschaft (Acta Philosophica Fennica 7), 1955, p. 220-222.

26 In fact what Plutarch says here is that Colotes thinks that the doctrines (δόγματα) of Democritus make life impossible, and not his principles (ἀρχαί). One might argue that Epicurus differed from Democritus exactly in his (better) understanding of what followed from the principles; we will see in section 7 that Plutarch argues that exactly the opposite is the case.

27 This is an order which Plutarch breaks on three occasions (Empedocles before Parmenides; Plato before Socrates; no Melissus) in his discussion of Colotes (on the overall structure of Against Colotes and its rationale see E. Kechagia, op. cit., p. 135-168).

28 See e.g. M. Gigante, Scetticismo e Epicureismo. Per l’avviamento di un discorso storiografico, Napoli, Bibliopolis, 1981, p. 66; contra P.A. Vander Waerdt, Colotes and the Epicurean Refutation of Skepticism, GRBS, 30, 1989 (p. 225-267), p. 230-231, according to whom the criterion is rather that of schools/individuals who discredit the evidence of the senses. On the Academics’ use of Presocratic philosophers see C. Brittain, J. Palmer, “The New Academy’s Appeals to the Presocratics”, Phronesis, 46.1, 2001, p. 38-72.

29 On Democritus and the sceptical Academy see M.L. Gemelli Marciano, Democrito e l’Accademia: studi sulla trasmissione dell’atomismo antico da Aristotele a Simplicio, Berlin, De Gruyer, 2007. See Cic. Luc. 32 for the Academics’ direct appeal to Democritus (“Blame nature for concealing truth ‘in the abyss’, as Democritus says, and not us”). According to Luc. 73, however, Democritus, unlike the Academics, is a negative dogmatist who claims that there is no truth. Notice that Democritus is not listed by Plutarch himself at 1121F among those upon whom, according to the “sophists”, Arcesilaus foisted his own sceptical views. The question is whether Democritus was not one of the main players in Arcesilaus’ strategy, or the “sophists” felt that at least in Democritus’ case Arcesilaus had a real case to make him a proto-sceptic.

30 We will see that Colotes’ anti-Democritean argument, as far as we can reconstruct it through Plutarch’s filter, did not make use of some of the typical epistemological slogans concerning the impossibility of knowledge or inexistence of truth (DK68B7, B10) which were emphasized in the later sceptical tradition to support the image of a proto-sceptical Democritus (or to distinguish Democritus’ own negative dogmatism from proper sceptical outlooks).

31 The point is stressed by E. Kechagia, op. cit., p. 104-108.

32 For a famous example of an Epicurean attack on the Democriteans which partially spares Democritus himself see On Nature 25 (see D.N. Sedley, Epicurus’ Refutation of Determinism, in ΣΥΖΗΤΗΣΙΣ. Studi sull’epicureismo greco e romano offerti a Marcello Gigante, Napoli, Gaetano Macchiaroli, 1983, p. 11-51). Lucretius’ DRN 4 might also have contained criticism of a form of Democritean scepticism (see L. Castagnoli, Ancient Self-Refutation: The Logic and History of the Self-Refutation Argument from Democritus to Augustine, op. cit., p. 314-319).

33 See P.H. De Lacy, “Colotes’ First Criticism of Democritus”, op. cit., p. 73-74, for the meaning of the verb “to confuse”. See also S. E. M 8.56: “And Democritus and Plato, in rejecting the senses and doing away with perceptible things and following only intelligible things, make matters confused (συγχέουσι τὰ πράγματα), and shake not only the truth of the things that there are, but even the conception of them. For every concept comes into being from sense-perception or not without sense-perception, and either from experience or not without experience” (translation by R. Bett, Sextus Empiricus. Against Logicians, Cambridge, CUP, 2005).

34 For a useful overview of the ancient philosophical uses of οὐ μᾶλλον see P.H. De Lacy, “οὐ μᾶλλον and the Antecedents of Ancient Scepticism, Phronesis, 3, 1958, p. 59-71.

35 On the apraxia charge in Hellenistic philosophy, see G. Striker, “Sceptical Strategies”, in M. Schofield, M. Burnyeat, J. Barnes (ed.), Doubt and Dogmatism: Studies in Hellenistic Epistemology, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1980, p. 54-83; P.A. Vander Waerdt, Colotes and the Epicurean Refutation of Skepticism, op. cit.; K. Vogt, Scepticism and Action, in R. Bett (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Scepticism, Cambridge, CUP, 2010, p. 165-180.

36 See e.g. the notorious “petrifying” ‘Gorgon’s head’ used against Arcesilaus at Col. 1122A.

37 See e.g. Colotes’ charge against Socrates at 1117F-1118A: “how comes it that he eats food and does not eat fodder … and wraps his cloak about himself and not around the pillar, though he is not unalterably convinced that either the cloak is a cloak or that the food is food? But if he not only does all this, but also does not cross rivers on foot when they are high and keeps out of the way of snakes and wolves…” See also Colotes’ charge against Arcesilaus at 1122E: “But how is it that the man who suspends judgement does not go dashing off to a mountain instead of a bath, or why does he not get up and walk to the wall instead of the door when he wishes to go out to the market-place?” For an early example of this charge in the Epicurean tradition see On Nature 25 (A.A. Long, D.N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, 2 vol., Cambridge, CUP, 1987, 20C14): “wherever the doctrine [sc. that everything is necessitated] prevailed he [sc. Democritus] would be falling into desperate calamities” (see also Lucretius DRN 4.507-512 on falling over precipices). See also Epict. Disc. 1.27.17-19: “I [unlike the Sceptic] never take the morsel to that place but to this”; “when I wish to take bread I never take rubbish”; “who among you when he wishes to go to a bath goes to a mill instead?”

38 See S. E. M 11.162-166 for an anti-sceptical use of the dilemma between (1) and (3).

39 See also Arist. Metaph. K 6, 1063A28-35.

40 For other examples of the second horn of the apraxia charge later in Against Colotes, see n.  above.

41 On the question of Plutarch’s sources and access to Democritus’ writings see J.P. Hershbell, “Plutarch and Democritus”, Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica, 10, 1982 (p. 81-111), p. 82-95.

42 See Arist. Metaph. Α 4, 985b4-9 (DK67A6): “Leucippus and his companion Democritus say that the elements are the full and the empty, calling the former “what is” and the latter “what is not”, and of this the one is full and solid, i.e. what is, while the other is empty and sparse, i.e. what is not (therefore they also say that what is is no more than what is not, because the empty is no less than the body too)”; see also Simpl. in Ph. 28, 11-17 (DK67A8, 68A38).

43 See e.g. Melissus: “void is nothing, then the nothing is not” (DK30B7, 7); and Parmenides: “to be is, nothing is not” (DK28B6, 2).

44 “‘No way more’ is also used positively, as to indicate that two things are alike, for example ‘The pirate is no more wicked than the liar’. By the sceptics it is not used positively, but negatively, as by someone who denies and says ‘Scylla exists no more than Chimaera’” (λέγεται δὲ τὸ Οὐδὲν μᾶλλον καὶ θετικῶς, ὡς ὁμοίων τινῶν ὄντων· οἷον, Οὐδὲν μᾶλλον ὁ πειρατὴς κακός ἐστιν ἢ ὁ ψεύστης. ὑπὸ δὲ τῶν σκεπτικῶν οὐ θετικῶς ἀλλ᾿ ἀναιρετικῶς λέγεται, ὡς ὑπὸ τοῦ ἀνασκευάζοντος καὶ λέγοντος, Οὐ μᾶλλον ἡ Σκύλλα γέγονεν ἢ ἡ Χίμαιρα).

45 The further implication is that the states of affairs expressed by p and q are true to the same degree. For another attested Democritean thetic use of οὐ μᾶλλον see Simpl. in Arist. phys. 28, 8-26 (DK68A38): the shapes of the atoms “are no more like this than that”, i.e. atoms come in all kinds of shapes, because there are no more reasons why they should come in a certain shape rather than in another. According to P.H. De Lacy (“Colotes’ First Criticism of Democritus”, op. cit., p. 74-76) and P. Curd (The Legacy of Parmenides: Eleatic Monism and Later Presocratic Thought, Las Vegas, Parmenides Publishing, 2004, p. 188-198, esp. p. 196) this doctrine is what Colotes was actually referring to in his criticism of Democritus. This seems unlikely: it is difficult to see how from the infinite variability of atomic shapes life should be thrown into confusion. It is true that according to Epicurus atomic shapes must be limited in number because they must correspond to a limited variability within our perceptual experience, but this seems to be too narrow and technical an argument (contra P.H. De Lacy, “Colotes’ First Criticism of Democritus”, op. cit., p. 76: “a point so fundamental to the Epicureans”) to be used here as the basis of the sweeping accusation that Democritean philosophy “throws life into confusion”. For Democritus’ uses of οὐ μᾶλλον see also A. Gräser, “Demokrit und die skeptische Formel”, Hermes, 98, 1970, p. 300-317; W. Burkert, “Logik und Sprachspiel bei Leukippos/Demokritos: οὐ μᾶλλον als These und Denkform”, in H.G. Günther, A. Rengakos (ed.), Festschrift für Wolfgang Kullmann: Beiträge zur Antiken Philosophie, Stuttgart, Franz Steiner, 1997, p. 23-33.

46 See P.H. De Lacy, “Colotes’ First Criticism of Democritus”, op. cit., p. 76 (if Plutarch were right, this would be “a fantastic misunderstanding” of the δέν/μηδέν fragment).

47 Plutarch is our only source suggesting that Protagoras used the οὐ μᾶλλον formula (see also, however, the criticism of the Heracliteans in Plato’s Theaetetus [n.  below]). See P.H. De Lacy, “οὐ μᾶλλον and the Antecedents of Ancient Scepticism, op. cit., p. 60: “Presumably if Protagoras had used the formula it would have been as a double affirmation: the statement that honey is no more sweet than bitter means that honey is both sweet and bitter; while for Democritus it would have been a double negation: honey is neither sweet nor bitter”. At PH 2.63 Democritus is contrasted with Heraclitus, who because of conflicting appearances said that honey is both bitter and sweet.

48 The anti-Protagorean self-refutation argument applies to universal relativism which goes beyond sense-perception. From this point of view Democritus’ anti-Protagorean argument need not imply that he would have also rejected a narrower form of relativism concerning sensible qualities (see sections 7-8 below).

49 See also Sen. Ep. Mor. 88.43: “Nausiphanes said that of those things which appear none is any more than is not (nihil magis esse quam non esse)”.

50 See M 7.369: Democritus did away with all appearances, whereas Epicurus and Protagoras posited all of them. Something analogous can perhaps be said for Aristotle’s less straightforward testimony on Democritus in Metaphysics Γ5 (see T5 below).

51 On “indifference arguments” in ancient thought, see S. Makin, Indifference Arguments, Oxford, Blackwell, 1993.

52 See D.J. Furley, “Democritus and Epicurus on Sensible Qualities”, in J. Brunschwig, M.C. Nussbaum (ed.), Passions and Perceptions. Studies in Hellenistic Philosophy of Mind. Proceedings of the Fifth Symposium Hellenisticum, Cambridge, Maison des Scienses de l’Homme and CUP, 1993, p. 82; P.A. Vander Waerdt, Colotes and the Epicurean Refutation of Skepticism, op. cit., p. 248. P.H. De Lacy (“οὐ μᾶλλον and the Antecedents of Ancient Scepticism, op. cit., p. 59-60) is of the opposite view that Plutarch might have been right, and Colotes (and others after him, like Sextus) misinterpreted Democritus’ usage of οὐ μᾶλλον, which was never anairetic and never applied to the existence of sensible qualities.

53 Since that denial is the counterpart of Democritus’ acknowledgment of full “reality” to atoms and void only, it is not unlikely that Colotes might have also mentioned the Democritean δέν/μηδέν fragment in his work. This does not mean, however, that Plutarch’s accusation that Colotes misinterpreted that fragment is credible: that fragment is part of a broader account of an ontology which does include the idea that “each thing is no more thus than thus”, where “each thing” does not refer to body and void and “thus” stand for some sensible quality (see sections 7-8 below).

54 Reading εἰ γὰρ αὖ τὸ with the MSS or εἰ γὰρ αὐτὸ τὸ with B. Einarson and P.H. De Lacy. M. Pohlenz’s more radical intervention (εἰ γὰρ τὸ αὐτὸ φαινόμενον ἕτερον ἑτέρῳ φάσκει τις <ἀμφοτέροις τοιοῦτον εἶναι>, ἀμφότερα εἶναι λέγων λέληθεν) seems unnecessary.

55 For passages illustrating this doctrine, see Usener 247-254.

56 Other examples of conflicting appearances mentioned in the passage are: water in the bath appears hot or cold to different people; perfume and butter smell good or foul to different people (1109B-C).

57 The sense of οὐ μᾶλλον here confirms that, most likely, Plutarch had in mind the thetic use of οὐ μᾶλλον as applied to sensible qualities in the first place when he had protested that Colotes was wrong in attributing οὐ μᾶλλον to Democritus. At least from that point of view Plutarch was right, but, as I have explained above, an anairetic Democritean use of οὐ μᾶλλον with reference to sensible qualities also seems to be attested by our sources, and it is plausible that that use was Colotes’ actual target.

58 Note that the explicit point made in this passage is that there is no error in sense-impressions (and, indeed, mind-impressions), unlike in opinions, and not that they are all true – they have “a similarity with the things called ‘existent’ and ‘true’” (see E. Asmis, Epicurus’ Scientific Method, Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 1984, p. 144: the only passage in which Epicurus seems to say that all impressions are true (Her. 62) could be a later gloss).

59 See S. E. M 7.210; D. L. 10.31.

60 For discussion of this key distinction, and alternative interpretations of the Epicurean tenet that “all impressions are true”, see N.W. DeWitt, “Epicurus: All Sensations are True”, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 74, 1943, p. 19-32; C.C.W. Taylor, “All Perceptions are True”, in M. Schofield, M. Burnyeat, J. Barnes (ed.), Doubt and Dogmatism, op. cit., p. 105-124; E. Asmis, Epicurus’ Scientific Method, op. cit., p. 141-159; S. Everson, “Epicurus on the truth of the senses”, in S. Everson (ed.), Companions to Ancient Thought 1: Epistemology, Cambridge, CUP, 1990, p. 161-183; G. Striker, Epicurus on the truth of sense impressions, in Essays on Hellenistic Epistemology and Ethics, Cambridge, CUP, 1996, p. 77-91; T. O’Keefe, “The Ontological Status of Sensible Qualities for Democritus and Epicurus”, Ancient Philosophy, 17, 1997 (p. 119-134), p. 131-134; E. Asmis, “Epicurean empiricism”, in J. Warren (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism, Cambridge, CUP, 2009 (p. 84-104), p. 94-98.

61 For the view that Plutarch misrepresents the Epicurean answer here see E. Asmis, “Epicurean empiricism”, op. cit., p. 97-98.

62 From this point of view, Plutarch’s move against the Epicureans in the area of epistemology (they are like the Cyrenaics whom they attack, but less consistent than them) is similar to the one he adopts against the Epicureans in the area of physics (they are like the Democritus whom they attack – in fact Epicurus filches his principles from him – but less consistent than him: see sections 6-7 below).

63 For detailed analysis of the Cyrenaic section of Against Colotes, see E. Kechagia, op. cit., p. 251-289; J. Warren, “Plutarch’s Adversus Colotem and the Cyrenaics (1120C-1121E)”, Aitia, 3, 2013.

64 It is quite telling that what Plutarch will criticise in the Cyrenaic section is the Epicureans’ claim that all sense-impressions are true, on the grounds that they do not want to grant that the world is exactly as we perceive it to be; he will not criticise, the other way around, the Epicureans’ denial that the world is contradictory or unknowable on the grounds that they claim that all conflicting sense-impressions are true.

65 ἄλλου δ’ ἄλλῳ πεφυκότος ἐναρμόττειν: “different things are naturally harmonised to fit different things”. See Epic. Her. 49-50 (κατὰ τὸ ἐναρμόττον μέγεθος εἰς τὴν ὄψιν ἢ τὴν διάνοιαν; κατὰ τὸν ἐκεῖθεν σύμμετρον ἐπερεισμόν); 53: particles carried from the object are “of the right size for this sense organ (σύμμετροι πρὸς τοῦτο τὸ αἰσθητήριον) [sc. of smell]”. Notice, however, that Epicurus’ point here concerns the fitting of certain streams of εἴδωλα to a particular organ (i.e. sight rather than mind, smell rather than hearing), and not to organs in particular dispositions.

66 ἀναπεφυρμένων καὶ συμμεμιγμένων ὁμοῦ τι πάντων: “all things are jumbled and mixed up together”.

67 “They are wrong when they dispute whether the thing is beneficial or harmful, white or not white, thinking that they confirm their sense-perceptions by denying those of others” (οὐκ ὀρθῶς διαμάχονται περὶ τοῦ χρηστὸν ἢ πονηρὸν ἢ λευκὸν ἢ μὴ λευκὸν εἶναι τὸ πρᾶγμα, τὰς αὑτῶν οἰόμενοι βεβαιοῦν αἰσθήσεις τῷ τὰς ἄλλων ἀναιρεῖν [1109D8-11]). But should the Epicureans not admit that we can contend on whether the object is white or not white, while accepting that both sense-impressions are true and that the judgement about the πρᾶγμα has no implication for the truthfulness of the conflicting sense-impressions? Again, Plutarch might not be allowing the Epicureans to use their key distinction (but see section 5 below for a possible picture of Epicurean relativism for some sensible qualities).

68 According to Plutarch (1109E11-13), the Epicurean canons and criteria would be eliminated if the Epicureans allowed any sense-object to be purely something and did not leave each sense-object a plurality (ἔρρειν δ’ ὁμολογοῦσι τοὺς κανόνας αὐτοῖς καὶ παντάπασιν οἴχεσθαι τὸ κριτήριον, ἄνπερ εἰλικρινὲς αἰσθητὸν ὁτιοῦν καὶ μὴ πολλὰ ἕκαστον ἀπολίπωσιν). This is correct, if we take this to mean that we need this kind of atomic plurality (at least in the case of smells and flavours) to account for conflicting appearances and for their truthfulness to their direct (and partial) objects. But plurality need not be a plurality of the qualities which we can truly attribute to the sense-object.

69 See e.g. DRN 4.644: semina multimodis in rebus mixta; 4.671: the two kinds of atom which produce bitter and sweet sensations (rough and smooth) are mixed in honey.

70 See e.g. DRN 4.650: intervalla, vias, foramina.

71 For a strikingly similar account of Protagoras’ position, see S. E. PH 1.217-218.

72 For an example of quasi-identification of sensible qualities with atomic properties, see Theophrastus’ discussion of Democritus (n.  below).

73 Sextus Empiricus (M 7.205) reports that according to the Epicureans an impression is said to be true when it comes about from a real object and in accordance with that object; since this happens with every impression, every impression is true. In our present example, the impression of bitterness comes about from something real (certain roughly-shaped atoms in the honey) and is in accordance with that real thing. This does not mean, of course, that the atoms themselves are bitter, or that honey itself is bitter.

74 See e.g. T. O’Keefe, “The Ontological Status of Sensible Qualities for Democritus and Epicurus”, op. cit., p. 127-128.

75 On this passage see G. Indelli, Polistrato. Sul disprezzo irrazionale delle opinion popolari, Naples, Bibliopolis, 1978, p. 178-181; J. Warren, Epicurus and Democritean Ethics: An Archaeology of Ataraxia, Cambridge, CUP, 2002, p. 141-149.

76 As we have seen, according to Plutarch Epicurus believes that we should make no assertions about the whole when our contact is with parts. This might be read as the suggestion that we should make assertions on how honey is for us, rather than on how honey is tout court. See also the idea that the problem with “opinion” is that it adds or subtracts something (necessary qualifications?) to what our ἄλογοι senses present us with (see e.g. S. E. M 7.210).

77 As we will see, this subset could expand if we follow Plutarch’s indications in the remainder of his discussion of Epicurean qualities.

78 Despite the fact that “vision is made the paradigm case and receives nearly all the attention” by the Epicureans (A.A. Long, D.N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, op. cit., I, p. 76). If I understand it correctly, E. Asmis’ interpretation of the Epicurean doctrine that “all sense-impressions are true” (Epicurus’ Scientific Method, op. cit., p. 141-159; “Epicurean empiricism”, op. cit., p. 94-104) leaves no room for such an asymmetry, because “perceptible reality exists only in relationship to us, whereas nonperceptible reality exists independently of us as the objective cause of perceptible reality” (Epicurus’ Scientific Method, op. cit., p. 154). Opinions about perceptible objects and qualities are simply expectations about their future appearances: on the basis of my experience I can truly judge that the oar is bent in water (i.e. that it appears bent now that it is observed in water) and that at the same time the oar is not bent outside water (i.e. that it will appear straight outside water). There is no perceptible reality that warrants us to call the oar straight rather than, or more than, bent in an absolute way: E. Asmis seems therefore to be committed to an interpretation according to which Epicurus was a radical relativist about all sensible qualities.

The case of sounds is particularly complex: the Epicureans argue that it would be an error to believe that our hearing-impression of a dim sound at a distance is false or less true than the hearing-impression of the same sound from nearby (see S. E. M 7.208: “It is not the sound in the bronze instrument being struck that is heard, nor the sound in the mouth of the person yelling, but the one that strikes our sense; and no one says that the person who hears a faint sound at a distance hears it falsely given that on coming close he apprehends it as louder. Likewise, then, I would not say that one’s eyesight tells a falsehood because from a great distance one sees the tower as small and round, but from close up as larger and square, but rather that it tells the truth” [translation by R. Bett, Sextus Empiricus. Against Logicians, op. cit.]). How loud is the sound produced by the object “in reality”? And what about its pitch? Is the opinion that the tower’s bell makes has a low dull sound as true as the opinion that the bell has a high-pitched sound, and we just need to add the qualifiers “at a distance” and “nearby”? Or rather the real sound of the bell is high-pitched, and thus we should not incorrectly judge that it is a low-pitched dull sound on the basis of the (true) hearing-impression that we get from a distance?

79 As for sizes, it also seems difficult to imagine that according to Epicurus we should judge that Socrates is (and not only appears) both smaller than the tower (when he stands under it) and bigger than the tower (when it stands near the observer, with the tower far away in the background). For the Epicurean distinction between visible shapes and sizes and shapes and sizes of bodies, see the Anonymous Epicurean treatise on the senses (A.A. Long, D.N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, op. cit., 16C). Despite that distinction, the tower and oar classical examples show that the opinions on shapes based on sense-impressions are meant to be opinions about bodies’ shapes.

80 It is not obvious how the option of attributing to the things themselves those sensible qualities that they have in default conditions could be squared with the Epicurean mechanism of “attestation” and “non-attestation”. If I have the opinion that honey is sweet, that belief will be at the same time attested by a number of experiences and non-attested by (a smaller number) of experiences. But one could raise an analogous objection to the idea that the shape of the tower will be attested or non-attested by getting closer (in fact, Plutarch will protest against the Epicureans exactly on this score in the Cyrenaic section). In the case of the tower a story could be told about the lack of distortion of the εἴδωλα when they travel shorter distances. Could a similar story be told in the case of honey by referring to the fact that, in a healthy state, human beings do get a sweet sense-impression caused by smooth round-shaped atoms which are, as a matter of fact, prevalent in honey?

81 See however 1120E, where the Cyrenaics include the case of people chilled by wine in a list of “minority sense-impressions” (such as honey appearing disagreeable).

82 Moreover, Epicurus’ passage seems to me to be perfectly compatible with an interpretation according to which σώματα are not macroscopic bodies at all, but atoms (see Plutarch’s own use of σώματα at 1111C10); if this were correct, Epicurus would be making, pace Plutarch, the very basic point that atoms are colourless (see Lucretius’ DRN 2 for detailed arguments in support of the tenet), and colours supervene only at the level of atomic aggregates.

83 For an analogous transition from quality to the related sensation-type, see Pl. Tht. 182d-e: “But since not even this abides, that what flows flows white, [...] is it possible to give any name to a colour which will properly apply to it? [...] And what about any particular kind of perception, for example seeing or hearing? Does it ever abide, and remain seeing or hearing? [...] Then we may not call anything seeing more than not-seeing, nor call it any other perception more than not, if at any rate all things are in motion in every way” (Οὔτε ἄρα ὁρᾶν προσρητέον τι μᾶλλον ἢ μὴ ὁρᾶν, οὐδέ τιν’ ἄλλην αἴσθησιν μᾶλλον ἢ μή, πάντων γε πάντως κινουμένων).

84 For the Epicurean theory that objects have no colour in the dark, see Lucretius DRN 2.746-747, 795-809, Phld. Sign. 25, Aetius 1.15.9. See D.J. Furley, “Democritus and Epicurus on Sensible Qualities”, op. cit., p. 88-89 (referring to Lucretius 2.808-809): “colour is created in the object by the blow of light”, which is “itself an atomic compound which strikes compound bodies in such a way that a rearrangement takes place in their surface atoms”. Despite this, D.J. Furley suggests that the passages quoted by Plutarch do not necessarily imply that for Epicurus colours are mere subjective experiences. T. O’Keefe (“The Ontological Status of Sensible Qualities for Democritus and Epicurus”, op. cit., p. 129) tries to reconcile (1) with the view that for Epicurus colours were dispositional properties, but in my opinion without success. If a white wall is white in that it has the dispositional property of causing a sense-perception of whiteness in observers (human beings) with certain dispositions (e.g. healthy) and in certain conditions (e.g. in daylight), why should we say that in darkness (or in the absence of observers) the wall is not white? For a useful survey of some ancient philosophical discussions of colours and their ontological status, see M.M. Sassi, “Entre corps et lumière: réflexions antiques sur la nature de la couleur”, in M. Carastro (ed.), L’antiquité en couleurs. Catégories, pratiques, représentations, Grenoble, Millon, 2009, p. 277-300.

85 There is some discussion as to whether point (2) also belongs to Epicurus’ text or is Plutarch’s own comment. R. Westman (Plutarch gegen Kolotes, op. cit., p. 141-143) and B. Einarson and P.H. De Lacy (Plutarch. Moralia, Volume XIV, op. cit.) agree that it must be Epicurus’.

86 For a different interpretation, according to which Epicurus was a relativist about all sensible qualities, see n.  above.

87 Wyttenbach, Einarson and De Lacy; πηλόν: Westman.

88 At the same time, it is also clearly distinct from the sceptical use of οὐ μᾶλλον (pace M. Gigante, Scetticismo e epicureismo, op. cit., p. 69; J. Boulogne, Plutarque dans le miroir d’Épicure, op. cit., p. 53).

89 Euripides, fr. 1086 Nauck.

90 As E. Kechagia (Plutarch Against Colotes: A Lesson in History of Philosophy, op. cit., p. 180) remarks, Plutarch’s metaphor “may well be seen to make an implicit remark against the philosophy-medicine analogy that lies at the heart of Epicurean ethics and underlies Colotes’ project against the philosophers”.

91 See G. Arrighetti, “Un passo dell’opera Sulla natura di Epicuro, Democrito e Colote”, CErc, 9, 1979 (p. 5-10), p. 10 for an interesting conjecture concerning the connexion between this famous doctrine and Epicurus’ epithet Ληρόκριτος for Democritus (D. L. 10.8): Democritus was not “judge of empty talk”, but “judge of convention”.

92 Following R. Westman who supplies ἅπασαν; B. Einarson and P.H. De Lacy supply καὶ τὰ ἄλλα (“compound and the other things”).

93 ἐτεῇ δὲ τὸ κενὸν καὶ was supplied by D. Wittenbach to fill a blank of 25-26 letters in the MSS E and B, the only two MSS which preserve the entire work. For additional supplements before it, see note above.

94 Following R. Westman who supplies μάχεσθαι after Δημοκρίτου; B. Einarson and P.H. De Lacy: <ἀντ>εἰρημένον.

95 Following M. Pohlenz who supplies ἄνθρωπός to fill a blank of 10-12 letters in the MSS E and B (accepted by B. Einarson and P.H. De Lacy, who also conjecture the more extensive supplement ἄνθρωπος ἢ ζῷόν); R. Westman supplies κατ᾿ ἀλήθειαν (“could not even conceive of himself as truly existing”); W. Xylander conjectures τεθνηκός (“could not even conceive of himself as being dead or alive”).

96 See e.g. D.J. Furley, “Democritus and Epicurus on Sensible Qualities”, op. cit., p. 76-77 n. 7.

97 E.g. in place of πικρόν, λευκόν or ψυχρόν. See e.g. C.C.W. Taylor, The Atomists: Leucippus and Democritus, Toronto, Buffalo and London, University of Toronto Press, 1999, p. 151-152 n. 141: “Either Colotes misrepresented Democritus, or Plutarch misrepresents Colotes, or possibly the ms. text is at fault”.

98 See e.g. J. Warren, Epicurus and Democritean Ethics: An Archaeology of Ataraxia, op. cit., p. 194; M.-K. Lee, Epistemology After Protagoras: Responses to Relativism in Plato, Aristotle, and Democritus, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2005, p. 225; E. Kechagia, Plutarch Against Colotes: A Lesson in History of Philosophy, op. cit., p. 182.

99 According to R.B.B. Wardy, “Eleatic Pluralism”, Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie, 70, 1988 (p. 125-146), p. 139-140, Plutarch is accurate, and also atomic aggregates are unreal (since atomism is a form of radical Eleatic pluralism, driven by the idea that anything which changes is unreal); see similarly R. Pasnau, “Democritus on Secondary Qualities”, Archiv für Geschichte der Philsosophie, 89, 2007 (p. 99-121), p. 116. See also D. L. 9.44 (DK68A1): “atoms and void are the principles of the wholes, all the other things are ‘by convention’ (νενομίσθαι)”.

100 See e.g. R. Westman, Plutarch gegen Kolotes, op. cit., p. 254; P.A. Vander Waerdt, Colotes and the Epicurean Refutation of Skepticism, op. cit., p. 250-251: σύγκρισιν is Colotes’ interpolation into Democritus’ list, but “will prove to have a serious point”.

101 Adopting M. Pohlenz’s supplement (see n.  above); but the point would remain true, although less explicit, even if we accepted R. Westman’s supplement. The hypothesis that σύγκρισις is a marginal gloss which intruded late in Plutarch’s text thus seems to me less plausible than most of the alternative hypotheses.

102 The use of σύγκρισις in the sense of “aggregate” or “compound”, as opposed to the act of combining (“combination”, “aggregation”), is not attested before Aristotle (see E. Kechagia, Plutarch Against Colotes: A Lesson in History of Philosophy, op. cit., p. 181).

103 See e.g. C.C.W. Taylor, The Atomists: Leucippus and Democritus, op. cit., p. 152 n. 141.

104 See P.A. Vander Waerdt, Colotes and the Epicurean Refutation of Skepticism, op. cit.; P.-M. Morel, Démocrite et la recherche des causes, Paris, Klincksieck, 1996, p. 342-345; C.C.W. Taylor, The Atomists: Leucippus and Democritus, op. cit., p. 152: “He [sc. Colotes] may have intended it to apply to the observed macroscopic objects, thought of as a bundle of qualities, and fathered on Democritus the view that that bundle, as well as the properties which compose it, exist only nomōi”. On this reading, Colotes’ move would be very similar to the one he presumably adopted against the Cyrenaics: on the basis of their use of verbs such as “to be sweetened” (γλυκαίνεσθαι), “to be embittered” (πικραίνεσθαι), “to be enlightened” (φωτίζεσθαι) and to be “darkened” (σκοτίζεσθαι) to express their subjectivist epistemological doctrine that human beings have cognitive access only to their own passive “affections” (πάθη), and not to the external objects producing them, Colotes claimed that “these people [sc. the Cyrenaics] [...] do not say that it is [or there is] a man and a horse and a wall, but that they themselves are ‘walled’ and ‘horsed’ and ‘manned’” (εἶτα κωμῳδῶν “οὗτοι” φησίν “ἄνθρωπον εἶναι καὶ ἵππον καὶ τοῖχον οὐ λέγουσιν, αὑτοὺς δὲ τοιχοῦσθαι καὶ ἱπποῦσθαι καὶ ἀνθρωποῦσθαι”, 1120D7-10). As E. Kechagia (Plutarch Against Colotes: A Lesson in History of Philosophy, op. cit., p. 252-265) convincingly argues, this is likely to have been Colotes’ own conscious and derisive inference in order to unveil how absurdly the Cyrenaics should have expressed their cognitive access to objects if they had been consistent, rather than an actual Cyrenaic use; but, at the same time, the inference (which appears to be accepted by Plutarch himself) from “sensible qualities subjectivism” to “objects subjectivism” seems to be far from groundless from a philosophical point of view.

105 For the Democritean view that when we cognise sensible objects and we refer to them we do that via their sensible qualities, see the following passage: “At any rate, he [sc. Democritus] says it is clear to everybody what sort of thing man is in conformation, suggesting that he is known by shape and colour” (Arist. PA 1.1. 640b29ff [DK68B165]). See also S. E. M 7.275: “man is what we all know” (presumably by “dark” or “bastard” cognition of the senses; see n.  below). For a similar Epicurean view see S. E. M 7.267: “man is such-and-such a formation, plus animateness”.

106 Notice how “all the rest by convention” (τὰ δὲ λοιπὰ νομιστεὶ ἅπαντα) is general enough to make also macroscopic atomic compounds (e.g. fire) conventional.

107 See the locus classicus for the apraxia charge, Arist. Metaph. Γ 4, 1008b2-25 (T1 above). Notice, in particular, Aristotle’s reference to judgements involving “sweet” and “man” (“he must also judge one thing to be a man and another to be not-a-man, one thing to be sweet and another to be not-sweet”). According to P.H. De Lacy (“οὐ μᾶλλον and the Antecedents of Ancient Scepticism, op. cit., p. 65), “Colotes’ argument is thus an extravagant elaboration of certain aspects of the Aristotelian οὐ μᾶλλον and testifies to the Epicurean desire to avoid its pitfalls”.

108 R.B.B. Wardy (“Eleatic Pluralism”, op. cit.) and D.J. Furley (“Democritus and Epicurus on Sensible Qualities”, op. cit., p. 93) stress the influence of the Eleatic stricture that what is real is unchangeable, does not come into being, and does not perish upon Democritus’ thesis that sensible qualities are not ἐτεῇ.

109 See e.g. J. Barnes, The Presocratic Philosophers, London and New York, Routledge, 19822, p. 375-376 (“mind-dependent”); T. O’Keefe, “The Ontological Status of Sensible Qualities for Democritus and Epicurus”, op. cit., p. 124: “it is the relativity of perception that leads to Democritus’ abolition of sensible qualities”; C.C.W. Taylor, The Atomists: Leucippus and Democritus, op. cit., p. 176-177: “for an object to be red, for example, is thus for it to emit films of atoms of such a nature that, when those films collide with an appropriately situated perceiver, the object will look red to that perceiver”; P. Curd, Why Democritus Was Not a Skeptic, in A. Preus (ed.), Essays in Ancient Greek Philosophy, Vol. 6: Before Plato, Albany, SUNY Press, 2001 (p. 149-169), p. 162 ( “conventional; that is, they are phenomenal”); M.-K. Lee, Epistemology After Protagoras, op. cit., p. 212: “Democritus makes sensible qualities subjective, perceiver-dependent properties of objects”. See also T.S. Ganson, “Democritus Against Reducing Sensible Qualities”, Ancient Philosophy, 19, 1999 (p. 201-215), p. 212-214 for the view that according to Democritus sensible qualities are identified with affections of our sense-organs. Galen gives a paraphrase of νόμῳ as “relative to us”, which he adds to νομιστί, “according to common opinion” (Elem. Hipp. 1.2 [DK68A49]).

110 For criticism of the standard view that the former set corresponds to our secondary qualities and the latter to our primary qualities, see R. Pasnau, “Democritus on Secondary Qualities”, op. cit.

111 See e.g. D.N. Sedley’s (“Epicurean Anti-Reductionism, in J. Barnes, M. Mignucci (ed.), Matter and Metaphysics, Naples, Bibliopolis, 1988, p. 295-327, esp. p. 298-299) unorthodox view that what drives the distinction is Democritus’ eliminative materialism, and not Eleatic strictures.

112 As P.-M. Morel (Démocrite et la recherche des causes, op. cit., p. 334-335) remarks, Democritus gives a reductionist aetiology of sense-perceptions on the basis of atoms and their configurations, and this is not something you would try to do for what is completely unreal (see also D.J. Furley, “Democritus and Epicurus on Sensible Qualities”, op. cit., p. 78-79). This is not to deny that a νόμος can also be a “belief” or “opinion” (see the etymological link with νομίζειν at S. E. 7.135 and D. L. 9.44), often widely held, which stands in contrast with the true state of affairs, and is thus a mere appearance. See S. E. M 8.184: “Democritus says that no perceptible things exist, but our apprehensions of them are empty effects on our senses, and nothing sweet is really in external things, or bitter or hot or cold or white or black, or any other of the things that appear to everyone; for these are names for effects on us” (translation by R. Bett, Sextus Empiricus. Against Logicians, op. cit.).

For a relevant use of νόμος in Adversus Colotem, see 1113A-B: according to Empedocles, to speak of birth and death (as opposed to mingling and separation of elements) is “to follow convention” (νόμῳ δ’ ἐπίφημι; see also 1112F for further discussion of use of conventional idioms). Along these lines, D.J. Furley (“Democritus and Epicurus on Sensible Qualities”, op. cit., p. 77-78) suggests that “by convention, we call honey sweet, but it is really of course just atoms and void. The convention does not consist in the creation of a name for something that is merely imagined: it consists in taking this name to be a name of some property of a collection of atoms”.

113 For a brief status quaestionis on the issue of the scope and nature of Democritean eliminativism, see E. Kechagia, Plutarch Against Colotes: A Lesson in History of Philosophy, op. cit., p. 191-193.

114 The normative claim requires qualifications if we approach the issue from the point of philosophers who would deny the acceptability of having opinions (as opposed to knowledge) and living by them (see e.g. the consequences of this denial upon the debate between Academic sceptics and Stoics). From this point of view, someone like Plutarch who belongs to the Platonic tradition could be unwilling to accept the defensive move I have proposed, and this might explain his attitude towards Democritus in this part of Against Colotes (see below).

115 See Theophrastus’ detailed account of Democritus on sense-perception in On the Senses 49-83 (DK68A135): sects. 50-54 (vision); 55-57 (hearing); 60 (“Democritus reduces them [the objects of senses, i.e. sensible qualities] all to states of the sense”, depriving them of their own nature, which seems to correspond to the idea that sensible qualities are not ἐτεῇ); 61-62 (hard and soft, heavy and light depend on the size and density of the atomic compound); 63-65 (all the other sensible qualities, e.g. hot and cold and a variety of flavours, do not have a “nature” (φύσις), as shown by the phenomenon of conflicting appearances, but are “affections of the sense when it is altered so as to give rise to an appearance”; the (atomic) disposition (διάθεσις) of the perceiver is a contributing cause of the sense-impression); 65-67 (Democritus uses differences in shapes and sizes of atoms especially to explain colours and flavours, e.g. sharp flavour results from small, fine grained, angular atoms; sweet flavour results from round atoms, not too small, etc. In everything there are atoms of all kinds, the atomic shape which prevails determines “how the thing is perceived and what power it has”, but this also depends on the disposition of the perceiver: the same shape can produce different effects, different shapes the same effect); 73-78 (colours: white colour results from smooth atoms, dark colour from rough atoms, etc.). See also Arist. De sensu 4, 442a29-b24 (DK68A126) for reduction of colours and flavours to atomic properties (shapes). For discussion of Theophrastus’ and Aristotle’s testimonies on Democritus’ views on perception and sensible qualities, see T.S. Ganson, “Democritus Against Reducing Sensible Qualities”, op. cit. and M.-K. Lee, Epistemology After Protagoras, op. cit., p. 202-216.

116 We have seen that in that part of Against Colotes Plutarch seems to interpret οὐ μᾶλλον thetically (as a double affirmation: honey is both sweet and bitter, relatively). This might explain why he does not think that the νόμῳ/ἐτεῇ fragment entails οὐ μᾶλλον: for Democritus, honey is neither sweet nor bitter ἐτεῇ (and this is the point of emphasis of his position), and perhaps honey is sweet (and not bitter) νόμῳ (for a certain interpretation of νόμῳ which does not make Democritus’ position relativistic: see (D2) in section 8 below).

117 For in-depth discussion of the use of φύσις here, see E. Kechagia, Plutarch Against Colotes: A Lesson in History of Philosophy, op. cit., p. 189 n. 16.

118 See Non posse 1100A: Epicurus quarrelled with Democritus whose doctrines he filched word by word (see also D. L. 10.4). For the idea that Epicurus’ physics is Democritus’ physics with few changes in details, see Cic. De nat. deor. 1.26.73 (DK68A51).

119 On Plutarch’s understanding of the Epicurean notion of friendship (φιλία), see J. Boulogne, Plutarque dans le miroir d’Épicure, op. cit., p. 200-213.

120 It is not difficult to see what the tacit implications of (1) and (2) are: unlike Epicurus, Democritus did not accept the practices of religious piety (consistently, since he did not believe in divine providence) and he did not claim that he would be ready to bear “the greatest pains” for the sake of his friends (consistently, since every action aims at (some form of) pleasure).

121 See 1127D6: “I shall do it, but I do not wish to admit it”.

122 See Plutarch’s symposium simile at 1111C: not even in a symposium when you accept a cup it is proper to just drink as much as you want and hand back the rest.

123 For Epicurus (see Her. 40), only atoms, void and atomic bodies have “complete natures” (ὅλας φύσεις), unlike their properties and accidents.

124 See D.N. Sedley, “Epicurean Anti-Reductionism, op. cit., p. 312. Unfortunately the examples of permanent qualities (coniuncta = συμβεβηκότα) are not helpful to answer our question of whether Epicurus was a relativist about sensible qualities (with the only possible exception of heat for fire).

125 I do not discuss here the issue of whether at the higher levels we can even find emergent properties according to the Epicureans (see D.N. Sedley, Epicurus’ Refutation of Determinism, op. cit.).

126 See the typical Pyrrhonian argumentative strategy, especially as illustrated in Sextus Empiricus’ works.

127 Contra Lucretius DRN 2.865-70.

128 For a similar idea, see Simpl. in Arist. De cael. 295.12-14.

129 For a closer analysis of Plutarch’s views and arguments here, see E. Kechagia, Plutarch Against Colotes: A Lesson in History of Philosophy, op. cit., p. 201-211. E. Kechagia defends Plutarch’s strategy, especially his denial of the possibility of the emergence of life and intelligence from atoms: “it seems to me that Plutarch’s complaint is philosophically plausible, since it touches upon a crucial difficulty with which Epicurean atomism, and indeed any materialist theory, is faced, namely how to explain adequately something as intuitively non-material as the mind and its function purely on the basis of the material” (p. 208). For a defence of atomism against Plutarch’s criticism here, see R. Westman, Plutarch gegen Kolotes, op. cit., p. 146-148.

130 We have seen above how this problem is formulated in Diogenes of Oenoanda’s version of the apraxia charge in T10.

131 The same problem seems to be expressed in Colotes’ later attack on Empedocles at 1112D4-8: “Why do we wear ourselves out, taking ourselves seriously and seeking certain things and avoiding some other things? For neither do we exist nor do we use other things in our lives”. See also 1113D: since for Empedocles there is no death (Colotes’ tendentious reading of Empedocles’ claim that death is the separation of elements), “we shall never so much as fall ill or receive a wound”.

132 A good example of this complexity is the surprising way in which Plutarch first divorces Epicurus from Democritus in his discussion of Colotes’ first charge, pivoting on οὐ μᾶλλον and its alleged consequences, and then happily conflates the two in his discussion of the second charge, centred on the νόμῳ/ἐτεῇ fragment and its alleged consequences.

133 On the nature and “lessons” of Plutarch’s “history of philosophy”, see E. Kechagia, Plutarch Against Colotes: A Lesson in History of Philosophy, op. cit., esp. p. 291-294.

134 For judicious discussion of how to read Plutarch as a “historian of philosophy”, see E. Kechagia, Plutarch Against Colotes: A Lesson in History of Philosophy, op. cit., p. 1-12.

135 For a reconstruction of Protagoras’ epistemology broadly along these lines, see P. Curd, Why Democritus Was Not a Skeptic, op. cit. The key piece of evidence for this interpretation is S. E. M 7.135-140 (DK68B6), according to which the role and reliability of the senses were discussed by Democritus in his two works Confirmations and Canons. The very fact that according to Democritus they can be called “canons”, although what they provide us with is only “dark (or bastard) cognition” (γνώμη σκοτίη), suggests that through the senses we do gain access to (“conventional”) sensible qualities, while missing the mark of reality (“we know nothing firm, but what changes according to the condition of the body and the things that enter it and come up against it”). But, Democritus maintained, we can also achieve “genuine cognition” (γνώμη γνησίη) of the truth of atoms and void through a different canon, reason, although full knowledge of reality is very difficult, and perhaps even impossible (possibly, for example, knowledge of the precise mapping of atomic shapes and sizes onto “conventional” sensible qualities).The Democritean acceptance of the cognitive value of the senses (they are not purely illusory, but provide cognition of something) might be related to the problematic Aristotelian testimony which immediately follows (and apparently contradicts) T5 and according to which Democritus thought that all impressions are true: “And in general because they suppose that intelligence is sensation, and the latter is alteration, they say that what appears to the senses is necessarily true. For it is from those assumptions that Empedocles and Democritus and pretty well all the others are committed to such views” (Metaph. Γ 5, 1009b15-17; see similarly Phlp. in Arist. De an. 71.25-28 [DK68A113]; on Aristotle’s testimony, see e.g. R. McKim, Democritus against Scepticism: All Sense-impressions are True, in L.G. Benakis (ed.), Proceedings of the First International Congress on Democritus (Xanthi, 6-9 October 1983), 2 vol., Xanthi, International Democritean Foundation, 1984, vol. I (p. 281-289), p. 286, and M.-K. Lee, Epistemology After Protagoras, op. cit., p. 189-200). According to R. Pasnau (“Democritus on Secondary Qualities”, op. cit., p. 113), this shows that Democritus was a kind of subjectivist about sense-perception and sensible qualities, about which we cannot be wrong, because sensible qualities are mere “states of sense”; M.-K. Lee (Epistemology After Protagoras, op. cit., p. 248) suggests that this would make Democritus’ epistemology proto-Epicurean; for a different explanation of the inconsistency between the two parts of Aristotle’s report, see E. Asmis, Epicurus’ Scientific Method, op. cit., p. 346-347. See also the similar tension between the notorious fr. 1 of the Democritean Metrodorus of Chius (“I say that we do not know whether we know something or we know nothing, and that we do not know this very thing either, or in general whether something exists or nothing exists”, Cic. Luc. 73 and Eus. Praep Ev. 14.19.8, DK70B1) and Eusebius of Caesarea’s claim (Praep Ev. 14.19.8) that according to Metrodorus (presented as Democritus’ pupil) all bodily sensations are trustworthy.

On Democritus’ epistemology and the question of whether (and in what sense) Democritus was a sceptic, see also M.M. Sassi, Le teorie della percezione in Democritus, Florence, La Nuova Italia, 1978, p. 191-240; R.W. Baldes, Democritus on Empirical Knowledge: Reflections on DK68B125 and on Aristotle, Metaphysics 4. 5, The Ancient World, 4, 1981, p. 17-34; J. Barnes, The Presocratic Philosophers, op. cit., p. 559-564; E. Asmis, Epicurus’ Scientific Method, op. cit., p. 337-350; C.C.W. Taylor, The Atomists: Leucippus and Democritus, op. cit., p. 216-222; P. Curd, Why Democritus Was Not a Skeptic, op. cit.; M.-K. Lee, Epistemology After Protagoras, op. cit., ch. 9. For analysis of Gal. Med. exp. 15.7 (DK68B125), in which Democritus himself, on behalf of the senses, charges the reason’s attack upon the senses with self-refutation, see L. Castagnoli, Ancient Self-Refutation, op. cit., p. 309-312.

136 Interpreters normally accept at face value that, to use E. Kechagia’s (Plutarch Against Colotes: A Lesson in History of Philosophy, op. cit., p. 107 n. 61) words, “Epicurus’ epistemological principle ‘all sense impressions are true’ constitutes a fundamental deviation from Democritus’ view of the senses as unreliable witnesses to reality”.

137 See e.g. S. Makin, Indifference Arguments, op. cit., p. 72: “something is to be said about what has to obtain for the olive to be conventionally green [for Democritus]: for example, that given the way most perceivers are constituted, the common human agreement about this olive is that it is green”. As S. Makin notices, this does not contravene the idea that you cannot establish the truth in conflicting appearances by counting heads (see Arist. Metaph. Γ 5, 1009b2-15 [T5 above]), which prompts the conclusion that sensible qualities, involved in conflicting appearances, are only “by convention”. While counting heads is not a viable method to discover how things are ἐτεῇ, one would expect it to be an important, albeit not unique, ingredient in establishing what is “conventional”. See also R.W. Baldes, Democritus on Empirical Knowledge, op. cit.; C.C.W. Taylor, The Atomists: Leucippus and Democritus, op. cit., p. 177.

138 See e.g. M.-K. Lee, Epistemology After Protagoras, op. cit., p. 216: “Democritus held a radically subjectivist account of sensible qualities: a thing has a sensible quality if and only if it appears so to a perceiver”. Of course this purely subjective appearance would still be the result of the interaction between certain atoms existing in the object (and their primary properties) and the atoms in the sense-organs of the perceiver. In his account of sensible objects in Democritus, Theophrastus presents flavours as consisting of atoms of certain shapes and sizes, which should imply, given Democritus’ own explanation of conflicting taste-impressions, that things have all the different flavours they appear to have to different perceivers, as (D1) suggests: “Sweet [flavour] consists of round atoms which are not too small, and therefore generally flow through and permeate the entire body, but not violently or quickly. [...] He gives a similar account of the properties of each flavour, referring them to the atomic shapes. None of them is found pure and unmixed with others, but in everything there are many, and the same thing contains smooth, rough, round, sharp and the rest. The shape which occurs most frequently among the constituents is the one which determines the perception and the power, though that also depends on the disposition of whatever observer it comes into contact with” (De sensu 65-67). The fact that atomic prevalence contributes to determine how a certain object will be perceived need not imply that it also determines that the object has (conventionally) the corresponding prevalent flavour more (or rather) than all the others. Theophrastus criticises Democritus’ distinction of qualities by atomic shapes as inconsistent with Democritus’ view that sensible qualities are “affections of the sense” (De sensu 69-70).

139 On this reading, the ancient testimony according to which for Democritus all sense-impressions are true (see n.  above) could be more easily explained than on reading (D2): Democritus is Protagorean about sensible-qualities.

140 I have argued in section 5 that Epicurus’ theory might include an interesting and largely unnoticed asymmetry between the case of smells, flavours and colours, on the one hand, and that of shapes and sizes of sensible objects, on the other. This asymmetry could have a parallel, unsurprisingly, in certain Democritean views of which Theophrastus (De sensu 61-65) informs us: hard and soft, heavy and light depend on the size and density of the atomic compound, whereas all the other sensible qualities (e.g. hot, cold, flavours) do not have a “nature” (φύσις), as revealed by the phenomenon of conflicting appearances, but are “affections of the modified sense”. Since there is ample evidence for the equivalences “in reality” = “having a nature” and “by convention” = “without a nature”, there is some room to argue that, for Democritus, hard and soft, heavy and light were real properties of atomic aggregates, different of course from the homonymous “conventional” sensible qualities of macroscopic compounds: however light or heavy it might appear to be to different perceivers in different dispositions, for example, my laptop weighs 3.2 kilos, which corresponds to a certain quantity and density of the atoms composing it.

141 For a detailed reconstruction of Democritus’ theory of perception, see M.M. Sassi, Le teorie della percezione in Democritus, op. cit.; for Epicurus’ see E. Asmis, Epicurus’ Scientific Method, op. cit., p. 104-166.

142 For the suggestion that the shift is the result of the disappearance of those Eleatic strictures that had forced Democritus to deny “reality” to the changing sensible qualities, see D.J. Furley, “Democritus and Epicurus on Sensible Qualities”, op. cit., p. 93.

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Luca Castagnoli, « Democritus and Epicurus on Sensible Qualities in Plutarch’s Against Colotes 3-9 », Aitia [En ligne], 3 | 2013, mis en ligne le 25 novembre 2013, consulté le 22 août 2017. URL : http://aitia.revues.org/622 ; DOI : 10.4000/aitia.622

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Luca Castagnoli

Durham University

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