Whether you’re a devotee of the Cambridge Latin Course or you prefer Dr. Who, you’ve probably somewhere heard the story of Pompeii & Herculaneum versus Mount Vesuvius. Spoiler: the volcano always wins.
Herculaneum was a resort town, and the Villa of the Papyri was an ill-fated library there. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE and covered everything with about 100 feet of volcanic ash, the superheated gas, steam, and mud fossilized anything that contained some form of carbon. I’ve seen dogs and people preserved in carbon at the Pompeii site, and it definitely isn’t as entertaining as that first glimpse of Han Solo in the carbon deep-freeze. The cone of the (still active) volcano is picturesque when viewed from the ruins it created, but you never quite shake the feeling that you could become part of that history at any moment.
When Herculaneum was excavated in the 1750s via underground tunnels, a multi-terraced house was discovered, with almost 2,000 carbonized scrolls inside. It was called Villa dei Papiri, which, if my freshman Latin serves me well*, translates as house of paper. The collection contains a few novels and maybe a treatise or two on Stoicism, but the hundreds of scrolls consist mainly of Epicurean philosophy. Did I mention? Hundreds of scrolls. Thus, house of paper. Or, as we might call it today, a library.
It appeared that most of the scrolls had been packed in cases, either to be moved to safety out of the path of the volcano when it became clear the eruption would be a threat to the city, or because Philodemus, who had probably been dead for some 30 years by that time, had bequeathed his library to the villa’s owner, who was much less interested in Epicureanism than his friend might have hoped. It’s a question of whether the scrolls were being packed up for rescue, or whether no one bothered to unpack them in the first place. Some scholars optimistically speculate that the rest of the owner’s library may already have been moved, but Philodemus’s collection wasn’t transported in time. Whether anyone cared about this literary hoard or not, a dense, destructive mass of hot ash, lava, and gases flowed downslope and destroyed both Pompeii and Herculaneum, including an estimated 16,000 people.
By the miracle (a.k.a. the science) of carbonization, the papyrus scrolls, like all the other carbon-based biological units, were scorched but ultimately preserved. With the development of multi-spectral imaging** (more science), researchers can now distinguish between the pitch black ink and the pitch black paper, thus reading the charred scrolls via specialized images without destroying them.
As so often happens, when I start digging into one topic, I also dig in different directions, until suddenly I’m tunneling underneath the original topic like an archaeological spelunker under Herculaneum. And before I know it, I’ve landed someplace wholly unexpected: one of the wonderful side effects inherent in finding things out.
This time, I got interested in Philodemus the Epicurean. I was sure I’d read something about this philosophy before (probably in Latin class), but couldn’t recall the particulars. I remembered that someone had once described Epicureanism to me this way:
“The cosmos is an accident. God doesn’t love you. You will die. Sobriety leads to the Good Life.”
Which, I dunno. Sounds a little bleak to me. But technically, Epicurus is the father of Hedonism because he throws around the word “pleasure” a lot. The difference is that Epicurus’s definition of pleasure is more like tranquility, something akin to the Third Noble Truth***: pleasure as moderation and beatitude. Minus the gods, obv.
Because the whole point, as Epicurus saw it, is that humankind is degraded by mortal dread of the angry divinities that master its actions and punish it for its sins. Depose those fears, of god and death, and restore humanity’s inherent dignity. Easy, right?
He never said the gods didn’t exist, because he’d probably have gotten in some kind of trouble for that, but Epicurus maintained that the gods were completely indifferent to both the virtues and the crimes of everyone else. He suggested that the material universe sustained itself, not by divine fiat or favor, but in the relationship of elemental particles to one another. Furthermore, these elemental particles were governed by reliable rules, a.k.a., natural law. Sound familiar? (science.)
This, in its turn, relates to his philosophy of death as a nonthreatening fact of the natural progression of carbon-based life forms. The fear of death, the philosopher counsels, is pointless and leads only to unnecessary misery. In his worldview, death is the fading away of a person’s mind. And if death is just ceasing to be, it’s neither a positive experience, nor a negative one.
Here’s a thought experiment, posited by none other than the philosopher himself a couple thousand years ago. If you fear the idea of eternal non-existence, think back to the vast expanse of non-existence you suffered through before you were born. Can’t remember? No senses, no problem.
So get out there and enjoy this jumble of elemental particles while the getting’s good.
Want to read up on some of this stuff yourself? Here are a few of my source materials:
Herculaneum’s Library in 79 A.D.: The Villa of the Papyri Sandra Sider (1990)
The Herculaneum Library: Some Recent Developments R Janko (2002)
Philodemus in Italy: the Books from Herculaneum Marcello Gigante & Dirk Obbink (2002)
Philodemus by David Blank & Catherine Atherton (2013)
Epicurus: The Extant Remains translated by Cyril Bailey (1926)
*since I got a D in it, it probably doesn’t serve me that well
**several pictures are taken using different filters in different wavelengths
***cessation of suffering