Again, I think, in writing to Idomeneus [Epicurus] urges him not to live as a slave to laws and opinions, as long as they do not occasion troubles caused by a blow from one's neighbor. So if those who abolish laws and political institutions abolish human life, then this is what Epicurus and Metrodorus do; for they urge their adherents to avoid public life and express disgust for those who participate in it, abusing the earliest and wisest lawgivers and urging contempt for the laws, providing there is no fear of beatings or punishment.The most problematic sticking point of Epicurean philosophy, for both the ancients and the moderns, has probably been the concept of the "swerve." Epicurean atoms move deterministically, bouncing off one another in theoretically predictable ways, except for the fact that once in a while (it's not clear when, where, or how often) an atom "swerves" in a random direction. On the one hand, this helps the Epicureans account for the fact that the universe exists (because without an initial swerve, all atoms could only move downwards). On the other hand--and more significantly--the swerve seems to bear some relationship to free will. The nucleus of randomness at the heart of their physics permits an exception to the laws, which presumably (it is not clear how) allows an uncaused cause to exist.
- Plutarch, Against Colotes
Read ... the letter of Epicurus which is entitled "To Idomeneus"; he requests Idomeneus that he flee and hurry as much as he can, before some greater force has a chance to intervene and take away his freedom to 'retreat.'
- Seneca, Letters on Ethics (both of these from Hellenistic Philosophy, Inwood and Gerson, eds.)
It is common for critics of Epicureanism to seize upon the obvious absurdity of this point and condemn the Epicureans because of it. Indeed, it seems to make the entire enterprise of grounding ethics on physics totally senseless: a system of physical laws that admits of exceptions is a contradiction in terms. But in fact there seems to be a deeper commitment behind this move, deeper even than their commitment to freedom of the will. (At the very least, Epicurus could not reject free will, because the evidence of the senses says that we have free will and for him all sense data is true.)
The swerve must be understood equally in political terms. In his ethics (which shade into a kind of anti-politics), Epicurus emphasizes the need to maintain the freedom to retreat: all involvement in public life is pragmatic, and it is imperative that the possibility of disengagement be preserved. His ethical counsels to avoid public life, then, are a kind of warning against entangling alliances. The possibility of retreat guarantees the freedom from subjection. Thus the system of political laws, like the system of physical laws, is undermined by the indomitable swerve.
This suggests that we have, in a certain sense, misunderstood him. If it is clear that Epicurus opposes politics, his stance with respect to the natural order of the universe (physics' object of inquiry) seems considerably more positive. He plays off natural laws and concrete sense-experience against hazy lekta and superstition. But the swerve implies a more conflicted attitude; somehow he conceives of himself (and potentially all human beings) as an exception to the laws. Epicureanism is much more about freedom, ontologically and politically, than we had assumed--and so it is appropriate that Thomas Jefferson (the self-proclaimed Epicurean) would have made "eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man" his battle-standard.
In a world where even the swerve, in the form of quantum indeterminacy, cannot guarantee free will, and where the universal state makes a mockery of political retreat, the Epicurean doctrine seems obsolete and fatally unrigorous. Yet this cannot negate his ethical mission. To find a way of grounding the exception in the face of increasingly constraining systems has been, and continues to be, the task of critical theory--yet there has been little effort to recover the resolute materialism and principled self-distancing of the Epicureans. What better allies do we have if it turns out that the exception, like so much else, is just--a pleasant fiction?