kouros and epikouros

Malcolm Gladwell’s popular 2005 book Blink begins with an introduction about “The Statue That Didn’t Look right.” The statue in question was one that an art dealer named Gianfranco Becchina offered to sell to the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1983. As Gladwell wrote of Becchina: “He had in his possession, he said, a marble statue dating from the sixth century BC. It was what is known as a kouros — a sculpture of a nude male youth standing with his left leg forward and his arms at his sides.” Various experts examined the kouros and believed it to be authentic, but in the end the statue turned out to be a fake.

Georg Autenrieth explained in A Homeric Dictionary that the Greek word kouros meant literally a ‘youth, boy, esp. of noble rank, so when applied to the attendants at sacrifices and banquets, as these were regularly the sons of princely houses.’ Autenrieth went on to note that in Homer the word also implied ‘vigorous youth, ability to bear arms.’ Greek epi meant literally ‘upon,’ but as a prefix epi- could convey many other meanings, including ‘over, around, alongside, near,’ so the Greek compound epikouros had the sense ‘a youth [who is] alongside [one],’ which is to say ‘a helper, an assistant, a comrade,’ and in a military context ‘a mercenary soldier’ or ‘an ally.’

Common nouns sometimes serve as family names (e.g. Spanish Blanco, Guerrero, Fuentes, Rubio, Bello, and English White, King, Pearl, Fisher, Brown, Stone), and in a similar way it so happened that Epikouros was the name of an ancient Greek philosopher. The Romans Latinized his name as Epicurus, which is the form that English still uses; Spanish has transformed it slightly to Epicuro. Epicurus, who lived from 341 BC to 270 BC, was a forerunner of the modern scientist; he taught that we should observe something directly before we accept someone’s assertion that it has a certain property or behaves in a certain way.

Epicurus’s attention to the physical senses led him to focus on the pleasure and pain that those physical senses register. Here’s what the Wikipedia article about Epicurus says on that score:

Epicurus’ philosophy is based on the theory that all good and bad derive from the sensations of pleasure and pain. What is good is what is pleasurable, and what is bad is what is painful. Pleasure and pain were ultimately, for Epicurus, the basis for the moral distinction between good and bad. If pain is chosen over pleasure in some cases it is only because it leads to a greater pleasure. Although Epicurus has been commonly misunderstood to advocate the rampant pursuit of pleasure, what he was really after was the absence of pain (both physical and mental, i.e., suffering) — a state of satiation and tranquility that was free of the fear of death and the retribution of the gods. When we do not suffer pain, we are no longer in need of pleasure, and we enter a state of ‘perfect mental peace’….

Epicurus explicitly warned against overindulgence because it often leads to pain. For instance, Epicurus warned against pursuing love too ardently. He defended friendships as ramparts for pleasure and denied them any inherent worth. He also believed (contra Aristotle) that death was not to be feared. When a man dies, he does not feel the pain of death because he no longer is and he therefore feels nothing. Therefore, as Epicurus famously said, “death is nothing to us.” When we exist death is not, and when death exists we are not. All sensation and consciousness ends with death and therefore in death there is neither pleasure nor pain. The fear of death arises from the belief that in death there is awareness.

From the name Epicurus came our noun epicúreo/epicure. Over a century ago, the Century Dictionary defined the word this way:

  1. A follower of Epicurus; an Epicurean: seldom, if ever, used without odium.
  2. Popularly (owing to a misrepresentation of the ethical part of the doctrines of Epicurus), one given up to sensual enjoyment, and especially to the pleasures of eating and drinking; a gormand; a person of luxurious tastes and habits.

In spite of that negativity, English has also given epicure a neutral sense and even the positive connotation ‘possessing fine taste in food and wine’; most English dictionaries now list the positive sense first, and some simple online dictionaries don’t even mention the negative sense. The Spanish equivalent, epicúreo, can mean ‘following the philosophy of Epicurus’ or ‘given over to sensual pleasures.’ The Spanish word functions not only as a noun but as an adjective, for which English has the slightly different epicurean mentioned in the first Century Dictionary definition. The corresponding abstract noun is epicureísmo/epicurism, and in addition English has the form epicureanism.

Readers of this column, of course, are epicures of etymology.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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