|Siiri Toiviainen, Post-doctoral researcher
I joined the Centre in January 2017 while I was finishing up my PhD at the University of Durham in the UK. My PhD thesis was entitled ‘The Instigator of All Vicious Actions: Pleasure, Sin, and the Good Life in the Works of Gregory of Nyssa’ and supervised by Professor Lewis Ayres and Dr Krastu Banev. I am currently preparing my thesis for publication while working on a postdoctoral project which examines receptions of the figure of Epicurus and anti-Epicurean argumentation in early Christian polemical literature. My research on pleasure and hedonism has also led to a more general interest in early Christian notions of material excess and appropriate care of the body.
In recent scholarship, the hostility of early Christian authors towards Epicurus and Epicureanism has been noted in passing both by philosophical commentators and Christian theologians. Typically, the former read Epicurus with a sympathetic eye and accuse Christians of the demise of the school, while the latter applaud the ancient Christian rebuttal of Epicureanism. Both highlight the fundamental incompatibility of the two systems of thought. Indeed, allusions to hedonistic and impious Epicureans abound in early Christian writings. However, in this project I will suggest that such comments should not be read as signs of direct engagement with and hostility towards Epicurean groups. Drawing on a wide variety of polemical, paedagogical, and paraenetic sources, I will argue that the figures of Epicurus and the pleasure seeker are employed as literary constructs, which are evoked against a variety of opponents, ranging from intra-group deviants to adherents of other religious and philosophical beliefs. In this discourse, Epicurus and his followers stand as the ultimate Other, the antithesis of presumed orthodox belief, which helps Christian authors articulate what Christianity is not and, consequently, what it is. I will show, furthermore, that the early Christian attacks against pleasure seeking owe much to the anti-Epicurean writings of Graeco-Roman antiquity, including the works of Cicero, Seneca, and Plutarch. In other words, anti-Epicureanism as a rhetorical strategy is by no means a Christian invention. By highlighting similarities in the form and function of ancient charges of hedonism, my research shows that such accusations are not simply elements of free-flowing slander or products of ad hoc criticism, but stem from a long tradition of ancient discourse.
The project fills a lacuna in the field of early Christian studies. Despite the fact that pleasure and its dangers play a prominent role in patristic ethics, formal investigations on patristic attitudes towards hedonism and anti-hedonism remain few and usually seek to ascertain what early Christian writers knew about Epicurus and Epicurean philosophy. My aim, on the contrary, is to find out how Christian writers employed anti-hedonist ideas, including the figure of Epicurus as a literary invention. I am less concerned with whether this leads to a truthful representation of Epicurean thought (in most cases it does not) and more with the Christian reception of arguments and rhetorical strategies that had been utilised by earlier critics of Epicurean philosophy.