Epicurus, tranquil life characterized by ataraxia and aponia. He advocated that people were best able to pursue philosophy by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. He taught that the root of all human neurosis is death denial and the tendency for human beings to assume that death will be horrific and painful, which he claimed causes unnecessary anxiety, selfish self-protective behaviors, and hypocrisy.
According to Epicurus, death is the end of both the body and the soul and therefore should not be feared. Epicurus taught that although the gods exist, they have no involvement in human affairs. He taught that people should behave ethically not because the gods punish or reward people for their actions, but because amoral behavior will burden them with guilt and prevent them from attaining ataraxia.
Like Aristotle, Epicurus was an empiricist, meaning he believed that the senses are the only reliable source of knowledge about the world. He derived much of his physics and cosmology from the earlier philosopher Democritus. Like Democritus, Epicurus taught that the universe is infinite and eternal and that all matter is made up of extremely tiny, invisible particles known as atoms.
All occurrences in the natural world are ultimately the result of atoms moving and interacting in empty space. Epicurus deviated from Democritus by proposing the idea of atomic “swerve”, which holds that atoms may deviate from their expected course, thus permitting humans to possess free will in an otherwise deterministic universe.
Though popular, Epicurean teachings were controversial from the beginning. Epicureanism reached the height of its popularity during the late years of the Roman Republic. It died out in late antiquity, subject to hostility from early Christianity. Throughout the Middle Ages Epicurus was popularly, though inaccurately, remembered as a patron of drunkards, whoremongers, and gluttons.
His teachings gradually became more widely known in the fifteenth century with the rediscovery of important texts, but his ideas did not become acceptable until the seventeenth century, when the French Catholic priest Pierre Gassendi revived a modified version of them, which was promoted by other writers, including Walter Charleton and Robert Boyle. His influence grew considerably during and after the Enlightenment, profoundly impacting the ideas of major thinkers, including John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Jeremy Bentham, and Karl Marx.
Upbringing and influences
Epicurus was born in the Athenian settlement on the Aegean island of Samos in February 341 BC. Whose way of life Epicurus greatly admired.
Epicurus’s teachings were heavily influenced by those of earlier philosophers, particularly Democritus. Nonetheless, Epicurus differed from his predecessors on several key points of determinism and vehemently denied having been influenced by any previous philosophers, whom he denounced as “confused”. Instead, he insisted that he had been “self-taught”.
According to DeWitt, Epicurus’s teachings also show influences from the contemporary philosophical school of Cynicism. The Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope was still alive when Epicurus would have been in Athens for his required military training and it is possible they may have met. Diogenes’s pupil Crates of Thebes was a close contemporary of Epicurus.
Epicurus agreed with the Cynics’ quest for honesty, but rejected their “insolence and vulgarity”, instead teaching that honesty must be coupled with courtesy and kindness. Epicurus shared this view with his contemporary, the comic playwright Menander.
Epicurus’s Letter to Menoeceus, possibly an early work of his, is written in an eloquent style similar to that of the Athenian rhetorician Isocrates, but, for his later works, he seems to have adopted the bald, intellectual style of the mathematician Euclid.
Epicurus’s epistemology also bears an unacknowledged debt to the later writings of Aristotle, who rejected the Platonic idea of hypostatic Reason and instead relied on nature and empirical evidence for knowledge about the universe. During Epicurus’s formative years, Greek knowledge about the rest of the world was rapidly expanding due to the Hellenization of the Near East and the rise of Hellenistic kingdoms.
Epicurus’s philosophy was consequently more universal in its outlook than those of his predecessors, since it took cognizance of non-Greek peoples as well as Greeks. He may have had access to the now-lost writings of the historian and ethnographer Megasthenes, who wrote during the reign of Seleucus I Nicator.
During Epicurus’s lifetime, Platonism was the dominant philosophy in higher education. Epicurus’s opposition to Platonism formed a large part of his thought. Over half of the forty Principal Doctrines of Epicureanism are flat contradictions of Platonism. In around 311 BC, Epicurus, when he was around thirty years old, began teaching in Mytilene.
Around this time, Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, arrived in Athens, at the age of about twenty-one, but Zeno did not begin teaching what would become Stoicism for another twenty years. Although later texts, such as the writings of the first-century BC Roman orator Cicero, portray Epicureanism and Stoicism as rivals, this rivalry seems to have only emerged after Epicurus’s death.
Epicurus’s teachings caused strife in Mytilene and he was forced to leave. He then founded a school in Lampsacus before returning to Athens in 306 BC, where he remained until his death. There he founded The Garden, a school named for the garden he owned that served as the school’s meeting place, about halfway between the locations of two other schools of philosophy, the Stoa and the Academy.
The Garden was more than just a school; it was “a community of like-minded and aspiring practitioners of a particular way of life.” The primary members were Hermarchus, the financier Idomeneus, Leonteus and his wife Themista, the satirist Colotes, the mathematician Polyaenus of Lampsacus, and Metrodorus of Lampsacus, the most famous popularizer of Epicureanism.
His school was the first of the ancient Greek philosophical schools to admit women as a rule rather than an exception, and the biography of Epicurus by Diogenes Laërtius lists female students such as Leontion and Nikidion. An inscription on the gate to The Garden is recorded by Seneca the Younger in epistle XXI of Epistulae morales ad Lucilium: “Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.”
If authentic, this letter would support the tradition that Epicurus was able to remain joyful to the end, even in the midst of his suffering. It would also indicate that he maintained a special concern for the wellbeing of children.
Epicurus and his followers had a well-developed epistemology, which developed as a result of their rivalry with other philosophical schools. Epicurus wrote a treatise entitled Empiricist; believing that the senses are the only reliable sources of information about the world.
He rejected the Platonic idea of “Reason” as a reliable source of knowledge about the world apart from the senses and was bitterly opposed to the Pyrrhonists and Academic Skeptics, who not only questioned the ability of the senses to provide accurate knowledge about the world, but also whether it is even possible to know anything about the world at all.
Epicurus maintained that the senses never deceive humans, but that the senses can be misinterpreted. Epicurus held that the purpose of all knowledge is to aid humans in attaining ataraxia. He taught that knowledge is learned through experiences rather than innate and that the acceptance of the fundamental truth of the things a person perceives is essential to a person’s moral and spiritual health.
In the Letter to Pythocles, he states, “If a person fights the clear evidence of his senses he will never be able to share in genuine tranquility.” Epicurus regarded gut feelings as the ultimate authority on matters of morality and held that whether a person feels an action is right or wrong is a far more cogent guide to whether that act really is right or wrong than abstracts maxims, strict codified rules of ethics, or even reason itself.
Epicurus permitted that any and every statement that is not directly contrary to human perception has the possibility to be true. Nonetheless, anything contrary to a person’s experience can be ruled out as false. Epicureans often used analogies to everyday experience to support their argument of so-called “imperceptibles”, which included anything that a human being cannot perceive, such as the motion of atoms. In line with this principle of non-contradiction, the Epicureans believed that events in the natural world may have multiple causes that are all equally possible and probable.
Epicurus strongly favored naturalistic explanations over theological ones. In his Letter to Pythocles, he offers four different possible natural explanations for thunder, six different possible natural explanations for lightning, three for snow, three for comets, two for rainbows, two for earthquakes, and so on.
Although all of these explanations are now known to be false, they were an important step in the history of science, because Epicurus was trying to explain natural phenomena using natural explanations, rather than resorting to inventing elaborate stories about gods and mythic heroes.
Epicurus was a hedonist, meaning he taught that what is pleasurable is morally good and what is painful is morally evil. He idiosyncratically defined “pleasure” as the absence of suffering and taught that all humans should seek to attain the state of ataraxia, meaning “untroubledness”, a state in which the person is completely free from all pain or suffering.
The Tetrapharmakos presents a summary of the key points of Epicurean ethics:
Don’t fear god
Don’t worry about death
What is good is easy to get
What is terrible is easy to endure
Although Epicurus has been commonly misunderstood as an advocate of the rampant pursuit of pleasure, he, in fact, maintained that a person can only be happy and free from suffering by living wisely, soberly, and morally. He strongly disapproved of raw, excessive sensuality and warned that a person must take into account whether the consequences of his actions will result in suffering, writing, “the pleasant life is produced not by a string of drinking bouts and revelries, nor by the enjoyment of boys and women, nor by fish and the other items on an expensive menu, but by sober reasoning.”
He also wrote that a single good piece of cheese could be equally pleasing as an entire feast. Furthermore, Epicurus taught that “it is not possible to live pleasurably without living sensibly and nobly and justly”, because a person who engages in acts of dishonesty or injustice will be “loaded with troubles” on account of his own guilty conscience and will live in constant fear that his wrongdoings will be discovered by others.
“Moving” pleasures occur when one is in the process of satisfying a desire and involve an active titillation of the senses. He also taught that philosophy is itself a pleasure to engage in. One of the quotes from Epicurus recorded in the Vatican Sayings declares, “In other pursuits, the hard-won fruit comes at the end. But in philosophy, delight keeps pace with knowledge. It is not after the lesson that enjoyment comes: learning and enjoyment happen at the same time.”
Epicurus distinguishes between three types of desires: natural and necessary, natural but unnecessary, and vain and empty. Natural and necessary desires include the desires for food and shelter. These are easy to satisfy, difficult to eliminate, bring pleasure when satisfied, and are naturally limited. Going beyond these limits produces unnecessary desires, such as the desire for luxury foods.
Although food is necessary, luxury food is not necessary. Correspondingly, Epicurus advocates a life of hedonistic moderation by reducing desire, thus eliminating the unhappiness caused by unfulfilled desires. Vain desires include desires for power, wealth, and fame.
These are difficult to satisfy because no matter how much one gets, one can always want more. These desires are inculcated by society and by false beliefs about what we need. They are not natural and are to be shunned.
Epicurus’ teachings were introduced into medical philosophy and practice by the Epicurean doctor Asclepiades of Bithynia, who was the first physician who introduced Greek medicine in Rome. Asclepiades introduced the friendly, sympathetic, pleasing and painless treatment of patients. He advocated humane treatment of mental disorders, had insane persons freed from confinement and treated them with natural therapy, such as diet and massages.
His teachings are surprisingly modern; therefore Asclepiades is considered to be a pioneer physician in psychotherapy, physical therapy and molecular medicine. That “nothing ever arises from the nonexistent”, indicating that all events therefore have causes, regardless of whether those causes are known or unknown. Similarly, he also writes that nothing ever passes away into nothingness, because, “if an object that passes from our view were completely annihilated, everything in the world would have perished, since that into which things were dissipated would be nonexistent.”
He therefore states: “The totality of things was always just as it is at present and will always remain the same because there is nothing into which it can change, inasmuch as there is nothing outside the totality that could intrude and effect change.” Like Democritus before him, Epicurus taught that all matter is entirely made of extremely tiny particles called “atoms”.
For Epicurus and his followers, the existence of atoms was a matter of empirical observation; Epicurus’s devoted follower, the Roman poet Lucretius, cites the gradual wearing down of rings from being worn, statues from being kissed, stones from being dripped on by water, and roads from being walked on in On the Nature of Things” as evidence for the existence of atoms as tiny, imperceptible particles.
Also like Democritus, Epicurus was a materialist who taught that the only things that exist are atoms and void. Void occurs in any place where there are no atoms. Epicurus and his followers believed that atoms and void are both infinite and that the universe is therefore boundless. In On the Nature of Things, Lucretius argues this point using the example of a man throwing a javelin at the theoretical boundary of a finite universe.
He states that the javelin must either go past the edge of the universe, in which case it is not really a boundary, or it must be blocked by something and prevented from continuing its path, but, if that happens, then the object blocking it must be outside the confines of the universe. As a result of this belief that the universe and the number of atoms in it are infinite, Epicurus and the Epicureans believed that there must also be infinitely many worlds within the universe.
Epicurus taught that the motion of atoms is constant, eternal, and without beginning or end. He held that there are two kinds of motion: the motion of atoms and the motion of visible objects. Both kinds of motion are real and not illusory. Democritus had described atoms as not only eternally moving, but also eternally flying through space, colliding, coalescing, and separating from each other as necessary. In a rare departure from Democritus’s physics, Epicurus posited the idea of atomic “swerve”, one of his best-known original ideas.
According to this idea, atoms, as they are travelling through space, may deviate slightly from the course they would ordinarily be expected to follow. Epicurus’s reason for introducing this doctrine was because he wanted to preserve the concepts of free will and ethical responsibility while still maintaining the deterministic physical model of atomism.
Lucretius describes it, saying, “It is this slight deviation of primal bodies, at indeterminate times and places, which keeps the mind as such from experiencing an inner compulsion in doing everything it does and from being forced to endure and suffer like a captive in chains.”
Epicurus was first to assert human freedom as a result of the fundamental indeterminism in the motion of atoms. This has led some philosophers to think that, for Epicurus, free will was caused directly by chance. In his On the Nature of Things, Lucretius appears to suggest this in the best-known passage on Epicurus’ position.
Epicurus was an extremely prolific writer. According to Diogenes Laërtius, he wrote around 300 treatises on a variety of subjects. More original writings of Epicurus have survived to the present day than of any other Hellenistic Greek philosopher. Nonetheless, the vast majority of everything he wrote has now been lost and most of what is known about Epicurus’s teachings come from the writings of his later followers, particularly the Roman poet Lucretius.
The only surviving complete works by Epicurus are three relatively lengthy letters, which are quoted in their entirety in Book X of Diogenes Laërtius’s Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, and two groups of quotes: the Principal Doctrines, which are likewise preserved through quotation by Diogenes Laërtius, and the Vatican Sayings, preserved in a manuscript from the Vatican Library that was first discovered in 1888.
In the Letter to Herodotus and the Letter to Pythocles, Epicurus summarizes his philosophy on nature and, in the Letter to Menoeceus, he summarizes his moral teachings. Numerous fragments of Epicurus’s lost thirty-seven volume treatise On Nature have been found among the charred papyrus fragments at the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum. Scholars first began attempting to unravel and decipher these scrolls in 1800, but the efforts are painstaking and are still ongoing.
Epicureanism was extremely popular from the very beginning. Diogenes Laërtius records that the number of Epicureans throughout the world exceeded the populations of entire cities. Nonetheless, Epicurus was not universally admired and, within his own lifetime, he was vilified as an ignorant buffoon and egoistic sybarite.
He remained the most simultaneously admired and despised philosopher in the Mediterranean for the next nearly five centuries. Epicureanism rapidly spread beyond the Greek mainland all across the Mediterranean world. By the first century BC, it had established a strong foothold in Italy. The Roman orator Cicero, who deplored Epicurean ethics, lamented, “the Epicureans have taken Italy by storm.”
The overwhelming majority of surviving Greek and Roman sources are vehemently negative towards Epicureanism and, according to Pamela Gordon, they routinely depict Epicurus himself as “monstrous or laughable”. Many Romans in particular took a negative view of Epicureanism, seeing its advocacy of the pursuit of voluptas as contrary to the Roman ideal of virtus.
The Romans therefore often stereotyped Epicurus and his followers as weak and effeminate. Prominent critics of his philosophy include prominent authors such as the Roman Stoic Seneca the Younger and the Greek Middle Platonist Plutarch, who both derided these stereotypes as immoral and disreputable. Gordon characterizes anti-Epicurean rhetoric as so “heavy-handed” and misrepresentative of Epicurus’s actual teachings that they sometimes come across as “comical”. In his De vita beata, Seneca states that the “sect of Epicurus… has a bad reputation, and yet it does not deserve it.” and compares it to “a man in a dress: your chastity remains, your virility is unimpaired, your body has not submitted sexually, but in your hand is a tympanum.”
Epicureanism was a notoriously conservative philosophical school; although Epicurus’s later followers did expand on his philosophy, they dogmatically retained what he himself had originally taught without modifying it. Epicureans and admirers of Epicureanism revered Epicurus himself as a great teacher of ethics, a savior, and even a god. His image was worn on finger rings, portraits of him were displayed in living rooms, and wealthy followers venerated likenesses of him in marble sculpture.
His admirers revered his sayings as divine oracles, carried around copies of his writings, and cherished copies of his letters like the letters of an apostle. On the twentieth day of every month, admirers of his teachings would perform a solemn ritual to honor his memory. At the same time, opponents of his teachings denounced him with vehemence and persistence.
However, in the first and second centuries AD, Epicureanism gradually began to decline as it failed to compete with Stoicism, which had an ethical system more in line with traditional Roman values. Epicureanism also suffered decay in the wake of Christianity, which was also rapidly expanding throughout the Roman Empire.
Of all the Greek philosophical schools, Epicureanism was the one most at odds with the new Christian teachings, since Epicureans believed that the soul was mortal, denied the existence of an afterlife, denied that the divine had any active role in human life, and advocated pleasure as the foremost goal of human existence. As such, Christian writers such as Justin Martyr, Athenagoras of Athens, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria, Arnobius, and Lactantius all singled it out for the most vitriolic criticism.
In spite of this, DeWitt argues that Epicureanism and Christianity share much common language, calling Epicureanism “the first missionary philosophy” and “the first world philosophy”. Both Epicureanism and Christianity placed strong emphasis on the importance of love and forgiveness and early Christian portrayals of Jesus are often similar to Epicurean portrayals of Epicurus. DeWitt argues that Epicureanism, in many ways, helped pave the way for the spread of Christianity by “helping to bridge the gap between Greek intellectualism and a religious way of life” and “shunt the emphasis from the political to the social virtues and offer what may be called a religion of humanity.”
Bergsma, A., Poot, G. & Liefbroer, A.C. Happiness in the Garden of Epicurus. J Happiness Stud 9, 397–423 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-006-9036-z
Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 822–848. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1242
Fordyce, M. W. (1977). Development of a program to increase personal happiness. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 24(6), 511–521. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0126.96.36.1991
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