Epicureanism is a system of philosophy based upon the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, founded around 307 BCE (Before Common Epoch). Epicurus was an atomic materialist, following in the steps of Democritus. His materialism led him to a general attack on superstition and divine intervention. Following Aristippus—about whom very little is known—Epicurus believed that what he called "pleasure" is the greatest good, but the way to attain such pleasure is to live modestly and to gain knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of one's desires. This led one to attain a state of tranquility (ataraxia) and freedom from fear, as well as absence of bodily pain (aponia). The combination of these two states is supposed to constitute happiness in its highest form. Although Epicureanism is a form of hedonism, insofar as it declares pleasure to be the sole intrinsic good, its conception of absence of pain as the greatest pleasure and its advocacy of a simple life makes it different from "hedonism" as it is commonly understood.
Epicureanism was originally a challenge to Platonism, though later it became the main opponent of Stoicism. Epicurus and his followers shunned politics. After the death of Epicurus, his school was headed by Hermarchus; later many Epicurean societies flourished in the Late Hellenistic era and during the Roman era (such as those in Antiochia, Alexandria, Rhodes, and Ercolano). Its best-known Roman proponent was the poet Lucretius. By the end of the Roman Empire, being opposed by philosophies (mainly Neo-Platonism) that were now in the ascendance, Epicureanism had all but died out, and would be resurrected in the 17th century by the atomist Pierre Gassendi, who adapted it to the Christian doctrine.
Some writings by Epicurus have survived. Some scholars consider the epic poem On the Nature of Things by Lucretius to present in one unified work the core arguments and theories of Epicureanism. Many of the papyrus scrolls unearthed at the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum are Epicurean texts. At least some are thought to have belonged to the Epicurean Philodemus.
The school of Epicurus, called "The Garden," was based in Epicurus' home and garden. It had a small but devoted following in his lifetime. Its members included Hermarchus, Idomeneus, Colotes, Polyaenus, and Metrodorus. Epicurus emphasized friendship as an important ingredient of happiness, and the school seems to have been a moderately ascetic community which rejected the political limelight of Athenian philosophy. They were fairly cosmopolitan by Athenian standards, including women and slaves. Some members were also vegetarians as Epicurus did not eat meat, although no prohibition against eating meat was made.
The school's popularity grew and it became, along with Stoicism and Skepticism, one of the three dominant schools of Hellenistic Philosophy, lasting strongly through the later Roman Empire. Another major source of information is the Roman politician and philosopher Cicero, although he was highly critical, denouncing the Epicureans as unbridled hedonists, devoid of a sense of virtue and duty, and guilty of withdrawing from public life. Another ancient source is Diogenes of Oenoanda, who composed a large inscription at Oenoanda in Lycia.
A library in the Villa of the Papyri, in Herculaneum, was perhaps owned by Julius Caesar's father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. The scrolls which the library consisted of were preserved albeit in carbonized form by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. Several of these Herculaneum papyri which are unrolled and deciphered were found to contain a large number of works by Philodemus, a late Hellenistic Epicurean, and Epicurus himself, attesting to the school's enduring popularity. The task of unrolling and deciphering the over 1800 charred papyrus scrolls continues today.
With the dominance of the Neo-Platonism and Peripatetic School philosophy (and later Christianity), Epicureanism declined. By the late third century CE, there was very little trace of its existence.
The early Christian writer Lactantius criticizes Epicurus at several points throughout his Divine Institutes. In Dante's Divine Comedy, the Epicureans are depicted as heretics suffering in the sixth circle of hell. In fact, Epicurus appears to represent the ultimate heresy. The word for a heretic in the Talmudic literature is "Apiqoros" (אפיקורוס), and Epicurus is titled in Modern Greek idiom as the "Dark Philosopher".
By the 16th century, the works of Diogenes Laertius were being printed in Europe. In the 17th century the French Franciscan priest, scientist and philosopher Pierre Gassendi wrote two books forcefully reviving Epicureanism. Shortly thereafter, and clearly influenced by Gassendi, Walter Charleton published several works on Epicureanism in English. Attacks by Christians continued, most forcefully by the Cambridge Platonists.
In the Modern Age, scientists adopted atomist theories, while materialist philosophers embraced Epicurus' hedonist ethics and restated his objections to natural teleology. The contemporary revival of the Epicurean movement includes the Society of Friends of Epicurus and New Epicurean.
Epicureanism emphasizes the neutrality of the gods, that they do not interfere with human lives. It states that gods, matter, and souls are all made up of atoms. Souls are made from atoms, and gods possess souls, but their souls adhere to their bodies without escaping. Humans have the same kind of souls, but the forces binding human atoms together do not hold the soul forever. The Epicureans also used the atomist theories of Democritus and Leucippus to assert that man has free will. They held that all thoughts are merely atoms swerving randomly. This explanation served to satisfy people who wondered anxiously about their role in the universe.
God either wants to eliminate bad things and cannot, or can but does not want to, or neither wishes to nor can, or both wants to and can. If he wants to and cannot, then he is weak – and this does not apply to god. If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful – which is equally foreign to god's nature. If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful, and so not a god. If he wants to and can, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?—Lactantius, De Ira Deorum
This type of trilemma argument (God is omnipotent, God is good, but Evil exists) was one favoured by the ancient Greek skeptics, and this argument may have been wrongly attributed to Epicurus by Lactantius, who, from his Christian perspective, regarded Epicurus as an atheist. According to Reinhold F. Glei, it is settled that the argument of theodicy is from an academical source which is not only not Epicurean, but even anti-Epicurean. The earliest extant version of this trilemma appears in the writings of the skeptic Sextus Empiricus.
Epicurus' view was that there were gods, but that they were neither willing nor able to prevent evil. This was not because they were malevolent, but because they lived in a perfect state of ataraxia, a state everyone should strive to emulate; it is not the gods who are upset by evils, but people. Epicurus conceived the gods as blissful and immortal yet material beings made of atoms inhabiting the metakosmia: empty spaces between worlds in the vastness of infinite space. In spite of his recognition of the gods, the practical effect of this materialistic explanation of the gods' existence and their complete non-intervention in human affairs renders his philosophy akin in divine effects to the attitude of Deism.
In Dante's Divine Comedy, the flaming tombs of the Epicureans are located within the sixth circle of hell (Inferno, Canto X). They are the first heretics seen and appear to represent the ultimate, if not quintessential, heresy. Similarly, according to Jewish Mishnah, Epicureans (apiqorsim, people who share the beliefs of the movement) are among the people who do not have a share of the "World-to-Come" (afterlife or the world of the Messianic era).
Parallels may be drawn to Buddhism, which similarly emphasizes a lack of divine interference and aspects of its atomism. Buddhism also resembles Epicureanism in its temperateness, including the belief that great excess leads to great dissatisfaction.
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The philosophy originated by Epicurus flourished for seven centuries. It propounded an ethic of individual pleasure as the sole or chief good in life. Hence, Epicurus advocated living in such a way as to derive the greatest amount of pleasure possible during one's lifetime, yet doing so moderately in order to avoid the suffering incurred by overindulgence in such pleasure. The emphasis was placed on pleasures of the mind rather than on physical pleasures. Therefore, according to Epicurus, with whom a person eats is of greater importance than what is eaten. Unnecessary and, especially, artificially produced desires were to be suppressed. Since learning, culture, and civilization as well as social and political involvements could give rise to desires that are difficult to satisfy and thus result in disturbing one's peace of mind, they were discouraged. Knowledge was sought only to rid oneself of religious fears and superstitions, the two primary fears to be eliminated being fear of the gods and of death. Viewing marriage and what attends it as a threat to one's peace of mind, Epicurus lived a celibate life but did not impose this restriction on his followers.
The philosophy was characterized by an absence of divine principle. Lawbreaking was counseled against because of both the shame associated with detection and the punishment it might bring. Living in fear of being found out or punished would take away from pleasure, and this made even secret wrongdoing inadvisable. To the Epicureans, virtue in itself had no value and was beneficial only when it served as a means to gain happiness. Reciprocity was recommended, not because it was divinely ordered or innately noble, but because it was personally beneficial. Friendships rested on the same mutual basis, that is, the pleasure resulting to the possessors. Epicurus laid great emphasis on developing friendships as the basis of a satisfying life.
of all the things which wisdom has contrived which contribute to a blessed life, none is more important, more fruitful, than friendship—quoted by Cicero
While the pursuit of pleasure formed the focal point of the philosophy, this was largely directed to the "static pleasures" of minimizing pain, anxiety and suffering. In fact, Epicurus referred to life as a "bitter gift".
When we say . . . that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice or wilful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not by an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not by sexual lust, nor the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul.—Epicurus, "Letter to Menoeceus"
The Epicureans believed in the existence of the gods, but believed that the gods were made of atoms just like everything else. It was thought that the gods were too far away from the earth to have any interest in what man was doing; so it did not do any good to pray or to sacrifice to them. The gods, they believed, did not create the universe, nor did they inflict punishment or bestow blessings on anyone, but they were supremely happy; this was the goal to strive for during one's own human life.
"Live unknown was one of [key] maxims. This was completely at odds with all previous ideas of seeking fame and glory, or even wanting something so apparently decent as honor."
Epicureanism rejects immortality and mysticism; it believes in the soul, but suggests that the soul is as mortal as the body. Epicurus rejected any possibility of an afterlife, while still contending that one need not fear death: "Death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved, is without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us." From this doctrine arose the Epicurean Epitaph: Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo ("I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care"), which is inscribed on the gravestones of his followers and seen on many ancient gravestones of the Roman Empire. This quotation is often used today at humanist funerals.
Epicurus was an early thinker to develop the notion of justice as a social contract. He defined justice as an agreement "neither to harm nor be harmed". The point of living in a society with laws and punishments is to be protected from harm so that one is free to pursue happiness. Because of this, laws that do not contribute to promoting human happiness are not just. He gave his own unique version of the Ethic of Reciprocity, which differs from other formulations by emphasizing minimizing harm and maximizing happiness for oneself and others:
It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly (agreeing "neither to harm nor be harmed"),
and it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life.
Epicureanism incorporated a relatively full account of the social contract theory, following after a vague description of such a society in Plato's Republic. The social contract theory established by Epicureanism is based on mutual agreement, not divine decree.
Epicurus' philosophy of the physical world is found in his Letter to Herodotus: Diogenes Laertius 10.34–83.
If the sum of all matter ("the totality") was limited and existed within an unlimited void, it would be scattered and constantly becoming more diffuse, because the finite collection of bodies would travel forever, having no obstacles. Conversely, if the totality was unlimited it could not exist within a limited void, for the unlimited bodies would not all have a place to be in. Therefore either both the void and the totality must be limited or both must be unlimited and – as is mentioned later – the totality is unlimited (and therefore so is the void).
Forms can change, but not their inherent qualities, for change can only affect their shape. Some things can be changed and some things cannot be changed because forms that are unchangeable cannot be destroyed if certain attributes can be removed; for attributes not only have the intention of altering an unchangeable form, but also the inevitable possibility of becoming—in relation to the form's disposition to its present environment—both an armor and a vulnerability to its stability.
Further proof that there are unchangeable forms and their inability to be destroyed, is the concept of the "non-evident." A form cannot come into being from the void—which is nothing; it would be as if all forms come into being spontaneously, needless of reproduction. The implied meaning of "destroying" something is to undo its existence, to make it not there anymore, and this cannot be so: if the void is that which does not exist, and if this void is the implied destination of the destroyed, then the thing in reality cannot be destroyed, for the thing (and all things) could not have existed in the first place (as Parmenides said, ex nihilo nihil fit: nothing comes from nothing). This totality of forms is eternal and unchangeable.
Atoms move, in the appropriate way, constantly and for all time. Forms first come to us in images or "projections"—outlines of their true selves. For an image to be perceived by the human eye, the "atoms" of the image must cross a great distance at enormous speed and must not encounter any conflicting atoms along the way. The presence of atomic resistance equal atomic slowness; whereas, if the path is deficient of atomic resistance, the traversal rate is much faster (and clearer). Because of resistance, forms must be unlimited (unchangeable and able to grasp any point within the void) because, if they weren't, a form's image would not come from a single place, but fragmented and from several places. This confirms that a single form cannot be at multiple places at the same time.
Epicurus for the most part follows Democritean atomism but differs in proclaiming the clinamen (swerve or declination). Imagining atoms to be moving under an external force, Epicurus conceives an occasional atom "swerving" for reasons peculiar to itself, i.e. not by external compulsion but by "free will". In this, his view absolutely opposes Democritean determinism as well as developed Stoicism. Otherwise he conceives of atoms as does Democritus – in that they have position, number, and shape. To Democritus' differentiating criteria, Epicurus adds "weight", but maintains Democritus' view that atoms are necessarily indivisible and hence possess no demonstrable internal space.
And the senses warrant us other means of perception: hearing and smelling. As in the same way an image traverses through the air, the atoms of sound and smell traverse the same way. This perceptive experience is itself the flow of the moving atoms; and like the changeable and unchangeable forms, the form from which the flow traverses is shed and shattered into even smaller atoms, atoms of which still represent the original form, but they are slightly disconnected and of diverse magnitudes. This flow, like that of an echo, reverberates (off one's senses) and goes back to its start; meaning, one's sensory perception happens in the coming, going, or arch, of the flow; and when the flow retreats back to its starting position, the atomic image is back together again: thus when one smells something one has the ability to see it too [because atoms reach the one who smells or sees from the object.]
And this leads to the question of how atomic speed and motion works. Epicurus says that there are two kinds of motion: the straight motion and the curved motion, and its motion traverse as fast as the speed of thought.
Epicurus proposed the idea of 'the space between worlds' (metakosmia) the relatively empty spaces in the infinite void where worlds had not been formed by the joining together of the atoms through their endless motion.
Epicurean epistemology has three criteria of truth: sensations (aisthêsis), preconceptions (prolepsis), and feelings (pathê). Prolepsis is sometimes translated as "basic grasp" but could also be described as "universal ideas": concepts that are understood by all. An example of prolepsis is the word "man" because every person has a preconceived notion of what a man is. Sensations or sense perception is knowledge that is received from the senses alone. Much like modern science, Epicurean philosophy posits that empiricism can be used to sort truth from falsehood. Feelings are more related to ethics than Epicurean physical theory. Feelings merely tell the individual what brings about pleasure and what brings about pain. This is important for the Epicurean because these are the basis for the entire Epicurean ethical doctrine.
According to Epicurus, the basic means for our understanding of things are the "sensations" (aestheses), "concepts" (prolepsis), "emotions" (pathe), and the "focusing of thought into an impression" (phantastikes epiboles tes dianoias).
Epicureans reject dialectic as confusing (parelkousa) because for the physical philosophers it is sufficient to use the correct words which refer to the concepts of the world. Epicurus then, in his work On the Canon, says that the criteria of truth are the senses, the preconceptions and the feelings. Epicureans add to these the focusing of thought into an impression. He himself is referring to those in his Epitome to Herodotus and in Principal Doctrines.
The senses are the first criterion of truth, since they create the first impressions and testify the existence of the external world. Sensory input is neither subjective nor deceitful, but the misunderstanding comes when the mind adds to or subtracts something from these impressions through our preconceived notions. Therefore, our sensory input alone cannot lead us to inaccuracy, only the concepts and opinions that come from our interpretations of our sensory input can. Therefore our sensory data is the only truly accurate thing which we have to rely for our understanding of the world around us.
And whatever image we receive by direct understanding by our mind or through our sensory organs of the shape or the essential properties that are the true form of the solid object, since it is created by the constant repetition of the image or the impression it has left behind. There is always inaccuracy and error involved in bringing into a judgment an element that is additional to sensory impressions, either to confirm [what we sensed] or deny it.—Letter to Herodotus, 50
Epicurus said that all the tangible things are real and each impression comes from existing objects and is determined by the object that causes the sensations.—Sextus Empiricus, To Rationals, 8.63
Therefore all the impressions are real, while the preconceived notions are not real and can be modified.—Sextus Empiricus, To Rationals, 7.206–45
If you battle with all your sensations, you will be unable to form a standard for judging which of them are incorrect.—Principal Doctrines, 23
The concepts are the categories which have formed mentally according to our sensory input, for example the concepts "man", "warm", and "sweet", etc. These concepts are directly related to memory and can be recalled at any time, only by the use of the respective word. (Compare the anthropological Sapir–Whorf hypothesis). Epicurus also calls them "the meanings that underlie the words" (hypotetagmena tois phthongois: semantic substance of the words) in his letter to Herodotus. The feelings or emotions (pathe) are related to the senses and the concepts. They are the inner impulses that make us feel like or dislike about certain external objects, which we perceive through the senses, and are associated with the preconceptions that are recalled.
In this moment that the word "man" is spoken, immediately due to the concept [or category of the idea] an image is projected in the mind which is related to the sensory input data.—Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, X, 33
First of all Herodotus, we must understand the meanings that underlie the words, so that by referring to them, we may be able to reach judgments about our opinions, matters of inquiry, or problems and leave everything undecided as we can argue endlessly or use words that have no clearly defined meaning.—Letter to Herodotus, 37
Apart from these there is the assumption (hypolepsis), which is either the hypothesis or the opinion about something (matter or action), and which can be correct or incorrect. The assumptions are created by our sensations, concepts and emotions. Since they are produced automatically without any rational analysis and verification (see the modern idea of the subconscious) of whether they are correct or not, they need to be confirmed (epimarteresis: confirmation), a process which must follow each assumption.
For beliefs they [the Epicureans] use the word hypolepsis which they claim can be correct or incorrect.—Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, X, 34
Referring to the "focusing of thought into an impression" or else "intuitive understandings of the mind", they are the impressions made on the mind that come from our sensations, concepts and emotions and form the basis of our assumptions and beliefs. All this unity (sensation – concept or category – emotion – focusing of thought into an impression) leads to the formation of a certain assumption or belief (hypolepsis). (Compare the modern anthropological concept of a "world view".) Following the lead of Aristotle, Epicurus also refers to impressions in the form of mental images which are projected on the mind. The "correct use of impressions" was something adopted later by the Stoics.
Our assumptions and beliefs have to be 'confirmed', which actually proves if our opinions are either accurate or inaccurate. This verification and confirmation (epimarteresis) can only be done by means of the "evident reason" (henargeia), which means what is self-evident and obvious through our sensory input.
An example is when we see somebody approaching us, first through the sense of eyesight, we perceive that an object is coming closer to us, then through our preconceptions we understand that it is a human being, afterwards through that assumption we can recognize that he is someone we know, for example Theaetetus. This assumption is associated with pleasant or unpleasant emotions accompanied by the respective mental images and impressions (the focusing of our thoughts into an impression), which are related to our feelings toward each other. When he gets close to us, we can confirm (verify) that he is Socrates and not Theaetetus through the proof of our eyesight. Therefore, we have to use the same method to understand everything, even things which are not observable and obvious (adela, imperceptible), that is to say the confirmation through the evident reason (henargeia). In the same way we have to reduce (reductionism) each assumption and belief to something that can be proved through the self-evident reason (empirically verified). Verification theory and reductionism have been adopted, as we know, by the modern philosophy of science. In this way, one can get rid of the incorrect assumptions and beliefs (biases) and finally settle on the real (confirmed) facts.
Consequently the confirmation and lack of disagreement is the criterion of accuracy of something, while non-confirmation and disagreement is the criterion of its inaccuracy. The basis and foundation of [understanding] everything are the obvious and self-evident [facts].—Sextus Empiricus, To Rationals, 7.211–6
All the above-mentioned criteria of knowledge form the basic principles of the [scientific] method, that Epicurus followed in order to find the truth. He described this method in his work On the Canon or On the Criteria.
If you reject any sensation and you do not distinguish between the opinion based on what awaits confirmation and evidence already available based on the senses, the feelings and every intuitive faculty of the mind, you will send the remaining sensations into a turmoil with your foolish opinions, thus getting rid of every standard for judging. And if among the perceptions based on beliefs are things that are verified and things that are not, you are guaranteed to be in error since you have kept everything that leads to uncertainty concerning the correct and incorrect.
(Based on excerpt from Epicurus' Gnoseology Handbook of Greek Philosophy: From Thales to the Stoics Analysis and Fragments, Nikolaos Bakalis, Trafford Publishing 2005, ISBN 1-4120-4843-5)
Tetrapharmakos, or "The four-part cure", is Epicurus' basic guideline as to how to live the happiest possible life. This poetic doctrine was handed down by an anonymous Epicurean who summed up Epicurus' philosophy on happiness in four simple lines:
Don't fear god,
Don't worry about death;
What is good is easy to get, and
What is terrible is easy to endure.
One of the earliest Roman writers espousing Epicureanism was Amafinius. Other adherents to the teachings of Epicurus included the poet Horace, whose famous statement Carpe Diem ("Seize the Day") illustrates the philosophy, as well as Lucretius, as he showed in his De Rerum Natura. The poet Virgil was another prominent Epicurean (see Lucretius for further details).
Julius Caesar leaned considerably toward Epicureanism, which e.g. led to his plea against the death sentence during the trial against Catiline, during the Catiline conspiracy where he spoke out against the Stoic Cato.
In modern times Thomas Jefferson referred to himself as an Epicurean. Other modern-day Epicureans were Gassendi, Walter Charleton, François Bernier, Saint-Evremond, Ninon de l'Enclos, Denis Diderot, Frances Wright and Jeremy Bentham. Christopher Hitchens referred to himself as an Epicurean. In France, Michel Onfray has been developing a post-modern approach to Epicureanism. In his recent book titled The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt identified himself as strongly sympathetic to Epicureanism and Lucretius.
Modern usage and misconceptions
In modern popular usage, an epicurean is a connoisseur of the arts of life and the refinements of sensual pleasures; epicureanism implies a love or knowledgeable enjoyment especially of good food and drink—see the definition of gourmet at Wiktionary.
Because Epicureanism posits that pleasure is the ultimate good (telos), it has been commonly misunderstood since ancient times as a doctrine that advocates the partaking in fleeting pleasures such as constant partying, sexual excess and decadent food. This is not the case. Epicurus regarded ataraxia (tranquility, freedom from fear) and aponia (absence of pain) as the height of happiness. He also considered prudence an important virtue and perceived excess and overindulgence to be contrary to the attainment of ataraxia and aponia.
- Epicurean paradox
- Epikoros (Judaism)
- Hedonic treadmill
- Philosophy of happiness
- Cārvāka, a hedonic Indian school
- Separation of church and state
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- Trans. Robert Pinsky, The Inferno of Dante, p. 320 n. 11.
- On Goals, 1.65
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- Townhall.com::Talk Radio Online::Radio Show
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