EPICURUS (/ˌɛpɪˈkjʊərəs/ or /ˌɛpɪˈkjɔːrəs/ ; Greek :
Ἐπίκουρος, Epíkouros, "ally, comrade"; 341–270 BC) was an
ancient Greek philosopher who founded the school of philosophy called
Epicureanism . Only a few fragments and letters of Epicurus's 300
written works remain. Much of what is known about Epicurean philosophy
derives from later followers and commentators.
For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to attain the happy,
tranquil life, characterized by ataraxia —peace and freedom from
fear—and aponia —the absence of pain—and by living a
self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. He taught that pleasure
and pain are measures of what is good and evil; death is the end of
both body and soul and therefore should not be feared; the gods
neither reward nor punish humans; the universe is infinite and
eternal; and events in the world are ultimately based on the motions
and interactions of atoms moving in empty space.
* 1 Biography
* 2 The school
* 3 Teachings
* 3.1 Prefiguring science and ethics
Pleasure as absence of suffering
* 3.3 Epicurean paradox
* 3.5 Politics
* 4 Legacy
* 5 Works
* 7 In literature and popular media
Epicurus and Epicursim
* 9 See also
* 10 Notes
* 11 References
* 12 Further reading
* 13 External links
Part of a series on
Julien Offray de La Mettrie
* Fred Feldman
Theodorus the Atheist
Aristippus the Younger
* Metrodorus of
* David Pearce
Zeno of Sidon
Schools of hedonism
Paradox of hedonism
His parents, Neocles and Chaerestrate, both Athenian-born, and his
father a citizen, had emigrated to the Athenian settlement on the
Aegean island of
Samos about ten years before Epicurus's birth in
February 341 BC. As a boy, he studied philosophy for four years under
the Platonist teacher Pamphilus. At the age of eighteen, he went to
Athens for his two-year term of military service. The playwright
Menander served in the same age-class of the ephebes as Epicurus.
After the death of
Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great ,
Perdiccas expelled the
Athenian settlers on
Samos to Colophon , on the coast of what is now
Turkey. After the completion of his military service,
his family there. He studied under
Nausiphanes , who followed the
Democritus . In 311/310 BC
Epicurus taught in Mytilene
but caused strife and 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 (κῆπος), 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 .
Even though many of his teachings were heavily influenced by earlier
thinkers, especially by Democritus, he differed in a significant way
Democritus on determinism.
Epicurus would often deny this
influence, denounce other philosophers as confused, and claim to be
Epicurus never married and had no known children. He was most likely
a vegetarian . He suffered from kidney stones , to which he finally
succumbed in 270 BC at the age of seventy-two, and despite the
prolonged pain involved, he wrote to Idomeneus :
I have written this letter to you on a happy day to me, which is also
the last day of my life. For I have been attacked by a painful
inability to urinate, and also dysentery, so violent that nothing can
be added to the violence of my sufferings. But the cheerfulness of my
mind, which comes from the recollection of all my philosophical
contemplation, counterbalances all these afflictions. And I beg you to
take care of the children of Metrodorus, in a manner worthy of the
devotion shown by the young man to me, and to philosophy.
Epicurus' school, which was based in the garden of his house and thus
called "The Garden", had a small but devoted following in his
lifetime. The primary members were
Hermarchus , the financier
Idomeneus , Leonteus and his wife Themista , the satirist
the mathematician Polyaenus of
Lampsacus , Leontion, 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. An inscription on the gate
to The Garden is recorded by Seneca in epistle XXI of Epistulae
morales ad Lucilium :
Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is
Epicurus emphasised friendship as an important ingredient of
happiness, and the school resembled in many ways a community of
friends living together. However, he also instituted a hierarchical
system of levels among his followers, and had them swear an oath on
his core tenets.
Epicureanism Small bronze bust of
Herculaneum . Illustration from Baumeister, 1885
PREFIGURING SCIENCE AND ETHICS
Epicurus is a key figure in the development of science and scientific
methodology because of his insistence that nothing should be believed,
except that which was tested through direct observation and logical
deduction. He was a key figure in the
Axial Age , the period from 800
BC to 200 BC, during which, according to
Karl Jaspers , similar
thinking appeared in China, India, Iran, the Near East, and Ancient
Greece. His statement of the
Ethic of Reciprocity as the foundation of
ethics is the earliest in Ancient Greece, and he differs from the
formulation of utilitarianism by
Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill
by emphasising the minimisation of harm to oneself and others as the
way to maximise happiness.
Epicurus's teachings represented a departure from the other major
Greek thinkers of his period, and before, but was nevertheless founded
on many of the same principles as
Democritus . Like Democritus, he was
an atomist, believing that the fundamental constituents of the world
were indivisible little bits of matter (atoms ; Greek: ἄτομος
atomos, "indivisible") flying through empty space (Greek: κενόν
kenon). Everything that occurs is the result of the atoms colliding,
rebounding, and becoming entangled with one another. His theory
differs from the earlier atomism of
Democritus because he admits that
atoms do not always follow straight lines but their direction of
motion may occasionally exhibit a "swerve " (Greek:
παρέγκλισις parenklisis; Latin: clinamen ). This allowed
him to avoid the determinism implicit in the earlier atomism and to
affirm free will .
He regularly admitted women and slaves into his school and was one of
the first Greeks to break from the god-fearing and god-worshipping
tradition common at the time, even while affirming that religious
activities are useful as a way to contemplate the gods and to use them
as an example of the pleasant life.
Epicurus participated in the
activities of traditional Greek religion, but taught that one should
avoid holding false opinions about the gods. The gods are immortal and
blessed and men who ascribe any additional qualities that are alien to
immortality and blessedness are, according to Epicurus, impious. The
gods do not punish the bad and reward the good as the common man
believes. The opinion of the crowd is,
Epicurus claims, that the gods
"send great evils to the wicked and great blessings to the righteous
who model themselves after the gods," whereas
Epicurus believes the
gods, in reality, do not concern themselves at all with human beings.
It is not the man who denies the gods worshipped by the multitude,
who is impious, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude
believes about them.
PLEASURE AS ABSENCE OF SUFFERING
Epicurus' philosophy is based on the theory that all good and bad
derive from the sensations of what he defined as pleasure and pain:
What is good is what is pleasurable, and what is bad is what is
painful. His ideas of pleasure and pain were ultimately, for Epicurus,
the basis for the moral distinction between good and evil. 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, his teachings were more
about striving for an absence of pain and suffering , both physical
and mental, and a state of satiation and tranquillity that was free of
the fear of death and the retribution of the gods.
that when we do not suffer pain, we are no longer in need of pleasure,
and we enter a state of ataraxia , "tranquillity of soul" or
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.
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, contrary to 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 therefore feels nothing.
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 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.
As an ethical guideline,
Epicurus emphasised minimising harm and
maximising happiness of oneself and others:
It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and
well and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and well and
justly without living pleasantly. ("justly" meaning to prevent a
"person from harming or being harmed by another")
The "Epicurean paradox" or "Riddle of Epicurus" is a version of the
problem of evil .
Lactantius attributes this trilemma to
De Ira Dei:
God, he says, either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or He
is able, and is unwilling; or He is neither willing nor able, or He is
both willing and able. If He is willing and is unable, He is feeble,
which is not in accordance with the character of God; if He is able
and unwilling, He is envious, which is equally at variance with God;
if He is neither willing nor able, He is both envious and feeble, and
therefore not God; if He is both willing and able, which alone is
suitable to God, from what source then are evils? Or why does He not
In Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779),
David Hume also
attributes the argument to Epicurus:
Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is he willing to
prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not
willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence
then is evil?
No extant writings of
Epicurus contain this argument and it is
possible that it has been misattributed to him.
Perhaps the earliest expression of the trilemma appears in the
writings of the sceptic
Sextus Empiricus (160–210 AD),who wrote in
his Outlines of Pyrrhonism:
Further, this too should be said. Anyone who asserts that god exists
either says that god takes care of the things in the cosmos or that he
does not, and, if he does take care, that it is either of all things
or of some. Now if he takes care of everything, there would be no
particular evil thing and no evil in general in the cosmos; but the
Dogmatists say that everything is full of evil; therefore god shall
not be said to take care of everything. On the other hand, if he takes
care of only some things, why does he take care of these and not of
those? For either he wishes but is not able, or he is able but does
not wish, or he neither wishes nor is able. If he both wished and was
able, he would have taken care of everything; but, for the reasons
stated above, he does not take care of everything; therefore, it is
not the case that he both wishes and is able to take care of
everything. But if he wishes and is not able, he is weaker than the
cause on account of which he is not able to take care of the things of
which he does not take care; but it is contrary to the concept of god
that he should be weaker than anything. Again, if he is able to take
care of everything but does not wish to do so, he will be considered
malevolent, and if he neither wishes nor is able, he is both
malevolent and weak; but to say that about god is impious. Therefore,
god does not take care of the things in the cosmos.
Epicurus emphasised the senses in his epistemology , and his
Principle of Multiple Explanations ("if several theories are
consistent with the observed data, retain them all") is an early
contribution to the philosophy of science .
There are also some things for which it is not enough to state a
single cause, but several, of which one, however, is the case. Just as
if you were to see the lifeless corpse of a man lying far away, it
would be fitting to list all the causes of death in order to make sure
that the single cause of this death may be stated. For you would not
be able to establish conclusively that he died by the sword or of cold
or of illness or perhaps by poison, but we know that there is
something of this kind that happened to him.
In contrast to the
Stoics , Epicureans showed little interest in
participating in the politics of the day, since doing so leads to
trouble. He instead advocated seclusion. This principle is epitomised
by the phrase lathe biōsas (λάθε βιώσας), meaning "live in
obscurity", "get through life without drawing attention to yourself",
i.e., live without pursuing glory or wealth or power, but anonymously,
enjoying little things like food, the company of friends, etc.
Plutarch elaborated on this theme in his essay Is the Saying "Live in
Obscurity" Right? (Εἰ καλῶς εἴρηται τὸ λάθε
βιώσας, An recte dictum sit latenter esse vivendum) 1128c; cf.
Flavius Philostratus , Vita Apollonii 8.28.12.
But the Epicureans did have an innovative theory of justice as a
social contract. Justice,
Epicurus said, is an agreement neither to
harm nor be harmed, and we need to have such a contract in order to
enjoy fully the benefits of living together in a well-ordered society.
Laws and punishments are needed to keep misguided fools in line who
would otherwise break the contract. But the wise person sees the
usefulness of justice, and because of his limited desires, he has no
need to engage in the conduct prohibited by the laws in any case. Laws
that are useful for promoting happiness are just, but those that are
not useful are not just. (Principal Doctrines 31-40)
Epicurus leaning against his disciple Metrodorus in the
Elements of Epicurean philosophy have resonated and resurfaced in
various diverse thinkers and movements throughout Western intellectual
The atomic poems (such as 'All Things are Governed by Atoms') and the
philosophy of naturalism espoused by
Margaret Cavendish were
influenced by Epicurus.
His emphasis on minimising harm and maximising happiness in his
formulation of the
Ethic of Reciprocity was later picked up by the
democratic thinkers of the
French Revolution , and others, like John
Locke , who wrote that people had a right to "life, liberty, and
property." To Locke, one's own body was part of one's property, and
thus one's right to property would theoretically guarantee safety for
one's person, as well as one's possessions.
This triad, as well as the egalitarianism of Epicurus, was carried
forward into the American freedom movement and Declaration of
Independence , by the American founding father ,
Thomas Jefferson , as
"all men are created equal" and endowed with certain "unalienable
rights ," such as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean.
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding ,
David Hume uses
Epicurus as a character for explaining the impossibility of our
God to be any greater or better than his creation proves him
Karl Marx 's doctoral thesis was on The Difference Between the
Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature.
Epicurus was first to assert human freedom as coming from a
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 (De rerum natura), Lucretius
appears to suggest this in the best-known passage on Epicurus'
position. But in his Letter to Menoeceus,
Epicurus follows Aristotle
and clearly identifies three possible causes - "some things happen of
necessity, others by chance, others through our own agency." Aristotle
said some things "depend on us" (eph'hemin).
Epicurus agreed, and said
it is to these last things that praise and blame naturally attach. For
Epicurus, the "swerve" (or clinamen) of the atoms simply defeated
determinism to leave room for autonomous agency.
Epicurus was also a significant source of inspiration and interest
Arthur Schopenhauer , having particular influence on the
famous pessimist's views on suffering and death, as well as one of
Friedrich Nietzsche . Nietzsche cites his
Epicurus in a number of his works, including The Gay
Beyond Good and Evil , and his private letters to Peter Gast
. Nietzsche was attracted to, among other things, Epicurus' ability to
maintain a cheerful philosophical outlook in the face of painful
physical ailments. Nietzsche also suffered from a number of sicknesses
during his lifetime. However, he thought that Epicurus' conception of
happiness as freedom from anxiety was too passive and negative.
The only surviving complete works by
Epicurus are three letters,
which are to be found in book X of
Diogenes Laërtius ' Lives of
Eminent Philosophers , and two groups of quotes: the Principal
Doctrines (Κύριαι Δόξαι), reported as well in Diogenes'
book X, and the Vatican Sayings, preserved in a manuscript from the
Vatican Library .
Numerous fragments of his thirty-seven volume treatise On Nature have
been found among the charred papyrus fragments at the Villa of the
Herculaneum . In addition, other Epicurean writings found at
Herculaneum contain important quotations from his other works.
Moreover, numerous fragments and testimonies are found throughout
ancient Greek and Roman literature, a collection of which can be found
in Usener 's
According to Diogenes Laertius, the major works of
* Thirty-seven treatises on Natural Philosophy
* On Atoms and the Void
* On Love
* Abridgment of the Arguments employed against the Natural
* Against the Doctrines of the Megarians
* Fundamental Propositions
* On Choice and Avoidance
* On the Chief Good
* On the Criterion (the Canon)
* Chaeridemus, a treatise on the Gods
* On Piety
* Four essays on Lives
* Essay on Just Dealing
* Essay addressed to Themista
* The Banquet
* Essay addressed to Metrodorus
* Essay on Seeing
* Essay on the Angle in an Atom
* Essay on Touch
* Essay on Fate
* Opinions on the Passions
* Treatise addressed to Timocrates
* On Images
* On Perceptions
* Essay on Music
* On Justice and the other Virtues
* On Gifts and Gratitude
* Timocrates (three books)
* Metrodorus (five books)
* Antidorus (two books)
* Opinions about Diseases, addressed to Mithras
* Essay on Kingly Power
According to Diskin Clay,
Epicurus himself established a custom of
celebrating his birthday annually with common meals, befitting his
stature as heros ktistes (or founding hero) of the Garden. He ordained
in his will annual memorial feasts for himself on the same date (10th
of Gamelion month ). Epicurean communities continued this tradition,
Epicurus as their "saviour" (soter ) and celebrating him
Epicurus as the main character of his
De rerum natura . The hero cult of
Epicurus may have
operated as a Garden variety civic religion . However, clear evidence
of an Epicurean hero cult, as well as the cult itself, seems buried by
the weight of posthumous philosophical interpretation. Epicurus'
cheerful demeanour, as he continued to work despite dying from a
painful stone blockage of his urinary tract lasting a fortnight,
according to his successor
Hermarchus and reported by his biographer
Diogenes Laërtius , further enhanced his status among his followers.
IN LITERATURE AND POPULAR MEDIA
Paul the Apostle
Paul the Apostle encountered Epicurean and Stoic philosophers as he
was ministering in
Horace describes himself as Epicuri de grege porcum "a swine from
Epicurus's herd" in his Epistles .
In Canto X Circle 6 ("Where the heretics lie") of Dante 's Inferno ,
Epicurus and his followers are criticised for supporting a
materialistic ideal when they are mentioned to have been condemned to
the Circle of Heresy.
Chaucer's Frankeleyn, in the General Prologue of his Canterbury
Tales, is described as an Epicurean: "Wel loved he by the morwe a sop
in wyn; / To lyven in delit was evre his wone, / For he was Epicurus
owene sone, / That heeld opinioun that pleyn delit / Was verray
felicitee parfit" (344-38).
Epicurus the Sage is a two-part comic book by William Messner-Loebs
Sam Kieth portraying
Epicurus as "the only sane philosopher" by
anachronistically bringing him together with many other well-known
Greek philosophers. It was republished as graphic novel by the
Wildstorm branch of
DC Comics .
EPICURUS AND EPICURSIM
In Rabbinic literature the term Epikoros is used, without a specific
reference to Epicurus, yet it seems apparent that the term was derived
from his name.
Epicurus's apparent hedonistic views (as Epicurus' ethics was
hedonistic) and philosophical teachings, though opposed to the
Hedonists of his time, countered Jewish scripture, the strictly
monotheistic conception of
God in Judaism
God in Judaism and the Jewish belief in the
afterlife and the world to come.
The Talmudic interpretation is that the
Aramaic word is derived from
the root-word פק"ר (PKR; lit. licentious), hence disrespect.
The Christian censorship of the Jewish
Talmud in the aftermath of the
Disputation of Barcelona and during the
Spanish Inquisition and Roman
Inquisition , let the term spread within the Jewish classical texts,
since Roman Catholic Church censors replaced terms like Minim
("sectarians", coined on the Christians) with the term Epikorsim or
Epicursim, meaning heretics .
Philosophy of happiness
Separation of church and state
Separation of church and state
Diogenes Laërtius , The Lives and Opinions of Eminent
* ^ Jones, Daniel (2006). Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary.
17th edition. Cambridge UP.
* ^ Apollodorus of
Athens (reported by
Diogenes Laertius , Lives of
Eminent Philosophers, 10.14–15) gives his birth on the fourth day of
the month February in the third year of the 109th
Olympiad , in the
archonship of Sosigenes
* ^ "
Epicurus - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy".
* ^ http://www.jstor.org/stable/4182030
* ^ "The Hidden History of Greco-Roman Vegetarianism".
* ^ Dombrowski, Daniel A. (1984). The Philosophy of Vegetarianism.
ISBN 0870234315 .
* ^ A B Bitsori, Maria; Galanakis, Emmanouil (2004). "Epicurus’
death". World Journal of Urology. 22 (6): 466–469. PMID 15372192 .
doi :10.1007/s00345-004-0448-2 .
* ^ In the second year of the 127th Olympiad, in the archonship of
Pytharatus, according to
Diogenes Laertius , Lives of Eminent
Diogenes Laertius , Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 10.22
(trans. C.D. Yonge).
* ^ Long, A. A. (1986). Hellenistic philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans,
Sceptics. p. 15.
* ^ Two women, Axiothea and Lastheneia, were known to have been
admitted by Plato. See Hadot, Pierre. Qu'est-ce que la philosophie
antique?, page 99, Gillimard 1995.
Pythagoras is also believed to have
inducted one woman, Theano, into his order.
* ^ "Epistulae morales ad Lucilium".
* ^ The only fragment in Greek about this central notion is from
the Oenoanda inscription (fr. 54 in Smith's edition). The best known
reference is in Lucretius's On the nature of things, .
* ^ letter by
Menoeceus ; see
Diogenes Laërtius de
clarorum philosophorum vitis, dogmatibus et apophthegmatibus libri
decem (X, 123)
* ^ Folse, Henry (2005). How Epicurean
Metaphysics leads to
Epicurean Ethics. Department of Philosophy, Loyola University, New
* ^ Konstan, David. Epicurus, The Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition). forthcoming URL =
* ^ C, Yapijakis (2009). "
Hippocrates of Kos, the father of
clinical medicine, and Asclepiades of Bithynia, the father of
molecular medicine. Review". In Vivo. 23 (4): 507–14. PMID 19567383
* ^ Cicero, Marcus Tullius . "II.82". De finibus bonorum et
malorum. ISBN 3-519-01219-7 .
* ^ Rosenbaum, Stephen. Appraising Death In Human Life: Two Modes
Of Valuation, in French, Peter, and Wettstein, Howard (editors), Life
Metaphysics And Ethics, Midwest Studies In Philosophy,
volume XXIV. Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 2000, p.153 (
to have believed fearing death ... . his conclusion should be
understood to be that the fact that a person dies is bad nothing is
any longer good or bad for him or her.') Books.Google.com (accessed
* ^ "
Epicurus (c 341-270 BC)". British Humanist Association.
* ^ "
Epicurus Principal Doctrines 5 and 31 transl. by Robert Drew
* ^ Lucretius.
* ^ The poem version can be found in: Carus, Titus
2008). Of The Nature of Things. Project Gutenberg EBook. 785. William
Ellery Leonard (translator). Project Gutenberg. Book VI, Section
Extraordinary and Paradoxical Telluric Phenomena, Line 9549–9560
John Locke (1689) "
Two Treatises of Government#Property "
* ^ Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean (1819): "Letter,
Thomas Jefferson to William Short"
* ^ 2.251-262 "On the Nature of Things, 289-293" Check url= value
* ^ "
Epicurus page on Information Philosopher; cf. Letter to
* ^ D. Smith, Nicholas. Reason and religion in Socratic philosophy.
p. 160. ISBN 0-19-513322-6 .
* ^ Glad, Clarence E. Paul and Philodemus: adaptability in
Epicurean and early Christian psychology. p. 176. ISBN 90-04-10067-9 .
* ^ Nussbaum, Martha Craven. The Therapy of Desire: Theory and
Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. p. 119. ISBN 0-691-14131-2 .
* ^ Clay, Diskin. Paradosis and survival: three chapters in the
history of Epicurean philosophy. p. 76. ISBN 0-472-10896-4 .
* ^ The Holy Bible, Acts 17:18
* ^ Horace, Epistles Bk I, ep. 4 v. 16.
* ^ "Epikoros". encyclopedia.com.
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