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Introduction to Epicurus

Below is a brief biography and an overview of his main ideas. To the right (above on mobile) are links to his surviving writings on ethics.

Who Is Epicurus?

There isn't much information on the biography of Epicurus available to us. Most of what we do know was passed on to us by Diogenes Laertius in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers, the rest is mainly snippets from writer's opposed to Epicurus and his eponymous philosophy, making some reading between the lines necessary. Epicurus was born to Athenian immigrants on the Aegean Sea island of Samos in 341 BC. As a youth he studied under the Platonist Pamphilus. At 18 years old, as was required, he reported to Athens for military service. With the death of Alexander the Great, Athenians on Samos were expelled to Colophon (present day Turkey), Epicurus joined his parents there following his military service. Here he studied under the Democritean Nausiphanes. We next hear of Epicurus when he sets up a school in the capital of the island nation of Lesbos. However, he closed the school and went to Lampsacus (also present day Turkey) after a falling out on Lesbos. He had a somewhat more successful school in Lampsacus but decided to go to Athens and open a school there after only a few years. Arriving in Athens in 306 BC, Epicurus set up his school on the Agora about half way between the Stoic Stoa and the Aristotelian Academy. Calling his school The Garden after its location within his house's garden, Epicurus soon attained a small but devoted following. His was one of the few schools to regularly allow women and slaves to attend, and many of his students lived with him in a communal setting. Epicurus was among the first Greeks to reject abject worship and fear of the gods, yet he felt that we could hold them up as models to help us attain the pleasant life. Rather than being based on servitude to the gods, Epicurus taught that good and bad derive from the sensations of pleasure and pain. What is good is pleasurable, and what is bad is painful. While hedonic in nature, Epicurus' views are best described as ethical or virtuous hedonism. While pleasure is to be desired, taking a pleasure to an extreme invariably leads to pain. Epicurus placed a greater value on friends than he did upon love relationships, as the turmoil associated with love are inevitable and widely recognized. Epicurus taught that one must stay clear of politics and live as anonymously as possible. In Epicurus' view it is impossible to have power over others and to maintain one's inner tranquility. By abstaining from political power, Epicurus and his followers destined themselves to the margins of society. On death, Epicurus stood alone in urging his followers to have no fear. “Death is nothing to us” goes a popular Epicurean maxim; for when we exist, death is not, and where death exists, we are not. Many of his followers had this inscribed on their tombs: “I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care.” Although Epicurus reportedly wrote 37 major works, it is a testament to the hatred of the Stoics and Early Christians that none of these works survive. Only a few letters and scattered maxims remain. Were it not for the poem of Lucretius, written in the first century BC, we would know very little of his views on science and nature. Epicurus divided philosophy into three parts; canonics, physics, and ethics. Canonics is composed of epistemology and logic, while physics explains the universe, and ethics teaches how one should live. The Epicurean canonics holds that we can know things from the senses, preconceptions and anticipations, the perception of external objects, and the passions. For Epicurus the senses are held primary in understanding the world, they are the foundation of reason. The senses are never in error, error arises from our mis-interpretation of them. We sense objects, apply any preconceptions and/or anticipations that we may hold, ask if it brings pleasure or pain, and we arrive at truth; or at least at as much truth as we are presently able to fathom. Epicurean physics maintains that the universe is material and that nothing can come from nothing. Our senses show that things exist and from that we can infer the existence of space as things must exist in something. That something Epicurus called the void, positing that all of the universe is made up of bodies and the void. Bodies perceivable to the senses are composite and can therefore be broken down into their parts. However, there must be something solid beyond which bodies can no longer be broken down. These building blocks of the universe Epicurus called atoms. There are numerous, but not infinite, types of atoms. These are bound together to make up the bodies that we perceive. Atoms exist in a state of motion, due to their weight some atoms fall down while others are pushed up, still others move laterally due to collisions with other atoms. Some of the atoms move laterally of their own volition, it is this swerve that Epicurus added to Democritean atomism to account for free will. Since the universe is wholly materialistic, there is no need to believe in an active divine force controlling things. While rejecting divine intervention in human affairs, Epicurus did not reject the idea that there are gods. He saw prayer and divination as offspring of ignorance and fear. Epicurus did feel, however, that belief in the fables of gods is better than belief in predestination as put forth by other philosophers. For Epicurus, the beginning and the end of living well is pleasure. Remember, for Epicurus, pleasure means ataraxia, translated as robust tranquility—an extreme state of deep contentment. Epicurus differentiates between pleasurable motions and pleasurable states. Eating when you are hungry is a pleasurable motion, being sated after eating is an example of a pleasurable state. States are to be preferred over motions. Epicurus taught that one should seek to be virtuous, but virtue is not the end but only the means toward obtaining tranquility. Pleasure is not derived from indulgence, but from freedom from want. We obtain freedom from desire by classifying all desires into three types: Natural and Necessary (always good), natural but not necessary (ok if they don't impinge on the first type), and vain and empty (always detrimental to well being). By controlling our desires and limiting them to those that are natural and necessary, we are on the path to peaceful tranquility.

Note on Translations

All of the texts linked above have been translated by Peter Saint-Andre and are licensed Creative Commons CCO, Public Domain. You may copy, distribute, sell, and/or create derivative works without the need of permission. Saint-Andre has not endorsed this use of his works.
PracticalWisdom
© 2018 This site uses cookies for navigation and analytics only, no personal information is collected.

Note on

Translations

All of the texts linked above have been translated by Peter Saint- Andre and are licensed Creative Commons CCO, Public Domain. You may copy, distribute, sell, and/or create derivative works without the need of permission. Saint-Andre has not endorsed this use of his works.

Introduction to Epicurus

Below is a brief biography and an overview of his main ideas. To the right (above on mobile) are links to his surviving writings on ethics.

Who Is Epicurus?

There isn't much information on the biography of Epicurus available to us. Most of what we do know was passed on to us by Diogenes Laertius in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers, the rest is mainly snippets from writer's opposed to Epicurus and his eponymous philosophy, making some reading between the lines necessary. Epicurus was born to Athenian immigrants on the Aegean Sea island of Samos in 341 BC. As a youth he studied under the Platonist Pamphilus. At 18 years old, as was required, he reported to Athens for military service. With the death of Alexander the Great, Athenians on Samos were expelled to Colophon (present day Turkey), Epicurus joined his parents there following his military service. Here he studied under the Democritean Nausiphanes. We next hear of Epicurus when he sets up a school in the capital of the island nation of Lesbos. However, he closed the school and went to Lampsacus (also present day Turkey) after a falling out on Lesbos. He had a somewhat more successful school in Lampsacus but decided to go to Athens and open a school there after only a few years. Arriving in Athens in 306 BC, Epicurus set up his school on the Agora about half way between the Stoic Stoa and the Aristotelian Academy. Calling his school The Garden after its location within his house's garden, Epicurus soon attained a small but devoted following. His was one of the few schools to regularly allow women and slaves to attend, and many of his students lived with him in a communal setting. Epicurus was among the first Greeks to reject abject worship and fear of the gods, yet he felt that we could hold them up as models to help us attain the pleasant life. Rather than being based on servitude to the gods, Epicurus taught that good and bad derive from the sensations of pleasure and pain. What is good is pleasurable, and what is bad is painful. While hedonic in nature, Epicurus' views are best described as ethical or virtuous hedonism. While pleasure is to be desired, taking a pleasure to an extreme invariably leads to pain. Epicurus placed a greater value on friends than he did upon love relationships, as the turmoil associated with love are inevitable and widely recognized. Epicurus taught that one must stay clear of politics and live as anonymously as possible. In Epicurus' view it is impossible to have power over others and to maintain one's inner tranquility. By abstaining from political power, Epicurus and his followers destined themselves to the margins of society. On death, Epicurus stood alone in urging his followers to have no fear. “Death is nothing to us” goes a popular Epicurean maxim; for when we exist, death is not, and where death exists, we are not. Many of his followers had this inscribed on their tombs: “I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care.” Although Epicurus reportedly wrote 37 major works, it is a testament to the hatred of the Stoics and Early Christians that none of these works survive. Only a few letters and scattered maxims remain. Were it not for the poem of Lucretius, written in the first century BC, we would know very little of his views on science and nature. Epicurus divided philosophy into three parts; canonics, physics, and ethics. Canonics is composed of epistemology and logic, while physics explains the universe, and ethics teaches how one should live. The Epicurean canonics holds that we can know things from the senses, preconceptions and anticipations, the perception of external objects, and the passions. For Epicurus the senses are held primary in understanding the world, they are the foundation of reason. The senses are never in error, error arises from our mis- interpretation of them. We sense objects, apply any preconceptions and/or anticipations that we may hold, ask if it brings pleasure or pain, and we arrive at truth; or at least at as much truth as we are presently able to fathom. Epicurean physics maintains that the universe is material and that nothing can come from nothing. Our senses show that things exist and from that we can infer the existence of space as things must exist in something. That something Epicurus called the void, positing that all of the universe is made up of bodies and the void. Bodies perceivable to the senses are composite and can therefore be broken down into their parts. However, there must be something solid beyond which bodies can no longer be broken down. These building blocks of the universe Epicurus called atoms. There are numerous, but not infinite, types of atoms. These are bound together to make up the bodies that we perceive. Atoms exist in a state of motion, due to their weight some atoms fall down while others are pushed up, still others move laterally due to collisions with other atoms. Some of the atoms move laterally of their own volition, it is this swerve that Epicurus added to Democritean atomism to account for free will. Since the universe is wholly materialistic, there is no need to believe in an active divine force controlling things. While rejecting divine intervention in human affairs, Epicurus did not reject the idea that there are gods. He saw prayer and divination as offspring of ignorance and fear. Epicurus did feel, however, that belief in the fables of gods is better than belief in predestination as put forth by other philosophers. For Epicurus, the beginning and the end of living well is pleasure. Remember, for Epicurus, pleasure means ataraxia, translated as robust tranquility—an extreme state of deep contentment. Epicurus differentiates between pleasurable motions and pleasurable states. Eating when you are hungry is a pleasurable motion, being sated after eating is an example of a pleasurable state. States are to be preferred over motions. Epicurus taught that one should seek to be virtuous, but virtue is not the end but only the means toward obtaining tranquility. Pleasure is not derived from indulgence, but from freedom from want. We obtain freedom from desire by classifying all desires into three types: Natural and Necessary (always good), natural but not necessary (ok if they don't impinge on the first type), and vain and empty (always detrimental to well being). By controlling our desires and limiting them to those that are natural and necessary, we are on the path to peaceful tranquility.