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Epicurus

Epicurus

Epicurus (ca. 342-270 B.C.) was a Greek philosopher and the founder of Epicureanism. He was the first of the overt therapy philosophers and an upholder of the atomic theory.

Epicurus was born either in Samos or in Athens. He spent his youth in the Athenian colony of Samos, and at the age of 18 he made his way to Athens. In the upheaval resulting from the death of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.), the Athenian colonists, including Epicurus's father, Neocles, were driven out of Samos. Epicurus rejoined his father in Colophon and spent the next several years in Colophon, Lampsacus, and Mytilene, gathering disciples to his own emerging philosophical doctrines

About 307/306 Epicurus returned to Athens, and at first, according to Diogenes Laertius, seems to have spent some time with other professional philosophers in the pursuit of philosophy. Soon, however, he founded his own school, which has since borne his name. Epicurus was subject, even in his own lifetime, to opprobrious comment; among other things he was accused of gluttony, womanizing, and unwarranted contempt for other philosophers, antecedent and contemporary. Given the strength of his own convictions, the latter accusation may have had substance; all evidence we have suggests that Epicurus spoke his mind. The other accusations appear to be groundless. He was physically infirm and lived a life of abstemiousness, if not of complete asceticism. He was characterized by his love for his parents, his generosity to his brothers, and his gentleness toward his slaves. He was also respectful to the gods, no doubt on the grounds that they were the example of that freedom from physical pain and mental tranquility that he saw as the supreme human goal.

Written Works

Epicurus's output was very large; Diogenes Laertius, his principal biographer, lists 40 works, one of them, On Nature, comprising 37 books. All that has survived is what seems to be an abridged version of Epicurus's philosophy in the form of three letters, a few fragments, and a collection of his more important sayings entitled Major Opinions. The latter, however, is likely a compendium put together by disciples, as is undoubtedly the case with the Senteniae Vaticanae, discovered in the 19th century. The Letter to Herodotus deals with Epicurus's physics and his theory of knowledge and perception. The Letter to Pythocles deals with his far less confident opinions on astronomy and meteorology. And the Letter to Menoeceus treats his theory of conduct.

Atomic Theory

All that exists, Epicurus says, consists of matter, void, and their accidents, or properties. The universe is infinite in time and space and contains an infinite number of eternally moving indestructible elements called "atoms." The number of types of atom is, he says, "inconceivably large," and there is an infinite number of each type. The atoms are not further splittable, though they are logically divisible into "minimal parts," which serve as integral units of measurement in the distinguishing of different sizes of atoms. The atoms are like sense objects in possessing mass, size, and shape.

"Creation from nothing" and "substantial" change are meaningless terms. Any change in the universe is reducible to alteration of position. Atoms are invisible, by definition; and their motions, be it in the "free fall" of the void, or from mutual collision, or in the "vibration" within a compound body, are of equal velocity, which he equates with the "speed of thought." In this respect size, mass, and other factors are irrelevant. In the matter of speed the only difference between atoms is that, thanks to the deflections consequent upon collisions, the net distance covered by one atom will differ from that covered by another.

In the infinite universe there is an infinite number of earth systems similar to our own, constantly waxing and waning. These earth systems are of various shapes, but in each instance the "earth" is a plane, like our own. "Up" and "down" are apparently meaningful terms to Epicurus, even in an infinite universe; what is "up" for our earth system is "down" for the one immediately "above" us. The universe is an infinity of space "up" and an infinity of space "down."

The question of the first collision of atoms is not discussed in the extant works of Epicurus. The problem is an acute one, since atoms falling eternally "down" at uniform speed will never meet, and the organized world described by Epicurus becomes an impossibility. It seems clear from other ancient sources that Epicurus did in fact postulate a "swerve" of one or more atoms as the initial or eternally recurring source of the collisions that are so crucial to his physical theory.

Whether Epicurus also postulated the existence of such a swerve of one or more soul atoms, early on in life, to account for man's free will is a matter for current conjecture. What we are sure of is that, by apparent contrast with Democritus, Epicurus was an atomist who was also profoundly antideterminist.

Sensations, Feelings, and Concepts

The criteria for judging questions of truth content and moral worth are primitive sensations, primitive feelings, and "concepts" (which ultimately reduce to the first two). A life lived in accord with these will achieve the maximal human good—freedom from bodily pain and freedom from mental anxiety. In the matter of sense perception, truth is attained by direct contact with the shape and qualities of an object, either by physical contact or by apprehension of the "idols" incessantly streaming off all physical subjects and, at least for a time, retaining their form and color.

Error lies in the hasty interposition of opinion into this scheme of things, without waiting for the corroboration of further sense evidence. Concepts, being constructs of sense data and feelings, are meaningful and helpful as criteria to the degree that they stem directly from sense data and feelings, without the interposition of hasty opinion. Among such concepts are the two crucial ones of atoms and void, the existence of neither of which is amenable to empirical demonstration.

Views on the Gods, the Soul, and Death

A crucial exception to all this is constituted by the "idols" of the gods. These penetrate the mind directly to form our concepts, without previously impinging upon the sense organs or influencing our feelings. Our certitude of the gods' existence stems from the clarity of our mental perception of the fact; men's view of their nature, however, says Epicurus, is usually ridiculous—thanks again to the interposition of groundless opinion into the matter. The gods live eternal lives of contentment in the void of the universe and have no concern with men. There are no rewards or punishments after death; death is extinction. Dying might reasonably—though mistakenly, he feels— seem a cause for fear; to fear death itself, however, is absurd, since it brings nothing in its wake.

This cardinal tenet about the nature of the gods and death is bound up with Epicurus's views on the soul. In spite of his physical theory, he is still (perhaps surprisingly) a dualist in matters concerning the mind and the body. Soul or mind, however, he sees as completely material; it is composed of very small, fine, round atoms. It gives sensation to the body and in turn needs the receptacle of the body to exercise its function of sensing. The body, at the same time, is given a degree of sensation by the soul. But neither soul nor body can sense apart; hence the fact that their dissolution at death is immediate annihilation for the whole person.

Epicurus therefore suggests that the end of human life should be pleasure—defining it as freedom from physical and mental pain. The positive delights that other men call "pleasure" are merely variations on the true, basic, contentment man needs and can easily achieve; they in no sense increase his happiness. A good life is guided by practical wisdom, a sense of responsibility for our decision making, self-sufficiency, and the careful application of the hedonistic calculus. This necessarily involves freedom from all fear and knowledge of the limits of our desires. Once we see that only "necessary" and nonharmful desires need be assuaged, we have removed a major obstacle to the achieving of the plenitude of human contentment.

Epicurus advocated (and practiced) a life of withdrawal from politics. The highest human communion was for him the company of friends. The degree of happiness these gave him is eloquently attested to in a last letter to Idomeneus: "On this truly happy day of my life, as I am at the point of death, I write this to you. The disease in my bladder and stomach are pursuing their course, lacking nothing of their natural severity; but against all this is the joy in my heart at the recollection of my conversations with you."

Further Reading

For a fully annotated edition of Epicurus's extant works consult Epicurus: The Extant Remains, edited and translated by Cyril Bailey (1926). This book, while open to criticism on some matters of detail, is still the most reliable edition in English. Bailey's more discursive study, The Greek Atomists and Epicurus (1928), is also recommended. A book notable for the quality of its scholarship and the depth of its sympathy with Epicurus is A.-J. Festugière, Epicurus and His Gods, translated by C. W. Chilton (1955). For a sophisticated study of two basic problems in Epicurus see David J. Furley, Two Studies in the Greek Atomists (1967). Norman Wentworth De Witt, Epicurus and His Philosophy (1954), and Benjamin Farrington, The Faith of Epicurus (1967), should both be used with caution. See also George A. Panichas, Epicurus (1967). □

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Epicurus

Epicurus

(b. Samos, 341 B.C; d. Athens, 270 B.C)

moral and natural philosophy.

Epicurus’ father, Neocles, a schoolmaster, was an Athenian of the deme Gargettus who emigrated to the Athenian colony in Samos. At eighteen Epicurus was required to go to Athens to do his military service, after which he rejoined his family, who had by then moved to the Ionian mainland town of Colophon. When he was thirty-two he moved to Mytilene, on Lesbos, and then to Lampsacus on the Hellespont; in both places he set up a school. He returned to Athens about 307/306 B.C. and bought a house, with a garden that became the eponymous headquarters of his school of philosophy. His extant writings, apart from fragments of lost works, consist of Letter to Herodotus, which is a summary of his philosophy of nature; Letter to Pythocles, on celestial phenomena (possibly the work of a pupil); Letter to Menoeceus, on morality; and two collections of aphorisms, one called Kyriai doxai (Principal Doctrines), the other now known as The Vatican Collection.

Epicurus’ main concern was to teach an attitude toward life that would lead to personal happiness. He rejected the philosophical ideals of the good life propounded by the Platonists and Aristotelians and substituted a moderate hedonism. Pleasure is the good. Pain is the obstacle to be removed or avoided. Unsatisfied desires are painful, so the wise man learns to limit his desires to things that can easily be obtained. The good Epicurean seeks a quiet life with a few like-minded friends and avoids becoming deeply involved in the affairs of the world.

The moral message was reinforced by a cosmology, and it was this that gave Epicurus whatever importance he has for the history of science. Peace of mind, he thought, was threatened by ignorance about the natural world, by certain widespread beliefs in the intervention by supernatural powers in man’s environment, and by belief in rewards and punishments in a life after death: “If we were not troubled by doubts about the heavens, and about the possible meaning of death, and by failure to understand the limits of pain and desire, then we should have no need of natural philosophy [øυσιολογία]” (Kyriai doxai, 11).

Epicurus found a world view that suited his moral purpose in the atomism of Leucippus and Democritus, which he first learned from his teacher Nausiphanes. The historian is in no position to make an accurate assessment of Epicurus’ originality, since information about Democritus is scanty and biased. It is certain that the main framework of the atomist system was completed by Democritus. All phenomena were explained on the assumption that the whole natural world consists of imperceptibly small, indestructible, and changeless atoms, made of a single common substance, differing only in shape and size, moving in the infinite void. Democritus explained how perceptible qualities were generated in compounds according to the shapes and sizes of the component atoms and the quantity of void between them. He gave some account of the origin and destruction of worlds in the infinite universe, brought about by random collisions of atoms moving through the void. He wrote about the natural origin of living forms and the natural development of human society and culture.

All of this was taken over by Epicurus. Several modifications in the system can be observed, however, and no doubt more would be revealed if the evidence were more complete. Some of the modifications can be seen to be attempts to meet criticisms brought against Democritus by Aristotle. For example, Aristotle’s criticism of “indivisible magnitudes” (especially in Physics, Z) appears to be the reason for Epicurus’ contradicting Democritus about the indivisibility of the atoms; the Epicurean atom has “minimal parts” that can be distinguished theoretically but not split off physically (Letter to Herodotus, 56–59). Aristotle’s analysis of “the voluntary” (Nicomachean Ethics, III, 1–5) was one of the factors that led to the notorious “swerve” of atoms in Epicurean theory. Democritus’ theory of motion was thought not to allow human beings to initiate motion, since all the motions of the atoms that constitute a mind could be explained by their own previous motions and their interaction with the environment. Epicurus said that atoms deviated unpredictably from time to time, and thus he provided for breaks in the chains of causation. He also modified Democritus’ theory of motion in another way: instead of taking basic atomic motion as an unexplained assumption of the theory, he said that all atoms have a natural motion “downwards,” because of weight. The swerve was therefore needed for another purpose, since without it the theory could not explain why atoms do not all drop in parallel straight lines through the infinite void, without colliding.

Some of Epicurus’ views about the natural world were extremely naive and reactionary. His avowed purpose was to pursue the inquiry only as far as was necessary to remove anxiety. His “canonic,” or rules of procedure, held that any view not in conflict with the evidence of the senses could be regarded as true. Thus the hypothesis that the cosmos was created by an intelligent deity was ruled out as being in conflict with the observed facts of the world’s imperfections and with the true conception of what it is to be a god (Letter to Herodotus, 76–77; see also Lucretius, De rerum natura, V, 55–234). But the sun’s motion in the ecliptic may be due to the tilting of the heavens, or to winds, or to some other cause (Letter to Pythocles, 93). De rerum natura, book VI, and Letter to Pythocles contain many cases in which multiple explanations, ranging from the more or less correct to the ridiculous, are offered for natural phenomena.

The main importance of Epicurus for the history of science is that he reasserted the principles of Democritus’ atomic theory in opposition to the teleological natural philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. His own major work, On Nature, did not survive long enough to be very influential; but the essentials of his theory were preserved in the letters that Diogenes Laeritius included in book X of his Lives and Opinions of the Philosophers, in some of the philosophical works of Cicero, and especially in the poem De rerum natura of the devoted Roman Epicurean, Lucretius. These were the main sources from which post-Renaissance philosophers drew their knowledge of ancient atomism, when Aristotelianism began at last to lose its dominant position.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Text with English translation and commentary is in Cyril Bailey, Epicurus (Oxford, 1926; repr. New York, 1970). The most recent critical edition is G. Arrighetti, Epicure (Turin, 1960), with Italian trans. and commentary; this also includes the papyrus fragments of On Nature. English translation is in Russel M. Geer, Epicurus: Letters, Principal Doctrines and Vatican Sayings (New York, 1964). Text with ancient testimonia is in H. Usener, Epicurea (Leipzig, 1887; repr. Stuttgart, 1966).

Studies of Epicureanism include Cyril Bailey, The Greek Atomists and Epicurus (Oxford, 1928; repr. New York, 1964); Benjamin Farrington, The Faith of Epicurus (New York, 1967); David J. Furley, Two Studies in the Greek Atomists (Princeton, 1967); Jürgen Mau, Zum Problem des Infinitesimalen bei den antiken Atomisten (Berlin, 1954); W. Schmid, Epikurs Kritik der platonischen Elementenlehre (Leipzig, 1936); “Epikur.” in Realexikon für Antike und Christentum (Stuttgart, 1961); and Gregory Vlastos, “Minimal Parts in Epicurean Atomism,” Isis, 56 (1965), 121–147.

A conference on Epicureanism is recorded by Association Guillaume Budé, Actes du VIIIe congrés, Paris, 5–10 avril 1968 (Paris, 1969).

Later history of Epicureanism is discussed in Marie Boas, “The Establishment of the Mechanical Philosophy,” in Osiris, 10 (1952), 412–541; Robert H. Kargon, Atomism in England From Harlot to Newton (Oxford, 1966); and Kurd Lasswitz, Geschichte der Atomistik vom Mittelalter his Newton (Hamburg, 1890; repr. Hildesheim, 1963).

For fuller bibliography, see Bursian’s Jahresbericht über die Fortschritte der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, no. 281 (1943), pp. 1–194; and P. DeLacy, “Some Recent Publications on Epicurus and Epicureanism, 1937–1954,” in Classical Weekly, 48 (1955), 169 ff.

David J. Furley

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Epicurus

Epicurus

Should we fear death? A very famous argument of why we should not was offered some 2,300 years ago by the philosopher Epicurus. Epicurus (341271 b.c.e.) authored around 300 scrolls, but only three letters and a few fragments have survived, being passed down in a biography by Diogenes Laertius four centuries after Epicurus's death. Born of Athenian parents and raised on the island colony of Samos, Epicurus was introduced to philosophy as a teenager when he encountered followers of Plato and Democritus. Democritus's philosophy was to have a lasting effect on Epicurus's mature thinking. In 306 b.c.e., Epicurus began his own school in an area known as the "Garden." The school was unique in accepting women and even slavesa point ridiculed by aristocratic critics. The school flourished and soon rivaled the established Academy (founded by Plato) and Lyceum (founded by Aristotle). Students came to deeply revere Epicurus, who became known for cultivating friendship. After his death, they began to celebrate his life with monthly feasts. His ideas spread quickly and with profound effects. The Roman poet Lucretius (9555 b.c.e.) espouses Epicurean philosophy in his "On the Nature of Things."

Epicurus was interested in how one could achieve happiness. He believed that unhappiness is a kind of "disturbance in the mind," caused by irrational beliefs, desires, and fears. Among human desires, he argued, some are "natural and necessary," others are "vain." Among the vain are desires for a life of luxury and indulgence. This fuels the myth that epicureanism condones the maxim, "Eat, drink, and be merry." Although Epicurus was the father of hedonism (from the Greek word hedone, meaning "pleasure"), he did not encourage every kind of pleasure, as expressed in his Letter to Menoeceus : "We do not mean the pleasures of profligates and those that consist in sensuality . . . but freedom from pain in the body and trouble in the mind." The chief pleasure sought after was pleasure of the mindtranquility (ataraxia )which can be produced by "banishing mere opinions to which are due the greatest disturbance of spirit" (Bailey 1926, p. 127ff). Epicurus concentrated on two fears: the gods and death. How can these fears be banished as irrational and vain?

Arguing in his Principal Doctrines that "without natural science it is not possible to attain our pleasures unalloyed" (Bailey 1926, p. 97), he turned to Democritus's atomism, which held that the universe and everything in it is the product of accidental forces and composed of small bits of matter called atoms (atomoi ). Epicurus accepted this as a reasonable explanation of life, and also saw in it the solution to human fears. As he puts forth in his Letter, in death the subject simply ceases to exist (the atoms are dispersed) and is therefore touched neither by the gods nor the experience of death itself:

. . . death is nothing to us. For all good and evil consists in sensation, but death is deprivation of sensation. And therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not because it adds to it an infinite span of time, but because it takes away the craving for immortality. For there is nothing terrible in life for the man who has truly comprehended that there is nothing terrible in not living. [Death] does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more. (Bailey 1926, pp. 124125)

Many scholars have objected to this argument by noting that it is often the anticipation of death, not the event itself, that disturbs humankind. For example, the scholar Warren Shibles points out that Epicurus's argument amounts to showing that "we cannot fear the state of death because we will not be conscious after death. But we certainly can fear losing consciousness" (Shibles 1974, p. 38). But Epicurus would most likely reply, as he did to similar concerns, "That which gives no trouble when it comes, is but an empty pain in anticipation" (Bailey 1926, pp. 124125).

See also: Philosophy, Western; Plato; Socrates

Bibliography

Epicurus. "Letter to Menoeceus." In Epicurus: The Extant Remains, translated by Cyril Bailey. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926.

Epicurus. Prinicpal Doctrines. In Epicurus: The Extant Remains, translated by Cyril Bailey. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926.

Shibles, Warren. Death: An Interdisciplinary Analysis. Madison, WI: The Language Press, 1974.

WILLIAM COONEY

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Epicurus

EPICURUS

EPICURUS. Epicurus, a Greek philosopher (341270 b.c.e.), has involuntarily given his name to the fastidious pursuit of pleasure. Born on the Greek island of Samos, Epicurus lived and taught mainly in Athens, where he was a precise contemporary of the playwright Menander. The Epicurean school of philosophy, which he founded, centered on his house and garden in Athens. He and his pupils, who included slaves and women, followed a secluded and austere lifestyle there.

Epicurus taught that the gods have no effect on human affairs, that the universe was created by the random swerve of an atom, and that pleasure is the goal of a happy life. His definition of pleasure is, however, a rather negative one, the removal of disturbance and pain. Since pain is caused by unsatisfied desire, one must reduce one's desires to the minimum. The unavoidable demands of instinct must be satisfied; philosophical study is the best way to conquer all desires beyond that point.

Epicurus is not an ideal choice as a spiritual patron of gastronomes or hedonists. Yet he invited this view of his philosophy with such pronouncements as, "The beginning and root of all good is to make the stomach happy: wisdom and learning are founded on that" (Athenaeus, Deipnosophists [Professors at dinner], 546 ff.). The belief that Epicurus favored sensual pleasures can be traced to his contemporaries, and to their understandable misinterpretation of his own words.

See also Greece, Ancient .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

A few short writings by Epicurus survive. See Eugene Michael O'Connor, trans., The Essential Epicurus: Letters, Principal Doctrines, Vatican Sayings, and Fragments (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1993), and Brad Inwood and L. P. Gerson, trans., The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia (Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1994). His beliefs are eloquently explained in a Latin poem by Lucretius, Lucretius on the Nature of the Universe, translated by Ronald Latham, with an introduction by John Godwin (London: Penguin, 1994; first published 1951). The papyrus rolls found at Herculaneum in the eighteenth century had come from the working library of an Epicurean teacher of the first century b.c.e. and include some of Epicurus's works. For the Deipnosophists of Athenaeus, quoted above, see vol. 5, pp. 477481, of C. B. Gulick's translation (London: Heinemann, 1933; New York: Putnam, 1933).

Andrew Dalby

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Epicurus

Epicurus (ĕpĬkyŏŏr´əs), 341–270 BC, Greek philosopher, b. Samos; son of an Athenian colonist. He claimed to be self-taught, although tradition states that he was schooled in the systems of Plato and Democritus by his father and various philosophers. He taught in several towns in Asia Minor before going to Athens c.306 BC There Epicurus purchased the famous garden that has become linked in the annals of philosophy with the Academy of Plato and the Lyceum of Aristotle. He was a generous and genial man who lived on the warmest terms with his followers. Although his writings were voluminous, only fragments remain. Epicurus defined philosophy as the art of making life happy and strictly subordinated metaphysics to ethics, naming pleasure as the highest and only good. However, for Epicurus pleasure was not heedless indulgence but the opposite, ataraxia [serenity], manifesting itself in the avoidance of pain. His hedonism differed from the cruder variety of Aristippus and the Cyrenaics in the emphasis that it placed on ataraxia and on the superiority of intellectual pleasures over bodily pleasures. He also prescribed a code of social conduct, which advocated honesty, prudence, and justice in dealing with others, not because these virtues were good in themselves, but because they saved the individual from society's retribution. While Epicurus appropriated much of the mechanics of Democritus' metaphysics, he deviated from its deterministic implications by the introduction of an element of spontaneity, which allowed atoms to form the objects of the world by chance. The element of freedom in his metaphysics supported and paralleled his notion of the freedom of the will. He held blind destiny to be more dangerous to one's ataraxia than belief in fables about the gods; people could hope to propitiate the gods, but mechanical determinism was inexorable. He denied that the gods had supernatural powers that allowed them to interfere with humanity or nature. The system of Epicurus deemphasized the traditional power of religious and physical forces on human life and emphasized our freedom of action. The work of the Roman poet Lucretius, De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), contains the finest exposition of Epicurus' ideas.

See studies by E. Asmis (1984), R. M. Strozier (1985), and H. Jones (1989).

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Epicurus

Epicurus (c.341–270 bc) Greek philosopher, founder of Epicureanism. Born on the island of Samos, he began teaching philosophy at the age of 32. Epicurus settled in Athens in 306 bc, and taught students in his garden. He wrote many books and letters, only fragments remain.

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Epicurus

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"Epicurus." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Epicurus." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/epicurus

"Epicurus." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved July 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/epicurus