Epicureanism and the Epicurean School

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The Epicureans perpetuated their founder's teaching with little change. Of Epicurus's immediate circle, the most distinguished was Metrodorus of Lampsacus (c. 330277 BCE), who predeceased his master. Metrodorus was elevated by Epicurus to a position of eminencehe alone shared the appellation "wise" (sophos ), and his works were regarded as authoritative statements of doctrine. He wrote on epistemology, ethics, religion, poetry, and rhetoric, and he composed polemics against Plato's Gorgias and Euthyphro, and against Democritus.

Colotes of Lampsacus, another member of the original circle, published a comprehensive refutation of other schools under the title "That the Doctrines of the Other Philosophers Actually Make Life Impossible." Our knowledge of it comes from Plutarch's Reply to Colotes. His other writings included attacks on Plato's Lysis and Euthydemus and on the myth of Er in the Republic.

Hermarchus of Mytilene (325c. 250 BCE) was Epicurus's successor as head of the school. His chief work, in twenty-two books, was on Empedocles. He also wrote on the arts (including rhetoric), attacked Plato and Aristotle, and left a collection of letters.

Polystratus succeeded Hermarchus. Two of his works have been recovered in part from the library at Herculaneum; the better preserved is "On Unreasonable Contempt for Popular Opinion."

In the second and first centuries BCE the school continued to flourish. One member, Philonides, enjoyed the friendship of Antiochus Epiphanes (king of Syria, 175164 BCE) and attained some standing as a mathematician. Later in the second century Zeno of Sidon lectured in Athens on logic, rhetoric, poetry, and mathematics; and he introduced into his ethical teaching many of the commonplaces of the popular moral essays developed by rival schools, including the use of moral examples drawn from literary sources. Zeno's older contemporary, Demetrius of Laconia, also composed popular moral essays and wrote on logic and poetics. These men's rivals were chiefly Stoics, and under the pressure of controversy they occasionally gave new formulations to Epicurean teaching. Whether they were concerned to any great extent with the atomic theory is uncertain; it appears that they did align themselves more closely than did their predecessors with the traditions of Greek paideia, perhaps for the added prestige it gave them as they spread their doctrine to the east and west. (Both Zeno and Demetrius counted Romans among their students.) Yet there were a few diehards; one of the rare schisms in the school developed over the question of whether rhetoric is an art. The use of literary embellishment as a means of persuasion was contrary to the principles of the strict Epicureans, who seem to have been influenced by Plato's Gorgias. Yet one group accepted epideictic oratory as a legitimate pursuit.

In the first half of the first century BCE Philodemus of Gadara (in Syria), who had attended the lectures of Zeno in Athens, founded at Naples an Epicurean group with liberal tendencies. The Epicurean library at Herculaneum has yielded extensive passages from his many writings, which included moral treatises, biographies of philosophers, a history of the philosophical schools, and such polemical works as "On the Gods" and On Methods of Inference. Among his followers were persons of considerable eminence, notably Piso Caesoninus, Roman consul in 58 BCE, who was his principal patron. To such as these, we may suppose, he addressed "On Wealth," "On the Management of Property," and "On the Good King in Homer." This last piece is remarkable, not so much for its concern with a political matter (Epicurus had written "On Kingship") as for its use of Homer as an authority. (The Epicureans' rejection of the traditional Greek education led them to minimize the importance of the Homeric poems and to challenge the wisdom of Homer.)

Philodemus's treatises "On Rhetoric," "On Poems," and "On Music" were orthodox to the extent of maintaining that these arts are not suitable media for philosophical teaching or moral training; yet Philodemus conceded to them a positive value as art forms. Indeed, he himself had literary pretensions and composed a number of short poems. As a philosopher he won a qualified respect from Cicero. With Siro, his colleague, he attracted to the school a group of young Latin poets, among them Vergil; there is, however, no evidence to connect the school at Naples with the Roman Epicurean Lucretius.

Under the empire the Epicureans, true to their own precept, withdrew from public view. The last conspicuous member of the school was Diogenes of Oenoanda (a town in Lycia), who about 200 CE published the wisdom of Epicurus for his fellow townsmen by having a number of Epicurean writings inscribed on a wall at the entrance to the town. Most of the texts, apparently, he composed himself; two are on natural science, the remainder on ethics. He also included some of Epicurus's sayings and a letter from Epicurus to his mother.

See also Aristotle; Empedocles; Epicurus; Homer; Leucippus and Democritus; Lucretius; Philodemus; Plato; Stoicism.


Our knowledge of the Epicurean school is being improved by the constant publication and reediting of the Herculaneum papyri. Most of this material can be found, with good introductions and commentaries, in the series La Scuola di Epicuro (Bibliopolis, Naples) and also in the journal Cronache Ercolanesi (Naples, 1971). For a history of the study of the papyri see Mario Capasso, Manuale di Papirologia Ercolanese (Galatina: Congedo, 1991). Diskin Clay, Paradosis and Survival: Three Chapters in the History of Epicurean Philosophy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998), contains essays on a range of topics from different periods of Epicurean philosophy.

On Metrodorus see Alfred Koerte, "Metrodori Epicurei Fragmenta," in Jahrbücher für classiche Philologie, Supplementband 17 (1890): 531570. (There is a 1987 facsimile reprint by Garland, New York, which also contains Vincenzo de Falco, L'Epicureo Demetrio Lacone [Naples, 1923].) For Hermarchus see: Francesca Longo Auricchio, Ermarco: frammenti (Naples, 1988).

For Polystratus see: Giovanni Indelli, Polistrato: Sul disprezzo irrazionale delle opinioni populari (Naples: Bibliopolis, 1971), and James Warren, Epicurus and Democritean Ethics: An Archaeology of Ataraxia (Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press 2002), Chapter 5. On Demetrius of Laconia: de Falco (see above); Enzo Puglia, Demetrio Lacone: Aporie testuale ed esegetiche in Epicuro (Naples, 1988); Costantina Romeo, Demetrio Lacone: La Poesia (Naples: Bibliopolis, 1988). There is a commentary on Plutarch's reply to Colotes (Adversus Colotem ) by Rolf Westman, Plutarch gegen Kolotes (Helsinki: Acta Philosophica Femica, 1955). See also Wilhelm Crönert, Kolotes und Menedemos (Leipzig, 1906).

The best introduction to Philodemus is: Marcello Gigante, Philodemus in Italy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995). There are also useful discussions in recent editions of Philodemus's works: Dirk Obbink, Philodemus: On Piety, Part I (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996) and Richard Janko, Philodemus: On Poems Book 1 (Oxford, 2000). There are useful articles in Dirk Obbink, ed. Philodemus and Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) and Voula Tsouna, "Philodemus on the Therapy of Vice," Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 21 (2001): 233258, is a good introduction to his ethical approach.

For Lucretius: Diskin Clay, Lucretius and Epicurus (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983) and David Sedley, Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom (Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998) discuss the Latin poet's use of early Epicurean works. See also: Keimpe Algra et al., eds., Lucretius and His Intellectual Background (Amsterdam and New York: North-Holland, 1997).

For Diogenes of Oinoanda see the edition with introduction and commentary by Martin F. Smith, Diogenes of Oinoanda: The Epicurean Inscription (Naples, 1996; supplementary volume, 2003).

P. H. De Lacy (1967)

Bibliography updated by James Warren (2005)