Epicurus (341–270 BCE)

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(341270 BCE)

Epicurus was born on Samos to parents who were Athenian citizens. Evidence about his philosophical debts and development must be sifted from conflicting reports arising out of the agonistic context of ancient Greek philosophical rivalry and invective. While rivals charge him with merely plagiarizing his atomism from Democritus and hedonism from the Cyrenaics, his advocates praise his singular originality, probably encouraged in this by Epicurus himself. Like Parmenides, René Descartes, and other seminal figures in philosophy, Epicurus presented himself as a solitary herald of truth, creating his system de novo because of the inadequacy of his predecessors and teachers. Modern scholarship tends to split the difference, seeing a variety of possible influencesDemocritean atomism, Cyrenaic hedonism, Aristotelian eudaimonism, skeptic impeturbabliltywhile fully recognizing that however much Epicurus worked within an existing framework, he is responsible for a succession of remarkably influential innovations.

Life and Sources

Epicurus spent most of his first thirty-five years in Asia Minor. There he began formulating his doctrines and collecting important adherents before embarking for Athens where he founded the Garden in 306 BCE. Alone among the major Athenian meeting places for philosophers (the Academy, Lyceum, and Stoa), it remained an authoritative center for the study and dissemination of its founder's teachings late into the Roman periodlargely, no doubt, because it alone continued to flourish as an institution with endowed property, stable traditions of teaching and doctrine, and generations of faithful advocates. It was distinguished as well by its admission of women and slaves. Epicurus's death, although physically painful, is portrayed in our sources as having been appropriately philosophical.

Diogenes Laertius (third century CE), our chief source for his writings (including his will), relates that Epicurus was the most prolific author of his time (some 300 papyrus rolls). Pitifully little survives. Diogenes himself preserves three short letters outlining Epicurus's physical theory, ethics, and explanations of celestial phenomena, though doubts exist that the last is from Epicurus's hand. Kuriai Doxai, a collection of excerpts quoted by Diogenes, and a parallel collection surviving in another manuscript, Sententiae Vaticanae, were apparently designed to remind adherents of Epicurus's key claims.

Although critical, the philosophical treatises of Cicero, written some two centuries after the time of Epicurus, offer our most articulate evidence for many Epicurean arguments. Other scattered citations are preserved, especially in Plutarch, Sextus Empiricus, Seneca, and the Aristotelian commentators, though it often is difficult to discern from them the original context and intent of his arguments. De Rerum Natura, by the Roman poet Lucretius (d. 50 BCE), renders into verse Epicurean atomic theory, epistemology, and social thought, relying especially on Epicurus's major treatise, On Nature. Badly damaged parts of On Nature and several works by Philodemus, an Epicurean roughly contemporary with Lucretius, were recovered in Herculaneum (1752) from the Casa dei Papiri, buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. New methods of reconstructing these texts are yielding important information about many facets of Epicureanism. Finally, in Oenoanda, in what is present-day southwestern Turkey, a large inscription erected by one Diogenes encapsulates several basic Epicurean doctrines.

Philosophical System

Although not as insistent as the Stoics about the systematic coherence of all his philosophical doctrines, Epicurus believes that his arguments from the domains of physics, epistemology, psychology, and ethics are mutually supporting. So, for instance, a linchpin in his arguments against the fear of death is the claim that persons are material entities of the sort that no longer continue to exist upon death and are therefore no longer subject to harm. This being the case, we have no reason to fear a future state that can cause us no harm.

Such a view of persons similarly undergirds his theological claim that we have no reason to fear punishment from the gods in an afterlife. Since we do not survive our deaths, the gods can hardly mete out any post mortem punishment, even if they so wished. At the same time, the relation of his materialism to many of his other central doctrines is less immediately straightforward. Epicurus sometimes describes perceptual experiences, actions, and psychological properties in ways that, to many at least, do not look easily reducible to talk about atoms and the void, and one of the persistent problems in understanding his philosophical thought is gauging the extent to which he offers, or at least intends to offer, fully reductive material accounts of each of the primary domains of his philosophical system.

Gaps in our evidence, at least at present, preclude giving a precise accounting of his philosophical successes in coping with the demands of materialism within his general thinking. But one thing seems clear. By adopting a materialist physical theory and working through its implications, Epicurus formulates a series of questions about the material bases of perception and thought, the mechanisms of choice and avoidance, and the possibility of free agency in a world consisting of matter in motion that sets him on a path distinct from such predecessors as Plato and Aristotle. Moreover, he rejects their polis bound conceptions of ethics and politics and offers accounts of ethical motivation and political obligation strictly rooted in notions of individual agents and their mutual relations per se. In so doing, Epicurus and his followers develop both a professional philosophical vocabulary and ways of conceiving a broad range of philosophical issues that often appear distinctly modern. Indeed, it might be more historically precise to say that many modern ways of formulating arguments can strike one as being Epicureanno doubt because a significant number of them in fact have their origins in ancient Epicureanism.

The philosophical challenges that Epicurus faced because of the convergence of his atomism, empiricism, hedonism, and politics of solitary individualism provided a basic conceptual framework for a whole range of thinkers who helped set the terms of modern philosophical debates. Michel de Montaigne, Thomas Hobbes, Pierre Gassendi, Robert Boyle, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Baron d'Holbach, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Millto name just a few who particularly felt his influenceall show basic debts across a wide variety of their theoretical concernsdebts not only to more general Epicurean philosophical preoccupations, but also in many instances to Epicurus's particular methods of argument, his specific conclusions, and, above all, to the way that he originally devised the philosophical framework and individual terms in which they came to carry on their own debates.

Epicurus himself is frank about the role of materialism in his system. He asserts that if we were not made unhappy by the fear of death or suspicions that natural phenomena depend upon meddling gods, we would have no need to inquire into nature. He therefore rejects both Aristotle's defense of purely theoretical inquiry and the Socratic claim that ethical beliefs can be examined independently of a complete understanding of nature. But this does not commit him, of course, to a rigidly pragmatic conception of scientific truth. To the contrary, he insists that just as with respect to our health, what we want is not merely the semblance of health, in our scientific theories what we want is truth, not merely some beliefs that may appear true. Extra-scientific concerns may motivate our inquiries into nature, but that does not mean that our use of evidence or our procedures themselves need be compromised.

The Fear of Death

Given, however, that Epicurus maintains that philosophical inquiry is driven by our need to understand the sources of unhappiness, it might be helpful to turn to his analysis of these, chief among them the fear of death. In contrast to most contemporary philosophers, Epicurus argues that we have no reason to fear death because it cannot harm us in the slightest. That said, however, he thinks that most people at some level do indeed fear death and that their mental lives, along with many of their actions, are affected in unhappy ways because of what turns out to be simply an irrational and readily eliminable misconception. So for instance, we find in Epicurean texts a version of the so-called symmetry argument.

Assume for the moment the Epicurean claim that death annihilates us. Before we were conceived, we also did not exist. Yet we typically are troubled only by our post mortem nonexistence. How are we to explain this asymmetry in our attitudes to two apparently similar states of our nonexistence? Epicurus argues that whenever we think about our future nonexistence, we find it difficult to view it as the total annihilation of our consciousness and to eliminate ourselves from our conception of it in the required way. This is because whenever I try to conceive of my death, I become a kind of conscious eyewitness to it in my imagination. I thus have the illusory experience of witnessing my ongoing annihilation, with death continually depriving me of things I value. When I look back at the time before I was conceived, however, I readily see it as the state of nothingness that it is. However explicable, holding asymmetrical attitudes to two equivalent states of our nonexistence, Epicureans argue, is irrational and we should come to view both death and the time before our conception with equal indifference.

This argument, no doubt, raises quandaries about our attitudes towards our past and future, questions about whether such general temporal attitudes apply to states that we do not consciously experience, and dilemmas about the contributions of past or future potential losses in fixing the identities of persons. It also is liable to backfire. We might instead begin viewing the time before our conception as another regrettable state of lost potentialities and thus merely duplicate our anxieties.

Epicurus's central argument against the fear of death, however, is an attempt to demonstrate that all such worries about states of our nonexistence are irrational. His claim is best illustrated by his deceptively simple observation, "When we are there, death is not, and when death is there, we are not" (Epistula ad Menoeceum 125). Anyone wishing to show that a state of nonexistence harms us, Epicurus insists, must show who is harmed, when the harm occurs, and how one is harmed. Although these questions make sense regarding harms to existent subjects, no meaningful conception of harm, he argues, can be applied to the nonexistent. Who is harmed by death? No one, since in death there is no longer any subject to be harmed. When are we harmed by death? At no time, since when we are alive, death is not there, and when we are dead, we are not there. How are we harmed by death? In no way, since harm, whether conceived of as deprivation or lost potential, can attach only to something that exists.

The Epicurean claim that any conception of the harm of death requires there to be an existent subject of that harm has challenged philosophers to explore and clarify the metaphysical status of the dead, the place of potential losses or deprivations in accounts of personal identity, the nature of counterfactual propositions about future and past persons, and the conception of time needed to justify the intuition that death harms us. However simple at first glance, the increasingly sophisticated literature generated in response to Epicurus's argument suggests that the verdict is hardly in.


One might wonder, however, as did many of Epicurus's ancient critics, how his arguments about the harmlessness of death are compatible with another of his central claims, that pleasure is our final end. Shouldn't a hedonist fear the interruption and loss of pleasure that death threatens? To understand the particular nature of Epicurean hedonism it first must be placed in its ancient dialectical context. Epicurus argues that pleasure is our ultimate goal and the sole component of our eudaimonia, or happiness. He further supports his ethical hedonism with a version of psychological hedonism by appealing to a so-called cradle argument; that is, that the observation of infant behavior shows that we naturally seek pleasure and avoid pain. More surprisingly, however, Epicurus argues that the pleasures that comprise individual happiness can be specified objectively because they meet nonsubjective criteria and arise from pursuits limited by objective, natural constraints.

By way of contrast, for instance, take John Locke's account of the patient with sore eyes who prefers the pleasures of drink to those of sight and who remains the sole arbiter of his own pleasures, however self-destructive. (Essay 2.xxi.55). For the Epicurean, such subjectivity about pleasure and the good fails to meet the minimal demands placed on eudaimonia in ancient ethical arguments. So, for instance, desires are open to objective assessment, he claims, because they fall into three distinct classes. Some, for example desires for immortality or power, are incapable of being satisfied and depend on erroneous beliefs, many of which have been inculcated by society. They are therefore both unnatural and unnecessary. Moreover, since they have no natural limits and attempts to satisfy them inevitably lead to frustration, they are to be rejected as sources of unhappiness. Other desires, such as for sex or for particular types of pleasant food, are natural but unnecessary. They can be satisfied if the opportunity arises, but they are not necessary for happiness. Indeed, they can become sources of unhappy disturbance and pain if one becomes troubled by their unavailability or loss.

Finally, there are desires that are both natural and necessary. These have objective, natural limits and are easily satisfied. One needs only so much bread to satisfy one's natural and necessary desire for food, and that desire, unlike those for power or immortality, has a natural limit. By focusing on the satisfaction of natural and necessary desires and by adapting our desires to our circumstances, we can avoid the frustrations of pursuing pleasures that prove "empty." What we can hope to achieve instead is a natural state of satisfaction entirely free from both mental disturbance and bodily pain. Indeed, such a seemingly neutral condition, Epicurus insists, is the most pleasant state possible. Many have found this claim about pleasure to be paradoxical, arguing that such a state is merely intermediate between pleasure and pain. He denies, however, the existence of any intermediate states, maintaining that the lack of pain and disturbance is the highest pleasure possible.

It is easy to view this, perhaps, as a mere verbal ploy since it flies in the face of what most hedonists and nonhedonists alike have found salient about pleasure, its intensity and variability as a sensation. Epicurus, however, bolsters his argument by distinguishing katastemmatic from kinetic pleasures. Although its exact force is disputed, as is the extent to which it picks out two different types of atomic movement, this distinction seems to capture two readily identifiable, though perhaps not so readily separable, aspects of pleasure. Kinetic pleasures arise, he argues, during the process of satisfying a desire. Katastemmatic pleasures are the states of satisfaction that supervene when a desire has been satisfied. Most accounts of pleasure, Epicurus claims, make the mistake of focusing only on the pleasures of satisfying desires, when in fact the different ways one satisfies desires are simply interchangeable variants. What we value above all is the attendant state of satisfaction and the freedom from want or disturbance that it signals.

To the charge that he offers us the pleasures of a corpse, the Epicurean responds that the wise prefer no longer having an itch to the pleasures of scratching. More controversial still, Epicurus argues that the highest state of pleasure is itself complete and cannot be made more valuable by lasting longer. To his critics, this account of pleasure seems suspiciously tailor-made to his claim that death in no way harms the pleasant life. To his followers, it served as a powerful explanation of how pleasure, when properly understood, can meet the demands that our happiness be not only self-sufficient, but also complete and invulnerable to any harm at the hands of death.

The Virtues and Friendship

An undeniable optimism about the power of reason pervades every facet of Epicurus's ethics. He thinks that reason can lead us to eliminate easily any fears based on mistaken beliefs and he lauds its sober power to focus each of our choices on our final good. Like Socrates, he denies that we can know the good and yet fail to pursue it either because of unmanageable desires or incorrigible weaknesses in our character. He does not go as far as the Stoics in simply identifying irrational desires with mistaken beliefs, but he likewise eschews Aristotle's emphasis on the necessity of habituating desires and character in the ways of virtue. For Epicurus, the therapeutic benefit of rational argument transforms lives at any stage and in any condition. Unsurprisingly, his account of virtue is strongly cognitive. All of the virtues including justice, he insists, are a species of rational prudence, instrumentally useful in securing and maintaining a life of pleasure.

Yet while prudence, courage, and moderation arguably might be claimed as virtues useful to the hedonist, the other-regarding demands of justice seem more problematic. Surely, we might suppose, one might have prudential reasons for being unjust. Why restrict one's pleasures in the interests of others? Epicurean texts offer a panoply of arguments in defense of justice that probably work best if they are taken to have as their addressees Epicurean and non-Epicurean alike. For instance, some texts single out the fear of being caught as the key incentive in obeying laws. Such a motive for being just fits rather badly with the picture of the Epicurean who is supposed to eliminate all disturbing fears and live quietly, and who in any case, has little motive for transgressing laws given the limited range of his necessary desires. Other texts praise the psychologically calming benefits of justicehardly a motive for the non-Epicurean searching for less tranquil experiences. The central and most lastingly influential component of Epicurus's theory of justice, however, is his account of the origins and nature of justice as a mutual contract among agents "neither to harm nor be harmed." Although not the first contractual theory in antiquity, it was the Epicurean account with its postulation of an original prepolitical state of nature that took center stage for Rousseau and his predecessors.

Interestingly, Epicurus's particular formulation of the contractual theory rejects the conventionalism of many later theorists, since he argues that contracts failing to reflect mutual usefulness no longer constrain. By placing his theory of justice in the larger context of his accounts of virtue and pleasure, he insists on the essential connection between agents' continuing interests and the contracts they have formed.

Although he denies that the virtues are valuable for their own sake, Epicurus insists that one can achieve happiness only by being virtuous. His ancient critics often doubted, however, whether purely instrumental motives were sufficient for maintaining one's commitments to virtue. A parallel problem arises in his account of friendship. Epicurus often speaks of friendship in the most extravagant terms and some later Epicureans proclaim that a hedonist can value his friends for their own sakes. But if one's motives in acquiring a friend are securely rooted in one's own pleasure, how can one maintain this seemingly altruistic commitment to friends?

Various later Epicureans struggled with the problem. Some conceded that if one properly focused on one's own pleasure, one could not treat a friend's pleasures as one's own, while others argued that friends might enter into mutually self-interested contracts to value each other's pleasures equally. A few went so far as to claim that one could come to value friendship in a way that went beyond motives of individual egoistic pleasure. All, perhaps, reflect a worry about what has come to be called the hedonist paradox. We can gain the pleasure we seek from friends only by maintaining the other-regarding values of friendship and by valuing friends' pleasures as much as our own. If we instead concentrate on our own pleasures, as hedonism seems to demand, we will undermine the very values that bring us pleasure. It is unlikely, however, that Epicureans would take this as evidence against their theory. Rather, for them, valuing friends' pleasures as much as their own represents an enlightened hedonist strategy that they need to fit, however awkwardly, within the confines of their overall theory.

Indeterminism, Free Will, and the Mind

Whether or not Epicurus, as many have claimed, was the first to formulate questions about determinism and free will in their modern form, it is clear that he attempts to find room in a mechanistic universe for our rational pursuit of pleasure and hence for our ability to rationally discriminate among alternative choices. Like Aristotle, he rejects logical determinism, as a threat to rational deliberation, and he denies that statements about future contingent events have truth value. Likewise, he contends that if the laws of atomic motion utterly determined everything in the universe, rational argument and choice could have no meaning and they would be robbed of their efficacy. What underwrites the manifest efficacy of reason and frees us from the bonds of both logical and mechanistic fatalism, Epicurus claims, is a slight indeterminacy or swerve in the movements of atoms at no fixed time or place. Such swerves break the bonds of necessity by interrupting the endless chains of causal interactions among atoms. Attempts at understanding the physics of these random swerves and their precise effects on human action abound. Some, for example, have seen the origins of libertarian defenses of free will in Epicurus's account, with each random swerve of atoms underwriting a free and uncaused act of human volition.

Others, worried about the plausibility of such a strict correlation between micro and macroscopic events, have postulated more infrequent effects by swerves on human actions or character generally. Still others have argued that Epicurus's account is nonreductive or emergentist in a way that defuses the randomizing effects of atomic indeterminism at the macroscopic level. Swerves break causal bonds among atoms, but without generating randomness in emergent properties, thereby insuring the efficacy of rational deliberation and action. In the face of these disagreements, a few have concluded that Epicurus's main worries are innocent of such theoretical niceties and that ascribing to him either libertarian or emergentist views is merely anachronistic. Wherever the truth ultimately lies, it is certainly the case that from the early modern period onward, Epicurus was held to be the chief ancient proponent of libertarianism. And as is often the case in the history of philosophy, the subsequent reception of one's views can be far more influential than one's actual views.

Similar difficulties arise for Epicurus's philosophy of soul or mind. On the one hand, he regularly holds out the ambition of giving a strict identity theory of mind and explicates its materiality with an array of arguments showing that materialism alone explains the mutual causal interactions between mind and body. He claims, moreover, that the mind is composed of particular types of atoms whose specific properties are directly correlated to particular mental functions; for example, the smoothness of specific atoms accounts for the quickness of thought. It was the explanatory power of such instances of Epicurean reductionism that so influenced Julien de La Mettrie and d'Holbach and set the agenda for subsequent eliminativist theorists. Yet Epicurus also emphatically insists that mental properties are real properties and not mere epiphenomena. Some have taken his robust commitment to the reality of macroscopic properties as evidence for anti-reductionism or emergentism, while others have argued that his commitment to physicalist explanation not only entails reductionism, but that reductionism is entirely compatible with his endorsement of the reality of macroscopic entities. Perhaps if our own distinctions between explicative and nonreductive physicalist theories could be more confidently drawn, a choice among these options for Epicurus would be more easily forthcoming.

Knowledge and Atoms

However he intended to explain the relation between atoms and our world of perceptual experience, it is clear that Epicurus thinks we can attain certain knowledge of both. Epicureans share with Plato and Aristotle a conviction that skepticism is self-refuting both in theory and practice, but they disagree markedly about the criterion for knowledge immune to skeptical attack. Epicurus's epistemology, or "canonic," begins with the emphatic assertion that all sensations are true. What guarantee their truth are the mechanisms of their production. Films or images of inconceivable speed are continually streaming from bodies and striking our senses, which function simply as passive receptors that in no way distort the information they receive. Error can occur only if we extrapolate to the world from these sensations with mistaken assumptions or judgments. This we can avoid by applying to our sensations simple concepts (prolepseis ) that, arising naturally from repeated sensations, are preserved in memory and embodied in the ordinary meanings of words.

Distrusting Aristotelian-style logics, Epicureans elaborate inferential methods for eliminating false judgments based on what they call confirmation or disconfirmation by the senses. For most subsequent empiricists, such an attempt to skirt formal logic became a dead end. However, Epicurus's arguments in defense of empiricism, especially his materialist accounts of the mechanics of perception and concept formation, enjoyed a long philosophical run, providing basic templates for a succession of empirical theories based on effluences, sense data, and other factors. Few, however, rival his ingenious attempts to work out the actual mechanics of perception in the face of what were to become standard objections to imagist theories of thought and perception.

Armed with empirical knowledge, the Epicurean believes, we can confirm the basic principles of atomism. For instance, from our perception of motion in the world, we can infer that atoms must movean inference for which only the existence of void offers adequate explanation. Similarly, to explain the multiplicity of things we see in the word, we must postulate an indefinite number of atomic shapes. The existence of atoms themselves is confirmed by our observation that nothing comes from nothing and that division must stop somewhere for there to be something.

Interestingly, Epicurus allows multiple and competing theoretical explanations for some natural phenomena. But he indulges no such operationalist sensibilities toward the basic principles of his atomism. Collisions, rebounds, and the compounding of atoms are the basic mechanisms of the material world. In an infinite, eternal world of atoms in continual motion, there is no room for teleology or interference from the gods, who in any case are indifferent to human concerns and, at least in some Epicurean sources, seem to have no stable constitution of their own but arise in relation to our mental conceptions of them. Atoms have the properties of shape, size, and weight. Explaining differences in atomic sizes and shapes presented Epicurus with difficult puzzles, however. Unlike later philosophers, such as Agostino Nifo, who constructed atoms from independently existing minima, Epicurus denies their physical divisibility. He postulates, instead, only conceptual divisibility, which required him, with rather mixed success, to theorize spatial and temporal quanta. His argument that atoms have weight, however, was fundamental. It changed the course of ancient atomism and gave the theory its essential shape down to the time of John Dalton.

See also Atomism; Cyrenaics; Epicureanism and the Epicurean School; Hedonism; Leucippus and Democritus; Lucretius; Philodemus


works by epicurus

Epicurus: The Extant Remains, edited by Cyril Bailey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1926.

The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia, edited by Brad Inwood and Lloyd P. Gerson. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1994.

The Hellenistic Philosophers, edited by A. A. Long and David Sedley. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Epicurea, edited by Hermann Usener. Leipzig: Teubner, 1887.

works about epicurus

Algra, Keimpe et al., eds. The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Annas, Julia. Hellenistic Philosophy of Mind. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Annas, Julia. The Morality of Happiness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Asmis, Elizabeth. Epicurus's Scientific Method. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Bailey, Cyril. The Greek Atomistis and Epicurus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1928.

Clay, Diskin. Paradosis and Survival: Three Chapters in the History of Epicurean Philosophy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.

Englert, Walter G. Epicurus on the Swerve and Voluntary Action. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987.

Festugiere, A. J. Epicurus and His Gods. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955.

Konstan, David. Some Aspects of Epicurean Psychology. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1973.

Mitsis, Phillip. Epicurus's Ethical Theory: The Pleasures of Invulnerability. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Nussbaum, Martha. The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

O'Keefe, Timothy. Epicurus on Freedom. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Warren, James. Facing Death: Epicurus and his Critics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Phillip Mitsis (2005)