views updated Jun 11 2018


Founder of Epicureanism.

The English word "epicure," meaning a person who loves good food and drink, is taken from Epicurus and the Epicureans. It is a singular distortion, for the Epicureans believed that man should restrict his desires to those that spring from the natural appetites—gourmet food and fine wines not being among them. Epicurus (341–270 b.c.e.) was a hedonist in that he believed that the proper goal of all activity was pleasure, but he had an austere definition of it, in that his definition of pleasure was simply the absence of discomfort or pain. The Epicurean ate to rid himself of the discomfort of hunger and no more. According to this philosophy, he should guard himself against anguish at the death of a close friend by having no close friends. Insatiable desire for wealth, power, and fame can never be satisfied, and so they should be avoided. Epicurus himself, the founder of the Epicurean School, was born in Samos, but his parents were Athenian citizens and he himself was educated in Athens. While there, he studied under the tutelage of a disciple of Democritus and learned Democritus' atomic theory that he would later incorporate into his own philosophy. He taught philosophy at Mytilene on the island of Lesbos and in Lampsacus in northern Greece before returning to Athens, and it must have been in this period that he developed his view that pleasure was the chief end of life. It was not the avid pursuit of pleasure, but there was a fine line separating the Epicureans from the Cyrenaics, and the modern dictionary definition of "Epicurean" as a person who is fond of sensuous pleasure may be wrong but it is not entirely unjustified.

The Garden.

About 306 b.c.e. Epicurus moved to Athens and there bought a house with a garden as quarters for a school which he founded. There he was joined by his disciples who formed a community of philosophers in the "Garden," the name of his school. The disciples included women, for Epicurus was the first philosopher to admit women into an organized school. His community was known as a thiasos (company); it describes a band of persons such as worshipers of Dionysus who parade through the streets singing and dancing, but it also means a religious brotherhood. In his thiasos, Epicurus enjoyed a kind of adulation that approached worship. His birthday was celebrated as a festival. He was a voluminous writer, but all his major works are lost. Fortunately, Diogenes Laertius, writing in the early third century c.e., quotes four works by him: three of them letters to disciples and one, titled the Chief Doctrines, which is a collection of proverbs on ethical subjects, meant, evidently, to be committed to memory. Modern knowledge of Epicureanism expanded in 1888 with the discovery of another collection of proverbs in the Vatican Library.

Atoms and Void.

Epicurus adapted the atomic theory of Democritus to the purposes of his philosophy. He actually cared very little about the theory itself but he needed a metaphysical background for his ethical doctrine, which taught that pleasure and avoidance of pain were the chief ends of life. He started from two simple points. First, nothing is created from nothing. That was an old principle of Greek philosophy, and it follows that the stuff from which the universe is made has always existed and will never pass away. The universe must also be infinite, for if it had a boundary, it would be possible to reach this boundary and puncture it. A dozen men thrusting their fists through the boundary of the universe could create a new boundary, and this process could be continued endlessly. Second, there are bodies in motion, as our eyes tell us that there is, for Epicurus was willing to trust the senses, and since there is motion, there must be empty space, that is, void, into which they can move. Thus the existence of atoms and void could be taken as proved, and since the universe is infinite, the number of atoms must also be infinite.


Epicurus explained the process of creation of objects as occurring when these atoms collided. He thought that the atoms had weight and were constantly falling. They could not fall at the same speed along parallel trajectories, however, or they would not naturally collide. So Epicurus taught that as the atoms fell, they would, purely at random, swerve to one side or the other. The swerve explained the collisions of atoms, which stuck together when they collided—they seem to have had velcro-like appendages—and group of atoms formed the objects that we see, both living and inert. The random nature of the swerve preserved free will in the universe, but it also left a great deal to chance. When an object passes away, the atoms disintegrate. Thus when an animal dies or a tree is cut down, the atoms that compose it will return to the infinite collection of atoms that move forever in a downward motion through the universe. Everything, including man, is atoms and void. Aristotle had claimed that everything that was created in nature had a purpose, or a "final cause." Epicurus could not accept that. Yet he had to accept the fact that the creative process in nature seemed to follow patterns: men and women, for instance, are not put together at random; they have heads, arms, and legs positioned where they should be on their bodies. Dogs all seem to belong to one species. To explain that phenomenon, Epicurus developed a rudimentary theory of evolution: in the remote past, the atoms did form human being and animals at random, so that once upon a time the world was inhabited by some odd and curious creatures, and a dog might have the claws of a cat, and a man might have the lower body of a horse, like the mythical centaurs. But by trial and error, nature discovered the creatures most able to survive in the competition for life, and these formed patterns of creation. This was a "survival-of-the-fittest" argument, a precursor of Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory.

The Gods.

The Epicureans denied divine providence, but they did not discard the gods. To be sure, Epicurus had mechanistic explanations for natural phenomena such as thunder, rainbows, and earthquakes, and he argued against the belief that there was some caring, benevolent deity that watched over the world. The manifold suffering in the world was proof of the falsity of any such notion. But the Epicurean system did leave space for the gods. They were blessed, happy beings who lived in a never-never land, the intermundia, to use the Latin term for it, which means the "space between the worlds." They lived happy lives in a perpetual state of ataraxia (tranquillity). They did not worry about the wretchedness of human society, which could only disturb their tranquillity. They were ethical ideals, for they had achieved the ataraxia which was the aim of the Epicurean philosopher. There was no need to fear their wrath.

Gaining Knowledge.

Epicurus' atomic theory explained vision. Every object, he argued, threw off eidola (images), which were actually thin films of atoms which traveled through the air to our eyes. An image that struck the eyes affected the soul-atoms there, which transmitted the image to the mind. The whole process was to be understood in terms of the movement of atoms that are arranged and rearranged into patterns. All sensations were true, but Epicurus admitted that some images could be distorted. A favorite example was an oar partly in and partly out of the water that appears to be bent. Epicurus explained the distortion by claiming that the atoms of the eidola emitted by the oar collided with other atoms on their way to the eye, and thus transmitted a distorted image to the eye which in turn transmitted it to the mind. The mind, however, which is made up of very small atoms, can sort things out. The mind stores concepts—Epicurus refers to them as presuppositions—of what objects such as oars look like, which it has gained from experience. If a person makes the mistake of believing that the oar really is bent, it is because that person assumed too soon that the image that has reached the eyes is accurate. It follows that a person can accept the evidence received by the eyes so long as the objects that are seen are clearly visible. Senses can provide a person with accurate information.


introduction: Diogenes Laertius ends his biography of Epicurus with four authentic documents, three of them letters to disciples in which, among other things, he presents purely mechanistic explanations for various natural occurrences. For example, earthquakes may be the result of wind penetrating the interior of the earth or it may be caused by the earth itself being bombarded by particles from the outside, and since earth's own atoms are in constant motion, it is prone to general vibration. In any case, earthquakes were not caused by the will of the gods. The last document is a set of Epicurus's maxims to guide a person seeking a happy life. Ten of them are quoted below.

What is happy and imperishable suffers no trouble itself, nor does it cause trouble to anything. So it is not subject to feelings either of anger or of partiality, for these feelings exist only in what is weak.

Death is nothing to us, for that which is dissolved has no feeling whatsoever, and that which has no feeling means nothing to us.

A person cannot have a pleasant life unless he lives prudently, honorably and justly, nor can he live prudently, honorably and justly without a pleasant life. A person cannot possibly have a pleasant life unless he happens to live prudently, honorably and justly.

No pleasure is intrinsically bad, but what causes pleasure is accompanied by many things that disturb pleasure.

Vast power and great wealth may, up to a certain point, grant us security as far as individual men are concerned, but the security of men as a whole depends on the tranquility of their souls and their freedom from ambition.

Of all the things that wisdom provides for the happiness of a whole life, the most important by far is acquiring friends.

Natural justice is an agreement among men about what actions are suitable. Its aim is to prevent men from injuring one another, or to be injured.

Justice has no independent existence: it results from mutual contracts, and we find it in force wherever there is a mutual agreement to guard against doing injury or sustaining it.

Injustice is not intrinsically bad: people regard it as evil only because it is accompanied by the fear that they will not escape the officials who are appointed to punish evil actions.

The happiest men are those who have reached the point where they have nothing to fear from those who surround them.

source: Diogenes, "Epicurus," The Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Book 10, Sec. 31. Trans. C. D. Yonge (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853).

The Fear of Death.

The aim of life was pleasure—the satisfaction of desires—though Epicurus never went as far as the Cyrenaics who held that sensual pleasure was the aim of life. Fear of death was one thing that could disturb the life of ataraxia, and yet there was no reason for such fear. Death was a dissolution of the atoms. The mind, which was also made up of atoms, did not survive death. There was no need to fear tortures in the Underworld, or any of the travails that, according to myth, the souls of men suffered in the House of Hades. Epicurus and his followers assumed that it was the life after death that men feared, and by eliminating the afterlife, they removed a source of stress. They did not address the fact that what many persons fear is the act of dying itself.

Epicureanism in Rome.

The philosophy that appealed to the Roman upper classes was Stoicism, not Epicureanism. Rome did produce one enthusiast for Epicurus' philosophy, however: Titus Lucretius Carus, about who little is known. He probably lived from 94–55 b.c.e. He produced one long poem, divided into six books, the De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), which is a splendid exposition of the physical theories of Epicurus. He explains the atomic theory of Epicurus, and in his third book, he applies it to the human soul, which is mortal. In fact the third book ends with a hymn to the mortality of the soul and the foolishness of humans who fear death. The poem was left unfinished. The Roman statesman, orator, and philosopher Cicero knew it, for he refers to it in a letter dated to 54 b.c.e., which he sent to his brother Quintus in terms that would lead us to believe that both his brother and himself had read it. Cicero himself leaned towards the scepticism which Arcesilaus had preached in the New Academy in Athens. It is also true that a center of Epicurean study developed in the region of Naples in the first century b.c.e.; a house excavated in the city of Herculaneum, which had been destroyed in 79 c.e. by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, contained charred rolls of papyrus apparently containing Epicurean works, most of them by the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus of Gadara (c. 110–c. 40 b.c.e.) who had a villa at Herculaneum. Now known as the Villa of the Papyri, the house must have been a gathering place for Epicureans in the early first century c.e. after Philodemus' death.


Cyril Bailey, The Greek Atomists and Epicurus (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1928).

Benjamin Farrington, The Faith of Epicurus (London, England: Weidenfeld and Nicolson; New York: Basic Books, 1967).

Bernard Frische, The Sculpted Word: Epicureanism and Philosophical Recruitment in Ancient Greece (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).

Howard Jones, The Epicurean Tradition (London, England: Routledge, 1989).

Phillip Mitsis, Epicurus' Ethical Theory (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988).

J. M. Rist, Epicurus: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972).


views updated Jun 08 2018


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). □


views updated May 29 2018


(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.


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


views updated Jun 11 2018


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


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.



views updated Jun 11 2018


c. 341-270 b.c.

Greek Philosopher

Epicurus founded the Epicurean school of philosophy, which sought attainment of happiness through simple living. His importance to science lies in modifying and promulgating Democritean atomism.

Epicurus was born at the Athenian colony of Samos around 341 b.c. His father, Neocles, was a schoolmaster who had emigrated from Athens. Epicurus traveled to Athens in 323 b.c. to complete his mandatory military service. He later rejoined his family at Colophon, on the coast of Asia Minor. There he studied philosophy with Nausiphanes, a former student of Democritus (c. 460-c. 370 b.c.) . He established a school at Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, and another at Lampsacus, on the Hellespont. In 307 or 306 b.c. he returned to Athens and established an Epicurean community known as the Garden, which admitted men, women, and slaves alike. This remained the center of his activities until his death in 270 b.c.

As Alexander the Great (356-323 b.c.) swept away the last vestiges of Greek democracy and substituted for it monarchical authoritarianism, there developed in the Hellenistic consciousness a growing sense of the impotence of the individual. Gone also was the sense of community and civic duty so characteristic of the Greek city-state. This gave rise to a new philosophical attitude. Philosophy was no longer primarily thought of as an intellectual activity to be pursued in its own right. Rather, it was viewed as a potential refuge from the despair and vicissitudes of life. Epicurus developed his philosophy in this atmosphere. His primary goal was to teach men how to cultivate an attitude toward life that guaranteed happiness. The result was a moderate hedonism.

Central to Epicurean teaching was the emphasis on peace of mind as of way attaining happiness. Epicurus believed this was threatened by ignorance of the natural world that generated widespread belief in supernatural powers and doubts about potential rewards or punishments in the afterlife. He found the atomism of Leucippus (fl. c. 450-420 b.c.) and Democritus congenial to his needs and adapted it accordingly.

In De natura, he developed a mechanistic explanation of the world grounded in Democritean atomic theory. He accepted that all natural phenomena are generated by atoms and the void. The atoms are imperceptibly small, of different shapes and sizes but composed of the same substance, infinite in number, and free to move through the void. Sensory qualities of physical bodies, such as taste, color, and weight, vary according to the number of component atoms, their arrangement, and the presence of empty space. This picture left no room for supernatural forces.

The Epicurean atom was physically indivisible just as was the Democritean atom. However, unlike Democritus, Epicurus claimed the atom was composed of minimal parts that could be conceptually divided. Democritean atomism also seemed to make no allowance for human volition since the motions of the atoms composing the mind were completely determined by their previous motions and interactions with environment. To avoid the undesirable consequence of pure determinism, Epicurus introduced his famous atomic "swerve," which was a spontaneous deviation from natural atomic motions.

These occasional deviations served another purpose. In Democritean atomism, the natural motion of atoms was left as an undefined axiom of the theory. Epicurus found this unsatisfactory and argued that they have a natural tendency to fall "downwards" due to their weight. But, he realized atoms would merely fall through the void without ever interacting unless there existed some mechanism to alter these motions. The atomic "swerve" explained how atomic paths crossed.

The Epicurean "canonic," or theory of knowledge, held that all knowledge comes from the senses. Furthermore, anything not in conflict with experience could be regarded as true.



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341 b.c.e.–270 b.c.e.


Epicurus' Life.

Epicurus was born in Samos in 341 b.c.e., but his father and mother were both Athenian citizens so he suffered none of the disadvantages of resident aliens in Athens who could not, for instance, own property in Athens. Epicurus fulfilled his military service in Athens just after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 b.c.e. and then rejoined his family who had by then settled in the city of Colophon, an Ionian city in Asia Minor. It was there he probably learned about the theory of atoms and void proposed by Leucippus and Democritus. At age 32, he moved to the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, where he set up a school and began his career as a teacher; from Mytilene he moved to Lampsacus on the Hellespont, where he also set up a school and began to acquire pupils and loyal friends. The intellectual center of the Greek world was in Athens, however, so he moved there in 306 b.c.e. He purchased a house with a garden, where he set up a school known as "The Garden." Apart from some visits to Asia Minor, he remained in Athens until his death.

Epicurean Philosophy.

For many Greeks, the Garden provided an escape. The expanded world that resulted from Alexander the Great's conquests had become a bewildering place. Epicurus' students retired to his Garden where they attempted to live a life of ataraxia: freedom from stress and worry. Though the adjective "epicurean" has come to mean "fond of sensuous pleasure," Epicurus himself and his followers were not epicurean in that sense. They were abstemious: a small cup of light wine was enough for a day, otherwise Epicurus taught that happiness was the aim of his ethical system, and happiness meant pleasure. Pleasure was the one true good, but not the sensual pleasure of the Cyrenaic School with which the Epicureans were sometimes confused by their enemies. Rather it was intellectual pleasure, and freedom from stress, desire, need, and, above all, pain.

Epicurus' Death and Legacy.

As it turned out, Epicurus' death was exceedingly agonizing, and he bore the pain with fortitude. He suffered from a kidney stone, and he failed to pass it in his urine. After some two weeks of excruciating pain, he had a warm bath prepared for him in a bronze tub, asked for a cup of pure wine and drank it, and stepped into the tub. As he rested there, he urged his friends to remember his teachings, and so he died. Unlike the Stoics, the Epicureans never influenced the world to any great extent, but on the other hand, Epicurean teachings did not die out despite being much reviled, particularly by the Christians who disagreed with the Epicurean position that the cosmos was the result of accident and there was no divine plan.


Cyril Bailey, The Greek Atomists and Epicurus (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1928).

Benjamin Farrington, The Faith of Epicurus (New York: Basic Books, 1967).

A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

J. M. Rist, Epicurus: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972).


views updated May 29 2018


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 .


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


views updated Jun 27 2018


Greek philosopher; b. Samos, 341 b.c.; d. Athens, 271 or 270 b.c. His father, Neocles, was an Athenian schoolmaster who had settled in the island of Samos. Epicurus studied there under the Platonist Pamphilus, but at 18 he left the island to go to Athens. Later, when the Athenian settlers were expelled from Samos, Epicurus joined his father in Colophon. His years between 20 and 30 appear to have been formative of his philosophy. He studied for some time under the Democritean Nausiphanes, from whom he is said to have derived his Canon. Toward the end of this period, Epicurus underwent an important moral and psychological change; this accounts for

the widely divergent opinions of his moral character. His enemies and opponents stress the aggressive and ungrateful bent of his earlier years, while his disciples extol the gentle and considerate master who presided over his philosophical family (see De Witt, ch. 2). At the age of 32 he gathered disciples and founded schools in Mitylene and Lampsacus; five years later he established a school at Athens, where he lived until his death.

Epicurus wrote about 300 works in which he prides himself on never quoting another author. The list given by Diogenes Laertius enumerates many works on physics, including 37 on Nature, one on the Criterion or the Canon, many treatises on ethical matters, and books refuting or expounding other philosophies. The extant works and fragments of Epicurus have been collected and edited by Hermann Usener (Epicurea, Leipzig 1887). Diogenes Laertius in his life of Epicurus has preserved for posterity Epicurus's last will, three important letters on physical and ethical subjects, and the principal doctrinesa sort of Epicurean catechism made up of 40 propositions. For an analysis of his teachings and his influence, see epicureanism.

Bibliography: f. c. copleston History of Philosophy 1:401412. g. m. pozzo, Enciclopedia Filosofica 1:193139. n. w. de witt, Epicurus and His Philosophy (Minneapolis 1954). a. m. j. festugiÈre, Epicurus and His Gods, tr. c. w. chilton (Cambridge, Mass. 1956).

[v. cauchy]


views updated Jun 11 2018

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.