views updated May 18 2018


Epicureanism gets its name from Epicurus (341270 b.c.e.), who founded his philosophical school (The Garden) in 306 b.c.e. at Athens. Epicureanism emerged at roughly the same time as Stoicism, which was founded by Zeno of Citium (c. 335c. 263 b.c.e.) and developed by Chrysippus of Soli (c. 280206 b.c.e.). Epicureanism was introduced into Rome in the early second century b.c.e. where it caught the attention of Cicero (10643 b.c.e.) and also the poet Lucretius (c. 96c. 55 b.c.e.), who wrote De rerum natura in an effort to explain Epicureanism. Horace (658 b.c.e.) and Virgil (7019b.c.e.) were also notably associated with Epicureanism.

Epicureanism, as an acceptable metaphysical viewpoint, was suppressed once Christianity began to experience some success by the second century c.e. Christians were critical of the apparently selfish nature of Epicurean teachings on pleasure. Epicureanism essentially disappeared for about one thousand years until it was revived by Lorenzo Valla (14051457), who criticized Scholasticism in Disputazioni dialettiche and supported Epicureanism in De Voluptate. Pierre Gassendi (15921655), the critic of Scholasticism and of Descartes, often gets the credit for rediscovering Epicureanism, however, with his De vita et Moribus Epicuri. The influence of Gassendi's work on John Locke (16321704) has been credited with providing the impetus for Locke's social contract theory and, by extension, for the American Revolution. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson (17431826) himself claimed, in a letter to William Short (dated 31 October 1819), to be an Epicurean. Finally, Epicureanism must be distinguished from utilitarianism, which arose during the nineteenth century. Utilitarianism retains the Epicurean view that humans naturally seek pleasure and avoid pain, but while Epicureans laud pleasure seeking and pain avoidance for their effects on the psychological state of the actor, utilitarians use it to express the consequentialist view that a good action maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain.

Epicurus on Pleasure

While Epicureanism is not strictly an ethical theory, it has been most influential in the field of ethics. Epicurus emphasized empiricism, and his theories were foundationalist in the sense that he believed all sense perceptions were true (Inwood and Gerson, A53.63). In keeping with this, he denied that a theory of meaning was possible. Rather, we come to a "basic grasp" (prolepsis) of what people say based on our memories of "what has often appeared in the external world" (Inwood and Gerson, A7.33). As such, the Epicurean notion of areté (human excellence) involves pleasure, and we do have some sensible experience with pleasure. It should be very easy to attain human excellence in this sense, but Epicurus believed that many people were not excellent. To address this problem, Epicurus developed a psychological theory, which argued that most people suffer from neurotic beliefs that inhibit the pursuit of the pleasant life. He identified the neurotic beliefs as a fear of death and a misunderstanding of the gods. He claimed that neither death nor the gods concerned humans and thus they should not fear them. We must overcome these fears in order to live a pleasant life.

Epicurus conceived of pleasure in two ways. "Kinetic" pleasure is that pleasure felt while performing an activity, such as eating or drinking. "Katastematic" pleasure is that pleasure felt while being in a state. This is the pleasure of not being disturbed, of being free from pain. Both types of pleasure occur in the body and the soul. The absence of pain (katastematic pleasure) in the soul (ataraxia ), though, is the highest good for Epicurus.

Epicurus has often been misunderstood as a "sensualist." Cicero, an avowed Stoic, seemed to think that kinetic pleasure was also an end for Epicurus (De Finibus II.3132). But this does not seem to be correct. While kinetic pleasures are desirable for Epicurus, they are not always to be pursued. In fact, it seems that they should be pursued only when they contribute to ataraxia (untroubledness). In some cases it might even be necessary to endure pain in order to preserve or contribute to ataraxia.

Epicurus on Human Excellence

According to Stephen Rosenbaum, most scholars now recognize that Epicureanism did not advocate a life of sensual delights. Rather, the Epicurean pursues "sober reasoning" to achieve the "pleasures" of aponia (absence of pain in the body) and ataraxia (p. 21). Nonetheless, this does not entail the elimination of desires. When one is in the state of ataraxia, one does not avoid opportunities to enjoy kinetic pleasures, but at the same time one is not bothered by the absence of these opportunities. If one has developed a taste for caviar, for example, one enjoys it when it is available and is not disturbed by its absence.

Epicurus has also been criticized for his notion of excellence. Excellence and pleasure are inseparable for Epicurus. But we do everything for the sake of pleasure (ataraxia in particular) not excellence. Ataraxia, then, is the highest human good. Cicero argues that occasions might arise where pleasure-seeking conflicts with acting virtuously (i.e., for the right reason) (De Finibus II.6873, 111ff.). He claims that it is not possible to do something for the right reason and at the same time to get pleasure from the act in the way Epicurus claims. Rather, because the Epicurean always seeks what is pleasurable, what is right can always be redefined. In other words, excellence is never stable in the Epicurean scheme because whatever leads to pleasure in a specific instance is always right. So in one instance one may benefit (in terms of pleasure) from acting unjustly while in some other instance one may benefit from acting justly. On Cicero's account, then, both actions would be right actions for the Epicurean because both lead to pleasure. But this understanding rests on a faulty assumption. It assumes that the Epicurean feels no remorse. Thus, he need not act justly if acting unjustly leads to pleasure. However, for the Epicurean the "greatest fruit of justice is freedom from disturbance," or ataraxia (Inwood and Gerson, A120). As such, it seems that, for the Epicureans, the fruits of injustice would be disturbance and not ataraxia. Pleasure, then, can align with justice, and thus with excellent activity.

Epicureans and Stoics Compared

While both the Epicureans and the Stoics emphasize ataraxia, the Epicurean view of the highest human good, or eudaimonia (happiness), differs from the Stoic view. Epicurus believed that excellence is natural in the sense that we naturally seek pleasure and avoid pain. This contrasts with the Stoic view of nature and thus of excellence. The process leading to eudaimonia, then, is fundamentally different for the Stoics.

Stoic ethics differ from Epicurean ethics in at least three ways. First, their views of nature differ. For the Stoics, self-preservation is the first natural instinct while pleasure plays this role for the Epicureans. This difference affects their views of human excellence (areté ). Epicurus saw pleasure and excellence as inseparable while for the Stoics, self-preservation leads to valuing reason for itself, which leads to the accordance of a special value to excellence.

The second difference between Stoics and Epicureans involves their views of the emotions. For the Epicureans, it was not necessary to eliminate pathos. As Gisela Striker notes, the Epicurean realizes that only a few desires are needed for a pleasant life and they can be easily satisfied (p. 100). In the Epicurean state of ataraxia one does not avoid desires, but one is not bothered by the inability to satisfy one's desires either. As such, the Epicurean is "unperturbed" (p. 100.). The Stoic, on the other hand, is "unperturbable" because he or she has completely eliminated pathos (p. 100).

Finally, the Epicureans and Stoics differ on the role of excellence. For the Stoics, excellence alone is sufficient for eudaimonia, and it results directly from reason. The Epicureans attach pleasure to excellence, but this does not lead to eudaimonia. Rather, the rational person recognizes that the highest form of pleasure (areté ) is ataraxia. And actions performed from the state of ataraxia are the actions of the eudaimon (happy) individual. This individual is tranquil, and she or he has good reasons for feeling tranquil.

Other Aspects of Epicureanism

The Epicureans were noted for their emphasis on physics. They were materialists and, in particular, followers of Democritean atomism. Sextus reports that "Epicurus said that all sensibles are true and that every presentation comes from something existing and is of the same sort as that which stimulates sense-perception" (Inwood and Gerson, A53.63). This belief drove his empiricism, which depended upon the existence of void (or space) and bodies. The bodies, in turn, were compounds of atoms, which were not "subject to dissolution in any way or fashion. Consequently, the principles of bodies must be atomic natures" (Inwood and Gerson, A2.4041).

Epicureanism is not known for its politics. Epicurus showed very little interest in politics and, as a result, had very little to say about it. In fact, Plutarch reports that Epicurus urged his "adherents to avoid public life and express disgust for those who participate in it providing there is no fear of beatings and punishments" (Inwood and Gerson, A35). Epicurus does, however, appear to have hewed to the idea of a harm principle. The thirty-first of his "principal doctrines," as reported by Diogenes Laertius, claims that the "justice of nature is a pledge of reciprocal usefulness, [i.e.,] neither to harm one another nor be harmed" (Inwood and Gerson, A5.XXXI). This view lends itself well to a liberal social contract theory, though no such theory seems to have ever been proposed by Epicurus or his immediate followers.

See also Emotions ; Foundationalism ; Happiness and Pleasure in European Thought ; Social Contract ; Stoicism ; Utilitarianism .


Cicero, Marcus Tullius. De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum. Translated by H. Rackham. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Inwood, Brad. Ethics and Human Action in Early Stoicism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Inwood, Brad, and L. P. Gerson, trans. Hellenistic Philosophy: Introductory Readings. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1988.

Irwin, Terence. "Virtue, Praise and Success: Stoic Responses to Aristotle." The Monist 73 (1990): 5979.

Jones, Howard. The Epicurean Tradition. London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

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

Osler, Margaret J., ed. Atoms, Pneuma, and Tranquillity: Epicurean and Stoic Themes in European Thought. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Osler, Margaret J., and Letizia A. Panizza. "Introduction." In Atoms, Pneuma, and Tranquillity: Epicurean and Stoic Themes in European Thought. Edited by Margaret J. Osler. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Reesor, Margaret E. The Nature of Man in Early Stoic Philosophy. London: Duckworth, 1989.

Rosenbaum, Stephen E. "Epicurus on Pleasure and the Complete Life." The Monist 73 (1990): 2141.

Striker, Gisela. "Ataraxia: Happiness as Tranquillity." The Monist 73 (1990): 97110.

Tim Duvall


views updated May 11 2018


A philosophical school and doctrine founded by epicurus. The school resembled a religious community set up for the purpose of diffusing, applying, and perpetuating the writings and way of life of the master. Epicurus encouraged his followers to memorize his basic writings. They were not expected to improve upon or modify his theories deliberately. Hence this exposition of Epicureanism aims basically at reconstructing the philosophy set forth in the original works of Epicurus.

Division of Philosophy. Epicurus divided philosophy into logic, physics, and ethics. Logic, called canonic, is the science of the criterion and principle and is treated in a single book entitled The Canon. Physics, dealing with generation, corruption, and nature, is given a variety of presentations according to levels of difficulty; the letters present the subject in an elementary form, while the 37 books On Nature constitute a more elaborate treatment. Ethics determines how one should live, what one should do and avoid, and the goal of life (Diogenes 10.30). In his Letter to Herodotus on Physics Epicurus sets forth his basic physical doctrines (Diogenes 10.3584). Another letter (to Menoeceus), also preserved by Diogenes Laertius (10.122135), presents Epicurus's main teachings on moral matters. As for the canonic, many fragments collected by Usener and others allow one to reconstruct its fundamental principles.

Canonic. The criterion of truth is fourfold: sensations, anticipations, emotions, and images produced in reason. Sensation is the primitive contact of the knower with material reality. It does not involve the intervention of memory or of reason, and is irrefutable and irreducible. Man's thoughts derive from sensations (Diogenes 10:32) through contact, analogy, resemblance, or synthesis; mental discourse also contributes something to the process. In his poem De rerum natura, lucretiusone of the most influential Epicureansstresses the importance of the senses as a criterion and starting point. In his view, the skeptics, by doubting the validity of sensation, have involved themselves in hopeless contradictions; sensation affords the ultimate means of rectifying errors and therefore merits absolute confidence.

Anticipation involves a number of previous sensations of identical or similar objects, an "experience" in terms of which a judgment can be formulated concerning something not as yet perceived or imperfectly perceived, such as the nature of an object, for example, an ox or a horse located at a distance. If such an anticipation is confirmed or at least not contradicted, one's judgment of the object is and was true.

The emotions serve as criteria in matters relating to objects of choice and aversion. Other judgments are verified in terms of images produced in the reason, possibly by the impinging of subtler aspects of objects on the finer rational component of the soul.

Epicurus and his disciples lay great stress on the distinction between judgments based on the criteria of evidence and judgments that do not conform to the criteria. Opinions are corroborated or verified if they state evident facts; they are not corroborated when they run counter to such evidence. However, an opinion may be verified indirectly (that is, not falsified) when it is shown to agree with an evident fact; an example would be the existence of the void, which is linked necessarily with the evident fact of motion. To deny the truth of an opinion positing the void, one would have to deny the fact of motion. In this manner Epicurus introduced the possibility of philosophical discourse, that is, the possibility of searching for aspects and structures that are not directly perceptible to the senses or to the mind.

Physics. Physics is studied to secure mental serenity. It is necessary at the outset to determine clearly the primary meanings of words and to refer to the impressions of the senses or to any other criterion (Diogenes 10.38).

The universe is infinite and eternal. It cannot have come from nothing, nor is there anything exterior to it that could change it. It is made up of bodies (revealed by sensation) and of place or void that allows for the possibility of motion. Nothing is conceivable aside from these two constituents. Atomic bodies are immutable substances, while conglomerates of atoms undergo change.

Atomism. Atoms exist in a great variety of shapes, and each shape is possessed by an infinite number of atoms. The atoms move constantly. Their hardness causes them to rebound when they collide because of slight deviations in the direction of their motions. Deviations of atoms were introduced by Epicurus to explain the formation of composite bodies out of atoms separated by the void and moving originally at a uniform speed in the same general downward direction; they explain not only the formation of the universe but also the presence of chance and freedom within it. This may be viewed as an example of a true judgment based on the Epicurean notion of nonfalsification.

Every composite body is a system of atoms moving at the speed of thought, but in constantly changing directions because of collisions with other atoms. Thus the speed of the conglomerate varies as revealed in common experience, without this in any way involving variations in the motions of atoms. The worlds, large and small, arise from concentrations of atoms and dissolve in the same way (Diogenes 10.73). see atomism.

Soul. The soul is composed of subtle particles disseminated throughout the body; its existence depends on the body that it animates. The mobility of the living thing results from the smallness and smoothness of its soul atoms. Besides other cruder elements, the soul also comprises, according to Lucretius, a ruling and organizing principle that communicates life to its other parts and, through them, to the body. Any injury that affects this innermost part of the soul brings about the loss of life (De rerum natura 3). Once bereft of its protective covering, the soul disintegrates (Diogenes 10.6364).

Sensitivity arises when the power of the soul becomes fully developed as a result of motion and is communicated to the body. Sensation involves finely textured images emanating from real objects and having the same form as their source. Such images may endure for some time in the atmosphere and traverse long distances at very high speeds (Diogenes 10.46). The fineness of their constituents allows them to pass through obstacles that would stop the cruder atoms. The surfaces of bodies are constantly emitting such images, which retain the order and positions of the atoms in the real object. This is the basic principle underlying the Epicurean theory of sight, hearing, and smell.

Gods. According to Epicurus, there is no need to attribute the regulation of celestial phenomena to divine beings. He firmly rejects the ancient view of the heavenly bodies as endowed with happiness, intelligence, and will. Serenity results not from ascribing the realities of the universe to the influence of divine forces, but from an understanding of its true principles and structure. Only by banishing mythical explanations and the fear of eternal torment or of death can one hope to achieve that imperturbability based on truth that is the goal of philosophy.

However, Epicurus conceives of the gods as awesome images having human forms that are originally perceived in dreams. The gods enjoy happiness and immortality but they are not concerned with the happenings of the physical world. There is no place in Epicureanism for providence or fate, nor is prayer valid save as a recognition of man's subordinate position in nature.

Ethics. Philosophy is the health of the soul (Diogenes 10.122); it opens up a way of life that excludes false opinions on the gods, destiny, and death. Death is nothing to man, and he should not let the fear of it deprive him even of the ephemeral joys of life. "As long as we exist, death is not, and when death is there, we are not" (Diogenes 10.125). The wise man does not fear death; he does not necessarily want the longest life, but he does want the most pleasant.

Epicurus divides desires into natural and empty. Natural desires comprise the necessary and the merely natural. Of necessary desires, some are necessary for happiness, others for bodily well-being, still others for life itself. Since human actions aim at avoiding suffering and fear, such a division of desires allows man to strive only for the things he needs to achieve a happy life.

Pleasure is the beginning and the end of the happy life (Diogenes 10.128129). It is the principal good of man's nature and therefore determines his objects of choice or aversion. However, some pleasures are rejected (for example, excessive eating) because of the evils they entail; and many pains are judged preferable to certain pleasures because of the heightened pleasure experienced as a result or consequence of the pain. In any case, man must judge in terms of the advantages or disadvantages accompanying the pleasures and pains. Thus Epicurus's ethics may be called a utilitarian hedonism. Pleasures must be sought in moderation. Men should be content with little and should not fall into the habit of depending on goods they do not control or over which they may lose their control. Bread and water can be a source of great pleasure to the hungry man (Diogenes 10.131).

The Epicurean conception of pleasure involves moderation and tranquillity. The wise man avoids the orgies of food, drink, and sex. He subordinates his desires and aversions to the vigilance of reason (Diogenes 10.132). Wisdom, in which all other virtues are rooted, makes possible a life of happiness by regulating human actions according to the principles of utilitarian hedonism.

Critique. Epicureanism is remarkable for its firm rejection of superstitions, divination, fate, and some aspects of theological anthropomorphism in an age when most philosophers sought to allow for popular beliefs in their systems. In fact, the Epicureans' hostility to such important elements of folklore and religion may have been largely responsible for the distortions of their doctrines by their contemporaries and for the calumnies to which they were subjected. In this one can but agree with N. De Witt's defense of Epicurus. On the other hand, the quasireligious approach to Epicurus's teachings and the somewhat crude, dogmatic tone of his pronouncements must have seemed repugnant and even ridiculous to the ancient man of culture. Indeed the Epicurean spokesman in Cicero's philosophical treatises never appears to be taken too seriously. However, A. M. J. Festugière has shown the profoundly human appeal of Epicureanism and the lofty ideals to which Greek materialism could rise with Epicurus.

See Also: greek philosophy; stoicism; knowledge, theories of.

Bibliography: f. c. copleston, History of Philosophy (Westminster, Md. 1946) 1:401412. w. schmid, Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, 5:681819, bibliog. 816819. diogenes laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, bk. 10 on Epicurus (Loeb Classical Library 1925) v. 2, Greek text with Eng. tr. r. d. hicks. a. m.j. festugiÈre, Epicurus and His Gods, tr. c. w. chilton (Cambridge, Mass. 1956). n. w. de witt, Epicurus and His Philosophy (Minneapolis 1954).

[v. cauchy]


views updated May 23 2018


EPICUREANISM , a philosophy of adjustment to the social changes after *Alexander the Great (336–323), founded by Epicurus, 342/1–270 b.c.e., "the most revered and the most reviled of all founders of thought in the Greco-Roman world" (De Witt). Recent scholarship sees in it a "bridge" to certain rabbinic and Christian moods. Epicurus taught freedom from fear and desire through knowledge as the natural and pleasurable life. He endorsed religious observance but denied earthly involvement of the perfect gods and with it providence, presage, punishment, and penitential prayer. The transformation of Epicureanism into a competitive sect celebrating Epicurus as "savior" increased the already existing opposition to it. Rhetorical literature falsely accused Epicurus of materialistic hedonism. Complaints of Epicurean dogmatism, "beguiling speech" (Col. 2:4), and compelling argumentation (of Avot 2:14 "…[know] what to answer the Epicurean") are frequently heard. Rabbinic condemnation reflects knowledge of Greco-Roman rhetoric, experiences with individuals and centers (Gadara, Gaza, Caesarea), and, possibly, the favoritism shown to Epicureanism by *Antiochus Epiphanes and *Hadrian. "Epicurean" became thus a byword for "deviance" – ranging from disrespect to atheism – in Philo, Josephus, and rabbinism alike (see *Apikoros). An early unexpanded version of the "four who entered 'Paradise'" (Ḥag. 14b) may once have signified Epicurus' school ("the garden"), since it fits Akiva's past, Ben Azzai's celibacy and many Epicurean sayings, Elisha b. Avuyah's heterodoxy, and Ben Zoma's gnosticism (Epicureanism and Gnosticism were equated also by the Church Fathers). Akiva's "mystical" admonition (Ḥag. 14b) could easily have been a parody on the "apocalyptic"-enthusiastic style of the Epicureans (parallel parody H. Usener, Epicurea, fragm. 364; Gen. R. 1:5, Theodor-Albeck, p. 2 mentions "nothing from nothing"; Mid. Ps. to 1:22 the "automatic" universe; cf. Jos., Ant., 10:280).

Agreements, however, both in content and literary form, between rabbinism and Epicureanism are striking: study for its own sake (Vatican fragment 45 and Avot 6:1); removal of doubt (Life 121b, Doctr. 22 and Avot 1:16); mortality and urgency (Vat. fr. 10 and Avot 2:15); acquisition of a companion (To Menoeceus, end, and Avot 1:6); diet of bread and water (Bailey, fr. 37 and Avot 6:4); satisfaction with one's lot (Bailey, fr. 69–70 and Avot 4:1); and avoidance of public office (Bailey, fr. 85–87; Vat. fr. 58; Doctr. 7 and Avot 1:10–11; 2:3; etc.). Epicurus anticipated Judaism's denial of astral divinity and rule. With the general rise of the lower classes he accorded human dignity even to the prostitute, an evaluation continued in the Midrash (Sif. Num. 78; Gen. R. 85:8) and the Gospels (Matt. 1:3; 5, etc.). In Hellenism and Christianity, too, denunciation of Epicurus together with partial adoption of his ethics is frequent. The centrality of the sage in post-Socratic ethics and rhetoric facilitated such developments.


C. Bailey, Epicurus (Greek and Eng., 1926); N.W. De Witt, Epicurus and his Philosophy (1954); A.M.J. Festugiére, Epicurus and his Gods (1956); S. Lieberman, in: A. Altmann (ed.), Biblical and Other Studies (1963), 123–41; Reallexikon fuer Antike und Christentum, 5 (1962), 681–819, s.v.Epikur (contains bibliography).

[Henry Albert Fischel]


views updated May 17 2018

222. Epicureanism (See also Feast.)

  1. Belshazzar gave banquet unrivalled for sumptuousness. [O.T.: Daniel 5:14]
  2. Finches of the Grove eating club established for expensive dining. [Br. Lit.: Great Expectations ]
  3. Gatsby, Jay modern Trimalchio, wines and dines the upper echelon. [Am. Lit.: The Great Gatsby ]
  4. Lucullus, Lucius Licinius (11057 B.C.) gave luxurious banquets. [Rom. Hist.: New Century, 650]
  5. Marius young pagan who follows the original philosophical tenets of Epicurus in his search for an answer to life. [Br. Lit.: Pater Marius the Epicurean in Magill II, 630]
  6. Trimalchio vulgar freedman gives lavish feast for noble guests. [Rom. Lit.: Satyricon ]


views updated May 23 2018

Epicureanism an ancient school of philosophy, founded in Athens by the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 bc). His physics is based on Democritus' theory of a materialist universe composed of indestructible atoms moving in a void, unregulated by divine providence.

The school rejected determinism and advocated hedonism (pleasure as the highest good), but of a restrained kind: mental pleasure was regarded more highly than physical, and the ultimate pleasure was held to be freedom from anxiety and mental pain, especially that arising from needless fear of death and of the gods.


views updated May 17 2018

Epicureanism School of Greek philosophy founded by Epicurus. He proposed that the sensations of pleasure and pain were the ultimate measures of good and evil, and that pleasure should be actively pursued. He also embraced a theory of physics derived from the atomism of Democritus, and a theology denying the existence of an afterlife.