Epicurus | Biography

Epicurus (341–270 BC)
Epicurus (341–270 BC)

1. Epicurus | Biography

Epicurus (Ἐπίκουρος 341–270 BC) was an ancient Greek philosopher and Sage who founded Epicureanism, a highly influential school of philosophy.

He was born on the Greek island of Samos to Athenian parents.

Influenced by Democritus, Aristippus, Pyrrho, and possibly the Cynics, he turned against the Platonism of his day and established his own school, known as "the Garden", in Athens.

Epicurus and his followers were known for eating simple meals and discussing a wide range of philosophical subjects.

He openly allowed women and slaves to join the school as a matter of policy.

Epicurus is said to have originally written over 300 works on various subjects, but the vast majority of these writings have been lost:

Only 3 letters written by him—the letters to Menoeceus, Pythocles, and Herodotus—and 2 collections of quotes—the Principal Doctrines and the Vatican Sayings—have survived intact, along with a few fragments of his other writings.

Most knowledge of his teachings comes from later authors, particularly the biographer Diogenes Laertius, the Epicurean Roman poet Lucretius and the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus,

and with hostile but largely accurate accounts by the Pyrrhonist philosopher Sextus Empiricus, and the Academic Sceptic and statesman Cicero.

For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to help people attain a happy (Eudaimonic), tranquil life characterized by Ataraxia (peace and freedom from fear) and Aponia (the absence of pain).

He advocated that people were best able to pursue philosophy by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends.

He taught that the root of all human neurosis is death denial and the tendency for human beings to assume that death will be horrific and painful, which he claimed causes unnecessary anxiety, selfish self-protective behaviours, and hypocrisy.

According to Epicurus, death is the end of both the body and the soul and therefore should not be feared.

Epicurus taught that although the Gods exist, they have no involvement in human affairs.

He taught that people should behave ethically not because the Gods punish or reward people for their actions, but because amoral behaviour will burden them with guilt and prevent them from attaining Ataraxia.

Epicurus was an empiricist, meaning he believed that the senses are the only reliable source of knowledge about the world.

He derived much of his physics and cosmology from the earlier philosopher Democritus (c. 460–c. 370 BC).

Like Democritus, Epicurus taught that the universe is infinite and eternal and that all matter is made up of extremely tiny, invisible particles known as atoms.

All occurrences in the natural world are ultimately the result of atoms moving and interacting in empty space.

Epicurus deviated from Democritus by proposing the idea of atomic "swerve",

which holds that atoms may deviate from their expected course, thus permitting humans to possess Free Will in an otherwise deterministic universe.

Though popular, Epicurean teachings were controversial from the beginning.

Epicureanism reached the height of its popularity during the late years of the Roman Republic. It died out in late antiquity, subject to hostility from early Christianity.

Throughout the Middle Ages Epicurus was popularly, though inaccurately, remembered as a patron of drunkards, whoremongers, and gluttons.

His teachings gradually became more widely known in the 15th century with the rediscovery of important texts,

but his ideas did not become acceptable until the 17th century, when the French Catholic priest Pierre Gassendi revived a modified version of them, which was promoted by other writers.

His influence grew considerably during and after the Enlightenment, profoundly impacting the ideas of major thinkers, including John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Jeremy Bentham, and Karl Marx.

2. Upbringing and influences

Epicurus was born in the Athenian settlement on the Aegean island of Samos in February 341 BC.

His parents, Neocles and Chaerestrate, were both Athenian-born, and his father was an Athenian citizen.

Epicurus grew up during the final years of the Greek Classical Period.

Plato had died 7 years before Epicurus was born and Epicurus was 7 years old when Alexander the Great crossed the Hellespont into Persia.

As a child, Epicurus would have received a typical ancient Greek education.

As such it is inconceivable that he would have escaped the Platonic training in geometry, dialectic, and rhetoric.

Epicurus is known to have studied under the instruction of a Platonist named Pamphilus, probably for about 4 years. His Letter of Menoeceus and surviving fragments of his other writings strongly suggest that he had extensive training in rhetoric.

After the death of Alexander the Great, Perdiccas expelled the Athenian settlers on Samos to Colophon, on the coast of what is now Turkey.

After the completion of his military service, Epicurus joined his family there.

He studied under Nausiphanes, who followed the teachings of Democritus, and later those of Pyrrho, whose way of life Epicurus greatly admired.

Epicurus's teachings were heavily influenced by those of earlier philosophers, particularly Democritus.

Nonetheless, Epicurus differed from his predecessors on several key points of determinism and vehemently denied having been influenced by any previous philosophers, whom he denounced as "confused".

Instead, he insisted that he had been "self-taught".

Epicurus's teachings also show influences from the contemporary philosophical school of Cynicism:

The Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope was still alive when Epicurus would have been in Athens for his required military training and it is possible they may have met.

Diogenes's pupil Crates of Thebes (c. 365 – c. 285 BC) was a close contemporary of Epicurus.

Epicurus agreed with the Cynics' quest for honesty, but rejected their "insolence and vulgarity", instead teaching that honesty must be coupled with courtesy and kindness.

Epicurus shared this view with his contemporary, the comic playwright Menander.

Epicurus's Letter to Menoeceus, possibly an early work of his, is written in an eloquent style similar to that of the Athenian rhetorician Isocrates (436–338 BC),

but, for his later works, he seems to have adopted the bald, intellectual style of the mathematician Euclid.

3. Teaching career

During Epicurus's lifetime, Platonism was the dominant philosophy in higher education.

Epicurus's opposition to Platonism formed a large part of his thought. Over half of the 40 Principal Doctrines of Epicureanism are flat contradictions of Platonism.

In around 311 BC, Epicurus, when he was around 30 years old, began teaching in Mytilene.

Around this time, Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, arrived in Athens, at the age of about 21, but Zeno did not begin teaching what would become Stoicism for another 20 years.

Although later texts, such as the writings of the 1st-century BC Roman orator Cicero, portray Epicureanism and Stoicism as rivals, this rivalry seems to have only emerged after Epicurus's death.

Epicurus's teachings caused strife in Mytilene and he was forced to leave.

He then founded a school in Lampsacus before returning to Athens in c. 306 BC, where he remained until his death.

There he founded The Garden (κῆπος), a school named for the garden he owned that served as the school's meeting place, about halfway between the locations of 2 other schools of philosophy, the Stoa and the Academy.

The Garden was more than just a school; it was "a community of like-minded and aspiring practitioners of a particular way of life."

The primary members were Hermarchus, the financier Idomeneus, Leonteus and his wife Themista, the satirist Colotes, the mathematician Polyaenus of Lampsacus, and Metrodorus of Lampsacus, the most famous populariser of Epicureanism.

His school was the 1st of the ancient Greek philosophical schools to admit women as a rule rather than an exception, and the biography of Epicurus by Diogenes Laertius lists female students such as Leontion and Nikidion.

An inscription on the gate to The Garden is recorded by Seneca the Younger in epistle XXI of Epistulae morales ad Lucilium:

"Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure."

Epicurus himself established a custom of celebrating his birthday annually with common meals, befitting his stature as "founding hero" of the Garden.

He ordained in his will annual memorial feasts for himself on the same date (10th of Gamēlion month (January/February)).

Epicurean communities continued this tradition, referring to Epicurus as their "Saviour" (soter) and celebrating him as Hero.

The Hero cult of Epicurus may have operated as a Garden variety civic religion.

However, clear evidence of an Epicurean hero cult, as well as the cult itself, seems buried by the weight of posthumous philosophical interpretation.

Epicurus never married and had no known children. He was most likely a vegetarian.

Diogenes Laertius records that, according to Epicurus's successor Hermarchus, Epicurus died a slow and painful death in 270 BC at the age of 72 from a stone blockage of his urinary tract.

Despite being in immense pain, Epicurus is said to have remained cheerful and to have continued to teach until the very end.

4. Epistemology

Epicurus and his followers had a well-developed epistemology, which developed as a result of their rivalry with other philosophical schools.

Epicurus wrote a treatise entitled Κανών, or Rule, in which he explained his methods of investigation and theory of knowledge. This book, however, has not survived.

Epicurus was an ardent Empiricist; believing that the senses are the only reliable sources of information about the world.

He rejected the Platonic idea of "Reason" as a reliable source of knowledge about the world apart from the senses

and was bitterly opposed to the Pyrrhonists and Academic Sceptics,

who not only questioned the ability of the senses to provide accurate knowledge about the world, but also whether it is even possible to know anything about the world at all.

Epicurus maintained that the senses never deceive humans, but that the senses can be misinterpreted.

Epicurus held that the purpose of all knowledge is to aid humans in attaining Ataraxia.

He taught that knowledge is learned through experiences rather than innate and that the acceptance of the fundamental truth of the things a person perceives is essential to a person's moral and spiritual health.

In the Letter to Pythocles, he states,

"If a person fights the clear evidence of his senses he will never be able to share in genuine tranquillity."

Epicurus regarded gut feelings as the ultimate authority on matters of morality

and held that whether a person feels an action is right or wrong is a far more cogent guide to whether that act really is right or wrong than abstracts maxims, strict codified rules of ethics, or even reason itself.

Epicurus permitted that any and every statement that is not directly contrary to human perception has the possibility to be true.

Nonetheless, anything contrary to a person's experience can be ruled out as false.

Epicureans often used analogies to everyday experience to support their argument of so-called "imperceptibles", which included anything that a human being cannot perceive, such as the motion of atoms.

In line with this principle of non-contradiction, the Epicureans believed that events in the natural world may have multiple causes that are all equally possible and probable.

Epicurus strongly favoured naturalistic explanations over theological ones:

In his Letter to Pythocles, he offers 4 different possible natural explanations for thunder, 6 different possible natural explanations for lightning, 3 for snow, 3 for comets, 2 for rainbows 2 for earthquakes, and so on.

Although all of these explanations are now known to be false, they were an important step in the history of science,

because Epicurus was trying to explain natural phenomena using natural explanations, rather than resorting to inventing elaborate stories about Gods and mythic heroes.

5. Ethics

Epicurus was a hedonist, meaning he taught that what is pleasurable is morally good and what is painful is morally evil.

He idiosyncratically defined "pleasure" as the absence of suffering and taught that all humans should seek to attain the state of Ataraxia, meaning "untroubledness", a state in which the person is completely free from all pain or suffering.

He argued that most of the suffering which human beings experience is caused by the irrational fears of death, divine retribution, and punishment in the afterlife.

In his Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus explains that people seek wealth and power on account of these fears, believing that having more money, prestige, or political clout will save them from death.

He, however, maintains that death is the end of existence, that the terrifying stories of punishment in the afterlife are ridiculous superstitions, and that death is therefore nothing to be feared.

He writes in his Letter to Menoeceus:

"Accustom thyself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply sentience, and death is the privation of all sentience;...

Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not."

From this doctrine arose the Epicurean epitaph:

Non fui, fui, non-sum, non-curo
"I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care",

- which is inscribed on the gravestones of his followers and seen on many ancient gravestones of the Roman Empire. This quotation is often used today at humanist funerals.

The Tetrapharmakos ("4-part remedy") presents a summary of the key points of Epicurean ethics:

  1. Don't fear God
  2. Don't worry about death
  3. What is good is easy to get
  4. What is terrible is easy to endure

Although Epicurus has been commonly misunderstood as an advocate of the rampant pursuit of pleasure, he, in fact, maintained that a person can only be happy and free from suffering by living wisely, soberly, and morally.

He strongly disapproved of raw, excessive sensuality and warned that a person must take into account whether the consequences of his actions will result in suffering, writing,

"The pleasant life is produced not by a string of drinking bouts and revelries, nor by the enjoyment of boys and women, nor by fish and the other items on an expensive menu, but by sober Reasoning."

He also wrote that a single good piece of cheese could be equally pleasing as an entire feast.

Furthermore, Epicurus taught that "it is not possible to live pleasurably without living sensibly and nobly and justly",

because a person who engages in acts of dishonesty or injustice will be "loaded with troubles" on account of his own guilty conscience and will live in constant fear that his wrongdoings will be discovered by others.

A person who is kind and just to others, however, will have no fear and will be more likely to attain Ataraxia.

Epicurus distinguished between 2 different types of pleasure:

  1. "Moving" pleasures (κατὰ κίνησιν ἡδοναί)
  2. "Static" pleasures (καταστηματικαὶ ἡδοναί).

"Moving" pleasures occur when one is in the process of satisfying a desire and involve an active titillation of the senses.

After one's desires have been satisfied (e.g. when one is full after eating), the pleasure quickly goes away and the suffering of wanting to fulfil the desire again returns.

For Epicurus, static pleasures are the best pleasures because moving pleasures are always bound up with pain.

Epicurus had a low opinion of sex and marriage, regarding both as having dubious value. Instead, he maintained that platonic friendships are essential to living a happy life.

One of the Principal Doctrines states,

"Of the things wisdom acquires for the blessedness of life as a whole, far the greatest is the possession of friendship."

He also taught that philosophy is itself a pleasure to engage in. One of the quotes from Epicurus recorded in the Vatican Sayings declares,

"In other pursuits, the hard-won fruit comes at the end.

But in philosophy, delight keeps pace with knowledge. It is not after the lesson that enjoyment comes: learning and enjoyment happen at the same time."

Epicurus distinguishes between 3 types of desires:

  1. natural and necessary,
  2. natural but unnecessary,
  3. vain and empty.

Natural and necessary desires include the desires for food and shelter. These are easy to satisfy, difficult to eliminate, bring pleasure when satisfied, and are naturally limited.

Going beyond these limits produces unnecessary desires, such as the desire for luxury foods. Although food is necessary, luxury food is not necessary.

Correspondingly, Epicurus advocates a life of hedonistic moderation by reducing desire, thus eliminating the unhappiness caused by unfulfilled desires.

Vain desires include desires for power, wealth, and fame. These are difficult to satisfy because no matter how much one gets, one can always want more:

These desires are inculcated by society and by false beliefs about what we need. They are not natural and are to be shunned.

6. Physics

Epicurus writes in his Letter to Herodotus (not the historian) that "nothing ever arises from the non-existent", indicating that all events therefore have causes, regardless of whether those causes are known or unknown.

Similarly, he also writes that nothing ever passes away into nothingness, because,

"if an object that passes from our view were completely annihilated, everything in the world would have perished, since that into which things were dissipated would be non-existent."

He therefore states:

"The totality of things was always just as it is at present and will always remain the same because there is nothing into which it can change, inasmuch as there is nothing outside the totality that could intrude and effect change."

Like Democritus before him, Epicurus taught that all matter is entirely made of extremely tiny particles called "atoms" (ἄτομος; "indivisible").

For Epicurus and his followers, the existence of atoms was a matter of empirical observation:

Epicurus's devoted follower, the Roman poet Lucretius, cites the gradual wearing down of rings from being worn, statues from being kissed, stones from being dripped on by water, and roads from being walked on in On the Nature of Things as evidence for the existence of atoms as tiny, imperceptible particles.

Also like Democritus, Epicurus taught that the only things that exist are atoms and void. Void occurs in any place where there are no atoms.

Epicurus and his followers believed that atoms and void are both infinite and that the universe is therefore boundless.

In On the Nature of Things, Lucretius argues this point using the example of a man throwing a javelin at the theoretical boundary of a finite universe:

He states that the javelin must either go past the edge of the universe, in which case it is not really a boundary,

or it must be blocked by something and prevented from continuing its path, but, if that happens, then the object blocking it must be outside the confines of the universe.

As a result of this belief that the universe and the number of atoms in it are infinite, Epicurus and the Epicureans believed that there must also be infinitely many worlds within the universe.

Epicurus taught that the motion of atoms is constant, eternal, and without beginning or end.

He held that there are 2 kinds of motion: the motion of atoms and the motion of visible objects. Both kinds of motion are real and not illusory.

Democritus had described atoms as not only eternally moving, but also eternally flying through space, colliding, coalescing, and separating from each other as necessary.

In a rare departure from Democritus's physics, Epicurus posited the idea of atomic "swerve" (παρέγκλισις), one of his best-known original ideas:

According to this idea, atoms, as they are travelling through space, may deviate slightly from the course they would ordinarily be expected to follow.

Epicurus's reason for introducing this doctrine was because he wanted to preserve the concepts of Free Will and Ethical Responsibility while still maintaining the deterministic physical model of atomism.

Epicurus was first to assert Human Freedom as a result of the fundamental indeterminism in the motion of atoms. This has led some philosophers to think that, for Epicurus, Free Will was caused directly by chance.

In his Letter to Menoeceus, however, Epicurus follows Aristotle and clearly identifies 3 possible causes: "some things happen of necessity, others by chance, others through our own agency."

For Epicurus, the "swerve" of the atoms simply defeated determinism to leave room for autonomous agency.

7. Theology

In his Letter to Menoeceus, a summary of his own moral and theological teachings, the first piece of advice Epicurus himself gives to his student is:

First, believe that God is a blissful, immortal being, as is commonly held.

Do not ascribe to God anything that is inconsistent with immortality and blissfulness; instead, believe about God everything that can support immortality and blissfulness.

Epicurus maintained that he and his followers knew that the Gods exist because "our knowledge of them is a matter of clear and distinct perception", meaning that people can empirically sense their presences.

He did not mean that people can see the Gods as physical objects, but rather that they can see visions of the Gods sent from the remote regions of interstellar space in which they actually reside.

Probably, Epicurus could have easily dispensed of the Gods entirely without greatly altering his materialist worldview, but the Gods still play one important function in Epicurus's theology as the paragons of moral virtue to be emulated and admired.

Epicurus rejected the conventional Greek view of the Gods as anthropomorphic beings who walked the earth like ordinary people, fathered illegitimate offspring with mortals, and pursued personal feuds.

Instead, he taught that the Gods are morally perfect, but detached and immobile beings who live in the remote regions of interstellar space.

In line with these teachings, Epicurus adamantly rejected the idea that deities were involved in human affairs in any way.

Epicurus maintained that the Gods are so utterly perfect and removed from the world that they are incapable of listening to prayers or supplications or doing virtually anything aside from contemplating their own perfections.

In his Letter to Herodotus, he specifically denies that the Gods have any control over natural phenomena, arguing that this would contradict their fundamental nature, which is perfect, because any kind of worldly involvement would tarnish their perfection.

He further warned that believing that the Gods control natural phenomena would only mislead people into believing the superstitious view that the Gods punish humans for wrongdoing, which only instils fear and prevents people from attaining Ataraxia.

Epicurus himself criticizes popular religion in both his Letter to Menoeceus and his Letter to Herodotus, but in a restrained and moderate tone.

Later Epicureans mainly followed the same ideas as Epicurus, believing in the existence of the Gods, but emphatically rejecting the idea of divine providence.

Their criticisms of popular religion, however, are often less gentle than those of Epicurus himself.

8. Politics

Epicurus promoted an innovative theory of Justice as a Social Contract.

Justice, Epicurus said, is an agreement neither to harm nor be harmed, and we need to have such a contract in order to enjoy fully the benefits of living together in a well-ordered society.

Laws and punishments are needed to keep misguided fools in line who would otherwise break the contract.

But the wise person sees the usefulness of Justice, and because of his limited desires, he has no need to engage in the conduct prohibited by the laws in any case.

Laws that are useful for promoting happiness are just, but those that are not useful are not just. (Principal Doctrines 31–40)

Epicurus discouraged participation in politics, as doing so leads to perturbation and status seeking. He instead advocated not drawing attention to oneself.

This principle is epitomised by the phrase lathe biōsas (λάθε βιώσας), meaning "live in obscurity", "get through life without drawing attention to yourself",

i.e., live without pursuing glory or wealth or power, but anonymously, enjoying little things like food, the company of friends, etc.

9. Works

Epicurus was an extremely prolific writer. According to Diogenes Laertius, he wrote around 300 treatises on a variety of subjects. More original writings of Epicurus have survived to the present day than of any other Hellenistic Greek philosopher.

Nonetheless, the vast majority of everything he wrote has now been lost and most of what is known about Epicurus's teachings come from the writings of his later followers, particularly the Roman poet Lucretius.

The only surviving complete works by Epicurus are 3 relatively lengthy letters, which are quoted in their entirety in Book X of Diogenes Laertius's Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers,

and 2 groups of quotes: the Principal Doctrines (Κύριαι Δόξαι), which are likewise preserved through quotation by Diogenes Laertius, and the Vatican Sayings, preserved in a manuscript from the Vatican Library that was first discovered in 1888.

In the Letter to Herodotus and the Letter to Pythocles, Epicurus summarizes his philosophy on nature and, in the Letter to Menoeceus, he summarizes his moral teachings.

Numerous fragments of Epicurus's lost 37 volume treatise On Nature have been found among the charred papyrus fragments at the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum.

Scholars first began attempting to unravel and decipher these scrolls in 1800, but the efforts are painstaking and are still on-going.