was an ancient Greek philosopher, the founder of Epicureanism, one
of the most popular schools of Hellenistic Philosophy. Epicurus
was born into an Athenian émigré family — his
parents, Neocles and Chaerestrate, both Athenian citizens, were
sent to an Athenian settlement on the Aegean island of Samos. According
to Apollodorus (reported by Diogenes Laertius at X.14-15), he was
born on the seventh day of the month Gamelion in the third year
of the 109th Olympiad, in the archonship of Sosigenes (about February
341 BC). He returned to Athens at the age of eighteen to serve in
military training. The playwright Menander served in the same age-class
of the ephebes as Epicurus.
joined his father in Colophon after the Athenian settlers at Samos
were expelled by Perdiccas due to their revolt after Alexander
the Great died (c. 320 BC). He spent the next several years in
Colophon, Lampsacus, and Mytilene, where he founded his school
at the age of 32 and gathered many disciples. In the archonship
of Anaxicrates (307-306 BC), he returned to Athens where he formed
his school known as The Garden, named for the garden he owned
about halfway between the Stoa and the Academy that served as
the school's meetingplace.
died in the second year of the 127th Olympiad, in the archonship
of Pytharatus, at the age of 72. He reportedly suffered from kidney
stones, and despite the prolonged pain involved, he is reported
as saying in a letter to Idomeneus:
have written this letter to you on a happy day to us, which is
also the last day of our life. For strangury has attacked me,
and also a dysentery, so violent that nothing can be added to
the violence of my sufferings. But the cheerfulness of my mind,
which arises from their collection of all my philosophical contemplation,
counterbalances all these afflictions. And I beg you to take care
of the children of Metrodorus, in a manner worth of the devotion
shown by the youth to me, and to philosophy" (Diogenes
Laertius , X.22, trans. C.D. Yonge).
growing directory of contemporary Gardens of Epicurus can be found
at www.gardenofepicurus.com The Epicurean doctrines are by no
Epicurus' school had a small but devoted following in his lifetime.
The primary members were Hermarchus, the financier Idomeneus,
Leonteus and his wife Themista, the satirist Colotes, the mathematician
Polyaenus of Lampsacus, and Metrodorus, the most famous popularizer
of Epicureanism. This original school was based in Epicurus' home
and garden. An inscription on the gate to the garden is recorded
by Seneca in his Epistle XXI:
here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.
The school's popularity grew and it became, along with Stoicism
and Skepticism, one of the three dominant schools of Hellenistic
Philosophy, lasting strongly through the later Roman Empire. In
Rome, Lucretius was the school's greatest proponent, composing
On the Nature of Things, an epic poem, in six books, designed
to recruit new members. The poem mainly deals with Epicurean philosophy
of nature. Another major source of information is the Roman politician
and amateur philosopher Cicero, although he was highly critical
of Epicureanism. Another ancient source is Diogenes of Oenoanda,
who composed a large inscription at Oenoanda in Lycia.
library, dubbed the Villa of the Papyri, in Herculaneum, owned
by Julius Caesar's father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus,
was preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, and was found
to contain a large number of works by Philodemus, a late Hellenistic
Epicurean, and Epicurus himself, attesting to the school's enduring
popularity. The task of unrolling and deciphering the charred
papyrus scrolls continues today.
the official approval of Christianity by Constantine, Epicureanism
was repressed. Epicurus' theory that the gods were unconcerned
with human affairs had always clashed strongly with the Judeo-Christian
God, and the philosophies were essentially irreconcilable. For
example, the word for a heretic in the Talmudic literature is
"Apikouros". Lactantius criticizes Epicurus at several
points throughout his Divine Institutes. The school endured a
long period of obscurity and decline. However, there was a resurgance
of atomism among scientists in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and
in the late 20th Century, the school was revived. A directory
of contemporary followers of Epicurus can be found on gardenofepicurus.com.
Epicurus' teachings represented a departure from the other major
Greek thinkers of his period, and before, but was nevertheless
founded on many of the same principles as Democritus. Like Democritus,
he was an atomist, believing that the fundamental constituents
of the world were uncuttable little bits of matter (atoms) flying
through empty space (void). Everything that occurs is the result
of the atoms colliding, rebounding, and becoming entangled with
one another, with no purpose or plan behind their motions.
admitted women and slaves into his school, emphasized the senses
in his epistemology, and was one of the first Greeks to break
from the god-fearing and god-worshipping tradition common at the
time, even while affirming that religious activities are useful
as a way to contemplate the gods and to use them as an example
of the pleasant life.
philosophy is based on the theory that all good and bad derive
from sensation. Pleasureable sensations are good. Painful sensations
are bad. Although Epicurus was commonly misunderstood to advocate
the rampant pursuit of pleasure, what he was really after was
the absence of pain (both physical and mental, i.e., anxiety).
Epicurus believed in pursuing pleasure, he was by no means a hedonist
in our modern sense of the word. He explicitly warned against
overindulgence because it often leads to pain. For instance, in
what might be described as a "hangover" theory, Epicurus
warned against pursuing love too ardently, as it often leads to
pain. However, having a circle of friends you can trust is one
of the most important means for securing a tranquil life.
also believed (in contradistinction to Aristotle) that death was
not bad. According to Epicurus, good and bad derive from sensation.
Bad cannot exist without sensing pain. When man is alive, he does
not feel the pain of death because he is not experiencing death.
When a man dies, he does not feel the pain of death because he
is dead and, since death is annihilation, he feels nothing. Therefore,
as Epicurus famously said, "death is nothing to us."
contrast to the Stoics, Epicureans showed little interest in participating
in the politics of the day, since doing so leads to trouble. "Live
in seclusion!" was the advice of Epicurus. His garden can
be compared to present day communes. There are many people in
our own time who have sought a safe harbor away from society.
most known Epicurean verse, which epitomizes the Epicurean philosophy,
is lathe biosas ???e ß??sa? (Plutarchus De latenter vivendo
1128c; Flavius Philostratus Vita Apollonii 8.28.12), meaning "live
secretly", "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.
Elements of Epicurean philosophy have resonated and resurfaced
in various diverse thinkers and movements throughout Western intellectual
history. The Epicurean paradox is a famous argument against the
existence of God.
was one of the first thinkers to develop the notion of justice
as a social contract. He defined justice as an agreement "neither
to harm nor be harmed." The point of living in a society
with laws and punishments is to be protected from harm so that
one is free to pursue happiness. Because of this, laws that do
not help contribute to promoting human happiness are not just.
was later picked up by the democratic thinkers of the French Revolution,
and others, like John Locke, who wrote that people had a right
to "life, liberty, and property." To Locke, one's own
body was part of their property, and thus one's right to property
would theoretically guarantee safety for their persons, as well
as their possessions.
triad was carried forward into the American freedom movement and
Declaration of Independence, by American founding father, Thomas
Jefferson, as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
was also a significant source of inspiration and interest for
Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche cites his affinities to Epicurus
in a number of his works, including The Gay Science, Beyond Good
and Evil, and his private letters to Peter Gast. Nietzsche was
attracted to, among other things, Epicurus' ability to maintain
a cheerful philosophical outlook in the face of painful physical
ailments. Nietzsche also suffered from a number of sicknesses
during his lifetime. However, he thought that Epicurus' conception
of happiness as freedom from anxiety was too passive and negative.