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Epicurus (B.C. 341-270)

"Why should I fear death? If I am, death is not. If death is, I am not. Why should I fear that which cannot exist when I do?"

"If the gods listened to the prayers of men, all humankind would quickly perish since they constantly pray for many evils to befall one another."

"Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; Or he can, but does not want to; Or he cannot and does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. But, if God both can and wants to abolish evil, then how come evil is in the world?"

-- Epicurus


Epicurus 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.

He 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.

Epicurus 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:

"We 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).

A growing directory of contemporary Gardens of Epicurus can be found at www.gardenofepicurus.com The Epicurean doctrines are by no means extinct.

The School
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:

Stranger, 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.

A 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.

After 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.

Teachings
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.

He 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.

Epicurus' 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).

Although 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.

Epicurus 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."

In 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.

The 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.

Legacy
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.

Epicurus 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.

This 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.

This 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."

Epicurus 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.

 
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The information on which this page is based has been drawn from research on the Internet. For example, much use has been made of Wikipedia.org, to whom we are greatly indebted. Since the information recording process at Wikipedia is prone to changes in the data, please check at Wikipedia for current information. If you find something on this page to be in error, please contact us.
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