Article abstract: Epicurus founded the Garden School of Greek philosophy, a hedonistic school known for its pursuit of pleasure and tranquillity of mind and body, which was to be achieved through avoiding pain and living a simple, aesthetic life.
Epicurus was born on the Greek island of Samos, about two miles off the coast of Turkey. His father, Neocles, was an immigrant from an old Athenian family who had moved to the distant island for economic reasons and who made his living as an elementary school teacher. Epicurus was forever disadvantaged in the eyes of the people of Athens because of his rustic birth and the low social status of his father’s occupation. To make matters worse, his mother was reputedly a fortune-teller. His experiences as her apprentice might well account for Epicurus’s later criticism of all kinds of superstitions and even for his controversial renunciation of the ancient Greek myths and stories.
Epicurus shared a happy family life with his parents and three brothers, Neocles, Chaeredemus, and Aristobulus, who would eventually become his disciples. It is recorded by Diogenes Laërtius that Epicurus began to study philosophy at the age of fourteen because he was not satisfied with his schoolmasters’ explanations of the meaning of “chaos” in Hesiod. Others contend that he was drawn to philosophy by the works of Democritus, echoes of which can be seen in Epicurus’s later writings.
At eighteen, Epicurus served his two years of compulsory military duty in Athens, at an exciting time when both Xenocrates and Aristotle were lecturing. He clearly familiarized himself with the works of Aristippus, Socrates, and Pyrrhon of Elis. He served in the garrison with the future playwright Menander, with whom he established a close friendship; many critics believe that they see the impress of Epicurus’s ideas on Menander’s later plays.
After his military service, Epicurus rejoined his family, who, with other Athenian colonists, had been expelled from Samos by a dictator and had subsequently moved to Colophon. Not much is known of the ten years that Epicurus spent at Colophon, but it might be surmised that he spent much of his time in study and contemplation, perhaps even visiting the intellectual center of Rhodes. At around the age of thirty, he moved to Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, to become a teacher. As he developed his own philosophy, he came into conflict with the numerous followers of Plato and Aristotle on that island, and after only a short stay, he left. He took with him, however, Hermarchus, a man who would become a lifetime friend and perhaps more important, after Epicurus’s death, the head of his Athenian school.
Hermarchus and Epicurus moved to Lampsacus on the Hellespont for the fertile years between 310 and 306 b.c.e. At Lampsacus, Epicurus gathered around him the devoted disciples and the influential patrons who would make it possible for him, at the age of thirty-five, to move to Athens and begin the major stage of his career. They presented to him the house and the garden in the outskirts of Athens that would be both his school and his home for the rest of his life.
Once established in Athens, Epicurus founded his Garden School, whose name came from the practice of the resident members, who in almost monastic fashion provided for their own food by gardening. The many statues, statuettes, and engraved gems that bear the image of Epicurus’s long, narrow, intelligent face, with its furrowed brows and full beard, attest the devotion of his followers and the unusually enduring influence of his ideas.
Epicurus organized his Garden School in a strict hierarchical system, at the apex of which stood only himself: the Master. One of the common slogans of the school was “Do all things as if Epicurus were looking at you.” Although this motto may sound dictatorial, it represented a benevolent tyranny to which all the disciples and students of Epicurus happily adhered, and it no doubt accounts for the consistently accurate promotion of his philosophical ideas, even after his death. Three men—Metrodorus, Hermarchus, and Plyaenus—reached the rank of associate leaders in the Garden School and were understood to follow in their master’s footsteps so closely that they might teach the Epicurean doctrine in its purest form. Beneath them were the many assistant leaders, unfortunately unknown to modern scholars by name, and the numerous students. It is important to mention that among Epicurus’s students were women (for example, the distinguished Leontion) and slaves (Epicurus’s own slave Mys was one of his favorite students). The accessibility of the Epicurean philosophy, which eschewed most classical learning, ensured a remarkably heterogeneous following.
Despite many later slanders against him, by writers who misconstrued his emphasis on pleasure as a license for sensory excess, the overwhelming evidence supports the idea that Epicurus lived in his Garden School simply and privately, following his own dictate to “live unobtrusively.” His health, which was delicate and complicated by bladder or kidney stones, would certainly not have...