Epicurus Biography


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)
0111205850-Epicurus.jpg Epicurus (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.


Born an Athenian citizen on the isle of Samos, Epicurus (ehp-ihk-KYOOR-uhs) began his philosophical education at fourteen and continued in Asia Minor after the conquests of Alexander the Great. He was tutored by the Platonist Pamphilus and the Democritean-Skeptic Nausiphanes but developed his own philosophy based on the thought of Democritus, incorporating the popularizing tendencies of Hellenistic philosophy. In his early thirties, he founded a school, which he eventually moved to Athens in 307 b.c.e., when it became known as The Garden. Epicurus wrote numerous books and letters, some of which survive. Remarkably for the time, he accepted both women and slaves as students. He also became highly revered by his pupils and was treated as an earthly savior by later adherents. He died at the age of seventy-one from a painful illness, encouraging his students to the very end. Loyal Epicureans continued to celebrate his birthday.

Epicurus taught that the only reliable guide to truth was the evidence of the senses, that everything in the universe was made of various kinds of atoms or resulted from their accidental collision or combination, and that the good life consisted of freedom from pain and fear. In his view, the soul did not survive the death of the body, but because death meant the end of all sensation, it was not to be feared. Likewise, his atomism and empiricism led him and his followers to deny the reality of supernatural phenomena and to oppose superstition as an enemy of human happiness. Epicurus defined happiness as tranquillity of mind, a kind of simple contentment with life, achieved by reducing or simplifying one’s desires and living a life of quiet retirement and contemplation, while cultivating true friendships. Because most ancient philosophy had the practical aim of securing human happiness, Epicurus’s methods of getting at the truth, his doctrines regarding the nature of the universe, and his ethical teachings were all carefully designed to that end, but also as a response to Platonism and Pyrrhonism.


In creating a system of philosophy both admired and hated, Epicurean thought remained an important intellectual current throughout the Western world until the fall of the Roman Empire. It had a profound effect on such men as the poets Lucretius and Vergil, and philosopher Lucian, and it forced opponents, especially the Stoics, to address its arguments. Even Saint Augustine noted in his...

(The entire section is 1018 words.)

Epicurus Biography

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Author Profile

The only writings of Epicurus that have survived are various fragments and three letters presented in Diogenes Laertius’ Life of Epicurus. From these writings and from the writings of his disciples, however, one may obtain a reliable description of Epicurus’ ethical theory. In an uncertain world, the immediate experiences of the senses are the most certain knowledge available. The senses respond to pleasure and pain. Thus, Epicurus equates pleasure with good and pain with evil. Practical wisdom is necessary if one is to weigh pleasures and pains. According to Epicurus, the duration of pleasure is more important than its intensity; thus, mental pleasures are preferred to physical ones. It is better to strive for the absence of pain than for the high peaks of pleasure. His theory of atomism, that everything is composed of material atoms, allows Epicurus to banish the two fears that bring so much pain to human beings: the fear of God and the fear of death. Epicurus sees philosophy as the medicine of the soul. If one desires little and is able to distinguish natural and necessary desires from those that are artificial, then one will be able to attain ataraxia, or serenity. This state involves peace of mind and bodily health. The best life is that lived with friends, engaged in moderation of the passions.

Further Reading:

Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972. The most valuable parts of this early third century work are the many quoted extracts directly from the writings of Epicurus. Diogenes’ unusual focus on the ancient philosophers as living men gives an interesting view of Epicurus, who is, surprisingly, treated more extensively in this work than is Socrates.

Durant, Will. The Life of Greece. 1939. Reprint. New York: MJF Books, 1992. Contains an excellent chapter,...

(The entire section is 794 words.)

Epicurus Biography

(Survey of World Philosophers)

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.

Early 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.

Life’s Work

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...

(The entire section is 2144 words.)