Epicurus 341 B.C–270 B.C.
Epicurus contributed significantly to Greek, Roman, and ultimately European philosophy, science, ethics, and political science. He was the master of his philosophical school, known as the Garden, roughly contemporaneous with Plato and Aristotle, the propounders of Socratic philosophy, and with the Stoic school founded by Zeno. Generally at odds with both the Stoic and the Socratic philosophy, Epicurean philosophy had its supporters for another six centuries after its founder's death but receded into stigmatized obscurity with the rise of Christianity. Nonetheless, the impact of Epicurus's thought has been wide-ranging. Its strange history manifests itself in English words—such as &epicure& and &Epicurean&—and their attendant ideas of taste, hedonism, and even debauchery. Those words reflect Epicurus's values less than they suggest Renaissance and post-Renaissance distortions of his thought. English-speaking scholars have only recently begun committing the kind of in-depth analysis and explanation necessary to redefine with some accuracy the meaning of Epicureanism.
What we know of Epicurus' life we owe mainly to the efforts of Diogenes Laertius, who included Epicurus in his Lives of Philosophers (c. 221-235 B.C.). Epicurus was born in 341 B.C. at Samos, a colony of Athens. His youth in Samos provided the standard Greek education, which Epicurus supplemented with his own investigations into philosophy. Historians have speculated that when Epicurus went to Athens at age eighteen for a standard two years of military service, he may also have anticipated a philosophical education in the city; any such plans, however, were disrupted by political changes that forced his family to move from Samos to Colophon in Asia minor. Epicurus followed in 321 B.C., continuing his philosophical studies on his own and as teachers were available.
Epicurus became a teacher himself around the time he turned thirty. He established a school at Mytilene in 310 B.C. and moved it to Lampsacus a few years later, with his reputation and following growing all the while. By 307 B.C. he was ready to move the new school of Epicureanism to Athens. He bought a house—the garden
of which would lend its name to his school—to shelter his community of disciples. Here he taught, thought, wrote, and mentored the works of the followers who lived with him. Both the teacher and his students wrote prolifically, explaining and defending the Epicurean creed. Ensconced in the city with the devout core of his followers, Epicurus immersed himself in his philosophical pursuits, remaining disengaged from the social and political life of the city, which at that time observed obsequious subservience to Demetrius Polioscetes. Despite the community's isolation, politics in a sense still came after them. Rival philosophical schools—particularly the Stoic—slandered the Garden, depicting it as a hotbed of amoral self-indulgence. Ironically, Garden life was in fact decidedly simple; meals, for example, generally consisted of bread and water, with cheese only to celebrate special occasions. The life of the Garden's &brotherhood& became in itself an investigation of human nature and society, embodying a kind of ideal fraternity. Upon his death in 270 B.C., Epicurus left his estate to the students who had lived with him.
Scholars have determined that Epicurus must have composed about 300 scrolls, comprising at least twenty books. To approach this breadth of work manageably, Diogenes Laertius divided Epicurus's thought into three parts—methodological, physical, and ethical—a standard that most criticism has since followed. The first, apparently of less concern to Epicurus than it was to other Greek philosophers, addresses the epistemological question, &How do we know?& Essentially, Epicurus asserts that one knows through sensation so that, for example, abstract concepts emerge from an aggregation of physical experiences. Several works sketch Epicurus's epistemological thought, including Principal Doctrines, the Letter to Herodotus, and the Canon. The forty aphorisms that make up Principal Doctrines apparently served as a catechism (some scholars refer to it as such) of Epicurus's thought, providing the basic education to new disciples. Epicurus detailed his view of the physical world in one of his major works, On Nature, thought to have originally comprised almost forty scrolls.
Most critics suggest that, while issues of epistemology and physics are fundamental to the Epicurean treatment of ethical issues, they are also ultimately less important. Epicurus addressed the significance of human action, of choices made, to a greater or lesser degree in nearly all of his works. Primary among these are Lives, The Purpose of Life, On Choice and Avoidance, and his letters. Epicurus contended that all human action depends on pleasure and pain, always directed toward one and away from the other. Reason and virtue play a definitive role in the Epicurean notion of pleasure, always leading the wise man to choose a simple life and rational action above excess and selfindulgence. Similarly, Epicurus advocated the necessity of freedom from prejudice, superstition, and extremes of emotion in the pursuit of happiness. The apparent simplicity of this formula allowed detractors to misinterpret Epicurus, depicting him as debauched, hedonistic, anarchistic, and atheistic.
Of the many titles attributed to Epicurus—treating topics from the gods to the senses, from music to government—only a few of his letters are extant today in any kind of complete form. Diogenes Laertius copied the Letter to Herodotus, Letter to Menoeceus, Letter to Pythocles (of dubious authorship), and Principal Doctrines into his biography. The other scraps that are available are very fragmented, either because of the condition of the manuscripts when they were found or because they were quoted with little sense of context in other writers' works. Some significant pieces of On Nature came to light in the eighteenth century, when a large cache of papyrus rolls was unearthed at Herculaneum. One other manuscript, maintained at the Vatican, presents a relatively extensive collection of Epicurus's aphorisms, apparently similar in purpose to Principal Doctrines. In 1926 Cyril Bailey published the most extensive English translation of Epicurus's works; this volume has since been considered the standard English edition.
Aside from these resources, scholars depend on the works of other Epicureans, either contemporary with their master or living in the following centuries, to fill out the picture of Epicurus's thought. Primary among these are Philodemus, who authored most of the papyrus rolls at Herculaneum; Diogenes of Oenoanda, who left an inscription dated c. 200 A.D.; and Lucretius. The latter's long poem from c. 43 B.C., On the Nature of Things, articulates Epicurean philosophy at length and in greater detail than any other source.
Epicureanism as a movement gathered strength before its founder's death and continued for another seven centuries, waxing and waning, inciting both popular enthusiasm and sharp criticism. Many philosophers of the ancient world allied themselves with the school, devoting themselves to what they perceived to be the path to true happiness. Both Lucretius (99-44 B.C.) and Diogenes of Oenoanda (c. 200 A.D.) were products of this discipleship. Other prominent figures experimented with Epicureanism at some time in their lives without becoming committed to it. Horace and Vergil were both Epicureans in their youth but distanced themselves in later years. Also among these was Cicero (106-43 B.C.), who would become one of the most outspoken Roman detractors of Epicureanism. He expressed his contempt for Epicurus's moral philosophy and theology in many of his works, including De Finibus and De Natura Deorum. Epicurus's popularity in Rome was deemed dangerous to the populace, since it suggested skepticism in religious matters at a time when the government maintained control in part through superstition. Both Plutarch and Seneca carried on the criticism in the first century A.D.; while Seneca adopted a somewhat more approving stance, he still invoked the traditional debate between Epicurean and Stoic and pronounced that Stoicism prevailed in virtue.
Epicureanism spread through the ancient world in a manner that prefigured Christianity, with individual disciples traveling and preaching to win converts to their doctrine. Such similarities between Epicureanism and Christianity caused the two movements often to be lumped together by common enemies. By the end of the second century, however, as Christianity began to prevail in the ancient world, Epicureanism was on its wane. By the Middle Ages, Epicureanism had reached a level of distortion that allowed critics to use it as a representation of everything un-Christian, including atheism, hedonism, and materialism. Christian debate about Epicurus did, however, have two sides. Some Christian writers praised Epicurus for his rejection of superstition and his religious skepticism at a time when Christianity was not yet an option.
The earliest hints of a shift away from prevailing anti Epicureanism emerged in the work of Lorenzo Valla, whose On Pleasure (1433) resurrected the ancient debate between Epicurean and Stoic in order to defend the former. A virtual Epicurean vogue occurred in seventeenth-century France, catalyzed largely by Pierre Gassendi, a theologian and religious leader who sought to recapture the virtue of Epicurus's thought in three books devoted to the topic. Although frequently unnamed as such, Epicureanism played a significant role in the thought of modern Europe, contributing to rationalism, science, and conceptions of the modern secular state. Epicurus or his shadow appears everywhere from the works of Thomas Hobbes and Jeremy Bentham to a young Karl Marx's vision of a wholly free society.
Some hints of the continental revival of Epicureanism drifted across to England and America, but a puritan heritage generally kept that interest in check, even through the nineteenth century. While Victorian England experienced a revival of interest in the classics—initiated by curricular changes at Oxford—this development afforded only marginal attention to Epicurus, since Plato and Aristotle constituted its core. Even into the twentieth century, this aversion to Epicurus often took a specifically masculinist turn, as commentators deemed him &effeminate& and &decadent& even when not misconstruing his doctrines. Some landmark works of the early twentieth century did, however, dismantle some of the age-old prejudices against Epicurus—such as Cyril Bailey's 1928 argument for Epicurus's originality and significance, which countered a long-standing charge that Epicurus simply reproduced Democritus's atomic theories. By the second half of the twentieth century, scholars were able to be less defensive about Epicurus, gradually reaching the point where serious and in-depth discussions did not require an initial vindication of their subject.
On Nature (essay)
On Atoms and Void (essay)
Against Theophrastus (essay)
Letter to Herodotus (letter)
Letter to Menoeceus (letter)
Letter to Pythocles (letter)
Principal Doctrines (aphorisms)
On Choice and Avoidance (essay)
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Principal English Translations
SOURCE: Marcus Tullius Cicero, &The Testimony of Cicero,& in The Epicurus Reader: Selecting Writings and Testimonia, translated and edited by Brad Inwood and L. P. Gerson, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1994, pp. 47-64.
[The following excerpts from Cicero range from the most judicious of Cicero's critiques of Epicurus, when he engages details of Epicurus's ideas, to his most vehement manifestations of dislike.]
TEXT 14: On Goals 1.18-20
18. Epicurus generally does not go far wrong when he follows Democritus … but these are the catastrophes which belong to Epicurus alone. He thinks that these same indivisible and solid bodies move down in a straight line by their own weight and that this is the natural motion of all bodies. 19. Then this clever fellow, when it occurred to him that if they all moved directly down and, as I said, in a straight line, it would never come about that one atom could make contact with another and so … he introduced a fictitious notion: he said that an atom swerves by a very little bit, indeed a minimal distance, and that in this way are produced the mutual entanglements, linkages, and cohesions of the atoms as a result of which the world and all the parts of the world and everything in it are produced. … The swerve itself is made up to suit his pleasure—for he says that the atom swerves without a cause …—and without a cause...
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SOURCE: Plutarch, "The Polemic of Plutarch," in The Epicurus Reader, translated and edited by Brad Inwood and L. P. Gerson, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1994, pp. 68-74.
[In the following excerpt from Against Colotes, Plutarch seeks out logical contradictions and inconsistencies in Epicurean philosophy, focusing largely on ideas of sensation and sense perception.]
(1109a) … Anyway, he [Colotes] who even held that nothing is any more like this than like that, is using Epicurus' doctrine that all presentations received through the senses are true. (1109b) For if when two people speak and one person says that the wine is dry and the other says that it is sweet, and neither is wrong about his sense-perception, how can the wine be dry rather than sweet? And again, you can see that some people treat a bath as though it were hot and that others treat the same bath as though it were cold. For some ask for cold water to be poured in and others ask for hot. They say that a lady from Sparta came to see Berenike, the wife of Deiotaurus, and when they got close to each other they both turned away, the one nauseated by the [smell of] perfume, the other by the [smell of] butter. So if the one sense-perception is no more true than the other, it is likely both that the water is no more cold than hot and (1109c) that the perfume and the butter are no more sweet-smelling than foul-smelling. For if someone...
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SOURCE: Diogenes Laertius, "Excerpts From the Life of Epicurus," in The Philosophy of Epicurus, North-western University Press, 1963, pp. 101-12.
[More than anyone, Diogenes Laertius was responsible for preserving details of Epicurus's life; most later scholarship has depended on his biography of the philosopher. The following excerpt begins with summaries of accounts meant to discredit Epicurus—accounts that portray the Epicurean life as debauched. After refuting these attacks, Diogenes Laertius walks his reader through the basics of Epicurean philosophy.]
1The Stoic Diotimus, who bore Epicurus ill will, slandered him most cruelly by publishing fifty lascivious letters under his name, and so did the person who compiled the love letters that are supposedly Epicurus' but are traceable to Chrysippus, not to mention Posidonius the Stoic and his followers. … They claimed that he went around to houses with his mother, reading off chants of purification, and that he taught grammar school with his father for a miserable fee; also that one of his brothers was a pimp and had relations with the hetaera Leontion; and that Epicurus passed off Democritus' atomic theory and Aristippus' pleasure theory as his own. …
In his letters to Pythocles,2 who was then in the bloom of his youth, he wrote, "I shall sit down and await your beauteous, godlike advent." … And they...
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SOURCE: St. Augustine, "Book VIII," in The City of God against the Pagans, translated by David S. Wiesen, Harvard University Press, 1968, pp. 1-146.
[In the following excerpt from Book VIII of The City of God, St. Augustine includes Epicureanism in his castigation of philosophies that value materialism above religious faith.]
Thus not only the doctrines of both theologies, mythical and political alike, must give way to the philosophy of the Platonists, for they have said that the true God is the author of all things, the illuminator of truth, and the bestower of happiness, but so must the other philosophers too who have adopted a belief in the material elements of nature because their own minds are subservient to the body give way to these great men who recognize so great a God. Such were Thales with his moisture, Anaximenes with his air, the Stoics with their fire, Epicurus with his atoms, that is, very minute bodies which are indivisible and imperceptible, and any others that there are whom we need not stop to enumerate, whether they named bodies simple or compound, animate or inanimate, as the cause and primary substance of everything, as long as they named bodies. For some of them, like the Epicureans, have believed that living things could originate from things without life, while others have held that both living and lifeless objects come from what is living, yet still that these are bodies...
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SOURCE: Lorenzo Valla, "Book III," in On Pleasure (De voluptate), translated by A. Kent and Maristella Lorch, Abaris Books, Inc., 1977, pp. 228-327.
[Valla, an Italian intellectual, served as the Librarian of the Vatican. His Devero bono, or On Pleasure, takes the form of a letter in which the writer, who identifies himself as an Epicurean, refutes the arguments of a friend who advocates stoicism. The excerpts that follow exemplify the speaker's stance on Epicureanism.']
I believe that if this dispute about the comparative worths of pleasure and virtue should come to the vote of the people, that is, of the world (for this is a worldly contest), and if the issue were whether the primacy in wisdom should be awarded to either the Epicureans or the Stoics, then the vote for our side would be so large that you would seem to have been not only rejected but also branded with the ultimate disgrace. I pass over the mortal danger that you would run with such an abundance of enemies. For by the gods and also by men, what is the point of temperance, thrift, and continence unless we get something useful from such actions? Otherwise, the resultant condition is mournful, hideous, similar to constant illness, displeasing to human bodies, hateful to the ears, and, finally, something that ought to be harried out of all states into deserts and the farthest solitudes. …
On this account, I...
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SOURCE: Jean Francois Sarasin, "An Essay in Vindication of Epicurus, and his Doctrine," in Epicurus's Morals, 1712.
[Although mistakenly attributed to St. Evremond for some decades, the essay on Epicurus's morals was actually composed by Sarasin, a seventeenth-century French intellectual and cardinal. His piece, reprinted many times in French and translated into English in 1712, represents one of the significant French attempts to revive Epicurus's reputation, particularly by reminding readers of the simplicity of his philolosophy.]
Our Modern Philosophers are very industrious to lessen the Reputation of Epicurus, they explode his Doctrine, not only as unworthy of a Philosopher, but as dangerous to the State; imagining that a Man must necessarily be vicious as soon as he becomes one of his Disciples. They take all Occasions to brand his Opinions as opposite to good Manners, and load his Name with Infamy and Reproach. Yet some among the Stockis who were his greatest Enemies have not used him thus roughly; their Praises agree not with the Modern Aspersions; they have attacked, but not vilified him, and the Writings they have left us, still speak in several Passages, the great Veneration and Esteem they had for him.
From whence then proceeds this so mighty Difference, and why are we no longer of Opinion with the Philosophers of Old? The reason is plain, we do not act like them, we...
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SOURCE: Walter Charleton, "An Apologie for Epicurus," in Epicurus's Morals: Collected and Faithfully Englished, Peter Davies, 1926, pp.
[Charleton's "Apology" for the mid-seventeenth-century English edition of Epicurus's writings attempts to redeem the philosopher's reputation, especially regarding religious attitude. Like Sarasin, Charleton argues that Epicurus's religious skepticism was appropriate to his pre-Christian context and that his ethical simplicity prefigured Christian morals.]
Your beloved EPICURUS, having lately learn'd English, on purpose to converse more familiarly with you; comes now at length to wait upon you, and at your vacant hours to entertain you with grave Discourses touching the Happiness of Man's life, and the right means of attaining it, Wisdom. I have no reason to doubt of his welcome and kind reception by you, considering that he comes not, but upon your frequent, and (I am confident) hearty invitations of him; your own ingenious and commendable desire to be intimately acquainted with his Principles, and Doctrine of Morality, and to hear him speak his own Thoughts purely and sincerely, having been the only occasion and motive to my assistance of him in his Travels from Greece into this Country, and my accommodation of him with such an Equipage, as might be exactly suitable as well to your wishes, as to his own mind. Nay more, I have reason to presume,...
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SOURCE: E. Zeller, "The Moral Science of the Epicureans: General Principles" and "The Epicurean Ethics Continued: Special Points," in The Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics, Russell & Russell, Inc., 1962, pp. 472-93.
[A professor at the University of Heidelberg, Zeller first published his landmark work on Epicurus in German. The following excerpt presents an overview of Epicureanism as a meeting of scientific and moral thought.]
The Moral Science of the Epicureans. General Principles
Natural science is intended to overcome the prejudices which stand in the way of happiness; moral science to give positive instructions as to the nature and means of attaining to happiness. The speculative parts of the Epicurean system had already worked out the idea that reality belongs only to individual things, and that all general order must be referred to the accidental harmony of individual forces. The same idea is now met with in the sphere of morals, individual feeling being made the standard, and individual well-being the object of all human activity. Natural science, beginning with external phenomena, went back to the secret principles of these phenomena, accessible only to thought. It led from an apparently accidental movement of atoms to a universe of regular motions. Not otherwise was the course followed by Epicurus in moral science. Not content with human feelings alone, nor with...
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SOURCE: William Wallace, "General Aspect of the System" and "The Chief Good," in Epicureanism, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1880, pp. 85-94, 125-69.
[Wallace, a British scholar who taught at Oxford, published his extensive volume on Epicureanism as the philosopher's reputation was beginning to revive after some centuries of general rejection in England. The excerpt that follows provides, first, a synopsis of Epicureanism in general and, second, a delineation of Epicurus's notion of ethics. Wallace begins with a refutation of myths and misperceptions; he concludes with an image of Epicurus as "modern" in his notion of the individual's relationship to the state.]
General Aspect of the System
The popular conception of an Epicurean has varied at different times, but at no time has it been either very fair or very favourable. To the writers of the Roman classical period the charges against Epicureanism were drawn from its denial of the divine providence, its open proclamation of pleasure as the chief good, its opposition to a merely literary and intellectual culture, its withdrawal of its followers from political interests and occupations, and the grotesque features in some of its physical and physiological speculations. Its unscientific character, and its studied indifference, and even hostility, to the prevailing literary and logical as well as mathematical...
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SOURCE: A. E. Taylor, "The Life of Epicurus" and "The Salvation of Man," in Epicurus, Constabel & Company Ltd., 1911, pp. 35-79, 80-96.
[In the following excerpt from his Epicurus, Taylor first places Epicurus's biography in the context of Greek culture and history and then presents his view of Epicurus's ethics. Refuting the myth of Epicurus's debauchery, Taylor instead charges the philosopher with "timidity" and "a lack of moral robustness. " His biography ends with a summary of the connection between Epicureanism and early Christianity. In his discussion of Epicurean ethics, Taylor contends that they were uniquely democratic, made accessible to the layperson as well as the ruling elite.]
The Life of Epicurus
When we turn from Plato and Aristotle, the great constructive thinkers of the fourth century before Christ, to the study of the new sects or schools,—that of Epicurus was, in date of foundation, slightly older than the others,—which came into being early in the third century, under the successors of Alexander, we feel at first as if we had passed into a new moral atmosphere.
Philosophy seems to have dwindled from the magnificent attempt to arrive at scientific knowledge of God, man, and nature into a mere theory of conduct, and, in the theory of conduct itself, the old conception of the individual man as essentially a member of a community...
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SOURCE: W. T. Stace, "The Epicureans, Physics, Ethics," in A Critical History of Greek Philosophy, Macmillan & Co., Limited, 1960, pp. 354-60.
[The excerpt below, originally delivered as a lecture in 1919, encapsulates the Epicurean system, which Stace finds "amiable and shallow," and also ascribes to the general view that Epicurus was a kind of ancient decadent. Stace concludes that Epicureans are "gentle and lovable," but "lacking the stern stuff of heroes."]
Epicurus was born at Samos in 342 B.C. He founded his school a year or two before Zeno founded the Stoa, so that the two schools from the first ran parallel in time. The school of Epicurus lasted over six centuries. Epicurus early became acquainted with the atomism of Democritus, but his learning in earlier systems of philosophy does not appear to have been extensive. He was a man of estimable life and character. He founded his school in 306 B.C. The Epicurean philosophy was both founded and completed by him. No subsequent Epicurean to any appreciable extent added to or altered the doctrines laid down by the founder.
The Epicurean system is even more purely practical in tendency than the Stoic. In spite of the fact that Stoicism subordinates logic and physics to ethics, yet the diligence and care which the Stoics bestowed upon such doctrines as those of the criterion of truth, the nature of the world, the soul, and so on,...
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SOURCE: Cyril Bailey, "Atoms and Space," in The Greek Atomists and Epicurus, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1928, pp. 274-99.
[Bailey's work on Epicurus has often been cited by fellow scholars as fundamental to the field—particularly his 1926 translation of the philosopher's works. The following chapter from his well-respected The Greek Atomists and Epicurus concentrates on Epicurus's concept of the atom. Bailey elucidates the originality of Epicurus's system, countering claims by earlier critics that he simply lifted Democritus 's thought.]
In passing from Leucippus to Democritus the atomic theory … [grows] in consistency and harmony: with Epicurus the change is even more marked. It is now felt to be a system of interrelated parts: the connexion of one proposition with another has been thought out and the various conceptions involved in Atomism ordered and organized on fundamental principles. This impression is due in some degree, no doubt, to the form in which our information has reached us: the theories of the earlier Atomists have to be pieced together from scattered fragments, the accounts of the doxographers and the detached criticisms of later philosophers; for Epicurus we have the compressed and rather confused, though far better ordered, account in his own letter to Herodotus, and the continuous commentary of the poem of Lucretius. But there is much more than this: Epicurus had the...
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SOURCE: A. J. Festugière, "The Religion of Epicurus," in Epicurus and His Gods, translated by C. W. Chilton, Basil Blackwell, 1955, pp. 51-65.
[Originally published in France in 1946, Festugière's Epicurus and his Gods quickly became standard criticism in discussions of Epicurean theology. In the excerpt below, Festugière looks at Epicurus—both as an Athenian citizen and as a philosopher—in the context of his culture's religious thought.]
Ever since men in Greece had believed in the existence of gods—and this belief seems to go back to an unfathomable antiquity—they had thought also that the gods rule human affairs. These two aspects of faith are connected; for this very faith in the existence of superior powers, whose favour we must win and whose anger we must turn aside, is born of the observation, a thousand times repeated, that most of our actions do not achieve their object, that almost of necessity there remains a gap between our best laid plans and their fulfilment, and that as a result our being is circumscribed by doubt, whose offspring is hope and fear. By the same psychological law, human conjectures about the attitude of the gods varied according as men enjoyed prosperity or suffered misfortune. When our projects succeed we readily believe that the gods take notice of us, that they are good, and that they love us; but when we suffer a reverse, we imagine that...
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SOURCE: Norman Wentworth DeWitt, "A Synoptic View of Epicureanism," in Epicurus and His Philosophy, University of Minnesota Press, 1954, pp. 3-35.
[The following excerpt, arranged according to Epicurus's own principles of education, sketches DeWitt's view of Epicurus, ranging from his life and philosophy to his reputation and historical influence. DeWitt makes it his explicit goal "to create the proper attitude for a sympathetic understanding of the man and his work. "]
This book attempts to present for the first time a fairly complete account of the life and teachings of Epicurus. At the very outset the reader should be prepared to think of him at one and the same time as the most revered and the most reviled of all founders of thought in the Graeco-Roman world.
His was the only creed that attained to the dimensions of a world philosophy. For the space of more than seven centuries, three before Christ and four afterward, it continued to command the devotion of multitudes of men. It flourished among Greeks and barbarians alike, in Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Judaea, Egypt, Italy, Roman Africa, and Gaul. The man himself was revered as an ethical father, a savior, and a god. Men wore his image on finger-rings; they displayed painted portraits of him in their living rooms; the more affluent honored him with likenesses in marble. His handbooks of doctrine were carried about like breviaries;...
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SOURCE: Benjamin Farrington, "Friendship versus Justice," in The Faith of Epicurus, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1967, pp. 20-32.
[In his Faith of Epicurus Farrington stresses the centrality of friendship in Epicurean doctrine. The excerpt that follows fills out his thesis, explaining the significance of context, and, especially, of Plato "just city."]
In what remains of the writings of Epicurus we have nothing intellectually comparable to the splendid edifices raised by Plato in the Republic and the Laws. What we have of Epicurus is three letters and a handful of sayings. It is true that the more closely these are studied the clearer it becomes that they are expressions of a firmly articulated system. [G.] Arrighetti [Epicurus Opere, 1960] is right to maintain that the scientific language of the school is so technical and strict that translation is difficult because every term recalls a doctrine and requires a note. Still we must not assume that in the lost 'three hundred scrolls' were literary masterpieces comparable to those of Plato. However that may be, what is certain is that the sayings of Epicurus, as they are, represent a protest from a man of different temperament, sensibility, and aims; and that they cut so deep and proved so effective that Epicureanism, rightly judged, is found to be an historical phenomenon as important as Platonism.
It is the clash...
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SOURCE: A. A. Long, "Epicurus and Epicureanism," in Hellenistic Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics, University of California Press, 1974, pp. 14-74.
[Long offers a broad view of Epicurus's thought in the excerpt below, moving from biography and history to epistemology, and culminating with his ethical teachings.]
It has often been said that Epicurus was primarily a moralist, and if by this we mean someone who strives by theory and practice to advocate a particular way of life the description is appropriate. Epicurus thought that he could trace the causes of human unhappiness to mistaken beliefs in his society, beliefs about the gods, the destiny of the soul, and the objects in life which are truly valuable. Ultimately all his teaching has the aim of discrediting such beliefs and replacing them with those which he holds to be true. By his adherents Epicurus was regarded as a 'saviour', as the bringer of 'light', words which we naturally associate with Judaism and Christianity. But Epicurus was not a preacher, even if he sometimes preaches. He wished ardently to persuade, and to convince; it would be quite wrong to try to make him into a purely academic philosopher. But he was a philosopher. Arguments and evidence are the instruments by which he hoped to persuade those who would listen, and it is with the theory rather than the practical aspects of Epicureanism that I shall be concerned here....
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SOURCE: Terence Irwin, "Epicureanism," in A History of Western Philosophy: I Classical Thought, Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 145-63.
[In the following excerpt, Irwin places Epicurean thought in the context of Greek political and intellectual history. He investigates the movement's doctrine using the tools of logic.]
i. The Hellenistic world1
The 'Hellenistic Age' (a term coined by modern historians, not by the Greeks) begins with the death of Alexander the Great in 323, and ends with the end of the Roman Republic and the victory of Octavian (later Augustus) in 31 BC. Alexander conquered the empires of Persia and Egypt, and his successors ruled over them until they were incorporated in the Roman Empire under Augustus.
Alexander's conquests extended the Greek-speaking world. Greek cities (Alexandria in Egypt being the most famous) were founded throughout his empire; and they made the Greek language and culture familiar and dominant far beyond mainland Greece and Ionia.2 Though Greek culture spread over a wide area, however, it did not penetrate very deeply; for the new Greek cities remained sharply separated from the surrounding rural areas, where native language, culture, and religion survived, and Greek speakers were an alien elite.3 Still, Greek became the primary language of the Eastern Roman Empire, and remained so until AD...
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SOURCE: Julia Annas, "Atomism and Agents," in Hellenistic Philosophy of Mind, University of California Press, 1992, pp. 123-56.
[Below, Annas examines Epicurus's physical theories in order to determine the Epicurean idea of the relationship of the human subject to the physical world, particularly to atoms, the universe, and the body.]
a) Physicalism and Reductivism
Epicurean and Stoic theories of the soul are often structurally very similar and sometimes also similar in detail. The two theories have very different metaphysical backing: the Stoics have a continuum theory of matter and hold that the universe is animate and runs by laws which reveal the workings of providence, while the Epicureans have an atomic theory of matter and reject all appeal to providence and any kind of teleology. They also have different ethical contexts: the Stoics think that rationality is what is crucially important in our ethical development, while Epicurus holds that our final end is pleasure, and that this is revealed to us directly by our feelings. However, the two theories share a common physicalist framework of thinking about the soul and in many ways have far more in common with each other than either does with a theory like Aristotle's. The chief differences are due to the fact that the Stoics are heavily influenced by contemporary medical and scientific theories, whereas Epicurus is less...
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Asmis, Elizabeth. Epicurus's Scientific Method. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1984, 385 p.
Counters the view that "Epicurus did not have a coherent method of scientific inference" with an extended investigation of his principles of observation and resolution.
Brunschwig, Jacques. Papers in Hellenistic Philosophy. Trans. Janet Lloyd Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994, 277 p.
Reprints two influential papers by an important professor of classical philosophy.
Clay, D. Lucretius and Epicurus. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1983.
In-depth study of the two major voices of Epicureanism, emphasizing Lucretius's inheritance from Epicurus.
Furley, D. J. Two Studies in the Greek Atomists. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967, 256 p.
Delves into the details of Epicurus's atomical theories from the perspective of the physical sciences.
Konstan, David. Some Aspects of Epicurean Psychology. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1973, 82 p.
Examines Epicurus's concept of human emotions—specifically fears and desires—to postulate the philosopher's notion of individual...
(The entire section is 243 words.)