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...
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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.
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,...
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