Epicurus Essay - Critical Essays



Epicurus 341 B.C–270 B.C.

Greek philosopher.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Textual History

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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)

Canon (essay)

On Choice and Avoidance (essay)

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Principal English Translations

Epicurus: The Extant Remains (translated by Cyril Bailey) 1926

The Philosophy of Epicurus (translated by George K. Strodach) 1963

The Epicurus Reader (translated by Brad Inwood and L. P. Gerson) 1994

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Marcus Tullius Cicero (essay date c. 50 B.C.)

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...

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Plutarch (essay date c. 1st to 2nd century)

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...

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Diogenes Laertius (essay date c. 250)

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 Epicurusaccounts 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...

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St. Augustine (essay date c. 413-26)

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...

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Lorenzo Valla (essay date 1433)

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...

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Jean Francois Sarasin (essay date c. 1645)

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...

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Walter Charleton (essay date c. 1656)

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...

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E. Zeller (essay date 1879)

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...

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William Wallace (essay date 1880)

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.]


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A. E. Taylor (essay date 1911)

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...

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W. T. Stace (lecture date 1919)

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...

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Cyril Bailey (essay date 1928)

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...

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A. J. Festugière (essay date 1946)

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 Epicurusboth as an Athenian citizen and as a philosopherin 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...

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Norman Wentworth DeWitt (essay date 1954)

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...

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Benjamin Farrington (essay date 1967)

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...

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A. A. Long (essay date 1974)

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...

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Terence Irwin (essay date 1989)

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...

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Julia Annas (essay date 1992)

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...

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Further Reading

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...

(The entire section is 243 words.)