Epicurus Introduction - Essay


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.