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The Principal Doctrines is a collection of forty of the most important articles of Epicurus’s teaching, presumably extracted by a disciple from the master’s voluminous works. It was widely known in ancient times and was preserved by Diogenes Laërtius (probably third century b.c.e.) in his Peri bin dogmatn kai apophthegmatn tn en philosophia eudokimsantn (third century c.e.; The Lives, Opinions, and Remarkable Sayings of the Most Famous Ancient Philosophers, 1688). Together with the Letter to Menoeceus, also found in Diogenes’ works, it constitutes our only firsthand source for the ethical teachings of Epicurus. The most important supplementary source is Lucretius’s poem, De rerum natura (c. 60 b.c.e.; On the Nature of Things, 1862).
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Epicurus’s central teaching was that pleasure is the standard by which every good is to be judged. He distinguished between feelings of pleasure and judgments concerning good and right, and in the Letter to Menoeceus, he maintained that the latter, insofar as they have meaning, must refer to the former. “For we recognize pleasure as the first good innate in us, and from pleasure we begin every act of choice and avoidance, and to pleasure we return again, using the feeling as the standard by which we judge every good.”
No pleasure, said Epicurus, is in itself bad. He maintained that pleasures are all the same kind. Some pleasures are more intense than others, some last longer, and some satisfy a greater portion of the body; but if these differences could be set aside, one pleasure could not be distinguished from another. Unfortunately, however, the limitations of human existence compel us to distinguish between pleasures. In actuality, no pleasure can be chosen in isolation, and the conditions that are necessary to our enjoying some pleasures are also annexed to pains. In the Letter to Menoeceus, he stated, “For this reason, we do not choose every pleasure, but sometimes pass over many pleasures, when greater discomfort accrues to us as the result of them.”
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Therefore, Epicurus turned his attention to the consideration of desires. Some desires, he said, are natural and others are illusory. By the latter, he meant physical desires of the sort that neither arise from any deprivation nor admit of definite satisfaction—desires that attach to artificially cultivated tastes. Already in his day, the public supposed that he and his followers pursued the pleasures of profligacy and vice. Such was far from the case. The reason was that such artificial desires inevitably come into conflict with natural desires that are far more important. Indeed, Epicurus held that not all natural desires are to be satisfied. He distinguished between natural desires that are necessary and those that are merely natural. The necessary ones are so exacting that we are counseled to concentrate on them alone.
The strength of Epicurus’s philosophy, compared with the Cyrenaic and other philosophies of pleasure, derives from its deeper understanding of the psychology of human needs. People have three kinds of needs that will not be denied: equanimity or peace of mind, bodily health and comfort, and the exigencies of life itself. Fortunately, according to Epicurus, few things are necessary in order to sustain life and keep the body in health, and they are comparatively easy to obtain. Illness is unavoidable, but as he pointed out, acute pain rarely lasts long, and chronic illnesses permit a predominance of pleasure over pain in the flesh. On the whole, Epicurus seems to have expended but little thought on the necessities of life and bodily health. His main concern was with peace of mind, how to avoid unpleasantness, how to escape the pangs of conscience, how to avoid worry about the future, including the life beyond the grave. Such considerations gave Epicurus’s philosophy a predominantly somber tone, so much so that he rarely spoke of pleasure except in a negative way, as “freedom from pain in the body and from trouble in the mind.” Speaking of the three necessary desires in the Letter to Menoeceus, he said, “The right understanding of these facts enables us to refer all choice and avoidance to the health of the body and the soul’s freedom from disturbance, since this is the aim of the life of blessedness.”
Thus, although the good in life is always simple and immediate, namely, feelings of pleasure, the art of achieving a life abundant in goodness requires great skill and constant application. To this end, Epicurus recommended two sorts of means: first, the cultivation of virtue; second, the study of philosophy.
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Of these two, virtue is the more important. “The man who does not possess the virtuous life cannot possibly live pleasantly,” he declared. Among virtues, he held prudence to be chief because all other virtues were, in his view, merely special kinds of prudence.
By prudence, he meant what author Fyodor Dostoevski once called “solving the problem of existence.” Prudence consists of knowing both the worth and the cost of various satisfactions. Sometimes we have to choose pain in order to secure greater pleasure; for example, having a wisdom tooth extracted. Sometimes we have to forgo pleasure because of resultant pain; for example, we might stop drinking wine to avoid becoming ill afterward. Epicurus spoke of a scale of comparison that the prudent person uses to judge prospective courses of action in terms of their advantages and disadvantages.
One of the best counsels of prudence, he thought, was to make oneself independent of desire and, to this end, to accustom oneself to simple food and plain surroundings. His motive was not an ascetic one—he saw no good in deprivation for its own sake. However, he contended that anyone who has learned to be satisfied with the necessities of life is freed from most of the cares of the future because changes of fortune are unlikely to reduce one to starvation, whereas the slightest turn may deprive one of luxuries. Moreover, he maintained that there is an actual surplus of pleasure in the abstemious life. Bread and water produce as great pleasure to one who needs them as the luxuries of a wealthy table do to the reveler. Moreover, plain fare is better for health of body and alertness of mind. Furthermore, one whose taste is not spoiled by habitual indulgence is better able to appreciate fine food and drink when, at long intervals, these become available.
Another counsel of prudence was to retire from the world of human affairs. Epicurus, somewhat like English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, regarded humanity as its own greatest enemy. To secure protection from others is a natural want. However, how shall one go about it? Epicurus doubted the wisdom of those who undertake to find security by competing for public honor and position. In his opinion, this is not “safe.” Instead, he recommended “the immunity which results from a quiet life and the retirement from the world.”
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It is in connection with the harm that we may expect from others that Epicurus introduced the virtue of justice. In opposition to the teaching of Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle but in agreement with that of Greek philosopher Democritus, he denied that justice has its foundation in nature. All justice, he said, originates in “a pledge of mutual advantage to restrain men from harming one another and save them from being harmed.” It does not exist among primitive tribes, and what is considered just in one country may be quite different from what is considered just in another. In fact, within the same land, as circumstances change, what was once considered just may be so no longer. For the justice of a law ultimately depends on its being to the mutual advantage of both parties.
Epicurus raised the question that Glaucon raised in Plato’s Politeia (middle period, 388-368 b.c.e.; Republic, 1701), book 2, whether it is not to one’s advantage secretly to act unjustly if one can do so without detection. The answer is that one can never be confident that one will escape detection, and that anxiety would spoil the fruits of the crime. “The just man is most free from trouble, the unjust most full of trouble.”
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After virtue, Epicurus considered philosophy the second most important means for securing the life of bliss. “Let no one when young,” he wrote to Menoeceus, “delay to study philosophy, nor when he is old grow weary of his study.” Epicurus was not recommending philosophy as a solace against the sorrows of existence nor as a diversion that yields a satisfaction of its own. By philosophy, Epicurus meant a kind of mental hygiene, based on a naturalistic worldview that, if its implications were understood, would free people’s minds from superstitious fear and moral anxiety.
The view of nature that recommended itself to him was that of Democritus, who denied that the world was created by the gods or that there is any ultimate purpose in life, all things having been formed by the accidental collision of atoms falling through empty space. One who is convinced that this is the case has, according to Epicurus, two great advantages over those who hold to traditional beliefs: First, one is freed from religious scruples; second, one is freed from the fear of death.
Epicurus did not deny the existence of the gods, which he identified with the heavenly bodies. He held that they are composed of the same fine, smooth atoms that make up human souls and are the basis of reason and feelings. However, because the gods are eternal and blessed in their regular motions, Epicurus found no reason to suppose that they are exacting and vengeful, or indeed that they pay any attention to humans. He explained the traditional view, that the gods are the source of human misfortune and of blessedness, as arising from the tendency people have to view other beings as acting like themselves. He denied that such a belief is founded on sensation or has any foundation in reason. Eclipses, solstices, and other celestial phenomena that the ancients were accustomed to regard with superstitious awe, he said, are capable of explanation according to natural principles.
The fear of death seemed to him as groundless as fear of the gods. At death, the soul-atoms leave the body and are dispersed through space; therefore, one’s consciousness is dissipated, the separate atoms no longer possessing the same power and sentience that they had when together in the bodily sheath. However, good and evil consist of sensations and nothing else. Therefore, according to Epicurus, there is nothing terrible in death. If we persuade ourselves of this, the anticipation of death ceases to be painful. In the Letter to Menoeceus, he stated, “So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.” Nor does the wise person seek length of days. “Just as with food he does not seek simply the larger share and nothing else, but rather the most pleasant, so he seeks to enjoy not the longest period of time but the most pleasant.” Such is the sweetness introduced into life by the knowledge that death is nothing, that we no longer have any thirst for immortality.
Epicurus was moved to modify the philosophy of Democritus in one respect. The latter held to a strictly deterministic theory of causation, but Epicurus said that, though some events happen by necessity and chance, others are within our control. It was, he said, more foolish to become “a slave to the destiny of the natural philosophers” than to follow the myths about the gods. The myths leave us some hope—the determinists only despair. The part of wisdom in these matters seemed to him, very much as it did to the Stoic Epictetus, to consist of understanding the limits of the human condition and in not expecting more than is reasonable. One who knows these things laughs at destiny. All that one asks is companionship, and then one “shall live like a god among men.”
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Durant, Will. The Life of Greece. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1939. Contains an excellent chapter, “The Epicurean Escape,” which places Epicurus in the context of his times and also evaluates the tenets of his philosophy.
Edwards, Paul. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 4 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1967. Contains a lucid, short explanation of Epicurus’s complex theory and a scholarly bibliography (now somewhat outdated).
Englert, Walter G. Epicurus on the Swerve and Voluntary Action. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1987. A fascinating study of an infamously peculiar facet of Epicurean physics: the atomic swerve. This book focuses on Epicurean physics and the ramifications for psychology. Also contains an extended comparison of Aristotelian and Epicurean theories of voluntary action.
Frischer, Bernard. The Sculpted Word: Epicureanism and Philosophical Recruitment in Ancient Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. A somewhat eccentric work whose premise is that the sculptures and other images of Epicurus, which were so common in the ancient world, were used by the Epicureans as charismatic recruitment devices. The book contains an important set of plates showing many of the images of Epicurus in statues and in print.
Hibler, Richard W. Happiness Through Tranquillity: The School of Epicurus. New York: University Press of America, 1984. Hibler’s interest in Epicurus is primarily as a great teacher; consequently, he follows his discussion of the philosopher’s life and works with a summary of twenty points that are especially relevant to readers who wish to know more about Epicurus’s educational methodology.
Hicks, R. D. Stoic and Epicurean. New York: Russell and Russell, 1961. Hicks compares the Stoics with the Epicureans. He gives an excellent, extended account of Epicurus’s theory. This book contains a useful chronological table and is well indexed.
Long, A. A., and D. N. Sedley. The Hellenistic Philosophers. 2 vols. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Volume one contains translations of the principal sources and excellent philosophical commentary; volume two contains the Greek and Latin texts with extensive notes and bibliography. Approximately 125 pages of each volume is devoted to Epicureanism.
Lucretius. On the Nature of the Universe. Translated by Ronald Latham. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books, 1964. This philosophical poem forms the basis of the modern reading of Epicurus. Lucretius, in true Epicurean fashion, avoided the usual occupations of his times—war and politics—to devote himself to extensive exposition of Epicurus’s teachings.
Rist, J. M. Epicurus: An Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1972. Rist describes his book as an unambitious and elementary account of the philosophy of Epicurus. It is, in fact, a fine introduction to the thought of Epicurus and takes full advantage of the most important developments in Epicurean scholarship.
Sharples, R. W. Stoics, Epicureans, and Sceptics: An Introduction to Hellenistic Philosophy. London: Routledge, 1996. Very interesting and readable. This book contains chapters on various aspects of Hellenistic philosophy, comparing and contrasting Stoic, Epicurean, and Skeptic theories within each chapter. Provides an excellent view of the relationship between Epicurean philosophy and its contemporary rivals.