Epicureanism is an ancient Greek philosophical system taught by Epicurus. It emphasized the goal of a happy and content life in the here and now, rejecting both superstitous fear of the gods and notions of an afterlife.
Though the modern use of the term "Epicurean" is associated with the saying, "Eat, drink and be merry," Epicureanism did not advocate simple pursuit of bodily pleasure and differed significantly from hedonism.
The life of Epicurus is better known than any of his contemporaries and he is more of a "personality" than any other ancient philosopher with the exception of Socrates. 2 He was born in 341 BC in the Athenian colony of Samos. In 307 or 306 BC he settled in Athens, where bought a house with a garden. Here he gathered a group of disciples and taught became known as the "philosophy of the Garden."
Epicurus and his disciples formed a close-knit community, living a life of austere contentment in seclusion on his property. He admitted both women and slaves to his community, which, along with his seclusion and "atheism," probably led to the rumors and criticisms that circulated about his school. Epicurus was a father-figure to his students and wrote letters of instruction to the Epicurean communities he had formed.
Epicurus died in 270 BC. His followers celebrated his birthday and gave him honors as to a god. No later figure of importance arose in his school, and unlike the changes common to other philosophical schools, Epicureanism was characterized by a conservative tendency in preserving the founder's teachings.
Epicureanism was highly influential in the Hellenistic Age. The Epicureans and the Stoics were the chief rivals for the allegiance of educated people of this period. Both had a continuing influence, but Stoicism, with its active involvement in public life (the philosophy of the Porch instead of the Garden), ultimately appealed to more individuals and had more influence.
Epicurus is said to have written about 300 scrolls, but little of this survives. His teachings are preserved in three letters and a collection of 40 maxims called the "Principal Doctrines" (Kyriae doxai). The works of Philodemus, a 1st-century BC Epicurean, discovered at Herculaneum, and a large 2nd-century inscription in Lycia, have further added to our knowledge of Epicurus and his teaching.
Epicurus taught a materialistic view of the universe: the whole of nature consists of matter and space. All matter is divisible down to the level of atoms (Greek for "indivisible"). They are eternal; neither created nor destroyed. They cannot be seen or felt with the senses but they do have size, shape, weight and motion. The atoms operate according to natural law. Thus there is no creation and no purpose in nature.
Epicurus also rejected believe in an afterlife. The soul is also made of atoms, though of a subtler sort than the body. 3 Body and soul must be joined to give life; when the body dies, the soul also disintegrates. Therefore, there is no need to fear either death or future punishment.
Epicurus did believe in the gods. The visions of gods in dreams and the universal opinion of humanity proved their existence. But he regarded them as made of atoms like everything else (immortal because their bodies do not dissolve) and living in a happy, detached society out of contact with humans. Thus there is no place for providence, prayer or fear of the gods. Epicurus saw religion as a source of fear; banishing religion made peace of mind possible. He could be said to have had "a theology without a religion." 4
The Epicurean purpose of life is peace of mind, happiness and pleasure. But the Epicurean pursuit of pleasure was neither hedonism nor self-indulgence. Epicurus primarily promoted the pleasures of the mind, friendship and contentment. Epicurus noted that it is human nature to seek pleasure and avoid pain, and made this the basis of his guidelines for living.
We must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed towards attaining it. (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus) He encouraged seeking after the the highest quality of pleasure, which is rarely the immediate gratifications of hedonism. Epicurus evaluated pleasure and pain by three main criteria:
- intensity - strength of the feeling
- duration - length of the feeling
- purity - i.e., pleasure unaccompanied by pain
Therefore for Epicurus, "there was no reason to eat, drink and be merry today if you are going to have a headache from it tomorrow." 5 Overindulging in food or drink would not score highly on either duration or purity of pleasure. Pleasures that begin with pain are also inferior: eating is a pleasure but it starts with the pain of hunger; sex is a pleasure but it starts with the pain of desire. These pleasures are not as "pure" as those characterized entirely by the absence of pain, such as rest, good health, and the companionship of friends.
Just as pleasure was not to be blindly sought after, so not all pain should be avoided. Sometimes endurance of pain brings greater pleasure so that it is worth it. Moreover, since pleasure and pain are measured quantitatively, pain can be endured in the knowledge that more pleasure has been experienced. Thus Epicurus, who suffered from poor health throughout his life, could say on his death bed:
A happy day is this on which I write to you... The pains which I feel... could not be greater. But all of this is opposed by the happiness which the soul experiences, remembering our conversations of a bygone time. 6 The highest good in Epicureanism is ataraxia, a tranquility derived by the absence of agitation. And the highest positive pleasure of was a society of good friends. It shelters the fearful and gives the pleasure of companionship. He thus replaced the loss of the gods and civic life with the bond that exists among friends.
To achieve the best pleasure and prevent pain, Epicurus counseled his disciples to live a quiet, secretive life apart from society, avoiding responsibilities in public life (like holding office) or social life (like getting married). This avoids the pain of ambition and fear caused by others.
Interestingly, despite his rejection of the gods as having any bearing on human life, Epicurus encouraged his followers to worship the gods. This is partly for the sake of conformity, but also because the gods are perfect beings who deserve worship and honor. Morever, people receive aesthetic pleasure from contemplating their perfect existence.
References and Sources
- - The Tetrapharmacon, an Epicurean formula that likely dates to Epicurus himself. This translation comes from Gilbert Murray, Five Stages of Greek Religion (1955), 205. A similar formula is found in Philodemus (1st cent. BC), Against the Sophists 4.9-14: "God presents no fears, death no worries; and while good is readily attainable, evil is readily endurable."
- Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Eerdmans, 2003), 372.
- "Epicureanism." Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2005).
- Ferguson, 373.
- Ibid., 370.
- Quoted in "Epicureanism." Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2005).