Arguably the most denounced and misunderstood philosophy of both Ancient and Modern history, Epicureanism has nonetheless had an astounding impact on Antiquity by helping to make a name for the practical applications of philosophy as a therapy and way of life. Whether it be the austere Stoics or modern libertines, this ancient philosophy has mistakenly been connoted with sensual hedonism; consequently, the adjective Epicurean is associated with one who has a fine taste in foods and wine nowadays. Tragically, the image of the rather ascetic Epicurus has been tarnished by outlandish and exaggerated attacks used by rival schools to slander the Epicurean doctrines. In all reality, Epicurus devised an exceptional system of thought consisting of atomic theory, the absence of divine intervention, and simple pleasures. I will be breaking up the analysis of this philosophy into four parts: origin, logic, physics, and then ethics, which will be covered in the next post.
Epicurus (341-270 BCE) was born on Samos. He was precocious in his teen years having studied philosophy under the platonist and atomist Pamphilus and Nausiphanes, whom he despised. Despite his aversion to his teacher, Epicurus greatly admired Democritus–co-founder of atomic theory–and thus adopted the theory of atoms into his physics. Epicurus and his family moved a lot during his life. No sooner had he set up his own school in Mitylene was he exiled to Lampsacus. Once more he established a school. In the end, however, he finally settled in Athens in 306 BCE where he ultimately set up the Garden. Until he died in 270 BCE, Epicurus lived peacefully in his Garden-turned-school with his family and friends. It was truly the good, simple life.
Every school had a unique logic doctrine that laid down the foundations for one, how we know things, and two, how to argue and establish facts. Unlike other contemporary schools, Epicureanism did not rely on logic that much. The Epicureans were strict empiricists. According to The Canonics, Epicurus’ doctrine on logic, our source of knowledge is purely from our senses. Three criteria are required for the obtaining of knowledge: sensations, (pre-)conceptions, and feelings. First and foremost, the initial impressions we form from sensations, namely the five senses, are 100% accurate. To defend this proposition, Epicurus argued that we base our reasoning on our senses, and if our senses are wrong, so too is our rationalizing. Epicurus proceeds to introduce the theory of “concepts,” similar to Plato’s Forms. Concepts are general ideas we can recall. For example, if we hear the word ‘dog,’ we connect the concept with an image of a four-legged furry creature with a tail and categorize it as ‘dog.’ Lastly, we use feelings, which are our reactions to our senses.
The physics of the Epicureans were very exact and carefully thought out. Democritus, as we know, was a major influence on Epicurus and it is to him whom we owe much of the latter’s cosmological principles. We can also draw a parallel between Epicurus and Parmenides when the former claimed that something cannot come from nothing and nothing cannot come from something. With this reasoning he proposed that there was no empty void, for infinitesimal atoms filled every possible space. The movement of these atoms, he further posited, moved collectively downward as raindrops. You may ask yourself then, how is anything created? Epicurus managed to save his tail by adding that every now and then, some atoms would divert from their course and combine with others. Slowly, these aggregates would form every material thing from trees to humans. This also meant that there were potentially infinite universes alongside ours! Upon death, Epicurus said that our bodies dissolved into atoms and scattered randomly throughout the cosmos. We will come back to this statement when we discuss ethics. In fact, the following principle will be analyzed in ethics, too. One of the main reasons rival schools opposed Epicurus was because he dismissed the Gods. This in polytheistic Greece was madness. While he still believed in the Gods, Epicurus was leaning towards an ancient atheism. In Epicurus’ view, the Gods did not intervene in human affairs, rather they stayed in Olympus as they indulged in luxurious foods and wine. The reasoning behind this will be explained presently.
Before I explain the actual ethics of the Epicureans, I will provide a mise-en-scène of the Garden and how the Epicureans interacted socially. The Garden was an actual garden beside Epicurus’ house in Athens. Epicurus invited a small group consisting of his family and a few close friends. There is one remarkable aspect of the Garden that made it unlike any other school at its time: it allowed women and slaves. Unfortunately for both ancient and modern times, women are considered inferior, so it was unheard of to allow women, let alone slaves to participate in a school! This too attracted negative attention for the Epicureans. Although there were innumerable attacks on the Epicureans, the followers themselves were incredibly pleasant. Epicurus himself was worshiped, practically deified by his disciples. The Epicureans lived in small houses that were located next to each other. One of the most important pleasures of life was friendship in the eyes of Epicurus. For Epicurus, the ideal life–which he successfully made for himself–consisted of having meaningful conversations with friends, philosophizing in silence, and relaxing. Like a brotherhood, the Epicureans were all connected and had a close relationship. Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher, reprimands Epicurus saying, “Even Epicurus understands that we are by nature social beings […] [B]ut how, then, can we still be social beings, if affection for our own children is not a natural sentiment?” Ah yes, Epicurus renounced, too, relationships and the making of children. To him they were distractions. Another interesting part about the Garden was that it was completely apolitical. Epicurus made it clear that individuals should not participate in public matters. The school itself was funded entirely by outside donations and was relatively poor–but that did not matter.
For further reading: The Great Courses: Practical Philosophy : The Greco-Roman Moralists by Luke Timothy Johnson (2002)
The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy by David Sedley (2003)
A History of Philosophy Volume 1: Greece and Rome by Frederick Copelston (1993)
Socrates to Sartre: A History of Philosophy by Samuel Enoch Stumpf (1982)
The Story of Philosophy by James Garvey and Jeremy Stangroom (2012)
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy edited by Ted Honderich (1995)
The History of Western Thought by Bertrand Russell (1972)
The Essentials of Philosophy by James Mannion (2006)
The Deepest Human Life by Scott Samuelson (2014)