Greek Philosopher: Epicurus
Epicurus 341 - 270 BC
The founder of the Epicurean philosophy in Athens in 306 BC, which taught that virtue should be followed because it leads to happiness and that good was pleasure and evil was pain. He began his studies with a follower of Plato, then continued them with a follower of Democritus, and began to teach his own theory when he was about 30.
According to Epicurus the gods took no interest in the affairs of men. The soul died with the body so that there was no need to fear punishment after death. Men should simply seek peace of mind in their private lives. He also argued that, although virtue was not in itself of value, men could live pleasurably only if they lived virtuously; to do so. They needed wisdom, as mental anguish was worse than physical pain.
"I have never wished to cater to the crowd; for what I know they do not approve, and what they approve I do not know."
"I never desired to please the rabble. What pleased them, I did not learn; and what I knew was far removed from their understanding."
"Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little."
"The greater the difficulty, the more the glory in surmounting it."
"You don't develop courage by being happy in your relationships everyday. You develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity."
Epicurus was born on the island of Samos. At the age of eighteen he journeyed to Athens to undertake military service, after which he started a school of philosophy from 306 BC (until his death).
Epicurus' views on pleasure, freedom and friendship had a great influence throughout the Greco-Roman world. The word epicurean comes from his name.
Epicurus believed that the human mind was disturbed by two main anxieties: fear of deities (gods and goddesses) and fear of death. he believed both fears were based on mistaken beliefs and could be overcome. He declared that the deities exist, but they should not be feared because they dwell apart from humanity. They are not concerned with human affairs, because that would conflict with their happiness.
Epicurus said that death should not be feared because good and evil lie in sensation, and death ends sensation. Freed from these anxieties, a person can live the good life by seeking moderate pleasures and avoiding pain. Pleasure can best be gained by living in accordance with prudence, moderation, courage and justice, and by cultivating friendship.
Epicurus was a productive writer. But except for three letters which summarize his teachings, his philosophy has had to be reconstructed from the fragments of his many works and from the poem On the Nature of Things by Lucretius.
Epicureans and Stoics
Epicurus taught in Athens from 306 BC. Epicureanism (named after its founder) is usually misinterpreted as recommending a life of only sensual pleasure, but Epicurus defined pleasure as being nothing better than peace of mind and the absence of pain. This could be achieved only with difficulty, for it required a man, first of all, to withdraw from active life in order not to make enemies. Even then, fear of gods and of punishment after death might still disturb peace of mind. But the wise man would realise that the gods were entirely indifferent to him and that death was simply extinction.
When man came to understand this, said Epicurus, his last fears would disappear and he would have achieved the best possible state of mind he could hope for.
One of the more attractive aspects of Epicureanism was its emphasis on the joy to be derived from friendship. In the other dominant philosophy of this age - Stoicism - even this was lacking. The Stoics - the name comes from the stoa (porch) in Athens where they used to meet - believed with Socrates that the good life consisted of the practice of virtue; and they regarded the life of Socrates as exemplifying the Stoic ideal.
In their respect for Socrates, the Stoics emphasized the sterner aspects of his life - his calmness in the face of death, his indifference to heat and cold, his plan food and dress. They saw the leading of a life of reason and virtue not as a source of joy, but as a difficult mission to accomplish. Thus, they urged their followers to suppress all their passions, to cultivate detachment and to arm themselves against misfortune. Joy and sorry, they said, should be accepted with equal calmness - hence the modern use of the word 'stoical'. meaning indifferent to pleasure or pain.
A third important movement founded at this time was scepticism. Unlike the Epicureans and Stoics, the sceptics - the word come from the Greek skeptikos meaning 'thoughtful' - had no definitive doctrine of their own. This was because they believed that there were so many conflicting opinions about the nature of the world that the only thing that could be certain was uncertainty.
Related Links on Epicurus
- Greek Philosophy Capstone Series
- Epicurus (341-270 BCE) and his philosophy of Epicureanism, featuring e-texts, book lists, links, his
- Presenting the philosophy of Epicurus, including classical Epicurean texts, history, and information
- The philosophy of Epicurus (341–270 B.C.) was a complete and interdependent system, involving a view
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