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The Philosophy of Epicureanism

Updated on September 10, 2009

Epicureanism, was the philosophy founded by Epicurus at Athens near the end of the 4th century B. c. Epicureanism propounded a simple, rational, dogmatic view of the nature of man and the universe, through which men might attain real and enduring pleasure, in the sense of peace of mind. The philosophy was never very popular and was attacked with extraordinary violence and unfairness by philosophers of other schools and, later, by Christians. From these attacks Epicureanism got its popular reputation as a mere self-indulgent cult of pleasure. But the small groups that upheld Epicureanism were intensely devoted to their master. They regarded his teaching as a true gospel, as good news about the nature of things that delivered those who upheld it, presumably on strictly rational grounds, from the worst of human evils.

In the 1st century B.C. the school attracted some of the finest minds of the time, including the Roman poet Lucretius, and for a time, Vergil. In the course of the 3d and 4th centuries A. D. Epicureanism quietly died out. It seems to have been extinct as a school by the end of the 4th century A. D.

The objective and the contents of Epicurean philosophy are known from the fragmentary remains of Epicurus' own writings, supplemented by later sources. Much of the existing knowledge of Epicurean doctrine comes from Lucretius' poem On The Nature of Things, and there are other accounts in the writings of Cicero. The study of the doctrine is made easier by the fact that it did not develop much after the time of Epicurus, and no schisms or subdivisions grew up in the school. Epicureans were generally content to repeat the teachings of their master with very little modification.

The Epicurean Objective

The great objective of Epicureanism, as of the contemporary Stoic and Skeptic schools, was to free men from anxiety and bring them through knowledge of the truth to that untroubled peace of mind they called ataraxia. But the route the Epicureans followed to this objective was very different from that of their contemporaries. Epicurus thought that men reduced themselves to utter misery by their worrying, particularly about worldly ambitions and the satisfaction of their material needs. but most especially about death and the gods.
Widespread fear of the gods was promoted, according to Epicurus, not only by popular superstition but even more by philosophical religion. A belief in an all-embracing and inexorable Divine Providence governing every detail of life was something to be really frightened of—if it truly existed. Epicurus proposed to deliver men from these fears by persuading them to follow a way of life conformable to his rational view of the universe.

Philosophical Tenets

Epicurus divided philosophy into three parts: canonic, concerned with the rules for finding the truth; physics, concerned with the nature of the world and the gods; and ethics, concerned with morality.

The canonic basis of the doctrine was a simple one. There was only one means of knowledge: some kind of direct physical perception based on the senses, which were considered absolutely reliable. The general notions by which men recognize different kinds of things are a sort of memory-deposit resulting from a large number of particular sense-perceptions.

Epicurean physics, the process of discovering the truth about the universe and the gods, was a variation of the old atomism of Democritus. Nothing exists but atoms and the empty space in which they endlessly move. Universes, including our own, and all in them, including men, are just chance concatenations or chains of atoms, which are always coming into existence and being dissolved in infinite space. In these atomistic universes, human thought and action are completely undetermined and not subject to any fate or necessity. The gods live in the gaps between the universes. They are peculiar atomic structures, immortal in that the flow of atoms into them exactly balances the outflow. This is not the case with men, and hence men die.

The gods have no power over the universes, but live a quiet happy life in the between-worlds. They must exist because all men believe in them, but there is no need to fear them. Philosophers can derive peace and joy from contemplating the ideal existence of the gods, and it is possible that the gods approve of the philosophers, who are their equal in all except immortality.

Death is the dissolution of the atomic structures that are human bodies and souls. But death is not something to fear. Death is not something that happens to men. Men are never in a state of death, because when death arrives, men no longer exist.

When men are freed from fears of death and the gods, they can live the good life according to Epicurean ethics. The standards of good and bad are pleasure and pain. Pleasure means principally untroubled peace of mind, and pain is the distress and worry from which the great Epicurean truths set men free. Man's natural needs are few and simple, and are easily provided for. To experience pleasure it is necessary to eliminate all artificial wants and to pare human desires to the real needs of nature. The most unnecessary, artificial want is the desire for political power and fame. Rejecting this, men should attempt the austere, hidden life, wanting nothing artificial. Such an existence in the company of a few like-minded friends will provide the reassurance and good fellowship necessary for peace of mind, ataraxia. Surrounding oneself with fellow-believers is of the greatest importance in the Epicurean way of life.

In theory, Epicurean morality is firmly based on self-interest. All societies are based solely on an agreement of men not to harm each other— a mutual advantage. The philosopher is primarily concerned with his own well-being. But in the practice of friendship in the small groups of Epicurean adherents there appears something of that sense of community and humanity that is lacking in Epicurean theory.


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      Brandon 5 years ago

      Good information, but needs to be referenced.

      Well written and informative.

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      lax 6 years ago

      i was just wondering where you got this information?