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Philosopher Epicurus

Updated on November 21, 2010

341 - 270 BC

Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher and founder of the Epicurean school, he was born in around 341 B.C. on the island of Samos where his parents were Athenian colonists, where he spent the first 18 years of his life.

Little is known of his early studies except that he had little enthusiasm for other philosophers. He did admit having heard the lectures of an atomist philosopher, Nausiphanes, but he called the professor a "jellyfish".

In 310 he began to teach first at Mytilene and afterwards at Lampsacus. In 306 he went to Athens and purchased a garden, the famous Kepoi Epikourou, where he established his school. It was a small community of men united by common intellectual interests and a common ideal of life, more like something between a gathering of disciples and a research institute than a college or university.

Although he appears to have been a prolific writer, there remain only some fragments of his great work On Nature, three letters, his will, and a compendium of his doctrine in 44 short propositions, written for his pupils to learn by heart.

Epicurus inspired great love and lasting affection in his followers. He had many friends and wrote charming letters to children. He was unusually kind to his slaves, allowing some of them to study with him.

The philosophy known as Epicureanism, which holds that pleasure is the highest goal of man. He noted, however, that in many cases the pursuit of sensual pleasure leads man to pain and that the man of wisdom will seek pleasure in such virtues as honesty, justice, and friendship.

Epicurus believed that man, like all things of nature, consists of an accidental combination of atoms. He held that the gods had no power to alter these combinations and that there was therefore no reason to fear their wrath. He also felt that man does not need to fear death, which is simply the dissolution of the atoms. Epicurus believed that death was the end of all human suffering and that there was no afterlife.

He died in Athens in 270 B.C. after a painful illness, which he bore with great courage and composure. Like many ancient philosophers, Epicurus lived up to his own principles.

Although his philosophy was later maligned as hedonistic, he himself lived with austere simplicity and encouraged others to do likewise. He was, however, always cheerful, promoted small festivities in his school, and left money for them to continue after his death.

The Garden ranks with Plato's Academy, Aristotle's Lyceum, and the Porch of the Stoics as one of the four great schools of ancient Athens. Epicureanism attracted many followers in the Greek world and later spread to Rome. In the first century B.C. the poet Lucretius wrote On the Nature of Things, which is considered the most complete expression of Epicureanism. Most of the writings of Epicurus himself are no longer in existence.

The influence of Epicurus dwindled during the early Christian era. Church leaders considered his view of the world to be atheistic, and many condemned his ethical ideas because they misunderstood his meaning of pleasure. However, the theories of Epicurus about the nature and behavior of atoms closely resembled scientific theories that began to develop in the 17th century, and as a result there has been a renewed interest in his entire philosophy.

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    • libby101a profile image

      libby101a 6 years ago from KY

      Very informative! Good work!