Epicurus or Epicurus (341-270 BC) was an ancient Greek philosopher who founded the Epicureanism school of thought. He was born on the Greek island of Samos near Athens. He was influenced by Democritus, Aristippus, Pyrrho, and possibly the Cyrenaic school of thought, and he disagreed with Platonic beliefs. He established his own school of thought in Athens called “The Garden”. Epicurus and his followers were known for their simple diet and discussions on a wide range of philosophical topics. It is said that Epicurus himself wrote over 300 works on various subjects, but a significant portion of these writings did not survive. Only three of his letters to Menoeceus, Pythocles, and Herodotus, as well as two collections of his sayings – Principal Doctrines and Vatican Sayings – have remained intact. Some of his incomplete writings have been reconstructed from fragments.
Most of his teachings have been derived from later writings, especially the biography written by Diogenes Laertius, the Roman poet Lucretius, and the philosopher Philodemus. Additionally, some accurate quotes of his have been transmitted by his opponents, such as the Pyrrhonist philosopher Sextus Empiricus and the skeptical politician Cicero. According to Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy should be to help people achieve a happy and peaceful life, which he expressed with the terms ataraxia (peace and freedom from fear) and apatheia (absence of pain). He believed that people can only pursue philosophy well if they are self-sufficient and self-reliant in life and within the scope of their friends. He learned that the root of all human anxiety is the denial of death, and the human tendency towards the horrific and painful aspect of death causes unnecessary anxiety, self-protective, selfish, and deceitful behavior. According to Epicurus’ teachings, death is the end of work for both body and soul, and it is not something that a person benefits from. He learned that although gods exist, they do not interfere with human affairs. He said that people should behave ethically, not out of fear of divine punishment or to gain their reward, but because unethical behavior weighs down their guilt and prevents them from achieving ataraxia.
Like Aristotle, Epicurus was an empiricist, meaning that he believed that the senses were the only reliable sources of human knowledge in understanding the surrounding world. He obtained a significant portion of his physics and cosmology from the philosopher of the past, Democritus. Like Democritus, Epicurus believed in the infinity and eternity of the world, and he believed that all matter was made up of very small and invisible particles. This view, known as the atomic school of thought, also states that all events in the natural world are the result of the movements and interactions of atoms in empty space. Epicurus created changes in Democritus’s teachings by describing the concept of the “swerve” of atoms. He believed that atoms could deviate from the path predetermined for them, and this difference was made by human free will and contradicted the belief in determinism. Epicurus’ teachings have always been popular and controversial at the same time. This school of thought reached its peak of popularity in the late years of the Roman Republic. However, Epicureanism faded away in the late ancient period due to its hostility towards Christianity. In the Middle Ages, it was found in an incorrect form and was known as the supporter of drunkards, gluttons, and hedonists. Epicurean teachings became more well-known in the 15th century with the rediscovery of Greek texts, but they did not gain popularity until a French priest named Pierre Gassendi published a revised version of Epicurus’ teachings in the 17th century. Other writers such as Walter Charleton and Robert Boyle helped to spread it. The influence of Epicurean beliefs increased during the Enlightenment and beyond, and it had a profound impact on the thinking of great thinkers such as John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Jeremy Bentham, and Karl Marx.
Biography, upbringing, and influences: Epicurus was born in February of 341 BC on an island called Samos, which was part of Athenian territory in the Aegean Sea. His parents, Neocles and Chaerestrate, were Athenian natives, and his father was considered a citizen of Athens. Epicurus’ formative years coincided with the late Classical period of Greece. Three years before his birth, Plato passed away, and at the age of seven, Alexander the Great successfully crossed the Dardanelles and entered the Achaemenid Empire. As a child, Epicurus received a typical education of Ancient Greece. Thus, according to the view of Norman Wentworth DeWitt, “it is unimaginable that he could have escaped instruction in Platonic geometry, dialectic, and rhetoric.” We know that Epicurus probably received education from a Samian Platonist named Pamphilus for seven years. Based on what has been found in his letter to Menoeceus and other surviving works, it is almost certain that he received extensive education in rhetoric.
After the death of Alexander the Great, Perdiccas expelled the Athenian exiles from Samos and sent them to Colophon on the western coast of present-day Turkey. Epicurus settled there with his family after completing his military service. He was trained under Nausiphanes, who belonged to the Democritean school and later the Pyrrhonist school. Epicurus admired his way of life. The division of the Greek empire and the Babylonian agreement happened after the death of Alexander the Great, and the intellectual horizons of the Greeks, including Epicurus, expanded greatly in these regions due to the emergence of the Hellenistic kingdoms in the Near East. Epicurus’ teachings were heavily influenced by previous philosophers, especially Democritus. However, he had a different view on determinism than his predecessors, describing them as “confused” and strongly denying his influence from them. He insisted that he was “self-taught”.
According to Duveen, Epikur’s teachings also reflect the influence of the contemporary school of Cyrenaicism. When Epikur practiced military exercises in the territory of Athens, Diogenes of Cyrene was still alive and it is possible that the two met. Additionally, a student of Diogenes of Cyrene named Krates of Tarsos was also a contemporary of Epikur. Epikur accepted the views of the Cyrenaics on honesty, but criticized their “impudence and debauchery” and believed that honesty should be accompanied by politeness and kindness. Epikur shared this view with the contemporary satirical writer Menander. The letter to Menoeceus, which is probably Epikur’s original work, is written in a style similar to the oratory of Athenian sophists, but in his later works, he openly used the method of mathematical reasoning of Euclid. Epikur’s epistemology was influenced by Aristotle’s beliefs to some extent, rejecting the Platonic idea of reason as the foundation of knowledge and instead considering nature and empirical evidence as the sources of human knowledge of the world. During Epikur’s active years, Greek knowledge about the rest of the world increased due to the spread of Hellenism in the Near East and the emergence of the Diadochi.
As a result, Epikur’s philosophy had a more inclusive and broader worldview than his predecessors, as he had knowledge of both non-Greek and Greek peoples. He may have had access to the writings of the historian and ethnographer Megasthenes, which were written during the reign of Seleucus I.
During Epikur’s lifetime, the dominant philosophy in higher education was Platonic school. Epikur’s opposition to Platonism forms a significant part of his teachings. More than half of Epikur’s forty fundamental doctrines are in direct contradiction with Platonism. Epikur began teaching in Mytilene when he was around thirty years old. Around the same time, Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school, who was twenty-one years old, came to Athens, but he had not yet started the discussions that led to the formation of his school. Although later texts, such as the writings of the Roman narrator Cicero in the first century BC, introduce the Epicurean and Stoic schools as rivals, it seems that this competition took place after Epikur’s death. Epikur’s expression of his beliefs led to conflict in Mytilene, and he was forced to leave the city. After returning from Athens, he established his school in the city of Lampsacus, where he lived until his death. It was in this city that he founded his school called “The Garden,” which was a garden that was located roughly halfway between the locations of the two philosophical schools, the Covered Walkway and the Academy of Plato.
The Garden was more than just a school; it was a “community of thinkers and collaborators with a unique way of life.” Some of the most famous members and early students of this school include Hermarchus, Idomeneus the investor, Leonteus, and his wife Themista, the satirist Colotus, the mathematician Polyaenus, and the young Metrodorus. In his biography, written by Diogenes Laertius, a list of women who were his students, including Leontion and Nicidion, is also mentioned. According to the testimony of Seneca the Younger in his 21st Moral Letter to Lucilius, there was an inscription at the entrance to The Garden that read: “Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure”. According to the accounts of Disciple Claius, Epikur celebrated his birthday each year by preparing customary dishes, and they called him the “founder-hero” of The Garden. He insisted that each year on a specific date (the 10th of Gamelion), they celebrate his birthday. Epikur’s communities continued this tradition and called him their “savior” and revered him as a hero. It is possible that the Heroic Society of Epikur created a form of civic religion from The Garden. However, it seems that the Heroic Society of Epikur, like his school, disappeared due to the weightiness of philosophical concepts and interpretations that arose after Epikur’s death. Epikur never married and had no known children. He was likely a vegetarian.
According to Diogenes Laertius, a disciple and successor of Epikur named Hermarchus reported that Epikur died at the age of 72 from painful bladder stones. Despite the intense pain, Epikur maintained a cheerful spirit and continued to teach. It is possible that the account of Epikur’s death in the letter of Idomeneus, which is very brief, is the same as the account given by Diogenes Laertius in his fifth book, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. The authenticity of this letter is uncertain, and it is possible that one of Epikur’s supporters wrote this fake story to counter the numerous criticisms against Epikur.
The text of the letter reads as follows:
“I have written this letter to you on a day that is fortunate for me, and that is the last day of my life, for I have been attacked by a painful inability to urinate and also dysentery, so violent that nothing can be added to the violence of my sufferings. But the cheerfulness of my mind, which comes from the recollection of all my philosophical contemplation, counterbalances all these afflictions. I have written this to you so that you may be watchful over the young son of Metrodorus, whom he commended to you, and so that the boy may be brought up in a manner worthy of the philosophical school to which he belongs.” If this account is authentic, it confirms the belief that Epikur can remain happy even in the midst of pain and suffering. Additionally, this account may indicate his special concern for the happiness of children. Epikur and his followers had a broad epistemological perspective that had expanded in competition with other schools. Epikur wrote a treatise called “The Canon” in which he explained his methods of research and theory of knowledge. There is no complete version of this book remaining, and there is no other text that clearly explains the epistemology of the Epicureans. Based on the writings of various authors, it can be reconstructed. Epikur was a hard-core empiricist. He believed that the senses are the only reliable sources of human knowledge about the environment. He refuted Plato’s idea that “proof” or “argument” is a reliable source of knowledge apart from the senses. He also opposed skepticism and academic skepticism because they believed that the ability of emotions to prove the accuracy of information about the world is not sufficient, and even knowing about the whole world may be impossible.
Epikur said that the five senses never deceive humans but may be misinterpreted. Epikur believed that the goal of acquiring knowledge and awareness should be to help humans achieve ataraxia. He taught that human awareness, rather than being intrinsic and natural, is derived from experience and accepted that the fundamental truth of things that a person has realized is essential for the moral and spiritual health of an individual. In his letter to Pythocles, Epikur admits that “if a person struggles with evidence taken directly from their own senses, they will never be able to share true tranquility.” Epikur considered inner feelings, the reason for which we do not know, to be a mystical source for ethical matters and said that regardless of whether a person’s feelings are right or wrong, in any case, with regards to abstract issues, strict laws and even reasoning are much more precise guides.
Epikur acknowledged that any sentence that is not directly contrary to human perception may be true. However, anything that contradicts a person’s experience can also be considered incorrect. The Epicureans often used everyday experiences to prove their arguments about so-called “unimaginable” things, which included anything that humans cannot perceive, such as the movement of atoms. In line with this principle of non-contradiction, the Epicureans believed that natural events may have multiple causes, all of which are equally possible and probable. Lucretius has a poem in his On the Nature of Things that says:
Moreover, there are sometimes cases.
That have no single definite cause.
Indeed, there are various realities, and one of them is true among them: if a seeker is found around a lifeless corpse, it is that all the causes of his death must be counted. The causes of his death can be listed in this way: he must have been killed by evidence, but not by steel, not by cold, and not even by poison and illness. But something like this has happened to him, and we know it, although we have listed many cases. Epikur was strongly interested in providing naturalistic explanations for religious matters. In his letter to Pythocles, he enumerated four possible natural explanations for the existence of thunder and lightning, six different ways to justify the existence of light, three cases for snow, three cases for comets, two ways for rainbows, two cases for earthquakes, and so on.
Now, all of these explanations are known to be incorrect, but they were an important step in the history of science because Epikur tried to explain natural phenomena using naturalistic explanations, rather than relying on creating stories about gods and mythical heroes. Epikur was a hedonist, meaning he believed that whatever makes a person happy is morally good, and whatever causes them pain is morally bad. He defined “pleasure” simply as the absence of pain and suffering, and believed that all humans should strive to achieve ataraxia, or a state of “flawlessness,” in order to be free from suffering and pain. He argued that most of the sufferings that humans endure are caused by irrational fear of death, divine anger, and punishment after death. In his letter to Menoeceus, Epikur explains that people seek wealth and power because of these fears and believe that having more money, reputation, or political beliefs will save them from death. He claims that death is the end of existence, and the gruesome stories of punishment in the afterlife are ridiculous myths. Therefore, no one should fear death. He wrote in his letter to Menoeceus, “Convince yourself that death is nothing to us, since all good and evil lie in sensation, and death is the end of sensation. Therefore, the fact that we exist is never a death and when death is present, we do not exist. Death, the most terrifying of evils, is nothing to us…” This Epicurean teaching is based on a saying that goes: “I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care.” This quote was written on the tomb of many Epicurean followers during the Roman Empire. This quote is still recited in humanistic burial ceremonies.
Tetrapharmakos summarizes the key ethical teachings of Epicureanism as follows:
1. Do not fear the gods.
2. Do not worry about death.
3. What is good is easy to get.
4. What is terrible is easy to endure.
Although Epicurus is often associated with unlimited and unrestrained pleasure, in reality, he argued that a person can only be happy and free from pain and suffering through living a rational, sober, and ethical life. He strongly warned against indulging in unlimited and uncontrolled pleasure, and emphasized the importance of considering the consequences of one’s actions, which may lead to future suffering.
He wrote, “Pleasant living is not produced by drinking and endless parties, nor by enjoying boys and women, nor by fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, but by sober reasoning.” He also wrote that a piece of cheese can be just as satisfying as a lavish feast, as long as it is enjoyed with moderation and gratitude.
In addition to his emphasis on pleasure, Epicurus taught that “without pleasure, it is impossible to live a wise, virtuous, and just life.” He believed that a person who engages in unjust or immoral actions will suffer from the torment of conscience and fear of being discovered, while a person who is kind and just will have nothing to fear and is likely to achieve ataraxia. Epicurus distinguished between two types of pleasures: “ephemeral” and “stable” pleasures. Ephemeral pleasures occur when a person’s senses are stimulated, such as when they eat food. However, these pleasures quickly fade away, and the person may feel a longing for them again and experience pain. Stable pleasures, on the other hand, are more long-lasting and do not involve pain or suffering. Epicurus believed that stable pleasures were superior to ephemeral pleasures. While Epicurus had few opinions on marriage and sexual relationships, he believed that friendships were essential for a healthy and happy life. He believed that the greatest thing for happiness in life was having friends. He also taught that philosophy itself is inherently pleasurable. One of Epicurus’ fundamental teachings was that “among the things that wisdom provides for the happiness of life, the greatest of them all is friendship.” He also taught that philosophy is inherently pleasurable and that in other professions, the fruit of victory comes only after hard work, but in philosophy, pleasure comes with knowledge. One of Epicurus’ famous quotes, found in the Vatican Sayings, reads, “In other pursuits, the fruit of victory is hard-won at the end of much effort. But in philosophy, pleasure accompanies knowledge along the way.” Epicurus divided human desires and inclinations into three categories: natural and necessary, natural but unnecessary, and empty and pointless desires. Natural and necessary desires are things like the need for food and shelter. These desires are easy to satisfy, but not fulfilling beyond basic satisfaction. Pursuing desires beyond these basic needs leads to natural but unnecessary desires, such as the desire for luxurious food. While food is necessary, luxurious food is not. Epicurus advocated for a philosophy of hedonism with moderation by reducing unnecessary desires, as he believed that pursuing unnecessary desires leads to dissatisfaction and suffering. Empty and pointless desires include desires for power, wealth, and fame, which are difficult to satisfy and lead to an endless cycle of wanting more.
These desires are often imposed upon us by society and false beliefs, and are not natural. Epicurus believed that such desires should be questioned and rejected. Epicurean philosophy also had an impact on medicine, with the development of the medical philosophy of Asclepiades of Bithynia, who was the first to translate Greek medical teachings into Latin in Rome. Asclepiades had a friendly, caring, and painless approach to treating patients. Overall, Epicurean philosophy emphasizes the importance of moderation, questioning societal norms and beliefs, and focusing on natural and necessary desires for a happy and fulfilling life. Epicurus was an advocate for humane treatment of mental disorders. He believed in freeing those who were deemed insane from confinement and treating them with natural remedies such as diet and massage. His methods were surprisingly modern, and as such, Asclepiades of Bithynia is considered a pioneering figure in psychotherapy, physiotherapy, and molecular medicine.
In physics, Epicurus wrote in a letter to Herodotus that “nothing comes from nothing.” This means that in his view, all events have known or unknown causes. He also wrote that nothing ever goes to complete destruction because “if anything that we think had been completely destroyed, it would follow that everything else would have been destroyed too, since what things could things have been destroyed into if they had nowhere to go?” He reaches the conclusion that “the totality of things has always been such as it is now, and always will be, since there is nothing outside the universe that can penetrate it and effect a change”. As Democritus had previously suggested, Epicurus believed that all matter is composed of tiny, indivisible particles called “atoms” (from the Greek word meaning “indivisible”). For Epicurus and his followers, the existence of atoms was the result of empirical observation. One of Epicurus’s followers, the Roman poet Lucretius, cited the gradual erosion of rings due to wearing, the deformation of statues due to kissing, the erosion of stones due to water, and the wear on roads due to foot traffic as evidence of the existence of atoms as tiny, indivisible particles in nature. Additionally, Epicurus, like Democritus, was a materialist who believed that only atoms and void exist. Void or emptiness occurs where atoms are not present. Epicurus and his followers believed that atoms and void have no limit or boundary, and therefore the universe is infinite.
Lucretius, in his work “On the Nature of Things,” proved this theory by using the example of a man throwing a spear beyond the hypothetical edge of the universe. He argued that if the spear could go beyond the limit and boundary of the universe, then the limit and boundary lose their meaning. And if something blocks the way of the spear, it means that there is something beyond the boundary that has prevented the spear, which contradicts the assumption. Therefore, Epicurus and his followers believed in the infinity of being and atoms and said that there must be several infinite worlds in existence. Epicurus learned that the motion of atoms is constant, eternal and without beginning or end. He also distinguished between two types of motion: the motion of atoms and the motion of observable bodies. Both of these motions are real and not illusory. Democritus believed that atoms not only have eternal motion, but also fly in space, combine, collide, and can separate from each other if necessary. Therefore, he can be considered the pioneer of atomic theory in philosophy and science.
Epicurus had a rare disagreement with Democritus, in which he introduced the concept of “swerve” of atoms, which is one of his well-known ideas. According to this theory, atoms that are in motion in space may deviate slightly from the expected path. Epicurus introduced this doctrine to preserve the model of atomism while maintaining the concepts of moral responsibility and agency. Lucretius explained this issue as follows: this slight deviation from the original path, in an unknown place and time, allows us to remember the experience of not being subject to compulsion, like slaves in chains. Epicurus was the first to justify human agency based on the fundamental principles of uncertainty in the motion of atoms. This argument led some philosophers to believe that Epicurus claimed that human will came into existence by chance. Lucretius’ work “On the Nature of Things” is the most well-known part of Epicurus’ philosophy. In a letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus followed Aristotle and said that there are three possibilities for the existence of things: “some things exist out of necessity, some out of probability, and others through our representation.” Aristotle had said that some things are “dependent on us. Epicurus agreed with this issue and said that this is the final point where praise and criticism naturally refer to it. From Epicurus’ point of view, the theory of atoms’ “swerve” easily overthrows determinism for the sake of independence and will.
In his letter to Menoeceus, which is a summary of Epicurus’ ethical and theological teachings, the first piece of advice he gives to his followers is to “first consider that God is an indestructible and blessed being according to common belief, and do not attribute anything inappropriate to God’s indestructibility or anything hateful to God’s blessedness and benevolence.” Epicurus stated that he and his followers know that gods exist because “our knowledge of them is a clear and distinct perception,” which means that from Epicurus’ point of view, people can experience God’s presence empirically. He did not mean that people can physically see the gods, but he believed that it was possible to imagine the gods in a dream and observe them from remote areas of space between the stars to where they are present. As George K. Strodach says, Epicurus was able to easily remove the gods without changing his materialistic worldview. However, the gods still had an important role and mission in Epicurean theology; they were the standard of moral virtues for emulation and admiration. Epicurus rejected the conventional Greek view of gods as anthropomorphic beings who walked on earth like ordinary people, sired illegitimate children after having relationships with mortals, and pursued personal grudges and enmities. Instead, his teachings held that the gods are morally flawless but separate and inaccessible beings who live in remote areas of space between the stars.
In line with these teachings, Epicurus decisively denies the belief that the gods are involved in human affairs in any way. He stated that the gods are perfect and faultless, and they are so far removed from the world that they cannot hear prayers or perform any action other than their own perfect reasoning. In his letter to Herodotus, he specifically denies that the gods have any control over natural phenomena and argues that such intervention would be contrary to their fundamental nature, as any kind of worldly intervention would compromise their perfection. He warned that the belief that the gods have control over natural phenomena misleads people into believing in superstitious beliefs and makes them think that the gods will punish humans for their actions. This only creates fear and prevents individuals from achieving ataraxia. Indeed, Epicurus criticizes popular religion in a restrained and moderate tone in his letters to Menoeceus and Herodotus. Later Epicureans mostly followed their master’s beliefs and believed in the existence of gods but rejected the idea of divine providence seriously. However, their criticisms of popular religions were less mild.
In the Letter to Pythocles, written by one of the later followers of Epicureanism, there is a derogatory view of religions. The Epicurean poet Lucretius also attacks popular religions in his philosophical poems, particularly in his book “On the Nature of Things.” In one of his poems, Lucretius says that religious practices not only do not promote virtue but also lead to “improper and sinful acts.” He cites the sacrifice of Iphigenia in mythological stories as an example. Lucretius believes that the creation and divine providence are irrational, not because the gods do not exist, but rather because these ideas are incompatible with Epicurean principles of the indestructibility and blessedness of the gods.
Another Pyrrhonist philosopher, Sextus Empiricus, rejected Epicurean teachings about the gods and considered them to be “dogmatists. The problem of evil, also known as the Epicurean paradox, is a version of the problem of evil.
In his book “De Ira Dei”, Lactantius attributed this problem to Epicurus:
He says, either God wants to abolish evil and cannot, or he can but does not want to, or he neither can nor wants to, or he both can and wants to. If God wants to abolish evil and cannot, then he is weak, which is not in accordance with the character of God. If he can but does not want to, then he is malicious, which is also contrary to God’s character. If he neither can nor wants to, he is both weak and malicious and therefore not God. If he both can and wants to, then how come there is evil in the world? Or why does he not destroy it?
David Hume also raised the same issue in his book “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” (1779):
The old Epicurean question still remains unanswered:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?
Although there is no direct text from Epicurus about this issue, a similar argument may have existed in his lost work on the gods, which Diogenes Laertius described as one of his greatest works. If he did indeed make this argument, it was not an argument against the existence of gods, but rather an argument against divine will. Epicurus’s surviving writings suggest that he believed in the existence of gods. Additionally, religion was such an integral part of daily life in Greece during the Hellenistic period that it is doubtful anyone could have been an atheist in the modern sense of the word. Even the Greek term “atheist,” which means “godless,” was used as an insult during that time period, not as an expression of personal beliefs. In terms of politics, Epicurus advanced an innovative theory of justice as a social contract. According to Epicurus, justice is an agreement that harms no one and is harmed by no one, and we must have such an agreement in order to fully enjoy the benefits of communal life in an organized society. Laws and punishments are necessary to control the foolish who commit inappropriate acts. However, a wise person sees the usefulness of justice and, in any case, within the limits of their own inclinations, they do not need to engage in behavior prohibited by laws. Laws that promote useful happiness are just, but cases that are not useful in this regard are not just.
Epicurus stayed away from politics because it leads to turmoil and a search for positions. Instead, he advocated for individuals to focus on their own inner selves. This principle is referred to as “living in obscurity” or “obtaining life without drawing attention to oneself”; that is, enjoying life without seeking glory, wealth, or power, but rather by enjoying the small things such as food, being with friends, and so on. Plutarch examines the topic of whether the phrase “living in obscurity” is correct in his article.
Works: Epicurus was a prolific writer. According to Diogenes Laertius, he wrote about 300 treatises on various subjects. More of Epicurus’s original writings have survived than those of any other Greek philosopher from the Hellenistic period to the present day. However, most of his writings have been lost, and most of what is known about Epicurean teachings comes from the writings of his later followers, especially the Roman poet Lucretius. The only complete works that have survived from Epicurus are three letters, which are included in the tenth volume of Diogenes Laertius’s book, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers.
In addition, two books by Epicurus have also survived intact: “Fundamental Teachings,” which was preserved through Diogenes’ quotations, and “Vatican Sayings,” which was discovered in the Vatican Library’s manuscript collection in 1888.
In the “Letter to Herodotus” and the “Letter to Pythocles,” Epicurus briefly expresses his philosophy on nature, and in the “Letter to Menoeceus,” he summarizes his ethical teachings. Numerous fragments of Epicurus’s lost 37-volume treatise on nature were discovered among the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum. Researchers made their first attempts to discover and decipher these scattered fragments in 1800, but the efforts were extremely challenging and ongoing to this day.
According to Diogenes Laertius, the most important works of Epicurus are:
1. On Nature, in 37 books
2. On Atoms and the Void
3. On Love
4. Against the Arguments of the Natural Philosophers
5. Against the Megarians
6. Principal Doctrines
7. On Choice and Avoidance
8. On the Good Life
9. On the Criterion, Canon
11. On the Gods
12. On Piety
Ancient Epicureanism’s Legacy: Epicureanism was extremely popular from the very beginning. Diogenes Laertius stated that the number of Epicureans surpassed the entire urban population. However, Epicurus did not receive universal acclaim and throughout his life, he was attacked as an ignorant and arrogant hedonist. He remained both the most admired and the most reviled philosopher in the Mediterranean for almost five centuries to come. Epicureanism quickly spread throughout Greece and the entire Mediterranean world and had established a firm foundation in Italy by the first century BCE. The Roman orator Cicero, who was a critic and detractor of Epicureans, lamented, “The Epicureans have swept through Italy like a storm”. Most surviving Greek and Roman sources have a negative view of Epicureanism, and according to Pamela Gordon, they usually portrayed Epicurus himself as a “monster or a clown.” In particular, many Romans viewed the Epicurean emphasis on “pleasure” as opposed to the ideals of Roman virtue in a negative light, and thus often depicted Epicurus and his followers as effete and clichéd. Prominent critics of his philosophy include the famous writers Seneca the Younger, a Roman Stoic, and Plutarch, a Middle Platonist, both of whom regarded Epicureanism as immoral and disreputable. Gordon considers the diatribes against Epicureanism as “crude,” and believes that the information presented about Epicurus’ views was often inaccurate and sometimes “ridiculous.
In his book, Seneca stated, “The Epicurean sect…has a bad name.” He compared them to “a man dressed in women’s clothing: your virtue remains, your talent is unstable, your body is not surrendered to sex, but in your hand is a tambourine.
Epicureanism was a well-known and highly conservative philosophical school. Although later followers of Epicurus expanded upon his philosophy, they preserved what he had originally taught without modification. Epicureans and admirers of Epicureanism honored Epicurus as a great moral teacher, savior, and even a great god. His image was engraved on rings, his pictures were displayed in living rooms, and his wealthy followers erected marble statues of him for worship. His admirers treated his teachings as divine messages, carried copies of his writings with them, and held his letters in the same esteem as the messages of revered prophets. On the twentieth day of each month, his followers held elaborate ceremonies to pay homage to his teachings and memory. Meanwhile, opponents of his teachings condemned him with stubbornness and prejudice. Despite this, in the first and second centuries CE, Epicureanism gradually began to decline as it could not compete with stoicism, whose moral system was more in line with traditional Roman values. With the spread of Christianity, which quickly became widespread throughout the Roman Empire, Epicureanism fell into decline. Among all the philosophical schools of Greece, Epicureanism was one of the most opposed teachings to the modern Christian religion, as Epicureans believed that the soul and life were mortal, denied the existence of the afterlife, did not accept the active role of God in human life, and defended pleasure as the ultimate goal of human existence.
For this reason, Christian writers such as Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Arnobius, and Lactantius all criticized this school of thought severely.
Despite all of this, David argues that Epicureanism and Christianity have many commonalities in their language, and he calls Epicureanism the “first philosophy of evangelists” and “the first philosophy of the world.” Both Epicureanism and Christianity emphasized the importance of love and forgiveness, and the early images of Christ often resembled the Epicurean conception of Epicurus. David believes that Epicureanism, in many ways, helped create a rift between Greek intellectualism and religious lifestyles, and prevented the emphasis on politics in the face of social virtues, creating a way for the expansion of Christianity and providing what may be called the religion of humanity. During the Middle Ages, in the early 5th century CE, Epicureanism was almost extinct. The Christian theologian Augustine said, “Their ashes are so cold that no spark can rise from them.” While the ideas of Aristotle and Plato could easily be reconciled with the Christian worldview, the teachings of Epicurus did not have such an opportunity. As a result, Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy gained prestige and proximity during the Middle Ages, but Epicureanism did not reach such a position. It was possible to access the teachings of Epicurus, such as in the book “On the Nature of Things” by Lucretius and his sayings in Latin grammars of the Middle Ages, anthologies and encyclopedias such as “Etymologies” by Isidore of Seville (7th century) and “De Universo” by Rabanus Maurus (9th century). However, there is little evidence that these teachings were systematically studied or understood.
During the Middle Ages, Epicurus was remembered as a philosopher, but in popular culture, he was seen as a guardian of pleasures and a “master of the kitchen, tavern, and brothel.” Epicurus appears in books such as “The Marriage of Mercury and Philology” by Martianus Capella (5th century), “Politicorum” by John Salisbury (1159), “Le Miroir de l’âme pécheresse” by John Gower, and “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer, wearing such a mask. Epicurus and his disciples also appear in Dante’s “Inferno,” in the sixth bolgia of the eighth circle of hell, where they are imprisoned in flaming coffins because they believed that the soul dies with the body. In 1417, a manuscript of Lucretius’ “On the Nature of Things” was discovered by a book hunter named Poggio Bracciolini in a monastery near Lake Constance. The discovery of this manuscript was met with unparalleled enthusiasm and excitement, as scholars of this time were eager to investigate and study the teachings of classical philosophers, and the aforementioned texts, which had previously been forgotten, contained the most comprehensive description of Epicurean teachings found in Latin. The first research article on Epicurus was titled “On Pleasure,” which was published by the Catholic priest and Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla in 1431. He made no reference to Lucretius or his poetry. Instead, he presented the treatise as a discussion between an Epicurean, a Stoic, and a Christian about the nature of the highest good. Valla’s dialogues ultimately reject Epicureanism, but by mentioning the names of Epicureans among the disputing parties, he gave them some philosophical credibility that is worth considering. None of the humanists of the Quattrocento explicitly endorsed Epicureanism, but researchers such as Francesco Zabarella (1360-1417), Francesco Filelfo (1398-1481), Cristoforo Landino (1424-1498), and Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444) provided more reasonable analyses of Epicureanism and showed less antagonistic approaches to it than their predecessors. However, Epicureanism was known more as a derogatory term for excessive self-indulgence than as a philosophical school. This reputation caused the Orthodox Church to discourage interest in Epicurean teachings, as it feared that someone might become interested in its undesirable teachings.
Epicureanism did not gain much traction in Italy, France, or England until the seventeenth century. Even liberal religious skeptics, who might have been expected to show some interest in Epicureanism, did not mention him, and Etienne Dolet (1509-1546) only mentioned Epicurus once in his writings, while Francois Rabelais (between 1483-1494-1553) never mentioned him at all. Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) is an exception to this trend, as he devotes 450 full lines to Lucretius’ “On the Nature of Things” in his writings, Essays. However, it seems that his interest in Lucretius was primarily literary, and his feelings about Lucretian Epicurean worldview are ambiguous. During the Protestant Reformation, the phrase “Epicurean” was used as an insult between Catholics and Protestants. In the seventeenth century, a Catholic priest and French scientist named Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) attempted to shake up the dominant Aristotelian philosophy by presenting Epicureanism as a better and more logical alternative. In 1647, Gassendi published his book, “The Life and Morals of Epicurus,” in which he passionately defends Epicureanism. In 1649, he wrote a commentary on Diogenes Laertius’ book, “The Life of Epicurus.” He was also working on another work, titled “Epicurean Philosophy Briefly,” which was a combination of Epicurean teachings, but it remained unfinished after his death in 1655. Finally, in 1658, after revisions by his editors, Gassendi’s work was published. Gassendi modified Epicurean teachings to make them more accessible to Christian readers. For example, he argued that atoms are not infinitely numerous and uncountable in terms of their eternal existence, but rather that a very large number of atoms were created by God in a limited form at the time of creation. As a result of Gassendi’s revisions, his books were never censored by the Catholic Church. The publication of his books had a tremendous impact on subsequent writings about Epicurus. The version of Epicurean teachings that Gassendi promoted became popular among some members of the English scientific community. However, for these researchers, Epicureanism was merely a starting point for aligning their particular beliefs with it. From the perspective of orthodox thinkers, Epicureanism remained unethical and shameless.
For example, Lucy Hutchinson (1620-1681), who made the first English translation of “On the Nature of Things,” introduced Epicurus as a “devilish dog” who created “ridiculous, laughable, and cursed teachings. The first person to admire and respect Epicurean teachings was the English natural philosopher Walter Charleton (1619-1707), who in his work “Darkness of Atheism Dispelled by the Light of Nature” (1652) referred to Epicurean thought as “a new atomism.” His next work, “Physiology of Epicurus-Gassendi-Charleton, or a Genuine System of Nature Based on the Hypotheses of Atoms, Reconstructed by Gassendi and Completed by Charleton” (1654), presented this idea. These works, along with another book by Charleton called “Epicurean Ethics” (1658), provided descriptions of Epicurean philosophy that reassured orthodox Christians that Epicureanism posed no threat to their beliefs. The Royal Society, which received its charter in 1662, promoted Epicurean atomism. One of the most active defenders of atomism was the chemist Robert Boyle (1627-1691), who defended it in writings such as “Origin of Forms and Qualities” (1666), “Experiments, Notes, etc., about the Mechanical Origin or Production of Particular Qualities” (1675), and “Aspects and Backgrounds of the Mechanical Hypothesis” (1674). By the late seventeenth century, Epicurean atomism was accepted by members of the English scientific community as the best model for explaining the physical world, but it had been modified to the point where Epicurus was no longer seen as its primary theorist. From the Enlightenment onwards, the English bishop Joseph Butler raised anti-Epicurean arguments in his works, such as “Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel” (1726) and “Analogy of Religion” (1736), which influenced the views of orthodox Christians in England in the remaining eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, there is no evidence of any improvement in Epicurus’ reputation during this period. From this time onwards, Epicureanism gradually lost its connection with hedonism, which had always caused it to be discredited since ancient times. Instead, the word “Epicurean” came to mean a person who is excessively fond of food. For example, William Shakespeare used the term “Epicure” to mean a person who is excessively gluttonous in the story of Antony and Cleopatra. During this time, Epicurean teachings on “the art of living in seclusion” became popular. In 1685, Sir William Temple (1628-1699) retired from his career as a diplomat and went to a garden, where he wrote articles on Epicurean ethical teachings. It was during these years that John Dryden translated “De Rerum Natura” by Lucretius, with the famous lines: “Happy the man, and happy he alone, / He who can call today his own, / He who, secure within, can say, / Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.” In contrast, John Locke (1632-1704) presented a revised version of Epicurean-Gassendian epistemology, which was influential in the English understanding of this influential figure.
Several Enlightenment thinkers praised Epicurean ethical philosophy. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, said in 1819: “I too am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us”. Karl Marx (1818-1883), the German philosopher who laid the foundation for Marxist ideology, was heavily influenced by Epicurean teachings in his youth, and his doctoral thesis analyzed the dialectical differences between the natural philosophies of Democritus and Epicurus. Marx saw Democritus as a skeptical rationalist with a fundamentally contradictory epistemology, but he saw Epicurus as a dogmatic empiricist with a coherent and practical internal worldview. The British poet Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) also described Epicurean lifestyle in his poem “Lucretius”. Epicurean ethical teachings also indirectly influenced the philosophy of utilitarianism in nineteenth-century England. Academic interest in Epicurus and other Hellenistic philosophers increased in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and an unprecedented number of monographs, articles, abstracts, and conference papers have been published in this area. The writings of the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, which were discovered between 1750 and 1765, are being translated and deciphered for publication.
This work is being carried out by the scholars of the Field Museum Translation Project, which is endowed by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Herculaneum Center for the Study of Ancient Documents in Naples. Measuring the popularity of Epicurus among non-scholars is difficult, but it seems that its appeal is comparable to the perennially popular topics of ancient Greek philosophy such as Aristotle and Plato.