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Epicurus (341–270 BC) was an ancient Greek philosopher as well as the founder of the school of philosophy called Epicureanism. Only a few fragments and letters of Epicurus’s 300 written works remain. Much of what is known about Epicurean philosophy derives from later followers and commentators.
For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to attain the happy, tranquil life, characterized by ataraxia—peace and freedom from fear—and aponia—the absence of pain—and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. He taught that pleasure and pain are measures of what is good and evil; death is the end of both body and soul and should therefore not be feared; the gods neither reward nor punish humans; the universe is infinite and eternal; and events in the world are ultimately based on the motions and interactions of atoms moving in empty space.
Epicurus emphasized friendship as an important ingredient of happiness, and the school resembled in many ways a community of friends living together. However, he also instituted a hierarchical system of levels among his followers, and had them swear an oath on his core tenets.
Epicurus is a key figure in the development of science and scientific methodology because of his insistence that nothing should be believed, except that which was tested through direct observation and logical deduction. He was a key figure in the Axial Age, the period from 800 BC to 200 BC, during which, according to Karl Jaspers, similar thinking appeared in China, India, Iran, the Near East, and Ancient Greece. His statement of the Ethic of Reciprocity as the foundation of ethics is the earliest in Ancient Greece, and he differs from the formulation of utilitarianism by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill by emphasizing the minimization of harm to oneself and others as the way to maximize happiness.
Epicurus’s teachings represented a departure from the other major Greek thinkers of his period, and before, but was nevertheless founded on many of the same principles as Democritus. Like Democritus, he was an atomist, believing that the fundamental constituents of the world were indivisible little bits of matter (atoms; Greek: ἄτομος atomos, “indivisible”) flying through empty space (Greek: κενόν kenon). Everything that occurs is the result of the atoms colliding, rebounding, and becoming entangled with one another. His theory differs from the earlier atomism of Democritus because he admits that atoms do not always follow straight lines but their direction of motion may occasionally exhibit a “swerve” (Greek: παρέγκλισις parenklisis; Latin: clinamen). This allowed him to avoid the determinism implicit in the earlier atomism and to affirm free will.
He regularly admitted women and slaves into his school and was one of the first Greeks to break from the god-fearing and god-worshiping tradition common at the time, even while affirming that religious activities are useful as a way to contemplate the gods and to use them as an example of the pleasant life. Epicurus participated in the activities of traditional Greek religion, but taught that one should avoid holding false opinions about the gods. The gods are immortal and blessed and men who ascribe any additional qualities that are alien to immortality and blessedness are, according to Epicurus, impious. The gods do not punish the bad and reward the good as the common man believes. The opinion of the crowd is, Epicurus claims, that the gods “send great evils to the wicked and great blessings to the righteous who model themselves after the gods,” whereas Epicurus believes the gods, in reality, do not concern themselves at all with human beings.
Epicurus’ philosophy is based on the theory that all good and bad derive from the sensations of what he defined as pleasure and pain: What is good is what is pleasurable, and what is bad is what is painful. His ideas of pleasure and pain were ultimately, for Epicurus, the basis for the moral distinction between good and evil. If pain is chosen over pleasure in some cases it is only because it leads to a greater pleasure. Although Epicurus has been commonly misunderstood to advocate the rampant pursuit of pleasure, his teachings were more about striving for an absence of pain and suffering, both physical and mental, and a state of satiation and tranquility that was free of the fear of death and the retribution of the gods. Epicurus argued that when we do not suffer pain, we are no longer in need of pleasure, and we enter a state of ataraxia, “tranquility of soul” or “imperturbability”.
Epicurus’ teachings were introduced into medical philosophy and practice by the Epicurean doctor Asclepiades of Bithynia, who was the first physician who introduced Greek medicine in Rome. Asclepiades introduced the friendly, sympathetic, pleasing and painless treatment of patients. He advocated humane treatment of mental disorders, had insane persons freed from confinement and treated them with natural therapy, such as diet and massages. His teachings are surprisingly modern, therefore Asclepiades is considered to be a pioneer physician in psychotherapy, physical therapy and molecular medicine.
Epicurus explicitly warned against overindulgence because it often leads to pain. For instance, Epicurus warned against pursuing love too ardently. He defended friendships as ramparts for pleasure and denied them any inherent worth. He also believed, contrary to Aristotle, that death was not to be feared. When a man dies, he does not feel the pain of death because he no longer is and therefore feels nothing. Therefore, as Epicurus famously said, “death is nothing to us.” When we exist, death is not; and when death exists, we are not. All sensation and consciousness ends with death and therefore in death there is neither pleasure nor pain. The fear of death arises from the belief that in death, there is awareness.
The “Epicurean paradox” is a version of the problem of evil. Lactantius attributes this trilemma to Epicurus in De Ira Dei:
“God, he says, either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or He is able, and is unwilling; or He is neither willing nor able, or He is both willing and able. If He is willing and is unable, He is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God; if He is able and unwilling, He is envious, which is equally at variance with God; if He is neither willing nor able, He is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God; if He is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils? Or why does He not remove them?”
No extant writings of Epicurus contain this argument and it is possible that it has been misattributed to him.
Perhaps the earliest expression of the trilemma appears in the writings of the skeptic Sextus Empiricus (160–210 AD), who wrote in his Outlines of Pyrrhonism:
“Further, this too should be said. Anyone who asserts that god exists either says that god takes care of the things in the cosmos or that be does not, and, if be does take care, that it is either of all things or of some. Now if he takes care of everything, there would be no particular evil thing and no evil in general in the cosmos; but the Dogmatists say that everything is full of evil; therefore god shall not be said to take care of everything. On the other hand, if he takes care of only some things, why does he take care of these and not of those? For either he wishes but is not able, or be is able but does not wish, or he neither wishes nor is able. If he both wished and was able, he would have taken care of everything; but, for the reasons stated above, he does not take care of everything; therefore, it is not the case that he both wishes and is able to take care of everything. But if he wishes and is not able, he is weaker than the cause on account of which he is not able to take care of the things of which he does not take care; but it is contrary to the concept of god that he should be weaker than anything. Again, if he is able to take care of everything but does not wish to do so, he will be considered malevolent, and if be neither wishes nor is able, he is both malevolent and weak; but to say that about god is impious. Therefore, god does not take care of the things in the cosmos.”
In contrast to the Stoics, Epicureans showed little interest in participating in the politics of the day, since doing so leads to trouble. He instead advocated seclusion. This principle is epitomized by the phrase lathe biōsas (λάθε βιώσας), meaning “live in obscurity”, “get through life without drawing attention to yourself”, i.e., live without pursuing glory or wealth or power, but anonymously, enjoying little things like food, the company of friends, etc. Plutarch elaborated on this theme in his essay Is the Saying “Live in Obscurity” Right? (Εἰ καλῶς εἴρηται τὸ λάθε βιώσας, An recte dictum sit latenter esse vivendum) 1128c; cf. Flavius Philostratus, Vita Apollonii 8.28.1
The only surviving complete works by Epicurus are three letters, which are to be found in book X of Diogenes Laërtius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers, and two groups of quotes: the Principal Doctrines (Κύριαι Δόξαι), reported as well in Diogenes’ book X, and the Vatican Sayings, preserved in a manuscript from the Vatican Library.
Numerous fragments of his thirty-seven volume treatise On Nature have been found among the charred papyrus fragments at the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum. In addition, other Epicurean writings found at Herculaneum contain important quotations from his other works. Moreover, numerous fragments and testimonies are found throughout ancient Greek and Roman literature, a collection of which can be found in Usener’s Epicurea.
According to Diskin Clay, Epicurus himself established a custom of celebrating his birthday annually with common meals, befitting his stature as hero ctistes (or founding hero) of the Garden. He ordained in his will annual memorial feasts for himself on the same date (10th of Gamelion month). Epicurean communities continued this tradition, referring to Epicurus as their “savior” (soter) and celebrating him as hero. Lucretius apotheosized Epicurus as the main character of his epic poem De rerum natura. The hero cult of Epicurus may have operated as a Garden variety civic religion. However, clear evidence of an Epicurean hero cult, as well as the cult itself, seems buried by the weight of posthumous philosophical interpretation. Epicurus’ cheerful demeanor, as he continued to work despite dying from a painful stone blockage of his urinary tract lasting a fortnight, according to his successor Hermarchus and reported by his biographer Diogenes Laërtius, further enhanced his status among his followers.
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