Epicurus (341 BCE, Samos Đ 270 BCE, Athens) was an ancient Greek philosopher and the founder of Epicureanism, a popular school of thought in Hellenistic Philosophy that spanned about 600 years. Of his over 300 written works only a few fragments and letters survive; much of what we know about Epicureanism comes from later followers or commentators.
Epicurus was born into an Athenian emigre family - his parents, Neocles and Chaerestrate, both Athenian citizens, were sent to an Athenian settlement on the Aegean island of Samos. According to Apollodorus (reported by Diogenes Laertius at X.14-15), he was born on the seventh day of the month Gamelion in the third year of the 109th Olympiad, in the archonship of Sosigenes (about February 341 BC). He returned to Athens at the age of eighteen to serve in military training. The playwright Menander served in the same age-class of the ephebes as Epicurus.
He joined his father in Colophon after the Athenian settlers at Samos were expelled by Perdiccas due to their revolt after Alexander the Great died (c. 320 BC). He spent the next several years in Colophon, Lampsacus, and Mytilene, where he founded his school at the age of 32 and gathered many disciples. In the archonship of Anaxicrates (307-306 BC), he returned to Athens where he formed his school known as The Garden, named for the garden he owned about halfway between the Stoa and the Academy that served as the school's meetingplace.
Epicurus died in the second year of the 127th Olympiad, in the archonship of Pytharatus, at the age of 72. He reportedly suffered from a renal calculus, and despite the prolonged pain involved, he is reported as saying in a letter to Idomeneus:
(Diogenes Laertius , X.22, trans. C.D. Yonge).
A growing directory of contemporary Gardens of Epicurus can be found Here. The Epicurean doctrines are by no means extinct.
Epicurus' school had a small, but devoted following in his lifetime. The primary members were Hermarchus, the financier Idomeneus, Leonteus and his wife Themista, the satirist Colotes, the mathematician Polyaenus of Lampsacus, and Metrodorus, the most famous popularizer of Epicureanism. This original school was based in Epicurus' home and garden. An inscription on the gate to the garden is recorded by Seneca in his Epistle XXI:
A library, dubbed the Villa of the Papyri, in Herculaneum, owned by Julius Caesar's father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, was preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, and was found to contain a large number of works by Philodemus, a late Hellenistic Epicurean, and Epicurus himself, attesting to the school's enduring popularity.
After the official approval of Christianity by Constantine, Epicureanism was repressed. Epicurus' theory of gods unconcerned with human affairs had always clashed strongly with the Judeo-Christian God and the philosophies were essentially irreconcilable. For example, the word for a heretic in the Talmudic literature is "Apikouros".
Lactantius criticizes Epicurus at several points throughout his Divine Institutes. The school endured a long period of obscurity and decline. However, there was a resurgance of atomism among scientists in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and in the late 20th Century, the school was revived.
Epicurus played an important part in what is known as the "Greek miracle": when men first tried to explain the nature of the world, not with the aid of myths or religion, but with material principles. He is a key figure in the development of science and the scientific method because of his insistence that nothing should be believed except that which was tested through direct observation and logical deduction. Many of his ideas about nature and physics presaged important scientific concepts of our time. He was a key figure in the Axial Age, the period from 800 BCE to 200 BCE, during which similarly revolutionary 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 differs from the usual formulation 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 atomos, indivisible) flying through empty space (khaos). Everything that occurs is the result of the atoms colliding, rebounding, and becoming entangled with one another, with no purpose or plan behind their motions. (Compare this with the modern study of particle physics.)
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' (clinamen). This allowed him to avoid the determinism implicit in the earlier atomism and to affirm free will. (Compare this with the modern theory of quantum physics, which postulates a non-deterministic random motion of fundamental particles.)
He admitted women and slaves into his school and was the only philosopher to do so, introducing the new concept of fundamental human egalitarianism into Greek thought, and was one of the first Greeks to break from the god-fearing and god-worshipping 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," when in reality the gods 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 pleasure and pain. What is good is what is pleasurable, and what is bad is what is painful. Pleasure and pain were ultimately, for Epicurus, the basis for the moral distinction between good and bad. If pain is chosen over pleasure in some cases it is only because it leads to a greater pleasure.
Moral reasoning is a matter of calculating the benefits and costs in terms of pleasure and pain. Although Epicurus has been commonly misunderstood to advocate the rampant pursuit of pleasure, (primarily through the influence of Christian polemics) what he was really after was the absence of pain (both physical and mental, i.e., suffering) - a state of satiation and tranquility that was free of the fear of death and the retribution of the gods. When we do not suffer pain, we are no longer in need of pleasure, and we enter a state of 'perfect mental peace' (ataraxia).
Epicurus explicitly warned against overindulgence because it often leads to pain. For instance, in what might be described as a "hangover" theory, Epicurus warned against pursuing love too ardently. However, having a circle of friends you can trust is one of the most important means for securing a tranquil life.
Epicurus also believed (as opposed 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 he 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 false belief that in death there is awareness.
In his epistemology he emphasized the senses, and his Principle of Multiple Explanations is an early contribution to the philosophy of science: if several theories are consistent with the observed data, retain them all.
Elements of Epicurean philosophy have resonated and resurfaced in various diverse thinkers and movements throughout Western intellectual history. The Epicurean paradox is a famous argument against the existence of God.
Epicurus discussed a human being's natural right to "life, liberty, and safety."
This was later picked up by the democratic thinkers of the French Revolution, and others, like John Locke, who wrote that people had a right to "life, liberty, and property."
To Locke, one's own body was part of their property, and thus one's right to property would theoretically guarantee safety for their persons, as well as their possessions.
This triad was carried forward into the American freedom movement and Declaration of Independence, by American founding father, Thomas Jefferson, as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Epicurus was also a significant source of inspiration and interest for Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche cites his affinities to Epicurus in a number of his works, including The Gay Science, Beyond Good and Evil, and his private letters to Peter Gast. Nietzsche was attracted to, among other things, Epicurus' ability to maintain a cheerful philosophical outlook in the face of painful physical ailments. Nietzsche also suffered from a number of sicknesses during his lifetime.
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