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An Introduction to Epicurean Philosophy

Epicurus Greek philosopher (341 - 270) BCE

Are you looking for an introduction to Epicurean philosophy? Explore and understand Epicurus' thoughts on pleasure, suffering and good life in this beginner-friendly guide!  

Epicurus was a famous philosopher and founder of the school of philosophy known as “Epicureanism.” His teachings focused on finding ways to maximize pleasure while minimizing pain and suffering in life. In this guide, we'll look at how Epicurus viewed pleasure, suffering, and the components of leading a good life.

What is Epicurean Philosophy? 

Epicurean philosophy is the school of thought developed by the Greek philosopher Epicurus, which emphasizes the goal of leading contented, happy and healthy lives through simple pleasures and avoiding fear-inducing pain and suffering. Epicurus believed that pleasure was the ultimate good and should be sought after, while suffering was to be avoided at all costs. He also believed that finding ways to reduce pain could lead to a more fulfilling life.

What is Epicureanism? 

Epicureanism is a philosophical system developed by Greek philosopher Epicurus in the fourth century B.C. It focuses on achieving a pleasurable life and avoiding pain. According to Epicurus, pleasure is the ultimate aim of life, and should be sought after through wise behavior and temperance. He believed that peace of mind could be achieved by understanding our fears and desires, learning how to control them, and understanding the natural limits of our own mortality.

epicurean philosophers on pleasure, good life

"Live a balance life " - Epicurus 

An Introduction to Epicurean Philosophy

Two great new schools of the Hellenistic period, the Stoics and Epicureans, were contemporaneous in their foundation. Their founders, Zeno and Epicurus, were born at about the same time, and settled in Athens as heads of their respective sects within a few years of each other.

The epicurean opposed Stoicism challenged Plato and shunned politics.

Epicurus and the pleasant life

The main authority for the life of Epicurus is Diogenes Laertius, who lived in the third century A.D. There are, however, two difficulties: first, Diogenes Laertius is himself ready to accept legends of little or no historical value; second, part of his Life consists in reporting the scandalous accusations brought against Epicurus by the Stoics, and it is not always clear whether he is asserting something himself or merely mentioning a libel. The scandals invented by the Stoics are facts about them, to be remembered when their lofty morality is praised; but they are not facts about Epicurus. For instance, there was a legend that his mother was a quack priestess, as to which Diogenes says:

"They (apparently the Stoics) say that he used to go round from house to house with his mother reading out the purification prayers, and assisted his father in elementary teaching for a miserable pittance."

 The main facts of the life of Epicurus seem, however, fairly certain. His father was a poor Athenian colonist in Samos; Epicurus was born in 342-1 B.C., but whether in Samos or in Attica is not known. In any case, his boyhood was passed in Samos. He states that he took to the study of philosophy at the age of fourteen. At the age of eighteen, about the time of Alexander's death, he went to Athens, apparently to establish his citizenship, but while he was there the Athenian colonists were turned out of Samos ( 322 B.C.). The family of Epicurus became refugees in Asia Minor, where he re-joined them. At Taos, either at this time, or perhaps earlier, he was taught philosophy by a certain Nausiphanes, apparently a follower of Democritus. Although his nature philosophy owes more to Democritus than to any other philosopher, he never expressed anything but contempt for Nausiphanes, whom he alluded to as "The Mollusc."

In the year 311 he founded his school, which was first in Mitylene, then in Lampsacus, and, from 307 onwards, in Athens, where he died in 270-1 B.C. 

After the hard years of his youth, his life in Athens was placid, and was only troubled by his ill health. He had a house and a garden (apparently separate from the house), and it was in the garden that he taught. His three brothers, and some others, had been members of his school from the first, but in Athens his community was increased, not only by philosophic disciples, but by friends and their children, slaves and betaerae. These last were made an occasion of scandal by his enemies, but apparently quite unjustly. He had a very exceptional capacity for purely human friendship, and wrote pleasant letters to the young children of members of the community. He did not practise that dignity and reserve in the expression of the emotions that was expected of ancient philosophers; his letters are amazingly natural and unaffected.

Epicurus suffered all his life from bad health, but learnt to endure it with great fortitude. It was he, not a Stoic, who first maintained that a man could be happy on the rack. Two letters written, one a few days before his death, the other on the day of his death, show that he had some right to this opinion. The first says: "Seven days before writing this the stoppage became complete and I suffered pains such as bring men to their last day. If anything happens to me, do you look after the children of Metrodorus for four or five years, but do not spend any more on them than you now spend on me." The second says: "On this truly happy day of my life, as I am at the point of death, I write this to you. The diseases in my bladder and stomach are pursuing their course, lacking nothing of their usual severity: but against all this is the joy in my heart at the recollection of my conversations with you. Do you, as I might expect from your devotion from boyhood to me and to philosophy, take good care of the children of Metrodorus." Metrodorus, who had been one of his first disciples, was dead; Epicurus provided for his children in his will.

Although Epicurus was gentle and kindly towards most people, a different side of his character appeared in his relations to philosophers, especially those to whom he might be considered indebted. "I suppose," he says, "that these grumblers will believe me to be a disciple of The Mollusc (Nausiphanes) and to have listened to his teaching in company with a few bibulous youths. For indeed the fellow was a bad man and his habits such as could never lead to wisdom."  He never acknowledged the extent of his indebtedness to Democritus, and as for Leucippus, he asserted that there was no such philosopher-meaning, no doubt, not that there was no such man, but that the man was not a philosopher. 

Diogenes Laertius gives a whole list of abusive epithets that he is supposed to have applied to the most eminent of his predecessors. With this lack of generosity towards other philosophers goes another grave fault, that of dictatorial dogmatism. His followers had to learn a kind of creed embodying his doctrines, which they were not allowed to question. To the end, none of them added or modified anything. When Lucretius, two hundred years later, turned the philosophy of Epicurus into poetry, he added, so far as can be judged, nothing theoretical to the master's teaching. Wherever comparison is possible, Lucretius is found to agree closely with the original, and it is generally held that, elsewhere, he may be used to fill in the gaps in our knowledge caused by the loss of all of Epicurus's three hundred books. Of his writings, nothing remains except a few letters, some fragments, and a statement of "Principal Doctrines."

What is an epicurean lifestyle ?

The life of the community was very simple, partly on principle, and partly (no doubt) for lack of money. Their food and drink was mainly bread and water, which Epicurus found quite satisfying. "I am thrilled with pleasure in the body," he says, "when I live on bread and water, and I spit on luxurious pleasures, not for their own sake, but because of the inconveniences that follow them." The community depended financially, at least in part, on voluntary contributions. "Send me some preserved cheese," he writes, "that when I like, I may have a feast." To another friend: "Send us offerings for the sustenance of our holy body on behalf of yourself and your children." And again: "The only contribution I require is that which - ordered the disciples to send me, even if they be among the Hyperboreans. I wish to receive from each of you two hundred and twenty drachmae  a year and no more."

Epicurus's Theory on Pleasure and Suffering

According to Epicurus, the attainment of pleasure and the avoidance of suffering are essential for living a good life. He believed that physical pain and pleasure should be the primary considerations when evaluating our decisions. Epicurus looked at mental pleasure such as friendship, learning, and conversation as great sources of joy and satisfaction in life. He also stressed the importance of understanding our environment so we can obtain maximum enjoyment from it. Finally, he argued that having a clear understanding of why we suffer can help us take steps to reduce it in our lives.

The Epicurean Life Philosophy: Pursuit of Happiness and Avoidance of Pain 

The Epicurean philosophy emphasized that life should be based primarily on the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. This can be achieved by understanding our environment, its sources of pleasure, and learning to recognize what causes us suffering and how to move away from it. Epicurus believed that learning how to find joy in simple pleasures – such as friendship, leisure activities, physical activity, and healthy living – was essential for living a good life. Achieving Happiness Through Practical Wisdom and Self Control for a Fulfilling Life. 

Epicurus believed that a good life should be based on practical wisdom and self-control. He emphasized that it was important to find balance between pleasure and pain, as excessive pleasure can lead to suffering, and too much pain can be unbearable. Happiness must also be found within oneself; this requires the courage to live with full awareness of our hopes and fears, enabling us to understand what is truly valuable in life.

Epicurus on pleasure and happiness

 "Virtue is pleasure and pleasure is good" - Epicurus

Epicurus on pleasure

The philosophy of Epicurus, like all those of his age (with the partial exception of Scepticism), was primarily designed to secure tranquillity. He considered pleasure to be the good, and adhered, with remarkable consistency, to all the consequences of this view. "Pleasure," he said, "is the beginning and end of the blessed life." Diogenes Laertius quotes him as saying, in a book on The End of Life, "I know not how I can conceive the good, if I withdraw the pleasures of taste and withdraw the pleasures of love and those of hearing and sight." Again: "The beginning and the root of all good is the pleasure of the stomach; even wisdom and culture must be referred to this." The pleasure of the mind, we are told, is the contemplation of pleasures of the body. Its only advantage over bodily pleasures is that we can learn to contemplate pleasure rather than pain, and thus have more control over mental than over physical pleasures. "Virtue, unless it means "prudence in the pursuit of pleasure," is an empty name. Justice, for example, consists in so acting as not to have occasion to fear other men's resentment- a view which leads to a doctrine of the origin of society not unlike the theory of the Social Contract. 

Epicurean hedonism

Epicurus disagrees with some of his hedonist predecessors in distinguishing between active and  passive pleasures, or dynamic and static pleasures. Dynamic pleasures consist in the attainment of a desired end, the previous desire having been accompanied by pain. Static pleasures consist in a state of equilibrium, which results from the existence of the kind of state of affairs that would be desired if it were absent. I think one may say that the satisfying of hunger, while it is in progress, is a dynamic pleasure, but the state of quiescence which supervenes when hunger is completely satisfied is a static pleasure. Of these two kinds, Epicurus holds it more prudent to pursue the second, since it is unalloyed, and does not depend upon the existence of pain as a stimulus to desire. When the body is in a state of equilibrium, there is no pain; we should, therefore, aim at equilibrium and the quiet pleasures rather than at more violent joys. Epicurus, it seems, would wish, if it were possible, to be always in the state of having eaten moderately, never in that of voracious desire to eat. 

Epicurus good life

"The highest good is pleasure. The greatest evil is pain.'' - Aristippus

He is thus led, in practice, to regarding absence of pain, rather than presence of pleasure, as the wise man's goal.  The stomach may be at the root of things, but the pains of stomach ache outweigh the pleasures of gluttony; accordingly Epicurus lived on bread, with a little cheese on feast days. Such desires as those for wealth and honour are futile, because they make a man restless when he might be contented. "The greatest good of all is prudence: it is a more precious thing even than philosophy." Philosophy, as he understood it, was a practical system designed to secure a happy life; it required only common sense, not logic or mathematics or any of the elaborate training prescribed by Plato. He urges his young disciple and friend Pythocles to "flee from every form of culture." It was a natural consequence of his principles that he advised abstinence from public life, for in proportion as a man achieves power he increases the number of those who envy him and therefore wish to do him injury. Even if he escapes outward misfortune, peace of mind is impossible in such a situation. The wise man will try to live unnoticed, so as to have no enemies. 

Epicurus friendship

One of the greatest pleasures, according to Epicurus, is that of friendship, philia. Friendship might begin with considerations of the usefulness that people have for each other, but soon develops into a bond of deep and abiding mutual altruism. The process mirrors the evolution of society, as Epicurus saw it; human beings were solitary creatures in the beginning, who over the course of history began to form families and communities, acquiring language and sharing the development of skills such as agriculture and building.  In course of time the increasing complexity of societies saw the appearance of kings and tyrants, of religion and of fear of punishment. But the true source of justice is the perception of mutual benefit in the keeping of compacts, and the belief that a prudent, honourable and just life is the most pleasant one. If everyone lived by this ideal, Epicurus said, there would never be tyranny, and no need of religion, because society itself would be good. For Epicurus the chief purpose of philosophy is to help people see what the best kind of life is, and why it is so. Philosophy is an education of the mind and a therapy for the soul: ‘if philosophy does not heal the soul it is as bad as a medicine that does not heal the body,’ he said. The happy life is the life of ataraxia, and one achieves it through philosophical understanding of the true nature of things, and by living in conformity with that understanding.

According to Epicurus pleasure is not just sensual friendship, art and culture are also pleasurable acts.

What does Epicurus say about love?

Sexual love, as one of the most "dynamic" of pleasures, naturally comes under the ban. "Sexual intercourse," the philosopher declares, "has never done a man good and he is lucky if it has not harmed him." He was fond of children (other people's), but for the gratification of this taste he seems to have relied upon other people not to follow his advice. He seems, in fact, to have liked children against his better judgement; for he considered marriage and children a distraction from more serious pursuits. Lucretius, who follows him in denouncing love, sees no harm in sexual intercourse provided it is divorced from passion. 

Epicurus art of happiness

Epicurean wrote outside his garden - "Strange, here you will live well. Here pleasure is the highest."

Epicurus, though his ethic seemed to others swinish and lacking in moral exaltation, was very much in earnest. As we have seen, he speaks of the community in the garden as "our holy body"; he wrote a book On Holiness; he had all the fervour of a religious reformer. He must have had a strong emotion of pity for the sufferings of mankind, and an unshakeable conviction that they would be greatly lessened if men would adopt his philosophy. It was a valetudinarian's philosophy, designed to suit a world in which adventurous happiness had become scarcely possible. Eat little, for fear of indigestion; drink little, for fear of next morning; eschew politics and love and all violently passionate activities; do not give hostages to fortune by marrying and having children; in your mental life, teach yourself to contemplate pleasures rather than pains. Physical pain is certainly a great evil, but if severe, it is brief, and if prolonged, it can be endured by means of mental discipline and the habit of thinking of happy things in spite of it. Above all, live so as to avoid fear.  

Epicurus' garden

It was through the problem of avoiding fear that Epicurus was led into theoretical philosophy. He held that two of the greatest sources of fear were religion and the dread of death, which were connected, since religion encouraged the view that the dead are unhappy. He therefore sought a metaphysics which would prove that the gods do not interfere in human affairs, and that the soul perishes with the body. Most modern people think of religion as a consolation, but to Epicurus it was the opposite. Supernatural interference with the course of nature seemed to him a source of terror, and immortality fatal to the hope of release from pain. Accordingly he constructed an elaborate doctrine designed to cure men of the beliefs that inspire fear.

Epicurus materialism

Epicurus was a materialist, but not a determinist. He followed Democritus in believing that the world consists of atoms and the void; but he did not believe, as Democritus did, that the atoms are at all times completely controlled by natural laws. The conception of necessity in Greece was, as we have seen, religious in origin, and perhaps he was right in considering that an attack on religion would be incomplete if it allowed necessity to survive. His atoms had weight, and were continually falling; not towards the centre of the earth, but downwards in some absolute sense. Every now and then, however, an atom, actuated by something like free will, would swerve slightly from the direct downward path,  and so would come into collision with some other atom. From this point onwards, the development of vortices, etc. proceeded in much the same way as in Democritus. 

The soul is material, and is composed of particles like those of breath and heat. ( Epicurus thought breath and wind different in substance from air; they were not merely air in motion.) Soul-atoms are distributed throughout the body. Sensation is due to thin films thrown off by bodies and travelling on until they touch soul-atoms. These films may still exist when the bodies from which they originally proceeded have been dissolved; this accounts for dreams. At death, the soul is dispersed, and its atoms, which of course survive, are no longer capable of sensation, because they are no longer connected with the body. It follows, in the words of Epicurus, that "Death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved, is without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us."

Epicurus on death  

There is therefore no ground for the fear that we may incur the anger of the gods, or that we may suffer in Hades after death. Though subject to the powers of nature, which can be studied scientifically, we yet have free will, and are, within limits, the masters of our fate. We cannot escape death, but death, rightly understood, is no evil. If we live prudently, according to the maxims of Epicurus, we shall probably achieve a measure of freedom from pain. This is a moderate gospel, but to a man impressed with human misery it sufficed to inspire enthusiasm.

what did Epicurus say about god

As for the gods, Epicurus firmly believes in their existence, since he cannot otherwise account for the wide-spread existence of the idea of gods. But he is persuaded that they do not trouble themselves with the affairs of our human world. They are rational hedonists, who follow his precepts, and abstain from public life; government would be an unnecessary labour, to which, in their life of complete blessedness, they feel no temptation. Of course, divination and augury and all such practices are purely superstitions, and so is the belief in Providence. 

Epicurus on God  

Epicurus has no interest in science on its own account; he values it solely as providing naturalistic explanations of phenomena which superstition attributes to the agency of the gods. When there are several possible naturalistic explanations, he holds that there is no point in trying to decide between them. The phases of the moon, for example, have been explained in many different ways; any one of these, so long as it does not bring in the gods, is as good as any other, and it would be idle curiosity to attempt to determine which of them is true. It is no wonder that the Epicureans contributed practically nothing to natural knowledge. They served a useful purpose by their protest against the increasing devotion of the later pagans to magic, astrology, and divination; but they remained, like their founder, dogmatic, limited, and without genuine interest in anything outside individual happiness. They learnt by heart the creed of Epicurus, and added nothing to it throughout the centuries during which the school survived. 

Lucretius  On the Nature of Things 

The only eminent disciple of Epicurus is the poet Lucretius ( 99-55 B.C.), who was a contemporary of Julius Caesar. In the last days of the Roman Republic, free thought was the fashion, and the doctrines of Epicurus were popular among educated people. The Emperor Augustus introduced an archaistic revival of ancient virtue and ancient religion, which caused the poem of Lucretius On the Nature of Things to become unpopular, and it remained so until the Renaissance. Only one manuscript of it survived the Middle Ages, and that narrowly escaped destruction by bigots. Hardly any great poet has had to wait so long for recognition, but in modern times his merits have been almost universally acknowledged. For example, he and Benjamin Franklin were Shelley's favourite authors.

His poem sets forth in verse the philosophy of Epicurus. Although the two men have the same doctrine, their temperaments are very different. Lucretius was passionate, and much more in need of exhortations to prudence than Epicurus was. He committed suicide, and appears to have suffered from periodic insanity--brought on, so some averred, by the pains of love or the unintended effects of a love philtre. He feels towards Epicurus as towards a saviour, and applies language of religious intensity to the man whom he regards as the destroyer of religion: 

When prostrate upon earth lay human life Visibly trampled down and foully crushed Beneath Religion's cruelty, who meanwhile Out of the regions of the heavens above Showed forth her face, lowering on mortal men With horrible aspect, first did a man of Greece Dare to lift up his mortal eyes against her; The first was he to stand up and defy her. Him neither stories of the gods, nor lightnings, Nor heaven with muttering menaces could quell, But all the more did they arouse his soul's Keen valour, till he longed to be the first 

To break through the fast-bolted doors of Nature. Therefore his fervent energy of mind Prevailed, and he passed onward, voyaging far Beyond the flaming ramparts of the world, Ranging in mind and spirit far and wide Throughout the unmeasured universe; and thence A conqueror he returns to us, bringing back Knowledge both of what can and what cannot Rise into being, teaching us in fine Upon what principle each thing has its powers Limited, and its deep-set boundary stone. Therefore now has Religion been cast down Beneath men's feet, and trampled on in turn: Ourselves heaven-high his victory exalts.

Does Epicurus believe in God?   

The hatred of religion expressed by Epicurus and Lucretius is not altogether easy to understand, if one accepts the conventional accounts of the cheerfulness of Greek religion and ritual. Keats Ode on a Grecian Urn, for instance, celebrates a religious ceremony, but not one which could fill men's minds with dark and gloomy terrors. I think popular beliefs were very largely not of this cheerful kind. The worship of the Olympians had less of superstitious cruelty than the other forms of Greek religion, but even the Olympian gods had demanded occasional human sacrifice until the seventh or sixth century B.C., and this practice was recorded in myth and drama.  Throughout the barbarian world, human sacrifice was still recognized in the time of Epicurus; until the Roman conquest, it was practised in times of crisis, such as the Punic Wars, by even the most civilized of barbarian populations.

As was shown most convincingly by Jane Harrison, the Greeks had, in addition to the official cults of Zeus and his family, other more primitive beliefs associated with more or less barbarous rites. These were to some extent incorporated in Orphism , which became the prevalent belief among men of religious temperament. It is sometimes supposed that Hell was a Christian invention, but this is a mistake. What Christianity did in this respect was only to systematic earlier popular beliefs. From the beginning of Plato Republic it is clear that the fear of punishment after death was common in fifth century Athens, and it is not likely that it grew less in the interval between Socrates and Epicurus. (I am thinking not of the educated minority, but of the general population.) Certainly, also, it was common to attribute plagues, earthquakes, defeats in war, and such calamities, to divine displeasure or to failure to respect the omens. I think that Greek literature and art are probably very misleading as regards popular beliefs. What should we know of Methodism in the late eighteenth century if no record of the period survived except its aristocratic books and paintings? The influence of Methodism, like that of religiosity in the Hellenistic age, rose from below; it was already powerful in the time of Boswell and Sir Joshua Reynolds, although from their allusions to it the strength of its influence is not apparent. We must not, therefore, judge of popular religion in Greece by the pictures on "Grecian Urns" or by the works of poets and aristocratic philosophers. Epicurus was not aristocratic, either by birth or through his associates; perhaps this explains his exceptional hostility to religion.

Epicureanism Spread throughout the Mediterranean Basin in the Hellenistic Period

It is through the poem of Lucretius that the philosophy of Epicurus has chiefly become known to readers since the Renaissance. What has most impressed them, when they were not professional philosophers, is the contrast with Christian belief in such matters as materialism, denial of Providence, and rejection of immortality. What is especially striking to a modern reader is to have these views--which, now-a-days, are generally regarded as gloomy and depressing-presented as a gospel of liberation from the burden of fear. Lucretius is as firmly persuaded as any Christian of the importance of true belief in matters of religion. After describing how men seek escape from themselves when they are the victims of an inner conflict, and vainly seek relief in change of place, he says:

Each man flies from his own self; Yet from that self in fact he has no power To escape: he clings to it in his own despite, And loathes it too, because, though he is sick, He perceives not the cause of his disease: Which if he could but comprehend aright,  Each would put all things else aside and first Study to learn the nature of the world, Since 'tis our state during eternal time, Not for one hour merely, that is in doubt, That state wherein mortals will have to pass The whole time that awaits them after death. 

The age of Epicurus was a weary age, and extinction could appear as a welcome rest from travail of spirit. The last age of the Republic, on the contrary, was not, to most Romans, a time of disillusionment: men of titanic energy were creating out of chaos a new order, which the Macedonians had failed to do. But to the Roman aristocrat who stood aside from politics, and cared nothing for the scramble for power and plunder, the course of events must have been profoundly discouraging. When to this was added the affliction of recurrent insanity, it is not to be wondered at that Lucretius accepted the hope of non-existence as a deliverance.

But the fear of death is so deeply rooted in instinct that the gospel of Epicurus could not, at any time, make a wide popular appeal; it remained always the creed of a cultivated minority. Even among philosophers, after the time of Augustus, it was, as a rule, rejected in favour of Stoicism. It survived, it is true, though with diminishing vigour, for six hundred years after the death of Epicurus; but as men became increasingly oppressed by the miseries of our terrestrial existence, they demanded continually stronger medicine from philosophy or religion. The philosophers took refuge, with few exceptions, in Neoplatonism; the uneducated turned to various Eastern superstitions, and then, in continually increasing numbers, to Christianity, which, in its early form, placed all good in the life beyond the grave, thus offering men a gospel which was the exact opposite of that of Epicurus. Doctrines very similar to his, however, were revived by the French philosophes at the end of the eighteenth century, and brought to England by Bentham and his followers; this was done in conscious opposition to Christianity, which these men regarded as hostilely as Epicurus regarded the religions of his day.

A History of Western Philosophy Book by Bertrand Russell
Bailey, C., Epicurus: The Extant Remains, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926
Clay, D., Lucretius and Epicurus, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983
Rist, J. M., Epicurus: An Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972
Wilson, C., Epicureanism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015
Wolfsdorf, D., Pleasure in Ancient Greek Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013


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