Epicurus (341 – 270 BCE) was the founder of the philosophy of Epicureanism. The word ‘epicurean’ is often used today to mean gourmet or enjoying the finer things in life, often food and drink, such as fine chocolates and wine (hence the recipe website, epicurious.com), but this is only a partial grasp of the ancient school of thought. Along with Platonism and Stoicism, Epicureanism was one of the more popular philosophies of late ancient Greek and ancient Roman times. Only fragments of Epicurus’ works survive, quotations in the works of other ancient authors.
Epicurus came from an Athenian family who first lived in an Athenian colony on the island of Samos until later moving to Ionia. He studied Platonism as a boy, then later the works of Democritus, the skeptical atomist who Pyrrho also studied before going to India. After traveling and teaching for some years, Epicurus returned to Athens to found a school in his private garden. Known as ‘The Garden’, it was said to have been situated between the Academy of Plato and the Stoa of the Stoics. While women were only admitted into other circles of philosophy as exceptions, Epicurus made his Garden officially open to women and slaves. On the gate of the Garden was an inscription:
“Stranger, you would do good to stay awhile, for here the highest good is pleasure.”
Epicurus taught that good and evil are pleasure and pain, a doctrine for which he and his school were attacked by many others, labeling them as glutinous hedonists. Many scholars argue that, just as ancient Christianity was opposed to the shamelessness of the Cynics, they were equally opposed to what they saw as the hedonism of the Epicureans, and as Christianity rose in popularity in ancient Syria, Greece and Rome, the popular schools of Cynicism and Epicureanism gradually gave way to Platonism and later Aristotelianism, schools of thought which taught that one should pursue the good and fulfill one’s purpose regardless of pleasure and happiness. A skeptic would take both sides, arguing that sometimes happiness is good, but other times what is good is quite different from what makes us happy.
In modern European philosophy, Epicureanism found a new champion in John Stuart Mill (1806-1873 CE), founder of Utilitarianism. Mill noted that if you call it Utilitarianism, people think it is dry and boring, but if you call it the Pleasure Principle, or, like Mill’s Epicurean teacher Jeremy Bentham (1750-1830 CE) called it, the Principle of Happiness, people think it is decadent and hedonistic. Mill argues that Epicurus was attacked as a glutton in his time, but he actually had a taste for thought, civilization, and what Mill calls the “higher virtues”, mental pleasures in giving to others and practicing philosophical debate rather than physical selfish pleasures of eating to excess and drinking every night.
Mill argued that, if we pursue happiness for everyone over a long period of time, rather than pursue happiness for ourselves in the short term, Epicureanism is the most ethical philosophy. As Epicurus took the long and social view just as Mill and Bentham did, Epicurus’ opponents were wrong to call him and his followers “swine”, gluttons and hedonists. It is true that the Epicureans believed one should indulge in moderation and enjoy life with friends, but they did not believe in self-destructive immediate gratification. For example, just as Epicurus opened his school to women and slaves, believing this to be the best for social well-being, Mill was an advocate for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery, believing egalitarianism, the equality of all before the law, to be best for making the most people happy over the long term. This is hardly self-centered happiness.
Like Pyrrho and Pyrrhonian skeptics, Epicurus taught that the goal of the good life was ataraxia, tranquility and peace of mind. Unlike the cynics and skeptics, Epicurus argued that we should seek happiness for ourselves and others as the ultimate goal, as the thing sought in itself, the thing to which all other purposes aim. Pyrrho would argue that it is freedom of judgement, not happiness, that brings true tranquility. Recall that Aristotle believed our ultimate end to be philosophy and scientific speculation. Epicurus would argue that wisdom and knowledge are pursued because they make us happy. He taught that the best way to make oneself happy is to make others happy, and so we should practice reciprocity, treating others the way we want to be treated. Confucius and Jesus both taught that this is central to ethics. Epicurus argued that it is impossible to live pleasantly without living wisely, and it is impossible to live wisely without living pleasantly. Living wisely for Epicurus centrally involved friendship and working for the greater good.
Sometimes, Epicurus argued, we do suffer pain willingly, and this is for the purposes of greater pleasure. For example, when one sacrifices and suffers for one’s friends or family, this is because one gets greater pleasure out of one’s friends and family over the long term than one gets out of what is sacrificed. At other times, we pursue pleasure without thinking of the pain that we will suffer later, but this will prevent us from being tranquil and at peace, which will prevent us from being happy over the long term.
Epicurus argued that we should believe only what can be gathered through empirical observation or proven through logical deduction. Skeptics would argue that we should gather evidence and engage in logic, but that nothing should be believed as absolute. Epicurus, an atomist like Democritus, believed that atoms (beings) moving within the void (nonbeing), and that all things, including minds, concepts and gods, are made of atoms bonding together. Unlike Democritus, Epicurus argued that atoms need not move in straight lines, but could curve or wander. Like modern Chaos Theory, Epicurus argued against determinism and allowed for freedom not merely in human thought and action but in all the motions of the cosmos.
Like Xenophanes and Heraclitus, Epicurus believed that the gods are commonly and ignorantly confused with human attributes, which is most impious. The gods do not care about mortals, largely ignoring them. Consequently, the gods do not reward or punish human beings with fortune or tragedy in either this or another life for doing good or evil, but rather happiness is its own reward and pain its own punishment. Additionally, the gods did not create the cosmos, but were merely massive material beings that influenced matters far more than microscopic humans. For the Homeric cultural conservatives, this would itself be a most impious position.
Employing the same argument as Sextus Empiricus and presumably earlier Pyrrhonian skeptics, Epicurus argues that the gods do not care about humanity with benevolence because otherwise evil would not exist in the world. Called, “The Problem of Evil” in philosophical and theological debates that still continue today, Epicureans and skeptics argued that the cosmos cannot be omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent and allow such suffering as we see to exist. Because such suffering exists, it must either be the case that the cosmos is not aware of everything (is not omniscient), is not all powerful (is not omnipotent), or does not care if we suffer (is not benevolent).
In response, Neoplatonists, whose position was supported by Augustine and the Catholic Church after the rise of Christianity in Rome, argued that the universe falls into division and suffering such that it can rise gloriously in union from the ashes, the doctrine known as “The Fall and the Return”. In Christian theology, this was paired with Adam and Eve being thrown out of Eden then redeemed by the suffering of Jesus. Similar to the thinking of Heraclitus when he says that a pig does not know peace because a pig does not know war, Neoplatonists and Neoplatonic Christians argued that sin and suffering were necessary for redemption and salvation to be meaningful. Consider that, as adults, we find antiheroes and tragedy to be meaningful. Heraclitus, Epicureans and skeptics would question how much the cosmos enjoys drama like a human.
Epicurus argued that the cosmos is infinite and eternal, believing, as an atomist and like the Eleatics, that, “Out of nothing comes nothing”. Recall the atomist response to the Eleatic challenge, that atoms are indivisible and eternal, yet move in the void. Epicurus argued that, if the cosmos had a limit, one should be able to walk to the edge of it, stick out a fist, and thereby set a new limit for the entire cosmos.
Unlike the cosmos, the mind or soul is, like the body, mortal and therefore Epicurus argued that death is not to be feared, saying, “To us, death is nothing”. Epicureans of the Roman Empire were known to have engraved on their tombstones the Epicurean epigraph, “I was not, I was, I am not, I do not care”, as we do not exist before birth, then live, then die, and no longer are affected by anything. Aristotle argued, to the contrary, that it is right to fear death as it is an end to our aims and purposes, even if it is ultimately inevitable. Epicurus puts emphasis on happiness and tranquility, and so saw fear as a useless obstacle, while Aristotle puts emphasis on purposes and ends, and so saw fear as a useful warning.
Against Democritus, with whom Epicurus shares much thinking, and other skeptics like the Pyrrhonians, Epicurus argued that we must have some innate ideas or concepts that do not require proof. Recall that in Plato’s Parmenides, Parmenides shows that an infinite regress makes knowledge of forms impossible, and that in Plato’s Meno, Socrates argues that we already know the truth because of cycles of reincarnation, but we have forgotten that we know. Epicurus does not believe in the immortality of the soul, so he cannot agree with Plato that knowledge is recollection, but he is well aware of the infinite regress that Plato’s Parmenides and the Pyrrhonian skeptics say makes true knowledge impossible to verify, and so Epicurus argues that some ideas are innate, are set in us from the beginning. These ideas are then extended through experience of the world, which Epicurus trusts as a genuine source of truth, unlike Pyrrhonian skeptics who argue that perceptions are untrustworthy given the ten tropes of Aenesidemus.
Epicurus gave three arguments against skepticism. First, he argued that it is impossible to live as a skeptic, as without beliefs there is no reason to act in any particular manner, and so true skeptic would die. Pyrrhonians would argue, as Jains and Buddhists did in India against dogmatic opponents, that if one is not committed to any position, then one is able to take any position, not prohibited from taking a particular position. When a skeptic acts, they would say, the skeptic knows that there may have to be a reversal of course or a reappraisal of judgements.
Second, Epicurus argued that skepticism is self-refuting, as it makes the dogmatic claim that all is relative. If we ask a skeptic if it can be known that nothing can be known, if the skeptic says ‘yes’, then they are contradicting themselves, and if they say ‘no’ then they do not know what they are talking about and their position is of no consequence. This remains a popular argument against skepticism. Right wing evangelical Christians today fear liberal education, rightly or wrongly, as a relativising force, and they frequently invoke this argument to show that relativism, which they identify with the left, with liberal colleges, German philosophy, the Continental tradition, Postmodernism, the entertainment industry, and anything else countercultural they find threatening is fundamentally flawed and false as they encourage people to believe in nothing at all. As mentioned, this equates skepticism with nihilism, which Pyrrho identifies with Plato’s later Academy.
A Pyrrhonian would reply that all evidence so far, including the differences of view amongst dogmatists, would suggest that all is relative, but this is only known relatively, not absolutely. We cannot know that all truth is relative, but we can say that no truth so far has been absolute and escaped the ten, five or two modes. In addition, the skeptic can say ‘yes’, and know that we are always, in a way, contradicting ourselves when we make judgements, and the skeptic can say ‘no’, and known that positions do have consequence, even if they are never absolute.
Third, Epicurus argued that skeptics cannot claim to know anything, including what knowing or truth is. If a skeptic says that nothing can be known or be true, how can they know what ‘know’ or ‘true’ is to use such concepts, even if negatively? A Pyrrhonian would reply that we do relatively know things, and things are relatively true, which is how we ‘know’ what is ‘true’, even though this remains relative. Similarly, we have never experienced an object that was simply hot such that nothing could be hotter, and yet we say that we know what hot is and can say whether or not a thing is hotter than another much of the time with relative accuracy.
Epicureanism became one of the most popular schools of thought of ancient Rome, rivaled primarily by Stoicism but also by Skepticism, Cynicism and Platonism. Lucretius (99 – 55 BCE) was a Roman poet who wrote a philosophical poem On the Nature of Things, a central source for Epicureanism. Other famous Epicurean Roman poets include Virgil, Dante’s guide through the circles of Hell, and Horace, famous for his “Carpe diem”, or “Seize the day” (what some now unfortunately call ‘YOLO’ on the internet).
While Epicureanism largely died out with the conversion of Rome to Christianity by Constantine and the fall of the Roman Empire, it was known in Islamic lands through the work of Lucretius and other philosophers. Omar Khayyam (1048 – 1131 CE), the Persian philosopher, poet and mathematician, discovered Epicureanism through Lucretius, who became a great influence on his own poetry. Born in what is today Iran, Khayyam was a follower of Avicenna (Ibn Sina), arguably the greatest philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age, whose philosophical and medical works significantly influenced Medieval Europe, evident in his name being Latinized. Like Epicurus, Avicenna was critical of the work of Aristotle, arguing that universals are concepts in the mind, not physical things. Khayyam is seen by some Islamic and European scholars as an agnostic hedonist, who wrote poems of sharing wine with friends (in spite of this being prohibited by Islam) and wondering who knows what for sure. Others see him as a Sufi mystic, who found the rapture of the divine in the simple beauty of experience.
In Europe, Epicureanism was rediscovered in Renaissance times and revived in the 1700s with the rise of scholarship and science in Europe. Epicurus had an influence on both John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. John Locke argued that people should have the political right to life, liberty, and property, and his political philosophy had a significant influence on the American Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson, who considered himself an Epicurean, gave Locke’s triad a further Epicurean twist, and wrote in the Declaration of Independence that people should have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Karl Marx, father of Communism, wrote his doctoral thesis on the differences between Democritus and Epicurus. Communism, which has often been compared to Mill’s Utilitarianism and the Happiness Principle of Bentham, attempts to remove the rich individuals from society and the wealthy nations from the world such that everyone is as happy and productive as possible. Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto that the middle class fears Communism because they are afraid it will take away their property, and they answer that yes, this is exactly what they intend, for as long as there is poverty possession of property is evil, preventing the happiness of everyone.
The German philosophers Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were influenced by Epicurus. Schopenhauer, who also revered the Upanishads and Buddhism of India, believed that Epicurus correctly understood the proper attitude towards death. Nietzsche, who was greatly influenced by Schopenhauer, mentioned Epicurus in several of his works and praised his wisdom for seeing that humanity may pretend to aim at noble aims beyond pleasure, but this is self-deception that masks how easily we are seduced by what we find to be beautiful. Unlike Aristotle, who argued that philosophy and science are pure aims in themselves, Nietzsche, like Epicurus, argued that we are seduced by the purity of math, fixed understandings and ideal principles, pretending that we are objective to hide our passion. The sign above, in a garden, reads, “A small garden, figs, a little cheese, and, along with this, three or four good friends – such was luxury to Epicurus“, a quote from Nietzsche.
Epicurus suffered from what is today believed to be kidney stones, what likely killed him, and yet Epicurus wrote to friends that he was happy in spite of his great pain. Nietzsche suffered from poor health and stomach ailments for most of his life, and took comfort in Epicurus’ happiness in the face of pain and death. In a very Epicurean fashion, Nietzsche wrote that philosophers have claimed to know great truths and Being itself, yet they have often failed to speak of love, sex and friendship, so what deep understanding of life could they possibly have? Nietzsche, who was deeply cynical about religion, politics and science, about any system that would make us bow to it as objective, was inspired by Epicurus, who found nobility and wisdom in mere pleasure and good company.