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Introduction | History of Epicureanism | Epicureanism and Religion
Introduction Back to Top

Epicureanism is a system of philosophy based on the teachings of Epicurus, founded around 307 B.C. It teaches that the greatest good is to seek modest pleasures in order to attain a state of tranquillity, freedom from fear ("ataraxia") and absence from bodily pain ("aponia"). This combination of states is held to constitute happiness in its highest form, and so Epicureanism can be considered a form of Hedonism, although it differs in its conception of happiness as the absence of pain, and in its advocacy of a simple life.

Epicurus directed that this state of tranquillity could be obtained through knowledge of the workings of the world and the limiting of desires. Thus, pleasure was to be obtained by knowledge, friendship and living a virtuous and temperate life. He lauded the enjoyment of "simple pleasures", by which he meant abstaining from bodily desires, such as sex and appetites, verging on Asceticism. He counseled that "a cheerful poverty is an honorable state".

He argued for moderation in all things, so that when eating, for example, one should not eat too richly, for it could lead to dissatisfaction later, such as indigestion or the grim realization that one could not afford such delicacies in the future. Likewise, sex could lead to increased lust and dissatisfaction with the sexual partner, and Epicurus himself remained celibate. Even learning, culture and civilization were discouraged, as they could result in disturbing one’s peace of mind, except insofar as knowledge could help rid oneself of religious fears and superstitions, such as the fear of the gods and of death.

Generally speaking, Epicureans shunned politics as having no part in the quest for ataraxia and aponia, and likewise a potential source of unsatisfiable desires and frustration, which was to be avoided. Like Democritus and Leucippus before him, Epicurus was an Atomist, believing that all matter, souls and gods are all comprised of atoms, and even thoughts are merely atoms swerving randomly.

Epicurus was one of the first to develop a notion of justice as a kind of social contract, an agreement "neither to harm nor be harmed". He argued that laws and punishments in society are important so that individuals can be free to pursue happiness, and a just law is one that contributes to promoting human happiness. In some respects, this was an early contribution to the much later development of Liberalism and of Utilitarianism.

In modern popular usage, an epicure is a connoisseur of the arts of life and the refinements of sensual pleasures, especially of good food and drink, attributable to a misunderstanding of the Epicurean doctrine, as promulgated by Christian polemicists.

History of Epicureanism Back to Top

Epicureanism was originally a conceived by Epicurus as a challenge to Platonism although, arguably, Democritus had propounded a very similar philosophy almost a century earlier. Along with Stoicism and Skepticism), the school of Epicureanism later became one of the three dominant schools of Hellenistic philosophy, lasting strongly through the later Roman Empire. During Epicurus' lifetime, its members included Hermarchus, Idomeneus, Colotes, Polyaenus and Metrodorus.

Lucretius (99 - 55 B.C.) was the school's greatest Roman proponent, composing an epic poem, "De Rerum Natura" ("On the Nature of Things") on the Epicurean philosophy of nature. The poet Horace (65 - 8 B.C.) and Julius Caesar (100 - 44 B.C.) both leaned considerably toward Epicureanism.

After the official approval of Christianity by the Roman Emperor Constantine (272 - 337) in 313 A.D., Epicureanism was repressed as essentially irreconcilable with Christian teachings, and the school endured a long period of obscurity and decline.

In more modern times, the French philosopher and priest Pierre Gassendi (1592 - 1655) referred to himself as an Epicurean (and attempted to revive the doctrine), as did Thomas Jefferson (1743 - 1826) and the Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham.

Epicureanism and Religion Back to Top

Epicureanism emphasizes the neutrality of the gods and their non-interference with human lives, although it did not deny the existence of gods, despite some tendencies towards Atheism. It conceived of the gods as blissful and immortal, yet material, beings made of atoms, inhabiting the empty spaces between worlds in the vastness of infinite space, too far away from the earth to have any interest in what man was doing. It rejected any possibility of an afterlife, while still contending that one need not fear death. It can be argued that the philosophy is atheistic on a practical level, but avoids the charge of Atheism on the theoretical level, thus avoiding the fate of Socrates, who was tried and executed for the Atheism of his beliefs.

The Paradox of Epicurus is the earliest known description of the "Problem of evil" (see the section on Philosophy of Religion), and is a famous argument against the existence of an all-powerful and providential God or gods. It can be stated: If God is willing to prevent evil, but is not able to, then He is not omnipotent; if He is able, but not willing, then He is malevolent; if He is both able and willing, then why is there such a thing as evil; and if He is neither able nor willing, then why call Him God at all?

There are interesting parallels to Buddhism, which similarly emphasizes a lack of divine interference and has aspects of Atomism. Buddhism also resembles Epicureanism in its temperateness, including the belief that great excesses lead to great dissatisfaction.

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