Who Was Epicurus?

When we say that pleasure is the goal we do not mean the pleasure of the dissipated and those which consist in the process of enjoyment . . . but freedom from pain in the body and from disturbance in the mind. For it is not drinking and continuous parties nor sexual pleasures nor the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a wealthy table which produce the pleasant life, but sober reasoning which searches out the causes of every act of choice and refusal and which banishes the opinions that give rise to the greatest mental confusion.

- Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus

Podcast of the Day

Angie Hobbs, David Sedley and James Warren join Melvyn Bragg to discuss Epicureanism, the system of philosophy based on the teachings of Epicurus and founded in Athens in the fourth century BC. Epicurus outlined a comprehensive philosophical system based on the idea that everything in the Universe is constructed from two phenomena: atoms and void. At the centre of his philosophy is the idea that the goal of human life is pleasure, by which he meant not luxury but the avoidance of pain. His followers were suspicious of marriage and politics but placed great emphasis on friendship. Epicureanism became influential in the Roman world, particularly through Lucretius's great poem De Rerum Natura, which was rediscovered and widely admired in the Renaissance.

Listen to the In Our Time episode on Epicureanism

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

Most people have a good idea what it is to have a Stoical attitude to life, but what it means to have an Epicurean attitude is not so obvious. When attempting to decipher the true nature of Epicureanism it is first necessary to dispel the impression that fine dining is its central theme. From its introduction in the third century BCE, Epicureanism has revolved around a set of interrelated and compelling ideas about nature, morality, and politics. It contributed to scientific enquiry, social progress, and human self-understanding. Epicureanism was treated as a serious, though wrong-headed philosophy by its Stoic rivals and has gone on to be caricatured and maligned down throughout the ages...

Continue reading Catherine Wilson's article: Epicureanism: eat, drink, and be merry?

Further Reading

The philosophy of Epicurus (341–270 B.C.E.) was a complete and interdependent system, involving a view of the goal of human life (happiness, resulting from absence of physical pain and mental disturbance), an empiricist theory of knowledge (sensations, together with the perception of pleasure and pain, are infallible criteria), a description of nature based on atomistic materialism, and a naturalistic account of evolution, from the formation of the world to the emergence of human societies. Epicurus believed that, on the basis of a radical materialism which dispensed with transcendent entities such as the Platonic Ideas or Forms, he could disprove the possibility of the soul's survival after death, and hence the prospect of punishment in the afterlife. He regarded the unacknowledged fear of death and punishment as the primary cause of anxiety among human beings, and anxiety in turn as the source of extreme and irrational desires. The elimination of the fears and corresponding desires would leave people free to pursue the pleasures, both physical and mental, to which they are naturally drawn, and to enjoy the peace of mind that is consequent upon their regularly expected and achieved satisfaction. It remained to explain how irrational fears arose in the first place: hence the importance of an account of social evolution. Epicurus was aware that deeply ingrained habits of thought are not easily corrected, and thus he proposed various exercises to assist the novice. His system included advice on the proper attitude toward politics (avoid it where possible) and the gods (do not imagine that they concern themselves about human beings and their behavior), the role of sex (dubious), marriage (also dubious) and friendship (essential), reflections on the nature of various meteorological and planetary phenomena, about which it was best to keep an open mind in the absence of decisive verification, and explanations of such processes as gravity and magnetism, which posed considerable challenges to the ingenuity of the earlier atomists. Although the overall structure of Epicureanism was designed to hang together and to serve its principal ethical goals, there was room for a great deal of intriguing philosophical argument concerning every aspect of the system, from the speed of atoms in a void to the origin of optical illusions...

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Epicurus by David Konstan

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Related Topics

If you’re interested in Epicureanism, check out some of the following related topics for more resources:

 Aristotle | Friendship | The Good Life | Hedonism | Stoicism

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