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.
The letters and sayings of Greek philosopher Epicurus, along with his many manuscripts on nature and society (long lost but recently partially recovered), were reworked by his first century BCE Roman follower, Titus Carus Lucretius, into the six-part poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things).
In this beautiful text, you will find an exposition of ancient materialism based on the claim that nothing really exists except atoms, in motion and at rest, and the void. According to the system there are multiple worlds, or cosmoi. Each of these has emerged from chaos, producing its own stars and planets, people, animals, and plants, and each will eventually return to chaos.
The mind is material, and all living beings are mortal. The ancient Epicureans denied any involvement of a God or Gods in the creation of worlds or their maintenance, and Lucretius in particular saw religion as superstitious and cruel. Death, they maintained, is not to be feared but is a condition of nothingness from which all experience, hence all suffering is excluded. This claim was central to a philosophy whose aim was to banish fear and its often dreadful consequences, including the persecution of others, from human experience.
In moral philosophy, the Epicureans argued that the avoidance of pain, inflicting it and experiencing it, and the enjoyment of harmless pleasures ought to guide human ‘choice and avoidance.’ Unlike the Stoics, they did not suppose that the human mind has unlimited power over the body; insofar as we are fully material beings, we act and suffer as one psycho-physical unity. They cautioned against excess, pointing out that that while eating, drinking, and sex are pleasurable and so to be enjoyed, moderation is called for. Overindulgence or imprudent choice brings on all manner of vexation, pain, social punishment, and remorse.
Epicurean political philosophy is based on the idea that humans created their institutions by trial and error over many years, taught by no one, and that unstable forms of government and social practice will inevitably give way to other forms. All social distinctions that for are imaginary or conventional; there are no natural authorities or natural hierarchies. The school of Epicurus was exceptional in Athens in allowing women as members.
The Epicurean legacy is impressive. It has left an imprint in the writings of Hobbes, Cavendish, Locke, Newton, Hume, Rousseau, Bentham, Mill, Darwin and Marx, as well as in more recent philosophical writing. There have been numerous detractors as well, from the Fathers of the Early Church, who regarded the Epicurean teachings with consternation, all the way to Kant who wanted to draw a sharp line between the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of moral goodness. This led him to produce his own opposing theory of the noumenal substratum of reality to the Epicurean atoms.
Featured image credit: Greek Antiquity. Public domain via Pixabay.