Epicureanism is named after its founder, Epicurus. Epicureanism is one of the philosophies that appeared in Greek culture after the demise of Aristotle. Stoicism was another philosophy that appeared about the same time (we will discuss Stoicism in a future article, but it is important to note that Stoicism and Epicureanism competed in the “cultural marketplace” of the time.) Along with Stoicism, it represented the shift in philosophy from the pure Hellenistic roots of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and displayed oriental influence, especially related to resignation and apathy. It was a philosophy built upon the pursuit of peace in unsettling times.
Epicurus (342 – 270 BC) was born in Samos, seven years before the death of Plato. He went to Athens at age 18 to join a Platonic school but could only stay a year because Antipater banished some 12,000 of the poorer citizens from Athens. He was especially stimulated by some of the writings of Democritus and formulated his own philosophy, gradually gathering some disciples. In 307 he was able to return to Athens and he lived there the rest of his life.
Epicurus started a community of men and women following his philosophy. Actually, he built a garden and sought to achieve contentment using his philosophy of living in that beautiful place. The co-ed living prompted charges of licentiousness by Stoic opponents. The Stoics even produced forged letters to substantiate their charges, however, the many followers of Epicurus, including some authorities, testified to Epicurus’s character.
A common misconception is that the quote “Let us eat drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” is attributed to the epicureans, but that quote is most closely seen in the Old Testament:
and behold, joy and gladness, slaying oxen and killing sheep, eating flesh and drinking wine: let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we shall die.(Isaiah 22:13)
Contrary to feasting on food and wine, Epicurean community life was plain. Participants generally drank water and ate barley bread with a small portion of wine, and perhaps cheese. There was no community property, instead, there were emphases on friendship and freedom from anxiety.
Epicureans sought to live exempt from anger and partiality, with a disregard for death and taking no pleasure in evil.[i] They sought to free themselves from the myths that the gods were mysteriously working for and against them in life.
“That which is sublimely happy and immortal experiences no trouble itself nor does it inflict trouble on anything else, so that it is not affected by passion or partiality. Such things are found only in what is weak”[ii]
This Epicurean quote emphasizes the Epicurean discomfort over the idea of gods controlling the affairs of men. That is not to say that Epicurus was atheistic, as he did believe in gods. He simply did not believe that men were affected by any kind of divine intervention.[ii] Epicurus’ challenge to the movement of gods in the cosmos was probably in contrast to the cosmology of Plato and Aristotle who talked of celestial movements as evidence of the gods moving things. Epicureans viewed such attitudes as superstitious and a cause of human anxiety.
If the gods are constantly at work doing things in the cosmos and the world, then men are powerless to achieve happiness on their own. However, if the gods are indifferent to us, and men are capable of steering their own way, then men can achieve happiness by their own choices. This logic is at the basis of the Epicurean argument
The Epicurean idea of pleasure was freedom from pain, from anxiety, not the hedonistic pursuit of gluttony and lasciviousness, although there is no evidence they practiced abstinence either.
Furthermore, to Epicureans, there is no consciousness in death. There is no afterlife. Therefore the sum and total of man’s existence are the days between birth and death, and there is no concern for anything beyond the days of this life. Knowing this removes anxiety, according to Epicurean doctrine.
Religions that preach an afterlife create anxiety in several ways, according to Epicureanism. Religions hoodwink people into thinking they will be benefited both now and in the afterlife by observing certain rituals. Otherwise, if they ignore the rituals they will face a terrible catastrophe. Epicureanism seeks to remove the anxiety over these proposals by saying that the religions are false; the gods are not interested in our rituals, there is neither benefit nor catastrophe by following or disregarding religious rituals. Removing these complications enables us to pursue peace much more simply.
Some sayings of Epicureans show that their emphasis is on seeking peace in simple things like enjoying nature, maintaining a simple life, limiting possessions, emphasizing personal character, seeking the pleasure of the mind over sensual pleasure, being flexible, and valuing friendship:
Nature’s wealth at once has its bounds and is easy to procure; but the wealth of vain fancies recedes to an infinite distance.
The just man enjoys the greatest piece of mind, while the unjust is full of the utmost disquietude.
Pleasures themselves and their consequences – cause the mind the greatest alarms.
He who understands the limits of life knows how easy it is to procure enough to remove the pain of want and make the whole life complete and perfect. Hence he has no longer any need of things which are not to be won save by labor and conflict.
Of all the means which are procured by wisdom to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends.
Nothing we have to fear is eternal or even of long duration… Nothing enhances our security so much as friendship.
There never was an absolute justice, but only an agreement made in reciprocal intercourse in whatever localities now and again from time to time, providing against the infliction or suffering of harm.[iii]
Epicureanism became another one of the Greek philosophies that replaced religion in ancient Greek culture and impacted cultures throughout the centuries. It was prominent in the culture around the time of Christ and had an effect on what people believed and practiced. But it was not as powerful an influence as Stoicism, which we will look at next.
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