Epicurus and the Epicureans

The Hellenistic Philosophers

Epicurus, 341-270 BCE.

Hermarchus, 4th to 3rd century BCE. Successor to Epicurus as head of the school. His works are lost.

Lucretius, first century BCE. Roman poet and author of On the Nature of Things (which sets out Epicureanism)


Epicurus' Garden (an estate with grounds that came to be used as the location for his lectures) seems to have been located just outside Athens along the road from the Dipylon gate to the Academy (Cicero, On Ends 5.1.3).

The Diplyon gate was the main gate in the wall around Athens, built as part of Themistocles' fortification of Athens following the Persian Wars.

Diogenes Laertius (3rd century CE) lists the forty-one titles of Epicurus' "best" books (Lives of Eminent Philosophers X.27). None of this work has survived.
Epicurus set up his school, "the Garden" (ὁ κῆπος), in Athens in 306 BCE.

Only a small percentage of Epicurus' writings have survived, partly because his philosophy became unpopular and was not preserved once the critical reaction to the classical tradition gave way to the resurgence of non-skeptical forms of Platonism and the subsequent rise of Christianity.

The Good Life and Happiness

Epicurus moves from an emphasis on reason and toward more empirical perspective.

From within this perspective, he comes to a significantly different set of conclusions than Plato and Aristotle about human beings, their place in reality, and the good life and happiness. Epicurus does not think that "contemplation" is essential to the good life and for happiness.

For Epicurus, the key to happiness is the "four-fold remedy" (τετραφάρμακος).

"For who do you believe is better than a man who has pious opinions about the gods, is fearless about death, has diligently considered (ἐπιλελογισμένου) the natural goal of life and understands that the limit of good things is easy to achieve completely and easy to provide, and that the limit of bad things has a short duration or causes little trouble" (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus X.133).

The Four-Fold Remedy

"God presents no fears, death no worries, and while good is readily attainable, bad is readily endurable" (Philodemus of Gadara, preserved in Herculaneum Papyrus 1005, 4.10–14) τετραφάρμακος
Philodemus, Herculaneum Papyrus, 1005.
Discovered at the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum.
ἄφοβον ὁ θεός, ἀνύποπτον ὁ θάνατος, καὶ τἀγαθὸν μὲν εὔκτητον, τὸ δὲ δεινὸν εὐεκκαρτέρητον
Epicurus advances this four-fold remedy as a solution to life's most worrying problem. Someone who takes this remedy realizes that there is an easy-to-execute and effective plan for living in a way that is overwhelmingly likely to result in a life in which the pleasure taken in one's circumstances vastly outweighs the pain. This knowledge is a source of immense relief and satisfaction. Because this relief consists in the removal of prior worries, it makes a human being happier than before taking the remedy. In addition, Epicurus' idea seems to be that this knowledge is itself a source of immense satisfaction and that this satisfaction is on-going because the knowledge is on-going. In this way, the presence of this knowledge ensures that the few bad things that do happen are not nearly disturbing enough to undermine one's overall happiness.

God presents no fears


"And there are some who have supposed that we have arrived at the conception (ἔννοιαν) of Gods (θεῶν) from those events in the world which are marvellous (τὸν κόσμον παραδόξων); which opinion seems to have been held by Democritus, who says—'For when the men of old time beheld the disasters in the heavens, such as thunderings and lightnings, and thunderbolts and collisions between stars, and eclipses of sun and moon, they were affrighted, imagining the Gods to be the causes of these things (θεοὺς οἰόμενοι τούτων αἰτίους εἶναι)'" (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Physicists 1.24).
According to Epicurus, knowledge of of reality and of the nature of the gods is necessary for the good life because this knowledge dispels the fears engendered by mythology and superstition.

Without this knowledge, human beings are plagued by fear of the sorts of events described in mythology. They make up threatening stories about natural phenomena they do not understand. They think these phenomena indicate divine mood and that storms and other such phenomena are punishment from the gods. Knowledge of physics is necessary to dispel the fears enshrined in mythology and thus to correct the unfortunate and all too common tendency of human beings to form certain distressing but false beliefs about the world and their place within it.

[D]eath [presents] no worries


"Accustom thyself to believe (νομίζειν) that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply sentience (πᾶν ἀγαθὸν καὶ κακὸν ἐν αἰσθήσει), and death is the privation of all sentience; therefore a right understanding (γνῶσις ὀρθὴ) that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable (ἀπολαυστὸν)..." (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers X.124).
Epicurus argues that it is not reasonable to fear death because the dead have no experiences and hence cannot suffer. The idea, it seems, is that it is reasonable for a person to fear something that might happen in the future only if the person would suffer were this thing to come to pass. Since the dead do not suffer, a fear death is unreasonable. Death is nothing to us.

[G]ood is readily attainable, bad is readily endurable


"When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or wilful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul (τὸ μήτε ἀλγεῖν κατὰ σῶμα μήτε ταράττεσθαι κατὰ ψυχήν). It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of revelry, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning (λογισμὸς), searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul" (Lives of the Philosophers X.131-132).
The good life is a life of moderation, not excess. Extravagant goals, such as having the fanciest foods, are difficult to secure and thus are likely to be a source of frustration.

Against the Classical Tradition

The Epicurean conception of happiness can appear to resemble the conception present in the classical tradition of Plato and Aristotle. In Plato, the best existence is the one the soul enjoys in its disincarnate and natural state, fixed in "contemplation" (θεωρία), free from practical concerns and the need for reason to deal with those concerns. Its existence, in this natural and disincarnate state, is characterized by knowledge of the forms. Aristotle's position is more nuanced. He thinks that contemplation contributes most of all to happiness, but he also thinks that the excellent exercise of reason in practical matters contributes to happiness secondarily, or in a secondary way. Since for Epicurus there is immense pleasure in the knowledge that a certain plan for living is both straightforward and likely to result in happiness, one might think that he has a version of the Platonic and Aristotelian conception of the good life and happiness.

In fact, there is good reason to doubt that Epicurus has this conception. The evidence is sparse, but it is easy to get the impression that Epicurus rejected this way of thinking about happiness and knowledge as part of his rejection of the rationalism of the classical tradition.

Epicurus stresses memory in a way that suggests he is more allied with the empiricist tradition Plato and Aristotle rejected. In his Letter to Herodotus, Epicurus makes memory play an important role with respect to happiness and the good life. He says that "freedom from disturbance ... [involves] a continual remembrance (μνήμην) of the general and most important points [of Epicureanism]" (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers X.82).

It is true that Epicurus tried to present his doctrines in summary form for easy consumption and retention. It is also true that he uses θεωρία and its cognates, as these are ordinary Greek words. However, the stress he places on memory and the "continual remembrance" of his doctrines suggests that he rejected the rationalism of the prior tradition of Plato and Aristotle.

It suggests that Epicurus did not think of the knowledge that contributes to happiness in terms of contemplation and the perfection of reason. The evidence makes the issue difficult to settle conclusively, but it seems that for Epicurus knowledge contributes to happiness in a different way than it does for Plato and Aristotle. The point for Epicurus is not that knowledge and contemplation of the structure of reality is itself supremely pleasurable. Rather, he seems to think that once a human being knows that the "good is readily attainable" and that the "bad is readily endurable," as he will if once he has taken the four-fold remedy, he takes great pleasure in thinking about his actions in the various circumstances in which he is likely to find himself in the future. When he thinks about how things might go for him in the future (which presumably is something everyone does whenever one thinks about what he should do), he is not at all worried or anxious. Instead, he takes pleasure in this thinking because he knows that "God presents no fears, death no worries, and while good is readily attainable, bad is readily endurable."

Knowledge, Reason, and Experience

"When I was young, Cebes, I was tremendously eager for the kind of wisdom which they call investigation of nature. I thought it was a glorious thing to know the causes of everything, why each thing comes into being and why it perishes and why it exists; and I was always unsettling myself with such questions as these: Do heat and cold, by a sort of fermentation, bring about the organization of animals, as some people say? Is it the blood, or air, or fire by which we think (φρονοῦμεν)? Or is it none of these, and does the brain furnish the sensations of hearing and sight and smell, and do memory (μνήμη) and opinion (δόξα) arise from these, and does knowledge (ἐπιστήμην) come from memory and opinion in a state of rest? And again I tried to find out how these things perish, and I investigated the phenomena of heaven and earth until finally I made up my mind that I was by nature totally unfitted for this kind of investigation" (Plato, Phaedo 96a-c).

"For reasoning is a kind of memory combined with things apprehended with the senses"
(ὁ γὰρ λογισμὸς μνήμη τίς ἐστι συνθετικὴ τῶν μετ᾽ αἰσθήσιος ληφθέντων)
(Hippocrates of Cos, Precepts 1).

"Those who rely on experience only are accordingly called empiricists (ἐμπειρικοί). Similarly, those who rely on reason are called rationalists (λογικοὶ). And these are the two primary sects in medicine. ... [T]hey also call the empiricist sect observational and relying on memory..." (Galen (130-210 CE), On the Sects for Beginners I.65-66).
In what survives of his writing, Epicurus does not work out his epistemology in much detail. It seems clear, though, that he works in the empiricist tradition Plato and Aristotle rejected. For Epicurus, knowledge is a matter of perception, memory, and forming beliefs in the right way. it is a matter of "experience," not the cognition Plato and Aristotle called "reason."

Human beings have perceptions, and these perceptions give rise to various thoughts. Epicurus thinks that the perceptions themselves are never false and that falsehood is always a matter of accepting the accompanying thoughts uncritically. He thinks that the thoughts occasioned by perception should be accepted only if they are confirmed and not disconfirmed.

Further, Epicurus rejects "dialectic as superfluous" (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers X.31). It not completely clear just what he takes himself to reject, but the idea seems to be that the cognition involved in accepting or rejecting the thoughts occasioned by perception is not a matter of "reason" as this is understood in the classical tradition of Plato and Aristotle.

Epicurus does not reject that human beings can be rational in their thinking. He rejects "reason" as it is understood in the tradition of Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle, for example, understands "reason" in terms of the grasping universals and the use of syllogistic logic to deduce relations of logical consequence and incompatibility. Epicurus is not part of this rationalist tradition.



Perseus Digital Library:

Plato, Phaedo
Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
ἀταραξία, (ἀ ("not") +‎ ταράσσω ("trouble, disturb"), ataraxia, noun, "impassiveness, calmness,"
ταραχή, tarachē, noun, "disorder, disturbance, upheaval"

Arizona State University Library. Loeb Classical Library:
Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Volume II: Books 6-10


"Epicurus' Letter to Herodotus, for instance, is replete with references to memory. He tells us to remember firmly the basic principles of Epicureanism, in fact to memorise them. What is behind these admonitions does not seem to be just the trivial view that if one wants to be an Epicurean one had better remember the basic tenets of Epircureanism, but rather the view that our whole way of thinking is determined by our memory, by what we remember having experienced and what we have committed to memory in the, perhaps wrong, belief that it is the case. It is tempting to think that Epicurus' rejection of dialectic or logic is related to this (see D.L. [= Diogenes Laertius] x.31). As understood by Platonists, Peripatetics or Stoics, dialectic or logic, as we noted earlier, is based on the assumption that there are certain relations between terms or propositions, or rather their counterparts in the world, such that in virtue of these relations certain things follow from, or are excluded by, other things. Dialectic teaches us to see these sometimes complex relations and to reason accordingly. In fact, this is what it is to reason, to argue on the basis of one's adequate or inadequate grasp of, or insight into, these relations. So when Epicurus rejects dialectic, one is inclined to assume that he is rejecting this rationalist view of thought and inference..." (Michael Frede, "An Empiricist View of Knowledge: Memorism," 240-241. Companions to Ancient Thought. I.Epistemology, edited by Stephen Everson (Cambridge University Press, 1990), 221-246).



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