EPICUREANS (ĕp-ĭ-kū-rē'ănz, Gr. Epikoureioi). The followers of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who lived 341-270 b.c. He taught that nature rather than reason is the true reality; nothing exists but atoms and void, that is, matter and space. The chief purpose of man is to achieve happiness. He has free will to plan and live a life of pleasure. Epicurus gave the widest scope to this matter of pleasure, interpreting it as avoidance of pain, so that the mere enjoyment of good health would be pleasure. Such stress on the good things of life, while very practical, is also very dangerous. For the philosopher the highest joy is found in mental and intellectual pursuits, but for lesser souls lower goals of sensual satisfaction fulfill the greatest pleasure. Thus the high standards of the founder were not maintained, and the philosophy gained a bad reputation. Since such teaching appealed to the common man, this natural philosophy became widespread. It was widely held at the time of Christ. Paul met it at Athens when he encountered the philosophers of that city (
EPICUREANS. The Epicureans are mentioned in
Epicurus founded the school in Athens about 300 b.c. In a sense he effected a reform of the earlier school of Cyrenaics, whose crass slogan is partially quoted in
Diogenes Laertius preserved a letter from Epicurus, which reads,
By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul.
Epicureanism included even a strain of asceticism. “Sexual intercourse has never done a man any good, and he is lucky if it has not harmed him. Nor will a wise man [except in unusual circumstances] marry and rear a family” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, X, 118, 119).
Although the Epicureans identified the aim of life as pleasure, for “No pleasure is a bad thing in itself,” yet to call them hedonists, etymologically correct as it may be, is misleading. Not only “the means which produce some pleasures bring with them disturbances many times greater than the pleasures,” but more profoundly, the Epicureans defined pleasure as the absence of pain. Their aim therefore was not so much the titillations of sense as it was the absence of pain, the avoidance of trouble, and freedom from annoyances.
It was this aim to avoid everything disturbing and to achieve tranquillity of mind that motivated their views both on religion and on physics. These two subjects, with the Epicureans as with other schools in the history of philosophy, were closely related.
Religion, source of evil.
The greatest disturber of tranquillity of mind and the most prolific source of all evils is the belief that the gods punish evildoers. Lucretius (94-55 b.c.), a Rom. Epicurean, wrote, “Most often it is religion itself that inspires impious and criminal acts”: e.g. the sacrifice of Iphigenia by her father. The fear of the gods disturbs man in his dreams. The thought of punishment in a life beyond the grave tortures man all his days.
Therefore the fundamental principle for a happy life is, “Nullam rem e nilo gigni divinitus umquam,” or, “nothing ever comes about by divine power” (Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, I, 150). Confirmation of this principle is later stated: “That the world has by no means been created by divine power is clear from the fact that it contains so many flaws” (ibid. II. 180; V. 195ff.), e.g., “so much of its surface is uninhabitable, the remainder requires hard labor to produce food, the human infant is helpless, the man is harassed by wild beasts, disease, and early death.”
In spite of this last reference to early death, death itself is not an evil. This must be understood, for otherwise the thought of extinction might be as disturbing as the thought of a future life.
Accustom thyself to believe that death is nothing to us....A right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an illimitable time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality....Foolish, therefore, is the man who says he fears death, not because it will pain him when it comes, but because it pains him in the prospect. Whatsoever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of all evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not (Lucretius).
Atoms and freedom.
All that remains, according to the Epicurean, is to frame an acceptable physics that will see mankind through the present life. If all natural phenomena can be plausibly explained in terms of atoms moving through empty space, the last reason for fearing the gods is gone. Such explanations the Epicureans give of sunlight penetrating the air, of images in mirrors, of the sun and moon, of thunder and lightning, and of many other things, but esp. of sensation and reason—all in terms of atoms moving through empty space.
These explanations need not be the absolute truth. All that is needed to show that no divine purpose rules nature is to give a materialistic account that is possible.
More important than many of these details is the theory of free will. Two opposing theories would make life miserable. First, if God had planned the universe and determined everything, nothing would be in our power and ethics would be impossible. Second, if all the atoms were always mechanically determined, as Democritus taught, the same unacceptable conclusion would follow.
The physical theory is that the atoms generally move in straight lines, but sometimes for no cause whatever swerve just a little. Hence men, that is, human bodies composed of atoms, can sometimes for no cause whatever, move in opposition to the laws of mechanics. This is free will.
Hence, nature is to a limited extent under human control.
The future is not wholly ours nor wholly not ours, so that neither must we count upon it as quite certain to come, nor despair of it as quite certain not to come....Destiny, which some introduce as sovereign over all things, [man] laughs to scorn, affirming rather that some things happen of necessity, others by chance, others through our own agency. For he sees that necessity destroys responsibility and that chance and fortune are inconstant; whereas our own actions are free....Exercise thyself in these and kindred precepts day and night...then never, either in waking or in dream, wilt thou be disturbed.
(Ibid., X, 124, 133, 134; see article on Stoics.)
Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (50 b.c.); C. Bailey, The Greek Atomists and Epicurus (1928). See also Greek Religion and Philosophy.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
1. Social and Political Causes 2. Egoistic Hedonism 3. Back to Nature 4. Ataraxy 5. Pleasure Is the Absence of Pain 6. Social Contract 7. Atomic Theory 8. Materialism 9. Theory of Ideas 10. Epicurean Gods 11. Consensus Gentium 12. Causes of Success 13. Complete Antithesis of Paul’s Teaching 14. LITERATURE
The Epicureans with the STOICS (which see) encountered Paul in Athens (
1. Social and Political Causes:
The conditions for the rise of Epicureanism and Stoicism were political and social rather than intellectual. Speculative thought had reached its zenith in the great constructive ideals of Plato, and the encyclopaedic system of Aristotle. Criticism of these would necessarily drive men back upon themselves to probe deeper into the meaning of experience, as Kant did in later times. But the conditions were not propitious to pure speculation. The breaking up of the Greek city-states and the loss of Greek independence had filled men’s minds with a sense of insecurity. The institutions, laws and customs of society, which had hitherto sheltered the individual, now gave way; and men demanded from philosophy a haven of rest for their homeless and weary souls. Philosophy, therefore, became a theory of conduct and an art of living.
Epicurus deprecated the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, whether as philosophy or science, and directed his inquiries to the two practical questions: What is the aim of life? and How to attain to it? Philosophy he defined as "a daily business of speech and thought to secure a happy life."
2. Egoistic Hedonism:
His ethical teaching is therefore the central and governing factor of Epicurus’ philosophy. It belongs to the type generally described as Egoistic Hedonism. The same general principles had been taught by Aristippus and his school, the Cyrenaics, a century earlier, and they were again revived in the 17th century in England by. The aim and end of life for every man is his own happiness, and happiness is primarily defined as pleasure. "Wherefore we call pleasure the of a blessed life. Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting-point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge every good thing" (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus). So far Epicurus might seem to be simply repeating the view of the Cyrenaics. But there are important differences. Aristippus held the pleasure of the moment to be the end of action; but Epicurus taught that life should be so lived as to secure the greatest amount of pleasure during its whole course. And in this larger outlook, the pleasures of the mind came to occupy a larger place than the pleasures of the body. For happiness consists not so much in the satisfaction of desires, as in the suppression of wants, and in arriving at a state of independence of all circumstances, which secures a peace of mind that the privations and changes of life cannot disturb. Man’s desires are of various kinds: "Some are natural, some are groundless; of the natural, some are necessary as well as natural, and some are natural only. And of the necessary desires, some are necessary if we are to be happy, some if the body is to be rid of uneasiness, some if we are even to live." Man’s aim should be to suppress all desires that are unnecessary, and especially such as are artificially produced. Learning, culture, civilization and the distractions of social and political life are proscribed, much as they were in the opposite school of the Cynics, because they produce many desires difficult to satisfy, and so disturb the peace of the mind. This teaching has been compared to that of Rousseau and even of Buddha. Like the former, Epicurus enjoins the withdrawal of life from the complexities and perplexities of civilization, to the bare necessities of Nature, but he stops short of the doctrine of Nirvana, for life and the desire to live he regards as good things.
3. Back to Nature:
He even rises above Naturalism to a view that has some kinship with modern Spiritualism, in his affirmation of the mastery of mind over adverse circumstances. "Though he is being tortured on the rack, the wise man is still happy."
Epicurus’ definition of the end of life and of the way to it bears a superficial resemblance to that of his opponents, the Stoics. The end sought by both is ataraxia, "imperturbability," a peace of mind that transcends all circumstances, and the way to it is the life according to Nature. But Nature for Epicurus is purely physical and material, and the utmost happiness attainable is the complete absence of pain.
5. Pleasure Is the Absence of Pain:
He justly protests against the representation of his teaching as gross and immoral. "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 willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul" (Letter to Menoeceus). His own life was marked by a simplicity verging on asceticism, and by kindly consideration for his friends. But theory was capable of serving the purposes of worse men to justify license and selfishness.
6. Social Contract:
Justice and ordinary morality were recognized in the system as issuing from an original social compact, such as Hobbes and Rousseau supposed, and resting upon the self-interest and happiness of individuals who entered into the compact the better to gain those ends. Ordinary morality has therefore no stronger sanction than the individual’s desire to secure his own happiness. Against public violations of the moral code, the sanction finds its agent in the social order and the penalties it inflicts; but the only deterrent from secret immorality is the fear of being found out, and the necessarily disturbing character of that fear itself. Friendship, the supreme virtue of Epicureanism, is based upon the same calculating selfishness, and is to be cultivated for the happiness it begets to its owners. The fundamental defect of the system is its extreme individualism, which issues in a studied selfishness that denies any value of their own to the social virtues, and in the negation of the larger activities of life.
Epicurus had no interest in knowledge for its own sake, whether of the external world, or of any ultimate or supreme, reality. But he found men’s minds full of ideas about the world, immortality and the gods, which disturbed their peace and filled them with vain desires and fears. It was therefore necessary for the practical ends of his philosophy to find a theory of the things outside of man that would give him tranquillity and serenity of mind.
7. Atomic Theory:
For this purpose Epicurus fell back upon Democritus’ atomic theory of the world. The original constituents of the universe, of which no account could be given, were atoms, the void, and motion. By a fixed law or fate, the atoms moved through the void, so as to form the world as we know it. The same uniform necessity maintains and determines the abiding condition of all that exists. Epicurus modified this system so far as to admit an initial freedom to the atoms, which enabled them to divert slightly from their uniform straight course as they fell like rain through space, and so to impinge, combine and set up rotatory motions by which the worlds, and all that is in them, came into being.
He did not follow the idea of freedom in Nature and man beyond the exigencies of his theory, and the thoroughly materialistic nature of his universe precluded him from deducing a moral realm. By this theory he gets rid of the causes of fear and anxiety that disturb the human mind. Teleology, providence, a moral order of the universe, the arbitrary action of the gods, blind fate, immortality, hell, reward and punishment after death, are all excluded from a universe where atoms moving through space do everything. The soul, like the body, is made of atoms, but of a smaller or finer texture. In death, the one like the other dissolves and comes to its end.
9. Theory of Ideas:
From the same premises one would expect the complete denial of any Divine beings. But it is a curiosity of the system that a grossly materialistic theory of knowledge should require the affirmation of the existence of the gods. Men’s ideas are derived from thin material films that pass from the objects around them into the kindred matter of their minds. It follows that every idea must have been produced by a corresponding object. Men generally possess ideas of gods. Therefore, gods must exist to produce those ideas, which come to men in sleep and dreams. But they are not such gods as men generally believe to exist. They are constituted of the same atomic matter as men, but of a still finer texture. They dwell in the intermundia, the interspaces outside the worlds, where earthly cares and the dissolution of death cannot approach them. They are immortal and completely blessed. They cannot therefore know anything of the world, with its pain and its troubles, nor can they be in any way concerned with it. They are apotheoses of the Epicurean sage, entirely withdrawn from the world’s turmoil, enjoying a life of calm repose, and satisfied with the bounty that Nature provides for them.
10. Epicurean Gods:
"For the nature of the gods must ever in itself of necessity enjoy immortality with supreme repose, far removed and withdrawn from our concerns; since exempt from every pain, exempt from all dangers, strong in its own resources, not wanting aught of us, it is neither gained by favors nor moved by anger" (Lucretius). All religion is banned, though the gods are retained. Epicurus’ failure to carry the logic of his system to the denial of the gods lies deeper than his theory of ideas.
11. Consensus Gentium:
He was impressed by the fact that "a steadfast unanimity continues to prevail among all men without exception" that gods exist. "A consciousness of godhead does not allow him to deny the existence of God altogether. Hence, his attempt to explain the fact so as not to interfere with his general theory" (Wallace, Epicureanism, 209). During his lifetime, Epicurus attracted a large following to his creed, and it continued to flourish far down into the Christian era. It was presented to the Roman world by the poet Lucretius in his poem De natura rerum, which is still the chief source for the knowledge of it. Onewriter, the author of Eccl, may have been influenced by its spirit, though he did not adopt all its ideas.
12. Causes of Success:
The personal charm and engaging character of Epicurus himself drew men to him, and elevated him into the kind of ideal sage who personified the teaching of the school, as was the custom of all schools of philosophy. The system was clear-cut and easily understood by ordinary men, and it offered a plausible theory of life to such as could not follow the profounder and more difficult speculations of other schools. Its moral teaching found a ready response in all that was worldly, commonplace and self-seeking in men that had lost their high ideals and great enthusiasms. Above all it delivered men from the terrors of a dark superstition that had taken the place of religion. It is a remarkable revelation of the inadequacy of Greek religion that Epicurus should have relegated the gods from the visible world, without any sense of loss, but only the relief of a great deliverance.
13. Complete Antithesis of Paul’s Teaching:
It was inevitable that the teaching of Paul should have brought this school up against him. He came to Athens teaching a God who had become man, who had suffered and died to accomplish the utmost self-sacrifice, who had risen from the dead and returned to live among men to guide and fashion their lives, and who at last would judge all men, and according to their deeds reward or punish them in a future world. To the Epicurean this was the revival of all the ancient and hated superstitions. It was not only folly but impiety; for Epicurus had taught that "not the man who denies the gods worshipped by the multitude, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believe about them, is truly impious."
Hicks, Stoic and Epicurean (whose translations are adopted in all quotations in this article); Zeller, Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics; Wallace, Epicureanism; Lucretius, De natura rerum.