Epicureanism is a system of philosophy based on the teachings of Epicurus, based around 307 B.C.. It teaches that the best good is to seek modest pleasures in order to attain a state of tranquillity, freedom from fear (“ataraxia”) and absence from physical pain (“aponia”). This combination of states is held to constitute happiness in its highest form, and so Epicureanism can be thought of as a sort of Hedonism, though it differs in its own conception of pleasure as the absence of pain, and also in its advocacy of a very simple life.
Epicurus directed that this condition of tranquillity could be obtained through knowledge of the workings of earth and the restricting of desires. Thus, pleasure was to be obtained by knowledge, friendship and living a virtuous and temperate life. He lauded the enjoyment of “simple pleasures”, by which he meant abstaining from bodily desires, such as sex and appetites, verging on Asceticism. He counselled that “a cheerful poverty is an honourable state”.
He argued for moderation in all things, so that when eating, for instance, an individual should not consume too richly, for it could lead to dissatisfaction later, such as indigestion or even the grim realization that one couldn’t afford such delicacies in the future. Likewise, sex can cause increased lust and dissatisfaction with the sexual partner, and Epicurus himself remained celibate. Even learning, culture and civilization have been discouraged, as they might lead to disturbing one’s reassurance, except insofar as knowledge could help rid oneself of religious fears and superstitions, such as the fear of the gods and of death.
Generally speaking, Epicureans shunned politics as having no role in the pursuit for ataraxia and aponia, and also a prospective supply of unsatisfiable frustration and desires, which was to be averted. Like Democritus and Leucippus before him, Epicurus was an Atomist, presuming that all matter, souls and gods are wholly constituted of atoms, as well as thoughts are only atoms swerving randomly.
Epicurus was among the first to come up with an idea of justice as a sort of social arrangement, an arrangement “neither to harm nor be harmed”. He argued that laws and punishments in society are important so that people can be free to pursue happiness, and a just law is one that contributes to promoting human happiness. In some respects, this was a historical contribution to this much later evolution of Liberalism and of Utilitarianism. In modern popular usage, an epicure is a connoisseur of the arts of life as well as the refinements of sensual delights, particularly of good food and drink, attributable to a misunderstanding of the Epicurean doctrine, as promulgated by Christian polemicists.
History of Epicureanism
Epicureanism was initially a conceived by Epicurus as a challenge to Platonism though, arguably, Democritus had propounded a very similar doctrine almost a century earlier. Along with Stoicism and Skepticism), the school of Epicureanism afterwards became one of the three prominent schools of Hellenistic philosophy, lasting ardently through the later Roman Empire. During Epicurus’ lifetime, its members included Hermarchus, Idomeneus, Colotes, Polyaenus and Metrodorus.
Lucretius (99 – 55 B.C.) was the school’s greatest Roman proponent, composing an epic poem, “De Rerum Natura” (“On the Nature of Things”) on the Epicurean philosophy of nature. The poet Horace (65 – 8 B.C.) and Julius Caesar (100 – 44 B.C.) both leaned considerably toward Epicureanism.
After the official approval of Christianity by the Roman Emperor Constantine (272 – 337) in 313 A.D., Epicureanism was repressed as essentially irreconcilable with Christian teachings, and the school endured a long period of obscurity and decline.
In more modern times, the French philosopher and priest Pierre Gassendi (1592 – 1655) referred to himself as an Epicurean (and attempted to revived the doctrine), as did Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826) and the Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham.
Epicureanism and Religion
Epicureanism highlights the neutrality of their gods as well as their non-interference with human lives, even though it didn’t deny the existence of gods, despite a few tendencies towards Atheism. It conceived of the gods as blissful and immortal, yet substance, beings made from atoms, inhabiting the empty spaces between worlds in the vastness of boundless space, also far away in the earth to have any interest in what man was doing. It rejected any chance of an afterlife, while still arguing that one need not dread death. It can be argued that the philosophy is atheistic on a reasonable level, but avoids the charge of Atheism about the theoretical level, thus avoiding the fate of Socrates, that was tried and executed for the Atheism of his own faith.
The Paradox of Epicurus is your oldest known description of the “Problem of evil” (see the section on Philosophy of Religion), and is now a famous argument against the presence of an all-powerful and providential God or gods. It may be stated: If God is willing to prevent evil, but isn’t able to, then He isn’t omnipotent; if He is able, but not willing, then He is malevolent; if He is both able and prepared, then why is there such a thing as bad; and if he’s neither able nor willing, then why call Him God whatsoever? There are intriguing parallels to Buddhism, which likewise highlights a lack of divine interference and contains facets of Atomism. Buddhism also resembles Epicureanism in its own temperateness, including the belief that great excesses lead to great dissatisfaction.