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EpicurusBorn: 341 BC
Birthplace: Samos, Ionia, Greece
Died: 270 BC
Location of death: Athens, Greece
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Philosopher

Nationality: Ancient Greece
Executive summary: Founder of the Epicurean School

Greek philosopher, born in Samos in the end of 342 or the beginning of 341 BC, seven years, after the death of Plato. His father Neocles, a native of Gargettos, a small village of Attica, had settled in Samos, not later than 352, as one of the cleruchs sent out after the victory of Timotheus in 366-65. At the age of eighteen he went to Athens,. where the Platonic school was flourishing under the lead of Xenocrates. A year later, however, Antipater banished some 12,000 of the poorer citizens, and Epicurus joined his father, who was now living at Colophon. It seems possible that he had listened to the lectures of Nausiphanes, a Democritean philosopher, and Pamphilus the Platonist, but he was probably, like his father, merely an ordinary teacher. Stimulated, however, by the perusal of some writings of Democritus, he began to formulate a doctrine of his own; and at Mitylene, Colophon and Lampsacus, he gradually gathered around him several enthusiastic disciples. In 307 he returned to Athens, which had just been restored to a nominal independence by Demetrius Poliorcetes, and there he lived for the rest of his life. The scene of his teaching was a garden which he bought for 80 minae. There he passed his days as the loved and venerated head of a remarkable, and up to that time unique, society of men and women. Amongst the number were Metrodorus (d. 277), his brother Timocrates, and his wife Leontion (formerly a hetaera), Polyaenus, Hermarchus, who succeeded Epicurus as chief of the school, Leonteus and his wife Themista, and Idomeneus, whose wife was a sister of Metrodorus. It is possible that the relations between the sexes -- in this prototype of Rabelais' Abbey of Thélème -- were not entirely what is termed Platonic. But there is on the other hand scarcely a doubt that the tales of licentiousness circulated by opponents are groundless. The stories of the Stoics, who sought to refute the views of Epicurus by an appeal to his alleged antecedents and habits, were no doubt in the main, as Diogenes Laërtius says, the stories of maniacs. The general charges, which they endeavored to substantiate by forged letters, need not count for much, and in many cases they only exaggerated what, if true, was not so heinous as they suggested. Against them trustworthy authorities testified to his general and remarkable considerateness, pointing to the statues which the city had raised in his honor, and to the numbers of his friends, who were many enough to fill whole cities.

The mode of life in his community was plain. The general drink was water and the food barley bread; half a pint of wine was held an ample allowance. "Send me", says Epicurus to a correspondent, "send me some Cythnian cheese, so that, should I choose, I may fare sumptuously." There was no community of property, which, as Epicurus said, would imply distrust of their own and others' good resolutions. The company was held in unity by the charms of his personality, and by the free intercourse which he inculcated and exemplified. Though he seems to have had a warm affection for his countrymen, it was as human beings brought into contact with him, and not as members of a political body, that he preferred to regard them. He never entered public life. His kindliness extended even to his slaves, one of whom, named Mouse, was a brother in philosophy.

Epicurus died of stone in 270 BC. He left his property, consisting of the garden, a house in Melite (the southwest quarter of Athens), and apparently some funds besides, to two trustees on behalf of his society, and for the special interest of some youthful members. The garden was set apart for the use of the school; the house became the house of Hermarchus and his fellow-philosophers during his lifetime. The surplus proceeds of the property were further to be applied to maintain a yearly offering in commemoration of his departed father, mother and brothers, to pay the expenses incurred in celebrating his own birthday every year on the 7th of the month Gamelion, and for a social gathering of the sect on the 20th of every month in honor of himself and Metrodorus. Besides similar tributes in honor of his brothers and Polyaenus, he directed the trustees to be guardians of the son of Polyaenus and the son of Metrodorus; whilst the daughter of the last mentioned was to be married by the guardians to some member of the society who should be approved of by Hermarchus. His four slaves, three men and one woman, were left their freedom. His books passed to Hermarchus.

Philosophy. The Epicurean philosophy is traditionally divided into the three branches of logic, physics and ethics. It is, however, only as a basis of facts and principles for his theory of life that logical and physical inquiries find a place at all. Epicurus himself had not apparently shared in any large or liberal culture, and his influence was certainly thrown on the side of those who depreciated purely scientific pursuits as one-sided and misleading. "Steer clear of all culture" was his advice to a young disciple. In this aversion to a purely or mainly intellectual training may be traced a recoil from the systematic metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle, whose tendency was to subordinate the practical man to the philosopher. Ethics had been based upon logic and metaphysics. But experience showed that systematic knowledge of truth is not synonymous with right action. Hence, in the second place, Plato and Aristotle had assumed a perfect state with laws to guide the individual aright. It was thus comparatively easy to show how the individual could learn to apprehend and embody the moral law in his own conduct. But experience had in the time of Epicurus shown the temporary and artificial character of the civic form of social life. It was necessary, therefore, for Epicurus to go back to nature to find a more enduring and a wider foundation for ethical doctrine, to go back from words to realities, to give up reasonings and get at feelings, to test conceptions and arguments by a final reference to the only touchstone of truth -- to sensation. There, and there only, one seems to find a common and a satisfactory ground, supposing always that all men's feelings give the same answer. Logic must go, but so also must the state, as a specially privileged and eternal order of things, as anything more than a contrivance serving certain purposes of general utility.

To the Epicureans the elaborate logic of the Stoics was a superfluity. In place of logic we find canonic, the theory of the three tests of truth and reality. (1) The only ultimate canon of reality is sensation; whatever we feel, whatever we perceive by any sense, that we know on the most certain evidence we can have to be real, and in proportion as our feeling is clear, distinct and vivid, in that proportion are we sure of the reality of its object. But in what that vividness consists is a question which Epicurus does not raise, and which he would no doubt have deemed superfluous quibbling over a matter sufficiently settled by common sense. (2) Besides our sensations, we learn truth and reality by our preconceptions or ideas. These are the fainter images produced by repeated sensations, the "ideas" resulting from previous "impressions" -- sensations at second-hand as it were, which are stored up in memory, and which a general name serves to recall. These bear witness to reality, not because we feel anything now, but because we felt it once; they are sensations registered in language, and again, if need be, translatable into immediate sensations or groups of sensation. (3) Lastly, reality is vouched for by the imaginative apprehensions of the mind, immediate feelings of which the mind is conscious as produced by some action of its own. This last canon, however, was of dubious validity. Epicureanism generally was content to affirm that whatever we effectively feel in consciousness is real; in which sense they allow reality to the fancies of the insane, the dreams of a sleeper, and those feelings by which we imagine the existence of beings of perfect blessedness and endless life. Similarly, just because fear, hope and remembrance add to the intensity of consciousness, the Epicurean can hold that bodily pain and pleasure is a less durable and important thing than pain and pleasure of mind. Whatever we feel to affect us does affect us, and is therefore real. Error can arise only because we mix up our opinions and suppositions with what we actually feel. The Epicurean canon is a rejection of logic; it sticks fast to the one point that "sensation is sensation", and there is no more to be made of it. Sensation, it says, is unreasoning; it must be accepted, and not criticized. Reasoning can come in only to put sensations together, and to point out how they severally contribute to human welfare; it does not make them, and cannot alter them.

Physics. In the Epicurean physics there are two parts -- a general metaphysic and psychology, and a special explanation of particular phenomena of nature. The method of Epicurus is the argument of analogy. It is an attempt to make the phenomena of nature intelligible to us by regarding them as instances on a grand scale of that with which we are already familiar on a small scale. This is what Epicurus calls explaining what we do not see by what we do see.

In physics Epicurus founded upon Democritus, and his chief object was to abolish the dualism between mind and matter which is so essential a point in the systems of Plato and Aristotle. All that exists, says Epicurus, is corporeal; the intangible is non-existent, or empty space. If a thing exists it must be felt, and to be felt it must exert resistance. But not all things are intangible which our senses are not subtle enough to detect. We must indeed accept our feelings; but we must also believe much which is not directly testified by sensation, if only it serves to explain phenomena and does not contravene our sensations. The fundamental postulates of Epicureanism are atoms and the void. Space is infinite, and there is an illimitable multitude of indestructible, indivisible and absolutely compact atoms in perpetual motion in this illimitable space. These atoms, differing only in size, figure and weight, are perpetually moving with equal velocities, but at a rate far surpassing our conceptions; as they move, they are for ever giving rise to new worlds; and these worlds are perpetually tending towards dissolution, and towards a fresh series of creations. This universe of ours is only one section out of the innumerable worlds in infinite space; other worlds may present systems very different from that of our own. The soul of man is only a finer species of body, spread throughout the whole aggregation which we term his bodily frame. Like a warm breath, it pervades the human structure and works with it; nor could it act as it does in perception unless it were corporeal. The various processes of sense, notably vision, are explained on the principles of materialism. From the surfaces of all objects there are continually flowing thin filmy images exactly copying the solid body whence they originate; and these images by direct impact on the organism produce (we need not care to ask how) the phenomena of vision. Epicurus in this way explains vision by substituting for the apparent action of a body at a distance a direct contact of image and organ. But without following the explanation into the details in which it revels, it may be enough to say that the whole hypothesis is but an attempt to exclude the occult conception of action at a distance, and substitute a familiar phenomenon.

The Gods. This aspect of the Epicurean physics becomes clearer when we look at his mode of rendering particular phenomena intelligible. His purpose is to eliminate the common idea of divine interference. That there are gods Epicurus never dreams of denying. But these gods have not on their shoulders the burden of upholding and governing the world. They are themselves the products of the order of nature -- a higher species than humanity, but not the rulers of man, neither the makers nor the upholders of the world. Man should worship them, but his worship is the reverence due to the ideals of perfect blessedness; it ought not to be inspired either by hope or by fear. To prevent all reference of the more potent phenomena of nature to divine action Epicurus rationalizes the processes of the cosmos. He imagines all possible plans or hypotheses, not actually contradicted by our experience of familiar events, which will represent in an intelligible way the processes of astronomy and meteorology. When two or more modes of accounting for a phenomena are equally admissible as not directly contradicted by known phenomena, it seems to Epicurus almost a return to the old mythological habit of mind when a savant asserts that the real cause is one and only one. "Thunder", he says, "may be explained in many other ways; only let us have no myths of divine action. To assign only a single cause for these phenomena, when the facts familiar to us suggest several, is insane, and is just the absurd conduct to be expected from people who dabble in the vanities of astronomy." We need not be too curious to inquire how these celestial phenomena actually do come about; we can learn how they might have been produced, and to go further is to trench on ground beyond the limits of human knowledge.

Thus, if Epicurus objects to the doctrine of mythology, he objects no less to the doctrine of an inevitable fate, a necessary order of things unchangeable and supreme over the human will. The Stoic doctrine of Fatalism seemed to Epicurus no less deadly a foe of man's true welfare than popular superstition. Even in the movement of the atoms he introduces a sudden change of direction, which is supposed to render their aggregation easier, and to break the even law of destiny. So, in the sphere of human action, Epicurus would allow of no absolutely controlling necessity. In fact, it is only when we assume for man this independence of the gods and of fatality that the Epicurean theory of life becomes possible. It assumes that man can, like the gods, withdraw himself out of reach of all external influences, and thus, as a sage, live like a god among men, seeing that the man is in no wise like a mortal creature who lives in undying blessedness. And this present life is the only one. With one consent Epicureanism preaches that the death of the body is the end of everything for man, and hence the other world has lost all its terrors as well as all its hopes.

The attitude of Epicurus in this whole matter is antagonistic to science. The idea of a systematic enchainment of phenomena, in which each is conditioned by every other, and none can be taken in isolation and explained apart from the rest, was foreign to his mind. So little was the scientific conception of the solar system familiar to Epicurus that he could reproach the astronomers, because their account of an eclipse represented things otherwise than as they appear to the senses, and could declare that the sun and stars were just as large as they seemed to us.

Ethics. The moral philosophy of Epicurus is a qualified hedonism, the heir of the Cyrenaic doctrine that pleasure is the good thing in life. Neither sect, it may be added, advocated sensuality pure and unfeigned -- the Epicurean least of all. By pleasure Epicurus meant both more and less than the Cyrenaics. To the Cyrenaics pleasure was of moments; to Epicurus it extended as a habit of mind through life. To the Cyrenaics pleasure was something active and positive; to Epicurus it was rather negative -- tranquillity more than vigorous enjoyment. The test of true pleasure, according to Epicurus, is the removal and absorption of all that gives pain; it implies freedom from pain of body and from trouble of mind. The happiness of the Epicurean was, it might almost seem, a grave and solemn pleasure -- a quiet unobtrusive ease of heart, but not exuberance and excitement. The sage of Epicureanism is a rational and reflective seeker for happiness, who balances the claims of each pleasure against the evils that may possibly ensue, and treads the path of enjoyment cautiously. Prudence is, therefore, the only real guide to happiness; it is thus the chief excellence, and the foundation of all the virtues. It is, in fact, says Epicurus -- in language which contrasts strongly with that of Aristotle on the same topic -- "a more precious power than philosophy." The reason or intellect is introduced to balance possible pleasures and pains, and to construct a scheme in which pleasures are the materials of a happy life. Feeling, which Epicurus declared to be the means of determining what is good, is subordinated to a reason which adjudicates between competing pleasures with the view of securing tranquillity of mind and body. "We cannot live pleasantly without living wisely and nobly and righteously." Virtue is at least a means of happiness, though apart from that it is no good in itself, any more than mere sensual enjoyments, which are good only because they may sometimes serve to secure health of body and tranquillity of mind.

The Epicurean School. Even in the lifetime of Epicurus we hear of the vast numbers of his friends, not merely in Greece, but in Asia and Egypt. The crowds of Epicureans were a standing enigma to the adherents of less popular sects. Cicero pondered over the fact; Arcesilaus explained the secession to the Epicurean camp, compared with the fact that no Epicurean was ever known to have abandoned his school, by saying that, though it was possible for a man to be turned into a eunuch, no eunuch could ever become a man. But the phenomenon was not obscure. The doctrine has many truths, and is attractive to many in virtue of its simplicity and its immediate relation to life. The dogmas of Epicurus became to his followers a creed embodying the truths on which salvation depended; and they passed on from one generation to another with scarcely a change or addition. The immediate disciples of Epicurus have been already mentioned, with the exception of Colotes of Lampsacus, a great favorite of Epicurus, who wrote a work arguing "that it was impossible even to live according to the doctrines of the other philosophers." In the 2nd and 1st centuries BC Apollodorus, and Zeno of Sidon (who describes Socrates as "the Attic buffoon") taught at Athens. About 150 BC Epicureanism established itself at Rome. Beginning with C. Amafinius or Amafanius, we find the names of Phaedrus (who became scholarch at Athens c. 70 BC) and Philodemus (originally of Gadara in Palestine) as distinguished Epicureans in the time of Cicero. But the greatest of its Roman names was Lucretius, whose De rerum natura embodies the main teaching of Epicurus with great exactness, and with a beauty which the subject seemed scarcely to allow. Lucretius is a proof, if any were needed, that Epicureanism is compatible with nobility of soul. In the 1st century of the Christian era, the nature of the time, with its active political struggles, naturally called Stoicism more into the foreground, yet Seneca, though nominally a Stoic, draws nearly all his suavity and much of his paternal wisdom from the writings of Epicurus. The position of Epicureanism as a recognized school in the 2nd century is best seen in the fact that it was one of the four schools (the others were the Stoic, Platonist, and Peripatetic) which were placed on a footing of equal endowment when Marcus Aurelius founded chairs of philosophy at Athens. The evidence of Diogenes proves that it still subsisted as a school a century later, but its spirit lasted longer than its formal organization as a school. A great deal of the best of the Renaissance was founded on Epicureanism, and in more recent times a great number of prominent thinkers have been Epicureans in a greater or less degree. Among these may be mentioned Pierre Gassendi, who revived and codified the doctrine in the 17th century; Molière, the comte de Gramont, Rousseau, Fontenelle and Voltaire. All those whose ethical theory is in any degree hedonistic are to some extent the intellectual descendants of Epicurus.

Works. Epicurus was a voluminous writer -- the author, it is said, of about 300 works. He had a style and vocabulary of his own. His chief aim in writing was plainness and intelligibility, but his want of order and logical precision thwarted his purpose. He pretended to have read little, and to be the original architect of his own system, and the claim was no doubt on the whole true. But he had read Democritus, and, it is said, Anaxagoras and Archelaus. His works, we learn, were full of repetition, and critics speak of vulgarities of language and faults of style. Nonetheless his writings were committed to memory and remained the textbooks of Epicureanism to the last. His chief work was a treatise on nature, in thirty-seven books, of which fragments from about nine books have been found in the rolls discoved at Herculaneum, along with considerable treatises by several of his followers, and most notably Philodemus. An epitome of his doctrine is contained in three letters preserved by Diogenes.

Father: Neocles (teacher)
Mother: Chairestrate


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