(c. 365-275 BC)
School: Epicureanism - which will be discussed below. Because they met at the garden of Epicurus's home, his followers were known as "philosophers of the garden." Both women and men frequented his garden, with sometime scandalous results.
Rational/Empirical: Empirical, based on Democritus, but without his determinism.
Proposed Physis: "idols"
Influence: Profoundly underated. When rediscovered, Epicurenism would have strong influence. Thoreau's philosophy, which recognizes the limitations on freedom that servitude to wealth brings, can trace its genealogy directly to Epicurus.
Greatest achievement: Epicurus’ greatest achievement was that through his and a few other philosophers of his day, influence, he changed philosophy from the classroom to the masses - remaking it into a system of life. Today, when people speak of having a "philosophy" they have Epicurus to thank much more than Plato. Epicurus was also one of the first scientific thinkers, holding that all matter was made up of atoms, even the soul of man. Yet, he continued to postulate a free will exists, since atoms move randomly. (Shadowing the uncertainty principle of physics)
Surviving works: Unfortunately, only three letters and a number of short fragments survive. Epicurus' doctrines are preserved in the works of the Roman writers Cicero, Seneca, Plutarch, and Lucretius- whose poem "On the Nature of Things" delineates the Epicurean philosophy
Listen to David Sedley explain why Epicurus is the greatest philosopher. From BBC radio.
Brief synopsis: His brand of humanismEdit
"I spit on luxurious pleasures, not for their own sake, but because of the inconveniences that follow them"
- I have never wished to cater to the crowd; for what I know, they do not approve, and what they approve, I do not know.
- It is impossible for someone to dispel his fears about the most important matters if he doesn't know the nature of the universe but still gives some credence to myths. So without the study of nature there is no enjoyment of pure pleasure.
Epicurus was a humanist - he rejected the idea of an afterlife and accordingly held that the good life must be attained on earth. Unfortunately, this viewpoint has been intepreted by theists as an advocation for gluttony, avarice or sloth.
In fact, Epicurus, like Ben Franklin several millenia later, approached hedonism with moderation - teaching that only through self-restraint, moderation, and detachment can one achieve the kind of tranquillity that is true happiness. (I.e. the Franlinian concept of avoiding extremes.)
Intellectual pleasures are preferred to sensual ones, which tend to disturb peace of mind. True happiness, Epicurus taught, is the serenity resulting from the conquest of fear of the gods, of death, and of the afterlife. The ultimate aim of all Epicurean speculation about nature is to rid people of such fears.
His epistemology and his view of religionEdit
Epicurus protested against superstition, preferring naturalistic explanations. However, this viewpoint had religious implications: serenity in life was to result from the conquest of fear of the gods, of death, and of the afterlife. The ultimate aim of all Epicurean philosophy is to rid people of such fears.
For this, Lucretius (99-55 B.C.) called him the "destroyer of religion". As the "destroyer of religion" Epicurus was the first to offer the famous "problem of evil" argument against an omnipotent creator:
- "The gods can either take away evil from the world and will not, or being willing to do so they cannot, or they neither can nor will, or lastly they are both willing and able. If they have the will to remove evil and cannot, then they are not omnipotent. If they can but will not, then they are not benevolent. If they are neither willing nor able, then they are neither omnipotent nor benevolent. Lastly, if they are both able and willing to annihilate evil, how does it exist?"
The argument is also translated thusly:
- "Is god willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
- Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
- Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him god?"
To this day no theist has generated a satisfactory response to the Problem of Evil.
However, Epicurus' view on religion is somewhat contradictory.... for Epicurus did not deny the possibility that gods might exist - he merely maintained that as "happy and imperishable beings" they could have nothing to do with human affairs. (See Aristotle's "prime mover" for a similarly disinterested god). Christopher Hitchens summed up this view by stating that as per Epicurus "(T)he god's took no notice of human affairs, that they would be foolish to do so and they would be wicked if they did." (Hitchens in debate with Al Sharpton)
Epicurus even felt that religion had a value - he simply maintained that a "true religion" lies in a contemplation of the ideal lives of the high, invisible gods.
On physics and his "physis"Edit
Epicurean physics is atomistic, in the tradition of the Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus. Epicurus regarded the universe as infinite and eternal and as consisting only of bodies and space. Of the bodies, some are compound and some are atoms, or indivisible, stable elements of which the compounds are formed. The world, as seen through the human eye, is produced by the whirlings, collisions, and aggregations of these atoms, which individually possess only shape, size, and weight.
Epicurus on evolutionEdit
Epicurus, like Anaxagoras before him, anticipated the modern doctrine of natural selection. He postulated that natural forces give rise to organisms of different types and that only the types able to support and propagate themselves have survived.
Epicurus on PsychologyEdit
Epicurean psychology is materialistic. It holds that sensations are caused by a stream of "idols" cast off by bodies and impinging on the senses. (A view borrowed from Democritus) All sensations are believed to be absolutely reliable; (naïve realism) - error arises only when sensation is improperly interpreted, thus Epicurus' view is diometrically opposed to the view of Pythagoras. The soul (i.e. individual personality) is regarded as being composed of fine particles distributed throughout the body. Since death means total extinction,(dissolution of the physical soul) it has no meaning either to the living or the dead, for:
- When we are, death is not; and when death is, we are not.
Despite his materialism, Epicurus believed in the freedom of the will. He suggested that even the atoms are free and move on occasion quite spontaneously; his view would seem to resemble the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics, at least a naive view on it.
On Morality and ViruteEdit
The cardinal virtues in the Epicurean system of ethics are justice, honesty, and prudence, or the balancing of pleasure and pain. Epicurus preferred friendship to love, as being less disquieting. His personal hedonism taught that only through self-restraint, moderation, and detachment can one achieve the kind of tranquillity that is true happiness.
The legacy of EpicurusEdit
Epicurus' views were praised and venerated in his time, and were so succesfully transmitted that the doctrines of Epicureanism, unlike those of its philosophical rival Stoicism, remained intact throughout its history as a living tradition.
Epicureanism was brought into discredit largely because of a confusion, which still persists, between its tenets and the crudely sensual hedonism advanced by the Cyrenaics. Nevertheless, the Epicurean philosophy found many distinguished disciples, including the poet Horace, the statesman Pliny the Younger, and, most notably, the poet Lucretius.
As an organized school, Epicureanism went out of existence early in the 4th century AD. It was revived in the 17th century by the French philosopher Pierre Gassendi. (I have a brief entry on Gassendi on my site as well, and I wildly prefer him over Descartes).
Original Source for the works of EpicurusEdit
The poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius is the main source of knowledge of Epicureanism.
A nice list of Epicurian predictions can be found here: http://www.secweb.org/asset.asp?AssetID=362