Epicurus (341–270 BCE) was an ancient Greek philosopher who founded the school of philosophy known as Epicureanism. Born on the Greek island of Samos, he was raised in an Athenian colony and later moved to Athens to study and teach philosophy. He established his philosophical school called “The Garden,” which was a communal living space where he and his followers lived, studied, and discussed philosophical ideas.
The Garden was a unique institution in ancient Athens, as it allowed both men and women, as well as slaves, to participate in the philosophical discussions. Epicurus was a proponent of atomism, the idea that the universe is composed of tiny, indivisible particles called atoms. He built upon the earlier atomistic theories of Democritus and Leucippus, arguing that atoms, which are constantly in motion, collide and form compounds that create the observable world.
Epicurus used atomism to support his ethical and metaphysical views, including his belief in the mortality of the soul and the absence of divine intervention in human affairs. His ethical teachings, which focus on the pursuit of a happy and tranquil life, are perhaps his most significant contributions to philosophy.
Epicurus argued that the ultimate goal of human life should be to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. However, his conception of pleasure was not limited to sensory indulgence; rather, it included intellectual and emotional satisfaction as well. He believed that a life guided by reason, moderation, and friendship could lead to true happiness. Epicurus’ ethical philosophy has often been misconstrued as hedonistic, but it is important to note that he emphasized the importance of prudence and restraint in the pursuit of pleasure.
He advocated for simple living and the cultivation of meaningful relationships, arguing that these pursuits would lead to lasting happiness. He also distinguished between different types of pleasures, such as kinetic (active) pleasures and katastematic (static) pleasures, with the latter being more desirable as they represent a state of contentment and satisfaction. Some of Epicurus’ key ideas include the importance of ataraxia (a state of tranquillity and freedom from fear and distress) and aponia (the absence of bodily pain).
He believed that achieving ataraxia and aponia would lead to the highest form of happiness. To attain these states, he recommended living a simple life, avoiding excess, and cultivating friendships. He also argued against the fear of death, asserting that death is not to be feared since when we exist, death is not present, and when death is present, we no longer exist.
Epicurus’ ideas were documented in over 300 works, but unfortunately, only a few fragments and letters have survived. His teachings have had a significant influence on later philosophers, particularly in the Hellenistic period, as his ideas were further developed by his followers and his school continued to thrive for several centuries. His ideas have also influenced modern philosophy, particularly in the areas of ethics and happiness, and continue to be relevant in contemporary debates on the nature of human flourishing.
Notable figures who have been influenced by Epicureanism include the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, who wrote the didactic poem “De Rerum Natura” (On the Nature of Things), which presents Epicurean philosophy and atomism. Additionally, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes and the French philosopher Pierre Gassendi were both influenced by Epicurean ideas in their development of materialism and empiricism, respectively.
In summary, Epicurus was a highly influential ancient Greek philosopher who made significant contributions to ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology. His ideas on the pursuit of happiness, the importance of friendship, and the nature of pleasure have had a lasting impact on philosophy and continue to be relevant today.