Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher, is best known for founding the philosophical system of Epicureanism, which places pleasure, specifically a state of tranquility and freedom from fear called ‘ataraxia,’ as the ultimate good.
Epicurus’ view of the gods was unique in that he believed they existed but did not interfere in human affairs.
His ethical views were tied to his philosophy of pleasure and pain, where virtuous acts led to pleasure and immoral ones led to pain. Epicurus argued that death, being the end of sensation and consciousness, should not be feared. His teachings have significantly influenced later thinkers, from Roman poets to Enlightenment philosophers, and continue to impact modern philosophies like secular humanism and utilitarianism.
“If God listened to the prayers of men, all men would quickly have perished: for they are forever praying for evil against one another.”
“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”
Who Was Epicurus?
Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher who lived between 341 BC and 270 BC. Born on the island of Samos, he was a significant figure in the Hellenistic period of philosophy, founding a school in Athens that came to be known as the Garden. This philosopher is best known for his philosophy about the good life, the pursuit of pleasure, and the avoidance of pain. His teachings, though often misunderstood or misrepresented, have left an indelible mark on Western thought.
The Philosophy of Epicureanism
Epicureanism, the philosophical system based on Epicurus’ teachings, holds pleasure as the highest good. He did not advocate for a hedonistic pursuit of transient, bodily pleasure. Instead, he posited that the ultimate pleasure lies in a state of tranquility and freedom from fear, achieved through knowledge, friendship, and living a virtuous, modest life. This form of pleasure was referred to as ‘ataraxia,’ a state of serene happiness.
The Epicurean Perspective on Gods
Epicurus’ views on deities were unique and differed significantly from traditional Greek religious beliefs. He believed that gods existed but thought that they did not concern themselves with human affairs. According to Epicurus, the gods live in a state of perfect ataraxia, untroubled by the world’s happenings. Fear of the gods, he argued, was baseless and contributed to human unhappiness.
Epicurean Ethics and Morality
He was a strong advocate for moral and just behavior. However, his ethical views were directly tied to his ideas about pleasure and pain. Acts were considered virtuous if they led to pleasure (in the Epicurean sense) and were morally wrong if they caused unnecessary pain. This hedonistic calculus underpinned Epicurean ethics, providing a guide for individuals to live fulfilling lives.
Epicurus on Death and the Afterlife
One of the most famous teachings of Epicurus is his perspective on death. “Death,” he said, “is nothing to us.” He argued that as all sensation and consciousness end with death, it should not be feared. For him, the fear of death was a significant source of anxiety and unhappiness among people, and understanding that death was not to be feared could lead one closer to ataraxia.
Epicurus’ Legacy and Influence
The philosophy of Epicurus had a profound influence on later thinkers. His teachings found fertile ground in the works of the Roman poet Lucretius and the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius. During the Enlightenment, thinkers like Thomas Jefferson admired Epicurean philosophy, contributing to its impact on modern secular humanism and utilitarianism.
While often maligned and misunderstood as advocating for rampant hedonism, a closer look at his philosophy reveals a profound, thoughtful, and nuanced approach to the human pursuit of happiness. His ideas continue to resonate today, reminding us of the importance of tranquility, freedom from fear, the value of friendship, and the pursuit of a virtuous life.