Begun in Ancient Greece by the philosopher Epicurus of Samos (341-270 BC), Epicureanism was one of the preeminent philosophies not only in Greece but later Rome, alongside Skepticism and Stoicism. Epicurus was taught by a Platonist in his youth. Legend has it his strong disagreement with Platonist teachings is what led him to then formulate his opposing views. Epicurus later studied under Nausiphanes, who taught the atomist view of Democritus, which heavily influenced his own. He was forced to leave Mytilene after his teaching there caused some strife. Epicurus founded a school in Lampsacus before moving to Athens where he opened The Garden, a school which took its name from a garden he owned in which his students met to talk and study together.
Beyond this, we know little of Epicurus' life. Epicures never married, had no known children, was probably a vegetarian, and suffered from kidney stones which eventually caused his death at age 72. However, he wrote happily before his death of having lived a long, fruitful life formulating his philosophy, which outweighed all pains. Epicurus was known for a cheerful disposition in general. Though he wrote many works, unfortunately they have all been lost save for three letters. A long poem setting out Epicurean views, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by the Roman Lucretius has been preserved, however, along with other later Epicureans' works.
Epicureanism rests on the view that all things are made of atoms and void. From these combinations arise everything in existence. These atoms are not the same as those in modern physics, however, despite the shared name. Rather, atoms are indestructible, and thus splitting them would be impossible. There is also nothing smaller in Epicurean physics-they are the ultimate particle. "Nothing comes from nothing, nothing is destroyed to nothing", is a core Epicurean statement. Thus the universe has always existed in some form, though the form may change. Epicureans believed there could be a multitude of worlds, many very different from our own. Despite the belief in atoms, Epicureanism rejects determinism (breaking with Democritus on this), believing that the atoms were contra-causal in making undetermined swerves and thus retaining free will. Mental states are held to be identical with physical ones (one of the first formulations of an identity theory of mind).
Further, Epicureanism disbelieves in an afterlife, holding that the atoms making up a person disperse at death, with them ceasing to exist. However, it is not explicitly atheist, holding that gods exist who are perfectly blissful and immortal. They thus lack any needs or desires though and therefore take no interest in human beings. The gods did not create the universe and were made from atoms like all other things (along with the soul). They dwell in the empty spaces between worlds. One should not fear the gods, and prayer is useless, but venerating them is correct as they represent an ideal mode of existence.
Nonetheless, this highly unorthodox view was strongly opposed by many other Greeks and foreign religions, including Judaism, where "Epicurean" was used as the source of the term "heretic" in Hebrew. With the rise of Christianity, Epicureanism was forcibly suppressed by the state and faded away, due to its contrary beliefs (Dante depicted Epicureans as the greatest of heretics in The Divine Comedy). It was revived in the 1600s by Pierre Gassendi, who attempted to reconcile atomism with Christian beliefs. Even prior to this, De Rerum Natura remained as a source of their views. Some modern Epicureans are atheists and hold the gods to be merely figurative, by noting how in modern terms they are more like immortal space aliens than divine. The late Christopher Hitchens was an Epicurean, as is the French philosopher Michel Onfray.
Epicureanism is empiricist, believing that knowledge comes from sense data. Reason is not rejected, but reasoning must come after sense data is received, to determine what it means. Epicureanism rejects philosophical skepticism, believing that optical illusions and other such problems for empirical data do not cast doubt on the senses, but result due to people's misjudgments regarding what these mean. It holds that beliefs should be based on empirical data and logic. When no one explanation is found to be true, one should withhold judgment on the matter and retain all theories which fit the facts for later assessment. Epicureanism is thus a precursor to modern science and critical thinking in this regard. The Epicureans were famous critics of miracle claims and mythological creatures (De Rerum Natura, for instance, explains why centaurs can't exist).
Epicureanism famously holds pleasure to be the highest good, a position that has often been misconstrued. While hedonist, the Epicurean view does not match that of the modern meaning given to this, nor the common definition for "Epicurean" (i.e. a gormand). Rather, it teaches that the highest pleasure is tranquillity, an absence of pain and suffering. Pain should be minimized, but Epicureanism recognized situations where pain leads to greater pleasure later, such as medical treatment to end an affliction. Due to this, Epicurean physician Asclepiades of Bithynia advocated humane treatment of all patients, including ones affected by mental illnesses (then usually cruelly confined). He is thus considered as a pioneer in many medical fields.
Conversely, Epicureanism counsels against overindulgence in short-term pleasures because they can lead to greater pain (i.e. drinking, eating, promiscuous/unsafe sex), in marked contrast with the connotation "hedonism" generally has. Epicurus was somewhat ascetic, saying he could be satisfied with only a little pot of cheese for his indulgence. It also counsels against pursuing love too ardently for the same reason, as this can often lead to pain, though Epicurus greatly praised friendship.
Epicureanism states that death should not be feared, since in the Epicurean view one ceases to exist with no further suffering. An epitaph arose from this which is now often used for humanist funerals: "I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care." Epicurus also put it this way: "Death is nothing to us. For when we are, death is not. And when we are not, death is not come." This quotation is also often used for the same purpose. Epicureanism thus rejects the view that there being no afterlife makes existence meaningless. Moreover, the hedonist view is explicitly linked to what other philosophies hold highest, with Epicurus stating: "It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living pleasantly."
Epicurean ethics are thus a form of the golden rule, or the ethic of reciprocity. Epicureanism was first to advocate this in ancient Greece. However, it differs from similar modern philosophies such as utilitarianism by stressing minimizing harm to oneself and others to maximize happiness, rather than maximizing happiness to others primarily. That said, utilitarianism's founder Jeremy Bentham considered himself an Epicurean, and the differences are minimal. Epicureans were innovative by permitting women and slaves in their communities, something unheard of for other philosophy schools.
On a larger scale, Epicureanism counseled against becoming involved with politics, since this usually causes strife and thus pain. They emphasized that having and pursuing power was more likely to cause pain than pleasure, which could be achieved with simple things rather than such grandiose ones. Epicureanism advocates living in seclusion from the world, enjoying the simple things like food and friendship. However, they applied their ethics to society as a whole even so, saying that justice stemmed from an agreement not to harm or be harmed. Thus this was a social contract theory predating Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who coined the term "social contract") by more than a thousand years. A wise person is one that realizes the benefit of living peacefully with others, while laws and penalties exist largely to deter fools. Only laws that promote happiness are therefore just, while those that do not are unjust and should be changed.
In summary, we can see many parallels to much of current philosophy in Epicureanism, and no doubt the Epicureans would be pleased by this. It may be striking to many how seemingly "modern" their views were, formed so long ago.
Works by Epicureans and/or inspired by Epicurean thought:
- De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius.
- Satires by Lucian of Samosata.
- Zeus the Opera Star is a dialogue where the Epicurean Damis has a debate with Timocles the Stoic in Athens. Damis generally rebuts any and all defenses of the gods as a basis of ethics and nature.
- Alexander the Quack Prophet and "The Death of Peregrinus" are exposes of figures Lucian saw as charlatan egomaniacs whose piety and claims of miracles were false and fraudulent, and he uses their dismissal and attacks on Epicurus and Epicureanism as grounds for complete dismissal of their claims to truth.
- Confessions shows the young, promiscuous Augustine's interest in Epicurus, which the older narrator decries for acting only to justify his miserable pursuits of pleasure.
- A Few Days in Athens, by Frances Wright, which lays out the philosophy of Epicureanism, and had been praised by Thomas Jefferson, himself an Epicurean.
- St. Paul and Epicurus argues that Paul in his writings specifically addressed Epicurus and Epicureanism disparagingly. Epicureans and Stoics are also present in Acts of the Apostles when he preaches at Athens, depicted as being baffled by Paul's words.