Western philosophy
Ancient philosophy
Name:Έπίκουρος Epikouros
Birth:341 BCE
Death:270 BCE
Main interests:Atomism, Hedonism
Influences:Democritus, Pyrrho
Influenced:Hermarchus, Lucretius, Thomas Hobbes, Jeremy Bentham, J. S. Mill, Thomas Jefferson, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sam Harris, Karl Marx, Michel Onfray, Hadrian, Metrodorus of Lampsacus (the younger), Philodemus, Amafanius, Catius

Epicurus (Greek Έπίκουρος) (341 BCE, Samos270 BCE, Athens) was an ancient Greek philosopher and the founder of Epicureanism, a popular school of thought in Hellenistic Philosophy that spanned about 600 years. Of his over 300 written works only a few fragments and letters survive; much of what we know about Epicureanism comes from later followers or commentators.

For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to attain the happy, tranquil life, characterized by the absence of pain and fear, and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. He taught that pleasure and pain are the measures of what is good and bad, that death is the end of the body and the soul and should therefore not be feared, that the gods do not reward or punish humans, that the universe is infinite and eternal, and that events in the world are ultimately based on the motions and interactions of atoms moving in empty space.

Epicurus was often vilified as favoring the uninhibited pursuit of pleasure (hedonism); however, he invariably counseled restraint and temperance with respect to physical desires.


His parents, Neocles and Chaerestrate, both Athenian citizens, had emigrated to the Athenian settlement on the Aegean island of Samos about 10 years before Epicurus was born. According to Apollodorus (reported by Diogenes Laertius[1]), he was born on the seventh day of the month Gamelion in the third year of the 109th Olympiad, in the archonship of Sosigenes (about February 341 BCE).

As a boy he studied philosophy under the Platonist teacher Pamphilus for about four years. At the age of 18 he went to Athens for his two-year term of military service. The playwright Menander served in the same age-class of the ephebes as Epicurus.

After the death of Alexander the Great, Perdiccas expelled the Athenian settlers on Samos to Colophon, and Epicurus joined his family there after the completion of his military service. He studied under Nausiphanes, who followed the teachings of Democritus. In 311/310 BCE he taught in Mytilene but caused strife and was forced to leave. He then founded a school in Lampsacus before returning to Athens in 306 BCE. There he founded The Garden, a school named for the garden he owned about halfway between the Stoa and the Academy that served as the school's meeting place.

Even though many of his teachings were heavily influenced by earlier thinkers, especially by Democritus, he differed in a significant way with Democritus on determinism. Epicurus would often deny this influence, denounce other philosophers as confused, and claim to be "self-taught".

Epicurus never married and we don't know of any children. He died in the second year of the 127th Olympiad, in the archonship of Pytharatus (270 BCE), at the age of 72. He reportedly suffered from kidney stones, and despite the prolonged pain involved, he wrote to Idomeneus:
I have written this letter to you on a happy day to me, which is also the last day of my life. For I have been attacked by a painful inability to urinate, and also dysentery, so violent that nothing can be added to the violence of my sufferings. But the cheerfulness of my mind, which comes from the recollection of all my philosophical contemplation, counterbalances all these afflictions. And I beg you to take care of the children of Metrodorus, in a manner worthy of the devotion shown by the young man to me, and to philosophy.[2]

The School

Epicurus' school had a small but devoted following in his lifetime. The primary members were Hermarchus, the financier Idomeneus, Leonteus and his wife Themista, the satirist Colotes, the mathematician Polyaenus of Lampsacus, and Metrodorus of Lampsacus, the most famous popularizer of Epicureanism. His school was the first of the ancient Greek philosophical schools to admit women. The original school was based in Epicurus' home and garden. An inscription on the gate to the garden is recorded by Seneca in his Epistle XXI:

Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.

Epicurus emphasized friendship as an important ingredient of happiness, and the school resembled in many ways a community of friends living together. However, he also instituted a hierarchical system of levels among his followers, and had them swear an oath on his core tenets.

The school's popularity grew and it became, along with Stoicism and Skepticism, one of the three dominant schools of Hellenistic Philosophy, lasting strongly through the later Roman Empire. In Rome, Lucretius was the school's greatest proponent, composing On the Nature of Things, an epic poem, in six books, designed to recruit new members. The poem mainly deals with Epicurean philosophy of nature. Another major source of information is the Roman politician and amateur philosopher Cicero, although he was highly critical, denouncing the Epicureans as unbridled hedonists, devoid of a sense of virtue and duty, and guilty of withdrawing from public life. Another ancient source is Diogenes of Oenoanda, who composed a large inscription at Oenoanda in Lycia.

A library, dubbed the Villa of the Papyri, in Herculaneum, owned by Julius Caesar's father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, was preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, and was found to contain a large number of works by Philodemus, a late Hellenistic Epicurean, and Epicurus himself, attesting to the school's enduring popularity. The task of unrolling and deciphering the charred papyrus scrolls continues today.

After the official approval of Christianity by Constantine, Epicureanism was repressed. Epicurus' materialist theories that the gods were physical beings composed of atoms who were unconcerned with human affairs and had not created the universe, and the non-dualist idea that the human soul was mortal, were essentially irreconcilable with Christian teachings. The school endured a long period of obscurity and decline.

The early Christian writer Lactantius criticizes Epicurus at several points throughout his Divine Institutes. In Dante's Divine Comedy, the Epicureans are depicted as heretics suffering in the sixth circle of hell. The word for a heretic in the Talmudic literature is "Apiqoros" (אפיקורוס), and Epicurus is titled in Modern Greek idiom as the "Dark Philosopher".

By the 16th century, the works of Lucretius and Diogenes Laertius were being printed in Europe. In the 17th century the French Franciscan priest, scientist and philosopher Pierre Gassendi wrote two books forcefully reviving Epicureanism. Shortly thereafter, and clearly influenced by Gassendi, Walter Charleton published several works on Epicureanism in English. Attacks by Christians continued, most forcefully by the Cambridge Platonists.

In the following times, there was a resurgence of Epicurean philosophy: in the Modern Age, scientists adopted atomist theories, while materialist philosophers embraced Epicurus' hedonist ethics and restated his objections to natural teleology.


Main article: Epicureanism
Enlarge picture
Bust of Epicurus leaning against his disciple Metrodorus in the Louvre Museum

Epicurus played an important part in what is known as the "Greek miracle": when men first tried to explain the nature of the world, not with the aid of myths or religion, but with material principles. He is a key figure in the development of science and the scientific method because of his insistence that nothing should be believed except that which was tested through direct observation and logical deduction. Many of his ideas about nature and physics presaged important scientific concepts of our time. He was a key figure in the Axial Age, the period from 800 BCE to 200 BCE, during which similarly revolutionary thinking appeared in China, India, Iran, the Near East, and Ancient Greece. His statement of the Ethic of Reciprocity as the foundation of ethics is the earliest in Ancient Greece, and differs from the usual formulation by emphasizing the minimization of harm to oneself and others as the way to maximize happiness.

Epicurus's teachings represented a departure from the other major Greek thinkers of his period, and before, but was nevertheless founded on many of the same principles as Democritus. Like Democritus, he was an atomist, believing that the fundamental constituents of the world were indivisible little bits of matter (atoms, Greek atomos, indivisible) flying through empty space (khaos). Everything that occurs is the result of the atoms colliding, rebounding, and becoming entangled with one another, with no purpose or plan behind their motions. (Compare this with the modern study of particle physics.) His theory differs from the earlier atomism of Democritus because he admits that atoms do not always follow straight lines but their direction of motion may occasionally exhibit a 'swerve' (clinamen). This allowed him to avoid the determinism implicit in the earlier atomism and to affirm free will.[3] (Compare this with the modern theory of quantum physics, which postulates a non-deterministic random motion of fundamental particles.)

He admitted women and slaves into his school and was the only philosopher to do so, introducing the new concept of fundamental human egalitarianism into Greek thought, and was one of the first Greeks to break from the god-fearing and god-worshipping tradition common at the time, even while affirming that religious activities are useful as a way to contemplate the gods and to use them as an example of the pleasant life. Epicurus participated in the activities of traditional Greek religion, but taught that one should avoid holding false opinions about the gods. The gods are immortal and blessed and men who ascribe any additional qualities that are alien to immortality and blessedness are, according to Epicurus, impious. The gods do not punish the bad and reward the good as the common man believes. The opinion of the crowd is, Epicurus claims, that the gods "send great evils to the wicked and great blessings to the righteous who model themselves after the gods.", when in reality the gods do not concern themselves at all with human beings.

Epicurus' philosophy is based on the theory that all good and bad derive from the sensations of pleasure and pain. What is good is what is pleasurable, and what is bad is what is painful. Pleasure and pain were ultimately, for Epicurus, the basis for the moral distinction between good and bad. If pain is chosen over pleasure in some cases it is only because it leads to a greater pleasure. Moral reasoning is a matter of calculating the benefits and costs in terms of pleasure and pain. Although Epicurus has been commonly misunderstood to advocate the rampant pursuit of pleasure, (primarily through the influence of Christian polemics) what he was really after was the absence of pain (both physical and mental, i.e., suffering) - a state of satiation and tranquility that was free of the fear of death and the retribution of the gods. When we do not suffer pain, we are no longer in need of pleasure, and we enter a state of 'perfect mental peace' (ataraxia).

Epicurus explicitly warned against overindulgence because it often leads to pain. For instance, in what might be described as a "hangover" theory, Epicurus warned against pursuing love too ardently. However, having a circle of friends you can trust is one of the most important means for securing a tranquil life.

Epicurus also believed (as opposed to Aristotle) that death was not to be feared. When a man dies, he does not feel the pain of death because he no longer is and he therefore feels nothing. Therefore, as Epicurus famously said, "death is nothing to us." When we exist death is not, and when death exists we are not. All sensation and consciousness ends with death and therefore in death there is neither pleasure nor pain. The fear of death arises from the false belief that in death there is awareness.

In his epistemology he emphasized the senses, and his Principle of Multiple Explanations is an early contribution to the philosophy of science: if several theories are consistent with the observed data, retain them all.

There are also some things for which it is not enough to state a single cause, but several, of which one, however, is the case. Just as if you were to see the lifeless corpse of a man lying far away, it would be fitting to list all the causes of death in order make sure that the single cause of this death may be stated. For you would not be able to establish conclusively that he died by the sword or of cold or of illness or perhaps by poison, but we know that there is something of this kind that happened to him.[4]

In contrast to the Stoics, Epicureans showed little interest in participating in the politics of the day, since doing so leads to trouble. He instead advocated seclusion. His garden can be compared to present-day communes. This principle is epitomized by the phrase lathe biōsas λάθε βιώσας (Plutarchus De latenter vivendo 1128c; Flavius Philostratus Vita Apollonii 8.28.12), meaning "live secretly", "get through life without drawing attention to yourself", i. e. live without pursuing glory or wealth or power, but anonymously, enjoying little things like food, the company of friends, etc.

As an ethical guideline, Epicurus emphasized minimizing harm and maximizing happiness of oneself and others:

It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly (agreeing 'neither to harm nor be harmed').
And it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life.


Elements of Epicurean philosophy have resonated and resurfaced in various diverse thinkers and movements throughout Western intellectual history.

His emphasis minimizing harm and maximizing happiness in his formulation of the Ethic of Reciprocity was later picked up by the democratic thinkers of the French Revolution, and others, like John Locke, who wrote that people had a right to "life, liberty, and property." To Locke, one's own body was part of their property, and thus one's right to property would theoretically guarantee safety for their persons, as well as their possessions.

This triad, as well as the egalitarianism of Epicurus, was carried forward into the American freedom movement and Declaration of Independence, by the American founding father, Thomas Jefferson, as "all men are created equal" and endowed with certain "inalienable rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Epicurus was therefore a key influence on the foundation of the American legal system.

Karl Marx's doctoral thesis was on "The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature." [1]

Epicurus was also a significant source of inspiration and interest for Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche cites his affinities to Epicurus in a number of his works, including The Gay Science, Beyond Good and Evil, and his private letters to Peter Gast. Nietzsche was attracted to, among other things, Epicurus' ability to maintain a cheerful philosophical outlook in the face of painful physical ailments. Nietzsche also suffered from a number of sicknesses during his lifetime. However, he thought that Epicurus' conception of happiness as freedom from anxiety was too passive and negative.

Sam Harris, in his bestselling work, The End of Faith: (Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason), elaborates on Epicurus' concept that the fear and worship of [the] God[s] is not a valid activity based on reason, and also creates an ethical standard by judging actions not only on the basis of the Ethic of Reciprocity, but whether these actions increase the happiness of others. He also speculates on a possible scientific basis for a state of "mental peace" found through the practice of various spiritual disciplines, and the value of the attainment of this state to mankind.[5]


1. ^ Lives of Eminent Philosophers, book X, 14-15.
2. ^ Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, X, 22 (trans. C.D. Yonge).
3. ^ The only fragment in Greek about this central notion is from the Oenoanda inscription (fr.54 in Smith's edition). The best known reference is in Lucretius' On the nature of things, II, 216-224, 284-293.
4. ^ Lucretius.
5. ^ Harris, Sam (2005). The End of Faith: (Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason). 


The only surviving complete works by Epicurus are three letters, which are to be found in book X of Diogenes Laertius' Lives of Eminent Philosophers, and two groups of quotes: the Principal Doctrines, reported as well in Diogenes' book X, and the Vatican Sayings, preserved in a manuscript from the Vatican Library.

Further reading

  • Bailey C. (1928) The Greek Atomists and Epicurus, Oxford.
  • Bakalis Nikolaos (2005) Handbook of Greek Philosophy: From Thales to the Stoics Analysis and Fragments, Trafford Publishing, ISBN 1-4120-4843-5
  • Digireads.com The Works of Epicurus, January 2004.
  • Eugene O’ Connor The Essential Epicurus, Prometheus Books, New York 1993.
  • Edelstein Epicureanism, Two Collections of Fragments and Studies Garland Publ. March 1987
  • Farrington, Benjamin. Science and Politics in the Ancient World, 2nd ed. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1965. A Marxist interpretation of Epicurus, the Epicurean movement, and its opponents.
  • Gottlieb, Anthony. The Dream of Reason: A History of Western Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance. London: Penguin, 2001. ISBN 0-14-025274-6
  • Inwood, Brad, tr. The Epicurus Reader, Hackett Publishing Co, March 1994.
  • Oates Whitney Jenning, The Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, The Complete Extant Writings of Epicurus, Epictetus, Lucretius and Marcus Aurelius, Random House, 9th printing 1940.
  • Panicha, George A. Epicurus, Twayne Publishers, 1967
  • Prometheus Books, Epicurus Fragments, August 1992.
  • Russel M. Geer Letters, Principal Doctrines, Vatican Sayings, Bobbs-Merrill Co, January 1964.
  • Diogenes of Oinoanda. The Epicurean Inscription, edited with Introduction, Translation and Notes by Martin Ferguson Smith, Bibliopolis, Naples 1993.

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ALTERNATIVE NAMESEpikouros; Έπίκουρο?
SHORT DESCRIPTIONancient Greek philosopher and the founder of Epicureanism
Epicure are an Australian rock band from Ballarat, in regional Victoria. Triple J radio helped bring Epicure to the Australian consciousness when they added "Feet From Under Me" and "Johnny Venus" to their playlists in 2000. Both songs feature on the Fold album.
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This page lists some links to ancient philosophy. In Europe, the spread of Christianity through the Roman world marked the end of Hellenistic philosophy and ushered in the beginnings of Medieval philosophy.
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Epicureanism is a system of philosophy based upon the teachings of Epicurus (c. 340–c. 270 BC), founded around 307 BC. Epicurus was an atomic materialist, following in the steps of Democritus.
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In natural philosophy, atomism is the theory that all the objects in the universe are composed of very small, indestructible building blocks - atoms. Or, stated in other words, that all of reality is made of indivisible basic building blocks.
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Democritus (Greek: Δημόκριτος) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher (born at Abdera in Thrace ca. 460 BC - died ca 370 BC).
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Pyrrho (ca. 360 BC - ca. 270 BC), a Greek philosopher of classical antiquity, is credited as being the first Skeptic philosopher, and the inspiration for the school known as Pyrrhonism founded by Aenesidemus in the 1st century BC.
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Hermarchus (in Greek Eρμαρχoς), sometimes, but incorrectly, written Hermachus. He was a son of Agemarchus, a poor man of Mytilene (in insular Greece), and was at first brought up as a rhetorician, but afterwards became a faithful disciple of
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Titus Lucretius Carus (ca. 99 BC- ca. 55 BC) was a Roman poet and philosopher. His only known work is the epic philosophical poem De Rerum Natura, On the Nature of Things.

Life of Lucretius

Very little is known about Lucretius' life.
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Thomas Hobbes (5 April 1588 – 4 December 1679) was an English philosopher, whose famous 1651 book Leviathan established the agenda for nearly all subsequent Western political philosophy.
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Jeremy Bentham (IPA: ['benθəm]) (26 February [O.S. 15 February 15] 1748) – June 6, 1832) was an English jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer.
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John Stuart Mill (20 May 1806 – 8 May 1873), British philosopher, political economist, civil servant and Member of Parliament, was an influential liberal thinker of the 19th century.
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Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (October 15, 1844 – August 25, 1900) (IPA: [ˈfʁiːdʁɪç ˈvilhelm ˈniːtʃə]) was a nineteenth-century German philosopher.
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Sam Harris

Sam Harris
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Occupation: Author
Genres: Non Fiction
Website: SamHarris.org Sam Harris (born 1967) is an American non-fiction writer.
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Michel Onfray (born January 1, 1959 in Argentan, Orne, France) is a French philosopher. Born to a family of Norman farmers, he graduated with a Ph.D. in philosophy. He taught this subject to senior students at a technical high school in Caen between 1983 and 2002, before
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Emperor of the Roman Empire

Bust of Hadrian
Reign August 10 117-
July 10 138
Full name Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus
Born 24 January 76(76--)
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Metrodorus of Lampsacus (the younger) (331–278 BC) was a Greek philosopher of the Epicurean school. Although one of the four major proponents of Epicureanism, only fragments of his works remain. Epicurus claimed him not to be an original thinker.
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Philodemus of Gadara (in Greek Φιλόδημος) (Gadara, Coele-Syria, c. 110 BCE–probably Herculaneum c.
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C. (probably Gaius) Amafanius (or Amafinius) was one of the earliest Roman writers in favour of the Epicurean philosophy. He wrote several works, which are censured by Cicero as deficient in arrangement and style. He is mentioned by no other ancient writer but Cicero.
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Catius, an Epicurean philosopher, was a na­tive of Gallia Transpadana (Insuber), and composed a treatise in four books on the nature of things and on the chief good (de Rerum Natura et de summo Bono). Cicero, in a letter written in 45 BC (ad Fam. xv.
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Samos City

Island Chain: North Aegean
Area:[1] 477.395 km (0 sq.mi.)
Highest Mountain: Mt.
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on modern philosophy, as well as modern science. Clear unbroken lines of influence lead from ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophers, to medieval Muslim philosophers and scientists, to the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, to the secular sciences of the modern day.
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