Why was Epicurus and his philosophy so important?


Figure 1. Bust of Epicurus.

Epicurus is often associated as one of the Greek philosophers more interested in pleasure or its pursuit than other ideals. While at times this led to a negative view of his philosophy, the reality is his thinking was very advanced and developed, leading to his ideas becoming highly influential in modern thought in many regions of the world today. He was one of the first Greek philosophers to develop a strong tradition that avoid superstition as a core ideal. His simple philosophy of avoiding pain, leading a simple life, and attaining knowledge have made his philosophy both attractive and influential to many.

Background

Poem by Lucretius entitled De rerum natura that explains Epicureanism

Relatively few works written by Epicurus (Figure 1) still survive, as most of what we known derive from later writings from his followers and his philosophical school that he started. We know that Epicureanism began as a philosophy at around 307/306 BCE. Like so many other philosophers, he established himself at Athens, although he was from Samos.[1] He was influenced by the teaching of Democritus and he studied under Nausiphanes of Teos, but had a later falling out as he pursued his own new school of thought. In fact, Epicurus main problem with other philosophers was he felt they were too narrow in their beliefs and their schools did not allow freedom of expression or questioning of the main philosopher teachers. Epicurus' strong ego, in essence, led to rifts with other schools of thought, forcing him to create his own school. This ultimately, however, did give him freedom to develop his ideas, which emerged over a number of years and likely evolved before coming to a mature state.[2]

The core philosophy we know Epicurus to have believed in was that one should pursue simple pleasures in life. Friendship was also key to forming happiness.[3] While his falling out with other philosophers may seem a slight contradiction in his beliefs of seeking friendship and pleasure, he did try to live up to his ideals. This is demonstrated when he claimed to a friend in a letter, as he was dying, that his state of mind was very happy despite the pain he felt from kidney stones. So, even if physically one cannot escape pain, mentally one can pursue happiness such that it becomes a state not bound by death or sickness. His ideas, therefore, differ greatly from modern understanding of hedonism, which is often associated with the pursuit of please at all costs. While many focus on his ideas of pleasure, it is also his scientific ideas that, along with those of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers, have greatly influenced our modern world.

During the lifetime of Epicurus, he had relatively few followers and they would meet at his house's garden. In fact, the garden in his house becomes the name in which they associated their school. However, evidence of his enduring philosophy in the centuries that followed are evident, as when the Apostle Paul went to Athens he encountered followers of Epicureanism, demonstrating the success of the philosophy as it began to develop.[4] Nevertheless, because later thought began to confound Epicureanism with hedonism and other philosophies of pleasure seeking, many of Epicurus' ideas were frowned upon and became less acceptable. It was only in the Renaissance that his ideas once again blossomed.

Epicureanism

Because Epicurus' ideas have been misunderstood, it is important to delineate the key ideas he developed and what he intended by them. His core ideals can be described as atomistic materialism, which held that all things are made up of atoms and that voids separated these atoms.[5]. Atoms themselves are made up of a few basic types, which together can be combined to make all things present in the universe. Because gods do not control pain or pleasure, and that they are likely unable to or uninterested in causing pain or pleasure to people, one should, therefore, pursue pleasure as a key goal in life.

The Epicureans did believe in the existence of the gods, but did not see them as central to living or being happy, which made them different from many other philosophers. However, the danger that Epicurus realized is that this pursuit can lead to indulgence that then leads back to pain. While satisfying oneself may seem harmless enough, it's pursuit could become an obsession that leads to pain. Therefore, moderation is key so that one does not become over zealous, or essentially addicted, to the pursuit of pleasure where they are unable to function and pursue a balanced life.

Interest in simple pleasures is key, as interest in goals such as conquest or wealth could potentially lead to ruin. Minimizing pain and suffering are critical to maximize pleasure. It is also not the pursuits of lusts or desires so much but it is seeking knowledge, developing good friendships, and banishing ideas that bring difficulty and problems to our lives is how one attains pleasure. The tranquility of the mind is what Epicurus would see as the greatest pleasure. He stated that one should never fear death, as death simply means the end of what one can feel and not something that would be painful. Epicurus also warned against being involved in politics, as that also could lead to the diminishment of happiness, something that Epicurus noticed in his own lifetime during the tumultuous politics of Athens after the death of Alexander the Great.[6]

Key Influences on Our World

The impacts of the philosophy are many and Epicurus held a variety of thoughts that have turned out to at least have at least some truth, despite his inability to fully observe them. For instance, his ideas that the universe is infinite are more realistic than philosophers who had a very narrow idea of where the universe and its extent can be found.[7] He also believed no truth should be accepted as given without some form of proof, an idea that is now foundational to modern science.

His belief that life and all matters must have basic building blocks are akin to our modern concept of atoms that was only proven in the 19th century. A key development that Epicurus indicated in his writings is the concept of divorcing the pursuit of knowledge from religious pursuits, something that became popular by the Renaissance, as thinkers from that era began to realize the importance of separating their work from religious zeal that may have hindered some advances in knowledge.[8] A key example is Galileo’s advocacy that the Earth was not the center of the universe, whereas the Catholic church at the time held the belief the Earth was the center of the universe.

While Epicurus’ ideas in science proved to be influential to later generations and modern science, his philosophy on happiness underwent different understanding in various periods. Although his teachings on happiness were often conflated with later understanding of hedonism, later thinkers began to see the practicality of his philosophy on pleasure as one that avoids pain and pursues simple pleasures as it avoids indulgence. Some impacts of this philosophy include what is now called ethical hedonism, where measured pleasure is taught and pursued as part of mental health treatment to addiction and other problems faced by patients.[9] In effect, the Epicurean philosophy is still alive and well in our society and not in a way that simply advocates unbridled pursuit of pleasure.

Conclusion

Epicurus has been a misunderstood philosopher, yet his influence has been profound and can be considered one of the founders of modern philosophy. His ideas continue to influence our world and then longevity of his thinking shows that it held influence through many major shifts in history. In many respects, Epicurus was ahead of his time, as he understood life composed of basic building blocks that simply can be reconfigured to make different things. This, to some extent, is true, while his philosophy of avoiding harmful things and pursue simple pursuits that give pleasure, such as friendship, are sensible and many would likely agree with these ideas.

References

  1. For more on Epicurus and his established school, see: Hibler, Richard W. 1984. Happiness through Tranquillity: The School of Epicurus. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
  2. For more on how Epicurus' philosophy evolved, see: DeWitt, Norman Wentworth. 1954. Epicurus and His Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pg. 27.
  3. For more on the foundations of Epicurus' philosophy, see: Bales, Eugene F. 2008. Philosophy in the West: Men, Women, Religion, Science. Philadelphia, Pa.: Xlibris, pg. 68.
  4. For more on how Epicureanism developed during and after Epicurus, see: O’Keefe, Tim. 2010. Epicureanism. Ancient Philosophies 7. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  5. For more on atomistic materialism, see: O’Connor, Daniel John. 1964. A Critical History of Western Philosophy. New York etc.; London: The Free press etc. ; Collier Macmillan, pg. 127.
  6. For details of what pleasure means in the Epicurus' philosophy, see: Johnston, Derek. 2006. A Brief History of Philosophy: From Socrates to Derrida. London ; New York: Continuum.
  7. For more on Epicurus' ideas of the universe, see: DeWitt, Norman Wentworth. 1954. St. Paul and Epicurus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pg. 13.
  8. For more on Epicurus' influence on later thinkers and scientists, see: Wyatt, Michael, ed. 2014. The Cambridge Companion to the Italian Renaissance. Cambridge Companions to Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pg. 272.
  9. For more on ethical hedonism, see: Ford, Gary George. 2006. Ethical Reasoning for Mental Health Professionals. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications, pg. 54.

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