), a celebrated Greek philosopher and the founder of a philosophical school called after him the Epicurean.
He was a son of Neocles and Charestrata, and belonged to the Attic demos of Gargettus, whence he is sometimes simply called the Gargettian. (Cic. Fam. 15.16
He was born, however, in the island of Samos, in B. C. 342, for his father was one of the Athenian cleruichi, who went to Samos and received lands there. Epicurus spent the first eighteen years of his life at Samos, and then repaired to Athens, in B. C. 323, where Xenocrates was then at the head of the academy, by whom Epicurus is said to have been instructed, though Epicurus himself denied it. (D. L. 10.13
; Cic. de Nat. Deor.
He did not, however, stay at Athens long, for after the outbreak of the Lamian war lie went to Colophon, where his father was then residing, and engaged in teaching. Epicurus followed the example of his father: he collected pupils and is said to have instructed them in grammar, until gradually his attention was drawn towards philosophy. Epicurus himself asserted that lie had entered upon his philosophical studies at the early age of fourteen, while according to others it was not till five or six years later. Some said that he was led to the study of philosophy by his contempt of the rhetoricians and grammarians who were unable to explain to him the passage in Hesiod about Chaos; and others said that the first impulse was given to him by the works of Democritus, which fell into his hands by accident.
It is at any rate undeniable that the atomistic doctrines of Democritus exercised a very great influence upon Epicurus, though he asserted that he was perfectly independent of all the philosophical schools of the time, and endeavoured to solve the great problems of life by independent thought and investigation. From Colophon Epicurus went to Mytilene and Lampsacus, in which places he was engaged for five years in teaching philosophy. In B. C. 306, when he had attained the age of 35, he again went to Athens.
He there purchased for eighty minae a garden--the famous Κῆποι Ἐπικούρου
--which apparently was situated in the heart of the city, and in which he established his philosophical school. Surrounded by numerous friends and pupils and by his three brothers, Neocles, Charidemus, and Aristobulus, who likewise devoted themselves to the study of philosophy, Epicurus spent the remainder of his life in his garden at Athens. His mode of living was simple, temperate, and cheerful, and the aspersions of comic poets and of later philosophers who were opposed to his philosophy and describe him as a person devoted to sensual pleasures, do not seem entitled to the least credit, although they have succeeded in rendering his name proverbial with posterity for a sensualist or debauchee.
The accounts of his connexion with Leontium, Marmarium, and other well known hetaerae of the time, perhaps belong to the same kind of slander and calumny in which his enemies indulged.
The life in Diogenes Laertius affords abundant proof that Epicurus was a man of simple, pure, and temperate habits, a kind-hearted friend, and even a patriotic citizen.
He kept aloof from the political parties of the time, and took no part in public affairs. His maxim was λάθε Βιώσας
, which was partly the result of his peculiar philosophy, and partly of the political condition of Athens, which drove men to seek in themselves happiness and consolation for the loss of political freedom. During the latter period of his life Epicurus was afflicted with severe sufferings, and for many years he was unable to walk.
In the end his sufferings were increased by the formation of a stone in his bladder, which terminated fatally after a severe illness of a fortnight.
He bore his sufferings with a truly philosophical patience, cheerfulness, and courage, and died at the age of 72, in Olymp. 127. 2, or B. C. 270. His will, which is preserved in Diogenes Laertius (10.16, &c.), shews the same mildness of character and the same kind disposition and attachment to his friends, which he had manifested throughout life. Among his many pupils Epicurus himself gave the preference to Metrodorus of Lampsacus, whom he used to call the philosopher,
and whom he would have appointed to succeed him (D. L. 10.22
, &c.); but Metrodorus died seven years before his master, and in his will Epicurus appointed Hermarchus of Mytilene his successor in the management of his school at Athens. Apollodorus, the Epicurean, wrote a life of Epicurus, of which Diogenes made great use in his account of Epicurus, but this is now lost, and our principal source of information respecting Epicurus is the tenth book of Diogenes Laertius, who however, as usual, only puts together what he finds in others; but at the same time he furnishes us some very important documents, such as his will, four letters and the κύριαι δόξαι
, of which we shall speak below.
With the account of Diogenes we have to compare the philosophical poem of Lucretius, and the remarks and criticisms which are scattered in the works of later Greek and Roman writers, nearly all of whom, however, wrote in a hostile spirit about Epicurus and his philosophy and must therefore be used with great caution. Among them we must mention Cicero in his philosophical treatises, especially the De Finibus,
and the De Natura Deorum ;
Seneca in his letter to Lucilius, and some treatises of Plutarch in his so-called Moralia.
Epicurus appears to have been one of the most prolific of all the ancient Greek writers. Diogenes Laertius (10.26), who calls him πολυγραφώτατος
, states that he wrote about 300 volumes (κύλινδροι
). His works, however, are said to have been full of repetitions and quotations of authorities.
Works listed by Diogenes Laertius
A list of the best of his works is given by Diogenes (10.27, &c.), and among them we may mention the Περὶ φύσεως
in 37 books, Περὶ ἀτόμων καὶ κενοῦ
, Ἐπιτομὴ τῶν πρὸς φυσικούς, Πρὸς τοὺς Μεγαρικοὺς διαπορίαι
, Κύριαι δόξαι
, Περὶ τέλους
, Περὶ κριτηρίου ἢ κανών
, Χαιρέδημος ἢ περὶ Δεῶν
, Περὶ βίων
in three books, Περὶ τῆς ἐν τῆ ἀτόμω γωνίας
, Περὶ εἱμαρμένης
, Περὶ εἰδώλων
, Περὶ δικαιοσύνης καὶ τῶν ἂλλων ἀρετῶν
, and Ἐπιστολαί
Four surviving Epistles
Of his epistles four are preserved in Diogenes. (10.22, 35, &c., 84, &c., 122, &c.)
The first is very brief and was addressed by Epicurus just before his death to Idomeneus.
The three others are of far greater importance: the first of them is addressed to one Herodotus, and contains an outline of the Canon and the Physica; the second, addressed to Pythocles, contains his theory about meteors, and the third, which is addressed to Menoeceus, gives a concise view of his ethics, so that these three Epistles, the genuineness of which can scarcely be doubted, furnish us an outline of his whole philosophical system.
An abridgement of them is preserved in Eudocia, p. 173, &c.
These letters, together with the above mentioned Κύριαι δόξαι
, that is, forty-four propositions containing the substance of the ethical philosophy of Epicurus, which are likewise preserved in Diogenes, must be our principal guides in examining and judging of the Epicurean philosophy.
The Epistles were edited separately by Nürnberger in his edition of the tenth book of Diogenes Laertius, Nürnberg., 1791, 8vo. The letters, to Herodotus and Pythocles were edited separately by J. G. Schneider under the title of Epicuri Physica et Metcorologica duabus Epistolis comprehensa, Leipzig, 1813, 8vo.
All the other works of Epicurus have perished, with the exception of a considerable number of fragments.
The Περὶ φύσεως from the Herculaneum Rolls
Some parts of the above-mentioned work, Περὶ φύσεως
, especially of the second and eleventh books, which treat of the εἴδωλα
, have been found among the rolls at Herculaneum, and are published in C. Corsini's Volumin. Herculan.
vol. ii. Naples, 1809, from which they were reprinted separately by J. C. Orelli, Leipzig, 1818, 8vo.
Fragments of the tenth book of the Περὶ φύσεως
Some fragments of the tenth book of the same work have been edited by J. Th. Kreissig in his Comment. de Sallust. Histor. Fragm.
p. 237, &c. If we may judge of the style of Epicurus from these few remains, it must be owned that it is clear and animated, though it is not distinguished for any other peculiar merits.
Philosophical System of Epicurus
With regard to the philosophical system of Epicurus, there is scarcely a philosopher in all antiquity who boasted so much as Epicurus of being independent of all his predecessors, and those who were believed to have been his teachers were treated by him with scorn and bitter hostility.
He prided himself upon being an αὐτοδίδακτος
, but even a superficial glance at his philosophy shews that he was not a little indebted to the Cyrenaics on the one hand and to Democritus on the other.
As far as the ethical part of his philosophy is concerned thus much may be admitted, that, like other systems of the time, it arose from the peculiar circumstances in which the Greek states were placed. Thinking men were led to seek within them that which they could not find without. Political freedom had to a great extent disappeared, and philosophers endeavoured to establish an internal freedom based upon ethical principles, and to maintain it in spite of outward oppression, no less than to secure it against man's own passions and evil propensities. Perfect independence, self reliance, and contentment, therefore, were regarded as the highest good and as the qualities which alone could make men happy, and as human happiness was with Epicurus the ultimate end of all philosophy, it was necessary for him to make ethics the most essential part, and as it were the centre of his whole philosophy.
He had little esteem for logic and dialectics, but as he could not altogether do without them, he prefixed to his ethics a canon, or an introduction to ascertain the criterium which was to guide him in his search after truth and in distinguishing good from evil. His criteria themselves were derived from sensuous perception combined with thought and reflection. We obtain our knowledge and form our conceptions of things, according to him, through εἴδωλα
, i. e.
images of things which are reflected from them, and pass through our senses into our minds. Such a theory is destructive of all absolute truth, and a mere momentary impression upon our senses or feelings is substituted for it. His ethical theory was based upon the dogma of the Cyrenaics, that pleasure constitutes the highest happiness, and must consequently be the end of all human exertions. Epicurus, however, developed and ennobled this theory in a manner which constitutes the peculiarity and real merit of his philosophy, and which gained for him so many friends and admirers both in antiquity and in modern times. Pleasure with him was not a mere momentary and transitory sensation, but he conceived it as something lasting and imperishable, consisting in pure and noble mental enjoyments, that is, in ἀταραξία
, or the freedom from pain and from all influences which disturb the peace of our mind, and thereby our happiness, which is the result of it. The summum bonum,
according to him, consisted in this peace of mind; and the great problem of his ethics, therefore, was to shew how it was to be attained, and ethics was not only the principal branch of philosophy, but philosophy itself, and the value and importance of all other kinds of knowledge were estimated by the proportion in which they contributed towards that great object of human life, or in which they were connected with ethics. His peace of mind was based upon Φρόνησις
, which he described as the beginning of everything good, as the origin of all virtues, and which he himself therefore occasionally treated as the highest good itself.
In the physical part of his philosophy, he followed the atomistic doctrines of Democritus and Diagoras. His views are well known from Lucretius's poem De Rerum Natura.
It would, however, appear that sometimes he misunderstood the views of his predecessors, and distorted them by introducing things which were quite foreign to them; sometimes he appears even in contradiction with himself.
The deficiencies are most striking in his views concerning the gods, which drew upon him the charge of atheism. His gods, like everything else, consisted of atoms, and our notions of them are based upon the εἴδωλα
which are reflected from them and pass into our minds. They were and always had been in the enjoyment of perfect happiness, which had not been disturbed by the laborious business of creating the world; and as the government of the world would interfere with their happiness, he conceived the gods as exercising no influence whatever upon the world or man.
Followers of Epicurus
The number of pupils of Epicurus who propagated his doctrines, was extremely great; but his philosophy received no further development at their hands, except perhaps that in subsequent times his lofty notion of pleasure and happiness was reduced to that of material and sensual pleasure. His immediate disciples adopted and followed his doctrines with the most scrupulous conscientiousness: they were attached and devoted to their nester in a manner which has rarely been equalled either in ancient or modern times: their esteem, love, and veneration for him almost bordered upon worship; they are said to have committed his works to memory; they had his portrait engraved upon rings and drinking vessels, and celebrated his birthday every year. Athens honoured him with bronze statues.
But notwithstanding the extraordinary devotion of his pupils and friends, whose number, says Diogenes, exceeded that of the population of whole towns, there is no philosopher in antiquity who has been so violently attacked, and whose ethical doctrines have been so much mistaken and misunderstood, as Epicurus.
The cause of this singular phaenomenon was partly a superficial knowledge of his philosophy, of which Cicero, for example, is guilty to a very great extent, and partly also the conduct of men who called themselves Epicureans, and, taking advantage of the facility with which his ethical theory was made the handmaid of a sensual and debauched life, gave themselves up to the enjoyment of sensual pleasures. At Rome, and during the time of Roman ascendancy in the ancient world, the philosophy of Epicurus never took any firm root; and it is then and there that, owing to the paramount influence of the Stoic philosophy, we meet with the bitterest antagonists of Epicurus.
The disputes for and against his philosophy, however, are not confined to antiquity; they were renewed at the time of the revival of letters, and are continued to the present day.
The number of works that have been written upon Epicurus and his philosophy is prodigious (Fabric. Bibl. Graec.
vol. iii. p. 584, &c.); we pass over the many histories of Greek philosophy, and mention only the most important works of which Epicurus is the special subject. Peter Gassendi, de Vita et Moribus Epicuri comentarius libris octo constans,
Lugdun. 1647, and Hag. Comit. 1656, 4to.; Gassendi, Syntagma Philosophiae Epicuri,
Hag. Comit. 1659, 4to., London, 1668, 12mo., Amsterdam, 1684; J. Rondel, La Vie d'Epicure,
Paris, 1679, 12mo., La Haye, 1686, 12mno.; a Latin translation of this work appeared at Amsterdam, 1693, 12mo., and an English one by Digby, London, 1712, 8vo.; Batteux, La Morale d'Epicure,
Paris, 1758, 8vo.; Bremer, Versuch einer Apologie des Epicur,
Berlin, 1776, 8vo.; Warnekros, Apologie und Leben Epicurs,
Greifswald, 1795, 8vo.; and especially Steinhart in Ersch u. Gruber, Allgem. Encyclop.
vol. xxxv. p. 459, &c.
Diogenes Laertius (10.26) mentions three other persons of the name of Epicurus, and Menage on that passage points out three more; but all of them are persons concerning whom nothing is known.