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Epicūrus

Ἐπίκουρος). A celebrated philosopher, born in the year B.C. 341, in the island of Samos, whither his father had gone from Athens, in the year B.C. 352, among 2000 colonists then sent out by the Athenians. Yet he was an Athenian by right, belonging to the deme Gargettus and to the tribe Aegeïs. His father Neocles is said to have been a school-master, and his mother Chaeristrata to have practised arts of magic, in which it was afterwards made a charge against Epicurus that, when he was young, he assisted her (Diog. Laert. x. 4). Having passed his early years in Samos and Teos, he went to Athens at the age of eighteen. He had begun to study philosophy when only fourteen, from a desire, which the teachers to whom he had applied had failed to satisfy, of understanding Hesiod's description of chaos. In Samos he is said to have received lessons from Pamphilus, a follower of Plato (Cic. N. D. i. 26). On the occasion of this his first visit to Athens, Epicurus stayed there for a very short time. He left it in consequence of the measures taken by Perdiccas after the death of Alexander the Great, and went to Colophon to join his father. In B.C. 310, he went to Mitylené, where he set up a school. Staying only one year at this latter place, he next proceeded to Lampsacus, where he taught for four years. He returned to Athens in the year B.C. 306, and now founded the school which ever after was named from him the Epicurean. He purchased a garden (Κῆποι Ἐπικούρου) for eighty minae (about $1450), wherein he might live with his disciples and deliver his lectures, and henceforth remained in Athens, with the exception only of two or three visits to his friends in Asia Minor, until his death, from stone in the bladder, B.C. 270. He was in his seventy-second year when he died, and he had then been settled in Athens as a teacher for thirty-six years.

Epicurus is said by Diogenes Laertius (x. 9) to have had so many pupils that even whole cities could not contain them. Hearers came to him from distant places; and while men often deserted other schools to join that of Epicurus, there were only two instances, at most, of Epicurus being deserted for any other teacher. Epicurus and his pupils lived together in the garden of which we have spoken, in a state of friendship, which, as it is usually represented, could not be surpassed—abstaining from putting their property together and enjoying it in common for the quaint yet significant reason that such a plan implied mutual distrust. The friendship subsisting between Epicurus and his pupils is commemorated by Cicero (De Fin. i. 20). In this garden, too, they lived in the most frugal and decorous manner, though it was the delight of the enemies of Epicurus to represent it differently, and though Timocrates, who had once been his pupil and had abandoned him, spread such gossip as that Epicurus used to vomit twice a day after a surfeit and that harlots were inmates of the garden. (See Leontium.) An inscription over the gate of the garden told him who might be disposed to enter that barleycakes and water would be the fare provided for him (Plin. Ep. 31); and such was the chastity of Epicurus that one of his principal opponents, Chrysippus, endeavoured to account for it, so as to deny him any merit, by saying that he was without passions (Serm. 117). Epicurus remained unmarried, in order that he might be able to prosecute philosophy without interruption. His most attached friends and pupils were Hermachus of Mitylené, whom he appointed by will to succeed him as master of the school; Metrodorus, who wrote several books in defence of his system; and Polyaenus. Epicurus's three brothers, Neocles, Chaeredemus, and Aristobulus, also followed his philosophy, as also one of his servants, Mys, whom at his death he made free. Besides the garden in Athens, from which the followers of Epicurus, in succeeding time, came to be named “the philosophers of the garden” (Hor. Sat. xiii. 122; xiv. 319), Epicurus possessed a house in Melité, a village near Athens, to which he used often to retire with his friends. On his death he left this house, together with the garden, to Hermachus, as head of the school, to be left by him again to whosoever might be his successor. See Education.

In physics Epicurus trod pretty closely in the footsteps of Democritus; so much so, indeed, that he was accused of taking his atomic cosmology from that philosopher without acknowledgment. He made very few, and these unimportant, alterations. According to Epicurus, as also to Democritus and Leucippus before him, the universe consists of two parts, matter (σῶμα) and space, or vacuum (τὸ κενόν), in which matter exists and moves; and all matter, of every kind and form, is reducible to certain indivisible particles or atoms (ἄτομοι), which are eternal. These atoms, moving, according to a natural tendency, straight downward, and also obliquely, have thereby come to form the different bodies which are found in the world, and which differ in kind and shape, according as the atoms are differently placed in respect to one another. It is clear that, in this system, a creator is dispensed with; and indeed Epicurus, here again following Democritus, set about to prove, in an a priori way, that this creator could not exist, inasmuch as nothing could arise out of nothing, any more than it could utterly perish and becoming nothing. The atoms have existed always, and always will exist; and all the various physical phenomena are brought about, from time to time, by their various motions. The soul itself is made of a finer and more subtle kind of atoms, which, when the body dies and decays, separate and are dissipated. The various processes of sense are explained on the principles of materialism. From the surfaces of all objects continually flow thin, filmy images of things (εἴδωλα), which, by impact on the organism, cause the phenomena of vision, hearing, etc.

It remains to speak of the Epicurean system of ethics. Setting out with the two facts that man is susceptible of pleasure and pain and that he seeks the one and avoids the other, Epicurus declared that it is a man's duty to endeavour to increase to the utmost his pleasures and diminish to the utmost his pains—choosing that which tends to pleasure rather than that which tends to pain, and that which tends to a greater pleasure or to a lesser pain rather than that which tends respectively to a lesser pleasure or a greater pain. He used the terms pleasure and pain in the most comprehensive way, as including pleasure and pain of both mind and body; and esteemed the pleasures and pains of the mind as incomparably greater than those of the body. The highest pleasure, then, is peace of mind (ἀταραξία, ἀπονία), and this comes from φρόνησις or the ability to decide what line of conduct will best secure true happiness. Death, he says, is not to be feared, for “where we are, death is not; and where death is, we are not.”

Epicurus. (Baumeister.)

The period at which Epicurus opened his school was peculiarly favourable. In place of the simplicity of the Socratic doctrine, nothing now remained but the subtlety and affectation of Stoicism, the unnatural severity of the Cynics, or the debasing doctrine of indulgence taught and practised by the followers of Aristippus. The luxurious refinement which now prevailed in Athens, while it rendered every rigid scheme of philosophy, as well as all grossness of manners, unpopular, inclined the younger citizens to listen to a preceptor who smoothed the stern and wrinkled brow of philosophy, and, under the notion of conducting his followers to enjoyment in the bower of tranquillity, led them unawares into the path of moderation and virtue. Hence the popularity of his school. It cannot be denied, however, that from the time when this philosopher appeared to the present day, an uninterrupted course of censure has fallen upon his memory; so that the name of his sect has almost become a proverbial expression for everything corrupt in principle and infamous in character. The charges brought against Epicurus are that he superseded all religious principles by dismissing the gods from the care of the world; that if he acknowledged their existence, it was only in conformity to popular prejudice, since, according to his system, nothing exists in nature but material atoms; that he showed great insolence and vanity in the disrespect with which he treated the memory of former philosophers and the characters and persons of his contemporaries; and that both he and his disciples were addicted to the grossest sensuality.

With respect to the first charge, it certainly admits of no refutation. The doctrine of Epicurus concerning nature militated directly against the agency of a Supreme Being in the formation and government of the world, and his misconceptions with respect to mechanical motion and the nature of divine happiness led him to divest the Deity of some of his primary attributes. It is not true, however, that he entirely denied the existence of superior powers. Cicero charges him with inconsistency in having written books concerning piety and the reverence due to the gods, and in maintaining that the gods ought to be worshipped, while he asserted that they had no concern in human affairs. That there was an inconsistency in this is obvious. But Epicurus professed that the universal prevalence of the ideas of gods was sufficient to prove that they existed; and, thinking it necessary to derive these ideas, like all other ideas, from sensations, he imagined that the gods were beings of human form and made known to men by the customary emanations. He believed that these gods were eternal and supremely happy, living in the intermundane spaces (μετακόσμια) in a state of quiet, and meddling not with the affairs of the world. He contended that they were to be worshipped on account of the excellence of their nature, and not because they could do men either good or harm (Cic. N. D. i. 41; Sen. Ben. iv. 19).

The Epicurean school was carried on, after Hermachus, by Polystratus and many others, concerning whom nothing is known; and the doctrines which Epicurus had taught underwent few modifications. When introduced among the Romans, these doctrines, though very much opposed at first, were yet adopted by many distinguished men, as Lucretius, Atticus, and Horace. Under the emperors, Pliny the Younger and Lucian of Samosata were noted Epicureans. See Lucretius.

Our chief sources of information respecting the doctrines of Epicurus are the tenth book of Diogenes Laertius and the poem of Lucretius, De Rerum Natura. Information is also furnished by the writings of Cicero, especially the De Finibus and the De Natura Deorum; by those of Seneca, and by the treatise of Plutarch, “Against Colotes.” Epicurus, according to Diogenes Laertius, was a more voluminous writer than any other philosopher, having written as many as 300 volumes, in all of which he is said to have studiously avoided making quotations. All that now remains of his works are the letters contained in the tenth book of Diogenes Laertius and parts of two books of his treatise on Nature (Περὶ Φύσεως), which were discovered at Herculaneum. The last were published at Leipzig in 1818, being edited by Orelli; further fragments will be found in the sixth volume of the Hercul. Voll. Collectio Altera, of which the first part appeared at Naples in 1866. A critical edition of the first two letters was given by Schneider (Leipzig, 1813). See Lange's Geschichte des Materialismus (Iserlohn, 1866); Trezza, Epicuro e l'Epicureismo (Florence, 1877); Zeller, Philosophy of the Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics (Eng. trans. 1880); Wallace, Epicureanism (1880); monographs >by Gizycki (Halle, 1879) and Kreibig (Vienna, 1885); Susemihl, i. 87 foll., and the article Philosophia.

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