By John Coss, Vice Chair of Stockport Humanists
Continuing our series of profiles of humanists who are not as widely known as they should be, including distinguished men and women not generally known to be humanists, this month John Coss focuses on Epicurus, who questioned the conventional beliefs of his time and rejected the idea of gods intervening in human affairs. The primary focus of his thinking was on how to live a good life. He was, accordingly, a significant forerunner of modern humanism.
Epicurus (341-270 BCE) was the founder of Epicureanism, one of the major schools of ancient Greek philosophy, and the closest to modern Humanism. Epicureanism can be a good guide for humanists seeking to live a good life (in both senses – an enjoyable life, and a life conducive to the common good), as recognised in many Humanist sources.
Epicurus was born around 341 BCE, seven years after Plato's death, and grew up in the Athenian colony of Samos, an island in the Mediterranean Sea. He was about 19 when Aristotle died, and he studied philosophy under followers of Democritus and Plato. Epicurus founded his first philosophical schools in Mytilene and Lampsacus, before moving to Athens around 306 BCE. There he founded the Garden, a combination of philosophical community and school. The Garden itself - a pleasurable, private space apart from the city where the residents put Epicurus's teachings into practice - became a symbol for the detachment and hedonism of the Epicurean school. Epicurus died from kidney stones around 270 BCE.
Epicurus believed that what he called ‘pleasure’ was the greatest good, but the way to attain such pleasure was to live modestly and to gain knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of one's desires. This led one to attain a state of tranquility (ataraxia) and freedom from fear, as well as absence of bodily pain (aponia). The combination of these two states was supposed to constitute happiness in its highest form. Although Epicureanism is a form of hedonism, insofar as it declares pleasure to be the sole intrinsic good, its conception of absence of pain as the greatest pleasure and its advocacy of a simple life make it different from ‘hedonism’ as it is commonly understood, and the modern meaning of an epicure.
Epicurus is a key figure in the development of science and scientific methodology because of his insistence that nothing should be believed, except that which was tested through direct observation and logical deduction. He regularly admitted women and slaves into his school and was one of the first Greeks to break from the god-fearing and god-worshipping tradition common at the time. Epicureans believed that gods existed, but did not create the universe, and were too far away from the earth to have any interest in human affairs.
"It is not the young man who should be considered fortunate but the old man who has lived well, because the young man in his prime wanders much by chance, vacillating in his beliefs, while the old man has docked in the harbour, having safeguarded his true happiness." Epicurus
He was a voluminous writer, but hardly any of his own work survives. A likely reason for this is that Christian authorities found his ideas ungodly. Diogenes Laërtius, who probably lived in the third century CE, wrote a 10-book Lives of the Philosophers, which includes the ‘Principal Doctrines’ - 40 sayings which deal mainly with ethical matters, and three of Epicurus's letters - in its recounting of the life and teachings of Epicurus. These three letters are brief summaries of major areas of Epicurus' philosophy: the Letter to Herodotus, which summarizes his metaphysics, the Letter to Pythocles, which gives atomic explanations for meteorological phenomena, and the Letter to Menoeceus, which summarizes his ethics. The ‘Tetrapharmakos’ or ‘the Four Remedies’ is a summary of the first four of the Principal Doctrines:
Do not fear the gods
Do not fear death
What is pleasant is easy to attain
What is painful is easy to endure
Epicurus questioned the conventional beliefs of his time and rejected the idea of gods intervening in human affairs. The primary focus of his thinking was on how to live a good life. He was accordingly a significant forerunner of modern humanism, as recognised by Humanists UK: The Ancient World and Epicurus.
Some Epicurus Quotes:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.
Be moderate in order to taste the joys of life in abundance.
The opinions held by most people about the gods are not true conceptions of them but fallacious notions, according to which awful penalties are meted out to the evil and the greatest of blessings to the good.
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 a pleasant life.
Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.
Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.
It is not the young man who should be considered fortunate but the old man who has lived well, because the young man in his prime wanders much by chance, vacillating in his beliefs, while the old man has docked in the harbour, having safeguarded his true happiness.
Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one's entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.
Epicureanism in modern times
There is growing interest in the ideas of Epicurus, in particular as regards positive psychology and happiness research. One noteworthy development from a humanist perspective is the Society of Friends of Epicurus founded by Hiram Cresco, the author of Tending the Epicurean Garden. See: