What is Epicureanism (Brief)?

Introduction

Epicureanism is a Hellenistic doctrine that is named after its found: the Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. The foundations for Epicureanism were laid out after Epicurus opened his school in his own garden in 307 BC – the school was thus aptly named ‘The Garden’ (or Epicurus’ Garden). At the core of his teachings were a materialist conception of the universe, which were a continuation of the earlier philosopher Democritus and the Atomists. Epicureanism was initial intent was to challenge the dominating Platonism.

Epicureanism can be understood as a Hedonist philosophy and continuation of Aristippus and Cyrenaics. Nevertheless, there are some significant differences, such as the belief that one should not indulge in immediate gratification and instead seek long-term gains. Furthermore, Epicureanism does not necessarily view bodily pleasures as being above the mental ones; more often than not, the opposite is the case.

There two significant aspects to Epicurean teaching: Ethics and Metaphysics. On the latter, Epicureanism points out that if there are gods, they are not at all concerned with human affairs. That is not to say that Epicurus or his followers were Atheists – they did not posit that there are no gods as such. Quite the opposite is the case, Epicurians did believe in the existence of immortal beings in an eternal state of happiness. Curiously, they also thought of them as material beings comprised of atoms.

In Ethics, Epicureanism is a kind of eudaimonian ethical theory that similar to Aristotle emphasises happiness as the greatest good. Epicureans highlight three elements for happiness: tranquility, freedom from fear, and absence of bodily pain – all of which are to be gained by accepting only modest pleasures and limiting our desires. Essentially, Epicurus emphasised a simple and moderate lifestyle. Furthermore, and similar to Plato, Epicureans too claim that happiness can only be achieved through an understanding of the world at large. For more details, see the extended article on Epicureanism.

History of Epicurianism

Epicurianism was adopted a number of members of of Epicurus’ school ‘The Garden’, most notably Hermarchus, who became the school’s head in 270 BC. Other members were Colotes, Polyaenus and Metrodorus – all contemporaries of Epicurus from Lampsacus before his move to Athens.

In the Roman era, first Julius Caesar and later the poet Horace leaned towards Epicureanism. However, it was Lucretius epic poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) that showed devotion to Epicurean philosophy of nature.

Along with Stoicism and Skepticism,  Epicureanism become one of the dominant schools of Hellenistic philosophy, being one of the major ethical doctrines until the early 4th century AD. In the year 313, the Roman Emperor Constantine approved the repression of Epicureanism on the grounds that it was irreconcilable with Christianity, which initiated a decline of Epicureanism until the 17th century. In the 17th century, the French philosopher and mathematician Pierre Gassendi made the first attempts to revive Epicureanism. Later, Thomas Jefferson and Jeremy Bentham made similar attempts.

Further Reading

Epicurus, (2014). The Essential Epicurus: Letters, Principal Doctrines, Vatican Sayings, and Fragments, (E. M. O’Connor Translation), London: Prometheus Books.

Dimitriadis, H. (2017). Epicurus And The Pleasant Life: A Philosophy of Nature, Haris Dimitriadis.

Strodach, G. K. & Klein, D. (2012). The Art of Happiness, New York: Penguin Classics.

Gerson, L. P. & Inwood, B. (1994). The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia, London: Hackett Publishing.

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