Born on the island of Samos (in the Aegean Sea) to
father Neocles and mother Chaerestrate, Epicurus
was raised on a commune and later trained as a
boy-soldier for the Athenian military. In approximately
306 B.C., he found his way to the city of
Athens, where he established the center of his
philosophical school in the garden of his home.
The school attracted a devoted group of followers
who separated themselves from the influences of
city life and doggedly practiced the tenets of Epicureanism,
the school of thought named for its
founder. Epicureanism bases itself on the beliefs
that man’s existence is characterized by mortality;
that the universe came about accidentally rather
than as a result of divine design; and, perhaps most
famously, that the pursuit of intellectual pleasure
marks a fulfilled life.
Because its teachings flew in the face of more
typical ascetic philosophies, some looked down on
the Epicurean way. The Stoics, for instance, subscribing
to a system of thought developed by Zeno
around 308 B.C., believed that humans should seek
to free themselves from passion and calmly endure
all events as the decree of a divine will. Stoics regarded
Epicureans as little more than flagrant hedonists,
and critics purposely misunderstood
Epicurus’s teachings as instructions to blindly pursue
one’s every whim.
Still, Epicurus remains one of the most studied
of the ancient thinkers, and scholarly investigations
document that he produced more work than
any other philosopher of his day—in total, 300
manuscripts covering topics from physics to love.
Only a handful of these documents remain, all of
which are included in Lives of Eminent Philosophers,
Book X (translated by R. D. Hicks, Harvard
University Press, 1925). We have gained a more
comprehensive understanding of Epicurean philosophy,
however, through the famed Latin poem
by Lucretius, De rerum natura (On the Nature of
Epicurus prioritized moral philosophy above all
other categories of the discipline, as it concerns itself
with how humans may become and remain
happy. Pleasure, the main element of mortal happiness,
comes about not when it is obsessively and
inexhaustibly pursued, but when one’s present desires
are adequately satisfied and when these pleasures
counterbalance the pains that inevitably
accompany them. Philosophical study best cultivates
the healthy quest for pleasure, since philosophy
encourages the intellectual contemplation of
corporeal pleasure rather than the actual acts of
satisfying desires, which, Epicureanism argues, is
less important than metaphysical rumination.
Famous works by Epicurus include Letter to
Herodotus, a treatise on natural philosophy; Letter
to Pythocles, which reflects on astronomy and meteorology;
and Letter to Menoeceus, the definitive
work of Epicurean moral philosophy. In this work,
Epicurus makes clear his belief that the individual,
and not a pantheon of ancient deities, retains the
power to determine the course of his or her life.
With the directness of a true metaphysician, Epicurus
encapsulates his school of thought in Menoeceus
128: “We say that pleasure is the beginning
and end of living happily.”
English Versions of Works by Epicurus
The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia.
Edited by Brad Inwood and Lloyd P. Gerson.
Introduction by D. S. Hutchinson. Indianapolis,
Ind.: Hackett Publishing, 1997.
Fragments. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1992.
Works about Epicurus
De Witt, N. W. Epicurus and His Philosophy. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1954.
Jones, Howard. The Epicurean Tradition. New York: