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Index by Period

Epicureanism

Epicureanism Believes that the Duty of Man is to Seek Happiness, and that Happiness Consists in Wisdom.
MORAL PHILOSOPHY.--Continuing to feel the strong impulse which it had received from Socrates, philosophy was now for a long while to be almost exclusively moral philosophy. Only it divided very sharply in two directions. Antisthenes and Aristippus were both pupils of Socrates. From Antisthenes came the Cynics; from Aristippus the philosophers of pleasure. The Cynics gave birth to the Stoics, the philosophers of pleasure to the Epicureans, and these two great schools practically divided all antiquity between them. We will take the Epicureans first because, chronologically, they slightly preceded the Stoics.

EPICURUS.--Epicurus, born at Athens a little after the death of Plato, brought up at Samos by his parents who had been forced to expatriate themselves owing to reverses of fortune, returned to Athens about 305 B.C., and there founded a school. Personally he was a true wise man, sober, scrupulous, a despiser of pleasure, severe to himself, in practice a Stoic. As his general view of the universe, he taught approximately the doctrine of Democritus: the world is composed of a multitude of atoms, endowed with certain movements, which attach themselves to one another and combine together, and there is nothing else in the world. Is there not a first cause, a being who set all these atoms in motion--in short, a God? Epicurus did not think so. Are there gods, as the vulgar believe? Epicurus believed so; but he considered that the gods are brilliant, superior, happy creatures, who do not trouble about this world, do not interfere with it, and are even less occupied, were it possible, with mankind. Also they did not create the world, for why should they have created it? From goodness, said Plato; but there is so much evil in the world that if they created it from goodness, they were mistaken and must be fools; and if they willingly permitted evil, they are wicked; and therefore it is charitable towards them to believe that they did not create it.

EPICUREAN MORALITY.--From the ethical point of view, Epicurus certainly attaches himself to Aristippus; but with the difference that lies between pleasure and happiness. Aristippus taught that the aim of life was intelligent pleasure, Epicurus declared that the aim of life was happiness. Now, does happiness consist in pleasures, or does it exclude them? Epicurus was quite convinced that it excluded them. Like Lord Beaconsfield, he would say, "Life would be almost bearable, were it not for its pleasures." Happiness for Epicurus lay in "phlegm," as Philinte would put it; it lay in the calm of the mind that has rendered itself inaccessible to every emotion of passion, which is never irritated, never moved, never annoyed, never desires, and never fears. Why, for instance, should we dread death? So long as we fear it, it is not here; when it arrives, we shall no longer fear it; then, why is it an evil?--But, during life itself, how about sufferings?--We greatly increase our sufferings by complaints and by self-commiseration. If we acted in the reverse way, if when we were tortured by them we recalled past pleasures and thought of pleasures to come, they would be infinitely mitigated.--But, of what pleasures can a man speak who makes happiness consist in the exclusion of pleasures? The pleasures of the wise man are the satisfaction he feels in assuring himself of his own happiness. He finds pleasure when he controls a passion in order to revert to calmness; he feels pleasure when he converses with his friends about the nature of true happiness; he feels pleasure when he has diverted a youth from passionate follies or from despair, and brought him back to peace of mind, etc.--But what about sufferings after death? They do not exist. There is no hell because there is no immortality of the soul. The soul is as material as the body, and dies with it.

You will say, perhaps, that this very severe and austere morality more nearly approaches to Stoicism than to the teaching of Aristippus. This is so true that when Horace confessed with a smile that he returned to the morality of pleasure, he did not say, as we should, "I feel that I am becoming an Epicurean," he said, "I fall back on the precepts of Aristippus;" and Seneca, a professed Stoic, cites Epicurus almost as often as Zeno in his lessons. It may not be quite accurate to state, but there would not be much exaggeration in affirming, that Epicureanism is a smiling Stoicism and Stoicism a gloomy Epicureanism. In the current use of the word we have changed the meaning of Epicurean to make it mean "addicted to pleasure." The warning must be given that there is no more grievous error.

THE VOGUE OF EPICUREANISM.--Epicureanism had an immense vogue in antiquity. The principal professors of it at Athens were Metrodorus, Hermarchus, Polystratus, and Apollodorus. Penetrating to Italy Epicureanism found its most brilliant representative in Lucretius, who of the system made a poem--the admirable De Natura Rerum; there were also Atticus, Horace, Pliny the younger, and many more. It even became a political opinion: the Caesarians were Epicureans, the Republicans Stoics. On the appearance of Christianity Epicureanism came into direct opposition with it, and so did Stoicism also; but in a far less degree. In modern times, as will be seen, Epicureanism has enjoyed a revival.

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