Epicurus (341–270 B.C.) founded one of the major philosophies of ancient Greece, helping to lay the intellectual foundations for modern science and for secular individualism. Many aspects of his thought are still highly relevant some twenty-three centuries after they were first taught in his school in Athens, called “the Garden.”
Epicurus’s philosophy combines a physics based on an atomistic materialism with a rational hedonistic ethics that emphasizes moderation of desires and cultivation of friendships. His world-view is an optimistic one that stresses that philosophy can liberate one from fears of death and the supernatural, and can teach us how to find happiness in almost any situation. His practical insights into human psychology, as well as his science-friendly world-view, gives Epicureanism great contemporary significance as well as a venerable role in the intellectual development of Western Civilization.Epicurus was born on February 4th, 341 B.C., the second of four brothers, on the island of Samos in the Aegean Sea just off the west coast of what is now Turkey (a region called Ionia). Epicurus’s parents were cleruchs, a class of poor Athenian citizens who settled territory appropriated from the tributary states of Athens. Cleruchs were looked down upon by Athenian residents and scorned as foreign invaders by the natives of the territories they settled, which made their social position precarious. This proved to be the case for Epicurus’s family, which was forced to evacuate Samos in 322 B.C., just a year after Epicurus was drafted into the Athenian army.
Epicurus’s childhood took place during a momentous period in Greek history. The Greeks had long been divided into many city-states spread over the Aegean basin (including modern Greece, Thrace, and the Ionian coast) and southern Italy and Sicily. During Epicurus’s childhood, Alexander of Macedon made his remarkable conquest of Greece, the Persian Empire, and Egypt. Greek culture was spread into various cities as far east as Afghanistan and Pakistan. While Alexander’s empire didn’t survive his death in 323 B.C., the successor states that eventually emerged out of the wars among Alexander’s generals retained a strong element of Greek language and culture, particularly among the upper strata of society. These states, especially the Seleucid Empire that took over the territory of Persia, the Ptolemaic Empire that took over Egypt, and the Antigonid Empire that took over the Macedonian homeland were far vaster and more centralized than the old Greek city-states, with the consequence that the relationship between the typical Greek individual and the state he lived in underwent a radical change.
By 311 B.C., Epicurus was ready to venture forth and teach his own unique variation of the Democritean physics, and perhaps an early version of his ethical system as well. He moved to the island of Lesbos to teach at the Gymnasium in the city of Mytilene. As a publicly-funded educational institution dominated by partisans of the Lyceum, the Gymnasium was a dangerous setting for Epicurus’s public advocacy of a new philosophy. Platonists and Aristotelians fancied the role of philosopher-king (or at least the role of favored advisor to the king, as Aristotle was to Alexander), and were not kindly disposed towards philosophers of rival schools spreading heterodox ideas on their turf. The aroused Mytilene orthodoxy moved against Epicurus, threatening to charge him with impiety and other thought-crimes that placed his life in grave danger. Rather than remaining at the mercy of a hostile gymnasiarch, Epicurus chose instead to make a dangerous mid-Winter sea-voyage to the Ionian coast, and was “almost swallowed up by the sea” according to one ancient biographer.
By 306 B.C., continued political turmoil in Athens had discredited the ambitious Aristotelians and Platonists, and the politicization of philosophy and the attendant intolerance had become passé. With Athens under a more tolerant regime, the way was clear for Epicurus to return and establish his school there. Epicurus bought a small house and a garden to house his circle of friends, and his school came to be known as “the Garden” because of their instructional sessions at the garden. The main work of the Garden, however, was carried on at Epicurus’s house, where manuscripts and letters were produced and sent to the growing circle of converts throughout the Greek world.
It was in Athens where Epicurus’s philosophy reached its mature form and Epicureanism was systematically propagated throughout the Hellensitic world. In carrying on this activity, Epicurus’s previous clashes with authority convinced him that it was best to stay out of politics and avoid playing to popular prejudices. Instead of trying to win over whole cities and nations as had previous philosophers, Epicurus instead aimed at attracting individuals to an Epicurean subculture while observing the religious and legal forms of the larger society (an important consideration in an era when philosophers were routinely executed or exiled for impiety) and developing an attitude of tolerance towards non-Epicureans. Epicurus’s original writings were said to fill 300 rolls, unmatched any other philosopher of ancient times.
“On the Nature of Things” By Lucretius Written 50 B.C.E a document of epic proportions a poem describing the underlying thoughts of the atomists and Epicurus. This poem was nearly lost as a result of the Catholic Church’s campaign to destroy every copy! It’s modern Atomist and conceptual ideas were in conflict with church doctrine. Copies were saved and it became popular in fine personal library’s despite the threat of arrest for owning one. Our own Thomas Jefferson had three copies in three languages in his personal library. The words “life , liberty and the right to pursue happiness” enters our own Declaration of Independence as a direct result of Epicurus referenced in this poem!