In This Article Epicurus

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collections of Texts in Translation
  • Editions of Primary Texts
  • Atoms and Void
  • Sensible Qualities
  • Cosmology and Biology
  • The Mind and Perception
  • Freedom, Determinism, and the Swerve
  • Language
  • The Criteria of Truth and Scientific Explanations
  • Skepticism and the Truth of Sensations
  • Pleasure, the Highest Good
  • Varieties of Pleasure
  • The Virtues and the Passions
  • Justice
  • Friendship
  • The Gods
  • Death
  • Later Epicurean Philosophy and the Impact of Epicureanism
  • Epicureanism as a Way of Life

Philosophy Epicurus
by
Tim O'Keefe
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0261

Introduction

Epicurus (b. c. 341–d. 271 BCE) was one of the most influential philosophers of the Hellenistic period, the two centuries or so following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE. Epicureanism, alongside Stoicism and Academic Skepticism, was one of the predominant systems of thought competing for the allegiance of people in the Greek and Latin-speaking world, and communities of Epicureans flourished for centuries following Epicurus’s death. Epicurus revived the atomism of the pre-Socratics Leucippus and Democritus, where everything is ultimately the result of indivisible particles interacting in empty space. However, he modified their atomism by adding weight as a property of atoms as well as a tiny, indeterministic “swerve” to the side that is supposed to account for atomic collisions and to allow for human freedom. Epicurus said that the workings of the world are not due to any divine purpose or plan and that we can explain why organisms operate as they do without recourse to biological functions. Excluding the gods from meddling with the world liberates us from fearing them. Furthermore, the mind is a bodily organ that allows us to think and live, instead of being some immaterial animating principle that can move from body to body. And so, death is annihilation. The realization that death is annihilation should free us from the fear of death: annihilation is simply nothingness, and because after our deaths we do not exist, our death cannot be good or bad for us. Epicurus thought that skepticism about the reliability of the senses was self-refuting and practically disastrous. To avoid such skepticism, he affirmed (contra Democritus) that sensible qualities such as color and taste are genuine properties of bodies, and he even said that all sensations are true. On the basis of these sensations, we can come to a correct understanding of how the world works. In ethics, Epicurus affirmed egoistic hedonism (contra Plato and Aristotle); thus, he affirmed that only my own pleasure is intrinsically good for me. However, this does not license reckless dissipation. Freedom from bodily distress and mental turmoil is by itself pleasant—in fact, the limits of pleasure for us. To attain a trouble-free and tranquil life, we must moderate our desires, cultivate the virtues, live justly, and acquire a circle of trustworthy friends. The wise person will even worship the gods, correctly conceived—not as meddling and jealous world-managers but as exemplars of human blessedness whom we need not fear.

General Overviews

The entries in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy are almost always a good place to start for a quick but reliable and high-level introduction to a philosophical topic, and Konstan 2014 is no exception. O’Keefe 2010 is much more detailed but still accessible; it concentrates on explaining Epicureanism as a philosophical system. Warren 2009 contains chapters written by a team of specialists on various aspects of Epicureanism; it contains more on the history of Epicureanism and on recent scholarly controversies than does O’Keefe 2010.

  • Konstan, David. “Epicurus.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2014.

    E-mail Citation »

    Solid overview of the history of Epicureanism, the texts, and major areas of Epicurus’s philosophy.

  • O’Keefe, Tim. Epicureanism. Durham, UK: Acumen, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    A stand-alone introduction to all of the major areas of Epicurus’s philosophy, presented in a clear and user-friendly style.

  • Warren, James, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521873475E-mail Citation »

    A collection of articles by experts in Epicureanism that covers the history of the school and the major areas of its philosophy.

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