Classics Epicurean Ethics
J. Clerk Shaw, Jan Maximilian Robitzsch
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0367


Epicurean ethics is best known for its hedonism—Epicurus and his followers hold that pleasure (hēdonē) is the highest good and that all actions should be chosen for the sake of pleasure. Ancient critics implied that their philosophy was licentious, and the reputation stuck. In fact, though, Epicurus holds that the best hedonic strategy involves limiting one’s desires to those that are easy to fulfill, and in particular to those they call “natural and necessary.” Relatedly, they identify the highest pleasure with absence of bodily pain (aponia) and freedom from mental distress (ataraxia). So understood, the pleasant life requires virtue, and indeed is guaranteed by it. Nevertheless, as befits staunch hedonists, the Epicureans insisted that virtue is valuable only as a means to pleasure, however indispensable and infallible a means. The path to virtue runs through philosophy, understood as a sort of cognitive-behavioral therapy avant la lettre. In particular, the Epicureans seek to rid themselves of irrational fears, including preeminently the fear of death. (Recent philosophy has intensely scrutinized their diverse argumentative strategies for removing fear of death.) Finally, Epicurean ethics has social and political dimensions. They consider politics to be intrinsically bothersome and generally not worth the effort, and they also consider marriage and family to be sources of troubling personal attachments. However, they praise friendship and chosen communities of Epicurean friends—a commitment which raises concerns about the coherence of self-regarding and other-regarding elements in their ethical theory.


Epicurean ethical ideas are discussed in a variety of different texts. Hessler 2014 offers an extensive commentary on Epicurus’s extant ethical epitome, the Letter to Menoeceus, and Arrighetti 1973 assembles further texts that have ethical relevance such as the Vatican Sayings and Epicurean testimonia in later authors. Among other Epicurean authors, Lucretius, Philodemus, and Diogenes of Oenoanda advance important ethical insights. Bailey 1947 provides a critical edition of On the Nature of Things. Armstrong and McOsker 2020 and Indelli and Tsouna-McKirahan 1995, and Konstan, et al. 1998, offer editions of On Anger, On Choices and Avoidances, and On Frank Criticism respectively. Smith 1993 is the standard edition of Diogenes’ Epicurean inscription. An ethical treatise by an anonymous Epicurean author is found in Capasso 1982. Among non-Epicurean authors, Cicero and Plutarch extensively report on Epicurean ethical ideas. For Cicero’s On Ends, see Reynolds 1998 and Woolf 2001. For Plutarch’s “That Epicurus Makes a Pleasant Life Impossible” and “Is ‘Live Unknown’ a Wise Precept?”, see Einarson and De Lacy 1967.

  • Armstrong, David, and Michael McOsker, eds. 2020. Philodemus, On Anger. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

    Greek text with English translation.

  • Arrighetti, Graziano, ed. 1973. Epicuro: Opere. 2d ed. Turin, Italy: Einaudi.

    Standard edition of all of Epicurus’s writings, consisting of the Greek text and an Italian translation.

  • Bailey, Cyril, ed. 1947. Titi Lucreti Cari De rerum natura libri sex. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon.

    Editio maior with extensive philological commentary.

  • Capasso, Mario, ed. 1982. Trattato Etico Epicureo (PHerc. 346). Naples, Italy: Gianni Editore.

    Greek text, Italian translation, and commentary.

  • Einarson, Benedict, and Phillip De Lacy, eds. 1967. Plutarch: Moralia. Vol. XIV. Cambridge, UK, and London: Loeb.

    Greek text and English translation of “That Epicurus Makes a Pleasant Life Impossible” and “Is ‘Live Unknown’ a Wise Precept?”

  • Hessler, Jan Erik, ed. 2014. Epikur: Brief an Menoikeus. Basel, Switzerland: Schwabe Verlag.

    Greek text, German translation, and extensive commentary.

  • Indelli, Giovanni, and Tsouna-McKirahan, eds. 1995. Philodemus, On Choices and Avoidances. Naples, Italy: Bibliopolis.

    Greek text, English and Italian translations, and commentary.

  • Konstan, David, Diskan Clay, Clarence E. Glad, Johan C. Thom, and James Ware, eds. 1998. Philodemus: On Frank Criticism. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

    Greek text, notes, and English translation.

  • Reynolds, Leighton, ed. 1998. De finibus bonorum et malorum: libri quinque. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Latin text.

  • Smith, Martin F., ed. 1993. Diogenes of Oenoanda: The Epicurean inscription. Naples, Italy: Bibliopolis.

    Greek text, English translation, and commentary.

  • Woolf, Raphael, trans. 2001. Cicero: On moral ends. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    English translation.

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