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 What was Epicurus's philosophy?

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PostSubject: What was Epicurus's philosophy?   Wed 04 Nov 2009, 9:04 am

Please post any interesting info/facts about this Greek philosopher...among which has to be that he is responsible for the English word, "epicure."

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PostSubject: Re: What was Epicurus's philosophy?   Wed 04 Nov 2009, 9:46 am

Epicurus Quotes

By SuperEgo

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?
Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; Or he can, but does
not want to; Or he cannot and does not want to. If he wants to, but
cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked.
But, if God both can and wants to abolish evil, then how come evil is
in the world?
Why should I fear death? If I am, death is not. If death is, I am not. Why should I fear that which cannot exist when I do?
If the gods listened to the prayers of men, all humankind would
quickly perish since they constantly pray for many evils to befall one
I have never wished to cater to the crowd; for what I know they do not approve, and what they approve I do not know.
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PostSubject: Re: What was Epicurus's philosophy?   Wed 04 Nov 2009, 11:15 am

Vatican Sayings and Principal Doctrines are probably Epicurus' most famous work that still remains, and they can be found on his wiki. Together, they comprise approximately 120 maxims that reflect some of his thinking. Here are a couple examples:

PD 14. "Supreme power and great wealth may, to some degree, protect us from other men; but security in general depends upon peace of mind and social detachment."

VS 58. "We must free ourselves from the prison of public education and politics."

Perhaps we should post them all here, but I certainly recommend reading through them, as there are some that are extremely inciteful.
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PostSubject: Re: What was Epicurus's philosophy?   Wed 04 Nov 2009, 1:44 pm

Absolute justice does not exist. There are only mutual agreements among men, made at various times and places, not to inflict nor allow harm. - Epicurus
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PostSubject: Re: What was Epicurus's philosophy?   Thu 05 Nov 2009, 12:01 am

Can God create a stone in which God cannot lift? Thus negating his omnipotence. If God is omniscient, then why would God create me if God knows I'm going to hell? I use to struggle with these and many other philosophical maxims. Language is no different than a mathematical formula says Wittingstein. I am no Wittingstein expert by any means but what this leads me to think about the above mentioned questions is that they are a reverse negative in which there is no possibility to one without the other being possible therefore they are a limit due to our language and language makeup/formulas, no different than math.
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PostSubject: Re: What was Epicurus's philosophy?   Thu 05 Nov 2009, 12:14 am

Ludwig Wittingstein

The conventional view of the task of the philosopher is to solve seemingly intractable problems of philosophy using logical analysis (for example, the problem of free will, the relationship between mind and matter, what the good or the beautiful or the true consist of, and so on). However, Wittgenstein argues that these problems are, in fact, "bewitchments" that arise from philosophers' misuse of language.

from Wikipedia
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PostSubject: Re: What was Epicurus's philosophy?   Thu 05 Nov 2009, 3:42 am

You are making an assumption. Your assumption is that logic can be used to solve the mysteries of life and this universe. This has not been proven all the way by anyone. How for example would you explain time if it has no beginning. Sure the big bang is a theory but in my opinion just a theory constructed to make logic complete. There are no straight lines in this universe we live in. Not even light travels in a straigt line, it bends supposedly due to the gravitation, so why are we to expect that logic is part of the basic building blocks or tools of creation.
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PostSubject: Re: What was Epicurus's philosophy?   Thu 05 Nov 2009, 4:35 am

IP wrote:
Vatican Sayings and Principal Doctrines are probably Epicurus' most famous work that still remains, and they can be found on his wiki. Together, they comprise approximately 120 maxims that reflect some of his thinking. Here are a couple examples:

PD 14. "Supreme power and great wealth may, to some degree, protect us from other men; but security in general depends upon peace of mind and social detachment."

VS 58. "We must free ourselves from the prison of public education and politics."

Perhaps we should post them all here, but I certainly recommend reading through them, as there are some that are extremely inciteful.

Thank you, IP. Looks like a fruitful path...
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PostSubject: Re: What was Epicurus's philosophy?   Thu 05 Nov 2009, 5:16 am

stilltrying wrote:
Can God create a stone in which God cannot lift? Thus negating his omnipotence. If God is omniscient, then why would God create me if God knows I'm going to hell? I use to struggle with these and many other philosophical maxims. Language is no different than a mathematical formula says Wittingstein. I am no Wittingstein expert by any means but what this leads me to think about the above mentioned questions is that they are a reverse negative in which there is no possibility to one without the other being possible therefore they are a limit due to our language and language makeup/formulas, no different than math.
The thing I like so much about Ayn Rand is her simplicity of speech, i.e. her clarity. With much philosophy, one finds oneself lost in a sea of verbal complexity, and therefore no clear path to understanding seems to be open, and therefore one is left feeling there are no answers, a very troubling state of affairs. Sad

So, once I find myself dealing with such things as "reverse negatives" or the like, I abandon all attempts to 'understand' that philosopher, for he/she has led me astray in my quest for knowledge. After all, if I gain *confusion* rather than *understanding*--I have done myself NO GOOD, is that not so?

That is my comment, from what you've described, about Wittgenstein...and, speaking for myself, I would absolutely abandon him.

OTOH, I find that when Rand has something to say, to you or me, no matter how abstract the subject, even at the level of metaphysics, she says it clearly and in simple language...("A is A"), which is part of her genius, IMO.

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PostSubject: Re: What was Epicurus's philosophy?   Thu 05 Nov 2009, 5:23 am

matterik wrote:
Absolute justice does not exist. There are only mutual agreements among men, made at various times and places, not to inflict nor allow harm. - Epicurus

This philosopher strikes me as having a very kindly approach. (IOW, I like him. Wink)

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PostSubject: Re: What was Epicurus's philosophy?   Thu 05 Nov 2009, 7:24 am

Epicurus (341—271 BCE)

is one of the major philosophers in the Hellenistic period, the three
centuries following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE (and of
Aristotle in 322 BCE).
Epicurus developed an unsparingly materialistic metaphysics, empiricist
epistemology, and hedonistic ethics. Epicurus taught that the basic
constituents of the world are atoms, uncuttable bits of matter, flying
through empty space, and he tried to explain all natural phenomena in
atomic terms. Epicurus rejected the existence of Platonic forms and an
immaterial soul, and he said that the gods have no influence on our
lives. Epicurus also thought skepticism was untenable, and that we
could gain knowledge of the world relying upon the senses. He taught
that the point of all one’s actions was to attain pleasure (conceived
of as tranquility) for oneself, and that this could be done by limiting
one’s desires and by banishing the fear of the gods and of death.
Epicurus’ gospel of freedom from fear proved to be quite popular, and
communities of Epicureans flourished for centuries after his death.
Table of Contents

  1. Life
  2. Sources
  3. Metaphysics

    1. Arguments for the Existence of Atoms and Void
    2. Properties of Atoms, Limitlessness of the Universe
    3. Differences from Democritus

      1. Weight
      2. The Swerve
      3. Sensible Qualities

    4. Mechanistic Explanations of Natural Phenomena
    5. The Gods
    6. Philosophy of Mind
    7. Perception

  4. Epistemology

    1. The Canon: Sensations, Preconceptions, and Feelings
    2. Anti-skeptical Arguments

      1. The “Lazy Argument”
      2. The Self-refutation Argument
      3. The Argument from Concept-formation


  5. Ethics

    1. Hedonism, Psychological and Ethical
    2. Types of Pleasure
    3. Types of Desire
    4. The Virtues
    5. Justice
    6. Friendship
    7. Death

      1. The No Subject of Harm Argument
      2. The Symmetry Argument


  6. References and Further Reading

    1. Collections of Primary Sources
    2. Recent Books on Particular Areas of Epicurus’ Philosophy


1. Life

Epicurus was born around 341 BCE, seven years after Plato’s death,
and grew up in the Athenian colony of Samos, an island in the
Mediterranean Sea. He was about 19 when Aristotle died, and he studied philosophy under followers of Democritus
and Plato. Epicurus founded his first philosophical schools in Mytilene
and Lampsacus, before moving to Athens around 306 BCE. There Epicurus
founded the Garden,
a combination of philosophical community and school. The residents of
the Garden put Epicurus’ teachings into practice. Epicurus died from
kidney stones around 271 or 270 BCE.
After Epicurus’ death, Epicureanism continued to flourish as a
philosophical movement. Communities of Epicureans sprang up throughout
the Hellenistic world; along with Stoicism,
it was one of the major philosophical schools competing for people’s
allegiances. Epicureanism went into decline with the rise of
Christianity. Certain aspects of Epicurus’ thought were revived during
the Renaissance and early
modern periods, when reaction against scholastic neo-Aristotelianism
led thinkers to turn to mechanistic explanations of natural phenomena.
2. Sources

Epicurus was a voluminous writer, but almost none of his own work
survives. A likely reason for this is that Christian authorities found
his ideas ungodly. Diogenes Laertius, who probably lived in the third century CE , wrote a 10-book Lives of the Philosophers,
which includes three of Epicurus’ letters in its recounting of the life
and teachings of Epicurus. These three letters are brief summaries of
major areas of Epicurus’ philosophy: the Letter to Herodotus, which summarizes his metaphysics, the Letter to Pythocles, which gives atomic explanations for meteorological phenomena, and the Letter to Menoeceus,
which summarizes his ethics. It also includes the Principal Doctrines,
40 sayings which deal mainly with ethical matters.
Because of the absence of Epicurus’ own writings, we have to rely on
later writers to reconstruct Epicurus’ thought. Two of our most
important sources are the Roman poet Lucretius (c. 94-55 BCE) and the Roman politician Cicero (106-43 BCE). Lucretius was an Epicurean who wrote De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), a six-book poem expounding Epicurus’ metaphysics. Cicero was an adherent of the skeptical academy,
who wrote a series of works setting forth the major philosophical
systems of his day, including Epicureanism. Another major source is the
essayist Plutarch (c. 50-120 CE), a Platonist. However, both Cicero and
Plutarch were very hostile toward Epicureanism, so they must be used
with care, since they often are less than charitable toward Epicurus,
and may skew his views to serve their own purposes.
Although the major outlines of Epicurus’ thought are clear enough,
the lack of sources means many of the details of his philosophy are
still open to dispute.
3. Metaphysics

Epicurus believes that the basic constituents of the world are atoms
(which are uncuttable, microscopic bits of matter) moving in the void
(which is simply empty space). Ordinary objects are conglomerations of
atoms. Furthermore, the properties of macroscopic bodies and all of the
events we see occurring can be explained in terms of the collisions,
reboundings, and entanglements of atoms.
a. Arguments for the Existence of Atoms and Void

Epicurus’ metaphysics starts from two simple points: (1) we see that
there are bodies in motion, and (2) nothing comes into existence from
what does not exist. Epicurus takes the first point to be simply a
datum of experience. The second point is a commonplace of ancient Greek
philosophy, derived from the Principle of Sufficient Reason (the
principle that for everything which occurs there is a reason or
explanation for why it occurs, and why this way rather than that).
First, because bodies move, there must be empty space for them to
move in, and Epicurus calls this empty space ‘void.’ Second, the
ordinary bodies that we see are compound bodies–that is, bodies which
are made up of further bodies, which is shown by the fact that they can
be broken down into smaller pieces. However, Epicurus thinks that this
process of division cannot go on indefinitely, because otherwise bodies
would dissolve away into nothing. Also, there must be basic and
unchangeable building blocks of matter in order to explain the
regularities in nature. These non-compound bodies are atoms–literally,
‘uncuttables.’ Only bodies and void exist per se, that is,
exist without depending for their existence on something else. Other
things–such as colors, time, and justice–are ultimately explicable as
attributes of bodies.
b. Properties of Atoms, Limitlessness of the Universe

Because Epicurus believes that nothing comes into existence from
nothing, he thinks that the universe has no beginning, but has always
existed, and will always exist. Atoms, too, as the basic building
blocks of all else, cannot come into existence, but have always
existed. Our particular cosmos, however, is only a temporary
agglomeration of atoms, and it is only one of an infinite number of
such cosmoi, which come into existence and then dissolve away. Against Aristotle,
Epicurus argues that the universe is unlimited in size. If the universe
were limited in size, says Epicurus, you could go to the end of it,
stick your fist out, and where your fist was located would be the new
‘limit’ of the universe. Of course, this process could be reiterated an
endless number of times. Since the universe is unlimited in size, there
must also be an unlimited number of atoms and an infinite amount of
void. If the number of atoms were limited, then the ‘density’ of atoms
in any region would effectively be zero, and there would be no
macroscopic bodies, as there evidently are. And there must be an
unlimited amount of void, since without a limitless amount of void, the
infinite number of atoms would be unable to move.
c. Differences from Democritus

Up to this point, Epicurus is largely following the thought of Democritus,
a pre-Socratic philosopher and one of the inventors of atomism.
However, he modifies Democritus’ atomism in at least three important
i. Weight

The first is that Epicurus thinks that atoms have weight. Like Democritus,
Epicurus believes that atoms have the properties of size, shape, and
resistance. Democritus explains all atomic motion as the result of
previous atomic collisions, plus the inertia of atoms. Aristotle,
however, criticizes Democritus on this point, saying that Democritus
has not explained why it is that atoms move at all, rather than simply
standing still. Epicurus seems to be answering this criticism when he
says that atoms do have a natural motion of direction–’downward’–even
though there is no bottom to the universe. This natural motion is
supposed to give an explanation for why atoms move in the first place.
Also, Epicurus thinks that it is evident that bodies do tend to travel
down, all else being equal, and he thinks that positing weight as an
atomic property accounts for this better than thinking all atomic
motion is the result of past collisions and inertia.
ii. The Swerve

The second modification of Democritus’ views is the addition of the
’swerve.’ In addition to the regular tendency of atoms to move
downward, Epicurus thinks that occasionally, and at random times, the
atoms swerve to the side. One reason for this swerve is that it is
needed to explain why there are atomic collisions. The natural tendency
of atoms is to fall straight downward, at uniform velocity. If this
were the only natural atomic motion, the atoms never would have
collided with one another, forming macroscopic bodies. As Lucretius
puts it, they would ‘fall downward, like drops of rain, through the
deep void.’ The second reason for thinking that atoms swerve is that a
random atomic motion is needed to preserve human freedom and ‘break the
bonds of fate,’ as Lucretius says. If the laws of atomic motion are
deterministic, then the past positions of the atoms in the universe,
plus these laws, determine everything that will occur, including human
action. Cicero reports
that Epicurus worries that, if it has been true from eternity that,
e.g., “Milo will wrestle tomorrow,” then presently deliberating about
whether to make it true or false would be idle.
iii. Sensible Qualities

The third difference between Epicurus and Democritus
has to do with their attitudes toward the reality of sensible
properties. Democritus thinks that, in reality, only atoms and the void
exist, and that sensible qualities such as sweetness, whiteness, and
the like exist only ‘by convention.’ It is controversial exactly how to
understand Democritus’ position, but most likely he is asserting that
atoms themselves have no sensible qualities–they are simply extended
bits of stuff. The sensible qualities that we think bodies have, like
sweetness, are not really in the object at all, but are simply
subjective states of the percipient’s awareness produced by the
interaction of bodies with our sense-organs. This is shown, thinks
Democritus, by the fact that the same body appears differently to
different percipients depending on their bodily constitution, e.g.,
that a ‘white’ body appears yellow to somebody with jaundice, or that
honey tastes bitter to an ill person. From this, Democritus derives
skeptical conclusions. He is pessimistic about our ability to gain any
knowledge about the world on the basis of our senses, since they
systematically deceive us about the way the world is.
Epicurus wants to resist these pessimistic conclusions. He argues
that properties like sweetness, whiteness, and such do not exist at the
atomic level–individual atoms are not sweet or white–but that these
properties are nonetheless real. These are properties of macroscopic
bodies, but the possession of these properties by macroscopic bodies
are explicable in terms of the properties of and relations amongst the
individual atoms that make up bodies. Epicurus thinks that bodies have
the capability to cause us to have certain types of experiences because
of their atomic structure, and that such capabilities are real
properties of the bodies. Similar considerations apply for properties
like “being healthy,” “being deadly,” and “being enslaved.” They are
real, but can only apply to groups of atoms (like people), not
individual atoms. And these sorts of properties are also relational
properties, not intrinsic ones. For example, cyanide is deadly–not
deadly per se, but deadly for human beings (and
perhaps for other types of organisms). Nonetheless, its deadliness for
us is still a real property of the cyanide, albeit a relational one.
d. Mechanistic Explanations of Natural Phenomena

One important aspect of Epicurus’ philosophy is his desire to
replace teleological (goal-based) explanations of natural phenomena
with mechanistic ones. His main target is mythological explanations of
meteorological occurrences and the like in terms of the will of the
gods. Because Epicurus wishes to banish the fear of the gods, he
insists that occurrences like earthquakes and lightning can be
explained entirely in atomic terms and are not due to the will of the
gods. Epicurus is also against the intrinsic teleology of philosophers
like Aristotle. Teeth
appear to be well-designed for the purpose of chewing. Aristotle thinks
that this apparent purposiveness in nature cannot be eliminated, and
that the functioning of the parts of organisms must be explained by
appealing to how they contribute to the functioning of the organism as
a whole. Other philosophers, such as the Stoics,
took this apparent design as evidence for the intelligence and
benevolence of God. Epicurus, however, following Empedocles,
tries to explain away this apparent purposiveness in nature in a
proto-Darwinian way, as the result of a process of natural selection.
e. The Gods

Because of its denial of divine providence, Epicureanism was often
charged in antiquity with being a godless philosophy, although Epicurus
and his followers denied the charge. The main upshot of Epicurean
theology is certainly negative, however. Epicurus’ mechanistic
explanations of natural phenomena are supposed to displace
explanations that appeal to the will of the gods. In addition, Epicurus
is one of the earliest philosophers we know of to have raised the
Problem of Evil, arguing against the notion that the world is under the
providential care of a loving deity by pointing out the manifold
suffering in the world.
Despite this, Epicurus says that there are gods, but these gods are
quite different from the popular conception of gods. We have a
conception of the gods, says Epicurus, as supremely blessed and happy
beings. Troubling oneself about the miseries of the world, or trying to
administer the world, would be inconsistent with a life of tranquility,
says Epicurus, so the gods have no concern for us. In fact, they are
unaware of our existence, and live eternally in the intermundia, the
space between the cosmoi. For Epicurus, the gods function mainly as
ethical ideals, whose lives we can strive to emulate, but whose wrath
we need not fear.
Ancient critics thought the Epicurean gods were a thin smoke-screen
to hide Epicurus’ atheism, and difficulties with a literal
interpretation of Epicurus’ sayings on the nature of the gods (for
instance, it appears inconsistent with Epicurus’ atomic theory to hold
that any compound body, even a god, could be immortal) have led some
scholars to conjecture that Epicurus’ ‘gods’ are thought-constructs,
and exist only in human minds as idealizations, i.e., the
gods exist, but only as projections of what the most blessed life would
f. Philosophy of Mind

Epicurus is one of the first philosophers to put forward an Identity Theory of Mind.
In modern versions of the identity theory, the mind is identified with
the brain, and mental processes are identified with neural processes.
Epicurus’ physiology is quite different; the mind is identified as an
organ that resides in the chest, since the common Greek view was that
the chest, not the head, is the seat of the emotions. However, the
underlying idea is quite similar. (Note: not all commentators accept
that Epicurus’ theory is actually an Identity Theory.)
The main point that Epicurus wants to establish is that the mind is
something bodily. The mind must be a body, thinks Epicurus, because of
its ability to interact with the body. The mind is affected by the
body, as vision, drunkenness, and disease show. Likewise, the mind
affects the body, as our ability to move our limbs when we want to and
the physiological effects of emotional states show. Only bodies can
interact with other bodies, so the mind must be a body. Epicurus says
that the mind cannot be something incorporeal, as Plato thinks, since
the only thing that is not a body is void, which is simply empty space
and cannot act or be acted upon.
The mind, then, is an organ in the body, and mental processes are
identified with atomic processes. The mind is composed of four
different types of particles–fire, air, wind, and the “nameless
element,” which surpasses the other particles in its fineness. Although
Epicurus is reticent about the details, some features of the mind are
accounted for in terms of the features of these atoms–for instance, the
mind is able to be moved a great deal by the impact of an image (which
is something quite flimsy), because of the smallness of the particles
that make up the mind. The mind proper, which is primarily responsible
for sensation and thought, is located in the chest, but Epicurus thinks
that there is also a ’spirit,’ spread throughout the rest of the body,
which allows the mind to communicate with it. The mind and spirit play
roles very similar to those of the central and peripheral nervous
systems in modern theory.
One important result of Epicurus’ philosophy of mind is that death
is annihilation. The mind is able to engage in the motions of sensation
and thought only when it is housed in the body and the atoms that make
it up are properly arranged. Upon death, says Epicurus, the container
of the body shatters, and the atoms disperse in the air. The atoms are
eternal, but the mind made up of these atoms is not, just as other
compound bodies cease to exist when the atoms that make them up
g. Perception

Epicurus explains perception in terms of the interaction of atoms
with the sense-organs. Objects continually throw off one-atom-thick
layers, like the skin peeling off of an onion. These images, or
“eidola,” fly through the air and bang into one’s eyes, from which one
learns about the properties of the objects that threw off these eidola.
This explains vision. Other senses are analyzed in similar terms; e.g.,
the soothing action of smooth atoms on the tongue causes the sensation
of sweetness. As noted above, Epicurus maintains that such sensible qualities are real qualities of bodies.
4. Epistemology

Epicurus’ epistemology is resolutely empiricist and anti-skeptical.
All of our knowledge ultimately comes from the senses, thinks Epicurus,
and we can trust the senses, when properly used. Epicurus’ epistemology
was contained in his work the ‘Canon,’ or ‘measuring stick,’ which is
lost, so many of the details of his views are unavailable to us. 4a.
The Canon: sensations, preconceptions, and feelings
Epicurus says that there are three criteria of truth: sensations,
‘preconceptions,’ and feelings. Sensations give us information about
the external world, and we can test the judgments based upon sensations
against further sensations; e.g., a provisional judgment that a tower
is round, based upon sensation, can be tested against later sensations
to be corroborated or disproved. Epicurus says that all sensations give
us information about the world, but that sensation itself is never in
error, since sensation is a purely passive, mechanical reception of
images and the like by sense-organs, and the senses themselves do not
make judgments ‘that’ the world is this way or that. Instead, error
enters in when we make judgments about the world based upon the
information received through the senses.
Epicurus thinks that, in order to make judgments about the world, or
even to start any inquiry whatsoever, we must already be in possession
of certain basic concepts, which stand in need of no further proof or
definition, on pain of entering into an infinite regress. This concern
is similar to the Paradox of Inquiry explored by Plato in the Meno,
that one must already know about something in order to be able to
inquire about it. However, instead of postulating that our immaterial
souls had acquaintance with transcendent Forms in a pre-natal
existence, as Plato does, Epicurus thinks that we have certain
‘preconceptions’–concepts such as ‘body,’ ‘person,’ ‘usefulness,’ and
‘truth’–which are formed in our (material) minds as the result of
repeated sense-experiences of similar objects. Further ideas are formed
by processes of analogy or similarity or by compounding these basic
concepts. Thus, all ideas are ultimately formed on the basis of
Feelings of pleasure and pain form the basic criteria for what is to be sought and avoided.
b. Anti-skeptical Arguments

Epicurus is concerned to refute the skeptical tendencies of Democritus,
whose metaphysics and theory of perception were similar to Epicurus’.
At least three separate anti-skeptical arguments are given by
i. The “Lazy Argument”

Epicurus says that it is impossible to live as a skeptic. If a
person really were to believe that he knows nothing, then he would have
no reason to engage in one course of action instead of another. Thus,
the consistent skeptic would engage in no action whatsoever, and would
ii. The Self-refutation Argument

If a skeptic claims that nothing can be known, then one should ask whether he knows
that nothing can be known. If he says ‘yes,’ then he is contradicting
himself. If he doesn’t say yes, then he isn’t making a claim, and we
don’t need to listen to him.
iii. The Argument from Concept-formation

If the skeptic says that nothing can be known, or that we cannot
know the truth, we can ask him where he gets his knowledge of concepts
such as ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth.’ If the senses cannot be relied on, as
the skeptic claims, then he is not entitled to use concepts such as
‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’ in formulating his thesis, since such concepts
derive from the senses.
5. Ethics

Epicurus’ ethics is a form of egoistic hedonism; i.e., he says that
the only thing that is intrinsically valuable is one’s own pleasure;
anything else that has value is valuable merely as a means to securing
pleasure for oneself. However, Epicurus has a sophisticated and
idiosyncratic view of the nature of pleasure, which leads him to
recommend a virtuous, moderately ascetic life as the best means to
securing pleasure. This contrasts Epicurus strongly with the Cyrenaics,
a group of ancient hedonists who better fit the stereotype of hedonists
as recommending a policy of “eat, drink, and be merry.”
a. Hedonism, Psychological and Ethical

Epicurus’ ethics starts from the Aristotelian commonplace that the
highest good is what is valued for its own sake, and not for the sake
of anything else, and Epicurus agrees with Aristotle
that happiness is the highest good. However, he disagrees with
Aristotle by identifying happiness with pleasure. Epicurus gives two
reasons for this. The main reason is that pleasure is the only thing
that people do, as a matter of fact, value for its own sake; that is,
Epicurus’ ethical hedonism is based upon his psychological hedonism.
Everything we do, claims Epicurus, we do for the sake ultimately of
gaining pleasure for ourselves. This is supposedly confirmed by
observing the behavior of infants, who, it is claimed, instinctively
pursue pleasure and shun pain. This is also true of adults, thinks
Epicurus, but in adults it is more difficult to see that this is true,
since adults have much more complicated beliefs about what will bring
them pleasure. But the Epicureans did spend a great deal of energy
trying to make plausible the contention that all activity, even
apparently self-sacrificing activity or activity done solely for the
sake of virtue or what is noble, is in fact directed toward obtaining
pleasure for oneself.
The second proof, which fits in well with Epicurus’ empiricism,
supposedly lies in one’s introspective experience. One immediately
perceives that pleasure is good and that pain is bad, in the same way
that one immediately perceives that fire is hot; no further argument is
needed to show the goodness of pleasure or the badness of pain. (Of
course, this does not establish Epicurus’ further contention that only pleasure is intrinsically valuable and only pain is intrinsically bad.)
Although all pleasures are good and all pains evil, Epicurus says
that not all pleasures are choiceworthy or all pains to be avoided.
Instead, one should calculate what is in one’s long-term self-interest,
and forgo what will bring pleasure in the short-term if doing so will
ultimately lead to greater pleasure in the long-term.
b. Types of Pleasure

For Epicurus, pleasure is tied closely to satisfying one’s desires.
He distinguishes between two different types of pleasure: ‘moving’
pleasures and ’static’ pleasures. ‘Moving’ pleasures occur when one is
in the process of satisfying a desire, e.g., eating a hamburger when
one is hungry. These pleasures involve an active titillation of the
senses, and these feelings are what most people call ‘pleasure.’
However, Epicurus says that after one’s desires have been
satisfied, (e.g., when one is full after eating), the state of satiety,
of no longer being in need or want, is itself pleasurable. Epicurus
calls this a ’static’ pleasure, and says that these static pleasures
are the best pleasures.
Because of this, Epicurus denies that there is any intermediate
state between pleasure and pain. When one has unfulfilled desires, this
is painful, and when one no longer has unfulfilled desires, this steady
state is the most pleasurable of all, not merely some intermediate
state between pleasure and pain.
Epicurus also distinguishes between physical and mental pleasures
and pains. Physical pleasures and pains concern only the present,
whereas mental pleasures and pains also encompass the past (fond
memories of past pleasure or regret over past pain or mistakes) and the
future (confidence or fear about what will occur). The greatest
destroyer of happiness, thinks Epicurus, is anxiety about the future,
especially fear of the gods and fear of death.
If one can banish fear about the future, and face the future with
confidence that one’s desires will be satisfied, then one will attain
tranquility (ataraxia), the most exalted state. In fact,
given Epicurus’ conception of pleasure, it might be less misleading to
call him a ‘tranquillist’ instead of a ‘hedonist.’
c. Types of Desire

Because of the close connection of pleasure with
desire-satisfaction, Epicurus devotes a considerable part of his ethics
to analyzing different kinds of desires. If pleasure results from
getting what you want (desire-satisfaction) and pain from not getting
what you want (desire-frustration), then there are two strategies you
can pursue with respect to any given desire: you can either strive to
fulfill the desire, or you can try to eliminate the desire. For the
most part Epicurus advocates the second strategy, that of paring your
desires down to a minimum core, which are then easily satisfied.
Epicurus distinguishes between three types of desires: natural and
necessary desires, natural but non-necessary desires, and “vain and
empty” desires. Examples of natural and necessary desires include the
desires for food, shelter, and the like. Epicurus thinks that these
desires are easy to satisfy, difficult to eliminate (they are
‘hard-wired’ into human beings naturally), and bring great pleasure
when satisfied. Furthermore, they are necessary for life, and they are
naturally limited: that is, if one is hungry, it only takes a limited
amount of food to fill the stomach, after which the desire is
satisfied. Epicurus says that one should try to fulfill these desires.
Vain desires include desires for power, wealth, fame, and the like.
They are difficult to satisfy, in part because they have no natural
limit. If one desires wealth or power, no matter how much one gets, it
is always possible to get more, and the more one gets, the more one
wants. These desires are not natural to human beings, but inculcated by
society and by false beliefs about what we need; e.g., believing that
having power will bring us security from others. Epicurus thinks that
these desires should be eliminated.
An example of a natural but non-necessary desire is the desire for
luxury food. Although food is needed for survival, one does not need a
particular type of food to survive. Thus, despite his hedonism,
Epicurus advocates a surprisingly ascetic way of life. Although one
shouldn’t spurn extravagant foods if they happen to be available,
becoming dependent on such goods ultimately leads to unhappiness. As
Epicurus puts it, “If you wish to make Pythocles wealthy, don’t give
him more money; rather, reduce his desires.” By eliminating the pain
caused by unfulfilled desires, and the anxiety that occurs because of
the fear that one’s desires will not be fulfilled in the future, the
wise Epicurean attains tranquility, and thus happiness.
d. The Virtues

Epicurus’ hedonism was widely denounced in the ancient world as
undermining traditional morality. Epicurus, however, insists that
courage, moderation, and the other virtues are needed in order to
attain happiness. However, the virtues for Epicurus are all purely
instrumental goods–that is, they are valuable solely for the sake of
the happiness that they can bring oneself, not for their own sake.
Epicurus says that all of the virtues are ultimately forms of prudence,
of calculating what is in one’s own best interest. In this, Epicurus
goes against the majority of Greek ethical theorists, such as the Stoics, who identify happiness with virtue, and Aristotle,
who identifies happiness with a life of virtuous activity. Epicurus
thinks that natural science and philosophy itself also are instrumental
goods. Natural science is needed in order to give mechanistic
explanations of natural phenomena and thus dispel the fear of the gods,
while philosophy helps to show us the natural limits of our desires and
to dispel the fear of death.
e. Justice

Epicurus is one of the first philosophers to give a well-developed
contractarian theory of justice. Epicurus says that justice is an
agreement “neither to harm nor be harmed,” and that we have a preconception
of justice as “what is useful in mutual associations.” People enter
into communities in order to gain protection from the dangers of the
wild, and agreements concerning the behavior of the members of the
community are needed in order for these communities to function, e.g.,
prohibitions of murder, regulations concerning the killing and eating
of animals, and so on. Justice exists only where there are such
Like the virtues, justice is valued entirely on instrumental
grounds, because of its utility for each of the members of society.
Epicurus says that the main reason not to be unjust is that one will be
punished if one gets caught, and that even if one does not get caught,
the fear of being caught will still cause pain. However, he adds that
the fear of punishment is needed mainly to keep fools in line, who
otherwise would kill, steal, etc. The Epicurean wise man recognizes the
usefulness of the laws, and since he does not desire great wealth,
luxury goods, political power, or the like, he sees that he has no
reason to engage in the conduct prohibited by the laws in any case.
Although justice only exists where there is an agreement about how
to behave, that does not make justice entirely ‘conventional,’ if by
‘conventional’ we mean that any behavior dictated by the laws of a
particular society is thereby just, and that the laws of a particular
society are just for that society. Since the ‘justice contract’ is
entered into for the purpose of securing what is useful for the members
of the society, only laws that are actually useful are just. Thus, a
prohibition of murder would be just, but antimiscegenation laws would
not. Since what is useful can vary from place to place and time to
time, what laws are just can likewise vary.
f. Friendship

Epicurus values friendship highly and praises it in quite
extravagant terms. He says that friendship “dances around the world”
telling us that we must “wake to blessedness.” He also says that the
wise man is sometimes willing to die for a friend. Because of this,
some scholars have thought that in this area, at least, Epicurus
abandons his egoistic hedonism and advocates altruism toward friends.
This is not clear, however. Epicurus consistently maintains that
friendship is valuable because it is one of the greatest means of
attaining pleasure. Friends, he says, are able to provide one another
the greatest security, whereas a life without friends is solitary and
beset with perils. In order for there to be friendship, Epicurus says,
there must be trust between friends, and friends have to treat each
other as well as they treat themselves. The communities of Epicureans
can be seen as embodying these ideals, and these are ideals that
ultimately promote ataraxia.
g. Death

One of the greatest fears that Epicurus tries to combat is the fear
of death. Epicurus thinks that this fear is often based upon anxiety
about having an unpleasant afterlife; this anxiety, he thinks, should
be dispelled once one realizes that death is annihilation, because the
mind is a group of atoms that disperses upon death.
i. The No Subject of Harm Argument

If death is annihilation, says Epicurus, then it is ‘nothing to us.’
Epicurus’ main argument for why death is not bad is contained in the
Letter to Menoeceus and can be dubbed the ‘no subject of harm’
argument. If death is bad, for whom is it bad? Not for the
living, since they’re not dead, and not for the dead, since they don’t
exist. His argument can be set out as follows:

  1. Death is annihilation.
  2. The living have not yet been annihilated (otherwise they wouldn’t be alive).
  3. Death does not affect the living. (from 1 and 2)
  4. So, death is not bad for the living. (from 3)
  5. For something to be bad for somebody, that person has to exist, at least.
  6. The dead do not exist. (from 1)
  7. Therefore, death is not bad for the dead. (from 5 and 6)
  8. Therefore death is bad for neither the living nor the dead. (from 4 and 7)

Epicurus adds that if death causes you no pain when you’re dead,
it’s foolish to allow the fear of it to cause you pain now.
ii. The Symmetry Argument

A second Epicurean argument against the fear of death, the so-called
’symmetry argument,’ is recorded by the Epicurean poet Lucretius. He
says that anyone who fears death should consider the time before he was
born. The past infinity of pre-natal non-existence is like the future
infinity of post-mortem non-existence; it is as though nature has put
up a mirror to let us see what our future non-existence will be like.
But we do not consider not having existed for an eternity before our
births to be a terrible thing; therefore, neither should we think not
existing for an eternity after our deaths to be evil.
6. References and Further Reading

This is not meant as comprehensive bibliography; rather, it’s a
selection of further texts to read for those who want to learn more
about Epicurus and Epicureanism. Most of the books listed below have
extensive bibliographies for those looking for more specialized and
scholarly publications.
a. Collections of Primary Source

  • The Epicurus Reader, translated and edited by Brad Inwood and L.P. Gerson, Hackett Publishing.

    • This inexpensive collection has most of the major extant writings
      of Epicurus, in addition to other ancient sources such as Cicero and
      Plutarch who wrote about Epicureanism. (Lucretius is not
      included much.) However, there is little commentary or explication of
      the material, and some of the primary sources are fairly opaque.

  • The Hellenistic philosophers, Volume 1: translations of the principal sources, with philosophical commentary, by A.A. Long and D.N. Sedley, Cambridge University Press.

    • This excellent book organizes the texts into sections topically,
      (e.g., “Atoms,” “Soul,” “Language,” “Death,”) and follows each
      selection of texts with commentary and explication. Vol. 2, which
      contains the original Greek and Latin texts, has a fine, if somewhat
      dated (1987) bibliography at the end.Lucretius, De Rerum Natura

    • </li>
  • There are many different editions of Lucretius’ masterpiece, anextended exposition of Epicurus’ metaphysics, philosophy of mind, andnatural science. I personally like the translation by Rolfe Humphries: Lucretius: The Way Things Are. The De Rerum Natura of Titus Lucretius Carus,
Indiana University Press. Humphries translates Lucretius’ poem as a
poem, not as prose, yet the translation is still very clear and
b. Recent Books on Particular Areas of Epicurus’ Philosophy

The books below are all well-written and influential. They deal
in-depth with problems of interpreting particular areas of Epicurus’
philosophy, while still remaining, for the most part, accessible to
well-educated general readers. They also have extensive bibliographies.
However, do not assume that the interpretations of Epicurus in these
books are always widely accepted.

  • Hellenistic Philosophy of Mind, by Julia Annas, University of California Press.

    • This book deals with Epicurean and Stoic theories of what the mind is.

  • Epicurus’ Ethical Theory : The Pleasures of Invulnerability, by Phillip Mitsis, Cornell University Press.

    • This book is concerned with all of the major areas of Epicurean
      ethics, from pleasure, to friendship, justice, and human freedom.
      Mitsis is especially good at showing how Epicurus’ conception of
      pleasure differs from that of the utilitarians.

  • The Morality of Happiness, by Julia Annas, Oxford University Press.

    • This book focuses deals with all major ancient theorists from
      Aristotle on, but is still a good source of information on Epicurean
      ethics, especially if one wants to put Epicurean ethics in the context
      of other ancient ethical theories.

  • Epicurus’ Scientific Method, by Elizabeth Asmis, Cornell University Press.

    • The best book-length treatment of Epicurus’ epistemology available.
      A little more technical than the books above, but still fairly


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