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Throughout the ages Epicurus (341-271 BCE) has been both idealized and anathematized. As an atheist materialist philosopher he was an offense to religious thinkers. Many of his influential admirers, like Thomas Hobbes and Thomas Jefferson, had to keep their Epicurean leanings a secret. On the other hand, the philosopher-physicist Isaac Newton was candid enough to assert openly that he was reviving the tenets of the Epicurean philosophy when he embarked on his world-transforming project.
But Epicurus’ significance transcends even his astounding historical influence because the subjects he reflected on are of enduring significance: What is the purpose of life? What is the nature of reality? How did this world come into existence? Is it going to last forever? How many worlds exist? What is the appropriate method for the investigation of natural phenomena? What are the proper criteria for establishing whether a claim is true or false? How should we live our lives? Should we fear death?
Epicurus’ Life and Significance as a Thinker
Epicurus was born, probably in Athens, in 341 BCE. The city was a pale reflection of its resplendent past. The apogee of Sophocles’ and Plato’s golden age was now a pallid memory. The bustling cultural activity of Athenian life had waned irrevocably. Nevertheless, philosophy was by no means moribund. A remarkable trend was being set, which was destined later to continue and endure even under the auspices of the Roman Empire: The allure of philosophy would prove irresistible for many vulgar newcomers. When we study other historical periods and cultures we find that the upstart is more likely to be attracted to conspicuous consumption of the garish sort. Remarkably, in the days of Epicurus and, even more so in Roman times, the ability to afford philosophic training was considered one of the most irresistible displays of high status. This almost serendipitous phenomenon ensured that philosophic activity would continue unabated for many centuries and would register a remarkable influence on many nascent systems, including Christianity itself. But there is a catch.
The problems inherited from the generations of Plato and Aristotle were alive and well. Debates were animated and philosophic enthusiasm did not pass from the earth. On the other hand, however, in the centuries that followed, the traditional problems of philosophy were often discussed in an unoriginal, reiterative fashion and, often, simply for the sake of creating impressions or with a view to producing dry “encyclopedic” compilations. This is not unique to this period of course–and it might be eerily similar to periods with which we are more familiar. An additional phenomenon was the exponential and rapid growth of mystical preoccupations. One could argue that Plato had a pronouncedly mystic side to his thinking; but, while Plato’s mysticism is a metaphysically transcendental position, the new mysticism was a crude and frightened superstition. Epicurus’ significance becomes more evident when we mention that the atomist philosopher saw himself as the enemy of superstition and champion of–what we would call today–commonsense rationalist empiricism.
By this time, the democratic experiment of the Athenian polis had all but been forgotten. (Of course, many celebrated ancient philosophers, including Plato himself, were harshly critical of Athenian democracy.) Unmoored from the salutary influence of civic life and reduced to passive and harassed dependency, the common folks became enthusiastic recipients of paranormal fables and superstitious tales. The popular interest in astrological trumpery seems to have been insatiable. It also seems to have been the case that the endless supply of tabloid-like tales about punishing gods actually contributed to an exacerbation of the maddening fears that had made such stories popular in the first place. This must have been a melancholy era indeed. If we keep this in mind, we will not be surprised by Epicurus’ insistence that the greatest ethical value in the universe–and, hence, the proper goal of a human life–is peace of mind. (His detractors thought or, at any rate, claimed that Epicurus took pleasure to be the highest moral value, which, of course, placed Epicurus in the infamous clan of hedonists and ensured that the term Epicureanism would obtain unflattering connotations for posterity.)
To return, for a moment, to the dimension of philosophic activity: We should keep in mind that the fragmentation of philosophical speculation into several “disciplines” is a late phenomenon. Even Newton thought of himself as, primarily, someone who was engaged in philosophy. Physics and, what we call today metaphysics, were one; and ethics was joined with them too. This union was thought to be harmonious and in accordance with the natural order of things. Natural philosophy was driving developments, even though the ethical problems–understood to comprise the meaning of life and the proper purposes of human activity–were generally declared to be the most important. Before Epicurus, the atomic theory had been formulated by Leucippus and Democritus; its presumed refutation, however, had behind it the growing and formidable authority of no other than Aristotle himself. Epicurus picked up this ongoing debate; he reinvigorated and made original contributions to the atomist persuasion and derived a full-bodied metaphysics [theory of reality], epistemology [theory of knowledge], and even methodology [akin to today’s philosophy of science] from his natural philosophy of Atomism; the whole system was said to point, with impeccable logical consistency, to an aggregate of ethical corollaries and maxims which promised to secure a happy--i.e., imperturbable and tranquil--life for the followers of the system.
We see, therefore, that Epicurus both undertook to contribute to a philosophical-scientific debate of grave importance and offered to soothe and heal the anguish of his age. He took this to be natural and logically of one piece although a less sympathetic age–and, in his own times, his numerous traducers–would charge that Epicurus was a phony who, under the veneer of prestigious philosophic pretensions, aspired to be a populist guru, self-important master of devoted disciples, and vain founder and propagandizer of a quasi-religious order. But this is not fair to Epicurus. He might have succumbed to vanity and transports of grandeur, but, to his credit, he concentrated unflinchingly on the most difficult problems of philosophy and worked indefatigably to produce and synthesize reasonable answers. As for the populist appeals of his teachings, Epicurus seems to have thought sincerely that he was offering an invaluable service to his contemporaries by turning the light of reason against the obscurantist horrors of popular superstition and a false astrological theology. It is a great tribute to Epicurus that many modern thinkers, including Thomas Hobbes and perhaps Thomas Jefferson, fashioned their own work, at least part, after Epicurus’ brave struggle on behalf of enlightening science and against popular superstition.
Epicurus’ parents, Neocles and Chaerestrata, were impecunious Athenians who joined a mission of economically driven colonists. They settled on the island of Samos, in the East Aegean Archipelago. Epicurus grew up on the island and turned to philosophy from a ripe young age. According to a legend, Epicurus decided to pursue philosophic studies when he was only fourteen when he became frustrated at his teacher’s failure to explain an obscure passage in Hesiod’s Theogony about the primeval chaos. While on Samos, Epicurus studied with the Platonist Pamphilus.
In 321, Epicurus joined the Athenians who had been previously expelled from Samos and were now living in Colophon, Anatolia. It is reported that, in Colophon, Epicurus did not waste much time before he entered into acrimonious philosophical antagonism with a local mind, Nausiphanes of Teos. Those were times when disputes over a philosophic problem could arouse the most vitriolic hatred and lead to irreconcilable animosity. Indeed, the quarrel with Nausiphanes must have become quite ferocious. It is also in this period that Epicurus, for the first time, grew fond of developing details about how one ought to live so as to live consistently with the true philosophy. The Epicurean cult and the adoration of Epicurus as a sage-guru was already in the making. Epicurus might have encouraged and even promoted this devotion. His adversaries always underlined this side of Epicurus’ life and found here ample fodder for gossip and polemics.
In 311, Epicurus moved to Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, where he opened a school of philosophic teaching. It appears that rumors soon spread and aspersions were cast on Epicurus and his disciples; the charge of impiety was leveled. It is likely that Epicurus was forcibly expelled form Lesbos. In 310, he moved to Lampsacus, near the Hellespont, where he began to proselytize and teach. He lived in Lampsacus until 306 and, in this period, gained a substantial number of devoted students.
In 306, he moved to Athens with a few of his pupils. He was to remain in Athens for the rest of his life. He bought a house and the celebrated–or, dependent on which side refers to it, infamous–Garden. It was in this garden, in aloofness and behind high walls, that the philosophic cult of Epicurus waxed and thrived. It could be argued that Socrates had been the first Greek thinker who sensed that the stakes in philosophical debate are so high and philosophy’s scope so encompassing that the philosopher’s pursuit ought to be not simply an inquiry but a complete and engrossing way of life. Epicurus was putting this Socratic insight to practice and, given the tenor and prejudices of his times, he was compelled to carry on with his philosophic activities in splendid isolation, behind the fortifying walls of the notorious Epicurean Garden. Predictably, the outside world took a dim and hostile view of this insular and elitist cult. It must be said, however, that Epicurus considered the appeal of his philosophy to be unencumbered from any distinctions of class, background, race, or even gender. And, indeed, the content of his philosophy and its appeal to accessible common-sense empiricism are consistent with an ideology of political equality: It does not take exceptional natural character of mind to follow the Epicurean principles and precepts. To use A. E. Taylor’s apt phrase, Epicurus’ philosophy is “anti-elitist.” The Epicurean system appeals to common sense, privileges the viewpoint of ordinarily and commonly available experience, and recommends a prudential approach to life’s ethical challenges which is within everyone’s reach. Epicurean materialism rejects the inequality of Platonic excellence insofar as it rejects excellence itself–every human being, including the presumably greatest ones, is simply an aggregate of self-organizing material particles. As shown by the political philosopher Leo Strauss, this egalitarian bent of Epicurean materialism was diagnosed and emulated by many modern thinkers; Thomas Hobbes based his own egalitarian social-contract theory on a resuscitated and partly revamped Epicureanism.
Few other thinkers have been treated to the relentless vituperation hurled at Epicurus both by his contemporaries and by critics throughout the ages. G. Panichas has anthologized the lurid epithets with which ancient sources on Epicurus teem: “a most shameless physicist;” “flatterer of authority;” “plagiarist of Democritus;” “teacher of effeminacy;” “nasty name-caller;” “writer of lewd letters.” Rumors had Epicurus indulge in extravagant feasts and orgies. It was claimed that he would induce vomiting twice a day so that he could continue unobstructed in his bulimic excesses. It was also said that Epicurus believed in the potency of magical incantations–a preposterous charge, considering Epicurus’ unequivocal condemnation of superstitious ritual. Other rumors claimed that his mother had been a magician–and that, as a boy, Epicurus had followed her around as her assistant; that his brother was a pimp; and that he lacked good taste altogether and had embarrassingly boorish habits.
In reality, the Epicurean Garden served as something of an institution for mutual assistance of the school’s members. Life in the Garden was regulated on the basis of detailed pecuniary and sumptuary regulations and with a view to preventing mischief and encouraging trust. The value of friendship was stressed–although Epicurus’ critics doubted that his utilitarian calculus could endorse true friendship. The students were exhorted to lead a life of modest and prudent pleasures and to shun unnecessary distractions and short-lived flamboyant satisfactions. Property was not shared–and the justification that is reported for this, rather unconvincingly if not contradictorily, is that Epicurus thought commonly owned property to be a source of distrust.
Epicurus urged his students to memorize the main points of his system and promised that following the system both by repeating its principles and by putting it to practice would ensure freedom from bodily, and especially from mental, distress. Epicurus found the religious tales about an afterlife to be the most forbidding obstacle to attaining a serene life and the most baneful source of dread. To make full sense of this, we need to realize that, in pre-Christian times, the Greek tales about the afterlife were replete with terror: Horrendous and eternal punishments were meted out to various nefarious characters but, at the same time, it was not always made clear how one came to merit such punishment, and the frightening possibility was entertained that one could become the victim of divine malice and be condemned without appeal or judicial remedy. (In Christian times, Calvinism, for reasons of its own, resurrected this spectrum, often with equally calamitous consequences of the average person’s peace of mind.) Epicurus’ contemporaries, like those of Socrates and Plato, took the gods to be fickle, vindictive, spoiled, malicious, and unjust–which was a consistent view since the gods were considered extremely powerful and it was also thought that one who has immense power is at liberty, and might have every good and selfish reason, to behave badly toward others. Plato had protested against the logical and ethical-philosophical inconsistencies of this view but, by the times of Epicurus, the nuances of Platonism, which was not intended for the masses anyway, were not available for the huddled masses. It is within this context that we must read Epicurus’ claim that the supreme aim of his system is to secure peace of mind.
It is pivotal to Epicurus’ promise that one accepts the atomist philosophy of nature. This does not mean that Atomism is taken to be a stopgap ad-hoc theory which is introduced for the sake of calming public terror. The atomic philosophy is seen as the true one, which, incidentally, once grasped, takes care of fear and anguish. Nevertheless, many thought that the tranquility promised by Epicurus is purchased at a prohibitive price: Epicurus’ philosophy is materialism and, in spite of his professed belief in the existence of material divinities, essentially atheistic. That the philosophy is materialist would not have been an anathema to the ancients because natural philosophies had been materialist anyway. Indeed, an alternative to philosophic materialism did not have to be, and might not have been, conceived if it were not for the influence of the Orphic rites on Plato. Plato’s philosophy argued for the existence of an immaterial soul–it may or may not be the case that Socrates had believed in the immortal immaterial soul. It is the immaterial soul that is immortal. The material body, or even a material soul like the one presented by Epicurus, is destined to succumb to the perennial natural law of decomposition. The horror of Platonists was that, if it were ever found out that the immortal soul does not exist and that eternal punishments are not to be feared, the whole world would degenerate into anarchic, nihilistic chaos. So, the confession in philosophic materialism was to be taken as a sign of dangerous radicalism. And, for obvious reasons, this was the position adopted by the Christian thinkers, and, one suspects, even those Christian writers who harbored inner doubts about faith and dogma thought that there was every good reason to disavow and condemn atheism in order to safeguard public morals. So, throughout the ages, atheist Epicureanism was preserved as a term of invective.
Epicurus died in 271. He refers to his fatal ailments as “strangury and dysentery”–painful, incomplete urination probably caused by a bladder obstruction. As we know from an extant letter, Epicurus was proud to be facing death with fearless equanimity. Diogenes Laertius, who has preserved for us the very few Epicurean texts we have, heaps praises on Epicurus: The philosopher was gentle, humane, simple in his manners, and reasonable in his outlook.
It was said that Epicurus’ writings could fill an entire library room, but very little survives today. Our sources for Epicurus’ philosophy–translated in this volume–are a few letters and a compendium of maxims. There are also fragments, which do not add much to our understanding of Epicurus’ philosophy, and testimonia, some of which are of dubious authenticity. The two seminal texts on Epicurus’ natural philosophy, including his methodology, are his “Letter to Herodotus” and “Letter to Pythocles.” Epicurus’ ethical teachings are contained in his “Letter to Menoeceus” and in a pithy collection of maxims known as “Principal Doctrines.” An excavation in the twentieth century produced one more text, the so-called “Vatican Sayings” which has not been included in the present selection as it corresponds very closely to the “Principal Doctrines.” An excellent and elaborate source on Epicurus’ philosophy, which we still have with us, is from Roman times: A devoted student of Epicurus, Lucretius, wrote a poem, de rerum natura (On the Nature of the Universe), which refers to, and often gives considerable details about, many Epicurean theories, including some that are not mentioned at all in the extant writings of Epicurus.
Epicurus’ Philosophic System
The dispute between the Epicureans, on the one hand, and the Platonists and Neoplatonists, on the other, raged for centuries. Roughly, Epicurus and his disciples anticipated what we know today as a hard-hewn, no-nonsense, anti-mystical, pro-empiricist approach while the Platonists and Neoplatonists, encouraged by Plato’s own writings and abetted by times of distress and upheaval, defended the claims of consolatory mysticism and opted for speculative flights into transcendental epistemologies. Epicurus’ philosophical system even anticipated such recent developments in philosophy and science as the logical-positivist emphasis on a criterion of verification of truth claims, the scientific-methodological test of falsifiability of hypotheses, and the conventionalist demand for unambiguous operational definition of crucial terms. Equally impressive is Epicurus’ close anticipation of Newtonian physics. Perhaps, the correct way of putting this is the other way round: It is a lasting testament to Epicurus’ significance that, as generally acknowledged, Newton was able to formulate his system by rejecting the medieval-Aristotelian plenum and by reviving the ancient Epicurean claim of the existence of empty space. In political thought, Epicurus anticipated contractarianism. In ethics, he managed to eke out a set of moral imperatives for the good life even though, once again anticipating the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he seems to have diagnosed a failure on the part of authoritatively prescriptive ethics to find secure foundations.
Like Newton’s physics, Epicurus atomist philosophy is anti-teleological. The Aristotelian system, which was destined later to dominate the thought of the Middle Ages, is a typically teleological system: The distinctive feature of teleology is that it considers nature to be purposeful. The highest form of cause in the Aristotelian system is the so-called final cause: The goal or purpose for the sake of which objects are actualized. In the same way that the wood and the carpenter’s effort are ancillary causes to the main purposive intent of creating a piece of furniture, so does intelligent Nature operate causally on the basis of structured and meaningful purposes. This view is not conducive to experimentation because one would be better off using his or her mind to read the book of nature and because, at any rate, the discovery of irregularities and errors would not advance knowledge under this system: Failures are considered to be freakish occurrences which violate the wisdom of natural order rather than occasions for further investigation. Epicurus rejected Aristotelian teleology. According to Epicurus’ atomic theory, motion is not a providentially directed activity or purpose-guided transition into actuality but a brute fact. The atomic composition of everything ensures that nature is ultimately self-organizing but also that this self-organization is blind and random. Since the atom is not rational, Epicurus’ principle of natural self-organization is indeed a concession that nature is ruled by chance rather than intelligent purpose. Epicurus’ courage in claiming that the atom–an unintelligent and basic entity–has inherent motion can be appreciated better by realizing that similar claims, raised by certain variants of chaos theory, are considered radical even today. Epicurus’ radicalism in this respect outpaces even the mechanistic model of the Enlightenment, which is still congenial to common sense. The Enlightenment model of a mechanistic universe leaves space for an intelligent blueprint behind the machinery, whereas Epicurus’ atomic theory, rightly understood, does not.
Epicurus produced his theory inspired by the ancient atomists Leucippus and Democritus. Like all ancient thinkers, Epicurus reached his conclusions by using only reasoning. It is remarkable, however, that Epicurus seems to have been obsessed with the deepest questions of method and what we would consider today philosophy of science. Even his brief extant summaries, which are explicitly intended to serve as synopses and for the purpose of memorization, do not resist laying stress on methodological matters. Here are some of Epicurus’ methodological principles: The testimony of the senses is the ultimate arbiter of disputes. One should not unnecessarily multiply assumptions if directly accessible experience affords us observation of phenomena similar to the remote and obscure ones we are trying to explain. We should not assume that only one explanation is available or that only one process might be at work in producing the phenomenon we are trying to account for; at the same time, we should make sure to reject explanations which cannot be confirmed at all and, especially, those which have empirical testimony against them. This last caveat is significant: Epicurus clearly placed extraordinary emphasis on what we could call today the verificationist criterion of truth. According to Epicurus, knowledge ultimately comes from empirical observation. Epicurus has the metaphysics to go with this claim: Everything we know, even including mental constructs and figments of the imagination, is ultimately produced by the same atomic constituents of which all the real objects in the universe are made.
The major difference between Democritus’ and Epicurus’ atomic theories is that Democritus had taken seriously the difference between the underlying atomic reality and the appearances which do not show us the atoms directly: This led Democritus to rationalism–the demand that we trust only our logical thinking, since we are able to reach the true atomic constitution of matter only by means of thinking and not by direct observation. Epicurus rejected this and opted for a robust empiricism on the grounds that our very thinking processes are ultimately produced by atoms anyway.
The impetus for the development of the original atomic theory might have been a number of paradoxes formulated by Zeno of Elea, which purported to show that motion is illusory. The paradoxes of Zeno, which have survived, exploit the geometrical claim that line segments, and indeed any measurable intervals, are infinitely subdivisible. If that is the case, anything that moves in space or time would have to move an infinite number of points between any two points–in current jargon, it would have to perform a supertask which involves undertaking an infinite number of actions and, therefore, can never be completed. The atomists countered that matter is not infinitely subdivisible. The ultimate constituents of matter are the atoms that are unbreakable. These may or may not be “minima” in terms of their sizes–after all, they might come in many different sizes–but they are certainly indivisible or uncuttable. Epicurus made it clear that different sizes of atoms exist, but he pointed out that this must be a finite number anyway. His argument to this effect deserves mention: If an infinite number of atomic sizes existed, then some of those sizes would inevitably be large enough to be visible; but the atoms are invisible. (There seems to have been some confusion on this score among the atomists, with some of them maintaining that certain atoms may indeed be visible to the naked eye.)
The atoms have only a limited number of fundamental properties–size, shape, and mass. Since the atoms have motion inherent to them, Epicurus did not think that he could differentiate atomic types on the basis of motion; he seems to have thought that atoms move with a standard velocity–perhaps something of a universal constant–and he seems to have compared this to another speed quantity to which he attached great significance–the speed of thought.
In addition to his atomic theory, Epicurus requests that the student accept one more principle: that empty space exists. This makes Epicurus what we could call today a Substantivalist: Epicurean space is somewhat like Newtonian absolute space–an infinite super-substance that exists on its own right. It seems that Epicurus considered empty space, known in antiquity as “the void,” to be inert, its existence simply enabling movement. Epicurus thought that he had actually proved the existence of empty space–in other words, and strictly speaking, he did not offer this proposition as a postulate. His proof goes something like this: If empty space did not exist, bodies would not have anything through which they could move and, therefore, motion would be impossible. But motion is clearly possible. Therefore, empty space exists. A full appreciation of this, however, is possible only by taking into account Epicurus’ rejection of Aristotle’s plenum.Very little on this score is available in the extant writings of Epicurus.
Epicurus derives a number of corollaries that follow from his two basic principles – the atomic principle and the empty space principle.
1) Space is infinitely extended or unbounded. Epicurus provided, or repeated a formerly known, proof to this effect, in the form of a constructive dilemma: Let us walk to the edge of space, wherever that may be, and attempt to walk further. If we can always do this, then the process is infinitely repeatable and, therefore, space is infinitely extended. If we cannot do this, then we must be touching the veritable edge or boundary of the universe. But an edge or boundary is, by definition, touching on something else. From this definition of boundary, Epicurus thought that he could show that even if we come to a boundary there is more beyond the boundary and still more, for the same reason, beyond the new boundary, and so on ad infinitum. (A topographically available alternative to Epicurus’, and later Newton’s, view of the infinite extension of empty space is a spherical surface, which is unbounded but not infinitely extended. This is what Einstein opted for. Even in that case, we might wonder about the putative space wherein the supposed sphere is located, but modern physics shelves this question as unanswerable. The philosophical alternative to Epicurus-Newton is the rejection of a real external space: This can be done by means of Idealist and Relationist theories of space.)
2) Since space is infinitely extended, the number of atoms in the universe must be infinite too. Epicurus reaches this conclusion by applying an early version of what we call today the anthropic principle. Since it is obvious that the present world exists, it must be that the requisite processes for the formation of this world were enabled at some point in the past. But if only a finite number of atoms were moving throughout an infinitely extended space, then, Epicurus thinks, they could not have met to create the world in which we live. (Epicurus does not have a solid case here. The chances for the atoms to meet would indeed become vastly small but not zero; and the fact that we exist, and, hence, that our world, whatever this world is like, exists can be used as proof that the astronomically small chance the atoms had of meeting did indeed materialize.)
3) Even though an infinite number of atoms exists, according to Epicurus, the number of types of atoms is finite. Epicurus argues in favor of this by observing, as pointed above, that visible atoms would have to exist too if the variety of atomic types were infinite: because many–indeed, an infinite number–of atomic sizes would then have to lie above the visibility register. Hence, Epicurus concludes, the number of atomic types is finite; yet, it is vast because, otherwise, the astounding variety of things in our universe could not have come into existence.
4) Since worlds are created by the collisions and sorting of atoms and an infinite number of atoms are moving throughout an infinitely extended space, an infinite number of worlds exists. Our world is only one world. All these worlds are actual and coexist within the infinitely extended universe. Since worlds are formed accidentally and opportunistically, as it were, they can continue to form when the appropriate conditions are available. Moreover, the worlds are not permanent or eternal. Only the atoms are indestructible. Everything else is liable to dissolve unto its constituent components. Given enough time, the worlds too perish while other worlds are constantly being created. Some worlds are like our own but nothing precludes the possibility that dramatically different worlds exist–indeed, since we are dealing with an infinity of worlds, worlds different from ours must exist. On the other hand, given the fact that the number of atomic types is limited, there must also be a limit to the number of types of worlds that exist.
5) The soul is composed of exceedingly refined or fine-grained atoms. The person or self is the union of the body and the soul. The conscious person is the real person and this consciousness requires both body and the more refined, but still material, soul operating together. The soul is scattered throughout the body, by virtue of its refined material constitution, although it might be more partially associated with certain regions of the body. All this can explain why loss of limbs does not necessarily entail cessation of consciousness or life insofar as the soul is unaffected. On the other hand, however, if the body were gravely afflicted, the soul could not continue to exist by itself. Hence, there is no immortality. Epicurus thinks that this is good news: Most people, he observes, are terrified by the prospects of torments in an afterlife; and they dread the prospect of death itself. But there is no afterlife for the soul if the soul itself is not immortal. And, as for death, Epicurus has an argument that is renowned and has been repeated in various forms by twentieth-century thinkers like Jean Paul Sartre. This argument purports to show that death “is nothing to us” as Epicurus puts it. If death is defined, as it should be defined, as the discontinuation of the union of body and soul and consequent destruction of the individual, then there is no one there to experience his or her own death. The moments leading to death, when the person is still present, do not constitute death of the person properly speaking. So, death is never experienced and dread of death is illogical–it is, indeed, the very model of an illogical phobia insofar as it has literally nothing for its object. Epicurus needs more premises, which he supplies obligingly: Nature has contrived to ease the pain we feel, even when we are terminally afflicted with disease. Pains are never severe, or they are no longer experienced, Epicurus thought, when they surpass a certain threshold. Countervailing pleasures are available and, somehow, the dialectic of pain and pleasure is in our favor. Although Epicurus’ nature is not teleological, as was pointed out above, nature has accidentally equipped us with what we need and furnished us with what it takes in order to render life enjoyable or, at least, bearable. Epicurus is not convinced by those who lament life and taunts them: If they have persuaded themselves that life is so bad, Epicurus charges, why don’t they kill themselves? The final solution would be easy because distress of mind is more formidable than pain of the body, according to Epicurus: So, if someone has endured the ordeal of the proof of life’s worthlessness and intolerable painfulness, then the remaining step, of causing one’s death, is trivial. The fact that death-lovers are clinging to life proves to Epicurus either that they have not proved what they think they did or that they are blatant hypocrites.
6) Epicurus professes to believe in the existence of gods who are composed of exceedingly fine-grained atoms. It is not clear why those gods would be immortal, as Epicurus wants them to be, since only atoms are indestructible in Epicurus’ philosophy. Perhaps this is a telltale sign that Epicurus’ references to the gods are not sincere. At any rate, Epicurus’ gods are aloof and do not play any morally or historically significant role in human affairs. Epicurus tries to occupy the high moral ground in this respect, charging that those who burden gods with human affairs are guilty of impiety because they drag the divine down into the morass of human wretchedness and, on top of that, they are essentially depicting gods as irrational or wicked since only a fool would voluntarily abandon eternal bliss for the yoke of supervising human rewards and punishments and only a villain would give up aloofness and tranquility to gloat over human tragedies.
7) It seems that Epicurus was concerned about the deterministic implications of his philosophy. We don’t hear about this in his extant writings but his Roman admirer Lucretius has preserved extensive information on this issue. Since events are simply due to atoms colliding, bouncing, and being sorted out, there is no space for human freedom left. This seems intuitively clear although, on closer inspection, it is not obvious why freedom should be preserved even if nature were unpredictable and non-deterministic or chaotic (in the traditional sense of the term chaotic.) But perhaps the absence of strict or sweeping determinism is the necessary, even if not sufficient, condition for human freedom. Even so, a view that is firmly committed to human freedom runs against a problem: One must assume that there is a. . .truly free person behind the guided person–the notorious “homunculus” hypothesis. Someone must be free to steer my actions and this free person, to be truly free, should not be “guided” by anything–including the gathering and parting concourses of atoms which determine all events according to materialism. I cannot go into additional details here but Epicurus apparently took this seriously and tried to preserve human freedom by undermining the strict-determinism premise. Although the atoms do indeed follow the inexorable impetus provided by their properties–mass, size, shape–there is a qualification to this. The atoms can only move downward, under the thrust of their mass (there is no weight-inducing gravitational field for Epicurus), or in the direction in which they bounce off after they happen to collide with other atoms. Epicurus must have thought that the latter direction is always horizontal. At any rate, oblique trajectories have to be composites of a finite number of infinitesimal vertical (mass-induced) and horizontal (collision-induced) trajectories, as Walter Englert concluded in his valuable study of this subject. This is still deterministic, though. Epicurus claimed that the vertical trajectory is not straight and inexorable: As they fall downward, the atoms swerve. Epicurus thought that this solves two problems for his theory: It accounts for human freedom insofar as events are, at least in part, unpredictable due to the unforeseeable and random swerve of atoms; and the swerve hypothesis makes his account of the genesis of worlds more plausible, Epicurus thought, insofar as the swerve makes it more likely that atoms will indeed meet and collide.
8) Epicurus’ ethics posits the proposition that nature has determined what the good consists in. As ample evidence demonstrates, pleasure and the avoidance of pain, which regulate the behaviors of humans and animals, are what natural good consists in. Epicurus, like so many others both in ancient and in modern times, commits what G. E. Moore called the “naturalistic fallacy” in not realizing that one must already somehow know what the ethical meaning of “good” is before one can confidently establish that this or that–for instance, pleasure–is morally good. Epicurus’ ethical theory is a strain of hedonism; it is not like the utilitarianism of modern times because Epicurus does not demand that moral agents act to maximize the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. On the other hand, however, it is not fair to Epicurus to compare his ethical theory to any of the vulgar versions of self-centered and excessive hedonism with which the term Epicurean is often associated. Epicurus’ theory claims a noble concern with living a life of dignity and tranquility. Natural pleasures are classified according to nature and in accord with whether they are necessary or not and the student is exhorted to abstain from unnecessary and frivolous pleasures. Epicurus must have run into trouble, philosophically speaking, by waffling as to whether pleasure consists in an active state or simply in the removal of pain and the supervening passive state of imperturbable serenity. His classification of pleasures into dynamic and static did not alleviate this problem; commentators fought mightily over whether the nature of pleasure itself consists in a dynamism inherent to the right kind of effort or in the peace of mind and muscular relaxation that naturally follow satisfaction of needs.
9) Finally, Epicurus conceived of a contractarian theory of society. Crucial to this is the claim that, contrary to what Aristotle had claimed, the human being is not a sociable animal. Essentially, this forestalls an ethic of excellence because Aristotelian excellence is something that can flourish and be recognized only in a social arena; and, if humans are not sociable by nature, excellence itself cannot be what nature intended. It follows that, by nature, human beings were meant for the simplest tasks: following their natural instincts in seeking pleasure until they satisfy their needs and striving to avoid pain by all means. A radicalization of the egalitarian impetus of this theory by such formidable figures as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke gave us the theories of social justice and legitimacy, which culminated in the American Declaration of Independence and the classical-liberal view of the minimal state and the separation of civic society from the arena of private achievement. Unlike John Locke, Epicurus did not see fit to derive an ethical theory directly from his claims about the contractarian origin of civil society. It is not even clear how citizens would be compelled to keep the implicit promise they are presumed to have given in the moment of the formation of society. This has been a contested point and occasionally an embarrassment for modern contractarian theory. It is plausible that there is an interesting Epicurean solution to this problem: If one were to follow Epicurus’ ethical advice and retreat behind the Garden, there to practice prudent uses of pleasures and live in aloofness, then citizens could hardly pose challenges or threats to public order and stability. It underscores, once again, the significance of Epicurus to note that this is one of the first moral arguments which, scandalously from the viewpoint of antiquity, advocates leading a private and secluded life. As Epicurus liked to put it, a principal moral maxim is: “Pass your life making sure no one notices you.”
Odysseus Makridis received his Ph.D. from Brandeis University. He is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Fairleigh Dickinson University, in Madison, New Jersey.
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