Jacques Maritain Center : History of Philosophy / by William Turner


Sources. Of the voluminous writings of Epicurus only a few fragments have come down to us, and these are for the most part unimportant. For the history of the school the most important primary source is Lucretius' poem De Rerum Natura. As secondary sources we have the works of Cicero, Plutarch, Diogenes Laertius, and the Aristotelian commentators.

History of the Epicurean School.{1} Epicurus was born at Samos in the year 341 or 342 B.C. His father, Neocles, was, Strabo tells us, a school teacher. According to the tradition of the Epicurean school, Epicurus was a self-taught philosopher, and this is confirmed by his very superficial acquaintance with the philosophical systems of his predecessors. Still, he must have had some instruction in philosophy, for Pamphilus and Nausiphanes are mentioned as having been his teachers; Epicurus, however, would not acknowledge his debt to them, boasting that he had begun his self-instruction at the age of fourteen, having been driven to rely on his own powers of thought by the inability of his teacher to explain what was meant by the Chaos of Hesiod. He first taught at Mitylene, afterwards at Lampsacus, and finally at Athens, where he established his school in a garden, thereby giving occasion for the name by which his followers were known, hoi apo tôn kêpôn. Here he taught until his death, which took place in 270 B.C.

The most celebrated of the disciples of Epicurus were Metrodorus (born 330 B.C.), Hermarchus (who succeeded Epicurus as president of the school and was succeeded by Polystratus), Dionysius, and Basilides. Towards the end of the second century B.C. the school was represented at Athens by Apollodorus, Zeno of Sidon, and Phaedrus.

Amalfinius (about 150 B.C.) seems to have been the first to make known the doctrines of Epicurus to the Romans. Later on we hear of a Syro, or Sciro, who taught Epicurean philosophy at Rome; but it is Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus, 95-51 B.C.) who, in his poem De Rerum Natura, gives us the first Latin contribution to Epicurean literature.

Although the school of Epicurus is said to have been distinguished by its cheerful tone, it is certain that it indulged in much abusive criticism, for the Epicureans were known throughout antiquity as leaders in the art of calumny. Everything, therefore, which the Epicureans say about the systems and the philosophers of pre-Socratic and Socratic times must have corroboration from other sources before it can be accepted. Epicurus himself set the example in misrepresentation, when he gave expression to his contempt for his teachers and predecessors, while from his own followers he exacted every outward mark of respect, even insisting on their committing to memory certain brief formulas (kuriai doxai) which contained the pith of his teaching.{2} Hence it is that the Epicurean philosophy adhered so closely to the form which it first received from the teaching of Epicurus.


Epicurean Notion of Philosophy. Having defined philosophy as the art of making life happy,{3} and having laid down the principle that there should be no deviation from the kuriai doxai, Epicurus subordinated speculation to the practical aspects of philosophy and effectively discouraged all independence of thought on the part of his disciples. It is well known that he despised learning and culture. The only logical problem to which he gave even cursory attention was the problem of knowledge. He attached greater value to the study of nature, but only because he considered that a knowledge of natural causes may free the mind from a fear of the gods and in this way contribute to human happiness.{4} In the philosophy of Epicurus, therefore, ethics, or the inquiry into the nature and conditions of happiness, is the paramount problem, to which logic and the study of nature are merely the preliminaries.

Epicurean Logic. This portion of Epicurean philosophy was styled canonic, because it consists merely of a system of rules, or canons, referring to the acquisition of knowledge and the ascertainment of truth. It passes by the questions of formal logic and is in reality an epistemology.

In their theory of knowledge the Epicureans favor a more pronounced sensism than that of the Stoics. They maintain that, while in practice the standard of truth is pleasure and pain, in theory the ultimate test of all knowledge is sensation (aisthêsis). Sensation as such, is always to be relied upon; error lies not in the sensation itself, but rather in our judgment concerning sensation. Several sensations amalgamated in a general picture result in a notion (prolêpsis). The notion, however, as regards objective value, is not superior to the sensations from which it arises.{5} From notions arises opinion, or thought (doxa, hupolêpsis), which likewise depends on sensation for its truth.

How, then, does sensation take place? In their answer to this question the Epicureans content themselves with reproducing the doctrine of Democritus, according to whom sensation takes place by means of certain effluxes (eidola, aporroai), which, detaching themselves from external objects and passing through the pores of the air, enter the senses.{6} If, therefore, sensation is sometimes apparently at fault, the real source of the deception lies in the objective distortion or mutilation of the efflux-images. Thus, for example, the image of a man and the image of a horse, combined as it were by accident, give rise to the impression of a centaur.{7} Our impression, even in cases of this kind, corresponds to the image, and consequently the sensation is true. And if, as sometimes happens, the same object affects several persons differently, the cause of the diversity of impression is the plurality of images; the sensation in each case is true because it corresponds to the image which produces it.{8}

Epicurean Physics. The physical doctrines of the Epicureans receive their tone and character from the purpose which the Epicureans always had in mind throughout their investigations of nature, -- to free men from the fear of the gods. To this aim the Epicureans subordinated their physical inquiries, and as they cared little whether their explanation was accurate or inaccurate, complete or incomplete, they left matters of detail to be settled by individuals according to individual choice, insisting, however, in their general explanation of natural phenomena, on the exclusion of any cause that was not a natural cause.

Deliberately rejecting the Socratic philosophy of nature and turning to the pre-Socratic systems of philosophy, Epicurus recognized that the philosophy which was most naturalistic in its explanations and waged most persistent warfare on final causes, was that of Democritus. As his theory of nature, therefore, he adopted the physics of Democritus, modifying it, as we shall see, in one important respect. Thus he accepted without modification the atomism of Democritus as well as the Democritean idea of a vacuum. Nothing exists except atoms and void: mind as moving cause is a superfluous postulate:

Ergo, praeter inane et corpora, tertia per se
Nulla potest rerum in numero natura relinqui.{9}

The only point on which Democritus and Epicurus differ is in reference to the primal motion of atoms. Democritus maintained that the atoms, falling through empty space, moved with different velocities on account of their difference in weight. This, Aristotle pointed out, is impossible. Epicurus, acknowledging the justice of Aristotle's criticism, sought to account for the collision of the falling atoms by postulating on the part of the atoms a self-determining power by means of which some of them swerved slightly from the vertical line and thus{10} caused a circular or rotatory motion.

In his account of the origin of life Epicurus accepted the theory of Empedocles, who held that all sorts of deformed and monstrous creatures first sprang from the earth, those alone surviving which were fit to support and protect themselves and to propagate their kind.

The Epicurean account of human society is well known. Lucretius{11} taught that the men of olden times were as strong and as savage as beasts; that the primitive condition of the race was one of warfare; and that civil society was formed as a protection against anarchy and the absolute power of kings.

Similarly, religion, according to the Epicureans, was of natural growth. Fear is the basis of religion.{12} Ignorance, too, is a factor in the genesis of the religious instinct. It was owing to ignorance and fear that men attributed natural portents to the intervention of supernatural powers and sought to explain the regularity of the motion of the heavenly bodies by referring it to the agency of Providence. Nevertheless, Epicurus did not wholly abandon belief in the gods. The gods, he said, exist because they have appeared to men and left on the minds of men representative images (prolêpseis).{13} They are immortal; they enjoy perfect happiness; formed of the finest atoms, they dwell in the uppermost parts of the universe, in the spaces between the stars. The popular notion, however, that the gods take an interest in human affairs is erroneous, because an interest in the affairs of men would be inconsistent with the perfect happiness which the gods enjoy.{14}

The human soul is, like the gods, composed of the finer kind of atoms. It is a more subtle kind of body, resembling air and fire.{15} More accurately, it is composed of air, fire, vapor, and a fourth element, which is nameless. This last constitutes the rational part (logicon) of the soul, which is seated in the breast, while air, fire, and vapor constitute the irrational part, which is scattered throughout the remainder of the body. Lucretius calls the rational part animus, or mens, and the irrational part anima.{16}

According to the Stoics, it is the soul which holds the body together; according to the Epicureans, it is the body which shelters the atoms of the soul, so that, when the protection afforded by the body ceases, as it does at the moment of death, the soul atoms are instantly scattered, owing to their extreme lightness.{17} In this way Epicurus, keeping in mind the chief aim of all his physical inquiries, sought to rob death of its terrors by teaching that there is no future life. "Tota res ficta est pueriliter," as Cicero exclaims.

Epicurus asserted the freedom of the will. He denied the existence of fate, but in his own analysis of human action he was obliged to substitute chance for fate. Despite his doctrine of freedom, he was forced to maintain that there is no truth in disjunctive propositions referring to the future.{18}

Epicurean Ethics. The Epicurean canonic and the general views which the Epicureans maintained in matters of physical science led inevitably to the conclusion that the only unconditional good is pleasure, a conclusion which is the basis of Epicurean ethics. The ethical system of Epicurus is simply a modified form of the Hedonism of Aristippus and the other Cyrenaics. When, however, Epicurus comes to define pleasure, he does not, like Aristippus, define it as a gentle motion: considering rather its negative aspect, he describes it as the absence of pain. He does not indeed omit the positive aspect; he merely insists that the negative aspect, repose of mind (ataraxia), is essential, while the gentle motion which constitutes positive pleasure is secoridary and accidental.{19} Unsatisfied desire is pain, and pain is destructive of mental repose; for this reason, and for this reason alone, should the desires be satisfied, and it is only in this way that positive pleasure becomes part of the highest good.{20}

The difference between the Epicureans and the Cyrenaics is furthermore apparent in the Epicurean doctrine of the hierarchy of pleasures. Highest of all pleasures are those of the mind, namely, knowledge and intelligence, which free the soul from prejudice and fear, and contribute to its repose. For this reason the wise man should not place his hope of happiness in the pleasures of sense, but should rise to the plane of intellectual enjoyment. Here, however, Epicurus was inconsistent; he could not logically maintain a distinction between sense and intellect. Indeed, Diogenes{21} preserves a saying of Epicurus to the effect that there is no good apart from the pleasures of the senses, and Plutarch and others represent Metrodorus as maintaining that everything good has reference to the stomach.{22}

In their application of the doctrine of pleasure the Epicureans recognize that each man is, in a certain sense, his own legislator. It is for him to determine what is useful or pleasant and what is harmful or painful. Hence the principle of moderation: Restrain your needs and desires within the measure in which you will be able to satisfy them. And, while no kind of pleasure is evil in itself, the wise man will avoid those pleasures which disturb his peace of mind and which, therefore, entail pain.{23}

Virtue has for the Epicureans a merely relative value. It is not good or praiseworthy in itself, but only so far as it is useful in securing that painlessness which is the happiness of life. The virtuous man secures the maximum of pleasure and the minimum of pain; temperance teaches him to avoid excess, and courage enables him to forego a pleasure or endure a pain for the sake of greater pleasure or less pain in the future. Less successful even than these attempts at finding a rational basis for courage and temperance is the Epicurean attempt at analyzing the virtue of justice; for justice in the Epicurean philosophy is based on the social compact into which primitive man entered as a means of self-defense and self-preservation. Cicero complains that the ethics of the Epicureans leaves no place for the sentiment of honor; a more serious fault is its failure to supply a rational basis for the virtue of justice.

The claims which the Epicureans advanced on behalf of the wise man are similar to those advanced by the Stoics. The wise man alone is master of his desires; he is unerring in his convictions; he is happy in every circumstance and condition of life; and although he is not, as was the Stoic sage, wholly unemotional, still he holds his emotions in perfect control. Later, however, this ideal gradually degenerated, and despite the example of moderation set by Epicurus and his early followers, the wise man of Epicurean tradition became the model of the careless man of the world, with whom it is impossible to associate earnestness of moral striving.

Historical Position. The Stoic and the Epicurean schools, the two most important schools of the period, both sprang up and developed under the influence of the same external conditions. The internal principle of their development was, however, different. The Stoics were fatalists; the Epicureans were casualists. This difference in their conception of nature led to the difference in their view of practical life which is so apparent in their ethical systems. Yet there were points, theoretical as well as ethical, in which the two schools approached very close to each other. Both were materialistic in their physical systems and sensualistic in their theories of knowledge; both were illogical in their development of the idea of duty, although, as Zeller points out, the charge of inconsistency is urged with less justice against the Epicureans than against the Stoics. The Epicureans defined philosophy as the art of making life happy, and for them happiness was primarily a matter of feeling rather than of knowledge, while the Stoics defined happiness as consisting in a life led in harmony with nature. For the Stoic, therefore, the study of nature and the adoption of a consistent theory of nature were of greater importance than they were for the Epicurean.

The physics of the Epicureans differs, as has been said, from the physics of Democritus in regard to the doctrine of the swerving motion of the atoms, -- an admission which destroys the consistency of Democritus' theory. This theory was at least not self-contradictory: the Epicurean theory is a mixture of dynamism and mechanism which cannot stand a moment's serious investigation.

The ethics of the Epicurean school is simply the Hedonism of Aristippus refined under a broader idea of culture and a more enlightened concept of Socratic Eudemonism. In spite of Socratic influence, the Epicurean ethics is not, in the strict sense of the word, a system of morality at all. It contains no principles of morality; it reduces right and wrong to a matter of individual feeling, substituting for good and evil the categories pleasant and painful.

{1} For biographical data, cf. Ritter and Preller, op. cit., pp. 373 ff.

{2} Cicero, De Fin., II, 7.

{3} Sext., Mathem., XI, 169.

{4} Cicero, De Fin., I, 7.

{5} Diog. Laer., X, 33.

{6} Lucr., IV, 26. References are to the poem De Rerum Natura.

{7} Op. cit., IV, 730.

{8} Cf. Zeller, op. cit., p. 432.

{9} Lucr., I, 445.

{10} Lucr., II, 216.

{11} V, 925 ff.

{12} Lucr., III, 14; I, 62.

{13} Cf. Cicero, De Nat. Deorum, I, 16.

{14} Diog. Laer., X, 123.

{15} Op. cit., X, 63.

{16} Cf. III, 94 ff.

{17} Lucr., III, 417 ff.

{18} Cf. Cicero, De Nat. Deorum, I, 25.

{19} Diog. Laer., X, 136.

{20} Seneca, Ep. 66.

{21} X, 6.

{22} Cf. Ritter and Preller, op. cit., 387.

{23} Diog. Laer., X, 130; cf. Cicero, Tusc., V, 31.

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