Epicurus

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A bust of Epicurus
Thinking hard, or
hardly thinking?

Philosophy

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Thus Natural Philosophy supplies courage to face the fear of death; resolution to resist the terrors of religion; peace of mind, for it removes all ignorance of the mysteries of nature; self-control, for it explains the nature of the desires and distinguishes their different kinds; and [...] the Canon or Criterion of Knowledge, which Epicurus also established, gives a method of discerning truth from falsehood.
—Lucius Torquatus, in Cicero's De Finibus, Book I, Chapter XIX[1]


Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher living in the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE. Mildly popular in his own time, he is now best remembered for his teachings regarding the soul and ethics, as well as his early formulation of the problem of evil. He was innovative in that he allowed slaves and women to become members of his philosophical group.

Contents

[edit] Physics

Epicurus was an early proponent of naturalistic philosophy. He was a materialist, and argued that the universe was made of atoms in various arrangements. He did this based on an empirical epistemology. He believed that our senses (including our sensations of pleasure and pain) are how we determine truths about the world.

As a result of his materialist views, Epicurus taught that the soul died with the body. He also argued that the gods must be made of atoms. Because of this, the gods cannot be the creators of the universe (since they are not above nature) and are unable to influence it. The Epicurean deities were understood as immortal aliens living a blissfully disinterested existence. For example, if a shepherd was struck by lightning, it was not because Zeus was displeased with the shepherd; it was because Zeus got hammered and the shepherd was unlucky.

[edit] Ethics

Epicurus taught a form of secular ethics. He believed that pleasure and pain are the only things that have intrinsic value to beings, and that the goal of life was to maximise pleasure and minimise pain for both yourself and others. He taught that people thus needed four virtues: prudence, justice, friendliness and fortitude.

Epicurus' view on justice was that it was a social contract, created for mutual benefit. What is just, in this view, is what people would agree to if they were rational and not under threat of force.[2]

Epicurus also preached altruism over self-interest. He says that friendship "dances around the world, calling all people to a life of happiness." For him, the best life for the individual is one that is lived with other people, for their benefit.

[edit] Epicureanism in Antiquity

Epicurean philosophy became one of the most influential philosophies of Rome. Some of its followers included Julius Caesar and Cassius.[3] Epicurean Epitaphs are found all over the Roman world, saying: "I was not. I have been. I am not. I do not mind."

Despite his contributions to philosophy, he was not looked upon kindly by the Church Fathers and later Medieval writers due to his view that all things were made up of matter and the soul died with the body.[4]

[edit] Problem of evil

See the main article on this topic: problem of evil

Epicurus was credited with being one of the first western philosophers to propose the problem of evil, sometimes also known as the Epicurean paradox:

Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

In fact though, this was attributed to him centuries after his death, and it is unknown whether he really wrote this. A later Epicurean might have.

[edit] See also

  • Lucretius, who wrote down much of Epicurus' philosophy

[edit] References

  1. Rackham, Horace, ed (1924). Cicero: De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 68-69. 
  2. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Epicurus on justice.
  3. Caesar argued against the death penalty based on Epicurean arguments. Since death didn't harm a person, it wasn't an appropriate punishment.
  4. He is in the sixth circle of Dante's Hell, the circle of heretics, while Plato and Aristotle occupy the comparatively peaceful Limbo. "Apikiron" has become the Hebrew for heretic as well.
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