Greek philosophy has given us a lot of easily misunderstood terms: words like hedonism, cynicism, and stoicism that have a popular meaning very different from their philosophical meaning. But probably no Greek philosopher is more widely misunderstood than Epicurus. Most people associate his name with one thing: pleasure, especially the pleasures of food and wine. So you have the cooking website Epicurious. You have the famous DC restaurant Epicurean & Company. And you have the word “epicure,” which is basically an archaic term for a foodie.
It’s true that Epicurus believed in the virtues of fine food and drink. But he wasn’t a crude debauchee, merely pursuing earthly pleasures with no care for morality or self-discipline. Epicurus was a complex thinker who argued that pleasure is a great good, something to be cultivated for its own sake. But he argued that we should seek a kind of enlightened pleasure, a pleasure that can sustain itself over the whole course of a human life. If all you do is eat and drink with abandon, you’ll suffer terrible hangovers and eventually serious health problems. The key is not to lose yourself in pleasure, but to learn how to appreciate pleasure when it comes your way.
For Epicurus, the highest goal in life was to achieve ataraxia, or lack of turmoil. We might translate it as inner peace or benign fulfillment. Like the Buddhists and Hindus who were developing their philosophy around the same time, Epicurus taught that a mindful, responsible enjoyment of bodily pleasure was a key part of reaching ataraxia. But it would only work if that pursuit of pleasure was also tempered by responsibility, moderation, and concern for others.
Epicurus was born at a transitional moment in classical Greece. The Athenian Golden Age had ended, but the Macedonian Empire hadn’t yet arisen to take its place. History gives us a near-perfect symbolic moment for the transition: the year 343, when Aristotle left Athens and moved to Macedon. Aristotle had been the superstar of Athenian philosophy, and in that year he left to tutor a teenaged Macedonian prince named Alexander, who would later be known as Alexander the Great. As Aristotle traveled north to Macedon, it was almost as if the center of power was moving with him.
That happened in 343, when Epicurus was two years old. When Epicurus was seven, Alexander crossed over into Persia and began the conquest that would open up a centuries-long exchange of ideas among Greek, Persian, Indian, and African thinkers. But the young Epicurus lived on this island of Samos, hundreds of miles from Athens or Macedonia. It’s unlikely that the shifting political landscape had much of a direct impact on his childhood. It would, however, have a profound influence on his philosophy.
Epicurus was born to Athenian parents and educated in the Athenian manner. He studied geometry, rhetoric, and ethics, and would have been very familiar with the works of Plato, which at that time represented the dominant school of Greek philosophy. As he developed into a philosopher in his own right, Epicurus came to reject Plato’s ideas. In particular, he disagreed with Plato’s insistence on abstract reasoning. Under the influence of the philosopher Democritus (and probably Aristotle as well, though Epicurus never mentions Aristotle by name), Epicurus came to believe that empirical evidence was more reliable than philosophical abstraction.
Epicurus’s ideas have some similarity to Indian philosophical teachings in Buddhism and Hinduism that were being developed right around the same time. In particular, Epicureanism, Hinduism, and Buddhism all have different versions of Epicurus’ moral philosophy: the idea of achieving inner tranquility through a proper balance of mutually-reinforcing pleasure and self-discipline. This probably isn’t a coincidence. Despite the distance between Greece and India, there was plenty of philosophical exchange made possible by Alexander’s sprawling empire. The philosopher Pyrrho went along with Alexander on his conquests in India. There he would have encountered a potent philosophical community of Hindus, Jains, and early Buddhists, all developing their religious and philosophical ideas under the relatively tolerant Maurya empire. Ancient sources say he picked up some ideas from Indian philosophers and brought them back to Greece, where they quickly spread. Epicurus probably never met Pyrrho, but some of Epicurus’ teachers probably did, and would have passed on what they learned from him.
Ataraxia and Hedonism
Epicurus is often described as a hedonist, or someone who takes pleasure as the highest moral good. In a broad sense, that’s true – but, as we saw in the intro, it’s a little misleading. It’s true that Epicurus fits the technical definition of hedonism. He believed our purpose in life was to maximize enjoyment. But in most people’s mind, a hedonist is someone who wallows in greed and lust, with little regard for their own long-term wellbeing and even less for the wellbeing of others. That’s not what Epicurus taught.
Basically, it comes down to this: Epicurus believed we should aim at happiness; but his conception of happiness was not a short-lived sentimental state, much less a mere gratification of physical urges. It was a state of serene contentment, a lasting pleasure that was mindful of one’s responsibilities and relationships. For Epicurus, physical pleasure was a means of achieving that state, but not the only means. We also, he said, have to behave with compassion and empathy for others, in order to avoid being isolated and tortured by conscience. We have to work sometimes in order to secure peace and pleasure for the next day. We have to study and discuss philosophy in order to understand the universe around us, or be plagued with confusion and anxiety. So even if Epicurus was a hedonist in the most technical sense, he was far wiser than the stereotypical libertine.
These days, Epicurus is most well known for his ideas about morality and pleasure. But in his time that wasn’t the most important of his teachings. He was more widely known for his support of atomism, a controversial notion that all matter is made up of tiny, indivisible particles called “atoms.” Epicurus taught that there was nothing in the universe other than atoms arranged into various forms – the famous “atoms and void” doctrine. This view had been controversial ever since Aristotle rejected it a generation earlier, and of course was anathema to Christian teachings about the soul.
Atomism came back with a vengeance during the Scientific Revolution. In atomism, early scientists like Descartes and Galileo thought they had found an elegant, straightforward, and ultimately testable theory of matter. Thanks to their work, the atom became a foundational concept in modern physics.
However, modern atomic theory is dramatically different from Epicurean atomism. For one thing, modern physics shows that there are things in the universe – like dark matter – that are not made up of atoms. On top of that, you have non-physical entities like the soul, for which there can be no scientific evidence for or against. So modern science hasn’t necessarily backed up Epicurus’ “atoms and void” idea. Second, the whole point of atoms in Epicurean philosophy was that they were fundamental, indivisible particles – there was nothing smaller than an atom. Today, we know that atoms can actually be split, and this technique gives us both potent weapons and a relatively clean source of civilian energy.
So when we talk about “atoms” today, we’re talking about a very different kind of thing from what Epicurus was talking about. It’s possible, of course, that Epicurus was right – that there is a fundamental, indivisible particle at the foundation of physical reality. But we can say for sure that such a particle isn’t the thing we now call the atom.
Epicurus and the Christians
Epicurus’ ideas became unpopular after the rise of Christianity. The Christians preached asceticism, suspicion and even loathing of the pleasures of the flesh. So they opposed Epicurus’ teachings on pleasure. Worse, Epicurus had argued against the possibility of an afterlife, an idea directly contradicted by Christian doctrines. As a result, he came to be seen as an evil, even demonic figure. In Dante’s Inferno, the poet finds Epicurus in the sixth circle of Hell, the level reserved for heretics. There’s no mention of his pleasure-seeking lifestyle, but Dante imagines Epicurus receiving eternal punishment for preaching that there would be no life after death. (Of course, Epicurus died hundreds of years before Jesus was born, so it’s a little unfair to judge him on the basis of Christian revelation.)
Epicurus’ ideas started to come back during the Enlightenment, when Christian doctrines were being replaced with secular ideas. He had a profound influence on Utilitarian philosophy, which teaches that morality is a calculation of what causes the most happiness while causing the least pain. This idea, still popular among many students of philosophy, is a radical departure from the Christian conception of morality as obedience to the will of God.
“Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.”
-Inscription above the gates of Epicurus’ Garden
Many philosophers in Athens taught amidst the chaos of the streets, where they could win converts and debate their opponents in public. The Epicureans were different. They met in a garden, privately owned and separated from the city. This welcoming inscription drives home the importance of pleasure in Epicurean philosophy. But it also, in a more subtle way, indicates the importance of community and connection. It implies that pleasure is pursued collectively, and invites the reader to join in the fun.
“The just man is the freest of anyone from trouble; the unjust man is perpetually haunted by it.”
-Saying attributed to Epicurus in a 14th century document
It’s not 100% clear whether Epicurus actually wrote this, since it comes from a relatively recent document in the Vatican library. But the quote is a nice summary of Epicurus’ views on the connection between ataraxia and morality. In the short term, we might gain pleasure by doing harmful or cruel things – but in the long run they always cause more pain than pleasure, even to the person doing them. That’s why the goal should be ataraxia, or inner peace, rather than simple pleasure.
In Pop Culture
Johnny Appleseed was a kind of modern Epicurus. It’s hard to separate the legend from the real man, but according to stories Johnny Appleseed was a kind of wandering hermit who walked all over America planting trees and selling his boozy cider. His only motivation, supposedly, was to bring beauty to the landscape and joy to all the people and animals living on it. And he thought he’d achieve that goal through food, alcohol, and good conversation. It’s hard to imagine anything Epicurus would have loved more than that.
Johnny Appleseed is a curious sort of Epicurean, though, because he was also a devout Christian. Historically, as we’ve seen, Christianity has been vehemently opposed to Epicureanism. But in the life of one American arborist these two schools of thought were not only mutually compatible, but mutually reinforcing!
Calvin & Hobbes
Epicureanism gets some gentle satire in a Calvin & Hobbes Sunday comic. When Calvin is about to hit Susie with a snowball, Hobbes reminds him that “some philosophers say that true happiness comes from a life of virtue.” Calvin decides to give it a shot. He cleans his room, does his homework, and helps his parents around the house. In the end, he gets frustrated and decides to throw the snowball anyway. As they walk off, Hobbes mutters “virtue needs some cheaper thrills.”
Epicurus would have agreed with Hobbes that moral virtue is a source of real happiness. But he also would have given Calvin some advice: do something fun on the way! Maybe if Calvin had taken a short break from his chores and homework, given himself a chance to eat some Sugar Bombs and read a comic book, he might have found the life of virtue a little less frustrating and a little easier to sustain over the long haul.