Epicureanism

About the Curator:

Hiram Crespo is the founder/editor of SocietyOfEpicurus.com, and the author of Tending the Epicurean Garden (Humanist Press, 2014), How to Live a Good Life (Penguin Random House, 2020) and Epicurus of Samos – His Philosophy and Life: All the principal Classical texts Compiled and Introduced by Hiram Crespo (Ukemi Audiobooks, 2020). He’s also written and translated various other works, and been featured in The Humanist (a publication of the American Humanist Association), occupy.com, the online classics journal Eidolon, Partially Examined Life, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, and many other outlets.

Epicurean philosophy is a Hellenistic tradition that emerged mainly from the convergence of the atomist physics of Democritus and Leucippus–who posited that all things were made of atoms and whose ideas set the stage for modern physics–and the pleasure ethics of the Cyrenaics–Aristippus the Elder and the Younger, Anniceris, and a few others–, which posits that pleasure is the end of our nature. From that foundation, Epicurus of Samos and his companions (Metrodorus of Lampsacus, Hermarchus of Mitilene, Polyaenus and others) founded a philosophical school in Athens known as The Garden.

However, the first Epicurean Guides were not acritical of the philosophical ideas they inherited. While accepting atomism and rejecting all supernatural explanations of phenomena, Epicurus criticized the determinism of the classical atomists, and argued that, since we observe freedom to choose and reject in nature, and since this freedom is essential for moral development, there must be some random or chaotic movement in the particles which accounts for it. He called this chaotic atomic movement the swerve. Modern Epicureans speculate that either Brownian motion, or the uncertainty principle, might be modern versions of the swerve. In this way, Epicurus became a moral reformer.

Epicurus also criticized what seemed like the instant gratification of the classical hedonists, choosing instead to develop an idea coined by the Cyrenaic Anniceris: a process of choice-making known as hedonic calculus. It’s a comparative analysis of the pleasure versus pain, or the advantages versus the disadvantages, the goal of which is to gain net pleasure via our choices and avoidances. Concerning the distinction between vulgar forms of hedonism and Epicurean disciplines of pleasure, Principal Doctrine 8 clarifies hedonic calculus:

No pleasure is bad in itself; but the means of paying for some pleasures bring with them disturbances many times greater than the pleasures themselves.

Epicureans have historically been misrepresented by other philosophers and by Christians as a result of our defense of pleasure. This includes both deliberate and misinformed misrepresentation of the Doctrines. For this reason, it’s important to consult Epicurean sources and knowledgeable practitioners themselves in order to avoid confusion. The Society of Friends of Epicurus (which I’m affiliated with) exists to help students learn Epicureanism on its own terms and via friendly conversation, rather than from hostile or misinformed sources, and to create community.

Epicurean Writings

Most people who have vague familiarity with Epicureanism, might associate its doctrines with the Tetrapharmakon (the Four Cures), which are sometimes compared to Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. This is an overly-simplistic characterization of the philosophy, but it’s a good way to introduce people to some basic ideas. In reality, the Four Cures are memorization device used by Philodemus of Gadara, a Syrian Epicurean Guide who taught philosophy to wealthy Romans during the First Century. The Tetrapharmakon is meant to help us practice the first four of the forty Principal Doctrines–but there are many more than four cures in the Doctrines: there are philosophical cures for endless desires (PDs 15, 18, 19), for isolation (PD 27), lack of clarity in mind and speech (PDs 22-25), for groundless desires (PD 30), etc. In addition to the medicinal metaphor we find throughout our tradition, many of the Doctrines are meant to help us carry out our choices and avoidances.

Philosophy that does not heal the soul is no better than medicine that does not heal the body. – Epicurus of Samos

In addition to the 40 Principal Doctrines, we have several summarizing epistles by Epicurus which cover the ethics (Letter to Menoeceus), astronomical phenomena (Letter to Pythocles), and the basics of the entire system of physics (Letter to Herodotus), and a few other fragments from the founders. Diogenes of Oenoanda left a Wall Inscription in the 2nd Century of Common Era, and Philodemus of Gadara left a library in Herculaneum, many of whose scrolls have been deciphered. Among those, the most brilliant one is On Death, which catalogues all the ethical repercussions of our second Principal Doctrine, which says: “Death is nothing to us“. Other noteworthy scrolls from Herculaneum deal with frank criticism, with the art of property management, with methods of inference, and other subjects.

Lucretius’ first-century epic poem De rerum natura (“On the nature of things”) is the most complete and well-known ancient source. It is divided into six books, begins with an invocation to Mother Nature and concludes with a discussion of death. My favorite of these is Liber Qvintvs (the fifth book of DRN), which contains an epitome of ancient anthropology.

Therapeutic Practices

In addition to Eikas (a “feast of reason” celebrated every Twentieth of the month in memory of Metrodorus and Epicurus, and other Epicureans who preceded us), Epicureans practice repetition and memorization of the Doctrines as a technique to help us to fully cognitively assimilate the Doctrines, and as a way to “consume” a dose of their medicine.

We also have a visualization practice known as “placing before the eyes“, which places good and/or unwholesome behavior before our eyes. By visualizing our ethical models in detail, we (as if by osmosis) acquire and cultivate their wholesome attributes, and by envisioning in detail individuals with harmful attributes, we assimilate the dangers and disadvantages of our vices, and this makes our moral reform more stable and sincere. The ancient Guides who believed in the need for this technique, were not convinced that cognitive therapy was sufficient for moral reform. They believed that visualization helps to produce a stronger emotional reaction in the patient. Philodemus, Lucian, and Lucretius used these techniques often in their treatment of anger, arrogance, religious fanaticism, and passionate love that does not pass hedonic calculus. You may learn more about Epicurean theory and methods of moral development by reading this essay, which is a book review of Voula Tsouna’s The Ethics of Philodemus.

Philosophy heals through arguments and through the vehicle of “the words of true philosophy”, but also through frank criticism. In our practice of friendship, we are expected to be sincerely invested in the happiness and moral development of our Epicurean friends, and to apply parrhesia (frank criticism) to our friends (often softened with “suavity“, an Epicurean virtue of gentle speech) for the sake of protecting the happiness and good character of our friends. Philodemus of Gadara said there are private and public forms of parrhesia. Examples of public parrhesia can be found in passages from the writings of the poet Lucretius and comedian Lucian of Samosata.

Modern Epicureans

Ancient Epicureans were known as the Twentiers, as they celebrated a memorial Feast (known as Eikas) on the twentieth of every month in memory of two of the founders, Epicurus and Metrodorus. Eikas is an opportunity to associate with our Epicurean friends, to learn and practice (“meléta“) together, and to secure the continuity of our tradition. Today, Eikas continues mostly via zoom in virtual spaces and communities. There are also annual symposia of Epicurean philosophy in Athens, conferences in Italy, meetups in Australia, online forums, and other activities.

Among the more recent followers of Epicurus, we find Thomas Jefferson (author of the US Declaration of Independence), Frances Wright (author of A Few Days in Athens, whom Jefferson mentored), French philosophers Julien Offray de la Mettrie and Michel Onfray (author of Hedonist Manifesto–some people argue he’s no longer Epicurean, but he has written strong defenses of Epicurus in the past), and many others. Former Uruguayan president José Mujica has defended Epicurean values before the United Nations. The Society of Friends of Epicurus is a fraternity of Epicurean practitioners based in the US, with members in Europe and the US.

I will continue to add resources for students of Epicurean philosophy, so please visit this page from time to time. In the meantime, you may enjoy Society of Epicurus’ self-guided study curriculum and other resources on the SoFE page.

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An Epicurean Approach to Secularizing Rites of Passage

On Natural Holiness

Principal Doctrines – two translations, with links to exegetical essays

More to come soon!