Epicurus and his philosophy

Image22Epicurus was an Athenian philosopher who lived at the beginning of the Hellenistic period (341-270 BC) and founded the philosophical School of the Epicureans, called the “Garden”. Epicurus teachings is a timeless source of inspiration, because the philosopher understood the nature of humans and the universe and described the way to achieve a happy life .

He was the first humanist philosopher because he was interested in the happiness of all people. In an era when the Platonic Academy and the Aristotelian Lyceum taught only rich men, the Epicurean Garden taught equally rich and poor, men and women, prostitutes and slaves. Epicurus was the first existential psychotherapist, according to psychiatrist Irvin Yalom, because he was interested to soothe mental agitation, which is caused by subconscious fear of death.

He was the first enlightening philosopher because he realized that people would be able to save themselves from superstition and irrational metaphysical fears only by observing nature and having objective scientific knowledge. He was the first philosopher who taught that true reverence for the divine is respect and admiration for the wonderful and blissful nature of the gods, while it is nonsense and disrespect to fear the deities or to want to use them as servants who satisfy our desires.

For Epicurus there is no pleasant life unless it is accompanied by wisdom, goodness and justice and there is no wisdom, goodness and justice if there is no pleasure in life. Justice is not self-existent in nature but results from the agreement of the people not to harm and not to be harmed, i.e. the social contract. Epicurus considered any idea of duty or objective that is not anthropocentric (human centered) to be a hypocrisy. The prudent, virtuous and pleasureable life with a relative self-sufficiency can ensure human freedom.

Before Epicurus, the disciple of Socrates and classmate of Plato Aristippus taught that the purpose of life is the constant enjoyment of carnal pleasures. Epicurus disagreed completely with this unrestrained and foolish hedonism of Aristippus. In contrast, he thought that the purpose of a prudent human is happiness (well-being), i.e. the lack of physical pain (aponia) and the lack of mental agitation (ataraxia). Epicurus taught that the blissful state of aponia and ataraxia can be achieved only using prudence to select fulfillment of natural and necessary desires (e.g. for food when hungry) and avoid unnatural and unnecessary desires (such as vanity ). Without rejecting the pleasures of the body, Epicurus thought that mental pleasures are superior and that the most pleasurable and undisturbed life stems from the scientific study of nature and from teaching a sound philosophy that promotes people’s happiness. According to him, wisdom is the most important personal virtue and friendship is the most important social good. For the Athenian philosopher acquiring friends is the most important means to achieve a the happy life (“we can be saved through each other”).

Epicurus combined the atomic physics of Democritus and the biological ethics of Aristotle, checking empirically and correcting each point of the previous philosophies with admirable consistency. Using an observation and analogy methodology he developed, the Athenian philosopher built an extremely coherent worldview without any conceptual contradictions. He was the first philosopher who spoke of the existence of chance in nature which allows the existence of human free will. He was the first who linked the free will with prudence, critical thinking, responsibility and pleasurable pursuit of virtue. He was the first to speak about progress of humankind from the primitive to the civilized era, based on the observation of nature, technology development and the moral and cultural maturation of humans. Utilizing observation data from several areas of knowledge Epicurus was able to express views that were confirmed in the last two centuries of Science: the weight of atoms, the new properties of molecules resulting from their atomic structure, the materiality of the human mind, the molecular basis of diseases, the evolution of living organisms, the numerous worlds in the universe. The ingenious philosopher suggested even the existence of extraterrestrial life, a notion that modern science still searches.

The Epicurean philosophy spread over almost seven centuries in Hellenistic and Roman eras assisting many thousands of people to live happily. With the advent of the Middle Ages human civilization retreated and the philosophy of Epicurus became defamed and forgotten for a millenium. During the Renaissance, the great scientific poem of the Roman Epicurean Lucretius “On the nature of things ” was discovered from obscurity and influenced many humanists. Two centuries later the Epicurean philosophy was revived by the natural philosopher and Catholic priest Gassendi. This revival led to the Enlightenment and Science eras influencing (among many others) Galileo, Newton, Locke, Diderot, the third USA president Thomas Jefferson, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill and Charles Darwin.