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Chapter I -- 7

Who were the Epicureans? Epicureanism was founded at roughly the same time as Stoicism by Epicurus (341–270 bc).

Epicureanism can be described as follows: It is a materialistic philosophy based on Democritus’ atomic theory. While ‘gods’ exist, they are composed of atoms—the finest atoms—just as is the rest of every possible world, and they live in a condition of supreme bliss completely detached from and indifferent to the present world and the affairs of men. All things are composed of atoms; there are a finite number of elements whose compounds go to make up all existent things. The natural movement of the atoms is downward (hence in parallel) and at uniform speed, but these atoms have a certain limited ‘swerve’ which is indeterminate (the ‘swerve’ introduces a non-deterministic element) and causes the interaction of the atoms: this ‘swerve’ by its existence preserves the non-determined nature of human experience, but its rather limited scope preserves the uniformity or regularity of experience. The world is wholly due to mechanical causes.

There is an unlimited number of universes of similar types; the ‘gods’ live in the mid-regions between the various universes.

The human is a compound of body and soul, neither of which can exist without the other. Body and soul are each composed of atoms. The elements of the soul comprise just air, wind, fire and a fourth element peculiar to the soul and nameless. After death, body and soul disintegrate. Death is mere extinction, the complete absence of all consciousness and feeling. No judgement and no punishment await men in the afterlife. ‘Death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved is devoid of sensation, and that which is devoid of sensation is nothing to us.’[1]

Epicurus’ epistemology was empiricist: Man knows only on the basis of the data of sense-perception, which results, in the case of sight, from images of the object seen, which images are emanations of atoms from the object. Very fine emanations, for example those from the ‘gods’, can impress the mind directly without the mediation of the sense organs. Emanations that have become scrambled in transit give rise to dreams and fantasies. Repeated experiences of sense data received by the senses and preserved in the memory give rise to ‘anticipations (prolepseis)’ that are equivalent to concepts. This seems to be a notion of the formation of a concept through the habituation of sense-perception. From concepts can be formed opinions or judgements, which are tested either against the objects in the world or, when the opinion is by nature untestable, by consistency with observable things and by a criterion of the incompatibility with observable things of the negation of the opinion.

The passion of pleasure is the highest good; and the passion of pain, the greatest evil. All statements about good and evil have meaning only with reference to the passions of pleasure and pain. ‘The criteria of truth are the senses, the preconceptions [prolepseis] and the passions.’[2]

The part of the soul that deals with sense-perception is spread throughout the body; the part that thinks and feels is centred in the heart. There is no part of the self that is not strictly dependent on sense-perception. However, man has free will.

Like all other atomic compounds, men come into being when the necessary conditions have been met [i.e. the correct chain of preparatory events]. They have no creator and no destiny. Their good is pleasure, their highest good a life of secure and lasting pleasure. United by no bond of nature, they form alliances for mutual advantage, and they acquiesce in the restraints of law and government as a protection against injury by their fellows. These measures, however, do not achieve a good life, because of men’s false opinions. Men’s empty fears of the gods and of death destroy their peace of mind, and in pursuing wealth, power, and fame they seek security where it cannot be found.

…The good life is attainable only by the philosopher. The immediate experience of pleasure, although good in itself, does not bring with it a guarantee of permanence. Intelligent choice is also needed, and practical wisdom [i.e. prudence] … is more to be prized than philosophy itself. Practical wisdom [i.e. prudence] measures pleasures against pain, accepting pains that lead to greater pleasures and rejecting pleasures that lead to greater pains. It counts the traditional virtues (justice, temperance [i.e. continence], courage, etc.) among the means for attaining the pleasant life; they have no other justification.[3]

Note the role of prudence in calculating the relative value of each pleasure or pain that the Epicurean might, in his free will, be faced with choosing or avoiding.

Epicurus had a twofold categorization of pleasures: First, those pleasures which are caused by a motion and those which are states: eating choice foods is a pleasure caused by a motion; not being hungry is a pleasure which is a state. Second, those pleasures which are pleasures of the body and those which are pleasures of the mind. An example of a pleasure of the mind which is caused by a motion is the joy at the well-being of the body; an example of a pleasure of the mind which is a state is the serenity (ataraxia, literally, ‘freedom from disturbance’) brought about by the removal of pains and cares. In general, the pleasures of the mind, although subject to this twofold classification, are directly dependent on physical sense-perception. Moreover, the good life is a life of pleasures of the body and of the mind which are states: these states can be indefinitely prolonged, whereas the pleasures caused by a motion either in body or in mind are ephemeral. In order to be able to meet adversity, the wise man builds up reserves of pleasures in his memory of the types listed above, given their hierarchical valuation by Epicurus, so that during the course of the adversity he can dwell in his mind on those pleasures of the past and on the anticipation of the pleasures of the future. However, serenity (ataraxia) is attained when the study of (Epicurean) philosophy has removed the fear of the ‘gods’ and when death is recognized to be the limit of experience, but not the determinant of the quality of the experience lived before death, and when the gratification of desires that go beyond the necessary and the natural is seen to result in greater pains than pleasures.

As Fr Copleston presents Epicurus’ views, there is a tendency that can be discerned to a utilitarian view of justice and injustice—utilitarian as seen from the framework of Epicurus’ hedonistic ethic, which itself was egoistic. As Epicurus himself is said to have put it:

When, without any fresh circumstances arising, a thing which has been declared just in practice does not agree with the impressions of reason, that is a proof that the thing was not really just. In the same way, when in consequence of new circumstances, a thing which has been pronounced just does not any longer appear to agree with utility, the thing which was just, inasmuch as it was useful to the social relations and intercourse of mankind, ceases to be just at the moment when it ceases to be useful.[4]

We are struck by the contemporary ring of Epicureanism.

Both Stoicism and Epicureanism, founded later than Aristotle’s philosophy, played an important role in the Classical and late Classical Ages before the prevailing of Christianity in the Mediterranean basin. However, it should be clear that what St Gregory has said in his arguments against the existence of a soul that survives the death of the person is far more consistent with Epicurean than with Stoic philosophy. St Macrina has introduced the Stoics into her reply merely on the basis of the passage in Acts to which she refers.

As will be evident, the tenets of Epicureanism are, as a materialistic philosophy that denies a ‘Providence pervading through things’, quite important today. For Epicureanism is founded on the same materialistic philosophy as the modern paradigm in biology that we have already been discussing, and it draws the same ethical conclusions from that materialistic philosophy as are being drawn, say, from logical positivism by ethicists today.

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[1] Epicurus, in Diogenes Laërtius, Lives of the Philosophers, 10, 139, as quoted in Copleston Volume I, p. 404.

[2] Epicurus, in Diogenes Laërtius, Lives of the Philosophers, 10, 31, as quoted in Copleston Volume I, p. 403.

[3] Encyclopedia Vol. 3, p. 4.

[4] Epicurus, in Diogenes Laërtius, Lives of the Philosophers, 10, Maxim 42, as quoted in Copleston Volume I, p. 409. We have followed quite closely the presentation of P. H. De Lacy in ‘Epicurus’, Volume 3, pp. 3–5 of The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Encyclopedia). We recommend the full article. However, we have supplemented De Lacy’s presentation with material from Fr Copleston’s description of Epicureanism, Chapter XXXVII of Copleston Volume I, including the quotations of Epicurus given.


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