Epicureanism after Epicurus – The influence of Epicurus on Western thought

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by Robert Hanrott

Introduction

Misrepresentation and religious hostility have pushed Epicureanism, unfairly, to the gloomy outer reaches of Western thought. Epicureanism has nonetheless influenced rational and progressive thought, particularly the humanists and enlightenment thinkers, and in the 20th Century it has influenced Ayn Rand and the Positivists. Epicureanism is neither irrelevant nor dead. It deserves a better hearing.

Although two millenia have passed since the emergence of Christianity, the prejudice against Epicureanism survives, a tribute to the effectiveness of Roman Catholic criticism over the ages. The early Catholics branded Epicureanism “self-indulgent hedonism and godlessness”, calling the Epicurean Garden “a den of iniquity” and Epicurus himself a “pig” (Augustine) and an advocate of “depravity and gluttony” (a phrase used by Jerome, Theophilus, Clement of Alexandria, as well as Augustine). On the other hand the supporters of Epicurus praised his morals, his belief in the gods, and his near-asceticism and moderation; they thought of him as a “Christian before Christ”, a saviour who spoke the truth.

Epicureanism stands for moderation, enjoyment of life, tranquillity, friendship and lack of fear. Many still dismiss Epicureanism as “egoistic hedonism”, although the writer of the Epicurus entry in Encyclopedia Britannica, for instance, states that “Epicureanism finds the purest joys of life in the unique richness of human encounters”. Howard Jones says in his book, The Epicurean Tradition

The Epicurean message…spoke of a world which was not managed by an unseen power, of a life in which a man’s actions were free from divine scrutiny, a life in which, within the bounds of society, a man might shape events according to his own will, securing himself against discomfort, acknowledging his natural instincts, relieved from the nagging fear of an unknown beyond the grave by the certainty of death as a final end.”

This paper seeks to trace the insfluence wof Epicurus through the ages. It has been assembled from a score of informational and (mostly American) academic sources — many on the Web. (See Sources below. Of particular interest and help have been The Epicurean Tradition, by Howard Jones, and Epicurus: His Continuing Influence and Contemporary Relevance, by Dane R. Gordon and David B. Suits). This piece is written by a layman for the layman, for the better understanding of the public. It is not designed for the philosophy professor or student.

The Roman Period

After the death of Epicurus (c.341 — 271 B.C) the Garden in Athens was headed by Metrodorus, who was succeeded by Polyaenus.

In 155 B.C Athens sent a delegation of philosophers to Rome. It excluded the Epicureans, who, as a matter of principle, refused to take part in public affairs. This event caused great interest among Romans, but hostility among the conservatives, such as Cato, who emphasized the family, involvement in politics, and belief in the gods . Two Epicureans arrived in Rome the following year, but were expelled by the same group of conservatives.

However, two Epicureans, Amafinius and Rabirus later wrote books which popularized Epicurus, and a noted Epicurean school emerged in Naples under the direction of Siro. Associated with this school were Horace; Virgil, who inherited the villa on the death of Siro; and Lucretius, who wrote the most influential account of the philosophy of Epicurus, de Rerum Natura. Horace, the poet (65-8 B.C), was an articulate follower of Epicureanism, leaving for us two odes, “Carpe Diem” and “Otium”, and his “Letter to Tibullus”, that reflected his Epicureanism.

Carpe Diem

Ask not – we cannot know – what end the gods have set for you, for me; nor attempt the Babylonian reckonings Leuconoë. How much better to endure whatever comes, whether Jupiter grants us additional winters or whether this is our last, which now wears out the Tuscan Sea upon the barrier of the cliffs! Be wise, strain the wine; and since life is brief, prune back far-reaching hopes! Even while we speak, envious time has passed: pluck the day, putting as little trust as possible in tomorrow!

The Naples School was patronized by Titus Pomponius Atticus and Calpurnius Piso. Titus Pomponius Atticus was one of the most prominent Epicurians (see Epitome of Roman History, by historian Cornelius Nepos). Piso was an influential politician. His most famous enemy was Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-45 BC), who copied out Epicurean monologues and critiqued them harshly, intending to discredit the Piso family. Cicero’s principal work in this regard was De Finibus, Bonorum et Malorum. Ironically, while attacking Epicureanism as denying the services of talented men to the state, he gives us a lot of information about the Neapolitan school, otherwise lost. For disaster overtook the Pisos, who not only lost political influence, but whose property in Herculaneum was destroyed in the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D 79, along with the biggest known library of Epicurean literature. (Big strides have latterly been made in deciphering the burned fragments of the works of Philodemus of Gadara, discovered in the Villa of the Papyri. Philodemus was the in-house Epicurean philosopher).

Notwithstanding these adversities, Epicureanism had a big following. along with emerging exotic cults such as those of Isis, Mithras, Serapis, Ma and Cybele. As mentioned above, it was popularized by men like Amafinus and Rabirius, who mainly emphasized the more hedonistic aspects of Epicurus’s thought. Epicureanism reached its height of popularity in the first half of the 1st Century B.C, declining somewhat after the death of Julius Caesar and the civil wars, when a more frightened, conservative attitude took hold.. Later, the Roman empire, was chiefly interested in promoting the cult of the Emperor – – conformism and immersion in public life for all those who could afford it. It frowned upon the more democratic ideals of Epicureanism, which were criticized as anarchic and hedonistic by such writers as Plutarch (a Platonist) and Sextus Empiricus (a Sceptic).

Plutarch wrote a polemic against the theology of Epicurus. He asserted the continued existence of the soul and criticized Epicurus for not understanding man’s terror of death and his longing for immortality:

In the masses, who have no fear of what comes after death, the myth-inspired hope of eternal life and the desire of being, the oldest and most powerful of all passions, produces joy and a feeling of happiness, and overcomes that childish terror. Hence, whoever has lost children, a wife, and friends would rather have them continue to be somewhere and continue to exist, even if in hardship, than be utterly taken away and destroyed and reduced to nothing. …. they willingly hear such expressions as “the dying person goes somewhere else and changes his dwelling”, and whatever else intimates that death is a change of the soul’s dwelling, and not destruction … and such expressions as “he is lost” and “he has perished” and “he is no more” disturb them…. They hold in store for them utter death who say: “We men are born only once; one cannot be born a second time…… For the present is of little account to them, or rather of none at all, in comparison with eternity, and they let it pass without enjoying it and neglect virtue and action, spiritless and despising themselves as creatures of a day, impermanent, and beings worth nothing to speak of. For the doctrine that “being-without-sensation and being-dissolved and what has no sensation is nothing to us” does not remove the terror of death, but rather confirms it. For this is the very thing nature dreads … the dissolution of the soul into what has neither thought nor sensation. Epicurus, by making this a scattering into emptiness and atoms, does still more destroy our hope of immortality, a hope for which (I would almost say) all men and all women are ready to be torn asunder by Cerberus and to carry constantly [water] into the barrel [of the Danaides], so that they may [only] stay in being and not be extinguished. p. 1104 – 1105, 1.c

Nevertheless, Epicureanism thrived in anti-establishment circles, especially in France and Spain, and the Greek cities of western Turkey. The latter were hot-beds of Epicureanism, with their history of independence and free thinking. In Oenoanda, in Lycia, a man called Diogenes erected a huge and very public wall, and had carved upon a discursive account of the thoughts of Epicurus (excerpt from his sayings). As “colonies” of Rome one can understand the attraction of ideas that ran counter to the official line. People were clearly looking for something more meaningful than the Emperor-as-God cult, the cavorting of the Roman gods and goddesses, and oriental religions such as Mithras (mainly a military cult). The empress Plotina, wife of Trajan, was also an avowed Epicurean, and for five hundred years after the death of Epicurus his ideas thrived in “middle-class” provincial circles, where the harsh militaristic culture of Rome was softened by the ideas of friendship and tranquillity. The satirist Lucian was an Epicurean and used Epicurean ideas to skewer the elite. In Alexander the Oracle-Monger, Lucian says:

…I was still more concerned to strike a blow for Epicurus, that great man whose holiness and divinity of nature were not shams, who alone had and imparted true insight into the good, and brought deliverance to all that consorted with him.

……Epicurus and the Jews

In the Talmudic Mishnah, an authoritative document produced by the Rabbis, the following statement appears:

All Israel has a share in the world to come. As Isaiah said: “All of your people who are righteous will merit eternity and inherit the land.” And these are the people who do not merit the world to come: the ones who deny the resurrection of the dead, and those who deny the Torah is from the heavens, and Epicureans.

This attack on Epicureanism arose out of the contorted struggle between, on the one hand, the Sadducees, who were generally liberal, influenced by Hellenism and Epicureanism, and accused of collaborating with the Seleucid dynasty and with Rome; and on the other hand, the Pharisees, the ancestors of modern Rabbinical Judaism, the originators of the Talmud (a record of discussions on Jewish law, ethics, customs, legends and stories, which Jewish tradition considers authoritative), who represented Jewish separatism and nationalism. The Pharisees were in due course co-opted by Rome. The Sadducees disappeared after A.D 70. What was left was Rabbinical Judaism and a dissident offshoot, the Nazarenes, who took over the role of resisting Rome. The Nazarenes believed in righteousness towards all others, frequent baptism and anointment, and a ritual eucharist for the dead — all of which would assure their place in heaven, without the need for priests and a temple. Out of the Nazarenes came two new cults: Mandeism (a Gnostic sect that followed the teachings of John the Baptist) and Christianity (Jesus)

……Epicurus and the Christians

Paul is credited with universalizing the message of Jesus, with the message that Jesus had come for the salvation of all mankind, not just the Jews. In Asia Minor and Greece, he chiefly had to concentrate upon refuting Epicureanism, its denials of divine providence, resurrection, and the after-life. In his castigation of the “anti-Christ” he was referring to the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes, and thus associating himself with the opponents of the Greek Epicurians, mentioned in the Talmudic quotation above.

By about 150 A.D Christian leaders started to refute the Greek philosophers. The chief early writers were Justin the Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyon, and Tatian. They accused the philosophers of being unable to arrive at agreed conclusions about reality and thus had no credibility. Tertullian (150-229 A.D) was the first author to single out Epicureanism for his furious disdain, fearful of the challenge of Epicurean rationality on Christian faith. He considered philosophy to be the instigator of heresy and talked about the “frigid conceit” of Epicureanism.

By the end of the 3rd century A.D., Christian writers were beginning to put forward a real theology, instead of negative vituperation. Chief among these were Origen and Lactantius, who began to include Platonic arguments, accusing Epicurus of falsehood in not recognizing the role of divine intelligence in the creation and ordering of the universe.

(Note: It is not clear that Epicurus ever made the above claim. He believed that there were indeed Gods, but he never seemed to have addressed the issue of who created the universe or the atoms of which we are composed).

By about 300 A.D, the Christian population was about five million in a total of sixty million, according to Ramsey McMullen in Christianizing the Roman Empire. It was not till the conversion of Constantine in 312 A.D that Christianity grew to be a majority. Meanwhile, the early Christians were pacifist, their thought was in flux, and they were influenced by the Greek thought of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics. While they strongly objected to the denial by Epicureans of the immortality of the soul and the reality of an afterlife, Christians and Epicureans shared a number of common attitudes, despite the growing hostility described above. These included rejection of determinism, superstition, divination, oracles and the worship of heavenly bodies. They shared a lack of exclusivity, similar ideas on friendship, the concept of the “saviour” (Epicurus was regarded as such by his followers), freedom of will and man’s choice of action and personal responsibility. In relation to monasticism, both had tendencies toward seclusion. One of the problems of Epicureanism was that it rather rigid and, like Christianity as it developed, dogmatic. Stoicism went through various metamorphoses in order to reach popularity with a wider public. Epicureanism never did this, even at the height of its popularity. This inflexibility proved a dire disadvantage once the Christians had the power of the Emperor behind them.

In any case, following the conversion of Constantine, Christianity emerged victorious over both the philosophers and other faiths — and some might say, over the cause of human happiness and rationality.

In the 4th and early 5th century, Athanasius of Alexandria wrote that if there was no “mind” (e.g God) behind the creation of the universe and everything came into being automatically, all would be uniform and without distinction. In 396 Ambrose of Milan, attacked Epicurus. The serpent of Adam and Eve fame, he said, was itself “pleasure, slippery and infected with the poisons of corruptions. Adam succumbed and fell away from the enjoyment of grace. How can pleasure recall us to paradise, seeing that it alone deprived us of it?” This hostility to the enjoyment of life still finds its echoes in some Christian sects.

……Two typical early Christian writers

Claudius Aelianus (Aelian) (AD 170-235), was a Greek rhetorician who wrote Various Histories (also known as Historical Miscellanies), mostly unsupported historical anecdotes. He rejected Epicurean atomism because it disallowed divine providence . He claimed that Epicureans were sexually deviant or criminal due to their indifference to the powers of the gods and popular conceptions of the gods. He subscribed to the prevalent but false accusation that Epicureans were atheists and, while his hostility was not unique, the physical ailments he describes which afflict Epicureans are unattested elsewhere. He describes Epicureans as womanish and even goes so far as to describe an Epicurean who, certainly metaphorically, if not actually, loses his penis through his adherence to the philosophy. “There was a man,” he claims, “(if indeed we can even call him a man) who enfeebled his soul through the words of Epicurus and became a woman, castrated and a womanish man” This same Epicurean violates religious protocol and becomes ill: “But when his shameful act was dared, a kind of terror overcame him and he suffered a malady which lasted a long time and consumed him.”

Athenaeus of Naucratis, (c. A.D 200), is remembered primarily for his Banquet of the Learned in which a variety of characters debate a wide spectrum of topics. Conversations upon food, luxury, diet, health, sexual relationships, pornography, music, humour and linguistics are all recorded in it. Athenaeus centers his criticisms of Epicureanism on the notion that pleasure is over-indulgence in food and transforms any Epicurean….into a glutton.

( Note: The actual teaching of Epicurus can be stated thus: Men and women who constantly exceed the natural limits of food, drink, and sex eventually discover that the pleasures derived from them are few and short-lived, while the pains that result from excess are many and can haunt them for a lifetime.)

Augustine of Hippo completed the work of making Christianity a variant of Platonism. Pleasure is incompatible with virtue, he said. The soul is immortal. Ideas like atomism must be rooted out.

One of the main problems faced by Epicureanism for centuries was the fact that Christian writers had no proper descriptions available of Epicureanism. Much had been destroyed. Cicero was known, but then Cicero was biased to begin with. What information there was was in the form of sayings and aphorisms, which were easily misrepresented. The influence of this ignorance remains with us to this day.

The Dark Ages

In 391, on orders from the Emperor Theodosius, Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, destroyed the pagan temples of Alexandria, along with the Serapeum, which housed part of the 40,000 volume library. The Museum and Library may have fallen victim at the same time, although there is no firm evidence of this. Thus was burned the greatest extant set of philosophic writings in the world. Later, in 415, came the murder by Christian monks of Hypatia, mathematician and daughter of the last museum director. Hypatia’s prominence was accentuated by the fact that she was both female and a follower of Greek philosphy in an increasingly Christian environment. Shortly before her death, Cyril was made the Christian bishop of Alexandria, and a conflict arose between Cyril and the prefect Orestes. Orestes was disliked by some Christians and was a friend of Hypatia, and rumors started that Hypatia was to blame for the conflict. In the spring of 415 C.E., the situation reached a tragic conclusion when a band of Christian monks seized Hypatia on the street, beat her, and dragged her body to a church where they mutilated her flesh with sharp tiles and burned her remains. Thereafter nobody dared to actively propagate secular philosophy.

In 529 Emperor Justinian closed down what remained of the four Athenian philosophical schools, including the Epicurean Garden, which had survived for eight hundred years. Some of the philosophers escaped to the University of Jundeshapur in Persia, under the patronage of the Sasanian king, Chosroes Nushirwan (531-579), taking with them the knowledge of Greek philosophy and Epicureanism. Jundeshapur (which is still operating) was regarded as the most important medical school in the world at the time, with strong connections with India and China. Some regard it as the first university in the world. It was this university in Khuzistan province that played an important role in preserving the writings of the great philosophers, and transmitting them to the great Arab translators, and thus back to the West.

……Epicureanism as heresy

In a letter to Menoecus, Epicurus said,

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce a pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men’s souls.

Notwithstanding this, Epicureanism was castigated as hedonism. An Epicure was painted as a depraved and irresponsible individual only concerned with bodily pleasures.

“The world is filled with Epicureans for the reason that in its great multitude of men there are few who are not slaves to lust.” John of Salisbury (10th C.)

Worse, Epicurus depicted the gods as in a state of tranquillity and happiness that precluded them from intervening in human affairs. It was silly to fear them and a waste of time praying to them and propitiating them, for they sit above us in a state of blessed perfection, an ethico-aesthetic ideal For this he was branded an atheist.

Although not strikingly controversial in itself, the atomic theory advanced by Epicurus and others contains several corollaries which were indeed contradictory to later Christian theology. First, there is the idea that nothing can come out of nothing and therefore that the material universe has always existed, contrary to Genesis. Creation and dissolution were considered by ancient atomists to be random rearrangements of immutable atoms. Equally disturbing to the church was the insistence that the soul, being a material substance, is mortal and must be dispersed with the body after death. This heresy of “mortalism,” taken together with Lucretius’s fervent attack on conventional religion, enhanced the view that atomists and Epicureans were atheistic rebels.

……Charlemagne

Charlemagne is credited with creating the first renaissance of classical literature, gathering together a large number of churchmen who not only translated the Latin authors, including Lucretius, but also collected Roman and some Greek classical texts and wrote poetry, verse, and satire, influenced by Homer, Virgil, Ovid and others. Although this movement faded by around 950 A.D, the “Scholastic” movement that followed Charlemagne and the Carolingian monarchs was an eclectic attempt to dispel the effects of barbarian rule and promote the idea of human reason in contrast to mysticism and superstition. The Scholastic movement accepted truths from any number of sources — including Plato, the Stoics, and the Epicureans — but most notably from Aristotle. The movement became debased over the years, but classical texts continued to be copied in France and Germany, spurred in the 12th and 13th Centuries by the translation in Southern Europe of Greek and Arab texts on astronomy, natural science, literature, and philosophy.

The 12th, 13th and 14th Centuries

During this period churchmen were preoccupied with synthesizing the thoughts of Plato and Aristotle, in particular, with Christianity. People such as Bernard, Thierry of Chartres, Alexander of Hales and William of Conches worked on these authors, leaving out what was unacceptable and creating new dogma, which one disputed at one’s peril.

In 1347 Nicholas of Autrecourt was tried and condemned in the Papal court of Clement VI in Avignon. Aside from attacking Aristotelian natural philosophy he argued that Epicurean atomism explained change and motion better than arguments put forward by Aristotle. He was forced to recant and burn his writings.

The fact was that Epicureanism had become more an accusation than a philosophy, something used mainly to discredit opponents. Compendia of ancient knowledge dismissed it under the heading “minor Greek thought”, and characterized it as lascivious gluttony. Such compendia, of course, had the effect of discouraging seekers after truth from trying to find and read Epicurus thoroughly. Meanwhile, the great writers of the era did little to enlighten their readers:

In Dante’s Divine Comedy the tombs of the Epicureans are located within the sixth circle of Hell (Inferno, Canto X). Dante enters the city of Dis and finds a huge cemetery filled with open fire-filled tombs. One of these tombs contains the souls of Epicureans (heretics). (Dante 1265-1321)

In the Canterbury Tales Geoffrey Chaucer has his own take on Epicureans:

A Frankelyn was in his company;
Whyt was his berd, as is the daysesye.
Of his complexioun he was sangwyn.
Wel loved he by the morwe a sop in wyn.
To liven in delyt was ever his wone,
For he was Epicuruis owne sone.

The Renaissance and Humanism

The Renaissance saw lost Greek and Roman works, philosophical and literary, emerging from monasteries, where they had lurked for centuries, and being read and understood by an educated lay audience. These ancient texts shone a bright new light in a world dominated by a monopolistic church in the grip of dull scholasticism and conformism.

In 1400 Francesco Zabarella was the first person, in de Felicitate to argue that Epicurus had been misunderstood , and that he in fact exalted mental pleasures over physical. Such dynamite was this that the book was not widely published until 1640.

Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), an Italian humanist and secretary in the Roman Curia, rediscovered a number of previously lost works, including Lucretius’ de Rerum Natura, which was found in a German monastery in 1414. He was a company man, however, and toed the company line when it came to philosophy.

In 1431 Bracciolini’s arch enemy, Lorenzo Valla, a humanist, who exposed the Donation of Constantine as a fraud and attacked the depraved Latin then in use in the Catholic church, wrote a book called De Voluptate, an Epicurean dialogue in three books that analysed pleasure and attacked scholasticism and monastic asceticism.

The Catholic New Advent Encyclopaedia says of De Voluptate:

In de Voluptate Valla creates three characters: Leonardo Bruni (from Arentino), who defends the Stoic doctrine that a life conformed to nature is the summum bonum; Antonio Beccadelli (from Panormita), who strongly favours Epicureanism, declaring that the desire of pleasure is to be restrained only lest it might be an obstacle to a greater pleasure and that continence is contrary to nature (Epicurus would not have agreed); and finally, Niccolo Niccoli, who speaks both in favour of Christian hedonism and against it, holding that perpetual happiness is the summum bonum, and that virtue is practised only as a means of obtaining it. It is uncertain whether Beccadelli or Niccoli (who is declared victor by the onlookers) expresses Valla’s personal opinion. It would seem that he had not then (1431) come to a definitive opinion. He confines himself to expounding the three opinions, but gives Epicureanism the most ardent and eloquent defender. The way in which his Apologia extenuates what had been said in de Voluptate, arguing about the meaning of the Latin word voluptas, shows that he was undecided.

It seems likely that Valla believed that, in comparison to Stoicism, Epicureaniasm had the right approach to human nature. This does not necessarily mean, however, that he was a committed Epicurean.

de Voluptate was greeted with such an uproar that he re-wrote it under the name de Vero Bono. Like Autrecourt (page 7) he was tried by the Curia in Naples for his theological views and only released owing to the influence of his patron, King Alfonso of Aragon.

In 1473 Lucretius’ de Reum Natura was printed for the first time. It is from de Rerum Natura that we learn most of the thoughts of Epicurus. Comparatively little else has survived. Epicurean ideas began to infiltrate the monasteries, and were encountered and greatly admired by Erasmus. In 1523 the work of Diogenes Laertius was printed in Basel. Diogenes’s book, Lives of the Philosophers, is the most important source of information about Greek philosophy, dating from approximately the reign of Septimus Severus. He is particularly good on Epicureanism and may have been an Epicurean.

In general the humanists of the Renaissance seldom endorsed Epicureanism. They did, however, produce a softening of attitude, and an atmosphere where at least its pros and cons could be discussed by rational men. As a result Epicureanism once again became fashionable in the 16th Century, and its precepts were taken up by the intellectuals and artists of the time, along with many other aspects of ancient philosophy. Noted among these were the classicist Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533), Epicurean in everything, as man and as poet, his greatest work was Orlando Furioso; Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540), Italian politician and cynical writer in the style of Machiavelli; and Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-1592), who invented the essay. Notwithstanding this intellectual ferment, Giordano Bruno was forced to leave the Dominican order for the sin of harboring Epicurean beliefs. He was burned at the stake on February 17, 1600.

It is argued by Jones in The Epicurean Tradition that in fact it was Lucretius and his poetry that won most approval, rather than the philosophy behind it, and that in comparison to Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Pliny the Elder, Ovid, Martial and Virgil, Epicurus affected thought in this epoch rather little. Montaigne is often quoted in the context of Epicureanism, but although he quoted Lucretius, he tended to dissociate himself from Epicurus and his ideas. Jones calls Epicureanism at that time a “rhetorical shuttlecock”.

……Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655)

Gassendi was an empirical French philosopher, born 4 years before Descartes, the most influential Epicurean of his age. He started his career as a priest, teaching Aristotle (in Aix en Provence), but soon began to attack the ossification of philosophy and uncritical acceptance of everything Aristotelian in the philosophy schools of that time. Gassendi agreed with Epicurus on the crucial importance of experience in reaching the truth. He wanted the facts, and if this upset the church it could not be helped. He revived the atomic theories of Democritus and Epicurus, and tried to reconcile atomism with Christian thought, postulating that Epicurus’s atoms were made by God (in whom he strongly believed) out of nothing, endowed with powers of motion, all with slightly different attributes, and with the ability to move incessantly of their own free will and form bodies and compounds . He believed that Epicurus used the idea of “swerving” atoms as a metaphor for the mind’s capacity to leap from one subject to another. He in turn thought that the motion of atoms transforms itself into independent, free, self-initiated action, implying autonomy and freedom of thought and action. He, like Epicurus, believed in the corporeal nature of the mind, had a dislike of abstraction, and believed all ideas to be concrete.

Veronica Gventzadze in her monograph Atomism and Gassendi’s Conception of the Human Soul, says, “His (Gassendi’s) concern is that philosophy should not be recruited to serve theology. The kind of homework theology gives to philosophy not only fails to yield anything valuable to theology itself, but also contaminates philosophy and effectively destroys it as a discipline.”

In 1647 Gassendi wrote de Vita et Moribus Epicuri, eight books on Epicurean philosophy, and in 1649 he wrote a commentary on the biography by Diogenes Laërtius, called the Syntagma philosophiae Epicuri (Treatise on Epicurean Philosophy 1649); it was issued posthumously at The Hague ten years later.

Gassendi’s theories are considered to have prepared the way for modern empirical methods, anticipating those of John Locke and the French philosopher Atienne Bonnot de Condillac. His work on atomism was widely read and influenced Newton. Moreover, Gassendi originated the modern concept of inertia, later codified in Newton’s First Law of Motion. He corresponded with Kepler and Galileo and conducted real scientific experiments, was the first person to witness an eclipse other than solar and lunar eclipses, and worked out the speed of sound. In 1649 he published Animadversiones, containing work on Epicurus.

……Epicureanism in England

…… The Northumberland Circle

Atomism became popular in England at the end of the 16th Century, sponsored by Henry Percy, Duke of Northumberland. The most important member of this group was Thomas Hariot, a polymath who used atomism as the building block for his scientific work. Unfortunately, Hariot was associated with Sir Walter Raleigh and when Raleigh fell, Hariot was accused as an “Epicurean and magus”. Francis Bacon, although he later recanted, produced a work very favourable to Epicureanism in 1612. The school of Leusippus, Democritus and Epicurus, he wrote, deserved more than Plato and Aristotle to have prospered, since “in most things it agrees with the authority of the early ages.” In other words, it had a better pedigree.

…… The Newcastle Circle

An aristocratic group of royalist of the mid 17th Century, influenced by Descartes and Gassendi. In 1660 Thomas Stanley published his History of Philosophy, giving Epicurus a bigger mention than Plato and Aristotle combined. Thomas Creech produced a translation of de Rerum Natura in 1682, which made Lucretius fashionable. The overlapping membership of the circle and of the Royal Society was accused of atheism and of undermining religion with their espousal of atomism. They routinely denied agreeing with Epicurean philosophy, but meanwhile the thoughts of Epicurus were out there in the form of Lucretius’s poetry. And very popular the poetry proved. Meanwhile, foremost among the English thinkers of this century were Walter Charleton, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

……Walter Charleton (1619-1707)

Charleton, physician to Charles I and President of the Royal College of Physicians, translated Gassendi for English readers, adapting Epicurus like Gassendi to deflect the fury of the church. Thus, he said that atoms were created by God and were proof of his existence. In Epicurus’s Morals in 1656, he laid out a total ethical system which synthesized Epicurus with Christianity

……Thomas Hobbes (1588 -1679)

Hobbes proposed a strictly materialist view of the world, along the lines of Epicurus. To Hobbes human beings are physical objects, sophisticated machines all of whose functions and activities can be described and explained in purely mechanistic terms. To be is to be a body. Sensation, for example, involves a series of mechanical processes operating within the human nervous system, by means of which the sensible features of material things produce ideas in the brains of the human beings who perceive them.

Specific desires and appetites arise in the human body and are experienced as discomforts or pains which must be overcome. Thus, each of us is motivated to act in such ways as we believe likely to relieve our discomfort, to preserve and promote our own well-being. (Leviathan 1.6). Human volition is nothing but the determination of the will by the strongest present desire. Epicurus put this in a more positive way, and talked of happiness.

Hobbes nevertheless supposed that human agents are free in the sense that their activities are not under constraint from anyone else. His account of human nature emphasizes our animal nature, which leaves each of us to live independently of everyone else, acting only in his or her own self-interest, without regard for others. This produces what he called the “state of war,” a way of life that is certain to prove “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (Leviathan 1.13)) The only escape is by entering into contracts with each other—mutually beneficial agreements to surrender our individual interests in order to achieve the advantages of security that only a social existence can provide. (Leviathan 1.14)

Unable to rely indefinitely on their individual powers in the effort to secure livelihood and contentment, human beings join together in the formation of a commonwealth to whom all responsibility for social order and public welfare is entrusted. (Leviathan2.17). The subjects agree to divest themselves of their native powers and obey the dictates of a sovereign authority, the institutional embodiment of orderly government.(Leviathan 2.18) The commonwealth operates most effectively when a hereditary monarch assumes the sovereign role. (Leviathan II.19) Hobbes argued that such a commonwealth secures the liberty of its citizens. Genuine human freedom, he maintained, is just the ability to carry out one’s will without interference from others. This doesn’t entail an absence of law; indeed, our agreement to be subject to a common authority helps each of us to secure liberty with respect to others. (Leviathan II.21)

Hobbes acknowledged that there are circumstances under which the commonwealth may fail to accomplish its purpose. (Leviathan II.29) Among other things, this can happen if citizens make judgments of right and wrong based on conscience, succumb to religious enthusiasm, or acquire excessive private property.

……Sir William Temple (1628-1699)

In 1685 Sir William Temple wrote Upon the Gardens of Epicurus. The following is an excerpt:

The Epicureans were more intelligible in their notion, and fortunate in their expression, when they placed a man’s happiness in the tranquillity of mind and indolence of body……….

I have often wondered how such sharp and violent invectives came to be made against Epicurus by the ages that followed him. His admirable wit, felicity of expression, excellence of nature, sweetness of conversation, temperance of life, and constancy of death, made him so beloved by his friends, admired by his scholars, and honoured by the Athenians. But this injustice may be fastened chiefly upon the envy and malignity of the Stoics at first, then upon the mistakes of some gross pretenders to his sect (who took pleasure only to be sensual) and afterwards, upon the piety of the primitive Christians, who esteemed his principles of natural philosophy more opposite to those of our religion, than either the Platonists, the Peripatetics; or Stoics themselves: yet, I confess, I do not know why the account given by Lucretius of the Gods, should be thought more impious than that given by Homer, who makes them not only subject to all the weakest passions, but perpetually busy in all the meanest actions of men.

But Epicurus has found so great advocates of his virtue, as well as learning and inventions, that there need no more; and the testimonies of Diogenes Laertius alone seem too sincere and impartial to be disputed, or to want the assistance of modern authors: if all failed, he would be but too well defended …….Cæsar, Atticus, Mæcenas, Lucretius, Virgil, Horace, all admirable in their several kinds, and perhaps unparalleled in story.

………….all the different sects of philosophies seem to have agreed in the opinion of a wise man abstaining from public affairs…….. too sordid and too artificial for the cleanness and simplicity of their manners and lives. ….. Where, factions were once entered and rooted in a state, they thought it madness for good men to meddle with public affairs; which made them turn their thoughts and entertainments to any thing rather than this. ………But above all, they esteemed public business the most contrary of all others to that tranquillity of mind, which they esteemed and taught to be the only true felicity of man.

For this reason, Epicurus passed his life wholly in his garden: there he studied, there he exercised, there he taught his philosophy; and, indeed, no other sort of abode seems to contribute so much to both the tranquillity of mind and indolence of body, which he made his chief ends. The sweetness of air, the pleasantness of smell, the verdure of plants, the cleanness and lightness, of food, the exercises of working or walking; but above all, the exemption from cares and solicitude, seem equally to favour and improve both contemplation and health, the enjoyment of sense and imagination, and thereby the quiet and ease both of the body and mind.

Though Epicurus be said to have been the first that had a garden in Athens, (a garden is pleasure of the greatest, and the care of the meanest; and indeed an employment and a possession, for which no man is too high, nor too low.

……John Locke (1632-1704)

Influenced by the new science of Newton, Boyle, and Bacon, Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), tried to apply scientific methods to establish the reliability, scope, and limitations of human knowledge in contrast to the pretensions of uncritical belief, borrowed opinion, and mere superstition. Like Epicurus, he believed that all ideas come from experience, and offered a strictly hedonistic account of human motivation, according to which our preferences are invariably determined by the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain. (Essay II vii 3) What matters for freedom and moral responsibility is that we can act on our preferences, whatever their source, without any outside interference.

……Epicureanism in France

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Epicureanism, branded by its opponents as libertinism, thrived in France. Among its adherents were moralists such as Francois, duc de La Rochefoucauld, and Charles de Saint-Avremonde; scientists such as Julien de La Mettrie, who believed that man could be explained as a machine, Claude-Adrien Helvetius, who reduced the ethic of the useful to a form of experimental science, but who put public above private well-being; and Paul Henri Dietrich, baron d’Holbach, who gave particular importance to the physics of the atoms. Atienne de Condillac sought to explain how cognitive faculties are developed as a consequence of sensation.

……Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733)

Mandeville regarded morality as the merely conventional rules of a social group and supposed that all human action is inevitably guided only by self-interest.

The Enlightenment

Enlightenment is the emancipation of man from a state of self-imposed tutelage. This state is due to his incapacity to use his own intelligence without external guidance. This is the battle-cry of the enlightenment…….Dare to be free and respect the freedom and autonomy of others….. it is only through the growth of knowledge that a person can be liberated from enslavement by prejudices, idols and avoidable errors” . Immanuel Kant 1785

The Enlightenment stood for the ethics of humanism, scientific objectivity and democratic values. Humanism is in many ways the modern version of Epicureanism, rejecting superstition and supporting a rational, scientific approach to living based upon the individual, his enjoyment of life and self-realization.

A person’s life in one sense is like a work of art, blending colours, tones, lines and forms. It is what he or she chooses to do, the sum of his or her dreams and aspirations, plans and projects, end and goals, tragedies and successes that define who and what a person is. Our ends and values are shared with others and conditioned by the societies we live in….Democratic societies afford a wider range of opportunities for free expression than do authoritarian societies……..Life can be meaningful without the need of an external religious support. Ancient religions were created at a time of disease, deprivation, danger and imminent death. People were overwhelmed by ignorance and fear. Science is able to dissipate many of these fears. Human beings soon learn that cooperation and empathy with their fellow human beings, love and shared experiences, can enhance life and help us to achieve significant lives that are bountiful, joyful, and even exuberant.

(Paul Kurtz, Council for Secular Humanism and editor of Free Inquiry, 2004)

……David Hume (1711-1776)

The newly-popular belief in intelligent design supposes that the order and beauty of the universe reflect the greatness and demonstrate the reality of its ultimate cause. Hume noted (An Inquiry into Human Understanding) that since this argument infers a cause from presumed effects, it must be grounded as a matter of fact in the experience of many observations. But we have not observed repeated instances of gods creating universes, and we cannot have formed the habit of associating our experience of the one with our inferences about the other. No causal relationship can ever be established from the observation of a unique example.

What is more, Hume argued that even if it were possible to engage in causal reasoning in this case, it could not warrant the intended conclusion. The presumed cause must always be supposed to be proportional to the observed effect, so the manifest imperfections of this world could never support belief in the perfection of its creator.

Those who espouse intelligent design infer morality and all manner of characteristics about God that cannot be seen in nature. Even if one could plausibly say the nature is so wonderful that a Supreme Being must have created it, you have to reject any inferences about God that do not relate to the effects of the natural world itself. You cannot, say, look at a tree that God created and infer from that that he is a loving god who rewards virtue.

You cannot hold a belief in god based upon reason. It can only be based upon faith, since we do not know God and have no knowledge of him. You have to start from what you know and then treat everything else as a hypothesis

“Intelligent design” is a two-edged sword, as likely to persuade us of the frailty or malevolence, as of the power and benevolence, of the presumed cause of the world as we know it.

……Thomas Jefferson, Epicurean (1743-1826)

Monticello, October 31, 1819.

To Mr. Short.

……………As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurian. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us. Epictetus indeed, has given us what was good of the stoics; all beyond, of their dogmas, being hypocrisy and grimace. Their great crime was in their calumnies of Epicurus and misrepresentations of his doctrines; in which we lament to see the candid character of Cicero engaging as an accomplice. Diffuse, vapid, rhetorical, but enchanting. His prototype Plato, eloquent as himself, dealing out mysticisms incomprehensible to the human mind, has been deified by certain sects usurping the name of Christians; because, in his foggy conceptions, they found a basis of impenetrable darkness whereon to rear fabrications as delirious, of their own invention. These they fathered blasphemously on him who they claimed as their founder, but who would disclaim them with the indignation which their caricatures of his religion so justly excite. Of Socrates we have nothing genuine but in the Memorabilia of Xenophon; for Plato makes him one of his collocutors merely to cover his own whimsies under the mantle of his name; a liberty of which we are told Socrates himself complained. Seneca is indeed a fine moralist, disguising his work at times with some Stoicisms, and affecting too much of antithesis and point, yet giving us on the whole a great deal of sound and practical morality. But the greatest of all the reformers of the depraved religion of his own country, was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill, we have the outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man; outlines which it is lamentable he did not live to fill up.

Epictetus and Epicurus give laws for governing ourselves, Jesus a supplement of the duties and charities we owe to others. The establishment of the innocent and genuine character of this benevolent moralist and the rescuing it from the imputation of imposture, which has resulted from artificial systems invented by ultra-Christian sects and unauthorized by a single word ever uttered by him, is a most desirable object, and one to which Priestley has successfully devoted his labors and learning. It would in time, it is to be hoped, effect a quiet euthanasia of the heresies of bigotry and fanaticism which have so long triumphed over human reason, and so generally and deeply afflicted mankind; but this work is to be begun by winnowing the grain from the chaff of the historians of his life…….

I take the liberty of observing that you are not a true disciple of our master Epicurus, in indulging the indolence to which you say you are yielding. One of his canons, you know, was that “that indulgence which prevents a greater pleasure, or produces a greater pain, is to be avoided.” Your love of repose will lead, in its progress, to a suspension of healthy exercise, a relaxation of mind, an indifference to everything around you, and finally to a debility of body, and habitude of mind, the farthest of all things from the happiness which the well-regulated indulgences of Epicurus ensure; fortitude, you know is one of his four cardinal virtues. That teaches us to meet and surmount difficulties; not to fly from them, like cowards; and to fly, too, in vain, for they will meet and arrest us at every turn of our road…………

I will place under this a syllabus of the doctrines of Epicurus, somewhat in the lapidary style, which I wrote some twenty years ago; a like one of the philosophy of Jesus of nearly the same age, is too long to be copied. Vale, et tibi persuade carissimum te esse mihi.

(The above is a lightly edited version of the letter to Mr. Short)

……Bishop Butler (1692-1752)

Joseph Butler was a Church of England bishop, who in 1726, published the texts of fifteen sermons preached at the Rolls Chapel. He was concerned about the hedonism and what he saw as selfishness of his well-heeled flock. His target in the sermons was Epicureanism. However, he was cleverer than most Christian apologists.

He set out by telling his audience where he agreed with the Epicureans of the Enlightenment. Virtue, he said, is “demonstrably the happiness of man” (echoing Epicurus), and the concern in this world is “the science of improving the temper and making the heart better,” which sounds humanistic, if not Epicurean.

But while acknowledging self-love (or selfishness) to be natural, he appointed the conscience as the superior and governing factor in human behaviour. Man, he said, is adapted to virtue.

……Cardinal Melchior de Polignac (1661-1742)

Anti-Lucretius(1747) was a Catholic polemic designed to counter the popularity of Epicureanism in the mid-18th Century. In answer to Lucretius’s assertion that the gods are quiescent, that there is no heaven or hell , and that one should seek pleasure and avoid pain, Polignac replies that religion is superior to pleasure in every respect and more capable of bringing tranquillity and happiness than are pleasure, friends, a garden, and self-sufficiency. The idea of pleasure has a catastrophic effect on society.

The Nineteenth Century

Epicureanism experienced a revival in 18th century Europe among the intelligentsia, who were influenced by the Enlightenment. However, a backlash occurred in the 19th century, and the churches regained control over the agenda. Macauley, the British nineteenth century historian, and a fierce Catholic, described Epicureanism as

“The silliest and meanest of all systems of natural and moral philosophy.”

But outside the church there was greater diversity in thinking.

……Walter Pater: “Marius the Epicurean”

Pater, a 19th Century Romantic novelist, was basically a Christian, but treated Epicureanism sympathetically and seems to have understood it, something few Christians had done previously.

The theme of Marius is the life of a young Italian who, in the age of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, is searching for some principle of conduct amid the dissolution of traditional values. He struggles between the opposing philosophies of Epicureanism and Stoicism. Marius is revolted by the indifference of the Emperor to the sufferings of the world, and leans towards Epicureanism. At the last, however, he is introduced into the home of a Christian family living outside Rome, is fascinated by the purity and decorum of their lives, and dies a Christian. The point of the book is to propose that there is a natural progression from Epicureanism to Christianity. (Pascal, too, saw that the step from Epicureanism to Christianity was easier than from Stoicism). In his review of Marius, Paul Elmer More states,

For the mind that craves unity and the resting-place of some eventual calm may be deceived by the naturalistic pantheism of the Stoic creed and, so to speak, benumbed into a dull acquiescence, whereas from the desolation of the Epicurean flux it is more likely to be driven into the supernatural unity of religion, while holding the world as a place of illusory mutation.

……Jeremy Bentham (1748 -1832) and the English Utilitarians

Epicurus is the forerunner of English Utilitarians. Although he speaks at length about justice, he differs from them in making no reference to altruism. “The greatest happiness of the greatest number” is a formula that has no counterpart in antiquity. The problem that occurs when the claims of self conflict with those of others was not raised by Epicurus.

Jeremy Bentham proposed a straightforward quantification of morality by reference to utilitarian outcomes. His An Introduction to the Principle of Morals and Legislation (1789) offers a simple statement of the application of this ethical doctrine.

Bentham’s moral theory was founded on the assumption that it is the consequences of human actions that count in evaluating their merit and that the kind of consequence that matters for human happiness is the achievement of pleasure or avoidance of pain. He argued that the hedonistic value of any human action is easily calculated by considering how intensely its pleasure is felt, how long that pleasure lasts, how certainly and how quickly it follows upon the performance of the action, and how likely it is to produce collateral benefits and avoid collateral harms. Taking such matters into account, he arrived at a net value of each action for any human being affected by it.

All that remains, Bentham said, is to consider the extent of this pleasure, since the happiness of the community as a whole is nothing other than the sum of individual human interests. The principle of utility, then, defines the meaning of moral obligation by reference to the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people who are affected by performance of an action. Similarly, Bentham supposed that social policies are properly judged in light of their effect on the general well-being of the populations they involve. Punishing criminals is an effective way of deterring crime precisely because it pointedly alters the likely outcome of their actions, attaching the likelihood of future pain in order to outweigh the apparent gain of committing the crime. Thus, punishment must “fit” the crime by changing the likely perception of the value of committing it.

……John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

The best evidence of the desirability of happiness is that people really do desire it; and since each individual human being desires his or her own happiness, it must follow that all of us desire the happiness of everyone. Thus, Mill argued, the greatest pleasure of all is morally desirable and seeking pleasure and avoiding pain are the touchstones by which most of us typically live. This follows the teaching of Epicurus.

Mill argued that social applications of utility are consistent with traditional concern for the promotion of justice. Justice involves respect for the property, rights, and deserts of individual citizens, along with fundamental presumptions in favor of good faith and impartiality. All of these worthwhile components of justice are adequately preserved by conscientious application of the principle of utility, since particular cases of each clearly result in the greatest happiness of all affected parties.

Although punishing wrong-doers may be supposed to contribute to the traditional concept of justice, Mill insisted that the appropriately limited use of external sanctions on utilitarian grounds better accords with a legitimate respect for the general welfare.

Epicurus said something similar: natural justice is a pledge of reciprocal benefit to prevent one man harming or being harmed by another. Justice is what suits a group of individuals in any given place and time and is not an absolute concept. The watchwords are “Neither harm or be harmed”

……John Dalton (1766 — 1844)

English scientist John Dalton is considered one of the founding fathers of the atomic theory of matter. He was directly influenced by Epicurus. Aside from his important meteorological observations, he is remembered for his law of partial pressures (that in a mixture of gases, each component exerts the same pressure as it would if it alone made up the whole volume of the mixture). Dalton concluded that all matter, not only gases, consisted of small particles, and as a result, he revived the Epicurean theory of atoms, preparing the first table of atomic weights. He announced his findings publicly in 1803. By the end of his life his atomic theory was widely accepted, and in 1833 he was awarded an annual pension from the king.

Dalton’s Atomic Theory can be summarized in five points:

All matter is composed of small indivisible particles called atoms.
Atoms can not be made nor destroyed.
Atoms of the same element are the same in every respect.
Atoms of different elements are unlike in every respect.
Atoms join together in small whole numbers to form molecules.
The above is very similar to the theory proposed by Epicurus. In spite of our current knowledge of isotopes, sub-atomic particles and nuclear reactions, Dalton’s Atomic Theory is still the starting point of all modern chemistry.

Epicureanism after Epicurus

The influence of Epicurus on Western thought

by Robert Hanrott

Introduction

Misrepresentation and religious hostility have pushed Epicureanism, unfairly, to the gloomy outer reaches of Western thought. Epicureanism has nonetheless influenced rational and progressive thought, particularly the humanists and enlightenment thinkers, and in the 20th Century it has influenced Ayn Rand and the Positivists. Epicureanism is neither irrelevant nor dead. It deserves a better hearing.

Although two millenia have passed since the emergence of Christianity, the prejudice against Epicureanism survives, a tribute to the effectiveness of Roman Catholic criticism over the ages. The early Catholics branded Epicureanism “self-indulgent hedonism and godlessness”, calling the Epicurean Garden “a den of iniquity” and Epicurus himself a “pig” (Augustine) and an advocate of “depravity and gluttony” (a phrase used by Jerome, Theophilus, Clement of Alexandria, as well as Augustine). On the other hand the supporters of Epicurus praised his morals, his belief in the gods, and his near-asceticism and moderation; they thought of him as a “Christian before Christ”, a saviour who spoke the truth.

Epicureanism stands for moderation, enjoyment of life, tranquillity, friendship and lack of fear. Many still dismiss Epicureanism as “egoistic hedonism”, although the writer of the Epicurus entry in Encyclopedia Britannica, for instance, states that “Epicureanism finds the purest joys of life in the unique richness of human encounters”. Howard Jones says in his book, The Epicurean Tradition

The Epicurean message…spoke of a world which was not managed by an unseen power, of a life in which a man’s actions were free from divine scrutiny, a life in which, within the bounds of society, a man might shape events according to his own will, securing himself against discomfort, acknowledging his natural instincts, relieved from the nagging fear of an unknown beyond the grave by the certainty of death as a final end.”

This paper seeks to trace the influence of Epicurus through the ages. It has been assembled from a score of informational and (mostly American) academic sources — many on the Web. (See Sources below. Of particular interest and help have been The Epicurean Tradition, by Howard Jones, and Epicurus: His Continuing Influence and Contemporary Relevance, by Dane R. Gordon and David B. Suits). This piece is written by a layman for the layman, for the better understanding of the public. It is not designed for the philosophy professor or student.

The Roman Period

After the death of Epicurus (c.341 — 271 B.C) the Garden in Athens was headed by Metrodorus, who was succeeded by Polyaenus.

In 155 B.C Athens sent a delegation of philosophers to Rome. It excluded the Epicureans, who, as a matter of principle, refused to take part in public affairs. This event caused great interest among Romans, but hostility among the conservatives, such as Cato, who emphasized the family, involvement in politics, and belief in the gods . Two Epicureans arrived in Rome the following year, but were expelled by the same group of conservatives.

However, two Epicureans, Amafinius and Rabirus later wrote books which popularized Epicurus, and a noted Epicurean school emerged in Naples under the direction of Siro. Associated with this school were Horace; Virgil, who inherited the villa on the death of Siro; and Lucretius, who wrote the most influential account of the philosophy of Epicurus, de Rerum Natura. Horace, the poet (65-8 B.C), was an articulate follower of Epicureanism, leaving for us two odes, “Carpe Diem” and “Otium”, and his “Letter to Tibullus”, that reflected his Epicureanism.

Carpe Diem

Ask not – we cannot know – what end the gods have set for you, for me; nor attempt the Babylonian reckonings Leuconoë. How much better to endure whatever comes, whether Jupiter grants us additional winters or whether this is our last, which now wears out the Tuscan Sea upon the barrier of the cliffs! Be wise, strain the wine; and since life is brief, prune back far-reaching hopes! Even while we speak, envious time has passed: pluck the day, putting as little trust as possible in tomorrow!

The Naples School was patronized by Titus Pomponius Atticus and Calpurnius Piso. Titus Pomponius Atticus was one of the most prominent Epicurians (see Epitome of Roman History, by historian Cornelius Nepos). Piso was an influential politician. His most famous enemy was Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-45 BC), who copied out Epicurean monologues and critiqued them harshly, intending to discredit the Piso family. Cicero’s principal work in this regard was De Finibus, Bonorum et Malorum. Ironically, while attacking Epicureanism as denying the services of talented men to the state, he gives us a lot of information about the Neapolitan school, otherwise lost. For disaster overtook the Pisos, who not only lost political influence, but whose property in Herculaneum was destroyed in the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D 79, along with the biggest known library of Epicurean literature. (Big strides have latterly been made in deciphering the burned fragments of the works of Philodemus of Gadara, discovered in the Villa of the Papyri. Philodemus was the in-house Epicurean philosopher).

Notwithstanding these adversities, Epicureanism had a big following. along with emerging exotic cults such as those of Isis, Mithras, Serapis, Ma and Cybele. As mentioned above, it was popularized by men like Amafinus and Rabirius, who mainly emphasized the more hedonistic aspects of Epicurus’s thought. Epicureanism reached its height of popularity in the first half of the 1st Century B.C, declining somewhat after the death of Julius Caesar and the civil wars, when a more frightened, conservative attitude took hold.. Later, the Roman empire, was chiefly interested in promoting the cult of the Emperor – – conformism and immersion in public life for all those who could afford it. It frowned upon the more democratic ideals of Epicureanism, which were criticized as anarchic and hedonistic by such writers as Plutarch (a Platonist) and Sextus Empiricus (a Sceptic).

Plutarch wrote a polemic against the theology of Epicurus. He asserted the continued existence of the soul and criticized Epicurus for not understanding man’s terror of death and his longing for immortality:

In the masses, who have no fear of what comes after death, the myth-inspired hope of eternal life and the desire of being, the oldest and most powerful of all passions, produces joy and a feeling of happiness, and overcomes that childish terror. Hence, whoever has lost children, a wife, and friends would rather have them continue to be somewhere and continue to exist, even if in hardship, than be utterly taken away and destroyed and reduced to nothing. …. they willingly hear such expressions as “the dying person goes somewhere else and changes his dwelling”, and whatever else intimates that death is a change of the soul’s dwelling, and not destruction … and such expressions as “he is lost” and “he has perished” and “he is no more” disturb them…. They hold in store for them utter death who say: “We men are born only once; one cannot be born a second time…… For the present is of little account to them, or rather of none at all, in comparison with eternity, and they let it pass without enjoying it and neglect virtue and action, spiritless and despising themselves as creatures of a day, impermanent, and beings worth nothing to speak of. For the doctrine that “being-without-sensation and being-dissolved and what has no sensation is nothing to us” does not remove the terror of death, but rather confirms it. For this is the very thing nature dreads … the dissolution of the soul into what has neither thought nor sensation. Epicurus, by making this a scattering into emptiness and atoms, does still more destroy our hope of immortality, a hope for which (I would almost say) all men and all women are ready to be torn asunder by Cerberus and to carry constantly [water] into the barrel [of the Danaides], so that they may [only] stay in being and not be extinguished. p. 1104 – 1105, 1.c

Nevertheless, Epicureanism thrived in anti-establishment circles, especially in France and Spain, and the Greek cities of western Turkey. The latter were hot-beds of Epicureanism, with their history of independence and free thinking. In Oenoanda, in Lycia, a man called Diogenes erected a huge and very public wall, and had carved upon a discursive account of the thoughts of Epicurus (excerpt from his sayings). As “colonies” of Rome one can understand the attraction of ideas that ran counter to the official line. People were clearly looking for something more meaningful than the Emperor-as-God cult, the cavorting of the Roman gods and goddesses, and oriental religions such as Mithras (mainly a military cult). The empress Plotina, wife of Trajan, was also an avowed Epicurean, and for five hundred years after the death of Epicurus his ideas thrived in “middle-class” provincial circles, where the harsh militaristic culture of Rome was softened by the ideas of friendship and tranquillity. The satirist Lucian was an Epicurean and used Epicurean ideas to skewer the elite. In Alexander the Oracle-Monger, Lucian says:

…I was still more concerned to strike a blow for Epicurus, that great man whose holiness and divinity of nature were not shams, who alone had and imparted true insight into the good, and brought deliverance to all that consorted with him.

……Epicurus and the Jews

In the Talmudic Mishnah, an authoritative document produced by the Rabbis, the following statement appears:

All Israel has a share in the world to come. As Isaiah said: “All of your people who are righteous will merit eternity and inherit the land.” And these are the people who do not merit the world to come: the ones who deny the resurrection of the dead, and those who deny the Torah is from the heavens, and Epicureans.

This attack on Epicureanism arose out of the contorted struggle between, on the one hand, the Sadducees, who were generally liberal, influenced by Hellenism and Epicureanism, and accused of collaborating with the Seleucid dynasty and with Rome; and on the other hand, the Pharisees, the ancestors of modern Rabbinical Judaism, the originators of the Talmud (a record of discussions on Jewish law, ethics, customs, legends and stories, which Jewish tradition considers authoritative), who represented Jewish separatism and nationalism. The Pharisees were in due course co-opted by Rome. The Sadducees disappeared after A.D 70. What was left was Rabbinical Judaism and a dissident offshoot, the Nazarenes, who took over the role of resisting Rome. The Nazarenes believed in righteousness towards all others, frequent baptism and anointment, and a ritual eucharist for the dead — all of which would assure their place in heaven, without the need for priests and a temple. Out of the Nazarenes came two new cults: Mandeism (a Gnostic sect that followed the teachings of John the Baptist) and Christianity (Jesus)

……Epicurus and the Christians

Paul is credited with universalizing the message of Jesus, with the message that Jesus had come for the salvation of all mankind, not just the Jews. In Asia Minor and Greece, he chiefly had to concentrate upon refuting Epicureanism, its denials of divine providence, resurrection, and the after-life. In his castigation of the “anti-Christ” he was referring to the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes, and thus associating himself with the opponents of the Greek Epicurians, mentioned in the Talmudic quotation above.

By about 150 A.D Christian leaders started to refute the Greek philosophers. The chief early writers were Justin the Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyon, and Tatian. They accused the philosophers of being unable to arrive at agreed conclusions about reality and thus had no credibility. Tertullian (150-229 A.D) was the first author to single out Epicureanism for his furious disdain, fearful of the challenge of Epicurean rationality on Christian faith. He considered philosophy to be the instigator of heresy and talked about the “frigid conceit” of Epicureanism.

By the end of the 3rd century A.D., Christian writers were beginning to put forward a real theology, instead of negative vituperation. Chief among these were Origen and Lactantius, who began to include Platonic arguments, accusing Epicurus of falsehood in not recognizing the role of divine intelligence in the creation and ordering of the universe.

(Note: It is not clear that Epicurus ever made the above claim. He believed that there were indeed Gods, but he never seemed to have addressed the issue of who created the universe or the atoms of which we are composed).

By about 300 A.D, the Christian population was about five million in a total of sixty million, according to Ramsey McMullen in Christianizing the Roman Empire. It was not till the conversion of Constantine in 312 A.D that Christianity grew to be a majority. Meanwhile, the early Christians were pacifist, their thought was in flux, and they were influenced by the Greek thought of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics. While they strongly objected to the denial by Epicureans of the immortality of the soul and the reality of an afterlife, Christians and Epicureans shared a number of common attitudes, despite the growing hostility described above. These included rejection of determinism, superstition, divination, oracles and the worship of heavenly bodies. They shared a lack of exclusivity, similar ideas on friendship, the concept of the “saviour” (Epicurus was regarded as such by his followers), freedom of will and man’s choice of action and personal responsibility. In relation to monasticism, both had tendencies toward seclusion. One of the problems of Epicureanism was that it rather rigid and, like Christianity as it developed, dogmatic. Stoicism went through various metamorphoses in order to reach popularity with a wider public. Epicureanism never did this, even at the height of its popularity. This inflexibility proved a dire disadvantage once the Christians had the power of the Emperor behind them.

In any case, following the conversion of Constantine, Christianity emerged victorious over both the philosophers and other faiths — and some might say, over the cause of human happiness and rationality.

In the 4th and early 5th century, Athanasius of Alexandria wrote that if there was no “mind” (e.g God) behind the creation of the universe and everything came into being automatically, all would be uniform and without distinction. In 396 Ambrose of Milan, attacked Epicurus. The serpent of Adam and Eve fame, he said, was itself “pleasure, slippery and infected with the poisons of corruptions. Adam succumbed and fell away from the enjoyment of grace. How can pleasure recall us to paradise, seeing that it alone deprived us of it?” This hostility to the enjoyment of life still finds its echoes in some Christian sects.

……Two typical early Christian writers

Claudius Aelianus (Aelian) (AD 170-235), was a Greek rhetorician who wrote Various Histories (also known as Historical Miscellanies), mostly unsupported historical anecdotes. He rejected Epicurean atomism because it disallowed divine providence . He claimed that Epicureans were sexually deviant or criminal due to their indifference to the powers of the gods and popular conceptions of the gods. He subscribed to the prevalent but false accusation that Epicureans were atheists and, while his hostility was not unique, the physical ailments he describes which afflict Epicureans are unattested elsewhere. He describes Epicureans as womanish and even goes so far as to describe an Epicurean who, certainly metaphorically, if not actually, loses his penis through his adherence to the philosophy. “There was a man,” he claims, “(if indeed we can even call him a man) who enfeebled his soul through the words of Epicurus and became a woman, castrated and a womanish man” This same Epicurean violates religious protocol and becomes ill: “But when his shameful act was dared, a kind of terror overcame him and he suffered a malady which lasted a long time and consumed him.”

Athenaeus of Naucratis, (c. A.D 200), is remembered primarily for his Banquet of the Learned in which a variety of characters debate a wide spectrum of topics. Conversations upon food, luxury, diet, health, sexual relationships, pornography, music, humour and linguistics are all recorded in it. Athenaeus centers his criticisms of Epicureanism on the notion that pleasure is over-indulgence in food and transforms any Epicurean….into a glutton.

( Note: The actual teaching of Epicurus can be stated thus: Men and women who constantly exceed the natural limits of food, drink, and sex eventually discover that the pleasures derived from them are few and short-lived, while the pains that result from excess are many and can haunt them for a lifetime.)

Augustine of Hippo completed the work of making Christianity a variant of Platonism. Pleasure is incompatible with virtue, he said. The soul is immortal. Ideas like atomism must be rooted out.

One of the main problems faced by Epicureanism for centuries was the fact that Christian writers had no proper descriptions available of Epicureanism. Much had been destroyed. Cicero was known, but then Cicero was biased to begin with. What information there was was in the form of sayings and aphorisms, which were easily misrepresented. The influence of this ignorance remains with us to this day.

The Dark Ages

In 391, on orders from the Emperor Theodosius, Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, destroyed the pagan temples of Alexandria, along with the Serapeum, which housed part of the 40,000 volume library. The Museum and Library may have fallen victim at the same time, although there is no firm evidence of this. Thus was burned the greatest extant set of philosophic writings in the world. Later, in 415, came the murder by Christian monks of Hypatia, mathematician and daughter of the last museum director. Hypatia’s prominence was accentuated by the fact that she was both female and a follower of Greek philosphy in an increasingly Christian environment. Shortly before her death, Cyril was made the Christian bishop of Alexandria, and a conflict arose between Cyril and the prefect Orestes. Orestes was disliked by some Christians and was a friend of Hypatia, and rumors started that Hypatia was to blame for the conflict. In the spring of 415 C.E., the situation reached a tragic conclusion when a band of Christian monks seized Hypatia on the street, beat her, and dragged her body to a church where they mutilated her flesh with sharp tiles and burned her remains. Thereafter nobody dared to actively propagate secular philosophy.

In 529 Emperor Justinian closed down what remained of the four Athenian philosophical schools, including the Epicurean Garden, which had survived for eight hundred years. Some of the philosophers escaped to the University of Jundeshapur in Persia, under the patronage of the Sasanian king, Chosroes Nushirwan (531-579), taking with them the knowledge of Greek philosophy and Epicureanism. Jundeshapur (which is still operating) was regarded as the most important medical school in the world at the time, with strong connections with India and China. Some regard it as the first university in the world. It was this university in Khuzistan province that played an important role in preserving the writings of the great philosophers, and transmitting them to the great Arab translators, and thus back to the West.

……Epicureanism as heresy

In a letter to Menoecus, Epicurus said,

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce a pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men’s souls.

Notwithstanding this, Epicureanism was castigated as hedonism. An Epicure was painted as a depraved and irresponsible individual only concerned with bodily pleasures.

“The world is filled with Epicureans for the reason that in its great multitude of men there are few who are not slaves to lust.” John of Salisbury (10th C.)

Worse, Epicurus depicted the gods as in a state of tranquillity and happiness that precluded them from intervening in human affairs. It was silly to fear them and a waste of time praying to them and propitiating them, for they sit above us in a state of blessed perfection, an ethico-aesthetic ideal For this he was branded an atheist.

Although not strikingly controversial in itself, the atomic theory advanced by Epicurus and others contains several corollaries which were indeed contradictory to later Christian theology. First, there is the idea that nothing can come out of nothing and therefore that the material universe has always existed, contrary to Genesis. Creation and dissolution were considered by ancient atomists to be random rearrangements of immutable atoms. Equally disturbing to the church was the insistence that the soul, being a material substance, is mortal and must be dispersed with the body after death. This heresy of “mortalism,” taken together with Lucretius’s fervent attack on conventional religion, enhanced the view that atomists and Epicureans were atheistic rebels.

……Charlemagne

Charlemagne is credited with creating the first renaissance of classical literature, gathering together a large number of churchmen who not only translated the Latin authors, including Lucretius, but also collected Roman and some Greek classical texts and wrote poetry, verse, and satire, influenced by Homer, Virgil, Ovid and others. Although this movement faded by around 950 A.D, the “Scholastic” movement that followed Charlemagne and the Carolingian monarchs was an eclectic attempt to dispel the effects of barbarian rule and promote the idea of human reason in contrast to mysticism and superstition. The Scholastic movement accepted truths from any number of sources — including Plato, the Stoics, and the Epicureans — but most notably from Aristotle. The movement became debased over the years, but classical texts continued to be copied in France and Germany, spurred in the 12th and 13th Centuries by the translation in Southern Europe of Greek and Arab texts on astronomy, natural science, literature, and philosophy.

The 12th, 13th and 14th Centuries

During this period churchmen were preoccupied with synthesizing the thoughts of Plato and Aristotle, in particular, with Christianity. People such as Bernard, Thierry of Chartres, Alexander of Hales and William of Conches worked on these authors, leaving out what was unacceptable and creating new dogma, which one disputed at one’s peril.

In 1347 Nicholas of Autrecourt was tried and condemned in the Papal court of Clement VI in Avignon. Aside from attacking Aristotelian natural philosophy he argued that Epicurean atomism explained change and motion better than arguments put forward by Aristotle. He was forced to recant and burn his writings.

The fact was that Epicureanism had become more an accusation than a philosophy, something used mainly to discredit opponents. Compendia of ancient knowledge dismissed it under the heading “minor Greek thought”, and characterized it as lascivious gluttony. Such compendia, of course, had the effect of discouraging seekers after truth from trying to find and read Epicurus thoroughly. Meanwhile, the great writers of the era did little to enlighten their readers:

In Dante’s Divine Comedy the tombs of the Epicureans are located within the sixth circle of Hell (Inferno, Canto X). Dante enters the city of Dis and finds a huge cemetery filled with open fire-filled tombs. One of these tombs contains the souls of Epicureans (heretics). (Dante 1265-1321)

In the Canterbury Tales Geoffrey Chaucer has his own take on Epicureans:

A Frankelyn was in his company;
Whyt was his berd, as is the daysesye.
Of his complexioun he was sangwyn.
Wel loved he by the morwe a sop in wyn.
To liven in delyt was ever his wone,
For he was Epicuruis owne sone.

The Renaissance and Humanism

The Renaissance saw lost Greek and Roman works, philosophical and literary, emerging from monasteries, where they had lurked for centuries, and being read and understood by an educated lay audience. These ancient texts shone a bright new light in a world dominated by a monopolistic church in the grip of dull scholasticism and conformism.

In 1400 Francesco Zabarella was the first person, in de Felicitate to argue that Epicurus had been misunderstood , and that he in fact exalted mental pleasures over physical. Such dynamite was this that the book was not widely published until 1640.

Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), an Italian humanist and secretary in the Roman Curia, rediscovered a number of previously lost works, including Lucretius’ de Rerum Natura, which was found in a German monastery in 1414. He was a company man, however, and toed the company line when it came to philosophy.

In 1431 Bracciolini’s arch enemy, Lorenzo Valla, a humanist, who exposed the Donation of Constantine as a fraud and attacked the depraved Latin then in use in the Catholic church, wrote a book called De Voluptate, an Epicurean dialogue in three books that analysed pleasure and attacked scholasticism and monastic asceticism.

The Catholic New Advent Encyclopaedia says of De Voluptate:

In de Voluptate Valla creates three characters: Leonardo Bruni (from Arentino), who defends the Stoic doctrine that a life conformed to nature is the summum bonum; Antonio Beccadelli (from Panormita), who strongly favours Epicureanism, declaring that the desire of pleasure is to be restrained only lest it might be an obstacle to a greater pleasure and that continence is contrary to nature (Epicurus would not have agreed); and finally, Niccolo Niccoli, who speaks both in favour of Christian hedonism and against it, holding that perpetual happiness is the summum bonum, and that virtue is practised only as a means of obtaining it. It is uncertain whether Beccadelli or Niccoli (who is declared victor by the onlookers) expresses Valla’s personal opinion. It would seem that he had not then (1431) come to a definitive opinion. He confines himself to expounding the three opinions, but gives Epicureanism the most ardent and eloquent defender. The way in which his Apologia extenuates what had been said in de Voluptate, arguing about the meaning of the Latin word voluptas, shows that he was undecided.

It seems likely that Valla believed that, in comparison to Stoicism, Epicureaniasm had the right approach to human nature. This does not necessarily mean, however, that he was a committed Epicurean.

de Voluptate was greeted with such an uproar that he re-wrote it under the name de Vero Bono. Like Autrecourt (page 7) he was tried by the Curia in Naples for his theological views and only released owing to the influence of his patron, King Alfonso of Aragon.

In 1473 Lucretius’ de Reum Natura was printed for the first time. It is from de Rerum Natura that we learn most of the thoughts of Epicurus. Comparatively little else has survived. Epicurean ideas began to infiltrate the monasteries, and were encountered and greatly admired by Erasmus. In 1523 the work of Diogenes Laertius was printed in Basel. Diogenes’s book, Lives of the Philosophers, is the most important source of information about Greek philosophy, dating from approximately the reign of Septimus Severus. He is particularly good on Epicureanism and may have been an Epicurean.

In general the humanists of the Renaissance seldom endorsed Epicureanism. They did, however, produce a softening of attitude, and an atmosphere where at least its pros and cons could be discussed by rational men. As a result Epicureanism once again became fashionable in the 16th Century, and its precepts were taken up by the intellectuals and artists of the time, along with many other aspects of ancient philosophy. Noted among these were the classicist Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533), Epicurean in everything, as man and as poet, his greatest work was Orlando Furioso; Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540), Italian politician and cynical writer in the style of Machiavelli; and Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-1592), who invented the essay. Notwithstanding this intellectual ferment, Giordano Bruno was forced to leave the Dominican order for the sin of harboring Epicurean beliefs. He was burned at the stake on February 17, 1600.

It is argued by Jones in The Epicurean Tradition that in fact it was Lucretius and his poetry that won most approval, rather than the philosophy behind it, and that in comparison to Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Pliny the Elder, Ovid, Martial and Virgil, Epicurus affected thought in this epoch rather little. Montaigne is often quoted in the context of Epicureanism, but although he quoted Lucretius, he tended to dissociate himself from Epicurus and his ideas. Jones calls Epicureanism at that time a “rhetorical shuttlecock”.

……Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655)

Gassendi was an empirical French philosopher, born 4 years before Descartes, the most influential Epicurean of his age. He started his career as a priest, teaching Aristotle (in Aix en Provence), but soon began to attack the ossification of philosophy and uncritical acceptance of everything Aristotelian in the philosophy schools of that time. Gassendi agreed with Epicurus on the crucial importance of experience in reaching the truth. He wanted the facts, and if this upset the church it could not be helped. He revived the atomic theories of Democritus and Epicurus, and tried to reconcile atomism with Christian thought, postulating that Epicurus’s atoms were made by God (in whom he strongly believed) out of nothing, endowed with powers of motion, all with slightly different attributes, and with the ability to move incessantly of their own free will and form bodies and compounds . He believed that Epicurus used the idea of “swerving” atoms as a metaphor for the mind’s capacity to leap from one subject to another. He in turn thought that the motion of atoms transforms itself into independent, free, self-initiated action, implying autonomy and freedom of thought and action. He, like Epicurus, believed in the corporeal nature of the mind, had a dislike of abstraction, and believed all ideas to be concrete.

Veronica Gventzadze in her monograph Atomism and Gassendi’s Conception of the Human Soul, says, “His (Gassendi’s) concern is that philosophy should not be recruited to serve theology. The kind of homework theology gives to philosophy not only fails to yield anything valuable to theology itself, but also contaminates philosophy and effectively destroys it as a discipline.”

In 1647 Gassendi wrote de Vita et Moribus Epicuri, eight books on Epicurean philosophy, and in 1649 he wrote a commentary on the biography by Diogenes Laërtius, called the Syntagma philosophiae Epicuri (Treatise on Epicurean Philosophy 1649); it was issued posthumously at The Hague ten years later.

Gassendi’s theories are considered to have prepared the way for modern empirical methods, anticipating those of John Locke and the French philosopher Atienne Bonnot de Condillac. His work on atomism was widely read and influenced Newton. Moreover, Gassendi originated the modern concept of inertia, later codified in Newton’s First Law of Motion. He corresponded with Kepler and Galileo and conducted real scientific experiments, was the first person to witness an eclipse other than solar and lunar eclipses, and worked out the speed of sound. In 1649 he published Animadversiones, containing work on Epicurus.

……Epicureanism in England

…… The Northumberland Circle

Atomism became popular in England at the end of the 16th Century, sponsored by Henry Percy, Duke of Northumberland. The most important member of this group was Thomas Hariot, a polymath who used atomism as the building block for his scientific work. Unfortunately, Hariot was associated with Sir Walter Raleigh and when Raleigh fell, Hariot was accused as an “Epicurean and magus”. Francis Bacon, although he later recanted, produced a work very favourable to Epicureanism in 1612. The school of Leusippus, Democritus and Epicurus, he wrote, deserved more than Plato and Aristotle to have prospered, since “in most things it agrees with the authority of the early ages.” In other words, it had a better pedigree.

…… The Newcastle Circle

An aristocratic group of royalist of the mid 17th Century, influenced by Descartes and Gassendi. In 1660 Thomas Stanley published his History of Philosophy, giving Epicurus a bigger mention than Plato and Aristotle combined. Thomas Creech produced a translation of de Rerum Natura in 1682, which made Lucretius fashionable. The overlapping membership of the circle and of the Royal Society was accused of atheism and of undermining religion with their espousal of atomism. They routinely denied agreeing with Epicurean philosophy, but meanwhile the thoughts of Epicurus were out there in the form of Lucretius’s poetry. And very popular the poetry proved. Meanwhile, foremost among the English thinkers of this century were Walter Charleton, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

……Walter Charleton (1619-1707)

Charleton, physician to Charles I and President of the Royal College of Physicians, translated Gassendi for English readers, adapting Epicurus like Gassendi to deflect the fury of the church. Thus, he said that atoms were created by God and were proof of his existence. In Epicurus’s Morals in 1656, he laid out a total ethical system which synthesized Epicurus with Christianity

……Thomas Hobbes (1588 -1679)

Hobbes proposed a strictly materialist view of the world, along the lines of Epicurus. To Hobbes human beings are physical objects, sophisticated machines all of whose functions and activities can be described and explained in purely mechanistic terms. To be is to be a body. Sensation, for example, involves a series of mechanical processes operating within the human nervous system, by means of which the sensible features of material things produce ideas in the brains of the human beings who perceive them.

Specific desires and appetites arise in the human body and are experienced as discomforts or pains which must be overcome. Thus, each of us is motivated to act in such ways as we believe likely to relieve our discomfort, to preserve and promote our own well-being. (Leviathan 1.6). Human volition is nothing but the determination of the will by the strongest present desire. Epicurus put this in a more positive way, and talked of happiness.

Hobbes nevertheless supposed that human agents are free in the sense that their activities are not under constraint from anyone else. His account of human nature emphasizes our animal nature, which leaves each of us to live independently of everyone else, acting only in his or her own self-interest, without regard for others. This produces what he called the “state of war,” a way of life that is certain to prove “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (Leviathan 1.13)) The only escape is by entering into contracts with each other—mutually beneficial agreements to surrender our individual interests in order to achieve the advantages of security that only a social existence can provide. (Leviathan 1.14)

Unable to rely indefinitely on their individual powers in the effort to secure livelihood and contentment, human beings join together in the formation of a commonwealth to whom all responsibility for social order and public welfare is entrusted. (Leviathan2.17). The subjects agree to divest themselves of their native powers and obey the dictates of a sovereign authority, the institutional embodiment of orderly government.(Leviathan 2.18) The commonwealth operates most effectively when a hereditary monarch assumes the sovereign role. (Leviathan II.19) Hobbes argued that such a commonwealth secures the liberty of its citizens. Genuine human freedom, he maintained, is just the ability to carry out one’s will without interference from others. This doesn’t entail an absence of law; indeed, our agreement to be subject to a common authority helps each of us to secure liberty with respect to others. (Leviathan II.21)

Hobbes acknowledged that there are circumstances under which the commonwealth may fail to accomplish its purpose. (Leviathan II.29) Among other things, this can happen if citizens make judgments of right and wrong based on conscience, succumb to religious enthusiasm, or acquire excessive private property.

……Sir William Temple (1628-1699)

In 1685 Sir William Temple wrote Upon the Gardens of Epicurus. The following is an excerpt:

The Epicureans were more intelligible in their notion, and fortunate in their expression, when they placed a man’s happiness in the tranquillity of mind and indolence of body……….

I have often wondered how such sharp and violent invectives came to be made against Epicurus by the ages that followed him. His admirable wit, felicity of expression, excellence of nature, sweetness of conversation, temperance of life, and constancy of death, made him so beloved by his friends, admired by his scholars, and honoured by the Athenians. But this injustice may be fastened chiefly upon the envy and malignity of the Stoics at first, then upon the mistakes of some gross pretenders to his sect (who took pleasure only to be sensual) and afterwards, upon the piety of the primitive Christians, who esteemed his principles of natural philosophy more opposite to those of our religion, than either the Platonists, the Peripatetics; or Stoics themselves: yet, I confess, I do not know why the account given by Lucretius of the Gods, should be thought more impious than that given by Homer, who makes them not only subject to all the weakest passions, but perpetually busy in all the meanest actions of men.

But Epicurus has found so great advocates of his virtue, as well as learning and inventions, that there need no more; and the testimonies of Diogenes Laertius alone seem too sincere and impartial to be disputed, or to want the assistance of modern authors: if all failed, he would be but too well defended …….Cæsar, Atticus, Mæcenas, Lucretius, Virgil, Horace, all admirable in their several kinds, and perhaps unparalleled in story.

………….all the different sects of philosophies seem to have agreed in the opinion of a wise man abstaining from public affairs…….. too sordid and too artificial for the cleanness and simplicity of their manners and lives. ….. Where, factions were once entered and rooted in a state, they thought it madness for good men to meddle with public affairs; which made them turn their thoughts and entertainments to any thing rather than this. ………But above all, they esteemed public business the most contrary of all others to that tranquillity of mind, which they esteemed and taught to be the only true felicity of man.

For this reason, Epicurus passed his life wholly in his garden: there he studied, there he exercised, there he taught his philosophy; and, indeed, no other sort of abode seems to contribute so much to both the tranquillity of mind and indolence of body, which he made his chief ends. The sweetness of air, the pleasantness of smell, the verdure of plants, the cleanness and lightness, of food, the exercises of working or walking; but above all, the exemption from cares and solicitude, seem equally to favour and improve both contemplation and health, the enjoyment of sense and imagination, and thereby the quiet and ease both of the body and mind.

Though Epicurus be said to have been the first that had a garden in Athens, (a garden is pleasure of the greatest, and the care of the meanest; and indeed an employment and a possession, for which no man is too high, nor too low.

……John Locke (1632-1704)

Influenced by the new science of Newton, Boyle, and Bacon, Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), tried to apply scientific methods to establish the reliability, scope, and limitations of human knowledge in contrast to the pretensions of uncritical belief, borrowed opinion, and mere superstition. Like Epicurus, he believed that all ideas come from experience, and offered a strictly hedonistic account of human motivation, according to which our preferences are invariably determined by the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain. (Essay II vii 3) What matters for freedom and moral responsibility is that we can act on our preferences, whatever their source, without any outside interference.

……Epicureanism in France

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Epicureanism, branded by its opponents as libertinism, thrived in France. Among its adherents were moralists such as Francois, duc de La Rochefoucauld, and Charles de Saint-Avremonde; scientists such as Julien de La Mettrie, who believed that man could be explained as a machine, Claude-Adrien Helvetius, who reduced the ethic of the useful to a form of experimental science, but who put public above private well-being; and Paul Henri Dietrich, baron d’Holbach, who gave particular importance to the physics of the atoms. Atienne de Condillac sought to explain how cognitive faculties are developed as a consequence of sensation.

……Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733)

Mandeville regarded morality as the merely conventional rules of a social group and supposed that all human action is inevitably guided only by self-interest.

The Enlightenment

Enlightenment is the emancipation of man from a state of self-imposed tutelage. This state is due to his incapacity to use his own intelligence without external guidance. This is the battle-cry of the enlightenment…….Dare to be free and respect the freedom and autonomy of others….. it is only through the growth of knowledge that a person can be liberated from enslavement by prejudices, idols and avoidable errors” . Immanuel Kant 1785

The Enlightenment stood for the ethics of humanism, scientific objectivity and democratic values. Humanism is in many ways the modern version of Epicureanism, rejecting superstition and supporting a rational, scientific approach to living based upon the individual, his enjoyment of life and self-realization.

A person’s life in one sense is like a work of art, blending colours, tones, lines and forms. It is what he or she chooses to do, the sum of his or her dreams and aspirations, plans and projects, end and goals, tragedies and successes that define who and what a person is. Our ends and values are shared with others and conditioned by the societies we live in….Democratic societies afford a wider range of opportunities for free expression than do authoritarian societies……..Life can be meaningful without the need of an external religious support. Ancient religions were created at a time of disease, deprivation, danger and imminent death. People were overwhelmed by ignorance and fear. Science is able to dissipate many of these fears. Human beings soon learn that cooperation and empathy with their fellow human beings, love and shared experiences, can enhance life and help us to achieve significant lives that are bountiful, joyful, and even exuberant.

(Paul Kurtz, Council for Secular Humanism and editor of Free Inquiry, 2004)

……David Hume (1711-1776)

The newly-popular belief in intelligent design supposes that the order and beauty of the universe reflect the greatness and demonstrate the reality of its ultimate cause. Hume noted (An Inquiry into Human Understanding) that since this argument infers a cause from presumed effects, it must be grounded as a matter of fact in the experience of many observations. But we have not observed repeated instances of gods creating universes, and we cannot have formed the habit of associating our experience of the one with our inferences about the other. No causal relationship can ever be established from the observation of a unique example.

What is more, Hume argued that even if it were possible to engage in causal reasoning in this case, it could not warrant the intended conclusion. The presumed cause must always be supposed to be proportional to the observed effect, so the manifest imperfections of this world could never support belief in the perfection of its creator.

Those who espouse intelligent design infer morality and all manner of characteristics about God that cannot be seen in nature. Even if one could plausibly say the nature is so wonderful that a Supreme Being must have created it, you have to reject any inferences about God that do not relate to the effects of the natural world itself. You cannot, say, look at a tree that God created and infer from that that he is a loving god who rewards virtue.

You cannot hold a belief in god based upon reason. It can only be based upon faith, since we do not know God and have no knowledge of him. You have to start from what you know and then treat everything else as a hypothesis

“Intelligent design” is a two-edged sword, as likely to persuade us of the frailty or malevolence, as of the power and benevolence, of the presumed cause of the world as we know it.

……Thomas Jefferson, Epicurean (1743-1826)

Monticello, October 31, 1819.

To Mr. Short.

……………As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurian. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us. Epictetus indeed, has given us what was good of the stoics; all beyond, of their dogmas, being hypocrisy and grimace. Their great crime was in their calumnies of Epicurus and misrepresentations of his doctrines; in which we lament to see the candid character of Cicero engaging as an accomplice. Diffuse, vapid, rhetorical, but enchanting. His prototype Plato, eloquent as himself, dealing out mysticisms incomprehensible to the human mind, has been deified by certain sects usurping the name of Christians; because, in his foggy conceptions, they found a basis of impenetrable darkness whereon to rear fabrications as delirious, of their own invention. These they fathered blasphemously on him who they claimed as their founder, but who would disclaim them with the indignation which their caricatures of his religion so justly excite. Of Socrates we have nothing genuine but in the Memorabilia of Xenophon; for Plato makes him one of his collocutors merely to cover his own whimsies under the mantle of his name; a liberty of which we are told Socrates himself complained. Seneca is indeed a fine moralist, disguising his work at times with some Stoicisms, and affecting too much of antithesis and point, yet giving us on the whole a great deal of sound and practical morality. But the greatest of all the reformers of the depraved religion of his own country, was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill, we have the outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man; outlines which it is lamentable he did not live to fill up.

Epictetus and Epicurus give laws for governing ourselves, Jesus a supplement of the duties and charities we owe to others. The establishment of the innocent and genuine character of this benevolent moralist and the rescuing it from the imputation of imposture, which has resulted from artificial systems invented by ultra-Christian sects and unauthorized by a single word ever uttered by him, is a most desirable object, and one to which Priestley has successfully devoted his labors and learning. It would in time, it is to be hoped, effect a quiet euthanasia of the heresies of bigotry and fanaticism which have so long triumphed over human reason, and so generally and deeply afflicted mankind; but this work is to be begun by winnowing the grain from the chaff of the historians of his life…….

I take the liberty of observing that you are not a true disciple of our master Epicurus, in indulging the indolence to which you say you are yielding. One of his canons, you know, was that “that indulgence which prevents a greater pleasure, or produces a greater pain, is to be avoided.” Your love of repose will lead, in its progress, to a suspension of healthy exercise, a relaxation of mind, an indifference to everything around you, and finally to a debility of body, and habitude of mind, the farthest of all things from the happiness which the well-regulated indulgences of Epicurus ensure; fortitude, you know is one of his four cardinal virtues. That teaches us to meet and surmount difficulties; not to fly from them, like cowards; and to fly, too, in vain, for they will meet and arrest us at every turn of our road…………

I will place under this a syllabus of the doctrines of Epicurus, somewhat in the lapidary style, which I wrote some twenty years ago; a like one of the philosophy of Jesus of nearly the same age, is too long to be copied. Vale, et tibi persuade carissimum te esse mihi.

(The above is a lightly edited version of the letter to Mr. Short)

……Bishop Butler (1692-1752)

Joseph Butler was a Church of England bishop, who in 1726, published the texts of fifteen sermons preached at the Rolls Chapel. He was concerned about the hedonism and what he saw as selfishness of his well-heeled flock. His target in the sermons was Epicureanism. However, he was cleverer than most Christian apologists.

He set out by telling his audience where he agreed with the Epicureans of the Enlightenment. Virtue, he said, is “demonstrably the happiness of man” (echoing Epicurus), and the concern in this world is “the science of improving the temper and making the heart better,” which sounds humanistic, if not Epicurean.

But while acknowledging self-love (or selfishness) to be natural, he appointed the conscience as the superior and governing factor in human behaviour. Man, he said, is adapted to virtue.

……Cardinal Melchior de Polignac (1661-1742)

Anti-Lucretius(1747) was a Catholic polemic designed to counter the popularity of Epicureanism in the mid-18th Century. In answer to Lucretius’s assertion that the gods are quiescent, that there is no heaven or hell , and that one should seek pleasure and avoid pain, Polignac replies that religion is superior to pleasure in every respect and more capable of bringing tranquillity and happiness than are pleasure, friends, a garden, and self-sufficiency. The idea of pleasure has a catastrophic effect on society.

The Nineteenth Century

Epicureanism experienced a revival in 18th century Europe among the intelligentsia, who were influenced by the Enlightenment. However, a backlash occurred in the 19th century, and the churches regained control over the agenda. Macauley, the British nineteenth century historian, and a fierce Catholic, described Epicureanism as

“The silliest and meanest of all systems of natural and moral philosophy.”

But outside the church there was greater diversity in thinking.

……Walter Pater: “Marius the Epicurean”

Pater, a 19th Century Romantic novelist, was basically a Christian, but treated Epicureanism sympathetically and seems to have understood it, something few Christians had done previously.

The theme of Marius is the life of a young Italian who, in the age of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, is searching for some principle of conduct amid the dissolution of traditional values. He struggles between the opposing philosophies of Epicureanism and Stoicism. Marius is revolted by the indifference of the Emperor to the sufferings of the world, and leans towards Epicureanism. At the last, however, he is introduced into the home of a Christian family living outside Rome, is fascinated by the purity and decorum of their lives, and dies a Christian. The point of the book is to propose that there is a natural progression from Epicureanism to Christianity. (Pascal, too, saw that the step from Epicureanism to Christianity was easier than from Stoicism). In his review of Marius, Paul Elmer More states,

For the mind that craves unity and the resting-place of some eventual calm may be deceived by the naturalistic pantheism of the Stoic creed and, so to speak, benumbed into a dull acquiescence, whereas from the desolation of the Epicurean flux it is more likely to be driven into the supernatural unity of religion, while holding the world as a place of illusory mutation.

……Jeremy Bentham (1748 -1832) and the English Utilitarians

Epicurus is the forerunner of English Utilitarians. Although he speaks at length about justice, he differs from them in making no reference to altruism. “The greatest happiness of the greatest number” is a formula that has no counterpart in antiquity. The problem that occurs when the claims of self conflict with those of others was not raised by Epicurus.

Jeremy Bentham proposed a straightforward quantification of morality by reference to utilitarian outcomes. His An Introduction to the Principle of Morals and Legislation (1789) offers a simple statement of the application of this ethical doctrine.

Bentham’s moral theory was founded on the assumption that it is the consequences of human actions that count in evaluating their merit and that the kind of consequence that matters for human happiness is the achievement of pleasure or avoidance of pain. He argued that the hedonistic value of any human action is easily calculated by considering how intensely its pleasure is felt, how long that pleasure lasts, how certainly and how quickly it follows upon the performance of the action, and how likely it is to produce collateral benefits and avoid collateral harms. Taking such matters into account, he arrived at a net value of each action for any human being affected by it.

All that remains, Bentham said, is to consider the extent of this pleasure, since the happiness of the community as a whole is nothing other than the sum of individual human interests. The principle of utility, then, defines the meaning of moral obligation by reference to the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people who are affected by performance of an action. Similarly, Bentham supposed that social policies are properly judged in light of their effect on the general well-being of the populations they involve. Punishing criminals is an effective way of deterring crime precisely because it pointedly alters the likely outcome of their actions, attaching the likelihood of future pain in order to outweigh the apparent gain of committing the crime. Thus, punishment must “fit” the crime by changing the likely perception of the value of committing it.

……John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

The best evidence of the desirability of happiness is that people really do desire it; and since each individual human being desires his or her own happiness, it must follow that all of us desire the happiness of everyone. Thus, Mill argued, the greatest pleasure of all is morally desirable and seeking pleasure and avoiding pain are the touchstones by which most of us typically live. This follows the teaching of Epicurus.

Mill argued that social applications of utility are consistent with traditional concern for the promotion of justice. Justice involves respect for the property, rights, and deserts of individual citizens, along with fundamental presumptions in favor of good faith and impartiality. All of these worthwhile components of justice are adequately preserved by conscientious application of the principle of utility, since particular cases of each clearly result in the greatest happiness of all affected parties.

Although punishing wrong-doers may be supposed to contribute to the traditional concept of justice, Mill insisted that the appropriately limited use of external sanctions on utilitarian grounds better accords with a legitimate respect for the general welfare.

Epicurus said something similar: natural justice is a pledge of reciprocal benefit to prevent one man harming or being harmed by another. Justice is what suits a group of individuals in any given place and time and is not an absolute concept. The watchwords are “Neither harm or be harmed”

……John Dalton (1766 — 1844)

English scientist John Dalton is considered one of the founding fathers of the atomic theory of matter. He was directly influenced by Epicurus. Aside from his important meteorological observations, he is remembered for his law of partial pressures (that in a mixture of gases, each component exerts the same pressure as it would if it alone made up the whole volume of the mixture). Dalton concluded that all matter, not only gases, consisted of small particles, and as a result, he revived the Epicurean theory of atoms, preparing the first table of atomic weights. He announced his findings publicly in 1803. By the end of his life his atomic theory was widely accepted, and in 1833 he was awarded an annual pension from the king.

Dalton’s Atomic Theory can be summarized in five points:

All matter is composed of small indivisible particles called atoms.
Atoms can not be made nor destroyed.
Atoms of the same element are the same in every respect.
Atoms of different elements are unlike in every respect.
Atoms join together in small whole numbers to form molecules.
The above is very similar to the theory proposed by Epicurus. In spite of our current knowledge of isotopes, sub-atomic particles and nuclear reactions, Dalton’s Atomic Theory is still the starting point of all modern chemistry.

……Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Marx wrote his doctoral thesis on Epicurus. Marx saw Epicurus as a kindred rebel spirit. Thus Epicurus sought to overthrow the philosophy of Aristotle, just as the post-Hegelians — including the young Marx–rose up against Hegel. Marx identified with the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment, for which Epicurus serves as a forerunner to the radical democrats of the 17th and 18th century. The materialism they all shared was crucial to an attack on the status quo, ancient or modern.

The Greek materialists, especially Epicurus, are important to Marx because they represent the first systematic opposition to idealist and essentialist thought. His dicta that “Nothing is ever created by divine power out of nothing” and “nature . . . never reduces anything to nothing” are in harmony with what we now know as “the principle of conservation.”

John Bellamy Foster, in his book Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, states that Lucretius, disciple of Epicurus, “alluded to air pollution due to mining, to the lessening of harvests through the degradation of soil, and to the disappearance of the forests; as well as arguing that human beings were not radically different from animals.” These were matters of intense interest to Marx.

Marx picked up the “swerving” atoms of Epicurus. Paul M. Schafer, in his article, The young Marx on Epicurus: Dialectical Atomism and Human Freedom, says that just as an atom only is self-sufficient when it moves from a straight line of its own volition and chooses to repel other atoms, so must human consciousness be active and critical to achieve autonomy and real freedom.

……Nietzsche (1844-1900)

Nietzsche was deeply influenced by Epicureanism. Epicureanism is mentioned positively in most of his works, including his most famous, Thus Spake Zarathustra. He sought to free human beings from their false belief that morality is good for them.

From “Human, All Too Human” (Book I) 1878:

Even today many educated people think that the victory of Christianity over Greek philosophy is a proof of the superior truth of the former — although in this case it was only the coarser and more violent that conquered the more spiritual and delicate. So far as superior truth is concerned, it is enough to observe that the awakening sciences have allied themselves point by point with the philosophy of Epicurus, but point by point rejected Christianity.

The Twentieth Century

……The current Catholic view on Epicureanism

The New Advent Encyclopaedia has the following entry:

The defects of this theory of life (i.e Epicureanism) are obvious (sic). In the first place, as to the matter of fact, experience shows that happiness is not best attained by directly seeking it. The selfish are not more happy, but less so, than the unselfish. In the next place the theory altogether destroys virtue as virtue, and eliminates the idea and sentiment expressed by the words “ought”, “duty”, “right”, and “wrong”. Virtue, indeed tends to produce the truest and, highest pleasure; all such pleasure, so far as it depends upon ourselves, depends upon virtue.

But he who practices virtue for the sake of the pleasure alone is selfish, not virtuous, and he will never enjoy the pleasure, because he has not the virtue. A similar observation may be made upon the Epicurean theory of friendship. Friendship for the sake of advantage is not true friendship in the proper sense of the word. External actions, apart from affection, cannot constitute friendship; that affection no one can feel merely because he judges it would be advantageous and pleasurable; in fact he cannot know the pleasure until he first feels the affection. If we consider the Epicurean condemnation of patriotism and of the family life, we must pronounce a still severer censure. Such a view of life is the meanest form of selfishness leading in general to vice. Epicurus, perhaps, was better than his theory; but the theory itself, if it did not originate in coldness of heart and meanness of spirit, was extremely well suited to encourage them. If sincerely embraced and consistently carried out, it undermined all that was chivalrous and heroic, and even all that was ordinarily virtuous. Fortitude and justice as such, ceased to be objects of admiration, and temperance sank into a mere matter of calculation. Even prudence itself, dissociated from all moral quality became a mere balancing between the pleasures of the present and of the future.

……Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973)

Epicureanism inaugurated the emancipation of mankind because it led to utilitarianism.

Rules of morality are not absolute, but means of attaining an individual’s desired ends through social cooperation

Contentment is that state which does not and cannot result in action. von Mises reflected the ideas of Epicurus, who rejected the idea of interventionist gods. “An acting being (God) is discontented and therefore not almighty. If he were contented he would not act, and if he were almighty he would have long since radically removed the cause for his discontent. Incentive to action comes as a result of some uneasiness. A man perfectly content with his lot would have no need to change a thing.

…… Ayn Rand (1905-1982)

…… Objectivism

Happiness is the goal or individual purpose of living. The human being is able to create and define concepts, in a life marked by self-direction, the pursuit of chosen values, the active creation of value in the world and a passionate dedication to what he thinks is important. One should use one’s individual talents and skills to create unique value, mainly through projects and relationships, and thus transform one’s inner values into objective reality. You should not live life minimally, but maximally, treating life with. unbounded joy. Epicurus would have spent a tranquil life with friends, philosophizing in a secluded garden, a life characterized by lack of pain and lack of confusion.

Ayn Rand agrees that it isn’t wise to involve yourself too much in public affairs, but is more activist, wanting to take this idea further, to liberate the world from government and other constraints, so that each man shall be free to exist for his own sake.

Nonetheless, like Epicurus she believed in the “benevolence of the universe”, which Epicurus described as a confidence that “nothing dreadful lasts forever or even a long time.”

…… Rand and Libertarianism

Rand’s view is that self-interest is the standard of morality and selflessness is immoral. Self interest is to see oneself as an end in oneself. That is to say that one’s own life and happiness are one’s highest values, and that one does not exist as a servant or slave to the interests of others. Nor do others exist as servants or slaves to one’s own interests. Each person’s own life and happiness is his ultimate end. Self interest rightly understood also entails self-responsibility: one’s life is one’s own, and so is the responsibility for sustaining and enhancing it. It is up to each of us to determine what values our lives require, how best to achieve those values, and to act to achieve those values.

Rand’s ethic of self interest is integral to her advocacy of classical liberalism, or “libertarianism”, the view that individuals should be free to pursue their own interests. This implies, politically, that governments should be limited to protecting each individual’s freedom to do so. In other words, the moral legitimacy of self interest implies that individuals have rights to their lives, their liberties, their property, and the pursuit of their own happiness, and that the purpose of government is to protect those rights. Economically, leaving individuals free to pursue their own interests implies in turn that only a capitalist or free market economic system is moral: free individuals will use their time, money, and other property as they see fit, and will interact and trade voluntarily with others to mutual advantage.

Noteworthy among those influenced by Rand are the Cato Institute, based in Washington, D.C., the leading libertarian think tank in the world. Rand, along with Nobel Prize-winners Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, was highly instrumental in attracting generations of individuals to the libertarian movement and to unrestrained American capitalism.

…… Nathaniel Brandon

A close associate of Ayn Rand, Brandon parted with Ayn Rand in 1968. Although agreeing with many of the values of the objectivist philosophy and vision, he disagreed with the absence of an adequate psychology to support Objectivism and objected to what he calls the destructive moralism of Rand and many of her followers, a moralism that subtly encourages repression, self-alienation, and guilt.

…….Modern Epicureanism

Modern Epicureanism is regarded as an offshoot of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. Whereas Epicurus stressed the importance of pleasure, Rand, inspired by Epicurus, tacked it on as an afterthought (she was actually quite Victorian in her ethical views). Epicureanism seems to have two strains — a “subjectivist” and an “objectivist” version. The former attracts lifestyle contrarians and taboo-challengers, while the latter attracts more tradition-minded intellectuals who indulge the occasional whim (something pure Objectivists would never tolerate). Whereas the “subjectivist” Epicureans are more sensualist and existentialist, the “objectivist” Epicureans tend to worship the New Agey psychological views of Nathaniel Brandon. The two camps are friendly to one another and both were inspired by Rand’s writings on egoism, rationality, and pleasure.

The Twenty-first Century

……A Contemporary American Take on Epicureanism

Morality Matters by Steve Bonta (New American Dec 2003)

Epicurus was a materialist; he believed that matter was the only form of reality. Consequently, Epicureans believed that all phenomena, even the soul, were material in nature. They taught that the material soul dissolves and ceases to exist after death. Strictly speaking, Epicurus was less an atheist than a deist, who believed that any Supreme Being had neither interest nor influence in the affairs of men. Epicureans believed that the purpose of life was pleasure, although they were careful to define pleasure in terms of following the dictates of right reason, rather than mindless sensual indulgence. But the sum total of Epicureanism — an impersonal, indifferent Supreme Being, a universe devoid of spirituality, the absence of an afterlife, and the belief that happiness is attained by the pursuit of pleasure — cannot be reconciled with that piety and self-restraint so necessary to self-government.

Epicureanism, in its many sub-varieties, is very much alive and well in the modern American republic. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the rise of widespread, militant hedonism and atheism in mid-20th-century America has contributed more than any other factor to the swift evaporation of many of the remaining limits on governmental power. Human beings, it appears, are so constituted that they will incline to some authority or other; if they refuse to worship God, they will unavoidably turn to government as a substitute.

……Epicurus and the Creationists

Epicureanism has had a modern influence upon the philosophy of natural science. Epicurus believed that all humans, animals, and plants originated from a major collision of atoms and survive through the centuries by natural selection. Although it is not clear whether Darwin, a Christian, ever studied or was directly influenced by Epicurus, the theory of evolution is Epicurean by descent.

The similarity between Epicurean natural philosophy and Darwinism has been latterly picked up by the creationists, who have renewed their propaganda assault upon evolution by denying the originality of Darwinism and tracing the idea of evolution back to ancient Greece.

Benjamin Wiker, for instance, who teaches theology and science at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, is connected with Seattle’s Discovery Institute. In his book, Moral Darwinism: How we became Hedonists, he calls Epicurus the first materialist. He denies that Darwin was a scientist and claims that, like Epicurus, he propounded a philosophy of self-indulgence and immorality. Like other creationists he ignores modern knowledge of genetics, zoology, comparative anatomy, the fossil record, statistics etc, and calls Darwinism a form of metaphysics. To sum up Wiker’s criticism of Epicurus:

Supposedly, man has no soul or spirit, and so, ultimately, is not accountable to anyone. Epicurus contended that any “apparent design” in nature is merely the result of chance, so that both animals and men are the products of mere randomness. The deduction is supposed to be, therefore, that animals and humans basically operate on the same non-moral level — doing whatever their baser instincts urge upon them. When one intellectually accepts this materialistic ideology, a degeneration of human conduct is bound to follow.

Euthanasia is used by Wiker as an example of this alleged degeneration:

If you’re going to treat human beings as another animal, with nothing to look forward to other than pleasure they can get from this life or the pain they need to avoid — that’s Darwin — you’re going to treat them the same way you would your dog or your cat.

The point he seems to be making is that in order to be moral, you must be religious, and preferably adhere to Christian teachings about the life to come.

Wiker asserts, without irony, that the theory of evolution “filters out evidence that would contradict it….it defines science in such a way that will only allow more evidence that supports it.”

Conclusion

Over the course of two epochs of Western history Epicureanism appealed to an influential, educated segment of the population: during the early days of the Roman empire and during the Enlightenment. Since the 18th Century, however, dark clouds have dimmed the scene. Science, the engine of progress and rationality, has become tarnished by development of mass means of human extinction and, more recently, by a degree of corruption among the scientific community. Two World Wars have killed the 19th Century idea of “inexorable progress”.

A huge increase in population and the rise to power of a class for whom “education” as it used to be known equates to a good, well paid job have given rise to rampant anti-intellectualism, over-specialization and an ignorance of the world in the midst of unparalleled information overload. Meanwhile, the super-rich demand more privileges. Their agenda seems to be to restore the income distribution and social boundaries of the late 19th Century. Their allies in this endeavor are the American evangelic groups. If such a religious figleaf as this did not exist it would have to be invented, offering as it does hope in the next world that is not offered very freely in this. The evangelical message (in the United States, although not necessarily anywhere else) is, “Let the rich and corrupt enjoy their wealth — if you join us you can sit on the right hand of Jesus and leave everyone else behind.” Greed is apparently good.

As a by-product of the effort to turn back the clock, the constitution, the proper functioning of democracy and the social fabric of the country are being undermined.

It is time to set the record right, to revive the true meaning of Epicureanism, to give it back its human, rational face, to re-create a successful way of life based on moderation, enjoyment of life, tranquillity, friendship, and lack of fear.

GOOD NEWS!

Help is at hand. The younger, educated generation could be unwittingly staging a revival of Epicureanism, without being lectured and proselytized. Like Epicureans of old

– They reject the form and style of so-called modern “democracy”, which has been corrupted by big business and big money. By and large they take little part, and often do not vote.

– In Europe at least they reject organized religion with its bricks, mortar and salaried priests, and are trying to work out their own personal philosophies of life, sometimes based upon Christianity, sometimes not

– The old family connections are in disrepair owing to divorce and social changes. The young now create their own Epicurean metaphorical “Gardens” among their closest friends, keep in daily touch with them by cellphone. They regard their friends as their family, just as Epicurus did.

– Most believe in Darwinism, in decent (as opposed to corrupt) science, and in moderation, a balanced life, and common sense.

– They increasingly resent and reject the pressures put upon them by the modern capitalist system, and are finding ways of opting out or pushing back, reducing stress and anxiety. The high priests of capitalism have reason to fear the quiet rebellion emerging among younger people, who, given a choice between a calm life and endless stress (for the benefit of absent and uncaring management), will increasingly choose tranquillity.

Well might they echo the words of Epicurus: Let us live while we are alive.

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