Epicurus (341-270 BCE)

“Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting-point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing” –Epicurus


  • Very important to science
    • Atomism
  • Founder of Epicurean philosophical movement
  • Founded the Garden, a place of philosophical contentment
  • No family, no children
  • Died of kidney stones and dysentery, in terrible pain, but still embraced his value system:
    • In his last letter, he wrote, “I have written this letter to you on a happy day to me, which is also the last day of my life. For I have been attacked by a painful inability to urinate, and also dysentery, so violent that nothing can be added to the violence of my sufferings. But the cheerfulness of my mind, which comes from the recollection of all my philosophical contemplation, counterbalances all these afflictions. And I beg you to take care of the children of Metrodorus, in a manner worthy of the devotion shown by the young man to me, and to philosophy.”



Imagine if you will a lush garden full of fresh fruits and vegetables. Robed figures pass to and fro along the paths, stopping now and then to engage one another in pleasant conversation on science, philosophy, and art. In one corner a minstrel plays harmonious chords on his lyre. In another there is a discussion on freewill: the teacher explains that there is no reason to fear the gods and that human beings have complete freedom to choose their own path in life and to obtain happiness in the here and now. A cool wind blows as one breathes in the Mediterranean ocean-air amidst the beauty of Nature and the fellowship of friends and family. If you have imagined all of this, you have imagined Epicurus’s “Pleasure Garden,” a place where he and his students would congregate in the pursuit of achieving the most pleasant life possible in this world. 1

Hedonism (life = pleasure)

  • He wrote ” As soon as each animal is born, it seeks pleasure and rejoices in it as the hghtest good, and rejects pain as the greatest bad thing,, driving it away from itself as effectively as it can; and it does this while it is still not corrupted, while the judgement of nature herself is unperverted and sound. Therefore, he says that there is no need of reason or debate about why pleasure is to be purseued and pain to be avoided. He thinks that these things are perceived, as we perceive that fire is hot, that snow is white, that honey is sweet. None of these things requires confirmation by sophisticated argumentation; it is enough just to have them pointed out. “
  • Ataraxia: Freedom from fear
  • Aponia: Absence of pain

Happiness = Starting point of all decisions

Life Should Be Measured in Consequentialist Terms

  • Happiness = good
  • Unhappiness = bad

Four Types of Pleasure

  • Physical – pleasure from the five senses
  • Kinetic – pleasure from action
  • Mental – pleasure not from the senses
  • Castametic – pleasure from the state of being
    • Of these, castametic and mental are the most important. The state of ataraxia can be achieved through philosophical contemplation rather than through pursuit of crass physical pleasures.
    • Based on this conception of happiness, it is the philosopher who is the happiest of all people, for he chooses the stable pleasures of knowledge over the temporary and volatile pleasures of the body.

Four Recommendations for Good Life

  • Avoid work
  • Avoid (institutional) education
  • Live a simple life
  • Cultivate friendships

Categories of Desire

  • Natural desire: The things that without we would die
  • Unnatural desire: Those things we can do without

Hedonism Does Not Mean Just Physical Pleasure, but a Content Life

“When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and the aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not sexual lust, not the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, that produces a pleasant life. It is rather sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs that lead to the tumult of the soul.” 

Fear of Gods = Bad

Gods exist, but

  • they don’t care about us
  • no punishment
  • no afterlife

Fear of Death = Bad

  • People fear death, because it may be painful, lead to an unpleasant after life, or mean not achieving one’s goals.
  • But as long as you’re alive, you are not dead. It is irrational to fear that which is absent.
  • Life = ultimate project–no reason to fear it being incomplete.
  • There is no after life. (Epicurus was a materialist).
  • From this doctrine arose the Epicurean epitaph: Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo (I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care)

Epicurean Paradox

  • God = omnipotent
  • God = good
  • Yet evil exists
  • This denies the existence of a caring God
  • The “Epicurean paradox” is a version of the problem of evil. It is a trilemma argument (God is omnipotent, God is good, but Evil exists); or more commonly seen as this quote: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
  • One of the first/ one of the most important humanists


1. http://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/epicurus/

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