From Michael Palmer’s (“Looking at Philosophy”)

The philosophy of Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E.) is known (not surprisingly) as Epicureanism. If today the term hints of gluttony, debauchery, and bacchanalian orgies, that is not Epicurus’s fault but the fault of some of his Roman interpreters. Epicurus himself led a life of sobriety and simplicity: eating bread, cheese, and olives; drinking a bit of wine; napping in his hammock; and enjoying conversation with his friends while strolling through his garden. He died with dignity and courage after a painful, protracted disease.

…Epicurus believed that the goal of life was happiness, [and] happiness he equated simply with pleasure. No act should be undertaken except for the pleasure in which it results, and no act should be rejected except for the pain that it produces. This belief provoked Epicurus to analyze the different kinds of pleasure. There are two kinds of desire, hence, two kinds of pleasure as a result of gratifying those desires: natural desire (which has two sub-classes) and vain desire:

I. Natural desire

A. Necessary (e.g., desire for food and sleep)

B. Unnecessary (e.g., desire for sex)

II. Vain desire (e.g., desire for decorative clothing or exotic food)

Natural necessary desires must be satisfied and are usually easy to satisfy. They result in a good deal of pleasure and in very few painful consequences. Vain desires do not need to be satisfied and are not easy to satisfy. Because there are no natural limits to them, they tend to become obsessive and lead to very painful consequences.

The desire for sex is natural but usually can be overcome; and when it can be, it should be, because satisfaction of the sexual drive gives intense pleasure, and all intense emotional states are dangerous. Also, the desire for sex puts people in relationships that are usually ultimately more painful than pleasant and that are often extremely painful.

One of the natural and necessary desires to which Epicurus pays a great deal of attention is the desire for repose. This term is to be understood both physically and psychically. The truly good person (i.e., the one who experiences the most pleasure) is the one who, having overcome all unnecessary desires, gratifies necessary desires in the most moderate way possible, leaves plenty of time for physical an mental repose, and is free from worry.

Notice that Epicurus’s definition of pleasure is negative; that is, pleasure is the absence of pain. It is this negative definition that prevents Epicurus from falling into a crass sensualism. The trouble with this definition is that, taken to its logical extremity, the absence of life is better than any life at all (a conclusion Freud also came to in his text Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where he claimed that behind the “pleasure principle” is Thanatos, the death instinct).

This deduction is a bit ironic because Epicurus himself claimed that his philosophy dispelled the fear of death. Democritus’s atomism led Epicurus to believe that death was merely the absence of sensation and consciousness; therefore, there could be no sensation of consciousness of death to fear. “So long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist.”

Some of Epicurus’s Roman followers interpreted “pleasure” quite differently, defining it as a positive titillation. It is because of these extremists that today Epicureanism is often associated with sensualistic hedonism. Sickly Epicurus, swinging in his hammock, would have disapproved. (Though not harshly. Polemics cause agitation, which is painful.)

Epicurus’s theory never constituted a major philosophical movement, but he had disciples in both Greece and Rome for a number of centuries. His most famous follower was the Roman Lucretius, who, in the first century B.C.E., wrote a long poem, On the Nature of Things, expounding the philosophy of his master. It is through Lucretius’s poem that many readers have been introduced to the thoughts of Epicurus.


Enjoy this modern take on Epicurus:




One thought on “Epicureanism

  1. He sounds rather Buddhist, except that Buddhists don’t think happiness is an appropriate goal. Still, a Buddhist’s goal
    is the absence of suffering, and it’s reached, they say, by learning not to desire things.

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