Epicureanism has two distinct, though cognate, meanings. In its popular sense, the word stands for a refined and calculating selfishness, seeking not power or fame, but the pleasures of sense, particularly of the palate, and those in company rather than solitude. An epicure is one who is extremely choice and delicate in his viands. In the other sense, Epicureanism signifies a philosophical system, which includes a theory of conduct, of nature, and of mind.
Epicurus, from whom this system takes its name, was a Greek, born at Samos 341 B.C., who, in 307 B.C., founded a school at Athens, and died 270 B.C. The Stoic School, diametrically opposite to this, was founded about the same time, probably 310 B.C. Thus these two systems, having for their respective watchwords Pleasure and Duty, sprang up within the first generation after Aristotle (d. 322 B.C.), each of them holding a half-truth and by exaggeration turning it into falsehood. The Epicurean School was rather a practical discipline than a habit of speculation.
The master laid down his principles dogmatically, as if they must be evident as soon as stated, to any one not foolish. His disciples were made to learn his maxims by heart; and they acquired a spirit of unity more akin to that of a political party, or of a sect, than to the mere intellectual agreement of a school of philosophers. About a century and a quarter after the death of its founder, the system was introduced into Rome, and there, as well as in its native country, it attracted in the course of time a number of adherents such as moved the astonishment of Cicero. It had the fortune to be adopted by the finest of didactic poets, Lucretius (91-51 B.C.), and was expounded by him in a poem (De rerum naturâ) with a beauty of expression and a fervour of eloquence worthy of a nobler theme.
In the latter half of the second century, when Marcus Aurelius was founding chairs of philosophy at Athens, that emperor, himself a Stoic, recognized the Epicurean (together with his own, and the Platonic, and the Aristotelic systems) as one of the four great philosophies to be established and endowed on a footing of equality. In modern times Epicureanism has had many theoretical as well as practical adherents. In the seventeenth century, when Aristoteleanism and Scholasticism were assailed by the champions of the new sciences, Gassendi (q.v.) selected Epicurus for his master; but he seems to have been attracted chiefly by the physics, and to have aimed at reforming the moral theory so as to make it tolerable to a Christian.
The numerous editions of the poem of Lucretius which the present age is producing may be taken to indicate a sympathy with the philosophy expounded in it.
Philosophy was described by Epicurus as “the art of making life happy”, and he says that “prudence is the noblest part of philosophy”. His natural philosophy and epistemology seem to have been adopted for the sake of his theory of life. It is, therefore, proper that his ethics should first be explained. The purpose of life, according to Epicurus, is personal happiness; and by happiness he means not that state of well-being and perfection of which the consciousness is accompanied by pleasure, but pleasure itself.
Moreover, this pleasure is sensuous, for it is such only as is attainable in this life. This pleasure is the immediate purpose of every action. “Habituate yourself”, he says, to think that death is nothing to us; for all good and evil is in feeling; now death is the privation of feeling. Hence, the right knowledge that death is nothing to us makes us enjoy what there is in this life, not adding to it an indefinite duration, but eradicating the desire of immortality.His idea of the pleasurable differs from that of the Cyrenaic School which preceded him. The Cyrenaics looked to the momentary pleasures of gaiety and excitement. The pleasure of Epicurus is a state, equably diffused, “the absence of [bodily] pain and [mental] anxiety”.
That which begets the pleasurable life is not [sensual indulgence] but a sober reason which searches for the grounds of choosing and rejecting, and which banishes those doctrines through which mental trouble, for the most part, arises.The wise man will accordingly desire “not the longest life, but the most pleasurable”. It is for the sake of this condition of permanent pleasure, or tranquillity, that the virtues are desirable. “We cannot live pleasurably without living prudently, gracefully, and justly; and we cannot live prudently gracefully, and justly, without living pleasurably” in consequence; for “the virtues are by nature united with a pleasurable life; and a pleasurable life cannot be separated from these.” T
he virtues, in short, are to be practiced not for their own sake, but solely as a means of pleasure, “as medicine is used for the sake of health”. In accordance with this view, he says that “friendship is to be pursued by the wise man only for its utility; but he will begin, as he sows the field in order to reap”. “The wise man will not take any part in public affairs”; moreover, “the wise man will not marry and have children”. But “the wise man will be humane to his slaves”. “He will not think all sinners to be equally bad, nor all philosophers to be equally good.” That is, apparently, he will not have any very exacting standard, and will neither believe very much in human virtue, nor be very much surprised at the discovery of human frailty. In this system, “prudence is the source of all pleasure and of all virtue”.
The defects of this theory of life are obvious. 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 practises 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.
Epicurus said that “it was not impiety to deny the gods of the multitude, but it was impiety to think of the gods as the multitude thought”; a sound principle, but one which he wrongly applied, since he got rid of what was true as well as of what was corrupt in the vulgar religion. Fear of the gods was an evil to be eradicated, as incompatible with tranquillity. As to their nature, the gods are immortal, but material, like every other being. He seems to have held that there was one supreme being; but this god was not the creator, scarcely the orderer, of the universe, the gods being only a part of the All. Nor is there a Providence, for an interest in human affairs would be inconsistent with perfect happiness. In short, the gods are magnified Epicurean philosophers.
The physics of Epicurus are in a General sense atomic. He claimed originality for his theory, asserting that it began with his reflections upon a passage in Hesiod. As he read in school that all things came from chaos, he asked, What is chaos?–a question which his teacher could not answer. It is generally held, however, that he really learned his atomism from the Democritean philosophy, modifying it in one important respect; for he supposes that the atoms in falling through empty space collide by virtue of a self-determining power, or rather an indetermination owing to which ii is possible for them by chance to swerve a little from the vertical direction.
In this Epicurus simply followed the view of Empedocles, that, first, all sorts of living things and animals, well or ill organized, were evolved from the earth and that those survived which were suited to preserve themselves and reproduce their kind.
The anthropology of Lucretius may be supposed to have been derived, like his physics and biology, from Epicurus. According to the Lucretian theory men were originally savage; the primitive condition was one of mutual war; in this condition men were like the wild beasts in strength and cunning; civil society was formed under the pressure of the evils of anarchy. The reader recognizes here the ideas indicated by the eighteenth-century phrases “state of nature” and “social contract”. The “golden age” is a dream.
The Epicurean logic is criterional. The test of truth practically is the pleasant and the painful belief. Theoretically, their criterion is sensation. Sensation never is deceptive; the error lies in our judgment. Dreams, the ravings of fever or lunacy, the delirium of the drunkard are true in their own way. Besides sensation the human mind has also notions, or anticipations (prolépseis), as when, seeing an object at a distance, one wonders whether it is a man or a tree. These notions are the results left by previous sensations. The notion does not appear to differ from the internal sense of a brute, such as enables a dog, for example, to welcome strangers belonging to the profession of his master, and to bark furiously at a beggar that he has never seen before. The understanding, then, does not differ essentially from the internal senses.
The human soul is material and mortal, being composed of a finer kind of atoms, resembling those of air or fire, but even more subtle. It is the bodily organism that holds together the atoms composing the soul. Yet the human will is free. “Better were it to accept all the legends of the gods, than to make ourselves slaves to the fate of the natural philosophers.” Fatalism, which to minds of a stoical disposition seemed a source of strength, was to those of an Epicurean temper simply a source of unpleasantness and helplessness.
The freedom asserted by the Epicureans is not rational freedom in the true sense of the word. It does not consist in the power of choosing the right and the noble in preference to the pleasant. It is little better than physical contingency, and may be described as Casualism. The whole philosophy may well be described in a trenchant phrase of Macaulay as “the silliest and meanest of all systems of natural and moral philosophy”.
Source: Adapted from Catholic Encyclopedia (1909)]
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