Epicurus

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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Epicurus

Epicurus (ĕpĬkyŏŏr´əs), 341–270 BC, Greek philosopher, b. Samos; son of an Athenian colonist. He claimed to be self-taught, although tradition states that he was schooled in the systems of Plato and Democritus by his father and various philosophers. He taught in several towns in Asia Minor before going to Athens c.306 BC There Epicurus purchased the famous garden that has become linked in the annals of philosophy with the Academy of Plato and the Lyceum of Aristotle. He was a generous and genial man who lived on the warmest terms with his followers. Although his writings were voluminous, only fragments remain. Epicurus defined philosophy as the art of making life happy and strictly subordinated metaphysics to ethics, naming pleasure as the highest and only good. However, for Epicurus pleasure was not heedless indulgence but the opposite, ataraxia [serenity], manifesting itself in the avoidance of pain. His hedonism differed from the cruder variety of Aristippus and the Cyrenaics in the emphasis that it placed on ataraxia and on the superiority of intellectual pleasures over bodily pleasures. He also prescribed a code of social conduct, which advocated honesty, prudence, and justice in dealing with others, not because these virtues were good in themselves, but because they saved the individual from society's retribution. While Epicurus appropriated much of the mechanics of Democritus' metaphysics, he deviated from its deterministic implications by the introduction of an element of spontaneity, which allowed atoms to form the objects of the world by chance. The element of freedom in his metaphysics supported and paralleled his notion of the freedom of the will. He held blind destiny to be more dangerous to one's ataraxia than belief in fables about the gods; people could hope to propitiate the gods, but mechanical determinism was inexorable. He denied that the gods had supernatural powers that allowed them to interfere with humanity or nature. The system of Epicurus deemphasized the traditional power of religious and physical forces on human life and emphasized our freedom of action. The work of the Roman poet Lucretius, De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), contains the finest exposition of Epicurus' ideas.

See studies by E. Asmis (1984), R. M. Strozier (1985), and H. Jones (1989).

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