Epicurus (341-270 BCE) was an influential Greek philosopher active during the Hellenistic period and the founder of Epicureanism. This period was home to philosophical debate and several schools of philosophy in competition with one another.
Epicurus, attracted to the ideas of pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus (460-370 BCE) (see Greek Atomism), was a materialist in metaphysical outlook. He taught that the basic composition of the world is tiny pieces matter called atoms flying through empty space that did not come into existence at any point in time. This conviction motivated Epicurus to explain all phenomena in atomic terms.
Epicurus was an empiricist as he believed that human beings obtained knowledge of the world only through sense experience. Senses could be used to obtain truth through three primary categories: feelings, sensations, and preconceptions. Feelings such as pleasure and pain constitute basic criteria for what is to be pursued and avoided. Sensations involve a passive and receptive mechanical process providing the individual with information about the external world. They cannot be mistaken because they are receptive and do not make judgments about the world. Error occurs only when one begins to make judgments about the world based on the information received through the senses. Human beings also have “preconceptions,” defined as concepts such as ‘person’, ‘body,’ ‘usefulness,’ and ‘truth.’ These concepts form within the material mind through repeated sense-experiences of similar objects. Joining them together produces ideas, suggesting that ideas are formed on the basis of sense experience.
Because Epicurus believed that knowledge must be grounded in the senses (empiricism) and objects are reducible to atoms moving in space (atomism), supernatural explanations and the gods became a target. He did not believe in an immaterial soul and he did not think that the gods influenced human life and affairs. He believed in the gods whose lives human beings could strive to emulate but he rejected explanations of meteorological events (earthquakes, lightning, rain, etc.) through appeal to their will. To Epicurus, these events could be explained entirely in atomic terms and therefore did not need the gods to be explained. Further, human beings did not need to fear the gods. Epicurus viewed death, fear of the future, and the fear of the gods to compromise the pursuit of ataraxia, namely the freedom from fear and worry. If the gods have nothing to do with natural phenomena then one need not fear being punished by them for one’s deeds. Epicurus is one of the earliest thinkers to raise the Problem of Evil (referred to as the Epicurean paradox or dilemma). He pointed to the suffering and evil in the world as evidence against the belief that the world is under the providential care of a loving deity.
Epicurus promoted an egoistic and hedonistic philosophy that prioritized the pursuit of pleasure. Pleasure constitutes the primary motive for human beings. The individual’s pleasure is seen as the most intrinsically valuable goal worth pursuing, and the value in others things are seen in terms of how they might be used as a means to attain pleasure for oneself. This ethic is deemed individualistic because it involves an individualized and therefore subjective pursuit of pleasure. It is not universal given pleasure differs to those who are pursuing it. Given the conviction that painful sensations are bad it is important for the individual to be reasonable in the pursuit of pleasure. Despite all pleasures being good and all pains evil, not all pleasures are worth pursuing and not all pains in need of avoidance. Other factors must be considered such as long-term self-interest and that overdoing pleasure can lead to pain. It is possible that withholding pleasure in the short-term will ultimately lead to greater pleasure in the long-term. Thus, important it is to be reasonable in pursuit of it, although reason is used as a means to a hedonistic end.
View of the Mind and Death
Epicurus saw the mind constituting something bodily, such as an organ with mental features identified with atomic processes. The mind is bodily because it interacts with the body and does not survive death. The mind only functions in the body when its constituent atoms are properly arranged. When the human being dies the container housing the atoms breaks leading to the dispersion of the atoms. The atoms are eternal, but the mind made up of these atoms is not, just as other compound bodies cease to exist when their atoms disperse. Epicurus thus argued that one need not fear the gods and the prospect of punishment in the afterlife given the mind ceased to exist upon death. The fear of death and punishment were both primary causes of human anxiety among human beings and the source of irrational and extreme desires.