Roman Epicurus bust

Epicureanism is a system of philosophy based upon the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, founded around 307 BC. Epicurus was an atomic materialist, following in the steps of Democritus. His materialism led him to a general attack on superstition and divine intervention. Following Aristippus—about whom very little is known—Epicurus believed that what he called "pleasure" (ἡδονή) was the greatest good, but that the way to attain such pleasure was to live modestly, to gain knowledge of the workings of the world, and to limit one's desires. This would lead one to attain a state of tranquility (ataraxia) and freedom from fear as well as an absence of bodily pain (aponia). The combination of these two states constitutes happiness in its highest form. Although Epicureanism is a form of hedonism insofar as it declares pleasure to be its sole intrinsic goal, the concept that the absence of pain and fear constitutes the greatest pleasure, and its advocacy of a simple life, make it very different from "hedonism" as colloquially understood.

Epicureanism was originally a challenge to Platonism, though later it became the main opponent of Stoicism. Epicurus and his followers shunned politics. After the death of Epicurus, his school was headed by Hermarchus; later many Epicurean societies flourished in the Late Hellenistic era and during the Roman era (such as those in Antiochia, Alexandria, Rhodes, and Ercolano). Its best-known Roman proponent was the poet Lucretius. By the end of the Roman Empire, being opposed by philosophies (mainly Neo-Platonism) that were now in the ascendant, Epicureanism had all but died out, and would be resurrected in the Age of Enlightenment.

Some writings by Epicurus have survived. Some scholars consider the epic poem On the Nature of Things by Lucretius to present in one unified work the core arguments and theories of Epicureanism. Many of the scrolls unearthed at the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum are Epicurean texts. At least some are thought to have belonged to the Epicurean Philodemus. Today, there are large Epicurean communities in Greece, a Society of Friends of Epicurus in the West, and the School has a growing online presence. In the French-speaking world, Michel Onfray is considered Neo-Epicurean.


In Mytilene, the capital of the island Lesbos, and then in Lampsacus Epicurus taught and gained followers. In Athens Epicurus bought a property for his school called "Garden", later the name of Epicurus' school.[1] Its members included Hermarchus, Idomeneus, Colotes, Polyaenus, and Metrodorus. Epicurus emphasized friendship as an important ingredient of happiness, and the school seems to have been a moderately ascetic community which rejected the political limelight of Athenian philosophy. They were fairly cosmopolitan by Athenian standards, including women and slaves. Some members were also vegetarians as, from slender evidence, Epicurus did not eat meat, although no prohibition against eating meat was made.[2][3]

The school's popularity grew and it became, along with Stoicism, Platonism, Peripateticism, and Pyrrhonism, one of the dominant schools of Hellenistic philosophy, lasting strongly through the later Roman Empire.[4] Another major source of information is the Roman politician and philosopher Cicero, although he was highly critical, denouncing the Epicureans as unbridled hedonists, devoid of a sense of virtue and duty, and guilty of withdrawing from public life. Another ancient source is Diogenes of Oenoanda, who composed a large inscription at Oenoanda in Lycia.

Deciphered carbonized scrolls obtained from the library at the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum contain a large number of works by Philodemus, a late Hellenistic Epicurean, and Epicurus himself, attesting to the school's enduring popularity. Diogenes reports slanderous stories, circulated by Epicurus' opponents.[1] With growing dominance of Neoplatonism and Peripateticism, and later, Christianity, Epicureanism declined. By the late third century CE, there was little trace of its existence.[5] The early Christian writer Lactantius criticizes Epicurus at several points throughout his Divine Institutes. In Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, the Epicureans are depicted as heretics suffering in the sixth circle of hell. In fact, Epicurus appears to represent the ultimate heresy.[6] The word for a heretic in the Talmudic literature is "Apiqoros" (אפיקורוס‬).[citation needed]

In the 17th century the French Franciscan priest, scientist and philosopher Pierre Gassendi wrote two books forcefully reviving Epicureanism. Shortly thereafter, and clearly influenced by Gassendi, Walter Charleton published several works on Epicureanism in English. Attacks by Christians continued, most forcefully by the Cambridge Platonists.[citation needed]

In the early modern period, scientists adopted atomist theories, while materialist philosophers embraced Epicurus' hedonist ethics and restated his objections to natural teleology.[citation needed]

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