Epicureanism – Definition

May 4, 2012

Introduction to the epicureanism, a greek philosophy school

Epicureanism is the philosophy of Epicurus and his followers, combining an ethical hedonism with a materialist theory. Reformulating these doctrines in such a way as to counter various points in Plato and Aristotle, Epicurus built them into a recognizably hellenistic system, with ethics supported by physics and epistemology.

Epicureanism and Knowledge

Knowledge, according to Epicurus, derives from sensations. These are impressions made on the soul by images. Repeated sensations give rise to general concepts that make judgements possible. Always corresponding to something real, sensations are never false; but they can be “unclear” and hence misjudged.

Epicureanism and Atomism

Atomism is such a theory. Our clear perceptions confirm that there must be indestructible and therefore indivisible elements, and that there must be a void in which they can move. Perceptible qualities result from the geometrical properties and arrangements of atoms, change from their rearrangement. Infinite in number, the atoms rain downwards. But some of them “swerve” at random, causing collisions and rebounds. Our world, one of several in an infinite universe, is the fortuitous and perishable result of one such collision. Its development, including the evolution of animal species and human culture, can be explained by mechanisms such as the “survival of the fittest”, without our having to posit any “natural purpose” or divine providence. The gods exist because men have clear knowledege of them. They do not intervene in this world, or punish the wicked in the hereafter. Indeed, according epucireanism, there is no hereafter : human soul is a combination of atoms that perishes with the body.

Epicureanism and Ethics

The atomistic theory serves a moral purpose. Epicurus taught that pleasure is our “primal and congenital good”, maintaining the superiority of mental over physical. Pain, as the interruption of this state of well-being, is the contrary of the pleasure. There is no intermediate or mixed condition. The completest possible pleasure is reached with the total elimination of pain. Desires should therefore be limited to those which are necessary, or natural and easily gratified. Some obvious pleasures should be avoided, if we guess that they bring more pain than pleasure.

The Epicurian school

The school that Epicurus founded was much a commune as a college. Epicurus denied that man is naturally a social animal. So epicurian communities provided an escape from the society and also a substitute for it (hence the importance of friendship in epicurean thinking). The enduring attraction of epicureanism was due largely to the success of these communities, employing pastoral techniques.