Epicurus founded his philosophical school and lived with his friends in his "Garden" in Athens when the city was witnessing the rise of Macedonian dominance and Greek politics reflected the ongoing crisis in values and virtues. Many thinkers felt the growing need for intellectual conservatism and voluntary withdrawal to secure a life of imperturbability. That his school became a model followed in other cities, including Rome, for more than years is both testimony to the strong appeal Epicurus's ethical doctrines exerted and a sign of the logical conviction the theory of Atomism generated in his followers. Epicurus, who knew the pre-Socratics well, revived and extended the Atomism of Democritus and Leucippus by finding broader applications for Atomism in psychology, physics, and ethics.

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The philosophy of Epicurus — B. He regarded the unacknowledged fear of death and punishment as the primary cause of anxiety among human beings, and anxiety in turn as the source of extreme and irrational desires. The elimination of the fears and corresponding desires would leave people free to pursue the pleasures, both physical and mental, to which they are naturally drawn, and to enjoy the peace of mind that is consequent upon their regularly expected and achieved satisfaction.

It remained to explain how irrational fears arose in the first place: hence the importance of an account of social evolution. Epicurus was aware that deeply ingrained habits of thought are not easily corrected, and thus he proposed various exercises to assist the novice. His system included advice on the proper attitude toward politics avoid it where possible and the gods do not imagine that they concern themselves about human beings and their behavior , the role of sex dubious , marriage also dubious and friendship essential , reflections on the nature of various meteorological and planetary phenomena, about which it was best to keep an open mind in the absence of decisive verification, and explanations of such processes as gravity that is, the tendency of objects to fall to the surface of the earth and magnetism, which posed considerable challenges to the ingenuity of the earlier atomists.

Although the overall structure of Epicureanism was designed to hang together and to serve its principal ethical goals, there was room for a great deal of intriguing philosophical argument concerning every aspect of the system, from the speed of atoms in a void to the origin of optical illusions.

There is some doubt about whether the last is by Epicurus himself or a follower, but there seems to be sufficient reason to attribute it to the founder himself. The purpose of both sets, like that of the Letters, was to make the core doctrines easy to remember.

Vesuvius in 79 C. The library almost certainly contained the working collection of Philodemus, an Epicurean philosopher from Syria who studied in Athens and moved to Italy in the first century B. New editions and translations are now making these difficult texts available to a wider readership. More or less contemporary with Philodemus is Lucretius first century B.

As a dedicated Epicurean, passionate to promulgate the message of the founder, Lucretius reproduced Epicurean doctrine faithfully Sedley ; Clay allows Lucretius more originality. His poem concentrates principally on the physical and psychological or epistemological aspects of Epicureanism, and to a great extent omits the ethical.

Still later, in the second century C. So begins the account by Diogenes Laertius Diogenes adds that after the death of Alexander , when the Athenians were expelled from Samos, Epicurus left Athens and joined his father in Colophon in , on the coast of what is now Turkey.

In its broad outline, Epicurus inherited this scheme from the earlier atomists, above all Democritus. First, freestanding entities of minimal size could have no edges, and so no shapes, or rather would be all edge: thus, if two minima touched, they would wholly overlap. The same argument applies to points in a line, which is why a line contains points but is not composed of them, according to Aristotle. Further, if atoms really are conceptually indivisible, and not just physically unsplittable, then when two atoms pass by each other it is impossible that they should at any time be only partway past, for this would imply a point partway along the length of the atom, which contradicts the premise that it is a minimum.

Although Aristotle does not state the argument precisely in this form, it is apparent that a strict conception of minimal-sized atoms entails that motion too must consist of discontinuous quanta; and if motion, then time.

An infinite void, with atoms distributed throughout it, led to problems of its own, for it permits no intrinsic spatial orientation and hence no account of why things fall, as they are observed to do. First, he distinguished between the atom, which by its nature cannot be broken apart, and the minimum conceivable expanse of matter: atoms have such minima as parts, but are not minima themselves — there can be no free-standing entity one minimum expanse in size.

This resolves the problem of atomic edges, and also that of how atoms can come in different shapes and sizes though never large enough to be seen : to have the hooks and crevices needed to form compounds, they can scarcely be theoretically partless. Second, Epicurus agreed that time too is discontinuous, as is motion: Simplicius p. What is more, as Aristotle had argued must be the case, atoms all move at the same velocity the principle of isotakheia.

This last claim entailed difficulties of its own, such as how atoms ever overtake each other, if they are moving in the same direction. Lucretius invoked the idea of a random swerve to solve this one; see below. But it also provided a solution to another problem, that of entropy: for since atoms can never slow down, the universe can never come to a halt in modern terms, there is no loss of energy. As for gravity, Epicurus may have had a solution to this too, and in a novel form. If an atom just on its own cannot slow down or alter its direction of motion, then an atom that is rising or moving in an oblique direction cannot at some point begin to tilt or fall, unless something blocks its progress and forces it to do so.

If, however, after a collision atoms tended to emerge in a statistically favored direction — that is, if the motions of all atoms after collisions did not cancel each other out but on average produced a vector, however small, in a given direction, then that direction would by definition be down.

The absence of a global orientation in the universe was thus immaterial. Macroscopic objects, of course, do not move at a uniform and very great speed; the atoms within them do, but their motions are restricted and deflected by neighboring atoms, and so they vibrate. In the case of compound objects that are completely at rest, the resultant of internal atomic motions is zero, relative, at least, to the earth, which may have an average motion of its own.

Epicurus operated with a highly limited number of elementary principles in nature — he did not know the concept of force, for example, or the associated ideas of attraction and repulsion among atoms, not to mention more arcane properties — and for all his efforts to account for all the physical features of the world on the basis of this theory, paradoxes remained. Sextus imagined two atoms separated by a distance of nine minima, traveling at the same speed as atoms must toward each other; after four temporal minima, the atoms would be one spatial minimum apart.

Then what? They cannot meet in the middle of the remaining distance, by the very concept of a minimum. Nor can one cross the interval before the other, without violating the rule of equal velocity. But how, then, can they meet at all? We do not know an Epicurean reply to this conundrum.

Perhaps atoms are always an even number of minimal spaces apart from one another. But Epicurus believed that motion at the atomic level obeyed different laws from those that appear to operate at the level of macroscopic objects that atomic motion is discontinuous is an example. Perhaps, then, motions over small numbers of minima were in some sense indiscernible. Finally, it is possible that he discounted such a puzzle as a purely mathematical paradox, since it is recorded that he had little interest in mathematics as a separate science from physics and believed it to be irrelevant to the proper study of physics.

Fascinating as these questions are in their own right, Epicurus himself does not proceed by creating an abstract model, exploring its internal coherence, and determining its applicability to phenomena, in the ideal manner of modern science.

Rather, he begins with the testimony of the senses, which he thinks are always reliable. Thus, in beginning his account of the physical world in this Letter, he argues that things cannot arise out of nothing, since otherwise there would be no need of specific seeds for specific plants and animals, and anything whatsoever could be generated out of just any types of material elements.

Since this is not seen to happen, but reproduction in things we can observe with our senses is in fact orderly and determinate, spontaneous generation at any level is ruled out. The logic is what Epicurus calls counterwitnessing: a hypothetical premise here, that things sometimes arise out of nothing is eliminated because experience tells against its conclusion here, that the coming into being of visible objects does not require determinate seeds or materials. More simply, if A then B ; but not B , hence not A.

One might, of course, challenge the implication: something might arise from nothing, even if there are no cases of chickens giving birth to horses. The important point, however, is that Epicurus invokes the data of perception to testify for or against the nature of elementary phenomena; he assumes a certain uniformity of nature at all levels.

So too with his next postulate: things are not destroyed into what is not, since in that case everything would cease to exist and would have ceased to exist before now, given infinite past time — recall that nothing is created out of nothing ; but things do exist, hence the premise is false. As for bodies note the plural: Epicurus does not typically speak of matter per se and void as the basic physical principles, the senses, Epicurus affirms, testify to the existence of bodies, and by calculation on the basis of the senses we infer the nature of what is invisible, for example the atoms LH Here the reasoning is based on analogy: what is evident to our senses must be true on the microscopic level as well, at least in some respects.

Void must exist, in turn, if bodies are to be able to move, as they are seen to do. Thus motion is the counterwitness to the non-existence of void — an indirect argument is required since one cannot perceive empty space. These elementary bodies, then, are the atoms, which are indivisible and inalterable, if things are not to dissolve into nothingness. Epicurus appeals to some elementary intuitions concerning bodies and their movement through space in order to establish the structure of imperceptibly small things; he concludes that these must be inalterable if nature is not to dissolve into nothing creation back out of nothing having already been eliminated by the argument cited above from regularity in generation ; and the basic features of the atomic system are then in place.

A similar appeal to the senses establishes the infinity of the universe, since what is finite must have an edge, and an edge is conceived in reference to something beyond it. Hence, it is infinite. And if the all is infinite, so is the void and the number of atoms as well, for otherwise atoms would be too widely dispersed ever to meet LH 41— Epicurus now has in place the fundamental constituents of his natural world, and he might have stopped here, with atoms and void and the denial, on the grounds of inconceivability, of any other kind of basic physical principle.

All secondary properties, such as color and taste, will be explained as epiphenomena of atomic combinations, and perception of things at a distance by the continual emission of infinitesimally thin laminas from objects, which maintain the relevant features of the source in the case of vision, for example, the laminas will preserve the atomic patterns specific to the color and shape of the object and directly stimulate the relevant sense organ. This is a tricky thesis, and again posed puzzles: how do the lamina or simulacra, as Lucretius called them, of a mountain enter the eye, for example?

In fragments? By somehow shrinking? We do not know the answer to this one. A few more concepts fill in the picture of the natural world: thus, Epicurus denies that there can be infinitely many kinds of atoms, for then all shapes which define the kinds at any given magnitude would be exhausted and atoms would have to reach visible proportions, which we know that they do not this argument depends on the idea of minima, discussed further below ; instead, the number of kinds i.

This condition is also invoked to explain why there is a limit on possible types of combinations of atoms, and hence on the number of viable species of things in the perceptible world: if there were infinitely many kinds of atoms, Epicurus believed, they could combine to generate absolutely anything — an infinity of different sorts of thing. Why did Epicurus complicate matters still further with the doctrine that atoms themselves consist of still smaller parts in the form of mathematically minimal expanses, as we saw above that he does?

Finite bodies, according to Epicurus, had to be composed of smaller expanses, and if there were no lower limit in size to such expanses, one would have to imagine traversing such a body in an infinite number of moves — but then, however small these infinitesimals might be, the object that contained them, Epicurus reasoned, would have to be infinitely large LH 56— What are such minima like?

Epicurus asks us to think of the smallest perceptible thing. It differs from larger visible entities in that it has no sub-parts to be traversed with the eye: if you do attempt to visualize such sub-parts, they simply coincide with the original perceptible minimum. Since such minimal visible entities have no parts, they do not touch edge to edge edges are parts , and yet they measure out the body that contains them, larger bodies having more such minima.

By analogy with the visible, then, we conceive of the smallest part of an atom LH 58— This conception resembles the way points exist in a line, according to Aristotle, since they too do not touch, nor can they exist independently. But Epicurean minima differ from points in that they are physical expanses and so have extension.

This looks like a contradictory state of affairs: can we imagine, for example, an atom consisting of just two minima? Or ten? It would be like counting up the least visible bits of a perceptible object. Geometrical problems arise as well, since it was known that the side and diagonal of a cube, for example, were incommensurable, yet both must, it would appear, be composed of finite and hence commensurable numbers of minima.

But sufficient evidence for this hypothesis is lacking. Having established the physical basis of the world, Epicurus proceeds to explain the nature of the soul this, at least, is the order in which Lucretius sets things out. This too, of course, consists of atoms: first, there is nothing that is not made up of atoms and void secondary qualities are simply accidents of the arrangement of atoms , and second, an incorporeal entity could neither act on nor be moved by bodies, as the soul is seen to do e.

Body without soul atoms is unconscious and inert, and when the atoms of the body are disarranged so that it can no longer support conscious life, the soul atoms are scattered and no longer retain the capacity for sensation LH There is also a part of the human soul that is concentrated in the chest, and is the seat of the higher intellectual functions.

The distinction is important, because it is in the rational part that error of judgment enters in. Sensation, like pain and pleasure, is incorrigible just because it is a function of the non-rational part, which does not modify a perception — that is, the reception of lamina emitted from macroscopic bodies — by the addition of opinion or belief. The corporeal nature of the soul has two crucial consequences for Epicureanism. From this it follows that there can be no punishment after death, nor any regrets for the life that has been lost.

Second, the soul is responsive to physical impressions, whether those that arrive from without in the form of laminas or simulacra, or those that arise from internal motions of the body.

No phenomena are purely mental, in the sense of being disembodied states or objects of pure consciousness conceived as separate from embodiment. The elementary sensations of pleasure and pain, accordingly, rather than abstract moral principles or abstract concepts of goodness or badness, are the fundamental guides to what is good and bad, since all sentient creatures are naturally attracted to the one and repelled by the other.


Epicurus: Letter to Menoeceus

Epicurus , Greek philosopher, left us only three letters: the first, Letter to Herodotus, presents his metaphysics, the second is the letter to Pythocles, explains atomic weather phenomena, the third and most important, Letter to Menoeceus , introduced his ethics. It is to this last letter that we are interested in now. Indeed, it is, for one, neither too early nor too late, when it comes to ensuring the health of his soul. Besides, whoever said that the time to philosophize is not yet come, or that time is past, like the one that says, in the case of happiness, that his time has not yet come or that it is not.


Letter to Menoeceus

According to Epicurean cosmology, no Prime Mover nor a teleology governing the movement of matter: rather, the universe is nothing but atoms and void, and all objects and matter in the world can be explained by the collision of atoms. Although Epicurus was said to believe in the existence of the gods, he was known as an atheist, for he claimed that it was a mistake to think that the gods were interested and involved themselves in human affairs. Only the gods are immortal, says Epicurus, but we are not. The good, says Epicurus, is pleasure—a thesis that was explicitly rejected by Socrates and Plato before him—and pain is evil.


Historical Context for Letter to Menoeceus by Epicurus



Epicurus: Letter to Menoeceus (Summary)


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