Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher born in Samos (an island in the Mediterranean Sea) in 341 BC. He lived during the Hellenistic period, after the deaths of Alexander the Great and Aristotle. In Athens, he would found his own school known as the Garden, where he developed a community of devoted followers. Epicurus believed that happiness is the goal of life, and that it is attained by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. He felt that the Greeks were suffering from their anxieties about the Gods and what would happen to them after they die, and instead he believed in a materialistic understanding of the world and the soul. His thoughts developed into a school of philosophy known as Epicureanism, which flourished in ancient Greece alongside competing philosophies such as Stoicism, until the rise of Christianity.
Epicurus saw philosophy as being therapeutic, healing the soul in the same way that medicine heals the body. Through philosophy, living a life of contemplation, and acting in moderation, one can attain a state of tranquility known as ataraxia. In addition, by avoiding pain, overcoming the fear of death, and minimize anxieties, one is able to achieve genuine happiness. Epicurus also valued friendship, seeing it as a way of finding security in an otherwise harsh world. He believed that to be wise and just is “neither to harm nor be harmed.” In The Garden, he lived a peaceful existence with his followers, discouraging things like wealth, fame and politics which he believed only cause unnecessary trouble. His school was open to men and women, free and slaves.
Epicurus believed that the Gods were not concerned with human affairs. He saw the Gods as existing in their own realm, and in this way they represented the ideal life of contemplation. Things like lightning and earthquakes he explained as being natural events. Like Democritus, he adopted an atomistic theory (i.e. the belief that the world is made up of fundamental building blocks known as atoms). He believed that the soul was also made up of atoms, and for this reason when one dies, the atoms of the soul simply dissolve. For this reason, he encouraged others not to fear the Gods nor being punished in an afterlife. Instead, he believed that dying was simply the end of life.
Epicurus was an empiricist, believing that knowledge comes through the senses. He didn’t believe in skepticism (the position that nothing can be known), because he saw the skeptic’s position as inherently absurd. If nothing can be known, how can one know that? Epicurus believed whatever can be known must have a reason. Unable to find a reason why the world would have been created rather than always existing, he therefore believed that it had always existed. Likewise, unable to see why the universe should have a limit, he therefore believed it is infinite. He also believed that if there are several theories to explain the same thing, they should all be maintained. This is known as the Principle of Multiple Explanations, and was a contribution to the foundations of Western science.
Although he maintained an atomistic theory similar to that of Democritus, he avoided the earlier theory’s determinism by explaining that atoms can have swerved movements. This allowed him to give a reason for why humans have free will. He also wanted to get beyond Aristotle’s belief that the world has an ultimate purpose (teleology). For Epicurus, just as natural events are not the will of the Gods, they are also not the result of an intelligent designer. Instead, things first formed through the combination of atoms. After, those things that were best formed to survive did, while those that weren’t didn’t. This has been seen as a precursor of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
Epicureanism flourished as a school of philosophy in ancient Greece, continuing in Roman times in the writings of Lucretius. Christianity would stand in opposition to Epicureanism, instead believing that the world was created, that the soul doesn’t die with the body, and that there is an afterlife. Epicurus embodied his philosophy, remaining cheerful even while dying painfully from kidney stones. For this reason, he became revered in his time as well as has since been an inspiration for others (for example, Nietzsche, who in the 19th century also suffered from many sickness). In modern times, his philosophy has been embraced by those who see the world in naturalistic terms. Both his understanding of the world and the soul as well as how best to live one’s life, Epicurus took up positions that went against the status quo.