Epicureanism

The Epicureans were followers of a school of philosophy founded in the fourth century BC by Epicurus (341–270 BC). They lived communally and abstained from political activity. The Epicureans believed all that exists are atoms and the void, or empty space. Consequently, the soul itself is composed of atoms; it is material and dies with the body.

The Epicureans believed in gods, but they thought that the gods would be too occupied with their own pleasures to concern themselves with human affairs. Like many philosophical schools in the Hellenistic world, the Epicureans focused on the question: What is the good life? Their answer: The good life was a life of happiness. Happiness was the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. However, their psychology of pleasures and pains was unique.

The Epicureans divided pleasures into static pleasures and kinetic pleasures. Enjoying a kinetic pleasure involves having a desire, satisfying the desire, and then experiencing the lack of that desire. For instance, the desire for food is a kinetic pleasure as one is hungry, eats, and then is sated. Enjoying a static pleasure, by contrast, does not diminish your desire. Engaging in philosophical discussion is an example of a static pleasure: The more you philosophize, the more you want to philosophize.

While recognizing that some kinetic pleasures are necessary and good, the Epicureans warned against those that created the desire for ever greater quantities and varieties of stimulation. For example, a habit of consuming fancy desserts makes it harder to take pleasure in simpler desserts or to be satisfied with the absence of desserts altogether. The Epicureans therefore believed one should live mostly in an austere way, eating simple foods and enjoying only the occasional luxury.

ADDITIONAL FACTS

  1. Contrary to what the Epicureans advocated, the word epicurean has come to mean “devoted to the pursuit of sensual pleasure, especially to the enjoyment of good food and comfort.”
  2. The school Epicurus founded in Athens was known as the Garden.
  3. The Roman philosopher Lucretius (99–55 BC) was an Epicurean. He wrote a long poem about Epicurean metaphysics and natural philosophy called De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things).
 
 
 

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