Epicurus, the founder of the school of philosophy known as Epicureanism, was born on the island of Samos in the Aegean Sea. As a boy, he was exposed to the ideas of many philosophers*, including Plato. After establishing schools on the island of Lesbos and in Asia Minor, Epicurus bought a house with a garden in Athens. He established a school there that became known as the Garden. His students formed a close-knit group that, unlike most schools at the time, included women and slaves. Most of what is known about the philosophy of Epicurus comes from the writings of his Roman follower Lucretius.
Epicurus taught that the ideal life was one that was free from pain and anxiety. Using children and animals as his examples, he argued that it was natural for all living creatures to avoid pain and pursue pleasure. Adult human beings do this as well, but they unfortunately learn false opinions and behaviors as they mature. Epicurus’s goal was to free people from these false beliefs and help them recognize and accept the goodness of pleasure.
His critics condemned his ideas as hedonism—the selfish pursuit of pleasure. Epicurus and his students, however, actually rejected indulgence and excess. Epicurus argued that, since no one can ever satisfy every desire, wanting unnecessary or unnatural things actually increases a person’s anxiety. Some desires, even if they could be satisfied, might unexpectedly lead to pain and suffering. Only by leading a simple life can a person be certain of true happiness. Today, the word epicure refers to a person with refined taste in food and drink.
Epicurus sought to explain everything in terms of purely natural causes. He believed in a version of atomism, the philosophy developed by Democritus that maintains that all matter consists of extremely small particles. These particles, called atoms, cannot be altered or divided, although they may vary in size and shape. Substances are formed when atoms collide with and stick to one another. It is through this process that the universe came into being. Some day, Epicurus argued, the universe will dissolve into individual atoms, and these atoms will combine again to form a new universe. Therefore, according to Epicurus, there is no beginning or end of time. Our universe is simply one of an infinite number of universes that have existed before and will exist again in the future.
* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science
Epicurus did not believe that the gods intervened in human affairs. The gods exist, he argued, but they are made of atoms like everything else and live outside our world in a state of eternal happiness. Since the gods are not concerned with human beings, people should not expect favors or fear punishment from them but simply admire them. Epicurus and his followers also rejected the idea that the soul is eternal and that there is life after death. They believed that the soul is made of atoms and disintegrates after the body dies. There is, therefore, no feeling after death and no reason to fear punishment after death. With his teachings, Epicurus hoped to lead people to greater happiness by freeing them from fear of the supernatural. (See also Afterlife; Divinities; Philosophy, Greek and Hellenistic; Religion, Greek.)