Epicureanism

Epicureanism, system of philosophy based chiefly on the teachings of the Greek philosopher Epicurus. The essential doctrine of Epicureanism is that pleasure is the supreme good and main goal of life. Intellectual pleasures are preferred to sensual ones, which tend to disturb peace of mind. True happiness, Epicurus taught, is the serenity resulting from the conquest of fear of the gods, of death, and of the afterlife. The ultimate aim of all Epicurean speculation about nature is to rid people of such fears.

Epicurean physics is atomistic, in the tradition of the Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus. Epicurus regarded the universe as infinite and eternal and as consisting only of bodies and space. Of the bodies, some are compound and some are atoms, or indivisible, stable elements of which the compounds are formed. The world, as seen through the human eye, is produced by the whirlings, collisions, and aggregations of these atoms, which individually possess only shape, size, and weight.

In biology, Epicurus anticipated the modern doctrine of natural selection. He postulated that natural forces give rise to organisms of different types and that only the types able to support and propagate themselves have survived.

Epicurean psychology is thoroughly materialistic. It holds that sensations are caused by a continuous stream of films or "idols" cast off by bodies and impinging on the senses. All sensations are believed to be absolutely reliable; error arises only when sensation is improperly interpreted. The soul is regarded as being composed of fine particles distributed throughout the body. The dissolution of the body in death, Epicurus taught, leads to the dissolution of the soul, which cannot exist apart from the body; and thus no afterlife is possible. Since death means total extinction, it has no meaning either to the living or to the dead, for "when we are, death is not; and when death is, we are not."

The cardinal virtues in the Epicurean system of ethics are justice, honesty, and prudence, or the balancing of pleasure and pain. Epicurus preferred friendship to love, as being less disquieting. His personal hedonism taught that only through self-restraint, moderation, and detachment can one achieve the kind of tranquillity that is true happiness. Despite his materialism, Epicurus believed in the freedom of the will. He suggested that even the atoms are free and move on occasion quite spontaneously; his view resembles the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics.

Epicurus did not deny the existence of gods, but he emphatically maintained that as "happy and imperishable beings" of supernatural power they could have nothing to do with human affairs, although they might take pleasure in contemplating the lives of good mortals. True religion lies in a similar contemplation by humans of the ideal lives of the high, invisible gods.

So firmly fixed and venerated were Epicurus's teachings that the doctrines of Epicureanism, unlike those of its great philosophical rival Stoicism, remained remarkably intact throughout its history as a living tradition. Epicureanism was brought into discredit largely because of a confusion, which still persists, between its tenets and the crudely sensual hedonism advanced by the Cyrenaics. Nevertheless, the Epicurean philosophy found many distinguished disciples, including, among the Greeks, the grammarian Apollodorus and, among the Romans, the poet Horace, the statesman Pliny the Younger, and, most notably, the poet Lucretius. The poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius is the main source of knowledge of Epicureanism. As an organized school, Epicureanism went out of existence early in the 4th century AD. It was revived in the 17th century by the French philosopher Pierre Gassendi. Since then, Epicureanism has attracted eminent persons in all ages and is regarded as one of the leading schools of moral philosophy of all time.

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"Epicureanism," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000

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