Biography of Epicurus By Diogenes Laertius (Book 10 of Lives of Eminent Philosophers)
This translation is by Cyril Bailey. The original translation is available here. In the transcription below, the English word “preconceptions” has been marked with an asterisk and used instead of Bailey's “concepts.” In order to avoid duplication, the translations of the letters are linked to separate pages of this website. For discussion of this biography, please go to the forum devoted to the biographies of Epicurus.
EPICURUS, son of Neocles and Chaerestrata, was an Athenian of the deme of Gargettus, and the family of the Philaidae, as Metrodorus says in his work on Nobility of Birth. Heraclides in his epitome of Sotion and others say that the Athenians having colonized Samos, Epicurus was brought up there. In his eighteenth year, as they say, he came to Athens, when Xenocrates was at the Academy and Aristotle was living in Chalcis. After the death of Alexander of Macedon, when the Athenians were driven out of Samos by Perdiccas, he went to join his father in Colophon. Having stayed there some time and gathered disciples he returned again to Athens in the archonship of Anaxicrates. For a while he joined with others in the study of philosophy, but later taught independently, when he had founded the school called after him. He tells us himself that he first made acquaintance with philosophy at the age of fourteen. Apollodorus the Epicurean in the first book of his Life of Epicurus says that he took to philosophy because he despised the teachers of literature, since they were not able to explain to him the passage about Chaos in Hesiod. Hermippus says that Epicurus was at one time a schoolmaster and then after he met with the writings of Democritus, he took eagerly to philosophy. And this is why Timon says about him:
Last and most shameless of the scientists, infant school teacher from Samos, the most stubborn of all living beings.
His three brothers, Neocles, Chaeredemus, and Aristobulus, joined him in studying philosophy at his suggestion, according to Philodemus the Epicurean in the tenth book of his Comparison of Philosophies. Also a slave called Mys, as Muronianus says in his chapters on historical coincidences.
Diotimus the Stoic, who is ill-disposed to Epicurus, has calumniated him most bitterly by producing fifty lewd letters as Epicurus’ work; so has the writer who has assigned to Epicurus the collection of ‘billets-doux’ which were attributed to Chrysippus, and also Posidonius the Stoic and his followers, as well as Nicolaus and Sotion in the twelve books of the ‘Arguments of Diocles’ which are named after the Epicurean celebration of The Twentieth; also Dionysius of Halicarnassus. For they say that he used to go round from house to house with his mother reading out the purification prayers, and assisted his father in elementary teaching for a miserable pittance. They add that one of his brothers prostituted himself and kept company with Leontion, the hetaera. Also that he took Democritus’ atomic theory and Aristippus’ theory of pleasure and taught them as his own. Further, that he was not an Athenian born, as Timocrates says, and Herodotus too in his book The Youth of Epicurus. He is also said to have used degrading flattery towards Mithres, the steward of Lysimachus, calling him in his letters both ‘Saviour’ and ‘My lord.’ Idomeneus too and Herodotus and Timo crates, who divulged his secrets, he is said to have praised and flattered all the same. And in his letters he wrote to Leontion, ‘Lord and Saviour, my dearest Leontion, what a hurrahing you drew from us, as we read aloud your dear letter,’ and to Themista, Leonteus’ wife, "If you two don’t come to me, I am capable of arriving with a hop, skip and jump, wherever you and Themista summon me.’ And to Pythocles, who was young and beautiful, he writes, ‘I will sit down and wait for your lovely and godlike appearance.’ And again in writing to Themista he calls her (by a most flattering name), as Theodorus says in the fourth book of his attack on Epicurus. They say that he wrote to many other women of pleasure and particularly to Leontion, with whom Metrodorus was also in love; and that in the treatise On the End of Life he wrote, ‘I know not how I can conceive the good, if I withdraw the pleasures of taste and withdraw the pleasures of love and those of hearing and sight.’
Again in the letter to Pythocles they say he wrote ‘Blest youth, set sail in your bark and flee from every form of culture.’
Epictetus moreover calls him a filthy talker and abuses him roundly. And even Timocrates, who was the brother of Metrodorus and a disciple of Epicurus, after he had abandoned the school, wrote in a book with the title Pleasant Things that Epicurus used to vomit twice a day owing to his luxurious living, and that he himself was scarcely able to escape from his philosophical disquisitions during the night and from the community of the initiates. He adds that Epicurus was profoundly ignorant of philosophy, and still more so of practical life, that his body was miserably weak, so that for many years he was unable to rise from his portable couch. Further, that he spent no less than a mina a day on his food, as Epicurus writes himself in the letter to Leontion and in the letters to the philosophers in Mytilene. Moreover, there were other women who lived with him and Metrodorus, named Mammarion and Hedeia and Erotion and Nicidion. He adds that in the thirty-seven books On Nature he repeats himself for the most part and attacks many other philosophers in them, but Nausiphanes most of all, saying in his own words, ‘Away with them all, for Nausiphanes, like many another slave, was in travail with that wordy braggart, sophistic.’ He says that Epicurus himself in his letters about Nausiphanes said, ‘This drove him to such a state of fury that he abused me and ironically called me “Master.”’
He used to call Nausiphanes ‘The mollusk,’ ‘The illiterate,’ ‘The cheat,’ ‘The harlot.’ The followers of Plato he called ‘Flatterers of Dionysus,’ and Plato himself ‘The golden man,’ and Aristotle ‘The debauchee,' saying that he devoured his inheritance and then enlisted and sold drugs. Protagoras he called ‘Porter’ or ‘Copier of Democritus,’ saying that he taught in the village schools. Heraclitus he called ‘The Muddler,’ Democritus [he called] Lerocritus (‘judge of nonsense’), Antidorus he called Sannidorus (‘Maniac’), the Cynics [he called] ‘Enemies of Hellas,’ the Logicians [he called] ‘The destroyers,’ and Pyrrho [he called] ‘The uneducated fool.’
But these calumniators are all mad. For Epicurus has witnesses enough and to spare to his unsurpassed kindness to all men. There is his country which honoured him with bronze statues, his friends so numerous that they could not even be reckoned by entire cities, and his disciples who all remained bound forever by the charm of his teaching, except Metrodorus, son of Stratoniceus, who went over to Carneades, overweighted perhaps by Epicurus’ excessive goodness. There is also the permanent continuance of the school after almost all the others had come to an end, and that though it had a countless succession of heads from among the disciples. There is again his grateful devotion to his parents, his generosity to his brothers, and his gentleness towards his servants, of whom the most notable was Mys, already mentioned, as is proved by his will and the part they took in his philosophical discussions. In short, there is his benevolence to all.
Of his reverence towards the gods and his love of his country it would be impossible to speak adequately. But from excess of modesty he would not take any part in politics. Yet although Greece was at that time in great straits, he continued to live there, and only once or twice made a voyage to Ionia and the neighborhood to see his friends. But they came to him from all quarters, and took up their abode with him in the garden, as Apollodorus says [who adds that he bought it for eighty minae. Diocles in the third book of his Course in Philosophy confirms this], living a most frugal and simple life. Indeed, he says, they were satisfied with half a pint of wine, and for the most part drank water. He adds that Epicurus did not recommend them to put their belongings into a common stock, as did Pythagoras, who said that ‘Friends have all in common.’ For to do so implied distrust: and distrust could not go with friendship. Epicurus himself says in his letters that he was content with nothing but water and a bit of bread.
‘Send me,’ he says, ‘some preserved cheese, that when I like I may have a feast.’ Such was the man who taught that the end is pleasure. Athenaeus sings his praise in an epigram:
Men toil at mean pursuits, for love of gain,
Insatiate they welcome war and strife;
Their idle fancies lead on endless paths,
But nature's wealth is set in narrow bounds.
This truth the prudent son of Neocles
Learnt from the Muses or Apollo’s shrine.
The truth of this we shall know better as we go on from his own words and teaching.
Diocles says that of the earlier philosophers he showed most sympathy with Anaxagoras, though on certain points he opposed him, and with Arclielaus, the master of Socrates. And, he adds, he used to practice his disciples in getting his writings by heart. Apollodorus in his Chronicles asserts that he listened to the teaching of Nausiphanes and Praxiphanes. Epicurus himself denies this in his letter to Eurylochus, and says he was his own teacher. And indeed both Epicurus and Hermarchus deny that there ever was such a philosopher as Leucippus, whom Apollodorus the Epicurean and others say was the master of Democritus. Demetrius of Magnesia says that he was also a follower of Xenocrates.
He uses current diction to expound his theory, but Aristophanes the grammarian censures it as being too peculiar. But he was clear in expression, Just as in his book On Rhetoric he insists on clearness above everything. In his letters he used to say ‘Prosper’ or ‘Live well,’ instead of the conventional introduction ‘Be happy.’
Ariston in his Life of Epicurus says that he borrowed The Canon from the Tripod of Nausiphanes, whose pupil he says he was, as well as being a disciple of Pamphilus the Platonist in Samos. He states that Epicurus began philosophy at the age of twelve, and was at the head of his School at thirty-two.
He was born, says Apollodorus in the Chronicles, in the third year of the 109th Olympiad in the archonship of Sosigenes on the seventh day of the month Gamelion, seven years after the death of Plato. When he was thirty-two he started his school, first for five years at Mitylene and Lampsacus, and then he migrated to Athens. There he died in the second year of the 127th Olympiad in the archonship of Pytharatus, at the age of seventy-two. Hermarchus of Mitylene, son of Agemortus, succeeded to the headship of the school. Epicurus died of a stone in the bladder, as Hermarchus also says in his letters, after an illness of fourteen days. Hermippus tells us that as he was dying he got into a bronze bath filled with hot water, and asked for a cup of unmixed wine, which he gulped down. Then, having adjured his friends to remember his teaching, he expired. I have composed the following epigram on him:
‘Farewell, remember my sayings.’ Thus spake at his death Epicurus,
These the last words as he died spake he aloud to his friends.
Then in a hot bath he laid him, a goblet of wine he demanded,
Quaffed it, and soon the cold air quaffed he of Hades below.’
Such was Epicurus’ life and such his death.
His will was as follows:
He had many disciples, but among the most distinguished was first Metrodorus, son of Athenaeus (or Timocrates) and Sande, of Lampsacus. From the time when he first came to know Epicurus he never left him, except when he went to his native city for six months, and then he came back. He was a good man in all respects, as Epicurus too bears witness in prologues to his writings and in the third book of his Timocrates. Such was his character: his sister Batis he married to Idomeneus, and had for his own mistress Leontion the Athenian hetaera. He was imperturbable in the face of trouble and of death, as Epicurus says in the first book of his Metrodorus. They say that he died at the age of fifty-two, seven years before Epicurus, and of this Epicurus gives evidence, since in the will already quoted he makes provision for the care of his children, implying that he had already died. [He had also as a disciple Timocrates, Metrodorus’ brother, who has been mentioned already, an aimless person.] Metrodorus’ writings were as follows:
Three books Against the Physicians. About Sensations. To Timocrates. Concerning Magnanimity. About Epicurus’ Ill Health. Against the Logicians. Nine books Against the Sophists. Concerning the Path To Wisdom. Concerning Change. Concerning Wealth. Against Democritus. Concerning Nobility of Birth.
There was also Polyaenus, son of Athenodorus, of Lampsacus, a modest and friendly man, as Philodemus and his followers say.
Also Hermarchus, Epicurus’ successor, son of Agemortus, of Mytilene, the son of a poor father, and at first a student of rhetoric. His best books are said to be these twenty-two essays in the form of letters On Empedocles. On Science. Against Plato. Against Aristotle. He was a good man and died of paralysis.
Likewise there was Leontius of Lampsacus and his wife Themista, to whom Epicurus addressed one of his letters.
Also Colotes and Idomeneus, both of Lampsacus. They too were distinguished, as was also Polystratus who succeeded Hermarchus; then followed Dionysius and after him Basilides. Apollodorus the ‘King of the Garden’ was also famous, and wrote over four hundred volumes. There were also the two Ptolemies of Alexandria, the Black and the White, Zeno of Sidon, a pupil of Apollodorus, a prolific writer, Demetrius called the Laconian, Diogenes of Tarsus who wrote Selected Lessons, Orion, and others whom the genuine Epicureans call Sophists.
There were three other Epicuruses, the son of Leonteus and Themista, another, who was a Magnesian, while the fourth was a drill-sergeant.
Epicurus was a very prolific writer, and exceeded all others in the bulk of his works, of which there are more than three hundred rolls. There is not in them one single citation from another author - it is all Epicurus’ own words. Chrysippus tried to rival him in the amount of his writings, as Carneades tells us, calling him the parasite who fed on Epicurus’ books. ‘Whenever Epicurus wrote anything, Chrysippus felt bound in rivalry to write the equivalent; and this is why he often repeats himself and says whatever occurs to him, and has left a great deal uncorrected in his hurry; moreover, he has so many quotations that his books are filled with them and nothing else, a characteristic which one may observe also in the writings of Zeno and Aristotle. Such are the numerous and important works of Epicurus, of which the best are the following: 1. On Nature, thirty-seven books, 2. On Atoms And Void, 3. On Love, 4. Epitome of the books Against the Physicists, 5. Against the Megarians, 6. Problems, 7. Principal Doctrines, 8. On Choice and Avoidance, 9. On the End, 10. On the Criterion, or The Canon, 11. Chaeredemus, 12. On the Gods, 13. On Religion, 14. Hegesianax, 15. On Lives, four books, 16. On Just Action, 17. Neocles, addressed to Themista, 18. Symposium, 19. Eurylochus, addressed to Metrodorus, 20. On Vision, 21. On the Corner in the Atom, 22. On Touch, 23. On Fate, 24. On Internal Sensations, maxims addressed to Timocrates, 25. Prognostic, 26. The Protreptic, 27. On Images, 28. On Perception, 29. Aristobulus, 30. On Music, 31. On Justice And The Other Virtues, 32. On Gifts and Gratitude, 33. Polymedes, 34. Timocrates, three books, 35. Metrodorus, five books, 36. Antidorus, two books, 37. On Disease, maxims addressed to Mithras, 38. Callistolas, 39. On Royal Power, 40. Anaximenes, 41. Letters.
I will now endeavour to expound the doctrines which he sets forth in these works and will put before you three of his letters, in which he has abridged his whole philosophy. I will also give you the Principal Doctrines, and a selection from his sayings which seem most worthy of mention. You will thus be able to understand Epicurus from every point of view and could form a judgment on him. The first letter he writes to Herodotus (and it deals with Physics; the second is to Pythocles), and it deals with Celestial Phenomena; the third is to Menoeceus, and contains the moral teaching. We must begin with the first letter, but I will first speak briefly about the divisions of his philosophy.
It is divided into three parts, the Canonicon (or Procedure), the Physics and the Ethics. The Canonicon gives the method of approach to the system, and is contained in the work called The Canon. The Physics contains all the investigation into nature, and is contained in the thirty-seven books On Nature and in an abridged form in the letters. The Ethics deals with choice and avoidance, and is contained in the books On Lives and the letters and the book on The End. The Epicureans usually group the Canonicon with the Physics and state that it deals with the criterion of truth and the fundamental principles and contains the elements of the system. The Physics deals with creation and dissolution and with nature; the Ethics with things to be chosen or avoided, with the conduct of life and its purpose.
Logic they reject as misleading. For they say it is sufficient for physicists to be guided by what things say of themselves. Thus in The Canon Epicurus says that the tests of truth are the sensations and concepts [preconceptions / anticipations] and the feelings; the Epicureans add to these the intuitive apprehensions of the mind. And this he says himself too in the summary addressed to Herodotus and in the Principal Doctrines. For, he says, all sensation is irrational and does not admit of memory; for it is not set in motion by itself, nor when it is set in motion by something else, can it add to it or take from it. Nor is there anything which can refute the sensations. For a similar sensation cannot refute a similar because it is equivalent in validity, nor a dissimilar a dissimilar, for the objects of which they are the criteria are not the same; nor again can reason, for all reason is dependent upon sensations; nor can one sensation refute another, for we attend to them all alike. Again, the fact of apperception confirms the truth of the sensations. And seeing and hearing are as much facts as feeling pain. From this it follows that as regards the imperceptible we must draw inferences from phenomena. For all thoughts have their origin in sensations by means of coincidence and analogy and similarity and combination, reasoning too contributing something. And the visions of the insane and those in dreams are true, for they cause movement, and that which does not exist cannot cause movement.
The concept [preconception / anticipation] they speak of as an apprehension or right opinion or thought or general idea stored within the mind, that is to say a recollection of what has often been presented from without, as for instance ‘Such and such a thing is a man,’ for the moment the word ‘man’ is spoken, immediately by means of the concept his form too is thought of, as the senses give us the information. Therefore the first signification of every name is immediate and clear evidence. And we could not look for the object of our search, unless we have first known it. For instance, we ask, ‘Is that standing yonder a horse or a cow?’ To do this we must know by means of a concept the shape of horse and of cow. Otherwise we could not have named them, unless we previously knew their appearance by means of a concept. So the concepts are clear and immediate evidence. Further, the decision of opinion depends on some previous clear and immediate evidence, to which we refer when we express it: for instance, ‘How do we know whether this is a man?’ Opinion they also call supposition, and say that it may be true or false: if it is confirmed or not contradicted, it is true ; if it is not confirmed or is contradicted, it is false. For this reason was introduced the notion of the problem awaiting confirmation: for example, waiting to come near the tower and see how it looks to the near view.
The internal sensations they say are two, pleasure and pain, which occur to every living creature, and the one is akin to nature and the other alien: by means of these two choice and avoidance are determined. Of investigations some concern actual things, others mere words. This is a brief summary of the division of their philosophy and their views on the criterion of truth.
Now we must proceed to the letter.
Such was his letter on Physics: then follows his letter on Celestial Things.
Such was his teaching on things celestial.
As regards the principles of living and the grounds on which we ought to choose some things and avoid others, he writes the following letter.
But before considering it let us explain what he and his followers think about the wise man. Injuries are done by men either through hate or through envy or through contempt, all of which the wise man overcomes by reasoning. When once a man has attained wisdom, he no longer has any tendency contrary to it or willingly pretends that he has. He will be more deeply moved by feelings, but this will not prove an obstacle to wisdom. A man cannot become wise with every kind of physical constitution, nor in every nation.
And even if the wise man be put on the rack, he is happy. Only the wise man will show gratitude, and will constantly speak well of his friends alike in their presence and their absence. Yet when he is on the rack, then he will cry out and lament. The wise man will not have intercourse with any woman with whom the law forbids it, as Diogenes says in his summary of Epicurus’ moral teaching. Nor will he punish his slaves, but will rather pity them and forgive any that are deserving. They do not think that the wise man will fall in love, or care about his burial. They hold that love is not sent from heaven, as Diogenes says in his . . . book, nor should the wise man make elegant speeches.
Sexual intercourse, they say, has never done a man good, and he is lucky if it has not harmed him. Moreover, the wise man will marry and have children, as Epicurus says in the Problems and in the work On Nature. But he will marry according to the circumstances of his life. He will feel shame in the presence of some persons, and certainly will not insult them in his cups, so Epicurus says in the Symposium. Nor will he take part in public life, as he says in the first book On Lives. Nor will he act the tyrant, or live like the Cynics, as he writes in the second book On Lives. Nor will he beg. Moreover, even if he is deprived of his eyesight, he will not end his whole life, as he says in the same work.
Also, the wise man will feel grief, as Diogenes says in the fifth book of the Miscellanies. He will engage in lawsuits and will leave writings behind him, but will not deliver speeches on public occasions. He will be careful of his possessions and will provide for the future. He will be fond of the country. He will face fortune and never desert a friend. He will be careful of his reputation in so far as to prevent himself from being despised. He will care more than other men for public spectacles. He will erect statues of others, but whether he had one himself or not, he would be indifferent. Only the Wise man could discourse rightly on music and poetry, but in practice he would not compose poems. One wise man is not wiser than another. He will be ready to make money, but only when he is in straits and by means of his philosophy. He will pay court to a king, if occasion demands. He will rejoice at another’s misfortunes, but only for his correction. And he will gather together a school, but never so as to become a popular leader. He will give lectures in public, but never unless asked; he will give definite teaching and not profess doubt. In his sleep he will be as he is awake, and on occasion he will even die for a friend.
They hold that faults are not all of equal gravity, that health is a blessing to some, but indifferent to others, that courage does not come by nature, but by a calculation of advantage. That friendship too has practical needs as its motive: one must indeed lay its foundations (for we sow the ground too for the sake of crops), but it is formed and maintained by means of community of life among those who have reached the fullness of pleasure. They say also that there are two ideas of happiness, complete happiness, such as belongs to a god, which admits of no increase, and the happiness which is concerned with the addition and subtraction of pleasures. Now we must proceed to the letter.
In several works he rejects all kinds of prophecy, and specially in the Shorter Summary. He says, ‘Prophecy does not exist, and even if it did exist, things that come to pass must be counted nothing to us.’ So much for his theory of morals, which he has discussed more fully elsewhere.
Epicurus differs from the Cyrenaics about pleasure. For they do not admit static pleasure, but only that which consists in motion. But Epicurus admits both kinds both in the soul and in the body, as he says in the work on Choice and Avoidance and in the book on The Ends of Life and in the first book On Lives and in the letter to his friends in Mytilene. Similarly, Diogenes in the 17th book of Miscellanies and Metrodorus in the Timocrates speak thus: ‘Pleasure can be thought of both as consisting in motion and as static.’ And Epicurus in the work on Choice speaks as follows: ‘Freedom from trouble in the mind and from pain in the body are static pleasures, but Joy and exultation are considered as active pleasures involving motion. '
A further difference from the Cyrenaics: they thought that bodily pains were worse than those of the soul, and pointed out that offenses are visited by bodily punishment. But Epicurus held that the pains of the soul are worse, for the flesh is only troubled for the moment, but the soul for past, present, and future. In the same way the pleasures of the soul are greater. As proof that pleasure is the end, he points out that all living creatures as soon as they are born take delight in pleasure, but resist pain by a natural impulse apart from reason. Therefore we avoid pain by instinct, just as Heracles, when he is being devoured by the shirt of Nessus, cries aloud,
With tears and groans: the rocks re-echoed far
From Locris' mountain peaks, Euboea’s hills.
He says that virtue is preferred for the sake of pleasure, and not for its own sake, just as the doctor's art is employed for the sake of health. So Diogenes says too in the 20th book of Miscellanies, and he adds that education is a ‘way of life. ' Epicurus says also that virtue alone is inseparable from pleasure, but that other things may be separated, such as things to eat.
Come, then, let us put the crown, as it were, to the whole work and to the life of our philosopher, in setting out his Principal Doctrines, and closing the whole work with them, thus using as our conclusion the starting-point of happiness.