1 Introduction to Epicurean Philosophy
Welcome to the first session of this Introduction to Epicurean Philosophy. We are going to begin by explaining some of the most important conclusions that Epicurus taught to his students, so that as we go forward with the history and details of the Epicurean School, you will more easily see how those details fit into the big picture.
Let’s start out by briefly noting that most of the works of Epicurus in the ancient world have not survived to us today. Almost all of the material we are going to discuss in this course is easily available on the internet from one of these three major sources:
Book Ten of the Lives and Doctrines of the Major Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius. This book contains most of what we know about the life of Epicurus, his three basic letters about his philosophy, and a list of his major doctrines. This is the primary source of information about Epicurus, and it is easy for you to find a copy and read it yourself in English. Tackling this without a background to give you the big picture can be very difficult, however, and one purpose of this course is to show you the forest before examining the many trees that you will find in Diogenes Laertius.
The Poem De Rerum Natura by Lucretius. Epicurus wrote a long book entitled “On Nature” which is now lost to the modern world. In about 50 BC, however, a Roman by the name of Titus Lucretius Carus took “On Nature” and rewrote much of its material into the form of a poem. This poem contains extensive information about Epicurean Physics and other aspects of the philosophy, but like Diogenes Laertius, it is very dense with details and allusions to Greek and Roman history and religion, and it is very difficult to get a lot out of reading the poem before you have a general understanding of the topics you will encounter.
The Works of Cicero, including “On Ends” and “On the Nature of the Gods.” These work contain a great deal of information about Epicurean ethics and views of divinity, but a major concern in reading Cicero is that he was a strong enemy of Epicurus. Cicero sought to make Epicurus look bad, and argued strongly against Epicurean philosophy, so you must frequently read between the lines to understand how the Epicureans themselves thought, as opposed to how the enemies of Epicurus tried to portray them.
Other fragments of Epicurean works remain, especially works by Philodemus, a later Epicurean, but these are generally in fragmentary form and must be read with great care. Likewise, much of a remarkable Epicurean inscription in a stone wall in Turkey has survived the centuries, but this too is fragmentary.
After you have attended this course you will be in a much better position to approach the original texts and understand how they fit into the big picture of Epicurean philosophy.
And so we will begin with an outline of the major points taught by Epicurus.
A Fundamental Outline of Key Conclusions of Epicurean Philosophy:
The Universe Operates on Natural Principles And There Are No Supernatural Gods
- Gods Are Never Observed to Create Something From Nothing Or Destroy Anything to Nothing
- True Gods Would Be Self-Sufficient And Would Not Meddle In the Affairs Of Men
- The Universe Operates Through Natural Processes, and Life Exists on Other Worlds Throughout the Universe
- The Universe As A Whole Is Eternal And Was Never Created From Nothing
- The Universe Is Infinite In Size And There Are No “Gods” Outside Of it
There Is No Life After Death
- All Things In The Universe Which Come Together Eventually Break Apart
- The Soul Is Born With The Body And Cannot Survive Without It
- Death Is The End of All Sensation, And There Is No Consciousness Without Sensation
- There Is After Death No Heaven or Hell For Reward or Punishment
- Life Is Short And Therefore Our Time Is Too Precious To Waste
The Guide of Life is Pleasure
- Pleasure, Along With Pain, Is A Feeling, One Of The Three Standards Of Truth
- Pleasure and Pain Include All Types of Physical And Mental Experiences
- The Mental Pleasures And Pains Are Frequently More Intense Than The Physical
- Feelings Of Pleasure Are Desirable And Serve As The Guide of Life
- Pain Is To Be Avoided But Is Accepted For The Sake of Greater Pleasure Or Lesser Pain
The Goal of Life Is Happiness
- Happiness Is a Life In Which Pleasure Predominates Over Pain
- If We Have Happiness We Have All We Need; If We Lack Happiness We Do Everything To Gain It
- There Is No Absolute Virtue, Piety, Reason, Or Justice To Serve As the Goal of Life
- Virtue, Piety, Reason and Justice Are Valuable Only Insofar As They Bring Happiness
- All Actions Are To Be Judged According To Whether They Bring Happiness
The Standards of Truth Are the Senses, The Anticipations, and the Feelings, Assisted By Reason
- He Who Argues That Nothing Can Be Known Contradicts His Own Argument
- Reasoning Is Based On The Senses And Is Not Valid Without Them
- The Sensations Are Without Reason, Incapable of Memory, And Do Not Inject Error Through Opinion
- The Reality Of Separate Sensations Is the Guarantee of The Truth Of Our Senses
- Not Only Reason, But Life Itself, Fails Unless We Have the Courage To Trust The Senses