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The Core Curriculum

Epicurus

341 BCE – 270 BCE

Epicurus. Roman copy of a Greek original, circa late 3rd Century. (Wikimedia Commons)Epicurus. Roman copy of a Greek original, circa late 3rd Century. (Wikimedia Commons) Epicurus was born in 341 BCE on the island of Samos to Athenian parents. Epicurus says that he began to study philosophy at the age of fourteen. In a discussion with his school teachers about Hesiod, the ancient Greek poet, Epicurus asked about the origins of Chaos which his teachers were unable to answer. They replied that that was a question for philosophers.

Diogenes Laertius writes in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers—the most important source for Epicurus’ life and writings—that when Epicurus was eighteen he moved to Athens to fulfill his military duty in 323 BCE, at which time Xenocrates was the head of the Academy (founded by Plato), whose lectures he may have attended, and Aristotle was in Chalcis (where he remained until his death in 322 BCE). Before Epicurus finished his military service in Athens, Alexander the Great, student of Aristotle, died in the same year, precipitating the exile of Athenians from Samos by Perdiccas. Diogenes reports that Epicurus then joined his exiled father in Colophon (Turkey) and spent several years there. It is there that he studied under Nausiphanes, who was a disciple of Democritus, a presocratic philosopher known as the “laughing philosopher”, who held that the kosmos comprised only atoms and void. It is believed that Epicurus derived many of his doctrines from Democritus, even the hedonistic element in Epicurus’ teaching; according to one major source, Epicurus claimed that he was “self-taught” and denied that he was influenced by Democritus.

Diogenes writes that when Epicurus was thirty-two he founded a school while in exile. Epicurus finally returned to Athens during the archonship of Anaxicrates in 307 – 306 BCE., where he founded his last school. which bears his name, though it was commonly called the “the Garden” since the school met at the garden of his residence. Epicurus’ school differed from the rival and dominant schools at the time—namely Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum—in admitting women and even Epicurus’ slave, which was considered a scandal. Around 301 BCE the Epicurean school’s greatest and liveliest rival, the Stoa, would enter the Athenian scene. Epicurus remained in Athens, teaching and writing, until his death in 270 BCE.

Diogenes reports that Epicurus was a prolific writer, though few of his writings have survived. Diogenes’ biography of Epicurus is our most important source for his thought: Diogenes preserved three letters and the “principle doctrines”, a summary of Epicurean thoughts that were composed to be easily memorized. The so-called “Vatican Sayings” compile a set of short philosophical claims by Epicurus and his followers. Roman Epicurean Lucretius’ epic poem On the Nature of Things provides the second most important source for Epicurean thought.

Of the popularity of Epicurus’ philosophy, Diogenes writes:

"There is abundant evidence of the fellow’s kindness to all men: his country honoured him with bronze statues; his friends were so numerous that they could not be counted by entire cities; all his followers were transfixed by the siren-song of his teachings[; …] and his gratitude to his parents, kindness to his brothers, and gentleness to his servants, as is clear both from his provisions of his will [.…] His piety to the gods and love for his country were too great for words. So gentlemanly was he that he did not even participate in political life."

Or, as Diogenes also says, “In a word, he was a friend to all mankind.”

 

Written by Yoshi Nakazawa, Program in Philosophy and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University


Works Consulted: 

Konstan, David, “Epicurus,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epicurus/

Laertius, Diogenes, trans. Hicks, R. D., Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Harvard University Press: London, 1972

Epicurus, trans. Inwood, Brad and Gerson, L. P., intro. Hutchinson, D. S., The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia, Hackett Publishing: Indianapolis, 1994