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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for Letter to Herodotus by Epicurus

Relates to: 

  Diogenes Laërtius by Edward Brewster, 1688. (Wikimedia Commons)  The only surviving complete works by Epicurus are three letters, all contained in Diogenes Laërtius’ 3rd century biographical work, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Diogenes Laërtius by Edward Brewster, 1688. (Wikimedia Commons) The only surviving complete works by Epicurus are three letters, all contained in Diogenes Laërtius’ 3rd century biographical work, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Epicurus’ teaching rejects Platonic Forms; it claims, for instance, that justice is nothing other than a mutual agreement, a contract between citizens neither to harm nor to be harmed. It rejects Aristotle’s teleological view of the kosmos. According to Epicurean cosmology, no Prime Mover nor a teleology governing the movement of matter: rather, the universe is nothing but atoms and void, and all objects and matter in the world can be explained by the collision of atoms.

Although Epicurus was said to believe in the existence of the gods, he was known as an atheist, for he claimed that it was a mistake to think that the gods were interested and involved themselves in human affairs. Only the gods are immortal, says Epicurus, but we are not. Pace Socrates and Plato, even the soul is not immortal: when one dies, one’s soul disintegrates into the individual atoms that composed it—and that is all: the gods care not.

Given a firm belief in the finality of death, the god’s disinterestedness in human affairs, the finiteness of life, and the absence of a governing principle in the kosmos—it is here that Epicurean ethics gets its grip. The good, says Epicurus, is pleasure—a thesis that was explicitly rejected by Socrates and Plato before him—and pain is evil. But is it not unlimited pleasure at particular moments that one ought to seek to attain a happy life; rather, what is desired is the obtainment of pleasure and the absence of pain, fear, and perturbation in the long term, the state of being Epicurus calls ataraxia. The happy life for Epicurus is to place oneself in an ataraxic state in which one is free to pursue pleasures while minimizing pain. Epicurus is emphatic that friendship figures into the happy life as one of the chief goods.

 

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