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Philosophical Connections

Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


EPICURUS

(341 — 270 B.C.)

 

HUMANISTIC MATERIALISM

Epicurus was born on the Greek island of Samos. He studied philosophy from an early age and from 310 taught in Mytiline and later in Lampsachus. In 306 he bought a garden in Athens, where he established his famous school and remained for the rest of his life engaged in philosophical discussion and research. He was a prolific writer, but only a few works have survived; and most of what we know of his philosophy we owe to On the Things of Nature by the Roman poet Lucretius.

 

KNOWLEDGE

[1] In his 'Canonic' (theory of knowledge) Epicurus said that external bodies, that is, collections of atoms, produce images (eidola) which pass into our sense organs (and thereby the 'soul atoms') to produce (1) clear representations or 'perceptions' (phantasiai) corresponding to those bodies. (What we today term 'secondary' qualities belong in reality to these composite perceptions, whereas 'primary' qualities such as shape and size are properties of atoms.); (2) complexes of images which do not correspond (as in illusions); and (3) memory images and 'preconceptions' (prolepseis), that is, general concepts which underlie our use of language and help us to discriminate between our sense-experiences. Sense-perception and hence concepts thus provide two criteria for the truth of our opinions. Knowledge is thereby grounded in the indisputability of immediate experience [a]. Empirical inspection enables us to verify whether our experiences do or do not correspond to external objects existing now or in the future; while in the case of unobservables, such as atoms, the test is that opinion must not conflict with experience. The feelings of pleasure or pain which accompany sense-experience constitute a third criterion and form the basis of our knowledge of what is good or bad [b]. (Epicurus generally accorded little importance to mathematics and science as such.)

 

PHILOSOPHY OF NATURE

[2] Epicurus says that the universe is made up of two ultimate and real entities: extended but not infinitely divisible atoms and the void [a] in which they are located. These atoms, which vary in size, shape, and weight, are in constant motion. He accounts for the origin of the world by his notion of a spontaneous or chance 'swerve' which resulted in collisions and rotary movements, and a multiplicity of worlds separated by empty spaces (metacosmia). In this way he supposed some degree of human freedom to have been preserved [b]. Even the gods, who live and enjoy themselves in the metacosmia, are made of atoms — though of the finest kind, but they have no creative powers. The world can therefore be explained entirely in terms of mechanical causes [c].

 

PSYCHOLOGY

[3] Like his body, man's soul, which may be understood as the principle of life if not with life itself, is made of material atoms [a] but they are round and smooth. The soul consists of an irrational part diffused throughout the body, and a rational soul [b] (or 'conscious reason') in his breast — as shown by his emotions. Epicurus rejects the idea of the soul's immortality [c]; at death the atoms separate and perception ceases.

 

ETHICSHEDONISM

[4] The end of life is pleasure. But by this Epicurus does not mean instant sensual gratification but a long-term absence of pain. This is to be found in tranquillity (ataraxia) or serenity of the soul and hence 'happiness' [a]. He is thinking here particularly of intellectual pleasures which can help us to endure the sufferings of the body. To realize this state a man must follow the path of virtue: he must be just, moderate, temperate, cheerful — the value of such qualities being judged by Epicurus solely in terms of the extent to which they enable the individual to achieve his end. But before acting he must choose intelligently. This requires practical wisdom, the highest virtue, which consists in the practice of 'right measure' (symmetresis) [b], the balancing of happiness against unhappiness. The closer men get to tranquillity the more at ease they find themselves with the world; and they can then enjoy the friendship of others without fear of distraction. Indeed Epicurus regards friendship as the most important means of achieving contentment.

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Rejecting both scepticism and Platonic idealism Epicurus looked for a secure foundation for his thought. However, despite his adoption of a physics derived from the Atomists and his commitment to an essentially empiricist view of knowledge, his theoretical philosophy was generally subordinated to his ethics — his quest being not for ephemeral sensual pleasure but for the intellectual and spiritual pleasures of the virtuous man which lead to serenity of the soul. "The wise man is happy even when being tortured on the rack." Clearly such a philosophy runs the risk of encouraging self-centredness: but it would seem that for Epicurus, while the cultivation of friendships and active participation in society might be motivated by considerations of one's own moral well-being, altruistic tendencies may well arise naturally in the context of one's relationships with others. Nevertheless the Epicurean philosopher must be to some extent calculating so as to know what balance should be struck in his day-to-day activities if the end of tranquil pleasure is to be realized.

 

READING

[Epicurus:] Lucretius, De rerum naturae (On the Things of Nature) — there are Penguin and Loeb Classical Library editions; Long and Sedley, op. cit., chs 4-25.

General

J. C. A. Gaskin, The Epicurean Philosophers.

Study

J. M. Rist, Epicurus: An Introduction.

 

CONNECTIONS

Epicurus

 

[1a] Perception theory and images; 'primary' and 'secondary' qualities (both 'real'); 'preconceptions', knowledge and truth

   Democritus

   Plato

   Pyrrho

   Chrysippus

Carneades

Cicero

Plutarch

Sextus

Augustine

Locke

   Kant

[2a 2b]

[6b 7b]

[1a]

[2a]

[1a]

[1c]

[2c]

[2a]

[1b]

[2a p]

[2c 3a]

 

[2a] Atoms and the void; atoms extended but not infinitely divisible

   Democritus

Cicero

Leibniz

   Berkeley

Hume

Holbach

[1a d]

[1a]

[2a 3a]

[4a]

[1i]

[1a]

 

[2b] Freedom and determinism; origin of cosmos

   Democritus

Carneades

   Chrysippus

Cicero

   Philo

Seneca

   Bacon (Francis)

Holbach

[1e CSa]

[2c]

[4a]

[1b]

[2c 1g]

[2a]

[1b]

[1b]

 

[2c] Explanation and mechanical causes

   Democritus

   Aristotle

   Bacon (Francis)

Locke

Leibniz

Holbach

[1b]

[6a sec. 9]

[1b]

[2g]

[4a]

[1a]

 

[3a b] The material soul

   Democritus

   Plato

Chrysippus

Cicero

Plutarch

Locke

Leibniz

Holbach

[2c]

[9a c]

[5a]

[1e]

[2b]

[2e]

[2e]

[1c]

 

[3c] No immortality

   Democritus

   Plato

Chrysippus

Cicero

Plutarch

Locke

Leibniz

Holbach

[2b]

[9b sec. 10]

[5b]

[1e]

[2b]

[2e]

[2f]

[1c]

 

Ethics
[1b]

Feelings of pleasure and pain basis for knowledge of good and bad

   Plato

   Pyrrho

Chrysippus

Plutarch

   Hobbes

Locke

Mill

[1c 8b]

[2a]

[6a]

[3b]

[7a]

[3b]

[3b]

 

[4a] (Moderate) pleasure as end; tranquillity ( ataraxia) and happiness as ultimate good

   Socrates

   Democritus

   Plato

   Aristotle

   Pyrrho

Chrysippus

Carneades

Cicero

Plutarch

   Sextus

Holbach

Kant

Mill

[2c]

[3a 3b]

[11f g]

[18c]

[2b]

[6c]

[3a]

[2b]

[2b]

[2d e]

[2a]

[6a 8a]

[3f]

 

[4b] Virtue, practical wisdom and 'right measure'

   Plato

   Aristotle

Cicero

   Plutarch

[11b c g]

[19b]

[2d]

[3a]