Elemental Epicureanism

BookCover[For the new web site dedicated to this project click here.]  Previously included as an Appendix to the ebook version of Frances Wright’s “A Few Days In Athens” is an outline entitled “Elemental Epicureanism.”  This is intended to be a more extended version of the exercise Thomas Jefferson undertook in his brief outline in his letter to William Short.  Most of this material  consists of paraphrases of selections from the texts of Diogenes Laertius, the letters of Epicurus, Lucretius, and Cicero,  brought together into outline form.  Readers familiar with Lucretius will immediately recognize the opening sections are taken largely from the argument in De Rerum Natura.  I have simply taken Lucretius’ material and removed many of the detailed allusions which were clear to ancient Romans but foreign to us.  The result is a progression that should be much more approachable for the reader who is new to the subject.

I am working on re-writing the outline, adding footnotes to document the sources in the texts that support each point, and converting to ebook form.  However, for the present, here is a copy of the current draft.  Comments are always welcome by email or on the NewEpicurean facebook page.

Elemental Epicureanism

The following is a “restatement” of general principles of Epicurean doctrine, presented in a form such as an ancient Epicurean might relate if transported to the present day.  All raw material for this restatement has been taken directly from the biography of Epicurus by Diogenes Laertius, from Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, and from Cicero’s On Ends.  

1 Introduction

2 Canonics – How We Know What We Hold To Be True

3 Physics – What We Hold To Be True About The Universe

4 Ethics – What We Hold To Be True About How Man Should Live

5 Forty Principle Doctrines Which Are The Foundation Of Happy Living

6 Answers to Common Criticisms of Epicureanism (from Cicero)



Look around you and you will see, with your own eyes, that human life has long lay crushed under the weight of false religions and philosophies.  What you are about to read is the wisdom left to us by Epicurus, a wise man of ancient Greece, who was the first who dared to stand up against this oppression.  Epicurus’ mind was strong, and he could not be held back by false legends about the gods or false philosophies about the universe. These falsehoods, rather than discourage him, only spurred him on to burst through the gates that had been erected across the road of Nature’s truths.  By force of spirit, Epicurus overcame these obstacles – he traversed the universe with his mind, and returned to us as a conqueror.  He then showed us the principles which he had discovered – the laws of Nature – which alone determine what can and cannot be. 

By means of the wisdom Epicurus left to us, we now have the power to throw down the false religions and philosophies which oppress us, and by learning from Epicurus’ victory we can learn to lift ourselves to the stars.

It is to be expected that you come to the study of Epicurus confused and frightened by the oppressive tales of false priests and philosophers.  How many illusions these men have presented to you as real!  How much they have tried to convince you to accept some false guide, and how diligently they have urged you to give up all hope of happiness!

These false priests and philosophers have woven their lies for a reason:  they seek to prevent you from finding out that Nature has laid out a straightforward path to happiness, and that she has set definite limits to pain and to suffering.  They seek to hide these truths because, once you see and embrace them, you are then armed with the courage and the power to resist their oppression.

But so long as they succeed in destroying your confidence in the faculties of sensation that Nature has provided to you – so long as they can continue to blind you to the true principles of Nature – they have you in their power, and you have no means to resist their false ideas.  Confused as you are by their false arguments, you go on fearing punishment and hoping for reward after death; you go on relying on their false promises about a heaven and a hell that do not exist; you give up all hope of happiness in the one world that does exist.

Do not blame yourself too harshly for your confusion.  At birth, no man knows whether he has a soul, and if he has one, he does not know whether the soul was born with the body, or whether it existed beforehand.  No man knows at birth whether his soul perishes when his body dies, or whether his soul lives on after death, to be rewarded in Heaven or punished in Hell.  No, you are not born with this or any other knowledge, and after you have wasted much of your youth in the hands of false preachers and false philosophers, your confusion has no doubt grown even deeper.

Confusion on issues as deep as these can only be resolved through the study of Nature.  This study requires us to chase from our minds the illusions of false religion and false philosophy which are accepted and held to be true by the majority of men.  These false ideas constitute a darkness in which terrors and uncertainty multiply.  For the work of dispelling this darkness, neither “reason” alone nor rays of sunlight are sufficient.  No, neither reason nor sunlight can banish false fears, conquer oppression, or chase away anxieties.  These are victories which can be won only by following a path in which you constantly seek out and follow the guidance of Nature.

Epicurus showed us that we can follow the path of happy living only after we have mastered three separate strengths, each of which must be mastered in turn. 

The first strength is that of trusting the faculties of sense that Nature has given to us.  We must come to understand that these faculties include not only the senses of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling, but also the sense of pain and pleasure, and the sense of anticipations.  We must learn that it is not evil to follow the guidance of pleasure, and that it is not wrong to trust our anticipations.  We must have confidence in all these faculties, for only in using them properly can we find truth.  We must learn how we know what we hold to be true.  This is the study of “Canonics.”

The second strength is that of seeking out and discovering the nature of the universe by applying the rules of Canonics.  We must learn for ourselves that the elements of the universe are eternal; that the elements were not created by any god and are not under the power of any god; that the numberless elements move ceaselessly through boundless void, but that even while moving the elements remain true to themselves, and that through these unchanging elements Nature has set limits and boundaries for all things.  We must learn what we hold to be true about the universe.  This is the study of “Physics.”

The third strength is that of living our lives according to the lessons learned in Canonics and Physics.  We must see for ourselves that, in an eternal and boundless universe, our lives are short and that we must treasure each moment.  We must see that even though our souls die with our bodies, it is an illusion to believe that we need unlimited time in order to live a complete life.  We must see that completeness has a beginning and a path and end, and that, if we follow that path by the light of the laws of Nature, we can live a life that is not only complete, but worthy of the blessedness men attribute to the immortal gods.  We must see that we cannot choose our path based on standards that have no reality, and that words such as “virtue” and “evil,” and “good” and “bad,” and especially “the will of god” have no meaning at all.  We must see that these words are useless and empty unless we redefine them to assign a meaning based on the guidance of the pleasure and pain which Nature makes real to us.  We must learn how men should live.  This is the study of “Ethics.”

There is no shortcut along this path; every step must be taken with confidence earned from the strength gained through earlier steps.  Effort and ability are required, and those who refuse to make the effort, or are not capable of sustaining it, will not achieve a happy life.  But the good news is that we have every reason to be grateful to Nature, for she has made life itself an experience of the greatest happiness.  If we but work to understand her, we will see that Nature has made happy living readily achievable and unbearable pain readily avoidable. 

The system of Epicurus will equip you with a nose like a hunting dog, able to sniff out the truth no matter how deeply it might be hidden by false religions and false philosophies.  The Epicurean way is the way of escape from darkness, and by pursuing this path – by developing your strength in each of these areas – you will find that each new discovery illuminates the path to the next.


Canonics – How We Know What We Hold To Be True

False religions and philosophies tell us that our senses cannot be trusted.  They tell us we are too readily tricked by illusions to trust our senses.  You must come to see why this argument is wrong.  Illusions, such as sticks which appear bent when placed in water, occur because we deceive ourselves.  We falsely reason to conclusions that we will see to be false once we  seek out additional evidence, such as by lifting the stick from the water. 

The senses do not evaluate the evidence they provide to us.  Error does not arise in the senses, but in our minds, and occurs when we jump to hasty conclusions that the evidence does not truly support –  when we fool ourselves into believing that we have seen things that in fact we have not seen.  This is a task that is harder than most any other, but it is essential that we work to keep separate in our minds those matters that are true from those that are false and those that are doubtful.

Some men go so far as to argue that nothing can be known.  These men are fools, and we should not just dismiss them as harmless, we should hold them in contempt.  Why?  These men admit that they know nothing, so they cannot possibly know whether their own argument is true or false.  And they cannot possibly in good faith expect us to accept what they say, when they know nothing.  These arguments are contemptible, and such men are in effect “placing their head where their feet should be.” It is as if, in attempting to determine whether a tower observed at a distance was round or square, they sought to “reason” an answer, rather using their feet to walk over to the tower to find out at close range. 

This error will confront you in many variations, so be prepared for it:  “reasoning” without evidence, or against evidence, is speculation – it is the sure path to error.  The proper way to deal with men who do not accept the evidence of the senses as the highest proof possible is to decline to argue with them, and to pass them by altogether.  In their blindness, such men will never accept what you say, even those things that you might point out are directly in front of them.  This is our starting point:  unless we trust the senses, and accept the truth of those things directly before us that our senses report clearly, it is impossible for us to obtain truth.  Not by reasoning or by any other method can we find out the truth about matters that are remote and difficult, unless we first hold firmly to the truth of those things directly in front of us.

We must also ask men who argue against the senses this question: Since you have never yet seen any truth in things, how do you know what “knowing” and “not knowing” are?  How have you determined that there is a difference between the true and the false, between the doubtful and the certain? Those who argue against the senses have no answer to this, because it is from the senses that comes all knowledge of the true.  That which has been proved to be true through the senses cannot be refuted by “reason” alone.

Those who argue that the senses are unreliable, but yet claim they have the ability to distinguish true from false, must be able to prove their assertion through some evidence that is more persuasive.  They must point to some evidence that possesses a higher certainty than the senses.  But what faculty is more persuasive, what has a higher certainty, than the senses?  You will often hear argument that “logic” or “reason” or “revelation” are higher than the senses.  But can logic, reasoning, or revelation which are not grounded in evidence that can be verified by the senses contradict a matter which is established by senses? No!  Reasoning can only be considered true when it is grounded in verifiable evidence obtained through the senses.  If the senses could not be trusted to establish the truth of any matter, then even more urgently we must see that reasoning based on speculation that has no supporting evidence from the senses cannot be trusted. 

Reason itself is not a faculty; it is not a sense that has its own direct connection to reality; it cannot be relied on to report truth without error, as can the senses Nature has given us.  Only the accurate correspondence of words with real things enables us to advance with certainty in our studies, and reason alone, without supporting sensations, can never provide a faithful correspondence.

At times you may experience sensations that appear to contradict each other, and which you are unable to explain.  For example, you may not understand at first why a tower seen at a distance appears round, but close up appears square.  Rather than conclude that your lack of understanding is reason to doubt your senses, simply affirm to yourself that, at least for the moment, you do not know the reason for the discrepancy.  At any time you are not able to explain a difference between sensations, the proper course is to wait before you judge and to seek out more evidence before you reach a conclusion.  You must never accept an explanation that rejects one of your sensations as false.  You must never accept an explanation that has no evidence to support it.  You must never allow yourself to doubt the reliability of the sensations themselves.  The senses report to you exactly what they observe – it is only your mind which can err by drawing improper conclusions.

The moment you fall for the mistake of doubting your senses, you have set the stage to let slip from your grasp everything which you already know to be true.  This is fatal, for if you come to doubt the reliability of your senses, you will soon doubt all the conclusions you have made in your life, as all those conclusions rest on your senses.  Unless you drive out this error from your mind, the foundation of everything on which your life and your existence depend will be shattered.  You will lose more than just your hope of reasoning accurately.  You will place your very life in jeopardy, for were you to truly give up confidence in your senses, you would have no means to see and avoid those cliffs of life, both literal and figurative, that must at all costs be avoided.  All the arguments arrayed against the senses are quite without meaning, but the issue involved is critical – you will confront it in all false religions and philosophies; you must understand it; you must be prepared to defeat it!

Because your senses are your only tools for measuring the truth, consider what would happen if you constructed a house with a crooked ruler – if your square edge were bent and swerved from a straight line – if your level was bent.  Without accurate tools to provide reliable measurements, your house would surely be crooked, with walls leaning in all directions, and without strength or symmetry.  Such a building would be fatally flawed – ruined by the erroneous measurements and decisions on which it was built.  In the very same way, false philosophies and religions will tell you that their conclusions are based on their “reason,” on “logic,” and on “revelation,” but because they are instead built on falsehood rather than verifiable evidence from the senses, you can be sure that they are instead distorted and false.

Nature endows men with only three faculties of sensation by which to gain evidence about the universe, and “reason” is not among them.  The three faculties of sensation given by Nature are: (1) the “five senses,” (2) the “passions,” and (3) the “anticipations.”  These three categories may be considered as the three legs of a stool or a tripod.  The first leg of this stool, which we commonly refer to as “the five senses,” is comprised of the senses of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.  The second leg, the “passions,” are what we commonly refer to as the sense of pleasure and pain.  The third leg, referred to as “anticipations” or “preconceptions,” is less familiar to us today, but is also a sense.  The sense of anticipations is a faculty with which men are born, which develops with age, and which allows us to recognize abstract relationships that could not otherwise be recognized.  Anticipations in men are analogous to instincts in animals.  Anticipations are not innate “ideas,” for just as no kitten is born with the innate knowledge of a mouse, no man is born with innate knowledge of a law court.  But kittens grow into cats which recognize certain patterns of behavior as desirable, and children grow into men with the ability to perceive abstract relationships such as justice and friendship.  Without the faculty of anticipations, men would be unable to recognize these relationships at all, and – failing to recognize them – men would be unable to judge whether instances of these relationships are pleasing or painful.

These three faculties are neither capable of reasoning nor of receiving impressions from memory.  They do not themselves initiate any sensation on their own, and when they receive an impression from an external cause, they neither add to nor subtract from it.  They are out of the reach of any control from one another, for one impression cannot judge another impression.  It is in this way and for this reason that we hold that all sensations have equal value.  Nor can one faculty judge another faculty, since the capacities of each faculty are not the same. 

In other words, one impression cannot be judged to overrule another, since the effects of all impressions influence us equally.  Here again we see that there is no separate faculty of “reason” that can independently pronounce judgment on a particular sensation.  True reasoning is a process of forming conclusions based on opinions based on multiple sensations, and only based on other sensations can reasoning judge between alternative opinions.  Even then, all sensations have been reported faithfully – it is the conclusion that is adjusted, not the sensation. 

And in this process we must remember that the impressions of pain and pleasure, and the impressions from the anticipations, are just as real, and just as evident, as impressions of sight or hearing.  All conclusions in which we may have confidence must be grounded in sensations received by any or all of our faculties, and it is only false philosophers who fail to acknowledge, and give proper weight, to sensations of pain and pleasure and sensations received through the anticipations.

We should prepare ourselves to encounter two situations frequently:  (1) those situations where the evidence is direct and clear, and thus so evident that we grasp the truth of a matter immediately, and (2) those situations where the evidence is distorted,  indirect, or otherwise unclear.  In this latter situation, we must wait before we form a conclusion as to the truth of a matter.  We must suspend judgment and seek truth through a process of “true reason,” by comparing – through analogy, proportion, or combination – new evidence that is not yet clear, and the tentative opinions that arise from them, against old evidence that has been established with clarity, and the certain conclusions we have reached previously based on that evidence.

It is by the process of evaluating the evidence of the senses that the mind forms conceptions of those things which are true.  These conceptions are then applied to the evaluation of new matters.  For example, the mind forms the conception of the idea of a “man” as being of such and such a nature.  At the same moment that we consider the word “man,” we conceive the mental figure of a man because of the preceding operations of our senses. In fact, we could not judge the truth of any matter if we had not previously observed some example of that matter.  In order for us to affirm that which we see at a distance is a horse or an ox, we must have a prior conception in our minds of the form of a horse and an ox.  We could not even give names to things if we had not previously experienced some example of what the thing is.  Thus our ability to be certain in reaching a new judgment depends on our ability to refer each new question to some previous judgment that we have found to be true.  Confidence in our certainty of the prior judgment is the necessary foundation for affirming that a new judgment is true.

True reasoning requires that we firmly separate in our minds whether a matter is “true” or “false” or only an “opinion” or “supposition.”  Matters of opinion or supposition must be clearly deemed to be neither true nor false, but only possible, until such time as sufficient evidence has been accumulated to reach a firm judgment.  Those opinions which we find to be supported by sufficient evidence, and which are not contradicted by other evidence, are to be judged as true. Those opinions which are not supported by any evidence, and are in fact contradicted by evidence, are to be judged to be false.  We must never consider opinions which are merely speculative to be entitled to equal weight in our minds as those opinions which are true, for if we do all our thoughts will be thrown into confusion.

As we will learn in physics, all that exists is matter constantly moving through void.  We must therefore prepare our minds to accept that the forms and combinations of the elements are constantly changing.  Yet even while movement and recombination of the elements occurs on and on without end, the nature of the elements themselves remains constant.  Because the elements are eternal and unchanging, they possess unchanging qualities which provide limits and boundaries in the manner in which they move and combine.  It is within the capacity of man’s senses – it is a requirement of man’s life – that we make judgments about the truth of particular matters at particular times and places. 

Although there is no mystical trigger that allows us to reason to conclusions that will apply at all times and all places, there are principles of Nature (twelve of which are listed in the following section on Physics) that can be counted on as always true, and which provide a basis for seeking out truth in particular contexts.  To hold that mystical concepts of virtue exist, and that these apply at all times and all places is the profound error of Platonic rationalism and idealism.  The opposite mistake – the conclusion that the movement of the atoms prevents us from determining anything at all to be true – is the error of skepticism, and likewise of those who hold that “the only thing I know is that I know nothing.”  The truth is that Life itself requires us to judge constantly to separate the true from the false and from the uncertain.

Our task is thus to consider the evidence available to us, and reach conclusions that embrace the essential concepts of the matter under consideration.  We must grasp the essential concepts of a matter before we can perceive the whole of that matter, and before we can then understand how the particular aspects of the matter relate to the whole.  In order for our judgment to be considered true, we must embrace in our mind a synthesis of the whole which accurately comprises within it the entire scope of that matter.  Such a synthesis must encompass in a few words all the particular facts which have been established by the senses. 

The process we are describing is essentially the same as “outlining” a matter as a means of assisting us in grasping its truth.  Each essential concept should be formed into a concise statement, on which we then build a synthesis of all that we have succeeded in grasping.  This method of observing Nature, by grasping essentials and then outlining the essentials so as to grasp the whole firmly, is a method that we should practice and pursue throughout our lives.  It is this method of searching for truth which contributes more than anything else to the peacefulness and happiness of life.

As we pursue our outlines of understanding, we must first determine with exactness the meaning of – the concept which is comprehended under – each word that we employ.  Each step along the way, we must be able to refer back to each concept as a certain standard on which to build further.  It is to these conceptions, which we must build for ourselves, to which we must refer back as we examine each new matter and question – otherwise our judgments will have no foundation.  Unless we build our understanding on firm concepts which we have clearly grasped, with each new concept built in turn on earlier firmly-grasped concepts, we gain nothing but mere words.  It is thus absolutely necessary that we perceive directly and without reliance on anyone else the fundamental concept which each word expresses.  This personal grasp is necessary if we wish to have any foundation on which we can verify our researches and judgments about the nature of things.

In order to judge that our perceptions are clear, we must observe carefully the impressions which we receive when we are in the closest presence of the matter under consideration.  Those perceptions, which are obtained when the matter is grasped at close range and in greatest clarity, must be used as a standard to identify that point in any examination where we must reserve further judgment about to the truth of a matter.  It is at this point – the point where we identify our perceptions as being insufficient or imprecise enough to form a clear judgment – that we must acknowledge that we do not have a clear determination of the matter.  Only if we first lay a proper foundation, by grasping those things which are within our range of clear perception, are we ready to pass on to the study of those things about which the evidence is not clear.

As we proceed we must keep in mind the possibility of error and false judgment.  Error arises when we suppose that a preconceived idea will be confirmed (or will not be overturned) by additional evidence as we receive it.  In those cases where additional evidence does not confirm our supposition, we can look back and see that we have formed that supposition by connecting the evidence to a prior conception without sufficient information to do so.  The point to remember is that the perceptions themselves did not deceive us, for the impressions we receive through our faculties are reflected from the matters under observation as if by a mirror.  But the impressions we receive cannot be deemed to be real and true to the object we are observing unless we are examining those objects directly.  When we err, it is because we do not properly recognize that our intelligence has connected these impressions with conceptions that go beyond what we have directly observed.  It is not the senses that have failed, but our reasoning, and this is why we can never hold to be certain a theory of reasoning beyond that which the evidence supports.

We must carefully maintain these Canonical principles in our minds at all times so that we will never be tempted to reject the authority of our faculties.  These faculties – given us by Nature – are our only means of discovering truth and living happily.


Physics – What We Hold To Be True About The Universe

Epicurus summarized for us the principles that we hold to be true about the universe in his letter to Herodotus and his letter to Pythocles.

In these letters he reminded us to outline the fundamentals in our minds so that, as we advance toward more difficult subjects, we may constantly refer to the foundational points.  It is impossible to move forward in our understanding of the whole unless we can embrace in our minds short outlines of the larger rules that explain the smaller details.

Likewise, we must be sure we understand what each word denotes. It is only by reference to words that we are able to determine answers to new inquiries or problems.  If we do not understand the meaning of our fundamental words, our proofs will run on untested ad infinitum with words that are empty of meaning.  The primary signification of what each word means must be grasped so clearly that no additional proof of that word is required.  Only then can we move forward to define the meaning of new words by reference to those we already understand.

Next, we must always remain true to the impressions we obtain by our three categories of faculties. Only in this way can we can we keep sight of the means of determining the difference between that which we may hold to be true and that which is obscure and needs further confirmation.

Once our Canonical foundation is clearly understood, it is time to consider those things in Nature which are obscure to us.  But a note of caution is in order:  we do not seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge itself.  Our pursuit of knowledge about Nature has no other end in view than peace of mind and firmness of mental conviction. We cannot seek to wrestle ourselves by force into an understanding of those things which are impossible to grasp, and some things are indeed impossible to grasp because we are unable to gather sufficient evidence.

Nor should we seek to understand all matters equally well. Our study of certain aspects of Physics, such as astronomy, is greatly limited by our lack of evidence.  We therefore must not think that we will be able to understand as much about the stars, which are beyond our ability to learn about except through appearances, as we are able to know about human nature, which is directly before us here on Earth.  As to matters that we can examine closely, we frequently have sufficient evidence by which to determine that only one explanation of a phenomena is possible.  In matters such as astronomy, however, any number of causes of phenomena may be consistent with the limited evidence available to us.  None of those possible causes can be eliminated unless they conflict with evidence that we can determine to be clear.

In the study of Nature we must not conform to empty assumptions and arbitrary rules – we must follow the facts wherever they lead.  Our lives have no need of unreason and false opinion –  our one need in life is an untroubled existence.  We can obtain  uninterrupted happiness and tranquility if we condition ourselves to understand that several possible causes of phenomena in nature will frequently be consistent with the evidence available to us.  In the cases where evidence is insufficient to choose between those causes, we must keep in mind that one or more causes are equally possible.  But the error to which we are frequently tempted, and which we must firmly avoid, is that of picking and choosing among possibilities that evidence supports equally.  We must never arbitrarily reject one theory which is equally consistent with the what we can observe in favor of another theory, no matter why we are tempted to embrace it, unless we have sufficient evidence.  If we allow ourselves to fall into this error, we fall not merely into mistake, we fall completely away from the study of nature — for our thought process has tumbled headlong into myth and fantasy and away from science.

Epicurus identified many general principles of Nature which endure as true to this day.  In areas where his explanation has not endured, such as the size of the Sun, he himself stated that insufficient evidence required him to keep an open mind that the opinion he preferred was incorrect, and that some other possibility could be true.  The details of many ancient observations are not of great relevance to us today, but Epicurus’ fundamental process, and many of his conclusions, remain valid.  The most important of these physical observations are as follows:

To begin with, nothing comes into being out of what is non-existent.  We know this to be true because we observe this to be the case, and we also observe that if this were not so, any thing could have arise out of anything, and again our experience is that this is not so.

Next, if any thing which exists could totally disappear and become non-existent, in the infinity of time everything would long ago have perished and dissolved into the non-existent. But again we see that this is not so, as we do see that many things exist even today.

Because we see that nothing comes from nothing, and nothing goes to nothing, we conclude that the universe as a whole — the sum total of things — has always existed and will always exist.  The universe is the sum total of all that exists; there is nothing “outside” the universe into which the universe can change.  Since there is nothing outside the universe, there is nothing “else” that can come into the universe and bring about change. By this we conclude that the universe as a whole has always existed.  The universe was not “created” at a fixed point in time by any god or by any other force or anything “outside” or “above” itself.

Just as there is nothing “outside” the universe, the universe itself is composed of things that exist (“matter” or “atoms” or “elements”) and the empty space between those things that exist (“void”).  When Epicurus spoke of “elements” or “atoms” or “matter,” he was not speaking according to modern scientific definitions.  He was simply stating that at some fundamental level, basic building-blocks exist, and that these building-blocks are separated from each other by empty space. 

We know that elements exist because existence of bodies is everywhere attested by our senses.  As we have learned in our Canonics, it is upon sensation that reason must rely when it attempts to infer the unknown from the known.  Further, we know that space or void exists, because if did not exist the elements would have nothing in which to be, and through which to move, as we plainly see that they do move.  Beyond things that exist and the space that separates those things, there is no evidence to postulate that anything else exists.

We hold that Universe is infinite in size, for that which is finite in size has an edge, or an extreme point, and the edge or extreme point of anything can exist only in comparison with something else next to it.  This means that both the number of the elements and the extent of the void is both infinite.  We know this not by divine revelation nor from having traveled the universe, but by deduction.  If the void were infinite and elements finite, the elements would not have stayed anywhere together, but would have been dispersed in their course through the infinite void.  If the void were finite, the infinity of elements would not have anywhere to be.

Even though the Universe is boundless in size, and the number of elements is infinite, there is not an infinite number of types of elements in the Universe.  We know this because the variety of shapes of elements, though indefinitely large, is not absolutely infinite – none are so large that we can see them with our unaided eyes.

The atoms or elements themselves are in continual motion through all eternity.  This is because each atom is separated from the rest by void, which is incapable of offering any resistance to movement, and there is no place for any or all atoms to come to rest for an eternity.

Moreover, an infinite number of worlds exist, some like this world, others unlike it, and on some of which reside other races of animals and men.  We must not suppose that all worlds have necessarily the same appearance as ours, and we do not have the evidence to determine whether the same those worlds have the same seeds out of which animals and plants and all the rest arise here on Earth.  The seeds could be similar, or they could be different.

Before we turn to a discussion of the human soul, we should remember that the possibility of falsehood and error always occurs when we allow opinion to intrude where a fact has not yet been confirmed.  In other words, error arises when we allow our minds to rush to judgment where the evidence to support the conclusion is insufficient. Only direct observation by multiple sensations is sufficient to establish truth, and in the matter of the nature of the soul the question is particularly difficult.

Keeping in mind the impressions that we receive from each of our three categories of faculties (for in these we find the most sure ground for judgment), we must recognize that the soul exists.  Because it exists, it is therefore a corporeal thing, composed of the finest particles, so fine that we might almost think of it as air mixed with warmth, such as we think of our breath.  But, in addition to these, there is a third part, more exquisite still, as is shown by the mental faculties and feelings, by the ease with which the mind moves, by thoughts, and by all those things the loss of which causes death.  This substance, which we call soul, has the greatest share in causing sensation, but it would not have sensation were it not confined within the body. 

On the departure of the soul, the body loses sentience; so long as the soul remains in the body, the body does not lose sentience by the removal of some other part.  The soul can survive while only a part of the body remains, but the rest of the body dies when the soul departs.

The soul is not “incorporeal” as men often speak of it, for it is impossible for us to conceive of anything that is incorporeal except empty space.  Empty space cannot itself either act or be acted upon, but simply allows bodies to move through it, so those who call soul “incorporeal” speak foolishly.  If it were incorporeal, the soul could neither act nor be acted upon, but we see that both of these properties – that of acting and of being acted on –  plainly do belong to soul.

As to how human life has arisen to what we see today from those elements which comprise the soul, and from those elements which comprise all other things, we must remember that in infinite time and space nature has been taught and learned many various lessons by experience.  In the course of human history, reason develops what it receives, and makes fresh discoveries, among some tribes of men more quickly than among others.  Thus even the words and names given to things were not originally set from outside themselves, but were set by the several tribes themselves according to their individual circumstances.  Subsequently, whole tribes adopted their own special names in order that their communications might be less ambiguous to each other and more briefly expressed.  And as for things not visible, so far as those who were conscious of them tried to introduce any such notion, they put in circulation among them certain names or sounds which they either instinctively uttered or selected by analogy from their existing words.

In regard to what we see in the skies above, more than anything else it is essential to understand that the revolution of the stars and planets, the solstices, eclipses, and the like, take place according to the laws of Nature, and without the command, either now or in the future, of any god.  “Gods,” properly understood, enjoy both perfect bliss and immortality, and thus they experience neither troubles nor anxieties nor feelings of anger or partiality.  Such feelings do not exist in those who enjoy eternal bliss, but rather exist only in those who are weak and experience fear and dependence upon their neighbors. Nor must we entertain the possibility that the stars – these globular masses of fire – are themselves gods and endowed with bliss, or that they decide on their own to revolve at will around the heavens.  In every instance we must hold fast to our anticipations of the majesty which attaches to such notions as bliss and immortality, lest we fall into the trap of entertaining opinions about the gods which are inconsistent with this majesty.  If we depart from the evidence of our anticipations and consider that blissful beings can act otherwise than our anticipations establish, this inconsistency will by itself produce the worst disturbance in our minds.  Thus when we find phenomena invariably recurring, such as the revolution of the stars, the evidence establishes that the invariability of the recurrence results from the original action of the atoms, which came together without the will of the gods, into the current form of the universe as we see it today.

We cannot answer all questions about the soul and the universe, so remember that it is not the business of natural science to arrive at accurate knowledge of all things, but only the causes of those things that are important to us.  Our happiness depends on keeping in mind that the heavenly bodies are not gods, but subject to the laws of nature, as we have discussed.  In matters of physics where evidence is insufficient, we must not jump to premature judgments, but where the evidence of the anticipations as to the eternal blessedness and incorruptibility of the gods is clear, as it is, we must not entertain the multiple possibilities about the gods – we must hold firmly to the evidence which establishes that nothing suggestive of conflict or disquiet is compatible with an immortal and blessed nature.

Observe however that there is nothing in the knowledge of astronomy – of risings and settings and solstices and eclipses and so forth – that is necessary for our happiness.  In fact, those men who study such matters – but who nevertheless entertain foolish notions that the heavenly bodies might be gods, or that the phenomena they see in the sky might be caused by gods – those men feel quite as much fear, or perhaps even more fear, than those who never take the time to consider astronomy.

When we investigate what we see in the sky – or any other place that is unknown – we must take into account the variety of ways in which analogous occurrences happen within our own clear experience, and we must reason by analogy to a conclusion.  Be aware that there are many men who can not or will not recognize the difference between matters that may come about by a single cause, or from several causes.  There are likewise many men who overlook the fact that some objects are seen only at a distance.  We should not give credence to such men, but we should hold them in contempt, as such men are ignorant of the conditions that render peace of mind possible. So long as we keep in mind the principles of the Canon, it does us no harm to consider that there are several ways in which an event might occur.  So long as our theories remain consistent with the impressions we have receive from the five senses, the anticipations, and the mechanism of pleasure and pain, we shall be tranquil as if we actually knew which of these several possibilities – all of which are consistent with the evidence – is in fact the actual cause.

As a summary of the most fundamental rules of physics which Epicurus held to be true, we have the following list:


1.    Matter is uncreatable.

2.    Matter is indestructible.

3.    The universe consists of solid bodies and void.

4.    Solid bodies are either compounds or simple.

5.    The multitude of atoms is infinite.

6.    The void is infinite in extent.

7.    The atoms are always in motion.

8.    The speed of atomic motion is uniform.

9.    Motion is linear in space, vibratory in compounds.

10.   Atoms are capable of swerving slightly at any point in space or time.

11.    Atoms are characterized by three qualities, weight, shape and size.

12.   The number of the different shapes is not infinite, merely innumerable.


There are many more details of Physics which Epicurus taught which are not included here, but this discussion is sufficient foundation for you to begin your own study of Nature.  Always remember that the greatest anxieties of the human mind arise from the belief that the stars and other things which we see around us are themselves gods, or that they were created by gods, even though such things are acting in ways which are inconsistent with the blessedness and incorruptibility of what we know about the true gods.

Men who give in to the myths of false beliefs and false religions come to expect and fear that everlasting evil will befall them, or they may simply dread of the mere loss of sensation that occurs with death, as if we had any concern whatsoever about things we cannot sense!.  Such men are reduced to this pitiful state, not by conviction based on evidence, but by irrational perversity.  Those men who think about the gods and death, but do not discover for themselves or learn from Epicurus the boundaries to these fears, endure as much or even more fear than men whose fail to consider the subjects at all!  Mental tranquility comes from being released from all these troubles, and comes when we cherish in our minds a continual remembrance of the highest and most important truths about the Nature of Things.

Here, then, you now have a summary of the chief doctrines of Physics as taught to us by Epicurus.  The study and commitment of these matters to memory creates men who are strong, self-sufficient, and incomparably better equipped than others to enjoy success and happiness in life.


Ethics – How Men Should Live

On the foundation established by his Canonics and his Physics, Epicurus concluded that those guides to life which most men suppose to be true are in fact false.  “Virtue” does not exist, and therefore cannot serve as a guide.  “The gods” do not concern themselves with providing guidance to men, and any images we receive from them provide at most only a vision of blissfulness to which we might aspire, not a practical guide to day-to-day life.  What does exist is not “virtue” or the “will of god” but the guidance Nature gives us through the mechanism of pain and pleasure.   But most men even fail to understand the truth about pleasure and pain, and so even these concepts require much revision to conform to the truth of Nature.

As we have already seen, “pleasure” and ‘pain” comprise one of the three legs of the tripod of truth that compose the Canon.  Just “sight” and “sound” do not exist in some other dimension in some ideal form, neither does “pleasure” or pain exist in some perfect or ideal form.  It is commonly understood that Epicurus held the happiest life to be one “without pain,” but the meaning of this and its far-reaching implications are obscure until we see the “default” position of life – the experience of every consciousness unhindered by any pain – is properly considered to be a state of pleasure.

“Active pleasures,” or “stimulants” of various kinds, also bring sensations of pleasure, but these are luxuries and are not necessary for the living of a complete and happy life.  Properly understood, the state of conscious existence is itself a state of pleasure  sufficient to motivate us to act to continue to live.  When pain is present, such pain can and does “subtract” from the normal state of pleasure, but there is no state of pure pain any more than there is a “Hell.”  If we will but focus on the knowledge that our conscious existence will continue but for a brief moment, and that an eternity of time passed before we were born and will pass after our death, we will see that our brief existence is sufficient in itself to constitute a source of incomparable pleasure.  It is primarily when we allow the shortness of our lives to be obscured by preoccupation with luxury, power, fame, and the other false gods of the world that we lose sight of the simple joy of living. This distraction is among the worse aspect of those vices, and what is the best recipe for falling into such a trap?  Failing to study Nature, and failing to keep constantly in mind how we know what we hold to be true, and what we hold to be true about the universe.

  Epicurus summarized many of his most important principles of ethics in his Menoeceus, which reads as follows:

Let no one delay in the study of philosophy while he is young, and when he is old, let him not become weary of the study. For no man can ever find the time unsuitable or too late to study the health of his soul.

And he who asserts either that it is too soon to study philosophy, or that the hour is passed, is like a man who would say that the time has not yet come to be happy, or that it is too late to be happy.

So both the young and the old must study philosophy – that as one grows old he may be young in the blessings that come from the grateful recollection of those good things that have passed, and that even in youth he may have the wisdom of age, since he will know no fear of what is to come. It is necessary for us, then, to meditate on the things which produce happiness, since if happiness is present we have everything, and when happiness is absent we do everything with a view to possess it.

Now, I will repeat to you those things that I have constantly recommended to you, and I would have you do and practice them, as they are the elements of living well:

First of all, believe that a god is an incorruptible and happy being, just as Nature has commonly implanted the notion in the minds of men. But attach to your theology nothing which is inconsistent with incorruptibility or with happiness, and believe that a god possesses everything which is necessary to preserve its own nature.

Indeed the gods do exist, and Nature gives to us a degree of knowledge of them. But gods are not of the character which most people attribute to them, and the conception of the gods held by most people is far from pure. It is not the man who discards the gods believed in by the many who is impious, but he who applies to the gods the false opinions that most people entertain about them. For the assertions of most people about the gods are not true intuitions given to them by Nature, but false opinions of their own, such as the idea that gods send misfortune to the wicked and blessings to the good. False opinions such as these arise because men think of the gods as if they had human qualities, and men do not understand that the gods have virtues that are different from their own.

Next, accustom yourself to think that death is a matter with which we are not at all concerned. This is because all good and all evil come to us through sensation, and death brings the end of all our sensations. The correct understanding that death is no concern of ours allows us to take pleasure in our mortal lives, not because it adds to life an infinite span of time, but because it relieves us of the longing for immortality as a refuge from the fear of death. For there can be nothing terrible in living for a man who rightly comprehends that there is nothing terrible in ceasing to live.

Seen in this way, it was a silly man who once said that he feared death, not because it would grieve him when it was present, but because it grieved him now to consider it to be coming in the future. But it is absurd that something that does not distress a man when it is present should afflict him when it has not yet arrived. Therefore the most terrifying of fears, death, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist death is not present with us, and when death comes, then we no longer exist. Death, then, is of no concern either to the living or to the dead – to the living, death has no existence, and to the dead, no concerns of any kind are possible.

Many people, however, flee from death as if it were the greatest of evils, while at other times these same people wish for death as a rest from the evils of life. But the wise man embraces life, and he does not fear death, for life affords the opportunity for happiness, and the wise man does not consider the mere absence of life to be an evil. Just as he chooses food not according to what is most abundant, but according to what is best; so too, the wise man does not seek to live the life that is the longest, but the happiest.

And so he who advises a young man to live well, and an old man to die well, is a simpleton, not only because life is desirable for both the young and the old, but also because the wisdom to live well is the same as the wisdom to die well.

Equally wrong was the man who said:

‘Tis well not to be born, but when born, tis well to pass with quickness to the gates of Death.

If this was really his opinion, why then did he not end his own life? For it was easily in his power to do so, if this was really his belief. But if this man was joking, then he was talking foolishly in a case where foolishness ought not be allowed.

As to how we live our lives, we must always remember that the future does not wholly belong to us. But on the other hand, the future does not wholly NOT belong to us either. In this I mean that we can never wait on the future with a feeling of certainty that it will come to pass, but neither can we despair that the future is something that will never arrive.

We must also consider that some of our human desires are given to us by Nature, and some are vain and empty. Of the Natural desires, some are necessary, and some are not. Of the necessary desires, some are necessary to our happiness, and some are necessary if our body is to be free from trouble. Some desires are in fact necessary for living itself. He who has a correct understanding of these things will always decide what to choose and what to avoid by referring to the goal of obtaining a body that is healthy and a soul that is free from turmoil, since this is the aim of living happily. It is for the sake of living happily that we do everything, as we wish to avoid grief and fear. When once we have attained this goal, the storm of the soul is ended, because we neither have the need to go looking for something that we lack, nor to go seeking something else by which the good of our soul or of our body would be improved.

For you see when we lack pleasure and we grieve, we have need of pleasure, because pleasure is not present. But so long as we do not grieve, life affords us no lack of pleasure. On this account we affirm that Nature has provided that Pleasure is the beginning and end of living happily; for we have recognized that Nature has provided that happiness is the first good that is innate within us. To this view of Happiness as our starting point and as our goal we refer every question of what to choose and what to avoid. And to this same goal of happy living we again and again return, because whether a thing brings Happiness is the rule by which we judge every good. But although happiness is the first and a natural good, for this same reason we do not choose every pleasure whatsoever, but at many times we pass over certain pleasures when difficulty is likely to ensue from choosing them. Likewise, we think that certain pains are better than some pleasures, when a greater pleasure will follow them, even if we first endure pain for time.

Every Pleasure is therefore by its own Nature a good, but it does not follow that every pleasure is worthy of being chosen, just as every pain is an evil, and yet every pain must not be avoided. Nature requires that we resolve all these matters by measuring and reasoning whether the ultimate result is suitable or unsuitable to bringing about a happy life; for at times we may determine that what appears to be good is in fact an evil, and at other times we may determine that what appears to be evil is in fact a good.

As we pursue happiness we also hold that self-reliance is a great good, not in order that we will always be satisfied with little, but in order that if circumstances do not allow that we have much, we may wisely make use of the little that we have. This is because we are genuinely persuaded that men who are able to do without luxury are the best able to enjoy luxury when it is available.

We also believe that Nature provides that everything which is necessary to life is easily obtained, and that those things which are idle or vain are difficult to possess. Simple flavors give as much pleasure as costly fare when everything that causes pain, and every feeling of want, is removed. Bread and water give the most extreme pleasure when someone in great need eats of them. To accustom oneself, therefore, to simple and inexpensive habits is a great ingredient towards perfecting one’s health, and makes one free from hesitation in facing the necessary affairs of life. And when on certain occasions we fall in with more sumptuous fare, this attitude renders us better disposed towards luxuries, as we are then fearless with regard to the possibility that we may thereafter lose them.

When, therefore, we say that pleasure or happiness is the chief good, we are not speaking of the pleasures of debauched men, or those pleasures which lie in sensual enjoyment, as some allege about us who are ignorant, or who disagree with us, or who perversely misrepresent our opinions. Instead, when we speak of pleasure or happiness as the chief good, we mean the freedom of the body from pain and the freedom of the soul from confusion. For it is not continued drinking and reveling, or the temporary pleasures of sexual relations, or feasts of fish or such other things as a costly table supplies that make life pleasant. Instead, Nature provides that life is made pleasant by sober contemplation, and by close examination of the reasons for all decisions we make as to what we choose and what we avoid. It is by these means that we put to flight the vain opinions from which arise the greater part of the confusion that troubles the soul.

Now, the beginning and the greatest good of all these things is wisdom. Wisdom is something more valuable even than philosophy itself, inasmuch as all the other virtues spring from it. Wisdom teaches us that it is not possible to live happily unless one also lives wisely, and honestly, and justly; and that one cannot live wisely and honestly and justly without also living happily. For these virtues are by nature bound up together with the happy life, and the happy life is inseparable from these virtues.

Considering this, who can you think to be a better man than he who has holy opinions about the gods, who is utterly fearless in facing death, who properly contemplates the goals and limits of life as fixed by Nature, and who understands that Nature has established that the greatest goods are readily experienced and easily obtained, while the greatest evils last but a short period and cause only brief pain?

The wise man laughs at the idea of “Fate,” which some set up as the mistress of all things, because the wise man understands that while some things do happen by chance, most things happen due to our own actions. The wise man sees that Fate or Necessity cannot exist if men are truly free, and he also sees that Fortune is not in constant control of the lives of men. But the wise man sees that our actions are free, and because they are free, our actions are our own responsibility, and we deserve either blame or praise for them.

It would therefore be better to believe in the fables that are told about the gods than to be a slave to the idea of Fate or Necessity as put forth by false philosophers. At least the fables which are told about the gods hold out to us the possibility that we may avert the gods’ wrath by paying them honor. The false philosophers, on the other hand, present us with no hope of control over our own lives, and no escape from an inexorable Fate.

In the same way, the wise man does not consider Fortune to be a goddess, as some men esteem her to be, for the wise man knows that nothing is done at random by a god. Nor does he consider that such randomness as may exist renders all events of life impossible to predict. Likewise, he does not believe that the gods give chance events to men so as to make them live happily. The wise man understands that while chance may lead to great good, it may also lead to great evil, and he therefore thinks it to be better to be unsuccessful when acting in accord with reason than to be successful by chance when acting as a fool.

Meditate then, on all these things, and on those things which are related to them, both day and night, and both alone and with like-minded companions. For if you will do this, you will never be disturbed while asleep or awake by imagined fears, but you will live like a god among men. For a man who lives among immortal blessings is in no respect like a mortal being.


Forty Principal Doctrines Which Are The Foundation Of Happy Living

Epicurus recommended that we outline our thoughts to assist our understanding, and he himself left to us an outline of his philosophy to assist us in recalling the most fundamental points.   Our greatest need is to maintain a correct understanding of the whole, rather than of the details, so as we look to obtain an overview we must be able to recall the principles that we have laid down as elements of the entire discussion.  We must always look first to the knowledge we have already acquired, and that we have laid up in our memories as principles on which we may rest, so that we may arrive at exact perceptions and a certain knowledge of things.

The Forty Doctrines authorized by Epicurus to assist us in this process are as follows: 

Doctrine 1. Any being which is happy and imperishable neither has trouble itself, nor does it cause trouble to anything else. A perfect being does not have feelings either of anger or gratitude, for these feelings exist only in the weak.

Doctrine 2. Death is nothing to us, because that which is dead has no sensations, and that which cannot be sensed is nothing to us.

Doctrine 3. The limit of quantity in pleasures is the removal of all that is painful. Wherever pleasure is present, as long as it is there, there is neither pain of body nor of mind, nor of both at once.

Doctrine 4. Bodily pain does not last continuously. The most intense pain is present only for a very short time, and pain which outweighs the body’s pleasures does not continue for long. Even chronic pain permits a predominance of pleasure over pain.

Doctrine 5. It is not possible to live pleasantly without living wisely, honorably, and justly. Nor can one live wisely, honorably, and justly without living pleasantly. But those who for any reason do not live wisely, honorably, and justly cannot possibly live pleasantly.

Doctrine 6. Any means by which we can secure protection from other men is a natural good.

Doctrine 7. For the sake of feeling confidence and security in regard to other men, some men wish to be eminent and powerful, failing to remember the limits of kingly power. If such men happen to achieve a life of safety, then they have attained their goal, which is a good. But if their lives are not in fact safe, they have failed in obtaining the goal for the sake of which they originally desired power, and that is the result that generally occurs according to Nature.

Doctrine 8. No pleasure is intrinsically bad; but that which is necessary to achieve some pleasures brings with it disturbances many times greater than those same pleasures.

Doctrine 9. If any pleasure could be intensified so that it did not come to an end, and affected the whole person or the most essential parts of our nature, there would be no room for the experience of new pleasures.

Doctrine 10. If those things which debauched men consider pleasurable in fact put an end to the fears of the mind, and of the heavens, and of death, and of pain; and if those same pleasures taught us the natural limits of our desires, we would have no reason to blame those who devote themselves to such pursuits.

Doctrine 11. If fears relating to the heavens did not disturb us, and if the terrors of death did not concern us, and if we had the courage to contemplate the natural limits of pain and of desire, we would have no need to study the nature of things.

Doctrine 12. It is not possible for a man to banish all fear of the essential questions of life unless he understands the nature of the universe, and unless he banishes all consideration that the fables told about the universe could be true. Therefore a man cannot enjoy full happiness, untroubled by turmoil, unless he acts to gain knowledge of the nature of things.

Doctrine 13. It does no good for a man to secure himself safety from other men so long as he remains in a state of fear about heaven, about hell, and about the nature of the boundless universe.

Doctrine 14. Great power and wealth may, up to a certain point, bring us security from other men. But the greatest security depends upon tranquility of the soul and freedom from the crowd of men.

Doctrine 15. The Natural desires are easily obtained and satisfied, but the unnatural desires can never be satisfied.

Doctrine 16. Chance only rarely intrudes into the lives of wise men, because wise men direct the greatest and most important matters of life by the power of reason.

Doctrine 17. The man who is just is, of all men, the most free from trouble, but the unjust man is a perpetual prey to turmoil.

Doctrine 18. Once the pain arising from need is removed, physical pleasure is not increased, and only varies in another direction. The essential happiness of the soul depends on understanding this, and on understanding the nature of similar questions which cause great concern of the mind.

Doctrine 19. If we measure the limits of pleasure by reason, infinite and finite time both provide the opportunity for complete pleasure.

Doctrine 20. We assume that physical pleasure is unlimited, and that unlimited time is required to procure it. But through understanding the natural goals and limits of the body, and by dissolving the fear of eternity, we produce a complete life that has no need infinite time. The wise man neither flees enjoyment, nor, when events cause him to exit from life, does he look back as if he had missed any essential aspect of life.

Doctrine 21. He who is acquainted with the natural limits of life understands that those things that remove the pain that arises from need, and those things which make the whole of life complete, are easily obtainable, and that he has no need of those things that can only be attained with trouble.

Doctrine 22. We must keep in mind the conceptions established by reality and the evidence provided by our senses, and to those we must refer all our opinions, otherwise all things in life will be full of confusion and doubt.

Doctrine 23. If we resist the senses, we have nothing left to which we can refer, or by which we may judge, the falsehood of the senses which we condemn.

Doctrine 24. We must not discard any evidence provided by a sense simply because it does not fit our prior conceptions, and we must always distinguish between those matters which are certain and those which are uncertain. We must do this so we can determine whether our conclusions go beyond that which is justified by the actual evidence of the senses. We cannot be confident of our conclusions unless they are justified by actual, immediate, and clear evidence, and this evidence must come from the conceptions of the mind which arise from the five senses, from the sense of pain and pleasure, and from the Anticipations. If we fail to keep in mind the distinction between the certain and the uncertain, we inject error into the evaluation of the evidence provided by the senses, and we destroy in that area of inquiry every means of distinguishing the true from the false.

Doctrine 25. If we consider those opinions which are only tentative, and must await further information before they can be verified, to be of equal authority with those opinions which bear about them an immediate certainty, we will not escape error. For if we do this we overlook the reason for doubt between that which is right and that which is wrong.

Doctrine 26. If on every occasion we do not refer all our actions to the chief end of Nature, and if we turn aside to some other standard when we are determining what to seek or to avoid, then our actions will not be consistent with our principles.

Doctrine 27. Of all the things which the wise man seeks to acquire to produce the happiness of a complete life, by far the most important is the possession of friendship.

Doctrine 28. The same opinion that encourages us to trust that no evil will be everlasting, or even of long duration, shows us that in the space of life allotted to us the protection of friendship is the most sure and trustworthy.

Doctrine 29. Of the desires, some are natural and necessary, some are natural but not necessary, and some are neither natural nor necessary, but owe their existence to vain imagination.

Doctrine 30. In the case of physical desires which require intense effort to attain and do not lead to a sense of pain if they are not fulfilled, such desires are due to idle imagination. It is not because of their own nature that they fail to be dispelled, but because of the empty imaginings of the man.

Doctrine 31. Natural justice arises from a covenant between men for their mutual advantage to refrain from harming one another.

Doctrine 32. For those living things that are unable to enter into a covenant to refrain from harming one another, nothing is just or unjust, and this applies also to those men who are either unwilling or unable to enter into such a covenant.

Doctrine 33. Justice has no independent existence, but results only from the agreement of men to enter mutual covenants to refrain from harming one another.

Doctrine 34. Injustice is not evil in itself; it is evil because fear of not escaping punishment necessarily arises from it.

Doctrine 35. It is not possible for men who secretly violate a mutual covenant not to harm one another to believe that they will always escape detection. Even if they have escaped it ten thousand times already, so long as they live they cannot be certain that they will not be detected.

Doctrine 36. In general, justice is the same for all, for justice is a mutual advantage in the dealings of men with each other, but in different nations and under different circumstances, the application of justice may differ.

Doctrine 37. Among those actions which the law sanctions as just, that which is determined to be of mutual advantage is in fact just whether or not it is universally regarded to be so. But if a law, once established, is determined not to be mutually advantageous, then it is by nature unjust. As to those laws which were at first just, but later become unjust, such laws were in fact just for the period in which they were of mutual advantage, at least in the eyes of those who do not confound themselves with empty words, but look to the actual facts.

Doctrine 38. Where actions which were formerly considered to be just under former circumstances are seen not to accord with the general concept of mutual advantage, then they are seen not to have been just. But actions which were in fact of mutual advantage and therefore just at one time under former circumstances, but cease being of mutual advantage under new circumstances, cease also being just.

Doctrine 39. He who desires to live tranquilly without having anything to fear from other men ought to make them his friends. Those whom he cannot make friends he should at least avoid rendering enemies, and if that is not in his power, he should avoid all dealings with them as much as possible, and keep away from them as far as it is in his interest to do so.

Doctrine 40. The happiest men are those who have arrived at the point of having nothing to fear from their neighbors. Such men live with one another most pleasantly, having the firmest grounds of confidence in one another, enjoying the full advantages of friendship, and not lamenting the departure of their dead friends as though they were to be pitied.


Answers to Common Criticisms of Epicurus (from Cicero)

Marcus Tullius Cicero, who was a Stoic and therefore an opponent of Epicurus, included in his book “On Ends” the following defense of Epicureanism:

“I will start then,” Torquatus said, “in the manner approved by Epicurus himself, the author of the system — by setting forth the essence of the thing that is the object of our inquiry. Not that I suppose that you do not understand my purpose, but because this is the logical method of procedure. We are inquiring, then, into what is the final and ultimate good. All philosophers agree that the ultimate good is the end we seek to attain, for which all other things are the means we use to gain it, while it is not itself a means through which we seek to attain anything else. Epicurus holds that Nature’s ultimate goal for life is pleasure, or happiness, which he holds to be the chief good, with pain, whether physical or mental, being the chief evil.

Epicurus sets out to show this as follows: Every living thing, as soon as it is born, seeks after pleasure, and delights in it as its chief good. It also recoils from pain as its chief evil, and avoids pain so far as is possible. Nature’s own unbiased and honest judgment leads every living thing to do this from birth, and it continues to do this as long as it remains uncorrupted. Epicurus refuses to admit any need for discussion to prove that pleasure is to be desired and pain is to be avoided, because these facts, he thinks, are perceived by the senses, in the same way that fire is hot, snow is white, and honey is sweet. None of these things need be proved by elaborate argument — it is enough merely to draw attention to them. For there is a difference, he holds, between a formal logical proof of a thing, and a mere notice or reminder. Logical proofs are the method for discovering abstract and difficult truths, but on the other hand a mere notice is all that is required for indicating facts that are obvious and evident.

Observe that if one removes from mankind all of the faculties that Nature has provided, nothing remains. It follows, then, that Nature herself is the judge of that which is in accord with or contrary to Nature. And what does Nature give to perceive or to judge, or to guide actions of choice and of avoidance, except pleasure and pain? …

I must now explain to you how the mistaken idea arose in some quarters that pleasure should be disparaged and pain should be exalted. To do so, I will give you a complete account of the Epicurean system, and point out to you the actual teachings of Epicurus, who we consider to be the great explorer of truth, the master-builder of human happiness.

No one rejects, dislikes, or avoids pleasure on its own account. Those who reject pleasure do so because men who do not know how to pursue pleasure rationally suffer consequences that are extremely painful. Nor does anyone love or pursue or desire to obtain pain on its own account. Those who pursue pain do so because on occasion toil and pain can produce some great pleasure. To take a trivial example, which of us ever undertakes laborious physical exercise, except to obtain some advantage from it? But who has any right to find fault with those men who choose to enjoy pleasures that have no annoying consequences, or those who avoid pains that produce no resulting pleasures?

On the other hand, we denounce with righteous indignation men who are so beguiled and demoralized by the charms of the pleasure of the moment, who are so blinded by desire, that they cannot foresee the pain and trouble that are bound to follow. Equal blame belongs to those who fail in their duties because their will is weak, which is the same as saying that they fail because they shrink back from toil and pain. These cases are simple and easy to understand. In a free hour, when our power of choice is unrestrained and when nothing prevents us from doing what we like best, every pleasure is to be welcomed and every pain is to be avoided. But in certain circumstances, such as because of the claims of duty or the obligations of business, it will frequently occur that pleasures have to be put aside and annoyances accepted. The wise man always holds in these matters to this principle of selection: he rejects some pleasures in order to secure other and greater pleasures, or else he endures some pains to avoid worse pains.

This being the theory I hold, why should I be afraid of not being able to reconcile it with the case of the Torquati, my ancestors [who were renowned for dealing harshly even with their own family when necessary]? Your references to them previously were historically correct, and showed your kind and friendly feeling towards me. But all the same, I am not to be bribed by your flattery of my family, and you will not find me a less resolute opponent.

Tell me, then, what explanation would you put upon their actions? Do you really believe that they charged an armed enemy, or treated their children, their own flesh and blood, so cruelly, without a thought for their own interest or advantage? Even wild animals do not act in that way — they do not run amok so blindly that we cannot discern any purpose in their movements. Can you suppose then that my heroic ancestors performed their famous deeds without any motive at all?

What their motive was, I will consider in a moment: for the present I will confidently assert, that if they had a motive for those undoubtedly glorious exploits, that motive was not a love of virtue solely for itself.

You say: “He wrestled the necklace from his foe”

I answer: “Yes, and he saved himself from death.”

You say: “But he braved great danger”

I answer: “Yes, before the eyes of an army.”

You say: “What did he gain by it?”

I answer: “Honor and esteem, the strongest guarantees of security in life.”

You say:” He sentenced his own son to death!”

I answer: “If he had no motive, I am sorry to be the descendant of anyone so savage and inhuman. But if his purpose for inflicting pain upon himself was to establish his authority as a commander, and to tighten the reins of discipline during a very serious war by holding over his army the fear of punishment, then his action was aimed at ensuring the safety of his fellow-citizens, upon which he knew his own safety depended.”

This is a principle of wide application. Students of your Platonic school, who are such diligent students of history, have found a favorite field for the display of their eloquence in recalling the stories of brave and famous men of old. Your school praises their actions, not on the grounds that those actions were useful, but because of the alleged abstract splendor of “moral worth.” But all of this falls to the ground once we recognize the principle that I have just described — the principle that some pleasures are to be foregone for the purpose of getting greater pleasures, and that some pains are to be endured for the sake of escaping greater pains.

But enough has been said at this stage about the glorious exploits of the heroes of the past. The tendency of the virtues to produce pleasure is a topic that I will treat later on. At present I shall proceed to the nature of pleasure itself, and I shall work to remove the misconceptions of ignorance, and show you how serious, how temperate, and how simple is the school that is supposedly sensual, lax and luxurious.

The happiness we pursue does not consist solely of the delightful feelings of physical pleasures. On the contrary, according to Epicurus the greatest pleasure is that which is experienced as a result of the complete removal of all pain, physical and mental. When we are released from pain, the mere sensation of complete emancipation and relief from distress is itself a source of great gratification. But everything that causes gratification is a pleasure, just as everything that causes distress is a pain. Therefore the complete removal of pain has correctly been termed a pleasure. For example, when hunger and thirst are banished by food and drink, the mere fact of getting rid of those distresses brings pleasure as a result. So as a rule, the removal of pain causes pleasure to take its place.

For that reason Epicurus held that there is no such thing as a neutral state of feeling that is somewhere between pleasure and pain. This is because for the living being, the entire absence of pain, a state supposed by some philosophers to be neutral, is not only a state of pleasure, but a pleasure of the highest order.

A man who is living and conscious of his condition at all necessarily feels either pleasure or pain. Epicurus holds that the experience of the complete absence of all pain is the highest point, or the “limit,” of pleasure. Beyond this point, pleasure may vary in kind, but it does not vary in intensity or degree.

To illustrate this, my father used to tell me (when he wanted to show his wit at the expense of the Stoics) that there was once in Athens a statue of the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus. This statue was fashioned with Chrysippus holding out one hand, in a gesture intended to indicate the delight which he used to take in the following little play on words:

“Does your hand desire anything, while it is in its present condition?’

“No, nothing.”

“But if pleasure were a good, it would want pleasure.”

“Yes, I suppose it would.”

“Therefore pleasure is not a good.”

This is an argument, my father declared, which not even a dumb statue would employ, if a statue could speak. This is because the argument is cogent enough as an objection to those who pursue sensual pleasures as the only goal of life, but it does not touch Epicurus. For if the only kind of pleasure were that which, so to speak, tickles the senses with a feeling of delight, neither the hand nor any other member of the body could be satisfied with the absence of pain, if it were not accompanied by an active sensation of pleasure. If, however, as Epicurus holds, the highest pleasure is experienced at the removal of all pain, then the man who responded to Chrysippus was wrong to be misled by his questions. This is because the man’s first answer, that his hand was in a condition that wanted nothing, was correct. But his second answer, that if pleasure were a good, his hand would want it, was not correct. This was wrong because the hand had no need to desire any additional pleasure, because the state in which it was in – a state without pain – was itself a state of pleasure.

The truth of the view that pleasure or happiness is the ultimate good will readily appear from the following additional illustration:

Let us imagine a man who is living in the continuous enjoyment of numerous vivid pleasures, of both body and of mind, and who is undisturbed either by the presence or by the prospect of pain. What possible state of existence could we describe as being more excellent or more desirable? A man so situated must possess in the first place a strength of mind that is impregnable against all fear of death or of pain. He will have no fear of death because he will know that death only means complete unconsciousness, and he will have no fear of pain, because he will know that while he is alive, pain that is long is generally light, and pain that is strong is generally short. In other words, he will also know that the intensity of pain is alleviated by the briefness of its duration, and that continuing pain is bearable because it is generally of lesser severity. Let such a man moreover have no fear of any supernatural power; let him never allow the pleasures of the past to fade away, but let him constantly renew their enjoyment in his recollection, and his lot will be one which will not admit of further improvement.

On the other hand, imagine a man who is crushed beneath the heaviest load of mental and bodily anguish which humanity is able to sustain. Grant him no prospect of ultimate relief; let him neither have, nor hope to have, a gleam of pleasure. Can one describe or imagine a more pitiable state? If, then, a life full of pain is the thing most to be avoided, it follows that to live in pain is the highest evil; and it also follows that a life of pleasure and happiness is the ultimate good. The mind possesses nothing within itself on which it can rest as final. Every fear, every sorrow, can be traced back to pain — and there is nothing besides pain which has the capacity to cause either anxiety or distress.

Pleasure and pain therefore supply the motives and the principles of choice and of avoidance, and thus they are the springs of conduct generally. This being so, it clearly follows that actions are right and praiseworthy only to the extent that they are productive of a life of happiness. But something which is not itself a means to obtain anything else, but to which all other things are but the means by which it is to be acquired, is what the Greeks term the highest, or final good. It must therefore be admitted that the chief good of man is to live happily.

Those who place the chief good in “virtue” alone are beguiled by the glamor of a name, and they do not understand the true demands of Nature. If they will but consent to listen to Epicurus, they will be delivered from the grossest error. Your school waxes eloquently on the supposedly transcendent beauty of the “virtues.” But were they not productive of pleasure, who would deem the virtues either praiseworthy or desirable?

We value the art of medicine not for its interest as a science, but because it produces health. We commend the art of navigation for its practical, and not its scientific value, because it conveys the rules for sailing a ship with success. So also Wisdom, which must be considered as the art of living, would not be desired if it produced no result. As it is, however, wisdom is desired, because it is the craftsman that produces and procures pleasure. The meaning that I attach to pleasure and happiness must by this time be clear to you, and you must no longer be biased against my argument due to the discreditable associations that others have attached to the terms.

The great disturbing factor in man’s life is ignorance of good and evil. Mistaken ideas about these frequently rob us of our greatest pleasures, and torment us with the most cruel pains of mind. Thus we need the aid of Wisdom to rid us of our fears and unnatural desires, to root out all our errors and prejudices, and to serve as our infallible guide to the attainment of happiness.

Wisdom alone can banish sorrow from our hearts and protect us from alarm and apprehension. Become a student of Wisdom, and you may live in peace and quench the glowing flames of vain desires. For the vain desires are incapable of satisfaction — they ruin not only individuals but whole families, and in fact they often shake the very foundations of the state. It is the vain desires that are the source of hatred, quarreling, strife, sedition, and war. Nor do the vain desires flaunt themselves only away from home, and turn their onslaughts solely against other people. For even when they are imprisoned within the heart of the individual man, they quarrel and fall out among themselves, and this can have no result but to render the whole of life embittered.

For this reason it is only the wise man, who prunes away all the rotten growth of vanity and error, who can possibly live untroubled by sorrow and by fear, and who can live contentedly within the bounds that Nature has set.

Nothing could be more instructive and helpful to right living than Epicurus’ doctrine as to the different classes of the desires. One kind he classified as both natural and necessary, a second as natural but not necessary, and a third as neither natural nor necessary. The principle of the classification comes from observing that the necessary desires are gratified with little trouble or expense. The natural desires also require little effort, since the quantity of Nature’s riches which suffices to bring contentment is both small and easily obtained. In contrast, for the vain and idle desires, no boundary or limit can be discovered.

Therefore we observe that ignorance and error reduce the whole of life to confusion. It is Wisdom alone that is able to protect us from the onslaught of the vain appetites and the menace of fears. Only wisdom is able to teach us to bear the hardships of fortune with moderation, and only wisdom is able to show us the paths that lead to calmness and to peace. Why then should we hesitate to proudly affirm that Wisdom is to be desired, not for its own sake, but for the sake of the happiness it brings? And why therefore should we hesitate to affirm that Folly is to be avoided, again not for its own sake, because of the injuries that follow in its path?

This same principle leads us also to pronounce that Temperance is not desirable for its own sake, but because it bestows peace of mind, and soothes the heart with a calming sense of harmony. For it is temperance that warns us to be guided by reason in what we desire and in what we choose to avoid.

Nor is it enough to judge what it is right to do or leave undone, we must also take action according to our judgment. Most men, however, lack tenacity of purpose. Their resolution weakens and succumbs as soon as the fair form of pleasure meets their gaze, and they surrender themselves prisoner to their passions, failing to foresee the inevitable result. Thus for the sake of small and unnecessary pleasures, which they might have obtained by other means or even denied themselves altogether without pain, they incur serious disease, loss of fortune, or disgrace, and often become liable to the penalties of the law and of the courts of justice.

Other men, however, resolve to enjoy their pleasures so as to avoid all painful consequences, they retain their sense of judgment, and they avoid being seduced by pleasure into courses that they see to be wrong. Such men reap the very highest pleasure by forgoing other pleasures. In a similar way, wise men voluntarily endure certain pains to avoid incurring greater pain by not doing so. This clearly shows us that temperance is not desirable for its own sake. Instead, temperance is desirable, not because it renounces pleasures, but because it produces greater pleasures.

The same lesson will be found to be true of Courage. The performance of labors and the endurance of pains are not attractive in and of themselves. Neither are patience, industry, watchfulness, or that much-praised virtue, perseverance, or even courage itself, worthy of praise apart from that which they produce. Instead, we aim at these virtues in order to live without anxiety and fear and so far as possible, to be free from pain of mind and body.

The fear of death plays havoc with the calm and even tenor of life, and it is a pitiful thing to bow the head to pain and bear it abjectly and feebly. Such weakness has caused many men to betray their parents or their friends; some even betray their own country, and very many utterly fall to ruin themselves. On the other hand, a strong and lofty spirit is entirely free from anxiety and sorrow, and makes light of death, for the dead are only as they were before they were born. It is wise to recall that pains of great severity are ended by death, and slight pains have frequent intervals of respite; while pains of medium intensity lie within our ability to control. If pains are endurable then we can bear them, and if they are unendurable, we may choose ourselves to leave life’s theater serenely when the play has ceased to please us.

These considerations prove that timidity and cowardice are not to be condemned, and courage and endurance are not to be praised, in and of themselves. Timidity and cowardice are rejected because they bring pain, and courage and endurance are coveted because they produce pleasure.

It remains to speak of Justice to complete the list of the virtues. But justice admits of practically the same explanation as the others. I have already shown that Wisdom, Temperance and Courage are so closely linked with happiness that they cannot possibly be severed from it. The same must be deemed to be the case with Justice. Not only does Justice never cause anyone harm, but on the contrary it always brings some benefit, partly because of its calming influence on the mind, and partly because of the hope that it provides of never-failing access to the things that one’s uncorrupted nature really needs. And just as Rashness, License and Cowardice are always tormenting the mind, always awakening trouble and discord, so Unrighteousness, when firmly rooted in the heart, causes restlessness by the mere fact of its presence. Once unrighteousness has found expression in some deed of wickedness, no matter how secret the act may appear, it can never be free of the fear that it will one day be detected.

The usual consequences of crime are suspicion, gossip, and rumor — after that comes the accuser, then the judge. Many wrongdoers even turn evidence against themselves ….. And even if any transgressors think themselves to be well fortified against detection by their fellow men, they still dread the eye of heaven, and fancy that the pangs of anxiety that night and day gnaw at their hearts are sent by Providence to punish them.

So in what way can wickedness be thought to be worthwhile, in view of its effect in increasing the distresses of life by bringing with it the burden of a guilty conscience, the penalties of the law, and the hatred of one’s fellow men?”

Nevertheless, some men indulge without limit their avarice, ambition, love of power, lust, gluttony, and those other desires which ill-gotten gains can never diminish, but rather inflame. Such men are the proper subjects for restraint, rather than for reformation.

Men of sound natures, therefore, are summoned by the voice of true reason to justice, equity, and honesty.

For those without eloquence or resources, dishonesty is not a good policy, since it is difficult for such a man to succeed in his designs, or to make good his success once it is achieved. On the other hand, for those who are rich and intelligent, generous conduct seems more appropriate, for liberality wins them affection and good will, the surest means to a life of peace. This is especially true since we see that there is really no need for anyone to transgress, because the desires that spring from Nature are easily gratified without doing wrong to any man, and those desires that are vain and idle can be resisted by observing that they set their sights on nothing that is really desirable, and that there is more loss inherent in injustice than there is profit in the gains that it may bring for a time.

As with the other virtues, Justice cannot correctly be said to be desirable in and of itself. Here again, Justice is desirable because it is so highly productive of gratification. Esteem and affection are gratifying because they render life safer and happier. Thus we hold that injustice is to be avoided not simply on account of the disadvantages that result from being unjust, but even more, because when injustice dwells in a man’s heart, it never allows him to breathe freely or to know a moment’s rest.

Thus Epicurus shows us that the alleged glory of “Virtue,” on which the Platonic philosophers love to expound so eloquently, has in the final analysis no meaning at all unless it is based on living happily, because happiness is the only thing that is intrinsically attractive and desirable. It therefore cannot be doubted that pleasure is the one supreme and final good, and that a life of happiness is nothing else than a life of pleasure.

Having thus firmly established the doctrine, we turn to several corollaries which I will briefly mention:

– First, the natural ends of good and evil, that is, pleasure and pain, are not open to mistake. Where people go wrong is in not knowing what things are in fact productive of pleasure and pain.

– Also, we hold that mental pleasures and pains are always connected with bodily matters, and cannot exist without a bodily basis. …. Men do of course experience mental pleasure that is agreeable and mental pain that is annoying, but both of these we assert arise out of and are based upon matters connected with the body.

– Even though mental pleasures and pains arise from the body, we maintain that this does not preclude mental pleasures and pains from being much more intense than those of the body. This is because the body can feel only what is present to it at the moment, whereas the mind is also aware of the past and of the future. For example, even granting that pain of body is equally painful, yet our sensation of pain can be enormously increased by the mental apprehension that some evil of unlimited magnitude and duration threatens to befall us hereafter. This same consideration applies to pleasure — a pleasure is greater if it is not accompanied by any apprehension of evil. We therefore see that intense mental pleasure or distress contributes more to our happiness or misery than bodily pleasure or pain of equal duration.

– Further, we do not agree with those who allege that when pleasure is withdrawn, anxiety follows at once. That result is true only in those situations where the pleasure happens to be replaced directly by a pain. The truth is, in general, we are glad whenever we lose a pain, even though no active sensation of pleasure comes immediately in its place. This fact serves to show us how life in the absence of pain is itself so great a pleasure.

– Moreover, just as we are elated by the anticipation of good things to come, so we are delighted by the recollection of good things in the past. Fools are tormented by the remembrance of former evils, but to wise men, memory is a pleasure – through it they renew the good things of the past. Within us all resides, if we will it, both the power to obliterate our misfortunes by permanently forgetting them, and the power to summon up pleasant and agreeable memories of our successes. When we concentrate our mental vision closely on the events of the past, then sorrow or gladness follows according to whether these events were evil or good.

Here indeed is the renowned road to happiness — open, simple, and direct! For clearly man can have no greater good than complete freedom from pain and sorrow coupled with the enjoyment of the highest bodily and mental pleasures. Notice then how the theory embraces every possible enhancement of life, every aid to the achievement of that chief good – a life of happiness – which is our object. Epicurus, the man whom you denounce as given to excessive sensuality, cries aloud that no one can live pleasantly without living wisely, honorably and justly, and no one can live wisely, honorably and justly without living pleasantly.

A city torn by faction cannot prosper, nor can a house whose masters are at strife. Much less then can a mind that is divided against itself and filled with inward discord taste any particle of pure and liberal pleasure. One who is perpetually swayed by conflicting and incompatible opinions and desires can know no peace or calm.

If the pleasantness of life is diminished by the serious bodily diseases, how much more must it be diminished by the diseases of the mind! Extravagant and vain desires for riches, fame, power, and other pleasures of license, are nothing but mental diseases. Grief, trouble and sorrow gnaw the heart and consume it with anxiety if men fail to realize that the mind need feel no pain unless it is connected with some pain of body, present or to come. Yet all foolish men are afflicted by at least one of these diseases — and therefore there is no foolish man who is not unhappy.

And always there is death, the stone of Tantalus ever hanging over men’s heads, and then there is religion, that poisons and destroys all peace of mind. Fools do not recall their past happiness or enjoy their present blessings – they only look forward to the desires of the future, and as the future is always uncertain, they are consumed with agony and terror. And the climax of their torment is when they perceive, too late, that all their dreams of wealth or station, power or fame, have come to nothing. For fools can never hold the pleasures for which they hoped, and for which they were inspired to undergo all their arduous toils.

Or look again at men who are petty, narrow-minded, confirmed pessimists, or others who are spiteful, envious, ill-tempered, unsociable, abusive, cantankerous. Look at those who are enslaved to the follies of love, or those who are impudent, reckless, wanton, headstrong and yet irresolute, always changing their minds. Such failings render their lives one unbroken round of misery. The result is that no foolish man can be happy, nor any wise man fail to be happy. This is a truth that we establish far more conclusively than do the Platonic philosophers, who maintain that nothing is good save that vague phantom which they entitle “Moral Worth,” a title more splendid in sound than it is substantial in reality. Such men are gravely mistaken when, resting on this vague idea of “Moral Worth” they allege that Virtue has no need of pleasure, and that Virtue is sufficient for itself.

At the same time, this view can be stated in a form to which we do not object, and can indeed endorse. For Epicurus tells us that the Wise Man is always happy. The Wise Man’s desires are kept within Nature’s bounds, and he disregards death. The wise man has a true conception, untainted by fear, of the Divine Nature. If it be expedient to depart from life, the wise man does not hesitate to do so. Thus equipped, the wise man enjoys perpetual pleasure, for there is no moment when the pleasures he experiences do not outbalance his pains, since he remembers the past with delight, he grasps the present with a full realization of its pleasantness, and he does not rely wholly upon the future. The Wise Man looks forward to the future, but finds his true enjoyment in the present. Also, the wise man is entirely free from the vices that I referenced a few moments ago, and he derives considerable pleasure from comparing his own existence with the life of the foolish. Any pains that the Wise Man may encounter are never so severe but that he has more cause for gladness than for sorrow.

It was a central doctrine of Epicurus that “the Wise Man is but little interfered with by fortune. The great concerns of life, the things that matter, are controlled by his own wisdom and reason.” Epicurus also taught that “No greater pleasure could be derived from a life of infinite duration, than is actually afforded by this existence, which we know to be finite.”

Theoretical logic, on which your Platonic school lays such stress, Epicurus held to be of no assistance either as a guide to conduct or as an aid to thought. In contrast, he deemed Natural Philosophy to be all-important. Natural Philosophy explains to us the meaning of terms, the nature of cause and effect, and the laws of consistency and contradiction. A thorough knowledge of the facts of Nature relieves us of the burden of superstition, frees us from fear of death, and shields us against the disturbing effects of ignorance, which is often in itself a cause of terrifying fears. A knowledge of those things that Nature truly requires improves the moral character as well. It is only by firmly grasping a well-reasoned scientific study of Nature, and observing Epicurus’ Canon of truth that has fallen, as it were, from heaven, which affords us a knowledge of the universe. Only by making that Canon the test of all our judgments can we hope always to stand fast in our convictions, undeterred and unshaken by the eloquence of any man.

On the other hand, without a firm understanding of the world of Nature, it is impossible to maintain the validity of the perceptions of our senses. Every mental presentation has its origin in sensation, and no knowledge or perception is possible unless the sensations are reliable, as the theory of Epicurus teaches us that they are. Those who deny the reliability of sensation and say that nothing can be known, having excluded the evidence of the senses, are unable even to make their own argument. By abolishing knowledge and science, they abolish all possibility of rational life and action. Thus Natural Philosophy supplies courage to face the fear of death; and resolution to resist the terrors of religion. Natural Philosophy provides peace of mind by removing all ignorance of the mysteries of Nature, and provides self-control, by explaining the Nature of the desires and allowing us to distinguish their different kinds. In addition, the Canon or Criterion of Knowledge which Epicurus established shows us the method by which we evaluate the evidence of the senses and discern truth from falsehood.

There remains a topic that is supremely relevant to this discussion – the subject of Friendship. Your [Platonic] school maintains that if pleasure is held to be the Chief Good, friendship will cease to exist. In contrast, Epicurus has pronounced in regard to friendship that of all the means to happiness that wisdom has devised, none is greater, none is more fruitful, none is more delightful than friendship. Not only did Epicurus commend the importance of friendship through his words, but far more, through the example of his life and his conduct. How rare and great friendship is can be seen in the mythical stories of antiquity. Review the legends from the remotest of ages, and, many and varied as they are, you will barely find in them three pairs of friends, beginning with Theseus and ending with Orestes. Yet Epicurus in a single house (and a small one at that) maintained a whole company of friends, united by the closest sympathy and affection, and this still goes on today in the Epicurean school.

The Epicureans maintain that friendship can no more be separated from pleasure than can the virtues, which we have discussed already. A solitary, friendless life is necessarily beset by secret dangers and alarms. Hence reason itself advises the acquisition of friends. The possession of friends gives confidence and a firmly rooted hope of winning pleasure. And just as hatred, jealousy and contempt are hindrances to pleasure, so friendship is the most trustworthy preserver and also creator of pleasure for both our friends and for ourselves. Friendship affords us enjoyment in the present, and it inspires us with hope for the near and distant future. Thus it is not possible to secure uninterrupted gratification in life without friendship, nor to preserve friendship itself unless we love our friends as much as ourselves. … For we rejoice in our friends’ joy as much as in our own, and we are equally pained by their sorrows. Therefore the wise man will feel exactly the same towards his friends as he does towards himself, and he will exert himself as much for his friend’s pleasure as he would for his own. All that has been said about the essential connection of the virtues with pleasure must be repeated about friendship. Epicurus well said (and I give almost his exact words): “The same creed that has given us courage to overcome all fear of everlasting or long-enduring evil after death has discerned that friendship is our strongest safeguard in this present term of life.

All these considerations go to prove not only that the rationale of friendship is not impaired by the identification of the chief good with pleasure, but, in fact, without this, no foundation for friendship whatsoever can be found.

In sum, then, the theory I have set forth is clearer and more luminous than daylight itself. It is derived entirely from Nature’s source. My whole discussion relies for confirmation on the unbiased and unimpeachable evidence of the senses. Lisping babies, even dumb animals, prompted by Nature’s teaching, can almost find the voice to proclaim to us that in life there is no welfare but pleasure, no hardship but pain – and their judgment in these matters is neither corrupted nor biased. Ought we then not to feel the greatest gratitude to Epicurus, the man who listened to these words from Nature’s own voice, and grasped their meaning so firmly and so fully that he was able to guide all sane-minded men into the path of peace and happiness, of calmness and repose?

You amuse yourself by thinking that Epicurus was uneducated. The truth is that Epicurus refused to consider any education to be worthy of the name if it did not teach us the means to live happily. Was Epicurus to spend his time, as you encourage Triarius and me to do, perusing the poets, who give us nothing solid and useful, but only childish amusement? Was Epicurus to occupy himself like Plato, with music and geometry, arithmetic and astronomy, which are at best mere tools, and which, if they start from false premises, can never reveal truth or contribute anything to make our lives happier and therefore better?

Was Epicurus to study the limited arts such as these, and neglect the master art, so difficult but correspondingly so fruitful, the art of living? No! It was not Epicurus who was uninformed. The truly uneducated are those who ask us to go on studying until old age the subjects that we ought to be ashamed not to have learned when we were children!







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