A Life Worthy of the Gods – The Life And Work of Epicurus

Today I have added to the website a new epub: “A Life Worthy of the Gods – The Life and Work of Epicurus” which may be downloaded here or, as with the rest of my ebooks, on Smashwords. This epub is a collection of the most important ancient texts of Epicureanism, presented in an epub format for easy reference on mobile devices and on ebook readers. Contents include:

As with my other ebooks, these texts are based largely on the public domain translations of the ancient texts by Munro and Yonge, edited for readability and formatting as an epub. I have included in the remainder of this post the introduction. Happy reading!

Introduction By Cassius Amicus

The purpose of this volume is to assist the reader in study of the life and work of Epicurus. In other ebooks (primarily Ante Oculos – Epicurus and the Evidence-Based Life) I have focused on analysis and presentation of Epicureanism in an organized form for modern audiences, but the current works is intended to serve as a source book of the main Epicurean texts. I have thus compiled the most important ancient sources and entitled the result A Life Worthy of the Gods – The Life And Work of Epicurus.

This collection is not intended for the reader who has no background in Epicurean philosophy. However, to account for the possibility that it might occasionally be pressed into that service, I have included here an essay written in 1945 by the man I consider the foremost modern authority on Epicurus – Norman W. DeWitt. DeWitt’s very useful essay Philosophy For The Millions highlights the significance of Epicureanism and points the way toward the detail he provided in his monumental Epicurus and His Philosophy, which I consider to be the single best resource for those seeking a deeper understanding of Epicurus.

The most important content of this volume is the ancient source material. Foremost in this category is the Life of Epicurus by Diogenes Laertius, the ancient Greek compiler of commentary on the major Greek philosophers who preserved for us the great bulk of what we know of the Epicurean tradition. It is here that we find our original source for Epicurus’ Principle Doctrines and much of our information about Epicurus’ life.

Next is the Defense of Epicurus, an excerpt from Cicero’s work On the Ends of Good and Evil. This extensive presentation of Epicurus’ central ideas is one of the most valuable narrative arguments left to us from antiquity.

Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura is second in importance only to Diogenes Laertius as a point of reference, and in many cases it exceeds Laertius’ biography in detail. To include the entire text, however, would be to overwhelm the remainder of the material collected here, so I have presented here only selections that refer either directly to the person of Epicurus or refer most clearly to his essential ideas. The reader who wishes to understand Epicureanism in detail should certainly refer to the full text of De Rerum Natura to supplement that which is included here.

Following Lucretius is the “Vatican List” of the Sayings of Epicurus. This list includes some statements probably made by Epicurus himself, and others probably made by Metrodorus or other recognized Epicureans. It is disappointing that the context of these quotations has not been left to us, but most either stand alone or are fairly intelligible when viewed in relation to the other surviving Epicurean texts.

To conclude the volume, I have included selections from the Letters of Seneca. Seneca professed Stoicism as his own philosophy, but he quoted frequently from Epicurus, and his letters provide valuable context for those sayings of Epicurus which he preserved for us.

Before ending this introduction, I wish to add a few words of my own about a matter that I believe the reader should understand at an early stage in his study of Epicurus.

In contrast to the common perception that Epicureanism revolves around the pursuit of “pleasure,” it is far more accurate to say that the root of Epicureanism is the determination to follow Nature as the proper guide to life, using the faculties and the evidence that Nature has provided as the ultimate standard for determining the direction in which that guide leads. In simplest form, all of Epicureanism can be seen as the derivation of a way of life based only on the evidence that can clearly be established by our eyes and our other Natural faculties. This determination requires the firm rejection of knowledge through faith, divine revelation, universal forms, spirit worlds, or any other source of information which cannot be proved to be true before the tribunal of the faculties which Nature provides.

Due to common misconceptions about Epicurus and his philosophy, modern commentators often focus almost exclusively on two specific applications of which are derivatives, rather than the fundamentals, of the philosophy. These two derivative ideas are: (1) that pleasure should be pursued and pain avoided, and (2) that restraining the desires is an essential technique toward achieving happiness.

Certainly both observations are true and were important teachings of Epicurus. But it is important to see that these are derivative conclusions, valid only because Epicurus first and foremost held to a particular set of observations and conclusions about the universe and man’s position in it that justify these conclusions.

Because the pursuit of pleasure and the restraint of desires are derivative applications of principles, rather than principles themselves, their proper application must be guided by the context in which the individual lives. Although these applications are going to apply to some degree to everyone because of our nature as human beings, the exact degree to which they will apply to any given individual will be significantly influenced by the circumstances of the particular society and environment in which a person lives. An individual who lives in a modern industrialized and wealthy society will find simplicity in standard of living to be much different than an individual living in a stone age society. The standard of living and the degree of pleasure a man can aspire to attain, as derivate aspects, will vary greatly between individuals, but the more fundamental aspects of Epicureanism, such as the observation that neither the universe nor men’s actions are directed by meddling supernatural beings, and (2) that man’s consciousness ends at death (which is why we must live without fear of punishment or illusion of reward after death) apply to everyone regardless of their environment.

Each element of Epicurus’ philosophy was derived by tenaciously following the evidence provided by Nature, and the Epicurean technique for evaluating that evidence, and determining from it what is true and what is false, is the central core of Epicureanism.

Epicurus held that Nature equips man with three categories of faculties which provide him evidence about the nature of his surroundings. The ability of each person to gather and evaluate this evidence varies, just as some men are born blind, others are born with perfect eyesight, and all men vary in their ability to understand those things that they perceive. As a rule, Nature equips healthy men with the following three categories of faculties: (1) the five senses – (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste), (2) the sense of pain and pleasure, and (3) the sense of innate conceptual knowledge which Epicurus called “preconceptions” or “anticipations.” These faculties provide evidence from which we may separate the true from the false, but the faculties by themselves do not perform this function. The faculties do not evaluate the information that they receive – it is the individual intellect which reasons and evaluates.

Through use of these three faculties we can observe those things that are directly before our eyes and our other senses. As we gather the evidence of those things which are most clearly before our sight, and we and add those observations additional evidence over time, we begin to see that all things are governed by unchanging laws of Nature which are always consistent and never contradictory. Evaluation of the evidence about things that are directly before us is relatively simple, and if we take those evaluations and apply them to evidence about matters which are more distant, and therefore less clear, we expand our knowledge. As we evalauate matters that are further distant and more unclear, we can never allow our attempts to reason to outrun, or contradict, the truths already established by more direct evidence. False philosophers tempt us to follow what they contend to be reasoning beyond what the evidence supports, and false religions tempt us to follow “faith” to conclusions about life after death, or the nature of the gods, that contradict the truths that are supported by direct evidence. Epicurus held that to give in to such temptations amounts to rebellion against Nature, and to do so guarantees confusion and makes living happily impossible.

An illustration of this process is found in Epicurus’ first fundamental physical principle: “Nothing can be created from nothing.” As with all other conclusions we deem to be valid, we know this to be true because it is consistent with everything that we have always observed clearly with our own eyes and in our own experience. Never have we seen anything that conflicts with this rule, and always what we do see is consistent with it. If we even for a moment grant the possibility that sometimes — perhaps five thousand years ago according to the Bible, perhaps billions of years ago according to speculative scientists who often have their own agendas – we have rejected our own observation that nothing is ever created from nothing. If we reject our own clearly-established evaluations, the we reject the laws of Nature which sustain not only all valid reasoning, but our very ability to live our lives.

To now greatly condense where this takes us, we next see that if nothing is or has ever been created from nothing, then those things that exist must be composed of some basic material that itself has never been created from nothing. In other words, the evidence before us supports the conclusion that the basic material of the universe, from which all things are composed, is ETERNAL. Because it is eternal, we conclude that this basic material of the universe has never been created from nothing – not by a god, and not by any other cause outside itself. Epicurus observed that in order to be eternal and indestructible this basic material must be indivisible, so he referred to it as “atoms” because it cannot be divided. This fundamental material, whether we think of it today as “atomic” or “subatomic,” has always existed, and possesses the same characteristics now that it always has possessed and always will possess, no matter how it moves and combines with other such material over the ages.

It is on this basic and eternal level, at which the atoms have always and will always exist according to their own laws and characteristics, on which Epicurus grounded the laws of Nature. Of these laws, four of the most significant were as follows:

First, the evidence of the Anticipations indicates to us that any “god” worthy of the name must be perfect – without flaw – and that emotions of anger or gratitude are not consistent with perfection. Our anticipations tell us that “Gods” do exist, as does life on other worlds throughout the universe, but all forms of life, including gods, came into being according to the laws of Nature, and are governed by those same laws. The universe functions on Natural laws established at the atomic level, and those Natural laws govern both us and the gods – there are no gods superior to Nature. From this we conclude that it is ourselves — not the gods — who determine our own actions and therefore deserve the credit or the blame for them. Because we have free will, the future is not set, and there is no fate for us but what we make for ourselves.

Second, Nature shows us through all our faculties that consciousness began at birth and ends at death. Because our consciousness ceases to exist at death there is no punishment or reward awaiting us after death. Just as all that happened before our birth has no effect on us while we live, neither does anything effect us after our death. What comes in life is everything to us; death is nothing to us.

Third, Nature has established that consciousness of being alive is itself the highest of pleasures, and it is only pain that detracts from our enjoyment of life. Nature provides that we require only a very few things (food, water, air, shelter), and it is an illusion to believe that more is required for us to live a life of complete happiness. Power, fame, material possessions – and an unlimited lifespan if that were possible – are not required for us to live happily, and in fact those attributes render human happiness very difficult or impossible.

Fourth, Nature has established that pain is neither continuous nor unconquerable, and therefore is not to be feared. Intense pain lasts only briefly, and either departs or brings our life to a quick end – but by either means is equally gone. Pain that is not intense is outweighed by the pleasure which is brought by consciousness itself, and even lesser pains generally departs in due course or becomes manageable over time. In the event that we find extended pain unbearable, it is easily within our power to escape such pain by ending our lives, and should that be necessary we need have no regret, as we know that all men have limited lifespans, and that Nature calls us to measure our success in living not by length, but by happiness.

This introduction only scratches the surface of the wisdom of Epicurus, and much depth of wisdom awaits the reader who will study the works collected here. All who wish to live happy lives, and all who wish to honor Nature rather than follow false religions and false philosophers, should heed the words of Lucretius:

O hearts in darkness!
Under what shadows and among what dangers
Your lives are spent, such as they are. But look –
Your nature snarls, yaps, barks for nothing, really,
Except that pain be absent from the body
And mind enjoy delight, with fear dispelled,
Anxiety gone.

Our life is spent
In shadows, and it suffers in the dark.
As children tremble and fear everything
In their dark shadows, we, in the full light,
Fear things that really are not one bit more awful
Than what poor babies shudder at in darkness,
The horrors they imagine to be coming.
Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled, then, not by sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into Nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation.

(Humphries translation)