When Thomas Jefferson wrote “I too am an Epicurean,” he was not referring to his taste in food or wine. Most people today are familiar with Epicurus only from the distortions spoken about him by his enemies, but Jefferson had thoroughly studied the man he considered his “master” and wrote in 1820, “I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.”
If you take away nothing else from this article and this website, open your mind to this: that much of what you may think you know about Epicurus is probably wrong. In the ancient world Epicurus’ fame once eclipsed that of Plato and Aristotle, and his Forty Authorized Doctrines were well known by educated people long before the Christian Bible was written. But what is generally taught about Epicurus today does not stem from Epicurus or his followers — most of whose work is lost to us today — as it does from the work of enemies of Epicureanism. Epicurus waged a philosophic war against false philosophers and false religions, and his enemies found their best defense was to distort and misrepresenting Epicurus’ true teachings.
For his views on the role of religion in life, false religionists condemned him as an atheist, even though he taught a more firm basis for belief in real otherworldly beings than did the religionists themselves. For his views on man’s ability to know truth, the false philosophers denounced him for rejecting the higher reason of Plato, even though he taught that all reason, to be valid, must be based on evidence. For his views of the role of pleasure in morality, both religionists and philosophers denounced him as a “hedonist,” even though he simply looking to Nature for an uncorrupted view of the goal of all living things.
The greatest part of the confusion about Epicurus that exists today arises because we tend to see some lesser aspect of Epicureanism as something that appears familiar, and we jump to the conclusion that Epicurus shared our own frame of mind on how he reached that conclusion. For example, many look at Epicurus’ devotion to simple pleasures and his shunning of politics as justification for all versions of ascetic living and passivity. A study of Epicurus will show that this is far from the truth, but the basic error arises because we fail to understand that each of Epicurus’s conclusions was an integrated part of a whole philosophy, and that common thread of this philosophy is a central insight about man’s means of knowledge: neither the “reason” of the academics nor the “divine revelation” of the religionists are valid means of showing us how to live according to Nature.
In place of the false roads of “reason” and “divine revelation,” Epicurus held that Nature equips men with a clear, simple, and direct road to truth. The ability of each person to follow this road varies from man to man, as some men are, for example, born blind. As a rule, however, Nature equips healthy men with three faculties with which to live their lives. These are (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 information on which we may then 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 these three faculties we observe those things that are directly before our eyes and our other senses. As we make additional observations, we begin to see that all things are governed by unchanging laws of Nature, which are always consistent and never contradictory. Proper evaluation of the information from our three faculties allows us to make reliable judgments about the reality that is directly before us. Further, if we use the information we already have, and evaluate it through the proper use of reason, we may expand our knowledge toward those matters which are so distant that we cannot grasp them directly and clearly. At this stage of evaluating what is unclear, however, we can never allow our reasoning intellect to contradict the truths already established by the three faculties. False philosophers and false religions tempt us to follow “reasoning” beyond what the evidence can support, and we are tempted to allow “faith” to lead us to views on death or on the gods that contradict the truths that we can establish for ourselves with our Natural faculties. Epicurus held that to give in to such temptation is to rebel against Nature, guarantees confusion, and makes living a happy life 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 others, or perhaps tomorrow according to the local priest; if we grant in any of those cases that nothing can sometimes be created from nothing — then we have rejected 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 can next see that if nothing is or has ever been created from nothing, then those things that exist must be composed of basic material that has never been created from nothing. In other words, the basic material of the universe, from which all things are composed is ETERNAL, and has never been created from nothing, not by a god, and not by any other cause. Instead, Epicurus observed that in order to be eternal this basic material must be indivisible, so he referred to it as “atoms” because it cannot be divided, and not because he was making a specific prediction about nuclear physics as we know it today. 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 at this basic and eternal level, at which the atoms have always and will always exist according to their own laws and characteristics, at which Epicurus identified the laws of Nature. For ease of recall the ancient Epicureans reduced these propositions about the laws of Nature to a list of forty, the so-called “Principal Doctrines.” These are stated in the form of propositions for which the sense mechanisms provided by Nature allow us to observe the evidence. Each doctrine is pregnant with deep implication, but the four most significant are:
“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.” Nature disposes men to find sugar to be sweet, fire to be hot, and music to be pleasing, and in a similar way Nature disposes men, through the sense of Anticipations, to perceive that just as imperfect things exist in the universe, so do perfect things — gods. To be worthy of the name, however, such gods must be regarded as perfect – without flaw – and without any attributes, such as feelings of anger or gratitude, that are not consistent with perfection. Thus Nature disposes man to the conclusion that Gods do exist, as do other species of animals and men on other planets, but all forms of life, including gods, have come into being according to the laws of Nature, and are governed by those same laws. One of those Natural laws is that men possess free will, and thus it is we — not the Gods — who deserve the credit or the blame for our actions. The future is not set, and there is no fate for us but what we make for ourselves..
“Death is nothing to us, because that which is dead has no sensations, and that which cannot be sensed is nothing to us.” Nature shows us through all our faculties that consciousness began at birth and ends at death. There is no Hell or punishment threatening us after death, and just as all that happened before our birth has no effect on us during our lives, neither does anything that happens after our death have any effect on us. What comes in life is everything to us; death is nothing to us.
“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.” Nature has established that the consciousness of being alive without pain is the highest of pleasure, and that man’s true needs are very simple — little more than food, water, air, and shelter. It is an illusion to believe that those things that are beyond the reach of the normal man are required in order to live a complete life. Neither power, fame, luxurious material possessions, or an unlimited lifespan are required to live happily — all that is required is to live according to Nature.
“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.” Nature has provided that we need not fear pain. Pain is not continuous, not unconquerable, and thus need not be feared. Intense pain lasts only briefly, and either departs quickly or brings life to a quick end, but by either means is equally gone. Pain that is not intense is outweighed by the pleasure which life itself gives to us, and even this pain generally departs in due course, or becomes manageable over time, as we continue to experience the pleasures of life. In such cases where we find extended pain to be unbearable, it is easily within our power to end such pain by ending our lives, and even in such cases we need have no regret, because Nature has called us to measure our success in life not by its length, but by its happiness.
This introduction only scratches the surface of the wisdom of Epicurus, but must now come to a close. 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, as translated by Humphries from Book II of The Nature of Things:
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,
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.