Gassendi’s Epicurus

This version of Gassendi’s Life and Doctrine of Epicurus comes from Volume III of Thomas Stanley’s 1660 “History of Philosophy.”  Due to size limitations, it is presented here in several parts.  Please note that this version contains typos, and should be checked against the PDF of the original here.  [Note re the PDF version: At the time this was published, the Herculaneaum busts of Epicurus had not been recovered, and apparently Stanley – or his publisher – was not aware of Epicurus’ true appearance.  The etching of Epicurus at the beginning of this book is not an accurate depiction of Epicurus.]

It should also be remembered when reading Gassendi’s commentary that he was a priest, and his statements and interpretations should be treated with caution necessarily associated with such a point of origin.  Gassendi is attempting to put as “christianized” a face as possible on Epicurus.  As stated on Wikipedia, “His best known intellectual project attempted to reconcile Epicurean atomism with Christianity.”

Beginning in 1645, Gassendi was chair of mathematics at the Royal College in Paris, and his position almost certainly was subject to scrutiny by the church. Wikipedia also cites the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy for the proposition that “There remains some controversy as to the extent to which Gassendi subscribed to the so-called libertinage érudit, the learned free-thinking that characterised the Tétrade, the Parisian circle to which he belonged, along with Gabriel Naudé and two others (Élie Diodati and François de La Mothe Le Vayer).  Gassendi, at least, belonged to the fideist wing of the sceptics, arguing that the absence of certain knowledge implied the room for faith.”

It is in epistemology, however, rather than ethics, that Norman DeWitt’s “Epicurus and His Philosophy” contains an important criticism of Gassendi:

“It is an even worse mistake to have confused the tests of truth with the content of truth, that is, the tools of precision with the stones of the wall. This was the blunder of Pierre Gassendi, who revived the study of Epicurus in the seventeenth century. It was his finding “that there is nothing in the intellect which has not been in the senses.” From this position John Locke, in turn, set out as the founder of modern empiricism. Thus a misunderstanding of Epicurus underlies a main trend of modern philosophy. This astonishing fact begets an even greater concern for a correct interpretation, which may cause Locke to appear slightly naive.”

The mistake of Gassendi, to which Locke fell a prey, was in confusing the test of knowledge with the source of knowledge. Epicurus based his Ethics upon his Physics and as a basis of his Physics he laid down the Twelve Elementary Principles, derived chiefly from his predecessors, the truth of which he made no pretence of deriving from sensation. Moreover, the test of the truth of all inferential conclusions was not single but triple, Sensations, Anticipations (innate ideas), and Feelings. The mind of the newborn infant, so far from seeming to him a blank tablet, was thought to have dimly inscribed upon it, as the venous system is outlined in the embryo, the patterns of the thoughts of the mature man. Locke’s theory of cognition, compared to that of Epicurus, is naive.”

As further evidence of this caution, it is useful to compare Gassendi’s statements regarding Epicurean ethics with those presdented in the letter of Cosma Raimondi.  Raimondi, even though writing two hundred years before Gassendi, is much more direct in describing how Epicurean philosophy contradicts Stoic and Platonic and Aristotelian positions, a conflict which is only implicit in the material that follows.

Tremendous thanks are owed to Ilkka V. for shouldering the great weight of getting the transcription to its current state.



1. The Life of Epicurus

2. The Doctrine of Epicurus

A. In General

B. The First Part of Philosophy, Canonick, of the Criteries

C. The Second Part of Philosophy, Physick, or, of Nature

D. The Third Part of Philosophy, Ethick, or Morals




The Life of Epicurus

Chap 1. Epicurus – His Country, Parents, Brethren

Chap 2. The Time of His Birth

Chap. 3. Where He Lived In His Younger Time

Chap 4. His Masters

Chap 5. When, and upon what occasion, he addicted himself to Philosophy, and instituted a Sect

Chap 6. His School

Chap 7. How He Lived With His Friends

Chap 8. His Friends And Disciples

Chap 9. How Much He Wrote

Chap 10. What Writings of His Are, Particularly, Mentioned By Authors

Chap 11. His Will

Chap 12. The Manner of His Death

Chap 13. The Time of His Death

Chap 14.  How Dear His Memory Was To His Followers

Chap 15. With What Constancy, And Unanimity, the Succession of His School Flourished

Chap 16. The Successors and Followers of Epicurus

Chap 17. Laertius, His Vindication of Epicurus


The First Part of Philosophy — Canonick, of the Criteries

Chap 1. Of Truth and Its Criteries

Chap 2. Canons of Sense – The First Criteria

Canon 1 – Sense is Never Deceived, and therefore every sensation, and every perception of an appearance, is true.

Canon 2 – Opinion Follows Upon Sense, and is Superadded to Sensation, and Capable of Truth or Falsehood.

Canon 3 – All Opinion Attested, or not contradicted by the evidence of sense, is true

Canon 4 – An Opinion, Contradicted or Not Attested by Evidence of Sense, is False

Chap 3. Canons of Praenotion or anticipation, the Second Criteria

Canon 1 – All Anticipation or Praenotion which is in the mind depends on the senses, either by Incursion, or Proportion, or Similitude, or Composition

Canon 2 – Anticipation is the very notion, and (as it were) definition of the thing, without which, we cannot enquire, doubt, think, nor so much as name any thing

Canon 3 – Anticipation is the principle in all discourse, as being that to which we have regard, when we infer that one is the same or divers, conjoyned or disjoyned from another

Canon 4 – That which is unmanifest ought to be demonstrated out of the anticipation of a thing manifest

Chap 4. Canons of Affection of Passion; the Third Criteria

Canon 1 – All Pleasure which hath no pain joined with it is to be embraced

Canon 2 – All Pain, which hath no pleasure joined with it, is to be shunned

Canon 3 – All Pleasure, which either hindreth a greater Pleasure, or Procureth a Greater Pain, is to be Shunned

Canon 4 – All Pain, which either putteth away a greater pain, or procureth a greater Pleasure, is to be embraced

Chap 5.  Canons Concerning the Use of Words

Canon 1 – When thou speakest, make use of words common and perspicuous, lest either thy meaning not be known, or thou unnecessarily waste time in explication

Canon 2 – When thou hearest, endeavor to comprehend the power and meaning of the words, lest either their obscurity keep thee in ignorance, or their ambiguity lead thee into error


The Second Part of Philosophy -– Physick , or, of Nature

Sect. 1 – Of the Universe, or the Nature of Things

Chap 1 – That the Universe Consists of Body and Vacuum, or Place

Chap 2 – That the Universe is Infinite, Immoveable, and Immutable

Chap 3 – Of the Divine Nature in the Universe.

Chap 4 – Of First Matter, Or, Of the Principles of Compound Things in the Universe

Chap 5 – That there are Atoms in Nature, Which are the Principles of Compound Bodies

Chap 6 – Of the Properties of Atoms; And First, of their Magnitudes

Chap 7 – Of the Figure of Atoms

Chap 8 – Of the Gravity (or Weight) and Manifold Motions of Atoms

Chap 9 – That Atomes (Not the Vulgar Elements or Homoiomera’s) Are the First Principles of Things

Chap 10 – Of the First, And Radicall Cause of Compounds, That Is, Of the Agent, Or Efficient

Chap 11 – Of Motion, Which is the Same With Action, Or Effection; And of Fortune, Fate, End, and Sympathetical and Antipathetical Causes

Chap 12 – Of the Qualities of Compound Things In Generall

Chap 13 – Qualities from Atoms Considered, According to their Substance, and Interception of Vacuum

Chap 14 – Qualities Springing from Atoms, Considered According to the Properties Peculiar to Each

Chap 15 – Qualities from Atoms, Considered According to their Properties, Taken Together

Chap 16 – Of Those Qualities Which Are Esteemed the Accidents of Things; and Particularly, of Time

Chap 17 – Of the Generation and Corruption of Compounds

Chap 18 – Whence it Comes, That A Generated Body Is in a Certain Kind of Things, And Distinguished From Other Things

Sect. 2 – Of the World

Chap 1 – Of the Form and Figure of the World

Chap 2 – Of the Late Beginning of the World

Chap 3 – Of the Cause of the World

Chap 4 – Of the Generation of the World

Chap 5 – Of the Vicissitudes In the World

Chap 6 – A Digression, Concerning Genii or Daemons

Chap 7 – Of the End or Corruption of the World

Chap 8 – Of Infinite Worlds

Sect. 3 – Of Inferiour Terrestriall Things

Chap 1 – Of the Earth Scituate In The Midle of the World

Chap 2 – Of Earth-quakes, and the Flames of Aetna

Chap 3 – Of the Sea, Rivers, Fountains, and the Over-flowing of the Nilus

Chap 4 – Of the Properties of Some Waters, and of Ice

Chap 5 – Of things Terrestriall Inanimate

Chap 6 – Of the Loadstone in Particular

Chap 7 – Of the Generation of Animals

Chap 8 – Of The Use of Parts In Animals

Chap 9 – Of the Soul, The Intrinsecall Form of Animals

Chap 10 – Of Sense in Generall, Which is the Soul (as it were) of the Soul

Chap 11 – Of Sight, And of the Images Which Glide Into It

Chap 12 – That Seeing is Perform’d By Means of Those Images

Chap 13 – Of Hearing

Chap 14 – Of Smelling

Chap 15 – Of Tasting

Chap 16 – Of Touching

Chap 17 – Of the Intellect, Mind, or Reason, and its Seat

Chap 18 – That the Soul Thinketh By Images, Which Glide Into It

Chap 19 – Of the Affections or Passions of the Soul

Chap 20 – Of Voluntary Motion, and Particularly, of speaking, and imposition of names

Chap 21 – Of Sleep and Dreams

Chap 22 – Of Death

Section 4 – Of Superiour Things, As Well Celestiall, As Aeriall

Chap 1 – Of the Substance and Variety of the Stars

Chap 2 – Of the Magnitude and Figure of the Stars

Chap 3 – How the Stars Move, Out-Run one Another, and Are Turned round

Chap 4 – Of the Rising and Setting of the Stars, and of the Alternate length of Dayes and Nights

Chap 5 -Of the Light of the Stars, and of the Changes and Spots in the Moon

Chap 6 – Of the Eclipses of the Stars, and Their Set Periods

Chap 7 – Of the Presignifications of the Stars

Chap 8 – Of Comets, And those which are called Falling Starrs

Chap 9 – Of Clouds

Chap 10 – Of the Wind And of Presters

Chap 11 – Of Thunder

Chap 12 – Of Lightning and Thunder-Claps

Chap 13 – Of Rain and Dew

Chap 14 – Of Hail, Snow, and Frost

Chap 15 – Of the Rain-bow, and Halos

Chap 16 – Of Avernall Places

Chap 17 – Of Pestilence



The Third Part of Philosophy – Ethick or Morals

Chap 1 – Of Felicity, Or the End of Good as Farre As Man Is Capable of It

Chap 2 – That Pleasure, Without Which there is no notion of Felicity, Is in Its Own Nature Good

Chap 3 – That Felicity Consists Generally in Pleasure

Chap 4 – That the Pleasure, Wherein Consists Felicity, Is Indolence of Body, and Tranquility of Mind

Chap 5 – Of the Means To Procure this Felicity; and of Virtues the Chiefe

Chap 6 – Of Right-Reason and Free-Will, From Which The Vertues Have All Their Praise

Chap 7 – Of the Vertues In General

Chap 8 – Of Prudence in General

Chap 9 – Private Prudence

Chap 10 – Domestick Prudence

Chap 11 – Civill Prudence

Chap 12 – Of Temperance in Generall

Chap 13 – Of Sobriety Opposite to Gluttony

Chap 14 – Of Continence, Opposite to Lust

Chap 15 – Of Meeknesse, Opposite to Anger

Chap 16 – Of Modesty, Opposite to Ambition

Chap 17 – Of Moderation, Opposite to Avarice

Chap 18 – Of Mediocrity, Betwixt Hope and Despair of the Future

Chap 19 – Of Fortitude In Generall

Chap 20 – Of Fortitude, As To Fear Of the Gods

Chap 21 – Of Fortitude, As to Fear of Death

Chap 22 – Of Fortitude Against Corporeall Pain

Chap 23 – Of Fortitude, Against Discontent of Mind

Chap 24 – Of Justice In Generall

Chap 25 – Of Jus (Right) or Just, Whence Justice Is Denominated

Chap 26 – Of The Originall of Right And Just

Chap 27 – Between Whom, Right And Justice Is To Be Exercised

Chap 28 – With What Right Justice Is To Be Exercised

Chap 29 – Of Beneficence, Gratitude, Piety, Observance

Chap 30 – Of Friendship

Chap 31 – Wherein Epicurus, Asserting Pleasure To Be The Ultimate Good, Differs From The Cyrenaicks