The Authorized Doctrines of Epicurus
Our knowledge of Epicurus’ Principle Doctrines today comes mainly from Diogenes Laertius, who ended his biography of Epicurus with an appendix which he introduced as follows:
Let us … now add the finishing stroke, as one may say, to this whole treatise, and to the life of the philosopher; giving some of his fundamental maxims, and closing the whole work with them, taking that for our end which is the beginning of happiness.
It is not clear whether Diogenes Laertius organized this list himself, or adopted it from an earlier document prepared by Epicurus or by his immediate students. We do know, however, that Epicurus personally endorsed the use of outlines in studying the laws of nature, so it is entirely possible that this list dates to the earliest years of the founding period of Epicureanism.
It is also clear that for hundreds of years the Epicurean community promoted the distribution of copies of this celebrated list. Almost 150 years after the death of Lucretius, the Greek satirist Lucian referenced the list in glowing terms. In his work entitled “Alexander the Oracle-Monger,” Lucian recorded how the list was detested by Epicurus’ enemies, but revered by his followers:
In this connection Alexander once made himself supremely ridiculous. Coming across Epicurus’ Accepted Maxims, the most admirable of his books, as you know, with its terse presentment of his wise conclusions, he brought it into the middle of the market-place, there burned it on a fig-wood fire for the sins of its author, and cast its ashes into the sea. He issued an oracle on the occasion: “The dotard’s maxims to the flames be given.” The fellow had no conception of the blessings conferred by that book upon its readers, of the peace, tranquility, and independence of mind it produces, of the protection it gives against terrors, phantoms, and marvels, vain hopes and insubordinate desires, of the judgment and candor that it fosters, or of its true purging of the spirit, not with torches and squills and such rubbish, but with right reason, truth, and frankness.
Lucian characterized the list as “terse” for good reason. As we have it today, the list contains neither introduction nor elaboration, and the doctrines are stated in the form of fundamental observations which often require significant reflection in order to grasp the full implication. Also, the order of organization does not flow as might be expected with one proposition building on the next. Instead, the list seems to be ordered in order of practical significance, in other words, in order of the frequency with which the principle would be needed in the everyday life of an Epicurean.
The famous first four doctrines, for example, cover the greatest concerns that most men have about the nature of life, and it is not until we reach doctrine twenty-two that the list addresses the method of thinking by which these and the other doctrines are established to be true. As a result, readers who approach the list should first obtain a basic grasp of the Epicurean world-view by reviewing basic documents such as the Letter to Menoceus and the material excerpted here as part of the Introduction to Epicurus’ Canon of Truth, which includes the Letter to Herodotus and the Letter to Pythocles.
Note: In the presentation below, the Doctrines are listed in paraphrased form in the order given by Diogenes Laertius. To assist in further study, each doctrine is also hyperlinked to a page where supporting citations from other Epicurean literature are collected.
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 only exist in the weak.
3. The limit of quantify 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.
4. In contrast to pleasure, nature does not provide that we suffer continuous pain. When pain is intense, it is present only for a very short time, and when pain is not intense, but outweighs the pleasure that we also feel, such pain does not last very long. And in those situations where physical pain does last for a long time, our lives still have in them more pleasure than pain.
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.
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.
8. In regard to our desire for pleasure, 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.
9. Although we may unthinkingly desire it, if any pleasure could be intensified so that it did not come to an end, and affected the whole person, there would be no room for the experience of new pleasures.
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.
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.
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.
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 to the mind.
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 of infinite time. The wise man neither flees enjoyment, nor, when events cause him to exit from life, does he look back as if he has missed any essential aspect of life.
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.
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.
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 five senses, from the sense of pain and pleasure, and from the conceptions of the mind which arise 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.
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.
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.
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.
31. Those desires that are natural, and which are not painful if not satisfied, may nevertheless sometimes be violent or obstinate. In such cases it is not their own nature that makes them difficult to dispel, but a mixing in of vain imagination.
33. 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.
36. 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.
37. 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.
38. 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.
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.
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.