The Epicurean Worldview
Epicurus is one of history’s most famous philosophers, but most people today are unfamiliar with his teachings. If the name does ring a bell, you might have heard of Epicurus as a hedonistic Greek philosopher, with an indulgent pleasure-seeking lifestyle. In fact, Epicurus as one of the most frequently misunderstood philosophers. His ideas were not about material indulgence, but about finding happiness through wisdom and moderation.
In the following article, you can read an overview of the key tenets of Epicurus’s philosophy – the beliefs that shape an Epicurean worldview. If you’d like to learn more about Epicurus’s life and works, you can read our other articles about him here.
Epicurus’s philosophy has its foundation in metaphysics. His worldview starts from a simple premise: everything in the world is either body or empty space, which he referred to as the void. Epicurus believed that physical bodies were composed of constituent parts, which could not be further divided: atoms. Because we can observe physical bodies move, there must be space for them to move through: void.
Epicurus believed that if atoms could multiple or disappear, the world would dissolve into endless destruction or multiplication. Therefore, his physics held that atoms, the building blocks of the world, are unchanging. Essentially, the matter of the world has always been the same. Change in the universe, according to the Epicurean worldview, comes from the movement of atoms. Epicurus posited that atoms have a natural downwards motion, but with a tendency to randomly swerve to the side. It is this swerve that leads to the collision of atoms, and major changes such as the creation of planets.
Lucretius, a later Epicurean philosopher (c. 99-55 B.C.), expanded on this idea of the swerve in his famous book De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), which helped to carry Epicurean philosophy into the Renaissance and the modern world.
The Gods in Epicureanism
Because Epicurus and his followers attributed causation to swerving atoms rather than gods, many people have accused Epicureanism of being atheist. This is not entirely true. Epicurus did not deny the existence of gods, but he believed that the gods do not interfere in the mortal world. In fact, Epicurus believed that the gods did not know or care about human activity.
Standard Greek religion saw the gods as loving, happy beings. Epicurus argued that the existence of evil and misery in the world meant that caring gods could not be in charge. Instead, he believed they lived in the intermundia, or space between worlds.
To humans, the gods’ principle role is as an ethical ideal, one that can inspire moral living. But humans do not need to worry about the gods’ interference. Likewise, praying can be useful as a religious activity, but will not actually produce help from the gods.
The Pursuit of Pleasure
The core of Epicurean ethics is the belief that the purpose of life is the pursuit of pleasure. This philosophy in general is called hedonism, but Epicureanism is set apart in the way it understands pleasure. Epicurus observed that striving for pleasure is a universal impulse among humans and animals. Babies, for example, naturally seek food, drink, and comfort.
As people grow up, pleasure continues to be the only thing that we value for its own sake. To live a happy and ethical life, according to Epicurean philosophy, humans should pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Pleasure, however, is not as simple as unlimited bodily sensation.
Epicurus identified multiple kinds of pleasure. The first, as you might expect, is pleasures of the body: eating, drinking, intimacy, and being free from pain. He also identified pleasures of the mind: joy, lack of fear, pleasant memories, wisdom, and friendship.
For Epicurus, the pleasures of the mind were more important than the pleasures of the body, although both are worth pursuing. Pleasures of the mind, inspired by learning and understanding, could last even in the midst of bodily pain.
Kinds of Desires
Epicurus also categorized desires into those that were natural or unnatural and necessary or unnecessary. The desire to eat, for example, is natural and necessary. The desire to eat rich food might be natural but is unnecessary. Unnecessary desires can be positive in moderation, but should be pursued with caution. For example, eating rich food might deliver the pleasure of feeling full, but could soon lead to the pain of indigestion. In practice, pursuing Epicurean pleasure boils down to moderation.
During Epicurus’s lifetime, he and his followers lived a simple lifestyle, preferring plain food such as bread and cheese. Epicurus also categorized intercourse as natural but not necessary. As a result, Epicurus did not support marriage, thinking that it lead to excessive intercourse.
The final category of desires is neither natural nor necessary. These are typically the product of human society, such as desires for fame, power, and wealth. Within the Epicurean worldview, these kinds of desires are destructive because they can never be fulfilled.
Fear of Death
Pursuing pleasure also means being free from pain and fear. The biggest fear that Epicureanism works to avoid is the fear of death. Within the Epicurean worldview, death means the dissolution of our atoms into other forms. This means that after death there is no sensation.
While some people might feel anxious about this absence, Epicurus argued that it should be reassuring: we have nothing to fear about death; there is no pain or suffering past the end of our lives. Realizing this should lead us to fully enjoying our present happiness. When we do not have to worry about pleasing the gods or attaining an afterlife, we can focus on living an ethical and happy life.
Epicurus, Epicurus’s Morals. Translated by John Digby. London, 1712. https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001381090
Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: Norton and Company, 2011.
O’Keefe, Tim. “Epicurus (431-271 B.C.E.).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://www.iep.utm.edu/epicur/
Rist, John. Epicurus: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972.
Simpson, David. “Lucretius (c. 99 – c. 55 B.C.E.).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://www.iep.utm.edu/lucretiu/
Walter, Englert. Epicurus on the Swerve and Voluntary Action. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987.
© 2019 Sam Shepards