The Life of Epicurus
Epicurus is one of the most famous ancient Greek philosophers, whose thinking has been influential through ancient philosophy, the Enlightenment, and through until today. So who was Epicurus? This article will walk through his life and his major accomplishments to better understand the man behind Epicureanism.
Early Life of Epicurus
Epicurus was born in 341 B.C. in Samos, an island colony of Athens in the Mediterranean Sea. His lifetime fits in the middle of two other famous Greek philosophers. He was born just seven years after Plato died, and he would study with some of Plato’s followers. Aristotle died in 322, when Epicurus was 19. His reflections on these two great philosophers would be essential to Epicurus’s own philosophy. Epicurus’s father, Neocles, was a military colonist who came with his family from Athens to Samos. After he and the other Athenians were expelled from Samos, he became a school teacher. His mother, Chairestrate, served as a priestess. Neocles and Chairestrate had three other sons, all of whom supported Epicurus later in life.
Adolescence and Education
The details of Epicurus’s early education are largely unknown. Sextus Empiricus, a slightly later philosopher, wrote that Epicurus first became interested in philosophy around the age of 14. In school, he asked his teacher about references to chaos in the works of Hesiod, a Greek poet from the seventh century B.C. Unable to answer, the teacher referred young Epicurus to the philosophers, sparking a lifelong interest.
We know that when he was 18, Epicurus served in the Athenian military for two years. Then, when hevwas about 20, he joined his family, who had been exiled from Samos, in Colophon, a city in modern-day Turkey. Over the next ten years, Epicurus must have received his formal training in philosophy and built a personal network of scholars. At least some of his early training was with a philosopher named Pamphilus, who was a student of Plato. This education must have given him a foundation in Platonic ideas, many of which he would later argue against.
Founding the Epicurean Garden
In his thirties, Epicurus held a number of brief teaching positions. However, his teachings appeared to be controversial, and he did not stay in one place for long. This changed when he moved to Athens in 306 B.C. At the time, Athens was the vibrant center of the philosophical world, making it a natural choice for a man such as Epicurus. However, being in Athens would also mean competing with the existing schools of Plato and Aristotle, the dominant strains of philosophy. By the time he came to Athens, he had built up a circle of followers, who followed him to the Greek city.
Epicurus purchased a house with a garden, where he and his closest disciples lived together. The house and garden developed into a full philosophical school, as Epicurus gave regular lectures in the garden. The philosopher and his students followed a simple way of life, opting for water and plain food. Unlike the other schools of philosophy in Athens, Epicurus’s garden admitted women as well as men, and slaves as well as free.
Within his school, Epicurus emphasized the importance of community, and he developed close friendships with a number of his students.
During his time teaching, Epicurus wrote prolifically. Historians estimate that he composed over 300 different works on philosophical subjects. Unfortunately, very few of these writings survive.
Today, only five of his original writings survive: two collections of quotes called Principle Doctrines and Vatican Sayings and three letters written to Menoecus, Pythocles, and Herodotus. Despite this very low survival rate, we actually have a greater percentage of Epicurus’s original works than we do for other contemporary philosophers.
Luckily, because Epicurus was so influential, we know about many of his teachings from other writers. Diogenes Laertius, a Greek biographer, for example, wrote about Epicurus and even listed his major works. Other famous writers such as Lucretius and Cicero wrote about his ideas. Some sections of his other writings, such as On Nature, survive in small papyrus fragments.
Are you familiar with Epicurus' work?
Illness and Death
Epicurus suffered from chronic illnesses throughout his life. Entering his seventies, he battled with dysentery and kidney stones. After a period of suffering, he died in 271 B.C., at the age of 72.
On his deathbed, he wrote an affectionate letter to Idomeneus, one of his students, in which he fondly remembered all of the pleasures of the soul he had experienced through discussing philosophy, despite being in bodily pain.
In his will, he left the house, garden, and money to his students in order to continue the school. And indeed, his teachings have been profoundly influential to following generations.
Epicurus’s teachings were highly controversial during his lifetime and in the centuries following his death. He opposed his ideas to the teachings of Plato, which were very popular among his contemporaries. His critics believed that his advocacy of pleasure was morally suspect, and many wrote scathing criticisms of Epicurus and his school, including unfounded rumors of sexual debauchery.
Despite the critiques, Epicureanism appealed to a great number of students. Between the third century BC and the first century AD, his ideas spread throughout the Mediterranean and were particularly popular in Italy. With the rise of Christianity, however, Epicureanism dwindled, as Stoicism fit better with Christian beliefs. It wasn’t until the fifteenth century that Epicurus and his ideas would have a resurgence of popularity.
I hope I've shown that the life of Epicurus is intimately related to his philosophy. This shows how it's a practical philosophy, it's an art of living well.
Diano, Carlo. “Epicurus: Greek Philosopher.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Epicurus
- Fish, Jeffrey and Kirk R. Sanders, editors. Epicurus and the Epicurean Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
O’Keefe, Tim. “Epicurus (431-271 B.C.E.).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://www.iep.utm.edu/epicur/
Konstan, David. “Epicurus.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 edition). https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epicurus/
Rist, John. Epicurus: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972.
© 2019 Sam Shepards