The Principal Doctrines of Epicurus
Epicurus’s Principal Doctrines are forty short sayings attributed to Epicurus (341-270 BC), the famous Greek philosopher. They do not survive in an original work of Epicurus, many of whose writings have not survived to the present day. Instead, they are quoted in the work of a later Greek philosopher, Diogenes Laertius (3rd c. AD). Laertius was a biographer of Greek philosophers, and we know nothing about his life outside of his work. One of his most famous pieces is his Lives and Sayings of Eminent Philosophers, which includes the Principal Doctrines of Epicurus. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know for sure whether Epicurus himself said the quotes attributed to him. Regardless, they capture many of the facets of Epicurean philosophy and his worldview.
In this article, we’ll go through some of the highlights of the Principle Doctrines of Epicurus and what they mean. At the end of the article, you’ll find suggestions for readings if you’d like to read the doctrines in their entirety or learn more about Epicureanism. All of the quoted doctrines below come from The Epicurus Reader, edited by Brad Inwood and L. P. Gerson or Erik Anderson’s translation of The Principle Doctrines of Epicurus.
The Nature of Gods
In his first doctrine, Epicurus talks about the nature of immortal gods.
- What is blessed and indestructible has no troubles itself, nor does it give trouble to anyone else, so that it is not affected by feelings of anger or gratitude. For all such things are a sign of weakness. (doctrine 1)
Within Epicurean philosophy, the gods are detached and perfect beings who, because they are perfect, must not have any troubles or negative emotions. Epicurus believed that this perfect state of being meant that the gods could not care about or involve themselves in human life.
Death and Anxiety
A key tenet of Epicurean philosophy is reducing anxiety, especially anxiety around death. In these three maxims, Epicurus talks about the nature of pain and death.
- Death is nothing to us. For what has been dissolved has no sense-experience, and what has no sense-experience is nothing to us. (doctrine 2)
- The removal of all feeling of pain is the limit of the magnitude of pleasures. Wherever a pleasurable feeling is present, for as long as it is present, there is neither a feeling of pain nor a feeling of distress, nor both together. (doctrine 3)
- The feeling of pain does not linger continuously in the flesh; rather, the sharpest is present for the shortest time, while what merely exceeds the feeling of pleasure in the flesh lasts only a few days. And diseases which last a long time involve feelings of pleasure which exceed feelings of pain. (doctrine 4)
Epicurus emphasizes that we can still find pleasure in the midst of pain. Even an appreciation of simply being alive can bring great pleasure, and one that you can recognize despite bodily pain. Doctrine 4 argues that all pain is temporary. Because of this, we should not fear future pain and be less anxious about current pain. And there is no pain after death, meaning that we should not fear it.
The Simplicity of True Pleasure
Epicurus argues that some desires, such as desires for wealth and power, are unnatural and destructive. True pleasures, on the other hand, come from simplicity and moderation. The following doctrines explore the peace of mind these pleasures can bring and caution against the attractions of power and wealth.
The purest security is that which comes from a quiet life and withdrawal from the many, although a certain degree of security from other men does come by means of the power to repel [attacks] and by means of prosperity. (doctrine 14)
Natural wealth is both limited and easily obtained, but vanity is insatiable. (doctrine 15)
Bodily pleasure seems unlimited, and to provide it would require unlimited time. But the mind, recognizing the limits of the body, and dismissing apprehensions about eternity, furnishes a complete and optimal life, so we no longer have any need of unlimited time. Nevertheless, the mind does not shun pleasure; moreover, when the end of life approaches, it does not feel remorse, as I it fell short in any way from living the best life possible. (doctrine 20)
Again, Epicurus emphasizes the superiority of simple mental pleasures over physical indulgence. The mind can easily obtain pleasure without unlimited time or resources, unlike the body.
Other Doctrines of Epicurus
The remainder of Epicurus’s Principal Doctrines deal with friendship, justice, nature, and virtue. If you’re looking to introduce yourself to Epicurean philosophy, they’re a great place to start. Don't forget to check out the Vatican Sayings of Epicurus.
Anderson, Erik. “The Principle Doctrines of Epicurus.” 2006. http://blogs.ubc.ca/phil102/files/2013/08/Epicurus-PrincipalDoctrines-epicurusinfo.pdf
DeWitt, Norman Wentworth. St. Paul and Epicurus. University of Minnesota Press, 1954.
DeWitt, Norman Wentworth. Epicurus and his Philosophy. University of Minnesota Press, 1954.
Hicks, Robert Drew. “Principle Doctrines by Epicurus.” MIT Classis. http://classics.mit.edu/Epicurus/princdoc.html
Inwood, Brad and L. P. Gerson, The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testomonia. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994.
“The Doctrines and Sayings of Epicurus.” NewEpicurean.com. https://newepicurean.com/suggested-reading/master-list-of-crucial-doctrines-and-sayings/
© 2020 Sam Shepards