Philosophy 65 - 4.2.6 Epicureans

In the wake of the giants of Greek philosophy—Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—some philosophers turned away from Plato’s ideal forms and toward materialism. In this, they can be seen as furthering a trend already present in the thinking of Aristotle. For Aristotle, there can be no immaterial forms—everything that exists has some material basis, though he allows an exception for his first cause, the unmoved mover.

The Epicureans steadfastly rejected the existence of immaterial forms, unmoved movers, and immaterial souls. The Epicureans, like Aristotle, embraced empiricism, which means that they believed that all knowledge was derived from sense experience. This view was the basis of the revival of empiricism in 18th-century British thought and scientific practice. They espoused an ethical naturalism that held that in order to live a good life we must properly understand human nature. The ultimate goal of life is to pursue pleasure. Despite their disagreements with Plato and, to a lesser extent, Aristotle, the Epicureans agreed with their predecessors that human existence ought to be guided by reason.

The two principal Greek Epicureans were Epicurus himself (341–270 BCE) and his Roman disciple Lucretius (c. 99–55 BCE). Although Epicurus’s views are characterized as hedonistic, this does not mean that he believed that we ought to be indiscriminate pleasure-seekers. Instead, he proposed that people could achieve fulfilling lives if they were self-sufficient and lived free from pain and fear. Of course, complete self-sufficiency is just as impossible as a life utterly free from pain and fear, but Epicurus believed that we should strive to minimize our dependence upon others while limiting the pain in our lives. Epicureans thought that the best way to do this was to retire from society into philosophical communities far from the hustle and bustle of the crowd. Epicurus and Lucretius saw the fear of death as our most debilitating fear, and they argued that we must overcome this fear if we were going to live happy lives.

Lucretius developed Epicurean philosophy in a poem called De Rerum Natura (On the nature of things). This poem discusses ethical ideas, but physics provides its focus. Lucretius adopts a material atomism that holds that things are composed of atoms in motion. Rejecting religious explanations, he argues that the universe is governed by chance and exemplified by these atoms in motion. Although the Epicurean philosophers were critically responding to the work of Plato and Aristotle, it should be evident that they also have antecedents in Presocratic thought. We can see this in their atomism and their religious skepticism, which hearkens back to Xenophanes.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax