Epicurean Philosophy — epIcurus
Epicurean Philosophy — Epicurus The Epicurean philosophy received its name and its complete development from its founder Epicurus. Little was added to the system by its disciples. It was a reaction against the Socratic School, and constituted one of the most marked forms of speculation during the period of Greek decline. It exercised considerable influence over the Latin world in the decay of the Roman republic, and during the first two centuries of the empire. With important changes of form, but with little modifications of spirit, it survived the overthrow of ancient civilization, perpetuated itself through, out the Middle Ages, reappeared with the revival of philosophy, and may still be recognized in many recent theories.
The Epicurean philosophy, which has survived so many successions of empire, and so vast mutations of thought, is intimately connected with the earlier speculations of the Greeks. Its ethical views are directly deducible from the Cyrenaic School; but its dependence on the Eleatics is unmistakable. SEE ELEATIC SCHOOL. In physics it displayed an inclination to return to the Ionic method. It is, however, in immediate affiliation with the doctrines of Democritus and Leucippus. From them it derived its atoms, and the casual formation of the universe.
Notwithstanding its connections with previous modes of thought, the Epicurean philosophy is so definite in principle and form that it may be more readily treated without regard to its descent than almost any other type of speculation, ancient or modern.
The Epicurean philosophy was fully developed by its founder, and was long contained almost entirely in his numerous productions. These perished early. Fragments only have been preserved in the philosophical treatises of Cicero, the moral lectures of Seneca, and the late compilation of Diogenes Laertius. Epicurus's physical theory of the universe, which formed the basis of his theological and ethical conclusions, is transmitted to us in its integrity in the abstruse but brilliant poem of Lucretius. In consequence of the reverence of the disciples for the instructions of the master, and their abstinence from development of his teachings, Epicurus occupies a more prominent position in the exposition of his doctrine than any other Greek philosopher except Pythagoras. It is, accordingly, expedient to consider the circumstances of his life and the peculiarities of his character before entering upon the details of his system.
Life of Epicurus. — Epicurus was of pure Athenian descent; of a good family, though reduced to poverty; and settled in Samos, where his father Neocles was a cleruchus, and eked out a scanty support by the occupation of a school-master. His mother, Charestrata, added to the resources of a poor household by practicing enchantments and by other superstitious pretenses, in which she was aided by her son, who may thus have acquired an early contempt for the current theology and superstition. Epicurus was born at Samos, A.C. 342-1, seven years after the death of Plato, and within a year of Aristotle's acceptance of the office of tutor to Alexander the Great. About the time of Alexander's death, Epicurus came to Athens, at the age of 18, where he is supposed to have attended the instructions of Xenocrates in the academy. Aristotle was still teaching in the lyceum. Epicurus made no long stay at this time in the metropolis, but removed to Colophon and opened a school. He adopted the atomistic doctrine of Democritus, and during five years undertook to teach philosophy at Mitylene and Lampsacus. At the age of 35 he returned to Athens, taught philosophy there for a period of 36 years till his death, and became the founder of a sect, having at first been content with declaring himself a follower of Democritus. The groves of the academy were frequented by the Platonists under Xenocrates; "the shady spaces" around the lyceum were occupied by the Peripatetics under Theophrastus, who possessed a house and garden of his own within the precincts, which were bequeathed to his successors. Epicurus imitated the Peripatetic example, and purchased a garden in the heart of the city for 80 minae (about $1400 in gold). This abode, the celebrated horti Epicuri, became the place of instruction and of convivial assemblage, and gave name to the school, "the philosophy of the Garden." The life of Epicurus was "simple, temperate, and cheerful;" he was "a kind-hearted friend, and even a patriotic citizen." He kept aloof from the political distractions of the time, and took no part in public affairs. His maxim was λάθε βιώσας — avoid notice in life. The political and social disorders of the time, amid the wars of the Diadochi and the factious contentions of a city where liberty was supplanted by tyranny or anarchy, might suggest the philosophy which is supposed to have regulated his conduct, viz. that the mind alone is free; all without is at the mercy of capricious violence or incalculable contingencies. In the progress of civil discords and convulsions the only hope of tranquillity must be sought in absolute seclusion and disregard of public transactions.
In his quiet and graceful retreat, surrounded by affectionate pupils and admiring friends, enlivened by the frequent presence of brilliant hetaerae, one half of the long life of Epicurus was passed. His intercourse was characterized by genial good-humor, and his establishment was conducted with frugal elegance. His temperament and his doctrine, his habits and his precepts, were in entire unison. He sought and obtained for himself the gentle pleasure, the unruffled serenity which he preached to his hearers. He was laborious in the dissemination of his opinions. He is designated as πολυγραφώτατος by Diogenes, and is said to have written three hundred volumes, filled, of course, with repetitions. This copious authentic promulgation of his philosophy dispensed with any necessity for expansion or commentary. The theory was, indeed, so simple and perspicuous that nothing remained to be stated after the first exposition.
Before the death of Epicurus in A.C. 270, a rival school had arisen in Athens under the colonnades of the Painted Porch, and nearly every one of his tenets was directly opposed by Zeno of Citium and the Stoic philosophy, The reaction excited by the extreme materialism and fortuitism of Epicurus occasioned an equal extravagance on the other side. With Epicurus the universe was an aggregate of blind atoms compacted and diversified by an equally blind chance; with Zeno it was a divine organism, vital in all its parts, and governed by the immutable decrees of fate. With Epicurus the deities were incognizant or regardless of temporal affairs; with Zeno everything was controlled by a superintending Providence, whose will was an unalterable necessity, and manifested by the heavenly orbs (sidera conscia fati).
The Philosophy of Epicurus divides itself naturally into three parts, Theology, Ethics, and Physics. The last alone received any thoroughly systematic development. It was devised as a scientific basis for the two former, which were rather foregone conclusions, in which "the wish was father to the thought," than strictly logical deductions from established principles. The philosophy of Epicurus was designed for his own immediate satisfaction, and for the practical uses of life. The logomachies of Eleatics and Sceptics, Sophists and Socratics, had produced no settled convictions, and had arrested neither public calamities nor private wretchedness; a doctrine was desired which might bring peace to the individual, and restore happiness or enjoyment to life. The canonization of pleasure, the regulation and sanctification of natural passions, seemed to afford the solution required, and Epicurus was to his time what Fourier was to the last generation. In order to sanction pleasure as the guide of existence, it was necessary to get rid of the menaces of conscience and the terrors of heaven. Hence Epicurus practically denied the gods by relegating them to the eternal isolation of unconcerned indolence and reverie. This was regarded by his votaries as the most essential service of his career (Lucret. 1:63-80). But to exorcise the divinities and to abrogate religion, it was necessary to explain the marvelous order, economy, and variety of the creation, without recourse to a creator; to furnish, like La Place, a system of the world which should exclude the notion of a divine architect. This task Epicurus undertook, with such materials as were at hand. The Eleatic School had asserted an absolute severance of the divine and the transitory, and had devoted their regards to the former. Epicurus repudiated the former, and confined his attention to the material and sensible, disproving all creative or divine agency by his physical doctrine, and maintaining the: authority of carnal impulses and earthly pleasures by the repudiation of the gods and of their worship.
Theology of Epicurus. — Epicurus acquiesced in the existence of the gods, but denied them any participation in the process of the universe. He ascribed to them immortality and human form, and assigned to them attenuated and spectral bodies, as Milton also, appears to have done ("negat esse corpus deorum, sed tamquam corpus, nec sanguinem, sed tamquam sanguinem," Cic. De. Nat. Deor. 1:25). He accords to them indestructibility, immutability, and the serene happiness of eternal repose. Their tranquillity would have been disturbed by any care; accordingly, they are entirely unconcerned with everything that falls under human apprehension. This mode of recognizing and at the same time cashiering divinity has been recently imitated by Herbert Spencer. So far as human actions or thoughts are concerned, the gods are practically non-existent, and religion is nothing better than a vague and irrational superstition, founded upon dreams, and cherished by ignorant fear.
Ethics of Epicurus. — Without divine sanction, without responsibility or existence hereafter, with either reward nor penalty in a future life for "deeds done in the body," no real system of ethics is conceivable. There is no constraint, no obligation to rectitude; there is no moral compulsion; there is no domain for conscience; there can only be a more or less judicious and provident adaptation of actions to the judgments or dispositions of men, and to the supposed satisfaction of the individual. Morality without religion is a pretense and a delusion. A tranquil and pleasurable existence becomes the summum bonum of the sage; the gratification of every passion as it arises the sole duty of an eager and undisciplined nature. Every restraint is removed except such as may be voluntarily imposed; and though cool, impassive, and indolent dispositions may maintain an external propriety of demeanor when exposed to no temptation, there can be no guarantee for rectitude of conduct, and the license of all passions will be gratified by the unclean beasts who wallow in the Epicurean style. The insufficiency of the doctrine as a rule of conduct was exhibited from the very first. Epicurus placed the highest pleasure in undisturbed repose, but he considered every pleasure to be good in: itself; and his favorite disciple, Metrodorus, asserts that the dictates of natural reason would limit all care to the satisfaction of the belly, thus taking as the cornerstone of the system the declaration of Ecclesiastes, "All a man's labor is for his mouth." The stories which circulated in regard to the connection of Epicurus and his companions with Leontium, Marmarium, and other notorious ladies of the like persuasion, show that the tendencies of the doctrine were at once recognized, even if they were not illustrated in practice.
As all the religious foundations of virtue were removed, no logical foundation remained. The canonic of Epicurus, which was at once his logic and his metaphysics, amounted to the negation of any absolute or immutable truth. The sensible impression was the sole criterion of truth. Every sensation, as every general conception, was necessarily true; and we are here reminded, though in different modes and degrees, of the positions assumed by Des Cartes and by Hume. No guidance is accorded for the conduct of the understanding more assured than the immediate impression or the unregulated fancy, and the passions are thus left without any valid control by the reason. A life according to natural impulses becomes therefore the aim and the duty of a philosopher.
The Physics of Epicurus were devised as a means of escape from all divine authority and superintendence. They constitute the most elaborate, coherent, and original portion of the Epicurean system. Even here there was little real originality. Epicurus was a man of little learning, of little logical perspicacity; but he was actuated by a distinct purpose, and possessed of a clear rather than a penetrating mind. He diligently availed himself of everything subservient to his aims in previous systems, and worked out whatever accorded with his plans into a plausible and superficial scheme, in which consistency was little regarded, and acceptability assured by addressing the natural inclinations of men. The Physical Theory of Epicurus acquired more reputation in antiquity from its connection with theology and ethics, and from its exposition of Lucretius, than from any estimation in which it was held by the real students of science. The object of Epicurus was to explain, like Des Cartes, how the universe might have been formed and perpetuated without any foreign agency, though he went further than Des Cartes in rejecting even a divine agency for its first creation.
The leading lines of his physical doctrine are that matter is uncreated and indestructible. Its primitive elements are indivisible particles — atoms —
which are eternal and imperishable, passing through various combinations, and assuming new properties and forms according to these mutable compositions. These atoms are infinite in number, and solid, though so small as to be imperceptible by the senses. They possess gravity, and move downwards in an infinite vacuum. Their descent, however, is not in a uniform line; they are deflected by a spontaneous impulse, due to mere contingency, and come into collision, conjunction, composition with each other. Thus worlds, infinite in number, and infinitely varied in their phenomena, are formed. These atoms are in a continual state of vibration or oscillation, and from their concretions and dissolutions, their coherences and dissidencies, all the multitudinous changes of inorganic and organic nature are derived. All, however, are governed by chance alone; there is no compulsion, no necessity, no external law, no decree of fate. The cause of being is not extrinsic, but is involved in the process and act of being. No room is allowed for the operation of any conscious and ordaining intelligence; the world is nothing more than the curious result of uncomprehending, undesigning accidents. It will be observed that this theory of Epicurus differs from the vortices of Des Cartes in little more than in ascribing a straight, downward, but variable motion to the atoms in a vacuum, while Cartesianism assigns to them a gyratory movement and denies a vacuum. The difference is more obvious between this system and the recent doctrine of evolution, but the logical principle is the same — the construction and continuation of the universe by simple elements and simple forces generated within its own sphere, and independent of foreign determination. It is consequently not surprising that an attempt has been very recently made to bring the Epicurean Physics into harmony with modern science, whose present tendencies are in the direction of similar irrational self-sufficiency. A like attempt was made by Gassendi more legitimately, but without any permanent acceptance, in the 17th century; and it may be confidently asserted that, in an age of infidel appetencies, there will always be a revival of the Epicurean philosophy and Epicurean proclivities.
Authorities. — The historians of ancient philosophy: Bayle, tit. "Leucippi Lucrece;" Gassendi, De Vita et Moribus Epicuri (Hag. Comit. 1656, 4to); Syntagma philosophiae Epicuri (1659); Bremer, Versuch einer Apologie des Epicur (Berlin, 1776, 8vo); Rondel, La Vie d'Epicure (Par. 1679); Warnekros, Apologie und Leben Epicurs (Greifswald, 1795, 8vo); Munro, Lucretius, with a Translation and Notes (Cambridge and London, 1864, 2
volumes, 8vo); Lange, Gesch. des Materialismus (Iserlohn, 1866); North Brit. Rev. March, 1868. (G.F.H.)