Jacques Maritain Center : A History of Western Philosophy Vol. I / by Ralph McInerny

Part III: The Hellenistic Period

Chapter I


Epicurus was born on the island of Samos in 341 B.C. He was an Athenian citizen since Samos was in league with Athens; consequently, in 323, Epicurus went to Athens to fulfil his two year military obligation. In 321, Epicurus rejoined his family, which had moved to Colophon. A ten-year period was devoted to study and then, in 311, when Epicurus was thirty, he set himself up as a teacher at Mytilene; the following year he transferred to Lampsacus where he taught for four years after which, in 306, he and the school that had gathered around him, moved to Athens. Epicurus spent the rest of his life in Athens, though we are told of several visits to Lampsacus; in 271 B.C. Epicurus taught in the garden of the home he bought in Athens; it is thought that he chose this location because it exempted him from a law then in effect which required approval of the Senate and the Assembly to open a school. Indeed, Theophrastus, Aristotle's successor in the Lyceum, was in exile and the Academy was under attack. Epicurus decided against public teaching.

Epicurus and the philosophy named after him have been objects of vituperation since ancient times. This was due in no small part to the cavalier way in which Epicurus dealt with other philosophies. He is said to have studied under the Platonist Pamphilus, perhaps for four years, at Samos, beginning at the age of fourteen. After his military service, he studied in Rhodes with Praxiphanes, an Aristotelian. Epicurus denied having studied under him, however, and this contributed to his reputation as an ingrate. Diogenes Laertius records some of the accusations leveled against Epicurus in antiquity, and adds,

But these people are stark mad. For our philosopher has abundance of witnesses to attest his unsurpassed goodwill to all men -- his native land, which honored him with statues in bronze; his friends, so many in number that they could hardly be counted by whole cities, and indeed all who knew him held fast as they were by the sirencharms of his doctrine . . . . (Z,9)

As significant as anything is the information that of all the philosophical schools, only the Epicurean was still flourishing when Diogenes wrote in the third century of our era. DeWitt's book{4l} is a lengthy attempt to rescue Epicurus, not so much from personal denigration as from interpretations he attempts to show have little or no basis in the evidence we have.

Diogenes Laertius says that Epicurus was a prolific author, surpassing all his predecessors in the number of his writings. Diogenes himself transmits his will and three letters, one being known as the Little Epitome. He also tells us what the division of philosophy is according to Epicurus.

It is divided into three parts -- Canonic, Physics, Ethics. Canonic forms the introduction to the system and is contained in a single work entitled The Canon. The physical part includes the entire theory of nature: it is contained in the thirty-seven books Of Nature, and, in a summary form, in the letters. The ethical part deals with the facts of choice and aversion: this may be found in the books On Human Life, in the letters, and in his treatise Of the End. The usual arrangement, however, is to conjoin canonic with physics, and the former they call the science which deals with the standard and the first principle, or the elementary part of philosophy, while physics proper, they say, deals with becoming and perishing and with nature; ethics, on the other hand, deals with things to be sought and avoided, with human life and the end-in-chief. (X,30)

A. Canonic

This indispensable first part of philosophy concerns itself with sensations, preconceptions and feelings as standards of truth.

Every sensation Epicurus says, "is devoid of reason and incapable of memory; for neither is it self-caused nor, regarded as having an external cause, can it add anything thereto or take anything therefrom. Nor is there anything which can refute sensations or convict them of error: one sensation cannot convict another and kindred sensation, for they are equally valid; nor can one sensation refute another which is not kindred but heterogeneous, for the objects which the two senses judge are not the same; nor again can reason refute them, for reason is wholly dependent on sensation; nor can one sense refute another, since we pay equal heed to all." (X,32)

Reason, as Plato and Aristotle would speak of it, plays no role in the Epicurean explanation because Epicurus, as we shall see, simply does not recognize such an entity. The passage just quoted indicates that he held to the infallibility of sensation, a position reminiscent, as DeWitt notes, of Aristotle's. Sight is not deceived with respect to its proper object, nor is hearing, nor any other sense. Error arises only with judgment. Sensation itself is the momentary registering of a quality -- it is this momentary character that Epicurus seems to have in mind when he says sensation has no memory. Moreover, it is dependent on the external, incapable of eliciting itself, a passive reaction, therefore. Does Epicurus want to maintain that the senses never mislead us, that the problem of wine tasting sour to the sick man and sweet to the well man is fictional? It seems plausible that he would reply that sourness and sweetness are different reports, and equally true relative to the tasters. It is not here that error lies. "He was consequently at pains to locate the source of error, and he found it in the hasty action of the automatic mind. For example the boat on which the observer is a passenger is standing still but it seems to be moving when a second boat is passing by. In such an instance the eyes are not playing the observer false; it is the hasty judgment of the automatic mind that is in error." (DeWitt, p. 137) As Diogenes puts it,

For all our notions are derived from perceptions, either by actual contact or by analogy, or resemblance, or compostion, with some slight aid from reasoning. And the objects presented to madmen and to people in dreams are true, for they produce effects -- i.e. movements in the mind -- which that which is unreal never does. (X,32)

It is obvious that "true" here is synonymous with "real;" that is, dreamers really dream dreams, truly dream dreams. "Notions" at the beginning of this passage indicates something over and above the direct impression of qualities in sensation, and their derivation from sensation is emphasized. This has led to the interpretation that Epicurus allows for no knowledge which is not derived from sensation, an interpretation which can be traced in no small part to the fact that Lucretius concentrates on sensation and has nothing to say of the preconceptions and feelings as criteria. When the preconceptions are taken into account, we find a somewhat different teaching than is usually attributed to Epicurus. To conclude the statement on sensation, we can say, following DeWitt, that when Epicurus says that all sensations are true he means the proper objects of the five senses and not judgments made in terms of notions formed on the basis of such immediate sensory reports; e.g., if one tastes sweetness he tastes sweetness and no mistake; but to judge that he is tasting honey, though based on the sensation, is liable to error.


By preconception they mean a sort of apprehension or a right opinion or notion, or universal idea stored in the mind; that is, a recollection of an external object being presented, e.g., Such and such a thing is a man: for no sooner is the word 'man' uttered than we think of his shape by an act of preconception, in which the senses take the lead. Thus the object primarily denoted by every term is then plain and clear. And we should never have started an investigation, unless we had known what it was that we were in search of. For example: The object standing yonder is a horse or cow. Before making this judgment, we must at some time or other have known by preconception the shape of a horse or a cow. We should not have given anything a name, if we had not first learnt its form by way of preconception. (X,33)

This account of Diogenes is vehemently rejected by DeWitt who now calls Diogenes a "stodgy compiler" though earlier his account was said to be excellent. DeWitt would distinguish between the general and the abstract, an example of the former being "horse," of the latter justice. Now, Diogenes has made preconception or anticipation (prolepsis) refer to the general; DeWitt feels it must be referred rather to the abstract, and what is involved in an anticipation of experience, an inborn conception not reducible to sensation.

Perhaps to speak of preconception or anticipation as instinct would not be too misleading, since we use this word in a way which suggests what is prior to actual experience. DeWitt makes the suggestion that, as Plato appealed to preexistence and anamnesis to explain the learning process, Epicurus, for whom the soul neither antedates nor survives the body, opts for innate ideas. Thus, we have an idea of justice and, as well, an idea of god. These ideas are sketches and anticipations of future experience and to that degree are introduced by Epicurus as canons of thought. Needless to say, if, as many have said, Epicurus did not mean something like innate ideas by preconception, it is difficult to see why preconception would be an element of the canonic.

Feelings. "They affirm that there are two states of feeling, pleasure and pain, which arise in every animate being, and that the one is favorable and the other hostile to that being, and by their means choice and avoidance are determined." (X, 34) The elevation of pleasure and pain into criteria underlies the hedonism of Epicurus. This is not to say that the only pleasure recognized by Epicurus is that of the flesh; although for him soul was also corporeal, nevertheless, its pleasures were of a higher kind than those of the body and to be preferred. In the first instance, of course, pleasure and pain are consequent upon sensation. And we can easily see what he meant by speaking of these feelings as criteria. Pain alerts us to the harmful, pleasure is an indication that something is conducive to our well-being; hence the role pleasure and pain are made to play in the training of the young. But pleasure is the goal as well as the beginning of the happy life, that is, happiness becomes that for which one consciously strives. From this point of view, happiness becomes a criterion according to which we judge. We shall have more to say about the feelings as criteria when we speak of the ethics of Epicurus.

B. Physics

We shall base ourselves here on the letter to Herodotus, preserved by Diogenes Laertius, in which Epicurus attempts an epitome of his physical doctrine. That doctrine, accordingly, is reduced to a few key doctrines, suitable for memorization, from which the details of the system are deducible. "To the former, then -- the main heads -- we must continually return, and must memorize them so far as to get a valid conception of the facts, as well as the means of discovering all the details exactly when once the general outlines are rightly understood and remembered. . ." (X, 36) In pursuing the elementary doctrine, we must be aware of the proper meanings of the words we use and subject what is said to the criteria set forth in the canonic. Epicurus begins with the problem of presocratic physics, with the Parminidean difficulty.

To begin with, nothing comes into being out of what is non-existent. For in that case anything would have arisen out of anything, standing as it would in no need of its proper germs. And if that which disappears had been destroyed and become non-existent, everything would have perished that into which the things were dissolved being non-existent. Moreover, the sum total of things was always such as it is now, and such it will ever remain. For there is nothing into which it can change. For outside the sum of things there is nothing which could enter into it and bring about the change. (X,39)

We have here the acceptance of the dilemma of Parmenides: matter cannot come to be nor can it cease to be. Everything is as it has always been, since no fundamental change is possible. For a more positive account, Epicurus takes over the atomic doctrine of Democritus: ". . . the whole of being consists of bodies and space." (X, 39) The existence of bodies is clear from sensation; that of space from the fact that, were there none, bodies would have nothing in which to be and through which to move. There is nothing besides bodies and space. The beginning of the Epicurean physics, then, brings us back to very familiar ground. Being cannot come to be; being cannot cease to be; what is are bodies and the space in which they are and move.

Again, of bodies some are composite, others the elements of which these composite bodies are made. These elements are indivisible and unchangeable, and necessarily so, if things are not all to be destroyed and pass into non-existence, but are to be strong enough to endure when the composite bodies are broken up, because they possess a solid nature and are incapable of being anywhere or anyhow dissolved. (X,41)

These elements or atoms are fundamental beings and there is an infinite number of them just as the void in which they are and move is infinite in extent. The atoms differ from one another by shape, weight and size and are always in motion. Since atoms are infinite in number and space infinite in extent, there is an infinity of worlds.

If atoms and void exhaust being, the soul like the body is composed of atoms. Bodies are constantly giving off a stream of atoms, which does not diminish them, since other atoms immediately take the place of those departing. As atoms leave the body, they retain the shape of the body; thus the air is filled with images or eidola of bodies and it is thanks to contact with these that vision takes place. Given this, no vision can be uncaused although, as was indicated above, this does not mean that we never make mistakes about things seen.

For the presentations which, e.g., are received in a picture or arise in dreams, or from any other form of apprehension by the mind, or by the other criteria of truth, would never have resembled what we call the real and true things, had it not been for certain actual things of the kind with which we come in contact. Error would not have occurred, if we had not experienced some other movement in ourselves, conjoined with, but distinct from, the perception of that which is presented. And from this movement, if it be not confirmed or be contradicted, falsehood results; while, if it be confirmed or not contradicted, truth results. (X,51)

Error here is seen to arise, not from sensation itself, but from a conjoined movement whose source is within us. Epicurus explicitly states that he is here concerned to defend the criteria of truth set forth in the canonic.

If sensation is explained by the flow of atoms from bodies, we must not conclude that the atoms have the qualities we perceive.

Moreover, we must hold that the atoms in fact possess none of the qualities belonging to things which come under our observation, except shape, weight and size, and the properties necessarily conjoined with shape. For every quality changes, but the atoms do not change, since, when the composite bodies are dissolved, there must needs be a permanent something, solid and indissoluble, left behind, which makes change possible. (X,54)

The soul itself is said to be composed of fine particles which are dispersed throughout the bodily frame "most nearly resembling wind with some admixture of heat, in some respects like wind, in others like heat." If there is a gradation of the atoms which accounts for the difference between body and soul, there is also a gradation in the soul atoms. Epicurus spoke of a rational and an irrational part of the soul and it is the irrational part which is dispersed throughout the body; the rational resides in the breast. Sensations are borne from the periphery of the body to the mind while emotions move from the mind in the contrary direction. "Move" here is not metaphorical, since both sensation and emotion consist of movement of atoms. The activity of mind is conceived by Epicurus as being either automatic or volitional. The automatic mind receives the data of sensation and speedily assesses and judges. Such judgments are often in error because they go beyond the sensory reports, from sweet to honey, for example. The volitional mind operates in terms of the preconceptions or anticipations and passes judgment.

C. Ethics

The philosophy of Epicurus moves towards the ethics as to its term. In the letter to Menoeceus, recorded by Diogenes Laertius, the ethical doctrines are preceded by a general statement concerning the pursuit of wisdom. There follow considerations which will aid one in the pursuit of happiness. First, Epicurus warns against accepting the usual view of the gods which makes of these vindictive entities, angered by our misdeeds, pleased by our virtues. Nor must we entertain any fear of death. Death is neither good nor evil, since these can be said only of things sensed and death is the end of sentience for us.

For life has no terrors for him who has thoroughly apprehended that there are no terrors for him in ceasing to live. Foolish therefore is the man who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatsoever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. (X,125)

The wise man neither deprecates life nor fears death. Those who say that it were best for a man not be born are wrong as well as inconsistent; if they believed themselves, they should quit talking and commit suicide.

We must also reflect that of desires some are natural, others are groundless; and that of the natural some are necessary as well as natural, and some natural only. And of the necessary desires some are necessary if we are to be happy, some if the body is to be rid of uneasiness, some if we are even to live. (X,127)

For the end of all our actions is to be free from pain and fear, and, when once we have attained all this, the tempest of the soul is laid; seeing that the living creature has no need to go in search of something that is lacking, nor to look for anything else by which the good of the soul and of the body will be fulfilled. (X,128)

Pleasure is the beginning and the fulfillment of a happy life. Epicurus takes a genetic view of human life. The standard of choice and aversion of the child, of man, that is, in a natural state, is clear and obvious. In this sense feeling is a criterion of choice, not that every pleasure is pursued and every pain avoided; rather, there is a calculus, an art of perspective, whereby some pains are sustained in view of a future pleasure which outweighs them; some pleasures are ignored because they would lead to a pain incommensurate with the pleasure. "it is, however, by measuring one against another, and by looking at the conveniences and inconveniences, that all these matters must be judged." (X, 130) The mark of this hedonism is not a surplus of bodily goods and pleasures, but contentment with a minimum. Indeed, the Epicurean ideal is indifference to external goods, an effort whereby one habituates himself to simple fare, to the necessities of life. Despite the connotation "epicure" has taken on, sensual pleasure is discounted. "When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or wilful misrepresentation." (X, 131)

As the canonic indicates, Epicurus wants to make nature the guide; he seeks the fundamental indication of nature and, in ethics, the drive of our own nature towards certain goals. Having rejected the Platonic and Aristotelian views according to which the soul is capable of existence apart from the body, Epicurus must secure his ethical doctrine within the confines of birth and death. There has been no previous state, there will be no state subsequent to that in which we now find ourselves. The great good then is life. When he wants to indicate what the good, what pleasure is, Epicurus speaks of narrowly escaping death. The pleasure we then feel indicates that the radical good is to be alive. Pleasure is the fulfilment of life, but life itself is the fundamental good. Paradoxically, this placing of ultimate value in life is coupled with an exhortation to indifference towards death. Tranquility of mind is impossible when one fears death; death is quite simply the end, should not be feared; to know this is to be on the way towards peace of mind. How can nature be a guide if everything is atoms and void? In accepting the Democratean physics, Epicurus has adopted a world which is not the product of intelligence as is the world of Anaxagoras or Aristotle; it is the result of a chance collision of atoms. And yet, Epicurus introduces a doctrine of a "swerve" in the perpetual movement of the atoms, which is supposed to allow for spontaneity, freedom and consequently responsibility. Contrary to what we might think his atomism would suggest, Epicurus says the wise man will not be fatalistic.

Destiny, which some introduce as sovereign over all things, he laughs to scorn, affirming rather that some things happen of necessity, others by chance, others through his own agency. For he sees that necessity destroys responsibility and that chance or fortune is inconstant; whereas our own actions are free, and it is to them that praise and blame naturally attach. (X,133)

Better to accept the myths about the gods than the philosophical doctrine that all is determined.

The passage quoted earlier about the differences between desires contains a doctrine which led Epicurus to conclude that nature has set a limit to pleasures. If we have a natural desire for food, this does not mean that nature prompts us to eat always or in any amount. The distinction of desires is not to be taken as implying that some pleasures are better than others. Epicurus recognizes a gradation among the atoms, a difference of body and soul, but he will not allow that pleasure, any pleasure, is other than good. Pursuit and avoidance are decided on the basis of consequences, but each pleasure is a good in itself, each pain an evil in itself. The emphasis on mental pleasure, the joy of contemplation, by Plato and Aristotle is not unconnected with their conviction of the destiny of the soul after this life; Epicurus tends to reduce pleasures to a kind of sameness, although, according to Diogenes Laertius, he differs from the Cyrenaics by holding that mental pain is worse than bodily. Nevertheless, the keynote of the Epicurean ethics is to be found in ataraxy, the mental state of tranquility which differs from kinetic pleasures in being a state of repose and rest. Perhaps it is this state of mind that is envisaged when Epicurus denies that virtue is its own reward, that it can somehow be justified apart from the pleasure it brings. Pleasure is the end or fulfilment of life, not virtue seen as possibly opposed to pleasure.

The role played by friendship in the Epicurean ethics deserves emphasis. The foregoing should have indicated that the ideal that Epicurus sets for man is, in effect, to make the best of a bad situation. The goal is to acquire a trouble-free state of mind, to avoid the pains of the body and mental anguish. The Epicurean wants to be let alone by society and by chance, good as well as bad. If a fortune should come his way, he ought to distribute it and win friends, thereby securing the double advantage of ridding himself from a possible source of anguish and gaining esteem and gratitude. The political order is to be avoided, since it brings little but trouble. Is this a repetition of the Platonic and Aristotelian view that the philosopher is superior to the politician? Epicurus rejects the paideia which for Plato and Aristotle would lead into the life of wisdom. If Epicurus has a Canon and a Physics, these are rigorously subjected to the pursuit of happiness. He goes so far as to say that if men had no fear of the gods and of celestial phenomena, there would be no need of physics. That science, then, has as its sole function to remove impediments to happiness. To conceive of mathematics and physics as goods in themselves is wrong; they are of no use in helping us live well. If the Epicurean is not interested in the honor and renown the political life can bring, he is no more interested in the praise knowledge can elicit: his only reason for doing philosophy is to attain peace of soul. It is because Epicurus did not feel that the spirit could be healed in solitude that friendship is important for him, that the society in his garden was indeed a gathering of friends. They were of mutual help to one another in understanding the teaching of the master and the discrimination present in other schools was largely absent there; women were allowed, even courtesans, and the love they bore one another is said to have remained the most attractive thing about the Epicurean way of life during the centuries it flourished. However, while friendship as well as pleasure was said to be desirable for its own sake, it is difficult not to see a selfish motivation in this mutual love. The friend, finally, would seem to be one who is eminently useful for attaining one's tranquility of spirit; if the friend used you in the same way and the advantage was mutual, this does not necessarily seem to broaden the motivation for friendship.

A final word on Epicurus' attitude towards religion. We have seen that Epicurus was intent on freeing men from fear of the gods. Nevertheless, he held that there were gods -- they were material beings living in the rare spaces between the numberless worlds, blessed beings whose happiness was in no way affected by the deeds of men. Since it is a false notion of the gods which leads to unhappiness, a true notion of what they are should be conducive to happiness. Epicurus feels that we have natural knowledge that the gods exist and that if we would stick to that, make it the criterion of statements we make about them, we must inevitably arrive at views contrary to the common ones. The gods are immortal and happy; to think of them as concerned with man or assigned the task of keeping the heavenly spheres moving is to attribute to them something inconsonant with the freedom from worry and care which is happiness. Nor are the gods in any need of our praise or sacrifice. Nevertheless, and this is an important fact, it is natural for us to honor them. This explains the way in which Epicurus himself was so devout, observing pious practises, inaugurating in his school religious feasts. Epicurus' vigorous rejection of the ordinary fears of the gods did not lead to atheism or impiety. Once more, however, there is the paradox. Since the gods do not need our praise, the justification for praising them becomes the happiness this affords us.

It is difficult to take a view of Epicureanism which does not grant a good deal to the traditional criticism of this school of philosophy. The goal is a practical one, and a severely limited one, the achievement of freedom from pain and worry. In this achievement, in ataraxy, happiness consists. Perhaps the best way to judge it is on its own assumptions, namely that birth is the beginning and death the end. On that basis, what would be the best human ideal? Doubtless happiness here and now, but this is not to be sought in sensual orgies nor in abstract science for its own sake. Epicurus wants to make nature the guide and he finds indications to the effect that good and bad are synonymous with pleasure and pain. But if pleasure is the fulfilment of life, there are natural bounds set to pleasure and he is issuing no call for a riotous existence. Quite the contrary. It seems to be a matter of hedging one's bets, sticking to the possible, being content with a minimum that will not be the cause of envy or care. This materialistic ethic does little to stretch the aspirations of men, but its concern for the individual at a period of history that saw the Greek political order disappearing and giving way to empires of a scale such that the old ideal of the political life became meaningless, would seem to account for its steady appeal over a period of seven centuries.

D. The History of the School

When Epicurus came to Athens he brought with him Metrodorus and Plynaeus, both natives of Lampsacus who died before their master, Hermarchus of Mytilene, who succeeded to the headship of the school upon the death of Epicurus, and many others. During the first century of the school's existence its main competition came from the Platonists and Peripatetics, though its doctrines were directed against many schools, not least the Cynics and Sceptics. In the next two centuries, the main opposition came from the Stoics; there seems to be little evidence of any clash between the Epicureans and the early Stoics, Zeno, Cleanthes; the quarrel begins with Chrysippus. The reader is referred to DeWitt for a fairly detailed history of the school. Centers were set up in Antioch and Alexandria, and in the Christian era, Epicureanism finally met a victorious foe. It would not do to omit mention of Lucretius who in 54 B.C. published the De rerum natura, a poem intended to present Epicureanism in its fundamentals. Cicero devoted the last years of his life to an attempt to discredit the contents of that poem and emerged as a defender of Stoicism. Plutarch, much later, was to be another outstanding foe of Epicureanism. But the final assault came from Christianity, bringing to an end the school which had had the longest and greatest impact on ancient times.

{41} N. W. De Witt, Epicurus and His Philosophy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1954).

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