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Epicurus: Ethical Theory, Beliefs & Books

Instructor: Aida Vega Felgueroso

Aida has taught Spanish at the University in Italy. Spanish is her mother tongue and she has a master's degree in Spanish Language and Literature.

One of the great Greek philosophers of Antiquity was Epicurus. We will see his biography and his philosophy: how he considered that the world could be known, how matter was formed and, above all, how happiness can be achieved.

Epicurus, the Philosopher of Happiness

It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly. And it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life.

These are words of Epicurus, a Greek philosopher who was born in 341 BCE His doctrines on happiness are still valuable. Let's take a closer look at his ethical theory, beliefs and writings.

Epicurus, the Man

Epicurus was born on the island of Samos. His name, in Greek, means 'ally, comrade', which is fitting, as friendship and camaraderie were central throughout his life. He studied philosophy from a very young age and then traveled to Lesbos and Lampsacus where he taught.

Epicurus in The Garden by Raphael
garden

In 306 BCE he moved to Athens and bought some property on the outskirts of the city. In the field, he and his disciples grew flowers and vegetables. Here he founded his Academy of Philosophy, The Garden, where he developed his doctrine, Epicureanism. He would die here in 270 BCE.

Philosophy

The philosophy of Epicurus can be divided into three blocks: the Canon, Physics and Ethics.

Canon, What Can We Know?

In the Canon Epicurus studies how we can know the world. That is, how is it possible to know what is true and what is false. Epicurus said that we know the world through sensations, the response of our body to objects.

If we touch ice, we feel very cold. If the sensations are repeated, we create general ideas in our mind. Thus, after several times of touching the ice, our mind enunciates a general principle: ice is very cold. From here, we do not need to touch all the blocks of ice that we find to suppose that they are cold.

Physics, How Matter Is Formed

For Epicurus all things, living beings or inert objects, are formed by two elements: atoms and void. Atoms are tiny particles, invisible to the human eye, which have weight and volume. These particles move in a vacuum that Epicurus called 'void', and from the innumerable combinations of atoms and emptiness all things that we know emerge.

Epicurus in his later years.
epicurus

Ethics, How to Achieve Happiness

Ethics is the most important part of the Epicurus philosophy. Philosophy, says Epicurus, has to help man find happiness. And happiness is based on two principles, the autarky (autonomy), and the ataraxia, the tranquility of the spirit.

To achieve happiness, we must avoid certain behaviors and perform others.

What To Avoid

The biggest obstacle to happiness is fear. Human fears are reduced to four great fears that make us unhappy. Epicurus teaches us to avoid each of them. He postulates that:

  • Fear of the gods is an absurd fear because the gods do not intervene in human lives so we have nothing to fear from them.
  • Fear of death is also absurd. We do not know what death is, for as long as our consciousness, our self, is alive, death is not present. And when death comes, our self will not be present. In this way, death and our self will never be found.
  • Fear of pain is unnecessary because really, any pain can be endured. If it is very intense it will last little and if its duration is very long, then it won't be so intense.
  • Fear of failure is equivalent to the fear of future, fear of what will happen. Epicurus reminds us of a central element of happiness: autonomy. We have to look for happiness in our interior, not in external elements of which we have no control. It is absurd to fear failure because if we do not reach our goal for causes that did not depend on us, then it is not a failure.

What to Look For

All men seek pleasure, but it is necessary to be very clear what pleasure is. Epicurus says that there are different types:

  • Natural, necessary pleasures, like eating when we are hungry. These are to be satisfied.
  • Natural, unnecessary pleasures, like to eating lavish foods or eating beyond what is necessary. These are to be reduced.
  • Unnatural, unnecessary pleasures, like desiring riches. These are to be eliminated.

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