Philosopher Epicurus: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we discover the Greek philosopher Epicurus. The son of a schoolteacher, he developed a philosophy that taught others to pursue pleasure and the absence of desire.

Epicureanism

What gives you pleasure? Perhaps it's a really good steak, or a really cold drink. Perhaps it's good company or good conversation, or something as simple as completing a crossword. Whatever gives you pleasure, you're apt to pursue it as often as you can, or as often as is practical.

If this is your ethic when approaching things that give you pleasure, you may unwittingly follow the example of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. In this lesson we will explore the life and teachings of Epicurus.

Who Was Epicurus?

Epicurus was born on the island of Samos in the year 341 B.C., the son of a schoolteacher and citizen of Athens. Epicurus, according to his own writing, first became interested in philosophy when he turned 14. Four years later he went to Athens to fulfill the compulsory military service that was required to become an Athenian citizen. Epicurus probably became more acquainted with philosophy while in Athens, where philosophical schools like Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum were active and popular.

It's believed that Epicurus spent his twenties traveling and developing his own philosophical beliefs, though there is little record of this period of his life. Around 310, Epicurus began teaching at Mytilene and later moved to Lampsacus to continue teaching. In both places, and in various other travels, Epicurus gained adherents and disciples who were particularly enamored with his philosophy and the lifestyle it preached.

In 306, Epicurus took his teachings to Athens. There he bought a house and, rather than opening up a large school like they Lyceum or the Academy, he merely began teaching to any who would come to listen from his garden.

Teachings and Quotes

Epicurus' teachings were different from the prevailing philosophies of the day not simply in where they were taught. Epicurus' philosophy rarely dealt with metaphysical issues like Platonism or Aristotelianism did, but instead focused on the real-life applications of his philosophical outlook. Epicurus believed that pleasure should be the main goal of human activity, as pleasure, Epicurus claimed, is closely related to happiness.

But unlike the hedonism - or self-indulgent pursuit of pleasure, bordering on recklessness - with which Epicurus is often misidentified today, Epicurus preached and practiced a more ethical form of pleasure-seeking. Epicurus believed that pleasure was best gained through satisfying one's desires. This did not mean, of course, doing everything anyone pleased, but in satisfying basic needs and desires, and thereby removing desire, which was the root of human pain.

Essentially, pleasure was not just the satisfaction of desires, but the eventual absence of desires altogether. This principle is perhaps best displayed in his quote, 'Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.'

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