Diogenes Laertius (3rd Century AD) is the primary source for the surviving complete letters of Epicurus and for biographical and other pertinent information about him:
- Biography of Epicurus
- Epicurus’s followers and namesakes
- Epicurus’s writings
- Overview of Epicureanism
- Epicurean epistemology and physics
- Epicurean ethics
- Biography of Epicurus
Epicurus, son of Neocles and Chaerestrate, was an Athenian of the Gargettus ward and the Philaidae clan, as Metrodorus says in his book “On Noble Birth.” He is said by Heraclides (in his Epitome of Sotion) as well as by others, to have been brought up at Samos after the Athenians had sent colonists there and to have come to Athens at the age of eighteen, at the time when Xenocrates was head of the Academy and Aristotle was in Chalcis. After the death of Alexander of Macedon and the expulsion of the Athenian colonists from Samos by Perdiccas, Epicurus left Athens to join his father in Colophon; for some time he stayed there and gathered students around him, then returned to Athens again during the archonship of Anaxicrates (307–306 B.C.).
For a while, it is said, he pursued his studies in common with other philosophers, but afterwards put forward independent views by founding the school named after him. He says himself that he first came to study philosophy at the age of fourteen, Apollodorus the Epicurean (in the first book of his Life of Epicurus) says that he turned to philosophy in contempt of the school-teachers who could not tell him the meaning of “chaos” in Hesiod. According to Hermippus, however, he started as a school-teacher, but on coming across the works of Democritus turned eagerly to philosophy, which accounts for Timon’s allusion in the lines: “Again there is the latest and most shameless of the natural philosophers, the school-teacher’s son from Samos, himself the most ill-bred and undisciplined of mankind.”
At his encouragement his three brothers, Neocles, Chaeredemus, and Aristobulus, joined in his studies, as Philodemus the Epicurean relates in the tenth book of his comprehensive work On Philosophers; as did his slave named Mys, as stated by Myronianus in Historical Parallels. Diotimus the Stoic, who was very hostile to him, assailed him with bitter slanders, attributing fifty obscene letters as having been written by Epicurus; and so too did the author who ascribed to Epicurus the letters commonly attributed to Chrysippus (the Stoic). They are followed in this by Posidonius the Stoic and his school, and Nicolaus and Sotion in the twelfth of twenty-four books of his work entitled Dioclean Refutations, also by Dionysius of Halicarnassus. They allege that he used to go round with his mother to small cottages to perform purification rites and read charms, and assist his father in his school for a pitiful fee; further, that one of his brothers was a pimp and lived with the courtesan Leontion (Lioness); that he put forward as his own the doctrines of Democritus about atoms and of Aristippus about pleasure; that he was not a genuine Athenian, a charge brought by Timocrates and by Herodotus in a book On the Training of Epicurus as a Cadet, that he basely flattered Mithras, the viceroy of Lysimachus, bestowing on him in his letters Apollo’s titles of “Healer” and “Lord.” They further charged that he extolled Idomeneus, Herodotus, and Timocrates, who had published his esoteric doctrines, and flattered them for that very reason.
Also that in his letters he wrote to Leontion: “0 Lord Apollo, my dear little Leontion, with what tumultuous applause we were inspired as we read your letter.” Then again to Themista, the wife of Leonteus: “I am quite ready, if you do not come to see me, to roll around three times on my own axis and be propelled to any place that you, including Themista, agree upon”; and to the beautiful Pythocles he wrote: “I will sit quietly and await with desire for your God-like coming” and, as Theodorus says in the fourth book of his work, Against Epicurus, in another letter to Themista he thinks he preaches to her. It is added that he corresponded with many courtesans, and especially with Leontion, of whom Metrodorus also was enamored. It is observed too that in his treatise, On the Ethical End, he writes in these terms : “I know not how to conceive the good, apart from the pleasures of taste, of sex, of sound, and the pleasures of beautiful form.” and in his letter to Pythocles: “Hoist all sail, my dear boy, and steer clear of all indoctrination.” Epictetus calls him preacher of effeminacy and showers abuse on him. Again there was Timocrates, the brother of Metrodorus, who was his student and then left the school.
In the book Merry Guests he asserts that Epicurus vomited twice a day from over-indulgence, and goes on to say that he himself had great difficulty in escaping from that notorious midnight philosophizing and the confraternity with all its secrets; further, that Epicurus’s understanding of philosophy was small and his understanding of life even smaller; that his bodily health was pitiful, so much so that for many years he was unable to rise from his chair; and that he spent a whole mina daily on his meals, as he himself says in his letter to Leontion and in that to the philosophers at Mitylene. Also that among other courtesans who consorted with him and Metrodorus, were Mammarion and Hedia and Erotion and Nikidion. He alleges too that in his thirty-seven books On Nature Epicurus says the same things over and over again and writes largely in sheer opposition to others, especially against Nausiphanes. Here are his own words: “Nay, let them go hang: for, when laboring with an idea, he too had the sophist’s off-hand boastfulness like many another servile soul.” Besides, he himself in his letters says of Nausiphanes: “This so maddened him that he abused me and called me pedagogue.” Epicurus used to call this Nausiphanes jellyfish, an illiterate, a fraud, and a trollop; Plato’s school he called “the toadies of Dionysius,” Plato, and Aristotle their master himself the “golden” a profligate who after Devouring his patrimony took to soldiering and selling drugs; Protagoras a porter and the secretary of Democritus and village school-teacher; Heraclitus a muddler; Democritus Lerocritus (“trifler”); and Antidorus Sannidorus (“flattering gift-bearer”); the Cynics enemies of Greece; the Dialecticians consumed with envy; and Pyrrho (the Skeptic) an ignorant boor. But these people are stark mad.
For our philosopher has numerous 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 siren-charms of his doctrine, save Metrodorus of Stratonicea, who went over to Carneades, being perhaps burdened by his master’s excessive goodness; the Garden itself which, while nearly all the others have died out, continues forever without interruption through numberless successions of one director after another; his gratitude to his parents, his generosity to his brothers, his gentleness to his servants, as evidenced by the terms of his Will and by the fact that they were members of the Garden, the most eminent of them being the aforesaid Mys; and in general, his benevolence to all mankind. His piety towards the Gods and his affection for his country no words can describe. He carried his modesty to such an excess that he did not even enter public life. He spent all his life in Greece, notwithstanding the calamities which had befallen her in that era; when he did once or twice take a trip to Ionia, it was to visit his friends there.
Friends indeed came to him from all parts and lived with him in his Garden. This is stated by Apollodorus, who also says that he purchased the Garden for eighty minae. And to the same effect Diocles in the third book of his Epitome speaks of them as living a very simple and frugal life; at all events they were content with a cup of thin wine and were, for the rest, thoroughgoing water-drinkers. He further says that Epicurus did not think it right that their property should be held in common, as required by the maxim of Pythagoras about the goods of friends; such a practice in his opinion implied mistrust, and without confidence there is no friendship. In his correspondence he himself mentions that he was content with plain bread and water. And again: “Send me a little pot of cheese, that, when I like, I may fare sumptuously.” Such was the man who laid down that pleasure was the end of life. And here is the epigram in which Athenaeus eulogizes him: “You toil, men, for paltry things and incessantly begin strife and war for gain; but Nature’s wealth extends to a moderate bound, whereas vain judgments have a limitless range. This lesson Neocles’ wise son heard from the Muses or from the sacred tripod at Delphi.” And, as we go on, we shall know this better from his doctrines and his sayings.
Among the early philosophers, says Diocles, his favorite was Anaxagoras, although he occasionally disagreed with him and Archelaus the teacher of Socrates. Diocles adds that he used to train his friends in committing his treatises to memory, Apollodorus in his Chronology tells us that our philosopher was a pupil of Nausiphanes and Praxiphanes; but in his letter to Eurylochus, Epicurus himself denies it and says that he was self-taught. Both Epicurus and Hermarchus deny the very existence of Leucippus the philosopher, though by some and by Apollodorus the Epicurean he is said to have been the teacher of Democritus. Demetrius the Magnesian affirms that Epicurus also attended the lectures of Xenocrates. The terms he used for things were the ordinary terms, and Aristophanes the grammarian credits him with a very characteristic style. He was so lucid a writer that in the work On Rhetoric he makes clearness the sole requisite. And in his correspondence he replaces the usual greeting “I wish you joy” by wishes for welfare and right living, “May you do well,” and “Live well.”
Ariston says in his Life of Epicurus that he derived his work entitled The Canon from the Tripod of Nausiphanes, adding that Epicurus had been this man’s pupil as well as of the Platonist Pamphilus in Samos. Further, that he began to study philosophy when he was twelve years old, and started his own school at thirty two. He was born, according to Apollodorus in his Chronology, in the third year of the 109th Olympiad, in the archonship of Sosigenes, on the seventh day of the month Gamelion, in the seventh year after the death of Plato (February 4th, 341 B.C.). When he was thirty-two he founded a school of philosophy, first in Mitylene and Lampsacus, and then five years later removed to Athens, where he died in the second year of the 127th Olympiad, in the archonship of Pytharatus, at the age of seventy-two (270 B.C.); and Hermarchus the son of Agemortus, a Mitylenaean, took over the Garden. Epicurus died of renal calculus after an illness which lasted a fortnight; so Hermarchus tells us in his letters. Hermippus relates that he entered a bronze bath of lukewarm water and asked for unmixed wine, which he swallowed, and then, having bidden his friends remember his doctrines, breathed his last.
Here is something of my own about him:
“Farewell, my friends; the truths I taught hold fast, thus Epicurus spoke, and breathed his last. He sat in a warm bath and neat wine quaffed, and straightway found chill death in that same draught.”
Such was the life of the sage and such his end.
Epicurus’s followers and namesakes
Among his disciples, of whom there were many, the following were eminent: Metrodorus, the son of Athenaeus (or of Timocrates) and of Sande, a citizen of Lampsacus, who from his first acquaintance with Epicurus never left him except once for six months spent on a visit to his native place, from which he returned to him again. His goodness was proved in all ways, as Epicurus testifies in the introductions to his works and in the third book of the Timocrates. Such he was: he gave his sister Batis to Idomeneus to wife, and himself took Leontion the Athenian courtesan as his concubine. He showed dauntless courage in meeting troubles and death, as Epicurus declares in the first book of his memoir.
He died, we learn, seven years before Epicurus in his fifty-third year and Epicurus himself in his Will already cited clearly speaks of him as departed, and enjoins upon his executors to make provision for Metrodorus’ children. The above-mentioned Timocrates also, the brother of Metrodorus and a giddy fellow was another of his pupils.
Metrodorus wrote the following works:
Against the Physicians, in three books, Of Sensations, Against Timocrates, Of Magnanimity, Of Epicurus’s Weak Health, Against the Dialecticians, Against the Sophists, in nine books, The Way to Wisdom, Of Change, Of Wealth, In Criticism of Democritus, Of Noble Birth.
Next came Polyaenus, son of Athenodorus, a citizen of Lampsacus, a just and kindly man, as Philodemus and his pupils affirm. Next came Epicurus’s successor Hermarchus, son of Agemortus, a citizen of Mitylene, the son of a poor man and at the outset a student of rhetoric. The following excellent works are in circulation by him: Correspondence concerning Empedocles, in twenty-two books, Of Mathematics, Against Plato, Against Aristotle. He died of paralysis, but not until he had given full proof of his ability.
And then there is Leonteus of Lampsacus and his wife Themista, to whom Epicurus wrote letters; further, Colotes and Idomeneus, who were also natives of Lampsacus. All these were distinguished, and with them Polystratus, the successor of Hermarchus; he was succeeded by Dionysius, and he by Basilides. Apollodorus, known as the tyrant of the Garden, who wrote over four hundred books, is also famous; and the two Ptolemaei of Alexandria, the one black and the other white; and Zeno of Sidon, the pupil of Apollodorus, a voluminous author; and Demetrius, who was called the Laconian; and Diogenes of Tarsus, who compiled the select lectures; and Orion, and others whom the genuine Epicureans call Sophists. There were three other men who bore the name of Epicurus: one the son of Leonteus and Themista; another Magnesian by birth; and a third, a drill-sergeant.
Epicurus was a most prolific author and eclipsed all before him in the number of his writings: for they amount to about three hundred rolls, and contain not a single citation from other authors; it is Epicurus himself who speaks throughout. Chrysippus (the Stoic) tried to outdo him in authorship according to Carneades, who therefore calls him the literary parasite of Epicurus: “For every subject treated by Epicurus, Chrysippus in his contentiousness must treat at equal length; hence he has frequently repeated himself and set down the first thought that occurred to him, and in his haste has left things unrevised, and he has so many citations that they alone fill his books nor is this unexampled in Zeno and Aristotle.”
Such, then, in number and character are the writings of Epicurus, the best of which are the following: Of Nature, thirty seven books; Of Atoms and Void; Of Love; Epitome of Objections to the Physicists; Against the Megarians; Problems; Principal Doctrines; Of Choice and Avoidance; Of the End; Of the Standard, or Canon; Chaeredemus; Of the Gods; Of Piety; Hegesianax; Of Human Life, four books; Of Just Dealing; Neocles-dedicated to Themista; Symposium; Eurylochus-dedicated to Metrodorus; Of Vision; Of the Angle in the Atom; Of Touch; Of Fate; Theories of the Feelings, against Timocrates; Discovery of the Future; Introduction to Philosophy; Of Images; Of Presentation; Aristobulus; Of Music; Of Justice and the other Virtues; Of Benefits and Gratitude; Polymedes; Timocrates, three books; Metrodorus, five books; Antidorus, two books; Theories about Diseases and Death-to Mithras; Callistolas; Of Kingship; Anaximenes; Correspondence;
Overview of Epicureanism
The views expressed in these works I will try to set forth by quoting three of his letters, in which he has given an epitome of his whole system. I will also set down his Principal Doctrines and any other utterance of his that seems worth citing, that you may be in a position to study the philosopher on all sides and know how to judge him.
The first letter is addressed to Herodotus and deals with physics; the second to Pytbocles and deals with astronomy or meteorology; the third is addressed to Menoeceus and its subject is human life. We must begin with the first after some few preliminary remarks upon his division of philosophy.
It is divided into three parts; Canonics, Physics, Ethics. Canonics (canon=measure), hence Canonics as the measure or standard of truth, or what is now called (epistemology) 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 Canonics 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 with the ultimate end. They reject dialectic as superfluous; holding that in their inquiries the physicists should be content to employ the ordinary terms for things.
Epicurean epistemology and physics
Now in the Canon Epicurus affirms that our sensations and preconceptions and our feelings are the standards of truth; the Epicureans generally consider perceptions of mental presentations to be standard. His own statements are also to be found in the Summary addressed to Herodotus and in the Principal Doctrines. Every sensation, he says, is devoid of reason and incapable of memory; for neither is in itself caused nor, regarded as having an external cause, can it add anything thereto or take anything there from. Nor is there anything which can refute sensations or convict them of error: one sensation cannot convict another and kindred sensations, 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 not to be 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. And the reality of separate perceptions guarantees the truth of our senses. But seeing and hearing are just as real as feeling pain.
Hence it is from plain facts that we must start when we draw inferences about the unknown. For all our notions are derived from perceptions, either by actual contact or by analogy, or resemblance, or composition, with some slight aid from reasoning. Even 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.
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 often 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 a 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. It follows, then, that preconceptions are clear. The object of a judgment is derived from something previously clear, by reference to which we frame the proposition, e.g. “How do we know that this is a man?” Opinion they also call conception or assumption, and declare it to be true and false; for it is true if it is subsequently confirmed or if it is not contradicted by evidence, and false if it is not subsequently confirmed or is contradicted by evidence. Hence the introduction of the phrase, “that which waits for” confirmation, e.g. to wait and get close to the tower and then learn what it looks like at close quarters.
They affirm that there are two states of feeling, pleasure and pain, which arise in every animate Being, and that the one is favourable and the other hostile to that Being, and by their means choice and avoidance are determined; and that there are two kinds of inquiry, the one concerned with things, the other with nothing but words. So much, then, for his division and criterion in their main outline.
But as to the conduct of life, what we ought to avoid and what to choose, he writes as follows. Before quoting his words, however, let me go into the views of Epicurus himself and his school concerning the wise man.
There are three motives to injurious acts among men- hatred, envy, and contempt; and these the wise man overcomes by reason. Moreover, he who has once become wise never more assumes the opposite habit, not even in semblance, if he can help it. He will be more susceptible of emotion than other men: that will be no hindrance to his wisdom. However, not every bodily constitution or every nationality would permit a man to become wise.
Even on the rack the wise man is happy. He alone will feel gratitude towards friends, present and absent alike, and show it by word and deed. When on the rack, however, he will give vent to cries and groans. As regards women he will submit to the restrictions imposed by the law, as Diogenes says in his epitome of Epicurus’ ethical doctrines. Nor will he punish his servants; rather he will pity them and make allowance on occasion for those who are of good character.
Epicureans do not suffer the wise man to fall in love; nor will he trouble himself about funeral rites; according to them love does not come by divine inspiration: so Diogenes in his twelfth book. The wise man will not make fine speeches. No one was ever the better for sexual indulgence, and it is well if he be not the worse. Nor, again, will the wise man marry and rear a family so Epicurus says in the Problems and in the On Nature. Occasionally he may marry owing to special circumstances in his life. Some too will turn aside from their purpose. Nor will he drivel, when drunken: so Epicurus says in the Symposium. Nor will he take part in politics, as is stated in the first book On Life; nor will he make himself a tyrant; nor will he turn Cynic (so the second book On Life tells us); nor will he be a mendicant.
But even when he has lost his sight, he will not withdraw himself from life: this is stated in the same book. The wise man will also feel grief, according to Diogenes in the fifth book of his Epilecta. And be will take a suit into court. He will leave written words behind him, but will not compose panegyric. He will have regard to his property and to the future. He will be fond of the country. He will be armed against fortune and will never give up a friend. He will pay just so much regard to his reputation as not to be looked down upon. He will take more delight than other men in public festivals. The wise man will set up votive images. Whether he is well off or not will be matter of indifference to him. Only the wise man will be able to converse correctly about music and poetry, without however actually writing poems himself. One wise man does not move more wisely than another. And he will make money, but only by his wisdom, if he should be in poverty, and he will pay court to a king, if need be. He will be grateful to anyone when he is corrected.
He will found a school, but not in such a manner as to draw the crowd after him; and will give readings in public, but only by request. He will be a dogmatist but not a mere skeptic; and he will be like himself even when asleep. And he will on occasion die for a friend. The school holds that sins are not all equal; that health is in some cases a good, in others a thing indifferent; that courage is not a natural gift but comes from calculation of expediency; and that friendship is prompted by our needs. One of the friends, however, must make the first advances (just as we have to cast seed into the Earth), but it is maintained by a partnership in the enjoyment of life’s pleasures.
Two sorts of happiness can be conceived, the one the highest possible, such as the Gods enjoy, which cannot be augmented, the other admitting addition and subtraction of pleasures.
Elsewhere he rejects the whole of divination, as in the short epitome, and says, “No means of predicting the future really exists, and if it did, we must regard what happens according to it as nothing to us.”
Such are his views on life and conduct; and he has discoursed upon them at greater length elsewhere. He differs from the Cyrenaics with regard to pleasure. They do not include under the term the pleasure which is a state of rest, but only that which consists in motion. Epicurus admits both; also pleasure of mind as well as of body, as he states in his work On Choice and Avoidance and in that On the Ethical End, and in the first book of his work On Human Life and in the epistle to his philosopher friends in Mytilene.
So also Diogenes in the seventeenth book of his Epilecta, and Metrodorus in his Timocrates, whose actual words are: “Thus Pleasure being conceived both as that species which consists in motion and that which is a state of rest.” The words of Epicurus in his work On Choice are: “Peace of mind and freedom from pain are pleasures which imply a state of rest; joy and delight are seen to consist in motion and activity.”
He further disagrees with the Cyrenaics in that they hold that pains of body are worse than mental pains; at all events evil-doers are made to suffer bodily punishment; whereas Epicurus holds the pains of the mind to be the worse; at any rate the flesh endures the storms of the present alone, the mind those of the past and future as well as the present. In this way also he holds mental pleasures to be greater than those of the body. And as proof that pleasure is the end he adduces the fact that living things, as soon as they are born, are well content with pleasure and is at enmity with pain, by the prompting of Nature and apart from reason. Left to our own feelings, then, we shun pain; as when even Heracles, devoured by the poisoned robe, cries aloud,
“And bites and yells, and rock to rock resounds, Headlands of Locris and Euboean cliffs.” And we choose the virtues too on account of pleasure and not for their own sake, as we take medicine for the sake of health. So too in the twentieth book of his Epilecta says Diogenes, who also calls education recreation. Epicurus describes virtue as the sine qua non of pleasure, i.e. the one thing without which pleasure cannot be, everything else, food, for instance, being separable, i.e. not indispensable to pleasure.
Come, then, let me set the seal, so to say, on my entire work as well as on this philosopher’s life by citing his Principal Doctrines, so to bring the whole work to a close and making the end of it to coincide with the beginning of happiness.