The biography of Epicurus

By Haris Dimitriadis
“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.” (Diogenes Laertius).
   Epicurus’ parents transmitted to him the democratic spirit, while his experience of the disasters that Athens suffered from the aristocracy and the militaristic regimes influenced him to see life from the point of view of the common man, in contrast with the famous aristocrat sages, Plato and Aristotle. In Samos he was taught by Nausiphanes, and the Platonic Pamphilus. As the island was under the influence of the Ionian naturalistic culture, Epicurus soon moved away from the Platonic beliefs and turned to the materialistic theories of Democritus. At the age of eighteen he was drafted into the Athenian army, where he met his intimate friend, the dramatic poet Menander.
      Little is known of his life during the following fifteen years. What is known, though, is that he created his own philosophical circle in Mytilene and then in Lampsacus. He returned to Athens in around 307 BC at the age of thirty four to buy a piece of land between Athens and Piraeus, close to the present Agronomic School. There he housed his philosophical school, which he named “The Garden.” Epicurus taught there for thirty-five years, following a simple life, surrounded by men, women, courtesans and slaves, who participated equally in the Epicurean Garden. He died when he was seventy-one years old, in 270 BC.
     During the Hellenistic period the dominant philosophical schools were the Epicurean and the Stoic, followed by the Platonic, the Aristotelian, the Skeptics and the Cynics. The principles of the Epicurean Philosophy spread throughout the Greek and the Roman world from the Epicurean school of philosophy in Athens. Epicurus was among the most prolific philosophers in history. He authored works, developed in 300 rolls, the fate of which has been ignored ever since the proclamation of Christianity as the official religion of the Byzantine Empire. Through Diogenes Laertius, a biographer of philosophers of the 3rd century AD, three of his letters survived (to Herodotus, On Nature, to Pythocles, On Celestial Bodies and to Menoeceus, On Ethics), as well as his Will and the Principal Doctrines, which is a summary of his philosophy.
    Ponzio Bratziolini also discovered the poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) of the Roman Epicurean poet Lucretius (94-55 BC), in a German monastery, in 1414 AD. The poem is developed over six books and contains the Epicurean views on Nature. In 1884, two French archaeologists discovered the great inscription of the Epicurean Diogenes Oenoanda in Ionia, Asia Minor, which is considered a grand philosophical monument of humanity. A collection of Epicurean doctrines named Vatican Sayings was found at the Vatican in 1888. Opinions on the Epicurean Philosophy were identified in the works of many writers, Athenaeus, Cicero, Seneca, Sextus Empiricus, Plutarch, and so on. Also, new texts are still coming to light from the charred papyri of an ancient villa that was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius, close to the city of Herculaneum in Italy.
    Intellectuals in the period of the Enlightenment embraced the Epicurean principles and spread them around the world. An eminent figure of world history, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the third President of the USA (1801-1809) and leading author of the Declaration of Independence, wrote in his letter to William Short: “As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurean... Their [the Stoics] great crime was in their calumnies of Epicurus and misrepresentations of his doctrines...”
    Today, both in Greece and globally, the Epicurean Philosophy is followed and spread by the modern Epicureans according to Epicurus’ will: “Farewell my friends, the truths I taught hold fast.” The Epicurean Philosophy laid the foundations for individual and materialist metaphysical views of the universe. It was a source of inspiration for Marx, as we can conclude from the topic of his doctoral thesis, Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature. Although initially Marx applauded the Epicurean views, he later embraced the Stoic ideas of Hegel, and suggested the pursuance of duty in the context of destiny as the end of life, according to the stoic philosophy, instead of the pursuit of pleasure.
    The spread of the Epicurean teaching in antiquity owes to its practical spirit, according to which philosophy is not an end in itself, but a means and an aid in achieving the objective of human life, which is happiness. Therefore Epicurus did not give any importance to extensive theoretical, grammatical, historical and mathematical research if it did not contribute to living happily. On the other hand, he attributed the malaise of the people to ignorance and superstition, and proposed the knowledge and application of the laws that govern the nature of the cosmos and human beings as a cure.