When Epicurus was still young Alexander and his generals had marched across eastern and southern Europe, creating a Seleucid empire
in Persia, a Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt, and an Antigonid Empire in Macedon, causing vast changes that reverberated through the Greek world. For a while he served in the Greek army. No doubt while in Athens he had become familiar with the work of the Athenian gymnasia including the teachings of his senior Theophrastus
at the Lyceum, although there is no record of them actually meeting even though they had both studied on the island of Lesbos.
Epicurus’s philosophical development began on the island of Rhodes, a commercial centre of the day, where he fell out with two of his Aristotelian teachers moving in 311 BCE to the island of Lesbos at Myrtilene. Again upsetting the Aristotelian and Platonist teachers he then escaped to follow his own thoughts and interests, building up a circle of friends at Lampsacus on the Hellespont in Asia Minor. Hard times had subsequently fallen on the gymnasia in Athens and so, with reduced opposition, in 306-307 BCE at the age of 35 he returned again to Athens. His property, which he named ‘The Garden‘, cost 7000 drachmai (1 drachma was the cost of 1 labourer for 1 day) so it must have been impressive although we have no record of its contents or design. Here he set up his school of philosophy close to the famous Dipylon Gate (double gate) which was the city’s main entrance. This was where his students met, The Garden being about halfway between two other schools of philosophy, the Stoa (home of the famous school of Stoic philosophy headed by its founder Zeno 359-367 BCE) and the Academy, famous for its eminent teachers Plato and Aristotle before the latter moved to the Lyceum.
Visitors to Athens would first pass by Plato’s Academy on the outskirts of the city before going through the Gate and on to the Agora (city square) and up the Acropolis hill, the highest point within the city walls (acro-high, polis-city or ‘up-town’). Through the Dipylon gates each year the Panathenaic Procession passed, the most important religious festival of the year, which celebrated the birth of Athena, goddess of wisdom and learning, the patron of the city. This was a time marked by several days of feasting, dancing, and athletic competitions; the procession included children carrying flowers on the way to the Acropolis and Temple of Athena. In the temple bulls were then sacrificed to Athena on special altars while dignitaries and citizens made offerings of wine, honey, olive branches, and baskets of incense. Bones and fat were offered to the gods and the meat cooked and eaten by the citizens. The Gate was also where the city’s prostitutes would gather, offering their services to passing travellers.
Works and biographical sources
We are told by Diogenes Laertius, Roman biographer of the ancient philosophers, that Epicurus (341 – 270 BCE) produced about 300 rolls although all that is now left are some of his letters and fragments of his 37-book treatise On Nature (his science was not so good when viewed from today), so what we know of him comes mostly from later commentators.
One vital source of information are the Herculaneum papyri, 1800 scrolls found in the luxury ‘Villa of the Papyri’ in the presumed library of the Epicurean Philodemus of Gadara (c. 110-35 BCE), the collection including many texts of Greek philosophy and the notable On the Methods of Inference. Philodemus, had studied in Athens under Zeno of Sidon, moving first to Rome and then Herculaneum where his house and library were buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, the heat carbonising the scrolls which were recovered in the 18th century. Eventually a way was found to unroll and read the charred documents, this being especially exciting as only a few copies previously remained dating to Medieval times. Books XIV, XV, XXV, and XXVIII of On Nature and other works by Epicurus’s followers are also represented among the papyri which are currently in the process of being deciphered.
In The Garden, which became renowned for its great beauty, Epicurus worked on his philosophical ideas. He considered that philosophy was, first and foremost, a form of therapy for life, since ‘philosophy that does not heal the soul is no better than medicine that cannot cure the body‘. We are told that everybody liked him even if they disagreed with his ideas and he had three brothers with him in his community. We know that his school was the first of the ancient Greek philosophical schools to freely admit both women and slaves and we also know that, on his death, Epicurus bequeathed The Garden to the city of Athens.
For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to attain the happy, tranquil life, characterized by ataraxia — peace and freedom from fear — and aponia — the absence of pain – by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. He taught that pleasure and pain are the measures of what is good and evil; death is the end of both body and soul and should therefore not be feared; the gods do not reward or punish humans; and the universe is infinite and eternal … Epicurus – Wikipedia 
Epicureanism has today taken on the association of culinary indulgence, a kind of hedonistic and sophisticated feasting with maybe a little pleasure-seeker debauchery thrown in. This was indeed a lifestyle promoted by the Cyrenaics (Kyrenaics) who were a sensual hedonist Greek school of philosophy founded in the 4th century BCE by Aristippus of Cyrene. However, Epicurus’s pleasure was more ascetic. ‘By pleasure, we mean the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul’ he declared. The food he ate and the life he led was in a ‘simple’ garden retreat with his friends, believing that luxury, though not intrinsically bad, could not amplify life’s simple pleasures or reduce its inevitable pains.
‘Epicurus maintained that the unhappiness and degradation of humankind arose largely from the dread which they entertained of the power of the gods, from terror of their wrath, which was supposed to be displayed by the misfortunes inflicted in this life, and by the everlasting tortures which were the lot of the guilty in a future state, or where these feelings were not strongly developed, from a vague dread of gloom and misery after death. To remove these fears, and thus to establish tranquillity in the heart, was the purpose of his teaching.’
Epicureanism is what we would call today a utilitarian consequentialist moral theory maintaining that a moral act is one that produces desirable (pleasurable or harmonious) consequences. Other ethical systems hold, for example, that it is the character of the behaviour itself (e.g. deontology), the character of the person (e.g. virtue ethics of Aristotle, Stoicism) or simply gradual social change (e.g. pragmatic ethics) that is more important than the outcomes in determining what is morally desirable.
What made Epicurus a radical was his Atheism as he makes no appeal whatever to divine intervention, defying the polytheism of his day. Professing, possibly to keep the peace, that the gods did indeed exist he further insisted that their world had no bearing on human affairs in any way. He would not countenance the intercession of the divine in human affairs or the endless appeasing rituals that seemed necessary to pacify capricious deities. He believed that the world consisted of natural elements that could be observed and studied and the presence of anything supernatural was contradicted by the evidence of his senses. He opposed myths of any kind at a time when it was a legal obligation to perform religious duties and rituals and he did this in the belief that the supernatural, being unknown, was a source of both fear and mental disturbance.
Plato, through his world of ‘forms’ or ‘ideas’, had suggested a realm that transcended the everyday physical world. This was a world view that had a great influence on subsequent philosophers and mystics. Greek and Roman Orphic and Pythagorean schools of thought believed in the transmigration of souls, that all living creatures, including plants, had souls that on death passed to other living organisms. Although it was Aristotle’s work that was mostly consulted in Europe in the 13th century the other-worldly nature of Platonism had previously been incorporated in Christianity by St Augustine and would persist in the work of men like St Thomas Aquinas and beyond. Plato’s perfect world complemented the Christian idea of a spiritual afterlife and it has been associated with a religious distaste for imperfect physical things here on earth, like the corruptible human body, as well as a detachment from the reality of the here and now in favour of a perfect world somewhere else.
In Epicurean thought we see a religious skepticism and proto-science together with humanism in a combination that anticipated the Enlightenment. ‘Death is nothing to us for the body, when it has been resolved into its elements, has no feeling, and that which has no feelings is nothing to us’. Epicurus placed destiny firmly in the hands of humans and encouraged people to live in the moment. In this he no doubt influenced the Roman Epicurean lyric poet Horace (65-8 BCE) who, at the time of emperor Augustus, famously wrote ‘Carpe diem’ – ‘Sieze the day’.
A philosophical religious paradox has been named after Epicurus, although we cannot be certain it was truly his own:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?
Eastern religion, desires & morality
Epicurus was trying to quieten human restlessness and desire, a strand of thought that we meet constantly in Eastern religions especially Buddhism, Taoism and Zen-Buddhism.
Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all defended an objective view of ethics, believing that morality existed in the world as an objective fact. Epicurus was amoral, believing that nothing was essentially or intrinsically good or bad. Morality was simply the interplay of reason, prudence, and the evidence of our senses.
Contrary to the belief of his day, most problems, he thought, did not come from fate, the Gods, or the natural world, but from ourselves. He claimed that most of our concerns are of Human origin, that we frequently inflict pain on ourselves, and that with the use of reason and prudence (such as the tolerance of short-term pain for long term gain) we could make better moral decisions.
Epicurus was acutely aware of the role of basic needs and desires as part of human nature: that ‘the desires of nature are few and easily satisfied; the desires of fancy [culture] are infinite’. We must try to understand our desires noting that there are some desires that are necessary or natural (hunger), some that are unnecessary (eating meat) and some that are both unnatural and unnecessary. We could deal with our desires (a major part of moral philosophy) by thinking about moral problems through this filter.
Epicureanism & Christianity
But what is of greater interest is that Epicureanism was not always a peripheral body of thought as it is today. In about 200 BCE Romans began taking greater interest in Greek culture and by about 150 BCE Epicurean teachers were established under the patronage of aristocrats.
In about 176 CE Marcus Aurelius gave imperial encouragement to the improved education of the Roman world with an endowment of a yearly revenue of 10,000 drachmae for a professoriate to the four favoured schools of the time: the Academic (Platonic), Peripatetic (Aristotelian); Stoic (Zeno), and Epicurean (Epicurus). Often in philosophical history philosophical impasses between grand systems of thought have been followed by periods of enhanced skepticism and resistance to grand theory. This appears to have been manifest as the sophists who came after the pre-Socratics Parmenides (being) and Heraclitus (becoming) before the monumental competing ideas of Plato and Aristotle were followed by the unpretentious Hellenistic philosophies Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Cynicism. Much later there was the skepticism that followed in the wake of Rationalism and Empiricism, even the postmodernism that followed the political ideologies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
By the second century CE of the Roman Empire, Ionian western Turkey had become an Epicurean stronghold. For its first 500 years Epicureanism had, in general, proved extremely popular across society. However, suppport for Christianity strengthened when the Christian missionary Saul (Paul) of Tarsus preached that Jesus had come for the salvation of all, not just the Judeans. The tide of social approval turned and by the late fourth century Epicurian writing and promotion was being suppressed.
Historian of imperial Rome Edward Gibbon observed that rich and polite society of imperial Rome ‘almost universally embraced the philosophy of Epicurus’. But, by what in retrospect seems a rather strange quirk of fate, Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity and with the Edict of Milan (313 CE) imposed this formerly-outlawed religion across Europe as far west as the British Isles. Much later Christianity would be spread even further, this time dispersed from Britain out into its own vast empire. In 391 CE Egyptian Alexandria was part of the Greek empire and a centre of Mediterranean learning but at least one of the libraries and the museum with its ‘pagan’ teachings, manuscripts and papyri was destroyed, burned by fanatical Christian mobs. All four Athenian gymnasia, including ‘The Garden’, were closed down by Emperor Justinian in 529 CE. Greeks familiar with the works taught in these establishments fled to the Moslem world where Aristotle’s work would be translated and studied, only passing back to the west with the Crusades.
Sir William Temple (1628-1699) was an English statesman and essayist who, in his Upon the Gardens of Epicurus (1692) celebrates Epicurus and his philosophy which was in his day again enjoying considerable popularity. In this essay Temple gives us his own insightful philosophy on history and human affairs as well as a detailed description of gardening at that time.
Contemporary author Lawrence Durrell has noted, not the inevitability of Christianity, but its fortuitous triumph over Epicureanism, observing that Epicurus ‘exercised so wide an influence that for a long time it was touch and go whether Christianity might not have to give way before it. But the poor in heart won out, don’t ask me why. It is one of the great mysteries of the world’.
In retrospect the triumph of Christianity does not seem so mysterious. Epicurus was an Atheist and materialist (in the sense of concentrating on the physical not the divine) his mind was occupied with a finite world, a finite life, and the paradox of human striving in the here and now. Though both Christianity and Epicureanism shared the same appeal to simplicity, frugality and community, things stopped there. Christianity promised an eternal heavenly life for its select believers along with the redemptive power of suffering. Epicurus could only offer brief contentment in an earthly garden open to all.
Lucretius & Epicurean religious skepticism
Epicurean thought was to live on in Roman times, most notably through people that included Cæsar, Atticus, Mæcenas, Lucretius, Virgil, and Horace. Lucretius (99-55 BCE) was a poet, philosopher and shadowy figure who was possibly driven mad by a love potion, writing his poetry between fits of insanity and eventually committing suicide in middle age … but this may be hearsay. He was a contemporary of Julius Caesar in the last days of the Roman Republic when free thought was fashionable among the educated. He sets out Epicurus’s thoughts in the epic philosophical poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of the Universe) the most popular source of information on Epicurus since the Renaissance.
Lucretius’s historical significance lay in the influence he exerted on Roman Augustan poets Virgil (in the Aenead, Georgics and Eclogues) and Horace: he was to resurface in the Enlightenment attempt to create a Christian humanism but it was Stoicism that proved ultimately the most popular even though Epicureanism survived for 600 years after his death until replaced by Christianity which placed all good in the life beyond the grave thus being its almost diametric opposite. Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) was an Italian umanist scholar who recovered many lost Latin manuscripts from French, German and Swiss monastery libraries among these being a copy of De rerum natura, the only surviving work by Lucretius. The Renaissance humanist was raised on the Stoicism of Epictetus (55-135 CE) whose Enchiridion or Handbook was translated into Latin in 1498.
In the six books of De Rerum Natura Lucretius presents to his Roman audience ‘the principles of atomism; the nature of the mind and soul; explanations of sensation and thought; the development of the world and its phenomena; and explains a variety of celestial and terrestrial phenomena. The universe described in the poem operates according to these physical principles, guided by fortuna, (chance), and not the divine intervention of the traditional Roman deities.’
Lucretius represented the continuation of the Epicurean school of religious skepticism. His most famous lines rank among the most coherent and trenchant Classical era attacks on religion. The following assemblage of quotes from Lucretius’s work can be found at http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/quotes/quote-l2.htm.
Nature does all things spontaneously, by herself, without the meddling of the gods
The nature of the universe has by no means been made through divine power, seeing how great are the faults that mar it.
Poor humanity, to saddle the gods with such a responsibility and throw in a vindictive temper. What griefs they hatch for themselves, what festering sores for us, what tears for our prosperity! This is not piety, this oft-repeated show of bowing a veiled head before a graven image; this bustling to every altar; this kow-towing and prostration on the ground with palms outspread before the shrines of the gods; this deluging of vow on vow. True piety lies rather in the power to contemplate the universe with a quiet mind.
Too often in time past, religion has brought forth criminal and shameful actions…. How many evils has religion caused?
When the supreme violence of a furious wind upon the sea sweeps over the waters the chief admiral of a fleet along with his mighty legions, does he not crave the gods’ peace with vows and in his panic seek with prayers the peace of the winds and favouring breezes. Nonetheless, he is caught up in the furious hurricane and driven upon the shoals of death.
Assuredly whatsoever things are fabled to exist in deep Acheron [Hades], these all exist in this life. There is no wretched Tantalus, fearing the great rock that hangs over him in the air and frozen with vain terror. Rather, it is in this life that fear of the gods oppresses mortals without cause, and the rock they fear is any that chance may bring.
Certainly it was no design of the atoms to place themselves in a particular order, nor did they decide what motions each should have. But atoms were struck with blows in many ways and carried along by their own weight from infinite times up to the present. They have been accustomed to move and to meet in all manner of ways. For this reason, it came to pass that being spread abroad through a vast time and trying every sort of combination and motion, at length those come together that produce great things, like earth and sea and sky and the generation of living creatures.
Forbear to spew out reason from your mind, but rather ponder everything with keen judgment; and if it seems true, own yourself vanquished, but, if it is false, gird up your loins to fight.
Since you must admit that there is nothing outside the universe, it can have no limit and is accordingly without end or measure. It makes no odds in which part of it you may take your stand; whatever spot anyone may occupy, the universe stretches away from him just the same in all directions without limit.
The generations of living things pass in a short time, and like runners hand on the torch of life.
Fear is the mother of all gods.
Rest, brother, rest. Have you done ill or well
Rest, rest, There is no God, no gods who dwell
Crowned with avenging righteousness on high
Nor frowning ministers of their hate in hell.
Human life lay foul before men’s eyes, crushed to the dust beneath religion’s weight.
Long time men lay oppress’d with slavish fear
Religion’s tyranny did domineer …
At length a mighty one of Greece began
To assert the natural liberty of man
An ode to Epicurus, the “mighty one of Greece”
All religions are equally sublime to the ignorant, useful to the politician, and ridiculous to the philosopher.
Globed from the atoms falling slow or swift
I see the suns, I see the systems lift
Their forms; and even the systems and the suns
Shall go back slowly to the eternal drift.
Lucretius’s Refutation of the theory that the universe is governed by intelligence
Epicurus was the earliest major Greek thinker to promote the equality of women and slaves; this ran totally counter to the social institutions of the Greek world and indeed the known world beyond. His message and thought (unlike that of Plato and Aristotle) was not created in the context of a male elite, it was addressed ‘to all: men and women; free citizens and slaves; rich and poor; Romans, Hellenes and even Barbarians’.
The Scientific Revolution & Enlightenment
Bacon (1561–1626) and Galileo (1564-1642) were aware of Epicurus’s thought and were attracted to his philosophy including his atomistic and mechanistic ideas. Frenchman Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) was an influential French philosopher-scientist who worked on challenging new ideas with a group of Parisian intellectuals promoting empiricism and skepticism and attempted to reconcile Epicurean atomism with Christianity. Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was a Christian schooled in Aristotelian scholasticism which he abandoned for atomism. Drafts for the second edition of the Principia contained 91 lines from De Rerum Naturae as it related to inertia. However Newton did not warm to Epicurean atheism pointing out that action at a distance required divine mediation.
Later, Enlightenment thinkers were no doubt influenced by Epicurean ideas, in their suspicion of a divinely ordered cosmos and distaste for the irrational influences of astrology and alchemy. Epicurean French Enlightenment philosophes and Englishman Jeremy Bentham set up in deliberate opposition to Christianity. Influential French intellectual Denis Diderot was a declared Epicurean as was later Frederich Nietsche as was Thomas Jefferson in his later years.
Utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill
Epicureanism was very close to, and probably an influence on, the Utilitarianism (an ethical system promoting the greatest happiness for the greatest number) advocated by English closet-botanist, philosopher and political theorist John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) following Jeremy Bentham. Mill was not immune to Epicurus’s appeal, suggesting that the most restless of human preoccupations, capitalism, would reach an enlightened ‘stationary state’ because ‘the best state for human nature is that in which, while no one is poor, no one desires to be richer, nor has any reason to fear being thrust back by the efforts of others to push themselves forward’.
Epicureanism was disgraced in its day, actively resisted in Christendom, and thoroughly misunderstood. Like all asceticism and other philosophies of retreat it was in its own day, as today, open to the accusation of social disengagement.
Dialectical materialism of Karl Marx
For political theorists it is also worth noting that the title of Karl Marx’s doctoral thesis was On the Difference Between the Natural Philosophy of Democritus and Epicurus and this PhD of his student years, almost certainly informed his later Atheism, Dialectical Materialism and emphasis on the role of the philosopher in politics. There are no doubt many other linking strands not least of which being his statement that ‘Man makes religion, religion does not make man’.