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Epicurus – Jefferson's Favorite

Another philosophy that focused on how one should live was Epicureanism. Its founder was Epicurus, who was younger than Pyrrho the Skeptic by 19 years, and older than Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, by 8 years. Epicurus was from the island of Samos. He went to Athens at the age of eighteen to confirm his Athenian citizenship – the year before Alexander died. Later he took up residence in the city of Mytilene, and there, at the age of thirty, he acquired recognition as a philosopher.

Like the Cynics and Stoics, Epicureans believed it best to purge oneself of the appetite for power or fortune, and they too favored withdrawal from the corruptions of society. Nevertheless, they wished to keep the wealth and possessions that helped make life pleasant, and Epicureans, it seems, were people who had accumulated some wealth.

Epicureans believed in community. They were political insofar as they saw that it was in the best interest of society for people to carry out agreements that promote fellowship. This implied a contractual form of government. But Epicureans and his followers did not advocate group action for social change. Their approach to politics suited those who wished to continue living comfortably under authoritarian rulers. They advocated civic tranquility and a search for peace of mind. They advocated living unnoticed, abstaining from public life and from making enemies.

Epicurus addressed the ultimate question about life by claiming that life was worth living. He saw life as possibly joyous – if one had an adequate sensitivity to the world of beauty and good friendships, good health and freedom from drudgery. He believed in the pleasures of contemplation, physical beauty and attachments to others.

Epicurus believed that the driving force of life is the avoidance of pain. He believed that the essence of virtue is avoiding inflicting pain upon others. He believed that the avoidance of pain for oneself and others should take precedence over the pursuit of pleasure. He advocated self-control to avoid painful consequences. Pleasure, he said, should be adjusted to the equilibrium in one's body and mind. Excessive devotion to the gratification of appetites, he said, produces misery rather than happiness and therefore should be avoided.

On the issue of happiness, he differed from Plato in that he accepted pleasure as a meaningful part of life. Plato believed that virtue is incompatible with pleasure, that virtue is sufficient for happiness. Epicurus was compatible with modern psychology in his view that seeking pleasure is rational. He believed that seeking pleasure can be accompanied by virtue if one learns to make choices that fit with well-being.

Stoics, as men of God, distorted Epicureanism by associating it with lust and hedonism. And they denounced Epicureans as atheists.

Epicurus was influenced by the materialism of Democritus. He believed that humanity created its destiny without interference from capricious gods. Religion, he complained, unnecessarily frightened people by describing them at the mercy of gods and demons. He escaped from the unpopularity of atheism by speaking of gods as if they were nature rather than nature's creators. The gods, claimed Epicurus, should be worshiped with neither fear nor hope. And do not fear death, he said, for death is but eternal sleep and the dead feel no pain or torment.

Epicureans questioned various methods of arriving at truth. They championed an empirical approach, a process of confirmation and disconfirmation. For example, when a person from afar comes closer and closer, you confirm or reject that it is the person you expected it to be. It was an idea compatible with humanity getting closer to reality with the microscope and telescope.

Epicureanism was to be the avowed philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, who must have found Epicureanism compatible with the Deism popular in his day, which also placed God outside of human affairs. Jefferson was to describe Epicureanism as the most rational philosophical system of the ancients. And his Epicureanism was to find expression in his contribution to the American Declaration of Independence, in its phrase "pursuit of happiness."


Atoms, Pneuma and Tranquility: Epicurean and Stoic Themes in European Thought, Margaret J. Osler, editor, Cambridge University Press, 1991

A History of Science and Its Relations with Philosophy and Religion, Chapter 1, "Science in the Ancient World," by Sir William Dampier, 1948

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