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Epicureanism is a current of Western philosophy whose main objective is the attainment of happiness by the satisfaction of only “natural and necessary” desires. It is a materialist and atomist doctrine which can be qualified either as reasoned hedonism or eudemonism.

Epicureanism comes from the Garden school, founded in a small garden in Athens by Epicurus in 306 BC, and is therefore also called “doctrine of Epicurus” or “philosophy of the Garden”. Its heritage has been claimed by modern materialism (Marx in particular, but also certain classical thinkers close to libertines, such as Pierre Gassendi, and the materialists of the Enlightenment, such as Diderot or D’Holbach). Epicureanism proposes to rely on pleasure, defined as the supreme good, and on the rejection of suffering in order to achieve a state of happiness, a serenity of the mind, characterized by the absence of disturbances, the ataraxia. However, unlike hedonism as practiced by the Cyrenaica, Epicureanism banishes all forms of unnatural and unnecessary pleasure and agrees to accept certain forms of suffering. Thus, unlike Aristippus of Cyrene’s immediate “moving pleasure”, Epicurus’ search for “pleasure at rest” (in the absence of pain) in “the memory of bodily pleasures of the past and in the anticipation of those of the future ”means that“ his doctrine was in reality much closer to asceticism than to hedonism”. The abolition of the fear of death and of the gods completes the Epicurean ethic.

These four elements are traditionally grouped under the name of “quadruple remedy” or tetrapharmakos (τετραφάρμακος).

Epicureanism professes that, in order to avoid suffering, one must avoid sources of pleasure which are neither natural nor necessary. He does not therefore advocate the frantic search for pleasure. The caricature of the enjoyable Epicurean – which dates back to Antiquity and is already present, but with humor and distance, in Horace, defining himself as a “pig of the Epicurean herd” – began with the confusion between epicureanism and hedonism of Aristippus of Cyrene, better known as Cyrenaism, then spread through philosophical controversy and, later, the thought of the Fathers of the Church, who rejected the materialism of this philosophy.

Epicureanism competes with another great thought of the time, Stoicism, founded in 301 BC. Indeed, the two currents, materialist and monist, are both focused on the search for happiness but offer different means to achieve it. He also maintains a constant polemic with skepticism, insofar as Epicureanism is a dogmatic doctrine, that is to say, believing in the possibility of using criteria of truth to found certain knowledge. The Epicurean criterion of truth is sensation.


Ancient Epicureanism

The success of the doctrine

Epicureanism, as a materialist conception of the world, spread with success throughout the Mediterranean basin from Alexandria to Rome and remained alive until the first centuries of Christianity.

The number of Epicureans was very important at certain times, according to Diogenes Laërce, who writes that “the cities could no longer contain [his friends]”: “The charm of this doctrine equaled the gentleness of sirens. The doctrine seems to have had great success in Campania, as evidenced by the presence of an Epicurean library and circle formed around the figure of Lucius Calpurnius Pison. We also find traces of an Epicurean presence as far as the Oeonanda site (in present-day Turkey) via the monumental Epicurean inscription built in the 3rd century by Diogenes of Oenoanda. Plotina Pompeia, wife of Trajan, seems to have been close to the school.

Cicero, yet an opponent of Epicurus, does not contradict one of his interlocutors who exclaimed with enthusiasm: “What a large elite of friends he gathered in his house; what close relations of mutual affection in this common attachment to the master! And this example is still followed by all epicureans. (De finibus I, 65) ”

Causes of this success

The publications of Amafinius, considered the first philosopher to write in the Latin language, and of Lucretia, made Epicureanism a popular doctrine in all walks of life. They had the reputation of being relatively easy to grasp, less technical than the teaching of the New Academy or of Stoicism.

In a world where the incessant shock of wars and the worsening of poverty overturn traditional values:

“Epicureanism offers an ideal of individual happiness and a vision of the world where neither the gods nor even death are to be feared, because if the whole universe is composed of eternal and indestructible atoms, man owes nothing at the initiative of the Gods. “

Characters of the Epicurean school

The Epicurean school is reputed to have remained faithful to the original doctrine of Epicurus until its extinction. This fact is attested in particular by Numenius in the fragments of his treatise On the infidelity of the Academy to Plato, which points to the submission of the disciples of Epicurus to his dogmas.

Epicurus was probably the object of a cult within the Garden; according to Plutarch, during his lifetime there are already extreme marks of devotion on the part of some of his disciples, such as Metrodorus and Colotes of Lampsaque (Against Colotes 1117 b-c).

Following the master’s recommendation in his will, the disciples celebrated the anniversary of his birth every year; every month, by a more solemn meeting, they recalled his memory. They display the portrait of Epicurus in their bedroom, they wear reductions with them. There is no way to forget the founder of Epicureanism, exclaims Pomponius in Cicero, when his figure is among our friends, not only in painting, but even on their vases and their rings.

For his followers, Epicurus is the deliverer – he is often referred to as his savior. The poet Lucretia describes him in a famous eulogy as “honor of Greece” and father (De Rerum Natura III, v. 1-99): in his eyes he is the man and the philosopher who freed humanity from the dark night of superstition; it is the defender of the rights of liberty and personal independence against any religious tradition. Also Lucian of Samosate speaks of Epicurus as “a holy, divine man, who alone knew the truth and who, by transmitting it to his disciples, became their liberator.”

Not content with revering the person of Epicurus, his followers have equal respect for his doctrine. According to Cicero, who should perhaps not be taken at face value here, their sect knows little about what is said elsewhere. The Epicureans read only his writings, they love them exclusively, and without knowing the facts, they condemn others. Everything that pleased the master pleases the disciples who would make it a crime to change the slightest thing. This hypothesis is now quite seriously attenuated by historians: if the doctrine itself has known few notable changes, it has remained in permanent dialogue with other philosophical sects and absolute isolation is no longer defended today.

There is a marble in the Louvre which represents Epicurus on one side and his inseparable friend Metrodorus on the other. It looks like a small republic where the agreement is complete between all the members, in the words of Numenius quoted by Eusebius of Caesarea. This is one aspect on which Epicureanism resembles Pythagoreanism: the disciples remain deeply united. Epicurus had set the example; during the siege of Athens by Demetrius, he had fed all his disciples (Plutarch, Demetrius, 34). His last thought is to recommend the children of his friend, Metrodorus; it is to them, in large part, that his will is dedicated.

Friendship or philia is indeed a cardinal notion of Epicurean ethics. Cicero develops this aspect of the doctrine in Book I of the treatise De finibus. This philosophical and propaedeutic practice of friendship is still poorly understood. It was of great interest to Michel Foucault who, in the last years of his teaching, put forward hypotheses on the Epicurean practice of philosophical parrhesia.

Epicureans are known to have wished to stay away from public life, according to the pretext popularized by Plutarch’s pamphlet “Hidden lifes!” » (lathè biôsas in Greek). This refusal of political participation is mainly explained by the identification of the desire for glory and wealth as a desire oriented towards realities far more toxic than pleasant, and by a desire to flee situations of suffering and risk. This does not mean the absence of all collective preoccupation, as the significance of the notion of friendship in Epicurean ethics clearly shows. In fact, the Epicurean doctrine offers significant developments on the origin of law, the notion of justice, philanthropia, and rhetoric as a political technique. These points are particularly documented in the fragments of the Epicurean Hermarque transmitted by Porphyry, and many treatises of Philodemus such as the Economics, The good king according to Homer or the books on Rhetoric. Traces of a controversy over this question of political involvement can be found in what remains of Seneca’s De otio.

Modern reception


A great critique of Epicureanism is that of John Stuart Mill, who is actually more generally a critique of ataraxia. The latter is generally defined as the absence of disturbances (literal meaning of ἀταραξία), but Epicurus, like the Stoics, Buddhists or Schopenhauer, redefines it as being the satisfaction of all one’s desires, which is therefore to be sought.

“It is indeed when we suffer from the absence of pleasure that we need pleasure; but when we don’t suffer, we don’t need pleasure. This is why we say that pleasure is the principle and the end of the blissful life.”

This is what Mill criticizes, saying that the satisfaction of his desires is not what is to be sought, or more accurately that it is It is ”better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied”. His argument is:

”Whoever supposes that this preference takes place at a sacrifice of happiness- that the superior being, in anything like equal circumstances, is not happier than the inferior- confounds the two very different ideas, of happiness, and content.”

However, this is problematic. Certainly, if we consider, like common sense, that a desire is simply the “action of desiring” and synonymous with envy or wish, the reasoning holds perfectly. But if we consider the word desire as designating an “irrational wish, obsessive and impossible to satisfy”, as do most philosophers (including Epicurus), this desire is indeed a limit to “happiness” and not only to “satisfaction”.

What Mill says is therefore true, but not contradictory with ataraxia, nor by extension with Epicureanism, because it is not based on the same definition of desire.

Influences and posterity

The doctrine of Epicurus has had considerable posterity for many ages.

Politically and ethically, Epicureans are often seen as the first utilitarian and conventionalist thinkers. Justice, according to Epicurus, is founded on mutual conventions of non-aggression which only hold out from apprehension of what is useful for those who are capable of it and fear of punishment for others. The principles of law are therefore not based on natural norms but on local decisions guided by a punctual understanding of what will collectively favor the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of suffering. We could see there the first beginnings of the contractualist theories of thinkers like Locke, Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

We find traces of the Epicurean theory of knowledge in Kant, in the exposition of the Analytic and the Transcendental Dialectic in the Critique of Pure Reason.

Texts translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu from Wikipedia

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