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The Life of Epicurus


Epicurus was born on February 4th, 341 B.C., the second of four brothers, on the island of Samos in the Aegean Sea just off the west coast of what is now Turkey (a region called Ionia). Epicurus's parents were cleruchs, a class of poor Athenian citizens who settled territory appropriated from the tributary states of Athens. Cleruchs were looked down upon by Athenian residents and scorned as foreign invaders by the natives of the territories they settled, which made their social position precarious. This proved to be the case for Epicurus's family, which was forced to evacuate Samos in 322 B.C., just a year after Epicurus was drafted into the Athenian army. His father, the school teacher Neocles, and mother Chaerestrate subsequently moved the family home to the nearby coastal city of Colophon.

Epicurus's childhood took place during a momentous period in Greek history. The Greeks had long been divided into many city-states spread over the Aegean basin (including modern Greece, Thrace, and the Ionian coast) and southern Italy and Sicily. During Epicurus's childhood, Alexander of Macedon made his remarkable conquest of Greece, the Persian Empire, and Egypt. Greek culture was spread into various cities as far east as Afghanistan and Pakistan. While Alexander's empire didn't survive his death in 323 B.C., the successor states that eventually emerged out of the wars among Alexander's generals retained a strong element of Greek language and culture, particularly among the upper strata of society. These states, especially the Seleucid Empire that took over the territory of Persia, the Ptolemaic Empire that took over Egypt, and the Antigonid Empire that took over the Macedonian homeland were far vaster and more centralized than the old Greek city-states, with the consequence that the relationship between the typical Greek individual and the state he lived in underwent a radical change.

[Alexander of Macedon]
Alexander of Macedon

While Epicurus was serving in the Athenian army, Alexander's death threw Greece into great turmoil, with Athenian politicians meeting a lethal end with disturbing regularity. If the dark nature of politics was making itself felt with particular poignancy at this time, so too were the bright attractions of Greek philosophy. Just as there was great political instability, there was also a great intellectual ferment as various philosophers and their schools attempted to win the hearts and minds of the ruling classes and the citizens. Prior to going to Athens, Epicurus had received a basic education and had been exposed to the philosophy of Plato as taught by Pamphilus. In Athens, it is not known exactly what experiences Epicurus had, but it is likely that he encountered teachers from the Lyceum founded by Aristotle (headed at this time by Aristotle's distinguished successor Theophrastus) as well as the Academy founded by Plato. After briefly returning to his family at Colophon, Epicurus began his study of philosophy in earnest, moving to the island of Rhodes to take instruction from the highly-regarded Aristotelian Praxiphanes.

The teachings of the Lyceum did not sit well with Epicurus, who quickly moved on to study the atomistic system of Democritus under Nausiphanes of Teos. The association with Nausiphanes lasted considerably longer, but eventually Epicurus had a falling out with him as well. The quarrel between Epicurus and Nausiphanes had a more distinctly personal edge to it, but we can also surmise that Epicurus's capacity for original thought was beginning to infuriate his teachers.


By 311 B.C., Epicurus was ready to venture forth and teach his own unique variation of the Democritean physics, and perhaps an early version of his ethical system as well. He moved to the island of Lesbos to teach at the Gymnasium in the city of Mytilene. As a publicly-funded educational institution dominated by partisans of the Lyceum, the Gymnasium was a dangerous setting for Epicurus's public advocacy of a new philosophy. Platonists and Aristotelians fancied the role of philosopher-king (or at least the role of favored advisor to the king, as Aristotle was to Alexander), and were not kindly disposed towards philosophers of rival schools spreading heterodox ideas on their turf. The aroused Mytilene orthodoxy moved against Epicurus, threatening to charge him with impiety and other thought-crimes that placed his life in grave danger. Rather than remaining at the mercy of a hostile gymnasiarch, Epicurus chose instead to make a dangerous mid-Winter sea-voyage to the Ionian coast, and was “almost swallowed up by the sea” according to one ancient biographer.

Epicurus not only made his dramatic escape from Mytilene, he departed from the realm of Antigonus Monophthalmus altogether and migrated to the relatively liberal city of Lampsacus on the Hellespont. In Lampsacus he began to build up a devoted circle of friends who became the nucleus of his new school. Hermarchus came over from Mytilene with Epicurus. They were soon joined by prominent Lampsacenes, including the financier Idomeneus, Leonteus and his wife Themista, the satirist Colotes, the mathematician Polyaenus, and the most famous popularizer of Epicureanism, Metrodorus. Epicurus was recognized as the leader, or hegemon of the school, while Hermarchus, Metrodorus, and Polyaenus became the associate leaders or kathhegemones.


By 306 B.C., continued political turmoil in Athens had discredited the ambitious Aristotelians and Platonists, and the politicization of philosophy and the attendant intolerance had become passé. With Athens under a more tolerant regime, the way was clear for Epicurus to return and establish his school there. Epicurus bought a small house and a garden to house his circle of friends, and his school came to be known as “the Garden” because of their instructional sessions at the garden. The main work of the Garden, however, was carried on at Epicurus's house, where manuscripts and letters were produced and sent to the growing circle of converts throughout the Greek world.

It was in Athens where Epicurus's philosophy reached its mature form and Epicureanism was systematically propagated throughout the Hellensitic world. In carrying on this activity, Epicurus's previous clashes with authority convinced him that it was best to stay out of politics and avoid playing to popular prejudices. Instead of trying to win over whole cities and nations as had previous philosophers, Epicurus instead aimed at attracting individuals to an Epicurean subculture while observing the religious and legal forms of the larger society (an important consideration in an era when philosophers were routinely executed or exiled for impiety) and developing an attitude of tolerance towards non-Epicureans. The Garden had a carefully-designed program of advertising and education to attract and instruct students, and those who accepted Epicurean teachings were encouraged to formally proclaim their Epicurean identity, build friendships with each other, revere the founders of the Garden as role-models, and celebrate specifically-Epicurean festivals.

Another unique aspect of the Garden was its avoidance of corporate and communal forms of organization. Legally speaking, the Garden itself was an unincorporated association of teachers and manuscript copyists who worked in Epicurus's household and supported by teaching and manuscript fees and voluntary donations. There was no communal sharing of property among Epicureans nor mandatory assessment of the followers to support Epicurean leaders, which had the welcome effect of making the leaders accountable to the followers and forestalling factional conflicts over money. The long-term stability of the Epicurean movement in ancient times owes a great deal to Epicurus's organizational talent in removing the incentives for authoritarianism and internal conflict among Epicureans and finding a workable modus vivendi for dealing with non-Epicureans.

It was in this environment that Epicurus came to be known for his close friendships and his unusually liberal attitudes, even allowing women (including the courtesan Leontion, the author of a tract against Theophrastus) and slaves into his inner circle in sharp contrast to the elitist orientation of the Academy and the Lyceum. Later detractors tried to arouse prejudice against Epicureans by accusing them of licentiousness and over-indulgence, but first-hand testimony portrayed Epicurus as having “unsurpassed goodwill to all men” and very warm relations with his family and a devoted circle of followers. One hostile biographer admits that Epicurus even provided rations to his followers when Athens was besieged, demonstrating his doctrines about friendship through actual practice and not just through mere rhetoric. The true spirit of the Garden can also be judged by an inscription on the gate that greeted those entering it:

“Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure. The caretaker of that abode, a kindly host, will be ready for you; he will welcome you with bread, and serve you water also in abundance, with these words: ‘Have you not been well entertained? This garden does not whet your appetite; but quenches it.’”

The literary output of Epicurus and his closest associates was quite extensive, with at least 42 different works of Epicurus being widely circulated (including the monumental On Nature in 37 books, of which only a few fragments have survived) along with12 books of Metrodorus and 4 books of Polyaenus. Epicurus's original writings were said to fill 300 rolls, unmatched any other philosopher of ancient times.

Epicurus died in 270 B.C. of a painful urinary blockage and an associated dysentery infection. In the last few hours of his life he wrote a moving Letter to Idomeneus where he rates the pleasures of the remembrance of his friendship with him ahead of the pains he was suffering. He met his end when he entered a bronze bath of lukewarm water and asked for some wine, which he swallowed and then with his last breath urged his followers to remember his doctrines: “Farewell my friends, the truths I taught hold fast.”

The Intellectual Development and Spread of Epicureanism

While it was the fate of most Greek philosophical schools to degenerate into intellectually-dead authoritarian cults or to fall into skeptical or quasi-religious metaphysical speculation, Epicurus had provided his school with sound intellectual foundations and an organizational infrastructure (which Epicurus endowed in his Last Will) that could withstand the political instability of the Hellenistic era. One of Epicurus's students, Colotes, wrote a famous tract explaining that it was impossible to live according to the teachings of other philosophers, which proved to be a very effective debating manual for use against the older philosophical schools. Epicurean teachers established themselves in such important centers as Antioch and Alexandria, and Epicurean followers began appearing all over the Greek-speaking world.

Two great philosophical rivals emerged in opposition to Epicureans, namely the Stoics and the Skeptics. The debates among these Hellenistic schools (especially between the Epicureans and the Stoics) spurred Epicureans to develop some of their doctrines in much greater detail, notably their epistemology and some of their ethical theories, especially their theories concerning friendship and virtue. There were also occasional revivals of Platonism (the Lyceum seems to have become absorbed in the natural sciences and went into eclipse). Some pluralism started to creep into Epicurean doctrines (notably over the nature of friendship), but for the most part Epicurean beliefs remained amazingly consistent under the pressure of philosophical disputations, while Stoicism and particularly Platonism seem to have undergone steady changes in their doctrines.

With the emergence of Rome as the leading power in the western Mediterranean after the defeat of Carthage in the second Punic War (201 B.C.), Romans began to take a greater interest in Greek affairs and ultimately in Greek culture. In 155 B.C. Athens sent a delegation of its leading philosophers (excluding the Epicureans, who refused on principle to participate in public affairs) as ambassadors to Rome, where their teachings caused a sensation among the educated and a conservative backlash against all Greek philosophers led by Marcus Porcius Cato. Two representatives of the Garden, Alceus and Philiscus, came to Rome the next year, but their ethical teachings offended the conservative Romans and resulted in their expulsion from Rome.

Epicureanism, however, eventually found champions in Rome, notably Amafinius and Rabirius, who wrote popular works explaining Epicurean theories. These works “took all Italy by storm” according to one source, and prepared the way for the permanent establishment of Epicurean teachers under the patronage of sympathetic Roman aristocrats in Italy during the 1rst century B.C. Of foremost importance was the circle that grew up in Naples around the aristocratic Calpurnius Piso family in association with the wealthy banker and book publisher Titus Pomponius Atticus. The Epicurean philosophers Siro and Philodemus were the leading teachers of this group, and the Neapolitan group became particularly well-known for the stellar poets associated with it: Lucretius, Horace, and Virgil among others. Philodemus seems to have been responsible for modifying Epicurean doctrines in favor of using poetry as a vehicle for expression of philosophical ideas, and some poems of his have survived. But it was the work of his students, above all Lucretius, that has immortalized the artistic achievements of this group.


Unfortunately, the very success of this group made it a target for the political opponents of the Pisos, particularly in view of the fact that the wife of Gaius Julius Caesar came from the Piso family. Foremost among these was Marcus Tullius Cicero, who kept up close contacts with Atticus for many years and had privileged access to the literature being produced by the Neapolitan Epicureans. Cicero made a scurrilous speech in the Senate against one of the Pisos, where among other things he made numerous invidious references against his Epicurean beliefs. When Cicero was forced into retirement, he began writing anti-Epicurean tracts in the form of monologues by representatives of various philosophical schools. Ironically, it is some of his writings that are our best source for certain Epicurean arguments, as Cicero copied the Epicurean monologues (with some rearrangement and condensation of the material) directly from the works of Philodemus and other Epicureans of the Neapolitan group.

Cicero's invective, coupled with the subsequent assasination of Julius Caesar and loss of status by the Pisos, was a serious setback for Epicureanism's acceptability among the leading groups in Rome. The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. buried the villa of the Pisos in Herculaneum, and along with it the library of the patron of the Neapolitan group. In spite of these problems, Epicureanism continued to flourish all over the new Roman Empire, especially in the Greek-speaking areas and in France and Spain. Over the course of the Empire's existence, an occasional anti-Epicurean philosopher such as the Skeptic Sextus Empiricus or the Platonist Plutarch would write at length against Epicureanism, and Epicureans such as the satirist Lucian would subtly advance Epicurean ideas in their works. But for the most part, Epicureanism's hedonism and anarchistic tendencies had caused it to fall into disfavor among the elite (with the notable exception of the early 2nd century A.D. Empress Plotina), with Epicureanism being more active in communities far removed from Rome. Epicureans were particularly prominent in western Turkey during the middle of the Imperial period, notably in the city of Amastris on the Hellespont and in Oenoanda in southwest Turkey. In the latter location in the early 3rd century A.D., a civic official named Flavius Diogenes constructed a wall inscribed with numerous Epicurean writings.

The fate of Epicureanism in the ancient world was ultimately bound up with the religious reaction against Greek philosophy (which will be considered below), but in its first five hundred years after the death of Epicurus it had successfully acquitted itself as one of the leading and best organized of the Greek philosophical schools, providing an vibrant subculture to those who sought something better than the laughable myths and superstitious dread so characteristic of the dominant culture of the Hellenistic kingdoms and the Roman Empire.

Epicureanism and the Judeans

In the Talmudic Mishnah, one of the authoritative documents of Rabbinical Judaism, there is a remarkable statement in the tractate Sanhedrin that defines the Jewish religion in relation to Epicureanism:

“All Israel has a share in the world to come, as Isaiah said: And all of your people who are righteous will merit eternity and inherit the land. And these are the people who do not merit the world to come: The ones who say that there is no resurrection of the dead, and those who deny the Torah is from the heavens, and Epicureans (‘Apikorsim’).”

Modern Jews use “apikoros” as a generic term for an unbeliever, but the authors of the Talmud were clearly singling out followers of Epicurus. In effect, this statement is saying that all of Israel will enjoy eternal life except those who get corrupted by Epicurus or certain characteristic Epicurean beliefs (namely, Epicurean denials of an after-life and of divine providence). This peculiar hostility towards Epicureanism is all the more remarkable for the fact that this particular statement was later taken to be the basis for speculation about the meaning of Jewishness among Rabbis of the Middle Ages, the most famous of whom, Moses Maimonides, explicitly continued the Jewish tradition of denouncing Epicureanism late in the 12th century A.D.

[Antiochus IV]
Antiochus IV

The origins of this anti-Epicurean element of Jewish thought can be traced to the 2nd century B.C., when the Seleucid monarch Antiochus IV Epiphanes embarked on a military campaign against Egypt in an attempt to conquer his Ptolemaic rival. Judea had the misfortune to be located between the Seleucid heartland of Syria and Ptolemaic Egypt, and the Judeans were divided into pro-Seleucid and pro-Ptolemaic factions. At this time, the hereditary Zadokite priesthood had been deeply influenced by Greek culture, adopting doctrines that tended to discount the conservative oral tradition and deny some of the more superstitious beliefs then current, notably the belief in bodily resurrection. At the time of Antiochus's campaign, the Zadokite high priest was a pro-Ptolemaic partisan.

Antiochus, anxious to secure Judea in connection with his Egyptian expedition and to create a more culturally-unified empire, had the Zadokite high priest removed and founded a Greek-style Gymnasium in Jerusalem. Antiochus was sympathetic to Epicureanism (albeit not acting in accord with Epicurus's injunctions to avoid politics), so his attempt at a forced hellenization of Judea was closely linked to Epicureanism in the minds of the Judean patriots. Another factor was that Epicureans were prominent in the hellenized cities of Galilee, creating a rivalry between Epicureanism and the traditional religion among the northern Judeans. Antiochus's provocations brought about a strong nationalistic reaction, which exploded into violence when a rumor of Antiochus's death reached Judea. While the rumor was false, nonetheless the Hasmonean leader Judas Maccabeus was ultimately successful in his revolt against the Seleucids.

After the Hasmoneans consolidated their power, a rather delicate situation developed with respect to the priesthood. The hereditary successors to the priesthood had had their legitimacy fatally undermined by their hellenizing tendencies and their close association with the foreign Ptolemaic monarchy. The party of the “separatists” (the Pharisees), prevented the Zadokite legitimists (the Sadducees) from reassuming control of the temple in Jerusalem, while some of the Sadducees set up a rival temple in the Egyptian city of Leontopolis.

To further complicate matters, Judea later became a client state of Rome, and the Romans installed their own Jewish rulers and Sadducee priests. Not only were they opposed by the Pharisees, other anti-foreign religious factions arose during the late Hasmonean period (early 1rst century B.C.) to challenge the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the Samaritans (a regional offshoot of Judaism whose followers had established their own center of worship on Mount Gezzerim), their adherents questioning the necessity for temple ritual and priestly authority altogether. One of these dissident groups called themselves the “keepers” (Nazarim) of divine wisdom. These Nazarim, or Nazarenes, taught that righteousness towards others along with frequent rituals of baptism and anointment and a ritual eucharist for the dead was sufficient to place oneself in accord with God without the traditional temple ceremonies. After the Roman conquest of Judea, the Nazarene cults became one of the focal points of resistance to Roman and Herodian rule, as both the Pharisees and Sadducees were co-opted by the Herodian monarchy that had been installed by the Romans.

[Spoils from the Jerusalem Temple]
Spoils from the Jerusalem Temple

The historical significance of these intricacies of ancient Judean politics is that the Pharisees are the direct ancestors of modern Rabbinical Judaism, while the Nazarene movement spawned two religions that have survived to modern times, the Mandaean and the Christian. The founding of these two Nazarene religions was attributed to John the Baptist and Jesus, respectively.

The Talmud is derived from the Pharisaic oral tradition, so the Talmud passage quoted above can be explained as a Pharisaic attack on the Sadducees by comparing some of the distinctive Sadducee beliefs to those of the hated Seleucid defiler of the Temple. It seems that the Sadducees could never quite live down the charge of having sold out to the Seleucids and the Romans, as they disappeared shortly after the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in 70 A.D. and the genealogical records for proving their Zadokite ancestry (the last remaining basis for Sadducee legitimacy) along with it. Today, the memory of the Maccabean revolt against Antiochus survives in the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, and the legacy of the factional conflicts of the Hasmonean period lives on in the separate religions of the Jews, Mandaeans, and Christians and in the Talmudic denunciation of Epicureanism.

Epicureanism and the Early Christians

As indicated in the discussion of Judea above, Christians originated as one of the Nazarene cults. Unfortunately, the various historical accounts of Jesus are highly unreliable and mutually contradictory, and many of the stories associated with him may be an amalgamation of folk-tales about several different Nazarene leaders and wholly fictional accounts (based on widespread myths in circulation at the time) written many decades after the alleged events described. As best as can be determined, Jesus appears to have been a renegade Mandaean who claimed to be a descendant of the royal house of David, the anointed (“messiah” or “christos”) king of Jewish prophecy who would conquer the world. There are also strong indications that Jesus also claimed to be an incarnation of a “wisdom of life” that the Mandaeans equate with god.

[Possible Grave of Jesus]
Possible Grave of Jesus
Srinagar, Kashmir

Jesus's political pretensions were cut short at a crucial stage in his career when he entered Jerusalem in preparation for a coup against the Herodians, only to be betrayed by one of his own followers. Jesus was arrested and crucified, but to the dismay of the Roman/Herodian authorities, Jesus survived the crucifixion (possibly with the connivance of the commander of the Roman troops handling the crucifixion, who later became a Christian bishop in Cappodocia), and after his resuscitation was seen leaving the tomb-chamber assisted by two other Nazarenes. As the startling news of Jesus's resuscitation spread, his brother James announced that Jesus had been miraculously resurrected and that he had been personally deputized by Jesus to lead the Nazarenes as their “bishop of bishops” until Jesus's return (which was supposed to take place within a single generation of his original ministry). James's claim to leadership was accepted by most of the recent Nazarene converts, as he was the heir apparent to Jesus and thus next in line to be King of the Judeans. There is some evidence that Jesus meanwhile fled to Syria and then eastwards out of the Roman Empire, where he continued his teaching and faith-healing for many decades in Iran and Kashmir. A possible tomb of Jesus is located in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir.

While James's sect in Jerusalem was largely destroyed by his execution and the flight of his followers from Judea prior to the Roman sacking of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., as well as the systematic campaign carried on by the Romans to kill the families of all messianic claimants, a missionary to non-Judeans by the name of Saul of Tarsus (also known by his latinized name Paul) transmitted a less militant form of Christianity to various cities in Turkey, Greece, and Italy. Rather than stressing Jesus's messianic role as a Judean world conqueror, Saul claimed that Jesus was not just a mere mortal from the house of David, but one of the immortals who shortly after his resurrection had ascended into heaven. Saul portrayed Jesus as a miracle-working demi-god, the son of the traditional Judean deity, who had come for the salvation of all mankind and not just Judeans. With this dejudaizing process initiated by Saul, Christianity could be made acceptable to non-Judeans, who otherwise would have had no reason to feel any loyalty towards a Jewish messiah.

In the course of his attempts to win converts Saul soon came into collision with the Epicurean communities that existed throughout the Greek-speaking world. Chapter 17 of the Acts of the Apostles records Saul's sermon to the Athenians, including Epicureans and Stoics, gathered at the Areopagus in Athens. When Saul gets ready to speak, the Epicureans present ask “What will this seed-pecker say?”. The Epicurean response to Saul's discourse was not recorded, but even the author of Acts admits that Saul was not too successful in winning converts on that occasion.

A more significant aspect of Saul's evangelism was the extent to which he adopted certain peculiarities of Epicurean terminology and phraseology, and certain Epicurean social customs; and the extent to which he focused much of his rhetoric on gainsaying Epicurean denials of divine providence, resurrection, and an after-life. His letters to the Thessalonians and Corinthians in particular show this tendency. These letters offer strong indirect evidence that Epicureans were the principal ideological opponents that Saul had to contend with in Greece. Also very telling was his indirect references to Antiochus Epiphanes as the anti-Christ, making the same kind of anti-Seleucid/anti-Epicurean allusions that were illustrated above in connection with the Talmud.

After Saul, the fledgling Christian church faced persecution at the hands of the Romans, and was largely confined to winning converts from the uneducated segments of the population. The characteristic early Christian attitude towards Greek philosophers was summed up by the teaching that the wisdom of the world was foolishness, squarely placing Christian faith in fierce opposition to human rationality and the human desires embraced by Epicureanism.

Epicureanism and the Christian Apologists

By the mid-2 nd century A.D., the Christian movement had become secure enough so that it could aspire to win converts from more educated circles. Certain church leaders began to seriously engage themselves intellectually against Greek philosophy, often in the form of written apologias against “pagans” and rival Christians. These works routinely included attacks on Epicureanism, as shown by Tatian's Address to the Greeks, Justin the Martyr's Hortatory Address to the Greeks and On the Resurrection, and Irenaeus of Lyon's Against the Heretics.

Two significant anti-Epicurean themes emerged in these early apologias: first, Justin and Tatian mocked Greek philosophers as being hopelessly disputatious with one another, taking their disagreements as evidence that human intellect could not arrive at definite conclusions about reality (a somewhat ironic charge in view of the emerging factionalism of the Christians themselves). In the Hortatory Address to the Greeks, Justin writes:

“How then, you men of Greece, can it be safe for those who desire to be saved, to fancy that they can learn the true religion from these philosophers, who were neither able so to convince themselves as to prevent sectarian wrangling with one another, and not to appear definitely opposed to one another's opinions?”

The second theme was to attack the specifically Epicurean denial of divine providence and after-life and affirmation of pleasure as the supreme good and of materialistic atomism. While these earliest apologias often lumped Epicurus together with other philosophers, the succeeding decades saw a significant change. The next major Christian antagonist of Epicureanism was Tertullian (2nd to 3rd century A.D.). Unlike previous Christian apologists, Tertullian fully grasped the gross irrationality of his own anti-Epicurean arguments, and was all the more inflamed against it by the inclination of certain heretics to adopt Epicurean doctrines in arguing against bodily resurrection or against divine providence. Tertullian's rage against Epicureanism and other Greek philosophies and their influence on heretics is best illustrated in The Prescription Against Heretics where he says “These are the doctrines of men and of demons produced for itching ears of the spirit of this world's wisdom: this the Lord called ‘foolishness’ and ‘chose the foolish things of the world’ to confound even philosophy itself. For philosophy it is which is the material of the world's wisdom, the rash interpreter of the nature and the dispensation of God. Indeed heresies are themselves instigated by philosophy” and went on to mock the diversity of philosophical theories and thunder “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”

His opposition to philosophy lead to a profoundly irrationalist attitude, a sort of reductio ad absurdum of the Christian opposition to worldly wisdom originally promoted by Saul. This irrationalism is blatantly evident in On the Flesh of Christ, where he proclaims that “The Son of God was crucified; I am not ashamed because men must needs be ashamed of it. And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried, and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible.” In The Soul's Testimony, his irrationalism is linked to his fears about the effect of Epicurean materialism on Christian faith:

“Stand forth, O soul, whether thou art a divine and eternal substance, as most philosophers believe if it be so, thou wilt be the less likely to lie,--or whether thou art the very opposite of divine, because indeed a mortal thing, as Epicurus alone thinks--in that case there will be the less temptation for thee to speak falsely in this case: whether thou art received from heaven, or sprung from earth; whether thou art formed of numbers, or of atoms; whether thine existence begins with that of the body, or thou art put into it at a later stage; from whatever source, and in whatever way, thou makest man a rational being, in the highest degree capable of thought and knowledge,--stand forth and give thy witness. But I call thee not as when, fashioned in schools, trained in libraries, fed in Attic academies and porticoes, thou belchest wisdom. I address thee simple, rude, uncultured and untaught, such as they have thee who have thee only; that very thing of the road, the street, the work-shop, wholly. I want thine inexperience, since in thy small experience no one feels any confidence. I demand of thee the things thou bringest with thee into man, which thou knowest either from thyself, or from thine author, whoever he may be. Thou art not, as I well know, Christian; for a man becomes a Christian, he is not born one. Yet Christians earnestly press thee for a testimony; they press thee, though an alien, to bear witness against thy friends, that they may be put to shame before thee, for hating and mocking us on account of things which convict thee as an accessory.”

All told, anti-Epicurean references can be found in at least seven of Tertullian's works. He pouted about their “frigid conceits” and labeled Epicurean doctrines as stupid, and even suggested that Epicurus was not really a philosopher at all. While Tertullian's rants undoubtedly appealed to a certain mindset (specifically to the same sort of extreme authoritarian attitude that produced Tertullian's famously misogynist The Apparel of Women), they also exposed the intellectual vacuity of the traditional Christian hostility to philosophy. If mainstream Christianity was to survive against the ever-multiplying heresies, its theology had to be placed on a more reasonable foundation.

A subtle change can be detected in Tertullian's contemporary Hippolytus of Rome, whose Refutation of All Heresies marks the beginning of an attempted comprehensive theology that didn't simply dismiss the “wisdom of the world” out of hand, but saw fit to advance more sophisticated arguments against it. By the middle of the 3rd century A.D. the philosophical struggle between Epicureanism and Christianity began in earnest. The Epicurean sympathizer Celsus wrote A True Discourse, which was among the first works to directly challenged the veracity of the Christian scriptures and mock the essential irrationality of many Christian beliefs. Particularly irksome to Christians was his report of a Jewish story that Jesus was not the son of god, but rather the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier who went by the nickname of “Panther” (the Talmud also describes an illegitimate “Yeshu ben Pandeiros”, though he supposedly lived at least a century before the Romans occupied Judea).

Several decades later, Origen wrote Contra Celsum in reply to Celsus, and Lactantius included lengthy arguments specifically against Epicureanism in The Divine Institutes. Lactantius in particular shows how Christians were no longer content to argue for their position on the grounds of faith alone, but were beginning to embrace Platonic arguments in favor of divine providence, accusing Epicurus of falsehood in not recognizing the role of divine intelligence in ordering the cosmos; and also Platonist criticisms of Epicurus's ethics.

The Platonic trend became even more obvious in the 4th to early 5 th centuries A.D. Athanasius of Alexandria repeated what was becoming the standard argument against the Epicurean denial of divine providence in On the Incarnation:

“In regard to the making of the universe and the creation of all things there have been various opinions, and each person has propounded the theory that suited his own taste. For instance, some say that all things are self-originated and, so to speak, haphazard. The Epicureans are among these; they deny that there is any Mind behind the universe at all. This view is contrary to all the facts of experience, their own existence included. For if all things had come into being in this automatic fashion, instead of being the outcome of Mind, though they existed, they would all be uniform and without distinction.”

Similarly, the on-going fulminations against pleasure can be seen in a letter written by Ambrose of Milan to the Christian congregation at Vercellae in 396 A.D.:

“Epicurus himself also, whom these persons think they should follow rather than the apostles, the advocate of pleasure, although he denies that pleasure brings in evil, does not deny that certain things result from it from which evils are generated; and asserts in fine that the life of the luxurious which is filled with pleasures does not seem to be reprehensible, unless it be disturbed by the fear either of pain or of death. But how far he is from the truth is perceived even from this, that he asserts that pleasure was originally created in man by God its author, as Philomarus his follower argues in his Epitomae, asserting that the Stoics are the authors of this opinion.

“But Holy Scripture refutes this, for it teaches us that pleasure was suggested to Adam and Eve by the craft and enticements of the serpent. Since, indeed, the serpent itself is pleasure, and therefore the passions of pleasure are various and slippery, and as it were infected with the poison of corruptions, it is certain then that Adam, being deceived by the desire of pleasure, fell away from the commandment of God and from the enjoyment of grace. How then can pleasure recall us to paradise, seeing that it alone deprived us of it?”

Jerome also capitalized on the anti-pleasure theme in Against Jovinian, where he denounces Jovinian as a voluptary and heretical “Epicurus of Christianity.” But it was the task of the greatest apologist of them all, Augustine of Hippo, to complete the work of reducing Christian theology to a variant form of Platonism. Like his predecessors, Augustine continued to strongly emphasize the alleged incompatibility of pleasure with virtue and to argue against atomism and the materiality and mortality of the soul. Perhaps more interestingly, in his Confessions he tells the story of how Epicureanism had raised doubts in his mind shortly after his conversion to Christianity and how ultimately came to oppose it:

“Thine be the praise; unto thee be the glory, O Fountain of mercies. I became more wretched and thou didst come nearer. Thy right hand was ever ready to pluck me out of the mire and to cleanse me, but I did not know it. Nor did anything call me back from a still deeper plunge into carnal pleasure except the fear of death and of thy future judgment, which, amid all the waverings of my opinions, never faded from my breast. And I discussed with my friends, Alypius and Nebridius, the nature of good and evil, maintaining that, in my judgment, Epicurus would have carried off the palm if I had not believed what Epicurus would not believe: that after death there remains a life for the soul, and places of recompense. And I demanded of them: ‘Suppose we are immortal and live in the enjoyment of perpetual bodily pleasure, and that without any fear of losing it—why, then, should we not be happy, or why should we search for anything else?’ I did not know that this was in fact the root of my misery: that I was so fallen and blinded that I could not discern the light of virtue and of beauty which must be embraced for its own sake, which the eye of flesh cannot see, and only the inner vision can see. Nor did I, alas, consider the reason why I found delight in discussing these very perplexities, shameful as they were, with my friends. For I could not be happy without friends, even according to the notions of happiness I had then, and no matter how rich the store of my carnal pleasures might be. Yet of a truth I loved my friends for their own sakes, and felt that they in turn loved me for my own sake.”

From Augustine's correspondence with Nebridius, we can gain some insight into just how deep his inner anguish was at this time:

“But where is that truly happy life? where? Aye, where? Oh! If it were attained, one would spurn the atomic theory of Epicurus. Oh! If it were attained, one would know that there is nothing here below but the visible world. Oh! If it were attained, one would know that in the rotation of a globe on its axis, the motion of points near the poles is less rapid than of those which lie half way between them, and other such like things which we likewise know. But now, how or in what sense can I be called happy, who know not why the world is such in size as it is, when the proportions of the figures according to which it is framed do in no way hinder its being enlarged to any extent desired?”

Just as Augustine's writings mark the intellectual surrender of Christianity to Plato, they also reflected a sinister trend towards the persecution of non-Christians and heretics and the suppression of their writings in the late 4th century A.D., as is implied by this letter to Dioscorus:

“If, however, in order to secure not only the demolition of open errors, but also the rooting out of those which lurk in darkness, it is necessary for you to be acquainted with the erroneous opinions which others have advanced, let both eye and ear be wakeful, I beseech you, --look well and listen well whether any of our assailants bring forward a single argument from Anaximenes and from Anaxagoras, when, though the Stoic and Epicurean philosophies were more recent and taught largely, even their ashes are not so warm as that a single spark can be struck out from them against the Christian faith.”

Christianity, having become the official state religion of Rome and Byzantium by this time, no longer required mere argumentation alone—it had power, money, and status on its side, and a fierce intolerance of its rivals. Epicureans still had the Garden in Athens, but its ability to spread the teachings of Epicurus had been fatally hobbled. For the time being, the Christian faith had emerged victorious over the cause of human happiness and rationality.

Darkness and Rediscovery

Around the same time that Augustine boasted of the ashes of philosophy being too cold to threaten Christianity, his co-religionists were making sure that this boast became literally true. In 391 A.D., at least one of the libraries and the museum at Alexandria were sacked by rioting Christians, in the process burning the greatest manuscript collection of ancient times. 12th century Christians were so ashamed of this that they tried to blame the Islamic conquerors of 7th century for burning the Alexandrian manuscripts, attributing to the Caliph Omar the remark “If these books contain nothing more than that which is written in the book of God they are useless; if they contain anything contrary to the sacred book, they are pernicious; in either case, burn them.” Even though the quote may be pure fiction (another theory is that a separate Alexandrian collection survived, which was later burned by Omar), the spirit behind such a remark was nevertheless real enough at the close of the 4th century.


The destruction of the library was not the end of the story, however. The daughter of the last museum director, Hypatia, was an accomplished intellectual in her own right, and attracted many students to symposia held at her home where she actively propagated the teachings of various Greek philosophers. She also steadfastly resisted the attempts by the bishop Cyril to dominate local politics, which prompted the jealous bishop to unleash his monks against her in the year 415 A.D. In his Ecclesiastical History, Socrates Scholasticus described what happened next:

“Some of them, therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with roof tiles. After tearing her body to pieces, they took the mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them.”

A timely bribe saved the murderers from prosecution, and after Hypatia's murder no non-Christian in the Roman empire attempted to actively propagate secular philosophy. The Garden and the other philosophical schools of Athens (the Academy, the Lyceum, and the Stoic Porch) were still open, but they were an anachronism in a world gone mad. It was left to the Emperor Justinian to snuff out the last vestiges of intellectual freedom in 529 A.D. when he closed the four Athenian schools down. After more than eight hundred years, the Garden ceased to exist. Some of the Athenian schoolmen, together with dissident Nestorian Christians from Syria, fled to southwestern Iran and founded the University of Jundeshapur, an influential institution which later transmitted knowledge of Greek philosophy (especially knowledge of Aristotle's teachings) to the Moslem world.

After the Garden's closure, the only fragments of Epicureanism to be remembered in Europe were those that the church chose to preserve. Apart from Lucretius's De Rerum Natura, almost no original Epicurean source material survived outside of what had been quoted by various biographers and critics. For many hundreds of years, Epicurus could only be openly discussed by those whose reputations were already ruined, liked the imprisoned Boethius in his Consolations of Philosophy and in the ribald songs of monastic drop-outs in Germany, known to us today as the Carmina Burana (“Songs of Beuren”). Even though Aristotle was made respectable again by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century (giving rise to the Scholastic philosophy), Epicurean doctrines were still suppressed. One theologian from the mid-14th century, Nicolaus of Autrecourt, did champion Epicurean atomism. However, the church stripped him of his teaching post and ordered him to burn his own writings, which he did on November 25th, 1347.

By the 15th century, the philosophical speculation initiated by the works of Aquinas and his critics, coupled with the transmission of classical works that had been preserved by the Moslems, led to a greater general interest in the Greek and Roman classics. This trend was particularly evident in Italy, where the humanists began circulating translations of classical works and writing essays on classical themes. Of particular importance to the story of Epicureanism was Poggio Bracciolini, who rediscovered De Rerum Natura at a German monastary in 1414, and made a copy which was transmitted it to Italy (where it was recopied by Niccolò Niccoli). Another important Italian humanist was Lorenzo Valla, who wrote the essay De Voluptate defending Epicurean hedonism.

The dissemination of Epicureanism was greatly assisted in the following decades by the invention of the printing press, which enabled De Rerum Natura to be published in 1473. Other important early publications included De Finibus in 1467 and the surviving letters of Epicurus in 1533. Thus, Epicureanism was being rediscovered at a crucial time in European history when Christendom in the west was being divided between Catholics and Protestants and the Scholastic philosophical orthodoxy was being called into question by new astronomical and physiological discoveries.

Modern Epicureanism

[Pierre Gassendi]

The revival of Epicureanism as a complete philosophical system in modern times can be credited to Pierre Gassendi, who in the mid-17th century constructed a neo-Epicurean atomism to challenge the philosophical system of Renée Descartes. Prior to his embrace of Epicureanism in the mid-1620s, Gassendi had been educated in the Scholastic tradition, and taught Aristotle's philosophy at the University of Aix. His lectures appended a number of objections to Aristotle, which blossomed into a full-blown rejection of Scholaticism in favor of empiricism. Gassendi, taking an interest in astronomical observations, carried on a correspondence with Galileo Galilei (who was under house arrest by the Inquisition for his own astronomical observations in support of the heliocentric theory of Copernicus). Around this time, Gassendi discovered the works of Lucretius and Epicurus, and was persuaded that the study of ancient atomism could place philosophy on a new, sounder foundation.

Later events proved that this expectation was correct. Gassendi's later works, both in defense of Epicurus and against Descartes, was highly influential on a number of English intellectuals, notably John Locke (a student of Gassendi's friend François Bernier), Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and Robert Hooke. These men helped to define an atomistic empiricism in philosophy, classical liberalism in political theory, and lay the theoretical foundations for modern physics, chemistry, astronomy, and optics.

[Isaac Newton]

Newton makes an interesting case study of the influence of Epicurus and Lucretius. Newton had started out with the traditional educational program that emphasized Aristotle and the Scholastic world-view, but he quickly abandoned it for studies of the writings of an English follower of Gassendi, Walter Charleton. Atomism became a conerstone of Newton's thinking, as can be seen in the early drafts for the second edition of his monumental Principia where Newton included ninety lines from De Rerum Natura in connection with his concept of inertia. Newton also found it necessary to distance himself from the atheistic implications of Epicureanism by claiming that action at a distance (the key innovation of Newton's gravitational theory relative to ancient atomism) would necessitate divine mediation. In striking contrast to his revolutionary approach to physics, Newton's mystical views about atomic interactions led to an intense interest in alchemy. But in spite of the intellectual contortions that Locke, Newton, and others went through to make room for God in their metaphysical systems, it is clear that they were the harbingers of modern science and modern social organization, a complete reversal of the Scholastic world-view that had prevailed previously.

[John Locke]

In 1752, the buried fragments of Philodemus were recovered from the Herculaneum villa of the Pisos. Unfortunately, this took place long after Locke had laid the foundations for modern empiricism, and Locke had made some serious mistakes that subsequent generations of skeptics and idealists were to seize upon, mistakes that Philodemus's On the Methods of Inference might have made him more conscious of had he had the opportunity to study it. However, another one of Locke's enduring contributions, his consensual political theory that echoed many of the maxims of the Prinicipal Doctrines of Epicurus, was to be the basis for the American Revolution and for classical liberal political philosophy.

[Thomas Jefferson]

One of the founders of America, Thomas Jefferson, was an avowed Epicurean in his later years, and many others were largely under the influence of Locke and the other English intellectuals of the preceding century. Jefferson wrote a Letter to William Short where he outlines his Epicurean views. While Jefferson is sometimes portrayed by scholars as being a sphinx-like mystery, his Epicurean orientation in fact explains many of the seeming contradictions of Jefferson's life—his dislike for organized religion, his higher estimate of his roles as an advocate of liberty and education over his roles as Governor of Virginia and President of the United States, and even the love that he may have had for one of his slaves (such attitudes reflecting the willingness of Epicurus to admit slaves and women into his school in ancient times).

The period spanning the time from Gassendi to Jefferson is called “the Enlightenment”, an appropriate title for the era where political authoritarianism, faith-mongering and claims of a divinely-ordered cosmos, and the mystical doctrines of astrology and alchemy, were abandoned in favor of modern science and intellectual and political freedom. With the exception of Jefferson, Epicurus's role in providing the philosophical foundations for the Enlightenment was largely unacknowledged, as there was still considerable prejudice against non-Christians that kept Epicurus in the closet, or at least dressed up with suitably Christianized or Deistic doctrines. Most followers of Gassendi freely borrowed from his doctrines while downplaying the connection to Epicurus. Another factor was the relative obscurity of Gassendi himself, whose explicitly pro-Epicurean tracts were written in Latin and not widely translated (Gassendi is better remembered today for his anti-Cartesian writings). Epicurus's ideas were also routinely misrepresented by many of his critics at this time, so that the word “epicurean” today is often misunderstood to mean gross sensuality or an extravagant taste for fine dining.

While further intellectual progress in the 19th and 20th centuries was made largely in ignorance of Epicurus's role in shaping it, there is nonetheless a remarkable parallel between such modern doctrines as evolutionary biology, quantum mechanics, and spontaneous social order theories (associated with the Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friederich von Hayek) and the teachings of Epicurus and Lucretius. The recent revival of an Epicurean-oriented individualism in politics, philosophy, and popular culture also demonstrate the continuing influence of Epicurus's doctrines.

The convergence of various modern intellectual trends with Epicurus's teachings is a clear indication that the foundations of that system remain sound and are of great importance to philosophy's future as well as its past, even if Epicurus is greatly misunderstood by much of the public. In his introduction to The Epicurus Reader, D. S. Hutchinson summed up the on-going significance of Epicureanism:

“Epicurus developed a system of philosophy and a way of living that deserve our respect and understanding, perhaps even our allegiance. This way of living claimed many thousands of committed followers, all over the ancient Mediterranean world, in cooperative communities that lasted for hundreds of years. But from the very beginning of his teaching mission, his message was opposed and distorted, first by academic philosophers and political authorities, and later by Christians. Epicureans apparently almost never switched their allegiance to other philosophical systems, whereas other schools regularly lost students to the Epicureans. Why? Perhaps because the Epicureans found that their system made excellent sense. But the explanation offered by Arcesilaus, Epicurus' rival, is typically dismissive: ‘You can turn a man into a eunuch, but you can't turn a eunuch into a man.’ Even in modern times, the critics of Epicureanism continue to misrepresent it as a lazy-minded, shallow, pleasure-loving, immoral, or godless travesty of real philosophy. In our day the word ‘epicureanism’ has come to mean its opposite—a pretentious enthusiasm for rare and expensive food and drink. Please have the courage to ignore two thousand years of negative prejudice, and assess this philosophy on its own considerable merits.”