Knowledge of Epicureanism, the classical rival of Stoicism, is fragmentary because Christians, disliking its atheistic materialism, belief in the accidental existence of the cosmos, and ethical libertarianism, either failed to copy or actually destroyed the detested works. Of all the numerous works composed in antiquity, only Lucretius' philosophical poem De rerum natura survives intact. Diogenes Laertius reported that Epicurus wrote more than anyone else, including 37 books On Nature. A typical maxim: "We see that pleasure is the beginning and end of living happily."
Epicurus (341-270 B.c.), the founder of the school, served as an ephebe in Athens at 18 and then studied at the Academy, a fellow classmate of Menander, when Aristotle was absent in Chalcis. Having taught abroad, where he combatted the atomist philosophy of Democritus, hereturned to Athens and bought his house with a garden in 30716. There he taught untilhis death, allowingwomen and slaves to participate in his lessons-to the shock of traditionalists. Only a few lines of his ,works survive. Apparently he likened sexual object choice, whether of women or boys, to food preference-a parallel that often recurred in later times. His beloved Metrodorus predeceased him.
The Epicurean school, consisting of scholars who secluded themselves from society in Epicurus' garden, lived modestly or even austerely. Stoics, however, libeled the secretive Epicureans because of their professed hedonism, accusing them of profligacy of every kind despite the fact that Epicurus felt that pleasure could be attained only in restraint of some pursuits that in the long run bring more pain than the temporary pleasure they seem to offer. Natural pleasures are easily satisfied, others being unnecessary. The ideal was freedom from destiny by satisfyingdesireandavoiding the pain of desires too difficult or impossible to satisfy. By freeing man from fear of gods and an afterlife and by teaching him to avoid competition in politics and business it liberates him from emotional turmoil. Friendship was extremely important to Epicureans.
Like its rival Stoicism, Epicureanism alongwith many other Greek tastes became popular in the late Roman Republic. Lucretius (ca. 94-55 B.c.) seems not to have added any ideas to those taught by Epicurus himself. But others, like thefabulously rich general Lucullus, whose banquets became proverbial, excused their gross sensuality by references to Epicurus' maxims. Julius Caesar ~roclaimed himself an Epicurean. Under the Empire Stoicism vanquished its rival and vied with Christianity, whichwhen triumphant anathematized Epicureanism.
The text of Lucretius survived into the Renaissance and was disseminated in printed editions that naturally provoked intense controversy, since the author's materialism and polemics against religion called forth unmeasured attacks and subtle defenses. The author became the favorite of a small coterie of materialists, of the libertines in the seventeenth century, then of the Enlightenment thinkers, and finally of the Soviet Communists, whonaturallyrankedEpicurus abovePlato as the greatest philosopher of antiquity. The rehabilitation of Epicurus was the achievement of Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655)) a priest of unimpeachable orthodoxy. Acquainted with most of the leading intellectuals of his time, though not himself a great scientist or a great philosopher, Gassendi exerted enormous influence on both Newton and Leibniz. For others Epicureanism was a respectable philosophical cloak for mocking impiety or lighthearted sensuality. The intelligent courtesan and leader of fashion Ninon de l'Enclos was of this stamp, while Molière and Cyrano de Bergerac admired Epicurus and Lucretius for their candor, their courage, and their sensible view of life. The Epicurean outlook, accepting sensual pleasure as a good and not as the necessary evil which an ascetic morality would barely allow, opened the way to a more tolerant attitude toward the forbidden forms of sexual expression that is implicit in the work of such philosophes as La Mettrie and of legal reformers such as Beccaria, not to speak of the Marquis de Sade. So Epicurus contributed to the Enlightenment trend toward abolition of the repressive attitudes and laws with which Christianity had burdened all forms of nonprocreative gratification. See also Libertinism.
Philip Mitsis, Epicurus' Ethical Theory: The Pleasures of Invulnerability, Ithaca, NY: Comell University Press, 1989.
WilLiam A. Percy