The Life Of Epicurus Essay, Research Paper
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 near-by 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
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 pass . 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.”