Epicureanism has reference to a philosophical movement of some popularity in ancient Greece and Rome. It based itself on the teachings of the Athenian philosopher Epicurus (341–271 B.C.) and propounded an atomistic cosmology, a hedonistic ethics, and a contractarian social theory. Epicurus was a prolific writer whose collected writings are said to have run to 300 volumes. However, nearly all of his writings are lost and must be reconstructed from reports of other classical authors such as Cicero and Lucretius.
With regard to the natural sciences, Epicureans defended an empiricist methodology in which all appeal to supernatural causation or divine intervention was decisively rejected in favor of explanations invoking the interactions of atomic particles. Despite this apparently materialist approach, Epicureans affirmed human autonomy, arguing that those who embraced purely mechanistic accounts of human action were implicitly refuting themselves by the very act of freely and purposefully asserting their viewpoint.
In ethics, Epicureans enshrined pleasure as the supreme value, but regarded the pleasures of inner tranquility and freedom from mental turmoil as being of far greater importance than merely physical pleasures; they urged extirpation of unnecessary desires and urged men to be content with modest material wealth. Because human beings ceased to exist when their component atoms were scattered, and inasmuch as there was no survival of the spirit beyond death, death was not to be feared because only pain was something to be dreaded and death meant the cessation of all experience and, hence, was painless. In the meanwhile, however, Epicureans counseled that men withdraw from politics and public life to pursue the private goals of friendship and philosophical discussion.
Epicurean social theory anticipated many conclusions that later marked classical liberalism. They were thoroughgoing defenders of spontaneous order, in both the social and physical realms. Just as Epicureans developed a rudimentary theory of natural selection to explain the apparent teleology of natural phenomena without invoking a divine designer, so they attempted to account for the emergence of beneficial social institutions without hypothesizing wise prehistoric legislators. In modern terminology, they regarded such institutions as the result of human action, but not of human design. For example, Epicureans argued that language could not have been anybody’s conscious invention because whoever invented it would have had no way of communicating his invention to others. Instead, language must have evolved out of the gradual refinement of natural cries and gestures.
Epicureans also were among the pioneers of social contract theory. Against the mainstream of ancient ethics, Epicureans maintained that moral virtue was valuable not for its own sake, but as a strategic means by which each individual could secure his own happiness. Justice was regarded as originating in a mutually advantageous agreement of rational egoists not to harm or be harmed by one another. Those who clearly saw the benefits arising out of such a contract were motivated to abide by it without need for the additional sanction of punishment. Indeed, some Epicurean writers looked forward to a day when enlightened self-interest would be so widely understood that laws, military defenses, and other means of coercive enforcement would no longer be necessary.
Epicureans were criticized by their contemporaries for taking a purely instrumental attitude toward other people, but they denied the charge and insisted that it was rational for us to care about others for their own sake because only by cultivating such an attitude in ourselves would we attain most pleasure in the long run.
Among the classical liberal thinkers to acknowledge Epicureanism as a major source of inspiration are David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, and John Stuart Mill.
Long, A. A., and Sedley, D. N. The Hellenistic Philosophers: Volume I. Translations of the Principal Sources with Philosophical Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Mitsis, Phillip. Epicurus’ Ethical Theory: The Pleasures of Invulnerability. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988.
Nichols, James H. Epicurean Political Philosophy: The De Rerum Natura of Lucretius. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976.
Originally published .