Epicurus & Lucretius
by: P. Dionysius Mus
When in the fourth century BC the Greek city-states become part of the empire of Alexander the Great and his successors, the Greek ideal of autonomy and self-government has ended, together with the typical feeling of Greek men to be an actual link in the government of their city or community. Civil duty and nationalism are replaced by individuality and self-development. Philosophy in these times is no longer about the organization of the society, like Plato, but about the question of how an individual human being is able to realize good fortune despite all setbacks in life.

Epicurus (341-270 BC), coming from Samos, but working in Athens (in the "kepos", "the garden", his philosophical school), got the basis for his ethics in the 'atomism' of Demokritos: everything is built up by atoms, also the soul (but out of very fine atoms). After the death of a person all those atoms fall apart again and nothing remains. Fear for the death is thus unnecessary, because 'as long as we are here, death is not here; and when death is here, we are no longer here'. Fear for the gods is foolish: gods exist, en they are eternal and perfect, but this is because they live in spaces, between the different worlds, that are created by collision of atoms. They do not interfere with our lives and thus we do not have to fear them. He who has conquered these two fears is on his way to good fortune, because he reaches imperturbability or "ataraxia" towards the fears that hold mankind.

People let them naturally guide by pleasant things, like lust ("hedone"). But unlike hedonists, who see only the actual and physical lust as a way to good fortune, Epicurus offers a subdivision in our desires:
  • Natural and necessary desires: food, sleep, things we simply cannot miss in life, life without them is not possible.
  • Natural but unnecessary desires: like sexuality, something that should be avoided according to Epicurus, because it often brings too many worries.
  • Unnatural desires: like richness and ambition, these should absolutely be avoided. An epicurist should strive to keep his needs as small as possible, in order not to be less disappointed when they cannot be realized.
  • 'Live covertly' ("lathe biosas") is THE saying of the epicurist: one who is wise does not matter about politics or commerce, and stays unmarried. This way one can realize imperturbability, equally to the gods. But sometimes it is necessary to contact other people. Justice (one should follow the rules who make community life possible) and friendship (which gives us much joy) are in these cases especially useful.

He lived a very retired life, and committed suicide at the age of 44. Hieronymus (340-419 AD) writes in his additions to the 'Chronikon' by Eusebius about Lucretius:

"Titus Lucretius poeta nascitur, postea amatorio poculo in furorem versus, cum aliquot libros per intervalla insaniae conscripsisset, quos postea Cicero emendavit, propria se manu interfecit, anno aetatis XLIV."

His work, an epic textbook in 6 books, De Rerum Natura was edited by Cicero. One should see his work in a time where intellectuals had become very skeptical about the traditional religion, and superstition was very strong amidst ordinary people. In his book De Rerum Natura Lucretius tried to give the necessary reasons to show that superstition and fear for the gods and death were unnecessary. Therefore he based himself on the materialism of Epicurus.

Whilst human kind
Throughout the lands lay miserably crushed
Before all eyes beneath Religion- who
Would show her head along the region skies,
Glowering on mortals with her hideous face-
A Greek it was who first opposing dared
Raise mortal eyes that terror to withstand,
Whom nor the fame of Gods nor lightning's stroke
Nor threatening thunder of the ominous sky
Abashed; but rather chafed to angry zest
His dauntless heart to be the first to rend
The crossbars at the gates of Nature old.

(Lucretius; De Rerum Natura; I, 62-71)
Epicurus was no atheist, but he reacted against the anthropomorphic representation of the gods in popular belief and mythological stories, where gods behave like human beings, also with their negative characteristics, and influence directly human lives. Already two centuries before Epicurus this was criticized by Xenophanes (570-480 BC), founder of the first philosophical school (in Elea): "But if cows, horses and lions had hands or could paint and sculpture with their hands like humans, then the horses would represent the gods as horses and bullocks as bullocks, en they would create bodies in the same way as their own bodies."

To free human beings from their fear for the gods, they must be able to see how the material reality is built; everything that happens on earth has a natural cause, which is on principle requiring insight.
This terror, then, this darkness of the mind,
Not sunrise with its flaring spokes of light,
Nor glittering arrows of morning can disperse,
But only Nature's aspect and her law,
Which, teaching us, hath this exordium:
Nothing from nothing ever yet was born.
Fear holds dominion over mortality
Only because, seeing in land and sky
So much the cause whereof no wise they know,
Men think Divinities are working there.
Meantime, when once we know from nothing still
Nothing can be create, we shall divine
More clearly what we seek: those elements
From which alone all things created are,
And how accomplished by no tool of Gods.

(Lucretius; De Rerum Natura; I, 146-158)
TEXT : LATHE BIOSAS ("live in obscurity")
Yet was man to steer
His life by sounder reasoning, he'd own
Abounding riches, if with mind content
He lived by thrift; for never, as I guess,
Is there a lack of little in the world.
But men wished glory for themselves and power
Even that their fortunes on foundations firm
Might rest forever, and that they themselves,
The opulent, might pass a quiet life-
In vain, in vain; since, in the strife to climb
On to the heights of honour, men do make
Their pathway terrible; and even when once
They reach them, envy like the thunderbolt
At times will smite, O hurling headlong down
To murkiest Tartarus, in scorn; for, lo,
All summits, all regions loftier than the rest,
Smoke, blasted as by envy's thunderbolts;
So better far in quiet to obey,
Than to desire chief mastery of affairs
And ownership of empires.

(Lucretius; De Rerum Natura; V, 1117-1130)
Epicureanism has found only a small group of supporters in Rome, because their idea of 'hidden life' is flatly opposed to the native Roman idea of political ambition. The Christians had also only a small interest in this theory. Their transcendent God who intervenes directly into human life, cannot go well together with the epicurist image. Even more, the lawless lives of people who called themselves epicurists was something that went against the grain. The word 'epicureanism' eventually got a more negative connotation, like pleasure seeking, inclination towards sensuality and lechery. This has of course nothing to do anymore with the ideas of Epicurus.
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