When the term “Epicurean” is brought up in today’s world, it is mostly associated with hedonism and gorging oneself with copious amounts of food and drink. However, the philosopher on whom that phrase is based, Epicurus of Samos, evokes a far different image among religious Christians and Jews. They see him as an atheist, a man who denied the existence of God in favor of sin. Such a perception has persisted for thousands of years, having been propagated by theologians, priests, and academics in Jewish and Christian intellectual circles. This characterization has existed for so long that even the Hebrew word for “heretic” is apikoros. However, is this claim really true? Was Epicurus of Samos an atheist? The answer, it turns out, is much more surprising and interesting than one would think.
Seth Eislund explains.
The Three Basics of Epicurean Philosophy: Empiricism, Materialism, Atomism
Epicurus was born on the Athenian island-colony of Samos in 341 BCE. Both of his parents were born in Athens and he began studying philosophy at an early age under the Platonist thinker Pamphilus. Epicurus later served in the Athenian military from the ages of 18 to 20. Once Epicurus had completed his service, he settled in Athens between 307 and 306 BCE and founded his philosophical school there.1
Epicurus espoused a philosophy based on materialism and empiricism that was heavily influenced by the Greek thinkers Leucippus and Democritus. These two 5th-century BCE philosophers were the founders of atomic theory, which states that all matter is made up of tiny, indivisible particles, including gods and the human soul.2 Epicurus wholeheartedly believed in atomism, stating that nothing existed but atoms and the void, and originated due to random chance and the laws of nature.3 Therefore, like most scientists and atheists today, Epicurus held an empirical, evidence-based worldview. He believed that “sensations, together with the perception of pleasure and pain [were] the only infallible ways of determining reality.”4 However, does Epicurus’ empiricism, materialism and atomism make him an atheist? Not necessarily.
The Avoidance of Pain, the Pursuit of Pleasure, and the Formation of Ideas
To Epicurus, the ultimate good was to avoid pain and seek pleasure. He believed that fear of death and punishment (especially divine punishment) was the cause of humanity’s suffering.5 Therefore, he argued that if people lived without fear and without desire, they would be able to reach the ultimate goal: pleasure. Epicurus saw religion as a source of fear that should be banished from people's’ minds if they were to live peaceful lives.6 This meant that people should not put their faith in gods, nor expect them to intervene in human affairs, as such beliefs would inevitably lead to anxiety and unhappiness. Epicurus believed that human beings should rely upon physics and the sciences instead of religion. This would remove the fear of death and gods from a person’s mind.7 Epicurus claimed that physics offers a consistent, reassuring explanation of how the world works, while deities, whom he called “heavenly spies,”8 inspire fear in the hearts of god-fearing men. However, Epicurus never denied that the Greek gods existed. In fact, he defended their existence, stating that since they appeared in the dreams and visions of humans, and that so many cultures believed in gods, they must exist. However, Epicurus believed that gods lived in ataraxia, a state of tranquility in the heavens, and therefore did not intervene in human affairs.9 This meant that humans must rely on the sciences, on what they could empirically see, rather than transcendent, divine intervention that would never come.
According to historian David Konstan, Epicurus held that human beings perceive any entity or sensation, including the Greek pantheon, via “thin films emitted by objects that enter the appropriate sense organ.”10 Epicurus believed that some of these films were so minuscule that they were able to penetrate the human body and enter a person’s mind. According to Epicurus, this process forms our dreams, a vehicle through which people can interact with deities, and influences our ideas, beliefs, and even the conscious choices we make.11 Epicurus reasoned that the only way humans could use their imaginations was through their absorption of the films floating about in the air. Such absorption, he argued, would enable people to see entities beyond the mortal realm. Since the gods lived in a realm beyond human existence, Epicurus believed that human beings could see them through the film they emitted.
Judeo-Christian Interpretations of Epicureanism and Conclusion
Epicurus’ philosophy was not based on atheism, but rather on a deistic worldview. Deism posits that gods exist, but do not involve themselves with worldly affairs. By denying the presence of deities in human life, Epicurus wasn’t arguing for an atheistic worldview, but trying to remove the fear of gods, death, and pain that humans experienced.12
Unfortunately, ancient Christian and Jewish thinkers mistook Epicurus’ deism for an utter rejection of God and relentlessly attacked his philosophy. Tertullian, a Christian writer who lived in the 3rd century CE, called Epicureanism “frigid conceit.”13 Saint Augustine of Hippo exclaimed that Epicurus was a “pig” and a supporter of “depravity and gluttony.”14 The Mishnah, Judaism’s written record of the Oral Torah, proclaims: “All Israel has a share in the world to come. As Isaiah said: ‘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 deny the resurrection of the dead, and those who deny the Torah is from the heavens, and Epicureans.”15 Thus, inaccurate and intolerant Christian and Jewish interpretations of Epicureanism greatly influenced the commonly-held belief that it is a philosophy of heresy and evil. Philodemus, an Epicurean philosopher who lived in the 1st century BCE, gives us a more accurate depiction of Epicurus’ worldview. He states that Epicureanism is “unfearing of God, unsuspecting of death, the good easily obtained, suffering to be borne patiently.”16 Epicurus was no evil man, nor was he a heretic. He wanted humans to be free of fear, live bravely and kindly, and help themselves, as well as others, to feel true bliss.
What do you think about Epicurus? Let us know below…
1 "Epicureanism," ReligionFacts.com, October 28, 2016, accessed November 15, 2017, http://www.religionfacts.com/epicureanism.
2 Adam Lee, "Epicurus' World," Daylight Atheism, May 29, 2009, accessed November 19, 2017, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2009/05/epicurus-world/.
4 David Konstan, "Epicurus," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, January 10, 2005, accessed November 15, 2017, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epicurus/.
6 "Epicureanism," ReligionFacts.com, October 28, 2016, accessed November 15, 2017, http://www.religionfacts.com/epicureanism.
7 Georgios Papadogeorgos, Prominent Greeks of Antiquity: Their Lives and Work (Athena: Ed. M. Toubis, 2013), 70.
10 David Konstan, "Epicurus," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, January 10, 2005, accessed November 15, 2017, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epicurus/.
12 Barry Loewer, Stephen Law, and Julian Baggini, 30-Second Philosophies: The 50 Most Thought-provoking Philosophies, Each Explained in Half a Minute (New York: Metro Books, 2009), 106.
13Adam Lee, "Epicurus' World," Daylight Atheism, May 29, 2009, accessed November 19, 2017, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2009/05/epicurus-world/.
14 Robert Hanrott, "Epicureanism after Epicurus – The influence of Epicurus on Western thought," Epicurus Blog, 2017, accessed November 19, 2017, http://hanrott.com/blog/epicureanism-after-epicurus-the-influence-of-epicurus-on-western-thought/.
16 Georgios Papadogeorgos, Prominent Greeks of Antiquity: Their Lives and Work (Athena: Ed. M. Toubis, 2013), 71.
-- "Epicureanism." ReligionFacts.com. October 28, 2016. Accessed November 15, 2017.
Hanrott, Robert. "Epicureanism after Epicurus – The influence of Epicurus on Western
thought." Epicurus Blog. 2017. Accessed November 19, 2017. http://hanrott.com/blog/epicureanism-after-epicurus-the-influence-of-epicurus-on-western-thought/.
Konstan, David. "Epicurus." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. January 10, 2005.
Accessed November 15, 2017. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epicurus/.
Lee, Adam. "Epicurus' World." Daylight Atheism. May 29, 2009. Accessed November
Loewer, Barry, Stephen Law, and Julian Baggini. 30-Second Philosophies: The 50 Most
Thought-provoking Philosophies, Each Explained in Half a Minute. New York: Metro Books, 2009.
Papadogeorgos, Georgios. Prominent Greeks of Antiquity: Their Lives and Work. Athena:
Ed. M. Toubis, 2013.
About the Author
Seth Eislund is a currently a senior at Stuart Hall High School in San Francisco, California. He has always been interested in history, especially religious history and Jewish history. He blogs at https://medium.com/@seislund, and has a passion for writing short stories and poetry.