Paul, in Acts 17:18, addresses adherents to two philosophical schools: Stoicism and the Epicureanism. We already know that the Stoics had much in common with the early Christians; not so the Epicureans, for whom life’s highest goal was individual pleasure.
But Epicureanism is worth studying as more than just early-church context. Though it fell out of favor in the third century AD, it nevertheless anticipated today’s intellectual climate in startling ways.
So, who were the Epicureans?
- Moderates, not hedonists. “The philosophy,” notes the Faithlife Study Bible, “emphasized physical and intellectual pleasure and emotional calm (the most pleasure with the least pain).” But, though epicurean’s modern sense connotes excess, the ancients were moderates: Epicurus, quoted in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers, writes that “Nature’s wealth . . . is easy to procure; but the wealth of vain fancies recedes to an infinite distance.” Therefore,
“When we say . . . that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality. . . . By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of revelry . . . it is sober reasoning . . . and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul.”
- Utilitarians. The Epicurean approach to pleasure was practical. They tolerated pain when it brought about greater pleasure; they obeyed social contracts to avoid crime’s anxiety, shame, and punishment; they did good deeds so that others might respond in kind.
- Empiricists. “[A]ll our notions are derived from perceptions,” wrote Epicurus, “either by actual contact or by analogy, or resemblance, or composition, with some slight aid from reasoning.” That is, the senses are the best criteria for knowledge.
- Atomists. They argued, notes the FSB, that “the world was made of atoms and that such material was all that the world contained.” Even the gods were made of atoms; so were souls.
- Believers in distant, nonintervening gods. Their gods were immortal, blissful, and almost infinitely distant—”limited beings” made from the same atomic stuff as humans, who, in their divine equanimity, didn’t care about evil and had “no real effect on the world” (FSB).
- Disbelievers in the afterlife. Since souls, made of atoms, disintegrate at death, and since the gods don’t care about evil, there’s no afterlife of divine punishment to fear. Instead, we should:
“Accustom [ourselves] to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply sentience, and death is the privation of all sentience; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable . . . by taking away the yearning after immortality. . . . Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”
For Epicurus, the fear of death was the “greatest anxiety of the human mind”—the pain most worth eliminating.
How did the Epicureans anticipate modernity?
No, its conclusions are familiar for another reason—they sound like those of modern secular culture.
- Epicurean empiricism prefigured that of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. In fact, it even came close to anticipating the idealism of the last two, according to which only perceptions exist, not objects. Epicurus writes, “the objects presented to madmen and to people in dreams are true, for they produce effects—i.e., movements in the mind—which that which is unreal never does” (emphasis added).
- Epicurean atomism was remarkably similar to nineteenth-century atomic chemistry: atoms as indivisible, eternal building blocks, things as mere accumulations of atoms colliding with each other. More, the Epicureans came up with a “many worlds” cosmology long before twentieth-century quantum physics did, if for different reasons. Writes Epicurus:
“there is an infinite number of worlds, some like this world, others unlike it. . . . For the [infinite] atoms out of which a world might arise, or by which a world might be formed, have not all been expended on one world or a finite number of worlds, whether like or unlike this one.”
- Epicureanism’s matter-of-fact approach to social living shares much with Locke’s utilitarianism, and even modern libertarianism. Since individuals are their own best judges of how to live, society means essentially “Leave me free to maximize my pleasure; in turn, since I don’t want the negative repercussions, I won’t infringe on the freedom of others.” Libertarians, sound familiar?
- The Epicureans thought the fear of death animated the rest of life’s anxieties; in the twentieth century, Heidegger and the existentialists agreed. (Of course, from there, their conclusions differed: For the Epicureans, the fear of death was illusory, to be transcended; for the existentialists, it was key to living bravely and authentically.)
Empiricism, atomism, extreme individuality, fear of death as the root of all anxiety—what makes these parallels really interesting is that they aren’t straighforward lines of influence. From the third century AD to the sixteenth, Epicureanism was almost entirely forgotten.
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- It, with Stoicism, was a big part of the context against which early Christianity established itself. Studying it helps you understand the early church—you’ll get more out of passages like Acts 17:18 and Phil. 3:18.
- As we’ve seen, it’s an indirect precursor to secular modernity—one that’s even more interesting for its indirectness. Even though Epicurean philosophy is largely forgotten, modernity tends toward the Epicurean; if you’re interested in engaging the culture, you’ll want to understand this fascinating echo.
Epicurus left us very little—Diogenes Laertius lays out his thought (and quotes him at length) in Lives of Eminent Philosophers, and Lucretius, in On the Nature of Things, builds on Epicurus’ destroyed magnum opus, On Nature. Luckily for scholars, we’ve built Logos editions of both.