The Epicureans

The Epicureans were a school of philosophy named after Epicurus (341 – 270 BCE) who believed in finding pleasure for the soul.

Previously, Socrates was concerned with finding out how man could live a good life. Both the Cynics and the Stoics interpreted his philosophy as meaning that mankind had to free itself from material luxuries. But Socrates also had a pupil named Aristippus ( c. 435 – c. 356 BCE) who thought differently.


Aristippus believed that the aim of life was to attain the highest possible sensory enjoyment. ‘The highest good is pleasure,’ he said, ‘the greatest evil is pain.’

So he wished to develop a way of life whose aim was to avoid pain in all forms. This is contrary to the Cynics and the Stoics believed in enduring pain of all kinds, which is not the same as setting out to avoid pain.

It is from the beliefs of Aristippus that Epicurus formed his own philosophical thoughts.

The Garden Philosophers

Around the year 300 BC, Epicurus founded a school of philosophy in Athens and his followers were called Epicureans. He developed the pleasure ethic of Aristippus and combined it with the atom theory of Democritus.

It is said that the Epicureans lived in a garden. They were therefore known as the Garden Philosophers. Above the entrance to this garden there is said to have hung a notice saying:

Stranger, here you will live well. Here pleasure is the highest good

The Epicureans emphasized that the pleasurable results of an action must always be weighed against its possible side effects. They also believed that a pleasurable result in the short term must be weighed against the possibility of a greater, more lasting, or more intense pleasure in the long term.

Unlike animals, we are able to plan our lives. We have the ability to make a ‘pleasure calculation.’ The Epicureans emphasized, though, that ‘pleasure’ does not necessarily mean sensual pleasure like eating chocolate for instance.

Values such as friendship and the appreciation of art also count. Moreover the enjoyment of life required the old Greek ideals of self-control temperance, and serenity. Desire must be curbed, and serenity wit help us to endure pain.

Fear of the gods brought many people to the garden of the Epicureans. In this connection, the atom theory of Democritus was a useful cure for religious superstitions. In order to live a good life it is not unimportant to overcome the fear of death.

To this end, Epicurus made use of Democritus‘s theory of Soul Atoms. He believed there was no life after death because when we die, the Soul Atoms disperse in all directions. ‘Death does not concern us,’ Epicurus said quite simply, ‘Because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we longer exist.’

Perhaps, when you think about it, no one has ever been bothered by being dead.

The Epicureans summed their own philosophy in four basic points:

  • The gods are not to be feared
  • Death is nothing to worry about
  • Good is easy to attain
  • The fearful is easy to endure

In contrast to the Stoics, the Epicureans showed little or no interest in politics and the community. ‘Live in seclusion’ was the advice of Epicurus.

We could perhaps compare their garden with our present day communes. There are many people in our own time who have sought a ‘safe harbor’ – away from society.

After Epicurus, many Epicureans developed an overemphasis on self-indulgence. Their motto was ‘Live for the moment!’ The word ‘epicurean’ is used in a negative sense nowadays to describe someone who lives simply for pleasure.

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