From BiblePortal Wikipedia

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament [1]

The Epicurean philosophers are mentioned only once in the NT, viz. in  Acts 17:18. During his second missionary journey St. Paul met with them in Athens. Though he stayed there not more than four weeks, the Apostle was deeply moved by the sight of so large a number of statues erected in honour of various deities. Not content with preaching in the synagogue to Jews and proselytes, he sought pagan hearers in their famous market-place, thus imitating Socrates 400 years before. The market-place was ‘rich in noble statues, the central seat of commercial, forensic, and philosophic intercourse, as well as of the busy idleness of the loungers’ (Meyer, Com. on Acts , Eng. translation, 1877, ii. 108). As the ‘Painted Porch’ in which the Stoics taught was situated in the market-place, and the garden where the Epicureans gathered for their fraternal discussions was not far away, it is not surprising that some members of these two schools of philosophy were among the Apostle’s listeners. Athens was the home and centre of the four great philosophies founded by Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, and Epicurus. The two first, however, had at this time been supplanted by the two last; thus, in encountering the Stoics and Epicureans, St. Paul was face to face with the most influential philosophies of the day. Unfortunately, we know but little of the character of the interview or its results. The discussion was probably not hostile on the part of the philosophers, though Cheyne seems to incline to this view ( Encyclopaedia Biblica , vol. ii. col. 1323 n.[Note: . note.]). That St. Paul’s teaching must have been antagonistic to theirs seems obvious.

1. Epicurus and the Epicureans

(1) Epicurus .-Epicurus was born in 341 b.c., probably at Samos, an island off the coast of Asia Minor, and lived about 70 years. His father Neocles was an Athenian, who had gone to Samos as a colonist after the Greeks had expelled a large number of the natives. His occupation was that of a humble schoolmaster, and his son is said to have assisted him for some time. At the age of 18 Epicurus left for Athens, returning home a year later to Colophon, where his father now lived. Of the beginnings of Epicurus’ acquaintance with philosophy our knowledge is slight and uncertain. Two of his teachers were Nausiphanes, a disciple of Democritus, and Pamphilus, a Platonist. But, as the former owed much to Pyrrho, the well-known Sceptic, it is hardly likely that Epicurus failed to share in that obligation. He claims to have been his own teacher, and this is true to the extent that he rejected the prevalent philosophies of his time and turned to such predecessors as Democritus, Anaxagoras, and Archelaus. It was at Mitylene that he began to teach philosophy, and at Lamp-sacus his position as the head of a school was recognized. He returned to Athens in 307 b.c., and settled there for the remainder of his life. There he purchased a house and garden, the latter becoming famous as the home of a large band of men and women who became his devoted disciples and friends. He died in 270 b.c. He had never enjoyed robust health, and his general feebleness and ailments were the ground upon which his enemies based charges of evil living.

(2) The Epicureans .-The community lived its own separate life. The calls and claims of public life were ignored and the usual ambitions of men stifled. From all the political upheavals through which Athens passed the Epicureans held strictly aloof, exemplifying their principles by indifference to environment and the endeavour to extract the maximum of tranquil gratification from life by the prudent and unimpassioned use of it. They passed their time in the study of Nature and Morality, and their friendly intercourse with each other supplied the necessary human elements. Most serious charges were made from time to time against both Epicurus himself and the community, but the accusers were generally either disaffected ex-disciples or rivals, and their motives were malicious. One cannot but admit that the ideal of ‘pleasure’ was well calculated to produce the most disastrous results except in the case of the noblest of men; and it is hard to believe that the garden contained only such. Yet consideration must be given to the extraordinary devotion of the brotherhood towards their head, in whom they recognized their deliverer from the worst fears and desires of life. An example of their unceasing allegiance to their master may be found in the statues erected in Epicurus’ honour after his death. Simplicity was the note of the community’s life. For drink they had water with a small quantity of wine on occasion, and for food barley bread. In a letter Epicurus writes: ‘Send me some Cynthian cheese, so that, should I choose, I may fare sumptuously.’ And during the severe famine which afflicted Athens, Plutarch informs us that the Epicureans lived on beans which they shared out from day to day ( Demetrius , 34). But the bond which held this remarkable company together was the personality of Epicurus, who regarded his followers not only as disciples but as friends.

2. Teaching .-Epicurus is said to have written 300 books, but all have disappeared, and we are dependent for our knowledge on writers two centuries later. This misfortune is probably due to the teacher’s habit of summarizing his system so that the disciples might commit it to memory. His reputed lack of style may have contributed to the same end. Nevertheless, the main outlines of his teaching are clear enough, though on important details uncertainty prevails. Epicurus had no interest in theories, except as they aided practical life. Mere knowledge was worthless, and culture be despised. His theoretical teaching treated of Man and the Universe (his Physics ); his practical teaching used the knowledge so gained for the regulation of human conduct (his Ethics ). Underlying these was his peculiar Logic . Real Logic of the Aristotelian type he could not tolerate. All he wanted was a criterion of truth, or to ascertain the grounds on which statements of fact could be based. This is usually called the Canonic .

( a ) Canonic .-The criteria of truth or reality according to Epicurus may be grouped under two heads.-(1) Sensation . Every sensuous impression received by the mind is produced by something other than itself, and is infallibly true. When these feelings are clear, distinct, and vivid, the knowledge they afford is real. Even the sensations of the dreamer and lunatic are true, since they are caused by some other object operating on the mind. Any error arising from sensations is due not to the sensations themselves but to the mind’s misinterpretation of them. But Epicurus does not make clear what that vividness is which is reliable and incapable of misinterpretation. (2) Conceptions or pre-conceptions, i.e. ideas which have been left in the mind by preceding sensations. Here memory, which recalls past impressions, and reasoning, which interprets them, have been active, with the result that the mind unconsciously confronts every new sensation with impressions which may modify any effect it may make. These conceptions, the repetition of earlier observations, are true. But it is well that they should be brought from time to time into immediate connexion with the sensation itself. Thus, if a distant square tower appear round, closer examination will discover the error and modify the impression for the future. It is difficult to see how Epicurus would apply this admirable criterion to his theory of the ‘atoms’ and the ‘void.’

( b ) Physics .-Epicurus relied on the senses alone as the true basis of knowledge, and they reveal only matter in motion. Consequently, matter is the only reality. The incorporeal is the same as the non-existent, i.e. void, and this applies even to mind. When Epicurus explains the nature of matter, the influence of Democritus is at once evident. The immediate impression of the senses suggests large masses of matter, but this is not reliable. In reality the apparent masses are composed of extremely minute, invisible particles or atoms which differ only in weight, size, and shape, and, though near to each other, do not touch. Around each is a void. By analogy he argues that this is true not only of the nearer world but also of that which is most distant. He reaches this explanation by the elimination of all other possible theories. Atoms then being presumed, in what way do they move? Aristotle had taught that celestial bodies move in a circular manner, and fire upwards. But Epicurus claimed that the only movement of which we are aware is that of the fall of bodies to the earth-downward movement. All atomic movement then is eternally straight downward. But this brings us to the conception of relative stagnation, as every body is moving in the same direction and at the same rate. To avoid this difficulty, Epicurus fell back upon our individual experience of power to resist forces and cause them to deviate from their original direction. He then claimed for atoms something of the same power. How, where, and when this strange power operates we are not informed; but, by assuming it, Epicurus arrives at an explanation of those vast aggregates of apparently concrete combinations of which our senses are conscious. The only difference between mind and matter is that the former is composed of minuter and rounder particles which pervade the body like a warm breath. To explain our consciousness of taste, colour, sound, etc., Epicurus resorts to a curious theory. In addition to the primary particles which each body possesses, there are secondary particles which vary in each case. These ‘thin, filmy images, exactly copying the solid body whence they emanate,’ are continually floating away from it; and when they reach the various human organs, they produce within the mind the sensations of which we are conscious. This theory also accounts not only for our visions of the ghosts of departed friends, whose secondary particles may float about long after their death, but also for our perceptions of the gods; for, though they are composed of much finer particles than mortals, their ‘films’ may fall with impact upon the human organism.

Though charged with atheism, Epicurus never questioned the existence of the gods, though he taught their remoteness from, and indifference to, human concerns. He ridiculed ancient mythology, whose effect on men had been wholly injurious, and explained such portents as eclipses, thunder, etc., on purely natural grounds. He likewise denounced the belief in fate-a belief he considered even more hurtful than the belief in Divine intervention. His teaching being frankly materialistic, Epicurus naturally disbelieved in immortality. For these reasons, he argued, man need have no fear: the gods do not concern themselves with him; there is no such thing as fate; and death is nothing but the end of all.

( c ) Ethics .-Passing by the idealism of Plato and Aristotle, Epicurus had recourse to the doctrine of Aristippus of Cyrene, who taught that ‘pleasure’ is the supreme good and ‘pain’ the sole evil. Socrates, while admitting the importance of pleasure, regarded the pleasures of the mind as greater than those of the body. Aristippus preferred the latter because of their greater intensity. His ideal was the intensest pleasure of the passing moment, entirely undisturbed by reason, its greatest foe; not merely the absence of pain, but pleasure that was active and positive. The difficulty be found in attaining this ideal led him to allow some value to prudence as an aid thereto.

Epicurus differed from Aristippus in the following respects: men should consider less the fleeting pleasure of the moment and aim at that of the whole life; intense, throbbing ecstasy is less desirable than a tranquil state of mind which may become perpetual; indeed, at times, the highest possible pleasure may be merely the removal of pain; the pleasures and pains of mind are more important than those of body, because of the joy or distress which may be accumulated by memory and anticipation. Much greater emphasis is likewise laid on the virtue of prudence, which he calls ‘a more precious thing even than philosophy.’ Prudence is in fact the chief virtue of all. By its means rival pleasures are judged; and even momentary pain may be chosen, that a tranquil life may be furthered.

Epicureanism does not indulge in high moral ideals or insist upon any code of duties, whether public or private, save as these may minister to one’s own pleasure, but neither does it inculcate (in theory) low, sensual delights. These have their place, but what that place is must be decided by prudence, with a view to securing a complete life of tranquil pleasure. Epicurus is to be regarded as the founder of Hedonism.

Literature.-Lucretius, de Rerum Natura  ; Diog. Laert. de Vitis Philosophorum , bk. x.; Cicero, de Finibus, de Natura Deorum, Tusculanœ Disputationes  ; Plutarch, Disputatio qua docetur ne suaviter quidem vivi posse secundum Epicuri decreta, adv. Colotem  ; E. Zeller, Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics , Eng. translation, London, 1880; W. Wallace, Epicureanism , do. 1880; J. Watson, Hedonistic Theories , Glasgow, 1895; articles in Encyclopaedia Britannica 11, Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) , Encyclopaedia Biblica  ; Histories of Philosophy , by Ritter, etc.

J. W. Lightley.

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary [2]

a sect of philosophers in Greece and Rome. Epicurus was their founder, who lived about B.C. 300. The physical doctrine of Epicurus was as follows: Nothing can ever spring from nothing, nor can any thing ever return to nothing. The universe always existed, and will always remain; for there is nothing into which it can be changed. There is nothing in nature, nor can any thing be conceived, beside body and space. Body is that which possesses the properties of bulk, figure, resistance, and gravity; it is this alone which can touch and be touched. Space, or vacuum, destitute of the properties of body, incapable of action or passion, is the region which is or may be occupied by body, and which affords it an opportunity of moving freely. The existence of bodies is attested by the senses. Space must also exist, in order to allow bodies place in which to move and exist; and of their existence and motion we have the certain proof of perception. Beside body and space, no third nature can be conceived. But the existence of qualities is not precluded, because these have no subsistence except in the body to which they belong. The universe, consisting of body and space, is infinite. Bodies are infinite in multitude; space is infinite in magnitude. The universe is immovable, because there is no place beyond it into which it can move. It is also eternal and immutable, since it is liable to neither increase nor decrease, to production nor decay. Nevertheless, the parts of the universe are in motion, and are subject to change. All bodies consist of parts which are either themselves simple principles, or may be resolved into such. These first principles, or simple atoms, are divisible by no force, and therefore must be immutable.

2. The formation of the world he conceived to have happened in the following manner: A finite number of that infinite multitude of atoms, which, with infinite space, constitute the universe, falling fortuitously into the region of the world, were, in consequence of their innate motion, collected into one rude and indigested mass. In this chaos, the heaviest and largest atoms, or collections of atoms, first subsided, while the smaller, and those which from their form would move most freely, were driven upwards. These latter, after several reverberations, rose into the outer region of the world, and formed the heavens. Those atoms which, by their size and figure, were suited to form fiery bodies, collected themselves into stars; those which were not capable of rising so high in the sphere of the world, being disturbed by the fiery particles, formed themselves into air. At length, from those which subsided, was produced the earth. By the action of air, agitated by heat from the heavenly bodies, upon the mixed mass of the earth, its smoother and lighter particles were separated from the rest, and water was produced, which naturally flowed into the lowest places. In the first combination of atoms, which formed the chaos, various seeds arose, which, being preserved and nourished by moisture and heat, afterward sprung forth in organized bodies of different kinds. The soul is a subtle corporeal substance, composed of the finest atoms, which, by the extreme tenuity of its particles, is able to penetrate the whole body, and to adhere to all its parts. It is composed of four distinct parts: fire, which causes animal heat; an ethereal principle which is moist vapour; air; and a fourth principle, which is the cause of sensation. These four parts are so perfectly combined as to form one subtle substance, which, while it remains in the body, is the cause of all its faculties, motions, and passions, and which cannot be separated from it, without producing the entire dissolution of the animal system.

3. In the universe there are, according to Epicurus, without contradiction, divine natures; because nature itself has impressed the idea of divinity upon the minds of men. The notion is universal; nor is it established by custom, law, or any human institution; but it is the effect of an innate principle, producing universal consent, and therefore it must be true. This universal notion has probably arisen from images of the gods, which have casually made their way into the minds of men in sleep, and have afterward been recollected. But it is inconsistent with our natural notions of the gods, as happy and immortal beings, to suppose that they encumber themselves with the management of the world, or are subject to the cares and passions which must attend so great a charge. Hence it is inferred, that the gods have no intercourse with mankind, nor any concern with the affairs of the world. Nevertheless, on account of their excellent nature, they are objects of reverence and worship. In their external shape the gods resemble men; and though the place of their residence is unknown to mortals; it is without doubt the mansion of perfect purity, tranquillity, and happiness. Thus he attempted to account for all the appearances of nature, even those which respect animated and intelligent beings, upon the simple principles of matter and motion, without introducing the agency of a supreme intelligence, or admitting any other idea of fate, than that of blind necessity inherent in every atom, by which it moves in a certain direction.

4. The ethics of Epicurus are much less exceptionable than his physics; of which we may judge from the following summary: The end of living, or the ultimate good, which is to be sought for its own sake, according to the universal opinion of mankind, is happiness; which men generally fail of attaining, because they form wrong notions of the nature of happiness, or do not use proper means for attaining it. The happiness which belongs to man, is that state in which he enjoys as many of the good things, and suffers as few of the evils incident to human nature as possible, passing his days in a smooth course of permanent tranquillity. Perfect happiness cannot possibly be possessed without the pleasure that attends freedom from pain, and the enjoyment of the good things of life. Pleasure is in its nature good, and ought to be pursued; and pain is in its nature evil, and should be avoided. Beside, pleasure or pain is the measure of what is good or evil in every object of desire or aversion. However, pleasure ought not in every instance to be pursued, nor pain to be avoided; but reason is to distinguish and compare the nature and degrees of each, that the result may be a wise choice of that which shall appear to be, upon the whole, good. That pleasure is the first good, appears from the inclination which every animal, from its first birth, discovers to pursue pleasure and avoid pain; and is confirmed by the universal experience of mankind, who are incited to action by no other principle, than the desire of avoiding pain, or obtaining pleasure. Of pleasures there are two kinds; one consisting in a state of rest, in which both body and mind are free from pain; the other arising from an agreeable agitation of the senses, producing a correspondent emotion in the soul. Upon the former of these, the enjoyment of life chiefly depends. Happiness may, therefore, be said to consist in bodily ease and mental tranquillity. It is the office of reason to confine the pursuit of pleasure within the limits of nature, so as to attain this happy state; which neither resembles a rapid torrent, nor a standing pool, but is like a gentle stream, that glides smoothly and silently along. This happy state can only be attained by a prudent care of the body, and a steady government of the mind. The diseases of the body are to be prevented by temperance, or cured by medicine, or endured tolerably by patience. Against the diseases of the mind philosophy provides sufficient antidotes; the virtues are its instruments for this purpose; the radical spring of which is prudence, or wisdom, and this instructs men to free their understanding from the clouds of prejudice; to exercise temperance and fortitude in the government of themselves; and to practise justice toward all others. In a happy life, pleasure can never be separated from virtue. The followers of Epicurus, however, degenerated into mere sensualists,—an effect which could only result from a system which denied a supreme God, and excluded from all concern with the affairs of men even those divine natures which it allowed to exist. This sect is mentioned   Acts 17:18 .

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible [3]

EPICUREANS . St. Paul’s visit to Athens (  Acts 17:15-34 ) led to an encounter with ‘certain of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers,’ representatives of the two leading schools of philosophy of that time.

Epicureanism took its name from its founder Epicurus, who was born in the island of Samos in the year b.c. 341. In b.c. 307 he settled in Athens, where he died in b.c. 270. A man of blameless life and of a most amiable character, Epicurus gathered around him, in the garden which he had purchased at Athens, a brotherhood of attached followers, who came to be known as Epicureans, or ‘the philosophers of the Garden.’ His aim was a practical one. He regarded pleasure as the absolute good. Epicurus, however, did not restrict pleasure, as the earlier Cyrenaic school had done, to immediate bodily pleasures. Whatever may have been the practical outcome of the system, Epicurus and his more worthy followers must be acquitted of the charge of sensuality. What Epicurus advocated and aimed at was the happiness of a tranquil life as free from pain as possible, undisturbed by social conventions or political excitement or superstitious fears.

To deliver men from ‘the fear of the gods’ was the chief endeavour and, according to his famous follower the Roman poet Lucretius, the crowning service of Epicurus. Thus it may be said that, at one point at least, the paths of the Christian Apostle and the Epicurean philosopher touched each other. Epicurus sought to achieve his end by showing that in the physical organization of the world there is no room for the interference of such beings as the gods of the popular theology. There is nothing which is not material, and the primal condition of matter is that of atoms which, falling in empty space with an inherent tendency to swerve slightly from the perpendicular, come into contact with each other, and form the world as it appears to the senses. All is material and mechanical. The gods and Epicurus does not deny the existence of gods have no part or lot in the affairs of men. They are relegated to a realm of their own in the spaces between the worlds. Further, since the test of life is feeling, death, in which there is no feeling, cannot mean anything at all, and is not a thing to be feared either in prospect or in fact.

The total effect of Epicureanism is negative. Its wide-spread and powerful influence must be accounted for by the personal charm of its founder, and by the conditions of the age in which it appeared and flourished. It takes its place as one of the negative but widening influences, leading up to ‘the fulness of time’ which saw the birth of Christianity.

W. M. Macdonald.

Fausset's Bible Dictionary [4]

Disciples of Epicurus, the Athenian philosopher, whose "garden" was the resort of numbers. There he taught that the aim of philosophy should be happiness and pleasure, not absolute truth; experience (the perceptions, general notions, and passions or affections), not reason, the test. Physics he studied, to explain phenomena and dispel superstitious fears; ethics he regarded as man's proper study, since they conduce to supreme and lasting pleasure. two opposite schools of philosophy prevalent in Athens at Paul's visit ( Acts 17:18). Materialism and sensual selfishness was the ultimate tendency of Epicurus' teaching; but his bold criticism of pagan polytheism, the claims of the body, and individual freedom, were the better elements in it.

Stoicism taught an absolute fate and the spiritual nature of the soul, which it made part of the general soul of the world. Paul directs against Epicureanism the declaration of creation ( Acts 17:24), providence ( Acts 17:26), inspiration ( Acts 17:28), the resurrection and judgment ( Acts 17:31). Sadduceeism was its Jewish representative. Diogenes Laertius (10) preserves some of Epicurus' letters, and a list of his writings. See also Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, translated by Creech.

People's Dictionary of the Bible [5]

Epicureans ( Ĕp'I-Kû-Rç'Anz, or Ĕp'I-Kû'Re-Anz ). A sect of philosophers which derived its origin from Epicurus, of Athenian descent, but born in Samos 341 b.c. He lived much in Athens, where he had a garden in which he delivered his lessons to his disciples; he died 270 b.c. In his ethics Epicurus denied that there was a creator of the world; still he believed that there were gods, to be worshipped for the excellence of their nature: they lived in quiet, and did not interfere with the government of the universe. He made good and evil depend on the increasing of pleasure and diminishing of pain, or the reverse; esteeming the pleasures and pains of the mind superior to those of the body, so that a happy life must be a virtuous life. The soul, he taught, was indissolubly connected with the body. Hence it will be seen that the dogmas of Epicureanism were strongly in opposition to the truths of the gospel. Consequently the Epicureans at Athens, though differing from the Stoics in the rejection of absolute destiny, and on other points, yet equally with them ridiculed the doctrines of Paul.  Acts 17:18.

Bridgeway Bible Dictionary [6]

Greek philosophers of the New Testament period belonged mainly to two schools, the Epicureans and the Stoics. The Epicureans were named after their founder, Epicurus, a philosopher who taught in Athens about 300 BC. They believed that the world is neither permanent nor stable, and therefore people should not become too involved in its affairs. They should aim for maximum contentment through living calmly and avoiding all pain, desire, unpleasant feelings and superstitious fears. That was the way the gods lived, and that was why they took no interest in human affairs.

The Epicureans, with the Stoics, were members of the Areopagus, a council of philosophers that Paul addressed in Athens ( Acts 17:18-19;  Acts 17:22; see Areopagus ). The Epicureans would have agreed with Paul that God needs nothing from mere humans ( Acts 17:25), but they refused to accept his teaching on the resurrection ( Acts 17:31-32). In later times their rejection of God and pursuit of pleasure led to carefree living, greed and immorality.

American Tract Society Bible Dictionary [7]

A celebrated sect of ancient philosophers. They were materialists, and virtually atheists-believing that the atoms of nature existed from eternity, and that from their incidental union all things are formed, both visible and invisible. They denied a divine Providence and man's immortality, and believed there was no after-judgment, and no soul but what was material, like the body and perishable with it at death. Their rule of life was self-gratification-the pursuit of pleasure, properly regulated and governed. Vicious indulgences were condemned only inasmuch as they on the whole lessen one's happiness. The philosopher Epicurus, their founder, was a learned and moral man, who lived in exemplary harmony with his principles, and died at Athens, B. C. 271, at the age of seventy-three. His followers, however, easily disregarded the limitations he imposed, and pursued pleasure without restraint. At Paul's time they had become exceedingly corrupt, and of course their philosophy and their life both led them to oppose with violence his great truths concerning God, the resurrection, and the judgment ever lasting,  Acts 17:16 -  34 .

Charles Buck Theological Dictionary [8]

The disciples of Epicurus, who flourished about A. M. 3700. this sect maintained that the world was formed not by God, nor with any design, but by the fortuitous concourse of atoms. They denied that God governs the world, or in the least condescends to interfere with creatures below: they denied the immortality of the soul, and the existence of angels; they maintained that happiness consisted in pleasure; but some of them placed this pleasure in the tranquillity and joy of the mind arising from the practice of moral virtue, and which is thought by some to have been the true principle of Epicurus; others understood him in the gross sense, and placed all their happiness in corporeal pleasure. When Paul was at Athens, he had conferences with the Epicurean philosophers,  Acts 17:18 . The word Epicurean is used, at present, for an indolent, effeminate, and voluptuous person, who only consults his private and particular pleasure.

See Academics

Easton's Bible Dictionary [9]

 Acts 17:18 Acts 17:18

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia [10]

ep - i - kū̇ - rē´anz ( Ἐπικούρειοι , Epikoúreioi ):

1. Social and Political Causes

2. Egoistic Hedonism

3. Back to Nature

4. Ataraxy

5. Pleasure is the Absence of Pain

6. Social Contract

7. Atomic Theory

8. Materialism

9. Theory of Ideas

10. Epicurean Gods

11. Consensus Gentium

12. Causes of Success

13. Complete Antithesis of Paul's Teaching


The Epicureans with the Stoics (which see) encountered Paul in Athens ( Acts 17:18 ). They were the followers of Epicurus, a philosopher who was born in Samos in 341 bc, and who taught first in Asia Minor and afterward in Athens till his death in 270 bc. His system, unlike most philosophies, maintained its original form, with little development or dissent, to the end of its course. The views of Paul's opponents of this school may therefore be gathered from the teaching of Epicurus.

1. Social and Political Causes

The conditions for the rise of Epicureanism and Stoicism were political and social rather than intellectual. Speculative thought had reached its zenith in the great constructive ideals of Plato, and the encyclopaedic system of Aristotle. Criticism of these would necessarily drive men back upon themselves to probe deeper into the meaning of experience, as Kant did in later times. But the conditions were not propitious to pure speculation. The breaking up of the Greek city-states and the loss of Greek independence had filled men's minds with a sense of insecurity. The institutions, laws and customs of society, which had hitherto sheltered the individual, now gave way; and men demanded from philosophy a haven of rest for their homeless and weary souls. Philosophy, therefore, became a theory of conduct and an art of living.

Epicurus deprecated the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, whether as philosophy or science, and directed his inquiries to the two practical questions: What is the aim of life? and How to attain to it? Philosophy he defined as "a daily business of speech and thought to secure a happy life."

2. Egoistic Hedonism

His ethical teaching is therefore the central and governing factor of Epicurus' philosophy. It belongs to the type generally described as Egoistic Hedonism. The same general principles had been taught by Aristippus and his school, the Cyrenaics, a century earlier, and they were again revived in the 17th century in England by Thomas Hobbes.

The aim and end of life for every man is his own happiness, and happiness is primarily defined as pleasure. "Wherefore we call pleasure the Alpha and Omega of a blessed life. Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting-point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge every good thing" (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus ). So far Epicurus might seem to be simply repeating the view of the Cyrenaics. But there are important differences. Aristippus held the pleasure of the moment to be the end of action; but Epicurus taught that life should be so lived as to secure the greatest amount of pleasure during its whole course. And in this larger outlook, the pleasures of the mind came to occupy a larger place than the pleasures of the body. For happiness consists not so much in the satisfaction of desires, as in the suppression of wants, and in arriving at a state of independence of all circumstances, which secures a peace of mind that the privations and changes of life cannot disturb. Man's desires are of various kinds: "Some are natural, some are groundless; of the natural, some are necessary as well as natural, and some are natural only. And of the necessary desires, some are necessary if we are to be happy, some if the body is to be rid of uneasiness, some if we are even to live." Man's aim should be to suppress all desires that are unnecessary, and especially such as are artificially produced. Learning, culture, civilization and the distractions of social and political life are proscribed, much as they were in the opposite school of the Cynics, because they produce many desires difficult to satisfy, and so disturb the peace of the mind. This teaching has been compared to that of Rousseau and even of Buddha. Like the former, Epicurus enjoins the withdrawal of life from the complexities and perplexities of civilization, to the bare necessities of Nature, but he stops short of the doctrine of Nirvana, for life and the desire to live he regards as good things.

3. Back to Nature

He even rises above Naturalism to a view that has some kinship with modern Spiritualism, in his affirmation of the mastery of mind over adverse circumstances. "Though he is being tortured on the rack, the wise man is still happy."

4. Ataraxy

Epicurus' definition of the end of life and of the way to it bears a superficial resemblance to that of his opponents, the Stoics. The end sought by both is ataraxia, "imperturbability," a peace of mind that transcends all circumstances, and the way to it is the life according to Nature. But Nature for Epicurus is purely physical and material, and the utmost happiness attainable is the complete absence of pain.

5. Pleasure Is the Absence of Pain

He justly protests against the representation of his teaching as gross and immoral. "When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal, or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some, through ignorance, prejudice or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul" (Letter to Menoeceus). His own life was marked by a simplicity verging on asceticism, and by kindly consideration for his friends. But theory was capable of serving the purposes of worse men to justify license and selfishness.

6. Social Contract

Justice and ordinary morality were recognized in the system as issuing from an original social compact, such as Hobbes and Rousseau supposed, and resting upon the self-interest and happiness of individuals who entered into the compact the better to gain those ends. Ordinary morality has therefore no stronger sanction than the individual's desire to secure his own happiness. Against public violations of the moral code, the sanction finds its agent in the social order and the penalties it inflicts; but the only deterrent from secret immorality is the fear of being found out, and the necessarily disturbing character of that fear itself. Friendship, the supreme virtue of Epicureanism, is based upon the same calculating selfishness, and is to be cultivated for the happiness it begets to its owners. The fundamental defect of the system is its extreme individualism, which issues in a studied selfishness that denies any value of their own to the social virtues, and in the negation of the larger activities of life.

Epicurus had no interest in knowledge for its own sake, whether of the external world, or of any ultimate or supreme, reality. But he found men's minds full of ideas about the world, immortality and the gods, which disturbed their peace and filled them with vain desires and fears. It was therefore necessary for the practical ends of his philosophy to find a theory of the things outside of man that would give him tranquillity and serenity of mind.

7. Atomic Theory

For this purpose Epicurus fell back upon Democritus' atomic theory of the world. The original constituents of the universe, of which no account could be given, were atoms, the void, and motion. By a fixed law or fate, the atoms moved through the void, so as to form the world as we know it. The same uniform necessity maintains and determines the abiding condition of all that exists. Epicurus modified this system so far as to admit an initial freedom to the atoms, which enabled them to divert slightly from their uniform straight course as they fell like rain through space, and so to impinge, combine and set up rotatory motions by which the worlds, and all that is in them, came into being.

8. Materialism

He did not follow the idea of freedom in Nature and man beyond the exigencies of his theory, and the thoroughly materialistic nature of his universe precluded him from deducing a moral realm. By this theory he gets rid of the causes of fear and anxiety that disturb the human mind. Teleology, providence, a moral order of the universe, the arbitrary action of the gods, blind fate, immortality, hell, reward and punishment after death, are all excluded from a universe where atoms moving through space do everything. The soul, like the body, is made of atoms, but of a smaller or finer texture. In death, the one like the other dissolves and comes to its end.

9. Theory of Ideas

From the same premises one would expect the complete denial of any Divine beings. But it is a curiosity of the system that a grossly materialistic theory of knowledge should require the affirmation of the existence of the gods. Men's ideas are derived from thin material films that pass from the objects around them into the kindred matter of their minds. It follows that every idea must have been produced by a corresponding object. Men generally possess ideas of gods. Therefore, gods must exist to produce those ideas, which come to men in sleep and dreams. But they are not such gods as men generally believe to exist. They are constituted of the same atomic matter as men, but of a still finer texture. They dwell in the intermundia , the interspaces outside the worlds, where earthly cares and the dissolution of death cannot approach them. They are immortal and completely blessed. They cannot therefore know anything of the world, with its pain and its troubles, nor can they be in any way concerned with it. They are apotheoses of the Epicurean sage, entirely withdrawn from the world's turmoil, enjoying a life of calm repose, and satisfied with the bounty that Nature provides for them.

10. Epicurean Gods

"For the nature of the gods must ever in itself of necessity enjoy immortality with supreme repose, far removed and withdrawn from our concerns; since exempt from every pain, exempt from all dangers, strong in its own resources, not wanting aught of us, it is neither gained by favors nor moved by anger" (Lucretius). All religion is banned, though the gods are retained. Epicurus' failure to carry the logic of his system to the denial of the gods lies deeper than his theory of ideas.

11. Consensus Gentium

He was impressed by the fact that "a steadfast unanimity continues to prevail among all men without exception" that gods exist. "A consciousness of godhead does not allow him to deny the existence of God altogether. Hence, his attempt to explain the fact so as not to interfere with his general theory" (Wallace, Epicureanism , 209).

During his lifetime, Epicurus attracted a large following to his creed, and it continued to flourish far down into the Christian era. It was presented to the Roman world by the poet Lucretius in his poem De natura rerum , which is still the chief source for the knowledge of it. One Old Testament writer, the author of Eccl, may have been influenced by its spirit, though he did not adopt all its ideas.

12. Causes of Success

The personal charm and engaging character of Epicurus himself drew men to him, and elevated him into the kind of ideal sage who personified the teaching of the school, as was the custom of all schools of philosophy. The system was clear-cut and easily understood by ordinary men, and it offered a plausible theory of life to such as could not follow the profounder and more difficult speculations of other schools. Its moral teaching found a ready response in all that was worldly, commonplace and self-seeking in men that had lost their high ideals and great enthusiasms. Above all it delivered men from the terrors of a dark superstition that had taken the place of religion. It is a remarkable revelation of the inadequacy of Greek religion that Epicurus should have relegated the gods from the visible world, without any sense of loss, but only the relief of a great deliverance.

13. Complete Antithesis of Paul's Teaching

It was inevitable that the teaching of Paul should have brought this school up against him. He came to Athens teaching a God who had become man, who had suffered and died to accomplish the utmost self-sacrifice, who had risen from the dead and returned to live among men to guide and fashion their lives, and who at last would judge all men, and according to their deeds reward or punish them in a future world. To the Epicurean this was the revival of all the ancient and hated superstitions. It was not only folly but impiety; for Epicurus had taught that "not the man who denies the gods worshipped by the multitude, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believe about them, is truly impious."


Hicks, Stoic and Epicurean (whose translations are adopted in all quotations in this article); Zeller, Stoics , Epicureans and Sceptics  ; Wallace, Epicureanism  ; Lucretius, De natura rerum .

The Nuttall Encyclopedia [11]

A sect of philosophers who derived their name from Epicurus, and who divided the empire of philosophy with the Stoics ( q. v .), at the birth of Christ; they held that the chief end of man was happiness, that the business of philosophy was to guide him in the pursuit of it, and that it was only by experience that one could learn what would lead to it and what would not; they scouted the idea of reason as regulative of thought, and conscience as regulative of conduct, and maintained that our senses were our only guides in both; in a word, they denied that God had implanted in man an absolute rational and moral principle, and maintained that he had no other clue to the goal of his being but his experience in life, while the distinction of right and wrong was only a distinction of what was found conducive to happiness and what was not; they had no faith in or fear of a divine Being above man any more than of a divine principle within man, and they scorned the idea of another world with its awards, and concerned themselves only with this, which, however, in their hands was no longer a cosmos but a chaos, out of which the quickening and ordinative spirit had fled.

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature [12]

( Ε᾿Πικουρεῖοι ,  Acts 17:18), followers of Epicurus or adherents of the Epicurean philosophy (q.v.).