Could Epicurus save us?

A philosophy of pleasure could cure our modern ills

Steven Gambardella
Feb 2 · 12 min read
Rome During the Decadence, Thomas Couture, 1847. Epicureanism for a long time had a reputation as a philosophy that encouraged reckless and immoral hedonism. Epicurus was a hedonist, but encouraged the pursuit of a natural state of pleasure that comes when we free ourselves of desire. His philosophy was very popular throughout the Roman Empire. (Image source: Wikipedia)

Humble Beginnings

Epicurus was born into a modest household in 341 BCE in the Athenian colony of Samos. Schooled in Athenian philosophy, he rejected the ideas of Platonism.

A Roman bust of Epicurus. The philosopher was immensely popular at the time of the Roman Republic, his image was reproduced on an industrial scale. (Source: Wikipedia)

Hedonism

Epicurean philosophy is associated with pleasure. As such it has an undeserved reputation in the modern world as making a virtue of the selfish pursuit toward that end.

To be happy you need to change your desires

To Epicurus, happiness is the default condition of living. But humans have afflicted themselves with unnecessary desires.

Free Will in the Swerve of Atoms

Epicurus’s ideas about the universe were mostly built upon those of Democritus, his chief influence. The universe, both philosophers held, is composed of tiny invisible atoms that move (or fall) though the void.

The Roman poet Lucretius. Engraved by Michael Burghers from the frontispiece to Thomas Creech’s translation of Of the Nature of Things, printed in London 1714. (Source: Wikimedia) Lucretius was an eloquent and provocative defender of Epicureanism, his (only known) poem Of the Nature of Things was rediscovered during the Renaissance and informs much of what we know about the Epicurean explanation of the universe.

The Rise and Fall of Epicureanism

Epicurus became immensely popular in both the Ancient Greek world and the Roman Empire which consumed it. Cicero, who was critical of Epicureanism, complained of the cult-like following the philosophy gained among Romans.

The Conversion of Constantine the Great by Raphael, 1517. Once Christianity became the favoured religion of the Roman Empire, the materialist philosophy of Epicureanism all but died off.

A Cure the World Needs Now?

These archeological developments could not have come at a more appropriate time. While Epicureanism was intended to cure individuals, it could rescue our own modern world from the excesses of consumerism.

Could Epicureanism, by appealing to self-interest, save our ecology by taming the desire for material wealth? Picture: Pollution in Ghana (source:Wikipedia).

Steven Gambardella

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I write about history, art and philosophy and how these subjects can help you in life and work. Email: stevengambardella [at] gmail [dot] com.