There was a school of philosophy in antiquity, the Skeptics, that postulated that nothing was knowable and that the senses were unreliable. Its teachings, in view of our modern system of checks and balances and the rigorous empirical and experimental, scientific methods that we apply today in our pursuit of knowledge, seem radical.
While surrounded by people who sought diviners, feared wrathful gods and a hellish afterlife, engaged in animal sacrifice and participated in mystery rites, Epicurus, instead, taught that there are legitimate means of acquiring knowledge. In fact, he considered science as one of the most important endeavors for human civilization and progress.
It is impossible for someone who is completely ignorant about nature to wash away his fears about the most important matters if he retains some suspicions about the myths. So it is impossible to experience undiluted enjoyment without studying what is natural. – 12th Principal Doctrine
Epicurus’ epistemology proposes that Truth is knowable, and that therefore there is such a thing as The Truth, as well as false opinions. Epicurus also teaches that certainty is desirable and that knowledge of the nature of things can liberate us from wrong views that sometimes generate unnecessary pain, confusion, and anxiety.
In this sense, the Epicurean system is a dogmatic secular philosophy that points the way to the Truth, with a capital T, and that seeks to be a civilizing force that liberates mortals from the shackles of superstition, ignorance, and suffering. It is dogmatic in the philosophical sense: it rejects as false the opinion that truths are unattainable. True ataraxia is impossible without the freedom from superstition that science and philosophy bring.
Epicurean Gardens had teaching missions: scribes there were in constant correspondence with people from all over the Mediterranean and were constantly replicating scrolls and producing educational materials. Epicureanism, with its good news about the science and art of living a pleasant life, is the first and only missionary humanist philosophy that classical Greece gave humanity. According to Norman DeWitt in his Epicurus and his Philosophy, early Epicureans had an “each one teach one” system.
Epicureans are the only humanists who ever sent missionaries to save Middle Easterners from the evils of religion and superstition. Even in the II Century of Common Era, Diogenes of Oenoanda built a wall and wrote an Epicurean Inscription on it so that his entire town would benefit from learning philosophy. In the opening of the inscription, he explains his mission:
… [observing that most people suffer from false notions about things and do not listen to the body] when it brings important and just [accusations] against the soul, alleging that it is unwarrantably mauled and maltreated by the soul and dragged to things which are not necessary (in fact, the wants of the body are small and easy to obtain — and the soul too can live well by sharing in their enjoyment — while those of the soul are both great and difficult to obtain and, besides being of no benefit to our nature, actually involve dangers). So (to reiterate what I was saying) observing that these people are in this predicament, I bewailed their behaviour and wept over the wasting of their lives, and I considered it the responsibility of a good man to give [benevolent] assistance, to the utmost of one’s ability, to those of them who are well-constituted. [This] is the first reason [for the inscription]…
[And I wanted to refute those who accuse natural science of being unable to be of any benefit to us.] In this way, [citizens], even though I am not engaging in public affairs, I say these things through the inscription just as if I were taking action, and in an endeavour to prove that what benefits our nature, namely freedom from disturbance, is identical for one and all.
And so, having described the second reason for the inscription, I now go on to mention my mission and to explain its character and nature.
Having already reached the sunset of my life (being almost on the verge of departure from the world on account of old age), I wanted, before being overtaken by death, to compose a [fine] anthem [to celebrate the] fullness [of pleasure] and so to help now those who are well-constituted. Now, if only one person or two or three or four or five or six or any larger number you choose, sir, provided that it is not very large, were in a bad predicament, I should address them individually and do all in my power to give them the best advice. But, as I have said before, the majority of people suffer from a common disease, as in a plague, with their false notions about things, and their number is increasing (for in mutual emulation they catch the disease from one another, like sheep) moreover, [it is] right to help [also] generations to come (for they too belong to us, though they are still unborn) and, besides, love of humanity prompts us to aid also the foreigners who come here. Now, since the remedies of the inscription reach a larger number of people, I wished to use this stoa to advertise publicly the [medicines] that bring salvation. These medicines we have put [fully] to the test; for we have dispelled the fears [that grip] us without justification, and, as for pains, those that are groundless we have completely excised, while those that are natural we have reduced to an absolute minimum, making their magnitude minute.
… [One thing] only I ask of you: do not, even if [you should be] somewhat indifferent and listless, be [like] passers-by [in your approach] to the writings, [consulting] each [of them] in a patchy fashion and [omitting to read everything] …
Epicurus taught that philosophy that does not heal the soul is no better than medicine that cannot cure the body. Giving people teachings about human happiness and avoidance of suffering is seen as philanthropy. Our teaching mission contends with the accusation, repeated often throughout history, that Epicureanism is a purely self-indulgent philosophy of selfish hedonism. A proper introduction to how Epicureans deal with desires will lay that stereotype to rest. There is a strong element of philanthropy in the Epicurean tradition: we aim to impart Epicurus’ teachings as medicine for the soul.
The mission of the Society of Friends of Epicurus is to be true to the philanthropic spirit of the ancient Gardens: to spread a message that ultimately helps to liberate humanity from ignorance and unnecessary suffering, and to do so by forging with each other friendships that are intellectually vibrant.
We aspire to fully revitalize the Epicurean teaching mission both online and offline, establishing Gardens in every city where there are Epicureans willing to organize; We aspire to embody the ideals of friendship, autarchy, prudence, suavity, and all the other virtues that the ancient Epicureans exemplified, and as other communal needs emerge, we will seek to meet those needs.
In the process of helping pupils to discern between true Epicureanism and the alleged teachings that are attributed by indirect and sometimes hostile sources, we have established a lineage of established teachers, personalities, and thinkers within our tradition. We don’t always agree with all of them, but they are like the constellations that guide our heaven and help us find our way.
- The pre-Epicurean atomists: Leucippus, who taught Democritus, who taught Nausiphanes
- The Cyrenaics: Aristippus and Anniceris
- Epicurus of Samos, who taught Metrodorus, Hermarchus, and Polyaenus: the four founders of our tradition, collectively known as the Men
- After Hermarchus (the second Hegemon), the Scholarchs were Polystratus, Dionysius, Basileides, Apollodorus
- Philonides of Laodicea, an Epicurean missionary to Asia
- Zeno of Sidon and his most renouned student Philodemus of Gadara
- Titus Lucretius Carus, author of On the Nature of Things
- Titus Pomponius Atticus was an avowed Epicurean who in the middle of the civil wars was friendly to everyone and was a great example of how to live
- Lucian of Samosata, a satirist
- Diogenes of Oenoanda, who erected a wall with inscriptions of our teachings
- Pierre Gassendi, who attempted to Epicureanize Christianity
- Frances Wright, author, and her mentor Thomas Jefferson, American founding father
- Norman Dewitt, author
- Michel Onfray, French hedonist author, founder of Université de Caen
See also the Honor Roll of Epicureans. Please learn more about Epicurus and his philosophy! Whether you consider yourself an Epicurean or not, you will undoubtedly benefit from his wholesome association through his teaching.