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Epicurus (Louvre)

Epicurus ( ancient Greek Ἐπίκουρος Epíkouros ; * around 341 BC on Samos ; † 271 or 270 BC in Athens ) was a Greek philosopher , founder of Epicureanism and the Epicurean school. This philosophical school, which developed parallel to the Stoa in Hellenism, has had a polarizing effect between supporters and opponents since its beginnings thanks to the hedonistic doctrine developed by Epicurus . It was and is subject to misinterpretations due to a widespread misunderstanding of the Epicurean concept of pleasure. Since Epicurus and his followers often gathered in a garden, his school is also called Kepos after the Greek word for garden ( κῆπος ) .


Epicurus was born around 341 BC. Born on the Aegean island of Samos . His birthday, the 20th day of the month of Gamelion , was later celebrated annually by his students according to his testamentary wish. His father Neocles had been resettled as a colonist ( clergy ) from Athens and Attica to Samos, where he found only a small income as an elementary teacher and farmer. The tradition of Epicurus' curriculum vitae is fraught with gaps and uncertainties. a. show that his most important biographer, Diogenes Laertios , dates from the third century AD.

At the age of 14, Epicurus found philosophy . The reason for his beginnings, it is said, were doubts about the nature of chaos , that "yawning abyss" from which, according to Hesiod, all things are derived, which his teachers could not satisfactorily explain. The Platonist Pamphiles and the Demokriteer Nausiphanes were his first teachers. However, Pamphiles did not make a particularly good impression on Epicurus, as he stood out primarily through rhetorical boasting, which alienated Epicurus from rhetoric as a whole. He saw himself referred more to the atomism of Democritus, which he made his own.

At the age of 18, Epicurus came to Athens in 323, where he completed a two-year pre-military training as an Ephebe in the gymnasium , which was concluded with a declaration of consent and admission to the citizens' list. In the same year, Alexander the Great died in Babylon and the Athenians revolted against Macedonian supremacy. They suffered a heavy defeat, as a result of which Neocles, Epicurus' father, as an Athenian colonist, lost his property on Samos to the Macedonian occupiers under Perdiccas . Neocles fled into exile in Colophon near Ephesus , where Epicurus soon followed his father. As of 319 BC When Samos was returned to Athens, Neocles received financial compensation for the loss of his property.

Over the following years there was no news of Epicurus. Maybe he was 311 BC. Chr. – 306 BC Teacher of philosophy first in Mytilini on Lesbos , later in Lampsakos on the Hellespont . During this time he could have won his most loyal disciples with Metrodorus von Lampsakos , his brother Timocrates, Hermarchus from Mytilene , Idomeneus, Leonteus and his wife Themista, Kolotes and Polyainos. In 306 BC BC Epicurus moved to Athens, where after the overthrow of Demetrius of Phaleron, the Attic democracy seemed to revive. There he bought the garden (kepos) in which he founded his school for 80  mines . The Kepos served his followers, who came from all walks of life, as a meeting place, and he lived there with his students (initially there were 200), some of whom came to him from afar, without any individual personal property. In sharp contrast to the prevailing customs, he also accepted married couples, women ( hetaires ) and slaves as students at his symposia.

Claims of revelers and other excesses of the Epicureans do not come from credible sources, at least as far as members of the school are concerned. They contradict the teaching of Epicurus, who greeted his guests at the entrance to the garden with the following inscription: “Come in, stranger! A friendly host is waiting for you with bread and water in abundance, because here your desires are not stimulated, but satisfied. "The sensual desires, the justification of which was only accepted to a limited extent (see below), should be based on the small, easily accessible joys judge: "Send me a piece of cheese so that I can eat well once."

For about 35 years, until his death (probably caused by kidney or urinary stones ) in 271 or 270 BC. BC, Epicurus remained the spiritual center of the garden, in whose protection friendly relationships were particularly cultivated. Since Metrodorus had died before Epicurus, the management of the Kepos passed to Hermarchus after his death .

Epicurus School did not seek political influence and - with a few exceptions - found little access to the rich and powerful. Nevertheless, the Kepos lasted well beyond the 2nd century AD , which was ultimately promoted by the Stoic Marcus Aurelius .


Of the numerous works of Epicurus (at least 40 treatises, including 37 books of his main work Peri physeos ( On Nature )) only a small part has survived. Three large lesson units have been handed down in full:

  • Letter to Menoikeus on ethics
  • Letter to Herodotus on epistemology and natural philosophy
  • Letter to Pythocles on astronomy and meteorology

In addition, two sets of theorems have survived:

  • The Kyriai doxai - 40 main doctrines to memorize
  • The Gnomologium Vaticanum Epicureum  - a collection of quotations with sayings of Epicurus and important pupils discovered in a Vatican codex in 1888

Fragments of other writings, also from Epicurus' main work Peri physeos ( On Nature ), were found in the library of the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum .

Because of the large gaps in tradition, the reconstruction of his teaching is based on texts by his followers ( Lucretius , Horace ) as well as on information from Marcus Tullius Cicero , Pliny the Younger and Seneca . It should be noted that Cicero was a sharp opponent of Epicureanism. Important secondary sources about Epicurus and his teaching are:

  • Diogenes Laertios , De vitis et dogmatibus clarorum philosophorum ( life and opinions of famous philosophers ) Book X, including the letters mentioned above and the controversial letter to Pythocles as well as a list of 41 selected important works by Epicurus.
  • Lucretius: De rerum natura (a didactic poem that reproduces the natural philosophy of Epicurus)
  • Marcus Tullius Cicero: De natura deorum ( Of the nature of the gods ); De finibus bonorum et malorum ( On the greatest good and the greatest evil ); De fato ( about fate )
  • Plutarch : Placita philosophorum , Contra Colotem
  • Diogenes of Oinoanda , the author of an extensive inscription depicting the teaching of Epicurus.
  • Philodemus of Gadara , an Epicurean philosopher whose writings were also found in the library of the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum.

Epicurus teaching

A common feature of the philosophical schools that arose in Hellenistic times (in addition to the Epicureans, these mainly include the skeptics and the Stoics ) is their orientation towards individual happiness in life or salvation, which the Greek term eudaimonia means. On the other hand, the paths that should lead to this goal are always specific. Characteristic of the teaching of Epicurus are the development of special forms of need regulation for the purpose of maximizing pleasure and the radical this-sidedness of all strivings, based on the view that the human soul also dissolves with death. The basic motif of the Epicureans is not an eternal life, but the Epicurean manner, which reached perfect peace of mind ( ataraxia ) during lifetime .

Epicurus' teaching also encompasses the three classical fields of ancient philosophy : physics (natural science), logic or here: canonics ( epistemology ) and ethics (behavioral theory). Explanation of nature and epistemological considerations, together with basic ethical principles, contribute to the elimination of individually troubling factors, "by making the unknown understandable, proving the unattainable as irrelevant and the inevitable as acceptable." The theory of the explanation of nature is thus asserted as a means to the end of human peace of mind but a high priority as a requirement for happiness, while ethics is to be seen as the center and construction goal of the entire teaching building.

The surviving Epicurean writings offer, in addition to coherent argumentation, preferably catchy phrases or memorable summaries of complex facts, which, learned by heart, serve as meditation aids and help to contemplate things calmly.

Natural science and knowledge

Epicurus adopted Democritus atomistic teaching and developed it further. With their help, he explained the whole of reality in a purely materialistic way, i.e. with consistent renunciation of all transcendent and metaphysical assumptions. He interpreted everything that existed as the result of the movement and different distribution of immutable atoms in space.

According to Epicurus, matter is uncreated and immortal. Their last indivisible units, the atoms, are invisible and have size, shape and weight as properties. The number of atomic forms and their possible combinations is very large, but finite. The number of atoms, however, is infinite. In the infinitely large space there is an infinite number of worlds. There are infinitely many worlds that are like ours and infinitely many that are not like her; they are all ephemeral agglomerations of imperishable atoms. Apart from empty space , atoms and their connections, nothing exists. The soul, which is spread throughout the body but has its main seat in the heart, also consists of atoms. The cosmos, which includes the stars, the earth and all phenomena, does not necessarily exist alone. Epicurus sometimes speaks of worlds in the plural and attributes their multitude to the unlimited number of atoms.

All possible combinations of atoms must have been realized infinitely often in the past infinity of time, so that the distribution of the infinite atom reservoir to the possible combinations is uniform. Movement is the way of existence and an indispensable property of atoms. Epicurus determined the vertical fall as the fundamental, natural archetype of movement.

But how should atomic compounds be formed, given the well-ordered regular linear falling motion? As a result of a deviation of the atoms from the vertical by a minimum, according to Epicurus there are the various forms of motion which arise from the collision and the subsequent repulsion of the atoms. This deviation of the atoms is not caused by the outside but by themselves. It enables atomic connections and is therefore the cause of all phenomena. With this assumption, a strict determinism , which Epicurus rejects, can be avoided.

In terms of epistemology, Epicurus essentially represented image theory . In contrast to Democritus, he did not see sensations as secondary. Since the perception is the only truth criterion for him, it is also the criterion for the conclusions about things that are not immediately perceived, if only these conclusions do not contradict the information of the perception. Therefore, logical consistency is an important condition of truth. Where several explanations of phenomena do not contradict the perceptible reality, they appear to be on an equal footing in the sense of Epicurus.

Epicurus' high esteem for action committed to the laws of logic can be measured by the fact that he described it as a characteristic of the wise to miss some goals with a right disposition rather than to be temporarily on the right path due to chance: "Because it is nicer, if in action the right decision does not come to the right fulfillment, as if an incorrect decision by chance comes to right fulfillment. "


Epicurus' ethics basically aims at increasing and perpetuating the joy of life by enjoying every day, possibly every moment, as the motto of Horace : carpe diem ( seize the day ) says. In addition, it is important to avoid and, if necessary, overcome all impairments of peace of mind that can arise from desires, fear and pain. Constantly savoring the lust for life is the art of the Epicurean sage.

The Epicurean concept of pleasure

Examples of the different types of (dis) pleasure in Epicurus

The inner logic of the Epicurean doctrine is u. a. clearly in the justification of the central position of pleasure and joie de vivre, as reproduced by Cicero. Accordingly, the early childhood perception, which is not yet characterized by any social conditioning, indicates the natural direction of human striving: seeking pleasure (and, if necessary, demanding it loudly) - avoiding displeasure. This primacy is so obvious to Epicurus that no special justification is necessary: ​​"He says you can feel this, how you feel that the fire is warm, the snow is cold and the honey is sweet." to which the child's feelings of pleasure and happiness are exposed can be brought under control in adolescence through the addition of reason-based insight (phronesis) and gradually steered into more steady paths. Insight and a stable lust for existence are mutually dependent: the phronesis points in the manner of a pleasure-displeasure calculation (Euringer, p. 64) the way to a maximum of joie de vivre and to avoiding displeasure. Without this function and orientation, however, the ability to think rationally would be useless from the point of view of Epicurus, as he pointed out against philosophical competition in the letter to Menoikeus: “That is why insight is even more valuable than philosophy: it comes from it all other virtues, because it teaches that it is not possible to live with pleasure without living insightfully, perfectly and justly, just as little to live insightfully, perfectly and justly without living with pleasure. "Relevant meaning for the understanding of the Last but not least, the Epicurean pleasure principle has the distinction between catastematic pleasure (in the sense of sustained pleasure in existence) and kinetic pleasure (in the sense of pleasure variation). The latter is then - and only then - justified if it does not ultimately impair the joy of being in the way it is exercised or being lived out. Conversely, however, the joy of life of the Epicurean who is firm on the saddle must and will not do any harm if there is no opportunity for pleasure variation.

Overcoming fear, pain and desires as opponents of the joy of life

For Epicurus, fear, pain and desire are the three great cliffs that have to be circumnavigated so that lust for life and peace of mind can reign permanently. With regard to fear, there are two main motives with which Epicurus deals: fear of the gods and fear of death.

A central concern of Epicurus was his fight against the idea that gods intervene in world events and especially in human fate, that their anger is to be feared and that they must therefore be influenced by sacrifices and prayers. He rejected this as superstition and thereby eliminated the fear of God. However, this was not a peculiarity of the Epicureans, because other philosophical schools, especially the Platonists, strictly rejected the fear of God ( deisidaimonia ) and regarded it as something contemptible.

Epicurus also endeavored to remove the fear of death . He argued that death has absolutely no part in life that can be experienced individually. To Menoikeus he wrote:

“Get used to believing that death means nothing to us. Because everything that is good and everything that is bad is a matter of perception. But the loss of perception is death. Therefore, the correct realization that death has no meaning for us makes the transience of life a source of pleasure, in that it does not promise us unlimited time, but rather it removes the desire for immortality. [...] The most gruesome of all evils, death, has no meaning for us; because as long as we are there, death is not there, but if death is there, then we are not there. "

Unlike death in the Epicurus sense, pain is normally part of the sensory experience of every human being. But even in them Epicurus did not see any serious danger to the lust for existence. In the fourth main tenet it says: “The pain does not stay long uninterrupted in the flesh, but the extreme lasts a very short time, that which merely outweighs the pleasurable in the flesh does not appear for many days, and in the long-term ailments the pleasure emphasized dominates in the flesh the pain."

Reality and the interpretation of these statements are not unequivocally revealed to today's interpreters. Epicurus himself gave the most important indication of the meaning of what was meant by relieving the pain of a kidney stone disease in the two weeks before his death and bearing it in a cheerful mood. In his farewell letter to Idomeneus it says: “Spending the blessed and at the same time the last day of my life, I am writing these lines to you. I am haunted by urinary and dysentery problems that no longer allow me to increase in size. But all this is offset by the joy of the soul over the memory of the conversations we had. "

For Epicurus and his followers, the most important area of ​​probation in everyday life was probably dealing with desires and cravings, that is, with what is now reckoned within the more or less broad framework of human needs. Epicurus again distinguished three categories: "Desires are partly natural and necessary, partly natural and not necessary, partly neither natural nor necessary, but justified by empty opinions."

Only the fulfillment of basic needs such as eating, drinking and protection from the cold was seen by Epicurus as essential for the enjoyment of existence. Sexual pleasure already belonged to its second category: of natural origin, but only useful to a certain extent, and in case of doubt it can be dispensed with. Luxury needs (as well as the generation of needs in the sense of today's demand-awakening economy), on the other hand, are ultimately based - in accordance with the third category of Epicurus - in "empty opinion", i.e. in unreasonableness, and can result in harmful dependencies:

"We also consider independence from external things to be a great good, not in order to be satisfied with a little in every situation, but in order to get along with a little when we do not have most of it, because we are fully convinced that those those who enjoy abundance most, need it least, and that everything natural is easy, but the senseless is difficult to obtain and that a simple broth gives the same pleasure as a sumptuous meal [...] and that water and bread give the highest pleasure when you eat them because you are hungry. Getting used to simple and not abundant food therefore serves health in every respect on the one hand, and on the other hand also takes away people's worries about the basic needs of life, strengthens us when we go to lavish tables at intervals, and makes us fearless of fate . "

The "fourfold remedy" and other rules of conduct

With reference to the traditions of Cicero and Plutarch, it has become common in recent research to view the Epicurean doctrine as a therapy offer to achieve peace of mind (ataraxia) or a state of mental equilibrium. The tetrapharmacon ("fourfold remedy") with the formula acts as the most important therapeutic agent:

"If we were not burdened by the assumptions about the celestial phenomena and the fearful thoughts about death, as if it concerned something, and the lack of knowledge of the limits of pain and desire, we did not need a natural philosophy."

This theorem bundles the aspects cited above and at the same time emphasizes the overall context of Epicurus' philosophy.

For the everyday organization of the Epicureans, further doctrines were decisive, on the one hand their individual lifestyle and on the other hand the community life. So it says in the main doctrines with individual reference u. a. that it does not take much to satisfy our human nature with what is necessary; Only those who fixate on something beyond that opens up a practically unlimited field of desires and strivings that impair the peace of mind (No. 15 in the tradition of Diogenes Laertius). The basic requirements for a life free of suffering are easy to obtain; so nobody needs things to fight for first (No. 21). Anyone who does not set himself the goals corresponding to his nature in every life situation will not come to a match between thinking and acting (No. 25). Since a wise man has sensed and arranged all important matters in life, he could only be surprised by chance in small details (16). Suicide as a possibility in a hopeless situation seems to be addressed in the sentence: “The compulsion is bad; but there is no compulsion to live under compulsion. "

Purpose and design of social relationships

The individual salvation of the soul and how it is to be attained is at the center of the first 30 main tenets, as handed down by Diogenes Laertios . The last quarter, however, is devoted to questions of social order and the role of the Epicurean in it:

"The right corresponding to human nature is an agreement on the means by which it is prevented that people harm one another or allow themselves to be harmed."

Without such a contractual basis, there is neither right nor wrong (No. 32). Particularities in different countries are to be taken into account in the design of the legal system (No. 36), and adjustments to changed conditions are to be made (No. 37 and 38) so that the applicable law actually serves the general benefit. The attitude of the individual towards the social environment favored by Epicurus results from the 39th main tenet:

“Those who had best organized their affairs against external threats familiarized themselves with everything they could influence. What he could not influence, at least, was not alien to him. But wherever this was impossible for him, he avoided any contact and tried to do everything that was useful. "

The slogan “Live in secret!” (Λάθε βιώσας), handed down by Plutarch, did not apply under all circumstances: Wherever Epicureans were able to successfully assert their interests, this should also happen. But on the other hand "the clearest security arises from the calm and the retreat from the people."

For Epicurus, friendship was the kind of interpersonal relationship most conducive to the joy of existence: "Of all that wisdom provides for the happiness of all life, the most important thing is to gain friendship." Perhaps it was not worth it alone warming humanity in itself, but also as a means of strengthening Epicurus and his students against external hostility. And so the Kepos also served essentially as a retreat for friendly people who were connected to one another through worldview and the life practice based on it. In contrast, like Democritus, Epicurus did not think much of marriage and offspring. He probably saw her as a possible source of disturbance to his peace of mind. The exercise of political offices also seemed to him to be a mistake because it endangers the peace of mind. Instead: "You have to free yourself from the prison of bad business and politics."

The Epicurean Sage

The perfect embodiment of Epicurus' teaching is the figure of the Epicurean sage. With reference to Epicurus, Cicero summarized its characteristics as follows:

“He set limits to his desires; he is indifferent to death; he has correct ideas about the immortal gods, without fear of them in any way; he doesn’t show any decency when it’s better to leave life that way. Equipped with such properties, he is always in a state of pleasure. There is not a moment when he does not have more pleasure than pain. "

With the double insight into the inevitability of death as well as into its insignificance the unreasonable, because insatiable desire for immortality ends. All striving for happiness is therefore related to finite life and leads to a “philosophy of the moment”, the fullness of which, according to Forschner, “represents a maximum and optimum that can no longer be increased or decreased by the amount of temporal extension and content variation.”

Epicurus' image of the gods is also connected with the attributes of the blissful and immortal, so that Bartling concludes that it was Epicurus who came to the fight against the traditional superstition, in which the gods often appeared as personified forces of nature, the ideas about the properties of the gods To align the requirements of its ethical teaching.

Epicurus' letter to Menoikeus ends - in the context of the high esteem for rational, systematic procedures and the disdain for chance - with the words: “Take care of that and everything else that goes with it day and night, for yourself and for yourself who is similar to you, and then you will never, neither when you are awake nor when you are asleep, become restless, but live like a god among people. Because a person who is surrounded by immortal goods is no longer like a perishable being. "


Epicurus assumed the real existence of gods, even considered it to be certain knowledge, without deviating in the least from his strict materialism. For him, the gods, whom he understood as living beings, were, like all other beings, material phenomena, atomic connections . Although he emphatically denied the creation and control of the world by a divine authority, he assumed that there are indeed gods who lead a blissful, carefree existence and do not care about human fates. A divine providence was out of the question for Epicurus, since he believed that it would mean labor and arduous work for the gods that would be unworthy of them.

The atomic theory started from a limited number of atomic forms, but from an infinite number of specimens of each individual form and thus also from an infinite number of specimens of each occurring atomic composition. From this it emerged for the gods that not only is their number infinite, but also that every god and type of god occurs in infinite numbers.

These gods are inaccessible to humans, but they are recognizable. According to Epicurus, such knowledge of God, like any other knowledge of objects in the external world, is only possible through perception, which is based on the fact that atoms detach from the perceived object and move towards the perceiving subject. These atoms are the carrier substance of a stream of images that flows continuously from the gods in all directions and thus enables the human perception of God. From the arrival of the images people can deduce the existence of the gods as their source. The stream of images is continuous, analogous to normal sensory perceptions, in contrast to the isolated images that evoke imaginations. However, it is finer than the current that emanates from optically perceptible objects. Therefore it cannot be grasped with the eye, but only mentally for the soul, which also consists of fine atoms. As the atoms run off, the gods suffer a loss of matter. In contrast to mortal humans, however, they are immortal, since they can compensate for the loss by absorbing suitable substances of the same quality from their surroundings. So you have a metabolism. Thus in the teaching of Epicurus, which denies all metaphysics, theology is a part of physics. It is by no means secondary in the philosophical system, but an essential component. The information that reaches people through the stream of images enables them to recognize the gods as models, to imitate them and thus to become god-like themselves. The view that Epicurus took the gods to be mere ideas in human consciousness is now considered to be refuted.

Epicurus advocated worshiping the gods in their seclusion, but not for their own sake, but only because he believed that it would serve the well-being of people to orient themselves to divine models. In this sense, he accepted the folk gods of the Olympian religion and their cult, but took away from them all those properties that were incompatible with his teachings, and thus also removed all corresponding ideas and expectations from the cult. Apparently Epicurus understood the individual gods of the popular religion such as Zeus or Apollo as types of gods, which occur in an infinite number of specimens. He agreed with popular religion that he considered the gods to be human.

The church writer Laktanz delivers a succinctly formulated, famous argument against the assumption that a benevolent God controls the fate of people. He attributes it to Epicurus. It says that God is either not all powerful or not benevolent, otherwise the evils in the world could not exist. This quote, which is still used in discussions about theodicy to this day , actually comes neither from Epicurus nor from his school, but was formulated after an unknown philosopher of the skeptical direction.


School tradition

Epicurus himself took extensive precautions to be and remain present in the consciousness of his followers. In his will, he had a festival calendar according to which the annual cult of the dead was to be celebrated for him and his relatives in his school. Not only was his birthday celebrated, but there was also an annual memorial day for his brothers, a monthly memorial meal (on the 20th day of the month) for him and his friend Metrodor and a memorial day for his friend Polyainus. On these feast days, writings were read out that encouraged the imitation of exemplary philosophers. Epicurus is said to have urged his students to always behave as if he, Epicurus, were watching them.

Epicurus' demand for adherence to Orthodoxy had a lasting effect on the lessons in his school and on the life of his followers: emphasis on authority and memorization and a confessional practice of confessing and repenting of mistakes with censure and "contrition" ( syntribḗ ) belonged to the formative elements of the Epicurean way. This permanently led to an unusual cohesion and relative uniformity of the Epicurean community and its teaching. Outsider ancient observers noticed that this set the Epicureans apart from the other rival philosophical schools and schools of thought. In the 2nd century , the philosopher Numenios compared the school of Epicurus with a state free from any party struggles or civil wars. This basic attitude contributed to the fact that Epicurus's school surpassed both the Platonic Academy and the Peripatos of Aristotle in terms of its continuity ; There seem to have been no breaks in tradition, and there have been no fundamental changes over the course of half a millennium. The emphatic commitment to orthodoxy also meant that independent research and reflection, encouraged in other schools, played a comparatively minor role.

However, individual sources indicate that there have been differences of opinion over the centuries on individual points, for example with regard to the assessment of rhetoric or the assessment of anger. Shifts in emphasis and developments, also due to the confrontation with critics and foreign traditions, are recognizable in places; in the communities of Kos and Rhodes there seems to have been a tendency towards a certain independence from the mother school in Athens. However, this does not change anything in the overall picture of the extraordinary loyalty of the Epicureans to the original teachings of their school founder.

Roman epicureanism

In the Roman Empire , the prerequisites for the spread of Epicureanism were unfavorable from the outset, since neither Epicurus' pleasure theory nor his skepticism towards political activity seemed to be compatible with traditional Roman values. Significantly, at the famous embassy of Greek philosophers to Rome in 155 BC. The Platonists, the Peripatetics and the Stoics involved, but not the Epicureans. A more than superficial knowledge of Epicurus does not seem to have existed in Rome at that time. However, in the first half of the 2nd century BC BC two Greek Epicureans were already active in Rome, who were expelled as seducers of the youth because of the offensive doctrine of pleasure. From the late 2nd century BC Some Romans began to turn to Epicureanism, including Titus Albucius , who lived temporarily (around 120 BC) in Athens and, contrary to the Epicurean doctrine, did not disdain a political career.

Cicero mentions some Roman authors who lived in the 1st century BC. BC tried to spread the teachings of Epicurus in Latin with their writings. According to Cicero, they were very successful at this; he even claimed (probably greatly exaggerating) that they had won all of Italy for themselves. It was precisely in the popularity of Epicurus among broad, relatively uneducated strata of the population that Cicero saw evidence of the questionable nature of Epicureanism, which he rejected. This popular character of Epicurus actually did not correspond to the attitude of the rather elitist philosopher himself; Epicurus did not aim for a broad mass impact of his teaching or thought it would be desirable.

In addition to the popular Epicureanism, which probably simplified the doctrines, there was also a more demanding one in Rome, which addressed the educated and was developed around the middle of the 1st century BC. BC gained influence in the upper classes. The Epicureans, who appear as interlocutors in Cicero's writings, came from such circles. The most prominent representative of this direction was the poet Lucretius , a staunch, enthusiastic Epicurean. In contrast to Cicero, he noted the lack of attractiveness of the teaching for the people and claimed to present Epicurus' teaching of nature for the first time in a valid Latin form. In doing so, he indicated that he considered the common “vulgar Picureanism” to be a falsification and that he wanted to appeal to an exclusive readership because, in his opinion, only a philosophically minded elite could form a suitable target audience for authentic Epicureanism. His didactic poem De rerum natura was and remained the most influential literary representation of Epicureanism in Latin. While Lucretius, in the spirit of Epicurus, rejected the traditional belief in gods, he meant that Epicurus, as the discoverer of truth, owed the worship that people used to show the gods. He even explicitly (metaphorically) called him a "god".

Towards the end of the Republican era and early Imperial times, this more sophisticated Epicureanism found widespread support among the cultural ranks. The important patrons of culture Titus Pomponius Atticus and Maecenas as well as possibly Caesar , who were surrounded by many Epicureans, were very open to Epicurean ideas . Virgil was at least temporarily close to Epicureanism, Horace showed him great sympathy and described himself as a "pig from the Epicurean herd". This famous utterance was intended to be self-deprecating and should not be understood as a commitment to the philosophical school; compared to Epicurean (and every other) dogmatism, Horace emphasized his independence.

In the politically and culturally relevant circles, however, Epicureanism could only be partially taken up, since Epicurus' rejection of cultural goods and / or his fundamentally negative attitude to political engagement collided with the inclinations of noble Romans. When Epicureanism was accepted by the political and cultural ruling class in Rome, consequent was ruled out from the start; Even a passionate Epicurean like the poet Lucretius violated Epicurean orthodoxy, for Epicurus had a very unfavorable opinion of the value of poetry.

Other philosophers, especially Platonists and Stoics, and the Christians fought against Epicureanism. The denial of immortality and divine providence was particularly offensive. The Platonist Plutarch wrote three anti-Epicurean writings. Seneca, on the other hand, although as a Stoic considered Epicurus' philosophy to be wrong, intensely and comprehensively dealt with the Epicurean way to achieve peace of mind, because this concern was of central importance to him too. For the ancient church fathers , Epicurus was the ultimate philosophical opponent. His doctrine, which was polytheistic and accepted gods in human form, but at the same time denied providence and was intended to eradicate the fear of God, appeared to them as an alternative to Christianity. Only his ethics - apart from the doctrine of pleasure - could some Christians get positive out of it, since it aimed at peace of mind. Christian polemicists accused Epicurus and his followers of an abundance of debauchery and perversions.

The Epicurean tradition was still alive in the Roman Empire in the early 3rd century, but soon afterwards it began to decline. In late antiquity , the opposition of the then decisive intellectual currents, Neoplatonism and Christianity, to the teaching of Epicurus became more pronounced. The name Epicurus became a dirty word among Christians; theological opponents and unasketical Christians were denigrated by accusing them of an Epicurean attitude towards life. The church father Augustine polemicized against Epicurus, but had an ambivalent relationship with him. He called him - probably taking up the well-known word of Horace and revaluing it - as a "pig", but admitted to having recognized individual truths. He also stated that at his time - he wrote this in 410 - the Epicurean tradition had already died out. As early as 362/363, Emperor Julian had stated with satisfaction in a letter that the Epicurean literature had largely perished. Although Epicureanism was perceived by its late antiquity opponents not as a current threat, but as a concept of bygone times, the dispute with it continued.

Epicureanism in Alexandria

In Alexandria , too , Epicureans were very present throughout ancient times and left many traces behind. According to a passage in Plutarch's De latenter vivendo, there were already followers in Alexandria during Epicurus' lifetime . The Epicurean Kolotes von Lampsakus even dedicated one of his works to one of the first Ptolemaic kings. In the 2nd century BC The relations of the Epicureans Philonides , Basilides and Protarch to Alexandrian geometers are remarkable. Also Philodemus stayed before his transition to Athens v at the beginning of the 1st century. A long time BC in Alexandria, as the re-reading and re-evaluation of a papyrus from Herculeanuem show. Several papyri found in Egypt from different centuries speak for the vitality of Epicureanism in Egypt and Alexandria, as do the polemics of authors working in Alexandria ( Philo , Clemens , Origen ). Particularly noteworthy here is the writing De natura (περὶ φύσεως) by Dionysius of Alexandria , which represents the only surviving polemic against the physics of Epicurus from a Christian point of view (at least the first book of the work was directed against the Epicureans). The script suggests Epicurean controversies with Christians in 3rd century Alexandria. After the constant change , Epicureanism in Alexandria, as in other parts of the empire, lost its importance until it finally disappeared in the 5th century. It is possible that in addition to individual Epicureans, there were also more or less organized circles of Epicureans in Alexandria.

middle Ages

In the Latin-speaking world of the Middle Ages, no texts from Epicurus were known. Only a few manuscripts and excerpts from Florilegien existed from the poem of Lucretius . Medieval scholars obtained their knowledge of Epicurus from Cicero, Servius and Seneca and the Church Fathers. Topical judgments of condemnation were common, mainly referring to materialism and the theory of pleasure. Occasionally, however, there were also more positive statements that linked to individual passages in the available ancient sources, where Epicurus' practical wisdom was appreciated. This predominantly very negative, but also partly ambivalent assessment of Epicurus in the Middle Ages is reflected in Dante . In his “Divine Comedy” he puts Epicurus and all the Epicureans in hell because of their denial of immortality, but in the Convivio he counts the Epicurean garden among the ancient schools which, in his opinion, were able to impart wisdom.

In the linguistic usage of the High and Late Middle Ages, an “Epicurean” was usually not understood to be a follower of a certain philosophical doctrine, but a person who was regarded as a “slave of lust”.

Modern times

The humanist Poggio Bracciolini's discovery of a manuscript of Lucretius' poem in 1417 was an important impetus to revive interest in historical Epicurus and his teaching . Poggio was fascinated by this work. As early as 1418, the humanist Bartolomeo da Montepulciano , a friend of Poggio's, wrote that he knew a large number of people who had committed themselves to Epicureanism. The humanist Lorenzo Valla, known as idiosyncratic, caused a sensation with his work “About Lust” ( De voluptate ), which he published in 1431; two years later he had a revised version printed under the title “On the true and the false good” ( De vero falsoque bono ). In this work Valla has a Stoic, an Epicurean and a Christian express their views; Although the Christian wins, the author's sympathy for Epicurean positions is unmistakable. From 1433 a Latin translation of the philosophers' lives of Diogenes Laertios was available, which was first printed in 1472. She contributed significantly to the knowledge of Epicurus in educated circles, especially since Diogenes treated Epicurus particularly thoroughly. Most of the time, the Renaissance humanists attempted a differentiated assessment of Epicureanism.

The common medieval use of the expression “Epicurean” as a swear word for dissolute, “animal” people continued in the early modern period. Luther liked to abuse his theological opponents in this way. He also directed the charge of Epicureanism against the humanist Erasmus von Rotterdam . Erasmus responded with a differentiated appreciation of the Epicurean doctrine of pleasure, which is rendered distorted by its opponents.

In the 17th century, Epicureanism first spread from France. The rehabilitation of Epicurean philosophy by the French philosopher Pierre Gassendi played a decisive role . In his struggle against the authority of Aristotle, Gassendi resorted to Epicurus' atomic theory; He tried to combine the ethics of Epicurus with Christian ideas. Walter Charleton followed up on Gassendi ; in the 1750s he published writings which contributed greatly to the popularization of Epicurean ideas in England. Even Thomas Hobbes was about Gassendi suggestions from the Epicurean. Hobbes rejected the atomic theory, but shared Epicurus' criticism of religion and his materialism. Like Epicurus, he used the concept of the social contract . In contrast to the ancient thinker, however, he did not see the social contract as a reality, but as a conceptual construct. In Germany, Christian Thomasius was busy defending Epicurus.

In the 18th century, Epicurus found favor with materialists such as La Mettrie and Holbach . In contrast to Epicurus, however, Holbach denied free will. In Prussia, King Frederick II described himself as a zealous student of Epicurus and regretted that, as ruler, he had to "deal with these great deals and violate the rules of our holy Epicurus". Christoph Martin Wieland dealt intensively with the ideal of an Epicurean way of life in his novels Agathon and Aristipp and other works.

In the early 19th century, the influence of Enlightenment thought contributed to a positive image of Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter dated October 31, 1819 that he was an Epicurean. The authentic, unadulterated doctrine of Epicurus contained the totality of that which was reasonable in ancient moral philosophy. Even Georg Buchner affirmierte in Danton's Death Epicurus doctrine of "Lust" ( Hedone ) as final destination of every human being: "There is only Epicureans, namely coarse and fine, Christ was the finest; that's the only difference I between the Can bring people out. Everyone acts according to his nature, ie he does what is good for him. " In the 19th century, the ethics of Epicurus attracted particular interest in philosophical circles, but the theory of nature also attracted attention. Karl Marx dealt intensively with the theory of nature ; his dissertation , published in 1841, was entitled The Difference Between Democritic and Epicurean Natural Philosophy . In contrast to Hegel , who had considered Epicurus to be unoriginal, Marx saw in Epicurus' natural philosophy an advance over Democritus. Regarding the theory of the state, he said that in Epicurus there is "first the idea [...] that the state is based on a mutual contract between people, a contrat social [...]".

Nietzsche's relationship with Epicurus changed significantly in the course of his philosophical development. At first he was admiring the ancient thinker who had brought about a liberation from the fear of the gods and from religious notions of guilt. But when later the principle of the will to power gained increasing importance in Nietzsche's thinking, he judged Epicurus' teaching negatively as an expression of weakness, indulgence and unwillingness to assert oneself against resistance and to strive for power. He also accused him of a philosophical skepticism, which was a consequence of Epicurus' lack of will to know (a form of will to power). Epicurus is a "typical decadent" whose decadence Nietzsche believed he was the first to recognize.

In the 20th century, Wilhelm Reich , Erich Fromm and, above all, Herbert Marcuse referred to Epicurus in their presentations on the pleasure principle. But they criticized his negative attitude to political activity and his refusal to change social conditions. Marcuse considered this reluctance to be a missed minimalism and said that Epicurus did not end his way.

See also

Directory of important works according to Diogenes Laertios

Diogenes Laertios writes that Epicurus wrote over three hundred books (which Laertios assigns to the three categories of canonics / science, physics / description of nature and ethics ) and names the 41 most important of Epicurus' works in his opinion:

  • About nature ( Peri physeos , 37 books)
  • About the atoms and the emptiness
  • Of love
  • Extract from the books against the physicists
  • Against the megarics
  • Difficult questions
  • Main teachings ( Kyriai doxai )
  • About choosing and avoiding
  • From the ultimate goal
  • From the criterion (reason for assessment) or canon (guideline)
  • Chairedem
  • From the gods
  • From piety
  • Hegesianax
  • Of the ways of life (4 books)
  • From right action
  • Neocles to Themista
  • Feast
  • Eurylochus to Metrodor
  • By seeing
  • From the angle of the atom
  • From the sense of touch
  • From fate
  • Views on the affects in Timocrates
  • Prognostikon
  • Warning letter ( Protreptikos )
  • From the pictures (idols)
  • From the idea
  • Aristobulus
  • From the music
  • About justice and the other virtues
  • Of gifts and thanks
  • Polymedes
  • Timocrates (3 books)
  • Metrodor (5 books)
  • Antidor (2 books)
  • Views of the south winds at Mithras
  • Callistolas
  • From royalty
  • Anaximenes
  • Letters

Text editions and translations

  • Diogenes Laertius: X. Book. Epicurus. Edited by Klaus Reich and Hans Günter Zekl , translated by Otto Apelt . Meiner, Hamburg 1968 (Greek text and German translation)
  • Epicurus: ways to happiness. Edited and translated by Rainer Nickel . Artemis & Winkler, Düsseldorf / Zurich 2005, ISBN 3-7608-4115-5
  • Epicurus: letters, sayings, work fragments. Translated and edited by Hans-Wolfgang Krautz . Reclam, Stuttgart 1980, ISBN 3-15-009984-6 (Greek text, German translation, notes and afterword)
  • Epicurus: philosophy of joy. A selection from his writings. Translated, explained and introduced by Johannes Mewaldt. Kröner, Stuttgart 1973, ISBN 3-520-19805-3
  • Epicurus: About Overcoming Fear. Trilingual edition: Greek / Latin / German. A selection from his writings, fragments and doxographic reports. 2nd, revised edition, Aschendorff, Münster 2004, ISBN 3-402-02262-1
  • Epicurus: Letter to Menoikeus. In Ders .: On overcoming fear. Catechism, lesson letters, collection of sayings, fragments. Translated and provided with an introduction and explanations by Olof Gigon . Patmos Verlagsgruppe / Artemis & Winkler Verlag, Munich 1991, ISBN 3-760-83555-4


Overview and overall representations in manuals

Introductions and investigations

Popular science presentations

  • Séverine Gindro, David Vitali (ed.): Epicurus - About happiness. Diogenes 2011, ISBN 978-3-257-24162-4 .
  • Florian Russi : Epicurus - the philosopher of joy. Philosophy on the go, Volume 1 . Mitteldeutscher Verlag, Halle (Saale) 2018. ISBN 978-3-95462-873-5 .
  • Heinrich Schmidt : Epicurus philosophy of joie de vivre. Leipzig 1927 (= Kröner Taschenbuch. Volume 11).
  • Josef M. Werle: Epicurus for contemporaries. A reader on the philosophy of happiness. Goldmann, Munich 2002, ISBN 3-442-07741-9 .


  • Gero Guttzeit: Epicurus. In: Peter von Möllendorff , Annette Simonis, Linda Simonis (ed.): Historical figures of antiquity. Reception in literature, art and music (= Der Neue Pauly . Supplements. Volume 8). Metzler, Stuttgart / Weimar 2013, ISBN 978-3-476-02468-8 , Sp. 413-424.
  • Kilian Josef Fleischer: Dionysius of Alexandria, De natura (περὶ φύσεως). Translation, commentary and appreciation. With an introduction to the history of Epicureanism in Alexandria , Brepols, Turnhout 2016, ISBN 978-2-503-56638-2 .
  • Howard Jones: The Epicurean Tradition. Routledge, London / New York 1992, ISBN 0-415-07554-8 (covers the reception of Epicurus up to the end of the 17th century).
  • Howard Jones: Epicurus and Epicureanism. In: Anthony Grafton et al. a. (Ed.): The Classical Tradition. Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Massachusetts) / London 2010, ISBN 978-0-674-03572-0 , pp. 320-324 (overview of the reception of Epicurus up to the present).
  • Dorothee Kimmich : Epicurean Enlightenments. Philosophical and poetic concepts of self-care. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1993, ISBN 3-534-12175-9 (detailed description of the reception up to the 20th century).
  • Hans Joachim Krämer : Epicurus and the hedonistic tradition. In: Gymnasium . Volume 87, 1980, pp. 294-326 (deals with the reception of Epicurus up to the 20th century).
  • Gianni Paganini, Edoardo Tortarolo (ed.): The garden and the modern. Epicurean Morals and Politics from Humanism to the Enlightenment. Frommann-Holzboog, Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt 2004, ISBN 3-7728-2261-4 .

Web links

Commons : Epicurus  - collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. For the dating of the birth see Erler (1994) p. 64f. According to the Chronicle of Apollodorus , the year of birth was the third year of the 109th Olympiad, under the Archon Sosigenes; Diogenes Laertios 10.14.
  2. Diogenes Laertios X 2; Holger Sonnabend: Epicurus. In: Kai Brodersen (Ed.): Large figures of Greek antiquity , Munich 1999, p. 408.
  3. ^ Fritz Juerß, Reimar Müller, Ernst Günther Schmidt: Greek atomists. Texts and commentaries on the materialistic thinking of antiquity , Verlag Philipp Reclam jun., Leipzig 1973, p. 61.
  4. According to the Chronicle of Apollodorus, the year of death was the second year of the 127th Olympiad, under the Archon Pytharatos; Diogenes Laertios 10.15.
  5. ( Text in German translation ( Memento from January 11, 2007 in the Internet Archive ))
  6. Stefan Schorn: Epicurus. In: Der Neue Pauly online (accessed on March 18, 2020).
  7. Erler (1996) p. 42.
  8. cf. Hossenfelder, p. 27.
  9. Erler (1996) p. 42.
  10. Erler (1996) p. 50.
  11. Erler explains: "Even if one sees a lack of clarity in this, it is outweighed by the contribution that the mere existence of explanatory possibilities makes for the peace of mind of the human being." (Erler [1996] p. 47).
  12. ^ Letter to Menoikeus, quoted in n. Olof Gigon 1991, p. 200
  13. Bartling 1994, p. 77, and following him Euringer 2003, p. 54, have emphasized that the Greek term “hedone” in the sense of Epicurus cannot be translated uniformly into German with “lust”, but that (analogous to the distinction between catastematic and kinetic pleasure in Epicurus, see below: "The Epicurean pleasure principle") also "joie de vivre" and corresponding equivalents are necessary depending on the context.
  14. Cicero, De finibus, quoted in n. Nickel 2005, p. 40
  15. Krautz 1980, cit. according to Euringer p. 70
  16. cf. Euringer p. 64f .; Nickel 2005, pp. 149/173; different: Hossenfelder, p. 68ff.
  17. ^ Heinrich Dörrie : Reflections on the nature of ancient piety , in: Pietas. Festschrift for B. Kötting , Münster 1980, p. 13.
  18. quoted after Nickel 2005, p. 117
  19. cit. n. Hossenfelder p. 95
  20. cf. Hossenfelder, p. 95; Werle, p. 325; Euringer, p. 63f.
  21. cit. n. Hossenfelder, p. 29
  22. 29. Hauptlehrsatz, quoted in n. Nickel 2005, p. 129
  23. ^ Letter to Menoikeus, quoted from Nickel 2005, p. 119 f.
  24. Bartling, p. 29; Euringer, p. 54; Werle, p. 299
  25. Instead of "Tetrapharmakos" (female), as Bartling, p. 29, reasonably derives, the grammatically less irritating form "Tetrapharmakon" is used here.
  26. 11th main tenet, quoted after. Nickel 2005, p. 126f.
  27. Gnomologium Vaticanum No. 9, cit. n. Nickel 2005, p. 135; for interpretation cf. Werle, p. 325; Nickel 2005, pp. 171f .; Rudolf Schottlaender, Epicurean in Seneca, takes a different view. A struggle for the meaning of joy and friendship (1955). In: Gregor Maurach (ed.), Seneca as a philosopher. Darmstadt, 2nd ed. 1987, pp. 181f.
  28. 31st main tenet, quoted after. Nickel 2005, p. 129
  29. quoted after Nickel 2005, p. 131
  30. Plut. mor. 1128ff.
  31. 14th main tenet, quoted in n. Nickel 2005, p. 126
  32. 27th main tenet, quoted in n. Nickel 2005, p. 129
  33. The traditional fragments 41 (Diog. Laert. 10.119) and 127 (Clem. Alex. Strom. 2, 138, 3/4) clearly show this setting. Nickel 2005, p. 186, comments: "The renunciation of marriage and children has its reason in the refusal to care for wife and children in a manner that is hostile to pleasure."
  34. Gnomologium Vaticanum, No. 58, cited above. n. Nickel 2005, p. 141
  35. De finibus bonorum et malorum I, 62; quoted after Werle, p. 86
  36. Gnomologium Vaticanum 31, cit. n. Nickel 2005, p. 137: "You can create security against everything, but in the face of death we humans all inhabit a city without protective walls."
  37. Maximilian Forschner, On Human Happiness, Darmstadt 1993, p. 40
  38. Bartling, p. 8, with approving reference back to Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a way of life. Spiritual exercises in antiquity, 2nd edition Berlin 1987, p. 107
  39. Maximilian Forschner, Über das Glück des Menschen, Darmstadt 1993, p. 41
  40. Bartling, p. 60 f. and pp. 73-76
  41. Quotation from Nickel 2005, p. 122.
  42. ^ Dietrich Lemke: The Theology of Epicurus. Attempt at a reconstruction. Munich 1973, pp. 78-85.
  43. For the details of Epicurus theology see Dietrich Lemke: Die Theologie Epikurs. Attempt at a reconstruction , Munich 1973; Jaap Mansfeld: Aspects of Epicurean Theology , in Mnemosyne 46, 1993, pp. 172-210; Marianne Wifstrand Schiebe: Are the Epicurean gods 'thought constructs'? , in: Mnemosyne 56, 2003, pp. 703-727; Daniel Babut : Sur les dieux d'Epicure , in: Elenchos 26, 2005, pp. 79–110.
  44. Lemke pp. 82-85; Erler (1994) p. 152.
  45. Reinhold F. Glei : Et invidus et inbecillus. The alleged Epicurus fragment in Laktanz, De ira dei 13: 20-21 , in: Vigiliae Christianae 42 (1988), pp. 47-58; Arthur Stanley Pease (Ed.): M. Tulli Ciceronis De natura deorum. Libri secundus et tertius , Cambridge (Mass.) 1958, p. 1232 f.
  46. Erler (1994) p. 206 f.
  47. “Do everything as if Epicurus saw it” (Seneca, Epistulae morales 25,5).
  48. Numenios, fragment 24; Seneca expressed himself similarly, Epistulae morales 33.4.
  49. Erler (1994) pp. 210-212.
  50. Cicero, Tusculanae disputationes 4,3,7: Italiam totam occupaverunt ; see. De finibus 1, 7, 25.
  51. Lucretius, De rerum natura 4,18-20.
  52. Erler (1994) pp. 370-372.
  53. Horace, Epistulae 1,4,16.
  54. Augustine, Epistulae 118.12.
  55. Julian, Letters 48, ed. Bertold K. Weis, Munich 1973, p. 148.
  56. On the complex Epicureanism in Alexandria see Kilian J. Fleischer: Dionysios von Alexandria, De natura (περὶ φύσεως). Translation, commentary and appreciation. With an introduction to the history of Epicureanism in Alexandria , Brepols, Turnhout 2016.
  57. Inferno 10: 13-15.
  58. ^ Convivio 4:22.
  59. ^ Howard Jones: The Epicurean Tradition , London 1989, p. 143.
  60. Jones (1989) pp. 163-165.
  61. On this Epicurus reception see Winfried Schröder: Naturphilosophische Speculation in the service of a practical objective. Neo-Epicureanism in the Enlightenment . In: Gianni Paganini, Edoardo Tortarolo (ed.): The garden and the modern. Epicurean morality and politics from humanism to the Enlightenment , Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt 2004, pp. 343–359.
  62. ^ Dorothee Kimmich: Epicurean Enlightenment. Darmstadt 1993, p. 228 f.
  63. ^ The Epicurus-related passages from Jefferson's letter online .
  64. ^ In: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels: Gesamtausgabe , Vol. 2, Dietz, Berlin / GDR 1975, pp. 879–962.
  65. ^ Die deutsche Ideologie, in: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels: Werke , Vol. 3, Dietz, Berlin / DDR 1969, p. 125.
  66. ^ Dorothee Kimmich: Epicurean Enlightenment. Darmstadt 1993, pp. 237-240.
  67. See Hans Joachim Krämer: Epicurus and the hedonistic tradition. In: Gymnasium 87, 1980, pp. 294–326, here: 323 f.
  68. ^ Diogenes Laertios: Lives and Opinions of Famous Philosophers , Volume 2 , Translator: Otto Apelt , Felix Meiner-Verlag, Leipzig 1921, pp. 200–201