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Epicureanism is a system of philosophy based upon the teachings of Epicurus
(c340-c270 BC). Epicurus was an atomic materialist, following in the steps
of Democritus. His materialism led him to a general attack on superstition
and divine intervention. Following Aristippus—about whom we know very
little—Epicurus believed that the greatest good was to seek pleasure.
This doctrine is also known as hedonism.
For Epicurus, pleasure was obtained by knowledge (freedom from fear),
friendship, and living a virtuous and temperate life. Epicurus did not
articulate a broad system of social ethics that has survived.
Epicurean materialism is presented very simply, but anticipates a great deal
of later scientific discovery in important respects. Dalton's atomic theory
and Darwin's theory of evolution can both be seen in Epicurean writings.
Some writings by Epicurus have survived. In addition, many scholars consider
the epic poem On the Nature of Things by Lucretius to present in one unified
work the core arguments and theories in Epicurus's writings.
Epicureanism emphasizes the neutrality of gods on earth and that they do not
interfere with the world we live in. It also states that gods, matter and
souls are all made from the same thing (atoms). Souls are made from atoms,
and gods possess souls, but their souls adhere to the bodies without
escaping. In the case of humans we do have the same kind of souls, but the
forces between our atoms do not possess the fortitude to hold the soul forever.
Epicureanism is probably the first philosophical school which introduced the
social contract, in that the laws established by this school of thought are
based on mutual agreement, not divine decree.
Epicurus' school, called "The Garden," seems to have been a moderately
ascetic community which rejected the political limelight of Athenian
philosophy. They were fairly cosmopolitan by Athenian standards, including
women and slaves, and were probably vegetarians.
Epicureanism was the main opponent of Stoicism. Epicurus and his followers
shunned politics and as such it was never a major philosophy. After the
death of Epicurus, its main proponent was the Roman Lucretius. It had all
but died out by the end of the Roman Empire, and was again resurrected by
the atomist Pierre Gassendi during the Enlightenment.