Notebook, 1993-


Ancient Greek Philosophy

The founder of the Epicurean school of philosophy was born in Samos in 341 B.C. of Athenian parents, Neocles and Chaerestrate who held an allotment of land in that island. His first learning was acquired from his father who was a schoolmaster. As a very young man he attended lectures by the Platonist philosopher Pamphilus and at the age of 14 years he moved to the neighbouring town of Teos where he studied under Nausiphanes who taught the precepts of Democritus. His exposure to the precepts of Democritus decisively influenced his thought. In 323 B.C. he was in Athens to undertake his military service. After his release from the army he visited various cities including Colophon, Lampsacus, and Mitylene. He completed his education on his own, then began to teach. Round about 310 B.C., Epicurus established a school in Mitylene and subsequently in Lampsacus. Finally, he came to Athens where he bought a small plot of land, a garden, where he taught. His school was known as the 'Gardens' and his followers 'those of the Garden'. His disciples lived in a commune, among women and slaves, practicing their ideal of friendship and freedom from care. He wrote a large number of treatises, some 300, of which only a poor remnant has survived. Among his most important works were 'On Judgment', or 'Rule', 'On Nature', 'On the Lives', 'On the End', and so on.

The foundation head of knowledge in the philosophy of Epicurus was perception or sensation. The senses receive passively the images which are reflected from objects, and thus one receives knowledge of the objects. But because sense is a passive function and receives the images of objects in exactly the form in which they are, without alteration, the organs of sense are completely reliable and portray the external objects as they are in reality. Epicurus is thus the forerunner of dialectical materialism. Deception does not have its principle in the senses, but is created when the senses correlate the various object between them, therefore it has its first principle in judgment, that is, in the intellect. And when it seems our senses are deceiving us, that is, we perceive a tree from afar and it looks small, whereas in fact it is large, not even then have our senses deceived us, for it is the situation or the conditions that distort the image in such a way that we see it distorted.

Important for the better understanding of the philosophy is his belief that the study of [p. 176] natural phenomena is necessary only to free our souls from the absurd fears arising from our ignorance of such phenomena, and terror caused by mythical interpretations of these. His preoccupation with meteorology had the same motivation: he did not deal with it because of its theoretical attraction, but to explain logically and reasonably the phenomena of its theoretical attraction, but to explain logically and reasonably the phenomena of meteorology and to destroy the myths that were built up round them. Thus admiration and astonishment aroused by these phenomena cease to be the beginning point of speculation as it was in the classical and pre-classical period, and the motivation of fear or concern, or rather, an effort to redeem oneself from this fear and concern. In other words, the motivating force behind the philosophy of Epicurus is not the theoretical but the practical.

Epicurus maintains that the universe was composed of atoms and the void, thus adopting the universe of Democritus. The world is neither born, 'beginning in being', nor corrupted, since nothing can come of nought. And the soul of man is also of matter. It is scattered throughout the entire body of man, which is also composed of atoms. Gods exist, but they do not concern themselves with the world.

In ethics, the principle precepts are those of happiness and pleasure. The latter, however, not in the sense of insatiable physical pleasure, but redemption from physical pain and spiritual disturbance. Epicurus is a hedonist on empirical grounds. Pleasure is the good sought by men. Here there is a correlation with his atomically based theory of sensation. Just as sensation is the criterion of youth, so the movements or experiences of pleasure and pain serve as criteria of good and evil since pleasure is what is natural, and so good, while pain is alien to nature, and so evil. Epicurus insists on the primacy of physical pleasures, particularly those of the stomach. He also accepts the corollary that pleasure, being physical, must be measured by quantity and not quality. But by subjecting the process to an even closer analysis, Epicurus detects another, purer type of pleasure, the static pleasure of equilibrium, the absence of pain from the body, and the absence of disturbance from the soul. Epicurus strongly maintained the experimental reality of past and future, a position that magnifies mental pleasures [and pains], and shifted the focus of emphasis from the 'pleasant moment' to the 'happy life'. Thus it is the activity of the mind that holds the key, that is, memory and imagination, to pleasure over the long run, the happy life, and that controls and tempers Epicurean hedonism.

Hedonism is pursued not so much for the pleasure it offers, as for the more permanent state of happiness it brings about. Thus virtue is not sought for virtue's sake but for the peace of mind and spiritual peace. For this reason of all virtues the most desirable is prudence. The aim of life is not momentary hedonism, but that which comes to man when he is released as far as is possible from physical pain and mental disturbance. Philosophy is the tool by which man can overcome physical pain, ally the troubles in his soul, and find pleasure.

To insure mental peace, man must abstain from political activity. Epicurus advises one to live without becoming known. Moreover, a man to Epicurus is not a 'political animal', as Aristotle maintained, but a simple particle; similar to the atoms of Democritus.

Whatever the philosophers of the classical age sought to bring about within the framework of the city-state, the Epicureans sought within the limits of their own philosophical commune. For this reason, friendship was of utmost importance in their [p. 177] lives. While the dialogue had died out in public life, it was cultivated even more intensively in private life within the framework of friendship. [pp. 176-178]

[Kyriazis, Constantine D. Eternal Greece. Translated by Harry T. Hionides. A Chat Publication.]



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