Of the billions of people who have lived, perhaps one million have written books or left behind some record of their teachings or beliefs. Of those one million fortunate enough to be remembered by name, probably no one person alive knows more than a few hundred or few thousand of these writings. Scholars make it their business to know a lot. But most of humanity settles for a relatively few of these contributors to our civilizations. The farther back we go the fewer will be remembered or end up in course notes, text books, or referred to in popular literature. There are many good reasons why this is so. We prefer to dwell on the issues of our generation, not the issues of those who lived 2300 years ago. We feel the more modern writers have more to say because they have been exposed to so many more findings and interpretations of the universe, life, and the things that matter. I am sure many people live relatively happy lives without ever having heard of Epicurus.
I was exposed to his ideas when learning about Western Civilization from my blind high school teacher, Morris Cohen. I liked what I heard and I looked at a book I had at home, Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things. It described the ideas of Epicurus. It gave me a picture of how the ancient world saw the universe. I learned more about the philosophy of Epicurus from a book I bought recommended by Mr. Cohen. It was Walter Pater’s novel, Marius the Epicurean. Epicurus (341-270 BCE) was a Greek philosopher who never married and who earned his living by teaching. He taught from the garden of his home and his academy was called “the Garden.” He was the first philosopher to accept both female and male students. He believed the universe was not fully determinate as Democritus had taught, but was largely indeterminate because it was more complex than Democritus believed. Instead of atoms moving like billiard balls in straight lines, he believed atoms occasionally swerved and this created indeterminacy and free will. He rejected taking anything on faith and claimed we should only accept as real what we see, what we can deduce logically, and what we can experience by hands-on activity. He said happiness comes from avoiding pain and fear. He believed that death extinguishes both a body and its soul. He claimed gods do not punish or reward humans. Our object in life should be avoiding power, sexual excess, and glory. Instead we should live in moderation, savoring the simple pleasures of life, especially the companionship of others, the satisfaction of the good things the world offers us, and avoiding harm to others or to ourselves.
Over time Epicureanism got a bad reputation and it was misinterpreted as a selfish pursuit of pleasure involving over-indulgence in food, sex, drugs, or bad company. Others saw it as a shallow philosophy of life in which seeking pleasure deflected us from piety, patriotism, or other civic virtues. I consider myself an Epicurean in my philosophy. I don’t think I could live as fully committed as Epicurus did. The world does matter to me. I may have shunned much of the pursuit of pleasure but I have abided to most of Epicurus’s outlook. I reject the supernatural. I accept the finality of death. I find life worth living. I try hard not to harm anyone. I do not abuse my body with such habits as tobacco usage, alcoholism, or overconsumption of chemicals in my foods and drinks that are known carcinogens or mutagens. My own life is more than Epicurean. Like Walt Whitman, “I contain multitudes.” The voices of the past are well represented in my being.