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Epicurus (341-270 BCE)

"If there are gods there is some hope of appeasing them with a little worship; if not, we are ruled by something that no one can appease."

Epicurus was Thomas Jefferson's favorite philosopher. It was Jefferson who gave us "the pursuit of happiness." Instead, Stoics favored serving "God's plan" -- as in Allah wills it – and derided the Epicureans.

Epicurus held the senses to be the first criterion of truth. He believed in verification by a closer look, as in verifying whether an approaching person is really that person. It was a view that would be accomodated centuries later with the invention of the microscope and telescope, which produced big changes in humanity's view of reality.

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Epicurus was originally Athenian. As a common soldier he accompanied Alexander the Great as far east as India. He was a part of the turmoil in philosophy and political unrest that followed Alexander's death in 323 BCE – the Cynics, Skeptics and Stoics.

Epicurus favored withdrawal from the corruptions of society but not a withdrawal like some others in to a desert of holiness through self-denial and penury. Epicureans believed in community. They were political insofar as they saw that it was in the best interest of society for people to carry out agreements that promote fellowship. This implied a contractual form of government. His approach to politics suited those who wished to continue living comfortably under authoritarian rulers. They advocated civic tranquility and a search for peace of mind. They advocated living unnoticed, abstaining from public life and from making enemies.

He named his school of philosophy after the place that served his school's meeting place: his Garden.

Epicurus addressed the ultimate question about life by claiming that life was worth living. He saw life as possibly joyous – if one had an adequate sensitivity to the world of beauty and good friendships, good health and freedom from drudgery. He believed in the pleasures of contemplation, physical beauty and attachments to others.

Epicurus believed that the driving force of life is the avoidance of pain. He believed that the essence of virtue is avoiding inflicting pain upon others. He believed that the avoidance of pain for oneself and others should take precedence over the pursuit of pleasure. He advocated self-control to avoid painful consequences. Pleasure, he said, should be adjusted to the equilibrium in one's body and mind. Excessive devotion to the gratification of appetites, he said, produces misery rather than happiness and therefore should be avoided.

He differed from Plato in that Plato believed that virtue is incompatible with pleasure. Epicurus was compatible with modern psychology in his view that seeking pleasure is rational. He believed that seeking pleasure can be accompanied by virtue if one learns to make choices that fit with well-being.

Epicurus was influenced by the materialism of Democritus. He believed that humanity created its destiny without interference from capricious gods. He escaped from the unpopularity of atheism by speaking of gods as if they were nature rather than nature's creators. Do not fear death, he said, for death is but eternal sleep and the dead feel no pain or torment.

His followers championed the empirical approach to acquiring truth – a process of confirmation and disconfirmation. For example, when a person from afar comes closer and closer, you confirm or reject that it is the person you expected it to be. It was an idea compatible with humanity getting closer to reality with the microscope and telescope.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.