The Pink Triangle Trust

Introducing the Humanist Tradition

Leaflet number 2: The Garden of Epicurus

Then as Now

Three hundred years before there were any Christians, the philosopher Epicurus founded (306 BCE) a school, or rather college, in a small house and a garden in Athens. ‘The Garden’, as it is called, also published books.

His philosophy taught of an infinite universe of moving particles – the one on which modern science is ultimately based. He taught that the universe evolved naturally – no gods created it, nor do they intervene in it. Life cannot exist after death so there can be no heaven and no hell.

The aim of life is to avoid pain and experience pleasure, so the purpose of this life – the only one we have – must be to make it as happy as possible. And happiness is open to all. It depends upon simple needs easily satisfied, prudence in all things, friendship, kindness, a pain-free body and tranquillity of mind. In all, a philosophy for ancient and modern times.

His outlook spread throughout the Roman world, but after many centuries of influence it was eventually smothered by the dominance of Christianity. There is now renewed interest in it.

Today, as Humanists, we are still working in ‘The Garden’ of Epicurus!

The Teachings of Epicurus

Today there is widespread confusion about moral values. Moral philosophy is not taught systematically in schools or colleges. Some people even say that you cannot have morality without religion.

To end the confusion there is no better place to start than with a knowledge of the teachings of ‘The Garden’ of Epicurus. These include:-

The Study of Science
Foretelling the Future

Historical Evidence

Epicurus 341-270 BCE. Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus) circa 99 – circa 55 BCE.

None of Epicurus’ major works survives in its entirety, but of his many abbreviations and summaries, three survive because they are quoted in Lives and Sayings of Eminent Philosophers, by Diogenes Laertius, an otherwise unknown third-century-AD compiler.

One, the Letter to Menoeceus, gives the basic outline of the Epicurean approach to personal happiness. The Letter to Herodotus gives the basic outline of the Epicurean materialist philosophy of nature, and the Letter to Pythocles concerns natural phenomena in the sky (which many thought to be caused by the gods).

The so-called “Principal Doctrines”, a group of forty short remarks, were collected so that the basic principles could be easily memorised.

There is also a collection of sayings, the so-called “Vatican Sayings” as well as fragments from Epicurus’ works and small portions by other writers, some from charred books found in Herculaneum, the Roman city engulfed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

The most useful evidence is contained in a poem in Latin by Lucretius. His one great poem, On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura), expounds the philosophy of Epicurus.

There are also remains of an inscription, estimated to have totalled 25,000 words originally, from a colonnade built in Oenoanda in Asia Minor about 200 AD.

Books giving more information

The Epicurean Philosophers
edited by John Gaskin (310 pages),
‘The Everyman Library’, J. M. Dent,
Orion Publishing Group, ISBN 0-460-87607-4

The Epicurean Tradition
by Howard Jones (276 pages),
Routledge, ISBN 0-415-07554-8

The Epicurus Reader
translated and edited by Brad Inwood and L. P. Gerson (111 pages),
Hackett Publishing Company, Inc
ISBN 0-87220-241-0

The Essential Epicurus
translated, and with an introduction,
by Eugene O’Connor (101 pages),
Prometheus Books, ISBN 0-87975-810-4

Epicurus’ Ethical Theory
by Phillip Mitsis (184 pages),
Cornell University Press, ISBN 0-8014-2187-X
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Created : Sunday, 1998-01-18 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :