Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Epicurus (341-270BC)

Wrote this textbox tonight:
For Epicurus, good and bad correlated directly to pleasure and pain, with pleasure being the highest good.  However, Epicurus was quite clear that pleasure was not simply a matter of sensual indulgence (e.g., sex, gluttony), and temporary pain can lead to much greater long term pleasure.  Pleasure for him was mostly about a peace that comes from the absence of pain and suffering.

Epicurus built on the atomist philosophy of Democritus (see chap.7), meaning that he believed everything broke down into small particles and that we simply disintegrated at death.  He thus taught that death was nothing to be feared.  Death is the end, and the gods do not reward or punish you after death.  Although he believed in the gods, he did not believe they were interested in humanity and thus were not to be feared.  We saw his famous formulation of the problem of evil in chapter 6.

Epicurus is known for a number of other key teachings.  One of the main ones was the so called “ethic of reciprocity,” a form of the Golden Rule.  Do no harm to others, and they will do no harm to you.  He was an egalitarian, and admitted women and slaves to his school as equal members, not as exceptions.

He questioned whether a person could be truly happy in the troubles of society, so he advocated removing oneself from political life (he was thus quite the opposite of Aristotle, who taught that humanity was a “political animal”).  His followers met in his garden and were thus known as the garden philosophers.

At the time of the New Testament, Epicureanism and Stoicism were the two strongest philosophical schools, and both emphasized ethics and how to have a good life.  Many are familiar with the famous quote of Horace, who was an Epicurean: “Carpe diem” (Seize the day).  Interestingly, Paul’s quote in 1 Corinthians 15:32 is not an Epicurean quote: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”  Paul is actually quoting Isaiah 22:13.  Some Old Testament scholars wonder if the book of Ecclesiastes was influenced by Epicurean thought, although this would require a rather late date for the book.

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