When religion – that which binds us back to the source of our being – is degraded into empty ritualism and sullen superstition through the erosion of time, a strong reaction sets in. The cosmic hierarchies of intelligent powers which constitute and control the world were recognized in all their complexity by the ancient Greeks. By the time of Homer, however, the levels of being and planes of perception represented by the gods, goddesses, demigods and legions of elemental creatures were obscured in human consciousness by an anthropomorphic genealogy congenial to civic patriotism and ceremonial. While Homer initiated what became an informal canon of personal conduct, the deeper meaning of the celestial host increasingly receded from public view. The metaphysical requirement most firmly rooted in human consciousness, to discover and realize the essential unity of all things, was sought after in new places. Declaring that water is the root-principle of existence, Thales of Miletus also taught that all things are full of gods. His doctrine of the fluidity of Nature and of the intelligence operating in and through it was rapidly concretized, but Anaximander rescued the essential idea by postulating a basic substance from which all things come and to which they inevitably return. To prevent any literal interpretation of his doctrine, he denied that any characteristics can be properly ascribed to this precosmic substance, calling it apeiron, unlimited and undefined. No quantitative measure of it is possible, and no qualitative uniqueness can be found for it since all qualities come from it.
Pythagoras perceived the latent flaw in this approach to Nature and the universe, the nascent tendency towards a materialism that would sunder physics from ethics, existence from action and fail to comprehend the inherent unity of all manifestation. The real principle of things, Pythagoras taught, is that which alike describes physical nature and motion, which can account for growth and change in the natural world and prescribe modes of conduct in the social context. This single principle is manifest in its diversifying capacity as number, sound and colour and in its unifying power as ratio. Any authentic effort to understand the cosmos is inseparable from living a life which conforms to universal principles. Observation and study must be supplemented by intuitive contemplation and practical application. Learning the Pythagorean method required a commitment which few found themselves ready to make, and other philosophical approaches gained support. Xenophanes ridiculed the popular conception of the gods and pointed out that empirical observation suggests mundane causes behind natural activity. Empedocles formulated a theory of evolution out of the bipolar tension of two primary opposites, love and strife. Heraclitus attempted to bridge the apparent gap between metaphysical and materialistic explanations through a doctrine of the transcendent and immanent Logos, but his epigrammatic mode of expansion led to misinterpretation and expropriation on behalf of divergent and less subtle standpoints.
The increasing inadequacy of mythological symbolism in satisfying the requirements of the prevailing canons of rationality resulted in a dialectical tension between the metaphysical and empirical strands of thought. The expansion of the polis through the establishment of colonial cities in Asia Minor and the Western Mediterranean exposed Greek thought to a wide variety of cultures. The symbiosis of Greek philosophical thought and the transformation of political consciousness resulted in a volatile social milieu. Honouring the Socratic example of intense self-questioning, Plato pointed to a philosophical synthesis that could draw diverse strands together into a dedicated pursuit of individual enlightenment and collective growth. He resuscitated the Pythagorean tradition by launching the Academy where learning and living were fused into a single continuous activity. He showed how individual virtues which had once sustained the relatively isolated polis could still be seen as relevant to the new polities. He gave hints regarding the sacredness of the Mysteries. He summoned myth and metaphor to suggest the creative use of reason and imagination. He envisioned the society in which immortal souls could achieve maximum fulfilment. He placed at the centre of manifest existence the ideal towards which all human endeavour should be aimed, thus mirroring in time the transcendental goal of the Mysteries.
Even as Socrates began to challenge popular concepts of Homeric heroes and social ethics, Leucippus of Miletus and his disciple, Democritus of Abdera, attempted a wholly materialistic account of Nature. Starting from the insight that matter is eternal, Leucippus and Democritus determined that three factors were necessary to account for ceaselessly changing form. First of all, since change necessitates motion of some sort, there must be an immaterial existence coeval with matter, providing space for alteration of position. Secondly, matter must be composed of indestructible parts, atoms, which can change places without undergoing internal modification of any kind. Thirdly, atomic motion is coeval with the atoms and the void. All atoms are substantially the same, varying only in shape, size, mass (as a simple function of size) and actual motion (the result of collisions with other atoms). From their combinations through time the entire sensible cosmos came into existence. Our world-system arose when a portion of the infinitude of atoms collided in a manner that created a vast rotating vortex in which the more massive atoms tended to settle towards the centre. Thus was the earth formed first, then everything around it. Since no limit can be placed on the number of atoms, no limit can be set upon the number of possible world-systems. Knowledge and sensation are the result of atomic effluences given off by objects and impinging on the atomic concatenations of the sense-organs, then transmitted to the mind, itself a collectivity of atoms. Since knowing must rely on perceiving, the nature of atoms and the void may be known, but all else must be taken with a generous amount of scepticism. From this standpoint the formation of Nature is by chance, the fortuitous product of the collisions of atoms. If there are any clues to the number of possible combinations of collisions, or random patterns of interaction, they are largely undiscoverable by man. The physics that can be derived from simple atomism is restricted, and ethical corollaries are negligible, save, perhaps, for the suggestion that death is the dissolution of a transitory atomic structure and therefore not to be feared as some form of wearisome post-mortem existence.
Epicurus was born in the month of Gamelion (January) in 341 B.C. on the Island of Samos. Neocles, his father, had gone there as an Athenian colonist, and Epicurus was consequently an Athenian citizen belonging to the deme of Gargettus. Tradition holds that his father was a schoolmaster, for whom he once prepared ink, and his mother, Chaerestrata, was given to superstitious magic and often compelled him to join her in reciting incantations. According to his own testimony, he began to study philosophy at the age of fourteen. The freedom of the colony and the fluidity of the political climate kept him away from the Academy, the Lyceum and any sustained formal disciplines in his studies. About the time he officially enrolled as a citizen in Athens in 323 B.C., the death of Alexander the Great, the subsequent Lamian war and the expulsion of the Athenian colonists from Samos by Perdiccas drove his family to Colophon. Apparently Epicurus wandered about Asia Minor for a decade, examining various philosophical teachings and nurturing a profound distaste for every rite and custom that required blind adherence. In 310 B.C. he emerged at Mirylene as a philosopher whose deprecation of his colleagues was surpassed only by his dislike of superstition. His harsh assessment of the philosophical field was not the result of encounters with the leading representatives of the major traditions but rather derived from a varied assortment of teachers and preachers who stayed clear of the main centres of philosophical learning. Having found few who could challenge and none to satisfy his enquiring mind, Epicurus concerned himself with developing an original and comprehensive philosophy.
"There is nothing new under the sun", Ecclesiastes declared. The elements of Epicurean thought can be traced to older philosophers, but Epicurus rethought everything afresh and boldly declared that he owed no intellectual debt to anyone. While teaching at Mitylene, Epicurus won over Hermarchus to his view and this devoted disciple eventually became his successor. Travelling to Lampsacus on the Hellespont, Epicurus found enduring relationships with leading townsmen, who proved to be able students. Idomeneus and Leonteus, Metrodorus and Polynaeus corresponded with him throughout their lives. Having gathered a number of followers around himself while gaining fame as a teacher in Asia Minor, he moved with them to Athens about 306 BC. In the quarter called Melite he purchased a house and garden for eighty minae and established his school, known simply as the Garden. Except for a few brief visits to Asia Minor, he lived in the Garden for the remainder of his life. Students and admirers gathered around him, including his three brothers, who excelled in loyalty and devotion. His circle of disciples had no common denominator besides respect for Epicurus, for its members came from every social class and background. Women were welcome, as were slaves. Though he lived a quiet and withdrawn life, shunning politics and civic affairs on principle, the chief thinkers of the day discoursed with him or wrote critical essays on his teachings. His voluminous writings were surpassed in number only by Chrysippus alone in ancient times. His works were aimed at popularizing his teachings in forms accessible to all those concerned to bring order into their lives. Instead of using the pure Attic dialect, already too remote for any but the most educated, he wrote in a Greek style which eventually emerged as Koine, the language of the New Testament.
The last years of his life were truly sad by ordinary standards. His poor physical condition became very painful. Seven years before his death, his favourite disciple, Metrodorus, died, followed soon by the keen-witted Polynaeus. Epicurus took responsibility for their children and provided for them in his will. Near the end of his own life Epicurus wrote to Idomeneus, "Pains and tortures of the body I have to the full, but there is set over against these the joy of my heart at the memory of our happy conversations in the past." He died in 270 B.C., having won the affection of followers across half the Greek-speaking world. So profound was the impact of his personality and the popularity of his teachings that his school flourished longer than its rivals, and its leaders could boast that while many had been converted to the teachings of Epicurus, not one Epicurean had defected to another school. The Stoa arose in part to combat the influence of the Garden, especially the unphilosophical excesses associated with popular Epicureanism, but even the most severe critics of Epicurus – Cicero, Seneca and Plutarch – concur in extolling his noble character, marked by sympathy, generosity and gentle reason.
Like the Atomists before him, Epicurus based his physics upon the strict adherence of reason to the experience of observation, avoiding untestable speculation on the one hand and wholesale scepticism on the other. Any conception of matter as utterly without spirit or life is unimaginable on this basis, for it appears that the complexity of atomic structure and the particular kinds of atoms involved are epiphenomenally revealed in observable forms of life. The human soul or life-principle pervades the whole human body and consists of the smallest, smoothest round atoms. Similarly, the gods, being composite, are not eternal, but they are more perfect and almost everlasting in comparison to other beings because they are composed of the finest atoms. While Leucippus had asserted that composite bodies are formed through the collisions of atoms, Epicurus accepted the more popular notion that atoms existed in a ceaseless free fall through the infinite void. Since size and shape do not affect the rate of fall of atoms, some principle is required to account for their initial interaction, even if one were willing to attribute all subsequent encounters to derivative ricochets. In fact, the concern to use only universal explanatory principles requires that whatever process originally brings atoms together must continue to operate for the duration of the universe and all the world-systems which come and go within it. Since Epicurus insisted upon an account of Nature that provided a full explanation of human phenomena, the motion of atoms could not be wholly mechanistic, for that would deny the observable fact of free-will in human conduct. To meet the moral and material requirements of a universal theory, Epicurus held that economy and completeness necessitate the postulation of an affinity between atoms which manifests as an unpredictable swerve in their otherwise linear fall. This initiates original interactions, allowing the world-system to form, change and dissolve, and precludes the assumption of an unjustified (because unprovable) mechanistic conception of man and nature. The impulse to change is unknowable, though the principles of change can be set forth.
Without the atomic swerve, the philosophical life would be impossible, and since rational conduct is the only purpose of intellectual enquiry, Epicurus insisted that "it would be better to accept the myth about the gods than to be a slave to the determinism of the physicists". This is why Epicurus held that man is inseparable from Nature and yet has free will. Greek atomism does not permit significant elaboration beyond this point, but it does suggest an account of sensation. Leucippus had adopted the theory of effluences first proposed by Empedocles. Objects give off idols, thin atomic images of themselves, which impinge upon the eyes and other sense-organs and are transmitted, according to Epicurus, to the brain. The resulting atomic excitation and alteration is perception, which initiates further activity known as thinking. Democritus had added the suggestion that the eyes and other organs of sense also give off effluences which encounter the idols of objects before they strike the senses. Either way, there is room for distortion in perception, and so one must assume that all qualities beyond those attributable to individual atoms are the result of this interaction. Knowledge of external things, therefore, is partial, obscured by what would much later be called 'secondary qualities' and affected by intervening atomic complexes. While knowledge is rooted in observation, the processes of sensation require a sceptical attitude towards what is and can be known.
In Epicurean philosophy every human being has a soul which requires attention. In his Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus wrote:
The chief causes of human misery are superstitious misconceptions of the gods, based upon unwarranted projection of human traits upon them, and the fear of death owing to ignorance of physics. "The gods do indeed exist", Epicurus affirmed, "for our perception of them is clear", but one's awareness of the gods is distorted by the false belief that they reward and punish according to the degree to which human beings conform to their tastes and favoured traits. Fear of death is equally foolish since it in no way prevents the event or benefits life. "Accustom yourself to the belief that death is of no concern to us", Epicurus advised Menoeceus, "since all good and evil lie in sensation and sensation ends with death." If the soul is mortal, there is nothing it can experience beyond death, and so it is impossible to derive the canons of good and evil from post-mortem states, Elysian fields or dark Tartarus. Since the soul depends on sensation for all its experience, good and evil must be in sensation itself.
Sensations do not simply occur to a passive receptor, for they are modulated, sought after or avoided by the desires one already has.
Since sensations are the source of the soul's happiness or misery, and since the good can bring nothing but the soul's happiness, those sensations which conduce to happiness are good.
The philosophy of Epicurus attracted multitudes because it offers each person a test that one may apply to determine what is good, and therefore what right conduct is. Equating pleasure with goodness evoked cries of protest from other schools, no doubt due mainly to gross misunderstanding of Epicurus on the part of those disciples who sought to be licensed by his philosophy rather than to comprehend it. Epicurus discriminated between different kinds of desires for the important reason that pleasures bring with them by-products in the form of pains.
Epicurus had a profound understanding of the nature of opposites. Having free will and discerning the kinds of desires one may seek to fulfil, one can choose those pleasures which give lasting happiness to the soul. The word hedone has different levels of meaning. One may speak of the hedone of eating, and 'pleasure' seems appropriate, but Epicurus also speaks of the hedone of an untroubled soul, and here 'joy' is closer to the meaning. Thus Epicurus advised Menoeceus:
Whilst every specific pleasure will be purchased at some cost, the life that is most joyful for the soul is one of untainted simplicity, self-sufficiency and calm. Every society will impose civic duties which can be performed with precision and detachment, but political ambitions and social involvements will only disturb the soul's joy. Every relationship carries its burdens, but contractual arrangements and passionate loves will bring pains, while friendship which centres upon pleasant and elevating conversation can produce happiness. Friends should be chosen with great care, so that one will not be abused or taken advantage of, and they will be chosen out of some sense of self-interest, but as true friendship grows, one will discover greater hedone in helping and uplifting a friend than in being supported. The circle around Epicurus was known for its deep and lasting friendships.
The simplicity of the philosophical teaching of Epicurus contrasts with the powerful implications that can be drawn from it. "Remember that the future is neither ours nor wholly not ours", Epicurus taught, "so that we may neither count on it as sure to come nor abandon hope of it as certain not to be." There can be no pleasure (and therefore no pain) in the future, but only in the present, for the past does not exist save in present memories. "Infinite time and finite time hold an equal amount of pleasure, if we measure the limits of that pleasure by reason." Therefore "there is no need to spoil the present by longing for what is not; rather reflect that even what you have was beyond your expectations". Since "the main part of happiness is the disposition which is under our own control", Epicurus proposed a critical test for all desires in order to ascertain the benefit for the soul.
When one clearly thinks out the answer to this question every time it is asked, until the question arises naturally with every breath, one will learn to renounce the gross pleasures whose ephemeral intensity make the soul frantic and miserable, and draw closer to the joyous tranquillity of the soul's own nature, unaffected by the tumult of the world, freed from the enslavement of time and the fear of death, without anticipation or expectation, serene in the wish simply to be.