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Epicurus' Theories on the Meaning of Life

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 1288 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Epicurus uses the concept of naturalism, the philosophical belief that the universe is composed of and maintained by entirely natural forces, to defend his idea of the meaning of life. In his Letter to Herodotus, he clearly explains his argument for naturalism (Epicurus and Strodach 91). Epicurus begins by establishing that something cannot be caused into existence by nothing. His reasoning for this is that if this were true, anything could be generated from anything, which any person living in this world will find is not true (Epicurus and Strodach 93). He follows this by saying that if anything that changed (in size, color, etc) was eradicated (that is, became nothing), then everything in the world would have done so. This, obviously, is not true, because things still clearly exist. Thus, Epicurus asserts that something cannot be reduced to nothing (Epicurus and Strodach 93). Next, Epicurus upholds that the universe has always existed as it is now and will forever exist in the same way. This is because there is nothing outside of the totality (what we call “everything”) for the totality to change into, or to cause the totality to change into something else (Epicurus and Strodach 93).

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Epicurus then makes the claim that reality is completely made up of bodies and space. He explains that our senses tell us bodies exist, and that we can also sense imperceptible bodies. Plus, we can rationally know that space exists because if there were no space, bodies would not have any place to move through. Of these bodies, Epicurus insists that some are compounds, and the rest are the components of these compounds. These components are atoms–the most basic unit of matter. Epicurus describes atoms as being “incapable of decomposition in any manner” (94). Following his earlier claim that matter cannot be eliminated, we know atoms must exist as the smallest elements of things, because when an object decomposes, logically, something must be left behind. In his poem, Lucretius, an Epicurean scholar, defends this idea by arguing that if it was possible to cut something in half an infinite amount of times, then there would be no difference between “the sum total of things and the smallest of things” (Epicurus and Strodach 118). Thus, there must be a smallest unit, such as an atom, that makes up everything.

And so, Epicurus’ argument for naturalism is made. Once this has been established, we are able to move on to the heart of his philosophy. Epicurus saw suffering as a major problem, and sought ways to alleviate it. He found that the majority of humanity’s mental anguish came from an irrational belief in spirituality. He watched as others lived their lives in fear of divine punishment, hell, or the lack of sensation after death, and found that we had no reason to do so (Epicurus and Strodach 111).  Epicurus argues that the majority of people characterize the gods in a false manner. Rather than being concerned with the short lives of humans, he asserts that the gods are so blessed that they are wholly unconcerned with human life. Because of this, we have no reason to fear punishment by the gods (Epicurus and Strodach 156). As it has previously been established, Epicurus believes everything which exists is composed of atoms, and this includes the soul. Therefore, when a person dies, their soul “is scattered abroad and no longer has its usual functions” (Epicurus and Strodach 104). Without a soul or consciousness after death, there is no afterlife: that is, no hell to fear. Epicurus goes on to proclaim that what has been decomposed into atoms has no sensation, and more importantly, we should not concern ourselves with that which has no sensation. Therefore, death is nothing to fear (Epicurus and Strodach 173).

If we live in a purely physical, natural world made up of only atoms and space, and we are to be unconcerned with the gods or death, then what is our purpose in life? For Epicurus, the meaning of life is to pursue pleasure during the time we are alive. Pleasure, for him, is simply the absence of pain (Epicurus and Strodach 160). He praises moderation, rather than excess, in light of the fact that when one becomes used to enjoying simple pleasures, a lack of grand pleasures will not cause one unhappiness. Then, when one happens upon the rare, grander pleasure, the happiness will be greater (Epicurus and Strodach 159). From here, Epicurus asserts that good judgement is the highest value, and that all other virtues emanate from it. He states that if one understands his teachings, one will live like “a god among men” (Epicurus and Strodach 161), and that this is something not only attainable, but also easy (Epicurus and Strodach 160).

Epicurus’ argument is a valid one, but not necessarily a sound one. It can be argued that certain premises in his assertion are untrue. Travis Timmerman objects to the idea that “death means nothing to us” (Epicurus and Strodach 173). He argues that it is completely rational for one to avoid, or in some cases desire, death. He describes two different situations: one in which a person has the choice between walking away with two million dollars or being killed, and one in which a person may choose between being killed immediately, or being tortured for years before eventually being killed. In the first case, choosing death would be depriving the person of a longer and more pleasurable, and in the second case, making it something to be avoided. In the second case, choosing death would save a person from years of pain without pleasure, making it something to be desired. Timmerman claims that these are two cases in which the possibility of death does mean something to us, which contradicts Epicurus’ stance on death. Thus, for a form of Epicureanism to be valid, it must take these types of situations into account (Timmerman 242-245).

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Philosopher Brian Magee would also reject Epicureanism. Epicurus boldly claims that we can know that the world is entirely physical–this contradicts Magee’s belief. His stance is that it is “impossible to achieve intellectual mastery of the world” (Magee 16). His rationale is that we, as human beings, are not able to perceive anything that is inapprehensible to our given senses. “We are our apparatus” (Magee 73), he says, meaning that we can only know what we can sense for ourselves. He presents the existence of the trancendental, that is, things that “exist without being a fact in the empirical world” (Magee 19). The example he gives to explain this is the visual world to those who are congenitally blind.

Works Cited

  • “Epicureanism.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition, Jan. 2019, p. 1. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=134513480&site=ehost-live.
  • Epicurus, and George K. Strodach. The Art of Happiness. Penguin Classics, 2013.
  • The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Naturalism (Philosophy).” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2017, www.britannica.com/topic/naturalism-philosophy.
  • Simpson, David. “Lucretius.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ISSN 2161-0002, www.iep.utm.edu/lucretiu/, 04/26/2019.
  • Timmerman, Travis. “A Dilemma for Epicureanism.” Philosophical Studies, vol. 176, no. 1, Jan. 2019, pp. 241–257. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s11098-017-1014-2.


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