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(ĕpĭkyo͝or`əs), 341–270 B.C., Greek philosopher, b. Samos; son of an Athenian colonist. He claimed to be self-taught, although tradition states that he was schooled in the systems of Plato and Democritus by his father and various philosophers. He taught in several towns in Asia Minor before going to Athens c.306 B.C. There Epicurus purchased the famous garden that has become linked in the annals of philosophy with the Academy of Plato and the Lyceum of Aristotle. He was a generous and genial man who lived on the warmest terms with his followers. Although his writings were voluminous, only fragments remain. Epicurus defined philosophy as the art of making life happy and strictly subordinated metaphysics to ethics, naming pleasure as the highest and only good. However, for Epicurus pleasure was not heedless indulgence but the opposite, ataraxia [serenity], manifesting itself in the avoidance of pain. His hedonism differed from the cruder variety of Aristippus and the Cyrenaics in the emphasis that it placed on ataraxia and on the superiority of intellectual pleasures over bodily pleasures. He also prescribed a code of social conduct, which advocated honesty, prudence, and justice in dealing with others, not because these virtues were good in themselves, but because they saved the individual from society's retribution. While Epicurus appropriated much of the mechanics of Democritus' metaphysics, he deviated from its deterministic implications by the introduction of an element of spontaneity, which allowed atoms to form the objects of the world by chance. The element of freedom in his metaphysics supported and paralleled his notion of the freedom of the will. He held blind destiny to be more dangerous to one's ataraxia than belief in fables about the gods; people could hope to propitiate the gods, but mechanical determinism was inexorable. He denied that the gods had supernatural powers that allowed them to interfere with humanity or nature. The system of Epicurus deemphasized the traditional power of religious and physical forces on human life and emphasized our freedom of action. The work of the Roman poet Lucretius, De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), contains the finest exposition of Epicurus' ideas.


See studies by E. Asmis (1984), R. M. Strozier (1985), and H. Jones (1989).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



Born 342 or 341 B.C. on the island of Samos; died 271 or 270 B.C. in Athens. Greek materialist philosopher.

From 306 B.C., Epicurus lived in Athens, where he founded the school of philosophy known as the Garden of Epicurus. Out of his extensive writings (approximately 300 works), only his aphorisms, several letters, and his last will were preserved.

The philosophy of Epicurus is divided into ethics, physics, and “canonics” (that is, theory of knowledge). His ethics evolved from the ideas of Democritus and the Cyrenaic school. Epicurus declared that the true nature of human beings was their sensory ability (rather than their ability to reason, as the Stoics maintained); therefore, he claimed, the meaning and ultimate goal of human life is the attainment of pleasure. According to Epicurus, pleasure is the absence of suffering. The cause of suffering is found within man himself, and philosophy is called upon to rid people of the fears and passions that cause their suffering. Pleasure cannot be attained without ascetic self-restraint. Right living results in unruffled spiritual serenity (ataraxia), happiness (synonymous with virtue), freedom, and delights—the greatest of which are wisdom, justice, and especially friendship.

In his physics, Epicurus followed the atomistic teaching of Democritus, albeit with substantial changes. Specifically, Epicurus replaced the swirling motion of the atoms with their downward fall, introducing the concept of atomic “weight.” Of particular note is Epicurus’ doctrine about the atoms’ arbitrary divergence (or “swerve”) from their straight-line fall, resulting in an infinite number of universes as well as freedom for the individual (that is, individual atoms and human beings). In his struggle against the classical concept of fate of traditional natural philosophy, Epicurus came to an unprecedented conclusion—namely, the denial of the lawlike regularity of heavenly phenomena.

Epicurus regarded the source of knowledge to be the sensations and concepts arising from repeated sense experiences (prolepses) or from their anticipation. The criterion of truth is correspondence to these sensations, whose origins are explained by Democritus’ theory of effluences.

Rejecting the popular mythological notion of the gods as impious, Epicurus held that the gods lead a blissful and serene existence in the spaces between the universes (that is, in the “metacosmoses,” or intermundia) and do not interfere with the life of the universes, thereby setting an example for the wise man to emulate.

The philosophy of Epicurus represented a new stage in classical atomism, and it was an important influence in late classical and modern European philosophy.


Epicurea. Edited by H. Usener. Leipzig, 1887.
Opere. Turin, 1973.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Iz rannikh proizvedenii. Moscow, 1956. Pages 17–98, 99–215.
Guyau, M. Moral’ Epikura i ee sviaz’s sovremennymi ucheniiami. In Sobr. soch., vol. 2. St. Petersburg, 1899.
Shakir-Zade, A. S. Epikur. Moscow, 1963.
Bailey, C. The Greek Atomists and Epicurus. Oxford, 1928.
Hadzsits, G. D. Lucretius and His Influence. London, 1935.
Epikurus (Epikur): Von der Überwindung der Furcht. Compiled and translated by O. Gigon. Zurich, 1949.
DeWitt, N. W. Epicurus and His Philosophy. Minneapolis, 1954.
Hicks, R. D. Stoic and Epicurean. New York, 1962.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


341--270 bc, Greek philosopher, who held that the highest good is pleasure and that the world is a series of fortuitous combinations of atoms
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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