Epicureanism is the philosophical school founded by ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BCE); one of the very first atomic materialists, he held that matter is the fundamental substance of which nature is composed of, inclusive of mental phenomena and consciousness. This materialism led Epicurus to question the the forces of superstition and divine intervention, determined by him to be causal of humanity’s two greatest fears.
Central to Epicurean philosophy is the pillar principle of Hedonism — that pleasure is the primary source of intrinsic good, and that one should strive to maximise the total amount of personal pleasure derived in a lifetime. However, contrary to this seemingly self-centred weltanschauung, Epicurus advocates the moderate pursuit of pleasure in order to avoid the suffering caused by overindulgence. Epicureanism thus deviates from forms of Hedonism and Utilitarianism in that it praises the pleasures of the mind over those of a more physical nature, dismissing the roles of sex and marriage in bringing us pleasure without a catch. In Epicurus’ view, the person with whom we eat holds more importance than what is eaten.
To attain this higher pleasure, Epicurus considers essential the pursuit of knowledge, yet only insofar as it rids us of our religious fears and superstitions — the fear of the divine and the fear of death, and by extension, punishment after death — which Epicurus posits to be those fears which lead us, most often, to displeasure. Beyond that, Epicureanism asserts that the pursuit of learning and culture, as well as social and political involvements create desires which are difficult to suppress, and therefore disruptive of our peace of mind. Ignorance is bliss.
Epicurus’ philosophy was more than the dictum pleasure is the highest good, however; it was rather a complete and interdependent system. It not only involved his view of the ultimate goal of human life, but also an empiricist theory of knowledge, a largely comprehensive description of nature based on atomic materialism, and a naturalistic account of societal evolution.
Many seemingly modern philosophical concepts were, in fact, pioneered by Epicurus and his followers, influencing ethical, epistemological and religious thought through the ages. It is true that some may see his ideas as a hindrance to profound thought, the pursuit of knowledge and everything that is intrinsically human, Epicurus shows us the value of a lifestyle tending towards the austere and of the enjoyment of simpler but purer pleasures.
“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”