From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Epicureanism is a philosophy of atomism and materialism based upon the teachings of Epicurus (c. 341–c. 270 BC), founded around 307 BC. The epic poem De rerum natura by Lucretius presents the core arguments and theories of Epicureanism.
The early Christian writer Lactantius criticizes Epicurus at several points throughout his Divine Institutes. In Dante's Divine Comedy, the Epicureans are depicted as heretics suffering in the sixth circle of hell. In fact, Epicurus appears to represent the ultimate heresy. The word for a heretic in the Talmudic literature is "Apiqoros" (אפיקורוס), and Epicurus is titled in Modern Greek idiom as the "Dark Philosopher".
In common parlance
This strays significantly from the original philoposhic intent of Epicureanism. The philosophy indeed elevated pleasure and happiness as the most worthy pursuit, but specifically warned against fine food, for it could lead to dissatisfaction later. Instead, the goal was a long-term pleasure, marked by serenity and temperance, achieved through moderation rather than indulging. Modern senses of gourmet, luxury, hedonism, sensual pleasure and lust are mostly in contrast with the original ancient teachings.
His materialism led him to a general attack on superstition and divine intervention. Following Aristippus—about whom very little is known—Epicurus believed that the greatest good was to seek modest pleasures in order to attain a state of tranquility and freedom from fear (ataraxia) as well as absence of bodily pain (aponia) through knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of our desires. The combination of these two states is supposed to constitute happiness in its highest form. Although Epicureanism is a form of hedonism, insofar as it declares pleasure as the sole intrinsic good, its conception of absence of pain as the greatest pleasure and its advocacy of a simple life make it different from "hedonism" as it is commonly understood.
In the Epicurean view, the highest pleasure (tranquility and freedom from fear) was obtained by knowledge, friendship and living a virtuous and temperate life. He lauded the enjoyment of simple pleasures, by which he meant abstaining from bodily desires, such as sex and appetites, verging on asceticism. He argued that when eating, one should not eat too richly, for it could lead to dissatisfaction later, such as the grim realization that one could not afford such delicacies in the future. Likewise, sex could lead to increased lust and dissatisfaction with the sexual partner. Epicurus did not articulate a broad system of social ethics that has survived.
Epicureanism was originally a challenge to Platonism, though later it became the main opponent of Stoicism. Epicurus and his followers shunned politics. After the death of Epicurus, his school was headed by Hermarchus; later many Epicurean societies flourished in the Late Hellenistic era and during the Roman era (such as those in Antiochia, Alexandria, Rhodes and Ercolano). The poet Lucretius is its most known Roman proponent. By the end of the Roman Empire it had all but died out, and would be resurrected in the 17th century by the atomist Pierre Gassendi, who adapted it to the Christian doctrine.
Some writings by Epicurus have survived. Some scholars consider the epic poem On the Nature of Things by Lucretius to present in one unified work the core arguments and theories of Epicureanism. Many of the papyrus scrolls unearthed at the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum are Epicurean texts. At least some are thought to have belonged to the Epicurean Philodemus.
One of the earliest Roman writers espousing Epicureanism was Amafinius. Other adherents to the teachings of Epicurus included the poet Horace, whose famous statement Carpe diem ("Seize the Day") illustrates the philosophy, as well as Lucretius, as he showed in his De Rerum Natura.
Julius Caesar leaned considerably toward Epicureanism and rejected the idea of an afterlife, which e.g. lead to his plea against the death sentence during the trial against Catiline, where he spoke out against the Stoicist Cato.
In modern times Thomas Jefferson referred to himself as an Epicurean, and the preamble to the United States Declaration of Independence demonstrates Epicurean influence by inalienable right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Other modern-day Epicureans were Gassendi, Walter Charleton, François Bernier, Saint-Evremond, Ninon de l'Enclos, Diderot, and Jeremy Bentham. Christopher Hitchens has referred to himself as an Epicurean.
Karl Marx made Epicurus the subject of his doctoral thesis. His teachings are still followed today by Homerton College, Cambridge University, who have named a successful social society after him: "The Epicureans".