Fun facts about the philosopher Epicurus
1. Much of what we know about Epicurus’ philosophy is wrong. Epicureanism, the name of the philosophy inspired by the teachings of the philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC), is commonly understood to mean seeking out pleasure and then enjoying things to excess – whether it’s drinking too much, eating too much, or having too much sex. But Epicurus himself was, surprisingly, quite a frugal and restrained fellow. A bit of cheese now and then was, by all accounts, the most indulgent his tastes ever got.
2. Why do we think of excessive pleasures when we hear ‘Epicurus’? It’s largely a result of a smear by the great rival school of philosophy to the Epicureans: the Stoics. Founded by Zeno of Citium, the Stoics preached fortitude and self-control, and deliberately mischaracterised the Epicureans as irresponsible pleasure-seekers. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus summed up Epicurus’ teachings as ‘eating, drinking, copulation, shitting, and snoring.’
3. Three letters are all we have left of Epicurus’ writings. Much of his work has been lost. His On Nature, a vast treatise running to a stupendous 37 volumes, has not survived, although a number of fragments from it have been found among charred pieces of papyrus recovered from the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, which was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79.
4. Despite this, Epicurus exerted a colossal influence on later classical writers and philosophers. Perhaps the most important later work which Epicurus inspired was Roman poet Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (variously translated as On the Nature of Things and On the Nature of Reality). Both Lucretius and Epicurus believed that the universe was composed of atoms, and that these atoms often (though not always) act in a way that is down to chance rather than to divine will or guidance. In fact, this very modern way of viewing the world has been credited by some scholars – such as Stephen Greenblatt in his book The Swerve – with bringing medieval Europe out of scholasticism and into the Renaissance, when a librarian named Poggio Bracciolini rediscovered Lucretius’ poem in 1417.
5. Epicurus’ influence is everywhere in more recent philosophy, too. Karl Marx wrote his doctoral thesis on the differences between Epicurus’ and Democritus’ views of nature. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were also admirers of Epicurus’ outlook, with the eternally ailing Nietzsche applauding Epicurus’ ability to remain cheerful even while suffering from illness.
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