NOTES on Epicurus (341-279 B.C.E.): First Principles of Materialism


Marble bust of Epicurus. Roman copy of Greek original, 3rd century BC/2nd century BC. On display in the British Museum, London.

Epicurus (341-279 B.C.E.) was an ancient Greek philosopher who was a Materialist. As such, he believed that reality consists of matter and space. The matter that exists, according to Epicurus, is composed of atoms.

The first Greeks who were Materialists and Atomists were Leucippus and Democritus. Epicurus was one of their followers.

In his “Letter to Herodotus,” Epicurus wrote about his beliefs concerning the universe. He also wrote about his theory of sense perception and gave some advice about achieving tranquility in life.

According to Epicurus, the universe has always existed and it consists of “material bodies and void.” The bodies are made up of atoms, which are “indivisible and unchangeable.” The universe is boundless, and in it is an infinite number of atoms. Therefore, the number of bodies and the void (space) of the universe are endless.

Epicurus concludes that the atoms, which combine to make up the things that we see, “exist in so many different shapes that the mind cannot grasp their number,” because otherwise we could not account for the great variety of objects which the atoms make up. The possible shapes of the atoms are an incomprehensible, but not quite infinite, number, while the number of atoms of each shape is infinite.

According to Epicurus, “The atoms move without interruption through all time. Some of them fall in a straight line; some swerve from their courses; and others move back and forth as the result of collisions.” The swerving causes some atoms to hit other atoms, and because of the different shapes of the atoms, some atoms become connected to other atoms. Atoms combining together make up the things that we see.

Furthermore, Epicurus believes that there is an infinite number of worlds. The Earth is one world, but there are many more worlds in the universe. Some worlds are like the Earth; other worlds are unlike the Earth.

Epicurus also gives his theory of sense perception. He writes, “… there are images of the same shape as the solid bodies from which they come but in thinness far surpassing anything that the senses can perceive.” These images emanate from the things we see. The images are called by Epicurus “idols.” The idols strike the eye, and because of this, we are able to see the object from which the idols emanate.

According to Epicurus, these images or idols “are of a texture unsurpassed in fineness. For this reason, their velocity is also unsurpassed ….” In addition, the emanating of the idols is continuous, and therefore their creation is constantly occurring.

Epicurus next provides an account of the possibility of error. Certainly, we are occasionally mistaken, but what accounts for this? According to Epicurus, “Whatever is false and erroneous is due to what opinion adds (to an image that is waiting) to be confirmed, or at least not contradicted, by further evidence of the senses, and which then fails to be so confirmed (or is contradicted).”

We fall into the possibility of error when we go beyond what we perceive. It is possible for me to see someone, think that I have seen a friend of mine, go up to the person and say hi, then discover that I was mistaken and that the person I saw is actually a stranger. All I actually perceived was a human being, but I went beyond what I perceived and mistakenly thought that I had perceived a friend.

Epicurus also makes a distinction between primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities are those qualities that belong to the objects themselves (size, shape, weight, motion), while secondary qualities are those qualities that are produced in our mind by those objects (colors, tastes, sounds).

According to Epicurus, the atoms have what we call primary qualities. In Epicurus’ words, “We must suppose that the atoms possess none of the qualities of visible things, except shape, mass, and size, and whatever is a necessary concomitant of shape.”

Epicurus believes that human beings have a soul; however, he does not believe that human beings have an incorporeal soul. The soul, like the body, is composed of atoms, and when we die, the atoms of the soul disperse. That means that Epicurus believes that our soul is corporeal and that we are mortal. When we die, our body and our soul both disintegrate, and that is the end of us.

However, being mortal is actually a good thing, according to Epicurus. Too many people fear death because they are afraid of what happens after death. They are afraid of being punished by the gods for their sins. However, if Epicurus is right, this is not something that we need to fear. Death results in the extinguishing of consciousness, and we will be neither rewarded nor punished after death.

Epicurus next gives his theory about how we gave names to objects. According to Epicurus, human nature does things first because circumstances suggest that some actions be done, and second because human reason thinks about these actions and comes up with better ways of doing them. Thus, we may start gathering food because we are hungry, then later we may start growing food because reason suggests that this will give us a more stable food supply.

Names arise in the same way. Objects arouse certain feelings and impressions in us, and we express those feelings and impressions by naming those objects. Epicurus writes that people emitted “air from their lips formed in harmony with each of the experiences and impressions.” People did this individually at first, but then reason suggested a better way: Within each nation people agree on a special name for a certain object. This allows people to better communicate with each other.

In addition, Epicurus believes that we ought not to fear the gods. The motions of the heavenly bodies are not due to the gods; they are due to the forces that act on the atoms.

Epicurus believes that the gods exist. (The ancient Greeks were polytheistic.) However, he also believed that the gods don’t concern themselves about us at all. Once again, however, Epicurus thought that this was a good thing. If something bad happens, such as a plague, we need not worry that the gods sent the plague to punish us for our sins. The gods are aloof and neither reward us for our good deeds nor punish us for our bad deeds.

Even today, some people think that AIDS was sent by God to punish bad people (even though innocent infants acquire AIDS). Epicurus would deny that God sends plagues to punish people.

Epicurus’ philosophy was concerned with the acquisition of tranquility. He lived in interesting times (an ancient Chinese curse is, “May you live in interesting times”) when Alexander the Great’s generals were busy carving up the empire after Alexander died. This resulted in many refugees, including Epicurus and his family, fleeing scenes of warfare.

This led Epicurus in his philosophy to stress ways of reducing anxiety and of achieving tranquility. Thus his emphasis on not being afraid of death and not being afraid of the gods.

Interested readers should be aware that Epicurus provides more information for leading a tranquil life in his “Letter to Menoeceus.”

Note: The quotations by Epicurus that appear in this essay are from his “Letter to Herodotus,” translated by Russel M. Geer.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved



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3 Responses to NOTES on Epicurus (341-279 B.C.E.): First Principles of Materialism

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