Epicureanism in Antiquity and Modernity

Author: Jean-Marie Guyau


[1] The ethics of [self]interest [morale de l’intérêt], espoused for a hundred years by many French thinkers and today by the main English philosophers, is not such a historical novelty. We know that a similar doctrine, under the name of Epicureanism, seduced antiquity. It was the most popular philosophy of Greece and Rome. “The disciples and friends of Epicurus are so many,” wrote Diogenes Laertius, “that whole towns would not be sufficient to contain them.”[2] Plutarch claims that Epicurus’s followers came from as far as Egypt to listen to their master and erected bronze statues in his honour.

Later, when the Romans began a relationship with the culture of the Greek people, they were still full of their own religious beliefs, uniting the love for their fatherland and cult of Jupiter Capitoline in their hearts. [However,] the essentially irreligious doctrine of Epicurus was the first [Greek] doctrine to enter Rome, and the

first to be expressed in the Latin language.

Epicureanism had more than enough strength to defeat this ancient [Roman] religion immediately.[3] As Cicero notes “the multitude had its interest stirred, and flocked around Epicurus’ system in preference to any other”. [4] “Not only in Greece and Italy,” he tells us, but “even the barbaric world has been stirred by Epicurus’ thought” [5]. He tells us that “the people is with them”, referring to the Epicureans.[6]

Indeed, most of the educated men were already with the Epicureans, and did remain with them for a long time. Their adversaries, the Stoics, struggled in vain against the Epicureans and this struggle lasted for the duration of the Roman Empire. The Stoics, however, could neither weaken nor defeat them, nor could they escape their influence. Seneca strongly criticised the Epicureans, although he was still nourished by [the thought of] Epicurus, who he admires and frequently quotes. He was attracted to the very doctrines he fought against. Epictetus later took up the fight against the Epicureans, railing against them with extreme violence. But his disciple, Marcus Aurelius, while having the same ideas and beliefs as Epictetus, returned to Epicurus, taking him as a model and exhorting himself to imitate him [Epicurus] without regret. Furthermore, he established a chaire of Epicureanism in Athens. Here and there in his meditations, which he so sincerely expressed, one recognises the great Epicurean conceptions, as if vaguely floating in a dream. Constantly and disquietly, Marcus Aurelius finds Epicureanism within his own ideas, and although he confronts it, his last thought [on Epicurean ideas] would be haunted by doubt. Lucian, a man determined to doubt [douteur resolu], who typically does not spare philosophers from his mockery and fierce blows [coups de bâton], talks of Epicurus as a

“divine man, a saint, the only one to have known the truth, who, by communicating it to his disciples, became their liberator [libérateur]”.[7]

[§2] Even at this time, after five centuries of struggle we can see that Epicureanism had not lost its importance. The sacred aura [auréole] with which the Epicureans ensconced [entourer] their master had not faded.

[§3] Epicurus’ doctrine survived as long as paganism. Epicureanism remained standing, even when new beliefs emerged in the world. In the face of nascent Christianity, for example, Epicureanism remained as a constant temptation. Even Saint Augustine, who personifies the Christian epoch, admits that he would be inclined [pendre] towards Epicureanism.[8]

[§4] Indeed, when facing religion, Epicureanism’s force of resistance surpassed all other philosophies. As a matter of principle, Epicureanism rejected the miraculous [merveilleux] and the supernatural. In fact, [we can say that] Epicurus and Lucretius already embody the scientific and positivistic spirit of the modern utilitarians, which is why they remain strong. The practical weakness of Epicureanism, when facing Christianity, was the persistence with which they emphasised our ultimate annihilation and the reality of our death. Human beings, however, desire to be immortal. At this time, people were weary of life, overwhelmed by servitude and decadence. Saint Augustine rejects [repoussa] a doctrine that promised him nothing more than a happy life [vie heureuse], as did his era. Gradually the gardens of Epicurus,[9] where previously sages of every nation had wandered tranquilly, which had been surrounded by an enchanted crowd of followers, became deserted for centuries.

The words of the pagan master, words that each disciple learned by heart and committed to his soul as sacred truth, were forgotten and effaced by more powerful words. Humankind, then, faced a new future, and ascended the mountain where an attainable view of heaven was shown and the doctrine of a ‘single God’ [un Dieu] was preached.

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