He will leave an immense work, but we only retrived the following letters: — A Letter to Herodotus — A Letter to Menoeceus — … And a few maxims Lucretia, Epicurus disciple, inherits essentially ideas that he revered as equal to God, as he tells us himself in the De Natura Rerum On the Nature of things. Only the concept of clinamen seems to differentiate the two works although the issue is very controversial. Epicurus and Lucretius are great representatives of ancient materialism: according to them, everything is material, including the human soul. Epicurs and Senses The starting point of the doctrine of the Epicureans is the canonical set of canons of thought, that is to say, criteria or rules for the truth. Epicurus is sensationalist: it attaches to the sensitive portrayal a crucial role in knowledge formation. Epicurus and Physics: an atomistic doctrine The physical centerpiece of the doctrine of the Epicureans assume a representation of nature.
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Book 10 contains the life and doctrines of Epicurus. This translation is by C. Yonge The section numbers in the Greek text are shown in red and the section numbers in the translation are shown in green.
Click on the G symbols to go to the Greek text for each section. And here it is necessary for those who have made sufficient progress in their view of the general question, to recollect the principles laid down as elements of the whole discussion; for we have still greater need of a correct notion of the whole, than we have even of an accurate understanding of the details.
In short, a veritable synthesis, comprising the entire circle of the phenomena of the universe, ought to be able to encompass in itself, and in a few words, all the particular facts which have been previously studied.
First of all then Herodotus , one must determine with exactness the notion comprehended under each separate word, in order to be able to refer to it, as to a certain criterion, the conceptions which emanate from ourselves, the ulterior researches and the difficulties; otherwise the judgment has no foundation. One goes on from demonstration to demonstration ad infinitum; or else one gains nothing beyond mere words. We must also note carefully the impressions which we receive in the presence of objects, in order to bring ourselves back to that point in the circumstances in which it is necessary to suspend the judgment, or even when the question is about things, the evidence of which is not immediately perceived.
When these foundations are once laid we may pass to the study of those things, about which the evidence is not immediate. And, first of all, we must admit that nothing can come of that which does not exist; for, were the fact otherwise, then everything would be produced from everything, and there would be no need of any seed.
But, in truth, the universal whole always was such as it now is, and always will be such. For there is nothing into which it can change; for there is nothing beyond this universal whole which can penetrate into it, and produce any change in it.
And Epicurus establishes the same principles at the beginning of the Great Abridgment; and in the first book of his treatise on Nature. Now the universal whole is a body; for our senses bear us witness in every case that bodies have a real existence; and the evidence of the senses, as I have said before, ought to be the rule of our reasoning about everything which is not directly perceived.
Let us add to the reflection that one cannot conceive, either in virtue of perception, or of any analogy founded on perception, any general quality peculiar to all beings which is not either an attribute, or an accident of the body, or of the void. The same principles are laid down in the first, and fourteenth, and fifteenth book of the treatise on Nature; and also in the Great Abridgment. Now, of bodies, some are combinations, and some are the elements out of which these combinations are formed.
They exist by their own force, in the midst of the dissolution of the combined bodies, being absolutely full, and as such offering no handle for destruction to take hold of. It follows, therefore, as a matter of absolute necessity, that the principles of things must be corporeal, indivisible elements. The universe is infinite.
For that which is finite has an extreme, and that which has an extreme is looked at in relationship to something else. Consequently, that which has not an extreme, has no boundary; and if it has no boundary, it must be infinite, and not terminated by any limit. If, on the other hand, the void were finite, the bodies being infinite, then the bodies clearly could never be contained in the void.
Again: the atoms within the bodies, and these full elements from which the combined bodies come, and into which they resolve themselves, assume an incalculable variety of forms, for the numerous differences which the bodies present cannot possibly result from an aggregate of the same forms. Each variety of forms contains an innumerable amount of atoms, but there is not for that reason an infinity of atoms; it is only the number of them which is beyond all calculation.
The atoms are in a continual state of motion. He says, farther on, that they move with an equal rapidity from all eternity, since the void offers no more resistance to the lightest than it does to the heaviest. The solidity which they possess causes them, while knocking against one another, to re-act the one upon the other; till at last the repeated shocks bring on the dissolution of the combined body; and for all this there is no external cause, the atoms and the void being the only causes.
He says, further on, that the atoms have no peculiar quality of their own, except from magnitude and weight. As to colour, he says in the twelfth book of his Principia, that it varies according to the position of the atoms. But, again, the worlds also are infinite, whether they resemble this one of ours or whether they are different from it.
For, as the atoms are, as to their number, infinite, as I have proved above, they necessarily move about at immense distances; for besides the infinite multitude of atoms, of which the world is formed, or by which it is produced, could not be entirely absorbed by one single world, nor even by any worlds, the number of which was limited, whether we suppose them like this word of ours, or different form it.
There is therefore, no fact inconsistent with an infinity of worlds. In fact it is not impossible but that there may be in space some secretions of this kind and an aptitude to form surfaces without depth, and of an extreme thinness; or else that from the solids there may emanate some particles which preserve the connection, the disposition, and the motion which they had in the body.
I give the name of images to these representations; and indeed, their movement through the void taking place, without meeting any obstacle or hindrance, traverses all imaginable extent in an inconceivable moment of time; for it is the meeting of obstacles, or the absence of obstacles, which produces the rapidity or the slowness of their motion.
From what ever point of infinity it arrives at some appreciable moment, and whatever may be the spot it its course in which we perceive its motion, it has evidently quitted that spot at the moment of our thought; for this motion which, as we have admitted up to this point, encounters no obstacle to its rapidity, is wholly in the same condition as that the rapidity of which is diminished by the shock of some resistance.
It is useful, also, to retain this principle, and to know that the images have an incomparable thinness; which fact indeed is in no respect contradicted by sensible appearances. From which it follows that their rapidity also is incomparable; for they find everywhere an easy passage, and besides, their minuteness causes them to experience no shock, or at all events to experience but a very slight one, while a multitude of elements very soon encounter some resistance.
They preserve for a long time the same disposition and the same arrangement that the atoms do in the solid body, although, notwithstanding, their form may be sometimes altered.
The direct production of images in space is equally instantaneous, because these images are only light substances destitute of depth. But there are other manners in which phenomena of this kind are produced; for there is nothing in all this which at all contradicts the senses, if one only considers in what way the senses are exercised, and if one is inclined to explain the relation which is established between external objects and ourselves. This phenomenon, on the contrary, is perfectly explained, if we admit that certain images of the same colour, of the same shape, and of a proportionate magnitude pass from these objects to us, and so arrive at being seen and comprehended.
Every conception, every sensible perception which bears upon the form or the other attributes of these images, is only the same form of the solid perceived directly, either in virtue of a sort of actual and continued condensation of the image, or in consequence of the traces which it has left in us. Error and false judgments always depend upon the supposition that a preconceived idea will be confirmed, or at all events will not be overturned, by evidence.
Then, when it is not confirmed, we form our judgments in virtue of a sort of initiation of the thoughts connected, it is true, with the perception, and with a direct representation; but still connected also with a conception peculiar to ourselves, which is the parent of error.
And, on the other side, error could not be possible, if we did not receive some other motion also, a sort of initiative of intelligence connected, it is true, with direct representation, but going beyond that representative. These conceptions being connected with direct perception which produces the representation, but going beyond it, in consequence of a motion peculiar to the individual though, produces error when it is not confirmed by evidence, or when it is contradicted by evidence; but when it is confirmed, or when it is not contradicted by evidence, then it produces truth.
Moreover, hearing is produced by some sort of current proceeding from something that speaks, or sounds, or roars, or in any manner causes any sort of audible circumstances. And this current is diffused into small bodies resembling one another in their parts; which, preserving not only some kind of relation between one another, but even a sort of particular identity with the object from which they emanate, puts us, very frequently, into a communication of sentiments with this object, or at least causes us to become aware of the existence of some external circumstance.
We must not therefore think that it is the air which receives a certain form, under the action of the voice or some other sound. For it is utterly impossible that the voice should act in this manner on the air.
But the percussion produced in us when we, by the utterance of a voice, cause a disengagement of certain particles, constitutes a current resembling a light whisper, and prepares an acoustic feeling for us.
We must admit that the case of smelling is the same as that of hearing. There would be no sense of smell if there did not emanate from most objects certain particles capable of producing an impression on the sense of smell.
One class being ill-suited to the organ, and consequently producing a disordered state of it, the other being suited to it, and causing it no distress. It follows from that, that that which does not admit of any change in itself, is imperishable, participates in no respect in the nature of changeable things, and in a word, has its dimensions and forms immutable determined.
The attributes which we have indicated, suffice to explain all the differences of combined bodies; for we must inevitably leave something indestructible, lest everything should resolve itself into non-existence. However, one must not believe that every kind of magnitude exists in atoms, lest we find ourselves contradicted by phenomena. We must not suppose either, that an atom can become visible to us; for, first of all, one does not see that that is the case, and besides, one cannot even conceive, how an atom is to become visible; besides, we must not believe, that in a finite body there are particles of every sort, infinite in number; consequently, on must not only reject the doctrine of infinite divisibility in parcels smaller and smaller, lest we should be reducing everything to nothing, and find ourselves forced to admit, that in a mass composed of a crowd of elements, existence can reduce itself to non-existence.
It has some characteristic in common with the object which admit of transformation, but it also differs from them, inasmuch as it does not allow any distinct parts to be discerned in it. When then, in virtue of these common characteristics, and of this resemblance, we wish to form an idea of the smallest particle perceptible by the senses, in taking the objects which change, for our terms of comparison, it is necessary that we should seize on some characteristic common to these different objects.
In this way, we examine them successively, from the first to the last, not by themselves, more as composed of parts in juxtaposition, but only in their extent; in other words, we consider, the magnitudes by themselves, and in an abstract manner, inasmuch as they measure, the greater a greater extent, and the smaller a smaller extent. This analogy applies to the atom, as far as we consider it as having the smallest dimensions possible. We must also admit, in taking for our guide the reasoning which discloses to us things which are invisible to the senses, that the most minute magnitudes, those which are not compound magnitudes, and which from the limit of sensible extent, are the first measure of the other magnitudes which are only called greater or less in their relation to the others.
For these relations which they maintain with these particles, which are not subject to transformation, suffice to give them this characteristic of first measure. But they cannot, like atoms, combine themselves, and form compound bodies in virtue of any motion belonging to themselves. For height and lowness must not be predicated of the infinite. We know, in reality, that if, wishing to determine the infinite, we conceive a point above our head, this point, whatever it may be, will never appear to us to have the character in question: otherwise, that which would be situated above the point so conceived as the limit of the infinite, would be at the same moment, and by virtue of its relation to the same point, both high and low; and this is impossible to imagine.
It follows that thought can only conceive that one single movement of transference, from low to high, ad infinitum; and one single movement from high to low. From low to high, when even the object in motion, going from us to the places situated above our heads, meets ten thousand times with the feet of those who are above us; and from high to low, when in the same way it advances towards the heads of those who are below us.
For these two movements, looked at by themselves and in their whole, are conceived as really opposed the one to the other, in their progress towards the infinite. For why should heavy atoms have a more rapid movement than those which are small and light, since in no quarter do they encounter any obstacle?
Why, on the other hand, should the small atoms have a rapidity superior to that of the large ones, since both the one and the other find everywhere an easy passage, from the very moment that no obstacle intervenes to thwart their movements?
Movement from low to high, horizontal movement to and fro, in virtue of the reciprocal percussion of the atoms, movement downwards, in virtue of their weight, will be all equal, for in whatever sense the atom moves, it must have a movement as rapid as the thought, till the moment when it is repelled, in virtue of some external cause, or of its own proper weight, by the shock of some object which resists it.
In fact, if one only looks at the continued movement of an atom which takes place in an indivisible moment of time, the briefest possible, they all have a movement equally rapid. At the same time, an atom has not, in any moment perceptible to the intelligence, a continued movement in the same direction; but rather a series of oscillating movements from which there results, in the last analysis, a continued movement perceptible to the senses.
There exists in it a special part, endowed with an extreme mobility, in consequence of the exceeding slightness of the elements which compose it, and also in reference to its more immediate sympathy with the rest of the body. That it is which the faculties of the soul sufficiently prove, and the passions, and the mobility of its nature, and the thoughts, and, in a word, everything, the privation of which is death.
We must admit that it is in the soul most especially that the principle of sensation resides. It is on that account that, when the soul departs, the body is no longer possessed of sensation; for it has not this power, namely that of sensation in itself; but on the other hand, this power can only manifest itself in the soul through the medium of the body.
The rest of the body, on the other hand, even when it remains, either as a whole, or in any part, loses all feeling by the dispersion of that aggregate of atoms, whatever it may be, that forms the soul. Epicurus expresses the same ideas in other works, and adds that the soul is composed of atoms of the most perfect roundness and lightness; atoms wholly different from those of fire.
He distinguishes in it the irrational part which is diffused over the whole body, from the rational part which has its seat in the chest, as is proved by the emotions of fear and joy.
He adds that sleep is produced either when the parts of the soul diffused over the whole of the body concentrate themselves, or when they disperse and escape by the pores of the body; for particles emanate from all bodies. Now, nothing can be conceived in itself as incorporeal except the void; but the void cannot be either passive or active; it is only the condition and the place of movement.
Accordingly, they who pretended that the soul is incorporeal, utter words destitute of sense; for if it had this character, it would not be able either to do or to suffer anything; but, as it is, we see plainly enough that it is liable to both these circumstances. As to forms, and hues, and magnitudes, and weight, and the other qualities which one looks upon as attributes, whether it be of every body, or of those bodies only which are visible and perceived by the senses, this is the point of view under which they ought to be considered: they are not particular substances, having a peculiar existence of their own, for that cannot be conceived; nor can one say any more that they have no reality at all.
But they constitute by their union, I repeat, the eternal substance of the body. Each of these attributes has ideas and particular perceptions which correspond to it; but they cannot be perceived independently of the whole subject taken entirely.
The union of all these perceptions forms the idea of the body. Accordingly, it is sufficient to express the general idea of the movement of transference to enable us to conceive in a moment certain distinct qualities, and those combined beings, which, being taken in their totality, receive the name of bodies; and the necessary and eternal attributes without which the body cannot be conceived.
We should be equally deceived if we were to suppose that they have a separate and independent existence; for that is true neither of them nor of the eternal attributes. They are, as one sees plainly, accidents of the body; accidents which do not of necessity make any part of its nature; which cannot be considered as independent substances, but still to each of which sensation gives the peculiar character under which it appears to us.
Here we cannot apply any more the method of examination to which we submit other objects, where we study with reference to a give subject; and which we refer to the preconceptions which exist in ourselves. We must seize, by analogy, and going round the whole circle of things comprised under this general denomination for time - we must seize, I say, that essential character which causes us to say that time is long or short.
It is not necessary for that purpose to seek for any new forms of expression as preferable to those which are in common use; we may content ourselves with those by which time is usually indicated. Nor need we, as certain philosophers do, affirm any particular attribute of time, for that would be to suppose that its essence is the same as that of this attribute.
Historical Context for Letter to Herodotus by Epicurus
Those who have made some advance in the survey of the entire system ought to fix in their minds under the principal headings an elementary outline of the whole treatment of the subject. For a comprehensive view is often required, the details but seldom. To the former, then—the main heads—we must continually return, and must memorize them so far as to get a valid conception of the facts, as well as the means of discovering all the details exactly when once the general outlines are rightly understood and remembered; since it is the privilege of the mature student to make a ready use of his conceptions by referring every one of them to elementary facts and simple terms. For it is impossible to gather up the results of continuous diligent study of the entirety of things, unless we can embrace in short formulas and hold in mind all that might have been accurately expressed even to the minutest detail. Hence, since such a course is of service to all who take up natural science, I, who devote to the subject my continuous energy and reap the calm enjoyment of a life like this, have prepared for you just such an epitome and manual of the doctrines as a whole. In the first place, Herodotus, you must understand what it is that words denote, in order that by reference to this we may be in a position to test opinions, inquiries, or problems, so that our proofs may not run on untested ad infinitum, nor the terms we use be empty of meaning. For the primary signification of every term employed must be clearly seen, and ought to need no proving; this being necessary, if we are to have something to which the point at issue or the problem or the opinion before us can be referred.
Epicurus Philosophy Summary
According to Epicurean cosmology, no Prime Mover nor a teleology governing the movement of matter: rather, the universe is nothing but atoms and void, and all objects and matter in the world can be explained by the collision of atoms. Although Epicurus was said to believe in the existence of the gods, he was known as an atheist, for he claimed that it was a mistake to think that the gods were interested and involved themselves in human affairs. Only the gods are immortal, says Epicurus, but we are not. The good, says Epicurus, is pleasure—a thesis that was explicitly rejected by Socrates and Plato before him—and pain is evil. But is it not unlimited pleasure at particular moments that one ought to seek to attain a happy life; rather, what is desired is the obtainment of pleasure and the absence of pain, fear, and perturbation in the long term, the state of being Epicurus calls ataraxia. The happy life for Epicurus is to place oneself in an ataraxic state in which one is free to pursue pleasures while minimizing pain. Epicurus is emphatic that friendship figures into the happy life as one of the chief goods.
Diogenes Laertius : The Letter of Epicurus to Herodotus
He studied under Nausiphanes , who followed the teachings of Democritus ,   and later those of Pyrrho ,   whose way of life Epicurus greatly admired. Epicurus came of age at a time when Greek intellectual horizons were vastly expanding due to the rise of the Hellenistic Kingdoms across the Near East. Nonetheless, Epicurus differed from his predecessors on several key points of determinism and vehemently denied having been influenced by any previous philosophers, whom he denounced as "confused". Instead, he insisted that he had been "self-taught". He then founded a school in Lampsacus before returning to Athens in c. He ordained in his will annual memorial feasts for himself on the same date 10th of Gamelion month.
Epicurus: Letter to Menoeceus (Summary)
It is to this last letter that we are interested in now. Indeed, it is, for one, neither too early nor too late, when it comes to ensuring the health of his soul. Besides, whoever said that the time to philosophize is not yet come, or that time is past, like the one that says, in the case of happiness, that his time has not yet come or that it is not. So the young man should, like the old man, philosophize in this way, the second, while aging, rejuvenate the past thanks to the property, because he will devote their gratitude, and the first will be at the same time young and far advanced in years, because he will not fear the future. So be what produces happiness the object of his care, as it is true that, when present, we have everything and that when he is absent, we do everything for it. Accustom thyself also in the thought that death is nothing for us, since every good and evil lie in sensation and that death is deprivation of sensation. Thus, the most terrifying of evils, death is nothing for us, precisely because, when we exist, death is not present and, when death is present, then we do not exist.