He was not on the syllabus when I was a young Franciscan student of Philosophy sixty years ago. I knew the adjective derived from his name but not the man nor his writings, and decided, as an emaciated ascetic (compared, at least, with my present excess baggage) to find out what his famous Pleasure Principle was all about. Of his 300 works, only three letters have survived, not exactly a weighty oeuvre. Then again, doctoral theses have been written on assorted pre-Socratics, whose oeuvre sometimes consists of one-liners like “Girls on the right, boys on the left” and “In some cave water drips”.
Epicurus’ brief “Letter to Menoeceus”, written about 300 B.C., sums up his philosophy : “Pleasure and Peace come from Freedom from Pain and Fear”. That’s it ! He has some interesting things to say about the gods’ indifference to us, the absurdity of myth and the nothingness from which we came and to which we shall return. But essentially he is saying that to be happy we need to avoid pain in our bodies and banish fear from our minds. Next ancient Philosopher please !
The poor guy did his best to explain thunder and lightning, comparing at one point the former with rumblings in the gut, and seeing the cause of the latter in clouds rubbing against each other (not bad, really, for someone who had never heard of electricity : it is, in fact, bits of ice in the top of clouds bumping into each other which produce the electrical charge).
Why do we attribute importance to “philosophers” like Epicurus, why do we waste our time with “thinkers” who came up with outrageous, fanciful, pre-scientific, banal attempts to make sense of life and the world we live in ? There is nothing particularly earth-shattering in Epicurus’ Pleasure Principle, but he was the first to spell out what most of us consider obvious. He took the existence of gods for granted, but as they kept pretty much to themselves, he did not waste his time with theological speculation. Others, unfortunately, did. The trouble is that while we consider many of the ancient philosophers’ insights as self-evident, many of us swallow the fantasies of the founders of religions as ultimate, revealed truth. I can live with banality. I find it harder to stomach superstition.