A Greek Philosopher Epicurus, born in the island of Samos in 342 B. C, died in 270. When 18 years of age he went to Athens, where he became a pupil of Pamphilius, and an admirer of the doctrines of Democritus. He travelled for several years, and in his 30th year established a school of philosophy at Athens, to which his fame soon attracted a great number of pupils. With them he constituted a community which has always been considered as a model of its kind. He enjoyed the respect and love of his followers to such a degree that his sayings had almost the value of oracles. No other ancient school of philosophy has evinced a cohesive power equal to that of Epicurus. Epicureanism has become almost a synonyme of sensualism, or at least a refined voluptuousness, but nothing was further from the meaning of his doctrines. It is true that he taught to be the highest end and purpose of human life, but this word was intended to designate a state of supreme mental bliss, to be attained only by temperance, chastity, and a healthy intellectual development. That bliss, consisting in a perfect repose of mind, in an equilibrium of all mental faculties and passions, is perhaps not very different from the state of mind which the Stoics considered the acme of human perfection, although they were the most unrelenting adversaries of Epicureanism. Epicurus was a man of unsullied morality. Diogenes Laertius estimates the number of his works at 300 or more. He boasted of having never used any quotations in order to swell his volumes. Few of his writings have been preserved, but a full analysis of his doctrines is to be found in Diogenes Laertius, and this, taken in connection with numerous passages in the writings of Lucretius, Cicero, Pliny, and others, gives us a full insight into his philosophical system. Within the present century a fragment of his book on nature has been recovered from the ruins of Herculaneum, and published by Orelli (Leipsic, 1818). Philosophy, according to Epicurus, is the exertion to obtain happiness by reasoning.
The supreme bliss is enjoyment and perfect freedom from pain. Enjoyment is either passive, when a perfect repose of mind is its principal condition, or active. The former is preferable to the latter. It is the state of absolute freedom from pain. Sensations, whether agreeable or disagreeable, are of the same nature; it is only the consequences which constitute their difference. Hence it is the province of reason to discern them according to the ultimate effect they produce. Virtue in itself, irrespective of its consequences, has no value. It is merely the result of wisdom and sagacity, which prove to man that happiness is only to be attained by charity, peacefulness, temperance, patience, self-command. Human or natural rights are merely restraints of individual action, imposed by the necessities of social life. It is self-interest which enjoins us to do right. The repose of mind which constitutes human happiness being continuously disturbed by the uncertainty of the relations of man to the universe and divinity, Epicurus proposed to dispel that uncertainty by a reconstruction of the atomistic theories of Democritus in the following manner: Nothing comes from nothing. That which exists can never be annihilated.
All matter consists of atoms, and these are unchangeable and indivisible, although filling a certain space. Besides shape, volume, gravity, and motion, they have no properties. Their number is infinite, their shape infinitely varied. The universe is infinite, and, considered as a unit, unchangeable; for the aggregate quantity of matter remains always the same, however its component parts may combine. The universe cannot be the product of divine action, or else the existence of evil could not be accounted for. The atoms, blindly drifting through infinite space, and declining somewhat from their course (through an accidental cause, whose nature Epicurus fails to explain), are mingled together, shove and push one another (the chaos), until the homogeneous ones associate. The light round atoms (the atoms of fire) are pushed upward, where they form the celestial bodies; those which are somewhat heavier form the air, while the heaviest are precipitated as water and earth. In a similar way the different objects on earth are formed. But the whole process is merely an accidental aggregation of atoms; higher ends and divine laws are mere inventions of the human mind. The psychology of Epicurus flows directly from his natural philosophy.
The human soul, according to him, is a delicate and extremely mobile substance, consisting of the minutest round atoms. Its elements are warmth, air, breath, and another nameless substance on which sensibility depends. While the three first named are distributed through the whole body, the fourth has its seat principally in the pectoral cavity, and is, as it were, the soul of the soul. The soul is not immortal; nevertheless death is by no means to be considered as an evil, since after death no consciousness of annihilation remains. Of all objects filling space infinitely delicate images are secreted. These images, coming into contact with the organs of sense, create perceptions. The conceptions of imagination are arbitrary combinations of such delicate images of real objects. By frequent perceptions the human mind attains to general abstractions, which are merely collective conceptions of the features common to a larger or smaller number of individual perceptions. Since the senses are the receivers of mechanical secretions of objects (images), the knowledge obtained through them is real and objective, the only correct standard of truth; but the workings of imagination, being likewise the result of sensitive perception, although an indirect one, point also to existing realities.
Hence it follows that the universality of the belief in the existence of a Supreme Being is proof conclusive of such existence. The gods are living beings, of human shape but colossal proportions. They also consist of atoms. They are immortal, although their bodies are similar to the human body. This contradiction is explained by a certain equilibrium of contrasts in the universe. The gods are living in eternal bliss, that is to say, in absolute inactivity, in the quiet enjoyment of sublime wisdom and virtue. The spaces between the different celestial bodies (inter-mundia) are the seats of the gods.