Epicureanism is a system of philosophy based on the teachings of Epicurus, founded around 307 B.C. It teaches that the greatest good is to seek modest pleasures in order to attain a state of tranquillity, freedom from fear (“ataraxia”) and absence from bodily pain (“aponia”). This combination of states is held to constitute happiness in its highest form, and so Epicureanism can be considered a form of Hedonism, although it differs in its conception of happiness as the absence of pain, and in its advocacy of a simple life.
Epicurus directed that this state of tranquillity could be obtained through knowledge of the workings of the world and the limiting of desires. Thus, pleasure was to be obtained by knowledge, friendship and living a virtuous and temperate life. He lauded the enjoyment of “simple pleasures”, by which he meant abstaining from bodily desires, such as sex and appetites, verging on Asceticism. He counselled that “a cheerful poverty is an honourable state”.
He argued for moderation in all things, so that when eating, for example, one should not eat too richly, for it could lead to dissatisfaction later, such as indigestion or the grim realization that one could not afford such delicacies in the future. Likewise, sex could lead to increased lust and dissatisfaction with the sexual partner, and Epicurus himself remained celibate. Even learning, culture and civilization were discouraged, as they could result in disturbing one’s peace of mind, except insofar as knowledge could help rid oneself of religious fears and superstitions, such as the fear of the gods and of death.
Generally speaking, Epicureans shunned politics as having no part in the quest for ataraxia and aponia, and likewise a potential source of unsatisfiable desires and frustration, which was to be avoided.
Like Democritus and Leucippus before him, Epicurus was an Atomist, believing that all matter, souls and gods are all comprised of atoms, and even thoughts are merely atoms swerving randomly.
Epicurus was one of the first to develop a notion of justice as a kind of social contract, an agreement “neither to harm nor be harmed”. He argued that laws and punishments in society are important so that individuals can be free to pursue happiness, and a just law is one that contributes to promoting human happiness. In some respects, this was an early contribution to the much later development of Liberalism and of Utilitarianism.