On page 147 of Human Action,
Ludwig von Mises writes:
The historical role of the theory of the division of labor as
elaborated by British political economy from Hume to Ricardo
consisted in the complete demolition of all metaphysical doctrines
concerning the origin and the operation of social cooperation. It
consummated the spiritual, moral and intellectual emancipation of
mankind inaugurated by the philosophy of Epicureanism.
This is a rather strong statement. Epicureanism, says Mises,
inaugurated the spiritual, moral and intellectual emancipation of
mankind. There are several other passages in his books where he
mentions this philosophy in a very favourable light, but without ever
explaining in details why. And although a lot of attention has been
devoted to the influence of Aristotle, Aquinas, the Scholastics, the
French liberals and others on Austrian ideas, as far as I know, nobody
has ever paid attention to Epicurus.
Now, why would Mises make
such a claim in relation to a philosophy that has been so reviled for
2000 years? Stacks of new books devoted to Plato, Aristotle and other
philosophers of Antiquity appear every year. But if you go to a
university library, you will usually find a shelf or two containing
books on Epicureanism, and that's for all those that were published in
the past hundred years.
Epicureanism has been
largely forgotten. And when it is mentioned, it is usually the
distorted view that has been propagated since Antiquity that is being
repeated. Epicureanism is said to be the philosophy of "Eat, drink and
be merry because tomorrow you die." An "Epicure" is a depraved and
irresponsible individual only concerned with bodily pleasures. In
Austrian terms, we would say he has very high time preference.
I even read in an
posted on LewRockwell.com that the unbridled hedonism of the
Epicureans played an important role in the transformation of ancient
Rome from a republic to an empire. There is not a shred
of historical evidence that they had that kind of influence, and
Epicureans were not a licentious lot anyway. On the contrary, their
goal was tranquility of mind. For them, it is true, all pleasures were
good, including those of the body. But they tried to attain happiness
by planning their lives in the long term in the most rational way
Epicurus' ethics can be
summed up by this sentence from his
Letter to Menoeceus: "For it is
not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and
women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant
table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which
searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out
the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's
Let me briefly give you
some general information. Epicurus was born in 341 B.C., only six
years after Plato's death. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died.
This event conventionally separates the classical Greece of
independent city-states from the Hellenistic period, when Alexander's
generals and their dynasties ruled vast kingdoms in the former Persian
Empire. He set up his school in a Garden in the outskirt of Athens.
There is very little that survived from his many books. But
fortunately, the work of his Roman disciple Lucretius, who lived in
the first century B.C.,
De Rerum Natura, or On the Nature of
Things, was rediscovered in the 15th century.
Through this work,
Epicureanism had a major influence on the development of science in
the following centuries. Epicurus had borrowed and refined the atomic
hypothesis of earlier philosophers, and De Rerum Natura was
studied and discussed by most scientists and philosophers of the West.
The physics of Epicureanism, which explains that worlds spontaneously
emerge from the interaction of millions of tiny particles, still looks
amazingly modern. It is the only scientific view coming out of the
Ancient World that one can still read today and find relevant.
Those influenced by
Epicureanism include Hobbes, Mandeville, Hume, Locke, Smith, and many
of the British moralists up to the 19th century. They not only
discussed the Atomic theory, but Epicurean ethics, his views on the
origin of society, on religion, his evolutionary account of life, and
other aspects of his philosophy.
To me, Epicureanism is
the closest thing to a libertarian philosophy that you can find in
Antiquity. Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, were all statists to various
degrees, glorified political involvement, and devised political
programs for their audiences of rich and well-connected aristocrats.
Epicurus focused on the individual search for happiness, counselled
not to get involved in politics because of the personal trouble it
brings, and thought that politics was irrelevant. His school included
women and slaves. He had no political program to offer and one can
find no concept of collective virtues or order or justice in his
teachings. On the contrary, the search for happiness implied that
individuals should be as free as possible to plan their lives. To him,
as one of his sayings goes "natural justice is a pledge guaranteeing
mutual advantage, to prevent one from harming others and to keep
oneself from being harmed."