Three centuries after his death, Plutarch (46-127 AD) wrote against
him in almost hysterical tone. He says:
Epicurus.... actually advises a cultivated monarch to put up with
recitals of stratagems and with vulgar buffooneries at his drinking
parties sooner than with the discussion of problems in music and
Colotes himself, for another, while hearing a lecture of Epicurus on
natural philosophy, suddenly cast himself down before him and
embraced his knees; and this is what Epicurus himself writes about
it in a tone of solemn pride: "You, as one revering my remarks on
that occasion, were seized with a desire, not accounted for by my
lecture, to embrace me by clasping my knees and lay hold of me to
the whole extent of the contact that is customarily established in
revering and supplicating certain personages. You therefore caused
me," he says, "to consecrate you in return and demonstrate my
reverence." My word! We can pardon those who say that they would pay
any price to see a painting of that scene, one kneeling at the feet
of the other and embracing his knees while the other returns the
supplication and worship. Yet that act of homage, though skillfully
contrived by Colotes, bore no proper fruit: he was not proclaimed a
Sage. Epicurus merely says: "Go about as one immortal in my eyes,
and think of me as immortal too."(11)
Now, all this and more was said against Epicurus when the whole body
of his writings was still available, and by men who had access to
those writings. It is unlikely, bearing in mind their general
ability, that they were incapable of understanding plain Greek. So
what could have been their motivation for misrepresenting him in
defiance of the evidence, or in repeating personal libels irrelevant
to his philosophy?
A possible answer is that they hated his philosophy for other
reasons that they were not able or did not wish fully to discuss.
What does make Epicurus and his philosophy so controversial is one
further piece of advice on the pursuit of happiness. It is
impossible to be happy, he insists, unless we understand the nature
of the universe and our own place within the universe.(12)
The Maintenance of Social Control
The central problem of almost every society before
about 1950 has been how to reconcile the great majority to
distributions of property in which they are at a disadvantage. Only
a minority has even been able to enjoy secure access to abundant
food and good clothing and clean water and healthcare and education.
Whether actually enslaved or formally free sellers of labour, the
majority have always had to look up to a minority of the rich and
often legally privileged. How to keep them quiet?
Force can only ever be part of the answer. The poor have always been
the majority, and sometimes the great majority. Armies of
mercenaries to protect the rich have not always been available, and
they have never by themselves been sufficient to compel obedience on
all occasions in every respect.
Force, therefore, has always been joined by religious terrors. In
Egypt, the king was a god, and the privileged system of which he was
the head was part of a divine order that the common people were
enjoined never to challenge. In the other monarchies of the near
east, the king might not actually be a god. But all the priests
taught that he was part of a divinely ordained order that it was
blasphemy to challenge.
In the Greek city states until about a century before the birth of
Epicurus, securing the obedience of the poor had not been a serious
problem. There had been some class conflict, even in Athens. But
most land was occupied by smallholders, and excess population could
be decanted into the colonies of Italy and the western Mediterranean.
There were rich citizens, but they were usually placed under heavy
obligations to contribute to the defence and ornament of their
Then a combination of commercial progress and the disruptions of the
war between Athens and Sparta created a steadily widening gulf
between rich and poor. There was also a growing problem of how to
maintain large but unknown numbers of slaves in peaceful subjection.
The result was a class war that destabilised every Greek state. The
sort of democracy seen in Athens could survive in a society where
citizens were broadly equal. Once a small class of rich and a much
larger class of the poor had emerged, there was a continual tendency
for democratic assemblies to be led by demagogues into policies of
levelling that could be ended only by the rise of a tyrant, who
would secure the wealth of the majority but who could secure it
only so long as the poor could be terrified into submission. Once
they could not be terrified by the threat of overwhelming force,
they would rise up and dispossess the rich, until a new tyrant could
emerge to subdue them again.
Unlike in the monarchies of the near east, no settled order could be
maintained in Greece by religious terrors. During the sixth and
fifth centuries, the Greek mind had experienced the first
enlightenment of which we have record. There had been a growth of
philosophy and science that revealed a world governed by laws that
could be uncovered and understood by the unaided reason.
Now, enlightenments are always dangerous to an established religion.
And the Greek religion was unusually weak as a counterweight to
reason. The Greeks had no conception of a single, omnipotent God the
Creator. Instead, they had a pantheon of supernatural beings who had
not created the world, but were subject to many of its limitations.
They were frequently at war with each other, and so they could be
set against each other by their human worshippers with timely
sacrifices and other bribes. They did not watch continually over
human actions, and beyond the occasional punishment and reward to
the living, they had no means of compelling observance of any code
of human conduct.
And so, when the intellectual disturbance of philosophy and science
spilled over into demands for a reconstruction of society in which
property would be equalised, there was no religious establishment
with the authority to stand by the side of the rich.
The Contribution of Plato
This is a problem addressed by Plato in at least
two of his works The Republic and The Laws. The first is his
description of an ideal state, the second of a state less than ideal
but still worth working towards. I do not claim to be an expert on
Plato, though am dubious of many of the claims made against him.
However, his general solution to the problem is to stop the
enlightenment and to reconstruct society as a totalitarian oligarchy.
His ideal society would be one in which democracy and any degree of
accountability would have been abolished, together with married life
and the family and private property. Poetry was to be abolished. All
other art and music were to be controlled. There was to be a
division of society into orders at the head of which was to be a
class of guardians. These would strictly control all thought and
His workable society would be one in which some property and some
accountability would be allowed to remain. Even so, there was to be
the same attempt at controlling thought and action.
The stability of these systems was to be maintained by a new
theology. A single divine being would take the place of the
quarrelling, scandalous gods of mythology and the Homeric poems. The
common people could be left with a purified version of the old cults.
But these gods would be increasingly aligned with the secondary
spirits through which the One God directed His Creation.
People were to be taught that the Platonic system was not a human
construct, but that it reflected the Will of Heaven. Rebellion or
disobedience would be punished by the direct intervention of God
through His Secondary Spirits. Before then, though, it would be
punished by the state as heresy. At the end of the fifth century,
Anaxagoras had been exiled from Athens for claiming that the sun was
a ball of glowing rock. This had been an occasional persecution
indeed, it is hard to think of other instances. In the Platonic
system, there was to be a regular inquisition that would punish
nonconformity with imprisonment or death.(13)
Thus there is at the heart of the Platonic system a "noble lie"
though Plato may have believed much of it himself. This is of a
religion that looks into the most secret places of the mind, and
dispenses rewards and punishments according to what is found there.
In the old theology, Poseidon had no power beyond on land. Apollo
had none in the dark. Zeus had no idea who was thinking what. The
Platonic God was just like ours. No sin against His Wishes could go
undetected or unpunished.
And so the people were to be kept in line by fear not quite of
hellfire, but by fear of everything short of that.(14)
It seems to have been against all this that
Epicurus reacted. For Plato, the world of appearance was a kind of
dream, and the real world was something that only the initiated
could begin to understand through logic and mathematics and perhaps
a dash of magic. So far as it existed, matter was evil, and the
universe was strictly bounded in space and time.
For Epicurus, the world of appearance was the real world. There is a
void, or vacuum, which is infinite in space and time. It has always
existed. It will always exist. It goes on forever and ever. In this
void is an infinite number of atoms. These are very small, and
therefore imperceptible, but indivisible particles of matter. They
have always existed and will always exist. They are all moving
through the void at an incredibly rapid and uniform speed. The world
as we see it is based on combinations of these atoms. Every atom is
hooked, and the collision of atoms will sometimes lead to
combinations of atoms into larger structures, some of which endure
and some of which we can eventually perceive with our senses. All
observed changes in the world are the result of redistributions of
the invisible atoms that comprise it.
Though we are not able to see these atoms, we can infer their
existence by looking at the world that our senses can perceive. All
events the wearing away of a rock by water, for example, or the
growth of crystals or trees can be fully explained by an atomic
hypothesis. Since there is nothing that cannot be so explained,
there is no need of any other hypotheses. In a surviving explanation
of his method, he says:
...[I]n our study of nature we must not conform to empty assumptions
and arbitrary laws, but follow the prompting of the facts.(15)
Everything in the universe is made of atoms. We are made of atoms.
Our souls are made of very fine atoms. Our senses work because every
other physical object is continually casting off very thin films of
atoms that represent it exactly as it is. These films strike on our
senses and give us vision and sound. Heat is produced by the
vibration of atoms temporarily trapped in combinations that prevent
them from their natural onward motion.(16)
Whether or not anyone can at any moment think of a likely
explanation, all events in the universe can be explained in purely
naturalistic terms. Assuming atoms and motion, no further hypotheses
are needed to explain the world.
Epicurus was not the first to explain the world by an atomic
hypothesis. That was Democritus (460-370 BC). But he seems to have
developed the hypothesis with a consistency and detail that took it
far beyond anything that earlier philosophers had conceived.
Perhaps his most notable innovation is the doctrine of the swerve.
There are two objections to the atomism of Democritus. The first is
that if the atoms are all moving at the same speed and in the same
direction, like drops of rain, there is no reason to suppose they
will ever collide and form larger compounds. The second is that if
they are not moving in the same direction, they will collide, but
they will form a universe locked into an unbreakable sequence of
cause and effect. This conflicts with the observed fact of free will.
And so Epicurus argues that every atom is capable of a very small
and random deviation from its straight motion. This is enough to
give an indeterminacy to the universe that does not conflict with an
overall regularity of motion.
It would be easy to diverge from this general
overview into a detailed examination of the physics. This is because
Epicurus seems to have been largely right. We now believe, as he did,
that the universe is made of atoms, and if we do not now talk about
motion, we do talk about energy and force. His physics are an
Of course, he was often wrong. He denigrated mathematics. He seems
to have believed that the sun and moon were about the same size as
they appear to us.(17) Then there is an apparent defect in his
conception of the atomic movements. Does the universe exist by
accident? Or are there laws of nature beyond the existence and
movement of the atoms? The first is not impossible. An infinite
number of atoms in an infinite void over infinite time will, every
so often, come together in an apparently stable universe. They may
also hold together, moving in clusters in ways that suggest
regularity. But this chance combination might be dissolved at any
moment though, given every sort of infinity, some of these
universes will continue for long periods.
If Epicurus had this first in view, what point in trying to explain
present phenomena in terms of cause and effect? Causality only makes
sense on the assumption that the future will be like the past. If he
had the second in mind, it is worth asking what he thought of the
nature of these laws? Might they not, for example, have had an
author? Since Newton, we have contented ourselves with trying to
uncover regularities of motion and not going beyond these. But the
Greeks had a much stronger teleological sense.
Perhaps these matters were not discussed. Perhaps they were
discussed, but we have no record of them in the surviving
discussions. Or perhaps they have survived, but I have overlooked
them. But it does seem to me that Epicurean physics do not fully
discuss the nature of the laws that they assume.
On the other hand, let me quote two passages from his surviving
Moreover, there is an infinite number of worlds, some like this
world, others unlike it. For the atoms being infinite in number...
are borne ever further in their course. For the atoms out of which a
world might arise, or by which a world might arise, or by which a
world might be formed, have not all be expended on one world or a
finite number of worlds, whether like or unlike this one. Hence
there will be nothing to hinder an infinity of worlds....
And further, we must not suppose that the worlds have necessarily
one and the same shape. For nobody can prove that in one sort of
world there might not be contained, whereas in another sort of world
there could not possibly be, the seeds out of which animals and
plants arise and the rest of the things we see.(18)
What we have here is the admission that there may, in the infinite
universe, be other worlds like our own, and these may contain
sentient beings like ourselves. And there may be worlds
inconceivably unlike our own. And there is the claim that living
beings arise and develop according to natural laws. Epicurus would
not have been surprised either by modern physics or by Darwinism.
The Purpose of the Physics
However, while the similarities between Epicurean
physics and modern science are striking, there is one profound
difference. For us, the purpose of science is to give us an
understanding of the world that brings with it the ability to
control the world and remake it for our own convenience. This is our
desire, and this has been our achievement because we have fully
developed methods of observation and experiment. The Greeks had
limited means of observation no microscopes or telescopes, nor
even accurate clocks. Nor had they much conception of experiment.
Moreover, scientific progress neither was conceived by Epicurus nor
would have been regarded as desirable. He says very emphatically:
If we had never been troubled by celestial and atmospheric phenomena,
nor by fears about death, nor by our ignorance of the limits of
pains and desires, we should have had no need of natural
He says again:
...[R]emember that, like everything else, knowledge of celestial
phenomena, whether taken along with other things or in isolation,
has no other end in view than peace of mind and firm