Montreal, November 11, 2007 • No 241




Sean Gabb is a British libertarian writer, broadcaster, Academic and Director of the Libertarian Alliance.




by Sean Gabb


E TENEBRIS tantis tam clarum extollere lumen
qui primus potuisti inlustrans commoda uitae,
te sequor, o Graiae gentis decus, inque tuis nunc
ficta pedum pono pressis uestigia signis,
non ita certandi cupidus quam propter amorem
quod te imitari aueo; quid enim contendat hirundo
cycnis, aut quidnam tremulis facere artubus haedi
consimile in cursu possint et fortis equi uis?
tu, pater, es rerum inuentor, tu patria nobis
suppeditas praecepta, tuisque ex, inclute, chartis,
floriferis ut apes in saltibus omnia libant,
omnia nos itidem depascimur aurea dicta,
aurea, perpetua semper dignissima uita.

          (Lucretius, III, 1-13)



          Epicurus (341-270 BC) was, with Plato and Aristotle, one of the three great philosophers of the ancient world. He developed an integrated system of ethics and natural philosophy that, he claimed and many accepted, showed everyone the way to a life of the greatest happiness. The school that he founded remained open for 798 years after his death. While it lost place during the last 200 of these years, his philosophy held until then a wide and often decisive hold on the ancient mind.

          The revival of Epicureanism in the 17th century coincided with the growth of scientific rationalism and classical liberalism. There can be no doubt these facts are connected. It may, indeed, be argued that the first was a leading cause of the second two, and that we are now living in a world shaped, in every worthwhile sense, by the ideas of Epicurus.

Life and Times

          Epicurus was born on the 4th February 341 BC on Samos, an island in the Aegean close by the coast of what is now Turkey. Because he was the son of colonists from that city, he was called to Athens at the age of 18 for two years of compulsory military service. With this exception, he devoted his entire life to teaching and writing.(1)

          His philosophical education began with Pamphilus, a follower of Plato, and ended with Nausiphanes, a follower of Democritus. He taught for a while in the school his father had established on Samos. In 311-10, he taught at Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. He then taught for a while at Lampsacus, a city not far from what became Constantinople. He returned to Athens in 306, where he founded a school known as the Garden. Here he remained, teaching and writing, until he died from infected kidney stones in 270 at the age of 71. He died unmarried and without children.

          His life overlaps what modern historians call the Classical and the Hellenistic periods of ancient history. He was born in a Greece that was divided, as it always had been, into many city states. None was larger than an English county. Few had a population of more than 30,000. Each was or sought to be a universe in itself, claiming the total commitment of its citizens and acknowledging no higher source of civil or religious authority. This world was bounded to the east by the decayed but still significant Persian Empire, and to the north by the rising but still mostly distant kingdom of Macedon. Rome was a small city state continually at war with its neighbours in central Italy. It was almost unknown to the Greeks of the Aegean.

          In the year that Epicurus was born, Plato had been dead for six years, Aristotle was 43 and had another 19 years to live, and Alexander the Great was 15.

          In the year of his death, Alexander had been dead for 53 years, and had conquered most of the known world, including the Persian Empire, and had spread Greek dominion and Greek civilisation from Libya to India. Some city states remained independent, but had now to survive in a world of giant empires ruled by Greek despots and Greek bureaucracies. The bond between city and citizen had been at least weakened. It was being replaced by a heightened sense of individuality, and above this by the notion of a common Greek nationality – and even by an emerging notion of a common humanity.

          Six years after his death, the Romans began the first of their three wars with Carthage that would, within another century, leave them as the dominant power in the Mediterranean.

          Relating what people think to what is happening around them is never easy, and our knowledge of the ancient world is not sufficient to claim anything with confidence. And the circumstances in which a philosopher lives have no bearing on the truth of what he writes. But Epicurus lived through the beginning of an age that was to be unusually favourable to the spread of his doctrines.

Sources of Information

          Before discussing what these doctrines were, however, I need to explain our sources of information for Epicurus and his school. According to Diogenes Laertius, Epicurus himself was the most prolific of all the main ancient philosophers. His total original writings filled 300 papyrus rolls.(2) If we take one papyrus roll as containing the equivalent of 30 printed octavo pages, his collected works would fill 30 modern volumes. His longest single work, On Nature, filled 37 papyrus rolls, which makes it about as long as Das Kapital.

          To these original writings, we must add the various writings of his followers, both during his life and during the following six centuries or so. These also were substantial. Taken together, they must easily have filled a library.

          Moreover, unlike its main rivals, Epicureanism was a proselytising philosophy. There were no hidden teachings – no mysteries too complex for the written word. There was no need for long preparatory studies in logic and mathematics and rhetoric before the meaning of the Master could become plain. No one was too old or too young to embrace the truths taught by Epicurus. He accepted slaves and even women to the courses he ran in the Garden. He wrote in the plainest Greek consistent with precise expression of his doctrines.(3) He discouraged his followers from poetry and rhetoric.

          For those able or inclined to study his doctrines in full, there were the many volumes of On Nature. For those not so able or inclined, there was a still substantial abridgement, and then a shorter summary. For the less attentive or the uneducated, there were collections of very brief sayings – whole arguments compressed into statements that could be memorised and repeated.

          Nearly all of these works have vanished. Of what Epicurus himself wrote, we have three complete letters and a list of brief sayings known as the Principal Doctrines. Of other Epicurean writings, we have the Vatican Sayings, which is another collection of brief statements, some by Epicurus. We have a biography of Epicurus by Diogenes Laertius, which summarises his main doctrines and also contains the only extant whole works already mentioned. We have more of the brief statements and a partial summary of the whole system inscribed at the expense of another Diogenes on a wall in Oenoanda, a city in what is now northern Turkey.

          There are the elaborate refutations of Epicureanism by Cicero and Plutarch. These inevitably outline and sometimes even quote what they are attacking. There are hundreds of other references to Epicurus in the surviving literature of the ancient world. Some of these are useful sources of information. Some are our only sources of information on certain points of the philosophy.

          During the past few centuries, scholars have been trying to read the charred papyrus rolls from a library in Herculaneum buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Some of these contain works by Philodemus of Gadara, an Epicurean philosopher of the 1st century BC. Much of this library remains unexcavated, and most of the rolls recovered have not really been examined. There are hopes that a complete work by Epicurus will one day be found here.

          Above all else, though, is the De Rerum Natura of Lucretius. He was a Roman poet who died around the year 70 BC. His epic, in which he claims to restate the physical doctrines of Epicurus, was unfinished at the time of his death, and it is believed that Cicero himself edited the six completed books and published the text roughly as it has come down to us. This is one of the greatest poems ever written, and perhaps the strangest of all the great poems. It is also the longest explanation in a friendly source of the physical theories of Epicurus.

          Therefore, if anyone tries to say in any detail what Epicurus believed, he will not be arguing from strong authority. If we compare the writings of any extant philosopher with the summaries and commentaries, we can see selective readings and exaggerations and plain misunderstandings. How much of what Karl Marx really said can be reliably known from the Marxist and anti-Marxist scholars of the 20th century? Even David Hume, who wrote very clearly in a very clear language, seems to have been consistently misunderstood by his 19th century critics. For Epicurus, we may have reliable information about the main points of his ethics and his physics. We have almost no discussions of his epistemology or his philosophy of mind. Anyone who tries writing on these is largely guessing.

          All this being said, enough has survived to make a general account of the philosophy possible. Epicurus appears to have been a consistent thinker. Though it may only ever be a guess – unless the archaeologists in Herculaneum find the literary equivalent of Tutankhamen's tomb – we can with some confidence proceed from what Epicurus did say to what he might have said. Certainly, we can give a general account of the philosophy.

The Pursuit of Happiness

          Epicurus begins with the question asked by Socrates at the end of the fifth century – what is the good life? His answer is that the good lies not in virtue or justice or wisdom – though these are not to be ignored – but in happiness.

          "Pleasure" he writes," is our first and kindred good. It is the starting point of every choice and every aversion, and to it we come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing."(4)

          Now we have more than enough of Epicurus to know that he is not arguing for what are called the self-indulgent pleasures – of eating and drinking and sex and the like. Aristippus of Cyrene (c435-366 BC), we are told, had already argued for these. He also claimed that happiness was the highest good, but went on to claim that happiness lay in the pursuit of pleasure regardless of convention or the feelings of others or of the future.

          This interpretation was attached to Epicurus in his own lifetime, and the attachment has been maintained down to the present – so that the words "Epicure" and "Epicurean" have the meaning of self-indulgent luxury.

          What Epicurus plainly means by happiness is the absence of pain. We are driven to act by a feeling of discontent. We seek food because we are hungry. We seek warmth because we are cold. We seek medicine because we are sick. Once we have acted correctly and removed the cause of discontent, we are happy.

          Turning to his own words, he says:

          When we say... that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice or wilful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not by an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not by sexual lust, nor the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul. Of this the beginning and the greatest good is wisdom. Therefore wisdom is a more precious thing than even philosophy; from it springs all the other virtues, for it teaches that we cannot live pleasantly without living wisely, honourably and justly; nor live wisely, honourably and justly without living pleasantly.(5)

          In this scheme, therefore, happiness is to be defined as peace of mind, or ataraxia. This pursuit of happiness does involve bodily pleasure, but such pleasure is a means to the greater end of ataraxia. "No pleasure" he says," is a bad thing in itself, but the things which produce certain pleasures entail disturbances many times greater than the pleasures themselves."(6)

          His ethics of pleasure can be summarised as:

          The pleasure which produces no pain is to be embraced. The pain which produces no pleasure is to be avoided. The pleasure is to be avoided which prevents a greater pleasure, or produces a greater pain. The pain is to be endures which averts a greater pain, or secures a greater pleasure.(7)

          And so the happy man for Epicurus is one who lives simply within his means, who seeks only those pleasures which contribute to his long term peace of mind.

          And while hedonism is ultimately a doctrine of selfishness, what Epicurus had in mind was not a life spent in the pursuit of solitary happiness. He says: "Of the means which wisdom acquires to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is friendship."(8)

          It may be that we seek friendship for selfish reasons. But friendship is to be persistently sought and maintained throughout life. Epicurus himself had an immense capacity for friendship.

A Scandalised Reception

          This is a very brief overview of his ethical teachings. Hedonism has always been a controversial doctrine, so far as it is opposed to the teachings of the explicitly altruistic philosophies and religious systems. There are difficulties with hedonism when it comes to the exact comparison of pleasures. We do not have any of the more detailed works in which Epicurus might have attempted what Jeremy Bentham later called a "felicific calculus." But, bearing in mind the difficulties that Bentham and the 19th century utilitarians found when they tried to move from principles to details, there is no reason to suppose he was more successful.

          However, it is hard to see anything so scandalous in the pursuit of happiness through moderation and through friendship that should have brought on a flood of often hysterical denunciation and misrepresentation in antiquity that began in his own lifetime and did not end even with the loss of virtually the whole body of Epicurean writings.

          The early accusations are very detailed, and are cited by Diogenes Laertius. Among much else, it is alleged:

That he wrote 50 obscene letters;
That one of his brothers was a pimp;
That his understanding of philosophy was small and his understanding of life even smaller;
That he put forward as his own the doctrines of Democritus about atoms and of Aristippus about pleasure;
That in his On Nature Epicurus says the same things over and over again and writes largely in sheer opposition to others, especially against his former teacher Nausiphanes;
That he was not a genuine Athenian;
That he vomited twice a day from over-indulgence.(9)


“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.”

          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 poetry.(10)

And again:

          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 cities.

          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 action.

          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)

True Physics

          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.

The Physics Developed

          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 astonishing achievement.

          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 writings:

          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 science.(19)

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 convictions.(20)


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* This is the text of a lecture given on the 6th September 2007 to the 6/20 Club in London.
1. Nearly all our biographical information about Epicurus comes from Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book X. Diogenes was an otherwise unknown biographer and compiler of the 3rd century AD. An English translation of his Life of Epicurus is available at  – checked August 2007. All quotations from Epicurus are taken from the translations made available on this site. Many of these are duplicated in different versions at
2. "Epicurus was quite a prolific author, surpassing all in the quantity of books produced. He authored, in fact, some three hundred books, and he never cited any other authors – all the words contained in them were Epicurus' own." (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, X. 26.)
3. See, among many others, Diogenes Laertius: "He uses plain language in his works throughout, which is unusual, and Aristophanes, the grammarian, reproaches him for it. He was so intent on clarity that even in his treatise On Rhetoric, he didn't bother demanding anything else but clarity." (ibid.)
4. Epicurus," Letter to Menoeceus," contained in Diogenes Laertius, op. cit.
5. Ibid.
6. Principal Doctrines, 8, quoted in Diogenes Laertius, op. cit.
7. W. E. H. Lecky, History of European Morals from Augusts to Charlemagne (first published 1869), Longmans, Green & Co, London, 1911, volume 1, p. 14. Lecky is translating Pierre Gassendi, Philosophiae Epicuri Syntagma, who in turn is summarising the ancient sources.
8. Principal Doctrines, 27.
9. Diogenes Laertius, op. cit.
10. Plutarch, That Epicurus Actually Makes a Pleasant Life Impossible, 13, p. 1095C, helpfully collected by Erik Anderson, Epicurea: Selections from the Classic Compilation of Hermann Usener (1834-1905), 2005 – available at:  – checked August 2007.
11. Plutarch, Against Colotes, 17, p. 1117B, in Anderson, ibid.
12. Adapted from Principal Doctrines, 12.
13. Plato is an incredibly verbose writer in English translation, and is almost unreadable in Greek. Finding any useably short quotation to explain what he appears to be arguing is next to impossible. But take this on the duty of the magistrate to punish "impiety": "After the prelude shall follow a discourse, which will be the interpreter of the law; this shall proclaim to all impious persons: – that they must depart from their ways and go over to the pious. And to those who disobey, let the law about impiety be as follows: – If a man is guilty of any impiety in word or deed, any one who happens to be present shall give information to the magistrates, in aid of the law; and let the magistrates who first receive the information bring him before the appointed court according to the law; and if a magistrate, after receiving information, refuses to act, he shall be tried for impiety at the instance of any one who is willing to vindicate the laws; and if any one be cast, the court shall estimate the punishment of each act of impiety; and let all such criminals be imprisoned. There shall be three prisons in the state: the first of them is to be the common prison in the neighbourhood of the agora for the safe-keeping of the generality of offenders; another is to be in the neighbourhood of the nocturnal council, and is to be called the 'House of Reformation'; another, to be situated in some wild and desolate region in the centre of the country, shall be called by some name expressive of retribution. Now, men fall into impiety from three causes, which have been already mentioned, and from each of these causes arise two sorts of impiety, in all six, which are worth distinguishing, and should not all have the same punishment. For he who does not believe in Gods, and yet has a righteous nature, hates the wicked and dislikes and refuses to do injustice, and avoids unrighteous men, and loves the righteous. But they who besides believing that the world is devoid of Gods are intemperate, and have at the same time good memories and quick wits, are worse; although both of them are unbelievers, much less injury is done by the one than by the other. The one may talk loosely about the Gods and about sacrifices and oaths, and perhaps by laughing at other men he may make them like himself, if he be not punished. But the other who holds the same opinions and is called a clever man, is full of stratagem and deceit – men of this class deal in prophecy and jugglery of all kinds, and out of their ranks sometimes come tyrants and demagogues and generals and hierophants of private mysteries and the Sophists, as they are termed, with their ingenious devices. There are many kinds of unbelievers, but two only for whom legislation is required; one the hypocritical sort, whose crime is deserving of death many times over, while the other needs only bonds and admonition. In like manner also the notion that the Gods take no thought of men produces two other sorts of crimes, and the notion that they may be propitiated produces two more. Assuming these divisions, let those who have been made what they are only from want of understanding, and not from malice or an evil nature, be placed by the judge in the House of Reformation, and ordered to suffer imprisonment during a period of not less than five years. And in the meantime let them have no intercourse with the other citizens, except with members of the nocturnal council, and with them let them converse with a view to the improvement of their soul's health. And when the time of their imprisonment has expired, if any of them be of sound mind let him be restored to sane company, but if not, and if he be condemned a second time, let him be punished with death. As to that class of monstrous natures who not only believe that there are no Gods, or that they are negligent, or to be propitiated, but in contempt of mankind conjure the souls of the living and say that they can conjure the dead and promise to charm the Gods with sacrifices and prayers, and will utterly overthrow individuals and whole houses and states for the sake of money – let him who is guilty of any of these things be condemned by the court to be bound according to law in the prison which is in the centre of the land, and let no freeman ever approach him, but let him receive the rations of food appointed by the guardians of the law from the hands of the public slaves; and when he is dead let him be cast beyond the borders unburied, and if any freeman assist in burying him, let him pay the penalty of impiety to any one who is willing to bring a suit against him. But if he leaves behind him children who are fit to be citizens, let the guardians of orphans take care of them, just as they would of any other orphans, from the day on which their father is convicted." (The Laws, X, translated by Benjamin Jowett – available at:  – checked August 2007).
14. For a short and explicit statement of the "noble lie," see Polybius: "But the quality in which the Roman commonwealth is most distinctly superior is in my opinion the nature of their religious convictions. I believe that it is the very thing which among other peoples is an object of reproach, I mean superstition, which maintains the cohesion of the Roman State. These matters are clothed in such pomp and introduced to such an extent into their public and private life that nothing could exceed it, a fact which will surprise many. My own opinion at least is that they have adopted this course for the sake of the common people. It is a course which perhaps would not have been necessary had it been possible to form a state composed of wise men, but as every multitude is fickle, full of lawless desires, unreasoned passion, and violent anger, the multitude must be held in by invisible terrors and suchlike pageantry. For this reason I think, not that the ancients acted rashly and at haphazard in introducing among the people notions concerning the gods and beliefs in the terrors of hell, but that the moderns are most rash and foolish in banishing such beliefs. The consequence is that among the Greeks, apart from other things, members of the government, if they are entrusted with no more than a talent, though they have ten copyists and as many seals and twice as many witnesses, cannot keep their faith; whereas among the Romans those who as magistrates and legates are dealing with large sums of money maintain correct conduct just because they have pledged their faith by oath. Whereas elsewhere it is a rare thing to find a man who keeps his hands off public money, and whose record is clean in this respect, among the Romans one rarely comes across a man who has been detected in such conduct...." (Histories, VI, 56 – available at:  – checked August 2007.)
15. "Letter to Pythocles," contained in Diogenes Laertius, op. cit.
16. This summary of Epicurean physics is taken from the very full explanation given in Books One and Two of the De Rerum Natura of Titus Lucretius Carus. There is also the summary given by Epicurus himself in his "Letter to Herodotus," contained in Diogenes Laertius, op. cit.
17. "Letter to Pythocles."
18. "Letter to Herodotus," op. cit.
19. Principal Doctrines, 11.
20. "Letter to Pythocles," op. cit.