Montreal, November 11, 2007 • No 241




Dr. Edward W. Younkins is a Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia.




by Edward W. Younkins


          Epicurus (341-270 BC), a major philosopher of the Hellenistic period, largely relied upon Democritus for his materialistic and atomistic theory of nature. However, he does modify Democritus' metaphysics because of its skeptical and deterministic implications. Epicurus founded his physics based upon Democritus but discovered that Democritus had no distinguishing ethical doctrine and, therefore, had to formulate his own objective ethics. Epicurus went on to formulate a self-centered moral philosophy in which the individual person is the realm of moral enterprise.



          Epicurus held that the only things that exist are corporeal bodies and void. He taught that the elementary constituents of nature were discrete, solid, and indivisible material particles (i.e., atoms) and empty space. He said that everything that exists is made up of eternal atoms separately falling in space. The atoms are of different shapes and sizes and have weight. He taught that atomic motion is not solely the result of past motion and weight. Although subject to their past motion and weight, occasionally and randomly atoms swerve to the side resulting in atomic collisions. This lateral swerve involves a small angle of deviation from the original path. Objects in the world are therefore conglomerations of atoms or macrooscopic bodies that can be explained in terms of collisions, reboundings, and combinations of atoms. According to this accidentalist atomism, worlds spontaneously emerge from the interaction of innumerable small particles. Epicurus attempted to explain all natural phenomena in atomistic terms through a naturalistic account of evolution from formation of the world to the emergence of human societies. Some thinkers interpret this to mean that he would have a difficult, but not impossible, task in accounting for the persistent nature of objects and species (e.g., man).

          Other thinkers interpret Epicurus as maintaining that atoms do randomly bump into each other, and so eventually, given the laws of nature that allow for order to appear and persist, it can be inferred that in the infinite time and space of the universe order will indeed appear in various places. In other words, nature randomly tries all kinds of combinations, but only those that accord to the laws of nature emerge and persist.

          Epicurus believed that all that exists is corporeal and that the universe has no beginning, has always existed, and will always exist. He wanted to eliminate the idea that God created everything and that human behavior should be based on obedience to God-given principles. He also wanted to dispense with transcendent entities such as Platonic Forms existing in themselves in some supernatural world. His goal was to liberate mankind from the fear of God and from the fear of death. Epicurus taught that fear of the gods and fear of death can be eliminated by right doctrine.

Death and the Soul

          He used his radical, atomistic, and materialistic metaphysics to deny the possibility of the soul's survival after death and its possible punishment in the afterlife. Epicurus taught that soul atoms become disarranged at death and therefore could no longer support conscious life. Upon death, the body decomposes, and all of its atoms become dispersed throughout the air. At death, a particular body, including the soul (or mind), becomes a number of distinct atoms. The soul does not survive the death of the body. This is because a person is an inextricable union of an atomistic body and an atomistic soul (or mind). Epicurus is obviously the arch-enemy of any type of Cartesian dualism.

          According to Epicurus, the human person is composed of atoms of different sizes and shapes. Soul atoms are particularly fine, the most easily moving, distributed throughout the body, and are the means by which persons have sensations and experience pleasure and pain. A major part of the soul is concentrated in the chest and is the central location of higher intellectual functions. Epicurus' Identity Theory of Mind (or Soul) holds that the mind proper resides in the chest and is primarily responsible for sensation and thought. Other soul atoms are spread throughout the remainder of the body permitting the mind to communicate with it. Epicurus explains that the mind is able to engage in sensation and thought only when it is a part of a living body and only when the atoms that comprise it are correctly arranged.

Removing Sources of Anxiety

          Epicurus maintains that gods exist and that they too must be material beings and the result of purposeless and random events. These gods do not concern themselves with human beings. They are in a perfect state of contentment and free of any and all uneasiness. Only discontented beings act and because gods are perfect and totally contented they are not involved in any manner in human affairs.

          Epicurus contends that fear of death and punishment in the afterlife are primary causes of anxiety that itself is the source of irrational desires. He states that the most preeminent negative mental state is the fear of irrational dangers such as death. Death is nothing to us while we are alive and when death occurs we no longer exist. Epicurus says that death need not worry anyone because only a living being has sensations of either pain or pleasure. The time before a person was born (i.e., the past infinity of pre-natal nonexistence) is like the future infinity of post-mortem non-existence. He explains that, in the absence of fear of God or of death, a man's life is totally under his control. Because he denied immortality, Epicurus apprehended that all values must occur during the span of one's life and that life itself was the greatest good. He contended that the only thing that is intrinsically good is one's own pleasure or happiness. His focus was on the individual search for happiness. He emphasized the individual's desires for bodily and mental pleasure rather than upon God's commandments or abstract principles of proper conduct.

          According to Epicurus, the goal of human life is happiness that results from the absence of physical pain (aponia) and the absence of mental disturbances (ataraxia). He says that the attainment of pleasure is the aim of all human action. Pleasure, the standard of goodness, is the beginning and end of a happy life. Epicurus employed integrative induction and deduction to discover the goal of pleasure for human beings. He observed reality and abstracted to reach this fundamental conclusion. Epicurus asserts that the pursuit of pleasure must be guided by reason, that a man should make sober calculations with respect to the motives and rationale for his every choice and avoidance, and that simplicity is the key to pleasure. He recommends a virtuous, somewhat ascetic life as the best means to gain pleasure.

The Swerve

          Epicurus observed spontaneity and the ability to originate action in human beings, was concerned with rational agency, and wanted to defend and preserve a person's ability to use his reason to control his actions and to shape his character. He therefore advanced the idea of the swerve in order to provide space for voluntary undetermined action. Epicurus' notion of the swerve introduces indeterminacy into the universe and argues for the possibility of action not wholly deriving from the positions of the soul's constituent atoms. He says that the swerve is necessary to preserve human freedom and to break the bonds of determinism. The swerving of atoms to the side at uncertain times is thought by Epicurus to save us from determinism. He maintains that the mind is undetermined and capable of any motion up to the time when it actually moves. Free volition permits each of us to move ourselves as we choose. Unfortunately, Epicurus does not provide a detailed explanation on how the swerve actually does preserve human freedom. It is problematic how the swerve can explain free will.

          Epicurus provides no explanation of if, and how, the swerve is involved in the production of every free action. He does not tell clearly, and in detail, how the swerve is supposed to effect human choices. In addition, upon analysis, it appears that the atomic swerve, as he described it, would only effect a random change and therefore not have any connection with morality. Of course, on the positive side, Epicurus did at least recognize the free will problem and ingeniously used the idea of the swerve to "solve" the problem of free will.


          Epicurus' ethics can be viewed as a form of egoistic hedonism (or hedonistic egoism). He states that nature compels all human beings to search for pleasure and to avoid pain. Epicurus thus approached ethics from a biological (and psychological) perspective. He said that human beings need health of the body and calm of the soul and that freedom from pain and peace of mind imply a state of rest and tranquility. It follows that the true test of pleasure is the removal of all that gives pain. When a person reaches that goal he is in a state of contentment and rest called happiness, eudaimonia, or tranquility of mind (ataraxia).

          It follows that ethical evaluations of good and bad can be applied only with regard to the end (i.e., one's individual pleasure) toward which the contemplated action aims. But how does a person know what is good and bad? Epicurus' empiricist theory of knowledge begins with the testimony of the senses including sensations and perceptions of pleasure and pain. His anti-skeptical empiricist epistemology states that a person can gain knowledge by relying on the senses. Epicurus states that in addition to sensations, we learn truth and reality through one's preconceptions – ideas resulting from previous impressions. These preconceptions are formed in our material minds as the result of repeated sense experiences of similar objects or events.

Reason and the Virtues

          For Epicurus, reason is an instrument to help us live pleasurably. He taught that not every pleasure has the same value or is choiceworthy. It follows that the popular notion that Epicurean hedonism advocates a life of sensual delights is incorrect. Epicurus said that a person must use his reason to calculate what is in his best long-term self-interest and that prudence was the only real guide to happiness. He held that philosophy is essential for successful human living and that tranquil pleasures are superior to active ones. He also maintained that the standard for determining and arranging one's values is the application of reason to one's own life.

          According to Epicurus, virtues are rational behaviors that lead to eudaimonia. Virtues are desirable purely as instrumental means to happiness and are chosen because of pleasure and not for their own sake. He links virtues with living pleasurably and states that having positive character traits is a good strategy for an individual to attain happiness. For Epicurus, all virtues (including courage, self-sufficiency, integrity, justice, honesty, pride, and generosity) are ultimately forms of prudence. To be happy, a man must live prudently, well, and justly. Prudence is the greatest of the virtues and the source of all the other virtues.

Pleasures and Desires

          Epicurus distinguished between kinetic (moving or process) pleasures and static pleasure. Kinetic pleasures arise from movement and static pleasure involves the state of satiety and involves rest. Kinetic pleasure is what we experience when we are in the process of satisfying our desires and static pleasure is the state of having satisfied our desires. Kinetic pleasures (aponia) are physical and deal with the present and static pleasure (ataraxia) involves an internal mental state in which fear, suffering, and agitation are absent or removed and the soul is at rest.

          Aponia can refer to active or lively pleasures that stem from motion and activity. It can also mean painlessness or physical health. Ataraxia can mean a quiet, calm, sedate, or tranquil state of mind. Ataraxia refers to state of mind that is rational, focused, clear, and without inner conflict or confusion. In ataraxia nothing is interfering with the natural state of the particular individual person.

"Epicurus believes that the more we can limit our pleasures and desires, especially to those that are the most necessary and most natural, the more likely we are to attain sustainable pleasure and happiness."

          Epicurus divides pleasures and desires into (1) natural and necessary (i.e., needs), (2) natural but unnecessary (i.e., wants) and (3) unnatural and unnecessary (i.e., vain and empty) ones. He believes that the more we can limit our pleasures and desires, especially to those that are the most necessary and most natural, the more likely we are to attain sustainable pleasure and happiness. The internal and external conditions required for each person's survival are the components of Epicurus' idea of natural and necessary pleasure or desire. Certain things are needed for a man's freedom from disturbances and necessary for the individual's life itself. According to Epicurus, pleasure is objective to the degree that it results from satisfying the natural and necessary desires.

          We could say that natural and necessary desires are foundational and that natural but non-necessary ones are derivative and optional. Epicurus emphasizes the life of voluntary simplicity with few or no civic obligations and with inconsiderable material possessions. Of course, because we are individuals, the idea of ataraxia permits variations for meeting people's needs According to Epicurus, a person can attain ataraxia only through the exercise of dispassionate reason.

Active Pleasure versus Static Pleasure

          The relationship between active pleasures and static pleasure can be debated. It is not clear if a kinetic activity can lead to tranquility or vice versa or if a lively pleasure such as work or sex can be of value and lead to ataraxia. In order to look at this question I would like to begin by reproducing something I wrote regarding happiness several years ago on pages 47-48 of my 2002 book, Capitalism and Commerce. The following was written years before I encountered Epicurus' teachings:

          Happiness in a comprehensive sense applies to one's life taken as a whole and thus arises from having a coherent, rationally chosen stance regarding the proper way to spend one's life. This is not the happiness we experience when we have obtained a particular goal or object. Rather, such metalevel happiness is evident through the holding of rational values with respect to the kind of life that is worth living and is characterized by a feeling of tranquility regarding the way one has lived and will continue to live his life. Metalevel happiness and object-level perturbation are compatible. Happiness at a metalevel provides a stable framework within which activity and striving are situated. A man who holds rational values and who selects ends and means consonant with the nature of existence and with the integrity of his own consciousness has achieved his values – not his existential values, but the philosophical values that are their precondition.

          Metalevel happiness requires a proper perspective that comes from the serenity or peace of mind one gets from knowing that one is free to rationally choose among alternatives …

          Metalevel happiness provides the confidence and peace of mind that enables us to enjoy our everyday pursuits (i.e., our passions). Whereas the serenity of metalevel happiness is unitary, our projects are many, diverse, and complex. Unlike metalevel tranquility that potentially can be the same for all, passions are different and unique for each person. Serenity results from the possession of a consistent and hierarchical system of beliefs, vales, and emotions. Our passions involve our desires to satisfy, through action, the values to which we are committed. There are reciprocal and synergistic effects between one's metalevel happiness and happiness that is experienced when one has achieved or passionately attempted to achieve a particular goal.

          Could Epicurus have meant something like the above? Static pleasure can be viewed as: (1) the pleasure of being in a state of having satisfied one's desires, (2) the pleasure of being in a state of not having certain types of desires, and (3) the pleasure one has when functioning in the natural state without interference. Given the third viewpoint, we could say that a person's projects are significant and may involve static pleasure if they engage the natural capacities of the unencumbered individual.

          Epicurus' idea of ataraxia implies an occurrent end state in which greater pleasure (i.e., tranquility) is not possible. Accordingly, one is either in that complete state or is not in that complete state. A person can be tranquil in degrees but cannot be completely tranquil in degrees. I believe that it follows that success in one's life projects and the extent of one's tranquility can have a positive and reciprocal relationship with one another. In other words, it may be possible to incrementally work up to the point of ataraxia. It is possible for a person to be living completely and fully without fear when he is totally engaged in his projects without being worried about finishing them, about how long it my may take to complete them, or about what comes next after they are realized. If a person's natural capacities are engaged by the projects he chooses and he pursues these without disturbances then during that time we could say that he has achieved ataraxia.

Friendship, Justice and Politics

          Epicurus values friendship highly as one of the best means of attaining pleasure. He said that men are oftentimes troubled by fear of other men and that friendship, which includes trust, helps to lessen the problem of hostility of other men. In human friendships there exist elements of protection, support, and help when needed. According to Epicurus, friendships develop so that specific and tangible benefits can be obtained in our efforts to maximize our pleasure. He states that although friendships arise because of our desire for pleasure, our love for our friends grows as our friendships advance and progress. No life can ultimately be satisfying unless it includes friends. Friendship is thus a kind of quasi-contractual relationship by which we love, and are loyal to, our friends. Epicurus understands that friendship involves both its intrinsic attractiveness and the commitment of loyalty founded upon a realistic assessment of security and tangible and intangible gains and rewards that friendship confers to an individual. Life with, and among, others can be expected to be good in Epicurus' benevolent universe. It follows that friends should only ask one another to do what is just and honorable.

          Epicurus has a well-developed contractarian theory of justice in which justice is seen as instrumental and laws are viewed as useful. Natural justice is a reciprocal and advantageous pledge to neither harm others or to be harmed by them. For Epicurus, the necessary and sufficient condition for the formation of civil society is the invalidation of the initiation of force. He teaches that a function of civil society is to deter those who might coerce and inflict pain upon other individuals.

          Epicurus explains that it is in one's self-interest to be just because no pleasure gained by injustice could compensate the prudent man for his loss of ataraxia. The wise man avoids wrong-doing because he has no interest in the inferior pleasures that are attained through injustice. Such unnatural and unnecessary pleasures would diminish the individual's security, self-sufficiency, and ataraxia.

          Epicurus cautions the wise man not to get involved in politics because of the personal perturbation it brings. He offered no political program and said that political power is inessential, irrelevant, and likely to be detrimental to a person's efforts to lead a happy life. Epicurus wanted each individual to be as free as possible to plan his own life. For Epicurus, the moral is what provides pleasure to individuals in a context in which there is no social discord. Given the above, it certainly sounds as if Epicurus was one of the world's first libertarians(1).


1. For more on this, see Martin Masse, "The Epicurean Roots of Some Classical Liberal and Misesian Concepts," Le Quιbιcois Libre, no. 153 (April 15, 2005).