At a remote site in Turkey, archaeologists recently discovered fragments of the ancient world’s most massive inscription — and of course, it was in Greek — touting the benefits of the philosophy of Epicureanism.
The inscription, a quote from the Second century AD philosopher Diogenes, exhorts readers to follow Epicureanism, the way of life that encourages its adherents to seek modest, sustainable pleasure in the form of a state of ataraxia (tranquility and freedom from fear) through knowledge of the workings of the world, and limiting their desires.
One of ancient Greece’s most notable schools of philosophy, it was created by Epicurus, who lived in the fourth century BC. Originally meant as a challenge to Platonism, it propounded the avoidance of all things that would cause pain in life along with the seeking of all that was just and desirable.
Later opposed by the Stoics, it has at times been equated with the inordinate love of food and all things sensual, but this was far from the ideal as espoused by Epicurus.
One of the many schools of the ancient Greek philosophers, Epicureanism had one of its most zealous believers in Diogenes of Oenoanda, a wealthy disciple, who had a portico wall inscribed with tenets of the philosophy erected in the ancient Greek city of Oenoanda, Lycia.
Epicurus was an atomic materialist, leading him to assail the evils of superstition and divine intervention in every single event — such as weather — that occurred on the Earth.
Although Epicureanism is a form of hedonism insofar as it declares pleasure to be its sole intrinsic goal, its concept that the absence of pain and fear constitutes the greatest pleasure, and its advocacy of a simple life, make it very different from hedonism, or the unbridled pursuit of bodily pleasures.
Epicureanism flourished in the Late Hellenistic era and during the Roman era, and its followers established their own communities, such as those in Antiochia, Alexandria, Rhodes, and Herculaneum.
By the late 3rd century AD Epicureanism all but died out, however, being opposed by other philosophies (mainly Neoplatonism) that were now in the ascendant, as well as early Christianity. But interest in Epicureanism was resurrected in the Age of Enlightenment and it continues today in the modern era.
Epicurean inscription discovered by French archaeologists
In Oinoanda, we can see just how much the philosophy meant to Diogenes, who inscribed his words in support of Epicureanism on the wall of a stoa, or portico, in a public square. Later dismantled and reused as building material by the Ottomans, the monumental rock with its inscription has at least survived to this day, a testament to a bygone world.
In the winter of 1884, two young French epigraphers who were exploring the ruins of the ancient city, located in what is now southwestern Turkey, discovered five stone fragments inscribed with the writings of the long-forgotten philosopher now known as Diogenes of Oinoanda.
Scattered in ruins on a hilltop that was by then covered in cedar trees, they found the massive stone with its inscription, in which Diogenes explains why he committed his thoughts to posterity.
“The majority of people suffer from a common disease, as in a plague, with their false notions about things, and their number is increasing. …I wished to use this stoa to advertise publicly the (medicines) that bring salvation,” he begins.
His words, now made immortal by having them carved into stone, make clear that he hoped Oinoandans and others who gazed at the stone would consider his words and be converted to the Epicurean school of thought.
After the discovery of the five fragments was published and their significance understood, French and Austrian archaeological teams visited the area between 1885 and 1895, recovering another 83 fragments of the inscription.
Sole ancient philosophical text from Greek world to survive in its original form
Today, it remains the only ancient philosophical text from the Greek and Roman world to have survived in its original form, according to Archaeology Magazine.
A translation of the entire stone reads, in part: “As for the first bodies, also called elements, which on the one hand have subsisted from the beginning and are indestructible, and on the other hand generate things, we shall explain what they are after we have demolished the theories of others.”
Epicureanism argued that pleasure was the chief good in life, advocating living in such a way as to derive the greatest amount of pleasure possible during one’s lifetime, yet doing so moderately in order to avoid the suffering incurred by overindulgence in such pleasure.
The philosophy is often misunderstood, with an emphasis actually placed on pleasures of the mind rather than on physical pleasures. Unnecessary desires were to be suppressed, according to Epicurus.
The philosopher also sought to eliminate the irrational fear of the gods and of death, seeing those two fears as chief causes of strife in life. He also actively recommended against passionate love, as an unnecessary desire that should be avoided.
In Vatican Sayings, LI Epicurus is quoted as stating:
“I learn that your bodily inclination leans most keenly towards sexual intercourse. If you neither violate the laws nor disturb well established morals nor sadden someone close to you, nor strain your body, nor spend what is needed for necessities, use your own choice as you wish. It is sure difficult to imagine, however, that none of these would be a part of sex because sex never benefitted anyone.”
Simple friendship the best thing in life, according to Epicurus
Epicurus taught and gained followers in Mytilene, the capital of the island Lesbos, and then in Lampsacus and Athens, Epicurus bought a property in Athens for his school, which he called the “Garden.” Emphasizing friendship as an important ingredient of happiness, the Epicurean schools were very open to new adherents and fairly cosmopolitan by Athenian standards of the day — even including women and slaves among their ranks.
Epicurus laid such emphasis upon developing friendships as the basis of a satisfying life that he said, as quoted by Cicero:
“Of all the things which wisdom has contrived which contribute to a blessed life, none is more important, more fruitful, than friendship.”
The philosophy’s popularity grew and it became, along with Stoicism, Platonism, Peripateticism, and Pyrrhonism, one of the dominant schools of Hellenistic philosophy, lasting through the later Roman Empire.
Deciphered carbonized scrolls obtained from the library at the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum contain a large number of works by Philodemus, a late Hellenistic Epicurean, and even Epicurus himself, attesting to the school’s enduring popularity.
While the pursuit of pleasure formed the focal point of the philosophy, this was largely directed to minimizing pain, anxiety and suffering. In fact, Epicurus referred to life as a “bitter gift” in his “Letter to Menoeceus”.
“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.”
The Epicurean understanding of justice was inherently self-interested; it was deemed good because it was seen as mutually beneficial.
Pleasures of the mind of much greater importance than of the body
Epicureanism rejects immortality. From this doctrine arose the Epicurean Epitaph, “Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo (“I was not; I have been; I am not; I do not mind.”), which is inscribed on the gravestones of his followers and seen on many ancient gravestones of the Roman Empire.
Regarding ataraxia (tranquility, freedom from fear) and aponia (absence of pain) as the height of happiness, Epicurus considered prudence an important virtue, and perceived excess and overindulgence to be contrary to the attainment of ataraxia and aponia.
Epicurus preferred “the good”, and “even wisdom and culture”, to the “pleasure of the stomach,” dividing pleasure into two broad categories: the pleasures of the body and the pleasures of the mind.
One can only experience pleasures of the body in the moment, meaning they only exist as a person is experiencing them, while pleasures of the mind involve mental processes and states; feelings of joy, the lack of fear, and pleasant memories.
These pleasures of the mind do not only exist in the present, but also in the past and future, since memory of a past pleasant experience or the expectation of some potentially pleasing future can both be pleasurable experiences. Because of this, the pleasures of the mind are considered to be greater than those of the body.
“Vain and empty” desires, according to Epicurus, are neither innate to humans nor required for happiness or health; indeed, they are also limitless and can never be fulfilled. Desires of wealth or fame would fall in this class, and such desires are to be avoided because they will ultimately only bring about discomfort.
Laws, punishments important so that people can be free to pursue happiness
Epicurus was also one of the first Western thinkers to develop the notion of justice as a social contract. The point of living in a society with laws and punishments is to be protected from harm so that one is free to pursue happiness, he believed. Because of this, laws that do not contribute to promoting human happiness are not just.
“It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life,” he stated.
Epicureanism, which incorporated much of social contract theory, attempts to address issues with the society described in “Plato’s Republic.”
The Epicurean way of life also resembles Buddhism in its temperateness, including the belief that great excess leads to great dissatisfaction.
The Epicureans believed that all sense perceptions were true, and that errors arise in how we judge those perceptions. For example, if someone sees a tower from far away that appears to be round, and upon approaching the tower they see that it is actually square, they would come to realize that their original judgement was wrong and correct their wrong opinion.
Since Epicureans thought that sensations could not deceive, sensations are the first and main criterion of truth for Epicureans. Even in cases where sensory input seems to mislead, the input itself is true and the error arises from our judgments about the input.
For example, when one places a straight oar in the water, it appears bent. The observer makes the error in assuming that the image he or she receives correctly represents the oar and has not been distorted in some way.
In order to not make erroneous judgments about perceivable things and instead verify one’s judgment, Epicureans believed that one needed to obtain “clear vision” (enargeia) of the perceivable thing by closer examination.
One adherent to the teachings of Epicurus included the poet Horace, whose famous statement Carpe Diem (“Seize the Day”) illustrates the philosophy.
In modern times Thomas Jefferson referred to himself as an Epicurean:
“If I had time I would add to my little book the Greek, Latin and French texts, in columns side by side. And I wish I could subjoin a translation of Gassendi’s Syntagma of the doctrines of Epicurus, which, notwithstanding the calumnies of the Stoics and caricatures of Cicero, is the most rational system remaining of the philosophy of the ancients, as frugal of vicious indulgence, and fruitful of virtue as the hyperbolical extravagances of his rival sects.”