Like Aristotle, Epicurus (341-270 BC) began a school without walls, where lessons were delivered in a more casual setting.

In the case of Epicurus, the garden of his home was used as a school, so he and his followers were called “garden philosophers.” Unlike Aristotle, Epicurus accepted slaves, women and commoners as students. At a time when the Stoics emphasized duty and public service, Epicurus emphasized tranquillity and solitude. 

He also encouraged his students to avoid public life and to give themselves to simple pleasures. Although pleasure was the goal of life, it was not the lascivious sensationalism advocated by Aristippus. Epicurean pleasure was the search for serenity and the enjoyment of prudent and just living. Through sober reasoning, one must search though ideas and doctrines, accepting those which produce pleasure and rejecting those that do not produce peace of mind. 

Essentially, Epicurus taught the art of happy living. People should enjoy this life because there is no more to come. It is no the length of life that matters; it is the quality of life. The goal is maximize pleasure and avoid pain and anxiety. Epicurus himself never married, had no children, and lived a chaste and quiet existence. During his life, he advocated living for the moment, free will and the humane treatment of slaves. Although Epicureanism is now synonymous with selfishness and culinary delight, his students were fed barley bread and water, and taught that pleasure comes from practicing virtue.

Although originally conceived as a practical system of conduct, it is easy for Epicurean ideals to be altered or misinterpreted. The question is how to differentiate Epicurean tranquillity from selfishness. When taken to extreme such teachings obviously leave little room for postponing satisfaction, sacrifice for a common good or moral behavior. There is no incentive for personal responsibility, public service or martyrdom. Many would agree that virtue produces pleasure but Epicurean ideals disintegrate if actions are not evaluated as right-wrong but solely tested for pleasantness. Friendships become merely opportunities for personal advancement and love is reduced to egotism and self-indulgence. 

Yet Epicurus didn’t advocate the extremes. In a culture where duty and power were put ahead of compassion and peace, the emphasis of Epicurus was refreshing. It was the equivalent of telling overachievers to slow down and smell the roses. In contrast to the determinism of the Stoics, Epicurus taught free will and that the gods need not be feared (fear is incompatible with tranquillity). His school was very popular and, unlike the Pythagorean schools, did not advocate communal living. Students kept the wealth they acquired, learned maxims by rote, and enjoyed friendship and simple living.


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