About This Website
Welcome to Epicureandocs.com. This website was developed to provide easy access to every important surviving document which is necessary for proper understanding of the philosophy of Epicurus. The site is still under development, so keep up to date with significant changes by subscribing to the blog at our parent site - www.NewEpicurean.com.
The best way to learn about the philosophy of Epicurus is to read the original texts, rather than to rely on commentaries and translations. For most of us, however, translations are a necessity and commentaries are the only practical path in light of the time available to us. But as we consult translations and look to commentaries for assistance, there is a great danger. The reader should keep in mind the warning of Norman DeWitt, author of one of the best commentaries, "Epicurus and His Philosophy":
At the very outset the reader should be prepared to think of [Epicurus] at one and the same time as the most revered and the most reviled of all founders of thought in the Graeco-Roman world.
As with any subject torn by controversy, there are significant disputes as to how to interpret many aspects of Epicurean philosophy. Many important texts have been lost, and the history of the Epicurean philosophical movement has largely been written by its enemies, with DeWitt being a notable exception. Writers who are devoted to Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and their variants have an understandable tendency to interpret the words of Epicurus through glasses tinged by their own perspectives. Among the first jobs of any student of Epicurus must therefore be that of recognizing the major controversies and identifying the anti-Epicurean position alongside the position of Epicurus.
As explained in much more detail by DeWitt, many aspects of Epicurean philosophy were developed in reaction and opposition to the prior positions taken by Plato, Aristotle, and others. In turn, many of the criticisms of Epicuean philosophy voiced by later writers arose not only from the followers of Plato and the others, but also from the followers of Zeno who are collectively known as the Stoics. The task of bringing into focus the doctrines of Epicurus is difficult or impossible without setting off the Epicurean doctrine in contrast to the corresponding doctrine of the opposing schools.
A short list of controversies which must be navigated include the following:
Should Epicurus be considered an "atheist?" The answer depends on the definition given to "atheist," as the texts make clear that while Epicurus clearly denied the existence of supernatural universe-creating "gods," he developed his own conception of "gods" much different from that which we are familiar today.
What was Epicurus' view of the nature of "pleasure"? In a famous line in his letter to Meneoceus, Epicurus referred to pleasure as "absence of pain." Many interpret this phrase to imply that Epicurus adopted an esoteric definition of "pleasure" in which the focus of life becomes the eradication of pain rather than the experience of ordinary active pleasures. However numerous passages outside the letter to Menoeceus state clearly that Epicurus embraced both "static" pleasure and "active" pleasures of joy and delight, thus indicating that the "stoic-light" interpretation of Epicurus is incorrect.
Was Epicurus a "dogmatist" or a "skeptic"? Modern attitudes frown on "dogmatism" and embrace "skepticism." The Epicurean viewpoint on the possibility of knowledge does not fit neatly into either moden category. Epicurus campaigned at one and the same time against both radical skepticism as well as the tendency to take absolute positions on issues where evidence is insufficient.
Did Epicurus' embrace "free will" or "determinism?" Few issues inspire more controversy in the modern world than "determinism." Epicurus' development of his theory of "the swerve" as the basis for human "free will" is one of the most famous aspects of his theory of physics. Yet at the same time Epicurus emphasized that mechanistic operation explains how we observe the regularity in the universe which serves as a limit on that free will.
Every source of commentary on Epicurus - including this website - comes to controversial questions like these with a point of view. Ultimately the reader much decide for himself what Epicurus really taught about these issues, and it is the purpose of this website to provide the resources to make that decision possible.