The Corner

Epicurus Vs. Epicurean

From a reader:

Dear Mr. Goldberg,

I noticed with some interest your recent discussion in the NRO corner about the disconnect between the actual moral philosophy of Epicurus and what we mean today by “epicurean.” My understanding of the matter is that this disconnect is largely the product of medieval Judeo-Christian commentators.

Epicurus was an atheist and a materialist who sought a purely rational foundation for morals. He declared that human beings should seek to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Therefore the medieval religious commentators found it easy to dismiss him a preacher of libertinism and godlessness. If I remember correctly from my moral philosophy lectures in college, the Talmudic term for a heretic or an infidel is “apikoros,” taken from the name Epicurus.

But Epicurus’s actual moral teachings were strict and even ascetic. Somewhat like the Buddhists, he taught that desire for physical or material satisfactions in the end causes more suffering than pleasure, and that pleasure is therefore maximized when one reduces one’s desires as far as possible. “Ataraxy,” the state of being free from all passions, was the ultimate goal of Epicureans.

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