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Epicureans

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Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls What is This? Explores the history, relevance, and meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Epicureans

Adherents of a philosophical school established by Epicurus (341–270 bce) were fiercely loyal to their founders and fittingly called Epicureans. Epicurus, a native of Samos who was greatly influenced by the atomistic philosophy of Democritus, moved to Athens in 307/6 and purchased a house with a garden where he lived together with his followers. Because of this setting, his school became known in antiquity as “the Garden.” Epicurus was a prolific author who wrote about three hundred works on papyrus rolls; unfortunately, only the following documents survive: a Letter to Herodotus (an epitome of his physics), a Letter to Pythocles (on astronomy and meteorology), a Letter to Menoeceus (an elementary summary of his ethics), a collection of forty moral maxims known as the Kyriai doxai or Ratae sententiae (Principal Doctrines), a similar collection of eighty-one short sayings known as the Vatican Sayings, and fragments of his magnum opus, On Nature.

Because so few of Epicurus's own writings survive, the works of three later Epicureans have received great attention. The first of these is the Latin poet Lucretius (c.94–55 bce), who wrote a philosophical poem On the Nature of Things in six books. The second is Philodemus (c.110–c.40 bce), a native of Gadara who was active at Herculaneum in southern Italy. A number of his works were discovered there among the carbonized papyrus scrolls found in the library of the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum and are slowly in the process of being (re)edited and translated. They include works on the history of philosophy, scientific method, aesthetics, rhetoric, theology (On Piety and On the Gods), and ethics. The third is Diogenes of Oenoanda, who erected a massive Greek inscription that contains the basic tenets of Epicureanism.

Accepting ataraxia (“imperturbability”) as their ideal, Epicurus and his followers argued that the tranquillity of human life was disturbed by the irrational fear of the gods, of pain, and of death. To remove these fears they applied the tetrapharmakos, or “fourfold remedy,” necessary for happiness. Succinctly stated, this remedy consists of the knowledge that “god presents no fears” (for the gods do not intervene in human affairs either to reward or to punish); “death occasions no worries” (for the soul, which is not immortal, disintegrates upon death and thus feels no sensation); “the good can be easily attained” (by adopting an Epicurean understanding of the nature of reality); and “pain can be readily endured” (for extreme pain is experienced only briefly, whereas chronic pain can be offset through carefully chosen pleasures). Furthermore, since involvement in political affairs is not conducive to living an undisturbed life, the Epicureans tended to withdraw from public life and pursue the goal of pleasure by living simple lives in the company of friends. The Epicureans were famous for their practice of friendship, which involved the ethical responsibility of admonishing fellow members who failed to live by the tenets of the group.

Josephus (The Jewish War 2.164–165; Jewish Antiquities 13.173, 18.16) depicts the Sadducees as Jewish Epicureans, denying the power of fate, the immortality of the soul, and all postmortem rewards and punishments. [See Josephus Flavius; Sadducees.] Although such beliefs do not coincide with those articulated in the Dead Sea Scrolls, there are some points of comparison between the Epicureans and the community at Qumran. These include a withdrawal from society at large and entry into a close-knit alternative community that lived simply, carefully studying and transmitting the teachings of the founder as well as admonishing and punishing those members who failed to abide by the community's standards. Finally, the Epicureans' cultivation of friendship recalls Josephus's statement that the Essenes had the closest bonds of affection of any Jewish sect (The Jewish War 2.119).

Bibliography

  • Arrighetti, G., ed./trans. Epicuro. Opere. 2nd ed. Biblioteca di cultura filosofica, vol. 41. Torino, 1973.
    Text of Epicurus's extant works, including the papyrus fragments of On Nature
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  • Asmis, Elizabeth. Epicurus' Scientific Method. Cornell University Studies in Classical Philosophy, vol. 92. Ithaca, 1984.
    The fundamental work on Epicurean scientific methodology
    .
  • Bailey, Cyril., ed./trans. Epicurus: The Extant Remains. Oxford, 1926.
    Text and translation, with commentary, of Epicurus's works, excluding the fragments
    .
  • Festugière, A. J. Epicurus and His Gods. Oxford, 1955.
    Classic introduction to Epicurean friendship and religion
    .
  • Frischer, Bernard. The Sculpted Word: Epicureanism and Philosophical Recruitment in Ancient Greece. Berkeley, 1982.
    Depiction of the Epicureans as an alternative community, with suggestions as to how they combined retreat from the dominant culture with recruitment strategies to win new converts
    .
  • Hengel, Martin. “Qumran and der Hellenismus.” In Judaica et Hellenistica: Kleine Schriften I. pp. 258–294. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, 90. Tübingen, 1996.
    Careful comparison of the Qumran community with Hellenism, including the Epicureans
    .
  • Long, A. A. “Epicureans and Stoics.” In Classical Mediterranean Spirituality: Egyptian, Greek, Roman, edited by A. H. Armstrong, pp. 135–153. World Spirituality, 15. New York, 1989.
    Basic comparison of Epicureans and Stoic theology
    .
  • Mitsis, Phillip. Epicurus' Ethical Theory: The Pleasures of Invulnerability. Cornell Studies in Classical Philosophy, vol. 48. Ithaca, 1988.
    Important treatment of Epicurean ethics
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  • Rist, J. M. Epicurus: An Introduction. Cambridge, 1972.
    An advanced introduction to Epicurean thought
    .
  • Usener, H., ed. Epicurea. Leipzig, 1887.
    Classic edition of texts and fragments, excluding the papyri
    .

John T. Fitzgerald

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