Get Invoved with WCTM:
Epicurus and Science

Epicurus and Science

Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher whose legacy in our language includes words like “epicure” and “epicurean.” He taught that getting pleasure and avoiding pain was the highest human good, the purpose of life. His universe was composed of an an infinite number of very small particles called “atoms” and every physical object, including people, was composed entirely of atoms. The gods did not exist for Epicurus, and human life ended when the body, just a temporary arrangement of atoms, dissolved. There was no life afterlife in Epicurus’s philosophy, hence no need to fear after-death punishments for bad conduct during life. Epicurus taught that our senses are the only reliable source of knowledge and of truth, very different from philosophers such as Plato who hypothesized “forms” beyond sensory perception as the ultimate reality.

Many years after Epicurus died the Roman poet Lucretius wrote “On the Nature of Things” which picked up Epicurus’ ideas. Lucretius was influential for centuries, but after Rome fell Epicurus and Lucretius were both forgotten for almost a thousand years, until 1417 when an Italian scholar found a copy of Lucretius’ poem and circulated it. The poem’s ideas were highly subversive in a medieval Europe where religion taught that life on earth was only a necessary preliminary to eternal life.  In 15th century conventional wisdom, pleasing the senses was a barrier to the  good  life,  and purging of “sin” justified drawing blood by whipping oneself.  Lucretius’s poem and Epicurus’s ideas were obvious threats to medieval religious doctrines; there were suppression efforts,  but the poem survived and influenced generations of artists, writers, and thinkers in Italy and elsewhere as the Renaissance spread.

The Swerve – How the World Became Modern,” one of this year’s finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction, is the reconstructed story of the rebirth of Lucretius’ poem and its critical role in shaping the Renaissance and our humanist philosophies. The ideas of Epicurus and like-minded thinkers  produced the revolution that led to modern science based on observation and verifiable facts, rather than on faith in unobservable concepts like Plato’s “forms.”  Modern science has produced our world and a huge amount of human happiness, but I suggest that there has been a downside to focusing on Epicurus’s “good” of pleasing the senses rather than seeing sensory pleasure as obstacles to what is truly important. Collectively we have consumed too much in the past few decades and had too little regard for the future – individually and collectively, we have lived as if there were no tomorrow. Our federal government spends $1.40 for each dollar it takes in as revenue, and the national debt continues to spiral up.

In the decade before the 2008 collapse of credit markets, millions of Americans signed for debt and mortgages on homes clearly more expensive than they could afford. On the worldwide level, humans today consume about one and a half times as much as the Earth can support sustainably. We want what feels good now, and we vehemently resist accepting consequences of past economic sins. The current Presidential debate pays very little attention to unwinding our public and private “credit card” binges; instead charges and counter-charges focus on which candidate can do whatever it takes to produce lower gas  price and more jobs, damn the debts.

Ironically, reading about the wildly conflicting definitions of the good life by Epicurus and by Europeans in the Dark Ages has made me more tolerant of what we are doing to our environment and to all natural systems. Epicurus was right – we all have very strong instincts to live for comfort and pleasure.  And there is a second part of Epicurus’s formula for the good life – avoiding pain –  which offers hope.  When I talk to people about what science says humans are doing to the planet, I often get a blank or denial response.  But sometimes I see fear in their eyes when people hear about what climate change may do to life, before those thoughts are suppressed.  Fear of future pain is a good motivator, and I know there are others who share my old-time-religion conviction that it’s “sinful,” as well as stupid, to ignore longterm consequences of  our actions.

Compilation including images by Raphael [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Genghiskhanviet (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; and Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Add a comment

Comments (3)

  1. Ron Thursday - 10 / 05 / 2012
    I appreciate your bringing Epicurus into the public conversation, but please don't associate Epicurus with excessive consumption. Epicurus was quite in line with limiting the fulfillment of desires to those that are "natural and/or necessary", where 'natural' includes 'rational and reasonable'. He would most likely never recommend borrowing except in case of necessity. To put it bluntly, if we were all Epicureans we would not have an environmental crisis.
    • Grier Raggio Thursday - 10 / 05 / 2012
      Thank you. I read more about Epicurus and changed the post.

Add a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Subscribe to Newsletter