Atheist of the Month for January 2016: Epicurus

Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher, who also founded Epicureanism, a school of philosophy which rejects determinism and advocates for a restrained form of hedonism — where mental pleasure is favored over physical pleasure and the highest form of mental pleasure is achieved by freeing oneself from the anxiety and mental torment caused by the needless fear of death and/or the concept of gods.

He was born in the Athenian settlement on the Aegean island of Samos in February of 341 BCE. When he was 20, he joined his family in the city of Colophon, who had to relocate there after General Perdiccas expelled all Athenian settler from the island of Samos following Alexander the Great’s death.

A bust of Epicurus
A bust of Epicurus

Once in Colophon, he studied under Nausiphanes, who had been a student of Democritus — considered by many to be the father of modern science. In 306 BCE, Epicurus returned to Athens, where he had severed a two-year military term when he had turned 18, and opened up his school, The Garden (due to it being based in the garden of his home), which became one of the first schools to regularly admit both women and slaves. It is here that he would solidify his position in history as one of the key figures in the development of science and the scientific method.

He insisted upon the principle that nothing should be believed, except that which could be tested through direct observation and logical deduction. He also became one of the earliest Greeks to reject the popular practices of praying and worshiping the gods by asserting both to be useless endeavors based upon the proposition that if the gods did exist, then they could not care less about human beings. Today, this position is commonly referred to as deism — a belief that a god or gods do exist but that it/they are totally indifferent to the existence of humanity and our affairs. While he, himself, wasn’t an atheist, his thoughts regarding his dismissal of theism have had a major impact on contemporary atheism.

His views regarding theism eventually led to one of the first and probably the most famous example of the philosophical argument known as the problem of evil — the “Epicurean paradox”, which is often presented as such:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?

Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

Epicurus is also attributed as being the first in Ancient Greece to put forth the basis for ethics known as the Ethic of Reciprocity. He maintained that minimizing harm to oneself and to others was the way to maximize happiness. Today, this idea is more commonly known as the “Golden Rule” — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — which has, for centuries, been falsely claimed by the followers of the various religions to be a unique concept of their own religion’s creation. In reality, this concept predates virtually all the religions still being commonly practiced today.

Epicurus’ contributions to the development of science and philosophy are monumental.