Epicurus (341–270 B.C.), the Greek philosopher who founded the Epicurean school of philosophy. He was born in Samos of Athenian parents, and settled in Athens in 306 B.C. There he bought a garden and established his school, called “The Garden.” His philosophy and, possibly even more, his personality attracted a large number of loyal followers.
Epicurus taught that pleasure is the chief good. He defined pleasure as “freedom of the body from pain and of the soul from anxiety.” The chief evil, he said, is fear—fear of the gods, and fear of death. He tried to rid men of fear by stating that mythology is untrue and by insisting that the soul dissolved with the body, so death was not to be feared. The greatest good, pleasure, is to be realized through prudence, the wise avoidance of physical pain and spiritual anxiety. The prudent man cultivates justice, temperance, and friendship. He also cultivates a knowledge of science to end fear of the unknown. Epicurus supported the atomic theory developed by Democritus and other earlier Greek philosophers to explain the nature of the physical universe.
Epicureans lived very simply. An inscription over the gate of Epicurus' garden warned those who entered to expect only barley bread and water. It is through a misunderstanding of Epicurean philosophy that the term “Epicurean” came to mean taking pleasure in eating and drinking.
Epicurus wrote much—300 volumes, says his biographer, Diogenes Laertius—but only three letters and a few fragments remain. His system of philosophy fared better, finding followers in Greece, Egypt, Asia Minor, and Rome. In the 17th and 18th centuries a revival of Epicurean ideas became popular with French writers such as Molière, Voltaire, and Rousseau.