15 Epicurus: Golden Maxims

Epicurus, Golden Maxims


Epicurus (342-270 BCE) was born in Samos and is believed to have become a teacher in Colophon. He perhaps gained an interest in philosophy by reading Democritus. He subsequently formulated a philosophy of his own that extended the atomic theory of Democritus and his concept of cheerfulness. Epicurus probably started making his ideas public on the island of Lesbos in about 311 BCE. A few years later he returned to Athens, where he remained for the rest of his life, becoming famous for putting forward a broad-based philosophy linking the life of man and the physical world in a single atomic theory. He put forward his teachings in his garden outside of the city and became the venerated head of a unique society of men and women. When Epicurus died he left his house and garden in trust for the use of this society.

Epicurus held that both mind and matter were conglomerations of material elements, so accounting for the interaction of body and mind. As a member of a society that could punish impiety towards its gods with death, Epicurus does not deny their existence but points out that the qualities attributed to them suggest an indifference to humanity. He promoted a way of life based on removal of desires beyond those of natural needs, achievement of a simple lifestyle, cultivation of friendship, and enjoyment of carefree pleasures. The Epicureans avoided involvement in public or private activities with heavy responsibilities, and praised the life that escaped notice. (The desire for non-involvement and for harmony with nature resonate with the principles put forward by Lao Tzu, the Buddha, and others.)

These ideas opened up the school to many people (including slaves) who could not gain access to the more worldly philosophers whose incomes grew by catering for the powerful, wealthy and educated. Not surprisingly, Epicurus was ridiculed by opposing philosophers and the distortions they applied to some of his ideas continue to this day. The philosophy of Epicurus has survived in three letters, a collection of maxims, and various short fragments. Extracts from these have been combined in the following paragraphs. As Epicurus admitted both men and women to his garden, the extracts have been changed from the masculine to the neuter gender.


1    Let no one be slow to seek knowledge and understanding when they are young, nor be quick to tire of the search for wisdom when they grow old. For no age is too early or too late to be concerned with the health of the mind. And to say that the time for philosophy has not yet come, or that it is passed and gone, is like saying that the time for happiness is not yet come, or that it is gone for ever.

2    By the love of true philosophy every troubling and painful desire is destroyed. Vain is the discourse of that philosopher by which no human suffering is healed.

3    We must laugh and philosophize at the same time as we do our household chores and go about our other business, and never stop bringing out the sayings of the true philosophy.

4    You must become a slave to philosophy if you would gain true freedom.


5    First, believe that a god is a being in a state of bliss and immortal, according to the idea of gods commonly held by people. If you accept this, you cannot attribute to the gods anything that is contrary to immortality or that is inconsistent with a state of bliss. Rather, you will expect of them whatever sustains both their state of bliss and their immortality. For truly there are gods, and belief in them is obvious. But they are not such as the crowd thinks, because most people do not keep steadfastly in mind the qualities attributable to gods. The truly impious person is not the one who rejects the gods worshipped by the crowd, but the one who thinks of the gods in the way the crowd does. For the things most people say about the gods are not faithful to the attributes of gods. Instead, they are false presumptions, according to which the greatest evils happen to the wicked and the greatest blessings happen to the good—all from the hands of the gods who, naturally, are assumed to always favor what the crowd believes are their own good qualities, taking delight in people like themselves and rejecting as damned whoever is not of their kind.

6    It is vain to ask the gods for what we can procure for ourselves. A blissful and eternal being is not troubled in itself and brings no trouble to any other being. So it is exempt from motives of anger and favor, for every such motive implies weakness.

7    Dreams have no divine character nor any prophetic power, but they originate from the inflow of sensory images.


8    We must also reflect that as far as desires are concerned, some are natural while others have no foundation; and that of the natural, some are necessary as well as natural and some are natural only. And of the necessary desires, some are necessary if we are to be happy, some if the body is to be rid of distress, and some are necessary even to live. A person who has a clear and certain understanding of these things will direct every preference and aversion toward securing health of body and tranquility of mind, seeing that this is the sum and end of a happy life.

9    For the aim of all our actions is to be free from pain and fear; and once we have attained this, all the storms of the mind are calmed, seeing that the living creature has no need to go in search of something that is lacking nor to look for anything else required to fulfill the good of mind and body. When we are pained because of the absence of pleasure, then, and then only, do we feel the need of pleasure; but when we feel no pain, then we no longer stand in need of pleasure. Therefore we call pleasure the beginning and end of a blessed life. Pleasure is our first and closest good. It is the starting-point of everything we accept and everything we reject, and to it we come back, as we make feeling the rule by which to evaluate the good of everything.

10    When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality—as we are understood to do by some, through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misinterpretation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking feasts and of revelry, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of sturgeon and other delicacies of a luxurious table that produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning—searching out the grounds for what we accept and what we reject, and banishing those beliefs through which greatest tumults take possession of the mind.

11    And since pleasure is our first and native good, for that reason we do not choose every pleasure whatsoever, but frequently pass over many pleasures when a greater annoyance ensues from them. And often we consider pains superior to pleasures when submission to the pains for a long time brings us as its consequence a greater pleasure. Therefore, while all pleasure is good, because it is naturally part of us, not all pleasure is worth choosing—just as all pain is an evil but all pain is not to be shunned. All these matters must be judged by measuring one against another, and by looking at the conveniences and inconveniences.

12    Of all this the beginning and the greatest good is prudence. Therefore, prudence is a more precious thing even than philosophy; from it spring all the other virtues, for it teaches that we cannot lead a life of pleasure which is not also a life of prudence, honor, and justice; nor lead a life of prudence, honor, and justice that is not also a life of pleasure. For these virtues have grown into one with a pleasant life, and a pleasant life is inseparable from them.

13    Let us not accuse the flesh as the cause of great evils, nor should we blame our suffering on outward things. Let us rather seek the causes of this distress within our minds. Let us cut off every vain craving and hope for things which are fleeting, and let us become wholly masters of ourselves. For a person is unhappy either from fear or from unlimited and vain desires. But restraining these may secure the contentment of reason. Confront every desire with this question: What shall I gain by gratifying this desire and what shall I lose by suppressing it?

14    In so far as you are in distress, you are in distress because you have forgotten the nature of your humanity, for you impose upon yourself fears and desires that have no limits. It would be better for you to have no fears and lie upon a bed of straw, than to have a golden couch and lavish table, yet have a troubled mind.


15    The boundary of pleasure is marked by the removal of all pain. So long as pleasure is present, there is no pain either of body or of mind, or of both together. Some desires lead to no pain when they remain ungratified. All such desires are unnecessary, and the craving is easily dispelled when the thing desired is difficult to procure or when the desires seem likely to produce harm.

16    Once the pain of desire has been removed, physical pleasure does not increase; it can only be varied in quality. The limit of mental pleasure is obtained by evaluating the pleasures themselves against the pains associated with them that cause the mind the greatest anxiety. The flesh assumes the limits of pleasure to be infinite, and that only in infinite time would they be reached. But the mind, gaining an understanding of the purposes and the limits of the flesh, and casting aside fears of the future, procures a complete and perfect life for us that no longer has a need for infinite time. Nevertheless, the mind does not shun pleasure, and even in the hour of death, when ushered out of existence by circumstances, the mind does not fail to enjoy the best of life.

17    Some natural desires, again, entail no pain when not gratified, though the objects of these desires are eagerly pursued. Pursuit of such desires is thus misguided, and when they are not got rid of, it is not because of their inherent nature, but because of the pursuer’s perverse imagination.

18    You say that the stimulus of the flesh inclines you too readily to the pleasures of love. Provided that you do not break the laws or good customs and do not distress any of your neighbors, or do harm to your body or squander your pittance, you may indulge your inclination as you please. Yet it is impossible not to come up against one or other of these limitations: for the pleasures of love never profited a man and he is lucky if they do him no harm. No pleasure is an evil itself, but the things which produce some pleasures bring pains many times greater than the pleasures themselves.


19    The main part of happiness is that which is under our own control. Service in the field is hard work, and others hold command. Public speaking produces a racing heart and anxiety as to whether you are convincing. Why, then, pursue activities like these that are under the control of others?

20    Nothing is so productive of happiness as to abstain from meddling, from engaging in difficult undertakings, and from forcing yourself to do something beyond your power. For all this throws your nature into turmoil. We must free ourselves from the prison of business and politics.

21    It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely, well and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely, well and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking—when, for instance, a man does not live wisely, though he lives well and justly—it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life.

22    Our bodies cry out to be saved from hunger, thirst and cold. If we are safe from these and hope to remain so, we might rival even the gods in happiness.

23    Nature forces us to cry out when we groan with pain. However, to cry out in lamentation because we cannot rejoice in the ranks of the healthy and prosperous is the result of faulty reasoning.

24    We are born once. We cannot be born twice: for eternity we must be non-existent. But you people, who are not master of the future, put things off for “the right time”. Procrastination ruins the life of all. And so, each of us is hurried and unprepared at death.

25    A person who is least in need of tomorrow will meet the morning most pleasantly.


26    Friendship goes dancing round the world telling us all to awake to the recognition of happiness.

27    Of all the things that wisdom tells us can insure happiness throughout life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends. The same conviction that inspires confidence that nothing we have to fear is eternal or even of long duration, also enables us to see that even in our limited life nothing enhances our security so much as friendship. All friendship is desirable in itself, even though it stems from a need for help.

28    No friend continually asks for help, and no friend shuns associating help with friendship. For the first trades on kindly feeling for a practical return and the second dismisses the hope of good in the future.

29    It is the wise man alone who will feel equally grateful to his friends, whether they are present or absent. For those friends that we have lost, let us show our feelings not by lamentation but by meditation. Sweet is the memory of the friend who is dead.


30    Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply awareness and death is the loss of all awareness. A true understanding that death is nothing to us, therefore, makes our mortal life enjoyable—not by adding an unlimited time to life, but by taking away the yearning for immortality. For life has no terrors for those convinced that there is nothing to dread when they cease to live. A person is foolish who fears death, not because of the pain of its coming, but because of dread of the state of death. Whatever causes no suffering when it is present causes only unwarranted pain in the expectation of it. Against all else it is possible to provide security, but against death we live in a city without defenses.

31    Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that when we exist, death has not come, and when death has come, we do not exist. It is nothing, either to the living or the dead—for the living, it is not present; and the dead exist no longer. Everyone passes out of life as if they had just been born.


32    We must remember that the future is neither wholly ours nor wholly not ours; so that we must neither count upon it as quite certain nor despair of it as quite uncertain.

33    The first measure of security is to watch over one’s youth and to guard against the havoc caused by clamoring desires. People with tranquil minds cause no annoyance either to themselves or to others.

34    Again, we regard independence of outward things as a great good, not so as in all cases to use little, but so as to be contented with little if we have not much. We are honestly persuaded that they have the sweetest enjoyment of luxury who stand least in need of it, and that whatever is natural is easily procured and only the vain and worthless hard to win. Plain food is not more distasteful than an expensive diet, when once the pain of hunger has been removed, while bread and water confer the highest possible pleasure when they are brought to hungry lips. To habituate oneself, therefore, to a simple and inexpensive diet supplies all that is needful for health. It also enables one to meet the necessary requirements of life without shrinking, and it places us in a better condition when we approach at intervals an expensive meal, and renders us unafraid of fortune. The most precious fruit of independence and plain living is freedom.

35    When tolerable security against other people is attained, then the resulting security from the multitude of a private life has the power to give rise to a most genuine bliss. Those who prepared themselves to live safely with their neighbors, passed the most agreeable life in each other’s society, being in possession of the surest guarantee. Their enjoyment of the fullest intimacy was such that, if one of them died before their time, the survivors did not lament that death as if it called for pity.

36    A free life cannot acquire many possessions, because this is not easy to do so without servility to mobs or governments, yet a free life satisfies all needs in unfailing abundance. And if by chance such a life should lead to many possessions, they can easily be distributed, with the resulting gratitude of neighbors.

37    We strive after independence, not that in all cases we may use that which is cheap and plain, but that we may have no anxiety as to such matters.


38    Having bread and water, I revel in the pleasure of the body, and I loathe the pleasures of costly living, not on their own account, but because of the inconveniences which follow them. Someone who understands the limits of life knows how easy it is to get enough to remove the pangs of need and to make life complete and perfect. So they no longer have any desire for things that are not to be gained except by conflict and struggle.

39    Great wealth is nothing but poverty when measured by the laws of nature. Frugality too has a limit, and the person who disregards this falls into the same sort of error as one who goes to excess.

40    The wealth we need to meet nature’s needs has its bounds and is easy to procure, but the wealth required to meet vain fancies stretches far beyond our reach. If you live according to your nature, you will never be poor— if according to popular opinion, you will never be rich.

41    Happiness and contentment are not associated with extent of wealth, or weight of responsibilities, or public office or power, but with painlessness, with mildness of feeling, and with a disposition of the mind that defines what is according to human nature.

42    Love of money that is unjustly gained is sinful; if justly gained, shameful. For it is unseemly to be merely parsimonious even for a just person. Cheerful poverty is an honorable thing.

43    Give thanks to nature, the bountiful, because it has made necessary things easy to procure, while things hard to obtain are not necessary.


44    There is no advantage in achieving security from other people so long as we are in dread of occurrences above our heads or beneath the earth, or in general by whatever happens in infinite space.

45    It is impossible for us to get rid of our fears about the most important matters if we do not understand the nature of the universe and live in dread of mythical tales. We would have had no need to study natural science if we had never felt alarm at celestial and atmospheric phenomena, or did not tremble at the thought of death, or did not fail to understand the proper limits of pain and desire. So, without natural science there is no enjoyment of unalloyed happiness.

46    We must reach our opinions by taking into account the purpose of all that really exists and the clear evidence of all our senses. Otherwise, we will be full of uncertainty and confusion.

47    If you take up arms against all your sensations you will have no standard to refer to, and therefore no means of judging even those sensations which you pronounce false.

48    To begin with, nothing is created out of what does not exist. For in that case anything could have arisen out of anything else, without the need of something to begin with. Furthermore, if that which disappears were actually destroyed and became non-existent, everything would have perished, as things would have been dissolved into nothing. In fact, the sum total of things was always such as it is now and as such it will remain for ever. For there is nothing into which it can change. For outside the sum of things there is nothing which could enter into it and bring about the change.


49    The whole universe, then, consists of bodies and space. The existence of bodies is everywhere evidenced by the senses, and reason must rely on sensation when it attempts to infer the unknown from the known. If there were no space, which we call also place, void, and intangible existence, bodies would have nothing in which to exist and through which to move, as they are plainly seen to move. Beyond bodies and space there is nothing that, by hypothesis or by analogy, we can conceive to exist. Here we are speaking of wholes or separate things as distinct from their essential and accidental qualities.

50    Of bodies, some are composite, others the elements of which these composite bodies are made. These elements are indivisible and unchangeable—necessarily so, if things are not all to be destroyed and pass into non-existence. They are strong enough to endure when composite bodies are broken up, because they possess a solid nature, and are incapable of being anywhere or anyhow dissolved. It follows that the beginning of everything must be indivisible, corporeal entities [atoms].

51    The atoms are perpetually in motion. Some of them rebound to a considerable distance from each other; other atoms merely oscillate when they have got trapped or enclosed by a mass of other atoms shaped for entanglement. This is because each atom is separated from the rest by void, which is incapable of offering any resistance to a rebound. It is the solidity of the atom which makes it rebound after a collision, however short the distance to which it rebounds when it finds itself imprisoned in a mass of entangling atoms. Of all this there is no beginning, owing to the eternity of both atoms and void.

52    Moreover, we must suppose that the atoms do not possess any of the qualities belonging to visible things, except shape, weight, and size, and whatever necessarily goes with shape. For every quality changes; but the atoms do not change at all, since there must needs be something which remains solid and indestructible at the dissolution of compounds, which makes change possible. These are not changes into the nonexistent or from the non-existent, but changes effected by changes in the position of some particles, and by the addition or departure of others. For this reason it is essential that the bodies that change their position should be indestructible and should not possess the nature of what changes, but masses and configurations of their own. For thus much must necessarily remain constant.

The Universe

53    As the universe is not comprehended by comparison with something outside, it has no boundary and no limit. And since it has no limit it is unlimited or infinite. Moreover, the universe is infinite both by reason of the multitude of atoms and the extent of space. For, if space were infinite and the number of bodies finite, the bodies would not have stayed around but would have been dispersed throughout infinite space, because they would not have met with anything that might support or keep them in place by coming into collision with them. Alternatively, if space were finite, there would not be room for an infinity of bodies.

54    Next, we must consider that many worlds, and every finite aggregate that bears a strong resemblance to the things we see, have arisen out of the infinity of atoms and space. For all these, whether small or great, have been separated off as special conglomerations of atoms. Furthermore, all things may disperse again—some faster, some slower, some through the action of one set of causes, others through the action of another set. And we must not suppose that all worlds have necessarily one and the same shape. For nobody could prove one way or the other that in one sort of world there would be found the beginnings out of which animals, plants and all the rest of the things we see arise, and that in another sort of world this would have been impossible.


55    Next, referring always to the sensations and the feelings, for in this way you will obtain the most trustworthy grounds for belief, you must consider that the mind is made up of fine particles distributed throughout the whole structure of the body, and most resembling moving air with a certain admixture of heat—in some respects like one of these, and in some, like the other.

56    You must also grasp that the mind possesses the chief cause of sensation; yet it could not have acquired sensation, unless it were in some way enclosed by the rest of the body. And in its turn, the body having afforded the mind the cause of sensation acquires itself a share in this special property of the mind. Yet it does not acquire all the properties that the mind possesses; and therefore when the mind is detached from the body, the body no longer has sensation.

57    Now it is impossible to conceive the incorporeal as a separate existence, except for space itself; and the space can neither act nor be acted upon, but only provides opportunity to bodies for motion through itself. So that those who say that the mind is incorporeal are talking nonsense. For it would not be able to act or be acted on in any respect, if it were so constituted. But, in fact, both these properties are clearly distinguishable in the mind.


58    Who, then, is superior, in your judgment, to the prudent? They hold a reverent view of the gods, and are altogether free from the fear of death. They have diligently considered the end fixed by nature, and understand that the limit of good things can easily be reached, and that evils are slight either in duration or in their painfulness. Destiny, which some introduce as sovereign over all things, they laugh to scorn, affirming that certain things happen of necessity, others by chance, others through their own agency. For they see that necessity destroys responsibility and that chance or fortune is inconstant; whereas their own actions are free, and it is to them that praise and blame naturally attach.



From http://www.humanistictexts.org/epicurus.htm 12 June 2012. Adapted from Stoic and Epicurean by R. D. Hicks. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1910, 1925.

Web Sites:

Full text of writings of  Epicurus

Letter to Menoeceus translated by R. D. Hicks.

Principal Doctrines translated by R. D. Hicks


Reconstruction of conversations in the garden of Epicurus:

Imaginary Conversations: I Classical Dialogues by Walter Savage Landor. George Routledge & Sons Limited, London; E. P. Dutton & Co., New York (reprint of 1876 edition). Chapters 14-16.


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