Judaism describes a non-believer in God as an Apicorus, a name most likely derived from the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE), as Professor Marcus Jastrow states in his famed Dictionary, although Maimonides in his essay Chelek states it is an Aramaic word. The rabbis thought that Epicurus denied the existence of God and was a hedonist who stressed that people should pursue happiness. According to the Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin chapter 10, an Apicorus would have no life after death.
Epicurus was born seven years after the Greek philosopher Plato’s death (c. 429-347 BCE), and grew up in the Athenian colony of Samos, an island in the Mediterranean Sea. He was about 19 when Aristotle died. He studied philosophy under followers of Democritus (460-370 BCE) known in antiquity as the “laughing philosopher” because of his emphasis on the value of cheerfulness.
He was the founder of the Greek Epicurean school in Athens, which taught that “Pleasure is the principle and end to a happy life.” He was a prolific writer, amassing 37 volumes, but unfortunately, only fragments and four letters remain. His school in Athens was called “the Garden.” His philosophy was in vogue from the 4th century BCE until the 4th century CE. He and his followers were known for eating simple meals and discussing a wide range of philosophical subjects.
Contrary to the rabbis’ understanding, the consensus among scholars is that Epicurus did not deny the existence of God, but he was bothered about the general idea about God being ever present on earth and involved in human affairs. He wrote: If God is unable to prevent evil, then he is not all-powerful. If God is all-powerful but not willing to prevent evil, then he is not all-good.
Epicurus resolved the dilemma not by denying the existence of the gods; rather he denied their involvement in the world. According to Epicurus, the gods do not interfere with human lives or the rest of the universe in any way. Many scholars believe that this is also the view of Maimonides (1138-1204).
Most people, not only Jews, were convinced that he was a hedonist, interested only in physical pleasure. This is also a misconception of his view. He taught that a happy life is achieved by avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. But, he stressed, one should live a pleasurable life in moderation. Intense pleasure such as over indulgence in alcohol and in sexual indulgence can destroy a person’s health. This was also Aristotle’s and Maimonides’ view of the “Golden Mean.”
Epicurus denied a belief in an afterlife and felt that the belief is damaging to a person’s well-being since it is fictitious and forced people to behave contrary to their health and happiness.
He taught that happiness requires people to avoid fears such as the fear of death and fear of God. He felt that a person’s soul is corporeal and disappears when a person dies. Since the soul no longer exists, there cannot be reward and punishment after the body dies and the soul no longer exists. Also, there is nothing to fear after death because after death there is no body, no soul, and no sense experience. This is the eternal sleep that Plato states that Socrates held, but Socrates taught that this was one possibility. The other is that there is life after death. Either way, there is nothing to fear.
The following are some quotes of Epicurus’ teachings:
If God listened to the prayers of men, all men would quickly have perished: for they are forever praying for evil against one another.
It is folly for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to obtain by himself.
We do not so much need the help of our friends as the confidence of their help [when we are] in need.
I never desired to please the rabble. What pleased them, [is wrong] I did not learn [it]; and what I knew was far removed from their understanding.
Epicurus felt that everything in the universe was formed by the chance motion of atoms; the combination of tiny particles that are identical in substance but differ in shape, invisible, indivisible, infinite in number, everlasting, and in constant motion. Democritus said they account for everything that is or ever will be. Thus making possible the objects in the world. Thus the Greeks felt that humans were perfectly capable of understanding the universe.
I enjoyed this essay. Thank you.
I agree that he was not an atheist. Epicurus stressed the attainment of quiet, passive, contemplative pleasure, and the serenity of mind. Epicureanism denies passions. Like the Stoics, he said that even “women must be philosophers,” to understand the “natural law” and to live in accordance with Reason. Epicurus said not to fear death since “death is nothing to us; while we are here, death is not, and when death is here, we are not.”