Epicureanism is a system of philosophy based upon the teachings of Epicurus, founded around 307 BC. Epicurus was an atomicmaterialist, following in the steps of Democritus. His materialism led him to a general attack on superstition and divine intervention. Following Aristippus—about whom very little is known—Epicurus believed that what he called "pleasure" is the greatest good, but the way to attain such pleasure is to live modestly and to gain knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of one's desires. This led one to attain a state of tranquility (ataraxia) and freedom from fear, as well as absence of bodily pain (aponia). The combination of these two states is supposed to constitute happiness in its highest form. Although Epicureanism is a form of hedonism, insofar as it declares pleasure to be the sole intrinsic good, its conception of absence of pain as the greatest pleasure and its advocacy of a simple life make it different from "hedonism" as it is commonly understood.
Epicureanism was originally a challenge to Platonism, though later it became the main opponent of Stoicism. Epicurus and his followers shunned politics. After the death of Epicurus, his school was headed by Hermarchus; later many Epicurean societies flourished in the Late Hellenistic era and during the Roman era (such as those in Antiochia, Alexandria, Rhodes, and Ercolano). Its best-known Roman proponent was the poet Lucretius. By the end of the Roman Empire, being opposed by philosophies (mainly Neo-Platonism) that were now in the ascendance, Epicureanism had all but died out, and would be resurrected in the 17th century by the atomist Pierre Gassendi, who adapted it to the Christian doctrine.
Some writings by Epicurus have survived. Some scholars consider the epic poem On the Nature of Things by Lucretius to present in one unified work the core arguments and theories of Epicureanism. Many of the papyrus scrolls unearthed at the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum are Epicurean texts. At least some are thought to have belonged to the Epicurean Philodemus.
Epicureanism emphasizes the neutrality of the gods, that they do not interfere with human lives. It states that gods, matter, and souls are all made up of atoms. Souls are made from atoms, and gods possess souls, but their souls adhere to their bodies without escaping. Humans have the same kind of souls, but the forces binding human atoms together do not hold the soul forever. The Epicureans also used the atomist theories of Democritus and Leucippus to assert that man has free will. They held that all thoughts are merely atoms swerving randomly. This explanation served to satisfy people who wondered anxiously about their role in the universe.
This type of trilemma argument (God is omnipotent, God is good, but Evil exists) was one favoured by the ancient Greek skeptics, and this argument may have been wrongly attributed to Epicurus by Lactantius, who, from his Christian perspective, regarded Epicurus as an atheist. According to Reinhold F. Glei, it is settled that the argument of theodicy is from an academical source which is not only not Epicurean, but even anti-Epicurean. The earliest extant version of this trilemma appears in the writings of the skeptic Sextus Empiricus.
Epicurus' view was that there were gods, but that they were neither willing nor able to prevent evil. This was not because they were malevolent, but because they lived in a perfect state of ataraxia, a state everyone should strive to emulate; it is not the gods who are upset by evils, but people. Epicurus conceived the gods as blissful and immortal yet material beings made of atoms inhabiting the metakosmia: empty spaces between worlds in the vastness of infinite space. In spite of his recognition of the gods, the practical effect of this materialistic explanation of the gods' existence and their complete non-intervention in human affairs renders his philosophy akin in divine effects to the attitude of Deism.
In Dante's Divine Comedy, the flaming tombs of the Epicureans are located within the sixth circle of hell (Inferno, Canto X). They are the first heretics seen and appear to represent the ultimate, if not quintessential, heresy. Similarly, according to Jewish Mishnah, Epicureans (apiqorsim, people who share the beliefs of the movement) are among the people who do not have a share of the "World-to-Come" (afterlife or the world of the Messianic era).
Parallels may be drawn to Buddhism, which similarly emphasizes a lack of divine interference and aspects of its atomism. Buddhism also resembles Epicureanism in its temperateness, including the belief that great excess leads to great dissatisfaction.
Epicureanism does not produce Divine Magic.