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Epicureanism and Stoicism Essay

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Updated: Apr 13th, 2022


Epicureanism can be regarded as the philosophy of Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher who lived between 341 and 270 B.C (Konstan, pars. 1).

Epicureanism constitutes an interdependent system that harbours the following views: the main purpose of human life as being the achievement of happiness as a result of absence of physical “pain and mental disturbance”; empirical approach to knowledge; utilization of atomic materialism in the describing nature; and finally a natural account of evolution, from earth formation to human civilization (Annas 20).

In his physical theory Epicurus believed that the basic constituents of nature were undifferentiated matter, in the form of discrete, solid and indivisible particles which fell below the threshold of perception, in addition to empty space (Konstan, pars. 4).

He created a distinction between the atom which cannot be broken due to its nature, and the leased conceivable volume of matter. He asserted that atoms could be described as being minima as parts but were not minima themselves (Annas 23).

Epicurus described the human soul as being composed of atoms. He asserted that everything was basically made of atoms and space. Secondly, he pointed out that an entity that was basically incorporeal was incapable of acting or being moved by along with the body in the way the soul does. He often maintained that the atoms of the human soul were principally fine and were distributed in all parts of the body.

He attributed the ability to sense and experience pain or pleasure to the presence of these atoms all over the body. He further explained that a human body devoid of the soul atoms was unconscious and inert and that when the soul atoms were disarranged in a “manner that it could no longer support conscious life, the soul’s atoms are scattered and could no longer retain the ability to sense” (Barnes 56).

On the platform of radical materialism which was in line with the ideas of Plato, Epicurus argued that the human soul had no chance of surviving after death and hence punishment in the afterlife was unlikely. He linked the fearful nature of human beings towards death to the prospect of punishment in the afterlife. According to him, the fear was the main cause of anxiety in individuals.

This anxiety in turn resulted into extreme and irrational ideas (Konstan, pars. 6). He believed that if the fears and the resultant desires were done away with, then humans will be left to seek pleasures, both physically and mentally, and to which they are naturally obliged to follow.

Epicureanism explained how the irrational fears come up and thus gave meaning to the concept of an evolving society. However, Epicurus acknowledged that behaviours of thought that were profoundly ingrained in individuals could not be changed easily.

The philosophy of Epicurus was based on the theory that all good and bad derive from the sensations of pleasure and pain (Konstan, pars.6). Anything that is good was thus considered to be pleasurable while all bad things were seen as painful. Thus pleasure and pain formed the basis for the moral distinction between what can be said to be good or bad (Long 105).

Pleasure as defined by Epicurus stood for the absence of pain but different scholars and rival schools of thought have often misinterpreted it to mean the uncontrolled quest for pleasure. What he really meant was the absence of mental and physical pain which could result in a state of calmness that is devoid from any fear. Epicurus usually warned against excesses because they often resulted in pain.

For example, he was against ardent pursuit of love. He encouraged friendships but only defined them as essential components to the achievement of pleasure. He discouraged people against fearing death by claiming that when one dies, he doesn’t feel pain of death due to the fact that he no longer exists and therefore feels nothing (Long 106).

Epicurus believed that the Gods were neutral and were not in anyway interfering with human life. He asserted that the gods too were composed of atoms and had souls which were constituted by atoms. But unlike the souls in human beings, those found in the gods were held forever. According to Epicureanism, gods did not bother themselves with human beings.

They neither punished the evil nor rewarded the righteous. He associated the gods with eternal happiness that was to be emulated by humans. The problem of evil is explained in the epicurean paradox that asserts “God is omnipotent, God is goo, but evil exists” (Konstan, pars. 7).

On ethics Epicurus was one of the earliest philosophers to describe justice as a social duty. He defined justices an agreement “neither to harm nor to be harmed” (Konstan, pars.7). He believed that the essence of living under an authority that prescribes laws and punishments was basically to protect individuals from harm and thus enable them to pursue happiness.

In a nut shell system incorporated advice on how people should perceive certain things. For instance, he advised people to stay away from politics if possible to avoid trouble, he also urged individuals not to think that gods were concerned bout them and their behaviours and the prospect of punishment in the afterlife.

He regarded the role of sex and marriage in life as being dubious and acknowledged that friendship was an essential part of life. He advised people to maintain an open mind when there is no way verification could be achieved while reflecting on various “meteorological and planetary phenomena and explanations for processes as gravity and magnetism” (Barnes 47).

And as an ethical guideline, Epicurus encouraged individuals to minimize harm and maximize happiness both for themselves and others.

Three Arguments of Stoicism and Epicurean defences

Stoicism can be identified as one of the newer schools of thought of the Hellenistic era. The stoics basically held that emotions rose due to faulty judgement and that an individual who attained intellectual and moral maturity was immune from them (Baltzly, pars. 1). Three of the best arguments advanced by the stoics are explained below.

God as being present throughout the creation process and directing it to the last detail

The stoics argued that God is similar to one of the two ungenerated and indestructible first principles of the universe (Baltzly, pars. 8). One of the principles is matter which they see as being basically inert or that which receives an action. The stoics see God as being eternal or a smart fire that designs matter forms as per the plans it has set.

The plan in this case is repeated over time beginning with a state in which everything is fire, followed by the synthesis of elements, to the formation of the world as we perceive it and then back to fire in a sort of an endless cycle.

The planning fire is compared to a sperm which contains the basic principles of everything thing that will eventually develop. With the same reasoning the stoics also refer to God as fate. And to them, God does not guide the universe from outside but rather from inside (Baltzly, pars. 6).

Epicurean defence

Epicureanism emphasized the neutral role played by the Gods. Unlike the stoics position that God played a role in human life, the epicureans believed that everything including gods, souls and all matter were made of atoms and the gods do not direct human life.

According to the epicureans the gods possessed souls just as humans. The only difference was that their souls adhered to their bodies without escaping unlike in the human beings where the bonds were not strong (Long 163).

Epicurean teaching explained that gods were so far to have any effect or interest in human life. They believed that the gods had nothing to do with the creation of the universe and could not offer blessings or punishment to human beings. Contrary to the stoic belief that God was intrinsic, the epicureans believed that the gods are extrinsic and were far away.

The stoic argument that virtue is the most important human attribute (Annas 67)

Stoicism upheld that the most important aspect of human life was virtue which relies on the strength of will (Konstan, pars. 10). The stoics emphasized that humans should strive to do right regardless of personal ambition or material. They pointed out that everything good or bad that happens in one’s life always happens for a reason to be found in one’s own actions.

They advocated for self control as a means of overcoming the negative feelings and emotions. They believed that the resultant state of the mind was essential for better comprehension of life and spirituality (Long 78). For the stoics, anger, envy and jealousy were to be avoided and that the clearest road to wisdom was freedom from passion (Barnes 41).

Epicurean defence

Similar to the stoics, the epicureans also advocated for virtuous livelihoods. However, unlike the stoics who asserted that the most important aspect of human life as by virtue which relies on the strength of will, the epicureans mainly focused on the attainment of pleasure as the most important aspects of human life (Annas 173).

Epicurus philosophy was based on the notion that all good and bad derive from the sensations of pleasure and pain (Konstan, pars. 5).

While the stoics felt that people were obliged to strive to control themselves in order to deter negative emotions, the epicureans saw the fear of death and punishment from gods as a major stumbling block towards the attainment of pleasure which was benchmarked by perfect mental peace (Konstan, pars. 8-9).

Epicureans mainly advocated for good virtues due to their contribution towards the achievement of the greater pleasure. Epicurus believed that if harm was minimized on an individual as well as others then maximum happiness could be achieved.

Arguments for the human soul

The stoic considered the human soul as a “fragment of the universal divine force that was not completely sundered from the parent stock” (Barnes 67). The described the human soul as pneuma, which was described as having concurrent movements both inward and outward which accounted for its tensile form.

The pneuma was described as having the ability to pass through every body when in an outward movement and therefore giving them the qualities that they possessed. Its movement towards the inside was responsible for their unification. According to the stoics, the fact that pneuma acted it was considered to be a body and its blending with matter was considered to a “through and through” affair (Konstan, pars. 10).

Using this description, the stoics put forward a theory of mixture that enabled them to explain the idea of two bodies existing at the same place at the same time (Baltzly, pars. 8). Pneuma was thus to be found in plants and animals. In rational animals, the pneuma hard other functions other than issuance of commands.

This other functions include planning, thinking and deciding (Baltzly, pars. 9). The stoics attributed all the functions of the body that included movement including physiological functions such as digestion to the soul.

Epicurean defence

Unlike the stoics who thought the soul to be a “breath like material compound of two of the four stoic elements, fire and air”, Epicurus believed that the soul was composed of atoms just like any other matter but did not elaborate what constituted the atoms (Konstan, pars. 7).

According to him, the atoms in the human soul were composed of known elements and additional nameless materials which were responsible for the ability to perceive.

The ability of the living organisms to move, rest or warm them was attributed to fairly known substances or materials in Epicureanism but sense perception was left out on the basis that it was not party to the known or named elements (Konstan, pars. 11). The epicurean thinking attributed the mental functions of cognition, emotion and desire to the soul (Konstan, pars.12).

Works Cited

Annas, Janet. The Morality of Happiness. Oxford : Oxford University press, 1993. Print

Baltzly, Dirk. “Stoicism” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2010. Web.12 April 2011. <>.

Barnes, Joseph. The Presocratic Philosophers. London : Routledge, 1982. Print.

Konstan, David. ” Epicurus” The stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy. 2009. Web.12 April 2011. <>.

Long, Arthur. The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.

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