Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who lived from 341-270 BC. His philosophy has become known as Epicureanism, the essential doctrine of which is that pleasure is the supreme good and main goal of life.
The cardinal virtues in the Epicurean system of ethics are justice, honesty, and prudence, or the balancing of pleasure and pain. Epicurus preferred friendship to love, as being less disquieting. His personal hedonism taught that only through self-restraint, moderation, and detachment can one achieve the kind of tranquillity that is true happiness.
True happiness, Epicurus taught, is the serenity resulting from the conquest of fear of the gods, of death, and of the afterlife. The soul is regarded as being composed of fine particles distributed throughout the body. The dissolution of the body in death, Epicurus taught, leads to the dissolution of the soul, which cannot exist apart from the body; and thus no afterlife is possible. Since death means total extinction, it has no meaning either to the living or to the dead, for “when we are, death is not; and when death is, we are not.”
Epicurus regarded the universe as infinite and eternal and as consisting only of bodies and space. Of the bodies, some are compound and some are atoms, or indivisible, stable elements of which the compounds are formed. Epicurus anticipated the modern doctrine of natural selection. He postulated that natural forces give rise to organisms of different types and that only the types able to support and propagate themselves have survived.
The doctrines of Epicureanism have remained remarkably intact throughout its history as a living tradition, and the Epicurean philosophy found many distinguished disciples, most notably, the Roman poet Lucretius. As an organized school, Epicureanism went out of existence early in the 4th century AD. It was revived in the 17th century by the French philosopher Pierre Gassendi. Since then, Epicureanism has attracted eminent persons in all ages and is regarded as one of the leading schools of moral philosophy of all time.
The Roman poet Lucretius lived from about 98-55 BC. His great didactic poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) expounds the philosophical materialism of Greek philosophers Democritus and Epicurus and is the main source for contemporary knowledge of Epicurus’s thought. Lucretius sought to free humanity from the fear of death and of the gods, which he considered the main cause of human unhappiness. His characterization of the universe as a fortuitous aggregation of atoms moving in the void, his insistence that the soul is not a distinct, immaterial entity but a chance combination of atoms that does not survive the body, and his postulation of purely natural causes for earthly phenomena are all calculated to prove that the world is not directed by divine agency and that fear of the supernatural is consequently without reasonable foundation. Lucretius does not deny the existence of gods, but he conceives of them as having no concern with the affairs or destiny of mortals.
Modern day Humanism has much in common with Epicureanism, and offers an alternative to conventional religion. Humanism recognises that moral values are properly founded on human nature and experience alone. Humanism offers a positive and ethical way of life, without recourse to a god or other supernatural beliefs. A growing number of people are turning to Humanism as the practical and rational outlook on life.
Humanists do not believe in God or Heaven, but in the power of science, reason and human experience to make sense of our lives. Humanism includes the views that this life and this world are all we can truly know; that there are no supernatural, omniscient beings or forces, or sacred texts; that our values and morality must therefore come from within ourselves and our experience.
Humanists hold that the most important factor in all our thoughts and actions is our shared membership of the human race, and that it is up to us to make the best of our time together here.
Humanism is not synonymous with atheism or agnosticism, neither of which say anything about values, about morals or how to treat other people or how to find meaning in life, whereas Humanism offers a positive ethical code to follow.
Humanists Think –
- That this world and this life are all we have.
- That we should try to live full and happy lives ourselves and, as part of this, make it easier for other people to do the same.
- That all situations and people deserve to be judged on their merits by standards of reason and humanity.
- That individuality and social co-operation are equally important.
The British Humanist Association is a registered charity that exists to promote Humanism as a whole approach to life. The BHA also offers advice and guidance booklets on conducting non-religious weddings, funerals & naming ceremonies.