"Nothing is death for us": the roots of Epicurus' thought

In his philosophical school, founded on intense bonds of friendship and aimed at authentic pleasure, Epicurus sought imperturbability. We retrace the roots of his thought, inherited a few centuries later by Lucretius in Rome.

di Lorenzo

He was not tamed by the legends of the gods, nor by lightning, nor by menacing
rumbling of the sky; indeed, they stimulated them all the more
the proud valor of the soul, so he wanted
to be the first to break the barred doors of the universe.


Titus Lucretius Caro lives between the nineties and the fifties of the first century a. C. Almost nothing is known about his life, even if a series of sources allow us to place his death between 55 and 50 around the age of forty-four. [2]. Lucretius is best remembered for the Natural Rerum, didactic poem in six books, written in dactyl hexameters, which refers to Perished phýseos (On nature) of Epicurus. The dedication to a certain Memmio, presumably that Lucio Memmio praetor of the Bithynia-Pontus province in 58, is significant, demonstrating the need for institutional protection sought by the poet.  

According to some scholars, Lucretius's work is nothing more than a transcription in Latin and in poetic form of the Epicurean one. This consideration is part of the general conception according to which Roman philosophy should be considered only as receptive to the Greek one, thus devoid of any systematic originality. According to the professor Therese Fuhrer this total flattening is very misleading: "If in comparison with the pre-Socratics Lucretius undoubtedly refers to Epicurus, the implicit but evident controversy against the Stoics leads beyond the model" [3]. Yet it is undeniable that, although various influences can be traced in the poem (from the poetic rendering of naturalistic contents by Empedocles to the form of Ennio's Latinized hexameter), il reference to epicureanism is constant. It is no coincidence that "Lucretius motivates the poetic form by resorting to the metaphor of a cup covered with honey, in which men, tormented by their fears, are offered a bitter but effective medicine, the Epicurean doctrine" [4]. Many times the poet considers Epicurus his teacher, the liberator of the world from superstition and false fears: 

And therefore he purified hearts with truthful words, 
and set an end to greed and fear,
and expounded what was the highest good to which we all strive,
and showed the way by which by a short path
we can reach it with a direct path. 


Epicurus was born on the island of Samo, a military colony of Athens, in 341 BC. C. he visits Athens in several circumstances, before moving there in 307, buying a house with a large enclosed garden just outside the city walls. His philosophical school, often referred to as the Garden, quickly attracts a large number of followers who forge intense bonds of friendship, even accepting women and slaves in the name of widely professed hedonism. Since his contemporaries and for the following centuries these elements are repeatedly turned against the master, accused of debauchery and excessiveness by his opponents. At the beginning of the III century a. C., in the monumental work entitled Lives of the philosophers, Diogenes Laertius He reports the accusations of Timocrates, a former member of the Garden, that Epicurus "rejected twice a day for overeating [...] he was ignorant of many things concerning logic and many more concerning life. The condition of his physique was pitiful, so much so that he was unable, for many years, to get up from the sedan chair " [6]. For his part, the historian, who dedicates the entire book X to Epicurus and has been compared to the Epicurean doctrine on several occasions, flatly rejects the accusations of his detractors: 

But they are out of their minds. Our man, in fact, has sufficient witnesses of his unsurpassed good disposition towards everyone, both the homeland that honored him with bronze effigies, and his friends, who were so large that they could not even be counted by adding the inhabitants of entire city.


As the professor points out Kempe Algra, Epicurus's exceptional nature would seem confirmed by the fact that, after his death, he was revered "in the school as a god or a hero, in consideration of both his perfect lifestyle and the fact that he was believed to have liberated humanity from several of its existential fears, revealing the true structure of the universe " [8]. This liberating character, however, must not be misleading, making Epicureanism pass as a kind of irrational pseudo-religion. Algra punctually specifies this aspect: 

It cannot be said that Epicurus chose the system he chose just as it would have a liberating effect: on the contrary, with his followers he firmly believed that his system could have such a liberating effect precisely because every single aspect of the doctrine could be validated and finally proved on the basis of the rules of his epistemology.  


After all, Epicureanism is one of the main ones Hellenistic philosophies, the period inaugurated by the death of Alexander the Great in 323 a. C. and characterized by widespread existential anxiety, but not for this reason in discontinuity with previous centuries, contrary to what is too often claimed. For the Epicureans, as well as for the Stoics, Platonists, Aristotelians, and to a lesser extent their contemporaries skeptics and cynics, philosophy is conceived as a continuous path towards wisdom to be practiced in a group. Each of these schools develops its own doctrine, a fundamental inner attitude, a certain way of speaking and of spiritual exercises to be pursued with constancy in order to live in connection with oneself and with the cosmos. In this sense, Hellenistic philosophy asserts itself as art of life (téchne tou bíou), within which the theory finds its complete realization in daily practice. For this reason, even if Stoicism and Epicureanism support the division of philosophical discourse into three parts - logic, physics and ethics - philosophy itself has an organicistic dimension and a much broader scope, as it points out. the French philosopher Pierre Hadot

Philosophy itself, that is, the philosophical way of life, is no longer a theory divided into parts, but a single act which consists in living logic, physics and ethics. Then we no longer do the theory of logic, that is, of well-speaking and well-thinking, but we think and speak well, we no longer make the theory of the physical world, but we contemplate the cosmos, we no longer make the theory of moral action, but it is done in an upright and just way. 


The practical vocation of philosophy is inherited from Romans, which however decline it in a different way, no longer sharing it in closed communities of followers, but generally using it to assert themselves within society. The academic skepticism of Cicerone and the stoicism of Seneca e Marco Aurelio are striking examples in this sense, while Lucretius is the only one of the great Roman philosophers who did not establish himself as a prominent figure on the political scene of his time. After all, as Fuhrer points out: 

Much of the Epicurean doctrine contradicted the conceptions of the Roman ruling class: the idea that the gods were distant from men, that they demanded neither prayers nor offerings, and that their will did not allow itself to be grasped by divinatory practices, or the idea that participation to public life was a foolish thing, they could hardly agree with experiences characterized by the state religion and with ambitions oriented to honorum course of a Roman senator

Titus Lucretius Caro 

In absolute continuity with the teacher the Natural Rerum retraces the Epicurean doctrine in its entirety, systematically exposing its physics, logic (defined as canonical) and consequently ethics. Yet the six books of the work can be divided into three pairs which do not reflect the classical Hellenistic tripartition: the first couple presents the atomistic doctrine, the second la anthropological conception and the third thecosmogonic order. This is an indicative distinction, given that various elements overlap and return several times in the text, the result of a design pre-established by the author, which however probably lacked the last revision. In this sense, the problematic elements can take on unexpected functions: "The repetitions can be attributed with a didactic motivation, the open questions and the problematic conclusion can be assigned the function of an intellectual stimulus" [12]

The Hellenistic philosophies begin their reflection from physics, move thanks to logic and arrive at ethics, in a spiral path in which the parts are closely intertwined. The indissolubility of the bond is found above all in Stoicism, where logic has the critical function of moral principles and physics serves as the support of ethics, which is the true aim of philosophizing. [13]. In epicureanism the relationship exists, even if in a slightly weakened form. If for the Stoics, in fact, physics and ethics are two sides of the same coin, for Epicurus "physics offers only a non-rigorous and fundamentally negative context for ethics through the liberation from some of our existential fears" [14]. But it is still an essential context. 

For this reason the Lucretian treatment starts from atomistic doctrine of the master, who in turn had inherited it from the Presocratics Leucippus e Democritus, within a strongly materialistic conception of reality expressed in theEpistle to Herodotus. For Epicurus "everything that is real must be able to act or undergo an action" [15], and this capacity belongs exclusively to bodies, while the only existing incorporeal entity is the void. After all, the universe has always (and will always be) made up of the same two elements: the empty, that is the space (the intangible nature) who is unable to act or suffer an action, and the atoms, understood as the fundamental particles of perceptible bodies. Although they are physically indivisible, atoms differ in shape and size, and therefore can be conceptually divided according to their respective size and the smallest parts can be recognized. The atoms are all continuously moving at the same rapid speed, following a natural path in a straight line (presumably from top to bottom), subject to spontaneous deviations. This random change, defined by Lucretius clinamen, allows atoms (primordia rerum) to disintegrate and aggregate again in a new form "and experience all that they can produce with the incessant combining with each other" [16]. Consequently:

A compound body is an aggregate of atoms that move in such a way that they can remain together at least for some time. During that time, compound bodies continuously release atomic images from their surface (eidola), but they are continually supplied by isolated atoms that reach them from the outside.


The characteristics of the particles do not entirely coincide with those of their compounds. Bodies move at a reduced speed with respect to atoms (which collide within the whole) and possess other properties than the essential ones of weight, size, shape and strength. The notion of eidola it is of extreme interest, as it directly links physics to epistemology. Epicurus limits logic to what he calls rectory, or the epistemological discipline that deals with the criterion of truth (or canon), rejecting instead its dialectic. In this sense, by isolating the incontrovertible criteria for validating claims about the external world, logic is considered the methodological foundation of physics. 


At the beginning ofEpistle to Herodotus three criteria of truth are identified on which to base knowledge. More than on the immediate apprehensions of the intellect and the affections (of pleasure and pain) existing in human beings, the philosopher focuses on perceptions of the sense organs. According to Epicurus, as well as other ancient thinkers, the main form of sensation is the view: "Visual perception takes place by means of thin layers of atoms which are emitted in a constant flux by every object in the external world and which he calls images» [18]. These images are just the eidola which continuously transmit to human eyes the shapes of the bodies from which they come, as stated in theEpistle:

The flow of the surface of the bodies is continuous, although no diminution of the bodies themselves can be seen, as other particles fill the vacant places. And this flow maintains the position and order of the atoms of the solid body they come from for a long time, although sometimes the flow can get messy..


As impressions of external objects, every (visual) perception is indubitable, although some perceptions may be clearer than others, as demonstrated by the examples of the wand and tower [20]. Epicurus continues: "Falsehood and error, on the other hand, always reside in the addition of opinion to what awaits to be confirmed or not denied, while then, in fact, it is either not confirmed or is denied" [21]. In the cognitive process, therefore, the false enters when the objects are judged in a rational way, after having been perceived (correctly) through the senses. In the fourth book of the Natural Rerum Lucretius fully takes up the master's sensist epistemology, recognizing reliability to human perception, stimulated by eidola (defined by him simulacre), And fallibility to the intellect

But what is to be considered more certain
what sense? Perhaps the reason born of a fallacious sense
will it serve to challenge the senses, which originates entirely from the senses?
If these are not truthful, even reason becomes entirely false. 


This digression from the physical world to the logical sphere is an example of the internal interconnections of Epicureanism (and of Hellenistic philosophies in general), which certainly do not end here. Returning to the nature of atoms, it is necessary to underline how their number is infinite, just as space (or void) and consequently the whole universe are infinite. Besides being materialistic, Algra points out how the Epicurus system: 

It can also be described as mechanistic, our modern way of saying that it explains everything that happens in the universe by resorting to the blind and unguided movements of inanimate particles of matter. The result is a universe, the epicurean one, devoid of a design: any form of order is temporary and ultimately fortuitous.


Epicurean physics is characterized by processes of generation and corruption, according to which "nothing comes from nothing" and "nothing ends in nothing" [24] and for which everything that happens can be traced back to the principles of material causality (the atoms), while all attempts at explanation that refer to miraculous or divine reasons are to be excluded. Towards the end of the Letter to Herodotus we read: "Also with regard to celestial phenomena, movement, solstice, eclipse, rising and sunset and phenomena similar to these, we must think that they occur without someone governing and ordering them or having arranged them and that, at the same time, this someone enjoys all bliss, combined with incorruptibility " [25]. Two fundamental elements emerge from this passage. The first is that even celestial phenomena, as well as the terrestrial ones, derive from the whirling motion of atoms. Epicurus dwells on this aspect in the next paragraph and deepens it in theEpistle to Pitocles, focused on meteorological and astrological themes, in different parts: 

The sun and the moon and the other celestial bodies were not first independent and then they were annexed to this world, but from the very beginning they were shaped and received growth, thanks to the aggregations and swirling movements of some substances made up of fine particles, or windy, or fiery, or both: in fact it is the sensation that suggests these things


The second element is that relating to of the, which are recognized as existing but not causes of celestial phenomena. In the last of the three letters preserved by Diogenes Laertius and which have come down to us, theEpistle to Meneceus, Epicurus broadens the perspective to his pupil: 

First consider the divinity as an immortal and blessed living being, as the common notion of the divine suggests, and do not attribute to it anything extraneous to immortality or inappropriate to bliss; on the contrary, he thinks about it all that is capable of preserving the blessedness combined with immortality. In fact, the gods exist: the knowledge that one has of them is evident; they do not rather exist in the way that most believe them.  


In 'Epistle to Meneceus Epicurus outlines his ethical doctrine, through the exposition of the so-called quadrifugaco. Philosophical practice allows to face the four great fears that grip the mind of men in order to achieve authentic happiness, represented byabsence of upset (ataraxia). Ethical research is therefore in full continuity with the logical approach and the physical conception expressed inEpistle to Pitocles, where it is recognized as "it must be held that the goal to be achieved with the knowledge of celestial phenomena is treated together with other issues and in isolation, it is nothing other than imperturbability and firm conviction, as indeed this also applies to other studies " [28].

In the first place the philosopher indicates to the student of do not fear the gods precisely because, although they exist, they do not care about human destinies. Deities can serve as eternal models of imperturbability, from which active intervention on the world is not expected. Consequently, as Algra points out: "Religious rites should take the form of a meditation on the blessed existence of the gods, which must help us to imitate them" [29]. Also in this case the position of the teacher is inherited by Lucretius. It is no coincidence that the Of rerum nature, which in several parts rejects the explanation of natural events through divine intervention, opens rhetorically with a hymn to Venus, the life-giving deity and the symbol of traditional Roman worship: 

Since you only govern the nature of things,
and nothing without you can rise to the divine regions of light,
nothing without you be happy and lovable,
I wish to have you partner in writing the versesi
which I intend to compose on the nature of all things


The second concern for Epicurus to ignore is death, since evil and good derive only from the sensations one feels in the course of life. We read in theEpistle to Meneceus

Get used to thinking that nothing is death for us [...] In fact, there is nothing fearful in life for those who are truly convinced that there is nothing fearful in not living. [...] The most terrible of evils, therefore, death, is nothing for us, because when we are there there is no death, when there is death we are not. 


Similarly to these two elements, the philosopher, as a doctor of the soul, prescribes not to be disturbed by either force of fate (which does not depend on one's own actions), nor on fear of pain. Through philosophy, practiced in groups and nurtured by sincere bonds of friendship, human beings can be happy, reaching their natural end as recognized by many other thinkers of antiquity. For Epicurus the happiness (eudaimonia) coincides with the experience (hedone), which is the principle of living blissfully, but it must by no means be reduced to mere hedonism. Pleasures can be distinguished in Epicureanism kinetics or moving, or relating to the senses, by those catasthematic or static, which consist in the absence of pain and fear. As Enrico Berti underlines: «Epicurus, to tell the truth, does not despise the former, but largely prefers the latter and only places happiness in them. We are therefore faced with an essentially negative conception of happiness, no longer understood as an activity, as Aristotle wanted, but as an absence of disturbance, that is, as stillness, serenity " [32]. 

In any case, not all pleasures, however congenial to men, are always to be chosen. This choice must be guided by practical wisdom (phronesis), from which all the other virtues (courage, beauty and justice) come and which is able to determine not a quantitative sum of individual pleasures, but a qualitative increase in pleasure. Epicurus Specification: 

Not drinking and continuous parties, nor the enjoyments of children and women, nor of fish nor of all the other things a lavish table offers generates a pleasant life, but sober reasoning that investigates the causes of every act of choice and rejection, that drives away the false opinions from which that great disturbance that takes souls arises. 


Human soul which, both for Epicurus and for Lucretius, is corporeal and composed of atoms like everything else. In the Natural Rerum the fear of death is averted starting from this premise: "Therefore, death is nothing for us, and it does not concern us at all, since the nature of the soul is to be considered mortal" [34]. Like the master, Lucretius also derives from his conception of the world aethics aimed at the present, focused on the qualitative increase of pleasure at the expense of pain and aimed at achieving theataraxia. A philosophical life modeled on the example of one who defied superstition and with practical wisdom derived from reason went "beyond the flaming walls of the world" [35]

O wretched minds of men, O blind souls!
In what dark existence and among how many great dangers
you spend this short life! How not to see
that nothing else nature asks of us with imperious cries,
except that the body is free from pain, and rejoices in the soul
of a joyful sense free of worries and fears?
[...] For as children in darkness fear
and they are afraid of everything, so in the light we sometimes
we fear things that are no more frightening
of those that children fear in the darkness imagining them imminent.
It is therefore necessary that this terror of the soul and this darkness
not be dissipated by the rays of the sun or by shining darts  
of the day, but rather from the evidence of natural doctrine.   



[1] The reference is to Epicurus. Lucretius, The nature of things, I vv. 68-71, BUR Rizzoli, Milan 2021, p. 77.

[2] See Therese Fuhrer, Philosophy in Rome, in Lorenzo Perilli and Daniela P. Taormina (edited by), Ancient philosophy. Historical and textual itinerary, UTET, Novara 2012, p.426.

[3] Ibid, p. 425.

[4] Ibid, p. 426. 

[5] Lucretius, The nature of things, VI vv. 24-28, p. 535. 

[6] Diogenes Laertius, Lives and doctrines of the most famous philosophers, Book X, Bompiani, Milan 2005, p. 1167. 

[7] Ibid, p. 1169. 

[8] Keimpe Algra, Hellenistic philosophy, in Perilli and Taormina, Ancient philosophy, p. 314. 

[9] Ibid. 

[10] Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a way of lifein Spiritual exercises e ancient philosophy, Little Einaudi Library, Turin 2005, p. 158.

[11] Fuhrer, Philosophy in Rome, p. 420. 

[12] Ibid, p. 427. 

[13] See: Roberto Radice, Stoicism, La Scuola Publishing, Brescia 2012, p. 20. 

[14] Algra, Hellenistic philosophy, p. 337. 

[15] Ibid, p. 320. 

[16] Lucretius, The nature of things, V vv. 190-191, p. 439.

[17] Algra, Hellenistic philosophy, p. 323. 

[18] Ibid, p. 315. 

[19] Epicurus, Epistle to Herodotus, in Diogenes Laertius, Lives and doctrines, p. 1205.

[20] Returning to an ancient debate, the perception of a straight wand as straight when in the air and that of the same straight wand as bent when half immersed in water are both equally true. The same is true for the perceptions of a square tower as being square or round depending on the distance from which you look at it. See: Algra, Hellenistic philosophy, p. 315.

[21] Epicurus, Epistle to Herodotus, p. 1207. 

[22] Lucretius, The nature of things, IV vs. 482-485, p. 365. 

[23] Algra, Hellenistic philosophy, p. 320. 

[24] See: Epicurus, Epistle to Herodotus, P. 1197. 

[25] Ibid, p. 1229. 

[26] Epicurus, Epistle to Pitocles, in Diogenes Laertius, Lives and doctrines, pp. 1241-1243.  

[27] Epicurus, Epistle to Meneceus, in Philosophers speak of happiness, edited by Fulvia de Luise and Giuseppe Farinetti, Piccola Biblioteca Einaudi, Turin 2014, p. 95. 

[28] Epicurus, Epistle to Pitocles, pp. 1237-1239. 

[29] Algra, Hellenistic philosophy, p. 334.

[30] Lucretius, The nature of things, I vv. 21-25, p. 71.

[31] Epicurus, Epistle to Meneceus, p. 95. 

[32] Enrico Berti, In the beginning it was the wonder. The great questions of ancient philosophy, Laterza Publishers, Bari 2007, p. 288. 

[33] Epicurus, Letter to Meneceo, p. 97.                              

[34] Lucretius, The nature of things, III vs. 830-831, p. 307. 

[35] Ibid, I v. 73, p. 77. 

[36] Ibid, II vv. 14-19 and 55-61, pp. 159-163. 

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