Epicurus founded his philosophical school and lived with his friends in his "Garden" in Athens when the city was witnessing the rise of Macedonian dominance and Greek politics reflected the ongoing crisis in values and virtues. Many thinkers felt the growing need for intellectual conservatism and voluntary withdrawal to secure a life of imperturbability. That his school became a model followed in other cities, including Rome, for more than 500 years is both testimony to the strong appeal Epicurus's ethical doctrines exerted and a sign of the logical conviction the theory of Atomism generated in his followers. Epicurus, who knew the pre-Socratics well, revived and extended the Atomism of Democritus and Leucippus by finding broader applications for Atomism in psychology, physics, and ethics. Although the principles of the physical teachings of Epicurus were destined for a significant revival, and in certain ways, experimental confirmation in modern times, the special appeal of his philosophy was basically ethical. His physics remains the background to support a way of life aiming at the enhancement of pleasure and avoidance of pain. Epicurus's theories sought to reveal the causes of pain, especially fear, whether of death or of divine intervention. He taught that only the acquisition of knowledge helps in the effort to cope with fears and secure a happy life. His influence was felt strongly in Italy and it found in Rome an eloquent spokesman in Lucretius, whose masterwork, De Rerum Natura, is by far the most complete exposition of Epicureanism.
Brad Inwood is Professor of Classics, University of Toronto.