Epicurean Garden

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Society of Friends of Epicurus:

"Epicurus was born in an Athenian settlement in the island of Samos in the late 4th century BC. One ancient biography mentions he was of noble birth although it is also stated that he started out sustaining himself financially as a school teacher, which would indicate that he was of modest means in his early life. He started practicing philosophy at an early age, either 12 or 14, depending on the source. He and his family ended up leaving Samos and moving to different cities as a result of the chaos in the Greek world that followed the death of Alexander the Great. During his travels he would study philosophy under different teachers and would eventually build his own philosophical system inspired by the long dead founder of atomism, Democritus. Epicurus promoted the following worldview: the universe is made of atoms and void and subject to the laws of physics without divine intervention, the world can be understood through an empiricist epistemology, and pleasure, pursued intelligently and ethically, is the goal of life.

His first converts were of his own family: his three brothers and a slave named Mys. During his travels, he met other men who would play an enormous role in his life, most notably Metrodurus, Hermarchus and Polyaenus. Together, this group of friends would create the philosophical school that would become known as the Garden. Unlike what is often assumed, Epicurean philosophy is not just the work of a single man. While Epicurus was the founder of the school that bears his name, the writings of these co-founders would be considered foundational by Epicureans throughout the centuries.

By the time Epicurus with his friends settled in Athens, he had a strong enough network to start competing with the other major philosophical schools of Plato and Aristotle. As the Epicureans gained converts and financial support, they were able to purchase property, a garden, in the outskirts of Athens where the community would be able to live and practice their philosophy. This is where the name of the Epicurean school, the Garden, comes from."



Society of Friends of Epicurus:

Who Were the Epicureans?

The Garden welcomed people from all walks of life. Unlike other philosophers of the time, Epicurus encouraged the practice of philosophy at any age:

“Let no one delay the study of philosophy while young nor weary of it when old. For no one is either too young or too old for the health of the soul”

One major feature of the Garden was its acceptance of marginalized people. In the Epicurean community, slaves practiced philosophy along with legally free men. The ancient biographer Diogenes Laertius mentions Epicurus’ kindness toward his own slaves in his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, and informs us that they studied philosophy with him.

It should be noted that in antiquity there was no concept of abolishing slavery. It was considered an inevitable part of a functioning economy, much like wage labor is today. However, within this context, the Epicureans were among those who most strongly called for slaves to be treated humanely. The doxography on the Epicurean wise man in Diogenes Laertius’ biography states the following:

“Nor will he punish his servants; instead he will pity them and pardon any who are of good character.”

Women were also accepted in the community and discussed philosophy along with men. This was unusual for this period where women enjoyed few rights. Among the Epicureans one could find married couples as well as a class of women called hetaerae. These hetaerae, a term often translated as “courtesans”, were considered in ancient Athens to be in a different category than married women or prostitutes. They enjoyed much more freedom in their interpersonal relationships than the average Greek married woman, who was subject to the extremely restrictive societal norms of the time. However, they were financially dependent on male providers, who often competed for their attention. They also tended to be well read and knowledgeable in subjects such as poetry, art or philosophy. One of them, Leontion, is known to have written a treatise defending Epicureanism. The relative freedom of women in the Garden was considered scandalous by traditionally minded intellectual elites. The Roman politician and writer Cicero expressed a mixture of admiration and shock at Leontion’s practice of philosophy:

“…even the courtesan Leontion ventured to write against Theophrastus? She did so, it is true, in a neat and Attic style, but still—. Such was the license assumed by the Garden of Epicurus…”

Epicurean communities had an open door policy and did not only welcome converts. According to the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus it was a common practice to welcome non members to their banquets.

By the time it reached Rome, Epicureanism became a strong presence among certain sectors of the Patricians, the Roman elites. However, the philosophy seems to have also become popular among the not so elite Plebeian classes if we are to believe the aristocratically minded Cicero who mocks the philosophy for appealing to what in his mind were the uneducated common people.

Moral Improvement

How did a convert to Epicureanism practice philosophy in the Garden? One important facet of being an Epicurean was learning the teachings of the school. What is the nature of the cosmos? How do we obtain reliable knowledge? What is the best way of life as a human being? These teachings were not just about learning philosophical theory for its own sake. Understanding the universe we live in and human nature was crucial to flourishing and living better lives. For example, learning that natural phenomena such as thunder and earthquakes have rational explanations is meant to protect us from fears caused by superstitions. Learning that we do not need to be rich or famous to be happy helps us overcome the longing for those unnecessary things which are out of our reach and be content with what we have. To this end, study and memorization were techniques used to better integrate these teachings.

Another major objective of a student in Epicureanism was to become a more ethical and wiser person by cultivating virtues and overcoming vices. Much of the Epicurean literature focused on describing negative personality traits and developing therapeutic methods to overcome them. For example, among the surviving scrolls of Philodemus, we find titles such as On Anger, On Flattery and On Arrogance. This literature presents us with philosophical arguments as well as vivid images of people subject to these emotions, often considered irrational and harmful, in order to persuade readers to work on morally improving themselves.

This aim of achieving wisdom was also achieved by interacting with other members of the community in a practice called Frank Speech. Epicureans were expected to help each other in overcoming personality flaws and becoming better people. This encouraged not only a form of truth telling meant to improve one another’s behavior, but the admission of one’s own flaws in a way that reminds us of Catholic confession. The bonds of friendship encouraged in the Garden required trust and honesty while giving out criticism or praise. This was a difficult balancing act. For example, the two extremes of arrogance and a lack of self-confidence were to be overcome. One had to be careful to express honest criticism without being mean spirited. It was also important to take into account everyone’s unique personality. For instance, you will not talk to someone who is of gentle disposition in the same way you would someone who has a more aggressive personality. Philodemus elaborates on questions such as these in his treatise, On Frank Speech.

Within the Epicurean communities there was a hierarchy between teachers, more advanced in wisdom, and students in philosophy. This hierarchy was not based on social class, which sometimes led to tensions when the student was of a higher social status than the teacher. A teacher was seen as a sort of doctor of the soul whose role it was to cure students and occasionally other teachers of their vices by mastering different techniques of Frank Speech. This required experience and a capacity to lead by example and inspire trust, as such a position was never a given and had to be earned. This also necessitated, on occasion, the recognition of one’s own faults and shortcomings, as even the sage is still human."