Question: "What is Epicureanism? What did Epicurus teach?"
Answer: Epicureanism was a Greek philosophy started by Epicurus (341—270 BC). It was still going strong in New Testament times when Paul visited Athens on his second missionary journey. One of the groups that debated with Paul on the streets of Athens was Epicurean (Acts 17:18); later, this group brought Paul to the Areopagus for further questioning (verse 19).
Epicureanism taught that the highest state a person could attain was ataraxia—absolute peace—and aponia—complete absence of mental, emotional, and physical distress or need. Epicureanism has gotten a bad rap in modern times because of a misunderstanding of its basic tenets. People today tend to think it represents ultimate, decadent luxury and indulgence. It’s usually contrasted with Stoicism, which is thought to be the absolute absence of desire. But these are extreme definitions that don’t quite hit the mark.
Epicurus’s goal was to teach people to relax and enjoy life without worrying so much. His first step was to remove the idea of the gods from the psyche of his followers. To Epicurus, the gods did exist, but they lived so far away from the affairs of man, in a permanent state of ataraxia, that they didn’t interfere with humanity—in fact, they weren’t even aware of humanity.
With the removal of fear of the gods came two advantages for the Epicureans. First, there is no judgment after death; therefore, death shouldn’t be feared. Everything is material, so, whatever “soul” there is, it is connected to the physical body and ceases to exist upon death. Second, there is no judgment during life. There is no way to appease a god who doesn’t know you exist and doesn’t care about your life. Therefore, you are free to find fulfillment in life outside of religious rules and expectations.
What, then, is fulfillment, according to Epicureanism? If we aren’t working for the favors of gods, in this life or the next, how can we live to the full in the moment? Epicurus’s answer is more balanced than many understand. To him, ataraxia was everything. It meant very simple but profound things like not being hungry, not being in distress, and not worrying.
Absolute peace meant being comfortably fed, but not overfed because that leads to stomach aches. Desserts and fine food are okay if they are rare enough to be appreciated but not so common as to be expected or desired. Too much education is distressing because it awakens a desire to understand things that are not understandable. Feelings, not logic, most often reveal the truth about a situation. To an extent, altruism and civil obedience are good because, if the society is healthy, it benefits you, too. But politics and power are too stressful. Things like fame, marriage, and wealth are artificial, and very often bring more heartbreak than joy. At the same time, Epicureanism did not prohibit such activities if a person found them beneficial.
So, in true Epicureanism, the best life is characterized by sufficient food, a comfortable dwelling, peaceful relationships, and good friends. Epicurus’s academy followed this model; the school was in his home and garden and included slaves and women.
If this sounds familiar, it may be because some of what Epicureanism taught aligns with the Bible. For example, Money and power do not often bring peace. “But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’” (Matthew 20:25–28; see also Matthew 13:22; Mark 10:23b; James 3:1).
Worrying is not good. “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25; see also 1 Peter 5:7). Of course, the reason Jesus gave for not worrying was trust in God; Epicurus’s reason was that there are no gods that matter.
A good life includes sufficient food and good friendships. “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17; see also Proverbs 27:17).
Possessions and desires enslave more than they free. “Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags” (Proverbs 23:20–21; see also Matthew 19:21–22; Galatians 5:24).
Nature around us has no choice but to tell the truth, but we often don’t listen. “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. . . . They exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (Romans 1:20–25; see also John 8:44–45). Of course, the “truth” that the Epicurean drew from nature completely ignored the fact of a present, life-sustaining Creator.
Regardless of the few times Epicureanism stumbled upon the truth, the materialistic views of Epicureanism directly contradict the Bible. Scripture says that God is very involved in our lives. “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38–39; see also John 14:16–17; Hebrews 13:5b).
The cosmos includes the spiritual as well as the physical. “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24; see also Ezekiel 18:4; Hebrews 4:12).
We will be resurrected—death is not the end. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25b–26a; see also 1 Corinthians 6:14; 15:54–55).
Only Christ can bring peace, not the careful manipulation of the earthly life. “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33; see also 2 Corinthians 12:8-10; Philippians 4:4–7, 11–13).
Ultimately, what Epicureanism taught was a “fulfilled” life free from pain, hunger, distress, worry—and God. Considering the gods the Greeks knew—violent, lusty, and capricious super-humans—they maybe aren’t to be condemned for seeking to cast off the deities. But the Epicureans didn’t understand that a fulfilled life can’t happen without the Creator-God who loves us and saved us. It is good to have bread and friends. It is better to have the Bread of Life (John 6:35, 48) and the Friend who made the ultimate sacrifice for us (John 15:13–15).