Epicurus, the son of Neocles and Chaerestrate, was born in the Athenian settlement on the island of Samos in February 341 BC. It is claimed that he first began to study philosophy at the age of fourteen. (1) As a young man he received a good education and studied the work of Socrates and Plato. His most important teacher was Pamphilus, a follower of Plato. (2)
After the death of Alexander the Great, the new ruler, Perdiccas, expelled the Athenian settlers on Samos to Colophon, on the coast of what is now Turkey. After the completion of his military service, he joined his family in Colophon and studied under Nausiphanes. (3)
According to John M. Rist: "Nausiphanes wrote a book called The Tripod which was held to have been a formative influence on Epicures - Nausiphanes argued that knowledge depends on observation, the evidence of history and inference based on analogy." (4)
In around 311 BC, Epicurus began teaching in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. In 307 he moved to Athens where he founded his own school. Epicurus taught in his garden and caused a great scandal by accepting women and slaves as his students. The Garden was more than just a school; according to Pamela Gordon, it was "a community of like-minded and aspiring practitioners of a particular way of life." (5)
The life of the community was very simple, partly on principle, and partly for lack of money. The community depended financially on voluntary contributions. Their food and drink was mainly bread and water and said that "I spit on luxurious pleasures". Epicurus suffered all his life from bad health, but learnt to endure it with great fortitude. (6)
In his writings, Epicurus criticised Aristippus of Cyrene, for teaching that the goal of life was to seek pleasure (hedonism). "He argued that the conventional pleasures of eating, drinking and sensuality carry within them the seeds of pain, and are accordingly to be avoided, and true pleasures - the intellectual pleasures of enquiry, gaining knowledge, discussing with friends in the shade of a tree, sipping water and eating bread when hungry - are to be preferred." (7)
Epicurus regarded the unacknowledged fear of death and punishment as the primary cause of anxiety among human beings, and anxiety in turn as the source of extreme and irrational desires. "The elimination of the fears and corresponding desires would leave people free to pursue the pleasures, both physical and mental, to which they are naturally drawn, and to enjoy the peace of mind that is consequent upon their regularly expected and achieved satisfaction.... Epicurus was aware that deeply ingrained habits of thought are not easily corrected, and thus he proposed various exercises to assist the novice." (8)
Epicurus argued that the absence of pain, rather than presence of pleasure, is the wise man's goal. Such desires as those for wealth and honour are futile, because they make a man restless when he might be contented. He commented that "The greatest good of all is prudence; it is a more precious thing even than philosophy". On another occasion he said: "Absence of pain is in itself pleasure, indeed in his ultimate analysis the truest pleasure." (9)
Epicurus argued that the main objective of the individual should be to obtain wisdom and happiness: "Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young nor weary in the search of it when he has grown old. For no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul. And to say that the season for studying philosophy has not yet come, or that it is past and gone, is like saying that the season for happiness is not yet or that it is now no more. Therefore, both old and young alike ought to seek wisdom, the former in order that, as age comes over him, he may be young in good things because of the grace of what has been, and the latter in order that, while he is young, he may at the same time be old, because he has no fear of the things which are to come. So we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed towards attaining it." (10)
Epicurus defined "pleasure" as the absence of suffering and claimed that all humans should seek to attain the state of ataraxia (untroubledness), a state in which the person is completely free from pain, suffering and anxiety. "Absence of pain is in itself pleasure, indeed in his ultimate analysis the truest pleasure." He taught that what is pleasurable is morally good and what is painful is morally evil. (11)
Epicurus maintained that a person can only be happy and free from suffering by acting well towards other humans. He warned that a person must take into account whether the consequences of his actions will result in suffering. Epicurus taught that "it is not possible to live pleasurably without living sensibly and nobly and justly", because a person who engages in acts of dishonesty or injustice will suffer from a guilty conscious and will live in constant fear that his wrongdoings will be discovered by others. A person who is kind and just to others will be more likely to attain a state of ataraxia. (12)
Epicurus strongly favored naturalistic explanations over theological ones. In his Letter to Pythocles, he offers different possible natural explanations for thunder, lightning, snow, comets, rainbows and earthquakes. Although all of these explanations are now known to be false, they were an important step in the history of science, because Epicurus was trying to explain natural phenomena using natural explanations, rather than resorting to inventing elaborate stories about gods and mythic heroes. (13)
Epicurus never married and had no known children. He believed that the desire for sexual relations was accompanied by longing and distress. Therefore, sexual activity rarely achieved a state of happiness. In fact, it was likely to cause the individual serious problems. "Sexual intercourse has never done a man good and he is lucky if it has not harmed him". He argued that the sex drive is "a constant source of frenzied desires which upset the security of one's youth". Therefore passion brings pain as well as pleasure. (14)
In his essay, Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus wrote: "By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of merrymaking, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest disturbances take possession of the soul.... For this reason prudence is a more precious thing even than the other virtues, for a life of pleasure which is not also a life of prudence, honor, and justice; nor lead a life of prudence, honor, and justice, which is not also a life of pleasure. For the virtues have grown into one with a pleasant life, and a pleasant life is inseparable from them." (15)
The system developed by Epicurus "included advice on the proper attitude toward politics (avoid it where possible) and the gods (do not imagine that they concern themselves about human beings and their behavior), the role of sex (dubious), marriage (also dubious) and friendship (essential)," (16) Epicurus said: "Of all the means to insure happiness throughout the whole life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends." According to Cicero, "Epicurus... held that friendship cannot be divorced from pleasure, and for that reason must be cultivated, because without it neither can we live in safety and without fear, nor even pleasantly." (17)
Epicurus compares sexual passion with friendship: "Passion then brings pain as well as pleasure... Friendship on the other hand, improves our chances of living in peace and affords us the necessary protection. It is therefore of great importance, and anything which, by encouraging competition, prejudices our chances of enjoying permanent and stable friendships, such as political life, should be avoided." (18)
Epicurus believed in the existence of the gods because he "cannot otherwise account for the widespread existence of the idea of gods". He thought it pointless to pray: "It is folly for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to obtain by himself." Epicurus even suggested that "if the gods listened to the prayers of men, all humankind would quickly perish since they constantly pray for many evils to befall one another." He added that the gods do not trouble themselves with the affairs of our human world. "They are rational hedonists, who follow his precepts, and abstain from public life; government would be an unnecessary labour, to which, in their life of complete blessedness, they feel no temptation.... There is therefore no ground for the fear that we may incur the anger of the gods, or that we may suffer in Hades after death." (19)
Epicurus pointed out: "First believe that God is a living being immortal and happy, according to the notion of a god indicated by the common sense of humankind; and so of him anything that is at agrees not with about him whatever may uphold both his happiness and his immortality. For truly there are gods, and knowledge of them is evident; but they are not such as the multitude believe, seeing that people do not steadfastly maintain the notions they form respecting them. Not the person who denies the gods worshipped by the multitude, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them is truly impious. For the utterances of the multitude about the gods are not true preconceptions but false assumptions; hence it is that the greatest evils happen to the wicked and the greatest blessings happen to the good from the hand of the gods, seeing that they are always favorable to their own good qualities and take pleasure in people like to themselves, but reject as alien whatever is not of their kind." (20)
David Konstan argues that according to Epicurus, the soul does not survive the death of the body. "The soul’s texture is too delicate to exist independently of the body that contains it, and in any case the connection with the body is necessary for sensation to occur. From this it follows that there can be no punishment after death, nor any regrets for the life that has been lost... The function of the human mind - that part of the soul that is located in our chest - is not to seek higher things, but to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. That is its entire objective; the risk (a substantial one) is that it may miscalculate, since it is subject to false beliefs and errors in cognitive processes." (21)
People should not fear death because they will not experience it: "Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation of all awareness; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an unlimited time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terror; for those who thoroughly apprehend that there are no terrors for them in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the person who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect.... Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not." (22)
Epicurus suffered from poor health for most of his adult life. Just before his death in 270 BC at the age of seventy-two he wrote a letter to a friend: "I have written this letter to you on a happy day to me, which is also the last day of my life. For I have been attacked by a painful inability to urinate, and also dysentery, so violent that nothing can be added to the violence of my sufferings. But the cheerfulness of my mind, which comes from the recollection of all my philosophical contemplation, counterbalances all these afflictions. And I beg you to take care of the children of Metrodorus, in a manner worthy of the devotion shown by the young man to me, and to philosophy." (23)
(1) Absence of pain is in itself pleasure, indeed in his ultimate analysis the truest pleasure.
(2) The greatest good of all is prudence; it is a more precious thing even than philosophy.
(3) Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.
(4) Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.
(5) He who is not satisfied with a little, is satisfied with nothing .
(6) Of all the means to insure happiness throughout the whole life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends.
(7) The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity.
(8) You don't develop courage by being happy in your relationships everyday. You develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity.
(9) Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.
(10) It is folly for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to obtain by himself.
(11) If the gods listened to the prayers of men, all humankind would quickly perish since they constantly pray for many evils to befall one another.
(12) Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not.
(13) He who has peace of mind disturbs neither himself nor another.
(14) I am writing this not to many, but to you: certainly we are a great enough audience for each other.
(15) To eat and drink without a friend is to devour like the lion and the wolf.
(16) Let no one delay the study of philosophy while young nor weary of it when old.
(17) The time when you should most of all withdraw into yourself is when you are forced to be in a crowd.
(18) Of all the things which wisdom acquires to produce the blessedness of the complete life, for the greatest is the possession of friendship.
(19) Death is nothing to us, because a body that has been dispersed into elements experiences no sensations, and the absence of sensation is nothing to us.
(20) Pleasure is the beginning and end of the blessed life.
(21) Sexual intercourse has never done a man good and he is lucky if it has not harmed him.
(22) The greatest reward of righteousness is peace of mind.
(23) Luxurious food and drinks, in no way protect you from harm. Wealth beyond what is natural, is no more use than an overflowing container. Real value is not generated by theaters, and baths, perfumes or ointments, but by philosophy.
(24) I know not how I can conceive the good, if I withdraw the pleasures of taste and withdraw the pleasures of love and those of hearing and sight.
(25) The beginning and the root of all good is the pleasure of the stomach; even wisdom and culture must be referred to this.
Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young nor weary in the search of it when he has grown old. For no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul. And to say that the season for studying philosophy has not yet come, or that it is past and gone, is like saying that the season for happiness is not yet or that it is now no more. Therefore, both old and young alike ought to seek wisdom, the former in order that, as age comes over him, he may be young in good things because of the grace of what has been, and the latter in order that, while he is young, he may at the same time be old, because he has no fear of the things which are to come. So we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed towards attaining it.
Those things which without ceasing I have declared to you, those do, and exercise yourself in those, holding them to be the elements of right life. First believe that God is a living being immortal and happy, according to the notion of a god indicated by the common sense of humankind; and so of him anything that is at agrees not with about him whatever may uphold both his happiness and his immortality. For truly there are gods, and knowledge of them is evident; but they are not such as the multitude believe, seeing that people do not steadfastly maintain the notions they form respecting them. Not the person who denies the gods worshipped by the multitude, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them is truly impious. For the utterances of the multitude about the gods are not true preconceptions but false assumptions; hence it is that the greatest evils happen to the wicked and the greatest blessings happen to the good from the hand of the gods, seeing that they are always favorable to their own good qualities and take pleasure in people like to themselves, but reject as alien whatever is not of their kind.
Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation of all awareness; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an unlimited time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terror; for those who thoroughly apprehend that there are no terrors for them in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the person who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer. But in the world, at one time people shun death as the greatest of all evils, and at another time choose it as a respite from the evils in life. The wise person does not deprecate life nor does he fear the cessation of life. The thought of life is no offense to him, nor is the cessation of life regarded as an evil. And even as people choose of food not merely and simply the larger portion, but the more pleasant, so the wise seek to enjoy the time which is most pleasant and not merely that which is longest. And he who admonishes the young to live well and the old to make a good end speaks foolishly, not merely because of the desirability of life, but because the same exercise at once teaches to live well and to die well. Much worse is he who says that it were good not to be born, but when once one is born to pass with all speed through the gates of Hades. For if he truly believes this, why does he not depart from life? It were easy for him to do so, if once he were firmly convinced. If he speaks only in mockery, his words are foolishness, for those who hear believe him not.
We must remember that the future is neither wholly ours nor wholly not ours, so that neither must we count upon it as quite certain to come nor despair of it as quite certain not to come.
We must also reflect that of desires some are natural, others are groundless; and that of the natural some are necessary as well as natural, and some natural only. And of the necessary desires some are necessary if we are to be happy, some if the body is to be rid of uneasiness, some if we are even to live. He who has a clear and certain understanding of these things will direct every preference and aversion toward securing health of body and tranquility of mind, seeing that this is the sum and end of a happy life. For the end of all our actions is to be free from pain and fear, and, when once we have attained all this, the tempest of the soul is laid; seeing that the living creature has no need to go in search of something that is lacking, nor to look anything else by which the good of the soul and of the body will be fulfilled. When we are pained pleasure, then, and then only, do we feel the need of pleasure. For this reason we call pleasure the alpha and omega of a happy life. Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting-point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing. And since pleasure is our first and native good, for that reason we do not choose every pleasure whatever, but often pass over many pleasures when a greater annoyance ensues from them. And often we consider pains superior to pleasures when submission to the pains for a long time brings us as a consequence a greater pleasure. While therefore all pleasure because it is naturally akin to us is good, not all pleasure is worthy of choice, just as all pain is an evil and yet not all pain is to be shunned. It is, however, by measuring one against another, and by looking at the conveniences and inconveniences, teat all these matters must be judged. Sometimes we treat the good as an evil, and the evil, on the contrary, as a good. Again, we regard. independence of outward things as a great good, not so as in all cases to use little, but so as to be contented with little if we have not much, being honestly persuaded that they have the sweetest enjoyment of luxury who stand least in need of it, and that whatever is natural is easily procured and only the vain and worthless hard to win. Plain fare gives as much pleasure as a costly diet, when one the pain of want has been removed, while bread an water confer the highest possible pleasure when they are brought to hungry lips. To habituate one's se therefore, to simple and inexpensive diet supplies al that is needful for health, and enables a person to meet the necessary requirements of life without shrinking and it places us in a better condition when we approach at intervals a costly fare and renders us fearless of fortune.
When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of merrymaking, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest disturbances take possession of the soul.... For this reason prudence is a more precious thing even than the other virtues, for a life of pleasure which is not also a life of prudence, honor, and justice; nor lead a life of prudence, honor, and justice, which is not also a life of pleasure. For the virtues have grown into one with a pleasant life, and a pleasant life is inseparable from them.
Who, then, is superior in your judgment to such a person? He holds a holy belief concerning the gods, and is altogether free from the fear of death. He has diligently considered the end fixed by nature, and understands how easily the limit of good things can be reached and attained, and how either the duration or the intensity of evils is but slight. Destiny which some introduce as sovereign over all things, he laughs to scorn, affirming rather that some things happen of necessity, others by chance, others through our own agency. For he sees that necessity destroys responsibility and that chance or fortune is inconstant; whereas our own actions are free, and it is to them that praise and blame naturally attach. It were better, indeed, to accept the legends of the gods than to bow beneath destiny which the natural philosophers have imposed. The one holds out some faint hope that we may escape if we honor the gods, while the necessity of the naturalists is deaf to all entreaties. Nor does he hold chance to be a god, as the world in general does, for in the acts of a god there is no disorder; nor to be a cause, though an uncertain one, for he believes that no good or evil is dispensed by chance to people so as to make life happy, though it supplies the starting-point of great good and great evil. He believes that the misfortune of the wise is better than the prosperity of the fool. It is better, in short, that what is well judged in action should not owe its successful issue to the aid of chance.
Exercise yourself in these and kindred precepts day and night, both by yourself and with him who is like to you; then never, either in waking or in dream, will you be disturbed, but will live as a god among people. For people lose all appearance of mortality by living in the midst of immortal blessings.
In your letter to me, of which Cleon was the bearer, you continue to show me affection which I have merited by my devotion to you, and you try, not without success, to recall the considerations which make for a happy life. To aid your memory you ask me for a clear and concise statement respecting celestial phenomena; for what we have written on this subject elsewhere is, you tell me, hard to remember, although you have my books constantly with you. I was glad to receive your request and am full of pleasant expectations. We will then complete our writing and grant all you ask. Many others besides you will find these reasonings useful, and especially those who have but recently made acquaintance with the true story of nature and those who are attached to pursuits which go deeper than any part of ordinary education. So you will do well to take and learn them and get them up quickly along with the short epitome in my letter to Herodotus.
In the first place, remember that, like everything else, knowledge of celestial phenomena, whether taken along with other things or in isolation, has no other end in view than peace of mind and firm convictions. We do not seek to wrest by force what is impossible, nor to understand all matters equally well, nor make our treatment always as clear as when we discuss human life or explain the principles of physics in general - for instance, that the whole of being consists of bodies and intangible nature, or that the ultimate elements of things are indivisible, or any other proposition which admits only one explanation of the phenomena to be possible. But this is not the case with celestial phenomena: these at any rate admit of manifold causes for their occurrence and manifold accounts, none of them contradictory of sensation, of their nature.
For in the study of nature we must not conform to empty assumptions and arbitrary laws, but follow the promptings of the facts; for our life has no need now of unreason and false opinion; our one need is untroubled existence. All things go on uninterruptedly, if all be explained by the method of plurality of causes in conformity with the facts, so soon as we duly understand what may be plausibly alleged respecting them. But when we pick and choose among them, rejecting one equally consistent with the phenomena, we clearly fall away from the study of nature altogether and tumble into myth. Some phenomena within our experience afford evidence by which we may interpret what goes on in the heavens. We see bow the former really take place, but not how the celestial phenomena take place, for their occurrence may possibly be due to a variety of causes. However, we must observe each fact as presented, and further separate from it all the facts presented along with it, the occurrence of which from various causes is not contradicted by facts within our experience.
A world is a circumscribed portion of the universe, which contains stars and earth and all other visible things, cut off from the infinite, and terminating in an exterior which may either revolve or be at rest, and be round or triangular or of any other shape whatever. All these alternatives are possible: they are contradicted by none of the facts in this world, in which an extremity can nowhere be discerned.
That there is an infinite number of such worlds can be perceived, and that such a world may arise in a world or in one of the intermundia (by which term we mean the spaces between worlds) in a tolerably empty space and not as some maintain, in a vast space perfectly clear and void. It arises when certain suitable seeds rush in from a single world or intermundium, or from several, and undergo gradual additions or articulations or changes of place, it may be, and waterings from appropriate sources, until they are matured and firmly settled in so far as the foundations laid can receive them. For it is not enough that there should be an aggregation or a vortex in the empty space in which a world may arise, as the necessitarians hold, and may grow until it collide with another, as one of the so-called physicists says. For this is in conflict with facts...
The size of the sun and the remaining stars relatively to us is just as great as it appears. But in itself and actually it maybe a little larger or a little smaller, or precisely as great as it is seen to be. For so too fires of which we have experience are seen by sense when we see them at a distance. And every objection brought against this part of the theory will easily be met by anyone who attends to plain facts, as I show in my work On Nature. And the rising and setting of the sun, moon, and stars may be due to kindling and quenching, a provided that the circumstances are such as to produce this result in each of the two regions, east and west: for no fact testifies against this. Or the result might be produced by their coming forward above the earth and again by its intervention to hide them: for no fact testifies against this either. And their motions may be due to the rotation of the whole heaven, or the heaven may be at rest and they alone rotate according to some necessary impulse to rise, implanted at first when the world was made… and this through excessive heat, due to a certain extension of the fire which always encroaches upon that which is near it.
The turnings of the sun and moon in their course may be due to the obliquity of the heaven, whereby it is forced back at these times. Again, they may equally be due to the contrary pressure of the air or, it may be, to the fact that either the fuel from time to time necessary has been consumed in the vicinity or there is a dearth of it. Or even because such a whirling motion was from the first inherent in these stars so that they move in a sort of spiral. For all such explanations and the like do not conflict with any clear evidence, if only in such details we hold fast to what is possible, and can bring each of these explanations into accord with the facts, unmoved by the servile artifices of the astronomers.
The waning of the moon and again her waxing might be due to the rotation of the moon's body, and equally well to configurations which the air assumes; further, it may be due to the interposition of certain bodies. In short, it may happen in any of the ways in which the facts within our experience suggest such an appearance to be explicable. But one must not be so much in love with the explanation by a single way as wrongly to reject all the others from ignorance of what can, and what cannot, be within human knowledge, and consequent longing to discover the undiscoverable. Further, the moon may possibly shine by her own light, just as possibly she may derive her light from the sun; for in our own experience we see many things which shine by their own light and many also which shine by borrowed light. And none of the celestial phenomena stand in the way, if only we always keep in mind the method of plural explanation and the several consistent assumptions and causes, instead of dwelling on what is inconsistent and giving it a false importance so as always to fall back in one way or another upon the single explanation. The appearance of the face in the moon may equally well arise from interchange of parts, or from interposition of something, or in any other of the ways which might be seen to accord with the facts. For in all the celestial phenomena such a line of research is not to be abandoned; for, if you fight against clear evidence, you never can enjoy genuine peace of mind.
An eclipse of the sun or moon may be due to the extinction of their light, just as within our own experience this is observed to happen; and again by interposition of something else - whether it be the earth or some other invisible body like it. And thus we must take in conjunction the explanations which agree with one another, and remember that the concurrence of more than one at the same time may not impossibly happen.
And further, let the regularity of their orbits be explained in the same way as certain ordinary incidents within our own experience; the divine nature must not on any account be adduced to explain this, but must be kept free from the task and in perfect bliss. Unless this be done, the whole study of celestial phenomena will be in vain, as indeed it has proved to be with some who did not lay hold of a possible method, but fell into the folly of supposing that these events happen in one single way only and of rejecting all the others which are possible, suffering themselves to be carried into the realm of the unintelligible,. and being unable to take a comprehensive view of the facts which must be taken as clues to the rest.
The variations in the length of nights and days may be due to the swiftness and again to the slowness of the sun's motion in the sky, owing to the variations in the length of spaces traversed and to his accomplishing some distances more swiftly or more slowly, as happens sometimes within our own experience; and with these facts our explanation of celestial phenomena must agree; whereas those who adopt only one explanation are in conflict with the facts and are utterly mistaken as to the way in which man can attain knowledge.
The signs in the sky which betoken the weather may be due to mere coincidence of the seasons, as is the case with signs from animals seen on earth, or they may be caused by changes and alterations in the air. For neither the one explanation nor the other is in conflict with facts, and it is not easy to see in which cases the effect is due to one cause or to the other.
Clouds may form and gather either because the air is condensed under the pressure of winds, or because atoms which hold together and are suitable to produce this result become mutually entangled, or because currents collect from tile earth and the waters ; and there are several other ways in which it is not impossible for the aggregations of such bodies into clouds to be brought about. And that being so, rain may be produced from them sometimes by their compression, sometimes by their transformation; or again may be caused by exhalations of moisture rising from suitable places through the air, while a more violent inundation is due to certain accumulations suitable for such discharge. Thunder may be due to the rolling of wind in the hollow parts of the clouds, as it is sometimes imprisoned in vessels which we use; or to the roaring of fire in them when blown by a wind, or to the rending and disruption of clouds, or to the friction and splitting up of clouds when they have become as firm as ice.
As in the whole survey, so in this particular point, the facts invite us to give a plurality of explanations. Lightning too happens in a variety of ways. For when the clouds rub against each other and collide, that collocation of atoms which is the cause of fire generates lightning; or it may be due to the flashing forth from the clouds, by reason of winds, of particles capable of producing this brightness; or else it is squeezed out of the clouds when they have been condensed either by their own action or by that of the winds; or again, the light diffused from the stars may be enclosed in the clouds, then driven about by their motion and by that of the winds, and finally make its escape from the clouds; or light of the finest texture may be filtered through the clouds (whereby the clouds may be set on fire and thunder produced), and the motion of this light may make lightning; or it may arise from the combustion of wind brought about by the violence of its motion and the intensity of its compression; or, when the clouds are rent asunder by winds, and the atoms which generate fire are expelled, these likewise cause lightning to appear.
And it may easily be seen that its occurrence is possible in many other ways, so long as we hold fast to facts and take a general view of what is analogous to them. Lightning precedes thunder, when the clouds are constituted as mentioned above and the configuration which produces lightning is expelled at the moment when the wind falls upon the cloud, and the wind being rolled up afterwards produces the roar of thunder; or, if both are simultaneous, the lightning moves with a greater velocity towards its and the thunder lags behind, exactly as when persons who are striking blows are observed from a distance. A thunderbolt is caused when winds are repeatedly collected, imprisoned, and violently ignited; or when a part is torn asunder and is more violently expelled downwards, the rending being due to the fact that the compression of the clouds has made the neighboring parts more dense; or again it may be due like thunder merely to the expulsion of the imprisoned fire, when this has accumulated and been more violently inflated with wind and has torn the cloud, being unable to withdraw to the adjacent parts because it is continually more and more closely compressed [generally by some high mountain where thunderbolts mostly fall]. And there are several other ways in which thunderbolts may possibly be produced. Exclusion of myth is the sole condition necessary; and it will be excluded, if one properly attends to the facts and hence draws inferences to interpret what is obscure.
Fiery whirlwinds are due to the descent of a cloud forced downwards like a pillar by the wind in full force and carried by a gale round and round, while at the same time the outside wind gives the cloud a lateral thrust; or it may be due to a change of the wind which veers to all points of the compass as a current of air from above helps to force it to move; or it may be that a strong eddy of winds has been started and is unable to burst through laterally because the air around is closely condensed. And when they descend upon land, they cause what are called tornadoes, in accordance with the various ways in which they are produced through the force of the wind; and when let down upon the sea, they cause waterspouts.
Earthquakes may be due to the imprisonment of wind underground, and to its being interspersed with small masses of earth and then set in continuous motion, thus causing the earth to tremble. And the earth either takes in this wind from without or from the falling in of foundations, when undermined, into subterranean caverns, thus raising a wind in the imprisoned air. Or they may be due to the propagation of movement arising from the fall of many foundations and to its being again checked when it encounters the more solid resistance of earth. And there are many other causes to which these oscillations of the earth may be due.
Winds arise from time to time when foreign matter continually and gradually finds its way into the air; also through the gathering of great store of water. The rest of the winds arise when a few of them fall into the many hollows and they are thus divided and multiplied.
Hail is caused by the firmer congelation and complete transformation, and subsequent distribution into drops, of certain particles resembling wind : also by the slighter congelation of certain particles of moisture and the vicinity of certain particles of wind which at one and the same time forces them together and makes them burst, so that they become frozen in parts and in the whole mass. The round shape of hailstones is not impossibly due to the extremities on all sides being melted and to the fact that, as explained, particles either of moisture or of wind surround them evenly on all sides and in every quarter, when they freeze.
Snow may be formed when a fine rain issues from the clouds because the pores are symmetrical and because of the continuous and violent pressure of the winds upon clouds which are suitable; and then this rain has been frozen on its way because of some violent change to coldness in the regions below the clouds. Or again, by congelation in clouds which have uniform density a fall of snow might occur through the clouds which contain moisture being densely packed in close proximity to each other; and these clouds produce a sort of compression and cause hail, and this happens mostly in spring. And when frozen clouds rub against each other., this accumulation of snow might be thrown off. And there are other ways in which snow might be formed.
Dew is formed when such particles as are capable of producing this sort of moisture meet each other from the air: again by their rising from moist and damp places, the sort of place where dew is chiefly formed, and their subsequent coalescence, so as to create moisture and fall downwards, just as in several cases something similar is observed to take place under our eyes. And the formation of hoar-frost is not different from that of dew, certain particles of such a nature becoming in some such way congealed owing to a certain condition of cold air.
Ice is formed by the expulsion from the water of the circular, and the compression of the scalene and acute-angled atoms contained in it; further by the accretion of such atoms from without, which being driven together cause the water to solidify after the expulsion of a certain number of round atoms.
The rainbow arises when the sun shines upon humid air; or again by a certain peculiar blending of light with air, which will cause either all the distinctive qualities of these colors or else some of them belonging to a single kind, and from the reflection of this light the air all around will be colored as we see it to be, as the sun shines upon its parts. The circular shape which it assumes is due to the fact that the distance of every point is perceived by our sight to be equal; or it may be because, the atoms in the air or in the clouds and deriving from the sun having been thus united, the aggregate of them presents a sort of roundness.
A halo round the moon arises because the air on all sides extends to the moon; or because it equably raises upwards the currents from the moon so high as to impress a circle upon the cloudy mass and not to separate it altogether; or because it raises the air which immediately surrounds the moon symmetrically from all sides up to a circumference round her and there forms a thick ring. And this happens at certain parts either because a current has forced its wry in from without or because the heat has gained possession of certain passages in order to effect this.
Comets arise either because fire is nourished in certain places at certain intervals in the heavens, if circumstances are favorable; or because at times the heaven has a particular motion above us so that such stars appear; or because the stars themselves are set in motion under certain conditions and come to our neighborhood and show themselves. And their disappearance is due to the causes which are the opposite of these. Certain stars may revolve without setting not only for the reason alleged by some, because this is the part of the world round which, itself unmoved, the rest revolves, but it may also be because a circular eddy of air surrounds this part, which prevents them from traveling out of sight like other stars or because there is a dearth of necessary fuel farther on, while there is abundance in that part where they are seen to be. Moreover there are several other ways in which this might be brought about, as may be seen by anyone capable of reasoning in accordance with the facts.
The wanderings of certain stars, if such wandering is their actual motion, and the regular movement of certain other stars, may be accounted for by saying that they originally moved in a circle and were constrained, some of them to be whirled round with the same uniform rotation and others with a whirling motion which varied; but it may also be that according to the diversity of the regions traversed in some places there are uniform tracts of air, forcing them forward in one direction and burning uniformly, in others these tracts present such irregularities 4s cause the motions observed. To assign a single cause for these effects when the facts suggest several causes is madness and a strange inconsistency; yet it is done by adherents of rash astronomy, who assign meaningless causes for the stars whenever they persist in saddling the divinity with burdensome tasks. That certain stars are seen to be left behind by others may be because they travel more slowly, though they go the same round as the others; or it may be that they are drawn back by the same whirling motion and move in the opposite direction; or again it may be that some travel over a larger and others over a smaller space in making the same revolution. But to lay down as assured a single explanation of these phenomena is worthy of those who seek to dazzle the multitude with marvels.
Falling stars, as they are called, may in some cases be due to the mutual friction of the stars themselves, in other cases to the expulsion of certain parts when that mixture of fire and air takes place which was mentioned when we were discussing lightning; or it may be due to the meeting of atoms capable of generating fire, which accord so well as to produce this result, and their subsequent motion wherever the impulse which brought them together at first leads them; or it may be that wind collects in certain dense mist-like masses and, since it is imprisoned, ignites and then bursts forth upon whatever is round about it, and is carried to that place to which its motion impels it. And there are other ways in which this can be brought about without recourse to myths.
The fact that the weather is sometimes foretold from the behavior of certain animals is a mere coincidence in time. For the animals offer no necessary reason why a storm should be produced and no divine being sits observing when these animals go out and afterwards fulfilling the signs which they have given. For such folly as this would not possess the most ordinary being if ever so little enlightened, much less one who enjoys perfect felicity.
All this, Pythocles, you should keep in mind; for then you will escape a long way from myth, and you will be able to view in their connection the instances which are similar to these. But above all give yourself up to the study of first principles and of infinity and of kindred subjects, and further of the standards and of the feelings and of the end for which we choose between them. For to study these subjects together will easily enable you to understand the causes of the particular phenomena. And those who have not fully accepted this, in proportion as they have not done so, will be ill acquainted with these very subjects, nor have they secured the end for which they ought to be studied.
(1) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 250
(2) Norman Wentworth DeWitt, Epicurus and His Philosophy (1954) page 12
(4) John M. Rist, Epicurus: An Introduction (2010) page 4
(5) Pamela Gordon, The Invention and Gendering of Epicurus (2012) page 3
(6) Whitney J. Oates, The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers (1940) page 251
(7) Anthony Grayling, Ideas that Matter (2009) page 182
(8) Epicuris, Letter to Menoeceus (c 250 BC)
(10) Epicuris, Letter to Menoeceus (c 250 BC)
(11) Anthony Kenny, Ancient Philosophy, A New History of Western Philosophy (2007) page 95
(12) George K. Strodach, The Art of Happiness (2012) page 59
(13) Epicurus, Letter to Pythocles (c 250 BC)
(14) Cyril Bailey, The Greek Atomists and Epicurus (1928) page 249
(15) Epicuris, Letter to Menoeceus (c 250 BC)
(16) John M. Rist, Epicurus: An Introduction (2010) page 128
(18) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 253
(19) John M. Rist, Epicurus: An Introduction (2010) page 128
(20) Epicuris, Letter to Menoeceus (c 250 BC)
(22) Epicuris, Letter to Menoeceus (c 250 BC)
(23) Pamela Gordon, The Invention and Gendering of Epicurus (2012) page 142