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Epicureans were a Greek school of philosophy that sprang up around the teachings of Epicurus, who lived in the 3rd century BCE. Epicurus’ philosophy was centered on his notion that pleasure is the greatest good and that obtaining maximum pleasure meant modest living and the attainment of knowledge.
The Hellenistic Era (336 BC – 30 BC) in which the Epicurean movement is a part of, is known for many things, including its philosophy. There were four major schools of philosophy in this era.
- First, the Epicurean movement held that nearly all processes in the world occurred due to chance and that human beings did not have the ability to change the course of events. Therefore, humans should focus on seeking out pleasant experiences in order to have a good life.
- Second, the Stoic movement held that the world was an unchanging, observable entity. Also, humans were an important part of the world and, as such, needed to live a virtuous life. Furthermore, people should not attach themselves too much to material goods because life was fleeting.
- Third, the Skeptic movement held that humans were only able to learn a limited amount of things about the world and followers tended to view information cynically.
- Fourth, a philosophy that tried to combine Platonic philosophy with the religion of Judaism also began to form in the latter Hellenistic period. This philosophy began to accept the idea of a unified god.
These religions tended to be similar in that they viewed the world somewhat cynically as something that humans could not really affect. Whereas Ancient Greek philosophy tended to concern itself with man’s proper role within society, Hellenistic philosophy came to primarily concern itself with the individual and the kind of life that he should live in order to find happiness/contentment. These philosophies are different in that they each believed that human happiness could come about in different ways.
Origin of the Epicureans
Epicureans originated largely as a response to the philosophy of Plato. Very few of Epicurus’ writing have survived, but Epicureans were quite popular during the Roman Empire, when the philosophy was an alternative to the dominant school of Stoicism.
It was Cicero who denounced Epicureans as hedonists. Today, hedonism is generally regarded as the philosophical outlook that seeks out physical pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, as the greatest goal in life. Roman poet Lucretius’ epic On the Nature of Things is regarded as the single most unified, surviving example of Epicurean philosophy.
However, classical Epicureans were not so single-minded in their pursuit of reckless abandon. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Epicureans are consigned to the sixth circle of Hell for having been heretics. Epicureans did seek out pleasure as the ultimate goal in life, but doing so was a manner of moderation in order to avoid suffering that comes from overindulgence. Epicurus also believed that laws that do not contribute to human happiness are unjust.