Epicurus possessed an understanding of the universe that was beyond his era, and a clear understanding of how pleasure and pain help define what is good and evil. Because of this, many have wrongfully associated his beliefs to wanton acts of pleasure seeking. His views on the universe, gods, the soul, heaven, and justice are as complex as they are elegant.
Something cannot be created from nothing, else anything could sprout from anything else without the necessity of producing seed (LH II.A). If matter were able to be destroyed entirely, then eventually all matter would end, having gone into non-existence (LH II.A). As matter can neither be created nor destroyed, the amount of matter within the universe will never change. It may be molded and shaped into different forms, but it will never have more or less matter. This broad view of the universe could explain what Epicurus meant when he said, “as a whole.”
The universe consists of perceptible matter, meaning that we can perceive its existence through our senses (LH II.B). While we cannot perceive the void, or space, we can know of its existence through the effect it has on perceptible things. The void is necessary for matter to move through and to exist (LH II.B). If the void did not exist, then matter would have nothing to flow through nor would it have space to grow – the birth of new planets, stars, etc. (LH II.B). If matter had nothing to flow through then celestial objects would not move. Celestial objects do move which means that the void must exist. It is the space in which our universe exists, down to the very molecule. It is not what exists within its infiniteness; it is the emptiness in which the universe exists. The molecules that float through space do not make the void any more than the dust that falls on us makes us who we are. A two dimensional representation of the void would be like a blank page. What is drawn on it does not make the paper what it is. It is only what allows the drawing to exist, just as the void is what allows the universe to exist.
Matter cannot be infinitely divided. Epicurus calls this indivisible matter, “particles” (LH II.B). If matter were infinitely divisible, it would eventually dissolve into nothing (LH II.B). There must exist something that cannot be divided to keep matter from unraveling (LH. II.B). The origins of the universe started with one such particle (LH II.B).
The universe is infinite since it has no boundaries (LH II.C). Unlike the aforementioned blank piece of paper, the void is infinite. There are an infinite amount of atoms in the universe, which means there is an infinite amount of matter. If there was a finite amount of matter in an infinite amount of space, then matter would eventually separate into individual atoms (LH II.C). Of atoms there must exist an infinite amount but with an inconceivably quantifiable variety (LH II.C) which move differently depending on the situation (LH II.D). They vary in their qualities which consist only of: size (though not every size or some would be perceptible), shape, and mass (LH IV.A). Finally an infinite amount of space for which to grow, combined with an infinite amount of atoms means there must be an infinite amount of worlds. If there are an infinite amount of worlds then it follows that there are also an infinite amount of worlds both like ours and unlike ours (LH II.E).
Epicurus believed that the soul is made up of three types of finely divided particles, one like breath, one like fire and one “unnamed kind” (LH V.A). He believed the soul was material, mostly made up of this breath-like substance mixed with heat – which Epicurus believed was a material substance (L V.A). The unnamed substance was what gives the soul its feelings, rapidity of action, its rational faculties and its ability to give us life; “[the soul’s] possession of those things whose loss brings us death” (LH V.A). It is through the sensations of the soul that the physical body has sensation, and only a portion of that sensation felt by the soul is felt by the physical body (LH V.B).
The heavens aren’t directed by a divine hand that guides the planets and stars on their cosmic path (LH IX.A). Their laws of motion were ordained at the time of their creation (LH IX.A). Basic knowledge of the principles that govern our universe is essential to our happiness (LH IX.B). Instead of attributing perceived celestial phenomena to divine intervention (eclipse, setting and rising of the sun, etc.), it is necessary for us to discover the actual causes of these phenomena (LH IX.B.i). The belief that the position of celestial balls of intense fire relative to each other, as perceived in the night sky, has an inexorable effect on our personality is contrary to one’s own happiness (LH IX.B.i). After understanding the true nature of celestial bodies (that they hold no power over us and we need not fear them), we can shed our fears and focus on what is truly important; peace of mind through feelings and sensations (LH IX.B.ii).
Epicurus believed in the gods, but he did not believe that they existed as was depicted in popular opinion (LM II.A). Teaching that the gods did not exist was not as bad as teaching that the gods participated in any act that was contrary to blessed immortality: sending great evils to the wicked and great blessings to the righteous (LM II.A).
The idea of good and evil was attributed to pleasure and pain. Therefore when all sensation is gone, so are good and evil. Therefore, seeking what is pleasurable in life is to lead a good life (LM II.B). It is far better to lead a shorter life that is full of pleasure and happiness, than to lead a long life that is not (LM II.B). When death occurs we lose all sensation and if we cannot feel anything, then whatever happens after our soul leaves our body is irrelevant (LM II.B). This means that focusing one’s energy on death, and what may come after is counterproductive to their happiness and quality of life. Even if that way of life seems wholesome and good, it introduces a fearful environment in which true happiness cannot exist.
Health and peace of mind are the ultimate state of happiness, and the attainment of that happiness is the goal for every person (LM III.A). Pleasure and pain, and happiness and fear are the sensations that govern how we dictate what is good and what is evil. It is only when we feel pain that we feel the need for pleasure, for when we are not in pain we do not feel a need for pleasure (LM III.A). For this reason we should let pleasure guide our decisions. It does not mean, however, that we should seek all pleasure with abandon, and neither should all pains be avoided (LM III.A). Pleasure that ends in pain (the high from shooting heroine) should be avoided while pain that ends in pleasure (working out) should be sought (LM III.B). Every pleasure is good in nature, just as ever pain is evil in nature (LM III.B). If the pleasure and pain one experiences from shooting heroin were separated and experienced individually, the pleasure would be seen as good, while the pain would remain evil. Working out is painful at first, when lactic acid is released into the muscles. The pain passes as the body adapts, yet every workout session inflicts pain on the body. The end result of that pain, however, is a healthier body which allows for the possibility of a longer and more pleasurable life. When separated from the pleasurable end result, the pain experienced during and after working out is evil. That is how all pleasure can be good, while all pain is evil.
True pleasure comes when someone can be happy with very little (LM III.C). If a person feels the need to have riches, they will only feel happy when they are content with the amount of riches they attain. Someone who can be happy with nothing has the potential to be happy no how much he or she has. If there is a pleasure that a person desires, but that person feels that after experiencing that pleasure they will not be happy without it, they should avoid indulging in that pleasure (LM III.C). People can only be truly happy when they are free from pain and anxiety, and can find pleasure in the basic essentials of life (LM III.D). Governing this decision between which pleasures are evil and which pains are good is prudence (LM III.E). From it comes all the virtues which makes it the “chief good” (LM III.E). Through it we can know that it is impossible to live happily without living prudently, nobly, and justly (LM III.E). Likewise it is not possible to live a life of prudence, nobility, and justice without being happy.
Justice is an invention of man, an agreement between two or more people not to injure the other (LP XXXII). Justice and injustice do not exist among animals that do not have the mental capacity to make such agreements. Justice between two peoples can be different, further showing that justice exists only as an idea of man (LP XXXVI).
Pleasure determines what we perceive as good. We strive for it because it makes us happy. Be it money, travel, good food or beer, if it pleases us we tend to classify it as good, and only classify it as evil if the pleasure ends in a pain that is more intense than the pleasure we experienced. An example of this is drinking alcohol. If hangovers were more debilitating, less people would willingly drink to excess.
Masochists like to feel pain and revel in displeasure, and many addicts feel much more pain than pleasure. People who smoke know that they will most likely die a horrible and painful death due to cigarettes, yet they continue to smoke. This shows that pleasure is not the determining factor to what we determine to be good and evil.
The fact is that masochists enjoy pain. It causes them to feel pleasure, be it due to the escape it brings them from the underlying causes of their masochism or from some other anxiety in their lives. The pleasure they feel as a result of the pain is stronger than the pain of harming themselves. As for the smokers, they are chemically and physically addicted to the substance. They didn’t use prudence when they made the decision to start smoking, which also gives an example of how a prudent life leads to a happy life. Most smokers want to quit but the immediate pain of quitting is paramount in their minds whereas the possible future pain of cancer gets pushed back. Most people that quit comment on how their lives got better after suffering the painful withdrawal.
I agree with Epicurus’ views of justice. There is no sense of justice without mankind. No other animals build courts or have police officers. The only reasons justice exists is due to the fear of one person taking what another person feels is theirs, and from the fear of injury or death caused by another person. The idea of justice would not exist in a completely prudent society. Therefore justice exists only as an idea of man.
Justice does exist. Killing a person for no other reason than to kill them is unjust and doesn’t need a law or an agreement between people for that to be known. Furthermore, justice is not an agreement between people to avoid injury or death. Justice promotes equality and fairness within a society. It ensures that wrongdoings do not go unpunished.
Justice only exists because people do commit atrocious acts against one another. A prudent society would be one in which no one committed such acts against one another. Therefore there would be no wrongdoings. The term, “justice has been served,” only applies to wrongdoings, and with no wrongdoings there would be no need to “serve justice.” There would be no need for justice and thus it would not exist.
I have gone over Epicurus’ views on the universe, gods, the soul, heaven and his idea of justice. While I may not agree with the idea of a soul, his philosophy of the universe and how we perceive things as solid, he understood the roots of what drives the human race and how they define our different cultures.