Sunday, 29 May 2011

Wordplay - epicure

As is well-known, the word epicure comes from the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus  (341 – 270 BC), now fairly synonymous with the word ‘gourmet’, although there is a more pejorative sense of an addiction to sensual enjoyment, particularly in earlier usage. It is perhaps less well-known that both of these usages have their roots in anti-Epicurean propaganda, an ancient determination to discredit, suppress and distort a powerful and remarkably modern philosophy.

Almost all of what Epicurus wrote is now lost, but we have enough fragments and references to form a pretty good idea of his philosophy. Ironically, Epicurus himself was something of an ascetic who ate frugally, drank mainly water and valued friendship above worldly goods and desires. He taught that our ultimate aims in life should be to live without anxiety, to cultivate friendship and ignore the gods, for he argued that the gods cannot conceivably be affected by what we do and therefore cannot possibly have any interest in us. He also taught that atoms are the fundamental, indivisible building blocks of the universe, that what we see around us is made of combinations of atoms and that there must be an infinite number of worlds, not merely the one we humans happen to live on.

The suppression and distortion of Epicurus’ teachings is one of the great philosophical tragedies, probably accounted for by what he said about the practical irrelevance of the gods. Our use of the word 'epicure' is a reminder of our loss.


James Higham said...

Can his teachings be distorted if there are only fragments of his works extant?

A K Haart said...

Hi James,
Yes they can, especially in view of the fact that some fragments are criticisms by other writers and philosophers - Cicero for example.

However, it has to be said that Epicurus' concept of pleasure was easy to distort because of it's emphasis on the essentially physical nature of human life - sense impressions being vital to his idea of gaining knowledge.