The 10 ‘Principles’ of Epicurus

While I was in the UK last month, the media was debating whether Britain should still be classified as a Christian nation.  There was a general consensus that Britain could no longer be considered a Christian nation if one were to judge by church attendance and religious beliefs.  So what happens to a Western nation that moves away from Christian beliefs and ethics?  Where does it go?  What does it look like?  Is the post-Christian era unchartered territory or a well trodden path?  I believe it is the latter and that Britain has exchanged the teachings of Christ for those of Epicurus.   The following are ’10 Principles’ of Epicurean Philosophy that seem particularly relevant for today.  (Source:

1. The world was created by Nature through the chance cohesion of  atoms. 
“We for our part deem happiness to consist in tranquility of mind and entire exemption from all duties.  For he who taught us all the rest has also taught us that the world was made by nature, without needing an artificer to construct it, and that the act of creation, which according to you cannot be performed without divine skill, is so easy, that nature will create, is creating, and has created worlds without number.  You on the contrary cannot see how nature can achieve all this without the aid of some intelligence, and so, like the tragic poets, being unable to the plot of your drama to a dénouement, you have recourse to a god; whose intervention you assuredly would not require if you would but contemplate the measureless and boundless extent of space that stretches in every direction, into which when the mind projects and propels itself, it journeys onward far and wide without ever sighting any margin or ultimate point where it can stop.  Well then, in this immensity of length and breadth and height there flits an infinite quantity of atoms innumerable, which though separated by void yet cohere together, and taking hold each of another form unions wherefrom are created those shapes and forms of things which you think cannot be created without the aid of bellows and anvils, and so have saddled us with an eternal master, whom day and night we are to fear; for who would not fear a prying busybody of a god, who foresees and thinks of and notices all things, and deems that everything is his concern?”  (Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods)

…we worship with reverence the transcendent majesty of nature.  (Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods)

2. Justice is based on a social contract and nothing else.
Natural justice is a pledge of reciprocal benefit, to prevent one man from harming or being harmed by another.  (Principle Doctrines)

Those animals which are incapable of making binding agreements with one another not to inflict nor suffer harm are without either justice or injustice; and likewise for those peoples who either could not or would not form binding agreements not to inflict nor suffer harm.  (Principle Doctrines)

Among the things held to be just by law, whatever is proved to be of advantage in men’s dealings has the stamp of justice… (Principle Doctrines)

3. There is no absolute Law but only ‘agreements’ made between men. 
There never was such a thing as absolute justice, but only agreements made in mutual dealings among men in whatever places at various times providing against the infliction or suffering of harm.  (Principle Doctrines)

4. All that we call virtue is really self love.
“Can you then suppose that those heroic men performed their famous deeds without any motive at all? What their motive was, I will consider later on: for the present I will confidently assert, that if they had a motive for those undoubtedly glorious exploits, that motive was not a love of virtue in and for itself…”

It is a mistake to praise the heroic men of old “on account of the splendor of abstract moral worth” instead of on “utilitarian grounds”.   The principle that accounts for all human action is this —”the principle of forgoing pleasures for the purpose of getting greater pleasures, and enduring, pains for the sake of escaping greater pains.”  (Cicero, On Ends)

5. Happiness is not found in serving others, but in attaining a leisurely lifestyle.
“But repose is an essential condition of happiness.  If… some god resides within the world as its governor and pilot, maintaining the courses of the stars, the changes of the seasons, and all the ordered processes of creation, and keeping a watch on land and sea to guard the interests and lives of men, why, what a bondage of irksome and laborious business is his!”  (Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods)

“We for our part deem happiness to consist in tranquillity of mind and entire exemption from all duties.”   (Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods)

6. Harmony is the highest Value.
“It must therefore be admitted that the Chief Good is to live agreeably.”  (Cicero, On Ends)

7. Marriage brings more pain than pleasure so it is better not to marry
“Epicureans do not suffer the wise man to fall in love… according to them love does not come by divine inspiration: so Diogenes in his twelfth book… Nor, again, will the wise man marry and rear a family—so Epicurus says in the Problems and in the On Nature.  Occasionally he may marry owing to special circumstances in his life.  Some too will turn aside from their purpose.”  (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book X)

8. Do not fear final judgment but rather the painful consequences of discovery.
Injustice is not an evil in itself, but only in consequence of the fear which is associated with the apprehension of being discovered by those appointed to punish such actions.   (Principle Doctrines)

It is impossible for a man who secretly violates the terms of the agreement not to harm or be harmed to feel confident that he will remain undiscovered, even if he has already escaped ten thousand times; for until his death he is never sure that he will not be detected.   (Principle Doctrines)

9. Having been freed from the superstitious fear of the gods, we fear only pain.
Let such a man moreover have no dread of any supernatural power…   there is no other thing besides pain which is of its own nature capable of causing either anxiety or distress.  (Cicero, De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum)

10. Existence ends with death.
“I do not let myself be frightened by the Tityi and the Tantali whom some represent in Hades; horror does not seize me when I think of the putrefaction of my body… when the links which bind our organism are loosened, nothing further touches us.” (Cumont)


British Museum
Epicurus – Courtesy British Museum




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