BY TIM O’KEEFEView on Amazon
Epicureanism is a philosophy based on the teachings of the ancient Greek thinker Epicurus, and a strong philosophical rival to Stoicism, another prominent ancient Greek philosophy.
Often caricatured as a rather hedonistic, pleasure-obsessed philosophy, Epicureanism is actually more about living life free from anxiety and bodily pain, and places a strong emphasis on friendship and community in the search for a meaningful, happy human life.
And, as well as a popular ethics, Epicureanism also offers a rich epistemology and metaphysics. Epicurus rejected the existence of an immaterial soul, or of anything non-physical, and said that the gods have no influence on our lives. This led to a rather unsentimental attitude towards mortality — Epicurus believed fearing death was highly irrational — which we discuss further in our explainer on why Epicurus said death is ‘nothing to us’.
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Only fragments of Epicurus’s own writings survive (they’re collectively presented in The Art of Happiness, listed below). Among these fragments are Epicurus’s 40 Principal Doctrines (we present and discuss these 40 short Epicurean aphorisms here), which we know of only because they are quoted in full in Diogenes Laertius’s celebrated third-century survey of ancient Greek thinkers, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers.
While Epicurus’s 40 Principal Doctrines and other fragments do offer concise summaries of Epicurean thinking, the bulk of what we know about Epicurean philosophy comes largely through the work of Epicurus’s contemporaries, followers, and critics from the ancient Greco-Roman period.
A particularly noteworthy figure in this respect is the Roman poet Lucretius, whose epic poem On the Nature of Things forms the cornerstone of what we know about how Epicurus saw the world (as discussed in our brief article on Lucretius’s beautiful reflection on Epicureanism and mortality).
From introductions and anthologies to ancient sources, this reading list consists of the best books of and about Epicureanism. After reading it, you’ll understand exactly why this ancient philosophy remains a deeply influential guide for those looking to live good and meaningful lives today. Let’s dive in!
Published in 2009, Tim O’Keefe’s Epicureanism is a fantastic place to start for anyone with an interest in the Epicurean view on the world. O’Keefe explores Epicurean metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics with accessible language and balance, examining the strengths and weaknesses of Epicurean arguments, and outlining how the philosophy hangs together as a whole. Written with a popular audience in mind, this is an easy, concise entry point into Epicureanism.
If you’re seeking a deeper, more philosophically rigorous and thorough introduction to Epicurean thinking, look no further than The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism, edited by James Warren. This volume assembles 15 brilliant essays from leading scholars discussing various aspects of Epicurean thought, including chapters on Epicurean physics, metaphysics, epistemology, politics, ethics, and more. While the focus of the essays can extend beyond Epicurus, The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism belongs on the bookshelf of any serious student of Epicureanism.
Turning from introductions to primary texts, where better to start than with the writings of Epicurus himself? The Art of Happiness includes all the Epicurean writings in existence, including Epicurus’s letters, Principal Doctrines, and Vatican sayings, and places them alongside parallel passages from Lucretius, Diogenes Laeritius, and a compelling introductory essay from the writer Daniel Klein. The Art of Happiness belongs on the bookshelf of anyone curious about Epicurus.
Another beautiful ancient source espousing the core tents of Epicureanism, On the Nature of Things is a didactic, six-book poem exploring everything from the fundamental nature of reality and what we can know, to the character of goodness and how we should best live. Since its publication over 2,000 years ago, Lucretius’s poem has been celebrated by such thinkers as Montaigne, Thomas Jefferson, and Einstein. It’s a fantastic, lyrical, essential work of Epicurean philosophy.
Compiled in the third century CE, Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of the Eminent Philosophers has provided generations of people with incredible insight into the lives and philosophies of ancient Greco-Roman philosophers. It’s an absolutely critical source for fragments of ancient works that would otherwise be lost, and Epicureanism is no exception, with book ten of Lives of the Eminent Philosophers dedicated to Epicurus, providing a brief commentary on and presentation of his works. While the Epicurean material in this book is also compiled in The Art of Happiness, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers is worthy of a place on your bookshelf for covering multiple brilliant ancient thinkers, from Pythagoras to Aristotle.
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