What does “epicurean” mean?

While “epicurean” has come to refer to anything relating to the pleasure of eating and drinking, it is an oversimplification of the beliefs of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 B.C.), from whose name the word was derived. While Epicurus did believe that pleasure is the only good, and that it alone should be humankind’s pursuit, later scholars misinterpreted the philosophy as a license for sensory excess. In actuality, Epicurus defined pleasure not as unbridled sensuality but as freedom from pain and as peace of mind, which can only be obtained through simple living.

In about 306 B.C., Epicurus established a school in Athens, which came to be known as the Garden School because residents provided for their own food by gardening. There he and his students strived to lead lives of simplicity, prudence, justice, and honor. In this way, they achieved tranquility—the ultimate goal in life, according to the philosophy of Epicureanism. He further believed that intellectual pleasures are superior to sensual pleasures, which are fleeting. In fact he held that one of the greatest and most enduring pleasures is friendship. These ideas were put forth by the Greek philosopher and writer Lucretius (c. 99–c. 55 B.C.) in his poem On the Nature of Things.

While the Epicurean school endured for several centuries, ultimately Christian leaders deemed the philosophy a pagan creed. However, some critics have posited that the writer of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament of the Bible was likely a member of the Garden School and that the Epistles of Saint Paul in the New Testament were strongly influenced by Epicurean thought. In more recent times, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), author and signatory of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States, was a self-proclaimed Epicurean.


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