9 julio, 2024

Epicurus’ hedonism: what it is, fundamentals and ethics

He Epicurus hedonism it was a philosophical doctrine that associated pleasure with calm and peace. Its importance lay in finding a way to reduce desire without the need to obtain it immediately.

In Antiquity, two moral philosophical schools stood out that were described as hedonistic. This doctrine comes from the Greek hedone which means «pleasure».

His character is purely individualistic and he affirms, according to his ethics, that the only good is pleasure and the only evil is pain. Epicurus also explains that through pleasure we can find the ultimate goal of life: happiness.

This ethical doctrine can be separated into two branches depending on the meaning obtained from analyzing the concept of pleasure.

The first would correspond to absolute hedonism, where sensible or inferior pleasure lies. The second would be mitigated hedonism or eudaemonism, which would represent spiritual or superior pleasure.

As is known, Democritus was the first hedonistic philosopher in history. He said that «joy and sadness are the distinguishing mark of things beneficial and harmful.»

One of the schools that further developed this idea was the Cyrenaics, who taught that pleasure not only meant absence of pain, but also pleasant sensations.


Epicurus (341 BC – Athens, 270 BC) was a Greek philosopher born on the island of Samos, Greece, creator of Epicureanism.

His philosophy supports a mitigated hedonistic tendency, where spiritual pleasure is the supreme good of man over sensitive pleasure.

This hedonistic proposal has been considered one of the most important in the history of philosophy. The philosopher considers using reason to carefully evaluate the benefit or harm that each of our actions can cause us.

That is, to be prudent with our actions to avoid future pain and thus satisfy the tranquility of the spirit. Among his works, there are just over 300 manuscripts on love, justice, physics and other topics in general.

At present only three letters written by him and transcribed by Diogenes Laercio are preserved; These are: Letter to Herodotus, Letter to Pitocles and Letter to Meneceo.

Main foundations of Epicurus’ hedonism

Epicurus believed that knowledge and a virtuous life filled with simple pleasures were the secret to true happiness.

The defense of the simple life, as a way to be happy, separates this trend from traditional hedonism.

Originally, Epicureanism clashed with Platonism, but ended up being a current opposed to Stoicism. Epicureanism results, then, in a moderate hedonism in which happiness is more tranquility than pleasure.

In fact, Epicurus warns that inhaling or experiencing sensory pleasure results in preparation for physical and/or mental pain.

Epicurus advised avoiding spaces such as cities or markets to avoid the desire for things that are unnecessary and difficult to satisfy.

He said that eventually human desires would outpace people’s means of satisfying them, and that would end the peace and happiness of life. In other words, wanting the basics guarantees the person’s peace of mind and, therefore, her happiness.

Epicurus’s death was not the end of his school but persisted into the Hellenistic and Roman times.

It was also present during medieval Christianity, but it was accused of going against the main Christian values: avoidance of sin, fear of God and cardinal virtues (faith, hope and charity).

In the 17th century, thanks to the works of Pierre Gassendi. The Christians, Erasmus and Sir Thomas More, said that hedonism communes with God’s desire for human beings to be happy.

Libertinism and utilitarianism of the 19th century also came to be related to hedonism.

Basic fundamentals

The basic foundations of Epicurus’ hedonism were:

– Pleasure cannot be classified as good or bad, it simply exists.

– There are different types of pleasures, beyond sexual gratification.

– There are pleasures that, over time, bring dissatisfaction and unhappiness, such as fame.

– It is recommended to superimpose spiritual pleasure on sensitive pleasure.

– It is wise to avoid any type of current pain that in the long run does not produce a more intense pleasure.

– Once the classes of pleasures are separated, the person must strive to reduce their desires.

– Accept the current pleasure, as long as it does not produce further pain.

– Deal with the current pain, as long as a more intense pleasure is attracted over time.

– Put worries and intangible sufferings aside, such as illness and death.

From the point of view of pleasure, mitigated hedonism—especially Epicurus’ hedonism—is based on a moral elevation that prioritizes the spiritual over the material.

However, no matter how much man tries to diminish his rational principles, he will always be regulated by them.

Some of the philosophers who belonged to the Epicurean school were Metrodorus, Colotes, Hermarco de Mitilene, Polistrato and Lucrecio Caro.

Barriers of epicureanism

Epicurus’s doctrine encountered some drawbacks in the nature of the human being of his time. For example: the fear of the gods and the fear of death.

Faced with both fears, Epicurus raised an argument: man should not suffer for things that do not exist in reality.

In the case of death, this does not exist while the human being lives, and when death comes, that person ceases to exist.

In the case of the gods, Epicurus admits the possibility of their existence, but considers that their nature would imply a total disinterest in human affairs. The mission of a wise person, according to Epicurus, was to avoid pain in any of its forms.

epicurean ethics

The ethics developed by Epicurus was based on two basic disciplines:

doctrine of knowledge

The greatest source of knowledge is sensitive perception. This means that there is no supernatural explanation for the phenomena in nature.

nature doctrine

This doctrine is basically the evolution of Democritus’s atomism, and defends the possibility that atoms could occasionally deviate from their trajectory and collide with each other.

For Epicurus, man always seeks to increase his own happiness and institutions would only be useful if they help him in this task. The system of social norms must be advantageous for man. Only then will the human being respect him.

For an epicurean, there is no absolute justice and the State is only a convenience.


Bieda, Esteban. (2005). The pleasure of being happy, notes on the possible peripatetic antecedents of epicurean hedonism.
UNAM Foundation (2015). How to achieve happiness, according to Epicurus. Epicurus’ Philosophy.
Kelman, M. (2005). Hedonic psychology and the ambiguities of welfare. Philosophy and Public Affairs
MarKus, H.R & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion and motivation. Psychological Review.
Rod, J. (2005). Epicurus or the destiny of man is happiness. Complete works. Madrid, Chair.

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