All five, very short, morning reflections on the philosophy of Epicurus broadcast on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire broadcast during September 2018

Talk 1—Losing our fear of the gods

(Hear the talk for a limited period of time at this link. The piece starts 18 minutes into the programme and finishes three minutes later.)

In the 3rd century BCE, the Greek philosopher Epicurus developed a philosophy, the ultimate goal of which was a kind of peace of mind or tranquility that he called “ataraxia”. To achieve this he believed at least three common fears needed to be addressed and removed: fear of the gods, fear of an afterlife, and fear of death.

Today we’ll consider the fear of the gods.

Epicurus believed the gods existed but there is some ambiguity about exactly what he meant by this; one common interpretation is that he thought they were human projections of what the most blessed life would look like. But, in any case, Epicurus felt that most people were fearful of the gods because they wrongly believed them to be powerful, supernatural beings who are constantly concerned about what we do and who, in response to our actions, dispense upon us various punishments or rewards. In consequence, many people have come to believe that they must worship and sacrifice to the gods in order to win, or regain, their favour.

However, for Epicurus, the most characteristic thing about the gods was their imperishable and blessed being which allowed them to live completely tranquil lives, utterly unconcerned about what we got up to. In short, the gods (whatever they were), simply left us to our own devices and whatever happened to us was always and only the result of purely natural forces.

When thought of like this — as supreme fictions, poetic exemplars of an ideal life — the only influence the gods could have upon us was when we sought to emulate their tranquility in our own lives. Indeed, Epicurus once memorably said he was:

. . . prepared to compete with [the god] Zeus in happiness, as long as he had a barley cake and some water (Aelian, “Miscellaneous Histories”, 4.13 [text 159]).

When an ancient or modern follower of Epicurus gratefully sits down to an equally modest breakfast it is worth pondering upon the fact that they do so blessedly free from a fear of the gods.

Talk 2—Losing our fear of an afterlife

(Hear the talk for a limited period of time at this link. The piece starts 21 minutes 50 seconds into the programme and finishes three minutes later.)

In the 3rd century BCE, the Greek philosopher Epicurus developed a philosophy, the ultimate goal of which was a kind of peace of mind or tranquility that he called “ataraxia”. To achieve this he believed at least three common fears needed to be addressed and removed: fear of the gods, fear of an afterlife, and fear of death. 

Today we’ll consider the fear of an afterlife.

Epicurus saw in his own age, as we see in our own, that many people believed after death there will be for them another life. Uncertainties about what this will be like, and the miseries it might bring a person were, and still are, the cause of great anxiety, and this has always seriously mitigated against achieving a tranquil and fulfilling life in this world.

But Epicurus had an antidote to the fear of an afterlife. His close study of the natural world led him to the, then, radical conclusion that everything (including the gods and ourselves) was made of atoms — although today we might prefer to say the flow and flux of matter in constant motion. This means that at our death who we are is simply folded back into this same continuous material flow and flux, and it was this realization that assured Epicurus there could be no such thing as another life for us after our own death nor, of course, any afterlife about which we need to be afraid.

And, whilst it is true that followers of Epicurus firmly believe there is no other world, in a poetically sensitive way they do, in fact, see another world, namely, this natural world seen through the eyes of reason and science rather than through the eyes of ancient superstition.

Talk 3—Losing our fear of death


(Hear the talk for a limited period of time at this link. The piece starts 28 minutes 10 seconds into the programme and finishes three minutes later.)

In the 3rd century BCE, the Greek philosopher Epicurus developed a philosophy, the ultimate goal of which was a kind of peace of mind or tranquility that he called “ataraxia”. To achieve this he believed at least three common fears needed to be addressed and removed: fear of the gods, fear of an afterlife, and fear of death.

This week we’ll look at the fear of death itself, coming, as it does for Epicurus and his followers, without a belief in an afterlife.

Epicurus addressed this fear firstly by noting that everything which is for us desirable or undesirable, good or bad, produces in us pleasure or pain, either directly or indirectly. He then observes that our own death cannot result in us feeling pain because when we die we are no longer there to feel it. True enough our family and friends may mourn and feel pain at our death but we will not be able to. As Epicurus realised, what point is there then, in being anxious or fearful about something if we know that when it happens it cannot possibly cause us any pain, either directly or indirectly?

This is why Epicureans were widely known to say “death is nothing to us” and sometimes they wore signet rings or looked into hand mirrors with these words engraved upon them as a daily reminder that they had no need to fear death.

But, if death is nothing to a follower of Epicurus, this life, properly lived, does mean a great deal, and it is something to be fully and tranquilly enjoyed with our family and friends before fearlessly “to the wind’s twelve quarters / I take my endless way” (A Shropshire Lad XXXII) as the great English poet and Epicurean, A. E. Housman, once beautifully put it in his A Shropshire Lad.

Talk 4—The importance of friendship

(Hear the talk for a limited period of time at this link. The piece starts 19 minutes 00 seconds into the programme and finishes three minutes later.)

In the 3rd century BCE, the Greek philosopher Epicurus developed a philosophy, the ultimate goal of which was a kind of peace of mind or tranquility that he called “ataraxia”. To achieve this he believed at least three common fears needed to be addressed and removed: fear of the gods, fear of an afterlife, and fear of death.

Over the past three weeks we’ve briefly considered them in turn. But once these fears had been, or were at least well on the way to being overcome, what still remained was the need for supportive, like-minded, free-thinking friends. Indeed, friendship was central to Epicurus’ thought and life and he once said that:

Of all the things that wisdom provides for the happiness of the whole person, by far the most important is the acquisition of friendship (LD, 27).

On another occasion he exclaimed that:

“Friendship dances around the world, summoning every one of us to awaken to the gospel of the happy life” (VC 52).

Epicurus saw that friends helped a person to gain at least two important things. The first was that they clearly helped making the basic necessities of life, such as food, shelter and general protection, easier to get and maintain. The second was that they could help us continue to be fully awake to the benefits of the Epicurean gospel of the happy life, a life blessedly free from fear of the gods, an afterlife,  and death. Indeed, it’s worth remembering that he seems once to have said: 

Before you eat or drink anything, consider carefully who you eat or drink with rather than what you are to eat or drink: for feeding without a friend is the life of a lion or a wolf” (Seneca, Letters 19:10).

Talk 5—The Epicurean Garden Academy

(Hear the talk for a limited period of time at this link. The piece starts 22 minutes 35 seconds into the programme and finishes three minutes later.)


In the 3rd century BCE, the Greek philosopher Epicurus developed a philosophy, the ultimate goal of which was a kind of peace of mind or tranquility that he called “ataraxia”. To achieve this at least three common fears needed to be addressed and removed: fear of the gods, fear of an afterlife, and fear of death and, as we explored last week, key to achieving this kind of life was friendship.

Clearly this can mean single friendships but Epicurus saw the need and value of larger communities too and he provided this in his own garden academy in Athens. Written above its entrance were these inviting words:

“Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure. The caretaker of [this] abode, a kindly host, will be ready for you; he will welcome you with bread, and serve you water in abundance, with these words: ‘Have you not been well entertained? This garden does not whet your appetite, but quenches it’” (Seneca, “Epistulae morales ad Lucilium”, Epistle XXI).

Both Epicurus’ philosophy and his garden academy provided a hospitable gate through which all people, rich and poor, men and women, slave and free, were allowed freely to come and go where, through a process of mutually supportive philosophical self-cultivation, they were helped to fashion a form of life that, being free from the fear of the gods, an afterlife, and death was, indeed, tranquil and pleasurable and a style of living that others could also behold with pleasure.)

In this kind of philosophical garden community it was — and still is — possible to nurture all kinds of virtues that, to this day, continue to offer us what we can call “the salt of existence”, namely: love, affection, tenderness, sweetness, thoughtfulness, delicateness, forbearance, magnanimity, politeness, amenity, kindness, civility, attentiveness, attention, courtesy, clemency, devotedness, and all the words carrying a connotation of goodness (this list is gratefully taken from Michel Onfray’s “A Hedonist Manifesto: The Power to Exist”, Columbia University Press, 2015, p. 49).

Comments