55 - The Constant Gardener: Epicurus and his Principles

Posted on 20 November 2011

Peter begins to examine the philosophy of Epicurus, focusing on his empiricist theory of knowledge and his atomic physics.

Further Reading

• C. Bailey, Epicurus: the Extant Remains (Oxford: 1926).

• S. Everson, “Epicurus on the Truth of the Senses,” in S. Everson (ed.), Companions to Ancient Thought 3: Epistemology (Cambridge: 1990), 161-83.

• D. Furley, “Knowledge of Atoms and Void in Epicureanism,” in J.P. Anton and G.L. Kustas (eds), Essays in Ancient Greek Philosophy (Albany: 1971), 607-19.

• D. Glidden, “Epicurean Prolepsis,” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 3 (1985), 175-217.

• J.M. Rist, Epicurus: an Introduction (Cambridge: 1972).

• G. Vlastos, “Minimal Parts in Epicurean Atomism,” Isis 56 (1965), 121-47.

• J. Warren (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism (Cambridge: 2009).

Stanford Encyclopedia: Epicurus


Hi Sam,

Funny you ask, in my original script I had him being born in January and it said "you should clear a space on your calendar each January..." in the first paragraph. But then when I was revising before recording it I couldn't remember where I had this from, and couldn't find it in any of the books I had here... so I took it out. But I think it's probably January, I was just playing on the safe side.



CarolA 22 November 2011

I saw a book on Google Books -  "Paradosis and Survival: three chapters in the history of Epicurean philosophy"  by Diskin Clay.  This says the date was on the tenth day of the month of Gamelion - whenever that was!  This was apparently quoted from Epicurus' will. 

Gamelion seems to run from about mid January to mid February so January sounds reasonable. (About the 25th?)

Thanks Carol -- it's coming back to me now, there was some mention of the month Gamelion in what I read. So I guess I should have been brave and stuck to my original text! I suspect I found the date in the Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism edited by James Warren (which is really good by the way, I found it helpful).


Felix 9 December 2011

I really like the sound of Epicurus - friends, conversation and atomism. I would like to get a book on this 'school'. (I have noticed the 'further reading' list on epsiode 55)

FolIowing your recommendation I purchased James Warren's 'Presocratics' and really liked it. And the cover was really nice!

I was wondering whether you had read any of the other books in the 'Ancient Philosophies' series and would care to recommend any?


By the way, it was great to hear you, Angie Hobbs and James Warren discussing Heraclitus on In Our Time today. :-)


Peter Adamson 30 May 2012

Thanks to alert listener Charles Snyder for pointing out that, when I say (4:11) that Epicurus was born 6 years after Aristotle died, I meant to say 6 years after Plato died!

Michael Gebauer 30 April 2015

Presently studying Hobbes, it occurs to me that it hence seems dead wrong to count his theoretical philosophy as Epicurean, as is frequently done. -- His materialism certainly countenances no such thing as the atoms randomly moving in a void, swerving from their paths without cause. This whole idea that the world is not deterministic is this way is very opposed to Hobbes's thought, not to mention the further idea that this indeterminism might somehow explain the possibility of freewill. -- I take it, that this notorious latter idea is not part of Epicureanism either, right?

I think you must be right about Hobbes - at least the indeterminism would be one big difference. The question of whether the swerve can explain freedom is a much-discussed one in Epicurean studies; I think I might mention it in the Lucretius episode. One school of thought is that Epicurus introduced the concept just to explain how atoms become entangled in the first place rather than falling parallel to one another; and then Lucretius invoked it in the free will context. But as I say it's very controversial what theoretical role(s) it was intended to play.

Garden of Livia 29 March 2016

Wonderful series...

What is the origin/location/title of the image you use of the garden with birds? I'm researching fresco painting from around this time and would so love to know. 

Peter Adamson 30 March 2016

In reply to by Garden of Livia

It's not a fresco actually, it is a book manuscript. I lifted this from Wikipedia, to be honest, the entry on "Epicureanism," and the caption there says De rerum natura manuscript, copied by an Augustinian friar for Pope Sixtus IV, c. 1483, after the discovery of an early manuscript in 1417 by the humanist and papal secretary Poggio Bracciolini.

Stephen 10 August 2016

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Peter, the manuscript page illustrates your post on Lucretius (58). The beautiful garden scene on this post (55) is indeed a fresco, which features in the Wikipedia article on the Roman Empire (City and Country section). Attribution: Pannello di pittura parietale da area vesuviana, miho museum, shiga 02.jpg.   So, 'Vesuvian area' and ending up in a museum in Japan - if only they could talk!

As you mention Poggio, have you read 'The Swerve' by Stephen Greenblatt? I think it's a wonderful tour de force of philosophy, history and biography with, at its heart, an account of the rediscovery in 1417 by Poggio of what was believed to be the last surviving manuscript of Lucretius, and the subsequent explosive impact of its publication on medieval Europe. Greenblatt boldly subtitles his book 'How the Renaissance Began', which upset a lot of historians (see Wikipedia hatchet job), but he makes a strong argument: Epicurean science and ethics disseminating across Christian Europe through an exquisite Latin poem, the immediate literary precursor of the revered Virgil. We learn that Poggio had an extraordinary life, both as a manuscript hunter in remote monasteries and as papal secretary to the Antipope formerly known as John XXIII - a pope adjudged to be so evil that he was stripped of his name and title, and for over 500 years none dared to adopt the name until the controversial reformer Cardinal Roncalli .... Dan Brown couldn't make this stuff up!

Actually I haven't read The Swerve yet but it is definitely on my list, as I will want to cover the reception of Hellenistic philosophy when I get to the Renaissance. So, a synopsis of Greenblatt is probably coming to the podcast before too long. Thanks for the info on the fresco!

Washington Kuhlmann 25 August 2017

The text seems to say that Epicurus was born in 341 b.C. "six years after Aristotle died" which is not correct. Aristotle died in 322 b.C. when Epicurus was already a young man. 


Peter Adamson 25 August 2017

In reply to by Washington Kuhlmann

Maybe I misspoke when I did the recording but I just checked the book version and there it says "after Plato died," not "after Aristotle died". (And that date is correct I guess: he died 347.)

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