A few weeks ago the blog discussed the weeping philosopher, Heralcitus. His parallel, the laughing philosopher Democritus, doesn’t have a lot of surviving work, but one of his followers was Epicurus, and he seems to have been a Hermetic magus before his time. Epicurius gets a bad rap in history. His name is used for “hedonist”or “heretic” in medieval writing. In modern writing, it’s a synonym for “gourmand”. Instead, let’s have a look at what he actually said. His thoughts and lifestyle seem so familiar that it seems fair to ask if Bonisagus was one of his admirers.

Epicurius said the goal of life was “ataraxia” by which he meant something similar to tranquillity of spirit. There were several key features to ataraxia, but a key one was aponia, which means freedom from pain or want. Epicurius believed pleasure was freedom from pain, so true painlessness was as much pleasure as a person could have.

What does a life of pleasure look like?

Physical pleasures, like eating, are only momentary, but mental pleasures, like memories, are persistent and so are more important. Each can be divided into active and passive types. Eating when you are hungry is an active pleasure: no longer being hungry afterward is a passive pleasure. Passive pleasures are superior to active pleasures. Overindulgence causes pain, so there’s a sort of moderation built into the philosophy.  Pleasures of the body should not include artificially induced things that disturb mental equilibrium.

Friendship is important to a happy life: the works of Epicurius’s successor didn’t survive beyond a few pages. One of them says gods must be able to breathe, because they must talk, because they must converse, because they must have friends, because that’s the key to happiness, and they are defined as happy. Friends you can talk about important things with are the primary key to happiness. If you’re a magus, you need other magi. The solo lives magi lived before the Order are, by definition, miserable.

The Epicurean school as embyronic covenant

Epicurius’s school was called the Garden. His students sat around in the garden, and talked. He included women and slaves on merit. Epicurians suggested it was important they be secluded from society, to avoid trouble.  He commanded his followers to “live in obscurity” to avoid being noticed. His followers avoided politics, because it lead to mundane difficulties, and because it inflamed megalomania.He was against passionate love, and thought sex was a distraction from thought. He had no wife or children of his own, preferring to care instead for his friends and students.  This seems very similar to the early versions of Bonisagus.

Types of desire

Some desires are natural and necessary, some are natural but not necessary, and some are neither natural or necessary. Necessary, in this case, means something required for happiness, for freedom from physical discomfort, or to maintain life. Natural but unnecessary desires include things like the craving for luxurious food, and the lust for sexual intercourse. Epicurius believed that these didn’t make you so much happier that they were worth the hassle. The final category includes limitless desires, like covetousness for money, which can never be satisfied, and so draw implacably away from happiness.

Divine power is never used

Gods exist, are immortal, and are blessed. There’s nothing else to know about them. They may be ideals to contemplate, or they may physically exist in the voids between worlds. Given that you can’t interact with either, why worry?  Their rituals may be something you do to avoid annoying their followers, but that’s not the same as them being true.  Epicurius did not believe in any afterlife at all: and saw this as a profoundly liberating truth. His followers often had a particular motto on their gravestones Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo “I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care” to testify that they had passed from any possibility of pain.

The Source of the Code

The school operated under a social contract. People would avoid both punishment and doing those things which required punishment, because either drew the person away from being happy, in the highest sense. Laws and punishments were necessary for the unwise. The idea that the law was just what everyone agreed that it was, that justice was a human construction rather than an expression of natural law, seems to lead to the Code being drawn up by the Founders. They don’t need a historical template or precedent, because they think they have the right to say what justice is.

Atomic theory

Epicurius was a follower of Democritus, who believed the world was made out of atoms separated by void. They thought there was an infinite number of atoms and an infinite amount of void, but there must be a finite number of types of atoms, which means they can only be combined in a finite, if potentially very large, number of configurations. The infinite number of atoms mean there are infinite worlds (or, as Epicurius called them, cosmoses) separated by vast voids.

Atoms cannot be created or destroyed, but they can be called from elsewhere and banished (Creo and Perdo). They can collide, then bounce off or fuse (Rego), or collide then join and change  (Muto). When not forced to do anything else, they naturally slide downwards toward the ground, but sometime they unpredictably swerve. This swerve caused the universe and allows free will. The swerve also allows magic, because it breaks the mechanical chain of causality. They also believed in something like species : items shedded atoms carrying information.

Scientific principles

Ideas should not, according to the Epicureans, be considered as true until they had been tested. As a foundational position, they thought you should keep in mind all possible explanations for a thing, until each was disproved by evidence. The followers of this school had three, later four, criteria for something to be true.

Sensations: All sense perceptions are true, but can be misperceived. The way of checking is examining a thing more clearly. That actually seeing things yourself was the primary way to discern their truth is not radical to us, but in a world filled with occluded truths and superstitions, it’s startling. It’s how Intellgo makes sense as an Art.

Preconceptions: Epicurius thought we learned what, for example, an apple, is by watching other people and learning what they meant when they said the word “apple”. Plato thought to know what an apple was, you needed an inherent knowledge of apples, a sort of built in vocabulary. Epicurus believed you could just keep discovering things outside your collective experience, and that you and your friends would come up with names for them.

Feelings are the bedrock of Epicrius’s philosophy. Pain is bad and pleasure good. We know that hitting our hand with a hammer is a bad thing, and that hitting our neighbour’s hand with a hammer is a bad thing, not through any deep consideration of the nature of the will of the Divine as it related to good and evil, but because it hurts.  Some things hurt a lot.  They are very bad things. Some things cause us vast mental distress over a prolonged period. We should not do those things. Things which make you miserable probably aren’t right, because wisdom is pleasurable, and maybe you should look more clearly at them. I’m reading in a seed of the argument for scientific truth having elegance here.

The fourth criteria, from after Epicurius’s time, was that once you had a system of observations, you could build up logical conjectures from there. Thus, the gods have friends, because it is logical that they have friends, rather than that someone has been peering at them with a set of binoculars.

This looks a lot like a primitive version of the scientific method, and explains why things like laboratory experimentation are considered useful in Hermetic thought. Earlier magicians don’t do this. I’ve called Bonisagus the Great Seculariser before, but I never really understood where that drive came from, beyond the cosmopolitanism caused by his travels as a young man. Could Epicurius provide this?


A library of papyrii containing some Epicurean writing was found in the ruins of Herculaneum after the game period. One of his followers sums up his philosophy like this:

Don’t fear god,
Don’t worry about death;
What is good is easy to get, and
What is terrible is easy to endure.

Photo by Alun Salt on Foter.com / CC BY-SA

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