Epicurus: The Happy Apikores

I. Introduction

Epicurus (341-270 BCE), one of the greatest thinkers of Ancient Greece, was known for his theory of the atomic universe, radical ethical philosophy, and his epistemology which included only material objects. However, perhaps less well known is Epicurus’ appearance in the thought of Chazal. In this paper, I hope to present a basic introduction to Epicurus’ relevant philosophy, determine precisely how Chazal reacted to his theories, and, finally, ascertain how Chazal — or at least one strain of thought within Chazal — engaged his thought.

II. Epicurean Metaphysics and Ethics

Epicurus in all likelihood derived his own metaphysical views from those of Democritus, who preceded him by about a century (his precise dates are uncertain). Democritus developed the idea of the atom, an uncuttable substance that constituted the smallest “unit” of matter, or, more precisely, a unit of matter without any parts. Democritus held that all substances that fill the world are in fact comprised of these atoms, which come in various sizes. In his Physics, Aristotle challenged Democritus’ view of the atom: if the atom is truly part-less, two atoms cannot join to form a larger substances, because they would overlap entirely as the atoms are not divisible into parts.

It is was perhaps this critique that lead Epicurus to modify Democritus’ view on the atom and develop his own. Epicurus held that while there were indeed atoms, which in his view remained indivisible, true minima (or minimae partes in Lucretius’ formulation) inhere in the atom, though they do not comprise it. Konstan illustrates by drawing a comparison to points on a line: one could not say that a line is comprised of the points; rather, one would say the points inhere on the line. So too, the minimae partes inhere on rather than comprise the atoms (Konstan, 239).1

Because Epicurus believes that only atoms and a void exist, he rejects the concept of teleology and providence. Unlike Aristotle, who posits that inherent in every substance is some sort of natural telos which directs the substance in a particular direction, Epicurus holds that any change that occurs is the result of atoms interacting with one another. How then did biological life come to be so complex? Epicurus’ position on this matter in some sense resembles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Epicurus holds that randomized interaction eventually resulted in life forms, and those which were best adapted to their surroundings were able to survive, while those who were ill-adapted perished.

Epicurus’ metaphysical views led him to conclude that the pleasure is the only value: “one must practise the things which produce happiness, since if that is present we have everything and if it is absent we do everything in order to have it” (Letter to Menoeceus). Although Epicurus did believe that “sense-experience” was indeed the only value, Epicurus’ ethical theory should not be regarded as run-of-the-mill hedonism. Epicurus believed that one should seek out ataraxia, or tranquility, not just any or all pleasure:

So when we say that pleasure is the goal we do not mean the pleasures of the profligate or the pleasures of consumption, as some believe, either from ignorance and disagreement or from deliberate misinterpretation, but rather the lack of pain in the body and disturbance in the soul. For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys3 and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls (ibid).

Epicurus distinguishes between two types of pleasure. “Mobile pleasure” is the pleasure which ensues when we free ourselves from a pain, such a desire or appetite. However, in order to experience mobile pleasure we first must have some desire or appetite to satisfy. From Epicurus’ perspective, however, having such appetites entails the risk of the appetites being frustrated, which will be counter-productive. For example, if one desires a filet mignon, although he may experience mobile pleasure in satisfying his hunger upon eating it, he runs the risk of not obtaining one, and thereby having his desires frustrated. These frustrations are doubtless types of pain, and as such, on Epicurus’ view, one ought to avoid them.

A further problem with the pursuit of mobile pleasure is that we are bound to continuously seek higher forms of pleasure, no longer being satisfied with what previously occupied us. One can easily envision someone who seeks enjoyable drinks becoming eventually dissatisfied with having beer at meals and desire expensive scotch. While this does not present an inherent problem, the more extravagant the pleasure, the more likely one will eventually have it frustrated. Therefore, Epicurus advocates that one adjust his desires so that he desires only the bare necessities, like bread and salt, which have little chance of being of frustrated.

The second type of pleasure one can experience is “static pleasure,” meaning freedom from pain, i.e. tranquility, or being at peace with one’s surroundings. This pleasure is actually a state (hexis4), unlike mobile pleasure, which is better described as a fleeting experience. The distinct advantage that static pleasure has over mobile pleasure is that the pursuit of static pleasure itself does not entail obtaining anything in particular, and as such minimizes the chances of frustration. Thus, one should not pursue satiation, but rather one should pursue tranquility — to be free of desire. Epicurus holds, then, that one ought to eliminate all desires to whatever extent possible, and those desires which one cannot do away with (sustenance, shelter, etc.), should be minimized.5

Epicurus opens himself up to an obvious objection, however. While it may be true that the pursuit of whiskey is more likely to be frustrated than the pursuit of beer, surely the pleasure one has by drinking a fine whiskey exceeds the pleasure one would have by drinking water. If so, one would have expected Epicurus to calculate both variables to determine the best course of action to maximize pleasure. Epicurus holds that the drinker of water and the drinker of fine whiskey can indeed experience the same degree of pleasure, if the drinker of water truly desires the water and nothing more. This is because Epicurus holds that the extent of our mobile pleasure correlates with the degree of our desire for satisfaction — if one can train himself to desire plain water to the same degree that another desires fine whiskey, Epicurus thinks that they both experience the same degree of pleasure. Therefore, the only variable to be considered is possible frustration.

As Epicurus held that man was nothing more than a collection of atoms, he believed that, after death, man would cease to exist entirely. Consciousness, a faculty of the soul, could not exist after death, because consciousness was brought about by the interactions of the atoms comprising the human body; however, upon death, these atoms would cease to interact — or at least to the same extent that they had during life — which would bring about decay of the human body, i.e. the separating of the atoms. Epicurus understood that the soul was also comprised of atoms, for the soul interacted with the body: “when you feel fear your flesh trembles, your heart beats faster; correspondingly, a wound to the body produce effects in the mind” (Konstan, 246).
If indeed the body produced effects on the mind and vice versa, it follows from the basics of Epicurean metaphysics that both objects are material: a substance which produces effects on another, or is similarly affected by another substance is said to exist; however, as existence only applies to material bodies, any substances which produce effects on or are themselves affected by other substances must be material. The soul, then, must likewise be a material substance, comprised of atoms, and will surely disperse, just like the rest of the body, upon the time of death.

Epicurus’ position on the absence of consciousness after death proved useful for Epicurus’ advocation of ataraxia. Epicurus believed that one ought to minimize all pain, and he included in this mental pain — such as anxiety — in addition to bodily pain. Epicurus therefore thought that one should relieve himself of all such mental pains — in particular, the fear of death. Because Epicurus held that there was no consciousness after death, he believed fear of death to be illogical, and by appreciating how illogical it was, Epicurus believed that one could rid himself of said fear of death. Epicurus’ own formulation is somewhat ambiguous, and there are different ways to read his argument as to why we should not fear death. I think that the simplest way to understand Epicurus is this: if, upon death, we cease to be conscious, we will not be harmed by death, as we no longer exist. Therefore, it follows that we should not fear it.

Epicurus understands that by alleviating the fear of death, man will likewise come to further tranquility by no longer desiring wealth or glory. Epicurus believed that the pursuit of wealth and glory were actually reactions to the fear of death. Wealth distances us from poverty, and, according to Epicurus, people associate poverty with death. The poor do not have proper access to nourishment, nor can they afford the best medical care, which, from a certain perspective, makes them more vulnerable to death. Health, it follows, distances man from death by providing him with these goods. Glory, in a different way, can serve to counterbalance death. After we die, if we have attained renown, our names will live on, though our bodies decay; this somehow relieves the threat of death’s finality. However, if one has become so philosophically sophisticated as to no longer fear death, he will no longer desire these things, and therefore be closer to ataraxia. Epicurus, then, maintains that it is both unwise and illogical to fear death. Unwise, for by fearing the inevitable, one is doomed to experience mental pain; illogical because after death one ceases to be conscious, and thereby will not actually even experience death.

Epicurus’ various positions are anathema to many religionists. Indeed, nearly every single one of these positions seems irreligious: embracing death, the denial of any afterlife or providence,2 the hedonism and materialism. While Epicurean philosophy surely poses many theological issues for many different religions, I would like to focus on Chazal’s value-judgement of Epicureanism.

III. Epicurus and the Apikores

Within the “four walls of the beis medrash,” the word Epicurus is best known not as the ancient philosopher, but as one of the individuals with no share in the world to come. The opening Mishnah in the final chapter in Sanhedrin reads:

אלו שאין להם חלק לעולם הבא האומר אין תחיית המתים מן התורה ואין תורה מן השמים ואפיקורוס

The following have no portion to the world to come: one who maintains that [the doctrine of] resurrection is not found in the Torah, [one who maintains that] the Torah is not from heaven, and an apikores (Sanhedrin, 90a)

To what or whom does the term apikores refer? Prima facie, we may assume that it refers to an individual who subscribes to Epicurean philosophy, however, there are two problems with this suggestion. Firstly, this definition is far too broad. Surely the Mishnah does not mean to forbid6 the belief in all Epicurean philosophy. It is most unreasonable to assume that an individual who concludes that the pursuit of mobile pleasure is self-defeating, certainly a tenant of Epicureanism, would, in doing so, forfeit his share in the world to come. If indeed the Mishnah refers to Epicurean philosophy, it must refer to a particular belief within Epicureanism. Furthermore, if indeed the Mishnah does refer to Epicurean philosophy generally, it is truly strange that the Mishnah would single out only Epicureanism to prohibit. Is Epicurean thought any “more” heretical than that of Aristotle?7 Moreover, the Mishnah could have simply dismissed all of Greek philosophy in its entirely, for surely every Greek thinker at some point held a position that ran counter to that of Chazal.

Another popular theory is that the word אפיקורוס is related to the word פקר, and thereby carries the connotation of licentiousness, as it refers to one who is freed from the norms of sexual propriety. However, this explanation seems unlikely, as if indeed this is what Chazal had in mind they would not have added the ס at the end. Others claim that the word connotes both Epicureanism, and licentiousness; however, this is also unlikely, as the word Ἐπίκουρος transliterates perfectly into אפיקורוס, and as such, the similarity between אפיקורוס and פקר is in all likelihood a coincidence. Furthermore, Epicurus himself advocated against licentious behavior (albeit for different reasons than did Chazal) so it would be strange to use his name to mean licentious behavior.

I would like to suggest three possible explanations of the term apikores, one which is based upon a baraisa and two which are suggested by amoraim, each one of which, however, implies a value judgement of a specific element of Epicurean philosophy. We will start by examining the baraisa:

תנו רבנן (במדבר טו) כי דבר ה' בזה ומצותו הפר הכרת תכרת זה האומר אין תורה מן השמים ד"א כי דבר ה' בזה זה אפיקורוס

Our Rabbis taught: ‘For he has degraded the word of G-d and nullified his command -- he shall surely be cut off’ (Num. XV), this refers to someone who denies that Torah came from Heaven; another interpretation: ‘For he has degraded the word of G-d’ (ibid.), this refers to an apikores (Sanhedrin 99a)8

Here, Chazal say that an individual who “degrades the Torah” is considered an apikores. What constitutes ‘degrading the Torah,’ however, is not immediately clear from the Gemara itself. What is perhaps more problematic is the connection between degrading the Torah and Epicurus — surely, Epicurus himself did not speak of the Torah at all, so why do Chazal choose to identify an individual who degrades the Torah with Epicureanism? Indeed, this puzzling question applies likewise to the next two approaches about Epicureanism:

אפיקורוס: רבי ורבי חנינא אמרי תרוייהו זה המבזה ת"ח רבי יוחנן ור' יהושע בן לוי אמרי זה המבזה חבירו בפני ת"ח

Apikores -- Rebbe and R. Chanina both say that [an Apikores is someone who] degrades a Talmid Chacham; R. Yochanan and R. Yehoshua ben Levi [both] say [an Apikores is someone who] degrades his fellow in the presence of a Talmid Chacham.

We have a similar dilemma here. We must determine why Chazal chose to use this particular term to describe an individual who disgraces another, and how the term relates to a Talmid Chacham.

I would like to suggest that Chazal adopted the term Apikores in order to pass judgement upon two interrelated tenets of Epicurean ethics. The first is the devaluation of everything but pain and pleasure, and the second, which follows necessarily from the first, is having concern only for one’s self, and thereby disregarding everyone else’s well being.9 I do not mean to suggest that being an Epicurean will necessarily lead one to be an Apikores, though the likelihood is apparent, and I certainly do not mean that anyone who is an Apikores is an Epicurean. I believe Chazal adopted the name Epicurus and created with it a new term which they applied to situations that they deemed to be in line with, though not necessarily identical to, Epicurean ethics.10 These two themes — devaluation of everything but pain and pleasure, and egocentrism — come to bear in each of the definitions of the term Apikores, albeit with slight variations in each.

According to the first definition, the term Apikores applies to someone who degrades the Torah. Chazal obviously mean to condemn anyone who does not value the Torah properly; however, by using the term Apikores, Chazal also intend to pass judgement upon Epicureanism: the degradation of the holy Torah and placing a premium solely on pain and pleasure both stem from the same perverted perspective. When one values only himself, and, consequently, cares only about pleasure, one comes to degrade God and his Torah as well. Similarly, on Rebbe’s view, an Apikores is someone who embarrasses a Talmid Chacham. These two definitions speak to the same point: someone who does not care for another will be willing to embarrass him, even if that other happens to be a Talmid Chacham. R. Yochanan has, perhaps, the most stringent definition: anyone who embarrasses his fellow in front of a Talmid Chacham. Presumably, R. Yochanan refers to a situation in which the embarrassed party was not in the presence of a Talmid Chacham by happenstance, but rather he sought his presence out because he respected the Talmid Chacham. Nonetheless, despite this, the Apikores was willing to degrade him, because he showed not only a disregard for his fellow, but a disregard for those whom his fellow held in high esteem.

It seems that these commonalities between the three definitions of Apikores do indeed reflect not Epicureanism per se, but an Epicurean-esque perspective. Chazal took the Epicurean ethical system in which man only values pleasure and pain as systemic of an especially pernicious egocentrism. They expanded the term from its original connotations, i.e. Epicureanism proper, to apply to a broader ranging, and, from their perspective, a more relevant moral malaise. So much for Chazal’s judgement of the Epicurean approach to happiness, but what did they think themselves?

IV. Of Happiness and Water-Skins

It would not do to discuss the attitude Chazal had towards the proper place of happiness, for undoubtedly, many Rabbis within the mesorah of Chazal had divergent positions on the matter; it would be far too ambitious, on the other hand, to collect and analyze all of them in this paper. To compromise, I will attempt to explain a puzzling passage in Sukkah, in which R. Abahu grapples with the question of the value and role of happiness in a religious life, and, ultimately, comes to a radically divergent position — perhaps the exact opposite position — of Epicurus. The passage reads as follows:

א"ל ההוא מינא דשמיה ששון לר' אבהו עתידיתו דתמלו לי מים לעלמא דאתי דכתיב ושאבתם מים בששון א"ל אי הוה כתיב לששון כדקאמרת השתא דכתיב בששון משכיה דההוא גברא משוינן ליה גודא ומלינן ביה מיא

A certain heretic by the name of Happiness11 said to R. Abahu, “You are destined to draw water for me in the world to come, as it is written, ‘and you shall draw water in happiness.’” Said he, “Were it written to happiness, it would have been as you said. Now, as it says in happiness, it means that a water skin-will be made of your skin, and men will fill it with water” (Sukkah 48b)

Several aspects of this passage need clarification. Firstly, who exactly was this heretic, and how could his name be ששון? Furthermore, what exactly is meant by the imagery of drawing water for happiness and drawing water with happiness? I would like to suggest the following interpretation. The “heretic named ששון” was not in fact an actual person, but rather the personification of a heretical approach to happiness. According to this heretical approach to happiness, man’s ultimate goal ought to be happiness; his entire purpose of getting to the world to come is to “draw water for happiness,” that is to say, man worships happiness. It seems likely that this Heretic Happiness is the personification of Epicurus’ conception of Happiness. However, R. Abahu disagrees with this heretical position. On R. Abahu’s view, happiness is not an end goal in of itself; rather, happiness serves as a tool for man to worship G-d: man makes happiness into a water skin, which he fills with water.

R. Abahu’s position is indeed the exact opposite of Epicurus. Epicurus and the heretic name Happiness believed that the only value was happiness, and one should therefore direct all of his efforts to maximizing his happiness. R. Abahu, however, disagreed completely; happiness only has instrumental value insofar as it assists man in his service of G-d.

V. Conclusion

Needless to say, Epicurus’ philosophy and that of Chazal diverged greatly from one another. However, the content of each position aside, there remains, I think, a broader question. Chazal did not shy away from engaging, criticizing and, eventually, rejecting the philosophy of their contemporaries. They did not simply refuse to acknowledge the existence of philosophy they disagreed with. That being so, they did not compose any philosophical treatises to refute the philosophy the rejected, instead they disagreed by way of illustration and melitza. Did Chazal engage secular philosophy because there were those within their communities who were swayed by it? Were Chazal, in a word, defending the faith? Or, perhaps, did Chazal find the pursuit worthwhile in its own right? Chazal perhaps used the work of previous philosophers as starting points from which to formulate their own position. Whatever the case may be, Chazal certainly did engage Western philosophy, and we should, mutatis mutandis, not shy away from the same pursuit.


SOURCES CITED D. Konstan. “Epicurus,” The Blackwell Guide to Ancient Philosophy, ed. C. Shields. Blackwell. MA: Blackwell, 2003. Print.


1. Epicurus’ position on the atom can also solve some Zeno’s paradoxes. For example, in Zeno’s “Achilles and the Tortoise,” in which Achilles cannot overtake the Tortoise, for by the time Achilles succeeds in reaching the Tortoise, the Tortoise will have progressed further. On Epicurus’ view, just as there exists an atom whose minimae partes cannot subdivide as they inhere in the atom, so too, there may also exist true minima in space, so that when this distance separates Achilles from the Tortoise, Achilles can traverse this unit of space, catching up to, and then passing, the Tortoise.

2. Epicurus apparently believed in the gods, although he did not view them as having any part in the development of the universe. (See Guide of the Perplexed III, 17 for the Rambam’s discussion of Epicurus’ position on providence.)

3. The ancient Greeks, infamously, practiced homosexuality, usually involving an older man with a younger boy. For more on this topic, see Greek Homosexuality by K.J. Dover (Cambridge: 1978).

4. It is worth exploring how Aristotle’s virtue ethics -- which likewise emphasized hexis -- played a role in influencing Epicurus’ own ethics.

5. Students of Kierkegaard might note the parallel between The Seducer’s Diary and Epicurus’ views.

6. A common dilemma in the study of Jewish dogma is the issue of whether ‘mandated’ beliefs are, indeed, obligatory in the normal legal sense of the word; conversely, whether heretical views are indeed ‘prohibited’. This issue, however, lies beyond the scope of the essay.

7. Indeed, Rambam himself in his Letter Concerning the Resurrection of the Dead holds המאמין בקדמות אין לו חלק בעדות משה ואברהם כלל וכלל (Letters of Maimonides, trans. Shilat; the page on which this line appears escapes me at the moment).

8. See Shavuot 13a for yet another interpretation of this verse.

9. One might counter and reply that even in Epicurean thought, someone might value another person’s well being, insofar as doing so would bring about pleasure. This, I believe, is mistaken on two accounts. First, Epicurus himself would recommend against it, just as he recommends against all mobile pleasures. Secondly, one could not truly consider valuing someone else’s well being as valuing that other person, for the other merely acts as an instrument of self-gratification.

10. Indeed, Rav Moshe Chayim Luzzatto was of the opinion that Chazal were in the habit of doing this generally, that is to say, borrowing terms from the thought which happened to be trending at that time and place (Greek, Roman, Persian, etc.) and applied it differently than was originally intended. See מאמר על אגדות חז”ל by Rav Moshe Chayim Luzzatto (printed in the introductory section to the Vilna edition of the Midrash Rabbah).

11. The previous passage deals with the difference in connotation between the words ששון and שמחה. It seems that the Gemara understands ששון to refer to the pleasure one experiences when encountering something exciting or new (see Targum to Isa. 12:3) whereas שמחה refers to a more stable pleasure which one has when he is generally happy (see Targum to Isa. 35:10).

Asarah B’Teves: Seeking God Where He Is Found; Calling Out To Him When He Is Close