Epicurus was born into an Athenian émigré family — his parents, Neocles and Chaerestrate, both Athenian citizens, were sent to an Athenian settlement on the Aegean island of Samos. According to Apollodorus (reported by Diogenes Laertius at X.14-15), he was born on the seventh day of the month Gamelion in the third year of the 109th Olympiad, in the archonship of Sosigenes (about February 341 BC). He returned to Athens at the age of eighteen to serve in military training. The playwright Menander served in the same age-class of the ephebes as Epicurus.
He joined his father in Colophon after the Athenian settlers at Samos were expelled by Perdiccas due to their revolt after Alexander the Great died (c. 320 BC). He spent the next several years in Colophon, Lampsacus, and Mytilene, where he founded his school at the age of 32 and gathered many disciples. In the archonship of Anaxicrates (307-306 BC), he returned to Athens where he formed his school known as The Garden, named for the garden he owned about halfway between the Stoa and the Academy that served as the school's meetingplace.
Epicurus died in the second year of the 127th Olympiad, in the archonship of Pytharatus, at the age of 72. He reportedly suffered from a renal calculus, and despite the prolonged pain involved, he is reported as saying in a letter to Idomeneus:
"We have written this letter to you on a happy day to us, which is also the last day of our life. For strangury has attacked me, and also a dysentery, so violent that nothing can be added to the violence of my sufferings. But the cheerfulness of my mind, which arises from their collection of all my philosophical contemplation, counterbalances all these afflictions. And I beg you to take care of the children of Metrodorus, in a manner worth of the devotion shown by the youth to me, and to philosophy" (Diogenes Laertius , X.22, trans. C.D. Yonge).
A growing directory of contemporary Gardens of Epicurus can be found at www.gardenofepicurus.com The Epicurean doctrines are by no means extinct.
Epicurus' school had a small, but devoted following in his lifetime. The primary members were Hermarchus, the financier Idomeneus, Leonteus and his wife Themista, the satirist Colotes, the mathematician Polyaenus of Lampsacus, and Metrodorus, the most famous popularizer of Epicureanism. This original school was based in Epicurus' home and garden. An inscription on the gate to the garden is recorded by Seneca in his Epistle XXI:
The school's popularity grew and it became, along with Stoicism and Skepticism, one of the three dominant schools of Hellenistic Philosophy, lasting strongly through the later Roman Empire. In Rome, Lucretius was the school's greatest proponent, composing On the Nature of Things, a poem designed to recruit new members. The other major Roman source is Diogenes of Oenoanda, who composed a large inscription at Oenoanda in Lycia.
A library, dubbed the Villa of the Papyri, in Herculaneum, owned by Julius Caesar's father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, was preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, and was found to contain a large number of works by Philodemus, a late Hellenistic Epicurean, and Epicurus himself, attesting to the school's enduring popularity.
After the official approval of "Christianity" by Constantine, Epicureanism was repressed. Epicurus' theory of gods unconcerned with human affairs had always clashed strongly with the Judeo-"Christian" God and the philosophies were essentially irreconcilable. For example, the word for a heretic in the Talmudic literature is "Apikouros". Lactantius criticizes Epicurus at several points throughout his Divine Institutes. The school endured a long period of obscurity and decline. However, there was a resurgance of atomism among scientists in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and in the late 20th Century, the school was revived. A directory of contemporary followers of Epicurus can be found on gardenofepicurus.com.
Epicurus' teachings represented a departure from the other major Greek thinkers of his period, and before, but was nevertheless founded on many of the same principles as Democritus.
He admitted women and slaves into his school, emphasized the senses in his epistemology, and was one of the first Greeks to break from the god-fearing and god-worshipping tradition common at the time, even while affirming that religious activities are useful as a way to contemplate the gods and to use them as an example of the pleasant life.
Epicurus' philosophy is based on the theory that all good and bad derive from sensation. Pleasureable sensations are good. Painful sensations are bad. Although Epicurus was commonly misunderstood to advocate the rampant pursuit of pleasure, what he was really after was the absence of pain (both physical and mental, i.e., anxiety).
Although Epicurus believed in pursuing pleasure, he was by no means a hedonist in our modern sense of the world. He explicitly warned against overindulgence because it often leads to pain. For instance, in what might be described as a "hangover" theory, Epicurus warned against pursuing love too ardently, as it often leads to pain.
Epicurus also believed (in contradistinction to Aristotle) that death was not bad. According to Epicurus, good and bad derive from sensation. Bad cannot exist without sensing pain. When man is alive, he does not feel the pain of death because he is not experiencing death. When a man dies, he does not feel the pain of death because he is dead and by definition cannot feel. Therefore, as Epicurus famously said, "death is nothing to us."
In contrast to the Stoics, Epicureans showed little or no interest in politics and the community. "Live in seclusion!" was the advice of Epicurus. His garden can be compared to present day communes. There are many people in our own time who have sought a safe harbor away from society.
The most known Epicurean verse, which epitomizes the Epicurean philosophy, is lathe biōsas λάθε βιώσας (Plutarchus De latenter vivendo 1128c; Flavius Philostratus Vita Apollonii 8.28.12), meaning "live secretly", "get through life without drawing attention to yourself", i. e. live without pursuing glory or wealth or power, but anonymously, enjoying little things like food, the company of friends etc.
Elements of Epicurean philosophy have resonated and resurfaced in various diverse thinkers and movements throughout Western intellectual history. The Epicurean paradox is a famous argument against the existence of God.
Epicurus discussed a human being's natural right to "life, liberty, and safety."
This was later picked up by the democratic thinkers of the French Revolution, and others, like John Locke, who wrote that people had a right to "life, liberty, and property." To Locke, one's own body was part of their property, and thus one's right to property would theoretically guarantee safety for their persons, as well as their possessions.
Epicurus was also a significant source of inspiration and interest for Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche cites his affinities to Epicurus in a number of his works, including The Gay Science, Beyond Good and Evil, and his private letters to Peter Gast. Nietzsche was attracted to, among other things, Epicurus' ability to maintain a cheerful philosophical outlook in the face of painful physical ailments. Nietzsche also suffered from a number of sicknesses during his lifetime.