Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Epicureanism Inquiry

Mr. Steel


Epicureanism is a system of philosophy based upon the teachings of Epicurus (c. 340–c. 270 BCE), founded around 307 BCE. Epicurus was an atomic materialist, following in the steps of Democritus. His materialism led him to a general attack on superstition and divine intervention. Following Aristippus—about whom very little is known—Epicurus believed that the greatest good was to seek modest pleasures in order to attain a state of tranquility and freedom from fear (ataraxia) as well as absence of bodily pain (aponia) through knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of our desires. The combination of these two states is supposed to constitute happiness in its highest form. Although Epicureanism is a form of hedonism, insofar as it declares pleasure as the sole intrinsic good, its conception of absence of pain as the greatest pleasure and its advocacy of a simple life make it quite different from "hedonism" as it is commonly understood.

For Epicurus, the highest pleasure (tranquility and freedom from fear) was obtained by knowledge, friendship, and living a virtuous and temperate life. He lauded the enjoyment of simple pleasures, by which he meant abstaining from bodily desires, such as sex and appetites, verging on asceticism. He argued that when eating, one should not eat too richly, for it could lead to dissatisfaction later, such as the grim realization that one could not afford such delicacies in the future. Likewise, sex could lead to increased lust and dissatisfaction with the sexual partner. Epicurus did not articulate a broad system of social ethics that has survived. Epicureanism was originally a challenge to Platonism, though later it became the main opponent of Stoicism. Epicurus and his followers shunned politics. Epicurus' school, called "The Garden," seems to have been a moderately ascetic community which rejected the political limelight of Athenian philosophy. They were fairly cosmopolitan by Athenian standards, including women and slaves, and were probably vegetarians.


Epicureanism and religion

Epicureanism emphasizes the neutrality of gods on earth and that they do not interfere with the world we live in. It also states that gods, matter and souls are all made from the same thing (atoms). They held that all thoughts are merely atoms swerving randomly. This explanation was used to relieve the ever-curious minds of people who wondered anxiously about their role in the universe.

The Epicurean paradox is a famous argument against the existence of an all-powerful and providential God. The paradox is quoted as this:

God either wants to eliminate bad things and cannot, or can but does not want to, or neither wishes to nor can, or both wants to and can.
If he wants to and cannot, he is weak -- and this does not apply to God.
If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful -- which is equally foreign to God's nature.
If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful and so not a god.
If he wants to and can, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?

Some would interpret this doctrine of the gods as really a disguised atheism. Fully aware of the fate of Socrates when brought up on a charge of impiety, Epicurus avoided expressing an overt atheism. Epicurus did not, however, deny the existence of gods, but he did not think of them along the lines that lead to this paradox, rather as blissful and immortal yet material beings made of atoms inhabiting the metakosmia, empty spaces between worlds in the vastness of infinite space. In spite of his (nominal) recognition of the gods, the practical effect of this materialistic explanation of the gods’ existence and their complete non-intervention in human affairs renders his philosophy atheistic on the practical level, but avoids the charge of atheism on the theoretical level.

The philosophy originated by Epicurus centered around the idea that the pleasure of the individual was the sole or chief good in life. Hence, Epicurus advocated living in such a way as to derive the greatest amount of pleasure possible during one’s lifetime, yet doing so moderately in order to avoid the suffering incurred by overindulgence in such pleasure. The emphasis was placed on pleasures of the mind rather than on physical pleasures. Therefore, according to Epicurus, with whom a person eats is of greater importance than what is eaten. Unnecessary and, especially, artificially produced desires were to be suppressed. Since learning, culture, and civilization as well as social and political involvements could give rise to desires that are difficult to satisfy and thus result in disturbing one’s peace of mind, they were discouraged. Knowledge was sought only to rid oneself of religious fears and superstitions, the two primary fears to be eliminated being fear of the gods and of death. Viewing marriage and what attends it as a threat to one’s peace of mind, Epicurus lived a celibate life but did not impose this restriction on his followers.

The philosophy was characterized by a complete absence of principle. Lawbreaking was counseled against simply because of the shame associated with detection and the punishment it might bring. Living in fear of being found out or punished would take away from pleasure, and this made even secret wrongdoing inadvisable. To the Epicureans, virtue in itself had no value and was beneficial only when it served as a means to gain happiness. Reciprocity was recommended, not because it was right and noble, but because it paid off. Friendships rested on the same selfish basis, that is, the pleasure resulting to the possessor. While the pursuit of pleasure formed the focal point of the philosophy, paradoxically Epicurus referred to life as a “bitter gift.”

The Epicureans believed in the existence of gods, but that they, just like everything else, were made of atoms, though of finer texture. It was thought that the gods were too far away from the earth to have any interest in what man was doing; so it did not do any good to pray or to sacrifice to them. The gods, they believed, did not create the universe, nor did they inflict punishment or bestow blessings on anyone, but they were supremely happy, and this was the goal to strive for during one’s life. However, the Epicureans contended that the gods were in no position to aid anyone in this, that life came into existence by accident in a mechanical universe, and that death ends everything, liberating the individual from the nightmare of life. Although it was believed that man has a soul, the soul was thought to be composed of atoms that dissolve at the death of the body, just as water spills out of a pitcher that breaks.


Epicurean ethics

Epicurus was an early thinker to develop the notion of justice as a social contract. He defined justice as an agreement "neither to harm nor be harmed." The point of living in a society with laws and punishments is to be protected from harm so that one is free to pursue happiness.



Tetrapharmakos, or, "The four-part cure," is Epicurus' overall statement of how to live the happiest possible life. This poetic doctrine was handed down by an anonymous Epicurean who summed up Epicurus' philosophy on happiness in four simple lines:

Don't fear god,
Don't worry about death;
What is good is easy to get, and
What is terrible is easy to endure.
(Philodemus, Herculaneum Papyrus, 1005, 4.9-14)


Your Assignment:


Examine Cassius’ character in light of his professed Epicureanism. Where possible, find evidence in what Cassius says and does of his Epicureanism. Is Cassius a “perfect” Epicurean, or does he act differently than he talks? Does Cassius’ professed Epicureanism have an effect upon the outcome of the play for his character? Why or why not? Write 3 paragraphs minimum (Good students will write more).