On Stoicism, Epicureanism, and primary sources

Category: [Philosophy]


3min read

The ancient philosophers always regarded their teachings as tools to help ordinary people lead good and happy lives. The best examples of these philosophies are Stoicism and Epicureanism. Both philosophies first make observations of the physical world and of the gods (gods as in divine intervention, or the presence of a creator or fate), and of knowledge and learning. From these metaphysical and epistemological observations, the Stoics and Epicureans then derive their ethics - how to live a good life (the word ‘ethics’ is used in a slightly different way today).

Stoicism has become mainstream-popular these days. Personalities like Ryan Holiday and academics like Massimo Pigliucci have invested much effort to make Stoic wisdom available to the public. This is done through modern tools like podcasts, blog posts, mailing lists, and books. Writers like Robert Woolston even went as far as writing on ‘Stoicism 2.0’ - to modernize Stoicism for 21st century consumption.

Stoicism benefitted from the survival of many great texts written by the ancients - most notably in today’s Stoicism discourses are Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Epictetus’ Discourses and Enchiridion (or ‘Handbook’), and Seneca’s Letters. Because Stoic philosophy recognizes the presence of a benevolent god, the Church determined Stoicism to be compatible with Christianity, and have largely left Stoic texts untouched. Many Stoic texts have survived past antiquity.

Epicureanism never had such luck. Epicureanism is often misunderstood as a luxurious lifestyle of a gourmet or connoisseur - the opposite of what Epicurus taught. This mischaracterization of Epicurean hedonism is due to the deliberate misrepresentation by the Church and medieval scholars - partly because of the nonexistence or nonchalance of a god or gods in Epicurean philosophy. Many Epicurean texts were destroyed or suppressed or have gone missing. Epicurus himself was a prolific writer, but few of his works survived.

Today, we are left with these few great texts as primary sources of Epicureanism:

We do not have a Epictetus-/Arrian-style Enchiridion handbook, and we rely on academics like Catherine Wilson and John Sellars to analyze and distill Epicurean wisdom on our behalf.

It is unfortunate that Epicureanism has suffered gravely from its loss of primary sources. I find myself relating more to Epicurean thinking (natural and necessary needs, lathe biosas, katastematic pleasures) than Stoic thinking (four virtues, role ethics) - though Epictetus’ dichotomy of control is front and center in my own philosophy of life.

Through writing this blog, I hope to study both Stoicism and Epicureanism, and write about elements of the Epicurean philosophy that my readers may relate to, as well.