An introduction to Epicurus' Canon of Truth, the theory of knowledge that underlies Epicureanism. This work collects the remaining ancient sources and sets forth the foundation on which Epicurus erected his philosophy of happy living.
Epicureanism is often considered to be a philosophy of life that may easily be summarized in the phrase “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die.” The fact that this phrase is almost the polar opposite of the true teachings of Epicurus is the subject of this author’s “Ante Oculos: Epicurus and the Evidence-Based Life.”
But even those who properly understand that Epicurus counseled moderation in the pursuit of desires often fail to appreciate the deeper foundation on which Epicureanism is built, and it is that foundation which is the subject of the present volume. Because the structure stands or falls based on the soundness of its underpinnings, Epicurus’ views on human knowledge deserve the special attention of anyone who wishes to live a happy life.
It is our great misfortune that Epicurus’ main work on human knowledge, entitled “The Canon of Truth,” is currently lost to the world. Perhaps at some point in the future the text will be recovered in a Herculaneum scroll, or in some other repository of ancient writings, but for now we are left with only fragments of the ideas that must have underpinned the work that Cicero relates the Epicureans considered as having “fallen from heaven.”
As this volume is brief, it needs only a short introduction. The key issue here is the age-old question that each man must confront and decide for himself, which can be phrased in this way:
“There is so much that I do not know about myself, my world, and my place in the universe. What sources of information – what evidence – may I rely on to answer the questions I have about these things?”
For untold ages, two groups of men have thrust themselves forward with the proposal that they can provide the answers to these questions.
The first group, which is perhaps the oldest, is that which promotes “religion” as the source of answers on these questions. In many variations, the priests of religion assert “revelation” – direct communication with “god” – and “faith” as the essential supplements to what man can see and hear with his own eyes and ears.
The second group, apparently much younger in the history of men, are the philosophers. In even greater variation than the religionists, the philosophers assert that they can provide systems of thought – generally asserted to be rigorously pure “reason” – which will provide access to knowledge that eyes and ears can never provide.
The unifying theme of both these groups is that the common man is incapable of understanding the nature of the universe for himself, and that they – through their unique, superior equipment – will be happy to provide, for a price, what the individual cannot obtain for himself.
Thus we have arrived here, in the first decades of the twenty-first century, buffeted between these rival camps, and with the individual man as uncertain where the truth lies as if he were still dwelling in caves and wearing bearskins.
But at least once in the history of western civilization there was a period of several hundred years when a certain group of men rejected both these false alternatives. This group flourished under the Roman Republic and early Empire, but it readily acknowledged that its father figure was a Greek who had lived hundreds of years before – Epicurus of Samos.
For a period of some five hundred years, Epicurus and his philosophy taught eager men throughout the Roman and Greek world a way of thinking and living that has seen no equal in all the years since then. The enemies of this way of life demonized it as “hedonism” – effectively the worship of the lowest forms of sensual pleasures as the best that life has to offer men. Slowly, as the years passed and virulent strains of religion suppressed all dissent, this false characterization was all that remained. Virtually nothing but misrepresentation remained of the philosophy that had for the first time offered man emancipation from the oppression of religion and false philosophy.
Download these free ebooks by the same author:
Lion of Epicurus
On Three Legs We Stand
The Same Span of Time