The Principal Doctrines of Epicurus

Epicurus Principal Doctrines (Κyriai Doxai in Greek)  come down to us from Diogenes Laertius' 10th book of his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers.  The scholiast commentary are notes of uncertain authorship found embedded in the actual manuscript source.  The authenticity of  the Principal Doctrines is also asserted by testimonials found in several works of antiquity.

The enumeration (1-40) is not actually part of the original text; they are standardized divisions employed since the late 19th century.  The italicized section headings are an original thematic overview.

This presentation produced by Erik Anderson, 2004.


The Principal Doctrines of Epicurus

Scholiast Commentary



The Principal Doctrines of Epicurus

The four-fold cure for anxiety:
Don't fear the gods;   Nor death;   Goods are easy to obtain;   Evils are easy to endure

1)  A blessed and imperishable being neither has trouble itself nor does it cause trouble for anyone else; therefore, it does not experience feelings of anger or indebtedness, for such feelings signify weakness.

2)  Death is nothing to us, because a body that has been dispersed into elements experiences no sensations, and the absence of sensation is nothing to us.

3)  Pleasure reaches its maximum limit at the removal of all sources of pain. When such pleasure is present, for as long as it lasts, there is no cause of physical nor mental pain present nor of both together.

4)  Continuous physical pain does not last long.  Instead, extreme pain lasts only a very short time, and even less-extreme pain does not last for many days at once.  Even protracted diseases allow periods of physical comfort that exceed feelings of pain.

Pleasure and virtue are interdependent

5)  It is impossible to live pleasantly without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking (when, for instance, one is not able to live wisely, though he lives honorably and justly) it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life.

Social and financial status have recognizable costs and benefits

6)  That natural benefit of kingship and high office is (and only is) the degree to which they provide security from other men.

7)  Some seek fame and status, thinking that they could thereby protect themselves against other men. If their lives really are secure, then they have attained a natural good; if, however, they're insecure, they still lack what they originally sought by natural instinct.

8)  No pleasure is a bad thing in itself, but some pleasures are only obtainable at the cost of excessive troubles.

Through the study of Nature, we discern the limits of things

9)  If every pleasure could be prolonged to endure in both body or mind, pleasures would never differ from one another.

10)  If the things which debauched men find pleasurable put an end to all fears (such as concerns about the heavenly bodies, death, and pain) and if they revealed how we ought to limit our desires, we would have no reason to reproach them, for they would be fulfilled with pleasures from every source while experiencing no pain, neither in mind nor body, which is the chief evil of life.

11)  If we were never troubled by how phenomena in the sky or death might concern us, or by our failures to grasp the limits of pains and desires, we would have no need to study nature.

12)  One cannot rid himself of his primal fears if he does not understand the nature of the universe but instead suspects the truth of some mythical story.  So without the study of nature, there can be no enjoyment of pure pleasure.

13)  One gains nothing by securing protection from other men if he still has apprehensions about things above and beneath the earth and throughout the infinite universe.

Unlike social and financial status, which are unlimited,
Peace of mind can be wholly secured

14)  Supreme power and great wealth may, to some degree, protect us from other men; but security in general depends upon peace of mind and social detachment.

15)  Natural wealth is both limited and easily obtained, but vanity is insatiable.

16)  Chance has little effect upon the wise man, for his greatest and highest interests are directed by reason throughout the course of life.

17)  The just man is the freest of anyone from anxiety; but the unjust man is perpetually haunted by it.

18)  When pain arising from need has been removed, bodily pleasure cannot increase – it merely varies. But the limit of mental pleasure is reached after we reflect upon these bodily pleasures and the related mental distress prior to fulfillment.

19)  Infinite and finite time afford equal pleasure, if one measures its limits by reason.

20)  Bodily pleasure seems unlimited, and to provide it would require unlimited time. But the mind, recognizing the limits of the body, and dismissing apprehensions about eternity, furnishes a complete and optimal life, so we no longer have any need of unlimited time. Nevertheless, the mind does not shun pleasure; moreover, when the end of life approaches, it does not feel remorse, as if it fell short in any way from living the best life possible.

21)  He who understands the limits of life knows that things which remove pain arising from need are easy to obtain, and furnish a complete and optimal life. Thus he no longer needs things that are troublesome to attain.

Happiness depends on foresight and friendship

22)  We must consider the ultimate goal to be real, and reconcile our opinions with sensory experience; otherwise, life will be full of confusion and disturbance.

23)  If you argue against all your sensations, you will then have no criterion to declare any of them false.

24) If you arbitrarily reject any one sensory experience and fail to differentiate between an opinion awaiting confirmation and what is already perceived by the senses, feelings, and every intuitive faculty of mind, you will impute trouble to all other sensory experiences, thereby rejecting every criterion.  And if you concurrently affirm what awaits confirmation as well as actual sensory experience, you will still blunder, because you will foster equal reasons to doubt the truth and falsehood of everything.

25)  If you do not reconcile your behavior with the goal of nature, but instead use some other criterion in matters of choice and avoidance, then there will be a conflict between theory and practice.

26)  All desires which create no pain when unfulfilled are not necessary; such desires may easily be dispelled when they are seen as difficult to fulfill or likely to produce harm.

27)  Of all things that wisdom provides for living one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.

28)  The same conviction which inspires confidence that nothing terrible lasts forever, or even for long, also enables us to see that in the midst of life's limited evils, nothing enhances our security so much as friendship.

29)  Among desires some are natural and necessary, some natural but not necessary, and others neither natural nor necessary, but due to baseless opinion.

30)  Those natural desires which create no pain when unfulfilled, though pursued with an intense effort, are also due to baseless opinion; and if they are not dispelled, it is not because of their own nature, but because of human vanity.

The benefits of natural justice are far-reaching

31)  Natural justice is the advantage conferred by mutual agreements not to inflict nor allow harm.

32)  For all living creatures incapable of making agreements not to harm one another, nothing is ever just or unjust; and so it is likewise for all tribes of men which have been unable or unwilling to make such agreements.

33)  Absolute justice does not exist.  There are only mutual agreements among men, made at various times and places, not to inflict nor allow harm.

34)  Injustice is not an evil in itself, but only in consequence of the accompanying fear of being unable to escape those assigned to punish unjust acts.

35)  It is not possible for one who secretly violates the provisos of the agreement not to inflict nor allow harm to be confident that he won’t get caught, even if he has gotten away with it a thousand times before. For up until the time of death, there is no certainty that he will indeed escape detection.

36)  Justice is essentially the same for all peoples insofar as it benefits human interaction.  But the details of how justice is applied in particular countries or circumstances may vary.

37)  Among actions legally recognized as just, that which is confirmed by experience as mutually beneficial has the virtue of justice, whether it is the same for all peoples or not. But if a law is made which results in no such advantage, then it no longer carries the hallmark of justice. And if something that used to be mutually beneficial changes, though for some time it conformed to our concept of justice, it is still true that it really was just during that time – at least for those who do not fret about technicalities and instead prefer to examine and judge each case for themselves.

38)  Where, without any change in circumstances, things held to be just by law are revealed to be in conflict with the essence of justice, such laws were never really just. But wherever or whenever laws have ceased to be advantageous because of a change in circumstances, in that case or time the laws were just when they benefited human interaction, and ceased to be just only when they were no longer beneficial.

So happiness can be secured in all circumstances

39)  He who desires to live in tranquility with nothing to fear from other men ought to make friends.  Those of whom he cannot make friends, he should at least avoid rendering enemies; and if that is not in his power, he should, as much as possible, avoid all dealings with them, and keep them aloof, insofar as it is in his interest to do so.

40)  The happiest men are those who enjoy the condition of having nothing to fear from those who surround them. Such men live among one another most agreeably, having the firmest grounds for confidence in one another, enjoying the benefits of friendship in all their fullness, and they do not mourn a friend who dies before they do, as if there was a need for pity.


Scholiast Commentary

PD 1: Elsewhere he says that the gods are discernible as mental impressions, some being unique, while others look similar, owing to the continuous flow of  similar images to the same place, culminating in human form.

PD 29: Epicurus considers things which bring relief from pain as natural and necessary, for instance, drinking to relieve thirst.   Things that are natural but not necessary merely vary pleasure without removing pain, such as expensive foods.  Neither natural nor necessary are, for example, kingship and the erection of statues in one's honor.


(Compiled by Hermann Usener)


Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Philosophers, X.29 (Epicurus): Among the writings of Epicurus, the following are his best ... Principal Doctrines ...  Ibid., 138: So then, let us put a seal, as they say, to my entire work and to this philosopher by relating below his Principal Doctrines, closing my entire work by making the end of it the beginning of happiness.

Philodemus, On Anger, Column XLIII, Vol. Herc. alt. coll. I.66 p. 143 [Gomperz]: ... like some who, criticizing the Principal Doctrines in their writings, will act absolutely surprised that one might have the audacity to assert that anger, gratitude, and any similar feeling stem from weakness {c.f. PD 1}, while Alexander, who was more powerful than anyone else, was frequently subject to anger and demonstrated gratitude towards innumerable persons.

Uncertain Epicurean Author, Column XV Vol. Herc. (2) alt. coll. XI.34, edited by Comparetti, Fragments of Epicurean Ethics, p. 19 [Rivista di filogogia, 7, p. 417]: We must also, accordingly, speak to the matter of external factors which contribute towards fame, to precisely establish what significance they might have to us, as for example: luxury, beauty, wealth in general, and marriage as we have already mentioned.  It is also for this reason also that they are dealt with in the Principal Doctrines, and would also say that...

Uncertain Epicurean Author, Vol. Herc. (2) alt. coll. VII.21, Column XXVII: now, as for that which is closest to the matter at hand, we remain faithful to a book, having the title Principal Doctrines.  Therein, Epicurus shows that that which is imperishable, by nature, insofar as the end... when he says ...

Cicero, On The Nature of The Gods, I.30.85 (Cotta to Velleius): In that selection of his concise sayings, which you call the Principal Doctrines, this, I believe, is his first: {proceeds to cite PD 1}.

Cicero, On the Laws, I.7.21: Nor indeed can the Epicureans stand it, and will become very agitated, if they hear that you have betrayed the first maxim of that superlative work in which he wrote that “God doesn't trouble himself about anything neither his own concerns nor those of others.” [PD 1]

Cicero, On Ends, Good and Bad, II.7.20: In another book, containing a compendium of his most important doctrines, we are told he had expressed the very oracles of wisdom.  Therein he writes the following words, (which surely you know, Torquatus, for who among you has not learned Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines – maxims that, notwithstanding their conciseness, are extraordinary useful for living happily?)  [he proceeds to cite PD 10]

Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library, XXV fragment 1, Dind.: The philosopher Epicurus, in those works of his entitled Principal Doctrines...

Plutarch, Against Colotes, 31, p. 1125E: ... in the first of the Principal Doctrines, [PD 1], they directly subvert it [the social cohesion afforded by religion].

Lucian, Alexander the Oracle Monger, 47: In this connection [railing against Epicurean debunkers] Alexander once made himself supremely ridiculous. Coming across Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines, the most admirable of his books, as you know, with its terse presentment of his wise conclusions, he brought it into the middle of the marketplace, there burned it on a fig wood fire for the sins of its author, and cast its ashes into the sea. He issued an oracle on the occasion: “The dotard’s maxims to the flames be given.”  The fellow had no conception of the blessings conferred by that book upon its readers, of the peace, tranquillity, and independence of mind it produces, of the protection it gives against terrors, phantoms, and marvels, vain hopes and insubordinate desires, of the judgment and candor that it fosters, or of its true purging of the spirit, not with torches and squills and such rubbish, but with right reason, truth, and frankness.

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Philosophers, X.31 (Epicurus): In the Canon, Epicurus specifically says that the standards of truth are the sensations, the preconceptions, and the passions.  The Epicureans generally include mental impressions also.  His own statements may be found in the summary addressed to Herodotus, and in the Principal Doctrines.  [PD 24]

Alciphron, Letters of Courtesans, 17.II.2 (Leontium depicted writing to Lamia):  How long can one suffer this philosopher? Let him keep his books On Nature, the Principal Doctrines, The Canon, and, my lady, let me be mistress to myself, as Nature intended, without anger and abuse. Ibid., 7: Some flatter him and go about singing the praises of his Doctrines.

Aelian (Claudius Aelianus), On Providence, fragment 61 [Suda, under Epicurus and klaein]: And the book had contained the doctrines of Epicurus which he called his Principal ones – Epicurus’ wicked sayings.  Among these, indeed, there were also the following claims: that Creation was established by chance and not from the will and justice of God.  Then, these rather celebrated atoms, by colliding with one another and then dispersing, formed the air, the earth, and the sea.  Then the assemblies and compounds disintegrate and completely disappear, dissolving into atoms.  All of creation, then, arises through necessity and happenstance, with no basis in the wisdom of the Creator.  Moreover, Epicurus maintains that everything combined itself together without providence, without a helmsman, nor guide, nor shepherd...  That one, however, sacrificed to the gods, and sent Epicurus and his Doctrines to the devil.