On this page you will find brief summaries of works by ancient authors. They are not designed to be comprehensive summaries, but they will give you a good idea of a work’s content.
Epicurus’ Letter to Pythocles was preserved in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers (10.83–116). There has been some discussion as to its authenticity, but it is generally regarded as written by Epicurus. The letter contains information about Epicurean theories about the causes of certain meteorological phenomena, some examples include the movement of the sun and moon (92), clouds (99), thunder (100), lightning (101), wind (106) and falling stars (114). Epicurus’ aim is to show that no natural phenomena are caused by the gods.
The Letter to Herodotus was preserved in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers (10.34–83). It outlines the Epicurean technique known as physiologia (φυσιολογία), or the study of nature. Epicurus argues that by studying nature we can learn the true nature of the universe (37). He provides the basic principles of Epicurean physics (side note: the English word ‘physics’ comes from the Greek words phusika (φυσικά) ‘natural things’ and phusis (φύσις) ‘nature’). He argues that everything comes from something (38), that the world is made up of atoms and void (39) and that these atoms emit images that we perceive with our senses (40). He claims that the appearance emitted is always true and that errors only creep in because of false opinions (50). He connects Epicurean physics to ethics, saying that we can work out what is true and false if we can correctly understand the nature of the universe (82).
The Letter to Menoeceus was preserved in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers (10.121–135). It provides the basics of Epicurean ethics, aiming to teach how to live well (i.e. happily). In it Epicurus says that no one is too old or young to learn how to live happily (122). He says that there are a number of points we need to remember in order to be happy. Firstly, we need to memorize the lesson that the gods are blessed and immortal beings who are completely different to the commonly held view of them (123-124). Later in the letter, he clarifies the nature of the gods, saying that they are not the causes of anything good or bad (134). He also argues against fate (133).
Secondly, Epicurus says that we must remember that death is nothing to us, because it is the end of all sensation and so the end of all pleasure or pain (124). Epicurus was an atomists, which meant that he argued that everything was made of atoms, including the human body and soul. Death is to not be feared, because once we die the atoms that animate our body and soul depart and we cease to exist.
Thirdly, he divides desires into three categories: natural and necessary, natural and unnecessary, unnatural and unnecessary (127). He explains that all decisions should be referred to these three categories, espousing a kind reasoned decision making. He argues that pleasure is the starting point and goal of life (128). He explains that by pleasure he does not mean hedonistic pleasures but a lack of physical pain and mental turmoil (131).