Epicurus’ Persuasiveness

1 Introduction

Why Does Epicurus Think That His Radical Views Will Be Persuasive To The Average Person?

My central claim will be that Epicurus is constantly and successfully concerned with increasing the persuasive power of his doctrines with a mind to proselytizing the average person. Epicurus believes that he can persuade average persons because he has carefully adjusted those views to avoid unpalatable consequences such as implausibly austere recommended behavior and conclusions dramatically at variance with the endoxa.

We can see this by noting how he always displays awareness of his audience as well as being focussed on the details of his message. In modern terminology, we might say that he is an excellent `spin doctor’. The reason for this is that he seeks converts to his philosophy. He believes he has some access to to the truth,1 and that the truth will make people happy: this is why he persuades.


I will show that he succeeds in carrying out the difficult task of doing this while retaining the core doctrines and their beneficial effects despite their radical nature. The fundamental goal of Epicureanism is the achievement of ataraxia — mental tranquility — and every aspect of the philosophy has been designed to make it appealing and reassuring with the aim of ataraxia in mind.

I will first consider general points supporting the central claim that may be drawn from the whole of Epicurean philosophy in S2. Then I will focus on detailed points from the different areas of the Epicurean philosophy, which is commonly divided into three sections: physics, epistemology and ethics. I will consider in S3 each of these three elements of the Epicurean doctrines in turn. In each case, I will list the main claims and then show how they are appealing and thus support my central claim.

2 Why The Epicurean System Persuades

1. Provision of reassurance.

2. Security deriving from the multiple argument strategy.

3. Accessibility.

4. Anti-political stance.

5. Strong competitive position.

6. Coherence.

The provision of reassurance is an attractive feature of any philosophy, so we would expect the Epicureans to focus on the consolation that their teaching can provide. The centerpiece of the Epicurean reassurance strategy is the Tetrapharmakos, or `fourfold remedy’. This read `God holds no fears, death no worries. Good is easily attainable, evil easily endurable.’2 Succumbing again to modern vulgarity, one might remark that the brilliance of this sound bite lies in its simplicity, clarity and symmetry.

No Interventionist Gods

We have discussed the arguments against the existence of dangerous interventionist gods several times now. The arguments against death being a source of worry are twofold. Firstly, death is not for those who live, but also death is not for those who have died, since there is no longer a person present. The second argument against death being a worry asks us why we should be worried about the time after death if we are not worried about the time before birth. The easy attainment of good results from Epicurus’s identification of pleasure with the good, and the easy attainment of pleasure when it has been specified as the absence of pain. The avoidance of evil may be achieved by avoiding pain or bearing it by re ecting on past pleasure. The presence of all of these reassuring factors and their impressive encapsulation in the four-fold slogan argue strongly for the central claim.


The security deriving from the multiple argument strategy is another attractive feature. This is seen throughout the works.3 The essence is that many possible explanations are given for a given natural phenomenon. The aim is to remove the need to appeal to supernatural explanations, for the gods are terrifying in their potency and arbitrary justice. This aim has a higher priority than the truth. In fact, it does not matter which of the given explanations is the true one — perhaps we cannot know this — what matters is that we accept that at least one of them is adequate. This is how multiple explanations are converted by Epicurus from a weakness to a strength of his accounts. If he claimed to have a unique answer, not knowing which one would be a severe drawback. Having multiple plausible options is a major advantage though when one merely seeks to have one right answer in one’s portfolio.4

Accessibility is a hallmark of Epicurean philosophy, in contrast to competing schools. There is no need for the complex formal dialectics5 of Plato, which might be out of reach for the non-specialist. This leaves Epicurus open to the criticisms of Cicero6 that he has nothing to say on logic, sophistry and all the massive encumbrance of division and partition. While that may cost Epicurus supporters among the rarefied cognoscenti, their loss will be vastly outweighed by the number of converts among average persons that he has avoided alienating. We may take it that this is the reason for the omission, rather than that Epicurus is incapable of logic.


We may also note that Epicurus is aware of the need to maximize accessibility by starting his works with accessible and general considerations and deferring more inaccessible theoretical material towards the end.7 While Epicurus himself of course had no knowledge of Lucretius, it is significant that Lucretius as a good Epicurean chose to present the doctrines in poetic form. That dramatic and accessible format was the best way to deliver the message persuasively.

Again unlike other schools, Epicureanism is noted for its anti-political stance. As L&S comment,8 the Epicurean school was known for “shunning all political involvement”. Since politics may be regarded as the art of persuasion, we will have a prima facie tension between that attitude and my central claim. This must be squared with the claim that Epicurus thinks his works will be persuasive. Here, there is a comparison with modern `anti-political’, anti-incumbent politicians. We see many politicians claiming not to be an insider. These `anti-establishment’ figures can claim that they are free from conflicts of interest and thus can be relied upon for the best, unbiassed advice and decisions. The major advantage of the shunning of politics is of course that it will promote ataraxia. The disturbance and stress involved in public life is immense and this is best avoided.

The Marketplace

A further key advantage of the Epicureans is what we may term their strong competitive position in the marketplace of ideas. Every good spin doctor needs to be as focused on the opposition as on the message of his own side. One of the primary opponents of the Epicurean school were the Stoics, so we may examine the competitive positioning of the Epicureans by contrasting it with that of the Stoics. That latter school could certainly boast of a number of powerful and well-supported doctrines. Nevertheless, there are five strands to the Stoic position where we may see that the Epicurean position is more attractive. These five strands are as follows.


Firstly, the Stoic system is designed to be independent, but there is a thin line between a self supporting system and an unsupported one. That line may not be clearly visible to the average person, which brings the additional disadvantage that even if the Stoics are successful in avoiding the construction of an unsupported system, they may not bene t from that avoidance in terms of gaining converts.


Secondly, a rigorous methodology is required. This will bring formal logical strength to the enterprise, but will not assist in making the Stoic doctrines accessible.


Thirdly, wealth and health are `indifferents’ to the Stoics. It is still permis- sible to seek them, but given the overwhelming desires of almost all people to pursue those two objectives, it appears that the Stoics’ attitude is dismissive and hard to square with how people are. By making pleasure the goal of human life, Epicurus is much better placed to gain the acceptance of the average person than the Stoics are. He is careful though to affirm that people who try too hard to gain wealth are under the illusion that expensive pleasures will make them happier: since that is false it is not necessary to struggle too hard for wealth.

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Fourthly, the Stoic sage avoids all opinions. This brings out either the extreme difficulty or indeed practical impossibility of becoming a Sage, since everyone has a large number of opinions at all times. There is nothing in Epicurean philosophy which counsels the unachievable. Even though he counsels to reserve judgment more often, he sees that as a goal whose incremental achievement in pro tanto valuable, as opposed to the impossible goal of Sagehood where only total immunity to opinion is of any value.


Fifthly, the Stoic attitude to pain and general indifference to life seems exceptionally difficult to obtain. The famed objection to the claim made by the Stoics that the virtuous man will be happy on the rack presents few defensive options.9

The appealing coherence of the Epicurean system is best illustrated by the unusual — and unusually successful — unification of physics and ethics. We see this in the phenomenon of the Swerve, which serves two purposes in those two realms, as will be discussed below in S3.1 and S3.3. Also, the general approach of deriving the system from widely-accepted axioms shows that the doctrines cohere.

3 Why Epicurean Doctrines Persuade

3.1 Physics

1. The method of argument does not set the bar high for explanations.

2. There is a reassuring use of familiar fundamental principles.

3. The Swerve allows for objects so we do not need the gods.

4. Arguments proceed from observations everyone can make.

Unusually in ancient science, Epicurus prioritizes happiness over finding the exact truth, which of course provides powerful support for the central claim.10 The point is that happiness will not be found by endless searching for answers; all that is needed is that we come to believe that is a right answer among the possible explanations for all events, and none of them involve the supernatural and unknowable.

Not Impossible Is Possible

This supports the central claim and does so in a way that only applies to the Epicurean school. The approach described explains the Epicurean method of argument, which is to point to the absence of contradictory evidence or the mere absence of impossibility.11 These are tests of whether something could be an explanation, not tests of truth. Since the appeal of the explanations for the purpose of promoting ataraxia rests only on one of them being correct rather than which one is correct, this explains a significant and unusual aspect of Epicurus’s approach by appeal to his desire to proselytize. The approach will appeal to the average person because it removes the need for him to conduct exhaustive investigations into vexing questions.


Epicurean physics makes use of familiar fundamental principles with a long history, such as Parmenides’s claims that nothing can come from nothing or perish into nothing.12 This is a form of respect for the endoxa — the common opinions — will allow more radical doctrines to be proposed on the basis of foundations that will shock no-one. Moreover, these principles are aimed at establishing the stable permanence of all things. People nd ux disturbing, and so this denial of change will be reassuring. Similarly, Epicurean atomism is a development of the long-established Democritean atomism. These principles are supported by arguments from mundane experience and thus are intuitively plausible and automatically consistent with that experience. So the approach should appeal to the average person because the starting point is comfortingly familiar.

We see here an example of the multiple argument strategy, as was discussed in S2. The strategy here is to strengthen the plausibility of a principle by providing several forms of support, any one of which would su ce alone. An example of this is seen with the two arguments for the impossibility of things perishing into nothing. Firstly, destruction of macroscopic objects would be frequently observed, and yet this is not seen. Secondly, in nature we see new life coming from death, which also argues against the possibility of annihilation.

The Swerve

The most distinctive feature of Epicurean physics is the Swerve. This is a random sideways movement of atoms which otherwise move in straight, parallel lines. The Swerve allows for collisions between atoms, which would not otherwise meet and create the macroscopic objects we see, because they move in parallel straight lines at a constant speed. However, the Swerve is really a solution looking for a problem, since Epicurus could have remained with Democritean atoms, which collide because they move in all directions. This is an example of the distinctive approach in Epicurean physics, which is not to start with axioms and see where they proceed, but to make progress with a particular direction of travel in order to arrive at a specified end. This end is of course is the production of ataraxia by the construction of a set of possible explanations for natural phenomena. Epicurus does not want to start with axioms that could lead anywhere but wishes to direct the program from the outset towards the achievement of ataraxia. This will appeal to the average person because everyone wants a quiet life.

No Supernatural Causes

These explanations will not involve supernatural causes, thus eliminating fear of the gods and fear of necessity.13 If the Swerve can create objects, there is no need to postulate dangerous and unpredictable gods. A parallel discussion14 uses the atomic theory to reject teleological arguments for the existence of the gods. That whole class is dismissed by noting that the infinite atoms will come together over sufficient time in measureless combinations, thus manufacturing animals and the limbs of men. Thus again, no creator gods need be postulated.15 Any approach which leads to the elimination of fear will appeal to everyone.


One example of arguments proceeding from observations that everyone can make is that given for atomic motion. The observation of motes dancing in a shaft of sunlight in a darkened room is a `pictorial representation’ of the un- derlying atomic motion.16 The potency of this particular example of Brownian motion may be seen from the fact that it is still used educationally. Einstein’s 1905 arguments for molecular movement relied on Brownian motion17 meaning that Epicurus is correct as well as plausible here.18 So one can make a great deal of progress in the radical direction of the atomic thesis by using an experience which everyone has had. This is therefore a very clear illustration of the central claim, because we see Epicurus promoting a radical doctrine in a highly accessible way, and explaining something the average person can easily see.

3.2 Epistemology

1. All perceptions are true; we do not need to worry about skepticism.

2. There are multiple routes to knowledge, so it is easy to obtain.

The main claim of Epicurean epistemology is that all perceptions are true. This has the major benefit of removing concern that we cannot rely on our senses. So we can obtain cognitive certainty through those senses.19 Optical illusions, for example, are explained by the suggestion that the images that have travelled to us are being accurately reported by our eyes as they arrive there but have been damaged by their passage to us and no longer accurately represent the object from which they came. Thus, the disturbing possibility of skepticism is warded off.

The Sources Of Error

Epicurus will now need to explain the non-perceptual source of error in illusions, and this is done by locating the error in judgments we make about the perceptions. This though will not be disquieting, because it will simply teach us to reserve judgment more frequently, which will tend to promote ataraxia. It also clears the way for arguments elsewhere, such as the pleasure illusion to be discussed in the next section.

There is a further example here of the multiple argument strategy in the claims supporting the senses against skepticism. The arguments include that skepticism is self-refuting; that reason cannot countermand the senses; that the senses cannot outweigh each other; any account relying on the falsity of the senses must itself be false because it will have started from their evidence. It is also noted that even if all of these arguments fail to persuade — and as we have noted, the entire bene t of the multiple argument strategy in Epicureanism is that acceptance of any one of the arguments suffices for the attainment of ataraxia and happiness — then it would still be better to act as though the senses were correct in order to avoid dangers presented by physical hazards.20

Routes To Knowledge

In a variant on the multiple argument strategy, there are to be multiple routes to knowledge. These are sensations, feelings, focussed impressions and `prolepses’.21 The aim in providing multiple routes is the same as providing multiple arguments elsewhere. It is simply to provide assurance that knowledge will be available by some route, thus promoting ataraxia by removing the doubt that knowledge can be attained. Another way to see these multiple routes is to bear in mind the Epicurean scienti c methodology, which is to allow that the true opinions are all those attested by self-evidence, and also those uncontested by self-evidence.22 Clearly such unrestricted qualifications will permit many routes to knowledge.

False Opinion

L&S wonder why observation that an opinion is false counts only as non-attestation rather than outright denial.23 Their answer is that the approach is only to be used in scientific method. From our perspective of knowing that Epicurus is maximizing persuasion of the average person, we can see that there is a better two-fold response. Firstly, Epicurus does not think that many of his targets, being average persons, are engaged in scientific work so he will not be restricting his remarks to those that are. On the contrary, he means this approach to be used by everyone in daily life to decide what they can accept. Secondly, the reason for the looseness of the denial is the one we have now seen several times: they wish to allow as much knowledge to the average person as possible — as well as disqualifying as little as possible. The best route to ataraxia is the acceptance of everything which can be accepted and the benign neglect of everything else. We may perhaps suspect that Epicurus was not above a little attery of his audience — with his philosophy, the average person is clever enough to possess a great deal of knowledge.


L&S are surprised that non-contestation establishes the truth, when it appears to only establish the possibility of a theory being true. They address this in three ways.24 They claim that only one theory may be consistent with the pheonomena; that only one solution may be theoretically tenable; and that in an in nite universe, all possible solutions are, in a way, true. The first two claims are unsupported, but in any case, this approach is much more contrived than the perspective we have been developing. We can see that Epicurus does not need the unique truth to persuade. All he needs is an array of possible explanations, and so that is exactly what he provides. Since the phenomena exist, one of those explanations must be the right one. Non-contestation establishes that the truth is out there, but not exactly where it lies.

3.3 Ethics

1. Pleasure is allowable and achievable.

2. The gods will not harm us.

3. The Swerve means that we can have free will.

The Epicurean doctrine of pleasure25 is cleverly calibrated to avoid making unrealistically ascetic demands on people. Attaining the goal of ataraxia is not inconsistent with seeking and enjoying pleasure. The problems come from becoming dependent on luxury, not on its enjoyment. The Epicurean may accept and enjoy pleasure when it comes, but not to the extent that he becomes unhappy when it does not come.26


There is in addition a common illusion in relation to pleasure: that there is no limit to its intensity. Removing this is an Epicurean aim. It is important to observe that this is not because illusions are not truthful; as we have seen specifying exactly which explanation is the truth is not Epicurus’ aim. The removal is designed for the di erent reason that if we are subject to it, we will be forever seeking the impossible further intensification of pleasure.27 Once pain has been removed, there is nothing further to be achieved. This is most definitely an achievable objective, so the average person will have little difficulty in accepting it.


Epicurus selects friendship of the like-minded as one of the best pleasures.28 Clearly that means the friendship of other Epicureans, since it will be hard to be an Epicurean alone. This is true because while friendship is a good thing, it remains the case that if one’s friends are all hedonists or Stoics, they will a ect one’s own position and make it hard to be a good Epicurean. They will have incorrect ethical views, wrong behaviors resulting from a misunderstanding of the nature of pleasure and allot excessive and e ort to trying to nd exactly the right explanation for a particular phenomenon and worrying about their failure to do so. None of this is conducive to a relaxing existence. So we see a further importance of the emphasis on making the doctrines persuasive since that is the only way to produce thriving communities of Epicureans. The average person is not averse to pleasure, and so we can see that he will find this aspect of Epicureanism appealing.

The Gods

The Epicurean position on the gods is carefully chosen. Commentators continue to debate whether Epicurus was in fact a theist.29 Whether he was or not, he clearly intends the message to achieve two aims which are in tension. The primary aim is that central task of Epicureanism, the attainment of ataraxia. In this context, that becomes removing the fear of the gods and their actions. Atheism is the most simple way to achieve that. Taking that route, however, would conflict with the second aim, which is to produce an appealing message. It is clear that the common opinion accepts to the existence of the gods.

The solution is to admit the existence of the gods, but deny that they intervene in human affairs. This will be the `slogan’ describing the Epicurean type of theism. It has the advantage of avoiding the outrage of public opinion and moreover avoiding o cial suppression. The fate of Socrates, sentenced to death for exactly the crime of seeking to supplant the public gods, is not to be welcomed and can hardly assist in gaining converts. Obtaining at least the benign neglect of the authorities is also helpful, for few will study views proscribed by those authorities.

What Sort Of Existence For The Gods?

On closer inspection, for initiates only perhaps, the gods appear to have an existence which is at best exiguous. Understanding this view will require substantial study of Epicureanism though, and so could only have adverse affects on those whom Epicurus has already had some time to exercise his persuasive talents, thus reducing the risk of losing converts. The key point remains that the school is officially theist. Epicurus is quick to lay the charge of impiety at those who believe in interventionist gods, thus blunting the swords of those who would bring that charge against him, which charge would reduce the appeal of his doctrines if made out.

Determinism is a depressing doctrine, which also has unpleasant and counterintuitive consequences in that those accepting it will no longer reasonably be able to punish, blame or praise anyone.30 For this reason, Epicurus introduces the Swerve in order to allow for free will.31 It does this by being an uncaused motion which is outside the normal laws of the universe. The importance that Epicurus attached to his promotion of ataraxia may be judged from the way he was willing to countenance such an uncaused motion, even though he must have known it would expose him to severe criticism. Even that is a price worth paying in order to improve the appeal of the system to the average person. The introduction of the Swerve does not exonerate persons for their actions, for as Epicurus argues,32 it is absurd to blame atoms for anything.

4 Conclusion

The central claim has been made out. Every aspect of the Epicurean system both in detail and in general has been carefully selected in order to maximize its appeal to the average person. This is the highest priority; it is of more importance to Epicurus even than specifying the exact truth. After all, for Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy is the provision of happiness33 — and what could be more persuasive than happiness?

See Also:

David Hume’s Account Of Causation: Summary


[1] D. Sedley, “Lucretius,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (E. N. Zalta, ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, CSLI, Stanford University, fall 2008 ed., 2008.

[2] A. Wasserstein, “Epicurean science,” Hermes, vol. 106, no. 3, pp. pp. 484{ 494, 1978.

[3] A. Long and D. Sedley, The hellenistic philosophers: Translations of the principal sources with philosophical comentary, vol. v. 1. University Press, 1990.

[4] A. Chalmers, “Atomism from the 17th to the 20th century,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (E. N. Zalta, ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, CSLI, Stanford University, winter 2010 ed., 2010.

[5] D. Scott, “Epicurean illusions,” The Classical Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 2, pp. pp. 360–374, 1989.

[6] J. Warren, The Cambridge companion to epicureanism. Cambridge Companions to Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 2009.


1We will see later that the argument that one of a group of claims is the right explanation is more important than the argument that any individual explanation is the true one. Not all of the keys on the keyring are needed to set you free. This is the `multiple argument strategy’; it recurs frequently.

2 See [1, x5].

3 Wasserstein notes the prevalence of this strategy and its use to promote ataraxia at [2, p. 490], writing that it occurs throughout the Letter to Pythocles.

4 We have now seen the multiple argument strategy many times. One further striking example of the multiple argument strategy is Lucretius’s provision of thirty arguments against the thesis that the soul survives physical death, as described at [1, x4]. Making out that claim is of course crucial to the element of the Tetrapharmakos that holds that death is of no concern.

5 L&S make this point at [3, p. 6].

6 See [3, x19H].

7 L&S characterize the Letter to Herodotus in this way at [3, p. 89].

8 See [3, p. 3].

9 We should note that these five comparisons to the Stoic doctrines defeat a potential objection to the central claim to the effect that all philosophical schools aim to appeal and thus the central claim is not specific to Epicureanism.

10 Wasserstein argues for this at [2, p. 493] by noting that the Letter to Pythocles opens with the acknowledgment that the purpose of all branches of science is the obtaining of peace of mind.

11 See [3, x18A].

12 See [3, x4A].

13 Wasserstein explains the introduction of the Swerve thus at [2, p. 489, p. 494 and passim].

14 See [3, x13].

15 L&S describe a total of ve arguments against the existence of the gods in their commentary on [3, x13] so this a further example of the multiple argument strategy. NB I will use the abbreviation `L&S’ for Long and Sedley throughout.

16 See [3, x11B].

17 See [4, x6.1].

18 See [1, x3] for the claim that Lucretius uses standard Epicurean methodology when he employs `familiar empirical data’ to defend hypotheses.

19 See [3, p. 6].

20 See [3, x16A].

21 See [3, x17A]. Scott describes the available criteria in Epicurean epistemology as `generous’ at [5, p. 360]; he characterizes Epicurus as an `epistemological optimist’ at [5, p. 367] since everyone has the `prolepses’ { general preconceptions derived from repeated perceptions, like `man’ { that can bring knowledge.

22 See [3, x18A].

23 See [3, p. 94].

24 See [3, p. 95].

25 See [3, x21].

26 Woolf argues for this line at [6, Ch. 9].

27 Scott argues for this at [5, passim].

28 See [3, p. 7].

29 See the commentary appertaining to [3, x23].

30 We may take it that the Epicurus does not think his audience will be familiar with Frankfurt-style arguments that free will is not required for responsibility.

31 L&S argue for this in their commentary on x20 at [3, p. 107].

32 See [3, x20B].

33 See [3, x25A].