Epicurean Influences On The Enlightenment

by Dimitris Altas, Cardiologist, member of Epicurean Philosophy Friends of Thessaloniki.

In 1453 the Ottomans conquered Constantinople by abolishing the Eastern Roman Empire, a fact which had a significant impact on the rest of Christian Europe. One of the most important impacts was that the Ottomans became masters of Silk Road, the land route that united Medieval Europe with East Asia, and especially with India and China. This resulted in the astronomical rise of the products of these regions, and in particular the spices that Europeans used in food preservation. The reason was the profiteering of Ottomans and their Venetian associates, who transferred these products to the ports of Europe from Constantinople and Egypt.

This forced the Europeans, initially the Portuguese and the Spanish, and later the English, the Dutch, and the French to seek new sea routes for East Asia. So Columbus discovered America, a fact that he never learned since he thought he disembarked at the East Indies. Vasco de Gama bypassed Africa on the way to the West Indies, Magellan circumnavigated the planet proving that it was round, and Pissarro and Cortes dissolved the Maya and Inca Empires in the name of Christ, who had not during his lifetime cared to be revealed to these wild people!

Together with the smoke, syphilis and gold which were brought to Europe by the New World conquistadors, they also raised other concerns to their compatriots. The world was much larger than they thought. Europe was not the center of mankind, and Galileo supported the heretical view that Earth was not the center of the Universe. In 1517 a theologian named Luther posted 95 points at the front door of the Wittenberg Metropolitan Church, which directly disputed the papacy and the authority of the Catholic Church to interpret the Bible in their favor, which meant that the Pope was no longer the center of Christianity. The Bible was translated into German and other European languages, and with the help of the new invention of typography, it was printed in many copies and made accessible to everyone. So the Europeans had something to read in their own language, and were able to interpret the Scriptures in their own way, so that through the different versions could arise confusion and controversy on theological issues.

Considering that Pope’s authority in theology was questioned, the distance to begin questiong Aristotle’s authority in the explanation of natural phenomena was already small. This was to the great disappointment of the Scholastics, who struggled throughout the Middle Ages to reconcile Aristotle with Christian-Platonism, insisting on typology and asemantology, and ignoring the essence. They no longer needed to study Aristotle to learn how many teeth the horse had, they could very well open the horse’s mouth and count them.

Given that Luther said the miraculous era had ended with the founding of the early Church, and that the sacred interventions no longer disturbed the physical order, and that the world was ruled exclusively by the natural laws for which the Bible was not enough for their study, but observation and logical analysis were necessary, some bright minds remembered Lucretius!

The excellent poem of Lucretius “De Rerum Natura” was discovered in a Bavarian monastery by Ponzius Barzillioni in 1417 and by 1600 more than 50 manuscript copies had been released. The poem is a verse translation of Epicurean Philosophy and is considered as one of the top works of Latin literature. In the first centuries it was more admired for his literary style, while the Renaissance painter Santro Botticelli was inspired by this for at least three of his works: “Aphrodite”, “Spring” and “Apelles’ Slander”.

With time, some intellectuals began to look behind the exquisite text to the philosophical content of the book. As a result some humanist Christians began to see common elements of morality in Epicurean Philosophy and Christianity, in their free will and pursuit of friendship – love. (Valla, Erasmus, Montani). Some alchemists found the atomic theory more logical than the theory of four elements that was in force at that time (Beckman, Sennert), while some astronomers who accepted the multiplicity of worlds were followed closer to Epicurus than to the theory of One Unique World that Aristotle and Christianity advocated (Bruno, Galileo, Kepler). Finally, some “libertines”, as they were called by the Taliban of Protestantism Calvin, anti-conformist liberals, such as the Italian Giulio Cesare Vanini and many Parisians, were attracted by the hedonistic theory of Epicurus.

At the same time, Philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626), in his work of “Restoration of Sciences”, although he recognized the primacy of the spirit, proposed a new approach to the material world through the world of the senses, almost identically to the Epicurean Canon. Knowledge should be guaranteed by observation and experiment. All beliefs are subject to questioning and doubt. An enemy of science is prejudice – beliefs which are based on authority and not on proof.

But he who most revived the Epicurean Philosophy and set the foundations of modern science was undoubtedly the French Philosopher, scientist and Catholic priest Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655). Gassendi was initially influenced by the Christian Humanists who he appreciated, like Erasmus, who said that “the good Epicurean behaves like the good Christian.” However, he received the greater influence on the Philosophy of the Epicurus through his friend Galileo, with whom he consistently corresponded until Galileo’s death. As he taught Philosophy at the University of Aix-en-Provence before the Jesuits expelled him, he studied Epicurus by Lucretius and texts of Seneca and Cicero, but this was not sufficient for him. He set out the purpose of his life to reconstitute the 10th Book of Diogenes Laertius, which contains three of Epicurus’ Epistles, the main glories and the testament of the Master. He wandered across many libraries in Europe to assemble the puzzle’s tiles, and eventually succeeded! In 1647 he published in Latin the work “Life, Death and Doctrine of Epicurus in Eight Books” which contains the first printed version of the 10th book of Diogenes Laertius. Two other books followed in 1649: “Comments on the 10th book of Diogenes Laertius” and “Epicurean Philosophical System”, which caused great impression to the educated circles of Europe and restored Epicurean Philosophy after twelve centuries of slander and falsification.

Among the other Gassendi’s writings, it is worth mentioning the “Objections” in the work “Meditations about the first Philosophy” of Descartes, where he degrades the latter’s arguments, which supported the Platonic-inspired doctrine of inherent ideas.

Of course, Gassendi, as a man of his time, and indeed a priest, tried to do what Thomas Aquinas did with Aristotelianism – to combine Christianity with Epicurean Philosophy. That is why he made three arbitrary assumptions:

a) God created the atoms and the void from scratch.

b) Free will is permitted by the divine providence

c) The soul owes its immortality to the Love of God.

It is not strange that the intellectuals of that time tried to balance by stepping on two boats, metaphysics and materialism. The period was transitional, as it is today. It is the age when the old dies but the new is not yet born. Such periods are always full of contradictions!

Gassendi’s students at the time he taught Epicurean Philosophy in Paris were:

Moliere, the later theatrical writer, who translated a large part of Lucretius’ work in French,

Cyrano de Bergerac: The first after Lucian writer of science fiction.

Nicolas Pussin: The famous humanist painter.

Thomas Hobbes: The Materialist philosopher who wrote about the natural right of people and the law as an agreed social contract.

Francois Bernier, the teacher of the Empiricist Philosopher John Locke, who translated Epicurus into Persian.

Many scientists were influenced by Gassendi, among them Boyle, who laid the foundations of Chemistry, Hooke, who introduced the observation with microscope and supported the evolution of the species and the wave nature of light and, of course, the great Newton.

Many younger enlightened students met Epicurus from the works of Pierre Gassendi. Among these, John Locke, who in his work “Essay on Human intelligence,” rejected the inherent ideas of Descartes, and in complete association with the Epicurean Canon, claimed that all our ideas, representations and concepts derive from the senses, and don’t have independent substance. Also distinguished is the French Bayle who wrote about religious tolerance, the psychologist and philosopher Condillac, who taught that the source of all spiritual life is the perception with the senses, Denis Diderot, initiator and writer of the famous Encyclopedia, the Russian Lomonosov, founder of the first Russian Public University in Moscow, Thomas Jefferson, who, along with Benjamin Franklin, wrote the Declaration of American Independence, which explicitly mentions the human right to Happiness.

Indirect influences through the Encyclopaedists, Locke, Condillac and Jefferson in terms of social contract, freedom of speech and happiness, impacted representatives of the Modern Greek Enlightenment, such as Anonymous Hellene, writer of the Hellenic Prefecture, Rigas Velestinlis and Iosipos Misiodakas.

The first Enlightenment was Greek and had been initiated by the Ionian Natural Philosophers at the coast of Asia Minor in the 6th century BC. Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, in an environment of the rise of a strong bourgeoisie of sailors, merchants and small farmers, vigorously challenged the authority of the Aristocrats and the Clergy that supported them. In Ionia, Humanity for the first time left the myths and gods aside, and attempted with observation and logic to give a materialistic explanation to the cosmological problem.

The long path of enlightenment was then passed by Xenophanes, Empedocles, Democritus and Anaxagoras to the Sophists, who turned the interest of Philosophy from Nature to Humanity, which then passed from Aristotle to reach Epicurus, whose Philosophy sums up and expresses the Greek view of Life and the World, which is based on Free Will, the Social Contract and the Scientific way of thought.

But the dominance of Christianity erased the flame of Greek Enlightenment and led to the long path of the dark Middle Ages.

It is not random that the Epicurean philosophy fertilized the European Enlightenment. When circumstances allowed it, once again a rising bourgeoisie, in Europe this time, challenged the feudalism that supported its power in myths, superstitions, and the Pope’s blessing. Moving from the 17th to the 18th century, the Enlightenment tried to eliminate the absurdities, the myths, and the false beliefs of the Middle Ages, that had held the people for more than a thousand years in ignorance, fear, religiosity, and lack of education. The Enlightenment inspired the French, American, and Russian Revolutions, and gave impetus to Science and Technology, but despite its promises it did not make people happy – perhaps because it ignored the fact that knowledge is useless if it does not create a morality that leads to Blissful life. Perhaps because the enlightened bourgeoisie that gave birth to the Enlightenment became finally established, and began to create its own myths in order to remain in power, leaving aside Epicurus, who did not like power.

Thus, not only did the Enlightenment ally itself with the old enemy, religion, which always subjugated and served the Powers, but it also prepared the ground for the emergence of new religions – ideologies they are called – new tools of manipulation and enslavement of people. Others attempted to legitimize the power of the ruling class and others to challenge it, but all relied on myths, and collapsed when inevitably, sooner or later, they collided with reality.

The institution of the National State that succeeded the feudal system, also needed to be supported by myths in order to survive. In the case of Nazism, this exhausted and exceeded the limits of logic.

But the worst religion created by the bourgeoisie, was the cult of greed and money. The bourgeoisie bowed to it and faithfully served its creations and priests, the Bankers, leading to the oppression and merciless exploitation of millions of people during the period of the Colonialism and eventually to the slaughterhouse of two world wars at the beginning of the 20th century, which were characterized by the mass production of weapons, disaster, death and destruction that humanity had never experienced before. The illusion of prosperity that prevailed in the post-war years broke out in the dawn of the 21st century. Today the ideologies have collapsed, and the Western civilization that created them has lost its primacy among other cultures, which have emerged in competition with them and are seeking their own identities in their traditional religions and their own myths. The Enlightenment has been blunted, and the Europeans, who are embarrassed, scared and afraid, have built walls, trying to save their way of life in a world that rapidly changes and over which they no longer have control.

Today is a transitional period. Today the old dies, but the new has not yet been born.

It is the time for a New Enlightenment that will require Europe and all of Western culture to find its reference point again in order to survive. It is again the time to rediscover the Philosophy of Epicurus, focusing not so much on his way of thinking, which has now become the domain of science, but on his Ethics, which leads everyone through a sure path to Blissful Life – a life which cannot exist without a Blissful Society.


Pierre Gassendi, the Epicurean philosophy revivalist. Christos Yiapijakis, 3rd Panhellenic Epicurean Philosophy Symposium.

Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe. George Friedman

From Protagoras to Epicurus: The 1st Greek Enlightenment. Dimitris Altas

The Clash of Civilizations. Samuel Huntington

The above article in Greek language may be found here : http://epicuros.net/new/218_Ep…pidraseis-ston-diafwtismo

November 12, 2017