If you walk around the upper valley of the River Xanthus in what is now southern Turkey, you might come across a large hilltop which is littered with ancient ruins. The area seems deserted and there are few signs to point to the fact that millennia ago, this site was home to a large city.
Unlike many of the commercial centers of the Mediterranean, the ancient city of Oinoanda was not situated on the crossroads of any major trade routes. Its economy relied on growing wine and olives, and tight relationships with its surrounding areas. This did not make it a fabulously wealthy city, but did ensure a certain level of prosperity.
Unfortunately, not much is known about the history of the city, but archaeologists have uncovered one very interesting find.
They discovered the remains of a wall which was originally over 80 meters long and covered with old Epicurean writings. It had been erected by Diogenes of Oinoanda in order to:
“To help those who come after us.“
Epicurean teachings had helped him a lot in his own life and he wanted to give back to his wider community. Another part of the inscription describes the purpose:
“The majority of people suffer from a common disease, as in a plague, with their false notions about things, and their number is increasing. I wished to use this stoa to advertise publicly the medicines that bring salvation.“
Unfortunately only a part of the inscription remains and even that is broken up into pieces of various sizes, but those parts that have been uncovered so far give us a glimpse into life in those ancient days.
However, more importantly, the writings also preserve ancient wisdom, much of which is still pertinent even today. This wisdom dealt with the eternal question of almost every person: How should you live your life? It gave advice on how to lead a good life and how to achieve something that almost everyone strives for: happiness.
The rise and influence of Epicureanism
In the times of the late Roman Republic and the early Empire, Epicureanism (together with Stoicism) was one of the most important philosophical schools that many Romans adhered to.
Cicero, while arguing against the Epicureans, still corresponded with and counted among his friends many Epicureans, including Atticus, a wealthy Roman who retired to Athens. Many famous Roman poets such as Horace or Lucretius were Epicureans, and even the great Gaius Julius Caesar was a fan.
While Epicureanism was pretty popular in Ancient Rome, it had actually started in Ancient Greece and its founder was Epicurus.
Epicurus was born on the island of Samos in 341 BC, but spent most of his life living in Athens, his father being a citizen of that city. There he founded his own school of philosophy, called the Garden, where he taught until his death in 270 BC.
Once he died, his school was taken over by one of his disciples, Hermarchus, and continued to grow. Its influence grew far and wide and by late Roman Republic times, it was one of the major philosophical schools in the Mediterranean region.
However, it began to decline in the 3rd century AD and died out completely when Christianity took over the Roman Empire. Many of the Christian writers penned extensive treatises against Epicureanism, in the process grossly misinterpreting its message. Epicureanism became a synonym of hedonism, when in fact it preached something totally different.
Epicurean ideals weren’t revived until the Renaissance, and later the Age of Enlightenment. Many famous figures of that era were influenced by them, and their thoughts in turn shaped the way society looks today.
If you are an American, you have “the pursuit of happiness” enshrined in your founding documents as an inalienable right. Have you ever wondered why that is?
The reason is that Thomas Jefferson was a big fan of Epicurus and Epicureanism. In one of his letters he wrote:
“I too am an Epicurean.“
Since he was one of the principal drafters of the American Declaration of Independence, some of these ancient ideas found their way into it. That pursuit of happiness comes from this.
Thomas Jefferson was greatly influenced by the works of Epicurus and they formed a foundation for his worldview and the way he lived. In fact, Epicurus had such a huge impact on his life that he sometimes called him his Master.
While the traditional teachings of Epicurus taught to “live unknown”, that is to try to steer away from politics, public life and all the chaos associated with them, Thomas Jefferson (just like many other famous people influenced by this philosophy) put his own distinct spin on Epicureanism and combined it with a life in the public spotlight.
Many hardcore Epicureans preach dettachment from society and tending your own little garden somewhere in the corner as the epitomy of life. However, you can get the benefits of these teachings even without withdrawing from public life completely.
How to do this? Thomas Jefferson is a good example. He was an Epicurean at heart, yet he still managed to become one of the principal figures of the American Revolution and the 3rd US President.
So Epicureanism has many paths which you can take. You can either take the road of Epicurus himself and some of his followers and withdraw from the hustle and bustle of society to tend your own Garden, or take the example of people influenced by Epicureanism like Thomas Jefferson, and tend your own Garden, while still trying to influence the society you live in.
The main tenets of Epicureanism