What are the differences between Epicureanism and Stoicism? Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC. The Stoics taught that virtue was happiness, and they believed they had achieved the “peak” or “goal” of human happiness. Their foundational belief was that the world is providentially ordered as a rational universe, so all things happen for a reason and should be accepted with calmness.
Epicureanism is often regarded as deriving from the teachings of Epicurus (c. 341-270 BC), who advocated living one’s life according to nature and taking pleasure in simple things such as eating, drinking and appreciating art.
Differences between Epicureanism and Stoicism
It is true that some of the first-generation Stoics were drawn from those who had been attracted to Epicureanism, so there is a historical link between the two schools. However, there are also significant differences in their founding principles. For example:
- Although both traditions aim at living according to nature, what “nature” means differs significantly. In Stoicism it refers to our universal human nature, or to rational human nature in general (e.g., reason). In Epicureanism it refers to the specific nature of atoms and/or molecules interacting in empty space (which is called “nature” by convention).
- In Stoicism, happiness is the goal. In Epicureanism, which is based on atomistic materialism, it is simply the result of what happens when atoms and/or molecules interact in empty space.
- In Stoicism virtue includes all rational human behaviour for a good reason. For example, if you want to do something that does not serve your own or someone else’s well-being but only serves your own or someone else’s pleasure (e.g., lying about something that is illegal or dangerous), then you are practicing a vice (“error”).
- In Epicureanism, if a particular action does not contribute to the overall happiness of universal nature, then it does not contribute to our happiness and may even be harmful. For example, if you kill lemmings in self-interest than this would not be virtuous; by contrast, if you kill him as part of a beautiful symphony he is leading into an eternal afterlife then his death would be virtuous.
- Epicurus also regarded the emotions closely linked to reason (e.g., friendship). Stoicism regards emotions as natural reactions that can be rationalized and hence controlled and perfected.
- In Epicureanism, the innermost “good” is pleasure and pain is the most exact measure of what is good or bad for us; therefore, epicureans should not try to be happy but simply avoid pain. In Stoicism, virtue (and ultimately happiness) are goods in themselves; however, reason can judge between different goods (e.g., the good of friendship versus justice).
- Epicurus was a materialist and denied an afterlife. Stoicism can accommodate a belief in the soul and its immortality through physics, chemistry and biology.
- Epictetus, like Epicurus, discouraged his students from believing anything without an unassailable logical proof. By contrast, Lucretius(the most famous Roman Epicurean) argued that we should not try to seek abstract proofs for everything; rather it is enough to say “I have seen” or “I have heard.” This is because our senses can give us true knowledge about things such as colors and sounds which exist even if they are not perceived by others.
- Epicureanism is a hedonist tradition. Stoicism is an ascetic tradition.
- In Epicureanism, the purpose of philosophy is to improve one’s life and achieve pleasure by overcoming the fear of death (which Epicurus regarded as irrational). This does not mean that Epicureans never faced death with courage in order to help others and save their lives. However, this was considered a unique choice that can only be rationalized by a realist who knows that death happens to everyone and leads nowhere anyway: “live life in the here-and-now while there is still time.
The above list of differences may not seem like a lot at first glance. However, I have deliberately tried to point out some of the most important ones.
The above list of differences is a very short summary: most Epicureans and Stoics would agree with at least most of the points listed above. However, in practice, some of these differences can lead to significant incompatibility between the two schools.
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