The views of the Greek philosopher Epicurus were highly influential in Ancient Greece and Rome. His followers included the Roman emperor Hadrian, and his ideas were passed on by Cicero, Plutarch and Lucretius. This epitaph, based on his philosophy, can still be seen on many ancient gravestones of the Roman Empire, and is often used at humanist funerals:
“I was not; I have been; I am not; I do not mind.”
Epicurus acquired a garden in Athens, where he lived in a community of friends, practising a way of life based on the teachings of Democritus. Unusually for his time, he welcomed slaves and women into his group, which lived as a family of equals. Their outlook was that human life had come about by natural processes and that people should therefore live according to nature; this would be easy if people were content with what was enough. They did not think that the world was designed by a supernatural power or had a purpose imposed on it by a deity. Although his views have been criticised, often by religious believers, for their emphasis on happiness as the purpose of life, or “hedonism”, Epicurus and his followers were not self- indulgent or selfish. They promoted detachment and serenity, suggesting that a simple and temperate life would avoid pain, and realised that true happiness depended on moderation and the respect and friendship of others. These views are widely shared by modern humanists.
Here are some quotations from Epicurus:
“Nothing satisfies a person who is not satisfied with a little. To want more, to envy others, involves one in competition, and endless disturbance of mind, to no purpose; whereas nature’’ wealth is easy to procure, and is enough to make the whole of life complete and perfect with peace of mind.”
“Of all the things which wisdom acquires to produce the blessedness of the complete life, far the greatest is the possession of friendship.”
“Friendship goes dancing round the world proclaiming to us all to awake to the praises of a happy life.”
“Death is nothing to us: for after our bodies have been dissolved by death they are without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us. And therefore a right understanding of death makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not because it adds to and infinite span of time, but because it takes away the craving for immortality.”