With their philosophical roots grounded in ancient Greece, Stoicism and Epicureanism had contrary yet significant impacts on Roman society. These two philosophies differed in many of their basic theories. Stoics attempted to reach a moral level where they had freedom from passion, while Epicureans strove for pleasure and avoided all types of pain. Stoics like the Epicureans, emphasized ethics as the main field of knowledge, but they also developed theories of logic and natural science to support their ethical doctrines. Epicurus, the founder of Epicureanism, saw death as a total extinction with no afterlife to ensue, he regarded the universe as infinite and eternal and as consisting only of space and atoms; where the soul or mind is constructed of indestructible parts that can never be destroyed. He sought to free humanity from the fear of death and of the gods, which he considered the main cause of unhappiness. Lucretius, a famous Epicurean poet, took a stand against the superstitions and fears that the Romans had toward the state religion. He claimed that religion and the fear of gods was what caused unhappiness. Lucretius wrote a story where the Greek princess Iphigeneia was killed by her father Agamemnon, with the hope that he could win the favor of the gods by sacrificing his own daughter. In this case “religion stood with all that power for wickedness . . .too many times /religion mothers crime and wickedness” (Lucretius 452). The Romans at that time saw themselves as “laying foully groveling on earth, weighed down /by grim religion looming from the skies, threatening mortal men”(Lucretius 451). Epicureanism offered some Roman people something that they could seek in order to escape the fears of the gods and religion in general. Epicurean’s physics was atomistic; meaning that the entire universe merely consisted of atoms and the space or void in which the atoms floated, collided, and whirled about. Lucretius wrote that “not all bodily matter is tightly packed /by nature’s law, for there’s a void in things. By void I mean vacant and empty space, /something you cannot touch” (Lucretius 456). For if the universe were comprised of only matter, then nothing would ever move, because it is the nature of matter to remain immobile until acted upon by an outside force. Without the open space, or void, nothing could have been made or brought to life. Epicureans held then that there were only two forms in the entire universe, matter, and void; and both had to exist only in their own entirety in complete absence of the other. This led Lucretius to write “where space exists, or what we call the void, /matter cannot be found; what substance holds /void cannot occupy . . . therefore atoms are solid and voidless . . . and if there is a void, it has to be surrounded by solid material” (Lucretius 458). This was one of the essential theories of Epicurean belief. With this fundamental background of the universe, Lucretius could then convince the Roman people that gods did not create the universe, or even run their lives, but that the matter and void controlled the universe.
Lucretius held firm with the belief that fear and superstitions of the gods were the main causes of unhappiness. His characterization of the universe as an accidental collection of atoms moving in the void, and his insistence that the soul is not a distinct, immaterial entity but a chance combination of atoms that does not survive the body, and also his postulation of purely natural causes for earthly phenomena are all calculated to prove that the world is not directed by the divine agency and that fear of the supernatural is consequently without reasonable foundation. He wrote that “our starting-point shall be this principle: /nothing at all is ever born from nothing /by the god’s will” (Lucretius 453). He opposed the public idea that the gods had created the...
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