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The Debunker: Was Epicurus an Epicurean Kind of Guy?

by Ken Jennings

March has come in like a lion, and I hope that you're just as excited as I am to celebrate March 25, the Greek holiday that marks their 1821 war for independence from the Turks. Opa! "Greece" is the word! In honor of Greek independence, Ken Jennings from Jeopardy! is here all month to correct a lot of Greek mythology—things we thought we knew about the ancient land that gave us democracy, logic, and nude wrestling. It turns out a lot of this Socratic wisdom is all Greek to us.

The Debunker: Was Epicurus an Epicurean Kind of Guy?

Epicurus founded his own school of philosophy in Athens around 300 BC: the Garden, named for its pleasant outdoor setting. It drew hundreds of adherents—including women and slaves—who studied with Epicurus during the last thirty years of his life. He's an important figure in the history of science for insisting that belief be backed up by logical deduction, but today he's mostly remembered for lending his name to the word "epicurean." An epicurean, the dictionary tells us, is a sybarite, someone devoted to sensual pleasures.

The Debunker

Now, it's true that the gate to the Garden of Epicurus was indeed inscribed with his motto, "Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure." The Epicureans may have said that "pleasure" was the greatest good in life, but that's a little misleading: Epicureanism isn't just unchecked hedonism. In fact, unchecked hedonism is pretty much the opposite of what Epicurus taught his followers.

Epicurus taught his followers to strive for ataraxia, a state of inner tranquility brought by contentment with simple things and the absence of pain. That's a very specific (and, today, unpopular) definition of pleasure. "When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and the aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality," Epicurus wrote. "By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not sexual lust . . . It is rather sober reasoning." In other words, a serious-minded philosopher trading ideas with friends in his garden is experiencing true pleasure in a way no one ever could at a banquet or orgy. Maybe Epicurus wasn't the fun-loving guy he gets caricatured as, but I like the cut of his jib.

Quick Quiz: What has been the focus of the website "Epicurious" since it launched in 1995?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.