Epicureanism and Christianity

Epicureanism, focused around the philosopher Epicurus’s teaching that ‘pleasure is the beginning and end of living happily,'” would seem to have little to do with Christianity. Indeed, many modern readers might think that such a dictum would lead to licentious living, perhaps because of statements like that of Paul’s in 1 Corinthians 15:32 (“if the dead rise not[,] let us eat and drink; for to morrow we die”) or because early Catholic theologians disparaged Epicureans as gluttons and drunkards, in practice, an Epicurean lifestyle could be quite ascetic, for if the one’s purpose is to live happily, such happiness requires that one also avoid pain–or anything that might easily result in pain, not only a life devoted to an unpopular cause but also a life devoted to public service, let alone one devoted to excess of any sort.

Although the popularity of Epicureanism was already waning by the first century CE, its ideas would still permeate much of the Greco-Roman world at all levels of society into the second and third century, enough that Epicureanism, if we are to believe scholar Norman W. DeWitt, would have an effect on the acceptability of the Christian message. Among the various similarities between Christianity and Epicureanism was that of method: the dissemination of information and teaching to their various communities of followers via letters. But even more important was the message, the values that the two ways of thinking espoused. As DeWitt notes, “Both preached the deceptiveness of the worldly prizes of wealth, fame, and power. Both preached the golden rule. Both declared it more blessed to give than to receive. Both exalted love and goodwill and both declared that the true friend will die for his friend.” In short, the teachings of Epicurus introduced a code of ethics, a set of values, that included such ideas as “gratitude, cheerfulness, and sweetness and dignity” that Christianity would mirror, so much so that, again in DeWitt’s words, “so far as the moral teaching was concerned, the task of the Apostles was not so much to furnish a new content of ethics as to revolutionize the motivation of conduct.”

Bibliography

DeWitt, Norman W. “Epicureanism and Christianity.” University of Toronto Quarterly 14, no. 3 (April 1945).

Goodman, Martin. Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. 265-266.

Hanrott, Robert. “Epicureanism after Epicurus–the Influence of Epicurus on Western Thought.” Epicurus Today: Moderation, Enjoyment of Life, Tranquility, Friendship, Lack of Fear. http://epicurus.today/epicureanism-after-epicurus-the-influence-of-epicurus-on-western-thought/.

Piettre, Renée Koch. “Paul and the Athens Epicureans: Between Polytheisms, Atheisms and Monotheisms.” Diogenes 205 (2005).

Published by Jon Davies

Jon Davies lives in the United States, where he studies the history of early Christianity.

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