Epicurus on the Values of Family and Friendship

Epicureanism is a philosophy that promotes community and life’s simple pleasures. What does Epicurus have to say on family and friendship?

Mar 1, 2023By Rachel Ashcroft, MSc Comparative Literature, PhD Renaissance Philosophy

epicurus on family and friendship


Epicurus (341 BC – 270 BC) was an ancient Greek philosopher. He was the founder of Epicureanism, an ethical philosophy which promoted concepts such as friendship and pursuing life’s simple pleasures. Epicurus set up his own school of philosophy in Athens, which survived into the 4th century AD.


Like with many ancient philosophers, sadly very few of his works survive. Estimates claim that Epicurus wrote over 300 works during his lifetime, but unfortunately most of these are now lost. Instead, we know about his beliefs from a few fragments and letters, as well as lengthy books and passages on Epicurus from his followers and contemporaries.


Epicureanism is characterized by its desire to help people attain happiness (eudaemonia) by living a tranquil life free from pain. Epicurus encouraged his followers to practice this philosophy surrounded by friends in a close-knit community, as he believed that this was the best way to explore Epicureanism. With that in mind, what does Epicurus tell us about family, marriage and parenting? Sometimes the answers aren’t quite as clear-cut as we might think.


Epicurus: His Own Family and Early Life

epicurus bust
Marble bust of Epicurus, Roman copy after a lost Hellenistic original. 2nd-3rd century BC., via Wikimedia Commons


Epicurus was born on Samos, an island in the eastern Aegean Sea which also happened to be the birthplace of Pythagoras. His parents were Athenians who had traveled to Samos as military settlers. His father, Neocles, was a schoolteacher while his mother Chairestrate was likely a homemaker.

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Epicurus himself once stated that he began his philosophical studies at the age of 14, when a teacher of his was reportedly unable to explain the concept of chaos in the work of Hesiod, an ancient Greek poet. According to one source, Epicurus went on to study in the Ionian city of Teos for three years, and that his teacher was Nausiphanes. This is significant because Nausiphanes was a disciple of the well-known atomist philosopher Democritus. Epicurus’ later developed his own atomistic theory so it’s likely that he first came across these ideas in Teos.


Once he became 18 years old, Epicurus traveled to Athens in order to complete the mandatory 2 year military training required to become an Athenian citizen. After this sojourn, he rejoined his parents Neocles and Chairestrate in Colophon, an ancient Ionian city. The pair had been exiled after the Lamian War in which Athens lost control of Samos to Macedonia. After this, there is very little record of Epicurus’ movements for over ten years. The only surviving fragment from this time is a letter written to his mother, which was preserved by one of his followers.


The Establishment of the Epicurean Community in Athens

philosophers garden athens engraving
The Philosopher’s Garden, Athens, colored engraving, after Antal Strohmayer. via The Guardian


As stated above, friendship and community are a central characteristic of Epicureanism. In 306 BC, Epicurus returned to Athens with a band of followers and established a school known as Ho Kepos or ‘The Garden’. This was somewhat of a novelty in ancient Athens. After all, the city’s philosophical circles were dominated by the Academy of Plato on one side, and Aristotle’s Lyceum on the other.


The Platonic and Aristotelian schools tended to attract the most talented followers. They also placed a heavy emphasis on applying philosophy to public life. If Epicurus wanted to rival the reputation of these schools and develop a long-lasting and serious philosophy in Greece, he would have to set up shop in Athens and do things a little differently.


Epicurus took on this challenge wholeheartedly. Unlike the Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies, he actively advised his followers not to engage in politics or public life. The Garden was also unusual in that it admitted women and slaves. The community lived a simple life, drinking rationed water and eating barley bread (Epicurus strongly believed in the virtues of a thrifty and inexpensive lifestyle). Again, unlike other schools, there was no shared property between the followers. Sexual relationships between disciples also occurred from time to time, though there is nothing except for a few biased attacks from the Stoics to suggest that any kind of deviance occurred at the Garden.


Epicurus died at the age of 72 of prostatitis after establishing a strong challenge to the other Athenian philosophical schools. In his will, he left the house, garden and funds from Ho Kepos to the trustees of his school. He also made provision in his will for some money to go towards honoring his dead parents, as well as requesting that somebody oversee the marriage of his follower Metrodorus’ daughter to an Athenian philosopher.


On the Importance of Family and Friends in Human History

Epicurus illustration
Illustration of Epicurus and how followers in the Garden. via Classical Wisdom Weekly


Why did Epicurus prioritize friendship and social bonds over politics and public life? Certain academics believe that we can find some of the answers to this question in his follower Lucretius’ epic poem De rerum natura or “On the Nature of Things”.  Scholars believe that Lucretius was basically repeating plenty of what Epicurus originally wrote in his own tract “On Nature”, so it’s a good starting point to try and understand Epicurean thought.


Epicurus believed that the earliest human beings were solitary creatures who didn’t have any social structures and only reproduced haphazardly. On this basis, the chances of humans surviving long-term doesn’t seem great. However, Epicurus points to the importance of family as a major factor in ensuring that the human race ‘softened’ and built strong bonds between each other that helped them to survive.


Humans began to marry and plan families, which made them more protective of each other and gave them a better chance of forming groups that could fend off or warn others about natural dangers such as fires and wild animals. From these early social structures, eventually humans learned to develop names for one another and their surroundings. They also created cities, nations, states which in turn further strengthened bonds of friendship and alliances which ensured long-term human survival.


As we can see, according to Epicurus, the emergence of the family played a hugely important part in the development of contemporary society. Families and friends turned humans from animal-type beings, who struggle to survive on their own and can’t communicate properly, into an organized and protective species capable of existing in large-scale communities.


Working out Epicurus’ Views on Marriage

ancient greek urn marriage detail
“Wedding preparation”, Sicilia, the Adrano Group, 330-320 BC. Clay, glaze, added white, blue, yellow, in the Pushkin museum, Moscow


Marriage and philosophy had a rocky relationship in Ancient Greek and Roman times. Socrates was famously married to Xanthippe (known for her fiery temper!), and they had three sons together. Some philosophers like Plato reportedly favored sharing wives, while others opposed the institution of marriage altogether.


During Epicurus’ time, marriage had little to nothing to do with true love. Instead, marriage was directly linked to child rearing. This was not unusual in Ancient Greece, where other philosophers had already pointed out the links between using mistresses for sexual pleasure versus wives for producing children.


Geert Roskam believes that Epicurus was probably opposed to marriage. Indeed, ever since the Renaissance there has been a lot of dispute about the translation of Diogenes Laertius’ biography of Epicurus, which states that he believed “the sage will both marry and rear children”. This is because the next sentence appears to dispute this statement and suggests that sages only marry in exceptional circumstances. Although Diogenes is often used as a principal source when looking at the lives of philosophers, that Epicurus was generally opposed to marriage also seems to be confirmed in other sources by known Epicureans.


wedding wagon detail from ciborium
Detail from Vase depicting a wedding in Ancient Greece


For example, Philodemus of Gadara was an Epicurean philosopher who makes some intriguing references to marriage. Writing about wedding ceremonies, he argues that poetry is a better form of entertainment than music, before suggesting that marriage isn’t even something that can be called ‘good’. In another text, he argues that even Hesiod, the ancient Greek poet, had reservations about the institution of marriage, and uses this argument to support his own skepticism on the usefulness of marrying.


However, other scholars point out that Lucretius, Epicurus’ devoted follower, offers a very different Epicurean view on marriage. As we’ve already seen, he writes that children are the glue that holds society together in the first place. In “On the Nature of Things” Epicurus is not against people becoming parents, as long as they don’t set unreasonable expectations about what parenthood involves. An important part of deciding on whether or not to have children involves being honest about desire, and how strongly an individual wants to have a family.


Despite this, Epicurus himself never married, which may suggest he was following his own advice on the matter. Trying to pin down exactly what Epicurus thought of traditional marriage has proven to be extremely difficult given how much of his own writing has been lost, and to this day scholars still can’t agree on a definitive answer.


Epicurus’ Will and Looking After His Own Friends and Followers

epicurus statue
Statue depicting Epicurus, via BBC.com


Epicurus made sure to set all his practical affairs in order before he died. His last will and testament is interesting because it reveals his concern for his friends at the Garden. It also set an important example to his disciples about the importance of using a will to take care of the wellbeing of loved ones. The example of his provisions for Metrodorus’ daughter shows that Epicurus was even concerned about looking after the surviving relatives of his deceased followers.


Interestingly, he repeats in the will several times that his provisions should only be carried out so long as Metrodorus’ daughter behaves well and properly. Some scholars have argued that this shows Epicurus was greatly concerned with social cohesion, particularly the internal cohesion of the Epicurean community he left behind.




Beneker, J. & Tsouvala, G. (eds.), The Discourse of Marriage in the Greco Roman World (Wisconsin: Wisconsin University Press, 2022)

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By Rachel AshcroftMSc Comparative Literature, PhD Renaissance PhilosophyRachel is a contributing writer and journalist with an academic background in European languages, literature and philosophy. She has an MA in French and Italian and an MSc in Comparative Literature from the University of Edinburgh. Rachel completed a PhD in Renaissance conceptions of time at Durham University. Now living back in Edinburgh, she regularly publishes articles and book reviews related to her specialty for a range of publications including The Economist.