Thomas Jefferson Papers

Notes on the Doctrine of Epicurus, [ca. 1799?]

Notes on the Doctrine of Epicurus

[ca. 1799?]

  • The Universe eternal
    it’s parts great & small inter-changeable
  •  Matter & Void alone
     Motion inherent in matter, weighty & declining
     eternal circulation of elements of bodies
    • Gods, neither creators nor preservers of the universe
    • Happiness the aim life
    • Virtue the foundn of happiness.
    • Utility the test of virtue

  • Pleasure active &1 in-dolent
    indolent is the absence of pain, the true felicity
  • active, consists in agreeable motion & is not happiness but the means
    to produce it. thus the absence of hunger is an article of felicity. eating the means to obtain it.
  • Summum bonum is to be not pained in body nor troubled in mind.
    i.e. in-dolence of body, tranquility of mind.
  • to procure tranquility of mind we must avoid desire & fear the two
    principal diseases of the mind.
  • Man is a free-agent.
Virtue consists in 1. Prudence, 2. Temperance,
3. Fortitude, 4. Justice
which are opposed to 1. Folly 2. Desire
3. Fear. 4. Deceipt

Doctrine of Epicurus.

MS (MH); entirely in TJ’s hand; undated; three words in TJ’s handprinting shown in small capitals.

TJ’s notes on the Greek philosopher Epicurus (c. 341–270 B.C.) may have served as an early draft of his “Syllabus of the doctrines of Epicurus,” with some variations in wording. He included it in a letter of 31 Oct. 1819 to William Short, where he observed that he had written the syllabus “some 20. years ago.” TJ in 1798–99 was thinking of preparing for Benjamin Rush his “view of the Christian System” compared to the doctrines of the “most remarkeable of the antient philosophers,” including Epicurus (EG description begins Dickinson W. Adams and Ruth W. Lester, eds., Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels, Princeton, 1983, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Second Series description ends , 327–8, 390). Epicurus’s writings survive primarily because they were quoted in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, and although TJ neither quotes directly nor paraphrases, his notes seem to be based on the Letter to Menoeceus (Diogenes Laertius, 10:122–35).

TJ’s library contained three editions of Laertius’s work, two in Latin and one in French, all published in the 17th century (see Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C., 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends Nos. 31–3).

1TJ here canceled “indolent.”

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