Epicurus: A Guide to the Principal Doctrines




The Principal Doctrines is the main work of Epicurus on happiness. This study guide presents and explains the original text. It can be used for a class on Epicurus’ philosophy of happiness or it can form the basis for a reading group or book club meeting.

Epicurus: The Principal Doctrines

In this article, we will read together and discuss the main work of the philosophy of happiness of Epicurus, the Principal Doctrines. Epicurus wrote many works (Diogenes Laertius, from whom we know most about Epicurus, lists 44 books!). But for his theory of happiness, we only need three works:

The Principal Doctrines is a collection of 40 sayings that summarise the whole of the Epicurean philosophy of life.
The Letter to Menoeceus, who was one of Epicurus’ students, is one of three Epicurean letters that we have. It is a less systematic and slightly more superficial text than the Principal Doctrines, but covers essentially the same ground.
Finally, the so-called Vatican Sayings are a collection of 81 quotes that were discovered in the Vatican Library in 1888. Some of them are almost identical to some of the Principal Doctrines, but others cover also different topics. We will occasionally refer to the Vatican Sayings when we discuss Epicurus.

Both the Principal Doctrines and the Letter to Menoeceus we know of only because the 3rd century AD author Diogenes Laertius quoted them in full in his work “Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers,” which also contains source material from many other Greek philosophers.

Thankfully, all these sources are available in English and anyone can read them for free on the Internet. Here are the links:

Principal Doctrines, tr. Hicks
Letter to Menoeceus, tr. Hicks
Diogenes Laertius, Chapter on Epicurus. This one includes the Greek text (click on “Load” top right to see the Greek).

The Hicks translation is a bit weird at times, but it’s easily available and in the public domain, and this is why we will use it here. Whenever the translation is unclear, I will provide notes in the commentary that will, hopefully, make things a bit clearer. Other sources on the Principal Doctrines:

Julia Hannafin offers a different translation of the Principal Doctrines without stating who the translator is. has another translation of the Principal Doctrines, again without translator information.
Finally, Erik Anderson offers his own modern (2006) translation. This one is interesting because it groups the text into eight sections that cover different topics, and it is the most modern of the translations listed here.

Thematic grouping of the doctrines

Erik Anderson divides the text into the following sections:

The four-fold cure for anxiety (Doctrines 1-4)
Pleasure and virtue are interdependent (5)
Social and financial status have recognizable costs and benefits (6-8)
Through the study of Nature, we discern the limits of things (9-13)
Unlike social and financial status, which are unlimited, peace of mind can be wholly secured …
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