Epicurean Theology
Thoughts on the Epicurean divine

Epicurean Theology
Apathy Kills
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Posted Jul 2, 2009 - 2:40 AM:
Subject: Epicurean Theology
I've been mulling over Epicurus and his writings, particularly over his concept of the divine. Before I elaborate on my own opinion, let me briefly summarize what I interpret from his claims. Much of the information I have read about Epicurus (like much of the philosophy from the Hellenistic period) comes from Cicero's "On the Nature of the Gods" and Diogenes Laertius' "Lives of the Philosophers" (which has Epicurus' letters to Menoeceus).

From Cicero's descriptions, I have gathered that Epicurus posits the gods as material beings like all other things in their metaphysical scheme. After all, in accordance with Democritus, there is nothing but atoms and the void. All things in this respect, including the gods and even our souls, are made of atoms. The only exception to the gods is that, although material, they are immortal (Their atoms do not die or decay, I suppose). Consequently the gods' atoms are indestructible and imperishable unlike human beings, which is why we expire. Here is the relevant citation in Cicero's writing:

For he [Epicurus] is the only one who saw, first, that the gods exist, because nature herself has impressed a conception of them on the souls of everyone. For what people or race of men is there which does not have, even without being taught, a basic grasp of the gods, which is what Epicurus calls a prolepsis, i.e. a kind of outline of the thing, which is antecedently grasped by the mind, and without which nothing can be either understood or investigated or debated?... it is necessary to understand that there are gods, because we have implanted, or rather innate, conceptions of them. For what all men by nature agree about must necessarily be true.


Cicero seemingly credits Epicurus with making this pragmatic argument for the existence of god(s) - by appealing to the commonplace belief in some particular god or gods. Of course, this is not a far stretch from any other philosophical tradition at that time. Most Greeks "believed" in the gods (one can debate to what extant they believed). However, Epicurus voiced dissent with the common opinion of the gods' relation to us. He believed that the gods do not have any interest or concern in human affairs as opposed to the stories told by Homer and Hesiod. In addition, the concept of divine intervention and justice was "false suppositions."

In a sense, Epicurus proposes something close to a materialistic deism. It's strange, yes - but believable.

Upon reading "Letter to Menoeceus", I have a strange objection to raise towards the epicurean.
Here is the passage in question:

...it would be better to follow the stories told about the gods than to be a slave to the fate of natural philosophers. For the former suggests a hope of escaping bad things by honoring the gods, but the latter involves an inescapable and merciless necessity...and he [the wise man] thinks it better to be unlucky in a rational way than lucky in a senseless way; for it is better for a good decision not to turn out right in action than for a bad decision to turn out right because of chance.


My allegation is this: Epicurean thought is incompatible with belief in god(s); the belief in immortal beings does not follow from the epicurean worldview. The epicureans deep down are cleverly-disguised naturalists/physicalists like Democritus. They just present an illusion of belief in gods (pragmatically) to avoid the same fate of Democritus, Anaxagoras, Socrates, and all the other atheists before them. If not cleverly disguising themselves behind their words, they are cowards for refusing to see the obvious logical conclusion which follows what their worldview establishes.

A possible epicurean response: Epicurus, in the same letter, considers the principle of prudence to be something greater than philosophy itself. This aspect of prudence, for the epicureans, could be displayed by not only curbing/avoiding the excesses of pleasure (which Epicurus emphasizes greatly) but also that of arrogance or hastiness in judgment. Perhaps Epicurus recognizes the notion of prudence not just as a purely ethical guideline, but a wider all-encompassing one - a principle of humility which covers all matters of thought. So, the Epicurean pragmatics could not be a "cop-out" to avoid anti-atheistic sentiments and persecution but a sincere reflection of their present knowledge of the world around them. They realize that, with the senses being the only tools they have to obtain information in the world, there is just as much a possibility for the gods existence than there is not. Pragmatism is their Ockham's razor.

Edited by Apathy Kills on Jul 2, 2009 - 1:16 PM
TempletonEsquire
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Posted Jul 2, 2009 - 2:32 PM:

Interesting, I have not yet heard of this theory. That the gods are made up of particles not yet detectable and that these particles are unconcerned with human affairs, is a safe statement even with much more observable data on material matters than was possessed back then.

If the gods are materialistic yet benign, then what is their behavior? What properties could they have? Many particles are only detectable through induction on experimental data, are the gods also detectable through induction?
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Posted Jul 2, 2009 - 3:25 PM:

In "Letter to Herodotus", Epicurus elaborates more on his metaphysical position which in many cases resembles modern materialism and empiricism.

As to more about what the gods are like, Epicurus did mention some more clues to what the epicurean ideal of god is like....

Letter to Menoeceus wrote:

...God is a living being immortal and blessed, according to the notion of a god indicated by the common sense of mankind; and so believing, you shall not affirm of him anything that is foreign to his immortality or that is repugnant to his blessedness. Believe about him whatever may uphold both his blessedness and his immortality. For there are gods, and the knowledge of them is manifest; but they are not such as the multitude believe, seeing that men do not steadfastly maintain the notions they form respecting them. Not the man who denies the gods worshipped by the multitude, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them is truly impious. For the utterances of the multitude about the gods are not true preconceptions but false assumptions; hence it is that the greatest evils happen to the wicked and the greatest blessings happen to the good from the hand of the gods, seeing that they are always favorable to their own good qualities and take pleasure in men like themselves, but reject as alien whatever is not of their kind.


Again, Epicurus is using very pragmatic language to support the existence of god(s). In my opinion, I think he's just saving his skin - for atheism (or anything similarly heretical) was punishable by exile or death.

TempletonEsquire wrote:

Many particles are only detectable through induction on experimental data, are the gods also detectable through induction?


Epicurus believed that sense experience is the sole source of all knowledge, so I think he would have agreed.
The gods, whatever they are, are unconcerned with human affairs.

For the most part, what I have gathered from Epicurus' writings, his theology was more focused on dispelling unfounded claims than creating/establishing them. He argued against divine intervention & justice and anthropomorphism of the gods.
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Posted Jul 2, 2009 - 3:51 PM:

I'm not sure why you call epicurean thought on this issue "pragmatic" or what you mean by "epicurean pragmatics" but will assume you don't mean to draw any comparison of epicureanism and the philosophy of pragmatism.  Instead, you seem to to mean by "pragmatic" something like "consistent with common place beliefs" for reasons I will leave unexplored.


In any case, what would justify your position beyond an inference, which seems unsupported, that Epicurus and his followers are being deceitful?  Why assume their bad faith in addressing this issue, or worse yet their cowardice?


God exists, but is not a personal god--doesn't go around demanding sacrifices, or rituals, or worship; doesn't listen to prayers, intervene in our affairs, doesn't--perhaps most significantly in Epircurus' view--do anything about evil.  God created the universe, and that's all.  What do you find fundamentally dishonest about this view?  Do you believe that God must be a personal god and that if one doesn't believe in a personal God one can't "really" believe in God?  If so, why?

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Posted Jul 2, 2009 - 3:55 PM:

ciceronianus wrote:
I'm not sure why you call epicurean thought on this issue "pragmatic" or what you mean by "epicurean pragmatics" but will assume you don't mean to draw any comparison of epicureanism and the philosophy of pragmatism. Instead, you seem to to mean by "pragmatic" something like "consistent with common place beliefs" for reasons I will leave unexplored.

In any case, what would justify your position beyond an inference, which seems unsupported, that Epicurus and his followers are being deceitful? Why assume their bad faith in addressing this issue, or worse yet their cowardice?

God exists, but is not a personal god--doesn't go around demanding sacrifices, or rituals, or worship; doesn't listen to prayers, intervene in our affairs, doesn't--perhaps most significantly in Epircurus' view--do anything about evil. God created the universe, and that's all. What do you find fundamentally dishonest about this view? Do you believe that God must be a personal god and that if one doesn't believe in a personal God one can't "really" believe in God? If so, why?


Arguably, such a view (coming as it does from the Epicureans) is more honest than similar views produced by later thinkers, if only insofar as it is not parasitic upon preexisting, thoroughgoingly religious notions of (usually the Abrahamic) God in the way that, say, deism was/is. nod
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Posted Jul 3, 2009 - 12:07 AM:

ciceronianus wrote:
Why assume their bad faith in addressing this issue...


I assure you that I have no malice towards my epicurean brothers. It is funny that, to you, my allegation seems unsupported when what I am merely positing is that Epicurus himself seems unsupported in his claims about the gods existence.

God created the universe, and that's all. What do you find fundamentally dishonest about this view?


It appears inconsistent, incoherent, with the rest of the epicurean worldview. In addition, if not inconsistent, I cannot fathom what would warrant such a claim. In my mind, it comes entirely out of left field when considering the whole of Epicurus' thought. The only reason I can ascertain for this belief is that it is a symptom of his culture/environment - Epicurus is credited by Cicero for making a bandwagon type of argument (i.e. the "prolepsis).


Do you believe that God must be a personal god and that if one doesn't believe in a personal God one can't "really" believe in God?


No way.

Don't get me wrong, I can see in many respects the genuine honesty of where Epicurus is coming from. But I can get beyond why he makes these "pragmatic"-sounding arguments...
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Posted Jul 3, 2009 - 4:29 AM:

@ Apathy Kills,

I don't have a text of epicurean belief in gods with me at the moment, so I will only rely on the quotes you provided. I don't read Cicero for anything except when it is about the politics that's going on in the "Forum" square. So, I don't regard him as a good criticism of the Epicureans.

In any case, it seems ciceronianus has the right idea about the epicurean belief in gods. If you take that quote in your previous post, it is hardly an idea of pragmatism. In fact, the whole epicurean ethics denies pragmatism at all. What Epicurus is trying to point out in that letter is this obvious inconsistency in the common sense belief of an immortal and blessed god, and the assumptions that the multitude (the greeks like to contrast "the many", or the multitude, against "the one") attaches to this god. God has no business in the actions of men, but what men themselves tell each other.
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Posted Jul 3, 2009 - 4:47 AM:

Hmm, if I read this I think Epicurus thought that the Gods were much like ourselves, with the exception that 'God is a living being immortal and blessed'. Therefore he doesn't die and his atoms do nt get dispersed like ours do. That there must be some being he knows because all men seem to think like that, so it is somehow hardwired in our conception of the world. This is not unlike the Cartesian idea of God or the ontological proof of it, only less explicitly stated. God favours those that do not make all kinds of conceptions about him and do not try to sway him with sacrfifices. Since he is most great, most virtues I'd say, he favours those who are virtuous like they are. Which I think for Epicurus may mean living life like an Epicurean.

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Posted Jul 5, 2009 - 7:56 AM:

Caldwell wrote:
I don't read Cicero for anything except when it is about the politics that's going on in the "Forum" square.


Blasphemy!


Actually, he does quite well, and in some cases is one of the only decent sources we have on certain ancient philosophers.  Certainly he has his own opinions (generally he's on Aristotle's side of things) and is no friend of the epicureans, but as he was not functioning as a lawyer or politician when writing on philosophy (as he was in the forum, or on the rostra, or in the senate) I think he's generally reliable in his descriptions.

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Posted Jul 6, 2009 - 6:40 AM:

Ah, 'tis Lucretius, ciceronianus. Lucretius is the one. I will grant that Cicero deserves some respect. nod
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