Epicurus and the Gods

The topic at hand is Epicurus’s view of the gods. Relevant passages from Hellenistic Philosophy: Introductory Readings (HP) and On the Nature of Things by Lucretius (Lucr.) will primarily be referenced. Specific views to be explained and considered will be the nature of the gods and their existence as material entities, and how the Epicurean view seems to entail a weak deism if it endorses a deism at all. Focus will be primarily on explaining, rather than challenging, these views. However, in the interest of clarification, some critical questions will be presented.

It is critical, when speaking of the Epicurean theology, that we immediately remove all connotation and association of the term “gods” from familiar ideas. In the Letter to Menoeceus, we find that Epicurus believes in god(s) because all people have some degree of clear knowledge of the gods via their basic grasps (universal concepts). He does not appeal to revelation or discovery or any mystery of the world in his conjecture, but the universality of the human experience of the divine. He further says that any possibly real god there is must possess characteristics common to the most basic idea of god, most notably indestructibility and blessedness (HP I-4, 123). Also in the Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus is careful to be explicit in his denial of the popular, contemporary (to his time) conception of (the) god(s) for the basic reason that these ideas are in some way self-contradictory. One reason this may be is explained in The Testimony of Cicero; the gods are blessed beings foremost, but the vulgar notion of the gods has them laboring, creating, interfering with mortal lives, and concerning themselves with mortal means and mortal ends (HP I-16). But for an Epicurean, to be blessed is to be free of the demands of labor and to be supremely and unwaveringly content and maximally happy. It would be unthinkable that a blessed being like a god would concern itself with humans, since that would invite strife and disturbance into its perfect existence. Epicurus refers to these extraneous and conflicting notions as “the gods of the many,” and says that confusion about the nature of the gods is the result of false suppositions about beings which truly exist.

These notions of indestructibility and blessedness hint at the essential nature of the Epicurean gods, and are not merely convenient adjectives that were arbitrarily applied to the gods by Epicurus.  The ancient historian and biographer Diogenes Laertius recorded that, according to the Epicurean maxims, a blessed and indestructible being “has no troubles itself, nor [gives] trouble to anyone else, so that it is not affected by feelings of anger or gratitude…all such things are a sign of weakness” (HP I-5, 1). This tells us, in addition to what was said above, that the Epicurean gods must be generally indifferent to human activity, though this does not yet imply that they do not ever interfere with human affairs for some other reason. It does, however, mean that most honoring or worshipping of the gods is pointless, or worse, foolish. And this is because, generally, honor or worship would be for the sake of appeasing or pleasing gods which must, by Epicurean reasoning, be indifferent to such human intentions. A certain kind of worship, which is more like reverence of something extraordinarily wonderful, is still possible if not always encouraged (HP I-16, 45).

Here one of his contemporaries may have wondered if Epicurus and the Epicureans who take after him in this idea are inconsistent; do they mean to show reverence to something which is a mere construct of the mind? Is this not irrational? Not exactly; this reverence takes the gods as its object, but is not directed to them in the sense that the gods are intended to receive and enjoy the reverence the way a sovereign would enjoy the reverence of his subjects. It is purely for the benefit and moral enrichment of the Epicurean that they would bother to contemplate the gods.

In I-16, the Testimony, Cicero gives a more comprehensive account of the materialist Epicurean description of the gods. He reminds the reader that the basic existence of gods as indestructible and blessed is derived from the basic grasp – a notion common to all humans – of the gods being at least these two things.  There is also an appeal to this basic grasp as being the reason gods must have human form, but the Epicurean chooses to further justify this claim beyond the basic grasp argument. It is said that the gods, being blessed, must have virtue, which means they must have reason, which means they must have a human form, since there is not any reason without the human form to embody it. However, it is important to note that a human form is not a human body; this appearance is explicitly “not a body, but a quasi-body” (HP I-16, 49).

In the rest of section 49, it is said that these gods may be perceived by humans, but they are only perceived by the intellect, not the senses, and perceived as an unlimited stream of images which is always present and accessible to the human intellect, should we choose to focus our attention on these streams. Gods are constructed in thought by focusing our attention on a huge number of attenuated but very similar god-images. Therefore, the gods possess neither solidity nor depth. We may at any time contemplate the perfect nature and comportment of the gods, and in doing so experience pleasure and inspiration, the way we experience pleasure at contemplating great works of art or miracles of nature, but it serves neither us nor the gods to make the mistake of attributing any power of genesis or love or hate or wrath to them.

One may ask, reasonably, what the difference is between the gods of Epicurus and other entities which seem to have only an existence as images in the mind – beings of pure imagination like winged serpents, centaurs, the minotaur, and the little gray man wearing a purple felt hat who lives on the dark side of the moon. The simple Epicurean answer is that these things are categorically different because they are not notions which are universal and basic among humans; they are clearly the invention of poets or the author of this paper. These notions only arise to certain people at certain times. The basic grasp of indestructible and blessed gods (or indestructible and blessed supernatural-seeming entities, if we wish to avoid a loaded term) seems to arise all over.

The above notions, combined, seem to make Epicurus look like a kind of atheist who is avoiding endorsing atheism. While he explicitly and vehemently is not one – he does call for reverence of the gods, accuses the vulgar of impiety by their projections of inconsistent qualities upon the gods, created a robust and functional theology for himself and his followers, and he was deified by his followers and offered them deification (Lucr. V,7-10) – the Epicurean gods do not look like what most people, now or then, would call “real gods.” Instead of being omnipotent creators, meddlers, punishers and police, Epicurean gods are something like models of tranquility, beings which serve to inspire reverence and remind the Epicurean of the goals of life. Instead of endorsing a supernatural religion of deference and sacrifice, Epicurus has a materialistic theology that replaces fear and anxiety about the divine with something relatable and functional that does not get in the way of the search for knowledge and tranquility. His theology almost seems to be subsumed by his moral theory – certain actions by the gods or qualities of them are ruled out by the fact that Epicureans do not enjoy labor or exertion (HP I-16, 53).  The gods, therefore, must have neither the motivating reasons nor the material causal efficacy to affect or effect the motions of the universe – otherwise they could be content without being perfectly tranquil.

One noteworthy and very contemporary-sounding “god of the gaps” style criticism that the Epicurean weighs against other religions that object to this “hands-off” notion of gods is also presented in the Testimony of Cicero. The author simply takes the stance that nature mechanistically created the world without need for a creator, and that his opponent (possibly the stoic) “[does] not see how nature can do so without intelligence, [and takes] refuge like tragedians in god when [they] cannot work out the conclusion of the plot” (HP I-16, 53). This commitment to and faith in the possibility of knowledge through a kind of materialist, skeptical, incremental, scientific outlook to the exclusion of that which defies explanation in conflict with experience (i.e., the embracing of a worldview that precludes the supernatural) is simply striking and fascinating, and serves to provide a strong portrait of the negative aspects of the theology of Epicurus that complements the positive sketch I have been pursuing in the paper.

Given the explicit and ever-present goal of ataraxia for Epicurus and the Epicureans, the fascinating theology constructed by Epicurus seems a natural path for him to take – superstition that can cause us to lose sight of mechanistic explanations that provide surety is replaced with a ethical theology that alienates the universal notion of the gods from any role that could cause humans anxiety or supplant scientific knowledge and explanations. All things serve the only intrinsically good end of tranquil contentment, including science and the gods. The theology-without-religion that results from this approach is a system which is as idiosyncratic and ingenious as anything else constructed by Epicurus, and admirably consistent with the materialistic atomism he inherited from Democritus in a way that few, if any, other theologies have been able to replicate.


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