The Epicurean Gods As A Standard To Which To Aspire

  • Recently (July 7th) MK posted the following as part of a post on whether the Epicureans were in fact "atheists." The part I'd like to focus on is: "The gods are integral to Epicurean ethics as a standard to aspire to of absolute ataraxia." Without getting into the debate about what "ataraxia" means, I think there is another important point here. We may or may not agree with them, but it seems clear that to the Epicureans the "gods" were not simply abstractions - from the texts we know that they had a form/appearance "similar" to humans, a language "similar" to humans (Greek), and presumably other real attributes which allowed Epicurus and the ancient Epicureans to participate in public ceremonies without considering themselves to be ludicrous. We can add Lucretius' "hymn to Venus" as Roman example, and also cite Cicero, as did Martin, for the point that Epicureans were firmly convinced of their speculations on many of these aspects of divinity.

    My question is this: Are we today overlooking an important (integral? critical?) component of Epicurean philosophy when we fail to articulate and identify concrete examples of the ultimate standards to which we should aspire? It sounds like the ancient Epicureans were quite comfortable in referencing Venus and / or Zeus and similar entities in ways that were consistent with their philosophy. By failing to consider this part of Epicurean philosophy, are we failing to identify in concrete terms the standard to which we should aspire, and leaving our standard at a useless level of abstraction?


  • Here we ought to consider whether Epicurus should be thought of as a god himself. In addition to Epicurus' own "gods among men" comment, probably the most important reference is the opening of Lucretius' book 5. Was Lucretius being tongue-in-cheek, deadly serious, or something in between? I don't know how to begin to discuss it legitimately without comparing translations, so here are four:

  • I agree. From what I am reading right now they are considered Humanists or like Deists in that they consider there may or may not be gods but that if so, the gods are unconcerned with human affairs.

  • A poster at Facebook wrote on this topic:

    I have wanted to say something since seeing the notification, but did not want to gloss so serious a subject. I have time at the minute though, so here I go!

    Reflex reaction: yes. Dispensing with all talk of the Epicurean gods is certainly to lose sight of something central to the school.

    Face value, the answer is simple. To be an authentic Epicurean requires a firm grounding in the classics.

    This is fairly obvious to me anyway. How you can know who Epicurus is but not Zeus would be beyond me.

    Anybody actually interested must know who or what Lucretius or Philodemus speak of when writing. You cannot meaningfully read the Epicurean literature outside the classical context, really.

    To claim the Olympians are culturally irrelevant or incomprehensible is ridiculous. Why are you reading an ancient Hellenic thinker at all anyway then?

    As for the non-intervention of deities equalling the non-existence of them - it's a patently poor argument. Epicurus himself saw a definite difference. Don't think much of his reasoning powers: why are you here?

    In the original comment quoted I provided two ways in which Epicurus insisted on the gods' importance to his thought: anthropological aetiology and top standard of ataraxia.

    They are complimentary sides to a single coin. We can aspire to perfect equanimity because we are physically and mentally like the beings that already live it. Take away the latter, the former becomes a sizably trickier task.

    Are we fitted for that state? Or is it a superhuman impossibility engendered in the same way as superhuman beings by the brain of primitive homines sapientes? An Epicurean's top task becomes a mimetic delusion à la Dawkins.

    As for the factual existence of the gods, I wouldn't like to go to war for them on this front. Still, a religious quality of commitment to atheism is at least as narrow-minded as an Abrahamic monotheism.

    Most educated people in Western societies today tick "Spiritual but not religious" when asked. I don't know that it is helpful to be dismissive of the ubiquitous human experience here. Particularly with such crushing and uncomprehending condescension.

    What one senses staring out from Delphi or up at the ceiling standing in the centre of the Pantheon, has precisely fuck all to do with knowing what makes thunder.

    An ideal Epicurean would see the legitimacy of mythos, and the gods in them as powers personified, for education and reflection, poetic and philosophical. The same could be said of the ideal applicant to Oxford or Cambridge 70 years ago. Couldn't read Greek, need not apply. Sad the state of affairs presently in academia.

    Finally, so far as I can tell, nobody has engaged with Epicurus' argument for that there are in very fact gods. I outlined it in the relevant earlier comment.

    If you are a thoroughgoing materialist, it is tremendously difficult to account for the universal scale of the human experience here. Where the concept comes from, why it is not culturally confined, its persistence across literally all recorded time.

    If you face facts and the only explanations allowable are material causality: how do you escape his conclusion that they must have some basis in physical reality?

  • More comments:

    NB: I think it's crucial to deconstruct "belief" as we typically employ it. With respect to Martin K., I think that the "gods" part of his statement is on the money, BUT, "belief" in our society tends to indicate 'faith', with a connotation of 'dogmatic' or 'blind faith' in a supernatural sense. This wouldn't jive with Epicureans from any age.

    We may translate Epicurus in 'Letter to Menoeceus' as recommending "belief" in a natural "God", but we can confirm that Epicurean epistemology does not accept 'faith' as a reasonable criterion of knowledge. In other words, we don't need to "believe" in something with which we have direct experience.

    Therein, I think, lies the key: *whatever* he was talking about is grounded in natural experience. Whether we're discussing happy space beings, or the prototype of a superhuman ubermensch, or Star Trek-ish energy beings of pure pleasure, or preconceptions experienced in dream states, 'belief' is not required.

    Cassius Amicus: " BUT, "belief" in our society tends to indicate 'faith', with a connotation of 'dogmatic' or 'blind faith' in a supernatural sense. This wouldn't jive with Epicureans from any age." I COMPLETELY agree with you Nathan, and in my humble opinion I think Epicurus would to - as I think Martin Kalyniuk probably does too.

    MK: Spot on! Epicurus doesn't think faith is a valid vehicle to knowledge.

    His argument for thinking there are gods is that we have such a deeply chiseled impression of them on our minds as human beings.

    Any concept we have must have come somehow from outside us from something materially real. Therefore there are really gods.

    For Epicurus - as for Aristotle - the senses are always substantively correct. Mistakes are made in the interpretation of the knowledge they yield to us. But if all men claim to see substantially the same thing, say, "white" or experience something, perhaps, "being cold." They might misinterpret the details or the how and why, but not the phenomena itself.

    Atheism for Epicurus would be at bottom an attack on the reliability of sense perception.

  • "Atheism for Epicurus would be at bottom an attack on the reliability of sense perception."

    That's an aggressive way of stating it, but I don't really disagree. Certainly Epicurus wrote (Bailey):