Epicurus, gods and God

  • Lately I've been thinking about the Epicurean gods and would like to share some thoughts.

    It's commonly acknowledged here that physics has advanced a great deal since Epicurus' time, but that Epicurean physics is still valid.

    As for the gods, although it probably exists I haven't seen any discussion regarding the advance of religious thought since Epicurus. Today in the West there aren't gods, just God. Although valuable, the discussion of Epicurean gods is purely abstract to us living today as Epicurus was responding to the culture he lived in. Today God has replaced the gods, and it seems that is the idea that we must address if we want to truly live EP.

    So, firstly, EP completely neuters the current idea of an all powerful God who created the universe and such. Therefore it seems that atheism is the only choice for an Epicurean, at least until further evidence becomes available. For me, having been raised Presbyterian, this isn't a choice that I make lightly even though I've been heading this way for a long time.

    Secondly, what could have prompted Epicurus to make such an effort to retain the gods? What are the advantages of religion in general, regardless of which god or gods is/are concerned? Community, shared belief, safety.... He says that there is an anticipation of the gods; could this be simply awe and reverence for the universe we live in? Which I find increases once the idea of god is discarded.

    What about Epicurus trying to avoid the charge of impiety? Or was he testing his ideas with the culture he lived in, which is something that we, too, must do.

  • In general, it was much more faux pas for ancient Greeks to claim hedonism than atheism, which was a fairly acceptable theological position to take (and Epicureans were very comfortable claiming hedonism). It is not likely that they were trying to avoid charges of impiety, especially when Epicurus expressed that he "never yearned to please the masses since what pleased them was not understood by me, and what I knew was remote from their comprehension".

    It's reasonable to suppose – in an infinite universe – that beings who enjoy perfect, constant pleasure (or, in other words, beings who enjoy atomic blessedness) can exist. If it were not the case, and such a being could not exist, then it might be foolish for us to pursue pleasure in the first place, because it would be fundamentally limited.

    It's just weird for us to think about a "God" that (1) is not responsible for creation or creative acts, (2) does not set a moral standard for the cosmos, (3) does not care about humanity, (4) does not judge, reward, or punish us, and (5) a "God" that cannot perform supernatural acts. Monotheism has really ruined some rather interesting definitions and conceptions of "God" and "the gods", because we default to thinking about theology only within the context of monotheism.

  • Godfrey if you read any of my past commentary on this you probably will expect that I am someone who thinks that the Epicurean theory of divinity has important practical uses even today. My position is grounded on a number of different issues, some of which I will probably forget to list here, but mainly being (1) the desire to come up with a comprehensive theory of humanity's place in the universe (if we alone, then there is something special about us), (2) the desire to consistently apply our theory of observation on the widest possible scale (the isonomia issue - which is closely related to "nature never produces only a single thing of a kind, and also the issue of anticipating that life exists on a spectrum from low to high.

    Community, shared belief, safety.... He says that there is an anticipation of the gods; could this be simply awe and reverence for the universe we live in?

    I do not think that the issue is strictly related to "reverence for the universe" which is after all "just" a combination of matter and void, like we are. I think the issue more relates to reverence for "life" or even "pleasure" as for example considering pleasure to be a goddess (Venus). For example, why NOT live in a cave eating grain and scratch stick men on walls, if indeed we can fill our experience with simple physical pleasures, rather than worry about pleasures that are more mental? There is something going on in the minds of higher animals that causes them to work to improve their ability to experience pleasure and avoid pain, and even among humans there is a wide variety of patterns as to how to approach that issue ("progress"). Where does this come from? Religionists will suggest gods or ideal forms, but that's clearly not the answer, nor is it "random" - so a coherent explanation of why civilization life has (to some extent) "improved" over time that does not involve supernatural gods would be a logical question for a philosopher to consider.

    I tend to take Epicurus exactly at his word, and to discount explanations that suggest that he was scared of hemlock or the like (I agree with Nate's comments above on this).

    It seems to me that some people just don't seem to be concerned, especially nowadays, about issues of "who created the universe" and "why" and so forth. But I tend to think personally that that number of people, even today, is really smaller than some of us in the highly developed nations might think. I think those are compelling questions which demand a coherent explanation, and "I don't know" just isn't good enough.

  • In fact I just re-scanned over Nate's post above and I agree with every word of it. We moderns are polluted in a sense with our upbringing (both academic and religious) and not only are we not the norm in human history, I am not sure at all that we are more advanced in our thinking, especially over the last hundred years or so.

  • One more comment for now: To me, I see a thread running through the Epicurean texts of a deeply-felt concern for ALL life - both animal and human, and I think that they would share what I gather to be Nietzsche's detest for "nihilism" and "stoicism" from that perspective. Life is tremendously short and an eternity of non-existence is a very long time, so I think there is a strain of reverence and awe for LIFE which is built in to the respect for pleasure and pain as Nature's stop and go signals. And this is different from the Stoics looking at "the universe" as essentially a mechanistic god -- this is looking at LIFE / PLEASURE and seeing "Venus" as a "goddess" deserving heartfelt gratitude and energetic embracing. And that's why I really appreciate Catherine Wilson's slide from her recent talk:

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    Being "stoic" and unmoved by the possibilities of pleasure that life affords is a form of savagery, or madness. And so the reverse is also true, which is why they seemed to have embraced Epicurus as "godlike" and saw the goal as living "as gods among men" and not shrinking from emotion.

  • Yes it is lots to digest and I hope you will continue the discussion. This reminds me of the current thread on "justice" that we are talking. We have strong preconceived notions of what we "should" be talking about in terms of both "justice" and "divinity." But at this point in studying Epicurus we ought to be cautioned that we need to re-examine virtually everything we have been told about Epicurus, and try to approach him from as unbiased view as possible, always starting back at the fundamental observations about the atomistic/eternal/boundless nature of the universe, and how mankind (all life, really) fits into it.

    And without going too far off beam i think a related question arises from "pleasure." What IS pleasure and where did it "come from?"

    My own admittedly radical answer to such questions is that we have to consider the possibility that Epicurus was going in the direction of concluding that "life" (not individual lives, but 'life' as a natural development of nature) is just as "eternal" as any other aspect of nature. In fact I am pretty sure that that is demanded by the physics -- so that while it might be correct to entertain that "life" developed on Earth at a particular moment from non-life, we would expect that that process had happened over an over an infinite number of times for an eternity up to this point.

    While I would not think that planet-to-planet or "cosmos-to-cosmos" movement of life is a necessary conclusion, it is probably at least a "possible" conclusion that Epicurus would have entertained in the same way he entertained numbers of alternative theories that could not be proven to be uniquely correct, but which do not necessarily conflict with what we do observe.

    Remember one of Lucian's satires involved alien life forms and interplanetary travel too. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_True_Story

    But to repeat I am not advocating any of this as required either by scientific evidence today, or by the surviving Epicurean texts. But I think we have to open up just about any possible theory that we do not *know* to be impossible, if not as something that we think ourselves, but at least as something that the Epicureans might have entertained.

  • Godfrey:

    Elayne and I were discussing anticipations in regard to justice and I think this part of that applies here:

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    Of course there is a long section of DeWitt talking about anticipations of the gods, but I was focusing here solely on "justice", and to continue:

    Sometimes to me it seems that DeWitt shifts into talking as if we have an innate "idea" which I think goes to far. It seems to me his best argument is in the sentence highlighted. We have at birth no names for colors, no "concepts" of colors, but we are born with eyes that have the innate ability to perceive different colors differently. The eyes don't tell us whether those colors are pleasing or not, but the sense of pleasure does. In justice, the innate ability to distinguish something as "relating to justice" does not necessarily tell us whether what we are observing is pleasant or painful, but the sense of pleasure, operating at the same time, will weigh in too. With the point being that if we did not have some kind of innate ability to distinguish situations that fall into a category as concerning "justice" then we would never recognize the relationship in the first place, and never process it any further, any more than a lower animal would.

    And Godfrey this is the part that relates to this discussion:

    In this "innate capacity to recognize an issue" issue, I think this is where DeWitt is going with Epicurus' view of divinity. The anticipation of divinity is a disposition to recognize that something is going on in the relationship between, let's say, where the living thing "is at the moment" and where it "might be" if it developed its capacities to "perfection." As a poor example, sort of like where a person might fit on a spectrum from an Olympic gold medal winner (at the top) to throwing plastic darts in the back yard (at the bottom). The Olympic gold medal winner is a "god among athletes" just like we might aspire to be "gods among men." Either that term "gods among men" was a pure joke, which I doubt, or else it had some relationship/aspirational meaning like this.

    So an anticipation of divinity might have a purely earth-bound interpretation, which is separately applied to the issues of isonomy and the infinite / eternal universe to speculate as to the versions that live in the intermundia. But the two aspects of the issue would nevertheless fit together, I think.

    So I would expand on the sentence in the DeWitt quote that I underlined in red above by adding the underlined part to speculate this:

    "The innate capacity to distinguish colors is an anticipation of experience no less than the innate capacity to distinguish between justice and injustice [or to distinguish life forms that are "godlike / divine" from those that are not].

  • There is so much here to digest, I'll try to narrow down my comments and questions as much as possible to help wrap my head around things. (Cassius, your comments on pleasure are quite interesting and could make another thread in themselves!) For the most part I totally understand and agree with the points made. I'd like to focus on 1) an infinite system, 2) chance, and 3) isonomy.

    1) In EP, the number of atoms is infinite. The types of atoms are innumerable. If my thinking is correct, the types of combinations of atoms would therefore be innumerable but not infinite (innumerable type x other innumerable type = seriously innumerable). If the types of combinations were mathematically infinite (although it could be said that, practically speaking, they are infinite) then the probability of any given thing existing in the universe would be 100% and if I'm not mistaken this doesn't seem to be the case in EP.

    2) Regarding chance, my understanding is that chance is involved in the combinations of atoms. Once compounds are formed there are properties that affect future combinations, but as a general idea chance is a factor in the Epicurean universe (but not in the life of a wise man). If it were not a factor, then all would be by necessity and such is not the case.

    3) Isonomy is where I get completely confused. DeWitt lists three aspects of isonomy: "first, that in an infinite universe perfection is bound to exist as well as imperfection; that is, 'that there must be some surpassing being, than which nothing is better'; second, that the number of these beings, the gods, cannot be less than the number of mortals; and third, that in the universe at large the forces of preservation always prevail over the forces of destruction."

    DeWitt also mentions an isonomy of values as well as of things. Perfection and imperfection are values, but they are ideas of man and at the scale of man and not at the scale of the universe, to my understanding. Otherwise, wouldn't they be Platonic Ideals? And how can "equitable apportionment" occur in a chance system? Is the reason for more gods than mortals because the forces of preservation must exceed the forces of destruction in an everlasting universe? I'm completely on board with his third premise of preservation exceeding destruction. My understanding, however, is that that would apply only to the atoms. All else is compounds and is subject to dissolution.

  • then the probability of any given thing existing in the universe would be 100% and if I'm not mistaken this doesn't seem to be the case in EP.

    Yes Godfrey you are right in seeing an issue here. As I read Lucretius, he is very firm that although there may be a numberless but not infinite number of shapes, and an infinite number of atoms of those different shapes, the possible combinations are NOT unlimited, as you will recall that Lucretius points out that certain things like Centaurs cannot exist. Also even at the very beginning of Lucretius, Epicurus is pointing out "whence he returns a conqueror to tell us what can, what cannot come into being.

    So I don't think the Epicureans thought that the probability of any given thing existing in the universe would be 100% We probably need to be very careful with this wording though - i guess the point would be that it is possible for us to "imagine" things that are physically impossible.

    chance is involved in the combinations of atoms.

    I consider this to be a very difficult subject too, and not really possible to grapple with without getting to a definition of what "chance" really means. My go-to academic piece on this is the AA Long "Chance and Natural Law in Epicureanism" and I super-highly recommend that on this point. With the basic point being that "the swerve" is not as sweeping a force as it may seem. Certainly in some areas it is of supreme importance, but it does not seem to carry through everywhere or even in "most" day to day situations not involving higher animals -- but I need to let long explain his argument.... A short summary is "Why would ANYTHING be predictable if atoms were constantly swerving in an uncontrolled way? But we see that most things ARE predictable, so there has to be an explanation for when the swerve is controlling and when it is not. Long, I think, puts his finger on the answer very well.

    And how can "equitable apportionment" occur in a chance system?

    Ah, THERE it is! Good question, and I think Long's essay answers it. The key is in the definition of "chance." The system is not at all "chance" in the sense of chaotic, but is governed by what amounts to "natural law" that arises from the properties of the atoms and the qualities of the bodies that they form. While we talk about the importance of the swerve in "free will" and in the original formation of the universe, it appears that Epicurus contemplated that the swerve really has very little day-to-day impact on the mechanisms of non-animate life. But again, Long has this much better than I do.

    But Long's killer argument (for me) is this: If the swerve were such an important part of Epicurus' system that, in the end, nothing is really predictable, then Cicero (and others) would have MERCILESSLY attacked the inconsistency of such a system. How could Epicurus have thought that atomism explained ANYTHING if in fact the atoms were so haphazard? Answer: he didn't think they were haphazard. He doesn't even mention the swerve in his own summary letters. The swerve is important, but not like we (who drink of the Heisenberg theory) seem to think it is.

    Is the reason for more gods than mortals because the forces of preservation must exceed the forces of destruction in an everlasting universe?

    1 - I would say that that is definitely NOT the reason for that - gods have nothing to do with controlling forces of preservation . But 2 Did Dewitt say that there are MORE immortals than mortals?\

    I'm completely on board with his third premise of preservation exceeding destruction. My understanding, however, is that that would apply only to the atoms. All else is compounds and is subject to dissolution.

    Well, isn't dewitt saying that the forces of preservation exceed the forces of destruction only on a "universe-wide" scale? Such that as you say all things that come together eventually come apart, but at the same time, elsewhere, new things are coming together? I gather that what he is really saying is that despite the constant change, the "forces of preservation" are sufficient to keep at least SOME things together all the time, so that the universe is not just a field of floating atoms that have no contact with each other. No doubt my wording there could be improved, because you are right in my view to observe that regardless of anything else, everything that comes together is thought to eventually come apart, with the exception of the bodies of the gods themselves, but in their case, only because they have perfected the science of somehow keeping their atoms together indefinitely.

  • The system is not at all "chance" in the sense of chaotic, but is governed by what amounts to "natural law" that arises from the properties of the atoms and the qualities of the bodies that they form.

    This is what I was thinking, except I missed the point that the "natural law" arises from properties of atoms. Quite a big oversight on my part: I was imagining the "natural law" arising after the combinations of atoms.

    Did Dewitt say that there are MORE immortals than mortals?

    On double checking, he said "cannot be less than" the number of mortals. Can you explain his reasoning on this? This is one of the things that baffles me about isonomy.

    I'm off to read Long now. :thumbup:

  • As to the natural laws possibly they do arise from the qualities too, but to the extent that the qualities are the things observed by us, which are transient, I think we are primarily talking about arising from the properties of the atoms.

    As to the number of mortals vs immortals, we don't have much in the texts to go on, do we? I was presuming that Dewitt is inferring from the texts that they would be approximately equal, but on the other hand he does stress "equitable" doesn't he, and it is hard to know what "equitable" would mean here. But I guess it is somewhat clear from what we observe here on earth that we don't have the same numbers of all types of animals. So there may be some kind of parallel there -- we have a few more ants than people, if that tells us anything.

  • I liked that article, Hiram.

    For me, it all comes down to this line, that you quoted from Ilkka:


    And the Canon has primacy in such matters!

  • My commentary on how the canon would apply would include this:


    24. If you reject absolutely any single sensation without stopping to distinguish between opinion about things awaiting confirmation and that which is already confirmed to be present, whether in sensation or in feelings or in any application of intellect to the presentations, you will confuse the rest of your sensations by your groundless opinion and so you will reject every standard of truth. If in your ideas based upon opinion you hastily affirm as true all that awaits confirmation as well as that which does not, you will not avoid error, as you will be maintaining the entire basis for doubt in every judgment between correct and incorrect opinion.

    At the very "worst" I would say that the Epicurean theory of the existence of extraterrestrial gods "awaits" confirmation. But as far as I can tell the Epicureans stated their observational arguments on which they expected eventual confirmation, (boundless eternal universe, isonomia, nature never creates a single thing of a kind, anticipations) so my personal view is that it is clear error under the Epicurean canon to rule out the theory, since the argument against it (based on my understanding of what Hiram and some others argue) seems to be based solely on "we haven't seen any yet."

    We didn't see atoms for thousands of years either, but it was the wrong bet to dismiss the theory of atomism, and the smart bet to accept the existence of atoms, even before a single man ever "saw" one through advanced technology.

    In fact, much of the first book and other parts of Lucretius are devoted to arguing exactly that - the reasonableness of accepting an argument as to the existence of something for which there is no visible evidence, and no way of proof other than deduction.

  • The Long essay brings significant nuance to the discussion of chance and necessity. Key takeaways for me:

    - Necessity for Epicurus is that certain conditions must be met in order for a given thing to happen, as opposed to the idea that the given thing must happen.

    - The swerve has an exponentially greater impact on the atoms of the mind than on atoms of standard matter. This is because (as pointed out in today's Daily Lucretian) atoms composing mind are round, lightweight and quick to move as opposed to standard atoms which are rough, heavier and slow to move. This explains why we have free will while the universe is not in total chaos.

    Makes perfect sense, but I hadn't made the connections before reading the essay.

  • Yes those are huge points Godfrey. That essay is one of my favorites for making what I think are some excellent arguments about things that seemed easy to understand on the surface, but on further reflection needed deeper thought. "Necessity" and "chance" need to be closely considered.

    With this HUGE Takeaway:


    This explains why we have free will while the universe is not in total chaos.

    Sometimes I get the impression that people who throw the "Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle" around in beginner philosophy classes need to think about that too! :)

  • Hiram, I was actually reading your linked essay, among other things, before starting this thread and was coming to similar conclusions as you did.

    As I'm currently understanding the gods, there are several options, including:

    - They're theorized from the hierarchy of beings and are probable advanced beings in an infinite universe

    - We have a prolepsis of gods. But why couldn't this be simply a concept, similar to justice? To me, this prolepsis doesn't necessitate corporeality. Does a prolepsis mature through various stages (if I'm not mistaken this is DeWitt's take) and if so, wouldn't it be affected by culture?

    - The gods are poetry.

    None of these, to me, say that the gods are necessary. This goes to Long's idea that Epicurus' necessity is for proper conditions, not an end result. So some version of gods are possible given these conditions, even probable, but are not required.