Epicurus, gods and God

  • Re: incorruptible versus immortal, the Monadnock translation contains both the original Greek and the English, and translates "That which is blissful and immortal" from:

    τὸ μακάριον καὶ ἄφθαρτον

    Which, if you pass it through google translate, refers to blessedness (makarion) and the other word has to do with death. Maybe a Native Greek can better translate ἄφθαρτον (autharton). My understanding is that "death" is Thanatos.

    "Please always remember my doctrines!" - Epicurus' last words

  • Not "autharton" but "aphtharton". Incorruptible turns up in most entries, but so does immortal. In the New Testament the adjective is applied to God.

  • According to DeWitt, Epicurus never described the gods as "immortal" but as "incorruptible". He goes on to say:

    I agree this is murky, but this is one of those areas where I think DeWitt's training as a classical language expert, rather than primarily a philosopher, may give him the edge over other expert/translators. But this ambiguity is definitely in the category of unclear, and as even DeWitt admits later Epicureans apparently did call them "immortal."

    i would really like to ask Epicurus, "So you are saying they are deathless. Does that mean on the other end that they were never "born" either, or are you saying that over time they developed the ability to maintain their deathlessness?

    Which would be more consistent with the rest of the theory? I suspect that since eternity stretches backward infinitely without beginning, Epicurus would have been reluctant to say "there were never any deathless gods until point XX" which might mean that Epicurus would take the position that "deathless" gods have "always" existed as a class, if not individually.

    Now we are talking angels dancing on pins, but i do think it helps understand a theory to consider how it might be taken to logical conclusions. I am pretty confident that Epicurus was saying that "life" as a "class" (not individual living things) have "always" existed somewhere in the universe (and probably a boundless number of places).

    In an eternal and uncreated universe in which atoms combine over and over in accord with their properties, I am doubting that Epicurus would have seen a "first life" at any one single place in the universe. And so if life is evolving and "perfecting itself an infinite number of times and places, then that process of beings learning to become deathless would have also repeated itself and endless number of times.

    Note: i am aware that in general, but not in detail) that the mormons take a similar position to their "gods." Which is why I gather current Mormons like Mitt Romney think that they can become gods of their own planets, I gather. Someone can correct my mormon theology if I am grossly wrong, and of course that has little relevance here, expect maybe to the extent that whoever the creative theologists of early mormonism were (Joseph Smith himself?) it seems logical to be suspicious that they might have been reading some Lucretius. ;)

  • Well as for Joseph Smith, he was living (and composing, to select a term advisedly) in the period during which it was generally suspected that the other immediate planets of the solar system might harbor life. Astronomy was sufficiently advanced by then to know what a planet was, but not advanced enough to know about what Mars and Venus were really like on their surfaces. This is the century that gave birth to science fiction (Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Mary Shelley)—unless we count Lucian and his True Story, which was 16 centuries ahead of its time.

  • I apologize to Godfrey for going off topic with mormonism.... :) The more interesting issue is set of questions posed by eternality / infinity, which I think implies that since life appears capable today of evolving from non-life, then presumably it has also done so for an eternity in the past, which means that certain life forms have had an innumerable time within which to evolve to deathlessness.... all of which poses questions that ... very difficult ... but presumably no more so than the alternative - that a god work up one morning and created everything, or that spontaneously one morning everything flashed into existence from nothing.

    Which is presumably why Epicurus advised spending time talking and thinking about infinity and related issues.

    Ending of Letter to Pythocles:

    And most of all give yourself up to the study of the beginnings and of infinity and of the things akin to them, and also of the criteria of truth and of the feelings, and of the purpose for which we reason out these things. For these points when they are thoroughly studied will most easily enable you to understand the causes of the details. But those who have not thoroughly taken these things to heart could not rightly study them in themselves, nor have they made their own the reason for observing them.

  • I had no idea that the Mormons believe such things!

    Just from my reasoning it seems that the gods evolved, are born, and are quite smart about being blissful and staying alive. If they, individually, extend back an eternity then they'd have to be a separate class along with atoms and void, which doesn't seem to be the case.

    "Immortal" is a perplexing word. I just Googled the definition and most sources define it as "deathless". This has no implication of extending back in time. But to cloud the issue, one online dictionary says "living forever", which seems ambiguous in this regard. Another definition is "one who's fame is lasting". But these are all definitions of the English word, not the Greek.

  • To focus on "immortal", VS 78 and the end of the letter to Menoeceus mention immortal goods. In the Greek text on Monadnock each of these as well as PD 1 have what appear to be slightly different spellings of the word. I'm clueless about Greek; does anyone know if these variations have any significance to the discussion? (I might not even be looking at the right words, please pardon my ignorance if that's the case.)

  • PD 1 employs "aphtharton", as mentioned above. Perhaps this is Epicurus' preferred word when describing gods?

    Vatican saying 78 uses "athanaton", speaking of immortal good.

    The Letter to Menoeceus uses "athanatois", a slight variation of the same word. This change reflects the agreement of the word with the plural "agathois" (goods). "Agathon", singular, is used in the previous formulation.

    Both relevant words, aphtharton and athanaton, are formed by prefixing the word stem with the negation "a-". Same here as in English; atheist, amoral, abiogenesis.

    Phtharton is defined in the "Middle Liddell" (a scholarly lexicon of Ancient Greek) as "corrupted; decaying". Aphtharton, then, is uncorrupted, and undecaying.

    Thanaton (-os), as Hiram mentions above, is death. Athanaton is immortal, or deathless. So there are evident shades of meaning between the two.

  • Unfortunately we end up placing a lot of burden on Elli because she is the only one in command of the ancient (or modern) Greek, as far as I know, of those here.

    As to the Mormon theology, you might find this "Godmakers" cartoon interesting :

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    It is certainly not intended to place the Mormons in a favorable light, but it is my understanding that the basic thrust of what they are saying about the theology is pretty accurate.

    Back several years ago I was reading into this and was particularly fascinated with the words of "If You Could Hie To Kolob" - some of it seems right of Lucretius in terms of the infinite universe, gods infinitely existing, etc:

    If You Could Hie to Kolob, 284 – William W. Phelps

    1. If you could hie to Kolob In the twinkling of an eye,

    And then continue onward With that same speed to fly,

    Do you think that you could ever, Through all eternity,

    Find out the generation Where Gods began to be?

    2. Or see the grand beginning, Where space did not extend?

    Or view the last creation, Where Gods and matter end?

    Me thinks the Spirit whispers, “No man has found ‘pure space,’

    Nor seen the outside curtains, Where nothing has a place.”

    3. The works of God continue, And worlds and lives abound;

    Improvement and progression Have one eternal round.

    There is no end to matter; There is no end to space;

    There is no end to spirit; There is no end to race.

    4. There is no end to virtue; There is no end to might;

    There is no end to wisdom; There is no end to light.

    There is no end to union; There is no end to youth;

    There is no end to priesthood; There is no end to truth.

    5. There is no end to glory; There is no end to love;

    There is no end to being; There is no death above.

    There is no end to glory; There is no end to love;

    There is no end to being; There is no death above.

  • "Known for telling tall tales"...

    Also known for multiple fraud convictions in Ohio and upstate New York 😁.


    There's a good article on 19th century astronomy and the "extra-terrestrial" problem.

    And one of my favorite Thoreau quotes is relevant;


    We might try our lives by a thousand simple tests; as, for instance, that the same sun which ripens my beans illumines at once a system of earths like ours. If I had remembered this it would have prevented some mistakes. This was not the light in which I hoed them. The stars are the apexes of what wonderful triangles! What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment! Nature and human life are as various as our several constitutions.

  • With the usage of the words...

    Sorry, but we must not cling in the accurate translations by the academicians like Bailey et.al., but we have to deepen into the whole of Epicurean philosophy as we go with the consistency of the Canon, Physics and Ethics just to realize how Epicurus used the greek words and how clarity they have.

    Who said that "άφθαρτος" [aphthartos] has only the meaning of the immortal? There are synonym words that are used in greek language for [aphthartos]. What Epicurus meant when he used this greek word "άφθαρτος" that has the same synonym words in greek and in english ? And here is the whole point that Epicurus wants to point out.

    greek : 1) "αδιάφθορος", the incorruptible, incorrupt

    adj means the morally pure, the honest, the decent.

    e.g. He is one of the few incorruptible politicians.

    2) "ανέπαφος" , the untouchable something that can't be touched.

    e.g. Nowadays, comedians seem to consider no subject untouchable i.e. something that can't be touched be judged and be discussed.

    Here is how it goes the PD1 : The [makarion=blessed] and [aphtharton =the morally pure and the untouchable] being knows no trouble itself nor causes trouble to any other, so that it is never constrained by anger or favor. For all such things exist only in the weak.

    "Keep in touch" we say this phrase in english and greek, and means "keep our communication, our discussions etc".

    The "untouchable" means that kind of a being that we are not able to have any touch/communication/discussions at all. Here is why Epicurus placed the gods between the Cosmoi.

    And the incorruptible also means morally pure. Morally pure is that being that has achieved the pure pleasure, which means a being that has no similarity with humans' morals/customs and virtues, since due to our fear of god and death the corruption, the hatred, the pains and the fighting to each other, are issues till nowadays.8o

    And from Epicurus letter to Meneoceus we read : "And the impious man is not he who popularly denies the gods of the many, but he who attaches to the gods the beliefs of the many. For the statements of the many about the gods are not conceptions derived from sensation, but false suppositions, according to which the greatest misfortunes befall the wicked and the greatest blessings (the good) by the gift of the gods. For men being accustomed always to their own virtues welcome those like themselves, but regard all that is not of their nature as alien".

    Beauty and virtue and such are worthy of honor, if they bring pleasure; but if not then bid them farewell!

  • Wow thank you Elli!

    So just to be clear, you are agreeing with DeWitt that the surviving texts of Epicurus himself do NOT call the gods deathless / immortal?

    This is a huge point that no one other than DeWitt seems to have brought out.

    And so the possibility is that if later Epicureans spoke more loosely, then they were deviating from Epicurus in an important way (although I would first presume that we may translation issues there too, plus the standard issues of fragmentary speculation on those texts that come from Herculaneum.)

    And if this is true that would go a long ways toward removing another objection to the Epicurean gods being "unrealistic."

  • Godfrey we may be trying to fit too much into a single thread - this thread is yours so you should steer it. We can open other threads on any of these issues.

    But another aspect of this subject (to the extent it is the role of "the gods" in Epicurean philosophy) which we have not exactly touched on is the issue of "explaining how religion came to be and get control of so many people."

    There are many passages in Lucretius, plus the reference in "on the nature of the gods" that talk about both how "anticipations" and "images" (which Dewitt thinks is different from the anticipations part) played a part in the rise of the viewpoint that there are such things as divinities in almost(?) every cultural/national group that developed over time.

    It seems pretty clear that while some of the rise of religion was the result of corruption, the Epicureans were also pointing to natural reasons for its development, and that too is an area of interest for a lot of people that helps bring the big picture of "the role of religion in humanity" into focus. The issue of "images" floating through the air is to us today one of the least-discussed aspects of the Epicurean texts, but as with everything else I would not dismiss any of it without looking closely at it, especially since DeWitt argues that Epicurus seems to have been talking about the brain having the ability to sense certain kinds of "images" directly, and not through the eyes or other senses.

    It's total speculation to try to make too much of that part of the images issue without more texts, but it seems to me that the best way to understand something is to try to reconstruct it as best possible. Then if we think something went off the rails somewhere we can separate out what we don't believe while still profiting from the part that seems to be well grounded.

  • If this is "my" thread I can only say that I'm learning as much or more than anyone from it and I'm quite grateful for and impressed by everybody's posts!

    Both the rise of religion and the subject of "images" belong with this topic and I for one would like to pursue them. Maybe they could be split off into "part 2" and "part 3" threads, if only because this one is getting pretty long.

  • Yes Godfrey I think this is in the general discussion forum so eventually I will move it to the one on Epicurean gods, and we can start related threads there.

    Also: i am out on my phone so this is clipped but notice also how the limited way we see here that Epicurus viewed gods seems inconsistent with the "why call him god" "riddle" that is attributed to Epicurus by Lactantius? The premises of that "riddle" are so different from what Epicurus himself wrote that there must be major garbling in attributing that to him.

    To clarify: The "riddle" sounds much more like it was written against a Judeo-Christian view of an all-powerful god, and is effective because it takes their presumptions of omnipotence, omniscence, etc and points out that their god doesn't use those powers. It seems to me that Epicurus would never have agreed to presume those attributes in his own definition of "god."

    So my conclusion in making this comment that one of the most well-known statements of Epicurus about gods probably should be viewed with suspicion as coming from him at all. From later Epicureans maybe yes, but probably not Epicurus himself.

  • Has been a busy week for me, catching up, but I want to thank Elli also for that help with the translation, which makes so much more sense!

    Clarity of language is important, and because the word "gods" in English currently means supernatural, in English I am an atheist: I do not believe in the supernatural. I was raised atheist, in Alabama, and in English the word is used accurately for that specific meaning. I'm not going to use a different term in ordinary contexts, or people will think I'm a supernaturalist. It would be poor communication.

    However, in Greek, and in regards to Epicurean philosophy, and among people who understand my words, I am _not_ an atheist, because I know we've already taken the supernatural off the table. It seems entirely reasonable to suspect that in all of reality, there are likely beings which evolved to live pleasurably to such a high degree that they would amaze me if I saw them. And if I think about how such beings would conduct their lives with each other, it helps me continue to choose that life myself-- not as an abstraction but as a practical, achievable process. We must believe a pleasurable life is possible or there would be no point trying. In this sense, I am a believer.

  • Yes I agree that the texts are so fragmentary that we're constantly in a position of trying to make the best possible sense of them, and that means that what they appear to mean in one context may not at all be the case.

    And add to that that they seem to have had a very good sense of humor, so it's hard to say what could be joking and what could be deadly serious.