Philodemus On Piety

  • Skimming through on a Friday night. Reading the actual text translations and a little commentary. First impressions:

    Fascinating but fragmentary.

    Still enough continuous text to be understandable in parts.

    Jury still out on idealist vs realist debate; have to dig in on that

    Overall organization of Philodemus's On Piety:

    1. Arguments for the gods

    2. Observance of cult and ritual (This section was especially interesting and unexpected)

    3. Harms and benefits from the gods

    4. The origin of atheism and justice

    There followed criticism of poets and mythographers and then Philosophers representations of the gods.

    This isn't easy going. Dense and footnote-filled. But a pleasurable experience so far! More to come...

  • I think it's also important to look at the actual word that Philodemus uses in his title:

    ΕΥCΕΒΕΙΑ (eusebeia)….04.0057:entry=eu)se/beia

    Yes, the convenient single word English translation is "piety" but LSJ also gives the fuller "reverence towards the gods or parents, piety or filial respect."

    Related to…9.04.0057:entry=eu)sebh/s

    I get the sense that it implies an obligation (providing what is due to someone, e.g., taxes to the emperor)

    I don't want to get into the trap that we get fixated on the English without examining what word Philodemus uses... AND when that word is extant, or lightly missing a letter or two but easily read, or completely missing and added in by scholars from context (and makes sense) or added in by scholars blue-skying it. When we have the ancient words, it behooves us to dig into those. THAT'S what Philodemus said, and to quote Dr Seuss, we have to assume he said what he meant and meant what he said.

  • This doesn't affect the content of the treatise but looking through the introductory material I came across this:

    The author and title in the physical scroll are designated at the end only by:



    That's it. Just the first letters are left.

    The title is taken to be Π[ΕΡΙ ΕΥΣΈΒΕΙΑΣ] since the extant line right before the title and author lines describes the treatise as a ΛΟΓΟΣ logos (treatise) on ΕΥΣΈΒΕΙΑ (piety).


    Obbink says it's just as likely that the author of On Piety is Φ[ΑΙΔΡΟΥ] Phaedrus as it is Φ[ΙΛΟΔΕΜΟΥ] Philodemus!! Obbink says he uses "Philodemus" throughout his work as a convention only.…the_Epicurean?wprov=sfla1 I wonder if this could be Phaedrus's On the Gods that Cicero requested or at least a related treatise

    That authorship mystery took me completely by surprise so I had to share.

    (Note: I'm going to start just using Σ and σ/ς for sigma (Latin letter S s) instead of the C c that I was using earlier because it's easier to type on the keyboard I'm using. C c is a later Greek/Hellenistic letterform for sigma, Σ σ/ς are the older and traditional forms. C c is used in the scroll. Just wanted to be sure to have full disclosure.)

  • Okay, so I literally have Obbink's work of On Piety right in front of me, reading through text and commentary up through Column 26 tonight... And I can't make heads or tails of this first section on the arguments for the existence of the gods. I'm getting the impression that even Obbink doesn't fully understand but uses literal translations and other means to obfuscate that fact.

    I'm being a little hyperbolic, but not much.

    As I understand the text, the primary goal here is not to lay out a systematic argument but to state specific examples from the authoritative texts of Epicurus (On Holiness, On Nature, On Lifecourses), Metrodorus (On Change, On Gods), Hermarchus (Against Empedocles), and Polyaenus to refute those who would accuse the Epicureans of atheism or impiety.

    At some points, the gods (per the Epicureans) are material beings it seems.

    But in others, they are described as being made up of similar or identical atoms making them "unitary beings" not subject to being corruptible. In other spots, they are made up of images (eidola) and the analogy given by Obbink is that of a waterfall (the constant flowing) or the flickering images of a motion picture that provide us the mental picture or idea of movement or a static image. The gods are compounds of this sort... Which sounds to me like Sedley's idealist view.

    In some ways, this section strikes me as the kind of argument about "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin." And I find nothing that dissuades me so far to see the gods as helpful exemplars of the goal of the Epicurean path. I'm still exploring. This section runs from column 1 to 25/26 so I've made it through once. I'm more interested in the next section, cols26-36, that talk about the Epicureans participation in rituals and rites.

    I did find some good lines though:

    "Therefore I think it is especially necessary to despise those who transgress or mock other observance as they do the traditional rites." ll. 720-730., col. 25-26

    "Metrodorus reproaches even Socrates himself for saying, if indeed he did this, to Plato's Euthyphro: 'what is holy?' (τι οσιον εστι;)" ll.700-710, col. 25

    "And if they have conducted themselves in a blameworthy fashion, with the result that they also aroused suspicion [ ], let the accusers formally charge those who have conducted themselves in this way." ll.680-690, col. 24.

    "It is time to describe all men as impious, inasmuch as no one had been prolific in finding convincing demonstrations for the existence of gods; nevertheless all men, with the exception of some madmen, worship them, as do we..." ll. 650-60, col. 23

    "Likewise Hermarchus in the final book of his Against Empedocles also cites this passage, adding: 'Concerning metaphor he (Empedocles) made use in human fashion of the connection with the divine entity for which worship and verbal attendance in cult take place'; and in Epicurus's case (or writings) this is shown by his eagerness for sharing in the mysteries at Athens..." ll.540-70, cols. 19-20

    I'm also sharing a screenshot of column 26 since that is the start of the ritual participation section. I find the prayer quote interesting. I'm going to track down the Greek word for that... Tomorrow.

  • . And I can't make heads or tails of this first section on the arguments for the existence of the gods.

    Don do you have a sense of how much of the confusion is due to the material itself being difficult vs how much is due to it being fragmentary?

    A little of both. The papyrus is in bad shape in a lot of places; however, there's enough continuous text to confidently reconstruct a substantial portion of the author's work.

    One issue is that there's a lot of technical, philosophical jargon in the original text. With the fragmentary nature of the papyrus, there's a lack of context for these terms. If we had the whole papyrus and a larger body of Epicurean texts there wouldn't be any question what is meant by similarities, "unitary entities," etc. As it is, it's like reading a textbook through Swiss cheese. Or trying to read a book with a strobe light for a desk lamp. Consider something like...


    The unanimous Declar[----]n ... thirteen ... ... America, When in the Course........ events, it becomes necessary for........... dissolve ....... bands................ with another, and to assume a[ ]g the ..... of the earth, the separate and equal .,................. Laws of Nature and of Nature's God......... a decent respect to the opinions of m[ ]kind requires................. declare the causes ...... impel them to the s......... W[ ] hold these truths to be self-evi[ ]t, that................ equal, that they are endowed.............. Creator with certain unalien[. ] Rights........... Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Hap[ ]ess.

  • προσευχεσθαι γαρ εν τωι Περί [Βιων] οικείον είναι [ημεί]ν φησίν.

    I promised something on prayer yesterday, so to fulfill my self-imposed obligation :), here's what Epicurus said about prayer according to column 26 of On Piety. The original is above and is mostly intact in the papyrus.

    For he says in the On Ways of Life, προσευχεσθαι is οικείον for us.

    προσευχεσθαι [proseukhesthai] means "prayer", specifically to offer prayers or vows; offer prayers or worship. The word can be broken down into pros- "toward" + eukhesthai "to pray"…4.0057:entry=proseu/xomai

    This is, in fact, the word used to mean "pray" in the New Testament as well as previously in classical Greek. I'm looking forward to reading more about the manner of this praying.

    And Epicurus says prayer is οικείον [oikeion] meaning "fitting, suitable, proper."…9.04.0057:entry=oi)kei=os (see definition IV)

    So it would seem worship of the gods held some kind of benefit for Epicurus even if that benefit did not come from the gods themselves.

    I'll dig into columns 26+ in the next few days and keep all posted. I'm intrigued.

  • Taking a quick trip through some columns in the book tonight and wanted to share one line from column 47, ll.1340-1350:

    (Paraphrase) To be sure, people in general honor or believe in something divine like a god who is benevolent, kindly, propitious, etc.; whereas we Epicureans all regard our doctrines as the true cause of our own tranquility (αταραξιας ataraxia)."

    I liked the sound of this, but there's actually a lot going on here in the original Greek. I'll post a little more tomorrow.


    From column 62A,

    "And in his [Epicurus's] Symposium concerning the rites (he says) 'Let us celebrate the festivals' (τας εορτας [συναγω]μεν tas heortas synagomen) and 'Make auspicious sacrifices to a god' (θεώ[ι καλλι]θυτειν ειλ[.... ...] theōi kallithytein)"

  • In looking through Obbink’s work, I found mention of some important words in the original Greek text and thought they might shed some light on some of the extant writings of Epicurus where we have questions. Then again maybe not. So, here it goes. For this entry, we’re looking at prolepsis which is mentioned only twice in On Piety.

    Column 45, Line 1300
    Obbink (starting around line 1280, emphasis added and notes added as parenthetical statements for clarity):
    And they (Epicurus and the kathegomenes) are continually saying everywhere (in their writings), lest I go on too long by adding treatises by them (i.e., to put it briefly), that of all existing things it (the divine) is the best and most holy, most worthy of emulation, having dominion over all good things, unburdened by affairs, and exalted and great-minded and great-spirited and ritually pure and purest and propitious. Therefore they say that they alone strive after the greatest form of piety and that they hold the most pious views about the gods, and they charge the rest with holding the opposite views, in as much as they (other, non-Epicurean philosophers) teach contrary to the naturally acquired generic conception (prolepsis), and [verb missing] the purest views as regards the ineffable pre-eminence of the strength and perfection of the divine… [gap - 1 col c.90 words]

    Unfortunately, Obbink’s note to column 45 doesn’t help much. Here is an excerpt:
    “Epic. Ad Moec. states that the assertions of the many about the gods are not derived from [prolepseis]. … prolepsis, a technical term for which Epicurus was notorious, reflects a process of reasoning that forms a major part of Epicurus’ epistemological programme. The source tradition is unambiguous that he thought it was at least possible to have a prolepsis of god or divine nature, but otherwise we do not hear much about it in this treatise, nor does it seem to have played a major role in Philod. De dis … When Philodemus says here that the others teach about the gods in a way that is contrary to the prolepsis of them, the concept is probably deemed to be unproblematic and to be fully sketched out by passages such as KD 1, Ad. Menoec. 123, and the definitions of the pious and impious man above, 1130-65. (i.e., lines 1130-65 in On Piety)

    For reference, lines 1130-65 discuss the pious person preserving the immortality and “consummate blessedness of God [i.e., the god, the divine nature] together with all things included by us” and the impious man who “banishes” these qualities from the divine. The pious person “we honour for his piety, whereas the other we despise as manifestly depraved.”

    Column 66A, Line 1887
    For all (perhaps “infinity”?) [several words missing] is thought of, just as time is defined (or divided or distinguished), as being a naturally formed generic conception (prolepsis); and just as also in book 32 (of Epicurus’s On Nature), he says that because the existence of the gods is apprehended with clarity (i.e., vivid knowledge of the gods), although as a unified entity among underlying existents, and their (gods’) nature is less able to be perceived by thought than other existents, and generally towards [~25 words missing] who towards [one word missing] but of all those [word missing] self-completing [one word missing] all.

    I found it interesting that time here is included in the examples of “naturally formed generic conceptions” or prolepses. I thought I remembered that “time does not exist” according to the podcast discussions of DRN Book 1: We're wont, and rightly, to call accidents. | Even time exists not of itself; but sense Reads out of things what happened long ago, | What presses now, and what shall follow after: |No man, we must admit, feels time itself, | Disjoined from motion and repose of things.

    So, is the author (Philodemus or Phaedrus) here saying that “time” is also a prolepsis, a preconception that we learn? That would be an interesting development. If prolepses are formed by repeated exposures to a concept or thing, I suppose a concept/prolepsis of time could be formed. Here’s Obbink’s take...

    Obbink has this in the notes to column 66A:
    “1885-6 καθαπ[ερ ορι]ζεται χρο[νος : here the fact that the gods exist in the first instance as conceptualized by humans is illustrated by comparison to the ontological status of time, which according to Epicurus is not even a per se entity (but rather an accident or attribute of other entities), yet is not in consequence any less real. Rather, it is in an epiphenomenon of our thinking about certain occurrences in relation to other events and objects. For the status of time as an accidental property of things see Epic. Ad Herod. 68-73; Demetrius of Laconia ap. Sext. Emp. Adv. math. 10.219-27, where time is styled an ‘accident of accidents’; Lucr. I. 459-63.

    “1887 προληψιν : formation of the prolepsis of the gods (and the implied lack of it among opponents) is also discussed adobe, 1300, and it (or something very like it) is said to have obtained among the ‘first humans’ in cultural history above at 224-31. On the prolepsis of the gods see further Epic. Ad Herod. 76-7, Ad Menoec. 123-4; Luce. 5.1161-1225, 6.68-79; Cic. De nat. Deor. 1. 43-9.”

  • If prolepses are formed by repeated exposures to a concept or thing, I suppose a concept/prolepsis of time could be formed.

    That is perhaps the ultimate question -- and that's where I think DeWitt / Velleius is correct and Diogenes Laertius is wrong, and that the primary meaning of proplepsis cannot be "a concept formed after repeated exposure to a thing." "Prolepsis" might involve some unrational process that plays into, or describes, the procedure by which the ultimate result is reached, but I think a focus on "after repeated exposure" improperly deprecates the "Pro-" or the "pre-" or the "anticipatory" words that indicate something that predated the repeated exposure.

    But I certainly understand why this is confusing and I can see both sides of the argument.

    As for both the time and gods example, I think it's telling that the context seems to indicate that anticipations can be both true and false to the ultimate facts, and that's again why I think that 1 - the main focus has to be pre-rational and 2- we have to get used to viewing anticipations as a faculty that reports without injection of opinion, rather than fully-formed concepts which we then accept as the equivalent of a faculty. If you equate a "concept" with a criterion of truth then you lock yourself forever into a particular opinion which would never again be changeable through that faculty, and that's not the way we view the five senses or the feelings of pain and pleasure, which are continuously reporting whatever they receive regardless of preconceived notions.

    Don THANK YOU for continuing to posts these details as they are extremely helpful!

  • . If you equate a "concept" with a criterion of truth then you lock yourself forever into a particular opinion which would never again be changeable through that faculty, and that's not the way we view the five senses or the feelings of pain and pleasure, which are continuously reporting whatever they receive regardless of preconceived notions.

    This is why I'm so excited about the work of Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett. Her explanation of infants and children forming concepts of concrete and abstract "things" strikes me as that "repeated exposure" idea of prolepses. But those concepts are not immutable. I go back to Philodemus's On Anger where he writes about the ability to control our anger by the exercise of "putting-before-the-eyes" of the consequences of our anger before we're actually angry. This fits nicely with Barrett in that this exercise would change our concept (I'm saying prolepsis) of the emotion of anger so that the next time we construct that emotion from sense data and our innate concept/prolepsis of that emotion, our mind has a different prediction and hence a different - hopefully more appropriate - outcome: ex., Don't lose your mind and yell and swear at the person in traffic (they may be rushing to the hospital).

    I've found a lot of echoes of Epicurus in Barrett's work from what I've been reading. It's made me more open to the "repeated exposure" idea of formation of the prolepses.

  • The article by AA Long, "Aisthesis, Prolepsis and Linguistic Theory in Epicurus," makes a case for the repeated exposure theory and together with DeWitt's view makes a good presentation of both sides of the issue. I still haven't read her book but Barrett's work might bring the discussion into our current state of knowledge which seems very promising!

  • I’m going to return to columns 26-36 that discuss the Epicureans participation in the rites and festivals of ancient Greece. However, columns 36 to 59 talk about the benefits and harms from gods. This topic also appears in the Letter to Menoikeus 124 where the hoi polloi think of the gods bestowing benefits on those they like and harms on those the gods dislike. I originally thought this was an empty opinion; however, it seems, from this section of On Piety, that Epicurus and the kathegemones (“those who led the way,” i.e., the leaders of the school, e.g., Polyaenus, Hermarchus and Metrodorus) also held a version of this view. Note, too, that anywhere there is a reference to Book #, that’s a reference to Epicurus’s magnum opus On Nature.

    Obbink’s notes on Column 36, lines 1023-42 (excerpt):

    Here the kathegemones are said to have held a doctrine whereby there are produced benefits and harms for good and bad persons respectively [το περαινεσθαι ωφελιας εκ θεων τοις αγαθοις και βλαβας τοις κακοις]. Philodemus paraphrases, saying that for wise and just men (i.e., οι αγαθοι) there is a completion or production (by humans in general) of benefits and harms (from the gods) which are no less or even greater than those harms and benefits which people in general usually assume. The present passage thus adds another dimension to that expressed in Ad. Menoec. 124. For in addition to assuming the account there of why people in general think and talk as though the gods were a source of great harms and benefits (and, in a sense, are right about this), the present passage purports to give a rationale whereby the Epicurean sage will do so as well.

    So, to retrace our steps, here are excerpts from lines columns 36 and 37 from the scroll itself:

    And for the production of benefits from the gods for good people and harms for bad people they [Epicurus and the kathegemones] allow. And for the wise and just it must be conceived that benefits and harms which are no feebler [or ‘more deficient’ or ‘weaker’] or even greater [i.e., no weaker {harms} or even greater {benefits}] than people in general suppose [literally ‘attribute’ or ‘attach’ to the gods] are made complete [i.e., ‘are accomplished’ ‘are fulfilled’], not out of weakness or because we have need of anything from God, even in return for his benefit [or ‘of his benefit here’], and these things they [i.e., the kathegemones] say most piously. And in On Gods what kind of source of retribution and preservation for humans through the deity must be accepted he [Epicurus] outlines in some detail. And in book 13 [of On Nature] he speaks concerning the affinity or alienation which God has for some people. And in book 35, in addition to clarifying somewhat this benefit, he says that even on account of thinking [5-7 words missing…]. And in his book On Destiny there is an exposition concerning the assistance [to humans] provided by them [i.e., the gods]. And in his letters to important individuals he is seen to pronounce consistently on this point;...

    The topic continues into column 38:

    ...similarly in Book 6 concerning adjudication [6-8 words missing] and that [he says] those who are oath-keeping [ευορκους] and just are moved by the most virtuous influences [literally ‘vibrations’ ‘repercussions’] both from their own selves and from those [i.e., the gods]. And similiarly in book 8; and [Epicurus and the kathegemones] define the notion of benefit in the same way as Polyaenus in the first book of his Against Aristotle’s On Philosophy declared his opinion that divine nature is the cause for us of these goods; and similarly Hermarchus that …

    Now, this goes on like this for awhile, but in column 42 we find out that some theologians and philosophers perpetuated and preserved tales and poems of vengeful, wrathful gods to keep people in general in line:

    And preparing an immense deception against the rest, they subsequently rush into terrible, hidden injustices, since they no longer feared anyone believed to be all-knowing. Therefore it was safer to keep silent. Consequently that was what those of the theologians and philosophers who were just did. For the truth did not escape them, but, since they observed that evil deeds were held in check by the tales because foreboding hung over the more foolish of mankind, in order that we might not render life as a whole a beastly form of existence, and since otherwise the hostility …[column missing…]

    Now, later columns (44, 45 from my previous posts on 46 and 47) talks about the need to preserve the gods’ blessedness and incorruptibility as being truly pious.

    Col. 48 talks about why these views are held:

    “it is necessary to declare to them simply and in a fairly direct manner that every person must observe the laws and the customs as long as they (i.e., the laws and the customs) do not command any element of impiety. For the deity, I think, ought to have been deemed surpassing in all things, that is to say, the deity that is evident and honoured in ritual observance (or ‘in intelligent contemplation’), as Epicurus proclaims.”

    Keywords here are “ritual observance/intelligent contemplation” translating εν τηι θεωριαι This ambiguous meaning goes back to my new translation of the characteristics of the Epicurean sage, namely this section…n-others-in-contemplation Some translations of that section of Diogenes Laertius say the sage will enjoy the spectacles more than others. I feel justified in my translation since Obbink here seems to be dealing with the same ambiguous dilemma of the word θεωριαι.

    Column 49 gets at why some people said Epicurus wasn’t brought up on charges of impiety like Socrates was:

    They [opponents of Epicureans] also claim that Epicurus escaped from the Athenian masses not because [2-4 words missing] he held less impious views, but because his philosophy had escaped the notice of many people.

    Just slander? Or a manifestation of the lathe biosas?

    Column 51 comes back to Epicurus’s practice:

    And with regard to festivals and sacrifices and all such things generally, it must be entirely acknowledged that he acted in accordance with what he believed and taught and that he faithfully employed oaths and tokens of good faith, and he kept them; and the demonstrations about his life which are in Zeno [one of Philodemus’s teachers] make clear to people this most important testament among his agreements [i.e., Epicurus’s will]. So far in fact was he from being harmful to anyone of mankind that not only did he honour his parents as much as the gods, nor was he fondly disposed only towards his brothers, … [missing pieces up to column 53] …

    Column 53 talks about how Epicurus was kind to everyone, didn’t bring any lawsuits, and did not become the butt of writers of comedy! He lived “without falling prey to the virtue-hating and all-harassing mouth of comedy.” “Virtue-hating and all-harassing mouth of comedy” translates the Greek το μισοχρηστον στομα και παντα σινομενον επεσε της κωμωδιας (misokhreston stoma kai panta sinomenon epese tes komodias). I must admit that’s a pretty good epithet to throw at someone! The Greek misokhreston literally means “hating-the-better-sort”.

    53 continues in column 54:

    And he did not even utter a word against the sophistical orators who made mention of him; so great was the strength of the effective precaution against all things that could possibly annoy anyone in deed or word, or even give the impression of intending to inflict harm. For what some have ventured to say, namely that he went unknown to people, shows first of all that neither he nor his followers were harmfully disposed towards their fellow citizens; and then that no bitter slander or lawsuit on account of a major doctrine …

    I should point out that “he went unknown to people” does NOT use any form of lathe biosas in the original Greek text but rather [εγ]ινωσκε[τ]ο. The idea here appears to be to assert how much more Epicurus was an upstanding pious citizen who didn’t bother anyone unlike philosophers like Socrates who got himself charged, tried, and killed. Column 56 even says that Epicurus was “conducting himself so many years in a manner not inactive towards the city [i.e., playing his full part in public life].” Cassius may find that last line interesting in light of the popular apolitical “hiding in a cave” descriptions of Epicurus.

  • From the middle of column 51 to the end brings to mind the discussion near the end of the Barrett podcast concerning humans being an integral part of a social network (this is only fractionally online ;)). She and the host discuss how you can contribute either positively or negatively to the network and, over time, you basically reap what you have sown. Epicurus appears to be exemplary in this regard.

    As to the preceeding columns, there's quite a bit to digest. Some of it seems to be contradictory to my current understanding. Which makes it quite interesting!

  • Also the point about 'virtue-hating' and "all-harassing" -- I would suspect that might hint toward criticizing 'cynicism' or "nihilism" and that's a very interesting topic in itself.

    Just to be clear, "virtue-hating and all-harassing mouth" is Philodemus's description of the comedy writers. So, he's contrasting, for example, the depiction of Socrates in Aristophanes' Clouds with the fact that Epicurus never got lampooned by the comedy playwrights because Epicurus was so exemplary a citizen of Athens.

  • Yes I think we are together. I can easily see the Epicureans criticizing attitudes that are excessively or improperly "virtue hating" and "all-harassing" while still agreeing with the criticism of Socrates, since the Epicureans considered Socrates to have been very defective in his teaching and therefore probably worthy of the ridicule he received.