Epicureans and the Ancient Greek Gods (Imagery of "Gods" / "Gods Among Men")

  • Name Period Status Verification Source Comments
    Epicurus 300 BC Self-Evident
    Metrodorus Avowed Epicurean Diogenes Laertius
    Hermarchus Avowed Epicurean Diogenes Laertius
    Polyaenas Avowed Epicurean Diogenes Laertius
    Philonides of Laodicea 200-130 BC Avowed Epicurean Life of Philonides from Herculaneum Court Philosopher of Antiochus IV Epiphanes
    Philonides of Laodicea 200-130 BC Avowed Epicurean Life of Philonides from Herculaneum Court Philosopher of Antiochus IV Epiphanes
    Titus Lucretius Carus 50 BC Avowed Epicurean De Rerum Natura
    Catius Insuber Cicero Mentioned by Cicero in letter to Cassius of January 45 BC as "lately dead." Mentioned by Cassius in letter to Cicero of January 45 BC as, with Amafinius, a translator of Epicurus. Wikipedia
    Amafinius Cassius Mentioned by Cassius in letter to Cicero of January 45 BC as, with Catius, a translator of Epicurus. Wikipedia
    Titus Pomponius Atticus 50 BC Avowed Epicurean Cicero Wikipedia
    Pansa Mentioned by Cassius in letter to Cicero of January 45 BC: "Consequently Pansa, who follows pleasure, keeps his hold on virtue, and those also whom you call pleasure-lovers are lovers of what is good and lovers of justice, and cultivate and keep all the virtues."
    Gaius Cassius Longinus 50 BC Avowed Epicurean Letters to Cicero
    Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) 50 BC Wikipedia
    Philodemus of Gadara Herculaneum Papers
    Diogenes Laertius 200 AD ? Unclear Statements in Epicurus’ Biography
    Diogenes of Oinoanda Avowed Epicurean Author of the Epicurean Inscription
    Pompeia Plotina Died circa 120 AD Wikipedia Wife of Trajan; Adopted Mother of Hadrian; wrote letter to Hadrian asking for special consideration under Roman law for Epicurean School.
    Thomas Jefferson
    Avowed Epicurean Letter to William Short
  • I think it would be an interesting artistic exercise to attempt to create an "Epicurean Deity" based solely on the philosophical description, devoid of the polytheistic accretions.

  • I think it would be an interesting artistic exercise to attempt to create an "Epicurean Deity" based solely on the philosophical description, devoid of the polytheistic accretions.

    I could not find a smiling Venus or Aphrodite when I searched on google, but I found a SMILING Lakshmi, which is the Hindu version.


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

  • I think it would be an interesting artistic exercise to attempt to create an "Epicurean Deity" based solely on the philosophical description, devoid of the polytheistic accretions.

    I don't really disagree with that wording, but I think part of the issue we are talking about is whether the description is purely philosophical / conceptual, or whether it includes the actual references to the material in "On the Nature of the Gods," Lucretius' poem, etc. An Epicurean deity to an ancient Greco-Roman Epicurean would presumably not look exactly like a Hindu version or an African version or an Asian version, but similar characteristics could be embodied using any of the cultural pictures, I would think.

  • And of course in this discussion we also have to consider the specific phrase "gods among men," and the serious or semi-serious or allegorical references to Epicurus himself as a god, for which reason you could presumably have idealized but recognizable figures of men and women serving as examples of "gods among men."

    In fact what we may be talking about here is visualizing "gods among men" as much as visualizing "gods" themselves."

    And it may also be relevant to consider the relationship of this topic to the way the Romans ended up considering their emperors as "gods"

  • Cassius

    Changed the title of the thread from “Epicureans and the Ancient Greek Gods (Imagery)” to “Epicureans and the Ancient Greek Gods (Imagery of "Gods" / "Gods Among Men")”.
  • I will be very interested to observe the results if that project gets off the ground because it would illustrate more clearly what the Epicurean deities would have to be like according to the philosophical descriptions. Like I've said previously, I don't know if its even possible to do this given their very particular description, but I think it would be interesting to see.

    You'll then be able to compare them against the old Greco-Roman depictions to see where they diverge.

    Then you can pit them against other deities from other religions and philosophy to see where they stand. ;)

  • Typically, religious imagery is symbolic, and the actual elements of the image aren't considered to be expressive of objective reality. Shape, contour, and color are removed from their natural orientation, and repurposed for the purely symbolic. For example, the picture of Lakshmi depicts a goddess clothed in gold, representing wealth and prosperity (who knows if such a being would have actually preferred yellow tones). We also observe that––though clearly human in form––she has four arms, representing the four, possible aims of life (as identified in Hindu philosophy), being Kama (Sensual Gratification), Artha (Economic Success), Dharma (Spiritual Fulfillment), and Moksha (Transcendental Liberation). Her depiction expresses ideas, and not atoms.

    Epicurus warns us against explicitly mythologizing our experience, so attempting to express the 'Ideal Epicurean Being' as an image is incredibly difficult. Like the creator of the image of Lakshmi, we, too, are tasking ourselves with encoding meaning through shape, contour, and color, which requires that we mythologize our experience rather than express it at the atomic level. Thus, we run into frequent discussion about 'the gods' without being able to describe their specific qualities (not generalizations like 'they're made of atoms' or 'they represent the ethical ideal', but specifics like, 'here is a description of their evolutionary history, their location in spacetime, and the biochemical means by which they are capable of maintaining constant pleasure).

    It may not be the case that there are any universal images that can adequately express the character of 'the [atomic] gods'. Epicurus doesn't seem to have written any hymns, prescribed prayer rituals, or dedicated any of his writing to Hellenistic deities like Lucretius later did, so I question if Epicurus personally viewed 'the gods' as anything but 'symbolic mental imagery that most people seem to rely upon to orient themselves toward pursuing satisfaction'. I sometimes wonder if Epicurus simply appropriated the symbolic imagery of 'God' as a teaching tool when attempting to instruct religious-minded students, sort of like when atheists rhetorically invoke the Ten Commandments to traditionally-minded Christians to justify their progressive position (like being against Capital Punishment).

    In general, I think it might be more appropriate to dig into the imagery of our own experiences if we're trying to find 'the gods'. For some Epicureans, it may have been Epicurus; for other Hellenists, it may have been giant, intergalactic beings who accidentally communicate through dreams; for Nietzsche, it may have been the Ubermensch; for contemporary American youth, it may be superheroes; for contemporary atheists, it may be astronauts; for many of us, it may be parents, mentors, or teachers who provide powerful examples that we can strive to emulate. All of these people become characters in our mind that allow us to reflect upon the choices we make. Maybe those mental ideations are the same tangible entities that Epicurus called 'the gods'.

  • Yes I agree Nate --->

    so attempting to express the 'Ideal Epicurean Being' as an image is incredibly difficult.

    Yes especially since the word "ideal" indicates something that does not exist. We are talking even in Epicurean terms about beings that exist, even as "gods among men" exist. I think our first and maybe best shot is as you indicate, depicting images of people who are outstandingly successful in the important areas of life. For some reason Sean Connery as James Bond kind of exemplifies (in my mind) as the ultimate "spy." I think we're talking about depicting people who are in the process of living this description:

    The truth of the position that pleasure is the ultimate good will most readily appear from the following illustration. Let us imagine a man living in the continuous enjoyment of numerous and vivid pleasures alike of body and of mind, undisturbed either by the presence or by the prospect of pain: what possible state of existence could we describe as being more excellent or more desirable? One so situated must possess in the first place a strength of mind that is proof against all fear of death or of pain; he will know that death means complete unconsciousness, and that pain is generally light if long and short if strong, so that its intensity is compensated by brief duration and its continuance by diminishing severity. Let such a man moreover have no dread of any supernatural power; let him never suffer the pleasures of the past to fade away, but constantly renew their enjoyment in recollection, and his lot will be one which will not admit of further improvement.

    That kind of picture really doesn't require costumes or idealizations at all.

  • Ok so I’ve been meditating on this for the last couple of days and I’ve come to a conclusion...

    I agree with Nate that all anyone would be doing trying to capture an “ideal” Epicurean deity in canvas would be just reinventing the wheel. From a universal point of view, it’s just not going to work or even be meaningful to the philosophy.

    So here’s what I’ve come up with...

    I believe that Epicurean philosophy (in modern times) owes a serious explanation for their gods. My personal opinion is that the “metacosmic” deities are really, really difficult to maintain for the average adherent of the philosophy. So what I believe will work with the philosophy in modern times is a very soft pantheism.

    This shifts all the focus off the idealized deities and puts it right back on nature. What is deity? It’s nature. What would we use for images? Beautiful images of nature. The best sunsets, sunrises landscapes, seascapes, star fields and galaxies.

    This soft pantheism differs from the more Stoic pandeism and panpsychism, that affirms that a divine mind is immanent and active in everything.

    With a soft pantheism there is some wiggle room, not much for a faint agnostic flavoring of Providence. Enough to satisfy former religious theists and not enough to drive ANY dogmas or doctrines at all. Basically Providence in this scheme is the observable fact that that we have cosmic order that is conducive to life and self reflection as opposed to undefined molecular chaos swirling in the void.

    So those are my thoughts on this...

    The easiest transition for a theist to the Epicurean system is to promote nature oriented pantheism. No images of gods, just universally beautiful images of nature. Things that give pleasure and please the eye.

  • Ha! I bet you expect I will object to that Matthaeus!

    First, unless I misunderstand what you are saying (possible, as I am reading during a class) you are advocating the stoic model of "nature as deity." I feel sure Epicurus would object to that, because he believed he had established real living intelligent beings with deathlessness and blissfulness, first of all.

    Second, I think it is the wrong direction even to discuss "idealized deities" with the emphasis on the "idealized" as the problem. Epicurus was theorizing as to actual attributes of actual beings which are a part of nature, and the term "idealized" is fraught with danger as inconsistent with that approach.

    And yep "Basically Providence in this scheme is the observable fact that that we have cosmic order that is conducive to life and self reflection as opposed to undefined molecular chaos swirling in the void" I think Epicurus would object to the word "order" to the extent that that implies that there is an outside force organizing the matter which organizes by its own properties into the life and other bodies that we see and experience.

    At risk of being too random I want to paste the following here, because I think it relates directly to this discussion in terms of the causation issues, as it shows how Cicero describes his main objection to Epicurean physics:

    "Still, there is a great deal in each of them (Epicurus and Democritus) with which I do not agree, and especially this: in the study of Nature there are two questions to be asked, first, what is the matter out of which each thing is made, second, what is the force by which it is made; now Democritus and Epicurus have discussed the question of matter, but they have not considered the question of force or the efficient cause."

    Same issue, stated another way by Cicero: "The swerving is itself an arbitrary fiction; for Epicurus says the atoms swerve without a cause, — yet this is the capital offense in a natural philosopher, to speak of something taking place uncaused."

    And one more major physics objection by Cicero: Irrelevant to us today, or important to refute? "It is also unworthy of a natural philosopher to deny the infinite divisibility of matter; an error that assuredly Epicurus would have avoided, if he had been willing to let his friend Polyaenus teach him geometry instead of making Polyaenus himself unlearn it."

  • Yep! That’s what I was trying to do! Haha

    I knew you would object, I will sustain it so as to not fall into a spiraling wormhole of theology ad nauseam tonight... for everyone’s wellbeing and sanity.Haha :D

  • I think I agree with elli.

    Re;- "These deities are described in the Theogony and Metamorphosis as having identical emotions as mortal beings". Surely that is because some of them are personifications of natural psychological forces, isn't it? Others may also be personifications of natural physical forces, such as storms and earthquakes (Poseidon). As we know, now, the emotions are mediated by the limbic system, which evolved before the cortex, in order to preserve cellular homeostasis. Of course, Hesiod, Ovid, or Epicurus, couldn't have known about Darwinian evolution or homeostasis because the systematic study of biology only really got started with Aristotle.

    We don't have to worship the gods, we don't need to be afraid of them, and we don't have to agree with Hesiod (or even Ovid) about our general approach to life, but we should recognise that these emotions exist, and we need to deal with them through art, as well as through science and philosophy.

  • I may be wrong about any of this. As I have said elsewhere, I'm not an expert. I am not aware of the point of view that says 'Aristotelian biological thought was an impediment to the advancement of biology', but it may be so. Aristotle wasn't really a scientist. Science, as we now know it, only started much later, probably in the 'Enlightenment'. But certainly not before Francis Bacon. The existence of atoms, as understood in the modern physical/chemical sense, as opposed to Epicurean 'atoms', was only scientifically confirmed in the early 20th century (after Max Planck started the train of thought and enquiry that led to quantum theory). I consider that modern biological understanding only really started with Darwin, in the 19th century. Empirical discoveries have always been made. But I don't know of any systematic biological thought before Aristotle.

  • Hi Clive,

    I wanted to swing by and welcome you. I’ve been taking a short hiatus but I would enjoy discussing your thoughts further when I return.

    If you read further up the thread you’ll see that there are three positions modern Epicureans take on the gods issue. Two of which posit that the gods do not actually exist and one (the Traditional view) that they fundamentally do exist.

    This discussion is primarily concerned with the Epicurean conception of deity and whether the gods, as specifically described by Epicurus, are capable of existing or not. Some Epicureans hold that there are real beings, as real as you and I are existing in the universe or the intermundia. Others are claiming pure atheism and still others claim they are not real but just allegorical and artistic interpretations of the human psyche and nature.