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

  • Cassius,


    My position is that Epicurus should not have positited his own position on the gods, in the specific way he did.


    Whether he believed in them or not, he boxed himself in. To the point he was either fabricating this whole theology or he had some sort of divine revelation. Because in my opinion the formula is far too specific.


    My personal belief is that from a philosophical perspective, Divinity if it exists, is ineffable. Literally without a specific object to subject revelation, no knowledge can ever be attained on the subject.

  • Agreed Cassius, that is the most comprehensive description.


    The some parts of PD’s, VS’s and the a few lines of the Letter to Menoeceus also contain E’s statements on the subject.

  • I know this is asking a lot, post the specific attributes and sensations that Epicurus gives to his God(s)?

    It would be interesting to try to address this specifically, although it is dangerous to tease too much out of isolated passages, single words, translations, etc.


    1. Blessed

    2. Immortal


    We have then a preconception of such a nature that we believe the gods to be blessed and immortal. For nature, which bestowed upon us an idea of the gods themselves, also engraved on our minds the belief that they are eternal and blessed.

    3. Human shape

    4. Not corporeal, but resembling a bodily substance

    5. Not containing blood, but the semblance of blood


    “For the divine form we have the hints of nature supplemented by the teachings of reason. From nature all men of all races derive the notion of gods as having human shape and none other; for in what other shape do they ever appear to anyone, awake or asleep? But not to make primary concepts the sole test of all things, reason itself delivers the pronouncement. For it seems appropriate that a being who is the most exalted, whether by reason of his happiness or of his eternity, should also be the most beautiful; but what disposition of the limbs, what cast of features, what shape or outline can be more beautiful than the human form? You Stoics at least, Lucilius, (for my friend Cotta says one thing at one time and another at another) are wont to portray the skill of the divine creator by enlarging on beauty as well as the utility of design displayed in all parts of the human figure. But if the human figure surpasses the form of all other living beings, and god is a living being, god must possess the shape which is the most beautiful of all; and since it is agreed that the gods are supremely happy, and no one can be happy without virtue, and virtue cannot exist without reason, and reason is only found in the human shape, it follows that the gods possess the form of man. Yet their form is not corporeal, but only resembles bodily substance; it does not contain blood, but the semblance of blood.


    Not part of description but of our perception of them


    6. "....an endless train of precisely similar images arises from the innumerable atoms and streams towards the gods,"


    7.In number, at least as many gods as there are humans:


    From this principle it follows that if the whole number of mortals be so many, there must exist no less a number of immortals, and if the causes of destruction are beyond count, the causes of conservation also are bound to be infinite

    8. How they spend their time:
    ... how they pass their days. The answer is, their life is the happiest conceivable, and the one most bountifully furnished with all good things. God is entirely inactive and free from all ties of occupation; he toils not neither does he labor, but he takes delight in his own wisdom and virtue, and knows with absolute certainty that he will always enjoy pleasures at once consummate and everlasting.



    9. Somewhere it is stated that they speak Greek, or a language like Greek, but I am not sure of the cite for that.

  • Obviously an allegorical god is not the same thing as a real “atomic” god. The issue is that Epicurus himself posits that the gods are in fact real.

    Hola Mateo! While I grant your point, here you touch on something interesting. Allegorical and atomic deities are not mutually contradictory, and in your persistent concern with theology you have abandoned the utility and purpose of religious experience, which is to help us experience pure, effortless pleasure.


    When Lucretius says that all of nature opens up in spring FOR Venus, he is clearly not referring to a goddess with a physical body that dwells outside of the galaxies. He is using the religious image to induce pleasure, in-spiration.

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

  • “and in your persistent concern with theology you have abandoned the utility and purpose of religious experience”

    Hola Hiram!


    I agree fullheartedly that my persistence has become tiresome and we’ve discussed this subject ad nauseam. My purpose for the persistence was only to be “on the record” so to speak, since as we all know it’s easy to be drowned out or lost in the shuffle in online discussions. And as you know I am attempting to diminish my online presence as much as possible and will probably be online significantly less in the future. Cyber communication is often transient and ephemeral.


    But I wanted to do due diligence for a subject which I felt was very important. So important that it changed my perspective of the philosophy itself. But I think I have made my position well documented here. I know I’m exhausted from it. ?


    Peace to you.

  • For me the most important thing about Epicurus' and the gods is that he said there is no need to be afraid of them. Whether he contradicted himself, or not, I can't decide. We know so little about the actual life of Epicurus. He was chased out of Mytilene (Lesbos), apparently in some danger to himself. I don't know the exact reasons for that. I don't know whether anyone else does. But it indicates to me that he probably did have to be a bit careful about what he said, especially given that his philosophy is about avoidance of pain. Whilst I don't know whether Epicurus said things he didn't really believe, I do have every sympathy with 'heretics' who recant when threatened with mob violence or state violence. (Botticelli, who painted the 'Birth of Venus', which is posted in this thread did the same).


    From what we know about it, Epicurus' description of the gods does seem to me to be consistent with his statement that "the gods exist" and the idea that everything consists of atoms and void.


    I have to go to to Dorset, tomorrow. While I am there I won't have easy access to the internet. I'll pick up the threads again when I get back home, in a couple of weeks time.

  • Also, I think I read somewhere that Epicurus also said that dreams are made of atoms, didn't he? (or did I imagine that, or dream it?). So the gods were made of the same stuff as dreams?


    We still don't really fully understand dreams, in terms of neurobiology (at least, I don't). Some of us now probably think that dreams, thought, feelings, emotions, etc, are holistic properties of the functioning of the brain, probably connected with processes dealing with the sorting of memories and emotions. There can also be a psychological (eg Jungian) interpretation of dreams etc, much of which seems to me to be quite astute (although Jung was open to everything, including, at times, the supernatural)


    I personally tend to believe in the most firmly established principles of modern science (which is not necessarily the same as believing anything that any scientist says is true). So, I don't believe in anything that seems to me to be supernatural (although I do also see the need for numinous art). But we can't expect the ancient Greeks to have known about 'science' as we know it. Or to have known what is 'supernatural' and what is not. They lived in a pre-scientific world. I find it quite remarkable that Epicurus was able to achieve the freedom of thought to figure out that the gods have no interest in human affairs so there is no need to be afraid of them. (He could also have said 'assuming they exist' but he didn't say that, so he apparently assumed they did exist and were composed of 'atoms' - like dreams).


    I don't need to think that any of the great thinkers of the past were right about everything, in order to be impressed by the things that they were right about.


    Likewise, Epicurus spoke about the 'swerve'. That 'atoms' fall down with a 'swerve', because he recognised the need for indeterminacy. We now know that is not very scientifically accurate. But we can't expect Epicurus to have been able to deduce Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. The mere fact that Epicurus saw the need to introduce indeterminacy into the 'atomic' model seems quite remarkable to me.


    If we want anything better, we will have to take the best of what we have learned from the thinkers of the past, whilst recognising their mistakes, and try to figure it out for ourselves.

  • As to dreams, I think Clive you're talking more in the area of "images" (which would also be made of atoms, however). The extended discussion of that is in Lucretius Book IV, and I gather that the Epicureans thought it was essential to discuss images not only as they relate to dreams, but because the movement of atoms back and forth through our eyes, ears, nose, touch, etc is how the senses work.