The Ethical Implications Of Epicurus' Theology

  • One of my friends is always shocked upon re-hearing me say that Epicurus was not an atheist and, that as an Epicurean, I'm not an atheist. He quickly asks in dismay, but aren't you a fan of Dawkins? lol ... the issue has always been the purported relationship with God(s) as personal deities* and superstition/supernatural phenomenon, both of which I reject.

    *I'm not against universal forces as deities that have a relationship, for good or bad, with us.

    Joy to the World!

  • It's tricky to navigate these waters since much of the issue in dispute is the definition of what a "god" really is. I think my personal experience is best described as "talking about this subject is one of the most efficient ways possible to waste the largest amounts of time and create hard feelings, only to be avoided by defining what each party means by the term "god" at the very beginning of the conversation."

  • Indeed there are several contradicting definitions of a god in circulation.

    There is the monotheist definition of a god as an omnipotent creator of all that exists. This definition implies a self-contradiction. So it is pointless to discuss it.

    (The term "creator" would mean an external cause of all that exists, which is a paradox, because it would mean that the creator is not part of all that exists and therefore non-existent.)

    I usually define a god as anything that is worshiped as such.

    This definition simply describes the phenomenon that humans worship stuff.

    In Roman tradition the gods belonged into three categories or combinations of them:

    1. Natural phenomena - e.g. Tellus (Gaia, the Earth), Caelus (Uranus, the sky), Tiberinus (the Tiber river)

    2. Actual historical persons - e.g. Quirinus (Romulus, founder of Rome), Caesar and Augustus

    3. Abstract terms - e.g. Iustitia (the principle of justice), Pax (the principle of peace), Concordia (the concept of harmony among people)

    It would be absurd to deny the existence of any of these gods. Therefore the term "atheist" is meaningless, if it does not specify, which definition of a god it denies.

    The most foolish people are modern (mostly Christian) atheists and agnostics that deny the existence of the creator god, but in order to do so they willingly accept the illogical and self-contradictory definition of the Christians. Some of them even defend their position by shifting the burden of proof back to the monotheists. So in effect they only disagree with the monotheist about the probability of god's existence. They fail to realize the irrationality of the question itself, since it uses an invalid definition.

  • Hmmmm. Language can pose difficulties in understanding, especially using abstractions that change meanings depending who's using the terms. I think that's why Epicurus had little use for philosophies that wander away from natural realities that impinge on all alike. The medieval anonymous author who wrote "The Cloud of Unknowing" speaks paradoxically of God as being loved but not thought. The moment descriptions or ascriptions come into play about God, no longer is the subject or the object "God" but rather some ideology, some abstraction. Myself, and a close friend, commonly use (...) for the felt impingement of what religionists call God. This may be silly or perhaps private, meaningless in the public square but full of sensation internally (a broadening smile, tears of sadness or joy, a sense of "Presence"). The means of communicating (...) are acts of kindness, caring, helpfulness, friendship. My understanding of friendship in the way of Epicurus is a mutuality, some quid pro quo, trust, nurture, support, guidance, cultivation as a prime goal in life. What I wonder is would Epicurus have regarded the sense of awe, wonder, mystery as a humbling experience that helps a person avoid the attraction to vanities and socially tantalizing addictions--undue wealth, power, influence? Seems to me that Epicurus would have counseled one to utilize those wholesome virtues of fairness, kindness, helpfulness, while discarding the judgmental trappings of religion. The shift from a metaphysical framework for living, in which I grew up, to a profoundly naturalistic framework, as I understand Epicurean thought and practice, is life changing. I feel like such a beginner.

  • What I wonder is would Epicurus have regarded the sense of awe, wonder, mystery as a humbling experience that helps a person avoid the attraction to vanities and socially tantalizing addictions--undue wealth, power, influence?

    I have to believe you are correct about that, and that something like that is hinted near the beginning of Lucretius book 6 with

    "no more in tranquility and peace will you be able to receive the images, the representations of their divine forms, that form from their pure bodies and strike powerfully upon the minds of men:"