Reverence and Awe In Epicurean Philosophy

  • This discussion is filling the void of this rather quiet and somber Christmas Eve day. I’m very happy that I came back when I did.

    I agree! And I will add to give credit to those of us here who deserve it (not so much me, but the ones really exploring this) that I think this side of Epicurean philosophy has been totally neglected by modern commentators (other than DeWitt) even though it is one of the most important. I think this is the path forward too - surely the term "pleasure" is key in all of this, but what we're discussing now is a side of pleasure that the modern commentators refuse to attribute to Epicurus, and that's one of the greatest injustices and inaccuracies of their approach.

  • So a thought passed through my mind last night...

    As a person who made theology a very large part of my initial philosophical studies especially with Hindu Vedanta and Neoplatonism, I started to meditate how (or rather what) it was that allowed me to transition to an Epicurean understanding of divinity. And later what caused my distress with a more “advanced” view Epicurean theology.

    In the Letter of Menoeceus, my first real introduction to Epicurean writings, I was struck by what was said right out of the gates about the gods/God. This I think was what allowed me to transition initially.

    What I realized is that the statement about God in Menoeceus is in fact “apophatic theology” and I think that’s what really appealed to me initially.

    Essentially Epicurus affirms that there is a God, this God is “immortal and happy” and whatever agrees with this notion is sufficient knowledge for us to the degree that anything beyond this runs into the realm metaphysical speculation.

    This apophatic theological view of a particularly unknowable and ineffable entity is in my opinion what Epicurus was trying to convey to us. Beautiful poetic language that affirms the cataphatic or positive qualities of immortality and happiness are good for the Epicurean because it upholds this notion outlined in Menoeceus. But if a person starts diving into the metakosmos trying to examine this divinity in their mind’s eye...They are in the realm Neoplatonic style speculation. They are no longer affirming simple concepts but they may be attempting to “create” or generate ideas about divinity. These ideas are entirely the mental property of the speculator and they are in the realm of idealism since the Gods are not available to be studied.

    For the Neoplatonists who stretched the technical minutiae about God/The One, Mind/Nous etc. to the point of logical madness, they still do not arrive with any empirical or sensory evidence of the truth of their speculations. Just extremely complex mental formulas that arrive at “divine simplicity.”

    To say the aggregate of all things is “One” is really cool to say, but it does absolutely nothing for us. This axiomatic One has has no administration, does nothing itself (except emanate the chain of being). It’s divinely simple. It took an incredible amount of mental energy from Plotinus to Proclus arrive at quite literally the most irrelevant and useless conclusion that all things are the ONE.

    Just as the Stoics attribute the Divine Fire/Logos to everything in a pantheistic manner is fun to say, but it’s just an abstract mind exercise. Without really powerful evidence that there is a transcendent or immanent Nous in all things that is responsible for the Forms in the platonic sense, the “forms” that we eventually apprehend and comprehend with our own material mind through the senses. Or in a more stoic sense the Logos is responsible for the rational aggregated cosmos (which makes little sense when we see just how much “randomness” there is in nature). You still just have a very abstract idealist concept with no evidence other than what you “think” or deduce to be true.

    Moving away from this back to the the Epicurean view, Epicurus avoids the intense speculative habits of the Platonists and Stoics by simply saying (just like they do) God exists...he’s immortal and happy (full stop), as far as our common understanding of what a God must be, but beyond that anything “added” to this extremely simplistic formula will run into speculation. Speculation about an unknowable is what leads to distress.

    In my case, that’s exactly what happened. I tried to add ideas to what a god was beyond “immortality and happiness”...others added the ideas of atomic beings, transhumanism or extra terrestrials etc. so my very “simple” idea of God, immortal and happy, took on a a whole host of other speculative attributes. Then the “whys?” begin...why is God immortal and happy? Why does he never get irritated? Why doesn’t he have any administration? Why doesn’t he interact with humankind?...then you read classical arguments against Epicurean theology from Cicero and others and the beat goes on until you no longer trust Epicurus. Who in all piety, simply affirms the existence of God, admonishes us not to think too deeply and speculate too much as others do.

    For me had I just gone full stop after the statement in Menoeceus, I could’ve cultivated a blessed and happy vision of divinity, left it ALONE and continued pursuing my own happiness, I probably wouldn’t have been sucked back into metaphysical theological speculation for the last few years. I personally do not need anything from the metakosmic deities, unless what I get from them makes me exceptionally divinely happy.

  • I think there is a lot to work with there Matt. We'll need to integrate where the line is, since there IS some speculation in the philodemus / velleius material, but you're right Epicurus may not have done that himself. Drawing a logical dividing line will be key.

  • Yeah I don’t want to continue beating this subject to death unless folks are very interested in reviving it. I personally have a fixation on it because it gave me such trouble early on and I feel it’s helpful for me to sort of “talk it out.”

    I haven’t battled it out with Stoics in quite some time over the nature of the divine. So I’m rusty, but definitely if I spend a day looking at some Stoic forums I’ll be sure have all sorts of material. 😎

  • Essentially Epicurus affirms that there is a God, this God is “immortal and happy” ....

    ...why is God immortal and happy? Why does he never get irritated? Why doesn’t he have any administration? Why doesn’t he interact with humankind?...

    Matt, I might be nit-picking but I think there is an important point to make here. Epicurus never referred to "God," always to "the gods."

    To my understanding there is never a single instance of one type of entity in the infinite Epicurean universe, so there can't be God, only gods. Missing this detail, even in apophatic theology, opens the door to a more mystical interpretation than what I think Epicurus had in mind.

    Even if using the term "God" is force of habit I think it's important to treat it like certain descriptors that are avoided in the racial justice movement. That's probably a bad example: I'm not saying that saying God comes close to a racial slur! But refining one's vocabulary refines one's thinking.

  • Hi Godfrey, I think that either is acceptable, singular or plural. Since we are generically referring to divinity or multiple divinities, either one or many.

    Specifically Epicurus in his letter to Menoeceus he uses the singular “theon”:

    “πρῶτον μὲν τὸν θεὸν ζῷον ἄφθαρτον καὶ μακάριον νομίζων, ὡς ἡ κοινὴ τοῦ θεοῦ νόησις ὑπεγράφη, μηθὲν μήτε τῆς ἀφθαρσίας”

  • Honestly whether there are many thousands of Epicurean deities, 5 of them, or just one, the number ultimately does not change whether such a being/beings can or should be described in extremely deep philosophical detail. Simply because whether there are 5000 or just 1 we have the same amount of verifiable information about any number in that range.

  • Matt is absolutely correct that the singular θεός (accusative sing. θεόν)…:1999.04.0057:entry=qeo/s is used in a number of places in classical Epicurean texts just as the plural is used in other places. The singular should in no way make people think Epicurus or other writers were endorsing a monotheistic theology like Christianity, Judaism, etc. The capitalized God in translations is misleading.

    The singular can also refer to "gods" in general or the concept of divinity.

    One interesting idea in a Sedley essay (I *think*) I've read is that the singular was used to refer to each individual Epicurean's image of the divine. Each person creates their individual concept of a blessed and incorruptible "god" for themselves from the "images" available to him or her in their mind.

  • Don thanks for posting that! Yes, this goes back to what interpret as the very subjective nature of the Epicurean understanding of divinity. Whatever an individual does with it beyond what the texts say is entirely up to them. Whether you believe in any number of deities or none at all. We are still Epicurean.

    Everything that I write here is simply my own interpretation or me just throwing down ideas. I could be entirely wrong about what Epicurus meant, I’m just talking things out...this type of discussion is often helpful for me to solidify certain concepts.

  • There are logical reasons why "one god" doesn't work in Epicurean philosophy, regardless of its other attributes. Nature never furnishes only one thing of a kind. In an infinite cosmos these forms are being endlessly thrown up somewhere.

    This assumes, of course, that one takes the realist view of Epicurean divinity.

  • Don it turns out I've already got that article; guess I need to read it! :)

    From pp 51-2 it appears Sedley is making a case for the idealist view.

    I would think that one using the idealist view would need to abide by the idea that nature never furnishes only one thing of a kind, just as they would idealize the gods as blessed and incorruptible. But the suggestion of creating one's own concept of a particular personal god, as a means of practicing the idealist view (if I'm understanding that correctly), is intriguing and not something that I've encountered before.

  • And, just theorizing here, if there are an innumerable number of worlds in the cosmos with an innumerable number of beings that means there would potentially be an innumerable number of "blessed and incorruptible gods" "existing", potentially one for each being (if all the beings were Epicureans, of course).

    I think Sedley's idea is that the gods are incorruptible since they're created out of mental images which can't be destroyed (until, of course, I'd say when the person holding that view of a god had died).

  • Good day to all of you, and happy new year.

    If you permit me, I would like to add some of my thoughts in this discussion that became so complicated.

    First of all I agree with all the thoughts and comments as they have been written clearly by Elayne.

    I would like to begin with this : when the embryo in an uterus does not evolve with the right divisions of chromosomes, in many many cases Nature vomits it with a misscariage. So, to hold and see a baby is not an issue to be a pediatrician only, it is an issue to think how much chance is needed to be born and seeing the beauty that is called Cosmos. And this is the awe that is also connecting with the "gratidute". Gratidue to the Nature, gratidute to you grand parents, gratidute to your parents (that are your first gods) IF the social enviroment that they have created for you, along with their pains and pleasures, permits YOU to be and living free and self-sufficient for the natural and your necessary...and then all the others.

    However, IF any image as a knowledge of gods has been envolved for leading people to division and strife... which is the general picture, till now actually... so, then, Nature vomits it with a misscariage that Epicurus called it as "ypolepsis" and not "prolepsis". Prolepsis must always be judged by the senses and feelings, if NOT they become "ypolepsis" and that means empty assuptions, vague opinions, vague speculations and empty beliefs... so then, Nature vomits all of them in the black hole with ideas by Plato and the worse is when it vomits them, here on earth with what we called it as "wars". <X

    Moreover, IF Epicurus would live in our days, he would tell us as a wise grandppa :

    <<Hey people 2.400 years have passed from the era that I many discoveries you have made, so many painful and pleasant situations and emotions you have lived and felt... and you are still waiting for so long to conclude with a definite answer on the question IF there is any god? LOL:)

    What the heck, where did you see, hear, touch, smell any god except the temples, the icons, and the statues that all were made with the money of the priesthood in colaboration with politicians just for the cunning purpose to keep you as subortinated slaves?

    Did you ever realize that when I said the word "gods" I meant YOU, the epicureans, who are deepening inside their hearts our theories, making them in practice, and while they use inconsistency and AS ONE the Physiology (all sciences), the methodology of the Canon, and the Ethics for making right conclusions for living your unique life in pleasure?

    In this way, I meant that you can live like gods, BUT- and still there is a huge BUT - the fact of the reality, till now, and as I mentioned this in my epistle to Meneoceus, is that you are living among MEN and what men ? Orangutans, chimpanzees, monkeys, and baboons. LOL:)

    When you would be able to live among gods, then we will talk about this again. Maybe there is a definite conclusion for living like gods among gods is an utopia. Utopia means that there is not any place in this planet Earth that you can live like gods among gods. Not still now. Hope so, but the Hope, as that myth says, it was the LAST THING in the Pandoras box.8o

    And finaly Epicurus would say something to Nietsche :

    Dear colleague on philosophy : all of your life you have searched for the Hyperman...but First thing first, for us, is to search on how a man could become and living like a man, and then we will search talking about the hyperman>>. LOL:)


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

  • Elli I do have a couple of questions to be sure I understand your meaning:

    (1) So what do you see as the proper understanding of "gods" in Epicurean philosophy? I see you referencing living as gods among men, and you are saying that Epicurus did not mean that literally. Can you say more about the implications of what he DID mean?

    (2) And maybe as an example, how do you take the opening of Book 1 of Lucretius and how that fits into your view?

    I know there's a lot more to this topic but I am sure the people in this thread would be interested in more details of your view given that you are so much more familiar with Greek traditions, current Greek Epicurean views, etc, than most of us are.

  • Cassius, literally Epicurus said : Meditate on these things, as I wrote above to you, with yourself and a companion like yourself so then, you will be living like a god among MEN. For a man who lives among immortal blessings is not like unto a mortal being.

    The question is what is the main immortal blessing for Epicurus?

    Here it is : ES 78. The brave (false translation is that Epicurus said noble) he said: The brave soul occupies itself with wisdom and friendship; of these the one is a mortal good, the other immortal.

    Lucretius was an epicurean poet, and wrote a masterpiece, of course. Lucretius gave a name to the whole Nature as Venus and that's all. Greeks called her as Gaia and not Aphrodite actually. Lucretius for Venus and on the issue on love, somewhere else wrote and this :

    "And NOT through divine effect and the arrows of Venus it sometimes happens that a little woman of inferior form is loved. For sometimes a woman herself brings it about through her own actions and compliant ways (morigerique modis) and neatly groomed body that she easily accustoms you to live your life with her. For the rest, familiarity creates love (amor); for that which is beaten by a frequent blow, however lightly, yet after long lapse of time is conquered and gives way. Do you not also see that drops of water falling onto rocks after long lapse of time beat through the rocks ? (DRN 4.1278-1287).

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