Reverence and Awe In Epicurean Philosophy

  • Quote

    Strange as these doctrines may seem, they were combined with definite previews of Christianity. The idea of love between man and God would not have seemed a novelty to Epicureans. They were taught "that the gods were friends of the wise and the wise were friends of the gods." Friendship and love were one for the Greeks, though denoted by different words in Latin and English.

    Okay, this is a prime example of why Dewitt drives me crazy in this book. His lack of a source for his quote of "the gods were friends of the wise and the wise were friends of the gods" does not allow us to see the context of the quote.

    Plus his assertion that "Friendship and love were one for the Greeks" is self-serving to his quote about the gods and the wise being friends, which makes me dubious.

    Of course, the Greeks had a different semantic spectrum when it came to love... And most everything else when compared to modern English words and idioms.

    I find this a fascinating thread and plan to weigh in more, but I had to get my DeWitt frustration off my chest. (Sorry, Cassius )

  • This is a fascinating and important topic, and a lot to digest! There's a reason that it was apparent saved for advanced study in Epicurus' day. I'll weigh in here but I've got limited time so hopefully I can make a coherent contribution.

    Discussion of the gods is inseparable from discussion of prolepsis. So to start, I think an excellent definition of prolepsis is "the faculty of pattern recognition." This compares to the faculty of the senses or of the feelings. An individual prolepsis is true in the same way that an individual sensation is true: it's what is perceived, but it doesn't necessarily correctly represent the external physical condition (think of the square/round tower example).

    Next, there is the particular prolepsis, in this case that of the gods (in the same way as there are particular sensations, for example). Finally, as I understand it, a particular prolepsis is not fixed but can change over time. Think of the infant's inkling of justice v that of an adult. A recognition of a pattern evolves as more information relevant to the particular pattern becomes available.

    So for me, the core, and potentially unsolvable, problem is to determine what is the most primitive version of the "god prolepsis." It's certainly not a white haired, bearded man in a toga or a shape shifting animal as in some cultures. These are additional pieces of information added to one's innate prolepsis, by the individual's culture, from birth. The question is "what pre-dates this?"

  • Would it be more helpful if I replied to your objections with quotes from our approved texts?

    I think I may have previously commented on this but I strongly think this is the best way to proceed. There are many questions to which the standard answers are not very satisfying, such as "What was Lucretius doing in his opening hymn to Venus in book one?" Was it totally, primarily, secondarily, or not at all a part of his "rimming the cup with honey" just to make a connection with people who followed the standard religion? I think it's important to have a position on that, even though I accept that more than one position is possible among people who are sincerely Epicurean. I don't want to suggest that's the place to start, but any passage gives us something concrete to work with rather than being totally off the cuff.

    As one of the primary proponents of the position that the Epicureans meant what they said about their theology, I've never been satisfied with the treatment by the commentators (except for DeWitt, who as Don says can be maddening in his Christianity references) and I do think that this topic deserves extended exploration.

  • Just so we don't forget the Star Trek analogies, I also want to interject that I have never felt that the Epicurean position of "no supernatural gods" rules out all sorts of other phenoma, whether it's "ESP" or whatever. The test of whether something is real is whether it is real - whether it is testable and verifiable. As I see it, the formula Epicurus was advocating meets the Platonic/Stoic/Etc position at the very highest level -- there is no supernatural power OVER THE UNIVERSE. In that sense it's one of those logical positions, like "the universe has no boundary" that is still controversial today (or at least controversial to people like me who don't want to just defer to the current generation of astrophysicians). But the proof that the UNIVERSE has no gods over it, and it was not created or superintended by such a god, is not a limitation that says that there's nothing between us as humans and the Epicurean gods who have truly reached the "perfect state" that might be a logical construct as much as it is a physical reality.

    I say this of course to further cement my Star Trek credentials that I am prepared to accept (and think Epicurus would too) that all sorts of things that are strange to us are possible -- but I demand PROOF of it!.

  • There's a lot to digest with this thread. Though a part of me was rather disappointed that the Nietzsche discussion had ceased, an acquaintance of mine is a hardcore Nietzschean with a strong belief in property (or was it substance?) dualism. We often draw conclusions at an impasse that the will to power is remarkably similar to pleasure and desire, that power is even interchangeable with pleasure if acting to achieve it means will, and in most cases it does. Likewise his dualism is contrasted with the Epicurean concept of isonomia, he compares everything presented as two-fold ie. pain/pleasure, light/dark, life/death, educated/uneducated, etc. That there is an equal distribution of attributes to each concept, for each position has its counterpart. Though Nietzsche didn't have DeWitt to reference, the similarities between the two philosophies might shed some light on just how inspired Nietzsche was in his many quotes regarding Epicurus.

    But I digress.

    I need to re-read much of the thread with a clear mind. Gods definitely aren't my friend or my specialty.

    “If the joys found in nature are crimes, then man’s pleasure and happiness is to be criminal.”

  • There is room for different interpretations of the prolepses. I personally always look at anything Epicurus says to see if I agree with it-- if he says something I think is scientifically either too far of a conjecture or already falsified by evidence we have today, it doesn't bother me to say I disagree.

    IF Epicurus had proposed that prolepses could be used in isolation, minus sense evidence or at least inferences consistent with sense evidence, then I would say oops, Epicurus, on that proposal we will have to part ways.

    Because he put so much weight on trusting our senses, it's hard for me to imagine he would propose belief in a prolepsis which violated sense data.

    Now, we have access to centuries of neurologic and physics research he didn't have. So I know that we are pattern recognizers and that our innate pattern recognitions are over-active in some cases. Why can I say that? Because sometimes we see patterns our sense data contradicts. When there is a conflict between an intuition and what my senses tell me, the senses win. This doesn't render pattern recognition useless at all. It does put a gold standard in the decision process about what is real.

    I don't know if anyone here has read The Gift of Fear -- it's a very interesting book about how our "fast brain" does pattern recognition of psychopaths. Subtle things like blinking rates get combined to produce uneasiness in us, and many of us are prone to override that fear because we "can't put our finger" on what's scaring us. So maybe we go off with Ted Bundy.

    I think these fast pattern recognitions are important. I don't ignore them. I wouldn't be alone in a room with someone who gave me that feeling. But to convict such a person in court-- I need sense evidence.

    So as far as awe goes-- I do not think there's any sense data to support the idea that feeling awe upon looking at tall mountains is because there's a vast complex intelligence involved, which I'm connecting with, no matter how much it feels like that's the case-- and to propose that the mountains somehow point to the existence of such an intelligence is contrary to both Epicurus' understanding of physics and modern physics. The evidence of my senses wins.

    When we see a tree, it is not because the tree consciously sends images of itself or because some intelligence of the tree is connecting with us. When I read Epicurus on images of the gods, it sounds more like he's describing that kind of thing rather than a contact of minds.

    I do also happen to think even the image proposal is the least plausible explanation, now that we know more than he did about neuroscience... and for less plausible hypotheses, sense evidence is needed-- and we have none. So I admit I diverge from him, but I also think the idea of our minds connecting with Epicurean gods' minds is farther than what he said... and that it would conflict with his ideas about the material nature of the mind being unable to survive outside the body.

  • For me, on the prolepses-- I think they give us extremely valuable and accurate information about ourselves, about our species, about how our brains work, and that is reality. I do not think we could know these things about ourselves any other way, because the prolepses are experiential. So I don't have any quarrel with counting prolepses in the Canon, as long as we also do not stray from evidence of our senses.

    I think our recognition of a spectrum type pattern of "most to least" tells us there are some creatures somewhere on the farthest end of pleasure. It's not reasoning so much as this innate pattern. I know of no evidence that would counter that expectation of pleasurable beings. So I can go a long way with Epicurus on that line of thinking.

  • Because he put so much weight on trusting our senses, it's hard for me to imagine he would propose belief in a prolepsis which violated sense data.

    I think this is an essential part of the picture we can't lose sight of. The three legs of the canon are supposed to function together, and while the data received from all is entitled to respect, the opinions/conclusions we accept as "true" have to be tested and conformed to all three. Now sometimes we aren't going to have as much, or as credible, data from some as we have from the others, and so we're constantly concerned about when to "wait" and when to consider an opinion as sufficiently confirmed to act on it or consider it to be confident.

    But the reason I single out that quote is that I definitely agree that where we have clear evidence from one leg of the canon that actually contradicts the evidence from another leg, we definitely should not consider such a state to be worthy of considering it to be confirmed. There will be perhaps lots of instances where we have some evidence from some legs that isn't strong enough to be confident of on its own, combined with *no* evidence from the other legs. Then we have to treat the situation in its own context and decide whether we have enough at that point or need to "wait." But where we have some affirmatively contradictory evidence from one of the legs, I presume that at least in most cases that means that we definitely don't have enough evidence to consider the matter settled.

    All of which leads to an ad-hoc reasoning process that doesn't allow for magical bright lines, but I think that's just the kind of "reality" that an atomistic universe implies, so it's probably the right position.

    EDIT: I suppose we have to go even further and say that there might be *some* evidence that contradicts the rest, like in some kind of sensation trick where we are blindfolded and have to speculate without sight (I am sure some of you can easily come up with an example). But even in those cases, the contradictory evidence is generally temporary, and can be ultimately corrected when we take the blindfold off, or get more data. So I would think in most all cases we can still say that we wouldn't accept a conclusion where there is contradictory evidence that isn't limited in time or scope or in some other way we have evidence of its limitation, by which we can explain the contradiction.

  • Just thinking in terms of how to advance the thread, I am not sure that I am really comfortable that we have a precise enough definition of where we want to go. Do we need to further explain what we mean by "reverence" and "awe" such that might take those words out of the realm of relatively ordinary emotions (of pleasure) or are we focusing on "the nature of the gods" and the texts which refer to receiving and benefiting from the images of them?

  • Everybody knows that we have a copy of the Velleius section here, right? https://www.epicureanfriends.c…n-the-nature-of-the-gods/

    We might almost want to number each of these lines and talk about them individually. The section I referred to earlier as fascinating to me is this paragraph below, which has been extensively commented on with the conclusion that it really does say that the endless train of images does stream TOWARD the gods, which would appear to us to make no sense, but which must have an explanation. Either the writer or transmitters are wrong about the direction of the stream, or there is something we are missing about which this might give us a clue:


    Epicurus then, as he not merely discerns abstruse and recondite things with his mind's eye, but handles them as tangible realities, teaches that the substance and nature of the gods is such that, in the first place, it is perceived not by the senses but by the mind, and not materially or individually, like the solid objects which Epicurus in virtue of their substantiality entitles steremnia; but by our perceiving images owing to their similarity and succession, because an endless train of precisely similar images arises from the innumerable atoms and streams towards the gods, our mind with the keenest feelings of pleasure fixes its gaze on these images, and so attains an understanding of the nature of a being both blessed and eternal.

    I don't want to commit that I think the text is correct and the stream does go TOWARD them. I just think this is an example of how we need to try to start at the very foundation of what "images" are all about so we can try to reconstruct what they most probably have thought. I always think that trying to reconstruct what they were saying is the essential first step in understanding them, even if we end up disagreeing with the final result.

    In this case, it seems the theory entailed that images are always streaming constantly off everything, and that would include both the gods and us and everything in between. So it is certainly possible that the Epicureans were considering the atoms streaming away from us in the big picture, however it seems more likely and more consistent with the other references that the images (atoms) we're talking about were originating with the gods.

    And I'll say as I think I said in the podcast we recorded today, that I don't think that our modern understanding of light waves and sound waves really by necessity invalidates their general conclusions. There's a lot of complexity to consider before reaching that conclusion. it's easy for me to imagine as I spin my head around that indeed "something" is headed my direction from all directions all the time, and thus presumably headed outward from me as well.

  • I have additional thoughts but I wanted to share a time when I can say unequivocally that I experienced awe:

    On a family trip to California, we had spent the early afternoon at the giant redwoods south of Yosemite Valley. We drove north and went through one of the tunnels and pulled off to take in the view. Little did I know this was the famous Tunnel View. My first view of Yosemite Valley literally took my breath away! I literally - and I mean this - the view was so awesome (in its original sense) and expansive that I didn't feel I could get enough air into my lungs. There was just so much space to take in, I was so tiny in relation to this expanse. All I could do was stare, slack-jawed.

    That remains an archetypal, visceral experience of awe for me. It was a precognitive experience. I had no words at the time describe. I remember saying at the time, "Now, I know what breathtaking actually means!"

    [Edit: In rereading that, "pre-rational" mighty be better than precognitive. It was a direct sensory - proleptic? - experience that bypassed my ability at first to put it into words.]

  • Wow great pictures! I suppose we could compose a list of similar views, and also consider whether to include all of the many amazing space photographs (I presume yes). The feeling is clearly real, and can be spurred by non-living things.

  • I love the feeling of awe. Although some describe it as containing an element of fear, that is not the case for me, and I suspect that may be partly related to my lack of belief in the supernatural.

    Here's a short description of some research on animism in adults. I knew about animism as a predictable developmental phase in children because of my work, but I was also aware through observation that many adults retain at least some vestiges. The way it manifests can be as subtle as just a sensation that there is a presence "out there." John Wathey talks about this in his book about the illusion of god's presence.…201408/are-bicycles-alive

    As far as knowledge requiring 3 legs not in conflict... the feelings give us a different type of information than senses, so I am not sure they could ever conflict with sense knowledge.

    On the prolepses, when we are talking about something like "justice", that is purely pattern recognition to begin with and can't come into conflict with the senses, because there is no outside standard. There's no "justice particle" to observe, different from particles of a material god which _could_ be observed.

    Other pattern recognitions can sometimes conflict with evidence, such as misattribution of causality, and in that case the senses (data) overrule the faulty pattern recognition. That's again different from justice. I would say that for me, if the data doesn't fit an innate pattern assignment, it's the pattern that's in error. Epicurus doesn't address this type of prolepsis/sense conflict exactly, does he? But I don't think he shows quite the strength of confidence in prolepses-- he doesn't say anything like "if you don't trust your prolepses, you can't trust anything." This makes me think that in a standoff, he would trust the senses more.

  • So where do I personally think this all leads... Or where it comes from?

    The more I think about prolepses, the more I'm convinced they have to be inborn and then evolve as we mature. The newborn and toddler sense of right and wrong grows into our Prolepsis of Justice. So where does our Prolepsis of the Gods or maybe of Divinity come from? Take a look at the rapt look on some babies and toddlers faces when they take part in some research studies where they pay attention to puppets. Take a look at this toddler experiencing snow for the first time. Babies and toddlers obviously have the capacity to experience awe to be in wonder. Look at the baby's eyes in that last video link! That sense of wonder, I believe, can grow into a Prolepsis of the Divine.

  • This is an interesting article about many facets of religious (here equated with the supernatural) belief and our neurology-- discusses our HADD, hypersensitive agency detection, which had evolutionary advantages even if factually inaccurate. That's what I'm talking about with vestigial animism, the HADD. The rudimentary basis for religion.

    Midway through, there's a bit about humans using god concepts to back up their moralities. Which we need to take care to avoid in EP. We have recognized that pleasure is our goal, and that is how we would recognize a god, if we could communicate-- their skill at pleasure. No matter how powerful, vast, or complex a being is, if it isn't pleasure filled, by our criteria it isn't a god.

    I would refrain from doing the converse-- from saying if a powerful, complex being chooses pleasure, that their choice gives us our rationale. We don't need a god to choose pleasure in order to choose it ourselves. We ourselves have created our definition of what we will call gods, if we encounter them.

  • As far as knowledge requiring 3 legs not in conflict... the feelings give us a different type of information than senses, so I am not sure they could ever conflict with sense knowledge.

    RIght -- that would be comparable to the point that the eyes don't contradict the nose, etc. The way I stated the issue there needs to be reworked.

  • Several references have been made to images - eidola - that Epicurus says we perceive as eminating from objects that impact our senses and mental perception. I've reinterpreted this as light - for sight at least - bouncing from the object to our eyes. Light is constantly bouncing off objects and striking our eyes. If something produces sound or odors, those too will spread out and if we're in the way we encounter a sound or smell.

    Now the idea of our minds perceiving concepts or encountering eidola independent of physical physical senses gets a little trickier. Although, look at those babies again "sensing" whether something is fair, or right or wrong. They're obviously "sensing" something coming from that experience. Although it's their sight that is allowing them to assess the situation, sight is not being used to determine the justice of the situation. This is one reason I'm inclined to think the mental Perceptions and Prolepses either work hand in hand or are the same thing by different names. The Mental Perceptions sense the "pattern" (to co-opt a phrase from Elayne ) but the Prolepsis puts it into a category or paradigm.

    I think this has parallels to the Prolepsis of the Divine... But I'm still working on that! ;)

  • The bbc article I tried to paste in comment above-- idk why it didn't show up.

    Don, evolutionary biologists think our innate sense of justice is symmetry. Tit for tat. Babies go through a phase where they love to hand items back and forth-- endlessly, lol.

    It's different from innate empathy where they don't like to see harm, but it winds up connecting for many... not all. The prolepsis of justice for some adults includes empathy and for others, it remains more of a straight symmetry situation.

  • I know one thing that is going through my mind, is that we're really at the very tip of the beginning of discussing these issues. Most of the commentators simply don't take the issues seriously and they dismiss them immediately after raising, if they even raise them at all. We've got to be patient and methodical in retracing all the steps.l

    As for Don's reference to seeing images as light, yes I think that is a normal reaction. However in the case of smells, at least, I think it's probably pretty clear that the Epicureans held there to be atoms drifting from the object to our nose, and in that case I presume we still think they were correct.

    In the case of hearing and sight, however, I am not so sure even what the current science is. I presume that we think sound is the transmissions of vibrations in the intervening atoms between us and the drum, so there's not really any atom from the drum hitting us.

    Likewise, with light, is there any atom from the drum impacting our eyes? I'm really not sure what light is and that our current definitions exclude the view that there are particles of some kind (better word than atoms) from the object that come to our eyes.

    And I am not really sure whether the issue of whether there are actually particles traveling through space is a bright line difference that would lead to different conclusions.

    But as a basic observation, I am recalling that the texts seem to imply or actually state that images arise because particles travel from the surface of the drum to our eyes. Again there's a lot to explore there as I am not sure that there ends up being a big difference whether we think of the thing traveling as "particles" or "waves" or whatever.

    Then there's the whole issue of "action at a distance" which probably gets wrapped up into this, and it is my understanding that there's no solid interpretation of that.

    If I recall too there's an explicit discussion of magnetism and how that would work which would be relevant to this too.