Long and Sedley, Hellenistic Philosophers, "Gods"

  • Don thank you very much! That's a great contribution to this discussion. For anyone who just skims this thread and doesn't read the whole article, I made a few clips I thought were particularly important for giving a flavor of Sedley's opinions:

    Sedley's comment in his conclusion in which he admits that the position he takes cannot be reconciled with the positions of "some" of his adherents (presumably including Philodemus and Lucretius) who he thinks were either deceived or participating in a tradition of keeping the ultimate truth about the gods close at hand among the inner circle:

  • I also think that this is a particularly important and perceptive paragraph, but I also think it's one which may be only part of the picture, because I doubt this is a good description of "any process of imagination," and he's not discussing how the mind would accomplish this. He's implicitly acknowledging DeWitt's view that Epicurus held the mind to be a "suprasensory organism" it seems to me without dealing with the issue of "etching" or unfolding of something that existed prior to the outside stimulus. Anyway I do think Sedley is right that we have to consider all this in the context of how the theory of images works generally.

  • Don thank you for posting that link and thanks again to Godfrey for posting the Jackson article. These two together really do provide a lot of material to think about. I have just spent the time to reread the majority of the Jackson article and have two comments:

    1 - this seems to me to summarize Jackson's position and how he deals with Sedley:

    And this references one of the most important reasons I side with Jackson:

    It seems very very difficult to believe that we (speaking for Sedley) can be in a better position today to evaluate what Epicurus meant when we have so few reliable works left to us, while Philodemus and Lucretius and others mentioned in these articles in the ancient world had virtually (or fully) the whole library of Epicurean texts available to them for evidence. To me it is not persuasive to think that if Epicurus had held a strongly idealist interpretation as Sedley argues that we would not have more evidence of it, and at the same time if that were true it seems doubtful to me that we would have the testimony of Philodemus and Lucretius and others that this is not simply something going on within our minds.

    So I personally continue to hold to a "both" position, with gods serving "both" as symbolic aspirational goals beneficial to contemplate, and also as beings for which Epicurus held there to be "real" evidence of their existence (but not through the standard 5 senses).

    For that reason I would side with the view that the "images" perceivable only by the mind that benefit us to contemplate stream "from" and not "to" the gods, and that the contrary statement is a scribal error, but with one caveat: I think it's likely that Epicurus held "images" to be streams of "particles" constantly streaming in all directions from everything at once, so I would expect an ancient Epicurean to presume that even while particles are streaming toward us from other things (including but not limited to "gods") there are particles streaming outward from us (towards those "gods") as well.

    I think there is a lot of room for additional deduction here about what these sources mean. And I think one of the underappreciated implications is that if the "gods" are deathless then they presumably had no starting point, as implied in the discussion of how "similarities" can be immortal. This "similarities" reference is new to me and probably deserves more attention.

    I would expect this cannot mean "platonic ideal forms" or "conceptions" in our understanding of "mental conceptions" (which is what Sedley seems to be arguing the gods to be) so what would it mean?

  • OK I am at a stopping point for the moment but I want to conclude by agreeing with this paragraph from Jackson in most respects, except for the implication of the part underlined in red. I don't think the Epicureans thought that the the gods were real because it was important to think of them that way, I think the Epicureans thought the gods were real, and that it is important to think of them as real, because of the various arguments that they made in favor both of their existence and of the function that contemplating them serves for us.

    With the caveat that the word "religion" is so polluted by connotations as to be almost useless, I do also agree with the observations that the Epicureans saw their philosophy not as anti-religion but as a purification of religion, purged of its absurdities.

  • Food for thought, Cassius . Thanks for digging back into Jackson. Lots to think about. :/

    For the time being, I'm still in the Sedley/idealist camp. From my perspective, either position remains within Epicureanism so we can have a vigorous debate within the big tent :)

    I'm posting because I just had the thought that the reason that prolepses of both justice and the gods are talked about in the texts is because both are thought constructs. The whole prolepses thing is a hard nut to crack.

  • The whole prolepses thing is a hard nut to crack.

    Yes it is, as is a lot of Epicurean philosophy. As to justice I am totally with you, because I cannot imagine that "justice" or any "virtue" is anything but a thought construct.

    I tend to think that we aren't looking deeply enough at the big picture. I think Sedley is right that the issue of how images work and how the mind deals with them is important and has lots of facets. The joke from Cicero to Cassius in January 45 BC about the mind being struck by images seems right on point - and it is interesting that Cassius Longinus denies the aspect that Cicero is alleging:

  • I haven't yet read the full Sedley piece so I might be repeating something in there or in Jackson. But for the full context of this and similar discussions we've got to keep in mind that Epicurus was considering a very specific notion of gods, which of course was the Greek idea. I think that that's part of the difficulty in that it's very tempting for people today to intermingle a variety of conceptions of gods and god and "spirituality" with the Greek conception of gods. Similarly with the physics: part of the beauty of Epicurean physics is how relevant they are to today's physics. This can beguile us into conflating our ideas with his. Taken together this makes for a very tangled web: modern notions of physics can confuse Epicurean notions of gods, and vice versa.

    Regarding the prolepses, I've no problem with a prolepsis of justice (fairness?) as it does seem to be something seen in children and some animals. Plus the PDs are quite specific on how to work with that prolepsis. A prolepsis of the gods is more difficult to sort out: is this prolepsis supposed to be the same in all cultures?

  • A prolepsis of the gods is more difficult to sort out: is this prolepsis supposed to be the same in all cultures

    Fully agree about the sorting out :) My take has been that he was taking about a baseline across all cultures (or at least those Epicurus knew about!), and that baseline was incorruptibility άφθαρτος and blessedness μακάριος. That's it. Otherwise, the gods were not as the hoi polloi conceived of them. I love it that hoi polloi "the many" οι πολλοί is literally what Epicurus called other people with ill-conceived ideas about the gods

  • incorruptibility άφθαρτος and blessedness μακάριος

    I agree with Don but I myself am unsure of the implications of even those too words. I suspect it really reduces to something relatively simple and straightforward, such as "imperviousness to pain or death" and spending all their time on things they enjoy doing, although even that is ambiguous. I do think that there are implications of being "at the top of the chain" that means that there are implications of intelligence and activity that would disqualify simple forms of life (amoebas, whatever) from being considered "gods."

  • Godfrey the human form part is in Velleius / Cicero's on the nature of the gods:

    The speak greek part I think is Philodemus - I will check ---

    We don't have a good online reference for the Philodemus to point to - if anyone knows one, please comment. Here is one excerpt from one article; I know this is in DeWitt too:

  • One thing that struck me this morning is that there has to be a difference between gods and life on other planets. By definition in some sources, the gods "live" in the intermundia/metakosmia - between cosmos. Other forms of life would have to live within a cosmos, on other worlds. If I remember correctly, the texts talk about other cosmoi cosmoses (for lack of a better plural). Whether that translates as "world" or "universe" is irrelevant here. They're both orderly conglomerations of atoms. The gods don't live in a cosmos. They live between cosmoi.

  • They're both orderly conglomerations of atoms. The gods don't live in a cosmos. They live between cosmoi.

    Yes I agree. I am thinking this stems from the proposition that in order to remain deathless they need to be living in an area of perfect calmness, but we're in an area with very little to work with. In this context I wish we had more on the ""similarities" as that might throw more light on the term "orderly conglomeration of atoms."

  • They're both orderly conglomerations of atoms. The gods don't live in a cosmos. They live between cosmoi.

    Yes I agree. I am thinking this stems from the proposition that in order to remain deathless they need to be living in an area of perfect calmness, but we're in an area with very little to work with. In this context I wish we had more on the ""similarities" as that might throw more light on the term "orderly conglomeration of atoms."

    From what I can read, the "similarities" are simply compounds made up of identical types of atoms. The (realist) gods are "incorruptible" because all their atoms are the same and are constantly being replenished with the same. They're in equilibrium.

    For cosmos, here's the LSJ entry:


  • Where is it that the Epicurean gods are described as being in human form and speaking Greek? Is that in Cicero? Lucretius? I wonder how that relates to this discussion.... :/

    "Yet if cattle or horses or lions had hands and could draw, And could sculpt like men, then the horses would draw their gods. Like horses, and cattle like cattle; and each they would shape. Bodies of gods in the likeness, each kind, of their own." Xenophanes


  • These articles and comments are relevant to one of the things I find most important about this topic:

    A superficial hearing of "pleasure" as the guide of life leaves open the possibility that a human could find pleasure living in a cave on bread and water and never do anything else.

    I don't think that's correct and I don't think Epicurus meant that.

    From a practical point of view, it's just not possible to do that, given the threats and hazards of human life and the need to work to make defenses against them. So you could say from a "rational" point of view, under the given facts of life, that a human who tries to go to a cave and live on bread and water will not likely succeed for very long, and not without indeed taking some precautions (obtaining a cave, obtaining the supply of bread and water).

    But that's not a very satisfying analysis, and I don't think Epicurus would have relied on it. I think he would have relied on "feeling" as the driving force. But what tells us that one type of pleasure is more desirable to us than another? Certainly the feelings themselves do, but what about the human who has indeed lived all his life on bread and water in a cave and would have come into contact with nothing more to which to aspire (the Lucretian problem of the theory that the gods created the universe - from where did they get their model?)

    I think that aspirational goals to improve one's condition are a logical extension of both the general Velleius theory of anticipations as intuitive etchings, plus the specific theory of "gods" as one of those etchings, plus the "images" theory that the mind can be stimulated directly from the outside. It may also be built in to the way "pleasure" functions as a faculty, but for the time being I'll accept that pleasure and pain may be simple go and stop faculties (but if so, programmed by what?).

    I doubt the reductionist thought of living in a cave on bread and water was as much of a problem for Epicurus as it is today, and even today it's just a musing that few people really think about carrying out. But I think the question of "Why isn't bread and water in a cave good enough?" is an obvious one that would have concerned Epicurus and been dealt with in a variety of ways. Not by coming up with a list of better or worse, or nobler or baser pleasures, because that would be Platonic absolutism. The issue would have to be dealt with through "faculties" that are individual and contextual, such as the particular "etchings" with which a person might be born, plus the different observations a person makes / comes into contact with during life -- including these "divine images" whatever they are.

  • A superficial hearing of "pleasure" as the guide of life leaves open the possibility that a human could find pleasure living in a cave on bread and water and never do anything else.

    Cassius , I've seen you make the "bread & water + living in a cave" remark before and had some thoughts and questions.

    "bread & water": I realize many people see Epicurus's remark about bread and water and that infamous "pot of cheese" as endorsing *only* living on bread and water and the occasional cheese. They posit an ascetic Epicureanism. I agree with you, that's just silly. It seems to be putting a Christian mortification of the flesh back onto Epicureanism. Here's my take:

    I do remember some texts talking about Epicurus's occasional fasts as experiments to see how much he could live on and be satisfied. He seems to have wanted to learn what was the minimal level that could provide pleasure. I don't get the impression that that's what he did all the time; otherwise, the occasional nature of those fasts wouldn't have been noteworthy. But it seems to me he did experiment with minimalism. Not as a rule, but I'll call him minimal-curious.

    In my interpretation, he does call his students to moderate their pleasures or at least to choose wisely, prudently. Not every pleasure is to be chosen, not every pain is to be avoided.

    So, those who posit the "bread and water" diet take one instance as indicative of the whole experience. But it seems to me that you sometimes posit that Epicurus never ate just "bread and water" and that the idea is farcical. I come down somewhere in the middle. The division of desires appears to me to be a roadmap of what desires to pursue. And those you pursue should lead to an overall pleasurable well-being.

    "Living in a cave": I don't remember the texts talking about a cave. Am I correct in assuming you use this as hyperbolic shorthand for your opposition to literal interpretations of lathe biosas "live unknown" and "Epicurus forbade being active in politics"? I complete agree that Epicureans shouldn't live in a cave. By Apollo! We have the Garden itself and the importance of friendship ready at hand to dismiss that idea! But... In my interpretation of the texts, there is, as a general rule in Epicurus's teaching, a recommendation to lathe biosas as in "keep your head down." Individuals can have different inclinations and Epicurus and Philodemus (among others) make allowances for those who do find pleasure in politics and an active political life. On the other hand, one is encouraged to write texts and to provide public instruction when invited to. And to start a school but don't attract a crowd, literally not to ὀχλαγωγῆσαι "to court the mob" or "to attract a crowd." So, by no means should Epicureans live in a cave. Leave that to Christian and Tibetan Buddhist monks. But I do see a general recommendation to not rock the boat, and I think this comes from Epicurus's own life experience. That's why, for example, he didn't teach publicly in the agora or a stoa or a gymnasium but taught in his own private property. Now, I also don't think those who see the Gardens as hippy communes have it quite right either. It seems there was a core that lived full time in the Garden including Epicurus (although I'm still not clear if there Garden was attached to his house or separate), senior members like Hermarchus, some slaves, some students, but I get the impression that it also allowed for "commuter students" too. Since they didn't combine their funds, the hippy commune or cult analogy also seems to break down fairly quickly.

    To come back to the cave, you appear to advocate a strong, assertive Epicureanism and I think the philosophy makes allowances for those with that disposition. But, generally, I see a philosophy with a more nuanced approach to confronting society. Epicurus was a revolutionary radical thinker and believed he found the best route to achieving eudaimonia. But I think he knew if he tried to boldly proselytize in the agora he'd be risking a lot (see the fate of Socrates, for example) and the philosophy could be lost.