New Sedley Chapter On Ancient Greek Atheism

  • The section on page 7 - "Epicurus: a Crypto-atheist?" Is highly informative and illuminating.

    Here is a quote from Sedley's paper:


    Even according to the alternative, realist interpretation, Epicurus sides with atheism to the extent that he denies all divine intervention in the running of the world, thus claiming to liberate his followers from the fear of divine wrath. But on the idealist

    (p. 147) interpretation his position is one that in most theological contexts would be called fully atheistic, and indeed was so called by Epicurus’ own critics. Why, if so, would he not declare his atheism openly? Part of the answer may be that Epicurean communities, wherever they sprang up, relied on toleration from the local authorities, and a reputation for atheism, with its implied rejection of civic cults, would have hampered that objective. But in any case, Epicurus on moral grounds sincerely recommended participation in religious cults as a proper expression of respect for ideal beings, a stance which would have sat very oddly with an outright assertion that these beings do not actually exist.

  • Yep that's another "practical" argument - which reminds me why I reject it, because it is not compatible with the strict candor that I believe Epicurus displays in everything. That's why I remain firmly in the camp that he said what he meant and meant what he said - which is a better way than saying "realist." Because it's really a matter of whether Epicurus was being truthful or a Platonic noble liar, and I'll never admit the latter.

  • he said what he meant and meant what he said

    What did Epicurus actually say? btw, That's meant to be neither combative nor rhetorical. What are the extant remains of what Epicurus had to say about the gods and our relationship to them? It seems to me both the "realists" and "idealists" can make a case. Personally, I find it hard to believe that Epicurus would believe in over-sized anthropomorphic aliens existing somehow between universes/world-systems. I think he was more sophisticated in his theological leanings than that and had to work within the vocabulary of his time to convey his understanding and that of his school. He said clearly "There are gods" but what "he meant" by that, I believe, is still an open question.

    it's really a matter of whether Epicurus was being truthful or a Platonic noble liar,

    I don't accept your premise in that statement. That's a false dichotomy. Or, at best, those two positions don't sit on the same spectrum.

    We've all had these go-arounds on the nature of the gods etc. ad infinitum (or is it ad nauseum?)... but there has to be a reason why they keep bobbing to the service.

  • Quote

    "The evidence is very clear that in the Epicurean universe gods do exist, and that they are indeed made of atoms. However, when it is asked what this mode of atomic existence amounts to, interpreters divide into two broad parties, the realists and the idealists, with the latter interpretation in effect making Epicurus an atheist. [...] Even according to the alternative, realist interpretation, Epicurus sides with atheism to the extent that he denies all divine intervention in the running of the world, thus claiming to liberate his followers from the fear of divine wrath."

    Whenever I see this discussion, it usually seems to following the above structure, with the author admitting, first and foremost, that Epicurus clearly believed in gods and enthusiastically attended religious celebrations. The notion that he qualifies as a contemporary atheist because his theology is incompatible with Abrahamic faiths is anachronistic. It seems to me that Sedley is moving the rhetorical goal post throughout the essay to fit his conclusion.


    But on the idealist (p. 147) interpretation his position is one that in most theological contexts would be called fully atheistic, and indeed was so called by Epicurus’ own critics."

    This is not true of some of the Cyrenaics. It is also untrue of Skeptics who seem to take agnostic position that portrays Epicurus as a dogmatic theist. Attempting to orient Epicurean theology within the tradition of atheism (for me) is like trying to frame American Democrats as Communists. Many critics of the Democratic Party would be comfortable entertaining this proposition, with the notable exception of actual Communists, who would take offense to the suggestion that centrists and liberals are in any way sympathetic to Marxist-Leninism.

    If this charges of atheism had merit, I would expect at least one treatise by Philodemus called Against Piety, or a polemic by Metrodorus called Against the Gods. Instead, we have the exact opposite.

  • I think this is why the issue persistently bobbles up:


    Personally, I find it hard to believe that Epicurus would believe in over-sized anthropomorphic aliens existing somehow between universes/world-systems. I think he was more sophisticated in his theological leanings than that and had to work within the vocabulary of his time to convey his understanding and that of his school.

    Speaking for myself, I personally don't find the alien physical god hypothesis at all unsophisticated. It's a lot easier for me to believe that he left the physical details loose, given our inability to observe them directly, than that he completely obscured what his opinion really was.

    I think the dividing line on who accepts which premise arises from that issue - who finds the phsysics hard to square with modern science and rejects it total, vs who is willing to read it liberally and ground the issue only in that the gods have a material basis that we don't know the details about.

  • If this charges of atheism had merit, I would expect at least one treatise by Philodemus called Against Piety, or a polemic by Metrodorus called Against the Gods. Instead, we have the exact opposite

    Your political analogy makes a lot of sense, but the matter of merit is beside the point. Many attackers neither strive to exhibit merit nor even take it into consideration. Critics see an opening, stretch a pebble of truth into a whole specious mountain, and go ad hominem on their targets. The charges of impiety and atheism were leveled against the Epicurean school. Philodemus documents it and addresses it directly in On Piety. The reason Philodemus didn't write Against Piety is because he felt that it was only the Epicureans who were practicing true piety, the only ones who had the correct perspective on the divine. Everybody else was impious. I would make the same case for Metrodorus. Epicureans could take part in the rituals and festivals with a clear conscience because internally they were practicing *true* piety and *knew* they had nothing to fear from the gods.

    he left the physical details loose

    I'm not sure if that's the case or not, and the physical details seem inextricably linked to their nature. I don't have Long and Sedley The Hellenistic Philosophers available right now, but I'd be interested to see how much detail there is. If I remember, Epicurus talks about the gods' anthropomorphic shape, but I've also seen scholars say that's because the gods are idealized humans, what humans may aspire to. So one has to "see" them in your minds eye as human-shaped to be able to gain inspiration from them. But Diogenes Laertius directly contrasted the Epicureans' idea of the happiness of the gods with the happiness that humans can experience:

    Two sorts of happiness can be conceived, the one the highest possible, such as the gods enjoy, which cannot be augmented, the other admitting addition and subtraction of pleasures.

    I also keep coming back to the emphasis and importance Epicurus placed on a correct understanding of the gods. It's first in the letter to Menoikeus. It's the first Principle Doctrine. I maintain it behoves us to examine and come to grips with this because Epicurus found this to be a foundational matter in his philosophy.

  • I thought it might be helpful to link to my notes from Philodemus's On Piety (edited/translated by Dr. Dirk Obbink).

    I also just (re-)found P.Oxyrhynchus 215 as possibly being written by Epicurus or, at the very least, an Epicurean philosopher:…/30/mode/2up?view=theater

    I found this translation on p. 32 interesting emphasis added):

    ' Nor, indeed, even when this further statement is made by the ordinary man, •' I fear all the gods and worship them, and to them I wish to make every sacrifice and offering." It may perhaps imply more taste on his part than the average, nevertheless by this formula he has not yet reached the trustworthy principle of religion. But do you, sir, consider that the most blessed state lies in the formation of a just conception concerning the best thing that we can possibly imagine to exist ; and reverence and worship this idea.' [και θαυμαζε ταυτην την διαληψιν και σεβου']

    Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, Θθ , θαρσα^λ-εότης , θαυμ-άζω (

    Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, δ , διαλα_κέω , διάληψις (

    Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, Σ ς, , Σεβάστ-ιος , σέβομαι (

  • I've had a chance to read the paper I attached to post #7. Here are some quotes highlighted from the paper that, to me, give a clearer picture of the intersection of philosophy and religion prior to Epicurus and which would have informed Epicurus' practice:

    _The position of Plato and Socrates thus accords with the standard naturalistic interpretation of the pre-Socratics—that they believed the world functioned entirely according to natural laws. I agree with this interpretation, but I am nonetheless intrigued by the question of what the early Greek philosophers thought they were doing when they entered a temple to pray, sing hymns, or sacrifice. It is highly unlikely that the early Greek philosophers (before 450 BC) would have even entertained notions that we associate with atheism._

    _Regardless of whether Alcmaeon thought that the universe had been “consciously” created, as in the Timaeus, or is eternal and unique, as we find in Aristotle (and, on my reading, in the Plato’s arguments for the existence of God in Laws 10), neither option in any way suggests that the gods intervene in human affairs. Indeed, humans are an integral part of the nature of things. The fact that humans like the gods are endowed with consciousness suggests that there must be a telos. The gods must have represented the paradigms of virtue and goodness._

    _While it seems unequivocally clear that there was no room for the supernatural in Anaximenes’ natural philosophy, it seems equally clear that he saw humans as endowed with consciousness and cognition, which they have in common with the all-pervading cosmic divinity. However, since there is nothing in Anaximenes’ description of the celestial bodies that would suggest that they comprise some kind of model for humans to follow, as we saw in Alcmaeon, the question arises as to what divinities he had in mind as models to emulate and address in prayer. One possibility could be hidden in Hippolytus’ account of Anaximenes theory (DK13A7). Here he lists gods and divine things (theous kai theia) as also products or offspring of the originative living substance. These could be a concession to traditional religion or what the materialist Democritus, a century later, understood as images that appear to humans and sometimes speak to them (DK68B166; 175; 217). These are gods, who are givers of good and not evil, and who love only those who hate injustice (B175, 217). These theoi or theia could thus be inspirational models of virtue for human behaviour and wholly worthy of prayer._

    _There is no room for atheism, but neither is there a notion of intentionality or providence as we find in theism. Anaximander thus represents what I call one of the first secular theories of everything that is expressed in the form of a natural teleology. But this does not, of course, exclude a religious tendency, which could be thought of as the relation between humans and the cosmic order that he would have characterized as divine. I conjecture that Anaximander tried to understand the secrets of the universe, and at the same time he understood the laws of nature as indicative of caring, but non-interfering, gods who were by nature good. We gain a better insight through historia or secular investigation. I think there is evidence of this in his famous fragment (DK12B1) cited above, which can be interpreted as claiming that human society should model the cosmos, which functions according to rigorous laws exemplified in the seasons, night and day, and the regular movements of the celestial bodies (see Naddaf 2005, 86ff). Praying would be about using our reason, making wise decisions, taking responsibility for our actions, and being able to convince others to follow a similar path._

    _Xenophanes was also the first of the early philosophers on record to advocate a “higher” form of religious practice—a way of prayer that goes beyond attempts to cajole favors from the gods (DK21B1) The context is how one should behave at a symposium. Xenophanes insists that a sound-minded man (euphronas andras) should first hymn the god (theon humein) with pious words and pure thoughts (euphêmois muthois kai katharoisi logois, 1.14), and then after having poured a libation and prayed for the strength to be able to do what is just (speisantas de kai euxemenous ta dikaia dunasthai prêssein, 1.15), make his request. These include bringing noble deeds to light and striving for aretê or virtue, and, in particular, moderation._

    _...the accent is on inspirational awareness, not supernatural intervention. With Heraclitus we have the first literary reference to the Delphic maxim “know thyself” (DK22B. 101, 116), and there are also a number of references in Heraclitus to self-knowledge (DK 22B101, 112, 113, 116), the unexamined life (B123), care of the self (B123), and the psuchê as the “true self” (B118, 77). Indeed, there is a considerable affinity with what we find in Socrates. Or better still, Socrates comes across as less of a maverick when we give Heraclitus his due._

    _Anaxagoras: “Blessed is he who has devoted his life to scientific research (tês historias): he will neither malign nor harm his fellow citizen, but observing the ageless order of immortal nature, will enquire from what source it was composed and in what way. Such men would never take part in shameful deeds” (fragment 910 Nauck). This fragment suggests that the order of nature is the standard of goodness. Indeed, its study (tês historias) will discourage humans from harming one another and doing unjust deeds. This idea seems to be at the core of most of the early Greek philosophers that we have passed in review, and constitutes in large part what can be considered as their religion, that is, living in harmony with nature or the cosmos as they understood it to function._

    _Socrates didn’t believe in the traditional gods to in the popular sense, for the gods for Socrates were by nature good and perfect, true paradigms of virtue, and thus true models to follow..._

    _It’s unclear when an open hostility toward natural philosophy and thus the religion of the early Greek philosophers originated in Periclean Athens. It is often connected with the Decree of Diopeithes, a seer, around 432. Plutarch, Life of Pericles (32), which is our only source of the Decree, says it attacked “those who fail to respect (nomizein) things divine (ta theia) or teach new doctrines about the heavens.” Its object seemed to be, in particular, the natural philosopher Anaxagoras and ultimately his friend and benefactor Pericles._

    _Critias of Athens (c. 460–403) claimed that the gods were invented by a clever man in order to frighten those who were surreptitiously evil whether in words or deeds._

    _Democritus of Abdera, the atomist (c. 460–360), connected the origin of gods with the fear of celestial phenomena (DK68A75, B30), but also considered them living, intelligent, material beings (and thus part of the objective world) that, as images or eidola, are somehow capable of foretelling the future by communicating with humans (68B166). These are all brilliant hypotheses, and in the case of Democritus an acknowledgement that the phenomena of the divine cannot be explained away even for someone for whom in the beginning there were only atoms and the void._

    _The religious event required the participation of the entire polis when appealing to god’s grace. It was unlikely that any philosophers missed the occasion for obvious reasons, but they could remind their fellow citizens of the hubris of making a request of a god that was not backed up with a worthy motive. The Seven Sages were after all at the source of the famous Delphic maxims. And the new “masters of truth” competed opening with the iconic poets._ this paper I have attempted to show that all the early Greek philosophers that we passed in review still saw the cosmological order as a model for humans endowed with nous or reason to follow, even if there was no divine intention in the Platonic sense behind it._

  • I’ve had to be gone awhile, and will mostly just need to hang out for now and absorb the wisdom of others.

    But this recurring “argument” over Epicurus’ “real” understanding of gods struck a chord that made me want to think it out by writing. I think the question is simply unnecessary for following a living Via Epicurea. Though, as scholarly debate it may have some merit, even there it is likely to never be settled.

    I tend to believe that all discourse is inescapably interpretive, viz: “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but you should be aware that what you heard is not what I meant.”

    Interpreting written discourse is more fraught when one is unable to enter into actual extended conversation and query. Also (outside of pure mathematics and deductive logic, perhaps) all human communication ought to be taken (to my mind) as imperfect: subject to all sorts of vagaries inherent in the human condition. [Well, certain supernaturalist religions might assert the perfection of certain utterances and texts; but I don’t.]

    Cassius once (or more than once) said something to the effect that (my words, not his) there are no litmus tests here for who is or is not a “True Epicurean (TM).” I likely hold some “neo-Epicurean,” as opposed classical Epicurean, beliefs; and am happy to. I do not want to impose them here, and hope that I am not. If I am, I hope you will correct and forgive.

  • A very constructive post Pacatus and it is good to have you back again!

    I recall one of DeWitt's comments being to the effect that Epicurean philosophy faded away when the arguments around it faded away, so perhaps even in the most unbridgeable of disagreements (which this one is not, by any stretch, unbridgeable) we gain from the energy that is generated.

    If it prompted you to reappear and post then I am glad even if we aren't in the most complete possible agreement!

  • Thanks, Cassius! One of the things that makes this site unique is that you have created (and sustain) an environment -- a virtual Garden? -- where people can feel safe "even if we aren't in the most complete possible agreement." That's special.

  • I do my best Pacatus - thank you for the kind words.

    Lest anyone think, however, that I am in danger of retiring the helmet, :) I should probably clarify and say this:

    I've never felt that the "gods" issue is the hill to die on (so to speak) in working toward a reconstituted Epicurean philosophic school. As long as everyone understands that there are no supernatural gods out there creating universes and meddling in human life, that's the great majority of the issue right there. Further, most people don't seem to have a problem in accepting the Epicurean view that there is other life in the universe besides ours, some of which is likely to be higher and some lower than us. That's most of the rest of the way to what Epicurus pretty clearly taught, and whatever is left for dispute doesn't really end up in much different a place whether the "gods" we're talking about literally exist or not.

    Unfortunately, I don't expect to ever put the helmet permanently in retirement, because I do think that there will always remain "hills to die on" for the EpicureanFriends project. Those hills are primarily in the lands that border "Stoicism," and in the tendency that some have to want to blend Epicurus with semi-mystical views that are close to Stoicism or even Buddhism. Even in mentioning Stoicism and Buddhism, I know that many of us have been through one or both of those schools, so even those of us who are now the most "fundamentalist" should know from experience that it will always be necessary to be tolerant of people who need time to study and reflect on the differences.

    In the end though, we can expect (and this sounds like the discussion of Epicurus and Zeno in chapter seven of AFDIA that we discussed last Sunday) that in the future there will be calls to water down what we're doing here. There will always be a well-intentioned incentive to be more inclusive of those who want to maintain strong posittions (Stoic and Buddhist are only two of many) that amount to rejections of core Epicurean views.

    I hope to be around a long time to take care of those issues as they arise, but what I would remind everyone in the future is that the purpose of this forum is not to be a general philosophical forum for everyone regardless of viewpoint. Theree many other and better places for that. The purpose of the EpicureanFriends forum is to provide a place where those who really are convinced of the prudence of the core Epicurean positions to work together for the continuance of the school. Because I think the core Epicurean view is correct, I see no conflict at all between the goals of continuing to follow Epicurus, the goal of the pursuit of the truth, and the goal of pursuing the best possible life.

    But we know that given human nature there are always going to be disagreements about how to define and pursue those goals. We have to be prepared to respect the right and desire of others to go off in different directions, just as we need to work in a friendly but firm way to preserve the path that we've staked out here.

  • I've never felt that the "gods" issue is the hill to die on (so to speak) in working toward a reconstituted Epicurean philosophic school

    Agreed... But I still maintain we should understand *why* Epicurus placed such a high priority in having a correct understanding of the nature of the gods in the PDs, writing to Menoikeus, plus a book written on the topic, plus Philodemus's illustrations of his piety in On Piety, plus Diogenes Laertius's statement that "His piety towards the gods ... no words can describe." (DL X.10)

    Plus we need to understand what his correct understanding was and possible applications of that for us today.

    I believe a big part of Epicurean piety is knowing that the gods (regardless of their ultimate nature):

    - do NOT concern themselves with humans

    - do NOT bestow blessings or punishment

    - - (although it appears "blessings" or benefit can accrue to the Epicurean "worshipper" of the gods... See below)

    - do NOT have any part in the creation or maintenance of the cosmos

    - enjoy the "highest possible" happiness (ευδαιμονία) that can be conceived, which cannot be augmented (literally, having no increase in intensity [tightening or slackening])

    - can be "worshipped" (in the widest possible sense) within traditional/cultural rites and practices as long as the other characteristics above are adhered to.

    Thoughts on that?

  • I completely agree Don and I am sorry if I was unclear. We generally talk in terms of two possibilities as to whether the gods are "real" or not, and I can live with either one, but regardless of that in either case they DO serve the purposes you list, and I did not mean to imply that dispensing with those purposes is possible.

  • Oh, and second thought: I didn't mean to imply that Epicureans *had* to "worship within traditional/cultural rites and practices," but, taking Epicurus as our example, it's not out of the question for those thus inclined.

  • I think one of the biggest concerns I had with the gods discussion deals with sincerity. Epicurus would’ve needed, in whatever way, to believe that the gods (in whatever form) were “real” (in whatever sense atomic beings or images in the mind). If not, his opponents that claimed that he was purely avoiding a charge of impiety would be correct. I don’t believe he was hiding a complete disbelief and fabricated a theological system to avoid being executed… like Socrates was, but rather he just adapted his system to what he knew of popular religion and the myths…and we ended up with atomic epicurean gods.

    I do hold that sincerity of belief is important to trusting the rest of a person’s character. If perhaps Epicurus was acting in a manner that fit the description held by his opponents, that he was merely hiding a form of atheism while constructing a false theology that allowed for him to remain in good standing with the pious Greeks, then that would cause the rest of his system to be called into question in my opinion. That would be a very troubling situation. But I don’t believe he did that.