Episode One Hundred Thirty-Five - The Letter to Menoeceus 02 - On The Nature of the Gods

  • Welcome to Episode One Hundred Thirty-Five of Lucretius Today.

    This is a podcast dedicated to the poet Lucretius, who wrote "On The Nature of Things," the only complete presentation of Epicurean philosophy left to us from the ancient world.

    I am your host Cassius, and together with our panelists from the EpicureanFriends.com forum, we'll walk you through the ancient Epicurean texts, and we'll discuss how Epicurean philosophy can apply to you today. We encourage you to study Epicurus for yourself, and we suggest the best place to start is the book "Epicurus and His Philosophy" by Canadian professor Norman DeWitt.

    If you find the Epicurean worldview attractive, we invite you to join us in the study of Epicurus at EpicureanFriends.com, where you will find a discussion thread for each of our podcast episodes and many other topics.

    Today we continue our discussion of Epicurus' Letter to Menoeceus, this week discussing the Epicurean gods. Now let's join Martin reading today's text:


    [123] The things which I used unceasingly to commend to you, these do and practice, considering them to be the first principles of the good life. First of all believe that god is a being immortal and blessed, even as the common idea of a god is engraved on men’s minds, and do not assign to him anything alien to his immortality or ill-suited to his blessedness: but believe about him everything that can uphold his blessedness and immortality. For gods there are, since the knowledge of them is by clear vision. But they are not such as the many believe them to be: for indeed they do not consistently represent them as they believe them to be. And the impious man is not he who popularly denies the gods of the many, but he who attaches to the gods the beliefs of the many.

    [124] For the statements of the many about the gods are not conceptions derived from sensation, but false suppositions, according to which the greatest misfortunes befall the wicked and the greatest blessings (the good) by the gift of the gods. For men being accustomed always to their own virtues welcome those like themselves, but regard all that is not of their nature as alien.


    [123] Those things which without ceasing I have declared unto thee, those do, and exercise thyself therein, holding them to be the elements of right life. First believe that God is a living being immortal and blessed, according to the notion of a god indicated by the common sense of mankind; and so believing, thou shalt not affirm of him aught that is foreign to his immortality or that agrees not with blessedness, but shalt believe about him whatever may uphold both his blessedness and his immortality. For verily there are gods, and the knowledge of them is manifest; but they are not such as the multitude believe, seeing that men do not steadfastly maintain the notions they form respecting them. Not the man who denies the gods worshipped by the multitude, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them is truly impious.

    [124] For the utterances of the multitude about the gods are not true preconceptions but false assumptions; hence it is that the greatest evils happen to the wicked and the greatest blessings happen to the good from the hand of the gods, seeing that they are always favourable to their own good qualities and take pleasure in men like unto themselves, but reject as alien whatever is not of their kind.

  • If I may be so bold as to add in my contribution to the discussion of the letter:


    [123] And, Menoikeus, I was continuously exhorting you to practice, to study, and to meditate on those things which I state distinctly to be the essential elements of a noble, beautiful, and virtuous life. First, believe that the god is a blessed and imperishable thing as is the common, general understanding of the god. You, Menoikeus, believe everything about which a god is able to preserve its own imperishability and blessedness for itself. Do not attribute anything foreign to its incorruptibility or incongruous with the blessedness of the god! Gods exist, and the knowledge of them is manifest to the mind's eye. The gods do not exist in the way that the 'hoi polloi' believe them to, because they do not perceive what maintains the gods. One is not impious who does not take up the gods of the hoi polloi; but the one who attributes the beliefs of the hoi polloi to the gods. [124] For what they believe are not prolepses, but rather the judgements of the hoi polloi concerning the gods which are false, hasty assumptions. So, they believe the greatest evils are brought to the wicked from the gods as well as the greatest aid to the good, because the hoi polloi are believing that the gods accept those who resemble themselves who are similar through all excellences and goodness; all those not of their sort are strange and alien.

    Here also is a link to the full commentary to these sections as well:

    Letter To Menoikeus: A New Translation With Commentary : Don Boozer : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive
    A new translation of the Letter to Menoikeus (Menoeceus) by Epicurus with commentary.

  • Since we are going to tackle the thorny issue of the nature of the Epicurean gods in this coming podcast episode, it would probably be a good idea to post some of the most central additional references we have on this topic:

    PD01 The blessed and immortal nature knows no trouble itself, nor causes trouble to any other, so that it is never constrained by anger or favor. For all such things exist only in the weak.

    Velleius from Cicero's "On the Nature of the Gods"

  • In addition to Velleius, we ought to be able to get some additional quotes from other sources, such as Philodemus' "On Piety." Let me see what I can find and add those here:

    Obbirk page 143:


    ... those who eliminate the divine from existing things Epicurus reproached for their complete madness, as in book 12 he reproaches Prodicus, Diagoras, and Critias among others, saying that they rave like lunatics, and he likens them to Bacchant revelers, admonishing them not to trouble or disturb us. For indeed they explain the names of the gods by changing letters, just as Antisthenes, substituting the most common,’ ascribes the particular to imposition and even earlier through some act of deceit. Likewise Herrnarchus in the final book of his Against Empedocles also cites this passage...

  • I see that Don had a thread on "On Piety" earlier here: Philodemus On Piety

    I'd like to see us pull out some quotes and put here and I will do that, as I can find them, in the post above.

    Unfortunately this is all so fragmentary that there's lots of commentary but very few full readable sentences to work with,

  • Lucretius Book Five Line 146:

    [146] These things therefore are not possessed of divine sense, since they cannot be quickened with the vital feeling. This too you may not possibly believe, that the holy seats of the gods exist in any parts of the world: the fine nature of the gods far withdrawn from our senses is hardly seen by the thought of the mind; and since it has ever eluded the touch and stroke of the hands, it must touch nothing which is tangible for us; for that cannot touch which does not admit of being touched in turn. And therefore their seats as well must be unlike our seats, fine, even as their bodies are fine. All which I will prove to you later in copious argument.

  • PD01 The blessed and immortal nature knows no trouble itself, nor causes trouble to any other, so that it is never constrained by anger or favor. For all such things exist only in the weak.

    I'm adding in PD01 along with its ancient scholia commentary:

    Τὸ μακάριον καὶ ἄφθαρτον οὔτε αὐτὸ πράγματα ἔχει οὔτε ἄλλῳ παρέχει, ὥστε οὔτε ὀργαῖς οὔτε χάρισι συνέχεται: ἐν ἀσθενεῖ γὰρ πᾶν τὸ τοιοῦτον. [ἐν ἄλλοις δέ φησι τοὺς θεοὺς λόγῳ θεωρητούς, οὓς μὲν κατ᾽ ἀριθμὸν ὑφεστῶτας, οὓς δὲ καθ᾽ ὁμοείδειαν ἐκ τῆς συνεχοῦς ἐπιρρύσεως τῶν ὁμοίων εἰδώλων ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτὸ ἀποτετελεσμένωι ἀνθρωποειδῶς.]

    Perseus Project translation: 1. A blessed and eternal being has no trouble himself and brings no trouble upon any other being ; hence he is exempt from movements of anger and partiality, for every such movement implies weakness [Elsewhere he says that the gods are discernible by reason alone, some being numerically distinct, while others result uniformly from the continuous influx of similar images directed to the same spot and in human form.]

  • We're going to have to come to terms with "god" in the singular in both translations and--even worse--"God" with a capital G in Hicks. In the former case, I can allow for some wiggle room, when taking a/the god as the type of a class. The latter case strikes completely the wrong note in my view.

    An illustration of the first example would be something like this;

    "The lion does not concern himself with the opinions of the sheep."

    It's clear from context in that phrase that we're not talking about a particular lion, or saying or implying that only one lion exists. What we're speaking of in that phrase is something like "lion-dom", or lion-kind.

  • and--even worse--"God" with a capital G in Hicks

    I agree that that's absolutely a problematic translation. There is NO monotheistic capital-G God implication in the original text at all that I can see.

    Sedley does make a point out of the singular vs plural constructions, using that as one argument for "each person creates their own image of god and uses that as a paradigm of the ideal Epicurean life."

  • Quote

    That laughter had a philosophical point: once you take seriously the claim that God’s providence extends to the fall of a sparrow and the number of hairs on your head, there is virtually no limit, from the agitated dust motes in a beam of sunlight to the planetary conjunctions that are occurring in the heavens above. “O Mercury,” Sofia says pityingly. “You have a lot to do.”

    Sofia grasps that it would take billions of tongues to describe all that must happen even in a single moment in a tiny village in the Campagna. At this rate, no one could envy poor Jove. But then Mercury admits that the whole thing does not work that way: there is no artificer god standing outside the universe, barking commands, meting out rewards and punishments, determining everything. The whole idea is absurd. There is an order in the universe, but it is one built into the nature of things, into the matter that composes everything, from stars to men to bedbugs. Nature is not an abstract capacity, but a generative mother, bringing forth everything that exists. We have, in other words, entered the Lucretian universe.

    -Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve

  • We need to include as background material both the "Riddle" and also the sections from Diogenes of Oinoanda. I will paste them here as I find them:

    Fr. 19

    [Let us then contradict Homer, who] talks [all sorts of nonsense] about them, [representing them sometimes as adulterers, sometimes as] lame, [sometimes as thievish, or even as being struck by mortals with a spear,] as well as inducing the craftsmen to produce inappropriate portrayals. Some statues of gods shoot arrows and are produced holding] a bow, [represented] like Heracles in Homer; others are attended by a body-guard of wild beasts; others are angry with the prosperous, like Nemesis according to popular opinion; whereas we ought to make statues of the gods genial and smiling, so that we may smile back at them rather than be afraid of them.

    Well, then, you people, let us reverence the gods [rightly] both at festivals and on [unhallowed occasions, both] publicly [and privately], and let us observe the customs [of our fathers in relation to them and let not the imperishable beings be falsely accused at all] by us [in our vain fear that they are responsible for all misfortunes], bringing [sufferings to us] and [contriving burdensome obligations] for themselves. [And let us also call upon] them [by name] ...

    Fr. 20

    [So it is obvious that wrong-doers, given that they do not fear the penalties imposed by the laws, are not] afraid of [the gods.] This [has to be] conceded. For if they were [afraid, they] would not [do wrong]. As for [all] the others, [it is my opinion] that the [wise] are not [(reasoning indicates) righteous] on account of the gods, but on account of [thinking] correctly and the [opinions] they hold [regarding] certain things [and especially] pains and death (for indeed invariably and without exception human beings do wrong either on account of fear or on account of pleasures), and that ordinary people on the other hand are righteous, in so far as they are righteous, on account of the laws and the penalties, imposed by the laws, hanging over them. But even if some of their number are conscientious on account of the laws, they are few: only just two or three individuals are to be found among great segments of multitudes, and not even these are steadfast in acting righteously; for they are not soundly persuaded about providence. A clear indication of the complete inability of the gods to prevent wrong-doings is provided by the nations of the Jews and Egyptians, who, as well as being the most superstitious of all peoples, are the vilest of all peoples.

    On account of what kind of gods, then, will human beings be righteous? For they are not righteous on account of the real ones or on account of Plato’s and Socrates’ Judges in Hades. We are left with this conclusion; otherwise, why should not those who disregard the laws scorn fables much more?

    So, with regard to righteousness, neither does our doctrine do harm [not does] the opposite [doctrine help], while, with regard to the other condition, the opposite doctrine not only does not help, but on the contrary also does harm, whereas our doctrine not only does not harm, but also helps. For the one removes disturbances, while the other adds them, as has already been made clear to you before.

    That not only [is our doctrine] helpful, [but also the opposite doctrine harmful, is clearly shown by] the [Stoics as they go astray. For they say in opposition to us] that the god both is maker of [the] world and takes providential care of it, providing for all things, including human beings. Well, in the first place, we come to this question: was it, may I ask, for his own sake that the god created the world [or for the sake of human beings? For it is obvious that it was from a wish to benefit either himself or human beings that he embarked on this] undertaking. For how could it have been otherwise, if nothing is produced without a cause and these things are produced by a god? Let us then examine this view and what Stoics mean. It was, they say, from a wish to have a city and fellow-citizens, just as if [he were an exile from a city, that] the god [created the world and human beings. However, this supposition, a concoction of empty talking, is] self-evidently a fable, composed to gain the attention of an audience, not a natural philosopher’s argument searching for the truth and inferring from probabilities things not palpable to sense. Yet even if, in the belief that he was doing some good [to himself, the god] really [made the world and human beings], .................

    For god [is, I say], a living being, indestructible [and] blessed from [age to] age, having complete [self-sufficiency]. Moreover, what [god, if] he had existed for infinite [time] and enjoyed tranquillity [for thousands of years, would have got] this idea that he needed a city and fellow-citizens? Add to this absurdity that he, being a god, should seek to have beings as fellow-citizens.

    And there is this further point too: if he had created the world as a habitation and city for himself, I seek to know where he was living before the world was created; I do not find an answer, at any rate not one consistent with the doctrine of these people when they declare that this world is unique. So for that infinite time, apparently, the god of these people was cityless and homeless and, like an unfortunate man — I do not say «god» —, having neither city nor fellow-citizens, he was destitute and roaming about at random. If therefore the divine nature shall be deemed to have created things for its own sake, all this is absurd; and if for the sake of men, there are yet other more absurd consequences.

    Let its divide the discussion into two —the world and men themselves. And first let us speak about the world.

    [If indeed] all things are well arranged for men and nothing is antagonistic to them, our situation is like that of creatures made by a god. But let it be agreed first ....

  • The riddle background:

    As the Wikipedia article also cites, the major modern source for this argument is David Hume’s formulation in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion:

    “Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”

    “[God’s] power we allow [is] infinite: Whatever he wills is executed: But neither man nor any other animal are happy: Therefore he does not will their happiness. His wisdom is infinite: He is never mistaken in choosing the means to any end: But the course of nature tends not to human or animal felicity: Therefore it is not established for that purpose. Through the whole compass of human knowledge, there are no inferences more certain and infallible than these. In what respect, then, do his benevolence and mercy resemble the benevolence and mercy of men?”

    The basic foundation of the argument is found in Lactantius “On The Anger of God,” Chapters 3 and 4.

    For when Epicurus thought that it was inconsistent with God to injure and to inflict harm, which for the most part arises from the affection of anger, he took away from Him beneficence also, since he saw that it followed that if God has anger, He must also have kindness. Therefore, lest he should concede to Him a vice, he deprived Him also of virtue. From this, he says, He is happy and uncorrupted, because He cares about nothing, and neither takes trouble Himself nor occasions it to another. Therefore He is not God, if He is neither moved, which is peculiar to a living being, nor does anything impossible for man, which is peculiar to God, if He has no will at all, no action, in short, no administration, which is worthy of God. And what greater, what more worthy administration can be attributed to God, than the government of the world, and especially of the human race, to which all earthly things are subject?

    With the availability of Thomas Stanley’s English version of Gassendi’s work on Epicurus, we can see on page 174 the argument presented in intermediate form almost as adopted by Hume:


    “Moreover, I think it may not be ill argued thus: Either God would take away ills and cannot, or he can and will not, or he neither will nor can, or he both will and can. If he would and cannot, he is impotent, and consequently not God; if he can and will not, envious, which is equally contrary to God’s nature; if he neither will nor can, he is both envious and impotent, and consequently not God; if he both will and can, which onely agrees with God, whence are the ills? or why does he not take them away?”

    UPDATE 11-4-22 - See Kalosyni's post here about the possible source of this being Sextus Empiricus: Sextus Empiricus

  • Lucretius Book Six: Brown

    [68] Unless you purge your mind of such conceits, and banish them your breast, and forebear to think unworthily of the gods, by charging them with things that break their peace, those sacred deities you will believe are always angry and offended with you; not that the supreme power of the gods can be so ruffled as to be eager to punish severely in their resentments, but because you fancy those beings, who enjoy a perfect peace in themselves, are subject to anger and the extravagances of revenge: and therefore you will no more approach their shrines with an easy mind, 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: From hence you may collect what a wretched life you are to lead.

  • and therefore you will no more approach their shrines with an easy mind, 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:

    I think it's interesting to consider the opposite of what Lucretius is saying:

    If you do purge your mind of such conceits, and do banish them your breast, and do forebear to think unworthily of the gods, then you can approach their shrines with an easy mind, 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.

    That's how Epicurus approached his participation in the rites and festivals of the gods.

  • Just as a point of interest, Friday the 19th will be the anniversary of the dedication of the first temple of Venus, according to Wikipedia:


    295 BC – The first temple to Venus, the Roman goddess of love, beauty and fertility, is dedicated by Quintus Fabius Maximus Gurges during the Third Samnite War.

  • I've never been more annoyed with myself after recording than I am today... 😑

    I've always thought that two things were crucial for anyone presuming to hold forth under the name of Epicurus. The first was to make an honest and diligent effort to understand what he was writing. The second was to express that understanding to others, in a way that was consistent with the plain reading of the text, as well as with the tenor of the whole philosophy.

    I don't think I succeeded very well with the second part. Nevertheless, and in lieu of rehashing the issue, I want to take some time to pursue an angle that Kalosyni introduced.

    We were discussing the consideration of an Epicurean god as an image, eidolon, or archetype, and Kalosyni brought up Joseph Campbell. I think it's a connection deserving of further comment.

    A word I kept using was 'demarcate'. What I was attempting to illustrate was the contrast I perceived, and wanted to patrol, between the natal moral claims of "religion" and the epistemological claims about the gods being made by Epicurus. And yet I think that Joseph Campbell would suggest that the moral claims have nearly always been secondary and incidental in myth and religion, and that the symbolism and emotional impact has always been primary. I don't know---and it's been many years since I read Campbell, so that I don't know whether I could say more.

    One thing I will say is that Lucretius had an advantage that Epicurus did not have. Epicurus could not have respectably cast himself as a Prometheus figure--it would have looked ridiculous. Lucretius, though--writing from the comfortable distance of two and a half centuries--suggests exactly this comparison, and it's this symbol, more than any eidolon of the gods, that I find to be a compelling reason to push forward in the pursuit of pleasure and happiness.

  • I "liked" Joshua's post in general but I disagree that he did a bad job explaining things. I'll get the final production up as soon as I can and we can let the audience be the judge. We can come back next week if we need to so we can address anything that we decide (or the comments reveal) need revisiting.

    As to Joseph Campbell, I had a friend some years ago who tried to introduce me to his material, but I did not get very far into it. I recall coming away from what I did read with a fairly negative appraisal, but I can't remember why, and I would be happy to revisit that since his name keeps coming up among people I respect.

    Maybe Kalosyni or Joshua can start a new thread, perhaps in one of the "Art" forums? I suggest art rather than religion because I seem to recall that he was primarily focused on the uses of symbolism, but if I am wrong about that we can place it wherever is appropriate.